Sunday, October 14, 2007

We never know where the road will take us.

I am the travel planner. I like to have reservations and destinations. For me part of the fun is the planning – knowing what we can see, getting somewhere in the middle of the afternoon because we know how far we will be going and then exploring. For Dave, the adventure is the unknown – no plans, no reservations, and destinations to be discovered at the end of the day. It's not the best mix but it always works out in the end.

Day One had a plan – we were going to get on the highway and drive to the Gorge of Tarn which would have been about a five hour drive, getting us there mid-afternoon with plenty of time to explore. Luckily, I packed sandwiches. We got off the highway after an hour, took a detour through Roanne (should the captain ever want to leave the boat there – and just so you know – he will not) and headed in a southerly direction on the back roads. We drove through the village of La Chaise-Dieu and took a peek at the ancient Benedictine abbey and church; and the town of Le Puy–en-Velay, which is the starting point of one of the main pilgrimage paths in France and were amazed by the church of St. Michael perched on the tip-top of a rocky needle point.

We arrived at our destination at 7:30 in the evening. We did not experience the Gorge of Tarn at less than 60 km/hour. It looked really pretty though like a great crevasse carved deep into the rock with a beautiful, clear river running crisply through it. Reservation in hand, we stayed in a wonderful hotel where we had an excellent dinner but perhaps the piece-de-resistance was our room. We were on the top floor, all the rooms have a view of the river, but ours also had a small balcony and the sliding glass doors which opened onto the balcony, extended, in the form of a giant skylight, into the ceiling. The night sky looked like India ink with no light pollution, the stars were brilliant in their clarity, and we were blanketed by the milky way.

Day Two also had a plan – we were headed to Cordes-sur-Ciel, where we were meeting our friends Pam and John North. We opted for all back roads again as that is our preference and we didn't have all that far to travel. Our day began with a typical French buffet breakfast in the hotel, a toe dipping in the river for me, a fish sighting for Dave and off we went, headed toward Millau for a look at the extraordinary viaduct, which is the tallest suspension bridge in the world.

Our next detour was to Roquefort, home of the famous cheese. And did “ewe” know, it is made from sheep's milk? We arrived just as the local church bell struck noon, so in accordance with French custom, the cheese vaults were closed for lunch. We did find a shop with a mini-display of the cheese making process and of course we bought a few pieces of their brand of Roquefort - which we added to the bread left over from breakfast and had a picnic in a little park.

After our brief repast, we drove through the town of St. Affrique which I had seen written about somewhere but we couldn't figure out why. Next we stopped in Camares with an abbey that is now known as a capital for sacred music in France, and nearby we visited a newly constructed Russian Orthodox church built out of logs. We arrived in Cordes-sur-Ciel around 4:00 in the afternoon after a drive through the mountains with so many hair-pin turns that we could have been a French twist! Those roads went up and down and around and around, climbed steeply, dropped sharply and all with a string of impatient drivers within inches in front or back or alongside because they did not see this as anything but exhilarating – and death-defying - stunt opportunities. When we checked into the little house where we had reservations, we found that Pam and John were still out on a bike ride so we took ourselves to visit the town. Dave had researched this village and found it much heralded for it's population of artists and craftsmen; we think they left before we arrived, but it was a charming old walled town. The four of us had dinner in the village, wine back at the house and collapsed from all the fun.

In the morning, some of us had a brief game of “trying to open the rental car with the keys locked inside” and off we went to the market in Villefranche. Pam had heard that it was the biggest market in southwest France; if so, too bad for the markets of southwest France and that's all I have to say about it. We had a “market lunch” in the town – this means that it took two plus hours to have a lunch consisting of the “plat du jour” which was not written anywhere so we had no idea of what was to be forthcoming until we saw our neighbors plates. Then we were told that whatever they were having, the restaurant was now out of and did we want “tete de veau” or the sausages? Well – I don't know about you but I am never going to eat the head of a calf so I chose the sausages. Are you paying attention here? We are in the town with the “largest market in southwest France” and they are out of the plat du jour already – why couldn't they just go around the corner and get some more? Well, good question, as it turned out that they were out of the first course salad of lettuce, etc., as well, and we were given some sort of terrine of fois gras (for which this region is known). Ok – now they were out of the sausages they substituted for whatever we were supposed to have and we were served fois gras sausages with mashed potatoes. All in all, it was rather good. Dessert, as you might see coming, was not the same as everyone else's had been but some sort of something that I have now forgotten. For this we waited and waited, and finally were exhausted from the sheer pleasure of being finished.

Since we had no plan for the day – we said good-bye to Pam and John and headed for the highway. We drove southwest, around Toulouse – home of the manufacturer of the Airbus airplanes (Eurotrash, as Dave, a die-hard Boeing man calls them), and went to the charming area of Sauveterre-de-Comminges, at the foot of the Pyrenees. We stayed in an old hotel/inn in the country where we had a beautiful view of the mountains and enjoyed a delightful dinner in the dining room.

Day Three's itinerary only had a stop at Lourdes in the plans. I thought we were eventually headed for Biarritz, but that would have been two plans in a day which is excessive -- by two. We had no idea what to expect at Lourdes and I would say that we were exceedingly glad that we visited in September because we could see that in the high season months the potential for zillions of people to be there on any given day was probable. We visited the church, the grotto, and the shrine; lit candles, drank holy water, bought souvenirs, filled a gallon jug with holy water, got back in the car and headed west.

Quietly, the mountains loomed on the horizon; the countryside subtly changed as we entered into the Basque region near the Spanish border. The usual tan/mud color of the houses changed into white with red trim, roofs and shutters, the architecture changed from vertical to more horizontal. There were cows, tobacco, sheep, and eventually the town and road signs were in two languages, French and Euskara. This odd language, which dates back to Neolithic times, and is unrelated to any other languages, is important to the culture of the area. Our original destination was Biarritz but we were drawn further south to St. Jean-de-Luz, or Donibane Lohizune in Euskara.

St. Jean-de-Luz is a charming town on a harbor on the Atlantic coast. The beaches were wide and sandy. Surfers and swimmers and boats carrying passengers, fisherman, and cargo were busy competing for the waters. It was evening when we arrived and it took several tries to find a hotel room but we finally succeeded in finding a large and comfortable room in a very nice hotel just a block away from the beach. We walked several blocks down a main street for pedestrian traffic with shops and restaurants along the way, until we reached the harbor area where there was an abundance of seafood restaurants all offering the most beautiful array of food. The one we chose for dinner had this display outside, and Dave chose a tray with crawfish, shrimp, sea snails, oysters, langoustine, and a huge crab.

This was my dinner - it looked like a sick fish in a blanket - good thing it came with pasta!

In the morning we actually decided to stay in St. Jean-de-Luz for another day! We walked around the town, bought some of the local macaroons, looked at the boats in the harbor, ducked out of the rain into a sidewalk cafe for lunch. Dave went back to the hotel for an afternoon nap and I went shopping. I was fascinated by the Basque linens, many shops sold them and each shop had a different brand and quality.

They are as indigenous to that area as the provencal prints are to the south of France and the toile is in the north. The Basque “toile” as they call it there, is striped – sometimes in one color on a white background, sometimes many color stripes. The quality and the prices range from one end of the spectrum to the other. It is mostly sold as table linens – cloths and napkins and sometimes placemats. It is occasionally sold by the yard, but one store actually had it upholstered on furniture with matching blankets, towels, bathrobes, etc. If you're curious, look up

That evening we went back to the same block as the night before for dinner and chose a restaurant across the street where Dave had local oysters and fried sardines, I had moules a la crème . The rain of the day had stopped so we walked back to the hotel along the beach and stopped in a beach front restaurant/bar to watch the rugby game. It was over by the time we got there but the bartender introduced us to some tasty local wine, which was probably better than the rugby game anyway.

The next day we drove north along the coast, sped through Biarritz, which was the summer home of Napoleon III and Princess Eugenia and is now a playground of the rich and famous. Even on a weekday at the end of September, it was crowded and we were thankful we had chosen St. Jean.

We meandered along, stopped for lunch in a small town that reminded Dave of the movie Deliverance, explored a few beach towns, and drove by an absolutely huge sand dune, the Dune de Plya, which is the largest sand dune in Europe. It is 3 km long, 500 meters wide, and 107 meters in height! Around the corner is the town of Arcachon, which is were we decided to stay for the night.

Arcachon is thirty-four miles southwest of Bordeaux and is situated on a bassin, or bay, just inside the Atlantic Ocean. The bay is surrounded by towns on all sides with all sorts of boating and water sports available. There is an island in the bassin which is a preserve for birds, but my favorite feature is the oyster beds. We had seen oyster beds last fall on our trip to the Med, but these are much bigger. The oyster seeds are placed in the individual owners beds at low tide and there they grow until it is time to harvest them. All the work must be done when the tide is low. An interesting feature of this bay is that at high tide the bay covers an area of 150 km2, and 40 km2 at low tide. There are small little towns next to Arcachon that have all the oyster boats and the huts where they prepare the oysters for seed and harvest; there are restaurants there and shops to buy the oysters, as well as an oyster museum. We do own the dvd “Ostreiculteurs Du Bassin D'Arcachon” for any of those of you who might wish to consider oystering as a second career.

We took a long walk into town along a boardwalk, chose one of the many restaurants, had dinner, oysters, as you see, for Dave. He thought they were distinctly different from the oysters in St. Jean-de-Luz; there are of course, hundreds of oyster varieties within the three broad classifications: Pacific, Olympia and Atlantic; but each grouping is then further broken down to the very shore from which they are harvested.

On the walk back through town, we found a little local bar which was selling postcards so we went in, bought postcards, drank wine, met some interesting people and walked back to our beach front hotel where we had a view of the bay and could hear the sound of the waves on the beach. In the morning, at low tide, we could see the oyster beds in the distance.

Our next destination was Limoges, home of French fine china and porcelain. We buzzed around Bordeaux and Bergerac, homes of the fine wines. We did try to stop at one vineyard but when we missed a sign, we gave up and pressed on. We made it to Limoges in the early evening and stayed at a Mercure hotel right downtown. We found a cafe nearby for dinner and an ice cream restaurant for dessert. The next day we found new dishes for the Shenandoah at the Menard de Noblat outlet store and we headed for Nevers.

Dave wanted to see Nevers which is on the Canal Lateral a la Loire, and the Loire River. We arrived, as usual, around 5:00 p.m. on a Friday night without a reservation or clue as to where to stay. Well, we needn't have worried about where to stay – the moral of that story is never stay in Nevers without a reservation. Off we went in an easterly direction at 6:30 with about a cupful of gasoline in the car with the gas stations closing at 7:00. Fortunately the next little village had a gas station so our options opened up a bit from our thoughts of spending the night roadside in the car with our leftover half empty box of macaroons.

About 15 minutes further down the road we passed a small inn which had not only a room available but also a dining room. Dinner was served at 7:30 and the room was full. Dinner was excellent, as was the 26 E bottle of wine that we had. Dave was so inspired by the company at the next table that he bought a second bottle of wine to share with them – and guess what? The gentleman was an ex-British Airways pilot! The talk flowed, as did the wine, probably because it was my turn to buy! Oh well, what can you do? There is no such thing as dinner without wine in France.

The last leg of our journey home took us through the town of Autun, where they were having a market. Needless to say, we stopped and I equalized our excess of the last night for the next few days by buying a case of wine from a local vintner – Pinot Noir at 3.00E a bottle – it would have been 2.50E if you bought it directly at the vineyard. It was amazingly good and a fitting last purchase as all's well that ends well!