Saturday, September 24, 2011

The France & Spain Tour 2011 - Day 4

As I said in the previous post, we were loving Mas Pichony, our b&b in Provence. After a restful night's sleep, we were all up early and once again, after Daphne had been for a swim, I left her to change for the day ahead and went out taking early morning photos around the grounds.

Here is one of swimming pool, showing the shaded cooking and eating area at the far end.

By 8:30 we were sitting with the other guests at the large breakfast table outside the house and a short time later, we were on our way to continue our tour of this part of Provence with a very short 4 mile drive.

We went east again, back through the town of Saint-Didier where we'd had supper the previous evening and on along the D28 to join the D4 to the pretty medieval hill village of Venasque. With a population of only 1,151 people and uncrowded, flower festooned narrow streets, Venasque truly lived up to its reputation as one of the most beautiful villages in France.

Driving up the steep road to the parking area, the view was dominated by the beautiful 12th century Church of Notre Dame with its high bell tower and overhanging gargoyles.

Arriving relatively early, we got a very favourable parking spot right up against a low stone wall with a stunning view over the surrounding countryside and of course this necessitated a portrait.

What a nice young couple !

We were in no rush and given the size of the village, it didn't take long to explore it thoroughly. On one street corner there was a cute cat doing a spot of people watching and begging to be photographed.

I obliged.

There was a lovely Provencal version of a village square with an 18th century fountain as its focal point. A short distance away were, to all intents and purposes, the ruins of a castle but it seems were really the ruins of a chateau......les remparts du chateau de Venasque to be precise.

It still looked like a castle to me !

Here is the fountain and a view down a typical narrow street in the village. In fact this view shows where we were parked, just behind that white vehicle at the end.

At noon we left Venasque for the 17 mile drive to Roussillon and what an experience that was. It's hard to do justice to the unique splendour of Roussillon. You can say that there are 17 shades of ochre daubed across the houses of the village, drawn from the palette of the old ochre quarry next door. But that doesn't do justice to the flamboyant, technicolor glory of Roussillon, the reds, yellows, oranges and pinks that merge one into the other as you wander around the spiralling streets. Or the stunning contrast of the green of the pine trees or the blue sky against the red cliffs.

As we approached the town, we saw that parking would be a problem so we went back down the road, parked along the side and made our way back up on foot. It was a long hot walk and by the time we got into the town proper, we were ready to combine a rest with lunch !

As eating takes a while in France, we were well rested by the time the bill was paid.

And ready again to explore.

Roussillon is a "two part village" and although it would be hard to visit it and leave without knowing about the ochre quarry, it could happen. Once in its centre, it's a typical Provencal hill village with the narrow streets, flower filled window boxes and stunning views down over the valley. The one feature that sets it apart is the colour..all the buildings are red, thanks to that nearby ochre quarry !

The village is on a ridge of steep red cliff, as if everything around but the village has been clawed away over the years. If you walk up to the top, you get some wonderful panoramic views across the valley to the Grand Luberon, the slopes of Mont Ventoux, and the plateau of the Vaucluse.

Here are a few photos showing the buildings, the flowers, the main square where we ate and finally 2 sweeping panoramas showing the views over the valley.

As usual, you can click on any photo to enlarge it and this is especially important for the panorama shots.

Walking up and down the steep streets was very tiring even after, or maybe despite having, our lunch. When my body is trying to process a meal, it sure doesn't like to have to deal with walking up and down steep streets ! Even in Provence !!

But with the village explored, it was time to move on to the ochre quarry which was just a walk over a short bridge and still part of the village environs. And what a place it was.

First up, there is a photo of a sign explaining what we were about to experience but if you want a fuller explanation, I'm sure Google will help. Then comes the first view you get of the quarry as you cross the village bridge. Shops and restaurants on the right and the quarry on the left. The visitors give some idea of scale.

The ochre this land is made of is a natural pigment that was used in paints. Roussillon's ochre quarry was one of the most significant ochre deposits in the world. But times move on and real ochre is no longer in use. This means you can explore the disused quarry which is best described as other-worldly....perhaps like Mars if it had cliffs and caverns, steeples and ridges. Certainly something very different and a place I will never forget.......and neither will my shoes !

To walk around the quarry meant walking on various surfaces - wooden steps, gravel paths and of course, as can be seen in the above photos, the ochre 'soil' itself. The paths were very steep in places and the steps were so wide apart that it would've been better not to have had them. My white tennis shoes were red by the end of the walk and my legs and feet were screaming for a break.

A rest and an ice cream by the bridge wall helped my legs and feet and a good wash in the b&b sink later that afternoon sorted the shoes. The red dust brushed off fairly easily and thankfully left no lasting stains.

Did we love Roussillon ? Yes we did. Town AND quarry.

We drove back to Mas Pichony and had a rest for a hour or so. Then we went back into Pernes-les-Fontaines, the main town nearest to the b&b, for supper. There was a funfair set up near the town centre so the road was closed and we had to park some distance away. We wandered around the various stalls and rides but it was just like any small fair anywhere in the world and not that impressive.

We settled on a Chinese restaurant for the meal and very good it was too. Just before we got there, we saw something that reminded me that even with modern 'green' fuelled cars, there is always a down side and in this case, it was all too obvious !

After a 90 minute meal, fast by French standards, it was 9pm and after another walk around the funfair which was only slightly more interesting in the dark, we headed back to the car. This meant us walking along another street bordered by trees and this one in particular looked like it had an interesting story to tell.

And that was it. A long but fascinating day and if nothing else, it had given us a small taste of things to come over the next few days in Provence. So far it was rivalling Tuscany in my personal list of beautiful places to visit and I was excited about what we'd see over the next few days.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The France & Spain Tour 2011 - Day 3

We left our intrepid trio in Burgundy, staying overnight with our friends, Graham and Christine Battye in their stunning b&b in the beautiful village of Montreal.

Early the next morning, before we had breakfast, I wandered around the grounds taking photos in the misty post dawn light. Daphne had already been for a swim in the pool so by the time I got there, the swooping birds had left and all was peace and quiet. The mist was mostly gone but a low layer still hung over the fields on the horizon, helping to provide a natural blanket which added to the tranquility of the scene.

After breakfast, we said goodbye to our fellow guests and of course, our hosts, and set off on the drive southwards to Provence.

The actual drive was uneventful and although we stopped at a service station for lunch which was....different......we simply made a straight 309 mile run to the next b&b, a 17th century Provencal farmhouse close to Avignon.

And what a farmhouse it was. Surrounded by classic wine fields, Mas Pichony was a beautiful home that the young owners had turned into a b&b with several rooms and a gite at one end, where we were to spend the next 4 days. The gite provided us total privacy with our own entrance, two rooms (downstairs with a double bed and an upstairs with 3 single beds) and a large bathroom. Breakfast was outside on the terasse under a 300 year old plane tree where we shared the meal with fellow residents, a large dog, 3 cats and a few chickens.

Hey it WAS a farm !

Over the next few days, I took lots of photos around the farmhouse and will sprinkle them in from post to post so as not to overwhelm one single post. Here are a few from our first evening there, despite not having much time as we needed to get into town for supper and after that.....well it was dark !

First up, a shot of the pool and then the breakfast table.

The pool area was something else. With views of the wine fields on 3 sides, it also had a shaded seating area that ran the full length of the pool with couches and chairs and at the far end was a shaded summer kitchen, complete with sink, fridge, cooler, microwave, full sized dining table and everything needed for having food and drink all day long....and all night ! Finally, over to the side, was a lovely quiet wooden gazebo type structure with deckchairs for that full relaxing experience.

I took some panorama photos and like I said, I'll include them in future posts.

As well as the wine groves and huge trees of all shapes and sizes, the farmhouse had a few 'items' I'd never seen before and have no idea what they were. For instance, what is this ?

As anyone who reads this blog regularly or knows me in person can testify, I love cats and as this place had 3, I was in cat heaven. I didn't care that they were wild cats and didn't take to being picked up (as a few scratches on my hands would prove later), as they were still very cute and would occasionally pose for photographs.

Later on, while waiting for Daphne to get ready (sighhhhh), I went outside and just a few paces from the gite door, I found several bushes with snails on them. Seems that snails just love climbing to the top of anything for no apparent reason, a bit like mountaineers. I was temped to remove the top one and replace it on the ground and then listen for a VERY quiet......offs.

Yes I'm cruel like that !

When Daphne was finally ready and once at the end of the farm lane, we turned right along the D28 for a few miles to the village of Saint-Didier and then took a right onto its main street, the D39, or the Rue Le Cours. This was a typical Provencal village street, lined with centuries old trees and with cafes and restaurants every few yards. You are NOT going to starve in Provence !

After walking the length of the street checking out the choices, we settled on this cafe which I'll show on a Google Maps link as I can't pronounce it or even type its name here.
As you can see, there were tables outside and although we would have ideally wanted to sit at one to do a bit of people watching while we ate, as usual in France, all the smokers were outside and you could've cut the atmosphere with a scalpel. Quite appropriate under the circumstances.

So we went out the back and it was only after we were seated, drinking our water, that we got the menus and discovered the prices were much higher. Seems the front was a cafe with appropriate menu/prices and the back was a restaurant with....well y'know. That's what you get when you're not fluent in the language and the owner asks you if you want to eat 'out the back' as it seemed to me ! Hey ho.

Anyway the back area was delightful, enclosed as it was with trees, flowering shrubs and a bit bizarrely, Christmas style lights. It was another lovely warm evening and the food was good. All in all, a great end to a long day.

We'd been seated in a far corner and right behind me were some very exotic looking flowers which I believe were passion fruit. They're not particularly associated with France but will grow in any warm location where frost is not likely to occur. If anyone thinks I've got this wrong, feel free to let me know in the comments.

And no, I'm not calling this one Bob !

They were a bit disconcerting as they were almost on my shoulder and I felt if I left anything on my plate, they'd have had it. Well that's my excuse for clearing my plate !

After a meal that again took the best part of 2 hrs, we headed the few miles back to our gite. It had been a long day and although we hadn't walked much, we were still pretty tired and so, after planning what we'd do the next day and with the less annoying evening sounds of the countryside drifting in through the partly open windows, we went to bed.

Our first evening in Provence had really given us a taste of the area and we were excited about the days to come.

And as it turned out, rightly so......

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Thank God I'm A Country Boy

Today was nice. A nice day. Weatherwise I mean. Very nice.

Not quite an Indian Summer day but not far off. A Pakistani Summer maybe ? Like an Indian......but not quite as hot !

So I rang Daphne and asked if she'd like to accompany me on a walk to Eccup Reservoir. I needed the exercise and she needed....well she just needed to accompany me.

The walk was part of my regulars (ha !) but to be able to go further at the other end which was way out in the countryside, I had the brill idea for us to drive through the estate and park at the start of the countryside bit, thus missing the dull estate bit altogether. If you follow. And are together.

So let it be written, so let it be done. And it was.

Q : Is all this nonsense just an excuse to put some text around some photos ?

A : It's a fair cop, guv.

Here is a panorama using the new camera's Easy Panorama mode which it is.....easy that is. Just click and pan and Bob's your cousin's better looking uncle, you get a panorama without any stitching and trying to cover up the joins. Go on, enlarge it and have a scan; you know you want to.

The path to the reservoir was looking as pretty as.....well a picture actually, so here is one :

Once we reached the reservoir, I had to take a photo of it. Ok a reservoir is a bit dull at the best of times and its photogenicness (works for me) can only be enhanced by its surroundings. In the case of Eccup Reservoir, the surroundings are pretty dull too so in a desperate bid to alleviate this overall dullness, here is a photo of Daphne. Who isn't dull at all. Not in the slightest.

Leaving all this dullness behind, we continued the walk and came upon a field with straw bales, or rolls, stacked up in long lines. I'd never seen this sort of arrangement before and found the sight very pleasing. So much so that I took 2 photos and as I don't know which I like best, you get both. I don't critique my photos very much but I do like the combination of colours and shapes in these ones although I suppose God and the farmer deserve the credit and not me. I don't mind sharing though.

This next photo just shows the path we took on the way back. We left the paved road that we'd taken on the way out and went on a public bridleway which, being gravel, was more uneven but much more native.

These last 3 are just general snaps but deserve an outing. The first one shows a ladybug or ladybird (but certainly not a ladyboy) that was tucking into its lunch. If you enlarge the photo, you'll see what it had for breakfast which leads me to guess it likes veggie food. Next up is a very berry shot with a field in the background. Again lots of contrasting colours all heightened by the clear blue sky. Always a winner in my book. Finally there is a photo of an intact dandelion. Nothing special about it except its name. It's called Bob. Bob The Dandelion. Bob. Bob.

I just like saying it. Bob.

And that was it. Our walk on the wild side. Or at least in the countryside. Certainly outside.

It may not be Burgundy or even Provence but it's on my doorstep and as such, I love it and it's a lot cheaper to get to.

And then there's Bob.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Ear, Ear, Vincent

When we were touring Provence (which is in France you know), we saw loads of fields full of sunflowers. I've taken many photos of sunflowers on my travels and although I'm not sure why, they have a strange effect on me.

Many people like the idea of them tracking the sun which I think gives them an almost living attribute. Yes, yes I know they ARE living in a brainless flowery sort of way but you know what I mean. We like to think of them getting up every morning, having a look for the sun and then following it all day long. God help them in Britain then !

It's not a bad life I suppose and on beaches all over the world, many humans do the same sort of thing but don't look as pretty.

Sadly the whole sun tracking thingy is all a bit of a misconception as sunflowers don't really track the sun at all. Shocker, I know.

To be fair, the leaves and buds of young sunflowers do start off the day facing east and move to the west as the day progresses. But mature sunflowers simply face east and don't move.

When I pass a field full of 'dead' sunflowers, the sight makes me feel so sad. They still stand incredibly tall but their heads are dull, drooping and lifeless. So different from the vibrant, colourful heads they once presented to the world.

What we found in many fields was a mix of both, a majority of dead heads with a few still hanging in there, so to speak. A few proud survivors who for a few more days were saying to the passers by........." hey I'm still here. Bloody well look at me. "

On our 5th day on the France & Spain Tour 2011, we visited the 12th century Senanque Abbey near Gordes in Provence. The Cistercian monks who live there, grow and sell lavender and honey products and with a thriving gift shop, don't need to charge entry to the grounds and abbey.

It wasn't lavender season when we were there but a quick wander around the gift shop left us in little doubt what the smell would've been like outside when it was in season. Thankfully I love 'processed' lavender although the smell of the actual flowers doesn't thrill me. Go figure.

Anyway in the small courtyard in front of the abbey stood a lone mature sunflower and in the dazzling morning sunshine, its colours were stunning. I was reminded once again of the painting of sunflowers by Vincent Van Gogh and how dull and drab he'd managed to make them appear. Maybe his vase full had passed their prime and were 'on the way out' but wouldn't you have thought he'd have replaced them with some fresh ones ?

Art eh. What do I know !

I still prefer my sunflower (sorry monks but I'm claiming it) and best of all, it's about $40m cheaper !!

And for Brits of a certain age, don't you now find yourselves saying "weeeeeeeeeed."

Sure you do.

Flobalob !

Monday, September 05, 2011

The France & Spain Tour 2011 - Day 2

As sure as most of the world will end up following Stephen Fry on Twitter, Day 2 followed Day 1 and we found ourselves coming down to a breakfast fit for royalty. As they never turned up, we scoffed it instead and boy was it good.

There were plain and chocolate filled croissants, bread rolls, jams of all flavours, fruit cocktail, orange juice, chocolate spread, 8 large crepes, oranges, apples, peaches and other fresh fruit and, at our request, hot chocolate and coffee to drink.

As you can hopefully see from the last photo, the chocolate and coffee drinks were served up in a rather interesting way. The 'pots' came in two parts with the top section containing the liquids and the bottom parts being the drinking vessels.

Tres bon, n'est pas ?

The plan was that if we liked this first b&b, we'd try and book it again for the return trip. Well we certainly liked the room, the breakfast and the price so we did just that and booked it. Madame and Monsieur had to juggle some other guests around it seemed but after a few minutes with their planning book, they said all was ok.

Well they might have said all was ok if they spoke any English but they didn't and so they said it in French instead. Their country, their rules. Fair enough.

Full of stomach and only €55 lighter of pocket, we headed off to continue our grand adventure. Our next port of call was to be with our friends Graham & Christine who run a stunning b&b in Montreal (pronounced Maw-Ree-Al) in Burgundy. 249 miles and €38.70 in tolls later, we arrived at Maison Creme Anglais about a year to the day since our last visit. Our hosts had again kindly given up their own bedroom for us and soon we were relaxing in the glorious surrounding of their home. After a while I went off to take almost the same photos as last time but with my new camera so I just had to, didn't I ?

I went out into the medieval streets and again found photographic opportunities everywhere.

Speaking of the new camera, I'd only had it a couple of weeks before we set off and so I'd not had the chance to 'use' a lot of the settings. There was one called the 'pet portrait' setting and yes, I'm not joking. When on this setting and the camera detects the face of a cat or dog (sorry goldfish and gerbils), it focuses on the face, tracks the animal and automatically takes photos continuously without the shutter having to be pressed.

Graham and Christine's cat was a good subject as it never stayed still and here is one of the many photos taken on the 'pet portrait' setting. Not too shabby.

Later that evening we sat down for a lovely meal with their other guests in their huge converted barn. They were from France, Germany, Switzerland and The Netherlands so it was quite an international gathering.

Yes I know they're not at the table in that photo but as I've not asked permission, I'd better not show them in case.......well just in case. Maybe they should've been in their offices or something....who knows and I'm not risking a law suit.
So just enjoy the table.

All in all it had been a great Day 2 and as next up was to be a 4 day stopover in Provence, we went up the tall tower to bed that night as excited as Will Ferrell getting a laugh.

Yes the experience would be new for us too !

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