David and Ginna Zoellner love to travel. We live in Nice, France, half the year; the other half we live near Chicago, Illinois. We do 'home-exchanges' to explore other areas as well as taking normal trips. We'd like to share some of our experiences with you.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

France 1996 - Southwest

We took off from O'Hare on May 9, about 8:30 PM, 2 1/2 hours late as we adjusted for bad weather and delayed incoming connecting flights. When we finally landed it took a solid hour to retrieve our luggage and then we waited another 1/2 hour for the bus to Montparnasse train station, a nice ride through pretty parts of Paris. We missed the train we had hoped to take by about 1/2 hour but another came an hour later. We boarded the TGV (Tres Grande Vite) for Bordeaux. Rail travel in Europe is so wonderful!

The TGV was a wonderful experience: it leaves on time, is very fast (about 160 MPH), very quiet, nice seats and bathrooms. Your ears really pop when it goes through a tunnel, the speed creating a vacuum. We reached Bordeaux, got our car, and headed out. Once again, we were lucky with the car rental - we were guaranteed a small Chrysler, but got upgraded to a Renault Laguna with lots of room.

The countryside was lovely and we reached our hotel in St. Emilion, a tiny town with four hotels, four restaurants, and four hundred wine merchants. Our hotel, Le Logis des Remparts, was built into the 13th century ramparts of the medieval town. There was a stone circular staircase to our room, one of the prettiest of the whole trip, papered with flowered wallpaper and matching curtains. We moved in for two nights and went out to explore the town, the first of so many medieval hill towns that we would visit. We had dinner at a typical restaurant, Le Tertre, with stone walls, beautiful wood floors, wood beamed ceilings. The green print tablecloth with a pink over-cloth, silver, and crystal made the room warm and welcoming. After ordering a bottle of Entre-deux-Mer, the local wine, we dug into a delicious meal. David had a salad with tripe, salmon, and strawberries with zabiglione; I had salad with a wonderful heavy pate, lamb chops, and chocolate gateau which was warm and served with vanilla sauce. With both main courses came pommes frites, carrots glazed with bacon, and a sort of zucchini omelette that was great. A terrific first dinner and then home to bed.

Saturday we spent exploring the Entre-deux-Mer area. There are chateaux everywhere you look, almost all selling wine to the public and open for "degustation" (wine-tasting). We stopped for le petit dejeuner (breakfast) in Creon, a very small bastide. We laughed when we heard the 50's American music the owner was listening to.

We would be visiting many more bastides in the next two weeks: they are walled towns built by both the English and the French during the Crusades as they fought for control of the lands. Our next stop was Cadillac where it was market day, and what a market! There was everything from pigeons with curly feathers and rabbits to tapes and CDs playing French music. We bought rillettes (poor man's foie gras), strawberries, and cheese for a picnic.

We drove on to St. Macaire, another bastide, and explored its ramparts above the Garonne River. We had expected to have a picnic, but it was rather chilly and threatening rain. I had the name of a 17th century mill, Le Moulin de Flaujacques. We had a devil of a time finding it but it was very much worth the effort. It was on a canal that parallels the Garonne, and it had rough stone walls, heavy beamed ceilings, tile floors, a wine rack built into the stair risers, and lovely flowers. On our table were Sweet William which I always remember from my mother's garden. We could hear the water from the canal gurgling under the mill. Another bottle of Entre-deux-Mer helped us finish off fish pie with white asparagus and a couple of pates for appetizers; quail and duck in blackberry sauce for the main courses. For dessert we had fraises coulis (strawberry mousse) and figs over ice cream. Quite the perfect way to spend a rainy afternoon.

Next we went into La Reole, built on the cliffs above the Garonne. Below on the strand is a long row of deeply pollarded (severly pruned) sycamore trees, David's favorites. They are also called plane trees. We walked around the city and then returned to St. Emilion where we did a bit more exploring and then to bed.

Sunday we were up and off to Brantome. En route we stopped in a little town, St. Aulaye, to get some juice and we found a dolmen. These are burial sites marked by huge stones left by the Celts. Usually one huge stone balanced on a couple of others - how they got those ten-ton boulders up there is still a mystery. This was 40 centuries ago!

When we saw a sign for "Gallo Roman Circuit" we decided to follow it. After a breakfast picnic of bread, cheese, strawberries, and juice (no wine!), we started on the circuit. It was a pretty drive but we saw nothing Romanesque. But we did find a sign to Aubeterre that had an historical marker on it. We decided to explore and found one of the prettiest little villages in all of France. (Much later we found a map indicating all these officially designated villages, each marked by a sign saying "Un des plus beaux villages de France"). Aubeterre was built on the side of a mountain with a "monolithic" church, carved out of the mountain between the 6th and 12th centuries. It's the tallest such church in Europe at 65'. While we were visiting a French choir group was there and they sang - it was beautiful and gave me goosebumps. Great acoustics!

After Aubeterre we followed the back roads to Riberac and on to Bourdeilles, a pretty route along the Dronne River. Bourdeilles is another of the "prettiest villages", complete with its own chateau (16th c.), 13th c. keep, church, and lovely houses along the river. We had a great picnic of leftover lamb chop and salmon, cheese, bread, strawberries, and wine, and then explored the town. Then on to Brantome where we found a hotel room, pretty basic but big, clean, and with a great view of the river. Brantome is built on an island in the river with a pretty dog-legged bridge crossing it. You can take a boat ride almost around the island. There is a big church, originally 11th c. but rebuilt in the 19th c, the original 11th c campanile, and many houses built into the cliffs along the river. There is also a very expensive restaurant and hotel, one of the Relais & Chateaux chain, always pictuesque.

We made a reservation at a cute restaurant right along the river, Le Fil de L'eau (The Edge of the Water). When we showed up later they greeted us like long-lost friends. It was a very cute place with sunflower yellow walls, green trim, green/white plaid curtains and tablecloths, and fish prints on the walls. Dinner was outstanding. David had a duck pate with salad, perch on rice, and apple crisp with vanilla ice cream. I had radish (the long, mild, white ones) remoulade with avocado, goose parmentier(mashed potatoes layered with goose, sprinkled with bread crumbs and broiled in its own little pottery bowl) that I still dream about, and tart de noix (black walnuts, everywhere in this area) with praline sauce. We finished it (and us) off with two rounds of Porto.

While we were walking around on Sunday we picked out a place to go for breakfast with the best-looking pastries. When we awoke on Monday, we discovered that everything, I mean EVERYTHING was closed. Not a brioche, not a croissant. Rien! Eh, bien, Onward. We made a quick stop outside town to see the Peyrelevade dolmen. Then on through Thiviers (breakfast, finally) and its church and old section, and then lovely St. Jean de Cole, another of the "prettiest villages". The residents were in the process of taking down the decorations from a 2-day flower expo/sale. All the townspeople had spent weeks making paper flowers which were strung up throughout the town. We visited the 12th c.domed (actually the dome was not very successful and in the end they settled for a wooden roof) medieval church which had been decorated by about 10-12 local florists with arrangements of iris, roses, Shasta daisies, orchids, lilies, and more. Another lovely town, on the Cole River, crossed by a Gothic hump-backed bridge.

Then on to Lalinde where we headed east to the Cingle de Tremolat where the Dordogne River snakes (cingle) back on itself with beautiful views. Because it was Monday, open restaurants were difficult to find. We finally found Les Terrasses, high over the Dordogne, where we had goose -liver pate and a vegetable terrine with heavy-duty garlic sauce; duck; and pear/walnut tart for David and a chocolate charlotte with orange ice, meringues, etc. for me.

On to Limueil, one of the "prettiest villages" (getting the idea?). We stopped and watched a glass-blower and bought a pretty blown apple for my paperweight collection. We explored the hillside town overlooking two bridges where the Vezere meets the Dordogne. Then we drove on to Bugue where we stopped for the night at the Hotel de Chateau, $50/night with a huge balcony, nice bathroom, and great reading lights - something we really treasure and which seem to be few and far between. We had a snack of cheese and wine on our balcony and went to bed.

Tuesday we were up and off early to Beynac, another of the "prettiest villages". We drove up to the castle, Chateau de Beynac 12th c., which was still closed, but we wandered around the village on the top of the cliff, inside the castle walls and enjoyed the views. Next we drove down to the lower town and walked around a bit. A very pretty town with some nice 2-star hotels - would have loved to stay there. Beynac is right on the river with canoes to rent. We thought about a paddle but the river looked pretty swift. We drove past Castelnaud castle (13th c.) and the privately owned Chateau de Fayrac (14-16th c.) and on to La Roche Gageac, another of the "prettiest villages". It also is right on the river with boat rides and rentals available. We walked all over town which is built up the cliffs by the river, enjoying their "botanical garden", very nice plantings of cacti and palms. We had a picnic downstream with a view of the river and a bridge. Nearby we stopped at a roadside market for pates to take home and bought a sausage made from duck with black walnuts in it. Wish we had bought lots more of that - it was sensational.

Then on to Domme, one of the most beautiful bastides. For the next trip we must stay in the 3-star Esplanade Hotel in town - just lovely. In the park on the belvedere we met an artist, Michael Marguerie, and bought one of his watercolors. We walked all over the town, admiring the lovely old buildings and covered market.

Then on to Sarlat, our stop for two nights. We found our hotel in the main square. It had rather an ugly entrance down an alleyway behind a snackshop but the room was great. Wood beamed ceiling (although with the ugliest black and gold foil wallpaper between the beams), stone walls, small oriental rugs, big bathroom, and windows on two sides with great views of the square. Out to dinner in a local place that we spent hours deciding on but dinner didn't really measure up.

Wednesday we awoke to sounds of setting up the market. We had views of raspberries, flowers, artichokes, asparagus, and the ubiquitous foie gras. A very lively scene, with the heavy scent of coffee brewing everywhere. We grabbed a chocolate croissant and started off on our day's itinerary. We visited Collonges la Rouge, a 100-250 year-old town built of red sandstone. Quite a change from all the grey and golden stone in all the villages we had seen so far. Another of the "prettiest villages", it lives up to its reputation with flowers everywhere.

We stopped by Loubressac, another of the "prettiest", on our way to Castelnaud. This 12th century castel was closed for the 'siesta' so we just wandered around the town. Then on to Rocamadour, the main destination for the day. The setting of this town is breathtaking, built up a high cliff over the Alzou River with a 15th c. church, Chapelle Notre Dame and the 14th c. chateau on top. The main street into town is a big shopping center for the tourists, although very picturesque. We found the restaurant we had read about called Beau Site, where we had lunch on the terrace, hanging over the valley, surrounded by pollarded trees and beautiful flowers. David started with a tureen of vegetable soup (he ate almost the whole tureen), then langoustines wrapped in bacon. I had pate with salad, lamb daube (like beef Bourguignon only made with lamb, just wonderful!). The bread served was made in-house and had bits of walnuts, raisins and ham in it. Mouth watering. For dessert we split ice cream with black walnut sauce. With the cappucino came cookies which we saved for a picnic. With a really good bottle of wine, this was our $100 splurge.

To work off the delicious meal, we climbed the 216 steps to the top and then walked down again, developing mountain legs, my knees shaking with each step. We bought a puzzle of a knight for our grandson Matt who is fascinated with medieval times and then headed back to Sarlat. En route we briefly stopped at Martel, founded by Charles Martel after he stopped the Moors. Martel led the army that defeated the Moors at the battle of Portiers in 732 AD as they were swarming all over Western Europe. If he had lost, this account might have been written in Arabic. Charles Martel was the father of Pepin the Short and grandfather of Charlesmagne.

Thursday was the Feast of the Ascension. Many places were closed but parking was free, as we discovered after stuffing the meter. We stopped by Gourdon where we climbed to the top by the castle for the views and we wandered the narrow streets. Then on to Cahors, one of the few big cities that we would visit. It is known for one of the most beautiful bridges in France, the Pont Valentre begun in 1308. We walked over the bridge watching the boats going through the locks. Nearby we bought a bottle of the "black" wine that Cahors is famous for. It just seemed like dark red to us but apparently this is the wine that is used at Communion.

Next we were off to Pech Merle, the caves that we had chosen to visit to see the pre-historic cave drawings. We learned that they had carbon-dated the human bones remaining in the caves and they proved to be 24,000 years old. These cave drawings were not much different than the ones discovered in 1940 in Lascaux, which were dated at about 35,000 years. There were many hand prints and simple bison-looking animals. The tour was in French, so we struggled to follow the explanations.

Then we were on to St. Cirq Lapopie, another of the "prettiest", and my favorite, where we would stay for two nights. We found the Auberge de Sombral, a 3-star inn, and got a lovely room on the 3rd floor in the eaves. It had a tiny window overlooking the square, pretty blue-flowered wallpaper, beams, and a large bathroom tucked into the corner under the eaves, making it all angles. Because of threatening rain, we decided to have dinner in the hotel in their beautiful homey dining room, filled with artwork, antiques, silver, flowers. I would love to live in rooms like that. David had an assiette de charcuterie (a plate of deli treats such as pate and hams), lamb, and ice cream with raspberries. I had puff pastry with Roquefort, lamb, and crepes flambe. With wine and port, it was a sumptuous meal. We were definitely ready for bed!

Friday it seemed to be threatening rain again but we took off early on our planned day. We passed Toulzanie with its houses built into the cliffs along the Lot River. There were some sprinkles but we could see blue sky ahead. We passed Figeac which is a pretty small city on the river Cele, through St. Cyprian, another red village, to Conques. En route we were excited to see a parade of antique autos, at least 10-12 of them off on some rally. Conques is another of the "prettiest villages". I would love to stay in its 2-star Auberge. It has a lovely church of Saint Foy (Faith) for a young girl who was martyred; the church was started in 1040. Over the door of the church is a carving showing Heaven on the left and Hell on the right, quite a gruesome scene!

Next we passed through Entraygues with its 13th c. bridge, then Estaing (if you remember Gisgard d'Estaing, the former Prime Minister), and Come d'Olt, both among the "prettiest". We thought they were nice but not necessarily measuring up to some of the others we had seen. But then we went to tiny Belcastel. This was really off the beaten track and probably has a population of 200 but is very lovely. You travel over little country roads over hillsides and then come around a bend and there it is, quite breathtaking as it climbs up the cliff above a curve in the Aveyron River. It has two 3-star hotels and would be idyllic for a week.

We drove back to St. Cirq and had huge sandwiches for supper. Then we climbed to the top of the chateau ruins (13th c.) for a lookout. We noticed some lights on in one of the restaurants so we went over and sat on the terrace for a beer. Suddenly a front came through and the rain was coming. We ran back to the hotel, just making it as the rain came pelting down; the lights went out and Madame handed out candles. Off to bed for the night, cuddling under the covers and listening to the thunder.

The next morning was bright and beautiful. We had breakfast at the hotel, explored some more, and then left for Monpazier. En route we saw a red-tailed hawk chasing a crow and two huge hares chasing each other across the road. We saw so many interesting birds on the trip - what David thought were wild canaries in beautiful colors and many others that we had no idea of what they were. Lots of what look like magpies around here; I think they call them jackdaws.

Monpazier and Domme are thought to be the most beautiful of the bastides. Monpazier, which is one of the "prettiest" really is lovely with its covered marketplace that still has the old weights and the arcaded streets. There's a story told about Monpazier, which was English, and its next door neighbor Villeneuve-sur-Lot which was French. One night the English left Monpazier and marched across country to loot Villeneuve; when they got home they discovered that the French from Villeneuve had looted Monpazier.

We went on to Villareal, another bastide, dodging huge stormclouds. It seems that it is warm and lovely everywhere we go, but the clouds are chasing us. It's an exciting sky. On to Monflanquin, another bastide and an artists community. Then to Pujols, and artist/antiques dealer community. We found a hotel in Pujols on the hill opposite. The hotel was new but done very nicely, in keeping with the countryside. In town I found some beautiful pottery that I couldn't resist. For dinner we went to Le Figueir (The Fig Tree) which is owned by the owner of our hotel, although the restaurant is in town. It is in an old building but the whole restaurant is done in white: white-washed stone walls, white-washed wood beams, chairs upholstered in white linen, and so on. We met the owner who spoke pretty good English; he spent a month in San Diego on his honeymoon. David had the Tapas Provencal which was a selection of appetizers; the mixed grill; and fig bars. I had the insalata caprese; gigot d'agneau; and an outstanding chocolate mousse with orange peel in it. Porto and cappucino finished off the meal and then we were off to bed.

On Sunday, we stopped at a patisserie for sweet rolls to complete a breakfast of rolls and grapes. Then on to Lauzerte, another (!) of the "prettiest villages" (which I must admit by now are beginning to run together, although each is interesting and fun and different.) Then onward through lovely country roads lined by pollarded sycamore trees. The next stop is Bruniquel where there are several tour buses. The chateau here is in ruins, the town is very steep, built on the cliff along the River Aveyron.

Along the way we stopped for lunch at an Auberge which was filled with stuffed animals - falcons, marmots, foxes, etc. No tourists here! We ordered our bottle of wine and our bottle of l'eau avec gasse (carbonated water) and reviewed the menu. We were getting close to cassoulet country and it was on the menu so it was easy for me to decide. David saw "civet" and wondered what it was since we though civet was a kind of cat. When we asked Madame, "Quest-ce que c'est, civet?", she looked around and grabbed what looked to us like a stuffed boar. That was good enough for David. (We learned later that "civet" is just a stew). The meal started with a huge salad - greens, tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs with mussels, shrimp, octopus, served on a huge platter for us to serve ourselves. The next huge plate was charcuterie - lots of pate, ham, salamis, and more. Then came our dinners, each in its own brown pottery casserole and each enough for dinner for four. We did our best. Then came a tray of cheeses from which you could take what you wanted, and then dessert! We were as stuffed as the wildlife!

We passed through another couple of "prettiest villages", Puycelsi and Castelnau-de-Montmeral, and then drove on to Albi, where the term Albigensian comes from. The Albigensians were an 11c. religious sect that was wiped out by the crusades in the 13th c. This was another of the few cities that we visited and we just loved it. It is built along the River Tarn which has a beautiful old Pont Vieux built 900 years ago. The whole town is red brick, including the Basilica St. Cecile (built 13-16th c.) and the castle, Palais de la Berbie (13-18th c.) which has a museum of Toulouse-Lautrec who was born here. There is a walking tour, numbered and in several languages including Engliish. We visited the Basilica which is just beautiful - one of our favorites of all the ones we have visited over all these years. We checked into a 2-star hotel and explored the whole city which was very accessible.

The next day we back-tracked to Cordes-sur-Ciel which is another - you know. But after all the ones we have seen it seemed more work than it was worth. It was about the steepest village we visited, pretty, but nothing to particularly recommend it unless you are a great shopper!

Our next stop, where we would spend the night, was Carcassonne. With a bit of difficultly we found the Hotel Les Remparts, a 2-star which is right in Le Cite, the medieval town. The room was up a stone stairs in a turret, although the room is quite modern and very small. We stopped for a beer at a pub and explored the whole town, walking around the ramparts and checking out the various restaurants. We finally found one we liked. David finally had his cassoulet which was especially good looking with sausage and duck and quite crusty on top. I had more pates, one of which was rabbit, and steak and pommes frites. For dessert we had ice cream and chocolate mousse. Carcassonne is an amazing place, somewhat commercial now, but with all the medieval stone walls and turrets and streets and buildings maintained. The garbage trucks going around in the morning are very loud, with the noise echoing off all the stone. It made one realize how noisy it must have been with horses trotting through.

Tuesday we headed for the coast. We found a 3-star hotel (with off-season rates) for two nights at Canet Plage (beach). Our balcony overlooked the Mediterranean. Lunch was at a nice place up the street and dinner we had on our balcony. Wednesday we loafed until noon and then took a drive down the coast to see what else there was south of here before the Costa del Sol of Spain. We found a charming village, Collioure, where the Pyrennes meet the sea; it has its own castle and lovely waterfront. We fell in love with it and hope to return to stay for a week or more someday. Many artists also fell in love with Collioure and there are pictures of their art - Matisse and Dufy, to name two - in the spot where they were painted.

Thursday we left Canet and drove up into the Pyrennes to visit a couple more of the prettiest villages. We saw Villefranche-de-Conflent which reminded us of Carcassone; Eus, a charming, small hillside village; and Castelnou. We picnic-ed along the way. We spent a couple of nights in le Cap d'Agde and explored Agde, which was rather disappointing, all built from the lava rock that the beaches are formed of, which naturally is black and rather dull looking.

Saturday we drove to Montpellier to drop off the car. We had a harrowing ride through the city, following a guy on a motorcycle who had promised to lead us to the train station. One-way streets (going the wrong way!), over curbs, u-turns - our own city grand prix. Finally we got there, locked our luggage in the train station, and went off to explore the city for a couple of hours. It's a lovely city, the main square of beautiful white marble, very open and elegant. It was market day so we got some provisions for lunch on the train. Then on to the TGV and several hours of viewing the countryside en route to Paris. At Paris we tried to decipher the Metro system and finally got to Charles de Gaulle Airport where we got the bus to the Sofitel Hotel where we would spend our last night in France. The next morning we could sleep in and then on to the UA flight home. A wonderful trip!


Post a Comment

<< Home