Travel woes: Getting to Provence

by Betsy Herbert

On April28 I left Paris on the TGV (bullet train) going south to Aix-en-Provence, where I would pick up a rental car to complete the remaining 90 km journey to a country inn called Campagne Berne, just outside of the old village of Forcalquier. But before I tell you more about Campagne Berne, which defines in my mind the laid-back, rustic beauty of Provence, I feel compelled to describe my short journey there, just to acknowledge the darker side of traveling solo.

After arriving from Paris at the Aix-en-Provence TGV station, I had no trouble finding a restroom, but to my dismay, pay toilets are still au courant in French train stations. Had to pay half a Euro. As I fished a coin out of my purse, I paid a silent note of gratitude to March Fong Eu, the California legislator who led the campaign to ban pay toilets in California back in the 1970s.

Next, I went to pick up my rental car which I had reserved on-line. After all the added fees and charges, the car turned out to be considerably more expensive than described and it wasn’t the car I thought I was getting. It was a Hyundai diesel with manual transmission. It took me an extra 15 minutes to figure out how to open the trunk,  inspect the car for non-disclosed scratches, locate the parking lot exit gate and type in the code to let me out.

Soon I was on my way traveling north on Highway A51 toward Forcalquier. Once the road signs confirmed that I was headed in the right direction, I felt newly confident behind the wheel, assuring myself that my Provence adventure was now off to a great start!

I arrived at a HIghway A51 toll gate, which was completely automated. No problem...just press the button and take the ticket.

It was when I exited the A51 that the fun began. At the toll gate, I pulled into the only lane with a green light and got ready to put my ticket into the machine. I noticed a glass enclosed box at the machine stuffed with collected tickets. There was a slot on top of the box, so I shoved my ticket in. But as I pulled the car up a little to pay, I found another slot where a cartoon drawing made it quite clear that I was to insert my ticket there. So...I had to squeeze myself out of the car, go back and tweeze my ticket out of the box where I had just shoved it. Luckily, my finger nails were long enough.

I noticed that there were 4 or 5 cars now waiting in line behind me.  So trying to move quickly, I inserted the ticket in the correct slot and then put my credit card in the next slot marked “carte”. But my card was rejected, with the French lady robot voice barking some mysterious command at me. I tried inserting the card in the other direction, but no dice.

Then the driver in the car behind me got out to help me. She said the machine wouldn’t accept credit cards and told me to insert a 10 Euro bill instead. I did as I was told, and voila! the gate opened, much to the relief of the 6 or 7 drivers now waiting behind me.

Freed at last, I pulled into a rest stop under a big chestnut tree to do some deep breathing. Once my blood pressure was below a lethal level, I decided to get started again.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t get the damned Hyundai into reverse. The gear knob had 6 gears marked on it, plus reverse, but I just couldn’t get into reverse gear. My only options were to go forward into the 2-foot diameter chestnut tree or to put the car in neutral and push it. Dismissing those options, I did a thorough inspection of the gear shift and its surrounding area for another few minutes, and finally found a small button on its underside. I pressed it and then, magically, I got the car into reverse.

I was then thankfully on the road again, breathing deeply as I drove.

After maneuvering two or three roundabouts, taking the correct direction each time, it wasn’t until I got within 5 minutes of Campagne Berne that I got lost, driving around the convoluted streets of the little village of Pierrerue, which was completely deserted due to a holiday. Luckily, my cell phone was charged and my sim card’s Estonian phone number was working. I reached my host Eric who directed me to the inn.

As I found the sign saying “Campagne Berne,” I felt truly delivered as I pulled up the rocky driveway, Eric was on his way down with a big smile on his face. “Welcome to Provence!” he said. “You can now relax...”

And for the next 5 days I did exactly that. More about that next time!