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Mystical Champignons

15 Feb

Delicious! Chez Clo, Montpellier.

Perhaps no activity fills French families with nostalgia and anticipation (and causes the uninitiated American to cringe in fear) more than hunting the coveted cep mushroom (that’s porcini to you).

An Easter egg hunt for adults, it’s a magical trek. There are rare, valuable, (and delicious!) treats – hidden far from the urban world – buried under leaves and nettles, deep within a cool, misty, fir tree forest. They’re ephemeral; they come with the rain and the season; they only pop up one night in advance; they’re best to find at the first light of dawn.

 

Fairies live in these woods. Cevennes.

They’re free, and they’re waiting there for you if you can find them. There’s the danger that if you choose poorly, you’ll be poisoned. It’s hilly and slick, cold and damp, and surrounding you are gun shots and terrible baying from the hunting dogs in the chase for wild boar. It’s so, so much better in person than any movie or video game would have you believe.

These are what you’re looking for. Cevennes.

The preparation and the journey make it even more the mythical quest that it is. You rise before dawn and pack hot coffee and cheese and cloth sacks. Then you drive north into the Cevennes mountains, up and over winding roads only wide enough for one car, past expansive valley vistas, dodging white hunter’s trucks parked off the side of the road. Then you hike, searching out your favorite secret spot under the fir trees or next to the stream where the ceps like to hide, telling stories of the golden season when you found more mushrooms than you could carry home with you.

 

Definitely don’t touch these. Cevennes.

Well, ok, being the foreigner (and the artist), it always turns out that I get so preoccupied with how pretty the forest is and how cute all the other mushrooms are that I end up taking tons and tons of photos, and never find any edible mushrooms. We picnic and lay in the sun and take in the countryside and it’s easy to understand why this is a favorite French activity.

Grazing herd in the Cevennes.

This year we drove up much too early in the season to find mushrooms. However, we came upon several other chance encounters on our trip. We hiked, lunched, and talked with the hunters about how it was too early in the season for the mushrooms, then came across an entire herd of sheep grazing along our path. I’d never considered the possibility of modern shepherds just out with their animals in (completely industrialized) southern France, but I think the environmentalist-nutritionists would be happy.

Grazing herd in the Cevennes.

They were just passing through, feeding on the tender grasses near our favorite Cevennes site during the off-season. Each wearing colorful yarn pom-poms, as though they were dressed up for a county fair squaredance, you could hear their bells as they were led off to the next pasture. We all thought it was funny that their yarn decorations were made from what was once their own wool – as though it would be absurd to fashion a hat out of our own hair and then wear it.

Black sheep in the Cevennes.

Having completely failed at finding any mushrooms, we decided to stop at the scenic outlook nearby where were treated to a surprise. As it turned out, it was a national history day, and many of the national museums and parks had special activities going on. Mont Aigoual, where we’d stopped for the view, is also home to a national weather observatory – and we were some of the few to get a private tour of their facility and observatory experiments. The region has unique weather conditions, and the observatory team (it’s the last remaining weather station in France still inhabited by meteorologists) is housed in a turreted, stone fortress. Like a ship, they are completely self-sufficient, as they could get snowed-in for days. Merci à tous!

Grazing herd in the Cevennes.

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The Train Doesn’t Get There from Here

9 Feb

Le Vieux Berger Roquefort.

Being the self-proclaimed “foodie” that I am, one of the pilgrimages I always wanted to take was to Roquefort-sur-Soulzon (population 715). It’s the one and only place in the entire world where Roquefort cheese is lovingly created.

Roquefort cheese is one of those famed French products that holds a special place in my memory. That creamy, buttery, tangy, spreadable, crumbly, blue-type cheese. . .some vaguely sweet, some overly pungent, some with tiny, crunchy mold veins.

I can remember gorging myself on Roquefort and little melba-toast-like Heudebert biscottes when at university gatherings, my fellow students didn’t quite know what to make of it. I felt the need to, ahem, properly show my appreciation.

Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, the holy grail of cheese.

11 years ago when I lived in France, Roquefort was one of the distinguished French imports on which the US government decided to place luxury taxes.

Strangely not-so-well-heard-of in average American circles, it goes something like this: farmer-activist José Bové wanted to bring awareness to the US hormone-treated beef industry, so he organized a series of French farmer demonstrations – including covering a McDonald’s in truckloads of apples.

The EU decided to ban the importation of hormone-treated beef. In turn, the US government imposed special “luxury taxes” on several French products, including Roquefort cheese. (José Bové was a sheep farmer in the region around Roquefort.)

It was a fun time – I remember camping and attending a (I would call it more “global awareness” than “anti-American”) rock concert/demonstration in Millau during the protests and trial.  

Read about Bové – admittedly a bit extreme in his actions, but he’s a folk hero, an interesting political figure, and has gone to jail for your nutritional well-being. (You may also note that the French Wikipedia version is about twice as long.)

L’atelier of the Vieux Berger, Roquefort-sur-Soulzon.

Back to the cheese. . .

It’s pretty hard to get to Roquefort-sur-Soulzon by train, or even by bus. I mean, at least for the budget traveler under the age of 60 who has no interest in taking a group tour. It’d involve about 5 hours travel time and an overnight stay.

Roquefort-sur-Soulzon is a tiny village in an agricultural region, and you’ve really need a car to make the most of your trip.

There’s only a few producers of the cheese. Each (of the artisanal producers) has it’s own special bread – baked once a year from which to get it’s mold. Each has their own special mold starter, set of caves where they age the cheese, and milk producers. The producers are hard to get to on foot, and then, you still have to haul your cheese home.

To be expected in a village of 715, I guess. In short, it’s pretty special stuff.

Le Vieux Berger Roquefort.

I finally made it. Better yet, imagine my delight when my good friend decided to actually buy a half-round of you’ll-only-find-it-here, not-to-be-found-in-any-store Vieux Berger cheese – and then allowed me to be the first to slice into it!

It was a transcendental experience. It felt as though someone had plopped a gorgeous, untouched, just-baked wedding cake in front of me and told me – and me alone – to slice it & take a bite. It’s just something you never do!

The image of her tiny, French-sized fridge holding a half-round of Roquefort, bathed in the artificial halo of the fridge lamp on the top shelf will be one of my favorite memories of all time.

Pavé de l’Aveyron, from Roquefort.

Free Wee-Fee! Oui oui!

4 Feb

Montpellier.

Let’s catch up, it’s been awhile.

There’s a big, new international adventure in the works, so I’m officially back on the blog. But before I shift gears and continents, France deserves a little more time & space from me. Following SendMoneyPlease’s departure in Grenoble, I headed back to one of my all-time favorite places: lively Montpellier on the sunny Mediterranean coast – spending some quality time visiting friends and adopted family, gathering new vocabulary words & soaking up that delicious southern French way of life (read: hiking, beautiful beaches & pastry!). In other words, I officially dropped off the map for awhile.

Picnic at Palavas-les-Flots

It’s been 10 years since I lived in France, and during my train and bus rides, I had plenty of time to observe and reflect upon my French experiences.

A couple of things have noticeably changed:
  • Wi-fi is everywhere! I distinctly remember waiting hours to use one of the three university computers or the two private library computers (if the computers were up and running that day) to check my email 10 years ago. It was one of those “adjusting to French bureaucracy” things you came to accept, along with difficult-to-locate classroom & grade postings and official identification cards that had actual photographs stapled to them. (I mean, really? You wouldn’t accept my state driver’s license as a form of ID at the grocery store, but an ID with a stapled photo is ok?) Now, the Internet’s at every hotel, hostel, private home and coffee shop. Yea technology!

Doctor of sexologie in Montpellier.

  • WCs are much more prevalent. As an American, I’m very sorry that McDonald’s has invaded the earth , but I will take it as my personal right to use their (increasingly difficult to find) free bathrooms. However, I’m happy to report that we found WCs in even the smallest villages on this trip. Free & with modern “flush the whole room down” cleaning systems.
  • French youth have recently picked up on some early-90s-US-style-trends. Lip rings are all the rage, Converse hi-tops are in full fashion, and Eastpack backpacks are being worn everywhere. I bet that original Eastpack in your attic could fetch top dollar on Ebay right now, just be sure to list it in French.
And a couple of French things will never change (and I hope they never do):
  • Mussels with onion, fennel & white wine, chez Clo, Montpellier.

    The food is still delicious. Maybe it’s the proximity to the source of fresh, local produce. Maybe it’s the unpasturized milk and cheese products. Maybe it’s not being afraid of cooking with real, full-fat foods. Maybe it’s a unequaled culinary tradition & technique. Maybe it’s the knowledge that some good things just take time & seasons & skill & the right climate. I think it’s all of this, coupled with a country that has a discriminating palate (Trust me, I’ve seen the number of cheeses on the elementary school menu. It’s impressive for the tastes of a 1st grader.)

Tulipe – chestnut paste & whipped cream, Montpellier.

  • Everything’s still closed on Sunday (and sometimes Monday). Including the hypermarkets. Even Carrefour, 2nd largest hypermarket chain in the world, knows what’s good for its employees.
  • They’ve still got that charming there’s-nothing-we-can-do-about-that-shrug-your-shoulders sense of bureaucracy when it comes to banks/doctors/schools/official business. One morning we attempted to exchange currency. Turns out, there’s only one bank that exchanges money in the not-so-touristy (but huge city) Montpellier. As it also turns out, it had a handwritten note taped to the door explaining that it was closed that morning. No explanation. Sorry. 
  • Montpellier demonstration, September 2010.

    The French still love strikes and demonstrations. They still turn out in large numbers with their families to participate and observe them. And they still schedule them in advance (because it is very practical to know if the buses won’t be running, or there’s no school that day).

“Sidewalk, not crapping-ground.” Nantes.

  • And oh sure, there’s still plenty of dog poop on the sidewalk. But maybe that’s changing too. . .

I’ll wrap up France with a few more posts from the sunny Mediterranean & then I’ll be relating the events of the next big adventure. . .

“My master picks up after me.” Sidewalk in Nantes.

Grenoble & Alpe d’Huez

18 Oct

From Cauterets to Grenoble

Well, unlike me, SendMoneyPlease had a destination: an airport, on a certain day, at a certain time, to catch a certain flight. So, we knew we’d be going to Grenoble. (At this point, you may be wondering how it is that we decided to jump from the western, Spanish border of the country all the way over to the Alps – and, rest assured, there is more to the story: the beautiful Mediterranean coast. But more on that later.)

Leaving Bourg-d’Oisans, near Grenoble.

A quick TGV ride delivers a dramatic change of scenery into mountains of another name. Why Grenoble? Well, once again, we can thank RyanAir for its choice of airport, but also, I’m sure the proximity to one of the more famous Tour de France mountain stages played into this as well. (A quick footnote here: the Grenoble airport, although being situated in a relatively large university and ski-country city, only serves one destination in the summer. If you ask for the airport, or the bus to the airport, you’ll be sent to Lyon. We asked at 3 different offices to find the bus to the actual Grenoble airport. Why? It only runs twice a week – and only at one time: before the only scheduled flight.)

View from the Bastille, Grenoble.

The city is a seamless mix of old and new, urban and outdoors: cosmopolitan boulevards and an above-ground streetcar line boutique after boutique of high-end shopping; expansive cobblestone squares have outdoor tables set against a cathedral backdrop; the information office and (really well-staffed) national parks office handle tourists and returning university students in search of bus passes and hiking maps. Nestled in a valley, the city is completely bike-friendly-flat – surrounded by steep mountains on all sides. The student population is immediately evident – we encountered more joggers/runners and Indian restaurant options than anywhere else on the trip.

The teleferique, Grenoble.

A very manageable walking destination, the flowery city park leads directly onto the hiking path up to the main lookout point over the city: the Bastille, a fortress complex of 18th century fortifications and underground (or really, through mountain?) tunnels. Tourists in search of elegant dining with a view take the iconic, albeit Jetsons-like cable car over the river – and meet up with via ferrata cliff climbers at the top of the hill. The small, but superb (and free!) Museum of the Mountain Troops has multimedia displays explaining challenges of military maneuvers in difficult terrain, and the equally superb (and free!) Dauphinois Ethnography Museum shows models of mountain houses, lace making, cheese fabrication, and explains just how much bread the average Alpine family ate (um, impressive!).

Finally, a real bike. Bourg-d’Oisans.

For competitive cyclists, the town name Alpe d’Huez conjures images of raw manpower, of mind over matter, of polka-dotted jerseys, of world class athletes conquering a mountain by using sheer willpower. (Or so I can only imagine. Sorry folks, no first-hand experience of competitive cycling here for me.) However, once again, my travel companion has the good taste to appreciate such things, and this warranted a scenic bus ride out to the bottom of the hill: the Alpine ski village of Bourg-d’Oisans. If you’ve been following the blog entries, you’ll be happy to hear that SendMoneyPlease finally found a rental bike up to his racing bike standards, and a mountain course to challenge him. Me, I found free Internet access outdoors along a scenic canal and a SuperCasino grocery store for lunch in the most charming of Alpine villages.

Word of the Day: Lacet

5 Oct

Lacet (nm) –

French: Lace (of a shoe)
Oh, New Balance. You’re comfortable for walking, but you’re no match for hiking shoes in the Pyrenees.

New Balance, you’re no match for hiking boots in the Pyrenees.

In the Pyrenees: Cauterets

4 Oct

Lake Gaube, Pyrenees National Park.

Our roadtrip across France ends without fanfare. We find the rental office; we have no additional scratches to the vehicle’s interior/exterior; we managed to figure out that diesel is, in fact, gazole; we get to the office on time; the rental agent is a cute, perky, young French girl; there’s a city bus leaving within 10 minutes. I honestly think SendMoneyPlease, the world traveler, was disappointed everything had gone so smoothly. Where is the haggling? Where is the bargaining? Why haven’t we had to eat nothing but potato chips for dinner? We scheduled our car return to be near the Pyrenees National Park, and head directly for the mountain hiking and ski-friendly town of Cauterets, within walking distance of the Spanish border should you feel so inclined.

Cauterets.

After a week of driving, we’re both more than ready to get out and stretch our legs a little bit, and the Pyrenees offer as much hiking and scenery as you can manage. Our “luck of the Irish” continues to follow us: we began our travels in Dublin, stayed with an Irishman in Edinburgh, and now find another budget-friendly hotel run by an Irish couple in Cauterets – who are happy to give hiking and restaurant suggestions, loan us a map, and rent us a room overlooking the (so crystal-clear, it’s blue) Gave river.

The old railway station at Cauterets.

There are ski lifts and thermal spas year-round (though having a rheumatology clinic halfway up the side of a mountain seems a little awkward). There are walking and hiking trails for every level – but keep in mind that these are mountains – even the “pleasant afternoon introductory hike” turns out to be several hundred meters up. The 538-mile GR10 hiking trail runs across the top of town, and the old rail line has been converted into a paved bike and walking path but still winds past abandoned stations and crumbling spas from another era.

On our way to the Plateau de Lisey, near Cauterets.

The national park is gorgeous, well-marked, well-maintained, and best of all, free. The trails are varied and interesting – large, slick rocks give way to chilly fir forests; babbling streams with freezing water turn into mini waterfalls with old wooden bridges; there are flat, expansive valleys with grazing sheep, and swaths of trees felled by avalanches and rock slides all the way down the mountain side; there are tiny family-run bars perched on precarious outcrops, and I can’t help wondering which would be less safe: walking down after a beer or driving down after drinking nothing?

Coffee & fresh Edelweiss, Cauterets.

I’ve broken through an eyelet on my (non-hiking-shoe) sneakers from tightening the laces so much, and I think we could spend, oh, at least 10 more days here. The views are postcard-perfect and we’ve discovered the spinach gratin and tartiflette at the local market (don’t worry, ours didn’t have bacon). It’s so good, we find ourselves motivated (by the thought of roasted vegetables) to hurry back on the trails to make sure we don’t miss out. Every restaurant in town offers cheese-heavy fondue, potato-cheese raclette, and potato-cheese tartiflette; we can’t help but wonder: if this is what they eat in the summer, what could they possibly eat in the winter?

Lake Gaube, Pyrenees National Park.

Sarlat on the Way South

27 Sep

Somewhere in the middle of France.

Our rental week is wrapping up, so it’s time to make our way south. By this point, we’re both pretty familiar with the song choices on Virgin Radio France (I think ZAZ’s “Je Veux” has become the official trip themesong), but in order to avoid the (rather expensive) toll roads, we’ve opted for the more time-consuming “orange road” route (see explanation – Bayeux entry below). I’m a big fan of the smaller roads – as we find ourselves lost in fields of corn and sunflowers, but I realize it’s not the most efficient use of time and gas (and perhaps patience, given the numerous roundabouts).

Sarlat-la-Caneda, France.

Since we’ve only just mapped out the route, I’m now researching a scenic half-way point in which to spend the night. We’ve decided upon the medieval village Sarlat. According to the guide book, Sarlat only relatively recently underwent it’s restoration renaissance. Graced by a well-preserved historic center of town, it has (re-)become, quite literally, an amusement-park worthy medieval village, complete with perfect yellowish-stone alleyways, street-performers in the town square, artisanal ice cream, and hoards of fanny-pack bedecked (if mostly European) tourists.

Sarlat-la-Caneda, France.

We lucked out in finding a super-charming, budget-friendly hotel near the center of town, and spent the night taking in the ambiance and a full French meal (read: cheese course). Though the experience felt wholeheartedly-tourist-decadent, it would put its cartoon-mouse theme park rival to shame. (Though it may be slightly more gritty & authentic. No automatic below ground trash collection here.) (And you might want to keep an eye on your bags too.)

Not far from Sarlat-la-Caneda, France.

Our scenery changes as we come closer to our Pyranees destination. The small, winding roads out of town are speckled with mountain-perched fortresses, and the villages are lined with fresh fruit and vegetable stands. We decide to stop several kilometers outside of our drop-off point, and find a free surprise organ concert (dad would be so happy. . .) in even the smallest of villages. (Believe me, the tourist office attendant – yes, even this village had a tourist office – was thrilled to have someone stop in.) Oh, and we had Chinese food. Actually, to be accurate, we had Vietnamese food, but I still marvel at how even the smallest of villages has that too. Find me a village that doesn’t have an Asian restaurant, now that’s a small town.

Mirande, France. Population: 3,740. They have a tourist office. And Vietnamese food.

Blois by Bike

23 Sep

From the car window, Loire Valley.

You’ll know it when you reach the Loire Valley châteaux region.

How? Because you’ll be driving along (OK, swerving around roundabouts) when all of a sudden, castles start popping up like mushrooms: big, opulent country homes, with fairytale facades and manicured lawns.

Cheverny, Loire Valley.

It’s a lifestyle, but it’s not hard to channel your inner princess/duchess/countess and picture a lovely afternoon prancing around on the grass, beckoning the help to bring another lemonade.

Just needs a basket & a baguette! (BTW, you could opt to rent a basket.)

Clearly, the way to properly enjoy the castle-dotted countryside is…by bicycle! More precisely, by little-old-French-lady-with-a-basket-on-the-front bicycle (a little foreshadowing there…but for the record, everyone rides this type of bike in France. Just picture apples and a baguette on the front basket & tell me that isn’t your ideal French afternoon in the countryside?).

Loire Valley.

We chose our (slightly ambitious) circuit – along tiny roads, through villages of old stone buildings, across sunny fields & cool, damp forests.

This has been the cherished mode of transportation in this region for a long time; the paths are flat, well-maintained & well-marked. It’s all terrifically scenic, and the first, say, 15-20 kilometers are glorious. We’ve chosen a route to see the impressive Chambord castle and will pass another privately-owned chateau later on.

Chambord, Loire Valley.

Full disclosure: I’ve biked to Chambord before (see ‘France castle country trip,’ 2000), and it always looks very easy on the map, but WOW, those rental bikes are not built for efficiency. So, the seat killed me last time (complete with an emergency stuffed-animal-as-makeshift-cushion purchase), and the “sturdy frame” got us this time. (This, from a 100 mile/week racing bike rider.) (Not me, obviously.)

Needless to say, this did not fit his racing bike sensibilities.

Hmmm. Choices. Leffe blonde 50cl & Leffe Ruby 33cl, Blois.

Let’s just say, we finished our 46 kilometers. We got a good taste of the French castle country. And we’re still talking to each other – so I’ll consider that mission accomplished.

OK, maybe the 50cl Leffe beer helped. We earned it.

Bayeux & the Normandy Beaches

21 Sep

“The trusty steed” below the castle of Falaise, birthplace of William the Conqueror, Falaise, near Bayeux.

I’ve been entrusted with the road map. This is something I’m taking very seriously. As we’ve plenty of time and no set destination, we’ve decided to navigate the old-fashioned way: with a paper map & road signs. Amazingly, this technology still works. However, let me advise that you bring a good pair of glasses & familiarize yourself with the surrounding area.

Pick a direction.

See, once you’re in a French roundabout, there are not necessarily road names nor numbers – there are only city destination directions – and since I have no idea in which direction any of the surrounding villages are located, this amounts to some quick map studying (and since our free AAA map didn’t have many of the road numbers nor villages anyway, this made for extra-interesting navigation). 

The scene looks like this:

 

  • the blue roads cost (quite a bit) of money in tolls but are fast and well-maintained,

 

 

  • the green roads are free, fast, and well-maintained but are big not-so-scenic freeways,

 

 

  • the orange roads that are slightly more bordered on the map (read: hardly distinguishable, until we were on one of them & wondered why it was so much better) are divided, fast-moving roads,

 

 

  • the orange roads are fantastically scenic but your driver will very quickly get tired of driving (in circles, literally) around roundabouts,

 

 

  • the yellow roads are small & winding & you’ll never, ever get there,

 

 

  • and the white roads aren’t really roads, more like a path that might get a car in the right direction, only one lane.

 

 

The American Cemetery, Omaha Beach.

We paid tribute at the Normandy beaches. SendMoneyPlease has posted many more photos. We visited Omaha Beach, one of the least rebuilt. Ruined German bunkers and barbed wire still lay quietly behind beautiful, vast, sandy beaches. The cars parked in the grass parking lot are mostly for beach-going locals & tourists, hauling picnics and towels and sunscreen. There’s a really well done and impeccably maintained American cemetery, park & war museum. It was calm; the monuments and rolling grass at the cemetery above drop off to the expansive beaches below, and eventually, the blue water beyond. It’s an impressive vista. 

Omaha Beach.

At first, it was shocking to see swimsuit-clad beachgoers laughing and sunbathing on such a symbolic site. It was like any beach scene anywhere: kitesurfers, ice cream, kids yelling back and forth; I wondered if we were indeed at Omaha Beach. How can these vacationers skip around and build sandcastles on this ground? Isn’t that sacrilege? But after spending some time there, I was left with the feeling that these soldiers were still watching over the inhabitants below enjoying their leisure time, and that was exactly why they were there in the first place. The beach has become what they were fighting for. 

Bayeux.

We spent the night in charming Bayeux, home of the famous Bayeux Tapestry you learned about in school. Typical Normand houses & buildings, a tiny canal, a view of the cathedral from our hotel window. We spent an evening along the cobblestone square, lunched in the market, then continued south. . . 

Fish kraut. Hmmm. Yeah. Didn’t really sound like a good idea at the time either. Market, Bayeux.

Étretat

19 Sep

Comte on French roadtrip – on French road map.

We picked up our rental car in Paris, and planned to return it in a week in the south of France. I’ll confess – the few kilometers that we needed to drive in order to get out of Paris proper was the distance on this entire trip that had been creating the most anxiety for me. And so, I’m still not sure if the rental agent was joking or not when he (completely straight-faced) recommended taking the Champs Elysee down to the Arc de Triomphe roundabout (Place de l’Étoile) to get out of town. As Wikipedia, o’ venerable keeper of Internet knowledge explains, “There is an urban myth that motor insurance companies will not cover driving around the Étoile, which is not strictly true. Insurance companies generally cover motor accidents only on the Étoile under a ‘knock-for-knock agreement,’ whereby each insurance company will pay for losses by its own policyholder, provided that the other party’s insurance company agrees to do the same for the other policyholder.” Hmmm, “not strictly true?” Still doesn’t sound like a good idea to me. So we deviated from the advised route, and I now have a terrific mental image of us (perhaps insurance-covered) driving just under the Eiffel Tower. Really.

The cliffs, Étretat.

Travel by car in France is exactly how you’d picture it. There are modern freeways & tollways & suspension bridges in beautiful condition; there are tiny winding roads through postcard villages and along sunny coastlines & cutting across fields of sunflowers and lavender as far as you can see in any direction; there are half of the world’s roundabouts located in France, and we drove around many of them; there’s thoroughly obnoxious & repetitive euro pop rock on the radio.

The cliffs, Étretat.

Étretat, our first destination, is a study in scale. Dramatic, wind-shaped cliffs dotted with lighthouses and golf courses drop into a sparkling sea, and you lose all sense of perspective. One of those photos-don’t-do-this-justice places, it’s a jungle-gym for all ages. We climbed up; we climbed down; we peeked into and out of caves & crevices, along a rocky shoreline with algae drying in the sun and notices listing the times of the tides.

If you look really close, you can see the little rope beckoning you to climb up, Étretat.

We picnicked with the birds and ate moules-frites in a picture-perfect Normandy seaside town. We battled Italian camper-cars for parking spaces and hotel rooms in the center of town, and found ourselves completely alone on the shore at low tide.

Leek & Provencal quiche. Etretat.

Moules-frites Normandes, Etretat

Those pesky rabbits! near Étretat.

We stayed in a super-pleasant chambre d’hôte in the countryside not far from the town, where the owners converted an old mill-house and now spend their time picking fruit, making preserves, chasing the occasional rabbit out of the vegetable patch, and welcoming guests from all over to spend the night & have a cup of coffee in the morning.

After a winding roadtrip down the coast and the purchase of some (typically expensive French) sunscreen, we’ll head farther south in Normandy. . .

Étretat.

And here’s the whole picture, Étretat.