VAISON-LA-ROMAINE, France — The best days as a tourist are rarely served up whole in guidebooks or on tours. You discovers them yourself.
We were reminded of that Wednesday, when we drove to Buis les Baronnies, a sweet village of ancient plane trees, brocantes (antique stores) and outdoor cafes set alongside the River Ouvese beneath a ring of rocky hillsides. The town is sort of an asterisk in Rick Steves’ “Provence.” It merits a fleeting reference. We made it a destination.
Wednesday is market day there with its inevitable buzz and elegance. We bought cheese, sausage, bread and fruit for lunch and had what passed for a conversation in French (I managed extended small talk about the weather with a shop owner who told me it’s been cool and damp this spring, which is why the hillsides are still green in this hot, dry region). We ate on a park bench, serenaded by several demonstrative birds and a background chorus of cicadas (locusts), drove over a mountain pass, stopping for a drink in the village of Brantes, which hangs over a steep hillside, and came back to our hotel for a swim and nap. Call it a day.
I find in traveling that simple pictures are best. We topped this one off with a splendid dinner in a rural restaurant surrounded by vineyards. I’ll tip my hat to Steves on this one, and thank goodness.
What a difference a day can make. Last night we arrived in the much heralded town of Viason-la- Romaine, with its medieval upper city and Roman ruins that command two stars in Michelin guide. We stayed at Hotel la Fete en Provence in a a hotel built into the medieval walls, a hotel that Steves’ Provence guidebook describes as having “chiffon” rooms. Only he didn’t mention the monstrous spiders that bit me on the neck the first night, the broken lights over sink and in the bathroom, the WiFi (Wee Fee in French) that once again neither Wee’d nor Fee’d. (This post, written Wednesday, is going up Thursday because that connection never did work.)
Isabelle, our desk clerk, was absolutely charming but overwhelmed by the thought of making anything work. When we told her two light bulbs were out, she arrived at our room carrying a box with an assortment of perhaps two dozen bulbs of various shapes and sizes. She left 10 minutes later with neither bulb replaced and the bathroom fixture hanging from the wall, muttering something about a handy fellow showing up tomorrow (he didn’t).
I know I should have just gone with the flow. It’s the best way to travel. But with our older daughter nearing delivery in Baltimore, temperatures pushing 95 degrees and a room pricetag that matched the sparkling recommendation from Steves, I felt a bit annoyed. I should, perhaps, have been charmed by the trust of the establishment, something I’ve seen before in France. We were given the room keys without registering, without showing a passport, without anyone running a credit card, something that never would have happened in the United States.
“Should we register,” I asked?
“If you want to,” said the desk clerk, rather perplexed by my American ways. So I didn’t bother.
Isabelle, who looks far too young to have four daughters, a son and a grandchild, made sympathetic noises when the Internet didn’t work. She did so again this morning when our second attempt to solve the problem failed. But I confess, after her dinner recommendation Tuesday night proved to be closed and after we ate really tasteless spaghetti (the chef’s choice) in a subpar sidewalk café, I left Wednesday morning feeling grumpy.
Foolish me. Travel can never be perfect, any more than life. It’s beauty is in discovery and in shrugging off the inevitable bumps – broken bulbs, closed restaurants, bad digestion, flat tires and spacey desk clerks.
Why fix tomorrow what can be fixed another day?
And so I’ll try to toss away the guidebook and shrug off my frustration from here and seek out more sweet spots that remain secrets only so long as the over-read and over0relied on guidebooks don’t publicize them.
I suspect that Buis des Baronnies will soon become a name known to more of the world. But for now, anyway, let’s keep that between the two of us.