Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Dancing and Drinking

You would think that we drank before we danced.

But no, we returned to Avignon on Tuesday, to tour the bridge made famous in song, Pont Saint-Bénezet, better known as La Pont d'Avignon, before we continued up the Rhône region and into one of my favourite French-wine areas.

And what do you do when you're on the bridge? You do something that people in Medieval times probably never did: you dance.

The legend of the bridge is that in the 12th century, a shepherd named Bénezet was commanded by God to build a bridge across the Rhône River. When he tried to convince officials in Avignon that he was on a divine mission, the authorities demanded that he prove he was doing the work of God by lifting a massive stone, which Bénezet handily achieved. Support was granted for the bridge and in 1185 the nearly one-kilometre expanse was completed.

Upon Bénezet's death, a chapel was erected close to the town's gate and the shepherd was interred within.

Through conflict and especially by the force of the Rhône, much of the bridge has disappeared: only four arches and the remains of the chapel exist.

Lori and I were gung-ho for dancing on the bridge, as were a few other tourists. But as soon as we set up Lori's camera, the kids moved as far away from us as they could, back toward the city walls.

Their loss.

Afterward, we ate a simple lunch of crepes in a narrow street between the bridge and the plaza in front of the Papal Palace, before getting back on the road and driving to Gigondas, about 40 minutes north-east of Avignon.

This hillside town is beautiful: old stone houses with terra-cotta-tiled rooves reminded me of Tuscany. The endless fields of vineyards helped reinforce that memory, though the hillscape itself was distinctly different, with craggy rocks jutting from the ridges like crooked teeth.

It was gorgeous.

We parked the car near the centre of this tiny town and headed straight to Caveau de Gigondas, a wine collective of dozens of domains, offering hundreds of wines. You are free to sample from an extensive list of available bottles, and Lori and I did our best.

We tasted about a dozen different wines (by taste, I mean at most, a sip for me; never more than a mouthful). We made notes, compared our findings, and settled on 10 bottles. I love the rich flavours of the Grenache and Syrah grapes, the full body that these wines offer.

Most of the wines that we bought are drinking wonderfully now; some will improve with age. That's fine: we're in no rush. Keeping these bottles will prolong the memory of our trip.

We returned to our farmhouse and joined our friends, who had a relaxing day on their own. We dined and enjoyed one of the bottles that we bought, settled in for a night with good company, made plans for the remaining two days.

Tomorrow, we decided, we would explore Aix-en-Provence and the mountain that inspired Paul Cézanne.

Monday, September 29, 2014

From Van Gogh Haunts to Papal Palaces

For our last week in France, my family and I rented a farmhouse with some friends on the northern outskirts of Salon-de-Provence, just south-east of Eyguières, off the D17, and along the Ancien Canal de Boigeslin. The access road was rough—pot-holed and hard on suspension—but once you passed a sluice gate, the dirt road would calm down, and you were less than 200 metres from your destination.

The farmhouse was a large complex with many living spaces. Two sections were created into guest houses, each with their own private entrances. In the centre, the owners occupied the lion's share of the complex. Though the houses were all part of a single unit, you wouldn't know you had neighbours unless you happened to run into them in the shared pool—which we never did.

Horses wandered the pasture closest to our end of the building: gentle and quiet, with hoods over their heads, presumably to protect them from the ravages of flying insects. Their tails swished in irritation from the pests, though from the patio and pool area, we were never bothered.

For six nights, this remote paradise was our base from which to explore Provence. We had a long list of things we wanted to accomplish, but more than anything, we wanted to spend time with our friends.

For the first full day, a Sunday, we wanted to relax. One of our daughters fell ill, and spent most of the day in bed. And because we had spent such a long Saturday in the car, from the Dordogne to Provence, via Carcassonne, that we had a very lazy and leisurely morning with our friends. We ate a wonderful breakfast, caught up on news (thank goodness for WiFi!), and listened to music, while chatting with our friends.

The only plan we made for this beautiful Sunday was to head to a car-rental agency, in Aix-en-Provence, to add my name to our friends' vehicle. Their car, a Citroën C4 Picasso, had three rows of seats and fit seven people, and was perfect for all of us to travel in. But because neither of them likes to drive—and I love to be behind the wheel—I was to be our designated driver.

We learned, on our way back from the Aix train station, that the GPS was unreliable: it was out of date and many roadways that we took were new. But on the bright side, we got to see many things along the back roads between Aix and Salon, and we didn't care because we were in Provence with great friends!

Luckily, whatever had afflicted our daughter on Sunday had passed by Monday, and we were able to explore some planned destinations. Our friends wanted to see the yellow café in Arles, made famous in the works of Vincent van Gogh. Though the house where Van Gogh lived during this period was destroyed, the café, now called the Café Van Gogh, remains. Needless to say, we weren't the only tourists that crowded around the front of it, but we did not dine there—the cost of a light lunch outstripped our dinner budget.

While the neighbourhood around this landmark was quaint, I was also interested in finding the remnants from the Roman period: the amphitheatre and the coliseum. Not as impressive as the real deal in Rome, but a must-see stop in Arles.

One of the highlights of our visit to this ancient Provencal town was the small café where we found lunch. The six of us dined on a platter of cheeses and breads, and some enjoyed a bowl of fresh lentil soup, while others, including myself, had a dish of a cucumber salad that ate more like tzatziki. But the best part was washing it down with the best French beer I have ever had.

An IPA, Sulauze, was aromatic with lots of bitter hops and ripe grapefruit. It was my kind of beer. I looked for it later in stores but sadly never had it again, which makes me want it all the more to this day.

We wandered around the coliseum, took lots of photos of the surrounding buildings and then made our way back to the car.

We had another town to see.

Less than an hour north of Arles is the old papal town of Avignon. From 1309 to 1377, the papacy moved from Rome to the walled city Avignon. During this time, this Provencal town saw seven popes rule the Catholic Church: two antipopes also resided in Avignon after the papacy returned to Rome. Today, the Papal Palace is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that attracts huge numbers of tourists.

We parked outside the walled part of the city in one of the free parking lots that offers a free shuttle service through the old town. We made our way to the tourist office, where we purchased tickets to the palace, including admission to the evening sound-and-light show and to the Pont Saint-Bénezet. The tickets were good for two days, so we decided that we would see the Papal Palace and light-and-sound show today (which was followed by fireworks over the Rhône River) and we would reserve the bridge (aka, Le Pont d'Avignon) for the next day, when we would stop on our way up the Rhône, into wine country.

The palace was interesting, with its audioguided tour, but I found it similar to the tour we took in the abbey at Mont-St-Michel, and I found the English guide spoke far longer than I needed for each room that I visited. I found myself leaving one room before the narration for that room was finished; by the time I reached the next room, it was time to start the next talk.

Because I also stopped to take photographs in some rooms, including the photo that I used for last Friday's photo post, I fell behind my family and friends, and soon lost them. And, I discovered, to my loss. At a juncture towards the end of the tour, I had the choice to head upstairs, towards a café, or downstairs, towards the exit. I chose the latter.

I caught up with one daughter, who had also fallen behind, and together, we left the palace. Only, no one from our party was there. We waited for what seemed a long time, and when I saw Lori emerge from another exit, I learned that everyone had climbed up, past the café and onto a terrace, from which they witnessed a spectacular sunset.

I was disappointed, but as the light was still fading, I found another vantage from which I could see the sun sink.

We milled about the outer plaza and shot more photos, and then queued up to re-enter the palace for the sound-and-light show.

Held in a large inner courtyard, the story of Avignon was told in dramatic fashion on four walls. There was no English translation and I got lost in the story, but the visual display was stunning.

As soon as the show finished, we returned to the place where I captured sunset photos, and we watched the fireworks over the Pont Saint-Bénezet, before walking back to the car and returning to our welcoming farmhouse.

The tale continues tomorrow.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Photo Friday: Washed by Light

It had to happen eventually.

I'm still going through the photos that I shot while in France. There are hundreds—almost 1,200 to go through. I've been editing them as I've been blogging about my family vacation, but I've run into a snag.

My backup hard drive is full.

I've been adding photos to this drive since I bought my D-SLR, more than five years ago. And now it's full.

It's time to get more storage space: I upload to the cloud but I also like having a drive that doesn't rely on the Internet. So I'll have to go shopping this weekend, so that I can continue telling the story of my vacation, with images.

Thank you to everyone who has sent me kind words, who has followed my journey and told me to keep telling it.

For Photo Friday, I am putting up the last photo that I edited before I ran out of storage space. I edited this photo, first in colour, then in black and white. I wasn't sure which photo I preferred, so I put it out to my Twitter friends.

The majority liked the colour version, but I decided that the black-and-white image is, ironically, more vivid.

I won't tell you where I was when I shot this photo: we haven't come to it yet in my recounting. But it was shot as the sun was setting across this famous city, cutting into a hall, through stain-glassed windows, and the light seemed to be splintered as it washed over everything in the room.

I'll reveal the location next week.

Happy Friday!

Thursday, September 25, 2014

France Road Trip: Day Eight

We knew that this would be a challenging day: and we were right.

We knew that the trip from Beynac to our ultimate destination—a farmhouse on the northern outskirts of Salon-de-Provence—was going to take a huge chunk of our day, but we didn't know it was going to take as long as it ultimately did.

We knew that our kids would be pushed to the limits as far as being stuck in a small Renault Captur with food and backpacks stuffed around their feet.

And yet, we really wanted to try to drive to Carcassonne and reach the ancient fortified town in time for lunch, to see the fortress, and then to high-tail it and reach our villa/farmhouse in time to have dinner with our friends, who were coming from Germany and spending six days with us.

According to Google, the journey to Carcassonne was just over three hours; in reality, it took about five. The highways were packed (with a high number of insane drivers—drivers until then were respectful of the rules of the road), and getting through the numerous toll stations could take about five to 10 minutes, each. We had left Le Capeyrou campground shortly after 9; it was past 2 by the time we parked near Carcassonne's Palais de Justice.

And about three hours into our journey, the kids wanted out of the car.

We would stop for bathroom breaks only when it was absolutely necessary, but we realized the trip was taking longer and we tried to go as fast as we could (speed limits on the autoroute varied between 110-130 kph: I drove between 120-145).

With the old city on the horizon, the kids were well past their limit. They irritated each other easily, they yelled, they kicked, they cried. I couldn't blame them: I knew they were tired and hungry, but there was nothing we could do.

As we approached the city centre, all I could do was follow signs and look for a place to park without losing my cool. A beer was going to need to go with lunch.

We parked, Lori and one of our daughters got out of the car, but the other daughter refused to go anywhere. "I'm not getting out," she cried.

"You've been screaming to get out for hours," I said. She had hit her limit. There was no moving her.

I instructed Lori and the other daughter to find some food for themselves and come back to the car as soon as possible. I would wait in the car with our distraught child. I opened the windows to allow a cool breeze to freshen the stale interior air, found a local radio station that was playing pop hits, turned it low, and sat quietly.

"I hope you change your mind," I said, "but I'm here for you."

No response.

And so we sat there, watching the locals pass by, other drivers looking for a place to park, and the pigeons searching for food.

Nearly 20 minutes passed, and I could hear my daughter breathing easily. She had calmed somewhat. "You hungry?" I asked in a soft voice.

"No." The answer was short, but not angry. Her mood was changing.

Five minutes later, I asked, "How are you doing, sweetie? Wouldn't you like to get out and stretch your legs, find something to eat, before we get on the road again?" Google said it was two-and-a-half hours to Salon-de-Provence. I didn't believe it.

"We don't know where Mom went."

"We can find something close by."

A few minutes later, Lori and the other girl returned. "We found a great pizza place, not far away. What do you say?"

I turned to face the girl in the back seat. I gave her my Dad loves you look, and she smiled, nodded.

The pizza place, about two blocks away in a large plaza, made awesome artisan pies. Everyone found something they liked. The beer, craft-brewed, was delicious. Just what I needed.

By the time lunch was finished, we had no time to actually tour Carcassonne. We had time to duck into a neighbouring Carrefour, to pick up energy food and drink for the rest of our drive, and to arrange a meetup for the villa/farmhouse cleaning lady, who had keys for our friends, who would be arriving hours ahead of us.

Lori and our daughter who had the meltdown switched places in the car. The mood changed entirely.

The only view of the fortress was from behind the steering wheel, as I drove out of town. No one had a camera in hand: there was nowhere on the road where I could pull over.

The road through Montpellier was under construction, and the main toll road was seriously under-maintained for the amount of traffic. We reached this city by rush hour, and for 20 minutes, in a place where many lanes converged into few, we moved no where. I turned off the engine, opened the windows.

We called our friends to tell them to eat without us. We weren't expecting to reach our destination before 7:00.

It was almost 8:00 by the time we reached the farmhouse.

But the reunion, the food and wine that awaited us, and the beds—actual beds—made the long journey worthwhile.

The first three photos were shot the morning after we arrived. Looking away from the house, at sunset, this was our view.
The road trip, as it were, was at an end. For the rest of the trip, we could unpack and make ourselves at home. Salon-de-Provence, the home of Nostradamus during his final years, was our base for the next six evenings.

The trip continues...

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

France Road Trip: Day Five, Six, and Seven

Who would have thought that prehistoric France would win my heart.

I mean, I've always loved the age of dinosaurs, but early man never grabbed my attention: they dragged their knuckles on the ground, grunted at women, and drew on cave walls.

Okay, that's not exactly true, and some men still grunt at women, but it wasn't until I saw the artwork of 17,000 years ago that I really gave our ancestors my attention.

On day five of our France road trip, a Wednesday, we packed up our camp in Amboise and headed further south, to the Dordogne Region. It's due east of Bordeaux (no, we didn't visit this famous wine region) toward the centre of France. The hills roll, the roads wind, and the forests are densely packed. This region saw the lines between the English and the French move back and forth over the Hundred Years War.

And today, in this very region, you still find a very strong English presence, in the form of tourists.

As we approached this region, Lori once again called ahead to a campsite to reserve a spot. Unfortunately, our first choice, in Beynac-et-Cazenac, was booked for Wednesday night, but we were able to reserve a space at the campground for Thursday and Friday—which we promptly did.

For Wednesday night, we aimed for another promising site in the town of Montignac, along the Vézère River. While Beynac was more central for the three days we planned to be in the region, Montignac was closer to one of the top sites we planned to see. And as we learned when we arrived at the tourist office, tickets to this site sold out quickly, and they went on sale at 9:00 the next morning.

Camping in Montignac, as it worked out, was the better spot for our first night.

We found a place at a privately owned campground, Camping Moulin Du Bleufond, right in the heart of the town, a few minutes' walk from the tourist office and along La Vézère. The campground offers free WiFi, which was good, though I could only connect when I was close to the main office. Fortunately, their private pool was close to the main office, so I managed to check in and touch base while the kids basked in the cool water.

The campground also offered entertainment later in the evening, with a DJ/singer—a couple played what seemed like an elaborate karaoke machine with a keyboard. They played popular 70s and 80s songs while the man played the keyboard and he and his lady partner sang to the crowd, who danced under an open tent.

Lori and I danced a little, while the kids watched with dismay. But when The Macarena started, that was my cue to leave.

Before the festivities started, we packed a picnic dinner and headed to the banks of the Vézère. A simple meal of salami, cheese, tomato, and roquette, on a fresh baguette that we picked up en route, earlier in the afternoon. The lights of the town, with the light of the dying sun, and the soft gurgle of the river, made for an excellent summer dinner. Despite the river rats darting between the rocks.

Early in the morning, while Lori and our eldest walked into town to wait in line for tickets to our first prehistoric site, the Lascaux Caves (the line formed as early as an hour before sales started), our youngest and I packed up our camp site and checked out (and at 28 € for one night, it was the most-expensive campground of our trip). We parked near the banks where we dined the previous night and searched for the rest of our family. A quick coffee and pain au chocolat, and we were on our way.

Of course, these are not the original Lascaux Caves, which were discovered accidentally in 1940 by some teenage boys who were looking for a lost dog. When they found that the dog had fallen into a crevasse and was stuck, they returned with some rope and flashlights to retrieve the trapped animal. It was then that they saw the Paleolithic drawings on the walls. Fascinated by their finding, they decided to keep it a secret.

The secret lasted only a couple of days, when they started sharing the news with friends. A school teacher overheard them and had them show him the site. The rest is history.

Over time, the original caves, which were dated to more than 17,000 years old and had been untouched until the 1940 discovery, had to be closed because of changes to the environment, caused by heat and exposure to thousands of visitors. The original caves were sealed to the public and a replica of a part of the caves was meticulously constructed. Our guide said the variance in the Lascaux II Caves is 0.5 mm. That's precise.

Because photography was prohibited, it's a sight that you have to see for yourself to believe. Even if cameras were allowed, I doubt that they could capture the essence of the artwork. The detail of the horses, deer, bulls: the perspective, the shading, the use of the surface of the wall to work with the detail of the animals. These artists were of an intelligence that I would have never imagined from that far back in history. I was in awe.

Over the days, we visited other prehistoric sites, such as La Roque Saint-Christophe, a village that was set high in the limestone cliffs along the Vézère. It was occupied from the prehistoric Troglodytic era through to the Medieval Ages. What was so fascinating about these cliff-side villages was that throughout the Dordogne, we saw evidence of similar sites.

For the second and third night of our stay in this region, we moved to Beynac, where we camped at Le Capeyrou, a comfortable campground along the Dordogne River. Beynac was the site of some heavy fighting during the Hundred Years War, and the castle that sits high above the river was occupied by both the French and the English.

For us, it was just above our camp site. From where we pitched our tent, this was our view:

They also had a lovely view from their pool.

One of the highlights of the Dordogne, if not of the whole trip, was the afternoon where we paddled the river from Cénac-et-Saint-Julien, some 10 kilometres upstream, past La Roque-Gageac, and back to our campground. A bus picked us up at our campground and drove us to Cénac, where each of our girls took a kayak, Lori and I took a canoe, and we followed the current back. We dropped our boats off to a waiting truck and we walked back to our tent.


The views along the Dordogne were breathtaking, and tomorrow, for Wordless Wednesday, I'll share photos from that journey.

While I had a great time exploring this fascinating region, visiting prehistoric sites and museums, driving the winding roads through beautiful towns, eating fabulous meals and drinking unforgettable wines, on our last night, as we sat in a restaurant below the castle, I had to gently break some news to my family: something that I felt I should be upfront about, should not hold back.

This final night in Beynac was to be my final--ever--night of camping. While we had stayed in some beautiful locations, I never enjoyed a single, solid night of restful sleep. I would be uncomfortable, would wake at the slightest sounds, and my body would be sore, my muscles stiff.

I had said these words before but had been talked into camping again. But no more. I was finished with camping. And I wanted them to respect my decision.

The next day, when we took down our tent for the last time, I knew I would never sleep in it again. From that time onward, it was a proper bed for me.

Our next destination: Carcassonne, in south-western France, and then on to Provence.

Stay tuned.