Vive la France!

Vive la France!

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

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Languedoc - Day 1: Stay at home day

Since today was Sunday, the plan was to sleep in, but I woke up at 6:30 and never really got back to sleep, so read for awhile before getting up a little before 8:00.  I'd put a load of towels in the washer last night, so switched them out for another load: numbers 1 & 2 of the 5 loads I did today, and all had to be hung outside.

Before breakfast, I put on my walking togs and walked into the village for a baguette.  It isn't a very long walk, but it felt good to get out.  There is a new little grocery in the village that has bread on Sundays, but is only open til noon.  They have just about everything we need, as they it is also a butcher shop and they have a nice selection of groceries -- sort of a convenience store.  The young woman there told me they had been there for 4 years, but the sign outside says since 1916 or something like that, so they may have been the grocer in the older part of the village.  The bakery is in a new spot too -- I'll hoof it down there tomorrow morning.

We are in the village of Lezignan-la-Cebe -- Cebe being a reference to the onions this village is known for.  It is an old village with newer "suburbs" and our house is in one of those, having been built in the 1990's.  There's a pharmacy, a Tabac with a bar/cafe, the bakery, a pottery, and small grocery.  The houses in our area were built in what used to be a vineyard, and there are lots of vineyards around here.  Languedoc is a major wine growing region of France, but not as well known in the US as Bordeaux or Burgundy.  This is where they make the wine for the French market.  There are also a lot of olive trees. We're about 5 km from Pezenas and about 10 or 12 from Clermont l'Herault, which is probably about the same size as Pezenas.  This part of France is not well known by American tourists, probably because Rick Steves mentions only a few sights in the region: Nimes & le Pont du Gard, Carcasson, Albi, and Collioure.  A lot of British come here, though, and our house is owned by a British couple.  On the one hand, I think it is a shame that more Americans don't come here because it is really beautiful and there are a lot of things to see and do, but on the other hand, I'm glad they don't.

When you rent a house for any period of time here, it is like it is "your house."  Even the owners refer to it as "your house," not our house.  But with that comes the responsibility of doing certain chores, like putting out the garbage cans -- tomorrow is garbage day, so I had to move the garbage cans across the street.  The French do recycle, and along with the garbage, I put out the recycling can that takes everything but glass -- I have to take the glass down the street to a special collection point.  Even the smallest villages have recycle points for glass...all those wine bottles.

We had lunch at the house today, then after all the laundry was hung out to dry, we took a short drive down to Meze (backward accent on the 1st e), which is about 16 km from here and located on the Bassin de Thau, a large lagoon separated from the Mediterranean by a sandspit.  They farm a lot of shell fish there, including oysters and mussels and there are several seafood restaurants around the port.  There are some really pretty views from there, but the streets are really narrow.  It was really windy down there today, so we didn't stay long, but I'm sure we'll go back one day for lunch.

When we got back to the house, we found a stash of British magazines, so looked at those.  "Hello" is the British equivalent of "People" and I think it's a lot of fun to look at. 

I finally fixed the chicken breasts we bought to fix for last Thursday night.  We put them in the freezer so we could bring them with us.  They were really good with some fresh haricots vertes (green beans), little potatoes, and a salad.  Sorbet for dessert.

We've been looking at the maps and Michelin guide to figure out what we'll do tomorrow, but don't have a firm plan. My cousin Janice Forey arrives on Thursday and will stay with us for a week, so we want to save most things to do after she gets here.

A nice start to our 2-week stay in Languedoc.

Provence to Languedoc

Saturday, September 25, 2010
Last night a little storm blew through – some thunder, but quite a distance away.  There was a brief cloud burst, but not a lot of rain.  This morning there were some dark clouds, but mostly sunny.
Today was moving day.  We got up at 7:00 and after breakfast we finished our packing.  It seems like we have a whole lot more now than we started out with.  Louis & Cathy came at 9:30 as arranged, so we could settle up.  They gave us back our security deposit, which we gave them in cash.  They are such nice people and we enjoyed visiting with them.  Louis speaks good English and Cathy speaks a little English.  I spoke to them in French, supplementing in English as necessary, which was quite often, and Louis translated for Cathy.  I know I didn’t always use the correct tense of verbs, but they seemed to understand me.  And, I think Cathy appreciated my effort.  Louis gave us a tip for a better route to get to Pezenas, which worked out very well, and we were on the road by 10:00. 

We asked Louis about the little snails -- they are not the ones that are eaten here.  Last night as I closed the shutters from inside my room, 2 salamanders fell into the room.  One stayed on the window sill and scurried back outside, but the other fell onto the floor.  I sure didn't want it in bed with me, or deciding to hitch a ride in my suitcase, so I got the broom and swept it out the front door, but not before it lost its tail.  I hope it doesn't have trouble growing a new one.
The drive was easy.  Traffic was pretty heavy, and we had to navigate around Nimes on surface streets to get to the A9 autoroute.  As soon as we got into Languedoc, we were excited to be coming back – we noticed a lot of changes as well as a lot of things that were the same.  The big difference is the foliage – when we arrived in early April 2005, the trees and grape vines hadn’t leafed out yet, and now the grapes are being harvested and some leaves are starting to fall from the trees. 
We stopped on the autoroute for a quick sandwich.  We arrived in Pezanas around 1:30, and the first thing I noticed was a McDonald’s – it wasn’t there 5 years ago!  Saturday is market day, and they were just starting to put things away when we got there, but we were able to get some lettuce, a melon, cauliflower, pears, and some flowers.  We walked down the little pedestrian street to see what had changed.  The little olive shop is still there, but was closed (we were friendly with the woman who runs it & hope she’s still there).  The internet café is gone, but there’s a different one down the way.  The quilt shop is still there as is the pottery shop, but both were closed.  Unfortunately, we didn’t see the shop that sells the Southwestern French decorating fabrics where we bought the material for the tablecloth, napkins, and placemats Mom made.
We found our way to our village with no problem, but the light on the pharmacy was turned off & I missed the turn to our road.  Pharmacies in France all have neon green crosses on them.  We quickly found our way and got to the house.  It hasn’t changed too much.  The owners have put in a new main bathroom, but otherwise the décor and furnishings are about the same.  The pool is uncovered this time, but I don’t think it is heated, so I doubt that we will swim. 
It was quite windy when we arrived this afternoon, and we hope it isn’t the start of  3, 7, or 9 days of winds.  The winds here cycle in 3, 7 or 9 days, but always bring clear skies afterwards.
After we unloaded the car, we headed up the road to the Hyper-U supermarket in a town about 10 km north.  As we learned a week ago, Saturdays are not the day to shop.  It was really busy and the kids were all tired and cranky, as were we.
In France, you have to put a 1 euro coin in a slot to release the lock on the grocery cart (they are all locked together).  When you return the cart, you put the lock back on, and the coin is released, so you can use it next time.  It’s a pretty slick system and keeps the carts from disappearing.  The carts are also corralled under cover, so they stay dry.  Safeway can take a lesson here!
We also bought gas, though I still had half a tank.  Gas can be difficult to get on Sundays if you don’t have the “chip & pin” debit cards, which are used here rather than the strip cards we use.  We were paying 1.11 euros a liter in Provence, and here it is 1.09 euros/liter, which is only 0.10 cents more than we paid at the same gas station in 2005.  So, gas prices here haven't gone up proportionately as much here as in the US.  We’re still paying about $4 + per gallon, though.  These diesel cars get excellent gas mileage.
We had a little problem this afternoon when I was putting the bed lifts under Mom’s bed.  I got 2 of them on, but when I put the one at the head of the bed, the headboard came off the bed frame – not good.  What to do?  The caretaker lives close by, but doesn’t speak English, but I called him anyway, and explained that we had “une petite probleme” relating to “un lit” (bed).  He came right over and fixed it.  A very nice man and the same one who came over when the breaker blew the last time we were here (at least now I know what button to push to reset it).
I couldn’t get connected to the Wi-Fi tonight, so will try again in the morning.
We had ravioli and salad for dinner tonight.  We’re both extremely tired and since tomorrow is Sunday, no alarm clock – we’ll sleep in.  We probably won’t go far tomorrow – might even stay home as we have a pile of laundry to do.

Provence - Day 6: Roussillon

Friday, September 24, 2010
It was still pretty dark when the alarm went off at 7:00 this morning.  I had forgotten that we just had the autumn equinox a few days ago.  As the sun came up, there was just a tinge of pink in the sky and it was very cloudy.  The sun acted like it would come out, but the clouds overcame any effort made by the sun.
I finally made contact with Kathy last night around 10:00.  I gave her directions to get from Avignon to Coustellet where we would meet them at 10 AM in the town square near an odd little building that is all decorated with brightly colored murals.  I was pretty sure their GPS wouldn’t do a much better job than ours did at finding our house.  Mom and I got there about 9:45 after depositing our week’s recyclables in the containers in the village.  We had our Kindles, so sat in the car reading.  Kathy & Royal got there about 10:10, so we went back to the house where they left their car, and we all used the facilities.
We headed for Bonnieux, a hill town, which isn’t too far from Maubec.  Today was market day, so we thought we would go to the market.  The drive up there was really pretty with lots of orchards, vineyards, and farms and gardens, as well as old stone houses.   Of course, Bonnieux was very busy and we couldn’t find a place to park that didn’t require a strenuous up-hill walk for all of us, so we turned around to go back to Lacoste.  It wasn’t market day there, but otherwise the situation was much the same as in Bonnieux, so we just drove on through.  The road up there though, was much nicer than to Bonnieux.  Apparently, Pierre Cardin owns the chateau there and has put up a lot of money for improvements to both the chateau and the village.  The chateau was originally the family seat of the Marquis de Sade.  All of us, while disappointed that neither of these towns were good stopping places for us, enjoyed the drive.  We decided to go to Roussillon.
Roussillon is situated on a hill of ochre, which is mined in the area for use in various pigments.  It has many galleries and artists’ studios.  Right away, we could tell that this town was different, and we found a good place to park.  Still an uphill climb, but doable.  We found a nice place with an outside terrace for lunch – pizza – and had a good visit.   After lunch, we explored the town.  Kathy and I walked up to the top of the village where there were panoramic views of the village and valley below.  By then the sun was breaking through a little bit.  The buildings in Roussillon are all painted different shades of ochre, making it quite colorful. We stopped in several shops.  Kathy likes pottery, so we stopped in several pottery shops.  One shop had some pretty posters depicting Provencal scenery, so we went in to see if they were for sale.  It turned out to be the shop of the artist, herself, who spoke very good English and was quite chatty.  Kathy took an interest in one of her paintings, which was priced far out of my price-range, and the woman and Kathy became good friends on the spot.  Kathy has never met a stranger, and easily attracts these kinds of encounters – must be because she’s from the south.  The woman also has a friend who has a booth at the Street Fair in Palm Desert, so there was another connection.  In the end, we both bought the 2 posters.  We really enjoyed Roussillon and it helped make it a perfect day in Provence.
From Roussillon, we went to Gordes (the 3rd time for us), but after Roussillon, Gordes seemed colorless, as the buildings there are plain stone.  Mom was able to get into our favorite café to use their nice restroom just before they closed.  We weren’t there long when it began to rain, and all of the shopkeepers frantically started to bring their wares inside.  Kathy & Mom had gotten out of the car at the bottom of the hill while Royal & I parked.  I managed to go back up the hill for the car and pick them up just before it started to pour.  It didn’t rain very long, and once we were down in the valley, it wasn’t raining much at all.  Shortly after we arrived at the house, it poured briefly, but now the clouds are clearing and there are some “Seattle sun breaks.”  Hopefully, it will be nice tomorrow.
We got back to the house around 4:00 and they wanted to head back to Avignon around 5 so as to get there in daylight.  I set out some pate, Roquefort cheese, apple, olives, and bread to go with some wine.  We had a nice visit before they left.  It has been so much fun to see them both here and in Paris.
Tonight is our last night in this house.  We will need to pack up our baggage tonight.  I want to leave by 10:00 so we can try to get to Pezanas before the Saturday farmer’s market shuts down.  We’re looking forward to getting to “our house” in Languedoc, but have thoroughly enjoyed our week in Provence.
Salamander update:  He’s back….!!

Provence - Day 5: La Camargue

Thursday, September 23, 2010
In my last post, I don’t think I did a very good job of explaining what the Santons are.  I said that they are clay figures dressed in fabric clothing, but there is more to them than that.  They are traditionally made by artisans in Provence and they are part of their crèche (nativity) scene at Christmas.  In addition to Mary, Joseph, The Christ Child, Magi, shepherds, etc., they make figures depicting the villagers: baker, butcher, housewife, farmer, etc.  These are then all added to the crèche, which may actually resemble their local village more than it does Bethlehem.   The Santons range in size from a couple of inches to 15 – 18 inches in height & some even taller.  The one I bought is about 10 inches tall and it is an older woman in traditional dress, carrying a basket and umbrella.  I liked her face, so that is why I bought her.
Last night there was a full moon and we watched it come up as we drove home from Les Baux-de-Provence. It wasn’t quite dark when we got home, but we could see the moon through our terrace door and when it got dark, we went out to see the stars.  But, the moon was so bright that we didn’t see any but the brightest of the stars.
This morning we got up to another gorgeous sunrise, and left the house by 9:30, heading for La Camargue, which is the estuary of the Rhone river and it is a National Park.  It is a huge area of marshland where they grow rice and other grains, and harvest salt from the sea (Fleur de Sel). They also raise the small black bulls used for Provencal  bull fighting (unlike Spanish bull fighting, the bull is not killed), as well as white horses.  The horses begin life brown or black and change to white when they are about 3 years old.
About a third of the route duplicated yesterday’s route to Les Baux, then we covered some new territory, skirting Arles, and heading to Stes-Maries-de-la-Mer.  The highway into and out of St-Remy-de-Provence has huge trees on either side, creating a tunnel of leaves.  We believe the trees are sycamores, and I think some of them look old enough to have been there when Van Gogh lived in St. Remy.
We got to Stes-Maries around 11:30, and found a place to park, then had lunch.  We had a “daube,” which is a stew.  In our case it was made from bull meat and had a very dark and delicious sauce.  It was served with locally grown rice and was really good!  We then walked around the town for a little while.  Stes. Maries isn’t a very picturesque town and it’s very flat as it is right at the sea.  It reminds me a little of Santa Cruz, CA.  There is an interesting old church, but mostly it is shops and restaurants catering to tourists.  It was easier for Mom to get around since it is flat and there aren’t any cobblestones.
The legend is that a boat was abandoned in c40 by Jews of Jerusalem which, without a sail or oar, landed safely on the shore of Les-Saintes-Maries.  The boat carried Mary, the mother of James, Mary Magdalene, Martha and her brother Lazarus, and Mary Salome, the mother of James and John, among others,  including Sarah, the two Marys’ black servant.  Martha and Mary Magdalene went elsewhere, but the other 2 Marys and Sarah stayed in the Camargue, eventually dying and were buried in Stes-Maries.  (abridged from the Michelin Green Guide) The significance of this that Sarah became the patron saint of the Roma people (gypsies), who live in the area, and there is a “reunion” of the Roma people in Stes-Maries every spring.  When we were there today, some Roma women tried to sell us medals and trinkets.
When we visited the Camargue five years ago, we drove down the other side of the river, and didn’t see a lot of bulls or horses, but today, we saw lots of them.  The Camargue is also famous for its flamingos, which arrive here from Africa in the spring and return in the fall.  We saw a lot of the flamingos last time when we were here in April, but not very many today.  Today, we took a boat trip up the Petit Rhone (the Rhone splits into 2 branches at Arles).  We saw several Great Blue Herons, some white egrets, gulls, as well as bulls and horses.  It was a nice trip, taking about 1 ½ hours and since it cost just 10 euros each, it was a pretty good deal.  When we got off the boat, we were in need of refreshment before starting for home.
We retraced our route back home, arriving a little before 7:00.  It was a long day, but a good one.   The weather was good – the sun was hot out on the water – but by the time we left Stes-Maries, it was starting to get overcast.  Hoping for some blue sky tomorrow as we are meeting Kathy & Royal Larison, who are staying in Avignon, and visiting some of the hill towns of the Luberon.
Update on Mom’s pet salamander:  when we got home, he was finally gone from the shower.  We are hoping he was able to get out through the drain.  I think she’d better check her bed before getting in it tonight.  I know I’m going to check mine!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Provence - Day 4: Les Baux de Provence

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

We are at the McDonalds in Cavaillon.  Mom is drinking a petit cafe and I'm drinking a "Coca Light" and using the free Wi-Fi.

After yesterday's clouds, we were happy to see blue skies and sunshine this morning.  We left right after breakfast, heading for St. Remy and Les Baux.  It was market day in St. Remy, and it was a mad house.  No place to park, so we drove straight through for Les Baux. 

St. Remy is where Vincent Van Gogh spent a year in an sanitarium and where he painted many of his most famous paintings.  He painted over 140 paintings while he was here. Unfortunately, there are none of his original paintings here, or in Arles either, which is where he spent a couple of years.  We came here in 2005, so didn't feel bad that we didn't stop.  There are also some Roman ruins close by.  I wanted to stop, but when Mom waved the handicap placard at the parking attendant, they made us go across the road - I guess they thought we wanted to see those Roman ruins.  Where they took us was too far for Mom to walk back over to see what are labeled as The Antiquities, so we just went on to Les Baux.

When we got to Les Baux, the parking lot closest to the entrance was already full, but this time when Mom waved the placard it got results and we got a spot close to the main entrance to the village.  When were here 5 years ago, Mom was tired so stayed in the car while I went into the village, which is built up the side of a cliff.  This time, she went into the village with me, but it was hard-going as the cobblestones are very big and uneven.  We walked a little way and went into a couple of shops.  We also went to the Santon Museum.  Santons are "little saints" made of clay and dressed in cloth clothing.  They have been made since the 17th century and there is a man in Les Baux who still makes them.  I took some pictures in the museum, and also bought one from the craftsman.

We had a wonderful lunch in Les Baux, a Provencal specialty of poached cod and vegetables, including steamed califlower, potato, carrot, and zuccini.  There was a huge glob of aioli (mayonaise) and a hardboiled egg, too.  It was really good -- the fish and vegetables were perfectly cooked.

Unfortunately, the restroom at the restaurant wasn't well suited for Mom, so we walked up a ways and found a cafe with a better restroom.  She stayed there with a cup of coffee while I went exploring further up the hill.  There's a chateau at the top of the hill, but I didn't go in as I didn't want to leave Mom too long.

We left La Baux around 2 and headed back home through St. Remy again.  We got home and I hung out the towels we washed this morning and grabbed the laptop, so we could go looking for Wi-Fi.

We have a little pet!  Mom has a little salamander in her shower.  We think it came in through the window in her bathroom, which we left open.  It's been there since yesterday.  This afternoon I tried to tease it onto a broom handle so I could take it outside, but it wasn't interested.  It doesn't seem to bother Mom, but I'm glad it's not in my shower!  I believe the salamander was the symbol of one of the royal families of France, or perhaps of one of the cities -- can't remember which, I'll have to look it up -- so maybe it is lucky to have one...or not.

One of the things we have noticed is how the grapes grow here compared to Burgundy.  In Burgundy, the grapes are grown in perfectly pruned manicured rows.  In Provence, the grapes are allowed to grow as they want and are not severely pruned.  A lot of produce is grown in this region, including apples.  The apple trees are smaller than what we have in Eastern Washington and in many places they are espladed (not sure how to spell that) - grown on wires.  We've seen red apples as well as what appear to be Golden Delicious.  The produce in the supermarket is labelled to show its country of origin.  Most everything comes from France, except bananas, pineapple, kiwis, and avacados.

All for now.  We need to get back to the house.  It will probably be Saturday before I do another posting.

Provence - Day 3: Cassis & Les Calanques

Tuesday, September 21, 2010
Today we got up a little earlier than usual.  There was a beautiful sunrise, but there were a lot of clouds this morning.  We left the house around 9:30 to go to Cassis, which is a resort town on the Mediterranean, about 20-25 km east of Marseille.  We took the autoroute all the way, and the trip took about 90 minutes each way and a ¼ tank of diesel.
We had to park up yet another hill, but this one wasn’t quite as steep as the one in Gordes.  We arrived by 11:00, so I thought we might be a little early, but the town was already buzzing with tourists, mostly French.  We  headed for the Tourist Information, then bought tickets for a boat trip to see Les Calanques, which are chalk cliffs and fjord-like inlets that stretch about 20 km between Cassis and Marseille.  The only way out there is by boat or hiking on a trail along the top.  We decided it would be best to do the boat trip before lunch, so we took the noon tour that visits 5 Calanques, and takes about an hour.  Our boat was probably the ugly duckling of the fleet, but was named the Marseille, so must have once been a proud little boat. There weren’t a lot of people on it, and it was very comfortable.  Everyone else was up front until it got windy and they started to get wet from spray.  We stayed in the back under an awning with open sides.  Even with the clouds, the wind was fairly warm, so I didn’t even wear my jacket.  The sea was not glassy smooth, but it wasn’t real rough, either.
The boat went up into each of the Calanques as far as feasible.  The captain gave a narration, but it was in French, so it didn’t mean much to us.  At one point, as we approached a sandy beach, the captain made an announcement, and everyone but Mom & I scurried to the front of the boat.  We wondered if the announcement was that it was a nude beach – the men, especially, seemed very interested and were taking a lot of pictures.  For a brief moment while we were there, the sun came out and you could see how the cliffs must look in bright sunshine with the turquoise of the water, the blue of the sky, and the white chalk cliffs.   We could also see a lot of fish in the water beside the boat.
The weather wasn’t quite as I envisioned for the trip, but it was great to be out on the water and the scenery was spectacular.
After getting off the boat, we had lunch quay-side at Le Delphin – it was the first place we came to, but once Mom saw that they had mussels, I couldn’t get her to move on.  Mom had the moules frites (mussels & fries), and I had a salad with chicken, avocado, egg, and tomato.  Mom loved the mussels – she had wanted some ever since we got here – they were in a sauce flavored with fennel, and my salad was very good.  When we sat down at the table, a couple of older French men at the table next to us seemed to be quite taken with me – I think they were about my age within a few years.  They gave us the half-bottle of red wine they had left, which was nice, and it was good wine, and I thanked them.  They asked if we were “anglais,” but I explained “americaine” and told them we were from Seattle – they seemed to know where that is.  When they left, one of them touched me on the shoulder and said “a bientot” (see you soon) – what a flirt!  When we’d finished eating, Mom looked for a wet-nap to use on her hands.  The French couple on the other side of us also had the moules frites and they had wet-naps.  When the woman realized that Mom needed one, she asked the waiter to bring one for her.  That’s another example of how nice the people have been.
After lunch, we walked around a little while before starting back to the car.  It was about 3:00 when we left to head back home, again via the autoroute.  The toll costs were about 12 euros for the trip. 
This was a really good day because we had no parking debacles and no missed turns or close calls with on-coming cars in tight spaces.  This kind of daytrip is fairly easy on mom, too.
Our house is in the area known as the Luberon.  We are right below the Petit Luberon on the north side.  Today, we were on the south side, and the terrain is quite different.  We saw several old churches and castles on hilltops, vineyards (they are harvesting now), chalk and limestone outcroppings, and the vegetation is a little different than on our side of the Luberon – it’s scrubbier over there.
Mom’s skin is so fragile that every time she even brushes against something with her forearm or back of her hands, she bruises and even peels back the skin.  She brought some band-aides, but not enough, and even the band-aides cause her skin to bruise.  We stopped in a “pharmacie” today to get some gauze pads and gentle tape.  Her right arm is now all bandaged up.  It is really interesting trying to find what you need when the labels are all in French, but the people who work in the pharmacies are very helpful.
I’m fixing steak for dinner tonight.

Provence - Day 2: Return to Gordes; L'Isle sur la Sorgue

Monday, September 20, 2010
We arrived in France a week ago today!
We both woke up this morning feeling very rested.  Our lights were out by 10 last night, and Mom actually looked very rested and relaxed at breakfast.
Since being in the house, our breakfasts have consisted of fruit (melon and half a banana); yogurt (plain in cute little glass pots) – we put some jam in the yogurt, a trick we learned when we were here in 1994; baguette; orange juice (Tropicana – just like at home), and coffee.  Unfortunately, when we bought coffee on Saturday, we got ground decaf, but regular beans, so with no coffee grinder, I’ve been caffeine-free for a couple of days.
This morning we left the house a little before 10, to go back up to Gordes.  We arrived there around 10:30, and even then there were quite a lot of people, but not like yesterday afternoon.  We had to drive up the hill to find a parking place in a lot (didn’t have to pay, though, because of Mom’s handicap placard & she’s convinced that is why she gets to come with me on these trips!).  We walked down the hill, and actually saw a couple of the bories (stone huts) that we didn’t get to see yesterday, so that was nice.  At the bottom of the hill, we popped into a café for some coffee.  It had a great view of the valley and we could even see the Luberon hills across the way, which loom over our house.  It was good to get a shot of caffeine, but it was expensive!  Over 8 euros for 2 cups of café crème.  However, the restroom made it worthwhile.  It was one of the best restrooms in a business we’ve ever found in all of our travels in France!
We then walked around the village a little, but many of the streets are very steep and we didn’t venture down them.  There were a couple of nice shops and we bought a few small items.   We found a good spot to sit in the village square to do some people-watching.  A couple sat down near us, and we asked if they would like us to take their picture, which we did.  We started talking, and they turned out to be neighbors from Vancouver, BC.  They were there with another couple, so we took a picture of the four them, and they took our picture.  It was fun talking to them and comparing notes.  We advised them NOT to try to go to the Village de les Bories.
When we were ready to leave, Mom stayed down below and I walked back up the hill.  All those weeks of walking around the neighborhood at home paid off, as I went up the hill without a puff, and drove the car down to pick up Mom in the taxi parking spot, but while we were getting her walker in the car, a tour bus came right up behind us.
Mom commented today that she hasn’t seen a lot of older people.  Some of the tourists are maybe in their mid to late 70’s, but she’s probably one of the oldest people we’ve seen.  Several people have commented on what a trooper she is and think it’s pretty neat that she’s on a trip like this.  I don’t think we’ve seen anyone else using a walker or ambulator, as they are called here.
We had lunch in l’Isle sur la Sorgue, which is a town situated on an island in the Sorgue River.  The town has several old water wheels, which had been used for industry in its early history, but are now just scenic.  They are covered with huge amounts of algae, and the river is also filled with algae and weeds.  We didn’t see any fish, but there are a lot ducks.  We had lunch at a bistro and sat outside under a canvas shelter.  It was really nice, with a gentle breeze passing through.  The wait staff was in no hurry, so we had the typical 2-hour French lunch.  We had salads with smoked salmon (lox-style), tiny pink marinated shrimp, avocado, tomato, caviar (the tiny red kind), and greens with a vinaigrette dressing.  It was very good.  We ordered a crepe with ice cream, chocolate sauce & almonds for dessert.  It took a long time for it to arrive, and when it did, it was quite a sight.  There were 3 rosettes of Chantilly (whipped cream), a scoop of ice cream, chocolate sauce, and almonds arranged on a crepe that was positioned like a mountain backdrop.  We had quite a laugh about how big it turned out to be, but actually, we skipped most of the whipped cream, so it wasn’t too bad – it was really good, though.
After lunch, we walked along the river to the town square and found some shops, bought a few more things, then headed back to the car.  We were both pretty tired by then.
We have really enjoyed the sunshine – yesterday and today have been beautiful.  It’s been a joy to just sit and soak up the warmth.
On the way home, we stopped in Cavaillon again to go to the supermarket.  This time, we needed to buy some decent knives – the ones here are pretty dismal.  We will take the new ones with us when we leave here.  We also got some more provisions, including some regular ground coffee, as we plan to eat all of our dinners here at the house.  The location of the house is such that we don’t really want to try coming home in the dark.
I fixed duck breast for dinner tonight with potatoes, and green beans & carrots.  Mom fixed the salad.  We had our dessert at lunch! 
A lot of the appliances here are “child proofed.”  For example, you have to wait 5 minutes before you can open the washing machine to take the clothes out, which is a safety measure for children.  I wanted to put the duck in the oven for a while after pan-searing it, so I turned the oven on to preheat it, but once it was on, I couldn’t get the darn door open!  I couldn’t find a button or latch to release the door – I couldn’t even open it when I turned the oven off, I had to wait until it cooled down.  I guess that’s another child safety feature, but I sure can’t figure out how you’d get a cake out of the oven when it’s done – I suppose there’s some secret to it.  Good thing I don’t plan to bake a cake!
Another wonderful day in Provence!

Provence - Day 1: Market Day in Coustellet

Sunday – 9/19/10
Our house is just outside the village of Maubec, which isn’t very far from Peter Mayle’s village in his book “A Year in Provence,” Menerbes (accent over the 1st e).   There is an “old” village of Maubec, but the “suburbs” have been built up with new homes.  We are still trying to get our bearings.
Louis & Cathy told us there was a good market in Coustellet on Sundays, so after breakfast, we headed that way (about 8 km) and it was a very good market.  Very big and lots of people.  Just about every village, town, city in France has a market at least once a week.  You can get just about anything at the market.   Clothing, shoes, craft items, even mattresses.  We got some tapenade, some olives, raspberry jam, bread, cheese, apples, pears, potatoes, onions, garlic, green beans, salad greens, herbs de Provence, and flowers.  It was a lot of fun. 
Our objective for today was to rest, so after the market we headed for home and did a couple of loads of clothes, which had to be hung on the line, and had lunch – goodies from our trip to the market.  Mom took a nap and I read until about 3:00, then we went for a drive.  I thought we would go up to Gordes, which is a hill town built up the side of a cliff – it’s quite a sight.  Being Sunday, I think a lot of French people were on outings and it was very busy, so we decided not to stop, but to go back earlier in the day later this week. 
It is funny to watch the pedestrians – they walk across the road as though they haven’t a care in the world and are totally oblivious to the traffic around them, even those that don’t have a cellphone to their ear.  It can be frustrating waiting to leave a parking space as several people parade past without concern.  Tour groups are even worse – they are so intent in keeping together than they just plow right on by. 
On the way back, I took the turn for Les Bories.  It is a “village” of stone huts dating back to the dark ages or earlier.  The road to get there is very narrow and it was quite hairy at times when faced with oncoming traffic.  When we finally got to the parking lot, which was pretty full, I decided I’d had enough and decided to turn around and go back.  Unfortunately, turning around wasn’t all that easy.  Finally, someone left, so I could use that parking spot as a turn-around spot.  We went back to the main road and only had to squeeze by 2 or 3 other cars on the way out.  An Audi driver thought I should scrap a stone wall so he wouldn’t have to brush his car with branches.  Fortunately, I got out of there with no damage to the car.  I think we’ll just buy a post card of the bories and call it a day!
The washing machine here at the house is really different.  It’s only about 18 X 24 inches (looking down at it).  You lift the top and inside there is a steel drum that opens up and you put the clothes inside.  The drum is horizontal.  You latch the drum, then pour the soap in the slot, decide how hot you want the water, and push the button to start.  The cycle takes a very long time – it is well over an hour, maybe even 90 minutes, but it seems to get the clothes clean.  When I was hanging the clothes on the line, I notices little tiny grey snails on the grass – some had climbed up to the top of a tall stem.  They are kind of cute and fragile looking.  The escargot in Provence is called “le petit gris” or the little grey, so I’m wondering if these are what they eat for escargot in this area. They are pretty small for eating, but could be tasty with enough butter and garlic.  I’ll wait to try them in a restaurant and won’t cook up a mess of these from the yard.
For dinner I fixed pork cutlets, green beans, potatoes with garlic, salad greens with tomatoes & Roquefort cheese, and sorbet for dessert.  It was very good, if I do say so myself. 
I think another early night tonight.  Tomorrow we will go further afield.

Beaune to Provence

Saturday - 9/18/10
Our second night in Beaune, I parked the car in an open lot down the street from the hotel, not wishing to deal with their tight garage again.  I couldn’t find a pay station, so asked a woman if it was a free lot, and she said yes, so saved us 9.50 Euros.  Another successful conversation in French – well, mostly French – a lot of sign language was used.
There were 2 bus loads staying at the hotel and I couldn’t load up our car until one of the buses left, so after breakfast, we brought our luggage down just after the 1st bus left, and I went to get the car.  Beaune has a ring road that is one-way counter clock-wise, and because of where I was parked, I had to drive all the way around the town so I could get back to the hotel – only took 10-15 minutes.  As I said before, it isn’t a very big town.   We got the car loaded up and were on our way south on the A6 by 10:00AM.
Originally, I had planned to make a couple of sightseeing stops along the way, but decided I would rather just get going as I was anxious to get to the house and get settled.  I put Francine (our GPS) to work and she did a brilliant job of getting us through Lyon, which is a very large city, and the traffic was very heavy. 
The French autoroute system puts our interstate system to shame.  The road is smooth, well maintained, and clean.  There are rest stops, call “aires” spaced frequently along the highway.   A few are just picnic spots and restrooms, but most of them have a café or restaurant, gift shop, and gas.  Some even have motels.   However, they are toll roads and not cheap.  It cost us 19.60 Euros from Paris to Beaune, and I think a little over 25 Euros from Beaune to Avignon.  They also have whimsical sculptures periodically alongside the highway, and do an excellent job of showing what historical or tourist sight is off the next exit.  We had lunch at one of the aires at – would you believe – McDonalds!  It was jam-packed, too, and we didn’t hear a lot of English being spoken…none that I recall.  They had kiosks where you could order your food and pay by debit or credit card, then just pick it up – pretty slick.  We had grilled chicken sandwiches called “So Grilled” – it was a new recipe, apparently.
When we got to the Avignon exit we were to call the owners of the house we are renting so they could meet us there.  We called from an aire just outside Avignon and spoke with the owner, who speaks pretty good English.  I didn’t have really good instructions to find the house – the best directions were in French – so relied on Francine.  She took us down a one-lane back road and got us to the road the house is on, but we didn’t see the house or anything with the house number on it.  I wasn’t really sure what the house looked like from the front because the pictures I’d seen were all from the back.  We drove up the road again, and I called the owner, but he didn’t pick-up.  There was a man in his yard nearby, so I approached him and asked him for help in French.  I showed him the French directions, but I couldn’t understand what he said in reply, but started out up the road again.  We meandered up a narrow road to an old village, and the owner called – we had to go back, but he would wait for us in front.  We went back to where Francine first led us and started down the road again.  Finally, we saw a man and a dog standing at the foot of a long driveway – it was Louis!  The house isn’t even on the road, but at the top of that long driveway.
When we got up to the house, Louis’ wife Cathy was there, and they showed us the house.  It’s a very spacious house with a large kitchen, large salon (living room) and dining room, 2 bathrooms, and 3 bedrooms.  One bedroom has 2 sets of bunk beds for kids.  One has a queen sized bed and one has 2 twins.   The grounds are nicely kept  - the lavender is done blooming, but there are olives on the several olive trees around the back.  Louis says they harvest the olives in November and take them to a mill.  Last year they got 13 liters of olive oil from their own trees.  The décor inside is very Provence-like:  Bright yellow and orange in the main room, tile floors throughout.  The bedrooms are white and the bathrooms are tiled.  They had the house built for his parents, so it isn’t too old.
Louis & Cathy told us where we could find a grocery store, so after they left, we went to Cavaillon, about 10 KM away to the supermarket – it’s huge – sort of like a Fred Meyer store.  In addition to some food, we had to buy things like dishwashing soap, laundry detergent, TP, paper towels, etc. as these houses are normally rented to Europeans who bring their own from home.  We also bought a couple of bath towels to supplement what are here – we’ll take everything we don’t use with us to the next house.  The supermarket was a madhouse.  I learned that tired kids are the same here as in the US – cranky!
When we got home, I fixed dinner of hamburger steaks,  potatoes, and tomato salad.  We had cassis sorbet (black current) for dessert.
We went to bed early as we were both beat – my light was out by 10.

Friday, September 17, 2010

A Day in Burgundy

Greetings from Beaune!  This is a really pretty old town...pretty small, actually.  Today after breakfast, we went to the Hostel Dieu, which is a hospital that was founded in the 15th Century to serve the poor and dying.  We came here 16 years ago and found it just as interesting this time.  Beaune has a lot of interesting old buildings with whimsical stone carvings on them. 

It was about noon when we finished at Hostel Dieu and headed out into the vineyards.  We had lunch in Meursault -- a wonderful "Salade Gourmande" with greens, meat turines, vegetables, etc.  It was good and filling.  We then drove to La Rochepot, a 15/16th century chateau that has been somewhat restored and has some furnished rooms.  The guided tour was in French, but the guide gave a brief summary in English for our benefit as well as for that of some Australians.

Then we got lost...well, not really...we finally decided we were on the wrong road, going in the wrong direction, so turned around and when back, finding our way back to Beaune.  Beautiful vineyards and where there are not grapes there are cows -- lots of the white Charolaise (sp).  They seem to have a lot more personality than our normal cows at home.

We got back to the hotel around 6:00; just in time for a short rest before going back to Le Grande Bleu for dinner.  This time foie gras, chicken cooked in red wine (the sauce was wonderful, but it was a really old, tough bird), and burnt cream.  We needed the walk back to the hotel.

We are looking forward to doing our own cooking as eating out is wearing on us & "tres cher" (very expensive).  We plan to cook dinner "at home" tomorrow night when we settle into our house in Provence.  We plan to have a rest day on Sunday - maybe find a village with a Sunday market and just explore the immediate area without doing too much.  We're both ready for a good rest.

It may be a couple of days before I can post again since the house does not have internet access, but there is a place in a nearby village that does have Wi-Fi, so I'll probably head there every couple of days.

In the meantime, take care and au revoir.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Paris to Beaune - Day 4

We got up early this morning and were in the lobby to pay our bill and get a taxi by 9:00.  We needed to go to Orly Airport to pick up our car.  I had arranged for a shuttle, but again, they were a no-show.  The hotel called a taxi for us, but none came, so finally I walked a couple of blocks over to the taxi stand and brought one back.  All the way there, I mentally rehearsed what I was going to say to the driver. I still had to wait about 5 minutes for a taxi -- I guess this is pretty typical of Paris in the morning as everyone seems to want to go someplace by taxi.  When the taxi finally pulled up, I said, "Bonjour...I need to go to my hotel for my mother and my luggage, then go to Orly."  I said it all in French & he understood me and there was no problem!  Yea!  When we got to Orly, I needed to call the car company to have them send a shuttle, but I couldn't find the courtesy phone and couldn't get a signal on my cellphone, so I went to the Information Desk and they called the company for me and a few minutes later we were on our way to the car place. 

We got a brand new Peugot 5008 van -- only 8 km on it.  It rides very nicely, but I'm still trying to figure out all the bells and whistles.  Our luggage & Mom's ambulator fit in it just fine. 

I missed one turn trying to get to the Autoroute, but found a gas station and filled up (the tank was empty), and found my way back in the right direction with no further problems.  Once on the Autoroute, no problems.  We stopped for lunch at a rest stop.  It's about 182 miles from Paris to Beaune and we made pretty good time.  When we got off on the Beaune exit, I did have some trouble figuring out where to put the money for the toll as there wasn't an attendant.  American credit cards don't work in those machines because they have magnetic strips rather than chips.  Finally, a voice came over the speaker and we figured it out.  We got to the hotel with no probem, but the parking garage is really tight.  I still haven't gotten a feel for how big the car is and it is bigger than the typical French vehicle, I was afraid I'd get it hung up on a wall or post.  So left it sort of double-parked and went inside.  The desk said they had a nice room, but there were some stairs -- I checked it out: too many stairs for Mom.  They found another room, we got checked in.  The toilet is in a tiny little cabinet parallel to the door, hardly any leg room.  Mom says "this won't work."  I go back to the desk.  They have ONE more room -- "only solution" -- I check it out.  The toilet is still in a tiny little cabinet, but this time it faces the door, so it will be okay -- we just won't shut the door.  I think the woman was getting a little annoyed.  I tried to move the car, but just couldn't get it turned around, so asked if there was someone who could help me.  This garage is like a deadend and there is a post between each parking place.  The hotel manager came went down with me, turned the car around like a pro, then moved his car which was in a much bigger space, so I could back into his space!  What a nice guy!  Tomorrow, I am going to park in an open lot down the street!

Later in the afternoon, I went out to scout around and walked down into the center of Beaune -- not too far, actually, but quite a walk for Mom.  There's a really nice restaurant just down the street, but when I checked at the hotel desk, I learned they were booked solid (it's a Rick Steves' recommendation, too).  I didn't want to take the car out & I knew Mom couldn't walk too far, but we found a nice place, Le Grand Bleu, and had one of the best dinners we've had on the trip.  Escargo, beef steak (from one of the Charolet (sp) cattle we saw on the drive down), wine, and dessert.  It was after 9:30 when we left the restaurant.  We're finally getting the hang of eating dinner in France.

Well, now I'm all caught up on my postings and it's 11:30 & time to head for bed.

All for now.  Take care.

Paris - Day 3

I didn't have time to post yesterday, so catching up now.

We we got up yesterday morning, the pavement was wet as it had rained during the night, and the sky was dark.  By the time we got out and about, it was starting to clear up.  After breakfast, we took the 3rd line of the hop-on-hop-off bus tour, which takes in more of  the must-see sights of Paris.  We got our first views of the Eiffel Tower since we'd been in Paris.  I took a bunch of pictures and they all looked different because of the different sky in the background.  Some have clear blue sky and some have dark clouds.  When we were heading back into La Concorde, there was some sort of event or demonstration and the police had it blocked off, so the bus driver had to make a U-turn and take a detour.  The traffic was terrible and it must have added about 45 minutes to the trip.  We were glad to get off the bus, and by the time we got back to the hotel, we had only about an hour before we needed to go out again. 

There is a huge police presence in Paris.  I think I saw more police in 3 days than I see in 6 months at home.  We were surprised at how clean the city is, at least in the parts that we saw, and many of the old buildings have been recently cleaned.  I think in the 4 times I've been to Paris this is the first time I've seen Notre Dame without scaffolding around it.  We were also surprised at the young people, especially in the Latin Quarter.  Tuesday night I think some of those kids were only about 12-13 years old.  I realized later that the French schools are often closed on Wednesdays (they go half-day on Saturday), so maybe that's why so many kids were out that night.  There didn't seem to be as many out last night.  Another thing I've noticed is how much better the cab drivers are in Paris -- maybe it's because I have a bit more French, and maybe it's because the city's tourist board has gotten after them for being so surly, but we've had very nice cab drivers.  People have also been very helpful and considerate of Mom and her ambulator (walker), helping us get on & off the buses, over curbs, etc. 

Last night was our cooking class -- the reason why we decided to go to Paris.  We left the hotel a little before 4:30 to get a taxi to go to Montmarte.  We figured we needed to allow lots of time due to the traffic, but of course we got there in about 30 minutes.  So, we walked around a little and found a nice place to have a cup of coffee.  The Cook'n with Class school is on a pretty non-descript street above Sacre Coeur and from the outside you'd wonder what kind of school is it, anyway...  Inside, though there is a very nice kitchen with a large work table with room for 6 students and the instructor.  The work table doubles as the dining table when you get to that part of the evening.

Our instructor was a young female chef named Constance, who is probably about 26 or so.  She started culinary school when she was 15 and went for 5 years.  She worked in Palm Beach for about 18 months and speaks very good english.  She's also cooked for the American Embassy. Our classmates were a mother/daughter from California, but the daughter has lived & worked in Paris for 2 years (lucky girl!); also, a couple from Toronto who had recently celebrated their 25th anniversary.  They were really nice people and we enjoyed learning and cooking with them -- eating, too.

The first thing we did was make the dessert, which was chocolate mousse and a spiced cracker/cookie (I got to mix the dough).  Next we started on the sauce for the meat course as it needed to simmer for about 1 1/2 hours to reduce -- nothing was wasted as many of the scraps from the other preparations went "into my sauce" as Constance would say: mushroom stems, parsley stems, etc.  She started out with veal meat trimmings & bones the butcher gave her.  Once the fatty parts were browned, she took them out so the sauce was not greasy.  A little carrot, a little onion (Mom peeled and sliced the onion), a little garlic, a little white wine.  It was not salted until the end and Constance explained that is because if it is salted at the beginning, it will be too salty when it reduces.  We all got to cut up chanterelle mushrooms, which Constance cooked twice - the first time to get the water out, then she drained them for quite a while and sauted the again to heat them through just before serving.  She also cooked tiny little potatoes.  She sauted them to give them color, then cooked them in about a pound of butter - seriously! - and they cooked - actually simmering in the clarified butter - for quite a long while, very slowly.  Afterwards she drained them for a long time so there was very little butter left on them, then warmed up again in the same skillet as the mushrooms.  The entree was salad greens with a vinegarette, topped with 2 heads-on prawns (we all got to clean prawns & Mom sauted them) - they were seasoned with fresh ginger & lime zest, and triangles of squid that were quickly sauted until then curled up.  The meat was veal filet which was cut into medallions (I got to cut them), tied with string to hold them together, seared, then finished in the convection oven.   The prep work for the meat course was done before we started on the entree, but the meat wasn't cooked until after we had eaten the entree.  After the meat course, we had several cheeses and breads, and there were 3 different wines served during the meal.  We finished with the mousse which had been chilling in the fridge while we were cooking everything else.  Everything was delicious!  It was 10:30 before we left and 11 before we got to the hotel.  I got an email from Constance today with the recipes and instructions.

Since it was our last night in Paris, we needed to pack up, so that's why no blog posting yesterday.

We had a lovely time in Paris, but were ready to move on with our adventure.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Paris - Day 2

Yesterday afternoon, Mom was energized after her nap, so we took a walk over to Notre Dame and since there weren't a lot of people waiting to go inside, we popped inside for a little while.  There was a Mass in progress -- we heard part of the homily, in French.  There were a lot of people milling around inside, and we walked around to look at the windows.  It is huge, and the pillars are huge, too.

A month or so ago, I finished reading Ken Follet's "Pillars of the Earth," which is a novel revolving around the construction of a cathedral in 12th century England.  That has helped me better appreciate what is involved with the construction of these huge stone buildings in the days before modern construction techiques and machinery. 

We spent a few minutes watching the late afternoon sun pass across the front facade of the cathedral.  We both noticed how even with all of the traffic and tourist activity, how peaceful Paris seems when you're just passing time on a park bench.  I think part of the reason is because there are no sky scrapers in this older part of the city, so everything seems so open.

We had started out in search of an early dinner, but by the time we finished marveling at Notre Dame, it was about 7:00, so we were right on time for the local restaurants to open for dinner.  We ate at Le Petit Chatelet, which is right next door to Shakespeare & Company, and faces a little side street that runs below the main boulevard along the Seine.  It was a very pleasant evening and we sat outside, feeling very much like "we're in Paris!"  We were served a dish of marinated olives with our appertifs of Kir. We both had a chevre tart for the starter course, which was a round of goat cheese baked in a round of puff pastry atop a lettuce salad and garnished with pesto and tomatos.  It was really delicious.  For the main course, we both had the duck confit served with a vegetable gratin.  It was good, too.  Mom had sorbet for dessert and I had the terrine of chocolat with carmel ice cream.  The terrine was sort of like a very rich, dense brownie and had a texture somewhat like flourless cake.  It was a very good dinner, but we couldn't wait to get back to our hotel and to bed as we were both very tired -- especially me as I had not taken a nap, so had been up for over 24 hours.

This morning, we got up around 9 AM, feeling pretty good.  We had breakfast at the hotel, then set out for the L'open Tour, a hop-on-hop-off bus that conveniently stops across from our hotel.  There are 4 lines and 2 of them stop there.   First we took the line that goes to the east side of Paris, to the Bastille and Marais neighborhood.  We hadn't been in that part of Paris before, so it was interesting to see it.  We then took the line that goes south past the Luxenbourg Gardens and Montparnasse.  It also passed Les Invalides and the Roden Museum, which we visited the last time we were in Paris.  We got off by the Cluny Museum, which isn't far from our hotel.  We had lunch at a nearby cafe (Salade Nicoise), thinking we'd go to the museum afterwards, but I forgot to check the museum hours and it was closed today.  Most museums in Paris are closed either on Monday or Tuesday.  It was just a couple of blocks back to the hotel, so we walked back and rested for the rest of the afternoon.

The "hop-on-hop-off feature of the tour doesn't work really well for us because it is difficult for Mom to go up and down the stairs to the upper level (why would we want to sit below?) and getting her walker on & off has its own challenges.  But, it's a relatively inexpensive way to see a lot of Paris that we wouldn't see otherwise.
Our hotel is very comfortable and the staff is very friendly and helpful.  I feel sort of a connection with the hotel because of its name "Henri IV."  I just finished reading "The Confessions of Catherine de Medici" who was married to King Henri II, and the mother of Henri III.  Henri IV was a cousin, who inherited the throne upon Henri III's death, and is prominent in the book.  We like these small hotels.

Kathy & Royal Larison are also in Paris this week -- they've been here since last Thursday -- so they walked over from their hotel (about 3.5 km) to have dinner with us.  It was so good to see them as we hadn't seen them since we were in California in March 2009.  We had dinner at Le Navigator, which is right around the corner from our hotel.  I made reservations for 7:00 and when we got there, of course, we were the only ones there, and no one else came in until around 8:00 or later.  The staff must of thought it was odd for us to make reservations for such an early dinner.  We had a good dinner, made even better by the company and had a really good visit.  After dinner, we walked with them to the taxi stand a block or two away.  We have made plans to get together again while we're in Provence.

One thing that is kind of hard to get used to, but it is quite common here as well as in England, is the presence of animals in restaurants.  There was a cat in the restaurant where we ate lunch yesterday and one in the restaurant tonight.  I remember when we were here in 2000, we ate lunch at a cafe on Rue Cler and the woman sitting right next to me (it was a shared tressle table) had a dachshund on her lap.  She would occasionally push a bit of food to the edge of the table so the dog could delicately take it.  Of course, since it was a dachshund, so I wasn't at all offended!

Another nice, warm, sunny day.  We are happy with what we've done -- we did not plan to visit all the big sights while we're here because we've seen most of them before.  It is enough to just be in Paris.