I am a very lucky girl to have visited Scotland for a second week this year. I have been familiarising myself with the Highlands, cities and countryside. In May / June 2017 I will be hosting my first tour to Scotland with a tour group. Along with my good friend and amazingly wonderful guide Charles Barkla we have planned 13 days of travel staying 2- 3 -4 nights in each place to immerse ourselves in the food, gardens, culture, history and whisky in this stunningly beautiful country. This tour will begin in France and take in the countryside of Normandy for 6 days.
For 5 days (which wasn’t long enough )Philip and I explored Normandy securing hotels, restaurants, garden visits and excursions for a new tour to Normandy and Scotland in May / June 2017.
Visiting Paris like most are other large tourist cities means good walking shoes a bottle of water and your camera charged up.
Everywhere you look its enormous and impressive. Iconic Paris has many monuments but also parks and gardens everywhere lined with fabulous rows of huge pleached trees, for the Parisians to relax, picnic and exercise. This year the Luxembourg gardens had an exhibition on apples and pears with a huge range of old varieties and methods of espaliering. Lucky for us Paris had a car less day and Sunday here also means the shops are closed. Although the main city traffic routes were open, places like the Champs Elysees, Les Invalides and Place de Concorde were home to walkers, families on bikes and many on roller skates.
Musee D’Orsay with its impressive collection of Impressionist paintings is a must visit – housed in an amazing old railway station beside the river Seine it is an easy way to loose 3-4 hours. This year we finally visited Saint Chapelle- the little church by Notre Dame with the most incredibly beautiful stain glass windows. They are arranged across 15 windows, each 15 metres high, the stained glass panes depict 1,113 scenes from the Old and New Testaments. There was no queue amazingly and they were very breathtaking. Just around the corner from these beautiful churches, I was amazed to see a street of Nurseries selling plants for apartments and balconies. It makes sense really. Many people won’t have cars and the centre of the city has to offer everything.
But Paris is about food . Every corner has a cafe and restaurant with seats all facing the street. From coffee and croissant in the morning to a wine and salad at lunch – open until till late in the evening – these places are always open. Parisians, like most in France like to stop and eat lunch and dinner together with friends and family – usually two or three courses.
In St Germain we ate at the iconic Le Relais de l’Entrecote where the menu is steak and chips – thats it !!!. there was a huge queue to get in and it was heaving with people. You are asked how you want your steak cooked – Rare or Medium. A plate of salad is served first then your first of two plates of steak and chips arrives . Served on small plates you get 2. We had to ask the people beside us the protocol. The restaurant was so packed they even pulled out the table from the wall for me to sit down. it was a fun experience and the food was great. In France the bread is sublime and is always served at the table. Small bakeries are everywhere and you see lots of the French heading home with a baguette under their arm.
Leaving Paris by rental car turned out to be hassle free and our next 5 days takes us to Normandy so I can work on a new tour for 2017. Its all about Gardens, Food, Culture and History including Normandy and Scotland.
The first stop had to be at Giverny . We visited Claude Monets garden back in the Spring of 1995 with our 3 little children aged 8, 5 and 3 and I remember Matthew telling Philip I had taken a whole roll of photos of the garden. There was certainly more people and the car park and tourist shop etc is much bigger. But, the garden in Autumn this time was still beautiful and taking photos on my IPhone is so much easier.
I had read of Aix en Provence and couldn’t wait to become acquainted with this town. Our hotel was in the middle of a tangle of medieval lanes which we drove down several times before locating the ‘door’ to our fabulous contemporary apartment. The streets were alive with young people – this is a university city with many foreign students and we felt instantly at home. The main Boulevard is lined with a double row of Plane trees which is blocked off on Fridays for a huge weekly market and decorated with fountains in every courtyard and square. The streets were alive in the evenings and the alleyways filled with bars, restaurants, cafes and shops. Dinner two nights in a row for us was in the same square where there was a huge number of restaurants to choose from. Regional favourites and just favourites like buratta and fresh tomatoes can’t be beaten. Fresh fish from Marseilles and our favourite duck were all sensational.
This is the home of Cezanne and there is a self guided walk to follow through the city following little brass plaques with a big ‘C’ set in the footpath. Such a terrific idea. During the walk we came across an exhibition of one of Cezannes impressionist artist friends Camoin.
Each day small markets are set up until 1pm selling fresh fruit and vegetables, cheese, meat ,fish etc . We came across what looked like the most delicious street food and couldn’t resist a baguette filled with prosciutto and melted cheese . It was succulent, luscious and completely wonderful.
Gardens are what we love to visit and like food and wine they have regional differences – although all good gardens are fabulous architectural landscapes. Potagers and vegetables play a huge roll and the art of espaliering is a dynamic feature used in the garden Du Chateteau Val Joanis – an hour from Aix en Provence which is surrounded by vineyards and olive trees.
We know Provence for its rows of colourful lavender, but we are now in late summer and autumn colours are starting to appear.The villages of the Luberon are doted all over the countryside – People like Peter Mayle made many famous in his books ‘ A Year in Provence’ and ‘Tourjours Provence’ . In the late afternoon it was a perfect quiet time to visit 3 villages taking in a quant bread museum in Bonnieux, a walk up through the village of Lacoste to the castle of the famous Marquis de Sade – now owned by Pierre Cardin and we enjoyed a wine sitting on a balcony in Menerbes taking in the stunning view of the countryside and more villages in the distance.
Traveling and exploring has advantages and disadvantages. You certainly cover a lot of ground and get to see many varied regions and landscapes . However, we are finding we always need a day or two longer in each stop. Choosing a destination and staying put gives you time to investigate and familiarise yourself with your surroundings, go to the same cafe for coffee each morning and the same bar for a wine in the early evening.
Stopping for lunch in Arles was one such stop that wasn’t long enough. Narrow streets are lined with houses from the 15th and 16th Centuries and the sidewalks filled with cute little restaurants that were all full of people enjoying the ‘menu du jour’. The French love to sit down and have 2-3 courses for lunch with a glass of wine. All the shops close for 2-3 hours and the streets are quiet, children go home or eat at school and it’s a lovely time to sit and relax. Arles was the largest city of Roman Gaul and home to Julius Caesar for a while. It has impressive remains of a Roman theatre and amphitheatre that now hold UESCO status.
A very Special visit was catching up with New Zealander Philippa Foubert, her husband Yannick and their two gorgeous 7month old twin boys. They live close to the town of Anduze which is renowned for stunningly beautiful garden pots. Yannick owns and makes pots which are sold all over Europe. I have always loved these stunning things and soon they will have them in New Zealand! Many of the roads in France are lined with plane trees, supposedly Emperor Napoleon is credited with originating the policy of lining French roads with trees, to enable his soldiers to march in the shade – Not sure about this because they would take years to grow. But today there is a move to remove many sections of trees because of the alarming number of road deaths attributed to cars colliding with trees. We beloved them but I can see the problem.