......stories that endure......



David and Helen's trip to France Sept 2009

Gardens of Style

with Country Farm Perennials of Victoria

Friday 4th September 2009
Melbourne - Dubai

It's been a long time since Mount Gambier: we drove to Melbourne, stowed the car, had an indifferent dinner at the Hilton then waited interminably for check-in - 2.55am departure: how cruel is that! Especially hard on the many children on our flight.
13 hours later and we are in Dubai and Rosy is behaving well, easily finding an internet connection in the lounge.
Dubai looks quieter than last time I was here, with half-built buildings around the airport
The airport itself is very busy.









Saturday, 5th September 2009
only day in Paris

It's ten years since last we were in Paris and a big difference is the number of bicycles and motorbikes. Bicycles are everywhere, chained up - you insert your credit card, pay a nominal amount and ride off without a helmet. Then you put it back in another rack, do your business and take another bicycle. Motorbikes have become taxis: passenger clings on for dear life and they roar off weaving through the traffic very fast. Sometimes they have a trailer for luggage. However, we came from the airport in a car, quietly and quickly. Now the odd departure time pays off as we arrive at 10pm, just time for a stroll around the neighbourhood and bed. We're on the Left Bank near the Sorbonne and I've never seen so many bookshops. We went into one this morning that had 5 floors of books; I bought a children's book in French and will try to read it (chosen because it has pictures.) School goes back on Monday so the many bookshops are full of people buying notebooks, paper and pens.


Next stop was Notre Dame, the grand cathedral on the Seine, compulsory for every tourist, even if you just sit in the middle and look at all the stained glass windows.


We had a typical Parisian lunch of ham and cheese sandwich and salad while sitting outside a boulangerie under the plane trees watching the world walk by, then as it came on to spot with rain, wandered up the hill to the Luxembourg Gardens - formal in blue and yellow.

We met the group in the lobby for a bus tour at 3pm. Most of them know each other from previous trips - one lady is on her 14th trip with Merryle: we are the only ones who are not return customers. "You'll get hooked, just like the rest of us," she said.

Merryle of Country Farm Perennials is the tour leader with Lucy from Bristol UK as historical consultant and Fabrice from Italy as bus driver in his own bus (Lucy and Fab are alleged to be an item) and our fellow-travellers all seem to be nice garden-loving Australians, some with garden-tolerating husbands attached, others like David know resignedly that they will get to do the hard work of garden changes on return home.

The bus takes us around the main sites of Paris with a short camera-stop at each.
The Eiffel Tower is always good.
Lucy turns out to be a tireless and interesting raconteur and 2 hours fly by as we drive around a Saturday-afternoon quiet Paris - though the traffic belted around the Arc de Triomphe like bats out of hell and we were glad to use the underpass to get there and back.

Sunday, 6th September 2009
day 2 - Paris to Loire Valley

We left Paris in the bus and headed off on A10 towards the Loire Valley with Merryle on the microphone giving us the history of Napoleon and Josephine with special reference to Josephine as a gardener. Her gardening bills far exceeded her bills for clothing and jewellery, and Napoleon paid up, even after their divorce.

In no time at all we were at Le Jardin de Chantal & Alain at Sologne, near Orleans, a garden 11 years old, specialising in viburnums and hydrangeas ( or hortensias as they are called in France, after Josephine's daughter.) The garden is only about an acre but the paths wind in and out amongst the shrubs so that often there seemed to be no-one else there - except Mousseline the white cat. Yes, they are rather fond of pink: inside the 100 year-old house there is a lot of pink also. (We all went to the toilet so we could look inside the house.)

They have 115 different viburnums and I didn't realise how attractive they are until I saw them all together like this - autumn is viburnum's prime time with bright berries. They have a nifty system of naming the plants by writing on little clay pots from the local pottery.

Lunch was a delicious picnic served from the bus and now I see why we lugged picnic gear from Australia: in a garden is much the nicest place to eat lunch.


In the Loire Valley.

After a 2 hour slog along the A10 we arrived at Le Chateau des Sept Tours (Chateau of Seven Towers) and took up residence for 4 nights in the Orangerie, which is a modernised addition to the chateau with great beams across the ceiling, quite hazardous in the middle of the night but very luxurious.
There is an 18-hole golf course and a swimming pool, which we're not going to have time to try.

Breakfast is delicious!

Monday, 7th September 2009
day 3 - Loire Valley, Chaumont Garden Festival

We're off today to Chaumont to the Festival of Gardens held in the grounds of the chateau. It's a semi-permanent exhibition running for 6 months and different from other festivals in that the plants are in the ground instead of being in pots. Also it's not as crowded as Chelsea. It's very prestigious and gardeners from all over the world compete to be allowed one of 26 spaces. This year the theme is gardens of colour and ranges from the bizarre to the exotic to the downright weird.

First we go to the Chateau where David falls in love with 2 huge cedars on either side of the entrance.
Lucy has filled us in on the history of Chaumont and the 2 powerful women who lived here, Catherine de Medici the King's wife and Diane de Poitiers his mistress. Diane had the smaller bedroom but it has a better view of the Loire River.
The gardening expo extends to the chateau with interesting art exhibitions.
We are rushing to see it all including the stables and the floral exhibits before lunch.


This one is fun: mirrors are part of the garden and you are reflected back and forth.

Then there's the one with purple washing hanging up that is actually very cleverly colour graduated from purple to blue at the back

and the one that looks like red Christmas puddings.


Even the lunch in the festival restaurant carries on the colour theme with this spectacular dessert of passionfruit, chocolate and mandarin plus its own little cherry lollipop.

The wines were excellent local whites - nothing is stinted on this trip - and is was a sleepy bus load of touriststhat drove into Amboise for an afternoon's shopping and sight seeing.

Tuesday, 8th September 2009
day 4 Loire Valley

Today we are at Vouvray, the famous white wine area, to visit the garden of le Chateau de Valmer where the Countess is a renowned landscape gardener and seed collector. The roses are past their best but there are still rare hortensias (pay attention - hydrangeas) amongst the yew buttresses and a series of hanging gardens.

Entrance to Chateau de Valmer

n the potager

David in the yew garden

Valmer is famous as a repository of old seeds which, in a reverse twist from European Union sameness, are being propogated and saved from extinction. The Countess now has over 3000 different seeds in her kitchen garden (potager) which is amazing in its size and scope.

It is also the home of France's collection of gourds - just a few of them shown here.

This is David and Merryle discussing the advisability of growing in Australia oxalis tuberosum, an edible tuber rather similar to new potatoes.
(David is not convinced.)





Villandry was established in 1536 and is regarded as one of France's finest gardens. As you can see it is very formal: the Ornamental Garden is divided into "Tender Love", "Passionate Love", "Fickle Love" and "Tragic Love". Then there's the Water Garden, The Sun Garden, The Maze
and the obligatory potager - Herb and Vegetable Garden - where gardeners deposited just-picked eggplants, tomatoes, grapes and pears for the lucky customers, who happened to include us.
We couldn't do much with eggplants but were happy to add fresh tomatoes to our picnic dinner.

formal gardens

the potager - so neat!

Wednesday, 9th September 2009
day 5 Loire Valley

We are met at the gates of le Chateau Chatonniere by a charming gentleman who introduces himself as the Duc de Salinas from Spain. He is staying with the Comtesse while he recovers from his grief at the death of his father: he came for one week initially and three months later is still here immersed in the history of the property and leading groups of lucky people around.

such a beautiful chateau!

everyone does their own thing
The Comtesse has lured Villandry's head gardener away and with him has built a wonderful garden consisting of eleven gardens - each with a fancy name that the French love to use. There's the Garden of Luxuriance planted with 4000 David Austen roses (sadly now past their best), the Garden of Fragrance and the Leaf Garden - yes, another potager! - which is my favourite.

From a high point you can see that it is shaped like a leaf with paths for the veins and the beds of vegetables contained within box hedges.


Monsieur Le Duc leads us through the tunnels of twisted willow, around the back of the chateau and through the woods carpeted with cyclamen then back to the courtyard where morning tea has been set up with the head gardener helping to serve. In an internal courtyard three large Alsatian dogs are baying at intervals and a cat pays us a visit, but le Duc remains affable: “Call me Rodrigo” he says and tells another historical story in great detail.

Le Duc is very interested in Australia's Prince Leonard of Hutt and wants more details from David and John. We wonder if he is planning to secede from Spain.

Morning tea under the trees is delicious. (There's lots of eating in this tour.)

Lunch is at Chinon, a pretty tourist-oriented village, BUT we are there during 'Midi' - the sacred two hours between midday and 2 o'clock when all the shops except restaurants close for lunch and siesta, even the boulangerie baker) closes at 12.30.

I chose badly for lunch: what looked like a cute little out-of-the-way cafe turned out to be a bad hole-in-the-wall with salads taken off the menu. As we've noticed before in France, restaurants don't serve green vegetables unless you twist their arm and everyone on the tour is dying for greens. People talk longingly about broccoli.

Here is a lone local wending his way home through deserted streets, late for lunch, with his baguette.

And le chat was locked out for Midi:
"Let me in!" she cries (in French, but I understand cat.)

The garden this afternoon is at the exquisite fairytale Chateau de Rivau.

Eat your heart out Disney World, this is the real thing, and Rapunzel's Garden around the chateau even features her long plait hanging from the tower turret window.





The enthusiastic - no, passionate - owner is there to personally escort us around her domain; she is fetchingly attired in green with a green watering can shoulder bag and a loud-speaker device which is excrutiatingly bad.
I can't stand it (or her) and prefer to explore by myself.
Judy doesn't look thrilled.


It is gorgeous - wonderful plantings, highly imaginative and on a huge (expensive) scale but too twee for many of us with its emphasis on fairies and gnomes. Some bits work: I really like the big red legs in the woods. Once again there are marvellous vegetables on a huge scale, the 'Garden Gargantua' which is where the legs come in I suppose.

in the woods

the chateau from the woods

the ducks are real

Now we're packing up and heading off to the River Yonne for 4 nights on canal boats. A few people have elected to stay in a hotel rather than brave the close quarters of a canal boat which means that our 10 berth boat only has 2 couples, us and Bette and John.

There are 6 couples in the group (known as 'The Couples' as if we are a different breed) and 17 women, most of whom know each other from previous trips with Merryle. Already we are showing our colours - those who hang on every word of the guides and those who prefer to skive off on their own. I am glad to report that we are in the middle of the field, not amongst those who complain about everything - yes, there is one of those...

day 6 to 10 canal boats on the River Yonne
day 6 Thursday 10th Sept

As we leave the Loire Valley, we stop off at the village of Meung sur Loire to visit a rose afficionado's garden, Le Jardins de Roquellin. He works as a professional rose grower and for relaxation has created a rambling garden crowded with roses and perennials from a weed-infested pasture. As with many of the gardens we visit it seems huge as it meanders around with many 'rooms' and spaces.

I must remember to tell the Garden Club back home that butterfly bush is big in France.

Lunch is from the bus, created by the guide Lucy and bus driver Fab as we stroll around the garden, then it's off to collect our canal boats at Migennes.

David and I have been here before, 10 years ago, when we collected a smaller boat and cruised up the Yonne to Vermonton and back. I have complained ever since about the awfulness of negotiating 64 locks, me climbing slippery ladders and winding stubborn lock gates while David drove - BUT that was much better than the incompetent skipper that we've scored on our boat.
We are always last out of the seven boats, always the one floating around hitting things and it would be much better if David and John could drive. All they are allowed to do is coil the odd rope. However, Merryle has provided abundant wines and nibbles so we are determined to be happy, cruising slowly along a canal towards Benoit - even the dogs on the tow path can walk faster but it is a very pleasant way to travel and we have dinner on board with fresh GREEN BEANS that Bette found at a market.

Day 7 Friday 11th September

After overnight at Benoit and early morning delivery to each boat of croissants and baguettes by Merryle, we meet our bus and Fab for a pleasant drive to the next garden, owned and restored by two dedicated brothers-in-law - Le Jardins du Grand Courtoiseau. This is the best garden yet, and I wonder if Merryle can keep up the standard.
It is formal and absolutely beautiful, no expense spared to have everything just right.
Guy and Monique are co-owners with her brother Jean and it's Msieur the elder (the one with immaculate English) and Jean who take us for a tour of the estate and this time it pays to stay within earshot to listen to M'sieur's fount of knowledge and huge justifiable pride in his estate.

morning tea at the swimming pool

schnauser number 1 with adoring fans

Then along a shady alley to the beautiful chateau - still with the friendly schnauser.


Around the forecourt of the chateau are 12 huge terracotta urns containing quince trees, an ancient chapel, the stables, kitchen and servants' quarters.
Through an arch in the yew hedge is revealed the first of many garden 'rooms' with views across paths unfolding in increasing intricacy.


Sue believes seats are for sitting on and sits on any she sees



The schnausers hate the stone dogs that guard the pond and keep knocking them over - so one statue is "een ze ospital" being mended.

The Msieurs have the yew hedges trimmed once a year and Dr Bill remarks knowledgeably that they would sell the yew offcuts for production of taxane drugs for the treatment of breast cancer.

Madame oversees the butler and the cook in producing a lovely light lunch with plenty of wine and we are very happy customers heading back to the boat and an afternoon cruise to Joigny where we are moored for two nights.

heading into Joigny

Joigny from our moorings

Dinner is at a local restaurant which has an excellent buffet entree, mediocre mains and strikingly presented desserts with an aftermath of indigestion.

Day 8 Saturday 12th Sept - Vezelay

We have been here before and loved it so were looking forward to seeing Vezelay again and I was so excited on arrival that I rushed off the bus without my camera. However, David took some.
The female members of our group were more interested in shopping than listening to the local guide whose French had to be translated by Lucy but as she slowly wound up the long steep slope we kind of kept up. The ceramics were amazing but totally un-buyable because so heavy. I went to half a choral service at the Basilica while David attended a club meeting on flints and axeheads.



David enjoyed the flints and rocks

the Basilica at Vezelay

the only street in Vezelay

Lunch of Bouef Bourguinone was served in a local restaurant. As we waited for Fab to reappear with the bus we were entertained by wedding guests arriving for a wedding at the Basilica - rather a long trek for the ladies in high heels up that long steep street.. Hats seem to be brim only and very fetching. We bus ladies had fun giving points for outfits.
Dinner back on the boat was a much lighter affair than lunch - still plenty of wine though. Merryle drops it off with the baguettes every day as if it were the milk and in fact wine is cheaper than bottled water.

Day 9 Sunday 13th September

David and John have elected to stay at the boat and do the laundry, as Joigny possesses a rarity, a laundromat. The boat people elect for the planned trip to a tiny village La Ferte Loupe-Pierre to see a private garden built around an old priory.

It is famous for its huge pumpkins on an overhead trellis which looks like a really good idea,

and I also love the morning-glory. David says it's a weed and others tell me of cars left for a week and smothered with morning-glory vine but I think it's so pretty silhouetted against the morning sky with the very old church spire in the background.


The church is in poor repair but boasts a striking ancient fresco was covered with whitewash until being rediscovered in the early 1900s: it is a Danse Macabre, one of the five best in Europe and shows skeletons mixed with ordinary people of all walks of life, on their way to the Day of Judgement.


This shows the tithe barn, even older than the church, from the Priory Garden. It is set up for a village lunch for about 40 people: women are preparing the food while the rest of the population runs over the village on a treasure hunt. One of the questions is: "What is the capital of Australia?" because the organisers knew we would be in the village at that time.


This afternoon the boat flotilla is cruising to Villeneuve through very pretty stretches of canal running alongside the river, through locks: this one only opens once a day at 1.30 so we are early and waiting (im)patiently on top of the boat while the lock-keeper cooks a barbecue for himself and family on the canal-side. Then promptly at 1.30 Madame la Lock-keeper presses the button and the water-level begins to sink.

It's a lovely all-afternoon trip - to travel about 10kms: canal travel is not for those in a hurry.



My cabin is the front pointy one with a very odd-shaped but comfortable bed. The shower is awkward, nowhere to get dry except the passage or a scurry to the cabin and the toilet is unspeakable. It suffers badly from reflux and there's a constant battle to remove solids permanently. We cope with the aid of a bucket of water but others lay claim to constant constipation.

At Villeneuve we explore the town which is deadly quiet and walk around the old city walls. I try out a public toilet where you have to squat and decide it's marginally better than the boat's!

Day 10 Monday 14th Sept

The boats are going back to Joigny without us while we bus north to Sens to a big market. This isthe big shopping opportunity we have all been waiting for (females that is, not males) and we hit the market stalls and shops with a bang. These ladies are practised shoppers! I didn't buy much, just some food for tomight's dinner and a pair of leather shoes, of which Merryle bought 3 pairs: being a tour guide is tough on shoe leather.

wonderful undercover market

with amazing shellfish

exquisite vegetables outside

exotic heaths

Sens Town Hall

Yesterday was Harvest Thanksgiving and the cathedral is beautifully decorated, especially this little side chapel.
Just after this was taken, Merryle was there watching an old lady with a shopping trolley selecting her very own pumpkins and asking Merryle's advice as to the best -looking pumpkin to pop in her bag.
Good on her, I say!

Cathedral at Sens

Back at Joigny we board our boats for a last cruise to Migennes again and an exciting trip through the 5.2metre lock

We entertained some swans to dinner with our stale bread. (French swans must have special necks to cope with the sharp edges of baguettes.)
This may have been a mistake as the goose that turned up looking for crumbs honked all night and competed with the many trains at stopping us from sleeping.

Day 11 Tuesday 15th Sept to Burgundy

David was up bright and early to supply us with baguettes and even more fodder for the ducks and swans.

We packed up the boat, ditching all our food that ducks didn't like and boarded the bus for the next stage of the tour to Burgundy.


First stop an old mill in the village of Aithe where a gentleman gardener pursues his passion for trees.

David was thrilled to see many different conifers including the rare South American monkey puzzle.

Monsieur also has one of these enormous schnausers, called incongruously, Nookie.
Perhaps big gardens call for big dogs.

Lucy and Fab are seen here preparing lunch from the bus, a specialty of Merryle's tours, and that's Merryle having a preview.

While we are garden-looking, Lucy and Fab find local delicacies and make beautiful fresh lunches with many salads, terrines, patés, cheeses - I have fond memories of a strange flat puffy pink one - fresh fruit, bread and wine.
This is much better than wasting time waiting in a restaurant - and is probably what saves us all from scurvy due to the shortage of vegetables.



It isn't far to Chateau Lantilly which was built in 1709 and has been in the same family ever since. We are escorted through the reception rooms of the house, everything so old and the weight of ancestors pressing down. There are many treasures here including a portrait of a previous Count as a slim 15 year-old donated by Louis XVIII and sitting room hung with silk-worked tapestry wall-paper from Japan. The charming present-day Count in his salmon linen jacket is tres agréable (they all are!)



A sweeping view over the plain shows where Vercingetorix (the Gallic warrior who was the model for Asterix) held out against Julius Caesar and many Roman artefacts are locked in a case inside the chateau.

Madame Claire has made a beautiful garden inside the old walls - though the vegetables aren't as good as they should be because the gardener had a 'crisis of the heart' this year.


And now we head to the beautiful city of Beaune in Burgundy and its 4-star Hotel Le Ceps where we attain the luxury of flushing toilets, separate shower and bath AND an internet connection.

There's a very special dinner in the hotel restaurant with wines courtesy of Merryle's husband David and rather odd food: entrée of meat terrine with the white wine and main course of fish dumplings with the red wine. My dinner companion says: "They should go to Margaret River for a decent white wine" but we all agree that the desserts are superb, even if the soufflé did look surprisingly like the fish dumplings.

day12 Wednesday 16th September in Beaune

Today is a rest day and we wander around Beaune, shopping, seeing the sights and enjoying the hotel.

We have a room out the back to the left of the arch and looking out at this magnificent 300 year-old weeping willow.

We have an excellent dinner - with fresh snails and New Zealand lamb - at the restaurant next door.


day 13 Thursday 17th September - la Chateau Dree

The chateaus just get more and more gorgeous! This one is near Charolle, south of Beaune, which is where the Charolais cattle come from.

Madame la Comtesse has this as her country residence, having bought it from the Belgian Royal Family in 1993 who bought it from the family of Napoleon's brother. So very old, 1620s in fact, but was derelict when Madame took it over. She spent 2 years restoring the building and then went to work on the gardens which are perfect. She's not in residence today.

front door? back door?


the kitchen

butler's spyhole with David

We had a guided tour of the inside of the chateau

I took a photo of the dining room before discovering photography is not allowed...

the park

I'm not sure if this is the back or front door but either way it's pretty good.

There are 40,000 box plants here to make all the hedges and it looks like a gardener is employed full-time to cut them.

French-speaking Charolais


Lunch is a Lucy and Fab special prepared and served from the side of the bus with fresh salads, terrines and local cheeses bought this morning. We love these lunches and sit happily on the ground with our loaded plates and glasses of wine while watching the Charolais cattle in the nearby field.

This farmhouse, le Jardin du Zephyr, is a much more modest proposition than the chateau, but what a lovely friendly couple who welcome us.
The village of 150 people have never had Australians there before and send a press photographer around to take a photo for the local paper. Madame and her friend made (unasked) afternoon tea for us with fresh madeleines and jam sponge roll - not that we need more food - but the people were so nice we had to do our best.

David loved this country of rolling hills, Douglas firs and sawmills.

The garden is famous for its roses, alas over, and now its rose hips

Merryle gave us a little talk on the bus about using rose hips for good health.
Every day she comes up with a gem on the bus to keep us interested during the drives.
I resolve to do something with 'Buff Beauty' rose hips next autumn.

day 14 Friday 17th Sept Dijon and Burgundy country-side

We're off to Dijon today, home of mustard, Notre Dame Cathedral and La Chouette, the little owl whose head you have to rub with the left hand for good luck. David did it for me as I was off in Galeries Lafayette doing some shopping. It's an ultra-David Jones-type department store so the shopping was limited for my budget but I did buy David's birthday present. Tourists are down in Dijon this year and Lyn reports a small jar of mustard for €20 (AU$40) and the shop-keeper saying prices are increased because there are no Americans travelling this year. There is a great market around the cathedral with wonderful displays of fish and huge piles of tiny green beans.

Our garden this afternoon is in the grounds of another old chateau with a beautiful potager (vegetable garden) and autumn colours, a secret garden containing raspberries – so secret that even the birds don’t seem to find them and rolling parklands containing magnificent old trees.

the potager

a strange crop

the chateau

As a special treat Merryle has arranged afternoon tea at a nearby auberge ‘L’Eire du Temps’, a pun on the owner being an Irish girl. She has forgotten how to make tea however and out comes the pot of hot water and a box of teabags. Excellent apricot tart.

Next stop is the Chateau Mersault for a wine tasting and tour of the ancient wine cellars. Ancient is right: some of them go back to the 12th century and weave around for miles, all lined with ranks of bottles of wine of varying ages.

The tasting was of very young wines, rather disappointing, nothing to go into raptures over.

One of the many barrel caves.
There must be a fortune in wine stored there.

Wine map of the Burgundy region

day 15 to Lyon to board M.V. Princesse de Provence

There was thunder and lightning during the night and it’s raining as we leave Beaune but with typical luck by the time we get to the garden near Villefranche-sur-Saone it has stopped and sunshine is peeping through the clouds. M’sieur the owner of Les Jardins de Bionnay is waiting for us and explains the array of small formal gardens each dedicated to a great woman like Empress Josephine and Coco Chanel. I particularly like Gertrude Jekyll and we all enjoy that there are more roses still in bloom than we’ve seen before.

Josephine's garden room


Gertrude Jekyll's garden room

swimming pool
There are magnificent big old trees all over the park but Bill and David are most interested in a tiny Wollemi Pine looking quite overshadowed by its giant neighbours.


Waiting at the wharf in Lyon is our cruise ship the MV Princesse de Provence, a big flat vessel holding 150 passengers and 80 crew. It’s German-owned which means good plumbing, mostly German passengers and all the announcements in German with no Lucy to translate. (We don’t see the bus with Lucy and Fab for 2 days).

Great luxury in all departments of course and a superb afternoon tea which none of us could even look at and a 6-course dinner.

The Princesse de Provence at Viviers


Our cabin, my bed

Our cabin, David's bed

I am very taken with the pretty basin in the tiny bathroom!

The tiny cabin has a sofa by day which converts to a single bed at night and another bed comes down out of the wall and we sleep quite well as we glide 165 Kms to Viviers, through locks which drops 40 feet very quickly. Our boat is 11.5 metres wide and the locks are 12 metres so it’s a careful fit by the captain.

day 16 Sunday 20th Sept in Provence - the Gorges of the Ardeche and Viviers

David is off on an excursion to the Gorges of Ardeche but I stay behind to blog – only to discover that wi-fi is not available. So much for Germanic efficiency!!! They’re behind the times regarding wi-fi.

So I have a peaceful morning reading and drinking beef tea at 11 am while David enjoys an excursion to the Gorges and returns buzzing with information about what he saw and heard.

David's trip to the Gorges of Ardeche



boar hunter with dogs


Lunch can be 6 courses if you want – NOT – then Merryle takes us on a stroll through a sleepy post-lunch mid-Midi Sunday Viviers. The only people around the steep twisted streets are other tourists and we wander through the large barge church and along the ramparts where there is a wonderful view over the river and our boat then back the other way to the massed roofs of the old town.

deep in the town

a beautiful old church


Viviers Old Town

Helen on the ramparts


Sunday sailing

ducks have right-of-way

Viviers from the moorings


day 17 Monday 21st Arles, Provence

We arrive at Arles early this morning with a gentle bump in the lock that wakes everyone. After a breakfast of ‘Steve’s special omelet’ as recommended by our waiter we meet Lucy, Fab and the bus plus Dr Louisa Jones, an expert on Mediterranean gardens who will guide us around special gardens selected by her.

These turn out to be ‘intellectual gardens’ as written up in Gardens Illustrated, relying upon shapes and forms rather than colour and paying great attention to the surrounding landscape. No flowers at all!
The first one, Mas de Benoit, is along a narrow country lane where branches scrape the top of the bus and turn Fab to jelly at the insult being done to his precious bus.

the owner's house

Mas de Benoit is the inspiration of three garden designers – or garden sculptors, as we now have to call them – and a very rich owner. He isn’t present, we only get to see a gardener pruning, which must be his main job as there are lots of trees.

The lavender garden is planted in a triangle and designed so that the view changes constantly as you walk along the edge. Well, that’s all very theoretical, but in fact it does! At the mid-point the distant village comes in and out of view and totally changes what you’re looking at.

village of Les Egalieres in the distance

This happens with all the other views, from the ‘rooms’ of twisted trunk olives to the Pinus pinea trees set against a backdrop of the Alpilles (the Little Alps). David feels inspired to turn his Pinus pinea into sculptures when he gets home.
We see the secret garden across an orchard of olives, a swimming pool and the Cactus River.

a grove of sculptured trees

David liked the tree sculptures

you want to put this one out of its misery

Dr Louisa Jones in the Cactus River

it's a bloke thing...being interested in ladders

old walnut tree

David gets the bus to stop for a minute as he simply MUST photograph pine trees in Provence.  


We have quite a walk to get to the garden number two Mas de Columbe d’Or, as Fab has no intention of taking his bus up the rocky tree-lined lane.
the gateway

sculptured by nature


It’s hot and we trudge up the hill carrying our lunch boxes prepared by the boat’s chef and are welcomed with a rose wine by the charming owner and an invitation to go inside the house.

we get to go inside!

He’s nearly knocked over in the rush to get out of the midday sun – and what a house! We all love it instantly and are amazed to hear it can be rented for AU$24,000 (€12,000) per week.


from the dining room

one of the bathrooms

view from the bathroom

The lunch boxes are an enormous disappointment – where is our chef’s flair? Yogurt is not a lunch food, certainly not in France.
We roam all over the house marvelling at the 4 bedrooms with ensuite bathrooms and the kitchen.
Fabulous! I crave that kitchen, but not at those rates.
The guys were outside inspecting the Ferrari and the Mini Minor with leather seats so a good time was had by all. It's not all gardens!

Fabulous kitchen!

Bill discovers a bedroom with a bookcase secret door which hides the ensuite bathroom - how nifty is that? Though in the middle of the night it could be a bit tricky.

door shut

door open

The garden and swimming pool is on the same lavish scale as the house - and for four hours we are in sole possession...

front garden

swimming pool + neighbour's dog
David exploring

Back at Arles every tourist must climb the hill past all the souvenir shops to see the old Roman amphitheatre which is now used as a bull-ring. They don’t kill the bull here as they do in Spain but anyway it’s rip-off – euro 6 each to look at an empty ring surrounded by stone seats which are covered in scaffolding and undergoing sandblasting. The noise and scruffiness are horrid and I don’t like Arles at all.

bull ring at Arles

day 18 Tuesday 22nd Avignon, Provence

Once again Lucy, Fab and Louisa collect us and the dreaded lunch boxes and we head for Uzes which is a lovely-looking village that we drive through before being met by the garden owner whom we follow through twisty lanes (native guide required to find this one).


is is Mas de Noria with a passionate owner who has paid a fortune to have huge concrete pieces installed – not to everyone’s taste – and I don’t like the sculptures, but when he explains them they make much more sense. The one that looks
like a model of a house on legs is made to focus on the distant hills, the slabs of concrete at the front cut out the passing traffic and the long thin pool is based on the Alhambra. The garden’s ‘sculptors’ are based in Morocco and have been much influenced by Islam and Persian gardens - a 'soft minimalist art' garden. It was formerly a silk worm factory and old mulberry trees have been imported to acknowledge that, there are pomegranates and fig trees, a working Moroccan water mill and many vistas stretching through alleys, always with the landscape built into the picture. Trees have been planted and inocculated with truffles and there is a large orchard - full of hornets, we are warned.

The boring lunch boxes are slightly improved by our hostess's excellent coffee then it's back to the bus and a quick stop at La Gare du Nord, an old Roman aqueduct. We have to run in and out because we must be punctual at le Chateau le Plaisir.

Chateau le Plaisir is on the market for 14.5 million euros - unsold because it's quite a small house with an enormous garden that was one man's pride and joy (there's that passion again!) and now that he's dead no-one cares. There are two gardeners dutifully keeping things tidy but it lacks that zing of the other gardens we've seen. I think gardens are very personal and the fun lies in planning and making them (or getting someone else to make them if your budget will stand it).

There's a beautiful drive in to the house and then the requisite garden rooms made from clipped box with David Nash sculptures - reverential hush - which look like lumps of charred wood.

It's all a bit sad in spite of the nice dry garden at the back but the promised stripes of box and red gauera were totally gone, so not a success in spite of some pretty flowers

Back at the boat there was the usual delicious many-course dinner (thank goodness the serves are small) and a gypsy dancer with 3 guitar-playing accomplices. Ten minutes was enough and we were off to bed.

Day 19 Wednesday 23rd on the Rhone

Today there were no gardens, just a pleasant day doing absolutely nothing but cruising along the river and enjoying being on the boat. We stopped at Viennes and I did a little shopping in the town - but as usual it was midi with most of the shops shut and beginning to reopen as we left at 3.30pm.

Day 20 Thursday 24th Sept David’s birthday

Day 21 Friday 25th Sept




It's lovely to sit on the top for afternoon tea and look at the swans. Before we go under a low bridge the crew comes along and takes down the shade awnings.