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Photo Safari to the south of France, the Italian Rivera and the Swiss Alps

Photo Safari to the south of France, the Italian Rivera and the Swiss Alps

Sep 2nd, 2013, 01:01 PM
Join Date: Jan 2003
Posts: 3,657
What a fun report, and pretty pictures. We've been to many of those spots, and yes they look just as wonderful in person, if anyone wonders! Still need to get to Switzerland. Looking forward to more of your report.
uhoh_busted is offline  
Sep 2nd, 2013, 02:20 PM
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Wonderful photos. I was especially happy to see the ones from St.-Geniès, a favorite village from our trip in April. Unfortunately, I have no pictures from our visit there.

Also, loved the photos from Rapallo, Santa Margherita and Portofino. It's been too long since I've seen these lovely places.

MaineGG is online now  
Sep 2nd, 2013, 07:56 PM
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your photos are stunning, i wish there is cicadas sound to go along with the lavender pics
Indogirl1 is offline  
Sep 3rd, 2013, 03:41 AM
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While there were plenty of cicadas on this trip I sadly wasn't able to capture any - either on film or video. Oh well.

Day 6: Beynac, Castlenaud, Marqueyssac Jardin, La Roque-Gageac – cool and cloudy, AGAIN. But not to be deterred, we had castles to see. Slept late (9:30), got coffee from the coffee shop across the street and brought it back to the hotel to eat with the rose nut bread we bought the other day in Provins. Then drove to Beynac. Getting in and out of Sarlat is quite easy, especially after the first time; there are a few lights and quite a bit of traffic but great signage and short distances.

BEYNAC CASTLE is a perfect little castle. Very atmospheric, with its austere appearance, is a true castle not a palace (both are called ‘chateau’ in French) and clearly built for defense not a place for royalty to live. The structure itself is very impressive but there is not much inside...no exhibits, just a few pieces of (reproduction) furniture to give you a feel for how it might have been furnished, no information about what is there. But they allow you to explore and climb and look around all the rooms, courtyards, ramparts, towers. Great views of Castlenud and the Dordogne. There was hardly anyone else there, and while I do love blue sky, I can’t say the clouds were really a negative here, kind of added to the ambiance (trying to be positive here).

One of the Cathar castles, it’s a Middle Ages construction, built on a strategically high location, perched on top of a limestone cliff, dominating the town and the north bank of the Dordogne River. The castle was built from the 12th century by the barons of Beynac (one of the four baronies of Périgord) to close the valley. The sheer cliff face being sufficient to discourage any assault from that side, the defences were built up on the plateau: double crenellated walls, double moats, one of which was a deepened natural ravine, double barbican. [7€]

We had followed fodorite instructions and driven through the town and past all the possible car parks (tiny) till we got to the top and parked there. After touring the castle we drove back down to the village and parked in the main lot next to the river (some nice people just leaving had time left on their parking ticket and gave it to us so we didn’t need to pay). The village is quite pretty – quintessential stone hill town. Loved it.

Then on to CASTLENAUD – a bit larger, and it has lots of displays of weaponry from rooms of swords and armor, to giant catapult things on the side of the hill. Several rooms had large TV screens playing videos of the history of the castle. Although far from crowded there were more people here than Beynac (where we were essentially alone), mostly families with kids (who I guess love the weapons – I know my now grown son Jeffrey would have loved it, and in fact my husband and brother in low would have loved it as well for- guess all that weaponry is a guy thing). More great views.

We spent about an hour and a half in each castle. Castlenud had several gift shops and cafes between the castle and the car park (big dirt lot but the ticket machines took credit cards) but we didn’t really see a ‘village’. We came back another day and looked for the ‘village’ again and still didn’t really see what I envisioned it to be (or anything like Beynac) which was frustrating because I was reading the book “A Castle in the Backyard” (which I highly recommend for anyone going to this area) about an American couple who bought a house here and from their description it seemed there should be more ‘village’.
Anyway, we found a café and had crepes and coffee.

Then on to MARQUEYSSAC GARDENS (combined ticket with Castlenud, 14€). I wasn’t really sure it would be worth doing this formal garden (formal hedges shaped into balls and such is not really my gardening style) but I am so glad we did – it’s quite extensive, nice long walk through woods to a belvedere with a truly ‘to die for’ view. Now the clouds really did make a difference. Grrrrrr Would have been bloody fantastic with blue sky and sunshine. The ‘gardens’ are mostly boxwood with a few rose gardens, there were some caged doves, and some free peacocks, one of which delighted at spreading his tail for the tourists. The house was small but pretty.

Next stop, La Roque Gageac – gorgeous from a distance but less interesting up close. One long street along the river with houses on one side of the road and the river on the other, so the houses reflect in the river (if you can get to a vantage point where you can see that). A few stepped streets lead up to another long street and that’s about it. Then it’s cliffs straight up. Troglodyte Caves are built into the cliffs but currently are not open to the public. They were also doing construction along the river bank which detracted a bit.

At this point it was after 6pm so we returned to Sarlat, stopped at a large grocery store on the way into town and got a picnic dinner– Brie (1.70€ for a wedge the size that would be 10$ at home, baguette, strawberries, salads and a tin of cookies. Getting into the assigned space in the parking garage proved close to impossible as I had to reverse going uphill and around a tight corner with a big metal sign protruding. We had not yet gotten in the habit of flipping in the side view mirrors, which got stuck on the sign and Fifi now has a large scratch on her door. Well, I did buy the zero deductible insurance. I felt better when KC said I handled it well, she said she would have been crying at that point.

Day 7: Domme, Saint-Geniès, Saint-Amand-de-Coly – cool and cloudy AGAIN – OK this is getting depressing. We had coffee and nut bread and strawberries in the room for breakfast (they make the café crème with super high fat cream, with whipped cream on top; I think I will start ordering café au lait from now on although KC assures me it will be the same thing). Then since it was market day we went to check that out. It covers every inch of the town, not just a square or two. More than half is rather cheap clothing and household stuff, the rest is food with foie gras featuring heavily, as well as truffles, produce, cheese, salamis, honey, etc. Most of this stuff can also be bought in the various stores in town as well. I’m glad we were staying several days because the market really changes the atmosphere in the town (and I prefer it with out the market). So when I have a choice, if I am only going to a town for one day, I would avoid, rather than seek out, market days. But that’s just me.

After an hour of wandering the totally congested town we left and went to DOMME. It’s larger than the other three towns in the area and has a few impressive gates and some remnants of town walls, rather crumbly. Several streets reminded us of Cotswold villages. Nice view of the river and the valley from the belvedere (nowhere near as good as the one at the Marqueyssac gardens). But a couple hours was more than enough. We got lunch at a little café on the main square and ate it in the park/belvedere, then went back and had coffee and croissant at one of the two tables.

With its trapezoid city plan, Domme is a bastide (a fortified medieval town) but adapted to the surrounding terrain, and thus falling short of the rectangular city plan characteristic to bastides. The village is classified as one of the "Plus Beaux Villages de France" which sounds impressive until you realize there are over 150 of them! (according to google) . In 1307, Knight Templars were imprisoned in Domme while during the Hundred Years' War, it was coveted by the English who first took the town in 1347 and repeatedly changed rulers throughout the war until 1437 when it finally fell under French rule again.

We had planned a boat ride on the river for this afternoon, but the clouds and drizzle made us decide not to. As it was still only 3 p.m. we decided to try the two towns north of Sarlat. St-Geniès, is adorable, a picture perfect village of golden stone and lauze roofs beautiful old church/chateau ensemble in the center of several large stone houses, all in a cute setting. You can walk across the whole town in ten minutes. There were about five cars in the little parking lot and we saw no other tourists. There were essentially no stores, tourist or otherwise (except, unexplainably, one store selling modern kitchen and bathroom equipment). On the edge of town is a chapel, all by itself on a tiny hill. The dilapidated door looked closed and no one was anywhere around but we had read (on fodors, thank you much to the person who mentioned it) that it had frescoes. I was going to just try to peak in the keyhole but the door was unlocked so we went in – incredible! Beautifully well preserved frescoes on all the walls and ceiling. Just a small space, but as amazing as any big ‘important’ church. St Genie is 13k/20 minutes from Sarlat.

Another 8k/10 minutes is Saint-Amand-de-Coly. Not as ‘cute’, but has a massive church, intact but very ‘forgotten’ looking with some ancient crumbling town wall behind it. It used to be an abbey which explains it’s massive size relative to the village. This town did have a couple of hotel/restaurants and one open shop selling local produce. But we counted about 6 other tourists the whole time we were there. Climbing the hill/wall behind the monastery was the best part.
Perhaps it was the grey/drizzly day but it was surprising to us that there were so few people in any of the three towns. And really the castles were very uncrowded yesterday as well. On the other hand Sarlat seemed to be hopping.

For dinner we choose a different restaurant and didn’t get any pate this time, but did have the canard confit again – this time for an entrée I had a hot cherve salad – much better.
isabel is offline  
Sep 3rd, 2013, 05:05 AM
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Although I've only checked out the Swiss photos (so far)...Great eye and Beautiful shots!
mokka4 is offline  
Sep 3rd, 2013, 08:46 AM
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There were essentially no stores, tourist or otherwise (except, unexplainably, one store selling modern kitchen and bathroom equipment)

St. Geniès has a butcher shop off the main square and a boulangerie on the road coming from D704 that sells its own version of a flat bread, usually all sold out by 11:30. Its market day is Sunday.

Saint Amand de Coly has a dinandier who has been declared un des meilleurs ouvriers de France. He also used to sell at the Sarlat market, but I do not know if he still does.
Michael is offline  
Sep 3rd, 2013, 09:00 AM
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I am enjoying your trip report and I loved your photos of France, which are the only ones I've had time to view so far. I especially loved your photos of the Dordogne and Strasbourg, two places I can't wait to visit someday. I thought your photos of Domme were awesome despite it sounding in your report like you were less than enthusiastic about your visit, but I love drizzle and clouds which I realize is not the norm.

I also loved your photos of Ceret and Carcassonne from what looked like a previous trip.
Blaise22 is offline  
Sep 3rd, 2013, 10:58 AM
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I just looked at all of your Switzerland photos and loved them. Thank you for posting them!
Blaise22 is offline  
Sep 3rd, 2013, 06:15 PM
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Day 8: Monpazier, Chateau Biron, Chateau Bonaguil - Awoke to clouds at 7 am. Major bummer, I went back to sleep. But by 9 it was partly sunny and the rest of the day: Sunshine and 24C – AT LAST! Being Sunday the coffee shop across the street was closed so we walked into town and had coffee and croissants at the restaurant on the main square that has a Rick Steves guidebook on its sign. But I have to say it was a great breakfast and reasonable price and the atmosphere with all those gorgeous buildings around was a wonderful way to start the day. Took some sunny morning photos and headed out. Beynac Castle was beautiful in the morning sun as we came upon it driving towards Monpazier so we stopped and walked along the river and through the town again for a while.

MONPAZIER was a bit disappointing though. It is one of France's best-preserved and most photographed bastide (fortified) towns, built in ocher-color stone by English king Edward I in 1284 to protect the southern flank of his French possessions. It has three stone gateways (of an original six) and a large central square. It is one of the few places where the center of town has no building less than 400 years old, is regarded as the prime example of a "bastide" among the 300 in South-western France, and of course is a member of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France association.
But overall we were underwhelmed. Only spent about 45 minutes there. I think so much has to do with expectations, I had high ones for this town but it wasn’t any ‘better’ than any of the other towns we visited and didn’t have a fantastic setting like most of them.

We got sandwiches, éclairs and Orangina to go and drove on to CHATEAU BIRON. We were undecided if we wanted to do this castle or Bonqguil if we only had time to do one, but this one was so close. And OMG!, we LOVED it. KC and I gave it 4.9 turrets on our 5 point scale (Beynac got 4.5 and Chatenud got 3.4). We had a lovely picnic on the grounds outside the castle, then spent a really enjoyable hour or two touring it. Lots of rooms, spiral staircases, views. It’s quite ‘complete’ (actually about ¼ of it is currently undergoing renovation, it will be really, really good when that’s done). They weren’t working on the renovation while we were there so we barely noticed that parts of it you couldn’t go through. In the chapel there was a sign saying that a statue from there was currently in the Met in NYC.

I thought CHATEAU BONAGUIL looked to be fairly far on the map, and kind of in the middle of nowhere, but there were signs for it right in front of Chateau Biron so we started following them. The sign said 30km. Well we got within about 2 km of it and the road was closed; “deviation”. So now of course there are no more signs to follow since the signs were pointing down the closed road. So we had to do some major back tracking and ended up on a tiny road and what should have taken about 45 minutes from Chateau Biron took more like an hour and a half. The drive was pretty enough – fields and woods – looked just like where we live. Maybe if you live in a suburb somewhere this would have been a worthwhile drive in itself but for me it looked like my commute to work (which I guess makes me pretty lucky).

Bonaguil Castle – huge, more impressive than any of the others as you drive up to it. But not as complete – it’s older and some of it is in partial ruins. But there’s tons of towers, walls, dungeons, stairs, caves, nooks, crannies, spiral steps – and a few finished rooms. So yes, worth the drive. We gave it 3.8 turrets.
The drive back was pretty long, about an hour to Castlenud. We looked again for the ‘village’ but couldn’t find it. There are houses going up the hill towards the castle but not really any ‘streets’ – even what passes for streets in much of rural old European towns. Castlenud is better in the morning sun so we pushed on towards Sarlat which takes you through La Roche – and the sun was great here so we stopped and got some good shots.
Back in Sarlat it was another dinner of – duck! (When in Rome….) Then back in the hotel we watched “Death on the Nile” on TV in French.
isabel is offline  
Sep 3rd, 2013, 08:59 PM
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Okay! Chateau de Biron was on my "maybe" list...I will move it to the "to do" list. Thanks for the heads up! We leave tomorrow. First week in Aveyron, second week a return to the Dordogne. How lucky you were to spend five weeks traveling.

Nice trip report, too!
kansas is offline  
Sep 4th, 2013, 04:55 AM
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Day 9: – Sarlat to Rocamadour to St Remy – Another sunny day, wow two in a row! Since it was a beautiful sunny morning we wanted our last breakfast to be in Sarlat center so walked to town and ate at the same café on the main square. At 8:30 they were just setting up.
Then drove to ROCAMADUR – an easy, well sign posted one hour drive. Got our first fill up of gas and the machine took my AFCU chip and pin card with no problem (only problem was figuring how to unlock the gas tank cap on the car – turn the key one way and the cap the other, while pushing).

Rocamadur is pretty amazing built up on the cliff like that – we viewed it from the town (l’Hospitalet) across the way, then drove the 2 minutes to the top and parked in the Chateau Lot (free) and walked down. First half the walk is a series of switchback ramp like paths (with stations of the cross at the turning point of each if you are into that sort of thing). Then you enter the top of the church complex and it’s a series of tunnels, courtyards, side chapels and stairs (at least 200 of them) down to the little town which is laid out along one main street with a town gate at both ends. Now it’s all tourist shops but it’s not that hard to ignore them and just appreciate the way the whole thing is built up the cliff like that. No it’s not tranquil but it’s still well worth seeing I thought. We spent just about an hour there, got some ice cream and then decided we were tough enough (and needed to work off all that ice cream) so we WALKED back up (there are two elevators/lifts you can take if you want, I think they were about 4€ for each of them).

The next six and a half hours was the boring drive on the highway to St Remy. Going around towns (Mauntbaun, Toluse, Montpelier, Arles) you pay a toll and then get a new ticket a few exits later (you don’t have to exit the highway, you just pay the toll for the one portion, then get a new ticket for the next). Well the AFCU card which has worked everywhere I’ve tried it (train ticket machines, gas stations, stores) did NOT work in any of the tolls. Fortunately I knew to have lots of coins, although the toll machines do take bills and give change. I did not see a human in any of them. It was over 30€ for all the tolls that day.

Gas was going down way quicker the second half tank than the first so I stopped at a highway gas station but got in the wrong lane and had to exit the place without getting gas. There had been stations every 30 km or so, so I figured no problem, we’ll stop at the next one. Of course now there wasn’t one. We got off at the Arles exit that we were aiming for and found the route we wanted towards St Remy but of course there were no gas stations. Now we were on empty, the light had come on and then it started to beep at us! Panic. So we turned around and headed into Arles center since there was no way we were going to make it to St Remy. Found some gas stations but that was unpleasantly close.

Got the rest of the way to St Remy with no problem and found the hotel right after the round-a-bout. The street is kind of dull/ugly but once inside the gate of the hotel property it is heaven. There’s parking for about 12 cars (that’s how many rooms there are) around a fountain in a little courtyard, then a walk through an oleander tunnel, past the pool and rose bushes and lavender to the little chalet style hotel – little patio with white tables and chairs and lights for sitting out any time of day or evening. Just charming. The house is where the owners live and the guest rooms are in kind of modern extension but you don’t notice it from outside, where you just think you are in a lovely garden.

Saint-Rémy-de-Provence Hotel Hostellerie du Chalet Fleuri 15, Avenue Frédéric Mistral www.hotel-lechaletfleuri.com/
Great location right off the round-a-bout of the D99 and D5 (there’s the base of an old windmill so you can easily spot ‘your’ round-a-bout) so day trips in any direction were very easy. Free gated parking (but almost impossible to make the turn when coming from that round-a-bout, fortunately there’s a handy parking lot almost across the street to turn around in). It’s a five minute walk to the center ville, although that street is not much to look at, but there’s a sidewalk and it’s only five minutes. Worth it for this hotel as it’s really a very charming place, with beautiful grounds and a pool and a very nice owner. The room and bathroom were spotless and good size, there’s AC but it was cool enough at night that we choose to leave the window open and smell the Linden Tree right outside our window and feel the gentle breezes. Free Wi-Fi. The breakfast was good but at 10€ per person we didn’t take it every day. Seems breakfast in the south of France runs about this price which seems pretty steep, this hotel was not out of line with the others but hotels in other countries either include breakfast or it’s half that price. You need to drink a lot of coffee and juice, eat a lot of yogurt, fruit and bread/croissants to eat 10€ each worth. If you just want a croissant and coffee there are places in town where you can get that for three or four euro. But breakfast aside, this is a wonderful little hotel and we are very glad we stayed there. And St Remy is a perfect base for the places most tourists want to visit in this part of Provence. So much within an hour in all directions and St Remy itself a perfect size for a base – small enough to get in and out of easily, large enough to have choices of restaurants and things to do at the end of the day. 95€/double
isabel is offline  
Sep 4th, 2013, 01:30 PM
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Day 10 – AVIGNON Sunny and warm, three in a row! After the hotel breakfast we headed for Avignon. Less than half an hour away, and it was easy to find the road around the ramparts and the big underground parking garage on the far side of town. (12.80€ for 10:30-5:30). We started just wandering all over Avignon, looked in a few of the antique markets that were going on. We toured the Pope’s Palace. It certainly is impressive. I actually think it’s more impressive from outside than inside- I find this to be true of many palaces/churches/etc. We walked across the bridge – well as far as you can go, it stops part way.

Avignon is surrounded by 4.3km of superbly preserved stone ramparts that were built in 1403 and for those and the Popes Palace alone is worth visiting. But the town itself was a little more disheveled than I remembered it (I was there 13 years ago on my first trip to Europe)– some streets have seen better days – especially considering it is a UNESCO world heritage site. Rue des Teinturiers - the street with the canal and water wheels - was run down but quite atmospheric. KC got several books at a used book store (she needs to brush up on her French I guess, seems to be speaking it just fine, several people have asked her where she is from and told her how good her French is). KC went shoe shopping – I figure she waits around an awful lot for me to take all those photographs, I can stand around while she shops. But it was really hot.

We had a lot more trouble getting out of the city than getting into it. Traffic was horrible and signage confusing. Not that we were ever lost, just had to go around a few times to get in the proper lanes to get to the road we needed. The drive home once we got out of Avignon was easy. Back in St Remy there was a little craft fair going on, lovely evening. I got some interesting sandals (which I have worn for miles on this trip, I wish I had the woman’s email to tell her how well they have held up). Of course we had to have ice cream for dessert. Rose Petal and Chestnut.

Day 11 Aigues Mortes, Arles, Abbey Montmajour – Back to clouds (and a bit of sun later). We woke to rain but it had stopped by 10 but remained cloudy most of the day. Few breaks of sun but pretty short lived. We had breakfast at the café on the main square. Wednesday is market day in St Remy and it’s supposed to be one of the better ones so we wandered around for a while in the light rain. It filled the main square and most of the streets leading off it. Primarily food – local produce, fish, meats, cheeses, etc. but also some clothes and touristy things. I got some lavender sachets and napkins – how original.

We then drove to Aigues Mortes, a good hour and a quarter from St Remy through the Camargue – extremely flat and marshy. We saw some very muddy wild horses and some egrets and KC thinks she saw some bulls. But I guess you have to get off the main road to really see much good up-close wildlife. But it was easy driving.

AIGUES MORTES is a walled Medieval town sitting on the flat marshes of the Camargue, and is considered a pure example of 13th-century military architecture. The town of neatly rectilinear streets is surrounded by a crenelated wall with 5 towers and 10 fortified portes. It was originally a port but access to the sea has long since silted up. I’ve seen photos of the impressive walls reflected in water, but on closer inspection I think that was a big puddle. There is a canal along one side.

Aigues Mortes is larger than the guide books make it sound. It has an “ok” main square and lots of streets – all dead straight and 90 degree angles to one another, flat and a bit shabby. It was seriously crowded, with several tour buses. Rick Steves says “Antiques Mortes means dead waters and it should stay that way”. I wouldn’t go that far but it was not exactly a highlight of our time in Provence either. They did have a very god ice cream shop with lavender, rose, lilac, etc. ice cream. I got a great flavor that I think was called Rochecocco, that I have not seen anywhere else. We were pretty much done with the place in an hour, didn’t bother paying to walk the walls as the view didn’t seem like it would be that great either into the town or out.

About a 45 minute drive back to Arles. Lots of local produce stands along the road – cherries and apricots. Tons of vineyards. We stopped and got some fruit.

Had a hard time finding parking in ARLES- people were making up their own spaces in the large lots outside the walls, and also parking in the tour bus area. Then all of a sudden the lot right next to the main entrance to the town opened up – there was no one in it and suddenly cars started pouring in. So we parked there.

Central Arles is pretty small – can walk across it in 15 minutes. The arena dominates the center. It’s in very good condition but tightly surrounded by buildings – no large square like in Verona, so hard to get a good view of it. And Arles is much shabbier and less colorful, but still nice. The old theatre is not well preserved but the park behind it is pleasant and all the streets are ‘average interesting’ – mostly local stuff, crafts. Lots of stores selling garden stuff, porcelain or metal chickens are big. The main square, Place de la Republique is nice with a large fountain in the center (and a big dog playing in it). The front entrance to the cathedral is on this square along with the Hotel d’Ville. We paid the 2.50€ to go into the cloisters, described by some as the best they’d seen. Well, even not considering that half of it is under construction and there were loud sawing and drilling noises, I wouldn’t say it was anywhere close to the best I’ve seen – not even just on this trip. The ground floor was pretty dirty, not at all beautiful or peaceful (it was also fairly crowded, for a cloister) but you can go upstairs and that was better, more peaceful, prettier and some nice views of the rest of the cathedral.

Place du Forum where Café Nuit, subject of one of Van Gogh’s most famous paintings is, was crammed with restaurant tables so a little hard to see what the square actually looked like. The famous yellow awning was there and there was no shortage of people photographing it. It actually does kind of look like the painting – probably as much as anything looks like his paintings.

We had lunch at a restaurant next to the arena. The view while I’m eating is more important to me than what I’m eating (within reason). In this case it was pretty magnificent. The sun also happened to be out so things felt more cheerful. After lunch KC bought a hat.

We decided we really wanted to see the Abbey Montmajour which is just outside of Arles and we only had about an hour and a half left before it was to close so we skipped going into the arena. KC wasn’t that interested and I could tell from outside and peaking in that after Verona and Rome it wasn’t going to be that great. The abbey, on the other hand, was fabulous. Huge, with lots of parts – church, cloisters, ruins, tower (more like a castle than an abbey with stone spiral stairs [128] to an impressive lookout over the camargue – we could see some white horses. We gave it a 4.9. The cloister at St Trophine in Arles was a 2.7 at most.
isabel is offline  
Sep 4th, 2013, 02:45 PM
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TDudette is online now  
Sep 4th, 2013, 02:59 PM
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>>St Remy is a perfect base for the places most tourists want to visit in this part of Provence. So much within an hour in all directions and St Remy itself a perfect size for a base – small enough to get in and out of easily, large enough to have choices of restaurants and things to do at the end of the day.

I couldn't agree more. We've based there twice.
MaineGG is online now  
Sep 4th, 2013, 06:18 PM
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Enjoying your trip report, so readable and informative.
bon_voyage is offline  
Sep 5th, 2013, 09:05 AM
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Thanks. The next two days were among my favorites of the whole trip. Seeing the Pont du Gard has been at the top of my 'must see' travel list for several years. And it didn't disappoint. And the Luberon towns when the lavender was absolutely at it's peak - well there just are not enough adjectives to describe it.

Thursday, July 4 – Day 12 – Uzes, Pont du Gard, St Remy – Sunny and warm. Walked into town and got coffee and croissants at the café on the main square and took a few photos. Then drove to Uzes – about an hour. The drive from St Remy to Tarascon on D 99 is beautiful – lined with giant Plane Trees on both sides of the road making a big ‘alley’, goes on forever. Plane trees really say “France” and especially Provence to me. At the hotel there are plane trees but also a few linden trees and they are in full bloom and smell fabulous. I realize I have missed my linden tree at home blooming for the past several years because I am always over here in Europe. There was even a drunk bee in the room last night.

Uzès is a very pretty town – well kept with a small castle in the center and several church steeples. A huge (relative to the size of the town) main square with arcades all around and giant plane trees all over it – so it’s all shady all day. Of course in July there are also the ubiquitous pavement café umbrellas as well. Lots of tourist shops and restaurants. Lots of curved streets like any good European town, all paved in stone and most too small for cars. The castle was a bit of a disappointment. 13€ just to climb 150 very steep, very narrow spiral stone stairs to the top of the Donjon – nice views of the town (windy as hell up there). There are some furnished apartments but that’s another 5€ and by guided tour only. Nothing compared to the Dordogne castles but it does add to the profile of the town from a distance. We spent about 2 hours in Uzes but didn’t have a meal – I would think you’d need a half day if you were going to have a leisurely lunch. We did pick up sandwiches and drinks since we wanted to have a picnic at Pond du Gard.

The PONT DU GARD parking lot is massive, there’s a huge ‘info center with shops, café, ice cream, WC and museum. Then it’s a ten minute walk (boring, sunny, paved) to the aqueduct itself. But then, WOW. The downstream side is where most of the people were (well except for those that don’t even both to cross it and just take a look and leave, I think the tour groups do that). But the best views by far are from upstream on the side opposite the museum/info center (I think that is rive droit). On the down stream side there were hundreds of people, mostly teens, swimming and jumping from rocks. A few zillion kayacks coming down the river. We had a picnic lunch and just gazed at the magnificent aqueduct for a while. Then KC went for a swim. I got a great shot of her with no other people in sight, swimming under the 2000 year old aqueduct. My next shot was of a few hundred kayaks heading our way.

St Remy was very lively at 5 pm – lots of open restaurants and shops and people. I’ve decided there are both positive and negative aspects to basing in a town and doing day trips. If a place is very touristy with masses of tour groups during the day it’s nice to be gone and enjoy the relative peace and quite of early mornings and evenings. But sometimes you do miss the activity that occurs mid-day. I don’t think St Remy gets hordes of people day-tripping in and mid-day there can be really pleasant. We went out again around 8 for dinner and went to the creperie in Place Favier, the small square the picture of which has been on my bedroom wall for 13 years. Excellent tapenade crepes. Then we walked a bit and got ice cream (chestnut and rose petal).

Friday, July 5 – Day 13 – The Luberon and Lavendar: Abbey de Senanque, Gordes, Roussillon, Goult, Pont Julien, Bonnieux, Menerbes – Sunny and very warm (but cool enough in the shade). We had breakfast at the hotel and then left by 8:45 for Gordes. We drove past GORDES and went straight to Abbey du Senanque. There were a few tour buses and a couple dozen cars in the lot but they must all have been inside the abbey cause outside wasn’t bad – although certainly not tranquil. But still beautiful with the lavender all in bloom. The ticket area for the monastery looks like Disney world – major money making endeavor so can’t imagine it would be very ‘evocative’ and you have to take a tour, and they are only in French. They have made the road from Gordes one way so to get back there they route you a different road that is 10k (it’s 4k on the short road).

I can’t help but keep comparing the places I went on my first trip to how they are now. These are the places that made me fall in love with Europe, and have made traveling to Europe an important part of my life since then and I was so excited to show them to KC – who also fell in love with Europe on that trip (and has spent most of four years living there since then). She didn’t come with me to Provence on that trip though. Anyway, 13 years ago the only other people at the abbey were an Austrian family with the children all dressed in matching red checkered dresses – I got a photo of them that looks like The Sound of Music meets A Year in Provence. The abbey and the lavender fields were just as lovely this time even if the atmosphere was not.

Gordes was also crowded but the 2nd parking lot had plenty of space and the town wasn’t overrun. It’s pretty, but not outstanding, as French hill towns go, and did feel much more touristy than most of them.

From there we went to ROUSSILLON – the ‘red’ town. On the way there we passed two really nice lavender fields. One of them we were the only people there, the other one had a couple other cars stopped but it was much more tranquil than the one by the abbey.
Lot’s of space in the first parking lot we came to, five minute walk up to the town center. We really liked Roussillon, interesting and not just because everything really is various shades of red (most French hill towns in Provence are light gold/tan/grey). Fantastic views and some of the hillsides are also red/gold and look more like New Mexico than France. We hiked all over the town, and of course got more ice cream.

Next town – GOULT – the most ‘un-touristy’ of all that we visited this day. It’s not even in most guidebooks. Fodorite Stud Dudley talked about it, otherwise we might not have even stopped. Very pleasant, small, a little chateau near the top and behind it a gorgeous view which included a small house with a garden I absolutely loved – tiny but centered around a little fountain. I want that garden. Only one or two restaurants and a few shops.

Decided we were getting low on gas (gauge is in increments so it jumps from looking pretty full to almost empty). Drove to Apt as it was the largest town in the area and most likely to have gas. It did. But I will say we really didn’t see much in the way of gas this whole day so good idea to gas up in the larger towns when you are there.

On the way to Bonnieux we stopped by PONT JULIEN, a three tier bridge from Roman times over a mostly dry stream. Quite impressive. We had gotten fruit and tabuli salad at the grocery store next to the gas station so had a lovely picnic viewing the bridge.

BONNIEUX is very hilly. Found plenty of free parking at the foot of town, really strenuous walk way to the top. Less touristy than Roussilon (also it’s grey stone) – more impressive from afar than up close, but it’s still a very pleasant little town. It seemed very ‘real’ (as in the majority of the people we saw lived there, at least part time, as opposed to day trippers). We stopped at a café for an ice tea and glass of wine.

We decided we had one more town in us for the day and choose MENERBES, the town Peter Mayle made famous in “A Year in Provence”. Interestingly, this seemed like the least touristy of them all, quite pretty and clearly affluent.

Got back to St Remy around 6 pm. Driving was overall very easy. We always knew where we were by the map and directions and signage was mostly good. Except we have come to realize that following the town names will take you on the shortest route, even if the shortest route is a crappy secondary route, so you do need to also watch which route number you are on.

For our last dinner together we went to a restaurant in the Hotel de Ville square. Had poulet, frites and salde. Excellent. KC had quiche, supposedly tomatoe and cheese but it did have ham in it. Clearly being a strict vegetarian is difficult in France. Very reasonable at 12€ each. Most restaurants in St Remy seemed more expensive than in other towns we were in. But the creperie the night before and this were both fine, and the two nicest squares in town.
isabel is offline  
Sep 5th, 2013, 03:06 PM
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Hmmm !
I wonder when he was last called "Stud".
bobthenavigator is offline  
Sep 6th, 2013, 04:19 AM
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Bob - I slipped that typo in there just to see if you were still reading.
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Sep 6th, 2013, 01:20 PM
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Day 14 – Les Baux to Aix – Sunny and hot. The last day before KC had to go home to NY to work. So sad. We had breakfast in the hotel and checked out, leaving our bags there. We walked into town and did some shopping. Then drove to the St Paul Monastery just south of St Remy. Really nice, interesting to see Van Gogh’s room, the monastery building itself is quite pleasant, the cloister is small but lovely and the lavender garden behind is gorgeous. Lavender was in full bloom with the pretty monastery building in the background. There was a small patch of sunflowers, and a (now past) area of irises. So they make a point of growing all the flowers Van Gogh painted. There were lots of plaques with Van Gogh history, including information I didn’t know despite having read several books and been to the Van Gogh museum (in Amsterdam). Mostly about his mental illness. The driveway into the monastery has groves of olive trees on both sides that immediately remind you of his painting – this is one case where the trees really looked just like he painted them.

Just across the road from the monastery are the most impressive of the Roman Ruins. These are free and just sitting there by the roadside. We didn’t have time (or inclination) to pay to tour the rest of the ruins (Galumn).

LES BAUX is pretty impressive on a huge hill sticking up from the surrounding flat ground. There were numerous on street parking areas but we kept going and ended up with no option but to use the paid lot – which was essentially full, I think we got the last space (5€). While I’ve never noticed ‘rude’ French people as are always being complained about on Fodors, I will say French drivers are pretty rude – no one ever ‘lets’ anyone else in, and whenever I did I’d get strange looks.

Les Baux is clearly a tourist attraction. I heard one person ask a shopkeeper if people really lived there anymore and the response was “about 10 old ladies”. Everything else has been transformed to shops and eateries. But it’s fairly large, several side streets as well as the one main street leading up to the top where the entrance to the chateau is. It’s visually very appealing and certainly a very dramatic setting. It’s blindingly white, especially in the 95 degree sun. Even with sunglasses on you have to squint.

We had ice cream then decided to do the chateau ruins and were pleasantly surprised – it’s quite extensive with lots of places to explore and climb up and down (mostly up). It’s interesting to see how they used the rock outcropping to build on/into. Reminiscent of Mesa Verde and of Roman ruins. We climbed all the way to the top – which is VERY high. And it was VERY hot. And if you have any fear of heights you would be VERY scared.
Back to St Remy we had about an hour to wander one more time, got one more ice cream.

Then back to the hotel to pick up the bags and drive to Avignon. Found the TGV statin OK and had a tearful goodbye. Now driving by myself (first time solo driving in Europe) I followed signs for Aix and the A7 but at some point realized the signs to Aix were taking me on another road! Retraced my steps the 1-2km I had gone and got on the A7, found my exit and the hotel easily.

Aix-en-Provence Hotel Le Mozart 49 Cours Gambetta www.hotelmozart.fr/ Decent location for what I needed – easy enough to drive to from the A8, yet close enough to walk into town. The hotel is sign posted once you get off the highway and are headed into town. There about a dozen free spaces in front of the hotel plus an underground garage you can pay for. It’s a ten minute walk to the (mostly) pedestrianized center, not a very visually pleasing street but not sketchy or anything. The hotel itself is a fairly modern building, very clean, room is good sized, modern spotless bathroom, free Wi-Fi, lift. Breakfast was 9€ and not really worth that much unless you eat a ton of croissants and yogurt and coffee for breakfast, but it’s the going rate in this region. Not a ‘charming’ place to stay, but more than comfortable and suited my needs just fine. 63€/single

Sunday, July 7 – Day 15 – Aix-en Provence – Sunny and nice. Definitely a ‘petite’ Paris – Parisian street lights, cafes, squares, lots of fountains, buildings. The side streets are more south of France though. On Cours Mirabeau, a beautiful street with broad side walks on both sides of a narrow two lane car street there was a major craft fair going on the whole length. Every square had something going on – modern art in one, fruits and veggie market in another, local foods in another, flowers in another, books in yet another. And of course all the stores selling tourist stuff were open although being Sunday the regular stores were mostly closed.

Aix seems cleaner and more upscale than Avignon. There is no major ‘site’ like the Pope’s Palace. There were a number of tour groups though but they were not too obtrusive. The town definitely has that university feel to it with lots of cheap food and take away and all the stores from H&M and monoprix to Hermes and Longchamp and all chains British, Italian, French. Spent the whole day just wandering around shooting photos and soaking up the ambiance.
isabel is offline  
Sep 7th, 2013, 04:32 AM
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Day 16: THE COTE D'AZURE HILLTOWNS – Started the day with a beautiful walk through Aix, lots of people out and about, stores were opening up. I had breakfast in the main square, Place de Hotel de Ville, right next to the clock tower. The café had red umbrellas and was called “Aix-presso” and for 6€ I got fresh squeezed OJ (on ice), a bowl of fresh strawberries and sliced bananas, a small baguette with butter and two kinds of jam, a pain-au-chocolate and café au lait. WHAT-A-DEAL! Read my kindle, people watched and then walked back to the hotel photographing all the beautiful fountains along the way. It was 25C when I started, 30 by the time I got back.

Checked out of the hotel and easily got onto the A8 and made the less than 2 hour drive to Exit 47 just before Nice. I stopped for gas (AFCU card worked) and lunch – a chicken sandwich and the best chocolate éclair of the trip - at a motorway rest stop. I found the exit fine but then missed the turn for Vence, (there was construction and detour signs all around). Anyway, after driving through the mess that is Cagnes-sur-Mer I found myself at the Nice airport, so turned around and headed back through butt-ugly Cagnes-sur-Mer till I saw a sign for St. Paul and took that. After that my maps/directions were easy to follow and once in Vence there were signs for the hotel.

The hotel door was locked so I pushed the intercom button and was told to wait on the terrace. Which is gorgeous. But not as gorgeous as the view from it. In five minutes the owner/manager (not sure which was which, the two guys I saw during my stay were both very nice) checked me in. The hotel is old but lovely with lots of charm, plenty of space. At first I was afraid the lack of AC would be an issue as it was quite hot (mid 30s by now) but every evening it cooled off and the gentle breezes were plenty. And since my window was open a branch of bougainvillea was creeping into my room. I’ll take bougainvillea over AC.

I was a little stressed with having to drive to and find the hotel without a navigator and knew I didn’t have to drive again except to return the car if I didn’t want to, but of course my desire to see other towns got the better of me and I actually drove around quite a bit the next two days and it was fine. It’s better with a navigator, plus when you are the one doing the driving you don’t get to do that much ‘looking’, but the roads in the hills of the Cote d’Azure are really quite easy and driving my little fiat on them was a lot of fun.

Vence Hotel Miramar, 167 Ave Bougearel www.hotel-miramar-vence.com/ There is a glorious view from the hotel’s very nice, large, shaded terrace/garden and there’s a pool which makes the location - about a five minute walk from the old town- worth the walk (which is boring but safe, and only five minute). The building itself is also charming. It’s a former villa made into a small hotel (18 rooms or so), a tad run down but quite clean and the room was plenty big, bathroom very nice, free Wi-Fi (worked most of the time). No AC so the room was a bit stuffy sometimes late afternoon, but even though the days were quite warm when I was there it always cooled off at night and I probably wouldn’t have used AC even if it had been there. At 12€ I did not take the breakfast so can’t comment on that. There are about 8 free spaces for parking (reserved for the hotel) and quite a few more if you don’t get one of the free ones but you have to pay. 88€/single

The walk into the old town of VENCE from the hotel is only five minutes, past a soccer field, apartments, a school and a hospital – so boring but probably pretty safe. Vence is still as charming as I remember it, a little quiet as a lot of stores and restaurants are closed on Monday afternoons. I had a great crepe for dinner (emmental and tapenade).

Day 17: St Paul de Vence, Haute Cagne – You have to get up early to beat the crowds in St. Paul, but 7:30 does it. I had the place to myself for the first couple hours. Then it was like someone opened the faucet and in poured the crowds. Actually felt like Disney World. The drive from Vence to St Paul is easy and I (stupidly) passed a small parking lot that was 1€/hr (6€day) and went to the parking garage which was much more expensive. This was the site of my first European parking garage-pay-before-you-get-back-in-your-car experience. Now we have those all over the US but I had never experienced it before so had the horrid experience of getting to the exit gate without my ticket paid, getting yelled at in French over the intercom, and having to leave my car and find the ticket pay machine. An experience I remember vividly to this day. But this time I knew the drill. I will say it is a very poorly marked place, even knowing I needed to find the pay machines it still took forever to find them.

Anyway, parking garage aside, ST PAUL – the ‘bones’ of the village – is very beautiful – the stone buildings, cobbled streets, archways, flowers pouring out of pots on every balcony, on every stoop, cute churches, a substantial tower, walls around the whole town with fabulous views, and the most picturesque fountain in the most picturesque square. Ahhhh And with no one else around, just the sound of birds singing, church bells ringing, the water bubbling out of the fountain. Heaven. The only place open at that hour was a tiny café with three tables under an archway. I had my croissant and café au lait accompanied by a little cat that looks like my cat Em rubbing against my legs. Then a guy sits down at one of the other tables with three yorkies who look like my dog Henry (who is only part Yorkie). And they give you a piece of chocolate candy with your coffee.

Promptly at 9 am the first tour group shows up and by 10 as I was leaving it was a zoo. That and the fact that every shop is an art gallery or tourist shop can really combine to ‘ruin’ St Paul. I’m sure glad I didn’t stay there (although early mornings are wonderful so maybe evenings would be too, but you’d have to be gone all day to escape the crowds).
After 13 years I’m pretty good at navigating confusing labyrinth medieval street layouts, but I can see how I got lost the last time I was there, my first ever European hill town.

The drive to HAUTE CAGNE was not bad, fortunately there were plenty of signs. There are actually three “Cagnes”. The horrid mess of dirty concrete buildings that is Cagnes-sur-Mer, the substantial sized hill town of Haute Cagne, and the Medieval hill top ‘burg’. That’s the one I wanted. But driving through the middle one wasn’t bad. I actually found a free parking space on the road just before the parking garage and managed to get little Fiat in there thanks to my (if I do say so myself) impressive parallel parking skills. There are some benefits from taking drivers ed in the NYC area where parallel parking is a requirement.

There were essentially no tourists – I kept passing the same three or four others. It’s not as large or pretty as St Paul, but the chateau at the top is a nice touch. Very few shops or restaurants. It didn’t take long to see what there is to see.

Back in Vence, with Fifi safely parked at the hotel, I went back into town. I’d been dying for some prosciutto and melon the whole trip so when I saw a sign listing several elaborate salads, one of which include the worlds ‘Iberian jambon’ and ‘melon’ I stopped there for a late lunch. Well it was a good salad; it did have ham, as well as tomatoes, cucumbers, greens, olives, and several other tasty things I couldn’t quite identify, but it did not have any melon. But it came with good bread and plenty of cool water so it was worth the 14€.

Having walked the medieval center of Vence a few times now, I decided to walk out to the Matisse chapel. It’s about a 20 minute walk, through the ‘new’ town of Vence and along a busy road, but the views back to old Vence on the hill are beautiful. This evening, a Tuesday, Vence was hopping. There were craft tents set up everywhere and all the stores were open, the main street was closed to traffic, lots of small groups of musicians (all pretty awful, but the atmosphere was nice). There were signs all over saying ‘soiree shopping’.

Day 18: Turrettes-sur-Loup, Nice ‘Hinterland’ drive – Another gorgeous sunny day. I walked into town and got a café au lait and a chocolate/almond croissant that was so huge I couldn’t even finish it. It was at a little café just across the street from the Main Gate. Back to the hotel to collect Fifi and start our last day of adventure together. Since the manager was at the desk (there was never anyone around when I came and went) I checked out since I knew I’d be leaving early the next day. He offered me free breakfast. Swell, I get offered free food when I’m so stuffed I couldn’t eat a thing.

Drove to TOURETTE-SUR-LOUPE. Really enjoying driving a Fiat 500 and the roads around this area are great once you know them. Tourrette is only a ten minute drive. Parked in a small lot near the soccer field/tennis court, but the ‘official’ free parking lot is just past that. Five minute walk into town with a drop dead gorgeous view of the little perched town glowing in the morning sun. It’s another ‘bastide’ town, meaning the houses are all joined together forming a defensive wall around the outside of the village. I loved Tourette! Just as cute as St Paul, just as clean, with just as many flowers and with only a tiny fraction of the tourists and only a few of the buildings house shops/galleries and the ones that do sell things that are actually made right there, by the people selling them. I saw potters, painters, jewelers, weavers, seamstresses – all actually working on their crafts.

The weekly market was going on in the main square – a mix of fruits and veggies, locally produced foods (olives, jams, honey, etc.) and crafts/clothing. One woman makes clothes out of parachute material so incredibly lightweight.
Tourette is probably my favorite little French town – clean as can be, lots of winding alley ways with stone steps, flowers everywhere, lots of cats, views out over the valley. I can’t believe guidebooks don’t say more about this place. But then I’m glad they don’t. I’d hate to see a tour group here. Got some very good gelato and decided to see what other ‘undiscovered towns’ there were around.

I followed some of Stu Dudley’s driving tour but only got as far as St Jeannette and Galleries. St Jeannette looked pretty busy and I couldn’t find any place to park. Galleries is much smaller. There is a SuperMarche at the edge of town and I found a free parking space near that so walked up into the village. Definitely not on the tourist map. Great profile of the town from afar but kind of boring once you get in. One nice fountain, but no shops and just not that pretty or interesting. While I sort of wanted to keep going, I realized that it was probably not a good idea. I kept wanting to stop to take photos, and being as I was by myself, I knew this could get dangerous. Even with someone else diving it would have been challenging to find good places to pull over, but solo it was impossible. Decided not to push my luck and just go back to Vence.

Really, can’t get much better than relaxing on that terrace, with a cool breeze, looking out over the valley and hills in the distance – right to the Alps far off. Surrounded by huge pots of geraniums, lavender, agapanthus, with bougainvillea and oleander and palm trees and giant cacti. Blue sky, warm sun. A pool, a fountain. Heaven.
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