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!

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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!

Why is Rocamadour so popular?

I’d heard of Rocamadour before and seen many photos. I knew it as the French village that sits on the top of a steep cliff above the River Alzou, but I had no idea what the place would be like until I visited it as part of Leger’s Highlights of Provence and the Dordogne tour.

It was about 10 o’clock when we finished dinner on our first night there and the village was really quiet. From what I could see, there was just one main street through Rocamadour, so I decided to go for a little stroll.
The cobbled walkway looked so lovely, lit up with soft yellow lighting from the hotels and buildings lining the street, so I decided to take a few photographs. There were very few people around but I felt quite safe walking along on my own.

An evening stroll down Rocamadours main street.
An evening stroll down Rocamadours main street.

Dancing in the street

As I set up my tripod, a small group of people appeared, walking towards me from the other side of the archway I was about to photograph. The guy in the threesome was dancing about and leaping into my shot, and as they got closer they asked what I was doing.
Before they got too carried away in their super-fast French chatter, I reached into the depths of my memory for my school-days French and asked “Parlez-vous Anglais?” Luckily for me, they continued in English, asking what I was doing: Why was I in Rocamadour? Why was I taking photos? Where was I going? When I explained that I was with a coach tour, the guy explained that he needed to get to Paris tomorrow and asked me if there was any room on our coach! I explained how, unfortunately, we wouldn’t be able to give him a lift, before wishing them bonne nuit and bon voyage!
Before long, another couple appeared from the shadows of the archway. Again, the guy started dancing in front of the camera (what was it with guys and cameras?) and asked me what I was doing.
I had a chat with the couple – an English guy and his French girlfriend who were here visiting her family – before deciding to put my camera away for the night and headed back to my hotel at the end of the street. Who would’ve thought that there would be so many friendly people about at that time of night in the quiet streets of Rocamadour?

Bonjour Rocamadour

In the daylight I got to see the true charm of Rocamadour. I thought it had looked wonderful at night time, but in the day, the village really came to life. It was late April when I visited, so no doubt not as busy as it would be in the height of the summer, but the place had a lovely buzz about it. Gone were the pastel-coloured buildings with brightly-painted shutters that had been a familiar sight in other places on my trip, now replaced by rustic, biscuit-toned stone shops, restaurants, houses and hotels along the cobbled street.

Rocamadour's main street.
Rocamadour’s main street.

As I walked down the pedestrianised main street, the smell of garlic floated through the air and I could hear the bells of the little train which runs up and down the street, carrying visitors through the lovely place. The lane was lined with wonderful, little shops selling handmade jewellery, arts and crafts, soaps, pastries, chocolate, foie gras (quite popular in this area) and wine, with two or three stone archways – the main gateways being the Porte du Figuier (right next to our hotel) and the Porte Salmon.
Le Petit Train de Rocamadour.
Le Petit Train de Rocamadour.

Shopping in Rocamadour.
Shopping in Rocamadour.
Shopping in Rocamadour.
Further down the street, stone pots displaying colourful flowers lined the walkway and there was a sweet smell, which I later discovered was the small, white flower, Stephanotis, which I’d seen in planters outside a couple of the restaurants. The shop owners and locals were very friendly and welcoming. In one shop, the owner asked me to speak to her in English for a while so that she could practice her language skills!
Flower pots lined the street.

A place of history

During my trip, I learnt that the Rocamadour is known for its historical monuments and the village attracts pilgrims from many countries each year. There are many stories surrounding the origin of the name of the village and a lot of history about the chapels, abbeys and churches there. I could see a large, stone tower high above the main street, and so decided to walk up the stone steps (apparently, climbed by pilgrims on their knees even today) for a closer look. It was quite a climb but there were some excellent views along the way. Along Rocamadour’s main street I’d passed a sign for the ‘Ascenseur de Rocamadour’, the lift which would’ve taken me to the top, but I thought I’d get better views by walking. I was right.

Sanctuaire Notre Dame de Rocamadour.
Sanctuaire Notre Dame de Rocamadour.

Once through the buildings and courtyards of the château and the chapels, I entered a shady path, zig-zagging its way through the trees, known as the ‘Stations of the Cross’. The path was quite steep up to the château at the top, and at each turn there was a frieze depicting a Station of the Cross.
The zig-zagging path of Stations of the Cross.
The zig-zagging path of Stations of the Cross.

The 8th Station of the Cross.
The 8th Station of the Cross.

The best view in the village

At the top of the hill I entered the château (you need two 1 Euro coins to get through the turnstile) and walked up the stone steps for some magnificent views over the village. The battlements of the château were really narrow and jutted out over a drop of a few hundred feet – not too good if you don’t like heights! Despite my legs feeling like jelly, it was from there that I got a real sense of the size and layout of the village. I could see our hotel and the coach park amongst the two rows of terracotta rooftops and excellent views over the Alzou Valley and of the churches and village below. The climb had definitely been worth it.

Excellent views over Rocamadour.
Excellent views over Rocamadour.

Au Revoir, Rocamadour

The sun was shining in Rocamadour on the morning our party left, lighting up the hillside and the creamy stone of the churches. I popped into the hotel’s restaurant to grab a croissant and jus d’orange before heading back into the street which was very quiet for 9 o’clock on a Saturday morning. Three or four small cats stretched out on the street enjoying the morning sunshine as I exchanged a few cheery bonjours with the handful of shop owners opening their shutters.
Main street in Rocamadour.
Whether it’s for its religious connections, historical significance, charming architecture or just the impressive views, it’s not hard to see why Rocamadour is France’s second most visited site after the impressive Mont St. Michel in Normandy. For me, it was just a lovely place to visit, a great little rustic French village where you can pass a few leisurely hours amongst some fantastic scenery and friendly locals.

Au Revoir, Rocamadour.
Au Revoir, Rocamadour.

But now it was time for me to head out on the winding streets above the lovely village of Rocamadour once more, for the next leg of my Highlights of Provence and the Dordogne tour.
Have you been to Rocamadour? Share your stories with us in the comments below.