On every long voyage (and many smaller ones), there’s a moment when the best-laid plans go awry, itineraries get disrupted, Mother Nature wreaks havoc, and/or logistics get log-jammed. That’s when a trip becomes an “adventure”.
You can’t predict when you’re going to have an adventure. (But blogging about how your trip has been going smoothly is likely a good trigger for the karmic gods to mess with your journey!)
Adventures tend to be what we remember, though, even if they give us grey hairs at the time. I still recall an ill-fated expedition to renew my visa while living in the Czech Republic that involved a bus trip from Prague to some obscure border town, a break down in the snow, and a futile scramble to make it back to the city (without a new visa) before I was meant to teach my ESL class.
That’s just a segue to say: We had our first real adventure of our trip.
By week six of our travels, we had entered France and were enjoying what felt like the doldrums, especially once we settled in Saint Remy de Provence for a week. We slept in, we ate well, we did one or two activities in the afternoon, and then played ping pong or read on the patio in the Provençal sunsets. One day led smoothly into the next. A couple late-night storms and cloudy days reminded us that autumn was well upon us, but nothing to disturb our serenity.
The forecast called for several days of rain as we headed off to Palavas les Flots, on the Mediterranean coast, but when we arrived on a Saturday afternoon, the sun was out and surfers were riding the waves on either side of the town’s canal. The next day was more overcast and windy and a full-on gale swept through overnight, rattling awnings and driving the current of the canal back up-river. I double-checked on our rental car, parked a few minutes away in a municipal lot, to make sure it wasn’t getting flooded. The next day, it rained but we avoided most of it with a relaxing day trip to Espiguette Beach — a huge swathe of duney sand and sea (only AJ dared to take a plunge) and then an excellent aquarium (or rather “Seaquarium”) in Grau de Roi.
Then the next day the heavens exploded. First, massive thunderstorms illuminated the sky and shook our Airbnb over night. And then sheets of rain poured down for most of the day. AJ, Briar and I tried to venture out in what seemed like a break in the rain, to dump recycling and check on the car again, but we were soaked through within minutes.
Palavas is surrounded by canals that branch off the Rhône, and the highways out were already collecting water before the rain really started falling. I asked our AirBnb host, a tourism centre guide, several police officers, and even the woman at a nearby bakery if we’d be able to drive out the next day. Does Palavas ever get locked in by flooding? (I’d also googled the town and found an article about how likely it was to be severely affected by global warming.) Non, it will be fine, they all assured me. If you can’t get out the direct route, there was an alternate that would only add 10 or 15 minutes to Montpellier.
The rain tapered off a bit that night, although the lightning returned, and then the rain started again. We scrambled to leave as soon as possible. The car needed to be back in Montpellier train station for 10am, but we wanted to get there even earlier… We packed up the car, dodged a few major puddles leaving town and enjoyed a relatively brief window of rainless sky for the drive to Montpellier. Car dropped off. One less worry.
But then we crossed the street to the Gare Roch station and saw that the earlier train to Barcelona had been delayed by two hours… it hadn’t even left yet. Ours wasn’t set to leave until 1:40pm so we hoped we could be fine. We were wrong. A glance at the departures/arrivals screen showed extending delays and cancellations for almost every train. And then the skies broke open again… and unleashed more rain and wind than I’d every seen before. Some locals video’d the deluge from the safety of the station’s high ceiling… although that soon began to leak. Other travellers sat and cried, either due to cancelled connections or the explosions of thunder that ripped overhead. Finally, the arrival/departures screens just went blank.
We joined the line of puzzled travellers and learned that no more trains wold be running today, so we should switch our tickets till tomorrow. So we did, for a 9am train. We did a quick search and found a hotel nearby. We’d have to swallow the extra fee — we were already paying for an AirBnB in Barcelona — but we needed a place to stay. The hotel wasn’t far. In fact, I realized it was down the stairs and across the street. But when we rushed with our luggage in what felt like a slow-down in the rain, we arrived at the front desk as soaked as if we’d fallen into a wading pool.
The hotel was worth every Euro. The kids had hot showers and lounged in the fat white bathrobes. We were able to check the status of the storm — it was epic in other areas of southern France, especially Béziers, which had been hit with 4 months of rain, nearly 24 cm, in the span of four hours. We decided that perhaps a bus might be a better option, as it seemed unlikely the trains would run tomorrow morning… in fact, the staffer had said it might not be till Friday. Then I noticed a message online saying that the tracks had been undermined between here and the border and might not be repaired for 10 days—well, after we needed to fly home. Jenny phoned around to make sure the roads hadn’t been washed out too and then we booked seats on a a noon Flixbus for the next day and walked back over to the train station (the rain was finally calming by late afternoon) to get our tickets refunded.
Then we enjoyed a “bonus” visit to Montpellier… wandering through its big central square and park boulevards, and then through its old town, until we could finally complete a mission that the kids were fixated on since arriving in France: eat some authentic macarons! (We managed to sample flavours from the two best shops in town.) Then, after a return to the hotel, we went out for dinner (after much discussion and Yelp-scanning) and lucked in (after our first choice was closed) on a little French restaurant called La Tomate… where I completed a mission I hadn’t even known I’d accepted: try some frogs’ legs!
We had time to have a big breakfast spread and get packed up the next morning… and then suddenly hit the panic button again. I’d decided to book an Uber in advance, rather than a taxi. My mistake. The arranged time passed and passed. On my app, I could see the driver circling our location — 2 minutes away, then 3, then 4… If we didn’t get to the bus station by noon, our tickets were useless. I told Jenny to get the front desk to call a taxi as backstop and we thought about dashing to the station to grab one there… when our Uber arrived nearly 15 minutes late. “Get us to the station!” I yelled as we hurled our luggage into his trunk… and he did, with plenty of time to spare.
We’d paid extra to sit together on the bus, but the semi-chaos that is Flixbus rendered that fee meaningless. The two men in our seats said they’d bought assigned seats but the sullen driver had told passengers to just sit where they want, so they did. In the end, the kids sat a few rows behind us and we enjoyed a quick, sunny, smooth and quiet 4.5-hour drive from Montpellier to downtown Barcelona with the Pyrenees rising to our right as we crossed into Spain.
Once there, we grabbed an official cab and showed the driver the address of our AirBnb. The ride was faster and cheaper than I’d expected… but that’s because he’d dropped us at the address in Barcelona, rather than Llobreget Hospitalet, the suburb where we were actually staying. Thankfully, taxis are plentiful in the city and we jumped into a second one and (finally!) made it to our final accommodation of the trip.
In the end, we only lost one day in Barcelona and one night of AIrBnb fee, although we made a little money back by cashing out our pricey high-speed rail tickets for the bus. For our final three days, our trip has included and will conclude by negotiating our itinerary around the political demonstrations — which got violent last week — throughout the city (we took a trip to the beach yesterday but made sure we were back in our AirBnb before the 5pm rally that saw 350,000 Catalonian protesters take to the city centre) and two potential airport strikes (security staff and baggage handlers) tomorrow morning.
Only then will our adventure be complete…
Our unexpected stay in Montepellier included a dinner at the Tomate, tasty macaroons, breakfast at the hotel and a calming walk. At the Tomate daddy insisted on ordering frog legs, little did he know that he would get a huge plate of them. Meanwhile mummy ordered trout with tapenade, as her main dish. And herring as a side dish. I ordered a salad which came with smoked salmon on toast, and herring. It was my first time trying herring, and I found it quite interesting. AJ had a salad and they’re famous tomato basil tiramisu. And we topped it off with a warm tarte tatin, and a Dame Blanche. Which was warm chocolate, almonds, ice cream and whipping cream. Before our meal we went searching for the best macaroons.First we got colourful macarons, that were filled with cream. We chose 5 flavours, vanilla something, chocolate, pralines rose, mojito, and something else. Secondly we went to another highly rated macaron shop. These macarons are made differently and are somewhat healthier. We got 5 different flavours and they were all delicious! It was impossible to choose a favourite. Then we burned of the calories by walking through the little town of Montpellier. The next morning mummy and I had a peaceful run through a couple local parks. After a quick shower we went downstairs to the breakfast. They served us petit tarte tatins baguettes,madeleines, hot chocolate, coffee, yogurt. Then they allowed us to have anything are heart desired at the buffet. So of course we had to have some pain au chocolat, croissants, fruit cups, freshly squeezed orange juice, pancakes and tons more. Once we were full to the brim we dragged our bellies upstairs. And quickly got ready. We made a good chose to take the bus because trains to Barcelona are canceled till November 4. Unfortunately we made a bad chose by taking an Uber that was 20 minutes late. We nearly didn’t make it to Barcelona again. After 4 hours and a half we arrived in Barcelona. But we still did not make it to our Airbnb because they are two Buenos Aires. And our taxi driver took us to the wrong one. So finally after 2 taxi rides and a long bus ride we made it to our place. Yeah!!!
After our stay in Provence we drove to Palavas les Flots, which is an hour and 15 minutes from Provence. It is a beach town with old colourful houses. Our Airbnb has two levels with the kitchen,washroom etc downstairs and our beds and tv upstairs. We also had a nice balcony which overlooked the canal. We read and worked well watching the harbour dogs attempting to bring death upon the pigeons. During our stay in Palavas we went to Espiguette beach. It is a big long beach. We did not plan on going swimming as we did not bring our swimsuits. But the water was surprisingly warm, so we waded as far as we could. Expect AJ who swam in his shorts! After we walked part way down the beach, before drying off and heading to the Seaquarium. The Seaquarium had lots of sea creatures such as, fish, turtles, sharks, creepy big eels, seahorses, sea lions,seals, crabs and more. I really liked the sharks as they swam above our heads. The eels were interesting but enormous and creepy. I would not want to see one of those well I was swimming! And of course the turtles were beautiful and emerald green. There was lots of fascinating fishes. The unicorn fish was cool. But it took us a long time to realize that the rock we were staring at actually had eyes and was a fish, though I don’t remember the name. My favourite part of our visited at the Seaquarium was the seal show. The seals would do little tricks and jumps for some fish. Then they put out four different shapes, and the seals were trained to go to a certain shape. I loved when one of the seals flopped a few metres across the floor, making the crowd laugh. They finished but jumping and turning in the air. It was very well done. Then we went back for the night. The next day mummy and I faced the rain and went running in the morning. And we thought that weather was bad, but later in the day it got much much worse. Along with more rain came tons of thunder and lightning. Forcing us to stay inside. Then we couldn’t stay inside anymore so daddy AJ and I went on little walk to get a baguette for our vegetable soup. After some lunch we got in warm clothes and watched some tv. We ended up staying inside all day, for we would be soaked within seconds if we went out. Finally we fell asleep to the sounds of pounding rain, thunder and lightning. The next morning was time to leave. We dropped of our rental car in Montpellier, then of to the train station. We were going to have to wait 4 hours for our train. But unfortunately the train got canceled till tomorrow and maybe till Friday, because of flooding in Béziers. So we booked a nice hotel a three minute walk from the train station. We got drenched even though we were only outside for 3 minutes! We are hoping to take the bus to Barcelona tomorrow so we don’t have to wait till Friday. Cross your fingers for good luck!
On Monday we went hiking in the Alpilles. This was just an hour and a half , because we all agreed we were tired. A little while later we hiked up a hill, to take in the view while enjoying our baguettes. The baguette long was my favourite because it tasted like a woodfired pizza, when you add a slice of cheese. Tuesday we went to the Saint Paul de Mausole. It was where Van Gough spent a year, he was there as a psychiatric patient. He created most of his famous paintings, including Starry Night. He only ever sold one painting, which was the Red Vineyard. Not as famous as Starry Night but equally beautiful. We visited a reconstruction of his room. His story is sad but also very interesting and inspiring. He will never know how celebrated and respected he is. Wednesday we went to the morning market. This was the biggest market we’ve been to yet. There was lots of cheese, meat, vegetables, fruit, clothing and sweets. We sampled cheeses, pesto and nougat. AJ probably took to many samples of nougat for the sellers likings. It was delicious! The original flavour of nougat is almond and honey. But later was made with pistachios, hazelnuts, chocolate, dried fruits and much much more. We also let in for AJ’s request for tapenade and olives.Which everyone loved , even I liked them and I’m not olive person. We also bought hummus, kale, paella which is a seafood and spicy rice mix for daddy, a Madeleine to share and a macaroon to share. Next we went back had a quick lunch and headed of to les Baux de Provence. We walked through a little town and bought some small things from the local market. Then we headed up to the castle. We saw some cool cannons and other weaponry, that I’ve never heard of. We learned interesting things from our audio guide, and enjoyed being there. Then we went to a gallery that make it seem that your in the painting. We saw Japanese paintings and Vincent Van Gough paintings. They had to use tons of projectors. On one painting it felt like we were swimming in the ocean. Because there was ocean everywhere, on the ground, ceiling and all the walls. Thursday we went biking for the day. We hiked along a canal. And my favourite part was when went down a bunch of bumps. We biked past majestic horses and other farm animals. It was a nice change to get away from all the cars and loud noises. Today we went to Arles a nearby town. We saw an old amphitheater and a theatre. The amphitheater is definitely not as big or historic as the Coliseum, but it has its pluses. Such as not being crowded by thousands of people. The amphitheater is still used to this day, for bull fights, gladiator recreations and so on. We also went to a museum with lots of old artifacts. And there was an old shipwreck that apparently still had all it’s money and things to bring. But it never made it. Tomorrow we our heading to Palavas des Flots. We did lots and saw lots in Provence, but we also took time to work and relax. I will always remember the smell of Provence, a light lavendery smell.
We are now in our third stop in France. Our visit began with a brief visit to sunny, stylish Nice. We tried two delicious local foods in Nice: socca, a chickpea pancake, and Pissaladière, a type of Provençal open tart resembling pizza that usually includes onion, anchovies, and/or olives. We then spent three nights in Cassis, a picturesque seaside town where we hiked the Calanques, narrow steep-walled inlets. Our somewhat challenging and rewarding trek ended included a frigid swim in breathtakingly clear Mediterranean waters.
It is interesting being able to communicate more effectively. Locals speak to me and I realize that I can understand them—albeit it takes me a moment or two. I found yesterday that I was wondering “what is that bruit?” Words are coming back covered in cobwebs: voisin, propre, brosse, tapis, gaspillage, usine. My accent is fairly tragic, but we are no longer in places where English is widely spoken, so people are not switching when I use French.
We are now in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, and there is much to do here, though we are all winding down somewhat, missing friends and family and weary of the packing and unpacking. On our first full day here we walked to Glanum, a local archaeological site founded by the Gauls, then a Hellenistic period and finally the Romans. It is enjoyable to roam around en plein aire.
Statue at St. Paul de Mausole by Gabriel Sterk.
Yesterday, we visited the Saint Paul de Mausole, the Romanesque monastery where Vincent Van Gogh spent a year of his life as a psychiatric patient and produced an astonishing number of works while there, including The Starry Night. The institution still serves local residents and provides programs to help them make art—I was tempted to buy some that was on display.
I was surprised to learn that Van Gogh sold only one painting during his lifetime. I was feeling wistful, and it made me sad to consider how much more content and stable he perhaps could have been had he benefitted from modern pharmaceuticals. St. Paul’s sounded (and, to be honest, made themselves sound) fairly progressive for https://davidleach.ca/wp-admin/media-new.phpVan Gogh’s times though they still used therapies that are horrifying today, such as forced feeding and regimes of hot and cold baths.
It was moving to stand in Van Gogh’s former bedroom, look out the window and see those colours and the landscape—the golden yellows, the olive trees, the wheat, the hills—that inspired his greatest works. As we walked back to town, I mentioned to A.J. and Briar that I hoped the stigma of mental illness is successfully reduced during their lifetime. We are far from there yet.
View from Van Gogh’s bedroom window.
Moving on to lighten the mood of this blog: we have an outdoor ping-pong table at our AirBnB. The condo is spacious and pleasant—especially after the cramped quarters in Cassis, where we occupied a tiny, eccentric main floor space between two restaurants.
Ping-pong remains the one game involving hand-eye coordination that I can actually play. I am not allowed to reveal the details of which individuals I may have beaten in ping-pong combat. The property also has an outdoor pool, walnut trees and fragrant flowers and shrubs that attract a very strange moth-hummingbird, a creature new to me. It looks just like a tiny hummingbird, but is technically an insect. Very étrange!
This week is my first week in France. Apart from some foods and the language it’s not too much different from Italy most likely because we’re still very close to the border. I think I like Italian cuisine more because of the pizza and pasta though the French baking looks delicious. I tried some lavender ice cream yesterday and it was good but gelato is much better.