May 28, Sarlat

There’s definitely a feeling that this vacation is almost over. My thoughts are turning more and more to home, and my life there, though my eyes and my camera are still turning to France. A few random thoughts: Teenage boys seem more affectionate, less afraid to touch each other in France. It was good to see them as comfortable maintaining contact as girls do. I wish I’d gotten a photo of the young man, laden with a heavy backpack, and a guitar strapped to the backpack, stretching his neck and camera up to get a photograph of a window frame. Saw a few kitties today; one let me pet her, obliging shed on my backpack, and then avoiding letting me get a good photo of her; another scampered by, a twitching bit of gray fur in her mouth: she was taking her mouse somewhere to enjoy it in private.

Breakfast: see above. Actually, I had cheese left over from the other day, so had that for breakfast. Enjoyed the fresh fruit. It will be strange to go back to having tea for breakfast, as I’ve gotten very used to a couple cups of strong coffee to get me going.

This morning was free, and though I hadn’t slept well, it was good to have free time when still fresh and alert. I had a map of the historic parts of Sarlat, and a cheat sheet for the cathedral, Saint Sacerdos, from Katherine, our guide. So I cruised around, especially appreciated the Lanterne des Morts, built to commemorate a visit by (St.) Bernard in the 12th Century, and the beautiful, peaceful, cloister ruins on the west side of the cathedral. I met Teddy and Tom at the cathedral, and we took a tour together. Midway through, we noticed some movement in the organ loft, and a few minutes later, the low, unmistakable pattern of the bass in Pachelbel’s Canon in D reverberated throughout the entire building. It swelled into the treble, and we listened, transfixed, to the piece. It was one of those rare times when one is seized by the power of the moment, and a powerful impression is etched into one’s memory. Wow. A little more music, a little more of the cathedral to admire, and we were done. I checked off a few more place on the guide. Unfortunately, the Chapel of the White Penitents, now a museum of sacred art, wasn’t open. I had hoped to see the chapel and the art. Then back to the hotel for our noon appointment with the bus driver.

So we spent the afternoon driving around, visiting various historic sites. They were all wonderful, and I took far too many photos to inflict on you, but that happens.  But I remember best the trip to Beynac Castle (and got the best photos there.) It was the best possible way to see a castle, kept as close to what it was as a working castle as possible. (The fact that it’s been used for so many movies is definitely a testament to its visual authenticity and charm.) Beyond the way-cool oldness of everything, there was also a sense of how difficult and desolate life could be, how safety was hard won.  

One of the cool things about Beynac was that we were able to view the French countryside from way, way high up. It was absolutely splendid, and offered a much wider vision than we’d had before. And we all noted, ruefully, that France is every bit as beautiful, manicured, perfectly-arranged in panorama as it is close up. We were making jokes about the length the French must go to achieve such visual perfection—using tweezers and nail clippers on the lawn and the yard to catch every miniscule weed. Look at the photos.

Lunch was at Le Pech de Malet, a lovely country restaurant. We had yummy shredded veggies for starters, and a wafer of some paté, which I actually ate. The bread was hearty and rough, and tasted of walnuts, ubiquitous in this area. Wine and coffee were including, and happily consumed. The main course was served family style, slices of veal with fancy mushroom gravy, delicious potatoes, and some green beans cooked with a little bacon. It was great French family food, not fancy, but very tasty and satisfying. Fresh strawberries with sauce and whipped cream for dessert. For once, we didn’t linger over our meal, but were urged back to the bus, for more sightseeing. I did get a photo of the kitchen, at the urging of one tour member. I don’t think the chef was too pleased, but he was gracious.

For dinner, we made our third trip in a row for dinner at e Bistro de l’Octrol. This was for our big gala dinner. It was interesting to hear tour members compare this to other tours. The general consensus was that this group was more fun, easier to get along with, better company, than other tours. I would have said the same thing comparing this to the Drouin trip, except for a few cousins that I really got along with. But overall, it did seem to be a cohesive, coherent group. For a starter at dinner, we each got a little glass filled with a delicious tomato puree—it would have been great over noodles. And, concealed in the middle of each glass of puree was a poached egg. No idea why—we didn’t need the protein, but it was certainly delicious, and someone said it was a Spanish dish. Baskets of hearty bread were on the table, and most of us at my table had requested white wine. It was cold and refreshing, and we went through almost two bottles. The main course was fish in a mushroom sauce, with two pieces of potato, and some green peas, a grilled tomato, and a mystery square. The square was the subject of much speculation, and requests to the waitress, and errors in translation. I think the final decision was that it was pureed celery, gelled and seasoned. Dessert had a fancy name—Poires Belle Hélène, poached pears with gobs of fragrant and delicious chocolate sauce, whipped cream and a little fruit. My own tiny, crumpled pear looked so pathetic that I had to borrow Myrna’s for the photo. It was good for a laugh. There was one young waiter, a cheeky kid, who ended up waiting on us all three nights we ate there. We were good friends by the second night, when Teddy, frustrated with his incomprehensible answers in French to her questions about the menu, blurted out “I bet you speak perfect English.” He allowed that he had studied English for ten years in school, but continued speaking in French. The next night, more of the same, and she said “You need to talk in English tonight.” “I’ll talk in English,” he responded, “if you speak in French.” And so they did.

I can’t think about the tour being over. I can’t think about not seeing these wonderful people again. So I won’t. I’ll pack, and try to get some sleep tonight, as tomorrow night will not be restful.


May 27, Sarlat

Breakfast: see above; actually a step below the very small ladder that breakfast is judged on. No hint of espresso, though at least the milk was hot. Also, I’ve come to miss the large “dog food” bowls that we have at home for proper combinations of yogurt, fruit, and cereal. Impossible to do that here. And the fruit salad was, I think, just canned fruit cocktail. Also, while I’m fussing, the wi-fi is still down, and the folks at the front desk are totally blasé about it, like “I’m sure no one’s been here to fix it today.” This is reassuring?

So, today was the day of the Cave Paintings, the famous animal paintings by Cro-Magnon artists in the caves of southern France. Another dreary ride out on the bus, with nothing but the absolutely perfect French countryside to admire, the blissed-out blonde cows, the prancing goats, the occasional magpie zooming black and white between the perfectly-coiffeured green trees.

We went to two caves. The first was at Rouffignac, and we rode a little train right into the cave, and a young man was combination engineer and docent and disciplinarian—“don’t touch the side of the cave; no photos, please.” These were the deceptively-simple drawings, outlines of such absolute perfection that we were finally struck dumb in admiration—an unusual event for this articulate crowd. Our leader eloquently, without committing himself, discussed all the theories of when and how, and mostly, why, these paintings came to be. Dating can only be done from other fragments—of tools and oil lamps left in the caves.  What amazed me was that the animals were all fat and happy, literally. They were leaping about, no predators in sight, no sign of distress or hunger. I can’t help but think this means something. Also, there were just a few artists, and the work was done in a short period of time. Why did it stop? How skilled was the artist, who had to sprint into the cave, carrying his equipment, lovingly and expertly paint his oeuvre, then get out again before his little lamp burned up all its oil? I can’t begin to explain it, just my response, that I had expected to respond artistically to the works, but instead was emotionally overwhelmed. Most of the drawings were of mammoths, but I dearly loved the picture of the rhinoceros.

So then was time for a quick visit to the Musée National de Prehistorie in Les Eyzies-de-Tayac. There were hordes of kids roaring about having a great time—one of the group’s teacher looked like a model for a Neanderthal, even smelled the part, I’m told. It was fun just to look around—the museum closed early that day, so I just wandered around getting photos, without studying each arrowhead and bone fragment. I was still high from the cave paintings.

Then, across the street to lunch at L’Hostellerie du Passeur. I’ve decided that the youngest, least senior member of the wait staff is routinely forced to deal with us. They’re always so extraordinarily baby-faced and cheerful, and patient with our American solecisms. There would surely be no reason for any senior staff member to want the miserable assignment of listening to bad French and tiresome dithering about wines while having to explain the most self-evident of dishes. But it was yummy. Three at my table shared a dish of duck rillettes, then on to the entrée, no starter, of a little potato tower with crenellations of green and snow peas, and a lovely piece of chicken breast in a delicious sauce. The leftover peas were passed around as a bonus course, then some fruitcake, actually a rather dry muffin with little speck of red something inside, sitting on a yummy raspberry sauce. Most points for the entrée.

Then off on the bus to cruise around the countryside, a drive-by the troglodyte village of Roque St. Christophe, and ending up in the tiny hamlet of St. Leon sur Vézère. This was just Too Cute even by our jaded standards, and I got lots of photos. The guide said many of the residents were just there in the summer, and lived most of the year in bigger cities. There was a definite aura of very old money, not just old old, about the place. The church of St. Leon was enchanting. It was 12th Century, and pretty much in its original, perfect state. It’s so rare to see a church that hasn’t been renovated in a hodge-podge of styles and eras that I really appreciated the chance to see what the original looked like. The WWI memorial in the church was another heart-breakingly long list of names, below a stonework square from, probably, a knight’s grave, showing a knight on horseback. It made a wonderful photo.

Then to the replica of the caves at Lascaux. The caves themselves, much harassed by carbon dioxide, introduced viruses, and general human abuse, were closed in the 1960s, and the replica was finally finished in the mid-80s. I can appreciate that they had to close the caves to protect them. Apparently, the replicas, while easier to restore, are subject to the same wear-and-tear problems as the originals. But there were just too many people in the group, not enough air, not enough light. And despite that, again, these drawings are utterly magical. Huge bulls dominated entire walls. Sprightly red cows gamboled about. One horse seemed to be jumping right across the cave roof. These, the more sophisticated drawings, are considerably older than at Rouffignac. But the animals here are just as rounded and happy and carefree. And here, there was one drawing of a human, a crude caricature stick figure with an enormous erection and a duck-like head, looking like an x-rated drawing from The Far Side comic strip. This does not advance figuring out the purpose of the art, but is good for a chuckle. But just find photos of the paintings to look at. My words are utterly useless—the magic and beauty is truly ineffable.

We got back in time to mutter darkly some more about the non-existant wi-fi, then wander around town in preparation for my major explore tomorrow morning. Then Teddy and Tom and I went back to Le Bistro d’Octroi for another dinner, something far grander than we had last night. Teddy and I had almost identical meals. We each had a white asparagus starter, with ground nuts, a skinny breadstick, vinaigrette, and other interesting bits. The entrée was a fish steak, with a dark, almost beef-like gravy, made important with mushrooms, two interesting little squares of puree, half a tomato, grilled, a tiny bowl of cooked lentils, and a creamy potato dish. Oh my, indeed, with a whole bottle of white wine. We had different desserts, but I got photos of all three. Mine was another of those innocuous-looking chocolate cupcakes that’s filled with molten hot fudge, with a few trimmings. We finished off with a glass of walnut wine, much better than it sounds. It pretty much finished us off, too, so Tom escorted us home. Actually, we spent most of the dinner passionately discussing the cave paintings, still unable to settle their purpose and meaning in our minds. It continues to seethe in my tired, slightly-tipsy, brain. I hope I dream about them tonight.

May 26, Sarlat

Left Toulouse today after I finally found the street that my window overlooks. Big farmers’ market in progress, I bought some clementines, and was late catching the bus. We decided we all really enjoyed Toulouse: you could just walk out the front door of the hotel and go anyplace, and it would be interesting.

Breakfast: see above; actually, Toulouse might have offered the best breakfast of any of the hotels. I fear my collection to Nutella packets might not expand. Though, sadly, despite intense scrutiny and fiddling by hotel staff, and many anxious glances from hotel guests, the espresso machine did nothing but spit murky warm water. Alas.

The countryside on the way to Rocamadour was just wonderful. I listened to Il Divo, and exclaimed over every herd of the beautiful Limousin cattle, every gaggle of geese, or ancient stone bridge that must be centuries old. One interesting sight was a pile of pieces of stone, they looked like slate, in the middle of a field. It had the general size and shape of a coffin, and a little fence around it. I fervently hoped it was an ancient cairn, waiting to be excavated and explored. Sometimes the bus veered to close to an old building, right near the road, or a rocky outcropping, that if the bus window had been open, I could have touched it by just putting my fingers outside the bus. My admiration for the bus driver expanded considerably on the route.

Rocamadour hardly seems possible. Whatever could have been the point of climbing the impossibly high cliffs, and literally digging a castle, chapels, and town out of the rock face. Yes, it was easy to defend, but what was the point of being there? Yes, it was on the road to Compostella, though everywhere we’ve stopped is on the road, too. At any rate, the bus driver dropped us off at the top of the mountains, and we slowly descended, past the castle, then the chapels, and down to the commercial area. The chapels were the best part. Look at the photos, and you’ll see one largish church, and several small chapels, not all accessible. There were, interestingly, TWO black madonnas, the famous one, in a glass and gold case, inaccessible, and another one in another chapel, close enough to touch, with a filmy silk cape clasped around her. It was interesting to see several model boats suspended from the ceiling, but apparently the madonna rescues sailors while also performing land-locked miracles. A bell, which I missed, suspended above her, is supposed to ring spontaneously every time a sailor is miraculously saved. A marble tablet on the side of the chapel lists the numbers of accredited miracles, beginning in the mid 14th Century. But in the context of so much faith, such trust, it’s very hard not to believe, to hope for a personal miracle. So I lit a candle.

There were amazing numbers of bicyclists who had somehow survived the trek up the mountains, on the narrow, shoulderless roads, to the heights. The bikes deserved their own photo. Some of the cyclists were finding the narrow, rough stone steps almost impossible in their cleated shoes.

We were on our own for lunch. So I bought some cute cheeses from a cute formager, whose dog, Topaz, sprawled across the step into the shop, almost preventing access. Add a baguette from down the street, a clementine from the farmers’ market, leftover chocolates, and voilà! Lunch is served!

Back on the bus, and on to Sarlat, our last long stay on the trip. The hotel is right in town, but this isn’t my favorite room. And there’s no wi-fi, apparently knocked out by last night’s storm. Hmmm. We had a lecture on the history of the Périgord in the hotel lobby, and the pictures from the overhead projector were rendered almost transparent by all the sunlight. Then we set out to explore the marvelous medieval architecture of Sarlat. It has a huge number of very old buildings, and it was enough to experience what it would have looked like four hundred years ago, with photos of everything, though I did manage to snap a few. It didn’t seem to have all wires buried, as I’d heard, but still looked way authentic. I’d like to come back to explore a little more. The cathedral was marred by the two smoking, beer-swilling spare-changers on the front steps, though maybe it was an accurate depiction.

Dinner was at the restaurant, literally, down the road, Le Bistrot de l’Octroi. Yum. There was a delicious creamy asparagus soup for starters, then a grilled lamb chop with interesting accessories, including a little bowl of creamy potatoes, and great mustard. I was feeling brave enough to tackle the chop, but found very little meat on it. Hmmm. Dessert was a little glass of fresh strawberries with a rolled cookie and slice of kiwi. The wine was included, and much appreciated.

The tv works, and I saw a little soccer before crashing.

May 25, Carcassonne

Toulouse has a canal, built in the 17th Century, for easier and more direct access to the ocean. It’s mostly used for pleasure craft now, and some tour members took a boat ride on it yesterday. There’s a tow path by the canal, and it’s given over to bicyclists and joggers. It was great to see it so well used as we passed out of town.

Random thoughts: There’re some great kissers in France. I’ve seen several young couples in a very tender and ardent embraces, unbothered and unaware of the swirls of emotion surrounding them. Funny store: Teddy had the (mis) fortune, twice in two days, to notice tour members (!) with an unzipped fly. The situations were eventually corrected, with many snickers and double entendres. Now one tour member complains of TPS—Teddy Proximity Syndrome, and, when around her, keeps checking to make sure all is in order. Another funny story: Teddy reports that Odile, the group leader, was talking about something, and mention that she was going to drink some “hairball tea” which sounds truly dreadful. She meant “herbal tea.”

Emeline gave us a lecture on the Cathars on the way down to Carcassonne, and I fear most of us didn’t hear it well, or slept through it, or some of both. But the great fortress itself is just wonderful. It’s okay that it’s a little kitschy, and touristy, and there’s a wooden fire-trap surrounding one of the towers that was built for the Kevin Costner Robin Hood movie. It’s an extraordinary artifact, an accumulated heritage that represents centuries of France’s history. I took lots of photos; look at them, there’s really nothing better I could say. After lunch, we visited the old church, Saint Nazaire,both Romanesque and Gothic. It was interesting to delineate the periods represented in the church, but nothing we haven’t seen before. I also took a peek in the old bishop’s palace, now a four-star hotel. Oh my. The bishop lived very well indeed, even in a fortress.

I was distracted, and got too separated from the group on the way to lunch, and missed the doorway to the restaurant. I wandered around for a bit, asking restaurants if they had a “grande groupe des americains.” Nope. I was thinking I might end up eating on my own, when Teddy found me. Bless her. Just two courses for lunch, a huge plate of red lettuce with some fruits and ham. Didn’t taste great, didn’t rate a photo, but some nice veggies and fiber for a change. Then there was a cheese plate with three cheeses, including some more wonderful Roquefort. Wow. It exploded in my mouth, just like last night

Towards the end of our free time in the city, after having some ice cream (even the double cones are a sensible size, smaller than a US single cone) I decided to go back to the church for a bit. I was sitting in the back, studying the vaults, when a men’s choir started singing. I thought they were playing a tape. It sounded like a Latin hymn, and was beautiful, filling the cathedral all the way to the capitals. I started humming along, softly, just a little descant. When the hymn was over, there was a sprinkling of applause, and another one started. So I got up to look. Four men, dressed in black, were standing in front of the altar, singing. It was a marvelous treat, as if Il Divo had been sprinkled with holy water. Wow. When they were done, there was a little more applause, and one of the men made an announcement in French, then English, that anyone who enjoyed their music could buy the cd. Instantly, a little table appeared by the front pews, and a little lamp, and one of the singers was checking his cell phone. And yes, someone was buying a cd.

We had dinner at a restaurant called “Rest O Jazz.” A young chanteuse, and a truly extraordinary jazz guitarist entertained us with cool jazz while we dined. The food was also outstanding. The starter was a veggie and salad with a baked cheese on top. The main plat consisted of three squares of food, very different flavors and textures, some veggie, semi-pureed, and a fish steak with a very good sauce. Dessert was also three parts, ice cream, flavored whipped cream, and a type of cookie.

This morning I was awakened by two city workers with a little truck and long hose, powerwashing the sidewalks across the street. This evening, last time I checked at 11 pm, there were still five outdoor tables occupied at the restaurant, La Gourmandine, across the street. Can you imagine folks eating outside that late in Eugene? Later, when I was getting to sleep, there were two huge thunder claps, and when I looked outside in the middle of the night (yes, there are some sleep issues on the trip,) the sidewalk and streets were wet, so nature did the powerwash in the evening. And the folks across the street stayed up all night, watching tv, their windows open, like mine.

That’s the final report from Toulouse.

May 24, Toulouse

Breakfast: see above. Actually, breakfast in Toulouse is a cut above what we’ve been served elsewhere. There’s rich white cheese (yogurt, actually) in a huge bowl, and fresh fruit salad next to it. The baked goods are wonderful, and I plan on getting a slice of the brioche bread tomorrow. Another one of those make-your-own espresso machines, which was very popular.

We started on the road with Emeline, and spent a little time visiting the Capitale, the 18th Century administrative center that is still in use. The Capitale, and its huge square, was the scene of the rugby festivities yesterday. That’s where the photo of the zodiac archer came from.  Then we were off to Saint Sernin, the largest Romanesque church in the world. It’s beautifully preserved, and it was interesting hearing Emeline describe how limestone was the preferred material, but more expensive, and bricks were more in evidence when times were tougher. I seemed to prefer the outside to the inside, from the photos, and the Pilgrims’ Gate, through which we entered, was really beautiful. The organ there is very famous, and I heard a bit on Sunday, though not the type of music I would prefer. Then we dawdled our way to the Jacobins, which blew my mind yesterday, and it was great to see other folks in the group just as stunned by its design and aura. To even improve things, a group gathered at one end were, I think, Spanish pilgrims, and they were singing—beautiful, multi-part hymns that soared into the tops of the vaults, and blessed all of us. It was truly amazing. I had perhaps noticed that all the stained glass windows, though new, followed a distinct design of red colors on one side, blue on the other, and Emeline explained that it was one of the ways marking the Jacobins as two churches, one on each side of the central row of pillars. Then we all admired the huge first pillar, with its 28?—descending ribs that support the entire weight of the front of the church.  Then we went outside to the cloister, which was as lovely and peaceful and cloisters always are—how the monks must have loved them. Then we wandered into the chapter house, which Emeline said had the best acoustics of all. So I waited until it was almost empty, then hummed a few bars of “Amazing Grace.” Then Tom had me stand in the middle, and I sang a verse for the folks there. It was a scary and beautiful experience, and I’m so glad I did it.

We stopped at the Capitole again on the way back, and went inside. Lots of late 19th Century paintings, something about determinedly realistic paintings to counter the movements toward more modern abstract paintings. Which made sense, except the subject matters were very quaint, and seemed to feature older men surrounded by young, beautiful, adoring, undressed women. Grrr. Though I noticed that all the women had very modern, intelligent faces, and modern hairstyles. There was a special exhibit of black-and-white photos, from the sixties through current times in the US, but I had just enough curiosity left to admire the beautiful kitten in one photo.

Back to the hotel, for another lecture from Emeline about the history of Toulouse. After spending so much time in Aquitaine, I keep forgetting that the English influence in Toulouse was minimal, and it was really not involved in the Hundred Years’ War. We were free after that until assembling for our evening visits. I took the opportunity to skip lunch, and headed, eventually, to the Augustin Museum, another one of those museums in which the fabulous setting sometimes outshines the exhibit. The “Gargoyle Row” in the cloister was a wonderful idea, and you can see from the photos all the wonderful ecclesiastical art that’s been collected there. The busts by Marc Arcis were so vibrant, so alive, that I would get close to them, in their faces, so to speak, and feel profoundly uncomfortable, as if I were invading their personal spaces, and they would confront me. The museum of the city of Toulouse was closed because of the holiday (the day after Pentecost—why a holiday in such a secular nation?) as a couple of Frenchwomen explained to me. So I tried a couple more churches, both closed for the same reason, then went to the hotel and sulked for a bit, and then tried the Raymond of Toulouse museum near Saint Sernin, thinking one should be open since the other was. It was, and had a marvelous collection of Roman sculpture from Toulouse’s days as a Roman colony. Got a few good photos. It was interesting to see that the earliest Christian sarcophagi very much resembled the Roman ones, just with a Christian theme instead of Roman decorations. I suppose they were just for the very wealthy. The bottom part of the museum is exposed as the original walls and foundation of the first Saint Sernin church, and it was interesting to see the ubiquitous red bricks in use then as well.

Then we reassembled for our dinners with the locals. I was paired with Nancy, and we went to Chez Femaux, with Gerard and his wife. Gerard, voluble and energetic, is a jazz drummer, with many famous concerts to his name, and many students from all over the world. His wife, a retired nurse, was quieter, but an excellent hostess. They both were glad to practice their English, and Nancy and I hauled out our best French. The food was lovely, and, after speaking to others in the group, I’m glad it was lighter and simpler than the mountains of calories others had to contend with. You can see the photos. The cheese selection was especially good. I’d never had real Rocquefort before, and found that the taste simply exploded in my mouth, and lingered there, deliciously. They found it objectionable that I used Reclette cheese on pizza, and explained a potato recipe I should be using instead for the Reclette, and suggested and Italian cheese for humble pizza. They got a kick out of my request to photograph the dishes, and indulged me in arranging the offerings.  Their cat, you can see, was not impressed with our presence, and only allowed me a couple pets before stalking off. We talked for several hours about a wide variety of issues. We admired the beautiful baby book of their new grandson in Vancouver, and I was able to help Gerard with some of the English translations for his book of drumming instructions.  What I had feared would be an uncomfortable evening was actually a lot of fun, and I’m glad to feel that we helped make the evening enjoyable for them.

May 23, Toulouse

We spent only two nights in Pau. I dislike the whole moving process, so I’m grateful that we spend several nights in most places. Today, we’re off to Toulouse. I think it’s the biggest city that we stay in.

Breakfast: see above, really. But I must comment about my first view of Pau in the morning. A city worker, looking like he was dressed for Haz Mat duty, with fluorescent green pants and vest and hat, was sweeping the sidewalks with a broom that looked like it was straight from the 15th Century, exactly the type a witch would ride. I’m so sorry I didn’t get a photo of it.

Bus ride to Toulouse with our favorite driver. The rest stop where we took our potty break had a not-so-little gift shop attached, with lots of appealing tourist souvenirs and treats. Oddly, most of us were seized with the need to buy something, a bit of candy to share, a beret as a present. And yes, it was very good.

We ended up at a hotel in a wonderful downtown location, as all of them are. Our classroom, part of the hotel, was pure 18th Century rococo, but the rooms are quite modern, and recently remodeled. Plumbing and wiring adequate, wi-fi system perfect. The only problem is that it has become very warm here, and the a.c. in the hotel wasn’t working. Rumors were that it would be turned on Monday, after the (Pentecost) holiday, but there was some fussing, to the point that someone wanted us moved to another hotel, but no one else agreed to that. Everyone opened their windows, and I ended up spending the night a few feet from my window. Some cooler air came in, as well as all the night sounds of a city. The temp on my clock says 71, which is fine. French buildings still don’t have screens on the windows, but there doesn’t seem to be any little bugs or mosquitos about, so il marche. I keep thinking of the line from Shakespeare, “Travelers must be content,” and it helps with the perspective-thingy.

two desserts at lunch

We had trouble finding the hotel, the driver’s GPS wasn’t working correctly, but Otile’s maps saved the day. Then we got lost heading to the restaurant for lunch, and someone from the restaurant had to come fetch us. It was a family restaurant, with little kids and their parents, and two obnoxious kids behind me hanging on my chair and administering a few kicks. We were appalled. We were, however, given free wine with our meal, and that helped. Choices of appetizer, I went with the brie on toast, and  a big fish and pasta dish that I shared with Teddy, and the creme caramel for dessert. Big Deal. Just another excellent three-course French meal, with local wines. Look at the photos.

lunch; fish and pasta to share

After lunch was a lecture by Emeline. She had excellent slides, and her history of Toulouse was very well presented. However, we were tired, full, and in a too-warm room, and we dozed. We lost whole chunks of the lecture, and one traveler left. There must be a better way. They had actually changed the schedule, and moved the outdoor parts to Monday morning, when it was cooler, but the lecture format didn’t work either.

Staggering from the room, I revived myself with a bit of time with the excellent wi-fi, then headed off to explore. The rugby game the night before had been a Big Thing, and the team was arriving in the bus at the Capitole, the county administrative center, just as I was trying to get to a church. Hordes of fans milling about, all in the team colors of red and black. I ended up following one large young man going against the stream, but truly feared for my safety at times, just from the sheer numbers.

I made my way to two churches, St. Sernin, the  largest Romanesque basilica in the world, and the Cathedral St. Etienne. Both had services going on, so I couldn’t roam around much. Both most impressive. Then I went down to the Convent of the Jacobins, a 13th Century church with a very unusual floor plan–a pure rectangle–and it totally overwhelmed me. Look at the photos. It was pure magic.  Someone else remarked about the feeling of calm that comes when entering the church. Amazing to think of its connection with the Albagensian Crusade and its peaceful aura, but there it is.

Church of the Jacobins

Dinner was at Le Cave au Cassoulet, a restaurant built in an existing coal or wine cellar, with a low barrel arch for a ceiling. The speciality was cassoulet, the rich bean casserole with duck and sausage. Salad for starters, then huge bowls of the cassoulet brought to share. Oddly, served on plates, with forks, rather than as stew. Bread came in handy for mopping up the delicious broth. I see I need to look at my cassoulet recipe again. Tarte tatin for dessert.

Cassoulet, still boiling

One last note about Toulouse. It has the racks of velo libre, the rental bicycles, but there’s also a feeling, in the center of town, that bicycles are a genuine means of transportation. People are riding ordinary bicycles, with baskets, and children, and wearing work clothes.  These small downtowns with such horrible congestion would be a wonderful place for bikes, and there seems to be an effort to close off quite a few of the streets to autos. Tres bien!

May 22, Pau

Another Day in Pau. What a way to spend a vacation.

Breakfast: see above. Really, this doesn’t change much, but they have an interesting espresso machine. You feed a little plastic packet into a slot, push a button, and a trickle of espresso comes out into your cup. Top it off with hot milk, and, as Andy in Bayonne would say, “Bob’s your uncle.” As the French say, “Il marche.” It works.

We had some time before the lecture, with a strong recommendation to visit the farmers’ market in the Les Halles area early. (Les Halles was the name for the centuries-long Market area of  Paris, and has become a more generic term indicating a market place, methinks.) So we went down there. I really couldn’t think of anything to buy, but loved looking at things. Many strawberries, though I heard reports they looked better than they tasted. Lots of fresh cherries—I wonder how they can get so many fruits to early in the year. But I found I spent the most time watching the French being French—carrying their cloth sacs, baguettes protruding, doing some of their most important work—absorbed and unselfconscious, choosing what to eat for the next few days. It was delightful.

Then I slithered off a little before ten and headed to the Bernadotte museum. Gabrielle told us about the famous Bearn umbrellas that the shepherds use—all wood, no metal parts, huge, indestructible in all weather conditions, and expensive. I found myself at the shop the sold the umbrellas, and peered in the window, too shy to go inside and ask questions, while NOT buying an umbrella. Certainly an impressive artifact.

I waited around at the museum, and at 10:05, with no signs of life from inside, rang the bell. A very agreeable young woman with no English at all came to greet me, and I had the place to myself the entire time. All I know about Bernadotte is from the novel Desirée, which all the women I had dinner with last night knew about as well, so I enjoyed getting a rounder view of the situation. He was a very handsome man, with lots of curly hair. His nickname was something like “beaujambs” because he had wonderful legs, though it seems a little strange today. His nose was truly impressive, and seems not to have been handed down in the family. He was a soldier in the French army, but couldn’t become an officer because he was of lowly birth. That all changed in the Revolution, and he became a top general, a marshal, under Napoleon. And, during that time, he married Desirée, the Marseille silk merchant’s daughter who had been Napoleon’s erstwhile fiancée until he met the sexy widow Josephine. Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, as a political move to appease Napoleon, was appointed/elected the crown prince of Sweden, and became king a few years later, when he changed his name to Carl Johan. This refocused his attentions, and he declined the invitation to join Napoleon when he invaded Russia in 1812, definitely a good idea. Desirée, alas, never took to Sweden, and stayed there while her son was young, and returned for his wedding, but chose to live in France. I can see her point. Had a nice gossip about the current Swedish royal family with the docent, including see a photo of the Crown Princess (crown goes to oldest child, regardless of gender) who will be married next month.

Then back to the hotel for a lecture on the history of Pau, and many exclamations of the marvelousness of King Henri IV. Well, I’m a fan of Henri, too, but I think things were a little overboard. Very interesting to hear about the rich Americans and Brits who came for the “season” in Pau for many years in the 19th Century. They had foxhunting, horseracing, a casino, built huge mansions, and even the Wright Brothers made their first European flight in Pau. All that faded away when Biarritz supplanted Pau as the In Spot, and vanished entirely at the beginning of World War I.

Then a refreshing lunch at the hotel—a delicious quiche starter—quiches sure taste different if not made with Velveeta, a couple delicious slices of pork roasted with a raisin sauce and potatoes, and a (thankfully!) simple bowl of fresh fruit for dessert.

Then we’re off to visit Henri IV’s palace. We’d had quite a bit of information about this from Gabrielle’s fan-girl lecture, but the fabulous tapestries, rounded up from elsewhere for the museum, and other pieces of period furniture were just fascinating. There were only three artifacts connected directly with Henri in the museum, a jewel box, backgammon or other board game box, and the huge turtle shell that was his cradle. The last is suspect, as an admirer of Henri stole the shell at the beginning of the Revolution to keep it safe, and returned it afterwards, so its provenance isn’t proven.

Then we had the treat of seeing a special exhibition about Henri, from the Medici side of the family (his second wife’s family.) There was some wonderful artwork. My favorite were a series of huge studies, perhaps for paintings?—all in shades of gray. They were illustrations of scenes from Henry’s life—before an important battle, accepting (yet again) Catholicism as his religion, greeting his new wife. Because the canvases were so large, they could be filled—people, horses, events—each was a fascinating story. My very favorite piece of the exhibit, which wouldn’t fit into my backpack, was a life-sized statue of a prisoner, naked, with just a drape, one foot on his helmet, the other in front of the type of gloves that knights wore, his hands chained behind his back, his face twisted away in misery. Alas, I can’t remember the title or the artist, or I’d look for a view of it for you.

After being museumed-up, three of us wandered away looking for something cool to drink. This is where—ta-da!—I finally had a bottle of cidre, the delicious mildly-alcoholic Breton cider, and it certainly hit the spot. Yum.

After collapsing a bit in the hotel, we climbed into another bus, and drove through the French gloaming to a winery, Bellegarde, for wine tasting and dinner. The entire estate was just beautiful, gorgeously landscaped, with just enough fuss with the flowers to look absolutely perfect. We were struck dumb, an amazing development among such an articulate bunch, though that might have been the white wines we were tasting–apparently, red wine grapes do not grow in the Jurancon.

And we were fed, a delicious simple vegetable soup, cured ham slices with a marvelous tomato side dish, would have been wonderful on couscous, and a slice of excellent cheese to finish things off. They provided a very nice red from another winery for the meal, as I presume they deemed a red rather than a white was needed. When asked about the current market, including the economic downturn as well as the decreased wine consumption in France, they said they were weathering it okay, as it meant that the cheaper wines were being consumed less, but if someone was going to drink just a little wine, then he would choose a better wine, not the cheap stuff. The vintner showed us a room of special bottles, for high-end restaurants and special orders, not just to stock shelves in the store. That one room alone must have held thousands of dollars worth of wine. And I looked at the huge steel vats, which must cost thousands of dollars each. I’ve become a bit of a fan of  the oak barrels. Here they hold wine in a barrel for about four years, then sell it, rather than reuse it. Figure the costs there. wow.

The driver joined us for the dinner, once the rugby game he was listening to was over. He drankonly water, but was a perfect host, serving all of us at his table. He didn’t speak English, but I think he understood quite a bit. He was a very charming person, and I was glad we had him the next day to drive us to Toulouse.

It wasn’t completely dark when we left to come home, and the French countryside was perhaps even more beautiful as evening approached.  It’s amazing to think of the thousands of years that France has been occupied by humans, and how wonderfully it’s been cherished all that time.