Exploring the Gard Region of Southern France

My family comes from the Gard region of Languedoc Roussillon, a stunningly beautiful, but comparatively little known area of Southern France. While many visitors to France head over to the more famous Provence and Cote D’Azur regions (just bordering Languedoc Roussillon), they miss out on a stunning area of France filled with medieval villages, vineyards, dramatic mountains, rivers, ravines, castles, and gorgeous coastline.

I could write for hours on all of the things to do or see in the region, but for now I will focus specifically on the Gard, the eastern-most province of Languedoc Roussillon. The Gard is characterized by a landscape of rolling hills and rivers that build into the grand Massif-Central Cevennes mountain range. The area is predominantly agricultural, meaning that between the quaint villages, your drives around the Gard will be filled with gorgeous panoramas of vineyards, sunflower fields, and iconic tree lined avenues. 

The agricultural nature of the Gard also means that the area still preserves many strong food and food-making traditions. You can turn down nearly any gravel road and find yourself at an independent winery or a farm selling house-made goat cheese, pâté, honey, and more.

 To the south, the Gard does offer a small spit of coastline, but frankly, it is not as nice as many of the beaches that can be found to the east and the west. If you want to go for a swim in the Gard area, do as the locals do and head to a river. Mountain rivers score the landscape, often cutting through deep ravines and spanned by gorgeous Medieval bridges and aqueducts. Grab your swim gear and water shoes and you are sure to find a well-beaten foot path leading down to the water’s edge.

To the north, the Gard is hedged with dramatic mountain ranges, sweeping panoramas, and enough lovely mountain villages to get lost in for months at a time. There is so much to see and explore in the Cevennes mountains that you may just find yourself packing a picnic and driving up the first mountain road you find. Regardless of which one you take, you are bound to find yourself somewhere beautiful.  

The pace of life is slow in the Gard, and can best be enjoyed by allowing yourself the time to relax, enjoy long, leisurely meals, and take sunset walks. There is certainly enough to do in the Gard that you could pack your visit full of activities, but to get the most out of the local culture, I would recommend purposefully slowing down – even if that means doing less.

That being said however, let’s get to the list of things you won’t want to miss in the Gard. 

VÉZÉNOBRES

Vézénobres is a gorgeous Medieval town built on a steep hill, overlooking the surrounding countryside. The city is most famous for their figs, and for playing the iconic French lawn game “boule” with square balls or “boules carrees”. Depending on when you visit, there may not be much to do here besides look around and have a coffee or ice cream in a café – even then it is definitely worth the visit. The cobblestone, narrow streets, and lovingly restored facades make Vézénobres one of those rustic villages that typifies everything you imagine from “Southern France”. Check up on Vézénobres’ website here to see if any festivals are taking place during your visit.  

ANDUZE

Anduze is famous for its pottery, which can be purchased all over the world. The Medieval town of Anduze sits alongside a river in the “gateway to the Cevennes”, and is a good starting place for a trip into the mountains. There are a lot of shops and cafes in Anduze, frequent festivals during the summer, and a market on Thursday mornings. This market is not as large or well known (and therefore less crowded) as some of the others, but it's a nice one to visit. In the center of the town you can find a large, café-lined square with a fountain and cobblestone streets.

There is plenty of free public parking available – just make a left turn as soon as you cross the river into the town, and you will find yourself in a public lot. From there it is a short walk into the old part of the town and the market. Take a look at their website here for events.

Just past the main city is the Musee de Desert, or “Huguenot Museum”, which is dedicated to the history of the French Protestants and resistance fighters. In that area you can also go to a large botanical garden called the “Bambouseraie”, collecting types of bamboo from around the world, and visit an impressive grotto, or go swimming in the river. 

UZES

Uzes has the king of all French markets in the Gard! Get there early on Saturday morning for the best market experience and to beat some of the crowds. The market lines all of the streets of the main old town center. You can easily spend an entire day wandering the streets, poking around cute little shops, buying souvenirs, and sampling local specialties from market stands. The market at Uzes is incredibly picturesque, so make sure you bring your camera! We, in particular, really enjoy buying goat cheese, saucisson (a French salami), fougasse (a special bacon flavored pastry local to the region), truffles, and olive tapenade. You can find gorgeous produce, meat, and fish at the market as well, so if you are keen to cook, it’s not a bad idea to go with a shopping list for a special meal.

Aside from the market, Uzes has a lot to offer. There is a medieval castle that you can tour, as well as lots of cool shops and cafes. 

As for parking at Uzes, when you get to the large round-about near the center of the town, take the first exit off the round-about and drive down the street. From there you can turn into the pay-parking lot on the left side of the road. Parking is pretty cheap - we paid 2 Euros for 3 hours. On Saturday mornings the roads around Uzes can get quite congested and parking hard to come by – yet another reason to get there earlier (around 9:00 am is typically fine; things are hopping by 9:30/10:00 am).

Pont du Gard

The Pont du Gard is located just past Uzes, at a UNESCO world heritage site boasting an impressive three-tiered Roman aqueduct that was constructed entirely without mortar. It's a pretty steep charge to visit (you have to pay 18 euro per car) but it's a pretty incredible sight. You can make the most of your visit by bringing a picnic and going swimming in the beautiful mountain river that runs under the bridge.

THE MONT BOUQUET

The Mont Bouquet is a great place to get an amazing 360 view of the Gard. You can drive all the way to the top of the mountain, so it is a nice, easy destination for families with young children, or people who otherwise would like to avoid hiking. There are picnic tables at the top of the mountain, and if you are lucky enough to be there at a time when people are hang gliding, you can watch them jump off the top of the mountain.

Close to the base of the mountain there is a trout farm that makes for another fun outing with young children. The farm provides everything you need to catch the trout yourself (warning: this takes about 5 seconds – these are some eager trout), then will clean the fish for you. Growing up, the Mont Bouquet + trout farm was one of my favorite outings. Especially because it meant we would be eating fresh trout for dinner!

 There is also an incredibly pretty town near the Mont Bouquet called Rochegude, Languedoc-Roussillon. If you are driving by Mont Bouquet, it is worth a stop at this village – it is arguably one of the prettiest towns in the area.  

Nimes

Nimes is the largest city in the Gard, and offers a number of impressive Roman architecture and good restaurants. There is a coliseum in the center of the city that is one of the best preserved Roman arenas to date. Personally, I believe it rivals the coliseum in Rome – not least because the one in Nimes is still used for events ranging from concerts to bull fights. There is also a very pretty Roman bath, temple, and watch tower in a park called the Jardins de la Fontaine. It is free to visit, and if you are there on a weekend you may just spot some wedding parties taking place. There are many excellent restaurants in Nimes, including some Michelin starred ones. It is a great destination if you want to splurge for a fancy French meal. 

How To Travel Long-Term (Without Going Broke)

Jacob and I received a crash course in long-term travel when we made the decision to leave our behind the U.S. for six months in Europe. What started as a plane ticket and an exciting idea quickly became an overwhelming task to plan the next six months of our lives – on a budget. 

As tempting as it is to simply “go with the wind” when traveling long term, having an utter lack of itinerary can result in extra expenses and (at worst), immigration trouble.   

Margareten

Here are some tips to jumpstart planning your travels on a budget: 

Find Contacts

Traveling cheaply is easiest when you know people. Fortunately however, a great contact abroad doesn’t have to be a life-long friend. Some of our best experiences came through referrals to a distant friend of a friend...of a friend. 

Start by making a list of people (or friends of friends) who live abroad. Think creatively and be bold in your requests. Ask your Croatian-descent coworker if she still has family in Croatia. Was your sister’s friend an au pair five years ago? Ask if she is still in touch with her host family. Ask around in your clubs and co-ops, foreign language teachers, exchange student programs  - anything and everything you can think of. 

In doing this we found that many people are excited to show off their country and willing to open up their homes – especially if you go with a mindset of serving. Whether that service is helping to babysit the kids, clean the house, or waitress for a week in their café, offering to help your host family can lead to more open doors and lifelong friendships.

Look for Volunteer Opportunities

There are many organizations that cut the middleman out of “Voluntourism” and allow you to search databases of host families looking for volunteers on their farms, cafés, homes, and etc. Most networks are free to search, after which they require a small fee (usually under $50 for a two year subscription) to create a profile and contact a host family. 

Take a look at WorkAway (http://www.workaway.info/) for an extensive and diverse database of opportunities. Through WorkAway my husband and I were able to volunteer in a seasonal café in the Swedish countryside, incurring virtually no expenses for our month of volunteering. Best of all, we had an incredible time with our host family, and loved the work we were doing. Other volunteer networks to check out are World Wide Opportunities On Organic Farms (http://www.wwoof.net/), Help Exchange (http://www.helpx.net/), Se7en (http://www.the7interchange.com/), and Service Civil International (http://www.sciint.org/). 

Be Mindful of Travel Visas

Depending on the area of the world you are traveling and the nationality on our passport, travel visa requirements can vary. Being American, my husband and I were subject to the Schengen Visa http://www.schengenvisa.cc/), a 90-day tourism visa that covers a large portion of the Europe. As the Schengen Visa cannot be immediately renewed after 90 days, foreknowledge of these restrictions helped us to plan an itinerary that did not violate any immigration or visa laws.    

It is always a good idea to research the Visa and travel restrictions before making your plans – even if you are planning on traveling a considerably shorter time than six months. 

Select Destinations With Good Accessibility 

Once you have established contacts and understand the visa parameters, it is time to select your destinations. Rather than attempting to visit every exotic far-flung locale on your bucket list, look for an area that offers a lot to see in close proximity. What modes of transportation are available, their average expense, and the time they take? 

Areas of the world that are well connected by trains, buses, and budget flights, make long distances (i.e.: moving from country to country) easy to transverse. In some countries however, the options for travel sans car are much thinner. In Eastern Europe, for example, we found inter-city flights to be expensive and infrequent, while taking a train would be an uncomfortable 12+hour experience.  

As a result of this knowledge, we decided to spend more time in Eastern Europe, and planned shorter stints for places where we could move around conveniently and inexpensively. 

Be Flexible 

As valuable as planning is, make sure to hold your plans loosely. Things happen – planes get delayed; contacts fall through- so give yourself allowances for flexibility. Build buffer time into your travel connections, and a couple of open-ended days in each destination. Set tentative plans a month in advance as you travel, then nail down details as the time approaches. That way, if you find that you fell in love with Western Ireland, you have the freedom to spend extra time there if you want. 

How to Find Cheap Airline Tickets

You can find plenty of articles touting the "optimal time" to purchase plane tickets, but frankly, I'm not sure I buy it. There is more to finding the best flight deals than scheduling when to hit the "purchase" button down to the minute. Finding a lowest price on a ticket is part art, part science, and sometimes requires a good deal of tenacity and patience. 

AirplaneTickets

1. Do your research: Look over a number of websites that aggregate airline information for ticket comparison. By searching across multiple sites, you can ensure you are looking at all of your options and making an informed decision. Whenever searching a ticket, Jacob and I will use Momondo, SkyScanner, and Cheapoair for price and flight comparison. Another advantage of this method is for cross-checking tickets that catch your eye. If you see an airline advertising a specific price across multiple sites, you can be more confident that it's a legitimate deal and not a bait-and-switch scam. 

2. Be flexible in your dates and times: Midweek and red-eye flights will always be the cheapest. Often the rock bottom prices advertised by airlines (ie: LA > NYC, only $50!) require flying out on very specific dates. Sometimes you will find as well that pushing your flight date by as little as a week can greatly effect the ticket price. Most aggregate ticket-search websites have an option to view ticket prices on a calendar to pinpoint the cheapest date to fly. 

3. Be flexible in your route and destinations: Many areas of the world have excellent budget flight and train options for travel. Take a look at the transportation available, and see if it would be more economical to fly in elsewhere, then take a train to your destination. If you are planning a trip to Europe for example, you may find it significantly cheaper to fly to Berlin, then take a train to Prague, rather than flying directly to Prague. Similarly, you may also find that switching to train-travel is less expensive than the connecting flight the carrier is offering you. One great resource for researching an alternate travel route in Europe is RouteRank, which takes into account the travel time and cost of getting from point A to B by plane, car, train, and bus, or any combination thereof. 

4. Keep an eye on the tickets: Buy your tickets too far out, and the price will be higher. Buy your tickets too close to your departure, and the price will be higher. So what's the middle ground? Honestly, that can vary, and for a few months you will notice that the prices only fluctuate by a few dollars. Typically however, purchasing your tickets two months out will lead to the lowest prices. If you are stalking a ticket, there are some who recommend putting your web browser on "incognito mode". Rumors on the internet are stating that websites will crank up your ticket price if they see you revisiting a ticket - I have never experienced that before, but searching in incognito is a small inconvenience if it is true. 

5. Try to buy your ticket directly from the airline: If possible, always purchase your ticket from the airline itself. Buying your ticket from other companies and websites is not always a bad idea, but it can complicate things if there is an unexpected difficulty. Airlines are more accommodating with tickets purchased through their services, which can be a help when you are, say, trying to change the name on the ticket. Attempting the same thing with a ticket purchased through a third party can lead to a frustrating game of ping-pong between the airline and the third party.

6. Ask and ye shall receive: When Jacob and I were booking tickets to Vienna, we noticed that the website advertised one price in the summary, and another price (a much higher one), in the details. Rather than accept defeat, I called the airline and asked them why the price was changing back and forth. The agent on the phone told us that the prices were updating because they were selling out of the cheaper tickets, but there were two of the cheaper tickets left on the flight if we wanted to purchase over the phone. No brainer. We paid a $25 booking fee for purchasing over the phone, but saved hundreds of dollars by getting the cheaper tickets. Moral of the story? It never hurts to ask. 

What have you found to be some of your best strategies for finding cheap tickets? 

 

 

** This post is in honor of a dear friend, Wendy Hudson, whose experience and wisdom in travel is enough to fill a book.

5 Reasons You Shouldn't Travel

The top 5 excuses people make for not traveling (even though they say they really want to), and why they are wrong:

Traveling is expensive

Well yes, it can be, but there are ways to travel that incur very little expenses other than your plane ticket. For those of us who need a daily shower and a bed however, (not everyone can backpack across Europe after all), it comes down to a value proposition.  For many people, it’s not that they don’t have the money; it’s just that they don’t want to give up their daily latte, a flat screen TV, a new iPhone, etc. None of these things are bad, and you have every right to choose how to spend your own money. The point is, however, that budgeting is all about prioritizing. To travel without a large disposable income on hand, one can begin by rethinking where one spends.
 

Turkey Pier

Traveling is inconvenient

Well, you are absolutely correct. Traveling is one of the most inconvenient and humbling activities you could ever find yourself in. It’s hot, sticky, tiring, confusing, and disorienting. It forces you to Gumby yourself into an airplane seat the size of a thimble, then remain inert for hours. Not exactly a spa day, but absolutely worth it.

There are ways to travel luxuriously. You pay heaps of money to a company to fabricate a continuously aesthetically pleasing and comfortable environment for you. The inconvenience of travel however, is a form of dying to yourself – sacrificing your comfort for the opportunity to love others. You will be amazed at how your eyes open to see the world around you in new and inspiring ways.

Traveling is dangerous

We’ve all seen Taken, and heard the stories of unsuspecting tourists whose wallets are snatched by pickpockets. Unfortunately, these things do happen, but a little common sense goes a long way. The last person I met whose money was stolen in Europe had pretty much written, “Rob me” on their forehead. The fact of the matter is that you are no more in control of your environment while traveling than you are while at home. The only thing that has changed is your comfort zone. Stepping outside of your comfort zone is challenging, but I swear that it will be the source of your best stories. After all, they don’t write books and make movies about people who never take risks.

German Road

You’re too busy

This excuse is one of the hardest to beat. Life has a way of continuously picking up speed, until one day you realize that your next 3 months are booked solid and you have no idea how it happened. Stepping back from our culture of perpetual “busyness” requires a level of self-control and discipline. It’s flat out hard to protect your time in the midst of a schedule where everything feels mandatory. It can be done however, and you may be surprised to find how the world doesn’t fall apart when you set boundaries around your time, tell someone “no”, and take a vacation. 

Traveling is a waste of [otherwise productive] time

I once heard about an experiment where CEO’s were given two near identical résumés for a job opening. The one difference between the two résumés was that during a year of unemployment, one candidate traveled the world, while the other stayed home and hunted for work. The majority of the CEO’s opted for the candidate who had traveled during his unemployment. Traveling is a highly formative experience that requires initiative, tenacity, and develops marketable skills such as creative problem solving and cross-cultural communication. Not to mention it’s really fun, and could possibly be a life-changing experience. So the next time someone tells you that traveling is a waste of time, call him out on it. You will probably hear him say that it’s better to stay home and make money, at which point you are right back at Excuse #1. 


What excuses do you hear?