Monday, October 18, 2021

The Old World or Bust! (Part 1)

The view from our window in Eguilles, France
For well over a year, our friends and frequent traveling companions, Terry & Beth, and Ms. B. & I have been planning a second trip to Europe together. Initially our plans included another cruise (see "Mediterranean Sojourn" from October–November 2019, for the chronicle of our first trip across the pond); however, this year's cruise became a casualty of COVID-19 and, for a time, it looked as though COVID might quash all our plans. However, once we were vaccinated and able to pass the still relatively stringent European regulations, we decided the trip would be a go after all. We opted to limit our destinations to a few locations in France and Italy. Terry & Beth preceded us to Europe by a matter of weeks, with several other destinations on their itinerary, including Portugal, Spain, and Switzerland. Because they are generally good sports, they agreed to play chauffeur for us when we arrived in France on October 14.

Hold on to your hats, and let's rock!  

Wednesday, October 13, 2021–Thursday, October 14:
To Marseilles and Beyond
A few days before we were set to leave, Ms. B. and I acquired our international drivers licenses, since we would have to rely on rental cars to transport us from place to place. On the afternoon of Wednesday, 10/13, we loaded up our well-stuffed bags and drove to Terry & Beth's place in Kernersville, where we transferred the bags to their big honking pickup truck (this to accommodate all our combined luggage on our return trip), and sallied forth to Charlotte Douglas International Airport. After a couple of damned Bloody Marys at one of the airport bars (damned good Bloody Marys, I can tell you), we boarded a big old Lufthansa Airlines Airbus 350 for the long flight to Munich, Germany. About nine hours it was; nine uncomfortable hours, which we found disappointing, as we had paid for premium seating and the accompanying perks. We got the perks — mostly — but let me tell you, those seats were rocks, far less comfortable than their considerably less expensive counterparts on our previous overseas journey. Other than that, things went swimmingly, with no delays and relatively easy customs checks. I ended up watching Godzilla vs. Kong to while away some flight time; for that purpose, it was decent enough, I reckon. On Thursday, October 14, we made an early morning landing in Munich, where we boarded a smaller jet bound for Marseilles, France, where Terry and Beth awaited us in their rental car.
From Marseilles, we headed to the village of Eguilles, a few miles northwest of the city. Eguilles is a charming little community dating back to the 1st Century AD. We had reserved a three-story villa with a grand view of the French countryside; we found the place mostly comfortable but for the somewhat limited toilet facilities and a steep, narrow, curving flight of stairs that damn near whooped us every time we had to go up or down. Eguilles is also a town best seen on foot, for many of the maze-like streets are barely wide enough for a single compact car. It took some time for us to become comfortable navigating these treacherous lanes, especially since figuring out how to get from Point A to Point B frequently proved problematic, even with GPS maps.

Like so many old European towns, Eguilles is filled with cats. Catses, everywhere, roaming and lounging wherever they please. Happily, all the ones we saw appeared to be well-fed and reasonably healthy. A few turned out to be quite friendly, especially a cat whom Beth called "our little greeter" because she frequently turned up at our doorstep and, if the mood took her, trotted on into the villa to socialize for a bit.

On our first evening, the group accompanied me on a walking tour of Eguilles by way of an enjoyable Adventure Lab cache, which led us to several scenic and/or historical spots around town. Shortly thereafter, that we might procure victuals (a commodity somewhat scarce in Eguilles), we drove down to Aix-en-Provence, a bustling town we had briefly visited on our 2019 trip. Here, we did indeed manage to find decent food and wine in one of the myriad outdoor restaurants. There was a cache very nearby — "Les Cardeurs" (GC5NTME) — but I gave it only a half-hearted hunt, since the prodigious numbers of human critters congregating near the site made searching problematic.

Not a one of our group has typically been enamored of French wine — at least the brands we're able to find back in the States. We had enjoyed some French wine on our last trip, and this time, we found more good wine. Lots and lots of it. Clearly, back home, we are relegated to second-rate fare from France because I'm pretty sure the worst French wine we had on the continent proved better than the best French wine we've ever discovered back home.

After no sleep for something like 36 hours, Ms. B. and I finished our first day in France at quite a late hour, exhausted but highly satisfied with the state of affairs to date.
Aix-en-Provence: little town, big bustle
Le Rotonde in Aix

Friday, October 15, 2021: Gordes et Roussillon
Gordes, France
"Je ne parle pas très bien le français. J'ai l'étudié pour quatre ans – deux au lycée et deux à l'université — mais c'était il y a plus de quarante ans, et je suis vieux et oublieux."

I became fairly proficient at prefacing any attempt at communication with the native French speakers using the explanation above, which translates as "I don't speak French very well. I studied it for four years — two in high school and two in college — but that was over forty years ago, and I am old and forgetful." Once that was squared away, the four of us managed quite well even in places where no English was spoken (which was rare — in most cases, the people we dealt with spoke English at least as well as I speak French). Unlike our previous trip, where we visited mostly places that catered to cruise ship tourists, this time around, we aimed for more remote, less-tourist centered destinations. In fact, while in France, we scarcely heard another American (or British) voice anywhere.

On Friday, our little band hit the road, bound for Gordes, about an hour northwest of Eguilles. It's another village founded in the 1st Century AD, built on a high ridge in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region. It's a stunning location, with numerous high overlooks, a few shops and restaurants, as well as a handful of caches (most of which I was able to claim). For lunch we ended up at a place called La Bastide de Pierres, which — perhaps oddly — served Italian food. I went for their Bolognese, which was pretty good. Kim and Beth occupied themselves shopping, while Terry and I found a cache and then a wine bar.

Once satisfied with our time in Gordes, we drove a few miles to a wonderful winery called Vignoble Chasson-Chateau Blanc, whose wines turned out to be the best we found in France. Prior to visiting this location, enjoying a fine (free) tasting, and purchasing a few bottles, none of us thought we'd find red wine in France that could rival the quality of our favorite Spanish and Italian reds. This wine did. In fact, I believe it's safe to say that the "Secret de Famille" and "Le Vigne Oublie" red blends were as good or better than any wine we've had at any winery on either side of the Atlantic.

The winery is located outside another small, very old village called Roussillon, so we decided to check it out. Just outside of town, there was a cache (Why, yes, I did claim it!) that required some tricky negotiating of terrain (that was one steep hill — and it didn't help that the coordinates were 100 ft. off). We wandered the ancient streets and alleys, found some interesting art (including a particular butterfly on a window, which I named "Inna Gada Da Vida," for obvious reasons), a few shops that Beth and Kim enjoyed, a staircase that for visual effect damn near rivaled the "Hitchcock Stairs" in Georgetown (best known for its appearance in The Exorcist), and a terraced restaurant called Cafe des Couleurs, which offered us a spectacular view of the valley below as well as a beautiful sunset. The food was decent, the service quite good.

We came away from Roussillon with at least one memorable moment. Terry entered a shop, and the proprietor offered him a cordial greeting. With equal cordiality, Terry said what was intended to be "Bonsoir!" ("good evening"), but what came out was "Bourgeois!" The proprietor either didn't notice or let it slide, but it was the very devil getting Beth up off the floor about then.

Eventually, we made our way back to Eguilles and enjoyed a few of the fruits from Vignoble Chasson-Chateau Blanc before retiring for the evening.
Closed-off entrance to an old mine in Roussillon
Sunset from the terrace of Cafe des Couleurs
Night falling in Roussillon
Saturday, October 16, 2021: My Head Aix
On Saturday morning, I got up early and took another walk after a cache — Ils Sont Fous Ces Romains #2 — which was the last of those I had yet to claim in Eguilles. This one lurked just outside the village's cemetery, which, hardly unexpectedly, proved scenic and serene. Happily, I found the cache quickly and easily.
Kim wanted to check out an artsy place or two in Aix-en-Provence and then head out to hike at the Gorges of Regalon, about 40 minutes north of Eguilles. Terry and Beth stayed put while Kim and I hit the road for Aix; unfortunately, as Aix was never designed for 21st Century traffic, the entire town was jammed to the point we couldn't find an unimpeded passage into town, much less a vacant parking space anywhere within reasonable walking distance. So, we turned around and retreated to Eguilles. Such are the rigors of muddling about unassisted in a strange land!

We all needed to get COVID-19 tests — negatif — for our flight to Venice on Monday, and, as it turned out, the sole site in Eguilles offering them was closed during the window that we needed them. So, with Aix offering the only possibility of an open testing site — shy of trying to get one at Nice Airport just prior to our flight, which seemed a risky proposition — the four of us piled into the car and headed back down the road. This time, we managed to find an unimpeded point of entry, as well as some reasonably convenient parking. So, we set out to find a testing center. The first was another washout, but the second — a tiny pharmacy in the middle of town — provided us with the requisite tests. As we anticipated (and hoped!), all of our test results were negatif. Say what you will, but the stringent precautions in Europe are by all accounts paying off. And if you aren't vaccinated, for the love of God, do it. If you aren't doing it for any reason other than medical, you are very much the reason we're still in this mess.

From there, I managed to snag a few caches, Kim found her artsy establishments, and food and wine found their way to us with nary an impediment. While the ladies did their traditional shopping, Terry and I sought — and discovered — much-needed refreshment at a small joint called Charly's Coffee, where we actually did get coffee, but also some wine once our better halves returned from their errands. After yet more wanderings, we procured dinner at one of the many outdoor establishments along the Rue Marcel Provence. Pour moi, A big old duck breast — and daggum if it wasn't the best duck I ever tasted. (I do love me some dead bird, don't you doubt it.)

On this evening, the crowd around "Les Cardeurs" wasn't so prodigious, so I managed to make a quick find. A novel cache it was, hidden in plain site.

At last, satiated and well on the way to weary, we hoofed it to the car and drove back to Eguilles. Early that morning, given our frustrating experiences, I had feared we had a long, fruitless day in store, but all in all, things worked out for the best. Not a complaint from any of our gang.

On the morrow, Kim and I anticipated visiting the Gorges de Regalon, which we had sadly passed up on Saturday. We suspected we would find the location stimulating. We had no idea.

Sunday, October 17, 2021: Gorgeous Gorge
Clearing a path for the old man is a heavy job for Ms. B.
Since circumstances had dictated a change of plan on Saturday, our gang figured we would simply move the Les Gorges des Regalon outing to Sunday. Unfortunately, some nefarious consumable from the previous evening left friend Beth's innards feeling rather unkindly, so Ms. B. and I drove ourselves out to the rugged highlands of the Petit Luberon mountain range, less than an hour from our home base at Eguilles, France. The gorges are narrow crevices —some no more than a meter or so wide — cut through the towering limestone ridges by the waters of the Mediterranean and lingering river systems several million years before most of us took to wandering about on this planet. Rockslides have led to several closings of the area over the years, but it is currently open to the public, and we were fortunate enough to avoid any geological hailstorms.

When we arrived at the parking area, we found a large number of people had preceded us, but we managed to park easily enough and set out on our hike up the ridge. Ms. B. and I knew the trails here are far more extensive than we could manage even in a day or more, so we just decided to hike until we decided we were done.

That ended up being about a three-mile round trip, in terrain that grew higher and more rugged the farther we went. We encountered numerous fantastic natural formations — grottoes, tunnels, and patterns intricately sculpted by nature. In a few places, boulders hung precariously above our heads, wedged within the crevices following plummets from unknown heights. I managed to find each of the caches I hunted here. In several places, continuing our forward progress required scaling rock walls of varying heights and difficulty, and when we finally reached one that Ms. B. considered prohibitive, we opted to head back.

Once back on the road, we stopped for a cache at a very old suspension bridge, which was clearly once the main road through the province. Here — quelle horreur! — Ms. B. readily found what the old man could not. On our outbound drive, we had noticed a little restaurant/wine bar out in the middle of nowhere, which appeared to be open. So, on our return trip, we decided to give it a try, and what a great discovery for us! It was a place called L'Escale des Vins, and here we found excellent food and drink indeed. I tried their white martini, which was unlike any I had drank — citrusy, a little sweet, and not particularly strong, which I considered just the ticket under the circumstances. For lunch, I had foie gras with cinnamon crumbles, a savory sauce, arugula, and grapes. It was absolutely delicious; one of the best dishes I had on this trip.

For the evening, we hung out with the gang in Eguilles, and since almost all neighboring restaurants were closed for Sunday dinner, we visited a supermarket not too far away and picked up miscellaneous goodies to prepare ourselves. There might have been a little wine as well.


Above left: One of the sizable tunnels we passed through; above right: one of the grottoes containing a cache
Above center: foie gras at L'Escale des Vins 

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