Friday, December 21, 2012

2012 - Top 5 List

Lists at this time of year are ubiquitous - I've just recently seen the top funniest viral videos, top news stories, top Canadian weather stories, and on and on.  So I thought I'd make my list of events from 2012. Unfortunately it's impossible to rank them.

Top daily life changing event - Retirement June 30, 2012 - not exactly life changing but definitely changes my daily routine.  YES to sleeping in!

Top festive occasion - Scott and Sam's 2nd wedding - March 17, 2012.  Although the first one was lots of fun too.

Top amazing adventure - Kruger Park - January 2012.  Fulfilling a life long dream of going on safari.

Top 'unreal' experience - Sabie, January 5, 2012.  Meeting Martina Makua, my letter writing partner from the Grannies a Gogo group.

Top personal realization - Biking, summer.  I remembered how much I enjoy biking.  I'll continue to do more next year.

Top educational activity - France Oct/Nov 2012.  Learning about a culture that seems similar but is very different. (Whoops, that's #6)

Now that I think of it the whole year was great.  I can only hope that 2013 brings as many interesting, wonderful, amazing and incredible experiences my way. And yours too. Enjoy every day.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

It's About the Journey, not the Destination apparently

The sheer number of amazing places in south France never fails to amaze us.  On Tuesday we thought we might visit Sarlat as well as one of the most beautiful villages in France - La Roque-Gageac about 45 minutes away.  

On the way we stopped at Domme, known as the Acropolis of the Dordogne.  From the walkway beside the ramparts we had a spectacular view of the Dordogne River Valley.
You enter the city through one of two gates from the 12th c. and the one below was most impressive even if a bit crumbly. The round towers were converted to prisons to hold the Knights Templar that were arrested by the king in 1307.  They really made things to last in those days!
Just a few kilometers down the road was La Roque-Gageac and it was apparent why it was on the list of most beautiful villages in France. Wedged between the river and a steep limestone cliff, this village actually had about 3 narrow roads you could climb up, with homes partially build into the cliffs. The road going through town was entirely blocked off from car traffic as it looked like they might be working on the wall between the river and the road.  As well, the entire town seemed deserted much like the other towns we visited. At least there were none of those pesky tourists to deal with!
Built into the cliffs above the town were the remnants of the troglodyte caves. I think you might be able to explore them during the summer but it was unclear.  In 1957 a chunk of rock fell off the cliff face and killed three residents.  I think it's on the left part of the cliff face in the photo above.
Because the entire road through town was blocked off we worked our way through some extremely narrow roads and around the back of the cliff towards a chateau we'd seen on the map.  Again, the words 'perched high on a cliff' seem redundant as they describe almost all the chateaux here. Château de Castelnaud, a medieval fortress, had displays of weaponry from different eras including several trebuchets - one is visible on the top in the photo.  The entire fortress was well preserved/restored. The setting sun also highlighted the beautiful honey-golden colour of the buildings in this region.
With a chill in the air as the sun started to go down, we began the short trip home, realizing that we never managed to reach our destination of Sarlat.  Too many amazing distractions along the way.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Millau Viaduct

The day began a bit grey and drizzly in Carcassonne with the French army conducting some kind of manoeuvres/ceremony directly across the road from the guesthouse.  They were using an area in the park that is normally used for playing 'petanque' which is a VERY popular pastime in the south of France (similar to bocce).

The day got greyer and foggier as we made our way up through the hills towards Millau but just as we got closer to the viaduct it seemed to lift and we were just left with grey clouds.  It is an impressive structure to see, particularly because there isn't really anything around it. It took us an extra few hours to get home but here are some photos just for you John!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Castle on the Hill

Quite a bit of downtime the last two weeks but now that Scott, Sam and Mike have arrived in France we've reverted to tourist status again. First stop, the amazing medieval town of Carcassonne. It exceeded all our expectations and the guest house we're staying in has this incredible view from the terrace.

The chateau and walled city on the hill are only part of the charm. The 'new' city is filled with meandering paths (I think they call them roads here) and all manner of quaintness.

The weather has taken a nice turn for the better and is all sunny and warm again after a few colder days in Prayssac. Of course we're a bit closer to the Mediterranean here. We're very fortunate to be together with our far-flung family (!) and we perched on one of the many ramparts for this photo op.

Tomorrow we'll return 'home' and along the way we'll stop at the Millau viaduct - the tallest bridge in the world. From a 13th (?) century marvel to a 21st century one.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Jour des Morts and Breathalyzers

It seems like Halloween is celebrated in France similar to Canada.  Children dress up and say "bonbon ou un sort" (trick or treat?) and we did see a few costumed kids in town yesterday. This has become more and more popular in the past 10 years. We live on a quiet little road a bit out of town so we had no one knocking on our door. There are no decorations in stores or homes and we never saw a jack-o-lantern (in fact few pumpkins).  But the real 'celebration' happens the next day sometimes called Toussaints, or Jour des Morts (Day of the Dead), or All Saints Day.  It's a public holiday and knowing what I know about Nov. 1 in schools all over Canada, it likely should be a holiday there as well!

On November 1, people take flowers to the cemetery and we noticed quite a few cars beginning to stop by the local one yesterday.  Apparently chrysanthemums are popular and there have been a lot on sale lately - now I know why. At other times of the year there are a lot of plastic bouquets on the graves and one flower shop we went in had 90% plastic flowers, much to Alanna's dismay.

Also starting on November 1 in France a new law, which took effect in May, will be enforced.  Drivers are required to have a breathalyzer kit in their car.  Apparently this will not take the place of the police breathalyzers but I think they're intending it to be a self-monitoring device. Ross had read up on this when he was trying to figure out all the driving signs so a few days ago we set out to buy one.  So far we've looked in 6-8  dozen stores and nobody seems to have them. So if we get stopped, hopefully the police will have enough trouble trying to figure out what we're saying that they'll forget to ask about it!

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Talk about Food

Food is an important part of the travel experience wherever you go.  You mostly want good, inexpensive, available food.  In this part of France food is much, much more than that.  Three course lunches are in the12-14 € range.  Dinners can be 20-35€ for 3-5 courses.

There are several foods that define themselves as being specific to this region (Midi-Pyrenees).  Of course, there's the Cahors wine (dark, full-bodied), but there is also duck, foie gras, walnuts, cabécou cheese, saffron, tourtiere and truffles. There are other specialty foods, such as figs and melons, but they are available in many places.

Saffron (spice) - extremely labour intensive to harvest, everything is done by hand; the flowers are just being picked now; made from part of the crocus flower which blooms in the fall; the farmer we talked to and his wife do all the work and make saffron products such as chutneys and honeys; we purchased 0.1 g for 3.50€ (which translates to 1 kg for 35 000€). Too bad we missed the saffron festival last weekend in Cajarc.

Walnuts - we saw a lot of them just beginning to ripen when we came, the husks were starting to open.  Still not sure how they harvest them but I think they just pick them up off the ground.  Some had even fallen by where we park the car.  We bought one of the small sacks at the nut festival - 2 kg for 7€.

Foie Gras - duck liver paté - creamy, buttery, tasty but ethically difficult to swallow.  Ross has had it a few times at restaurants but it's extremely expensive.

Duck - boy do they love their cooked duck around here!  It's on every menu and we've had it a few times; not my favourite but it's okay; not unlike the dark meat of turkey. I'm not sure if duck is specific to this region or all of France but it sure is popular. I guess they have to do something with the ducks after they remove that liver.

Cabécou Cheese - soft, young, fairly mild, goat cheese; they come as little round pieces; very often served as a course between the main and dessert or just served for dessert; one little round piece is about €0.70.  I've also seen little round white chocolate cabécou - a tourist item!

Tourtiere - these are not the Quebec meat pies you might be familiar with but are apple tarts made with phyllo pastry brushed with sugar and cinnamon;  there are many of them for sale in the market and l'homme that we bought ours from informed us they were made by 'ma mere'. Very tasty.

Truffles (the mushroom not the chocolate) - we'll be gone by the time truffles begin appearing in December so we haven't seen any or tried any.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Rocamadour et Lacave

Even after visiting several of these 'entire villages/fortresses' built on a cliff it's still pretty impressive when you drive around the corner to this view.  Garry and Alanna arrived Friday and yesterday we headed about 1.5 hours north of here to Rocamadour.

This castle/church from the 13C became an important pilgrimage site with pilgrims climbing the steps on their knees with chains around their arms and necks.  By the time we had climbed to the top we felt a bit like that ourselves, even with the elevator ride part way!

Lucky Alanna found some shops that were open.  Actually it was quite a touristy place but because of the time of year there weren't that many people around.

13C grafitti?

The view from the top of course was spectacular and since we've had a couple of days of intense winds and some rain the appearance of the sun was very welcoming.  Turned out to be a be quite a warm day  - 24 degrees or so.

Our next stop was a cave just a few kilometers down the narrow, windy, picturesque road where we saw this round, rock house which I thought was called a shepherd's cave and I made Ross stop in the middle of the road while I took the picture.

The caves we went to were Les Grottoes de Lacave, which is the town where they are located. There were some amazing structures but what made them spectacular were the underground lakes. The almost perfect reflections created an optical illusion that the caves were very deep but in reality the water was only a few centimeters deep.  The bottom half of this photo is the reflection.
Unfortunately the guide didn't speak much English so we relied on one of the other tourists who translated quite a bit for us.  We topped the day off with a wonderful 5 course meal (although Garry only had 3) at the restaurant at Les Arques that I had read about.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Various Pictures

Bordeaux is renowned for wine of course, but it is a very beautiful city with many old buildings.  It also has quite an open area by the river, which seems quite unusual for most European cities.  

We stayed at a chateau and Francois, our host, found us a winery tour that was available that morning - many are too busy with the harvest right now to have tours. The grapes were still being crushed and pressed and the winemaker was busy doing a lot of testing (and tasting).

Yesterday we drove east of here for the first time.  In places the Lot river is lined on both sides by huge limestone cliffs, often with tunnels.
Of course the French (and whoever else occupied this place) found it necessary to build their castles, fortresses, churches, villages on the highest spots. This is a lovely little village called St-Cirq Lapopie and we climbed to the top to get a good view (although this photo is from below).  

They even decided to build some castles right INTO the cliffs.  If you click on the photo and look close to the centre you'll see the remains of Chateau du Diable (also known as Chateau du Anglais).  We couldn't see it driving through the town, then we crossed the little bridge and looked back.  We read about a few legends associated with the castle.
Driving home we wound our way up to a spectacular viewpoint not far from Prayssac.  Vineyards for the most part but a few other products grown here.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Market Day in Prayssac

As well as the difference in the products there are other differences between Market Day in St. Andrews (see post from August) and Market Day in France.  The biggest difference is perhaps in the way it's viewed by the people who live here.  Market Day here is really a way of life, all year round - my French teacher informed me that she never buys her vegetables at the store, only the market.  People wait for market day to buy their produce, cheese, meats, fruits, eggs etc. rather than going to the local supermarket. People will go to the market in the town down the road if they need to.  Everyone seems to know when each of the markets are. At Mike's market (similar to Vernon) there were predominantly crafts and prepared food with a few farmers' stalls thrown in.  Here it's mostly vegetables, meats, fish, cheeses, NO crafts.  Also surprisingly, few bread stalls (maybe 1).  Perhaps that has to do with the fact that there are 3 or 4 boulangeries/patisseries in town where you can buy baguettes, pain du chocolat, etc. Oh, and flowers.
Not sure what type they are but very pretty!
We were quite surprised by the number of meat and seafood vendors.  Rabbit is a common meat, but looking at the skinned, whole rabbits was a bit unsettling.  Once purchased, the butcher cuts off the head and chops the rest into pieces.
Another item I haven't seen at often markets in Canada is mushrooms - many shapes and sizes and obviously fresh.  This particular vendor uses an old style scale to measure this large one - I think the sign said cepes (porcini I think).
And of course LOTS of garlic and peppers:
And who wouldn't want to buy huge slabs of nougat?
Market day will definitely be part of our weekly routine here in Prayssac.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Grottes de Cougnac

On Cathy's suggestion (the owner of the house we are renting) we meandered our way past the small town of Gourdon (about 30 km from Prayssac) to visit the caves.  The mist of this morning gradually morphed into a bit of a downpour but by the time we reached Cazals for lunch it was sunny and warm.  Our 4 course meal (soup, salad, plat du jour, dessert or fromage) included a carafe of red wine for 12 euros.  We thought it was a pretty good bargain, even if we didn't know what the main course was when we ordered it.  It turned out to be roast lamb and was quite tasty.

Along the way we also stopped at Les Arques which is a small town made famous by the book I recently read called "From Here You Can't See Paris" and at first glance the town appeared completely deserted. We parked the car and got out to walk around a bit although there really wasn't much to see.  I had read about the famous sculpture Zadkine who lived here and the restaurant described in the book.  All we could see were some closed up old buildings.  Shortly, Ross was approached by a man (the only person we saw in the whole village) who directed us to the museum where Zadkine's art is on display.  Most of the sculptures were bronze but he did some in wood as well.  The ones in the forefront of this photo are from single trees.  He was very influenced by the cubist style (think Picasso). We eventually found the restaurant - fermé mercredi and jeudi unfortunately.

We managed to get to the caves in time to join a tour just starting.  Although caves aren't my favourite place to spend time I was absolutely amazed by this one.  It includes some of the oldest prehistoric paintings dating from 25000 to 14000 years ago.  But even more impressive was the display of stalactites and stalagmites. The entire ceiling and much of the floor was covered with thousands, if not more.  We weren't allowed to take photos in the first cave where the paintings were and below is actually a photo I took of a postcard but it gives you an idea of the extent of them.

In the second, much smaller cave, we could take photos and this shows the formations where the stalactites and stalagmites join to form columns.  In some places the formations were up to a foot or more in diameter. The ones in this photo were about 4-5 feet high but very narrow.

And this photo looking straight up at the ceiling.
There are quite a few of these types of caves in this part of France so I might just include more on my agenda.
[According to Wikipedia stalactites grow an average of 0.13 mm/year]

Monday, October 08, 2012


I'm sure we'll be tired of them in a short while but we visited our first chateau today.  This one was built in the 13th century and had several lines of defense.
Chateau Bonaguil

The view from the top

The little village of Puy L'Eveque is just a few minutes away and is positioned beside the river Lot.  It seems to be built up the hill and many buildings are made of the golden coloured limestone which seems to be the predominant building material all over the Lot (the 'province' we're in).

And the grape harvest continues across the road from our house.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Vendage (or Harvest)

Ross tells me he was woken up this morning by the sound of the grape-harvesting machine.  Since we look out across the valley filled with vineyards, it seems entirely possible.
View from the across the road.

Harvesting this year has just begun, considerably later than most years because apparently it has not been a good year for grapes and the farmers think that if they can leave them a bit longer they might get better.  A cold and wet spring, followed by a hot and dry August didn't do them any good and the wine makers are not anticipating a great vintage.  Most of the wine made here is under the (brand) name "Cahors" which means it is a rich, dark, full-bodied red made mostly of malbec grapes.  We're having to test quite a few!

Most of the grapes will be machine harvested, except perhaps for the older vines, which are 200 or more years old.  They will be hand picked. We're becoming quite accustomed to following the tractors with their wagons full of grapes as they shuttle between the vines and the processing locations along the narrow back roads.

Today we ventured the 20 mins to Cahors and walked across this very medieval looking bridge.  Built in the 14th century to fortify the city, it was apparently very successful.  I can see why!
Pont Valentré

Friday, October 05, 2012

Prayssac Commune

The word commune conjures up images of 70s hippies all happily living together, growing organic vegetables and weaving their own clothes.  I don't know if that's what happens in Prayssac but it's one of more than 36,000 communes in France; we might use the term municipality.  About 2500 people live in this village in the Lot Department, in the Midi-Pyrenees region (different levels of government I suspect).

The cemetery on the way into town, church in background.

The church is the physical, and perhaps the cultural, centre of the commune with its spire sticking up and visible from just about everywhere.  Surrounding the church is a kind of circle road, with all the other roads radiating out from it.

Yesterday we drove into town for a brief look around.  By then it was noon so after a delicious 3 course lunch we began to wander around the town.  It seemed odd that all the stores were closed.  Sure it was Thursday in October and tourist season was winding down but you'd think some would still be open.  After a while we realized that all the stores and businesses close from 1-3 for lunch.  How civilized!

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Bonjour tout le monde

Spending a few days in Paris just isn't enough although we really didn't have much on our agenda except recovering from jet lag which I managed to do by sleeping from 6 pm until 9 the next morning. Even though our hotel was directly outside the large train station Gare de l'Est which was non-stop all hours of the day and night.
We climbed the almost 400 steps (narrow, winding) to the top of the Notre Dame bell tower (think Quasimodo) to enjoy the panoramic view of Paris. The largest bell has a clapper that weighs 500 kg. but it doesn't appear to be used now.
A boat ride on Le Seine (partly to recover from the climb) and then after dinner over to the Eiffel Tower for a brief but spectacular light show.

Only a fraction of what was offered at this little shop.  I had the pain au chocolat (surprise).

Marvelling at the incredible array of bread, baguette, pastries, at every little corner or patisserie - very common to see people just walking down the street munching their fresh bought baguette.

View from Notre Dame to Sacre Coeur.

I couldn't leave without this shot.

So far our attempts at getting our phone working with a French SIM card have been unsuccessful - made tres difficile when you can't speak the language. Oh but I've already hired a teacher and have my first lesson on Monday.
We've arrived at our little village of Prayssac and are still trying to figure out what we're doing here and how to do it!  There was a bit of an issue with the rental car yesterday but we managed to get one.  And of course, no one told Ross that to put it in reverse you had to lift this little thing under the gear shift up while you shifted (okay it's been awhile since we had a standard!) but we got through it and I didn't have to push the car back onto the road from where he'd tried to make a u-turn!
I've always been the type to not be afraid of putting myself in new situations but I may have gone overboard with this trip - everything is a new adventure, a new way of doing things and of course the French have a different word for everything as Steve Martin said. I just hope Ross manages to keep up with me!

Sunday, September 30, 2012

End of Part 1 of the Fall 2012 Journey

The torrential rain of yesterday has eased to a steady, misty drizzle for our last day at Bantry Bay as we reflect on our time at the farm and anticipate our arrival in Paris and the south of France.  Our rental car is booked, train tickets printed off, and the internet has informed me that Friday is market day in Prayssac, the small village where we'll be living for two months.

Despite the rain yesterday we've made the most of the warm fall weather here, lawn chairs outside the 5th wheel often serving as our informal happy hour spot.  We've managed several golf games at the fabulous coastal Algonquin resort (although one was rained out after 9).

The next few weeks will bring changes to the farm as several of us leave and a few more arrive.  Rieteke, a 67 yr old WWOOF'r left yesterday, Kath's mom came last week and Luke's brother will be arriving shortly.  We'll miss the enjoyable camaraderie over dinners with 8-10 people gathered around the table every evening.  The harvesting continues on the farm but has definitely slowed (except for those red peppers!)  There are only a few more CSA days left and the last regular farmer's market was Thursday.  The leaves have just started their brilliant display, some with red-tinged tips contrasted with the bright green.  We just don't get the beautiful reds in the west like they do out here.

We look forward to coming back next year.  Hopefully Finn will still delight and be amazed at everything he sees and touches and perhaps Chambers McLean will be working on his 2nd album of music.  The new greenhouse will be in full production by then.  And of course we'll anticipate the amazing supply of fresh, delicious, organic, and well-cared-for vegetables.  Now about that market in Prayssac.

Au revoir tout le monde à Bantry Bay!

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Angel of the Berwicks

If ever there was a quintessential Bed and Breakfast this is it. Huge (20 rooms in this house, 4 for guests), built in 1898, high ceilings, intricate moldings,etc. We're on our way to Boston to see the Sox at Fenway and stopped off not too far from Portland Maine in North Berwick. Found this place on the Internet this morning, amazingly we're the only guests tonight. It's unbelievably beautiful. Reminds me a lot of Sue's or Rosemary's houses.
We actually have 2 adjoining rooms - the bedroom and the sitting room where Mike will sleep on the pull out couch. It's even bigger than the bedroom.
Taking this photo required me to perch the camera on my sunglasses on the edge of the box of the pickup then make a mad dash for the steps.
The hostess, Sally is enthusiastic and welcoming and she'll have breakfast ready for us at 8:30. I can hardly wait.

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