Huw's Bit Salut mes amis! Loving it! TGV from Lille to Avignon is what rail travel should be all about - not as good as Moscow to St Petersburg but that was 1st class.
Scenery: wonderful, wonderful Provence, Alpilles, Camargue! Les Baux en Provence is massive wow factor. Ancient walled cities: Avignon over 5000 years of history - incredible (lots of deadbeats and beggers though). Fields of sunflowers. Ridiculously beautiful mountain villages: Fountaine de Vacluse and Bonnieux take a bow! Pont du Gard: took me 35 years to get back there and it's extraordinary - managed to fulfil the schoolboy dream of jumping off the cliffs into the beautiful River Gardon - teachers wouldn't let us in '78 and that's before H&S kicked in...bloody teachers!
Lifestyle: late everything! Pain au Chocolate, baguettes, bifsteak et pommes frites et un bier lunches, using schoolboy French is a giggle and then some, "une biere s'il vous plait, un autre bier s'il vous plaits, l'addition s'il vous plait"! "Ou et le papier!". French driving and parking (someone needs to explain the purpose of whitelines in car parks to them),
Culture: I now know more about van Gogh than any other Welshman alive - possibly ever! Even been in his bedroom in the loony bin where they put him in St Remy en Provence - another must visit village, beautiful. Seriously though I have come to really appreciate his work now I get it and how significant he was/is to the world of art - amazing artist and very sad story (not just that he cut part of his ear off!).
Rugby (Montpellier v Brive): I really don't understand why Les Bleu have not won a World Cup! Atmosphere was outstanding, they really do make some noise when they fire up. When Montpellier got going they played some great football - yes my AFL friends, football the 'real' football! BUT really its the same anywhere in the world with rugby, friendly banter, everyone there to enjoy the game, passonatley support and hope their team wins, absolutley no sign of any nonesense and a beer after with everyone regardless! I know I'm 1-eyed but it truly is thus and no other sport comes within cooee of matching it!
Our apartment was in the old quarters of the walled city which gave us a picture of what Avignon would have been like thousands of years ago. The narrow cobbled streets with their tall stone buildings and shuttered windows squeeze together in a winding pattern throughout the old city. Over 5000 yrs of history surrounded by a wall and ramparts ( heritage listed, as is the Cathedral, Palace and Petit Palais, & Avignon Bridge) Avignon city has a strong medieval influence from the period of the papacy and many layers of different architecture from over the centuries.
The apartment was spacious with a loft bedroom and very narrow stairs to reach it! It had everything needed and was close to a lovely square, parking station, supermarkets, restaurants and only 10 minutes walk to outside the walls of the city. A decent wash of the floors would have helped! We soon discovered that it was not an overly safe area if walking alone as there were home less, suspect types and drunken people most nights in our area.
Eggs, ham, French stick, pane au chocolate were our regular starters for breakfast and our first day was spent discovering Avignon. Walked around the river Rhone to The Palace of the Popes where they lived in the X1V century, the famous Saint Benezet bridge built from the 12 century,and the old quarters of that area. All pretty amazing.
Hired a car and Huw drove expertly to Montpellier for the rugby. A trip to the Camargue, a wetland area with horses and flamingoes and at the furtherest point, St Maries De La Mer, a full on tourist town and beach area preceded the rugby.
I dragged Huw along to an exhibition in Montpellier on Signac the Post Impressionist. There were a good number of works in his pointillist techniques, most very colourful. We had seats at the very top of the stadium in the shade for rugby and it was a good night exciting rugby and crowd response. Huw did an amazing job of driving and finding all the places.
Off to St Remy the next day to find Van Gogh! Great town, very pretty, clean and just felt right. Followed the VG trail up to the hospital where he ended his life. it was absolutely brilliant in the hospital with access to many parts where he had painted as well as his bedroom and the outside grounds. We sat on a stone bench,which is in one of his paintings, amongst the olive trees, and ate our lunch of French stick and ham and cheese. Also found quite accidentally, an old Roman quarry where you could wander deep into parts of it - VG painted the front of the quarry entrance. It was amazing. The following day we continued the VG story by heading for Arles via the back of the Alpilles mountains of St Remy through amazing scenery to a high point where there is a village, Le du buffen en Provence. Drove on to Fontvielle en Provence where we saw an old windmill with painted by Alphonse Dubet.
Our first port of call in Arles was to go to the Losoise Bridge that VG painted. It is still in its original state and was very moving to see the whole area. Arles is a lovely place and we found our way around easily. Again followed the VG trail - to where Van Gogh lived - he painted over 300 paintings and drawings in Arles during his time here, the hospital where he was admitted after cutting off part of his ear including the garden he painted in the centre of the hospital grounds, Cafe at Night, the Yellow House. Saw some of the Roman sites, ampitheatre.
Huw was keen to revisit Pont du Gard, the old Roman aqueduct, a World Heritage site. Brilliant piece of engineering over 2000 yrs old with no cement between the bricks! Constructed in the 1st century AD. Huw swam in beautiful crystal clear water jumping off the cliffs.
Off to Aix en Provence, this time Cezanne! Hoped to have a spa in the thermal baths, Thermes Sextius, but too expensive - 46 E each! Did the 'In the Steps of Cezanne' trail following a map - firstly to the Saint Saveur Cathedral where his funeral was held, then to his studio and outside garden, which was excellent. Walked up the hill for 1 kilometre to the place where Cezanne painted twice a day, the view of Saint Victoire, where there were 10 reproductions of the views of the mountain, then to the house where he died on 23 October (same date as Huw's birthday)! Aix is very different to Avignon. It has wider streets which means more trees and shade and beautiful shopping areas, a lovely place. Drove up to the base of Saint Victoire, couldn't go further due to closure of the mountain (fire danger) and came down to Le Thebet to have a gorgeous pizza in a lovely outdoor restaurant .