The University of Iowa

Savouring Southern France

March 17th, 2011

The following commentary for the Des Moines Register was written by Michael and Diane Sondergard after they visited their son, Jeffrey, a UI student studying abroad in Pau, France. Photo by Michael and Diane Sondergard.

Clutching umbrellas under a drizzly sky, two American tourists step off the train from Paris and into the glistening streets of Pau in southwest France.

A warm, familiar voice cracks the night air.

“Bonsoir, maman et papa!”

Our 21-year-old son, Jeffrey, welcomes us to Pau. He is nearing the end of a year-long study abroad program at the University of Iowa. For him, Pau has delivered an unforgettable, life-enhancing encounter with French language and culture.

For us, Pau was the first leg of a 17-day trek across southern France, from the southwest Atlantic coast to the French Riviera.

While few American tourists visit Pau, the city boasts scenic Pyrennes mountain views and a California-like climate complete with palm trees. Pau’s greatest claim to fame, other than being a stop on the Tour de France, is the 16th century Chateau de Pau, birthplace of King Henry IV.

For travelers seeking a home base for exploring the Aquitaine region of southwest France, Pau fits the bill. Rewarding day trips are easily made by rental car or train. Possible destinations include the Basque seaside resort towns of Biarritz, St. Jean-de-Luz, and – crossing the border into Spain – San Sebastian (Donostia in Euskara, the Basque language).

San Sebastian rocks with turn-of-the-century Belle Epoque architecture and multiple old town bars offering Spain’s best tapas and nightlife. For breathtaking views of La Concha Bay and surrounding peaks, take a funicular ride up steep Mont Igueldo.

East of Pau lies Carcassonne – a stunning medieval walled city complete with castle turrets, drawbridges, and moat (“Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” was filmed here). The fortified old city features a maze of shops, eateries, and panoramic views.

When in Carcassonne, consider lodging in the Notre-Dame de l’Abbaye. The rooms are squeaky clean but stark and humbling – reminders of what it means to have just enough (in other words, live like a monk).

Northeast of Carcassonne lies Provence, a region famous for high-quality vineyards, tasty regional cuisine and picture-perfect rural ambience. Quaint villages with colorful stone and wood villas dot the valleys and hillsides. Farmhouse bed and breakfasts (“gites”) make ideal home bases for exploring the region while enriching the traveler’s experience through personal contacts with friendly owners.

Our gite-of-choice was located near Vaison la Romaine. Owners John and Monique Parsons lovingly converted their idyllic country home from an old sheep barn.

John, a British-born former rodeo cowboy, suggested a memorable driving loop through the Cotes du Rhone wine region. A full day was barely enough to admire world-class vineyards and explore enchanting villages like Seguret, Domaine de Mourchon, Le Crestet and Suzette.

Speaking of wine, many Provencal varieties are excellent, inexpensive and perfect to complement your picnic lunch.

St. Remy -our second home base in Provence – oozes with so much charm that it inspired some of Van Gogh’s best-known paintings (the famous but troubled artist ended up in a mental hospital here after lopping off his ear lobe).

Neighboring Arles houses a Roman arena where thousands gather for a rowdy outdoor party preceding Spanish-style bull fights in early April. Pull up a chair, order a beer and tapas, and party with the locals – just like a Hawkeye tailgate.

Our journey concluded with a week on the Cote d’Azur, where the Maritime Alps tower over the sparkling deep blue Mediterranean. Overnight destinations were the coastal cities of Antibes (where an international yacht show was in full swing), and Nice, with its enticing seaside Promenade des Anglais. Hair-raising views of the coast reward those who venture by car or bus up the steep winding roads connecting Nice and Monaco.

From one corner to the other, southern France promises so many dazzling memories that a return trip seems inevitable.