Thursday, October 2, 2014

Cooling Off, Winding Down

It was our last full day in France, and we were at a quandary: there were two things we wanted to do, but they were in opposite directions.

We had already missed some opportunities in our trip. In Paris, I wanted to visit Montmartre at night to take some street photography, but because our days were so full, I was always tired and my feet were always killing me, and all I wanted to do was to get to bed.

In the Loire Valley, we really could have taken another day to visit one more château and to tour the beautiful town of Blois, which we drove to on our way to Chambord. And in Beynac, while I really enjoyed the view of the castle, high above our camp site, I never made the climb up the town's narrow, steep streets to the top, to enjoy the view from the castle's ramparts.

While in Provence, we knew we weren't going to get to Monte Carlo, nor would we see some of the parks within Les Alpilles.

Clearly, we'll have to go back.

On our last day, there was one thing that I wanted to do and it was non-negotiable. The kids, who, for the most part, had followed our lead and had made no decisions since we left Paris, wanted to see something, and it was also not negotiable.

So we did both.

Our first stop: the Roman aqueduct bridge that spans the Gardon River and leads to Nimes, Pont du Gard. And, because the kids desperately wanted to swim, this site would give them that opportunity.

The great thing about this UNESCO World Heritage Site is that it's free. What really sucks is that parking costs 18 € to park.

And that's non-negotiable, unless you want to walk for kilometres to get to the aqueduct.

The weather was hot but the water was cool, and we all dipped our feet in. While I was focused on taking pictures, the girls changed into swim suits and swam a little in the Gardon. But what two of them really wanted to do was to jump off the rocks and into the river, with the Pont du Gard above them.

Cooling off accomplished, photos shot, travelling through history achieved, it was time to fulfil the wishes of the kids. And so we headed south, to the Mediterranean.

Tucked in a tiny bay between Marseille and Toulon, accessed by driving up a steep hillside and then weaving down winding roads, this seaside town has a sprawling beach and a quaint harbour. With the sun coming low towards the horizon, the rust-toned cliffs cast a warm glow. The water cast a bright blue, and though the peak of sunbathing had passed, the beach was still crammed with die-hard sun worshippers.

We set up our blankets and the girls went for their second swim of the day. I took more photos, being careful not to look like a pervert with the topless bathers (although, while taking a photo of my kids, a woman kept moving in the frame behind them: rather than miss my girls, I took the shot—don't ask me to share).

Our evening, back in Salon-de-Provence, was a late one. A great dinner with friends, where we used up as many leftovers as we could and then packed our bags. Our time in Provence went quickly. We wished we had more time to be with our friends, but at the same time I knew it was time to go home. Our vacation was winding down.

Tomorrow, I will end my telling of my family vacation to France.

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!