Friday, October 30, 2009

On the way home!

We have concluded our fantastic holiday with 3 days in Paris which is always a delight. We arrived on Tuesday morning after a very comfortable 3+ hour journey from Montpellier on the TGV, to be met by beautiful fine weather (again), as it remained for the following two days. We left this morning (Friday) at 8.30am and are now on a TGV bound for Zurich where we will board our Emirates flight for home at 2145 tonight.

We spent most of the 3 days in Paris, just wandering, on foot for two days, and then on bicycle yesterday. The bike rental system here is brilliant. They have 20,000 bikes located in hundreds of locations (rental stations) around the city. Each bike is locked into a frame, and can only be removed using an approved ID and password. Providing the bike is returned (and locked in) to another station within 30 minutes there is no hire fee, and you can immediately take another one. Locals can register as approved users for a year at a time, while visitors can register as daily or weekly users. The registration fee is only 1 euro. So yesterday we covered a significant part of the city, both left and right bank for the grand sum of 2 euros.

After some initial reluctance to use a bike, Gaye ended the day by cycling down the Champs Elysees in (almost) peak hour traffic. For those readers who have been to this magnificent city you will understand what an achievement this is. We imagined what it must be like for Cadel Evans to ride down this stunning boulevard at the end of the Tour de France. My personal achievement was to ride the bike around the Arc de Triomphe so I did it. I had previously driven around it a few times, always challenging and exciting, and have wanted to cycle it since. This stunning Paris landmark is in the middle of a large roundabout with about 10-12 lanes of traffic, but none of the lanes are marked, so cars, scooters, buses and trucks (sometimes bicycles!) are all jostling for position so they can exit where planned. The impressive thing is it works and you hardly ever hear a car horn sounded in anger or frustration, very different from other parts of the city.

We did originally have plans to revisit the Musee D’Orsay which we haven’t seen since 1994, and to climb the Eiffel Tower which we have never done, despite always visiting it when here. Neither eventuated unfortunately, both because of the volumes of tourists wanting to do the same. At the Musee we reluctantly joined a fairly long queue and had negotiated about half of it when we heard an announcement of a technical problem requiring immediate evacuation of the building. That was it, we were off to the Eiffel Tower. Well that was much worse (people wise) with what we estimated as a couple of thousand people in various queues waiting to get in lifts or onto staircases. It will have to wait until next time. We were very surprised to see the number of tourists here as we expected it to be relatively quiet given the time of the year. We later found out that we were caught up in mid term school holidays so the place was busier than we have experienced before, but not to an unpleasant level as it must be in July-August.

As usual the whole Paris experience was memorable (especially for Gaye), just being there rubbing shoulders with the locals is enough. We had some good food experiences, and as usual no good coffee experiences . We also met some interesting people including an American couple who we shared a table with at dinner last night. He is a “yachty” from a long way back, and now they manage five huge houses in the Bahamas for several multi millionaires, some billionaires including one who is no. 65 of the Forbes Rich List, and their various yachts and launches. Interesting life for some! They were really good company. A significant part of the travelling experience for us has always been the many interesting people you meet along the way, some locals and some fellow travellers. We have met many Aussies this time, mostly from Melbourne it seems.

12 hours later……….We are now at Zurich airport waiting to check in. We arrived in Zurich about 1pm after a very fast and comfortable journey on the TGV, although the overcast and at times foggy weather spoilt the views out the window somewhat. We spent the afternoon having lunch and then wandering around the main parts of the city in cold and overcast conditions. Zurich is a very attractive and stylish city (I guess as to be expected of the Swiss), and would be quite stunning to look at if we had a day like yesterday in Paris.

So our journey is almost at an end. We have had a superb time, full of great experiences and very very few negative ones. We finally clocked up 9000 kms in our Peugeot (in 41 days) so we obviously covered a significant part of southern France.
Now we can look forward to our family, particularly Anika who has become 50% older since we left, and is apparently close to walking. We missed the start of the rolling and crawling stages so are determined not to miss seeing her walk for the first time. We will also be celebrating Nic and Tims announcement last week that they are getting married next May – very exciting for us.

We hope you may have gained some entertainment from our blog – we know that some have read it. If nothing else it will be a great memory jogger for us in years to come.

Au Revoir friends all!

Ron & Gaye

Monday, October 26, 2009

La House - our lifeline to the world

I think we have previously mentioned the cafe down the street owned and run by a Moroccan Swedish guy called Samir. This great little place quickly became our home away from home in Lodeve because of Samir's great personality, his generosity and hospitality and his delicious Tagine cooked food. He also provides free WiFi so La House was our contact point with the world outside of Lodeve.

Samir is a very interesting and likeable character. His family were political refugees from Morocco who settled in Stockholm, Sweden almost 30 years ago. He spent the first 15 years of his life in Morocco and the second 15 in Sweden. He is now just over 40 and identifies more as a Swede than a Moroccan. His parents and his 2 sisters have since moved back to Morocco, obviously no longer under threat. Samir is living in France to be nearer too his parents in case he is needed, but does not want to move back himself.

Samir playing with his much-loved "house" music
La House is very different than any other cafe or bar in Lodeve, which has added a much needed element to the hospitality scene in the town. We have got to know Samir well, and have tried to talk him into coming to Fremantle to open a bar/cafe with a Moroccan/Spanish theme. We reckon he would be a real hit in our town, and it is clear that he would like to come over. Let's see what happens. Interestingly he was all set to come to Perth a few years ago to study at Curtin but family matters intervened.

I had a great afternoon there yesterday, after dropping in on him as he was about to close the doors for the day. Of course he welcomed me in (as he always does). Gaye had decided to stay home and pack for our departure this morning, and she had foolishly said "stay as long as you like". Another new friend, Mimi Caruth- a young Irish woman who is in Lodeve studying French (language) and Buddhism. was there as well, hard at work on her laptop. I think I have mentioned previously that there is a major Buddhist Temple in the mountains just outside Lodeve, which attracts people from all over the planet. Anyway we opened beers all round, and I set up my laptop to do some email and blogging. Before I even got started Mimi and I got involved in a philosophical discussion, centred around Buddhism of course, that we continued for about 2 hours (and several beers). Samir tucked himself away in a corner with his house music to play with, until a couple of his local friends dropped in as well. Eventually, about 7pm (4 hours later) I managed to escape after only half completing my intended correspondence. A really pleasant end to our time in Lodeve.

This is Mimi

Au Revoir Lodeve (for now). We have had a wonderful holiday here, and have got to know the town so much better, and of course met a lot more people than on our last visit. It is starting to feel like a second home......and we WILL be back.
We are heading into Montpellier soon, where we will stay the night and then catch an early TVG train for Paris. Three nights in Paris, then a train to Zurich to board our Emirates flight home on Friday night. Back to work on Monday next week. Perhaps one more post to this blog from Paris.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Agde - on the Mediterranean port

On Tuesday this week we went down to the Mediterranean coast a bit, in dodgy weather, to Agde which is less than an hours drive from Lodeve. It had started to rain in Lodeve and the forecast for the whole area was for 2-3 days continual rain. But when we got to Agde we were surprised to find it fine – very windy and quite threatening but it did not rain at all in the several hours we were there. Another example of the amazing luck we always have with weather when travelling (pity the luck doesn’t extend to the things financial!). The wind referred to is well illustrated in the following images taken at Cap D’Agde which is the more recently settled seaside (and resort ) settlement.

Agde is now very much a holiday destination, and in some of the more recently developed parts is a bit too reminiscent of the Gold Coast (but without the extreme high-rise buildings). As a resort it is apparently very popular with people who like to take their clothes off – it hosts the largest nudist resort in Europe. It is a very ancient, dating back to 550BC (or thereabouts) when it was first settled by the Phoenicians, and later became a major trading port for the Romans. The two millenniums since have seen the whole area silt up so that the original town of Agde is now 15kms inland.


Since we dropped B+J off in Montpellier last Saturday, from where they were catching a TGV to Paris, we have had three really interesting, and not too taxing days, visiting places we had not previously seen. On Sunday, after a leisurely start to an again stunning day (weather-wise) we headed for Albi which I thought was an hour or so NW of Lodeve. It turned out to be closer to 2 hours but that did not matter one little bit, as the drive was beautiful; though the region famous for Roquefort cheese.

Before we reached Albi we took a detour to a place called Ambialet, because we saw a sign depicting the village that looked interesting. This is something we do a lot, and always have when driving in France. Many of our favourite destinations are not mentioned in the popular guidebooks, but have been discovered by us in this way. In our mind it is essential to have a car in southern France, otherwise so much that is special would be practically inaccessible.
Ambialet is a very pretty little village, situated on an oxbow of the Tarn river. The centre of the town is located on a narrow spit of land, 25 metres across, at the narrowest point of the oxbow . This can be seen in one of the images below.

After a picnic morning tea by the river in Ambialet, we set off again for Albi, driving mostly along the course of the river. We were pleasantly surprised by Albi. It is a medium sized city of nearly 50,000 people, and is built on the Tarn river. Unlike most other towns and villages in Southern France the dominant building material is red brick (see images below). The bricks are only about one third of the thickness of a common Australian house-brick. This gives the town a relatively unique appearance as far as France goes.

Apart from the general appearance of the town (and its superb bridges over the Tarn), the highlights of our brief visit were the quite amazing baroque Cathedral of Ste-Cecile in the middle of the old town, the museum in the Palace de la Berbie dedicated to Toulouse Lautrec (a famous son of Albi), and the Lapeyrouse museum. For those familiar with Sydney, and Botany Bay in particular, you would recognize the name La Perouse (as it is used in Sydney). Lapeyrouse, another famous son of Albi, was three quarters of the way through an amazing voyage of discovery that would have challenged anything Captain Cook did, when his two ships (and all on board) were lost in the New Hebrides in 1788 (date sound familiar?). His last landfall was at Botany Bay at the location that now bears his name. The square outside of the museum in Albi is named Botany Bay, and there is a significant amount of reference to “New Holland” in the museum.

Brian & Jans visit

Apologies for lack of photos on this post. My camera was (for a while) refusing to talk to my computer so I lost a couple of hundred images.

A week ago we said goodbye to my cousin Brian and his wife Jan, who had spent 5 fun days with us. Again we packed quite a lot in but did not move at quite the same pace as we had with our previous visitors. Brian & Jan were content to stop and smell the flowers a bit more, and both have done a lot of travelling in the past, so perhaps the excitement was not quite at the same level.

Again we took them to some of our favourite haunts, but also discovered one or two more. We were also a bit more physical during this time, probably because Brian & Jan are some years younger than us (in fact Jan celebrated her 50th birthday while here), and are also both quite fit. The highlights for us were an 8km paddle down the Tarn river (in 2 person canoes), and a challenging two hour trek over part of the (pilgrim trail) out of the beautiful village of St Guilhem l’Desert. The canoe trip was especially rewarding, through the “oh so stunning” Gorges du Tarn that I have mentioned repeatedly. I am sure we will always bring visitors here if nowhere else in the south of France. We would have liked to do a longer journey but were talked out of it by the “hirers” who said it would be very cold by the time we finished (around 4pm) - and weren’t they right! I was foolish enough to paddle in shorts and bare feet, and by the time we finished my feet were totally numb from the cold. Now I have some appreciation of how mountain climbers must feel. It took almost an hour to get full feeling back. The others all had joggers (and long pants) on so were spared the grief.

On the subject of Jan’s birthday celebrations – she did not know until 2 days before they left Canberra that Brian was bringing her to France (and primarily Paris) as a birthday gift. He had been planning and organizing it for 8 months and had somehow kept it a total secret. On the night we had dinner at a Michelin starred restaurant in a nearby town that had been strongly recommended to us. It is in fact the first Michelin recognised restaurant we have been to in five visits to this country. The young chef (26 yrs old) is the son of our friend Michel Canac’s medical associate (the partner in his practice), and has received his first M* less than 12 months after opening. It was superb, in classical French style, in every respect and not overly expensive (much to our surprise). We will have no hesitation in returning there next time we are in Lodeve (hopefully 2011).

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Goodbye to Garry and Jan

Today (Wed 7/10) we said goodbye to my brother Garry, and his wife Jan, in Montpellier where they were catching a TGV (the very fast train) up to Paris and then home. They have just spent 6 days with us at the end of their first trip to Europe. They have had a fantastic adventure and I am sure will have caught the “travel bug” that Gaye and I have had for so long.
We had an action-packed few days with them. As the official driver, and unofficial guide, I was determined to show them as much as practically possible in the time of this amazing region, that we have grown to love so much.

A number of the places we visited were on our list of favourites, but we did have a few new experiences like the “Train Jeune” (Yelllow Train) which is an old train that travels a spectacular 45 km route through the Pyranees, on the French-Spanish border. Although it is a 2.5 hour drive, mostly on motorways, to connect with the train, it is well worth it.

After our experiences in showing Denis & Kit, and Garry & Jan around, we have come up with the crazy notion of hosting small groups (8-10) from Oz, giving them a highly personalized 14 day tour of Languedoc (our region), Provence and the Perigord-Dordogne. We believe that with a small group like this, able to travel in a small bus, our now quite extensive local knowledge of these regions would allow us to provide a far better experience than a more traditional tour operator could. Food for thought….and we are thinking about it. Perhaps the first tour in April 2011, who knows?

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Lodeve - our town - our apartment

We thought we should publish this short video clip to give you an idea of what our apartment in Lodeve looks like. Deb (our friend from Bize) has just spent a couple of days with us, and took this on her faithful little Canon digital.

For those of you familiar with Lodeve I will also post a few images of our rivers in flood which you may not have seen before. Last week we had 3 days of almost constant (and at times very heavy) rain after 5 months without any. The impact on the 2 rivers that encircle Lodeve was immediate and dramatic.

And I will finish this off with an shot of Lodeve from one of the surrounding hills.

Just a reminder that our apartment is available for short term rentals if you are thinking about visiting this beautiful part of the world.