Sunday, 25 August 2013

Avignon- I cant say that without thinking of Brian Ferry

Craig Writes;
21/08/13 Nine hours of train travel today. We have three changes but only one is a confirmed booking and on two of the legs we have less than 10 minutes to get the four of us off one train, drag four freaking heavy cases through hordes of commuters along one platform, down stairs, up stairs and down another platform filled with more hordes.  What could possibly go wrong.

Well better that things turn to shit from the start I guess. We had ten minutes to make our first change and that was blown straight out of the water when they couldn't close one of the train doors on our first train and we left twenty minutes late. On top of that it was a regional train that we couldn't reserve seats for so we end up in the toilet compartment between carriages for four hours standing sitting and leaning on our luggage. Which, oddly enough ended up being the next best thing to a proper seat because the train was that full people were crammed into the narrow aisles with their luggage piled around them and people continually stepping over them.  While we weren't exactly swimming in space  we had a lot more than they did. And, as an added bonus the toilet in our compartment wasn't working so we weren't getting bothered by people coming and laying big stinkies right where we were camped. In fact as it turns out none of the toilets on the train worked.  Nice one Italirail.

Sure enough we missed all of out connecting trains and tried vainly to play catch up from there. We kissed our previously paid reservation fee goodbye and parted with another $100 to reserve more seats on the next train. We finally got to our hotel at 9.30pm, miraculously only an hour later than planned. As it turns out that was the last of our train trips. It is all car, boat and plane from here in.

We are staying at a gorgeous little boutique hotel called Le Cadran Solaire in the Graveson Provence run by Jean Claude and his delightful wife Elisa. There are only ten rooms in this charming little 16th century coach house.  The gardens are full of beautiful trees and flowering plants are in abundance.  Wisteria and roses add colour and fragrance to the traditional Provincial colour schemes of cremes, terracottas and the faded blues and greens of the painted shutters. I'm so glad we opted for an out of the way place as opposed to one of the more touristy traps of Nice or the Cote d Azur. 

This is where we had breakfast each morning
Quiet spot for a drink or a chat
Or a lie down and a read
22/08/13 Thought we'd take a drive out to The Pont Du Gare today. What was originally going to be a one hour return trip drive-by turned into a three and a half hour enthralling excursion.

This amazing piece of architecture was built two thousand years ago and in an astoundingly short five years.  It was the largest ancient aqueduct system in the world. The Romans used it as part of their 50km underground aqueduct system to bring water from the river Uzes to the Roman colony of Nimes.  For five centuries this systen delivered over 44,000,000 gallons of water daily to the fountains, baths and homes of the citizens of Nimes.

They built this massive aquaduct in under five years
Believe it or not, this scraggly hunk of tree is over 900 years old

Bloody astounding when you think of it.

The museum was really interesting and had some great displays showing how the construction would have unfolded. The cinema had a film running on a continuous loop that I'm guessing would have been nicely informative.  It's a pity the production budget didn't stretch to some sub titles.

The town of Graveson is tiny. A few shops, restaurants and that's about it. Tonight we're trying one of the restaurants Jean Claude has recommended.

Just a very quiet and quaint town
Rush hour in Graveson
23/08/13 Out to the very cute town of Saint-Remy today, birthplace and home of Nostradamus.  I wonder if he knew we were coming?

There's not a lot to do here except wander the narrow laneways with a gelati in your hand looking at the little boutiques, craft shops and art galleries. Maybe grab a coffee in an alfresco cafe under a big shady tree and watch the crowd roll by or just dip your toes into one of the many little fountains. Nostradamus has his only little fountain. 

Nostradamus's fountain, more like a big bird bath really
I'm sure he wouldn't mind if you splashed a little of the cool water on your brow. There are a couple of small museums to while away a little time. We went in for a lazy lunch and a bit of a wander and easily lost a few hours.

We discovered some alternate uses for a snail shell holder, this...
Or this...
Some people even use it for this.
24/08/13 Who would have thought. Les Baux de Provence is a tiny little commune in the South of France in the province of Provence. It is a rocky outcrop at the top of the mountain that is a perfect place to fortify a dwelling and as such humans have been doing so since 6000BC.

The hillside fortress of Les Baux de Provence
What was once the seat of a feudal lordship in control of over 79 towns and villages is now  a thriving tourist attraction with the population of the village now well down on it's peak of 4000.  Twenty two people live in the village but the hundreds of thousands of tourists that visit every year keep the place thriving and on it's toes.  The ruins of the castle are very interesting and although most of the original village dwellings are now shop fronts they have lost none of their 15th century charm. There are many examples of medieval siege machines and weaponry. In fact on the weekends there are demonstrations on how some of them actually worked. They fire up a fully working Trebuchet, and there is a working couillard, baliste and bricole.  
It's like a massive sling shot on steroids
Your good old fashion ramming machine
All basically giant slingshots in one form or another.  There is a very entertaining little role play involving some duelling Counts using actual weapons. The swordplay is very realistic and from the clanging swords, it's pretty full on. 
So, when you've got your sister down, grab her pigtail in your left hand and then...
I dont mean to spoil the ending but... the guy in blue wins
There is even the opportunity to fire off a replica cross bow. Our family blowpipe specialist, Christina, once again showed herself to be the marksperson of the family. I once again completely missed the target.  Callum and Charlie both did better than me. 
The family sharp shooter at it again
We finished our stay at the village and the castle with some Violet, Lavender and Ferere Rocher gelati before heading down the road to what has been one of the visual highlights of the trip.
It was like licking Lavender

Have you ever wondered what it might be like to literally skip along the giant score sheet of a Chopin concerto, to actually step from one Monet lily to another or to stand in the middle of a gigantic blossoming Chagall rose.  For those of you that have been fortunate to see some of the great masters of the Impressionist era you'll know what I mean when I say that such is the seduction of these works of art, such is their ability to capture the light and the essence of the scenes they recreate that you feel you could just fall into the painting. 

Words fail me
Unfortunately no simple photo can do this place justice
If ever you can, then you must
Well the Carrieres de Lumieres at Les Baux de Provence has been able to achieve just that sensation, and more. A  disused bauxite and limestone quarry has been converted to immerse the spectator in the most unique multi media presentation in the world. The 45 minute show is projected onto over 7000 square metres of towering quarry walls and huge expansive floors and takes you on a journey that incorporates not only the Master Impressionists but also a film which transports you on a fascinating voyage through the elements from raging tornados to the dark and amazing depths of the oceans to the wonder of the far reaches of outer space. 

It was truly a unique experience heightened by the accompanying music that varied from classical to 20'S swing to some haunting Billy Holliday.  


Avignon has a rather special claim to fame. This small city of 95,000 is also called the City of Popes because during the turbulent years of the Catholic Shiism from 1309 to 1423 the Popes of Rome were relocated to Avignon. The ramparts of the walled city are still in tact and about 12,000 people still live within the city walls.

The Popes Palace in Avignon. Nice, but it's no Vatican. No wonder they moved back.
We had read the reviews for visiting the Popes Palace and combining the poor reviews with the fact we had seen a few palaces and cathedrals we opted to not pay the 40 euros and just had a good look from outside.

Looking for a little something different to eat for lunch we walked past a hundred restaurants selling the same thing until we came across a French Vietnamese Restaurant. Why not we thought.

Matt Preston popped in to give us his take on the Vietnamese fare
We were glad we did. It was typical Vietnamese fare. Light, tasty and delicious. 

Home from here for our last afternoon at our beautiful little hotel.  One last French pizza for dinner, an early night and up early ready for a seven hour drive to Spain tomorrow.

Delicious French pizza, who woulda thought

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Lake Como

Craig Writes;
17/08/13 A travel day today. Our train leaves at 12pm.  We only have one change then onto a regional bus for a short ride to our apartment. Well that was the plan.

The train trip was no problem.  The "fun" started when we hopped onto the local bus. 24 Euros for a return bus tickets vs 150 Euros for return taxi fares seemed a bit of a no brainer, until. Our instructions from Federica, our host, was to get off at Piazza Roma where she would be waiting to take us to the apartment. This was the instruction Christina gave to our bus driver, "Can you please let us off at Piazza Roma" she said.
"Si Si", he said
Federica stood and watched as our bus stopped at Piazza Roma, an old Italian lady with her shopping got off and we continued on. Christina sat on the bus looking out at a house that looked very similar to the photo of the house she had seen on the internet where our apartment was located. Puzzled yet uncertain, we continued on for another ten minutes past our expected arrival time before I went forward to the bus driver to make sure we hadn't missed our stop.
"No, no", he said motioning that Piazza Roma was still to come.
Twenty minutes elapsed and I went forward again to ask the same question and got the same reassurance. "Si, si",Piazza Roma, and more motioning of a stop up ahead.
With the bus just about empty and us now nearly thirty minutes late, our frustration was showing.  A fellow english speaking traveller took pity on us and looked up on his google maps. Yes, we have passed the stop about twenty minutes back.
Right, I storm down the front and yell into the drivers face, "DO YOU SPEAK ENGLISH?"
"no, no" he protests.
I yell into his face, again, that he has taken us too far and add, "you're a FU#*ING IDIOT, give me my tickets back so we can catch another bus:. He goes, "calm, calm" and I want to slap him but he's driving the bus so that's probably not a good idea.
Then, finally, one of the locals chimes in and calmly asks me where we are trying to go.
"Piazza Roma" I say frustrated and tense.
"which one?" she says
What!, Which one?
Yes, apparently there are two Piazza Romas on our bus route, the one we wanted and the one where the bus finally stops.
A small detail our host neglected to mention. However, also a point the local bus driver should have known and perhaps, just maybe, a question he should have asked us like, which freakin' Piazza Roma we wanted. 
We finally arrive and all tumbled off at the last stop, Piazza Roma, to find Federica had been madly texting to ask us where the heck we were. A few desperate texts later and she was on her way to Piazza Roma bus terminal to pick us up and take us back to the apartment.  A very frustrating experience all round but hey, the apartment is huge and the view is a million bucks.  

Here are some balcony views 
And another
One more for luck
We have Lake Como stretched out before us. A towering mountain of trees stretches up towards the sky on the other side of a vast jade coloured lake. To the left and right the lake disappears into lake side villages built on the edges and more mountains with their heads covered in the clouds.

Our little town of Argegno is picture postcard perfect. No bus loads of Asian tourists following bopping flags through crowded streets or trying to manoeuvre sideways down crowded narrow cobblestone pathways.

Bitumen may be practical but give me cobblestones anytime
Effortless charm
We walked the ancient narrow streets discovering amazing little vistas you would see in a travel brochure at every turn.  At the top of a small windy alley we found nestled in between some narrow houses a small bakery come grocery store that we would visit often.
This bakery was the source of many tasty things
Every corner held a surprise
18/08/13 Totally fed up with how much we have been feeding ourselves Christina and I decided to start a fasting program today. Twice a week, for the foreseeable future, we would fast from dinner to dinner. We had dinner last night and would not eat again till dinner tonight. Endless parades of German beer and sausage, French baguettes and cheeses and now Italian pizza, pasta and Chianti were taking their toll. We were mad as hell and we weren't going to take it anymore.  Well not quite, but I for one was running out of holes on my belt and am feeling compelled to do something, or in this case to actually not do something, eat. 

Having a lazy "get to know your local village day" today. The lake is fed by numerous mountain streams and rivulets, one of which happens to run right past our door.

The waterfall that ate Callums croc, then gave it back two days later
The boys and I decided to follow it upstream a bit and came to a waterfall.  The water was cool and mountain fresh clear. Callum decided it would be a good idea to sail his Croc over the edge and it promptly got swallowed up by the river gods.  We had fun poking around with a stick and getting soaked trying to find it but, no luck.

I asked the river gods when they have finished with it would they mind spitting it back out and sending it down stream for us. 
Which they kindly did two days later.

19/08/20 The weather gods were yet again smiling on the CVW'S. We left around 10ish and caught the C10 bus up to Villa Carlotta. It is a magnificent Villa set in 17 acres of lush and diverse botanic gardens. From broad expanses of Azaleas to lush tropical palms to an amazing display of cacti, it was stunning. 
Wonderful, but you want a good gardener
A large flowing stream appeared from the depths of a thick forest, ran down under a bridge and disappeared into the gardens. The Villa was started in 1690 for a Milanese Marquees and finished in 1745. It changed hands in 1795 when a Napoleonic politician bought it and again in when in was bought by Prussian Princess Marianna as a wedding gift for her daughter Charlotte, nickname, Carlotta.  Not that she enjoyed it for to long, dying at the tender age of 23.

Stunning Gardens
The Villa itself is imposing and full of original furniture, art works and statues.

It also has a great little coffee shop there that does a mean Americano and according to Callum a very satisfactory Tuna and Mayo panini. 
After we got back home it was feet up, watch the world go by and think of nothing else except what's for dinner.

20/08/13 Happy Birthday to me, Happy Birthday to me. Yes, it may be four years after I asked for but I finally got  a birthday in Lake Como. We took a leisurely boat ride down to Bellagio for a stroll through the town and a great meal at The Princess Restaurant. 
Fifty Four?  Yeh, I can do that!
Thems that keeps me young
Bellagio, "The Pearl of Lake Como", has been famous since Roman times for it's beauty and it's strategic position being located at the junction of the three arms of the lake. It was a holiday destination for well to do Romans from the 1st century and has continued to this day as one of the go to places for not only Italians but holiday makers the world over.
Every step is worth it, whether it's for a view or a bite to eat
A stairway to trouble :))
It was a fabulous day roaming the town, having coffee and delicious pastries then a fantastic meal and a couple of glasses of red. 

My birthday cake...s
What a fantastic way to finish our stay in Argegno, Lake Como. We will be back.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

The Fabulous Florence, Everyone Should Meet Her At Least Once

Craig Writes
14/08/13. Our  massive train day of train travel was made a little more massive when work on the train line meant we had to catch a bus to our connecting train, which of course we missed, by literally two minutes. There went the rest of the reservations we had made on our other three connecting trains. So it was to the nearest ticket office, hand over some more euros and rebook everything.
End result, we didn't get into Florence until 8pm, three hours behind schedule so we ate late, drank a bottle of local Chianti and slept in late the next morning.
But, this was Florence so when we did get up we got straight into it.  First we took a nice walk down towards the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. This magnificent 13th century Cathedral has become the symbol of Florence. The use of so much black, white and green marble on the outside and it's enormous copper Duomo set it apart from so many other of the other magnificent cathedrals that you'll see throughout Europe.  
The colourful marble makes a nice change.
Like all the great Cathedrals, it's the detail that captivates
We decided to skip breakfast, seeing as it was about 12.30pm, and go straight to lunch in a cute little pizzeria/restaurant that we found only a block or two from the Cathedral. The square itself, as you can imagine, was absolutely chockers with bloody tourist. It was a hot and particularly windy day so there was dust and paper and skirts flying everywhere.

Bloody tourists
We were going to have a look inside but the queues suggested we go get some gelato instead. Imagine a small child's head on a choc covered cone and you'd be close to the size of the servings that Callum and Charlie got.
The look on Charlie's face says it all, Callum has already devoured half of his.
Christina and I were still reeling from the massive lunch  and decided to wait a little longer for our treat. After having a lickety split of the boys cones we decided that lunch had sufficiently transmogrified and there was room after all for some tasty gelati. Which, as luck would have it was about 12 steps away from the last Gelati shop.
So, crouched against a 15th century wall in a little cobblestone alley we licked and slurped our way up the creamy sticky pistachio stairway to gelati heaven. After licking ourselves clean like four enormous alley cats in funky hats, we set off for the Piazza della Signoria.
This magnificent square is the home to some of the finest 16th century sculptures in the whole of Europe. If the lines at the Gallery de Accademia are too long you can see a copy of Michelangelo's David, although it is not like seeing the original.  The rest, Hercules and Cacus, the impressive Fountain of Neptune etc, are all the real deal. The Piazza is also home to the world famous Uffizi Gallery and Botticelli's beautiful The Birth Of Venus, and, the massive Romanesque Town Hall- The Palazzo Vecchio. 
David and his neighbour Hercules who's about to go medieval on some poor fella
Neptune flashing his goodies
From there it was a short walk down to the Arno River to look back across at the Ponte Vecchio. It was originally built in 997AD but after being destroyed twice by flood it was finally rebuilt in 1345 and has stood the the of time since. It was that connoisseur of the arts, A. Hitler who made the call to not blow the bridge up when the Germans fled Florence. Gee, what a guy. 
The good old Ponte Vecchio
The view across the river is beautiful but the throng of "ants" crawling all over it is enough to convince us to settle for admiring it from a distance.  Christina and I did manage to cross it when we were here half a lifetime ago but the old shops of the past have been replaced with charmless shops selling cheap souvenirs and over priced jewellery. No need to bother with that again.
It was back to Il Teatro for dinner again to try the 800 gram Florentine Bisteca, which, was a little too on the blue side of medium for me but still not a bad hunk of flesh, particularly after they took it back to the kitchen and applied a little more heat to it. 
800 grams of Florenina Bisteca, it was much better once they stopped it mooing
15/08/13. Holy crap. I've just checked with Christina, it's August.  I was sure it was still July. How the hell did that happen.  It's my birthday in less than a week and I'll be sunny myself on the shores of Lake Como.
Once again I say, how the hell did that happen?

Today we did a trip out to see the leaning Tower of Pisa  It's a pleasant one hour train ride from Florence and once you get there it's a twenty minute stroll through the beautiful little town to the Plaza dei Miracoli.
The oh so charming town of Pisa
The Duomo, the grassy park and the famous bell-tower are beautiful buildings. The unholy mass of tourists who could not read the "DO NOT WALK ON THE GRASS" signs and proceeded to do just that were making it very difficult for the literate ones among us to get the famous "holding the tower up with our bare hands" snap that we had all travelled to take.
After much maneuvering we finally managed to get the family snap 
At the end I was so frustrated I found myself yelling at a Japanese fella, "hey, get of the bloody grass" while madly pointing at one of numerous bright red signs.  
It was time for us to leave before it got ugly.
An hour and a bit later we were pulling back into the metro at Florence. That night we locked the kids in with bananas, peaches, Rice Bubbles and Harry Potter and The Prisoner of something or other.  We headed down to the local square that fronted onto the Santa Croce Cathedral for a simple bowl of pasta that turned into a delicious three courses, a great bottle of Chianti and a James Taylor like busker spinning out some tunes under the fading light of a Tuscan sunset. Magnifico.

16/08/13 The Cathedral Santa Croce was literally a five minute stroll from our apartment. And, as we found out, it is the resting place for a number of molto famous Italians. Entombed in a massive marble sarcophagus with three larger than life statues that look like they could have been done by the occupant himself, lay the remains of the great Michelangelo. The statues represented the three disciplines that Michelangelo was the master of, painting, sculpture and architecture. He lies in pretty exalted company with Galileo Galilee just over the corridor, the famous Italian diplomat and author Nicholas Machiavelli, poet and author, Dante, composer Rossini and a host of less well known but none the less exalted Italian noble persons all around him.
Galileo's final resting place
Here lie the dusty bits of the great Michelangelo
I hope he took something descent to read
Surprisingly, the audio commentary that comes with the tour suggests that the Cathedral is only slightly smaller than Saint Peters in Rome. It must be the size or the height of the duomo that is a bit deceiving because we've been there and I remember St Peters being very imposing.  Santa Croce was none the less beautiful and regal. 
The vestibule where the priests would robe up before the services and where stunning 15th Century oak carved cupboards held sacred relics and artifacts of religious significance was a bit of a highlight for me. The standout artifact safely displayed behind thick glass and in a magnificent gold frame was a section of the robe that Saint Francis of Assisi wore and a small piece of the cord that tied it at his waist. I thought that was pretty cool.
The tattered robes of Saint Francis of Assisi
Our third and final visit to our new best restaurant (Charlie says it's his favourite restaurant in the whole world, and he's been to a few)  IL Teatro where we were spoilt by our hosts the irrepressible James Bond and his boss the very lovely Miss MoneyPenny. Sorry, inside joke. They lavished us with attention, magnificent food and some yummy freebies.  Thanks again for that desert plate guys, we're still talking about it. 

 Wrap the fried pasta in the prosciutto, dip it in the soft cheese and use the fork to fight off everyone else
Could a Frankfurter Pizza really be this good?
Unfortunately, thats our last night in Florence and tomorrow we pack to head to Lake Como.