Australia and Oceania, Asia, Europe · 38 Days · 225 Moments · June 2015

Our Provençal Tour

7 August 2015

Day 39 - It Finishes: Arrival Sydney at 6:15am. In taxi by 6:45am. Was all so quick. Thanks for the memories. See you all soon. The end!

6 August 2015

Day 38 - Final Day Blues4: We sat in the plane knowing that in 7 hours and 55 minutes we would be home. It would be Friday and we would be home. Fairytale over and the realities of life would have returned. Lisa and I would often play the rating game when sitting at dinners on our trip: best meal; best bed; favorite bathroom; best hotel toiletries; best shower and so it would go on. Apart from the lost luggage, which happened on almost the last day this had been another amazing trip. You can love all you do, but the time with friends in France was most probably the best for me, but we had really enjoyed ourselves throughout and seen some fantastic things. This had been a grand adventure. One of the richest I have experienced hinged on seeing our son get married. A special moment that we had poured our lives into occurring one day. Life moves on and memories are its greatest gift. We've had a bucketful of these with so many wonderful people. Who knows what might be next - join me!!
Day 38 - Final Day Blues3: The staff at the hotel helped us get on our way and upon our arrival at the airport Lisa had to go down to arrivals to check if her bag had arrived. I was not allowed in this area and had to wait for Lisa at the exit gate of Arrivals. It was not long before I could see her approach empty handed. She was in good spirits because whilst no bag it had been found and it was due into Singapore tomorrow. From there to Sydney we did not know, but Lisa had all the contact details we needed. We found a lounge area and settled in with another $18 beer and $18 glass of wine. I'll bring more money next time I'm in Singapore. Still nothing had been a rush and we were celebrating the end of an amazing 7 weeks from Sam & Alex's wedding week and wedding to our return tonight. It had been a great celebration of all that is good in our lives - family, friends and travel. We were glad to be back in the hands of QANTAS for this leg and it was perhaps the best boarding we had.
Day 38 - Final Day Blues1: The jet lag had begun as it was a night of some good sleep and some wide awake moments in the middle of the night for me, and mostly these for Lisa. The best sleep of the night came from 5:30am until after 10:00. I never sleep that late, but did today. We were both moving slowly and completely missed breakfast and basically had taken ourselves to 12:00noon check out without much effort. No news on Lisa's bag had come through. The hotel were brilliant in storing our bags and offering us a chance to shower later in the gym area when it was time to head to the airport. We headed out for Lisa's wash and dry, and to take some clothes back, that in the rush to replace those that had not arrived, ended up not being what she wanted. We found a new hairdresser and they were still ridiculous, but a slightly better price. The girls here were lovely and I left Lisa to stroll around the bay whilst her hair was satisfied. I joined her later when completed. More below.
Day 37 - Singapore Slump: all was going so well. We survived another long flight. Lisa got no sleep I got some, but both were glad to have arrived in Singapore a bit late, but not by much. As we walked out to the baggage area my bag was already on the carousel as I commented to Lisa that it is always good to know your bag made the transfer. She said don't speak too soon, and I had. Lisa's bag did not follow. A KLM staff member saw us as we waited and told us there are no more bags to come for our flight as he collected the last uncollected bags. Lisa was upset with this response and the man took us to list baggage to file a report. The girl was very helpful and it was discovered that there was no record of the bag being put on the plane back in Lisbon. We would have to wait until tomorrow to see if it arrives on the next flight at the same time. The girl gave Lisa a little complimentary toiletries pack and with nothing more we could do left.
Day 38 - Final Day Blues2: Lisa had done her usual charm job on the girls at the hairdresser and they were chatting away before we left. We had already got our Zara refund and headed out to a pizza place in the bay and out of the complex for some lunch or breakfast as it may be. The food was nice but even here a beer from a bottle was $11, so I had a milkshake, whoops $12. Since The exchange rate is almost dollar for dollar it was not cheap. The food was good but before we had started a big thunderstorm hit and we moved inside. This dampened our plans for a walk in the gardens, especially with Lisa's freshly dried hair and we hung around the bay complex taking photos when we could in breaks in the rain. Technically only our second wet day. We did get to see the Ocular at work and it is quite a sight, especially as we sat at the cafe right where this opened to the outdoors. Time was up and we headed back for our showers on floor 55 before departure. Lisa's bag check here was fruitless.

5 August 2015

Lisa was feeling much better having a few much loved basic supplies back within grasp, but still hoping her bag would be back quickly. She hates losing anything and she was not a totally happy Vegemite even still. We checked out a hairdresser for just a wash and dry of her hair. A mere $88 quoted and he wanted to offer me a full body massage. Hmmm! We'll let you know tomorrow! By now the afternoon and evening were nearly gone and we were tired. We found one of Gordon Ramsay's restaurants, among many celebrity chef restaurants in this place. We had never tried these before and so went into the Bread Street Kitchen. The food and service were great, but we ate quite humble meals. Now we knew Singapore was expensive - an$18 beer and $22 glass of wine - Whoa! Was not ready for that and this pricing proved fairly standard in the small area we covered. It had been a costly exercise from bag loss to bill. We were glad to hit the sack.
I jumped in the taxi with a very glum Lisa alongside as we left in the taxi for the Marina Bay Sands. A truly stunning hotel and one that has fascinated for a very long time. Once checked in we found our room on the 35th floor of Tower 3. We looked out on the spectacular gardens beyond and hoped there would be time to visit. Singapore was about to kick off major celebrations for their 50th year this weekend and preparations, signage and crowds in the hotel indicated that plenty had turned up for the party. We made other plans and set about making a list of what Lisa needed to get through the next day with none of her much loved and relied upon products and clothes. We spent the next few hours navigating the incredible shopping mall attached to the hotel complex. The Wifi extended out into this casino & shopping mall area also. The first thing that hit us is that nothing, at least in this area of Singapore, is cheap. We spent a small fortune just replacing some of the basics.
Day 36 - Time to Come Home2: The flight to Amsterdam was very smooth apart from the little boy who kept kicking Lisa's seat. The mum did little to stop him. We arrived ahead of time at about 7:00pm their time having lost an hour as expected somewhere. Here we then had to transfer to our KLM flight to Singapore a good healthy 20 minute walk away. We now had about 12 and a half hours of flying ahead before our arrival in Singapore.
Day 36 - Time to Come Home: Our Golden Key Monday had ended once we were dropped home after our pastry in the park. Again a great guide and lovely driver had made it a very special day. Grace had told us the Portuguese believe when you leave a place you should take a Golden Key (Special Memory) - Yesterday was ours. The day ended for us on our return and we were too tired to even head out for dinner. We slept and before we knew it it was Tuesday and the journey home had begun. We repacked and had breakfast and wandered down to Rossio Place for our last bit of shopping. This done we came back and repacked again, before checking out. We had an hours wait for our driver Roy and then 20 minutes to the airport. We farewelled Roy and all went smoothly here having done an Internet check in earlier. We had our first MacDonalds in a long while and boarded our 3 hour flight to Amsterdam at 3:35pm. It was tough watching the flight path cross and travel close by to many places we had been.
Day 35 - Sintra a Must to Google3: We were to learn quickly the value of having a guide and driver. Local knowledge and the ability to jump queues and take short cuts saved us time all day. We watched countless tourists having to queue everywhere - for transport, tickets, entry. This we did very rarely and never the long queues. We saw many parking and queuing at the wrong locations, when a better entry and parking were further up the road. You could see how all this might taint you're experience of the day. When we were finished a quick call to David and he was there to move us on, whilst others headed for long walks to cars or onto another bus queue. The convenience was measured by the value of the experience. OK some house keeping. When finished here you will need to slide down the blog to the photos of Sintra to continue our day's story. Sorry, but the blog is date/time sensitive and photos slot themselves in based on the time they were taken, whilst notes at the time written.
Day 35 - Sintra a Must to Google2: Grace sat us down to discuss the day as there are so many choices here and crowds and traffic will make movement difficult. We worked out a basic plan from 5 castles to visit. There was also the gorgeous local village and our journey beyond this, where there was more to see. We realized very quickly that a day visit would only scratch the surface, but we were going to give it a go. Grace was impressed, but guarded with what we hoped to achieve. She explained later in the day when we achieved our goals that we did not fully understand the people she tours at times. Obviously it would be tough on the elderly being a day of up and down hills, but also people who aren't fit; afraid of heights or the dark (will explain that later). We headed off through some more modern sections of Lisbon and out to the west coast to Sintra National Park, a more mountainous area of Portugal. It was a pleasant drive and only about 40 minutes before arriving.
Day 35 - Sintra a Must to Google1: Lonely Planet says it all - With its rippling mountains, dewy forests thick with ferns and lichen, exotic gardens and glittering palaces, Sintra is like a page torn from a fairy tale. Its Unesco World Heritage–listed centre, Sintra-Vila, is dotted with pastel-hued manors folded into luxuriant hills that roll down to the blue Atlantic. Celts worshipped their moon god here, the Moors built a precipitous castle, and 18th-century Portuguese royals swanned around its dreamy gardens. Even Lord Byron waxed lyrical about Sintra’s charms: ‘Lo! Cintra’s glorious Eden intervenes, in variegated maze of mount and glen’, which inspired his epic poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. This was our day trip today, with our driver David turning up in a beautiful black Mercedes and Grace our eloquent guide to direct, this was to be a wonderful parting experience from Portugal. Read more:

3 August 2015

Day 34 - A Full Day in Lisbon4: This Biarro Alto district was once the home of journalism and the printing works for the newspapers. Many restaurants and clubs opened here to meet the needs of the journalists and there long and late hours. Even though this industry has left the area the restaurants and clubs have remained and the nightlife here is worth exploring. The streets here are alive with people from 10:00pm onwards. We hoped we could get back and explore this area further, but for now we were coming to the end of an 11 hour day of exploration and were running out of steam. We thanked our wonderful driver who had given us an hour and a half tour and only asked for his 45€. We gave him a 5€ tip and he was more than happy. Grace had explained earlier that most Portuguese only make around 500€ per month and were appreciative of any tips. We decided to just have dinner at the hotel and found the food fantastic. Our waitress was interested in our day and this was where it ended.
Day 34 - A Full Day in Lisbon3: These pastries are known as Pasteis de Nata everywhere else and are basically fake's as the original recipe is a sworn and legal secret. A queue spills from the shop every day as the sell more than 12 000 a day and nearly 30 000 on a weekend. We then headed up to see the historic UNESCO naval structure the Belem Tower. It is such an impressive tower completed in 1519 as part of a defense system on the Tagus River. It was built in the middle of the river on a small island, but is now closer to the shore due to river redirection and land reclamation since the earthquake in 1755. From here we then saw the wonderful statue built by Salazar to honour the great explorers/discoverers of Portugal in 1960. This celebrated 500 years of Portuguese exploration. It is a huge structure. Lots more to see here, but our driver had let us stay well over time and now dropped us home to our hotel. We got to see some of the bohemian Bairro Alto district on our way.
Day 34 - A Full Day in Lisbon2: The day had been full of activity as we explored the valley - old town centre; the east hillside with its castle of St Jorge and the west hillside where we found the Estrela Park. By no means was this the full extent of these areas and there was so much more in these areas to explore. Our time in the park; return for shopping and climb of the iconic stairwell not far from Plaza Rossio had stretched our energy to all but it's last. Grace had suggested we try a Tuktuk tour. For 45€ you can get one of three one hour tours. We had enquired about these earlier in the day from a very pleasant Indian driver. When we spotted some Tuktuks our friend was front of the queue. We chose to head out to Belem along the eastern side of the city. It was so much fun whizzing along in the Tuktuk and again so much to see. Docklands; passenger terminals; cultural centers and the home of what we call the Portuguese Tart (Pasteis de Belem) invented by the nearby monastery.
Welcome Back5 - Day 35 in pics here! We took our last photos here before the final run home. We were meant to make the coastal town of Cascais, but our longer cyan expected day at Sintra had meant this not possible. We were keen to get a better feel for Belem and so we headed there again. This time Grace explained the significance of the great marble map on the ground in front of the Discoverer's Monument. She showed us all the dates that indicated a discovery by Portuguese sailors right up to East Timor. She showed how there was a time in world history where the Portuguese and Spanish had agreed to split the world into two halves. One half each and the clever manipulation of this by the Portuguese king in having the line moved just before the discovery of Brazil, thus the reason why Brazilians speak Portuguese and the rest Spanish. We then walked across to the pastry shop to buy our Pateis de Belem Tarts. Grace was able to jump every queue and we got six to eat in the park.
Welcome Back4 - Day 35 in pics here! Grace was amazed at how little people here understood this. Some were coming from the bottom up and some from a tunnel thar comes in from the midpoint. Either way they all marveled at this place, but it was nice to take in the challenge. Grace was impressed with how much we had got through so far and she said many she takes on tour don't manage half of what we had done so far. We even got time to look in the house. When done here David picked us up and we travelled down through the charming winding roads and across to Capa da Roca on the coast. This is one of the few high points on the Portuguese coast and the most westerly point if continental Europe - The edge of the world. It was a spectacular spot and we stopped to take some photos. Grace told us of a Polish family who were here recently, mum, dad and two kids. Mum and Dad decided to climb over the fence to take a selfie and fell to their death leaving the two children. Others were doing this.
Welcome Back3 - Day 35 in pics here! The Quinta da Regaleira is a gothic styled stately home with an elaborate set of grounds. Concealed beneath the carefully maintained gardens are a complex network of tunnels that lead to every area of the house. Hidden throughout the grounds are secret religious symbols and objects of mysterious meaning. One of the things I wanted to see here was the well. It is not a well for water, but one that is about self discovery. Grace lead us on a journey here. First you have to find the well hidden well. Then you must walk down the spiral from light to dark. Now you must find your way through a labyrinth of tunnels into the light. Finally you must walk on water (stepping stones) to escape to your new life. It was brilliant. Grace had met one of the original owners grandchildren who debunked all the myths of free masonry and cults held about the place and said it was just a giant playground. Whatever! It was fantastic and now well maintained by the state.
Welcome Back2 - Day 35 in pics here! It was a beautiful walk down from the castle where we watched the queues for the bus back to town get longer. We headed to town with David for a light lunch in a little restaurant which Grace had come to since she was a little girl. It made a special cheese pastry that they were famous for. We tried one and bought some to bring home. We learnt a bit more about our guide who has two children a bit younger than our own. Her dad was a Lieutenant in the military and fought in the war in Guinea. For 2 years they never heard from him or of him. He was dead now, but she shared some of her life history as Lisbon born and bred. After lunch we walked the pretty streets and took in some views. She showed us a shop you could buy slightly chipped original 16th century tiles. From here we headed to our next castle.
Welcome back1 - Day 35 in pics here! Our 40 minute drive to Sintra saw us soon on a beautiful drive up onto a lush green forested mountain, a bit similar to some of those narrow English countryside drives. David went slowly round the windy road and we eventually reached Sintra village, where the oldest castle sits right in the town. This one is over 500 years old and was the Royal Palace. We chose not to go here, by all the way to the top of the hill to Pena Palace. This only 150 years old and was a site of a previous monastery left in ruins after the earthquake. King Ferdinand bought it and many other nearby properties in 1838 and began working with an Austrian to develop the castle with medieval and Moorish elements. The result one of the most stunning castles you could hope to see. 'Even Walt Disney could not conjure this!' Our guide Grace declared. We could have spent the day here wandering the hillside gardens as well as the castle, but there was more to see. Our driver awaited.

2 August 2015

Day 34 - A Full Day in Lisbon1: Slow starts have become the order of the day. We got to breakfast by 9:20am and were finished and ready for yet another walking guide by 10:00am. Today it would be Grace, who we had never met before, but who we were chatting and laughing with within minutes of meeting. Grace sat us down and planned out the tour to suit us. We loved the way she wanted to make sure we knew how to get around the most cost effective way, so our first stop was the subway to get a day ticket for 6€ each for buses, trains and trams. We then wandered down the Avenue learning about the recreation of this Lisbon version of the Champs Élysées developed after the 1755 earthquake and tsunami that devastated two thirds of Lisbon. This occurred on the 1st of November and is still one of the worst earthquakes ever recorded in the world with an estimate of more than 10 000 people killed. We wandered along the main avenue before dropping down the side streets for a great tour.
We arrived at Estrela where there was a church and a beautiful park. We didn't realize that the tram does not just allow you to stay on at this termination point and you have to alight. This encouraged us to enter the park and enjoy the busy scene. The monthly jazz festival throughout Lisbon was in this park today. The bands were setting up and sound checks could be heard throughout the park. Food stalls and markets selling beautiful hand crafts were everywhere as people spread throughout every shady spot in the park and on the seating in front of the rotunda. We stayed here a while and took a break before jumping back in team 28 and heading downtown. Here we headed up an iconic stairwell that I wanted to see. We had a drink here and headed to find a Tuk Tuk for our 45€ tour as recommended by Grace. We some shoe shopping also and both ended with some shoes made in Portugal - The prices were ridiculously low. By sheer chance we ran into the Tuk Tuk driver from earlier in the day.
After lunch we wandered along the Tegus River to look across the 6km gap between shorelines. This increases up to 14km at some point further down the river. This part of the river makes up a great portion the estuary. From here we got a great view of the suspension bridge built by the same company who did the one in San Francisco, but this one is 30 years younger. On the distant shore stood the Christo Rei statue of Christ reaching out over the bay. From here we went in search of tram 28. Not the only, but certainly best known tram of the city. It takes an hour to do the round trip from Estrela in the west to the Castle St Jorge in the east. Grace had warned us about queues and that tram 12 might be a better option. We happened to arrive at a stop where three 28's arrived together. We got on the 3rd, and whilst we only got a standing spot at the back of the tram it was not at all crowded. We headed up through the winding streets and rolling hills of the west side of the city.
We stayed up here to enjoy the view and find out more about Lisbon and Portugal. Grace kept calling the castle a fake as much was built to complete it and restore it well after it had been a working castle in the medieval times. Phoenician ruins had been discovered here and it was once the royal palace, so it still had significance. We then walked down through the Alfama area to see traditional houses and those that survived the earthquake and Tsunami. Like Porto, many are being restored and turned into hotels and apartments and guest houses. Grace explained that they celebrate Saint Anthony here and his symbol is on many walls. Grace proved a very generous guide and for the second time we saw her help out lost tourists. She had shown a French man how to use the ticket machine at the station also. Helps when you speak five languages. We eventually made it to the Commercial Plaza with its ministerial offices, arches and monument. We left Grace here and had lunch at the Beer Museum.
Grace pointed out one of the famous and longest surviving restaurants in Lisbon - Gambrinus - Many mixed reviews on Trip Advisor. We then went and tried a famous cherry liqueur, just a shot glass full, but still only 10:30am. We walked through the theatre district and headed into the flatter section of Lisbon and across the Rossio Square with fountains and obelisk. Here she showed us a church that had had burnt down in 1955. The Saint Domingos Church had been the scene of the Portuguese Inquisition and had seen many burnt at the stake here. The remnants of the fire, which took out the roof and killed two firemen, can still be seen at the top of the charred pillars. We worked our way up though a free elevator system (2 different sections) that took us up to Castelo St Jorge. Here we got great views over Lisbon and understood its rolling hills a little better. The main part of the old city sits on a valley floor and most was rebuilt after the earthquake into a clearly gridded layout.

1 August 2015

Day 33 - Porto to Lisbon via Coimbra2: We saw the university prisons, which could house a prisoner for 7 years simply for toasting to freedom during the dictatorship. This was one the reason for the founding of Amnesty International in 1961. There were other impressive rooms also like the examination room that called on students to take a public exam in front of onlookers. We saw the statue of John III who made sure the university was given a permanent home here in the 1500s. Eventually we wandered down into the town. Lisa got quite excited by the colorful crocheted art hanging around the town. It was an interesting social inclusion festival used to bring the community together. Emerging enjoyed many of the unusual contributions we saw, before lunch by the river. Paulo drove us on to Lisbon and to our hotel the Inspira Santa Marta near the Main Street of Lisbon. We bid farewell to another delightful host. It was now after 5:00pm and we settled into our very modern looking hotel.
Day 33 - Porto to Lisbon via Coimbra1: We left Porto today realising we were heading to our last European hotel for the trip. We became more aware of this once we reached the outskirts of Lisbon and saw the airport which would be our departure point. Our delightful driver Paulo or Paul arrived on time in his beautiful black Audi and we headed off for an hour and a half drive to Coimbra. This university town of 150 000 people was quiet today due to university holidays and it being the official start of holidays for the population. Still their were people around, but all was pretty quiet. The university was the main attraction on one hillside of the Mondego River. This being the only river that starts and end in Portugal. The university is regarded as the oldest in Portugal, and one of the oldest in the world and celebrating 725 years this year. There were quite a number of tourists here to see, in particular, the amazing library of 60 000 books set in a highly ornamental chamber.
This is a special sealed section of the blog for all those crocheting enthusiasts out there. Whether in the closet or out of it you too can crochet up a storm like the people of Coimbra. This social festival gets the young and old out flexing their fingers and wrists in a crocheting frenzy that results in some of the strangest displays one might ever see in a town anywhere. View all and enjoy the crochet spectacle. I'm sure you'll be itching to get out your dust covered crochet needle and re skill in this almost lost art. Crochet your heart out!!
As we reached the Main Street, which was pretty quiet even for a Saturday, we passed the usual shops, old buildings and more churches. An old man approached Ana as she drank some water and said that if she drank too much she would end up with fish in her mouth. He was a bit disturbed we think. Today, 1st August, was the first day of Portuguese holidays and it added to the quietness. Some recent festivities in the town saw crocheted items appearing everywhere. Bikes were covered, rugs and other items were hung from windows and across narrow streets. There were even some crocheted people who sat in the middle of a small square. We walked on and along the banks of the Mondego River, where Ana's dad tended all the gardens as the head of the local council department. Ana left us here and we sat and had lunch on the banks of the river at an Italian Restaurant. Paul picked us up and we moved on to Lisbon. It was a good break and an enjoyable morning that kept our interest.
Our first stop was Coimbra, a university town and once the capital of Spain in the 12th century. Paul drove us to an old palatial homestead once owned by the Portuguese Royalty and now a hotel called Quinta das Lagrimas. This means farm of tears. We met our guide Ana here who explained the name because the king discovered his son Pedro, who was married, was meeting his lover here. The king had her killed here and Pedro had the assassins murdered in return. A lovers bed hangs from the trees. We then went to a lookout and from here looked across the Mondego River to the university. Before we knew it we had driven across the river and to the university. The students were selling postcards here dressed as they would in Harry Potter with capes. We walked through a fantastically ornate library and chapel. The views from here over Coimbra were impressive. From here we headed down to the town stopping to admire the cathedral and a Fado performance theatre. We saw a number of Roman ruins.
We moved on today having seen Porto grow on us in so many ways. As we waited for the return of our driver, Paulo, I decided to take these shots of the scene around our hotel and in its foyer. Paula had said they had done a great job renovating this hotel, which joins three buildings into one. This was once the centre of the Roman Port that was here. The foyer had only been renovated in the last few months and had a wonderful look about it now with its trendy bar mural to the many nooks and crannies filled with areas to sit and have a drink. The day outside was full of people preparing for the big F1 boat races and we were sorry we would miss the big event. The turning area for the course was right outside the hotel. The Red Bull Aerial Race was here just a few months ago as the city council continued its quest to find ways to bring life to this city and keep the world's focus on this place.

31 July 2015

Day 32 - Yellow Bus Tour of Porto: After our walking tour and lunch we jumped on the open top bus tour. 5 weeks away and had resisted the temptation until now. Went all round the city and all the way out to the west coastline and then passing the mouth of the Douro and back into town along the river on a two hour jaunt. We took in all six bridges that cross the Douro, including crossing two. I took a video as I saw the chance to catch a shot of the old tram running alongside of us. I showed this to Lisa Harris when we got home thinking she would like the tram being in the shot and suddenly she is saying, 'Ooh! Someone's been hit!' Not sure what she meant so had a look again and there is definitely some guy who misses the tram and falls in the street. Unfortunately with all these things I can not guarantee anyone was not hurt in making this video. I hoped he would be all right. I had genuinely not even noticed this and it was only Lisa commenting that I even knew of the incident.
Even after calling a day quits there was still so much to see just on our walk back down to our hotel on the river. The scenes were many, of amazing shopping malls with gardens on top; many amazing colored tiled buildings and in particular these amazing yellow ones from one of the renovated buildings in Flores Street. The new hotel where we had lunch with it's soft blue tiled and it's street side restaurant. On we trudged exhausted down the street. The sun was still shining brightly at 8:30pm when we finally made it back to the Pestana. We decided that would do for our weary legs and sensory overloaded minds. Porto is truly a spectacular place, with so much more to see and experience.
After the bus tour we called in on the beautiful Majestic Cafe, which is a must if in Porto. It is an Art Nouveau Cafe from the 1920's. We had a drink, coffee and dessert here and then made our way across town to Liveria Lello the bookstore which gave some inspiration to J K Rowling. We made it with half an hour to spare and bought our 3€ each ticket to go into the store. Yes such is the demand that they sell tickets to enter a book store. This morning there were big queues, but hardly any in the afternoon. There is a bonus to the ticket and that is that the cost will be taken off any book you buy in the shop. So with our 6€ credit we did buy two books and in English and got to see the amazing staircase. It is only a small two storey store and to get any photos was hard work. You had to be quick or just accept there would be many others in your photo. It was hot in the store with so many others and our half an hour before close was more than enough. We had had enough and headed home.
We gave ourselves a half an hour break after our tour and then headed out to lunch. We went back up to Rue das Flores for a great lunch before getting on a Yellow Bus Tour. At lunch we tried our first Green Wine. This is wine made from young grapes before fully ripened. It is an easy drinking wine and had a bit of a fizz to it. The green of course refers to young or inexperienced and not the colour of the wine. The tour did more to dispel our first reservations about Porto looking like it was in decay as we travelled through the new city and the beautiful homes out towards the ocean. Some lovely parks and modern buildings made us realize that Porto had many sides beyond it's old town and the beachside and river bank road had a lot of nice places to visit. I took a photo of one tiled block and Lisa again pointed out when looking at this later that there was an Australian flag hanging off the balcony. Sure enough there was! The tour also took in some of the city of Villa Nova de Gaia.
Day 32 - Porto on Foot2: She spoke of the many elderly who now live in the city and how this is changing. Porto had become very trendy and reinvigorated. She pointed out many new developments where facades were being kept, by law, whilst all the internals were gutted. We began to see this city in a whole new light as she took us to areas where whole streets had been renovated. The tile work, which really only became fashionable in the 19th and 20th centuries was being restored with dramatic impact. We saw the amazing local train station with incredible blue tiled murals. The old market now restored as a convention centre. The wall art (graffiti) that is encouraged by the new mayor. Special hidden spots to view the city and river. More churches and the amazing Commerce Building, which is like a palace inside. They were preparing a huge dinner in the main glass covered courtyard for the International F1 Boat Race which was on this weekend. It was a world of wonderful info and visuals.
Day 32 - Porto on Foot1: This morning we met our guide Paula who picked us up at 10:00am. For the next few hours she would guide us through Porto' streets, history, art and culture. We began by walking along the waterfront (Ribeira) where we learnt a little about the Luis 1 bridge and the Eiffel original further down the river. From here we jumped on the funicular which took us from the bridge to the cathedral of Porto. We had discovered this yesterday, but today we went in to see the heavily baroque, gold leafed altar. At this time Paula talked of the social change occurring in Porto as people over the last thirty years had begun to abandon the old city due to the cost of living in small apartments in need of expensive repairs. Many wanted the trappings of the modern world and could not have these here. Many buildings were run down and in need of major repairs. A progressive mayor was turning that around and now investment and renovation was restoring interest in the old city.
The carved granite walls and columns were done on great detail, something we have learned is very difficult in this hard rock. One room had the desk that Gustav Eiffel worked at in the 1870's when designing the Pont Dom Maria bridge, which was the first one built across the river. Easily the most stunning room was the final Arabic themed ballroom. With all its Moorish influences it was a stunning room of gold trimmed geometric patterns on every wall, column and ceiling. It was a wonderful place to almost finish our tour apart from the final stroll back to our nearby hotel and our farewell to Paula. She had done a fabulous job showing us many special aspects to Porto and certainly had begin to change our initial thoughts of a city about to slide down the hill and disappear into the river. Yes there was still more to do and abandoned and derelict buildings could be found on many streets, but the place has a character all of its own in that Venetian way that is so different to many.
Paula had saved a special street for us in the second part of our tour. This was one where all the character and charm of Porto remained, but all the new building codes had been applied and the whole street had been renovated. It was beautiful and showed what Porto will become if investment and renovation continues. At the end of this street was the beautifully preserved old red market, Mercado Ferreira Borges, which houses the police. Then she saved something even more special to finish our tour. This was the Building of Commerce, Palacio de Bolsa. What appeared a fairly nice but unimpressive Neo Classical building on the outside was full of amazingly beautiful rooms on the inside. This was where the big F1 speedboat sooner was being prepared. We saw many stunning rooms here with stucco; gold leaf; detailed inlaid timber floors and on and on it went.
Just upfront the town square is the Lello Bookstore. This is well known for its amazing staircase that J K Rowling used as an inspiration in the Harry Potter series. She was living in Porto as a poor English teacher; fell in love with a Portuguese fellow; had a baby and eventually divorced. She had to do something to make a living and Harry Potter came along full of inspiration from Porto influences - villains, robes and amazing staircases. We did not go in at this time, but had plans to return. We saw more in this area including a fascinating mall that had a park built on top with full grown trees, a bar and all, before heading to a great lookout hidden in the back streets where we admired more interesting street art encouraged by the city. As we walked we passed many places that were in need of TLC and many that were getting a complete revamp as new apartments or boutique style hotels. Our walk was full of surprises.
The day began with less cloud than yesterday and I took the chance to open the window and take a shot of the bridge. Yes we really were that close. Breakfast and ready we enjoyed our 3 hour personal tour with Paula. She took us to the base of the Dom Luis 1 bridge and up in the funicular to the cathedral. Just another cathedral - thought I'd never say that - with the usual unbelievable art and gold leaf covered baroque altar. Always impressive, and as we had continually come to believe was completely over done. Still it reflects a time and a response to the world as it was. We saw the local fish market and had some of the street art encouraged by the progressive city council explained. They regularly give wall space to artists to do their work. We walked into the most amazing entry hall at the Sao Bento Railway Station all covered in blue tiled murals explaining Portuguese history. We then went to the town square, Avenida Dos Aliados and it's grand town hall surrounded by banks.

30 July 2015

Day 31 - Santiago to Porto: Today we met our driver Paulo and headed off for the two and a half hour drive to Porto. Lisa was excited by the fact we were to do the trip in a very nice black Audi. Paulo was good company and was keen to make sure we stopped at certain points, such as the gates to Santiago that the pilgrims pass and later Valença. This is the first town across the Minho River in Portugal. He pointed out an old fortress as we crossed the river into Portugal. Before we knew it he had driven in through the narrow gates of the fortress to find we were in a village that you would have never noticed based on the walls surrounding it. As a matter of fact there were two fortresses on this hillside joined by a tunnel. We stopped for photos before continuing on from this market village. Our clocks turned back an hour we arrived in Porto. It is an amazingly mixed up place with old and new cities built into the steep hillsides stretching up from the Douro River.
We enjoyed sitting in the bar of our hotel, the Pestana Porto which was just surrounded by cafes, wine bars and restaurants as well as many gift stores. We headed off for dinner after having checked some good local restaurants on Trip Advisor. We didn't make any of these and instead tried a tapas bar just across the street, which was very good. We were quite impressed with the quality of English being spoken to us after having arrived and giving ourselves a crash course in some of the basics on our translator. It seems we are not going to have to worry too much based on what we had encountered so far. We strolled around a few local streets, before calling it quits for an early night.
I was feeling quite unnerved walking across the bridge as it shook when trams passed by and there were gaps in the deck that allowed you to see down to the water. There was so much activity on the bridge; on the water and in the streets and buildings and you got a birds eye view of this fascinating place. So much to look at. One thing for sure was just how decayed parts of Porto were to the general onlooker. It sparked interest on many levels history, art, architecture and decay all rolled into one. It looked very ram shackled and disorganized as buildings were squeezed between buildings as trams, cars, cable cars, buses, funiculars, trains and gondolas all fought for space. It was gritty and dirty, but oh so interesting to take in. A really incredible place. The bridge leads you to the archbishops residence and more great views. We then wound our way down through the streets back to our hotel, where we had a well deserved drink. We could not wait for our walking tour tomorrow.
We settled in to our hotel and realized again we had been put in a prime position. The Douro right out our window was about to host the F1H2O World Championships for the world's fastest speedboats starting tomorrow (Friday). The place was buzzing with excitement and plenty of people. We walked down to the Luis 1 bridge completed in 1886 with a total length 385.25m; a weight of 3045 tons; an arch that measures 172m in length and is 44.6m high. It was a tight squeeze fitting on the very narrow footpaths on the bridge as we walked across the lower deck shared by cars and pedestrians. We watched boys jumping off the high stone walls and parts of the bridge at either end before finding a place for lunch at the town across the river called Vila Nova de Gaia. Once done here we wound our way up the steep roads to the top deck of the bridge shared by pedestrians and trams. This was a fabulous view up and down the river, but a little scary as just a railing stopped you from taking a 45m fall.
The two and a half hour trip from Santiago to Porto was kept interesting by our driver insisting on stopping at several easily missed sites. The gate and entry to Santiago for pilgrims and the town of Valença, not to be confused with Valencia, which was our first Portuguese town over the border, were the two he felt most important. Valenca is now a city (2009), but was used by the Romans. The fortress walls were first built in the 13th century, but extended and reinforced further in the 17th and 18th centuries. It has seen many battles and the walls were continually rebuilt. We then completed the 100 plus kilometres to Porto. First impression was that it looked very old, even the new sections. It was a city that did decay well although there were plenty of parts we felt looked ready to fall down all by themselves. We arrived at the Pestana Porto Hotel right on the Ribiera and in view of the Ponte Luis 1 bridge on Gustavo Eiffel Road. Designed by one of his students.

29 July 2015

Day 30 - Touring Santiago4: The sailing botofumeiro concluded its pendulumed arc and was brought under control by the red velvet clad servants. The mass ended and the vessel descends to the floor. The 17 priests and acolytes - not sure who was who except the three priests who offered up the mass - processed out of the church and the servers of the smoking thurible then thrust it back into its home position before tying off the ropes. The crowd rushed forward to take their photos, which were prohibited during the mass as it swung, but this was ignored by many and there was no one willing to enforce this rule. So typical in these places. A rule that is not worth having, especially for such a spectacular event. With mass over we headed up into the back streets of Santiago to the Curro da Parra restaurant recommended by our guide. It was a wonderful choice and we were so lucky to get in. This was, without doubt our best meal in Spain and great staff. A great ending to our Spanish leg.
Day 30 - Touring Santiago3: Being at the mass and thinking of dad meant a lot, even more so knowing that the day of his anniversary had already begun in Australia. As well as this we were suddenly presented with a wonderful moment to think of family, friends, work colleagues and more. A chance to be thankful for and appreciative of this trip we are on courtesy of the final dollars of my dad's inheritance. It was a reflective moment and one I got to share with him and with Lisa. The mass was a great moment. The offering of peace saw us shaking hands with complete strangers. The moment the botofumeiro went up was pure magic. It sailed through the air just feet from our heads eventually sailing within metres of the ceiling. The sacrificial incensed smoke spewed from the silver missile in great plumes enveloping all in its mist and smell as it sailed across the transcept. The smell being a way to cover the stench of smelly pilgrims being one explanation sold to us for its use.
As we waited for the mass to start I was able to get some close ups of the botofumeiro. There are actually two hanging here. One is silver and far more obvious hanging in the middle of the transcept of the cathedral, but a second gold larger and more elaborate version hangs back in the recess of the altar amongst the golden baroque walls behind. This one blends in like a chameleon and I certainly missed it this afternoon when caught up in our guides information. We sat and waited as people still wandered around the cathedral viewing all that was to be seen. With 10 minutes before the start of mass a guard invited people to move up to the unclaimed and reserved pilgrim seats. We did and ended up 5 rows from the front of the north wing. The doors were locked to tourists not interested in the mass, but many paid no attention to the direction to leave and were trapped in the church. We then sat through a whole mass in Spanish. It was intriguing and the sermon the only real difficulty.
Day 30 - Touring Santiago2: The entry point to the cathedral is now in the south for practical reasons, but this was in the north previously so pilgrims could enter from the dark side and leave into the light of a new beginning on the south side. This all had to do with the east west movement of the sun and pilgrimage. The letters omega and alpha were used on the southern gate to note that the end is now the beginning for all pilgrims. We moved on with our tour and Manuel eventually left us in the restaurant precinct where we had a lovely lunch of squid. We wandered the streets and then headed back for our siesta before heading back for the 7:30 mass. We arrived as advised at 6:45pm and got good seats in the north wing. Manuel explained that this was the direction the thurible would be swung, from north to south. We sat and waited as the cathedral filled. This would be my first mass since being away, but on the eve of the 4th anniversary of my Father's death it seemed appropriate.
Day 30 - Touring Santiago1: After calling it an early night we were up and ready to see it all properly today. Our guide Manuel met us at 10:00pm and took us up to the market entry. From here we saw the church of St Bellagio and then on to the cathedral museum and cathedral, just before the 12:30 mass began. We saw the 80kg botafumeiro, which takes 8 men to swing plus the added 150kg of rope used along with the incense. Manuel showed us the casket of St James' remains and the relic altar full of the supposed remains of many saints and religious icons. There is even one monstrance containing the blood of Pope John Paul II from the time someone tried to assassinate him. Bizarre indeed! We saw the door of redemption, which when passed through will cleanse you of all your sin, but this is only opened on St James Day, the 25th July when it falls on a Sunday. Next time this happens is 2021. We left the cathedral by the north gate traditionally the entry point for pilgrims.
There were many more people lined up to hug the statue of St James than to see his remains. Apparently you can go up a small staircase that goes up behind the altar to hug the statue before coming down the other side, even whilst mass is on. The queue was 70 people long easily. We walked straight in and out to see the supposed remains of St James found by a shepherd underneath a bright star in a field. Here the story gets murky as they have discovered a whole graveyard under the cathedral dating back to Roman times. We continued on to see other things and had many pleasant conversations. At about 2:00pm Manuel left us and we went to lunch. The stone wall in the restaurant had coins wedged and balanced all through the wall. We were intrigued and asked for an explanation. The waiter explained that this money was cleared off once a week and given to a charity for poor children. We placed our coins. We had one of our best and simplest lunches here at Los Caracoles with friendly staff.
From our hotel we travelled through the fish markets. It was Wednesday and a quiet day in the market with Thursday and Saturday being the traditional busy days. From here to a more traditional Romanesque church, but still with a Baroque influence. This is one of 42 churches in Santiago. The pregnant Madonna image you will see here is celebrated in Spain as it reflects Mary's humanity. From here we saw the crowds of pilgrims and many with school groups at the front of the cathedral. Manuel explained the buildings in the square from the Paradore, Archbishops House to the Rectory and Cathedral with all its restoration work going on. We discovered that there were two masses today, one at 12:30pm and one at 7:30pm. The later one was to use the huge botafumeiro with its burning incense and smoke. We planned to return for this. As the crowds built for the 12:30pm mass we moved on to see other things, but not before seeing the casket holding St James' remains below the altar.

28 July 2015

Just the evidence needed that we had arrived in Santiago. After our arrival at Hotel Virxe da Cerca we just sat and had a coffee. Our new friend David virtually had to drop and run as he was parked illegally out the front, still he would not leave until he knew our room was sorted as there seemed to be a slight mix up. This done and the shortest of heartfelt pleasantries uttered he disappeared on his next adventure - a 6 hour drive home; returning the van to Madrid tomorrow; jumping in his car and driving 4 hours to the Pyrenees for a business meeting and then strapping on his parachute for a fly in the mountains with friends. What a life! and in his early forties. We spent a fair bit of the afternoon resting. The siesta bug is catching, but not only that the pace of the last two days had caught up. In the afternoon we headed up from our hotel on the border of the old city into the cathedral. We grabbed a drink and some tapas at a restaurant, before seeing the cathedral under repair.
Day 29 - Santiago De Compostella2: We had breakfast and headed off for the trip into Santiago. David would have a 6 hour drive after this to get home to the outskirts of Madrid. Along the way he wanted to show us one of the oldest churches in Spain from Romanesque times in the 8th century. This was at Vilar de Donas. This church had been one cared for by the nights of St James, many of who were converted Templar Knights who no longer had a purpose now the crusades were over. An 87 year old man greeted us and was a local volunteer at the church. He could not tell us enough about the Celtic, Visigoth, Muslim and other heritage of the place as he pointed out inscriptions and symbols. It was so confusing and David was working hard to translate the Spanish. It was a nice little side trip and just enough of a way off the Camino that many may miss it. Our drive was completed quickly. Our hotel Virxe da Cerca was on a narrow street. The unload and farewell was so quick and David was gone.
Day 29 - Santiago De Compostella1: Needs no other introduction. After another reasonably late night at our accommodation at Casa Caxigueiro today was a travel day and our last day with the delightful David. I had made a previous note about mentioning David's friend and fellow tour guide Inaki. Inaki had ended up at this small hotel himself with his group of three Americans. After dinner and when his group had gone to bed he came and joined all of us as we had dessert. The owner, an elderly man, had a reputation of making all his own liqueurs from a 'grappa' type base. The old owner appeared at this time and out came the rose, mint and blueberry liqueurs. They were all very nice and we sat chatting and joking with our new friends as the liqueurs were consumed. The blueberry one in particular was very nice and was full of real fruit. They stay this way for 12 months before ready to drink. Lisa and I left the two friends about 10:30pm and caught up again in the morning.
The church at Vilar de Donas goes by the same name. It is about a 6km side track from the Camino, which we had more or less been following on the road. This was not far after the bigger town of Portomarin. It is only a small church, but it's interest lies in its ties to very ancient times and the graves of a number of Knights of St James, many of who were Templar Knights before this. We left a small donation with the enthusiastic self appointed guide who met us here and moved on. The roads and rest stops had more pilgrims than we had seen anywhere. This noted way of claiming credentials for the 100km trip from Sarria was very popular. At times you might see 20 or more pilgrims stretched out along roads or disappearing or reappearing into or from bush trails, but never that far from the main road. One group were all holding a rope and we worked out there were some blind people in this group. Our arrival in Santiago soon followed and a very quick farewell of David took place.

27 July 2015

Day 28 - Climb Every Camino2: After nearly 2hrs we eventually made the village of Villafranca and came out of our walk opposite an amazing castle owned by a famous Spanish Conductor who had made this place his home. We wandered down into the town and met up with David for a coffee near the Plaza Mayor. It was now about 12:15pm and we had more walking to do, so our look around Villafranca was brief, but enough to realise it was very pretty and a major town in this area. David then drove us up and up the main highway that passes through Villafranca, passing many pilgrims struggling with their packs. We stopped at the town of Herrerias where he let us out. We now had over 8km to walk to O'Cebreiro 1330m above sea level. This was to be a tough but stunningly beautiful walk as it went up hill the whole way. It began on road, but soon broke off into bush trails along babbling creeks and tree covered paths. Some sections became very steep and rocky climbs.
Day 28 - Climb Every Camino1: One night at the Palacio de Canedo did not seem enough, but today we were moving on. We had met Inaki last night, a friend of David's and the owner of the company that M&B had used to show us around San Sebastián. He was a fun loving and cheeky fellow and David and he were already enjoying their catch up. He and his group would be at our next accommodation also (note for later). We headed off and David took us to a spot in the middle of some vineyards outside the nearby town of Cacabelos. Here we set off on our first walk of the day, an 8km walk to Villafranca. This is where Anne and Dave had stayed just a few weeks ago. This was an even better walk than yesterday as we strolled through vineyards and one small town of Valtuille de Arriba. This was a poor looking town with many abandoned and derelict buildings, but still so much character. We wound our way along, up and down rolling hills of spectacular lush vineyards and charming farmland.
On arriving in O'Cebreiro we visited the church of Santa Maria de Real. This place is steeped in mystery stories of a miracle. After lunch we bought ourselves a Camino shell and a small gourd as a souvenir of our walk and visit to the Celtic village dating back to the 9th century. We had now travelled from the province of Leon to that of Gallicia. I had left David's hat in the restaurant and had to rush back to get it. From here with our afternoon coming to an end we travelled down to Sarria. This is the spot where you can start the 100km walk of the French Camino and claim a certificate of completion. Our friends George and Camille had done just that in the last 2 months. We still had some time so David took us up to show us a small Romanesque Church on the Camino trail outside Sarria. We then made our way to Casa Caxigueiro, our nights accommodation. This is a small country manner run by the descendants of the original owners. Parts of the house date back to the 11th century.
Day 27 - Buen Camino2!: We had had a fantastic day walking the Camino and it had flowed into the night as we sat on the balcony at dinner overlooking the vineyards and valley beyond with our guide David. We had been the last patrons on the balcony after the restaurant closed at 10:00pm and they happily left us chatting here until we called it a night at 11:30pm. We were enjoying David's company as we chatted about the day and got to know our guide better. David lives about 60km from Madrid in a mountain village. He has worked for Madrid & Beyond for many years and now has his own skiing and mountain gear distribution company that he fits in around tour work. He is a qualified biologist and was both an intelligent and fun loving host who could and would speak on any subject, including his love of rugby. More than this he was an adventure sport enthusiast who loves rock climbing and paragliding, which he pursues enthusiastically to say the least. We were getting on well.
Day 27 - Buen Camino1!: Today we left the San Marcos with our guide David. David would be with us for the next couple of days to add to the Camino experience we had already begun in so many ways. We were surprised to be picked up in an 8-seater van for just the two of us. Yes it was just for us. David drove us out to Astorga about 20km from Leon. Here we saw the Episcopal Palace designed by Gaudi as well as the cathedral. We walked through and saw many representations of the two images of St James: One as a pilgrim and the other riding a white horse and slaying the Moors. From here we drove on to the small town of Castrillo des Los Polvazares. David explained this little village had been saved by the Camino as many more pilgrims meant a greater need for hostels and restaurants. The beautifully paved streets were a small sign of the new wealth in the town, along with the new half sized tennis court we passed as we left the town. We were to find the Camino had saved many towns.
Our arrival at O'Cebreiro was after a long 8km plus walk. It had been a challenge but much enjoyed as we passed through the towns of Là Faba and Laguna de Castella on our way. We saw the altar containing the chalice and host that supposedly had turned into the body and blood of Christ in a miracle said to have occurred here. After we had lunch we began our descent to Sarria. David stopped at the famous statue of the giant pilgrim walking with his eyes set on Santiago in the not yet to be seen distance. We stopped for some photos as we got another 'Buen Camino!' from a passing pilgrim. We think this statue is the one in the film the Way, but whether it was or wasn't it was certainly impressive. Our journey then took us into Sarria and then on to our country homestead accommodation in one of the hamlets of Sarria.
The walks just kept getting more spectacular and the final leg of our walking was over 8km up to O'Cebreiro. This is an 9th century settlement with the most unusual thatched roof cottages. It would be our lunch destination some time after 3:00pm once we had climbed roads, paths and rocky trails. We met a lady from Uruguay on one section who had hiked in a shade tent and cold drinks for the pilgrims for just a donation. We had a nice chat with her with her broken English. Another very steep section we were surprised by four horses negotiating their way down the narrow trail with two riders. We moved as far out of their way as possible. More friendly encounters with pilgrims and locals saw many a 'Hola!' and 'Buen Camino!' A pilgrim on a push bike passed us on a difficult section of trail. Eventually we climbed to 1330m and the town of O'Cebreiro. David was waiting and we went to lunch to try the boiled octopus in oil, salt, paprika and potato. It was delicious.
The first stage of our walk on Monday (Day 28) took us through many beautiful vineyards and farmland until we reached Villafranca. We were thinking of friends Anne and Dave who had stayed here just a few weeks ago as they travelled through Northern Spain. We gave them another thought today as today was the day they would be flying back to Sydney. We were here because of them and we're sorry to think there time was up. Another sign to us all that all our wonderful adventures were coming to an end.
The Palacio de Canedo was a rustic and rural property that had been renovated from a 18th century (1730) dwelling to what it is today. The timber work throughout was quite superb. Last night on our wine tour with Sonia we had been bailed up in the bar by the man who designed and built a ceiling of carved timber that held up a slate roof without a nail to hold it in place. He had heard our tour guide telling us about the roof and stepped in to add his knowledge. He spoke enthusiastically to us in Spanish and had to be politely asked to move on. The balcony we ate at for dinner and breakfast looked out over the valley and district of El Bieroz. Many features impressed like the lift doors that were painted with a mural. The service was amazing even to the point they told me not to worry about paying for the one beer from the bar fridge. We had loved being driven around the vines by Sonia in her golf cart upon arrival and were made to feel like royalty as everyone else watched on🍇.

26 July 2015

After Rabanal and a very filling lunch we had the option of walking some more, but we were pretty much done. David was fine with this and we drove from here up to one of the highest points of the Camino to the Iron Cross. This is 1500m above sea level and is almost at the highest point of the Camino before the descent into Santiago still over 200 km away. The ground around the cross is covered in stones, many with messages written on them. These mark the burdens pilgrims carry with them and released at this point to free themselves. We both dropped the stones we carried from earlier in the day. We now moved on down to the town of Ponferrada and out to Canedo where we were staying at the Palacio de Canedo winery. This place was amazing and we had a winery tour, wine tasting and dinner before staying the night. We learnt all about Prada the owner, who had breathed life into the district of Bierzo through his enterprises. This whole community admired this man. This was a wonderful place.
Sometimes the markers were not as easy to find a as you might think, but so many pilgrims leave other signs like piles of rocks; arrows made of rock; messages on rocks; words written in rock. In one section just before Rabanal, our lunch stop, we had about a kilometre of fencing that people had made crosses of all shapes and sizes out of sticks which they had woven into the fences. Some were wrapped in colorful material and it was quite a site. We ended up making one of our own. We were walking some reasonably flat sections today through some fairly dry countryside. Sometimes you were on or beside roads and sometimes in the bush, but never far from the road. After Castrillo we passed through Santa Catalina de Somoza, El Ganso (goose) and eventually Rabanal del Camino for a pilgrims lunch. David had met us in the van at several points to check on our progress, but we were OK and completed the 15km target for the day. We loved our introduction and walking with pilgrims on bike or foot.
The walk from Castrillo was the start of our walking part of the French Camino, the most popular version beginning in the French Pyrenees. We were to become very grateful we did not have to do it with backpacks as so many other pilgrims on the journey. David explained there are many ways to do the Camino. Not everyone does it in one go. Some come and complete small sections year after year; some do just the 100km trek from Saria, that grants them a certificate and others do it like us with a mixture of car and walking. He liked this way as it meant you saw some of the most picturesque sections. He was not a fan of some of the boring roadside sections you had to walk out of cities and towns. David himself had lost count of how many times he had done the walk, but he had done it first with his Dad when 12 years of age from Astorga. Since then he has done it many times and in many different ways including walking and cycling. We soon became good at spotting the yellow arrows and markers.

25 July 2015

Day 26 - Free to Roam Leon: We walked up the main drag from our hotel to the old city. This was just over a kilometre and we enjoyed seeing some of the new city. Leon is a very well set out with lovely wide streets and those octagonal intersections you see in Barcelona. It is also very clean. It was a Saturday and crowds were minimal wherever we went. Our first stop was Casa Botines, now a bank, but one of Gaudi's works outside of Barcelona. You can't go in, but you can get a nice photo with a statue of Gaudi sitting on a park bench with his sketch pad. We then headed to the Leon cathedral. It was closed for the moment but would open later. We wandered through the wonderful food market in Plaza Mayor and many of the backstreets with lovely looking restaurants. We bought some home made crisps and a pair of shoes from a lovely Swiss girl who had a friend in Canberra. We then stopped for a Sangria. Finally we got into the cathedral after watching a number of wedding groups.
The stained glass windows in the Leon Cathedral were amongst the best I can remember seeing. The brightness of these windows is the main claim to fame for the cathedral and they did not let us down. We opted to not do the audio tour, so just paid for the 5€ entry only tour. It was enough to just go around and appreciate the beauty of these windows. This took up a big chunk of our afternoon before heading to the Basilica of San Isidoro to see impressive murals and a hot candidate for the holy grail, as believed by some historians. It certainly dates back to the time of Christ. A stop in a churros cafe saw us tick off our second traditional food for the day - sangria🍷, churros & hot chocolate ☕️. We were now done and headed back to the hotel. The sun still blazing down at 30 degrees and already 7:00pm. Loving these long days of sunshine, but it certainly plays havoc with your body clock.
A few of our treats for the day. A little bit of San Isodoro's Basilica including the ancient weather vane from the 7th century. Some of the sites around the town as we walked back to our hotel, the San Marcos, including some of the beautiful park that runs along the river.
There was so much to see and we loved wandering around Leon. It had a great mix of traditional and modern shops and restaurants. A funny T-Shirt shop had a replica of Tyrion Lannister from Game of Thrones. Lisa just had to get a photo. Beautiful people wandered around the cathedral as a number of weddings were taking place a marching band performed for one wedding to welcome the bride as she left the cathedral. We wandered many interesting back streets and liked what we saw.

24 July 2015

We thought we might get out for a look at Leon once settled in our room, but this place is so amazing we spent the afternoon wandering all over the hotel and the church attached. Whilst in the church a trio of musicians were rehearsing by playing and singing for some event. We got to listen to some wonderful music whilst admiring all the sea shell sculptures all over the walls. By now it was nearly 6:00pm and we had not had lunch since on a train for most of that period. We went out on the terrace overlooking the Bernesga River and had some food and a drink. So here we are in a lavish 5 star hotel and we just had one of the cheapest lunch/dinners of our trip with appetizers, alcohol, food and coffee. Got to love Spain - so reasonable. This all but concluded our day. We were tired and getting more so, not of travel, but just all the activity, different beds. We just needed to slow up a bit. Lisa rested and I went looking for a Laundromat, but it was closed, so washed them in the bath.
Day 25 - Leon Arrival2: ....when I noticed it seemed a very long way to the hotel based on the highlighted route. I then noticed the distance of 93km. Something was wrong. I dove back into my travel folder and realised I had given him our stay for two nights time. He realised I was trying to get his attention and passed him the new address for the Hotel San Marcos. He laughed and a few "Si! Si!" And we turned around and headed back. We were all talking and all got the joke and the relief being expressed by all, but no one was speaking the same language. Our pleasant driver proudly announced San Marcos as we approached and more sighs of relief. The trip only cost me 10€, but had the potential to cost so much more. We were lucky! We checked into our 16th century monastery once owned by Ferdinand the Catholic King, a name we heard the other day as one who had laid siege for 8 months to Burgos Castle. It is a grand place with a football field sized courtyard and palatial entry.
Everything about the Parador San Marco was grand, the rooms less so, but only because we had been spoilt with some stunning rooms so far this trip. The entry hall was palatial and before long we were in our room and ready to explore. The hotel itself sits on the Bernasga River and is just over a kilometre from the old town, but is itself one of the Top 4 places to see as rated on Trip Advisor. Since its origins in the 12th century it has been a monastery, hospital and prison. It was rebuilt in the 16th century by Ferdinand the Catholic King. It is steeped in history and from 1936 to 1940 it housed more than 20,000 prisoners during the Civil War and had its fair share of deaths in custody. Mostly though it offered shelter to pilgrims on the Camino. It featured in the movie 'The Way' with Martin Sheen when the group stops to be pampered before continuing their journey.
Day 25 - Leon Arrival1: After our half an hour delay and the panic to get on the right coach we had a relaxing ride through to Leon. Along the way the countryside changed and became drier as the flatter farmland stretched out for great distances across the plains beyond. Large sunflower plantations dipped their heads to bow to the end of blooming, although still impressively yellow to draw attention. Wind farms covered the occasional hill slowly turning on their power. Signage at the stations began to change to colorful yellow and gold beacons marking our move into the district of Galicia. Forest and field passed by as we saw more and more houses instead of units. We finally arrived at Leon and all went well on arrival. We found our taxi and reached into my vouchers and gave the driver one with hotel name and Leon at the end. He baulked ever so slightly, jumped in and punched the address into the GPS. He gave me back my voucher and off he went. He was still fiddling with the GPS....
Day 25 - The Way to Leon: Today is Friday and marks the start of our final 2 weeks of travel. A farewell came through from Jan & Dave today as they head back home after nearly 4 weeks abroad. It would be a reminder to all of us that the exciting time we are having on the road is coming to an end for all and to keep enjoying it whilst it lasts. We enjoyed another slow start to our day as our train to Leon was not until 12:33pm. We breakfasted in the beautiful palace function room and then went for a short walk to the park once more. We passed a market along the way, but it was mainly clothes and jewellery and nothing of the quality we had seen in French markets. The park was as beautiful as yesterday and we watched some of the same faces and new wander through with us. We now headed back to check out and organize a taxi. The girl explained in broken English that the new station was a result of too many accidents in town with the old train line. We got a taxi to the station.
A final shot from the window of our room showing two of our favourite spots, the cathedral and the hilltop home of the castle. Our final walk in the nearby park saw us see a pilgrim with his backpack and his dog with the same. All this before heading to the modern Burgos Rosa de Lima station on the outskirts of town for our trip to Leon. The train was half an hour late and we sat on the bear empty platform taking in the countryside around us. We had positioned ourselves near the possible front of the train to get on Coach 1. So much for planning as the train arrived and Coach 1 was the last carriage at the other end. A mad scramble down the platform as we passed coach 15, 12, 21 - no sense or reason here, of course no.1 would be the last carriage or first from the other end. Heart attack averted, just, we loaded the carriage as the train took off. So glad there were few people on the platform or I would have gone through them like a bowling ball through skittles. Forever be wary!!

23 July 2015

Day 24 - Finally a Burgos to Ourselves: Today is the first day in nearly a week we had no travel and no tour. Nothing to do but entertain ourselves. A very slow start saw us make breakfast by 10:00am. That in itself was bliss. We decided to change direction today and walked out our hotel door and turned left. This means we did not head to the city. We walked along the pattern paved path as Lisa still marveled at the green walking man stride out his directions to cross. The timer counted down our opportunity and the bird tweeted a reminder. With the river on our right we soon reached Plaza Castillo and the beautiful riverside park of Paseo de la Isla. Many photos taken we then headed up to today's surprise Castillo Burgos. This sat on the hill above Burgos since 884AD. A ruin of a castle, but an amazing view over Burgos and puts the city in the context of the countryside; the farms and wind farms that surround. The highlight - going down into the tunnels below the ruined fortress.
Our lazy afternoon in Burgos included a rest in our room and more wandering around and a bit of shopping. Very relaxing, but still lots of walking. We headed out to a recommended restaurant - The Angel of Paloma and the food was some of the best we'd had - a beautiful teppanyaki sirloin cow and I had a red bean soup also. It was a nice way to finish our day and last night in Burgos.
The park Paseo de la Isla which followed the Arlanzon River was just so beautiful and relaxing. We walked its full length with Camino reminders showing up through tiled or paved shells and statues of pilgrims. We then found a way past the hospital and followed a staired trail up to Castillo Burgos. We paid our 7.40€ to get into this ancient fortress from the 9th century, which included a well tour into the tunnels below the structure and into the hill the castle is built upon. This was our surprise for the day as we went down 10 metres to travel through tunnels built in the 12th or 13th century. An amazing engineering marvel. The well itself goes down 63.5 metres into the hill. Many battles occurred down here as enemies tried to build tunnels to cut off the water supply and breach the castle. Our Spanish guide, Susannah, tried hard to include us with a bit of English here and there, but despite not understanding much we enjoyed listening to the Spanish commentary. Loved this!!

22 July 2015

Day 23 - Surprising Burgos: From the moment we left the train Burgos had our interest. We arrived at a beautiful modern station in the middle of a field. A bit like Avignon TGV. There were hardly any people in this big complex. We walked out the front where two lonely taxis stood in the far side of the street, with field beyond. We began the trip into town as a few new blocks of apartments popped out of the fields. These became more numerous and then we came upon some very modern university buildings. A bit more traffic and some older buildings and a beautiful park and suddenly it seemed we were in the city or town. The taxi pulled up at our hotel, The Hotel NH Palacio de la Merced. It was an old style building actually connected to a church. In fact it was a 16th century Palace at one stage. We checked in and were offered an upgrade to a suite for 30€ a night and we took it. The room was actually a suite - four rooms: Lounge, bedroom, dressing room and bathroom. It was impressive.
After a couple of hours in the cathedral we headed back for a rest and got ready for dinner. We tracked down some of the restaurants M&B recommended and went to one called Meson Del Cid, positioned on Santa Maria Square next to the Cathedral. It was a modern looking restaurant with traditional fare. The owner and waitress had very little English and we struggled a bit. He was particularly stern and we were uncertain of the recommendation, especially when at 8:15pm we were the only people here. The food was simple but very good, although this is the second meal in a row where a meat dish came as just the meat. Lisa had a whole leg of lamb and I got a few chips with my lamb chops. All was beautifully cooked, but we needed some vegetables. We survived the night and were entertained by a performing minstrel who momentarily dance passed our window. The night air was cold and after a quick walk headed back to the hotel.
Lonely Planet says it all: This Unesco World Heritage–listed cathedral is a masterpiece. A former modest Romanesque church, work began on a grander scale in 1221. Remarkably, within 40 years most of the French Gothic structure had been completed. You can enter the cathedral from Plaza de Santa María for free, and have access to the Capilla del Santísimo Cristo, with its much-revered 13th-century crucifix, and the Capilla de Santa Tecla, with its extraordinary ceiling. However, we recommend that you visit the cathedral in its entirety. From me: 7€ per adult. We loved it, but the audio tour whilst fascinating is information overload. Still it is Iike and unlike any you have seen before. A fascinating place for overly busy art. Image, fresco, relief, carving, sculpture etc. surprised it every got finished.
Once settled into our hotel we went to explore this place to find it had lots of charming spaces within the hotel. We then crossed the road, walked along the river and then crossed into the old city. We loved the topiary trees and enjoyed walking down the tree lined plaza that ran along the river. Eventually we passed the old theatre and arrived at Mio Cid Plaza where stands a statue of El Cid on horse. We then wandered into Plaza Mayor and had a drink before searching for some recommended restaurants from Madrid & Beyond.
Day 23 - Burgos: After an early walk around the Guggenheim we had breakfast on the rooftop restaurant overlooking the museum. From here it was a controlled dash to the station by taxi to jump on our first RENFE train 🚄 for the trip to go to Burgos. We made it by 5 minutes, but did have a moment of panic when we could not work out any signage and were met with a closed information centre. Luckily the 1st person we found in uniform to ask was the one checking people onto our train. Madrid & Beyond had upgraded our train ticket for free and we sat in 'preferential class' for the trip where you are offered papers and they put a show up on the screen. Our 9:20am trip was to be 2hrs & 29min and we were due into Burgos by 11:49am. Here we would have two days at our leisure to explore and we were looking forward to slow down in the pace of the trip. The train trip covered some beautiful countryside. Sunflowers; wind farms; mountains and farmland. The odd pretty town or lonely farmhouse.
Another travel day, but before heading off I got out for one last walk around the Guggenheim. The rain prevented this yesterday, but today whilst still overcast, was a much better day to do this. The building is a spectacular design. It was great to walk around and at 8:00am I only had to share it with a few joggers. I went down the sweeping stairs to the river where I could view many of the sculptures we saw whilst on the Guggenheim outdoor gallery. This itself was across a huge pond to make it look like the museum was part of the river. The buildings fish type design is very obvious from here and even more so when you know that's what Gary intended. The riverside stroll takes you right under the giant spider. Definitely one of my favourites. From here you can wander further along the Bilbao River, but I worked my way up the long staircase and catwalk onto the bridge which is the western gateway into the city and back to our hotel with the Guggenheim welcoming all at this point.

21 July 2015

After a good nap we headed out to wander the streets of Bilbao. We wanted to start with the outside areas of the Guggenheim, but the rain had come again with the thunder rumbling across the sky. We were enjoying the cooler conditions, but not by much as it was still humid. We headed into town and walked the main street and saw many lovely shops with huge sales - 50% or more. We were still very tired, but pushed on. We looked at a number of Pintxos bars, but really weren't up to the battle with crowds and Spanish today. We opted for dinner in the beautiful dining room on Level 7 of our hotel looking right over the Guggenheim. Not that adventurous, but a lovely view and a classy meal and suited the moment perfectly. Travel has been great, but pushing hard each day to see as much as you can sometimes goes against the instincts of rest and recovery. We should have built in a few more rest days. Struggling in some ways at present and really missing the friends we started with weeks ago.
The Guggenheim was certainly one of the treats of the trip. We have marveled at this amazing building through pictures for such a long time now. To get the chance to see it in the flesh, both inside and out was a dream come true. Nothing about the place disappointed, Not even the lunch at the bistro. Our hotel was right across the road and we had a full view of the museum. It was indeed magic. It worked out well with both our first rain and having hit the travel wall today. We came back and slept for a couple of hours before deciding on a bit of an exploration of the streets of Bilbao. We are getting quite tired, despite loving all we are seeing.
Day 22 - Moving onto Bilbao: after breakfast we were picked up by our driver Roberto at 9:30am. He did not have much English but tried to engage with us the whole journey. It was an hours trip from San Sebastián to Bilbao through beautiful lush green countryside and rolling hills. We experienced our first rain of the trip along the way and it was quite heavy. We reached the Gran Hotel Dominie at about 10:30am, but could not get our room. This was OK as we headed right across the road to spend the wet morning in the Guggenheim Museum. We saw the wonderful sculptures of the flowered dog; spider and not to mention the building itself. It was a great way to spend the morning and the art works by Serra, Basquiat and Koons were interesting to say the least. There was also a 15 minute animated film with amazing shapes and color by Sikander called Parallax. We both enjoyed the art and the environment of this amazing space. We had a beautiful lunch at the bistro and checked in to the hotel.

20 July 2015

After spending a couple of hours getting over our walk to Pasaia we finally got ourselves ready and headed out a about 9:00pm. The sun was still blazing, but sinking lower in the sky as it prepared itself for sunset. The beach crowd had dropped by more than half as the sun drenched bods disappeared back into their hotels. The promenade was still busy as people and bikes wound their way up and back. A lady sang opera as we strolled along the full length of the promenade. We reached the western end passing the rolled beach umbrellas and folded beach lounges enjoying the passing parade before returning. We stopped in at the Cafe de la Concha, but the waitresses were so disinterested in serving we got up and left and ended back at the bar in front of, and run by, our hotel. The service was instant and we enjoyed a huge whiskey and coke. Ah yes! We are back in Spain where measures and plimsol lines on drinks do not exist. Now this is a holiday!!!
Day 21 - Hilltop Walk Beyond San Sebastián: As the sun shone on our first morning in San Sebastián it was incredible to see the crowded beach from Sunday almost empty today. We knew it wouldn't stay that way, but for now it was serene and quiet. We were moving slowly and enjoying another lazy morning, but had ourselves ready and breakfasted for our 10:00am meeting with William our guide from our Pintxos Tour. We began the day with laughter and conversation and it stayed that way all day. We headed out to the La Concha Promenade and walked along before turning right and up the Boulevard and across the Puente de Zumola over the Urumea River. Here we walked along Zurriola Beach, where William, our engineer guide was once a surf instructor. From here then up into the hills beyond on our way to the area of Pasaia and the towns of San Pedro and San Juan. We were now on the Camino de Compostela, but heading the opposite direction. Markers and sign posts showed the way.
After a drink and some nuts at the spring we began the panoramic descent into the port of Pasaia. Here is where the big ships come through a very narrow passage into a larger harbour. We would see train loads of cars arriving here for departure from Pamplona where the VW Polo is made along with some Audi and Mercedes makes of cars. We passed a museum where they are reconstructing a wooden whaling boat for 2016 celebrations of culture in San Sebastián. We had a beer and some Pinxtos in a bar on the San Pedro side of the harbour before catching a boat across to our restaurant on the San Juan side. Here we had lunch with William. The conversation did not stop until it was time t catch a taxi back to our hotel and bid this charming young man farewell. The afternoon was spent recovering although already 5:00pm when we returned.
It was such a lovely day and so many pics of beautiful scenery that I just had to put up a few more. After lunch and before our return to the hotel (see Lisa on the stairwell) we did see a place where Victor Hugo did live for a short while in San Juan. He of course wrote the story Les Miserables. We also explored a bit of San Juan and all its Basque protest signs asking for the return of Basque prisoners who had been jailed around the world so their families could still visit them.
The walk from San Sebastián to Pasaia would take us about 3 hours and cover about 9km. It was amazing how quickly we were out of San Sebastián and into the countryside. William talked with us about many aspects of life in San Sebastián and Spain. He shared a lot of his story also having been born in Le Mans, France. We covered some politics and history and all about the basque area as we climbed to the top of the headland for great views back to San Sebastián. We passed a number of hikers doing the pilgrims way with their shell clearly hanging from their backpack. We passed by an ancient aqueduct hidden in the foliage and stopped at a spring to fill our bottles with fresh water. It was a hot day, but really it could not have been more perfect.
Day 20 - San Sebastián Spain 🇪🇸🚆: We made it. Another country and Bordeaux and France 2 hours and 29 minutes ago. The taxi from our hotel took us along the river, whilst the other day we went through the city. We realised this gave us a really good overview of quite a bit of Bordeaux that we had not seen. It was a fabulous 24 hours and we loved the look and feel of the place. After no real problems getting to and on the train apart from the usual stress we had a good trip to Irun where the train terminated. Our ticket had an hours wait here to get to San Sebastián, but we decided to pay the 40€ and jump in a taxi. The driver was quiet and then a conversation again about rugby and his passion for it. We had a me friend. We arrived at Hotel Londres right on the beach of La Concha. We were just getting over the beautiful beach view room we had been upgraded to for free when our pinxtos tour guide William rang. We were off on our first adventure not 10 minutes after arrival.

19 July 2015

On the train I realised my Trip Advisor City Guide Maps was active and took a screenshot of a moment in time as we approached Irun. Irun is the end of the line for trains coming from France and from here it is a matter of taxi, local train or bus into San Sebastián. We took a 30 minute taxi to arrive at our hotel at 7:05pm - 5 minutes after we were to meet our guide for a Pinxtos Tour of San Sebastián. Our guide William (Guillermo) took us along the beach, up the boulevard, past The Bexta market and into the old town. We had a great night at 5 highly recommended tapas bars - Sorry only pictures of 4 here as we were so excited and deep in conversation that we forgot to take pictures. We even had a glass of one of the best reds in Spain at 16.50€ a glass. William was great company - a man with 3 engineering degrees, but enjoys being a tour guide more. Intelligent young man from Le Mans in France and another who has lived 6 months in Australia. He would be our guide in San Sebastián.
Day 20 - Out and about in Bordeaux: a good nights sleep for some and a bit of a sleep in for a change saw us wake on Sunday morning in Bordeaux. Lisa had been a little upset last night as news came in that our cat Tootsie's nose cancer was looking bad. We were relying on family to keep an eye on this. We had breakfast at the hotel and headed out to walk all around Bordeaux until our taxi at 3:00pm for St Jean Station. We headed down to see the Palace de la Bourse on the La Garonne River. From here up to the beautiful old city gates then to the Cathedral St Andre where we paid our 5.50€ to climb the 231 steps to the bell tower. Puffed and sweaty we reached the top. What a view, even more so with no high rise buildings in Bordeaux. I climbed the extra stairs to the spire with the gold Mary statue. More walking and shops followed. We stopped for our first Aperol and Spritzer at a cafe and back to grab our bags and a taxi. We made the train and off to San Sebastián to start our tour.
The amazing court house buildings also caught our eyes near the Cathedral, especially the acorn like structures built into the frame. We walked up the Rye Sainte Catherine with all its beautiful shops almost glad many were closed, before heading back down to La Garonne River to see the Miroir D'Eau which is a splash like pool for people to cool off in, but also, when still alleles for reflections of the palace to appear. This meant our 4 hours of exploring was all but up and we stopped for a drink. I decided to try the Aperol and Spritzer Ingrid had mentioned was her drink. We had seen people drinking this pretty orange liquid at bars and we discovered this was it. I liked its strong bitter taste. I'll add that as another new drink tried along with the Pastis I had tried with Jon in Aix. It was an Ouzo tasting local specialty.
One of the day's highlights was the climb up the Pey-Berland Tower next to St Andre (Andrews) Cathedral. It was a free standing tower as they were concerned the vibration of the bells would damage the cathedral. Built in the mid15th century in flamboyant Gothic style by the archbishop who bears the same name. In 1863 the gold Our Lady of Aquitane was added to the spire. We climbed all 231 steps in the claustrophobic and clammy air of the spiral, but it was well worth it.
We checked out after breakfast and at about 10:30am hit the streets to explore the beauty of Bordeaux. Being Sunday there was hardly anyone around in some section and many shops stayed closed all of the time we wandered. The beautiful old gates and Palace de la Bourse were stunning, but still there were plenty of other things to grab our interest also, like the two people dancing next to the palace fountain and the strange bird's nest decorating the entry to a cafe. A feast for the eyes.
Day 19 - Bordeaux Bound: After seeing everyone off and getting ourselves back to St Charles station by taxi we sat and waited for the board to tell us what platform. We sat in our first Mcdonalds for the trip for just a coffee. Soon we were off on our 6 hour jaunt across France stopping in a number of places along the way. It was a great trip and some interesting countryside whenever we looked up from naps; conversation or phones. We had a great standing area nearby that allowed you to get up and have a stretch or stand and look at the view. The train arrived to the minute and we found our way to the taxi rank and headed across town to the Le Boutique Hotel. The whole of Bordeaux looked amazing - Very old and lots of beautiful buildings. We were very impressed by the time we arrived at our small; well designed and quirky hotel. It was located right in the middle of the city with plenty of sights nearby. We settled went for a walk and ended back for a beautiful evening of tapas.

18 July 2015

Once settled we headed out for our first walk around town. We headed up to Place Gambetta and wandered down the Cours de L'Intendance. A beautiful wide plaza with trams, footpaths and cars. The buildings were reminding us if Paris, Bath and Madrid all in one. It was quite beautiful wandering around in the light of the late afternoon past the Grand Theatre and down to the beautiful fountain and ornate obelisk in the Quinconces. By the time we had spent an hour or more wandering we headed back to try the tapas and wine at our wine themed hotel. We showered and headed down to dinner. The 18th century courtyard was surrounded by the weathering of time. The old chestnut tree sat in the middle of this beautifully prepared area as the rules of tapas eating were explained. We played a little game of guess the wine with the Sommelier. It was a bit of fun and we were both correct. This lead to a quick explanation about the wine. The food was beautiful. We hoped not as good as Spain.
3 Rue Lafaurie de Monbadon, Bordeaux City-Centre, 33000 Bordeaux, France - Located in the heart of the historic center of Bordeaux, Le Boutique Hotel is an 18th-century townhouse that is surrounded by a lush, green courtyard. It features a 1507 ft² terrace shaded by a 100-year-old chestnut tree. The hotel has a wine theme throughout and bottles are stacked artistically all around the place. All the rooms are named after the big wine making Chateaus in the area. We had a beautiful tapas meal here where you begin with a complimentary wine with a twist. You must name the variety to the head sommelier before moving on. We nailed our guesses - Sauv and Chard. Not sure what the punishment was if we did not know. Maybe we got to drink the cheap stuff.
Apart from a lot that was organized by Anne and others we dealt with a couple of very special local companies when in Provence and in Nice. The Tour Designer in Provence did the bulk of the planning for the second week of our trip. Catherine and her team of Anais and Marion looked after us each day. We were so impressed with their planning Anne also got them for some day trips in the first week. Catherine organized our hotel accommodation in Aix, Nice and Marseille. When in Nice we had two days with Ingrid from Kultours. We knew very little about her until meeting her, apart from a glowing recommendation from Catherine. Ingrid was a great lady and really connected with our group. She organized for us to see all that we asked for and quite a few more she threw in as her suggestions. A picnic in the hills near Gourdon was pure genius. Knowing she starred in a 4-minute segment with Manu on Aussie TV was a priceless bonus. Ingrid also used a shuttle company that were fabulous also.
Three train journeys in three days: 1. Friday 17/7 - Nice to Marseille via Antibes, St Raphael Valescure, Les Arcs Draguignan, Toulon - 8:55am to 11:34am - 3hrs 5min (ran late) 2. Saturday 18/7 - Marseille to Bordeaux via Nimes, Montpellier, Sete, Beziers, Narbonne, Carcassone, Toulouse, Montauban, Marmande - 10:18am to 4:29pm - 6hrs 11min 3. Sunday 19/7 - Bordeaux to Irun via Gare De Dax, Bayonne, Biarritz, Saint-Jean-de-Luz, Hendaye - 3:51pm to 6:20pm - 2hrs 29min
Day 19 - The Group Separates: After two weeks together today we faced the final departures. A quiet dinner at a lovely Italian restaurant called Fuxia was our final meal together. Lisa and I had discovered this chain in Paris in 2011 and liked it so much we went back to it a number of times during visits to Paris. This was the first one we had seen outside of Paris and the quality was just as we had remembered. This morning bought a lot of hurried goodbyes as all had final things to do and different times to depart. Anne and Dave left at 8:00 as they were jumping in a train to Brussels to meet up with their son Anthony. Pauline, Jon, Julie and Danny were next as they headed to the airport for a flight to Barcelona with the chance of a catch up with Steve and Margo and a tour of Spain. We headed out next to St Charles SNCF for our train trip to Bordeaux 6 hours away. It will be a chance for a good rest. The stay in Marseille was just a stopover. We were glad we saw more last week.
The last couple of weeks with all had been wonderful so many places; so many experiences; so much laughter. We met so many beautiful French people and loved their constant polite greetings. So many of the young French waiters and waitresses were keen to engage and had themselves or had friends who had been to Australia to improve their English. They all spoke so positively about our home. The stereotype of the rude arrogant French was such a small percent of our experience. We loved meeting so many polite, friendly and fun-loving people. It has been one of the great trips with great friends. We have loved sharing it all with you. THANK YOU!!! Merci!

17 July 2015

Day 18 - Nice to Marseille 7: The laundromat cleared and eventually the three Aussies were all that were left. Danny and I headed back as Dave had about 15 minutes of drying left. By the time I had got to the room Lisa was laughing about the shirtless man at the laundromat. Danny had posted a picture on Messenger and apparently the story had spread amongst the group. I just wanted to have a shower after the whole sweaty experience and had stripped down for a shower as Lisa was still laughing at the events at the laundry. Without warning the front door opened and I ducked for cover as a maid came in to stock the minibar. Lisa found it hard to contain herself. It seems all of Marseille wanted to see the topless man from the laundromat. We met all for a drink at the level 3 pool and bar and headed out to the street to find a late lunch and early dinner. We found an old favourite called Fuxia had dinner and we went home. The others went walking, but Lisa and I were all washed up.
Day 18 - Nice to Marseille 6: I was able to help Danny with stuff and had learnt well from all my mistakes and got him off and washing. My first wash ended and I went to wash them again. I put my 10€ in again as they all watched on. I got my powder and my machine started as my change tinkled in the dispenser. French Mumble! Mumble! Mumble! Cheer and someone yelled jackpot! We all laughed. They knew I had got it. Danny and I chatted to the very interesting young Lithuanian who was in his 3rd year of traveling with nothing but his back pack. He said he was a student of life and wanted to challenge the life we all have been taught. It remained a mystery how he funded and survived his travels. Anne & Dave joined the happy crowd and we got them going. They were surprised to see me with no shirt as I had learnt from my friend to wash as much as I could, so threw my shirt in the machine and joined him shirtless in the street chatting. They laughed at me on that too. The washing continued.
Day 18 - Nice to Marseille 5: The ladies pointed out some things I needed to do and the drama went on. I found some free liquid in one dispenser and put it in the machine. Clothes in and money in and pressed the start button on the central control panel. Nothing! The black Frenchman came over and closed the machine properly and it began. At this point a young Lithuanian man came in to check his washing. The others were still talking and pointing and he pointed some things out to me in English. It seems I was now washing my clothes in Fabric Softener. I put 10€ in the control panel to get change, but it only gives you credit to wash. The ladies were now giggling and throwing their hands in the air. The black man was telling me to ring the number on the wall. Just then the owner walked in and they all told him what this dumb Aussie was up to. He gave me back my 10€ and explained things. The temp in the laundry was oppressive. Lisa had had enough and headed back as Danny arrived.
Day 18 - Nice to Marseille 4: Danny's driver had got upset that our driver with the bigger taxi had taken Danny & Julie's luggage. They are entitled to a fee for luggage and our guy had claimed it. Danny solved this before it got ugly by giving his driver a bit more and he was happy with that. From here some checked in and got rooms, whilst others would not have rooms until 3:00pm. We were in the latter so I grabbed my washing and got the info to the closest laundromat. This was in the dingy back streets behind our hotel. Lisa came with me and within 5 minutes we found the 'Laverie'. It was a laundromat, nothing flash, about 6 machines and 4 driers and all automated and directions in French. Oh my God! Not another laundry story. The next two hours of my life were filled with another laundry story. Where do I begin? We tried hard to decipher the info and the two French ladies and black French man watched us in amusement as we tried to decipher the puzzle.
Day 18 - Nice to Marseille 3: Antibes - St Raphael Valescure - Les Arcs Draguignan - Toulon were passed through as we grabbed glimpses of the azure coast. Jon and I were able to move into a seat together as people exited, but most stayed in single seats spread out through the carriage. We were meant to make Marseille at 11:34am, but track problems as we came into Marseille meant the arrival was not until after 12:00. A few travelers had become anxious as they had transfer arrangements. Jon and I had headed to the luggage early to keep an eye in it only to have to stand for over an hour. The final arrival saw the usual mad rush to leave the train. Jon and I chose any pause to pass out another bag and all got off safely. We had a bit of a search for the taxi rank, but eventually ended in the right place. Somehow we got our message across and we bundled into three taxis and got to the Radisson Blu on the mariner in about 10 minutes for about 20€.
Day 18 - Nice to Marseille 2: Once the board clucked up Platform G we were off. A large crowd surged for the escalator as an every man and woman for themselves attitude took over. We moved with the swarm trying to keep an eye out for one another. We got ourselves up on the platform and headed towards the front of the train. Whistles were blaring and we were not sure if it was for our train or not. As bags were passed up from the platform we got to Lisa and I. Suddenly the group realized we'd jumped into the 1st class carriage and there was no time to change carriages. I bolted to the next carriage back which was 2nd class and Lisa and I got the bags in before working my way back to help the others who were unsure of whether to go forward or back. Things calmed down from here as we moved back a carriage; stacked and stored luggage and then spread ourselves through the carriage grabbing any single seats left. Such a drama! We were finally settled and our 2hr and 39min journey had begun.
Day 18 - Nice to Marseille 1: Last night saw another great meal at 'La Favola' near the market area. This had been one of Ingrid's recommendations and it was another winner. Jon was in his element and had us all in stitches with his stories about cicadas; clothing; beach shoes and crazy eating photography. Dave F and Jon were bouncing around the possibilities and dynamics of Jon's better beach shoe idea as the creative mind and analytical mind exploded with possibilities. It was hilarious. As another great meal with our friends concluded the realization began to set in that it was becoming time for farewells. Jan and Dave fly to Venice today and the rest were training to Marseille. We caught Jan and Dave again before the ever reliable Jean-Jacques arrived for our transfer to the station. We had all had a simply fantastic time together. The remainder jumped in the bus and we were soon at the railway and ready to jump on our train. We anxiously waited to get platform information.
Day 17 - The Western French Riviera 2: There was a picnic wedding taking place next to us with classic cars; temporary shaded canopies; floral decorations and a bar area to add to the scene which extended out to the valley below and Nice in the distance. What a place! What a view! Jean-Jacques sat chatting with Dave F on the bank; others sat at the table and Jon stretched out on the picnic blanket. Ingrid had supplied all the necessary accessories to make the picnic a success. After lunch Jean-Jacques drive us up for a walk through Gourdon. Yes it was very pretty and with great views and lovely shops and cafes. Tick!!! After lunch many snoozed as we travelled back down the valley. We saw a rail bridge blown up in the war by allied forces to slow the German retreat that was never rebuilt and followed the Loup River down stopping for views of waterfalls and gorges. We eventually arrived in St Paul de Vence one of many stunning hilltop towns. Ingrid had seen David Bowie here once.
Train to Marseille and all the stress a travel day can bring. A laundromat story and a lovely lunch which was really dinner and that was enough excitement for one day in Marseille. Jan and Dave Filipetto were now safely in Venice and tomorrow the rest of the group heads their separate ways. Anne and Dave head to Belgium by train; Pauline, Jon, Julie and Danny fly to Barcelona and we head by train to Bordeaux. The group trip is now over and it has been a wonderful two weeks. Anne and Lisa with the input of all had done a brilliant job building upon a small idea mentioned last year. Thanks ladies for creating a very special experience. Safe travels one and all.

16 July 2015

Day 17 - The Western French Riviera 1: Today started a bit flat for a few after a big day and night yesterday. Today we were setting off for the Western side of Nice including Cap Antibes; Gourdon in the hills and St Paul de Vence, the 5th most popular French town to visit. This would see us following the Loup River back into the hinterland along winding cliff side roads. Cap Antibes is yet another home to the rich and famous and we enjoyed its yachts, sandy beaches and beautiful streets. We saw the Picasso museum, but the market was the big hit. Ingrid was impressed with the ease with which we organized ourselves to get the supplies for the picnic lunch she had planned today. It was another hot day and as good as the market was we were glad to be out of there. It was an hours drive up to Gourdon, called 'The Tabletop of Provence'. We set up lunch on a hill plateau just below the town of Gourdon. We found a table under a big oak tree and everyone pitched in for a banquet.
Our day trip all but complete we headed back into Nice. It was another moment of sadness as we farewelled Ingrid and Jean-Jacques. They expressed what a wonderful time they had had with us and even asked us to keep in touch. We will need to make an effort to do so. We all headed off out of the heat. Lisa and I decided we had not walked up the promenade and so headed up the few block to the Negresco. This is one of the oldest 5 star hotels in Nice and independently owned by a 94 year old lady who sits in the hotel lounge enjoying her guests. Big companies have tried to get their hands on the place, but she has willed the hotel to stray animals and the homeless. We could not get in so walked back on the cooler ocean side taking in this very different beach culture that has developed on these stony shores. Beach shoes; beach clubs; Paid areas for sitting under an umbrella; lounge areas; parachute rides off the beach; crowds just standing in the water, it is very much the European way.
St Paul de Vence would be our final French Village and we had certainly saved one of the best to last. Ingrid had explained this is one of the most visited villages in all if France. She had seen David snowiest and Mike Chapman from the Rolling Stones here. It had a great name as a place to watch Benitier (like Bocce) and had people (mostly men) playing here all the time. It is a noted centre for art and Chagall had worked here and is buried in the cemetery at the back of the village. Ingrid saw how weary we were from our travels and the heat and kept it short before giving us free time to roam. She insisted on buying us a drink. We walked up the Rue Grande, which runs up the spine of St Paul. The shops were full of the most amazing art that most could not afford. We did find a shop with some lovely Eau de Toilettes, soaps and hand creams and purchased some 'made in Provence' gifts here. The girl in the shop was a delight and we shared a pleasant moment with her.
Gourdon itself was as pretty as a picture. What isn't in this amazing world of the Cote D'Azur? Jean-Jacques got the privilege of showing us around as Ingrid had made a rare error and had forgotten to cancel our lunch booking at a local restaurant. She had now, but chose to keep away from the town today as she does bring them plenty of good business and did not want to upset them by turning up in town. It didn't worry us, because the alternative of having our picnic was really well received. You had to love her sincerity about this. Jean-Jacques gave us his unique tour, having a little joke with us here and there; pointing out a worthy landmark and then moving on. He was relaxed and fun loving and we had developed a great rapport with him.
We stopped for a panoramic view of Gourdon after almost an hours drive along some twisting turning roads. The picnic proved to be a great success and a lovely change of pace as we shared a wonderful experience with our guides. They were both great company. We contributed food; they contributed food and the feast was on - wine, olives, baguettes; many meats and cheeses and rose of course. Our day was complete and only lunchtime.
A walk through the mariner and old town of Cap Antibes eventually lead us to the market. Jean-Jacques was up to his usual tricks and responded to Dave F playing Dancing Queen in his tablet with a whole CD of ABBA songs. As we walked along we saw the Picasso Museum set up after Picasso's 5 month stay in Antibes. Ingrid explained what a great artist, but not such a nice man with the way he treated his women. An awful smell struck us as a mustached man on a strange bike road by. The bike had big vacuum cleaner tubes mounted on both sides. He was the dog poo collector and this bike came complete with a vacuum cleaner. You certainly knew he was around as the stench followed - better here than on your shoes we thought. We all grabbed some supplies in the market and then onto the bus.
Day 16 - French Riviera to Mentone & Monaco 4 (Continued): After a break we all met at 8:30pm in the foyer to head out for a drink and maybe some food. Food was not on our mind after such a huge lunch of platters of ravioli and bowls of beef stew, not to mention the tart for dessert. Ingrid had recommended a tapas bar just down the road from our hotel. We were with a young crowd making up the oldest table in the place. We started with the jugs of Sangria and before long platters of tapas began to appear. The mood was merry and we were impressed with the sardines served straight from the tin. Lots of laughter and light hearted banter followed and way too many jugs of sangria and more food than we ever expected to consume. The young waitress seemed to enjoy our good cheer and late arrivals Jon and Pauline also joined in the fun. By the time we finished we all agreed this had been a day that offered far more than we ever had expected on paper. So many great days this one raised the bar.
Day 16 - French Riviera to Mentone & Monaco 3 (Continued): Our amazing first day with Ingrid was full of interest and many unexpected turns, like when driving up to St Agnes and rounding a bend an old tunnel appeared on the side of the road. Jean-Jacques veered toward this tunnel before turning sharply and heading up the hill. We all laughed at his surprise. It was like an amusement park ride. Once we got back from a great day Danny and I headed up to the trams to work out how to get to the station. We wanted to punch in our code to collect the train tickets we needed to get to Marseille on Friday. The girls headed up to Galleries Lafayette for shopping and the boys stayed in the hotel for a drink. Danny and I conquered all our confusion and questions in getting to and from the station. A task that would be done in automatic pilot by a local, but even these things are a challenge for a traveller. We celebrated our success with a pint at a local Irish Pub on our return.
Day 16 - French Riviera to Mentone & Monaco 2 (Cont): from here past Elton John's house and views down to Villerfrance and Cap Ferrat, home to Bill Gates and the Rothschild family and many other multis. Ingrid was a big hit with her humour and interest in our crazy group. We moved on to the medieval town of Eze where we were stunned by the level of access we were given here due to Ingrid's time with Manu and the relationship she has developed with the owners of the 5 star resort, at 720€ a night in Grand Prix season, on this stunning hilltop village. From here we had lunch in St Agnes, the highest coastal village in Europe and home to an amazing war relic. Here lies deep in the mountain the remains of one of the fortresses of the Maginot Line. My dad used to tell me stories if this when I was a boy. It was an eerie and interesting exploration. An incredible surprise and one Jean-Jacques our driver seemed to take great pleasure in explaining things along with the local curator.
Day 16 - French Riviera to Mentone & Monaco 1: After a great night of Bastille celebrations which included a nightcap with Anne & Dave in the hotel bar to watch the celebrations in Paris, we woke to our first formal brekkie for a while. I had been sorting out some concerning credit card transactions also. After breakfast we met Ingrid our new guide from 'Kultours'. She took us on a magical walking tour of old Nice and we marveled at the sites and the beautiful world behind the glitz. Ingrid was described as 'formidable' by Catherine our previous guide and it did not take long for us to agree. Ingrid has had 4 minutes of fame in a recent TV special in Australia with Manu and has also shown Nice to the noted travel expert Rick Steves. Our walking tour lead us to a 15 seater bus with our cheeky and fun-loving driver Jean-Jacques. He was to prove a load of fun as the day went on. We drove along the Promenade of the English and up to a wonderful lookout over the whole of Nice.

15 July 2015

After our Maginot experience, which had all still talking, we headed down from the heights of St Agnes with great views to the coast. We had a clear view to Italy from here and the last town on the French coast before Italy, Menton. We travelled through Menton as the word 'bunker' was called out again. Soon we were in Monaco and just as quickly out of it as we turned onto a roundabout and out the other side. Jean Jacques insisted on taking us into the car park of the Monaco Beach Club to show us the cars - Bentleys, Rolls, Ferraris etc. We then began on the road that is the Grand Prix race track, but again Jean-Jacques took things into his own hands and turned into a driveway. Ingrid was a bit surprised, but as has happened all day she just rolled with it. Before we knew it we had parked in the grounds of the casino and were being given half an hour of free time to look around. We needed to be back on the bus in time to beat the 44 000 workers who escape Monaco at close of business.
Ingrid had told us a bit about this being the site of the start of the Maginot Line. I remember being a boy and having dad telling me all about this amazing defense system built by the French that was virtually never used. I remember looking up info in this. We had no idea we would see this today as Ingrid responded to the mood and reaction of our group. As a matter of fact apart from Cape Ferrat and Eze the day had now become a magical mystery tour as nothing from there had been on the itinerary. Fort Maginot de Sainte-Agnes was built in 1932 as part of the famous (or infamous) Maginot line. Solidly built and still unused (the invaders elected to go around it), the fort sits on the edge of the village overlooking the sea, serving today as a popular tourist attraction. Jean-Jacques, our driver, seemed to take particular pleasure in showing us through this eerie and derelict place and continually called out 'bunker' for the rest of the day every time we drove past a bunker on the road.
The day was being well received by all and still the excitement built further. We headed from Eze to the hilltop village of St Agnes. This is a definitely a lovely little village perched on the flank of a mountain, high above the Mediterranean. The one thing that saves Sainte Agnes from being overrun is that it's not easy to get to; only 4 km from the coast as the eagle flies, it's about 12 km of narrow and twisty mountain roads by car, above Menton at the eastern end of the French Riviera. This one is labeled "the highest coastal village in Europe". The little access road climbs at a rate of 100 m vertical for each km of length. The name Agnes in French is pronounced without the hard 'g', like anyes. When we arrived we had a meal of the traditional ravioli and a beef stew in red wine sauce at Le Saint-Yves. It was a great meal and lovely hosts. After lunch we explored the streets, but the next bit was an unexpected highlight. Stay tuned.
From panoramic views we ended up at one of Lisa's tour suggestions in Eze. An incredible hilltop town with 31 locals and 2 five star hotels. The hotel rooms are actually homes in the village. Ingrid had taken Manou here and had built up such a great rapport with the management we got some amazing access to this place. Whilst here we also got shown Bono, from U2's, home and told of Tina Turner having a home here also. The girls then went and tried some perfume which is a famous product from this area due to the lavender and flower production. The boys found a nearby cafe truck for a drink before we moved on.
We eventually met the charismatic Jean-Jacques, our bus driver and soon hit the road. The drive along the Promenade of the English had many get their first glimpses of the pebbly beaches, but we had already got over that as Nice was already a hit with all after the waking tour. We drove around the dock area and past an amazing war memorial, before heading into the hills for some panoramic locations. Before we knew it we were driving past Elton John's home and looking down on Cape Ferrat and Ville France, a beautiful bay just 10 minutes drive from Nice and home to many rich and famous.
Our walk around old Nice, which was close by to our hotel was fascinating. We began at the nearby fountain of Apollo. Here we discovered that for 500 years up to 1860, Nice was owned by the Savoys of Italy (before Italy even existed - 1861). The old Nice is very much an Italian quarter, but prefer it known as Savoy than Italian. It soon became a playground of crown heads as a winter location as at this time people had no interest in beaches and swimming. This was especially the case for Queen Victoria and other heads of state soon followed. We saw one of many amazing Baroque churches in the area and the incredible fresh produce at the market, where Ingrid pointed out many local delicacies. She explained how famous our hotel the Beau Rivage was as the home of Henri Matese when he lived in Nice as well as stories about local seagulls getting so big one carried off a chihuahua on the beach just the other day - Not sure whether to laugh or cry at that one.

14 July 2015

Le Comptoir 2 Nicole - It goes without saying that today in ALL of France was Bastille Day. Many tried to wear some red, white and blue for the day and Marion and Catherine were impressed with the efforts. Our arrival in Nice at the Beau Rivage on the Promenade of Angels saw a sad farewell to our wonderful guides Catherine and Marion. They could have not been any better. We all settled into our hotel and met for dinner in the lobby at 8:00. The concierge Aubergine (something like that) said he would walk us to the restaurant booked as it was hard to find. He took us 50 meters down the street and there was the restaurant. He was a funny man. We had a great outside table to watch the passing crowd heading one building up to the promenade to watch the fireworks. We enjoyed our dinner, but when the fireworks went off restaurants emptied everywhere. Some headed up to catch the spectacle and a few missed out - the atmosphere, smoke, smell and noise got everyone into the excitement.
Day 15 - Nice to be in Nice 2 (Continued): The million dollar cruisers soon became multi million dollar cruisers as they went up one or two or more floors. We passed the BMWs; Rolls Royces and Aston Martin sitting in the car park and had a coffee at L'Opera - A stylish establishment. We wandered off around the crowded mariner with Jan & Dave and ran into Pauline & Jon and continued our walk ten up into the town. Yet another beautiful place. The crowds were biggest around the market area and we grabbed a baguette each to eat on the run. We followed the crowded lane ways back to the mariner and met up with the others before going back to the car park to meet our guides. It was another hot day and Catherine had organized towels for us to have a swim at Pampelona Beach around the bend from St Tropez. We enjoyed a good 1 & a half hours here swimming or drinking in one of the beachside bars. The water was beautiful and there was plenty of activity on the beach to fill the time.
Day 15 - Nice to be in Nice 1: Our time in Aix has now wound up and what a glorious stay it was. The three nights in the Rendezvous were fabulous. It was truly a wonderful hotel. The city itself is charming and full of history. Today we headed to Nice via St Tropez. It would be our last day with Catherine and Marion - The Tour Designer and it has been a treat to work with such thorough and beautiful people. We will miss their company and the care and thoughtfulness they have shown us from daily water supplies to supplying us with towels for a swim they have successfully satisfied every request. Thank you Catherine, Anais and Marion for the best of times. We travelled close to 300km today getting from Aix to St Tropez and then Nice. St Tropez was beautiful but oh so crowded. The girls could only drop us off and go. This left us with 2 hours to ourselves to do what we wanted. We walked from the car park along the promenade towards town passing the million dollar cruises.
From St Tropez we took a short drive to Pampellone Beach in the St Tropez area. It is about a 500m long sandy beach and was a buzz with activity. Catherine provided us with towels and quite a few went for a swim. There were jet skis operating back and forth up the buoyed channel near where we sat. The big cruisers were lined up beyond the swimming area and the beach was full of marked beach areas with different colored umbrellas. Some went up to sit in a lovely bar area to take in the passing parade and soon all the swimmers joined them. By the time we had had enough we headed back to meet our guides and complete our final journey together to Nice and the Beau Rivage Hotel.
The mariner at St Tropez was just packed with cruisers of all shapes and sizes. They just got bigger and bigger the more you walked. Statues, shops and cafes filled the crowded promenades as your companies tried to get you on a boat to somewhere. Some seemed to be having a lot of success with this. We walked around the little bays beyond the mariner and up into the heart of the town. We were impressed with the many street artist and studios in the area. Some lovely work and much was modern art. A huge market was taking place at the back of town, but did not give this much time as we needed to squeeze in a quick lunch before returning to the car park to find Catherine and Marion.
Day 14 - North East Provence: Today we headed out on what was to be a 'visual feast road trip', that all but exhausted the senses. We headed across the countryside to Lake Sainte Croix, a man made lake 14km long and 2km wide built as part of a process to dam the Verdun River to control flooding; assist irrigation and provide drinking water. Before reaching this area we had some stops to see beautiful lavender fields in the Valensole Plateau and photo opportunities. From here a stop on the lake in full view of the village Sainte-Croix and then on to Moustiers-Sainte-Marie. This is 'One of the Most Beautiful Villages' in France - based on a rating system like Our own 'Tidy Town' Programme. You will just have to see the pictures to understand the beauty of this place. I took on the challenge to reach the chapel on the hill and whilst it looked far it was only about a 15 minute walk, but made more difficult by the slippery stones. I was puffed, but glad to have made it up.

13 July 2015

We moved on from Moustiers to the mouth of the Verdun River and the Verdun Gorge. This is France's Grand Canyon and is quite a spectacular spot. We travelled along some of the 21km of river along a wont cliff side road. Sometimes we were traveling through forest areas and past mountain side farms. We stopped regularly to take in the views of gorge and mountains up to 1900m high. Some of the stops along here allowed us to see rock climbers; people canyoning in the river below and vultures soaring through the canyon just below our view. It was a spectacular day and we enjoyed reliving the day as we wandered into Aix for our final dinner tonight.
After lunch in Moustiers-Sainte-Marie we had an hour of free time to wander this beautiful town. We had already seen the beautiful old 6th century chapel and the special porcelain made in this area. Lisa went for a shop and I climbed to the chapel up in the hills. It was a hot day and a tiring climb, but well worth it for the view and chapel. I made it down in time for our departure being very careful not to slip on the stones made shiny from many years of people climbing this hill. From here we were to move on to the gorge.
Day 13 - The Pasino Casino: Last nights visit to the rather disappointing Pasino, which felt more like an RSL visit, did come with some highlights. The Pasino is the casino in Aix and is named that way as the company that owns it has a 'P' in their name. Casino's are only allowed in thermal areas of France as the thinking is that rich people normally frequent these areas. Interesting!! The highlights were firstly that it was close to our hotel. In fact it was just around the corner. Next was that we discovered a very nice Italian Restaurant inside. The third was the delightful little waitress who served us. She was just so sweet and so appreciative of our friendly nature and appreciation for her efforts. She said it was unusual to get tourists here, which sounded odd and said the clientele were mostly local. We had met her at the bar when she saw we were a little perplexed by the poor service and she got us a table. Later she suggested we join her for dinner in the restaurant.
The beautiful lavender fields of the Valensole Plateau and the man made Lake Saint-Croix before heading to Moustiers-Sainte-Marie.
Day 13 - Marvellous Marseille 2 (Cont): We had been so lucky to get out to the Calanques early. It was just perfect. Other cruisers were bigger and more crowded we got on a boat just with our 10 and for only 13€ a person. The day was beautiful and the fascinating rocky outcrops and the passing parade of boats; kayaks and swimmers was fantastic. We visited the first three Calanques taking in the crystal clear water and blue fish that appeared with a sprinkling of bread. It was all over too quickly and we wandered the promenade and shops for the next half an hour before we shared another beautiful lunch with the charming company of our guides Anais and Marion - knowledgeable, intelligent and good humoured guides they, along with Catherine have added so much value to our trip. After lunch we headed to France's 2nd largest city in Marseille. What an amazing mix of old and new here including some stunning coastline. We finished our day here and headed home. We sadly farewelled Anais.
Day 13 - Marvellous Marseille 1: it was an 8:30 start today as Anais and Marion arrived earlier than normal. Most seemed to grab a pastry and coffee at the cafe in the Renaissance foyer. We hit the road and worked our way down to the Calanques National Park. This is quite a spectacular drive through the rugged limestone hills up to our first stop at Cape Canaille. This is a 394m cliff face which gives uninterrupted views to the seaside town of Cassis and the Calanques beyond. The view was amazing and made more impressive by the rock climbers scaling the face. From here we drove down the windy road into Cassis a charming coastal village that has seen many a famous face. Winston Churchill once spent time here painting Cape Canaille. We were booked on a Calanques cruise by the girls and met our skipper Didier. A charming man who worked hard to communicate with us (and mostly successfully) throughout the trip. Jon and Danny really got him talking about things.

12 July 2015

The Chateau D'If is the island prison used in the Alexander Dumas novel the Count of Monte Christo. One of my favourite stories growing up. Great moments where imagination meets reality. Anais told us a great story how a Rhinoceros was put on the island for safe keeping as a gift for the pope. Eventually the Rhino was taken by boat to be delivered but the boat was shipwrecked and the Rhino lost. However the body of the Rhino was washed up on a beach and stuffed. The stuffed Rhino then given to the pope. Strange tales but true. We finished here and travelled to the east of Marseille past all the port areas and from here home after also hearing a few war stories associated with Marseille. Our return saw us farewell Anais. Her shift with us was over and we would work more with Catherine and Marion from here. We had all built a great friendship with our guide. She had been a lot of fun and really understood the Australians well. We loved her quirky story telling bringing stories to life.
After Cassis we had to decide on some villages or the big city of Marseille. The girls suggested we would enjoy Marseille as they would take us to places not normally seen by tourists. They were good to their word and we saw some great sights. An amazing residential building by renowned architect Le Corbusier, which was built for the poor and had built in shops, health services and even a cinema. We headed up the western shore to the little fishing villages that mark the end of Marseille and the start of the Calanques. These villages have been preserved by laws that stop tourist companies buying out the town. We then headed back along the amazing coastal road back into the city. From here we headed up to the highest point in Marseille at the Basilica Notre Dame de la Garde. The view of the whole of Marseille from here is spectacular. The basilica has the most beautiful ceilings and hanging models of boats everywhere as Marseille is a port city. You can also see the Chateau D'If.
Cape Canaille in the Calanques National Park gave us great views towards Cassis. From here we had a great morning with Didier our skipper. We learnt that the stone from quarries in this area is strong and has been used in many ports around the world including the plinth that holds up the Statue of Liberty. Once in the Calanques we so wanted to jump off our boat, but this is not permitted from the many tour boats. Private boats, kayakers and those who have hiked into the gorges can swim at their leisure and plenty were enjoying these beautiful places. The time went quickly and soon we were back on the wharf for some free time in Cassis and lunch at Oustau de la Mar right on the promenade. So many times tourist restaurants like this are a bit of a rip off, here the food, service and price were perfect. Marion and Anais were again great company for lunch and plenty of stories and laughs were had before heading for Marseille.
Day 12 - Arrival in Aix 2 Continued: Anais suggested Dave park the car in the railway car park next door. This we did as the office itself was in the SNCF railway station. By the time Dave had parked the car Anais had heard from the rental company and they said park the car and put the keys in the drop off box. Done! Problem solved. Dave and I headed up by foot into town and sat at the Festival Cafe at Charles Degaulle Place. Anais went to get the group from the hotel. Dave and I had a 'Desperado' beer before the others arrived. We then walked through the old town of Aix to a great restaurant hidden in the back streets - Drole D'Endroit. It had the weirdest lights and great food. Our walking tour came next and a drive out to Mount Sainte Victoire, which was a central theme in Paul Cezanne's art works. We met Marion one of our new guides and we were impressed. We wandered into town for dinner at an Italian Restaurant. This rounded out our day in the amazing Place des Cardeurs.
Day 12 - Arrival in Aix-en-Provence 1: Our departure from our villa came with some sadness. It had been the best of times for all over this exciting first week together. All had got on well and we had certainly made the most of this great experience. Francois our host turned up to farewell the group and Anais was right on time for the hour run into Aix. All went well on the journey in, but for a little traffic. Dave C expertly navigated the toll system and we met the others in a rest area at one point when we got separated. Our arrival at the Renaissance Hotel in Avenue Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart saw a quick unload as Dave C had to get the hire car back. Anaise joined us as we had about 10 minutes to get it back to Avis before the office closed. We were at the office door with 5 minutes to spare, but it was already closed. We rang all the numbers on the door, but no response. A lady was there who was expecting to hire our returning vehicle. She was a little frustrated also. What to do?

11 July 2015

Our walking tour continued as we stopped at many points of interest. For all it was a fascinating excursion as Anais shared wonderful stories about the invention of Calissons; to stories about paintings and sculptures; the cathedral baptismal font and moss covered fountains. Anne and Dave who had been here before were really enjoying another side to what they already knew of the place. We met one of our tour companies other drivers from here. Marion was her name and she had spent 12 months living in Sydney and worked in a factory at Kingsgrove - crazy connections. We were taken out of the city and into the beautiful countryside around Mount Sainte Victoire. This mount is a central theme in many of Cezanne's paintings. It is a rocky outcrop rising out of the vineyards and farmland below. I can see how it inspired him. It was a fantastic intro to Aix and we finished with a beautiful walk into town for a drink at an Irish Pub and dinner at an amazing square jam packed with patrons.
A final farewell from the pool deck from Julie and we were off to the Renaissance Hotel in Aix-en-Provence. After a small complication with returning the rental car at the local railway and getting to listen to a fellow traveller playing the free piano set up here for passing pianists, Dave and I had a beer at the Festival Cafe. A great lunch at an eclectic restaurant and an amazing walking tour through the Roman inspired Aix - City of water with all its amazing fountains followed. Wedding after wedding were queuing up at the City Hall. Restaurants and squares buzzed with activity. The cathedral was amazing and most unusual with its many chambers and dual organs - one real and one fake. We loved it.

10 July 2015

Day 11 - A Day at the Local: Today, Friday, marked our last full day in Eygalieres and we intended to make the most of the local market being held in our quiet little town. A relaxing morning saw a bit of pool and cleaning, especially in regards to the freezer that had seen three forgotten 2L bottles of Sangria freeze over; pop their lids and one cracked it's bottom. It was a mess. This cleaned up thanks to Julie and all ready to go, the first group began heading into town by about 10:00. I was with the second wave that Dave C came back to get at 11:00, but decided to head off early and walk in. Along the way I ran into our host Francoise walking his dog around the old chapel. He stopped for a chat before I moved on and met the others in the town. Before then though they did drive past me on the road and I received Jon's long 'Bonjoooour!' As they stopped to say hi. I met up with Lisa and we began to explore the market.
Day 10 - Writers Block: It has been a busy couple of days and it just gets too hard to keep a record of all that has occurred, but will try. Day began with Anais and Catherine picking us up at 9:00am. Dave F began the day for all with a rendition of 'My Way' on the van microphone. The vans were split 5 & 5 as we headed off to Avignon. Anne, Jan, Dave F, Dave C & I began the day in Anise's van. The rest were with Catherine who was really warming up to our group and was singing in French to them. We made our way to Avignon - historic bridge; pope's palace; gardens; lavender shops; roaming streets; feeling the festival spirit; great lunch with duck and totally fascinating place followed by a van trip out to wine tasting in the Chateauneuf du Pape region of Provence. Two vineyards were visited and the explanation of the strict AOC requirements to have your product certified. Developed here to protect the local industry it has spread across France. A picturesque area no doubt.
We stayed in the bar of the Cafe de Place until the market ended and beyond. The market packed up around us. The streets were cleaned and the packed cafe clientele dwindled away to the small smattering of people that you normally see there. It was bizarre to sit here and watch it all get packed up and cleaned up right before our eyes. The staff at the bar became less frantic and began to enter into some banter with us, which was a bit of fun. Jon and I walked back to the villa until the others picked us up along the way. We let our afternoon drift away by the pool with drinks, food, a bit of swimming and good conversation. A better end to our first full week together could not be asked for. From here 10 out of 12 will remain together. Margo & Steve now move off to Barcelona for a week. The rest move onto Aix-En-Provence for 3 nights. Let the touring continue.
After walking into town I met Lisa and we began to enjoy the market. This quiet town had transformed and was alive with colour and activity. The market covered all of two streets, but the narrow streets were packed with people. We had never seen it like this. We wandered up and down finding the sellers were full of character. A watercolor artist who has been doing this market for 30 years wanted to talk to us as he though we were new. A biscuit seller had left his stall unattended so the artist next door served us until he returned. It was a friendly and energetic place. We met the others at the Cafe de Place to have a drink and watch the passing parade. Anne had said it was like watching an episode of 'Housewives of Eygalieres'. There was some serious money and Botox around. A friendly Aussie responded to seeing my driver's license in my wallet. The boys' had had a few friendly chats with the cheeky fishmonger who had set up right outside this bar area. He was a character.
Some entertaining moments in Provence - For those in the know!!

9 July 2015

The two wineries- Beaurenard and Ogiers are two of the finest wineries to earn the Chateauneuf du Pape approval. The wine tastings were both enjoyable, but the girl at Beaurenard was a bit dismissive and may have been having a bad day either before or because we arrived. The girl at Ogiers was as bubbly as they come, but spoke so quickly and with such a heavy French accent on her English many were lost as to what she was saying. I loved her energy and she was extremely engaging despite not understanding much of what she said. She just loved what she was doing and was oblivious to our confusion. The wine tasting here was superb. A weary trip home saw the boys head off for the Intermarche Supermarket for yet another shopping expedition. Entertaining is hardly a strong enough word for this as food fills the trolley from every angle. Jon cooked up a storm with the meat and the girls prepared the indoor dining table for yet another lavish BBQ feast. Another thoroughly enjoyable night.
After the palace lunch was next and perhaps our best and cheapest lunch of the trip. Most had an amazing piece of duck. We headed off to Chateau Neuf du Pape (The home of the new pope). This region has amazing wines whichvyou can buy in Sydney for usually $60 a bottle all more. The wine are unique and grown and produce under very strict rules to retain their uniqueness. Some grapes are grown in sand; rivers tone; limestone or red clay to develop specific qualities. It was a beautiful area and the wine tasting was good.
The Pope's Palace in Avignon tells of the time in the 14th century where the papacy moved from Rome to here for safety. 9 popes ruled in this time - 7 legit and 2 anti-popes during the schism when a pope in Time and one in Avignon reigned before this was resolved. A fascinating building and history. We were in Avignon during the 3 week festival that rivals Edinburgh. Stele wet performers and billboards were everywhere tying to enlist a crowd to their productions. The festival, which began in 1947 sees Avignon a buzz with life and activity at this time.

8 July 2015

Our first official meal in Eygaliers took place tonight at the 'Sous les Micocouliers'. We drove into town about 7:30, where Margo and Steve, who had done the markets and hospital at St Remy also joined us. The restaurant had plenty of Provençal charm and a wonderful ambience as the cooling mistral drifted through the trees in the courtyard. The delightful head waiter, who was the only one with a bit of English, was there to help us. I guess I knew we might have been in some trouble when one of the young waitresses greeted me with 'good morning', to the shock of those around her who quickly tried to correct her. Still the night moved on with good company and beautiful food and a special connection with the very friendly head waiter. We were all given signed placemats which had a delightful sketch of the restaurant.
Day 9 - Declared a Rest Day: When it all came down to it no one felt like doing much today and so we didn't. A much deserved rest from charging around the countryside touring. The girls went into Eygaliers to visit the belangerie; have a coffee and explore. The boys fiddled with technology trying to find ways to live stream the football on the TV and all the devices. We thought we had it, but all failed in the end and we managed to listen to State of Origin 3 on 2GB. Glad we didn't see it as it was a disaster for NSW. A great lunch was prepared with the crispy baguettes brought back by the girls. After lunch lazing around continued. Dave C and I decided to take on the 30 minute walk into town past the Chapelle St Sixte. We did this being very careful not to get run over on the skinny roads. A quick walk around; a beer at the Cafe de la Place and then we returned for a quick swim and rest. The big treat for the day was all heading in to a beautiful restaurant in Eygaliers.
A rest day enjoyed by all as the gentle 'mistral' wind cooled down the day. All found ways to occupy themselves through crosswords; social media; snoozing; eating or swimming. Dinner in our little town of Eygaliers tonight was to come.
Day 8 - Too Many Beautifuls: Today we were off again with the Tour Designer, but this time with two vans and the services of Catherine. Catherine is the owner of the company and the person both Anne and I had dealt with in organizing the trip. She had been very thorough up to now and today was no exception. Anaise joined us again and with two vans we headed off to the Luberon, a 60km long mountain range reaching heights of 1000m at its highest points. Today was all about some of the most beautiful places Provence has to offer and indeed it involved just too many beautifuls to be wasted on words. So here is a list of what we did and saw in order. After this I will let the pictures do the talking: 1. The Luberon - a mountain range near the Durance River. 2. Oppede - A medieval ghost town abandoned in the 17th century 3. Domaine de la Citadelle winery for wine tasting 4. Ménerbes - town 5. Domaine de Marie for lunch 6. Lacoste & the Marquis De Sard 7. Roussillon - ochre town 8. Gordes

7 July 2015

7 & 8: Roussillon and Gordes were the final two stops that met our tired legs, not to mention the job done on all by another hot day. Roussillon is a town painted in ochre, found in the local geography. It is such a different town to the others based on this coloring in an area dominated by white limestone buildings. Gordes is perhaps the prettiest village in Provence, let alone the Luberon. Many travel journalists have it rated as such. It closed our day of beautiful places. The journey home had me nodding off. The rest had by all when back at the villa was well deserved. Thanks Jon for dinner and the pizzas when all others were too knackered to move from the pool.
6. Lacoste and the castle of the Marquis De Sade. He was a very naughty boy. There are some interesting sculptures here and this ruin has been somewhat modernized since Pierre Cardin bought it and still owns it. He has bought quite a number of sites in the Lacoste area snd can even be seen in the local village sometimes. This was a quick stop before moving off. Catherine was good enough to stop along the road and let us get some classic sunflowers shots. I fit right in with my yellow Tour de France T-Shirt.
5. We made it to lunch at another winery called Domaine de Marie. This is a 5 star resort that is really quaint and of a boutique style. The area out the back that we had lunch was just gorgeous. I enjoyed my lunch, but a couple were not as impressed. At 95€ a couple it was one of our more expensive lunches. Our tour guides sat by themselves today and I am sure they are wondering if we will ever continue the tour once they sit us down to eat. This was possibly confirmed when back in the van and Catherine suggested we get some sandwiches for our Thursday excursion. We do like to talk!!
4. Ménerbes was our next stop. A beautiful town built on the narrow crest of a hill. How do they get all this stone up here? This is one of Catherine's favorite towns and we could all see why.
3. Next stop was a wine tasting at Domaine de la Citadelle. This beautiful winery has some of the best wine in the Luberon district. Indeed the whites, reds and roses we tasted were delicious. This winery is owned by a local celebrity. Yves Rousset-Rouard who is a French film producer, the mayor of the beautiful Luberon village of Ménerbes and is the owner of Domaine de la Citadelle. His son, Alexis, runs the vineyard. He produced the controversial film Emmanuel (1974). He is still making movies even today.
1 & 2: Oppede - A deserted village (mostly) in the Luberon mountains. The benefit of local knowledge here as it was not a crowded village. Just a couple of locals living in the lower section of the town and the rest beautiful ruins and a handful of other tourists. The stunning views across the valley of the vineyards; olive and cyprus trees; orchards and lavender fields mixed in among the curve tiled roof homesteads and farms continues to be breathtakingly beautiful.
The Oppede - An impressive ghost town.

6 July 2015

Day 7 - Arles Continued: We headed up through Arles to see the Amphitheatre and Theatre. It was pretty busy here as a French bullfight was taking place. Anais assured us French bulls are not as aggressive as Spanish Bulls and no one would get hurt. Unfortunately it was a ticket only event and we could not get in to confirm this. We wondered the streets seeing more reprints of Van Gogh's art works at the perspective or point of painting them. His home; favorite cafe; Starry Night on the Rhone; Arles hospital from his room. All these made us think we had travelled a way in his own footsteps. More historic landmarks were pointed out before heading to the cars. Exhausted that we were Anaise kept the day moving. Even the drive home took us through some beautiful towns and even more beautiful countryside. Our hectic day done - a swim; some shopping; pizzas and soup got us through to the end of the day.
Day 7 - Arresting Arles: There was a bit of a communication hiccup after lunch when Dave, Anne, Lisa and I went to the spot Anais said she would meet us. Problem was though she was no longer there. We went around the block three more times before deciding to head to Arles ourselves. We tried hard to contact them by phone. Eventually we made contact with Dave F and we pulled over into a service station to wait. All was soon back on track and we headed to Arles to track down more of Vincent Van Gogh's troubled existence. Passing many sunflower fields in full bloom in the way, Vincent was always lurking in the background. We found a park by the Rhone River. This was after Anais took us through a poorly blocked off street party in the middle of Arles, where the locals were none too impressed with us driving through and banged on the windows and sat on the bonnet of the car. We remained good humored through all this and even the Gendarme ignored us. Anais was very apologetic for this.
Day 7 - Anais's Australian Connection: After an exhausting and interesting morning in the 38 degree heat that Provence was raining down upon us, we headed into St Remy for lunch. Anais joined us and we found out this shy girl had had a 12 month working holiday in Australia, where she travelled virtually everywhere in that time and loved it. Several highlights of her travels was a three month stay at a cattle station near Longreach, where she kept house and tendered to the calves for three 'Cowboys'. She also rides motorbikes, which impressed Jon and even joined Danny for a cigarette. She was great company and although a self-confessed shy person, it did not show. She would be our guide for much of the next two weeks and we all thought we had got off to a good start.
Day 7 - Starry Starry Night!: Next stop was the hospital in St Remy where Vincent Van Gogh painted nearly 300 art works in his 12 month stay in 1889. This was the St Paul's Asylum, where Vincent self admitted himself to cure his faltering mental state. The thing we all loved about this place was that prints of Vincent's work were displayed at the actual sight he painted them - The Irises and Starry Night were two of his better known works painted here as part of a huge output of art over his 12 months here. Anais took us to a recreation of his room and views to the lavender filled gardens. From here it was across the road to the Roman ruins also found in this area. All were impressed with this place.
The last footprints of our day took us through the city of Arles. Narrow streets and Van Gogh reminders are everywhere. The place had a really good feel with its active bull ring and historic sights grabbing our attention.
St Paul's Asylum just outside St Remy. The home of Vincent Van Gogh for a 12 month period in 1889. Our guide Anais was quickly working out we were a lively crowd, but appreciative of her good humour and well researched information.
After traveling along roads canopied by trees planted by Napoleon's Armies to shelter his troops from the heat we ended up in the beautiful Les Beaux-de-Provence. A stunningly beautiful town on top a limestone outcrop. All were impressed with how the day began.
Day 7 - Meeting The Tour Designer: Our trip from Avignon to Eygaliers last Saturday was our first brief contact with the company we had employed to show us some Provençal sights. That day we met Joanne, one of the drivers. Today we would have our first real experience of what Catherine D'Antuono and her company The Tour Designer has to offer with our first full day trip. Hang onto your hats this sounds exciting!! ... And indeed it was. At 9:00am the charming Anais came and picked up our group. Six went with her and four went with Dave in the Peugeot. Our first stop was up in the hills called Les Beaux de Provence. Wow! What a beautiful little hillside town and fortress. This is where the world discovered Bauxite (Aluminium) - thus the name. The village was also given as a gift to the Monaco Grimaldi's at one stage in its history. The beautiful shops and restaurants in this place and the history made this a surprise we were not expecting. It truly was a stunning location.
Day 6 - Dinner with the Fromage Twins: After Sorgue we took on the GPS challenge to get home. The two Dave's seemed to have it all under control, but all were on alert for landmarks and signage that might make the job easier. We came back through Eygaliers and for some of the girls this was their first time through the town. Anne and Pauline prepared a beautiful lunch with baguettes and a lazy afternoon followed. Some were by and in the pool, whilst others drifted off for afternoon naps as the long afternoon sunshine smiled upon us By 7:15pm our special guests, Camembert and Brie, arrived to prepare our dinner. These two jovial French women won us all over. Julie in particular seemed to form a special bond with them, like sisters from another mother. The meal was fantastic and all had a fabulous night, before many dropped off - some unannounced, into the distance of the night.

5 July 2015

Sunday night saw two local twins, Veronica and Anne, come over to the villa and cook us dinner. This was an option we found came with the villa. These ladies had already made sure we had some local supplies left for us on our arrival. We had affectionately nicknamed them Camembert and Brie and they loved their new names. We had a great night and what service. They enjoyed it as much as us and spent the night laughing with and at us. It was s brilliant night and the soup, Roquefort salad, beef, lamb and peach soup and raspberry tiramisu were superb.
Day 6 - Isle Sur La Sorgue: On the banks of the Sorgue River is this little town called the Venice of Provence. We had been told of a great antiques market here each Sunday to 1:30pm. After a relaxing morning eating and chatting Anne and Dave headed into Eygalieres to meet the Byrnes' and direct them back to our accommodation after their unsuccessful bid to reach us the night before. When they arrived we all loaded up and headed off. The two Dave's took on the driving and navigating, but were greatly challenged by the car's navigation system which just did not want to find the place and then made strange directional changes after we had taken the suggested road only for it to change roads. Right way, then wrong way, all were getting confused. Some help from a roadside vendor and we were back on track. We arrived and parked by doing a deal with a lady who needed a jump start. She moved and we got the park. The markets were large and waterways and streams criss crossed the town.
Isle Sur La Sorgue - The Venice of Tuscany - This compact medieval town is built on the islands of five branches of the Sorgue River, 7 km downstream from its source at Fontaine-de-Vaucluse.
Day 6 - After An Uneasy Night: The bat still in the room, and the girls off to tell the story to those left downstairs, I tried to settle into bed. The eyes drifting off to sleep only to jolt open to check the corner where hid the bat. The hysterical laughter from downstairs filtered up through the windows and eventually I fell asleep with the windows open hoping the bat would find its way out and not return with the rest of the family. I woke in the morning to ask Lisa if she had heard the story. She had, but they failed to tell her the bat was still in the room. She announced, 'What I've slept the night with a bat in the room?!' Shock! Horror! I was up on a chair and checking behind the sensor. The bat was gone and a full security sweep of the room ensued. The bat was nowhere to be seen.... For the moment. A quick swim, breakfast and recounting the story again brought renewed bouts of laughter as all began to prepare for the day.
Day 5 - Back to the Bat Cave: I headed off to bed about midnight. The room selections had been sorted by the girls in the men's absence this afternoon and we scored the upstairs room with the large bathroom. It was a beautiful room and my first really good look at it and it's views across to the Alpilles Mountains. I settled in having stripped down for bed into T-Shirt and underwear. I turned on the air con and suddenly this massive moth began flapping around the room. I ducked and weaved as our paths continued to cross. My racket alerted Julie who upon seeing the moth declared it a small bird. We then realized it was neither moth nor bird, but a bat. We tried hard to direct it to an open window and to throw a towel over it to no avail. Pauline entered the room to declare 'Greg you are in your underpants'. I didn't care and had only one mission. They all laughed as we tried to direct the bat to the windows. Eventually it hid behind a security sensor and we could not move it.
Day 5 - First Night Celebrations: Upon our return, afternoon drinks and comfort food ensued around the pool. Jon and Danny soon began preparing all the meat and the others pitched in to help. A great meal followed around the large outdoor table as all laughed and recounted stories of the day. Danny presented a rousing toast to Anne as the reason for this gathering and cheers and good times continued as the long day of sunlight took us past 10:00pm and people settled in for more conversation. Jon and Dave F went off for a table tennis challenge and all others took in the scene of this beautiful place. We had truly been blessed with such an opportunity.
Day 5 - 5 Men Go In, One Trolley Comes Out: One of the great visuals before leaving Eygaliers was the sight of a big dog appearing from the lane behind the butchers with a huge bone in his mouth. Classic! We moved on from Eygaliers and headed back and beyond our villa for a fifteen minute drive to the Intermarche. Another special driving moment as we entered the car park from the wrong side onto a vacant block of land with no access to the car park. Still we parked the car here and in we went. With one trolley and all heading this way and that loading things in; discussing the value of this and that; Do we need it? Want it? Jon, our resident chef, was building a trolley to satisfy all. Wine, cheese, bread, stuff for salad. We headed to the check out with the young girl mildly amused by these 5 men doing the shopping. All said and done we then headed back up the road to the villa, missing the entry and having to turn back and try again.
The beautiful villa and morning coffee on the balcony as the events of the night were recounted for all.
Day 5 - Shopping Day: Once at the villa Francois showed us around and gave us all the operation details we would need before leaving us. We sat down and began making our own plans and ate a bit of the food we had paid to have ready for us. The boys then headed to Eygaliers to buy a paper. A euphemism for having a beer. We were only about 5km from the town. The conversation was sharp and witty as poor old Dave was put through his paces re being the driver and avoiding the obstacles of other cars; the narrowness of the roads and the deepness of the ditches that made up the gutters on either side. The car was filled with laughter as we made the quaint little village of Eygaliers. We did have a beer, but also moved on to beginning the shopping for dinner. We had some fun ordering meat from the butcher and the butcher himself was very good humoured about it also. Dave F got into a conversation with a man who owned a little historic Fiat Arbath rally car parked in the street.

4 July 2015

Day 5 - And the Gangs All Here!!: Well finally we are one. We are complete. 12 people, 6 couples - 10 at the villa and Margo and Steve close by in their own accommodation. The villa has fulfilled every picture; advert; glowing recommendation it had self diagnosed through its own website. Put simply, it is stunning. Well done Anne on your research and selection. Happy Birthday!! A wonderfully enjoyable trip to Avignon on the TGV with Jan and Dave saw all meet up in the terminal at Avignon. Joanne our driver for the day met us and took us off to our villa. Anne and Dave followed on in the car they had hired from Marseille and Margo and Steve headed off in their hire car to their accommodation. We drove off to Eygaliers and all met up at the 15th Century Saint Sixte Chapel sitting on a quiet hill outside Eygaliers. Here we met Francois the owner of the property we had rented for the week and he lead Joanne and Dave with all in tow 5 minutes down the road to our villa. Amazing!!
This is what we came for. This whole trip was sold to all as the celebration of Anne's 60th and her desire to share it with us all in a villa in Provence. Today marked the realization of that dream and the commitment of all to be there together. It was indeed one of the great highlights of the whole trip to all be here today for, by and with Anne. The mood of the day could not have been more positive and celebratory. Happy Birthday Anne. Well done!
Day 5 - Farewell Paris! Hello Provence!: The group move on today to Avignon and then to Eygalliers for our week stay in a villa. Anne and Dave would be meeting us all at Avignon to complete the reunion. We all headed off to Gare Lyon with its famous 'Train Bleu' restaurant, as Jan informed us, it is referred to in many Agatha Christie novels. Before leaving our tiny hotel we had breakfast at a nice little cafe around the corner, Le Pain Quotidien with Jan and Dave. We would be traveling with them in the same train. The rest of the group had left earlier as they were on a different train. Upon our arrival at Gare Lyon we took in the magnificent scene of the grand structure and the mass movement of literally hundreds here today. Hall 1 was packed. It was an absolute hive of activity. We settled into the Pret A Manger for a comfortable wait before the dash for the train in Hall 2. People everywhere; luggage storage hassles; seats found and off we chugged as quietly as a mouse.
Day 4 - Recap 2 - Finally Reunited: By the time we returned from the sardine packed peak hour trains we were exhausted. We finally got into our tiny room and travelled up in the tiny lift. It just fit me in and was quite claustrophobic. We mostly got used to using the stairs from the 5th floor after this. Cold showers and a nap were the order of the afternoon before our joyful reunion with most of the group. We headed off for dinner at 'La Marche' restaurant in the Place Saint Catherine nearby. We first went to a Scottish Bar in this area where some of the group had danced away the previous night until about 2:00am. The Scottish owner had enjoyed their company and had lived in the St George area in Sydney for many years before moving. He kept offering free shots every time they tried to leave. The night ended when an angry neighbour complained about the noise. After a couple of drinks here, and a much quieter night than previously, we headed up for a great night catching up.
Day 4 - Recap 1 - Monet Magic: After a very long 4 hours and 45 minute trip from the airport to our hotel we set off immediately to make our way to Monet's Garden.🌸Attempts to contact our group were unsuccessful so we made our way to our local metro Saint-Sebastien Froissart. The education into using the Metro began as we tried to work out the automated ticket system. No luck at first so we spoke to the girls at the info counter. Unfortunately they were not that interested in helping, but gave us enough info to know we needed smaller notes than our €50. We headed up and had a coffee at the Merci Cafe to break our cash down. Tickets bought we headed off to Gare Lazare Station to take the 50 minute trip to Vernon. From here a 20 minute bus to Giverny and Monet's Garden. It did not disappoint. We explored the beautiful gardens and house and wandered the streets of Giverny. We caught the bus back to Vernon before our train trip back to finally catch up with the group.
Day 5 - The Group is Coming Together 2 (Quick Summary): Anne & Dave have been off at a family wedding in Dublin and traveling across Northern Spain. Today they flew from San Sebastián via Barcelona to Marseille to meet us at the TGV Avignon. Dave had hired a car and for most of this week would be one of our drivers. He would do a great job in difficult situations of narrow roads; navigation and scary roadside ditches along the way. We all would appreciate his efforts as the car was a bit of a tank in size and made life difficult.
Our departure from Paris on the TGV to Avignon meant for a busy and exciting morning. The Gare Lyon station was a sight to behold with huge crowds inside an immense space. The 2 hour and 40 minute trip was effortless and took us through the beautiful French countryside.

3 July 2015