A long journey south to Le Lavandou

After the others dragged me away from Valrhona, we headed for the autoroute because today our plan was to end up at Le Lavandou, just this side of the fashionable end of the French Riviera.  It’s an area I know a little from some of my misspent youth when I did two late summers vendanging near La Londe les Maures, and I know that the whole area around

Hyères is reputed to be the warmest part of France because it is protected from the worst of the weather that hits other parts of the Hexagone.

I know I have a tendency to plan journeys that take a long time, simply because I want to visit so many places, especially the sea, and although Julia and Tim know me well enough to have learned how to put up with this tendency, I did detect a slight frisson in the planning stages of “Why are we going so far just for one night?”.  However, we set out with a smile on our face and a song in our heart, although as we drove south down the Rhone the song in our heart became slightly muted as the grey clouds gathered, having cleared briefly that morning (must have been the Valrhona effect).  The traffic was also heavier than on previous days, but we expected that because it was Maundy Thursday today, and by the end of the day most of France would be on holiday for Easter.

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We decided to drive through the official French lunchtime, to avoid lorries, and that worked a treat.  It also meant that we were able to reach Cassis for lunch, and that was DEFINITELY a good decision.

It was the first time that any of us had been to Cassis, although Julia and I had wanted to go for ages- indeed, I had tried to find a hotel room there for tonight but there was nothing affordable available.  We drove down to a car park very near the front, then took our picnic bag and had an aperitif in a café beside the bobbing boats in the port – the wind was quite strong, but the sun was shining and the temperature was about 20 degrees, oh yes….

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After the aperitif, we found a bench just next to the beach and had our wonderful picnic beside the unbelievably turquoise water  and the blindingly white sand of the little beach in Cassis.  What a joy to be able to do that at the beginning of April!  I’m sorry, really I am, that all our friends and family in the UK are having rain and wind, but oh gosh how lovely, how indescribably relaxing it is to sit by the Mediterranean and munch on fougasse while soaking up the rays.

Cassis is so pretty, and we definitely want to return – we walked along the jetty and decided that the Hotel du Golf would have the best view if you could just get a room overlooking the port.  We also wondered what insane planning committee allowed the hideous modern blocks of flats to be plonked on the hill above the town, particularly since this part of the Med has mostly avoided the blight of tower blocks that has so disfigured the equally beautiful Costa Brava.

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Finally we dragged ourselves away, back to the car and the last leg of today’s journey, 50 miles or so further east, to Le Lavandou.  I handed over the driving seat to Julia since I often become sleepy after lunch, but Tim never gets a break because he is the best at navigating!

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We eventually arrived – I don’t know much about that part of the journey since I slept – amidst quite heavy traffic by now, and Miss Google helped us to negotiate our route down from the main road to the port of Le Lavandou down tiny narrow streets to where our hotel, the Rabelais, sits between the business end of the port and the bucket and spade part a little further westwards.  We parked in the public parking nearly opposite the hotel (I am always a little nervous doing that, and shan’t sleep well tonight worrying about it), and dragged ourselves and our overnight bags up two floors to our rooms.

The hotel is nice, spotlessly clean and with excellent wi fi (unlike Tournon last night where we had to sign in as Donald Duck….).  Our rooms are at the back, so the only view of the port is from the side of our balcony (the picture on the left, with what must be my finger top left, is the view from the side of our balcony), but there is quite a wind tonight and I think the rooms at the back will be more peaceful.

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We went out to explore, Tim and I had a paddle in the FREEZING COLD water, and we ended up  in a lovely bar called Acapulco in a sunny corner of the port – it made us think of George and Sally and their recent trip to that Mexican resort, so Tim took a picture
of us to include in this blog!

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We then walked round to find a place to eat dinner, and found a charming and sixties-soaked Provençal-themed bistro called Antre II where we actually ended up having a much better meal for €17.90 than we had last night in Tournon for €28.  Julia and I had fish soup, with proper rouille, and Tim had stuffed mussels, then they had the rouget and I had Saint Pierre (John Dory) with saffron sauce.  Oooh, then crèpes with crème de marrons for pudding.  All that with half a pichet of rosé wine and half a pichet of red wine.  Delicious!

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Le Lavandou is so pretty that we have decided to spent most of tomorrow here, setting off for Saint Rémy de Provence about 3pm. We will be at Saint Rémy for 3 nights, so there is less rush to get there, and I also think that the worst of the Easter traffic might have eased off by then.  Let’s hope it’s as sunny and gorgeous as it’s been today – and I’ll be able to paddle again, which is something I need to do regularly to get my fix of sea.

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This morning we woke up in lovely Le Lavandou, I took a photo from the side of our balcony just in case I forgot what it looked like (!).  There had been very strong  winds overnight, but this morning was sunny and clear.  We went downstairs and had our breakfast outside on the terrace, which is on the first floor so overlooking the small port – unkindly we kept reminding ourselves what the weather was probably like back home, and it has to be revealed that there was the odd smirk around the croissants as a result.

Le Lavandou is a pretty place, obviously less popular now than it has been in the past, which is a shame in a way although it has meant that yesterday and today there were enough people for a BUZZ but not nearly so many that one felt overwhelmed.  There are several closed small hotels, as there were at Cassis yesterday, but we really struck gold with our little Hotel Rabelais.  It wouldn’t suit everyone, but it’s exactly the kind of place I like – it’s only 2 stars, is not part of a chain, is quite basic but with fantastic wi fi (important for professional bloggers like myself….), and just feels completely French.  It’s overlooking the boats too, rather than the slightly more ‘bucket and spade’ end of town.

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And sitting on that terrace in the sun this morning while Julia marked and Tim and I read our books was just delightful.  Madame had said we could stay and lounge on the terrace as long as we wanted after we cleared out our rooms, so we did.

Late morning we wandered along the front, watched some of the boules tournament that was taking place on the boulodrome in front of the cafés, then succumbed to some moules frites and local rosé (for the non-drivers) in a charming-looking bistro that had obviously sent its waitress away to be trained in Paris.

We had chosen the place because it claimed outside to have moules-frites for €13, but when we opened the menu there was no mention of this, only the various set menus at €25 or more.  We asked Mrs I’m-far-too-good-for-all-this-and-what-are-these-bloody-tourists-doing-cluttering-up-my-restaurant whether we could actually have just plain moules-frites and she gave an Oscar-winning performance involving an outraged look, followed by stepping backwards  into the path of passing traffic so she could mime looking very hard at the displayed menu outside before coming back and saying “yes of course there is, it says here, clear as day, moules à la crème d’ail, part of the set menu at €25”.  To my very polite remark that this was not quite the same as moules-frites and we didn’t actually want the set menu she looked exasperated and snapped “So do you want the moules frites or not?”.  I made the mistake of asking what it cost, thinking perhaps the €13 claim was bogus, so she did the stepping back into traffic thing again, read very clearly and loudly off the board, as if to a small child, “Yes, it says here €13.  So, yes or no?”  Julia and Tim were finding it hard to keep a straight face by this time, and although I said “yes please” to get her out of the way I hope her English was not good as Tim chortled quite loudly “well she’s obviously Parisian” as she flounced off.

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Anyway, the moules were good, and it was just as well that we all had it since there was quite a lot of garlic involved after all and the car would have been an uncomfortable place afterwards if only one person had consumed quite so much of the crème d’ail.

Finally we had to say goodbye to Le Lavandou, and we made our way through the Good Friday traffic gradually to Saint Rémy de Provence.  We disobeyed Miss Google and left the motorway at Salon de Provence instead of continuing to Avignon, so I hope she still talks to us tomorrow since she is quite useful in towns.  However we had a gorgeous view of Sainte Victoire as we drove northwest, and all felt a strong urge to stop in an aire de repos and whisk off a quick oil painting.  Fortunately we managed to resist this urge, and cut across country, arriving at our little hotel just north of the centre of Saint Rémy by just after 5pm.

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We had chosen this hotel because Saint Rémy looks a little expensive, I think it has become a fashionable place to go (perhaps it always was?), and hotels in town are rather above our budget.  However l’Amandière, while not having a restaurant, is again a delightful hotel, clean and cheerful with a friendly manager who poured non-stop French over us for 15 solid minutes as we checked in and he showed us to our rooms.  We were very glad to hear that the hotel has such excellent wi fi because their insurance company has invested in a huge server that can track all illegal downloads made by guests so that any such badly behaved individual guests will have to face the court case rather than the hotel.  Damn, there goes an evening of watching porn and downloading the entire back catalogue of Herbert van Karajan.

Our rooms have a little terrace outside in the pretty provençal garden, with double doors which we were able to keep open since it was still sunny and the birds were singing.  We rested for a while, Julia marked a few more extended essays and I started today’s blog while we had a cup of tea (yes, international though we are we travel with a kettle, mugs, PROPER tea bags and long-life milk…..).

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Then we walked in to the centre of Saint Rémy, which consists of a very pretty centre of small winding pedestrianised streets, surrounded by small but busy roads with cafés and bistros.  Having wandered round a little, we chose a tiny restaurant called La Cassolette, which turned out to be an excellent choice.  It is tucked in to an old building with beams and stone arches, but with a sympathetic modern décor.

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For a set price of €20 we had (definitely home-made) fish soup with particularly good rouille, then I had slow-cooked daube of bull (delicious and tender), Tim had
sole meunière and Julia had entrecote.  We finished with a pudding that was described to us by the very jolly young bearded waiter as “a bit like a crème brûlée”, but was as unlike that as it was possible to be while still being delicious.  We had a 50cl pichet of local rosé followed by a local IGP red from Domaine Valdition.

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We strolled back to our hotel, deciding that a stroll after supper is a very good thing to do, and in fact walked in through the hotel gate shortly before they closed it at 9.30.  We spent a little while planning tomorrow, firstly trying to find wine producers to visit, taste and possibly buy (fail – all too expensive for our budget!), then checking opening times of Glanum, the large Roman site just south of Saint Rémy and of the van Gogh asylum, also just south of town.  We have also discovered that it is the Saint Rémy market tomorrow, so that will be our first stop, and it was also agreed to try and find a Cave Coopérative which would represent various producers and hopefully offer some wine at under €7 a bottle, which is very much our top limit.  We shall see how much we manage to get done, considering that tomorrow is Easter Saturday.

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