Croatia and France cruising

Well the travel bug has hit again, and we are headed back to Europe for the first time since moving back home to Sydney after two and a half years living in London.  This time we are exploring something old and something new.

The new is Croatia – starting in Zagreb and making our way down the Dalmatian coast finishing in Dubrovnik.  From there we return to Lyon for four nights before we join much missed relatives from the UK to take a cruise along the Rhone River to Arles. At the end of the Rhone cruise we head back to L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue in Provence, where we spent a wonderful three weeks in November 2015.  We haven’t stopped thinking of that time so we can’t wait to revisit. Our last stop is Paris, where we also last visited in November 2015.

You can find my blog of that time here, and posts of our three-month trip around the UK, Italy and France.

This new adventure starts next week, so more to come once we arrive in Zagreb.

 

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Portraiture, pomp and promenading in Paris

On Saturday we said goodbye to our apartment Loft des Antiquaires, its charming owner Marlyse, and L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. Whilst sad to be leaving, we are so happy to have made it back there a second time after our three week stay in 2015.

A relaxing TGV train trip from Avignon sees us arriving at Gare de Lyon in Paris on a gently drizzling late afternoon. I’m only now writing up our Paris stay as there was no time to spare during our short three night stay.

Newly washed Marais streets after an autumn shower.


We chose an historic-outside, exotic-inside boutique hotel in the Haut Marais district. Le Hotel du Petit Moulin was originally the first Boulangerie (bakery) in Paris and retains its original shop frontage whilst the interior has been richly decorated by Christian Lacroix. Our room features an elaborately painted rich red wall.

The hotel is well located for lazy strolls, café perching and people watching, dining, food and other shopping, architecture admiration and sightseeing being not far from the newly renovated Picasso Musée, the Carnavalet museum dedicated to the history of Paris, the elegant Place des Vosges and the Centre Pompidou.

Local markets in the Marais on Saturday morning.

We start our exploration in earnest Sunday morning heading out for breakfast at a nearby brasserie before spending a few hours revisiting the Musée d’Orsay to see the current Cézanne portraits exhibition. The exhibition covers his portraiture from very early in his career starting with a self portrait and family portraits, before he branches out to paint friends, benefactors, his lover and later wife and son.

Cézanne had a professional but respectful relationship with his collector.

This is said to be Cézanne’s first self portrait.

 

Well satisfied we leave the gallery to walk along the Seine across the Pont Royal. We linger in the Jardin des Tuileries before arriving to queue at Musée des Arts Decoratifs to see the Christian Dior exhibition. 

Relaxing in the autumn sunshine in the Tuileries.


The Dior exhibition is well worth the 45 minute wait in the queue outside – quite spectacular with each room exceeding the previous in splendour. 


It covers the original career of Dior as a gallery owner before embarking on his fashion career and moves on to showcase hundreds of original outfits, photos of famous actresses and personalities clothed in Dior, elaborate accessories, perfumes and sketches telling the story of Dior, and the House of Dior and its key designers. 

This room dedicated individual sections to colour coordinated outfits with matching accessories.


 Just when you think it has come to an end you enter an even more spectacular room.  

A day well spent soaking in just some of the elements that make up the essence of Paris – the art, design, architecture, the Seine and its fabulous gardens, ducking out of the late afternoon autumn showers to race back to the hotel and then out for a drink at Café Charlot, a local brasserie packed full of Parisienne cool young things.

Café Charlot in the Marais.

Sunday is a quieter start to the day with a croissant and coffee and then doing what Paris suits best – a leisurely walk from the Marais across the Seine via the Pont Notre Dame, to Ile de la Cite to admire the Notre Dame, then across to Saint Michel stopping for another coffee and apple tart.

On duty at Hôtel de Ville.

Recent news of Paris’ successful bid for the 2024 Olympics.

The Seine is a drawcard for locals and tourists alike.

Perfectly delicious apple tart – eminently sensible luncheon choice.

 

Retracing our path but taking Pont Saint Michel we walk back stopping to observe the activity and sights along the Seine, pass by the Conciergerie, Sainte Chappelle and Palais de Justice where there is a fleet of police cars parked outside. 

We continue our walk through the streets making our way to the Centre Pompidou and spend the rest of the afternoon walking around the Marais, popping in and out of beautiful shops and finally settling for a late lunch of perfect omelettes and wine.

Centre Pompidou.


A simple dinner a few hours later and an early night as we rise early for our long flight back home to Sydney after nearly six weeks away.  And so we come to the end of this Croatia and France walkabout. À bientôt.

Markets and the Marquise de Sade

It’s a triple dose of markets for our last two days in Provence staying at L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue.

On Thursday the market mania is a little quieter at L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue compared with Sundays, but it’s a top market nonetheless with great fresh produce, linen, clothing and specialty foods. It is easier to stroll around today although we are well stocked up on foods still from our Sunday splurge.

Thursdays are a quieter option for seeing the markets in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue.

We decide to go to the little town of Goult in the Vaucluse department, and only discover on arriving that it is market day there too on Thursdays. We consequently have to park a way down the road and walk up to the square where the markets are in the final stages.  

A quick browse but we are really there for lunch as we had read good things about the Café de la Poste on the square. It seems like scores of other people had the same idea as the cafe is packed but we manage to get one of the last tables for the first sitting.
It is a lovely setting under the trees and they make fantastic salads. 


A coffee gives us the necessary boost to go for a walk up the narrow road past the grocery store to see some of the old town of Goult. At the top of the hill we are rewarded with panoramic view and a picturesque windmill that is being effectively used as a luncheon table setting by a couple of walkers.

It’s a rewarding walk up the hill of Goult.


A 25 minute drive and we are in Saumane de Vaucluse whose great claim to fame is its 12th century fortified chateau that was the home to the young Marquis de Sade between the ages of five to 10. The Château de Saumane has been under restoration and opened to the public only last year.


I decided to join the French guided tour as its better than no tour, and hope I will understand bits and pieces of the guide’s narrative. She is obviously passionate about her subject and gives a long talk on the history of the Chateau before we enter to take a look inside.

We start at the ground level and see the little Sainte Rose Chapel and then go up a short staircase to the next level to see a few of the restored rooms and some hidden tunnels and dungeons. I do wish my French was better and there are obviously some good stories about life in the Chateau being told by our guide.

The Sainte Rose Chapel.

There is an exhibit on the Marquise’s travels from Provence and Venice, but all in French. A sign at the entrance warns of explicit content.

The château remained in the Sade family until 1868 when it was sold to the Mayor of Saumane and later bought by the Croset Family in 1872. Vaucluse Council bought it in 1982 and now it is under the administration of the Communauté de Communes du Pays des Sorgues et des Monts de Vaucluse on a 40 year lease.

Outside the chateau there are fantastic views over a forest, the village of Saumane de Vaucluse, the Sorgues plain, and the Luberon and Alpilles can be seen in the distance. 

That night we meet up for a delicious fixed course dinner at the little restaurant Umami in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue with some Australians we met at Les Grottes de Thouzon earlier in the week.

Friday is a gloomy and much colder day. It seems like autumn has truly arrived. We have a late breakfast at the beautiful patisserie and cafe La Maison Jouvaud in the main street and are tempted by a delicious tarte abricot which we take home for later.

A sampling of the wares at La Maison Jouvaud.

Despite the gloomy weather we take a drive of around 45 minutes to the Luberon village of Lourmarin, which despite not being a hilltop town is classified as one of the most beautiful villages of France – and rightly so. Unbeknownst to me, it is market day here too today, but we arrive just as the markets stalls are starting to be packed away. It is very busy and the many restaurants and cafes that can be found all over the village are full of tourists, mostly English, and I imagine some locals.

This is a return visit for us, as we came here in November 2015 and that time visited the Château de Lourmarin. The chateau is really well worth a visit and has splendid decorated and furnished rooms and curiosities to see.

Today we stop for lunch at sadly a rather disappointing packed restaurant (we should have known better), but it is lovely to explore the streets afterwards. There are many galleries amongst the small boutiques and produce stores to explore.

There is plenty to do on a gloomy day in the beautiful village of Lourmarin.

We return for our last night at L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue and polish off the tarte abricot after dining on the remnants of our Sunday market day purchase – cheese, truffle saucisson, tomato, fennel and bread.

Bull games, white horses and flamingoes – the exotic Carmargue

We find ourselves in a different world when we visit the Camargue region this week – a land of marshes surrounding the Petit Rhône river, rice fields, pink flamingoes, teaming bird life, white horses and proud fighting fit black bulls.

Then there are the open deep blue seas full of a licorice allsorts equivalent of seafood.

We had a taster of the wild Camargue mystery when in Arles last week during our Rhône river cruise, as the day we were there the festival to celebrate the Camargue rice harvest had begun and the city was in preparation for the Arles bull games featuring the Camargue Raço du Biou that were held last weekend.

Enthralled by tales of wild horses, bulls and flamingoes we decide to take a day to visit the region. The plain of the Camargue was formed by the sand, stones and alluvium of various branches of the Rhône. The damming of the large and small Rhône rivers makes the Camargue like an island bordered by Arles in the north and the Mediterranean Sea in the south, by the large Rhône in the east and by the small Rhône in the west which runs into the Mediterranean Sea at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.

As we approach the landscape changes from vineyards and fruit plantations to scrubby dry flat plains with marshlands at low water level. Driving along we see our first pink flamingoes in the marshes, and soon comes the white horses, riding schools, bird life and cyclists. The Camargue foal has a dark coat when it is born, which only turns white when the horse reaches four or five years old.

All the fun of the fair at Saintes-Maries-de-la-mer.

 

Arriving at the picturesque port town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, the capital of the Camargue, late morning, we find an all day car park for just €5 and are just in time to take the petite train. Although it does seem rather kitsch, the train quickly heads out of the town and off the beaten track down narrow roads amongst the marshlands where we get a closer look at the bird life, the aloof pink flamingos and white horses.

Going deeper into the park lands there are numerous camping grounds, holiday gites, and rustic traditional cottages.


Back in the town centre, we take a stroll through the town whose very touristy feel is compensated for by a striking church that doubles as a fortress.

Our appetite for wildlife is whetted and we arrange to take a boat trip after lunch from the port on the Mediterranean into the Petit Rhône to get a different perspective.
On the 90 minute trip we see numerous bird species, flamingoes, the majestic white horses and Camargue cattle.



The bull from the Camargue has never been able to be domesticated and the preservation of the species is only due to the popularity of bull games.

Back in town we see the Camargue bull games are underway at the Arènes. For €2 we pop in for a short while to see what it’s all about. Seeing the glistening black bulls in the ring we begin to understand why some bulls become celebrities and statues are erected in recognition of their strength.


The Camargue race is considered a sport, a game of skill, in which participants attempt to catch string attached to the horns of a bull. The runners are very swift and nimble on their feet, darting at the bull then quickly flashing past and up the arena circular wall to perch to safety from the horns. The Carmargue is very direct in promoting the non violent aspect of these games and the bulls go back to their life in the marsh afterwards.

We have seen only a fraction of the wild Camargue and the attractions it offers but it has been a day well spent. All that is left to cement the day is a drink at Cafe de France back in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue and a fresh trout dinner by the river Sorgue.

Caves of fairies and artistic wonders in Provence

We went to discover the treasures of two very different caves on Tuesday. 

Just a few minutes away from L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, outside the small town of Le Thor on the Sorgue river, is Les Grottes de Thouzon – the cave of Thouzon also known as the Cave with the Fairies. The natural underground cave dates back to the Cretaceous period. 

On a guided tour we walk along a narrow path of the fossilised bed of a former underground river. The 230 metre long cave was discovered in 1902 by quarry workers.

This cave has a range of geological wonders including stalactites, stalagmites and draperies. What makes the cave special is the multitude of delicate golden stalactites reaching up to two metres in length with a diameter as small as three millimetres.

The golden rain of Les Grottes de Thouzon.

After our visit we head nearby to Chateauneuf de Gadagne which is still protected by the remains of a feudal chateau and ramparts. The village is named after one of its lords, Count Charles Felix Gallean Gadagne, lieutenant-general in the army of Louis XIV, who became Duke of Gadagne in 1669.

Lunchtime at Chateauneuf de Gadagne.

We settle for lunch on the outdoor terrace of a small restaurant with lovely views over the surrounding countryside. A short walk past the Mairie (town hall) and the streets leading away from it aids the digestion before we drive to Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in the Bouches-du-Rhône department.

Quiet back streets of Chateauneuf de Gadagne.


For some reason we didn’t make it to Saint-Rémy in 2015, but are delighted we make the trip today. Our first sight is the 19th century church, Collégiale St-Martin, with its remaining 14th century bell tower. 


It is very pleasant strolling around the nearby boulevards, adorned by centuries old grand plane trees, admiring the beautiful architecture, small art galleries and boutiques. 

Walking the pretty streets of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence.

A stately dolphin fountain in front of the 16th century Mairie.

 

On the way to Saint-Rémy in the distance can be seen a village high up on a mountain face. On checking we find we are only 15 minutes away from Les Baux-de-Provence, one of the Most Beautiful Villages in France. We have been there twice before, but what is tempting us to return today is the opportunity to see a man made cave – the fantastic Carrières des Lumières. 

We saw two previous exhibits at this fantastic indoor site of a former white limestone quarry which stages creative immersive video presentations of different famous artists works each year, accompanied by well chosen music. Our first visit in 2014 featured the decorative paintings of Klimt, and in 2015 it was a combination of the masters Michelangelo, Raphael and Da Vinci.

This year features the mysterious, imaginative and slightly bizarre works of Bosch and Arcimboldo and the joyful real world scenes of Brueghel.

Art and music immersion at Carrières des Lumières.


The show ends with Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights spectacularly accompanied by Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven. We contemplate the gems of our day’s travel as we head in the late afternoon back to L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue.

Discovering the unlikely birthplace of four Royal sisters 

It’s a pleasant drive on Monday of just over an hour from L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue through the Luberon parkland to the small town of Forcalquier set amongst the hills of Haute Provence.

Monday markets at Forcalquier.

Known for its Monday markets we have decided to see how they compare to those of L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue.  The market stalls of fresh produce, cheeses, saucisson, roasted chickens, olives, preserves as well as linen, tableware and clothing spreads in a sprawling fashion through many streets and levels of the hillside town. Whilst interesting somehow we still think the markets at L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue are the pick of the crop.  Nevertheless still a good day out and worth visiting.

No doubt not in the minds of the busy market goers today, Forcalquier was the birthplace of four queens. The territories of the Comté de Forcalquier and the Comté de Provence came together at the end of the 12th century under the rule of Raymond Bérenger V. His four daughters all became queens respectively marrying St Louis, King of France; Henry III of England; Richard of Cornwall, King of the Romans; and Charles, King of Deux-Siciles. In the Middle Ages Forcalquier was the capital of Haute Provence.

Taking a walk up the back streets of the town.

After checking out the market we make our way up the winding, steep and narrow back streets lined with painted shuttered buildings discovering a pathway to the white octagonal 19th century chapel where there was once a medieval citadel. 

Nineteenth century octagonal chapel.

The carillon is currently being restored with the aim to increase the existing 18 bells to 30. It is the only carillon in Provence to be recognised by the Guild of Carillonneurs of France. The site is worth visiting for the wonderful panoramic views.

Back down in the centre of the old town there is a buzz as the markets prepare to close down and people disperse for lunch.

We head back on the road we had travelled to Forcalquier to make a brief stop at Reillanne, previously substantially fortified in the Middle Ages and dominated by its castle. Only one of the castle’s towers is remaining, but there are remains of the old fortifications and rampart gates. The chapel of Saint-Denis was rebuilt in 1858.

Attractive houses can be found in the back streets of Reillane.

Street art in Reillanne.

 

We admire the views from the hilltop and head on to the small town of Joucas, in the Vaucluse department in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region in southeastern France. The town is situated on the edge of the Parc naturel régional du Luberon.

Terrace restaurant at Joucas with beautiful views.


Joucas is a surprisingly pretty town, situated on a hill facing the ochre red hillsides and houses of Roussillon. There is a pretty terrace cafe which is a fine spot for lunch, a coffee or an ice cream if only for the superb view of vineyards and mountains.

The 18th century church at Joucas has an attractive whitewashed interior and features fine Italian trompe l’oeil artwork. 


Art lovers are in for a treat with the scattering of sculptures throughout the old town by artists Miele Heybroek and Ulysse Plaud. 
At every turn there are picturesque homes and other buildings with different pastel coloured shutters and doors.



Travelling back to L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue to tuck into the remnants of our market shopping for dinner, we pass vineyards and can see the beautiful village of Gordes from a distance.

Switching gear from river cruising to the Provençal life

The morning of our departure on Saturday from the Emerald Liberté in Arles was appropriately grey, gloomy and raining.

We transfer to Avignon TGV and pick up a hire car to hit the roads that become increasingly familiar as we approach L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, about 25 kilometres south east of Avignon. L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue is situated either side of the river Sorgue, adorned with numerous canals, water wheels and bridges.  It is one of the antique capitals of Europe, and people come from around Europe and indeed the world to visit the antique stores, the highly regarded antique, brocante and food markets and numerous art galleries each week.

Its location makes it an ideal base for exploring within the département of Vaucluse and the region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur.

It is great to have a coffee at Café France again and then meet our landlady at Loft des Antiquaires, returning to where we spent a wonderful three weeks in November 2015. To make us feel at home our devices instantly recognise the wifi connection, and in the coat stand we see a golf umbrella and a yellow Aix en Provence umbrella we left behind last time as we had too much luggage!

Our arrival calls for a glass of wine at 17 Place aux Vins and then dinner of lamb cutlets and fish with risotto in a cosy restaurant out of the mistral wind.

Sunday morning we awake, open the shutters of our 16th century apartment to see sunshine and the infamous markets setting up. A croissant and coffee is enough to get us started as we need to save room for lunch and all the delicious foods we will be picking up at the markets.

The markets are very bit as fabulous and as popular as we remembered. The range of specialty gourmet foods, fresh fruit and vegetables, breads, fish, meats and spices is huge.


We purvey what’s on offer, stopping to taste, walking slowly but steadily through the crowds and hold our hats down as the mistral is in force again. When we turn a corner we are sheltered in the next street from the wind and it is a lovely sunny morning.

We stock up on ruby red tomatoes, fennel, lettuce, sweet red grapes, palm sized rockmelon, a large punned of perfect raspberries, a truffle infused saucisson, foie gras, herb infused black and green olives, herbes des Provence, a selection of soft, creamy and hard cheeses, baguette (of course), and a freshly roasted spiced plump chicken with baked potatoes.

Once we unpack it all we head back for a late lunch by the river Sorgue.  We settle on something simple so we don’t spoil our appetite for dinner – Provençal style hamburgers. Afterwards we walk by the river and check out the antiques and brocante for sale. 

A little siesta and then we snack on a selection of some of the goodies bought in the morning. An appropriate start to our week in Provence.

River cruising – what’s the verdict?

So what is the big deal about river cruising? 

Drifting along the Saône and Rhône rivers watching the world go by: children swimming, dogs retrieving sticks, bicyclists riding along the shores, canoeists, people relaxing at camping grounds, passing by small villages and larger towns, cornfields by the side of the rivers, herds of white Charolais cows, swans swanning around, vineyards up terraced hillsides, travelling under numerous bridges, navigating through lock after lock.

Making our way to Tournon-sur-Rhône.

Late afternoon cruising on the Saône.

 

Then there are the rivers themselves – gently rippling waters that are surprising clear and sparkling.  A highlight is passing through the confluence of the Rhône and the Saône in Lyon.

Reflections at Mâcon.

These are some of the immediate things that come to mind thinking back to last week’s Emerald river cruise on the ship Emerald Liberté. We were unsure as to whether we would enjoy cruising but the itinerary soon puts pay to that – from Lyon on the Rhône river to Arles on the Saône, with stops along the way to smaller towns that were unfamiliar but sounded appealing.

The Emerald Liberté waiting for its passengers for the start of the French cruise along the Rhône and Saône rivers.

At the port of embarkation in Lyon the ship stands out, newly launched this year it is shiny, bright and modern. Every surface positively gleams and during the cruise the crew make sure it is polished and clean as a whistle every day.

Our cabin is fresh, bright and more spacious than I had expected, with well designed features to make the room comfortable. At first we didn’t realise there was anywhere for luggage to be placed but discover the neat storage system under the bed. Best was the large window that opened, so we can take in the fresh air and don’t lose sight of the river and the cruising experience whether in bed, getting dressed or simply sitting and relaxing. 

The recreational decks are well laid out and never feel too crowded for the 138 number of passengers. The only slightly disconcerting thing for some guests is the numerous mirrors. 

A great place to perch in the early morning before the rest of the travellers are up is the Horizon Bar looking forward over the bow. Here we watch the sun rise and have a coffee and croissant as the ship cruises along to the next port. We can be at the ready to jump up and go outside when there is anything of interest or yet another lock to watch the captain navigate us safely through. We don’t want to miss the arrival into any of the ports.

Heading into Avignon on the Rhône at breakfast time.

The upper deck is my favourite though, where we spend many lovely lazy hours enjoying the essence of the trip – cruising along the two rivers.

We didn’t take advantage of some of the other features such as the swimming pool, massage room, hair salon and bicycles.

Bicycles at the ready at Tournon-sur-Rhône.

Then there is the food and wine. We start the days well, resisting the buffets and settling for yoghurt, croissants and fruit. But we succumb to the lunch buffets with the great spread of hot and cold foods, in particular the pates, terrines, salads, cheeses, baguettes, and ice creams. Dinners are mostly a la carte with very tasty four courses accompanied by very good local wines from the regions we are travelling through. A highlight is a dinner cooked by a guest Provençal chef.

There is also a variety of entertainment over the week at nights, but our priority is to spend time chatting with our relatives from the UK who we haven’t seen for two years.

Most importantly the service on board is excellent. The crew are hard working, helpful and professional but above all friendly and seem to love their work.

The itinerary is a good mix of small and larger towns with lots of history, architecture, art and culture to soak up as well as sampling the local specialities and wines. More details on these can be read in my previous blog posts. At some places it would have been good to spend more time but there is only so much that can be covered in a week’s trip.

All in all a wonderful week.