25 November – We had hardly cleared the port of Ajaccio in Corsica when we started to get some movement on the ship as it headed towards Toulon. The movement increased steadily and we were grateful for a cabin to try and minimise the effects. For the next few hours it was quite a roller-coaster ride, but calmed down eventually so sleep was finally possible.
26 November – A wake up call on the loudspeakers at 5.45am signalled our imminent arrival into port, so dragged ourselves out to breakfast only to find that for the next three hours we were sailing up and down the coast waiting for the port authorities to let us berth. It seems that the high winds were causing problems, made evident when we finally did get near enough to dock, as it took three attempts to get us in.
Bienvenue a Toulon. Despite the supposed increase in security following the Paris attacks there were no formalities here and getting out of the city was not too difficult; before long we had left the big city behind and were in Hyeres where we tried in vain to find parking to explore the town. So, on to La Londe les Maures instead, where there was a nice little port with a newly opened cafe for us to try. Tossed up whether to take the coastal or inland road to St Tropez; the inland route won and we were in St Tropez in less than an hour. St Tropez is so much smaller than I anticipated but very much a town for the rich and famous. There are no $2 stores here – all the big names Gucci, Dolce & Cabana, Dior, Bulgari etc.etc. were here in abundance, although being winter they were sadly all closed. The boat harbour had quite a few very big toys moored in the basin to give us an idea what it would be like in summer.
There are certainly a lot people in this world with an obscene amount of wealth. The inner part of the town is interesting to walk around, being full of little streets loaded with these high end stores. In the town square a large gathering was happening with heavy police protection; we quickly realised that it was a memorial service for a local woman who had been killed in the Paris attacks.
Finished with our exploration of the town so it was time to find a supermarket and stock up with items for our three day stay in the hills above the town. Good job we did that, as it was a little difficult, to say the least, to get to this villa. After leaving the main paved road we had to navigate a series of little dirt roads to find our eventual destination. Gorgeous location, perched on a hillside overlooking St Tropez with the sea way in the distance, with loads of villas and small vineyards dotted all around. We definitely won’t be going in and out to town from here but we can do some exploring on foot.
27 November – Nice and warm today; sitting out on our deck to read books made for a very relaxing morning.
Notre Dame de Miremar was our little excursion for the afternoon. On the next hill over from us, after an hour’s stiff walk was the site of this little church with even more expansive views than we have from our villa. Surrounding the church was a developed garden and treed area, which would be perfect for picnics in the summer.
28 November – A cold windy day didn’t lend itself to outside activities so it was catch up time for my blog, internet bookings to get us home and a visit with our Dutch neighbours in the adjoining apartment.
29 November – We stayed around until after lunch to meet with the apartment’s owner who had been over in London for a few days. Edwourde is a Dutchman who had moved permanently to this remote area of Provence along with his wife, who is still splitting her time with work in the Netherlands and life here in France. Edwourde is an artist and designer who is able to work online from this pleasant but remote location.
Set out on our way up through Garde-le-Freinet – the closest village about ten minutes drive from the villa – and then had only about 20km of winding rural roads until we hit the peage motorway. A nice change to be able to fly along at 130kph, although you do pay quite handsomely for the privilege. We had about 200km to our destination of Orange north of Avignon for 15Euro.
I had booked a B&B in the suburbs; our GPS managed to get us there where our hostess Therese and her husband Eddy were on hand to greet us, give us a welcome cup of tea and spend a bit of time socialising. Into the centre of town for dinner and what an amazing surprise. Unknown to us, Orange is a very famous Roman town with one of only three remaining theatres in the world of its kind. The town was all decked out with Christmas lights and looked so pretty. I didn’t know about the history of the town when I booked our night’s stop. Definitely will be worth a visit in the daylight.
30 November – A nice breakfast was served in our room before we hit the town. First up a visit to the theatre and museum. The museum housed some artifacts from the theatre excavations and the surrounding area, including part of a mosaic floor and two cartifacts – huge engraved stone tablets arranged so that each portion represented a part of the city – detailed on it was the amount of land allocated and it’s owner. On the upper floors were interesting artworks, especially a series of huge paintings depicting the indienne material works – how dyed and printed material were produced in the 1700’s.
With the museum done, it was over the street to the theatre. Wow, mind boggling how something so large could have been built nearly 2,000 years ago. The theatre seated 10,000 people on stone tiers; it even originally had a covered roof to keep the sun off the stage and spectators. The hierarchy of the population was evident here, with officials and high ranking people seated in the lower portions separated by walls from the rest of the public, with slaves and foreigners only allowed on the top levels of seating. The Romans had it right though – 100 days a year were set aside for productions at the theatre. Plays, tragedies, mimes and music featured here. Today, with it’s fantastic acoustics, it is still an important location for opera and modern groups.
It is one of the best preserved of all the Roman theatres built in the old Roman colony of Arausio, established by the soldiers of the Second Legion which was founded in 40 BC. Theatre played a major role in the life of the citizens, who spent a large part of their free time there. It was also seen by Roman authorities not only as a means of spreading their culture to the colonies, but also as a way of distracting them from political activity.
Mime, pantomime, poetry readings and the “attelana” (a kind of farce) was the dominant form of entertainment, much of which lasted all day. For the common people, who were fond of spectacular effects, magnificent stage sets became very important as was the use of stage machinery. The entertainment offered was open to all and free of charge.
We had a very good audio guide as we went around the various parts of the theatre. Lunch beckoned when we completed our visit and then it was northward to Beaune. 400km of motorway got us through the countryside quite quickly – three and a half hours and several more euros later, we arrived in Beaune as darkness fell.
01 December – Up bright and early to make sure that we arrived at Sauvigny de Beaune Chateau for opening time, as we had read that they closed for lunch from midday till 2.00pm, only to find that their policy now was to stay open right through the day. What an eclectic mix of “stuff” – in one of the farm buildings were housed the Abarth cars, out in surrounding fields were about 80 aircraft many of French origin, in other buildings early rural farm furnishings, several fire-engines, farm machinery, aero-engines and in the dilapidated chateau itself was the large motorcycle collection. Although there were many fine exhibits amongst them, much appeared to be slowly decaying away through lack of proper conservation or protection.
02 December – Short hop into Mulhouse to catch the opening of the French National Car Museum (formerly known as the Schlumpf Collection). The fine collection, whilst vast, lacked much imagination in it’s presentation, so was a little bit of a disappointment in that respect. The number and variety of pre-1900 vehicles though was impressive, as was the large number of Bugatti vehicles. It took us a few hours to walk around it all – laid out in chronological order but all quite close together with a small description on some of the vehicles.
With that done we headed back beyond Bavallier to visit the Peugeot museum which was quite a contrast. Nicely displayed vehicles in little groups but also displays of all the many other things that Peugeot makes – coffee grinders, garden tools, blenders, washing machines, sewing machines, motorcycles, pepper mills, guns, dishwashers, razors – so much variety. The cars started from the 1900’s up to their present day models and was far more imaginative in presentation than the National Car Museum. Headed back to the same Chambre in Beaune for another night.
03 December – Foggy and frosty start to the day. Decided that we would stay off the peage toll roads as we had all day to go the 300kms to our destination. The fog stayed for a couple of hours as we made our way southwards again, finally clearing when we stopped for morning tea along the way. The Thursday market was taking place in the small town square – mainly clothing for sale in the stalls with just a few selling food produce. Continued on through the lovely green valleys, exchanging ploughed fields for vineyards yet again. About 1.00pm decided that it would be good to make a lunch stop when coming across a little restaurant in the middle of nowhere. Note to self – restaurants in these areas only do the ‘plat du jour’ at lunchtime, which means an entree, hot dish and dessert, so it was two fairly full bods after that feast. Our entree was a piece of quiche, a hot dish of rabbit stew with chips, followed by creme caramel. Not our usual lunch fare for lunch and more than enough to see us through to breakfast tomorrow with just cheese and crackers for supper. The temperature topped out at 12C then dipped quite suddenly as we hit fog again going into another valley. We were in and out of fog until getting to Messimy sur Saone and our chambre d’hote for the night in a renovated 17thC farm house. Our host’s teenage son came and chatted with us for a while to practise English he had learned from a Japanese boy whilst on a student exchange in Russia, while his proud Mum looked in on us from time to time.
04 December – Coolish start to the day again. Avignon was the destination – we were happily zapping along on the motorway when we spied a sign to a car museum. With plenty of time in hand we followed the signs which took us to a small town north of Lyon and very surprising little museum in a much more wholesome chateau than our visit to Sauvigny. This had a lovely array of pre-1900 cars and vehicles on several floors of the chateau, nicely displayed with just a few vehicles in each room. Looking at some photos it seems that the cars had to be completely taken apart to get them into their rooms and then reassembled once in place.
Created by Henri Malartre in 1959, it became one of Lyon’s museums in 1972. Henri Malartre (1905-2005) was the son of Victor Malartre, an automobile enthusiast who ran a local boiler-making and steel frame business. There are 150 exhibits in the château dating from 1890 to 1986, twenty of which are unique models. On the first and second floors: early cars, 40 motorbikes from 1903 to 1955 and 31 bicycles from 1818 to 1960. In Gordini Hall: racing and touring cars: in the Public Transport Hall: trams, trains and the “Ficelle” funicular from Fourvière. All together, more than 120 period posters, engines and old accessories (nearly 1000 collector’s items).
Ended up having to drive right through the middle of Lyon – quite impressive buildings along both sides of the river. Out the other side it was on to Avignon and our hotel for two nights right inside the old city walls. Good timing – the city was having their Christmas Market over the weekend. After settling in to the hotel, we were able to walk into the city square as darkness fell; the Christmas stalls were getting set up and the area was humming. We were told that Lyon had cancelled their Christmas market due to the Paris attacks in a bid not to have too many crowds. So plenty of people were expected. One stall was offering all things gingerbread, others with Christmas decorations, local artists’ work, local produce. Around the main square were many pedestrian streets, with interesting little boutique shops and amazing confectionery and patisseries.
05 December – Sur le Pont d’Avignon. We got to walk over what is left of this famous bridge and see a 3D recreated image of what it would have been like in the 1500’s. On returning to the main square were able to enjoy some entertainment related to their annual telethon. Had hoped to visit the Papal Palaces but there were so many people trying to get in to avoid light rain that we gave that a miss. Had an interesting wander around the little streets within the city walls instead. In the 15thC the city had a terrible reputation as being the dirtiest in Europe- they have improved it somewhat since then but “drains” are still an issue in places. Finished off the day with a Vietnamese meal for a change, which was quite tasty.
06 December – Our car had to be returned back to her handlers today – we only had to get to Marignane which is the airport area of Marseille just an hour away from Avignon. Booked a hotel nearby (Ibis Budget), which was very budget but it served its purpose. Returned the car to Peugeot on time and we just had to repack bags to redistribute weight for our flight to Malta with Ryanair the next day.
07 December – The regional terminal for Marseille was fairly basic. We didn’t quite make the 15kg limit on our one checked bag (just 0.4kg over so it was a fairly good guess on our part) but they didn’t seem to mind. They don’t enforce weight limits on the cabin bags so long as they fit in the allowable dimensions. It took me a couple of goes to get through security – first my boots set off the detector, so it was off with them and back through, then the camera hadn’t been taken out of our backpack so another run through the machine before finally getting out the other end. Our flight was on time and only just under two hours later we were in Malta.
George – the owner of the apartment we had booked was there to pick us up and take us on the twenty minute drive to Marsascala, the small fishing village which was to be our home for the duration of our stay. Our little apartment has great views over the harbour from one balcony and the countryside from the other. We have a ten minute walk to get down to the harbour (hills again!!) and no lift working in the apartment building, but it is only four floors up. Neat little harbour, quite a lot of traditional little fishing boats moored and plenty of cafes and restaurants along the harbour front. Sussed out where to catch the bus for tomorrow’s outing – then headed back up the hill to enjoy a relaxing evening.
08 December – Down the hill to catch the bus into the capital Valletta. 25 minutes and 1euro50 each had us in the city centre – a special feast day meant the town was teeming with families – most of the shops were open – plenty of sales and many opportunities for Christmas shopping bargains. The city is within a fortified peninsula – all streets are an orderly grid pattern within the fortifications, so very easy to find your way around. Very up and down within the city, lots of tiny streets, barely wide enough for one car.
Spent a very interesting hour or so visiting the Casa Rocca Piccola. The history of Casa Rocca Piccola goes back over 400 years to an era in which the Knights of St John, having successfully fought off the invading Turks in 1565, decided to build a prestigious city to rival other European capitals such as Paris and Venice. Palaces were designed for prestige and aesthetic beauty in most of Valletta’s streets, and bastion walls fortified the new sixteenth-century city. Casa Rocca Piccola was one of two houses built in Valletta by Admiral Don Pietro la Rocca. It is referenced in maps of the time as “la casa con giardino” meaning, the house with the garden, as normally houses in Valletta were not allowed gardens. Changes were made in the late 18th century to divide the house into two smaller houses. Further changes were made in 1918 and before the second world war a basement air raid shelter was added. The Casa Rocca Piccola Family Shelter is the second air-raid shelter to be dug in Malta. In 2000 a major restoration project saw the two houses that make up Casa Rocca Piccola reunited. The de Piro family archives (Archivium de Piro), are housed in The Archive Room at Casa Rocca Piccola. They contain detailed records of family and state business dating from the late 16th century to the present day. These include business contracts, marriage contracts, bills, wills and court cases. The archives have been used for research projects at the University of Malta and the University of Oxford and also for research for articles in publications. We were taken on the tour by the Marchioness de Piro herself and she was a wealth of information on the history of the house and the family. Walked around more of the city with a visit to watch the firing of the noon day gun (at 4pm!) then back on the bus back home. Still have a lot of things to see in Valletta so will be making another trip in tomorrow.
09 December – Back into Valletta on the bus again. First stop was the War Museum and Fort Elmo – wow, what a place. The museum took us through Malta’s very turbulent history from the Knights of St John who settled here in the 1500’s when they were expelled from Rhodes by the Ottoman Turks, through to WWII and the pivotal part this tiny island played in assisting the Allied Forces. We spent a good few hours here so it was early afternoon before we got on to other things on our to-do list. We took a ride on the local ferry across to the Three Cities, had a little walk around and came back. Very impressive yachts and big toys moored in this marina – I checked up on-line on one of them – it was 250ft long and belonged to a Kuwaiti businessman – comes complete with it’s own helicopter and the usual swimming pools etc.
We were about done when we had finished that excursion, so after a nice little break in the cafe overlooking the harbour it was back to the bus station and our ride home. It was dark before we finally got back so got to see many of the Christmas decorations on the houses and in the towns as we drove through – our neighbour Clive back home would be very impressed.
10 December – George had arranged a rental car for the next few days so that we could get out and explore further. A little drive out to the coast and the Blue Grotto – quite a rugged bit of coastline here – a small village catering for the tourist trade with several restaurants, boat trips and souvenir shops. Lunched at the local restaurant rather than the touro ones for a good value meal.
On the way back home we noticed a sign to a falconry, so popped in there to have a look at what was going on. Several aviaries with raptors from all over, then several smaller areas with falcons and owls on running lines so that they could sit out in the fresh air or under cover. A very nice young man explained the various birds they had and then let us hold one of the barn owls as well as a little brown owl – quite cute little creatures. Back home via our GPS and interesting roads.
11 December – Mdina today – only about 20 minutes away. Our first attempt at finding a car park failed miserably as we ended up on very narrow one way streets through the centre of Rabat (the neighbouring town) and not Mdina. Second go and we found a park right outside the city gates. What a little gem this tiny walled town is. Spotlessly clean, nicely maintained and restored limestone buildings. Mostly pedestrian-only streets with many little nooks and crannies to explore.
The view from the ramparts across to Valletta was impressive. Visited a couple of exhibitions – The Knights of Malta and The Mdina Experience. The Knights was a series of dioramas depicting the Knight’s history, while the Mdina Experience was an audio visual presentation of the history of Mdina. Lunched on a typical Maltese platter which was full of nice little nibbles – goats cheese, local sausage, olives, sun dried tomatoes and nice bread and dips.
On the way back Bob noticed a sign for an aircraft museum so we stopped by to find that it had already closed for the day, so perhaps will be able to go at another time. Walked down into town for evening dinner – what a lively place it becomes once the sun goes down, with the locals all our enjoying the bars and restaurants.
12 December – Our little adventure for the day was to go over to Gozo, one of the islands in Malta’s territory. It first entailed getting up to the ferry terminal in the north – it is only 35km but there is no direct way to get there from where we are staying so it took nearly an hour (and the speed limit is mostly only 60kph). We got straight on to a car ferry for the 25 minute trip across the channel. Was surprised at the difference from the main island – it seemed much cleaner, no rubbish in the streets and generally a lot brighter. We drove through the main town of Victoria and then out to the coast on a road that got narrower and rougher as we went and this was a numbered road so not quite what we expected.
We now know though why the shocks on our little rental car are so shot (and it has only done 13,000km). After a look at the nice views down to the rocky shoreline and a walk around some of the terraced paddocks we returned and took another road out to another landmark – a hole in the rock and little inland sea. Lunched at a very nice restaurant overlooking the water and tried rabbit again – very nice. Nicely sated, we drove back to the ferry to be back over the other side soon after 4.00pm – nicely timed to get us back home before it got too dark. Even with a GPS it is quite a convoluted task to find the right roads, as it seems to get confused very easily and can’t make out roads which are close together.
13 December – Last day with the rental car so we headed down to Marsaxlokk for their famous Sunday market. Very busy with well over fifty different stalls, fresh fish, vegetables, local produce as well as the usual assortment of clothes, shoes, bags and miscellaneous junk. Limited our expenditure to a couple of nice harbour view sketches plus lunch, before venturing over to the Three Cities again. Found good parking near Victoriosa (visited a few days ago by ferry from Valletta) exploring their city walls, followed by the maritime museum until closing time and a promenade around the harbour. Back home in the dark, but at least being a Sunday there was not too much traffic.
14 December – Handed back our little car to its rightful owner and then spent the rest of the morning down in Marsascala walking their promenade along the harbour until it was time for a leisurely lunch. George was on time to pick us up and take us back to the airport for our flight on to the UK at East Midlands.
15 December- 30 December. Life at Higham-on-the-Hill in Leicestershire was a nice break for us both. Staying with Bob’s sister Margaret and her husband Micheal, we were made very welcome. A busy agenda quickly filled up our days. Margaret belongs to a village walking group, so my first day out in the fresh country air was a pleasant stroll through the fields and paths that England is so lucky to have enshrined in their culture. Interesting fellow walkers made up for the less than lovely weather.
The following day was turkey plucking day for me. Michael and Margaret raise over 1600 turkeys for the Christmas market, saving a few for family and friends – these needed dealing with in preparation for dinner a week away. Michael did the dispatching and then it was on to the real task of getting all the feathers off a still warm bird. About an hour and a half later my bird was reasonably naked although not quite as pretty as Michael’s bird. The turkeys have to hang for a week in the cool before being dressed (I was surprised that the innards remain inside during this time).
Bob had a few social engagements over the next few days including a visit to the Norton motorcycle factory at Donington and a reunion with some of his original bikie club mates. I got to sample the marvel of British Rail with a trip to Milton Keynes to meet one of my newly discovered cousins, enjoying a very pleasant lunchtime catch-up with her and her husband. English weather has lived up to it’s reputation with a swathe of very windy weather and the usual grey skies but very mild temperatures.
We got a treat one day as a brace of pheasants were delivered by the next door neighbour, so I volunteered to see if I could cook them. Having never eaten or even cooked pheasant before, they didnt turn out too bad with enough meat for the four of us and enough left over for a pheasant pie the next day.
No white Christmas today – just a very mild but grey day. The turkey was cooked to perfection by Margaret and along with Bob’s brother Keith, we all sat down to a very hearty Christmas dinner with all the traditional trimmings.
Boxing Day was an outing for Bob and I along with Michael to the traditional clay pigeon shoot at a local farm. I guess there about 30 shooters competing – all enjoying themselves with some more serious than others, despite the very cold wind. Bob and I were scoring for Michael and his neighbour Roger, to see who would take the honours this time. The day finished at the local pub for the usual chinwag and tall tales.
Met up with Bob’s other sister Sally and her man, Eddie, on Monday for a get-together lunch. We met halfway between where Sally and Margaret live, somewhere to the south in Buckinghamshire at a golf club offering dining to the public. A bit sad watching the poor blighters trying to play golf in the murky weather – they didn’t look to be enjoying themselves that much. Certainly lovely to catch up with Sally and for all the siblings to be together for the first time in several years.
All too soon our relaxing stay in the little village of Higham-on-the-Hill had to come to an end and it was off to Birmingham to drop off our car and get on another metal bird destined for the other side of the world.