Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Best Lavender Fields of France

In my opinion any lavender field no matter the acreage will be significant eye candy for me but truth be told there are some fields that are simply more magnificent over others.  One of the best areas in the Provence is the region of Avignon.  We are including a few different websites offering their picks for ‘the best’ lavender fields around.

These include actual maps describing specific routes you can follow to not miss many of the best fields around. There are specific tours one can take just to view these fields but our opinion is do the research on your own, rent a car and start discovering the region on your own. You can participate in harvests but you will need to determine which region you want to explore and make certain the timing of your holiday coincides with harvest time.

Avignon is just one place to make your base camp for your tour of the lavender fields.  Don’t cheat yourself by limiting a morning or afternoon for adventure but allow 2-3 days if you’re truly the lavender hound you say you are.  Below are a few different websites to give you more insight on planning your discovery of the lavender fields in the Provence.

From Travel France online find out educational facts about this brilliant plant that enriches our lives in so many ways.
The offers helpful information and maps to plot your tour of some of the most beautiful lavender fields in the Provence.

Another great site is Provence and Beyond. I really love their color coded map that highlights in great detail all of the possibilities to explore.
Finally, I recently stumbled on the website ‘Your Private Provence’. Emily, the host, offers custom itineraries from a few days to a week. She can introduce you to lavender growers, tour the distilleries and visit ‘off-the-beaten path’ walks. Want to hunt truffles?  Emily can help you. 2017 bookings are being accepted now.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Utrecht, Netherlands (A hidden jewel)

Prior to any hotel or chateau booking vast research is done as we want to know as much as possible about our destination, including the full history, which is typically what drew us there in the first place.

There is so much more to the Netherlands besides Amsterdam and tulips and windmills. Yes these mentions offer rich enjoyment and numerous adventures but the Dutch people, so modern, open and a tolerant society, we found the people to be one of the most charming things about the Netherlands.

We are also intrigued with their canal system and wharfs, endless bicycle enthusiasts and charm of the university town of Utecht just south of Amsterdam and much easier to navigate in and out of the city by car.  Fourth largest population in the Netherlands and also the capital of this brilliant Dutch country.
Many of the historic city houses go back to the middle ages.  

According to BBC Travel it is said Utrecht is the 4th happiest place in the world. I would not dispute that.  Like most Dutch cities, Utrecht offers an vast network of cycle paths, which makes cycling much safer. Driving a car you must always pay attention to the humans in their bike lanes with signals and all.

Most amazing 33% of all city journeys are by bicycle, (cars account for 30% of trips). Bicycles are used by young, old, and families. The variety of bikes you’ll see including the most traditional upright, steel-framed bicycles, (with few or no gears) is most fascinating. Thousands of bicycles are parked in town lining the canals which to us is part of the allure that calls you in.  

The continuous activity in the city center offers so much from sidewalk cafes to boat rides, museum's and shopping. The canals are most beautiful and being there in fall added that much more color to the slightly rainy day we visited. The Domtoren, a 14th-century bell tower with city views, stands opposite the Gothic Cathedral of St. Martin on central Domplein square.  The city center is small enough to explore on foot but we could have used 2-3 days more to explore further as 1 really wasn’t sufficient.

One of the highlights for us was bike riding on some of the designated trails in a small village of Soestduinen, and Soest north of Utrecht.  Our lovely hotel provided us with free bikes and as it was a very cool day there may have been a fee if we had been gone for 4-5 hours.  I have attached a link to a video we made during the ride. The video is a bit rough but hope you enjoy.  The bike paths are endless and there are countless ways and opportunities for anyone to ride a bike in Holland (as Americans seem to only want to call the Netherlands, urrrr).

Our Bike Ride Adventure Link:

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Sedan, France and Hôtel Le Château Fort de Sedan

We began this adventure with a one night stay in Sedan, France mainly as a ‘stop-off’ point for our trek to Utrecht. Secondly, we love French history. Chateau Fort de Sedan offers its own significance in the rich history of France.

Heading to the Netherlands to meet up with old friends we wanted to evade from the drive the six+ hour drive after an overnight flight and Sedan was a perfect stopover. This website will offer much more about the region should you want to utilize Sedan as a base-camp to explore the area.

The town of Sedan surrounds the Fort but within those walls you’ll discover Hôtel Le Château Fort de Sedan. 54 rooms in total, the Fabert Building houses 40 rooms spread over four stories with four room accessible to persons with reduced mobility. These rooms are small but offer much character. The Casernement, are thirteen large Superior Rooms and Suites, seven of which have two levels, and all of which have access to the castle’s ramparts. The South Tower houses the only suite with a completely independent access, a cosy nest for romantic stays.

The decor is contemporary, but the atmosphere truly peaceful. You are brought back to the Middle Ages, into the time of the Principality of Sedan. We loved the stone exposure in our room but would have worried if the temperature was below freezing.
We thoroughly enjoyed our brief stay here but suggest you don’t plan more than one night as there is not that much to see in the town itself and be certain to avoid holidays and even Sunday’s as the town has limited restaurant establishments and there is limited availability to room service for those who are used to late night service.

From the Chateau website, the History of the Castle of Sedan has merit and unknown to us at the time, is the largest medieval castle in Europe.
In 1424, in the early 15th century, when there was but an obscure village, Evrard d'Arenberg, Count of Marck, began building a very powerful castle on a rocky outcrop around the remains of the church of St. Martin. This castle, consisting of a large number of towers and buildings built over several centuries, was part of the Principality of Sedan where several La Marck princes succeeded each other over half a century.

Henri Robert de la Marck and Françoise de Bourbon created a sovereign principality whose territory spanned twenty-two municipalities and abutted the prestigious Duchy of Bouillon. Henri La Tour d'Auvergne and his son Frederick continued their work. Henri added the lower castle, called “Palais des Princes.” Frédéric participated in the March 5th conspiracy against Richelieu and Louis XIII, and to save his head, had to give over the castle and the Principality to the Kingdom of France in 1642. Marshal Fabert, the first governor named to Sedan by the King, remained there for twenty years, and was universally missed.

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, Sedan was a major industrial centre of metallurgy and textiles. Sedan overcame the great upheavals of the Revolution, the wars of the empire, and the political crises of the 19th century. After the war of 1870, Sedan lost its fortifications. The last two world wars affected the city, which is undergoing reconstruction now.

In 1870, Napoleon III was surrounded and defeated at Sedan by Prussian troops. The battle took place near the citadel. Intense fighting took place in the streets. These skirmishes are symbolised by the episode of the "house of the last cartridge.” Fighters who had taken refuge in a house surrendered only after having exhausted their ammunition and weapons. Other battles took place during World War I, in August 1914 and November 1918. In May 1940, the German army made a decisive breakthrough by crossing the Meuse near Sedan (the Sedan breakthrough). The city was partially destroyed, and later rebuilt after World War II under the direction of architect Jean de Mailly. 

The castle of Sedan, the largest medieval castle in Europe (35,000 m²), fully classified as a French Historical Monument, was returned to the city in 1962 and welcomes 80,000 visitors each year. It has housed a museum and a unique hotel facility since August 2004.

SANEF – The French Autoroute Toll Authority

Anticipating a desire to upload daily posts during our fall holiday something miraculous came over me (us) that hadn’t happened in almost 12 years. We totally ‘let go’ and almost didn’t care about time except for check-in times. Even got lost a bit along the way and found ourselves undisturbed by these events with a strange sense of calm.  Even missing exits and having to drive sometimes another 10-15 kilometers before the ability to turn around never took away the sheer joy of traveling together again in France and beyond.  Accept having to pay another toll, LOL.

This first entry was meant to be general in nature and not detail adventures along the way. I’ve always looked at this Blog as a place to share the good and sometimes not so great occurrences along the way. 

With that in mind while proofing this post the title actually became obvious as we have a bit of a love-hate relationship with SANEF. The French SANEF Autoroute network of highways, as lovely as they are, were probably the single most annoying part of France travel this time around especially on day one or any day that a toll had to be paid.  

Keep in mind one can drive through Belgium and the Netherlands and even Switzerland without paying a toll (was shocked about Switzerland) but Italy and France whoya! Keep the credit card or debit card handy.

Ignorant of their now unmanned 'peage' toll booths, add some jet-lag and not reading signs clearly because of heavy traffic all contributed to our 30+ minute ordeal for a three euro forty cent toll.  In essence SANEF will pick your pocket unless you realize that there are many alternative roads that often run parallel with the ‘pay’ Autoroutes.
The last time we drove through France tollbooths were still manned by living, breathing people.  Today there are a few ‘persons’ walking about when you can spot them, like a rare species, but you are truly on your own if you had something occur as it did to us… and pressing the assistance button will only help if you understand fluent French.


If driving on the toll roads pay close attention to these photos.  What you shouldn’t do is allow this post to keep you from driving period in France as it is one of THE biggest thrills you can experience. However, Getting in the wrong lane entering the ‘peage’ (where there are only 25+ lanes and truck lanes) can cost you time, frustration, and anger from not only yourself but dozens of drivers behind you and maybe some euros as well. 

If closer to a major city upon entering an Auto route, you may just be asked to pay a toll and the amount will be displayed immediately and may or may spit out a ‘TICKET’.  Hopefully you paid attention to whether you can pay in cash OR credit card.  Typically when just asked to pay a toll you most likely have NO TICKET, but there will be either a credit card slot OR a place to enter bills or euro change.  No big deal.

Additionally you should know when entering the Auto route you may see toll ‘peage’ area where signs say ‘TICKET’.  As you roll in to the lane behind a gate down across the path of your car you will press the button that says TICKET, should it not just spit out at you automatically.  Don’t lose this TICKET under any circumstance or you won’t get off the Auto route! LOL    

At some point whether it is the exit you want or travels take you far enough that it is time to pay the  toll, be certain the lane you enter takes credit cards OR CASH.  More lanes will take cards over cash.  And should you get in a credit card lane only even though there is a slot to enter euro change the change will spit right back out to you.  HA.  Tough luck since you put your ticket in the slot and it is now gone forever.  
I go into such detail as we entered a credit card only lane and stubborn hubby refused to use the credit card in the toll system (this untrusting American with new chip card actually forgot we had the credit card) we entered our TICKET that we obtained about 25 km back.  

There was a place for euro bills and change but it would not accept them initially. Then we started entering euro coins again and it kept them but the gate would not go up.  The toll was 3 euros 40 cents.  The machine has just taken about 8 euros in change.  In the meantime, at least 5-8 semi’s were behind us and after 15 minutes they began backing up.  We ultimately backed up ourselves and drove about 4 traffic lanes over. As we had already entered our TICKET in the truck lane we now had NO TICKET to enter in this lane. More traffic lined up behind us, people got out of their cars and came up to try and assist and then THERE WAS THE SANEF PERSON…standing in front of our car asking where our ticket was.  Explaining in poor French and excellent English that the TICKET was 4 lanes over, after another 15 minutes they were SO concerned we might have driven further then we stated, hence could be losing precious tolls they actually went to the other lane to get our ticket and then let us pay AGAIN (after feeding the other lanes coin box) 3.40 euros. It was actually more than 30 minutes getting through that ‘peage’.  

In hindsight we take most of the blame for this one but it certainly nailed the point to pay close attention to what lanes we entered.  Had no further problems after that and ended up using my debit card.  Also managed to collect receipts by pressing the receipt button to match up with my statement.  These helpful website will assist in planning your next driving holiday in France.