Provence, France; August 18-22

We enjoyed hanging around Chamonix for a short time after finishing the trek. We had a studio apartment in Les Houches with a great balcony view -- the Chamonix Valley has to be one of the most spectacular settings anywhere. However, after a full day of chores, luge-riding (photo 1), and repose, it was time to move on.

We rode the train from Chamonix to Avignon in the south of France, to spend a few days in Provence -- specifically the region of Vaucluse. It was Emily who proposed a little more time in France before heading south. (Both kids are lobbying to stop in Paris after Morocco, so France may get more than its share of attention in the European segment of our travels.) The train trip to Avignon included a leg on the TGV, which was very fast but also very crowded -- more like an airplane than the roomy train compartments we've become accustomed to. In Avignon we rented a car that's due in Madrid on September 1st, when we fly to Morocco.

We picked the Vaucluse area of Provence in part on the recommendation of our friend and colleague Jean-Claude Latombe, who grew up there. He directed us to a huge variety of interesting villages, castles, mountains, gorges, and other sights, keeping us busy from morning until night for three full days. It's a beautiful area, reminiscent of Tuscany with wine and old fortifications as major features, but more densely populated, and with periodic steep cliffs instead of rolling hills. With a good map it was easy to drive around, and great sights were just minutes apart. We won't list everywhere we went, just a few highlights:

  • The castle at Le Barroux (photo 2), a little bit off the beaten track with a crusty but nice proprietor -- our kind of place
  • The ochre town of Roussillon (photo 4), where scores of kids were annoying their parents by painting their faces and sliding their pants in the remarkably-colored (and undoubtedly very staining) orange dirt -- thankfully ours behaved
  • The old ruins at Oppede-le-Vieux (photo 5), a European-style medieval ghost town
  • A two-hour multi-stage geocache hunt in the village of Sault, by which we got to know the small town in great detail
  • The weekly open-air market in the town of Cavaillon where we stayed -- a souvenir mecca for the kids and picnic-food mecca for the adults
  • Daily breakfast of fresh pastries from the bakery and coffee in an atmospheric sidewalk cafe
We were impressed with just how popular the area is, but of course August is the tourist month in France. The narrow streets of Les Baux-de-Provence (photo 7; tourists strategically out of view) rivaled only Florence and the Acropolis in tourists per square-meter, although to be fair, not every place was as packed.

A trend we've noticed since arriving in Europe is the prevalence of audioguides at every major sight and museum: Borrow an oversized portable phone-like device, punch in numbers at designated spots, and hear detailed commentary in a language of your choosing. Everywhere we visited prior to Provence levied an extra charge for audioguides, and perhaps half of the tourists (not us) opted for them. In Provence they were free, or more accurately they were an obligatory inclusion in admission prices. Now a full 90% of tourists wandered aimlessly with glazed expressions on their faces and chunky phones glued to their ears. I'm afraid we were no exception (see photo 6, taken on the famous Pont d'Avignon bridge). It's certainly individual taste as to whether this mode enhances or detracts from the experience. Tim and Emily had a different take on the whole matter -- they spotted a business opportunity: install games on the audioguides that kids can play while their parents take in the historic sights.

In other logistical news, our credit card stopped working again. Initially we were convinced it wasn't the card -- it worked fine for hotels and train tickets, but was rejected repeatedly by the easyJet web site, from which we were anxious to purchase flights to Morocco. After firing off several emails accusing easyJet of prejudice against foreign cards, we changed our tune when the card was rejected by an online rental-car company as well. A phone call confirmed that our credit card was "on watch," again. The reason: Despite painstakingly taking down the entire list of countries we'd be visiting through next summer, and the dates, twice, the nice people in the credit card call-center neglected to mention that foreign travel notifications always expire in 30 days. Lovely.

Then there's the sad -- or more accurately, angry -- story of Travelocity. (A web search for "Travelocity sucks" quickly reveals that we're not alone in our pain.) Many years ago Jennifer was due a refund from Travelocity that ended up taking months and numerous phone calls to extract. At that time she vowed to never, ever use Travelocity again. Fast-forward to some late-night travel-planning in Greece, and the discovery that Travelocity was offering the cheapest and most convenient flights from Crete to Naples. No problem FedEx-ing the required paper tickets, they said. The rest is history (or at least recorded in previous travelogs), and now Jennifer really, really vows never to use Travelocity again. It's been six weeks with no sign of the $1600 refund. The range of semi-automated emails we've received in response to our many inquiries could be viewed as hilarious if the whole thing didn't make us so angry. We've succumbed to calling a couple of times -- after literally hours of hold time and operator shuffling (thank goodness internet phone is only one cent a minute), the best we've ended up with is a heavily Indian-accented "don't worry, be patient."

Near the end of our time in Italy, when our accumulation of souvenirs and a few other unneeded items started to fill up our packs, we mailed a shipment home. Everything was wrapped carefully and heavily padded, we thought, but soon the news came in (from Hector, who received the package) that Tim's small Venetian glass boat had shattered. It was a low-priced tourist item, but Tim collects model boats and he'd spent a fair amount of time picking that one out. Tim was pretty upset about it, for at least half an hour, after which he promptly put his refunded souvenir allowance towards an Alpine cuckoo clock. Those backpacks are filling up again.

In the previous travelog we happily reported on our pain-free Mont Blanc Circuit, compared with other hikers. We spoke too soon. Emily, who's certainly bearing more than her share of the physical-problem burden on the trip so far, has developed moderate but consistent knee pain whenever she goes up or down stairs. Our tentative diagnosis: parapatellar knee pain syndrome, apparently common in kids her age. Current treatment, thanks once again to a long-distance consultation with Jennifer's MD sister: ibuprofen, and cut the hiking for a while. (We'd promised the kids a respite between the Alps and the High Atlas anyway.) Long-term treatment: Consider hiring an extra donkey for the 9-day Morocco trek, if things haven't improved considerably by then. Stay tuned.

Lastly, still a little behind, we've finally assembled our photos from Italy into a reasonably compact collection of 107 (which includes most of the ones in the travelogs). They can be viewed here. Mont Blanc Circuit photos to follow shortly.

Next: Carcassonne, France, then into the Pyrenees and across the border to Spain, perhaps via the tiny country of Andorra

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