Arles and Avignon

September 1, 2014 – It’s hard to believe that today is our first full day in France.  We started our day with a fantastic breakfast in the courtyard at Le Patio d’Arles.  And by breakfast I mean feast – we had fresh yogurt, figs, grapes, fantastic coffee, buttery croissants, breakfast breads, baguettes with jam, and juice.  Everything was fantastic.

St Trophime
There is no shortage of interesting buildings in Arles.

Today was our one full day in the region, and we started off by walking into the historic section of Arles.  Streets are narrow, and cars, bikes, and people share the space.  Somehow it works, and cars and people are considerate of each other. Our first stop was to admire the facade of St Trophime.  The church is in a little square with a fountain in the middle, and while we could see how it might get crowded in the summer it was quite quiet and peaceful when we were there.

Arles Theatre
By getting out early, we avoided much of the crowds.

Up next was the Theatre Antique d’Arles.  We got there just when it opened, and headed inside.  The space is very neat, given that it’s an old Roman theatre with two of the stage columns still standing.  It’s still in use today, and the modern lighting and sound system somehow serves to highlight how old the rest of the space actually is.

The arches in these structures are impressive.

Just around the corner is the Arenes d’Arles, a rather complete Roman amphitheater.  We headed up to the tower first, for a great view of Arles, the surrounding countryside, and our first introduction to the strong winds that can blow down from the north. The arena is still used for shows and bull fighting, and there’s not a bad seat in the house.  After exploring some of the interior corridors we headed across the street for lunch – crepes with cheese, ham and mushrooms while eating outside within view of both the arena and the theatre.

Yep, we still like the arches.
Yep, we still like the arches.

We did a quick tour of the crypt by St Trophime.  After walking through the hotel and down a twisting staircase we found the now-empty crypt.  It’s long, narrow, and used as storage for some random columns.  Since everyone has spare Roman columns stored under their town square. ;)  We also splashed through a few puddles on our way to look through a crack in the floor, exposing another unopened level.

These tales from the crypt were not as scary as the TV show.
These tales from the crypt were not as scary as the TV show.

Our afternoon was spent in Avignon, a quick 15 minute or so train ride from Arles.  Avignon is a much bigger city than Arles, complete with tree lined streets full of old buildings with beautiful wrought iron balconies.

Palais des Papes
Let the palace tour begin!

You can’t miss the Papal Palace in Avignon – set high on a rocky outcrop, it’s massive and dominating.  You can walk all throughout the palace, admiring the murals that still exist on some of the walls.  Once you get to the roof you have a fantastic view of the river, as well as a chance to buy a cafe creme from the little cafeteria.  We were (or, at least I was) sorely in need of a coffee break by this point, and enjoyed our drinks while relaxing on a bench on the shade.

You can't take photos inside rooms with paintings, but courtyards are fair game.
You can’t take photos inside rooms with paintings, but courtyards are fair game.

After the palace we walked past the cathedral and through the nearby park on a hill and down to the ruined medieval bridge, Pont d’Avignon.  You can pay a few euros to walk on the bridge.  There’s a neat little chapel there, as well as really nice views of the shoreline.  While we didn’t stay too long, it seems that quite a few people were using the bridge as a nice resting spot to get out of the town and enjoy a break in the sunshine.

Don't forget to check out the city views while touring the palace.
Don’t forget to check out the city views while touring the palace.

My dinner plans for this trip hadn’t worked quite as expected – either things were closed for a time, or just not what we were interested in.  At the center of Arles, however, there’s a little square with about half a dozen or so restaurants, all with open air dining options and good looking prix fixe menus.  We picked one place called Le Bistrot Arlesien (we may have picked differently if we viewed TripAdvisor first, but it turned out fine), got a little table for two (the nice waiter spoke fantastic English, an added bonus since our attempts at French were, let’s just say, not at an adult conversational level) and decided what to order.  Both of us started the meal with grilled honey-coated Camembert.  Louisa went with the daily special, lamb and vegetables, while Tony tried a steak. It was cooked nicely, but we did discover that we like a little more seasoning (salt, pepper) on a steak.  We finished the meal with a very good lemon tart for dessert.  We also split some good red wine.

Lifelike Face
That face is VERY lifelike.

Overall we’re glad we stayed in Arles, since it’s a smaller town, very walkable, with interesting Roman history and not too many people. We definitely like the history and climate in southern France, but some of the areas just feel older / worn, with things like graffiti or animal waste omnipresent in some sections.  Definitely worth a visit, and I would go back, but the area doesn’t have the same draw for us that the Alps have.


Arles Sunset

London to Montpellier to Arles

August 31, 2014 – After a good night’s sleep and a full English buffet breakfast, we headed out to explore St James’s Park.  The park is lovely to walk through, from Buckingham Palace down to the horse guard museum.  If you get there a little after 10am you might see the horse guard parading from the palace to their staging ground at the museum, and then from the museum back to the palace.  We also enjoyed looking at all the late-summer flowers, as well as the ducks, swans, and geese in the park.

There is a great amount of birding available in London’s parks.

We got to Victoria Station in time to catch the Gatwick Express leaving just after 11am.  Gatwick Airport reminded me a little bit of Midway Airport at Chicago – nowhere near as big, but older, with small corridors, and lots of people.  To make things a little more exciting, airports in England don’t tell you your gate until about 15 minutes before boarding.  Which means you and a plane-full of your new closest friends might be hustling over to your sitting area.  While we waited we had a great lunch of fish and chips, steak and ale pie, and beer at the airport.

Buckingham Palace
No visit to London is complete without a walk by Buckingham Palace.

Our EasyJet flight was uneventful (just make sure to bring water/snacks with you, or else you’ll have to purchase things onboard) and going through customs at Montpellier was mercifully easy as we were the only ones in the non-European line.  Waiting for the shuttle to take us to the town center was a little more interesting, as this was our first lesson in southern French punctuality.  Our 4:30 shuttle left the parking lot at 4:55, but we still had plenty of time to get gelato (tiramisu and mango – fantastic) on the walk to the train station.

Montpellier was bright and sunny.
Montpellier was bright and sunny.

Let’s just say that this was the most crowded train ride of the trip, with a group of teens listening to music on speakerphone and straightening each other’s hair in preparation for, what I can only assume, was a night of clubbing.  One had to respect the devil-may-care attitude though of letting your friend do your hair while standing facing backward, reaching across a table, on a swaying train, with a literally smoking-hot straightening iron in her hand.

Arles Houses
We enjoyed the architecture in Arles.

We made it to Arles, grabbed our bags and set off down the walk by the water, across a bridge just around sunset (great but unintentional timing on our part), and to the B&B.  Our room was on the top floor, which was perfect for us since we could open the window and look out across the adjoining rooftops.  The room itself is more than big enough for our needs, the bed is comfortable, and the house itself has so much charm – from the stairs to the model ship on the landing.  One word, though, on the pillows…. I’m already missing my big, fluffy pillow, these thin, flat ones might take some getting used to.

London Eye

Flying to London, British Museum, and the Shard

August 30 – 31, 2014 – Friday night found us at Boston Logan airport bright and early.  Which gave us plenty of time to get through security, and get pizza, panini and garlic bread for dinner before getting on our British Airways flight to London.  We had a two-seat row near the back of the plane, which suited us perfectly.  The flight over was uneventful, and we landed at Heathrow early the following morning, I think around 7:30am.

On a Plane
We’re (almost) on a plane.

As always that first day is a bit of a blur – something to do with sleeping on a plane – but regardless, a group of us setting out on foot rather than by tram to get to the customs area.  This turned out to be advantageous, since we beat the huge group coming by tram.  Customs took about 45 minutes to get through, and then we were on the Heathrow Express headed to Paddington.  At this point we were quite happy to have packed light, since our backpacks were easy to stow on the train.  At Paddington we got sausage wrapped in pastry and a breakfast pasty to eat, and then headed off to drop our bags off at the hotel.

You can’t go wrong with breakfast at Paddington.

Our hotel was in a great location, a few minute’s walk from an Underground station and past the Palace of Westminster, old churches, and pretty parks.  Normally we try to have the first day be an easy rest day, but since we didn’t have much time in London the schedule was slightly more aggressive.  Mind you, I don’t remember much of it, but that’s what pictures are for, right? ;)

Tube Train
There’s at least one advantage of getting out early.

First up was the British Museum.  We got there nice and early, before most people were up and out, and had time to admire the Rosetta stone and the Greco-Roman sculptures before lunch.  We were ready for lunch around 11:30, which meant that the most convenient place to eat was the museum cafe.  Just us, lemonade, sandwiches, shortbread with chocolate and caramel, and massive totem poles.

Look Right
These are very good tips for travelers that couldn’t sleep on the plane.

After lunch we headed out to get a sim card for Tony’s phone, so we could have data access both in England and on the continent.  After talking to people at a few different stores, and doing a bit of online research, we successfully got and activated a sim card.  By we I mean Tony, I was just along for the ride by this point and in desperate need of some caffeine.  We remedied this by getting tea back at the British Museum.  Fresh tea, appropriately hot water, giant totem poles (yes, we got the tea from the same cafe)… perfect for jet lag and the middle of the afternoon lull.

London Streets
We had fun walking the streets of London.

We didn’t linger too much longer at the British museum since we had tickets for the Shard.  This involved a lovely walk along the Thames which happened to take us by a pub called The Anchor, with beer and fish and chips.  Perfect for dinner. :)

The Shard
It’s easy to find the Shard.

If you like observation towers, The Shard should fit the bill.  It’s definitely high, with three viewing platforms (one of which  is open air), with great views of everything (including a little train terminal) and surprisingly not too, too crowded. The underground stop we needed by the hotel was closed for maintenance, so we had a slightly long, slightly windy walk back to the hotel.  We can’t get too unpacked, though, since tomorrow we make our way to Gatwick Airport.

Statue of Liberty

New York City in the Summertime

July 11-13, 2014 – It was time for another weekend trip to New York City (Or “North Y City” according to the GPS).  Actually, we reserved crown tickets for the Statue of Liberty months in advance, so we knew we were definitely going to New York this weekend.  We drove down to Connecticut, got pizza from Sbarro’s, and took a commuter train into the city (because really, if you live anywhere around New England, there really is only one “city”).  So, what did the weekend in New York look like?

  • Doughnut Plant  – No explanation needed, but if you do need one, let’s talk about the creme brulee, tres leches, and blackout doughnuts.  Don’t know what a blackout doughnut is?  Think chocolate cake doughnut, filled with chocolate, topped with chocolate, and then rolled in chocolate cookie crumbs.
  • Statue of Liberty – We’d never been, and a few months ago we reserved early crown access tickets.  We somehow made the first ferry of the day, despite the long lines at security, and immediately headed over and climbed the stares to the crown.  This turned out to be a good decision, since we had about five minutes of the crown to ourselves.  The stairs were narrow and steep and curving on the way up through the Statue, which was described as having a metal skeleton similar to the Eiffel Tower.
  • Ellis Island – You can reach Ellis Island via ferry from the Statue of Liberty.  The main attraction is the now-restored building where the arriving immigrants were processed.  It’s large, cavernous, noisy, and has a lot of information inside – even though they lost some items when Superstorm Sandy swept into town.  They also have a nice little cafe outside with great panini and even better brisket.
Great views of Ellis Island, New Jersey, and New York can be had from Liberty Island.
Great views of Ellis Island, New Jersey, and New York can be had from Liberty Island.
  • Beer garden in lower Manhattan –  We wandered by a turkey (yes, a wild turkey) on our way to the beer garden, where we enjoyed a couple drinks under a shady umbrella.  One word of warning, if you like quiet don’t sit in front of the speakers.  Otherwise it’s a nice place to relax.
  • Walk to Central Park   Central Park is one of our favorite areas in the City.  It’s large enough to accommodate all the people who are picnicking on rocks, playing baseball, walking their dogs, and if you walk in far enough, you can barely tell you’re in the middle of one of the country’s largest cities.
  • Pizza at Abitino’s Pizza –  Pepperoni pizza and garlic knots, enough said.  The salads are overpriced, but if you’re really craving a Caesar salad go for it, it’s pretty good.
  • Lucking out and getting a room with a view (hello 44th floor) –  We really lucked out on the room – except for the creaking water pipe.  You couldn’t beat the views though, including being able to look down on the New Year’s Eve ball.
  • Governor’s Island –  We learned about Governor’s Island from the rangers at the Statue of Liberty.  The early ferries over to the island are free of charge, and the island itself is quite pretty.  There are a few old batteries, some military housing, and you might spot a group of senior citizen Japanese-Americans practicing line dancing.
No, the Tern is not using, or yelling at, a laptop.
No, the Tern is not using, or yelling at, a laptop.
  • Baby Terns –  While waiting for the ferry back to Brooklyn, we spotted a sign that said that terns were nesting.  We got so distracted by the terns that we almost missed the ferry.
  • Random doughnut in Brooklyn –  After the quick ferry ride we were walking through Brooklyn and found a doughnut stand.  The doughnut was good, but what we really wanted was some real food.  Then we realized that the doughnut stand was actually run by the same people who had a rooftop beer garden and brick oven pizza.
  • Rooftop beer garden in Brooklyn –  Beer and white pizza with pine nuts, cheese, spinach and olive oil – and a view of Manhattan?  Sounds good to me!
  • Food festival in Brooklyn – Apparently there’s a food festival every weekend in Brooklyn.  We sampled maple lemonade (interesting, but I prefer regular lemonade, some very good mac ‘n cheese, and lumpia.  Louisa might have gotten a little over-excited when she found the lumpia stand.  There weren’t any areas to eat near the festival, so we walked across the street and grabbed a seat in the shade by the soccer field.


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