Relaxation in Southern France

Click on thumbnailsJune, 2010
By Jack Welsch

In 2005, we spent about two weeks in Europe with our friends Helen and Earl. The key element of the trip was a week on the Canal Latéral à la Loire in a boat with no crew other than ourselves. It was amazingly relaxing. The second week was spent running around trying to show Helen and Earl as much as we could and it was hectic. This time we decided to relax and combine a week on a different canal with a week in a villa in Provence.

Since we were going to the south of France and had not seen Spain other than to change planes in Madrid, we considered flying into Barcelona but, though closer, the train trip from Barcelona to the boat would have taken longer than the TGV from Paris. And visiting Paris is NEVER a chore!

What follows is a diary of events. As always, I've left in quite a bit of personal material just to lend a flavor. As usual, I've included a few links and, where possible, they're to English-language sites.

Thursday, June 10 - The trip over

Linda had made our arrangements to fly out of Newark and Earl agreed to drive us in his van. We had an evening flight on Air France but, rather than sit around at home watching the clock, we headed out at about noon, stopping for lunch along the way. Of course, in spite of a leisurely lunch, we were at Newark earlier then necessary and because we breezed through security, we had a bunch of time to chill at the gate. Push back of AF 19 was essentially on time but due to air traffic flow control, we spend about an hour on the taxiway before takeoff but that’s the way it goes somewhere.

The only real issue on the flight, other than its unavoidable length, was the presence of a large group of teen-aged kids whose chaperones chose to ignore the tremendous noise they made all night long. Lin and I were fortunate in that our ANR headsets blocked out much of the noise; Helen and Earl were not as lucky and had a rough night.

Friday, June 11 - Brief stop in the City of Light

Having left late, we naturally arrived late and, as happened the last time we landed at Charles de Gaulle, we taxied forever and were put onto the tarmac to take a bus to the terminal. This airport seriously sucks! In any case, as soon as we exited customs we were met by the driver that Linda had reserved. We and our bags were quickly in the van and on the way to our hotel.

le Gare de LyonBecause we had booked an early train the next morning, we’d decided to stay at a Novotel immediately adjacent to the Gare de Lyon. I was prepared for the worst but was pleasantly surprised by the hotel. It was actually quite nice and the staff was excellent. Even better, though it was not yet noon, our rooms were available! Though rain had been predicted, the weather was perfect for a day in the city; sunny but cool.

After freshening up a bit, we walked down the street for quick lunch at Le Killy-Jen Brasserie near the hotel, then returned to the rooms to crash.

le Quay Henri IVBack on our feet after a few hours, we headed out for a walk, going forst to the Gare de Lyon to get the lay of the land for the morning. In all the trips I’ve made to Paris, I’d never gotten around to walking along a quay along the Seine so we headed for the Quay Henri IV, just upstream from Isle St. Louis. Eventually we looped around towards the hotel for dinner at “l’Europeen”. Along the way, we strolled on the Viaduct des Artes a beautiful elevated green area that was once a railroad viaduct. All in all, it was a delightful day.

Saturday, June 12 - The TGV to the boat

le Gare de LyonYesterday’s predictions for rain hit in full force this morning. Since we had a 7:19 train, we had to leave the hotel before breakfast was served so we sloshed the short distance to the Gare de Lyon in the rain, then had breakfast at Le Train Bleu Express in the station. We had tickets on the TGV or high speed train to Narbonne in southern France with a number of stops along the way. We boarded our train and had just gotten settled in when someone came in saying that there was something wrong with the train and we had to switch to another. So, having lugged our baggage back out, we waited on the platform until they brought in a replacement train. Fortunately, the new train came in on the other side of the same platform and all the cars were aligned with their corresponding numbers so the transfer was an easy one.

Linda and meAs a result of all this, we were 19 minutes late out of the station. Interestingly, at every subsequent station they announced how late we were. The train picked up some but not all of the loss by the time we got to Narbonne. The TGV was GREAT! Of course, it’s fast above all but is also remarkably smooth and quiet. Helen & EarlNot only is there little mechanical noise but passengers are asked to put cell phones on vibrate mode and to talk on them only on the platform between cars. What’s more, people were amazingly respectful of the silence; there was little talking and that which occurred was done very quietly. More like a library than a train speeding along!

This is a double-decker train and we were on the lower level. While that meant the visibility was less than it might have been, it also meant we didn’t have to schlep the bags upstairs. To get from one car to another, one has to go to the upper level first. There was a bar on the upper level about 2 cars forward of ours so Lin and I went up for a coffee (me) and Coke (her). Like a fool, I neglected to take any pictures up there. Seating in the cars was two on one side of the aisle and 1 on the other. The 4 of us were seated at a table in the center of the car. Just opposite us was a couple slightly younger than us. The man was extremely helpful in telling us what was going on since the announcements, like those on public transportation everywhere, were difficult to understand. All in all, the 4+ hours spent on the TGV were among the best of the trip.

Narbonnes answer to la Ponta VecchiaThe week to follow was to be spent on a rented boat on a series of three canals, Canal de la Robine, Canal du Jonction, and the Canal du Midi with the latter being the most significant. In 2005, we’d rented our boat from Crown Blue Line. In the meantime, the company went through some corporate changes and are now called “Le Boat” (a name I find tacky.) We’d arranged to pick the boat up in Narbonne and drop it a week later at Trèbes.

The girlsThe Narbonne train station is not all that far from Le Boat’s base but with the luggage we decided to take a cab. Because of the short distance, we probably spent more time waiting for the cab than actually riding in it.

le Canal de la RobineLike much of France, the Le Boat office closes for lunch but we were there in time to drop off our bags before heading out for our own lunch. We strolled southward along the canal and eventually ended up at le Brasserie le France for a nice meal on the sidewalk. Narbonne is a charming town founded by the ancient Romans and the walk along the canal was enjoyable in spite of the rather significant heat.

Food ShoppingOn the way back, we stopped at the “Marché Plus” to stock up on groceries. The last time we’d done this, we had to lug everything by hand. Here I was able to borrow a shopping cart but only after leaving my passport as hostage. We loaded the groceries onto the boat and Linda took care of the paperwork while I rushed back with the shopping cart to ransom my passport.

Our boatOn our last trip, we’d rented a boat with 4 cabins with each couple using one for sleeping and one to store our things. This time we selected the new Royal Mystique with two large cabins and air conditioning. We’d expected a lot of this boat and were not disappointed; it was absolutely fantastic! I'd be less than honest, though, if I didn't say that some of the boats looked to be WELL past their prime. If you intend to rent one, I'd suggest you ask a lot of questions about vintage!

The check rideBecause we had previous experience, we needed only a short refresher on operation of the boat. Unlike our experience in Briare 5 years ago, this office of Le Boat had people who spoke English. However, I was told if we needed an “instructor” who spoke English there’d be a bit of a wait while if we could deal with instruction in French, someone was available immediately. We chose the latter so I translated while Jean-Paul explained things. There is not sufficient dock space at the base so two and three boats were tied side by side. Ours was the outermost of three and was pointing south while our departure would be to the north. Consequently, we cast off with Jean-Paul supervising while Earl did a 180 and repositioned the boat to a place along the quay where we tied it back up for the night. By this time, it was getting pretty warm so we fired up the AC.

The first lockI took a walk up to the first lock to check it out in preparation for the morning’s passage while the other three hung out on the boat. All along the canal were boats of many sizes, designs and countries and many were beautiful.

Roman roadFor dinner, we walked into town and ate at Ave Domitius in the main square. Dinner was simple; Earl had moules while Lin and Helen pasta and I pizza 4 fromages. (Chèvre, Rochefort, mozzarella and emmental.) In the center of the square is an open area that exposes part of a Roman road about 4 feet below the current surface. There are steps down so you can actually walk on this ancient road. An interesting experience. Back on the boat, it was a bottle of wine on deck and in the rack at 10.

Sunday, June 13 - Narbonne to Ventenac-en-Minervois

This was the first good night's sleep for me. Up at 7, I took a bike to get bread & croissants for breakfast. I asked a lady walking along the quay for directions to the boulanger and she said there was none close by but I could get bread and croissants at the “tabac” just across the canal. Taking the foot bridge, the trip was short and I really didn't need the bike at all. The sky held only scattered clouds but wind was cool and very strong.I must confess that I was a little disappointed that there was no one on deck to get a picture of my riding the bike while carrying the bagettes. I wrote on deck as everyone else slept.

Under wayWe are Episcopalians and Earl is our priest so, having all taken our showers and eaten, Earl celebrated mass. We did so in the cabin since the wind was so strong on deck. By this time, the two boats moored behind us had left so we were able to move close enough to the water tap to top off the tank. It was about 10:30 when we finally got under way.

Approaching the first lockWe’d worked out our locking procedure on our last trip. Here’s how it works when going upstream… Before each lock, Earl takes the boat to one side of the canal and I jump ashore. Then I walk (or run) to the lock while he handles the boat. It is my job to either talk to the lock keeper if there was one or to operate the lock if it was automatic. Helen positions herself on the bow with that mooring line and Lin on the stern with hers. Once the gates open, Earl brings the boat in, the girls toss me the lines and I pass them around the bollards and back down to them. As the water in the lock rises, the girls keep the lines taut while I hang out and talked to other boaters, the lock keeper or anyone else hanging around. It’s amazing how many locals hang around the locks to watch the goings on. Once the lock is full the upper gates opened, I step aboard and we’re off again.

le Canal de la RobineThere was a boat ahead of us at the first lock and they had put two men on the ground to do what I do. They were Brits and one was a bit more clueless than the other about how to operate the lock. While the locks on this canal (Canal de La Robine) and the Canal du Jonction are automatic, this one has a lock keeper as well.

Ready for another lockIn addition to her, there was a guy there from Le Boat to help explain things presumably since this is the first lock north of the base and many boats depart on Sunday. This canal, like the two that followed, is delightful. It is lined on both sides with huge plane trees, planted when the canal was built to protect it from the elements. The result, though perhaps practical in origin, is a peaceful beauty that has to be experienced. As it happens, there was a bicycle race heading southward along the tow path so we were treated to an endless string of riders going the other way. I’m not sure our shouts of “Allez, allez!” spurred them on to greater glory but it was fun.

Up we go!When we reached the second lock, two boats were ahead of us so I had Earl put me ashore early. There were 3 boats locking down so we had a bit of a wait. I assumed the guy standing in front of the control panel was the éclusier (lock keeper) but it turns out he was Ryan, an Aussie from the first boat going up. As luck would have it, Ryan and I would be working side by side at many locks all week long. The guys going down were something less than efficient so it took forever to get them out. The next problem was that the wind was blowing the boats against the left bank (our right) and the Aussies had a hell of a time getting into the lock. Next, the Brits approached the same shore to let their guy off but I told him to just stay on and we'd handle his lines. My motives were entirely selfish; had I not done that, they’d have gotten into the same mess as the Aussies and would STILL be trying to get into that lock. Earl, of course, knows what he is doing and had stayed well back out of the fray and entered without any problem at all.

Lunch at Sallèles d'AudeAfter out 2005 trip, we took a lot of grief from the female portion of the crew for the number of times we ate on the boat rather than in restaurants. Not being TOO slow a learner, this time I worked the itinerary so that we had lots of opportunities to eat ashore. For today I figured we'd eat at Sallèles d'Aude and it worked out that we got there at lunchtime. Surprisingly, once we tied up, the girls decided they'd rather eat aboard. Go figure!

Chateau de Ventenac MinervoisOur original plan was to turn left when we reached the Canal du Midi but 2 separate people from Le Boat had suggested we turn right, go to just short of the 7 step lock at Béziers, take pictures of it, and return; a 7 hour round trip. We started in that direction but after a half hour or so, changed our mind and turned around. It seemed to us that we could get those pictures by driving there when we got the car on Saturday and put those 7 hours to better use. My original plan was to stop for the night at Le Somail.

Chateau de Ventenac MinervoisWe could find no good place to tie up there and it was still early so we headed to Ventanac where we tied up at in front of the Chateau at about 6:20. Surprisingly since it was Sunday evening, The Chateau de Ventenac Minervois was open so we enjoyed a tasting and stocked up with 8 bottles of wine. Helen and I wandered around town a bit and then I continued alone to “take my camera for a walk” since this is such a picturesque location. The girls prepared chicken for dinner and we enjoyed it on deck. Good friends, nice dinner, good wine, beautiful town, Norah Jones on the sound system; what a delightful evening! It was almost 11 by the time we got to bed.

Monday, June 14 - Ventenac to Homps

A double lockI was first up again just before 8 and went on deck to read but it was cold so I retreated to the saloon where I read for a while before returning to bed. Up again, I headed out to buy the bread from a tiny stand nearby. All were still sleeping when I returned so I put on long pants and read some more, then wandered around taking more pictures. We didn’t have a good omelet pan so when the gang awoke I made scrambled eggs with onions, peppers and lardons for breakfast. Just before we left, the Brits and Aussies passed us.

Just chillin'Not long after we left Ventenac we crossed the Pont-canal de Répuidre, the first of many canal bridges we’d cross during the trip. Though we’d done it on the previous trip having the water on the bridge rather than under it is a bit strange. This one was one of the few build by Riquet (the prime mover behind the building of the Canal du Midi) himself and is quite impressive. It’s right on a tight curve so it’s important to sound the horn as you approach the first turn.

Le Sourire de la GrenouilleWhen we reached the écluse at Argens Minervois, the Aussies were waiting to lock up as well and both boats stopped for lunch in this tiny town. The Aussies ate on the boat. We bought groceries, then crossed the canal for an absolutely amazing lunch at “Le Sourire de la Grenouille”. Earl had a Mediterranean salad while the rest of us a “Scheherazade salad” with peppers and kabob. All had ice cream for dessert.While we were having a light lunch, the people at an adjoining table were having dinners and though the place was not fancy, the presentation was equal to many fine restaurants. Le Sourire de la GrenouilleThe service was as good as the food. WOW, what a place!

Have I mentioned that I LOVE France?

By the time we got to the double lock at Pechlauriers it had started to rain and we were pretty much stuck with that for the rest of the day. I’d read that it was worthwhile tying up near this lock and walking to the bluff for a great view back along our route but, given the lousy weather, we pressed on.

"The Sun King"The plan was to stop at the port on Homps where Le Boat has a base but all dock space was filled so we just tied up on the opposite side of the canal. Eventually a number of boats boats left the port so Earl and I walked over the bridge to see if it was OK to tie up. It was, of course, so I stayed there while Earl returned for the boat. He certainly didn't need me on the dock, though, as he backed it perfectly into the narrow slip! If you’ve never tried to back up a powerboat with an inboard engine, you cannot appreciate that feat; the thing does NOT want to go where you want it to but Earl is a pro!

It was pretty cold so, though we'd had AC on two days ago, we put the heat on in the cabin. In the pouring rain we crossed the footbridge to look for a restaurant and settled on "Restaurant La Péniche." Unfortunately, they were booked until 8:30 or 9:00. Earl really liked the place and we had nothing better to do so we put in a reservation and were told to return at 8:45. We returned to the boat where I set up the spreadsheet to keep track of expenses.

Our table was, of course, ready upon our return and we were treated royally. Lin had a steak, Helen scallops and Earl and I a lamb stew. All were good and the wine and service were perfect. It was after 11 when we went to bed.

Hey, a cold and rainy day on vacation is better than a hot and sunny day at work!

Tuesday, June 15 - Homps to Marseillette

Returning with the breadToday was a good but very hard day. I set out for the bread and croissants as usual. (Have you noticed that that's "my job"? Actually, I love it; it makes me feel so "French"!!) Checking at the Le Boat office, I was told I might be able to get what I needed at the épicerie (small grocery store) on the other side of the canal but otherwise at a mini mart on the highway. There were no croissants at the épicerie and I had a hard time finding the mini mart but eventually get what was needed. It was about 10:45 when we departed and, though the rain had stopped, it was COLD!

Waiting to lock throughIt could be because this canal is more popular than the one we visited 5 years ago, that it was a bit later in the season, that the locks were higher, that some locks had multiple chambers or some combination of factors but there were long waits at several locks. It took us 90 minutes at the 2 chamber lock at Puichéric. The interesting thing, especially given my intense type A personality, is that it really didn’t matter. We’d learned to just tie up, relax, read, and perhaps drink a little wine.

Having said that, I’m not sure I’d want to be here at the height of the summer season. While waiting, I got talking to a lady who lives nearby. She asked whether we’d rented the boat for the day. I explained we had it for a week and she asked whether we slept aboard. I said that, if she had a friend who could pick her up at the lock at Aiguille, she’d be more than welcome to take a ride with us. Unfortunately she did not. It would have been fun for us as well as her had she joined us for a bit!

Sculptures at AiguilleThe lock at nearby Aiguille is particularly interesting in that all around it are creative and rather bizarre modern art sculptures. I asked the éclusier who had created them and was told his associate.

We had become friendly with some Brits ahead of us (not the rather clueless ones we’d met on the first day) and the Aussies who we're now tied up several boats behind us. As we were waiting, 2 of the Aussies, Bryce and Ryan helped us finish off our second bottle of red.

Here we are!We and the Brits made it through the lock at Marseillette before the 7:00 closing time but the Aussies and the Dutch behind them did not. However the éclusier recommended a restaurant near the lock and said we could tie up for the night immediately after the lock. It was actually an idyllic setting. I walked back to the Aussies to tell them what I’d learned and the crews of all 4 boats ended up at "Restaurant Fil de l'Ô”, a short walk from the lock. Great meal and even better service in a simple but pleasant ambiance

Wednesday, June 16 - Marseillette to Carcassonne

Canal du Midi at MarseilletteI was a bit concerned about the possibility of delays at the three-chamber lock leading into Trèbes so we wanted to get up early to stay ahead of the pack. I’d asked last night’s waitress about the location of the baker and was told it was about 2 km from the lock. Given all the exercise I was getting jumping off the boat and running to every lock, I awoke every morning with legs screaming so the thought of a 3 mile round trip prompted me to cook eggs instead. We were under way at 8:50 with the girls finishing the cleanup. This was for the most part a beautiful section of canal.

The lock at TrèbesI'd hoped to have no one ahead of us at the triple lock at Trèbes but we were number 4 so the wait was a rather long one. In the meantime, though, I enjoyed talking to a woman who lives there and Jean-Pierre, a guy of probably my age or so who is sailing alone on a very classic boat immediately behind us. He lives on the boat and simply bangs around all summer and spends the winter tied up in Sète. I helped him tie up before the lock. Normally he relied on the help of the éclusiers but some offered no help so I ended up running back and forth between our boat and his. It was taxing physically but actually a lot of fun.

Isn't this beautiful??I think it was at the lock at Villedubert where we met the lock keeper who spoke almost perfect English. He is very definitely French but I could detect absolutely no French accent in his English. What little accent he did have (from an American perspective) was British. I asked where he learned English and he replied, “From you guys.” It turns out that he had picked it up exclusively from talking to people passing through the canal, no classes, no lessons, no tapes, no CDs, NOTHING. Absolutely amazing!

Linda on our boat; Jean-Pierre on hisJean-Pierre tied up again behind us before the lock at Carcassonne and advised us that, in order to tie up for the night at the post, I was to check in at the Capitanerie as soon as we passed through the lock. Things were a bit congested at the quay so Jean-Pierre tied up outside of us and we let him pass ahead of us, leaving us for the next pass. While we waited he gave us a bottle of wine for our help. I did my bit at the lock, then checked in. We took berth A15 to be as far as we could from the road while still having access to water and power.

La CitéAfter some naps we headed for “la Cité”, the ancient walled city. This place, with its extensive walls and 53 watch towers, is absolutely amazing! We walked around, eventually selecting “La Table Ronde” for dinner. The woman I’d been speaking to at the lock at Trèbes had said that I absolutely had to try the famous cassoulet so, if course, that’s what I did. It was simple but outstanding. Unfortunately, we’d completely ignored the threatening skies as we left the boat and consequently left our umbrellas behind. Of course, it was absolutely pouring rain when we finished so we sat and talked to some Brits at a nearby table, hoping for a let-up. The let-up never came and the staff looked eager to close so we had the waitress call a cab. I was especially disappointed as I'd really wanted to wander the ramparts at night to take pictures but it wasn't to be. Of course, the cab couldn’t come into the city so we had to walk out to the main gate and wait for it in the rain. Many Americans, when they learn that I love France, comment that they’ve heard that the French people are rude to Americans. This is absolutely untrue as a rule and I always protest loudly but I must admit this driver may be the guy they’re talking about; a real jerk. Oh well, you find a few everywhere. Once again, bed at 11.

Thursday, June 17 - Full day in Carcassonne

The market in CarcassonneThis was the only day that the boat didn’t move at all. With no schedule at all I was up at 9 and off to the baker for 4 croissants and a baguette. We walked once again to the Cité where we spent most of the day. On the way, though, we wantered around a bit and visited an open market where there were all sorts of goodies for sale. Really fun experience.

Doesn't do justice to its size!!While we were in the basilica, we were treated to 5 male singers from Russia singing a cappella. Of course, I bought a CD; I’m a sucker for such things. We were disappointed by very slow and impolite service for lunch. Maybe it’s something about tourist towns that creates the condition; this place is SO different from what we've experienced all over France! Afterwards we spent some enjoyable time touring the castle and ramparts. It’s interesting that you can walk on the walls here; in the US the lawyers would go crazy! Of course, others would make a fortune in representing the idiots who chose to fall off.

The rampartsWe’d seen some nifty ceramic house numbers as we entered the walled city and we need some for our summer cottage since we just got an honest-to-goodness “street” address after owning the place for almost 40 years. Unfortunately, we didn’t know the number so I called my Dad to have him check. He said he'd have to call back He still had not responded by the time we were ready to leave so we had some ice cream to kill some more time. When I finished eating, the others remained seated while I walked on the remaining ramparts, snapping pictures right and left. Dad’s response came just as we were about to give up and we were able to get the numbers. Inside la CitéUnfortunately, they were AWOL when we got home but they turned up on my next trip!

On the walk back to the boat, we shopped at Monoprix for something for dinner. Back at the port, Earl and I walked across the bridge to the railroad station to verify our car reservation for Saturday since we’d arranged to get it there. We were assured that all was in order. Little did we know...

Friday, June 18 - Carcassonne to the base at Trèbes

Btyce, captain of the AussiesAnticipating that many people would be heading back to Trèbes, we were up at 7:30 so as to get through the first lock ahead of the pack. It turns out we needn't have worried; traffic was about as light as we’d seen all week. The Aussies were moored on the other side of the basin and followed us into the lock. They were followed by a sailboat but it must have then moored somewhere as we never saw it until hours later. Thorough most of the locks it was just us and the Aussies. Given the number of boats on the canal, it's strange how often we locked together with no planning whatever. We were further fortunate in that most locks were open to us as we arrived so we just entered and locked through. Locking down is much easier than up! As a result of all this, we were making excellent time.

More chillin' - we do it well!We had provisions for lunch and saw no reason to rush back to Trèbes just to sit at the port. Consequently, at the last lock, we told Bryce (The Aussie who was apparently captain) to pass us by when we slowed as we were going to tie up for a while. What ensued was one of the most pleasant times we've had on any vacation. Earl found a pleasant spot to tie up and we just chilled. We first had a bottle of wine, then I went for a stroll with my camera while all the others took a nap. When I got back I read until the others awoke. Eventually we had lunch and more wine, then chilled some more. In all, we were there from about 11:30 to 5:00!

TrèbesAlas, all good things end so we eventually pulled out and headed for Trèbes. There was damned little room to moor but we shoved in at the end. After sitting some more, we walked around to find a restaurant, ending at Trattoria Napoli on the other side of the canal. I had magret du carnard and it was only OK. When we got back to the boat, the silence was marred by the World Cup on TV in the wine bar across the canal. Fortunately, things settled down before too long. We packed as far as possible and yet again crashed at about 11.

Saturday, June 19 - Trading a boat for a Villa

The galley wenches.  (I'm going to pay for that!The alarm went off at 7 because we had to be off the boat at 9. I went to the bakery as usual. Had breakfast, cleaned the boat, checked out, put the bags and girls in the garage and Earl and I were picked up by a pre-arranged taxi at 9:30. The taxi driver was great; very friendly and with advice on what we should see in Provence. We were to get the car from Avis at Gare de Carcassonne and we knew from our earlier visit that we were to go to the SNCF counter. After standing in line, we were sent to the information desk where the attendant called Avis and said there was no answer! Eventually, he said we could walk several blocks to the Avis office so that's what we did. Though we'd supposedly reserved an SUV, all they had was a sedan and we were not at all sure we'd get all the luggage into in. Alternatives were that or a trip to Toulouse to get something bigger. In the end, we took a chance. As it happened, we JUST fit everything in.

l'écluse de FonserannesWith all of this, it was after 11 when we got out of Trèbes. Since we’d opted against it on the boat, we stopped at the écluse de Fonserannes near Béziers to see the magnificent 6 chamber lock there. WOW! I’d figured there’d be many boats lined up to go through and that the process would be terribly slow but neither was the case; there were few boats and things moved FAST. There was a small restaurant there so we had lunch before pressing on to our villa at Joucas in Provence.

The trip to Joucas was via Autoroute and consequently not terribly remarkable. We somehow ended up going directly through Avignon rather than around it so we dealt with more traffic that would have been ideal. In any case, even that was not all that bad. Of course, it’s easy for me to say as Earl did all the driving!

The villa that we rented did not have a street address so the GPS could not get us to the door. We had written directions provided by the rental agency but they were a bit confusing. We did at last get to what we thought was the right neighborhood but no one could direct me to the house.

JoucasI tried without success to call the two phone numbers we’d been given. About the time we started to get concerned, a man came out of a house and asked if we were looking for him. It turns out he was told to expect us at 5 and we were told to be there between 4 and 6. Given that it was now about 4:20, we were lucky he was there at all. It turned out that the confusion stemmed from the fact that the villa was sold after we booked it. Our booking had been transferred to the new owners but a new booking agent was involved as well and something got lost in the translation. Since the phone numbers were for the old owner and agent, it’s fortunate that we had not been delayed in our arrival as I’m unsure how that would have panned out.

The villa was PERFECT! The new owner had totally remodeled and refurnished it and we were the first people to inhabit it.

What a place!!The appliances were all brand new and the cookware still had labels on it. The agent and property manager were there to greet us and they were wonderful. We had made the reservations with RentVillas but the company who is brokering now is Coquelicot.

I’d assumed that we’d be dining out most of the time but the girls liked the kitchen and dining areas so much they said it would be a shame not to make use of them. Off we marched to find groceries. Joucas, built on the side of a hill, is TINY. It has essentially one street and that is so narrow at one point, you have to be careful not to hit the buildings on either side with your mirrors! If you’re walking along and a car approaches, you need to step into an alley or doorway to let it pass. There are other lanes but they are for pedestrians only and many have steps rather than sidewalks.

The girlsThere is a sculptor in town and his rather avant-garde works are all over town. Within the town itself, there is a single, small épicerie with a terrace café across the road, a small hotel with a restaurant, a library, and that’s about it. All of this combines to make Joucas, in my opinion, absolutely perfect.

View from our bedroom!Having stocked up on groceries including a lot of very affordable goat cheese (my favorite), we returned to our new home for some snacks and, a bit later, dinner. While the sky was pretty clear, the mistral was making an appearance and it was COLD so we had our taggliatelli in the dining room.

Our friends from Düsseldorf, Karl and Gisela, had originally invited us to Karl’s birthday party in western France in September. Sadly, our schedule precluded that trip so they were planning to drive down from Düsseldorf in the morning to spend some time with us. I tried to call him to touch base but, unfortunately, I had no cell coverage, probably because we were right up against the hill.

Sunday, June 20 - Market day in Coustellet & first visit to Gordes

Linda & Earl at the marketI was first up as always and, as usual, went to the èpicerie for the bread and croissants. We learned that there is a Sunday morning market in nearby Coustellet so we postponed church and went there, arriving slightly after 10:30. In retrospect, I wish we’d have arrived earlier as it was absolutely HUGE, taking up several square blocks. We did a lot of shopping and while we stayed until it was closing at noon, we still didn't see the whole thing. The mistral was really blowing and I watched it blow a wine bottle over at one stand. Wow, that’s a lot of wind! I thought the mistral was a winter phenomenon so was inclined to think this was something else but the locals assured me that we were experiencing the real thing.

GordesHaving dropped the food off at "home", Earl celebrated mass and we headed for Gordes, perched on top of a hill. Gordes is considerably larger than Joucas and makes for some great photos. We each had a nice “tart Provençal” in a cute little restaurant, then wandered around town, stopping at a great little patisserie where we bought a peach tart to have for desert after dinner. The mistral was even stronger here on the hill and funneled through the streets. Yikes!

THE street in JoucasIn the meantime, I found that I had cell coverage so called Karl and invited them for dinner. While we had an extra room in the villa, they had their dog with them and the management of the villa absolutely forbid her staying there. Consequently, they were staying in a Relais et Chateaux on the edge of Joucas. I was unsure how to direct them to the villa so as dinner approached, Earl and I drove up there to lead them back. Of course, Karl insisted that we have a drink in the hotel bar before our return. It’s always great to see Karl & Gisela and they brought along their new dog, Mona, as well. The girls did a great job on dinner with groceries bought in Coustellet; chicken, green beans on a balsamic reduction, new potatoes and, of course, the peach tart to finish.

Monday, June 21 - Mont Ventoux & Chateau Neuf du Pape

Of course, I was off to the épicerie for the croissants and bread and we had breakfast as usual ut with Karl, Gisela and Mona joining us this time. They returned to the hotel for a bit after breakfast and I "took my camera for a walk" around town again. This is really a pretty little town. There were a lot of artists scattered around the village, painting various things; it almost looked like it was a class that someone had spread around. I went into the church and found it much more bright and colorful than most I’ve seen in Europe. Really pretty.

Mont VentouxEarl is keen on cycling and, of course, follows the Tour de France avidly. It follows that he wanted to do a pilgrimage to Mont Ventoux so we set off with the four of us in our car with Karl, Gisela and Mona following in his. Both as seen from a distance and when on it, Mount Ventoux reminds me a lot of Colorado’s Pike’s Peak. While not nearly as high, it has a similar shape and the broken rock is much the same. The drive up the mountain was amazing. The road NEVER levels out; it us 100% up and is sometimes quite steep. I can’t imagine of even THINKING of doing it on a bike!

Karl near the summitThough it was warm in the valley, it was COLD at the summit and the Mistral was still screaming. The fact that I was in shorts and a short sleeve shirt did not help! Of course, there’s a shop at the top in addition to the weather station and we ducked in there for a bit, as much to get out of the cold as to buy anything. I’d have bought a jacket but could not find one I liked in the right size.

The iwas the Popes' "summer home"! One of my favorite wines is Chateauneuf-du-Pape so naturally the next pilgrimage was to the village from which it takes its name. Once there, it took us a while to get our bearings and find a suitable parking place and by the time we did so, it was well past lunchtime. Fortunately, the folks at La Mule du Pape Brasserie said they could still serve us salads or pizza. Pizza it was!

After a leisurely lunch we walked up the hill to visit the ruins of the chateau. The wind on top was unbelievable and cold as well. Because of the wind, I left my Tilly hat behind in preference to a baseball cap and even that was in my hand much of the time. Given the problem I have had with sun since our trip to Italy, this was to have grave consequences.

On the way back down we tasted wine at two places. We were not happy with the wine at the first place but did buy more than we should have at Le Moulin des Saints.

Karl & Gisela had promised to provide us, at our villa, with a typical French supper. Consequently, they returned by way of Avignon to shop for the makings. We headed directly “home” but stopped at a Carrefour in Isle sur la Sorgue to stock up on some things we needed. While there, I started feeling unwell and had to retire to the car. This was the beginning of my two-day punishment for going without my Tilley hat.

Back at the villa we just chilled for a while.

Karl & Gisela make dinnerEarl had made arrangements to rent a bike for several days. It was to be delivered to him but, because we had no street address per sé, it was difficult to give the driver instructions. Consequently, we made arrangements to meet him at an intersection at the edge of town. I drove Earl down to the meeting spot. Unfortunately, there had been a miscommunication about Earl’s cleats so they did not match the pedals on the bike. The good news was that the driver had an extra set of cleats. The bad news was that it took forever to change them out. All worked out in the end, though.

At 8:00, Gisela and Karl arrived with dinner and it was great. They had gone all out and bought enough cheese, paté, etc. for a small army. Even though we’d bought a lot of wine at Chateauneuf-du-Pape, they brought even more! Had the rest of the town shown up, we’d have been able to serve them! Unfortunately, I was feeling worse and had to excuse myself to go to bed at 9:30.

Tuesday, June 22 - Ballooning and a great dinner

Our balloonBefore leaving home, we’d made arrangements with “Luberon Montgolfières” for the six of us to take a balloon ride on Monday and, as instructed, I’d called Sunday night to confirm and get instructions for time and place. When we did that, we were told we were to meet at a place we could actually see from our villa. Later than night, however, we got a call asking whether Tuesday would work instead; the Mistral was greating problems. Our plans being flexible, we had no objection and we were told to call on Monday to again get details. On Monday night we were told that the weather forecast dictated a change in plans and we were to meet in a park near L’Isle sur la Sorgue. Certainly not quite as convenient and I was disappointed that we’d not see our villa from the air but, again, no big deal. I spent Monday night worried that I’d not feel well enough for the balloon flight but awoke feeling fine.

Gisela & KarlWe were up at 5:15, met meet Gisela and Karl at 6:00 and were at the appointed place in advance of the requested 6:40. As is often the case, it was a matter of hurry and wait. It turns out we were the second flight of the day so suddenly we were bundled into a series of vans and driven to a field where the balloon would offload its first batch and load us. Lin and I had done this twice before; first in Scottsdale and then in Albuquerque. The first time the basket held about 7 people. The second was a tiny one holding only Lin, the pilot and me. This basket was at the other end of the spectrum; 20 passengers plus pilot! The ride took about 35 minutes, then it was back in the vans to Champagne and cookies. Back at the villa, I was still not at 100% so took a nap for a bit.

American breakfast...At 1:00 Gisela and Karl arrived for an American breakfast on the terrace. Normally, I’m the breakfast chef but since I was still feeling lousy, the girls did the honors. Afterwards, Karl & Gisela went back to their hotel while we just chilled. I slept much of the day, either while trying to read on the terrace or in bed.

...and French DinnerBecause we could not attend his party in September, Karl had made dinner reservations at Le Vivier in L’Isle sur la Sorgue to celebrate his birthday. As would be expected in a Michelin-rated restaurant, it was great. Sadly for me, I was still not feeling at all well, and, in fact, had to walk outside for air several times. All the others said the food was great and, from what little I could eat, I would agree. The good news was that, since I had drunk so little wine, we had a build-in designated driver! Gisela and Karl were to leave in the morning so we bid them farewell with many thanks for coming so far to see us.

Wednesday, June 23 - The Ochre Cliffs of Roussillon

The LavenderI had a restless night but then slept until 9:30. I am almost always the first up in the morning but this time I was dead last. Earl had gone out for bike ride. All in all, it was close to 11 by the time we got away from the villa. Today’s destination was Roussillon, famous for the ochre, on which their economy was once based. On the way, however, we passed a field of lavender, the first we had seen in bloom. We were a little early in the season and the blooms were not fully developed but the field was magnificent. Like many other folks, we stopped and took lots of pictures. It turned out that, during our entire week in Provence, this was the only field we’d see that we in bloom to any extant at all.

The ochre cliffsRoussillon is yet another hill town, this one built on the ochre itself. It is said that, by law, all buildings in the village must be painted in Ochre hues and that certainly appears to be the case. The effect is quite striking. More amazing is the walk through the ochre itself. It costs a few euros but is definitely worth it. Earl and I made that trek while the girls shopped but, because I was still wary of the heat, we didn’t venture as far as I might have liked. We did go far enough, though, to see some magnificent sights and get some nice pictures.

RoussillonAs we were setting out, we’d walked past a shop with some striking pottery pieces and I made a mental note to look more closely when we returned. Just as we got back, Lin said she needed to show me something and I knew exactly where she’d take me. It’s great how our tastes match so precisely. We bought a little something for ourselves and for each of the kids.

le Musée de la LavandeFor lunch, it was back to the villa for chicken salad then it was off to Coustellet for a brief visit to the Musée de la Lavande, which we’d seen many times as we’d driven past. It is probably not something you’d drive a great distance to see but, well executed and informative, it was a nice diversion. As an engineer, I found the machinery especially interesting. Why I have no pictures of the inside I have no clue.

"My" barnAs we’d passed to the south of Gordes during the week, I’d seen an interesting barn down in the valley and for some reason I have a “thing” about barns. In fact, the walls of our cottage are covered with pictures of barns from all over. Consequently, as we were on our way back to the villa, I asked Earl to drive down a narrow road so I could get some pictures.

Back at the villa, I read while the others slept. It should be noted again that we’d vowed to make this a relaxing vacation so we could savor the experience rather than rushing around. As a result, we saw fewer places than do many who visit Provence. I’ll bet, however, that we enjoyed a lot more the places we did see. If course, I much prefer a good dinner to an all-you-can-eat buffet!

Helen had read that the Abbey at Senanque, near Gordes, was a beautiful spot set in a valley behind a large field of lavender. We drove out to have a look. Unfortunately, the light was already too dim for pictures and, in any case, the lavender was just starting to bloom. We vowed to return in the morning later in the week. We stopped in Gordes for a dinner that was nothing extraordinary.

Thursday, June 24 - Busiest day of the trip!

Earl on the Tour de JoucasThis was definitely NOT a relaxing day! The first piece of good news was that I slept well for a change and was first up. Earl wanted some pictures of him on the bike so when he got dressed, I took the car and followed him on his ride to nearby Goult. We stopped several times for pictures, some staged, some candid. I got some good barn pictures as well. Since the availability of croissants at the épicerie in Joucas is always precarious, I was hoping to find a baker in Goult. I found that there indeed was one but it was closed. The épicerie in Goult is quite large but had only pain chocolat and bread.

le Palais des PapesAfter breakfast we lounged a lot, I took a little swim, and it was noon by the time we were on the road to Avignon. We first swung by the gare TGV to psych out where to drop the car on Saturday, then headed for the Palais des Papes. Having parked at Les Halles and exited the lot, we were totally confused about exactly where we were. I asked a young lady for directions and she insisted on walking with us most of the way to the Palais des Papes! I continued to protest that she was too kind but she insisted. This was not a shakedown, either.

What's left of le Pont d’AvignonWe bought a ticket for both the palace and the “Pont d’Avignon” of nursery rhyme fame and entered the palace. The Palais is, of course, magnificent and helpful audio guides are part of the price. On the watchtower it was quite sunny and hot. I was a little concerned about my sensitivity to heat so we sat for a while just as we exited. This old age has its downside!

Lunch was in a terrace restaurant on the place in front of the palace. All 4 of us had salads; 2 Caesar and 2 Niçoise. Both were large and good. After lunch we started for the bridge but, given the heat & time, we bagged it and headed for the car.

le Pont du GardOur friends, Sue and Hank, had said that the Pont du Gard was definitely worth a look. Pont du Gard was built by the Romans shortly before the birth of Christ to carry the aqueduct of Nimes over the Gard River. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is in beautiful shape and is absolutely magnificent. We had heard that the rive gauche (left bank) was the better side on which to park the car. My problem was that the GPS did not make a distinction. However, a little playing with it us got us headed in the right direction and we were soon in the parking lot. It being late in the day the lot was nearly empty and there were relatively few people around. The walk to the bridge was not too far though it was still very hot so we took it easy. The girls chilled out on the bridge while Earl and I walked beyond it and followed some paths down to the river to get some great pictures. I’d read that the best way to see this beautiful structure is by lying on one’s back in the river below it. We didn’t have bathing suits but that really would have been great! There were lots of kids jumping from into the river and they were obviously having a blast. This is a place that would have been worth more time if we’d had it. Having said that, I’m glad we missed the crowds.

l’EstellanWe’d passed a number of restaurants as we’d driven back and forth during the week and figured we’d just choose one for dinner as we got close to Joucas. After bypassing several, we chose l’Estellan near Gordes. That turned out to be an excellent choice. Linda and Helen had lamb while Earl and I had rabbit. Food, service and ambiance were great. Dessert was fresh strawberries for desert. It was a wonderful evening. Back at the villa, we didn't stay up long.

Friday, June 25 - Last day in Provence (Sigh!)

The Abbey at SenanqueI was first up again at 9. This time we ate before Earl went riding then just swam, loafed, etc. All in all, it was almost 12:30 by the time we got on the road.

Given that this would be our last full day in Provence, we headed back to the Abbey at Senanque for one more try at getting some good photos. This time the light was better but the lavender was still not fully in bloom. This has got to be a beautiful place in high summer, however!

Artists in SaultThe girls had read about candied fruit at Apt and suggested we go over there to get some and have a look around. That turned out to have been a waste of time; the town is nothing spectacular and we didn’t even stop.

From there, we headed towards Sault. Narrow, steep and serpentine, the road from Apt to Sault, D34, is an adventure in itself. Sault is a rather cute village high on a hill with a commanding view of the valley. There are a number of restaurants and shops. At least when we were there, it was mobbed by cyclists, some of whom we’d passed as they climbed the hill. I can’t imagine making that ride! We had a nice lunch, did a little shopping and had some great ice cream before heading onward.

An Ancient Olive PressHelen had read that there was an olive mill near Gordes that had been there since Roman times so we decided to have a look. It was getting to be a bit late in the day when we arrived but the woman who runs the place gave us a personalized guided tour. The place is not large but it was really interesting.

RousillonWe’d still not bought anything for administrative assistant, Charlene, so we headed back to Roussillon where the others waited in the car while I ran to buy another of the same gifts we had bought the kids. I’m not at all sure why I hadn’t done that in the first place!

We eventually headed back to the villa to pack. Ugh! It was really hot by now so in a bit I took a break to swim. I’d assumed we’d go back out to eat but Helen suggested we have our last dinner in our villa. We needed spaghetti and sauce and it was 6:50 so I quickly dressed and visited the épicerie for the last time. After that, I alternately packed, swam and read while the girls prepared dinner and Earl met the guy to return the bike. We had a very peasant dinner on the terrace, then finished packing, read a bit and quit for the night. It’s really hard to leave this place! When I hit the Power Ball, I'm going to buy it!

Saturday, June 26 - Provence to Gay Paris

Farewell to Provence! The alarm went off at 5:30 and we were out of the house before 7:00. We first tried to get gas at the Carrefour near the gare TGV but once again we were unable to use credit cards in the pump and that station was otherwise closed. As a result, we had to backtrack a kilometer or two to top off at a Total. Drop-off of the car was quick and easy.

le Gare TGV d'AvignonWe were early and the train was 10 minutes late due to work on the tracks. There are two train stations in Avignon, one in the center of town and a second, just for the TGV, on the southern edge. The new one, of course, is very modern and is really quite striking. There were not a lot of people waiting for our train so I had some hopes that it might not be crowded but I was wrong; it was just about filled before it arrived. Our car was packed with little room to store bags and a family had set up camp in our seats. We did get the bags stashed at the back of the car and the grumbling family vacated the seats so all was well in the end.

La vie est belle!We arrived in Paris only a few minutes late and our driver was waiting. It was a good thing Linda had arranged that as the taxi line was horrible. We got to the hotel and checked in but the rooms, of course, were not yet ready. Leaving the bags with the porter, we walked west on Boulevard Montparnasse to La Ratonde for lunch. We had croque monsieur all around as well as frites, 2 bottles of Sancerre and dessert. On the way to the restaurant we had noticed what we thought was an inordinate number of strange-looking people on the street but wrote it off to “progress”. As we were eating lunch, however, more and more people started showing up with more and more outrageous outfits.

Gay ParisWhen the police started cordoning off the street I asked our waiter what was going on and he said it was a gay pride parade. Eventually it started and, WOW, was it a turnout. Certainly tens of thousands of people both in the parade and walking alongside of it. It was essentially a river of people stretching from the buildings on one side of this wide thoroughfare to those on the other. It had gone on for at least 30 minutes when we became bored of watching and decided to head for the hotel. Gay ParisUnfortunately, that was “upstream”. We tried bucking the flow for a short block but then gave up and went around. Of course, given Paris’ street layout, that was not an easy matter. When we got to the hotel, the thing was still in full swing. I’ll never again hear the term “Gay Paris” without a smile.

We took a nap and just chilled until about 7:30 when we had dinner at Chez Fernand; Boeuf Bourgignon all around. After this long day we just crashed and burned.

Sunday, June 27 - Last day in Par(ad)is(e)

Luxembourg GardensI was up shortly after 8. We had breakfast about 9 and met in Helen & Earl’s suite at 10:00 for mass. Of course, there were no hymns and the sermon was short so we were out of the hotel by 10:30 or so. When Lin and I had first visited Paris in 1989, I took a walk in the Luxembourg Gardens one day while she was taking a nap. I truly love the place so I suggested we head over there since it was close. It was a beautiful sunny day just as it had been in ’89 and the others shared my attraction to this beautiful spot.

St. SupliceThe church of St. Suplice has long been on my list of, “I’d like to see that one of these times” so, as it was only a block or so away, we stopped for a look. In front of the church was a group of Boy Scouts giving away drinks and sweets in hope of donations for summer camp. Earl is deeply involved in scouting and my son and grandson were scheduled to go to the National Jamboree in July so naturally we gave our support. St. Suplice is magnificent and, as luck would have it, a Bach Fugue was being played on their wonderful organ so we sat and enjoyed that to the end. We’d not had much time to look around, though, before mass started so we beat a hasty retreat.

le LouvreThe main attraction of the day was to my favorite museum, the Musée d’Orsay. Rather than rush right there, though, we strolled past the church of St. Germain de Pres, then along the Seine. It was a bit hotter than might have been ideal but the walk was otherwise perfect. I could do this just about forever. The line for the museum was predictably long but certainly worth it. The only negative was that there is no photography permitted but that’s the way it goes. Of course some people either can’t or choose not to read but you’ll have that. Finally exhausted, we took a cab back to near the hotel and searched for a place for lunch, eventually having some pretty good pizza at Pizza Pino not far from the hotel.

We all returned to the room after lunch but Lin didn’t want to quit so she and I went back out and watched world go by for a long time over some dessert and coke Lite at Le Select. THIS is, without any doubt, the VERY BEST thing to do in Paris!! Actually, for Lin and me, this IS Paris!

Back in the room, we got started on packing but then took a nap before meeting Helen and Earl 7:30 for dinner at “Montparnasse 1900”. This place is very “Belle Epoque”. The hostess was rather surly but, otherwise, service was great. We all had Chateaubriand and profiteroles. The beef was a bit disappointing but it was still a very nice last dinner in France.We wisely put off the balance of the packing until the morning.

Monday, June 28 - Ugh, the trip home!

I HATE this part!!We were up at 5:50, finished packing, had breakfast and got picked up at 9. Predictably for a Monday morning at rush hour, traffic was terrible. The driver headed first to St. Michel but then made a phone call, presumably to get traffic information. He then changed direction, crossed the Pont Alexandre III and turned left onto the Champs Élysées to l’Étoile. From there he went all the way to Porte Maillot where he picked up the Périphérique. Had this been a taxi, I’d have been certain I was being ripped off but the rate was fixed so I trust he was truthful when he said this was the fastest way given construction, traffic, etc. In the end, it took right at an hour from the hotel to Charles de Gaulle. It seems a shame that our last meal in Paris was at a food court but such is life. I had Chicken Tikka Masala and it was surprisingly good.

The flight back across the Atlantic is always long but this one was made more so by severe afternoon storms in New York. We flew around upstate New York for about an hour before landing in Newark. It was about 6:00 when we got to the car and this was, of course, midnight for our eternal clocks. As tired as we all were, Earl was facing the long drive home but he did it without a whimper. “Dinner” was at a diner in Netcong, NJ. Welcome back to reality!

Though the trip home is always a downer, we have nothing to complain about. This was an absolutely fantastic trip.

If you want to see a LOT more pictures of this trip along with a map showing the route followed, see my blog on TravBuddy.