Category Archives: Travel

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The South of France (pt 10, The Search for Truffles)

We were at the end of our trip. The shortest one since we started attending the biennial conference in La Grande Motte, but we had one more item on our to do list.

Two years ago, Donna and I wandered into the town of Uzès to the north of Nimes and while wandering around the main square as tourists generally do we found (tucked in among the fabric, food and sourvenir shops) a store that specialized in everything truffle.

I’m not talking about chocolate truffles, I’m talking about the fungus that grows underground and produces a subterranean fruiting body that tastes so awesome that  you overlook the fact that it is the fruiting body of a subterranean fungus. These things aren’t cultivated, they are dug up and collected from the soil and leaf litter at the base of trees in the forest.

And they are expensive. Very expensive. Fortunately, a little goes a long way. If you’ve never had truffles, there’s no way to describe what you’re missing, but don’t deny yourself the opportunity when it presents itself. If you have tried them and don’t understand what all the fuss is about, you’ve either gotten a bad one or your biochemistry just isn’t calibrated to swoon over their flavor.

Donna and I were due to fly out of Marseilles the following day and Uzès was a solid three-hour ride down the expressway and an hour-and-a-half PAST Marseilles. Still, we wanted to replenish our truffle stash before leaving France.

We got up that morning and had breakfast at the Hotel Caravelle in Saint-Aygulf, took a selfie with our hosts Martine and Jean-Louis and set off for Uzès.

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The blast across southern France on the E80 is like any other toll road in the west. In fact, it feels more familiar than it actually should except for the fact that the toll booths don’t accept the old US-style credit cards with a magnetic stripe (and French drivers are just as impatient as US drivers when some clueless foreigner goes through the wrong toll booth). Anyway…we made our way up to Uzès and parked the car.

It was Saturday afternoon and the markets were winding down, but there was some sort of medieval festival in progress with people in period costumes as either peasants (many made up to look like they had bubonic plague) and others wearing (and selling) bold finery or toys. I have no idea what it was really all about, but it was interesting.

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True to our nature, we wandered around looking for a place to eat until there was only one place still open. The server told us what they were serving and asked if that was alright (although it was clear we had no choice). We nodded, ordered beer and wine and took in the view and the various activities going on around us.

As we sat in the café, bands started marching past. First, a bagpipe band featuring a guy in Buck Rogers sunglasses. DSC_0236_result_result

Pipers Video

And then a fife and drum group including this guy bringing up the rear while arguing with someone on his cellphone. Donna took the still photos while I took a movie with MY cellphone.

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Well, we got up from the table and resumed our quest for truffles. We looked up the address for the store we’d been to on our last trip, but it wasn’t there. We’d come all this way and were forced to retreat empty-handed.

In other words, the Maison de la Truffe c’est “poof”!

🙁

The rest of our trip was pretty mundane. We drove to Marseilles, checked into the Comfort Inn, returned our rental car, ate in the hotel restaurant and flew home the next morning.

Thanks for reading our story. I hope you enjoyed it.

Dr. Ken

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The South of France (pt 9, St. Tropez Penninsula)

On our last day in the Saint Tropez area, we decided to wander around the peninsula and visit the inland villages while staying well away from the more metropolitan areas at its northern end.

We started off along the coast but broke inland just past Port Grimaud and drove up to Gassin for this vista of the Saint Tropez Gulf.

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Here are some pictures of Gassin itself.

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After wandering around Gassin for about twenty minutes, we got back in the car and continued southwest on the Chemin des Moulins de Paillas. As we climbed into the hills, I finally saw something I’d been looking for, but had not found: cork oaks. Not just a few, but thousands of them. I knew that they were a type of oak tree, but the leaves don’t look like typical oak leaves, but look at the bark of the tree and it’s immediately obvious that you are looking at cork on the hoof. Truly bizarre.

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We continued southwest toward the coast looking for somewhere to get lunch. We saw a sign for a snack bar at a campground and detoured up the Route de L’Escalat, but it was closed. We continued past the campground to the village, but couldn’t find anything open so we turned around and headed back toward the beach road.

 

On our way back out, we stopped to take some photos of a vineyard and the men working it just as the weather turned sour.

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It was early in the season, cold and rainy, but we decided we still wanted to see what all the fuss about Saint Tropez beaches was about. We also figured we could get something to eat there. Well, we arrived, parked the car and started walking up past the private clubs and seaside restaurants, but ended up deciding we didn’t want to pay top dollar for crappy food again so I just took a single photo of Donna on the beach and one of the lighthouse and weather station (you can see it in the background of the first photo) to prove we’d been there and headed back the way we’d come.

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Back out on the road, we headed for the Phare de Camarat. Unfortunately, it was closed to the public at the time and all we could do was look at the lighthouse and adjacent weather station from outside the gate. We would have milled around longer, but we were getting seriously hungry at this point.

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We headed back to Ramatouelle, parked at the bottom of the hill and walked up into town in the rain hoping that we could still find a restaurant open so late in the afternoon. One thing we always seem to do when we are in France is take so long to decide where to have lunch, that the restaurants start closing and our choice is usually the only one that is still open. And so it was on this day…. We walked past three or four cafes that were all closed until the evening and found two open establishments at the top of the hill. The cafe was dry and out of the weather, but completely packed and not seating anymore customers. The little pizzeria next to it was also full except for the wet seats at the edge of the canopy, but we were welcome to those. Well, we were hungry, cold, thirsty and already wet, so…WTF. We sat down on the bench, ordered wine and two pizzas. It was the best (and cheapest) meal of the entire trip).

If you make your way up to Ramatouelle, I recommend you have lunch at La Cigalon, but pick a nice sunny day (odds are in your favor).

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Fueled by pizza and lubricated with wine, we finally took the time to look around this little town and take a few photos.

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Back on the road, we headed south toward the coast on the twistiest road I’ve seen in a very long time. Perhaps even more incredible, Donna was driving! We headed for La Croix- Valmer on the D93. NOT FOR THE FAINT OF  HEART!

We continued along the coast past La Croix-Valmer and on to Rayol-Canadel-sur-Mer where we headed north into the hills. This was the most insane and fun set of switchbacks, curves and vistas per mile I have ever seen (better than southwestern PA, better than the mountains of Arkansas, better than Vermont). Since I was in the co-pilot seat, I was free to take pictures with my phone to show just how twisty this bit of road was.

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Click here to play the video.  It’s hysterical. Driving Video

We stopped at a little natural area called Col du  Canadel (more cork oak trees). Again, thousands of cork oaks along this route and stunning vistas of the Mediterranean. The islands in the distance are (from left to right) Ile de Levant, Ile de Port-Cros and Ile de Bagaud.

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We  headed next for the little town of Cogolin where we found this cool statue with a musical theme.

 

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Our last stop of the day was the town of Grimaud with its ruined castle at the top of the hill in the center of the medieval village. We stopped outside of town at the bus stop because we were fascinated by the view juxtaposing the modern road system and the old castle of the village in the distance.

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Just inside the old village wall is an amphitheater wired for modern use.

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But…we still had a ways to climb….

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Once at the top, the view was worth it even though the sun was going down.

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It seemed like we studied every inch of the castle, but eventually went back down into town to take some photos since we were in a rush to get to the top after we arrived.

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It had been a long, cold, rainy day and we were ready to head back to the hotel, so we headed back down toward the north coast with the intention of just driving the quickest way back to Saint-Aygulf.

But, once we got to the shore, we were treated to a wonderful double rainbow. The perfect end to a less-than-perfect day.

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One more installment to go (yeah, I thought I was done too). Next: The fruitless search for our favorite fungus and some Bubonic buffoonery.

The South of France (pt 8, St. Tropez)

Our host at La Caravelle suggested we drive down to Ste. Maxime and take the ferry to St. Tropez rather than drive around the bay and park the rental car in the more crowded city.

I’m really glad we took her advice. On the morning of May 1st, we drove down, parked at the marina and boarded the ferry to St. Tropez. It was a 15-minute trip across the narrow mouth of the bay, but would have taken an hour to drive.

Although we’ve been all over most of Southern France, neither Donna nor I had ever been to St. Tropez before. Oddly enough, this city which is synonymous with deep tans actually faces north, so it’s not that easy to sunbathe there (now you know).

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And then a few more as we entered the posh San Tropez harbor.

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We love wandering through the markets in every town we visit and the fish market in San Tropez was especially awesome. I only wish we had a kitchen where we could prepare of this great looking fish!

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We picked up a city map at the tourist bureau and started on the self-guided tour, but it wasn’t long before we felt like we were walking in circles looking at things that weren’t as interesting as the map would suggest. Still, it’s a beautiful town.

We decided instead to walk back over to the town park and grabbed a couple seats (and drinks) at a café near the pétanque courts (Restaurant La Ponche).

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There was a tournament that day with 4 or 5 matches in progress and it seemed everybody on the street and in the cafés had their team shirts on. For the moment at least, we weren’t competing so fiercely with the tourists for ice cream, pastries and souvenirs.

The panorama Donna took while I sat at the table (above) captured the young woman in white with the yellow bag multiple times as she walked past us. You can see her in the final image on the right with her back to us and on the left as a composite image showing her face on and in profile at the same time. Freaky.

We decided that the most entertaining thing we could do in San Tropez was people-watching. (Although the car watching was pretty good too.)

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We took a few more pictures around town, but soon the heat got the better of us and we took up residence at an outdoor café right on the waterfront. It was expensive, but worth it to see the multi-national cast of characters pass by.

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Once we had our fill, we headed off again in search of new adventures. We were struck by the vivid colors of the produce stand much like we were at the fish market earlier. How wonderful it would be to have such wonderful food available on your doorstep every day.

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There was the requisite souvenir shopping of course, but to be brutally honest, the shops were so crowded, it was a real effort to shop there or even get some ice cream or a crêpe. We did make good on our goal of getting a San Tropez tarte (La Tarte Tropezienne: get one, it’s worth it).

And then, of course, there are all the flowers….

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After exploring what seemed like the whole city (I really thought it’d be bigger than it was), we headed back to catch the next ferry to Ste. Maxime, but we were too late and had to kill some more time at (you guessed it) another café.

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Since we were right at the marina, we boarded the ferry as soon as it docked, got seats up top in the fresh air and had plenty of time to take some more photos of San Tropez Port.

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One of the boats in port looked particularly stealthy. We never did figure out what this boat’s purpose was, but it certainly wasn’t like all the other fishing boats around it.

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Or the yachts.

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The ferry pulled away from the port just as the sun was setting. It was a full day in the sun and we were both ready to head back and relax on the terrace.

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Bye bye San Tropez!

 

The South of France (pt 7 Saint Aygulf, Fréjus and Embarcation Beach)

Despite what one might think, there is a disadvantage to being in a south-facing balcony room on the Mediterranean Sea. There is absolutely no way to avoid the morning sun.

I awoke somewhere around 5:00AM to the full majesty of the sunrise and instantly knew my night was over. While I envied Donna’s ability to continue sleeping in morning light so bright I could see my skeleton in the mirror, I took a picture from the balcony before heading down to the beach.

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I crossed the street and walked down the shoulder to the sand…I was completely alone.

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I grooved on the scene a while and even took a selfie before walking back to the hotel.

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I returned to the room as Donna was waking up and told her how beautiful the beach was…and then I when down to the beach a second time with Donna (although the sun was now high in the sky).

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After breakfast, we decided to backtrack to the east to see some places we’d had to skip in order to get to the hotel on time.

First, we visited Fréjus and it’s Roman ruins starting with its coliseum. But before we got to the coliseum, we found this memorial park just outside it that commemorates a catastrophic flood caused by a dam failure in December of 1959 resulting in 423 deaths in Fréjus and two nearby villages when the Malpasset Dam failed.

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We walked around the coliseum for quite a while. I was so fascinated by the structure/engineering and restoration activities that we didn’t take any pictures. So…here’s an overhead view from Google maps.

From the coliseum on the western side of Fréjus, we walked to the center of town just as the market was winding down and took some pictures of the spice vendor’s colorful wares.

 

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We had a quick beverage at the local watering hole (some distance from the market to avoid those awful, loud American tourists) and then returned to the church square where the Roman museum and medieval cloister are located.

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The museum records various aspects of Roman life in Fréjus. Two nearly complete Roman homes were discovered under the remnants of newer buildings and much of the flooring and wall decorations survived. Here are two photos Donna took of a nearly perfectly preserved floor mosaic.

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From the church square, we walked further east (and uphill) to the remains of the town’s Roman aqueduct which was built in the middle of the 1st century or roughly 1,900 to 1,950 years ago (!!). More incredible to me; it actually functioned (carried water to the city from over 20 miles away) for 450 years. Oh, and they didn’t wear out or break; they only failed because local farmers punched holes in them to irrigate their crops and villagers used the stone to build the medieval cities.

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A short walk from the remains of the aqueduct and old roman city gates are the remains of the Roman amphitheater. To be fair, it’s not much to look at because there are modern aluminum bleachers built on top of the remaining stone structure because the facility is still in use.

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As we were walking back to the coliseum where we parked our car, we came across some people playing petanque (to me, it looks like the French version of bocci) so we stopped and watched for a little while. DSC_0046_result_result

From Fréjus, we backtracked further east to a memorial park called Embarcation Beach which commemorates the Allied landing that drove the Germans out of southern France in August of 1944 known as Operation Dragoon.

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Next time: We take to the sea and visit San Tropez!

The South of France (pt 6 Vence, Antibes and L’Estéral)

I didn’t mention this in the previous installment, but Donna and I went to the Fondation Maeght (a modern art museum and gallery in St. Paul) on Monday, but we weren’t particularly impressed with it (no photos because we chose not to pay the photographers fee which was above and beyond the ticket price). There were two problems with the museum and gallery from my perspective: First, the museum was more focused on its architect than on the art (and all his buildings looked the same). Second…well, I don’t share the Maeght’s taste in art.

Anyway, Donna asked me what I wanted to do on Tuesday which was our last day in the Antibes/St. Paul/Vence area) and I said I wanted to see the Picasso museum in Antibes (because I’m more familiar with Picasso’s work and actually like it). So, we drove down to Antibes to visit his museum (it was known as the Grimaldi museum while he worked there for six months in 1946).

But, that wasn’t our first stop.

After we checked out of La Vague, we went to Vence because it was market day there. We wandered around a bit and decided to have a sandwich at a little shop before hitting the market for some snacks for the road.

We bought some cheese, dry sausages, bread and olives before doing some last-minute window shopping in this cute little town.

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This was one of the market vendors’ dog. One of very few we encountered that seemed to appreciate a little attention from a stranger.

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It was a hot day and just after lunch when we arrived at the museum in Antibes (which, of course, was closed during lunch-this is France after all). We stood in the sweltering sun in a long line of tourists wondering whether all this was worth it.

It was.

We couldn’t take pictures inside, but the sculpture garden along the sea wall was fair game. If you have the opportunity, I’d recommend visiting the Museé Picasso (but avoid the crowd if you can).

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I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this piece. It seemed like a waste of a lot of guitars, but somehow, it appealed to me.

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After the museum, we headed west along the coast across L’Estérel (one of three mountain ranges that cross France and reach the Mediterranean). We needed to reach our next hotel in Saint Aygulf and were short on time, but made a brief stop at Cap Roux for some pictures.

No one was really able to tell us the origin of these structures, but we were sufficiently fascinated that we tried to research it ourselves and it’s still a mystery. Other than the lookout which was obviously more modern, they appear to be military structures from several different historic periods. The oldest were simple stone ramparts. Others were brick and mortar and still others were made of reinforced concrete more like WWII bunkers. I guess we’ll have to come back and take another look at it when we understand what it’s all about.

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I conquered my acrophobia long enough to hop up on the wall and look down at the cliff face and the sea beyond (OK, that’s long enough).

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Off we went to Saint Aygulf and our budget-friendly hotel for a delicious, but low-budget evening meal on the balcony.

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I posted this on my Facebook page before, but here again is the brochure-friendly photo I took from the balcony and then the wide shots to show the construction site across the road between us and the beach. C’est la vie.

BTW, notice that the top of the crane is pivoting freely in the wind. Apparently, the crew felt it unnecessary to lock it down for the night.

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Despite my good-natured ribbing about the hotel, out hosts were very friendly and helpful and I would gladly stay there again.

Next time: Dawn and sunset in St. Aygulf, Roman ruins in Fréjus and Embarkation Beach.

The South of France 2014 (pt 5 Juan-Les-Pins 4/28/14)

On Monday, Donna and I decided we’d drive around Antibes to the other side of the pennisula to Juan les Pins. We drove out as far as we could and parked at the beach which was also the beginning of the cliff trail that continued far longer than we had time to explore, so we hiked out as far as could and then retreated to the beach bar for refreshments. 😉

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The French concept of public safety is somewhat different than what you might be accustomed to. Loosely translated, the sign says ‘don’t go any further or the wind and sea will wash you away and you’ll die’.

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As we were relaxing at the beach with our respective beverages, a rainbow magically appeared and a sailboat lazily floated across it.

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For comic relief, a male seagull was attempting to impress a female with a tennis ball (I’m sure he thought it was a premium sea urchin). He kept offering it to her and then rolling it towards  her. She was either smarter than he was or already had a better offer.

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Next stop: Antibes and the Picasso museum.

 

The South of France (pt 4: Biot and Ken’s Quiet Day 4/27/14)

 

I asked Donna for one day to myself to do nothing but lounge on the terrace of our hotel and Sunday wasn’t exactly the perfect day to do it, but…this was my soggy view from my chilly perch.

The view from the terrace on a cold and soggy Sunday morning.
The view from the terrace on a cold and soggy Sunday morning.

Meanwhile…Donna was in the village of Biot.

These are the pictures of the town that Donna took while walking around/shopping: DSC_0354_result DSC_0353_result DSC_0348_result DSC_0345_result DSC_0341_result DSC_0340_result DSC_0338_result DSC_0337_result DSC_0336_result DSC_0335_result DSC_0329_result DSC_0386_result Biot13_result DSC_0357_result I am jealous that Donna claims she had one of the best lunches of our trip on the afternoon she went out on her own. I assume it tasted as good as it looks. Biot 2_result Biot 5_result Finally, here are some pictures she took with the cellphone of some of the glass pieces on display.

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Vroom, vroom!

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After Donna returned from Biot, we made a brief visit to Antibes and walked on the path above the marina and below the castle.

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