Lose yourself in Cézanne ’s home town.

Known for its many fountains, famous artists and impressive architecture, next stop on my tour of Provence and the Dordogne was the charming town of Aix en Provence.

It was raining heavily as I stepped onto the streets of Aix en Provence, a town no stranger to water being known as the ‘City of a Thousand Fountains’, the water coming from the city’s underground springs. One of the first things I saw was… a fountain: the fountain of La Rotonde to be exact, built in 1860, and a sight I spotted on many postcards throughout my visit. As I walked along the street, following my map in the direction of a street named ‘Cours Mirabeau’, people dashed around shielding from the weather under brightly-coloured umbrellas or were sheltering in doorways or in the haven of one of the cosy cafés. I passed one old lady wearing a carrier bag on her head – stylishly, of course, it was the south of France afterall. She’d obviously not anticipated such a heavy downpour today.

The wide avenue of Cours Mirabeau
The wide avenue of Cours Mirabeau

After a couple of minutes I reached the wide avenue of Cours Mirabeau. One the right-hand side, banks and other businesses filled the old buildings, while to my left, inviting cafés, book stores and gift shops lined the street. Continuing along, I came across one of Aix’s thousand fountains: a moss-covered font known as the Fontaine des Neuf Canons (the Fountain of the Nine Cannons), apparently located on the site of a spring where sheep were once brought to drink while migrating. Further along, I spotted another mass of thick, green moss hiding another fountain known as the ‘mossy fountain’ – the Fontaine Moussue, a thermal fountain whose water comes from a hot natural spring.
The Fountain of the Nine Cannons
The Fountain of the Nine Cannons

The reflection of car headlights danced across the wet, glossy pavement as I carried on along the avenue, framed by huge sycamore trees (or plane trees as they’re sometimes referred to), and there on the left was a café called Les Deux Garçons. I’d read about this place before my trip, and knew it as the legendary brasserie frequented by the likes of Edith Piaf, Ernest Hemmingway, Winston Churchill, Paul Cézanne and his friend, novelist Émile Zola. It was in fact here in Aix en Provence that the great painter Paul Cézanne was born in 1839. It was a name I remembered from my Art History studies, many years ago, and as I walked along, on the pavements I noticed small brass medallions underfoot which displayed his name and a large letter ‘C’. These plaques mark around 30 significant places associated with the painter’s life, making up the ‘Cézanne Trail’ which starts at the bronze statue of Cézanne standing just outside the Tourist Office and opposite the Fontaine de la Rotonde. The statue was put there in 2006 marking the centenary of the artist’s death. The trail features sites such as the College Mignet (then known as Bourbon College) which is where Cézanne met Zola; the building where Cézanne was born and, of course, the Café des Deux Garçons at No. 53 Cours Mirabeau.
The bronze statue of Cézanne stands just outside the Tourist Office
The bronze statue of Cézanne stands just outside the Tourist Office

 
Brass studs on the pavement mark the Cézanne Trail
Brass studs on the pavement mark the Cézanne Trail

Splashing through puddles my feet became more and more soggy as I became more and more engrossed in what I was seeing than where my feet were stepping. By now the rain was dripping off my hood and past my eyes, so I sheltered under a tree for a couple of minutes. The vivid colours of a nearby fruit stall caught my eye, standing out against its grey surroundings as brightly as the fruit in one of Cézanne’s still life paintings. To my left, the warm light of the boulangerie looked extremely inviting – the seductive smells coming from the place and the food I could see through the window reminded me it was almost lunch time.
Adding a splash of colour to the day: a nearby fruit stall
Adding a splash of colour to the day: a nearby fruit stall

By the time I’d refuelled it had stopped raining – just in time for our departure from the city. The huge curtain of grey sky was drawing back, making way for a canvas of bright blue dotted with fluffy white clouds. I headed back along Cours Mirabeau, once again past its splashing fountains and towering sycamore trees, and the bar that no doubt held so many interesting stories from its past visitors. It was time to say ‘au revoir’ to Cézanne’s hometown.
Want to know more about Leger’s Highlights of Provence and the Dordogne tour? Click here.
Have you visited Aix en Provence? Share your stories and comments with us.

Florence: artistic treasures, amazing architecture and a rapidly-melting

The final city visit on our tour of the Italian Riviera, Tuscany and Rome was the Renaissance city of Florence, a city that was mentioned quite a bit in my art history lessons.

It was a warm and sunny day as we travelled into Florence, or Firenze as it’s known locally, heading firstly to a viewpoint high above the city. Florence sits in the valley of the River Arno and is surrounded by hills and mountains, and it was from the hilltop location of Piazzale Michelangelo that we were given an excellent view over the whole city with the rich terracotta dome of the cathedral’s mighty Duomo dominating the panorama. This is the shot that appears on many postcards so it’s the one to take for your album! Below us the River Arno ran past the pastel-coloured buildings and under the famous Ponte Vecchio which we could see over to the left.

Michelangelo's statue of David stands in the centre of Piazzale Michelangelo, looking over the city
Michelangelo’s statue of David (well, one of them) stands in the centre of Piazzale Michelangelo, looking over the city

At Piazzale Michelangelo, along with many people taking photos and posing for pictures for their album, there was a replica of Michelangelo’s statue of David, one of the masterpieces of Renaissance sculpture. Apart from that, the square itself wasn’t much to look at – but we were there for the view and that was incredible! Once everyone had the photographs they wanted we headed down towards the centre to meet our guide who would introduce us to her city.
Florence was once surrounded by high defensive walls and towers, and the Tower of the Mint, (Torre della Zecca) which we walked past on our way into the city was part of those walls. This tower was once connected to a string of buildings which were powered by water, and one of these was the Florence Mint (Zecca fiorentina) where the city’s golden florins were made.
Torre della Zecca – Tower of the Mint
Torre della Zecca – Tower of the Mint

Our guide led us past the Mint Tower and along Via dei Malcontenti, a narrow street sandwiched between cream-coloured buildings. This was apparently the road that criminals were led along to the public gallows, and so it was given the name Malcontenti – ‘malcontent’ meaning unhappy.
After a while, after passing the Franciscan church of Santa Croce with its grand marble façade and weaving our way through the narrow streets of the city, we came out at the Piazza della Signoria, dominated by the huge bell tower; the belfry of the Palazzo Vecchio (Old Palace). This is the city hall of Florence and it was in front of the building that I spotted another reproduction of Michelangelo’s David, the most famous statue on the square. The real one, created in 1504, used to stand here but it was removed and placed in the Accademia di Belle Arti Firenze.
The belfry of the Palazzo Vecchio
The belfry of the Palazzo Vecchio on Piazza della Signoria…

 
Michelangelo's statue of David No.2
… and another ‘David’!

The square was buzzing with a great atmosphere – apparently it’s one of the most popular meeting spots for locals and tourists alike. Across from the city hall was the contrasting sight of designer stores being browsed by well-dressed shoppers and people strolling around trying to eat their colourful ‘gelato’ before it melted in the warm sunshine. Being a girl who doesn’t like shopping (yes, weird, I know!) I opted instead to join the gelato speed-eaters.
Frantically trying to keep the ice cream in its cone, I walked over to the large equestrian statue of Cosimo I de’ Medici standing just beside the city hall. Cosimo was famous for, amongst other things, the creation of the Uffizi which adjoins the Palazzo Vecchio and is now one of the most famous museums in the world, housing one of the greatest collations of art – most of it from the Renaissance period. Works by some of the greatest Italian artists are held here: names such as Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli and Giotto, again, names I remembered from the A-Level art classes of my school days. This was one place I would’ve loved to visit to bring to life all those paintings I’d studied in my text books… to see early works by Giotto; Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Caravaggio’s Bacchus; all images I still remember. But it was time to move on.
The statue of Cosimo I de' Medici stands proudly on Piazza della Signoria
The statue of Cosimo I de’ Medici stands proudly on Piazza della Signoria

Our guide escorted us along the busy pedestrian street of Via die Calzaiuoli, home to many designer and high street names, a pizzeria here and there and quite a few places to buy those all important ice creams. The sweet smell of crepes and waffles led us along the alleyway until it opened up to reveal the breathtaking Piazza del Duomo. A couple of hours earlier we’d seen the huge domed roof of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore from the hillside across the river. Now we were up close, and it was truly magnificent.
Arriving at Piazza del Duomo – the magnificent Giotto's Tower
Arriving at Piazza del Duomo – the magnificent Giotto’s Tower and the Duomo

Right in front of us was the huge structure of Giotto’s Bell Tower. The column stands at almost 300 feet high and amongst its green, pink and white marble and displays intricate scenes. At the top, our guide advised us, the tower has 7 bells. We decided not to join the queues waiting to climb the 400+ steps to the top for a closer look and instead took her word for it.
Giotto's Tower up close: the beautiful green, pink and white marble
Giotto’s Tower up close: the beautiful green, pink and white marble

 
Look at the detail!

The Dome itself, designed and built by Filippo Brunelleschi, is equally impressive. More than 600 years after it was constructed the ‘Duomo’, as it’s known, still remains the tallest building in Florence. The cathedral is also the 4th largest in the world – the first is St. Peter’s in Rome, the second, St. Paul’s in London and the third, Milan’s Duomo.
The magnificent 'Duomo'
The magnificent ‘Duomo’

A short walk through the network of bustling passageways took us to the oldest bridge in Florence, the Ponte Vecchio. I’d seen photos of this bridge spanning the River Arno and always thought it looked rather plain, so I wanted to visit it for myself and find out why this well-known landmark is so popular.
The Ponte Vecchio was once the only bridge across the River Arno and the only bridge in Florence that wasn’t destroyed by Germans during WWII. Since the 13th century there have been shops on the bridge. Originally they housed fishmongers, greengrocers, butchers and tanners – the waste from which created a rather unpleasant smell in the river, so much so that in 1593 it was ordered that only jewellers and goldsmiths would be allowed to have shops on the Ponte Vecchio, making the bridge a much cleaner and attractive place to visit. Today, the bridge is still lined with jewellery stores attracting hundreds – probably thousands – of visitors each year.
The Ponte Vecchio – the oldest bridge in Florence
The Ponte Vecchio – the oldest bridge in Florence

Approaching the bridge I saw the familiar sight of the construction and, even ‘in the flesh’, it struck me how ordinary it looked – a jumble of mustard and reddy-coloured buildings which looked as if they’d been stuck onto the main structure. As I got closer I could see just how ramshackle it appeared. Once on the bridge, however, it was a different story. The place had a great atmosphere and was brought to life by the crowds of people gathered around the stalls and the wares of the gold and silver smiths which twinkled in contrast to the dilapidated appearance of the bridge’s exterior.
Colourful 'add-ons' cling to the bridge
Colourful ‘add-ons’ cling to the bridge

 
Ponte Vecchio, on the inside
Ponte Vecchio, on the inside

So, I can now say that I’ve visited Florence’s oldest bridge. It hadn’t contradicted my view of it as a rather plain and uninspiring landmark and I think there are much more impressive places to visit in the city, but I’d seen it for myself. The visit to Florence had given me a good overview of the capital of Tuscany, a brief history of the city and some of its landmarks, and of the sights I’d like to return to – namely the Uffizi Gallery.
Leaving the Ponte Vecchio and walking back along the Arno river, our visit to the Renaissance city had come to an end; another place to tick off my ‘must visit’ list… and another place I’d have to return to, one day.
 
 
Have you been to Florence? Share your stories and comments with us here!
 
 

If at first you don’t succeed…: a dance cut short ' sur le Pont d’ Avignon ’.

Passing through neat rows of grapevines and rolling green fields stretching as far as the eye could see, we continued with our tour of Provence and the Dordogne on our way to the charming walled city of Avignon.

It was a beautiful April morning and the sun was shining as we continued along twisting roads and past the terracotta rooftops of delightful little villages along the way.
Arriving in Avignon we soon had excellent views of the mighty Palais des Papes – the Popes’ Palace – the largest Gothic palace in Europe, and the famous bridge: Pont d’Avignon, Saint Bénezet or ‘the broken bridge’ as it’s also known. Built in the 12th century, this bridge is the subject of a children’s song Sur le Pont d’Avignon, about handsome gentlemen, pretty dames, gardeners, dressmakers, grape growers and various other people all dancing on the bridge of Avignon. In reality, the bridge is only about 4 metres wide, so not a great deal of space for dancing!

FRA_AVI_000025_F_SS_Small
Strolling through the streets of Avignon

We made our way through the charming streets to the Place du Palais – the second of two main squares in Avignon, dominated by the huge palace which was home to Roman Catholic popes for almost 70 years during the 14th century. Climbing the stone steps we entered the palace for an audio tour around the enormous building with its grand halls, manicured lawn and spacious courtyards. The climb up to the roof terrace was well worth the effort – the reward was an excellent view over the city, the river and the famous broken bridge.
The streets led us to the Place du Palais
The streets led us to the busy Place du Palais

 
Great vews over Avignon
Great views over Avignon

For many years the Pont d’Avignon was the only stone bridge along the 186 mile stretch of the river Rhône between Lyon and the Mediterranean sea. Over the years the structure was damaged and many of its original 22 arches were swept away by the choppy flood waters of the Rhône. The crumbling bridge had to be constantly repaired until the 17th century when the cost of rebuilding and continual maintenance became too much for the city of Avignon to bear and the bridge gradually weakened. In time, the surviving arches collapsed leaving the four that remain today.
Bags of Lavender are everywhere!
Bags of Lavender are everywhere!

After our palace tour we walked through the city’s tangle of narrow cobbled backstreets, past souvenir shops emitting the sweet smell of lavender from the pretty little bags swinging from displays and out onto the road which runs alongside the Rive Rhône. The oatmeal-coloured stone stood out brightly against the brilliant blue sky as we crossed over the road to get to the medieval bridge. Climbing the steps I could see that the bridge was quite busy with visitors, maybe some of them dressmakers and grape growers wanting to dance ‘sur le Pont d’Avignon’?
Heading across the bridge
Heading across the bridge leaving behind the Palais des Papes

I quickstepped my way through the crowd, desperate to get all the way over to the other side, since it was the view from the banking on the other side of the river that I’d seen all the postcards and in brochures and wanted to capture for myself. Faster and faster I tried to weave through the crowd, camera at the ready. After a few ‘excusez-moi’s, I emerged from the throng of people… and realised… I was trying to cross ‘the broken bridge’.
It was just half an hour until our coach would be departing, but not one to be defeated I did a quick about-turn back through the crowds and with a few more ‘excusez moi’s, rushed back down the steps, along the river bank to the next bridge, over the bridge and down the other side of the Rhône. Walking as fast as my legs would carry me, I jumped over the extended rods of fishermen sitting on the river bank, breaking into a run through a large group of pigeons being fed by families – causing the birds to scatter in all directions – and locals taking their dogs for a leisurely walk.
Back over the bridge at an even quicker pace, I made it back to the coach with time to spare and collapsed into my seat, out of breath, but happy that I’d got the shot I wanted.
The broken bridge, in all its splendour
THE shot: the broken bridge, in all its splendour

 
Have you been to Avignon? Share your stories and comments with us! We’d love to hear from you!
 
 

Korčula: Marco Polo’s island… or is it?

It was 8.30am and already a very warm 30º as we left our hotel heading to the island of Korčula (pronounced ‘Korchula’).

It was day seven of our Dubrovnik and the Dalmatian Coast tour, and we were heading along the winding coastal road. The rising sun was glistening on the water of Gruž (‘groosh’) harbour as we continued along the Croatian mainland and the peninsula of Pelješac, the second largest in Croatia. This beautiful unspoilt peninsula runs parallel to the Dalmatian coast, separating the island of Korčula from the mainland. The main business in this area, our guide Tangra told us, is tourism, plus red wine, grape growing, mussels and oysters, pointing out the oyster farm in the bay with hundreds of containers bobbing on the ink-blue water. The dry stone walling we passed is the landmark of agricultural land, built with carefully selected interlocking stones, some 150, 200 and even 400 years old. Our journey took us through bright green vineyards and past twisted olive trees – the area also being a producer of good quality olive oil – and very pretty (and very toxic) oleander, a common sight around these parts.

City walls at Ston
City walls at Ston

On our way to Korčula we called in at the historic town of Ston, whose landmark is the 5.5km long stone wall built in the 14th century. This wall, which is open to the public, is thought to be the longest defensive wall in Europe and second longest in the world after the Great Wall of China. If you have the energy, you can walk from Ston to its small sister town, Mali Ston (Small Ston) and enjoy breathtaking views of the charming towns and picturesque coastline. For us however, it was a just a short visit, with just enough time to wander around the smooth cobbled streets and grab a refreshing drink before continuing on to Korčula.
Strolling around the small town of Ston
Strolling around the small town of Ston

After a cooling 15-minute ferry ride across the turquoise Adriatic Sea, we arrive on the western side of the Old Town peninsula of Korčula, founded at the beginning of the 13th century, and were met by our local guide, Lea. Dressed head to toe in white linen and with rich copper-coloured hair cut into a choppy bob, Lea was extremely tall – as are many people around this area, her pale face brightened by a flash of deep red lipstick. She told us how excited she was to be using her brand new parasol – apparently she’d been waiting for it for a long time! I could see how it would be such a welcome piece of apparatus if you were walking around in this heat each day.
Meeting our local guide
Meeting our local guide

The town is surrounded by thick stone walls dating from the 14th century and towers that were built in medieval times to defend against enemies passing the island. 12 towers once stood on the island, today, just seven remain. Leading us up the stairway which took us through the entrance known as Sea Gate and one of the towers, called Kula Morska Vrata, Lea pointed out the view to the western part of Korčula Town famous for its sunsets as the sun dips between the peninsula and the rest of the island. Entering the Old Town we walked along the narrow stone streets of the peninsula which gave us a welcome shelter from the heat of the day.
Where the sun sets in Where the sun sets in Korčula town
We imagined the famous sunset!

The Old Town of Korčula itself has an interesting layout, almost like the bones of a fish. There’s a long main street running right through the centre of the town with smaller alleyways fanning out to either side. To the north west the streets are straight allowing the summer breeze known as the ‘maestral’ to come in from the sea, cooling the streets in the hot months. In winter comes the cold wind from the east, the ‘bura’, sometimes so strong that roads are closed as a precaution. On the south-eastern side of the peninsula the streets are more curved, reducing the effect of the bura blowing through. On the day of our visit, there was a pleasant light wind – maybe this was the maestral in action?
Exploring the alleyways of Korčula Old Town
Exploring the alleyways of Korčula Old Town

As we walked through the criss-crossed narrow alleyways Lea pointed out the bridges connecting buildings on the opposite sides of the street. These ‘bridge balconies’ joined the houses of close families for easy access, enabling them to cross over the balcony instead of going through the street.
'Bridge balconies’ join some of the houses in Korčula
‘Bridge balconies’ join some of the houses in Korčula

Our tour continued past a giant 25-year-old rubber tree, the largest on the island, through winding streets with the mouth-watering smell of savoury food being carried along on the breeze. The smooth cobbled streets were quiet as Lea guided us along to the museum and on towards the 15th century St. Mark’s church right in the centre of the town.
Connections with Marco Polo
Connections with Marco Polo

It was here that our tour came to an end. As we said goodbye to Lea, I continued the short stroll on to what is believed to be the house in which Marco Polo was born. The sweet smell of lavender from the pots which lined the wall hit me as I entered the stone doorway and climbed the narrow stairs of the tower or ‘loggia’, to be met by wonderful views over the town and out to sea. It has been argued by some that the explorer and writer was born in Venice and also Curzola off the coast of Dalmatia, but whether this lovely stone building in the centre of Korčula was Polo’s birthplace or not, it was a lovely little place to call into.
Marco Polo's house?
Marco Polo’s house?

 
Views from the tower of Marco Polo's house
Views from the tower

The peninsula is a really pleasant place to wander around: I passed little galleries and craft shops tucked into stone buildings, walked beneath washing hung out to dry across the ornate wrought iron balconies, and busy restaurants with brightly coloured umbrellas fluttering in the breeze. There were plenty of places to eat offering everything from sandwiches to pizza, pasta and seafood – it all smelled delicious! Continuing my explorations of the peninsula, I strolled through the backstreets which lead to the eastern side, lined with more inviting restaurants where people were enjoying a spot of lunch whilst taking in the fantastic views out across the sparkling sea. There was a lovely breeze, and the smell of seafood and wood burning stoves wafted along as I continued north, arriving at Zakerjan Tower (Kula Zakerjan), also called Berim Tower, then back along the main street running through the centre of the peninsula to the Land Gate or Revelin Tower (Veliki Revelin) at the south, built in the 14th century.
Zakerjan Tower (Kula Zakerjan) – also called Berim Tower – on the north side of Korčula’s Old Town
Zakerjan Tower (Kula Zakerjan) – also called Berim Tower – on the north side of Korčula’s Old Town

Strolling along the eastern side of the peninsula
Strolling along the eastern side of the peninsula

The original wooden drawbridge which stood at the Land Gate was replaced in the 18th century by the sweeping cream stone steps which stand there today. As I made my way down the grand staircase I was met by the lively atmosphere of colourful market stalls selling stones, jewellery, t-shirts, hats and souvenirs and with people hunting for a bargain.
Land Gate or Revelin Tower (Veliki Revelin) at the south of the Old Town
Land Gate or Revelin Tower (Veliki Revelin) at the south of the Old Town

Palm trees rustled in the breeze as I made my way around to our meeting point. It was time to say goodbye to the island of Korčula after a wonderful few hours on this charming peninsula and a day of stunning scenery, beautiful Croatian sunshine and stories of Marco Polo.
Time to say goodbye to Korčula
Goodbye Korčula!

Have you visited Korčula? Share your stories with us!

Art, architecture and tree-lined avenues: see the sights of Paris in a day

It was a warm early autumn morning, and I’d just jumped out of a taxi at one of the most famous landmarks in Paris, the Arc de Triomphe. There were people chatting, others posing for photos, cars, buses and scooters whizzing around like the horses on a merry-go-round and high above us, people walking around the top of the structure, which looked so much larger up close than it appeared in any of the photos in the brochures.

 Arc de Triomphe

I’d chosen to spend a full day in Paris – the third day of my four-day coach break – and see the sights on foot. I’d joined the guided sightseeing tour by coach the day before which gave me a good idea of where things were and decided that I’d get out amongst the hustle and bustle of the streets of the wonderful French capital. Whenever I go away, I prefer to walk around (whenever possible) – I get to see more and sometimes end up in places I didn’t intend.
So, armed with my already-crinkled city map, I was there: at the top of the Champs Elysées, on a hot September morning with the whole day ahead of me.

Champs Elysées Sign

As I strolled along past small souvenir shops and large stores displaying designer names, the morning sunshine was glittering through the trees lining the famous avenue. There were people in cafés chatting on mobile phones or with friends, enjoying a croissant and ‘cafe au lait’. Smartly dressed ladies with large sunglasses hurried past, phone in one hand and a glossy, rigid designer shopping bag on the other arm. I had entered into the world of ‘chic’.
My route took me all the way along the two-kilometre length of the Champs Elysées to one of the best-known squares in Paris: the Place de la Concorde, originally a site of execution during the French Revolution. Here, the splashing of fountains and sound of people chatting and laughing as they posed for photos filled the air, along with squeals as passers-by were taken by surprise by the statues that come to life as soon as you get near them. The scene was so far removed from what I imagine it to have been like in the late 18th century.

Champs Elysées

Fountains at Place de la Concorde

Continuing straight across to the Tuileries Gardens – an area which was once a clay quarry for tiles, or ’tuilerie’ – I turned to see the Arc de Triomphe, now a tiny archway in the distance, and the unmistakable structure of the Eiffel Tower over to the left, standing against the bright blue sky.
By now the temperature had risen quite a bit and as I entered the wide lane running through the Tuileries Gardens, linking the Place de la Concorde and the Louvre, there were people sitting around a large fountain on green steel chairs reading, sunbathing, kissing, chatting and listening to music, whilst others relaxed in the cafés under the shade of the horse chestnut trees lining the avenue.

 Tuileries Fountain

As I walked, the gentle sounds of the cream-coloured gravel crunching underfoot and birds singing above, the quiet hum of conversations and the bells of energetic cyclists ringing as they whizzed past all made for a very laid-back wonderful atmosphere.
Ahead of me was the large building of the Louvre Palace, home to one of the world’s largest museums and the modern glass pyramid which sits in the main courtyard. As I got closer I could see the long queue of people, all waiting to get in to the famous museum for a peek of one of art history’s most famous paintings, Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, perhaps or maybe the elegant sculpture of Venus de Milo?

 The Louvre Courtyard

The Louvre Palace & Fountains

By this time it was extremely hot, with people sitting on the edges of the fountain dangling their feet into the water to cool down. I joined them for a few minutes and soaked up the atmosphere of my surroundings: the impressive glass pyramids, the decorated façades of the Louvre Palace; the cooling water pools and the visitors enjoying their day. It gave me a good opportunity to update my notebook, check my camera and consult my map. With my various bags, pockets and pieces of kit to delve into, the moment turned to slow motion as I saw my video camera taking a dive! “Nnnnnooooooo!!!” I yelled, as I lunged to grab it, but it was too late. There was a loud ‘PLOP!’ and there lay the camera, in 2 feet of water like a coin tossed into a fountain by visiting tourists. I reached into the cold water to retrieve the camera – knocking my map into the pond in the process – and left it to dry on the wall, in the hope, somehow, of bringing it back to life! After a few minutes, in the heat of this beautiful September day, the map was functional again, despite being a bit soggy. The video camera, on the other hand, was not.
Sacre Coeur
Next on my list of ‘things to see’ was the Sacre Coeur Basilica – the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. Peeling my map apart, I set off through the passage leading out of the Louvre courtyard and along the Rue de Louvre, heading for the Montmartre area. 45 minutes later, after asking a couple of people in shops and bars for directions and after a lot of pointing and hand gestures, I reached the Sacre Coeur. The bright building stood out against the deep blue sky, much larger than I had expected. It had been quite a long walk – especially in the heat – and a lot of it had been up hill, but it was worth it for the wonderful view over the city. As I arrived at the steps I noticed the funicular which takes weary sightseers up the hill to the basilica itself.

View over Paris

After catching my breath, I climbed the steps and followed the road around to the left of the cathedral, heading for the Place du Terte. Taking a left turn at the end of the wall, suddenly the road was really busy. The volume cranked up a notch or two, with music playing and people chatting at the bars and cafés and at the plentiful souvenir shops – there was a real buzz about the place. As I ventured through the crowds of the narrow street and out into a little square, there was an elderly woman singing along to the old music box she was playing, fed by a roll of paper with holes in it. Wearing knee-length denim trousers, a shirt and a neckerchief with a floppy, cap-style hat, the woman was attracting quite a crowd, some of them clapping along to the music while others captured it all on film.

 Souvenir shops in Montmartre

The sun was beating down as I passed the crowds and there in front of me was Place du Tertre. The square, although small, was lined by restaurants on one side and was a maze of artists – an extremely busy place where painters sat at their easels, applying oil paint to their canvas while others were busily sketching as they glanced over their thick-rimmed spectacles every so often to see if their display has any interest. There were traditional paintings and some more modern or abstract; old artists with bushy white beards, some clad head to toe in denim; others wearing neckerchiefs and shoes with no socks – the atmosphere here was wonderful. One old artist stopped mixing the colours of his palette to stand up and show us his works. I noticed he had bright green paint dotted in his wiry white beard. “I have many more – this one is quite good” he told us, showing us another of his colourful works. Behind the artists, shaded restaurants were bustling like the rest of the area, packed with contented customers.

Place du Tertre Paintings

Artist at Place du Tertre
I would’ve loved to spend much more time around Place du Tertre. I could easily have spent a day around the Montmartre area with its inviting and alluring atmosphere, just as I could’ve idled away a few hours watching the world go by from a Parisian café or strolling around the Tuileries Gardens, soaking up the sun and the wonderful atmosphere. I’d seen so much during my day in Paris: the Arc de Triomphe; Champs Elysées; Place de la Concorde; Tuileries Gardens; Eiffel Tower (OK, so this one was from a distance!); the Louvre; the Sacre Coeur; Montmartre and the Place du Tertre… and I know there’s still more for me to see in this magical city. I’ll just have to come back one day!
What’s your favourite part of Paris? Share your stories with us.
 
 
 
 

A taste of South-east Europe: Cevapcici

Walking around the streets of Mostar, the smell of wood-burning fires and food charring on open grills wafted through the air… it smelled SO good. The smell was Ćevapčići – the local dish, and I just had to try some.

There are different versions of this dish around south-eastern Europe, usually served with chopped onions, ajvar (a spicy relish made of peppers, aubergine and garlic– pronounced ‘eye-var’) and a flatbread (similar to a pitta bread) known as lepinje.
Why not try making Ćevapčići – pronounced ‘chewapchiechie’ – for yourself with this easy recipe?
To make 6-8 Ćevapčići you will need:
▪    200g Minced Beef
▪    200g Minced Lamb
▪    200g Minced Pork
▪    200g Minced Turkey
(use all of the above meats, or a combination a couple of them)
▪    1 onion, finely chopped
▪    3 cloves garlic, crushed
▪    1 green chilli, finely chopped
▪    1 egg white, beaten
▪    1 teaspoon paprika
▪    Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Method 1:
▪    Mix the meat together and set to one side.
▪    Saute the chopped onions in a little bit of oil.
▪    Add the crushed garlic.
▪    Add the onions and garlic mixture to the meat.
▪    Add beaten egg white and paprika.
▪    Mix well.
▪    Form into sausage shapes.
▪    Cover with cling film and refrigerate for at least an hour (or overnight)
▪    Pan fry until nicely browned on all sides
OR… even easier…
Method 2:
▪    Combine all ingredients and form into 3 or 4-inch long sausages.
▪    Cover with cling film and refrigerate for at least an hour (or overnight).
▪    Cook slowly until well browned, turning often.
 

Leave the Cevapcici in the fridge overnight before cooking.
Leave the Cevapcici in the fridge overnight before cooking.

 
And now, for the ajvar:
▪    5 red peppers
▪    1 medium aubergine
▪    3-5 cloves garlic, crushed
▪    1-2 tablespoon vinegar
▪    1 teaspoon paprika
▪    Salt and pepper to taste
 
Preparing the ajvar
Preparing the ajvar

 
▪    Cut the aubergine in half, length ways.
▪    Please peppers and aubergine cut-side face down in the oven until the pepper skins start to blister and go black.
▪    Place blacked peppers in a bowl and cover with cling film to let them steam.
▪    When the aubergine is soft in the middle, scoop out the flesh and discard any large seeds. Mash or chop it (depending how chunky you’d like your ajvar) and mix in the garlic.
▪    Once the peppers are cool, peel off the blackened skin and chop finely.
▪    Add this to the aubergine and garlic mixture, then add the vinegar, paprika and salt and pepper.
▪    Serve chilled.
Spice it up: add chopped chillies if you’d prefer it to have a bit of a kick!
Serve your Ćevapčići with chopped, raw onion, ajvar and flat/pitta bread.
Ćevapčići served with ajvar, onions and pitta bread – just the way I tried it in Mostar!
Ćevapčići served with ajvar, onions and pitta bread – just the way I tried it in Mostar!

 
Have you tried Ćevapčići?
Try this recipe and let us know how you get on.
 
 
 

My top 10 tips for a comfortable coach journey

One of the great things about coach travel is that you get to sit back, relax and let someone else do the navigating and driving!

 

Of course, all coach holidays are different “ different durations, different countries, different climates, etc, but here are a few things I’ve found useful on all the coach trips I’ve been on.

 

1. Wear comfortable shoes

Wear comfortable footwear that can be removed or slackened off if required. Remember to keep moving from time to time by pointing and flexing your toes, and circling your feet and ankles.

 

2. Wear loose-fitting clothing

Dress for comfort so you can relax as you travel, and dress in layers. Layering your clothing means you can dress/undress to make yourself more comfortable in the temperature of the coach.

 

3. Take a travel pillow

It’s easy to nod off with the motion of the coach as you travel along, so to enhance your relaxation, why not purchase a travel pillow and make your snoozing more comfortable.

 

Make your snoozing more comfortable with a travel pillow
Make your snoozing more comfortable with a travel pillow

 

 

4. Carry wet wipes

Wet wipes are great for freshening up as you travel and take up very little space in your luggage.

 

5. Stretch your legs

If you’re travelling on Silver Service, make use of the rear lounge. It’s a great place to stretch out, read a book or magazine and chat to your fellow passengers or just have a snooze or listen to your music. At comfort stops, even if you don’t need to use the facilities, step off the coach for a few minutes and stretch your legs.

 

6. Carry some change

Some service stations may make a small charge for using the toilets, so keep some change to hand. At some service areas, you’ll be required to pay and take a ticket to use the toilets, these tickets can then be used against payment for items bought from the service area shop.

 

Spare change, anyone? Be prepared with a handful of coins.
Spare change, anyone? Be prepared with a handful of coins.

 

 

7. Choose your reading material

It’s always interesting to read a book fact or fiction with tales of the area you’ll be visiting.

 

Choose reading material relevant to your holiday.
Choose reading material relevant to your holiday, this was mine on my Highlights of Provence & the Dordogne trip!

 

 

8. Listen to music

If you’re travelling on Silver Service you’ll have complimentary headphones provided for your own personal use. On all coaches, of course, you can take your own, personal music player to enjoy your favourite tracks through headphones/earphones as you travel along.

 

Music to your ears: listen to music while you travel.
Music to your ears: listen to music while you travel.

 

 

 

9. Learn a language

Why not learn a language while you travel? There are lots of language CDs with books to accompany them; learn the lingo while you travel and practice it when you get to your destination!

 

Learn the lingo and practice it when you get there!
Learn the lingo and practice it when you get there!

 

 

10. Keep a diary

With so much to see and do, why not record your experiences in a holiday journal. Not only will it help you identify places in your photos, it’ll also jog your memory when you return home.

 

Keep a diary or travel journal to look back on.
Keep a diary or travel journal to look back on. ©Flickr

 

Also for the comfort of your fellow travellers

Please ensure that your mobile phone is turned to low volume and that any portable devices (tablets, mp3 players, games consoles etc) are used with earphones when travelling on the coach. Please make sure that volume through headphones/earphones is kept to a minimum so that it cannot be heard by your fellow travellers.

 

Check your volume.
Check your volume!

 

And that’s it! My top ten tips for a comfortable coach journey.

 

If you have any more, please let us know.

 

Happy travelling!

 

 

Croque Monsieur: just another toasted sandwich?

To you and I, it’s a toasted cheese and ham sandwich. But over the Channel, it becomes Croque Monsieur. Like so many other things, it sounds so much better in French, doesn’t it?

The name comes from the French verb croquet which means ‘to crunch’ and the word monsieur which is French for ‘mister’. So, in English, a ‘crunchy mister’ it is! Now you can’t tell me that sounds better than it’s French translation!
According to some accounts, the Croque Monsieur was created by accident when French workers left their sandwich tins on hot radiators, which melted the contents. Whether it’s true or not, it makes a good story! The Croque Monsieur is said to have made its first appearance in Parisien café menus around 1910, when the sandwich was made with Gruyère cheese and thinly sliced ham. Over the years, the ‘croque’ has seen a few transformations, with the most familiar being that of the addition of mustard and béchamel sauce.
On any visit to France, you’ll no doubt see the Croque Monsieur making a regular appearance on café menus, along with its ‘female’ counterpart: the Croque Madame. So why not bring a little bit of France to your own cuisine? Just follow this simple recipe.
(Serves 2)
▪    4 slices of white bread (crusts removed)
▪    8 thin slices of ham
▪    Dijon mustard
▪    Grated Gruyère cheese
▪    Butter, softened
▪    1 tbsp plain flour
▪    Milk
Preheat the grill to high.
To make the sauce:
•    Put a large knob of butter in a pan over a medium heat.
•    Stir in the flour, a bit at a time, to make a paste.
•    Whisk in milk, a little at a time, until smooth.
•    Simmer until thickened but still smooth.
Note: To make your sauce extra tasty, remove the pan from the heat and add a large handful of grated cheese to your béchamel sauce, then return to the heat and stir the cheese in until it has all melted.
•    Season and add nutmeg, if desired.
•    Keep the sauce warm while you prepare your sandwiches.
To make the sandwich:
▪    Toast one side of the bread under the grill.
▪    When lightly toasted, turn the bread over and spread mustard on the un-toasted side.
▪    Add sliced ham and grated cheese to two slices and return to the grill until the cheese has melted.
▪    Place the remaining slices of bread on top, mustard-side down, to make a sandwich.
▪    With the sandwiches on the grill tray, spoon on the thick béchamel sauce.
▪    Return to the grill until the sauce is bubbling.
▪    Serve immediately.
Et voila!

Watch out for the bubbling cheese!
Watch out for the bubbling cheese!

 
This took me around 15 minutes to prepare (and around 3 minutes to eat!). Be warned though: the bubbling cheese has a tendency to weld itself to the roof of your mouth on contact. But it just tastes SO good, you just want to eat it!
So, IS Croque Monsieur ‘just another toasted sandwich’? I think not!
There are many other versions of this truly magnifique dish… dipped in egg and lightly fried; without mustard; without the sauce; with sliced cheese rather than grated; with cheese on top as well as inside… Give it a try and let us know your favourite!
P.S. if you want to turn the ‘Mr Crunchy’ into its female version, just add a fried egg to the top!
 

Mostar: where it’s quite normal to see someone jumping off a bridge!

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the city of Mostar – all I knew about it was of the trouble in the early ’90s, but it turned out to be one of my favourite places of my tour of Dubrovnik and the Dalmatian Coast.

I joined a guided tour to find out a bit more about the city. Situated on a deep valley of the Neretva River in Bosnia and Herzegovina, I learnt that Mostar was named after the bridge keepers who used to watch the bridge – the ‘Mostari’ – and it is for the large stone structure of the Old Bridge, the Stari Most that the city is well known. It’s hard to believe that just 20 years ago, 90% of the city was destroyed – the Stari Most itself became a symbol of the city in the Croatia-Bosnia conflict in the early 1990s when it was destroyed, but it has since been rebuilt and now represents a symbol of unity.

The Stari Most today represents a symbol of unity
The Stari Most today represents a symbol of unity

The first thing I noticed as we followed our guide through the market stalls of the cobbled streets was the wonderful smell of food… that mouth-watering, smoky aroma that really gets the taste buds going. The streets of the bazaar were buzzing with chatter and shoppers browsing the colourful market stalls – it was such a great atmosphere as we followed our guide past the small crooked bridge, Kriva Cuprija – five times smaller than the Stari Most – to the Turkish baths and the location of the tannery.
Colourful streets of the bazaar
Colourful streets of the bazaar

As we approached the Stari Most itself, a crowd was gathering. There, standing on top of the bridge was a young man who had just stripped down to his Speedos, pouring bottles of cold water over himself. The water wasn’t just to cool him down in the 39-degree heat of the day: this was in preparation for his dive. From the 70-foot high bridge, individuals plunge into the 20-foot deep, ice cold water of the Neretva River below each day – a tradition which began centuries ago. There’s a proper diving technique used by the Mostar divers which involves jumping feet first with arms outstretched and knees bent. Another guy collected money in an overturned hat from the crowd. As the mass of people began to cheer, the man closed his eyes, paused for a minute, took a deep breath and leapt out into the air, his legs tucked up behind him and his arms stretched sideways. In a couple of seconds, he hit the vibrant green water, to the roar of the people above, and gave us a wave.
The crowd watched as the diver jumped from the bridge
The crowd watched as the diver jumped from the bridge

As the crowd dispersed, we followed our guide over the smooth, slippery stones of Stari Most, over to the east side of the bridge. Once on the other side we passed through the Old Bazar, the Kujundziluk. Mostar has a distinctive Turkish feel to it, with its minarets and sounds of the call to prayer filling the air five times a day. Walking along, soaking up the buzzing atmosphere of this delightful street we were surrounded by interesting stalls of decorated plates, traditional Mostar reed pipe flutes, woven shepherd’s bags, embroidered tablecloths, wonderful copper works, handmade jewellery, colourful paintings, and bright, traditional shoes with pompoms – it really is a shopper’s heaven. Further along, we passed grey, stone buildings which still bear the scars of the heavy bombing of the early ’90s.
Stalls of the bazaar
Stalls of the bazaar

Reed pipe flutes
Reed pipe flutes

Our next stop was the Turkish House – Biscevic’s House – a beautiful, old Ottoman-style building and a real gem. In the courtyard, surrounded by high walls (to protect the females of the house from any prying eyes) was the ‘fountain of life’. The 12 holes in the top of the metal fountain represent the 12 months, four metal jugs below represent the four seasons and the three stone globes surrounding the fountain at the bottom represent birth (the stone facing the house), life (the stone facing Mecca) and death (the stone which faces the exit of the house). We slipped off our shoes and entered the well-preserved, 16th century building where our guide told us some wonderful stories about the way of life here, which also involved me modelling the traditional clothes worn by the house’s tenants – a pair of ‘one-size-fits-all’ bright red, silk harem pants made from 6 metres of fabric (the ankles of which our guide pulled up around my knees), a short-sleeved, patterned shirt and a white scarf for my head – much to the amusement of the group!
Biscevic’s House (unfortunatley there is no photo of me in local dress!)
Biscevic’s House (unfortunatley there is no photo of me in local dress!)

Leaving Biscevic’s House, I used my free time to explore the places we’d already passed a bit more. It was wonderful strolling along Coppersmith’s Street, through all the different stalls selling colourful scarves and shoes, lots of handmade jewellery, embroidered hats and cushions, hammered copper decorations and little decorated metal pots which were too hot to touch in the heat of the day’s sun. Despite so many stalls fighting for business, there was no pressure to buy or even to look, but it was hard not to do either! “I have more boxes inside that aren’t so hot” said a young girl, as she flashed me a friendly smile.
A shopper's paradise
A shopper’s paradise

Heading back towards the Stari Most, originally built by the Turkish architect, Hairuddin, I could see the Halebinovka and Tara towers – the watch towers which stand at each end of the Old Bridge – being lit by the afternoon sun. The original bridge, completed in 1566 after nine years of construction, was rebuilt in 1997. Stones from the destruction of the bridge in the early ’90s were pulled from the Neretva River below to be used in the bridge’s reconstruction. Unfortunately, they were too damaged by grenades, shrapnel and bullets to be made use of, so stones were brought in from the same quarry used by Hairuddin for the original bridge. In 2003-2004 the bridge was rebuilt, and today looks like it did before the war, standing almost 70 feet high, 97 feet long and almost 15 feet wide. Now, this whole area is protected by UNESCO.
Further along, returning over the bridge and along Onescukova, I encountered the source of the wonderful, smoky aroma – lots of inviting eateries offering Mostar’s mouth-watering traditional cuisine. Our guide, Tangra, had recommended that we try the local dish: cevapcici – grilled mince meat, like a type of kebab, formed into sausages. It’s actually pronounced ‘chewapchiechie’, but Tangra told us “just ask for chichichichi – they’ll know what you mean”! In no time at all, the lively waitress – singing as she went and wearing brightly-coloured harem pants, a white blouse and a black, embroidered waistcoat – served me my ‘chichichichi’… the 8 ‘sausages’ came with flat bread, chopped, raw onions and ‘ajvar’, a spicy relish made of peppers, aubergine and chili pepper – very tasty and definitely well recommended!
In no time at all, my short trip to Mostar had come to an end, but it had really left its mark as one of my favourite places of the trip.
Have you been to Mostar? Share your stories with us here.
 
 
 

My top 3 things to do in Rüdesheim

 I’d been to the winemaking town of Rüdesheim (Rüdesheim am Rhein, to give it its proper name) before in late autumn and at Christmas, so I was looking forward to seeing the town I’d loved so much on my last visit, this time, in the summer sun.

Arriving in style

As we pulled into the coach park, there was a colourful little ‘Noddy train’ waiting for us, which would take us right into Rüdesheim’s centre. Snaking through the narrow streets, we rattled along in our little carriages as people stood against the walls to let us pass, some of them giving us a friendly wave and a smile as we went by.
 

Your carriage awaits! The little train that took us into Rüdesheim.
Your carriage awaits! The little train that took us into Rüdesheim.

 

Music to our ears

Our first stop was Siegfried’s Mechanical Music Museum, which is where our little train dropped us. Tucked in a small courtyard at the end of the main street, this lovely old building houses a strange and wonderful collection of – yes, you’ve guessed it – mechanical musical instruments. Our guide, dressed in period costume, welcomed us in and showed us around the place, demonstrating the self-playing instruments as she went and telling us all about the history and construction of them.
 

Our knowledgeable guide in Siegfried’s.
Our knowledgeable guide in Siegfried’s.

 
I was surprised at just how big the place was: little rooms appeared left and right and along small corridors, all full of weird and wonderful machines: small music boxes; ornate music cabinets; violins; pianos; organs; huge metal discs which played various tunes; and an old gramophone playing an old record of Doris Day singing ‘Que Sera’, which a few people had a bit of a sing along to. There was one large machine which had little figures all playing their own instrument, and another which played violins using a round bow! Amazing!
 
Siegfried’s Mechanical Museum.
Siegfried’s Mechanical Museum.

 
These violins were played by a circular bow.
These violins were played by a circular bow.

The place to be

Back out in the warm sunshine, I headed to the Drosselgasse. Not far from Siegfried’s, this narrow, world-famous street is always busy and links the main street, Oberstrasse, to the riverside. Full of souvenir shops, wonderful restaurants, wine houses (of course – this town has a long history of wine growers and is situated amongst vineyards), beer gardens and live band entertainment, this is one place that’s great to visit at any time of day or night, even if it’s just to enjoy a walk along it.
 

The Drosselgasse
The Drosselgasse

Time for coffee: Rüdesheim style!

Back up on Oberstrasse the cafés were full of people enjoying the weather, and, judging by their cups and saucers, a ‘Rüdesheim coffee’ – the local speciality, made with plenty of brandy and topped with whipped cream. I was looking for the cable car to take me up to the Niederwald Monument, perched high on the hillside above the town. I found the station at the side of the Christmas shop, and, as I’d already decided to walk back down to the town as it was such a nice day, I got a one-way ticket (€4.50) and climbed aboard.
 

A wonderful cable car ride above the vineyards
A wonderful cable car ride above the vineyards

Above the vineyards

It was so peaceful, sailing over the top of the vineyards. The views from the cable car were fantastic: the path zig-zagging its way through the grapevines; over to the town of Rüdesheim; and across the River Rhine to Bingen. Ten minutes later, I was at the top where it was just a short walk over to the Niederwald Monument – the Niederwalddenkmal – the large figure of Germania which, unfortunately at the time of my visit, was covered in scaffolding as it was undergoing some restoration. The panoramic view from up there was just as wonderful, and there were benches and telescopes up there to have a rest and enjoy the views. (Just a quick note: you need 2 x 50c or 1 x Euro coin for the telescope.)
 

Admiring the views over Rüdesheim…
Admiring the views over Rüdesheim…

 
...and from the Niederwald Monument.
…and from the Niederwald Monument.

 
Heading back down to Rüdesheim, the walk was lovely. There was a warm breeze, the birds were singing and the grass was blowing in the gentle wind. Except for the birds, all I could hear was my footsteps on the ground. I followed the signs – sometimes along tarmac paths, sometimes stones, and in some places, a few steep steps – through the vineyards and back to town.
 
A steady walk back to Rüdesheim
A steady walk back to Rüdesheim

 
Walking amongst the vineyards
Walking amongst the vineyards

 
Almost there: the path to Rüdesheim
Almost there: the path to Rüdesheim

 
Back in the town, the little bars had filled up and there was a buzz about the place as I made my way back to the coach. So that was it. My taste of ‘summertime Rüdesheim’ had been just as good as my autumn and Christmas experiences. I’ll have to try springtime next time!
 
Auf Wiedersehen, Rüdesheim.
Auf Wiedersehen, Rüdesheim.

 
I visited Rüdesheim on Leger’s Romantic Rhine, Fairytale Castles and the Black Forest tour.