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.

Word of the Day: Péripherique

14 Sep

Péripherique (nm) –

French: beltway, ring road
As in “Doesn’t that sign on the side of the road look like a beltline? Do you think that’s what péripherique means? Wouldn’t it be easier to try that than to navigate through downtown?”

We know this now. It is much easier to take the péripherique.

Un péripherique.

Paris, Briefly

12 Sep

7 euros, 10 kilos, 1 bag. Pack light.

And so, with a quick jump on a discount airline, we find ourselves on the Continent. (Be forewarned! If you’re taking Ryanair to any Eastern European destination, they’re going to very publicly have you cram your bag into the “it must fit here” apparatus, then charge you extra if you can’t make it fit. Fortunately for us, on neither of our flights was there any such demonstration, but Mike and I both put odds on whether or not our bags would make the cut. This game would be much more fun if it weren’t at 5am, but I guess for 7 euros we can’t be too picky.)

Cafe in the rain, Paris.

To descend upon Paris as a tourist is to enter into a rushing current of the urban quotidian. Oh sure, I love the Sacre Coeur. Montmartre. Notre Dame. The portrait artists. Violin players on the metro. The Eiffel Tower. The Tuileries. But Paris is always a little hectic, lonely, distant in a hurried-big-city type way for me and maybe the rain didn’t help matters, but this trip is no different.

Mixed olives, whole grain bread, Comte, chevre, reine-claude plums. Montmartre, Paris.

It seems very fitting that the big, wet droplets greeted us in Paris. We bustled onto the metro. I’m not a very good tour guide for Paris, but I think we got a fair taste. We sat in cafes for coffee and pain aux raisins and apero. We shopped the Galleries LaFayette. We brought a picnic up to Montmartre and had English speaking tourists approach to tell us (slowly & very clearly enunciated) how much they liked our umbrella-stuck-in-the-branches-over-a-bench technique. We spent all day in the modern art museum. Here’s International Klein against International Klein Blue (IKB – 002FA7).

International Klein Blue. Centre Pompidou, Paris.

China Town, 13eme arrondissement, Paris.

We chose to stay in the Chinatown of Paris – an area I had not visited before, and being a somewhat quieter and residential quarter, this afforded us some unique opportunities. We got in some conversation and competition with the park ping-pong players (think Forrest Gump in China), and found a particularly appropriate (and enjoyable) free outdoor film “Two Days in Paris,” with Julie Delpy & Adam Goldberg, highlighting French and American cultural misconceptions.

“2 Days in Paris,” 13eme arrondissement, Paris.

It was a little heavy on the dialog and a little long and dreamy at the end (Aren’t many French films?) but I’ll award it a thumbs-up if you’re looking for a French culture introduction, half-French, half-English.

Dad will be jealous, but I finally got the chance to play Jean Valjean in the French sewer system as well. For my travel companion, as a first trip to Paris, it may have been an unconventional choice – but in historical context, it’s kinda interesting.

Paris sewer museum.

We also had the good fortune of ducking into what is reviewed as one of the best falafel restaurants in the city: L’As du Fallafel (to avoid the rain, but this worked out in our favor –if you believe the tour book, Lenny Kravitz claims it’s “the best falafel in the world”).

End scene. Exit Paris. And we embark upon the grand roadtrip of France. I’ll leave you with an appetizer – this is how we found the car parked in the rental lot (ours was the black car). Oh, those European drivers! I let SendMoneyPlease drive. Bon voyage!

How we found our rental car. Paris.

St. Andrews, for the Non-Golfer

10 Sep

Anyone who knows me can tell you that any type of sport involving a moving object is not exactly my forte. So, to visit the birthplace of golf may seem an odd choice. My travel companion, however, has the refined taste to really appreciate such things.

I’ve heard this is a famous bridge. . . St. Andrews, Scotland

Now, don’t be misled – our budget and our planning time certainly didn’t allow for such luxuries as a round of golf at St. Andrews. However, being the clever and connected traveler he is, he managed to work his way into the rare opportunity to caddy on one of the world’s oldest and most revered golf courses.

So it is thus I found myself on the other end of a boys’ afternoon in a lovely, tradition-steeped, wind-blown town in Scotland. What does this afternoon at St. Andrews look like for me?

Unfortunately, I couldn’t photograph the wind, but wearing a skirt probably wasn’t the best idea. St. Andrews, Scotland.

Tall cliffs dropping off into a churning sea.

St. Andrews, Scotland.

Ruins of a cathedral overlooking a beautiful cemetery.

Not the same kind of bean pie we find in the States. St. Andrews, Scotland.

British baked pies.

Mint Humbugs & Berwick Cockles in sweets shops. Aged cheddar on malted brown bread with onion chutney.

Mint Humbugs & Berwick Cockles. St. Andrews, Scotland.

A quiet university courtyard with a wedding taking place. Lavish resort hotels and tiny storefronts that close up shop at 6pm. I’m a little sun-kissed & wind-chapped, but it was a beautiful afternoon, sans-golf. I heard the golf was lovely too.

Aged cheddar, onion chutney, malted brown bread. St. Andrews, Scotland.

Word of the Day: Flaque

9 Sep

flaque (nf)

French: puddle
If you’re going to walk around Paris in the rain for 3 days, you should keep this one handy.

Associated vocabulary:
parapluie (nm): umbrella
imperméable (nm): raincoat
café crème (nm): something you can order while sitting in the cafe waiting for the rain to let up, but be prepared, in Paris this will cost you about 4 euros.

From the Centre Pompidou, Paris.

One day in Edinburgh(a)

8 Sep

Edinburgh at night.

I love it when a destination far exceeds your expectations, and Edinburgh came as a complete surprise. Medieval stone, tiny winding cobblestone passages, a tangle of multi-level upon multi-level buildings leading from one surprise destination to the next. Fortunately for us (though we didn’t realize just how much at the time) there was an international theater & arts festival, as well as the concurrent Edinburgh Fringe Festival taking place the month of August.

Street performers, Edinburgh.

Thousands of visitors descend on Edinburgh for the festival each year and we knew this would make accommodation options expensive at best – impossible at worst – and here’s where our good fortune of finding an exceptionally welcoming couchsurfing host came in.

Our wonderful host (and his adorable cat) came to meet us in town, pointed out landmarks (including the café where J K Rawlings conceptualized the Potter series),

Palak paneer & mixed vegetable curry. Edinburgh.

guided us to the best vegetarian and Indian food options in town, offered Scotch suggestions, and even found a chess exhibit on the Lewis Chessmen at the (really beautiful) National Museum.

The Lewis Chessmen. Royal Museum, Edinburgh.

(The British Museum even created a Harry Potter wizard’s chess set based on the actual pieces – though I must point out that my more rational travel companion cares not for wizards, nor wizard’s chess.)

Based on the Lewis Chessmen.

Performers, acrobats, hundreds of theater pieces performed every day, music on every street corner. . .allow me to highly recommend Edinburgh at any time of year, and especially during the festival.

Such a cute cat.

A very appreciative thank-you to Gracie and her owner for allowing us the opportunity to experience it all. We’ll definitely be back!

Dublin Doesn’t Always Rain

3 Sep

Dublin, Ireland

It feels really strange to fly overnight somewhere and pop out speaking English. The 6 hour flight to Dublin was wonderfully short – and the great advantages to ordering vegetarian meals on international flights are 1) you’ll never end up with a rubbery chicken bite, 2) balsamic vinaigrette, 3) fresh fruit, no pre-packaged brownie, and 4) you get served waaaay in advance of everyone else in coach class.

Dublin was very welcoming. There was beer. There was fish and chips.

Mmmmm. To-mah-to.

There was a very happy morning with the 5-item Irish breakfast – potatoes, tomatoes, mushrooms, fried egg, toast & coffee. (For an additional 5 euros, you can have the full 10-item Irish breakfast. However, as you may expect in Ireland, the other 5 items are all various meat products.) Also to note – as advertised, the “national chip of Ireland” brand is spelled “Tay-to,” but if you’d like a little red fruit, it’s pronounced “to-mah-to.”

We ventured on a long walk to the old prison, after which we passed the Guinness brewery. Opting against the slick theme-park-type tour, the smell of the roasting grains from outside was just as nice.

Wonka-type magic is happening behind those gates.

The view from outside was very Willy Wonka – you got the impression that there were wonderful, secret things happening just beyond the gates under those tall smokestacks. We also stepped into the Jameson distillery, and though we again opted out of the official tour, we managed to find the best dinner deal of the town inside the museum: a gorgeous seafood platter and huge fish dish – set against a background of the old distillery vats. It may have been a late lunch special (they’re only open ‘til 5pm), but if you’re looking for some gourmet eats on a tight budget, it gets my vote.

Smoked trout, smoked salmon, shrimp, crab claws, salad, Irish brown bread. Jameson Distillery, Dublin.

2 fillets, mussels, curry sauce, po-tay-toes. Jameson Distillery, Dublin.

As SendMoneyPlease has promised, here are my accompanying limericks to our Joyce-inspired evening of beers and Irish whiskey. A warning: as it was explained to me, the limerick is meant to be light and humorous, even bawdy or slightly off-color, so I’m working on keeping that intent:

 

7:40pm – The Gresham, Tyrconnell

Having napped, showered, and (not) shaven,
We start sipping and surely misbehavin’,
Though we got in the door,
There will be plenty more,
Yet, I’m sure this is just what I’m cravin’.

8:15pm – The Wynn Saints & Scholars lounge, Bulmers Cider

The curtains are all tapestry,
And the grey-hairs beside me have tea.
But they do not know,
Just an hour ago,
The drink that I had with Mikey.

9:15pm – Mulligans, Smithwicks

Tin walls, wood bar, trap door.
And they say there are ghosts in the floor.
The beer’s getting warm,
Mike regards me with scorn,
But I’m sure that he’s wanting one more.

11:09pm – Davy Byrnes, Guiness

So Mike has started to pace.
He’s determined to finish this race.
And I hope that we’ll heal,
From our long liquid meal,
But I fear that might not be the case.

11:36pm – International Bar, Bulmers Cider

Our last stop has wonderful tile.
For this, people travel for miles.
As we walk in the door,
It’s still quite a pour,
But our evening will end with much style.

Well, not really, because I’ve written one bonus off-color poem devoted to the ubiquitous condiment packets on every table. . .

Brown sauce, catsup, mayo, tart,
Each condiment taken to heart.
You join every meal,
with avid appeal,
And, hopefully, won’t make us fart.

My apologies. It was a late evening. . .

The distillery vats are just behind. Oh, and the Jameson’s pretty good too.