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Sunday, July 31, 2011

Four Perched Villages of the Cote d’Azur


Four Perched Villages of the Cote d’Azur

MA and I began our day early leaving Vence around 8am heading to four perched villages in the mountains above the French Mediterranean coast.  The first village, Coaraze, was duly entered into the GPS and “Angel” whose voice we hear from the Garmin began giving directions.  We drove south to the A8 and then east and turned north. 

Coaraze sits on a high rocky mountain top surrounded by forest and olive trees.  The houses in the village date back to the middle ages.  It has narrow cobble stone streets and vaulted passageways.  The drive up was a twisting, narrow, sometimes treacherous road.  But it did make for some nice photos.

We then continued on to our next village known as Luçeram, another medieval village perched on a mountain top.  We managed to find a parking spot and decided it was time for coffee.  Walking into town I noticed some French gentleman seated on benches in front of a pizza place, clearly enjoying their Sunday morning visit.  I really wanted a photo of these guys but did not want them to see me doing it.  So we got a table at a little café across from them and I put my camera on the table and pointed it at them and let the auto focus do its magic. 

MA and I had café crèmes and the waiter guessed that she was practicing her French and very politely helped her with some pronunciation.  I’ve noticed the locals in this part of France are very hospitable and friendly, especially if you try to speak their language.  As we were enjoying the local activity in the village, two cyclists pulled up to the town fountain right in front of us to fill their water bottles.  I don’t see how they can make it biking up some of these mountains given that I had to put our rented Opel Diesel in 2nd and 3rd gear just to get where we were!


Our next stop was the village of Peillon.  I counted 12 hairpin U-turns on the narrow mountain road as we wound our way up there.  This little village is a picturesque as can be.  All of the houses adjoin each other and the entire village is made up from a steep stone wall.  This is a pedestrian only village, meaning you park and walk up to its cobble stone streets.

On our trip back to Vence we detoured for a Photo Op at Eze and then headed toward the Mediterranean via the high roads above Nice.  Our intention was to eat there but we could not find a place to park so we told “Angel” to “beam us back to Vence”. 

We arrived safe and sound and had lunch, somewhat pleased with ourselves and “Angel” for getting us everywhere and happy for all those French lessons with Pascale Sharpe at L’Alliance Francaise in Houston. Suffice to say, without Nola along, all that studying came in very handy!
See ya!

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Two Days on the Road Chasing Lavender & Sunflowers

MA & Nola in front Gordes

Two Days on the Road Chasing Lavender & Sunflowers

I have long had the desire to experience and photograph the famous Lavender fields of the south of France.  Last year when we were here it was too late in the season for that.  So after we got home I began researching the timing and best places to visit these beautiful purple fields.

MA and I were very fortunate that her sister’s best friend Karen wanted to lease her condo in July, coincidentally right in the middle of Lavender season. So we planned accordingly and here we are!

The Lavender fields are mostly grown and harvested around the areas of Apt-Gordes in the Vaucluse, Sault, and the Valensole valleys.  My camera-ready plan was to hit all three during a two-day road trip.

We started out early Thursday morning.  MA’s sister Nola came along as an extra pair of eyes and companion French speaker to MA’s classroom French. MA’s doing quite well in French and I’m proud of her and Nola speaks like a native! I had my packed Garmin GPS with a SD chip of Europe but forgot the car cord for it.  God was watching out for me because I found one in Vence just before we left. 
We left Vence and drove down to Cagnes sur Mer and got on the French freeway designated A8.  It is a toll road and our trip to Cavallon cost us about $20.

By the way! Here’s a hint about pronouncing French words.  Don’t pronounce the last letter.  The city of Cannes is pronounced “caun.”  I don’t know how many times MA and Nola reminded me of that as I talked about our itinerary.

We got off the A8 and drove north to our town, Gordes (gord).  You’re now speaking French! Gordes is listed in the Plus Beaux Villages de France (The Most Beautiful Villages of France).  Needless to say I photographed it extensively and if you look at the photograph you can see why.  
Our next stop was the Village de Bories, an ancient hamlet of flat stone buildings.  Along the way I began to have some concerns about the reason for our trip because the lavender fields we were coming up on had already been harvested leaving only the green round stalks.

Undaunted, we enjoyed a walk-through Bories and then headed the short distance to the Abbey de Senanque. In every photograph I’ve ever seen of it, there is a lavender field in front of the building. This time I was not disappointed. 
Senanque Abbey

Our next destination was Apt.  Again I noticed that most of the lavender fields had already been cut.  We decided to keep going toward another “listed beautiful village” called Roussillon. We were not alone in this decision and as a result could not find a place to park there.  So we headed on to Murs where MA had booked a hotel, only to arrive and find it all locked up.

There was nothing else for us to do but press ahead, so we programmed the GPS to the north to the town of Sault, an old perched village situated on a high ridge with a valley of lavender fields below it.
The view from Sault

Some of the fields there were in the process of being harvested, but there was still plenty others to admire and I got lots of photos of the beauty of this purple landscape.  We drove into the village and it was as crowded as Roussillon.  Undaunted MA and Nola managed to find a very nice hotel in the middle of town named Le Signoret.  It was clean, quiet, and very affordable. 

The two sisters decided to walk around town and I took off down the valley - camera in tow.  I found an old medieval village named Aurel and it made for a great photograph.  When I got back to Sault, MA and Nola were strolling around enjoying the sights of the town. Did I mention they hadn’t stopped talking yet!!

We sat down at an outdoor café and a nice young American named Barry stopped by our table very happy to hear some American English. He was from Georgia and works as a computer programmer.  His European adventure was to bicycle by himself from Switzerland, through France, to Italy and back. I asked him how he got bike over there and he said that it comes apart and he packs it up as luggage.  He obviously enjoyed some good ole USA companionship over a cup of coffee.

Sault turned out to be a great stop.  We were off again in the morning heading east toward Vence. Along the way we drove to the beautiful village of Simiane le Rotondo.  It sits high on a hill and is surrounded by lavender fields.  This little village goes back to the middle ages and its main feature is a huge stone rotunda dating back to the 12th century when it was used for by the Simaine-Agoult family for music performances.  It has been restored and still used for traditional music concerts.

Our journey east and south took us to the large town of Forcalquier and a very nice café for coffee. While the girls continued their nonstop reminiscing and conversations I wandered around for an hour and photographed the local culture: doors, store fronts, signs, etc.  Leaving Forcalquier, we went on through a place called Manosque. 

Our next lavender area was the Valensole valley.  Not to my surprise most of the lavender there had already been harvested leaving only green round stubs in the field.  Happily I did manage to find some sunflower fields which Nola spotted.
Mousteirs Sainte Marie

Our next to last stop of the day was the beautiful village of Mousteirs Sainte Marie.  Like other villages of the middle ages it also sits high on a ridge with majestic rocky cliffs behind it.  Its beauty attracts a lot of tourists and they were there this Friday.  We found a parking place and decided to have lunch in a nearby outdoor café.  As soon as I was finished, I excused myself to go wandering around this crowded but beautiful place.
Mousteirs is famous for its ceramics known as Falence Pottery.  There are numerous shops which sell this pottery and dishes.  I took a look inside a shop and met Bruno LOUIS whose painted ceramics are world famous. It was really interesting watching him work.   
Tourretes sur Loup at sunset

We soon moved on toward Vence, stopping at Tourrettes sur Loup to let me photograph this beautiful perched village. Nola lived and worked at the Burger Bistro here in the 70’s and 80’s and has some very interesting stories to tell about life in France back then.

All in all, the two-day road trip was a huge success. We had a great time and I accomplished many of my photography goals.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Rainy Day Rental Car

Our 2nd full day in Vence started out with dark cloudy skies.  The plan was to drive to Nice Airport, about 10 km away, and pick up a rental car at Alamo.  At 10am when Randy and Nola arrived to take us the skies opened up and it started raining.  The trip to Nice was slow and careful.  We picked up a 4dr Opel diesel and made our way back to Vence in the rain with Nola giving me directions.  I used to drive a stick shift manual transmission years ago.  It's like learning to ride a bicycle.  You never forget how.

We made it back to Vence and to the Brasserie Victoire for lunch.  I had left my Garmin GPS auto plug at home so Randy and I walked to a cell phone store and to my surprise they had a cord that fit the Garmin Nuvi.  I really needed this cord because Nola, MA and yours truly are going on a two to three day journey tomorrow and the next day.  The GPS with my European chip is invaluable and works like a charm over here. We are headed for the Vaucluse and the lavender fields of Provence.  I hope to get some really exceptional photos of these blue flower fields.  We will be gone for the next two days and no blog until Saturday.

 This is as close as I got to lavender last year.  It was for sale outside a small perfume shop in Gordon. We'll pick up the travel blog when we get back.  Going cold turkey without the computer or internet!!

Vence: Around Town

Vence:  Around Town

Old Village Plot
 Vence is an old medieval town, not a perched village, but a walled city.  The high wall surrounded the village for protection from pirates of the Mediterranean.  The ramparts were built in the 13th Century.  As you walk the narrow streets you can see its age in old wooden carved doors and arched doorways.

My first full day in Vence began shortly after sunrise partially due to the change in time zones and mild insomnia.  My first challenge was to figure out how to make a pot of coffee in a Melitta carafe coffee maker.  This is a tall cylinder shaped pot with a lid with a push pull strainer.  Coffee makes when you combine boiling water and coffee.  I pushed the strainer all the way down, added about 3-4 tablespoons of coffee and poured the boiling water on top.  I let it dissolve for about 5 minutes and lifted the coffee grounds out of the carafe.  Coffee.  It was not my Mr. Coffee but would do for now.  MA woke up after 11 hours of sleep.  I got my walking shoes on and I headed out the door, walking to the Matisse Chapel to take some photos of this famous landmark of Vence.

The Rosary Chapel or Matisse Chapel, was an idea of the artist.  He wanted to create a monument of sacred art.  Matisse worked on this project from 1948 to 1951, drawing plans for the building, designing the interior and ceramics.  Every detail in the chapel has his signature. 

On my walk up to the Chapel I crossed a Roman looking bridge over a small estuary.  I was an hour too early to get inside so I took some photos from the exterior in the soft morning light.  The Matisse Chapel is in the above photo.

Got back to our apartment ready to meet Randy and Nola at Henry’s for coffee.  On our way into Vence we stopped at the Hotel Diana and said hello to the owners, Cecelia and Paul.  What amazed me was MA’s French.  She is in her wecond year of learning the French language and listening to her converse with these two, well she’s come a long way.  We continued on to Henry’s and found Nola had our favorite table (for people watching).  The town attracts a lot of European tourist as well as Texans.  I heard, in addition to French, English, German, Spanish, Italian, and Dutch from people passing by and at adjoining tables. 

Typical French outdoor cafe
After coffee we walked around the old town and decided to have lunch in the old square at the Restaurant Clemenceau.  As we sat down, a funeral began for a man who recently died.  It started with flower upon flower deliveries and culminated in the Hearst arriving and a large crowd gathering outside the church.  Randy and Nola had known the man.  He was a flower salesman.  He must have been someone highly respected because a lot of people, about 200, gathered outside the church for the funeral mass. 

My lunch consisted of a pizza which was not bad.  We were off to a French supermarket to get some groceries for the next few days.This supermarket is similar to Krogers.   What got my attention was how the store controlled losing its shopping baskets and getting the customer to return them to a stack.  To get a shopping basket(push cart) you have to insert a 1 Euro coin into a slot which unlocks a chain.  The basket is then free from the row of baskets it is attached to.  After shopping you bring the basket back to the stack and lock the basket with the chain and you  get your coin back.  They don’t have to send the sackers out hunting down baskets and customers don’t leave them in the parking lot.  I wonder if Kroger would think of doing this?

Well we got back before it started raining, got the groceries put up.  MA finally got her phone to work with a European SIM card.  She’s happy.  If I could only figure out how to get the wireless on her IPAD to work? Today is Wednesday, expecting storms today, but we're off to Nice to get our rental car, a new adventure for me, driving the narrow French windy roads!  

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Houston to Vence, France: Day 1

Old town of Vence from our balcony with Med behind it

MA and I left IAH Sunday evening around 6pm on Continental and arrived in Frankfurt around 1pm Monday.  The flight over was uneventful.  The food was the best ever on an airplane.  I had some kind of Southwester chicken that was not bad and real Blue Bell Homemade vanilla ice cream for dessert.  I could
not sleep so I practically read a Tom Clancy novel over the Atlantic.  Our transfer from United (Continental) to Lufthansa went real smooth.  Last year was chaotic and rushed.  We were directed out of the terminal and had to go back through security.  This time we walked off our plane, down a terminal and we were right at the gate for the flight to Nice.  By the way, we've noticed the European flight attendants seemed to be more friendly that their USA counter-parts.

We arrived in Nice at 2pm local time.  Our three bags arrived with us.  We were met by Randy and Nola.  They were so glad to see us.  I don't think MA and Nola stopped talking the rest of the day.  We got to our rented condo owned by a friend of Nola's.  Her name is Karen.  This is a really nice condo with a gorgeous view of Vence and the surrounding homes.  We finally figured out how to get on line so the blog will be written during our stay here.  We walked into Vence late in the day and went shopping for food the next couple of days.

One of the hotels in Vence likes to put ceramic cats in their windows

I had been up over 30 hours but still managed to take a few photos on our walk into the heart of Vence.  I'll have more to share in the coming days.  Later, Wayne

Like last year, the doors are still a great photo.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Packing for a Month

M.A. and I will be gone for nearly a month beginning July 24th; two weeks in France and almost 2 weeks on the Emerald Princess from Copenhagen and returning to Copenhagen.  Here are some ideas to lessen the stress of traveling.
1.  Carry minimum amount of luggage:  For me I got everything in one checked bag.  I'm carrying my camera equipment in one shoulder bag and my laptop, cords, converters and plugs, reference material (maps), GPS, etc. in a backpack.
2.  Roll your clothes into tight bundles or use vacuum shrink bags.  Buy and wear easy light weight clothing like Ex Officio.
3.  Look at the clothes you're taking and get rid of anything you can do without.  Don't take anything that you will not wear.  Put an identifiable tag on your bag.  I have a bright florescent green cord on mine.  Keep your tag covered so some thief can read your name and address and phone number.
4.  Use space in your bag wisely like packing your shoes with stuff; ie. socks.
5.  Don't advertise your gear to thieves.  Do you carry Nikon or Canon cameras and lenses?  Do they pay you to advertise for them?  No.  So get rid of the loge strap.  Cover the name on lens caps, camera, etc. with tape.
6.  We are going on a cruise in the Baltic.  It might get cool in the evening.  I'm bringing a light jacket and wearing it on the plane.  Wear your heaviest clothing.

Those are the tips of the day.  Excuse me I've got to find a charging cord for my MP3.  See ya.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Night Photography in St. Petersburg, Russia

Downtown Houston from Hobby Center parking garage
This cruise MA and I are going on in August takes us to St. Petersburg, Russia. This will be the first time our cruise ship will stay docked over night at a port.  The usual protocol is for the ship to arrive early in the morning, passengers depart for a tour or walk-off and we're back on by 4pm and the ship departs for another port.  This cruise we'll stay overnight at St. Petersburg, Russia.  I want to take advantage of this overnight stay and get some night shots of the "white nights" this city is know for.  What complicates matters is the lack of a Russian visa.  Russia requires a visa if you're not with a "licensed tour operator."  So I've been searching for such a guide and there are not many of them.  I may just have to hire one of the licensed guides myself if I am going to do this.    I'll let you know how this turns out.  Here's an example of some night photography in downtown Houston.

View of downtown Houston from Buffalo Bayou