A Travellerspoint blog

An Aix-Rated Stopover

Friday night in Provence, uncensored

sunny 30 °C

So far on this trip , there are many things I would recommend. One I would not, is arriving in a bustling centre at 5.30 on a sunny, Friday evening. After covering over 500km on the brilliant motorway between Besancon and Provence, we decided to call it a day and find somewhere to sleep. I saw 'Aix-en-Provence' marked on the map, and, on consultation with our travel bible, France Rough Guide, we pulled off the A7 and into, well, lots and lots of traffic. Chanting our mantra, 'Make for the Tourist Bureau', 'Make for the Tourist Bureau', we snaked our way around the obligatory roundabouts and headed for city centre. Unfortunately, we sailed past our beacon of hope, the Tourist Bureau, at one rather large roundabout, so took the next exit instead, right into a pedestrian mall, full of tables, postcard stands, and of course, pedestrians. Oops. But there was no way out and as we inched forward the street narrowed alarmingly . None of the pedestrians seemed alarmed, however, wandering in our path in their hundreds. They may have been pointing and laughing but I wouldn't know as I had hidden my head under the dashboard, helpfully yelling expletives (the aix-rated part, sorry to disappoint you). I am seriously the best and most valuable navigator - a rally team should totally think about hiring me. So useful, if just for entertainment value alone. Sadly, all good things must come to an end and we finally made it out the other end on to an actual road, and found an actual multi-story car park. Hooray! And after the first few tries, we found an actual hotel that wasn't completely full or foul. Patting ourselves on the back, we enjoyed a gorgeous night in Aix. A university town, it was teeming with chic and well-dressed students, streaming from bars, restaurants and shops, ready to enjoy the balmy summer evening, the bubbling of the many spectacular fountains as the soundtrack. Without much time for sightseeing, we contented ourselves with a leisurely stroll around the beautiful old town, then ate with the locals at an outdoor restaurant.
Next morning, we took the correct exit at the roundabout. No dramas. Told you I was an expert navigator.

Posted by millie t 08:57 Archived in France Comments (0)

Aged to perfection

Besancon's old town has a lot to like, just don't hop on the Planoise bus...

sunny 24 °C

Another stressful day of driving almost behind us, we pulled into the outer suburbs of Besancon, a town in Eastern France close to the border. Michael went to uni here for a year, more time ago than he cares to remember, and fancied a little reckie to see if things had changed or were more or less the same as his student days, or should that be daze?
He did warn me that the suburb of Planoise where his lodgings were, left more than a little to be desired. However on arrival, and after a long and tiring day, things looked a bit worse than he remembered, and quite a lot worse than I had expected. We found his (gloomy) old street, funnily enough also named Rue de Champagne (no relation, I'm here to tell you), parked, and he walked me over to the shops where he used to buy groceries, get his haircut, things like that. The first thing I saw was the dodgy bar. No, actually the first thing I saw was all the cops hanging around on the streets, trying to break up gangs of youths. The second thing I saw was the dodgy bar. "Your local?" I asked, trying to look tough and brave, "No way", he replied, "we were way too scared to go in there". Least I wasn't the only one... After taking in the supermarket and the hair salon, which Mike was most disappointed to find was no longer called Monsieur Coiff, for what reason I know not with a fab name like that. Then someone threw an egg at us. No, I'm not lying or exaggerating, they really did. Then some people laughed at us, and then I told Mike in no uncertain terms that, darling, I am very glad to see the lovely place in which you spent your hopefully-not-formative year, but now can we please GO. FAST. RUN!
After scarpering back to the car, avoiding any more local produce, he insisted on showing me the actual town of Besancon, and his old haunts. With more than a little trepidation after the welcome we'd received at the last one, I rather bravely agreed. Which was a good thing as old Besancon is absolutely gorgeous and quintescentially French. Winding cobbled streets, beautiful fountains, elegant old buildings and churches and pedestrian streets packed with lush shops, bustling restaurants and chic bars. We spent a barmy evening wandering the streets, sampling Mike's favourite watering holes, and snacking on fresh French produce, including the area's famous runny cheese, Conquillotte. Maybe a year spent like this wouldn't be so bad after all.
We slept sound that night in an amazing old townhouse that had been converted into a chic French hotel - Charles Quint (www.charlesquint.com). The only thing that disturbed our repose was the chiming of churchbells from the cathedral outside our window. Just another pinch-me-I'm-not-dreaming moment.
Mike has since threatened that if I misbehave on the rest of the trip, he will put me straight on the bus to Planoise. Needless to say, I've been the perfect travelling companion ever since.
The other Rue de Champagne!
The beautiful Besancon square

Posted by millie t 01:45 Archived in France Comments (0)

Champange, anyone?

Our flutes runneth over in Epernay

sunny 26 °C

If you know me, you'll know I have a weakness for champagne. OK, maybe its more than that. More a when-I-tell-my-husband-I-love-him-and-he-says-"What, more than Champagne"-ness. Surfice to say, I had come on my pilgrimage and I had made it - to Epernay, the capital of champagne. We stayed in a to-die little bed and breakfast on, naturally, Rue de Champagne. Next door was Esterlin, across the road, Perrier Jouet, next to that, Pol Roger and down on the corner, Moet & Chandon. So we were in the thick of it. We were welcomed to our little haven by the Rimaires,a French couple who run the b&b with a bottle of their home-brand champagne (made carefully by their neighbours, the Moets & Chandons of course). Called Parva Domus, you simply must stay there if you ever have the pleasure of visiting the region (www.parvadomusrimaire.com), it's heaven, and even though they speak no word of English and my french is rusty, and that's being tres kind, it was just gorge. Our 2 days there passed in a whirlwind of champagne tastings, cellar tours, gourmet dinners, more champagne tastings, and needless to say, that's about all we remember. We went from tiny cellar doors in the country, where we got some great bargains, to the grandeur of Moet & Chandon. We even managed to learn things, like what Cru means (the villages that grow champagne grapes), what mix goes into Moet's famous Brut Imperiale (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier grapes), even how they get those bulbous corks into those small bottle necks (air pressue machine, very impressive machine). We were so sad to leave and both agreed we'd love to come back to this charming town where French bubbles flow freely and it ok, hell, expected, that you've had at least a couple of glasses before midday. Now that's my kinda place. Cheers, a votre sante!
Parva Domus
mike___dom.jpg When Michael met Dom...
champagne_bottles.jpg In the cellar with the good stuff
another_tasting.jpg Another tasting

Posted by millie t 01:09 Archived in France Comments (0)

A merde of a day

On the road in France, an experience in itself

sunny 25 °C

Let me preface this blog by saying, there are so many things I adore about France. The food, the wine, the countryside, the cities...it truly is a magical place. Well, most of it is. The same just cannot be said for driving en France. Excited to be on the road again, we rolled onto the NorfolkLine ferry at Dover for a smooth and seasick-free transfer to Dunkerque (if you're making this trip, Norfolkline is amazing, easy on the wallet and really nice on board). On board we procured all sorts of useful things required by law to drive in France. Things like first aid kits, red triangle thingies that have lights on that you put on the roadside if you break down (this doesn't work for mental breakdowns unfortunately, I know because I had lots), a GB sticker for our car (yes, compulsory, not simply patriotic), even special stickery things you adhere to your headlights so your British car doesn't dazzle those poor French drivers. Phew. After spending a good portion of our daily budget on "car things" we felt sure nothing could daunt us when we hit the French roads. Forgetting a few minor things of course like, well, driving on the other side of the road for example. Yes, that little matter of keeping right. Especially challenging on roundabouts. Which brings me to my next point. There must have been a sale on roundabouts when France was making its roads as they are literally everywhere, with the most bizarrely and unhelpfully positioned road signs attached. At least we had a fair bit of practice negotiation these in there hundreds. Then of course the small matter of the speed limit - a mere 130kms an hour which, might I add is not exactly adhered to. With a little Corolla stuffed full of huge suitcases, two rather heavy humans, a bike, and all our safe-driving-in-France paraphenalia, 130 was a tad of a stretch - the poor little thing vibrating like a washing machine on spin cycle while thousands of Renault Meganes and Audis zoomed past furiously.
Let's not forget the lorries. Billions of them it would seem, which meant we got very good at overtaking very quickly - even if I did have to adopt the emergency brace position when we did (don't worry, at least I wasn't driving). Ooh, I'm leaving out the bit about roadworks in France. Just block of the whole street, go on, nobody will need the main road in town today, or the next week perhaps, who cares if it's the street their hotel is on? They'll find another one. Oh, and how about driving into a quaint little town with ribbon-thin cobbled streets at peak hour while still remembering to drive on the right, avoid pedestrians, go through a few hundred more roundabouts, the usual. Now...where was the part about being on holidays being easy and carefree? Hmm?
Eleven and a half - yes count them - eleven and a half hours later, we made it to our destination. Sure, we weren't speaking to eachother, we were both drenched in sweat and we'd been well and truly lost a good 3 or 4 times, but we made it to Epernay, capital of the Champagne region. And where better to celebrate?
Aaagh, another blockage!

Posted by millie t 00:31 Archived in France Comments (0)

Horses and gypsies and booze, oh my!

The other side of the Epsom Derby

sunny 24 °C

I love horse racing. The super-groomed thoroughbreds, the thundering of their hooves, their speed. The bright colours of the jockies' silks, and the hats and dresses in the crowd. The top hats, the buttonholes, the old fashioned traditions and the fact you can drink champagne at 10am without anyone blinking an eye, rather joining in on the festivities. So, when I realised I was in Surrey on the day of the world famous Derby at Epsom Downs, only a few stops away on the local train, I got excited. But since I hadn't packed a floaty frock and sharp straw trilby for obvious reasons, I decided to join the ranks on the other side of the tracks. Epsom is one of the few racing venues in the world where the public can attend for free, get up against the railings, and have pretty much the same view of the fillies as the Queen does from her royal balcony opposite. Pretty amazing really. I wanted in. Over 100,000 people who shared my love of the old-fashioned sport of horse racing? Bring it. Here are a few things I hadn't considered, however:
1. While I arrived around 3pm, most folks had been there since the crack of dawn staking out their pozzie, some with blankets, the more organised with marquees, one group of ladies going so far as to decorate their marquee with floor rug, seating, an oil painting of roses for the wall and even a brass candellabra.
2. The drink of choice was vodka. Not with a mixer or even a cube of ice...oh no. Neat. From the bottle.
3. It was a 24 degree day, after a week of near-freezing temperatures. Why would you wear a top when you needn't? In fact, why would you need to wear practically any clothes at all?
4. If you can make some money at the same time, brill! Not by betting on the races, mind, but by selling an array of bizzare things not usually needed at the track. Things like, say, manilla envelopes in a range of sizes, a set of steak knives, a 2m glass coffee table with faux-greek pillars for legs, a cut-glass fruit bowl or perhaps some perfume?
5. Sick of watching the ponies? Why not engage in some bare-knuckle fighting for fun? Or take a ride on a rollercoaster where you can sick up your battered sav?

Needless to say, I was stunned, amused, enchanted and a little bit terrified all at once. Apparently the gypsies come from all over the country for the races and stay on site for a few days. They set up their stalls, a fun fair, their caravans and make a weekend out of it. Having never really seen gypsies, it was pretty exciting. Boy, do they party hard, though. I was more than a little relieved to make it safely back on the train and get home in one piece. Oh, and I now see where those Little Brittain guys got the material for Vicky Pollard, and where Catherine Tate gets her info, too. But what I loved best about this bizarro day out, was that, across the track from the complete madness that was going on in the centre, the Queen and her entourage, plus London high society ( who arrived throughout the afternoon via chopper) were watching the same races, sharing the same spirit, though perhaps in slightly different conditions. And when it came time for the Derby, I was pressed up against the railings, watching those horses thunder past with 100,000 other fans. And what could be better than that?

Posted by millie t 03:34 Archived in England Comments (0)

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