Archive for the 'France' Category

August 11th 2008
Cote d’Azur

Posted under France

The French Riviera, the Cote d’Azur, the south of France…vacation destination for jet set Europeans, playground for the rich and famous, where celebrities are photographed frolicking on the beautiful beaches only to have their bodily imperfections magnified in gossip magazines. We had set our sights on Nice, the second most-visited French city (after Paris), planning to steal a glimpse of St. Tropez, Cannes, and other famous cities along the coastal road. The sapphire waters of the Mediterranean invigorated and enchanted us as we endured the traffic and inadequate signage through the pretty seaside towns.

We were delighted to discover that our hotel in Nice was only two blocks from the beach, though parking proved to be a challenge. It had been a long day of driving so, despite our eagerness to explore, we settled in and relaxed for the evening.

The next morning, we set out early to spend the day in Monaco. Measuring a mere 1.95 square kilometers, Monaco is the world’s second smallest country – only the Vatican is smaller. The entire country curves around the glistening, yacht-filled Port de Monaco. We parked just north of the port in the capital city of Monte Carlo and began our walk. The famous Casino Monte Carlo was thronged with photo-snapping tourists who rudely left handprints (and probably saliva) all over the Ferraris and Lamborghinis parked in front. The decadence of the cars, clothes, and jewels on display in Monaco were unparalleled by anything we have seen. The architecture dripped with sculptures, murals, and beautiful wrought iron detail. The yachts in the port were a vision of eye-popping flash seen only in rap videos.

We made our way toward the port and sat down at a waterside café for lunch to drool over the boats for an hour before continuing to the Prince’s Palace. The ascent to the palace was laborious but afforded the best views of Monaco. The palace exterior was less remarkable than I’d expected, considering the artistry in Monaco’s other grand facades. We browsed the souvenir shops and had just turned down a shaded alley of shops when the sound of church bells echoed through the stone corridor. We followed the sound of the bells through a maze of stone and stumbled upon the Cathedral de Monaco, a beautiful church overlooking the sea. A crowd of tourists were gathered across the circle and we scurried over to see what was going on. A wedding! On the church steps were gathered Monaco’s elite, dressed to impress for the gorgeous affair. The bride and groom soon appeared through a shower of flower petals, followed by pretty blond bridesmaids in canary yellow gowns. We watched the merriment for a few minutes and then headed back down towards the port. The wedding was an unexpected and marvelous surprise.

Monaco was a spectacle of wealth and glamour. The ladies of Sex and the City would definitely have approved.

Back in Nice, we divided our remaining time equally between Vieux Nice (the old town) and the beach. The old town was full of life, especially at night when the restaurants were abuzz and musicians filled the lanes with sounds from around the world. Gelato stands were ubiquitous. Outdoor cafés filled the lanes with Heavenly aromas and wine-induced chatter.

The beaches in Nice were polished gray pebbles, which were less comfortable than sand, but the cool blue ocean was intensely refreshing. A day rental of a beach chair and parasol in Nice runs about 20 euro per person so we joined the hordes of locals in setting up camp on the pebbles. The tanned, toned bodies on the beach added to the beauty of the already spectacular seascape. Above the beach, the promenade des Anglais (English promenade) was a wide, palm-lined boardwalk with plenty of beachfront seating, snack vendors and rollerblading locals. It was a wonderful place for a stroll both day and night.

The Cote d’Azur was the perfect conclusion to our adventures in France. There is nothing like a sparkling beach to make you feel like you’re on vacation. Nice seemed like a relaxed and livable city, perhaps more so outside of tourist season. The cafés were surprisingly unpretentious; the food and wine were wonderful; and the streets were picturesque and full of life. It has been our pleasure to share our adventures in France with Aaron’s mother and we hope that her memories of the experience are as fond as ours.


August 9th 2008

Posted under France

We left Bordeaux for Provence with visions of lavender fields dancing in our heads. On the way, though quite well out of the way, we stopped off in the tiny, stinky cheese-producing town of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon. Aaron wanted to tour the Roquefort caves where the world’s finest blue cheese is aged. We arrived at Le Papillon, makers of our favorite Roquefort, just in time for the tour. Forty-five long but educational minutes later, we purchased a trio of cheeses and a baguette and made a picnic overlooking a craggy mountain valley. Valerie had bought Aaron a beautiful cheese knife and it slid marvelously through the soft white cheeses.

We arrived in Arles at dinnertime and settled into the lovely Hotel le Cloitre in the center of town. The air was noticeably warmer in Provence than Bordeaux but the narrow streets sandwiched between beautiful stone buildings offered some reprieve from the heat. Already intrigued by the bright-colored fabrics of French Provencal décor, the narrow labyrinthine streets, and sidewalk cafés, we ventured out for a taste of the town, landing at a lovely café with a mister system, free Wi-Fi, and very large beers.

The next day we set off on a self-guided walking tour of several subjects of Van Gogh paintings. Van Gogh spent several years in Arles, immortalizing flowers, buildings, and landscapes on canvas, and was briefly committed to an insane asylum after lopping off his ear during an argument in Arles with fellow artist, Paul Gauguin. At each site, an easel displayed a reproduction of the painting so that we could compare the work to the modern day subject. It was amazing to stand on the bank of the Rhone at the near-precise spot where Starry Night Over the Rhone was created; to see the vividness of color and light in seemingly ordinary objects through the eyes of an artistic genius. The tour took us all around Arles and we stopped to peruse shops and markets as they crossed our path. A lazy café lunch and an hour’s rest recharged our batteries for our evening event: the bull races!

Built in the 1st and 2nd centuries, Arles’ Roman amphitheatre still serves as the venue for bullfighting and bull races. What is a bull race? Snarling, snorting trained bulls are pinned with special ribbons around their horns. A bull is released into the arena. Young, nimble men, dressed all in white, attempt to snatch the bull’s ribbons with tiny dull hooks. There are upwards of fifteen men playing simultaneously against a single bull and still the bull usually wins, inciting roars of applause from the fedora-clad spectators. The most exciting moments of the event are when the bull leaps over the arena wall and goes running around the perimeter until it is lured back inside. The crowd loves this. Each bull lasts about twenty minutes, daring the challengers to get close to its ferocious horns, and then the next bull enters in a rage of fury. Each bull has a unique fiery personality. Best of all, the bull is not killed at the end as it is in a bullfight. The bull lives to snarl another day!

All around Arles, I had been admiring postcards, calendars and paintings of vibrant fields of lavender. On our last day in Provence, we decided to take a drive into the countryside in search of the vivid purple hues. Heading northwest towards Avignon, we found no lavender but Avignon itself was worth a visit. The town was enclosed by a tall stone wall and the buildings within the periphery were elevated such that they rose up beyond the height of the wall. The majestic Palace of the Popes is Avignon’s most architecturally impressive and historically significant sight. It is the largest Gothic palace in the world. We wandered the streets and lingered in the courtyard of the palace for some time but our quest for lavender precluded us from going inside.

The most fruitful element of our Avignon stop was a visit to the tourist office where a woman explained in wonderful English where we could find the lavender. With renewed enthusiasm, we hopped back into the car and headed northeast toward Sault. It wasn’t long before we squealed with delight at our first glimpse of lavender fields near the golden city of Gordes, which was itself a hidden gem. Built entirely of stone and spilling down a steep mountainside, the picturesque cityscape was a stunning sight, bathed in the golden light of the late afternoon sun. Around Gordes, we discovered sweeping mountain valleys with plots of lavender and grapevines interwoven like a patchwork quilt. The car provided us unlimited freedom to span the countryside and, between Gordes and Sault, we found more and more lavender. We drove all day, arriving back in Arles weary and satisfied with the day’s adventures. Provence, with its charming towns, artistic history, and fields of lavender, exceeded our highest expectations.


August 7th 2008

Posted under France

As self-proclaimed wine connoisseurs – a passion cultivated over years of devoted “study” – we have been privileged to visit wine-producing regions around the world and sample the fruits of their land and labors. From Napa to South Africa to Australia and New Zealand, we have been enthralled with the art of wine tasting. It has always been a stress-free, happy experience. Not so in Bordeaux.

While most wine regions around the globe warmly welcome visitors on a walk-in basis, the Bordeaux wineries require visitors to make an appointment. While decidedly inconvenient, if that were the sole obstacle to enjoyable wine tasting in Bordeaux, I would not even bother to mention it. From the office of tourism, we had obtained literature describing the various wineries in the region. Next to each listing was a picture of one or more national flags, indicating what languages could be accommodated at the winery. The problem was that when I called the supposed English-speaking wineries to make appointments, almost no one on the other end of the lines was willing or able to speak English. Now, Aaron and I both studied French for four years and, while no one would mistake us for French, we are both functional French speakers. When I attempted to make appointments using my functional French, no one would accommodate us. It was bizarre and frustrating. I dialed nearly twenty of Bordeaux’s “English-speaking” wineries and got two appointments. I felt like I was making cold calls for a sales job!

As it turned out, our two tasting appointments were wonderful and we left them both smiling and happy. We decided to take a drive along a well-known “chateau trail” as outlined on our map from the tourist office. The Bordeaux region boasts upwards of 5,000 wine-cultivating chateaux. We drove along, stopping at leisure to photograph the lovely facades, including the much-admired Chateau Margaux.

While we were disappointed by the chilly reception of the Bordeaux wineries, we made the most of our experience there and still ended up tasting plenty of local wines. Our California red-soaked palates have developed a financially unfortunate affinity for French wines. For those interested in “doing Bordeaux”, we might suggest booking an organized tasting tour in advance. While the haughty French attitudes were difficult to endure, the wines were wonderful!

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August 6th 2008
St Emilion

Posted under France

Our road trip continued south toward Bordeaux where bright yellow fields of sunflowers were soon interspersed with sprawling vineyards. On the way, Aaron found the picture-perfect patch of sunflowers so we got out of the car and leaped a narrow ravine (at which time I was reminded that I wasn’t ready to be leaping ravines just yet) to capture the moment. On the way back, a chivalrous gent with big cheeks carried me across like a princess. We arrived in Bordeaux in mid-afternoon and Aaron and Valerie ventured out for a walk while I opted for a few solitary hours of recovery time.

The next morning began with a leisurely stroll through the Bordeaux Sunday market. The rows of vendor stalls selling fruits and vegetables, fresh fish, bread, pastries, meats, cheeses, olives, wine, locally harvested oysters, and scrumptious tapas and prepared foods lined the wide River Garonne and filled the air with tantalizing aromas. Locals abounded with their signature French woven baskets, filling them with items for the day’s meals. After perusing every stall, we selected a large bowl of mussels béarnaise and a baguette for a picnic brunch.

Our destination for the day was the historic town of St Emilion, known for its vineyards and full-bodied red wines. The scenic 40km drive landed us in the medieval stone village before noon. We stopped to admire the golden-hued stone walls and the expanse of vineyards beyond. The town’s only tourist site was a monolithic church built underground by monks from the 9th-12th centuries. We stopped into the tourism office to buy tickets for the English tour and then had a couple of hours to tool around town on our own before it began.

The village was built entirely of limestone. Once a wheat-producing community, the St Emilion of today is entirely devoted to wine. The narrow cobbled streets are lined with boutique wine shops, restaurants and hotels oozing charm. So dedicated is the village to wine tourism, that there is one wine shop for every four residents. Window shopping among these wine boutiques enticed us to indulge and, after a tasting in one of the shops, we decided to relax at one of the ubiquitous sidewalk cafés, sipping wine until tour time. The quartet of musicians that had lured us to that particular square stopped making merry just after we sat down but there were plenty of interesting people to keep us entertained.

The town was named after a monk, Emilion, who settled there in the first century, living a hermit’s life in a stone cave for 17 years. Our tour began with a short descent into Emilion’s cave, which consisted of two “rooms” with a bed, a meditation seat, and a small pool from an underground river. Our guide explained that Emilion’s meditation seat is believed to have powers of fertility and that 70-80% of women who sit on the seat send letters attesting to its magic. Guess whose buns were the first ones onto that seat? And once more on the way out…just in case the power didn’t soak in the first time.

We descended next into the historic town crypt where monks, men of status, and male babies were once buried. In those days, women were believed not to have souls so they were buried in the outlying fields. The crypt had long since been plundered of its treasures and remains but we were able to see the individual underground graves carved into the stone and the tiny carve-outs for the babies.

Finally, we entered the monolithic church. “Monolithic” means one level or one piece. The church was built underground for protection from Vikings and violent religious persecutors. Limestone blocks were excavated through small openings at the top. The depth of the interior was astonishing. There were only faint remnants of the original iconography and the limestone pillars had been recently reinforced by sturdy metal braces but the cool, damp, cavernous interior enveloped our senses and called to mind visions of devout worshippers bowed in candlelit prayer. On one Sunday each month, services are held in the monolithic church in commemoration of its founders.

As we exited the church into a burst of golden sunlight, I turned to gaze upon the entrance once again. I imagined the intense labor involved in creating this massive underground church by hand. Naturally, it would have been easier to build the church above ground but the reality of religious persecution forced the community to conceal and protect themselves in practicing their faith.

The draw of St Emilion is certainly its wine but the town has a fascinating history, which can be absorbed in less than an hour. Like so many charming French towns, the artistry, architecture and bright summer flowers create an ambience that makes you feel as though you’re walking around in a painting. France makes me want to fling my crusty backpacker duds onto a rooftop, don a pretty dress and stylish chapeau, and fold artfully into the scene.

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August 4th 2008
Les Chiens (The Dogs)

Posted under France

Having missed our planned day trip to Chartres due to my surgery, we decided to take a detour (a big one – almost all the way back to Paris) between Normandy and Tours. Our love of churches and the carefree, adventurous nature of our trio outweighed the pain from the exorbitant price of European petrol – almost $10/gallon! The town of Chartres was awash with bright summer flowers and we soon forgot the distance of our detour.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Cathedrale Notre Dame de Chartres is most interesting for its two grand spires, each of a different design: a 16th century Gothic spire on the left and a 12th century Romanesque spire on the right. While the Gothic design is characteristically ornate and the Romanesque spire is classically plain, the two blend seamlessly together to create a stunning and foreboding façade. Inside, a dark, almost ghastly ambience is imbued by the grey stone interior walls and the famously deep-hued stained glass windows filtering the only daylight. The sheer height of the domed ceiling is humbling. We spent our time walking around the altar, silently contemplating the Biblical sculptures and stained glass.

The most venerated object in the cathedral’s treasury is a veil that is purported to have been worn by the Virgin Mary when she gave birth to Jesus. Unfortunately, the section of the cathedral where the veil is usually displayed was under construction so we were not able to view it.

Back on the road, we continued toward Tours in the Loire Valley, famed for its lavish chateaux. The region was once known as a playground for 15th to 18th century royalty and nobility. We were an hour outside Tours when I began to realize that the hotel I’d booked for us was at least an hour’s drive from Tours and in the direction opposite of all of the chateaux that we wanted to visit. My heart sank further and further into my chest as we passed Tours and continued well into the remote countryside. My companions were great sports, however, and didn’t give me too hard a time. We finally arrived at a golf resort with two rows of charming two-storey villas on a spacious green property. As we checked into one of the upper floor apartments, we were delighted to discover a fully stocked kitchen and sitting room in addition to two bedrooms. It was the loveliest and most quiet place in which we have stayed in France, which almost made up for its location.

The next morning, we headed out for a day of touring chateaux. The two early birds in our trio were slightly annoyed with the late bird for snoozing late, lingering over a cappuccino, and then taking too long to get ready. The late bird was unconcerned by this, however, for three reasons: 1) she was post-surgical; 2) we were still on the road by mid-morning; and 3) the late bird knew that she was outnumbered and would be a slave to the early bird schedule soon enough.

A near two-hour drive finally landed us at Chateau de Chambord around lunchtime and we ate a quick picnic in the parking lot upon arriving. The chateau, commissioned by Francois I in 1519 as a hunting residence and taking 15 years to complete, is often toted as the grandest of all the chateaux in France. Interestingly, Francois only resided in it for 42 days during his reign (Lonely Planet France: Jan 07). A single glance at the magical exterior was enough to channel the vivid imagination of a childhood princess, conjuring the castle of her dreams. The Chateau de Chambord, with its many ornate domes, chimneys, and towers, could easily have been cartooned into a Disney film.

The chateau was set on a spacious property with vast, tree-lined fields. The entrance was so far from the parking lot that I had already exhausted my very limited walking stamina by the time we reached the foyer and I could go no further. I found a bench between two enormous tapestries and spent the next hour eavesdropping on guided tours in three different languages while Aaron and Valerie explored the interior. When we reunited, they cheerily reported that the exterior was the best part anyway.

The highlight of the day (in my biased, dog-loving opinion) was our final stop at Chateau de Cheverny. I had rested in the car between stops so that I would have maximum stamina for our late afternoon visit. The classical façade, pristinely manicured gardens, expansive grounds and magnificent period furnishings were a true pleasure to admire. However, we had come for a different thrill: the soupe des chiens, or feeding of the dogs. “As was the custom among the nobility of centuries past, Marquis Charles-Antoine de Vibraye – whose family has owned Cheverny since it was built – hunts with dogs.” Most of his 100 canines are a cross between English fox hounds and French poitevins. (Lonely Planet France: Jan 07).

After leisurely touring the chateau and grounds, we made our way to the kennels to secure a front row spot for the 5:00pm feeding. When we first arrived, the dogs were laying about in the lower outdoor area of their two-level residence. They were truly beautiful, resembling Beagles in color and body type, though they were larger in size. The sheer number of them created a magnificent spectacle of fur and floppy ears.

One of Cheverny’s two dog trainers (both of whom are purported to know every dog by name and lineage), who bore an uncanny resemblance to Adam Sandler, entered the kennel and opened a gate to an upper outdoor terrace. The dogs, knowing this to be the commencement of the feeding ritual, scurried up the stairs to the terrace after which the trainer closed the gate at the bottom of the stairs. By this time, about 4:40pm, a crowd had gathered around the perimeter of the kennel. With the dogs watching intently from above, the trainer hosed down the cement surface of the kennel. He then disappeared and returned shortly thereafter with a huge wheelbarrow of raw and plucked chicken and duck carcasses. He dumped the load into a pile and used a rake to spread the parts into a line across the kennel. Next he brought out a huge sack of kibble and spread it over the carcasses. The dogs became increasingly excited with each passing minute and all eyes were glued to the trainer as he nonchalantly leaned back against the opposite wall of the kennel to wait for 5:00 sharp. The dogs eyed their dinner ravenously for almost a full ten minutes before the bell of the chateau clock rang five gong-like chimes. At the sound of the clock, the dogs went wild! The trainer did not move; did not change his facial expression from the confident authoritative smirk with which he’d attended to all of his tasks.

When he’d reminded the pack that it was he, not the clock, who controlled their meal privileges, he walked slowly toward the gate and opened it. The dogs shuffled out and lined up a few feet in front of the food, barking madly. The trainer stood between the dogs and their food, gently waving his whip back and forth across the line as the maniacal pack inched toward the food. One fight erupted but the two culprits quickly melted into the pack. Then suddenly the trainer moved aside and carnal chaos ensued as the entire pack made a simultaneous mad dash for the meat. Not every dog would get a piece of meat; it was every dog for itself. Only the strong shall survive. Scuffles erupted over the meat and weaker dogs lost their booty to the alphas. Blood was shed from furry faces, necks and ears. Only when the meat was consumed did the nuggets of kibble begin to disappear. The entire spectacle lasted only two or three minutes but they were some of the most intense minutes of my life, witnessing the nature of the beast. As we walked back to the car, our hearts were racing with excitement. The soupe des chiens was one of the most amazing things that we’ve seen on the road and although my body was screaming “Too much!” by the end of the day, I will never forget the thrill of that experience.

On the way back to the country, the late bird happily pointed out to the early birds that, had the trio not gotten a late start that morning, we would surely have missed the 5:00 feeding. Forget the worm; in the Loire Valley, the late bird catches the dogs!


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