Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Lavender in Provence

Back in California, I grew five different varieties of lavender. I had lavender which "naturalized" in my back yard and spread. I even experimented with lavender in cooking and baking - with great success. Here are links to the posts with those recipes.

Orange and Lavender - A  Culinary Combo

Life's Peachy

So, when we decided to move to France, the number one trip on my list was to go see the lavender fields in Provence.

We took a Ouigo TGV Train from Gare de Marne la Vallée Chessy, the station one would take if one were (crazy enough) to go to Euro Disney. That station is hectic - a disaster waiting to happen!

The train has no frills but is clean and comfortable. You can't buy food on board so bring a picnic. It took 3 swift hours and cost in total  €100.00 between us- i.e €25 each way per person. At Aix-en-Provence, we picked up a car at the train station - the cutest little Fiat 500!

(Father Ted fans please note: The car is NOT very far away!)

The hotel, Garden and City, Puyrichard, was on the outskirts north of Aix-en-Provence. Knowing that we'd be arriving in late, we guessed correctly that the shops would be closed (we consistently guessed incorrectly when they'd be open for the whole trip) so we availed of the pre-order in-room breakfast offered by the hotel. We were so disappointed with the breakfast. I was expecting fresh coffee, huge flaky fresh croissants and perhaps freshly squeezed orange juice. That's all. I don't think I was asking for much. It was rural France the home of fresh baking and farm produce...

Instead, we got a melange of pre-packed produce so pumped full of preservatives it would likely outlast the human race!  There was (per person) :
  • a sachet of instant Nescafe coffee ("Holy God - not instant!" I hear you cry." 
  • a can of minute maid orange flavoured chemicals
  • a 2-inch square hard toast (individually wrapped)
  • a tooth breakingly crusty roll that would pass as a rock
  • a pack of instant porridge
  • a sachet of hot chocolate mix (in 40 C heat??)
  • a litre of milk - now warm
  • an inch long pain au chocolate 
  • and a 2-inch long croissant  (This and the above item slightly stale)

(Father Ted fans please note: The croissant is NOT far away!)

The hotel room - a superior studio and not the smallest or cheapest one on offer - was smaller than we thought it would be.  The room next door was slightly bigger. I could see because housekeeping had propped the door open, and I had helped myself to a good old gander. So I went to reception and spoke to the girl there. She claimed that all the rooms in C block (our block) we're all the same.

"So," I said, "could we please move into the room next door?" The layout was better even if it were the same square footage.

"Oh, no," says she. "That room is taken."

But I saw it was empty. It was 11 am and check-in was specifically noted at 3 pm.

"But they haven't checked in yet, " I said.  "They could switch with us... seeing as all the rooms are the same."

"Oh but they have checked in," she said.

Hmmm, someone was telling barefaced lies but how does one counter that. I left silently seething and cursing the woman in my mind. After all, the room we were in was fine. We weren't going to suffer. I was madder at being lied to, than being denied. I had just wanted the other room with that extra little space for sitting by the window... After all the view was lovely.

After my seething session, (that My Husband bravely bore the brunt of) we decided to head north to Pertuis, a pretty little town where we managed to catch the only lunch of our entire trip. We kept missing when Siesta time was - it was different in each village! The whole thing seemed so complicated - it was easier to not eat.

Then we went to the tourist information office to find out where the best lavender fields were.

The lady in the tourist information office simply didn't get the concept. We wanted to see vast fields of lavender and she insisted on circling cute little towns on the maps. Thanks but we didn't want that I told her.

"But they are the most beautiful towns in France," she said.

Stuff that! I wanted to see lavender... I didn't say it like that. Maybe I should have because she began to circle castles....No! Been to the Loire Valley and all castled out. Lavender please... She assured us we could see some lavender here too...but some wasn't gonna cut it! I wanted to see loads of lavender.

But we followed her advice and saw a few cute (closed with a "Walking Dead" feel to it!) villages.

We weren't sure if anyone actually lived here. Even the towns that seemed to be inhabited were sleeping - their shutter-like eyes closing the world out.

It took "sleepy" villages to a whole new level, and I can't say I felt comfortable or even welcome here. This snooze level just wasn't for me.

In the distance, we saw a big white mountaintop and decided to drive to the top of it - because it was there - quite the accomplishment in a Fait 500!

The views from the top of Mount Ventoux were spectacular!

The top was bare white scree and I learned that it had once been forested but the trees cut down in the twelth century for lumber. The soil eroded and now it has a moonscape!

The lavender fields around were small, pretty...

...but not the one I'd seen in the photo that planted the idea of the trip.

I wanted lavender as far as the eye could see - Not enclosed by green fields.

I showed My Husband the photo in the article I'd read online. He was able to track down the location through the embedded data. We had a town name, Revest, which cross referenced a road number D950....

We were back on mission.

The lavender in this region was more abundant.

The fields stretched further.

We wound back and forth on smaller roads that criss-crossed the D950 and were able to get close to huge drifts of lavender.

Three senses delighted by lavender fields: Sight - Oh the hues of purple!

Smell - the air is laden with scent.

Sound - the buzzing of the bees. So good to hear the air thrumming with these happy bees!

After a couple of days of satisfying lavender viewing, we were ready for a change of scene. We headed south to the little town of Cassis on the Mediterranean to pick up the start of the coastal route D141 to Ciotat. I've never seen seaside towns so full to the brim of people. We vowed never to hoilday again in July. (It's the bonus prize for being childfree!)

The views along D141 were spectacular.

With some interesting rock formations like this natural arch - which made us think of Natural Bridges and Arches Nation Parks in Utah.

We found a disappointing cafe in a cove near La Ciotat - disappointing because despite finding parking and the cafe actually open, the lunch was served to us in a cardboard box! It was like something you'd buy for an office lunch out of Marks & Spencers. We were destined to not partake of a classic Provence lunch - unless this was the clasic Provence lunch?

The cove itself was beautiful and we watched people cliff diving from our lunch perch. Full marks for view.

We returned to our hotel with the last night to enjoy the peace and quiet of the Provence countryside before facing the crazy noise and rush of Paris.

Will we go back to Provence? Mmmmm - we-l-l we still have a lot to see in the rest of Europe...

Byddi Lee

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Mont St Michel - a UNESCO World Heritage Site

UNESCO World heritage site - Mont St Michel is an island off France's northwestern coast, at the mouth of the Couesnon River. From the moment I saw a photograph of it, I wanted to go there. I was further intrigued by the fact that the site was first founded by an Irish hermit. Us Irish get everywhere, though we're such a gregarious bunch, I can't imagine an Irish hermit!

We decided to take the Ouibus from Paris at 7.30 am (Mon Dieu!) which got us to the parking area just north of Beauville by 12.30pm. A cheap and efficient way to travel, I was impressed by how smooth and enjoyable the bus trip was. It took me back to my Oz  and Kiwi Experience days with quite a whiff of nostalgia... good job too because it helped distract from the whiffs of strong body odor from  the late-teen-early-twenty-something-old-enough-to-know-how-to-wash-but-won't boys in front us. Olfactory - the one downside of the superb public transport here!

The parking area is a pleasant half hour walk for anyone going to the island since there is no parking on the island.You aren't allowed to take you car onto the island which is great (especially if, like us, you haven't got a car.) There is also a regular free shuttle that will take you. We walked. After the stifling heat of Paris, it was bliss to have fresh air and an ocean breeze (small as it was) in our faces.

You can also pay for a horse drawn cart to drag you there.

As soon as you get of the bus (and probably before too, if your nose isn't stuck in a book as mine was) you can see the Island, topped off with the abbey. The whole thing made me think of a giant cupcake with ornate icing on the top.

Right at the tip top, instead of a cherry, there's a golden statue of St Michel himself.


The Ouibus returns to Paris at 5pm.


You'd have time to explore the Abbey and the little medieval town nestled at it's feet ...

...grab a bite to eat or a cup of cider (it's a thang there)...


...and get back to the bus before 5pm, arriving into Paris no later than 10pm. Not bad for twenty Euros each way.

The streets are really narrow.

The Island was easy to fortify and you can see why.

The monks used this wheel to haul goods up to the abbey.

This is the track they used.

But it's steps for the rest of us.

And a real live priest/brother - It's not just a tourist attraction.

The abbey has some fun additions ...

 Hitchcock would have a canary at this!

And I wonder what creature this claw belongs to?

There are amazing views both inland over the river delta...

...and out to sea from the top of the abbey.

Seeing the people, ants crawling over the sands, made my heart flutter with fear for them - what if they were to get trapped by the incoming tide? The very thought of it made me break into a cold sweat!

The insides of the abbey are pretty spectacular too.

In theory you could do the trip to Mont St Michel all in one day, which I'd only advise if you get full tide happening between 3.30pm and 4.30pm. Watching the tide coming in may sound like an activity akin to watching paint drying, but I promise you it's not. A very high tide was expected the day were were there.

And the water did come up and cover some of that area at full tide - but there was no reason for alarm - you didn't exactly need your water wings!

In other places, the tide came in with a rush and formed a tidal bore. I'd never seen one before, so this really fascinated me.

There where whirlpools that reminded me of that TV show I loved as a kid - The Valley of the Dinosaurs.

You have time after this to get up on the ramparts and view the incoming tide from different places too.

We took a picture of the same spot every 60 seconds:

I'd imagine  the bikes against the wall here are fairly banjaxed (that's a technical term!)

Visit the tourist office on the Island to get recommendations for where to eat, when to see the tide and the best spot to view it from. The woman we talked to was really helpful and welcoming. They seem to be the only people on the Island not jaded by tourists.

Our hotel, Le Terrasses Poulard, was slap bang in the middle of the village, overpriced for what you got in terms of room size (teeny tiny but with a nice view of the abbey from the window) but you couldn't beat it for location.

The staff didn't seem to give a hoot about their customers. They were strict about not letting us check-in before 4pm, but did let us leave our bag in the foyer at 2pm when we'd arrived and tried to chance our arm at checking in (the beauty of not having expensive stuff is that you don't need to worry about it getting stolen!)

When we eventually gained access to our room - four flights of narrow stairs up, it was tiny and without air-conditioning. Fortunately, the windows opened onto quiet back streets which lead up to the abbey and let in a nice breeze. There was about 6 inches between the bed and the wall on all sides. My Husband took one look and said, "What's that thing people say about having room to throw a cat around." It always make me laugh (and love him even more) when he gets his English sayings a little muddled.

There was a large pod coffee machine which took up most of the desk but without coffee or cups. I traipsed the four sets of stairs down to the reception to explain to the guy at the desk (in French at least to begin with - he switched to English for some unfathomable reason to me!) that there was no pods or cups.

"Oh, you buy the pods here." He lifted a little net bag with four different coloured pods in it and jangled it in front of me. "One Euro per bag."

"Fine, but I still need cups."

That required him to make a phone call in rapid French that I couldn't keep up with. At the end he hung up, looked me in the eye and said with a shrug, "Sorry, there are no cups."

Next morning we bought our breakfast at street vendors and saved the disposable cups so we could have a wee cuppa back in the room before checkout at 11.30am (the confirmation email said 12 but we'd been told 11.30 at check-in.)

My Husband went down to buy the 1 Euros pod bag and came back furious. Overnight inflation had caused the price to increase by 500%! They were now looking 5 Euros for a bag. Not that it was going to break the bank, but it was the principle of the matter! In the end, My Husband managed to buy just 2 pods for a euro each.  Well, we only wanted one cup each... I suppose we've been a bit spoilt by the service in the USA.

And one last negative word - please, if you value your taste buds do not eat in L'Auberge Saint-Pierre. The food is really bad. I do not give a bad review lightly - but this place was awful. It's looked lovely, but I couldn't eat my dinner. People who know me know that I can pretty much eat anything!

By the time we left still starving, having not been able to force the food down yet paid for it (being too wimpy to protest!) It was late and many other spots had closed for the evening which is another reason to not stay the night if you can catch high tide during the afternoon. No late dining here nor any nightlife to speak of! We found a place further up the hill (I think it was called Le Croix Blanche) that did nice oysters. They were local, from Granville and some of the best I've eaten. Oysters must be the thing to eat in Mt St Michel.

The tourist office had recommended a different place and unfortunately we didn't follow that advice until the next day. That restaurant - Le Du Guesclin - was amazing. We went for lunch and sat at the window overlooking the ramparts and the ocean. The service was great, the food both reasonably priced and very tasty. I had the special of the area - lamb that had grazed on the salt marsh and the meat was salty too. It was the perfect way to while away the afternoon before taking a leisurely stroll back to the Ouibus parking lot on the mainland.

When you get to the parking area where the bus dropped you off, wander up and down a little. The bus didn't leave from the exact same spot it dropped us off...

So in summary:

Don't walk on the sand flats at low tide without a guide.
Don't eat at L'Auberge Saint-Pierre. (Please note, I have never panned a restaurant in my blog. I don't like doing it, but felt I had to warn folk.)
Don't try to drive onto the island.
Don't leave your bicycle outside the ramparts!

Do consider taking Ouibus as a 1 or 2 day trip from Paris.
Do walk from the bus stop to the island if the weather is nice. It's flat all the way.
Do visit the tourist office.
Do make sure you catch the high tide.
Do explore all the way to the top of the Abbey.
Do eat at Le Du Guesclin.
Do eat oysters.
Do eat the salted lamb.
Do take a million photo's - we sure did.

Byddi Lee