Our Family’s (2nd) Year in the South of France
Kids and Castles - Our year with kids in the South of France

Category — Travel

A Different Kind of Traffic Jam

It is the October school break and we are taking advantage of two weeks off to head east to visit the Basque region of France and Spain. As we drive through the French Pyrenees, we spot signs for the “Route de Fromage”. This cheese loving family had no choice but to check it out.

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The Cheese Road

There are over 80 producers on the Cheese Road, and the nearest fromagerie is only a mile away. When we get there the entrance is blocked, but we keep driving and soon see a sign for the next stop. We turn onto a narrow road that twists and turns. We have no idea what we’ll do if we meet a vehicle coming the other way, but we seem to be the only ones driving so we continue up the hill until we encounter two cows crossing the road! Fortunately they are scared by us, so I didn’t even have time to get my camera before they moved into the ditch.

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We continue up the hill and see several buildings so we think we might have arrived. But as we pull around the hairpin turn we encounter the next road hazard – this time two huge free-roaming pigs. No cheese here, so we continue.

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Pigs on the road

We get past the pigs and keep winding uphill. But this time we run into a real traffic jam – sheep are all over the road. and there is simply no way to get around them. It takes a while, but eventually a teenage girl shows up and chases them down the road. We follow at sheep speed for about 10 minutes until the road forks. The sheep go left and we are very happy to see the fromage sign pointing right.

Sheep Traffic Jam

Sheep Traffic Jam

It is worth it. The cheese is exceptionally good. And we learn an interesting sheep fact: the shepherds are moving the sheep up the mountains today. Fall is the season that sheep breed and these kind of sheep prefer high altitudes for their amorous activities.

The Cheese

The Cheese

October 26, 2013   5 Comments

Things that Make Me Smile

1) Bread delivery – The local bakery has a truck that delivers bread right to your house. Our neighbours have a special tube for the bread attached to the mailbox, but at another house we see the bread tucked into the windowsill. Unwrapped of course!Bread_Delivery

2) Bad Translations – These always make me feel better about my own language skills. This one, from a local pay-toilet station, got it very badly wrong three times in a row!  Bad Translation

3) Unexpected Souvenir –  It’s not uncommon to pay to use a public toilet in Europe. However, I was surprised when the lady at the restroom in the Louvre gave us this fridge magnet along with access to the facilities – truly a toilet to remember.ToiletMagnet

4) “The Capital of Fat” – This is the welcome sign from one of our local villages. Literally “Welcome to Belpech.  Regional Capital of Fat”. They are referring, of course, to the foie gras and other fatty meats from the geese and ducks that are grown locally, but it still makes me laugh.FatRegion

5) The Coffee Bike – We saw a couple of these in Toulouse last weekend. It is a pedal bike, with a place in the back for a coffee machine, and a little trailer to keep the milk and sugar. I want one!Coffe_bike

6) Unexpected Tunes – It does seem that wherever we travel we hear the music we listened to in the 80s. But I wasn’t prepared for the bell tower in the ancient center of Bruges to be playing Stairway to Heaven!

October 14, 2013   2 Comments

In Paris with a Métro Day Pass

Our family was in Paris for Christmas in 2010, so it was not completely new to the kids. But it was cold last time we went so we stuck to mostly inside things. This time we wanted to see more sights so we bought an “all-you-can-eat” Métro day pass. This naturally required us to take the Métro multiple times to get our money’s worth.

We started with the Arc-de-Triomphe, then went on to Montmartre. We found out that the Montmartre funicular, used to go up the hill to the Cathedral, was included in our day pass so we took that short ride. Up we went, checked out the Cathédrale du Sacré-Coeur, saw a funny show by a busker, and then came back down.  By then the girls were ready to call it a day so we took the Métro back to our hotel near Gare de Lyon.

In front of the Arc de Triomphe

In front of the Arc de Triomphe



The Montmartre funiculaire using our Métro day pass

Brain experts claim that we remember things by making associations to familiar experiences. That night, we asked the girls what they liked best during the sightseeing tour. Z summarized it in terms of the familiar:  “I liked the Arc-de-Gaul.” Translation: the Arc-de-Triomphe. It is located at the Charles de Gaulle roundabout, and Astérix (from the Asterix and Obelix cartoon) is a Gaul. Hence Arc-de-Gaul.

I said my favorite was the Cathédrale du Sacré-Coeur. But apparently the girls found it disappointing since they thought we were going to visit “Sucre Coeur” (sugar heart) and they were expecting to visit a candy store!

The Cathédrale du Coeur Sucré!

The Cathédrale du Sucre Coeur – not!


August 25, 2013   1 Comment

Surviving Jet Lag Day

We landed in France this morning. Paris is beautiful. the weather is perfect. And the croissants and cheese are exactly right.

The children, however, are HORRIBLE!  Jet lag is not the friend of traveling families.

Fortunately, a good nights sleep will change everything.

August 21, 2013   4 Comments

I Didn’t Expect To Be Sad…

This was our final week in Provence.  It has been a week of lasts:

  • The last trip to the market to buy olives, pasta, and cheese and practice my bad French with the very patient people who sell their goods there

    Buying Nyons Olives at the Grignan Market

  • One last picture of the Grignan castle sitting at the top of the incredibly picturesque medieval village where the girls go to school

    Grignan Castle the end of June

  • The last Wednesday pizza from Ivan des Pizzas – a Hawaiian, the American kind with ham and pineapple, not the French version with chicken, green pepper and onion (pineapple optional!)
  • One last pain au chocolat (chocolate croissant) from the best bakery of the many, many, many we’ve tried during the year.
  • A last trip to the clothesline… one last walk to the garbage and recycling station… one last mad dash to catch the school bus…
  • And many, many, many last bisous (kisses) with the wonderful people we’ve met during the year

This year has been intense. It’s been incredibly good in so many ways, but it has also been difficult. Everything was strange which meant it was also hard – like the time it took four hours to buy lightbulbs!

I fully expected that right now I’d be feeling glad we came, but ready to get back to “normal” life in California. I didn’t expect that leaving would make me sad.

It was hard to say good-bye to so many people. Claudine, Jacqueline, Augustin, Alain and the other wonderful Chansojeux leaders who immediately embraced our children as part of the village; Emma, Christine, Vanessa, Genevieve and the lovely English-speaking people who let me have a real conversation; Caroline and the other parents who let me practice my French while we waited for the school bus; Genevieve and Jean who introduced us to raclette; Vanessa and Jerome who taught us the traditions of the galette des rois; Julien who gave us homemade pate from his own pig; JP and and his amazing food (takeout fois gras – yum); Gilbert who gave JM tips about growing crops in Provence; the staff at the village cafe who kept us supplied with coffee, bread, pastis, and great conversation; the wonderful teachers at the Grignan school …and…and…and…

We hate to leave. As the girls say, we’d like to stay in California AND stay in Chantemerle.

Au revoir et Merci

Our very warmest and most sincere au revoir and merci to the incredible people who have touched our lives this past year! Vous allez nous manquer!

July 3, 2011   11 Comments

Just Between Us Girls…

Ladies, if you are going to spend any amount of time in the south of France, there are a few things that you might want to be aware of.

  • No medical modesty – When you go to see the doctor or get an x-ray there is no paper dress, hospital gown, or disposable sheet to cover your naked self. You may be put in a small room to remove your clothes, but there is nothing  provided instead. I can intellectually understand that this is a good thing since a visual exam is  important to any medical procedure – and I know they see the girl parts anyway. But I still find it comforting to have some kind of cover, even an ineffective one.
  • No locker room nudity – On the flip side, when you go to the gym or the pool don’t strip down in the ladies’ locker room. There are small rooms with excessively private floor-to-ceiling doors where you go to change into your running shorts or bathing suit. It took several horrified looks from local French ladies to figure that one out – I assumed those cubicles were toilets.
  • Toilets not always segregated – Men and women frequently go to the same location to do their business. This comes in every possible combination: fully shared facilities, toilets that are designated for men or women but with a shared sink area, or a ladies’ toilet plus an unlabeled toilet. My personal favorite was the place that had one sink then a row of three urinals which you had to walk past to get to the one toilet cubicle that was also where the coats were hung.
  • Flush capabilities vary – I still don’t fully understand this one, but some toilets just don’t have much gumption. They seem to wash away the liquid, but leave the solids (paper or human) behind. Of course this always happens when there is a line so the next lady will know exactly who left what in the bowl. Occasionally there are two buttons. If you push one button and there are still remains, you can push the other one and see if you get lucky. But my tip – never generate solid waste until you are confident of what will happen next.

Forewarned is forearmed.

June 9, 2011   6 Comments

Medieval Days at the Beaucaire Fortress

Once again, we had a plan, but we quickly got distracted.

We were supposed to visit the Tarascon castle, the famous Château du bon roi René (Good King René’s castle), but we got distracted on our way.  It turned out that the Beaucaire Fortress was holding a journée médiévale (medieval day) that weekend. The animated tours are held once a month in April, May and June, then every Wednesday in July and August. And so we changed our plans for the nth time and decided King René’s castle will be for some other time.

The Beaucaire Fortress

Well, it was a great choice. The Beaucaire Fortress only opened to the public last year, so is not in any guidebooks. Plus it was a windy Mistral day, and so the fortress wasn’t busy at all. Best of all, the animators were serious scientists who study medieval life in general and the art of medieval self-defense. So, we were set for an amazing personal tour.

First, meet the troupe de troubadours, the singers & jesters with their chest of ridiculous stuff…

Troubadours or Jester? ...with their treasure chest

Then we all had a turn shotting a 12th-century crossbow – adults and kids.

Shooting a crossbow at Beaucaire Fortress

Next, we were led by our guide to the triangular dungeon.

Inside the fortress

Here, we saw many old graffiti and other cool things.


Old graffiti in the dungeon

Tight dungeon stairs to strategically prevent any armed combat

We were treated to a demonstration of the art of medieval fighting.

Ready for battle...

The Art of Medieval Combat

Some little girls got to take part in the action!

Ready for Combat Training

June 9, 2011   1 Comment

XVIIth Century Hotel Stay…

Welcome to the Hôtel Doctrinaires, an old college founded by the Pères Doctrinaires of Avignon in 1635, now fully renovated and converted into a nice hotel in Beaucaire.  Surprisingly for a 17th century hotel, it was very comfortable, and our room was large with a jacuzzi bath.

Here are a couple of pictures to give you a sense of our stay…

Hôtel Doctrinaires – Founded 1635

Hôtel Doctrinaires Lobby

It’s interesting that this hotel was almost empty, despite its awesome charm and great comfort, whereas the much more expensive Best Western was fully booked.  Go figure…

Dinner with the girls (Diane taking the picture)

Dinner was revealing, however, when I realized that L had now fully developed her palate for French gastronomical cuisine.  Indeed, when given the choice between the standard “kid fare” of steak haché and frites (hamburger patty with french fries), she instead opted for the adult salmon main course – along with a small provençal quiche, an awesome preparation of mixed vegetables and a little side salad.  And Z who was notorious for eating only plain pasta, rice and bananas before coming to France, had to “copy” her sister and ordered the same dish. They’ve fully embraced the local culture.  Now that’s my girls !  🙂

L cleaning up her salmon dinner plate!!!




May 27, 2011   1 Comment


This sign tells you that the maximum driving speed is no longer 70 km/h. That speed zone is over.

Maybe it’s just me, but I would find it more helpful if the sign mentioned what the new speed is.

UPDATE:  So apparently it is just me. All the other people who live in France (and apparently in many other countries) find it completely normal that you just KNOW what the speed limit is for that kind of road. Any sign that is posted is indicating an exception. This sign is merely saying “the exception is over, go back to your normal speed”. Maybe if we stay here longer I’ll be able to look at a road and instinctively know if it’s a 90 or a 50. Until then, I stick by my original premise that if you’re putting up a sign anyway, you might as well put one up that is informative for everybody, not just those who are in-the- know.

May 9, 2011   6 Comments

Sexism at the Fontaine-de-Vaucluse

It is the school break yet again and we are taking day trips around our area. There is still a lot to see and we only have two months left before we leave the village.

We visited Fontaine-de-Vaucluse. We saw the source of the river, which according to the visitor information is the biggest spring in France, and the fifth largest in the world. It is certainly a beautiful spot. The water is crystal clear, and there is some kind of water plant that gives the river a gorgeous green color.

River in Fontaine-de-Vaucluse

The source of the river is at the bottom of a cliff, which makes a pretty dramatic backdrop.

Cliff above the spring source

Source of the fifth largest spring in the world

The area is a bit touristy. You can clearly tell how to get to the famous source – just follow the stands selling things. We stopped at one of the most expensive ice cream places, which had the benefit of a view of the river. But the extra 2€ per scoop was worth it for the access to a clean washroom.

As it turned out, the men’s room at the ice cream place had one of the most lovely views in the whole area. Each man who took a leak was treated to this lovely scene:

View from the urinal

(Yes, I looked. But JM checked that the coast was clear first. I’m inappropriate, but with limits.)

But for the ladies – NOTHING!!! Just a white wall.  Not even a picture of the view – let alone the real thing. NOT FAIR!

May 3, 2011   3 Comments