SUNNY CANALS AND MODERN ART: Visiting cute Isle sur la Sorgue

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When I was first planning my trip to Provence it was difficult to choose where to go, as there are so many places to see. I chose to visit l’Isle sur la Sorgue because it came up again and again.

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The main highlight are the canals that go around town, and make it very scenic. There are lots of restaurants and cafes with great views too, and some nice areas to sit by the water cooling off with an ice cream.

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The town is famous for its antiques market which happens every Sunday, and there are lots of antique shops around the town too.

There’s also a good modern art museum to visit, Villa Datris (free to enter), which has many interesting pieces and a great garden with lots of fun exhibits.

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L’Isle sur la Sorgue is pretty small, but it’s definitely worth a little day trip!

HOW TO DO IT:

There are trains from Avignon (the journey takes about 40min) every hour or so. From Arles, the trip takes 1h30 with one change and return tickets cost around 20€.

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FAIRYTALE VILLAGES AND AMAZING VIEWS: Day trip to Les-Baux-de-Provence

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I hopped on a bus late in the morning and headed to Les-Baux-de-Provence, which is a highlight of any visit to Provence.

Les Baux is set high up in the Alpilles, a range of hills which makes the setting for this village absolutely magical. The village is small and full of cute little shops and cafes, all with amazing views along the way.

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The main sight to visit is the castle (ticket 10.50€), which is set in a huge site with views over the Alpilles on one side and the flat Provence countryside on the other. The castle is in ruins but it’s still very impressive.

But again the highlight are the views you get from the different towers – although it can get really windy when you’re going up those steep stairs.

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The images really don’t do it justice – the place is simply unbelievable!

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HOW TO DO IT:

Les Baux is 15km from Arles and 25km from Avignon. In the summer you can take bus n. 57 (you can check the itinerary and times here) from either city every couple of hours. The ticket from Arles cost 4€ return and the trip takes about 30min.

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OLD POPES AND ROMAN THEATRES: Day trip to Orange and Avignon

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I took the train from Arles to Orange to check out their famous Roman theatre.

The building is really impressive, and one of only three in the world with the original wall still standing (tickets 9.50€). There are also many really interesting explanations, including a short film and a multimedia section showing different performances through the ages. The theatre still hosts spectacles to this day, so that’s another thing to look out for.

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Also in Orange there’s an Arc du Triomphe, which is another nice landmark to visit nearby. Otherwise the town centre is cute but nothing unmissable as compared to others in Provence.

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By lunchtime I hopped on a train to Avignon, which is mostly famous by the period it hosted a papacy. You can visit the Papal Palace (tickets 11€), which is a huge and impressive building which has been restored more or less recently so it looks great.

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Nearby you can go up Rocher des Doms, a little hill where you can get great views over the Palace, the Rhone, and the remains of Avignon bridge, another local highlight (you can visit it but it was too hot so I didn’t go).

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Around the palace and nearby roads there are lots of little shops and cute cafes, so it’s a great place to spend some time wandering about.

Then it was time to catch the train back to Arles.

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HOW TO DO IT:

  • Go: Arles, Avignon and Orange are all about 30min from each other by train. Trains can be booked online here and are fairly cheap at around 8€ each. You can buy them on the day too, but I’m not sure if there’s a price difference. The train station is conveniently close to the centre in both towns.
  • Weather: I visited in August, and by the time I reached Avignon it was a good 35 degrees, which was a bit tricky for exploring on foot, particularly on open sites (I chose to visit the Orange theatre early in the morning which was definitely the right thing to do).

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HOW TO TRAVEL LIGHT ON LONG TRIPS: My backpack checklist

My trip to India was going to last 21 days, but I didn’t want to carry around a lot of weight. So I did some research and found a couple of websites with good tips on packing light.

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I’m pleased to say that my packing for this trip was really spot on, so I compiled the list below. I have since used the same list for my 20 day trip to Provence (even a little bid reduced).

Here’s everything I took:

BAGS:

  • My trusted Jansport backpack: this has been with me for 9 years and I love it. It’s only 30l capacity so it can be taken on a plane. It’s not a fancy travel backpack but it’s sturdy and reliable.
  • A foldable day bag: This is something to use as my bag during the day, but it can be put in my backpack for travelling.
  • 3 packing cubes: These were the best purchase! They help keep everything organised when we were on the move, and I really recommend them.
  • A foldable shopping bag: To be used for shopping or as a laundry bag.

CLOTHES:

  • 5 t-shirts (4 would do),
  • 3 trousers (2 would do),
  • 2 dresses,
  • A jumper.

This was plenty, and it’s much easier to wash a couple of items per day than having to do a whole load once a week.

SHOES:

  • Slip on trainers,
  • Flip flops,
  • Sandals.

You’d never need any more than that.

UNDERWEAR:

  • 5 pairs of socks, ideally merino as they dry quickly (3 pairs are actually enough),
  • 5 pairs of underwear,
  • 2 bras,
  • Bikini,
  • Shorts and t-shirt for sleeping,
  • Leggings.

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TOILETRIES:

  • 2 small tubes of toothpaste,
  • Toothbrush,
  • Johnson’s baby shampoo (the full body one, which I used to shower but also to wash my clothes),
  • Moisturiser,
  • Deodorant,
  • Repellent,
  • Suncream,
  • Antibac gel,
  • Band aid,
  • Lip balm,
  • Comb,
  • Tweezers,
  • Nail file,
  • Loperamide and rehydration salts (which thankfully were not needed),
  • Tissues,
  • Ibuprofen,
  • Vitamins.

TECH:

  • My Canon G16 and charger,
  • My Mini Diana and 2 rolls of film,
  • Mobile phone and charger,
  • Universal adaptor (I bought this one which was good and small).

OTHER STUFF:

  • Passport and cash,
  • Printed copies of documents and reservations,
  • Money belt,
  • Wallet,
  • House keys and oyster card,
  • Sunglasses and spare pair of glasses,
  • A spork,
  • Luggage tag in case I wanted to check my backpack on the way back (not needed),
  • Lock,
  • 2 carabiners (for extra safety, but not really needed),
  • Travel kit with inflatable pillow, sleep mask and earplugs,
  • A book,
  • A notebook and pen,
  • A travel towel (which was really useful not only as a towel but also as a throw),
  • A poncho (not used),
  • A clothes line (not used).

There were a few items which I didn’t need in the end but mostly this was a really great travel kit. And because it had everything I needed, it could easily be used for longer trips too.

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SUNNY DAYS AND IMPRESSIONIST MOUNTAINS: In the steps of Cezanne in Aix

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Cezanne lived in Aix-en-Provence and the city really makes the most of it. A good way of exploring Cezanne’s Aix is following the In the Steps of Cezanne walking tour – you can do a guided version for 9€ or simply get the map from the tourist office and follow the trail yourself.

You get to see some interesting places, such as where the Cezanne family lived at different times, but it’s also good just to see different parts of the city and get an idea of how Cezanne lived.

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TERRAIN DES PEINTRES

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The landscape around Aix features in many impressionist paintings. A good place to see it for yourself is Terrain des Peintres, a hill not too far from Aix where Cezanne painted multiple landscapes from 1902 to 1906 featuring Mont Sainte-Victoire. It’s one of the best places to visit in Aix.

From the city centre it is a 30min walk uphill, with Cezanne’s studio on the way – you can get the bus there but really it’s best just walk. It’s far enough from the city centre for it to be a quiet space to chill.

The view from the top is really nice, you can spend some time taking it in or – if you’re feeling inspired – making your own version.

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ATELIER CEZANNE

On the way to Terrain des Peintres you can visit Cezanne’s studio (ticket for 6€). He built a beautiful space surrounded by nature and made sure that inside the studio you get the same level of light you’d get outside.

Everything on display was owned by him, and you get to see lots of the objects he used in is his work. It is an authentic and inspiring display, and it’s beautifully curated.

You can also take a break on the grounds of the studio, as there are many tables under fig trees around the place.

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MUSEE GRANET

You can see some of Cezanne’s paintings in the Granet Museum (tickets for 8€). The museum is set in a beautiful building and it displays a good mix of paintings, including some temporary exhibitions.

The big draw is the Cezanne room on the second floor, in which you can appreciate the work of Aix’s most famous inhabitant. Also on display is a good collection of Giacometti’s sculptures and drawings.

The ticket to Musee Granet also gives you access to the Jean Planque collection, a great exhibit of paintings by the likes of Picasso and Braque which are displayed beautifully in a nearby chapel which has been refurbished and turned into a museum.

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DRAWING IN AIX

I wanted to take the opportunity to do some drawing while I was in Aix, so I did some research online. I did find one place offering art classes but unfortunately these were not available when I visited, so I just took some supplies and followed Cezanne’s steps to get inspiration (with mixed results).

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ROSÉ WINE AND CUTE MARKETS: a week in Aix-en-Provence

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I started my Provence trip with a week in Aix-en-Provence. The town is famous for its farmer markets and for being the birthplace of Cezanne.

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OLD TOWN

The old city centre of Aix is considered one of the most beautiful in France. The little streets, many of them pedestrianised, are cute and packed with little shops and cafes.

You can wander around for a few hours, stopping for ice cream and taking photos of the terracota facades.

Nearby is the famous Cours Mirabeau, an ample boulevard where you can watch people go by while sipping a glass of wine at Cafe des Deux Garcons (which Cezanne went to).

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MARKETS AND SHOPPING

In the mornings of Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays in the streets near the Rotonde and in the main city squares, many markets take over Aix. Selling local produce, handicraft, clothes and more, these are not only a good place to shop but also an attraction in themselves.

The produce is good and fresh and you can buy the best peaches ever, but I found that the stalls selling things like lavender were a bit too touristy.

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There’s also a good market in the evenings during the summer in Cours Mirabeau.

Around Aix Old Town there’s tons of little shops, selling all sorts of stuff. Many sell traditional products like lavender and calissons, but it’s good to have a look around first and see what’s on offer in different places – I found only a few shops were selling their own production.

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WINE TOUR

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I booked this half day wine tour to see some of the countryside and sample nice local wine. Provence is famous for rosé, so the tour focussed on that.

We visited two wineries. The first, Mistral, gave us a tour of the estate and a detailed explanation of how their wine is produced. We then tasted two types of white wine and three types of rose, as well as two types of olive oil also produced on site. Our second stop was Gassier, another winery where we tried three types of rosé.

Both places were set in the beautiful landscape of Provence, with great views over the mountains and the colourful countryside. This tour was a good opportunity to do something different for the day.

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FONDATION VASARELY

A couple of kilometres outside Aix’s city centre is the Vasarely Foundation (tickets for 9€). The unusual building with towering rooms shaped as hexagons is a nice setting for Vasarely’s artwork, basically a collection of huge optical illusion pieces. It’s an interesting museum which also holds temporary exhibitions (when we visited there were nice displays by Vera Rohm).

The place is currently going through a big renovation, so a few rooms were closed, but it’s still definitely worth the trip – and as with anything with Aix, because it’s outside the city centre most tourists don’t venture that far.

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DAY TRIP TO CASSIS

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About half an hour by train from Marseille is Cassis, a little resort town by beautiful Mediterranean beaches. The town itself is very pretty, with a little port and plenty of bars and cafes with great views.

But the main attraction are the Calanques, narrow inlets with steep walls that create the most amazing scenery and beaches. You can follow different trails in the national park to reach different beaches and ports – the routes take from 30min to 2h and are not particularly difficult, although it can get quite hot and it’s good to wear comfortable shoes.

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Along the way you get amazing views, and there are lots of cool spots for taking pictures.

To get to Cassis you can take a train from Marseille (takes about 30min). The gare is quite far from the city centre, but in the summer there are tourist busses available.

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FOOD AND DRINK

Food in Provence may not be particularly veggie, but the are lots of yummy vegetables in the region, so it’s a great place for self-catering. In Aix there are lots of restaurants around, and plenty of options to choose from.

Provence is famous for their rosé wine, but beer is also very popular in the bars of Aix. We found a bunch of cool pubs in Rue de la Verrerie – they’re not particularly French, but many served Belgian beers at good prices (our favourite was the Kerry with their happy hour deals). And of course there are plenty of cafes and brasseries all over the Old Town, where you can have a drink al fresco.

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HOW TO DO IT:

  • Go: Fly to Marseille from London (takes 1h30). From the airport, busses leave every 30min to Aix and take about 35min. Tickets can be bought on the bus for 8.20€.
  • Stay: I stayed in this excellent flat, which was well located and very well equipped. As long as you’re close to the Old Town then everything is within walking distance.
  • Weather: I went in August, narrowly missing the big heatwave, so when I visited the weather was very good, usually just under 30 degrees and sunny. Summers in France can get unbearably hot though, and it’s also high season, so there are more tourists around. On the other hand, days are long and there’s a lot going on. Lavender fields were already gone by the time I arrived, so going earlier is also a good option.

I will do a follow up post on following Cezanne’s steps in Aix.

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AMAZING FOOD AND MONSOON FUN: Southern India reflections and how to

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India is a massive and diverse country, so it’s hard to define it as a whole. We visited the south of the country over three weeks, and in many ways we barely scratched the surface.

India is loud, vibrant, difficult and appealing all at once. From the luscious green landscape of Kerala to the microbreweries of Bangalore and the hippie lifestyle of Pondicherry, there’s something for everyone – you can spend a month lazying by the beach or joining the local crowds in hipster cafes.

The pull of India is undeniable. Colonial architecture, amazing food and the unstoppable activity are all there to drag you in.

The people we met along the way were really friendly, from the waiters who warned us about spicy dishes to the tuk-tuk driver who asked if we wanted to drive instead, we felt really welcome – everyone seemed to want to make sure we were having a great time; and of course we were.

And obviously India is not an easy country – there’s poverty, crazy traffic and so much noise everywhere. But amid it all, there’s beauty, culture and tradition, temples and gods creating the fabric of a country that really is a world in itself.

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HOW TO DO IT:

Itinerary planning:

Once we decided we’d travel to the south of India, we set out mapping where we wanted to go. I used this tour by G Adventures as the basis of our trip.

  • We did:
    – Mumbay – 3 days
    – Bengalore – 3 days
    – Chennai – 1 day
    – Pondicherry – 4 days
    – Madurai – 2 days
    – Amritapuri ashram – 2 days
    – Kochi – 3 days
    – Mumbai – 3 days

This was definitely a comprehensive itinerary, and although it was busy, as a way of getting to know many places it was the right balance.

Chennai didn’t really have anything to offer, but it’s the easiest starting point to visiting Tamil Nadu. We had a great time in Pondicherry and could have stayed for longer, but four days is definitely enough to see it well. Kochi was another favourite with its easygoing colonial vibe and lush greenery. And of course Mumbai is a whole world.

But the main advantage of our itinerary was that we saw many places off the beaten track – most people I know visit Delhi, the Taj Mahal and Goa. And although I would love to visit those places too, it was great to see a different side of India – one in which many of the stereotypes didn’t hold true.

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Trains:

Travelling by train in India is very popular, and because we were covering a lot of ground, it seemed like a good option. Tickets are really cheap too.

We did a lot of research before buying tickets and booked everything online – Seat 61 was a great help, as purchasing tickets can be a long process.

We took three trains, one during the day and two sleepers. All were good – we chose second class as recommended and it was comfortable and had air conditioning.

Trains were mostly on time, although we had a one hour delay once.

Stations don’t always have clear signage, but both on trains or at the platform people were helpful and gave us the information we needed.

Travelling by train is also a good way of seeing the Indian countryside passing through your window.

Because of the way people drive in India, given the chance I’d always prefer a train over a taxi. Alternatively, for long distances there were good options for cheap flights.

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Transportation in cities:

India is famous for its chaotic traffic, and we saw that was the case in big cities. Public transportation is not always available, although you can get the occasional bus or metro. In smaller cities, sometimes things are within walking distance, but in general that is not the case.

Most of the time you will rely on tuk-tuks or taxis. Tuk-tuks are easily available everywhere and are good fun. In Mumbai and Bangalore there were restrictions on where they could go (and sometimes the drivers will simply turn you down!).

Tuk-tuks area cheap, but you need to agree on a price before you get in – Mumbai was the only place where they used meters.

Taxis in India are mostly app-based. Aside from Uber, Ola is a local alternative, but you need an Indian mobile number to use it. Hotels and restaurants are generally also able to arrange transportation if needed.

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Visa:

You can get an e-visa online, which is a good system. You complete the form and pay the £41 fee on this website. The site has a few glitches, so you may need to try a few times before your application goes through.

A couple of days later you get an email confirmation. All you need to do is print that off and bring it with you to the airport.

Money:

As expected, India is really cheap, and in many ways that is part of the appeal. You can get a cheap meal for £1, a hotel room for £10 and an outfit for £5. In shops and markets it can be hard to bargain as often the starting price is lower than what you wanted to pay (you should haggle anyway though, as it’s the way to do it).

There were three of us travelling and the daily kitty of £20 per person was more than enough to cover everything apart from accommodation (some days we spent only half of it).

In bigger cities, however, we found that prices vary much more, and in Mumbai you could find lots of high end restaurants with prices just a bit lower than those in the UK – so it’s best to save these for a special occasion.

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Weather – travelling during the monsoon season:

We travelled in July, which is supposed to be very hot and wet as it’s monsoon season. Because of that, we decided to travel south – the region is supposed to be really beautiful then.

What we found is that the monsoon wasn’t really what we expected. In Tamil Nadu we got no rain at all. In Kerala we got the occasional storm but that always passed quickly. Mumbai was also pretty much dry.

As for the heat, in some places it did get over 35 degrees, but restaurants and shops tend to have air conditioning or fans, so it wasn’t that bad. Many of the places we visited had a maximum temperature of around 30 degrees, which is hot but not unbearable.

So travelling during monsoon season turned out just fine – and we had the bonus of avoiding the tourist crowds.

People:

You always hear a lot about how much hassle you get in India, but our experience was different. Nowhere did we get much hassle at all – in Madurai we had a few pushy sellers, but that was very minor.

Mostly, when people spoke to us they wanted to ask us for a photo or to chat about our experience in India. People were also very helpful and forthcoming when they thought we needed directions or some guidance.

Yoga and Ayurveda:

We wanted to take advantage of being in India to do some yoga, and we managed to do so in Pondicherry (at Rishi) and Kochi (at Sivananda).

We also managed to have ayurvedic massage in Pondicherry (at Keralaa Ayurveda).

What we found though is that those weren’t as easily available as we expected – we really needed to do some research in order to find the places, and there weren’t lots of options.

With the yoga, we were the only people to show up to the public classes we did, which was great for us but also showed it was definitely low season.

But all we did was definitely great fun and amazing experiences.

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Food and Drink:

Food in India is famously impressive, but it surpassed my expectations. We ate lots of different types of Indian food, both from the north and south of the country, and at varying prices. Pretty much everywhere we ate very well.

Where we ate Western food, it was also delicious – particularly the desserts (so much cake!) were amazing. People always flagged if they thought something may be too spicy for us which was good.

And of course India is a vegetarian’s paradise, so there were always tons of options for me to choose from. I was travelling with friends who have a bit more expensive taste than me, so maybe because of that I didn’t get a case of Delhi belly at all!

Our experience of food in India was a rich part of our trip – from cool cafes to traditional thalis everything added value to our journey.

Drinking in India can be a bit trickier – in some areas there are strict regulations and it can be hard to find a bar, or you may be restricted to only a couple of places serving Kingfisher.

Big cities are easier, with bars and restaurants offering good selections of drinks. These are not super cheap though, so alcohol can have a big impact on your daily budget.

The best place we found for drinks was Bangalore, which has a vibrant craft brewery scene with lots of cool bars serving good beer to the local crowd. Indian wine is available in some upmarket places, but it’s usually expensive.

Shopping:

I knew India was going to be cheap and although I’m not one for shopping, I expected to be tempted. Prices can really be insanely cheap, but I didn’t always find things as appealing as I thought I might.

Shopping for sarees was the only thing that was a bit overwhelming as there were countless options everywhere. I still bought a few things but nothing over the top.

We also found some upmarket shops with more unique options (Fabindia was our favourite). Those still had reasonable prices but were less conducive to a shopping spree.