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18 random things about our trip to Provence

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Thought I’d post this in advance of the big website extravaganza…

1. Provence has more and better Roman artifacts than Rome

This was a surprise. It shouldn’t have been, as our tour itinerary said we’d be seeing all these Roman artifacts, but we were still surprised. Huge, intact coliseums and theatres. Enormous aqueducts. Huge cenotaphs. Sculptures. Romanesque churches. Enormous Pope’s Palace (yes, the pope lived in Provence rather than Rome for a time). We almost got to be blasé about it; oh, another day, another coliseum!

From Provence 2009

(Many more Roman artifacts shown at the Picassa site.)

2. Provence may be the best place in the world in which to eat

Oh my, the food. Every meal was good, everything properly prepared. Duck, salmon, quail, osso bucco, shrimp, lamb—all creatures cooked just to the right point and nicely seasoned. Creative starters—stuffed ravioli, softened goat cheese with sesame, foie gras (and more foie gras, and it didn’t cost any more than anything else), pumpkin soup. Cheese courses with soft and semi-firm choices. And desserts—chocolate caramel mousse, molten chocolate cake, gelato ice cream, tarte tatin. And, for Europe, all at pretty reasonable prices. The consistently good quality was really amazing.

3. Yes, we’re newlyweds

I’m not exactly sure how long-term couples are supposed to act, but apparently we don’t act like that. I don’t know how many times we were asked if we were newlyweds, with follow-up comments that we were such a great, affectionate couple that seemed so in love. Yes, it’s nice, but it seemed rather odd as well—as, trust me, we weren’t making out on the bus or anything like that. Is it that unusual for a married couple to still hold hands and smile at each other?

4. Wind is dangerous

We had very nice weather. It was, in fact, completely sunny every single day except the last, which sprinkled moderately. And by the end of the week, it was getting up to about 18 degrees. But the first three days did include the mistrale, a cold, strong North wind, which had us all bundled in sweaters and gloves. We still went about our activities, which included visiting the famous pont d’Avignon. But as I was opening the door to get into the interpretation center there, the wind kicked up, and slammed onto my arm—ouch!

We tracked the progress of the interesting bruise colour for the rest of the trip.

Wind-blown on the pont d’Avignon.

5. French waiters are cute

Not all but, I dare say, most. That is all.

6. Canadians drink a lot of Chateauneuf-du-pape

The tour included visiting the lovely town of Chateauneuf-du-pape and touring one of its wineries. The one we went to makes la Fiole du Pape, in that dusty curved bottle (see left). That would not be one of their best wines, by the way. The best are marked with Reserve, are made in smaller quantities, often not exported. La Fiole du Pape is a volume wine. And almost everything exported goes to either Ontario or Quebec.

“You Canadians,” our winery guide said. “Very small population—very big number of bottles of Chateauneuf-du-pape per person!”

Well, we certainly did on this trip, as it’s a much better deal there. And did you know it comes in white, as well?

7. Not making your own decisions is very relaxing

Perhaps the best part of being on a tour is that you don’t really have to do any of the drudgery of travel—no booking your own flights and transports, no research into what to see, few decisions to make beyond where to eat lunch (and then we knew all the restaurants are good, anyway). It proved very relaxing, freeing the mind for flights of fancy. (Though those flights did tend to get interrupted by the tour guide insisting on giving us facts and histories and anecdotes about what we were seeing.)

8. “Voulezvousdesp’nuts?” is a punch line

At the big gourmet dinner, we were sitting across from the tour guide, Jacques Pauwel. Originally from Begium, he speaks French, English, and a number of other languages. He talked about moving to Canada, taking his first flight on Air Canada, and noting that it was a bilingual airline. He thought this would be a nice opportunity to practice his French again. So he successfully requested and received his drink in French, only to then be met with this: “Voulezvousdesp’nuts?”

Now, this is story that really needs to be heard, not read, and even then, it probably doesn’t quite work if you’re not bilingual. But J. and I just about died laughing at this point, while the rest of the table looked confused.

For those wondering: There are two words for “peanuts” in French: arachide and cacahouète. But Air Canada instead went for the franglais approach of using the English word peanut, but saying it with a French accent, very quickly. Jacques was completed deflated by inability to understand Canadian French, and still doesn’t much care for Air Canada.

9. Of the 19 on tour, 5 of us had Timmins roots

That’s a little unusual, eh?

10. Take the optional tour

One day was a choice of being “at leisure” in Avignon and taking an optional tour to some smaller Provencal villages. We are very glad we chose the later, as that turned out to be some of the best sites of the trip. Ile-sur-Sorgue was a nice little village, surrounded by water, with some great little shops. Fontaine Vaucluse was more dramatic, as it was a mountainside village with a stream running through it. Just amazing. And then Gordes, pictured, which we didn’t get to visit long, but just had all these cool, old stone buildings—and quite the view.

11. The downside of touring is not having enough time

Many’s the place we visited where we said, man, I wish we had more time to spend here. Now, that’s much better than the alternative of thinking, man, how much longer are we stuck here? (which only happened a couple times), but still… The trip did give us a nice overview of the major places to visit in the Provence. And now we know which ones we’d like to go back to and see in more depth.

12. Joseph Boyden novels are addictive

I was (finally) reading Three Day Road; J. was taking on Through Black Spruce. Both of us reached a point where about all we wanted to do was stay in and finish the story.

13. Storks, horses, and flamingoes—oh my!

Visiting the Camargue, on the delta of the Rhone river, was a little different, as it was all countryside, fields, and animals. White horses are most famously associated with the area. No wild ones remain, but the domesticated are still nice-looking animals. We also came across a big stork nest (“Stork sex!” yelled Jacques) and big flocks of pink flamingoes.

14. TP is tightly controlled in France

Or at least you’d think it was, given the difficulty of getting an adequate supply to our hotel room. It became a game: Were we lucky today? Did we get a refill?

15. The Italians taught the French to make wine

On this trip I was told many, many facts about the history of France, and Italy, and the wars, and the Revolution, and the Empire, and the Jews in the area, and the popes, and religious iconography, and… I don’t think I’ve retained too much of it. But I do recall a few tidbits, including the fact that it was only when the Romans invaded Gaul that the French started to grow their own wine. Before that, it was all beer.

Today, in France, the price of a glass of wine and a glass of Pepsi in a bar are the very same (3 Euros). No idea about the beer…

16. Some French women have Australian accents in English

We visited the artist Paul Cézanne’s studio in Aix-en-Provence. We were in some luck that the place was really quiet—it’s normally overrun with tour groups—so we got an excellent presentation from the tour guide about the eccentric M. Cézanne. Our guide, naturally, was a French woman, but she spoke excellent English. Only with a really strong Aussie accent, because that’s where she learned English. It was just so odd: This very French woman, looking very French, speaking of an eminent French artist, but sounding rather like Crocodile Dundee. Oh-kai?

17. Air France remains our favourite airline

It’s not only that the food is better than on any other airline we’ve tried, or that you get your own TV with a good choice of movies. (Burn Without Reading was pretty funny, and Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist was nice little romantic story.) It’s also that the personnel is so much more pleasant than what I’ve encountered elsewhere.

18. Don’t eat the oysters

Although they are delicious, and seemed very fresh. Still, they have to remain the leading candidate for an unfortunate finale to this vacation: a bout of food poisoning, with its attendant projectile vomiting, stomach cramps, and dehydration. This was the very last night, when all that was left to do was get home. The worst was mercifully over before we got on our long flight from Paris to Toronto. Still, it took about five days before we were eating normally again.

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