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A Week in Provence
After cold weather in Tours, I hopped off the train in Arles, still with both my jacket and jumper on, and melted. It was absolutely gloriously hot. The hostel I was staying in was unfortunately the worst I've been to so far; an institutional France Youth Hostel association one that had cell-like dorms, grotty bathrooms and a weird french custom where you go to the toilet, then have to go out of the room (touching multiple handles on the way) and down the main corridor to the bathrooms to wash your hands. Yuck. The 7 girls in my room the first night seemed to either speak no English, or not want to do so (my first experience with people from Quebec, who spoke English, but deliberately spoke only in French). So it was a little lonely. And not much sleep as we had a girl in our dorm who cleared her throat loudly all night. The next day though, I set off early, and had a good look around Arles. Its a pretty tiny town, famous for being the home of Van Gogh for a number of years, including being the site of the hospital he stayed at after his unfortunate ear incident, and alot of the scenes he painted were in Arles, for example, his famous Night Cafe painting. So I did a mini self-directed Van Gogh tour, going to visit the hospital, the plaza where the cafe is, the Rhone riverside that he painted, absorbing how pretty everything was. And another gorgeous hot day, which helped :-) The other reason Arles is famous is that it has quite a strong Roman history. The Romans visited the place, loved it, and so turned it into a kind of retirement village for their generals. Which meant it has the remains of a pretty large collosseum, an ancient theatre, thermal baths, and ramparts, which is pretty cool. And the town is so tiny you just keep hitting them as you walk around! Luckily that night though, two girls arrived, Imorte from Germany, and Maria from Sweden, who were absolutely lovely, and very kindly spoke in English the whole time for me! We went out for dinner that night, to a great little pizza restaurant in Arles, but got talking and forgot the time, and had to pretty much run the 10 minutes back to our hostel to get in just as the hostel owner was shutting the doors for the night!!!

Anyway, Arles was so small, and although I'd planned to stay there for 4 days to relax, not only had I done it in a day, but because my hostel wasn't so good, I decided to move on, and stay at a nicer place in Aix en Provence for 2 nights to see that town. Well. It was a disastrous journey to Aix en Provence. It took over 7 hours, in 30+ degree heat, to find the place. I first had to carry my pack all the way through Arles to the train station (a 20 minute walk) which seemed easy, but left me sweating buckets in the heat. Then, getting to Aix en Provence, I discovered the instructions the hotel I was staying in had provided to get there were completely inadequate. I knew that they were a fair way out of town, but it turned out to be a mission... they were out in the middle of suburbia, a good 20 minute confusing bus ride. No one at the station spoke English, so I wandered around for half an hour with my heavy pack on in the heat before finally stumbling across the tourist office. Who directed me to the right bus stop. But then the bus driver had absolutely no idea where I wanted to get off, didn't recognise the street, and was very rude. I got to the end of the route, where he made me get off, in the middle of nowhere. After a wee panic, I managed to find a potentially helpful phrase in my phrasebook to ask, and waited for the next bus. When the next bus came, it was the same driver again. There was a moment where both of us recognised each other at the same time, and I could see he was thinking the same as me..."You've got to be kidding me. Not THIS idiot again!!!". Seems funny now, but by this time I was pretty had it. I finally got to my hotel at 3, and was so shattered, I had a luxuriously long shower, and went to bed. Luckily the hotel was quiet, with a huge bathroom (although it smelt of stale cigarette smoke, a downer), but I took full advantage of it and spread my stuff everywhere :-) I had dinner at the hotel restaurant, surrounded by 60year old couples, but enjoyed some great wine, my first ever foie gras (superb! I know its not very nice for the poor geese, but damn it tastes good! Sorry Mum, I ain't going to be a vegetarian anytime soon), salmon, and the best creme brulee I've ever tasted. Much better :-)
I was sitting at the bus stop trying to go into town the next day (the hotel staff being useless with information... it was the sort of place that has couples drive in, so were a little perplexed by this strange young girl with an enormous backpack...something they didn't tell you on the Hostelworld booking website) when I had a change of luck. I completely believe in Karma now. A lady walking by on the opposite side of the street called out to me in French, and seeing I didn't understand, kept talking in French to me, pointing at the bus stop. I spoke almost no French, she almost no English, but through a few basics, my trusty French phrasebook (I am SO glad I have it) and a map, she managed to communicate that because it was Sunday (I'd lost track of what day it was), the buses didn't stop at my stop, and I had to go to a different one on a different route just up the road. So she led me up there, showed me the route, which turned out to be heaps better than the one the hotel had said, showed me the times, got on the bus with me, and told me where to hop off in town. I could have hugged her. It wasn't only the help, but the fact that she'd persevered with me, rather than just giving up and leaving me to it, that I gratefully appreciated. Her name was Kheira, and she was my Aix en Provence guardian angel.
So being Sunday in Provence, almost everything was closed :-) Which was both great for my bank balance, as there were some beautiful shops around, but also nice because it was a lot quieter. Aix en Provence is a beautiful town, with all of its main roads lined with plane trees, leading into a central roundabout with an enormous fountain on it. All the little side streets twisted and turns, coming out into other smaller plazas with more fountains... there must have been about 50 fountains in the town. It also happened to be market day, so I wandered up having a look at everything. Amazing beautiful herbs and spices, cheeses, meats, fruit stalls, soaps, pottery, jewellery, it was fascinating. I took my market bought lunch of fresh bread, fresh olives, apples, cherries, sheep's cheese and excellent salami, and made myself a picnic under a tree in a plaza, where I got talking to an older guy who was an artist who had come into the city to paint the town that day, who had a son studying animation in Paris. After lunch I walked up out of town to Cezanne's studio. Cezanne was born in Aix en Provence, and had lived there most of his life, painting the surrounding spectacular countryside, which is all rocky outlets, green leafy forests, and bright red soil. His studio was gorgeous, a big space with a lot of the things left in it from when he was there, including a lot of the still life objects you see in his paintings. The studio was light, airy, and surrounded by olive trees, and I loved it, very inspiring.
After a much less stressful bus ride back to the hotel, I was off bright and early the next morning for Nice. One slight hiccup later (I went to the local train station, arriving a good 20 minutes before my train, thinking how clever I was, when I was told it was the wrong station (again, couldn't read the french, so didn't know, dammit) and that my actual station was a 15 minute shuttle ride away. DOH! So had to get a later train, but got there in the end!
I enjoyed Provence, but would definitely stay at different hotels next time, booking them way more in advance to get good central ones.



The centre plaza in Arles





The Roman amphitheatre in Arles





The ancient Roman theatre with its 2 remaining columns
.




Picturesque Arles street





Me enjoying the sunshine in Arles!





Van Gogh's Night Cafe. Now I've seen the exact spot, and its lovely.





Shutters! Everything's so postcard perfect!





Van Gogh's Starry Night on the Rhone, done in Arles





Me overlooking the Rhone river. It was, as you can see, INCREDIBLY windy!!!





The morning markets in Arles





Cheese stall at the market





A beautiful arched street in Arles





Another cute dog (a boxer!) in a picturesque doorway





A field full of poppies from the train. They are all in bloom at the moment and look beautiful... I've got to try and get a photo up close.





Me in Cours Mirabeau, the main street in Aix en Provence, looking back at the beautiful markets they had there.





Spices at Aix-en-Provence markets





A handmade soap stall at the markets





Asparagus! Tonnes of it!





The beautiful Four Dolphins statue in Aix en Provence





Another beautiful fountain in Aix en Provence





Beautiful mansion in Aix en Provence





Detail of the mansion...some beautiful marblework.





Me outside Cezanne's studio in Aix en Provence. It was the most beautiful studio, with huge ceiling to floor windows, set amidst trees on the hill outside of town. I was very inspired. (Dad, think you can whip a studio like that up for me down the section?....)




Posted on 25 May 2007 by Anna
Getting there!!!!
Hello! Well, I'm getting there with my posts... I'm now only a week behind :D
Two new posts below to check out...

As an aside, today I had the funniest experience... I did Old Nice this morning, then went for a swim in beautiful Antibes in the afternoon (it's 36 degrees here, so very glad to have beaches around!). Anyway, then I went to check out Cannes that evening. It just so happened that there was a premiere on, for Oceans 13 nonetheless, so I got the closest I'll ever get to George, Brad, Ange, Matt Damon, Andy Garcia, and the whole cast! Very exciting, the atmosphere was incredible. Also saw Quentin Tarantino Kylie Minogue, and lots of primping french actors and actresses.
:-)
Posted on 24 May 2007 by Anna
Expedition: Loire Valley
The next morning, bright and early, I caught the train to Tours, a beautiful little village on the Loire River, a base for the surrounding area which was popular for about 5 centuries (I think) for the kings to build their castles, (chateau) in.
When I hopped off the train, I saw an information booth about bus tours out to the different chateaux in the train station, so walked up to have a look. It turned out, there was a tour about to leave for some of the chateaux I'd had on my To See list, and so chucking my pack in the back of the company's minivan, (small tour groups yay!) I was straight into it! It was a great spontaneous decision to have made. I ended up doing another full day tour the next day as well, so in total saw the 6 best chateau in the region, plus some very pretty towns, including the house where Leonardo da Vinci spent the last 3 years of his life, in just 1.5 days. Heaps better than trying to get there via public transport!
It was pretty shocking weather too, eliminating the cycling around to the chateaux option, threatening black clouds and bitterly cold.
So the first castle was Amboise, then Leonardo da Vinci's gorgeous house in Amboise town, then Chenonceau. Chenonceau was gorgeous, built over a river... it's known as Château des Dames as it owes a large part of its charm to women: it was built in 1513 by Katherine Briçonnet, then made even more attractive by the king's mistress, Diane de Poitiers and his wife, Catherine de Médicis, both who competed to have the prettiest garden, and saved from the rigours of the French Revolution by a Mrs Dupin. It has lovely surroundings, the formal garden and the park surrounding it are just stunning.
So I arrived very late that evening to my hotel (the tour company had called them ahead for me though to tell them where I was, very kind). The hotel was called Hotel Val de Loire, recommended by Lonely Planet, and was lovely. It was about 30 seconds walk to the train station, but quiet, and they'd given me a most gorgeous little attic room where I had a double bed and single bed all to myself, and a great ensuite.... luxury!!! The room was decorated with pretty 18th century french furniture, and I had a great time.

The next day I visited Azay de Rideau, Villandry, Chambord and Cheverny. We had a great guide... a stringy little frenchman with a deep tan and smoky blue eyes. I had to sit up the front next to him along with a tiny asian girl, as there wasn't enough room for him to change the gear shift with bigger people in the front (the other members of the group being rather large Americans). As it was I had to keep my knees firmly jutting into poor asian girl, to avoid my kneecaps being shattered every time he went down a gear. He apologised in advance for his French driving, and proceeded to tear around corners at a rate of knots. At one point he sat cursing the poor woman driver in front who had paused a fraction of a second too long at a roundabout. Seeing me chuckling, he said "You know what we say in this country? We love our women to cook, to work, to do what they like, but NOT to drive!" We then had a great conversation the rest of the trip, him telling me heaps of inside stories about the chateaux. He reckoned behind every chateau was a women :-) Which was kinda true... most of the chateaux seemed to have been built for wives or mistresses.
Azay de Rideau was a small pretty chateau built with a beautiful lake all the way around. Chambord was full-on, an almost fortress like citadel, with great double-helix staircases where one person could be going up, the other down, without seeing each other (apparently this was so the king could take his mistresses up to his room without his wife having to see). The intricacy of the engineering of the staircases had been attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, as of course he was around at the time... I didn't really like it though... it was set very starkly in a huge park, and decorated very minimally... when the king used to visit, he would bring the furniture he wanted with him.
And lastly, Cheverny. I'd been looking forward to this most of all as Herge had based his Tintin illustrations for Captain Haddock's Marlinspike on Cheverny, and I wasn't disappointed. It had a great story to it too... the guy who owned it had his wife cheat on him, and was so devastated, had her killed (that's not so lovely). Then he met his second wife, and built her the chateau (presumably in the hope it would make this one stay!) It's a gorgeous chateau, still privately owned, with a spectacular symmetrical front, but a pretty garden to soften it out the back (Chambord had had no garden) and a beautiful Orangerie. And, the family had actually lived there until very recently, so the second wife was obviously happy. Beautiful!

So yeah, I'd like a chateau :-) I think they're pretty exclusive though, one of the local chateau is owned by a certain Mick Jagger...



The beautiful village of Amboise, looking down from the Castle


Amboise Castle itself


Leonardo da Vinci's house, in the village of Amboise, that the king, living in the castle, and being a mate and fan of Leonardo, gave him to live in for the last three years of his life.


Beautiful Chenenceau, built over the river!


A hallway inside Chenenceau


Chenenceau from the side, with Diane de Poitiers garden in the foreground


The characterful town of Tours


The entrance to Azay de Rideau chateau


Me in front of Azay de Rideau, on calm days you get a perfect reflection of the castle in it's surrounding moat.


The French all have little toy dogs like this wee fella we saw at one village...


Villandry, looking onto the incredible landscaped gardens. In the foreground are the gardens dedicated to phases of love (you can see a heart to the far left), and in the background, the cool kitchen gardens.


The perfect kitchen gardens, where different coloured vegetables had been used ornamentally to great effect. Shame if you actually wanted to pick a lettuce for your salad though.... it'd ruin the effect. Villandry had a massive nursery out the back too, with something like 2000 plants growing ready to be put in place.


Spectacular Chambord... although not my favourite as it had a very empty uninviting atmosphere.... a result of having been built for a king that visited a total of 5 times in his lifetime!


One of the wings inside Chambord


Me at Cheverny/Marlinspike!!!


Inside Cheverny... this was my favourite chateau as the rooms all felt used... the original family had actually occupied the chateau for generations up till 1987.


The orangerie at the back, where a whole lot of treasures from the Louvre were hidden during World War II


I loved Cheverny :-)


And lastly, my cute hotel room in Tours


Posted on 24 May 2007 by Anna

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