Dear Family and Friends
What an awesome three weeks and what a change from the Day from Hell!
We arrived in Avignon in sunshine after good cruising and moored up right near the centre of town. As it happens they were in the middle of the French version of Fringe Days, apparently second in size only to the Edinbourough Festival. They hold 1200 events per DAY!!! I’m not sure how many Edmonton holds per day but I suspect it’s not that many.
Avignon is a walled city with the Palais des Papes as the central edifice – huge. Sadly the Palais is just empty rooms with boards that explain the room’s original purpose. I wish the French Tourism Board would take a page out of the UK’s National Trust book and decorate the rooms as it would have been back in the day. Even if it had to be reproductions, it would at least give a sense of what it looked like during the time it was occupied. The downside to being in Avignon for those two weeks is that the city was filled with tourists and actors and the streets littered with handouts and billboards advertising the various performances. It looked really dirty and unattractive. We were constantly accosted by card carrying actors – most in performance dress – handing out their pamphlets. Really neat the first few days and then really annoying the rest of the time. It was also seriously hot – one day it reached 41°C – thought I would melt away!!
But we took advantage of Avignon’s location to visit other interesting sites. We took a guided tour to Arles and did the Van Gogh walk (the harbour there was not good mooring so we didn’t want to go by boat). As the only people on the tour we could ask as many questions as we wanted and even got to stop for coffee – not usually part of the tour! Our guide, Annie, was terrific. We saw all the places in Arles that Van Gogh painted, went out of town to the drawbridge that he frequently drew then drove to St-Rémy-de-Provence where he was hospitalized after cutting off his ear. St Remy itself was picture perfect with a wonderful Provence market – lavender, herbs, Provence fabric made into clothes as well as table cloths, wine, cheese, meat – a gourmand’s delight. Then she took us to Les Baux-de-Provence (where bauxite was first found) to a disused quarry that has been turned into an amazing light show – Cathédrale d’Images – where the images of Gaugin and Van Gogh paintings were projected not only on the walls but the floor and ceiling as well. Truly spectacular! You felt like you were inside and part of the paintings.
The next tour was the Luberon and Lavender tour. We had to share our guide with two young Korean girls but they were good travelling companions. We stopped at Abbaye de Sénanque – a 10th century Cistercian abbey whose monks still grow and sell lavender. The picture of the abbey with the lavender fields is pretty much the poster child for the Provence and the Luberon and one that you will have seen many times. Gordes has an impressive location at the top of a hill (Yes, Garry – another hilltop village!!) With beautiful limestone buildings, it has vaulted, arcaded medieval lanes and was home to several artists. Nearby are The Bories – dating from 2000 BC they are domed dry stone houses and barns constructed from limestone as well. They were rebuilt and in constant use until quite recently. Roussillon is similar to Gordes but built with slabs of red ochre - quite stunning. We thoroughly enjoyed our two tours.
If I squeeze them now – do I get wine??
We then rented a car and headed off to the Côte d’Azur intending to visit Cannes, Nice and Monaco. It was so darn hot in Avignon we actually called to change the reservation so we could pick up the car a day earlier and spent the first night in Aix-en-Provence (Aix rhymes with sex – Ex) – what a delightful unplanned surprise. Not only a great little hotel right by the main square but filled with good restaurants, grand boulevards and fountains. In fact it has so many fountains it is known as the City of Water. Even though it was ridiculously hot, we hiked up to the north end of town and visited the Atelier Paul Cézanne – saw his house and garden and his studio where he painted for a number of years. The artist in Phil came alive – he has vowed to do more painting when we get back. The garden is really all overgrown shrubs and trees but with a multitude of paths leading off in all directions. Well worth the hike!
Aix-en-Provence – main circle fountain
Atelier Paul Cézanne
Next day we took off towards Nice. Our little adventure for the day involved getting on the auto route by mistake. Not really a problem unless of course you get into the wrong toll booth in a lane meant for frequent travellers who have a card they scan at the entrance. Not a problem if you are happy to spend the next years of your retirement going back and forth on the auto route. The problem comes when you want to get off, don’t have a ticket to present to pay the toll charge at the machine, which then means the gate won’t open to let you through – to the great annoyance of all the honking drivers behind who had the presence of mind to pick up their tickets like good citizens. We managed to pull over and call the authorities who told us to wait and someone would be along shortly. “Shortly” in France can be up to two weeks and we only had three days, so after about an hour of impatient waiting we pulled up into the lane again – spoke through the intercom – Phil gave them a cock and bull story about the machine eating our ticket - after which she told us to pay our 2.80 euros and off we went. Better than the 11.50 we would have had to pay had we waited for the arrival - eventually – of the authorities.
We arrived in Nice and it was packed. Impossible to find a parking spot anywhere near the Promenade – who’s the idiot that booked this trip for the July 14th Bastille Day celebrations???? We found a little fast food place to eat and took off for the hotel in Villefranche-sur-Mer – a handy dandy little place from which to tour Monaco, etc. Small problem – no parking at the hotel itself so we went around in circles – literally - until we finally found one, got our suitcases out and left it for the next two days. No way were we giving up that parking spot to go anywhere. I’m sure Nice, Monaco and Cannes are lovely but so was Villefranche. Right on the Med – Nice to the right and Cap Ferrat on the left as you look out over the bay. Seriously gorgeous little town on a hillside stepped up from the water. The sea looked stunning and the beaches were crowded with bathers and sun worshippers. OK – who’s the idiot that didn’t pack the bathing suits??? Three guesses! But I did manage to get Phil to buy a new pair of shorts to replace the ones he bought in 1969 – you know the ones – the legs are a metre wide and have 3-4 pleats in the front?? Embarrassing really!
After that lovely sojourn, we arrived back in Avignon to do the laundry and set off once again. We had one more day on the Rhone itself before heading off onto the Petite Rhone. We researched the weather report and left a day earlier than planned to catch favourable winds and current. Piece of cake this time!
But we have arrived – we are in the south of France and so close to the Canal du Midi that I can almost smell it. Oh yes, I forgot – that’s the smell of the ancient sewers of Avignon which on hot days require a mask and lavender scented hankies!! More adventures to come as we cross the Etang du Thau and encounter our first oval lock. Wish us luck!!!
Much love to all
Captain Gucci and his wine swilling Matelot