Saturday, May 31, 2014

Arles

Gusty winds today of up to 25 miles an hour, and along the river, strong enough to make you cautious about not walking too close to the edge. How strange that the winds are only in this area and that the regions we left are now enjoying warm temperatures and clear skies. Such is the way of traveling. . Arles was a key stop on the Roman road from Italy to Spain, an important port city. Vincent Van Gogh settled here in the 1800's. Arles sits alongside the very wide and flat Rhone River with concrete walls on both sides as it flows through the edge of town. Our hotel is just a block away. Parking is tight, the lot is a block away but spaces are along the river wall and up a curb; if you go up the curb too forcefully, you will hit the wall. It's a little difficult to say the least. The Hotel Musee has 28 rooms and the room is spartan but downstairs is a charming courtyard with many garden sitting areas. We are taking note of all these small space gardens in order to create our own French paradise. Breakfast is in this sitting area, baskets of croissants, baguettes and large cups for coffee, a welcome change from the tablespoons of coffee we have had elsewhere.

The Reattu Museum across the alley is housed in the former Grand Priory of the Knights of Malta with  tall ceilings and gargoyles, housing contemporary art. Reattu was a painter from Arles from 16C-18C. He did an extensive study of human anatomy and his detailed drawings of muscle fibers are exhibited with an upper body sculpture, half with muscle fibers exposed. His paintings are exquisitely detailed and I am enthralled by his portraits of women, satin fabrics with lace and embroidery that make you want to reach out and touch. There are two rooms of Picasso drawings and one full color face that holds my attention.  One of the guards eyes me like a hawk, watching me as I take pictures of what must appear to be highly unusual, like the banister, the sunlight on the stairs and the cracking wall. Or maybe she has never seen a Chinese person before? When I am in the courtyard, I see her at the wall looking down at me; I go inside and she is eyeing me through the door. I am on the stairs, and she is at the bottom.  Do I look like an art thief?

The Ancient History Museum has several models of the Roman buildings built in Arles to copy those in Rome. It is informative to see them before venturing outside since many of these buildings have not been left as ruins, but are part of the living city and not easily identifiable. I am astounded by the mosaics that have been reconstructed on the floor display. Tiny mosaic have bee pieced together to form the original pictures, quite a labor intensive task. Outside, the coliseum is in the process of being renovated and stands majestically in the square. It is a difficult building to photograph as the bright sun shines strongly on the cream colored walls. I walk the city photographing alleys and more cracking walls with faded shutters that sit tightly closed, giving the impression of being uninhabited.  I will have a ton of images to review when I return and are becoming more selective in my shots. Usng my tripod forces me to look hard and compose more thoughtfully. 

Dinner is sandwiches from a street vendor. I mistakenly think it is sunday and that restaurants are closing, and quickly purchase chicken baguette sandwiches before returnimg to the hotel, only to discover that it is saturday and the cafes were closing but not the restaurants.



Friday, May 30, 2014

Moving South

Wendy and David of our b&b Le Jardin give us a warm French send off with kisses.  On our way out, we stop in Gourdon at the Grotte de Cougnac, a natural cave with art that is 20,000 years old. The group just entering is a group with the American Natural History Museum, and mostly from the Bay Area! I ask if we can join their group for the tour since it is in English.  We enter into an immense chamber with stalactites like we have never seen before. Millions of delicate threads cover and hang from the ceiling. Stalagmites rise from the ground and upper surfaces, some joining with threads like cobwebs.  The next chamber has bare walls and the guide points out the red and charcoal drawings of mammoths, horses and prehistoric extinct megalocerous reindeer.  The original red and black animal drawings are believed to have been made 23,000-25,000years ago when the cave was inhabited by Cro Magnon men.  Neanderthal man bones from 50,000 years ago were also discovered in the cave. There are 2 very rare "wounded man" motifs that have lines drawn pointing outward, 
 interpreted as spears sticking out from the body.    There are only 3 known examples of cave drawings of humans and 2 are in this cave. The next set are finger markings in black charcoal, carbon dated at 14,000 years ago.  They found one "lamb fat" lamp in the cave. This cave was naturally sealed by a mudslide. Local residents found the empty entrance in 1900 and used it as a storage cellar but the actual karst and cave art sections were not discovered until 1952.  Limited numbers of visitors are taken through each day and we feel very fortunate to have seen such a piece of ancient history. The group we were with, is on a prehistory cave tour, visiting caves from Madrid to Les Eszies and had a noted professor with them. The thought that we are tracing the movements of man from so long ago is remarkable. 

The rest of our day is spent driving south toward Arles.  We were surprised at the cost of tolls here. Our trip down cost $75US in tolls alone! The countryside changes from farm fields to a drier climate much like California, low mountains with valleys dotted by vineyards. Along the very windy route we stopped once for a view of a 13th century medieval fortress at Carcassone, which is comprised of 2adjoining cities, one old and one new.  The old is encircled by high castle walls and the rooftops are of red clay. 

Huge wind turbines sit in lines above old castle walls in the countryside, making for a very curious contrast between old and new.  I am amused that throughout France, herds of cows lay in the grass and are not standing as in the US; they are as laid back as the people. Arrival in Arles leads to narrow alleys barely wide enough for cars to pass.  The city seems rougher than the charming villages we were in.  We eat a simple meal in the town center with a waiter who tries to say "arigato" and "ni hao" to us. Just as we finish, it starts to drizzle.




Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Sun Shines

Town hopping, photography and so happy to see the sun! The clouds in France remind me of Montana, big, puffy, full of personality and unpredictability. We linger over coffee in the old town of Sarlat while watching locals carrying baguettes and tourists buying foie gras. We meander through the old cobbled alleys taking pictures of the overlapping angles of slate roofs and muted pastel colors of the ancient walls. Today is the annual farm day and there are animals of all sizes in hay covered small fenced areas-black pygmy Vietnamese pigs, geese that are the only things fatter here than in the US, and a special display of the most unusual looking chickens we have ever seen. Pekin chickens from China that look like small spotted fluff balls and others with tiny heads and vivid plumage which Ray says would make great fly tying material. Intermixed among the cages are rabbits with enormously long ears!

Sarlat is immaculate, safe and well kept with not a spot of graffiti or trash. Buenos Aires, take heed! There is such charm in the chipped concrete and peeling paint, which at home would look like dilapidated homes.  Why is that we wonder?  There is such beauty in the moss covered cement walls that line the narrow streets, moss that grows so fast, you can see a layer of new mold each rainy day. We see men in front of houses, performing the endless job of scraping and scrubbing.  

We head back to Beynac today to see it in full sunshine and not surprisingly, it is bustling with tourists. We climb up to the castle high up on the hill and follow the red poppied path around for a spectacular view of the town, Castelnaud castle across the river, and the neatly carved but oddly shaped farm fields below in varied shades of green.  Spring is here and we can see faint uniform parallel lines in the soil as plants emerge. The Dordogne winds so placidly today, a far cry from the whitecaps of yesterday! 

We then make our way back to La Roque but the main road through own so dense with people and cars, even now off season, that we move on.  How different it is from the tranquillity of last night.  Next is the hill town of Domme.  It has It's own fortress but unlike Beynac, this main walkway heading up is full of souvenir shops, food trucks and a carnival ball toss booth.  It is market day and we recognize the olive vendor from yesterday's market in Sarlat.  There is no question that foie  gras is big business in this area with brochures that indicate ducks and  geese are raised very humanely and much more naturally than industrial farms in America.

We end the day back at our now favorite restaurant, L'Adresse for a final duck meal. Simone is remarkable, singly waiting on 32 guests at 14 tables, pouring drinks, serving food, cutting bread, setting and clearing tables, filling and emptying the glassware dishwasher, and taking payment, in addition to bringing food and taking dishes to the kitchen which is downstairs via a narrow circular staircase; she is wearing boots with heels!  Her ability to multitask is incredible and I can visualize her as an efficient executive assistant in Silicon Valley. I ask her if he is alone every day and she responds yes, and that at night she sleeps well.  We will remember Simone as we move on.





Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Canoeing the Dordogne

We are worried about the speed of the currents with the recent rains but fellow guests at the b&b assure us that it is an easy float.  We follow their recommendation for a canoe operator out of Carsac, a few miles from Sarlat. It appears that we are the only customers this afternoon, and we only see one other canoe on the river during our 3 hour paddle. The plastic canoes are very stable even through some wave action due to the wind. We are well equipped with a plastic bucket with screw lid. The current carries you down the Dordogne and it is a beautiful and relaxing ride. The river is lined with lush greenness and along the way you pass under 2 old arched bridges, high limestone cliffs and end with a most breathtaking and spectacular view of La Roque Gageac, a one street town along the river built on the side of a cliff. Though Ray was worried about not finding the correct beach to be picked up, all was easy as the boat operator was at the shore waiting for us to take us back up to Carsac. 

We then drive back to La Roque to see the cliff dwellings of 10-12th century cave dwellers. Apparently during floods, the main street and first floors of buildings are underwater.  The beautiful castle its high up on top of the cliff. Beynac is a feudal village that tumbles down from its majestic castle to the river below. During the Hundred Years War,  the castle housed the French while the British set up camp acoss the river at Castelnaud.  The views are spectacular.  We spend time taking photos, and eating our baguette and sausage  that we had purchased from the Wednesday morning market in Sarlat. We've discovered that there are many variations to a baguette and some are much better than others. We prefer ones with a light and crusty outside with a less dense bread. We've also shifted from the American practice of buying for tomorrow and the next day. Bread and pastries definitely taste better when eaten immediately, and purchased fresh that morning.  Many places sell out by noon and are closed by afternoon.  


Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Cave Art

Breakfast at the b&b is an assortment of fruit, croissants and ham, plus Welsh Rabbit, which to Ray's surprise has nothing to do with rabbits, but is bread with cheese and small dollops of beaten egg whites, toasted. Not quite the breakfast we were expecting-you can't beat China for breakfast buffets or Germany for their assorted meats. It is unfortunately another rainy day and we decide it is the kind of day to spend in a cave.  There is a wide assortment of caves in the area, many with prehistoric cave art, and we choose to see Lascaux. The visit starts in Montignac where tickets are sold nd where there is a small nterpretive museum. Lascaux was discovered in 1940 by a bunch of kids and their dog. The original cave is no longer open to the public due to deterioration of the artwork, but an exact replica of 80% of the cave and art has been made, and it is stunning. Cro Magnon man 17,000 years created these drawings of animals using their hands and handmade brushes. Black, brown and ochre were created using  ground up minerals mixed with water or saliva. The artist's ability to depict 3dimensionality, movement and depth is astonishing. The guide says such use of perspective is not seen again until the Renaissance. They used reindeer fat lamps in the dark caves. Little is known how long  the artwork took to create or how they were able to paint on the ceilings. Seeing the actual art is breathtaking and the impressiveness of the work is not adequately conveyed by pictures in a book. We are unable to visit the Prhistoric Museum Les Eyzies de Tayac as parts of it are closed due to rain.

Further down the road is Le Roc St. Christophe, 5 large limestone terraces carved by the Vezere River, that sit high above the current roadway, which has passages and openings worn into it. It housed prehistoric people for 50,000 years, 

We consider canoeing tomorrow when the weather clears but the flow looks like the flow may be too fast.  We don't see any boats out today. The river is rather muddy, and looks like milk chocolate!

Dinner tonight is at a not so good place, La Petite Borie, a bit greasy and with not so good service

Monday, May 26, 2014

Rain, rain, go away

IPouring rain all day, luckily today is a driving day from Amboise in the Loire Valley down to Sarlat in the Dordogne.  The Dordogne River Valley was called the Perigord during the Hundred Years War, the river separated Btirain nd France.The roads have been easy to drive, the highways and terrain much like Wisconsin.  Driving through small villages, the roads are narrow but free of heavy traffic.  Matter of fact, some of the towns look like they are uninhabited, as there is no sign of people! We often wonder where everyone is hiding, behind their closed shutters we are told. The small towns are full of round abouts.  We find the navigation system in the car to be very useful and probably wouldn't be able to find some of these b&b's without it. 

We arrive in Sarlat around 6 and are greeted by a very friendly British couple, Wendy and David at the b&b Le Jardin. They are originally from York, came here on vacation, liked it so much they stayed. We are only 5min away from the old towne and enjoy local Bergerac white wine with foie gras and duck filet wrapped in a flaky wrapper at L'Adresse.
I am enchanted by the young server hostess, who has a beautiful smile and black curly hair. I am calling her Simone in this blog as she feels like a Simone. 

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Castles


Today is a kick back day in Amboise. Tim from the b&b tells me to be sure to go to the big Sunday market, and that most businesses including restaurants are closed on sunday afternoons.  We start the morning with our usual visit to the local patisserie for coffee and pastries. Many people are buying cakes and we later learn it is Mothers Day in France. Pastries are unbelievably light and flaky and not very sweet. Coffee comes in demitasses amounting to a couple of tablespoons.  Some places give you a small decanter of hot water to dilute it, others do not. They would be horrified to see a large cup of coffee from Starbucks!  We walk the square and wander through some interesting shops then make our way to the market.  There is a large assortment of produce, cheeses, sausages, breads, fish and meats, in addition to clothing, shoes, and flowers. We buy Sunday dinner, sausages, fresh white asparagus, small potatoes, baguettes and paella being cooked in an enormous wok. We feel very French with our goodies. My bit of French has come in handy however when I utter a carefully constructed phrase, I often do a double take because the person turns out to be n English speaker.  It's when I am struggling to find the words that it turns out the person speaks no English at all! We take our time walking the old town in the rain. Amboise straddles the Loire River, with an old stone bridge that crosses over to the small "Golden Island"  with houses and buildings; another bridge provides access to the other side. The river is quite shallow and muddy brown.

The most elegant and visited castle is Chemonceaux, from the 16 th century.  We play tourist and drive out to see it. Since we arrive late, the busloads of tourists are beginning to leave. It is indeed very well appointed with tapestries lining the walls and gorgeous flower arrangements in every room. The 200 ft. long grand gallery or ballroom sits across the Cher River and one can begin to imagine life as a king's lady. Chenonceu was called the chateau of the ladies and housed many famous women over the centuries. The gardens are equally splendid and manicured and by the time we get to them, it is after 6 and we have the place to ourselves. Ray spends his time looking for trout in the moat. 

Our last stop is at McDonalds for free and fast wifi; turns out the apartment has no access. How dependent we have become that being totally disconnected feels like we are separated from the world!
We now know where families and teens spend their sunday evenings- enjoying hamburgers and fries. 

Back at the apartment, I pretend to be Julia Child and cook up our fresh food. All that is missing is a bottle of wine, which we neglected to buy!







Saturday, May 24, 2014

Gardens

Le Logis de Jerzual, our b&b has a tiered English garden with flowing water and moss covered rock walls. Every morning, fresh croissants and bread  are delivered fresh, and we enjoyed these while visiting with a couple from Perth.  We laugh at their Alice in Wonderland story of her finding the b&b by locating and attempting to enter what appeared to be a tiny gated entrance, that actually was the cat door.  He tells us about credit cards in France and their anxiety in tring to find a gas station on a sunday.  Apparently without a chip on your credit card, you cannot use auto pay machines. This can be a problem if stores are not open on sunday. Before leaving Diman, we drive up to the tall bridge overlooking the river valley and admire the view, the fortress walls high above, the steep forested cliff walls, the old town and meandering river below.

The rest of the day is spent driving the very lush flat countryside to the Loire Valley, and consuming Breton pastries we had purchased in town.  The Loire Valley is an important agricultural area and home to more than a thousand castles. The area is vast and getting from west to east takes a long time, therefore it is wise to visit chateaus on one side then cross over to the other..

By late afternoon, we arrive at the castle Villandry, finished in 1536 was the last great Rennaissance chateau built on the Loire.  It has 10 acres of the most beautiful gardens in the area including 85,000 plants. There is no way to describe them, so vast and so manicured! The vegetable gardens are comprised of boxed hedges filled with color, the sculptured hedges in heart, diamond and other shapes.  See the photos to see for yourself how magnificent they are. 

We find our studio apt, across the street from a large castle's walls. The proprietor is a bit stuffy,not  too pleased we were there after 7 pm. The main b&b is next door but we are not permitted into the gated complex. No wifi in the apt. and we are forced to go to McDonalds for internet.  We select,a restaurant, Le Bistro at the mention of the owner of the apt, who said we wouldn't be able to get in, but secure an outside table and dine on escargots and duck breast (magret de canard)cooked in a cognac cream sauce; it is delicious.  


Friday, May 23, 2014

It's All About History

The rolling green farm fields characterize Normandy today, but the history of the area is filled with war.  The beaches contain stories of the largest military operation in history. On these serene beaches on D Day, June 6, 1944, almost exactly 70 years ago, the Allies gained foothold in France ending WWII. We start the driving tour in Arromanches at Port Winston, where the British had built a makeshift harbor consisting of 4 miles of concrete pontoons strung together, and 7 floating piers, a remarkable undertaking. Further down the road is Omaha Beach, the site of the most intense battle where thousands of Americans lost their lives. Walking along the clean sandy beach, one can almost see the masses of troops pouring out of the Higgins boats, making their way up the long beach and up toward the cliffs. Entry was made during low tide so they could see the mines in the sand.  Having raised a son, it is hard to imagine sending a 19 or 20 year old off, and even harder to realize thee young men were there dodging bullets and throwing grenades. Looking at the beautiful backdrop of the town, it is hard to believe this is the same place that is in the videos with all the destruction that took place.  One has to see it to truly visualize the immensity of what occurred here. The American cemetery has rows and rows of white crosses with a dog tag number inscribed on the back of each. The French have adopted the crosses and on Memorial Day, each is adorned with flowers. It is a powerful place to visit.

On our way back we stroll through a small town and check out the local charcuterie, butcher shop, with a large display of pates made from organ meat, which Normandy is known for.

The area is 2 hrs from Dinan and we return late, dining at a marvelous find, L'Atelier Gourmand at the corner of the pedestrian bridge. Seated next to us are 2 couples from British Columbia and London. They give us recommendations, seeing as my iphone dictionary is not successful in translating the complex menu.   Our cod dish, smoked duck salad and raspberry puff pastry dessert is excellent and highly recommended.  Tomorrow we leave Brittany and head to the Loire Valley.






Thursday, May 22, 2014

Le Mont St Michel

It's the land of baguettes and flaky pastries which is how we start our morning. Even a plain patisserie at the railroad station bakes on site fresh each morning. The baker is in the tiny back kitchen with balks and balls of freshly risen dough, and girls roll tall carts with trays of neat little croissants ready to be baked. Piles of breads and rolls are constantly being replenished and we are amazed at the volume of sales the must make each day.

Our rental car is a compact Opel with nav system, a British woman with a beautiful voice and the most specific directions I have ever heard. She even says, "please turn...". We head to Dinan in Brittany. Dinan is a charming Rance river valley town with stone houses and a tall bridge that rises high above the harbor. It is a great town for walking as there is the harbor level and the upper bridge level. The fort sits high on the hill surrounded by a city wall. Inside the fort, the alleys are windy and narrow. The b&b Le Logis de Jerzual is located on a cobbled pedestrian hill, not for the faint of heart. We drive around and around the fortress 3 times trying to find a way into the neighborhood, before finally giving up and drive up the steep alley that is marked no cars, going through a very slim arched doorway, only to find the path chained off.  We drop off our luggage and give kudos to Ray driving stick shift on narrow alleys and having to back all the way back down! Another guest later tells us the wife got out looking for the gate and tried to get herself im through a tiny gate that she later learned was a cat door! The street designated as free parking is a slanted narrow road virtually imposdible to park on with stick shift! Our room is at the top of skinny stairs, very french and decorated in blue.

We head to Le Mont St Michel. It is now alternating between periods of sun and pouring rain. We arrive at 4 and true to the guidebook, the masses of tourists are leaving, hurrah! We walk the ramparts and ooh and ah at the mudflats below which reflect the sun and create luscious shadows and texture. Stay tuned for real photos. This has been a pilgrimage center since 708, one of 4 in Christendom in the world. Since the 16th century, hermit monks in search of solitude lived here.The abbey used to be surrounded by water but with the old dam, has silted up such that water no longer flows fully during high tide which can move in at 18 mph. The area is being redone with new dam and causeway, returning it to its former splendor by 2015. We get to the abbey too late to go in. Apparently there is a special early closing. However I take many photos of the lines and shadows and we take a short walk onto the mudflats whic spread out or miles. We see some groups way out on in the distance. Friars made the pilgrimage from the abbey to land during low tide. 

Travel advice: to visit Mt. St. Michel, stay in the town itself so you can walk in early in the am or late at night when the place is empty. With a car, park in the lots; shuttles start running at 7:45am but you can walk in before then. Go to the new dam and viewing platform for the best view.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Planes and Trains




We leave on a beautiful day, sunny and blue skies in SF to land 12 hours later under gray skies and drizzle  in Paris. It must be the explorer adventurer wanderer in us that leads us to want to venture new places.  It's certainly not for the weather! the flight was fortunately uneventful and time quickly passes with a wide variety of movies, of which I watch 4 romantic chick flicks.  Our fast train to Rennes takes us on a 3 hr ride through farm fields. The speed and efficiency of the European mass transit system puts us to shame, as do the beauty and comfort of the train stations. Rennes is a charming small town with the typical old world charm of a large square and 4 roads leading from it , each with a unique view of arches, churches, and narrow cobblestone alleys. This is not an American tourist destination and we have to do our own interpretation of the menu at the tiny La Gavot Creperie with the waitress' un peu d'anglais and my equally peu de francais. Not knowing the difference between a crepe and a galette, shame on us for not reading Rick Steves before dinner, we are very confused by the choices. Nevertheless, our sausage, potato and onion galette was delicious, and our banana, chocolate, ice cream crepe was equally satisfying. For your education, a galette is made from buckwheat flour and is usually savory. A crepe (which confused me when she said it was salty) usually has a sweet filling. Brittany is famous for its crepes and restaurants offer an impresive array of fillings and toppings, with paper thin skins.

Tonight we are at the budget Ibis hotel right next to the train station.  Finding it made me grateful for having done my 3 week crash review of french on my way to work each day. I was brave enough to talk to 5 people who I understand as saying, "I don't live here." Thank you Pimsleur for your practical phrases!