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 .

Dordogne - Day 3: Dordogne River Valley, Sarlat, & Geese

Today I fell in love with a new region of France:  The Dordogne.
The day started out with lots of promise for a clear day, and it was a gorgeous day.  We decided to go back to the river, retracing our steps from our drive on Sunday when it was grey and rainy. 
We drove directly to Beynac and got there in time for the 11:00 boat trip up-river.  The boats are reproductions of 19th century craft used to transport goods up and down the river.  It was a lovely day to be on the water.  It is a 50 minute trip, and the boat goes very slowly upstream with a very quiet motor, and drifts back downstream.  There were other people on the boat, but it was so peaceful and quiet.  We really hated to go back. The views of Beynac, especially the chateau high above the village are spectacular from the water. 
In several places along the cliffs you can see where there are either natural caves, or caves that were carved into the face of the cliff.  Many of them have been faced with stone, with windows and doors.  We saw similar caves along the Loire River – and some of those are still being lived in.  Here, though, I don’t think we’ve seen any that are being lived in – there are stairways and trails leading up to them, but many of those are barricaded. 
After getting off the boat, we looked in a shop and on the way back to the car, Mom noticed the tiniest hummingbird we’d ever seen.  When I saw it initially, I thought it was a bumblebee.  It was taking nectar from geraniums, and couldn’t have been more than 1 ½ inches long from the tip of its beak to the tip of its tail.  I was able to get several good pictures of it with Mom’s camera – the battery had died on mine.  (Note:  Turns out this was NOT a hummingbird, but rather a sphinx moth.  There are no hummingbirds in Europe.  This moth is often mistaken for a hummingbird and it can hover and flies much like a hummingbird.  Here is a link for more information: - added 10/28/10)

After Beynac, we decided to go back to Domme, but stopped in La Roque Gageac for lunch on the way.  The starter of goose gizzards and foie gras was very good, but the main course of sliced rare beef with a sauce wasn’t very good.  It was a cut of meat that should have been braised, and was very tough.  We decided not go back to Castlenaud because the chateau doesn’t look very accessible for Mom.  So, we went right to Domme – I really like that village.  It sits high on a hill with a fabulous view of the Dordogne Valley.  Beynac, La Roque Gageac, & Les Eyzies all are squeezed between the river and cliffs, but Domme stands by itself, making it much more spacious with nothing between it and the sky.  We walked around Domme and spent quite a bit of time looking out over the valley.
Since we’ve been on this trip, Mom hasn’t been happy with her hair, and the shower situation in this house makes it difficult for her, so I decided she should get her hair done.  We found a hair salon in Sarlat, and she got a new French hair-do.  It really looks nice and I think it should last for the remainder of our trip. 
Later in the afternoon , we walked down the main shopping street in Sarlat and had a cup of coffee.  Sarlat is a very interesting town with lots of old buildings.  There was some sort of demonstration going on in the main square, so we stayed up on the main street.  The crowd of demonstrators was quite vocal.  I’m not sure what they were demonstrating about.  There was supposed to be a general strike today, but it only impacted certain industries.  The French are also unhappy about the government’s plan to increase the retirement age from 60, so it could have been that.
While we’ve seen quite a few ducks around and about, we’ve seen no geese.  So, this evening we went to a goose farm.  It’s not far from where we’re staying and it is a farm that Rick Steves featured on one of his TV shows and is highlighted in his guidebook.  They have 300 geese and they buy them when they are babies.  For the first 4-5 months, they live outside and eat green corn.  The entire field is sown with corn, and when it gets a certain height, they let the geese in the field and the geese eat the corn to the ground.  Today the two fields were about three-quarters eaten.  The geese are also fed corn, wheat, and barley grains.  When the geese are about 4-5 months old, they are moved 150 at a time into the force-feeding shed where they are force-fed corn 3 times a day.  It takes the farmer 5 hours a day to feed the geese.  They are fed this way and kept in the shed for 28 – 34 days, and double their weight during this time.  They are then processed 25 at a time.  They are 100% processed at the farm, and they have a special laboratory where the meat and liver (foie gras) is processed (cooked and canned).  This is all done under extremely sterile conditions.  The woman told us that geese have been force-fed for 6,000 years, beginning in Egypt.  It is considered to be humane as in nature geese fatten themselves up before their annual migrations, and it supposedly doesn’t hurt the geese.   The feathers are given away for use in pillows, etc.  Apparently, not many people raise geese anymore and that is one reason why goose foie gras is much more expensive than that made from duck liver.
One thing I haven’t mentioned is that is area is also well known for walnuts and there are large walnut orchards.  Walnuts are being harvested now, and we often see people picking them up from under the trees.  They also have walnut trees at the goose farm, and the woman who showed us around showed us a gadget a friend sent her from California for picking up walnuts.  It’s a wire basket on a long handle that you roll along the ground and the walnuts are pushed inside through the wires.  It’s a back-saving device and now everyone in the area wants to have one, but they aren’t to be found here. 
The foliage here is beginning to turn and while most trees are still pretty green, there are splotches of gold and red throughout the area.  It is difficult to describe how beautiful it is here in the Dordogne, and we had such an enjoyable day today.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Dordogne - Days 1 & 2: Orientation, Les Eyzies, & Grotte du Rouffignac

Yesterday (Sunday, Oct. 10) was grey and it started to rain in the late afternoon.  We decided to just do an orientation tour, so drove up to Sarlat, which is about 10-12 km from our house.  We drove around the town, but didn't stop, then drove down to the Dordogne River to Domme.  Domme is a "Bastide" - a fortified town - a top a high hill overlooking the river.  We had lunch there, but it was raining, so other than looking in one shop, we moved on with the resolve to come back when the weather was nicer so we could enjoy the view.  We then drove to Castlenaud, which is another village above the river with a huge chateau that is now a museum specializing in medieval warfare.  Again, we didn't stop.  We drove further down the river to Beynac and Roque Gigeac - both, on the other side of the river, are villages that climb up the cliffs above the river.  Beynac has a chateau which was the rival of the one at Castlenaud.  I had recently read a book by an American woman who had bought a house in Castlenaud with her husband.  The book is "Castle in the Backyard" -- their back yard abutted the castle wall -- so it was fun seeing the castle.

It is so beautiful here.  Everything is green, with the golden stone buildings, it is enchanting, and to quote Rick Steves, many places look like movie sets.  We have enjoyed seeing the gardens, and huge fields of corn.  They also grow tabacco; though we haven't actually seen it growing, we have seen the drying sheds, which stand out because they are the few wooden buildings in the area.

We also went to the grocery store yesterday morning and bought a turkey thigh/leg, which I fixed for dinner last night.  In French turkey is "dinde" and I asked a woman what it was because I wasn't sure.  The meat doesn't seem to be as dark or as rich as our turkey dark meat.

This morning it was foggy and raining, so I was disappointed, but hopeful that it would clear up.  By the time we finished breakfast, the fog had lifted and we decided it would be a good day to go to the National Museum of Prehistory in Les Eyzies and to the Grotte Du Rouffignac.  Of course, by the time we got there, it was almost noon and the museum closes at noon; however, the weather had cleared and we had some sunshine.  We decided to have lunch and go to the cave first. 

After lunch, we drove to Rouffignac, which is about 15 km from Les Eyzies through green fields and oak forests on a narrow road.  But, with no traffic, it wasn't a problem.  We got to the cave in time for the first tour after they reopened after lunch.  The neat thing about this cave is that there is a train that takes you through it, so Mom could go.  The narrative was all in French, and we went a long way into the cave without seeing anything prehistoric except rocks.  Finally, we stopped and the guide pointed out a place where bears had scratched the cave walls (bears would hiberate in the cave).  He also pointed out mammoths that had been etched into the rock by Cro-Magnon man.  Next we came to several rhinos that had been drawn onto the cave walls.  The guide spoke at length at both of these stops, but we didn't understand much of it, though I did get a word here & there.  Finally, the train stopped and we all got off (Mom didn't, though because she didn't have her walker and the ground was uneven).  The guide then showed us paintings up on the ceiling: horses, bulls, mammoths, bison.  It was a nice tour, but didn't really have the "WOW!" factor I was expecting.

Now we're sitting in a McDonalds listening to terrible music, but at least they have free Wi-Fi (or for the cost of a cup of coffee and Diet Coke free).  It's kind of cute -- here the drive-through is called "Mc-Drive."

Well, Mom is not enjoying this music and we need to head for the house.  Will post again in a couple of days.

Languedoc to the Dordogne

Saturday, October 9, 2010
Languedoc to Dordogne
We had the car packed and house closed up by 9:15 this morning, so got an early start.  We drove straight up the A-75 Autoroute through Millau, and over the Millau Viaduct.  Going over that bridge is really exciting.  It’s 2.5 km long  and higher than the Eiffel Tower.  It is the only toll portion of the A-75 and costs 6.20 euros.  Not long after crossing bridge, we left the autoroute and travelled west toward Rodez on D routes, which are maintained by the local department (county).   Most of them are excellent roads and pass through many villages and small towns, giving a much more scenic experience than the autoroutes.
The scenery was so different here than what we had been seeing since we had come to the south of France.  In Provence and Languedoc: grapes, grapes, and more grapes, and some olive trees.  The landscape is very rocky and the hills/mountains are rugged.  Where the land hasn’t been cultivated, there are scrubby oaks and pines.  The buildings are grey stone with red tile roofs, and very square, and even squat.   Some with towers and turrets.  Nearly every village looks closed up – there are stone walls around most houses, and shutters usually cover street-facing windows.  The primary signs of occupations are flowers in window boxes or in pots on the front stoop.
As we drove west through the departments of Aveyron and Lot, the vineyards gave way to pasture land with grazing cattle and sheep.  The fields are separated by rows of shrubs and trees, rather than by stone fences.  The forests are oak and other hardwoods.  The architecture is dramatically different.  The houses are more stand-alone made of honey-colored stone, with steeper roofs – many of them slate.  The houses are not hidden behind walls, and appear to be more open and occupied.  The towns and villages are charming, and we didn’t go very far without some sign of habitation.  A couple of the towns were built of red stone, apparently quarried from the local area.  The road took us through the Lot River Valley, which isn’t as well-known as the Dordogne River Valley, and doesn’t get as many tourists, but is very pretty, just the same.
The scenery on the entire drive was so pretty, and we’re so glad we decided to come the way we did, rather than what might have been a quicker, but less scenic way.  We stopped in Rodez for lunch in a cafeteria, which was really good and inexpensive.
The directions we had for finding the house were very good and we drove right to it.  It isn’t far off the main road into Sarlat, which is about 10 km away.  The house is in a little hamlet of several other houses and farms.  Our neighbors have a productive garden and chickens (I hope they don’t have a rooster that crows early in the morning).  The owner’s caretakers, Pat and Derek, were here to greet us and are a nice British couple who have lived here for 9 years, but don’t speak any French.  He said he lets his credit card speak for him.  The kitchen in this house isn’t as well equipped as our prior houses – the stove is electric, and not many pots & pans, and no dishwasher.  But, there is a clothes dryer, so we’re happy about that!  The owners provided quite a lot in the way of supplies: eggs, milk, juice, ham, bacon, cheese, and a big bowl of fresh fruit – so we didn’t need to shop today, and were able to put together an egg, ham & cheese sandwich for dinner. Once we got here this afternoon, we stayed put.  It was a good 7-hour drive, and I didn’t feel like going out again.  Tomorrow we’ll go exploring. 

Friday, October 8, 2010

Languedoc - Day 13: Last Day

Today is our last day in Languedoc.  We leave tomorrow for the Dordogne. 

This morning, we all got up early and left the house before 7:30 to take Janice to the airport in Montpellier.  She changes planes in Paris to go home to Washington DC.  It has been a lot of fun to have her with us for this past week.  We took her to many of the places we had been before, but we saw them differently because she was with us.  It was also fun to discover new places with her.  The Montpellier airport is so easy to get in and out of, it hasn't been the least bit difficult picking her up and dropping her off -- of course, we had been there before.

We opted for a low-key day today.  We spent the morning in Pezenas, walking through part of the old town, and making one more attempt to see if the quilt shop was open, and it was!  They were having a class this morning.  The same woman owns it -- she lived in the UK for a time, so speaks excellent English, as does her daughter, who sounds like a native English speaker.  The fabrics are actually the same as the ones we have in the US -- many of them looked familiar.  I bought some fat quarters of the most French-looking fabrics I could find.  Their fat quarters are a little bigger than ours because they are a quarter of a meter, rather than a quarter of a yard. 

We had lunch in Pezenas at Cafe Le Glacier, and sat outside under the plane trees.  It was so peaceful to be outside in the sunshine and warm breeze.  Mom had moules-frites again, saying these were better than the ones she had last week at Sete.  I had a small steak with salad & frites (fries).  It was a really nice lunch.

After lunch, we drove around some of the back roads that we hadn't been on before, enjoying the tree-lined roads.  There must be 10's of thousands of plane trees (or maybe they are sycamores) planted along the back roads of Languedoc and Provence -- nearly every village and town has an avenue of trees approaching it from both ends.  Many of the trees are huge and form a canopy or tunnel where they meet at the tops.  When the sun filters through, it's magical.  We ended up in Clermont where we topped off our gas tank, so we don't need to do that in the morning.  Then we took a road up and above Clermont to a "poterie" or pottery place that we had visted last time we were here.  It is still there and we bought a couple of plates.  Heading home, we drove through Lezignan, so Mom could see more of the village than she normally sees from the main road. 

For dinner tonight we're cleaning out the fridge.  We have some pate and fromage, and I took my last walk into the village this evening for bread, so it should be a good dinner, augmented with a pear (hope they are ready to eat).  We'll have the left over bread for breakfast tomorrow, so I won't need to take the time to go into the village in the morning. 

We've planned our route to our next stop, opting for a more direct, but rural route than going by autoroute all the way.  It may take a little longer, but will be more scenic -- and has the added bonus of being able to go over the Millau Viaduct (see prior post).  We want to get an early start in the morning.

We're both a little sad about leaving our house in Lezignan.  We've stayed here for a total of 5 weeks now and it seems almost like a second home.  We're very comfortable here, and know our way around.  There is something about the quality of the sunlight that just makes this a special place.

It may be a few days before I can post again as our house in the Dordogne doesn't have internet access -- so don't be concerned... I'm hoping there's a McDonald's in Sarlat where I can get online.  (Did I just say that? Oh, well, I think McDonalds has become a part of the scenery world-wide.)

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Languedoc - Day 12: Grotte des Demoiselles

We started the day at the market in Paulhan, which is the next good-sized town north of us.  Much bigger than Lezignan, but smaller than Pezenas. It is a nice market -- not as busy as Pezenas' or Clermont's, but has all the goodies.  Since we are moving on Saturday, we didn't buy a lot, just some bananas & a shallot.  I bought a scarf for 6 euros -- I guess I want to attempt to be French-chic.  French women (& even some men) all seem to have scarves wrapped around their necks.

After the market we drove maybe 40-50 km north to the Grotte des Demoisselles.  When we got there at about 12:45, we found it was closed until 2:00 (the information I had said it was open 10:00 - 6:00), so we went back down to the village to find some lunch.  Nothing looked very promising, but we did find a boulangerie open, so got something to eat & drink.  Just after we sat down at the table outside, they closed up, so we didn't get there a minute too soon!

After lunch we went back up to the Grotte and parked up in the bus area, so Mom  could sit in the cafe -- we knew it wasn't something she would be able to manage.  The Grotte is an underground cavern that was discovered in 1770.  It has several huge rooms with concretions.  One room is 394 feet long, 262 feet wide, and 164 feet high.  We started out in a funicular, which took us up a 38% grade.  Once up there, we started to climb and descend stairs:  561 one of them!  Each turn in the pathway was an eye-ful of beautiful formations lit with flood lights.  The stairs were very good -- concrete -- and some had handrails of steel pipe and some had cement railings.  In places the stairs and railings were wet and slippery.  Some of the passages were very narrow.  Of course the guide spoke only in French, but it was the first guided tour in French we've been on that I didn't think was too long because there was so much to look at.  The guide also spoke very conversationally rather than as though reading from a script.  All of the other people were French, and were all were very nice and friendly.  This was truly an awesome experience and well worth the trip up there, and each step, too.  While Jan & I were in the cavern, Mom was in the cafe reading her Kindle and conversing with one of the men who works there.  He had been to caves in the US and speaks English.

After we got home, Jan & I fixed dinner.  I fixed duck breast with a sauce made from Muscat, orange juice, butter, S & P, shallots, and figs -- there is a fig tree behind the house, so we managed to harvest a few of them.  The duck was vacuum sealed and the skin had been removed, but the fat left on.  I scored the fat, and put it in a hot skillet to sear.  After turning, I put it in the oven for 20-30 minutes to finish.  The fat rendered out, leaving a crispy crust on top.  With potatoes, green beans & carrots, and a salad, it was a pretty good dinner.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Languedoc - Day 11: Collioure

Cloudy again this morning, but some sun peeking through.  When Jan & I came out of the boulangerie, a little lady from the village, who had been in the shop before us, seemed to be waiting for us.  We struck up a conversation - she was very friendly and chatty, but I couldn't understand much of what she was saying.  She seemed to be able to understand my rudimentary French okay, though.  In several books about Americans living in France, I've read where women call "coo-coo" when they want to call to a friend.  This woman did that, so it was neat to hear her do it.

After breakfast this morning we left for Collioure, which is a seaside town about 10 km from the Spanish border.  In fact, the exit off the autoroute is the last exit in France before crossing into Spain.  The town is lovely.  Many of the buildings are painted yellow, cream, pink, or terricota, so it is very colorful.  When we were there 5 years ago, there was a troupe of acrobats making a human tower -- they weren't here this time, though.  Instead, we were "entertained" by the National Commando Training Center (French Army), which is located there and was doing training excersizes as we were eating our lunch.  Three teams of 6 had to inflate a rubber raft, don life vests, then paddle out into the harbor.  Once out there, they had to do transfer maneuvers in the water.  It was really interesting and they drew quite a crowd.  Actually, it was a little like watching a "Survivor" challenge.

We had crepes for lunch -- Bretton-style crepes.  Mine had ham, egg and cheese.  Mom's had ham, cheese, mushrooms, and egg.  We also shared a pitcher of apple cider, which is traditional with crepes.  We walked over to the church and went inside -- it is very different that other French churches.  The decor is more Spanish in style.  Jan and I bought watercolors from the artist -- he was really nice, spoke some English and thought my French was pretty good.  We saw a little more of Collioure this time than we did before.  It turned out to be a bright sunny day and we enjoyed the warmth of the sunshine and the shimmer of the water.  The Mediterranean is sure a pretty blue color.

We got home around 6 (it's about a 2-hour drive to Collioure each way), and got cleaned up, then went to Clermont l'Herault for dinner at Le Tournesol.  This is the same restaurant where Mom & I had dinner for my birthday in 2005.  We had an excellent dinner.  Mom & Jan had foie gras for their starters and I had langostines.  Jan had seafood for her main course (scallops, calamari, etc.), and Mom and I had duck (strips of duck breast coiled into a roll with a raspberry sauce) - it was very good.  For dessert: a crepe with vanilla ice cream.  We were among the first to arrive at the restaurant about 7:15 and it was 9:30 when we left.  This was the first restaurant dinner we've had since we were in Beaune, nearly 3 weeks ago!

We've enjoyed having Jan with us.  We've taken her to many places we've been before, but it seems like we've seen them differently and have seen more of each place as we have done a little more exploring.  We have just 3 more nights here before moving to the Dordogne.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Languedoc - Day 10: Carcassonne

It's hard to believe that we go home 2 weeks from today!  Neither of us is ready to go home yet, so I guess that's a good thing.  It always seems that I'm ready to go home just about when it is actually time to leave.  We're both pretty tired, though, and Mom has been going to bed early -- like 8:30 -- the chairs in the "salon" are not comfortable for her to sit on for very long, so she lies on her bed and reads.

It rained overnight and when I got up this morning I was disappointed to see another slate grey sky, but by the time we left to walk to the village for bread, there were some patches of blue sky.  It also looked promising to the southwest, which is where we were headed today.  We left the house about 9:30 to go to Carcassonne, which is about 90 minutes from here by autoroute.  Carcassonne is one of the largest and most intact fortified towns in Europe.  It is also a popular tourist attraction.  By the time we got to Carcassonne, the sky was a clear blue and we had a perfect day for the trip.

The oldest parts of the town date back to the 10th century, but some structures were built on top of even older Roman ruins.  The town played a key role during the days of the Cathars.  There is a tradition that once when the town was besieged, after a long period of time they had run out of food.  They had just one pig left.  They decided to fool the enemy outside the gates by throwing the pig over the rampart.  The enemy took the bait, figuring that if they had so much food that they could afford to throw away a pig, there wasn't much point in prolonging the siege, and they left.  Whether that's a true story or not, the town promotes the story for the benefit of the tourists. 

There were a lot of tourists there today -- much more than when we were there in April 2005.  They come by the bus loads, but once you get through the gates and the first onslaught of tourist traps, you can really enjoy the town.  Of course the slope of the streets and cobblestones make it hard-going for Mom.  We got there around 11:00 and found a place for lunch just before 12, thinking that we should get settled before the rest of the tourists decide to find a place to eat.  We chose a place that trades on the pig story: Le Auberge du Dame Carcas.  They have a wood-fired oven and their specialty is cassoulet.  It was really good -- better than what we had at another restaurant in 2005 and a lot better than what I made earlier this year.  It is a dish of white beans in a tomato sauce with seasonings and different meats.  Traditionally, it has duck confit (duck cooked and preserved in its own fat) and sausage, which is what ours had today, but it also can include lamb or pork.  The recipe I have takes two days to fix -- too much work.   We really enjoyed what we had today, though.

After lunch, we walked around the town and stopped into the church of St. Nazaire.  It has beautiful stained glass windows and some of them remind me of quilt blocks as they are geometric and very colorful  While we were there a group of men sang.  They were "Doro" - the same group that sang when we were in the cathedral in Albi, in 2005.  They have a fantastic vocal range and sound really good in the church.  We bought one of their CDs before.  I think they must go around to various churches, sing a couple of songs, then offer their CD for sale.  It is quite an experience to hear them in that setting.  I believe they are from eastern Europe, but I can't remember for sure.

Before leaving Carcassonne, we stopped at a cafe for coffee and soft drinks.  It has turned out to be quite warm.  We came home on the back roads because I wanted Jan to see the Canal du Midi.  It was built to connect the Mediterranean with the Atlantic Ocean, so stretches clear across southern France.  It was originally used to ship goods across France, but once the railroads were built it became obsolete.  Now it is used by vacationers -- people either own or rent boats or barges especially made to fit through the locks (there are dozens of them).  At one point I pulled off the main road so I could check the map, and saw the canal and a lock right there.  Jan & I jumped out to take some pictures of a boat going through the locks.  It was a really neat experience and we were just lucky that we happened upon it.

The remainder of the drive was through small villages and acres upon acres of grapes.  More grapes than you can imagine and certainly more than I've ever seen in California or Eastern Washington.  The grapes are still being harvested, but I think they are close to the end of harvest now.  We see tractors pulling trailers full of grapes as well as the mechanical pickers in the vineyards.  We've also seen piles of grape leavings after they've been mashed (I don't think they stomp them anymore).

We got home about 7 -- it was a long day, made longer by having to drive through Beziers, but we made it.  Another long day is planned for tomorrow.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Languedoc - Day 9: Cirque de Navacelles

The wind really howled all night and it rained a little.  Jan & I drove into the village for bread as it was too windy to walk.  The sky was really dark, but there was a tinge of light toward the east. 

After breakfast, we set out for the Cirque of Navacelles, which is a small village at the bottom of a bowl where the Vis river changed course eons ago.  There are only about 18-20 people living in the village.  We went today because there is a creperie there that is closed on Tuesdays; unfortunately, it was closed today -- must be because it is after October 1.  The road to get there goes up through a canyon with tall pines, and a twisty road.  At top there is a plateau with a relatively straight road for about 8.5 km, after which you begin the descent down into the cirque.  The road down is very narrow and twists and turns down the side of the cliff above the village.  Fortunately, we met only 2 cars coming up and were able to find a good spot to let them go by.  Once we got down to the bottom most everything was closed today.  There's a neat little shop there where we bought some things the last time we were there, but it too was closed.  We only saw 2 people and a dog, but there were several cars -- we were the only visitors. 

It was cloudy the entire trip up there, but when we got to the top of the plateau, we could see a hole in the clouds with blue sky, and so it was pretty sunny while we were down in the cirque.  On the way back to the main highway, though, we could see lightning off to the distance and it started to rain -- not just rain:  it poured.  It rained so hard that I had to pull off to the side of the road for a lttle bit.  We headed for home to have lunch, and it didn't look like it rained as much there.  It looks like the lightning & thunder was what was needed to clear out the clouds as there was some sun this afternoon, particularly to the east of us, over the Mediterranean, so we have high hopes for tomorrow.

After lunch, we went into Pezenas for groceries, and stopped at a pastry shop for some little "pates" -- they are a specialty in Pezenas and look like large spools of thread.  They have pate, or pastry on the outside, and inside they have a sweet/savory filling somewhat like minced meat.  We also stopped at the roadside market for some melons -- it is the end of the season, so we want to get as many as we can before they are all gone.

I haven't had much to say about Francine, our GPS.  Poor Francine has spent most of the trip in the cubby hole between the front seats.  She worked well from Burgundy to Provence & got us through Lyon, but since we've been down here, we haven't needed her much.  The maps are good, and the road signage is excellent.  If you know where you are going, all you need to do is follow the signs at the round-abouts.  It's is actually quite easy to get around here.  Perhaps it's because we've been here before, so I'm comfortable driving here.  We got Francine out to get us home from Minerve, but I couldn't remember how to spell the name of our street, and without a street address, Francine isn't much good.  I've since programmed in our address, so if we ever need her to find our way home, she can - I hope.

Tomorrow, we are hoping for good weather and will go to Carcassone -- regardless of the weather.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Languedoc - Day 8: Marseillan & Valmagne Abbey

Since the boulangerie is closed on Sundays, we went to the little grocery for bread this morning.  Also, knowing that the stores will all be closed by noon, we bought meat for tonight's dinner.  Yesterday, we bought pork chops there and they turned out good (a little tough, but maybe I overcooked them).  Today I explained to the butcher that I wanted beef to make a "daube" (stew).  He got a shoulder of beef and cut off a nice chunk.  We got the beef, some potatoes, a bottle of red wine (for the sauce, of course), and a baguette for 7 euros 50.  Pretty cheap dinner for 3.

It was grey and windy today -- very windy & gusty, but the wind was pretty warm; it was 20 degrees most of the day.  We had decided to stay close to home, so I don't think we were ever more than 40 km from the house today.  We started out at Florensac where we did some wine tasting - a little early in the day for it, but we did more tasting than drinking.  Then we drove to Marseillan, which is on the Bassin de Thau, not far from Meze.  We were looking for a place for lunch, and drove down to Marseillan Plage (beach on the Mediterranean), which is a pretty tacky beach resort area, and there really wasn't a lot open as it is the end of the season.  We went back to Marseillan and found the port and a nice restaurant.  Mom finally had some oysters and Jan & I each had pizzas.  Now if anyone should ask I can say that I've had pizza with duck and foie gras -- not bad, but probably won't choose it again.  It was so windy that it was hard to walk very far.

Our next stop was Valmagne Abbey.  It is one of the most intact Cistercian abbeys in France.  During the religious wars, the abbot took sides with the protestants (Huegonauts), raised an army and attacked his own abbey, killing all of the monks.  The abbey was sacked again during the revolution, but eventually it was bought and used for aging wine -- there are still huge wine casks in the nave of the abbey church.  The positive side of this is that the buildings were never quarried for building materials, so they are largely intact.  Many old buildings were lost because they were torn down so that the stone could be used for other purposes.

It was a good day for Mom:  no hills and no cobblestones.

We came home and made the stew -- the meat had been marinating all day.  It turned out pretty good considering our ingredients are limited, and there's enough left for tomorrow night.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Languedoc - Day 7: Market Day in Pezenas; St-Guilhem-le-Desert

This morning Jan & I took our cameras with us when we walked into the village for bread, and I'm sure we were the talk of the village as several people saw us snapping pictures. 

We got to Pezenas about 10:00 this morning to go to the market, but first we walked through some of the cobbled streets and looked in the shops.  The shops were open today!  I'm sure the locals are in tune with the opening and closing hours of the shops, but it is hard for tourists to figure out when something will be open.  Generally, most shops close at 12 or 12:30 for lunch and reopen at 2 or 2:30, and most stay open until 6:30 or 7.  The Pezenas market seemed bigger and busier than the one in Clermont last week.  Lots of people.  The stalls are organized pretty much by type.  At the top of the market are the meat, poultry, fish, and cooked food vendors, then the olive and charcuterie vendors.  In the middle are the clothing vendors -- everything you can imagine from underwear to shoes, to hats.  Finally, the fruit, vegetable, and flower vendors.  We bought mostly fruits and vegetables, plus some fresh flowers.

We ate lunch on our terrace today -- the day started out cloudy, then cleared up, and was beautiful.  After lunch we went to the Gorge du l'Herault, which is the canyon carved out by the Herault River.  The department (like a county in the US) that we are in is l'Herault, named for the river.  Our destination was a village called St-Guilhem-le-Desert.  There is an abbey there, as well as a wonderful village square dominated by a huge plane tree.  The buildings are all very rustic, and the village is shadowed by a mountain where the original old abbey was built -- you can still see the ruins.  St. Guilhem was born in the 8th century and was a friend of Charlemagne. He served under Charlemagne, and became the governor of Aquitaine.  He was engaged in and won more battles, and eventually returned to France, but his wife was dead, and he decided to devote himself to a quest for solitude.  Even though Charlemagne didn't want him to leave his service, he gave Guilhem a relic of the Cross, and Guilhem brought it to the abbey and retired to the monastery.  The village is a United Nations Heritage Site.

After having read "The Pillars of the Earth," it was easy to see how the abbey had been built (the current abbey dates to the 12th & 13th centuries, which is also the time frame for the book).  Wooden templates were built, so that the stones could be laid over them to form the arches.  Once the mortar dried and was properly seasoned, the wooden frames were removed.  It is so incredible that they were able to build structures like that in those days -- no cranes or machinery -- just winches, block & tackles, pulleys, and hard work.  Every stone had to be dressed by hand to exactly fit the stone next to it.

As we drove back to the house, it clouded up, and actually rained a little while we were eating dinner.  Hopefully, it will clear up again by morning.  We are close enough to the Mediterranean that the cooler marine air comes in pretty quick.  The weather has actually been perfect -- sunny, blue skies, and warm enough to go without a sweater most of the time.

Our plan for tomorrow is to take it easy and to stay pretty close to home.  We'll drive around and visit the nearby villages and perhaps find a winery to visit, and a good place to have a Sunday lunch.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Languedoc - Day 6: Roquefort & Millau Viaduct

We are now half-way through our trip.  It seems like we've been away from home for a long time, and we've seen and done so much since we've been here.

Janice walked into the village with me this morning, and after breakfast we headed north on the A75 for Roquefort.  Jan is very fond of cheese.  Of course we got there at just about noon and everything was closing up for lunch.  We found a really neat restaurant called Les Fleurines, and thought the name had something to do with flowers.  All three of us had the "plat du jour," which was a grilled sausage with roquefort sauce, potatoes, and lettuce salad.  The sauce was especially good, as was the sausage.  The restaurant was in a barrel-vaulted room made from stones and was really charming.  It was the sort of place that makes you feel like the trip was worth it.

Mom & I had been to Roquefort before, but had not gone down in the the caves where they age the cheese.  We visited the Papillon caves - Jan & I did the tour, but Mom stayed upstairs as there were far too many steps for her to navigate.  It was interesting, but somewhat disappointing because there was no cheese in the caves.  We toured three levels of empty shelves!  I guess they don't think it's very sanitary to have a bunch of tourists walking around breathing on the cheese.  There was a very interesting video showing how cheese was made in 1927.  It was a lot of work back then, for sure.  That part of the video had some titles in English, but the present day part of the video was only in French.  The tour was conducted in French, but they gave us the script in English so we could read it before we descended into the cave.  The caves were built in a series of limestone faults, which are called "fleurines" -- so nothing to do with flowers after all.  Air moves through the fleurines, keeping the temperature and humidity in the caves at a constant level for aging the cheese.  The cheese itself is made elsewhere and is already salted with the penicillin spores.  The cheese is aged for a minimum of 90 days and a maximum of 350 days.  Only cheese made in this area, which is about 2 km long and 300 meters wide can be labelled Roquefort Cheese, and there are 9  companies in the town making cheese.  One of the great mysteries both times we've been there has been:  where are all the sheep?  Roquefort is made from sheep's milk, but we've never seen any sheep around there.  Today, though we did see some sheep near the Millau Viaduct.

The Millau Viaduct was opened in late 2004 or early 2005, spanning the Tarn River, and completing the A75 autoroute from Paris to the south of France.  It has become quite a tourist attraction in its own right.  It's a very impressive sight.  Funny thing is that it is just up the road from the city of Millau, but there is no on/off ramp for Millau near the viaduct. We approached the viaduct from below where there is a visitor's center, and were hoping we could get back on the A75 so we could go over it, but the road to the A75 actually took us up into the hills above Millau, and to the south of the viaduct.  The route was beautiful with magnificent views and interesting rock formations, and lots of twists and turns, but we didn't get to go over the viaduct.  Maybe next time.

All in all another wonderful day in la belle France.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Languedoc - Day 5; Janice arrives; Sete

Not much to report today.  It was a little cloudy, but warm enough. 

Janice (my cousin who lives in the D.C. area) was to arrive at the airport in Montpellier at 12:50, so we left around 11:00 to allow enough time to take some wrong turns and get lost.  But, we drove right to the airport without a problem.  We got there an hour early, so had a cup of coffee, and waited.  The airport is pretty small, so we figured there wouldn't be much chance in missing her.  When people started coming through from her flight, we went over to wait for her, but she didn't come out.  Three armed soldiers went into the baggage area, and we wondered what was going on.  I peeked in through the baggage claim door, and saw that they were looking at a piece of luggage that was there by itself.  Still no Janice, so Mom suggested I go outside to see if she was there, and she was -- she must have come out before we walked over to the baggage claim area.  Janice's flight got into Paris at 5:30 this morning, having left D.C. at 4:45 yesterday afternoon, so I knew she'd be tired - no big plans for today.

Sete is a neat town situated between the Mediterranean and the Bassin du Thau, and is the beginning of the Canal du Midi.  It is famous for seafood.  We'd been there a couple of times before, so thought it would be a good place to go for lunch after picking Janice up.  We didn't get there until after 2:00, too late for lunch, but we were able to be served at L'Amiral from a limited menu.  Mom & Janice had the Moules Frites (mussels & fries).  I had mussels farcies (mussels stuffed with some sort of sausage or meat, and served in the shell over rice and a tomato sauce) -- very good.  After lunch, we walked around for awhile and checked out the shops.

Driving back home from Sete, we got behind a "convoi extraordinaire" that had traffic slowed to a crawl for miles.  They were hauling some sort of equipment -- how they expected to get it through the narrow streets of those towns, I don't know.  We managed to get around them when there was a passing lane.  Once home, we didn't feel like a big dinner after our late lunch, so put out a plate of pate, cheese, tapenade, pickles, and olives for dinner, with some baguette left over from breakfast.  It was good, and we'll cook the chicken tomorrow night.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Languedoc - Day 4: Market Day in Clermont l'Herault

The wind let up today and it was a lot warmer -- about 25 degrees.  Very pleasant.

In my morning ramble through Lezignan la Cebe for our morning baguette, I see something new everyday.  I exchange "bonjours" with several people each day.  I see the children going to school and the mail carrier delivering the mail.  The housewives are out getting their morning bread and two or three gather together to exchange the latest news. Last Monday, when I was approaching the boulangerie, a man was coming out and apparently recognized me as a stranger in the village.  We struck up a conversation -- I think he understood me better than I understood him, but he told me I spoke French quite well.  I wonder how many people he told about me and our conversation. 

Clermont l'Herault is a sizeable town about 10-12 km north of us.  Today was market day as it is every Wednesday.  In fact, Clermont has had a market on every Wednesday since the year 1000!  You get a real sense of the history and continuity here -- much more so than in the US where our history goes back only about 400 or 500 years.  This isn't just a farmer's market -- you can buy just about anything and everything there: shoes and clothing, including underwear; housewares; hobby supplies; leather goods; jewelry -- just to name a few.  And food: fresh meats, fish, poultry of all kinds; cooked food, including paella, couscous, rotissery chickens; sausages, cheeses, nuts, olives and olive oil, jams and honey; fruits and vegetables -- if it is in season, you can buy it at the market.  The market is also the social event of the week.  Friends and acquaintances, meeting, shaking hands, kissing cheeks, gossipping, passing on the lastest news.  Going to a market like the one in Clermont is every bit as much of a "can't miss" experience as going up the Eiffel Tower.  You really feel you are a part of the community -- even though the vendors have to help you with your French and count out the money for you.  When you can't understand how much something is, all you have to do is hold out a handful of coins and the vendor will pick out exactly what he needs -- I've never known them to take more.  And, if you give them even a penny too much, they will give it back.

One of the first vendors we saw this morning was a man demonstrating bowl covers.  They are rubber or latex and very flexible, come in 2 sizes and fit both round bowls and square or rectangular casseroles.  They are airtight.  Superior to foil and plastic wrap (at least that is what I surmised when he waved around rolls of those). Those who know me, know what a sucker I am for gadgets, and I knew I wanted some of those.  This guy was so into his spiel that even when I waived 20 euros around, ready to buy, he wouldn't stop, much less take a breath.  It really got to be funny and as a little crowd gathered, his spiel heated up even more -- he just kept going and wasn't going to stop until he was done & of course, we didn't understand a word of it.  He talked really fast.   But, we did understand that they were 20 euros for 2 (1 of each size), or 30 euros for 4 (2 of each size) -- I bought 4 when he was finally ready to take my money. 

Mom was quite tired after all the walking yesterday, then the walking at the market today, so we stopped for coffee before going to the Hyper U for more groceries, then going home.  We ate lunch out on our terrace today -- it was so pleasant.   After lunch we went into Pezenas to see if the olive shop was open, but it was still closed, so I asked about it at the shop next door and apparently it is permanently closed.  It's too bad because we wanted to see the woman who ran it and whom we became friendly with when we were here before.  We also checked out the quilt shop, but it was closed as well.  There was a little note on the door explaining that it was closed this afternoon.  When we were waiting to cross a street, a funeral procession came along -- the hearse leading with maybe 20-25 mourners walking behind. 

After we got home, Mom took a rest and I've been watching TV - British satellite, and mostly old American shows.  It's now almost 7 pm, so time to start dinner.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Languedoc - Day 3: Patchwork Centre & Minerve

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Another beautiful day, but still breezy -- gusty in places.  I walked into the village for bread again.  It takes about 30 minutes round-trip.  It's been very cold in the morning, and I need to wear a sweater.  We've noticed that some of the grapevines are starting to turn red.

When Carol Dahl visited this past summer, she showed me an article in a British quilt magazine about a textile museum in France.  It is the European Centre for Textiles and Patchwork and is located in an old winery in the small village of Salleles d'Aude, which is close enough to make a trip, and also not far from Minerve, so that's where we went today.

The museum is on 2 floors, and the lower floor is where the wine vats were.  The vats are concrete and still have the valves and taps, but have been opened up to make display space.  Each vat has a different display representing textile arts in different cultures, including French, African, Asian, Hawaiian, Amish, and American traditional quilts.  There are textile items for sale, but no fabric.  Upstairs is display space for temporary exhibits, currently Austrian textile artists.  It was very interesting.  Of course, we got to the museum just before 12, so I was a little concerned that they'd be closed for lunch, but they were still open. 

We looked for a place to eat lunch on the way to Minerve, but didn't find anything, so decided we'd eat once we got there.  Minerve is a very old village situated on a promotory in a canyon.  It must have been ideally situated for defense in the middle ages.  Only 60 people live there now.  When we were there 5 years ago, it poured down rain and since it was April, nothing was open.  This time we had blue skies, but it was windy.  We parked above the village in a handicapped spot, but had to walk quite a distance down a steep grade to get into the village.  The easier way in is over a bridge, but the parking lot on that side of the village is only for buses.  It took Mom quite awhile to make it down to the village, and there was another grade of cobblestones, too.  A nice man stopped to help her down and told us where to find some lunch. I told Mom to wait while I checked it out, and found a little cafe that advertised sandwiches, so I stuck my head in and said, "Bonjour, avez vous le sandwich?"  The women was really nice and showed me that she could make one with a pate and pickles on a baguette, so I ordered 1 for us to share, and went up to get Mom.  The place was run by the woman and her son, who have lived there for about 5 years after having lived in Paris.  The son is about 30 and quite good looking.  He speaks fairly good English, so we were able to have quite a conversation combining English and French.  The sandwich with cups of coffee and a bottle of water was really good, but their specialty is ice cream, so guess what we had for dessert!

Minerve was a Cathar town - the Languedoc region was the seat of the Cathars, which was a heretical sect in the 12-13th centuries.  In 1210 Minerve was besieged and after running out of food and water, the town was forced to surrender.  The townspeople were given the choice of converting or being slaughtered.  140 prefects refused to deny their Cathar faith and were burned at the stake.  There's a monument memorializing them near the the Mairie (town hall).  Many of the towns in this part of France have violent histories -- mostly due to religion.  The battles between Rome and the Cathars were in the 13th century, then in the 16th Century the protestants (Huegonauts) had strongholds here.  In fact, our village of Lezignan la Cebe had been a Huegonaut village at one time.  A battle between the Catholics and Huegonauts was fought near here, with the Huegonauts losing.

Rather than having Mom climb the hill back up to the car, she crossed the bridge to the main road, and I hiked up to the car.  There are several nice galleries in the village and I stopped to look in a couple of them on my way up the hill.   The plan was for me to pick Mom up at the bridge, but I missed the turn coming out of the parking lot, and drove quite awhile before deciding "this doesn't look right," and turning around.  We agreed I'd pick her up at 4:00, and at least I wasn't late.

We tried to get Francine to show us the way home, but she wants a full address & I couldn't remember how to spell the name of the street we are on -- she's very picky -- but we did okay. We came home through Beziers, which is the largest town in the area and about 20 km south of Pezenas.  I'm always nervous driving through the big towns, but following the signs "Touts Directions" (All Directions) usually gets me through them okay, and we didn't have any trouble getting through today.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Languedoc - Day 2: Octon & Lodeve

We got up this morning without a lot of ambition, but that's okay because we're on vacation!  I walked to the village for bread, but took a longer route this time.  I saw a lot of the village that I didn't see when here before because I had always driven to the bakery.  It's amazing how much more you see on foot.  I found out there is even a hair salon in the village and the grocery that was hidden away inside the village is still there. However, the boulangerie where I used to buy our daily baguette is gone.  There is a new boulangerie off the main road and they bake onsite. I think the old one was just a "depot" for daily bread delivery. 

After breakfast, we decided to drive around in the hills above Lezignan, so turned left out of our gate.  There is a wine we like that is made in a nearby village, Cabrieres, and we thought we'd try to find the winery.  We went there the last time we were here.  The scenery and views as we drove along were gorgeous.  At times, it seemed that we were on top of the world. The road is a good one, but with lots of twists and turns.  The soil in this area is very red - lots of iron oxide - and they grow grapes up there. The terraine and vegetation reminds me of northern California -- scrubby oaks and grasslands, rocky outcroppings.  We passed through the village of Cabrieres, but didn't find the winery this time.  We continued up the road, and went through the Cirque de Moureze, which is a little canyon where there are different rock formations.  We had been there before, so didn't stop this time.  We were on our way to the village of Octon where we planned to have lunch.

In 2005 on the day before we were leaving to go home, we were going back to Octon for lunch (we had lunch there on our first day in the area and wanted to go back).  However, we never made it to Octon because we had a run-in with a motorcycle, so no lunch that day.  Today, though, we made it to Octon and the restaurant was open, so we enjoyed a nice lunch of skirt steak in roquefort sauce that was quite good.

From Octon we headed to Lodeve, a sizeable town that we had seen from the highway, but had never visited.  The road skirted Lac du Salagou, which is a large man-made lake and recreation area that we drove around via a 1 lane dirt track last time we were here -- I don't think we were even on a designated roadway.  We got to Lodeve around 2:00, but shops still seemed to be closed.  Most shops close from noon to about 2:00 or 2:30 for lunch, so other than restaurants and cafes, things are rather dead in most towns during those hours.  We drove around the town, looked at the cathedral from the outside, and headed back toward Pezenas via the A75 autoroute -- this section is not a toll road.  We wanted to see if the olive shop was open in Pezenas, but it wasn't, nor was the quilt shop, but we did go into the church.  There had been a funeral last time, so we had never been inside.  The church is romanesque and dark, heavy, not light and airy like the gothic churches. 

A quick trip to the super marche for a few essentials, and we were on our way back to the house with a stop at a roadside stand to buy a melon.  I think this is the 5th melon we've bought since we've been here - they are so good!  Like the Tuscan canteloupes, only a little smaller, and very sweet.  The thing about these houses is that while they have most of the utinsels you need, sometimes they aren't the best, so we end up buying a lot of odds and ends.  So far we've bought 2 knives, a peeler, ice cube tray, and a cork screw.  We'll take those with us when we move to the Dordogne, and either leave them there or bring them home.  We also brought a few things with us, like rubber spatulas and measuring spoons.

When we got home, we took our Kindles out on the terrace for a while and read in the sunshine.  It's been breezy today, too, but not as bad as yesterday.

We really enjoyed our drive in the countryside, through the vineyards, and our lunch.  It's been a fairly leisurely day, which has been nice.  Tomorrow, we will probably go further afield.