Trip to Europe: Day 15 – Avignon to Chateau de Fontager, Valence

18 June 2012. I was really looking forward to this day because we were going to be staying at one of Contiki’s feature hotels: Chateau de Fontager, which is something I saw in their brochure. It looked like a medieval castle, and I had never stayed in something like that before, so it was extremely exciting for me. That morning, we left around 8, heading first towards Fragonard, the French perfumery, en route to Avignon, where we’d be stopping for a quick lunch.

We didn’t have much of the French Riviera to drive along, since we were now heading north, so I tried catching whatever final glimpses of the Mediterranean that I could get. It wasn’t too long before we got to Fragonard,

The moment we walked through the doors we were hit with a wonderful scent, and we all became a little mellow. It was a subtle aroma, anything but overpowering, which I loved because one might expect that when walking into a perfumery. We were given a brief introduction to what actually goes on in the perfumery as well as some of the ingredients that are used to make perfumes.

We were given a behind-the-scenes tour of the perfumery and watched as the workers went about their business filling up the perfume bottles (by hand) and making soap. The awesome thing about the soap they make is that the entire thing is scented, unlike the cheap rubbish you get where there’s no scent left after you get through the thin surface layer. The bottles that are used which are golden in colour are made from aluminium; this keeps light from penetrating through, which allows the perfume to retain its original scent for much longer than normal as a result.

After the tour, we all stood around one of the ladies who spoke to us about the different perfumes that were for sale. Some were fruity, some were floral, some for the day and some for the night. I’ve never really liked “citrusy”-smelling perfumes, and I’ve got Lancome’s Midnight Rose already which is generally something you’d use at night, so I knew I was going to probably go for the French floral perfume, Emilie, which would be more practical for daytime use. It was confirmed that that was my favourite after we were given a strip on which to smell each sample.

We then had some time to shop in the gift shop. There were some specials where you could get a box of 4 or 5 perfumes of a particular size bottle, and divide the bottles among several people. I got together with a couple girls and bought a box of the medium-sized bottles, after each of us chose which perfume we wanted. I got 2 bottles of Emilie – one for myself and another for my mother.CC and Jose

I waited for some people and we walked together back to the bus. Driver Steve immediately picked up how good all of us smelled. While we waited for the others, I was watching Jose and CC trying to take selfies with CC’s hair over Jose’s head. It was just too funny.

Once everyone was satisfied with their purchases, Steve did his usual head count and we were off for a 3 hour drive to Avignon. I didn’t really know what to expect other than a small town in which I could get some lunch.

While on the bus, Steve asked us to team up with others that were in our country and come up with questions about our respective countries as there would be a quiz later. Thankfully, Tiffany was right behind me so it was easy to chat with her about it. It also made it easy for Steve to contribute since he could just lean over from his usual spot by the step, next to Driver Steve. I typed the questions as fast as I could onto my phone, and called it SA questions. The mistakes were quite obvious as Steve and Tiffany were firing away so it was crazy keeping up.

I managed to sneak a glance at the surroundings as Steve and Tiffany thought of more questions to ask, and it just got more beautiful the further we went, and we were driving alongside a river. We passed some old, impressive bridges that matched the outer walls of Avignon that eventually rose up in front of us.

Driver Steve parked as close as possible for us to be able to walk into the town, under some trees in an outdoor parking area which had a nice view of a Ferris wheel nearby. We hopped off and walked together towards the beige, towering walls, part of which was built into the stone. It felt as though I were walking into a secret.

The town didn’t open up the way I expected it to. Instead, it became more intriguing. It was like I was transported back to the back-streets of Rome with its narrow, cobbled roads with tiny cars parked to the side. It was a gentle uphill walk and after a few turns we came upon a huge open area with a gigantic building that looked like a very old palace.

Avignon town

By now we were so used to stopping and waiting for Steve to tell us how much time we had to do x and y, that I think we knew about how far we could walk before it was necessary for us to stop. Steve gave us the quick timelines and directions, and we were off again on our own little missions.

The majority of us headed towards the town centre, which was a large courtyard-like area with restaurants and other little buildings. We were rather hungry since it was already quite late, so we decided to check out some of the restaurants, most of which had their menus on display outside.

Avignon restaurant menu

Kelly, Tiffany and I were all confused about what we wanted to eat, so I think we chose the restaurant that we did purely because of the size of the menu. While we were still deciding, we were given a bread basket, much to Tiffany’s delight. “Mmm, I just love bread!”, I remember Tiffany saying.

I eventually settled on a seafood pasta, since I hadn’t really had one before. It cost about €9, and I wasn’t disappointed. It looked so mouth watering that I just had to take a photo before touching it.

Shaghetti aux fruits de merWe savoured our lunch and admired the general splendour and atmosphere surrounding us. There’s nothing like having lunch outside, especially when you’re in a beautiful French town such as Avignon. It was nice having some of the Austailian crowd which included Ally and Paul, at the next table. We found ourselves eavesdropping and then contributing to each others’ conversations.

About an hour had passed since we chose a restaurant and finished our food. Most of the others had finished, too, and we had some time to kill so spent a few moments deciding what to do with the time. I was game for anything, so I just waited to see what the others were gonna suggest. As we proceeded forward rather aimlessly, we noticed the merry-go-round that grew larger in front of us. Someone, Kiara if I’m not mistaken, suggested we all go for a ride. A few of us thought it was rather ridiculous but then as quickly as we had decided against it, we changed our minds. After all, when would we get that chance again.

Avignon's merry-go-round

When we went to check how much it cost, we saw that it was €2 per person, but only €1 each if you got 12 people. Hell, there were 51 of us, so surely it would be super easy to get 12! It certainly was. We shouted at whoever came within hearing range and practically every single one of them was keen. We felt like children again as we walked around the merry-go-round, looking for something that would hopefully carry our weight.

Ally had sat herself down on one of the horses, so asked me to sit on the one next to her. It was so amusing to do that as I remembered sitting on one as a child. I told Ally what a difference it was sitting on it as an adult, as we didn’t have any reason to hold on to the handles.

On the merry-go-round

When the ride started, we were all laughing hysterically. I’m not sure if it was because of the outrageousness of it, or the fact that the locals were staring at a bunch of overgrown children in obvious disapproval. For me, it was both. I think it was Paul, walking in the ride itself, who caught a shot of me laughing like a crazy person – thanks for that! As if his presence wasn’t enough, we also had Travis standing outside the ride laughing and taking photos of our shenanigans.

It was the best time ever.

After laughing ourselves off the ride, I realised I had found the child in me again. Sometimes you need to do stupid things like that to take you back to the times when all you cared about was that innocent fun you could have, whether it was by yourself or with friends. In this case, I definitely wouldn’t have felt the same if those very same people weren’t around me in my time of happiness. There’s no place else I would have rather been. Thanks to all you others for sharing that moment!

Still basking in the mild adrenaline, if you can call it that, we waddled away from our temporary friend back towards the palais. We were actually early as there was a significant number of people who hadn’t yet arrived. It was brilliant for me because I wanted to make a quick visit to the church next to the palais, if not the palais itself. There wasn’t going to be enough time for me to pay €10 to go into the palais and see it properly, so I decided to take a brisk walk to the church in the 15-20 minutes that were left.

Avignon's Palais

It was a little church that was rather dark. I expected it to be that way, however, since it was a Gothic church. In fact, the Palais is one of the largest Gothic buildings in Europe, and actually played host to several conclaves. This only increased my interest in it because of my love for anything having to do the Pope or the Vatican. I took a quick walk around it while at the same time consulting with my watch. Unfortunately no one is allowed to take photos inside the church, so I absorbed whatever I could before making my way back down to my group which seemed to have grown significantly since I had left. I think I got back to them just in time, as it was only a few moments before Steve requested us to follow him back to the bus.Zorro

It was enough time to watch the Zorro wannabe who was parked off next to us, hoping for money. I managed to grab a quick ice cream on the way back to the bus, reminiscing about the day that had just passed.

We had another long drive of nearly 3 hours ahead of us before we reached our hotel, or rather, our castle – Chateau de Fontager. I had seen pictures of it in the Contiki catalogue, so I couldn’t wait to see it in person. I had never been inside a castle before, let alone stayed  in one.

I didn’t know how close we were to the Chateau until I saw a road sign that pointed in its direction, because we were driving along a river for a while, with no landmarks worth mentioning. It was as though we were in the middle of nowhere. I realised then that the Chateau was probably not even visible from the road, or that many people even knew about it. That’s expected, I guess, as the other Chateaux that I did hear about had rather large gardens and appeared to be in a secluded area because of it in any case.

The road sign

Driver Steve took the turn that the sign recommended, and had to drive along a gravel road for what seemed like 10-15 minutes before we could see anything that resembled the Chateau. I’m sure it was not even a minute. Either the road was long and winding, or I was just impatient. It was probably the latter.

When the bus eventually stopped, I took a few moments to gaze upon the Chateau. It was exactly like the pictures. I knew there was plenty of time to look at it so I didn’t waste much time in retrieving my bag and making my way up to the room. Alex took a little longer to get her bag so I had a few moments to survey the room before she got there. It was the first time we had one double bed for both of us, rather than 2 singles, but the size of the room was like no other. We had a rather large bathroom, too. I was pleasantly surprised, other than the fact that there was no air conditioner which was really needed in this case. But I could worry about that later.

There was nothing to do in the castle except relax and have fun. So after dumping my bags in the room and freshening up a little, I began to head back downstairs to see what the others were doing. I also visited the twins on the way down, whose room I didn’t realise I was walking passed until I saw Aadam standing by their open door. I popped my head in to say hello because I noticed how huge their room was. It was insane, they each had their own double bed! How did that happen?! They told me they were on their way to the pool, so it was pretty obvious where everyone else would be.

I met a couple people in the lobby, who weren’t in bathing suits, so I mentally high-fived them. We walked down to the pool together, through a beautiful, green garden. The pool was a lower than the castle, and I noticed that the guys and some of the girls like Alex were playing their own version of water polo already.

Chateau de Fontager

I went under one of the few gazebos and sat with Tracy, Travis and some other non-swimmers, Rachel included. It was nice having Ally and Paul join us too. Neither of them swam, initially, but I think Paul eventually took a quick dip as Ally looked on.

It drizzled for a few minutes but that didn’t bother anyone. We were either already wet or sheltered under a gazebo. We spoke a few things about the upcoming quiz, and I let Travis in on a little secret – that the answer to “What is a braai?” is in fact a BBQ. I kept a mental note to either not ask that question (which was practically impossible cos we’re the only ones that call a BBQ a “braai”), or make sure that Travis didn’t answer (somehow). The rest of the time I spent at the pool was just watching everyone and thinking back of what we had gotten up to over the past 14 days, realising that we had just 3 nights more with each other and that after this I may never see some of them again. It saddened me.

After leaving the pool, it was time to go eat. I sat outside the front entrance under a wooden awning with wooden chairs with Rachel, Adam and a couple more people while those who were in the pool showered and changed. We made mindless chatter about where we were sitting, the castle, the pool, and Fragonard. We didn’t have to wait long before it was time to go to the dining room. When I got to the dining room, I sat with Renae, Tracy and Travis, among others, waiting for the food to arrive. Ours was the only table with a free seat or 2, so Sam, being late, joined us later on. 

Towards the end of dinner, Steve came to me asking if I had come up with any more questions for the quiz, and suggested a few more. He also gave me a pen and paper to scribble them down on to. Sam and I, even though we came from totally different countries, teamed up as the others left the table, done with their dinner. So I shared a handful of answers with her. What brought us together was the fact that Steve said that the Australians and South Africans would be teaming up against the Americans and Canadians, so we forgot about the fact that we were from different countries hence plotted together as if we were from the same place. It was awesome. For a few moments I had forgotten that we live half way across the world from each other. Travelling is a marvellous thing.

When we were done, we joined the others in the next room where we could get some chairs together and form our teams. I gave my questions list to Steve and found myself a spot amongst the Australians. After all this time, I realised how similar Australians are to South Africans, and this lot that I was with had become like family to me. I looked upon them fondly as we waited for Steve to start asking the questions. Too bad I couldn’t get a photo of them all at once, but its pretty obvious that we totally outnumbered our opponents. There wasn’t a table big enough to accommodate all of us.

Some of the Aussies with the Americans and Canadians in the background

Steve began with the Australians’ questions, if I remember correctly. They pretty much nailed the others. I was glad to be on their team because I didn’t have to feel bad about not knowing some of the answers. The Americans really had me stumped with some  of their questions though – they had come up with some brilliant ones.

Steve left the South African questions to last and, since there were only 4 of us in the whole group, asked Tiffany, Dylan and I to come up and help him ask some of the questions since he couldn’t read some of my writing. Normally I would have been a little shy, but these people were no strangers to me now.

When we got to the braai question, I immediately pointed at Travis and asked him to be quiet. Poor guy, I had shut him up the moment he had started to open his mouth. One of our questions, “what is a koeksister”, was given the funniest answer I ever thought possible, thanks to CC. “Is it a pig’s stomach?”. No CC, no. I nearly collapsed with laughter – she had made our evening.

After the last question, just like the others, we had to sing our national anthem. I thought “I’ve already yodelled in front of this lot, so singing in my ‘own’ language with 3 other people is nothing”. That’s the only thing that gave me the confidence to stand up and sing to them. From the look on their faces when we changed languages, I think they were impressed with us.

We had nothing to do but mess around afterwards. Some people wanted to play cards, some wanted to play pool, and others wanted to play hide and seek. We all wandered about the area together, not really sure of who to join. Steve showed us where the pool table was, and in the adjoining room was a long table fit for a banquet. I’m sure it could have sat at least 20 people.

I had pretty much made up my mind about what I wanted to do – hide and seek of course. After all, we had the entire castle to ourselves. I got together with a bunch of Aussies that included Renae, Ronnie, Travis, Tracy, Ally, Shauna, Kelsey and Felicia, as well as Alex. We had the entire bottom floor to hide in. We actually were playing reverse hide and seek, which I had never heard of before, but one of the brilliant Aussies suggested it. Bless her! The way it works is – one person hides while everyone else seeks. When you find the person, you hide with them. Eventually only one seeker is left, and that is the person that must hide next.

Now, the problem with this castle is that its pretty creepy at night, and some rooms are so pitch dark that you cannot even see your hand in front of you. Other rooms can convince you that its haunted because of the lighting and creaking sounds. Because of this, I knew the game would be brilliant.

It was Ronnie who hid first, if I remember correctly. We searched until we thought we could search no more – under the tables in the dining room, a large chest, the reception desk, behind curtains, and extremely dark rooms where you couldn’t hear a sound or see a thing. I remember some of the girls screaming with fright when they entered a dark room and another seeker entered the same room through another door. It was crazily funny.

I noticed that Kelsey had disappeared, so I knew that she had found Ronnie. Eventually, when walking passed the female toilets, my gut feeling told me to check behind the door. It was a very unlikely place for a guy to hide in, which is exactly what made it so perfect for hiding. I also sensed that there was someone there, so after making sure that no one saw where I was, I quietly went in and peeked behind the door. Sure enough, there was Ronnie in an almost foetal position in the little corner behind the door that was adjacent to the sink. Kelsey was also there, somehow tucked into what little space she could find. I quietly laughed at the two faces smiling up at me, and positioned myself over them and a little over the sink, so as not to disturb the door. One by one, though very slowly, the others found us. At one point I heard Alex say “I don’t see Aradhna anymore, she must have found him”. It was really difficult to not laugh; we tried our best to be silent, especially when another seeker was just outside the door. Eventually all but one were completely squashed in this little corner behind a door. Getting out of it was a relief for all of us. Poor Ronnie, I don’t know how he found an air pocket with the 8 or 9 of us practically on top of him.

We were actually chased outside by the staff after our shenanigans inside, but we weren’t done yet. This was our day of feeling like kids, and we weren’t about to give it up so easily. Besides, it was only about 11pm – way too early for us now. We then decided to take our game outside, in the pitch darkness, in a garden we had only seen for a few minutes, if even.

We surveyed the area to see what we could make of it, and decided that we couldn’t play reverse hide and seek any more because of the layout of the garden. The only place we could hide in was the area that was directly in front of the castle. It was pretty much oval in shape, with a tall hedge on the left, 2 or 3 very large, old trees, and a handful of white statues dotted around. The right and back side of the garden had a short, white fence which separated the garden from a small embankment. The problem was that we couldn’t really see the back of the garden. I was wearing a white top, which really wasn’t going to help when it came to hiding in the dark.

We agreed on a particular tree as being the “den”, and the single seeker would be given the torch that someone happened to have. Why they brought a torch on a European trip, God knows, but I’m glad they did.

The seeker, who I think was Travis first, looked towards the castle as the rest of us ran into the garden to try to find a suitable place to hide. Since I was wearing a white top, I thought it would be a bright idea to hide behind one of the statues and make my way forward towards the tree from there. I managed to inch my way forward, but it wasn’t too long before Travis caught me. He had a pretty quick eye, considering the fact that we couldn’t really see much.

I think there were only about 2 people who had made it safely without Travis seeing them. It was very exciting to watch, but not as exciting as when Tracy was the seeker. Shauna and I ran right to the back of the garden, and hide on the embankment on the other side of the little fence. There was no way we could be seen. It was simply too far, too dark, and we were below ground level. Shauna got over the fence and went forward, but I decided that I wasn’t going to go head first, but rather on the outer side of the hedge, knowing that I’d be walking along the road we had driven over when we arrived at the castle on the bus earlier.

Looking behind me, I was actually pretty petrified. I saw a house of some sort, but couldn’t quite make out whether there were people in it or not. It looked cold and grey, and I couldn’t see anything beyond it. On my left side was the hedge, and on the right was a very high bank with trees that came all the way down it. It was like I had a forest on my right. Because I was out of hearing range, I walked at a normal pace towards Tracy who was on the other side of the hedge. But it was so deadly quiet, that I didn’t waste much time in slowing down to the point where I was actually at a creeping pace. The gravel road certainly didn’t muffle my footsteps, so I had to be extra careful with every step I took.

As I inched closer, Tracy’s voice grew louder. Her comments were hilarious, and more so when she heard a crack, which was actually me stepping on a twig on the gravel, and thought that it was someone “hiding in the bloody tree”. I had to quickly cover my mouth to stop myself from bursting into audible laughter. Eventually, I got all the way round the hedge to where the people who had been caught were standing, as well as Ally, Paul and the twins who were now spectators. Ally saw me and smiled, and I put my finger over my mouth to indicate that she should be quiet.

After what seems like hours, I got to the edge of the hedge where I could see Tracy once again. I was also trying to see if there were any obstacles that might prevent me from making a final sprint and lunge at the tree (it was barely 3m away). Even though I tried my best, I still tripped on something that was loud enough to alert Tracy and she got to the tree before I could. All that effort was in vain.

Travis was still nowhere to be seen though, but it wasn’t long after I was caught that we heard a thump – Travis was on the other side of the fence too, only much closer than we thought. He tried jumping over the fence but landed flat on his stomach. Lying still didn’t work for him because we all heard it. I don’t know which was funnier – seeing him lying flat hoping we didn’t see him, or Tracy’s comments when she did.

Ronnie was the last seeker, and I did my round-the-hedge tactic yet again. This time it had worked. I think Kelsey was the one who should get a back on the back for her stealth skills though. Ronnie, who hardly left the tree, made it extremely difficult for anyone to get to it before he did. A few of us saw Kelsey moving without Ronnie seeing, so it was really a game of suspense. I think he eventually caught her in the end, but she definitely lasted the longest.

After that third round of garden hide and seek, we decided to call it a night. It was certainly the most fun night I had had on tour to date, and I wished we could continue the next day, but I knew a day like that would probably never happen again.

Sad, I walked back to my room where Alex was already asleep. The walk there was rather creepy because of the pitch black corridor. Thankfully I found a switch but even though I had turned the lights on, they had automatically switched off by the time I had unlocked the room door. Creepy.

I had difficulty sleeping that night, not only because of the thoughts of what had transpired that day, but because of the sheer heat. That place could really use an aircon! There was one more good thing that could come from sleeping though: I’d was going to be in Paris the next day.

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