Vive la France!

Vive la France!

Welcome to my blog -- follow us as we travel around France.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Home - Safe & Sound

During the last few days we were in France several people expressed concern for us because of "what is going on over there," but for the most part we weren't really aware of anything special going on.  We did see a couple of peaceful demonstrations, one in Paris and one in Sarlat, but didn't see or hear about any violence while we were there.  We had English TV while we were in Languedoc and the Dordogne, but didn't get much news.  We didn't get any sound bites from either BBC or CNN -- most of the time they were either talking about rugby, the economy, or running an all-day story about something like the rescue of the miners in Chile.  We just looked at talking heads on French TV without understanding anything being said. While we knew that the French were unhappy about the proposed change to their retirement age, we really didn't know any more until we read yesterday's "Seattle Times."  We did, however, see some long lines at gas stations (and did wait in one of them), and we did experience a slow down on the autoroute when we drove from the Dordogne to Normandy.  However, we didn't realize either was related to the demonstrations until we read about it in the "Times."  The French call the slow downs "escargo," because the truckers deliberately slow traffic down to a "snail's pace."  We were slowed down for about 30 minutes, then everything opened up with no further problems.  At no time during our entire trip did we feel threatened or unsafe. 

We both woke up a little after 4am Tuesday morning.  The alarm was set for 5:30 & we'd ordered breakfast to be delivered to our room at 6:15.  A little before 7, I called down for someone to come help us with our luggage, but ended up having to do it myself.  We got everything down to the lobby and waited for the shuttle, which is free and runs between the various hotels (we were at the Best Western) and the terminals at Charles de Gaulle Airport.  When the shuttle arrived, Mom tried to get on, but the step was too high for her.  I looked at all of our bags (4 to be checked plus our carry-on's -- what happened to traveling light?), and said "let's call a taxi."  The front desk called a taxi for us.

The taxi arrived -- a station wagon type to handle all of our luggage and Mom's walker -- and the driver was a young woman in her 20's.  She wrestled with our bags and got everything in and delivered us to Terminal 2E with no problems.  The cost was 25 euros and I added a nice tip since she had all the baggage and got us a trolly for our bags.  It was worth it.

We checked in at a self-service kiosk, then dropped off our bags.  Fortunately, our Premium Voyager tickets on Air France allowed us 2 bags each and they were within the weight restrictions.  We had to check Mom's walker at the counter, though, and had to wait about 20 minutes for the wheelchair.  The wheelchair driver got us quickly through security and to our gate where we were to board at 9:45.  However, the flight was delayed due to schedule changes in the US - at least that is what they told us.  We finally got boarded and took off about 45 minutes later than originally scheduled.

I will say that CDG is a lot easier to manage than Heathrow was when we flew through there 5 years ago.  That is why I was happy when Air France started non-stop Seattle-Paris flights.  Ten hours seems a lot longer when you're on a plane than when you're driving and sightseeing.  Every time I went back to the restroom, I was so happy we had the extra room afforded in Premium Voyager as the coach section was packed and cramped.
Our arrival in Seattle went very smoothly.  We were met with a wheelchair for Mom, which meant we were able to get through passport control and baggage inspection pretty quickly.  Since we had some dried herbs and canned foie gras, we had to go through agricultural inspection, but got through with everything we brought home.

It was nearly 2pm when we got home, and after I got all of the luggage inside, I went to get our mail at the post office (3 shopping bags full and most of it ended up in the recycle bin), the grocery store, and to pick up Simon from the Adorable Pet Lodge.  He was glad to see me and headed right up the walkway to the car with no urging. 

Neither of us had slept much on the plane, but we stayed up until a little after 8 when Mom announced that we had been up for 24 hours.  I slept for about 3 hours, then got up and read & watched TV for about 3 hours  before going back to bed for another 3 hours.  We were both pretty tired on Wednesday, but slept pretty good last night, so I think we'll be back to normal by tomorrow.

It's always good to get home, and now I'm trying to assimilate everything we saw and did during 5 1/2 weeks in my mind.  I'll read my blog, look at pictures and maps, and try to put everything in perspective.  I took more than 1,000 pictures, and Mom took a lot, too, so I'll need to weed them down to a manageable number.  We covered a lot of territory and had a lot of experiences to reflect on.

This is my last post on this blog.  If you've followed it, I hope you found it interesting.  Please feel free to add your comments.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Normandy: Last Day - Giverny

It was foggy when we got up this morning, but we could tell that it would burn off.  We had pretty much gotten everything packed up last night, so once we were dressed, we went down to breakfast.  We had told our hosts when we would be down, so they wouldn't have to wait for us since we were the only guests this morning.

After breakfast they helped us with our luggage -- the elevator is very small, so I stacked the luggage into it and sent it down by itself.  Then Mom rode it down by herself.  Our hosts then saw us on our way -- they were on the porch waving to us as we drove off.  What a nice couple and a charming place to stay.  We thoroughly enjoyed it -- it was the perfect ending to a wonderful trip.

We set off for Monet's Garden in Giverny.  On the way, I mentioned that I thought we should buy a small bag to pack some of our stuff in.  I was worried about having to pay over-weight charges on our bags IF we could get everything crammed in even after jettisoning whatever we could.  Since our plane tickets allow us 2 bags each, I figured it would be cheaper to buy an inexpensive bag.  We found a suitable one at one of the supermarches and pressed on to Giverny.

We got to Giverny around 11:00 and found a good place to park.  We had been there 16 years ago, but in mid-September when the gardens were still in full flower from the summer.  Now it is a full month later and it has gotten cold, so we weren't surprised that things looked a little ragged, but it was still beautiful.  Lots of dahlias as well as the last of the summer annuals.  By the time we got there the fog had burned off so we had good light and I could certainly understand what Monet was trying to do when he painted the garden at different times of the day and year to catch the varience in lighting.  The water garden is on the other side of a quite busy road and there is an underpass for people to use to go under the road, but as were were starting down the steps, someone caught our attention and opened a gate so we could walk across the road, saving  Mom from having to go up and down the steps.  Another example of how helpful and considerate people have been here.

In addition to the gardens you can visit Monet's house.  His son left the property to a foundation in the 1960s and it is so fortunate that he did.  He also left a lot of his father's paintings and art collection to a museum in Paris, which we visited when we were there in 2000.  There are no original works by Monet in Giverny, but there are reproductions as well as Monet's personal collection of Japanese art.  There is also a fairly tasteful gift shop.

After we finished at the garden we had lunch at a nearby restaurant.  Today's special was a potato pie and the recipe was supposedly taken from Monet's own cookbook.  It was pretty good along with a very thinly sliced piece of ham and lettuce salad with a chocolate pudding sort of thing for dessert.

After lunch, we fired up Francine to get us to the hotel near Charles de Gaulle airport, which she did without a hitch.  We unloaded and cleaned out the car, then I took it to the drop-off place.  When I got there, they checked if over and found no problems, so we went inside and they asked, "do you have both keys?" has one set and she's back at the hotel.  What to do... They would normally take me by shuttle to one of the terminals where I would pick up the hotel shuttle, but instead they drove me back to the hotel so I could get the key.  We put 5,870 kilometers on the car -- thats about 3,500 miles!  And we had no incidents -- didn't even get lost.

It's always nice, though, to get the car taken care of so now all I need to do is worry about getting to the airport tomorrow and, of course, getting all this stuff packed up -- where to start?

Normandy: Honfleur

Sunday, October 17, 2010
It was a beautiful clear day today!  But, cold and we were glad we have our polar fleece jackets.
We started out for Honfleur shortly after breakfast.  Honfleur is one of our favorite places.  We have stayed there twice before at the Cheval Blanc Hotel.  We were surprised at all of the changes as we drove into town (yes, there’s a McDonalds), the old town center is just as it has always been.  This is a very scenic town with an inner and outer harbor.  The outer harbor is where the fishing boats come in, and the inner harbor is where the pleasure boats are moored and there are shops and restaurants all around it.  There is also a view of the Normandy Bridge that goes across to Le Havre. 
The town was very busy today with people who came there just for the day.  Sunday lunch is a long-time French tradition and people will go quite a distance for lunch on Sundays.  We had a nice lunch at one of the harbor-side restaurants.  Mom had moules – frites again (mussels), and I had some sort of fish in a sauce.  It was pretty good. 
After lunch we walked around a little bit and looked in some of the shops.  We went up the St. Catherine’s Church, which is quite different than most old churches in France because it is constructed of wood rather than stone.  Apparently, when they were ready to build a church, they had no stone masons, but plenty of shipbuilders.  Consequently, the church is wood and if you look at the ceiling from the inside, it actually looks a little like an upside-down boat. 
We were a little late getting back to the car, based on the expiration time on our parking  permit, but no worries.  We stopped at the McDonald’s to use the restroom, then headed out on a back road.  We went through a lot of farm country, mostly cattle, and saw several thatched-roof cottages.  In France, they often plant the peak of the thatched roof with irises, and the older roofs have lots of moss and grass growing on them, too. We went to Pont Audemer and looked around a little.  We went into their old church, St. Ouen’s, and there was someone in there playing the organ, so we sat down to listen for a little while.  I think they were practicing or perhaps giving a lesson to someone.   Back on the road, we followed the signs for Rouen, but to avoid confusion, we didn’t want to go into the town, so we set up Francine again to get us back to the hotel, which she did.  We got back around 5:00. 
We are the only guests tonight, but had dinner in the dining room, and our hosts treated us just as graciously as they would if there had been several guests.  We had the beef filet and it was the best beef we've had in France, and actually the best we've had for a long time.  It was cooked to perfection.  We skipped the entree & cheese courses tonight, but did have the chocolate dessert again.
After we had finished dinner our host, who cooked our dinner, came out to visit with us.  He is quite a character and speaks excellent English.  He's actually spent quite a lot of time traveling in the US.  We really enjoyed visiting with him.

Dordogne to Normandy

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Another foggy morning, but this time it was misting, too, and cold.  We got things pretty well organized last night, and since we didn’t have to pack or move the kitchen stuff, getting the car loaded was much less of an ordeal than on our previous moves.  We left most of what we bought for cooking, including the little bit of food we had left, behind.  Derek & Pat arrived about 8:30 and helped me get the suitcases in the car.  They have a friend who has some health issues and had mentioned last week that she might benefit from bed lifts like Mom’s.  So, we offered them the bed lifts, which they gratefully accepted.  We need the room to get all of our purchases home.  I plan to jettison a lot more before we get everything all packed.  We have another set of bed lifts at home and for $20 it’s a small sacrifice.
It was a little after 9:00 when we got on the road with Francine on the dashboard.  By the time we got to the Autoroute, about 15 miles, it was raining and it rained off and on most of the way north until we got into Normandy.  The traffic wasn’t bad, though, and there was only one place where there was a back-up.  Unfortunately, it was so foggy that we couldn’t see anything from the highway and I’m sure we were missing some nice scenery. 
We stopped at one of the aires (rest areas) for coffee, and checked out the boutique.  They had polar fleece jackets on “promotion” – buy one for 24.90 euros and get a second one for 14.90 euros.  Did I say it was cold?  Those jackets looked pretty darn warm, so we both bought one.  We had to laugh, though, because it seems like we always end up buying jackets when we travel because we don’t bring anything warm enough.  We figured that this is the fourth time.  We bought sweaters in York (England), jackets in North Conway, New Hampshire, and fleece jackets at the Target in Tumecula, CA when we were there at Thanksgiving and it snowed!  Anyway, those jackets made the rest of the day much warmer.
Traveling north through different regions and departments, it was interesting to see the changes in architecture.  Most of the time we were in farming country and saw a lot of cattle and sheep as well as crops – plowed fields as most crops have already been harvested.  I think one of the things that makes France such an interesting place to travel is the diversity of the landscape from one region to the next.  It’s almost like going through different countries.  Since other countries have laid claim to areas of France at various times throughout history, you can see the influence of those countries.  For example, Germany in the east , Italy in the southeast, Spain in the southwest, and England and Norway in the northwest.
The trip was approximately 370 miles according to Michelin and Francine followed the same route.  We were on the road for about 9 hours, including 3 stops.  It was just  before 6 when we arrived at our hotel in St. Pierre du Vauvray, which is right on the Seine.  The hotel is very charming and the people are so nice.  There is an elevator – a typically French elevator that is probably not even a meter square.  They very kindly let Mom in through the basement, so she could take the elevator from there, avoiding any stairs.  They originally had us in a room on the 3rd floor, but switched us to one on the 1st floor (in the US it would be the 2nd floor).  The new room has a bigger bed (2 twins on the same headboard), and a much larger and nicer bathroom with a separate shower.  We also have a terrace, which is the roof of the porch below us, and have a view of the river from both sides.  We are in the rounded part of the building.  Since there is only 1 flight of stairs, I let Mom use the elevator while I take the stairs.
We had dinner in the hotel dining room and it was excellent.  The décor of the dining room is like an old ship's dining room, or captain’s dining room.  We had a starter course of shrimp and scallops in puff pastry, and Mom had halibut for her main course while I had rack of lamb.  There was a chocolate dessert that defies description.  Suffice it to say, it was so good!
There were 2 families each with 2 little boys, and 2 couples also in the dining rooming.  It was interesting to watch the parents deal with the children.  The dining room has an aquarium with several different varieties of gold fish and that really attracted the boys, who are all French.  Two of the boys are maybe 4 and 6, the other two a few years older.  The younger ones were quite active, but the parents did such a good job of keeping them under control without raising their voices or having to scold them.  They came into the dining room about 30 minutes after we did, and they were still there at 9:30 when we left – pretty late for young children to be up, eating dinner.  The same family had breakfast with us this morning and the kids didn’t seem to have suffered for it.

Dordogne – Day 6: Les Cabanes du Breuil

Friday, October 15, 2010
Dordogne – Day 6: Les Cabanes du Breuil
Another foggy, chilly morning.  We didn’t move fast this morning as there wasn’t much point to go out into the fog.  I did a couple of loads of clothes – it is much easier to pack clean clothes.  It was after 11 before we left the house, and we decided to have lunch in Sarlat.
We had lunch at a Rick Steves’ recommendation called Le Bistro el l’Octroi.  We both decided we have had enough duck and foie gras, but when we looked at the menu that was most of what was on it.  They have a 13 euro menu consisting of a main course (plat), dessert, beverage, and coffee, so I asked what they were serving – it was salmon.  Yes!  It was delicious and one of the best lunches of the trip – I’d rank it in the top 3.  There were three 2-inch pieces of salmon, grilled to perfection – cooked through, but moist.  It was a lot lighter color than our salmon – almost white.  It was served with some sort of creamed vegetable, but neither of us could figure out what it was – it was just very good – and some egg noodles.  The dessert of a tart of puff pastry, pastry cream, and pears, which was actually very light and tasty.
After lunch we drove up towards Les Eyzies, where we had gone on Monday, but before getting there we turned off for Les Cabanes du Breuil.  When we were in Provence, we wanted to go see the Bories Village, but got discouraged because of the difficult road.  These “cabanes” are stone huts much like the bories in Provence, and the road up there is actually quite good.  They are located on a family farm.  There are 6 structures all made from dry-stacked stone: no mortar or cement.  The walls are 3 meters thick and the roofs weight something like 3 metric tons per square meter.  They are quite impressive and it was an interesting sight.   No one knows exactly who built them or when, but the earliest historical record of them is in the mid-15th century when Benedictine monks resided there.  Subsequently, they have been put to a variety of other purposes and were first restored in the late 19th century.  The family that lives on the property now has owned it for at least 3 generations, and I could tell that they take their stewardship of the property very seriously.
We took the long way home, going along the Dordogne and through some very picturesque villages,  and got back to the house around 5 after topping off the gas tank and picking up something for dinner.  We want to leave around 9:00 tomorrow morning as it is a long drive up to Normandy. 

Dordogne – Day 5: Rocamador

Thursday, October 14, 2010
There was thick fog when we woke up this morning, and when we left the house, the car thermometer showed 7 degrees centigrade – very chilly.  By the time we arrived in Rocamador, which is in the neighboring Lot Valley and about an hour’s drive from here, it was still foggy. 
It is amazing that there can be a site attracting 6 million tourists a year, but the road up to it is only 2 lanes, and narrow at that.  But, it makes for a much more scenic trip.  I have to hand it to the French who have worked hard to preserve their historical heritage, and have added modern and efficient infrastructure where it makes sense to do so, such as the autoroutes and TGV trains.  It does make it somewhat difficult for the people who live here, though, because they can’t do just anything they want to their property – any improvements have to be vetted and approved to ensure that they stay true to the local architecture, etc.
Rocamador was a pilgrimage destination going back to the 10-11th centuries.  At one time there were about 8,000 people living there just to support all of the pilgrims that came there to pay homage to St. Amador and the statue of the Black Madonna – miracles have been attributed to both.  During the wars of religion in the 16th century (Catholics vs Protestants), the site fell into neglect until the 18th century when there was a bit of resurgence in interest.  Now it is a major tourist attraction in this area. 
It is built on 3 main levels from the river valley up the wall of a cliff.  At the top is a chateau that isn’t open to the public.  The next level down is the “sanctuary” level and that was the interest of the pilgrims.  The buildings on this level will built right against the cliff with the rock face being the back wall of the structures.  There are seven chapels built around a central courtyard.  The main one of interest is the Chapel of Notre Dame, which houses the statue of the Black Madonna.  This level is reached from the village level by a Grand Staircase.  Pilgrims would climb those stairs on their knees, and stop periodically to pray as they ascended.   The lowest level is the village, which is pretty much just one main street with shops, restaurants, and hotels.  The shops are pretty touristy.  The river is still quite a distance below.
Fortunately for us, there are two elevators.  One is an incline lift that takes you from the top Chateau level to the Sanctuary level.  The other is a regular elevator that takes you to the village level.  The shafts for both were drilled (or blasted) into the rock of the cliff.  There is a charge for both lifts – apparently, they are owned by different interests – but we felt it was about the best 12 euro investment of the trip.
The sun finally came out while we were exploring the sanctuary level, and it turned out to be a glorious day, but still a little on the chilly side – there is a definite nip in the air.
We had lunch in the village – a crepe with chicken, mushrooms, and bacon with a blue cheese sauce.  It was very good with a cup of sweet cider.
We got back to the house about 4:00 and had a bit of a rest before going out to dinner in Sarlat.  We had dinner at Chez Vicky in the old part of the town.  It is a popular restaurant.  For our entrée we had a salad with confit of duck gizzards (gizzards that had been cooked then preserved in duck fat – they are so tender), and dried duck.   For our main course we had duck breast with foie gras and truffle sauce.  There was a bit of a problem in the kitchen – our salad plates where still on the table when the waitress  brought out our main course.  She said something to the other person, and took the plates back to the kitchen.  It was still quite a while before our salad plates were cleared and a few minutes after that before our main course was brought out.  I took one bite – it was stone cold.  Of course, the waitress was not any where in sight.  We sat there for several minutes looking at our plates and waiting for the waiter or waitress to come by.  Finally, I attracted the attention of the waitress, and she came over.  I politely said in French, “miss, this is very cold.”  She apologized and took our plates back to the kitchen.  It was probably close to 10 minutes later before we got our dinners back.  We could tell that it was still the same pieces of duck, which had been reheated, but the foie gras, potato, and sauce was new.  We were happy with the result, especially since the duck was cooked more thoroughly than it was at first, but still pink and tender.  We had walnut cake with crème anglais for dessert.  All and all, it was a very good dinner.
It was 9:30 when we left the restaurant – we weren’t even the first ones to arrive at the restaurant – and 10:00 when we got back to the house.  I was able to find the way in the dark with not problems, though I think Mom doubted that I could.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Dordogne - Day 4: Sarlat Market & Lascaux II

Another beautiful day in the Dordogne.  At the risk of jinxing us, I have to say we've been extremely lucky as far as the weather is concerned.  We've been here a little over 30 days and I think we have had only maybe 4 days of rain.  Most of the time we've had sunny blue skies.  This is a good time of year to come, especially to these areas that are very popular with tourists.  Not only is the weather good, but there are not crowds of people to contend with.

We got an early start this morning and got into Sarlat around 9:30 for their Wednesday market.  The market area winds through the old part of the town.  Being there early, we could take some pictures since there weren't hoards of people yet.  We also got to see some of the interesting old buildings.  Some of the buildings have stone roofs -- they are probably a couple of hundred years old!  Since we will be here for just a few more days, we didn't buy any food this time, but we did by a small piece of truffle in a small can for 24 euros.  Don't know what we'll do with it, but I'm hoping my Julia Child cookbook will have a recipe we can use.  We also bought another small watercolor, which we bought from the artist right across from the subject of the painting. 

After exploring Sarlat, we went north to the town of Montignac, which is a beautiful old town with the Vesere River flowing right through it.  We had lunch there -- pizza & the best we've had here.  Lascaux II is right up the road from Montignac, so that's where we went next.  Lascaux II is an exact reproduction of the original Lascaux cave.  The original cave was closed in the 1960s due to damage caused by the many visitors: white calcifications caused by carbondioxide, and green mossy stuff caused by the humidity of people breathing.  Lascaux II shows only about 40 meters of the original cave, but 90% of the art work is represented.  Even for a reproduction, it is stunning.  The art was reproduced using the same pigments and methods used by the original artists 17,000 years ago.  This is Cro-Magnan art, produced by our human ancestors.  The animals rendered are bulls, reindeer, horses, ibex, and cows.  The colors are black, red, and yellow.  In some areas the curvature of the cave wall was used to enhance the shape of the figures.  Once you are in there, it is easy to forget that it is a reproduction.  Fortunately, I was one of the last people to get in on the English tour and the guide was very good.  Unfortunately, Mom wasn't able to go, but she walked a lot in Sarlat and Montignac today, so I don't think she minded waiting for me.  This cave, even as a reproduction, offered a lot more of a "WOW" factor than the Rouffignac cave we saw a couple of days ago.

Well, the music in this McDonalds is the absolute worse, so I'm going to close this out, then we'll go home and rest up for the remainder of the afternoon .