Sani Pass snow squealing, Southern Drakensberg

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I’m sure I say the same thing every time I do Sani Pass; I vow to never to never scare myself mercilessly out of my wits by slipping and sliding up a mountain to 2873m above-sea-level.

And on this trip 18.8.18, I squealed the same words at one of the final corners on ascent. Myself, Wolfie and Craig (experienced Monique & 4×4 driver), were the first car going up the Pass on this snowy Saturday morning. The Southern Drakensberg peaks were already all dressed in white and it was snowing heavily most of the way.

You really need to experience big snowflakes tumbling from the sky and settling on your windscreen…with a backdrop of the Kwa Zulu Natal Drakensberg Mountains, of course.

Soon, the road up to the South African border control will be tarred the entire way (see below link for more), but on this day we navigated through wonderfully muddy road, skidding to the border at 08:30am. About 2 minutes later, we were through into the “no-man’s land” of Sani Pass, a stretch of about 8 kilometres ending at the Lesotho border. We were the first vehicle to go up the Pass and saw 2 vehicles descending, the whole time it snowed heavily.

The benefit of being early ascenders is the snow is not yet turned to mud, BUT you also cannot see a mapped out “safe way” to proceed.  Just note that at such an altitude (at this point we were roughly 2700m above sea-level) engines don’t function normally, so 4×4 driving experience is essential here.

After passing a herd of snow cows and a dog (much to my continued delight, I’ve been waiting for snow cows for 2 years in KZN), we began to ascend the very steep and twisted section of Sani Pass.

Near the top we came to halt on a particularly steep corner, wheels spinning in new snow and water-soaked sand, making a thick mush. We had to roll back a few times to re-attempt the corner in low range.

There is almost nothing more terrifying than looking behind you to a sheer drop, and rolling slowly towards it on slippery terrain (you can imagine the squealing and whimpering). I couldn’t look and had to fight the urge to spring from the vehicle with my Wolfie and leave Craig, with his calm disposition to his manly adventures.

Having freed ourselves from the sludge corner (yay for Toyota Fortuna once again), we proceeded up the pass reaching the Lesotho Border control at about 10am. We passed an abandoned bakkie, leaning dangerously over the edge, only saved by solidly wedged between some rocks (insert spine-chill).

As we arrived at the border crossing, a descending driver enquired as to the conditions of Sani Pass. He had the unfortunate job of assessing &/ retrieving a stuck vehicle near the top of the pass. Behind him on foot, the shrewd Basotho fellows rather take their chances walking behind the vehicle, instead of drive the treacherously steep & newly snowed section of the Southern Drakensberg Pass.

At the top, the best views down the pass are from Sani Mountain Lodge “The highest Pub (and accom) in Africa”. Wolfie’s joy at the thick blanket of untouched snow was only matched by my own excitement.

From the top we saw the predicted flow of snow-chasers ascending the pass, it was time to head down. In such situations, the ascending vehicles have right of way; simply put, because it is more difficult (if not impossible) to get started again once you are stopped on ascent. Therefore it often takes longer to get down a mountain pass than up. The current dirt road section of Sani Pass is about 22 kilometres (from Premier Resort Sani Pass to Sani Mountain Lodge); this took us 3.5 hrs to drive in the thick, newly settled snow. As time and fellow travellers pass, so does the stability of the newly fallen snow. Travellers reaching the top look more like muddy hippos and less like 4×4 vehicles.

I’ve only done it 3 times, 2015, 2017, 2018 and each time I do this Drakensberg mountain drive, I’m once again like a child, in every way. Each time I am more joyous yet more vulnerable, happier in my weakness and insignificance…and you can see it on my face.

Book a Sani Pass Tour: Roof of Africa Tours, Sani Pass Tours, Major Adventures

Some places to Stay on Sani Pass: Premier Resort Sani Pass, Sani Lodge Backpackers (4 star & Fair Trade Tourism Certified, Mkomazana Mountain Cottages, Seaforth Country Lodge, Sani Valley Lodge, Dieu Donne Cottage, Glencairn Farm. See additional places to stay near Sani Pass on SA Venues…and of course my Cottage Imvana (35 kms from Underberg)

Road development & more about Sani Pass from Umzimkulu River Lodge

Mountain Pass Driving from Arrive Alive

 

 

 

 

Round the benz on the KZN Midlands Meander

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🌂It was a brolliant start to the #iTopFormMeanderMotoring Day, the ominous weather could not dampen our high spirits as we gathered at Mercedes’ Garden City Motors in Pietermaritzburg (PMB).  The crowd that gathered were clearly hip people taking part in this bucolic happening, and I wondered if some were local celebrities. And yes, I wore my gumboots as usual, lol.

We completed the necessary paperwork to take million-rand Mercedes Benz vehicles on the iTopForm pitstop tour of the Midlands Meander, and set out armed with our brollies (umbrellas) as weapons against the wild Kwa Zulu Natal (KZN) weather.

First stop was breakfast at iLawu Boutique Hotel’s Botanic Restaurant in PMB, and my my, there was so much tech before breakfast! All kinds of media equipment and the tapping of phone screens was soon replaced by a sumptuous breakfast and excited chatter about the day’s events.

The next stop was something everyone should do in their lifetime, a visit to the Nelson Mandela Capture Site in Howick. A tour through the Apartheid Museum took our minds down a dark path of South African history, ending in a lifting-of-the-spirits at the sculpture of the face of our freedom, Nelson Mandela.

Back on the Midlands Meander road, seven cars snaked along in luxury to the third stop of the day: Chocolate Heaven at the Junction Village Centre (exit 132 from N3). And what a sweet stop indeed! Trays and trays of delights to every taste with over 40 combinations to dip in a swirling pool of melted Belgian chocolate. Needless-to-say everyone had a smile almost all the while 😊

The last leg on our tour was lunch at the Bend Country House, where my eye spied only the glorious curves and serene luxury that is the Midlands Meander.  A place rich in history, the 1400 hectares of pristine Nature Estate and the hotel’s elegant architecture and décor were a breath-taking sight.

Our hearts full with the comradery of the iTopForm experience, we filled our bellies with a hearty three course meal as the rain poured over the moody countryside. When we rolled out of the dining room, our highly-polished Benz vehicles had received an aesthetic make-over, courtesy of the stormy KZN sky.

Out came many forms of camera, the cold and raindrops forgotten in the heat of the moment. Now all that was left was to meander the road back home, perusing opulent files that will remain forever in the memory banks.

Up High in the Sky: Bulwer Mountain Paragliding

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Let’s face it, jumping off mountains is not everyone’s thing, and I have yet to decide if it’s mine; so I was more than happy to live vicariously through two paragliders-in-training with Wildsky Paragliding.

Less than 2 minutes’ drive from my house, Wildsky Paragliding is a school and lodge at the foot of Bulwer Mountain. Operated by partners Hans and Ria, Hans established Wildsky in 1996 after giving up corporate engineering for his love of the outdoors and extreme sport. Hans is a South African National Paragliding Instructor, has flown for Team South Africa and has Springbok colours in paragliding.

As Hans drove myself and the two trainees through Bulwer Biosphere to the jump site called the 1000 (1000 ft high), he related interesting facts about the area and paragliding, the different heights the trainees jump from and the impact of the weather and wind. I looked up at a darkening sky and wondered how long we had before the rain let loose over the autumn landscape of the Southern Kwa Zulu Natal (KZN) Midlands.

As we climbed higher, a solitary silence settled over the 4×4, as if a war between head-fear and heart-desire raged inside the trainees. There was a palpable sense of anticipation, adrenaline, and sheer want for bragging rights.

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At a precariously steep part of our ascent, my blood ran cold looking out of the window, we were so close to the edge! But in my morbid curiosity I asked, “Hans, has anybody ever fallen off the mountain here?”

“There have a been a couple.” Hans went on to explain how, out of fear of the edge, drivers had perhaps over-compensated and gone too far right, driving on the unstable ground where mountain becomes road. The correct way is to drive nearer to the edge (shock horror), to get the required traction and angle to ascend this part of Bulwer Mountain.

From the jump site you look directly down on my little Bulwer, and I excitedly ran to the edge and said out loud to no-one in particular “Look, I can see my house from here!” I scampered to each vantage point, taking in the northern & Southern Drakensberg and the KZN Midlands. I was in awe of the vast landscape peppered by the colourful Zulu huts that burst with beautiful ethnic character. And then of course I found selfie-perfect high-up spot with Bulwer Village in the background below.

All the while the two-way radio crackled through the pristine silence; down below at the landing site Ria kept in constant contact with Hans on current conditions and other need-to-knows. The aim of the game was to get as many jumps in that day, so the trainees could proceed to the next level.

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The first trainee confidently galloped off Bulwer Mountain and was guided down by Ria, while the second and more intrepid of the two, followed and did just as well. It was around this time that Hans dropped the bombshell and asked me “Do you want to *jump?” (*tandem flight with Hans as I have not completed the training to jump solo.)

My heart was in the air and on the floor, but then my practical mind found two worthwhile reasons to procrastinate: 1) I was wearing a strapless bra that had the tendency to become misplaced. 2) Out of excitement I’d forgotten to eat breakfast and it was 1pm. I sheepishly explained the latter of the reasons to Hans, and the wardrobe malfunction to Ria later, both I’m sure recognised how welcome the excuses were (face palm).

The trainees each jumped once more before the weather put a stop to our adrenaline antics. As we descended, the rain and wind swooped upon us and I pondered how fragile we are as humans afore the forces of Creation.

The aroma of fresh rain on untouched foliage washed over me, I closed my eyes and breathed deeply, appreciating this natural experience. And when I opened them, before me was a beautiful sight of two cows lazily watching me from a hill in Bulwer Biosphere; the ultimate ending as I love almost all things bovine, you could say I have a permanent case of moo-derlust 😊

I have an open invitation to hurl myself off Bulwer Mountain with Wildsky Paragliding, and one day I shall trick myself into it; but until then I shall continue to live vicariously through pictures, parables and posts. On the day I conquer my fear, my body shall join my soul at the height of happiness over BulwerKZN.

Seaing & Believing at On the Bay Retreat

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“Oh my, look at this décor, oooh that loft, two of them, oh wow…that view!” I was like a kid in a candy store trying not to be a bull in a china shop, darting around On the Bay Retreat still heavily laden with tech luggage & oversized handbag.

After a 2hr flight from Durban, we arrived in Cape Town, travelled east for just over half an hour, to the coastal village called Gordons Bay in the False Bay area. The town reminds me of me fishing village island paradise; a small ocean bay, complete with palm trees, and towering mountains not far behind the shoreline.

I continued to explore the 3bed, 2bath vacation home, sounding like a stuck record with my constant exclamations of delight. After “building my nest” in the main bedroom, with en-suite and walk-in closet, I ventured into the lounge and out onto the balcony.

According to Google Maps the Indian Ocean is 85 meters from On The Bay Retreat; close enough to so richly entertain your senses of smell, taste, sight, and sound, you feel like you could reach out and touch it. Looking at Table Mountain across the bay, I pondered the sunset over the sea, imagining I could see further to left and look upon Cape Point and Cape Agulhas, where Atlantic meets Indian Ocean.

I was awoken from my tropical island day-dream by my techie/geek other half, it was his turn for impressed ramblings. “The wifi is impressive, 40 mb line, can only be fibre.” He then informed me of upload download speeds in comparison to other network connections, apps on the home entertainment system (Netflix, Showmax and powerful Bluetooth speaker), and lastly the alarm system.

I only half listened to him, captured by the views, both indoors and outside at On the Bay Retreat. And retreat is the key word; the living area has such high ceilings (and open rooftop lofts), you feel spirited away to a faraway beach house.  The furnishings are incredibly comfortable, the decor an excellent combination of modern & classic seaside style, infused with cultural, local and artistic pieces.

The also spacious kitchen is kitted-out with the latest top-of-the-range green appliances and kitchen-ware, and includes a separate laundry, pantry & washing area. Doesn’t get any more fully-functional than this. And for people like me, the outside / built-in braai area is an absolute winner!

To the gentle lull of the sea I had a sumptuous sleep on both night’s at On the Bay Retreat, awaking (as usual) before my favourite time of the day, sunrise. And a Gordon’s Bay sunrise is a sight to behold indeed. The sunlight filters quietly over the Helderberg Mountains, gradually nurturing the valley, before showering sparkles upon a turquoise ocean. Its an experience to add to your South African bucketlist, cos sometimes seaing is believing 😊

Colourful KZN weather Wonderings

Every once in a while I climb on my rooftop to capture the KwazuluNatal (KZN) mountain sunrise. She rises beyond the KZN Midlands and igniting Durban‘s golden shores from her Indian Ocean horizon.

Today it seems the KZN Midlands is having her Sunday morning lie-in under a thick blanket of  mist; I brave the cold to capture her sleeping beauty.

Again the old wise saying rings true; our red sky this morning sure is a shepherds warning. A cold, wet and snowy spell has hit South Africa, predicted to arrive in Bulwer this evening. The Southern Drakensberg is expected to see temperatures of around -3° Celsius (27° Fahrenheit) during the night, with possible snow.

Something interesting is that this morning was completely devoid of birds; even the sturdy Hadedas were nowhere in sight, as if they’re aware of approaching weather.

Climbing to and from the rooftop is a little more tricky at this time of year, a thin layer of ice coats its surface. About a week ago got brain freeze from my mouthwash, and its now a daily occurrence. But there is still no place I’d rather be.

Drakensberg Snow Road Trip: Sani Pass

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“Do you think we’ll get up?” I asked Craig nervously as the 4×4 wheels of our Toyota Fortuna skidded confidently the in thick mud.

He didn’t bat an eyelid at the sliding vehicle and said, “We’ll get close! Good thing we got in early before the rest of the world coming to see the Sani Pass snow, the more the cars pass through, the more messy the road becomes with melting snow.”

Two days ago, the first proper snowfall of the season had blanketed the Southern Drakensberg, just in time to turn our road-trip into a snow-trip. Saturday 13 May 2017 we left Bulwer before 9am wearing 3 pairs of socks, gloves, beanies, thermals and our cold faces. The trip from Bulwer up to Sani Pass is <70km, passing through the KwaZuluNatal towns of Underberg and Himeville, then over the South Africa/Lesotho border, and finally the steep climb up the Southern Drakensberg mountains.

“Here, ask this family coming past what’s happening further up the pass!” I urged as the second of 4 vehicles gingerly made its way down towards us.

It wasn’t good news; we were told the road was very bad ahead and a few of the early-bird explorers had turned back. But fortunately, Craig is a seasoned Sani Pass tripper, having done it plenty times, and he reassured me we would be fine to press on.

A few times we had to stop and wait; either at a safe following distance behind an ascending car, or far enough over for a descending car to pass.  The die-hard explorers without 4x4s had long since disappeared and the majority of 4x4s were proudly Toyota, their passengers of all ages. I was stirred by the intense feeling of comraderie between us travellers; the sheer epic of the Sani Pass experience formed a common bond. Almost every person you make eye contact with smiles, and there is a knowing in their eyes.

After a 4 minute stop at border control and a stamp in our passports, we were back on the muddy road and could see the thick snow on the Drakensberg peaks. As we climbed, the dark green landscape became more and speckled with white, until all around us was winter wonderland and sparkling snowflakes were falling from the sky.

About 80% of the way up and before the zigzag section, there were at least 15 cars creeping down the slope and we could see a queue up ahead. The the road was barely wide enough for 2 vehicles side by side, but fortunately just up the way there was a verge.

We pulled over and I lurched from the van and began to frolic in the 30-60cm snow in my leopard print gumboots, throwing snowballs and feeling like a kid – completely forgetting my frozen fingers in the fun of it all.

On the verge, there was a solo traveller that made the trip annually to stay in the mountains for a few days. He told us that up ahead a vehicle has lost its cargo and this had caused a traffic jam on both sides, with at least 18 cars waiting to ascend.

It was now around 11am and the snow was falling rapidly, dramatically reducing visibility. So reluctantly I said “Let’s go back, it’s a pity we will not get to Sani Mountain Lodge for lunch though. But we’ll will do Sani Pass again, on a sunny day, so we can get the most of the views from the top.” And at that we began our hair-raising descent, slipping and sliding down the pass.

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Back down where there was more mud than snow, we saw one of the few non-4×4 vehicles on the road. A MiniBus Taxi, fully loaded with commuters and luggage appeared to be helplessly stuck in the mud, like a wildebeest about to be taken by a mountain of a crocodile. We were at the top of a hill they were trying to ascend, so we stopped and waited. But this was no problem at all for these locals! Out the vehicle they jumped, some unloading and carrying baggage up the hill, while the rest began to push and within I minutes the taxi was back on its way.

 

I was quite astounded, but Craig gave me the insider’s perspective “These are the Basotho people, they grew up in these mountains and have travelled this road many times. This must be a regular thing on the drive to and from work in and around Underberg. They know what they are doing.”

A couple of slippery and sludgey kilometres later, we were back through the border and onto tar road, on an absolute high! We came, we saw, and the way my heart felt, I could conquer the world.

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Timeless KZN Travels: Bulwer – Ard Lui BnB

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I’m writing a feature article on my new hometown of Bulwer for Travel Chat SA. So while I dash around the KwazuluNatal (KZN) countryside compiling content, I will share what I find with you.

In my last post via Tourism Guide Africa I shared top things to do in Bulwer‘s area, now I will share a series of posts specifically focused on the town itself, where to sleep, eat and play. So when you head this this way, be sure to keep your eyes open for this magical place to stay.

Bulwer is at the end of the KwazuluNatal Midlands, and the start of the Southern Drakensberg region, also called the Southern Midlands (yes, it confuses me a little too).

On the west side of the village is Ard Lui B&B, a haven of tranquility, tinged by a personal touch that puts it in a class of its own. The designer, owner & operator is Loretta, who having come to Bulwer in 1959 returned to retire 13 years ago. But retire is far from what she has been doing!

‘Ard Lui is just my hobby’ Loretta humbly describes the historic Victorian stone farmhouse that has clearly had years of attention, making it the inviting Bed & Breakfast that is today.

The gardens are breathtaking in beauty, a seamless blend of  experience and a natural eye for flow & functionality. Twice Loretta has allowed her arm to be twisted into hosting  ‘I Do’ ceremonies on the lawns nestled below Bulwer Mountain.

The dining room and lounge area is decorated tastefully with old and new pieces. The overall feel is homely, welcoming and really just calls you to linger, perhaps take a look through the guestbook.

What struck me most about the bedrooms was the Nightcap tray on the dresser; so beautifully old-fashioned I felt like I was in an Audrey Hepburn movie. But yet the room’s decor is funky and fresh, the bathroom fitted with modern design.

After coffee and red velvet cupcakes we viewed yet another piece of history found at Ard Lui. The shell of an old vehicle, most likely from the ’40s, that was discovered on the property buried under years of underbrush.

What was barely a 2hr visit at Ard Lui B&B left me with a timeless feeling, I had traveled on a tarred road through history’s dusty byways. I saw through another’s minds eye; and like all trips in KwazuluNatal, the scenery was exquisite!

 

Top things To Do in Southern Drakensberg

Ever wondered what there is to do in the Southern Drakensberg? Well, let me point you in the right direction to find your perfect blend of country serenity and outdoor adrenaline.

Written & pictured by Monique van der Walt

The Drakensberg (Dutch – Dragon Mountains) is the largest and highest mountain range in South Africa, described best by her Zulu name “uKhahlamba” which means ‘barrier of spears’. The mountains majestically span…read more 

Pictographic – Masevaux

From Paris we journeyed aboard a train to Mulhouse, and from there hired a car and traveled to our home for 10 days, Bourbach-le-Haut

One of the nearby towns, the perfectly picturesque Masevaux

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The entire town is like a movie set, small quaint houses, shops and cobbled streets

In the town centre, is the Hostellerie Alsacienne.

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Everything about the place is fabulous; from the Star of David chairs, to silver cutlery, and mouth-watering meals; fantastic enough to warrant a second visit before leaving the region

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The above is the Trout Amande

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And the Duo de Poisson

The whole town is like a movie set

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The silence of the midday break shattered by our touristic presence

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The town hosts a variety of  activities, from flower contests and organ festivals,  to The Passion Play

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The flowers are not yet in full bloom, but still breathtaking.

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The midday day break is from 12:00 – 14:00 daily.

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You will find all shops closed, with only restaurants welcoming customers.

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We found this affected particularly the smaller towns.

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The spring flowers creep from behind the wood pile

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Almost everything one sees it photo-worthy

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Citizens are rewarded for beautiful gardens – Concours maisons fleuries

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A couple of weeks later and we would have seen even more glorious colours

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But all in all, Masevaux is easily one of the prettiest towns

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Adding to its appeal, is the surprising small number of tourists about town

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Opulence – The Palace of Versaille

From April 29th to May 12 myself, mother and two sisters traveled to France.

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This is the first of my posts, Opulence, fitting, as on the morning of this day, 3o April 2014, we journeyed to see the (in)famous Chateau de Versaille

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Fortunately, we went with a tour, so we were able to skip the dreaded queues, which were horrendous, even out of season.

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Versaille was home to Louis XIV, also know as the Sun King.

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This is because he was so self centered. He even had all the rooms in the palace built centrally around his own room

The short little beds of the French are most odd. I heard, which I cannot verify, that back in the old days, the French were so fat, that sleeping lying down posed a danger to their health.

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They therefore used to sleep sitting up, or as upright as possible, shortening the beds so they could not be completely horizontal.

Like I said, I cannot substantiate this, nor find another viable explanation

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When the castle was built for Louis, the required fountains were not The Gardens are incredible and by far the most worthwhile of all the viewing.

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The gardens stretched for miles, and I would have walked or ran them all if not for our shuttle back to our Parisienne apartment

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What fascinates me is that men and women, dressed in appropriate 17h century garb, walked the same halls  wherein I moved and breathed

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I found the inside of the palace almost stiflingly opulent.

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Honestly, I could not wait to burst free into the gardens.

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The decadence is shown in magnificent paintings on the ceiling, causing many a tourist collision.

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Once outside, I could breath easy again

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God made beauty, outshines man’s feeble attempt to harness and manipulate it.

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The town of Versaille is one of the more well to do areas of Paris, about 30 minutes (depending on traffic) from the Champs-Elysee 

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When the fountains of Versaille were first built, to run them constantly was impractical due to the sheer volume required, and impossible with the limited engineering knowledge.

So, the estate merely hired enough staff to turn on each fountain as King Louis passed by until they figured out a more viable solution.

**Look Out for the next French Adventure**

*For detailed history of the Palace of Versaille, please visit their homepage

*Unfortunate many of the fountains were under construction at the time. April/May seems to be the time of year for construction in France, as we encountered at least 5 significant places with unsightly scaffolding enshrouding the fabulous architecture.