A Travellerspoint blog


Boulabaisse, Boats and Petit Trains

semi-overcast 23 °C
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Marseille - 25 April

Just over one hour from Avignon on train and we arrived at Marseille train station. The train trip was on a TGV express line, unfortunately we had an old rattler of a carriage, but the track was so smooth the only indication we were carreering at 130 kms/h was a slight woft of the window curtains. Looking outside gave the speed away also as the blurred countryside flashed past.

From the grand staircase of the train station overlooking this incredible port city we descended to our hotel. Swinging a cat may have been fun in the small room but with not room to do so this pasttime will be left till later. Through the back streets around our hotel right next door to the theatre there are restaurants with specialities such as Senegalese, Morrocan and Tunisian.

Down to the water was exactly how we pictured it however Steve had the impression it was smaller. Bigger in real life is often better with the thousands of yacht masts filtering the view out towards the fort on either side of the harbour entrance. Eeniee, meenie, miney moe, we turned right and strolled out to the northern headland for a pack lunch. Tuna fish flying everywhere and there was still enough for Camilla's pants and sandwich.

Steve put a thumb in the Mediterrean for the first time and exclaimed that it was definetely swimming temperature. How decieving enthusiam can be when we found out later that it was barely 19 degrees. Needing a mission under the full pretence that we refuse to walk any further we boarded the tacky (ok, fine - efficient, clean and reliable) tourist train for a easy climb up the hill to Notre Dame de Garde.


Commentary over the speakers of each carraige were translated (we use that term loosely) into English by what sounded like an out of work cockney British actor that spent his childhood in South Africa, schooled in New Zealand and took holidays in Texas. Go on, give that a go.

The towers of Notre Dame de Garde are made up of alternating black and white marble which contrasts dramatically against the blue skys and rocky mountains. An imposing sight from below it is the greatest vantage point to absorb the sprawling Marseille. Steve gave up counting boats pretty quickly while Camilla explored the crypt.

A snack was in order by the time we had dealt with our commentator on the trip down so we wondered off into the south bank back streets to find the equivalent of a boost juice. With luck we found the only one in Marseille according to the very friendly owner (could be a market in that?)

The final vantage point of the day was found alongside the Palace overlooking the eastern harbour fort with a view over the busy parade of boats returning for the day. On the way home we went into the cluttered yet fascinating model boat and maritime bits and pieces shop. A little like Whitworths only the range included expensive mediterrean taste and too many options for a boat fitout.

Finding that we were short on supplies our final conquest for the day was to survive the local food market in the square at closing time. A flustered Steve emerged with an assortment of bananas, tomatos, zuchini, carrots and strawberries spending just short of 2 euros. Ahh the excitement of self catering, our produce produced the first fried rice extravaganza which would be repeated twice more until the stocks were depleated.

A full day in Marseille - 26 April

Marseille is known for its variety of fresh seafood delivered to the banks of the harbour as it has been for hundreds of years by fishing families known in the area. Totally unlike the Sydney fish market with the multimillion dollar trawlers, dozens of colourful 20 foot long wooden boats arrive to sell their catch. Setting up little blue tables with haste the men unload the fish while women help sort the catch, much of which is still flapping or trying to make an escape (cheeky octopus).

All this excitement before breakfast, we made poached eggs on the window sill then packed for the day. Determined to see some sights we went eagerly to the Palace Longchamps via the historic quarter and short detour to the train station for a ticket out. At Longchamps were arrived in front of an enormous fountain (3 stories tall) with raging bulls and all that jazz which celebrates Marseilles royals securing a reliable water supply during a long drought. The gardens behind the palace inspired us to do nothing more than sit in the grass and watch children playing (did we mention cook up more fried rice, yum).

Full of beans we strode entirely across town through the northern streets of port to the largest cathedral in Marseille. We hope to be forgiven for not commenting on the name but unfortunately we are a bit overwhelmed with the number of churches etc. It was big none the less and impressive in its own right, unfortunately it did not look particularly well used a little soulless (pardon the expression). There were only one or two other people visiting at the time and yet the structure, architecture and art is a contemporary of any other religious building we have seen so far.

Fully equiped mobile 'Cafe Hall' set up shop on the side of the harbour entrance next to the travelling circus tent to deliver hot cups of goodness to its only patrons. Revived, it was now time for the exciting first sea leg of the European experience. The ferry in Marseille helps shoppers, elderly, commuters and boat mad tourists to cross from one side of the harbour all the way to the other (approximately 100 metres).

As seen on a documentary we can't remeber the name of by an grumpy English chef we thought was painful to watch it was advised that when in Marseille it is mandatory to eat Boulabaisse. Every second restaurant sells this sordid affair originally cooked by the youngest child in the fishing families as a way of using the unsold fish. The name boulabaisse translates to 'before it boils', the instructions given to the child before being left to turn down the heat to simmer. For those intellects that have already guessed that a culinary delight which was cooked by children of sometimes impoverished fishing families may not be gourmet you beat us too it. Thankfully we had aparatifs at a devine little bar before venturing onto dinner.

A quick explanation excluded from conversation with Camilla before Steve ordered the dish, the whole fish, let us be specific, the ENTIRE fish was used and they are usually small and red from the bottom of the Med. Boulabaisse is now considered a culinary masterpiece by some chefs, Steve however suffered nightmares about choking on small fish bones whilst drowning in fish guts. Maybe the 50 euro version would have offered something better than the 15 euro version but the soup part comes out of the same pot, need we elaborate further.

All in all, Marseille is well worth visiting. The view from the top is excellent, even good enough to justify walking up. A history of fishing families, boats galore and historic maritime forts are all great to see in the flesh. Boulabaisse...

Posted by snchall 02:29 Archived in France Tagged backpacking Comments (0)


Time to catch our breath

sunny 26 °C
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3 Days Camping next to Pont d'Avignon on the Rhone

Finding a campsite in European cities is becoming increasingly easy. As we walked past all the little hotels in Avignon where the windows look out onto brick walls (the hotels we could afford anyway) it was a pleasant surprise to find our campground adjacent to the slow flowing Rhone.

In the evening of our first day, 22 April, we sat on the banks, gasless and therefore tealess, with a nice bottle of French 'Le Chat' cabinet savignon 2003, a huge block of cheese, foot long chorizo sausage and of course a baguette. The sun went down warming our backs and lighting up the Palais des Papes (only Palace of the Popes ever to exist outside of Rome) whilst trying to remeber the tune to the famous song 'Pont d'Avignon' which was directly opposite.

As we have arrived in the Cote d'Azur it seemed fitting to watch a relevant and up to date documentary covering travel in this part of France. It was clear that French was not required to understand the do's and don'ts of travelling abroad as we learnt from Mr Bean himself not to leave passports on trainstations, arrive early for a TGV and hitchhiking is slow going.

Day 1 - 23 April

We spent today in the Internet Cafe with a short run to the mountain equipment store for gas and kebab shop for sustainance. Gas = tea and hot dinner. The End.

Day 2 - 24 April

Slightly more elaborate than yesterday, woke to a fresh baguette in our tent and heinze baked beans, bliss.

Took a very lazy stroll up the gardens overlooking the famous bridge and island we were staying on. We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the narrow streets surrounding the Palais des Papes. A bout of homesickness snuck in under the radar today so we came to the conclusion in was time for icecream and a lazy afternoon.

Hot dinners cooked by us are a great way to feel independant from so many tourist attractions, expenses etc. With the tent up, packs together inside, a warm clean place to sleep and cooker (tea bags) at the ready it is like a small Australian Embassy, heinze beans and a small Australian flag on the tent to boot.

Our next step decided at the train station that afternoon, destination sunny Marseille.

Posted by snchall 02:49 Archived in France Tagged backpacking Comments (3)


Finding our way out of the countryside

sunny 23 °C
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Le Bleymard - The Pickup - 20 April

It was a sad morning knowing that our good friend Loustic would be returning home. Steve awoke at around 7 am to find glaciers had developed on the outside of the tent, with the frost and fog still sitting heavy in the valley. At first sight poor Loustic let out a bellowing 'eee-h-oooorr' which seemed to translate into 'Pardon me old chap but I seem to have wrapped myselmf continually around this pole and therefore am unable to continue to gorge myself on fresh grass, be a sport and take me to a greener patch'.

Sorting donkey out was one thing but finding our gas can did not have the correct fitting Steve left a smoldering mess of an attempt at a fire (saving grace - remeber all the twigs are covered in frost!). On returning without gas but with ample food supplies as an offering to Camilla it was clear girl guides had paid off! The smoldering mess now had flames roaring from within and a pot boiling water to the side.

The pickup for Monsieur Donkey was 2 pm giving us ample time to explore this tiny village in the valley. Temptation got the better of us so we chose a strawberry tartelette and apple cinnamon flan both of which were eagerly devoured under the most enormous blossom tree. The patissier was more than helpful at explaining the ingrediants pulling spice boxes out of the kitchen to help with translation.

A quick call home to the parents was met with glee. As much as the internet helps us keep in touch nothing replaces the reassurance of each others voice to confirm everything is fine. Packing up our tent has become quite systematic and within half and hour we were sitting in the grass having lunch reflecting on the last couple of days. Loustics chariot arrived and we said our final goodbyes then off to the local bar to drown our sorrows before the only bus to leave town for 3 days.

Huddling under the information hut as the sunshower began, a whole half an hour earlier than the designated bus departure seemed a little excessive. An hour and a half later the local school children turned up to go home for the weekend just as we started making plans to remain. Whether the departure time was lost in translation or not (maybe just a Sydney cityrail timetable), the wait was worthwhile as the trip down the valley in the afternoon sunshower was glorious.

Villefort - 20 to 22 April

Still buzzing with excitement from the bus ride carreering around bends overlooking the jagged gorges and winding river, Chateau Champs and precarious apple orchards clinging to the cliffs we toddled into town. There were all of two accommodation options available within a 1 km walk of the station, in a town that is 2 km long, so we had little choice but to stay at Hotal Balme.

At 35 euros a night is was surprisingly in good condition. Stepping back into the 1930s decor, floral wallpaper and 12 foot ceilings was complimented by the ruddy hotellier without an ounce of humour in the whole 200kg of him. The view out the window typified our location in the heart of Southern France with winding streets leading of the main boulevard where men played boule smoking pipes and boulangeries compete for your business.

Without gas we opted for the popular pizza restaurant and had one of the best woodfired pizzas topped with a soft yolked egg, yum. Night two in Villefort led us back to the same pizza place which indicates what we thought of the place.

The first morning in Villefort was spent lazily in the cafe boulangerie where we had our first coffee in weeks and devoured croissants, scrolls and raisin swirls. A couple of kilometre walk with dirty laundry in tow to the laundramat was in vain as it was closed yet we continued as planned to Lake Villefort.

Lake Villefort has an immense damn filling the valley to 60 metres of water and a vast drop on the other side to a trickle below. We ate under a tree on the side of the damn and soaked up some rays before heading back in to town for a later afternoon snooze. Tough life really.

We have found so far that trains are by far the best way of getting around France, even in and out of some of the most remote country towns. The system is immense with infrastructure including numerous tunnels over 1 kilometre long, incredible viaducts and bridges and smooth tracks however the trains themselves range immensely from 40 years old to fresh out of the box.

Packed and ready to leave on the 22 April we commenced the journey at the Villefort station. To our surprise the train which came to pick us and two other passengers up had only one carriage but was very modern. Winding down the mountain we changed trains in Ales before a final change in Nimes then onto Avignon.

Posted by snchall 04:48 Archived in France Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Grand Radonnee GR70 - Robert Louis Stevenson

3 Days walking with a donkey

sunny 24 °C
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[*]Two flights to Europe - $3,500

[*]Bus ride from Le Puy en Velay to Langogne - 12 euros

[*]Toilette break - 0.20 centimes

[*]Walking with a Donkey in the Cevenne - PRICELESS


Langogne to Luc

Our first encouter with the locals was a nosey horse with long toenails keen to make the aquaintance of Monsieur Loustic (aka our Donkey). Through farmland lanes we traversed the surrounding hills behind Langogne before entering thin trails between tall pine trees.

Steve came to a stop not more than an hour into the walk exclaiming in a secretive hush that 'it has been a long time since we have been somewhere undisturbed by the noise of engines'. It was truly a magical feeling to stand silent below the pine forest canapy for those few seconds before a low flying French military MIG jet fighter almost knocked us over.

Further encounters included a half dozen angry dogs, which we later concluded get adjitated simply from the sight of anything other than the quiet lives they lead. We cross a number of stone arch bridges over stony creeks before the uphill battle with gravity! At the top of our first major ascent we slumped under a tree, tied Loustic to the barbed wire and rubbed our heels. An inquisitive donkey seemed eager to join our party but Loustic would have none of us looking at other rides so he started to shuffle and set the pace.

Decending into the marshlands of Sangne Rousse we read the plaque which explained how poor Robert Louis Stevenson (RLS) got lost for hours in this section of the walk due to magnetic field interferance, fog and hunger. We luckily escaped hullicination through devouring some of Camilla's pre-packed (girl guide style) lunch with dry feet and a shady grass patch.

Under stick instruction we thought it was time for some donkey maintenance, so ignoring the old saying 'you can lead a horse to water' (primarily because Loustic is an intelligent donkey) we attempted the first drink. To no avail our donkey remained dry so disgusted at his lack of appreciation at our generosity we strode on.

Chaylard Levque (you are forgiven if you have not heard of this small town) was where Camilla became the key tourist attraction. A number of older (>26yrs) tourists relaxing in their well appointed Gite, cold drinks in hand decided to take a photo of our Loustic leading Camilla through town. We decided to approach said tourists and found them to be a retired couple doing the same walk from the south coast of NSW. We bid them bon voyage and were thinking of them only an hour later when the second of the great ascents for the day was wearing us thin. Steve's extensive topomap reading skills (insert zero experience where appropriate) concluded without argument that the next section would be downhill.

Puffing at the top of the third great ascent and Steve had another look at how the map portrayed this section. A lesson well learnt in the field (unlike the security of a girl guide hut) will never be forgotten.

Finally, Loustic decided to drink (out of a puddle) then decided to sit down in the dirt and roll around with the bags on. Out came the French English dictionary to confirm one of the words that was repeated during our donkey maintenance training 'entêté' which translates (you will never guess) into 'stubborn'. Loustic commanded only a few moments of his own throughout the day however this was not one he would be indulged as our eggs and cameras were at risk.

All of the uphill walking throughout the day meant only one thing for the final section, a very steep decent into the town of Luc via Chateau de Luc - a partially in tack castle on the hill overlooking the river. With a donkey in tow (or as the case may be two humans in tow) the locals gathered from our faces that we needed direction to the closest campsite. With almost 8.5 hours of walking and 28kms of gorgeous terrain behind us the tent went up like a flash next to the cascades of the river.

Luc to Mirandol

Waking to the sound of a fly fisherman casting his real into the early morning mist Steve with every ounce of agility he could muster produced two hot cups of tea from the warmth of his sleeping bag. What prowess!

Donkey grooming was eagerly undertaken by Camilla who produced southern France's most beutiful donkey of the day. Saddle in place and bags loaded the unlikely threesome returned to the beaten path of the GR70. The GR (Grand Radonnee - walking tracks) are a web of well signposted trails/treks and ambles through the best France has to offer. Although the topographical guide/maps and French descriptions add to the understanding of the trail it is nearly impossible to get lost with every turning point marked with red and white stripes, crosses or indications. Needless to say we made our only two detours by mistake on this day as a result of hunger and lack of midday tea.

Walking past fields upon fields of dafodils we came to our first true obstacle. A barbed wire fence relief (ladder for humans) was strategically positions adjacent to a brand new swing bridge just wide enough for the lovely Camilla, her backpack and video camera to make their way across leaving Steve, Loustic, and 50kgs of luggage standing barefooted before a raging (read trickling) freezing (read bloody freezing) river.

After coming down from his rant about the next river crossing being dedicated to those precious little toes of Camilla, we wandered off to play with frogs, admire dafodils then realise at an impassable section of river that we were the wrong side of the train line. Thankfully only 200metres back and we found our way again, another lesson learnt (take a raft next camping holiday).

La Bastide was the picture of a small town with a helpful train guard offering water before we crossed the bridge into town and let Steve loose in the Boulangerie. Three very young French children with patient grandma in tow were dazzeld by Loustic 'Le Ane est tres bien'. Camilla tried her best to answer their questions before helping them feed the lucky bugger fresh bread and even a small piece of Steve's chocolate croissant.

Now very hungry we made our way following the red and white stripes up a gruelling hill for about 20 minutes before relising on the map that La Bastide is the intersection of around 3 or 4 GR walks. Back down the hill was a time for reflection before we dove into a huge lunch by the river. Loustic up to his knees in fresh spring grass made a complete gutz of himself also and seemed to plod for the rest of the day.

Our largest climb yet was from 1016 to 1308 metres above sea which took almost an hour. At the summit we came to a full appreciation of how beautiful this part of the world really is with a panoramic view of the towns and valleys below. Our decent was soaked up by Loustic and Steve however Camilla's feet started to suffer from the climb. Steve now happily carrying Camilla's pack rolled along down the hill in front with Camilla guiding Monsieur Donkey behind. A startle came from above a ridge where 4 pregnant tan and blonde mares and foal overlooked our passage.

Passing two campsites seemed like a good idea at the time but by the time the sun was setting the L'allier gorge opened up below us. A herd of cows chased (from their side of the fence) Camilla and Loustic along the narrow winding road as we crept into Mirandol. A labirynth of roads led us of the main road (1.5 lanes) under the towering Mirandol train bridge made up of a dozen arches piercing into the canyon. Although committed to camping, the warmth of the Gite (share accommodation) beckoned and as we were the only guests for this time of year it felt like a private retreat. Tucked in among the rocks did not allow space for Loustic overnight so Steve and the owner tucked him into his paddock across the valley.

Mirandol to Le Bleymard

By this stage in the walk we have seen endless countryside, rivers and small villages of southern France however the pace of the last 50 kilometres did not allow time to soak up the surrounds. Additionally, our feet (not to mention legs, backs, shoulders etc) had started to complain and were threatening a strike. Once Loustic was consulted and agreed we set forth on a short 14 kilometres to take in the final stage of our radonnee.

The highlights for the final day started with a sleep in followed by French toast, juice and tea. Steve gathered Loustic and did some grooming (not quite as tender and lacking some finnesse but still delivered with love) to make a handsome donkey.

Following the train lines we were joined by another walker who complimented our 'jolie âne' (pretty donkey). Another big hill (350 vertical metres) warranted a long lunch under the shade of old growth forest. We plonked down next to a mountain spring oozing cool water from the rocks and ate fresh ravioli with bechamel sauce, tea, bananas and some chocolate. Self catering rocks!

Loustic became spooked as the final mouthfuls were taken, so taking head of this sign and feeling somewhat vunerable with our shoes off we packed up and headed to the final decent. Down among the stream jaggered through the paddock we were startled by a moderate sized streak of orange fur running up the other side of the hill. it's movement could only be described as cat like so with this we kept a reasonable pace and continued to the final obstacle.

A joint river crossing proved to be the source of great amusement as Camilla realised why Steve carried on only days before. The icy snowmelt and cool spring water pierces deep into the toes so you either laugh or cry. Loustic was probably wondering what all the carry on was about when accompanying Steve across. While tending to our frozen feet Loustic took his moment and wandered at a snails pace off along the path looking back every now and then seeking some sort of reaction. Like a cheeky child he hid behind a tree eating until Camilla caught up.

Our final chance encouter in the forest was a wild deer bounding down the hill like a mogul skier. Les Alpiers was a happily situated small village looking down through rollling hills on the opposite side of the crest to our destination. Rounding the final pasture and descending through loose shale rock to our campsite was both gleeful and sad.

An amazing three days of trekking with perfect sunshine, perfect company and fabulous feast of colours and sights was at an end. If you ever have an opportunity to walk alongside a donkey take it. Like Robert Louis as it certainly exceeded our expectation, and not surprisingly we shared the same sentiment as RLS almost 130 years before.

Posted by snchall 05:28 Archived in France Tagged backpacking Comments (0)


Love at first sight between man and beast

sunny 24 °C
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Monday - 16 April

When we say close shave catching the bus, what we mean to say is that is was one moment before chasing it down the street. In small rural towns it seems common place to only have one or two busses or trains per day and this was our only ride out of Le Puy en Velay. Both hungry and freezing cold in the morning mist at 7am is not the time to be trying to speak French.

The bus collected school children from each of the towns we passed, each collection slightly louder than the previous as the morning drew on. At Langonge we attempted to memorise a map from the train station to the camp site (good one guys, have you had tea at this point you ask). An hour later and we were covering our tracks, asking random French people for directions and finally grumbled our way into the camping.

Naussac Lake is a beautifully set amongst rolling hills and pasture land. We had tea (which likely saved our marriage) and finally finshed pitching the tent. It was now almost 11am and we knew it would be tricky on a Monday to find an open food seller at lunch time (who would have thought - crazy French). Sitting under the Pont Vieux bridge along the GR70 Chemin (way of) Robert Louise Stevenson as part of his epic stroll through this country had us bustling with excitement about the days ahead.

Drinks were a bit of a pre-gruelling walk treat purchased enjoyed in a little country bar tended to by identical twins. Back at our campsite we were sitting high on the hill eating dinner while watching a thunderstorm move across the lake in completely the opposite direction of our adventure tomorrow, whew.

The Meeting - 17 April

Our walk through the Lozere, Cevenne and Gevandaun would not be complete without a strong, obedient donkey to assist with our food and equipment.

We ate briefly next to the lake in the reception of the campsite waiting for the truck to pull up. Once those doors were flung open and his big brown eyes found ours we knew this experience was going to be worthwhile.

May we introduce Loustic, a 5-6 year old brown donkey with white underbelly, patient and kind personality, seeming disproportionate ears and an eee-h-ooore that give you goose bumps. ok, so he is a bit rough around the edges but forgiven immediately when without complaint he accepted approximately 35 kgs worth of food, water, cameras, maps, tents...

It may seem easy to some, but for two cityslikers like us to take a lesson in donkey etiquette, management and obediance in French was a little tricky. In brief the requirements are to ensure a big drink each day, planty of grass overnight, don't give in to the eyes when being stubborn, a brush each morning before getting dressed with luggage rack, let him think about water crossings before diving in and always clean his feet before marching off. Easy, just translate into waving hands, French country slang and lots of nodding and you have the general gist.

Here we go, the walk has begun and without delay our affection for this strong animal was growning. As the morning mist lifted off the green pastures it was sure to be a steady pace for the next few days and one that would be both challenging and rewarding.

Posted by snchall 03:07 Archived in France Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

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