Thursday, 17 July 2014

A day in Provence

Visiting the south of France in mid July hadn't ever really been part of my plan.  I'm much more a cool weather kind of girl rather than a seeker of mid-30's baking heat.  But as this was the only time I could travel, I decided to take advantage of the fact that the lavender would be in full bloom and do some photo trekking through the Provence region and see if I could capture some of the mythical purple hues on camera.

Provence is a pretty big region and in order to find lavender fields, I was going to have to travel a bit.  I first tried to join a camera tour that was going through the region but they were full. Then I considered doing a day tour - but I risked being taken to lots of places that I didn't want to see and not having enough time at the ones I did. I dithered for awhile on hiring a private guide, but then manned up and booked a car.  How hard could it be?  

The day after Bastille day I headed back to Avignon and picked up a car at the train station.  I've never driven in a foreign country and never driven on the other side of the road, so I was pretty nervous. I paid for extra insurance and a GPS, took a deep breath and hit the road.  

The first 15 mins were pretty scary.  Driving on the other side of the road was fine, but a strange car, different distances to judge, never having used a GPS, traffic, and unfamiliar territory all had to be negotiated.  Luckily it was only about half an hour to my hotel in a distant suburb of Avignon. I was a long way from the walled city, but in hindsite this was a good thing as it didn't have parking problems and it gave me space to practice.  

The next day I slept late and had a leisurly breakfast on the terrace to avoid the morning traffic and took a deep breath, programmed the GPS and set off into the hills.  First stop was Gourds.  I've been to this little town before so I had a sense of where I was as I drove the narrow winding roads.  The French have very lax ideas when it comes to driving speed and keeping to your side of the road. I kept to the speed limit and everyone just overtook me casually around hairpin turns when the mood took them.  The web page I read about driving in France talked about fines for talking on your mobile phone, but I don't think anyone here has read that page because EVERYONE was chatting away with a phone in one hand and a cigarette in the other as they drove at high speed.  Crazy!

My next stop was the Abbay Notre-Dame de Senanque.  The abbey has been in operation since the 1100's and has a small lavender farm around the buildings.  It's postcard pretty with creamy stone buildings, grey stone walls and millions of hazy purpose blossoms that scent the air deliciously.  Warm fresh lavendar is the best smell in the world and I sat among the long lines of purple with the cicadas chirping and bees that were flying from flower to flower and soaked it all in.  I couldn't stop smiling.

I decided to try for another village and set off for Fontane de Vaucluse.  Luckily the GPS gave me pretty good directions and I was more accustomed to the road.  I stopped by the side of the road a few times to photograph cypress trees in long lines and interesting vistas - this is why I got the car!

Halfway to Vaucluse I got hungry so I stopped in a little town called Dieder for luch at a roadside cafe.  The woman serving had no English and my French is poor so I pointed at an item on the salad menu and got a delicious chickpea salad drenched in tangy dressing and olive oil, served with a sardine pate on toasted baguette - yum! And the perfet meal for a hot day (it was mid 30's by this time).  A quick Noisette to end the meal and I was good to go again.

The sun blazed down as I drove along country roads.  There wasn't much traffic thankfully and the classical music on the radio was the perfect accompaniment to the day.  I arrived in Vaucluse and found a cafe where I could get an ice cream by the river and sat and cooled down until I was ready to wander the town.  I visited there last year so I didn't walk up to the waterhole, but wandered amongst the trees, enjoying the shade and the sound of rushing water.

The were still hours of daylight and I didn't want to head back to Avignon too early so I set off into the alps to see if I could find more lavender. An hour later, I came around a bend and found a field of sunflowers!  I pulled off the road immedietly, ignorning the GPS instructions to 'do a u-turn'. I wasn't missing this!

The field stretched along the road and up a slope to a house. I didn't like to step onto someone else's land so I couldn't get to the front of the flowers, but I still got some nice pics of the blaze of yellow and I was happy.  I set off again and was rewarded by a few small lavender farms with scenic backgrops.

Another hour later, I still had another 30kms to my destination and I was starting to droop so I gave up and headed back to Avignon.  I reset the GPS and turned around, hoping the return journey would be a little quicker.  It was - one turn of the wheel and I was suddenly on a tollway!  Woops - not part of the plan.  

Luckily I had read about them so I knew that I had to pick up a ticket on the way in and pay on the way out.  I followed the highway for half an hour and then got off, luckily having enough cash to mean I didn't have to use my credit card (I've read that sometimes foreign cards can be a bit tricky).  I kept off the tollways for the rest of the trip and crawled back to my hotel at 9.45pm.  It was a big day, but I'm so glad I did it - another fear faced and conquered and some nice photos to boot!

Bastille Day

The French Revolution started over breakfast.

Well actually I don't know if that's true. but if any of the revolutionaries had been in the breakfast room of our hotel this morning and seen what we saw, I suspect that it would have.

Some of us arranged to meet at 8am for breakfast so we could see off the people who were leaving before we went out to join celebrations for France's national day.  I arrived in the breakfast room at 8.05am to watch a busload of Eastern European tourists literally tearing the place apart to get breakfast.  People were taking handfulls of breadrolls and croissants at a time and filling their pockets.  Within minutes the entire breakfast bar was picked clean and there was nothing. No. food. left.

We sat down and waited and a girl bought out another basket of bread.  Same deal.  

I got some coffee and we waited again and thankfully found that most of the maurding hoards had eaten their fill, packed their picnic basket for the rest of the week and left.  We felt as though we should apologise on behalf of tourists everywhere for such a spectacle.  

Farewells to Maria and Laura - how ever will we do without you!  Suz and I went to do some laundry and then joined Carly on the walk down to the beach to see what was happening for Bastille Day.  

At first there didn't seem to be anything going on at all so we sat on the beach for an hour or two and soaked up the warm sun, cool breeze, blue, blue ocean and pebbly seats.  When our butts were numb, we walked along the esplanade until we found a  nice cafe for lunch.  It was owned by an expressive Italian who wandered between the tables greeting friends, singing and pronouncing his love for the female sex.  I shared a bowl of mussells and then had grilled salmon and veggies with a very welcome cold beer. At the end of the meal we were approached by the man who had been sitting at the next table, and American from Miami who had apparently been enjoying our conversation.  He was a big, gruff guy who was covered in tattoos and he looked like he'd be at home at a meavy metal gig but he informed us that he was in town to compete in a choral competition.  I do love the people you meet on holidays!

We wandered further down the esplanade, stopping for ice cream and again for coffee before settling in a bar with a bottle of chablis.  At 6pm we walked back to the esplanade to watch the parade of police, soldiers, sailors and other military types.  It wasn't the most exciting parade ever held, but we enjoyed it and the lady standing next to me enjoyed our enthusasism.  When we told her we were 'Australiee' (Australian), she got quite excited and clasped my hand and smiled.

After the parade, we went back to the bar and happened to order the most perfect bottle of rose ever. It was so nice, we had to order another one to check that the first one wasn't a fluke - it wasn't.  We had pizza to soak up the wine and were about to order our third bottle when the waiter said that it was time for the fireworks and that we had to leave now to see them.  We were a little reluctant but he insisted, telling us he would have more wine ready for us when we returned.

He was so right!  The fireworks were amongst the most beautiful I have ever seen.  Set off on boats out in the ocean, the display lit up the night sky with a million twinkling lights.  The soundtrack was beautiful and the gasps and cries of the audience made a fabulous accompaniment.  It was the perfect end to a fabulous day.  

At 11pm we returned to the bar where our bottle of rose was produced.  The streets were pumping and everyone was out enjoying their holiday.  Music played, people danced and chatted and we enjoyed our wine and soaked it all in. It was well after midnight before we finally set off back to the hotel.  

If you ever get the chance to spend Bastille Day in France, I can recommend Nice as the place to do it - just don't go out too early!

Wednesday, 16 July 2014


It's festival time in Avignon.

That means that everywhere you walk you will be approached by a woman in angel wings or a man in drag, or a trio of showgirls or jazz playing quartet - all entreating you to take one of their flyers and come to their evening show.  

In the afternoon things kick up a notch as they close off the Main Street of the walled city and the performers come out in force.  On every corner or spare bit of space you'll find classical guitarists, jazz bands, jugglers, pianists, trumpeters, vaudville performers, schoolgirl choirs.  Its as exciting as it is bewildering.  

Our hotel is across the Rhone river and away from the madness, but close enough to see the giant ferris wheel on the opposite bank and head into town whever we like.  It was quite warm when we arrived, but the Mistral was blowing so strongly that you didn't notice the heat and instead concentrated on keeping your possessions strapped securely and your hair out of your eyes.

We walked into town to get some lunch and took our picnic to a little park to eat in a sheltered corner.  Our picnics have become a favourite group activity.  We head out together to the supermarket and trawl the aisles looking for delicious treats.  People call out as they consider purchases: "shall we get cherries or blueberries?"  "Do you want brie or some of that washed rind?"  "OMG I just found Lindt rasberry ganash - it will go perfectly with a red, can someone pick up a bottle of pinot?"  Lunch isn't a quick snack on the run, its an epic event where everyone sits around companionably, passing cheese and baguettes and pouring bottles of wine.  Between us, we have a packet of serviettes, multipack of wine glasses, a bottle opener and knife for cheese and salami.

Next we walked down to the river to walk out onto the famous Avignon bridge.  I wrote about it on my last visit last year so I won't go into it now except to say that it was WINDY! I was very glad to be wearing trousers.  

Then we climbed up one of the towers to the gardens above. These were closed due to rain last year so I was glad to see them.  The wind was even stronger on the outer edges of the park, but reasonably sheltered once you got in among the trees. We wandered around for a bit and then made our way down the other side of the hill to the Pope's Palace where the group seperated to do our own thing.  Some of us went into the Pope's Palace (see last year's notes) before finding a cafe for a coffee and a sit down.  Then we wandered the streets and watched the street performers till it was time for dinner.  

We ate at a little sidestreet cafe and enjoyed creamy pasta with truffles.  The food was very simple, but absolutely amazing and it was the best truffle pasta I've ever had.  Finished up with Creme Brulle, and a jug of wine and we were all very happy and tired.

Avignon is a charming city and its great to be back. 

It was a bit windy!

Come to my show!


Nice and Monaco

Welcome to the Cote d'Azur.  We've arrived in Nice which is one of the citiies that circle the southern coast next to the Mediterrian. 

The beaches along the coastline are so different to those back home.  There is very little shoreline and most are made up of rocks and pebbles.  The waves don't really crash, but lap and splat against the shore.  People bring yoga mats and beach shoes so they can sit comfortably and although the sun is very hot, it doesn't have the intense bite of southern sun.  

We bid a sad farewell to Avignon this morning and hopped on a train to travel down to the coast.  The wind had dropped off and the temperature picked up - it's definitely summer now!  We arrived just before lunchtime and walked down the Main Street in search of food; ending up at a kebab shop.  

Florian had very kindly offered to share his afternoon off with us so instead of exploring Nice, we headed back to the station to jump on a train to Monaco.  I'd considered staying an extra day in Nice to go there but had decided against it so I was super excited for the chance to see this tiny principality that is so well known.  

The train only took about 20 mins to arrive and we set off into town to explore.  You need to be seriously wealthy to be able to live in Monaco proper and even the basic homes and flats are worth millions.  The streets were filled with every kind of luxury car you can imagine and everything was very cool and quiet - and very clean.  No cigarette butts in the street, no lurking cats, no flyers advertiing festival entertainment.  We walked down the hill and out into the square where the casino is located and stopped to look.  A selection of the best cars in the world were parked out the front. A selection of the most expensive stores in the world were grouped around the outside and the whole thing reeked of  privilege and wealth. We didn't actually see any of the said wealthy or privileged - they must have been inside spending their inheritance.  Everyone outside seemed to be a tourist who was looking for someone famous.

We walked down to the harbour and caught a boat to the other side and then walked around the cliffs to see the palace.  Then we caught a series of lifts to the top to look out on the view of the harbour.  It really is a spectacular city!

The group enjoyed our farewell dinner that night at a restaurant down at the harbour in Nice.  It's been a terrific tour and everyone has got along so well that we were very sad to say godbye.  We lingered as long as we could over dinner and then found a cafe for post dinner drinks where we watched Germany win the World Cup and people celebrating or commiserating in an exuberant and noisy fashion.  We wanted to stay as long as we could before we had to say goodbye but exhausion was taking hold and eventually the group broke up and we headed back to the hotel and bed.

 Casino in Monaco.

Monaco harbour.

 Nice beaches.

Pont du Gard

I'm sitting with some of our group by the banks of the Gardon River.  The sun is high overhead and would be hot except for the cool breeze that is drifting up from the water. Everyone is sitting around in various stages of post picnic gluttony and we're not planning on going anywhere for awhile.

Our guide Florian is on his phone, reading out the menu for the restaruant we are going to be eating at tonight and while we are so full we really can't move, everyone is showing a surprising amount of interest in the food options.

Away on our right, the massive Roman built Pont du Gard bridge is watching down on everyone enjoying their Saturday afternoon, just as it has done every day for the past two thousand years.

Today we had a free morning to do some shopping in Avignon and then we caught a local bus down to the park for a Saturday chill out.  This is a popular weekend hangout and in addition to the loads of tourists who visit, there are plenty of locals swimming, canoeing and relaxing in the cool water. We really are somewhere special!

The bridge is the most beautiful buttery stone and is the perfect compliment to the deep blue sky.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Food glorious food!

Today has been all about food and wine.

We caught a train to Beaune, which is about half an hour out of Dijon to have a wine tasting and lunch.  The Bouchard winery has been a family concern for hundreds of years and was only sold to a bigger company a few decades ago.  They have several hundred properties througout the region and their wine is all categrorised by the type of wine, region, town, family and (if it's really good) plot of soil. We started down in the cave, which keeps a moist, humid and consistent temperature for the thousands of bottles of wine that are stored there.  In addition to the stock they store to age, this particular cave had a 'library' of wines going back to the 1800's where they have kept a selection of each vintage.  Every few years they take a vintage upstairs, taste and then recork the wine so that it stays good.  Wouldn't you love to have the job where you have to taste hundreds of years old wine!

After the tour we had a little tasting, trying out three red and then three white wines.  The reds from this region are all Pinot Noir and the whites are all Chablis - just with different blends and flavours. 

Our next stop was a chance to tick something off our bucket lists - we had lunch at a Michelin starred restaurant - L'epicerie & Cie.

We ordered from a selection of set menus and I had snails in a sort of pesto garlic sauce, rack of lamb with a sauce from heaven and potato stack, some local cheese with a spicy salad, and a molten chocolate cake with homemade vanilla icecream.  It sounds simple to write it here, but each course was just an experience in taste and texture.  It was seriously one of the best meals I've ever had and I enjoyed every bite.

We started lunch at 12.30 and at 3.30pm, we rolled out of the restaurant and started a slow walk into the centre of town.  We visited a hospital museum which was established in the 1700's by some wealthy patrons to provide medical services to the poor, but everyone was so full of rich food and wine that we didn't really do the poor thing justice.  We declined the offer of an extra walk around town and set off on the half hour walk to the train station.  It was a bit of hard going, but it helped to shake the lunch down a bit.  Once on the train everyone fell into a food coma until we had to get off at Dijon.  Once back at the hotel, everyone went to their rooms for a much needed nap.  I crashed out on the bed and was asleep in minutes, only waking up when I got cold about an hour later.

No one wanted any dinner, but we'd arranged to meet in the hotel foyer to head out for a drink at 8am.  I went down at the alloted time with the full intention of saying I wasn't coming out, but somehow got convinced and the next thing I knew we were in a quirky little pub drinking Chablis in the basement to the accompaniment of Melody Gardot's crooning tunes.  Several glasses of wine and lots of chat and laugh later, we crawled back to the hotel and crashed out. 


Heavenly St Sabine

Hooray for late check-out and the chance to have a little sleep-in!

After about 15 hours since our epic lunch event, I was finally ready to eat something again and had a nice breakfast of baguette with ham and cheese, coffee, and a croissant with honey.  We set out for the farmers markets to pick up some items for a picnic lunch and came back with bags full of soft cheese, salami, cherries, strawberries and baguettes.

We were travelling to our next destination by car, so we flung all our bags in the back and set off out of town.  The heat of a few days ago was long gone and the rain was streaming down, making the roads slick and shiny.  The mist hung low over the hills and it was hard to see too far ahead of us until we rounded a corner and found ourselves at our destination - the chateau of St Sabiine.  

Oh. My. Goodness.  This place is just sublime!  Nestled neatly off the side of the road, the 8 hectare block boasts several beautiful creamy white buildings leading down to a little lake.  My room has 15 foot ceilings, its own fireplace, and a separate toilet and bathroom that has the most luscious shower EVER.

We had planned a picnic in the grounds of the chateau, but there was too much rain so everyone came back to my room and we spread out out goodies on the table and enjoyed our picnic.  The strawberries and cherries we'd bought at the market that morning were probably among the best I've ever tasted and while everything was very simple, we had an excellent meal.

The rain was still misting and hazing its way down an hour later when we set off on a walk to another village about and hour and a half away. The temperature had dropped quite a bit, but the humidity was still high and I could feel it choking up my chest.  I was fine to walk for the first hour but when we got to the bottom of the big hill up to the village, I decided not to make the climb and went for a walk on my own.  

The rain was starting to clear and I walked down to the river and up to a lock to look at the scenery and as soon as the rain stopped, I pulled out my camera and started snapping.  It was absolutely beautiful  walking along country roads with wheat fields on one side and sodden green trees and bushes on the other.  Swallows swooped and sang overhead and other than the occasional car passing me by, there wasn't a soul around.

I had a little chat to some cows in a field, but obviously my French wasn't up to scratch as they didn't seem to be too interested in what I was saying.  

Once I returned to the village, I walked around the church and through the streets and then did a big walk around the grounds of the Chateau, looking up from the lake to the house.  I ended the afternoon with a glass of champagne in the bar, looking out onto the garden.

We had an official group dinner in the restaurant (which also had a Michelin star) so we got as dressed up as our limited wardrobe allowed and met up for pre dinner drinks in the bar.  Everyone had a wonderful night and even though we had an early start, we went into the salon after dinner for more drinks and chatter until exhaustion finally sent us off to bed.  

Tomorrow we head further south to Avignon.    

The memory card I took my photos of the chateau won't read on my ipad, so Ths is all I can show. This is of the village we walked to.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Last walk in Paris

Today was the first day of the tour proper and our last day in Paris.  We started off with a three hour walking tour of Paris, taking the metro a few stops down the line and then heading out on foot.  It was peak hour and as we walked into the Metro, our guide - Florian - told us to split up between carriages and jump on.  A train arrived in the station and every carriage was full to bursting, with people pressed against the windows and doors.  We looked at it and stepped back, realising that there was no way we could get on. 

Five minutes later, another train came along - almost as full.  The doors opened and a few people got off, leaving a little space for the group.  People started to cram in around the already full complement of people.  I held back a bit because I wanted all the people who hadn't travelled the metro in Paris could be sure to be on the train - and it was a good thing I did because suddenly the doors started to close and people had to hastily pull in arms and legs to not be crushed as they closed.  I called out that I'd meet them there and stepped back on the platform.

Four minutes later another train came and it was so full that there was no way I could get on.  Then four minutes later, another completely full train came through.  I decided that the next one would be THE ONE and sent Florian a text to say I'd be on the train.  I got up close to the doors on the side so I could slip in as soon as someone got out, but when the train came, there was just no way to get on board! Then another train - and another fail.

Time was ticking by at this stage and while I wasn't worried about missing the group because I knew where I was and how to get around, I was worried that I was holding them up.  I started tapping out a text message to tell them to go ahead without me and was just about to send it when a train arrived that was only 3/4 full and suddenly I had a seat!

After we all met up again, we headed out on foot to explore Paris and over three hours, we walked through many of the major highlights, looking at the city buildings, the Louve, Notre Dame and the Opera House.  It was a great way for everyone in the group to get to know one another as wandered around some of the most spectacular sights that Paris can offer, chatting about where we were from and our travel experiences.  By the time we stopped for coffee, we had bonded and everyone was having a great time.

We had the afternoon free, so I hooked up with two of the other girls and we did some female bonding (shopping) and then caught a metro to Montmarte.  We found a little local cafe for lunch and took the funicular up the hillside to Sacre Coure and wanded around the little backstreets.  We ended the day in a big pastry shop for coffee and cakes and sat at a big picture window and watched the world go by.  We saw a young stud having an emphatic conversation on his mobile phone (I provided commentary about what he was saying), a few mothers with their kids in prams, a lady who spent ten mins locking up her bike for a 2 min shopping purchase before repeating the process to unlock, and a transexual striding down the street in a short skirt and heels.  We also watched some models arrive for Fashion Week and go into their accommodation.  They were all very glamerous and beautiful, striding along on impossibly high heels while their assistants pulled their luggage for them. It was all very entertaining.

That night we had another riotious group dinner before some of us headed off for post dinner drinks in a local bar.  Everyone is starting to remember people's names and histories, so the conversation is kind of rushing along and everyone is enjoying eachother's company.  Tomorrow we head out of Paris to Dijon.

 Notre Dame.


Touring days

Sunday was my last day on my own in Paris as I was due to pick up my tour in the afternoon.  It was raining when I got up and quite chilly so I checked out of the hotel and shouted myself a cab to the next hotel to leave my bags before heading out into the rain.

A friend from Australia was flying into Paris for a conference so we met up for lunch near the Louve and had a little wander around the area before the rain started again.  It was seriously pelting down so we did the only sensible thing you could do and headed back to her apartment to drink wine and chat the afternoon away.  Such fun.

Late that afternoon I headed back to the hotel for the group meet-up and welcome dinner.  There are nine of us and our tour leader and everyone seems really nice.  We walked down the street for a lovely dinner in a local restaurant and I suddenly remembered why I had been living on sandwiches and snacks for the past few days - Intrepid tour people love their food and always know the good restaurants.  Three course meals with accompanying wine are a pretty common event.  Bring it on I say!

It's going to be a good tour.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014


We had a 9am departure this morning and after our issues with the metro yesterday there was a unanimous decision to get a taxi to the train station rather than have to try and get on a crowded train with suitcases and backpacks.  

After a restorative coffee at the station we boarded our train and sped south to Dijon, which is in the Burgendy region.  After the hustle and bustle of Paris, Dijon is a welcome change of pace and it's a really charming town.  

We left our bags at the hotel and set out on foot for an orientation walk and some lunch.  It's pretty easy to get your bearings and the town is full of charming buildings of cream or grey stone with distinctive roofs of multicoloured tiles in patterns.  We stopped at the famous owl sculpture (it's good luck to pat it and make a wish) and walked around the farmers market, vowing to come back to buy some goodies very soon.

For lunch we had a gallette (savoury crepe) and then we scattered for a free afternoon to explore. We wandered further towards the residential end of town, looking at charming curved streets and window boxes of red geraniums before stumbling on an Australian bar called the Byron Bay bar.  It was closed, but the menu of beer cocktails wasn't promising anyway.

It's become our custom to end the afternoon in a patisserie with coffee and cake, and we'd already staked out several contentors for the title and chosen our favourite.  I finally found the ideal place for a chocolate eclair and it was the perfect accompaniment to a bitter noisette (espresso with a little milk).

We had dinner in a fabulous restaurant that had a giant underground space decorated with lots of interesting objects and then wandered down to the supermarket to pick up some wine, pretzels and chocolates. The whole group ended up sitting in a park near the hotel, pouring wine, passing around snacks and laughing and talking.  

I'm sure that all this wine is taking its toll somewhere, but right now it's just so nice that I have no intention of stopping! A little more sleep would be nice though :-)

Sitting in the park.

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