“Dance on the Pont d’Avignon and sing Charles Trenet’s haunting song La Mer as you travel along the Côte d’Azur railway.”
These were Pat’s words to me on our 50th wedding anniversary.
My romantic man gave me a bucket list of 10 French destinations to explore together.
He passed away before we could do so, just as the pandemic hit, and my vow to complete his list has become a three-year odyssey instead of a 12-month spree.
Read more: French adventure in memory of beloved Pat
I have already ticked off a Grand Massif trek, a Haute Savoie château, Bordeaux and Toulouse.
With six special places still to explore, I planned a rail route combining two of them in one week: I would fly from London to Nice, take the coastal train (which starts at Marseille, hits the coast at Fréjus and terminates at Ventimiglia, Italy) as far as Monaco, and then head back to Nice (€8 return fare!).
The next day, I would board a TGV from Nice to Les Arcs - Draguignan, pay a visit to my family who have just moved to the nearby village of Aups, then hop on another train and head to Avignon.
On the way back to Nice, I could change trains at Marseille and finish my journey, again courtesy of SNCF, sitting beside the vivid blue sea, gazing at the stunning coastline!
After a 10-year absence, I found Nice still buzzing and beautiful.
For the best ‘street theatre’, install yourself in an all-day cafe/restaurant facing the Boulevard des Anglais and watch the joggers, scooters, buses, and people.
I chose the eccentric-but-glamorous Café de Paris, next to the tourist office, ate breakfast, then headed for the station.
An evening meal and people watching later at Café de Paris, Nice; Photo: Sally Ann Voak
The scenic Riviera trains run about every half hour and take less than 40 minutes to reach Monaco, stopping at coastal stations en route.
After lunch and yacht-watching (no celebs) and a peek in the casino, I caught the train back, via Eze, to the beautiful, unspoilt fishing village of Villefranche-sur-Mer.
Founded in the 14th century as a customs-free port, its perfect bay is one of the deepest in the world. I picked up a leaflet on dolphin-spotting, a ‘must’ for future family visits.
Back in Nice, I walked my lunch off along the Promenade des Anglais, admiring the Belle Epoque architecture and envying the English aristocracy who holidayed here in the 1930s.
Family time in Aups
The next morning, a €17 ticket in hand, I boarded the TGV towards Strasbourg from Nice.
Draguignan is the main stop-off point for the beautiful Var villages in the foothills of the Alps, including Aups where I met my son Tom and his wife Alison.
Sally and son Tom at Lac de Sainte-Croix; Photo: Sally Ann Voak
The medieval town, a resistance stronghold during World War Two, is famous not just for the bravery of its residents.
Local vineyards produce some of the finest rosé wines in the country and it is also feted as ‘Capital of the Truffle’ (visit at the end of June when the paler, cheaper early crop is available).
Another nearby highlight is the Lac de Sainte-Croix in the Verdon Natural Regional Park.
With its pristine paths and beaches, paddleboarding, yachting, pretty villages, scenic bridge and view of the Gorges du Verdon, it really is breathtaking.
Dancing on the Pont d’Avignon
I caught an early TGV to my next destination, Avignon.
A short taxi ride from the modern station took me across the Rhône and through the 13th century ramparts.
The city within the ancient walls is a joy – a vibrant mix of history, culture, art and music (ancient and modern).
My hotel, in the oldest part, was perfect for walking the cobbled streets.
I visited the Palais des Papes, admiring its grandiose proportions, then wandered down to the river.
That afternoon, my vow to dance on the Pont d’Avignon (also known as the Pont Saint-Bénézet) was realised.
A ‘senior’ tariff of €4 allowed me to climb up to the archway, enter the ancient portal and soak up the atmosphere.
Thanks to teenage St Benedict
The first ‘Sur le Pont’ songs were written back in the 15th century but the version we all know was originally composed in 1899 by Adolphe Adam and sung at the Opéra Comique in Paris.
It has surely contributed more to Avignon’s fame than any advertising campaign.
The bridge itself is entwined in the tale of Bénézet (St Benedict) – a scrawny young chap of 14 or 15 who, in around 1129, used divine inspiration and his own entrepreneurial zeal to collect money to build it.
He did not live to see it completed, but his story is recorded on a manuscript dated from the end of the 13th century, now conserved in the Vaucluse departmental archives.
Josef and cat; Photo: Sally Ann Voak
Avignon is full of surprises and fascinating people, including Josef, who plays his barrel organ in the main street with his cat for company.
I enjoyed modern art exhibitions in ancient churches, and an impromptu Pride parade. I loved it all.
Singing ‘La Mer’ accompanied by waves
My last day was spent back in Nice: coffee and croissants in the huge Place Masséna, a nose around Galeries Lafayette, then a long walk up to the Musée National Marc Chagall through the Cimiez area with its mansions.
Later, after a meal at “my” little seafront restaurant, I wandered over to the white benches that border the promenade, sat down, watched the gentle waves caressing the shingle beach, and hummed Trenet’s evocative song.
According to biographers, he composed it in 1943 on a train chugging along the Riviera.
He was told it was not ‘swing’ enough to be a hit so the song sat in a drawer for three years before being recorded in 1946.
It now has more than 400 versions. Wonderful. An elderly couple next to me joined in.
Four special places remain for Sally to visit
1. Brittany coast to feel the wind
2. Nantes because they flew over the city in a friend’s Cessna and decided to explore it from terra firma
3. Armentières because their late pal and Chelsea Pensioner Frank Mouqué, Légion d’honneur, helped rebuild the canal bridge
4. Paris for a Sunday open-air bal guinguette. “I’ll dance for you, Pat!”