A Travellerspoint blog


It's a small world after all

sunny 15 °C

The town we are in now is called Ciotat, it was a mostly random decision to come here as it was half way from Cinque Terre to Barcelona but it is also on the coast and in a great wine region, which was no mistake. Our search for hotels was a bit of a funny one as the highest recommendations went to none other than, America's, Best Western. We are a little embarrassed to admit that the rest of the reviews for this area were so bad that we actually went for it. After our last place that thought hot showers were an unnecessary luxury, it is actually pretty nice and right in the center of the downtown marina/restaurant district. And the good news is, we can do just about anything tomorrow, because tonight, we slept at a Best Western (sorry if you don't find that funny because you haven't seen their recent ad campaign.)

We made good time on our drive yesterday and arrived here by 5pm. Restaurants that open all day are not a normality here so we found a patisserie for a quick snack and had a nap before we explored the town when it opened back up in the evening. It isn't the prettiest waterfront town, but it has some pretty big marina's with giant cranes that must mean it is a good spot to get some work done. It also has a lot of fishing boats tied up here, so we were keen on some good seafood restaurants. As we wandered along the shore lined with restaurants, reading the menus and checking out how busy each was I stumbled onto a familiar face. I do it every now and again and am sometimes to shy to actually check and see if it is the person I know, so this time I just stuck my head in the front door and yelled, "Howard!" He spun around like he had been slapped, it was right back to the old days at the Lady C and later the Red Piano in St.Maarten. Howard has been the chef on the private yacht "Ultima III" for as long as I can remember and it was pretty funny that he was here for a couple of days meeting the current crew and getting back on the boat for a few months. We had an entertaining dinner and went out for a few beers after with the crew to catch up.

This morning was a bit of a slow one, we are here to relax and regroup a bit before we head on to Nepal. I googled some wine farms in the area and they all seem to close for lunch so it seemed a little unnecessary to try anything serious before two. Nat hit the pharmacy to grab a few things while we still kind of understand the language, just so you know, Sudafed costs 1.80 euros for a big box, America still isn't doing you any favours. The next town on the coast didn't seem to hold much so we carried on to the little town of Bandol, which I only recognize because it is written on the back of most of the great bottles of rose I have had. We arrived at the waterfront and although the breeze was cool, we found a strip of restaurants and had a great lunch of mussels, salad and wine.

After lunch we took the backroads towards the wine farm, Domaine Ott. I rationalized that I already knew what it tasted like, so we should really try some other local farms while we were here. The roads are littered with signs advertising each little "Domaine" and it was pretty tough to choose one, so we just went to the end of the most out of out-of-the-way place we could find and knocked on the door. Wine farms here aren't really set up for tasting...they are set up for buying. We were taken on an amazing tour, by the father of the house himself who didn't speak a lick of english, and tasted all that he had to offer, and then directly taken to sales office. I'm not sure what we are going to do with the case of wine we have, but we are now proud owners of a great selections of his whites, reds and roses. We might have stopped at a few other places, but fearing ending up with a palate of wine, we headed straight to Domaine Ott. It was an even shorter tour but we happily left with a couple more bottles. A short drive back to Ciotat and we noticed we had missed a Pirate Festival, the good news is it is on again tomorrow so we might have to catch that. Pirates and drunken rugby fans could be an entertaining combination.

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Posted by colincampbell 16:01 Archived in France Comments (3)

Lobsters and Vino

semi-overcast 12 °C

It isn't getting any warmer, but at least the rain has gone. Thursday night was very stormy with more wind, rain and lightning than I saw this August in New York's big hurricane Irene. There isn't much happening in Riomaggiore after dark, so we battened down the hatches and watched some movies. Next time you are in a country where you don't understand the language, I recommend Sylvester Stallone movies, you can turn off the volume and not miss a thing!
Yesterday morning started a little bit cloudy, so we grabbed our laundry and went into town. It was a pretty uneventful morning, but needed to be done. By 12:30 we were smelling fresh and in need of some lunch so we headed right down to the water where the fishing boats come in. We had met a couple that had said they found the most amazing lobster spaghetti and Natalie was determined to find it. You can scroll down and see the picture of her feast, the seafood here is local and delicious in its simplicity. I had the bronzino (a european sea bass) cooked in a paper bag with potatoes, tomatoes, olives, zucchini and fresh herbs, it was pretty perfect. Cinque Terre makes a lot of varieties of wine and, unfortunately, we didn't have a lot of luck with them yesterday. It tends to be a little sweet and a little young, but Wednesday we found a few that were great, especially one called Lunae that makes a few kinds of red, all good.
After lunch we got on the train and headed four towns down the coast to Monterosso for a wine tasting. I won't go into too many details as I am thinking they just serve the tourists the not-so-good-stuff and save the best juice for themselves. The wine tasting was a bust and as the sun was going down we jumped back on the train and headed for our apartment before it got too cold.

Last night we got the good news that my visa has arrived at our friends house in Barcelona, so it is time to start heading back to pick that up, drop off the car and head on to Nepal. We drove about 500kms today back into the Provence region to a town called Ciotat. We are here for no other real reason that we can spend the weekend relaxing, guarantee some amazing wine and we are half way to Barcelona. Tomorrow will hopefully include a wine farm and Sunday will probably start with finding a bar to watch the World Cup of Rugby finals that have France in a tough game against New Zealand. Have a great weekend, I think we will...

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Posted by colincampbell 09:36 Archived in France Comments (1)

Snatched from the jaws of defeat

overcast 16 °C

When I woke up this morning all I could think about was our trip to Domaine Ott, like a kid at Christmas I think I tried to wake Nat up at seven so we could get to our presents. Also like many a Christmas, the rest of the house was not waking up before 9:30. No matter, we were on the road just after ten with our trusty map in hand. I jumped on the highway and figured we could make it in about 40 minutes, little did I know that there wasn't an exit off that highway for miles! No where to turn around and now well past our destination we figured we may as well just stop on our way back as we are coming back this way on Friday. I was a little disappointed, to say the least.
I hadn't done any research into the town of Eze, so it was quite the shocker after we wound our way through numerous tunnels and came upon this gorgeous little town on the hills above the Cote D'Azur. Right between Nice and Monaco, we have some pretty fancy neighbours, and the old city we explored today is just beautiful. We were recommended to stop here by a friend of Natalie's and we have already sent her an email to thank her. She even told us where to have an aperitif and where to go for dinner, both worked out better than we could have expected. As many meals as we have had on this trip, we haven't had anything that we could truly say was an unforgettable experience. Until tonight. It is called Mas Provencal and we recommend that you add it to your bucket list. We can hardly describe it properly, but if you can imagine "Alice in Wonderland" meets "The Secret Garden" and throw in perfect food, you are on the right track. The half of the restaurant we ate in is actually a glass greenhouse that Hans (the owner) says they spend about five hours a day tending. The chandelier in the centre of the room was made of hundreds of lilies and was only one tiny feature of the magical room. Waterfalls, fountains, moss covered trees, flowers, fruits, vegetables, light features and many pieces of art filled the room and kept us busy exploring before the meal started.
The host of evening, Hans, and his waiter, Eric, couldn't do enough for us and made it the memorable experience that it was. When we mentioned Natalie's friends who gave us the recommendation, we were immediately welcomed with champagne and a tour of every corner of the room. Aside from the greenhouse, there is a winter room with fireplaces and a warm wooden bar that will be opened soon for the second half of the year.
Course after course started arriving, first was smoked fish, cured meats, tapenades, roasted guinea fowl and quail eggs to go with our champagne. Next, my risotto was served from a giant wheel of parmesan and went perfectly with Nat's scallops. For our main dish, my roasted suckling pig was simply perfect and Nat's steak was equally delicious. We were starting to fade at this point, but couldn't turn down chocolate mousse or warm tarte tatin (apple pie). And with our coffee they brought dates that were stuffed with an almond paste. After such a disappointment in the beginning of the day missing the winery, it couldn't have turned out more perfectly...or could it? Instead of ordering a bottle of wine tonight, I just asked for a glass of rose while Nat helped me with my champagne. When the wine arrived it tasted strangely familiar...Domaine Ott by the glass...sometimes, things just go my way...
As we left, Hans brought Natalie a little bag with a big lily bloom on top. Inside is a small jar of something that his wife makes with vodka and grapes. We found a gem, and will return.

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Posted by colincampbell 15:36 Archived in France Comments (1)

Aix en Provence and a bit of grape juice

sunny 15 °C

We are getting some great feedback from friends and family on our blog, keep it coming. Currently though, a lot of people seem to be saying that our photos and stories are only about food and we must be missing other parts of local culture. You will be happy to know that the majority of local culture revolves around food and wine, so really, we are soaking up all the culture we can get. Aix-en-Provence is a little city near the big city of Marseille in the south of France. As far as we can tell it is best known for producing the best rose wine in the world. I know rose isn't big in North America, but during the time I spent in St.Maarten, I managed to grow quite fond of it over plenty of long lunches. So to come to Provence, well, this is my Graceland.
Dinner last night was so good that I almost wrote a second blog for yesterday. It was cold enough that Natalie invented a new definition for the word "frisk", which is involves a temperature halfway between brisk and freezing. She often reads the dessert section of the menu first, so she warmed right up when she found the trio of three different flavours of creme brulee. It helped that our waiter was great and after letting me mangle some preliminary drink orders in french, he easily switched us to english. I thought it was time to eat some greens so I ordered a salad that included a few leaves of lettuce and duck served 5 different ways. After dinner the waiter wrote down a few of the better local wineries that we should check out while we are here.
Unfortunately, today being Sunday, everything except restaurants is closed, so we couldn't visit any wineries today. We wandered through town for awhile and then found a little cafe in the sun that had roast chicken for Nat and steak tartare for me, and another great local rose. We did check as many websites as we could for local activities that we could get involved with today, but there was officially nothing going on, so we had a nap and then went for dinner. Tomorrow morning we are headed for one of my favourite wineries, Domaine Ott, and then we are headed to at little town outside Nice. Don't worry, I've tasted them before so we will explore the wine farm and do some shopping before we drive. On the schedule for this week, we have a restaurant recommendation from some friends of Natalie near Nice and then we are headed to Cinque terre in Italy which should make for some great photos and stories.

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Posted by colincampbell 16:06 Archived in France Comments (1)

Time to get a little medieval

sunny 19 °C

Thursday night was our last night in Cauteret and another quiet one and not necessarily by our choice. The town is just so quiet because of the fact that it is off season, that only a couple places are open. We didn't go out until about 8pm and as we expected, we were the only ones walking on the streets. The one restaurant which was opened and seemed full of local business told us that they were full and didn't seem to want us to come back later as we would probably be the only one to show up for a second seating and I think they wanted to be closed by 9. For the most part, the hospitality we are seeing is very warm and understanding of my butchering the language, but every now and again (it can happen anywhere), we walk into a brick wall. The menu's here are perfect for me as they are full of lamb and duck and often things that are a little more unusual than the norm. Natalie, on the other hand, is craving a salad and wondering why when the national symbol is "le coq", she can't find any chicken on the menu anywhere.
We ended up going to the only other open place in town which looked more like the local pub than a restaurant and ended up having an excellent meal with fantastic service.

Friday morning we had a 350km drive ahead of us to the town of Carcassonne. We wound our way through the backroads for about half the trip and then I got a little thirsty so jumped on the highway and sped things up a bit. We checked into our hotel and quickly head for the centre of town which is a little village built into a a castle thats history dates back to 100BC. Tourism has messed it up a little as the centre of town is t-shirt shops and postcard shops, but it is a big enough place that you can get away from that and then it is pretty magical. And it wasn't so bad that beside the t-shirt shop they put a bunch of great restaurants and bars as well. It was spectacular in the day and at night. Some more recent history, this is the castle where they shot parts of Robin Hood with Kevin Costner back in the early '90's. This town didn't have much else to offer and our next stop is Aix-en-Provence which is the best place in the world to find rose wine...so we enjoyed yesterday, but got on the road early today. I decided not to find a bar early this morning to watch the France - Wales rugby world cup semi-final. Somehow I don't think I would be up for todays 300km drive if I did that. France won, so we'll make sure we catch the final.

This morning's drive was another mix of rural and highway. We are definitely out of the mountains and into the wine region now as the temperature has gone up again and the prices of grape juice keep going down. We snapped the bottom photo this morning as we drove through a little farm town. We thought about stopping for lunch in the little fishing village of Meze, but ended up getting to Arles before we stopped. It was clear we had just missed Saturday morning market or the party after the rugby game as the downtown area was getting a wash by the sanitation department. We found a little place across the river and away from the chaos that looked good. I ordered a surf and turf salad to start that was fresh greens with duck and local scallops, shrimp and salmon which was amazing. Natalie ordered the bouillabaisse which is a giant fish soup with vegetables. The last thing she asked me before it arrived at the table was, "you don't think they are going to stick a whole fish in my soup, do you?" A terrine that would serve four arrived at the table and not only did it have a whole fish, but it had plenty of little creatures that still had eyes. She just looked at me and said, "there is a guy in my soup...in fact, there are lots of guys in my soup!!" She managed pretty well and it was delicious. My second course was a fillet of a local white fish, then a cheese course of local goat cheese and olive oil arrive and I finished with a creme caramel. I love how they do big lunches here, it usually makes for a light dinner. Now we are in Aix-de-Province and are looking around at our options for rose wine tours for the next few days. Stay tuned.

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Posted by colincampbell 11:21 Archived in France Comments (0)

Just a walk in the park

sunny 22 °C

So it turns out that this little town of Cauterets has two seasons; summer with plenty of hiking and winter with impressive skiing. October seems to be a bit of a shoulder season and it seems that just about everyone gets out of town when they have a chance. It is pretty dead here so our selection of restaurants was somewhat limited last night. After exploring the quiet streets and reading the four available menus repeatedly, we decided to roll the dice on Cafe Paris. From the street we could see a little bar space that was taken up by the four regulars, but when we went inside there were some stairs down to a dining room that looked a little more inviting. The owner spoke some english so I didn't have to try and mash up another language for the day, which was nice. The temperature outside had dropped into the teens so when he suggested the days specials were various soups, Nat ordered the fish soup and I had the local specialty called a "Garbure" which came with duck confit. It sounds strange for just ordering soup, but with everything it came with, we were running out of space on our table. We were actually looking forward to going back tonight, but to our surprise, he is closed Thursdays, I still can't figure out when anyone works here. Maybe they are on to something!

Today I woke up at 7am, and it was still pitch black. It is a bit of a ridiculous time to get out of bed even if the sun is shining, but at least I had an excuse to nap for a few more hours. We rolled out of the hotel at the crack of 11 and the town was still just waking up. Nat needed some hiking boots and we managed to find some in the one shop that had opened early. Imagine not opening until 11am and then going for a 3 hours lunch around 12:30!! I thought my life was good! Anyway, we found some hiking details from the Park Office and we were off. As we are headed for Mount Everest in the next few weeks it is probably a good idea to get some hikes in. We had plenty of options from 4 hours to 4 days, I didn't want to rush the training schedule so opted for the 4 hour one.

I haven't spent much time in mountains or in ski towns so the views are pretty spectacular, I can only imagine what it is like when everything is covered with snow. The hike took us in a loop through a valley to Lake Gaube, if you look carefully in the background of some of our pictures you will see snow still in the peaks from last year. I thought about taking a quick swim, but I forgot my towel...and glacier fed lakes aren't my idea of a good time. We took lunch so ate that at the lake, the weather was perfect and with the sun it was really pretty warm. Now night is falling and it's time to hunt for food again, we'll let you know how it goes.

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Posted by colincampbell 10:36 Archived in France Comments (0)

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