I went to Provence with a bunch of other astronomy students. We'd spent a lot of time at the University of London Observatory, learning the basics of astronomy, and now we were going to an actual professional observatory, the Observatoire de Haute Provence, from where the first planet outside our solar system had been discovered four years earlier.
The 12 of us travelling to Provence met early one February morning at Waterloo station to get the Eurostar to Lille, and then a TGV to Avignon. This was a fantastic journey through the wintry snow-covered countryside of central France. Our enjoyment was enhanced by the consumption of numerous cheap cans of beer in the buffet carriage.
At Avignon we were met by observatory staff and driven up to the observatory. We had a day to kill before our observing run started, and we spent it exploring the observatory, which is up on a hillside with some great views of the surrounding countryside. The air was fresh, the skies were clear, and things looked good.
For the first couple of nights of observing, we were pretty busy learning how to use the telescopes. We struggled bit on the 80cm telescope, to the amused disgust of Didier the technician. "What is it you call the school for the little people?" he asked, as we struggled with the setting circles. We did a lot better on the largely automated 1.52m telescope. Once we'd got the hang of things and could set long exposures going, I had time to get out under the awesome skies and take some photos.
At the end of our 12-hour endurance sessions at the telescope, the pre-dawn skies usually looked stunning. A couple of times I actually managed to stay awake to see the sun come up. One morning, all the surrounding valleys were filled with fog, which looked like a giant reservoir of milk flowing over the countryside.
We didn't spend the entire time on the observatory site - the group hired a car, and on one of our days off, three of us went to see the Gorges du Verdon, allegedly the second biggest canyon in the world. We entered the canyon at its lower end, and drove through. Stunningly strong winds were blowing down the valley and at one viewpoint we couldn't even get out of the car. It rocked about in the wind and we were pretty sure that if we'd have opened the door, it would have been torn off.
Further up the canyon we walked a little way up to a couple of view points. It started to snow briefly but luckily not for long, and we enjoyed standing right on the edge of heart-stopping precipices to look down on the tiny Verdon river far below. After that we drove back downstream, stopping again at the windiest point because it had the best views of the turqoise river. At the end of the valley, the river broadened, the wind dropped completely, and the Verdon carried on placidly towards the sea.
We were all sad when the field trip came to an end. We'd had good fun, done some good work, and become so addicted to the fabulous OHP coffee that some of us would not sleep properly for weeks. On the way down we'd had a brilliant journey from Lille to Avignon, getting enjoyably merry on cheap cans of beer in the restaurant car of the TGV and watching the French countryside race by. We tried the same thing on the way back but somehow it wasn't as much fun.