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L'Isle sur la Sorgue

A New Year in Provence

sunny 14 °C

This little town is known for its antique markets although these were not on during this holiday weekend. Our accommodation for the following four nights was a well appointed and comfortable two bedroom apartment above a shop in the centre of town. The shop (a boutique clothing store) and flats above are owned by a Danish / Swedish couple and both the interior design and technological sophistication of the kitchen and bathroom appliances were of a high standard. The layout was a very Scandinavian take on the Provençal style in that, as well as looking good, it all actually worked. I felt sure that I could probably communicate with the oven from my iPad given a little more time but we had to get ready for a New Year's Eve dinner booking that the owner had made for us at a nearby restaurant. 

The Saint Sylvestre's Day dinner was a seven course arrangement that went from about 8:30 until after the "dix, neuf, huit, ..." countdown. We started with champagne and feuilletés (pastry encrusted small things) and worked our way through courses based on foie gras, fish and guinea fowl. Each of these was beautiful and we were getting fairly full but a fifth course based on a large piece of brie flavoured with truffles just about drove us over the edge. I was beginning to feel like the exploding man from that old Monty Python skit but we also managed a dramatic chocolate based dessert, some champagne for the countdown and some coffee with mignardises (small sweet things). Accompanied by a couple of bottles of red wine, this was all quite a project for the three of us. It was, however, a very civilized way to see in 2012 and we engaged in a solid round of "bonne années" and noise making with nearby diners (including a small white dog) after midnight. 

After a late start on New Year's Day, we drove to Fontaine de Vaucluse which is the underground system of springs that feeds the Vaucluse River that joins the Rhône at Avignon.  The limestone dominated landscape was very spectacular and the waters and village were both very pretty. We walked up to the Fontaine itself which is a 300 metre deep hole that is the source of the water. After exploring this for a while, we headed in another direction where we met a French farmer who showed us a pathway to some castle ruins at the top of the cliff. He ended up having quite a chat to us and walks this area when he feels the need. He said that it had been dry and that the level of the springs was the lowest he had seen after many years of visits. He also told us about the Mistral, the geology of the area, the impact of Australian lamb imports on local shepherds, the archbishop who lived in the castle in the 14th century, climate change, and a few other things. He was a very knowledgeable and helpful chap who then went on his way up another path.

Retrieving the Renault from the tightly packed car park was an entertaining experience after which we drove to the Abbaye de Sénanque which is a working Cistercian monastery in a very picturesque setting in fields of lavender. The inside was interesting but very cold and I do hope the monks wear decent thermals when doing their contemplative activity through these winter months. Although Frances was getting a bit sick of our "obsession with religious places", we enjoyed the visit and drove on to the pretty hilltop village of Gordes to have a walk around it before nightfall. The colours of the skies and general landscape here are very pretty and the sunset as we drove home did not disappoint. It is easy to see why "the masters" came to this area for inspiration with their painting. 

Planning for the next day's drive involved mapping out a bit of a "Roman ruins" trail. Fran felt that this would be better than "more church things" and as this was to be her last full day with us for this trip, she was choosing the destinations.

Posted by Neil-Sonia 19:02 Archived in France Comments (0)


Sur le pont ... et les autres lieux

sunny 11 °C

The TGV trip down from Paris took 2 hours 40 minutes and, as we travelled closer to Avignon, we could see the start of the Alps with some snow on the mountains in the distance to the east. After taking a shuttle bus from the train station to the historic city centre, we encountered the famous wind from those mountains which is known as "the Mistral". It was freezing but we eventually found our way through the narrow streets to our hotel near to the ramparts beside the Rhone river. 

After a short wander around the old city centre before dark, we had our first Provençal dining experience. This was quite different from our previous regional meals in Bourgogne with a definite Mediterranean influence across the menu selections. The wines are also probably a little more familiar to Australian palates with the inclusion of Syrah (Shiraz) in the Côte du Rhone reds. I've been doing as much voluntary work as possible for the Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée people and everything seems in order.

The following day, we went "sur le pont ..." and also spent quite a long time visiting the Palais des Papes which dates from the times when the men in charge of the Roman Catholic church used to wield their power from Avignon. It would seem that they lived like royalty, immersed themselves in arcane theological matters and generally lived well away from the smell of the common man ... not a lot seems to have changed in relation to the way these guys conduct themselves. With regard to "le pont", it was constructed earlier than the palace based on advice received from angels by a local shepherd boy (Saint Bénézet) who proved his divine powers by miraculously lifting a really big rock. It's quite amazing what can result from a touch of schizophrenia and/or some form of medieval substance abuse.

In the evening, we dined at a locally recommended place named Au Tout Petit. It's the kind of name that you would give an imaginary French restaurant in a language lesson but it was actually a very good little establishment.

After packing up, picking up the hire car and checking out, we drove on to our next stop to spend New Year's Eve in a pretty little town called L'Isle sur La Sorgue.

Posted by Neil-Sonia 09:25 Archived in France Comments (0)

Plus de Paris

After Christmas

overcast 2 °C

Christmas Day was clear and crisp and around mid-morning, we hired Velibs and rode along the Canal St Martin to a park named Buttes Chaumont. This has a high point from which there are good views of some famous Paris landmarks such as Sacre Cœur at Montmartre and the Eiffel Tower. I'd heard that one of the shortcomings of the bike hire scheme here is that the racks at the top of hills are often fairly empty due to people's preference for downhill riding. This proved to be the case when we went looking for bikes for the return journey and we walked a good deal of the way back to the apartment before finding the three that we needed. It was quite surprising to see that there were a fair number of boulangeries and grocery stores open on Christmas Day as we walked through the Belleville area.

For Christmas dinner, we had quail, red cabbage, and vegetables whilst working our way through a wine list that included Champagne, some Reisling from Alsace and a couple of fine offerings from Bourgogne and the Loire Valley. After all of this, we didn't venture out again on Christmas evening. 

During our remaining days in Paris, we went to Pere Lachaise cemetery (again in my case ... I was able to be the tour guide); did some more shopping; visited the Georges Pompidou Centre which is an interesting "inside-out" building with very good collections of contemporary art; had some good lunches and dinners; and did some more shopping.

On the 27th, Frances took the train to London to meet up with a friend and have a quick look around. Sonia and I went up to Montmartre for another look at this area, tried to get frostbite again riding bicycles, wandered around Le Marais again and went to the Salon Rouge cinema in the afternoon. We watched a beautiful Belgian-French animation named LeTableau. Although the audio was difficult to follow exactly, we understood it and appreciated the artwork and sentiment of the film. We had really enjoyed a French animation written by Jacques Tati called The Illusionist that showed when the Traveling Sydney Film Festival spent a weekend in Toowoomba and this had a similar feel to it.

In the evening, we dined at a good Tibetan restaurant in the 3rd Arrondissement. It was good to get reacquainted with some stir-fried vegetables after having quite a lot of French dishes. The following day, we cycled down Canal St Martin to a former industrial area called La Villette that has undergone some urban renewal. Although it was very cold, we appreciated the design of the park areas which reminded us of the clever, arts-focused renewal projects that had occurred around the old harbour area in Bristol.

After lunch at a Moroccan restaurant, we did some final Paris shopping at a number of places including L'Artisan Parfumeur (a man who makes and sells perfumes ... as well as flattering you using English in the French accent you would expect and presenting himself in a perfectly matching lilac outfit), and Aesop (a Melbourne company that sells beauty and skin-care products and has opened a few shops in Paris in a "selling coals to Newcastle" exercise).

Fran returns tonight and in the morning, we take the train to Avignon.

Posted by Neil-Sonia 13:40 Archived in France Comments (0)

Christmas in Paris

Joyeux Noël

semi-overcast 6 °C

We have had a succession of busy days trying to work our way through the "to do" lists.  We have managed to:

- breakfast in some wonderful nearby cafés that were recommended to Fran by a work colleague;

- visit Shakespeare and Co, the famous English language bookshop on the left bank which seems to have been the prototype for the kind of ramshackle and atmospheric independent bookstores that are found in places like Melbourne;

- lunch in a variety of good cafés, always with a pichet of decent red wine;

- spend an incredible amount of time shopping in the Marais and Palais Royal areas without actually buying anything (this applies mostly to Frances and Sonia - I felt a great sense of relief when Fran eventually made a couple of purchases after several hours);

- visit the Palace of Versailles which was magnificent in a completely over the top kind of way. The weather was very rainy and a lot of the massive garden areas were shut for the winter but we saw enough to understand the overstated opulence of the era and why the French decided to have their revolution. As an example, we walked through a section that was a complete re-creation of a piece of English countryside, including village buildings and farm. Apparently Marie Antoinette awoke one morning and decided that it would be nice to have one of these that she could see from the window of her chateau. This is the chateau that was built for her in addition to the other one nearby that she could have stayed in and apart from the enormous palace up the drive past the extensive lake and canal system;

- take Frances to see the views from the Eiffel Tower at night;

- hire a Velib and ride to the Père Lachaise cemetery while Sonia and Frances did some more research in the shops. Here I saw the graves of Chopin, Jim Morrison, Edith Piaf and Oscar Wilde .... and a couple of other ones as well;

- buy the wines and other supplies for Christmas Day. Buying fruit and vegetables in the more traditional little green grocers is interesting. It seems that you don't select the produce yourself. When it is your turn, one of the many attendants will select and wrap each item for you. They even give an impromptu French lesson where required ... Non Monsieur, en français on dit "c'est tout" quand on est fini .... pas "c'est complet" ... I find the French quite friendly and very service oriented in their day to day dealings. There is, however, quite a formal process for everything and as a visitor, one needs to "look and learn" to some extent;

- revisit the Mosquée and attached tea house with Fran;

- enjoy a Matisse and Picasso exhibition at the Grand Palais. The exhibits were from the collections of various members of the Stein family and Fran was able to give me some lessons in art history;

- visit the historic St Ouen flea markets;

- check out the ice skating on Christmas Eve at the Hôtel de Ville. The waiting time for skates was a bit long so we only observed the proceedings;

- buy some small pine tree branches to serve as a Christmas tree in the apartment. Not the same as retrieving a cypress from the Sand Paddock but hey ....

Posted by Neil-Sonia 02:08 Archived in France Comments (0)

Paris with Frances

Nous nous rencontrons

rain 8 °C

After taking the train back to Paris and a Metro to the 11th arrondissement, we went to the apartment that I had booked in République. The housekeepers let us in and after some heavy duty French conversation work, I was able to obtain an extra key, find out about wifi access and negotiate when the flat would be serviced.

Unfortunately, I couldn't find the password for the wifi and this was not helping with the mild panic that was developing within me due the fact that Fran hadn't arrived at the address as planned. She was traveling with a keenly priced Polish airline and I wanted to check airport arrivals in between walking to the two nearest Metro stations to stare forlornly into their exit points. Eventually, the doorbell rang and Fran's voice came across the intercom which was a relief. Her flight had been delayed in Warsaw for a couple of hours and it was great to finally have her jet lagged little presence with us.

I eventually sorted out the password issue after a French phone conversation with one of the owners. It is quite surprising how much necessity improves proficiency in these situations. I also did the Dad thing and sorted out a SIM for Fran's phone and with this and the French prepaid I bought for Sonia, we are all fairly telecommunications intensive. Needless to say, we haven't needed any of it yet.

We spent a couple of days revisiting some Paris locations as well as cafes and restaurants that Fran's French work colleague in Hanoi has recommended. A highlight on our second day here was a visit to the Catacombs. Amazing what can be done underground with a pile of bones.

It seems that the weather is going to be a little rainy so we may be using the Metro more than the Velib.

Posted by Neil-Sonia 22:46 Archived in France Comments (0)

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