Category Archives: France

Marseille

To get from the end of our Canal du Midi trip to Vienna, we took a train from Beziers to Marseille where we spent the night before flying to Vienna the next day. This gave us the afternoon and evening to explore Marseille.  I went there with low expectations, but left very impressed with the city. These steps are known as the grand staircase.  Whould it surprise you to learn that they lead to the train station?  Not only do they seem very fancy for a train station, they must look imposing to someone with luggage in tow.Overlooking the city at its highest point is the symbol of Marseille, the Cathedral Norte Dame de la Garde.  This picture was taken from the balcony of our hotel.  Since we didn’t have a lot of time, we elected to take a petit train tour that included the cathedral.

The cathedral had a spectacular alterpiece.The terrace of the cathedral provided great views of the city.  The heart of the tourist area is the old port, which can be seen across the center of the picture.  There were forts on either side of the entrance to the port.  You can see the towers and walls of one on the left.  The new port where the cruise ships dock is in the upper right.  The blue Mediterranean stretches off to the horizon.There was a giant mirror hanging over part of the sidewalk in the old port.  It not only provided much needed shade from the hot sun,  but created this confusing image. We seem to run into a gay pride parade somewhere every year.  This year it was in Marseille.  I have to say that Canada does a much better job on these parades.  Marseille just had one float playing music and a lot of people jumping up and down to the music.  There were large trucks parked on all the side roads entering the parade route to keep any vehicles from crashing into the parade.  There was a noticeable presence of military personnel carrying machine guns at the parade, the cathedral, the train station, and prior to security at the airport.  In fact, when we opened our suitcases prior to check in at the airport to do some repacking, we quickly drew the supervision of three men in camouflage with machine guns.  I find it sad that the world has come to this.

Some French Villages

While the Canal du Midi is beautiful by its self, particularly where the plane trees line both sides, the main attractions are the French villages and towns you pass through.  Following are some of the highlights.

Argens-MinervoisOf course every village has to have a church.We had a nice dinner there with our friends Lavonne and Daryll.  The yellow thing is a table top barbecue grill where we cooked an assortment of meats ourselves.

Ventenac-en-MinervoisWe toured this wine museum and functioning winery.  From the top of the tower, we got a good view of the canal.

CapestangThe cemetery.Dinner in the courtyard of a functioning winery.  Great food and atmosphere!

BeziersBeziera was a relatively large town and was our favorite on the canal.  This is the cathedral on the top of the hill and visible from all directions.This tree in the Poets Garden was truly unique.A chateau overlooking the Poets Garden.A free lending leave one, take one lending library in the park.  I understand this same idea is being practiced in parts of the US.The courtyard of the cathedral.

Beziers had a significant collection of “fool the eye” paintings on the sides of buildings, but none could compare with the one in Capestang shown in a previous post.The canal even had a one way tunnel we had to pass through.

It was a fun week on the Canal du Midi.  I even got to pilot the boat a little.  Our thanks to Lavonne and Daryll for their skills which made it all possible.

Living on the Canal du Midi

Moving your boat through the locks is an important part of boating on the Canal du Midi. Fortunately, we are navigating downstream so the water level is at the top of the lock when we enter. It takes three people to control the boat in the locks: the pilot, and a person in the bow and stern to hold ropes to keep the boat from drifting. One person, usually the person on the bow, steps ashore and loops the free end of their line around a post on the side of the lock. That person then runs to the stern, loops the rear line around another post, runs back to the front of the boat and hops back on. Skilled rope handlers can throw the rope and lasso the post, but I am not in that category. The two people then use the lines to hold the boat close to the side of the lock as the water level drops. When the water level reaches bottom and it is time for your boat to move, the rope handlers simply pull the lines back on board and off you go.   If we were traveling upstream, we would have to throw our rope to someone at the top of the lock to loop it for us. There is a lock master to cram as many boats as possible into the lock and operate the gates. On smaller canals, the boaters have to operate the lock gates.Lavonne is an experienced sailor so she was the leader in the locks and usually went ashore to get the lines looped.It may look like I am just standing there relaxing, but note how snug the stern of the boat is to the side of the lock.  That was my job!  This picture was taken at the top of a section of five locks together.  These locks are the number three tourist attraction in the area.  You can see spectators in the background.  That put pressure on not to do anything stupid!Daryll was our captain and Susan was our advisor.  Susan went ashore at the set of five locks to loop the lines for us.  At the bottom of the fifth lock, the wind started to move the bow of the ship away from the side of the lock while Susan was still ashore.  Lavonne was at her usual spot on the bow of the ship opposite Susan, who yelled to her “I can’t make it”.  Lavonne just said “Yes you can!” while grabbing her arm as Susan made a mighty jump.  Nice work!Life on the boat is pretty relaxing. On a typical day we navigate for about three hours. There are numerous small villages along the canal to explore. This requires mooring the boat to stakes provided along the banks of the canal.  This operation is similar to that of going through the locks.  Above is our cabin.  While it was cozy, it was well thought out.  We moored along the banks of the canal most nights, so we had to conserve water and batttey power.Our living room/dining room. Our kitchen was equipped with a refrigerator, cook top, and oven.  We ate all our breakfasts and several lunches and dinners on the boats.  We took advantage of a weekly market in one of the towns to get much of our provisions.

We spent most of the time on the top deck.  We had an umbrella for shade, but we had to take it down for the numerous low bridges.  We tried many strategies for handling the umbrella under the bridge, and this was by far the easiest.

By law in France, all boats must be equipped with holding tanks for waste.  Unfortunately, no pump out facilities are available along the canal, so all waste is pulverized and discharged directly into the canal.  Yuck!  I was shocked by this since I always think of Europe as being ahead of us environmentally.  Needless to say, we didn’t swim in the canal.  I also opted not to bring my line handling gloves home.

There were a number of aquaducts where the canal would pass over a stream or other obstacle.  This one at Beziers over a river is by far the longest.  If you look closely, you can see a long boat in the canal over the third arch from the left.
We are now in the Brussels airport bound for Vienna and what should be reliable wifi, so we will try to get caught up on the blog.  Accuweather has a yellow warning for heat in Vienna, so we will either be in a lot of museums or writing a lot of blogs in the afternoons.

The Canal du Midi

The Canal du Midi was constructed in the early seventeenth century under the orders of King Louis XIV.  At the time it was known as the Royal Canal and it gained its present name after the French Revolution.  Louis was at war with Spain and they were charging France a huge tax to sail around the Rock of Gibraltar.  He built the 150 mile long canal through southern France to avoid paying this tax.   The canal is about sixty five feet wide and six and a half feet deep.  It has 130 locks and was dug by shovel by 2000 French workers in ten years.  That seems like an incredible achievement to me.  I would not want to have been one of those 2000 workers!Portions of the canal are lined with plane trees as seen on the left bank. Unfortunately, many of the plane trees have died, necessitating 40,000 of them being cut down.  Many of these have been replaced recently with a different variety of tree.  We saw one section of the canal today where the new trees were being watered with a hose.  When I asked what was causing the trees to die, I was told it was a fungus from America.  After apologizing profusely, they said that pollution in the canal may also be contributing to the problem.There are a number of aquaducts along the canal.This is our boat moored for the night along the bank of the canal.There are a number of charming villages to explore along the canal.This group of buildings is painted on the perpendicular sides of two buildings.  What looks very three dimensional here is in reality two flat walls.  All the shadows and people are painted as well.  It was really amazing.

We are halfway through our journey.  The winds have been very strong the last two days which has made mooring challenging.  We are increasing our skill at going through the locks.  We will try to get some lock pictures, but we are pretty busy in the locks.  Other than wind, the weather has been great.

Return to Cassis 

Those of you with really good memories may remember that we visited Cassis during our transatlantic crossing last fall.  We loved the harbor with all the good seafood restaurants.  Cassis offers boat trips to visit the calanques which line the Mediterranean between Cassis and Marseille.  A calanque or creek is a narrow, steep walled inlet.  Unfortunately, last fall there was not time to take a boat tour of the calanques and we were not there at meal time.  We  immediately added both items to our bucket list and Thursday was the day to cross them both off our list.

When we visited in November last year it was a nice quiet town.  As you may guess, that was not the case in the middle of July.  We drove around for thirty minutes looking for a parking spot.  We finally found one on the street that was only a fifteen minute walk to the port.Susan is standing in front of our tour boat with the port in the background.The variety of pine trees on the walls are able to grow in the cracks between the rocks and require little water.These rocks looked like a stack of giant building blocks.  Kayaking in the Calanques is very popular.  You can see two kayakers at the end of the peninsula.  Following the boat ride we had an early dinner/late lunch at the port of dorado for Susan and sea bass for Bruce.  We both thought it was our best meal in France so far.

We have been doing a lot of driving, so on our last day in Provence we decided on a change in plans; and on the recommendation of a friend, we visited Staint Rémy-de-Provence.   This is of course the town where Van Gogh was hospitalized for one year during which time he painted 150 masterpieces.  That is almost a painting every two days! He was hospitalized in what is now the Monestery Saint-Paul de Mausole.  Their lavender was clearly past its prime.  By the way, with spending three years in Provence, did Van Gogh ever paint lavender fields?The courtyard of the monastery.Vincent’s bedroom.One of the treatments he received while hospitalized here was “shock bathing”.  Apparently the thinking was that immersion in cold water would somehow make you think clearly again.  He shot himself the year after he left the hospital.  He did most of his painting in the last four years of his life.  He created over 700 paintings.

Saint Remy is another beautiful French town with plane trees and classic architecture.This simple building was home to Nostradamus, the physician and seer who is famous for his many predictions.

Saturday we pick up our friends Lavonne and Daryll at the Marseille airport and drive to the beginning of our boat trip on the Canal du Midi.  Fortunately, our friends are experienced boaters and we are deck hands to help in the locks.  It should be quite an adventure; but unfortunately, we will not have wifi so you will most likely get a one week break from posts.  If so, we will pick up in Vienna with a summary of our canal trip.

Lost in Avignon

It had to happen sooner or later.  We are using our Garmin to navigate the roads and roundabouts of France.  Wednesday we decided to explore the city of Avignon.  The heart of the city is still surrounded by walls.  Within the walls are many crooked, narrow, primarily pedestrian streets.  On Tuesday, the Garmin decided it didn’t like the detail view of the route anymore and switched en route to a much broader view.  I found this image much harder to interpret which roundabout exit she wanted me to take.

Avignon is a pretty large city and the streets outside the wall are anything but straight.  Things seemed to be going pretty well until all of a sudden I found myself going through one of the gates of the wall.  I have been to Avignon previously, so I knew this was a bad thing.  Driving inside the wall was your basic nightmare.  The streets were filled with people, bikes, motorbikes, delivery trucks blocking streets to make a delivery, and cars coming toward you on streets so narrow there was no hope of passing.  The Garmin lady was having a fit recalculating, wanting me to make impossible turns from one narrow street to another narrow street, and going for long periods with no route shown.  It seemed to me I was going in circles with no idea which direction to go to get outside the walls – and as Susan will tell you, I really wanted to get outside those walls.

After thirty minutes of driving around like this, I finally stumbled onto a Main Street that led me quickly through one of the gates.  And my luck changed because I came immediately to a large parking lot with lots of spots in a convenient location.  I have never been so happy to get out of a car in my life!

July is Theater Month in Avignon with numerous plays, ballet, movies, opera, music, etc performances in various venues all over town for the entire month.  I am sure that didn’t help my driving problems.  There are probably over a dozen performances each day.Posters for the various shows were everywhere and half the people on the street seemed to be handing out performance ads to the other half of the people.  Thank goodness we arrived before the crowds were in the streets.A pope lived in Avignon from 1309 to 1403.  This is the Papal Palace where the pope resided.  One of the major sites is the Pont d’Avignon of nursery rhyme fame.  It was built in the late twelfth century and was originally 3000 feet long with 22 arches of which four arches survive today (The island on the right did not exist at the time).  Ice and severe flooding kept causing the arches to cave in.  After the last failure in 1668, the bridge was not rebuilt.

We have also visited Arles where Van Gogh lived and painted.  There are a number of easels in town at the sites where Van Gogh painted.  Thus, you can compare the painting with the way it looks today.  Rick of course has a walk to see all the easels, and that was our first activity.Susan is wearing her Van Gogh inspired dress.The bridge, the tree, and the car are new, but the arch over the street, the steps, and the river bank are unchanged.Arles also has a Roman amphitheater.

After Arles, we visited the hill town of Les Baux.  The hill is topped by the ruins of a castle that was built into the rocks.Rooms in the rock were created by cutting out blocks of rock.  These blocks were then used to build other structures such as the tower on the left.The castle had an exhibit of sculptures in the style of the Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo.The view from the castle was a patchwork of vineyards and olive trees.

You may notice a lot of blue sky in the pictures.  It makes for beautiful pictures, but is really hot.  We are getting home each night totally exhausted from the heat – but you can’t help loving Franch towns!

In Search of Lavender and Ochre

If you have ever heard me talk about Provence, you know how badly I have wanted to see the lavenders bloom there.  This yearning began with a screen saver that came with my Windows computer showing a field with rows of lavender in full bloom with a lone tree in the background.  I knew that we might be a little late for some of the fields, but I was hoping that there would still be some in full bloom.The Abbey Notre-Dame de Senanque is a landmark near where we are staying that is virtually surrounded by lavender fields.  Unfortunately, they seemed past there prime.  The abbey is still an active monastery.  We had asked at the tourist information office where we might find lavender blooming and he had suggested the hill town of Sault.  So off we went.Perhaps my favorite view was this one.  They don’t show up that well in the picture, but there is field after field of lavender in the background.  It was a beautiful patchwork of purple, green, and brown (harvested hay fields).Some of the lavender was not planted in rows and had some weeds poking up over the lavender.Other lavender fields were planted in neat rows and seemed weed free,  While I didn’t get a picture to match my screen saver, we saw some beautiful lavender fields.The hay fields weren’t too shabby either.

Ochre is an earth pigment with colors ranging from yellow, to orange, to brown and to red depending on the different iron compounds present in the soil.  Ochre cliffs are found near the hill town of Roussillon. The ochre trail took us by a number of ochre cliffs.

The buildings in Roussillon are various shades of ochre.And what better way to celebrate a wonderful day in Provence than with two scoops of lavender ice cream?

On To Provence

After two stress free weeks on the Viking Star cruising Scandinavia, we must sadly return to the real world.  This was our first time on Viking, and we were very pleased.  The food was excellent.  Every dinner required a tough choice between a number of entrees and appetizers I really wanted to try.  There was no choosing the lesser of the evils.  And all the meals ranged from good to excellent.  The service throughout the ship could not have been better.   To our complete surprise, we also liked most of the evening entertainment more than that on Celebrity.  We expected the much larger Celebrity ships would be able to afford better entertainment, but Viking catered more to our age bracket with songs we knew and singers that didn’t feel the need to scream.  The only worry in the world was getting back to the boat before it left the port.

Our trip to Provence started with a flight to Nice, France.  When we asked where we should check in for our flight, we were directed to a bank of automatic machines.  We soon were holding our baggage tags and boarding passes.  So far, nothing too unique.  Everyone else was putting the tag on their bags, so we did the same.  We then went to the baggage drop, and found a conveyor that was standing still.  We put our bag on the conveyor and scanned the tag we had just attached.  The conveyor started, transferred the bag to the collecting conveyor, and stopped for the next customer.  We had checked in without interacting with another human being.  Wait until Spirit finds out you can do that!

Our plane got into Nice a few minutes early and everything seemed to be going well for meeting our apartment owner to get the keys.  However, Nice is on the French Riviera and it appeared all the families in Europe were going there for summer vacation.  The airport was chaos with children running everywhere.  It took 45 minutes to get our bags.  Then there was the task of getting the rental car which involved a shuttle bus to another terminal and a long walk in the heat lugging our suitcases to find the poorly marked rental car center.  We arrived soaked in perspiration to find a large room full of people in an assortment of lines.  One woman who was in the middle of the longest line claimed to have been in line for two hours!  We had already checked in painlessly at the first terminal, so we only had to find a Hertz guy to give us our key.  I managed to achieve that without standing in any lines, but we did have to stand in line for the elevator to take us to the floor where our car was parked.  Then we had to learn the quirks of a new car.  Our biggest challenge was opening the trunk.  We were finally able to get some lunch about 4 PM and we arrived at our destination only a little over an hour late.

Our apartment is located right in the center of L’isle-sur-la-Sorgue.  It is known as the Venice of France as the Sorgue River splits into many canals running through the town.Our apartment is in the heart of the historic area of town behind a big plane tree and next to an antique store.  Better yet, it is one door from a bakery!  We like everything about the apartment except the stairs.  It is on the European second floor which would be our third floor since their ground floor is zero.  It has narrow steep winding stairs.Let me introduce you to the main intersection of our stair system.  Straight ahead are the stairs winding down to the ground.  To the left is the shower and wash basin.  Note that the floor at this door is fraught with peril.  To the far right are the steps up to our bedroom.  And finally on the right, taking off from the bedroom steps are the steps up to the only toilet.  We have both pledged never to use the steps without holding on to the handrail and to always turn the light on if we go to the toilet in the night!  We woke this morning to find the largest market in Provence beneath our window (this was not a surprise). It stretched throughout the town and had anything you could ever want for sale.  This is a big town for antique stores and one long street had nothing but antique booths.The market even featured two classical cello players beside our front door.  We opened our window so we could enjoy the music.The town still has fifteen water wheels on the canals (down from 44 originally).  We did the water wheel walk this afternoon.  Some of them still turn, but most of them do not.  We are finding it to be another charming French town.

France – Some Observations

Cows

Cows are not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of France, but beef burgundy is very popular and the cows in Burgundy are almost always white.  

 

Postal Delivery by Bike

Nolay was the nearest village with significant shopping and restaurants. One day we noticed a man and a woman on yellow bikes with baskets. It turns out they are the postal delivery people for the town.   

 

Graveyards 

When you walk through a cemetery in a French village, most of the tombs have a collection of small plaques and other objects on them. These appear to be condolence messages or memorabilia left by friends and family members. They are free standing and weather resistant, so they appear to be left there permanently.  

 

Fake Windows

The cheapest way to create an extra window on the outside is to paint it on. We saw several houses that had done just that.   

 Real shutters with painted window.

 A few even painted a picture of the owner looking out the fake window.  

 This is a real window opening with a thoughtful wood sculpture. 

Back Road Travel

We brought our Garmin for the drive around France and we would not have been able to make the drive without it. However, the Garmin knows a lot of shortcuts and has a real penchant for the back roads. The small villages have a lot of techniques to reduce the speed through the town such as narrow spots where only one car can pass at a time, allowing three cars to park on one side of the street and then three on the other side so you have to zig zag through town, or using medians and barriers to force a zig zag drive through town. But the reward of the back roads is you see a lot of pretty towns and scenery.  

   I had never seen a field of sunflowers in bloom before. I was hoping for a lavender field, but we were too far north. 

Ivy

I love the ivy growing on the houses, but it looks like it could be a lot of pruning to keep your windows clear.  

 

Security

After commenting for eight weeks that you never see any policemen around, there were police, security, and military everywhere today including on both our trains. We presume it is a result of the incidents in Leon, France and elsewhere yesterday. We also changed trains at the station at the Milan World Expo today, which might also account for some of the security. We actually walked outside the station and were right at the gates of the Expo or Worlds Fair. Yesterday, we drove through the outskirts of Leon and had no knowledge of the incident at that time. Anyway, we are in Switzerland and feel perfectly safe. 

Loire Valley

We spent the last two days in the Loire Valley of France. The area is noted for its many beautiful chateaus. Following are a couple pictures of the four we visited arranged in order of least favorite to favorite.  

 This is Azay-le-Rideau which doesn’t look too bad in this carefully framed shot. However, following is what the main part of the chateau looked like.  

 The roof leaks and they have a two year program to repair it  

   

 With 440 rooms, Chambord, is by far the largest and most exotic looking chateau. But it isn’t beautiful, the rooms are pretty empty, it has no garden, and the lawn needs watering.  

   VIllandry has by far the nicest gardens, is nicely furnished with furniture from the late nineteenth century, and had a good English handout. It was a close contest. 

   Chenonceau was our favorite based on its location over the river, it’s beautiful flower arrangements in every room, good furnishings, good English handout and small but nice garden. Plus, it was only a five minute walk from our hotel. 

We are now in Turin, Italy after a long drive.  We take a train to Switzerland tomorrow.