Sakura Viewing in Okayama Prefecture

April 5 – 6, 2015

Photo set on Flickr

Our great start in Himeji didn’t last. Rain poured nonstop over the two days we were in Okayama Prefecture, ruining our visits to two of the supposedly finest hanami sites in Japan. Doing hanami in the rain is like watching a grainy version of the Game of Thrones on live stream – technically the visuals are all there, but it is impossible to differentiate the subject from the background. Still, even though the weather didn’t cooperate, Okayama Prefecture does boast some quality hanami spots that are different than what Kyoto has to offer. (Again, click here for Part I and Part II of my Kyoto trip)

Kakuzan Park, Tsuyama 津山鶴山公園

Tsuyama is kind of in the middle of nowhere. It is a 1.5 hr drive from both Okayama and Himeji. From Osaka it is 2 h 15 m. So when my Japanese friend heard I was going to Tsuyama for sakura, he smirked and said, “You know, there are sakura everywhere in Japan. Literally.”

But Tsuyama’s Kakuzan Park is unlike anywhere else I have been. No, I am not talking about its status as one of the top 100 sakura spots voted by the Japanese Cherry Blossom Association, a list that’s an absolute crapshoot. What’s impressive about this park is its sheer number of cherry trees. When the old Tsuyama Castle was demolished in 1873 following an ordinance by the Meiji Government to abolish unnecessary castles, the city planners went all in and planted a freaking cherry forest over the ruins. How many to be exact? Try 5,000. For reference, Ninna-ji has around 200. Heian-jingu? 680. Even Daigo-ji is home to just a thousand.

This determined planting spree makes Tsuyama arguably the top hanami spot in Chūgoku (the westernmost region of Honshū that includes the prefectures of Hiroshima, Okayama, Shimane, Tottori and Yamaguchi). Besides its massive quantity of sakura, what’s unusual about Kakuzan Park is how the cherry trees are allowed to be planted all over the old castle walls. Typically such as with Himeji Castle, sakura is seen as a compliment to the historic site, but here it is clearly the other way around. The result is multiple layers of sakura where the blossoms can be seen when look up, straight, or down.

Ambience is a big part of the hanami experience and clearly people love this place. We bumped into giddy day trippers, local teenage cosplayers and kids performing taiko. Kakuzan Park ranks as one of my favorite hanami spots despite the gloomy weather.

Sakura Index: 5/5
Opening hours: 7:30 – 22:00
Admission fee: ¥300
Parking: ¥500
Address: 135 Sange, Tsuyama, Okayama Prefecture 708-0022, Japan

Daigo Zakura, Maniwa 真庭市醍醐桜

Japanese are obsessed about top threes. They practically have a top three ranking for everything, from castles and mountains to rather obscure ones like lanterns and cemeteries. You bet they have a top three ranking for thousand-year-old cherry trees, which are Miharu Takizakura in Fukushima, Gifu’s Usuzumi Zakura and Yamanashi’s Jindai Sakura. A fourth one with much less recognition called Daigo Zakura is located on top of a hill in Maniwa about an hour drive west of Tsuyama.

Do a quick google search and you will find one of the most impressive cherry trees anywhere on Earth. I didn’t get to see that version of Daigo Zakura. Even though Hanami Walker forecast the tree was about to approach full bloom (~70%) on our day of visit, in reality we were greeted by mostly green sprouts. The tree is treated almost like a deity – a tiny shrine rests next to its giant roots and a few feet away is a cemetery of a clan.

Check this local website for more up-to-date information. If the tree is not in good condition, don’t make the long drive to Maniwa; there are too many other sakura options elsewhere.

Sakura Index: n/a
Opening hours: Open 24 hrs
Admission fee: Free
Parking: ¥500
Address: Bessho, Maniwa, Okayama Prefecture 719-3157, Japan

Kōraku-en, Okayama 岡山後楽園

Just like Himeji and its castle, the only reason to visit Okayama is for Kōraku-en, one of the “Three Great Gardens of Japan”. The garden was built by the lord of Okayama Ikeda Tsunamasa in 1700 and got its name from the Confucianism concept of “grieve earlier than others, enjoy later than others”.

The 133,000 square meters garden has all the expected elements of a classical Japanese garden, with a large pond, artificial islands, numerous streams, tea houses, a few hills and, most importantly, 300 cherry trees. Unfortunately more petals were found scattered on the ground than remained on the branches after days of relentless raining. Okayama has several other famous hanami spots like Asahi River Cherry Road and Handayama Botanical Garden, but the damp weather killed all of our enthusiasm to linger.

Unless you are a big fan of Japanese garden who is determined to visit all “Three Great Gardens of Japan”, I would suggest not bothering with Okayama. Further afield in Shikoku is a less-heralded but much more photogenic garden that I will cover later.

Sakura Index: 2/5
Opening hours: 7:30 – 18:00
Admission fee: ¥400
Parking: ¥100 per hour
Address: 1-5 Kōrakuen, Kita Ward, Okayama, Okayama Prefecture 703-8257, Japan

Bikan Historical Area, Kurashiki 倉敷美観地区

Although not a hanami spot, this is arguably the most visited attraction in Okayama Prefecture. Kurashiki was an important rice distribution port in the Edo period and an industrial center during the Meiji Revolution. Kurashiki is so synonymous with the rice trade its name can be roughly translated as “town of storehouses”.

The Bikan Historical Area is renovated from the old merchant quarter and contains the main section of the former canal system. Things to see include Japan’s first Western art museum, the Ohara Museum of Art, along with many of the town’s iconic white-walled and black-tiled warehouses that are converted into museums, restaurants and shops.

This area is especially photogenic at night, when the warehouses and willow trees are lit up by floodlights and their reflections glow on the canal’s dark water. The few cherry trees add a welcome tint of pink to the composition, like a piece of dried plum in a bento.

There is not much to do in Kurashiki, but its central location at about the midway point between Osaka and Hiroshima makes it a convenient base to explore the Chūgoku region. It is also a logical resting point for drivers before crossing the Great Seto Bridge onward to Shikoku.

Sakura Index: 1.5/5
Opening hours: Open 24 hrs
Admission fee: Free
Transport: 10-minute walk south from Kurashiki Station through a shopping arcade

Sakura Redux (2015 Edition)

April 4 – 11, 2015

Photo set on Flickr

Despite Japan’s long standing status as the most beloved destination among Hong Kongers and Taiwanese, traditionally it has not received much foreign visitors due to its high cost. As recently as 2013, tiny Hong Kong received 2.5 times more tourists (granted most were Mainlanders) than Japan. To drop a casual Game of Thrones reference, that’s a massive upset on the scale of Tyrion chopping off Jamie’s hand in a hypothetical duel between the Lannister brothers.

All of that turned in a dramatic way since the sharp drop in the value of the Japanese yen in late 2014. Over 2015’s first quarter Japan has seen a huge increase of foreign visitor, with the key growth coming from China (80% increase vs year ago). As with everywhere else which has received a sudden spike of traffic from China, this development is greeted with mixed response in Japan. Retailers and hotels welcome the additional revenue, even if all this money comes with some welldocumented nuisances.

We too found the cheap yen too tempting to pass up so we were back to Japan for the sakura season for the second straight year. We headed west this time to Okayama Prefecture and Kagawa Prefecture to avoid the expectedly huge crowd in Kyoto.

Himeji Castle (Taken in Jun 2008)

To properly kickstart our hanami road trip was the just-renovated Himeji Castle. The 5.5-year-long restoration removed all its accumulated grey smudge (seen firsthand in 2008) and allowed the castle to once again live up to its moniker as the “White Heron Castle”. The adjacent Koko-en Garden is home to 1,000 cherry trees, which is 2.5 times that of Nijo Castle, one of my favorite spots in Kyoto. Quantity is not everything, but with a background as photogenic as the White Heron Castle, this park beats all the places I visited in Kyoto last year.

Our trip was off to a promising start.

Roman Sites in Provence

Photo set on Flickr

At its peak, the Roman Empire stretched across 2.75 million km² over much of Europe, Northern Africa and the Middle East. One of the greatest empires in history, its ruins now can still be found all over Europe and the Arab world. Provence in particular has one of the highest concentration of Roman sites outside of Italy. For anyone who isn’t a buff on Roman history, should you divert your limited travel time away from Provence’s many impressive attractions, assuming you have already been to Rome and Pompeii (a.k.a. the best)?

I had been on both sides of the coin. On my first visit I saw Pont du Gard then headed west to the Luberon, deciding the rest of the Roman sites in Arles, Orange and Nîmes to be too similar to the ones I saw in Italy. “Twelve years later, now with an obsession on World heritage Sites, I spent a day on visited the three towns I bypassed on my first trip.

Arles

Arles Amphitheatre

For most cities, a 2,000 year-old Roman amphitheater is a gift from history that will manage to draw tourists from across the globe for eternity. Arles merely treats this amphitheater, along with other Roman sites, as a sideshow. See, most tourists associate Arles as the temporary home of Vincent van Gogh where the artist enjoyed the most productive phase in his short and volatile career.

Compares to the many other highly-polished Provençal towns, Arles seems to be in a perpetual state of dilapidation, and any oversized expectation of an artistic haven that once managed to inspire a troubled genius will be quickly dashed. Already a backwater back in Van Gogh’s time, it was precisely Arles’ ruggedness in contrast to Paris’ glamour that attracted the artist to settle there. But like most impressionist masters, Van Gogh’s brilliance laid in his depiction of subjects of everyday life. When you follow his footsteps in Arles, what you will find are real but mundane version of a café, a courtyard, a bridge, and a flight of stairs.

At least the Arles Amphitheater is relatively well-preserved. With a capacity over 20,000, it is still in use for bullfighting and summer concerts. But its enormous stature is constrained by the tiny square it finds itself in – surrounded at all sides by residential buildings, the setting is similar to the Pantheon in Rome.

Orange

Théâtre antique d’Orange

Built in the 1st century AD, at a time when southern France was established as a colony of retired soldiers, the Théâtre antique d’Orange (Ancient Theatre of Orange) was a perfect example of the Roman policymakers’ attempt to distract its citizens from engaging in politics by providing them free entertainment.

From the outside, the theater looks like an imposing fortress, dominated by a 37-meter high wall which Louis XIV declared as “the finest wall in my kingdom“. This towering wall was not just for show; its size allowed for proper sound projection and served as a decorated background of the stage. The theater could hold 10,000 spectators and had a retractable canvas canopy to protect the audience from the elements.

Its size stood out, but what made the theater a versatile platform for various types of shows was the ingenuity of its stage design. A system of cables, winches and counterweights allowed the actors and working scenery to be hidden from the audience using a curtain, along with trapdoors that enabled the crew to suddenly appear or vanish from the stage. With clever designs like these, the thought of people spending entire days at the theater watching mimes and improvisers becomes much more comprehensible.

I didn’t regret visiting Orange, but the theater was also not a must for anyone who isn’t into collecting WHS.

Nîmes

Maison Carrée

Before we get to Nîmes’ Roman sites, let’s clear some facts about its host city first. Located in Languedoc-Roussillon and the capital of the Gard department, Nîmes is 33 km and 45 km from Arles and Avignon, respectively. After visiting little towns like Arles and Orange, Nîmes, with its 140,000 citizens, feels downright like a metropolis.

Arena of Nîmes

Nîmes also has the most impressive sites out of the three, even though the Arena of Nîmes and the Roman temple Maison Carrée are not inscribed as WHS (they are on the tentative list). Of all the Roman arenas/amphitheaters I have seen, I would rank them as Rome>Nîmes>Verona>Arles>Pompeii. Nîmes’ was by far the most intact among them and was the only one that could almost measure up to the Coliseum. Maison Carrée was also unlike anything I have seen elsewhere.

Nîmes is the only can’t-miss among the three towns, and it makes a good day trip together with Pont du Gard from Avignon.

What Avignon Reveals about Provence

Photo set on Flickr

Connected to Paris by the TGV, chances are Avignon will be your first stop in Provence. Many people pick up their rental cars outside of the TGV station and head straight to the Luberon region, never bother to check out this ancient city. That’s a mistake – even as little time as half a day in Avignon can reveal much about Provence at large.

A deep history

If your image of Provence consists of only picturesque villages and lavender fields, remember the region’s Mediterrean location means it is steeped in history. Look no further than Avignon, which is settled since the Neolithic period and predated Paris by more than 3,000 years. Because of its strategic importance, Avignon (and Provence in general) had been successively invaded by the Phocaeans, Romans, Burgundians, Franks, Moors and Holy Romans before being occupied for good by France during the reign of Louis VIII.

Avignon might had changed hands more than a Kardashian, but from 1309-77 it was the center of Christendom, serving as home to seven puppets of the French monarchs French popes. The largest building in town, the Palais des Papes (Papal Palace), serves as a reminder of Avignon’s golden era.

Convenient to visit

France’s efficient high-speed railway system makes traveling around the country a blast. You can get to most major French cities by TGV in just a few hours from Paris, and Avignon, as the transport hub of Provence, is no exception.

The TGV ride from Paris’ Gare de Lyon to Avignon takes only 2h40m. Feeling like heading south right after your plane lands in Paris? There is direct train to Avignon from Charles de Gaulle’s Terminal 2 too.

Think about that – it takes less time to cover the 700 km between Paris and Avignon than a typical Hobbit movie. There are many reasons why France has consistently received the most visitors among all countries, and one of the underrated aspect is the French government’s willingness to invest in infrastructure to ease the traveling time within this not-too-small country. Here are train journeys of similar distance in other western European countries:

London – Edinburgh: 670 km/ 4.5h

Rome – Milan: 580 km/ 6h40m

Madrid – Barcelona: 620 km/ 3h

Berlin – Frankfurt: 550 km/ 4h15m

Besides the massive infrastructure drive in Spain that has created countless white elephants and decimated numerous Spanish banks and government treasuries, none of the other big powers like UK and Italy come close to the TGV’s efficiency.

The crowd can get suffocating 

After encountering busloads of British retirees at the Palais des Papes, you will be forgiven in believing you have somehow been teleported to a retirement home in England. It is not just the Brits you will encounter; people from all across the globe can’t get enough of Provence, especially during the summer when the lavender is blooming and the weather is at its best. The narrow country roads are cloaked full of cars. Restaurants, no matter the quality, are packed. Accommodation almost rivals the price of Paris’. Most retail space is taken up by sorry-looking shops selling generic postcards and lavender-related junks.

This is not about to sink into another “mass tourism has killed another beloved destination” type of rant – it is possible to escape the crowd in Avignon and Provence. Two rules that work anywhere: Use your time efficiently and venture off the beaten path slightly.

Try to wake up right around dawn and take in the Palais des Papes when it is completely empty. When the crowd starts to show up, have a long breakfast. Take a nap then have lunch in the area near the university. You will be surprised how few people venture to this part of town even though it is only a 15-minute walk from the palace. At sunset head to the other bank of the Rhone river and enjoy a undisturbed picnic and a panorama view of the old town. Everyone else? They can continue to get into each other’s way.

Wine fit for a pope

Everyone knows about Bordeaux and Burgundy, but does Rhone Valley ring a bell? Known mostly for its Syrah, Marsanne, Roussanne, Grenache, Mourvedre and Viognier, Rhone wine is often dismissed as the place where bland table wine is produced. Yes, much of the south does fit this bias, but the village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape near Avignon is an exception.

That’s an understatement. Châteauneuf-du-Pape is actually one of the most prestigious wine appellations in France. Read that name again. It translates to  “The Pope’s new castle”, as it was during the years of the Avignon Papacy when this once primitive farmland was transformed into vineyards that could satisfy the taste of popes’.

If you can spare the cash, give this wine a try. Drinking it at the Palace Square under a cloudless night is a better introduction to the former glory of Avignon and Provence than anything else money can buy.

The Beaten Path Guide to Provençal Villages

Photo set on Flickr

Long before Florida became a magnet for retiree there was Provence, where two millennia ago Julius Caesar set up three colonies for the veterans of his legions. Since then this southern region of France has welcomed popes, artists, retired Brits (thanks to Peter Mayle) and increasingly, Chinese tourists. And why not? With its reliably sunny weather (when the Mistral isn’t blowing), hearty cuisine, an abundant supply of wine, and a slow-paced lifestyle, it is easy to dream about having a good life in Provence.

Which is somewhat ironic when this love for the Provençal way of life has completely transformed the region. A huge influx of tourist and retirement money has pushed up the property prices in this once poor region. If you time your visit during the lavender season, chances are you will be sharing everything, from the road to dining options to accommodation with tens of thousands of others. The quaint villages foreigners couldn’t help but fall head over heels for? They have mostly been turned into vacation or retirement homes, where the prices are so outrageous even bankers and brokers are relocating to areas with less sunshine such as the Lot Valley.

You can easily spend a week in the area, but if you are like us and have neither the time nor desire to rent a villa and do the retiree routine of visiting a market at a different village everyday, here are the must-see villages on a tight schedule. Trust me, after a few villages most of them start to become indistinguishable from each other – you should prioritize on visiting the cream of the crop. Yes, the four I picked are well known and touristy and are on everybody’s itinerary, but they are listed as one of “The most beautiful villages of France” for a reason. Likewise, avoid these places like plague if you want to venture off the beaten path.

With apologies to Apt, Bonnieux, Lacoste, L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, Ménerbes, Sault, St Remy and Uzès, let’s begin:

Les Baux-de-Provence

Located majestically atop a rocky outcrop in the Alpilles between Avignon and Arles, Les Baux was God’s gift to humanity to be a military stronghold. But even the mightiest fortress was not indestructible, and the village was sacked on the order of the French king Louis XI in 1483. Les Baux enjoyed a second boom when a red mineral was discovered nearby; it was named bauxite by the geologist Pierre Berthier after the former stronghold.

Today the village relies entirely on tourism. Once home to 4,000 people, only 0.5% still remain. Tourism is the only thing that keeps Les Baux from falling into complete desertion. Les Baux’s dramatic setting justifiably makes it one of the most popular destinations in Provence, but don’t come expecting anything more than a beautiful facade. An hour is sufficient enough to cover the entire village including the chateau. Allow another half hour for Carrières de Lumières, a popular light and sound show of classic paintings inside an abandoned quarry (€ 10.5), which we passed up on because we would rather be outdoor.

The best way to enjoy Les Baux is from a distance where you can marvel the village in its entirety. My recommended spot to take a panorama shot of Les Baux is at an overlook a few minutes’ drive north from the Carrières de Lumières on the D27.

Roussillon

Many gorgeous villages deserve your time around Avignon, but the mountainous region of Luberon in the middle of Provence is where you should be if you want to get the most out of your limited travel time. Specifically, head to the “Golden Triangle” in between the three mountain ranges Little Luberon, Big Luberon and Oriental Luberon where some of the prettiest villages in the region are located.

Roussillon’s claim to fame is the large deposits of red ochre pigments found in the clay around the village. Ochre was mined extensively to be used in the textile industry from the 18th century until the 1930s, and the practice is now banned to preserve the village. Today tourism has replaced mining as the main source of income.

Roussillon can easily occupy an entire morning, especially if you arrive on a market day on Thursdays. Perhaps because of its colorful surroundings, Roussillon has attracted a large community of artists and painters, filling the village with galleries instead of run-of-the-mill souvenir shops.

The main parking lot is the easiest place to take a panorama shot of Roussillon.

Gordes

Slightly north of Roussillon is Gordes, located at the top of the Golden Triangle and a 10-minute drive from the Sénanque Abbey. Settled since Roman times, most of the current buildings were rebuilt after World War II when much of the village was destroyed following a brief period of resistance against German occupation. Like other villages in the area Gordes mostly relies on tourism nowadays. As one of the larger villages in the region, it is easy to get away from the crowd while wandering along its winding streets.

A few hours in the afternoon is sufficient. The best spot to take a panorama is at an outlook on D15 approaching the village from the west. Prepare some food in advance and have a picnic at this spot to take in the view instead of paying for overpriced meals in the village.

Lourmarin


Of the dozen villages I have visited, Lourmarin is by far my favorite (or it could be Uzès, but we were in too much of a rush to do it justice). It manages to combine remarkable beauty with a sense of approachability that’s absent in many of its counterparts.

Located at the foot of the Luberon Massif at the southern edge of the Golden Triangle, Lourmarin was settled a millennium ago even without the defensive bonus of being on a hilltop. Without the dramatic setting of sitting on the edge of a slope, Lourmarin won’t immediately grab your attention like when first arriving Roussillon or Gordes. How Lourmarin differentiates is by radiating a homey feeling that you can’t help but fall in love with. That might be one of the reasons Peter Mayle decided to call Lourmarin home for awhile before selling his estate for a whopping €6 million and moved 10 km northeast to an even smaller village called Vaugines.

Even if you don’t share my feelings about Lourmarin, a tangible advantage of staying in this village is the fact it is not a hilltop village, meaning even if you are arriving late at night you don’t have to navigate the mountain roads in the dark. Evening scroll is also easier on flat ground.

Lourmarin’s setting doesn’t offer a panorama shot. The best location to photograph the entire village is a grass field a block south of the Chateau de Lourmarin on D943.

The Lavender Route

Photo set on Flickr

Lavender is big business in Southern France. From the Drôme River to the north all the way to Grasse near the Mediterranean, large swath of land is dedicated to growing the source of everyone’s favorite essential oil. Before the purple flowers are ground into oil, for several short weeks from late June to early August these lavender fields also serve as one of France’s biggest tourist draw.

You can easily spend days to cover the area, but visitors like myself who have limited time should stick to the route between Sénanque Abbey and Valensole. The itinerary works best if you are based in one of the villages in Luberon or Aix-en-Provence, although if you don’t mind a longer drive you can begin from Avignon. Lourmarin was my choice and the route took around four hours to cover.

Sénanque Abbey
Lourmarin – Sénanque Abbey 35 km (50 min)

Sénanque Abbey

Not sure if you even like lavender? Begin the day at the most iconic lavender patch at Sénanque Abbey and decide for yourself. If you can’t have enough of the purple flower, continue along the route, or escape to the nearby Gordes if you don’t see what’s the fuss is all about. The best thing about the lavender route is you can detour to other points of interest after any stop.

Try to arrive early before the tour buses. We actually visited Sénanque Abbey in late afternoon on another day while doing our Luberon hilltop village whirlwind tour; the struggle just to find a parking spot reminded me of Sunday at a Costco. So do what we didn’t and make this your first stop of day.

After you have taken the mandatory postcard photos, should you shell out the €7.5 to see the interior of the 12th century Cistercian monastery? I felt a certain sense of spirituality and seriousness prevailing in the air when I visited, perhaps because the monastery is still very much in use. But for this route I would recommend skipping it – the tour is in French and takes an hour. Do it only when you are visiting on another day like us.

Sault
Sénanque Abbey – Sault 40 km (50 min)

Sault Wednesday market

If you are into market, try to do this route on a Wednesday when Sault, the supposed “Lavender Capital”, holds its weekly market. Not a big deal if you miss it – check out this list to find those that fit your itinerary. The bigger ones are those in Aix-en-Provence, Apt and L’ Isle-sur-la-Sorgue.

Don’t fret about the market – lavender is the reason you are here. Driving north along D943 it is easy to see how Sault got its moniker. The purple flowers are in full bloom for tens of kilometers until a hill abruptly rises up from the plateau with a pretty village sitting at the top.

Sault

Here you can gain a better appreciation for the cultivation of lavender in Provence. The scale is massive. So massive it makes its counterparts in Hokkaido and Seqium seem like child’s play. This is not a gimmick to attract tourist; for centuries these plants are planted on the same plot of land and have supported the livelihood of generations of growers.

Baron
Sault – Banon 35 km (30 min)

Lavender field along D950

Prepare to stop often heading east to Banon. Just when you think you are growing tired of the purple stuff, this scenic stretch of D950 throws a different look at you. Sénanque Abbey has the momentous background and Sault the bird’s-eye view, but it is here along this nondescript country road where you can find rows of neatly planted lavender that resemble a L’Occitane advertisement poster.

Banon

Famous for its namesake unpasteurized goat’s milk cheese, Banon is an ideal place to break up the long drive to Valensole for a temporary diversion from lavender.

Valensole
Banon – Valensole 55 km (1 hr)

Valensole

You might be wondering, “I have already seen miles upon miles of lavender, what’s the point of driving all this way for the same thing?”

All those stuff written above – they are just appetizers – none of them can hold a candle to Valensole. Despite Sault’s claim, it is at Valensole where the highest concentration of lavender farms are located in Provence. Every direction you look are fields of lavender that stretch to the horizon. My only tip is not to waste any time on the town itself – it is one of the less attractive hilltop villages in the area.

If you have only a few hours, ignore all the previous stops and come straight to Valensole. You won’t regret it.

 

Five Days, Five Themes in Provence

June 30 – July 4, 2014

Photo set on Flickr

A mere three weeks after our herculean trip to Tibet, I found myself flying again, this time to Paris for a conference. With a few days of free time afterward and my wife joining me from Hong Kong, we decided to head south to Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur. Count us lucky – our arrival coincided with the region’s lavender season, which runs from late June to early August.

Trying to see as much of Provence and Côte d’Azur as possible in a mere five days – we knew going in it was a foolish proposition. But between lavender fields, Roman ruins, hilltop villages and seaside resorts, there were too many interesting draws that demanded our time. We tried to allocate a theme for each day, which again underlines the great variety of sights this popular region offers.

Here comes the question: If there are so many worthwhile sights competing for your limited amount of time, which are must-sees and which are not? I will share my findings in these following posts.

Day 1 
Avignon 

Everyone will pass by Avignon in one way or another. Should you actually spend any time there?

Day 2
Arles, Nîmes and Orange

Arena of Nîmes

Provence has a wealth of Roman ruins. Obviously Pont du Gard is a must-see. How about the slightly lesser known ones in Arles, Nîmes and Orange? Are those worth the time, especially when you have seen the ones in Italy?

Day 3
Lavender Fields

Valensole

These famous lavender routes span hundreds of kilometers. How to cover it in one day so you won’t suffer from a lavender overdose?

Day 4
Hilltop Villages

Bonnieux

With dozens of villages in the area, I am not going to pretend I know enough to properly rate them. What I can do is share where are the best spots to photograph the ones I had been to.

Day 5
Monaco 

Le Rocher, Monte Carlo

Actually I will address this right now since there is not much to say.

We took a half-day trip to Monaco before flying out of Nice. The entire city was a tourist trap. Everything was overpriced. This was a place so barren of dining options I would have happily pay €10 for a Big Mac. You want attraction? How about a palace that has been continuously in use for seven centuries, which sounds interesting until you see the real thing and realize it is so bland that Louis XIV would use it storage. As for its casino – ever heard of Macau or Vegas?

Really, the only thing to see in Monaco are yachts. No, not those you can find at your local harbor. Recall the most over the top boat you have seen in movie, like the one in the Wolf of Wall Street, only there are dozens that are even more outlandish parked unattended at Monte Carlo’s waterfront. If you don’t own one of those, Monaco might not be your type of town.