Category Archives: France

Five for Friday… travel tips

Copyright: Louise Ralph

EB hanging around in Halong Bay, Vietnam

Who doesn’t love Fridays? As the work day winds down, everything seems possible and that delicious sound of your computer trilling its way to ‘off’ – well, it’s the call of the wild, isn’t it?

Speaking of wild, here are our ‘five for Friday’ travel tips – the things we love to do and definitely want to do more of when we get away…

  1. Be flexible – it seems easier to have everything booked, but what you pick up in security and certainty, you can lose in fresh perspectives – like being taken for a ride (literally) and picking up some brilliant and slightly weird travel memories in Ho Chi Minh city or getting lost and eating at a back-street trattoria owned by two elderly (and fiesty) sisters. And, of course, certainty isn’t always guaranteed even when you pre-book – like a friend who booked a hotel online only to discover, on arrival, that it was closed for renovation (aka indefinitely)
  2. Be flâneurs  – and hit the streets when you arrive (so make sure you’re fit enough to do it before you go). It’s definitely the best way to see places, meet people, get lost and find yourself…

    Copyright: Louise Ralph

    There’s nothing shy about these kids on the streets of Sapa… priceless

  3. Immerse yourself – there’s nothing wrong with getting a taste test of countries, but it’s so much better to base yourself somewhere for a week or more and really immerse yourself in the culture. After ten days in Sarlat-la-Canéda in France, we were on nodding (and sometimes hugging) terms with the locals, which just goes to show that a smile and a laugh is the universal language
  4. Book into apartments – when you’re travelling for longer than a couple of weeks, you really get tired of eating out (no matter how fabulous the food is!). Being able to make your own breakfast or buy local produce to whip up a fabulous dinner is just bliss. It makes you feel at home in the world…
  5. Say YES – because travelling isn’t all happy snaps. It’s a human drive to seek safety (and avoid feeling anxious, uncertain, uncomfortable, scared). It’s easier to stick to the tourist spots when you could go slightly off-piste and discover amazing places and people. Easier to drive when you could cycle or paddle or walk. Easier to take a cruise than experiment with indi-travel. But, now that you’ve said yes to travel, why not embrace the strange encounters and breathtaking experiences along the way…

Happy travels…

Copyright: Louise Ralph

Everything is possible: holiday resolutions

You know the drill. You’re on holidays and the stress has melted away, leaving you feeling like anything is possible.

You’ll get back home and do those things you’ve been putting off forever.

You’ll change your life, or at least your attitude to it.

You won’t be sucked back into the stress zone. And those end of the day ‘power wine-downs’ will be a thing of the past.

You can almost hear your liver whispering ‘thank you’.

Yep, anything is possible.

Fast forward a few weeks and it’s easy to forget you’ve ever been away. The relentless pace of life sucks you in – and under.


The other day, I found myself grabbing lunch and taking it back to my desk. I stopped mid-stride.

‘I reckon you wouldn’t find a single French person eating lunch at their desk,’ I thought.

And I went back outside to find a place in the sun…

My friend posted this Seth Godin quote on faffbook recently, and it’s worth repeating (even if we are planning our next getaway!):

Maybe it’s not about big changes and Humpty-Dumpty resolutions. Maybe hanging onto that ‘holiday spirit’ is about the little things that build momentum in your life and eventually add up to the way you live.

And where you eat lunch.


Getting into the Singapore swing…

Copyright: Louise Ralph

We’ve been hanging out in Singapore for the past few days. EB finds the humidity energizing. Moi? I’m suffering from serious France-lag.

Even my mobile kept French time for two days. Perhaps that’s why they call it a smart phone.

As always, we hit the streets on day one – stepping out into 33-degree heat, complete with 90 percent humidity. Joy.

One local just laughs at us and shakes his head. “Nobody walk in Singapore. Everyone take bus or taxi,” he says.

I wish. I already feel like I’ve run a marathon. Unfortunately, I look like it too. Wringing wet and half dead.

Which makes it hard to blend in along Orchard Road, Singapore’s posh shop-til-you-drop strip. The only person about to drop is me – and I haven’t even started shopping.

Copyright: Louise Ralph

Flood levels in Singapore get that high?
No, it’s just Marina Bay Sands, a humble casino resort…

But what do the locals think of their city? “Singapore is fine city,” one lady says.

This isn’t a quirk of language. She’s not the first – or the last – to tell us about how highly regulated life is in Singapore.

There are fines for littering, fines for not emptying the overflow from pot-plant trays, fines and loss of taxi-licenses for drivers ripping people off, fines and jail terms for handbag snatching and other petty crime, a complicated car-ownership permit system, and more. You can even get the cane here, and not just at school.

The pot-plant thing? That’s about making sure mosquitoes can’t breed. It’s part of a vigilant program to stop dengue fever (check out the NEA ad).

All these strict laws may be annoying to live with, but they’re designed to create a litter and crime-free tropical city that’s healthy and safe for tourists and residents, with maximum green spaces and minimum pollution – especially car emissions.

And it works. It’s the safest, cleanest, most relaxing Asian city we’ve been in so far.

It’s also one the most environmentally-responsible and innovative cities in the world.

For us, it’s been a pleasant surprise and we’ve had a great time exploring the city.

Not always on foot. EB relented and we did eventually take taxis and buses – sometimes.

Coming soon! Some of our favourite places in Singapore. Until then, here’s a trip down memory lane – by bike.

This reminds me of how I felt on the last downhill run into Tournus. Nice.

Copyright: Louise Ralph

Memories of cycling in Burgundy – a bronze in Singapore’s Botanical Gardens

Au revoir, merci France

Copyright: Louise RalphWhen we first arrived in France, I had no idea what to expect – just that I’d wanted to come here for a very long time.

I also knew the six weeks would be gone in a blink… and it has.

There have been challenges, bien sur.

Like trying to communicate with our limited grasp of the language, adjusting to those rich late-night dinners, and finding our way around France with the ever-petulant Sylvia the GPS and those sometimes-dodgy cycling directions…

But the one facing us now, after our quick stopover in Singapore, is much more scary.

Going home and stepping back into… [cue spooky music] …the Stress Zone.

We know the moment our feet get under the desk, our life will be frantic. But does it have to be?

Our quest – which may take superhuman powers – is to hold onto a little of that fabulous French attitude to life.

Like working to live, not the other way around. And taking timeout – because you don’t always have to be open, or available 24/7, or busting your way through the in-tray.

Meanwhile, we have some time to wander the streets of Tournus before our fast train to the airport. Mais oui, the streets are all but deserted. Only the boulangerie and one bar-cafe in the centre ville is openIt’s Monday, after all.

And even if that doesn’t always suit us tourists, it works for the French. And that’s the point, really.

So we’ve popped some of that approach into our bags. Now we’ve just gotta get it through customs…and home.

Copyright: Louise Ralph

Copyright: Louise Ralph

Serenity, French-style, in Tournus…

Au revoir, France. A bientot.

Off piste – from Cluny to Tournus

Copyright: Louise Ralph

“Ooo, a castle,” said the goldfish

Day 4 and a local tells us: “Vous êtes chanceux. Il fait beau”. You’re lucky. It’s good weather.

Apparently it’s usually much colder this time of year.

Vraisment? Rain threatens all day and the clouds don’t part for an instant.

The wind is bitter, but a welcome friend when it’s at our backs going up those pesky hills.

There are lots of them today – especially when we peddle up 3km, only to find we’ve gone the wrong way.

Gotta love those vague directions…

Then EB’s gears throw a tanty, and we stop to fix them. Tick, tick, tick…

We glance at a chateau, but we’re way behind time.

Clearly, the bike-hire peeps don’t think lights are important, so we’re cycling on major thoroughfares under gray skies. Not for the feint-hearted.

But, in the end, what’s not to like?

This is our last day in France, and we’re pedalling through vineyards and gorgeous little villages that are mostly deserted. It’s Sunday, after all.

As we crest the final hill, we are (again) gobsmacked at the view. Okay, my open mouth is actually gasping for air, but let’s not labour the point.

Copyright: Louise Ralph

Then it’s top gear and down the hill to Tournus – the last stop before we jump on one of those super-fast trains tomorrow.

The last four days of our trip will be spent in Singapore, before we are back to reality.

But for now, there’s that incredible view from our hotel window. And the obligatory five-course dinner…

Ah oui, je t’aime France.

Copyright: Louise Ralph

A room with a view…

The big chill – from St Boil to Cluny

Copyright: Louise Ralph

Day 3 dawns. Almost. Autumn’s chilly fingers extend across the landscape and smart people stay indoors, cranking up the central heating.

Cream-coloured beef cattle huddle in frost-powdered fields, watching with characteristic bovine disinterest as two crazy, blue-lipped cyclists pass by.

It doesn’t take much convincing to take a detour for a guided tour through the Chateau de Cormatin, a magnificently restored castle in Bourg.

Copyright: Louise Ralph

Afterwards, we stop for a quick bite in the town, disturbing the grumpy old woman taking a ciggy-break behind the bar. She serves us with nicotine-stained fingers and a bad attitude.

We don’t hang around long – which is probably the intention.

As we begin the second half our our journey, the sun bursts through the hazy clouds. It’s one o’clock.

Who let the dogs out…?

We’re happy to arrive in Cluny, to stretch our legs, give our butts a rest…and gape at the lion-esque dogs that are out in force.

There’s a Leonberger club meet here this weekend and they are everywhere.

Yes, even at dinner in our posh hotel restaurant.

And it’s not like you can sneak these pooches through the door in your handbag.

I’m wishing they’d been here in time to share the first course of our ‘gastronomique toure de Bourgogne’. I’ve decided to live dangerously (for a vegetarian)…

In the candlelight, the dish looks harmless enough. Like something coated in neopolitan sauce. EB could have mentioned that shaved beef is actually raw beef – except he wouldn’t get the last laugh.

But in the absence of a Leonberger dinner companion, he has to eat mine so we don’t offend the chef. Ha! Who’s laughing now?

Raw victuals aside, the meal and the service are superb. Flawless presentation is one of the many things the French do so well.

So impressive. Which will be us tomorrow, cycling the last and longest chilly, hilly stage of our trip… Now, where’s that nurofen?

à demain

Along the voie verte…

Copyright: Louise Ralph

Day 1: We’re up before the sun today. Not a huge feat in France, I’ll admit. The sun only makes a rather lackluster appearance sometime around eight o’clock.

We soon leave Beaune behind, as we peddle along the Vélor Route through mist-shrouded vineyards and villages.

Every village smells of freshly-crushed pinot grapes and the wine caves are awash with the post-pressing cleanup.

Copyright: Louise RalphTractors are being tucked away and even the horses, which are still used in the vineyards today, get a break from their hard labour.

This pair (pictured below) wait for their owner to pick up his baguette…

It’s impossible to capture the sensational landscape we cycle through, so I give up on the photography thing and revel in the pure bliss of it.

Copyright: Louise Ralph

…on the baguette run

Then we hit the hills – those deadly endless slopes that rise slowly but surely, along with the burning in my thighs…

EB is riding rings around me. Literally.

We finally arrive in Chassay-la-Camp, and find our delightfully-retro hotel…and there are those pampered pooches again.

Guests are allowed to keep their dogs in their rooms – and bring them to the dining room.

One lady had her pug-faced dog with her for dinner and breakfast. And yes, dogs and their owners do look the same.

I desperately wanted to take a photo, but I was scared she might bite me. The lady, not the dog.

Day 2: We spend a lot of time trying to decipher directions, and even more time stopping for wine tasting and having a very long lunch in Mercurey.

Copyright: Louise Ralph

The long lunch wasn’t really our intention.

But, at the suggestion of the lovely wine-tasting guy, we soon found ourselves (in our bike duds) having a delicious silver-service, five-course lunch at the Hôtellerie du Val d’Or across the road.

For just €22 each! Incroyable…

I won’t go into the gruesome details of the remaining 40 or so kilometres we had yet to cycle (with our overfed bellies). Or the hills.

Let’s just say, I was seriously considering mainlining nurofen about 15 km into it…

Are we ready for Day 3? Bien sur.

But right now, we’re crashing. Bon nuit.

Faces of Beaune…

Copyright: Louise RalphIt’s Tuesday in downtown Beaune, which is pronounced like an Inspector Clouseau version of ‘bone’.

EB has gone for a massage and acupuncture for a cracked rib (long story, but I didn’t do it, I swear).

And I have two hours to shop, sans bloke. Sounds like a plan.


This is not something I do well at the best of times, even if I do want to take a bag full of cute French stuff back for my family.


It’s drizzly weather, and just hitting midday.

Shopping? Mais non. The two-hour lunch break has begun. The shops have closed, but the cafés are buzzing. Merde.

Time to visit the local Salon de thé and watch the world go by.

Stray or con-artist? Je ne sais pas…

So there I am, drinking verte de menthe (peppermint tea) and eating végétarien quiche, in the company of a cute taupe poodle – who may be a stray or just a con-artist.

We both sneak a look around, before I feed him the bits of jambon (ham) from my quiche. The French have an interesting interpretation of vegetarian, I’ve discovered.

Suddenly he scoots away, as two German tourists loom above me. Okay, the German tourist thing isn’t immediately apparent.

There are empty tables all around us, but it seems mine is in the preferred location.

Pardon. You want to sit…here? Ah, oui, bien sur, feel free. Move my bags? Par de problème. Pile your stuff in front of me? Pourquoi pas.

I sit, half-listening, to their vigorous conversation of which monument to visit next. The other part of me debates our cultural differences – or perhaps the fact that I resent feeling awkward. It’s all so un-Zen.

Tiring of my out-of-body experience, I stand up. Au revoir, they say. Au revoir, I reply. Smiling.

And the heavens open.

So do the shops. France is full of tiny miracles…

Copyright: Louise Ralph

One of the local door-dogs.

Fast-forward to dinner in a delightful back-street restaurant. EB and I sit down, trying not to make too much noise in this monastically-silent place.

You can hear a pin drop. Or, at least, my umbrella.

We peruse the menu, whispering interpretations to each other. It seems that quite a few other tourists have found their way here. Some are busily consulting their French phrasebook.

The waitress arrives at our table and grunts out avez-vous choisi?

Quel est vollaille fermière à la crème d’èspoisses? I ask (with abysmal pronunciation, I admit).

CHICKEN, she pretty-much shouts, shattering the silence. Now you can hear a pin drop.

EB and I burst out laughing, which is clearly not the appropriate response.

The food is some of the best I’ve had in France, but the frosty waitress is just too much hard work. C’est la vie.

That was yesterday. Today, we reach a milestone in our French adventure, swapping la voiture for le vèlo.

We are a little sad, but looking forward to a few days cycling through Burgundy (remind me I said this when my croissant-butt is in agony tomorrow…)

The first part of our cycling trip is rather mild. Dining at the Abbaye de Maizières.

It’s a little hard to find the entrance, until we see some people opening what appears to be a window, at waist-level, in the stone wall.

Copyright: Louise Ralph

C’est ne pas un moine (monk). C’est EB dans l’Abbaye de Maizieres – consulting the wine list, of course.

We follow them through and down some stone stairs into the most amazing ancient cave (cellar), with its low dramatically-buttressed ceilings, coated in centuries of mould.

Monks used to store their wine barrels here and make the wine in the adjacent room. No wonder this place has good energy.

Praying leads to wine-tasting, apparently.

We are greeted by the delightful host who treats us like royalty, even with our vaguely outdoor-recreation couture.

The food is great, the wine is superb, and the friendly service is refreshing.

And we have to admit, it’s not a bad way to begin a cycling adventure…

Perhaps the sun will shine on us tomorrow, after all?

Unravelling the plot(s) in Bourgogne

Copyright: Louise Ralph

Strolling through Beaune.                  While I still can.

We’ve arrived in Bourgogne (Burgundy to the un-French amongst us) to stay for a few days in the beautiful and relaxing city of Beaune.

And yes, we’re taking advantage of a little kick-back time before we head off on the last bit of our France trip – five days cycling through the region’s vineyards and villages.

Inevitably, kick-back involves some ‘Aussies in the Mist’ moments, up on the highest point EB can find.

He likes views, apparently.

Bien sur, we also take some time out to unravel the mysteries of the fascinating Côte d’Or wine region.

Copyright: Louise Ralph

Misty heights of Bout de Monde

This takes losing the plot to new levels. We discover that the only grapes grown in the Côte d’Or are pinot noir and chardonnay. That’s not so hard.

It also explains why there are no grape types mentioned on the labels. Instead, the plot of origin, its classification, then the winemaker are featured.

Now it gets more complicated. Much more.

The region is divided into plots, either owned or leased by various winegrowers. There are no houses to be seen amongst the vineyards…

Instead, the vignerons live and make their wine in the villages, and have cellar doors there.

The result is sweeping vineyards stretching up the hillsides and into the valleys, punctuated by picturesque stone villages.

Copyright: Louise RalphVineyard plots are classified into regional, village, premier cru and grand cru – all based on the plot’s microclimate and orientation to the sun, and the mosaic of limestone and soil.

You can get a reasonable wine for €10, while grand cru could set you back €2000 a bottle.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, some vignerons with marketing-smarts came up with the idea of renaming villages to include their best wine label. This explains the many double-barrel (no pun intended) village names, like Nuit-St-Georges or Chambolle-Musigny. So romantic. So French.

Back to the plot. The surprising thing is that one plot will produce a particular taste in the wine while, just two metres away across the track, another plot will produce an entirely different flavour.

This is part of the adventure of Burgundy wines and something the locals embrace with particular pride.

Wine here isn’t a beverage, it’s an artform – and learning by doing isn’t a bad way to pass the time.

Water of life

Copyright: Louise RalphIn Roman times, water was wealth. Running water in the city was one thing, but having it in your house instantly put you a cut above the rest.

Enter Pont du Gard. At an impressive 48.77 metres, it was the highest aqueduct bridge in the Roman world.

This is the best-preserved section of an incredible aqueduct system that carried about 20,000 cubic metres of fresh spring water a day, over and around hills and across gullies and rivers, from an aquifer near Uzès to the then-Roman city of Nîmes. Did someone say ‘water restrictions’?

The aqueduct itself is a real feat of engineering, with a fall of only 17 metres across its entire 50-kilometre length.

And looking up at those arches, it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the huge stones cut and placed with such precision that they could outlast civilisations. Even ours…

Going through the museum at the Pont du Gard site and seeing how it was done ‘back in the day’ is a head-spin (not to mention the museum itself).

Today, Pont du Gard stands as a testament to the legendary Roman determination and ingenuity. It also shows the value they put on having access to fresh water. And a lot of it.

While the average Roman living in the city relied on the many fountains spilling out fresh water, the wealthy had fresh water ‘on tap’ at home – water for drinking, cooking, bathing, flushing, washing, and even for fountains.

Clearly, they were big on wellbeing and a bit partial to the tinkle of water…

And I can’t argue with that.