Tour Daze France 2006 Series

The out-laws on the first night in Avignon, France.

This entry is part 1 of 9 in the series Tour Daze France 2006

The out-laws on the first night in Avignon, France.

Well, I guess I can’t put it off any longer. If I don’t start writing up our trip tales now then I’m going to forget even more than I already have. It’s amazing how your brain turns to mush after a month on the road. Luckily I have many, many pictures (thanks to Bill and Andrew) to help me remember. So, without further ado, here’s part one of Tour Daze France 2006…

Helen and Bill arrived on-time with baggage intact (virtually unheard of for Air Canada) on October 17th. The weary travelers were in good spirits despite dining on semi-frozen airline food. We took them back to the house to drop off their bags, freshen up and have a tour. They were eagerly greeted by our furry welcoming committee.

Cheezy couple at Pont-du-Gard.

Once they were settled in we did a quick driving tour of the neighbourhood, ending at T’ Cuyperke for supper. I’ve mentioned this restaurant before and you can find it listed in our ‘Favourite Belgian Restaurants’ in the Menu above. As always, we had a great meal there. Then we headed home for an early bedtime so we could hit the road bright and early.

Well, it wasn’t bright when we left. In fact, the sun was hardly up. Early? Well, by Matheson standards it was. The Volvo was loaded down with gear and food as we set off for our traditional first stop – Avignon.

Courtyard of the Asylum at St. Rémy.

This was Andrew’s and my third visit to Avignon. (If you’re interested you can read the other two accounts here and here). I truly love this city. Honestly I’m not sure that it’s any nicer than other cities of a similar size in the area (Orange, Arles, etc). But it was the first one we settled in and it makes a great base for exploring the area. The city walls and the Papal Palace are nothing to sneeze at either.

After settling at the hotel we set out to explore the city while we still had some light (although after dark the old city is beautifully illuminated and makes a great time for a stroll as well). We checked out the palace and wandered the narrow back streets and then stopped for supper at an Italian spot we had discovered with my parents. We filled up on pasta and wood oven pizza and called it a night.

One of the views painted by Van Gogh.

The next morning we set out for Pont du Gard an ancient Roman aqueduct. Again, Andrew and I had been there twice before, but it doesn’t get any less amazing. We climbed both sides of the river for views of the structure and wandered below it as well.

Our next stop was a new one for Andrew and me (although we had been unknowingly right outside it on our first trip) – the asylum in St. Rémy where Van Gogh had spent time and painted. While still in use, one section of the hospital has been preserved as a museum. You can visit Van Gogh’s room, see the scenes that he painted from the window, and learn about the common illnesses and ‘treatments’ of the day. There is also a gallery of residents’ artworks that are for sale. It was a fascinating place.

Andrew checking out the view from Les Baux (with his audioguide)

(Before I go any further I should mention that Bill is a retired school principal and artist. Helen recently retired from the publishing world. Both are very interested in art so you will see this as a recurring theme to our explorations.)

Our last adventure of the day was at Les Baux de Provence. This is a tiny hilltop village with stunning view of the countryside. At the top of the town is an ancient castle and fortress. We took the time to tour the ruins and it was incredible. The sheer size of the fort was amazing. We clambered up some very scary stairs, but the view from the top was worth the vertigo. We took a few hours to explore the fort and the rest of the town. A few rolls of film (and some shaky knees) later, we headed out of the town and back to Avignon.

Fortress of Les Baux de Provence.

We dined that night at La Fourchette (The fork… doesn’t everything sound fancier in French?) We had to wait a while to get in, but boy was it worth it. The restaurant had loads of character, the staff was wonderfully friendly and the food was divine. I will definitely be adding this one to the list.

Scary stairway to the top!

The following day was one of Andrew’s favorite type of days – a twisty, turny, driving day. We started out at my favorite place in the South of France – Gigondas. Like Avignon, I’m not sure exactly what it is about this town other than it was one of the first we discovered (and they have my favorite wine in the world). It just seems to have everything the ideal Provençal town should have – houses clustered together on a mountainside, narrow stone streets that go straight up, loads of potted plants and window boxes, a church and the remains of an old fort on top, views of vineyards as far as you can see, (oh, and did I mention the best wine ever?)

Proof I made it to the top.

We wandered about the town, got a new case of wine and set out for my second favorite town (conveniently located just down the road) Séguret. This is another little town, very similar to Gigondas. We wandered through one of their art galleries, watched some women painting on the street and then set out again.

Andrew was determined to climb Mt. Ventoux. On our last attempt the road to the top was still snowed in. This time it was open… however the fog was so thick as we got to the top, we could hardly tell we were there anyway.

Painter in Seguret.

It was worth the trip on the way back down the other side however. As we turned a corner, Andrew saw a sheep in the road and slowed to a stop. The sheep was followed by another, and another, and then a goat. An entire flock of sheep and goats were being herded across the road by a Great Pyrenees (the first dog I had growing up). We were to see later that it was the time of year that many shepherds were moving their flocks from their summer grazing grounds to lower ground for the winter. (Livestock in the road was another recurring theme of our trip).

Stay tuned for the next instalment as we head to the Costa Brava…

Goats and Sheep on Mont Ventoux.

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The Segrada Familia

This entry is part 3 of 9 in the series Tour Daze France 2006

The Segrada Familia

Barcelona is one of my favourite cities. It just feels so alive. It’s hectic and laid-back all at the same time – a knack the Spanish seem to have. It stays up late at night and wakes up whenever it feels like it the next morning. It’s old and new, plain and ornate. It’s over the top without being tacky. It’s a lot of fun.

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This entry is part 6 of 9 in the series Tour Daze France 2006
Monet’s Lily Pond

As I mentioned last time, the next leg of our journey was one of my favourites (although honestly, it was really hard to pick a favourite). After our final breakfast at Les Granges, we set out for a short drive to Giverny and the home of the painter Monet.

Monet has been a favourite of mine for ages. These days however, some of his more famous works have been reproduced so many times they’d started to lose some of their impact for me. After two stunning Monet experiences on this trip (you will read about the second one when we get to Paris), that is no longer a problem.

The Japanese Bridge

Giverny is a tiny village outside of Paris and the highlight of the town is Monet’s home and garden. Monet was as obsessed with his garden as he was with painting and he combined his two passions to great effect.

I had almost skipped this portion of the tour as I thought that this late in the season the gardens would be lacking. I’m so glad I was wrong. Even at the end of October there was still a plethora of blooms in the gardens and the fall colour of the leaves added to the effect.

The gardens themselves are immense and span two sides of the road. The other side is now accessible by a tunnel which takes you to the pond – home of the famous water lilies and the Japanese bridges. Despite having to wait ten minutes for a break in the tourists on the bridges, the pond was stunning. The colours reflected in the pond immediately brought the paintings to mind and you could feel exactly what it was Monet was capturing with his brushes.

Monet’s house in Giverny

Besides the garden, you can also visit Monet’s house. His collection of Japanese prints is on display here as well as some of his remaining furniture and photos of his family and friends. The blue tiles kitchen is a highlight of the home.

Monet was fortunate enough to have a huge studio space (although he did spend a great deal of his time painting in his garden). This space is now the gift shop but if you look above the racks of postcards to the high ceilings, you can almost envision some of his huge canvases hanging there.

The Matheson’s at Versailles.

After Giverny, our next stop was Versailles, that most opulent of palaces, built for Louis XIV.

Touring Versailles is overwhelming for several reasons. First, of course, is the amount of decoration. Everything is gilded or inlaid wood or carved marble. The ceilings are all frescoed and the walls are dripping in tapestries. It’s hard to know where to look.

Second, it is so bloody crowded. Both times I’ve been to Versailles I’ve felt like a little fish being pulled along in a big school. There is no turning around to go back and there is no sense in hanging behind because as soon as one group leaves a room, another floods in.

Finally, after a while it all becomes too much. Versailles is enormous. You could spend weeks visiting the palace and grounds. An afternoon barely scratches the surface, but it is about all you can handle at one time. I would love to spend a day just exploring the gardens, but I will have to add that to my ‘things to do’ list.

Toile overload at Grandes-Ecoles

When we had had all of the gold leafing we could handle, we headed into Paris to find our hotel. Le Hotel des Grandes-Ecoles, is another hidden gem and Andrew and I will definitely be staying there on future visits to Paris.

Grandes-Ecoles is hardly recognisable as a hotel, except for a sign above a large closed door. You are buzzed into a totally enclosed courtyard, full of flowers, which half of the rooms overlook. It is family run and amazingly quiet, considering it is seconds away from one of the liveliest squares in Paris’ Latin Quarter.

Our rooms were clad in toile and crocheted bedspreads. The closets and bathrooms were roomy and everything was clean and fresh. For many locations, the decor would seem a bit much, but somehow it screamed Paris, and that was a good thing.

More on Paris next time…

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This entry is part 7 of 9 in the series Tour Daze France 2006
Strolling along the Seine – In Paris there are artists (and students like these ones) Everywhere.

It’s been quite a while since I left off our Tour Daze France adventures but if you recall, we had just made it to Paris and settled in to our lovely hotel.

As Andrew and I have been to Paris a couple of times now, the four of us decided to split up and do our own thing for part of the time. On our first day, Bill and Helen decided to attack the Louvre. Where did Andrew and I go? Well, we went to the sewer.

Let me say first that this was entirely Andrew’s idea (one which I will never let him live down). Les Egouts, the Paris sewers, are an engineering marvel and have their very own museum. However in true Parisian style, this is not a sanitised (pardon the pun) version for the tourists. The museum is actually underground in part of a working sewer.

How was it? Well, it could have been interesting – if it didn’t smell like a sewer and if I wasn’t constantly conscious that the water rushing below the grid under my feet wasn’t… well sewer water.

The Museé d’Orsay was once a train station.

If you are interested in sanitation or engineering (and you have a strong stomach or no sense of smell) I’d recommend this little tour, otherwise, Google the sewers at home to read about how marvellous they are and stroll the Parisian streets above ground instead.

After what turned out to be a quick trip to Les Egouts we decided to head across town to the Aquarium. If it’s your first trip to Paris and you don’t have a lot of time, again I’d say give this a miss (unless you have small kids who need a break from the galleries). It was nice enough, but not very big and a couple of hours there was plenty.

In an ironic twist, we had a great sushi lunch near the aquarium in a little hole in the wall place. I’ll try not to over-analyse that one too much…

Bill examines the art

One thing I should mention – if you are planning a trip to Paris and want to do a lot of the galleries and museums, the Paris Museum Pass is really worth it. There are only a few places not included and the convenience of not having to stand in the monster lines is more than worth the cost. We flew past huge lines at Versailles, the musée d’Orsay and Helen and Bill got into the Louvre with ease. I also didn’t have to feel too bad about the sewer tour, since we didn’t have to pay any extra for it with the pass.

That evening we met up with the folks for supper. I’ve learned to trust restaurants recommended by hotels, as the hotel is staking its reputation on the food they recommend. So we picked up one of the cards in the lobby and popped around the corner to Le Jardin d’Artemis. We weren’t disappointed. There is a lot of mediocre to bad food in Paris if you don’t know where to go. But you can also get fantastic food relatively inexpensively – this was thankfully on the wonderful side.

Bill’s Birthday Boat Bonanza

The next day was a family day. After breakfast at a nearby bakery we headed back toward the Seine. We found a great little market along the way and stopped to check out the wares. In retrospect I should have bought a scarf or five as they were the prettiest ones I saw in Paris, but you live and learn.

After that little detour we made our way to the Musee d’Orsay. This is definitely in my Museum top five. It is stunning. The building, the presentation – everything is beautifully done. We spent the rest of the afternoon seeing as much as we could. The highlights for me are always the impressionists and I loved the Art Nouveau gallery.

Andrew and I on the cruise

After we had all the art we could handle, we headed back to the hotel for our big night on the town. It was Halloween – and Bill’s birthday.

Now as far as I’m concerned Paris is a pretty great place to spend you birthday anyway, but we wanted to make sure it was ultra memorable.

We all got gussied up and headed into the city centre. We boarded a tour bus to see some of the city lights and head to our first stop – a night time boat cruise on the Seine. Well, in all honesty we were a bit disappointed with the boat. It was huge and there were tons of people but Paris is beautiful at night nonetheless. The highlight was seeing the light show at the Eiffel Tower as we returned to the dock.

Twinkle twinkle little tower

There we boarded the bus again and headed to the Moulin Rouge. This is one of those things that you do once, check off your list and probably never do again. Our experience was dampened by the poor organisation to get into the theatre. We had to stand outside on the sidewalk in a non-existent line in the cold. It was chaos.

It wasn’t much better when we got inside. There is no prearranged seating and we ended up in the very back corner. The only upside was that we had a table to ourselves.

The Mathesons do Paris

Once the show got started it was alright. We had our champagne and could relax a bit. The show itself is hokey as all get-out – but that’s the point really. The costumes (what little there are of them) are totally over the top. The ‘singing’ is Celine Dion meets a bad Broadway show – but it’s fun. The acrobats make up for the bad musical numbers and the show overall is a fun time.

We got back to the hotel well past our collective bedtimes and slept soundly that night.

I’ll continue with our Paris adventure next time …

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This entry is part 8 of 9 in the series Tour Daze France 2006
Breakfast at the bakery.

Back in Paris… we recovered from our night on the town and started our day with coffee and croissants. We decided to split up again. Bill and Helen wanted to wander the streets and soak up the city. I wanted to do what all sane girls want to do in Paris – shop.

Andrew and I strolled leisurely back to the Seine. I can’t reiterate enough how nice the walk from the hotel to the river is. There are loads of tiny shops and cafes… To me, it’s the real Paris.

When we made it to Notre Dame, we decided to check out the view from the tower, only to be confronted with an hour an a half wait. It had gotten quite cold over the past few days so we decided to pass and save it for a warmer time. We did wander through the church again and marvelled at its incredible stained glass.

We then hit the shopping area. I would love to say that I found some delicious little boutiques and bought some one of a kind items… but let’s face it – I just don’t have that kind of money. Really, it was the same stores that we have here in Brussels, but somehow, just the act of shopping in Paris, whatever the store, seems so much more chic, than shopping anywhere else.

Pictures from Los Pilones always turn out like this… could it be the Mojitos?

After all the shopping the boy could handle and a rather disappointing lunch we decided to go to the Pompidou. I was surprised – this is where Andrew decided he hated modern art after our first visit. However, he decided he was game for another try.

We relaxed with a cup of coffee in the beautiful little café on the top floor first. If nothing else, you should visit the Pompidou for this experience. On a clear day, you can see all over the city. There are great views of the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame and Montmartre.

Once we were in an artsy frame of mind, we started through the exhibits. We lucked out and several of the exhibitions were really interesting (even to Andrew). We didn’t try to tackle the entire museum and we didn’t try to like everything. When we had enough culture, we grabbed our coats and bags, and headed back to the hotel.

Super that evening was another delicious recommendation by our hotel. Le Volcan was cozy and had a delicious fixed price menu. We had a chatty waiter with an interesting accent. We learned that he was French but had lived in California and he had travelled in Canada and actually knew where Nova Scotia is.

Watergraftsmeer – our old stomping grounds

Our final day in Paris was another highlight. While we were visiting Giverny we visited a room in Monet’s house which contained reproductions of many of his most famous works. Under each was a plaque stating the name of the work and where the original was located. Many of my favourites were housed in a museum that I had never heard of – The Marmottan. In fact, Helen and I had a hard time even finding it in our guide books but eventually we found a small blurb.

Even though it wasn’t included in our museum passes and it was pretty far out of the city centre, we decided we would make the trek before we left the city. Thank God we did – it was stunning.

The Museé Marmottan is tricky to find. It is located in the 19th century mansion of the art historian, Paul Marmottan. When you first enter the museum you are in the original house and you can admire the art and furnishing that Marmottan collected. Downstairs however, you enter a gallery containing 65 of Monet’s paintings, which were donated by his son Michel. I am without words to describe how amazing they are in person.

Amsterdam’s floating flower market

Monet’s later works took my by surprise the most. I guess I have been inundated by his water lilies, and although I love them, they were not my favourites. On one wall hung three very abstract pieces he completed late in his life. I could have stared at these for hours – particularly, my favourite, L’Allée des Rosiers. The painting took me right back to Giverny.

After a long and leisurely stay with Monet, we hopped in the car and headed home to Brussels for laundry and a quick visit with the cats. After one night in our own beds, we were on the road again, to Amsterdam.

We arrived in A’dam late in the day and checked in to our hotel. We decided to stay out near the airport since Andrew would be our chauffeur for the weekend.

Where would we possibly go to eat on a Friday night in Amsterdam – it had to be Los Pilones. Like everyone we take to our favourite place, I think Helen and Bill were a bit sceptical as we took our places at the crowed counter in the tiny bar. Once they had their first taste of the food and a Mojito or two, they came around.

The next day we drove into the city via our first neighbourhood in A’dam – Watergraftsmeer. We checked out our old apartment and Bill and Helen marvelled at all of the little canals. Then we did the best thing you can do in the city on a Saturday – we wandered.

Hmmm… we’re still out of focus… what could the matter be?

We started off with breakfast at my favourite café. There’s nothing too particular about it – but they serve good food and in the summer you can sit beside a canal for as long as you like with nothing but a coffee or a glass of wine and no one will bother you for hours. Not being canal seating weather, we ate inside.

We strolled by Anne Frank house, and checked out Dam Square. We popped into some of the shops and wandered through the flower market. Eventually we ended up at La Place for a refresher coffee and a snack to hold us until supper.

Before supper however, we had one last stop – Wynand Fockink. While it may sound like a naughty pastime or maybe some sort of communicable disease, Wynand Fockink is really a tiny little Jenever bar tucked away in a back alley. People come from around the world to visit it and the Dutch stop in on their way home from work – we went for the pie.

While Wynand Fockink carries many different kinds of Jenever and brandewijn, our favourite so far is called Apple Tart, and it tastes like apple pie in a glass… with a kick. After tossing a few back we were sufficiently lubricated to go to supper.

You’d think all we ever did was eat…

Supper was another Amsterdam tradition – Rijstafle at Kantjil and de Tijger. This is basically more Indonesian food than you could possibly eat. It is delish.

With very full bellies we had our final surprise waiting – Helen’s birthday trip (since we would miss her big day in December) was a night time canal cruise with a live jazz band.

Canal cruises are a great way to see the city, especially at night. This particular cruise was the best I’ve been on yet. The music set a nice backdrop to the lights as we cruised slowly by. There was no annoying spiel in 17 different languages and we had bottomless glasses of drink and loads of Dutch cheese. It was a relaxing ending to a busy day.

The final instalment of our adventures will be coming soon…

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