Saturday, April 30, 2011

Chores and more

Today was chore day. New linens on the beds and in the bathrooms and laundry were the essentials. Grocery shopping at the supermarket. And lots of time to do needlework on the terrace, have lunch outside on the terrace. Dave took a hike out of a guidebook that started right near our house. He was gone for a couple of hours and discovered some paths and views he hadn't seen before. When he got home, he "cooked" us a 5-course meal. Aperos (olives, of course), salad, pasta (leftovers reheated in the microwave), cheese course, and dessert (raspberry tarts purchased at the supermarket this morning) with espresso. He outdid himself! His bread-slicing skills were called into action for 3 of the courses - salad, entree, and cheese and he didn't disappoint!

I'm afraid there's not much more to comment on today. The skies were blue, the sun warm with a gentle breeze to keep us from getting too hot. As Dave says, "Another shitty day in paradise." Followed by "Now this is livin'"

Friday, April 29, 2011

Friday - Villefranche de Conflent

Chris and Ron leave late afternoon today from Perpignan, so we decide to check out Villefrance-de-Conflent, about an hour west of Perpignan in the foothills of the Pyrenees. This is another village that is described in a book we have at home, "Discovering the Villages of France". Dave had photocopied the pages for villages in this region and we have now visited 3 others, each of them spectacular in setting and interest. We think this will likewise be a cool thing to see and we're right.

This fortress with it's village safely ensconsed within its walls was built originally in 1092 as a border defense between Spain and France. It was enlarged and strengthened by Louis XVI in the 17th century. It's ramparts are UNESCO world heritage sites. The town and its site don't disappoint. Villefranche-de-Conflent is situated at the confluence of the Tet and Cady rivers, both of which run swiftly and loudly over the rocks and steep incline of their waterway.

There is a fort-stronghold build high above the town across the river. We didn't climb its 734 steps (although there's also a train that runs to the top) to explore it. That will have to wait for another trip.

We wander the 3 streets that run from the lower gate to the upper gate. One street runs next to the ramparts on the river side and is empty and quiet

(although there aren't many people in town today - there's a cold wind and the threat of rain). The other two streets have all kinds of shops and a few restaurants to recommend them, along with beautiful metal signs identifying the commerce in the building.

We decide to have lunch at the top end across from the Ramparts Tour entrance. We all order tartiflette with salad, the special of the day. It's a perfect dish for this slightly chilly day. Basically it's what we would call scalloped potatoes. Potatoes with onions and ham bits (lardons) with crème fraiche, a bit of wine and lots of raclette cheese. Absolutely delicious and stick to your ribs good.

After lunch, Chris, Ron and Dave pay to tour the ramparts. There are two sets - the original 12th century ones and the 17th century ones on top of the 12th century ramparts.

The tour takes them an hour after which we must head back towards Perpignan's airport. But there's time to stop for a couple of photos of towns clinging to the hillsides along the road back.

One such town is Eus, a beautiful example of a hillside village where we stop for a half hour "quick look". We wind our way to the top, or almost to the top, where the church is located and are treated to both sun and beautiful, if somewhat cloud-obscured views of the valleys spreading out below the town.

Sadly, we drop Chris and Ron off at the airport with promises on both sides not to allow 14 years to pass before we see each other again. (In 14 years, we're likely to need walkers or wheelchairs which would complicate travel quite a bit.) We've had such a great time together this week, lots of reminiscing and lots of catching up. And we enjoy the same kinds of things. Chris and Ron have the advantage of being just across the channel from France and the rest of Europe and so have seen much of the countryside in France and have visited many other countries on vacations over the years. Just the kind of thing we'd love to be able to do!

Dave and I are still full from our lunch so when we get home we finish the bag-in-box of the Mas Blanchard rosé and haul out some of the St Chinian vrac. We have extended aperos and just skip dinner altogether. Of course we each have to eat 25 olives to fill Dave's daily olive quota.... It's a hard life.... Chris and Ron, we miss you already!

Thursday in Pézenas

We decided we needed an easy day, so pick Pézenas, half-hour from here on the A-75, a 4-lane highway. No problem. But first there's breakfast and market day in the village.

Today, there's a shoe vendor as well, first time I've seen that. We run into Marion and Tony who tell us that the eggs from the chicken/egg man are the best and shows us their "baker's dozen" eggs - which are actually 15 eggs. Will have to try that next time we need eggs. We buy fruits and vegetables from our regular vendor who today is in animated conversation with several of the locals at his stand. The talk is fast and quite accented (although he speaks clearly and in Parisian French when I talk to him). We wait for them all to finish (this is normal - no one is in a hurry - people exchange pleasantries, joke with each other, talk about the weather - no matter how many people are in line behind) and then pay for our produce.

I buy some "jambon sec" (like prosciutto) from the meat and cheese man, same waiting game - no one is in a hurry, news and gossip must be exchanged. Tony recommends the butcher who is selling horse meat - says it's the leanest ground meat ever. Not sure I'll try that.

We head back to the apartment with our produce. On the way, we stop for some trompe-l'oeil photos with the mural at the end of our block. Who's real and who's painted on the wall?

Produce gets put away and we get ready for the trip to Pézenas. The weather is supposed to be cooler and cloudy with chances of rain today, so we pack layers.

Once in Pézenas, we find a free parking lot and start heading into the historic district whose main claim to fame is "Molière slept here". But the old city is charming with narrow streets filled with the shops of artisans and craftsmen and beautiful town homes from the 16th and 17th centuries and earlier. However it is lunch time and stores are closed.

We wander a bit into the center of the historic district and find a "salon de thé" for lunch. The special of the day is tarte avec salade. We each order different ones: Dave and Ron order ham, chevre and prunes, Christine orders spinach, and Lynn orders grilled vegetables. Each of these quiches is delicious and we trade tastes so we can try them all.

We find the "place" where the Green Guide starts its walking tour of the city, then check out the "office de tourisme" where we pick up a more detailed tour in English. In typical Dave fashion, we must find number 1, stop and read about it when we get there and then proceed to number two, etc. The first few numbers are slow-going. We are taking photos, and making sure we find the details mentioned in the tour that makes the site noteworthy. And, of course, we have lots of side trips into little shops, checking out side streets, and finding other interesting things.

One side trip is to the museum of doors - exactly what is says it is. Free entry and all kinds of old doors, latches, hinges and other hardware. It's really interesting as we've been intrigued by the doors we've been seeing in France anyway.

In the main square, there's an outbreak of music. It seems there's a music festival in town this weekend. We see a quartet of 2 saxophones, drum, and guitar. They play "Sweet Georgia Brown" (in French of course) and a reggae tune. Oh, did I mention they are on stilts and dressed rather eclecticly to say the least. They are very entertaining and have quite a crowd watching. After a few numbers, they begin to walk up one of the small side streets and we go back to our tour.

Most of the numbered sites point out features of 13th - 17th century mansions. The tour winds us through all the twisty streets of the old city. The town is interesting and after two hours, we are only half way through the numbered sites to see. I'm tired and getting hungry. We skip a big loop of the tour that has only a few sites on it and work our way back to the car. We aren't as attentive to the descriptions of the houses and we aren't taking as many photos as earlier. The day has turned cool and grey and we decide to forgo a drink in town for aperos at home.

When we get home, the weather seems better - sunny and warm, so while Chris and I put the dinner in the oven (pork roast and baked ratatouille - a new invention that turned out pretty tasty), the guys get out aperos.

We've just about finished aperos, when the rain comes - the sky had been getting increasingly cloudy. There are even a couple rumbles of thunder. We tried to stay outside by sitting under the balcony overhang, but even that had to be forsaken. So we ate dinner in the kitchen. Still tasted pretty good.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Oh, no! No aperos!

What a day! We started by boating from 10-2 on the Canal du Midi, then visited an olive oil cooperative nearby and finished by visiting a medieval town decimated in the Albigensian crusade against the Cathars. But we didn't get home till 7:30, so had to go directly (do not pass GO!) to our planned raclette dinner.

For those who don't know, raclette is an alpine cheese that is melted and served with small fingerling potatoes and gherkins. We've had it mostly in the Alps of France and Switzerland, but I've also had it in Paris. The cheese is mild and smooth like butter when melted. (I just melt it under the broiler for a short time.) We also had olives (more later) and a French saucisson (cured sausage) along with our usual French bread. Yumm! We started with a carafe of the bag-in-box rosé from Mas Blanchard and then opened a bottle of the Syrah rosé from Beauvignac (the wine cooperative we visited yesterday). We all agreed that the Beauvignac rosé was superb and paired well with food. As Ron says in his sommelier pose, "It's more complex." (whatever that means)

Our first adventure of the day was to take the little day cruiser out from the bike rental place (Belle du Midi) at Le Somail (where we rented bikes a couple weeks ago).

The boat is easy to drive and has a max speed of 8 km/hour (which is the speed limit on the Canal du Midi). We have the boat for 4 hours and head west toward the first lock, which will be our turn-around point (we're not allowed to use the locks).

There are no words to describe the peacefulness of the trip. While we pass other boats and barges along the way, the banks on either side of the canal and the sycamore trees (called plantane trees here) that shade and hide the canal from the rest of the world all conspire to make you feel like there are no others around you. Unlike other boating, there are no decisions, you have a 30 foot wide canal and you can only go in two directions - east or west. The scenery passes by slowly, quietly, and lulls you to complete relaxation. We decided that health insurance should pay for this as therapy for stress relief. We aso agree that a longer trip with a houseboat that included bikes on its decks should be planned for two years from now. With such a boat, you tie up at towns like Narbonne or Béziers or Bordeaux and bicycle or walk around, doing your shopping for food, winetasting and sightseeing as you go. You can just tie up anywhere on the side of the canal so you can stop wherever you like - a restaurant, port like Somail, or a picnic table on the side of the canal.

There is a towpath all along the side that is used for recreation now - endless bicyclers, day hikers and town strollers use the towpath.

We stop for lunch of bread, cheeses, wine and fruit before turning around to head back. Once back, we stop for ice cream at the little "café-glacier" on the corner, take some photos around the bridge at Somail (one of the original 17th century canal structures) and then head out for Bize-Minervois in search of olives and olive oil.

Only 6 km away, Bize-Minervois is a center for olive production. The butcher has told us that this is where she gets the olives from that we buy at her store. We visit an oil "cave cooperative" where we can taste olive oils, tapenades, and olives as well as purchase locally produced products. Dave can't resist the olives and we bring home a large supply along with a few tapenades, some honey, and some olive wood serving tools.

It's 4:45 now but Dave has in mind one more stop "in the neighborhood", the town of Minverve. It is only 18 km away, but 20 minutes in time. We find out soon why this road is so slow. As we are back in the Hérault region of the lower Causses, we find that the road between Bize-Minervois and Minerve clings to the side of rather steep limestone cliffs as it winds its way along a river valley that has long ago carved a valley below us. Not as wild or narrow as other cliff roads, but beautiful in the waning afternoon sun with areas of rocky outcroppings dotted with vinyards and fields open below us. We see Minerve in the near distance, clinging to the side of the cliff.

This medieval city was one of the last Cathar hold outs and was beseiged by Simon de Montfort in 1210. At the time it was impregnable and had a well with good water reserves, so the seige went on for 6 weeks until Montfort managed to destroy the town's well with his catapult. With no water, the town had to surrender. Given the option of renouncing their Cathar beliefs or dying, something like 180 citizens refused conversion and were burned alive in front of the church.

We find parking by circling above the town to a pay lot. We feel like we're going away from the town, but the road eventually crosses over to the side of the gorge where the town is located and leads us to a lovely parking spot with tourist office (now closed, of course) and public bathrooms with toilet seats and paper (my standard for quality rest stops). From the lot, you walk down to the city, entering by the Candela, the only remaining medieval tower from the original fortress. There are some remains of double curtain walls as well, but most of the medieval ramparts are no longer in existence.

Once inside, you can see why the city doesn't allow tourist cars into it. There are only a couple of roads and they are narrow and steep with no places to park. As I walk up a steep, but relatively wide cobbled path, I see two garages at the top and marvel that anyone would be able to make the hairpin turn required at a precipitously steep slope to fit a car into the garage. I watch two cars back down another narrow one lane street presumably to a parking spot or house. They've obviously done this before as they drive as fast in reverse as you'd dare to go in drive, and I'm impressed that they manage to miss the stone wall and buildings that define the narrow roadway.

There is a charming narrow cobblestone street called Rue des Martyrs which leads through the "center" of town. We stop at the small square that is the center of town with the "mairie" (mayor's office) on one side and 11th century church on the other. It's one of the few flat spaces in town. The church clings precipitously to the edge of the cliff here making you wonder how they managed to build the thing in the first place. There's an ancient-looking but recent (2010) column with a dove sculpted in the center that remembers the 180 Cathars burned for their faith in 1210.

The shops are closed or closing and there are few tourists left in town which lends to the feeling that you are experiencing the city as the 13th century citizens would (just ignore the Suzuki motorcycle parked in the narrow alley). We split up, Dave in search of the infamous well, Ron and Chris to walk down to the river floor and me to wander a couple of streets and make my way back up the streets and the switchback path up to the car park.

Minerve sits at the confluence of two rivers, the Cesse and Brian, which have carved enormous tunnels under the rock, called natural bridges. It's hard to believe that the small amount of water we see flowing across the scree at the bottom of the ravine could have carved such enourmous caves and cliff faces.

As it's now 6:45 when we meet up at the car park, we know that we have to miss aperos and go straight to dinner. But first we have to get out of the car park. Dave misunderstood the directions on the pay machine and had paid his 3 Euros when we arrived. A French couple tries to help us but ends by throwing up their hands as they can't figure it out. Ron notices that we are getting a message about paying for parking so goes back to pay again. So the dumb American tourists once again pay twice for their parking. (Sigh)

We're able to sit out for long into the evening as the evening is very gentle. We hear this mechanical sounding bird call and after investigating, decide it's likely a Scops Owl. So that's a new bird species for us. Katie, add this to your list.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Marseillan Plage and Picpoul de Pinet

The day is gorgeous, low 70's with a breeze and the early clouds in the sky have disappeared by the time we leave at noon.

We all slept in this morning, had our usual trip to the boulangerie followed by breakfast. Once dressed, we headed to the market for fresh produce. Today there were 2 trucks - the usual fruit and vegetable man and a chinese foods truck offering all kinds of oriental foods like egg rolls and spring rolls and dumplings. We purchased what was needed for dinner, stopped at the butcher for some canned tomatoes and black olives for tonight's dinner (a recipe of Chris'), and are finally organized for the day.

Marseillan Plage is a beach about 40 minutes away up the coast toward Sète. As we pull into town, we see the tourist bureau and stop, but of course it's closed until 2. But we notice that the grape vines planted in front of the tourist bureau are about to flower and set grapes. The vines have made much progress from their dead stump stage to setting leaves and now ready to blossom.

Without benefit of a town map, we head toward the Mediterranean and park within a block of the beach. This beach has dunes and some houses that are right behind these dunes.

Great location (and most had for rent signs on them) for a summer stay. We walk the beach, littered with sea shells, check out the marina, choosing the boat we'd like to be ours, and then walk back to the main street to have lunch at a little café. Chris, Ron and I order omelets, Dave a panini (which doesn't look much like our panini's).

We spend a long time over lunch, partly because it takes a long time to have our order taken and filled, and partly because we are having wonderful conversation in a very comfortable place. We finally ask for the "addition" and pay.

We've decided to head for Pomérols to see if we can find this wine we've been hearing about called Picpoul de Pinet. Twelve km later over scenic roads filled with vinyards, we arrive in Pomérols and follow signs for the wine cooperative (we're getting clever we think). We find the coop, taste some of the wines, several of which are award winners (médaille d'or, médaille d'argent - gold medal, silver medal). We come away with 15 bottles of wine, some of which Ron and Chris will take home with them. The wines are 3-5 Euros per bottle. Besides the Picpoul, we buy a dry, full-bodied rosé for drinking with foods, a Merlot-Cabernet red, and a Syrah. We decide we'll have the Picpoul for dinner.

We mosey home driving through what has become typical French countryside: gentle slopes filled with endless vinyards now showing greenery among the light brown of the dirt and near black of the vines themselves, occasional rocky hills of brushy trees, small villages of dusty pale yellow stuccco-ed houses with brightly painted shutters of blue, purple or red and dirty grey old buildings whose stucco is faded and aged to the color of cement.

Once home, we gravitate to the terrace for aperos of cheese, bread, and rosé wine.

We start to cook at 7, Chris preparing a baked chicken dish with crushed tomatoes, garlic, onion, red and green peppers and black olives. The Picpoul goes great with the meal. It is delicious with the fresh salad, balsamic vinaigrette and our last baguette. Dave makes expresso and we finish the strawberries for dessert.

We check out the photos Chris and Ron have brought of their kids, grandkids (adorable), family events and travels. We show them some photos of French Quarter Fest in New Orleans and decide we will meet there next year. After checking out today's photos, we must go to bed as tomorrow we take the boat on the Canal du Midi.


Today we picked up our Scottish friends Ron and Chris at the Perpignan airport at 2:30. This airport is a favorite for me - we could walk right into the luggage carousel and meet them as they got off the plane. And just as nice was the price of parking: 15 minutes free, then only 1 Euro 30 for an hour. We drove back in sunshine, but as we approached Béziers, there was a wall of black clouds. By the time we had reached home, it was raining.

So aperos and dinner stretched from late afternoon into the evening, but inside rather than on the terrace.

We had done some grocery shopping in the morning. The baker and butcher were both open, so we were lulled into a false sense of security that the SuperU would likewise be open. WRONG! Tony had warned us of the possibility and given us the name of a grocery store in Béziers that was sure to be open, Auchan. So we toddled off to Béziers, now a bit worried that we've not left ourselves enough time to do the shopping in a strange place and still meet Ron and Chris' plane on time.

Auchan is like a super Walmart - it sells anything and everything and has a huge grocery - 3 aisles of cheese alone. And it is teeming with people (most likely like us- off for the day, only store open regular hours). Luckily our list is short and the check out is efficient. Would have been more efficient if I had remembered to weigh the fruits and vegetables before getting to the check out line. But the cashier is patient and sends me back to weigh the 4 parcels that are sold by weight. It's actually a genius system. You put the things on the scale, then choose fruit or vegetable. Up come photos of each type of produce. You touch the screen for the proper fruit or vegetable and then a little sticker comes out with the price on it. You affix it to your bag and the cashier just types in the amount from the tag. There are not scales at the check out and the cashier doesn't have to ask you what the item is or look up it's code in a little check list like we do at home.

We hurry home, have just enough time to put the groceries in the fridge, fix a quick sandwich (yes, we'll be eating in the car again) and head off for Perpignan to pick up Ron and Chris.

It was like we had seen them just yesterday in spite of the fact that it has been 14 years since we last saw them. We're all a bit more grey and wrinkled, but beyond that it's like we've never been apart. We talk all the way home, catching up on kids and travels, and experiences. Since it's raining, we can't sit on the terrace (boo hoo), but we sit around the table reminiscing about things we'd done together over the many years (41) we've known each other.

It's been a long day, and after several carafes of wine, aperos and dinner, we call it a night after first deciding with a bit of help from the Internet that we'll head toward Marseillan Plage (beach) tomorrow. The weather promises to be sunny and warm.

For the first time all trip, we haven't taken a photo. Too busy talking to think about it. Tomorrow.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

les Hirondelles

I just have to write something about our rental apartment. I have asked the proprietors, Marian and Tony, for permission to tell stories before starting this blog article.

Our Terrace Apartment is one of several in "les Hirondelles" a 19th century vintner's house. This has been an ideal location from which to stage all our adventures in tourism, our daily living, and welcome our friends and family who have or will visit us during our stay.

We were inspired to choose this part of France by watching the Tour de France this year. It is an area neither of us had ever been to before and looked full of history, small villages, vinyards, and beautiful countryside. So I did some searching on the Internet and found the site for them at French Holiday Also listed at: les Hirondelles (the swallows). There are other websites, including this: vacancesthezan

I wrote Marian and Tony, the English proprieters, (making our correspondence very easy!) for more information. We originally booked the one-bedroom Terrace Apartment for the off season of April and May. When friends and family knew our plans, and we began to get positive responses from our invitations to come visit while we're in France, we decided, with help from Tony and Marian, to book 2 additional bedrooms for this apartment and it has been perfect for our needs.

We were charmed by the history of the old building (who would not want to stay in a vintner's house?) and the photos provided of the apartment. We liked that it was in a small village and off the beaten-path, but near enough to airports and larger cities, as well as centrally located for exploring the Languedoc-Rouissillon area.

On arrival, our expectations were more than met. Marian and Tony specialize in flexible accommodations for their guests and have set up their apartments to serve the varied needs of their varied guests. In addition to our spacious apartment with brand new bathroom, and inviting terrace, there are many amenities including a rec room, sight-seeing literature, bikes that can be borrowed, and the experience of Marian and Tony in recommending local shopping and sights. The carafe of local rosé certainly helped us get off on the "right foot". Although, as Tony tells us, "evaporation" is a great problem with wines in the South of France. We note that the wine in our carafe is gone all too soon.

We've been here just over 3 weeks now and are still enchanted by our location, our daily life and the amentities of the apartment. We love the flow of village life - market on Tuesday and Thursday, the butcher for meats and advice on how to cook them, the daily pre-breakfast trip to the boulanger for bread, except Wednesdays when the boulangerie is closed and we have to get our bread from Point Chaud, the local grocers. Aperos somewhere between 6 and 7 and dinner between 8 and 9. Trips to the local wine coops for "vrac" (wine poured into "bidons" - 5 litre jugs, of which Marian and Tony have a supply they lend out). Lots of ham and cheese sandwiches taken for lunch on whatever adventure the day brings.

Marian and Tony live in the upper two floors of the maison and are usually available for asking questions and getting the scoop on how to manage affairs locally - when are the bank holidays, who's open when, where the good wine coops are, finding good olive oil, cookbooks, etc. Once a week, we get a basket of new linens and the most decadent of all are the IRONED sheets that we put on the beds and pillows. Tony takes pride in providing these ironed sheets himself. (They had used a laundress, but as she closed for the month of August when they are busiest, that didn't work well.)

There is a small one bedroom apartment on our floor, which is the first floor (American second floor), the one with the balcony. On the ground floor is the garage with entrance for the other two apartments, which we haven't seen yet, but which I'm told are a studio and an apartment for up to 6 people. This is also the floor where the rec room is and steps up to the terrace to provide access to the other visiters. Tony tells us they have a "cave" (wine cellar) as well as other storage somewhere here. You wouldn't expect a vintner's house NOT to have a cave, would you?

Marian and Tony have lived here for 10 years, having ditched banking life in England where the salaries were good but the lifestyle was, let us just say, "lacking". They moved to France for the lifestyle, but also had to make a living and thus after some research, bought this house and started as a bed and breakfast. You can still get B&B services, but they have moved more toward providing a holiday apartment experience.

There are many more stories to tell, but this will suffice for a start.

Aigues-Morte and the Camargue

Not one to miss an opportunity, Dave suggests we detour from our route home from Lyon to visit Aigues-Mortes, the Camargue, and La Grande-Motte. We dropped Christie at the airport at 5 AM as planned, then headed home. The roads were dark and empty for the first hour or so, a marked departure from yesterday's travels. We stop at an "aire" to get some Quick-Trip type food for breakfast. Not the normal "Yumm", but will keep us from starving till we get home.

Along the A-roads which are limited access and at least where we're traveling, toll roads with smooth surfaces. We've been told these roads are built by companies like Vinci, who then recoup their money by charging tolls. And tolls are expensive - about $60 for 400 km (about 240 miles). They do have a system like the i-Pass for US toll roads, but we didn't explore that possibility. Unlike with the i-Pass, you need to slow down to 20 mph as you pass through the sensors at the toll booths, but it does save the time of working the pay machines. There aren't usually people at the toll booths, but there's a machine where you insert your ticket, the price shows up and then you figure out how to pay. The machines accept credit cards (and fingers crossed, all but one has accepted ours)and coins and bills. They even make change.

On these roads, there are "aires" (rest areas) every 10-20 km. Some are just parking and picnic areas, usually with a bathroom (bring your own toilet paper and use the handicapped stall if you fancy a toilet rather than footprints in the floor). Others are full blown Interstate-type rest areas with gas, ATM, snack bars, restaurants, and other amenities.

So we cruise along these lovely roads and turn off for Aigues-Mortes at about 7:30, arriving at the town about 8. I'm thinking we'll be wandering empty streets as it's Easter Sunday and early to boot. But such is not the case. The cafés are opening up and the locals are having coffee and reading the morning paper. When we stop at one of these for "café américain" (strong, black and larger than an espresso), we watch locals walking through with loaves of bread, so a boulanger is definitely open.

As we drink coffee, there is more and more activity on the square. Tables are being set for future customers. Stacked chairs are distributed among tables now dressed with tablecloths, silverware and glasses.

A lady unlocks the souvenir shop on the corner and begins putting out turning racks of postcards and prints. She hangs boards with samples of wares available within on the walls outside the store.

As we continue our walk, we stop in the church - clearly old, but with a wooden roof rather than stone vaulting over the nave. We buy 2 baguettes (those are the long, skinny loaves of crusty French bread, one of which we are now eating with our aperos of rosé wine, tapanades (olive spread) and olives while I write this) for 1 Euro 80 ($2.50, $1.25 each).

Aigues-Mortes sits on the Camargue, an area of salt marshes along the Mediterranean. Saint Louis (King Louis IX) ordered a town built and fortified as direct access to the Mediterranean and it was from here that he launched 2 of his crusades to the Holy Land. This all took place in the 1200's. The fortified walls enclose a city that was already a trade crossroads for Genoan goods such as silks. Thus the town inside is laid out in a grid of streets and the wall are irregularly shaped to accommodate the size and shape of the existing 12th century town. The wall remains intact today.

Outside the walls is a large port on a rather large canal (the Grau) that links inland waterways of the Camargue with the Mediterranean. (As far as we can determine). Modern industry includes salt production (which we didn't see at all). From here you can take all kinds of tours by all kinds of vehicles to see the Camargue. This does look intriguingly interesting and is something Katie would love to do, I'm sure.

As to the town, it is clearly set up for tourists. It is picturesque, near the water, in the south of France, on the Camargue and Mediterranean. The name translates to "(very) dead waters" - a reference to the pestilence and illness suffered by those living near marshy places. But when Louis IX bought it from the Dukes of Aragon, he made it an important town on the Mediterranean. The main square has a statue honoring Saint Louis, the church and lots of restaurants whose tables fill most of the square.

I'm really glad we were there early when the town was just awakening as the tourists had not yet arrived and the tourist shops were just beginning to open, including this intriguing candy shop. You could get a feel for the town as the locals experience it when the tourists are gone. That was quite nice.

We left by 9, drove through the Camargue to the beach town of La Grande-Motte and were back in Thézan by 10 and have now spent a leisurely day - a bit of napping, a bit of laundry and cleaning, lunch and now aperos. (Lest you think we're the dirtiest people on earth, let me assure you that our French washing machine, which sits left of the sink draining rack, does not hold much at at time, nor do we have the drying space to hang very many clothes at a time. With the kids here, we did a lot more laundry than the 2 loads per week necessitated by Dave and I.

Did I mention that we saw flamingos along the road through the Camargue?

The sun is out and the terrace beckens. The weather is changing back to beautiful and warm. Tomorrow, in Perpignan, we pick up Ron and Chris, our friends from the south of England. We haven't seen each other for years. Next week promises to be a great opportunity for a long overdue reunion.

Saturday, April 23, 2011


It's Saturday and it's raining. We were thinking that there should be rain in the spring here for the vines to really grow, but this is the first rain since we arrived. The vines are leafing out now as yesterday's biking photos show. Luckily, the rain won't bother us as we're headed to Lyon for Christie to catch her 6 AM flight tomorrow back to the States. We plan to wander around downtown Lyon this afternoon and then stay at a hotel near the airport.

The drive took longer than usual, as tomorrow's Easter and it seems everyone is going somewhere. The roads are crowded, causing slowdowns in both driving and proceeding through toll booths. (Luckily, there aren't too many of those.) The rain slowly fades to just clouds by the time we're heading up the Rhone River toward Lyon. Along the way we see a semi on fire (on the other side of the road, luckily for us). Fortunately, the driver was able to disconnect his cab and more it out of harm's way. Whatever was inside the soft-sided truck was pretty much gone by the time we passed the billows of black smoke. The "pompiers" (fire trucks) were making their way through the crowded and, by now, backing up highway. The only other excitement, if you can call it that, was the delay as we were within half-hour of our Lyon destination. As we went through our last "péage" (toll booth), we remarked that they had all lanes open(must have been a dozen for a 3 lane highway). On the other side of the toll plaza, all was gridlock and there was a traffic control sign that announced "Accident". It took half hour to get all lanes merged and moving again, with no sign of an accident to be seen once we started moving. But by now the sun was shining through the clouds and the temps were in the high 60's.

We get to our hotel, which is supposed to be 10 miles from the airport and a tram ride from the center of the city. But the doors are locked. It's some sort of "résidence" meant for long term stays, we think. After ringing and ringing the outside bell, a housekeeper comes to tell us that they will open at 5 PM. (There's no indication of that on the website - in fact it says 1 PM arrival.) So we get a map from the housekeeper, use the bathroom, and head into town by car rather than tram. It's easy to get downtown and we are able to park easily and walk to the old town.

The city center is Place Bellecour on a spit of land between the Rhône and Saône Rivers. We cross the Pont Bonaparte to the old town which squeezes itself into the bottom of a rather rugged and steep hill. There we start by visiting the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist (seen in the photo above in the bottom along the river) the front of which is shrouded by the screening they hang on the outside of scaffolding. There seem to be major renovations happening to the exterior. Cleaning for sure, one tower is now white compared to the rest of the facade. Built mainly from the 12th-15th centuries, parts (the apse in particular) are Romanesque and parts, like the nave, are Gothic. The stained glass was partially destroyed in the 18th century and again in 1944 during the liberation of Lyon in WWII. But some 12th and 13th century glass is still intact, like the Rose window below.

Christie and Dave decide to head up the hill by means of the funicular to see a church and the ruins of a Roman theatre and Odium at the top.

I head into the old town wandering the crowded, narrow streets, stopping at a creperie for a sugar crepe and coffee. The old town is crawling with people, mostly French, and probably none of them local. It is a big vacation weekend in France. Of course we hear Italian, and German a lot too. But no English. The old town streets are, as you might expect, narrow, cobbled (hard on the feet), and lined with medieval buildings. Some open onto squares of some size to give relief and light from the dark pathways. Some buildings have the shell of St Jacques carved above their doors, indicating the owner made a pilgrimage to St Jacques de Compostelle. As I'm waiting to use the "toilette" in the creperie, I notice that this building has been cobbled out of/added onto a gothic building. Pointed arches and broken stones indicate a different form in its medieval life.

The streets are teeming with people and it's clear this area is used to lots of tourists as every other store front is a restaurant. I check out the menus in front of many looking for a place for dinner. We were thinking we'd eat some of the Lyonnais specialties as Lyon is known for its gastronomy. But the specialties all seem to have some parts of meat that I wouldn't consider eating: tripe (pancreas), cervelles (brains), tête (head), pied (feet) or boudin (a type of blood sausage).

In the end we choose a restaurant that seems to have recognizable foods - onion soup, steaks and sausages and lamb. It also translates its menu to English which is a help for Christie and Dave. "Le Laurencin" calls itself a "veritable bouchon Lyonnais" which means it's a restaurant that serves typical Lyonnais food. It is also in a building that dates from 1528. At 6 PM we are the second table in the restaurant (seated next to 2 German ladies). By 6:30, every table in the restaurant is filled, mostly with an interantional array of tourists. I can hear British English, Italian, German and maybe Portuguese. I don't hear any French, suggesting that this isn't the "authentic Lyonnais menu" that we're eating. But that's OK with me. We note that the demeanor of this restaurant is more "American" if you will as there are many wait staff, they are attentive, quickly picking up dishes as courses are finished and turning over the tables quickly once someone leaves, in order to seat the next patrons.

We order the menu at 15 Euros - starter, main course and dessert, plus a bottle of Coteaux de Lyonnais red wine. Christie and I have onion soup, Dave has the salad with chevre (goat cheese) baked in pastry. Dave orders a sausage in brioche (a type of bread), I order the steak in an eschalote sauce (gravy really), and Christie orders the lamb. All are delicious, although I wouldn't say the soup was anything special given the options for onion soup in France. We finish with a creme brulée, tarte tatin (apple pie) and crème caramel with Espresso. (I'll pay for that later when I can't get to sleep.)

By the time we leave, it is now raining (sprinkling really) and there's a line waiting for a table in Le Laurencien. But the streets have cleared of strolling tourists.

We check into our hotel which is spotlessly clean with good facilities and even a kitchenette, which we of course won't use. Christie's flight is at 6 AM in the morning which means we need to get up at 4 to make the half hour drive to the airport by 5 AM. So it's quick showers and bed by 9:30. (Way too early for the coffee to have worn off, so I'm awake considerably longer. Drat! But the coffee's so-o-o good.)