Time to explore a new place: Greece!

Flying from France to Greece was very easy, and I enjoyed a pleasant first-ever flight with Aegean Air. As we flew along the coastline it was easy to catch sight of freighters and cruise ships criss-crossing like toy boats with white tails along the coastline and between islands, and reignited my anticipation for island-hopping later in my trip. As we got closer to Athens our view out the window included orchards and farms as well as bright white villages and hilltops. The trip wasn’t very long but included a meal: a sandwich, cookies, and beverage (alcoholic drinks included). I gave the landing a 10/10 as well. 🙂

 I took the train into central Athens, which was quite straightforward with a 10€ ticket and a 45 min ride, albeit very warm and surprisingly humid. A hand fan that I purchased in Paris turned out to be indispensable in Athens, where we hit 32-34 degrees every day with 60% humidity. Summer is HOT in Greece, my friends… (And long, for that matter, seeing how we were into September at this point…) I had booked a hostel that was central to a lot of the famous sites, and I figured being a solo tourist surrounded by other tourists would be fun and helpful. When the train was a few stops past the airport, the sound of an accordion began, and I expected to see another busking musician travelling through the cars similar to Paris, but was surprised to see a 8-9 year old girl playing it as she wandered by, stopping occasionally to collect a tip from a stranger.

 I arrived at my hostel and checked in. I was on floor 3 (which is four floors up in Europe as they consider the main floor ‘0’), so I was excited to see a tiny elevator to take me there. It was a cozy fit with my stuffed 40L pack on my back, and I was even more grateful to get out of it swiftly.

After a cool shower and change of clothes, I headed up for happy hour on the rooftop patio of the building. A party was already starting when I got up there, and within moments I was chatting with people from Brazil, Argentina, Australia, New York, Poland, and a 20-person university group from the Netherlands. Good old hostels.  

I had a great conversation with an actor and stand up comic from New York named Mitchell who ended up having a similar travel plan to me so we decided to meet up later that week on the island of Ios! The university group was wild and had brought their own Bluetooth speaker, so although there was music playing in the little bar speaker from the hotel, it was drowned out by a great mix of dance and pop music that occasionally the group would belt along to.  I was also amazed at the perfect view of the lit-up Acropolis contrasting the dark night sky, and decided to get up early the next day and make that my first order of business.

 Armed with earplugs and an eye mask, I slept soundly that night, barely noticed a thing when my one roommate got back from partying between 2am and 4am, nor the other two who got up at 6am to head to the airport).

The hostel was in an exceptional location. It was in the area just south of the area of Plaka: one of Athen’s top neighbourhoods full of picturesque streets, shops, restaurants with rooftop patios, and is central to walk to many of the major sights like the Acropolis, Zeus’ Temple, Kolonaki Square, and the National Gardens.

I purchased a hop on/off bus tour ticket to get around easily to some of the sights, as well as some self-guided walking tours where you download recordings you can listen to as you walk through the various areas, with admission included.

It was recommended to me by a local to go to the Acropolis museum prior to walking up the hill, and I am so glad I did. It has an absolutely incredible collection of ancient sculptures and history, and it was easy to spend a couple of hours there.

One unexpected but definitely memorable moment was while looking at an incredible collection of artefacts on the first floor in the centre of the building I saw a young boy giggling and pointing to the ceiling two floors up and trying to get him mum to look up too. When she and I followed the point of his finger, we realized that the floor is glass and you could see up the skirts and dresses of everyone admiring the art on the third floor in the central area. How did no designer/architect/museum staff catch this?

I decided to walk across the road for my free entrance to the Acropolis and Pantheon. It took much less time than I thought it would to get to the top of the hill, although if you ever need a break there are loads of  tour groups with guides explaining some cool piece of information or another while everyone tries to share the shade of the trees that line the pathway, and you can find a shady spot and listen in for a bit before carrying on.

A highlight for me was definitely seeing the Theatre Dionysus and The Odeon of Herodes Atticus Theatre at the base of the Acropolis. The Odeon was closed as they were setting up for a concert the following evening. I was sad I couldn’t venture inside, but it looked spectacular, nonetheless.

Arriving at the top almost felt too easy, and was a strange juxtaposition of the gravitasse of how ancient the stones we stood on were, and how incredibly deep the history was.

There is scaffolding on some part of almost every ruin in Athens as they reconstruct and restore these incredible structures, and I had already learned that the famous Caryatides; the ‘maiden-shaped’ columns from the Ancient Agora had been replaced with replicas on the Acropolis and the originals now lived in the safety of the Acropolis Museum down the hill to protect them from further wear and tear. You could get close enough to touch them, although a security guard stood close by to keep you from doing so, along with making sure you did not take photos.

The paved stones on the hill of the acropolis are polished to a full shine from the millions of tourists that walk across them every year, and it was easy to slip if you didn’t have good footwear or didn’t watch your step.  

Seeing the Parthenon in real life was breathtaking. It somehow feels both like an incredibly realistic and meticulously designed movie set and at yet also like you have travelled back in time and are connected with ancestors and the millions of people that have stepped foot on this earth before you.

Sunbathing cats live their best lives in Athens
 

I reached the top early in the evening, and we were still at the highest heat of the day at 32 degrees. You could see people congregate in any places of shadow that they could find. The saturated blue skies and puffy white clouds were a perfect contrast to the almost golden hue to the columns and stones of the Parthenon. The hills below are covered in olive trees (also plentiful around much of Athens) before you get back to city streets, which are also beautiful.

An absolute highlight was among the hop on/off tour was a visit to the Byzantine Museum. Ever since my History of Costume class in university I had always loved the ornate art and fascinating history of the Byzantine time period. Time flew as I found myself delighted by the museum going on in a seemingly endless and wonderful spiral into the ground with more and more artifacts, collections, and pieces of artwork as you walked further in.

There were coins and oil lamps and ancient scrolls and ornate jewelry and bound books of the Catholic gospel with hand painted images, and large stone sculptures from temples and churches and articles of clothing incredibly preserved.

There was also modern art on the main floor that was exceptional as well. One particular artist who was inspired by traditional images and the kaleidoscope style that is very Byzantine, and repeating this images and patterns in both paint and digital mediums.

There was also an incredible collection of photography of Vassilis Artikos, who went to a small town in Northern Ethiopia that has eleven monolithic churches, and he photographed the people and the area and the rituals and culture behind the area and the people there. Incredibly stunning black and white photos full of contrast and stories.

Arriving at the Olympic Stadium was another jaw-dropping moment. Included in the admission is a free audio guide which I took full advantage of and listened as I walked along the dozens of rows of seats and beside the centre track and photo-op podiums. There were even a few people running a lap or two around the track, or racing each other past an improvised finish line.

You also are able to walk the tunnel that athletes entered through centuries ago which has an exciting energy of its own.

Through the tunnel is a collection of past Olympic posters and torches, including from the Calgary Olympics in 1988!

I took the Hop on/off bus along the Beach and Riviera line and enjoyed the company of a vivacious group of folks from Puerto Rico, deciding to explore a beach where they got off the bus. Although they did invite me to have lunch with them, I politely declined and went down to the shore to get a little ocean time.

The water was refreshing but still warm, and you could wade out quite far before the water got deep, with a mix of soft sand and smooth stones. Though only a 30 minute drive outside the bustling centre of Athens, it truly feels like a different part of the country altogether and inspired me to think about a future road trip along the coast of Greece.

I met another friendly group of people on the bus who were up from South Africa, and I was encouraged to visit their country as they assured me the strength of the Canadian/American dollar right now would make it worth my while, and gave me tips for many of the must-see spots; one direction I was given was to go watch horse racing in Durban!

They are generous with feta cheese in their salads here.


There were souvenirs being sold outside many attractions, like keychains of blown glass evil eyes, handmade your-name-in-Greek necklaces, and gold olive leaf headbands (which seemed to be the most popular). I also enjoyed the little markets with fresh fish, the carts of candied nuts, and I even saw one woman selling tall stacks of grape leaves and bowls of prickly pear cactus fruit.

Getting ‘lost’ as I wandered the lovely little streets just north of the Acropolis, a Greek stranger mentioned to me to continue down the road to my right and turn left onto the little pathway that would open up to a beautiful street of restaurants, and since that was just what I was looking for, I found myself only moments later at the top of the famous Plaka Street, where tables were just beginning to fill for dinner.

They don’t joke about baklava here… it’s like a second meal in portion size…

Athens sure knows how to create ambience with outdoor eating! Grapevines dangle over the tables, there are numerous rooftop patios with incredible sunset views, live music is offered nightly at many locations, and string lights and candles are used to create a warm glow as the sun sets and traditional dancers move from restaurant to restaurant performing for the tourists.  And the food, oh my goodness the food!

A generous amount of complimentary ouzo also appeared after I paid my bill at a restaurant one night.

On my last evening in Athens I hiked up Mount Lycabettus to see the sunset, which apparently was what everyone else visiting Athens that day had in mind. Couples found spots along the path to take photos and cuddle, some brought picnics and a bottle of wine, while others and myself went all the way to the top and creatively found a place to claim our spot and view and capture the sun setting over the city with a panoramic view of the light-coloured buildings and dark green shrubbery-covered hills.


I had a small list of to-do’s in Athens, and I’m happy to say I checked all my ‘must-see’ boxes as well as having some bonus adventures. I met many friendly people, from tourists to locals alike. I got to have gyros, souvlaki, absolutely stupid-delicious greek salads, and my first greek yoghurt *in* Greece, at a restaurant with a wonderful view of the Acropolis as I waited for the bus to take me to the port to catch my ferry to the island of Ios!

There’s just something about small towns in France…

A major highlight of my trip this summer was knowing I was able to visit friends in a heavenly place that feels like a second home, and looking back I could have spent the majority of my trip with these wonderful people in this wonderful place in the world.

I picked up my first ever European car rental at the CDG airport, and then whipped around the outskirts of the city to head to the countryside southwest of Paris, where I had last been a whopping 6 (how is it 6??) years ago!

I was ecstatic to be able to visit many friends in the heaven that is the small town, countryside villages in France.

I rented the car at the CDG airport, and was grateful to not have to drive anywhere within the city limits of Paris. 

In Europe, the standard rental vehicle is manual, and it was fun to zip along (130 km/hour on the highway!!) to my first stop: L’Isle Jourdain & Bourpeuil along the glorious river that is the Vienne, an area about equidistant from Poitiers and Limoges (or about an hour drive from either).

It’s shortly less than a five hour drive from Paris, and the roads get smaller and more winding, and you drive past rolling hills, farmers fields, forests, small ponds, and winding rivers. Signs get more specific, and you pass through many small villages with red clay roofs and climbing vine-covered stone walls, hanging flower baskets at town squares, and occasionally a small cafe with two or three tables, usually occupied by a couple locals sipping espresso and smoking cigarettes. 


I also loved the blackberry bush fencing used all over this region in France. I made sure to stop for a few (or a handful!) of sweet, juicy blackberries every single day.

(On one particular morning while enthusiastically going for a particularly large bunch of berries in a slightly overgrown side road, I did encounter some stinging nettle, which I do not recommend discovering in shorts and sandals. 😳)

The most remarkable and chance sighting of my friends Barbie and Andy at the local restaurant in L’Isle Jourdain moments after arriving in the town started things off with a bang. 

I don’t know if it’s the magic of France or the fact that everyone’s lives felt paused for two years of pandemic, but I swear my friends all look EXACTLY the same as the last time I saw them.

Barbie and Andy used to live in town but have moved to Availles-Limouzine where Barbie runs a beautiful Bed & Breakfast called Le Source. They had just happened to stop at Le Dix for a glass of rosé on their way home, so we had a bonus early visit before I stayed with them,  fortunate to stay in one of their B&B guest rooms and felt like I was at a five-star hotel. But more on that later.

After a lovely chat over the local wine, I headed across the bridge to my friends Jo and Jamshid, who have a Gîte and Bed & Breakfast themselves called Maison La Roche Gîte. The last time I was here they had only just purchased the property and were starting to renovate. Well, to say they have created a beautiful space is an understatement. 

Jo and Jamshid had guests staying in their beautiful units when I arrived, so I got to “glamp” it up in their cute camper in their neighbouring garden, complete with an outdoor jacuzzi tub! When I arrived a barbecue was in full swing with several of their friends enjoying snacks and drinks in the private camper garden. I got reacquainted with their sweet dog Amber and was introduced to the newest member of their family, Twiglet the cat. It was a relaxing and entertaining evening after a day of driving, and they even had turned the jacuzzi tub on for me to have a soak before heading to bed!

The rooms and amenities for their guests are so lovely- a perfect combination of French and country chic, combining classic style and cozy, unique accents. Jo gave me a tour and I think I was gushing at ever room we stepped into. (I also loved the playful wallpaper choices on a couple accent walls, and the kitchen designs particularly.)

The real coup in my opinion was their glorious courtyard that had everything you could want; comfortable seating for visiting or eating, a hanging basket chair, a hammock, a flower garden and both Ivy and grape vines framing the space. A quiet, shady place to enjoy the outdoors but out of the direct sun on the +30-34 degree days we were having while I was there!

Just when I thought they had everything I could possibly need, they showed me the finished guest garden (the last time I’d been here, this space was simply a grass yard and a few lawn chairs!), now complete with multiple fruit trees, a sunning deck, a sweet dining area draped in wisteria vines, and a fabulous, fabulous above-ground pool! The pool was almost a necessity with the heat we were having and I floated around for well over an hour every time I got in. 


In my opinion, all this place needs is a hammock between the walnut trees for another shady lounging spot, and I would never want to leave…

The town and surrounding area has gotten quieter overall (which I did not believe was possible), with several more shops and restaurants now closed, but the beauty of the area remains and I enjoyed a couple of long walks around the beautiful church, across the viaduct, and past silent houses and gardens that already look closed up for winter. 


We also went to a house warming party of friends of theirs who had recently bought a house and had just moved in earlier that summer. There was a good number of friendly people, both Francophone and Anglophone, delicious food and wine, and a sweet dog who would casually try to sneak into the living room where the food was set out while we were all out on the balcony every time someone went inside to top up their glass or their plate. Our hosts also gave us a tour of the historical building, including the long and dark unfinished attic that one of the guests was certain was haunted. The community of friends in these smaller towns feels like it has extra value, particularly when there aren’t the usual amenities/entertainment of bigger cities. 

After a wonderful weekend, I bid au revoir to Jo and Jamshid to drive about fifteen minutes further south to the town of Availles-Limouzine to see Barbie and Andy!

Like Jo and Jamshid, they had dogs that I had spent a good deal of time with 6 long years ago, so it was exciting to see shaggy little Pedro and the feisty Lottie when I arrived to meet Barbie at their front gate. 

Barbie and Andy have a spacious property with a tall and elegant house that includes two beautiful ensuite rooms they use for a Bed & Breakfast that Barbie runs. The rooms feel like they were frozen in time as luxurious, classic French style, without being lugubrious. My room not only had a gorgeous big bed, classic wallpaper and furniture, a lovely bathroom (with the best water pressure I’ve possibly ever experienced), but also a balcony with a great view of their front garden and the nearby rooftops. 

Side note/cool little tidbit of history: this house was the first one in the town to have a toilet installed inside! It’s on this side of the house but is more of a talking point than a functional toilet these days.

Their back garden is hundreds of vibrant shades of green, and includes a greenhouse packed with green grapes, a sweet little patio, fruit trees, and lots of space. There’s also a comfortable outdoor seating area facing the front of the property that to me feels a bit like the edge of the fictional Secret Garden with cascading flowers, intertwined vines, and a lovely canopy of tree branches creating a cool shaded centre.

Pedro especially enjoyed this part of the yard and likes to stay cool under the bushes.

Barbie and Andy took me for dinner at a wonderful riverside restaurant in Saint-Germain de Confolons that roasts chicken and cooks pizza in a wood oven. It feels like a big community or family picnic with various types of seating under the trees along the water, kids running around, and the restaurant dog making the rounds, casually guarding the live chickens that strut around the riverside. 


Before long I was off to visit my friend Corinne in her new home in Montmorillon. Corinne was the reason I discovered this part of the country when I found her posting looking for volunteers with Workaway way back in 2016, when she was renovating a 100-year-old house to make it an artist retreat. I had taken a train out to Poitiers where Corinne picked me up and we truly only began to get to know each other as we drove the 60 minutes to L’Isle Jourdain. We were originally going to play it by ear that first week and see how things went before my stay was extended, but we hit it off so well I ended up spending 2 months working on the house with her and it was a dream of a summer (a couple posts about that here and here)! She has since then got married, had a beautiful little boy, and moved the artist retreat to Montmorillon. 

Compared to the last two towns, Montmorillon feels like a bustling metropolis with its one small movie theatre, multiple shops and grocery stores and restaurants, and it’s almost 6000 residents.

Well, when I arrived in my room at Casa Jufa I felt like I was being embraced in a warm hug. The rich wallpaper and bedding made me want to move in. I also had a charming balcony if I stepped out the window with more wisteria curling around the railing and a view of the Saint Martial church tower a stone’s throw away. 

Handmade dishes in the kitchen topped the homey-ness of this place, and it felt so personal to Corinne, a blend of warmth and artistry. 

Our reunion was simply wonderful and it felt like no time had passed since we’d seen each other, despite our crazy adventures over the last half decade. 

Meeting her husband Diego and son Ari were a clear explanation of how incredibly full of joy and contentment Corinne’s life is these days. Diego made me feel right at home, and Ari was quick to share his love of trucks and stickers and monopoly game pieces with me. A multilingual family reminded me of my double-down decision to get back into practicing and improving my French. 

We went for a walk up to Chappelle-Saint-Laurent to get a great view of the city, and had crepes at Le Brouard that were just as memorable as they were my last visit here! These are not just any crepes; they are luxurious, hearty meals wrapped in a buckwheat galette. Many have superstar names like The Elvis or The David Guetta.


I’m sure the dessert offerings are fantabulous as well but honestly, I don’t know how I’d ever have the appetite to eat a loaded sweet version of what we ate for dinner after that! 

An early morning stroll along the walking trail beside the river here made for a few snack blackberries, some further garden envy, and photos capturing the morning sunshine.

We met up to check out the local market that happens every Wednesday, with fresh produce, cheeses, coffee, textiles, leather goods, soap, jewelry, …and mattresses. (I am so curious as to who goes to a market to buy aubergines, eggs, strawberries, cheese, …and a mattress before heading home for lunch… but hey, I’m still learning how to live like a local. 😉)

There simply wasn’t enough time to spend the time with these incredible humans, so I of course have plans to come back and visit again soon. I absolutely love it here. 

Even more than *gasp* …Paris ?!

And who knows, maybe next time the trip could include some house hunting… 😉

From the mountain to the seaside

Week three in Bali began on Sunday afternoon when we checked out of The Firefly Resort and Rachel, Kaska, and I hopped into a taxi with our good pal Ketut and headed out to hike Mount Batur at sunrise in the northern part of Bali.

On our way just had to stop at the Tegallalang Rice Terraces and wander about.

A rice season here takes about 3-5 months and because weather is pretty consistent year round, every area is on a different planting/harvesting schedule. At one end of the terraces there were young seedlings freshly planted, but the area we were in had been harvested recently and was drying up.

As we got further and further north, rice fields turned into mandarin orange orchards, and we drove past fields of tomatoes and onions and cabbage.
The mineral-rich volcanic soil closer to the mountainous north is excellent for growing all sorts of things.

Seriously, it feels like they can grow anything in Bali!

We started driving by numerous beautiful  fruit stands and had to stop.

We picked up 2kg worth of mangos, about a dozen mandarin oranges, and a big bunch of mangostines.

We had the most hilarious time trying to find yet another accommodation; the Triangle House hotel was another tucked away secret, apparently, as the google maps location was incorrect and the property was so small and so low (and surrounded by tall bamboo fencing) that we drove right past it. Twice.

When we finally found it and saw our accommodation in real life, I was reminded of Swedish design. If the palm-leaf roofs were wood shingles instead, it would have completed the look as if we were staying in a cedar sauna house.

The hotel has only been open since December and everything was in pristine condition. This was already the most charming place I had stayed in so far.

These buildings contained only a bed, a side table, and two shelves. There were hooks outside to dry clothes/towels, and shared washrooms/showers behind. They put a soft, freshly washed duvet on the bed just after we arrived, and for the first time in Bali we didn’t even think about air conditioning. It was actually slightly cool in the evening… perhaps thanks to the elevation and mountain air.

Because originally, Rachel had booked the hotel for a solo trip up here, the booking was only for one person. Instead of booking another hotel somewhere for Kaska and I, we hoped we would be able to convince them to let us stay here and just pay them extra. (When I had tried to book another room in advance they were all full up- which was no surprise, it turns out they only had 4 rooms!)

English was not a strength for any of the staff there, but we got by with some charades and exaggerated gestures, and they seemed to be fine with having three girls share a room- and they even moved us to a slightly larger building.

I had been connected with Dewa, a local driver and guide who was friends with one of my best friends back home. They had met when she was here on a yoga retreat, and when I told him we wanted to climb Mount Batur he suggested that night as the weather was supposed to be perfect. He was taking two other Canadians up and asked if we wanted to join them. We had originally planned to go on the Monday night but at that point hadn’t secured a guide so we took him up on his offer.

(When you climb Mount Batur you need a guide. If you read any stories or blogs about people attempting to climb it solo, you will see how much hassle/issues they have with the locals. It’s considered extremely disrespectful to the local people, and particularly if you do a sunrise hike and go up in complete darkness, it can be dangerous. )

The total cost was 900,000 Indonesian Rupiah, which works out to about $90 Canadian. Between the 5 of us it only cost $18 each, which was a full $50 cheaper than what I found online when I was researching my trip before Christmas. Clearly it is best to wait until you get here to book a guide and you will get a much better deal!!

We went to bed at about 8pm, as our alarms would be going off at 3am that morning. Headlamps, water bottles, and running shoes at the ready, we awoke to our earliest morning yet, and headed out the door to meet Dewa at the gate.

The hike started shortly after 3:30am and we were moving at a very speedy pace. It may have had something to do with the other two Canadians being trail runners and they seemed to be racing to get to the top. I was the slowest of the group as it felt like the humidity in the air cancelled out any of my athleticism, and the struggle to breathe was actually worrying. Dewa suggested regular 20 second breaks, and I took them often, immediately turning back to look up at the stars.

The sky took the little that was left of my breath away. The canopy of bright stars were clearer and more plentiful than I have seen in years. I was awestruck.

My friends were happy to pause and we all marvelled at the view (while I tried not to pass out).

We still reached the top in about 90 minutes, climbing 700 meters over 4 km. The average group takes 1.5-2 hours to get to the top.

We were one of the first groups up there and we added our up-until-then seemingly laughable warm outer layers to counteract the cool mountaintop weather‘s effect on our sweaty bodies.

We were told that once there was a bit more light we could wander further along the ridge above the crater where steam still pours out.

(Mount Batur is actually a volcano, and another volcano in Indonesia did erupt within the last two weeks, causing a tsunami in Indonesian islands further north of Bali. No big deal.)

The sunrise was absolutely incredible. We took countless photos, including the ‘vital’ though obviously cliché yoga pose silhouettes.

It was so much fun, and we snuck further along the ridge so we could get some photos without having to dodge and deke around other people to get a good shot.

We came across the steam curling up off the mountain and it was like walking past a nordic spa and facial steam. And it was so warm!

It turns out our guided hike included breakfast: our guides cooked us eggs using only the steam on the mountain, and served them to us with sticky coconut rice. It was delicious.

Just as we were finishing up, about 15 monkeys came up out of the forest and hung out, waiting for leftover food. It was hilarious to turn around and see a monkey peeling and eating an egg like he had just come on the hike with us.

The hike down was hot but only about an hour, so we arrived back at Triangle House just after 8am and took showers.

Best mango ever

We looked over photos while we drank strong black tea with raw sugar and were just dividing up a mango when our hosts asked if we wanted the complimentary breakfast that came with the room. The options were: banana pancakes with honey or chocolate, toast with various spreads, or a “jaffle”: a soft-cooked egg inside two pieces of bread toasted in a round sandwich press. The other two had banana pancakes and I had a jaffle.

We all felt deserving of a late morning nap, and then at about noon we went out to the garden to have a tea when it started to rain. A lot.

I didn’t have my phone with me to document it but let me tell you, as we sat there the wall of water between us and our bedroom became an opaque silver curtain, and it just wouldn’t stop.

As the rain pounded down in monsoon-like fashion, we sat and sipped 2nd and 3rd cups of tea, watching geometric rivers form in between the raised paving stone pathways around the garden and hotel buildings.

The owner of the hotel went out during this time and returned with beautiful multi-coloured umbrellas and brought them over to us, insisting we use them for the rest of our stay.

We befriended the owners’ 3-year old as he played in the rain and made faces at us. It was that evening that another little boy joined him and by the time we were heading to bed they were hanging off our table and making faces and playing monsters & zombies and being silly with us.

When the rain finally let up (after several games of Crazy Eights and multiple cups of tea), we took the umbrellas and wandered over to the lake, in search of the famous Hot Springs and some dinner.

We didn’t feel inclined to jump in any of the pools (starting at $19 to get in), and went for food instead. We found ourselves on the very edge of the lake at the quietest restaurant I have ever been to (we actually thought it was closed when they waved us over) and while we waited for our food we watched locals setting out fishnets along the shoreline.

I had chicken saté there, and I’m pretty sure that the sauce was the best I’ve ever had in my life.

We got a ride back to Ubud the next morning by a friend of the hotel owner and from there I was heading to a hostel for the night and Rachel and Kashka were catching the shuttle to meet our fellow yogis Ange and Aneta in Kuta before their flights home.

The women’s dorm I had all to myself!

The view from my room

I got to enjoy one night in Ubud wandering charming streets, perusing unique souvenirs (like cool multicoloured travel/camping hammocks!) and finished the evening with some live music and great food!

Pad Thai!!

An early morning shuttle pickup mean that once again I was up before the sun, and then off to Padangbai to catch a fast boat that would be a 75 minute ride across to the Gili Islands off the coast of Lombok.

Along the port for the fast boat to Gili, there were locals selling Bintang beer, Pringles and Dorito chips, and fresh fruit.
Verbatim, a woman selling snacks:
“Something something chips? Yes? Pring-less? Doreet-as? Doreet-as?”

We moved along the shoreline of the mainland of Bali and as we passed by the coastal town of Candidasa I noticed how black the shoreline is. Volcanic sand. 🙂

The highlight of this voyage was not only the discovery that I could hang out on the roof of the boat and listen to tunes cranked by the crew on their stereo, but the pod of dolphins that appeared out of nowhere and leapt across the waves along the side of the boat for several minutes! There were at least 12 of them!! (No video or photos as this moment was too magical to look through a lens for!)

The boat ended up being about 90% full and most people were headed to Gili Trawlangan – the biggest and liveliest of the islands where people go to party. 

Then there is the middle island, Gili Mano, which is apparently the quietest and most romantic. Not ideal for a solo traveller… unless maybe you are learning to love yourself…

I was headed to Gili Air, which is apparently the best of both worlds. Chill and relaxed, with some nice shops, yoga studios, dive/snorkel clubs, and restaurants to enjoy.

But really, I was going for some quality ocean time.

Swimming, snorkelling, and kayaking were on the top of my list.

The island also had many charming pathways and inviting entrances to all the home stays, hotels, and resorts here.

No vehicles or motorbikes are allowed on the island so it’s quite quiet. Occasionally, you will hear the sound of a horse and cart go by only because the horses wear bells that jingle as they prance and their hooves click on some of the paved roads.

VIDEO TO COME

The central mosque on the island

Most of the people on the islands are Muslim so there are no temples like in Bali.  Every day we could hear the morning and evening calls to prayer at dawn and dusk at the large central mosque.

Because flowers aren’t used in daily offerings, this means that the beautiful frangipani trees are always blooming with plenty of flowers that I can pick and put in my hair…

Gili Air is also called Rock Island because of all the coral that washes up on shore here.

In the low season, on a rainy afternoon, this island felt very *quiet*.

Barren, practically.

I learned that there was a huge earthquake in Lombok only four months ago, and it impacted the Gili islands greatly. Several shops and restaurants are still closed and you can see some places where entire buildings came down. The beautiful beach was lined with empty restaurant loungers and tables and hammocks. Beach umbrellas were closed, chair cushions were stacked, and my footprints were the only set on the beach.

I was glad to have my umbrella because at any given moment a heavy downpour was ready in the next set of clouds, and I made good use of it, and often found myself tiptoeing through puddles and pathways that were quiet as the rain poured down and everyone took cover.

I found a sweet little restaurant called Musa and I decided to try their vegan carrot cake. I picked the most comfortable looking spot in the restaurant; a beautiful big swing with comfortable cushions.

My server, Ending, [yes that is his name] suggested that next time I come, I try the treehouse. Because this restaurant has a treehouse.

The carrot cake was some of the best I’ve ever had. I swore I would come back the next day and try something else.

The first morning here looked like we were getting a bit of sun, and a storm was forecast for the afternoon. So I decided to sign up for a snorkelling adventure that morning! I brought my own full face mask which I was eager to try out. The trip promised sea turtles, underwater statues, and lots of fish! We took off at about 9:30 AM and went to our first location, just off the east shore of Gili Mano. I decided to put my $12 waterproof phone case to the test and try to capture the stunning under-the-sea sights I so often discover but can never share.

Not only was I delighted to discover the case worked, but I caught the absolute highlight of the day: a stunning, graceful sea turtles gliding by.

The downside, was the jellyfish. Tiny, aggressive, though almost invisible little demons. I was wearing a T-shirt, as I often do to snorkel in order to not burn my back. There was a point where I was sure I had trapped about six angry creatures inside the shirt so they could just keep stinging away to their hearts content. I ripped it off and tossed it up into the boat for the remainder of the day.

Sadly, by the time we got to our third spot, the jellyfish were so bad that no one had any interest in staying in the water and we all turned around simultaneously and beat our guide back to the boat. In the end it was probably for the best, as the aforementioned storm came up and it started to rain just as we began our return to Gili Air.

Back in Bali I was always catching incredible sunrises. Well, here: it was all about the sunsets.

Oh the sunsets on this island!!

The Friday night I was here I glimpsed the sun going down through the palm trees and I booked it over to the west beach to catch one of the most gorgeous sunsets I have ever seen.

Even the locals seem to come to the beach at this time to sit and watch the sun go down. Some people stood in the shallows casually tossing fishing lines out into the water although they didn’t seem to be expecting anything at the other end. Some smoked cigarettes or sat in the sand drinking bottles of Bintang.

A further highlight to the evening was a beachside barbecue at one of the resorts nearby. The Oasis Resort had a huge screen set up and as I walked by the staff said “yes? You stay for movie night and dinner?”

I couldn’t resist.

The options for dinner were: locally caught tuna, saté chicken, prawns, or tofu/tempeh skewers and an all-you/can-eat buffet for $10.

When I mentioned I couldn’t decide between the tuna and chicken saté, they said they could give me a deal and I got both! A beautiful tuna steak seared on the barbecue, and two delicious saté chicken skewers.

The film was Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle, and though I had seen it already, I grabbed a lounge chair and settled in to indulge in this beachside movie night with the soothing waves lapping the shore on my right. About ten minutes into the movie the staff brought out individual coconut bowls of popcorn for each of us! So awesome.

Oh yeah, and the sunset.

Breakfast fresh fruit

The next day I woke up to sunshine and heat and no sign of a storm or any rain at all! I was headed to the beach for a kayak, and then discovered they don’t rent kayaks until the afternoon as the tide is too low to get out there. They suggested I return just before sunset.

There are lots of yoga studios on the island, as well as diving training pools and shops, restaurants, and spa services everywhere you looked.

Oh, the flowers on this island!

Stunning mural at a local yoga studio

Back at Musa, I finished reading my ‘vacation novel’, a birthday gift from my friend Allison, while enjoying a cold fresh young coconut, in the treehouse. 😎

After exploring the island (you can wander across the entire thing back and forth in less than an hour), I found a lovely restaurant that was part of a resort.

I decided to splurge and booked a villa there for my last night. When I was looking at the website I knew they had me at ‘private pool’. With the stormy weather we had been having I hadn’t done nearly as much swimming as I had wanted on the island, and the pool was saltwater so I felt like that was a proper nod to the ocean (and definitely better: sans jellyfish)!

When I arrived at my new hotel in the early afternoon I was handed a fresh watermelon juice and my bag was carried to my villa through a shaded canopy walkway made of bougainvillea branches.

And oh, the pool. ❤️

One look at this place and I was tempted to stay longer on this island…

Everyone here is so friendly and I can see why people stay longer on the islands and really get to know the locals.

My hotel lent out free bikes so it was easy to get around the island last couple of days and do a bit of speedier exploring. I shared a pizza with a couple Canadians at a beach-side bar, took some photos for other solo travellers on the water swings, and was invited to come listen to a jam session with some of the locals at one of the restaurants later that evening.

Not my bike…. “bike in a palm tree” art installation?

Vegan strawberry coconut cheesecake at Musa

My last evening on Gili Air, I headed over to the beach and the hotel that rented kayaks. Pink Coco is the name of the hotel  and everything is magenta, from the beach chairs and the umbrella to the Instagram-worthy swing in the water, the hotel front, and the pool. $15 for an hour was just perfect for my final night, and I definitely had the best view of the sunset.

(My first ever kayak at sunset. Not too shabby.)

Indonesia, you raise the bar for sunsets to a whole other level. 😍

I was very sad to leave this magical place but was looking forward to heading back to Ubud for another yoga retreat week!

Goodnight, private pool. ❤️

Firefly Resort: A True Hidden Gem.

Everyone is a morning person in Bali.

Even when this night owl got up at a shockingly early 5:30am to catch the sunrise, when I stepped outside my room I could see rice farmers already bent over the fields surrounding the retreat.

I’m amazed when I think how many times this trip I have been up to see the sunrise.

Who am I?!

Our first day of our yoga retreat began at 7:00am with 30 minutes of meditation before our one-hour yoga class. It was a nice way to meet everyone and start our week with focus.

I very quickly realized that all yoga is hot yoga in Bali.

After the first practice slipping and sliding in my downward dog and warrior poses I realized it would be necessary to bring a towel to class from now on.

Laura- our yoga instructor

From the moment I first met our yoga instructor Laura, I could tell that she was a warm and generous soul, and with her beautiful Argentinian accent, all the poses sound like moves in a sexy Latin dance class.

After yoga we all went straight for a buffet breakfast of pancakes, fruit, banana-coconut ‘yogurt’, toast with homemade spreads, and granola.

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Everything was freshly made, and some of the fruit was even picked at the resort. The granola continued to be the surprise highlight of our mornings for the entire retreat and we joked we would have brought baggies and containers to take every last grain with us on the final morning.

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All the meals at Firefly are vegetarian, and made in a tiny kitchen off the eating area by a small number of staff, including 3 guys we slowly got to know named Wayan, Ninja, and Agung.

There were only six participants in the yoga retreat this week, which was magical, as normally the resort has 10-12 people per week.

The girls!! L to R: Rachel, Laura, Ange, Sara, Jackie, Kaska & Aneta in front

(And when I met four of them Sunday night when I got back from dinner, I was relieved to find out I wasn’t the only one who struggled to find the place. One of the girls ended up at a completely different address, and the other 3 all thought when they arrived at the bottom of the hill that a) they were either lost or b) the resort didn’t actually exist. I have already offered to paint a sign for Firefly to put at the bottom of that hill, but they just chuckled, like I was making a joke.)

I shared a room with Rachel; a fun, energetic girl who just finished a 4-month trip in Australia. She was a kinesiology student and happened to be the only other Canadian of the group.

Roomies!

This photo is the view right outside our room.

We spend every moment that is not scheduled by or in the pool.
Of course.

On Tuesday, our favourite staff member and tour guide Coco led us through a traditional offering/prayer process at the local temple, and then were taught how to make two kinds of ‘canang‘ (pronounced CHa-nang): traditional coconut leaf baskets for offerings!

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You often see Balinese people with flower petals behind one or both ears, and we learned that it was part of the prayer and offering that Balinese people traditionally do one to three times a day. Every day we saw people (women primarily) setting out offerings outside homes, on the street, on cars, and at temples.

They start every day with gratitude and offerings. No wonder the Balinese are such happy people.

Canang materials

Completed canangs with incense burning

Every day we had two yoga practices: one at 7am, and one at 5pm. Typically in the morning we had Flow Yoga, and then in the afternoons we did classes ranging from Hatha to Vinyasa to Yin yoga. Most of the women here were intermediate level yoginis, and Laura made it a challenging, varied week (with a total of 12 classes).

On our third morning we did partner yoga, which I had never tried. I was paired up with Jackie, a teacher from Tasmania. We were a pretty excellent team, if I do say so myself.

POOL TIME!!

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Journaling next to the pool. Rough life!

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After we expressed concerns on the first day, the plastic straws were replaced with beautiful glass straws.

We got one young coconut every day at the retreat and we would often ask for it at breakfast and store it in the mini fridge in our room until the afternoon where we could enjoy it chilled by the pool.

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Coco telling us all about the coffee they grow here.

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We got to try a coffee tasting at the resort, with traditional coffee made from the coffee plants on their property(in fact, growing right next to the yoga studio)!!!

We tried coffee with ginger added, lemon and honey, and turmeric. I was surprised how much I liked honey and lemon in coffee! But the ginger coffee was my favourite.

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SUNRISE TIME!!

We went on a bike tour on the Thursday through the area where a lot of filming for the movie Eat Pray Love, and apparently now has many new hotels because of that.

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A cashew tree with the fruit on it!

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We stopped to talk to these rice farmers who were prepping rice for planting

We arrived at Bali Geo coffee plantation and got a tour of the grounds.

As we walked through, our guide pointed out cool things like the beehives on the property, cinnamon trees, and types of spices and coffee beans they grow.

They not only grew two kinds of coffee beans (Robusta and Arabica) but also sold the famous Luwak coffee that comes from the undigested beans that the Luwak animals eat and poop out.

They kept several Luwak (animals that almost look like dark brown versions of red pandas) on site for 2-3 months at a time to eat and ‘process’ the coffee beans, and then they release them back into the wild and they collect more animals to keep on the grounds for the next few months.

We were given samples of various types of tea and coffee they have on the plantation. From lychee and mangostee tea, to mocha and vanilla coffee, we tried 14 different drinks, including durian coffee. (Durian being the really stinky fruit that is banned in some countries on transit and in hotels).

We decided to share a cup of Luwak coffee just so we could all try it. You had to pay for this fancy “ca-ca-coffee”. Depending on the fruit the animals eat and the type of coffee beans they ingest, the Luwak coffee flavour varies. The animals eat the beans because the fruit on the outside of the coffee bean is sweet and digested by the animals. The bean itself does not break down and the seeds ferment in the stomachs of the animals in the fruit juices of what they eat. They poo them out and the beans are gathered, washed, dried, washed again, and then dried and roasted.

We tried it. But we did not like it.

We all thought it tasted like bad coffee. So, to each his own, but we don’t get what the fuss is about.

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We got to take a Balinese cooking class at the retreat and learn how to make jackfruit curry. I have heard that jackfruit is becoming a real trend as a vegetarian option, and when it is picked before it is ripe it is perfect for cooking.

Here’s our host and instructor Ariel showing off ingredients. He looks serious until the camera comes out!

Ninja had to wear gloves and spray a large knife with oil in order to cut open the jackfruit because there is a sticky sap-like juice around the fruit that is just like glue. Once the jackfruit is rinsed it is ready to cook. We chopped and juiced the rest of the ingredients in the meantime.

img_7429We each had our own pot on a hot plate heated up with oil, we poured the juiced ingredients in the pot, then added water, the lime leaf, and the lemon grass.

We chopped the jackfruit into large pieces and tossed it in the boiling pot for 20 minutes, and then got to eat it for lunch with rice and shrimp crackers! It was awesome!!!

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Jackfruit curry recipe:

Purée the following:

Ginger (2 tbsp raw, peeled, chopped)

Garlic (4-5 cloves, chopped)

1 medium mild pepper, chopped

1/2-1 hot pepper (depending on desired spicy level), chopped

1 tbsp fresh turmeric root, peeled and chopped

3 small shallots, chopped

Heat 1 Tbsp of sunflower oil in sauce pot. Add puréed ingredients.

Add:

1 L water

1 lime leaf

1 stick lemongrass (cut lengthwise)

Used oiled knife to cut unripe (young) jackfruit and rinse off sticky residue.  Add sliced chunks of jackfruit to pot.

Simmer for 20 minutes.

Serve with rice.

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In the afternoon we learned to make Jamu, a Balinese herbal drink that is served both hot and cold in Bali. It is often used to cure colds, and has turmeric and ginger, and tamarind in it.

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Again, we minced and then pureed all the ingredients except the pandan leaf, lime juice, and fresh ginger. We added the juiced ingredients to the pot with  pandan leaf and a piece of peeled ginger and let it boil, adding salt to taste. We then poured it through a sieve into mugs and added lime juice.

It’s crazy strange but definitely tastes healthy. Almost like a sweet & sour soup.

Our instructor tried every pot of Jamu and gave us marks out of 10 on taste. It turns out we all needed more salt. (Jackie and I tied for first place with a score of 7/10)

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Jamu recipe:

Boil the following:

Pandan leaf (used for colour and smell)

Turmeric (puréed)

Tamarind massaged/crushed into ¼ cup water (pulp/seeds strained)

Fresh ginger (1 tbsp, peeled)

Salt (1-2 tsp) to taste

1L water

Pour through a sieve into a cup.

Then add Lime (1 tsp of juice).

Drink warm or chilled.

 

Our last full day at the retreat had no scheduled activities outside of our two yoga practices and a nighttime firefly excursion to close the week.

We booked my friend from the weekend before, our driver and ‘tour guide extraordinaire’ Ketut to take us on a tour around some temples and waterfalls. We also hoped to get to the Monkey Forest and do the Campuhan Ridge walk.

As soon as we were done breakfast, Rachel, Aneta, Jackie, Kaska and I headed to the Temple Goa Gajah (also known as the Elephant Temple).

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We all donned our sarongs (they are provided for free with your ticket if you do not bring your own), and Ketut brought us through, giving us the history of the grounds (as a local who brought us there, he doesn’t have to pay the entrance fee to get in).

These fountains used to be where the king would bathe.

This is the famous temple where the king would worship.

We then went on the search for some waterfalls!

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Me and Aneta

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First, we went to Kanto Lampo waterfall which is a beautiful cascading wall of rocks and fine spray.

It was very busy and we spent most of our time there waiting for a couple taking photos at the centre of the rocks who had a photographer down below keeping other people off the rocks.

People were polite for about 10 minutes and then Rachel was one of the impatient folks who just started crawling up to get some fun shots.

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We moved on to my favourite spot of the day, the Air Terjun Tibumana waterfall. When we got to it there were only a handful of people there, including a cute engagement photo shoot on the shoreline.

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The photo opportunities were endless and it was a stunning spot.

Kaska and Rachel having some fun with rocks, and Aneta being a model for me

Because everyone was staying on the shore I asked if we were allowed to swim in the water. When I was told we could I threw off my dress and then leapt into that gorgeous water as fast as I possibly could. It felt like I had my very own personal waterfall.

I could have stayed in there for the entire day!

We then went to the Monkey Forest Sanctuary and it didn’t rain this time!

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Rachel stoked to see some monkeys!

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There were loads of detailed sculptures throughout the forest

 

I can’t believe we still had time to make it to the Campuhan Ridge, but we did, and it was magnificent. About a 60- to 90- minute walk to the end and back, unless you stop for a coconut at one of the restaurants at the end.

One word I can use to describe Bali is lush. Everywhere you look, it’s this gorgeous green.

Somehow after all that we made it back for our last yoga class of the week, and our final evening was spent walking around the grounds after sunset finding fireflies. The bonus of the night was definitely Coco singing us some Balinese songs.

On our final morning we all practically ran to the pool after stuffing our faces with our last delicious breakfast.

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We had a little pool photo shoot and then Rachel, Kaska, and I were picked up by Ketut to begin our drive north to Mount Batur for the start of another fantastic week on this inspiring island.

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Up next: the absolute highlight of this week in detail!!

 

 

 

 

My first week in Bali!

Good morning, Indonesia!!

I woke up on the other side of the world and couldn’t believe I had an entire month ahead of me to explore this island.

At this point I had only planned the first two weeks: I would spend the first two days in the trendy/touristy area of Seminyak, then four days further south on Balangan Beach. The second week I had booked my first ever yoga retreat in the rice fields near Ubud.

A continental breakfast was included at the Aswana Seminyak hotel, which I thought would be the easiest way to start the first morning of my vacation. It was picture perfect and was served to me with a cup of hot tea in the quiet lobby of the hotel with a view of the pool.

We had wind and a little rain on those first couple of days which kept it a bit cooler, but I was still very aware that the moisturizer I brought was completely superfluous and any sunscreen I put on my face would inevitably melt off as the day went on.

Oh the humidity!

Just a beautiful stone carving in between restaurants…

People watching on the beach…

It wasn’t weather for swimming, and in fact the beach had red flags up all along the shoreline, some with skull and crossbones on them, and ‘swimming is prohibited’ in English and Indonesian.

This of course meant it was ideal weather for surfers, and many folks took to the waves to practice. I was thisclose to trying it out myself…

Instead, I bought my first young coconut and sat at a coffee shop on the beach watching the waves.

In addition to January being the off-season, the stormy weather made for quieter waterfront restaurants, although they looked like they were ready for throngs of tourists at any moment.

Walking down the streets I saw many small and large temples and small offerings on ledges, shelves, or even just on the sidewalk, and it was clear how much the Hindu faith is part of the culture here. Colourful flowers, food, and incense were the most common offerings I could see.

Shops and spas and restaurants lined the streets and you couldn’t go halfway down a block without coming upon Balinese women saying “massage, Miss? Spa treatment, yes?”

Well, twist my rubber arm.

When a one-hour reflexology massage is $10, you are tempted to get one daily.

And maybe because the day before I walked 17,000 steps in Seoul, I went deluxe and tried out the fish tank foot treatment first…

😳

I wish there had been a camera on me when I first put my feet in the water and the tiny fish started nibbling. I squealed like a little kid. It’s the strangest thing ever. Not sure I’d do it again, but it was an interesting experience.

The pool at my hotel was gorgeous and no one used it while I was there except me. It felt like I had booked it for my private use. I did not hate this.

My hotel was a 20 minute walk to the beach and I saw a good sample of what sort of souvenirs and crafts I could get here. From handwoven dreamcatchers and lantern covers to carved wooden statues to candles and jewelry and beautiful fabrics, I realized that it may be a very good thing I can check two bags on the way home…

The beach here felt like it was definitely more of a touristy/party area and it reminded me of the resort spots in Mexico or the Bahamas. I even walked past a sports bar with a huge pool in the middle.

This restaurant had coconut trees on top and a ladder set up and ready to go to collect them!

I enjoyed my first Nasi Goreng (fried rice) and a mango lassi at this beautiful little hotel and restaurant. With its own little waterfall.

A mango lime lassi! Delicious!!

It was while I was in Seminyak that Anna, a childhood friend (that I had not seen in, oh, 25 years), messaged me on Facebook. She has been living in Germany for the last seven years, happened to be in Bali on her honeymoon, and suggested we meet up! We planned to get together later in the week.

In the meantime I enjoyed some excellent meals, massages, and window shopping in Seminyak.

Amazing salmon poke

Before I knew it I was heading to my second location on Balangan Beach, a surf hotspot on the south peninsula of Bali, and I was hoping to get in some surf lessons while I was there.

My driver had trouble finding the resort and ended up dropping me off on what looked like a rocky cliff face, where I was instructed to hike my gear down the pathway to my hotel.

As I waved goodbye to my driver and carefully stepped my flip-flop wearing feet down the rocky hill, I thought “Well this place sure is remote!”

I got to my hotel at the bottom, and the girl in the lobby/restaurant/poolside area basically took me at my word that I had a reservation, and ‘checked me in’ by writing my first name (“Serrah”) and “Room 2” in an ancient looking ledger.

“Retro!” I thought.

And then she took me to my room.

We walked behind the main building to a long thatched-roof building. The doors were woven palm leaves and looked very old. I felt a twinge of concern as she unhooked a very rusty padlock from the door and opened it into my room.

I may have let out a slight gasp.

Now the kindest word I could give this place was RUSTIC.

Like, shockingly rustic.

I feel I should have been more prepared for the rusticness I came upon.

In fact this may be the place where the word ‘rustic’ originated… 😂

All (somewhat true/panicked) jokes aside, this place first made me think of Belize and their small villages and typical rural homes (see: huts). Just add one light switch and running water.

The walls/roof of my room were rattan/palm leaves. There were places I could see right through them.

My shower was a bamboo pole with a switch halfway up that opened and closed the hose that lets water pour out the top.

There was a large knothole in my floor that I could see the jungle below through.

The way I ‘locked’ my door from the inside was by jamming a piece of bamboo in a notch. I locked it from the outside with the rusty padlock and a key that look older than me.

The one tiny and dim lightbulb hanging crookedly from the ceiling, the grey mosquito nets, and the ancient dusty floor fan in the corner were the most humorous juxtaposition to the ‘welcome to your honeymoon suite’ look of two ridiculous towels folded into kissing swans that had been so delicately placed at the foot of my bed.

I honestly had to take several deep breaths and tell myself I’d be fine.

My first thought was: This is the place I got all those vaccines for.

#jokingnotjoking

I tried to put myself in the mindset that maybe this is more like what I should expect in Bali. Maybe my hotel in Seminyak was an overly fancy and rare example of what places are like here.

Either way the photos of this hotel that I saw online did not tell the whole story and did not meet my expectations. (Buyer beware.)

To get my mind off what I had gotten myself into I took off for a walk down the beach to the north end where the water and waves were stunning, and many people were making using of the photo opportunities with that view.

Along the way I saw several people learning to surf and particularly enjoyed watching one guy triumphantly punch his fists into the air as he succeeded at his first surf in to shore. I hoped I would enjoy it as much as that!

I couldn’t believe the number of stray dogs here. They almost outnumbered the people. They would lie in the shade of people’s beach umbrellas, tussle in the sand with each other, and hang out next to the restaurants likely hoping for scraps.

Just a pooch chilling by the pool.

And then I got to the end of the beach and the wedding photographers almost outnumbered the stray dogs!

I counted 9 or 10 couples taking either wedding photos or engagement photos; on the sand, in the water, and up along the cliff overlooking the water.

I got some Mie Goreng (fried noodles with egg) at one of the restaurants on the beach and booked a surf lesson for the next morning.

That night was …interesting. The mosquito netting was an absolute must-have as this place was SO buggy. That and probably full of other creatures I didn’t want to think about. A foot-long gecko occasionally creeped in and out of my bathroom and I just hoped he would be hungry enough to eat all the scary bugs. The hole in the floor made me wonder what sort of things regularly crawled through so I put my flip flops over it so I wouldn’t be reminded of it. Plus it was a dusty, stale oven in that room; I was so hot that the ancient floor fan was just effective enough to keep me from dragging my pillow down to the beach and hoping for the best.

Needless to say, I was delighted when morning came and I could get some fresh air and breakfast. And my first banana pancake of the trip.

This beach is definitely a hotspot for surfers and folks learning how to surf. The waves aren’t very big this time of year, but they are constant so it’s a good place to try out your skills as a newbie at high tide.

Armed with a surf shirt and surfer booties (neoprene slippers) we found some shade on the sand to do some intro lessons on how to lie on a board, paddle, and stand up and balance.

The best part was when we went out to the ‘white water’; broken foamy waves. My instructor Jack would hold my board ready and then give me a push when a wave came along and yell “up!” when it was time for me to stand up on my board.

I was absolutely overjoyed when I first succeeded, getting up to standing and riding my longboard into shore, jumping off before reaching the spot where the coral reef broke through the sand. I turned around and raised my arms in triumph and Jack cheered from the waves!

I was able to get to a decent balanced standing position about seven or eight times during our 60 minute lesson. It was amazing!!

I booked a second lesson with Jack for the next morning and went in to get some shade.

A large bottle of water, and a chicken sandwich and fries for lunch, followed by a swim in the hotel pool, brought me to the early afternoon. I had been thinking of finding a new hotel as I didn’t quite feel like I could do the dark, grass-walls, hot room for another two nights. Plus, my friend Anna invited me to their resort in Nusa Dua on the Saturday and I thought maybe I should just find a room in that area.

I was sitting by the pool (where I could access the wifi) and started looking up hotels when I wondered if I’d had a bit too much sun. I needed to lie down so the hotel search was paused.

At about 4:30, I still couldn’t pull myself out of bed and felt awful. I ended up staying in bed through the night and what turned out to be food poisoning made me fully sick at about 10pm. It was after that that I dragged myself to the lobby to send off an email to my friend and travel agent that basically said “I cannot stay here another night, please book me something with real walls and air conditioning in Nusa Dua.”

I texted my driver Purna and asked him to pick me up the next morning and take me to Nusa Dua. I apologized to Jack and cancelled my 2nd surf lesson.

We got to Mercure Nusa Dua and I was relieved to find a cool and quiet room in this 5 star resort. I’d got a good deal on the room but I would have given them all my money to have a good night’s sleep at that point! I was happy to drop off my gear and know I was coming back here that night.

When I arrived at Anna’s resort and was brought to the Villa lobby, I knew that I was upgrading my day exponentially.

Anna came to get me and bring me down to the beach to the reserved chairs she and her wife had booked for the three of us that day. She also had surf board rentals organized, and ordered us all fresh coconuts to drink when I arrived. Deluxe!

How does one start catching up on 25 years? The last time Anna and I saw each other we were in elementary school!

We had a great time chatting and sharing stories of our lives and clearly Anna and Samantha were having a fabulous honeymoon with one week in Nusa Dua, and then heading up north to do some “glamping” for their second week.

We went back to their villa and went swimming in the unbelievably gorgeous lagoon that runs all along the back of the villas there. (Sorry, no photos of the lagoon!)

Their private pool

The secret lagoon is through that gate. Best discovery ever!

Anna and Samantha were doing a day trip to Ubud the next day and offered to take me to my yoga retreat if I wanted to share a driver.

We were picked up at 8am by their driver Ketut, and we proceeded to have an adventure-filled day.

A driver costs about $60-70 (CAD) for the day (10 hours max), and we got more than our money’s worth with Ketut!

Ketut was like a driver and tour guide in one, telling us all sort of fascinating aspects about the sights along our way and the Balinese people. In addition to all the temple offerings we were seeing in the streets and in buildings, there were also tall decorative bamboo poles lining all the streets and Ketut explained that these penjor are for a festival that happens in Bali every six months. People put these up to celebrate and they stay up for weeks at a time. The last festival was Dec 25.

We stopped at the Tegenungan Waterfall and got in some good photos and a little refreshing mist to our faces on a beautiful, sunny day.

Please note the smaller sign.

We were elated when we discovered we were able to order cold coconuts after climbing the 115 tall stone stairs back to the top of the hill afterwards.

We went for lunch on the edge of beautiful rice fields outside Ubud, and had delicious crispy duck, and chicken saté that came steaming hot on a tabletop clay oven.

Out next stop was the Monkey Forest in Ubud, which I had heard was a must-see spot.

As we pulled up, Ketut said we could borrow his umbrellas in case it rained while we were in the forest. It was still really hot and not very cloudy so we declined, not wanting to have anything extraneous the monkeys could grab, as we had been warned they will try to steal anything from purses to cell phones to the glasses right off your face.

Do not panic. The first rule of the monkey forest.

The amazing sign at the front gate.

Right away we were delighted to see monkeys all over the place, many filling their faces with papaya and sweet potato and corn.

I never felt like they were going to grab something off me (or even were interested in me at all). Apparently you used to be able to buy bananas to give to the monkeys but they got too agressive… so that’s no longer a thing.

One particular monkey showed a little agression at Samantha only after she stood near him for a picture for a little too long. He hissed and bared his teeth at her and she quickly moved out of his reach. He then proceeded to not only stay sitting there, but he leaned back and crossed his legs like he was just relaxing!

It was only about 15 minutes after we walked through the front gate when the skies opened up and there was a huge downpour.

We were soaked to the skin by the time we got back to the car and we sheepishly told Ketut that the next time he offers us umbrellas, we are taking them.

It was about time for my to check in at my retreat, and then we were going to go back into town and grab dinner.

So now, the story of Finding the Firefly Hotel.

To say I was a little gun shy after the sketchy beachside literal-hole-in-the-floor hotel is an understatement.

So when Ketut used google maps to find the gps location of my yoga retreat and we drove further and further away from anything that looked like civilization, Anna and Samantha’s voiced concerns about my next accommodation were completely valid and I was a little worried.

When we had to drive down this steep tiny road to the bottom of a hill with what looked like an abandoned outdoor community centre, I was thinking ‘oh noooo’.

When we arrived at the bottom, and turned right along a grassy path to arrive at a dead end next to a house and a hill, I thought, “I have been scammed, this place isn’t real. I look like an idiot.”

The gps looked like we should have driven directly into the massive grassy hill to our left.

Ketut got out and walked up this sidewalk along the side of a tall building (that was definitely a private residence) to ask someone for directions.

He came back with another man who said he could carry my bag up the hill to the resort.

We were still skeptical, but at least this man claimed to know that the resort existed.

We walked up this ‘road’. (The only “road” to the hotel, by the way)

And at the top, saw this:

My first view of The Firefly Resort

It turns out, the man who came for my bag is the owner. His name is Ariel, he is from Israel, he is an astrophysicist (because of course he is), and built this place himself.

He checked me in, handed me my welcome package and our week’s itinerary, and then picked some wild passion fruit that was growing in front of the office building for all of us to try before taking me to my room.

Anna and Samantha still wanted to make sure the actual buildings were safe and came with me to see where I was staying.

That’s when Samantha saw the infinity pool and decided “this place is probably okay” and then joked she wanted to stay here too.

With that we went back into town to do some shopping and exploring, and stopped into a Starbucks that just happens to look out over a gorgeous lotus pond and temple. No big deal.

Yes, this Starbucks has a gong.

Pura Seraswati

Samantha found a restaurant called Hujan Locale she wanted to try for dinner and it was by far the best meal I have had so far in Bali. Soft-shell crab, locally-caught tuna ceviche with watemellon, and fancy cocktails. Even the menu was perfect with very conversational descriptions of each dish.

The description for “Sate Buntel” is my favourite.

A perfect way to end this reunion/meeting/weekend with friends!!

So clearly, one of my next trips needs to be to Munich, Germany, to visit these two!!

One fantastic week down, 3 incredibly eventful weeks to go!

A few summer days in Lausanne.

So this one time I went to Switzerland.

😁

One of my friends from my 2014 French class lives in Lausanne with her husband and their daughter. Chinatsu grew up in Japan and went to university (and learned English) in San Fransisco, where she met Stephane from France, and they ended up falling in love and moving to Paris. Stephane was offered a new job in Lausanne this year so they moved in the spring to Prilly, just next to the city of Lausanne. 


Chinatsu invited me to come visit her this summer, and since there was no direct train or bus from L’Isle Jourdain (or Poitiers or Limoges) to Lausanne, I booked trips with Blablacar. 
Blablacar is a ride-sharing travel option in Europe and I think it is BRILLIANT. I booked one trip from Limoges to Lyon, and the following trip from Lyon to Lausanne. Both drivers had excellent ratings and no actual cash has to exchange hands – it’s pre-paid, and the website you sign up on gives you a code to give them at the end of the trip so you get where you want to go.
The fun part was, my drivers were French. And spoke only French. So I got to put on my focus-and-concentrate face and really exercise my French communication skills for about 7 hours over the two trips. 😁😳


I arrived in Lausanne to beautiful weather and was picked up by Chinatzu at the downtown train station. It was excellent to catch up and meet her adorable 21-month old daughter Nanako.


Nanako was shy at first, but I soon won her over playing with a hand fan and some of her stuffed animals. We had the best time  playing together all week and Nanako is an absolute joy to be around because she gasps in delight at just about everything. Birds, people, planes, lightbulbs, dogs, the sky in general, the floor…..


I went off exploring on my own for a couple of days, and walked down to the Ouchy harbour, on the shores of Lake Geneva.


Seeing the mountains across the lake was wonderful. I have also never seen so many swans (and grey swans too; like ‘ugly ducklings’ that grew up to be swans, but kept their duckling colour).



Also, you can rent a paddle boat here, but not just any paddle boat: a paddle boat with a SLIDE! Amazing. 

There were a bunch of highschool students that just jumped into the lake as I was walking by.

I walked further down the shoreline and into the Olympic Museum, and it was really fun to see old Olympic torches, posters, team uniforms, costumes, and the current temporary exhibit all about Rio and the life and culture there. 


The old town centre has an animated clock that goes every hour during the day. I walked through this square 5 times while I was in Lausanne and the time was always 1:25, or 5:31, or 3:20, or 4:18…. Never near the hour, so I never saw it working! Whoops!


I walked the Market Steps up to find the beautiful Notre Dame Cathedral at the top of the hill above the Old Town.




Oh yeah, there are a lot of stairs and hills in this city. Wow. 
Apparently the steepest existing metro track runs north from the bottom point of Ouchy-Olympic up to the main train station. Did I take it? No, I did not because apparently I’m deserving of some sort of punishment so I walked up the entire uphill length of Avenue D’Ouchy on this 28 degree day…. 😅


I arrived in St Paul’s square and had a look inside the large church. Then I sat outside and enjoyed some free wifi. 🙂


On Chinatsu’s suggestion, I went to the Musee D’Art Brut, where work is displayed by artists who were never famous or formally trained, and often they were outcasts or people in institutions. It was quite unique and there were some really amazing pieces.
My favourites included some beautiful pottery, driftwood sculptures, pen and ink detailed portraits of women, and found material miniature bus sculptures… 


I think the most memorable part was a small display of three eccentric and ornate costumes with an accompanying video about an Armenian 76-year old gentleman who would make elaborate hats, canes, and outfits out of everything from feather dusters to Christmas ornaments to lawn darts to shower curtain rings, then get dressed up and go on a one-man parade around his neighbourhood. 

There was also a room full of art by a man named Paul Amar who builds the most incredibly detailed sculptures entirely out of shells (clams, mussels, oysters….) and other pieces of shellfish, and paints them bright saturated colours with nail polish and paint and hot glues them to create under the sea scenes, or groups of animals, or dioramas of explorers and sailing ships.  

I wasn’t allowed photos inside or else I would show you a hint of some of the awesomeness. 

Postcards in the gift shop.


I came across a free exhibition that was part of the”Festival De Bande Dessine”, and it was titled “Migration”; and the subject surrounding immigration, emigration, war, and refugees. This particular exhibition had posters of short cartoons and images. Some had full stories and dialogue, while others were more abstract.



I made it to the Palais de Rumine, and the free (!) Archeology and  Zoology exhibits. 




Chinatsu and her family were wonderful hosts and treated me to some delicious homemade meals. The second night I was there she made us traditional Swiss fondue and we stuffed ourselves with cheese and bread and potatoes and vegetables. We also had a great Japanese dinner of miso and pan-seared pork with ginger and rice.  

Before I left at the end of the week we decided to go for a chocolat chaud at Le Barbare, just at the top of the Market Steps.

It was a rainy day and also the coolest weather since I’ve been in Europe, and a rich chocolat chaud was just perfect to warm us up before a walk around Old Town and down to the ‘new and modern’ area of Flon. (We had our chocolat chaud ‘nature’, which meant just the classic chocolate, without any added cream mixed in and whip cream on top. )

 




This city is beautiful and it’s wonderful to have friends here *that I absolutely plan to come back and visit*! After all, all it takes is a couple of blablacars to get here from France… 🙂


  

A summer in French heaven, part two… or six.

I am soon to be homesick for a place I just discovered. 

The summer is quickly turning into autumn, and with two weeks left in L’Isle Jourdain, I switched locations (a 2 minute stroll down the street) to Barbie and Andy’s house.  They are good friends of Corinne and Gilles, and they needed a little help with some home renos.


Their house has a huge yard (complete with fig tree overloaded with much-to-my-chagrin-just-not-yet-ripe figs), a view of the valley and the church and town across the river, loads of beautiful hydrangea and hibiscus bushes, and a lovely terrace that was excellent for morning tea, stargazing, and card games and wine.


The yards on all sides are full of fruit and olive trees, chicken coops, vegetable garden so, grape vines, and a big sweet grey donkey two gardens over. 


Their next door neighbor, an older gentleman named De-De (nickname for André), has a lovely large garden as well as chickens and rabbits, and several times during my stay with them he came over with a bucket of tomatoes and a dozen eggs; sometimes he just leaves them on the front step. He also gives them loads of green beans, potatoes, and onions throughout the summer. One afternoon he even came to the door with a freshly-made jar of plum jam, still warm! The sweetest!

Captured on a morning walk over by the church.


We always started our mornings with a walk over to Café de la Paix or to Le Dix, the bar next door (and it definitely it should be noted that they have the most delicious cakes; my good friend Victor can vouch for every single flavour 😊).

The owner Fanfan has our usual orders memorized and brings us ‘un petit café et deux grandes crèmes’, and we eat pain au chocolat and chat with all the regulars/neighbors. 🙂 A lovely ritual. 

Back at the house I started with some small jobs like painting window frames and installing curtain rods and baseboards upstairs, and one afternoon we had the adventures of cutting a hole into the wall under the stairs in order to make use of the possible storage space. The hope was that we would not find anything too scary, or dangerous, or complicated to remove. Luck was on our side as all that was inside was rocks and earth. AND a century-old whistle! Oh yeah, and part of a sheep leg bone. (Yes, I am sure. I checked. It was just a sheep bone.)
The bigger jobs of my stay were re-varnishing their living room floor (only because we had to move all the furniture around) and I cut and installed (and started the painting process) of a new wood floor and baseboards in their kitchen. 

The kitchen floor was definitely the trickiest as it is the very centre of their home. They access the rest of the house (including the stairs up to the bedrooms) from there, and they have two dogs. 😁😳

the old tile floor is in great condition but is absolutely freezing in the winter.


Practically everyone has dogs here, and my new friends’ pups are two other hilarious personalities. 

This face.

 

Pedro is the little shaggy sausage dog with freckles across his nose and a growl-purr when he is playing or getting attention. He loves to be cuddled and often falls asleep in Barbie’s arms.

Lottie has the colouring of a Rottweiler, and is the look and somewhat size of a slender German Shepherd. She is the sweetest, sneakies, cheekiest dog ever, and I absolutely adore her. 


In my last week much to my delight: Another invitation came for a delicious dinner at the Chateau Jourdain!

Six countries represented at this table! (New Zealand, Hungary, Iran, Iraq, Canada, Great Britain)

 

We were invited for homemade falafel and hummus and chips, and yet again had weather right out of a storybook. 

The most beautiful skies of the entire summer, without a doubt. 


That night I met two more workawayers (from Leeds, and one of them has family IN CALGARY 😃). What are the odds??

Moyad was holding Dolly up so she could see a paddleboat go by.

 

One Friday night I drove to the nearby village of Queaux with a couple friends, Zara and Kane (both from the UK), to have dinner and watch a jazz concert down by the river. 

Queaux has fresh spring water running through the village and there is an old clothes washing station still intact on the main road. 

The water is freezing, but clean enough to drink! 

The wooden washboards used to scrub clothing.

This village also has an incredible view of the river valley.


 It was a gorgeous night and there were still people swimming in the rive at 8pm as we ate our picnic dinner. We should have know the 8pm “start” was just a loose guideline, and the show began around 9. 🙂

It was brilliant- they just set up everything under some trees in the park area and people brought their own chairs or pulled up benches from the picnic area. 

There was a keyboard, guitar, saxophone, drum set, bass, and trombone. (The bass player also played the trombone, because, of course she did). 

Of course you never remember to take photos while it is still light out!


It was excellent music and we had the best time! They were a talented group and when the drummer started playing with brushes, that was it for me: I was in heaven. (My dad would have just loved it.) Found another happy place!
Barbie and Andy are real estate agents so they have gotten to know our region of Poitou-Charentes quite well. They have been enthusiastic tour guides and have taken me to some beautiful spots (there are just so many!) in our area.

The first weekend I was staying with them Andy and Barbie took me to Lake Pardoux, about an 80-minute drive away. They had never been there but had heard it was nice, so I was a great excuse for them to be touristy and go.
The lake is absolutely huge and clearly a popular spot. There is camping nearby and you can rent paddle boats (“pédalos”), go sailing, boating, fishing, and enjoy swimming off a lifeguard-supervised beach.

We packed a picnic and found a spot in the grass facing the lake. It was a beautiful day and just hot enough to warrant a swim!! 

This Canadian girl was the only one to go take the plunge, and it was glorious. There was a great floating dock to dive off and the water gets to a nice depth pretty quick and is very refreshing.

After coffees and chocolate ice cream at the little restaurant just up from the water, we went further down the shoreline for a walk along part of the hiking trail that circles the lake, and decided you could easily make a day out of hiking the area here. I will remember that for next time. 🙂


Poitiers Day Trip!


We spent one Saturday in Poitiers  exploring the city.  This was fantastic as I had only really seen the airport and the train station!

Nôtre Dame du Poitiers.


Saturdays they have a street market going, and we wandered past stalls of clothing, food, and some artisan items, and while stopping for coffees on a patio a travelling band walked by playing fantastic music on tuba, trumpet, sax, banjo, and drums. 


We wandered around from the Nôtre Dame Du Poitiers in the Old Town area, and enjoyed the tall old buildings and architecture, turning up and down tiny side streets to finally arrive at Francois Frères.  

There are only 5 places in France that hand-make umbrellas anymore, and one is in Poitiers! Barbie and Andy have one beautiful umbrella already and wanted to show me the store. We were so happy to find it open we practically skipped into this shop filled with a full rainbow of parasols and umbrellas of every design and shape you can imagine, and even each wooden handle is  gorgeous. 


The owner came right out of the back room (where he makes them all himself) to talk to us. He clearly takes pride in his work, as well he should. His family has been making umbrellas since 1882! 

I want a newsprint umbrella. 🙂

If I could have fit a full-size umbrella in my backpack, I would have splurged and bought one right there! 

After my first croissant amande of the trip 😁, we headed to see the majestic Cathedral de Poitiers, which was absolutely gigantic and a definite must-see if you visit Poitiers. 


Gorgeous and vastly tall ceilings, beautiful frescos, stained glass windows for days, and crazy cool/creepy gargoyles outside.

On to Confolens!


The second weekend we went to Confolens, and this city is absolutely darling, and even more romantic on a grey and cloudy day.

Many medieval aspects to the old buildings reminded me of Carcassone that we visited 2 years ago on our Viking Cruise tour. 



On the way back home we stopped into Confolens-St-Germain and the old castle ruins up on the hill. 


It’s absolutely beautiful, and felt well-timed, as my friend Leslie was travelling in Ireland at this point and posting all these beautiful photos of Irish castles and I felt due for some castle time. 🙂

There was also a fantastic gift shop at the bottom filled with local artists’ work, from jewelry to soap to ornaments to honey. Absolutely beautiful things. 🙂

We ended up going for pizza in the charming river town of Availles-Limozine the next night with clients/friends of Barbie and Andy. I immediately liked these three friendly Brits: Gary, who is selling his vacation property home, and Jarvis and Lindsay, who are buying it! The sale was complete this week, so we went out to dinner to celebrate. 

Side note: Real estate is a good example of how nothing happens quickly in France. The sale of a house in the countryside takes anywhere from 5 months -and that’s speedy/optimistic- to 5 years.



The pizza was absolutely excellent (I had le Trois Fromages), the company was entertaining (stories of Jarvis and Lindsay from when they were stationed in Saudi Arabia, and hilariously bad jokes by Andy and Gary), and we even got in a walk down to the gorgeous Vienne River to see the early start of fall and some of the most beautiful reflections in the river I have seen so far on this trip.

They tell me that in the winter the river is much faster flowing and they say looks quite dynamic and different than the summer, as in the winter they open the dams all along. 
Maybe one day I will buy an apartment here and find out. 🙂
On Friday night my friends Jamshid and Jo cooked up a big dinner to send me off, and Gilles and Viktor came over to join us and we had a perfect evening of food and great company, complete with favourite music video sharing and star gazing in their fantastic back garden. (It was here we had a fabulous ‘sky-watching party’ back in August when the Perseid meteor shower was happening.)

On my last day I even (finally) got in a swim in the river down by the island. Viktor paddled us out in Moyad’s row boat and we swam in the middle of the river near the chateau. It was fantastic! It made me wish I ventured down there more often when we had our crazy few weeks of 33+ degree weather!

Thus ends my incredible time in L’Isle Jourdain. I have never felt more at home in a different country. Luckily, now I have numerous friends to come back and visit…. And if I’m looking to buy a small French countryside apartment, I know these fabulous real estate agents…. 🤔😎

Up next: a weekend in Lyon and 5 days visiting my friend Chinatzu in Switzerland!

A summer in French heaven, part one!

  

So, imagine you are offered the opportunity to stay in your first choice spot for a volunteer holiday. And imagine it sounds too good to be true, and at the same time, charming and imperfect enough to seem real.

And then you arrive and it’s everything you hoped it would be and better.

The Plan: spend my summer volunteering in the French countryside. 

The Process: join workaway.info and search for a host. 

The Result: connect with a British artist named Corinne who owns a 200+ year old house that she wants to renovate and turn into an international artist retreat, book and take a bus from Paris to Poitiers, and then drive to the small village of Bourpeuil across the river from L’Isle Jourdain, soon to be my home away from home. 

As Corinne drove along, the view of the countryside and houses reminded me more and more of what I loved in Provence. Terra cotta roofs, sheep wandering across the fields, rolling hills and tiny gardens, brightly coloured doors and shutters, window boxes and potted plants, lavender and sunflowers…. and the sun ever so slightly dipping into the evening sky made everything more than picturesque.

My delight simply grew as we arrived in the small town and I saw the grand viaduct, the town across the Vienne River including a church on the hill, and we pulled up in front of an old unassuming old house. 

Corinne was already a kindred spirit and I immediately felt further welcomed by her partner Gilles, and their two friendly terriers, Duke and Major. 

This is Duke.

This is Major


Our first meal (stewed lamb and grilled vegetables and roasted potatoes) was served on the long wood table in the warm and inviting black and white kitchen, one of the most complete rooms in the house. This is obviously the heart of the home, and we have lunch and dinner together here every day. 

Gilles is a fantastic cook (who reminds me of my dad) and he always has delicious meal ideas, and Corinne loves to cook as well!! Between the two of them we have had everything from pan-seared vegetables and sausages with couscous, moules frites (mussels with fries) with homemade mayonnaise that is so good I actually eat mayonnaise here, to vegetarian curry, beet and chèvre risotto, and the best potatoes au gratin I have every had. 

Right away I fell in love with the house, my room, my hosts and the dogs. I am the second of three volunteers to arrive this summer; the first is Viktor from Hungary, and soon to join us is Sini from Finland.

There is a long to-do list here, from plastering and painting walls and ceiling, tiling, flooring, sewing curtains, and furniture building/reupholstering, to building a terraced courtyard, installing a kiln, and helping furnish and decorate the guest rooms.
For the first week every morning after breakfast (and coffee, bien sûr!) I was on painting duty. The old grey shutters on the front of the house had previously been sandblasted and needed priming, rust-coat painting on the hardware and then painted a fresh new colour. 
(The name of the colour Corinne has chosen? Picasso Blue. 😊)

The back terrace in painting progress.

The finished shutters and doors!

Other than joking I have been painting anything that doesn’t move over my first several days here, I did also help clear out and organize a newly purchased
(fully furnished house) in the village for friends of our hosts, and  we took several loads of items like furniture, clothing, linen and dishes to local charities and also to a “Vide Grenier” to sell some particularly nice/interesting things.

A Vide Grenier literally translates to “Empty Attic”. Every village has these big yard-sales/garage-sales once a year, and this one was quite huge and included a carousel, carnival games, a hot lunch, a free coffee and beer for each registered seller, and two football fields of knick-knacks and antiques, artwork, clothing, lamps, toys, and collectibles. Everything you can imagine (including several kitchen sinks)!

The neighbors here are all so friendly, and just like everywhere else I have been in France, the small community atmosphere of people is hugely friendly and warm-hearted.

Right away we were introduced to a bunch of Brits that have relocated, or retired, or vacation several months of the year here. 
The most idyllic night so far was spent on the island at the home of Helen and Moyed, and the house that the town is named after. 

It was a beautiful evening, and the originally casual plan of hummus and bread for a light dinner turned into a huge delicious meal including chips and curry, olives, preserved lemons, dolma, burgers, and plenty of wine and beer. 
We sat under the tree in their front yard with their pet chickens wandering around, a view of their olive grove, the river, the viaduct, the bridge, and the villages on either side. Heaven.

This is Dolly, apparently the queen/guardian of the household.


More to come…. This is only the beginning! 

A trio’s busy weekend in Nova Scotia

So a few months ago, I was chatting with a friend from university. She asked if I wanted to join her for a road trip across the Maritimes in June. I hadn’t fully thought out my summer, and it seemed like a brilliant idea. Within a few hours Tara-Lee and I began the plans to spend three weeks visiting Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, PEI, Cape Breton and Newfoundland!

“Week” one of the East Coast trip, begins with three jam packed days of travel.

and we're off!

The start: Halifax, Nova Scotia.
We arrived by the oh so wonderful Porter Air in the afternoon, and went to Avis where our silver Chevy Malibu was waiting for us. We made quick friends with our Airbnb host, Chris, originally from Poland, in his charming eclectic art-filled home.

A last minute addition to our weekend was a childhood friend of Tara-Lee, Tara. That’s right, folks: this weekend road trip trio (and likely inspires some sort of folk band name, likely), was Sara, Tara, and Tara-Lee. Tara flew in Friday evening, only a few hours after us.

Old Triangle
Once we were all together, we grabbed a bite to eat at The Old Triangle pub (fish and chips), and did some evening driving around the city, including up the hill to the top of Confederation Park with a night-time city-lights view of downtown Halifax.

The next morning we were invited for homemade lattes at Tara’s Airbnb spot and her lovely host Paul gave us insider tips for the start of our journey down to the south shore of Nova Scotia. We then headed right out of town (with a stop at Tim Hortons for our first Maritimes road trip breakfast).

Side note, I think there are more Tim Hortons here than anywhere I have ever been.

Tara-Lee
We started by making a slight detour to Prospect, a small hamlet, of quiet homes and docks and some beautiful first glimpses of the coast along Nova Scotia shores.
The shoreline had a delightful surprise of multicolored snail shells discarded and swept together, in a pebble rainbow of detailed colours.

Our next stop was of course Peggy’s Cove, and it did not disappoint. 


A windy, blustery, we were warned to avoid the ‘black rocks’ which were where the ocean waves frequented and therefore were slippery and possibly deadly if you lost your footing or a rogue wave came out of nowhere. The lighthouse itself is locked tight but people wander all over the massive shoreline of huge boulders that we could have easily spent hours sitting in or climbing around. 

But of course, we headed to our third stop of day 1: Lunenburg.


Lunenburg is a gem of a town, with the most charming, colourful houses we had seen so far. We stopped into the Distillery to check out their offerings, and from gin to rum to vodka, we all agreed the favourite spirit of the three of us was the rhubarb liqueur! 


All along the main road, and from our lunch spot “The Salt Shaker” (where we shared scallop linguini , a lobster roll, and salt cod fish cakes), we had an excellent view of the Harbour. Apparently every Wednesday night there are sailboat races! The best view of the city is across the water at the golf course, but photos don’t do it justice.

After that it was on to our campsite to set up before we headed to Shelburne for the lobster festival we had found out about online. With four jam-packed days of events this weekend, we decided to prioritize and only attempt to make it to the “Kitchen Party” concert that night.

Our campground was at Thomas Raddall Provincial Park. I only briefly checked out the beach nearby in the morning before we took off for our busy day two, and looking back on the weekend, it was the sandiest shore we came across and with the most beautiful weather. A solid reminder of the importance of taking a pause when you come across something you assume you will find again.

We arrived in Barrington later that evening; a small town just past Shelburne, where the ‘community centre’ kitchen party was to take place. We arrived at a hockey arena-sized building, and about twelve cars….. Not the best outlook. We went inside where the total of bar staff, security guards, and band members almost outweighed the attendees, and the band was like a basic wedding cover band, blaring almost deafening music we couldn’t dance to, and with no acoustic instruments in sight. We were expecting a pub type setting with guitar, maybe fiddle, even accordion or banjo, but alas, were disappointed. We will have to continue our search for a good kitchen party.


On sunday we did get to a community hall lobster roll and chowder lunch and homemade dessert with a local silent auction and games of washer toss outside. We enjoyed the view by the little Sandy Point lighthouse and went on our way.

We have had slightly rainy and mostly cloudy weather as we drive along the south and west shores of Nova Scotia, and even though the ocean is never more than a couple kilometres away from the highway we drive, there is a feeling of home as we drive through a mix of poplar and birch and fir trees, on winding roads that make us feel like any moment the fog will clear and we will see the peaks of the Rocky Mountains in front of us.

Smuggler’s Cove was a cool discovery along our route. Tough to walk this shoreline in flip flops!

We stayed near Digby to make sure we tried ‘world famous scallops’ straight from the source, and ended up at Ed’s Takeout, for fried scallops and clams that were absolutely mouth-watering delicious! It’s a funny little spot that is definitely a simple ‘dive’; definitely a busy place for good reason.

So far we have found that the people in the Maritimes seem to prefer their seafood deep fried or covered in cream of some sort… Not that we are complaining. 🙂 


We stopped into a couple of grand churches along the Acadian Trail, and spent a few moments inside. So massive. And peaceful.

Camping here has been great! My amazing cousin Toban lent us a tent and sleeping bags that completely saved me from my usual night-freeze I am so used to while camping. (And we have had some rainy nights already!)

We have found that all campgrounds so far have had showers, and often: laundry facilities, and even wifi. It’s amazing. I think we will be happy to camp more than we even anticipated!

One final day before heading back toward Halifax to drop off Tara at the airport, we were torn on where to stop, as Cape Split, Wolfville, and Truro were all on our list of places to go.


After seeing the Cape Forchu lighthouse the day before (and the comically large Adirondack chair upon which we climbed and snapped a photo), we went driving down the peninsula of Digby Neck with hopes of seeing a lighthouse, but discovered that it, along with hikes and whale watching adventures required a ferry ride to the islands across from it, and more time than we had.

Annapolis Royal offered their Historic Garden that we all agreed was worth every penny of the entrance fee, and offered a lovely walk through arbours and mazes and winding pathways through various styles and varieties of flowers, trees, and gardens.

Azalea bushes everywhere.


We could have easily spent another couple of hours here, whether taking another walk around the Acadian Dyke lands, or sitting in their cafe, or just enjoying the smell of the lilac bushes and rose shrubs. We were definitely there in the ‘spring’ of their season, as many beds were freshly planted and the rose gardens were only just starting to bloom.

This place will be absolutely breathtaking in July or August…

We decided to spend our last 90 minutes before the airport drive at Luckett’s Vineyard for wine and lunch, and it was dreamy.

There’s a phone booth in the middle of the vineyard that makes phone calls worldwide for free but we didn’t call anyone. We were content with the view of rolling hills, farms, vineyards, and the ocean as the clouds rolled by.


If we could pause time, this would have been one of those moments we would have.


After the most hilarious sight of Tara climbing on top of her suitcase to get in her new yoga mat, sleeping bag, and souvenirs, we bade farewell to her and headed towards New Brunswick for the next leg of our road trip. More to come!!

Provence. I heart you.

It was sad to have mum head home to Calgary on Monday as we had such a phenomenal month in France together. Here are the stories of our week in Provence!!

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Some vineyards near Modene and a view of the top of Mont Ventoux

It was a 45 minute drive from Avignon to our villa in Modene, and we couldn’t quite believe it as we walked in to the yard to meet our hosts Phillipe and Sylvie. (They are absolutely wonderful and if you want to stay in a spectacular bed and breakfast (or ‘chambre d’hôte’/’gîte’) , check out their website: http://www.villa-noria.com)

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The view out the window from the indoor dining room.

We walked past a gorgeous yard and large outdoor dining table and up the stairs to our adjoining rooms. The first had a king size four-poster bed, the second two single beds on wrought iron frames.

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imageThen there was our bathroom with a large claw-foot bath tub, dual sinks and beautiful shower. White fluffy towels and three white terry cloth robes were ready for us. After carefully waiting for Phillipe to turn his back to us so we could silently jump up and down in glee, he brought us back outside to see the yard and pool. Oh, the pool.

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When we went to Tuscany as a family ten years ago, I thought we had stayed in the crème de la crème of bed and breakfasts. I never thought we’d find a place even close, but here we did.

Our dining room table

Our dining room table, and their dog Hurley.

Our host is also a renowned chef in the area, and cooks dinner every second night if guests want a gourmet dinner at home. We of course were looking forward to his cooking and were not disappointed. Just like on the cruise ship, not only was quality at the highest level but the presentation was beautiful.

Chilled Eggplant soup with a poached egg and sesame crisp

Chilled Eggplant soup with a poached egg and sesame crisp

Broiled cod with crispy polenta, zucchini tartar and roasted tomatoes

Broiled cod with crispy polenta, zucchini tartar and roasted red peppers.

Cheese plate of local chèvre with various herbs and seasonings

Cheese plate of local chèvre with various herbs and seasonings

Chocolate crème brûlée with rhubarb

Chocolate crème brûlée with rhubarb

Our first breakfast was another good sign of how the week would go. Sitting under a giant tree with morning sun shining through the leaves, several options of loose leaf tea or coffee, and with an overflowing basket of fruit (including peaches and figs they had picked that morning!!), freshly baked bread, croissants, homemade yoghurt, and waffles with fresh preserves, we were in heaven.

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On our first day we wanted to check out a local market, and then meet up with friends from home.
We drove to Isle-Sur-La-Sorgue to the Sunday market and found it to be the best one we have been to by far! It was fairly busy, and the weather was beautiful. There were dozens and dozens of stands with everything from fresh produce, vibrant pottery, artisan baking and sausage, souvenirs, to lavender, honey, soap, and table linens. We bought some fruit (and we thought that Parisian fruit was delicious!), some nougat, some cheese, and the best almonds we have tasted in our lives by leaps and bounds. Oh, France, you’ve done it again. 🙂

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We were then off to Carombe to meet our friends Maggie and Terry who were on a 4-month trip across Europe! These adventurous folks arrived to meet us on a motorcycle, and after great hugs and drinks in the shade to celebrate, we decided to do dinner in Le Barroux, a town just north of Carombe with one of the few castles in the Provence area. (Of course, in between we went back to the villa for a swim in the pool and a little sun.)

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Looking at routes.

Looking at routes.

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With the view of the valley and a delicious dinner, we shared stories of our travels and with the sun setting we said goodnight.

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On Monday we wanted to explore, and using a cyclists’ map of the Carpentras area that my mum’s friend Hope had lent us, we showed Phillipe our plan for the day- head towards the hillside city of Gordes via Venasque and Rousillon. He generously went over the map with my mum, writing a list of towns that we should drive through or stop into on post-it notes so we would see the best spots.

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The view from Venasque

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A gorgeous old door and handle

A gorgeous old door and handle

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We stopped in Venasque first and wandered up beautiful tiny streets in the quiet town and discovered a wonderful artist and his small main-floor gallery. His paintings were oil on canvas using only a pallet knife, and showed the town and other hilltop towns with the fields below, and church steeples punctuating the simple but beautiful skylines, all using tones of blue, purple, red, and yellow . They were fabulous paintings, and we talked with him a bit (my mum, of course, charming him right away). He told us that he had a painting teacher tell him that “grass is not just green, trees are not just green, they are any colour you can imagine they could be” and he said that gave him a true freedom to his paintings, so none of the hills or fields were green- they were gold or purple. We loved them. If he had prints I would have bought one right then, but unfortunately he only had canvases and they were a bit out of my price range.

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We then went to Rousillon and right from the start noticed the red clay of the hill as we parked the car. As we walked up towards the town it was clear very quickly why this is called “The Red City”, with red and orange walls of buildings and red exposed earth on the hillside a gorgeous juxtaposition to the surrounding forests and fields.

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The view was fantastic here and on our way to finding a place for lunch, we came upon another gallery that housed several artists’ pieces that we all could easily see purchasing if we didn’t have to ship it over an ocean in order to keep it. There was a collection of charming statues of young girls doing a variety of things, from looking up with arms reaching into the sky, to crouching down looking at a frog, to dancing- and they all had such simple honesty and joy to them you couldn’t help but smile. Then there were the paintings we loved best that were very urban scenes, with tall skyscrapers and taxis and crosswalks, and they had movement and energy without being too detailed.

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We arrived in Gordes and couldn’t believe the buildings clinging to the side of such a steep hill. It was a winding road to get there, and European roads are the least generous when it comes to two way travel. For once I was not the driver- my mum and sister shared this responsibility, and I must say I think my motion-sickness is getting worse as I get older as even in the front seat all the quick twists and turns and deeking around oncoming traffic made me a little green along the way.

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Winding streets with the bumpiest, roughest cobblestone yet, we wandered in and out of boutiques, jewelry stores and galleries, and found yet another exhibition I enjoyed. Pieces made from found wood and incorporated with metal, fabric, and stone, animals and people were set in whimsical sculptures that I wanted to take home as well.

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We then headed home via the Abbé Senanque in the bottom of a valley with lavender fields. It was so relaxing you just felt your blood pressure drop as you stepped out of the car. We watched them gather the lavender bunches in one field before stepping into the sanctuary of the Abbé for a few minutes. It was a modest church with no decoration or sculpture, and it was very peaceful.

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A great way to finish our exploration before heading home for our second dinner. More photos of dinner, of course.

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Crispy tartin with olive tapenade, diced tomatoes, basil and fresh chèvre.

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Grilled organic chicken nested on steamed green beans with a tower of lightly grilled zucchini containing both toasted and soft spelt “risotto”.

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Warmed Camembert sprinkled with dried thyme.

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Cheese yogurt ice cream atop grilled figs from the garden, dressed with a red wine reduction on top of a sable cookie.

We designated Tuesday and Friday as ‘pool days’, and promised ourselves we would take it easy on those days, and only leave the villa to go to a market or get dinner. It was perfect weather for lounging by a pool, and the saltwater of the pool made it actually possible for me to enjoy the water without goggles as I find that chlorine pools make it difficult to open my eyes underwater. It was glorious.

Lunchtime picnic

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We met several other villa guests through the week from all over- some from elsewhere in France, one couple from Switzerland, one couple from USA and one couple from Berlin. There was almost always company at the pool, and at 4pm every day Phillipe would bring homemade iced tea to the poolside. Have I mentioned it’s heaven there? 🙂

On Wednesday we wanted a lighter travel day on a central route around our area through Bleauvac, Malemort, Methamis and St Didier, where we heard that they make best nougat in France. These towns had small main streets, charming buildings, churches, and many doors and shutters we wanted to capture in photos. In St Didier, we picked up nougat and a few other sweet snacks, and delicious stone oven pizza in Malemort were highlights to the exploration.

The blue paint colour that we've decided needs to be more prevalent in Calgary....

The blue paint colour that we’ve decided needs to be more prevalent in Calgary….

Where we stopped and had lunch- amazing pizza!

Where we stopped and had lunch- amazing pizza!

We loved the colourful shutters and doors throughout Provence, so as you can see we kept taking photos of them…

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 Yes, this giant brick of dessert can be yours for only $45.00.

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On Thursday we headed towards Sault, because it is known as the the heart of Lavender country. Phillipe was eager to recommend that on the way to Sault we take the road through Bedoin and up to the top of Mont Ventoux- the largest mountain in the area that we could see the white limestone peak and weather station/communication tower from everywhere in the area. We took his suggestion and went through Bedoin, a small but interesting looking town we decided we would revisit later. There were a lot of cyclists on the road and it was part way up the winding (have I mentioned: narrow?!) road of Mt Ventoux we decided we must be in the middle of a huge bicycle race or ride because there were dozens and dozens of cyclists making their way to the top as well. Try driving a manual car on a tiny road that twists and turns up a mountain with sheer drops on one side and cyclists veering in and out in front of you as well as oncoming traffic coming down…. We were going to need the relaxing lavender fields at the end of this!!

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This was partway up when we had a bit more space. And where it was flat. Actually, this photo does not give any real representation of our journey up the mountain. Except that there is proof of both cyclists and cars…. So in that case, you may want to disregard this photo. 😉

The hiking trail up. Dry and windy, but what a view at the top!

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Mont Ventoux had hundreds of people at the top (don’t drive here- it’s insane) between tourists, their families and friends, hikers and tourists, the top was busy!! The view is phenomenal and on a clear day (slightly clearer than when we went up) you can see the highest point of the Alps. We were happy to get down to the bottom again and to quieter roads to continue our journey. Oh yeah, and the extremely large number of cyclists? That’s just a normal day on the mountain; Mont Ventoux is the second most visited mountain by cyclists in Europe. And it’s not for the beginner cyclists either- with a height of almost 2000m, the climb to the top of the mountain from the town of Bedoin is 1612m.

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We were happiest when we reached the bottom of the valley and headed for lavender fields. The fields of purple flowers and stunning blue skies were divine as we entered the area around Sault and we had to stop and take photos.

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We wandered around the few shops in the quaint town of Sault, and of course picked up some more nougat we found there. Our insider’s tip: it was hands down the best we’ve ever had in our lives- so if you like nougat- this is the place to come- watch out St Didier! 🙂

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Antique shop finds

Antique shop finds

The drive back was on a larger highway (a small highway by Canada’s standards), with one stop before we really got on our way- in Moniuex, a gorgeous little town on the very edge of a mountain rock face with stunning views of the lavender fields below. We also came upon a restaurant that we would have absolutely gone to dinner at if we had passed through any closer to dinner time (and not 4pm).

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Friday we decided a little trip back to Bedoin was in order, and we found lots of charming little shops to peruse, and a lunch of delicious fresh-made pasta and homemade sauce to die for. We saw a sign pointing off the Main Street for a gallery so of course we couldn’t say no. Well, boy did we drool over the artwork in that space!! If we lived in the area it’s likely we would have walked away with several sculptures, and if we had more money we would have bought over a dozen pieces. It was a marvellous mix of styles and artists, in the mostly ‘modern’ genre of art. After much discussion with the gallery owner and mooning over various pieces, we left the store with three mementos of Paris in the form of paintings. My sister bought one and mum bought two, and they were both buzzing with happiness at their purchases all the way home. (As I am currently without any real walls, I did not buy any art there but will live vicariously through my family and see their art often.)

We then enjoyed a lazy pool afternoon with lots of swimming, some sunbathing, and a bit of journaling and blog writing, as well as checking out the garden where most of our fresh fruit and veggies (and herbs) came from for our meals at the house.

Their tiny peach tree. With six peaches almost ready to pick.

Their tiny peach tree. With six peaches almost ready to pick.

Their fig tree. We got the last of the first harvest, and they would then harvest again at the end of September. Amazing.

Their fig tree. We got the last of the first harvest, and they would then harvest again at the end of September. Amazing.

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My gorgeous mom!

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Provence melon! Yum!

One last gourmet meal….

Saffron gnocchi and shrimp salad.

Saffron gnocchi and shrimp salad with walnuts.

Pork tenderloin with honey and onion sauce, fried onions and garden carrots.

Pork tenderloin with honey and onion sauce, fried onions and garden carrots.

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Poached white peach with almond biscotti and crème anglaise.

The lounge area by the pool

The lounge area by the pool.

Goodnight, pool.

Goodnight, pool.

We packed, went to bed too late, and were able to sit by the pool for an hour after our last breakfast before heading on the road to get back to the busy and bustling city of Paris. So long, Provence! See you again soon. 🙂