Thursday, June 9, 2011

Berlin Museums

Saturday, June 4, 2011
It's hot in Berlin today, and humid. Too hot for this time of year Sandra tells us. But the apartment is cool with breezes flowing in through the windows. When all are ready, we head a few blocks to Atlantic Café for breakfast of omelets and other good stuff and conversation.

Dave and I decide to take the U-Bahn (subway) to MuseumInsel (museum island) for the afternoon. We agree to meet at 8 for dinner at Felix Austria. The subway is 3 blocks away from the apartment, in a bit tattered station, but easy to use and the cars are clean and comfortable. A one way ticket costs 2 Euros 30. We figure out the machine (you can choose English) and head to the museum stop which is 500 m from the island where all the museums are.

We stand in line for tickets to the Neues Museum first because they give you an entrance time. However, we get right in. This museum was badly damaged in WWII and was stabilized shortly after the war, but only restored after the wall came down and only opened about a year ago. The museum houses the Egyptian, Greek and Roman parts of the collection but the building itself is as worthy of study as the collections.

An English architect, David Chipperfield, was responsible for the restoration and his approach was (in my mind) brilliant. He kept what was possible and made no attempt to make modern parts look like they are old. Instead, he chose simple, plain concrete that matched the feeling of the space. The museum feels of a whole but at the same time shows it's checkered history. Where decoration remained, it was kept. One Egyptian room in particular had been redone before the war with a dropped ceiling. The paintings on the walls above the dropped ceiling were never touched, but the walls below had been overpainted and so the original paintings were already lost before the war. Now the room is opened up and you can see the ceiling and the very top of the walls that were above the dropped ceiling. And they're amazing.

The scale of this museum is also worth noting. The grand central hall with its massive columns and door remains while the original décor is gone and we see brick walls and where the grand staircase had been totally lost, we see a cement staircase on the same scale and same location as the original would have been.

We spend several hours looking in this museum and then head for the Pergamen. We had seen this museum 35 years ago when it was on the East German side of the wall. I have always remembered it because its exhibitions were on such a grand scale. They display major parts of ancient buildings - a Greek temple, city gates from ??, the ceramic tile entry wall of the palace in Babylon. The museum doesn't disappoint. While Dave wanders the huge displays, I stitch on the steps of the Greek temple. We leave at 6 when the museum closes.

On the way back to the U-Bahn, we stop at a biergarten for refreshments. I order an ice cream with hot raspberry sauce and a coke. The coke and water come with ice cubes. Dave orders beer. It's shaded and quiet in this courtyard even though it's under the train tracks. A group of 15 men come in to order beer. Several small groups are eating dinner. Dave and I both have this strange epiphany as we watch these people. They are our people. They look like our aunts and uncles, cousins. They are our family. These people could be sitting in any bar in Appleton or Cumberland. It's not a feeling we ever had in France. There's an inescapable culture in your genes that you are not really ever aware of.

It's especially strange because these people know immediately that we are not from here, we're strangers. We are not part of them, but they are part of us. In restaurants, waitresses always offer us English menus without even needing to ask. We refuse because we can read the German menus and we know what the foods are in German. We don't always know what the food is when we see an English translation because these cannot capture the style of the food and that is often more important than if it is baked or what kind of meat it is.

Feeling somewhat refreshed, we take the U-Bahn back to where we will meet for dinner. The cafes are now full of people and I watch at the market hall where there are lines of people getting ice cream. It must be a good place as there is always a line in the 45 minutes I am watching. (And doing needlework with a glass of rosé wine at the next café while I wait for everyone to gather at our restaurant.) There are all sorts of children and families pushing strollers and buggies. The streets are lively with people.

At 8 we all meet at Felix Austria for the biggest kalb (veal) schnitzel I've ever seen. It's delicious. And served with cucumber salad which I had forgotten how much I like. It's just sliced cucumbers dressed in a light vinegar dressing that is just a bit sweet, with fresh dill. We eat with Sandra and Wiley and their friend Benny. Again, we have good conversation on all sorts of subjects from art to skiing.

Sandra and Wiley rent a movie which we watch on their "big screen" TV - they've hooked up a projector to their sound system and show the movie on the white wall of their bedroom. Brilliant. The movie lasts a long time and is pretty depressing. Biutiful by director Inarritu. It's set in Barcelona (but not the parts the tourist would see) and deals with all sorts of immigration issues as well as death from cancer. It's well done and we don't fall asleep in the film, but it's not a happy ending.

Arrival in Berlin

Friday, June 3, 2011
Getting to Sandra's is easy with Olga's help. We drive autobahns (like our Interstate highways) most of the way. The trucks are back on the road again - the rest areas are empty and the right lane of the highway is full of one truck after another. But most of the highway we drive is 3 lanes which is helpful. Driving in Germany is different than driving in France. They too have a top "recommended" speed of 130 (about 85) unless otherwise posted. However, German Autobahns allow you to travel as fast as you want and so you see Mercedes and BMWs flying down the highway at 150 miles per hour or more. So you must be constantly aware of traffic behind you. Like the French, they typically drive on the right after passing, but unlike the French the differences in the speed cars are going is really variable, from trucks going 90 km/h to the speed demons burning up the road. Drivers who want you to move out of their way flash their lights as they pull up behind you, riding your bumper until you move over. It's best to try to stay out of the way. However, in areas where there are only two lanes either from construction or road design, the speed limit is only 80-100 (less than the French roads). And surprisingly, the Germans, even the speedsters, pay attention and slow down to the speed limit. We wonder if the penalties for speeding in marked areas are high. For the most part, traffic is light and the day bright and sunny with mild temperatures again.

We drive through really pretty countryside of green rolling hills. There are lots of pine forests along the way and small towns dotted amidst the green fields. Everything seems orderly and purposeful and in its place. There are not the fields of wild flowers like we saw in France, although we do see occasional profusions of poppies. If there are other wildflowers, its not obvious from the highway drive. We stop for lunch at a rest stop that has restaurant-like options for food in a cafeteria setting. We buy some kind of bread with baked ham and cheese and take it outside to eat on the picnic tables along with chips, clementines, and water from the remains of our lunch bag that we have been carrying with us.

We arrive at Sandra's just after 2 PM. Sandra and Wiley (who have just celebrated their 2 year anniversary) live in a 3rd floor walkup in what could be a beautiful old building in central Berlin. The building is being renovated by the owner who will eventually move into the top two floors, so that will perhaps help improve the esthetics of the shared halls and stairs. This building has a lot of character and Sandra and Wiley's apartment includes two rooms with turrets. Both rooms are large with 12 foot ceilings and white painted walls. In between these rooms (which run front to back along one side of the building) is a wide hallway off of which are the kitchen and bathroom, both of which are also large rooms flooded with light from big windows. The floors throughout (except in the tiled bathroom) are either wide pine planks or modern wood laminate. One of the turret rooms is set up as Wiley's studio and the other is their bedroom.

The area around here is reasonable for rent, Sandra tells us, as it's not a hip, young area but more of a family area. There's a large park (Kreuzeberg?) just two blocks from here and when we walk out later to get coffee, we see plenty of neighborhood shops for groceries as well as a large market building housing all sorts of small shops selling meats, cheeses, fruits and vegetables, as well as a variety of places selling coffee and other drinks and meals which can be eaten outside at the sidewalk cafes.

It's important to pay attention to where you're walking on the sidewalks because part of them is bike lanes and bikers expect you to stay out of their way. While there is plenty of car traffic in this bustling city, there are more bikes than I've ever seen anywhere. For Sandra, it is her mode of transportation to most places, although she also has the option of the subway which has a stop just a few blocks from her apartment. It would seem to be faster as well if we can judge by our travels home from her art exhibition. We had driven and Sandra had her bike and she beat us home by a good 10 minutes. (Although in fairness, she knows her city and we don't.)

Sandra, whose field is art history, has been working and free-lancing in the art world organizing shows for galleries and developing projects involving art and artists. Tonight, she is responsible for setting up a monthly event where one artist is featured at a place called Beta??? This is a building which houses a simple café on the first floor and then offers inexpensive rental of work space for creative endeavors of all sorts. It provides a meeting space and professional space for artists that encourages networking and camaraderie. Judging by the people attending, this is a successful event.

We meet Sandra's parents at the show and decide to go somewhere for dinner. We stop at a restaurant called Max und Moritz (named after a children's book) which offers a German menu. We are seated in the back hall of what seems to be a typical German style restaurant. There are two large groups of people (one of 20 and one of 30) already in the room and the acoustics make this room rather noisy. We order drinks and eventually food. However, after one hour and 15 minutes, our food still hasn't come and the waitress tells us it will be another hour before it is read y (it's already 9:45). The kitchen, she tells us, is behind due to the large number of people in the two parties (in fact we notice a few minutes later that the smaller of the two groups is just beginning to get their food and they had been here and ordered before we even arrived.) We are comped our drinks and Jens goes looking for another restaurant where we might get faster service. We decide to try somewhere else and as we are walking out, we notice that no one in the restaurant has food except for one table in the very front. Everyone is waiting for their food. Unbelievable. We leave and walk a block up the street to an Italian restaurant where we order pizzas and pasta and are served in a reasonable time.

But it's not all a bust. We have a wonderful time with Sandra's parents who speak excellent English and also love to travel a lot. We catch up on what's going on with each family - they had come to visit us at the end of Sandra's stay at our house 12 years ago. We will see them again on Monday when we celebrate Sandra's sister Juliana's 30th birthday.

Home at midnight and a quick catch up with Wiley whom we hadn't seen earlier as he was working at an art gallery. We tumble into bed after 1 and sleep quickly despite the street noises from people and cars below us.


June 2, 2011
We had been to Bamberg on a cold and grey November weekend 40 years ago when we lived in Germany. (Ok, to be precise, it was 37 years ago.) We had hardly any remembrance of the town and who knows where our slides are that we took when there.

Today, the weather is finally sunny and mild (22 degrees) although there's a cool breeze. The drive across Germany is beautiful. Looks a lot like Wisconsin - rolling green hills, woods, fields and small towns. Of course, the architecture of the towns was significantly different, Germanic one would say. And of course, German farms are always in villages and don't dot the countryside as US farms do.

We are staying in a true German gasthaus which warms our hearts with the remembrance of many happy hours spent in these places long ago. Gashauses are unpretentious affairs. One sees lots of wood, ceilings, tables and chairs as well as booths. There is a bar of course, but not one where you sit at the bar and talk to the bartender. This is a working area with the bartender filling orders and the waitress delivering them to tables. In our gasthaus tonight, there is a large family party in the private room and there are several groups still eating when we come in at 9 for a beer. And there is one waitress for all this commotion. She can be forgiven for giving Dave a small beer rather than a large. And, as we remember from the past, in this gasthaus, when the people from the party want to pay, they still depend on memory - the guest tells the waitress what they ate and she writes it down, totals it and they pay. Quite amazing the lack of technology in a place like this.

And this is a large operation. There are many rooms, some with private bath, others, like ours that have only a sink in the room and use shared toilet and showers down the hall. (Remember, I said it was the only room left in town.) In addition there is the huge restaurant, bar, and an outside terrace. There seem to be only a few people working and when we check in, it is clear they don't use technology. Our name is on a list of reservations that is hand written. (Although, we did make the reservation by Internet, so someone is able to use computers here.)

When we arrive, we throw our stuff in the room, which is spare but comfortable. Then we head for downtown Bamberg. We find a place to park down in the center of town without much trouble and find ourselves right in the center of old Bamberg. Bamberg is divided by the Regnitz River which splits around an island where the old center of town sports a rather impressive old rathaus (town hall) on an even smaller island. This most impressive building is part stone, part exposed timber framed burgermeister (mayor) house. And there is a side of the building that is completely painted in frescoes.

Bamberg is mostly a baroque town with some parts going back to much earlier periods. And incredibly, Bamberg escaped damage in WWII, so it is a wonderful example of Renaissance and Baroque German architecture. The houses are all painted soft shades, mostly earth tones, but with the occassional surprise such as this blue house. The town was apparently wealthy as the houses are large and sport many sculpted details as well as the occasional painted mural. Every corner is worthy of a postcard.

As a medieval religious center, Bamberg has many large churches and the associated universities, convents and other religious buildings. As a government center, there is an old medieval Residence and a new 17th century Residence building . We wander the streets, mostly pedestrian. Of course since we've arrived in Bamberg at 5 PM, everything is closed, but really, looking at the outsides of buildings is all that is necessary.

We decide to eat dinner in a biergarten (beergarden) on a little square and are lucky enough to get the last table at 7 PM. Germans eat earlier than the French! We order Bamberger beer and specialities of the area. Dave gets a plate of 3 sausages with saurkraut and dumpling. I get Bamberger zwiebelschweinebraten, baked pork and onions with roast potatoes and salad. We each order Bamberger beer and the whole thing is the cheapest meal we've eaten yet (including lunches). I realize when I get my plate just the degree to which German food is comfort food for us. It is our midwest German - Scandinavian heritage. We leave very satisfied.

As a last activity, we decide to try to find the viewpoint that overlooks the old city and all its churches. We don't have a map (the tourist office closed at 2:30 today since it was a holiday). But we've studied a couple of maps posted by the city to help people find their way around. We head off aiming for what seems to be a high point of town and are rewarded by "THE VIEW" and in addition, we find the Altburg, the 14th century castle perched on top of the highest hill around. The castle is marvelously preserved (remember, it wasn't bombed in the war) and still has its keep, ramparts, and central living quarters. After a bit of wandering, we return to our gasthaus and are now sitting at one of the tables in the restaurant/bar drinking beer and writing this entry.

Tomorrow, Berlin and Sandra. It should take us 3.5 hours to get there, so we plan to arrive by early afternoon.

Ascension Day

Thursday, June 2, 2011
We've been hearing about Ascension Day for awhile now. Tony and Marian counseled us not to need gas on Ascension Day (Thursday, June 2) as only the 24/24 stations will be available (and they won't take our credit card). When we got to Beaune, we were warned of traffic and closings by the English couple we met at lunch. When we booked our hotel in Bamberg Germany, I think we got the last room in town. The English couple told us that while Ascension is only Thursday, it is a long weekend for the French, the English, and the Germans. No one will be working, they'll all be out - traveling, eating out, touring, staying in hotels, etc. (However, most travel would be pretty localized. The British however, have a week's vacation and so will be doing the same kind of travel we are doing.)

I also remember that the feria (bull fighting weekend) in Nîmes is always Ascension weekend.

We saw evidence of this popular holiday long before arriving in Bamberg, our destination today. Traffic was pretty light on the autoroutes which was nice. And there were almost no trucks. Every aire/rest stop we passed was filled with trucks. The large service centers with facilities and large parking lots were wall-to-wall trucks, with additional trucks parked along the roadways, making maneuvering difficult. Apparently, truck drivers don't work on Ascension either. Although we can't for the life of us figure out what they might do with themselves on this day off, especially those trucks that were just parked at the picnic sites - no facilities. What do they do? Read a book? Sleep all day? It did make driving much more pleasurable than the usual endless lines of trucks that clog the roads.

We got the full effect as we were driving into Bamberg. We're staying along the river in a Gasthaus on the outskirts of Bamberg. As we got within a couple kilometers of our gasthaus, people were everywhere, walking and biking on a pedestrian path that went along the roadway. Families and groups of friends were clearly out for the day with picnics and hiking shoes.

When we drove into Bamberg, we saw what those friends and families were doing that weren't out on the hiking paths. Again there were bicyclists everywhere and hoards of people walking the pedestrian streets of the city and having refreshments in the cafés and brasseries.

So, as we were warned, Ascension is a big event. While we heard church bells pealing in Bamberg, there wasn't much evidence of religious ceremony, but people were definitely enjoying the day. Kind of reminded me of our Memorial Day or 4th of July festivities, but without the fireworks.

Home in Madison

Back in Madison, a bit disoriented from having missed two months in Madison that transitioned from winter to summer. Also a bit jetlagged, but that's to be expected. Flights were uneventful except that we couldn't choose seats for our flights until we got to the airport. Not sure what that was all about, but it meant that we got crappy seats for both flights. The Atlantic crossing from Amsterdam had us sitting (luckily both with aisle seats)in the last row on opposite sides of a jumbo aircraft. But as we were sleeping anyway (or trying to - it's noisy in the back of the plane) it wasn't the end of the world to be separated. Service on this KLM flight was extraordinary - they fed us 3 times and the food was really good. Mike and Browen picked us up at O'Hare and we ate in Milwaukee at a great little restaurant before heading back to Madison. (Mother's and Father's Day treat from Mike.) The trip from Milwaukee to Madison was a bit dicey as we drove almost the whole way in a raging thunderstorm. The weather had been extraordinarily, record-settingly hot - breaking 100 in some places, so the storm was a welcome relief even in its fury. We fell into bed around 10:30 having been up over 24 hours and slept till 4 am and then finally got up shortly after 6 am. It will take a few days for our bodies to adjust back to Central Daylight time. The weather here today is dreary - grey and damp with temps in the 60's. A good day to catch up - unpack, laundry and grocery shopping. We're already lamenting the lack of cheeses at the grocery store and the ordinary bread. And what will we do for olives? But it was good to talk to our Moms and our kids today. We missed that contact while in Europe.

I haven't posted in about a week because we didn't have Internet access from the time we left France. I have a few articles I typed on my computer that I will post next, but I'll have to fill in the gaps and add photos later. I'm really glad I kept this blog during our trip. It is hard to believe, sitting in my living room in Madison, that yesterday I was in Germany and that I spent 2 months living in France. If I could walk through an alternate world portal, I would be on the streets of Thézan this morning doing the marketing and talking to the vegetable and fruit seller and to Nathalie in the butcher shop. I would feel as at home there as I do here. It's strange to think that one can live these two lives from one body. I know this level of remembrance and comfort will fade quickly as I get into the routine of this place, just as my thoughts of Madison were tucked away while I was living in France. But visiting the blog will help me remember and go back. And who knows where our next adventure will take us?

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Thank You Marian and Tony

We wake up (6 AM) to rain and dampness. It is humid today. How strange. We finish packing, make lunches, straighten up and check (for the 10th time) the closets and drawers. Dave hauls everything down to the garage as we'll back the car into the garage to pack it out of the rain.

We go up to let Tony and Marian know we're ready to go and to get a photo for the blog.

We're not sure how we managed to find the perfect place for us, but les Hirondelles has certainly been that. We wanted an authentic experience, off the beaten path. Thus the village of Thézan provided that. We needed an apartment equipped for cooking and with guest rooms and les Hirondelles had that. What we weren't expecting and weren't prepared for was how much Marian and Tony added to our experience by being on site (they do actually live upstairs from our apartment).

They were always available when we needed them - no question was too stupid. They became our local tourist bureau (only better than most) giving us good advice on foods, cooking, restaurants, wines, shopping, and local activities, whatever we needed. In addition, we loved to just talk with them when they could spare a few minutes (or when we had interrupted their chores). In addition they are great story tellers and clearly enjoy the hospitality role they've carved out for themselves. They make friends of many of their guests and we hope to count ourselves among them.

But beyond the role they play as hosts, we found them "très sympa" and "très intéressant". They came to France for the same reasons we came. We have similar observations and interpretations of how the world works (or how we'd like it to work). All of this added depth to our experience of living in France and introduced us to two people whom we like very much. Tony and Marian are easy people to like!

All of this makes it very sad to leave, but we can't stay longer. Someone else has rented the apartment starting on the weekend and we could hardly invite ourselves to stay with people we don't know. Although, it is tempting. We leave, sadly, promising to be back, but unsure yet if we can make that happen or when.

Luckily our warm feelings about Thézan and les Hirondelles keeps us comfortable as we drive through the rain to Beaune. The temperature is only 12 degrees (about mid-fifties) and it's wet and grey. The drive becomes somewhat mechanical - getting from point A to point B. The scenery is probably beautiful, but it's difficult to see anything for the clouds and rain. We have decided to minimize tolls and take the A75 to Clermont Ferrand and then smaller roads over to Beaune. It works well, but takes us all day. We even eat lunch in the car (what again?) watching some Charolais cows grazing in a farm field. There's no point finding a picnic table as we'd just get wet and cold.

We're now in the hotel, but I'm pooped and ready to hunker down for the night. That might cause some friction with Dave, who's had a nap while I write this and is looking bored.

Addendum: It's now 9:45 and Dave is out for a walk. I stopped at the desk to ask about the June 2 Ascension activities as it seems that getting a hotel room right now in France and Germany is a bit difficult. But I'm assured that it's just one day and while things will be crowded in the direction of Paris or Lyon, for us going to Germany, it shouldn't be a problem. But we should be sure to fill up with gas tomorrow.

It is clear that this is a family run hotel/restaurant as I run into the chef (whom we met on our way into the hotel this afternoon and who carried our bags up the stairs at that time) and tell him that we really enjoyed his boeuf bourgignon (beef burgundy) which Dave is determined to eat twice while here. His wife is the front desk, his mother general help (she showed us our room earlier and explained all the features when we arrived). I also met their two children, a girl of about 11 or 12, named Margot who is a beautiful young woman, and a small boy of perhaps 3 who deigns to talk to me after a few efforts on my part. He is helping his dad make croissants and when I ask him if I may have one, he tells me "no". We have a lovely conversation about meeting and talking to people of other nationalities and about the work in the hotel/restaurant industry (the dad works 16-18 hours per day). I'm really glad I stopped to ask and I'm happy that we've once again fallen into a place to stay with a story. I look forward to breakfast. And I'm happy we decided to stay here to have dinner and support this establishment.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Packing up on a cloudy day

As luck would have it, today is cloudy and grey, a bit cool and damp. It has rained a bit in the night. A perfect day for packing up. We've slept in and are moving slowly this morning. The greyness makes it easier to stick to chores and easier to think about leaving.

The wine bottle collection is down to 9 still needing to be "de-labeled". We've sorted out the piles of travel brochures, and done the laundry over the weekend, so the major focus will be on figuring out how to pack 3 suitcases of stuff into two and getting them both to weigh under 50 pounds. What can we leave behind?

After lunch (omelets using up whatever veggies we had left in the frig), we decide to pick up some fruit for our lunches the next few days and fill the car with gas. Grocery shopping is easy. Getting gas proves an adventure. We can see that a thunderstorm is approaching (exciting - our first storm and much needed rain for the region) so Dave drops me at the grocery to store to go fill the car at the gas station next door. Problem 1: they are out of diesel fuel.

Now it is sprinkling and we decide to head to Murviel where we thought we had seen a gas station. Wrong. Ask Olga. She points us 4 km down the road to a small town we've never been in. We find the station. It's a full serve, one pump with no covering, at a car repair shop. A young man comes out to help just as the heavens open and it begins to pour. This isn't going to work. We drive off. (At this point I suggest we just wait till tomorrow as we're not desperate, just wanting to start off with a full tank.) We program Olga to go home and as we're about to turn onto a highway, there's a gas station with diesel, with an awning to protect us. We pull in. No deal. It's card only and won't accept our credit card. Oh well, we drive home, by which time the rain is subsiding. We'll get gas in the morning.

The most memorable part of the day was aperos with Tony and Marian. These involve super food and plenty of wine. But best of all is the conversation. We talk about France, England, and US comparing life, politics, culture, you name it. We talk, eat and drink long into the night.

Marian, I hope you don't mind my sharing the goat cheese appetizer recipe. It was so good and so easy. I'm anxious to try it at home.

Place 1/2 inch slices of goat cheese on top of 1/2 thick rounds of bread cut from a baguette. Dust with a bit of nutmeg and bake till the cheese is hot and melted inside. Invite guests to top with a few drops (to taste) of Tabasco. Delicious!

We get downstairs late and know that we'll just have to finish the last few bits of packing in the morning. Oh, and the suitcases, well, it's mostly in, but there are extra bags and boxes yet that we need to figure out. I've bagged up some of the clothes I had planned to leave behind and Marian will see they get to the collection bin. That makes a bit of room, but not enough yet. For now we'll throw it all in the car and work on the problem later. (Will we regret this?)

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Camargue

For our last day of touring in this part of France, we actually headed over to Provence to the Camargue. This area is the delta of the Rhone River and is rich in salt marshes and lagoons that support a variety of agricultural endeavors. Much of the area has been desalinated and protected by dikes and now grows rice, grains and even some wine grapes.

Horses bred from the wild white stock of the delta are omnipresent and horseback riding is a big tourist industry in the Camargue.

While we saw some sheep, the primary livestock is bulls. As in other Provençal and Languedoc areas, bullfighting is a popular sport.

Any town with an arena (including Béziers) have a "feria" sometime during the year where multiple days of bullfighting are enjoyed by all. (Or most?) In France, there is a style of bullfighting where the bull isn't killed and the goal is for the matador (he has another name for this sport) to pluck a flower from the forehead of the bull and survive.

One other industry is salt recovery through evaporation of sea water. We stop at an outlook that allows us to see the shallow evaporation pools and piles of reclaimed salt.

evaporation ponds

Now that's a pile of salt

As this is on the Mediterranean, of course beaches are important and we found two types. One was out a road to nowhere with no improvements and crowded with Sunday (and Mother's Day) family outings.

The other was the town of Saintes Maries de la Mer, again crowded with families on the beach and wandering the town. This town is a true tourist beach resort. While the town's history goes back centuries (more later), as a beach town, it must have developed in the era of automobiles. The beach houses line up one attached to the other, generally 2 floors, with a terrace and often a garage on the ground floor and a balcony and living areas on the second floor. Their plaster, painted white, with bright shutters (often the blue of the sea), and red tiled roofs, these houses are the vacation homes and rentals for French families. This town was by far the most crowded tourist place we've seen since coming and reminds us that summer is nearly here.

Luckily, this town was our last stop (at 5 PM) of the day and the rest of the day was empty of tourists and cars.

The Camargue has a huge amount of acreage set aside as wildlife refuge with bird life being especially abundant. We do see some, but think that to really appreciate the wildlife here, you probably have to spend time and get into the hikes and walking paths available at some of the sanctuaries. For the most part, the sides of the road are too grown up to see the marshes and spot birds.

But in a few spots, we are rewarded. Dave hikes a short path in la Palissade where we eat lunch along the Rhone River in a shady grove complete with picnic tables and hiking paths into the unspoiled (by dikes and desalination) area that is part of a nature conservancy. There, and along the few spots where we are able to see the marshes, we find flamingos, and we think storks and some other birds. (Katie, can you identify these for us? We know one is a duck, but what kind? Are the nesting in trees birds really storks? The flamingos we got. But what's the small black and white bird nesting in the marsh grasses?)

flamingo - that we know

don't know this bird. Katie, do you know?

Katie's response: Black-winged stilt;

some sort of duck?

Katie's response: a coot (member of the rail family, not a duck)She said we were lucky to get this picture.

storks - nesting with babies

Katie, what's this behavior of the nesting stork?

Katie's response: white stork; parent is regurgitating food to feed the chicks.

We're glad that Saintes Maries de la Mer is the last visit of the day and are quite shocked at moving from the "wilderness" into a densely populated area (at least for tourist season). The story of this town is as incongruous as its appearance (Although as a beach resort, if I didn't mind lots of people, I think I'd choose this town - no high rises, lots of restaurants and cafés, easy to walk streets, a boardwalk and a beach that has sand and big rocks in several small coves.)

According to Provençal legend, the history of the town unfolds thusly: (I'm quoting the Michelin guide as I'm not sure I could get it straight otherwise.) "the boat abandoned to the waves in c 40 by the Jews of Jerusalem, which, without the aide of sail or oar, landed safely on the shore of Les Stes-Maries, carried Mary, the mother of James, Mary Magdalene, Martha and her brother Lazarus, St Maximinus, Mary Salome, the mother of James Major and John, and Cedonius, the man born blind.

Sara, the two Marys'black servant left behind on the shore, wept aloud until Mary Salome threw her mantle on the water so that Sarah could walk over it to join the others. The legend continues that after erecting a simple oratory to the Virgin on the shore, the disciples separated; Martha went to Tarascon, Mary Magdalene to Ste-Baume. The two Marys and Sara remained in Camargue and were buried in the oratory."

I'm thinking that there could be germs of a novel here - I think I'd call it the Da Vinci Code or something like that.

With a stop for ice cream looking over the beach,

followed by shopping (Lynn)

and a visit to the pilgrimage church for Sara and the two Marys (Dave),

we head home. It's now 6 PM and we are in a traffic jam as we head home via Aigues-Mortes to get to the autoroute. The 25 km are heavy with people returning home from their day or weekend, at some points bumper to bumper and dead-slow-and-stop. It takes us an hour to cover 25 km and we're wondering what this must be like in the summer, since it's not officially yet the tourist season. Once on the A9 in Montpelier, we make the final 90 km home in 45 minutes and make it home just before 8.

Dinner is left over veal blanquette making life easy. We're almost done with the bidon and have only a couple of bottles of wine left, so it looks like we've planned just right on that account. Soon we will have to go back to our normal ways - more beer, less wine. All the lovely wine will simply be memories of a great wine-producing area of France. We'll have to look more carefully for Languedoc wines in the States, but our experience has been that they aren't very available... Time will tell.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Marian to the rescue!

We did a bit of shopping this afternoon and while out, stopped at a pharmacy to buy an ankle brace. They were at first reluctant to sell me one, suggesting that I could do more damage and should really see a doctor first to see if a brace was the appropriate remedy for my sore ankle. I did a bit of insisting and they sold me an ankle brace which I've been wearing since and it is helping.

When we got home, Marian appeared at the door with more help in hand. She had read the blog (it constantly surprises me who reads this blog) and brought me ice packs to solve the icing problem. These gel packs are just the right size and shape to wrap around the ankle and they even have a little sleeve with velcro to keep them in place. I'm so glad Marian is keeping track of our escapades. More than once she has turned up with just the right help at the right time. Thanks Marian.

(Marian also reminded me that we do indeed have ice cube trays and I remember that I put them in the cupboard. Sorry, Clark, we could have had all the ice you wished for had I been on the ball.)

At any rate, I've now been able to ice my ankle and the difference is remarkable. I'm quite sure now that I have been walking on a mildly sprained ankle for a few days. Duh!

But it's not all bad. We've had to keep close to "home" the past couple of days which is allowing me time to enjoy the apartment. The wine label removal project continues with only minimal success, but we have photos at least. The recycle bin is nearly full as Dave makes frequent trips to the garage to add the latest bottles to the bin. Ah, well, it will make good stories for us as well as Marian and Tony.

Tomorrow is our last touring day with Monday planned for packing. Our goal is the driving tour of the Camargue - the marshy area east of here that forms the delta of the Rhone. Among other wildlife (like flamingos) there are supposed to be wild horses. Hoping to see some.

We've booked Tuesday and Wednesday nights in Beaune in the Burgundy area near Dijon as we start our drive toward Berlin. We plan to stay the 3rd night in Bamburg and then drive to Sandra's in Berlin on Friday. Can't wait to see her. That will be the cherry on top of this vacation dessert.

We stopped for a couple of photos on the way home. Corneilhan is the village next to us (Dave and Christie biked to it) that we pass every time we head, well, just about anywhere. The vines are growing large and setting grapes. And we finally have an adequate photo of the straw-colored weeds that are now dominating the roadsides and many fallow fields.

Au Revoir Thézan

We forgot our camera last night when we saw John and Pat for dinner, so John suggested we come back this morning at 11 for coffee. Thus we've started our last Saturday in Thézan with photos of places and people who have been part of our lives the past 2 months.

John and Pat have a 16th century house in the oldest part of Thézan. The house is two rooms wide and one room deep but has 4 1/2 levels.

It had been modernized before John and Pat bought it 10 years ago and recently they have redone the kitchen. From its deceptive outside, you would never expect the spaciousness, light and airiness of the interior. Most fun is the roof-top terrace with a view of the Mairie, the rooftops of Thézan and the hills and fields off in the distance.

rooftop view with Mairie (town hall) in background

(However, it's not all roses up here. John is currently engaged in an investigation about how to keep the neighborhood cats off the terrace at night. The story involves night-time time-lapse photography with an iPod, electric fencing, and coming soon, motion-detector water spray. Did I mention that John is both techy and determined?)

We have so enjoyed getting to know John and Pat; besides our similar interests that include learning about each others cultures, they are warm and gracious and have been more than willing to help us manage living here in Languedoc. John has been schooling us in wine as he has an abiding interest and knowledge of local, regional, and more distant wine-growing regions. Pat has shared with me her passion for the local foods and regional produce. There's no better way to absorb a new culture than from people who are living it and can also appreciate your newness to it. (And it doesn't hurt that English is our common language!)

After coffee and photos on the terrace, John and Pat lead us through alleyways to find the new village trompe-l'oeil in process of being painted. We had heard that a new one was planned but weren't aware that it was being painted.

After saying our good-byes we walked back through town taking photos of doors and buildings on our way. We stopped at the butcher shop and Natalie was gracious about letting us take photos of her and the shop.

Luckily these strolls didn't take much effort or time as it's looking like I have some sort of ankle sprain. My ankle is rather bruised looking today and still quite sore. But a sprain is easier to deal with than tendonitis or a stress fracture.

(Doors of Thézan coming later.)

Friday, May 27, 2011

poppy pictures

We've tried on several occasions to take pictures of the poppy fields and even though the photos come out good, they can't really capture the expansiveness of this phenomenon. These flowers are actually quite delicate and quite ephemeral - they only last a day or two. Yet, the season for poppies has lasted over a month, with new flowers replacing those that have lost their leaves and new fields seeming to flower overnight. We and all our guests have been charmed by these lovely wildflowers that have a huge propensity to propagate everywhere and anywhere. Hope you enjoy the pictures. At times like these I wish we had the trained eye and camera skills of a professional photographer.

April 30, Thézan

May 2, kitchen table Thézan

May 6 Around Thézan

Duane as an impressionist painting

May 13 outside Béziers on our way to Carcassonne

May 19 Capestang

Yesterday did me in

I've had a sleepless night with 2 doses of ibuprofen trying to control the pain in my right ankle. And today it is no better, although not throbbing pain when just sitting (like for writing the blog). I'm wondering if I have tendonitis. I've been fighting this for a month or more, but usually, after a night's rest, the pain is gone and I'm functional until I do another stint of standing and/or walking for several hours. Today is different. Whatever position, whatever shoe, my ankle aches badly. Maybe ice will help. Of course I have to figure out how to make ice as we have no ice cube trays. (The French aren't big users of ice for cooling drinks.) Maybe a zip close bag will work. Oh, well, another challenge in living in France.

So, I'm resting the ankle. The temperature has cooled considerably and I think there was rain last night at some point because the tables outside are wet. There's a cool breeze and I'm actually wearing long sleeves today. What a change! That makes the day here in the apartment downright pleasant.

We continue to work on the wine bottle collection and are down now to a single row around the fireplace mantel. But many labels are resistent to our efforts, so photos will have to provide the memories.

Working on laundry and some cleaning chores today along with leisurely breakfast and lunch. In fact, horror of horrors, Dave arrived too late (10 AM) at the boulanger to get croissants today. We had to have regular baguette for breakfast. Unheard of! Sacre bleu!

I've been catching up on email and the blog and we've finally generated a list of tasks to be done before leaving France. One of the biggies is to plan how we'll spend the 3 days travel to Berlin. That raises our interest level considerably.

Dave has got tired of sitting around doing "nothing" (how can enjoying the terrasse count as nothing?), and has headed into Narbonne in an effort to finally see inside the Bishop's palace. He promises to be back by 6. I will spend the time doing needlework on the terrasse. Or perhaps posting more door photos.

As we go about our normal days now, there's a background bit of the same limbo feeling we had when moving from one house to the other. There's excitement about going - we miss our friends, our house and our way of life as well as all the new experiences that wait for us in Madison. But we are reluctant to clear out the accumulation of 2 months of travel brochures, sea shells and other bits we've collected here. Making decisions about what to try to squeeze into already overweight suitcases means we must leave some of the evidence here in the trash. It's a bit too much to deal with right now, so we choose to ignore it. That may make our Monday packing a bit on the furious side, but we've put off the inevitable for a day or two.

Time to hang the second load of laundry and get back to the sun of the terrasse.

Tracking the Templars

Thursday, May 26

We've started to soak wine bottles in hopes of saving the labels, knowing that it's time to start recycling our mantletop collection. The first batch from Domaine du Trésor comes off easily. But now the Beauvignac bottles (from the Picpoul cave cooperative) are not cooperating. But our plan B is to photograph the bottles before removing labels (thanks, Clark, for that suggestion).

We have a breakfast of French toast and then go to the market for fruits and vegetables. As we're down to our last few dinners here, we must empty the freezer, refrigerator and cupboard over the next few days. Seems hard to believe that we leave on Tuesday. My plan would be to hang out at the apartment for the day, starting the sorting and packing process. But Dave has other plans. It's another hot day in Thézan and I'm still drained from yesterday's adventures in the heat of Montpelier.

So at noon, armed with sandwiches and cold drinks, we head out for Peyre which is only 7 km from Millau. As it turns out the village has an awesome view of the Millau viaduct from it's Tarn river location. It must have been interesting to live there during the building of the viaduct. They would have had a birds-eye view of all the construction activities.

Peyre (pronounced Pair-re) is another village from our updated copy of the Beautiful Villages of France book. It clings to the cliff side above the Tarn river on the west side of the viaduct, opposite the direction one takes to get to the Gorges du Tarn area.

We have learned from our book that to become a Beautiful Village, a village must have no more than 2000 inhabitants, have at least 2 monuments, and agree as a town to participate in the organization. Those criteria met, the village makes application and then receives a site visit from a Beautiful Villages committee which determines the village's status on 27 other criteria, including making the town welcome to visitors. Towns can be declassified if they don't maintain their adherence to these criteria. We have visited all of the beautiful villages that are easy to get to from Béziers and they have all been spectacularly beautiful and interesting in one way or another.

Peyre proves no different. As the town clings to the side of a cliff, the parking is down at the river level and a bit outside the town. While there are a couple of "drivable" streets in town and we see some garages that you could get a car into, there would be no room for even one tourist car to park.

We walk up the steep paths to the top where there is a fortified, now-abandoned church built into the side of an overhanging cliff. There is no town per se, at least not anymore, just a collection of houses, the church and a former community bake oven the shade of whose benches we use as our lunch picnic spot.

It turns out that our plan to drive into the Causse du Larzac is a good one as it is a hazy, mostly cloudy day, the temperature on the Causse is a modest 24 (about 78) and there is a cool breeze.

We look into the church which was abandoned and sold shortly after being taken over by the state as "public goods" in the French Revolution. (You might remember that the French revolutionary government took over all the churches including their buildings, lands and assets as belonging to the public. These buildings and assets were then sold to private citizens, usually at auction. The money raised by selling this church was used to build a "new" church in the valley.)

New church in the valley

The troglodyte (a word used to describe buildings that are built into caves) church is surprisingly devoid of any church-like characteristics and what we see was clearly as much fort as church. But the outside is very interesting. Built under the overhanging rock, construction of a facade and tower were all that was required. Since it was also a fortress, there are few windows which are small and empty of glass. You can still see the arrow slits and murder holes built at places in the tower.

We wander a couple other alleyways, taking photos, marveling at the views from the terrasses of the houses. Rather spectacular scenery for aperos, we think.

There seems to be one business in the village, a potter. She explains her firing techniques (Raku and some sort of crystallization process that I don't understand). I ask her about the Beautiful Villages book and if the French use it. She says no, mostly non-native tourists. I buy a small pitcher of the crystalline type and we head out of town.

We had noticed an information sign about the Millau viaduct as we crossed into town and decide to follow that. It leads us across a small bridge and up around the shoulder of the other bank of the Tarn and eventually to a rather large visitor center built to explain the viaduct. There are some great views of the viaduct, although the photos will not do them justice due to the hazy conditions. A pretty neat discovery. Obviously, it is on the tourist and bus route as there are lots of folks milling around.

As it is only 2:30, we decide to continue our explorations by following part of the "route des templiers et hospitaliers". This will lead us to two of the towns that were part of the same commanderie as La Couvertoirade.

The first town is called La Cavalerie. The Templiers, and after them the Hospitaliers, exploited the agricultural resources through the work of the local peasants. A commanderie was founded for the Templiers in the 12th century in which the town developed. It was fortified by the Hospitaliers in the 15th century. These fortifications were attacked multiple times during the wars of religion and the fortress had significant damage as a result. Today one sees the restored bourg or fortress part of the town. It's 4 towers were all lowered to the height of the ramparts at some point and the town is making great efforts to make the center of the bourg a pleasant neighborhood.

As a result of the devastation in past history, the insides of the bourg are more open than you might expect and there is a pleasant square in the center that has benches and planters where I do needlework while Dave explores the rest of the bourg.

It's not large, clearly some houses are original with modern repairs. In other places, where there was only rubble, the land has been cleared and a new house built in keeping with the architecture of the bourg. There are still some opportunities for improvement as we note a rather large house with prime location against the inner walls of the bourg that is rather in need of TLC and is for sale as well. We think it would make a great B&B

We head out for our next town, St Eulalie de Cernon. But on the map, I spot what appears to be a look out point on a dead-end road along the way. We decide to see if we can find this viewpoint. As we head down a one lane blacktop road amidst fields of wheat and barley, we wonder if we are on the right road. But we see tall towers of communications equipment ahead and continue over the last 500 meters on a bumpy gravel tractor path. In the end we are rewarded by views over the valleys several hundred meters below us. We can even see the town of St Eulalie below us.

We notice that this Causse de Larzac seems to have soil that can grow crops as we see large (for France) fields of hay (already cut and rolled in the first haying of the season) and fields of grasses and grains (wheat and barley). This area looks richer than the tops of other Causses we've traveled. When I look on the Internet, I find that the Causse of Larzac has a more southerly orientation than the others and has indentations (little valleys) where the erosion has deposited soils that allow for the agriculture we see. But for the most part it is the same limestone we've been seeing elsewhere that is inhospitable to crops. The view is expansive, but hazy on this cloudy day. We finally make the U-turn Olga has been begging us for and she is happy now to be sending us on the correct path to St Eulalie. "Please make a U-turn, if possible" she croons in her impeccably unperturbed British accent.

Like all these small villages, we are directed to a parking lot outside the village. Like La Cavalerie, this village is located on a relatively flat area near the Cernon river. It isn't on top of the Causses, but 300 meters below, so seems to be sitting in a valley, although this valley isn't at the bottom of the Causse. Again, we enter a walled village, although this one has lots of opportunities for improvement. It seems rather run down and in need of sprucing up in most spots. Again, it seems un-touristy, although there is a busload of French senior citizens in the town. They are mostly congregated at the bar-tabac on the square, but they are on their way out as we are coming in, so we pretty much have the town to ourselves. (It is after all 5 PM)

St Eulalie de Cernon was the administrative center for the Commanderie that included La Couvertoirade and La Cavalerie and also the home of the Commandeur. It's history is much as that of La Cavalerie - begun by the Templiers in the 12th century, taken over by the Hospitaliers on the disbanding of the Templiers, fortified by the Hospitaliers during the wars of religion, sacked during the wars of religion and again during the French Revolution and sold off in parcels at auction by the post-revolution government. Along with its outlying towns of La Couvertoirade and La Cavalerie, this Commanderie was the richest and most powerful Templar / Hospitalier commanderie in Southern France. It was responsible for supplying a great deal of money and resources to their Jerusalem counterparts.

What saves this town (now just 834 people) is that the commanderie became a resort for the 16th century commandeurs and was spruced up in several significant ways that still exist. The square, the commanderie itself, and the church were all changed during this period. Like La Couvertoirade, there is an audio guide tour of the Commanderie and church which we decide to do in the hour left before the 6 PM closing time.

The church has a strange entry, a baroque door added during the Renaissance that pierces what was once the apse. The commander of the time changed the orientation of the church, moving the altar to the opposite end of the nave. This in order to create a door where the villagers could enter the church from the square rather than using the door from the courtyard of the commanderie building.

The church inside is Romanesque with added side chapels over the centuries.

We next enter the courtyard of the Commanderie where the services necessary for life inside were carried out. Stables, kitchens, and other services would have been carried out in this inner courtyard.

As we explore rooms upstairs, we see various commanderie rooms. One of these is covered with rich murals from the Renaissance improvements. The monks' dormitory shows how their sleeping quarters would have been lined with pallets of straw. The refectory was redone in the Renaissance as well and made into two floors with reception rooms on the upper floor.

The guide, as in La Couvertoirade, is worth the extra Euro we paid for its use. But as the town closes up, we leave as well, making our way back to the A75 for the fast way home. Along the way to the A75, we see several rather large herds of sheep grazing in the dusk. We stop for photos and I also finally get a photo of my sheep crossing sign I've been wanting.

Roquefort cheese, anyone?

As we head down the highway, I note that the greens of spring are changing to browns and tans, especially where the grass has been cut along side of the roads. The heat of the week has taken its toll on the plant life. As well there are now fields and highway edges of grasses turned the color of straw and waving in the breezes.

The yellows of the genêts are still visible, and at certain altitudes we still see fields of them but up close we can see that they are losing their intensity of bloom. There are still the occasional fields of poppies, but they are less intense in color than earlier. We are definitely moving into the summer season.