Rendezvouz with Renoir

If yesterday’s drive was beautiful, today’s was simply stunning.  Unfortunately being the driver, most of the scenery will stay in my head, but let’s just say there were quite a few times when I was like wowa weewa!

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After a quick little visit to the village of Trigance, cut short by rain, we hit the windy roads again to travel towards our next destination, Nice.  Fog spread its hands protectively over the valleys and there was a vista like no other around every corner.

We meandered along enjoying every moment, stopping to buy preservative free perfume by the roadside and attempting to stop in towns along the way (driving here is not like driving in Australia AT ALL – in Aus, if you need to pull over or stop, there is plenty of places to do so, the bays are nice and wide and there’s just room.  Here, cars literally cram every little space on the roadsides, the bays are tiny and the drivers totally impatient – it can be quite panicking when you just want to stop to check directions or take a breather!).

Driving down through Grasse, the valleys and greenery give way to Tuscan style villas crammed on hillsides.  Somehow we missed the turnoff for the town centre of Grasse and continued on to Cagnes Sur Mer, where after circling the same set of streets for ages, we finally found the Renoir Museum.

Pierre Auguste Renoir settled down in this property known as Domaine des Collettes in 1908.  He was already suffering from rheumatic arthritis badly by this point, requiring his paint brushes to be strapped to his hands to allow him to continue painting.  From the Impressionist school of painters, his most famous works were Luncheon of the Boating Party (my favourite), the Ball at the Moulin de la Galette and La Loge.  He also took up sculpting when he moved to this property and continued his artistic ventures until his death in 1919 at the age of 78.

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It’s not far to Nice now, but I’ve somehow to got to find some petrol and return the hire car in the centre of Nice which is harder than it looks.  Finally we find petrol, but when you return the car, there’s no clear lots to drive into like back in Australia.  Instead you need to park in an underground car park and then lug all your luggage up some flights of stairs before you find a lift to get back up to the road.  I’d be lying if I said I enjoyed the last bit of today’s journey.

One more obstacle faces us before the day is out – to find our apartment (which we do without much struggle thanks to the directions of the Air BNB owner) and lug our suitcases up four flights of stairs, taking instructions about the apartment completely in French from the owner’s friend.  I hope we have understood everything correctly as she leaves, but my head is still spinning from the drive.  I need a drink.

Thank goodness we find that without much hassle and we sit overlooking a fairly quiet Place du Palais watching a drunk madman throw things around the square.  Ah, welcome to Nice.

Drive Time

Another fast train ride takes us to Aix En Provence where we pick up hire car to ‘indulge’ in a nice drive through the south of France.  ‘Have you driven a Peugot before?’ asks the friendly lady in the Sixt kiosk, her bright orange jacket emitting a glow around the office.  No, I say.  I’m sure now her friendly smirk should have been a warning in itself, because it seemed like an hour later I was still trying to get out of the carpark!  It must have seemed irrelevant to tell me how to set up the GPS which has trouble finding our destination when I play around with it.  It seemed even less relevant to tell me there is a small ring like bit of plastic around the manual (eek) gearstick that you need to lift up in order to reverse or that there is no hand brake to speak of, it’s automatic when you put the car in park (I think).  It’s a one way lane out of the carbay, with hire cars packed closely all around you and a constant stream of drivers who wish to go the wrong way down the lane.  Finally someone tells me about the reverse trick and the Sixt gentleman kindly gets the car out of the small space for me and we are on our way.

Kind of.

I have a lot to learn.  I do have a manual license and always prefer driving manual cars.  Though having had no car for the last year and a half, I haven’t done a lot of manual driving – this bit doesn’t bother me.  What does bother me is that I’m trying to get my gear driving memory back into seamless mode, while trying to learn how to drive on the wrong side of the road.  Indicate to go over, oops, no that’s the windscreen wipers.  The mirrors all seem like they are in the wrong place and to top it off, my route takes me straight onto the A8, where the speed limit is 130km/hr in the slow lane.

After a few mean beeps from other drivers who obviously believe the speed limit is just a guide and also that there’s no need for indicators, I get into my groove and am even surprised to find myself getting up to 140 at one stage.  Finally we get off the A8 and begin our crazy, windy ascent to Trigance.  The scenery is incredible, if you can take your eyes off the road for more than one second.  It’s a constant battle between, 2nd, 3rd and 4th gear, up/down, up/down as the car negotiates the corners and other drivers veering dangerously onto the wrong side of the road.

A few small villages appear along the route, gorgeous little places full of charm.

Finally we arrive in Trigance, to our home for the night, perched high on a high overlooking the Valley of Verdun.

We.  Are.  Staying.  In .  A.   Friggin.  Castle.  Tonight!

A true life castle.

Chateau de Trigance was “an ancient fortress for meditation built by the monks of the Saint Victor abbey from Marseille in the IXth century”.

Our bed is four poster, the restaurant is in a kind of a cellar with old suits of armour and there are friggin turrets on top!  Turrets!

Can you tell I’m excited!

Ahem, anyway….

Our room is set along a terrace overlooking the Verdun Valley.

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It’s getting nippy outside, so we head to the salon where we take part in a medieval aperitif called Hypocras which was a wine based drinks mixed with spices and cinnamon, occasionally served warm (but not in our case).  We read about the history of the castle and enjoy the space, nibbling on the pre-dinner snacks bought to us by our host.

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Then it’s time for dinner.  Our meals are mini medieval banquets!  Mum’s reads like this:

Castle surprise soup – not sure what it was – tasted almost like the zucchini and basil soup I make back home, but much creamier and just absolutely beautiful.

Petits farcis d’agneau du Haut Var, roquette a l’ail
(Different vegetables stuffed with ocal lamb and araomatic herbs, rocket salad with garlic)

Magret de canard a l’orange, legumes verts
(Duck breast and its orange sauce accompanied by green season’s vegetables)

Plateau de fromages affines
(Selection of fine cheeses, including some beautiful local artisanal ones)

Creme brulee pistahe et mangue rotie
(Roasted mango and pistachios ‘creme brulee’)

My menu also includes the Castle Surprise Soup, different vegetables and selection of cheeses, but with a main of Supreme de pigeon, sauce fruits rouges, cuisses confites et beignets de pleurotes (Roasted pigeon breast and its candied legs, red fruits sauce ‘peurotus’ mushrooms in pastry) and Biscuit coco, duo de mousses passion et cafe (Duet of passion fruits and coffee mousse on a coconut biscuit).

The food was amazing, the service really, really great and the experience just couldn’t be beat, but after all that hair-raising driving and a feast of mass proportions, there’s nothing more appropriate in store next than an early night.