Thursday, August 24, 2017

Longer Travels {Southern France -- Provence}

The rest of our days in Southern France were spend exploring the region, taking day trips (out of our home base of Marseille).  Trevor and I had both wanted to see the Provence region of France, specifically during lavender season as this area is known for lavender -- and it was wonderful!

While there are many amazing small towns in this region of France, we had to narrow it down somehow.  We did so much research -- so so much -- on what we wanted to see and what was actually possible to see in our time frame.  We also tried to stay within an hour/hour and a half drive from Marseille as we were traveling with a toddler.  While we didn't get to every place we wanted to see, we loved everything we did see and were so happy we got to experience this gorgeous region.*

So, our list of day trip cities --

Pont du Gard
Famous Roman aqueduct that is one of the best preserved ancient aqueducts (and also highest).  We stopped here on our very first day on our way to Lyon and it was the perfect introduction to France.  And it was amazing.  I am not sure what we were expecting but the whole experience of Pont du Gard was fantastic.  While very touristy, it was also very local.  You do have to pay to enter the whole complex, but there are different price points based on what you want to do (anything from just going down to the river to see the aqueduct to walking across it).  With our toddler, they recommended we do the aqueduct and museums.  The whole complex is mostly a large park with various hiking trails  and a few places to eat (in addition to gift shops and touristy stuff at the entrance).  This place could not be more toddler friendly and we wish we had spent the whole day here.  Locals come for the amazing place to swim; where the aqueduct crosses the Gardon river it is a nice calm area with a great rocky beach -- perfect for a day hanging out in the sun and water.  And if that wasn't enough, there is an amazing kids museum as part of the complex -- we had to drag our sweet girl away!  For more information visit the Pont du Gard website.
This was our stop on our way back to Marseille and once again, we wish we had more time (and had also gone on a day other than Sunday...).  This small town is known for its unbelievable Roman theater -- it is only one of three intact ancient theaters in the world and it is massive, designed to seat 10,000.  In the summer, the theater hosts music concerts, so once again it was impressive to see an ancient theater set up for a modern concert.  The theater was not so toddler friendly (insanely steep steps), so I wore her for most of the time here.  Orange also has more to offer, but we only had a short amount of time, and the theater was definitely worth it.

Les Baux de Provence
Another small town, this one known for its car-less streets and amazing old castle at the top of the hill town.  So while this stop was worthwhile, it was also a little rough -- insanely steep hill town (parking only at the bottom), so very crowed and oh so hot.  The actual town is very touristy but the castle ruins are pretty amazing.  It is quite expensive to visit the castle, but they do various reenactments so try and time it right to see some (we did not, but oh well) and the views are worth it.  And most definitely not stroller friendly, so we wore the Peanut or she walked.

Vaison la Romaine
Another small hill town, this one known for its Roman archaeological sites + ruins as well as its thriving Tuesday market.  The town is divided into two parts -- the modern lower town and the ancient castle above the town.  We figured we could see the archaeological site while also experience the market.  We had been told to arrive early for the market, but we happened to be on toddler time so of course we arrived super late... However, it worked in our favor as it was so so packed with people and we managed to arrive right about when those who came early were leaving, so we found great parking.  I am not sure what we expected, but wow -- the market was insane.  Wall to wall people, wall to wall stalls of pretty much anything you'd ever want: it was a mix of a farmers market. gypsy market and craft fair.  And it was crazy and amazing and huge (we probably only saw half the market)!  It was so busy that we didn't even realize that we walked right past the archaeological sites until the market was over and people were packing up.  Sadly by this time we were over the heat, hungry and needed to move on to our next stop.... so we missed out on the sites but the market was worth it!  So for sure go for the market and either be prepared to stay after the market closes (about 1pm) to see the sites or go only for the sites!  In terms of being toddler friendly, if you go to the market later when it isn't as busy, then yes -- easily toddler friendly but many of the stalls have products at perfect toddler grabbing height, so just be careful!  We used the stroller and didn't have any problems navigating around with it.

L'Isle sur la Sorgue
This was hands down my most favorite small town I have ever stepped foot in -- it was so picturesque and French; I loved it.  It is known for its antiques and its many working water wheels.  The Sorgue river surrounds the town, including various canals and waterways winding through the main part of town.  The tourism office will give you a map including a walking guide to see all the water wheels (and also has coloring set up for the kids).  This town was perfect to just walk, explore, grab a pastry and some coffee or enjoy lunch along the river.  Make sure you park outside the main part town (there was plenty of parking available in the parking lots).  And very toddler, stroller friendly -- we had to pry our sweet girl away from the coloring at the tourist office!

The biggest town we visited on our day trips.  Arles is famous for having Vincent Van Gogh live here and take inspiration from the town for many of his paintings.  Sadly, much of the town was destroyed by bombs in WWII but the Roman arena is mainly intact and pretty impressive (nothing compared to Nîmes' arena but still cool).  While we opted not to go to any of the museums in Arles (we arrived later and close to closing time for many), our main goal was to walk around and enjoy the city -- and find the various easels showing Van Gogh's paintings to give you a then and now comparison.  We loved Arles, and once again found an amazing playground for the Peanut to enjoy!

Luberon Region
L'Isle Sur la Sorgue is part of the Luberon region and a must see town -- the rest of the region is known for its lavender fields and wineries.  While we bought wine, we chose not to actually stop at any wineries because of Serafina (we weren't sure of the rules and had other places we wanted to see).  This area is for sure worth it during lavender season (usually July and August).  If you aren't here during lavender season then just head to L'Isle Sur la Sorgue and stop at many of the wineries you'll see on the way!  But the various towns and stops in the region that we went to --
Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque -- famous abbey with the gorgeous lavender fields surrounding it, don't worry about going inside the abbey (we had read and heard it wasn't worth it), but the outside is amazing (only go during lavender season), the gift shop is great for all things lavender

Gordes -- impressive hill town that really only deserves a quick stop to take a picture and enjoy the views, there really isn't much in the town if you don't go on market day but it is on the way to the abbey, so it's easy to pull over and take a quick picture!
Roussillon -- known for sitting on top of the world's largest ochre deposit and everything in the town is the orange/red color, while we didn't stop here, it was worth it to drive through to see the gorgeous red cliffs
We also then drove some of the famed lavender roads through the region on the way to Manosque and it was gorgeous.  Random fields of lavender just off the road, gorgeous tree canopy covered roads... it was awesome!  The only downside is that there is really no place to stop and Manosque isn't that great -- a good place to stretch your legs if needed, but not a dedicated stop.

For planning purposes, if you are interested -- we did Pont du Gard and Orange as stops to break up the drive from Marseille/Lyon (so only an hour or two at each place).  We did Vaison la Romaine, Les Baux de Provence and Arles in one day (it was a long day).  And then the entire Luberon region, including L'Isle Sur la Sorgue, in a day (long car day).

Also for those interested -- we did all of this driving and because we mostly did small town and freeway driving, it wasn't terrible (Trevor may feel otherwise as he was driver but....).  Most of the freeways had tolls -- you'd get a ticket when you enter the freeway, then pay when you exit, but easy to figure out.  Everything was pretty well marked and we were able to navigate fairly easily.  The major freeways had amazing rest stops -- playgrounds, multiple restaurants, nice bathrooms.  We also found parking fairly easy in most cities we visited, parking lots were easy to find (lots of signs) and not very expensive.

And that concludes our amazing trip to Southern France -- it was such an incredible trip and one that we will always remember!

*You will notice that we didn't make it to Avignon -- but we sure tried.  There was a festival in the city happening the entire time we were in France which made getting there a little difficult with all the people.  We drove right past/through the city on two separate days and were unable find any sort of place to park.  Then we had planned on taking the train from Marseille, but our toddler needed a relaxing, non-travel day... But that is traveling with a toddler -- always being flexible and adapting!  We also did not go to Nîmes on this trip as Trevor and I had both been previously -- but it is definitely worth a trip to see the amazing Roman arena that still is used today.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Longer Travels {Southern France -- Marseille}

After Lyon we drove down to Marseille (again with another stop -- in another post) where we had our home base for the rest of our trip.  Our original plan was to only spend a day exploring Marseille, but our toddler had other plans and we ended up spending two full days in Marseille and using our other days "day tripping" around the region.

Marseille.  I am not even sure where to begin...  It is the second largest city in France and often has a very bad reputation for being dirty, seedy and not worth your time.  And while it is very dirty and a little seedy, Marseille should not be missed -- it is a maritime and port town but also very rich in culture and history (and character).  I had always wanted to go to Marseille since The Count of Monte Cristo is my all time favorite book and the first part of the book is set in Marseille -- and Marseille as a city did not disappoint and we loved it!

We went the AirBnB route in Marseille since free parking was included and we needed a place to park our car -- so we stayed here and loved it.  The neighborhood was a little sketch so I was happy we were never out late at night, but that seemed to be most of Marseille.  The place was close to a tram line and about a 20-25 minute walk to the heart of the city -- Vieux Port.  It was downhill on the way there, and a not so fun uphill on the way back.... Marseille is HILLY so we were happy to ride the trams a few times!  But the place was perfect for our small family of three and had literally the best shower I have ever seen and Serafina agreed!

So things to do in Marseille --

MuCEM -- Musée des Civilizations de l'Europe de la Méditerranée which is more like two museums in one, one part is a very modern looking building (called the J4) that houses exhibits explaining the history of the Mediterranean and the other part is the the Fort St-Jean (an old 13th century fort over looking the old port).  The two are connected by a very cool (but quite high) foot bridge.  While the J4 building was toddler friendly, the fort was a little tricky to maneuver with the stroller, but the views were worth it!
Fort St-Jean

J4 building
[You'll also be right next to the Villa Méditerranée which is a very funky building that also houses some exhibits, but we didn't go in -- as we'd heard the outside was better!]

Cathédrale de Marseille Notre Dame de Major -- gorgeous church that can be seen from the fort, from the 19th century with a gorgeous striped facade (from local Cassis stone and Florentine green marble), the outside is for sure worth seeing, the inside was only memorable because it is so light inside (most older churches are very very dark)

Le Panier -- this is the neighborhood on the other side of the fort (go across another foot bridge), small, narrow, winding streets with an insane amount of stairs, but adorable squares and local shops -- a very fun place to wander, just not super stroller friendly.... we again got stuck carrying the sleeping Peanut in the stroller down many many stairs, you can also head to Centre de la Vieille Charité which in the heart of Le Panier and it is a gorgeous building that used to a charity structure... sadly we didn't make it here as we couldn't figure out how to get there and avoid all the stairs!

Vieux Port -- the old part of Marseille and it is quite spectacular, gorgeous yachts and small fishing boats everywhere you look, restaurants surround all three sides (as well as tourists), and has been used for more than 26 centuries!  There is a small ferry boat that will take you from one side to the other so you don't have to walk around the port (well worth it!), this is also where you can take tourist boats to Les Calanques and Château d'If.

Les Calanques -- national park between Marseille and Cassis, stretching 20km of high and rocky promontories, separated occasionally by secluded and gorgeous beaches with the amazing turquoise waters of the Mediterranean.  The only way to see the park in the summer is by a boat cruise (as the hiking trails close and only those with reservations are allowed into the inlets/calanques/beaches).  We took a boat cruise with this company and it was great -- roughly three hours and we saw gorgeous coastlines, amazing views and had a blast!  We also went past Château d'If which is in my favorite book and something I had always wanted to see.  We chose not to actually go to the prison as we had read/heard that it wasn't that great and also not super toddler friendly -- I was satisfied with seeing it from the boat.

Chateau D'If

[So we did all of the above in one day -- while slightly on the ambitious side with a toddler, we had originally thought this was our only day in Marseille and we wanted to make the most of it]

Musée du Santon -- we tried our freaking hardest to get to this museum and both times it was closed, which was rather annoying given that it was a steep walk up a hill.... so if you're in the area and its open, then go -- it looked cool, focusing on the small kiln-fired nativity figurines (called santons) that originated in Marseille

Le Petit Train -- we did this super touristy train on our second day in Marseille (after the toddler had had enough traveling and just needed a break) and it was awesome, completely recommend even if you don't have kids!  It was a great way to see the city without hiking up all the hills -- we wound our away around the Vieux Port, drove along the Promenade de la Corniche du President JF Kennedy, saw the Catalans beach and finally made our way up the hill to the Basilique de Notre Dame de Garde which sits on the highest point in Marseille and offers a 360 degree view of the city.... so while the train had places to put our stroller, you do have to take a mandatory stop at the basilica and well, it has A LOT of steps, A LOT.  We did discover an elevator on the way down but it did not cut out all the steps.... but the climb up is worth it to see the views of the city
{sadly the Tour de France was in Marseille the day after we left}

Parc Longchamp -- the palais houses the art and natural history museums (which we didn't go to), but the park is huge and worth some time to wander, especially if you have younger kids -- great playgrounds and a Funny Zoo -- in place of where the actual zoo used to be, there are life size fiberglass sculptures of different animals

Eating in Marseille -- we didn't do much eating out in Marseille as we mostly made dinners back at our apartment, but we did have some amazing ice cream at Vanille Noire, including their famous black vanilla ice cream.  And we had a super good and filling lunch at Chez Fanny -- highly recommend both of these places!

We loved Marseille and were very happy to spend a second day in the city -- if you get the chance, check out this underrated city!  And don't forget to buy soap while here, the city of Marseille is famous for their natural soap and we sure stocked up (we preferred this small shop over the larger ones)!

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Longer Travels {Southern France -- Lyon}

We took an amazing trip to France in July -- and I am finally, slowly starting to blog about it.... We stayed mostly in the Provence region but also trekked up to Lyon for a few days.  So I think the best way to do this so it doesn't get insanely long is to break it down into a few posts!  So first up -- Lyon!

Now, I know Lyon isn't technically southern France, but since our trip mostly focused in the south -- I'm keeping the title.

So -- we flew from Sevilla to Marseille and rented a car (not sure we could've done this trip without a car).  We priced out the cost of trains versus renting a car and it was pretty much the same, so we went with the car as it gave us a little more freedom and the ability to get to smaller towns easier.  We also brought our own car seat (using this car seat and bag -- and again, we didn't have to pay for the bag and it was LOADED with so much stuff)!

We went straight to Lyon with a stop along the way (more in another post).  We spent three nights but two full days in the city and this was the perfect amount of time.  We stayed here -- a hotel/apartment place and it was wonderful.  Outside of the main city area so quiet but still about a 20-25 minute walk into the main center and close to transportation (both trams and metros).  It was the best stocked hotel/apartment kitchen I had ever seen which came in handy for making our picky eater dinner each night!  And it was about a block away from literally the best playground we had ever seen -- Parc Blandan.  It had an amazing playground but also tons of space for kids to run around, adults to play various lawn games and of course a carousel.*
those tubes are slides big enough for adults to fit in

sliding down the wooden slates (it was made to do this)
We also got the Lyon City Card (available for one, two or three days) which allows you free use of public transportation (just remember to swipe your card each time) and also gets you into many museums for free or at a discounted price, and finally includes a free boat ride up the Rhône River.  Because we happened to be in Lyon for Bastille Day and many museums were closed, we didn't get the best value for our card, but I'd still recommend getting one!

Lyon is a wonderful city and we loved it!  Lyon sits between the Rhône and Saône rivers and while more of a business city, it still has a lot of offer for tourists.  While it doesn't have big name museums or tourist sights, Lyon is a city to just explore and experience, especially the food!  Lyon is known for its amazing food and restaurant scene.  Overall, Lyon was fairly toddler friendly -- good public transportation (trams were easier than the metro because we could just walk right on with the stroller and not have to worry about stairs), places for the toddler to run and everyone was extremely nice!  The areas near (and below) the basilica (including Vieux-Lyon and the Presqu' île) are hilly and full of cobble stoned streets -- so make sure you have a sturdy stroller.

So things to do in Lyon -- (or at least the things we did!)

Basilique de Notre Dame de Fourvière -- gorgeous 19th century basilica sitting above the city of Lyon, the terrace has amazing views of the whole city and the actual church is not too bad itself (really intricate mosaics and gorgeous stained glass).  The best way to get up the hill is to take the funicular (to the Fourvière stop) -- just use the elevator if you have a stroller.  The actual terrace and church were pretty toddler friendly (stairs leading up to the church but easy to carry the stroller) -- just a challenge to keep a toddler quiet in a church.  Lucky for us she likes churches and immediately says "oh wow, so beautiful" when she walks into any church.
showing us all the pretty things

Roman Theaters -- (there is also a museum but we didn't do it) also up on the hill, just down the road from the basilica, Roman theaters built in 15 BC (made bigger in 120 AD) and actually fairly still intact.  They do a summer concert series every Friday so it was pretty cool watching them set up for modern day concerts in ancient ruins.  This was the only place in Lyon that was truly not stroller friendly -- so many stairs and large cobble stones and uneven ground.... and of course our toddler fell asleep in the stroller, so Trevor and I had to navigate ancient and steep steps with the stroller -- I am sure we looked pretty crazy!
{the stairs we went down were much steeper}

 -- old Lyon neighborhood (and at the bottom of the hill where the basilica is), old cobble stone streets (a little rough with a stroller but manageable), adorable local shops and great food, especially good ice cream (we went to Glacier Terre Adelice and it was amazing -- so many unique flavors to choose from), this is a fun area to just wander around and grab a bite to eat.  This area also has many of Lyon's secret passageways which we saw but didn't venture into because of the stroller (we had read many could have stairs).... and we had a tired, cranky toddler who refused to eat the afternoon we were here, so we made the tough choice to go back to the hotel and nap which made everyone happier.

secret passageways
Presqu' île and Croix-Rousse -- neighborhoods that I am lumping together because I couldn't really tell where one ended and one started.  Presqu' île area definitely had more higher end, chain stores whereas Croix-Rousse was more local (and much more hilly if I am remembering correctly), but again just fun places to wander.  We also ate in this area(ish) for lunch one day at an amazing restaurant that was oh so good (and so sweet to our toddler) -- we ate here and seriously, we cannot recommend this place enough.  Little English was spoken and definitely no English menu so it made for some fun ordering (and a little scary for me, given my food allergies -- another post for another day).**  Trevor had amazing near raw duck breast and I had to most amazing fresh goat cheese salad and the best pain perdu I've ever had.

Musée de Confluences -- this museum is in the area know as Confluence (where the two rivers meet), it used to be an industrial wasteland but thanks to a multi-million euro urban renewal project, this is a new up and coming neighborhood (with some seriously insane architectural structures that are also environmentally friendly), the museum's building is an architectural feat made of steel and glass.  The actual museum is actually pretty cool -- focusing on mainly science and humanities.  There was a very cool permanent exhibit about the origins of the world -- the Peanut loved it!

Gadagne Museums -- two museums (one focusing on Lyon's history and the other on marionettes), we went to the museum that focused on marionettes since Lyon is famous for the puppet Guignol.  It was a little creepy but free with the Lyon City Card so it wasn't a bad break from the heat outside.

Parc de Tête d'Or -- a huge park in the northern part of the city (it is the largest urban park in France), we figured that Parc Blandan was smaller and super cool so why not go to a bigger park... Well, sadly we were a little disappointed but most likely because we got there after everything closed.  Inside the park there is a zoo, a train, a lake with boating available and more.  We had wrongly assumed there would be cool playground, but we couldn't find one.... Our sweet sassy girl was also OVER the day at this point, so we didn't stay long.  From what we saw, this park would be better for slightly older kiddos.

There seemed to be plenty of other things to actually do in Lyon, but mostly it a city best to just explore and wander (and eat).  We were bummed that the huge fountain -- the Place de Terreaux -- was under construction.  Place Bellecour was a great square for Serafina to just run around (one of the largest in Europe) and she was obsessed with the huge horse statue in the middle.

And just a note: one of our two full days in Lyon was Bastille Day (France's national holiday -- and typically the French simply call it "The 14th of July" or le quatorze juillet) so we were a little limited in what we could do that day but the celebrations at night were worth it!  It was a huge street party with so many people and while many thought we were a little crazy to take our toddler to such a large public event (especially after the terrible attack in Nice last year), we felt very safe -- there was a large police/military presence (even in riot gear) and also large trucks blocking any road entrances to where the party area was.  But again, the fireworks over a gorgeous basilica and your toddler just in awe of the fireworks, wanting more and more -- makes it all worth it!  Plus this was a dream come true for me -- I had been in Paris for Bastille Day in 2000 and have always wanted to go back!

*So literally EVERY SINGLE town (didn't matter how small or big) had at least one carousel and most often near the tourism office.  It made for some really amazing tantrums when we either had to get off the carousel or didn't go on in the first place since the Peanut loves carousels!  But, I always recommend going to the tourism office for a map and you always usually end of learning of something fun and different that is happening in the town that day too!

**We encountered many people who did not speak English on this trip -- both in small towns and in the larger cities.  I speak enough French to get by so that was very helpful and in many incidents people just spoke French to me.  We used Google Translate as needed, especially for menus since the app has a great camera function.  And just like any other European country, always remember to say hello and goodbye whenever you enter or leave a store, museum, etc.  It goes a long way!

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