“Hotel Papa Mike you have two Mirage fighters 1000 ft above you and two helicopters 1000 ft below”, said the military Air Traffic Controller.
Flying sandwiched between military aircraft is not exactly a mundane, run-of-the-mill occurrence. We kept our eyes peeled open and in a cloudless sky watched the two jets in close formation whizz past us as they banked steeply to the right as one. The helicopters were flying more sedately closer to the ground in the opposite direction. We had our own air show, it seemed. Luckily, I told Nabil, they were not there to intercept us.
Nabil and I were cruising at 2000 ft crossing an active military airspace around the area of Orange in our Piper Archer III (registration HB-PPM, or Hotel Papa Mike for short) on our way to Avignon. This was our 11th summer flying trip together. I alternate flying with each of my children every summer, a cherished tradition we had started some twenty years ago. We had managed to leave Geneva, our home base, during a beautiful lull in the weather, and were heading to the south of France, about the only area in Europe that didn’t forecast torrential rain that July week.
Avignon gave us a direct approach to runway 17 as well as a hearty “welcome to Avignon”. This was the first of so many signs of kindness and hospitality that we encountered during our week in Provence. Whether it was the hotel receptionist, the waiter, or (even) the taxi driver, we felt the locals were genuinely happy to see tourists. Absence, it seems, does really make the heart grow fonder. The acme of this show of kindness came when we had landed in Montelimar, our last stop before heading home. We couldn’t find a taxi willing to pick us up. I should point out that Montelimar aerodrome consists of a grass runway, a couple of hangers, and nary a soul around. Apart from a lone pilot tinkering with his plane in the hangar, we were utterly alone. When I approached him and explained our predicament, he absolutely insisted on dropping everything he was doing to give us a lift into town, even though he had arrived just a few minutes earlier. Now here is kindness we are indebted to give forward.
In Avignon, we parked on the grass amid a dozen aircraft and opened our door to 30 degree heat. We packed our overnight bags and exited the airport without a by-your-leave from anyone. During our taxi ride into town we discovered that we had arrived at exactly the start of the Avignon Festival, a world renowned festival of theatre that is usually a yearly event, with the exception of last year. There was a palpable excitement and anticipation in the air. This is a huge event for Avignon, with more than a thousand shows set up around town, including what they call the “OFF Festival” (the equivalent to the Edinburgh “Fringe Festival”). The battle to attract attention for each show and to stand out from the crowd is huge. Advertisers for the OFF rival each other with creativity. Every conceivable space in town is occupied by a poster advertising a play. Lamp posts are covered up. Fire hydrants are covered up. Rope is thrown from balcony to balcony, with posters hanging like laundry. Even names of plays, such as “Bla Bla Drive”, “D’un Sexe à l’Autre”, “Very Math Trip”, vie for your attention. It was an Avignon show that Nabil and I enjoyed watching, but one that wasn’t on any programme.
Place St Didier is a pedestrian square with large café terraces overlooking a central space that was host to a flurry of advertising activity. People were hurriedly putting up posters. “Human sandwiches” displayed their own, and a choir (made up of the cast) sang the virtues of its play. All the while their colleagues passed by tables with flyers hoping to convince us to attend their plays. We sat at Grand Café Baretta in the comfortable shade of a 150 year-old hackberry tree, ordered our coffees, and watched the show advertising the shows. Oblivious to all the brouhaha was a couple on the table to our right who spent a solid hour avidly preparing their Avignon Festival, filling out their calendar with the shows they intended to watch. They were studying the program with an assiduity usually reserved for university entrance exams. We even had a sudden pang of guilt. Maybe we should be making just a tad more effort to glance at the program? No, it was much more fun watching people.
That morning had started with a close shave. A literal close shave. It was our first ever shave at a barber’s and it was fun to do together. Nabil found us a vintage barber shop run by a man with a beard and a top-knot in his hair — a sure sign of a specialist according to Samira. What a ritual, it took at least half an hour. It started with a hot towel to open the pores, followed by a moisturiser, and then the pièce de resistance: the shaving foam, foam that was hand-stirred and applied with a brush. The shaving foam operation alone took 5 minutes. The old-fashioned single blade gave a very close shave and felt totally different to the triple-blade variety that we find in shops. The closing act was a cold towel (indeed, to close the pores) and the after-shave that stung terribly. It’s all about The Experience, I am told. That and 30 euros. Because that shave took all of 5 minutes the next morning at the hotel — although admittedly it did not include banter between two barbers of juicy gossip about attempted murders and knifing at a nightclub in town.
Tour de France
In Provence we were blessed with a little bubble of good weather. We opted to continue to Aix-en-Provence the next morning, by way of Mont Ventoux, a mythical and highly demanding mountain for cyclists. We wanted to photograph it for our avid cyclist friend, and by sheer serendipity the day of our departure happened to be the start of a “Stage” of the Tour de France that was climbing the Mont Ventoux. If we were lucky we would be flying over the contestants. We were not alone in thinking that. Back at the airport we saw an impressive array of eight helicopters lined up on the ramp, with logos of TV stations displayed on their sides. They were there to film the Tour de France. They took off in formation of four and the whole process notched up the stress levels of the ATC controller who was clearly not accustomed to such intensity of traffic. We pitied the poor German private pilot in his tail-dragger who was desperately asking for permission to land on the grass strip that was closed to traffic that day. The controller was not amused.
We got close to Mont Ventoux but no cyclists were in sight unfortunately, so we soldiered on. Aix-en-Provence reserved us another hearty welcome. We fueled up again and parked on the grass, some 50m from the gate. After depositing our luggage at the hotel and a late lunch of crêpes at Place des Augustins (we really should plan better our timing), we ambled along the pedestrian streets of Aix’s old town. We had the embarras du choix for a café and settled for one further inside the old town, at Place Honoré. Whether we would be exchanging on an eclectic range of topics, from religion, to politics, to technology, to raising children, or simply reading or writing in a shared moment of tranquility, I do enjoy my coffees with Nabil. It is also an opportunity for me to reminisce and humbly reflect on the past flying trips and the journey travelled.
Whilst back home there were incessant reports of record floods and torrential rain, the weather bubble was still holding well over the south of France. For our last stop we elected for Montelimar, a town that we’ve often used in the past as we’ve found it usually sits just south of the border between good and bad weather in France. Departing Aix, Hotel Papa Mike valiantly battled a strong Mistral of some 20kts on the nose and we made slow progress as we jostled in slight turbulence, all the way to touchdown. For our flight home the next day, the forecast called for a lull in the weather, with clear skies after some residual humidity in the morning. We left in a lull and returned in a lull. How lucky can you get?
As usual the familiar voice of Geneva ATC signaled home-before-home. We had one 360 turn to execute at the end of downwind, waiting for an EasyJet to land before it was our turn to land on runway 04, ending this year’s edition of our Summer Flying Trips. They were five days of shared experiences, five days of complicity, five days of memory-making. So much fun, and what a privilege.