Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Exploring Provence (France)

Yes, it is time for yet another vacation.  You have to love Spain and these holidays.  Unlike in the US, here we celebrate the holiday on the actual day and then often times a company will offer a bridge day in between to make a long weekend.  So this past weekend was La Hispanidad, the Spanish version of Columbus Day.  The kids had a Professional Day on Fri and then Mon and Tuesday off so therefore it was time for yet another trip!

We debated back and forth for quite some time on where to go.  Where was going to have the best weather, should we drive or fly, what events are being held this time of year, etc.  I had been dying to get to Provence and even though I know the summer is the best time to go, we decided that the fall would also be a beautiful and (bonus) less crowded time to go.

An additional bonus here is that Jake was able to go with us since we were driving.  Arles, the town where we were staying, was only 4 hrs away by car.  Lucky Jake the dog... I don't know many people that have traveled to Europe much less to several countries!  Of course the downside of that was that the station wagon we had requested was not available thru the rental car company and so while it was a super bonus that we got a double upgrade to a sweet BMW 5 Series, poor Jake had very limited space.  I LOVED this car!!!  Though I will say on the one downside of it, it is not made for tiny European streets or parking spaces.  But it would be perfect in the States!  Josh, I'll expecting a car this lovely when we return to the States, though perhaps in a wagon to accomodate Jake ;) 

Speaking of driving, this was my first time driving in Europe.  Thus far our rentals have been standards of which I'm not super proficient.  Ok, I hyperventilate when I hit a 1% incline and given we live on a mountain, there are lots of inclines here!  But because we didn't have the cost of a kennel for Jake we had decided to upgrade to the automatic.  Josh drove us to Provence and then I drove pretty much the entire time we were there... ah driving again!  Oh how I've missed it!  And it wasn't as intimidating as I imagined it to be thanks to my trusty GPS and even managed to drive with no issue in Barcelona when we came back.  To think that months ago I had said I will NEVER drive here... ha!  Take that BCN! 

The drive into the South of France was beautiful to say the least.  The only disappointment that I can express is that we missed the lavendar fields which were harvested back in August.  To any who are planning a visit to this area, based on pictures I've seen I would definitely suggest going in the summer so you can see this as I hear it's extraordinarily beautiful.  We arrived at our destination in Arles around 3ish (after circling the area for a good 1/2 hr looking for the house).  What's interesting about this part of France and also something we've noticed here in Spain, is how not just the backyards have fences, but the entire property.  You enter the property thru a gate at the bottom of the driveway.  Josh and I have been trying to figure out if this is due to the desire for privacy or if there are issues with safety or even animals.  If you have any insight you want to share with us, please let us know! 

The villa we rented was perfect for us. Three bedrooms so the kids each got not only their own bed (several trips this year have had us in hotels where the kids end up sharing a double bed) but their own rooms for the first time since we moved! And Jake was absolutely ecstatic for a yard to run in and well, the pool which he swam in many times while we were there. The kids loved that Jake was able to go on vacation with us as well. After getting all the info from the owner, the first thing the kids (and Jake) did was jump in the pool. It ended up being the warmest day that we were there so I'm glad they got the chance to play outside for a bit!

The boys excited to be in the pool after a LONG drive!

Jake joins in on the fun!

Dining room / lounge area

View of lounge area with fireplace

Living room - never figured out the nice big tv so had to watch our slingbox from Josh's 17" laptop - not the same!

Loved this kitchen!

Full bath and the master bedroom

Wrestling in the grass and the view from our villa

Liam and Jake taking a stroll in the yard

View of the house from the front of the yard

When it came time for dinner we decided to head into town to see what there was. Unfortunately, as we were on our way into town we received a very sad phone call where found out that a very good friend of ours had passed away from a heart attack that morning at the age of 35.  The news was incredibly shocking and of course, devastating.  He was way too young and should have had a full life ahead of him. Whenever we go on a trip I have an idea of the things I want to put into my blog and often have the entries written in my head before I put them down on paper, constantly jotting notes for when I get back;  as we drove back on Tuesday, I had planned a whole entry on Shane and how much we loved him and will miss him but to be honest, I don't think he would have liked to be published on here so let's just say that his passing was absolutely unexpected and that the world will not be the same without him.  It also certainly opened our eyes as to how fragile life is and how quickly it can pass it by. All the more reason for us to be having this experience living in Europe while we can and doing as much travel as we can. I think Shane would be happy that we are embracing this life and I hope he knows how much we will miss him.

However, despite how sad we were about our friend, we still had to eat and had kids to feed. So we continued on into town to look for a place to eat. I have to say the town of Arles was adorable! A hint of the new mixed in with the old. If it wasn't so far from the beach I'd totally love a country house here! We walked up and down the main street of Arles for a while looking for somewhere to eat but unfortunately most places, like in Spain, didn't open for dinner til at least 7. We ended up going to this place called Buffalo Bills - it reminded me of a TGI Fridays (sort of) type of place that caters to all kinds. And because we've been craving steak so much I got it and yes, it was delicious... was it Capital Grille or Mortons delicious?? No, but after not having had a steak in months, it did the job.

On Saturday, since my book on the South of France never arrived (it arrived today, Oct 13 as I write this), we decided to go to the Tourist info booth that we saw in the center of town in the morning before heading out for the day to destinations unknown. We were incredibly pleasantly surprised to see that there was an open market going on in the center of town - the entire main road closed down to this market that open in the morning and closes around 1PM every Saturday. And I have to say, it puts that markets in Spain to shame. I love the markets here but this one was just amazing! Fresh fruits and vegetables that rivaled the ones here, breads upon breads, cheeses, even a table with just all garlic (vampires watch out!). We saw paella being cooked right in front of us and other delectable goodies. My favorite was the dried spices that were put out on the tables. And after we walked for a bit we saw that this market not only had foods but also material goods - toys, textiles, shoes! What a great bonus this was for our Saturday morning. The boys rode on the carousel in between trips to the different food stalls.

Some of the open food market

Making fresh paella!

I wish we'd gotten one of these chickens - they looked (and smelled) so good!

Eating fresh strawberries and raspberries

Olives (not my thing but they are big here)

More fresh food!

Lots and lots of cheese

A lot of these trucks just opened right up and the food stalls were right there in front of you!

I've never seen so much garlic in my life!

Dried herbs...

Liam on his first (of three) ride on the carousel

Aidan saw how much fun Liam was having and had to jump on too!

Random baby goat...

And next to the goat were random puppies...not sure why they were there...

Scallops so fresh they haven't been shucked yet

Huge pile of lavendar!

For Josh's dad - they even sold textiles here!!  Bolts and bolts of fabric!

Must have 10:30AM...

Blue tongue from slushie... he was very proud

While in town for the morning, we also checked out some of the historical things that Arles is known for, including some of the Roman ruins.  The town of Arles actually dates back to the 6th century BC and I think my Time Out South of France book says it best "Today Arles wears its history with ease.  It's ancient monuments are not museum pieces, but part of the urban fabric."  And this is what we saw as we walked thru the streets and saw the Roman arena surrounded by homes, shops and restaurants as if it all had just always been there. 

Place de la Republique

The kids outside of Church Saint-Trophime, said to be one of the most beautiful churches in Provence

Aidan seems to like hanging out in the doorways of buildings... Liam, of course, must join him.

Roman ruins

Roman Arena in the background

Aidan in front of the Roman Arena

More of the Roman Arena

Huge tree stump!

Both boys on the tree stump

Arles is also known for being the home to Van Gogh for 15 months and most notably his most productive time where he produced over 300 canvases.  However, from what I have read, sadly the town does not actually own even one original Van Gogh despite this famed history. 

The area around this statue looked like it was tilled nover every time we walked by this area - as if it was a freshly dug grave.  Kind of spooky if you ask me...

By the time we left the center of town it was after 1PM.  So we decided to head back to our villa and have Liam take his one nap of the weekend (sorry buddy!) before heading back into town for dinner time.  We did some research online and came up with a few places that looked good - we really wanted a good steak (yes again - get it while we can!) since you really can't get good steak here in Spain (or not that we've found).  None of our three choices worked out and after meandering around the streets of Arles (very quaint!) we ended up at Bistrot La Mule Blanche which coincidentally I see is actually in my guidebook that arrived after the fact - so good choice on our behalf!! 

Dinner at La Mule Blanche and Liam getting a ride back to the car

Sunday we awoke to rain!!  What a bummer!  We had been hoping to head down to the Camargue to see the wild horses and wild bulls but alas it ended up not being meant to be this trip (so I guess we'll have to go again!) since we ended up with 2 days of the wet stuff :( 

In the end we decided to take a trip to Aix-en-Provence which is the capital of the Provence area.  It's really too bad my three passengers slept the entire trip because they missed out on absolutely beautiful scenery - if only we'd been able to see those lavendar fields, my day would have been complete despite the rain.  Tree lined country roads that went on for miles - seriously the trees went on forever - and if I could have found a place to pull over (the trees were right along the road and there was no breakdown lane type area to stop) I would have taken many pictures of this sight!  Unfortunately it was still a bit rainy when we arrived in Aix-en-Provence and the temps had dropped dramatically and was probably only around 50 out.  Aidan and Josh were both in shorts but at least we had jackets.  So sadly, we literally just had lunch there and headed back to Arles.  However, I will say that what I saw of the town, it was a place I definitely would want to go back to and explore again.  Just another great place that incorporates the old and the new. 

Lunch in Aix-en-Provence

Streets in Aix-en-Provence...aren't my kids fashion statements today?

Goofy Aidan suddenly loves having his picture taken these days

Mini fountain

Monday we were met yet again with rain. Grrrr... it rains 60 days a year in this area and of course 2 of them have to be when we are visiting. We decided to head south to Marseille. We had wanted to see the city that dates back to 600 BC though the Camargue would have won out had it not rained. I'd not only read that this is a city that takes more than one visit to appeal to people but others had told me this from first hand experience. And given what I had read the previous week about terrorists being arrested there in recent days, I was slightly ambivilent about going. However, I was not disappointed. This is a city, not a town and so my expectations were not that of looking for a quaint medieval town - the city was a bit more modern than I would have hoped for given its history dating back thousands of years but honestly we really only spent time down at the waterfront and that area was beautiful and there were TONS of restaurants (yes everything in my life revolves around food) waiting to be explored!!
Found the Irish bar!

Walking around looking for a place to eat... both kids MUST jump on anything they possibly can jump on/off.

View of marina

We ate a great little seafood restaurant which we all thoroughly enjoyed - Josh having boulebaisse which is what the area is known for. And I enjoyed some delicious scallops - again the first I've had in a very long time! Because we were limited by little 3 year old legs (and how far we were willing to carry the body that goes with those legs) we just kind of hung out in the waterfront area by the port. What a beautiful stroll it was too! Apparently the Vieux Port as it is called has been the emotional center of life in Marseille for more than 26 centuries. We were able to view both forts that mark the entrance to the port - we walked around Fort St. Jean and were able to see across the port to Fort St. Nicholas. From this location we were also able to see the Basilique Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde. A friend of mine had suggested we climb to the top... sorry Dave, it didn't happen. Liam barely made it around the waterfront much less climbing up there - next visit!

At the head of the port - and yes, I was waiting for Liam to fall in... this was a very quick picture!

Being a choo choo train...

You can imagine how thrilled Josh was to be the front of the train...

Not sure what this building was but I thought it was pretty...

Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde on top of the mountain

Fort St. Jean

Fort St. Nicholas

Walking around Fort St. Jean

Still walking around the Fort

View of Notre-Dame-de-la-Garde and Fort St. Nicholas from Fort St. Jean

Liam at Fort St. Jean

Aidan on a rock behind Fort St. Jean

And as always, if one climbs, the other must climb...

When they weren't beating the crap out of each other or wrestling in the middle of the walkway, they were actually pretty cute :)

Sadly, Tuesday was our last day in Provence and I feel like we still had so much to see and do.  Damn that rain!  We took a quick trip back into the center of Arles to walk around some more. The kids were fascinated with the colosseum there and enjoyed running up and down the stairs. 

We got into the center of town just in time for them to shut down the main road for a protest. 

Kids running thru the park

So cute!!  Love pictures of them holding hands.

Aidan in front of the Roman Arena

Both boys in front of one of the arches

Boys on the stairs in front of the arena.  Aidan really wanted to go in but we were pressed for time since the owner of the villa we were staying in was meeting us shortly.

Aidan looking out over the streets of Arles

Absolutely adorable street!!!

Even better view of the street

Amazing view... you can see a castle way in the background

You can see how the old meshes with the "new"

Church Saint-Trophime

Aidan took this picture of me while Liam was torturing other tourists and trying to knock people down!

After that we jumped back into the car for our 4 hour journey back to reality!

Next stop... London!!


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