The travel gods were not with us the night we were due to fly to Paris. We had arrived at the airport, checked our baggage through, passed customs and security inspections, arrived in plenty of time, only to find the previous flight to Paris had been cancelled and now our flight was hugely overbooked. You guessed it we were bumped. Now what ? We checked other flights.
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The next Paris flight was 24 hrs away add to it 8hrs. flying & airport time and it was going to put us a day and a half late. What about our hotel reservations ? We checked other flights and there was a flight the next day to London, England. I suggested we sleep in the airport and fly to London on first flight. From London I figured we could catch a quick flight across the channel into Paris. Easy-Peasy. Sounds like a plan. What the hell was I thinking ??
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In my moment of brilliance I hadn’t calculated the flying time and the fact that London was 5 hours ahead of us. Which all added up to one big problem. When we arrived in London the next day NIGHT. There were no flights leaving Heathrow until the following morning. Now what? I can tell you from experience that Heathrow is the most uncomfortable airport to sleep in. You don’t ever want to be stuck there. I did however get an awesome picture of our friend and travel mate Lyle sleeping on a metal bench under a Burger King sign. BTW our luggage, which there was a lot of had gone out with the first flight to Paris. A blessing really. We at least didn’t have to lug it around during all of this airport hopping.
We finally arrived at Charles de Gaulle airport Paris. Now the challenge was to locate our luggage which had arrived a day ahead of us. It was pretty funny using our limited French to sort through the airport bureaucracy to locate and retrieve our luggage. Lyle is my hero. He was able to figure it out and after about and hour or so we had our luggage. All 3 tons of it. I wish they had lost the damn stuff. Oops did I just say that out loud !!
Hurrah !!! We are in Paris and on the TVG to Avignon. After storing our 3 tons of luggage ( you would have thought we were moving to France) we settled into our first class seats. For the small difference in cost we were so glad we had chosen 1st class. Now we could finally breathe. I was just happy our friends were still talking to me. After all it was my dumb idea to catch a flight to London in the first place.
We arrived in Avignon to be greeted by the Mistral what the French call the “jealous cold winds sent from the north”. These hurricane-like winds literally blew us from the train platform over to the car rental. Where in a feat of organizational genius, we stowed every bag and the four of us into our tiny rental car and we were off to find our “Villa le Debut”, soon to be our home for the next two weeks.
When we entered the tiny village of St Marcel de Careiret, a village of 600 people, we were taken by its quaintness, but what really excited us was that the local Alimentaire (grocer) was still open. It was 7:20 pm and we were told they closed at 7:30. What a stroke of luck! We quickly stocked up with 2 bottles of wine, tomatoes, water, sausage, (unfortunately no baguettes) and some crème fraiche potatoes (the French version of scalloped potatoes but made with real cream and and very very decadent). We then followed Mme Campe (the custodian) to our Villa.
Our villa is just outside of this tiny village and as we entered the driveway you could feel all of the previous stress just fall away. (click on link) Villa le Debut is surrounded by lawns, olive trees, rosemary bushes and lavender it was beautiful. We were even more excited when we entered. (click on link) Villa le Debut is spacious with a large open concept living room with a wood-burning fireplace, dining room and a fully-equipped kitchen, 3 bedrooms, a laundry room and a loft. There are three glass french doors opening onto the side garden and the patio was private and sun drenched as was the entire property. It was our perfect piece of paradise in Provence. All exhaustion disappeared. We quickly towed in our luggage, tossed the potatoes in the oven, opened some wine and started to become French. It wasn’t long before we discovered that two bottles of wine for 4 people was just not going to cut it. Lyle, wise and experienced in these matters, told us he would be back in 15 minutes. When he arrived back at the Villa he had 2 more bottles of wine in hand which he had purchased from the local bar in the village. How brilliant! How civilized.
We sat down around 9:00 p.m. to a delicious dinner (food & wine & friends) could it get any better. We were in the countryside of France and life was perfect. After two long days of travel, we fell into bed around 10:30, exhausted but very happy to be here. We slept like babies in our comfortable bed (much better than the hard benches at the airports).
The next morning with the Mistral still blowing, we were anxious to explore and to find the local Patisserie so Lyle, Colin & Pat drove the short distance into the village and bought our first delectable pain raisin. We headed out to explore the countryside and came upon a beautiful medieval village perched under a 13th century chateau on a hillside and surrounded by stone walls, only a 10-minute drive from our villa. We could not resist driving up the narrow winding road to the chateau. We started to explore the narrow cobbled streets on foot and were transported back a thousand years. Not a lot had visibly changed in this tiny village on top of a hill.
However our mission was to find wine (not difficult when in the south of France) plus it was grape harvest time, the smell of freshly crushed grapes was everywhere. Small villages usually pool all their grapes and take them to the local co-op to be turned into ” The wine of the Village” We found our local village wine co-op less than a mile from our villa. We started sampling various wines and finally purchased a 5-litre box of local red and another of rose for the ridiculous price of around 8 Euro ($12.00) each. That’s about $2.40 a litre. This was just the beginning of many wine purchases !
Mission accomplished, we returned to our village to get more pastries. As we left the bakery with arms full of fresh bread and pastries we said good by to our new friend the local baker and told him we would see him in the morning for more fresh pastries. He replied in french that he would not be open in the morning as he and his wife were starting their vacation. OH NO ! our local artisan patisserie was going on holiday for the next 2 weeks. what will we do. (quel dommage! ). Despite our disappointment, we have to admit we did not suffer too much!
With our most important purchase complete (wine), we headed back to our Villa to pick up Heather and then to head off to Bagnol-sur-Ceze (a town with population of 8,000). That’s when we discovered nothing is open on Sundays. We are not in Canada anymore, duh! So we stopped at a small bakery for homemade pizza to take home for dinner that evening. Since we were short of food at our Villa, we decided to stop for lunch and have a Croque Monsieur, beer and cappuccino. When we arrived back , the sun was shining on our patio and the Mistral had calmed down so we kicked back and enjoyed a glass of what else, red wine on the patio. Evening set in, we relaxed, ate our pizza drank more wine and played a game of cards before falling into bed around 12:30 am. Our first-full day under our belts.
Monday, we arose to cloudy skies but the Mistral had disappeared. Nothing can dampen your spirits when you are in the south of France. We decided to head to Avignon (click on link) (about 30 minutes from our Villa) for some serious shopping and groceries since it was the largest city close to us. In the 14th century, Avignon was the capital of Christendom. Since the Pope lived here during that time, the legacy he left makes Avignon one of the most beautiful of Europe’s medieval cities. We visited the Palais des Papes, a Gothic designed 14th century fortress-palace which housed the Pope and many of his Cardinals ( mostly for their own protection). You can only imagine what must have taken place within those walls. Avignon is also famous for its bridge, the Pont St. Benezet from which became the children’s ditty “Sur le pont d’Avignon, l’on y danse, l’on y danse”. Avignon is now the home of some 85,000 residents and increasingly known as a cultural centre with plenty of cafes, restaurants, museums and art galleries. Of course, it was easy for us to locate a market where we were able to stock up on groceries and basic necessities for the week to come.
That evening, back at the Villa, Chefs Colin & Lyle, prepared a delicious roast chicken and salad. We ate, drank, danced and sang to the tunes of Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra till the wee hours of 3:00 a.m. We have nick named this as our “Dean Martin” night. What the Heck, we were half in the bag and happy to be in France!
The next morning we were very slow rising from our sleep of the dead but after a good breakfast, we were off to the town of La Roque-sur-Ceze. It was a gorgeous blue-skied day and La Roque, a beautiful 13th century hilltop village is located next to a spectacular river- carved rock formation. It was a great place to cool off on a hot afternoon and to explore. We were fortunate that it was the low end of the tourist season, so the streets were quiet, great for photo ops and a casual stroll. It’s cobblestone streets, houses with foot-thick stone walls, some with crumbling facades, were amazing. The village is perched high overlooking a beautiful valley of rolling hills and vineyards. What must it of been like back in the 13th century. Maybe not much different than what we were experiencing at this moment. The streets were eerily quiet and we wondered where the current inhabitants were.
Heading back to our Villa, we made a stop at the small village of St. Gervais where we picked up some tapenade, pesto and yes… more wine, after “ un petit” tasting. Then we passed through Goudargues, called the Venice of the Gard, where a famous abbey was founded in the 9th century. We loved driving through the shadows cast by the age-old plane trees before stopping at a charcuterie (deli) for OMG more food . We had a late dinner of pesto-crème pasta and then early to bed everyone was exhausted.
Wednesday… Market day in Bagnol-sur-Ceze and you have never seen two women more excited. This market had it all. Our Villa was conveniently located only 20 minutes in between two market towns, Bagnols (Wednesday) and Uzes (Saturday). The centre of these towns are closed off and merchants set up to sell food and wares of every kind (amazing food, clothing, spices, fabric, jewellery… everything French and more). Heather and Pat made an executive decision to divide from the men as they knew their tastes would lead in two different directions. They found some great bargains and then saw Lyle and Colin waiting at the Midi Café. They had explored the food stalls and were just sitting back soaking up the activity of the market over a cup of Cafe Americano. The girls joined them at the café and had their first experience at a French public pay toilet. (.30 centimes). You kind of feel like Superman slipping into a phone booth however after you leave the phone booth (toilet), the stainless steel doors close and the inside is completely washed down between each use. Amazing!
Our next stop that day was St. Victor-la-Coste where we picnicked on a terrace below the ruins of a castle perched above the town. Most of the villages we visited were within a 30- minute drive of our Villa. It was so easy to explore these charming spots in a day. So we decided next to check out Tavel. The pink wines of Tavel are considered some of the best Rose you will find in France. They are dry, complex and versatile, making them a great match with a wide variety of dishes. You probably noted that when we first arrived, we purchased a 5-litre box of rose at the local co-op near our villa. The rosé is not typical of the sweet, often bubbly, wine we purchase in the LCBO. There was none left behind at the end of our stay, we certainly enjoyed it.
Our final destination that day was Chateauneuf du Pape, situated between Avignon and Orange, it spreads out at the foot of the remains of a fortress castle. The village looks over the plains of Laquedoc – Roussillon and 3000 hectares of vineyards. Which is almost completely dedicated to its world famous red wine “Châteaunef du Pape” also part of the similarly famous Côtes du Rhône wine. Pope Jean XXII, chose Chateauneuf as the location for his summer residence built in 1316, and then decided to plant vines on the stony acreage surrounding the castle. For a long time the wine production remained a secret but started to become
well known in the 18th century. It was in 1929 that it was officially recognized and bestowed with it’s own appellation Châteauneuf-du-Pape. We made the long walk up hill to the ruined Castle, which was well worth it for the amazing views. Unfortunately the Castle was bombed in 1944 by the Germans. All that is left standing are two partial stone walls. By this time, we were getting a little weary. We trekked back to the town centre, stopped for a guess what? That’s right, another wine tasting and purchased two bottles of Cote du Rhone before heading out. Driving out of the village, we came upon a Chocolaterie Artisanale we couldn’t resist buying some decadent dark chocolate, which of course goes great with red wine. Off in the distance, we saw a magnificent chateau which turned out to be a hotel-winery! We drove in and took take a few photos.
We finished our evening with Chefs McSweeney et Turner cooking pork chops, carrots and potatoes and les dames (Heather & Pat) sitting by the fire having un verre de vin (more wine). We were adapting to the French lifestyle very well!
Thursday, we awoke to another perfect day and after a light breakfast and a picnic lunch in hand, we were off to Iles sur la Sorgues, this quaint Provencal town, is surrounded by water (Iles means islands) and known for its moss-covered waterwheels. Isle sur la Sorgue is just 25km southeast of Avignon. The numerous canals and branches of the Sorgue have given the town the nickname of “The Venice of the Comtat.” Pat & I wandered the streets and bought a ceramic olive-oil jug and a jar of olive jam. There were lots of artisan shops and quaint cafes so we chose a café next to the water where we eventually met up with Lyle and Heather and enjoyed a cool refreshing beer. After our lunch, we were off to the town of Rousillon.
Rousillon sits on a hill between the mountains of the Vaucluse and the Luberon. Like an artistic god, surrounded by old quarries of orange/red rocks, it spreads its palette across the land. Under the azure blue Provençal sky, the earth blazes with colour, broken only by the deep green of the pine forests. The houses of the village offer the passers-by a harmony of enchanting colours. The site has seduced many artists. The narrow lanes, house art galleries, craftspeople and some very good restaurants. Colin & I stopped for ice cream, roamed the village and found quaint cafes, colourful buildings and vine-laden walls. We arrived back at our villa around 9:00, had a late dinner and were in bed by 11:00.
Friday, we decided to head back to Avignon for a leisurely afternoon. After some shopping and a stop at an Internet café, Colin and I paused for a bite to eat, but it seems we always miss the French lunch hour. Cafés usually close their food service between 2-6 but the waiter suggested we pick up a sandwich from the bakery a few doors down and bring it back to the café table. So we walked to the local bakery, bought a sandwich to take out and headed back to the café. where ordered a glass of wine to accompany our meal. After a little more shopping, we met up with Lyle and Heather at the “In & Out” Café (very strange name for a French cafe) where I ordered my first pastis (French liquorice liqueur). Before leaving Avignon, we stopped at the train station to book our tickets for a later side trip we planned to Nice. However because of a conflict in our schedule we had to change our destination to Toulon . Back at our villa by 7:00 enjoying a wonderful pasta dish & salad by Chef Lyle. Accompanied by wine, a crackling fire, a delicious dessert and an evening of Euchre, it was the end to another perfect day.Saturday – market day in the town of Uzes. Heather & Pat, now experienced at shopping french style, left the guys sipping coffee and set out on their shopping adventure. Satisfied with their many purchases they met up with the guys and we all headed out to a small village nearby called St. Quentin-de-Poterie, known for its potters & artisans, also for Joseph Monier (1923-1906), who invented reinforced concrete and produced thousands of roof tiles and glazed tiles for the floors of the Palais des Papes in Avignon. We stopped for lunch at a tiny restaurant called Mimosa. The guys had the beef terrine and Heather and Pat had the Mimosa Salad. All was yummy. We really enjoyed walking the colourful streets, poking our heads into little shops and taking photos along the way. But all that shopping can wear you out, so we returned to our villa for some R & R. Colin made a delicious quiche with a potato crust, we lit a fire, listened to music and lounged quietly over (guess what) a few glasses of wine. We had arrived just a week ago and could not believe all that we had experienced in the last 7 days. What would our next week have in store? Stay tuned for chapter two.
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