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I see London, I see France... Nikki's trip report

I see London, I see France... Nikki's trip report

Old Jul 23rd, 2005, 01:57 PM
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I see London, I see France... Nikki's trip report

London and France Trip Report, July, 2005


I have just returned from a two week trip and hope to write my report before I forget everything. My husband Alan and I had vouchers from Air France from being bumped in February, so we used them for tickets from Boston to London and from Paris to Boston. The plan was to spend a week in London with Alan and our older daughter, who graduated from college in May. My daughter would fly home to her summer job and Alan and I would fly to Toulouse and drive for a week through the French countryside, ending up in Paris for our flight home. I have been fantasizing about the French countryside ever since I was last there, in 1990, and the opportunity to get there again had finally arisen. But first, a visit to London, which we visited last summer for just a few days and which we wanted to see again, and where we wanted to visit with relatives.

We left Boston July 6 on two separate flights. Alan and I were on Air France, but our daughter was flying on American, since that was a better price when we added her to our plans a month or two before the trip. Our flight connected through Paris, and our daughter's flight was non-stop to London, so we met at Heathrow. We landed on July 7, at 8:30 AM.

We didn't know anything was wrong. Neither did anyone else. We met up with our daughter as arranged (with the help of Fodorites who had given us directions for getting from one terminal to another). We had arranged for a car from justairports.com, and the driver arrived shortly after we did. As we drove in to London, we hit traffic, and the driver turned on the radio. We heard that all the underground lines had been shut down. The radio announcers knew nothing more than that, and they were speculating about the reasons. We thought this sounded like an extreme state of affairs, but the driver shrugged it off. They're always having problems with the underground, he said. Stuff like this happens all the time.

The traffic didn't get any better, and we passed lots of people waiting at bus stops, trying to hail cabs. I felt extremely fortunate to have booked a car. The radio announcers said that the transit authorities were attributing the problems to a power surge. Then we heard about the bus. By the time we got to our destination it was clear that there had been bombings.

I had rented an apartment off Sloane Square from the rental agency A Place Like Home. A representative was waiting for us and just about to leave us a note, as he had other clients to check out of an apartment and we had arrived so late. But he let us in and showed us around. He said it was clear that the bombings were a terrorist attack, but that they were used to such things in London, that we shouldn't let it bother us, and we should enjoy London. Then he left.

We turned on the television and watched in amazement as the story unfolded. The rental agency had a plan for telephone calls which allowed us to call the U.S. for a very reasonable rate, and we spent a lot of time calling people at home that day and reassuring them that we were all right. We also received quite a few calls from Alan's relatives in London, and Alan's uncle appeared himself on the doorstep after walking quite a distance through London to get there.

It was quite a start to our vacation. We spent a lot of time on the trip reading, listening to, watching and discussing the news, both among ourselves and with many people we met. I felt privileged to be able to discuss these things with people as the events were unfolding and to get the perspectives of people living in London as well as the viewpoints expressed on the news. I will not soon forget this experience.
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Old Jul 23rd, 2005, 02:08 PM
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Oh Nikki, what an experience! I hope you will continue with your trip report. Thank you for sharing your day with us. Take good care.
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Old Jul 23rd, 2005, 02:11 PM
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The apartment was fantastic. It is on Cadogan Gardens, just behind the Peter Jones department store on Sloane Square. I had seen pictures, but the reality was better. This is a two bedroom apartment with a bath and a half, a large living/dining room, and a kitchen equipped with dishwasher, clothes washer, and a table and chairs. The apartment is privately owned and feels like somebody's exceptionally nice home. The ceilings are high, the furniture attractive and comfortable, and there are excellent beds. Many lovely touches, and the place is equipped with all sorts of things one might need, with the request to replace anything that one uses up.

We walked to the Waitrose supermarket on King's Road and found that many shops were closed. There were plenty of people on the street, however, and Waitrose was open. Really liked this store, which has a much nicer deli counter than our supermarkets in Massachusetts. We stocked up on groceries and carried them back to the apartment.

Dinner that night was at a very nice Italian restaurant in Chelsea near the apartment. Manicomio, 85 Duke of York Square, tel. 020 7730 3366. This was probably the best meal we had in London. After dinner we watched the news until we fell asleep.
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Old Jul 24th, 2005, 01:06 AM
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Friday we got together with a couple I had met with my daughter on our tour in Greece in March. We took the bus to Little Venice, where we strolled along the canal and had a drink at a snack bar set up in a narrow boat. Then we took a boat ride through the canal. This was really pleasant. The boat went through the zoo in Regent's Park, and we could see the aviary and some animals from the boat. There were only two other people on the boat besides our party. I do not know whether the lack of tourists was due to the bombings of the day before.

When we got off the boat at Camden Lock, we did see other people at Camden Market, however. This was an interesting experience, felt something like a trip back in time, mixing the head shops of a sixties hippie drug culture (magic mushrooms, anyone?) with the tattoo and piercing parlors of an eighties punk sensibility. Plenty of people dressed in a fashion I haven't seen for twenty years. Some fun crafts booths to explore.

We wandered in search of lunch and ended up at a Thai buffet which we didn't realize until we were seated was vegan. The stuff that looked like chicken skin really wasn't chicken. The menu explained that fake meat has a long and distinguished history in Thai cuisine, dating to the ruler's conversion to Buddhism and the royal chefs' attempts to make the new vegetarian fare appealing to those who had previously eaten meat. This was something new for all of us. The vegetarian dishes were good. I was a little less enthusiastic about the fake meat, however.

We took the bus from there to Leicester Square, where our companions left us. We saw a man recording a radio broadcast, commenting on how on an ordinary day the square would be filled with tourists and people buying theater tickets but that it was much emptier than usual this afternoon. There were still people around, though. We considered buying tickets for a show, and I sent Alan and our daughter off to hunt up a Time Out magazine for reviews. While they were gone, I waited on a park bench, where a good looking young French man started chatting with me. Ooh la la. He was spending part of the summer in London to improve his English. I probably reminded him of his mother.

The search party returned without Time Out, which was sold out at the only news stand they could find. They had decided they were too tired for the theater that evening anyway. So we walked to the National Gallery, which would be closing in half an hour. My daughter and I raced through the museum following my father's advice, which was to start any museum visit by looking for the Rembrandts. So in his memory we flew through the hallways and did end up in the galleries with the Rembrandts and the Vermeers with a few minutes to spare.

When we returned outside, Alan was lying down on the grass outside the museum. All the flags of various nations on buildings around Trafalgar Square were at half mast except for one, which Alan had traced to a Ugandan building. As we sat there, however, that flag also was lowered.

We watched people for quite some time. I marveled at the variety of humanity going by, and once again I had to smile to myself at the "What do I wear in London" ongoing discussions. For not the first time, I wondered what one could wear in London that would actually look strange enough to attract any notice. Then a man walked by wearing gray slacks, a brown jacket, white sneakers and a sign around his neck saying, "Up yours, Al Qaeda".

Helicopters were buzzing around above Trafalgar Square. I couldn't decide whether this was reassuring or the opposite. A disheveled man came and sat next to us, asked for a cigarette, then started scattering pennies on the ground. The pigeons came by to check it out, but finding nothing more interesting than pennies, left for greener pastures. We left too. We found a bus back to Sloane Square, went back to the apartment and had supper at a Lebanese restaurant near us in Chelsea. Watched the news for the rest of the evening until bed time.
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Old Jul 24th, 2005, 04:35 AM
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Nikki

I am curious as to how much you paid for your London flat rental? It sounded so nice.

I loved your comment about what to wear in London and agree 100%.

Enjoying your detailed report and will be looking for your next posting. Thanks so much.

Sandy
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Old Jul 24th, 2005, 05:36 AM
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Sandy, the apartment was 1195 GBP per week. There was an additional administrative charge of 35 GBP. This seemed to compare favorably to the cost of two rooms in a mediocre hotel. The agency does request a security deposit, and in the past I have avoided renting from companies that require this, but I read good reviews of the agency on Fodors and am hoping for a trouble-free return of the deposit.
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Old Jul 24th, 2005, 05:50 AM
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Interesting report, Nikki.

Looking forward to more.

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Old Jul 24th, 2005, 07:22 AM
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What a way to start a trip indeed. Looking forward to the rest of it.
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Old Jul 24th, 2005, 08:19 AM
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Thanks to all for the encouragement to continue writing. We'll see if anyone is still interested by the time I get to France, where our adventures in the Dordogne await. Meanwhile, back to London.
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Old Jul 24th, 2005, 08:19 AM
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Saturday morning we attempted to take the bus but were unable to buy bus tickets because the Sloane Square tube station was closed and surrounded by police. Evidently people had reported suspicious packages at the station which were probably trash but might have been bombs. This was happening throughout our stay at various underground stations throughout London.

Bus tickets are not available on the bus, and there were no news agents in the area, at least we couldn't find any. I found this a serious impediment to taking the bus on a casual basis. If one knew they would be using the bus on a regular basis, they would have a bus pass. But if you needed to buy a ticket or a daily pass in an area with no news stands and no underground station, it was impossible to take the bus. I understand that bus tickets used to be available on the bus when there was a conductor, but now that the old buses with conductors are being phased out, this seems to be a real problem.

We ended up taking a taxi to the south bank for a stroll past the National Theatre, the Tate Modern Museum and the Globe Theatre, where we bought tickets for a performance for Monday night. That afternoon we were to go to Alan's cousin's house in North London for tea. Since several tube lines were still closed and stations were closing on a sporadic basis for police investigations, we took a minicab we called with a number supplied by Alan's cousin. This was substantially less expensive than the metered cabs one hails on the street, and it seems to be the way to go for any journey into the outer reaches of London. Tea means supper, it turns out, and there was a large crowd of seldom seen relations with whom to visit.

Sunday we were meeting a group of relations for lunch at a vegetarian Indian restaurant in West Hendon, so we once again called a minicab to take us there. We were a fairly large group but were the only people in the restaurant for the entire afternoon. There was no menu; we had large plates with attached small bowls for condiments, and the wait staff continued to come around filling the plates until we finally asked them to stop. Everything was very good, but I couldn't begin to tell you what it was. And as we were leaving, the restaurant insisted that we pay less than we had been led to believe was the price. Came to five pounds per person, I believe.

One of Alan's cousins drove us to her house, where we spent the afternoon visiting. Then we drove in with her to hear jazz at the Lamb and Flag pub near Covent Garden. A sign at the pub says that Dickens used to be a patron. The sagging floors upstairs attest to the building's age. After the band finished a set, we walked to Covent Garden and had a late supper at an Italian restaurant where we had pasta and salads in a very pleasant al fresco setting.
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Old Jul 24th, 2005, 08:23 AM
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Fascinating report, Nikki. Certainly the start to this trip is one that will live in your mem'ry. An excellent reality check: your comment about what to wear in London. Such concerns do seem to get a little out of hand sometimes. Look forward to reading more...
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Old Jul 24th, 2005, 10:09 AM
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Monday we met another cousin of Alan's for lunch at the Royal Academy of Arts, where she works. After lunch in the pleasant cafeteria, we toured the galleries, seeing the summer show of art submitted by artists both known and unknown, all of which was for sale. Fantasized about buying some cutting edge art to bring home as a souvenir. Then we saw, oddly enough, a show about the Impressionist artists associated with Boston collectors and with the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. This exhibit helped me make many connections that I had not made before, despite seeing most of these works many times in Boston. For one thing, the Boston MFA shows the French paintings in the European galleries, and the American paintings in their own gallery. Here they were juxtaposed. The history of the interaction between artists in Boston and in France, and between artists, collectors, and the museum in Boston, was very interesting to me. Sometimes you have to travel to exotic places to understand what is in your own back yard. Oh, wasn't that the theme of the Wizard of Oz?

We took a bus to St. Paul's Cathedral and went inside briefly. A service was beginning soon, so there was no access for the public to most of the building. We then walked over the Millennium Bridge to the Tate Modern Museum, where we saw an exhibit of works by Frida Kahlo. We had tickets for a performance at the Globe Theatre so we had dinner at the Pizza Express across the street from the theatre.

The play was one that none of us had heard of before: "Pericles, Prince of Tyre". This was a very entertaining experience. The mood of the crowd at the theater was festive, especially among those standing in the center. We had seats, however, and rented cushions to make them more comfortable. There were circus aerialists among the chorus, which contributed to the lively tone of the production, especially during the storm scenes. Interesting, vibrant music was played by a small band above the stage. The program indicates that the original music developed in an organic manner as the play was being rehearsed, and was based upon the instruments and abilities of the musicians. The role of the senior Pericles was a substitution. If I heard the announcement correctly, the substitute was Mark Rylance, who is the artistic director of the Globe. He held a script while performing near the end of the play, but was a pleasure to watch. The narrator was using techniques drawn from African storytelling and singing songs which were also developed in the course of rehearsals. Now that I am home, I need to get my hands on this play and see how much of it was Shakespeare and how much of it was modern interpretation.
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Old Jul 24th, 2005, 10:47 AM
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Tuesday was our Day at the Races. We met yet another cousin of Alan's at Victoria Station and caught a train to Brighton, then a taxi to the Brighton Race Course. Alan's cousin lives in Jerusalem, where there is no horse racing, so when he visits his sister in London he enjoys going to the races and to the bookmakers' shops. Alan is working on his lifelong project: 1001 Ways to Lose Money Betting on Horses. The track was strange, not oval shaped but with a long linear track beginning out of sight of the stands. Only the very end of the race was visible. A large screen behind the track showed the course of the race.

The most interesting part to me was the row of bookies' stands set up in front of the track. In the U.S., betting only goes on at the tracks' cashiers. There is only one set of odds available, the official one. At Brighton, there were maybe a dozen bookies competing with the track and with each other for customers. The odds are changing constantly and gamblers run up and down checking the odds before placing their bets. Gives one something to do in the half hour between races, I suppose.

There were also refreshments not found at such enterprises in the U.S. One stand had a guy selling various sorts of seafood, and since I enjoy much raw seafood, I thought I would try the whelks he was offering. Won't make that mistake again. I thought it tasted sort of the way the ocean smells at low tide, which makes some kind of sense but wasn't terribly appealing to me. I gave it to Alan, who was much less put off than I was. On the other hand, he has also eaten mushy peas.

Dinner was much more appealing. We took the train back to London and met others at Sofra Restaurant, a Turkish establishment at 1 St. Christopher's Place off Oxford Street. Telephone 020 7224 4080. After a shared assortment of appetizers and some good main dishes, everyone left happy.
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Old Jul 24th, 2005, 11:02 AM
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Hi Nikki,

You are certainly visiting interesting places and eating well.

>Sometimes you have to travel to exotic places to understand what is in your own back yard. <

"He who only England knows, knows England Least" - Rudyard Kipling

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Old Jul 24th, 2005, 11:22 AM
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Ira, visiting interesting places and eating well is pretty much the theme of our travels. And I suppose Kipling is a more highbrow reference for my philosophy than The Wizard of Oz.
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Old Jul 24th, 2005, 11:23 AM
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Nikki:

Fascinating report. Whenever I've tried on this board to interest visitors in horse racing here, in France or in Ireland, there's simply never been any response.

Is there some stigma attached to racing in the US? Apart from occasional invitations to Churchill Downs that I've never been able to accept, I've never met an American with any interest in the gee-gees.

Here of course (though Brighton, thanks to Grahame Greene, has a slightly underworld reputation - at any rate among the tiny minority of the population that reads books) racing's spectacularly respectable and, by some criteria, the country's most watched sport.

Mind you, few of us would eat whelks either. Though they're served as serious stuff for gourmets over the Channel at Dieppe.
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Old Jul 24th, 2005, 11:34 AM
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Flanner, I am pleased to have interested you in my report, as I have learned much from your postings about London.

I would not call horse racing spectacularly respectable here in the U.S., except for the big society events such as the Kentucky Derby. I'm not sure I would go so far as to say there is a stigma attached, but it is far from the most watched sport. My husband has been hooked since adolescence, so I have attended a fair number of races with him. In fact, I believe we went to Yonkers Raceway in New York with his sister, my college friend, the evening we met in 1973.

Alan would be interested in going to the races in France except that it would be really confusing. He did find a place in Paris to bet on races last year and it would have been better to be there with someone who knew what they were doing. Educational though: who knew they run in the other direction there?
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Old Jul 24th, 2005, 11:35 AM
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Wednesday was our last day in London. My daughter flew home Wednesday morning, and I planned to have a day with some built in down time to rest up from the trip so far and prepare for the week in France that lay ahead. I went to an internet cafe for the first and only time of the trip and caught up on some e-mail. Alan and I had lunch at the local Lebanese restaurant, Al-Dar, at 74 King's Road, tel. 020 7584 1873. This was my second meal there, and it was a nice neighborhood option. Then Alan went off to meet his uncle for the afternoon and I contemplated what to do with my afternoon alone.

I decided to go to the Victoria and Albert Museum, which I had never seen. It was very hot. There was a crowd gathering in the lobby for a fashion show which was on for this day, and the man at the info desk said I could check for returned tickets. The fellow at the returns desk informed me that "It's a miracle", they had one seat, not standing room, and I could have it. The show was beginning in just a few minutes, so I went in.

The room containing the Raphael cartoons had been set up with a runway and seating, with standees behind the side rows of seats. At the end of the runway there were numerous press photographers. My seat was next to the photographers. This was very much outside my usual experience. I know nothing at all about fashion, and the scene was exotic to me. I had never heard of the designer whose clothes were to be featured, Gianfranco Ferre.

The lights went out and the models began to come down the runway toward me. As they got to the end of the runway, they would strike a very brief pose for the cameras, turn and walk back. And I have to modify my comments made earlier about what to wear in London: if you wore these clothes in Trafalgar Square, you would certainly attract attention.

Dinner that night was at a Spanish restaurant down the street from our apartment: El Blason, 8-9 Blacklands Terrace, Chelsea, tel. 020 7823 7383. We ordered tapas, which were pleasant but not outstanding. The Gipsy Kings music was atmospheric, and we sat out a cloud burst before returning to our apartment for the night.

Thursday morning we flew Easy Jet from Gatwick to Toulouse, and our French adventures began on Bastille Day.
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Old Jul 24th, 2005, 03:45 PM
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What a fabulous report! I had an involuntary spasm just reading the word whelks

A Gianfranco Ferre show in the Raphael room -- very Ab Fab-ish!

What a great trip . . . . .
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Old Jul 24th, 2005, 07:00 PM
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Ah, France! I got excited just looking out the window of the plane and seeing the farms with their round haystacks and the red tile roofs. We picked up our rental car and headed out of Toulouse toward Albi, where we were to spend the next two nights. I would never have thought of Albi without the suggestion of someone on the Fodors message board, and it was a great idea. We stayed at the hotel St. Antoine, which was comfortable and air conditioned. A great plus because it was extremely hot. After talking to the woman at the desk about the festivities planned for Bastille Day (including feux d'artifice, fireworks!), we walked out to explore the town. We had lunch at a pub on the main Place near the hotel. I had a great salad with duck gizzards, smoked duck breast, and foie gras. Welcome to France. There were people setting up a bandstand and speakers for the night's celebration. Children were running through some sprinklers to beat the heat, and there was a colorful carousel.

We returned to the hotel for a midday break and enjoyed an air conditioned nap. Then out for the evening. There were lots of people in the streets. We walked toward the old part of town, where there is a great old brick cathedral and palace, in which there is a Toulouse Lautrec Museum. Closed for the holiday, however. We walked down to the river and crossed the old bridge for beautiful views of the city. We sat outside at a bar near the river for some cold drinks before dinner and then went back to have dinner outdoors at a restaurant near the cathedral.

People were pouring into the area for dinner before the fireworks. A band set up and played across the street from our restaurant. All very festive. The wait staff was overwhelmed, service was practically nonexistent, and the two French women at the table next to us were taking matters into their own hands, literally, going to the kitchen to fetch their own drinks. We didn't mind too much. Hey, we were in France. At 10 PM, it was still light outside, but we made our way down to the river for the fireworks and sat on the curb watching the crowds arrive.

Two older couples came and stood near us, and one of the men was standing amidst some shrubbery and pushed a branch out of the way, which hung in front of my face. I laughed and commented that I did not need a beard, and he answered without a pause, "but you need un dressage". Hard to know what to say to that, especially with my somewhat limited French vocabulary.

The fireworks were terrific. Lasted about a half hour, with a good variety of effects including some extremely large ones. People were taking pictures of them with their cell phones. The next day, I heard people elsewhere talking about how far away they could hear the fireworks from Albi, and how they had heard what good ones they were. I felt like we found the right place to celebrate the quatorze juillet.

When the display was over, we made our way back to the central Place with the crowds. The cafes were all full. There was a band playing on the bandstand we had seen them setting up in the afternoon, but the music was unappealing (when we arrived they were playing the theme from Titanic) and the night was hot and there was no easy way to get cold drinks, so we called it a night and returned to the hotel. I am normally allergic to using the minibar in hotel rooms, but it was the easiest way to get a cold drink, and I really enjoyed that Orangina.
That night, listening to the radio as I went to sleep, I discovered my new favorite radio station, Radio Albiges, which is also available on the internet and I am listening to it right now at www.radioalbiges.com. They play a mix of jazz and French song (and some Occitan) all night, with a mix of eclectic programming during the day.
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