Sunday, September 21, 2014

Perigord--Land of Ancient People and Tasty Geese

Perigord is inland from the Atlantic and north of the Pyrenees. Archeological digs here have uncovered many cave sites carved into the rocks along the river, including the ancient Lascaux cave with its prehistoric paintings.  We installed ourselves in Perigueux to explore the area better.

We headed out to Sarlat to its weekly Saturday market and encountered the largest mass of tourists I remember outside of Paris.  French, German, American, Dutch and more.  It was one of the most overwhelmingly touristic experiences of my travels and completely unexpected.
The cheese and sausage truck
Of course, blended in with the tourists were the ever-patient residents of Sarlat struggling to buy their fruits, vegetables and what-have-you necessary for their daily lives.
Garlic for sale in Sarlat
The high point for me was a taste of the local foie gras. Lovely.  We ended our stay there with a delicious coffee and pastry and headed off to partly retrace our steps to Sarlot from Perigueux.

Stopping at La-Roque-Gageac along the Dordogne River, we discovered the town is just as it's portrayed in many a photo--houses built into the hill and above, what appear to be holes in the rocks where families lived in ancient times--and some not so ancient times.
La Roque-Gageac on the Dordogne
Birds have found homes there and as I looked up above the houses, they soared around in great numbers.
Birds and caves in La Roque-Gageac
Groups enjoyed the river in canoes and kayaks as well as a boat that accommodated many people motoring up the river and down.  It looked most inviting in the heat.

From La-Roque-Gageac, we climbed up to Beynac, one of the finest chateaux in the area.
Beynac Chateau
During the Hundred Years' War (1337-1453), this chateau was alternately occupied by the English and the French. Starting in 1429 Joan of Arc was able to rally the troops; and though she was burned at the stake in 1431, the momentum of the French had taken hold and the war ended in 1453.
The Dordogne River from Chateau de Beynac

Across the valley from Beynac is a chateau that had been owned by Josephine Baker who lived there with her 12 adopted children of global origin (Korea, Venezuela, Morocco, France, Japan, Colombia, Israel, Algeria, Ivory Coast and Finland) until she moved to Roquebrune, near Monaco.

Driving back to Perigueux, we passed through Les Eyzies and St. Christopher to Thenon.  Our final stop was a goose farm where we watched the flocks move around after their leader like a flock of sheep or the gaggle of geese that they were.  What a kick.
They were probably on their way back to the barn to be force fed so their livers would fatten up to be eaten later by the likes of me and other foie-gras appreciators. Gory as it sounds, it didn't appear to me that these animals were under any stress in the process.

This area is where we have to remind each other that it's impossible to see everything there is to see and that it's a damned good excuse to have to return.  We'll be returning. . .    

Friday, September 19, 2014

France Observations

Travel is adventure and discovery of things new and even after multiple trips to France, there is still something new.   

The last time we were here, we watched the confused election of the leader of the center-right party, Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (union for a popular movement) or UMP, the party of the former president, Nicolas Sarkozy.  It was an entertaining election as the winning candidate was not clear for weeks--and it was never clear--period--to many. But it was amusing to watch from an outsider's perspective--an outsider who was spotty in the language but understanding enough to be entertained by it.  Each trip promises a political diversion.  This time, Nicolas Sarkozy is making a bid for the same leadership of the UMP. His return into the fray, so to speak. 

In northwestern France, it appears that all the vines have been pulled up and replaced with corn.  Corn fields are everywhere.  Whatever happened to the wine grapes?  As we head more to the south, we hope we find the vineyards of old rather than the fields of cattle feed and ethanol.  

As I may have mentioned in previous posts from the last trip, I hear more and more English--not that I hear people actually holding conversations in English, but English phrases here and there.  On the radio, I heard a woman say, "pas trop, pas too much."  Translated that is "not too much, not too much," half in French and sort of half in English.  The t.v. commercials are replete with English words and expressions--in print, on radio and on television.
Century 21!  Nothing French about that.  Taken from outside my hotel window.

In the supermarket, I see more shopping carts with bags of chips, bottles of soda, prepared meals.  Said carts are more often pushed by women who have long ago passed the lithe/obese balance--and many are accompanied by children who have seen a little too much of the inside of a candy bar wrapper.  

I see more signs that prohibit the four-legged variety of friend from entry.  That includes supermarkets, the occasional restaurant, even at a hotel.  

Who could deny entrance to these three?
From what seems like time immemorial, dogs have been welcomed in restaurants, museums, stores and anywhere else their human companions go.

Speed cameras have grown completely out of control. They are everywhere.  Small roads, highways, city streets, country lanes.  First there's the warning:  Speed cameras ahead.  Then there's the actual speed camera looking like something out of a Stephen Spielberg movie--daring you to exceed the speed limit.  And what's more surprising is that the French are obeying the speed limit and its constant changes.  I picture some bureaucrat sitting with a map and a stylus:  "Here's a long stretch, let's make it 90 kph.  But here's a little corner so let's stick 70 kph there."  It's like a game.  In the town, it suddenly changes to 50, then 30 where there's a speed bump.  A 100 kilometer trip is a lesson in vigilance.  I've become obsessive about finding the speed limit signs.  Without them, I'm lost--and edgy.

As a constant reminder, every evening, I have seen an hour-long program featuring accidents, their victims, the emergency responders, the consequences both to the victims and the perpetrators.  It's like sitting in traffic school every evening--not that I've ever been to traffic school, but I can imagine.  

But some things remain the same.  
France loves its flowers and gardens.  
In great profusion--winter or summer, the roundabouts, the flower boxes, the planters, the bouquets are artfully arranged like a beautiful artist's palette of contrast and blending that occurs in nature.   
Concarneau old city
Thank goodness for adventure.  May it never end.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Pink Granite

On my desk at home sits a basket woven by the Penobscot Indians in Maine.  Inside is a piece of red granite taken from Red Beach near Calais where my mother lived.  I thought of that basket of granite and my mother as we took a drive along the Breton coast at the most northern point to enjoy the craggy pink granite jutting out to sea.
Pink granite rocky shore

The rocks protect lovely beaches and marinas.  And islands dot the watery landscape all along the coast.  Farther out to sea lies the Ile de Brehat.  At the most remote end toward the north is the La Jument lighthouse, which was made famous by the photograph showing the monstruous wave engulfing both it and the keeper--but for his quick move to return to the safety of the interior of the tower.
Beach community protected by pink granite rocks

Here the tides draw the water far out to sea revealing sand and in some beaches   grass-like growth that is collected in huge piles and lifted into dumptrucks that then carry the grass elsewhere to fertilize the fields.
Beach grass awaiting harvest

On our way to the beautiful drive along the granite coast, we stopped at Pleyben to visit the parish close there.

The parish close at Pleyben

There are several parish closes in the area that were built between the 16th and 18th centuries.

The last supper

At Pleyben, the triumphal arch depicts thirty scenes from the life of Jesus.
Cleaning the feet of John the Baptist--or is it the other way round?
 It's a remarkable piece of sculpture--fashioned in granite, of course.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Gauguin and his buddies

Paul Gauguin, one of a group of French artists in the late 19th century, spent several of his productive years in Brittany.  He lived at La Maison de Marie Henry, an inn in Le Pouldu for about four years along with other artists.  The three-bedroom house was owned by Marie Henry whose own life was somewhat bohemian as an independent single mother.

While there, Gauguin and his friend painted over the walls,  ceiling and windows of the dining room.
Gauguin panel above fireplace
The painting was discovered when wallpaper was removed in the 1920s.

Self-portrait on back of door
Now a museum, we walked around with an iPad in our hands reading the information and listening to the piped-in atmospheric sound effects (gurgling child in the Madame's bedroom, orders for wine in the bar area, kitchen noises, conversations in the dining room).

Window panel
Gauguin left his wife and five children in Denmark to pursue his art in France and beyond and collected several illegitimate children in other parts of the world--especially Tahiti where he died in 1903.

We moved on from Le Pouldu to visit Pont Aven to explore this lovely flower-laden town made famous by the Pont-Aven School, which promoted "synthetism," the style of art practiced by Paul Gauguin.
On the River Aven

Pont Aven was crawling with tourists--mostly over 50, many galleries, lots of watercolor painters set up around the Aven river.

Flowers everywhere
Once again, the tidal flow of the river is extreme with boats in the water when we arrived and leaning on their side or sitting up straight on the mudflats when we left.

There were many houses "en vende" (for sale), which made us fantasize (as a fantasy it would be) about living in one of them.
Boats in the mud

The photos tell the story.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Savage Coast

The Breton Coast, la côte sauvage, is much like the coast of northern California--craggy rocks, wind, spectacular views bordering the edge of the water, swaths of green right to the edge. The tides surpass northern California's in their extremes.  I have read that the tides in Brittany are the highest in Europe. And they are at their highest in March and September.  The reach of the tide can be as much as 39 feet.  At low tide, the beaches are vast.

We arrived in Larmor-Plage in time for lunch and innocently pulled into the last parking space in a very small lot with perhaps 12 spaces and walked blithely away from the car as if that space had been specially reserved for us.  On Saturday at around noon there was a sprinkling of people on the beach--some small children with their parents, some couples with dogs, some sitting, some playing.  But the beach was not crowded.  The view out to sea, the island L'Ile de Groix is small but busy.  We watched the ferry returning to Lorient across the river. 

We enjoyed our first bona fide French lunch seated facing the sea and loving the view.  Our neighbors had finished a dessert that looked wonderful and I coudn't help asking if they enjoyed it.  Their enthusiasm clearly cast a "yes" vote and we decided to order the same thing at the end of our meal.
Chocolate mousse, crème brûlée, apple tart, chantilly, coffee

This couple was full of information about the area, including facts about the WW II German submarine base that is up the river just a bit. The base has been featured in some films, including the Highlander series.  After lunch we drove up the river and viewed the base from the other side.  It's a behemoth of a structure and looks all the world like something built in East Germany during the cold war.  

As the afternoon waned, we watched people streaming to the beach and when we left the area, the beaches were covered with bodies.  Perhaps their weekends didn't start until late afternoon on Saturday.  The weather was warm and the sun shone, making the beach most appealing. But we were looking forward to a good night's sleep to catch up on the jet lag and instead returned to the hotel to be ready for the next day's adventures.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Arrival in France

France has beckoned us back again for a visit that started upon our arrival yesterday in Paris' CDG airport.  Our day was so long, we were too tired to make the six-hour drive to our destination near the coast of Brittany, so we stopped at Alencon, a quaint town with a northern-France architectural look.  Alas, there will be no photos as we spent our time in the car only looking for a hotel where we could lay our heads and had no energy left for wandering.  The day started in the Sacramento airport with a minute of silence in memory of the September 11 of 13 years ago.  I looked around as men removed their hats and the whole terminal fell silent but for the soft sound of the t.v.  A few minutes later, airport security cleared a path for an honor guard that entered, stood at attention briefly, then moved on to the next terminal.  It was a very moving affair and all around were visibly touched. Today we move on to Brittany--France's spectacular savage coast--with travel vigor and enthusiasm.   I'll be armed with my camera and promise more colorful posts in the future.   

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Mother Knows Best

Momma on the job
Perhaps I should have more faith in mother nature.  Yesterday's post implied that some errant bird had laid eggs too late to produce any chicks.  This morning I went out to the back yard to water my garden and glancing up at the nest, I discovered a beak still as a millpond stretching out from the edge.

So now I know that momma bird is doing what she is supposed to be doing.  But here's the hitch.  She picked the wrong yard to raise her young.  It would be much better to have nested in a tree in the property behind the fence at the back of our property. Over that fence is a convalescent home behind which is a parking lot and an open area with a few walking paths where virtually no one wanders.  The best thing about it is that the convalescent home has no cats.  We, on the other hand, have two birders, mousers, squirrelers that act without remorse when around feathered things--without regard for the innocence of youth.

I'll be watching closely and hope to be able to tell you that the beautiful blue eggs have produced two healthy chicks.  Guarded optimism is the order of the day. 

Stay tuned.