Friday 3 July
We have a leisurely start this morning with breakfast in the Shangri-La hotel before taking the metro to the Gare de Lyon where we catch our train to Lyon at 10:58am and then on to Valence. The TGV whizzes along quickly and we arrive in Valence on time. We catch a taxi to the train station in the centre of Valence (about 10 mins) and then a bus to Die, about an hour away. We pass fields of sunflowers and lavender as we wind our way up the picturesque Drome valley.
Good friends Wayne and Laure meet us at the bus stop in Die and drive us the 15 minutes to Chatillon en Diois, a gorgeous medieval village where they have a home. Laure spent much of her childhood here and they both seemed happy to show us around. At about 40 degrees it is very warm and we delay heading out until after 5pm when it has cooled down at least a little. It is amazing how much cooler it is in their renovated stone home – in the cave downstairs it is 16 degrees.
We wander around the small town, through tiny viols (small alleys) and narrow streets, passing many water fountains, where pure, fresh water flows directly from the limestone in the mountains. Laure points out many of the local points of interest including the impressive homes that belong to members of her family, including one large chateau that was abandoned when she was a child after a large rock fell into it from up the mountain while renovations were underway – luckily the workers had all left for lunch just before and no-one was hurt. The village dates from medieval times and was originally a Protestant village. The Catholics came in and took over, demolishing the castle and building a cathedral. The remains of the castle can be seen on a hill. There are now both Catholic and Protestant churches in town.
We stop for apperitifs at a lovely little bar up the road from their house. The local Clariette de Die, a sparkling white wine, is delicious. We spend an enjoyable (long) evening with Wayne, Laure and three friends from the village, Adrienne (Dutch), Djinn (Scot) and Christine (local). All but Christine speak good English and we have a hilarious and entertaining time with both French and English being spoken. We head upstairs to the pool for nightcaps after dinner and eventually retire around 1:30am.
Saturday 4 July
Laure was feeling a little under the weather (I think it’s called the ouzo effect) as we drove down the pretty farming valley. Grapevines, sunflowers, freshly cut hay and lavender fields line both sides of the road. Laure and Sylvia shopped their way around the markets while Wayne and I found some shade and a brew. Back to Chatillon for a beer at the bar across the road from their house. They have it well sorted here with three bars/restaurants within a minutes of their huge, four-level house. Houses are all joined together here with parts built back as far as the 1400s.
After a rather delicious, Laure-prepared lunch Wayne took us for a drive through the Gorge des Gats. The road follows the clear water of the Drome River up through the valley. There are huge cliffs – rising in places straight up from the valley floor, neat rounded stone barriers and neatly manicured hedges. Tunnels carved through the rock on the winding road lead us to the end of the valley.
Back at the village we take a short drive out the other side of town to look at the track leading up to the Glendas, a point at the top of some cliffs 1500 meters above the village. In the past a favoured weekly stroll for Wayne. It’s 42 degrees as we head back to the house.
An evening stroll down alongside the river and market gardens, returning through the bush on the other side rounds of the day.
We are joined by Laure’s parents, Alan and Silvie, for a dinner Laure has spent the afternoon preparing. Alan and Silvie have a house here but commute to Paris by TGV on Monday for work returning on Friday. Great food wine and conversation whiles away the evening.
Sunday 5 July
Today is a travel day. We are up early, leaving the house at 6:30am – Wayne drives us to the Valence TGV station with only a few minor detours on route. From there we catch the train to Lyon where we connect (after a bit of a delay) with the train to Frankfurt and on to Berlin. The trip to Frankfurt passes fairly easily with us variously sleeping, catching up on blogs, reading and enjoying the scenery. There had been a minor delay in Lyon but the time was mostly made up by the time we reached Frankfurt.
German efficiency was definitely not on display when we reached Frankfurt. There was a bit of chaos as the train at the platform we were scheduled to depart from had broken down and no-one seemed to know where we would be leaving from, resulting in lots of very confused looking people running around. Eventually the correct platform was advised and we got away about 40 minutes delayed. We thought we’d buy something to eat on the train but the air conditioning in the dining car was on the fritz and it was declared too hot for staff so we were limited to snacks and drinks. We made reasonable progress, despite torrential rain at one point, until we hit Braunschweig where we sat for nearly 2 hours waiting for the tracks to be cleared. All in all, not the German railway’s finest hour. All of this of course is not helped by the fact that neither of us is able to speak any German and no English announcements are made. We eventually arrived in Berlin and caught a taxi to our friend Constantin’s apartment, arriving at about 1:30am to a warm welcome and a glass of champagne.
Monday 6 July
At 10am we enjoy a German breakfast Constantin has prepared. Constantin, whom we met with his wife Petra in Botswana in January, lives in New York and spends a few months a year in Berlin, the city he was originally from and where his three sisters still live. Petra is still in New York arriving later this week. The lovely apartment they have here is in one of the few buildings that was still standing after WWII.
We drove into the central city passing pieces of graffiti-covered Berlin wall still standing. From 1961 until 1989 it divided this city. We took a cruse in a river boat giving us a good appreciation of the many old museums and prominent buildings, including the parliament, in the city. It is easy to spot those that existed pre WW11 as they still bear shrapnel marks as do the walls on each side of many new bridges.
We then drove around parts of the city heading north east out into the countryside. We were surprised by a number of nice country buildings in what had been the east bloc.
Heading back into the city we struck very heavy slow traffic which gave us plenty of time to look at the buildings. We got a great look at the recently restored, large, gold Victory Column, erected in 1873 to celebrate the Prussian victory over the Danish.
There are lots of parks and trees in Berlin which is great as apparently at the end of WWII not a tree stood in the city.
In the evening Constantin’s twin sister joined us for dinner at Manzini, a local Restaurant. Dorothee had spent many years in the German Foreign Service working in many countries including Australia, ending up as Consul General in a number of countries. She has many interesting stories to tell.
Tuesday 7 July
Another travel day… After another delicious, Constantin-prepared breakfast we headed for the airport where we boarded our flight, first to Helsinki and then on to St Petersburg. All was pretty uneventful except for a little “stress” when Roger discovered that he had misplaced his business-card wallet when we were laid over in Helsinki. He initially thought it might have been stolen at one of the security points but eventually decided it must have fallen out of his pocket in the first plane. We made a few calls to lost and found but no luck so we boarded our flight to St Petersburg expecting to have to follow up once we arrived in Russia. Imagine our surprise and pleasure when the cabin crew turned up at our seat and handed the wallet to Roger. I think he was also feeling a bit sheepish if truth be told.
We arrived in St Petersburg to much cooler weather – about 10 degrees – and pouring rain. We had an easy transfer to the stunning Hermitage Hotel where we checked in and settled in for the night in preparation for a day’s exploring tomorrow.