Don't be a tourist. Be our guest!

Stories from our groups of women traveling to France, Spain, Belgium and Switzerland. Plus info and travel tips about the countries we travel to.

Archive for the ‘history’

Can you still find lavender in Provence?

September 22, 2009 By: jgrandchamps Category: Cultural tours to France, Customs and Traditions, Nature, Provence, history No Comments →

We are having a new tour, this time we are not in Belgium anymore but in Provence, France.

What comes to mind to everyone when talking about Provence? Lavender…

So, since there is no lavender in Sept, we went to the lavender museum. They taught the group the difference between lavender and lavandin because guess what? What you see everywhere, in your garden, in the fields, is lavandin, not lavender.

The main variety of Lavender cultivated in Provence is in fact not Lavender, but a sterile hybrid plant called Lavandin.

Lavandin is very rare in the wild and results from the cross-pollinization of True French Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) and Spike Lavender ( Lavandula latifolia ). This rarity is because both True Lavender and Spike Lavender grow in distinct territories with little overlap,  between 500 and 600 metres where both plants can grow and the opportunity for Lavandin to occur.

Not only does the Lavandin produce 4 to 6 times the essential oil of True Lavender (though not of the same high quality required for perfumery or aromatherapy), it can also growth at lower altitude (easier to cultivate everywhere) . Therefore, most farmers decided to adopt this new plant as their crop of choice. They therefore decide to clone it and reproduce it by hand.

While lavandin is a hardy plant, it is also sterile and therefore must be reproduced with cuttings rather than seeds. These plants have larger leaves, longer stems, and larger flowers that are pointed at the tip. Because the flowers are beautiful, vibrantly colored, and long-lasting, they are often used in herbal crafts and potpourris.

Here are a few pictures of our group at the Lavender museum:


Our group in front of the old lavender distillation alambics (Sally, Sheila, Susan, Aimee, Brooke, Angellea, Katura and in front,Nancy and me.  I am wearing  a lavender shirt of course!!!).


Sheila and Anjellea were the biggest shoppers!!!!


Ok, this is not a woman from our group but a mannequin with the outfit that women were wearing in the 19th century when harvesting  lavender by hand. Women would harvest 700kg of lavender a day!!!!!

That is it for now, more tomorrow: stay tuned!

If you want to be part of this adventure yourself, check the itinerary at

50% OFF on our trip to Belgium in August 2009 !

July 11, 2009 By: jgrandchamps Category: Belgian Escapades, Brussels, Cultural Tours to Belgium, Customs and Traditions, history 1 Comment →

For the past 2 years I have been escorting visitors in Belgium, on painting workshops and cultural tours.


It has been a special treat for me, a native from  Belgium, to introduce Americans and French people to the culture, the history and the traditions of my country. Designing the tour was  an enlightning experience for myself, as I learnt a lot of things about my own roots, my fellow-citizens and most of all, about the essence of what makes Belgium so special.

IMG_6479             IMG_5093

                                          Pictures:  fine dining or sharing pastries at the home of a local

We started in April 2008 with a “Guinea pig” tour with French people (friends and family, as we always do when we have new tours). France is a neighbour and cousin of Belgium, but it was still very exotic for them when it came to speaking Belgian-French or eating “French” fries which are not French. We then had a cultural tour for Americans in August 2008. They loved learning about history (from medieval castles to WWII battle fields), tasting the incredible Belgian beers and chocolate, and meeting locals ( baking with a local baker or sharing memories at WWII survivor’s home).

IMG_5344     IMG_4544

                                                               Pictures: local festivals

Indeed, our tour of Belgium offers a great deal of diverse attractions. On our cultural tour, you have the opportunity to discover both Wallonia and Flanders, as well as Brussels. First of all, our goal is to introduce you to authentic  local activities that you could not do on other tours:

  • attending a local street festival in a small Wallonia town
  • baking speculoos (cinamon cookies) with a local baker
  • chocolate tasting in a small family-owned chocolate factory
  • having tea at the home of a WWII survivor

We also want to show  Belgium through history, architecture and gastronomy; here are samples of our daily trips:

  • Bastogne and the Battle of the Bulge Memorial
  • the medieval city of Bruges with its canals and romantic atmosphere
  • the beaches and harbour of Ostend by the North Sea
  • Brussels: the  Grand Place, Manneken Pis and its world famous museums

We are offering 3 tours this summer / fall 2009: 2 painting trips and 1 cultural trip. Only 4 spots remain available out of 18 overall. Our stays are 8 days, for 8 guests only, fully escorted by bilingual guide from your arrival at Brussels airport to your departure at Brussels airport. Comfortable van and quaint guesthouse.

We hope to see you in Belgium ! For our next availabilities and discount, check

How to reach ultimate serenity in the French Alps

June 18, 2009 By: jgrandchamps Category: Cultural tours to France, Customs and Traditions, Food and Recipe, Nature, history 1 Comment →

IMG_6737    IMG_6736

Hikers, climbers and trekkers have searched and found paths of serenity in the French Alps for decades. But before the 19th century, mountains were not friendly to anybody, when local tales and customs were full of dreadful stories about deadly mountain encounters with scary creatures  living at the top, awaiting for daredevils.

But this empty space was also a heaven for those who really wanted to escape the human world, with its corruption and material wealth. In 1084, Bruno, a monk from the North of France, found that “desert” he was looking for, in the Chartreuse range near Grenoble, and he built the first monastery of what was to become the Cartusian order.

   DSC_0167    DSC_0151

Today, 40 monks still live in the original location, whereas the order has spread all around the world with 22 other monasteries. Its survival lays in its ability to find new ways of maintaining its living, and its major success was the discovery of the recipe for the world famous Chartreuse liqueur, the green of which gave also the name to the colour. 


The recipe dates back to 1605 and the liqueur contains 130 different plants.  The Chartreuse Liqueur is also known for being aged in the longest liqueur cellar in the world.

Even though the liqueur is often drunk “on the rocks”, it can be part of more elaborated cocktails:

  • Episcopale : one part of Green Chartreuse + 2 parts of yellow Chartreuse
  • Chartreuse Royale: with Champagne
  • Shuttle: with whisky
  • Alaska: with vodka
  • Sunburst: 1 part of green Chartreuse + 5 parts of orange juice and a dash of lemon juice

Remember, to enjoy Chartreuse, a small quantity is advised!

It can also be used in cooking: chocolate mousse, baked ham, apple crumble, hot chocolate, etc…

For tours in the French Alps, check (women-only tours and painting workshops available)

Alsace: a French corner with a German twist.

June 10, 2009 By: jgrandchamps Category: Cultural tours to France, Customs and Traditions, history No Comments →

This part of France is mainly known for its white wines, and yesterday, this wine country lost a legendary figure. Jean Hugel, producer and wine specialist, died at the age of 84. He had played a major role in promoting Alsace wines abroad and in writing regulations about  appelation laws.




Alsace is  mainly known for the following wines:

  • Riesling
  • Gewurztraminer
  • Pinot (noir, blanc, gris)
  • Sylvaner
  • Cremant d’Alsace


But Alsace is also a wondeful place to visit. Its  quaint villages, surrounded by vineyards, have kept a medieval atmosphere.  Castles, such as the lofty Haut-Koenigsourg, keep reminding the visitors that this area was an essential keystone  in European history, not to mention all the war memorials and  battle fields to be seen in the whole region.


                vignes    hat koenigsbourg    viallage alsacien  

Alsatians still speak a German dialect, beside French (the official language). After all , they only became  French for good after WWII. The capital, Strasbourg, is the seat of the European parliament, that it shares with Brussels. The TGV line between Paris and Strasbourg was inaugurated last year ; it only takes 2h 20 minutes to link both cities.


                             choucroute   noel alsace     Cigogne

Alsace is also known for its Christmas markets, its sauerkraut dishes and stork nests! It is a delightful area to discover. Alsatians are warm-hearted people that will share with you their taste for partying.


For tours about France and Belgium , visit

To watch a video about Alsace, click here.

Gorée, Senegal: the Slave Island

May 06, 2009 By: jgrandchamps Category: Tours in Senegal, history No Comments →

146bornegoree        157tableaux

Goree Island is just a few miles from the Western African coast, in the Atlantic Ocean. It only takes 30 minutes to reach by boat from Dakar, Senegal. It has become a Unesco world heritage town because of its historical importance, particularly in the 18th slave trade.

Today it is an importance pilgrimage place for African Americans who visit the island, and especially the House of Slaves, to pay tribute to those who were crually deported from their native land, after passing through the “doors of no return”. The trade was active from 1536 to 1848.

151escaliersesclaves      152cellule

In Gorée you  can also visit  the Women’s museum and the Maritime Museum. In addition it is a charming place to stroll around the streets. The town council is well aware of environment issues and has been doing a great job at keeping the streets clean and at recycling.

Around the little harbour, restaurants offer a great variety of seafood and local dishes. Senegalese cuisine is very refined and diversified.

For English-speaking tours in Senegal, including a visit of Goree, contact French Escapade at Check also our  women-only tours focusing on Senegalese women ’s life.

All photos are from French Escapade Tours.

San Francisco: a floating city?

March 13, 2009 By: jgrandchamps Category: Customs and Traditions, San Francisco, Tours in California, history No Comments →



                                       San Francisco skyline and Bay Bridge  from Treasure Island

Before 1776

The Ohlone Indians had settled on the coast between Big Sur and the San Francsico bay where they could  take advantages of the geography and the mild climate of the area: the fog that temperates the forests, the fresh and salty water mix that diversifies the water fauna and flora and the fact that the isthmus was narrow and therefore protected them from intrusion.

Many European explorators had indeed sailed by it without seeing it in the 16th century. Sir Francis Drake was to land at Point Reyes instead. In 1769, it was Gaspar de la Portola who first mentioned the bay, which was settled by a handful of Europeans in 1776.


1848 -1951

The Gold Rush fostered a demographic explosion of the city (from 1,000 to 25, 000 people over a year). Even though some newcomers arrived by land, most came by boat and many ships did the journey around the Cape Horn or from Panama. Theses 49ers would land in the Yerba Buena cove, and stay there because both passengers and crew would leave the vessels to reach the Sierras in search of Gold. The bay was soon packed with deserted boats : in the summer of 1850, it was recorded that 500 ships were anchored in the cove.                                

Many of these abandoned ships were then used as shops, saloons, hotels or abodes; some buildings were also erected in between on piles. Other vessels were broken apart and the wood and metal used to build houses. The city passed many extension bills to turn the floating city into land; as a result, the whole area was filled with sand and by the end of the 60s, the area almost looked like any other districts. However, many houses were built on ship decks and you just needed to visit the cellars  to find out! A seawall was constructed around the new area and is approximately the limit of the Embarcadero boardwalk. North Beach was not a beach anymore!

Old and recent excavations or construction works have unearthed some of these historical ships, the most famous one being the Niantic, excavated in 1977 (part of it buried under the Transamerica Pyramid).



                                                                        Golden Gate bridge

Fishermen on the wharf

When the Gold Rush started to decline, Californians turned to fishing. The salmon was an important trade as well as crab. A large Chinese community arrived and developed  an important fishery by the bay, and would sent back to China dry fish, shrimps  and shellfish. In the 1860s, Italians immigrants settled in the Norhth Beach district. The first wharf dedicated to fishing was built in 1884. However in the 20th century, pollution struck the fishing industry hard , especially regarding oysters and salmon. In the 30s, the sardine fishing industry boomed, and continued until the early 50s.



                                                            Oysters served in San Francisco

The fishing industry today

The fishing activity includes fish processing located on Pier 45. San Francisco is regarded as the fish capital of the West coast: the most important sport fishing is salmon catching, but it is now limited due to a lack of fish returning to spawn new generations. The famous dungeness crabs are still caught by the San Francisco fishermen.



                                                               Californian fishermen’s cabin

More services today                                                                                                             

The port of San Francisco stretches over 7.5 miles along the bay and offers  cargo services, a cruise dock, a fisherman’s wharf for commercial and sport fishing,   and many passenger ferry services to Alcatraz, Sausalito and Oakland.  The  cruise industry welcomes 200,000 passengers every year mainly sailing to Alaska and Mexico.

Useful links (click on title):


                                                    On a tour of San Francisco : view of the piers

Video links (click on title):