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Provence on Two Wheels

One year ago this week, my husband and I were on the most fabulous vacation ever. I had a blog post almost ready to publish and got busy with something else, forgetting to finish up. This seems an appropriate time, as I reminisce about pain-free activities and the carefree feeling of cycling through the French countryside. So here goes:

Can you see the happy?

Can you see the happy?

It took months of exploring options and discussing to figure out the perfect way for the man and I to celebrate our thirtieth wedding anniversary. After all, one doesn’t do this every year. As duty called the man away for the last two significant anniversaries, we thought it high time to celebrate in style. A friend suggested combining our love of travel with that of fitness, something both of us participate in regularly, and consider a cycling tour. Hmm. An interesting idea, though aside from spinning class, it has been decades since my bottom spent any time on a bicycle seat. Plenty of online research ensued, both to find the perfect location for our holiday and the tour company that would provide us with the experience of a lifetime. And the training began. Oh boy, did the training begin! But it was worth every second as we were well-prepared for what awaited us. The company recommended by our friend, The Chain Gang Cycle Tours, offers cycling holidays in Italy, France and Devon, UK. We had visited Provence briefly a number of years ago and have always wanted to return, so it was a logical choice.

I was more than a bit nervous as we set off from our charming pension in Avignon. Though we had spent months in preparation, I was unsure of my ability to keep up with the others as I was perhaps the least experienced rider of the group. And I was also leery of cycling in traffic. My fears proved unfounded as the French drivers were courteous and politely shared the road. My confidence increased with the realization that I was among the fitter members of our small group and would have no trouble handling the pace. We started with a fairly flat route from Avignon to Chateauneuf de Pape, where we had a lovely lunch. (Did I mention that the food on this trip was incredible? Kudos to Bernard and his team for their excellent research.)

Lunch a la Provençal

Lunch a la Provençal

We then headed to what would be the first winery of the trip for a tasting. The floor of the reception area has some transparent bits to show the “soil” that the renowned vines of Chateauneuf du Pape grow in….small boulders to you and I. After a sampling, we hopped back onto our bikes to ride to Orange. Altogether we cycled a smidge over 43 km, a nice warm up for the rest of the week. Orange boasts a spectacular Roman theatre and triumphal arch, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites, which we toured the following morning before resuming our tour. Very cool!

The second day of cycling takes us into Languedoc, on the other side of the Rhone river. Our goal is the medieval town of Uzes, some 50 km away, via the back roads that run through rosé wine region. Our dinner in the old town taverne just happened to be one of the best meals of the trip. The courtyard setting was magical and the food incredible. Yes, there was local wine, as there was with every dinner throughout the week. Unfortunately, my photos fail to do any of it justice.

The next day is a slightly longer route, 57 km, from our hotel just outside Uzes to the port of Beaucaire on the Rhone. Here is a shot of the gang at our coffee stop en route:

Our intrepid cyclists

Our intrepid cyclists

We set off the third morning along tiny back roads that one would never find without a guide. The highlight of the day is our picnic lunch alongside a Roman aquaduct. The scenery around the Pont du Gard is nothing short of breathtaking. The aquaduct itself is 275 metres long and 48 metres high, and is another UNESCO World Heritage Site. I confess to quite a thrill as I cycled my way across it.

From the Pont du Gard

From the Pont du Gard

From the ground

From the ground

Late in the afternoon, we arrive at our destination in Beaucaire, with time to spare for a swim or relaxation before dinner. Another amazing meal was enjoyed, appropriately so because we are celebrating a birthday, complete with a surprise sparkling dessert.

Happy birthday to me!

Happy birthday to me!

The next day of cycling sees us ascending some rather steep hills as we head across the Rhone and into the Alpilles, our sights set on Les Baux de Provence. The long climb up to the fortress was brutal, but we all make it without suffering the indignity of walking our bikes up. Every single breathless moment was worth it though.

Well worth the climb!

Well worth the climb!

IMG_1684IMG_1682Later in the afternoon, we stopped at Domaine Mas de la Dame for a tasting of their outstanding wines. This is the winery immortalized in a painting by Vincent Van Gogh when he travelled the region in the 1880’s.  We would see a number of plaques commemorating the sites of specific paintings done by Van Gogh, particularly near Glanum where the asylum was located. Glanum itself was incredible and we spent a happy bit of time wandering the site of the ancient town. From there, we rode into St. Remy en Provence to spend overnight.

Day five of the tour is a long one….60 km of cycling. In a hilly environment. I’d thought the road to Baux was tough, but it had nothing on the climb into Rousillon at the end of the day. Talk about sore legs! Our rest stops in the sleepy villages of the Lubéron yielded some interesting exploration, as one of our members was doing a little geocaching en route. One such cache led us down a back alley that seems to take us back in time.IMG_1702IMG_1705The ochre cliffs of Rousillon seemed to rise up from nowhere, after a long steady uphill climb in a forested area. Jaw-dropping scenery no matter which way one looks!

Yes, it really is that colour.

Yes, it really is that colour.

IMG_1717Of course, once you ride up, there is the inevitable coast down. It was fantastic….until you saw the next hill rise up ahead. The climb to Gordes was only doable because of a night to recuperate. I mean, seriously! Look at that hill:

After the descent

After the descent

The reason for smiles is that speedy return to the bottom. (Though I’m afraid that I’m a bit of a chicken and hit the brakes when the speedometer reads 50 km/h!) We are only ten kilometres into our last day of cycling at this point. We still have over 50 to go. One of the highlights of the day is our stop at Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, an absolutely charming town located amongst many river channels.IMG_1729We enjoy a lovely saunter along this part of the river before heading back to our bikes, on our way back to Avignon. The quiet roads give way later to bustling city streets as we enter the outskirts of the former Papal centre. Wow! I had no idea that Avignon was so large. I would have liked to have had more time to explore, but our arrival in mid-afternoon only gave us an opportunity to check out the old part of the city in the vicinity of the Papal Palace.IMG_1734IMG_1732

The Palace itself is most impressive. Built in the fourteenth century, a total of seven popes were based here. We did walk through the beautiful gardens that form part of the grounds, from which we could see the bridge immortalized in the childrens’ song.

Sur la pont....

Sur la pont….

After taking a refreshment break, it was back to the bicycles to ride in rush hour traffic across the river and up the hill to Villeneuve les Avignon and our lodgings for the night. The great bike adventure had come to an end. If you are interested in seeing a map of our route, check here. According to the little odometer on my handlebar, we travelled a total of 310 km over the six days. Not bad, eh?

This was a fantastic trip in all respects. The route was well-planned so that all could handle the rigours of the terrain with a modest fitness level. Accommodations were well-researched, comfortable, and clean. The food was amazing – lots of regional specialties, variety, and local wines, and the lunches alternated between restaurant food and picnic fare that we picked up in villages along the way. The weather was perfect, not that anyone could have done much to influence it beyond appropriate scheduling. Finally, the company of our fellow cyclists was engaging and fun. I would highly recommend considering a cycle tour as an option for a vacation.

In fact, I would very much like to plan another one. The big question is: where?

Welcome 2014!

As the festive season draws to a close, I would like to share with you some photographs taken over the past month or so in Budapest. Advent and Christmas are a very special time in this part of Europe and would not be complete without a mug of glühwein (mulled red wine, often with extra fortification added, such as pálinka) as you stroll around the outdoor market, enjoying the handmade crafts on display and live music. We were fortunate to have been invited to a St. Lucia celebration held by the Swedish community, which included a vocal performance of traditional music.

St. Lucia celebration

St. Lucia celebration

Enjoy this taste of the festivities!

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Kurtoskalacs - a spiral pastry cooked over hot coals, then brushed with butter and cinnamon sugar, nuts, or chocolate

Kurtoskalacs – a spiral pastry cooked over hot coals, then brushed with butter and cinnamon sugar, nuts, or chocolate

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New Year’s Eve concluded with several hours of fireworks. Fortunately, the fog that had been hovering for days lifted for our viewing enjoyment. I wish you and yours a happy start to the new year!

The Joys of Being a Tourist

How much fun it can be to play tourist in your own city! Over the past month, we have had the pleasure of visits from two sets of friends, hailing from different parts of North America. The first friends to visit, from Vermont, bicycled from Vienna before taking off the lycra and enjoying the sights of Budapest. Since the Buda Castle Wine Festival was in full swing when the arrived, naturally we headed there first to sample all sorts of vintages from various parts of the country. We tried whites, reds and rosés, finishing with some lovely sweet dessert wines that are the specialty of the Tokaji region of the country. And yes, we purchased several bottles to enjoy later at home. One of our favourites, a kékfrankos variety from Villányi, has already disappeared. Oops! We had a number of amazing meals, as our friends are experts in sniffing out the best culinary treats anywhere – they seem to have a sixth sense in choosing restaurants. A tour of the incredible opera house of Budapest was also on the agenda. Unfortunately, we weren’t permitted to take photographs inside, but I did get a shot of the ceiling of the entrance archway:

IMG_0569Compared to the interior, this is positively understated. But stunning nonetheless.

This week, a long-time friend from Alberta paid us a visit. Now I really got to play tourist….I walked the city with her almost as much as I walked in Paris a week ago (I’ll talk about this later, I promise). We toured around on the Hop On, Hop Off bus and took a boat tour on the Danube. I learned some fascinating tidbits of Hungarian history and ate some wonderful traditional dishes. Phew, I’m tired just thinking about all the running around!

In between playing host, we took a holiday ourselves. We completed a bicycle tour of Provence and then spent five days recovering in Paris. Now we have to get back to real life. The rest of October is going to be pretty dull in comparison!

A Celebration of Folk Art

A couple of months ago, I saw a photo on a Facebook friend’s feed. It was in Hungarian, so I had absolutely no idea what the event was, but in the photo I saw yarn that appeared to be on a loom, so I did a little investigating. A festival of folk arts, here in Budapest? Really? And the theme for this year is wool? Oh yes, I am definitely interested! It was held last weekend and turned out to be the most inspiring event I have attended in years. It took over the entirety of the Buda Castle grounds, including along the ramparts and down the street that snakes along the side of the hill outside the castle walls. I have never seen an event so large here. Or so well-attended. We went on Sunday, the second day, and were so blown away that a return visit was mandatory.

View from halfway up funicular to Clark Adam Ter. There is a dance troupe on the stage.

View from halfway up funicular to Clark Adam Ter. There is a dance troupe on the stage.

According to the brochure, there were over 800 artisans displaying their wares. What I didn’t realize was that not only would many be in traditional costume, but many were actually demonstrating their prowess at their art. Spinning, weaving, embroidery, felt making, woodworking, shoe making, metal work, pottery….the list goes on and on. There were even handmade musical instruments. I watched fashion shows and demonstrations of traditional dance and music. Those two days of walking around the castle grounds will be inspirational for months to come.

Photos? You want photos? Well, I did take rather a lot of them.

Bobbin lace making

Bobbin lace making

This potter was wearing the most fabulous embroidered shirt!

This potter was wearing the most fabulous embroidered shirt!

Tapestry weaving

Tapestry weaving

Traditional round looms

Traditional round looms

I was particularly impressed with the craftspeople who managed to take a time-honoured craft and move it into the present day. Love the clothing.

IMG_1514 IMG_1515 IMG_1516And the furniture. If I didn’t have a lovely dining set, this would be in my house now. By Canadian standards, it was cheap!

Stunning dining set

Stunning dining set

I have many more photos to show you, so I’ll stop there and reorganize myself. Suffice it to say, I am very sorry that we only discovered this event at this stage in our posting. By the time it rolls around again next August, we will have moved away from Hungary.

Winter Wonderland, the Long Version

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We are back home, the laundry is done, groceries purchased and we are planning our next adventure. So that must mean it is time to write about our trip to Italy.

Last year, we went off in search of snow at Christmas and it was disappointing. Yes, Austria was gorgeous, but the facilities seemed to be predisposed to skiing only. Although the literature included activities geared to snowshoeing, in reality the promises fell flat. So we were determined that this time we would find the perfect holiday for us. Google is our friend. Our search led us to Collett’s Mountain Holidays, whose brochure seemed to promise everything we wanted in a winter holiday. They fulfilled our dreams and more. We can’t praise them highly enough and will likely pay a return visit. Activities were scheduled for each day for skiers, walkers and included two different snowshoe routes with an escort familiar with the terrain. For those not wishing to participate in an organized excursion, maps and other information were available. We stayed in a lovely efficiency unit in Badia (formerly Pedraces), a village nestled in a valley in the Dolomites of Northern Italy.

We took it slow, which was wise, considering that it had been an entire year since the last snowshoe expedition. The first two outings were a bit shorter, 8-10 km in duration, with gradual elevation changes and a medium difficulty level. Day three was killer….we hiked uphill for about 5 km, to a small plateau just large enough for the three of us to relax and eat our lunch. I can’t tell you how amazing the view was. The photographs simply can’t capture the scale. We could see Italy, Austria and Switzerland from our vantage point.

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The photo of the church was taken on the way back down. I’ve never seen anything so picturesque. All in all, this was the most advanced level hike we did, and I can guarantee that it certainly felt like it! Towards the end of the climb to the top, I was wondering if I would indeed make it. We saw plenty of rabbit tracks and a chamois, which looks kind of like a deer. By the time we made it back to our room, we were completely exhausted. Fortunately, we planned to take the Thursday as a complete rest day. I spent it knitting, spinning and reading. Oh, and putting frozen veggies on my knees. I’d had no idea that walking downhill was so tough on knees, even with poles.

After a recovery day, we headed out to Cinque Torre with a larger group. There were a few tricky parts to this hike, fortunately at the beginning when we were more energetic. Including climbing down very steep terrain backwards, jamming the toe of the snowshoe into the hill!

IMG_0960This area was the scene of intense fighting between the Italians and Austrians during World War I and there remain trenches cut into the rock. I can’t imagine what those soldiers experienced, particularly during the harsh winters.IMG_0962 On the final day of our holiday, we left the snowshoes behind and hiked two hours down the river to San Cassiano, the site of a huge ski resort. I was cajoled into joining the men on the toboggan run, against my better judgement. After all, I’m a big chicken and it was accessed via the gondola! This did not inspire confidence! Fortunately, no one told me that the toboggan trail was full of switchbacks, over 4 km long, and you had to control your speed and direction with your feet. Okay, can I say that this was the most fun I’ve had in years? We had purchased gondola tickets for six trips, assuming that I’d not be interested in doing it again after the first round. Ha! I’d have gone many more times if we didn’t have a long walk back!

I will leave you with one final photo – my husband and I just before beginning the hike at Cinque Torre.

The Happy Couple

The Happy Couple

Is it too early to be thinking about next winter?

Boldog Karácsonyt!

Christmas greetings from Budapest!

We are having unseasonably winter-like weather here, perhaps to honour our houseguests visiting from Lisbon. As they are also Canadian, they grew up with the notion that a white Christmas was highly desirable. Well, coming to Budapest for a few days was certainly one way to enjoy it! We took them around the Christmas market yesterday. It was frigid and snowing heavily, but I did manage to snap a few photos to share.

A food stall

A food stall

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The food stall pictured above would not be complete if I didn’t also share the sign on the front:

Um, delicious?

Um, delicious?

No, we didn’t partake, though it did smell awesome.

We will be celebrating this evening with a traditional Polish Wigilia dinner, complete with barszcz (beet soup) and uszka (mushroom dumplings), salads, fish and peirogi. Tomorrow will only be semi-traditional….barbequed turkey is on the menu! My baby boy also turns 26 tomorrow, so I will be thinking of him and trying to Skype his home in Alberta.

Merry Christmas to you and yours! I hope it is a wonderful time with family and friends, enjoying the best of the season!

We’ll Always Have Paris

Fountain at Place de la Concorde

The husband and I were deep into planning an anniversary trip when friends informed us they would be in Paris for a few days in late August. We looked at each other and decided that we would be there too. After all, a friend turns 50 once and it is a cause for celebration, particularly if you haven’t seen them in well over a year. The timing was perfect – we could add a few days and make a l-o-n-g weekend of it. I adore Paris. I really had forgotten how much since we were last there three years ago. I thought that maybe part of the magic was that it was a reunion trip during a deployment. Nope. Paris has a special charm that doesn’t disappear just because you’ve experienced it once.

We had been told by a number of people that August is a terrific time to see Paris. Apparently, there are fewer crowds there than at other times, since many Parisians close up shop for much of the month and head off on vacation. Museum schedules don’t seem to be affected, so unless you are only there for the shopping, the line-ups are shorter to get into most attractions. We expected it to be warm, but weren’t really prepared for the hot, steamy 37-39°C that it hit most days (98.5-102°F for my American friends). Our intended trip to Versailles was cut for this reason….by the third day, we just couldn’t face the idea. Much nicer to stay in the city and pop into air conditioning when necessary. We stayed for six days in total, two of which were spent with our friends.

We walked. And walked. Even though we bought passes for the transit system (which I highly recommend), we still seemed to walk an awful lot. But we did take the metro, unlike our last visit. It really is a convenient way to get around the city, especially when your friends are staying at the other end of it. Our hotel was in St-Germain de Prés, within a few minutes’ walk of two different metro lines. One of the things I love about Paris is the neighbourhood feel everywhere….it just doesn’t feel like a huge city. On the first morning, we encountered a farmers’ market around the corner from our hotel, set up on the park-like boulevard between the two lanes of traffic. Wow! The produce is unbelievable in freshness and variety, reasonably priced, and artistically arranged. I can honestly say that if I was a resident, I would do most of my food shopping at these markets. There was even a booth with lovely handwoven scarves and shawls. The only thing stopping me from buying was that we’d only just arrived and I didn’t want to be too hasty. Fool. What was I thinking???

So what did we see? The Pompidou Centre, the site of the largest collection of modern art in Europe, captivated us for several hours. Following a particular love of mine, we attended an exhibition at the newly opened Les Docks design centre hosted by Cité de la Mode et du Design. It was in two parts, one entitled “Cristóbal Balenciaga: Collectionneur de Modes”, a 65 piece retrospective of the designer’s work. In contrast to the largely black Balenciaga garments, the other exhibit displayed only pure white pieces from the Spring 2012 collection of Comme des Garçon. I hadn’t expected to like this and was pleasantly surprised.

White Drama

Each display corresponded to a stage of life: birth, marriage, death and transcendence. I was most disturbed by the wedding dresses that resembled straightjackets….most thought-provoking indeed, resembling more avant-garde art than fashion. The Louvre was the setting for yet another presentation in the fashion arena: Louis Vuitton-Marc Jacobs at Les Arts Decoratif. Absolutely amazing. I found the history of the company particularly interesting….all those steamer trunks invoke an age where travel was so totally different from what it is today. While at the Louvre, we also toured the sculpture displays. Not my usual choice, but I enjoyed it very much and took a fair number of photos.

Mercure monté sur Pégase, Antoine Coysevox

Following this theme, we also stumbled upon the most interesting place. As we waited to cross a street, we noticed that the building opposite was unlike anything we had ever seen before. Wildly painted and decorated, there was a large sign indicating that the premises were devoted to artists’ workshops and the public was welcome to enter. Well, how could we not? The place was astonishing, amazing, inspiring….and colourful. Unfortunately, I am unable to grab any photos and didn’t think to take one myself, but there is a website that is well worth checking out: http://59rivoli-eng.org/main.html. We spent quite some time exploring the studios and chatting with the artists, who seemed to come from a variety of locations around the world. We even purchased a couple of prints.
I think I’ll stop there…for now anyway. I’m still sifting through photos….