Friday, July 1, 2016

In the empire of the Romans and Popes (France, June 2016)

13.6 London - Orange (L'Herbier d'Orange)

Up early, and just as well, as train check-in is slow due to the large number of football tourists (World Cup in France). Most of the day on the train, footy louts drunk and noisy at 9am, then alcohol sales are stopped for everyone! Poor management. A smooth and uneventful trip, but at the other end there are strikes on the trains going to the centre of town, and local bus is crammed and slow, but we finally arrive in the centre more than one hour after arriving in Avignon. Have missed the 3.30 Orange bus, so the 4.28 train is a more expensive but faster option. Finally arrive at our accommodation in Orange at 5.15, not too late. Reception is very friendly, the room is large and light (with a bathroom build oddly covering one window), and Orange looks lovely.

After settling, we go for a stroll to find somewhere to eat - A La Maison is recommended and in a great location, we have Italian salad (melon, prosciutto, tomatoes and mozzarella) and a pan fried fish with rice and veg, washed down with a yummy local viognier.

Chris and rosé in Provence (his Dragon cap from Wales)

14.6 Orange (L'Herbier d'Orange)

Memories of Orange are of meandering through a labyrinth of shuttered terraces punctuated with plane-tree shaded squares. There is a famous (enormous!) Roman theatre that draws tourists to the antique ville, but it is mostly a lively, but slightly down-at-heel, provincial town.

This first morning we eschew hotel breakfast in favour of exploring, and go hunting for a cafe. We seem to walk endless circles, finding brasseries setting up for lunch, but nowhere to find a croissant. Finally buy croissants from a boulangerie, and eat them surreptitiously at a brasserie. Travel seems so often punctuated with these kinds of experiences, looking for what you know must be there but being frustrated! But it does promote exploration ...

Our hotel on the left
Shutters of Orange
After visiting the Theatre Antique and the Museum (most fascinating are the fragments of Roman land registries, showing ownership and tax paid - so humans have treated 'land' as property for millenia now), we treat ourselves to a cheap cafe lunch (12 euros), and get what we paid for. After rosé, a nap. Then more exploring in search of a dinner time picnic spot. Again frustration - there is nowhere to sit near the small river/canal that flows through the town - until we climb Colline St Eutrope, behind the theatre. We eat bread, cheese, salad and wine at the top of a lovely park, slightly shabby with weeds and rubbish, but with amazing views. Polishing off the wine as the sun goes down ... Zzzzzzz ... What is it? A leaf blower? No, a drone, hovering overhead! We dream of a slingshot, and Chris tells me of eagles being trained in the US to take out small drones.

Fragments of ancient land registries
View of Orange from Colline St Eutrope

15.6 Orange

A meandering day. Start late, after a hotel breakfast this time, and try to find out at the local tourist office about the bus from Avignon to Uzes - they tell me we need to travel via Nimes, which I know is not right ... Seeking the next picnic spot, we wander along the canal then to 'Arc de Triomphe', the other Roman remains here. Nearby is a small park with men playing boules. Also check out Place Verdi (large barren square) and Place Sablot (small new square without overlooking cafes).

Chris is no shopper so late afternoon I escape to check out shops, but it's slim pickings for bargains or bric a brac - lots of trendy clothes, homewares, hippy shops. Finally find a small strip of second-hand shops and buy a skirt for 1 euro, and then, to console myself, a small bottle of Pastis.
For picnic tonight: a quiche and pisalladiere with tomatoes and nectarines at Place Sablot.

Playing boules

16.6 Orange - Avignon

After all, it is quite easy to take the bus back to Avignon. Nice views, and only 2 euros. Our new hotel (Hotel Boquier) is only five minutes from the bus station, and not far from the tourist sites around Palais du Papes. But it is in a funky student area near a large park, and Place des Corps Saints which is lined with lively cafes. We walk. And walk. Collection Lambert, the modern art gallery, is closed for installation,  so to Musee Calvert - an eclectic mix in a beautiful ancient building. Wander around the 'palais' and garden, then for dinner to the highly recommended local restaurant Fou de Fa Fa for baked chicken breast and roasted duck breast (also gazpacho and cheese plate). It's nice, and the service is excellent, but for the price still not as good as home cooking (68 euros with wine).

God shines on Avignon!
Avignon posters

17.6 Avignon - Uzes

A few more hours in Avignon, we traipse through the Palais (rather cluttered with staging for the upcoming festival), and have a surprisingly cheap and simple lunch in the tower cafe, then check out the Musee de Petit Palais. It's just 14th to 16th century religious painting, but it's fascinating to see in detail the development from gothic to renaissance, and the influence and the interpretations of different areas (Florence, Siena, Venice, Avignon etc). And the building itself is spectacular, we are almost alone in there, and it's quite lovely.

In the afternoon  -  bus to Uzes, met at the bus stop by the lovely Sylvie, and led to a gorgeous little stone-walled studio apartment (Le Portalet) with valley views, a tiny kitchen, and a bath!

Avignon - Palais du Papes
Avignon 'living sculpture'
Lovely studio apartment in Uzes

 18.6 Uzes

It's a lovely apartment for three days, and we immediately plan to spend our time cooking and relaxing, and forget any day trips. Today is market day, and we meander over at around 11am; it's getting busy. Buy: soap, cheese, olives, terrine, fruit and veg, duck, fish fillets (Sebaste = redfish).  By 12 pm it's getting very crowded, so we go home to a leftover lunch of sausage, potatoes, asparagus and courgette. Hoping the crowds will be gone, I go back to the market after lunch, but most of the market has gone. I buy a woven market basket and some tea towels.

For the rest of the day we just wander. It's a really gorgeous place, beautifully restored medieval town, but ... also full of tourists, galleries, boutiques ... not the tiny backwater village we had imagined. Nevertheless, an easy place to chill out.

Instead of an evening excursion, we drink rosé at our window, with chevre and figs. (It is raining - a thunderstorm followed us home.) Then cook the fish with olives, lemon and garlic, baby potatoes, and tomato and basil salad. Loving having a kitchen!

Uzes market - the olive shop
Chris and rosé

19.6 Uzes

Follow the tourist trail around town. Start late, so many things are closed, hard to get used to the opening and closing hours here in the south - usually 9-12 (or 10-12) then 2-7 (or 3-7). Except Sunday when it is all different, and almost all shops are closed in the afternoon). Try to buy some bread and wine on our way home but the epicier is closed. Wait for Sylvie to come so we can pay for the apartment - she is late, and I'm anxious to go out again now that things are open ...

The medieval garden is a sweet oasis, quite shabby and informal. Really terrible art exhibition. I climb the tower for a view - I am a sucker for a view. Chris stays on the ground with his vertigo, and borrows some tarragon and rosemary for our dinner. Back home and grab wine for an evening drink, in the park this time, with a view over a tiny olive grove. For dinner - magret de canard (quite easy really) with apricot sauce.

Place aux Herbes - the main square
Olive grove
View over cathedral near apartment - from the medieval tower

20.6 Uzes-Nice (Hotel Rex)

Early bus, only 3 euros for both of us, long wait for train at Avignon but all runs on time. Finally post some postcards, break my reading glasses and buy more, then train: Avignon Centre - Avignon TGV - Marseilles - Nice. The Nice train is SO crowded, it's a commuter train with no room for luggage, but most passengers are tourists so bags are piled onto seats and in walkways. Opposite us, two middle-aged gays with a pug dog in a bag. As we all cram bags between our legs we are chuckling, but really, darling, it's too much! It's a 2.5 hour trip and feeling very cramped at the end, but manage a small nap. The gays alight at Cannes, and the train is emptier by then, we can finally stretch our legs. Twenty minute walk to the hotel stretches our legs too. Rex Hotel is small, shabby, clean and basic, and very central, on Rue Massena just off Place Massena, the main city square.

Nice street scene
Cathedral at Nice
Nice colours and washing
Nice is hot and sunny, and absolutely packed with tourists! We walk along the esplanade and into the old town, there is an antiques market in the large square that looks fascinating, but it's too hot to linger. Plunge into the cool, labyrinthine alleyways, full of cafes, restaurants, boutiques and souvenir shops. Above, the multi-coloured apartment buildings have shuttered windows hung with multi-coloured washing. Seek shade in the cathedral – OMG it’s OTT (just a glimpse of what’s waiting for us in Italy!).

We walk in circles, seeking out two recommended restaurants - one is closed, at the other tiny place we make a booking. The meal at Chez Palmyre is good and authentic if not spectacular - veg salad with pancetta, potato and leek soup followed by magret de canard (I can't resist) and rare tuna on mash, then chocolate mousse and salted caramel millefeuille. With a bottle of wine it's less than 50 euros - bargain!

Finally a walk to the hilltop park for spectacular twilight views on a hot night.
Chez Palmyre
Twilight Nice
Place Massena at night

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