Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Bike And Barge - more details

Now that I've had a chance to do the laundry and say goodbye to jetlag, I'm going to post a few more details about the trip, much of it in response to questions I've had (and mostly so I won't forget). Although we had internet access on the boat it was not completely reliable and I was generally too exhausted from the day's ride to get into too much detail in my blog posts during the trip.

The company I booked my trip with was not the actual company that manages the boats.  The company is an Italian company Giro Libero.  They run quite a few bike trips and another bike/barge from Venice to Mantova. The crew was mostly Italian, so I didn't get much chance on the boat to practice my French!

The boat is a converted barge which was upgraded about 5 years ago. The name of our boat was Soleo and for this trip it housed 18 clients and our 2 guides.

The rooms are below, each with ensuite and portholes. Though small, the rooms are very efficient - kind of like motor home living.  The beds are in an L-shape. There are plenty of shelves to store stuff, a closet (which we didn't really use), some drawers under one of the beds and a space under the other bed to store our suitcases.  Even Marj's large one fit under. As you might expect the bathroom is quite small but the shower had plenty of hot water and good pressure.

On the main deck is the kitchen, dining room, bar/lounge, deck, bike storage area. This is the dining area - on the door into the kitchen is a blackboard where the chef, Paulo, would write the evening's menu.  On the last day, however, he had a surprise for us, in the 4 different languages spoken on the boat (French, English, Italian and Swedish).  I can't remember the whole meal, but I won't forget the tiramisu we had for dessert!

The bikes were a better quality than I'd expected - perhaps even better than mine at home - 21/24 gears, with high-quality pannier. We were given detailed maps and written directions in case we wanted to self-guide.  Neither Marj nor I felt comfortable trying to figure out all the little turns, roads, paths, etc. so stayed with the group (most did). We did a bit of traveling on high traffic roads but it was mostly smaller roads and some dedicated bike paths. At one point we were on a unpaved section where we were required to walk our bikes for a few hundred meters. The trickiest parts were in the villages, navigating through the main streets jockeying with traffic. But most often we were biking through vineyards, olive groves, cherry orchards, flamingo ponds, roads lined with oleanders, poppies and rhododendrons, under vast blue skies and looking forward to the next village's patisserie and pain au chocolat.

Bonus photos:
Butterfly among the lavender.  We didn't see much lavender in bloom - this was at the chateau at Les Baux - although it is certainly in evidence in the tourist shops - on linens, soaps, calendars, etc.
 The hill up to Les Baux was probably the toughest of the trip - here the 4 Canadians pose for a shot before continuing the rest of the way up to the town.  Ed and Linda (former teachers) are from West Vancouver.
In the village of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer we climbed the narrow circling stairs up to the roof of a church where we ate our lunch and had a great view of the Mediterranean.  Of course we later dipped our toes in it.
 This was our second morning in Marseilles along the old port.
 Google street view car in Le Grau-du-Roi - a very touristy town.  Maybe you'll see us on the Google.
 Getting ready for a group photo just before the hill up to Chateauneuf du Pape.
Our guides Tamy and Bert liked to entertain us by strumming and singing.

Friday, June 13, 2014

A wee dram or a nip

Well at least we're learning the lingo - a nip is one finger and a dram is two.  A single malt is a whiskey made in one distillery unlike a blend which could come from 2 or more. And if you're having it before noon you're having a 'morning'. We had a morning yesterday because it was before noon when we travelled up some pretty narrow, windy paths to get to the Glenlivet distillery. We got a pretty good overview of the whole distilling process and a nice little nip at the end. Some of this terminology we also learned from a Scottish gentleman we met at lunch. Surprisingly he has travelled the entire route Alexander MacKenzie travelled all the way to Bella Coola. He worked in Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk and wrote documentaries for the BBC. Very interesting fellow and very helpful when it came to informing us about Scottish ways. He also convinced us that we HAD to see the Isle of Skye.
Dunvegan Castle has been the ancestral home of the Chiefs of Clan McLeod for over 800 years so I felt that I owned a small piece of it. It's not a very pretty castle, more utilitarian I think, but the grounds have some beautiful gardens.
Even with a bit of mist and rain the Isle of Skye couldn't hide its beauty. Plenty of sheep, green, water, rock bridges. I had a bit of a moment when I was taking this picture - my lens cap dropped over the fence and rolled just out of reach. I had to do some agile maneuvering over the fence and back to retrieve it.

Sorry I didn't actually purchase these potato chips (crisps) pictured below - I'll just have to imagine what they taste like.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Swilcan bridge

First the good news - Marj's suitcase has been found and retrieved and you might have heard her sigh of relief from there!

Earlier today we walked around the old course at St. Andrews - they have 6 other courses as well.  And of course we got our photo on the Swilcan bridge - you might recognize it.
Strange as it may seem you can just walk on to the course any old time you want - just watch for golf balls.  They must not have the same lawyers as we have in Canada.

We're staying at a lovely farmhouse about 10 miles from St. Andrews surrounded by huge green fields that seem to go on forever. This is the view from our second story window and even though you can't see it in the photo at the bottom of the field is the Firth of Forth.

think Marj may finally get some whiskey tasting tomorrow.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Scottish Kings

We've transitioned from sunshine, wine and croissants to beer, fish and chips, and a bit of sogginess. Only one unfortunate incident in transit yesterday - Marj arrived but her luggage didn't!  Fortunately it was a simple task to get a SIM card and a 'bundle' for my phone so we're better able to contact British airways for updates. As well as navigate after tomorrow when we get the car.

We started the hop on hop off this morning while it was still sunny, then the rain started part way through our visit to Edinburgh Castle. We heard about all the ill-fated kings and queens of Scotland and which ones lost their heads and who tried to gain control of the castle. Some of it is vaguely familiar and Marj's knowledge of Hamlet came in handy. The oldest part of the castle dates to the 1200s.

The rain dampened our spirits a bit so we returned sopping to the BnB in the afternoon, still no luggage has arrived!

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Disembarking and on to the highlands

I was surprised that I got a little emotional saying our goodbyes to everyone (fellow passengers AND crew) as we disembarked Saturday morning. We had a couple of hours to kill in Aigues Mortes before we caught the train to Marseilles so we stopped at a little cinema for tourists that showed a movie of the town's history.  Apparently this is where Louis IX began several crusades in the 13th century to 'take back Jerusalem from the heathens'. His attempts were not successful and thousands of men died trying (including Louis who unfortunately died of dysentery in Tunisia).

Our train to Marseilles included at transfer at Nimes where we had a 1.5 hour stop.  There is a huge feria or festival in Nimes this weekend celebrating Pentecost (50 days after Easter) but mostly including a huge bullfighting competition.  We walked down a long boulevard to the fair and found a stall selling a very popular dish around here - moules frites - Mussels with fries - and the mussels were delicious! While we ate, brass bands marched down the street - in fact at one point it was like duelling bands. We ended up having a 'conversation' with a older man, who was here to see the bullfighting (and also eating mussels), and the guy operating the stand - a volunteer with a charity organization raising funds by selling food at the fair. Between our french and their English we found out a bit about the events taking place. He gave us the program that lists all the matadors and where you can make notes of their performance in the ring. Lots of revellers in the streets even at noon.

Back to Marseilles for one night and currently leaving for Scotland this morning. By 10:00 the temperature is already 30 and rising. I'm sure it will be likewise in Edinburgh ;)

Friday, June 06, 2014

The Sun Continues to Shine - Last day of biking

Well we certainly can't complain about the weather (not that that would do any good anyway) - it's been pretty well perfect.  A bit of overcast a couple of days, mostly sunny, a light breeze off the Mediterranean and 4 drops of rain in Arles (and I'm not kidding).

Aigues Mortes is a medieval walled city (like hundreds of others in France) and one of the main industries is salt. There are 10,000 hectares of salt marshes and surprisingly they are pinkish due to the little shrimp-like critters that inhabit the waters - the same critters that make the flamingos pink. Marj and I did a little tour there after our short (35 km) ride today. We mostly just did a couple of loops out of the village of Aigues Mortes so it was a pleasant ride although for some reason I'm feeling the sun a bit more today - perhaps just cumulative.

Here's a flamingo coming in for a landing. We saw hundreds today.
This is the colour the salt marsh is at this time of year.  In the distance are the huge hills of salt waiting for processing.
One last night on the boat; tomorrow on the train back to Marseille. Not only has the biking been stupendous and the food fabulous but our guide Tamy, and her partner Bert (both originally from Holland now living in Italy and running their own mountain bike company as well as guiding here) have been exceptional - enthusiastic, informative, helpful, fun and super-competent.  We have been well taken care of in every department.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Day 5 - Flamingos and Horses

Today might have been long (67 km) but the elevation (0) was quite favourable! And the scenery spectacular. This entire area is really one big marsh with many birds and of course the horses and bulls.
There is a surprisingly big Spanish influence here - right down the to bull demonstrations and the paella and sangria in the restaurants. There are a lot of rice fields and they also harvest the salt.
For lunch we stopped at Sainte Maries de la Mers, waded in the Mediterranean and climbed to the top of a church to eat lunch. Could it get any better?
Tonight we've stopped in Aigue-Mortes (pr. egg-mort) which is literally 'dead-water' where we'll stay for 2 nights.

The schedule

By now we’re completely familiar with the routine of the boat.  At 8:00 breakfast is served which consists of cereals, yoghurt, some cheeses, meats, fruits, bread. Coffee is available from about 7:00.  Yesterday we had croissants for a treat.  By 8:30 we start taking the bikes off the boat and getting ready to ride.  After a couple of hours of biking there is often a ‘coffee’ stop when Marj and I try to find a patisserie (bakery).  Along the route there may be several stops to explain a historical site or to take pictures of something.  Lunch is usually in a little village.  After breakfast, there are baguettes, meat, cheese, lettuce, etc., for us to pack our own lunch. If we prefer we can visit one of the local restaurants.  The afternoon will often include a longer stop for beer or coffee as well.  We usually meet up with the boat by around 5:00.  The bell for supper rings at 7:00 at which time Paulo (the cook) and his assistant Stephanie introduce the dinner menu. If we want wine with dinner we mark it down in a little log to pay when we leave.  So far we’ve had no more than one bottle per day.  Dinner generally gets over around 9:00. Tammy, our enthusiastic guide, then gives us a briefing for the next day’s ride, letting us know what to expect or what to look out for. It’s a full schedule and so far there has been little ‘free time’ as both Marj and I have been pretty spent from the riding (and the wine) by the time dinner is over.

Our captain and bar man Alan (originally from England):
Marj gets a photo of Chef Paolo and Stephanie:

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Day 4 - Into Arles and down the Petit Rhone

After we completed a tour of the city of Arles, complete with Roman amphitheater and forum ruins, we had a short (20 km) bike ride that led us past “Carmargue” horses and bulls, and many rice fields. We then had our first actual ride on the boat, down the Petit Rhone – a western branch of the Grand Rhone – before docking for the evening.  We are now in the Camargue - an area of the Rhone delta that has been preserved as a botanical and zoological nature reserve. The horses are born brown but turn white within a few years.

Each little village seems to have a carousel. Our 'guide-in-training' Bert, decided to buy a ride for the whole group. Marj picked the tiger.

Marj’s contribution to today’s blog:

“Roman ruins and Van Gogh’s madness – that pretty well sums up our day.  Croissant for breakfast and bruschetta for lunch – can’t get much better than that.”

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Day 3 - the last of the big uphills

Wow and I thought yesterday was rigorous – today was longer and steeper than yesterday but very enjoyable. Again, the weather was glorious and the reward of a fabulous 3 course meal at the end (ending with mousse au chocolate!) was enough to keep me going.

Our 65 km trip today took us to St. Remy de Provence, the home of Nostradamus and the place where Van Gogh painted Starry Night (and many others) when he was hospitalized for mental problems.  Following that we had a 4 km ascent to the village of Les Baux , perched at the top of the hill.  We entered a light display of artwork by several Austrian artists, none of which I had heard of before.  It’s hard to describe in words but imagine huge 50 foot walls of a vast granite quarry on which are displayed, in animated fashion and with music, artwork on the walls and floors and always changing. Quite stunning.  

Our next trip was 200 m to the medieval castle which turned into about 1 km because of an unexpected detour. And all uphill!  Needless to say, Marj and I weren’t that keen on walking to the top of the turrets but we saw quite a bit of it. 

During the day we passed through many kilometres of olive tree orchards as well as grain fields (wheat or barley?) and poppy fields. 
We ended the day at Arles. From here it’s mostly flat as we make our way towards the Camargue.

Day 2 - Keep Going

 The vast Roman empire included most of this area and lots of the evidence still remains.  Such as the Pont du Gard – the largest remaining section of a Roman aqueduct.  Having water in their homes was a huge status symbol. The structure is quite impressive as it towers over the river below.  We stopped here today for lunch as it was about ½ way through today’s trip.

The weather is quite glorious - lots of sunshine and cooling breezes.

It was a long 60 km day with plenty of uphills so we were all glad to get back to our typical 3 course dinner.  Tonight it consisted of pesto spaghetti for the entrée, roast pork with vegetables for the main, and crème brule for dessert. Marj and I washed it down with a bottle of wine we bought at a little winery along the way.  The winery sells a lot of inexpensive wine to the locals such as this man who brought his jugs then filled them with wine from a hose (like a gas pump).

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Where Shall We Go Next

If you're like me you like to have a bird's eye view of where you're going (often called a map!).  We boarded the boat just across the Rhone River from Avignon which is actually in a small village called Villeneuve-les-Avignon.  Technically speaking, it's not in Provence, but in the traditional province of Languedoc (Toulouse is the capital)..

Day 1 Cycling

If the first day of cycling is any indication, the trip may turn out to be perfect. Fabulous weather, some wine tasting, beautiful vistas, excellent food and super nice travelling companions - what more could we ask for?

The original plan was to travel by boat to Avignon, then cycle from there. But because the boat couldn't moor in the pre-arranged spot, our first day of cycling started with a ride right through the centre of Avignon. Traffic was a bit hectic, even for a Sunday morning!
[Here we are getting instructions from our leader Tammy (front left, bright green helmet) before we start out.]
It wasn't long before we were travelling on little lanes and paths lined with wild flowers (pale orange poppies and yellow-flowering gorse). This soon gave way to many, many vineyards on the way up the hill to Chateauneuf-du-pape which you can see on the hill behind us. 

We were welcomed into one of the wineries for a sample of the 2011 vintage. We were also fortunate enough to convince 10 others in our group to buy a bottle. The catch was if our group bought a dozen bottles they would deliver it directly to the boat and we wouldn't have to carry it ourselves.

After we headed downhill from Chateauneuf-du-pape the surroundings included more agricultural areas including wheat, vegetable gardens and orchards - apples, peaches, cherries - as we travelled toward the small village of Roquemaure.  It's famous for its "Kissing Festival" on Feb. 14 in honour of St. Valentine which attracts over 20 000 people (to come and kiss). Ending the day with our 3 course meal prepared by our Italian chef Paulo was the icing on the cake (although dessert was actually tart du pommes).

Tomorrow is our longest day with the greatest elevation. Hopefully by tomorrow evening I'll be just as enthusiastic.

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