A Travellerspoint blog

Ahhh Provence!

No Fields of Purple Lavender But Instead Riding High

Again with the getting lost!!!!

This time it was in the tiny little one way streets of the old part (inside the ramparts) of Avignon. That's where we were staying but could we find a place to even pull up and unload the bags????? NO!!!! The French have much the same attitude to parking as the Italians. They highly favour nudge parking, illegal parking and double parking with hazard lights on to block off a tiny one way street to meet their needs. So again around and around and around.

Eventually we made it to meet another AirBnB host and see our next apartment. Only trouble was, it was on the 3rd floor and even though he took the case I thought I was going to have a stroke on that last flight of stairs. (AND DID I MENTION HOT AND STICKY AND HUMID WEATHER?).

This time another funky but quirky French apartment but comfortable all the same and Sylvain was lovely as well.

Location being everything we were in great space, right near the Avignon Les Halles, the daily market and produce place open from 7-1 every day except Monday. So the next morning I enthusiastically hit the market and proudly got my way through purchasing vegetables fruit charcuterie and cheeses and of course fresh baguettes - all using my far from satisfactory French.

(Margot Corbett/ Big sister/ex French Teacher I soooooooo should have had some French conversation sessions with you. My memory of vocab and pronunciation aren't too bad but applying verbs and sentence structure are beyond me! Only trouble was I learned that one pronounced Les Halles as leyz arle. And now I've discovered you don't. Anyway once I worked that out it helped significantly. nd it is possible that in the last 40+ years I may have forgotten some pronunciation!!!!

So after my morning shopping I returned, armed with yummy goodies only to face those Three Flights of Frigging Stairs!! Yes folks we now have a new location for TFS Those Friggin Steps!

That day while off exploring etc I accomplished TFS Avignon 4 times. After that day I became a little less blasé about popping out for something without multiple reasons. No day had less than 3 up and downs on those stairs.

But Avignon was lovely and so was Provence which we proceeded to explore now that we were able to get about with a car to help us. What's more by now we had hoovered up some courage and had ventured onto the motorway. It really was the only sensible way to get from Lyon to Avignon. But gees....

The trucks must travel in the far right lane which they seem to oblige with. But if their truck mate up front is going too slow for their liking, they are allowed to use the middle lane to pass and on a curve they can end up over the lines onto the third lane. And if you happen to be passing and are Aussies not used to legally travelling at 130, it's bloody scary. For both new driver and scaredy-cat passenger/navigator holding her breath and praying in the passenger seat!!!!!!

Armed with new found courage we ventured off to visit the areas of Provence that had so long enticed me. P was just happy to get out there though still found the motorways stressful driving. The speed limit might be 130 but by god some of those Audis and BMWs and Mercedes and even other less powerful cars are often whipping past at 150/160. But certainly we were both happy to be looking at real landscapes rather than art after our feast of art in Italy.

So our first excursion was to Mont Ventoux. As a dedicated Tour de France fan for many years, long before it became so big in Australia, Phil has wanted to explore some of the sights of TDF. Mont Ventoux is a regular participant in the Tour thanks to its steeeeeep gradient and it appeared yet again in this year's recent exciting Tour. Because it is a Tour regular both the professionals training and (much more) the amateurs, who in-their-dreams wannabe, are out on the hardest access road to the Mont. You see Mont Ventoux has two enticing elements. 1) there is BEATING the mental and physical challenge of getting up to the top! And 2) there is the thrill of sailing down the same route at top speed whizzing around tight turns (like the pros do) at speeds of up to 80kph.

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Ladies some of you may understand why I say that it seemed to me that I saw more blokes of a certain age ie between 40 and 60 (determined they would make it) than I saw young men or pros. Interestingly every single one of them young or old were hurting. But some would rather walk the bike up those final parts than give up.

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As an aside, I'm sorry but men of a certain age wearing bandanas +/- helmets ( usually minus) are just sad. And yes PS I hear you wear one too!! #justsaying.

P called me mean for taking photos of people struggling. But it just seemed to me to be about understanding what drives people. I admire their persistence and courage even as I shake my head at some of their stupidity.

The delightful part of the drive was seeing all the signs, painted on the road by the fans for the recent Tour, were all still there!

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But now let's come back to us.

It was all well and good watching cyclists grinding their way up through beautiful forests. But a few kms from the top of Mt Ventoux it becomes like a moonscape. All white, not because of snow as it seems at a distance, but instead from white rocks that totally cover the top third of the mountain. And the road has steep ravines right beside it across kms of sharp white stones and gravel. Bear in mind this is also a great skiing location in winter.

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Now Chrissie is not so good at heights. The Great Ocean Road is wonderful but scary to me but those Mont Ventoux ravines left everything I had experienced for dead. And then we came to the cairns that have been put up for cyclists who've died on this road and it becomes very real!

So we got to the top, passing the sloggers and the successful as we went, and evading the speed-freaks on their way down. All about at the top were cyclists zinging with excitement and preparing for that daring ride back down. There had clearly been a local race on as well as we had passed numbered cyclists on the trip up. But with nowhere to stop on this tiny mountain top awash with cyclists we just turned around and headed down again. Only trouble was, this time it was my turn to be on the ravine side!!!!!! P needed no navigating so I busied myself trying to write FB posts to try and avoid looking at the front or side windows. Eventually P said, it's ok you can look now and I knew I'd been seen through all the way down to those lovely treed and delightful lower regions of this daunting mountain.

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P was thrilled just to have driven it. Me? I just don't get it and I was awfully glad to have that weird but equally enthralling moonscape behind me!!!

So now for you? more of Provence in the next instalment!

Posted by OwenGadflies 09:38 Archived in France Tagged france avignon tour_de_france mont_ventoux Comments (2)

C'est France:

Hell Did I Just Say Gracie or Merci???

We we picked up a car again in Chambery outside of Lyon with the intention of getting reacquainted with the other side of the road before hitting the by large city of Lyon. As usual despite, or perhaps because of the Maps function on the iPad we w endlessly circled around in peak hour traffic trying to find the entrance to the hotel.

it was a Mercure and clearly aimed at business travellers who come in by train (right near the Part Dieu station) and who are in and out and don't care. Nowehere on their website did it tell us that the only car access to the hotel entry was via a service road only accessible by cabs with a card to let them in. Nor was that information available when we booked. Nor did it tell us how to access the car park (in another street) which might have allowed us to get in as well. After an hour of circling round and under and over and down 1-way streets, we parked in the station car park and walked.

A little frustrated, we got our first taste of a lot of the French's attitude to customer service. No apology and little effort to even advise us how to get to the car park. But then we got up to our room and beside the kettle were I coffee sachet and I herbal and I black tea bag and PAPER CUPS!!!!!

When we asked for advice on where to eat it was lacklustre. We have since found out they think we are British and we all know how much the French love the poms and vice versa!!! Unwittingly though after rejecting a large looking restaurant and being rejected by a small one for lack of a table, we reluctant returned to the large one.

Food was tasting pretty bloody good though no then half way through the night I realised we were at a Paul Bocuse restaurant (Lyon is his home city) and that explained the fab food.

It was from this night forward that I picked up my new food addiction, Foie Gras. I'd always known it had something to do with pate and everyone knows I'm a pâté addict. But foie gras is made from duck and I'm no duck fan. But OMG (and yes that does spell orgasmic I think) as was the berry soufflé that followed.

Ahh we are in France - even if it is Lyon!

I had wanted to go to Lyon's famous Les Halles, produce market extraordinaire, but I was so over Lyon that we got up and got outta there!

Sorry no photos from Lyon. Didn't even take photos of the food but won't forget it in a hurry!!!

Posted by OwenGadflies 06:49 Archived in France Tagged food france lyon les_halles paul-_bocuse mercure customer_service Comments (2)

Not Just Immersion:

More a Thorough Dunking in Renaissance

So I left you in Montevarchi in Tuscany. There are far worse places you could be.

That's what we figured when P and his foot forced us to do more relaxing. How awful is it sit around in Tuscany?

But eventually we had to move on. So on to the epicentre of Tuscany (and renaissance art) - Florence

Again Airbnb had led me to another fantastic apartment, this time with double glazed windows, air conditioning and recently renovated. This made 2 out of 3 successes with Airbnb and only the Rome apartment that had let us down.

This time we stayed in Via della Studio just 50 metres from the Piazza Duomo. If you've been to Florence There is a gourmet deli/ grocery called Pegna in a little street off the piazza. Well we were above this. The owner of the apartment was the son of the Pegna family and is both part of the family business and has several apartments in the building. Niccolo studied interior design and has renovated these apartments and they are lovely. Definitely got the look of an interior designer to them. But very comfortable and at the hub of Florence.

With 3 days and 4 nights there we jumped into art.

First the Uffizi gallery and for this we chose a tour. It's a bit like the Louvre with so many pieces of art that you can't see Italy so someone to take you through the highlights for your first visit made sense to us.

We were a group of 8 and Marco led us through art history as explored the development of realism and the differences between Venetian and Florentine art. Of course the Florentines were quicker better and more amazing as the theory went... But slowly we worked our way though some amazing artist we've all heard of over the years, Giotto, Caravaggio, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Da Vinci, Titian, Bellini and of course Raphael and some new ones for us. Masaccio, Lippi, Ghirlandaio, Brunelleschi, Ghiberti. All running through our heads till they swam into a big puddle of "I can't remember anything anymore." But I was satisfied at seeing some the most famous and admired paintings in the world, even if I didn't always like them I now appreciated them.

Varsari Corridor taken while guard looked the other way

Varsari Corridor taken while guard looked the other way


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We also had an intriguing experience which only limited numbers see, visiting the Varsari corridor. This was a private corridor built for the Medicis to move about without mixing with the plebs. Now it is an astonishingly LONG corridor of self-portraits of some of these great artists and an insight into some amazing opulence.

And of course having seen the Uffizzi we also had to see the Accademia. Much smaller but who cares because here you get see the famous Michelangelo's David. Seeing pictures or copies cannot prepare you for the most beautiful piece of sculpture I have ever seen. The amazing musculature, veins that look like they will pump any moment, hand creases, and implied movement all from an enormous piece of marble two other sculptors had already rejected as too hard to work with. An amazing and breathtaking masterpiece. We were both awestruck. Who'd have thought that something, so overused it is practically cliched, could possibly be such a moving piece of art?

And yes we also walked over the famous Ponte Vecchio. And there I have never seen more overpriced bling in all my life. But yes Debbie Alford I could understand why it could be tempting. Some of it was lovely!! P was astounded I walked it as quickly as I did. But not even I could get tempted at those prices. So I meandered without even stopping much. How 60+ jewellery stores all crammed in a couple of hundred metres could run successful businesses is beyond me but ... It was worth the look.

The Chief Scientist in the family visited Museo Galileo, a science museum which he found fascinating and took some great photos of some quite weird and wonderful pieces. His faves, not surprisingly, were some old mathematical instruments which had the modern scientist amazed at his predecessors. But he was also excited at the site of an old bicycle exhibition also on at the Museo ahead of the Florence UCI World Champs due a few days later.

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In the absence of many gargoyles, the obsessive one took up door knocker photography. But in Florence he discovered a new obsession. Street signs that had been manipulated by some clever artist into cute and sometimes subversive little art works. Seemed appropriate that they'd be in Florence somehow. Even though it turns out the artist is a Frenchman.

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Seeing we were living right near the Duomo we left it till last. Having been dazzled by it's exterior every time we walked out of our gorgeous modern COOOOOL apartment, (have I mentioned the words HOT HUMID or STICKY or SWEATY this post?) we were a bit sad to admit we were a bit disappointed by its interior. The Duomo is actually 3 buildings, the basilica itself, a Baptisterie and the bell tower or Campanile. All are decorated in the same striped marble style. (P wasn't a big fan he tells me, but I loved it. Ornate and overdone!) Some of the Baptisterie doors are exquisite pieces of art on their own. We're told the view from the top of the Campanile is spectacular but Cack-kneed Chrissie and Hobble-footed Philly chose not to explore. P1020822.jpgP1020749.jpg

In fact we much preferred both the art works and the tombs of all the interesting people buried in the Basilica Santa Croce. Da Vinci to Donatello, Machiavelli to Dante, Michelangelo and Galileo.

By the time we'd been there four days we were all art and Renaissanced out and it was time to hit the road and head off towards France via a night in Turin (meh) and another night in Lyon after collecting the car in Chambery. But more of that next post.

Posted by OwenGadflies 06:17 Archived in Italy Tagged italy florence david michelangelo accademia ponte_vecchio uffizi medici varsari_corridor Comments (4)

Under The Tuscan Spell

Chris Falls in Love in Tuscany

And now back to the travelling bit.

I left you as we said Arrivederci Roma.

From there we travelled to Arezzo where we picked up a car. Not a snappy little Fiat or Golf as we'd hoped for, more a boring Astra with diesel. We agreed that P would drive exclusively and I would navigate. Each to their own strengths.

Well P had to build his strengths, as this was his first attempt at the 'wrong side' of the road. At first I kept having to calmly (well alright increasingly uncalmly) keep reminding him to keep ON the road as I kept imagining myself squashed against one of the brick walls beside us. He was just a little averse to driving close to the white line because so many of the drivers coming the other way were blithely driving on the wrong side of it and endlessly passing and cutting corners.

Slowly but surely we got the hang of it as we drove the smaller roads of Tuscany and arrived in Montevarchi, a town in the Val d'Alba, a valley town of about 25000. We stayed just on the edge of town in a large apartment under a family home. It was cool as it was half cut into the earth. It proved to be the highlight of our visit to Italy.

As well as the lowlight!!!!

SweetP had got a blister from a new shoe in Venice. I'd been tending to it but every time I pulled off the dressing it pulled off the skin again so I insisted (insert nurse voice) that the dressing should remain on for a couple of days to let it heal. The next day he said he thought he now had bursitis in that heel as well.

So off we went to Siena to meet up with Phil's English cousin and her husband whom we saw when we travelled to the UK in '11. Had a lovely day together although P was struggling a little and his foot was noticeably swelling. The Duomo in Siena was beautiful and it was a delightful little town. We felt pretty proud of ourselves getting to Siena in one piece in our new driving seats and a wonderful day was had. That night P said his foot was very sore so popped some pills and went to bed. Our plan was to have a much needed day off, a swim in the pool and a laze around in the enormous gardens at our accom. We would raid the vege garden as we'd been encouraged to do and have a feast at home.

Then I took the dressing off his foot to find one large smelly red infected ulcer on the back of his foot.

Thank heavens the people we were staying with were just fantastic. I went to ask them to use their landline as I couldn't get through to our travel insurer. Sunday lunch (sacred family ritual) was in preparation but as soon as it was finished a doctor friend was rung, and the advice was to go to Hospital. So Montevarchi Ospedale it was. Andrea drove us there, came in, translated for us, asked questions for us and then drove us around till we could find an open Farmacia. All while he should have been seeing his girlfriend who was going away for a while. FAR beyond the call of duty but done with a smile and insistence that we couldn't do this ourselves!! We have dubbed him Saint Andrea.

After all these adventures and with Phil's foot swollen and needing rest and elevation, we had a quieter week. But OMG we ate some fantastic food in this little town!! The apartment owners have been there for generations so were friends with owners of some of the restaurants! Tuscan specialties, innovative food and good cheap wine. One trip we did make was to an old abbey that retains the cellars the monks used for ageing Chanti Classico as well as now having a (pure coincidence of course) Michelin starred restaurant. So we had lunch on the terrace at a slow pace. No panini with prosciutto and mozzarella here!!! Just more talented delicate cooking. Oh BTW our trip took a whole 20 mins driving!!!

Toscanos are delightful people and clearly they don't get many Aussies in Montevarchi. In fact the family told us the last Aussies they'd had staying with them (on a yacht that Francesco also rents out down on the coast) was Simon Baker, Aussie actor of the Mentalist!!! They told us this over al fresco dinner on their verandah. simple home cooked food, much of it fresh from their massive vegetable garden, fun conversation despite Paulo and Anna (Francesco and Andrea's parents) having limited English and us even more limited Italian. A wonderful experience indeed.

Another day we decided to go Saint Gimignano. And this was where I at last got to see the Tuscany I had dreamed of. You know the rolling hills striped with vineyards. The tall thin cypress trees marking boundaries. The view from this famous walled village was panoramico. But before heading downhill out of town we did explore the church with obligatory frescoes and listened to a flautist playing beautiful music in the courtyard near the church. And then we found The View Panoramico. Ahhhh Amore!

PS I can't work out how to place photos appropriately in this blog format so forgive any weird placements. Says she as she pushes the Publish button!

Posted by OwenGadflies 22:40 Archived in Italy Tagged tuscany michelin siena chianti san_gimignano montevarchi badia_di_coltibuono Comments (7)

Italian Transport

The Good The Bad and The Ugly

Before I go on I thought I'd divert onto Italian roads and rails.

I've already waxed lyrical about trains that arrived on time etc, but it seems I was a bit precipitate in my opinions. After several late trains which no one is in the least bit concerned about , maybe it's not AS good as I claimed. But I do love travelling at 300kph!!!

But really it is roads I want to talk about. Every one hears that Italian drivers are aggressive and mad and I'm not sure I quite agree.

Though that's not to say that its not stressful to drive on the road beside them, as P would tell you

They know where they are going and seem to have surprisingly few accidents for the close proximity they manage to set with other cars, scooters, meandering pedestrians, prams, dogs, etc etc. During our first taxi ride in Rome I advised P with eyes a-pop to only look at the amazing things on the side of the road rather than watching the driver's activities.

Parking on the other hand is TOTALLY DIFFERENT!

One tour guide in another context said Italians see government rules as mere guidelines which are meant to be ignored. Well same applies on the road and more to the point the sides of the road! All cars have numerous dings from the endless nudge parking. If you can't find a space then just point your car into the gap between cars and park at 90', or 45' or who the hell cares just double park. Everyone will just go round you. And oh, there's a space on that pedestrian crossing that's a good one!!! Phil reckons he even saw cars parked in the middle of the road in Turin.

And don't worry about double lines or passing on curves, remember they're just a guide. And speed limits are not even an issue. In 3 weeks we have NEVER seen a parking fine delivered or a driver pulled over.

It's my firm belief that Italy's current financial woes could be wiped out by the simple process of policing the road laws.

But it's kept us both amused and amazed.

And in all the cabs and cars we've been in there is very very low levels of road rage and frustration, high levels of patience, and except for Turin, very little tooting. Only thing is that they don't acknowledge when someone allows them in or to pass. And that applies in doorways and on footpaths as well. I guess in cities where millions move round in very small areas, maybe those courtesies don't matter.

So overall I give the driving in Italy about an 8/10.

Buongiorno

Posted by OwenGadflies 02:40 Archived in Italy Tagged parking cars driving scooters taxis drivers Comments (3)

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