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Jacquey’s Escorted Tour to Poland and the South of France 2017
By tour guest Patty
Jacquey's tours are about experiences – of a country, its history, geography, lifestyle, food, culture, environment, its people – and our tour of Poland and the South of France was no exception.
The variety of our activities was one surprising aspect of Poland. Travelling by coach and by train through the rolling, fertile countryside we visited major cities and small towns, were awed by richly furnished palaces and ornate baroque churches, strolled in serene, green gardens and vibrant city squares, toured medieval castles and a deer farm. Our itinerary was full, we were busy and we loved it.
Everyone comes home with different travel tales. These are some of mine.
We took a peaceful trip in rafts along a scenic river that meandered between steep limestone cliffs, laughing at the banter between the crew members, who were dressed in traditional outfits of blue vest and black hat trimmed with cowrie shells. We rode the cable car to the top of the Tatra Mountains and stood astride the border with Slovakia, in freezing 3 degrees and a howling gale. We braved the underground to walk through a former rock salt mine with huge chambers that include a concert hall, chandeliers made of salt crystals, statues carved from rock salt and a gift shop 135m below the surface.
We strolled around the beautiful 17th century Lancut Castle with its tasteful ornate décor and, in the stables, an impressive collection of horse-drawn carriages, the star of which belonged to Frederic Chopin. A special treat was a private recital of his piano music at the Krakow Conservatorium. In a village church we enjoyed another musical recital on a bizarre, baroque pipe organ complete with moving statues of horn-blowing musicians, bell-ringing angels, spinning stars and a bowing Archangel Gabriel.
Poland’s recent history is dominated by the events of WW2. Much of Warsaw, Wroclaw and Gdansk, cities we visited, were flattened by bombs and fighting but have since been impressively rebuilt in their old style. Our guides showed us examples of architectural features and art works that were rescued by citizens at the time and re-used in the reconstruction. There are memorials to the Jews: in Krakow is a public art installation of simple metal chairs, placed at random in a plaza, which represents the Jews who left from there by train for the death camps; in Warsaw is a line of tiles in the pavement that marks the wall around the former Jewish ghetto. The most bruising experience was our visit to Auschwitz and our horror at the enormity of ‘the program’ to eliminate the Jews. Ten days later we walked around one of Hitler’s secret military headquarters in the forest, now a sobering, ruined complex of huge, broken concrete blocks covered in moss and lichen.
We discovered the unexpected. In Wroclow we hunted for the numerous cute, bronze gnomes that appear in corners of the old city. Motoring across the north of Poland we spotted huge storks’ nests atop power poles and chimneys. In Gdnask we ‘frocked up’ for dinner at a restaurant whose specialty is goldwasser, a liqueur that features flecks of gold. We sipped wine on a sunset boat cruise across an expanse of sparkling water. We spent a night in a picturesque castle, set in a peaceful forest on a small lake, whose steep narrow staircases tested our fitness and cemented our resolve to eat less!
Our Polish guide, Krys, had wanted to show us as much as possible of his wonderful country, and he succeeded.
In France, our cruise along the Rhone River was equally varied and enjoyable.
Prior to boarding we toured ‘new’ Lyon, the previously industrial area of the city but now a showcase of architect-designed apartment buildings and creative re-use of former factories and warehouses. In contrast, two days later we walked the ‘old’ Lyon, through narrow, cobbled alleys lined with 4-storey buildings where Lyon’s famous silk industry thrived.
We also strolled the narrow, winding, cobbled streets of quaint old towns such as Beune, famous for its medieval hospice with the colourful tiled roof, and Viviers, a medieval hill-top town built of pale, beige stone. Here, after an organ recital in the cathedral, we were privileged to have refreshments at a private house and, later, a brave few of us agreed to a challenge by some local experts to a game of petanque. They were indeed experts but we had lot of fun!
This was a ‘gourmet cruise’ that treated us to delicious food and local wines on board (including French delicacies like frogs’ legs and snails) and also offered the opportunity to browse local produce markets, learn to cook crepes suzettes and take a chocolate appreciation course. We learnt about truffle farming through an entertaining lesson from the farm owner and his talented, curly-haired truffle-hunting dog, Emilie, after which we were encouraged to taste the products, accompanied by local wine.
In the town of Tain l’Hermitage two of our group, Margaret Burridge and Russell Jackson, earned the honour of induction into the local brotherhood of wine appreciators. This light-hearted ceremony included a choir of townspeople, speeches by officials dressed in velvet robes, shoulder dubbing with a grapevine branch, plus the requirement that both new members skol a full glass of red wine (at 11’o’clock in the morning!). We were proud of them.
Our first glimpse of the famous Pont d’Avignon was of pale yellow stone arches against a picturesque blue twilight. Although technically no longer a ‘bridge’ (it has been partly washed away) it still had us all delving into our schooldays French for the words of the song. Within a short coach ride of Avignon is the stunning Pont du Gard, an impressive stone aqueduct from Roman times and an awe-inspiring engineering achievement.
Our final outing was to the town of Arles, briefly the home of artist Vincent Van Gogh, which has an intact Roman amphitheatre and, on the day of our visit, an extensive outdoor market where we could indulge our desire for a last taste of French produce and some last-minute gift shopping.
Next morning, packed and ready, we headed to Nice airport. As we drove, Jacquey shared with us a recap of the trip which highlighted, yet again, the wonderful variety of experiences, impressions and memories we had enjoyed together. Thank you to all at Gippsland Travel, but especially to Jacquey, for the opportunity to take this fascinating trip through Poland and the South of France.