Sunday, November 17, 2013

Soirée in Sarlat

Even though we have been home from France for awhile, I would still like to recount some of the experiences we shared there, so I will post about three more installments of our recent trip.

 Paul was sick in bed, but the other 5 of us forged off to points east from Le Bugue to the picturesque town of Sarlat de Canada. Absolute chaos on the market days of Wednesday or Saturday, we purposely chose Friday as our day to visit, thinking the streets would be less hectic.
Quiet streets early on a non-market day!
Traveling in two separate cars, it was nothing short of miraculous that we actually found each other at our pre-arranged meeting place. First stop was a cup of coffee in a cozy café which had a surprising medieval staircase in the back room, around the corner from les toilettes.

 Rick, tour guide par excellence led us around the important parts of the city using the other Ricks "France thru the Back Door".  Our interesting walk around the center of town, started with  the highlights of the cathedral:
Magnificent organ pipes in the Cathedral of St Sacerdos

Lanterne des Morts. 
Winding our way thru the narrow streets we soon discovered" The Lantern of the Dead": It is a monument to those who lost their lives in the great plague. 25% of Sarlat's population were lost to the plague. People prayed to St Bernard of Clairvaux for help. He blessed them and their bread, taught them about appropriate hygiene standards, and the town built this monument to him in gratitude.

The salamander is Sarlat's mascot,. 
The "Boy of Sarlat" bronse statue.

And the gagle of geese... At the animal market.
Lunch was a cassoulet of escargot simmered in an herby sauce with fresh wild chanterelle and cepe mushooms YUM!

A perusal of a few shops after lunch produced a new chapeau and a few little gifts for those at home, and then! We spied the ice cream shop! Uh Oh! Can you imagine toasted walnut gelato drizzled with salted caramel syrup?

The salamander weather vane dangling off the cathedral lantern

Sarlat, the town of soft yellow stone proved to be a perfect place to while away a lovely autumn afternoon in the company of close friends in the Dordogne valley of France. 

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Rocamadour - A Pilgirmage, of Sorts

Rocamadour, located on the edge of the Lot Valley, in the Perigord  Noir, is a rock city built on the top of a hill.

It has been inhabited by one kind of civilization or another for about 10,000 years, but it is best known for the hoardes of Christian pilgrims that have trekked up its stony steps, singing hymns and praying to their savior and saints since about 1,000 BC. In medieval times as many as 20,000 pilgrims a day passed through the city gates, of which there are 7. The gates were opened and closed as necessary to control the numbers of people within the city.

The town, built on three levels, today services more more tourists than pilgrims. The bottom level houses hotels, tourist shops, and restaurants. The middle level, or cite religiuse, is a haven of 5 chapels built around a small plaza, and is reached by stone steps, or for the less religious, an elevator that costs about 3 euros round trip.

We did see a couple of groups of pilgrims, identifiable by their kerchiefs and hymnals, and heard the reading of the scriptures as they made their way to the sacred chapels. But I digress.
The third level of Rocamadour, is reserved for the most devout worshipers. There is a small inn, available only to pilgrims, and a church which requires silence to enter. 
We were pleased to survey the ancient architecture and the famous Black Madonna, one of about 200 in the world. I left my camera below, so have borrowed this picture from Judi.

One of the prettiest sites of this rocky precipice occurs after dark, when the night time illuminations cast their golden light on the rock. The view below is of the cite religiuse.

The following photo is the view of a small watchtower across the valley from our hotel room balcony, awash the morning sun.

 Our pilgrimage was not one of a religious nature, but certainly offered a memorable experience. Simply walking over the ancient cobble stones, breathing the sweet, incense and beeswax candle scented air within the chapels, hearing the scriptures and hyms of the devout, gives one a sense of place and continuity from antiquity to modern times.

I have a renewed appreciation for the labors of those who,  without modern tools and machines, could build such a magnificent and wondrous place. 

Should you find yourself near Rocamadour, I would heartily recommend the hotel Le Terminus del Pelerins.... Hotel keeper Genevieve was born here and her pride in her sweet little hotel and restaurant shows in her attention to detail. Vive la France! 

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Never Bored in Bordeaux

Our friends Sylvia and Len live about 55km (35 miles) from Bordeaux, and even though it doesn't seem like far to drive, traffic in the city center can be a tangled mess, serving only to jangle the nerves of those who are supposed to be out for a days entertainment. 
The solution we sought is to take one of France's efficient trains, and leave the driving to SCNF. 
We drove to a nearby station in Jonzac, a 15 minute drive, and boarded the local "Ter" run to Bordeaux. The cost was about 25 Euros per person round trip ($33.00), but motorway tolls, gazole, parking and trolley fare would have easily cost half that amount.
Len hurrying to catch the train...
Happy Travelers! The trip takes a little over an hour, and is a nice way to relax and watch the countryside pass by. Miles of grape vines surround this grand old city which gives its name to the age-old Bordeaux Appelation, 

We left the train station for a nice stroll along the river toward the heart of the city. Bordeaux is the second largest city in France, and it's beautiful old buildings date back to about 1200. Many buildings are replacements for others much earlier.
The waters of the Garonne are always a bit muddy as it continuously picks up silt on its 375 mile journey from the Pyrenees to the Atlantic. Bordeaux has several city bridges which span these chocolate waters, this one called the Pont St Jean, and serves as a bridge for  pedestrians, electric trains and automobiles. 

We walked past the AquitaineGate which has stood on site since 1752, when it replaced its predecessor, the St Julien Gate which was built in the 1300's. 
The day was overcast and threatened rain, so the photographs belie the beautiful golden color of the Sainte-Macaire stone from which much of the city was constructed. The ravages of coal smoke, auto exhaust and acid rain had taken its toll on the stone, and about 5 years ago or so a program was begun to clean the stone and restore the city to its former glory. 

Squares and plazas abound in this lovely old city, many ringed with restaurants, such as this one where we ate lunch to the music of a medieval fountain. 
After lunch, we wandered thru the crowded narrow streets, 
bought a pair of fashionable French shoes for fall, and took a rest for a drink of water at a sidewalk cafe. 
This brand of water is more popular than Perrier, but has a more intense gassy taste. 

A wander back along the river, past the financial district "Bourse",

and old shops like this one, made us realize how blessed we are to experience the joys of travel. 

Tomorrow, off to the Dordogne! 

Monday, September 30, 2013

St. Nazaire.... Reminders Everywhere

One of the places Paul wanted to visit, due to his interest in the Second World War, was St. Nazaire, a large port town on the Atlantic coast where the Loire river empties into the sea. According to my tour guide and WWII expert, the Germans moved in with mega tons of concrete and miles of heavy-duty rebar in 1940 and profoundly changed what had been an important and picturesque harbor since the mid 1800's. 

This building sits in the middle of today's harbor, but was built in 1940 as the dry dock for the formidable German pocket battleship "Tirpitz". The English drove an old ship into the harbor and exploded it to prevent the  Tirpitz from coming in and out, and the stranded Tirpitz was finally sunk near Norway shortly thereafter. The dock was unusable until 1947.  

The wily Germans, however, continued building pens and dry docks for their u-boats, and the mark left on St Nzaire from this activity is unmistakeable. There were 14 pens built over a 3 year period, but were rendered unuseable In September, 1944. Tthe Germans were defeated and surrendered in May of 1945.
There are about 3 city blocks of hulking concrete structures along the waterfront at St. Nazaire, and until the mid 1990's were largely ignored and considered a blight on the harbor. Even now, it is difficult to get much information about them, but wandering thru these huge structures bring a chilling reminder of the might of war. 
There are still German words stenciled on the walls:
Concrete lasts 20 to 30 years before it begins to deteriorate, embedded steel rods corrode and break through the surface of the cement, and eventually even those massive buildings will crumble and fall. It has been 70 years since these giant structures were built, and as this photo shows  there are signs of decay everywhere. 
Some of the area under and inside this colossal mausoleum is now used by temporary structures which house the tourist office, a newspaper kiosk, coffee bar and small art gallery. Interestingly, information regarding the concrete structures is limited to two short paragraphs in the multi lingual visitor guide. 

Surely, St.  Nazaire must have some attraction other than decaying cement reminders of a horrible war? A walk about a half mile along the quai revealed the answer! One of about 20 beaches, most connected by wide walkways, heavily populated by walkers, runners, cyclists, and skate boarders. 
Interesting little shrimp huts dot the tidal  flats, and where there are wide stretches of dry sand, playgrounds offer amusements for children, and sunbathers soak up the sun. 
Facing the beaches are little bars and cafes all along the boardwalk, which offer a welcome stop on a warm day, and a refreshing opportunity to shake off the reminders of war and appreciate the peaceful life on the Loire Atlantique coast of France. 

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Chez Robinson

We lived in England for seven and a half years in the 80's and one of the treasures we have retained from that chapter in our lives is the friendship with Len and Sylvia Robinson. We traveled with them on many occasions over those few years, enjoyed frequent dinners back and forth, and lots of exposure to English village life. Several years ago the Robinson's retired to a small hamlet in rural southwestern France, and refurbished an 1800's Charantais farmhouse. 
Living in this house is like living in the pages of a book on historic rural French homes. The stone walls are 2 feet thick, the tile roof and blue shutters are required by the local authority for historical authenticity, and the rolling hills surrounding the hamlet are thickly planted with grapes, sunflowers and maize.
The previous owners of the house at some point in history made wine, and there are rusted bits and pieces which serve as reminders of that era around the property. Both Sylv and Len enjoy gardening, and have a natural affinity for what sorts of plants belong in this setting.

The naturally occurring rock of the region, a limestone with nodules of flint, iron and quartz geodes litters the garden, and forms a rockery in the pool area. A bench made from an old wine barrel nestles under the fig tree against the ivy hedge. 

Inside , the house invites the visitor to wander from room to room, as if turning the pages of a book, but enjoying it in 3-d pop up. 

The welcoming entry hall greets you, with its massive ancient fireplace, interesting furnishings and artwork. 

The dining hall, as seen from the mezzanine above,  opens onto another garden in the front of the house. 

A little day bed tucked under the stairwell in the dining room.

Massive beams and sofas on the mezzanine which serves as an overflow sleeping area. 
Stairwell leading to the mezzanine and bedrooms on the upper floor. 
Vignette behind the seating area in the sitting room. 
Sylvia in her kitchen. 
The exterior wall on the corner of the barn with a Virginia creeper type vine. The thick walls and sturdy construction offer a cool respite from the hot sun.

We are truly blessed to be invited here to spend time with such long time friends, and share this beautifully accommodating home. Life in this part of France truly is tres jolie! 

Friday, September 20, 2013

Bye-bye Bayeux, Allo Mont St Michel... And beyond

We dutifully cleaned our Gite, breakfasted on the remains of cheese, pâté melons, tomatoes and bread left from the past few days, packed the car and headed south. The car is equipped with a GPS, which is wonderful, but it speaks French, and we have great difficulty understanding how to program it. Thankfully, we brought our own from home, and it usually works well, except when it tells us to turn in places we think are incorrect. Just as a pilot should always trust his instruments, we should trust our GPS. It has never gotten us lost. I cannot say the same for my map reading and manual navigation skills. 
Paul sitting at the wheel of our slick little Peugeot. At last calculation we got about 18.5 km to the liter. If my math is correct, that's about 44 miles to the gallon! It is not a hybrid, it uses diesel, and actually shuts off while sitting idle at a signal light. Great's a Midsize and seats 4 comfortably with luggage! 

Mont St Michel is visible from several kilometers away, and as we approached we were excited to see this ancient and famous citadel looming in the distance. 
The unmistakable shape of the Mont is referenced in the pictorial embroidery of the Bayeux Tapestry, as the Abbey has served as a place of refuge and religious pilgrimage since it was founded in 708.
It now suffers the crush of 3 1/2 million visitors a year!
In order to visit, one has to park between 3 and 5 km away and pay 9.5 euros, board a shuttle bus that  takes you to a walkway, and it's a 1/2 mile hike from the drop off point to the tourist information center at the base.  Once off the shuttle bus,  the trek up to the abbey begins, passing through myriad trinket and souvenir shops, restaurants and hotel entrances. It must all be very charming, but we arrived Thursday afternoon in blustery 18 mph winds and driving rain, which doesn't equate to walking, climbing weather in my book!  Friday morning the weather had improved, but we opted for a close up camera view instead of fighting the crowds. And, although difficult to admit, my cranky left knee would probably have behaved on the uphill, but I wasn't looking forward to the down. At least we saw this amazing site from a short distance.

The little village of Beauvoir, where our hotel was located is pleasant, well kept, and decorated with pots and baskets and boxes of flowers everywhere. Only in France would you find the town recycling center camouflaged behind flower boxes! 
This area of lower Normandy grows a variety of grains, and there are still artisan millers who grind these crops into flour, for general sale and also for custom orders. This little mill sits on a hill  on the outskirts of Beauvoir. 
Tummies full after petite dejuner at our hotel, and Beauvoir in our rear view mirror, we set the GPS for St Nazaire. Arriving a bit ahead of schedule to meet friends Sylv and Len Robinson, we pulled into a large shopping center and spyed Flunch! A large, modern cafeteria perfectly suited to providing us  an inexpensive and delicious lunch.
Bright, colorful, modern, and delicious! You pour your own 50 cl carafe of wine for 4 Euros! 
Some of the offerings on the salad bar. We split a salad caprese, as seen on the square plates above, a half avocado stuffed with seafood salad, and a small meat tray, roll and wine, for 10 euro .55, the equivalent of about $13.50. Nous aimons la France!