France and Barcelona : 2016 Trip Report

Sep 13th, 2016, 07:12 AM
  #21  
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Day 8 : 13th August (Saturday) :
PROVENCE :
Today was going to be a long driving day, with sightseeing at Aix-en-Provence, and finally ending at Saint-Remy. So we woke up early, and were down for breakfast at 8 am. Incidentally, the hotel had a great breakfast area, with outdoor seating options, and a very good spread. Their croissants and fresh juices in particular were excellent. By 8:45 am, our luggage was in the car, and we were on our way headed towards Theole-sur-Mer.

We had decided against taking the motorway all the way, but had opted for the coastal route. The entire road from Theole-sur-Mer to St Raphael was spectacular. We had heard about the lovely calanques on the way, and we stopped at many of them for photo-ops. They were gorgeous, and the small coves and beaches, surrounded by rocky outcrop and lovely blue waters were quite a sight. We must have stopped atleast 6-8 times on the way, to admire the views. Finally, when the calanques were over, we stopped at the seaside town of Agay for refreshments.

From Agay, we veered onto the motorway towards Aix, reaching there at about 2 pm. First task was to park the car and have lunch, which we accomplished at a café on Rue Italie. Stomachs full, we entered the Museum Granet. They were having an exhibition of the works of Camoin, whereas we had come to see their permanent collection of better artists. Disappointing.

We walked the length of Cours Mirabeau, and from there into the old town. It was certainly picturesque, but we had expected much more, and frankly we were a bit underwhelmed. After strolling around for a couple of hours, and watching the cute fountains everywhere, we had some great gelato, and resumed our drive to Saint-Remy.

Reached Saint-Remy late in evening, and drove to our hotel, Le Vallon de Valrugues Hotel & Spa. It was a high end property, and the rooms were nice and upmarket. We freshened up, and decided to have dinner at the hotel itself. They have two Michelin-star chefs cooking there, and the food was indeed excellent, and very exquisitely presented. It had been a long and tiring day in the car, and we were glad to snuggle into bed thereafter.
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Sep 13th, 2016, 07:36 AM
  #22  
 
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" It was certainly picturesque, but we had expected much more, and frankly we were a bit underwhelmed."

Finally, someone else who was disappointed in Aix. I agree with you. Great report...looking forward to more Provence...we'll be there soon.

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Sep 13th, 2016, 07:39 AM
  #23  
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Day 9 : 14th August (Sunday) :
PROVENCE (Cont’d) :
There was no breakfast package with the room rates at this hotel, so we decided to eat out. It was past 10 am when we left the hotel, and it was a longish walk to the city centre of about 15 minutes. Found a nice bakery, where we bought breads and tarts, and sat on a leafy square for breakfast, washed down with fresh juices and coffee. Lovely relaxed atmosphere about the place.

We drove to Pont du Gard, which was less than an hour’s drive. You have to park the car in the designated area, and walk a fair bit to get to the aquaduct. The walk was pleasant, and as the architectural marvel came into view, we were delighted at the sight. We walked on the bridge, and admired the views of the meandering river on both sides, full of swimmers and canoes. People were having a picnic everywhere, and the sight was very pretty. Well worth the visit.

We drove to the nearby Uzes village. It was a market day here, and there was no parking to be found. We drove around the village twice – it looked tempting to walk in, but just could not find parking. So we drove on to Avignon. On the way, there were people selling figs on the roadside, which looked tempting. We stopped somewhere, and feasted on the sweetest figs that we have ever tasted in our lives. Also bought some bottles of fig jam to carry home ! Another roadside fruitseller was our next stop, and we had a great time eating all kinds of fresh fruits which the seller gladly served up. The entire drive was scenic, with canopies of trees sheltering us most of the way.

On reaching Avignon, we managed to find some free street parking. We were reasonably full with the figs and fruits, and just had some light sandwiches for lunch. Next we picked up maps from the Tourist Office, and entered the palace of Popes. It was a nice tour of the former papal palace – grand and well preserved. As we exited, we found a train ride going around town just outside the palace, and we all jumped in. What followed was an excellent tour of the town, both inside and outside the walled city, and it was a relaxing way to see every nook and corner of the lovely quaint town in 45 minutes. We really liked the looks of Avignon, far more than Aix. Disembarking from the train ride, we strolled around a bit through the medieval city, and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Finally, we made our way to the Pont d’Avignon, the lovely bridge across the river, which has collapsed halfway across. It is a nice place to walk around, and good views from the end of the bridge, both of the river, and the town with the Pope Palace looming over it. Then we packed some takeaway dinner, and drove off, consuming the dinner enroute in the car. On reaching our Saint-Remy hotel, we sat in our rooms and sipped the complimentary bottle of wine, which was divine, before popping off to sleep.
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Sep 13th, 2016, 07:40 AM
  #24  
 
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Another " agree" about Aix.
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Sep 13th, 2016, 08:24 AM
  #25  
 
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Following you and your pals. Great report.
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Sep 13th, 2016, 08:27 AM
  #26  
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Day 10 : 15th August (Monday) :
PROVENCE (Cont’d) :
We had originally planned on doing both Camargue and Arles on this day. But we mutually decided to make it less strenuous, and skip out Camargue. So it would be a light day, with only Arles to visit. Today was also a religious holiday on account of Anunciation Day, and a parade was scheduled in Saint-Remy.

We left the hotel shortly after 9 am. This time we drove to a parking lot near the city centre, and had to walk only two minutes to reach the same bakery where we had picked up breads the previous day. Nice elderly lady there, who helped us with our selections. Sat on the same square as yesterday, and downed our breakfast. Then we lined up on the sidewalk along with throngs of people, and watched a nice procession of village people go by in strange costumes, accompanied by large horses. We did not know the significance of it all, but enjoyed it nonetheless.

We drove to Arles, and found parking with difficulty, which was valid only for a few hours. Then a long walk to the Tourist Office, where we picked up maps, and the Passport Libre, which gave us access to all the sights that we hoped to cover.

First stop was the Theatre Antique, an old amphitheatre now in ruins, but impressive. There was an informative film running there, which described the history of the structure. We next visited the Les Arenas nearby, which was very much like a smaller version of the Colosseum in Rome. We climbed all the way to the top, which offered great views of the arena, as well as of Arles town, which looked very pretty from up there.

We also visited the Roman Baths, which were OK. Had seen similar stuff many times before. By then it was lunch time, and we went to the main eatery square – Place du Forum. We were enticed to lunch at a particular café by an enterprising waiter, where we decided to sit down. While the ladies ordered their meals, we men walked back to the car to renew our parking meter. It was a long walk to the car and back, and we were panting by the time we returned. When we came back, we found the waiter who had enticed us in, had suddenly decided to turn very rude for no discernible reason ! The only rude and uncivilized behaviour that we encountered in the entire trip. We got up, and left, and sat at another restaurant to complete our lunch.

Arles was a nice quaint town, and we quite liked it. However, between Aix, Avignon and Arles, we had all liked Avignon the most. After lunch, we strolled over to the cemetery, Les Alyscamps, where Van Gogh and Gauguin had painted many canvasses. It was a picturesque cemetery, with shady walkways, and a spooky building in between.

When we were done, we drove back to Saint-Remy, reaching our hotel by 6:30 pm. We rested for some time, and drove into town to have dinner at a Moroccan restaurant recommended by the hotel. It was alfresco dining, and a decent meal. It had been a relaxing day, and for once we were not tired when we called it a day.
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Sep 13th, 2016, 08:32 AM
  #27  
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Hello maitaitom, good to hear from you again.

Aix had been so hyped in travel magazines and TV shows, that expectations had been built to a high level. Glad to know from maitaitom and danon that we were not the only ones to be disappointed.

Welcome on board Toulonnais and Treesa ! Hope you enjoy reading about our travails.
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Sep 13th, 2016, 09:20 AM
  #28  
 
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As an added fig bonus...Tracy has gotten into making jam (utilizing figs that we "borrow" from our neighbor's tree). Next time it's fig season, try these out. Your report is making me wish we were leaving today. Thanks!!!

http://travelswithmaitaitom.com/boozy-bourbon-vanilla-fig-jam/

http://travelswithmaitaitom.com/strawberry-grand-marnier-fig-jam/

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Sep 13th, 2016, 06:33 PM
  #29  
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Maitaitom, your jams look delicious. Wish I could taste them right now. Have to persuade DW to try out the recipes. Will report back on success.
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Sep 13th, 2016, 08:46 PM
  #30  
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Day 11 : 16th August (Tuesday) :
PROVENCE (Cont’d) :
We had planned to visit the Abbaye Notre Dame de Senanque today, to see the lavender fields, and needed an early start as the Abbey closed down for the public early. So we left the hotel at 8:45am, without breakfast, deciding on having breakfast somewhere on the way. We did not find anything to eat until we reached Gordes village, and parked our car in an attendant-watched parking lot. There was a small café just opening up, and he agreed to serve us. Had some wonderful hot paninis and coffee, and drove on to the Senanque Abbey.

The setting was sublime, and the view of the abbey from a distance was extreme tranquil and lovely. Just an old large stone abbey set amongst the hills and vegetation. The lavender fields were still full, but the colour had faded to a dull purple – we knew we were about a month late. We were told that the last crop was due to be cut later in the day. Even with the subdued colours, it was still a very pretty sight. We did take a tour of the Abbey inside, and bought some lavender souvenirs in their gift shop, but our hearts were set in the lavender fields outside, where we clicked many pictures.

We returned to Gordes, a village that that looked surprisingly beautiful when we had passed by. Turned out to be market day for Gordes, and now the village was full of people thronging the streets. It was difficult to find parking now, but our attendant in the parking lot earlier in the day was still there, and he guided us to a spot. As we walked into the village, we were overawed by its beauty. No guidebook had spoken much about Gordes, and it was a prized find. The weekly market was in full swing, and there were all kinds of makeshift stalls set up. We roamed around for hours, sampling fresh nuts, jams, and all kinds of nibbles. Bought some street paintings from a old couple who had set up shop. Every now and then, we would venture away from the market crowds to explore the cobblestone alleys of the village, and it was beauty beyond description – perhaps rivalling the exhilaration that we had experienced at St Paul de Vence a few days earlier. There was a uniform stone architecture throughout the village, which was set on the slopes of a hill, with vantage lookout points with views of the valley. It was extremely photogenic, and the most beautiful thing we had seen on this entire trip. Must have clicked a hundred pictures in this village. A must see in Provence – if you care to venture into the Luberon area.

When we finally tore ourselves away from the village, we stopped at a camera point just outside the village, from which the entire village was in view in its resplendent glory. Lovely photo op point, and we just could not get enough. After that we did venture towards Bories village, but the one or two stone huts that we saw while driving by did not interest very much, so we moved on towards Bonnieux. Anything would have been anti-climactic after Gordes.

We had lunch at Bonnieux comprising of crepes and ice creams. Delicious. Interesting cute village, but the slopes were too steep, and it would have taken quite an effort to walk through it, so we did not venture very deep.

We drove on to Rousillon village, and parked somewhere near the Sentier de Ocre. There were lots of interesting shops around where we parked, and we sauntered through them. Then made our way to the ochre area. It was a most unusual sight to see those ochre coloured rocks and cliffs from a distance. We had heeded advice and not worn white clothes today. We undertook the short walk of 35 minutes, where most of the ochre landscape comes in view. The walk was good, and the views were excellent. Very pretty village too, with all buildings painted with that ochre colour.

It was time to return, after what was probably our best day on this trip. On reaching Saint-Remy, we lazed around in their jacuzzi and indoor pool. After that we sat around in our rooms to finish the excellent wine the hotel had given us, along with olives that we had picked up at the Gordes market. For dinner, we drove to the nearby village of Maussane des Alpilles, and feasted at La Fleur de Thym, a restaurant highly recommended by the son of our friends. It did not disappoint at all, and the meal was divine. Returned late in the night and went to bed.
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Sep 14th, 2016, 12:24 AM
  #31  
 
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"nice procession of village people go by in strange costumes, accompanied by large horses" : It's called "Carreto Ramado" in provençal language, which is a tribute to agricultural harvests.
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Sep 14th, 2016, 07:26 AM
  #32  
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Thanks for filling me up on the significance of the parade that we saw. Much appreciated.
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Sep 14th, 2016, 08:03 AM
  #33  
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Day 12 : 17th August (Wednesday) :
PROVENCE (Cont’d) :
Today was our last day in Provence, and was devoted to Saint-Remy and its surroundings. Today was the weekly market day at Saint-Remy, and was reputed to be a very large market in Provence region. We left the hotel at 9:30 am, and went straight to the city centre. The place was just packed with stalls and loads of people. Even our “regular” bakery had run out of supplies so early in the morning ! Anyway, we collected whatever bakery items we could, and had breakfast.

The ladies had a field day shopping. They can never tire when they wander through shops ! We accompanied them for as long as we could, and then sat down with soft drinks while they shopped away. They were finally done after 3 hours, and we had a decent lunch in the city centre at a French restaurant called “Cuisine des Anges”. Then back to the hotel for our afternoon snooze.

We left after 4 pm and drove first to the Les Antiques, just outside of Saint-Remy. A few pillars of old Roman ruins. Yawn. Nearby was the asylum where Van Gogh had spent over a year, and painted a very large number of his famous canvases. I think its called the Monastere St Paul de Mausole. This turned out to be extremely interesting. All over the place, and even on the road leading to it, they have put up prints of his paintings, at the exact spots where he sat and painted them. Very nice to see the interiors including the room where Van Gogh lived. Thoroughly engrossing experience.

From here we drove to Les Baux village, and parked the car. Went first to watch the sound & light show called Carrieres de Lumieres, where they project a collage of Chagall paintings on the walls of a limestone quarry. It was a fabulous experience, nothing like we had ever seen before. The paintings did not look very colourful, but the photographs I took on my DSLR in low light, show extremely vivid colours ! We must have spent over 30 minutes inside, and we enjoyed every minute of it.

Exited, and walked up to Les Baux village. Very very enchanting village, with lovely quaint architecture. Slowly walked up the incline and emerged on the Chateau des Baux, which is a huge open terrace on top, containing ruins of a by-gone chateau. However, the views of all around from up there were fabulous. We slowly walked back down, again clicking lots of pictures of the lovely village.

We drove back to the restaurant where we had dined the previous evening, La Fleur de Thym in Maussane des Alpilles, and had a repeat excellent dinner, before we called it a day.
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Sep 14th, 2016, 08:32 AM
  #34  
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Day 13 : 18th August (Thursday) :
BARCELONA :
We had to leave the hotel real early today, to board a train to Barcelona from Avignon TGV station. However, there was a major plumbing problem in the hotel, and only scalding hot water was coming through the pipes. We all complained; the hotel acknowledged the problem, but expressed its helplessness. Sick to see such a problem in a 5-star property that charged through the nose. We had experienced other plumbing problems the last few days, but not so serious. And the problems were in every room of the establishment. Today was so horrible that it was not possible to even touch the water – it was so hot.

We somehow left at 6:45 am, with a bad taste in the mouth. Reached Avignon TGV by 7:30 am, and returned the car to Hertz. Then we had a nice breakfast at the train station restaurant. However, worse was to follow. As we were boarding the train, in the first class coach, a well dressed man started helping me put my luggage on the racks. I was grateful for the gesture, and no sooner had he completed the task, that I realized that my wallet had been picked from my pocket. I instantly realized that the whole thing had been a clever trick played with two people in tandem. One of them distracted my attention by being helpful, while his accomplice did the rest. I was shell-shocked that I had fallen for it. I started shouting at the man who had helped me, saying that I knew he was responsible. There were no policemen around, and the train was about to move. I think his accomplice got worried, and pretended to spot a discarded wallet in the coach, which he picked up and handed to me. To my relief, all my credit cards were intact, but the entire cash was missing. All through this trip I had been carrying only about E 150-200 on myself, but just that morning I had transferred all remaining cash to my wallet, about E 750, and it was all gone. Felt real bad that I had been a sucker, but could do nothing about it, as the train had started moving, and the two thieves had disappeared.

DW felt worse than me, but I told her to forget it. Would have been worse if the credit cards had disappeared. I tried to put the incident away in my mind. At Montpillier, we had a forced train change, due to some train accident that had happened the previous day on this route. Finally reached Barcelona at 1 pm, a bit behind schedule. Took a minivan taxi to the hotel, Hotel Casa Camper, just next to the Ramblas. The hotel was fabulous, and the rooms were super. The staff gave us a nice introduction of the facilities, and one could instantly feel the Spanish warmth. The French had been very nice, but the Spanish are a cut above in warmth and friendliness.

The hotel recommended a great veg restaurant nearby for lunch, called Teresa Carles. There was a long wait to get a table, but worth it. The food was excellent, and their juices were to die for. We had a short rest at the hotel and started a walking tour at about 5 pm. First we walked the length of the Ramblas (or almost all of it), venturing into the Mercat de la Boqueria (produce market), and then veered into the Barri Gottic area. We sat down on a lovely plaza for mojitos. Then we just wandered all over Barri Gottic for the next 2 hours, going past lovely plazas and churches. It was lovely, and the architecture was excellent. Memories of Madrid came rushing back, which we had done 9 years ago !

For dinner, we went to another excellent veg restaurant recommended by our hotel in Barri Gottic, called “Rossaterro”. The food was divine. Great to find such a variety of excellent veg food in Barcelona (we are veggies). Our friends dined elsewhere, and we joined up after dinner, and strolled back to our hotel on the Ramblas.
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Sep 14th, 2016, 09:07 AM
  #35  
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Day 14 : 19th August (Friday) :
BARCELONA (Cont’d) :
The breakfast spread at the hotel was superb, and we feasted to our hearts content. The hotel staff also helped us do online bookings for La Sagrada Familia and Parc Guell. Today we were going separate ways with our friends, as they wanted to go on the city bus tour, whereas we wanted to see the Gaudi attractions.

After breakfast, we left at about 10:30 am for Passeig de Gracia. This was a lovely street, not far from our hotel. It housed all the ultra high end shops of Barcelona. We flitted in and out of Chanel, Gucci etc, inspected handbags, and pretended to be unimpressed by the price-tags of E 4000-6000. While doing this fancy window shopping, we reached Casa Batllo, bought tickets, and went in. It was our first encounter with Gaudi’s work, and we were completely bowled over. The architecture was so unique and beautiful, and he had converted every functional element into a form of beauty. Sheer genius.

We saw the two modern buildings adjacent to the Casa Batllo, which were also nice, but not works of Gaudi. After this, we headed to an Indian restaurant called “Bembi”, which had also been recommended by our hotel, and was not far away. The food was excellent, and as authentic as you can get. It was great to taste superb Indian food after almost two weeks, and we stuffed ourselves.

We next walked back to Passeig de Gracia, and visited La Pedrera, another Gaudi masterpiece. The interiors were not as impressive as Casa Batllo, but the roof was whacky and over the top, adorned with a large number of funky shaped chimneys. A delight to see, and the Sagrada Familia was neatly visible, framed in a structure on the rooftop.

We took a taxi back to the hotel for some rest. Had some soft drinks in their foyer to cool down, and rested in the room. Just after 6 pm, we left in a taxi for the Sagrada Familia. What can I say about this masterpiece, that has not been said already ? Simply fabulous. The exteriors were fascinating, but the interiors were what blew the mind away. The stone structures providing support to the ceilings resembled a forest, and we were spellbound by the genius of this man. We vowed to return to Barcelona after 10 years, when the structure would finally be complete, and I am sure it will be the grandest church in the world.

We took a metro back to the hotel, and dined at another great veg restaurant in the vicinity, called Flax & Kane, a sister restaurant of Teresa Carles where we had lunched the previous day. Excellent food. We had missed great veg food in France. No problems in Barcelona. It was time to crash out in bed, after a wonderful day. We were loving Barcelona.
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Sep 14th, 2016, 09:22 AM
  #36  
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Day 15 : 20th August (Saturday) :
BARCELONA (Cont’d) :
This was our last day of this vacation. Once again, we had a superb breakfast. Today our friends had re-joined us, and we had tickets for Parc Guell for the morning. We boarded a taxi, and reached Parc Guell, and went in. The two fancy towers near the entrance were lovely. As expected, the architecture everywhere was funky (so much like all of Gaudi’s works), and a nice place to visit. But I would not rate it anywhere near the Sagrada Familia or even Casa Batllo. Once done with the tour of the gardens, we cooled down with some drinks and ice creams in the park café. Then a taxi back to the hotel.

For lunch, we went to a tapa place recommended by our hotel, called Bar Lobo, just a short walk from the hotel. Excellent food, especially their fried aubergines dripping with honey. Then back for our usual afternoon siesta.

In the late afternoon, we went shopping to an area recommended by our hotel, somewhere near the Barri Gottic area, that had a large number of boutique shops. From here, we could walk over to the beach area of Barcelona, La Barceloneta, which was lovely. Sat down at a beach bar and had drinks, enjoying the scenery and the beach crowd. Then took a metro back, and strolled some more on the Ramblas. In the evening, we had a repeat dinner at Flax and Kane, and settled back into the hotel. Alas, our holiday was over, and it had been a fabulous one.


Day 16 : 21st August (Sunday) :
This was our travel day. Had to get up very early, had an early breakfast, and took a taxi to the airport. Flight to Paris CDG, from where we boarded a flight back to Mumbai. Uneventful, and tiring.

This brings me to the end of my Trip Report. Hope you enjoyed reading it. Would be glad to answer any questions about any place that we visited.
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Sep 14th, 2016, 10:03 AM
  #37  
 
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This is just a splendid travel report, as good as any I have read.

I agree (once again) with Kerouac that you are both intrepid and civilized. You cast your nets very broadly, and you proceed gently in good times and with great equanimity in the face of misfortune.

You are, in other words, ladies and gentlemen, in the best sense of the words.

Thank you. You have made this a better day.
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Sep 14th, 2016, 05:20 PM
  #38  
 
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We just returned last evening from a great trip of somewhat the same itinerary in France, and have previously visited Barcelona. Your report is very descriptive and most enjoyable! Sorry for the unfortunate "incident" of theft on the train. But you seemed to move on and continue your enjoyment. Thanks for your most interesting report!
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Sep 14th, 2016, 06:21 PM
  #39  
 
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Thanks for your well-written and enjoyable report. It made me want to revisit Barcelona sometime soon. Sorry to read about the pick-pocketing incident. It seems to be an epidemic in Europe these days...
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Sep 14th, 2016, 06:26 PM
  #40  
 
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I enjoyed your report! Thanks for all the detail. Sorry about your incident on the train.

Interesting that we picked the same hotels that you did for our visits to Paris and Barcelona this year. We stayed at Casa Camper in March and loved it. Glad you enjoyed your stay there! While there, we met a couple who stay there several weeks at a time, several times per year. We are looking forward to our stay at 123 Sebastopol in November.
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