In January 2006, an opportunity presented itself to travel to France. My childhood friend Diane was then living in Toulouse, France, and I had an airline ticket with the clock ticking—I had to use it or lose it. I decided I would use that ticket to pay her a visit, so we started to make some plans. She suggested that once I arrived in France, we take off and spend a week in Rome, Italy, together (neither of us had ever been); then we would return to France and I would travel a week by myself in the Provence area. On a previous trip to France several years earlier, I had visited Paris, Chartres, Versailles, Giverny, and various spots in Brittany and Normandy. This would be my first time in the south of France and I was excited!
After a week of touring Rome with Diane (and, unexpectedly, two of her daughters—which is another story itself), we returned to Toulouse and spent the evening catching up with her husband and four daughters. The next day I set out by train to Aix en Provence, on my own for the first time in a French-speaking country. I was excited and nervous at the same time…it’s exhilarating to think about starting out on such an adventure by yourself, but I also had the normal worries about navigating trains, buses, and taxis on my own, as well as concerns about safety. I also hoped that my usual challenged sense of direction would not come back to haunt me.
Aix en Provence
Aix en Provence was everything it was advertised to be: a gorgeous, sunny, friendly place with lots of restaurants, shopping, entertainment, and history to enjoy. I settled in at my bed-and-breakfast the first night in an old stone building near the center of town, where I was walking distance to shops and restaurants. My hostess was very gracious, suggesting nearby restaurants and shopping meccas to try. Getting used to the French continental breakfast has always been a challenge for me: instead of eggs, hash browns and toast, they serve you a hard roll with cold, hard butter, some cheese, and maybe a croissant and jam. I always left the table feeling hungry!
The first thing I do upon arriving at any new city is to find its equivalent to a Chamber of Commerce and sign up for a tour of the city. I was lucky to be able to join a group on a walking tour the very first day, and we spent about 5 hours touring the highlights of Aix’s history and architecture. I always love these tours because they really orient you to a city, and you see and learn things that you may otherwise miss entirely. We had quite a mix of people on the tour: Americans, Germans, Italians, and an Israeli. The tour guide was most impressive: she would first give her spiel in French, then repeated it in English, German, and Italian so that everyone could understand. Sure wish I could do that! The Israeli was a female student traveling on her semester break, and she noticed I was on my own also, so after the tour she invited me to have lunch with her. I so enjoyed learning about her and her studies (a Ph.D. student studying oceanography) during that brief time together. This is one thing that thrills me over and over when traveling on my own: people reach out to me and I get opportunities I would never have if I were traveling as part of a couple or with a friend. Being open to those opportunities is what can make a trip so memorable.
One of the real highlights of visiting Aix in 2006 was that it was the 100th anniversary of the death of the famous French artist Paul Cezanne, who lived and painted in Aix en Provence. All year long Aix was planning tributes to their celebrated hometown artist. His studio was open for tours, so of course I took advantage of that. The studio has been very cleverly maintained to remain exactly as it was when he used it, so we saw his easels, paint brushes, palettes, and many of the very props used in his still lifes. We could follow his footsteps throughout the town and surrounding countryside, enjoying the same views that he painted, including his famous depictions of the mountain Sainte Victoire. The excellent tours they arranged really made you feel as if you were experiencing Aix en Provence the way Cezanne did.
The next two days were spent wandering through all the famous and wildly expensive French designer clothing and shoe shops, eating excellent food, and exploring quieter cobblestone streets lined with shops for the rest of us, art galleries, and artist studios. Sadly, it became time to move on.
I boarded a train to Antibes in the Cote d’Azur or the French Riviera. Although I was only in Antibes for one day and night, I managed to squeeze in touring its historic ramparts and Chateau, the Picasso Museum, and of course the gorgeous coastline and marina. Unfortunately, I couldn’t stay long enough in Antibes to do it justice, and I would like to return someday.
St. Paul de Vence
I next boarded a bus to go north to a tiny village called St. Paul de Vence, which was an artist’s enclave. At the time, I owned and operated an art gallery on the Texas Gulf Coast, so this place was a must-see for me. St. Paul, just south of Vence, France, was situated on a picturesque hill surrounded by stone ramparts (shown in the accompanying photo), previously used as a military fortress. Now it was occupied by artists, with galleries, studios where you could observe artists at work, and quaint shops and restaurants of every type imaginable. Heaven!
My first stop was to find my bed-and-breakfast, the lovely Villa Bel Air owned and operated by a German woman named Elvira. A taxi picked me up at the bus stop and dropped me off at the B&B. This place was itself situated on a hill just outside the town of St. Paul, with gorgeous views of the ramparts and surrounding mountains. Since it was January and the middle of the week, I happened to be the only guest who had reservations for the few days I would be staying there. This turned out to be great luck, because I was able to spend quite a bit of time with Elvira and get to know her. She had purchased the property just a year earlier and completely renovated it, and my room was magnificent: white bedding and linens, white flowing curtains that draped onto the floor in glamorous puddles, white towels, and a touch of color added by fresh flowers. It looked so luxurious and pristine that I hardly dared touch anything!
Elvira was perhaps in her mid-50s, quite a bit shorter than me, and spoke thick German-accented English. She also had the oddest hair style I had ever seen. Her hair was harshly bleached blonde and long enough to be pulled up into a ponytail on top of her head. But instead of letting the ponytail fall back down or coiling it into a bun, she flipped it forward and created bangs out of it. It made for a strange visual that has stuck with me all these years later.
Elvira said she would give me some time to settle in, and would be back to give me some dinner recommendations. A few hours later, I heard a knock on my door. There was Elvira, ready with an invitation. “Listen, since you are by yourself and I have no other guests, I have a proposition for you. I feel like going down to Monte Carlo tonight to play the games. Do you want to come with me?” I couldn’t quite believe my ears and asked her to repeat it. What? She wanted me to do what? As it sunk in that the invitation was genuine, I immediately said “Yes! Of course!” Now, I am not a gambler in the least, but my family is, and I knew they would disown me if I passed up an opportunity like this! So, I got ready, and in about an hour we were heading down to Monte Carlo, about an hour’s drive away.
About halfway into the trip, though, a chill went down my spine. Had I just done something incredibly stupid? Here I am in a car, at night, with a complete stranger, who SAYS she’s taking me along for an evening of entertainment in Monte Carlo. But what did I know about her? Absolutely nothing, really. I had no idea whether we were even going in the right direction (there’s that sense of direction again!). I got very worried that I had just inadvertently stumbled into a dangerous situation because of my trusting nature. Headlines: “AMERICAN WOMAN, TRAVELING ALONE, ABDUCTED INTO SEX TRAFFICKING RING.”
However, as the drive continued, I began to relax. As we descended the hills to that famous French coastline, she kept saying “Now look, right down there. It’s an incredible view at night. And there. Look over there. Gorgeous, isn’t it?” It became clear that she was doing everything consistent with just being a tour guide for a newcomer to this part of the world. I breathed a sigh of relief that this time, at least, my instincts about this woman were correct. She was a genuinely good and kind person.
Monaco side trip
So, because of the generosity of a stranger to a woman traveling alone, I was able to experience the Grand Casino in Monte Carlo! Never in a million years would that have been on my agenda, so to find myself walking into a palace like that was truly surreal. It was a sight and experience I will never forget. It being the off-season and a Tuesday night, we practically had the place to ourselves. This resulted in a lot of personal attention and interaction with the casino staff and the workers at the tables, which was great fun. She first showed me where to purchase the chips so that we could play roulette. I had never played roulette before, so she talked me through it and we stayed at the tables for a couple of hours. As it got late, she ran out of chips to play but I still had some left. Because I wasn’t having any luck, I gave her the rest of mine. All of a sudden, she started winning, with the chips I had given her. In the next half-hour or so she won 1,000 Euros on my chips! Shortly after that, deciding not to push her luck, she cashed in her winnings, we headed back for the car, and returned to the B&B. She was on Cloud 9 the whole way home: “Oh my God, I can’t tell you how much I need this money, talk about a gift from heaven!” On and on. I was a bit astounded, as I expected her to share at least some portion of the winnings with me, as I had paid for those chips.
I waited…and waited. I politely said nothing. I thought surely, out of fairness, she would say something about sharing the winnings. But not a word, no mention of it. It didn’t seem to even occur to her. Not a penny came my way. As I didn’t know this woman at all and was dependent on her for a ride back, as well as services for the next few days of my stay, I ultimately decided I needed to let it go. All I could figure out was, in her mind, when I gave them away, I gave them away. End of story. It certainly was a bizarre turn to the end of the evening.
The rest of my time in St. Paul de Vence was spent wandering through its narrow cobblestone streets, saturating my senses with art, wonderful food, spectacular views, and generous and friendly people. Artwork still hangs on my walls from artists I discovered in St. Paul. But the experience in Monte Carlo was so fun and unexpected that it topped anything else I did on that trip. I wonder to this day if she realizes what she did for me. It’s many, many years later, but I will never forget her spontaneity, and how it has encouraged me to continue traveling solo.
[Photo credits: photos from the French portion of this story from istockphoto.com. My own photos and camera were lost in a house flood upon returning home from this trip.]