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Paris We Fell in Love With France

Terry

100+ Posts
By teaberry from Pennsylvania, USA, Spring 2006
April 7 to April 23, 2006. We spent our first week in Paris and had a family reunion, and spent our second week in glorious Provence.

This trip report was originally published on SlowTrav.

Why France, and Where to Go?

In the summer of 2005, my husband's brother and his wife told us of their good fortune to be spending a half-year sabbatical in Paris, starting in February, 2006. Ever since my high school French classes, I have always dreamed of visiting France. My husband, Stu, and I have already taken trips together to Ireland, Italy, and Switzerland; France was looming on the horizon for us, and this was beginning to look like a great opportunity for us not only to see the country, but to have a special family get-together. Stu's sister, who lives in Israel, jumped at the idea of everyone reuniting in Paris, and so our trip began to take wings. April looked like the most mutually agreeable time for all of us.

Stu and I decided to make it a two week trip - the first week in Paris with his brother and sister, and the second week somewhere else, on our own. But where? Practically every part of the country appealed to us. We began leaning towards the south of France, since we weren't sure what kind of weather to expect in mid-April, and were hoping for warmer temperatures closer to the Mediterranean. By October, 2005, I had discovered SlowTravel through a friend at work, and began reading trip reports, rental reviews, and the message board. I got hooked quickly, signed on as a member in November, and discovered a whole new world of travel resources and community. The more I read and heard about Provence, the more I knew that this region was exactly what we were looking for, and was to be our second week's destination. We decided to stay in the Luberon, which really sounded to us like the heart and soul of Provence. Little did we know how much we would fall in love with this corner of the world.

And little did our beloved dog Sophie (see photo) know that her sweet slumber would be disturbed at a future date by a two-week trip to the kennel.

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Sophie, the wonderdog
 

Terry

100+ Posts
So Now, Where to Stay?

Now, you should know that we had never rented on vacation before, having only stayed in hotels and B&Bs; so this was a real first for us. But the whole concept of renting sounded more and more appealing to us, and we saw it as a unique opportunity to experience where we were staying on a "neighborhood" level, and feel like we were "home away from home." And we were.

In Paris, we decided to stay in the 6th arrondissement, due to its proximity not only to so many of the "main attractions," but also to be near Stu's brother, who was staying in the 5th. I found a studio apartment through VRBO (vacation rental by owner) that looked like it fit the bill for us (see photo - a famous philosopher, Gabriel Marcel, once lived in our building, and a plaque in his honor was placed over the main door). We had good communications with the owner and good recommendations from other renters. The apartment was located just to the north of Luxembourg Garden (favorite), and Stu's brother was just to the south, so we always walked through the gardens to get together - BONUS points!!

Where to stay in the Luberon was a trickier question, because how do you choose between so many picturesque, postcard-perfect charming towns and villages? Many posters on SlowTalk had recommended Sue & Bob Winn's Guidebook to the Luberon (which I wasted no time in purchasing, and now I, too, highly recommend). The Winns owned an apartment in the town of Lourmarin for 10 years, and considered this village the perfect base for exploration and for relaxation. We went with it, and rented a studio for the week from the proprietors of a local B&B, La Cordiere.

Our accommodations were lined up, and our fingers were crossed that we would not be disappointed.

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Our apartment in Paris, once the home of a famous philosopher
 

Terry

100+ Posts
Getting There and Being There - The Logistics

Our flight to CDG airport in Paris went without a hitch. I began watching for decent airfares as early as September 2005, and finally purchased tickets in January, but never found "the good price" - from Philadelphia, it was $800 roundtrip each! Had we decided to take our trip in March, just one week earlier, the price would have been slashed by 1/2 (this was a winter-in-France incentive, when tourism is down), but that was not meant to be for us. We had to gulp that one. So, anyway, we used USAir, left at around 6:30pm Philly time, and arrived at CDG at 7:30am Paris time.

We had decided before we left home that we would take the RER, Paris' regional train system, to get to our apartment from the airport. We were "packing light." We each had a 22" carry-on and a daypack, and we knew that it wouldn't be too burdensome moving around with our things. This is the first time we ever traveled like this, and I am now a true believer, no baggage carousels, no lines, no lost luggage. It worked for us. It cost us 8 euros per RER ticket, while the cheapest taxis or shuttles into town were over 35 euros.

Now, I thoroughly researched how to get to our apartment from the airport before we left home. In addition to the wonderful folks on SlowTalk, I used the RATP site, Paris' main public transport operator, to get all of my directions (it's an interactive site that I found ultimately usable, after some trial and error), including how to get the shuttle bus from Terminal A to Terminal B at CDG, where we could connect with the RER - no probleme! The RER was about a 30 minute train ride into Paris. We got off at Luxembourg station, and from there it was a 7-minute walk to our apartment, easy! I used another site, Mappy, to find the walking route (or, as they call it, the pedestrian route) from the train station to our apartment.

And that's how we got there. Not bad for first-timers. I brought with us a little binder that contained all of our public transportation print-outs that I had made before we left, and we never had any difficulty making any of our connections.

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On the street where we lived
 

Terry

100+ Posts
A Taste of Paris, and Our Reconnection

We were a little tired, but so excited to arrive at our apartment in Paris. We took the tiny little French elevator to the "first" floor, turned left, and voila! There was our apartment! We found the keys just where we were told they would be, and then spent the next 15 minutes jiggling and twisting and turning the keys and three locks to try to get in, but, in vain! What were we doing wrong? I gingerly knocked on a neighbor's door, and in my very best French, asked for a little help. The gentleman understood our plight, turned the keys in the locks, and, like THAT, opened the door. Were our faces red - here, every time we had unlocked the door, we were trying to push the door open when we should have been pulling it instead! Blame it on the jetlag, I guess, but I don't know what that kind man was thinking of us, even after a profusion of merci beaucoups on our part!

After settling in at our new digs for the week (we LOVED our apartment), we met up with my husband's brother and his wife (Mike & Anne) at their apartment in the 5th arrondissement. We enjoyed a delicious breakfast of fresh fruit and baguettes with fig confiture from Corsica, and then we hit the streets. Mike and Anne are well-seasoned francophiles, having made multiple visits and vacations in the country, and treated us to a lovely walk to Ile St. Louis for our first day. Had a great lunch (see photo) at a restaurant that I forgot the name of, and enjoyed exploring the old streets and buildings. We also visited the Deportation Memorial on the tip of Ile de la Cite, and were very moved by this tribute to the 200,000 Nazi victims of WWII.

We began noticing plaques on buildings all over Paris, wherever we went, usually commemorating either a special event or a special person in history. This brought Paris alive for us, and really enhanced our connection to the city. It's a great idea.

Soon, it was time for a power nap back at our place, as jetlag was beginning to factor in, and we decided that we definitely loved our bed; it was a French futon style bed, but had just the right firmness and softness - zzzzzzzzzz.

Went out to dinner that night at Polidor, at 41 rue Monsieur-le-Prince, in the 6th, and had a lively time in a lively place. Loved the wine, and the food.

Next day, my husband's sister from Israel and her husband arrived (Wendy and Danny), and our family reunion was in full regalia. What a joy it was to all be together in Paris; it had been about five years since the last time we were a full family, and the warmth and reconnection we all felt was really something special. We are all in reasonably good health and good walking shape, and this helped make for some very enjoyable and congruous outings as we explored the city.

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Salade nicoise, tasted just as good as it looks
 

Terry

100+ Posts
Food Shopping, a Slow Day in the Garden, and our Passover Seder

Our time in Paris was one of discovery - of foods, neighborhoods, shops, and the most beautiful edifices and museums in the world. Stu and I found a splendiferous patisserie called Dalloyau's, at 2 Place Edmund-Rostand across from the Luxembourg RER train stop, that was en route for us to Mike and Anne's apartment. Stopping there for baguettes and croissants became a morning ritual from day one.

Wendy and Danny had arrived to Paris early Sunday morning. After our reunion breakfast, we all hopped on the Metro and headed over to Le Marais for some Passover shopping, as we were going to celebrate the holiday together that night (a few days early, but what the heck; we hadn't been together at a holiday dinner for years, so we had some catching up to do). We went to a bustling little store called Sacha Finkelsztayn's, which specializes in all foods Jewish (but with a French flair, of course). We couldn't resist all the delicious smells and offerings, and quickly filled our shopping bags. From there, we went to the Sunday market at Place Monge, where we loaded up on fresh produce and flowers, and feasted our eyes on all the neat tables. We were now set for the evening meal.

So, the rest of Sunday was spent enjoying a slow lunch and afternoon in Luxembourg Garden. What a huge, beautiful, and user-friendly park this is! There's a sweet little restaurant right in the middle of the park, called La Buvette, where we enjoyed some crepes, salad and cafe. We strolled around the park for the afternoon, discovering the boat launching in the fountain, the beautiful 'Senat' building, all the amazing statues, chess and boule games galore, the children at the playgrounds, the peaceful landscaping, the Tai Chi-ers, and the exquisite Medici fountain, which I personally fell in love with (see photo).

On our way back to Mike and Anne's, we went into Eglise St. Jacques-du-Haut-Pas, on 252 rue St. Jacques, built in the 17th century, This church was a starting point for pilgrims on their way to the Santiago de Compostela in Spain, and still used today.

That night, our seder, the ceremonial meal for Passover, was something we were all so glad to share together. Good food and good company. Tradition at this meal the world over is to recall the story of Moses and the Israelites, and ask four specific questions, starting with, "Why is this night different from all other nights?" On this special night in Paris, we all knew the answer to that question.

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Polyphemus Surprising Acis and Galatea, at the Medici Fountain
 

Terry

100+ Posts
Paris Behind Closed Doors

Our time in Paris was spent in wonder, as we delighted in all the history and mystery that is this city. We really felt like there were two Parises: the one that we all see as we take to the streets - the inviting shops, storefronts, funky bistros and cafes, apartments, churches, and museums. And the Paris behind the double doors, no matter what avenue we traversed, large or small, there were always very large double doors set at regular intervals along the building fronts of every city block, opening into hidden courtyards, private parking areas, gardens, mansions, and even shops. If we were lucky enough to walk by when the doors were opened, we were always treated to "Paris on the inside", as we came to call it. We found this to be infinitely fascinating and intriguing, and we derived a child-like joy in being privy to the opening of yet another double-door, anxiously awaiting what we would discover behind the doors. Just fun stuff.

On Monday morning, we walked in awe through the Notre Dame Cathedral. I was surprised to find out about the 'feminine' orientation of this very site since its earliest times. Apparently, before "Our Lady" cathedral was begun being built in the 1100s, this very ground had been designated for virgin sacrifices by the ancient Druids, and the Romans had worshipped the Great Mother in a temple on this same site. I found it pretty amazing that this incredibly beautiful cathedral stood on such a holy part of the island, and its reverence to the 'feminine' still lives today. I also didn't know that in the 1800s Notre Dame was going to be torn down, but the popularity of Victor Hugo's "Hunchback of Notre Dame", published at around this same time, was directly responsible for saving this church.

Next, we tried to visit Saint Chappelle, but the line was way too long, with only one cashier's window selling tickets for all those people. Disappointed, we walked over to the Hotel de Ville area, and had some lunch. It was pretty chilly out today, and this little respite rewarmed us for our afternoon walk.

We took a guided tour of the Jewish Marais this afternoon (thank you, Mike, for the treat). It's hard to believe that this area was once a swamp! The first Jews arrived here in the 13th century. The history of the Jewish people in Paris has been rocky, marked by periods of enlightenment but also the Deportation during WWII. Our guide, a US expat who has lived in Paris for the past 14 years with his Parisian wife, took us all over the area, for about a two-hour tour; he was quite knowledgeable, and fielded all our questions with ease. It was my first experience with a guided tour, although I don't know what tour group he was associated with, and it definitely enhanced our appreciation of the area.

After our busy day, it was time for a power nap, as we were still equilibrating from jetlag. We enjoyed a yummy dinner at Cafe Berthoud on 1 Rue de Vallette, in the 5th - service and food and wine - just excellent.

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Detailed carvings in an archway on Notre Dame's exterior
 

Terry

100+ Posts
A Big Walking Day

Our Tuesday began with a visit to the D'Orsay Museum and the Cezanne/Pissarro exhibit - with our audio headphones in place, this was an outstanding comparison/contrast tour of two great artists who were also good friends to each other. I never knew that. They painted many of the same scenes and subjects, and it was so fascinating to watch their individual styles and interpretations grow and develop. The museum was equally outstanding, too. Don't miss it.

Next we crossed the Seine and strolled through the Tuillerie Gardens, at one time the playground to the sons of Napoleans I and III. The terraces and vistas were just beautiful. Following the Garden, we walked around the Place de la Concorde; this is the site where Marie-Antoinette and many others were guillotined. Everything about this square was colossal and impressive.

After lunch, we visited (with our jaws dropped) the Opera Garnier, a truly magnificent building inside and out. It was fun to imagine what it must be like to attend a performance there. The beauty of space in the entry foyer and the Grand Foyer, on the walls, floors, and ceilings, was just sumptuous. Very unfortunately for us, the theatre was closed to the public, and we could not view Chagall's ceiling painting, because there was a live rehearsal going on for that evening's concert.

Our next destination was Montmartre (we did a lot of walking this day, whew!). This part of Paris had more of a "village" feel to it, and we enjoyed exploring. We climbed the steps to the creamy-white Basilica du Sacre-Coeur, and soaked in the views and the beauty all around us. We walked around Place du Terre, which was not very crowded, and admired all the clothesline artists. It was charming, but I could see how it could get very touristy at busier times. We checked out Paris' only remaining vineyard, and also found the statue of Dalida, an extremely popular French singer and resident of Montmartre before her suicide in 1987. We wandered the streets and the neighborhood until dusk, and were lucky enough to get a table for six at a sweet restaurant called Queue la Chat, on rue Tholoze, where the food and service was excellent.

With our bellies full, we walked to the Metro, which we took back to Place de la Concorde. We then enjoyed all the shops and nightlife along the Champs-Elysees, on our way to the Arc de Triomphe. The artwork carved into the arch was all lit up, and it was sheer beauty. The night in the city looked pretty to me (I kept singing a bunch of Joni Mitchell songs), and when the clock struck 11 and the Eiffel Tower went all sparkly, well, what could be more thrilling, and more Paris?

We slept good that night.

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Inside the Opera Garnier
 

Terry

100+ Posts
Parlez-vous Francais?

We started our day with breakfast out, at the cutest little place in the 6th called La Confiteurerie, where the croissants were extra good, still warm, and homemade. I began to notice that while in France I had developed a special place in my heart for any pastries that had almond in them, on them, around them - it didn't matter, I just had to try it. And no matter where I went, they never disappointed!

Speaking French came back to me surprisingly easy, despite the fact the I hadn't used the language since high school, and even then I was not what you would call fluent. But I definitely remembered enough to get us by, and I thoroughly enjoyed communicating, and trying to communicate, with the French. I found the people to be quite friendly and patient, and helpful, too. I love hearing French spoken; it's so lyrical to me, and I really enjoyed speaking it too; although I gotta work on my accent.

After breakfast, we just wandered around and got lost in the 6th arrondissement, admiring its narrow streets, cafes and bakeries, antique shops and art galleries. Later, we visited the Rodin museum. I LOVED this place. We have a Rodin museum in my home town (Philadelphia), but I gained a whole new appreciation of the artist and the man at this housing of his collection. Great audiophone tour, if you get the chance.

Next, we walked around the grounds of Les Invalides and Ecole Militaire, admiring the Dome and the surrounding stunning architecture. As we approached the 7th arrondissement, we were getting more and more glimpses of the Eiffel Tower. The approach along the Champ du Mars was quite impressive. And the Tower was definitely much larger in life than I could have imagined. It's a really spectacular creation, unique and incomparable, whether you're up close or far away, day or night, high up or from the ground. I can tell you that at 3pm the elevator lines were very very long, so we just hoofed it up to the first platform (not for cardiac patients), and enjoyed the stunning views of Paris from there.

We crossed the Seine and idled a while at the Trocadero, enjoying all the outdoor activity and, of course, the view of the Tower, in the warm afternoon sun. For dinner, we headed up the Seine and turned off into the 15th, and ate at a delicious restaurant called Kim Anh, which serves up very, very good Vietnamese food.

I have to say that we never had a bad meal or a bad glass of wine in Paris; everything was just plain great.

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Eiffel Tower, looking down from the 1st platform
 

Terry

100+ Posts
We Got on Our Groove at the Louvre

Today we had to say our au revoirs to Wendy and Danny, as they were to return to Israel. Our time together was so much more than a family reunion - we had big belly laughs, shared our stories and our tears, and our kids' stories. But we also enjoyed a holiday together, while creating an adventure that will remain indelible in our memories. We know that we are so fortunate to be this close, even though the miles keep us apart. We all decided that from now on, every two years, we would meet somewhere different in Europe, with this trip being the start of a new and exciting family tradition. You know I'm already planning.

After our good-byes, Stu and I spent the rest of the day at the Louvre, just a mind-boggling building, both in sheer size and architectural detail, and truly the pre-eminent museum of the world. I was surprised to learn that over two million people visit the Louvre every year. I think my favorite department was the Greek and Roman antiquities - the Winged Victory of Samothrace was magical and enchanting; my next favorite area was the galleries holding the French sculptures - it was a special space, and I found myself transfixed with the Marly Horses, just awesome.

The Mona Lisa was pretty crowded, despite the museum's crowd control measures, and it was a lot smaller than I would have imagined. Of course, we only scratched the surface of all there is to see there, but it was an uplifting visit, and we're looking forward to next time.

What an amazing place Paris is; it is so French, but it also belongs to the world, an international city, with something for everyone, and a timelessness that romances your soul in a very enduring manner. Obviously, I've been bit.

We ate at Mike and Anne's that night, enjoying a home-cooked dinner, Parisienne-style, fall-off-the-bone slow-roasted Cornish hens, salade, artichokes with a garlicky dipping sauce, and roasted potatoes. We brought dessert, tarte tatin, from a boulangerie in the 6th on 8 rue du Cherche-Midi called La Poilane. It was a work of art, and ALMOST too beautiful to eat...

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My favorite - a Marly horse
 

Terry

100+ Posts
And Now for Something Completely Different

After breakfast and washing our laundry for the week in our nifty washer/dryer in our apartment, we were ready to take on a new adventure for the day. Let me preface this by saying that Stu loves horseracing; it's in his blood. He and his father have been involved in all aspects of this business from training to owning to spectating since the time Stu was 15. So as a treat to him, I researched on the net what racetracks were in and around Paris, and promised him we would try to fit in a visit. I had really wanted to see Chantilly, but unfortunately, they weren't racing there in early April. The one track that was racing on this day was in St. Cloud, which is just in the western suburbs of Paris. An easy trip by Metro then bus (thank you RATP site), we embarked into the wild blue yonder.

Actually, it was a breeze getting there, and a few kindly Frenchmen tweaked us in the right direction when we weren't sure about a final left or right turn. The track was lovely, with manicured grounds and a modern, clean clubhouse. Stu purchased a racing form which, of course, was entirely in French. This is where we began stumbling a little. My French, as I said before, is quite sufficient to get us by, but when it comes to track lingo, that's uh, er, a horse of a different color, so to speak. Needless to say, I was at a loss to interpret the racing form, and I can absolutely say without qualification that there were NO tourists at this racetrack. So, before each race, we went to the paddock area (that's where they saddle up the horses before the race and walk them around for viewing), and Stu made all his bets based on how the horses looked to him. Now, for those of you who know nothing about horse-racing (believe me, I'm with most of you), this is a very iffy way of betting on horses, because the whole purpose of the racing form is to tell you things about each of the horses - things like their past performances, their speeds, their times, who was riding them, how long ago was their last race, etc, etc, etc - this is what helps you make an intelligent, and hopefully, a winning bet. But I gotta hand it to Stu, he does have good instincts, and all the horses he bet on either came in second or third (no winners, though). I was duly impressed. We really had a fun, slow day, and were privy to an entirely different side of Paris, although Stu always says the racetrack is the great equalizer - people are basically the same the world over. In many respects, it felt like a small, small world at St.Cloud that day.

We had our last dinner in Paris that night with Mike and Anne, at a little neighborhood restaurant in the 5th called Le Mauzac - serving French cuisine - quite good. Mike and Anne are regulars there, and we were treated very nicely.

Tomorrow - Provence!

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St. Cloud Racetrack
 

Terry

100+ Posts
Provence, Here We Come!

Back in January, about three months before we left on our trip, I bought PREM (discounted) tickets on the website for the TGV (France's very fast train), to get us from Paris to Provence. Unfortunately, I couldn't find any deeply discounted tickets going anywhere close to our homebase in Provence, namely, Lourmarin. So, instead, I bought one-way PREM tickets to Grenoble to get us closer to Provence, and then one-way PREM tickets leaving from Avignon to get us back to Paris for our flight home. The TGV ticketing process has been very well mapped out on SlowTravel by Kevin Widrow, an expat living in Provence. I also arranged through AutoEurope, the car broker, for a rental that we picked up when we arrived in Grenoble and which we returned in Avignon at the end of our week in Provence. All done on the internet, and without a hitch.

So, we got on our TGV at Gare du Nord on Saturday morning, and had a very fast and smooth ride to Grenoble, picked up our rental, a VW Polo. This was a diesel car, manual transmission, no A/C, and probably the cheapest model that was offered (in April, we paid $250 for 8 days). We spent the next half hour driving around literally in circles, trying to find our way out of Grenoble. I had forgotten to print instructions for this part of our trip, and you see what happened? Well, finally, we found the right turn-off, and were on our way. We followed the Napolean Route south, south, south, til we got to Manosque, where we began to head west to our new home, Lourmarin! The ride was about three hours long, but through very beautiful countryside, yes indeed.

We were graciously greeted by one of the owners of our studio apartment at La Cordiere, a B&B that also had an apartment to let. Francoise showed us our apartment and helped us unload our gear and find a parking spot. The studio looked even nicer than it did on their website, and after unpacking and taking stock of our cupboards, we went out to the tabac and local grocer to pick up on some goodies.

That evening we ate at Le Ratelier, a cozy pizzeria/restaurant directly across from our studio. Small and intimate, with very good food, nothing fancy but friendly service, they even gave us complimentary second glasses of wine. After dinner, we strolled around the winding, narrow cobble-stoned streets of Lourmarin, and began to fall in love with this town.

Slept so good that night on a very comfortable bed. Loving Provence already!

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The town of Lourmarin, at the foot of the Luberon Mountains
 

Terry

100+ Posts
Welcome to the Luberon

We woke up early and refreshed, made a trip to the local boulangerie just a half block away, and enjoyed our breakfast of baguette, jam, croissants, and coffee. Replenished and full, we were ready to explore the Luberon.

Our first stop today was the annual regional antiques market held every Easter at Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. Just under an hour's drive from Lourmarin, we arrived early and began to discover the market. There were all kinds of delicious smells wafting from the vendors lined up along the shaded canal, colorful bundles of Provencal materials, baskets, soaps, fresh produce - endless tables and possibilities! As we continued to walk, we crossed several of the town's many little bridges over its canals, and came upon the antiques vendors, and beyond them, a large open area with hundreds of tables of vendors - this was the regional antiques market. What fun - I bought a pretty dish for my bathroom. After a couple hours, the town was getting really full, and we decided to be on our way.

Next stop was Gordes, our very first perched village, and just picture perfect. It is said that this site has been occupied by man since the Neolithic times. We wandered all over the old streets after parking just outside of town. When we got hungry, we picked up some sandwiches, drinks, and fruit, and found ourselves a quiet out-of-the-way ledge, and had our lunch, with expansive views of the valley and the Vaucluse plateau. We daydreamed about what it would be like to live here today, and what it must have been like to live here during medieval times.

We visited Roussillon next, another hilltop village, perched on top of ochre cliffs. Amazingly, all the buildings in the town are tinted in the different red, yellow, and orange shades of ochre, which is a mixture of sand and iron ore. I became snap-happy in this town, taking seemingly endless numbers of photos - it seemed like every turn presented another photo op. Actually, come to think of it, all of Provence seemed that way to me. We hiked the trails through the old ochre quarries, and thoroughly enjoyed this unique village.

Finally, we went to beautiful Bonnieux, our third perched town of the day. All of these villages with their terraced streets and medieval homes simply enchant you with their stony beauty and mystify you with their living history. We were fortunate enough to attend an annual pottery market in Bonnieux (thanks Kaydee for the heads-up), where I bought a funky hand-crafted coffee mug. In all of our travels, I always buy either a coffee or tea cup as a memento, and we now have a great collection at home - daily reminders of our pleasant stays in so many different places.

After strolling around the streets of this quaint town, we settled in for dinner. We ate at Le Terrail, out on their terrace with dreamy views of the Luberon valley as a backdrop.

Home to Lourmarin.

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Shades of ochre in Roussillon
 

Terry

100+ Posts
Les Falaises de Lioux Hike and the Sault Loop

Today was Easter Monday, and we had done our homework and knew that most establishments would be closed in most towns. So, we decided to start our day off with a hike recommended on SlowTravel by Kaydee. We drove about an hour north to the teeny tiny little town of Lioux, population 252. Towering limestone cliffs, known as falaises, over 100 meters tall and forming an endless wall, rise up out of seemingly nowhere, and impose their presence over Lioux. This is where the hike begins, and Kaydee's instructions were on the mark and easy to follow (I had printed them out and brought them with us). The trail meandered out of the town, along the length of the cliffs, through orchards, vineyards, and fields, rising inperceptibly until it connected to the final stretch that brought you on top of the falaises. What a sight - a 360 degree panorama. Breath-takingly beautiful.

After the hike, we drove north to the town of Sault, We followed the Sault loop, a route mapped out in the Guidebook to the Luberon, and modified it a little for our day. Sault is beautifully situated amidst lavender fields, which were not blooming at this time of year, but we could still appreciate how lovely it must be in lavender season; Mount Ventoux was just beyond. We had lunch here in a little cafe, and bought some nougat in town at Andre Boyer's for dessert - mmmmmm. Such a pretty town - the temperature was noticably cooler here, as it's at a much higher elevation than the Luberon valley.

We next drove to the little town of St. Trinit, on the Sault loop, and soaked in its beauty. We visited its old church from the 12th century. In the town's square we checked out the World War I monument that displayed the rather long list of its fallen sons, so many lost lives for such a small village to incur.

After driving some more and stopping in a cafe in St. Christol for some refreshment, we made it to St. Saturnin-les-Apt. An unspoiled hilltop village with medieval castle ruins at the top, the whole town had a golden hue in the late afternoon sun. It was fun exploring the old ruins, and we loved the dam that was hidden on the other side of the crumbled castle's walls; it was originally used for the local water supply. The stones in the castle walls were placed in such a way to create a playful repeating pattern, and gorgeous yellow wildflowers would spring from random spots on the wall in big bright bunches. The village below has a beautiful church (St. Etienne) that houses a wooden Virgin Mary and child from the 14th century. The town was very quiet, probably due to the fact that it was Easter Monday; but there really didn't look like it was a big commercial center at all. We were hoping to eat in town, but everything was closed.

We drove back home to Lourmarin, and had a delicious meal at L'Oustalet, with a beautiful view of Lourmarin's chateau directly across the street. We were loving Provence.

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The limestone cliffs, les falaises, looming over the tiny town of Lioux
 

Terry

100+ Posts
Aix and Pains

Today we headed south, about a half hour's drive, to Aix-en-Provence, a bustling, robust city filled with old world charm. Aix is ultimately walkable and fertile for discovery. So were we. The city has been around since the 2nd century BCE, and was the capitol of Provence in the 15th century.

We were lucky to be there during market day, and all the tables and vendors added to the liveliness of the town. We particularly liked the beautiful square known as the Place de l'Hotel de Ville, where a flower market was being held in the shadows of the plane trees and the big Bell Tower. Walking further into the city, we came upon the markets at Place Richelme and in front of the Palais de Justice. We continued to stroll along to the Cours Mirabeau, lined with cafes and trees and beautiful fountains. This area felt like the heart of Aix, and we had a cafe and just enjoyed some old-fashioned people-watching here. Later, we found a little shop that made sandwiches to go, for we were now on our way to our afternoon adventures.

In the afternoon, we left Aix and drove about another hour to Cassis, but turned off at the signs for Les Calanques. Also known as the fjords of Provence, these are deep narrow inlets, surrounded by high white limestone cliffs that tumble into the turquoise blue of the Mediterranean sea. They are covered with scrubby pine trees, and hiking trails. We started hiking at Port Miou, which was fairly level, and began taking in the beautiful views and clear, fresh air. The hiking got a little testier, with increasingly steep climbs up and down, but we were game, the weather was warm, and this was once-in-a-lifetime material. Two and a half hours later, we reached the calanque known as En Vau - well worth the view, but we were hurting puppies, and we still had a return hike to make. That's why I called it "once-in-a-lifetime material" - who knows if we'll ever take that hike again. We soaked in the sun, sky, and impossibly blue water.

Back home that evening in Lourmarin, our dogs were barkin', but we felt uplifted from an invigorating day. Dinner at Le Bistrot Cafe, across from the town's soccer field. We were liking our game plan of going places during the day, and spending our evenings in Lourmarin. With so many restaurants, and being such a walkable, interesting town, it was the perfect centralized home base for us.

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At Les Calanques, Provence's fjords
 

Terry

100+ Posts
Over Hill and Dale

Another sparkling beautiful day in the southern Luberon. Lourmarin is a town to fall in love with; its winding narrow cobblestone streets, little shops and galleries, its fountains, three cafes right in the town center, medieval homes lovingly restored, the old cemetary, its Renaissance chateau, two beautiful churches; it is an intimate, sophisticated town that wears its character proudly. It is not a hilly town, but rather, ultimately walkable.

After a slow morning in Lourmarin, we ventured out to the perched village of Lacoste. It was very lazy and quiet here, and the town appeared quite tastefully restored. The ruins of the castle at the top of the town were once the home of the Marquis de Sade; it is now the private renovation project of Pierre Cardin. We walked all over until we found a lovely cafe where we had lunch on their terrace with a beautiful view.

Later, we visited the town of Menerbes, which stretches out along the crest of its hilltop. This village, like so many in the southeastern region of France, has been inhabited since prehistoric times, and has literally withstood centuries of battles and invasions. This was an easy and very pretty town to explore, being somewhat narrow and long. It is also the town made famous by Peter Mayle in A Year in Provence.

Our final stop was the perched town of Oppede-le-Vieux. We parked at the bottom at a pay lot, and walked through the village until we ascended to the top, where the old 13th century church and castle ruins still stand. They are both being slowly renovated through donations, and seem to rise up right out of the treetops above the town. The crumbled walls and old stones stand in quiet and lonely testimony to their earlier inhabitants and a previous life, high above the village.

We returned back to Lourmarin, and had dinner later at a really nice place called La Recreation, which had organic and vegetarian offerings on their menu. Yum.

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Place de l'Horloge in Menerbes
 

Terry

100+ Posts
A Day With Rain (Well, Actually, Sleet)

After our daily morning routine (visit the boulangerie, the tabac, stuff our faces, read the paper), we left before 9:00 for a busy day.

We drove an hour east and arrived in the town of Quinson by 10:00, to visit their Museum of Pre-History. I am a prehistory fanatic, and wanted very much to include a visit here during our time in Provence. They had an informative audio headphone self-tour, a great display of artifacts and the human timeline in the region, and a really cool re-creation of life in the famous Baume Bonne cave, where human habitation has been traced back over the past, oh, say 100,000 years. It is so humbling to me to walk the same land where our ancestors lived. Fascinating stuff, and a very worthwhile stop!

Next, after a lovely lunch stop in the cute town of Aups (farther east), we were on our way to the Gorges du Verdon, also known as the Grand Canyon of Europe. The landscape and terrain as we approached was just breathtaking. As the mountains began to loom larger and larger, the clouds began to look darker and darker. And, wouldn't you know it, as soon as we entered the park, we had our first and only bout of bad (no, make that horrible) weather on our entire vacation. Thunder, lightning, and sleet precluded our longer drive on the Gorges circuit; instead we drove in about a mile, got scared out of our wits, and drove out, but not without a few photo-ops.

By the time we arrived in Moustiers-Ste-Marie, the sky was still cloudy but the precipitation had stopped. This town's setting is so picturesque, perched high against a mountainy backdrop. It is also a shopping stop. Moustiers is known for its pottery (called faience), and I had a lot of fun going in and out of all the shops, checking out the endless ceramics stores. Poor Stu was getting a little weary with me, but he was patient. I finally bought a pretty teapot.

As we left Moustiers and headed back to Lourmarin, it became obvious to us that indeed the only place it had rained that day was the Gorges; Lourmarin was as dry and sunny as we had left it. Oh, well, it was a great day just the same. For dinner, we ate at L'Antiquaire, a more sophisticated restaurant, with excellent food.

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At the end of Gorges du Verdon, crossing the Verdon river on the way to Moustier-Ste-Marie
 

Terry

100+ Posts
A Final Day of Village-Hopping

Friday was market day in Lourmarin, and the whole town was just hopping! I loved exploring all the colorful and inviting tables. One treat we came to love in Lourmarin was their "gibassier", better known as the olive oil cookie. It's a huge blond cookie (roughly 8"x11" in size), shaped into a giant leaf, and is surprisingly addicting, sweet with a nice taste. Lourmarin apparently 'specializes' in this unique treat, and several vendors and boulangeries were selling them during the market.

We left town this morning and followed a route described in the Luberon Guidebook as the Pays D'Aigues loop - and visited three charming villages not far from Lourmarin. First was Vaugines, a small and quiet little town with maybe one cafe and known for its gorgeous moss-covered fountain. Manon des Sources was filmed here. Next we visited the town of Cucuron, and enjoyed its old streets, terracotta roofs, and the pretty pond in the lower village surrounded by the old plane trees. Our final village in the loop was Ansouis, on top of a hill and very sweet. We admired the castle grounds there, although we did not tour.

We drove back through Lourmarin and picked up some lunch for our afternoon jaunt, which began by heading north on the D943, the road that connects Lourmarin to Bonnieux and points north. This stretch of highway, by the way, is one of the more exhilarating roads we have taken in Provence, short of the Gorges du Verdon. Exquisitely sharp hairpin twists and turns, with amazing cliffs and overhangs and views - just a thrilling, dramatic drive, and destination in and of itself. Anyway, we followed the Luberon Guidebook's directions to find a particular old dirt road that intersects the D943, and we parked on a little bit of shoulder we found nearby and hiked in. We were rewarded within a short time with our encounter with an old 17th century bridge with a beautiful sunburst design carved into it. It crosses the stream known as the Aigue Brun, which originates in the springs of the Grand Luberon mountains and eventually flows into the Durance River. We ate lunch here, where it was very quiet and peaceful, a primordial setting, and tried to imagine what life must have been like when the bridge was in daily use. It was definitely the cutest bridge I've ever seen.

We next drove to Fort de Buoux, where we hiked up to a pre-Roman stronghold, with all its ruins and all its glory. It was a very quiet and awesome plateau sitting on the top of cliffs. Over the centuries, different peoples have populated this towering outpost, and many of the archaelogical remnants remain. This was truly a natural fortress, and it afforded great views from every vantage point. One particularly alluring view was that of the extreme rock-climbers scaling the cliffs just opposite, and we nervously watched them enjoying themselves.

From there, we headed to the lonely town of Sivergues. It is the highest village in the Luberon, and also probably the most isolated. With the much cooler air and the distinct lack of commerce, coupled with a sudden clouding up of the sky while we were there, this town was quiet and gray and beautiful. A short drive away was the hilltop town of Saignon. We didn't spend much time here, but did enjoy its pretty cemetary, and visited the town's center and its lovely fountain. I wish we had had more time, as this was a very pretty hilltop village.

It was our last night in Lourmarin and Provence. We ate at a fun little creperie/grill called La Louche a Beurre, and lingered in the night air during our evening walk one last time.

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17th century bridge with its sunburst design, over the Aigue Brun
 

Terry

100+ Posts
Til Next Time

Our final day in Provence, we sadly say goodbye to Lourmarin, and promise her to return one day.

In less than an hour's time, after a beautiful drive approaching the rugged Alpilles mountains, we arrived at Les Baux, the 11th century fortified village and its castle. We arrived around 9:30, and there was hardly anyone there. The ruins at the top organically rise out of the rock and vertical cliffs (you literally cannot tell where rock ends and edifices begin), in a high airy setting. It is a compelling and beautiful place to visit, with a stormy history of invasions, lordly dwellings, and feudal life. Although the lower town is touristy, it was still enjoyable walking the streets there, too.

From Les Baux, within a short hop of the parking lot, we checked out the Cezanne exhibit at the Cathedral d'Images, a very large cavernous old rock quarry that has been converted into a unique audio-visual experience. Larger-than-life images are projected on the walls, ceilings, and floors of this enormous grotto, enveloping you in sight and sound, so that you feel to be almost "inside" the paintings. The exhibit changes yearly - this year is the 100th anniversary of Cezanne's death, and so this tribute to his works. An unforgettable experience.

We left Les Baux driving through the area known as the Val d'Enfer (Valley of Hell), named because of the un-earthly feel of the landscape here - large, jagged rocks and gorges, many caves - there is a desolate beauty here. It's been said that this area was the inspiration for Dante's Inferno, and I can see why.

We had lunch in St. Remy, a sweet town with many lovely shops, especially Joel Durand's Chocolate Shop, where we stocked up. We spent several hours here exploring.

With some time to spare before our 8pm TGV train in Avignon, we decided on the spur of the moment to check out the Pont du Gard, only an hour's drive away. This 1st century Roman aqueduct is still standing, and structurally intact! Walking across it, we moved in slow motion, just completely immersed in wonder of this bridge. The sheer scale and magnitude of the Pont is just magnificent - three tiers of graceful arches, that looked golden in the late afternoon sun - an engineering feat, built so so long ago. Glad we fit that in!

No problems returning our car, with an hour to spare hanging out at the Avignon TGV train station. Arrived in Paris at 10:30pm, and stayed at the lovely Hotel Muguet in the 7th. We could see the Eiffel Tower from our room. The next day, we had no difficulty getting to CDG, as we were now seasoned RER riders. As we boarded our plane and took to the friendly skies, we did not say goodbye to France, we only sighed "til next time."

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The plane trees all over Provence created natural archways
 

Terry

100+ Posts
Looking Back

Our trip to France was love at first sight, and we were indeed thankful for the opportunity to be there. The people are so friendly and engaging; their language so beautiful. French food and wine are superb, because in France it is an art form. Our family enjoyed an extra-special get-together, and the start of a new family tradition. We opened our hearts to Provence, and the region embraced us. Next time, we would like to visit during a different season, perhaps when the lavender are in bloom. A visit to France is a journey back into time, and a discovery of one's self, and it was more wonderful than we ever could have imagined it to be.

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Bonnieux and the Vaucluse plateau
 

Terry

100+ Posts
A Post-Script

There is a post-script to this report that I would like to share with my fellow travellers, in the hopes that there may be some helpful information to be gained for anyone who finds themselves in a similar situation.

About one month before we were to leave, my 77-year old mother fell and broke her hip. Coupled with her Parkinson's disease, she had a difficult row. We had some very serious reservations about even taking the trip at all, and I would like to share some of the things I learned that I think travellers should remember if they find themselves like I did with an unexpected family crisis:

1) Always insure your trip. The cost of insurance will pale next to the costs of your airline tickets, vacation rentals/hotels, car/train tickets, etc. Peace of mind: priceless. The earlier you insure your trip after you book it, the better.

2) Always have phone access and, if possible, email access. Communication is key. If you are going abroad, make sure you know ahead of time how you will be making international calls, whether through your cell phone company or calling cards and the like. I called my father and/or sister everyday while we were away, and it helped all of us a lot.

3) Set up a support and care system for the family that is staying behind. Issues like meals, medications, doctor visits, family visits, and transportation all need to be addressed. With aging parents, it is always a good idea to explore durable and medical power of attorney issues, and living wills while your folks are healthy. Don't stamp out fires - prevent them! It is a tall order, true, but better to deal with it now instead of when you are miles and miles away.

4) Take all pertinent information with you, printed and legible, and keep it in a safe place that's easy to access. This includes phone numbers, addresses, your itinerary, insurance cards. Make sure you leave copies with key people back home so that they can reach you, too.

5) Network with fellow travellers like those on the SlowTalk Message Board. Odds are someone in this community has had a similar experience to share, or can guide you to the right answer that you may be looking for. I know the folks here helped me tremendously.

And remember, you are always only a plane flight away from home. My mother as patient and my father as caregiver fared well, thankfully, while we were gone. I left with a strong support system in place, and it helped.

I would like to dedicate this trip report to the memory of my dear mother, who taught me to see beauty in this world. She passed away one month after we returned home.

Happy trails to you all, good luck and good health!

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My mother and father

Resources

Guidebook to the Luberon
 

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