It had been a month since the Berlin arrival when the travel bug hit. What better way to satiate the urge than to endure 10 nights in the south of France? Shirking Deutsche for Francais, supplanting lager for rosé, we planned to plane, train and highway over the vast plains, towns and vineyards of the Cote D’Azur, through some of the most romantic coastline in the world.
The trip would provide the perfect road tester for my new Whipping Post leather travel weekender, custom made by Ryan and the good folk at Whipping Post, now bulging taut with 10 days’ worth of jox, sox and summer gear. Perfect size for the strict carry-on luggage specs of budget European airline carriers, the WP looked functional as well as aesthetically handsome. I jacked it completely full with stuff (the WP perhaps not ideal for a 10-day trip, which I’ll get to later), the strong zips held it all in place, the sleek ‘W.P’ handle buttons clipping and clasping the whole unit tight. Built for the road, the bag looked happy to be finally holding some goods.
A smooth flight to Nice, glorious weather, sun, palm trees and crystal water were visible on descent, and through the doors of the terminal the air smelled hot and sweet. We caught the #98 bus to the Promenade des Anglais, a scenic stretch that hugs the curved Nice waterfront all the way up to the Nice old quarter. The ride was a baptism of fire in Nice driving etiquette, our lead foot bus driver barrelling out of the terminal like Sandra Bullock in Heat, pinging us around the interior like pinballs.
We disembarked the 98 hell ride miraculously at the right stop. It was a fine scene: old Nice town stretching high up the hill, as French girls cycled helmetless, hair loose in the breeze and the tanned leather bodies of locals soaked up the last burst of sun on the pebbled beach by the shimmering Mediterranean sea.
The WP’s rippled leather coat glistened in the sun, strong and sturdy in my palms as we strolled down Nice’s backstreets. I felt proud to be carrying it, catching multiple eyes glimpse its glory. We found our sweet Airbnb on the Rue De La Buffa a few streets in from the beach, a cute level 5 studio in an art deco block. Our host was seemingly obsessed with time, his walls and benches rife with hourglasses and clocks. Hungry, parched for delicious wine, we tracked down the nearby market, bought up big, returned home in the waning twilight for a lazy night in, knocking back delicious, crisp pink Rosé from Provence, red wine from Bordeaux, the occasional pastis, surveying random life trickling by on the street below, French balcony doors prized wide to the deep blue night, crescent moon smiling down from above.
The next morning proved a painful one – in order to get my contact lens solution on the flight I had to carry it in an old Tabasco sauce bottle. I hadn’t thought to clean the lid. Soaking in jalapeno oil overnight, the lenses turned my eyes into fireballs and proved unhelpful for vision.
The nights in Nice sizzled. We’d take long walks through the old town’s labyrinthine alleys, lit by romantic amber wall lamp, and one night we wandered up to the peak of the promenade by the Vieille Ville hill, necking litre bottles of Kronenberg, laying eyes on the glow-white promenade lamps marking the shoreline, trailing off tinier and tinier into the distance in an arc of tiny congealing luminous pearls.
I hadn’t expected too much from Nice; given its proximity to ritzy Cannes and Monaco, I suspected it might be a little ‘high end’ and inaccessible for vagabonds, but it proved welcoming, relaxed, full of character and charm, a pleasant fusion of provincial France and Florida – the latter, in its sun-soaked coast scene; the former, through the cobblestoned inclines and windy alleys of its old quarter, laden with boulangeries, artisan stores and, during the rampant lunch hours and hours before dusk, a bustling melange of restaurants and bars full of neatly dressed French folk smoking down Gauloises, sipping coffees, aperitifs and wine.
While Berlin has been a wild time, one thing our landlocked home lacks is beach and we made the most of Nice’s glorious waterfront each and every afternoon, soaking up the rays and floating about in its crystal cool azure waters.
A revelation about the Cote D’Azur was that its public transport is surprisingly good (if not a little lead-footed), and for €1.50 you can get out to as far as Cannes in the west and Menton via Monaco in the east. We checked out Menton, a gorgeous town just a short roll from the Italian border, where we dined in the old square and dreamed of the romantic Italian nooks hidden further on up the coastal road.
Coinciding nicely, my Ma and stepdad, Von, were gallivanting about France for a month, so we bust a move west on a TGV train via Marseille and met them in the medieval city of Montpellier. It was an effortless ride, speckled with visions of quaint beachside towns and rustic vineyard scenes.
Montpellier was instantly inviting. We stayed on the hidden Rue De L’Amandier inside a 15th century tenement block. It had a tiny snaking staircase and rope to steady the climb and, once inside, Persian balustrades, Moroccan lamps, wide French windows looking out to the rue below where, at night, revellers bellowed out with hoopla and howls, drunk on wine and the night. Over a bottle of excellent champagne we soaked up the sunset in the main square, drank up the conversations and evening whispers of the old town, wandered in the romantic dusk to the pink sunset of Promenade du Peyrou where musicians strummed and lovers kissed.
It was good to see the olds (they loved the WP too). Most of our time together we spent gourmandising – sucking down delicious fresh Mediterranean oysters, croissants, fine wines, absinthes with milky louche. Von (who is 6 foot 7) spent much of the time trying to avoid smashing his forehead into diminutive medieval doorways.
Two nights down, significantly more rotund, we rented a black Volvo and headed an hour north to our final destination together, the equally-medieval city of Avignon, with notable pit stops along the way – the canal town, Tarascon, where we ate fresh seafood paella over shady live bossa nova music at a café in the main square; and sleepy Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, home to Vincent Van Gogh in his later years, where he produced 150 of his finest works. Though interesting, it was hot as hell in St Remy, and we ached for the swimming pool of our Avignon hotel.
But it was actually Villeneuve-les-Avignon that we were heading to, the fortress town opposing Avignon on the northern banks of the Rhone. Pulling into the steep lane at the base of the looming medieval tower of Philippe-le-Bel, we felt like we’d stepped back in time 600 years. We checked into ‘Maison Orsini’, an amazing B&B set in the remains of a 14th century palace run by Xavier, a French artist with sharp teeth, meaty hands and an intense gaze that evoked the ancestry of all his medieval forebears. In the garden courtyard by the fortress wall, we were privy to an incredible view that soared across the Rhone Valley, a clear view of Fort St André embedded in the distant cliff face and, over the river, Avignon, its monumental Palais des Papes luminous in the sultry night sky.
The Palais des Papes was built throughout the 14th Century, when political heat in Rome necessitated the relocation of the papacy to France. Avignon became the surrogate Vatican, home to eight Popes for a period of a century. We toured the Palais the next morning – not before a night of crisp beers and delicious local fare at a riverside restaurant, and a breakfast of fresh pastry and cured meats in the Maison’s epic dining hall. The Palais was incredible, a truly immense statement of religious grandiosity, replete with cavernous halls, chapels, winding staircases and gothic turrets.
It was boiling again the next day, so we fanged the Volvo out to the Pont du Gard, a monumental Roman aqueduct, the second-largest freestanding Roman-built structure next to the Colosseum. There, we drifted in the cool waters of the Rhone, dwarfed by the great manmade structure, imagining Roman moments, awash in the past.
Parting with the olds, who were bound for Lyon, we planned to head back to Nice for one final beach gasp before our Berlin return – or so we thought. The French love a good snap strike, and the train unions decided that our day of transit was a good one to halt work. It may have had something to do with the 37-degree heat, which we were forced to wander in for eight hours after our train got cancelled. Not ideal.
Our ‘replacement’ train turned out to be the normal train, in which all folk from the four cancelled trains were invited to cram in together – a hot moving mess of sweat, stench and French. When the loud, boozy louts poured out at Toulon we scored seats again, and we eased back to Nice by midnight. Cue a late pizza dinner and crisp cold brew, HK and I were elated to be back where we’d begun.
The WP proved a sturdy travel partner for the French adventure, an awesome, badass bag…with a ‘but’. Don’t pack it too full.
Aesthetically brilliant, the WP continued to look sleek and handsome at all times, keeping its cool in the adverse conditions. This bag makes you feel like a boss. The problem was that I’d crammed way too much stuff into it. I loved the thick padding of the WP’s leather strap, which performed admirably under duress (another hole or two to shorten the length would have worked wonders on the shoulders). The bag proved a cumbersome weight when strutting long stretches, slightly awkward in such brutal conditions.
Ideally, this bad boy is suited to weekenders rather than 10-dayers; short struts rather than aching French strike-induced meanderings. Keep the loot limited, and you’re golden. But whatever happens, with the WP by your side, you’re going to look good with it.
On our last morning in Nice, we scoffed down petite dejuner, swam and sizzled on the Promenade beachside, enjoying a final French lunch – seafood linguine, salad Nicoise, coffee and rosé – before lumping gear back into our sacks, venturing back aboard the 98 bus to Cote D’Azur airport and back on to our Deutschland home.
That night, HK and I sat on our Kreuzberg balcony and soaked up the twilight static of a hundred bar and café TVs telecasting the stadium roars of Rio De Janeiro through the neighbourhood streets. World Cup fever had hit, revellers on the streets sinking beers, shouting out loud, a warm welcome home.
The WP continued to corral my loot like a boss all the way to the end, a reliable companion, now contoured with beautiful leather ripples like a fresh pair of cowboy boots finally worn in. Individualised, a bag-in-use; may it remain for decades to come.
*Photography by Honor Kennedy