Belated Trip Report - European Escapade

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kookaburra75

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After a couple of relaxing days in Bath, we started the last part of our journey in the UK. From Bath we headed across to the east on the back roads, through Marlborough, up past Wantage and onto Oxford. Oxford is a bit of a funny place - there's the old university part in the centre, but it is surrounded by a thick belt of 1930-40's dormitory suburbs, for the car factories that were there. It's not like the movies, but interesting in its own way. But, it is always really busy with tourists, and expensive to stay in. The best way I think, is to stay outside of Oxford e.g. Abingdon, Kidlington, and then use the buses to get into Oxford.

We parked at one of the park and ride stations to catch the bus into the centre, as driving and parking is always a nightmare. We wandered around the old covered market, and through the old colleges - doing a lap around the Bodelian Library, All Souls, Magdelan, Merton and Christ Colleges, before going inside the Balliol College. It's one of the smaller ones, but interesting nonetheless, and a lot less tourists than the main colleges like Christ - and a lot cheaper. Being out of season, it was possible to wander through the main halls.
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While we didn't on this trip, a couple of trips ago I went on one of the "free" walking tours that was lead by a former student - you tip them at the end. It was quite entertaining, and provided a lot more background to Oxford, its traditions, culture and view of everyone else. Well worth the hour or so, if you want to get a better idea of the university side of Oxford.

We spent a few hours wandering around Oxford, and then jumped back into the car and headed onto our last UK stop, at Watlington. I know Watlington and its pub, The Fat Fox Inn quite well, as it is usually my first overnight stop once I get off the flight from the UK. It's about 30-40 minute drive from Heathrow. It's a picture perfect English village - something STBMrsK was after, in the attempt to replicate Escape to the Country, and find a little "something" for GBP500k! When we were sitting in the bar, we were talking about how the place looked like something out of Midsomer Murders. The barmaid, overhearing us, passed us the brochure which set out the places in Watlington which had appeared in that show, which episodes etc. So we set off to do a lap of the village, check out the scenes and sample the other two pubs.
European Escapade_Page12b.png
That night we started the process of repacking our bags, to get ready for the morning drive to Heathrow. I had booked through Avis, as they have a depot in the Terminal 5 carpark, to save us the hassle of getting to the hire car yards up on the northern edge of Heathrow, and using the shuttle bus.

The check in for our flight to Toulouse went smoothly, and as I was only SG at that stage, we went into the BA Galleries Lounge for a coffee and light lunch before boarding our flight. The lounge was busy, but we were able to find seats, make a coffee and things to eat. Being a new lounge it was light years ahead of what I was used to at the old BA T3 lounge. As we were on holidays, we also had our obligatory glass of bubbles to get into the right mood for the flight and our destination - we would need it.
 
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After a couple of relaxing days in Bath, we started the last part of our journey in the UK. From Bath we headed across to the east on the back roads, through Marlborough, up past Wantage and onto Oxford. Oxford is a bit of a funny place - there's the old university part in the centre, but it is surrounded by a thick belt of 1930-40's dormitory suburbs, for the car factories that were there. It's not like the movies, but interesting in its own way. But, it is always really busy with tourists, and expensive to stay in. The best way I think, is to stay outside of Oxford e.g. Abingdon, Kidlington, and then use the buses to get into Oxford.

We parked at one of the park and ride stations to catch the bus into the centre, as driving and parking is always a nightmare. We wandered around the old covered market, and through the old colleges - doing a lap around the Bodelian Library, All Souls, Magdelan, Merton and Christ Colleges, before going inside the Balliol College. It's one of the smaller ones, but interesting nonetheless, and a lot less tourists than the main colleges like Christ - and a lot cheaper. Being out of season, it was possible to wander through the main halls.
View attachment 123919
While we didn't on this trip, a couple of trips ago I went on one of the "free" walking tours that was lead by a former student - you tip them at the end. It was quite entertaining, and provided a lot more background to Oxford, its traditions, culture and view of everyone else. Well worth the hour or so, if you want to get a better idea of the university side of Oxford.

We spent a few hours wandering around Oxford, and then jumped back into the car and headed onto our last UK stop, at Watlington. I know Watlington and its pub, The Fat Fox Inn quite well, as it is usually my first overnight stop once I get off the flight from the UK. It's about 30-40 minute drive from Heathrow. It's a picture perfect English village - something STBMrsK was after, in the attempt to replicate Escape to the Country, and find a little "something" for GBP500! When we were sitting in the bar, we were talking about how the place looked like something out of Midsomer Murders. The barmaid, overhearing us, passed us the brochure which set out the places in Watlington which had appeared in that show, which episodes etc. So we set off to do a lap of the village, check out the scenes and sample the other two pubs.
View attachment 123920
That night we started the process of repacking our bags, to get ready for the morning drive to Heathrow. I had booked through Avis, as they have a depot in the Terminal 5 carpark, to save us the hassle of getting to the hire car yards up on the northern edge of Heathrow, and using the shuttle bus.

The check in for our flight to Toulouse went smoothly, and as I was only SG at that stage, we went into the BA Galleries Lounge for a coffee and light lunch before boarding our flight. The lounge was busy, but we were able to find seats, make a coffee and things to eat. Being a new lounge it was light years ahead of what I was used to at the old BA T3 lounge. As we were on holidays, we also had our obligatory glass of bubbles to get into the right mood for the flight and our destination - we would need it.
I once did an Inspector Morse walking tour. It was such fun and we visited a lot of the colleges and other sites used in filming.
 

kookaburra75

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I once did an Inspector Morse walking tour. It was such fun and we visited a lot of the colleges and other sites used in filming.
If you want a bit of a laugh, google "Inspector Morse comes to Australia" on Youtube, for the one episode which was filmed mainly in Canowindra NSW.
 

kookaburra75

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We settled in for the two hour flight from Heathrow to Toulouse, which was uneventful. The we arrived in Toulouse. It's a massive airport, with Airbus based there. As we arrived two other flights landed as well. Then we had to clear passport control. As you walk along the corridors from the aircraft, it gradually narrows in, and in, and in (think Being John Malkovich), until you end up four wide queue for the two passport windows. And there's no windows, virtually no air conditioning and packed in with 150-200 people. After an hour a third window opened to clear the crowd. So, two and a bit hours after landing we cleared passport control and staggered out into the fresh air and sunshine. I've had longer waits I admit (think old LAX), but not a regional airport and in such cramped conditions. STBMrsK was not in a good mood.

The taxi got us into our hotel in the middle of town, the Hôtel Le Père Léon and we settled in. The hotel was great in terms of location, but the room was small. Also, the bathroom wasn't a separate room, but rather a large frosted glass enclosure in the corner of the room. Something to check on if you want to stay there. After settling in, we headed out for a walk around the area, in search of food and drink. Due to changes in our itinerary we only had the one night in Toulouse.
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It is a lovely city, and after the relatively short time we had there, we would certainly go back to use Toulouse as a base - different hotel though - to explore the city and the surrounding area. We wandered along the river and dropped into a few bars - my french being limited to "..a glass of red and a glass of white wine please...". We had dinner at the Brasserie Flo Les Beaux-Arts, and I had the classic Toulouse Sausage and chatted to the waiter about local wines, of which we tried a few.

After a good night's sleep, we grabbed an Uber and headed over to the Hertz Depot at the Railway Station to pick up the hire car - a Renault Captur. I thought that was the easiest way to do it, rather than back tracking to the airport and getting a car. Plus, on the maps it looked like I could take a main road to get out onto the ring road and off towards our next stop at Saint Antonin. My plan sort of worked. First, after dropping in at the desk and getting the car keys, maps and some directions on how to get out of the city, when we got to the car area, it had an empty fuel tank. So, back to the desk, get the person up there to drive us around to the fuel depot and topped up the car. That was ok, but now I was in a different spot. I changed the entries in the spare phone I was using as the GPS and off we went, in a manual on the wrong side of the road. I was ok about it, but STBMrsK was a bit jumpy. After a couple of wrong turns, getting stuck in the wrong lane and not able to make the right road and some quick three point turns we got onto the ring road.

The drive up to St Antonin was smooth. We dropped into one of the road-side centres and stocked up on fruit, munchies and essentials (wine), and kept driving along. After the first hour I got used to the mirror and the gear stick being on the right hand side and managed to stay in the correct side of the road. We even got through the automated toll booth in one piece. We wanted to arrive in St Antonin using the same route that appeared in the movie, The Hundred Foot Journey, which is down a steep hill into the valley. Which we did, and that all worked ok. We went for a drive up to the lookout on the far side of the town, and you can see for miles.

We got to our B&B in St Antonin, the Maison Belmont, which of course, one of the couple who ran the place Paul, was from Sydney. It is a great little place, only four bedrooms and in a central location. Being out of season was a good time to be there, as apparently the population explodes during their summer months and it is impossible to find somewhere to stay. Some of the restaurants were closed but there were enough open to keep us going.
European Escapade_Page13b.png
After spending the evening, at the cafe in the centre square we called it a night.
 
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Boca68

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The modern (think 60's/70's) french style of the shower cubicle in the corner of the room, I have experienced that in Paris, Lyon and Bordeaux.

Whilst functional, not at all pleasing to the eye.
 

kookaburra75

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We left St Antonin in the morning, with the plan to wander our way through the back roads. We ended up travelling through Albi, Castres, Beziers, Montpellier, and then around the edge of the Carmague into Arles.
European Escapade p14a.png
We had picked a hotel in the middle of the old town, at Hôtel de l'Amphithéâtre. We had to park at the main parking station, about a 10 minute walk to the hotel. They had clear directions on their website, so it was relatively easy. Arles is also a fascinating place to explore - with the original Roman Amphitheatre and the Theatre, as well as the old buildings, and narrow streets. The hotel was in an excellent location, and we could walk around, drop into bars for a drink and watch the world go by. It also had a bar fridge in the room which was a plus. STBMrsK could have her evening coughtail. We found a nice little restaurant, Le Criquet and sat upstairs and sampled the local dishes and wines.
European Escapade p14b.png
In the morning we wandered around, across to the Rhone River and saw the many river cruise boats, which dock up to 3 wide to tie up. It was busier than Bourke Street.
European Escapade p14c.png
After our morning coffee, we climbed back into the mighty Renault Captur - which isn't a bad car to drive - and started the trek to Monte Carlo.
 
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ellen10

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Brings back lots of memories. Arles is a a very worthwhile visit, we enjoyed our time there. We also rented a Renault Captur last year for a month in France, we agree a great car.
 

TheRealTMA

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Brings back lots of memories. Arles is a a very worthwhile visit, we enjoyed our time there. We also rented a Renault Captur last year for a month in France, we agree a great car.
I do worry about the people who hire a Citroen “Cactus”. Obviously not a name designed to give AngloSaxons a warm feeling.;)
 

kookaburra75

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Brings back lots of memories. Arles is a a very worthwhile visit, we enjoyed our time there. We also rented a Renault Captur last year for a month in France, we agree a great car.

I do worry about the people who hire a Citroen “Cactus”. Obviously not a name designed to give AngloSaxons a warm feeling.;)

I got a Cactus on my last work trip to the UK - and it was purple to boot. As a car to drive it was ok, but it made me shudder every time I had to walk up to it, to get into it. I had to explain to the guys in the office, what calling something "Cactus" means in Australia
 

OZDUCK

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Another one who had Captur, leased for a month.. Perfect for our needs and roomy for its size.

Those photos of Arles look great, certainly looks like a good place to visit. Thanks for the TR to date and looking forward to seeing more.
 

kookaburra75

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Well, this was the day we had been waiting for - Monaco. As it was a bit of a haul by our standards, three and half hours or so, we decided to cut along the main roads across to Aix-en-Provence, then turned off onto the A50 to head down to Toulon for lunch. We found a parking station in the old part of Toulon near the waterfront and explored the streets and found a little place for lunch. After a rest, we headed back up towards the main roads on the A57 and onto the freeway.

Before we headed off on our trip, I had done some research on driving in France, road rules, tolls etc. Apparently some toll booths use coins, others credit card. But the one thing I didn't see was how to tell which booths were which, by either location or signage - so we had a pile of coins, besides the credit cards. On our drive from Toulouse to St Antonin, we had come across one toll station, where all I had to do was insert the credit card. Easy, what could go wrong?

On the main freeway, the A8, we came across several toll booths. Some you paid in coins in advance, others you swiped the credit card. One thing I worked out was, that as you approached the booths, on the gantry before the booths the signs showed either etags or cash - with the cash being on the right hand side. When you get to the booths, the signs on top are all the same - so if you want to use cash/notes, go to the booths on the right hand end - look for the slot for "billet". Or, you could be like us, with our pile of coins we went for the booth in the middle without a queue. I tipped in the coins into the bucket, they rattled through and one got stuck, so it didn't record the proper amount and the boom didn't lift. I threw in another coin, still nothing. Ok.... I pressed the Help button with the plea "parlez vous anglais", and "non" was the response. I figured that as they could see us on the cameras, they would take pity on us and lift the boom. It took a while, with a ever growing queue behind us, beeping horns, and STBMrsK getting more antsy.... "I think you're over-reacting dear...", said I, "... no I'm not!", says she. After what seems hours, but probably only a few minutes, the boom lifted and off we went. I'm sure the cctv footage has ended up on the French version of "Dumb things tourists do" show.

We then edged closer to Monaco. Our phone/GPS kept chattering away and keeping us on track. As we got closer to Monaco we discovered one short coming in the system. When we headed towards a roundabout, it would start saying, "... take the third exit onto Avenue des Castelans in 150m" - but then as we arrived to the roundabout quickly, it didn't get the chance to say the whole street name, "... take Avenue des... take 3rd exit,,,, now...". Some of the so called exits were more like a driveway than a road, and there was more than a few times I had to do another lap to work out which street I was supposed to be on. 20+ years ago I drove into Monaco, descending down the hill. This time, following the GPS and the signs, we suddenly entered a tunnel - and we seemed to spiral down and down. What to do - wait until we popped out the bottom and go from there - although I wasn't sure whether we would end up in Monaco, back in France, Italy or Switzerland, based on the time we spent in the tunnel. But we popped out at the bottom of the hill and into Monaco. Following the now relatively docile GPS we got to our destination, the Monte-Carlo Bay Hotel & Resort.

Now, this was the fun bit. We pulled up in the mighty Renault Captur (now named Renee) into the arrival area of the hotel, where there were a number of high end Porsches, Mercedes and BMW's parked - I resisted the temptation to do a hand brake turn. We got out of the car and I looked across to the Valet desk, to hand over the keys - they refused to make eye contact. After a couple of minutes of me jangling the keys in their direction and pointing at the car, one person - I think he was the new guy pushed out by the others - came across and took the car off to be hidden from view.

The hotel was fantastic, friendly service, magnificent room and a view across the Mediterranean - a must for STBMrsK.
European Escapade p15a.png
After unloading our gear into the room, spreading out, soaking in the enormous bath and taking in the view from our room, we got ready for our night out, with the aim being to have coughtails at the Le Bar Américain in the Hotel de Paris, and visit the Casino. We got into our special outfits that had been carried across Europe, and started with classic martinis at our hotel, and then caught a taxi up to the American Bar. It was Friday night, there was a jazz singer and combo, Bono and Edge on the next table (meh) - it was picture perfect. A major item off our bucket list. We probably looked like country hicks given everyone else was in their really expensive but casual looking t-shirts and jeans, but we didn't care.

After a couple of really nice classic martinis we headed across the square to the Casino - but as STBMrsK didn't have photo id they wouldn't let her in. So, we decided to head back to the hotel, get some id and return - after all we (and our outfits) had come this far. When we walked out the front of the casino I couldn't see any taxis and asked the doorman if he could call one. He walked over to some cars that were parked by the front, and one of the drivers came over and said he could take us to our hotel. So we climbed into the back of a black Maserati Quattroporte, and off he went. Swinging around the hairpin on the F1 track, with the sound of the V8 engine and he drove it as it should be driven, was something I won't forget in a hurry. So after retrieving STBMrsK photo id we caught a taxi back to the Casino and went in. As we weren't in the VIPs area, there was only six people there. We had another martini at the bar, but it wasn't anything special. We then headed back to the hotel, using the same routine as before - except this time it was a brand new black Maserati Quattroporte. The best bit about the whole thing, was it was so cheap. When the first driver took us back to the hotel, as it was a limo I asked how much it was, and his reply was "whatever you think it is worth". As the taxi cost 15 euro, I asked 20 euro? He said that was fine, shook my hand and said for us to have a great night. 20 euro to sit in the back of one of my favourite cars, on the Monaco F1 track - bargain.

After getting back to the room, we ordered a bottle of champagne and sat on the balcony looking at the lights. In the morning, we did the whole room service breakfast, which was delivered in the big trolley and we sat in our bathrobes, again, taking in the view. Reluctantly we packed up our gear and went down and checked out, and then asked for the car to be brought around. It took ages - I suspect they had hidden it away, next door, behind a rock etc, where no one would see it. We then loaded up Renee the Renault and started on our trek to Avignon.
 
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BriarFlyer

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OK, I'm adding Monte Carlo to my bucket list. (This may be connected to the chance of a 20 euro ride in a black Maserati.)

Great TR, kookaburra.
 

kookaburra75

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After saying farewell to our hotel in Monaco, I pointed the car back towards Avignon. We followed the GPS, getting through the streets, and as we headed towards a tunnel under a hotel I suddenly realised it was "The Tunnel" on the F1 track. I dropped back a gear on the Renault and floored it, more for the noise and effect, rather than speed. STBMrsK raised an eyebrow - I didn't try and explain why, I was just lost in the moment. After that momentary thrill, we headed back along the freeway and then turned off after Aix, to use the back road to get up to Avignon. The countryside reminded me of Australia, as everything had a slightly washed out look due to the strong sun - although the French Alps up to the north gave it away. Another thing we were puzzled about, was that on the road signs, place names were in two languages - French and something a bit like Spanish. We found out later, from our host in Paris what that was about.

I dropped the hire car off at the TGV Station to the south of town, as I wasn't going to try and drive into the middle of Avignon. Plus, as our next stop was Lyon, we could use the trains to get around. I had booked to stay at Hôtel De Garlande. I had written out the name and address of the hotel, so I could show the taxi driver - as I didn't want to subject the locals to my attempts to speak French, which I would have murdered. We found the Hertz desk at the TGV station and dropped off Renee, and headed over to the taxi rank. I showed the driver my slip of paper, and all he did was roll his eyes and exclaimed that it was close and we could walk there. Knowing it was a good 20 minutes drive, I was about to protest when he laughed and told us to jump in - as the owners are friends of his and he wanted to catch up with them anyway. A French taxi driver with dry sense of humour. He drive us right to the door, which given the width of the streets in the centre of Avignon was interesting - think just reach out and help yourself to what people are eating for lunch. The Hotel was a real find, classic look and feel, small but really comfy rooms and right in the middle of the old town. Stephane, one of the owners provided us with a list of places to see, eat and drink. Breakfast downstairs in the morning had a real community vibe to it.
European Escapade p15b.png
We enjoyed wandering around the old centre of town, and had a nice drink at the Cave Bar, and a fantastic dinner at Le Caveau du Theatre. Again, we got into a good conversation about local food and wine.

After a good nights sleep, we walked into the main square and also the Popes Palace. We explored the old building, which has an interesting history, and of course had a look at the bridge. We didn't go on it, as you had to pay, but we could at least sing the first verse of "Sur le Pont d'Avignon".
European Escapade p15c.png
After a leisurely lunch in the Square, we set off with our bags up to the local railway station, which was only 10 minutes walk. We then boarded the train for Lyon.
 
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EestiTiger

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Loving your trip report! I am heading to Southern France later in the year and have enjoyed your tips! I am a bit nervous on the driving thing, and have also booked a Renault Captur. My drive at home is a Renault Clio so hoping that helps! I have read a lot on the tolls and how they work, or rather don't work ;)
 
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kookaburra75

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Loving your trip report! I am heading to Southern France later in the year and have enjoyed your tips! I am a bit nervous on the driving thing, and have also booked a Renault Captur. My drive at home is a Renault Clio so hoping that helps! I have read a lot on the tolls and how they work, or rather don't work ;)
The Captur is really just a small SUV version of the Clio, and I found very easy to get around in. Rental cars in France come as manual as standard, and if you want an automatic you have to specify that.

I don't know if you've driven on the right hand side of the road before, but I've picked up a few tricks to try and stay in the right place over the years. Try and have someone else to do the navigating as you'll be concentrating on staying on the correct side of the road. I've found the most dangerous times are when you're doing something simple, like going in and out of petrol stations or car parks, and I revert back to going for the left hand side. Also, roundabouts go anti-clockwise, so you need your thinking hat on when you approach them. Otherwise, the only other thing I have to be careful of, is drifting off to the right when taking a right hand corner - you tend to cut them, which can make life for the passenger a bit exciting. When I first get the car, I drift a bit to each side so I can hear the wheels clip the cats eyes or rumble strips, so I can get a good sense of the edges of the car.

But we found driving around the freeways and country roads easy to do. At worst if you get in the wrong place, all you have to do is three right hand turns to get back to where you were. Even getting lost can be an adventure in itself, so there's no need to get stressed.
 

ellen10

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We had a few nightmares trying to drop our rental car back in Avignon, but we survived. We stayed at the Mecure right beside the Popes Palace, great location. We too caught the TGV back to Paris, love those French trains.
 
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