We love a good market, and the markets in France are exceptionally good!
You need to get there early as these old hilltop villages in Provence have a distinct lack of parking, especially with all these tourists around now, haha. But we do try to make it to the local markets around here at Lorgues, Draguignan, Salernes or Tourtour during week to stock up on fresh produce, and just because it’s fun.
You can find everything you need, from fresh fruit and vegetables, cheese (cow, goat or sheep), seafood, meat (even horse meat), fresh truffles, kitchen utensils, clothes, handbags, bedding, and you can even buy a new bed to go with the linen.
There is usually some sort of entertainment as well, a singer or even a man singing and playing a mandolin like stringed instrument, with a cat (wearing a sun shade ) balanced on his shoulders.
Being at the Tour de France was a ‘big tick’ for us, something we have wanted to do for many years, being at THREE very different stages this year was simply amazing!
Stage 4; La Baule to Sarzeau 195 km mostly flat
Stage 6; Brest to Mur de Bretagne 181 km hilly
Stage 20; St-Pee-Sur-Nivelle to Espelette 31 km hilly (individual TT)
Usually we watch Le Tour from the comfort of our living room, on the big screen of our TV, and I must say you do get to see more, but being at the event live, is really something else.
The excitement of the Caravan coming through first, handing out samples from the sponsors of everything from Madeleine’s to laundry detergent, and if you are really lucky a t-shirt or hat.
Then a few hours later the crowd seems to sense that the riders are getting closer to your vantage spot, hearing the approach of the helicopters that take the pictures for the TV does help as well.
First the Gendarmes on motorcycles go past, then you know the leaders will zoom by shortly after. And zoom by they do, quick as a flash, and depending on the day you may wait seconds or minutes until the second or chase group pass. Then it’s the peloton, they are the riders in the main pack, they ride close together to conserve energy, drafting and slipstreaming and protecting their main or principal rider in the hope he can make a breakaway and be first across the finish line.
Like all things you do it’s usually the people you meet that really make a difference to the experience, and Le Tour for us was no different.
The first stage we really had no idea of what to expect. Georges had done a recce the week before and had a found a spot for all of us to watch. We forgot to take a chair (although I did borrow one off a nice boy from Columbia) food or enough water. Lessons learnt there, but our first experience of Le Tour live was simply amazing.
By the next stage we did our own recce the week before by driving the route of the section of the race we wanted to see. Luckily we met Robert and AM, Brits that have been living in France for a long time, and Robert arranged a place for us to park in his neighbours drive, just meters from the race, so no need to worry too much about food and drink, we could just pop back to Hermione. It was a great day, in the beautiful village of Saint-Gilles-Vieux-Marche, in Brittany.
We also met and partied with a group of Robert and AM’s lovely friends, who welcomed us into their homes, and kept us in stitches at their post Le Tour race party. I do hope we get to see them all again.
The last stage we knew to arrive early, really early, like at least two days early because it could be the deciding stage of the whole race. Now we know what to expect and how busy it gets, so two and half days beforehand we arrive at Saint Pee to drive the course and look for a good vantage spot. We end up at the top of one of the climbs surrounded by about 35 French, and one Belgium motorhomes (remember this is 2 1/2 days beforehand).
The first night the police arrived, apparently our new friends and neighbours had been making a bit too much noise for some, but after that everyone settled in for the wait or maybe it was the hangovers from the night before.
The individual time trial was a fantastic stage to see live, they rode past us literally cm’s from our camping spot on the side of the road.
Can hardly wait until they release next years route so the planning can begin again.
If there is free food and drinks on offer we always try to make ourselves available, so it seems we have managed to get ourselves invited to the ceremony at Draguignan to celebrate the Liberation of Southern France by the combined forces of the Free French and the U.S. in August 1944.
It was all really by accident you see.
France has caught us out once again with Public holidays. This one ‘The Assumption’ on August 15th, which just happened to be our grocery shopping day in Draguignan, but as you have probably already guessed, everything was closed.
So what do you do when the town is empty because the locals of course know it’s a public holiday, and have all gone to the coast or the lake, you go sightseeing.
We had heard about the Rhone American Cemetery but hadn’t had a chance to visit so far, and yesterday while driving in Drag (the nick name for Draguignan, not Brian getting dressed up to go out on the town), we find it. It was looking pretty quiet so we park and go in.
Once inside we meet the gentleman in charge of running the cemetery, start chatting about us being Aussies, and house-sitting for an American couple etc. etc., and next thing we’re invited to the Anniversary ceremony the next day.
There were US Ambassadors, high ranking US and French Military members, a US Naval Band, the local Mayor and descendants of some of the French and U.S. soldiers that gave their lives, in Operation Dragoon, the critical battle to liberate this southern part of France, and us the ring-ins from Australia.
We also found The Fairy Stone on our sightseeing drive.
The mere word Provence conjures up visions of fields of lavender, wild thyme and rosemary, the beaches of Cannes, St Tropez or Nice. You may even think of Avignon, Aix-en-Provence or Marseille. Only a few would have heard of the Var, I know we hadn’t, but what an amazing area it is.
Heavily wooded hillsides covered with pine and oak, broken by olives trees terraced along the steep hillsides. And quiet hilltop villages that remain much as they have for centuries.
The Var connects the sea at St Tropez to the Alpes de Haute Provence, and is where olives, truffles and honey are still the mainstay of it’s many small communities.
Jeannette and Mort’s house/pet sit advertisement brings us to Ampus, in the Var, and their beautiful property, Wild Olives to care for Streak, their six year old, gorgeous black cat while they head away for family and work commitments.
As we drove down the steep driveway the first glimpse of the house and property took my breath away.
The farm house could be hundreds of years old, but it has been lovingly restored, keeping in the tradition of the homes in this area.
Massive exposed wooden beams are left visible in the ceilings, and floor and wall tiles were handmade by an artisan from a local village, where it’s famous for making tiles since the Romans lived in this area sixteen hundred years ago.
Metre thick exposed stone walls are keeping us cool during these hot high 30c degree summer days, and a massive fig tree shades the table on the terrace where we have our aperitif and late dinner once it’s cooled down.
There is even a stone hot-tub cleverly built into the terrace overlooking the olive groves. At night it is so quiet, and with no street lights or towns to pollute the night sky you can see thousands of stars.
We feel very fortunate to have been chosen by Jeannette and Mort to care for Streak who moves like a panther, but loves a chin tickle, a good brush and to sleep on the bed with us at night, and to have had the opportunity to spend time at Wild Olives.
So what do you do? You find camping stops with swimming pools of course.
It sounds easy right? But don’t forget we’re in the South of France, in the middle of summer holiday’s, and so is EVERYONE ELSE!
So rather than looking near the coast where it’s the busiest, we head inland from Perpignan to Thuir, no pool but we do find the Caves Byrrh.
Not caves in the Jenolan sense, but the Caves Byrrh (pronounced beer) is home to the most delicious fortified wine I have ever tasted, and apparently the ‘Biggest Oak Vat in the World’.
It took 15 years to build this 12m diameter, 10m high and has a capacity of 1,000,200 litres.
Our first taste of Byrrh is at a magnificent oak kiosk built in 1891, that was apparently transported to wine fairs from Paris to Moscow.
This ‘elixer’ was created in 1866 by the Violet brothers and is a wine based aperitif. In the early 1900’s Byrrh very quickly became so popular the other local aperitif producers were very unhappy with the brothers.
The smart Violet brothers very sucessfully re-branded Byrrh as a health drink due to the small quinine content, and it was soon sold in pharmacies as well!
And as for the swimming pools, yes we did a couple of places with pools, so I was a happy camper.
Making our way south to Provence, from the Dordogne Region we must cross the Hautes or High Pyrenees Mountains, and what a spectacular drive that is.
These massive peaks are older than the Alps, and form a natural border between France, Spain and the tiny country of Andorra which is sandwiched in between.
The Route de Col is the mountain pass that leads you through such well known names from the Tour de France mountain stages as the Col du Tourmalet, and Col d’Aspin. This steep mountain pass twists and turns it’s way over the mountains, most of the time with no guard rails and with the road barely wide enough for Hermione let alone another car, herd of sheep, or the many cyclists we saw.
For centuries the local farmers would move their herd of sheep, goats or cattle, as well as their own families including the pets and chickens, from the valleys up to the higher mountains for the summer, staying in the old stone huts that still dot the hillsides.
We encountered some of the local sheep and cattle along the road, most were so used to the cars and bikes they took no notice at all. We even had a couple of ‘girls’ that used Hermione, and our bike rack as their personal scratching post.
Bagneres and Arreau were some of the more memorable villages we stayed in or passed through.
And we will never forget the night we spent on the top of a mountain, on the very border of France and Spain, in the Basque area near St Etienne de Baigorry, the Col d’Ispeguy where we woke to see mountain ponies grazing alongside us, and the most spectacular sunrise.
You may say what do those two things have in common?
Well both are from the Dordogne Region of France.
Named after the famous river that starts in the Massif Central mountains and flows south west to Bordeaux, the Dordogne Region has been home to mankind for nearly 400,000 years.
The Vézère River Valley Is riddled with caves, underground cities and subterranean streams, where Cro-Magnon skeletons have been discovered, along with an incredible wealth of Stone Age tools.
Wall paintings of humans, mammoths and woolly rhinos adorn caves, still with exquisite colouring due to the natural protective layer of calcite from the limestone from which these caves were hand dug.
After that the Romans left their mark with some amazing intact ruins in Perigueux, the capital of the Périgord.
The Hundred Year’ War between the French and the English in the Middle Ages left imposing fortified towns, and the Renaissance, beautiful Gothic architecture.
To this day many of the caves are still being used as homes, restaurants and wine cellars.
Now for the Walnuts …… this region is Gastronomic.
Apart from the vineyards, of which there are many, walnuts, chestnuts, raspberries and the most prized Périgord truffles are spawned in this rich soil.
Truffle omelettes are a common sight on the areas menus.
We stayed at a France Passion free campsite on Monday night, and to our delight they hold a weekly picnic/market where local farm vendors bring their food trucks and caravans to cook and sell delicacies like a plate of foie gras with potatoes cooked in duck fat and a side salad, or confit of duck with a fig and walnut salad. Melt in your mouth bbq’d veal and beef brochettes or home made sausages served with beans sauteed in butter and garlic, and not one of these dishes cost more than around $14 AUD.
Then our host not only makes excellent wine from his vineyard, and grows walnuts on hills surrounding his farm, he is a prize winning pâtissier. The selection of pastries with walnuts, blackberries and raspberries, along with a delicious walnut liqueur, was the final accompaniment to our meal.
Who would bother cooking on a Monday night if you lived in this area.