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Barbentane-Villecroze, Day 10

I’ve been everywhere, man!

rain 12 °C
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Temperatures today ranged from 30 deg down to 10 deg, started out sunny & turned very wet, black & thundery, when the rain stopped later it was still fairly cool.

I left Barbentane just before 11am, thinking I would head straight for Villecroze in 1 ½ hrs, then do a tiki-tour once I had checked in. However… when I looked, I found I couldn’t check in till 6pm (!), so thought I’d do the tiki tour on the way there. Perhaps I should have found out more about the roads I would be driving on first. Just in case you would like to check out my route on a map, these are some of the places I “visited” (i.e. drove through/past or stopped for a few minutes at) in my 7 ½ hours of driving – some on purpose, some by accident:
Chateaurenard
Orgon
Senas (left the autoroute there – first mistake)
Merindol (this is where the countryside started to change into more rugged territory)
Pertuis (one of the exits from the roundabout was closed so the GPS took me into someone’s vineyard!)
Mirabeau (here’s where it all went terribly wrong – more later)
St Paul les Durance (the start of real gorge country)
Vinon-sur-Verdon (fairly dreary town, but it was raining so maybe not that bad usually)
Greoux-les-Bains, and on up, and up, and up, and down, and down to -
Digne Les Bains (the capital of lavender country)

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View from the top of the road from Digne les Bains to Villecroze

Then, there were still 2 ½ hours till check in time so I decided to check out Castellane, which took an hour or so to drive. I figured from there it would take more than an hour to get to my hotel, so input the details into the GPS (which said it would take only half an hour) & off I went. Friend GPS took me the “short” route, through:
Trigance, Comps-sur-Artuby, Montferrat, Chateaudouble, Ampur and Tourtour before arriving in Villecroze at about 6:45 – more than 6 times longer than the GPS reckoned.

If you’re sick of the GPS saga, I suggest you don’t read this paragraph. You have been warned… After the vineyard debacle mentioned above, I thought that would be it, but no, she wasn’t done with me yet. At Mirabeau, the street it indicated I should go down was closed, so it gave me an alternative. I thought the forestry road was bad, but this took the cake. You can see the start of the track in the photo.

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Innocuous-looking, but...

Looks nice, doesn’t it? Sure, it’s a metal road, but how bad could it be? Well, calling this steep hillside thoroughfare a track is giving it a status it doesn’t deserve. It got worse and worse, partially washed away in places & nowhere to turn around. By the time it got to that stage, I wasn’t keen on reversing out either, as the corners were tight, and it was steep in places and so narrow the brush either side was scratching along the side of the car. I truly didn’t think it was going to end well, and expected it to peter out into nothing & have to call in a chopper. But after 4.5km (yes, you read that right!), it ended at a main highway. What a great little car I’ve got! Later, while trying to get to Villecroze from Castellane, I found out why it said it was only 30 mins to Villecroze. It wanted me to drive directly down what was essentially a cliff [whisper: I think it’s trying to kill me]. It does seem to like the shortest routes, especially where there’s no autoroute. Well, it won’t get me tomorrow, I’m taking the autoroute to Nice! Then I get rid of the damned thing – I have named her Christine. Methinks the guy who inputs the data has a good laugh entering the “paper roads” as if they’re real.

All that said, it was a stunning drive through the Gorges du Verdon. I had wanted to see it, and ended up driving all around it. I missed out on the best views of the Verdon River (Google “Gorges du Verdon”, and you will see what I mean), but I did get up close & almost personal with the walls of the gorge.

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It makes Karangahake Gorge (in my native NZ) look like a tiny crack in the dirt – it’s essentially in the foothills (if that’s the foot, I’d hate to drive the body!) of the Provence Alps.

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I uploaded a photo showing a tributary of the Verdon River where it’s small & narrow, which shows some of the lovely green colour it’s named for. Stunning though it was, at times I wondered when I’d get out, the road just seemed to go on & on, up, around & down again – lots of really tight hairpin bends & fairly narrow in places. Hilariously, the speed limit is 90kph, but much of the time I couldn’t even do half that. In one place, the road runs through a hole in the rock – just like the one in the Bay of Islands, but with road under it instead of water! It’s not a tunnel, just a hole in a narrow promontory, and unfortunately nowhere to stop for a pic. All through the gorge, you can see the grain of the rock which was thrust up at an angle when the mountains were formed, and the road just seems to slice through it. Amazing.

On the way to Digne-les-Bains I was disappointed that it’s too early in the season for the lavender, so the fields were just green, but the air smelled nice! There were some fields of those lovely orange poppies, so I was happy to settle for some photos of those.

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When you’re driving yourself, you often miss things, but on occasion you’ll see something out of the corner of your eye that will catch your attention. Castellane had the biggest surprise for me as I hadn’t read much about the place, not intending to visit. High above the town, on a gigantic rock, is a church – Our Lady of the Rock (surprising name!) & I did a double take as I drove along the gorge road towards Castellane & saw it across the gap. It looked so beautiful in that rugged terrain, I had to stop for a photo, and also took several of it from the town itself – check it out.

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Look hard & you'll see the church across the valley

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The very pretty Notre Dame du Roc

My hotel is a bit more basic than some of the others, but it’s pretty cool & there’s a pool & a spa which I’d use if I wasn’t so tired. The restaurant food is really good, I’m happy to say.

Apparently it only takes an hour & a half to Nice, but I’ll play it safe in the morning, as I have to get the car there by 11:30 or I get charged for another full day. Will be glad to let the train driver do the driving to Venice on Saturday.

Posted by judesbucketlist 03:56 Archived in France Comments (0)

Villecroze-Nice, Day 11

An uneventful last day in France - well, weren't you entertained enough yesterday?

sunny 26 °C
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Today dawned bright and clear again, and I had breakfast at the hotel before checking out reasonably early so I could get to Nice on time for the car.

I took the easiest route, which includes the autoroute, and arrived without incident (for a change!) at Nice Airport just before 11:30. The car was none the worse for wear, considering what it had been through the day before so there should be no unexpected charges on my credit card. I was VERY glad to be rid of “Christine” & I’m sure I’ll laugh about the problems I had with her… one day in about 20 years!

Had organized an airport pickup from my hotel, so I didn’t have to get a taxi. Nice looks, well, nice enough. It’s a very busy city as you’d expect, but I didn’t see any of the glitterati on the way to the hotel.

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View of Nice from my hotel

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Sunset view

I was pretty tired after yesterday so ended up having a nap in the afternoon and haven’t seen much of the city. Took a walk up to the train station so I would know where it was for the morning, and had a tasty burger & chips at a little place just around the corner for dinner. The atmosphere here doesn’t feel as friendly as Paris, but I guess walking a few blocks & going into a couple of shops isn’t a good way to judge these things. it turns out I didn't stay in the best part of town, in the interests of being close to a train station. Still, one night won't kill me :-).

My train chugs out at 8:00am, so it will be an early getaway for me. There’s a 1 ½ hr stopover in Milan, but as I’ll have all my luggage with me, I don’t know if I’ll leave the station. I’ll arrive in Venice at 5pm – can’t wait.

So, today was essentially fairly boring – especially for you guys – but tomorrow is another day.

Posted by judesbucketlist 12:39 Archived in France Comments (1)

Nice-Venice, Day 12

Bella Venezia!!

sunny 24 °C
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Up until about 6pm, the day was pretty much a bust, firstly with 9 hours on three different trains, struggling with my bags. Didn't take any pics because the train windows were too dirty. For about 3 hours of the journey, we had a German woman & her whiney 5 year old daughter in the compartment. She finished reading Roald Dahl's Matilda to the little vixen, who then proceeded to be a brat. It was a relief to get to Milano where they went on their way elsewhere. Then I found that the ticket I had only got me to Venice Mestre, a station on the outskirts of Venice on the mainland & I had to take another one into Venice Santa Lucia station (word to the wise, make sure of where your ticket will get you when you book at home!). It took a wee while to figure out which vaporetto (ferry) to take to get me closest to my hotel, but finally made it in the humid heat that is Venice right now. The hotel receptionist was fairly unfriendly & my hotel room is about the size of half a matchbox & a stunning (not) view of the windows across the narrow street, so to this point I wasn’t terribly impressed with Italy.

I felt somewhat better once I’d had a cool shower, and dried off with what can only be described as a small sheet. No, not a “bath sheet” – a cotton bed sheet, albeit a thickish one, but definitely not towelling. Weird, but it dries. By then it was 7:30, so I thought I’d go & check out the town a bit, and have some dinner. Stepped out of my hotel & directly across the street (about 4 metres away – narrow street) is a restaurant & the waiters just stand outside & encourage you to go in. The guy offered me 20% discount & a free glass of wine, & who can say not to that? The glass of wine was more like a half a bucket & he also gave me an aperitif called Apero & I got a Limoncello at the end of the meal. For dinner I ordered the fish of the day & a salad. The salad came first so I polished that off, then the waiter came out with a whole cooked fish. He then proceeded to remove the head, tail, fins & skin & delicately took it apart & put the flesh on a plate for me, minus most of the bones. It was quite an art, and delicious – simple, beautifully cooked & scrummy.

As good as the food was, my waiter wanting to, er, “entertain me” (what is it about waiters?). He wasn’t as sleazy as the guy in Paris though. After dinner, I wanted to see the Piazza San Marco before it got dark & it’s only a couple of minutes’ walk away.

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View across the water to Chiese di San Giorgio Maggiare

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Campanile (bell tower) di San Marco

Some bloke called Alessandro wanted to show me the Rialto Bridge. I’d already said no, but then he really stuffed things up when he asked if I was pregnant! Hmmpphhh!!! From there, things got so much better.

The Piazza is ringed with beautiful buildings, including the Basilica San Marco, and has the famous Campanile (tower) in the centre. There are street vendors hawking Venice souvenirs – masks, magnets, hats, t-shirts – you name it.

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Piazza San Marco

I bought a hat, even haggled over the price – yay for me! As I looked around the square and could see what was happening, I started to smile & that grin didn’t go away all night. There are a few restaurants around the Piazza, and they all have sextets or quintets outside, with violins, clarinet, piano accordion, piano (one even had a baby grand!), playing classical-style music. But it wasn’t highbrow, or boring, and two of the groups would take it in turns as they were next to each other. The crowd (including me) would listen to one group, then move across to listen to the other one. They played everything from Strauss to Lennon, Mancini, Gershwin, Andrew Lloyd Webber & even New York, New York & Havah Naghila! The crowd clapped along & some of us sang or hummed. One couple even danced (see photo). It would never happen in NZ, but here – and in that place with that architecture soaring above – it’s so right & fitting.

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Then I quickly went to check out the Rialto Bridge, because I'd heard that it's stunning at night (and no I didn't go with Alessandro!). As indeed it was, as you can see by the pic.

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And just to cap the night off, one of the other waiters from the restaurant (26 years old, mind you!) made me an offer he thought I couldn’t refuse when he saw me walking back to the hotel. I told him to find someone his own age. It seems it’s true what they say about Italian men. I’m in Venice for all of 6 hours & I get propositioned 3 times. Yippee – perhaps I’ll lose count after 16 days in Italy!

Posted by judesbucketlist 13:26 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Venice, Day 13

Art, music, sunshine & pizza!!

sunny 26 °C
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Hot & humid today, pretty standard for Venice I understand. I spent the day walking through the streets of San Marco and over to the Rialto Bridge, then across to Gallerie dell’Accademia (over the only other bridge that’s across the Grand Canal) and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection gallery. I took 100 photos today, and could have taken a lot more because in Venice, photo opportunities are everywhere. Don’t ask me where most of them are – many will be titled “Venice street view”.

San Marco’s streets are mostly very narrow, with buildings either side, so little sunshine gets through.

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Doesn’t stop the heat though! At the start, the streets I took were really crowded with tourists, making it hard to navigate. There are a huge number of shops selling Murano glass, which is less expensive here than on Murano itself apparently. It would have been very easy to spend a huge amount of money on it – there was something eye-catchingly gorgeous in each window. Shops selling Venetian Carnivale masks are equally numerous and the masks are outrageous or beautiful or delicate or ugly and some are just a little freaky!

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After the first 30 minutes, I’d had enough of the crowds. I followed the advice I’d read (and been given) and got off the beaten track & just followed my nose. Actually, in some places, following your nose ain’t such a fabulous idea, especially in this heat. Venice isn’t the cleanest or least smelly city on Earth, and the state of some of the back streets really emphasises that fact!

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It’s amazing how many people take gondola rides during the day. In some places there were traffic jams with the gondolas lined up down the narrow canals. Hardly very romantic, or am I just being picky?

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Traffic jam!

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That said, it was often a group of people. At one place, I heard singing and waited with my camera videoing, to see where it was coming from. Around the corner came a gondola with a couple in it, and a piano accordionist and another guy singing an Italian song with the most beautiful baritone. Got a great clip of it, I’m happy to say.

The Gallerie dell’Accademia has a good sized collection of historical art, from as early as the 1500s. Like most of the art of these times, the highest proportion is based on Christianity, e.g. Christ’s crucifixion and the torture of various saints. I tell you, there were some cruel people back then. Between the Louvre and here, I’ve seen so many different paintings depicting Saint Sebastian with the arrows in his side and thigh, I’m beginning to think there are more paintings of him than of Christ! He was obviously a favourite of the Old Masters, so I thought I’d throw in a photo of one for good measure.

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Not far from the Accademia, is the Peggy Guggenheim collection. Peggy lost her father in the Titanic, so inherited a huge fortune. Aside from her amorous exploits, she spent the ensuing years gathering a huge collection of art of all shapes and styles. To my uneducated eye, it’s apparent she certainly seemed to enjoy the abstract. There are some lovely pieces, and some that play tricks on you, like the granite one I’ve uploaded a pic of.

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Untitled granite sculpture by Anish Kapoor

After a little more wandering, I took the ferry back to one of the few green places in Venice – a garden near San Marco, & sat in the shade for a little while. Strangely, in there is a spot where a large number of giant bees are flying around just above the ground – and I mean enormous (a good 3cm long). There’s a placard about it, but you can’t read it because you’d have to walk through the swarm to get close enough!!

Had a pizza for dinner (well, you have to do that at least once in Italy, don’t you?) – and it tasted really good despite the fact their pizzas have less topping than NZ ones.

Posted by judesbucketlist 13:27 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Venice, Day 14

Classy glassy Murano

sunny 35 °C
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I’d intended to go to Murano and then Lido, but spent 5 hours wandering the streets and galleries of Murano in 35 degree heat so I’d had as much vitamin D as I could stand. I know it was 35 deg C, because outside one of the shops were some thermometers in glass frames, and all 3 of them showed the same temperature (and that was in the shade at about 1pm).

Once again, it was a stunning day, though. The boat trip to Murano, the glass artisan capital of, well, the world, took about 40 mins, taking us out into the lagoon and north of Venice.

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Cimitero - Cemetery on the way to Murano

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Murano from the ferry

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Bridges on Murano

I was expecting a slightly more industrial look to the place, with chimneys for the furnaces and artisan workshops. It’s actually quite pretty, and there are some 1500 shops selling glass art. I could wax lyrical for pages about the variety, colours and sheer numbers of truly lovely things but I’m sure you’d all (except for Inge!) nod off, so I’ll keep it (relatively) short. For starters (aside from the vast array of gorgeous jewellery), there is just about any animal you can think of, from the usual dolphins, birds & fish through to giraffes, elephants, tiny ants and even jellyfish on vases (see photo). The human caricatures and figures are just as varied, from (slightly unnerving) clowns, gymnasts and childlike faces to entire tiny orchestras set in a semicircle ready to play. The Pope and his cardinals even make an appearance. There were chandeliers (with a few extraordinary exceptions, I thought most of these looked a bit too clunky to be attractive), light fittings and candelabra. But the things that really caught my eye the most were the plates & platters, and the vases (oh, the vases!). The way the true artisans have arranged the colours and played with the light is just extraordinary. By “true artisans” I mean those who you can tell really love what they do and have a connection to, and passion for, the glass – their work stands out above the (albeit handmade) “mass produced” items. And just when I thought I was all “glassed out”, there were the most beautifully crafted full size mandolin and saxophone. The most unusual thing I saw were two forks with tomato-red spaghetti wound around the tines.

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"Street" parking in Murano

OK, that’s the waxing over with. I think I’ll dream about glass tonight!

This is my last night in Venice and tomorrow I’m off to pick up another rental car (yes, and a GPS!). No doubt something will happen to give you all a good laugh. Glad to entertain!

P.S. I have one complaint about Venice: there are hardly any seats (or shelter from the blazing sun for that matter) for the hoi-polloi to sit & rest our weary feet. There are lots of seats at cafes & restaurants, but you have to buy something & it costs extra to sit.

Posted by judesbucketlist 14:31 Archived in Italy Comments (2)

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