Sunday, November 29, 2009

Our Home for a Week - Saignon, in Provence, France

Saignon is about 4 or 5 km up the hill from Apt. I had not heard of either of these places before, but found them as I was searching through the website of places to rent. Apt has a population of only 11,000 and does not seem to come up in much of the tourist literature, but is well known for its incredible Saturday market (more about that later).

Saignon is one of many hill-top towns in Provence. This one has a massive rock which looks like it once had a castle on top.

One day a TV series was being filmed there. It had something to do with a Flemish man. The picturesque fountain was used as a backdrop for the filming.

When I aimed my camera I was wanting to capture the narrow alley. But I now see that I caught a renovated exterior of the building on the right. Definitely not as interesting but I think I can understand why they did it, as it is nothing short of amazing that the very old stone buildings are still intact.

Looking down on the village from the top of the rock. Our house was where there are two rows of buildings.

Looking to the north-east. If you enlarge this picture and look closely at the horizon, you will see light-coloured buildings, which are another hill-top village.

The pictures above and below are facing each other.

Looking at the picture above, can you see a beige field? It runs on an angle below the rock. It is a lavender field but we were there in early October, so the lavendar was harvested long ago. I took the picture below off the internet. It shows the same field in bloom in June and July.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Our Rental in Saignon, Provence

Saignon is said to be one of the oldest villages in France. It not only has a small population (1057), but is also very compact, with distinctly vertical stone houses. It is one of many picturesque hilltop towns in the Luberon region of Provence. The minute we got in the door we were excited about our place. Here is why:

This is the entry. Its a bit difficult to see the alcoves and level changes, but it is the most unique space I had ever seen. It seems that there may be some tunnels that lead to other houses in the area, but I wasn't about to test that theory!!  This level was not furnished, other than the chair and table. A second bathroom and laundry area were down here. It had no window so I was not tempted to sit at the table.

The stairs were beautiful. This is taken from the second level, which was a huge master bedroom.

This is still in the master bedroom, and on the left is the original stone sink. That's a vase and curly twigs sitting in it.
The stairs continued up to the living room / kitchen. If you looked out the window on the left you would see that the house across the street was about 10 ft away.

A very nice kitchen with everything in working order and lots of nice plates, cutlery, pots and pans, etc.

Up one more light of stairs to a bedroom with two beds and a glass wall leading out to a lovely terrace, complete with barbecue and a big table. Lovely place to watch the sunset.

I found this place on the Holiday Rentals website too, though I don't see it there right now. We were there at the end of the season and the rate was incredibly good. The contacts were all (3) exceptionally good people to deal with. I see there is a webpage here, with some info.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

On to Provence

So it was just Rory and I on our way to our next rental in the tiny town of Saignon, near Apt, which is due north of Aix-en-Provence. The train ride from Nice to Aix was expensive and quite boring, scenery-wise. I was wondering if I had made the correct choice in coming to Provence. It is so famous, but....

Things improved on the bus ride from Aix to Apt: The bus was to leave Aix at 6:30 pm and we were told that the bus would take one hour to get to Apt. This was also another case of a guy with 'tude, but we had no reason not to believe him. A kind young lady at the bus stop allowed us to use her mobile to make the call to our rental contact, telling her of our expected arrival time of 7:30.  

We had traveled about two blocks and there was an constant high-pitched sound on the bus. Suddenly the driver stopped in the middle of a roundabout and asked a passenger to go out into the traffic, to the exit door and push on it. Success! The horrible sound went away.

On the bus I had picked up a schedule and read that the arrival time in Apt was 8:20pm, not 7:30. So we needed to find another kind-hearted soul who would lend us their cell phone. Naturally I delegated the job to Rory. I guess the word mobile is the same in French and English, so that when I spoke loud enough for Rory to hear me, the bus driver heard the word. She was a little agitated and seemed to be indicating that a mobile could not be used on the bus. Rory was proceeding to make inquiries when the driver once again stopped traffic while she got up and walked to where Rory was sitting.

I was worried that Rory was going to get into trouble. She walked up to him and said "Mobile" and reached her hand under his butt. Needless to say he was a little shocked!! It turns out he was unknowingly sitting on the cover of her mobile phone!

The next while went without incident. There was a gorgeous sunset and the road was very narrow and wound through a pass. Rory noted that the bus driver "owned the road" and I made a mental note to not drive during the times the bus makes it way on the road.

Did you note that I mentioned that the road was a winding one? Less that 5 km from our destination a passenger came running up from the back of the bus and asked/demanded that the driver stop. Then she got out and proceeded to up-chuck on the side of the road.

Never sit at the back of the bus on a winding road. I learned that one in Costa Rica.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Welcome to France - Not a Great Start

To be able to get anywhere quickly in Italy or France, one must take the Autostrada or Autoroute (freeway to us). Its pretty straightforward until you are west of Genoa. Then the spines of the Alps go right to the Mediterranean, causing a real problem for road builders, as the road intersects the ridges at a right angle. But they have taken it in stride and built an amazing series of tunnels and bridges that barge their way across and through the landscape. You had better not want to gaze at the view cause you rarely get to see it!

All this comes at a price, meaning, a price to those who take these roads. Gary worked it out to cost ten cents a kilometer. So if you drive for an hour (about 100 km), then expect to pay $10. Its user-pay in France, Italy and Spain (though not in Germany nor the UK).

Entering France
We had a reservation at a hostel, just barely inside France, right on the Med in Menton. Finding the hostel was a huge challenge. You would think that not having recording the address would be the biggest obstacle to finding it, but in fact it was the lack of signage. We found one sign, proceeded along the road, finally went into a campground, it didn't look right so we turned around and paced up and down the road looking for a sign that said Auberge or showed the icon for hostels. No such luck. Finally it was found, at the campground, in a building at the back. We looked for that place for over an hour. No wonder we were almost the only people there!!

The best feature of the hostel

The guy running the place had a major case of 'tude, so there was no point in telling him there needed to be better signage. After setting up our room we wanted to prepare some food in the big commercial kitchen, but the hostel-master was true to our first impression of him, and informed us that it was not for our use. We went to bed that night feeling confident that our morning breakfast would be something special with such a marvelous kitchen for the cook to work in.

So with eager anticipation we went out to the eating area. Hmmm... A container of corn flake-type things and baguette slices that must have been at least a day old. Nothing was produced in that kitchen.

But there was an upside. We sat with a wonderful couple from Austria. They were on a cycling trip for a couple of weeks. So we left with good memories of the place.

Buildings were beautiful in Nice

This looked like an automatic bike rental in Nice. Looked like it was well-used too.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Italy - A Few Parting Thoughts

The most common type of cheap and fast food in Europe, seems to the doner kebab. I had them in Turkey long before they spread around the world faster than MacDonalds or Wal-Mart. They were delicious in Turkey, but now have taken on some different elements. For instance, the owner (from Pakistan) asked me if I wanted fries with it. To my surprise he put the fries inside with the meat and vegies. I asked for them separately and he said "Not in Italy". They tasted awful so I removed and ditched them.

The awful fries were well hidden

Had an classic Italian situation. An Italian woman was absolutely fascinated by the fact that I as trying to get to Pieve or Buchignano from Lucca, by bus. She made it her mission to help me get there. She spoke not a word of English and myself not a word of Italian. First she talked non-stop to the bus driver about my situation (I could hear the words Pieve and Buchignano coming up again and again). I just sat back on the bus, knowing that with her on my side I was going to end up where I needed to go.

Then we got to the end of the line in Camaiore. Hmmm. I had understood that the bus I was on would not be going via Pieve (the closest I could get to Buchignano), but what now? Heck, no need to worry. Even though the previously well-informed bus driver had departed, my ally was still on the bus. I wasn't sure why, but she was definitely there.

Then a new driver got on board and she proceeded to present him with the same verbal diarhea she gave the previous driver, regarding my situation. I was able to figure out that the bus took a different route on the way back and I would be dropped off in Pieve de Camaiore. But would this lady ever stop talking?

Seems not. She got off at the same place as me, as did a younger woman. Between them they discussed my situation, non-stop. It was like a scene out of the movies. We were in a miniscule town and I only needed to go to the one and only church to meet the rental lady. Luckily I had about 20 minutes, however I was thinking that I would be late.

It seems that by having mentioned Buchignano (much earlier) I had thrown too much information into the equation. They couldn't understand what I was trying to describe when I did things like draw a cross and hold my hands to indicate prayer and then a roof. Wouldn't that mean "church" to everyone? Not to these two Italian ladies. I can only now assume that there is no church in Buchignano. However I wanted one in Pieve, and I was quite sure we were in Pieve.

On and on and on they went, particularly the older one. How much can one possibly say about my situation? Evidently a lot.

I mentioned the town was tiny and we were right beside the recycling station. Finally someone came along to feed the bins. Luckily the lady knew some English and I told her I just wanted to meet someone at the church. So a couple of minutes later I was finally released. Whew!!!! I was almost dizzy from listening. And it was only about 50 yards to the church (uphill, of course).

Food, great food. Gnocchi that are as delicate as clouds. Try putting chopped fresh sage in butter, then pour it over gnocchi. Superb!! Ravioli....sigh....

I haven't yet mentioned lardo di colonatto, a specialty of the Garfagnana. Take a close look at the picture below. The slices are cut from that white chunk of fat. It is considered to be a delicacy.

The pork lard is trimmed, rubbed with salt, and placed in marble tubs with alternating layers of sea salt, ground black pepper, fresh rosemary and roughly minced garlic. The tubs are then covered with marble lids and the lard is aged for at least 6 months.

A thousand years ago it was the traditional lunch of the quarry workers. They sliced it and had it with bread, raw onions and tomatoes.

We had it one day for dinner, a thin slice on toasted bread. It wasn't as bad as one might think, but one piece was enough for me. Gary loved it, though he is a big fan of pork fat anyway.

Our family loves grocery stores in foreign lands. I spend most of my time in the vegetable section. Some of the vegies were in bulk, but lots were waaaaaay over-packaged. I thought that North American stores were bad until I saw what was done in Italy. We were shocked and dismayed at the carbon footprint we left there. When I traveled in Europe 35 years ago I was so impressed by the fact that Europeans had to supply their own bags at stores, and was wishing that would be the case at home. Now we seem to have got the message here, but they are now into plastic bags and cartons in a big way.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Hiking the Cinque Terre

Another of my long-held goals was accomplished when we hiked the Cinque Terre, which is the trail that connects 5 of the cliff-hugging villages on the north-west coast of Italy, south of Genoa. The area is a National Park and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

La Spezia, the city you must go through to get to the south end of the Cinque Terre. We camped in a mosquito-infested campground near here in 1996.

Many years ago the only way to go between the villages was to walk the path, but now there is both a railroad and a boat to take you to each of the charming villages. Mobs of tourists simply take the railroad or a boat from village to village, flooding the lovely little towns. Definitely spoils it, but is good for the economy of the small towns. The hike itself is nice and the towns are gorgeous, but I do wonder how the locals cope! We were there on a beautiful sunny Saturday at the beginning of October and there truly were mobs of tourists.

And some of those stupid tourists even take pictures of their laundry hanging out to dry!

In Riomaggiori I was finally able to take a picture of my favourite vehicle, the three-wheeled truck.

We started at the south end. The path to the next village, Manarola was beautifully paved, and due to it being such a short and easy path, the stream of people reminded me of a shopping mall in December. But once the hiking got a little more strenuous the mob was greatly reduced.

Next village, Manarola

Looking back at Manarola

Next village, Corniglia

If you enlarge this picture you will see a man in the water, floating on his back.

We seemed to have accidently found the easier way up to Corniglia, a paved road. Others were climbing the 368 steps. Oh well...  These two buildings were parked well away from everything else. They really stood out, for more than one reason!
It seems that British Columbia is not the only place with wildfires! Corniglia came very close to being burned.

Terraced hillsides all over the place. Guess what they were growing on them? Grapes and olives. Just what Italy is famous for.

The gadget above and the track below were likely used to haul the grape harvest up the steep hill.


The path took us through part of the burned area, a former olive grove.

Approaching Vernazza, the fourth of the five villages. It was the end of the trail for us, as we still had to drive to France that day.

Charming houses

This may have been set out special for the stream of walkers, so maybe they don't mind us too much.

When there was a break in the crowd I squatted down and snapped this pic. As I stood up, someone was taking a picture of me taking that picture!

Looking at Vernazza from the pier

A map of the Cinque Terre National Park's trails. I have read that the upper trails are far less crowded, so maybe on my next trip to Italy I will visit them.

Gary was not able to do the hike with us, due to his recent back operation. But he was still able to take in some of the scenery by driving to viewpoints such as this one.

The Last Supper
In a few minutes we were to split up. Liana flew back to London, while Gary and Kent drove Rory and I to Menton, which is just inside France. Then Kent flew from Milan back to Baku in Azerbaijan, Gary flew to Ireland for a week and Rory and I went to a rental in Provence.

Our final meal involved simply sitting on the ground. They just don't know how to do rest areas in Europe the way that we do in North America. Heck, they don't even have washrooms at rest areas!! Next time I take photos I will have to prep Rory in how to prepare to have his picture taken. I don't think he looks normal in a single one that I took. But maybe there will be some better ones in France.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Day We Went to Castelnuovo - Part Three

For all the letdowns of the day, I have many great memories too. Strange how it works.

On our way to the car we discovered an amazing display of gelato. I had previously had many a cone or dish is Italy, but nowhere was the variety as great, nor the display as attractive as here.

Deeelicious!! Italian gelato contains less butterfat than North American ice cream, so eat it with abandon!!

Liana and Rory counting their pennies. These were by far the least expensive gelatos we encountered. Only 80 Eurocents ($1.30) for a scoop. Price elsewhere was 1.5 Euros.

This cone is one I had in Lucca. It was my first one in Italy. Huge gobs of chocolate that surround something a little crispy.

The other desserts at the gelato shop looked pretty good too!

If you read the previous post, you may remember that I mentioned that we had unknowingly parked the car in less than an ideal spot, right outside the local police station. When we went to the car, another car had pulled in behind us and we were completely trapped. And it had started to rain.

Gary got us out of that situation, by going in and chatting with someone. We guessed that the person behind us was unhappy that we had taken their parking spot and had trapped us there to teach us a lesson. Luckily he was in the station and was able to let us out and seemed to be somewhat amused by our lack of understanding. Whew. We didn't need another letdown.

Taking the longer but much faster and easier route back, we passed by the Ponte della Maddalena, which is nearly a thousand years old!

Typical houses in the area.