Friday, 20 July 2018

Dear Diary.....Lavender fields, Gordes and Roussillon (France)

Dear Diary,

It was with excited hearts that my husband and I embarked on our guided tour to visit the various lavender fields near Avignon. At the appointed meeting time, our friendly lady guide met us at the doorsteps of our hotel and brought us to this little van where the rest of our tour mates were gathered in. We were a small group of eight, with travelers from America, England, France and other parts of Europe. My husband and I were the last to board the van, and once all of us were settled in, our guide started to brief us on the itinerary for the day as we zoomed along the expressway towards our exciting journey for this day!

It was a pleasant drive and all of us were immersed in the beautiful and scenic views along the way on this bright and sunny day. Time seemed to have come to a standstill and before we know it, we had reached our first destination - a photo point against a gorgeous backdrop of the town Gordes. There were many tour buses and private cars lined up against the road near this photo point and everyone was trying to get a nice photo with the mesmerizing old village that is perched on the southern edge of the high Plateau de Vaucluse. With it white and grey-stoned houses spiraling around the rock where the village is set, it is no wonder that Gordes has been listed as “one of the most beautiful villages of France”!


Looking out towards this magnificent view while standing at the edge of the photo point, all the hustle and bustle of this very crowded spot seemed to drift away and I was just in awe by all that my eyes could take in. It was a humbling scene and one that drew out all my artistic inspiration - I would have taken out my drawing equipment to sketch out this scene if not for the fact that we were on a guided tour and had only a limited amount of time to spend at this spot!

Gorgeous view that can be seen from Gordes...

After spending a good duration of time taking in the gorgeous landscape of Gordes and with tons of photos taken, we continued on our journey. Along the way, our guide was explaining to us that the harvest of the lavender flowers do not all occur at the same time as the flowers will bloom at different rates in different lavender regions. She continued to emphasize that hence, it was important to plan the route well so that we do not end up in a bare field where the lavender flowers had all been harvested. Our guide was very familiar with the locations of the lavender fields and had made it seemed so easy to be able to drive up to a random field blooming with lavender flowers! All thanks to our guide, we managed to make several pit stops whereby we had the whole lavender field to ourselves! It was just amazing! I was actually standing on a lavender field, breathing in the air filled with lavender scent and seeing with my own eyes the rows and rows of purple floral against the backdrop of a clear blue sky - something that I had only seen on postcards! At one of the lavender field, our guide even picked out some samples of the floral and explained that there were two variations of the flowers - lavender flower and lavadin flower. Lavadin is a hybrid flower and is larger, has longer and more pointed flower spikes as compared to lavender. Regardless of the breed of flowers that we were looking at, my husband and I were just very thankful to be able to immerse ourselves in this purple wonderland!

The lavender field!!

What a postcard-like scene!

It was a fun-filled morning hopping from one lavender field to another and the most memorable one was perhaps the stop made at the famous Senanque Abbey. The Abbey, located near the village Gordes, was built in the 12th century for Cistercian monks who came from the Ardèche region of France. And boy, this place was so crowded! We arrived at the abbey in the late morning and by this time, the abbey was already filled with people. The main road leading to it was jam packed with tourist buses and private vehicles. It was so bad that our guide had to drop us off first before she went in search of a parking space. As we walked closer to the Abbey, we soon realised the reason for which many were drawn to it. Situated in a small valley surrounded by hills, the heather-gray stone abbey with its rows and rows of the purple lavender flowers certainly emit a strong sense of tranquillity! It was a pity that we were only given enough time to take a walk around the Abbey before we had to continue on with our tour. It would have been nice to be able to explore the interior of the Abbey, another time perhaps!

Lavender field in front of Senanque Abbey

After exploring the lavender fields, our guide drove us to the village Roussillon, which happened to be our last destination for the day. There, we were finally given some free time to explore the village on our own as well as to shop for some lavender products to bring back home! Roussillon, situated on the land of one of the biggest ochre deposits in the world, is famed for its distinctive red cliffs and its wide palette of beautiful natural color pigments. The streets of the village were lined with houses donned with the various ochre shades varying from light yellow to dark red and coupled with brightly colored shutters and doors, creating a very playful and lively outlook to the village!


Exploring the village....

Admiring its beautiful architectures!!

My husband and I had great fun just walking through the windy streets of Roussillon, armed with a lavender ice-cream cone in our hands to combat the hot weather, and taking time to admire the architectures of this charming village! Prior to this trip, we had heard of the “Ochre trail”, which is a path through the marked out ochre land that winds through the earth pillars and hills carved out by water, wind and by the hands of man. It was certainly a pity that we did not have enough time to go for the Ochre trail as it would have been so interesting to really explore this Orchre land in greater details! Well, I guess that had just given us all the more reason to make another trip to Roussillon in future! :)

Lovely ochre color of the cliffs...

Immersing myself in this beautiful scene....

Time seemed to pass very fast on this day and before we know it, we had come to the end of our tour. We had a very fulfilling and fun time exploring the lavender fields and the various scenic spots along the way, all thanks to our wonderful and informative guide who was armed with a well-planned itinerary and route! This trip had also stirred up our interest in doing a self-drive tour of our own! Well, who knows, we might just have one of such tours very soon!! Till then, let me continue to reminisce on all the fun that we had at the lavender fields......

Yours Truly,

Related post:

Friday, 13 July 2018

Dear Diary.....Avignon (France)

Dear Diary,

It was the time of the year when the lavender fields in Provence started to spring to life, blooming with rows and rows of the eye-catching purple floral and filling the air with the delightful and mesmerizing lavender scent! The lavender season in Provence usually starts from end June till early August when the lavender flowers are harvested. Having had some spare time in hand during the lavender season, my husband and I decided to make a weekend trip to Avignon! We had allocated a day to explore Avignon city and the following day for our guided tour with a local tour company to visit the lavender farms (including a stop at the famous Senanque Abbey) as well as to the villages of Gordes and Roussillon.

The fortified walls of Avignon

As mentioned in the previous post, my husband and I are not big fans of driving (though it does allow for more flexibility and convenience when travelling) and hence we decided to make Avignon our base since it was easily accessible via train. Our hotel was located within the city center, which made it possible for us to explore this quaint little town on foot! After putting down our luggage in the hotel, we proceeded on to explore the town and we were greeted with the bright and cheery summer sun - certainly marking a good start to our trip! Our initial impression of Avignon was that it was a quiet and nice place with many scenic spots!

Rocher des Doms

Our first stop of the day was to Rocher des Doms, a public park that is situation on top of a hill. It was a pleasant walk, with the cool morning breeze brushing against our skin, our ears filled with the bright chirping of the birds and our nostrils filled with the wonderful smell of Nature! When we reached the top, we were gifted with the beautiful view across the Rhône river where the Saint-Bénézet bridge could be seen in the foreground and Fort Saint-André in the background! Looking upwards, the sky was in a beautiful shade of baby blue, with many cotton-candy-like clouds floating in the air! It was just an amazing feeling standing at the top of the hill admiring this gorgeous naturally crafted landscape painting!

View of Philippe-le-Bel tower as seen from the top of Rocher des Doms

Fort Saint-André in the background...

Saint-Bénézet bridge

Close-up photo of Saint-Bénézet bridge

As we descended from the hill, we arrived at the Avignon Cathedral. The golden Virgin Mary statue located at the top of the cathedral against the backdrop of a clear blue sky was definitely eye-catching. At the entrance of the cathedral, there was another platform with a centralised sculpture of Jesus on the cross, surrounded by sculptures of His followers and angels. These sculptures and statue certainly added another layer of charm to the cathedral! From the platform, apart from being able to admire the sculptures, we were also able to have a closer look at the exterior of Palais des Papes situated on the left of the cathedral as well as a bird eye’s view of the plaza square located at the foot of the cathedral. It was as if I had the best viewing position in the theatre, with all the actions and on-goings happening at the plaza square streaming live in front of my eyes! I could literally just stand there the whole day, doing nothing but people-watch!

Art sculpture in front of Avignon Cathedral

Virgin Mary statue and sculptures of Jesus, His followers and angels

Interior of Avignon Cathedral

Palais des Papes (or Palace of the Popes) was huge, had a very majestic exterior appearance and is of great significance to Avignon. In 1305, Pope Clement V fled Rome because of the chaos that took place after his election and moved the Papal Curia to Avignon. Then, the construction of Palais des Papes started off on the foundation of an old bishop palace and Avignon became the home of 9 successive Popes in the 14th century, with each Pope leaving his mark on the building. When the Popes returned to Rome in 1377, the building remained in the hands of the antipapal forces for a few years before it was returned to the authority of the papal legates in 1433. While under the papal control, the building started to deteriorated and it was further damaged by military occupation and subsequently vacated only in 1906, when it became a national museum. Today, the palace consisted of two main sites being joined together - the old palace of Benedict XII and the new palace of Clement VI, and which together they formed the largest Gothic building of the Middle Ages. This palace, rich in its historical significance and which stood as a mighty symbol of the church’s influence on the western Christian world in the 14th century, has now been listed as an UNESCO World Heritage site.

The majestic exterior appearance of Palais des Papes

At the start of our visit to Palais des Papes, we had watched a short video clip depicting the above mentioned history of the palace and were immediately intrigued by all the sequence of events and we could not wait to explore the palace. However, when we entered the palace proper, we were kind of disappointed as there were (a) little or no information to guide us on the different areas of the buildings (which would definitely be helpful to provide some sense of direction in this huge piece of land), (b) the interior of the palace being wiped clean of its original content and filled instead with the presence of art displays or sculptures in several areas of the palace and finally (c) the erecting of scaffolding and a stage in preparation for the Avignon theater festival within the palace (which contributed even more to the confusion of lost sheep like us wandering about and trying to find an alternative pathway around the scaffolding). However, despite all of that, the gorgeous panoramic view of the city as well as the close-up look at the Virgin Mary statue of Avignon Cathedral at the terrace of the palace soon made us forget about all the disappointments! :)

Interior of Palais des Papes

Portraits of the Popes

Random art displays in Palais des Papes...

Close-up look at Avignon Cathedral from the terrace of Palais des Papes

Gorgeous view of the city...

Having explored the main attractions of Avignon city, we spent the rest of the day wandering about the small alleys of the city center, having a peek at the beautiful and lively restaurant-filled square at Place de l’Horloge, crossing Édouard Daladier bridge and having a nice and quiet stroll along Rhône river before heading back to the hotel for a good night rest! It was a pleasant first day of our trip and we really had fun exploring the grounds of Avignon city. We certainly do look forward to the lavender field tour that is to come....

Hotel de Ville...

Opera theatre
Place de l'Horloge (Clock tower square)...
Notice that the clock tower is barely visible from the square...
Lovely alleys of the city..

Real dog vs fake dogs..

Yours Truly,

Friday, 6 July 2018

Guided tours or free-and-easy style of travelling? Part II - A guided tour to Morocco

Following on from my previous post that compared guided tours with free-and-easy style of traveling, in this post, I will run through my considerations and highlight the main key take-aways of joining a guided tour for our recent trip to Morocco. Despite previously stately that going free-and-easy was our preferred way of travelling, my husband and I still ended up signing up for a tour package to Morocco. So why the change? Did we want to do things differently? Have we figured out something that makes one style of traveling more superior than the other? Well, as in all my other posts, we believe that the key to making a trip enjoyable is to select a choice that is most suited for that particular trip. In this case, we have decided that joining a guided tour was the best option. The two deciding factors that pushed us to sign up for the tour package were time and safety. Other considerations that further fueled this decision included ease of traveling within Morocco, presence of a local guide / experience driver and presence of group mates with common travel interest.

Time constraint

We decided to head to Morocco towards the end of our Europe tour - which translated to lots of packing of our stuff to be shipped back to our home country. This indirectly resulted in us not having as much time to research on the places that we would want to visit in Morocco or to plan our route accordingly. There were many places in Morocco that we desperately wanted to visit and as we did not want to give any of those destinations up owing to time constraint, a tour package that can provide a succinct overview of Morocco in a condensed amount of time sounded ideal.

Safety concerns

Safety is always a priority when it comes to traveling for both my husband and I. Although many have mentioned that Morocco is a relatively safe place for free-and-easy travellers, we were still not confident of traveling on our own in this foreign land as we had came across quite a few horror accounts of travelers who had just returned from Morocco. Furthermore, it would be our first time traveling to the African continent and we were not sure what to expect and questions as follows started to pop up in our heads:
  • Would the language barrier be a huge problem for us?
  • How reliable are the public transport system there since there is a need to cover mountainous paths and long distances between places?
  • Are things done differently in general, i.e. what are the dos and don’ts for each region?
In view of these concerns, joining a guided tour with a well-thought travel route and experienced guide knowing how to deal with unexpected situations on the ground seemed like a better bet!

Ease of traveling within Morocco

In Morocco, there is a need to travel long distances to get from one town to another and travel routes have to be planned carefully so that accommodation options are within reach when night falls. Joining a guided tour would take away all the worries on route planning and we would enjoy the ease of traveling from one town to another. I realized the importance of this when I fell sick on the trip and had wanted nothing more than to rest on the van during the long road journeys. If we had been traveling on our own, we would not have the luxury to do that and we might even have to fret over getting onto the correct public transportation to get to our destinations. Furthermore, in every country, there are just some places that are only known to the locals and apart from taking care of all our transportation for the trip, our local guide would, at times and if time permits, lead us to photogenic and off beaten places that only the locals know. Through this, we could easily see another side of Morocco without the need to wander about or getting lost trying to find unique places to explore.

Presence of a local guide / experienced driver

Joining a guided tour would mean the presence of a tour guide who will provide information and history of the places of visit. In the case of our Morocco trip, a local guide was assigned to us and not only did we get to know more in depth about the place of visit, we got to know it from a local’s point of view! In addition, the presence of a local guide also fulfilled our desire to interact with the locals and to know more about the culture and way of life through these interactions. Apart from our local guide, we were also assigned an experienced local driver for whom we were grateful for many a times when we had to navigate through the treacherous mountain roads. I certainly cannot imagine entrusting my life to any other random drivers if my husband and I had decided to tour Morocco on our own! Owing to the presence of our guide and driver, my husband and I need not bother about doing any in depth research for this trip or fumble about liaising with the hotel or making advance booking for tickets to the various tourist attraction spots and could literally just sit back and enjoy the trip where everything is taken care of!

Presence of group mates with common travel interest

Other than the fact that there was safety in numbers, it was also quite fun to travel in a group. Apart from having someone to help my husband and I to take photo (we seldom have couple photos when traveling on our own), we are basically grouped together with people with the same travel interest. It was especially enjoyable when we take turns to share our travel experiences with the group whenever we sat down together for a meal or for a break. There was also strength in number, especially when we want to negotiate with our guide on alternative places to explore!

Draw backs of joining a guided tour for our Morocco trip
Even though we decided to join a guided tour, there are inevitably some drawbacks to it as well. For one, there is less flexibility be it in terms of places to visit, the amount of time given to visit a particular site or the choice of restaurants for our meals. The best example of such inflexibility was during our trip to Fes. As listed on the day’s itinerary, we were scheduled to visit the shops selling local products even though most of us were not interested in purchasing any and would rather spend the time exploring more of the other parts of Fes or to proceed on to Chefchaouen. The need to cover all the places stated in the itinerary within the short seven days tour often also resulted in a rather rushed trip. On certain days, there were so many places packed into a day’s itinerary that it literally felt like we were rushing from one place to another, with just a touch-and-go approach to the visits. Thankfully, there were other days where the pace was slower and we could make use of the time to ask our local guide about the places that we visited in a hurry.

Just want to take a break...
A cooperative spirit among members is important for the proper functioning of a tour group. Another draw back of a guided tour is that there might be the presence of some “black sheeps” who will spoil all plans for the whole group. A good example of this would be some of our tour mates wandering off by themselves during the first two days of our tour which resulted in our guide having to spend time to relocate them and hence having lesser time to guide us through the place of visit. Fortunately, this “phenomenon” only lasted for the first two days of the trip and everyone started to be cooperative for the good of the whole group thereafter!

Glad that everything turned out well!

Lastly, the price attached to a package tour can be a huge drawback as well. If we were to be calculative, it would be quite evident that the cost of joining a package tour would be higher than the total amount of money we would have spent if we had traveled on our own. However, in this case, we figured out that that extra cost had saved us quite a bit of trouble and was definitely money well spent!

The precious memories are for us to keep...

In conclusion, given the variety of traveling style, there is a need to weigh the pros and and cons of each traveling mode to identify the style that best fit a particular trip. For our trip to Morocco, the perks of joining a guided tour definitely outweighs its drawbacks and my husband and I were glad that we made the decision to join the package tour which enabled us to have such an enjoyable and unforgettable trip. Would we continue to stick to guided tours for our future trips? Well, we will definitely go through the mentioned considerations again and who knows, we might even try other styles of traveling.....

Related posts:
Guided tours or free-and-easy style of travelling?