2003-05 (MAY, 2003)

Lou & Richard's Wedding - London, England

Thu & Fri: Things began in a less-than-ideal way. Upon boarding our flight to London (a wee way north of Sydney) we discovered that our first stop was to be Melbourne (a wee way south of Sydney) thanks to some change in routing that we hadn't been told about. Now call me fussy, but how many people like to begin a 22-hour journey with a 4-hour detour in the opposite direction? About bloody none! The flight to Kuala Lumpur was nice and empty, so we got to stretch out a bit (a total waste of pre-booking window seats, however). A further consequence of the routing change was a six hour layover in KL instead of the normal two. We elected to buy our way into the Executive Lounge where we got our monies-worth of free showers, drink, food and internet access. The second (and longer leg) from KL to London was more crowded, but I managed to sleep most of the way. We touched down at Heathrow at 19:00. Mike had kindly arranged to have a Kingston-based mini-cab collect us. Thus we got to meet Piedro, mini-cab driver and total character. He was the spitting image of a young Robert De Nero and spoke like he was practising for his performance in 'Casino'. During this and several subsequent lifts to and from the airport we got to learn a significant amount about Piedro, his life, his history, and his views on just about everything. We arrived at Mike's and settled in. He and Erica were still hard at work, so we got to wash and blob out for a bit before the beer and chat began to flow. After a good evening of catching up, Andy and I retired to bed just after midnight.

Sat: Today was Louise and Richard's wedding day. We were up and about by 08:00 - the Jet Lag Beast had left us alone. We enjoyed a leisurely breakfast before heading into Kingston to run some errands - key cutting, haircuts, supermarket, etc. We were on the road to Maidenhead by 11:30, with a brief detour via Erica's house to pick up some self-illuminating ice-cubes (every household should have some of these). The four of us arrived at the wedding venue 10-minutes before the start. Mike and I had to change in the carpark and thus got to know some of the other late arrivals more intimately than we had expected to this early in the day. The bar beside the State Room provided a swift half before we had to go next door for the focus of the day. Everyone enjoyed the splendid (and nicely brief) secular ceremony. Next up was a photo-call outside in the gardens which went on until a rain shower drove us all back inside. Having an 'all under the one roof' wedding has a lot to be said for it and we happily imbibed another swift half in the bar before the formal lunch began in the dining room. Andy & I were seated with the ABAST crowd on the 'Rioja' table (all the tables were named after a wine varietal - spot Lou's influence on the catering). The masses were treated to a great three-course lunch: tomato, asparagus and pesto salad; roast chicken and roast potatoes; crème brûleé and poached pear. Much beer, wine, whiskey, sambucha and 11 hours later and it was 03:30 and we were all a bit squiffy. We had danced and chatted and had had an all-round splendid day.

Sun: We bounced out of bed at 08:30 and joined the surprising number of breakfast guests that had made it up as well. God, we love UK booze - if it had been an evening of VB and Aussie Chardonnay we would have been in a very, very bad way indeed. After an extended round of farewells, we checked out and got on the road back to Kingston. Once back at Mike's we snacked and relaxed. Andy & I set off for the train station at 13:45 to begin our journey to Brighton for an evening in the company of Mark & Neil. We missed the 13:58 train to Clapham and had to wait another half-an-hour for the next one. We were thus forced to catch the sloooow train to Brighton which didn't arrive until just after 17:00. A taxi ride later and we were in Neil's flat. The chat, coffee and yummy bickies flowed in equally high volumes. The four of us dined at 'The (No Name) Restaurant' just along the road, but it was not a late night as we had all had large evenings the night before. I enjoyed a fine smoked chicken salad, followed by a wild boar fillet and half a sticky toffee pudding - yummilicious. We finished our evening with a brisk walk back to Lindsey's house where Andy & I bedded down for the night.

Mon: Andy & I began the week with a bit of a sleep in. Having sufficiently recovered from our hectic weekend we were out the door by 10:30. Our walk up to the train station went via The Lanes. We just made it onto the 11:20 train to East Croydon and thence onto the tram to Wimbledon. We stopped in briefly at Lou & Richard's house, but they weren't in, so we wandered up to the Wimbledon Mall for some long anticipated London shopping. We almost immediately bumped into the guys and abandoned the retail therapy in favour of piling into a taxi up to Wimbledon village for lunch. We spent a fab couple of hours in 'The Fire Stables' and several bottles of wine accompanied a fine meal. Upon returning to the mall, we arranged to meet later in the afternoon and went our separate consumerist ways. My shopping expedition was less successful than I had hoped, but I did managed to pick up a few much-needed items. Back at Lou & Richard's we had cups of tea and chatted until it was time for Andy & I to wish the guys a good time on their honeymoon and be on our way. Our evening engagement was with Jennifer & Eric at their house. We got to meet Eric's Dad and dined on a fine repast of authentic French food and wines. I think Andy & I each put on half a stone in the course of that one meal. We taxied back to Mike's house and collapsed into bed.

Tue: Andy & I bounded out of bed at 06:30 but didn't make it out the door until just after 09:00. We had to wait briefly at Kingston station for the post-09:30 fares to kick in, before catching a train into Waterloo and then a tube to St Paul's Cathedral. We paused briefly for a coffee at a nearby café and then went in search of Bobby, Andrea's Dad, who was joining us for our walk around The Square Mile. The route came from my copy of 'Secret London' by Andrew Duncan and took in the convoluted backways east of St Paul's Tube Station. First up was the churchyard of St Mary-le-Bow with its crypt/restaurant 6-metres below ground level. In Roman times it was the street level. From there the route took in the remains of two churches - St Pancras Church and St Benet Sherehog Church - which both once stood in the heart of the medieval City's wool district and were both destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. Passing the exposed remains of the Roman Temple of Mithras, we took in the church of St Stephen Walbrook as rectored by Chad Varah, founder of the Samaritans. Inside was a display outlining the work of the humanitarian group and a collection of the telephones they've used over the years. Next up were New Court (home of Rothschild's Bank since 1804), the buildings once belonging to the Founder's and Salters' Companies and the London Stone. We took a look inside St Mary Abchurch, the least altered of all Christopher Wren's churches. From there we saw the sights of Lombard Street with its mad collection of banking signage. More meandering brought us to St Clements Church (of the nursery rhyme fame) and then on past the Monument to the Great Fire of 1666. We stopped for lunch at The Ship. Hunger sated, we were off again and our first stop was at the lovely St Mary-at-Hill Church. Next was a brief stop into both All Hallows Church and the nautically flavoured St Olave's Church. St Helen's Church was closed until 16:00, but looked so cute that we marked it down as a place to return to after our walk. Another few Guild Halls were next. Firstly the Leathersellers' Company (very ornate), then the Carpenters' Company and finally the Drapers' Company. Each has its coat of arms plastered all over the bollards, lampposts and even carved into the building walls on the streets surrounding their hall. Our route ran past the Bank of England building and then the Grocers' Hall before entering Old Jewery, London's medieval Jewish quarter before the great expulsion of 1291. More back-street wandering returned us to St Paul's Tube Station - a most excellent and highly recommended walk around The City. I left the guys to retrace their steps to St Helen's and made my way back to Monument and my evening's pub rendezvous with Ben. Unfortunately my rendezvous was not to be - Ben's little boy had broken his arm after school (which makes it the fourth time he has broken one of his arms) and Dad (Ben) was on hospital duty. Instead I was rescued by Caroline, Andy's cousin, and, after a couple of pints, she took me back to her (and her partner, Paul's) recently-purchased flat in Surrey Quays for dinner. Their building is surrounded by working docks and the apartments inside are the work of a class of London School of Architecture students. Each makes slightly different use of the space allotted to it - Caroline's is just fab. After a yummy dinner I was escorted through the byways of the Quays and onto a tube back to Waterloo. I met Andy after her dinner out and we made our way back to Kingston and our bed.

Wed: We awoke much later today and were a bit rushed to get the 09:50 train into town. We collected Bobby at Putney and continued on into South Kensington and the V&A museum. There we took in a splendid exhibition of all things Art Deco. By the time we were done it was time for lunch. I again parted company with Andy and Bobby and went to meet Mark in Mayfair. I finally satisfied my urge for a big fried breakfast (that I had been harbouring for three days). After lunch I set off for a spot of shopping in the West End. My clothes shopping mission to Covent Garden came up empty-handed, but my book buying mission to Charing Cross Road was most successful. God I love Foyles - I blew two hours and two hundred pounds before I was done. At 17:30 I headed down to Leicester Square to meet Andy, Lynda and Bobby at 'Koha', an old haunt of ours near the tube station. We scoffed a good meal and then shuffled around the corner to the Duke's Theatre to see 'Stones In His Pockets'. We all enjoyed this very well acted, two-man play about village life during the filming of the latest Hollywood blockbuster in rural Ireland. Back to Kingston and bed.

Provence, France

Thu: We were up at 06:30 and into a mini-cab out to Gatwick by 07:00. We rendezvoused with Lynda, checked in and went through to find some breakfast. At 09:30 we boarded our flight to Marseille. On the flight I began to read and get excited by my guidebook to the GR20, the hike I would be doing in Corsica. After a slight delay getting our hire car (for which we got an upgrade to an air-conditioned vehicle) we were on the road. As it was only the second time I had ever driven on the right-hand side of the road, I was a little trepidacious and the road out of Marseille was my trial-by-fire. We had no idea where we were going and it was more by luck than good management that we found ourselves heading in the right direction. After a couple more navigational blunders we arrived in Molleges, 15km from Cavaillon. Our little cottage was quaintly perfect and we caught our breath for a moment before heading back out again on a mission for supplies. Our nearest supermarket was in St-Rémy-de-Provence, a delightful wee town about 10km west of Molleges. We stocked up on yummy delicacies and beer and returned home via the tourist office. I relaxed after my driving duties whilst the girls organised dinner. My only task was to light and mind the BBQ, which I had under control in no time despite an initial mix-up involving a bottle of white spirit that turned out to be a bottle of water. We sat down to a fine meal of local delicacies just as the sun was sinking. We were in bed before the night was very old.

Fri: We had a very late start today - everyone was very much in holiday mode. We broke our fast on natural yogurt with honey, pain au raisin and coffee. Our destination for the day was St-Rémy-de-Provence and we arrived just in time for lunch. We forced ourselves to do a little exploring before sitting down to eat in a cute little cavern of a restaurant. We ordered the budget 'prix fixe' and were treated to a fine repast of fish soup, pasta and crème brûleé. After lunch we elected to do a small walking tour of the town which we regularly punctuated with much going-into-shops. Andy found herself a fab new ring. We had a mid-afternoon coffee in the rose-clad courtyard of a gorgeous little hotel 📷. Upon completing our walk, we returned to our car. By then it was just after 18:30 and the vote was to call it a day and return to our little house for a beer beside the pool. Dinner consisted of a magnificent spread of cold local produce and bed followed soon after.

Sat: I was up very early, had had my breakfast and was well into my book before either of the girls had stirred. Indeed by the time they were up and about it was time for me to grab another 40 winks. As such we weren't on the road until late morning. Our first stop was at the archeological sites south of St-Rémy-de-Provence - Glanum and Les Antique's. The latter consists of a well-preserved, 60-foot high mausoleum and triumphal arch dating from around 30 AD 📷. We elected not to hand over the great wodges of cash required to see Glanum and instead snuck around the side and looked in over the fence. Next up was the site of the former monastery of St-Paul-de-Mausole, where Van Gogh was hospitalized 📷. I took some photos of the virtually unchanged landscape that he had painted over 100 years before. We then went in search of the famous hilltop village of Les Baux-de-Provence (where the word Bauxite originated) but were put off by the huge crowds of visitors. Instead we elected to press on to Tarascon - capital of all that is grotty about France. After a fruitless search for a place for lunch we had to settle for some uninteresting goodies from a run-down bakery. The reason for our visit to Tarascon was it's chateau/castle which was spectacular. We wandered there for a good hour, or so. To capitalise on my increasing driving confidence we selected a scenic drive home through some rather challenging highways and byways. I was put in charge of charring some tubes of animal offal for dinner over the second of our rather fuel-taste-inducing disposable BBQs. Still, that's what beer is there to cure, isn't it? Early to bed.

Sun: Lynda decided to have a day beside the pool today, so Andy and I took ourselves off to the Camargue. We began with a wee detour to the Abbay-de-Montmajour 📷. The abbey is magnificent. Highlights included splendid Romanesque cloisters and a cemetery where the shallow grave/coffins had been cut directly into the rock behind the main building 📷. I can only imagine what the smell must have been like after a heavy downpour of rain back when the graves were still in use. We continued on into the Camargue proper and found a spot for our picnic lunch beside a marsh pond complete with its own brace of flamingoes. After our feast we went for a short walk before driving into the insalubrious seaside town of Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. What a tip. Continuing on our way, we stumbled upon the Parc Ornithologique du Pont de Gau and decided to go in. After being held up at the gate by a bus-load of seniors, we slipped in without paying by tagging onto the end of their party. We were rather glad not to have paid - the park had a good collection of wildlife near the gates, but the hour-and-a-half 'nature walk' yielded little more than a solitary crow and a handful of dragonflies. Heading north again we briefly left Provence for a quick visit to Languedoc and the town of St Gilles. Here we stopped for a bad cup of expensive coffee before heading for home. We arrived back at the house just on 18:00. After a wee rest we were off out again, this time to St-Rémy-de-Provence to find a place to eat. We dined at a magic little restaurant in the centre of the town and had the best crème brûleé that I had ever eaten 📷. We returned home and turned in for the evening.

Mon: Today dawned fine and hot and we prepared to go into Arles for the day via a number of smaller places of interest. First up was beautiful village of Eygalières in which we wandered whilst eating fresh brioche du raisins 📷. Next up was the olive-growing village of Mouriès where we tasted some fine honey and olive oils, bought some cook books and reversed the car into a tree (Rappel!). The village of Maussane-les-Alpilles was next. Here we visited an extensive pottery shop and stocked up on Provencal souvenirs. As it was now time for lunch we parked up and footed it to Restaurant Le Margaux where we gorged on a spread of exquisite local cuisine. There is nothing like a long and excellent lunch coupled with deteriorating weather to cut a day's exploring short - we headed back to St-Rémy-de-Provence to shop before returning to the house for wee siesta. By the time the house was up and about, evening was creeping in. Beer and cards filled the rest of a rainy night.

Tue: Today we made our way directly to Arles to redress yesterday's slackness. Our visit to this odd little town focused on a self-guided walk around the centre that we got from our Fodor's guidebook. It was the first of several experiences that led to the vow to never buy another Fodor's guidebook - the walk seemed to lead us around all the dull bits of the town whilst skirting all the interesting looking bits. We came away with the unnerving feeling that we had missed quite a lot of Arles, but not quite sure what. The girls did manage to make a few purchases as we went around, of course - Andy picked up a fabulous tablecloth that we are both looking forward to have gracing the dining table in a house of our own one day. One site we couldn't miss was the huge Arenes (Amphitheatre) built at the end of the 1st-century AD Nearby is the Theatre Antique, built during the reign of the Roman Emperor Augustus, but pillaged for stone in the 5th-century by Christians eager to build churches. Also of interest was the Place de la Republique, with its landmark obelisk, and the abutting Église St-Trophime, with it's wonderful cloister's and super Romanesque portal 📷. The return journey home went via a long scenic drive through Les Alpilles.

Wed: Andy was up first and treated us all to some fresh croissants from the local bakery. Our direction today was north-east towards Beaumes-de-Venise. We made the tragic mistake of trying to get through Carpentras at lunchtime - my nerves were shot after that hour from hell. We pressed on until we got to Beaumes-de-Venise, parked up and then went for a wander to find something to eat. For some reason everything was closed - a public holiday, perhaps? In the end we had to settle for a rather tatty restaurant taking advantage of its status as the sole establishment open today. A most disappointing lunch. A fleeting bash at wine tasting was equally unsatisfying. Cutting our losses we got back in the car and drove out to Châteauneuf-du-Pape which was much more pleasant. We explored briefly but were routinely ignored at the tasting venues - we obviously looked too poor to buy anything here. Our final destination for the day was Avignon. We began our walk outside Le Palais des Papes, but soon realised that we'd been 'Fodored' again. All the sights seemed to be on the other side of the blocks we were walking along. We returned to the car as the sun was setting and headed for home. I cooked up scrummy (even if I do say so myself) pot of pasta with a caramelised onion, tomato and sausage sauce. More beer and cards saw us through until bedtime.

Thu: We got away early today so as to drop off Lynda at Marseille airport in time for her flight home. Andy & I continued on into Aix-en-Provence which turned out to be a fairly uninteresting town. We took a quick turn around the Cours Mirabea before returning to the car. We elected to have an early finish to the day and have a lazy afternoon back in our little cottage in Molleges. The evening was whiled away with a spot of repacking - me for my up-coming hike and Andy for her trip back to Oz.

Fri: Andy had a less-than-wonderful start to the day by flooding the bathroom - a pretty spectacular mess, I can tell you. Still, it saved us having to wash the floors before our departure. We said good-bye to our little cottage and drove back into Avignon for part deux of our visit. We again began at the Le Palais des Papes, but actually went inside this time and took an audio guide each 📷. Le Palais des Papes was the home of the French Popes from 1309 until 1417 and is a truly impressive place. We spent several hours exploring this extensive castle. The rooftop café commanded an incredible view and we ate our lunch in the sun. Next up was the famous Pont St-Bénézet (Pont d'Avignon), now only spanning half of the mighty Rhone river 📷. Our last drive of the day was north into the Vaucluse proper. Here we met up with Paul, Marketa, Craig and Sarah at a luxurious B&B outside of Puymeras. What was left of the afternoon was spent drinking beer and eating gorgeous nibbles by the pool. We dined together at a magic outdoor restaurant in Muymeras. Andy and I walked most of the way home to settle our stomachs after the evenings indulgences.

Sat: The whole gang stayed together today and went to visit Orange. We spent a wonderful hour exploring the Théatre Antique with its mighty stage wall (338' long and 118' high) and cavea for 10,000 bums 📷. Outside the theatre were the remains of a temple complex 📷. A brief stroll brought us to the Arc de Triomphe built around 20 BC and now stuck in the middle of a massive roundabout 📷. Paul & Marketa then spilt from the main party and left Craig, Sarah, Andy and myself to go off and explore the Pont du Gard, one of the Wonders of the Ancient World 📷. It is a truly magnificent structure. Blocks of masonry, each weighing up to 6.5 tons, have been assembled into an aqueduct that spans the 900' wide gap between the steep banks of the Gard river valley. At its highest point it towers 158' above the river. And all so that the town of Nemansus (Nimes) could have something to feed its fountains with. Back in Puymeras we regrouped and again snacked and chatted beside the pool until dinner time. The six of us dined outside at a gourmet restaurant in Faucon.

Sun: Andy & I decided to have a day without the car today. We bid farewell to the others and spent the day walking the country back roads around Puymeras. We covered 13.3km in the 4 hours we were out (I had to get a little pre-Corsica GPS reading practise in, didn't I). Upon returning to the B&B a wee siesta was in order. The six regrouped for dinner - this time good pizza in Vaison-la-Romaine.

Mon: Today was Andy's last full day in France, so we tried to knock off a few last places that she wanted to visit by embarking on scenic drive around the Vaucluse. Our first stop was the village of Gordes, perched nearly 1000' above the Coulon valley. From there we descended to the 300-year-old Village des Bories with its stone beehive huts reminiscent of the much older huts we saw in Dingle, Ireland. Next up was a visit to the Abbaye de Senanque, one of only three Cistercian monasteries in Provence. Our penultimate detour for the day was to a local Lavender Museum, a really fascinating place where we got to learn all about how lavender oil is extracted. Last up was the pretty little village of L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue with its collection of noria (waterwheels) and its extensive village pond and canal system 📷. We returned to Marseille in the late afternoon. I had to do some last minute shopping for hiking supplies and during that expedition we saw as much of the city as we cared to see. We dined in our budget hotel and retired to bed.