france

Cycle Tour #1: The Loire Valley, France (or the start of my French love affair)

For the month of January, I have joined the “Zero to Hero” blogging challenge with an assignment to complete each day. Today’s task is to write what was on my mind when I first started blogging.

The thing that I first wanted to write about was all the fun I was having cycling in France. The thing that got me cycling in France in the first place was the very first cycle tour that TC and I took, so that is what my post today is about.

Cycle Tour #1: The Loire Valley, France (or the start of my French love affair)

The whole idea of a cycle tour came completely out of the blue for me. TC and I had been increasing our cycling to the point that we felt confident on road bikes and were riding longer and longer distances each week. We enjoyed the challenges, the satisfaction and the feeling of exploring new areas of our own city.

Then one day, I was enjoying morning tea with a group of women at my friend’s house. One of the women I met that day was older than me, just embarking on retirement, but had been a keen cyclist for quite a while. I listened with a feeling of “wow!” as she explained to my friend how she and her husband were thinking about doing a cycle tour in the UK but were undecided about taking their own bikes from Australia or to use hired bikes. To be honest, the rest of that conversation was a blur as my mind went into overdrive thinking about the possibilities. I couldn’t wait to get home to TC with this new idea: holidaying in Europe AND cycling combined!

That night, we researched tours in Europe and were well on our way to planning our first cycle touring holiday.

We decided to make our debut cycle tour a truly memorable one, in a style that we knew we would not repeat. In other words, we decided to go for the ultimate: a  top-of-the-range gourmand cycle tour of the Loire Valley! Yes, it would be expensive, but being novices to this whole idea (and it was to be my first trip to France), we wanted to make sure we enjoyed it to the full. And that we did.

A tour was booked which included staying in a chain of small, exclusive boutique hotels with breakfast each day and a gourmet dinner included on most nights. In short, it was magnificent. Yes, this was when I fell in love with France.

We flew into Paris and caught a midday train to Amboise where we found our first hotel on the bank of the river, in the shadow of the beautiful Château d’Amboise. Our room and the hotel were absolutely stunning, as were all of the hotels that followed. Our cycle guide met us that evening to go over all the details – daily route instructions and maps, the GPS, our free water bottles, and the number to call him on at any time if we needed help. In the morning, he met us at the hotel’s bike shed (a cave dug out of the base of the cliff) to ensure we were correctly fitted, and off we set.

Over the course of the week (6 days, 7 nights) we explored historic towns and villages along the Cher and Loire rivers, examined chateaux in awe, tasted wines, picnicked on grassy banks for lunch, slept like VIPs in beautiful rooms, and dined like a king and queen on amazing French gastronomy. Some days involved an exploratory loop ride, remaining in the same hotel that night, other days involved leaving our packed luggage in the foyer by 9am and cycling to the next hotel, where it would be waiting for us. We averaged about 55-60km per day. It was July and there was a heatwave across the UK and Europe, meaning hot days and beautiful balmy evenings. When I say hot, it was between 33 and 39C every day. For me, coming from Australia and expecting much cooler weather, I was in heaven. I actually had to go out and buy more shorts and sleeveless tops as I hadn’t prepared for those temperatures.

We also met other people doing the same thing – meeting up with them along the routes (getting lost at the same points?) and chatting with them over drinks in the hotels in the evenings, or by the pool after a hot day’s riding. You could socialise as much or as little as you felt like, as all the groups were self-guiding on the same route.

Our tour finished on the outskirts of Saumur and left us feeling that we had just had one of the most incredible holidays we’d ever be likely to have. We were hooked.

Of course, this meant further cycling holidays would surely follow (and they have), but as we already knew, we would not repeat the grandeur and glamour of this one. But boy, it was worth it.

I still have the shorts I bought on that trip and can’t help but think of that holiday when I wear them.

Here is a selection of our photographs from that amazing week in the Loire, including many of the hotels we stayed in, some of the beautiful dishes on our tables and the most memorable scenery.  Enjoy!

I would like to add that we booked our tour through Discover France Bike Tours. As I mentioned above, it was not the cheapest option, but for us it was money well spent. The tour operators were all helpful, especially the local tour guides and drivers. For those unsure about taking such a tour, I would like to say that booking with these guys should put you at ease. All the best for those who want to try it!

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Who am I and why am I here?

A rest in the park

Who?

I am an Australian woman who, along with my husband, took advantage of a window of opportunity to leave our working life for a year and go to stay in France.

Why?

Why France? We had been on holiday in France before and simply fell in love with the country so we wanted to see more.  A lot more.  The solution was to apply for a long-stay visa, organise some rental accommodation, rent out our place in Perth, start learning French… and go.That was two years ago now.

What?

We rented in 3 different locations around France, but travelled to many more, both by car and by bicycle. Our year soon turned into two as we realised we weren’t going to explore even half of what we wanted to, let alone speaking the language in one year alone. So we went into the local sous-prefecture and extended our visas.

This blog started as a way for me to document our adventures in cycling, exploring France, wine and cooking (which was a great side effect of not working and living frugally!).  I guessed that the things we loved doing, the places we loved exploring and the foods we loved cooking (and eating) would also appeal to others around the world, especially the Francophiles out there, so here I am.

Next?

We are currently back in Australia and returning to work, but planning frequent visits back to France with a scheme to have another year off before too long. There are still a lot more parts of France and Europe that we want to discover.

To celebrate my return to Australia and a fresh year blogging, I have decided to update my theme with a new look. There are many things we’ve celebrated recently with our family, including 21st birthdays, a wedding, Christmas and the new year and a 50th birthday. All of this has kept me away from blogging recently, but I am back for 2014.

 I hope you enjoy both my French and my Australian posts, and I would love to have your feedback and comments!

A sentimental journey…

Sete, from Mont Saint Clair

Well it finally happened. Our time in France came to an end after 21 wonderful months and sadly, we packed up and made the journey back to Australia.

I put off my packing as long as I could, but with only a week until departure day, I could not delay any longer. I must be the queen of procrastination, as it has taken me just as long to write about our departure as it took me to face up to the packing! Thankfully, TC and I devised a future plan to have us back in our region, the Languedoc-Roussillon,  before too long so we do have great things to look forward to. We have some very kind friends who offered to store belongings for us so that when we do return, we have some household items and clothes to begin with, so that certainly made our sorting and packing easier.

Saying “au revoir” to our village friends was very sad and I admit to shedding a few tears… but at the other end of the journey was to be the reunion with all our family members and the friends we left behind two years ago, so it was a time of very mixed emotions.

When the day came, more wonderful friends drove us to Agde for our early train bound for Paris. The weather fitted our mood as the morning was cool and grey with a few drops of rain – the first we had seen for weeks after a lovely Mediterranean summer. Loaded up with all our baggage and some last bottles of wine from friends, our instructions were to enjoy a glass or two on the train and a picnic on the banks of the Seine before leaving France. After a teary farewell on the platform, we were off, taking long last looks at the countryside we will miss so much.

We arrived to a balmy Paris, left everything at the hotel and set off to enjoy the beautiful City of Lights one more time. This time, we discovered the area along the Canal Saint-Martin in the 4th and enjoyed looking at all the boats moored there, before doing some last-minute souvenir shopping, then heading off to the Seine for our little picnic of wine and nibbles. As usual, I waved madly at all the tourists on the boats – one simply MUST when one is picnicking on the banks of the Seine!  After sunset  we strolled through St Germaine des Pris and went for dinner at the very popular La Jacobine in the 6th.

Then it was back to the hotel for a decent night’s sleep before the long trip. For those who have never travelled between Europe and Australia, you’ve probably heard that it is a long journey. If so, you’ve heard correctly – it’s very long!

The trip began with a private car transfer to Charles de Gaulle that I had pre-booked for 8am Friday (fantastic value and highly recommended), a nice quick check-in followed by breakfast in an airport lounge then boarding the flight for Singapore (around 12 hours in total). We had a quick transit through Changi airport in Singapore with enough time for a refreshing shower, some cold drinks and a quick internet check, then boarded our second flight, to Perth (around 5 hours in total), finally arriving at 1.30pm Saturday afternoon.

I wore two things that were important to me on my journey. One was my new Croix du Languedoc pendant to remind me of our little corner of France. This cross is one of the emblems of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, which is where we have lived for 16 months. I am not a big buyer of souvenirs, so this beautiful silver pendant is one of the only true souvenirs of our time in France that I have taken back with me. Another of course being a bottle of perfume from the Fragonard range that I love, a memento of a day in Grasse and a scent that will always take me back.

The other thing I wore for the journey was my football scarf. By this I mean Aussie Rules football, or AFL to us.

Our flight landed at a time that was right in the middle of the AFL grand final match, which my team was playing in for the first time in history, so of course I wore my team scarf on the journey all the way from Paris. We arrived home just in time to watch the final quarter on TV, but my team lost, so there is nothing more to be said about that.

Except that on arrival at Perth airport, we rushed into the immigration queue to have our passports checked then went off to the baggage claim area – and a number of airport officials, one after the other, kept coming up to me with very serious looking faces… I was quite startled thinking “What do they want me for, what have I done??”  until I realised I was still sporting the scarf – and they were just checking whether I was aware of the (dismal) score! And unfortunately I was, thanks to other passengers checking news on their phones as soon as our flight landed.

On to the next stage –  a hectic schedule of reunions with family and friends…  but for now it’s au revoir to the countryside we have grown to love.

Here are a selection of our last photographs around the area, and before I fill you in on our activities in Australia, I have quite a few more French posts to catch up on, so you haven’t seen the last of my travel pics yet! Enjoy…

The Port

Au revoir mon village… à bientôt!

Where there’s wine, there’s bound to be an Australian…

It’s not very often that TC and I call in on perfect strangers and introduce ourselves, but perhaps we should do this more often. Today’s adventure starts with a recommendation from our friend Thierry back in Perth.  Thierry owns and runs the fabulous Whisper Wine Bar in Fremantle’s Essex Street,  a place close to our hearts as we spent many hours over a chilled glass of white, plotting and planning our “escape to France” before we came here.

What has that got to do with wineries here in the Languedoc? Well, Thierry told us that a young man who had worked for him a while back, was now back in France and working in a winery not far away from us and what’s more, the winemaker at this winery is also Australian. Not needing any further  excuse than to say “hi” to a friend of a friend from Australia (and the chance to meet another Aussie living and working here), we set off as soon as we could.

Which of course was the very next day, why delay?  On the bikes and off to Prieuré Saint Jean de Bébian!

The ride through local wine country was lovely. Sunny and warm, we arrived having worked up a decent sweat.  Just outside the winery is the 12th century prieuré – gorgeous!

Priure de Saint-Jean de Bébian Bike against wall Courtyard

Coming through the gates into such a pretty courtyard that I could have just sat and soaked it up all day. We were met in the cellar by a lovely lady who, on being told that we must say hello to Benoit, rushed off immediately to fetch him. After passing on the greetings from our mutual friend, we had a look around the cave (that’s just the name of the cellar door in France) and then started tasting some of the wines.

Well the wines were great (we managed to squeeze four bottles into our backpacks, despite also having our water bottles taking up space!) and had a wonderful chat with the winemaker, Karen Turner, who was so lovely and friendly that, despite these two strange Aussies turning up out of the blue (and in the middle of the harvesting season!) was kind enough to show us around a little and explain some of their wines and processes.

I LOVED the barrel cellar with its thick covering of cobwebs on the windows – deliberately left there to help keep flies at bay – and we were shown the nifty rack system they use for the barrels. Each one is on individual rollers in its rack, allowing the barrels to be rotated to stir the wine and also allowing single barrels to be removed easily  – something quite impossible if barrels are all stacked against each other!

 

 

 

Unfortunatley, there was no vendage happening while we were there. Karen explained that they only harvest in the mornings so that the grapes are fresh and while they had been harvesting some of the white grapes, the reds simply weren’t ready yet so there was to be a break for a few days.  A pity for us, as we would have loved to see the grapes being brought in, but this day it was not to be.  We did get to see the original stone tanks still used by the winery for the resting and maceration of the red wine grapes.

Chatting with Karen, we discovered that she and her husband also have their own winery, Domain Turner Pageot, specialising in biodynamically produced wines in the Languedoc region. A little more snooping on my part revealed they are part of a group of wine producers called “The Outsiders”, describing themselves as:

“…a group of Languedoc-Roussillon wine producers. Working in the south of France, they are creating exciting wines which make full use of the region’s highly diverse soil types, climatic conditions and grape varieties.”

If you get the chance to try some of these wines, I’m sure you won’t be disappointed and, even better, if you get the chance to call into the winery here just outside the beautiful town of Pezenas, you definitely won’t be disappointed!

Cheers and santé!

Winery sign

ps Yes, West Australians can taste some of these wines in Whisper’s… but shhhh…. I’ll be back there soon, leave some for me!!

Weekly Photo Challenge: Sea

Sea. What kind of emotions does the sea or ocean make you feel?…. “Wooohoo”

Some visiting friends out on the water on a summer’s evening

Lets get figgy!

Figs

FIGS!!!

I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love figs… and what a delight to not only have them in season right now, but also to have friends (2 sets of) who have large trees in their garden and are willing to give away bags and bags of these gorgeous black squishy beauties. I’m in fig heaven!

Coming home from one friend’s house the other day, loaded up with two large bags of figs (I’m estimating about 2.5kg worth) AND spare jars (as I didn’t have any) I was plotting and planning all the goodies I was going to make. Or get TC to make, hehehe.

So, first cab off the rank is fig and red onion chutney. Perfect with cheeses – perfect for us.

I used this recipe from Bay Tree Cottage and, I must say, I’m pretty pleased with the result. TC also seems to be, as there were lots of yumms and mmmmms coming from his side of the table as we shared a cheese board last night.

So what will be cuisiné in my kitchen tomorrow? Well a classic fig jam of course…  One of my friends commented to me yesterday that I’ve become very domesticated now, and with all the jams and chutneys I’ve been making lately, she might be right.

I hope you are also enjoying fig season as much as I am!  Reipe is below…  Figs 2  Caramelising the onions   Figs into the pot  Fig & red onion chutney

 

Fig & Red Onion Chutney

 Ingredients

 ·         850g fresh figs (13)

·         150ml balsamic vinegar

·         100ml red wine vinegar

·         300g soft brown sugar

·         zest and juice of 1 lemon

·         260g red onions (2)

·         2 teaspoons mixed spice

·         10g fresh root ginger or 1 teaspoon of dried ground ginger

·         1 tablespoon of olive oil

 

Method

Peel and thinly slice the red onion, peel and grate the ginger, remove the stalk from the figs and cut them into quarters. Zest and juice the lemon.

Heat the oil in a large pan over a medium heat and then put in the onion. Fry the onion for 5 minutes until it has softened and turned translucent and slightly caramelised.

Add all the other ingredients to the pan except for the figs, then season it with salt & pepper. Bring it up to the boil, then turn down to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes.

Once the liquid has reduced to a syrup add in the figs and cook it for a further 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. 

Pour the chutney into sterilsed jars, put the lids on and allow to cool.

A little rocky ride at Roquebrun

One of the great things about the south of France is the fantastic summer weather, which makes all sorts of outdoor activities that much more fun and enjoyable. Who doesn’t love cycling in the sunshine with blue skies, gentle breezes, butterflies and bees flitting around?

This week we took to the water for our activity of choice and headed over to Roquebrun for some kayaking with friends on the river Orb. Of course it was a beautiful day, warm enough for swimming – yes, including the unexpected kind- but not too hot for sitting in the kayaks for a few hours.

With a quick phone call the day before to Canoe Roquebrun, we had our timeslot booked, so we packed up some picnic food (baguette, fromage, jambon of course), our friends brought the rosé and off we set.

The counter staff were ready for us on our arrival so it was all very quick and easy. Equipped with our kayaks and paddles, lifejackets and waterproof tubs to carry our picnic food and other gear, we climbed into the minibus which took us and the kayaks 10km up stream to Vieussan. Once there, I listened to some quick instructions (it’s been a while since I’ve been kayaking!) then we launched ourselves in to the river and we were off.

Pont de Ceps, Roquebrun

Pont de Ceps, Roquebrun

Getting the canoes ready

Getting the canoes ready

Before leaving, we were instructed that after passing the first bridge (the Pont de Ceps, picture above courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)  we were to look out for the “big rock in the middle”, at which point we must go to the right bank, get out and drag/carry our kayaks past the little bridge, then we could get back in, as this little bridge was far too low to go under. However – that plus some very large signs telling us going under the bridge was forbidden – didn’t stop two other guys from giving it a go! Thank goodness they made it ok, I definitely wouldn’t recommend that though!

Do not go under this little bridge

Do not go under this little bridge

Onwards downstream and before we knew it we were going through several sets of rapids. I’ve never been through rapids before so what an exciting adventure that was for me! Luckily I remained on my kayak, despite some moments I thought I was going in… unlike TC who ended up having three unexpected swims for the day – and spectacularly went down one small rapid backwards – while the rest of us giggled of course. What else would you do?

About halfway down we pulled up on the riverbank for our picnic, then headed on, enjoying the scenery. We saw some fish, brightly coloured birds (possibly kingfishers?), something that looked like a beaver, some glossy looking goats who all ran down the river stones for a drink, and a little frog who sat by to watch us enjoying our lunch.

Enjoying a swim after a picnic lunch

Enjoying a swim after a picnic lunch

Pulling in at Roquebrun, we couldn’t help but take some snaps of this absolutely gorgeous, picturesque little town, and what a beautiful view we had from down on the river. Of course, in true French fashion, we had to stop for a picher of wine or two at the guingette on the banks after our lovely adventure.

The prettiest view of Roquebrun - from the river Orb

The prettiest view of Roquebrun – from the river Orb

If you happen to be in the Languedoc area during summer, I highly recommend kayaking in this spot, or even just doing as many other locals do and find a nice swimming spot somewhere along the river and enjoy the cool, crystal clear water.

Le Tour. Yes, you know which one…

Yesterday TC and I joined a friend and rode out to see Le Tour go past.  Yes, you do know which tour I mean!

One of the things I love about it is that it goes all around the country, giving so many local people the opportunity to go our & see it in their area and cheer the riders on. It came within 20km of our home on this stage and we decided to go to a spot between Montagnac and Villeveyrac where there are some small hills, so we could get a good view of them coming up a rise. The map in that link gives you a good idea of our region.

Once we arrived, we stopped in front of a pretty vineyard (and some of the locals came up to chat, telling us what good wines they sell there) and before we knew it the caravan was coming up the road. For the uninitiated, the caravan is the parade of sponsor promotion vehicles which are like small floats, equipped with loudspeakers, music and people throwing out free goodies to the crowds.

After the caravan, we sat in the shade and enjoyed our picnic of freshly made baguette sandwiches (filled with leftover chicken from coq au vin, fresh ham, fromage & salad) and of course good red wines. Thanks to the caravan, we enjoyed some madeleines as a little treat after our baguettes.  A relaxing hour was spent in the perfect summer weather until the sight and sound of 4 helicoptors coming over the hill announced the imminent arrival of the riders.  Two had gone out in a breakaway lead early in the stage, I don’t think they lasted very long.

Then it was time for the peloton.

Of course I was out in my Aussie gear to support our riders – in fact TC was waving the flag while I was calling out “Go Aussies” and one of the Orica Greenedge riders threw him his empty bottle. I also got one from the Movistar team, Score!!

Then it was all over so quickly… but what a good day out. We made our way home, past many cars & a few small traffic jams and accompanied by the occasional call of “allez allez allez!!!” from other tour fans driving past us. The views on the way there and back were just gorgeous, so enjoy our pictures!