Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The story of our trip to Oslo and Provence

Here is the story of our recent family trip to Oslo and Provence (sorry it took so long!).

Part One: Oslo

We were headed to Oslo mainly because Alex had a conference to attend there. Alex found us a nice apartment on AirBNB for about the price of a hotel. We realized on last year's trip to England that this is really the way to go when travelling with kids. The plan was to fly to Oslo (via Paris), stay four nights, then fly to Marseilles (via Paris), where we would pick up a rental car for two weeks. During those two weeks, we would be spending 8 nights in Aix-en-Provence and 6 nights in Sanary-sur-Mer.

The flights to Oslo were uneventful, except that Jules refused to sleep. He finally fell asleep in the taxi from the airport in Oslo. The taxi driver tried to screw us over when it was time to pay, "forgetting" about the fixed price that had been clearly set before leaving the airport. Alex and our hostess did not accept this, and we only paid what we were supposed to.

The apartment was not very big, but the ceilings were high and the location was excellent, only a few minutes on foot from Alex's conference.

Our first impression of the city was not great, in part due to the fact that the area we randomly began to explore was the seedy part of town near the bus station. As the days progressed, we found many lovely spots in the city. Over all, I can't say that Oslo is one of the nicest cities I have seen (Copenhagen is nicer, if you like Nordic), but it was interesting enough. 

The architecture is quite avant-garde. The more affordable food choices (mostly very expensive) were passable. We spent almost all our time walking through the neighbourhoods near the city center. I often found myself with both boys in the double-stroller, but this suited me fine. The weather was not too far off that of Montreal. We did experience one rainy day that was quite unpleasant (see the Opera House photos below) but it was nothing we had not prepared for. 

The port area was quaint and the museums and condos nearby were quite beautiful. In a way, I'm glad we went, because I can't imagine I would have chosen to visit Oslo in any other context. Still, part of me felt like the vacation was really going to get started once we arrived in France. 

Alex and Jules waiting for our first flight in Montreal
Alex and Jules at the Old Port in Oslo
Jules loved this chrome scuba statue
Beautiful museum
Jules also enjoyed this "dinosaur" statue
There was no bathtub at our apartment, so we made due
Jules and Oscar goofing around in the apartment
Jules at Alex's conference
The impressive (and expensive) Oslo opera house
Alex and Oscar in the opera house
Jules climbing the roof of the opera house
Am I really being allowed to do this?
The boys at the royal palace while Alex attends the conference
Why is this duck not running away?
Silos converted to student residence
Neat modern buildings in Oslo
Very cool complex with pedestrian street between the buildings
More traditional architecture could be found as well

Grim pictures, but Jules still liked this giant bottle

Part Two: Provence

It was evening when we picked up our rental car at the Marseille airport (a Peugeot 308) and I was happy to find it had a GPS. We easily found our way to our condo rental in Aix-en-Provence. The couple who owned the condo showed us around... it was really nice... almost too nice to bring kids into! They had left many nice items in the fridge for us, including a bottle of rosé.

The next morning, we realized what a great location we had: we were only about a 10-minute walk from the historic city center. The city is quite beautiful, and compact enough to easily visit on foot, even with two little kids. The biggest improvement over Oslo was not the weather (it was a big improvement, of course), but the food. There were so many excellent bakeries where you could get a sandwich, quiche, fougasse or pizza. We were never tempted to make our own lunches, as we could always find good food on the go.

On our second full day in France, we drove to the lovely port town of Cassis. We took a little boat tour of the Calanques, the sort of bays made up of rocky formations. Jules quite enjoyed the boat ride. The town itself was small, but nice, and we enjoyed a quiet lunch in an outdoor bistro.

The following day, Alex wanted us to visit St-Rémy-de-Provence, as it was a market day in that town. It was a challenge to park there, but it was worth it. The outdoor markets in Provence are lovely. Not only can you buy food and spices, but there are many kiosks selling soap or other local items. After lunch, we drove to Les Baux-de-Provence, a very old mountain village. We loved the views and the way we could visit so much on foot.

We decided to visit Avignon the next day. It was a lovely place and the weather was beautiful, if a bit hot. The main draws for tourists in Avignon are the papal palace (Palais des Papes) and the bridge (Pont d'Avignon). I did not know that the bridge only partly crossed the Rhine, and is mainly a ruin. Still, it was nice to visit it and walk on the part that remained accessible to the public. There was actually construction work being carried out on the bridge. We were glad to return to the air-conditioned Peugeot after a day in the early summer heat.

The following day, we drove into a mountainous area known as the Luberon. We visited 6 different towns (in some, we did not take the time to get out and walk around, as it was not always practical. In order, I believe these are the towns we saw: Lourmarin, Bonnieux, Ménerbes, Roussillon and Gordes. As you can imagine, after six towns, we were ready to head back to our lovely condo. The next day, we took it easy and explored Aix a bit more. We continued to enjoy the bakeries for lunch, and we would usually eat chicken from the supermarket or order a pizza (from Pizza Express, right beside our condo complex). If we weren't too exhausted after getting the boys to sleep, we would watch Netflix on the laptop before bed.

The following day, we headed to Arles. It was a bit of a disappointment. There was a lot of garbage around, as well as graffiti, and it made us think that this was a city that does not really take advantage of its numerous Roman-era ruins to put together a great touristic experience (the opposite of Avignon, which has a free shuttle-bus to the city center from its free parking lots). We did not stay long, and decided instead to explore the salt marshes of the Camargue area. The Camargue is the sort of area in the inverted "V" formed by the two branches of the Rhine. It is a wild area, where you can spot flamingos in the marshes, even from the road.

This was the moment when we moved to our next location, Sanary-sur-Mer. We had rented the upper floor of a villa in a residential neighbourhood. When we tried to walk to the beach, we realized that it was further than anticipated, mainly because you had to take a roundabout way to the coast due to train tracks. Also, the walk back up the steep hill to the villa was not an easy one. The place was much less luxurious than our condo in Aix, but our basic needs were met (at a very affordable price, too) and there was a lovely terrace on which we could enjoy our meals. The terrace also afforded us a view of the Mediterranean. Alex had again worked her magic in finding us excellent accommodation.

The beach itself was quite nice and mostly sandy. The water was not that clear, but it was refreshing. Jules liked being on the beach, but not really in the water, unless it was only up to his knees. Oscar cried when we dunked his feet in the water. A day at the beach is not the same with little kids. You can't just relax on your towel, lounging in the sun. You have to make sure the kids are in the shade, not eating sand, and not bored... not that relaxing!

In the following days, we visited many of the local beaches in and around Sanary-sur-Mer, including Bandol, Six Fours les plages and la Ciotat. There was a huge ship yard in la Ciotat which was quite impressive.

We spent one day driving to Saint-Tropez. It was nice, but quite far away from our villa. We spent part of the day in the town and part on one of the beaches. It turned out that the portion of beach near our parking spot was a nudist beach. I have never seen so many naked people, of all ages, sizes and shapes. The water was nice, but it was hot and Alex and the boys mostly stayed in the shade of our little parasol while I swam.

On another day, we visited the Haut-Var region. Again, we wandered between beautiful towns in the mountains, enjoying the scenery and bakeries along the way. We stopped at Cotignac, Entrecasteaux and Lorgues. Entrecasteaux in particular was very nice. However, shortly after we arrived, there was a very loud air-raid siren or something (at noon). This scared Jules. There is a lovely palace or castle with beautiful traditional gardens. We had a nice lunch there.

On our final full day of the trip, we headed to Le Castellet, to the Paul Ricard racing circuit, to check out a truck race. Yes, they race big trucks in France! The trucks were quite impressive. There were also support races from the Caterham series (I love those cars!). Even though there were many carnival-type attractions for kids, we didn't feel like sticking around there the whole day. There are not many spots for (uninformed) spectators to see much of the action on the track. Also, it was very hot. On our way back to Sanary-sur-Mer, we stopped at the Medieval village so Alex could have a look around.

Our amazing trip was coming to an end... we drove to the Marseille airport and dropped off the Peugeot, got on a plane and, after a very long day, we were back in Montreal. It wasn't that bad, as Montreal in June is a nice place to be. Still, we missed the south of France. To this day, Jules tells us he is "a bit sad that vacation is over" when we put him to bed at night. When I think about how great this trip was, I am "a bit sad" too!

Here is a list of the places we visited on each date in France.

May 25 Aix-en-Provence
May 26 Cassis
May 27  St. Remy de Provence
Les Baux-de-Provence
May 28 Avignon
May 29 (Luberon)
May 30 Aix-en-Provence
May 31 Arles
June 1 Sanary-sur-Mer
June 2  Sanary-sur-Mer
June 3 Saint-Tropez
June 4 Bandol
June 5 (Haut Var)
June 6 La Ciotat
June 7 Castellet
Six Fours les plages

Jules enjoying his first of many quiches in France
Alex and Jules explore a fountain in Aix-en-Provence
Jules was good at spotting parks to play in
Oscar and I often waited outside while Alex and Jules visited churches

Aix-en-Provence city hall and astronomical clock
Door-knocker in Aix
Alex and Jules on Cours Mirabeau
Jules likes to consult the literature on places he visits
Goofing off for the camera
One of the many open-air markets we visited in Provence
Medieval villages abounded
Pedestrian streets are the best!

Jules homes in on another park
Alex partakes as well
Ruins in Avignon
Oscar was in a generally good mood
Palais des papes, Avignon
Looking up the kitchen tower/chimney in the Palais des papes
View from the Palais des papes
Le Pont d'Avignon (it doesn't actually make it across the Rhine anymore ...)
Oscar can enjoy parks too
... but not as much as Jules does.
Random tower in a mountain village
One of many stunning panoramic views
It's hard to get four people to smile at the same time!
The red rock of Roussillon
Oscar's play zone in the Aix condo
One of Jules' many carousel rides in Provence
Me with the boys in front of "Les Deux Garçons" in Aix
Jules enjoyed the terrace in our Sanary-sur-Mer villa
It was a great place to take our meals
... and it had a lovely view of the Mediterranean

The port of Sanary-sur-Mer
Chilling in the villa...
Fancy boats were common in St-Tropez
The small beach in the town of St-Tropez
The much larger beaches near St-Tropez went on for miles
The little beaches near our villa were still quite nice
Classic gardens in Entrecasteaux
Above the gardens was this palace

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