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 ‘Nature’

Lavender, lavender and more lavender in Provence

June 25, 2012 By: guest Category: Cultural tours to France, Jac's Travel diary, Nature, Painting tours to France, Provence, Travel notes from our guests, Women, painting workshops 2 Comments →

Our new group of painters has arrived. The teacher is Sonja Hamilton. This is her fifth trip with us. She taught twice in the French Alps, once in Belgium, last year in Switzerland and now in Provence.

Here she is in the middle of the lavender.


If you read my blog, you saw pictures of red poppies in May. Now the red poppies are gone and the lavender is starting.


From Left to Right: Jan, Cathy, Barbara, Diane, Sonja, Linda H, Linda P, and Diane.

The lavender was all around Roussillon, the ochre village. All the houses are painted with ochre so they are red. It is a very unique village.


The most adventurous, who were able to survive the heat, walked the ochre trail. Roussillon has the biggest ochre vein in the world, up to 15 feet. Sonja said that it also has the finest ochre.

The whole group bought some ochre pigment to make paint tomorrow. Apparentely, it is a slow process. Everyone will make her own paint and use it to paint a skech from …..Roussillon of course.

Here is a picture of the lunch bags Sonja made for everyone, with her paintings of Provence on them. Very nice.


Stay tuned for more, tomorrow!

Oh, if you want to join us next year, Sonja will teach again a plein-air workshop in Provence end of June when the lavender is there and there is only one spot left!!!!!!!!! Check our site at

Touring the natural beauty of Provence

October 02, 2009 By: jgrandchamps Category: Cultural tours to France, Customs and Traditions, Jac's Travel diary, Nature, Provence, Women 4 Comments →

Women from Canada and from the USA have joined me this week to tour Provence. Provence is known for its breath-taking sceneries, its historical hilltop villages and its art. We saw all that, but its natural beauty was at the heart of this week’ s delights.

Camargue is always a highlight, with the visit of Thibaud Ranch, where Olivier and his friends always put on a show just for us.


Roussillon with its ocher walk is a kind of fairy land, with magical colors.


In Les Baux, houses are nested in cliffs around the medieval castle, or down below the village walls.


In Saint Remy de Provence, Van Gogh also discovered the beauty of nature and depicted it on many of his paintings. We visited the hospital where he stayed and painted a few months before his death.


We took pictures of all of that, and we will again tomorrow, when we will admire the Pont du Gard, one of the most impressive roman ruins in Provence.


To find out more about our coming trips, visit

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

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)

Amazing Roussillon, the ochre trail

October 23, 2008 By: jgrandchamps Category: Cultural tours to France, Nature, Provence, Travel notes from our guests No Comments →

Travel notes from Michelle L, Rhode Island, one of our guests on the tour to Provence.

“Began the day with yet another excellent breakfast prepared by Phillipe and Viviane (the proprietors at the hotel).  Then, we went to an olive oil factory and learned how olive oil is made.  It’s amazing, we take so much for granted.  We just pour the olive oil on our bread without thinking about the trees, the tending of the soil, the harvesting etc.  We should all be more grateful and aware of the labor that goes into each bite of food.

Then, onto Roussillon, a beautiful old village a top a stone ledge. Kathy and I bought paint pigment; then we all went onto the ochre trail.  It was bold reds and golds, much like Bryce Canyon without the spires.  Absolutely beautiful!

Then, if that was not enough, onto the nougat factory.  We learned how nougat was made, had plenty of samples :-)

Back at the guesthouse, I (Mitch) had the most wonderful, luxurious massage of my life.  What a wonderful trip; new places, new friends, new ways to be.”

Hundreds of Flamingos in Camargue

September 29, 2008 By: jgrandchamps Category: Cultural tours to France, Nature, Provence, Travel notes from our guests No Comments →

Still from Joan’ s diary (one of our guests on our tour to Provence).

After our field trip to the manade in Camargue (see previous post), Jackie drove us about 15 min to Les Saintes Maries de la Mer, a town right on the Mediterranean. This town is a favorite with the French people because it is sunny, beautiful, simple and NOT touristy. Les Saintes Maries de la Mer is also known as being the town where all the gyspy folk gather. (I was SO excited to hear about the gypsy people that I was singing ‘Gypsys, tramps and thieves…’ in the van.) Les Ste Maries de la Mer has lots of seafood joints and of course beef. Now before you say ‘oh no, they ate Gastion’ you should know that bulls compete from age 3 to age 12 or so. They then ‘retire’ and go on to live to old age, dying at 18-22 years of age. Only the least aggressive bulls, the ones that never quite measure up as a competitor or a stud, go off to slaughter. Its a very small percentage, and because of that, the meat from the bull is considered a regional specialty. Also, when a champion bull dies, he is buried in a deep grave, standing up, facing the ocean. Its considered an honor to be buried this way. (Maybe I should change my final request to include a beach chair and a good book.) So yes I had bull for lunch, along with the local rice. Hey, I’m allergic to seafood so when in Camargue….


After lunch we drove just a few minutes to Camargue Parc Naturel (Nature Reserve) where we met up with an ornithologist (Fred) who took us on a walk around the a bird reserve. We got to see many species- herons, ducks, egrets, swans, vultures, storks, owls, coots, and hundreds and hundreds of pink flamingos!! This nature reserve/aviary started about 30 years go in the marshy area once known for hunting. Now it is home to tens of thousands of birds, some of which come and go with the season and others who like it so much they just stay. The center is also where all rescued and/or injured birds are taken for treatment, convalescence and in most cases eventual release back into the wild. The only birds in cages are those requiring special care. Many birds throughout Europe are tagged with leg bands, so when they see a new face in the crowd with a black leg band they know he came from Germany. That way researchers can track migration trends. It was yet another interesting day here in France.


Pink Flamingos in the Naturel park of Camargue

As a final note I’d like to mention that we had another Wonderful dinner back at La Bastide du Bois Breant, our Inn. I guess it was only fitting that since I had bull for lunch that we all had duck for dinner, followed by Profiteroles au Chocolat. Sorry mes amis Daffy and Donald, but dinner was delicious! Joan D from California.


A day in Camargue with wild bulls and white horses

September 28, 2008 By: jgrandchamps Category: Cultural tours to France, Nature, Provence, Travel notes from our guests No Comments →

Still from our guest’s diary: Joan, San Jose, California.

Dedication: to Nancy L., whose voice I heard, smile I saw, joy I felt during today’s trip. You would have had a blast.

Today was quite a day. I have to say that when Jackie put together this Provence tour, she must have figured all of us would be doing the ’sitting by the river at a little cafe sipping Cafe au Lait or Pastis’ thing on our own in Paris. (Correct assumption) Therefore, she makes sure we experience things we NEVER would have experienced if we took larger, more rigid tours. Or if we had come as individuals just traveling the world.

Today was not a “tourist” day, today was a “field trip” (pun intended) and there was a test!! How many of you knew that France has cowboys?  Yup, cowboys. And horses! Lots of white horses, the majority of which are wild. What do the horses do? They herd the WILD BOOOLS. (That’s bulls with a french accent) I am serious. Thousands of ‘em. Camargue is about 90 min drive south of our tiny village of Maubec and is technically not in Provence. It’s a delta region situated where the Rhone River empties into the Mediterranean. The land is very marshy and has a high salt content, so farming is limited to rice and occasionally wheat. Here, farmers are ranchers. We went to Manade (ranch) Thibaud. He was a very simple, local farmer who agreed to show us around. He had us hop into the flat bed trailer hooked to his tractor and we zoomed off into yonder fields.


Okay, more like crawled, but there’s a good reason for that. He took us out to watch cowboy-mounted horses ’select’ bulls to separated from the herd. (By the way, not for bull fighting purposes, but for another type competition). The horses will select a bull, break into a trot and the bull will start trotting to get away from the horse, then the horse gallops and the bull runs away, usually off to join another bull off yonder. But wait! That bull off yonder has a bell around his neck! That’s because he has been observed to be a natural leader in the herd and therefore is considered head boool. So after the horses select 5 or 6 bulls, all of whom run away from the horses and begin to gather around their leader with the bell, the head bull leads them to the trailer to get them loaded up to go to the arena for “race Camarguaise”. This is a local competitive sport where the only one who might get hurt is the human. So apparently only the most aggressive (and therefore most competitive) bull will attempt to escape the horses. These bulls are then trucked to the nearby arena and have tassels tied to their horns. (How humiliating) The object of the sport is for these 18-29 year old skillfully trained (hotties) men to take the tassels off the (really angry) bulls without getting, well, you know, KILLED. Young boys of 9 and 10 go off to special schools to learn how to be good bull detasselers. Mr.Thibaud said they have to be good at running fast and jumping really high so they can leap out of the ring for safety. (The men, not the bulls) Wusses. Anyway- so here we are, out in Messuier Thibaud’s field (I did mention that this is a field trip) on this flatbed trailer and sure enough we’re transported into the movie ‘City Slickers’ and all these bulls get herded in by beautiful white horses ridden by Camargaise cowboys. Yeee-Ha!!.


One guardian “cow-boy” from the manade Thibauld

So sure enough the horses would be milling around and the bulls would be trying to avoid them. Then, a bull would be bold enough to make a break for it – and it’d be over. Horse 1, bull zip. By the way, the ranchers breed their bulls to their cows but its more like letting nature take its course than like matchmaker international. Incredibly, the ranchers name ALL the bulls. So when the horses select a particular bull and begin to trot after the bull (who is trying to act like ‘who, me?’) The cowboy will call out the bulls name. (that’s why they need the cowboys) That way the other bulls know to go off (quite relieved) in another direction while “Javert” gets escorted off to join the bull with the bell. The bulls are kept out in the fields away from humans, horses and dogs. They naturally shun the company of others and they are not fed or supported in anyway other than receiving veterinary care. They eat grass and stay outside 24/7/365. This keeps the bulls ‘wild’ and aggressive. I’d be aggressive too if I had to sleep outside. According to Mr. Thibaud no 2 bulls look exactly alike, so that’s how they know their names.


Wild bulls from the manade Thibauld.

After our tractor-tour we then walked way out to another field to see the “best bull”. We were behind fences now, so it was ’safe’… or so it seemed. As we were hiking out we kept dodging piles of bull-stuff. Mr. Thibaud explained that the reason BS was on our path was because his Best Bull would break out of the pasture he was kept in, hop the fence, swim across a creek, hop another fence and hang out in the field closest to the barn and other bulls and cows. Every day this bull does this and everyday they move him further away to keep him aggressive. We all cooed “oh, but he must be sooo lonely” but let me tell you- this Bull – his name is Gastion – looked pissed off to see 8 women hanging out by ‘his’ fence. The other bulls were ignoring us, and when Mr.Thibaud said ‘Gastion is the 4th bull from the right’ we saw many thousands of pounds of snorting bull just staring at us. When we learned that the fence we were standing at was the one he jumps over every day, we weren’t quite as tickled. But man was this fun. Reminded me of my childhood, hanging out in the pastures belonging to the nearby stables waiting for anything on 4 legs to get close enough to the fence for me to jump onto. We walked back to the van and piled in and Jackie drove us about 15 min to Les Saintes Maries de la Mer. (to be posted tomorrow). From Joan, San Jose, California


Joan and Eppie