Southern France: May 2 to
(Pictures are thumbnails. Click on them for a larger view. You may click on the subjects listed to go directly to them.)
Subjects: Bordeaux Medoc Wine Country St. Emilion Beynac Castle Sarlat Cliff Dwellings Gouffre de Proumeyssac (Cavern) Rocamadour La Foret des Singes Vezere River Valley Avignon Souffleurs de Cristal (Glass Blowing) Provence Beauty Les Baux de Provence Nice Marc Chagall Museum Cannes Monte Carlo
Last we wrote we were leaving Barcelona and continuing on to Bordeaux, France to spend several days touring all that Southern France has to offer. As a sample of what we saw and did, the pictures below give you a preview of this update. We will be back to France when we visit the north and Paris in about 5 weeks, but here's our first glimpse.
We found some great places to stay including this classic old hotel in Sarlat and a chateau in the Medoc wine district. And yes, we sampled some wine... touring a couple chateaus along the way. The pictures of the chateaus are on the labels. We've continued to enjoy medieval villages and old churches as we traveled throughout this historic district.
Of course, there are castles on many of the hill tops. We are not sure if they are better than Portugal's, but the few we saw were spectacular. And, along the way, we found scenery to rival that in Colorado. Plus, some beaches (with rocks instead of sand) and a lot of beautiful people.
We are now in Italy and will be traveling to several other countries in Europe before we are done. It is fun for us to compare and contrast them along the way. We will try to let you know what we think were the very best parts from each country when we are done.
Check out the Trip Log to see where we have been day by day. Maps of Southern France show our travel routes by trains and rental car. We hope you enjoy sampling some of what we found in Southern France!!
Not all the places we visited are covered in this update as there was just too much to go over and sometimes cameras are not allowed. We hope you enjoy reading the subset we are able to put on the web. Thanks for checking in!
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Upon arrival in Bordeaux, we found a busy city complete with a freeway loop around the entire area. This tall ornate memorial commemorates those who died in WW I. At the base of the statue were some interesting figures, among them these sea serpent horses.
One of our first tasks in each place is to go the the nearest Tourist Information (TI) center, noted by a big i sign, usually located right at the train station. The people there generally speak enough English for us to communicate using our "tourist" knowledge of the local language, in this case, French. We get local maps and information about sights and, most importantly, information on local hotels if we haven't planned ahead. We are finding three and sometimes two star hotels are quite adequate and are generally affordable.
Here is Jennifer checking with the lady at the Bordeaux TI. Looking out the window one morning to see what the racket was, we found a trash truck had spilled most of the contents of a large plastic bag they were loading with a crane. We and the workers had a good laugh about all the commotion. Our hotel overlooked the main plaza in downtown Bordeaux. We decided to stay in Bordeaux two extra nights and had to move from one hotel to another. Packing and repacking is not our favorite thing to do, but we are getting pretty good at it. We will try to get a picture of the three of us pulling all our belongings into the next update.
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Medoc Wine Country
One of the things we learned at the Bordeaux TI was that you cannot just drive around to tour the various wineries and chateaus, as we have done in the United States, New Zealand and Australia. Most are by appointment. We were going next to St. Emilion, one of the best Bordeaux wine districts , but decided to take a brief guided tour of the Medoc, north of Bordeaux. This is the location of some of the major wineries in France, such as Chateau Lafitte-Rothschild, Margeaux, and LaTour. In 1855, five wineries were declared Premier Grande Crus, the best of the best. Since then, only one, Mouton-Rothschild, has been upgraded to Premier Grande Cru status. We drove by, but did not visit, several of the five best.
On the way, we passed by an enormous long building just outside Bordeaux. Click on the picture for a better view. It is used as a sort of wine convention center where wineries display their products to buyers and the public on more than one occasion each year. We also noted that the grape vines are pruned lower than we have seen elsewhere. They are also frequently hand picked so the trellises are closer together. The hand picking works better than machines at getting the best grapes, but it does keep the cost of the best Bordeaux wines high.
We visited two wineries, one classified as a third growth wine, named Chateau Croizet-Bages and one other which is a very good district wine, which they call bourgeois wine. Despite the negative sounding name, the wines produced by some of these non-classified wineries are VERY good. Our guide at the first winery was knowledgeable and spoke both French and English. We had a nice tasting of two of their wines. Unlike the US, New Zealand and Australia, the only wine they produce is red (rouge) from a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc grapes. So, you don't taste white, rose or other wines because they don't make them! All in all, it was fun and very different. The last picture shows the oak barrel aging and settling barrels from the bourgeois winery all stacked up neatly. They top them off frequently to keep air out and every three months they take out the wine, clean out the settled sediment and put the wine back in. When they top off the barrels, some of the wine spills, of course, and they wipe it around the barrels thereby giving the pretty middle red coating. The wine is kept in these barrels typically for two years.
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The next day, we proceeded east about 50 km to the town of St. Emilion. They, of course, have their own classification or appellation system. It can get confusing, so the best bet is to have a book or do a lot of sampling on your own! The TI in the middle of St. Emilion was very nice. If you click on the picture, you can see Steffi pushing buttons showing the roads leading to all of their wineries. She loved it! It was strange that they clearly showed how to get to each and every St. Emilion winery even though you couldn't visit them without an appointment. Next time, we will plan ahead.
St. Emilion has an old church carved from solid rock with a clock tower in the middle of the town shown here. On a tour of the town, we went underground and found very interesting sights. Steffi sits on a seat used by Monks in the 12th century. Tradition has it that if you make a wish while sitting here, it will come true. Last, you can see some of the additions that have been made underground to support the clock tower. It was found that the supporting columns were not under the weight of the tower, so major reinforcing and additional support columns were added. It would not be cool to have your 800 year old tower fall down!
If you click on the first picture, you can see Jennifer and Steffi in the background enjoying our dinner in a restaurant which was located in a cave dug out of the sandstone rock. Quite fun as well as humid from the people's respiration. Last, an old standing city wall just outside St. Emilion is surrounded by vineyards.
Our stop at the TI turned up an option for staying overnight at a "Holiday Park." These are the places we used to stay all the time while in our RV, touring the US. They had a small cabin and we enjoyed ourselves here. Jennifer relaxes on the porch and Denny is showing off his now too-long beard. Last, Steffi gets a trim from mom while concentrating on her Game Boy.
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Our route leaving Bordeaux was down the Dordogne River valley to the east across Southern France. Jennifer and Steffi are hugging each other on a blustery day at the top of a hill where the Beynac Castle, shown next, was located. If you click on the first picture you can see a second castle in the background. We took a tour of the Beynac castle and learned (concentrating VERY hard on the French speaking guide) that the Dordogne River seen here below the castle was the frequently a boundary between France and England and changed hands several times during the 100 Years' War in the 13th Century. The castle itself was never attacked because of its high position, but it witnessed many battles in the valley below. Last, a small draw bridge crosses a crevasse which would help keep intruders out.
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Sarlat (capitol of the Perigord Noir or Black Perigord district), shown here, is a neat small medieval town which has been inhabited since Gallo-Roman times. This is the main plaza. This church had a giant steel door which could be opened up. We stayed in a nice old chateau hotel (shown on the opening page) at the top of a hill overlooking the town
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North of Sarlat, we drove to the Vezere River valley which is the site of some caves in the sandstone rock. These caves have been used by humans dating back to prehistoric Cro Magnan man. While they were similar in concept to our Cliff Dwellings in Colorado, they were not as large. The first picture is of La Roque St. Christophe. We learned quickly that one must time visits to sites correctly in France. Most everything, including tourist attractions, close typically from 12 to 2 PM. So, we just looked up from the parking lot. A little further on, however, we did visit a sort of cliff cave city called Les Grottes du Roc du Cazelle. Recreations of scenes showing early man from as long ago as 40,000 years were here and were fun to see. At other points, they showed how people through the ages would have used the caves, showing scenes of medieval times on up to the 1960s when they were last inhabited. The last shot gives you a feeling for how the Riches would have looked as early pre-historic people. Our glasses, or course, would have been very high tech for that day.
Lots of picturesque beauty along the way. This is a small town by the La Vezere River and is typical of those in this Perigord Noir district of France.
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Gouffre de Proumeyssac (Cavern)
That afternoon, we visited some very special caves called Lascaux II. The Lascaux caves contain very early paintings from pre-historic Cro-Magnon man. The original cave allowed visitors for many years, but light and moisture have caused decay in these ancient wall drawings. So, the French recreated the whole thing in a nearby cave using the same materials and techniques as the original. While these were copies, you definitely could feel the presence of the artists long ago as they created these great paintings. Unfortunately, you could not use your camera, even with the flash off.
Using the recommendations from our guides to France, we picked another to visit out of the many others, Gouffre de Proumeyssac, also called the Crystal Cathedral. The first picture shows a hole in the very top of the cave, about 90 meters up. We made our entry in a small basket through this hole. This showed us how early visitors to the cave would have gotten in being pulled up and down by a horse! There is now another large entry for people to walk in. The rest of our tour watched us on our descent during a spectacular light and sound show. While pictures were not officially allowed, Denny cheated and took a couple showing the cave to the top and a representative shot of the stalactites. One difference in this cave from others we have seen in the US and Australia was the huge amount of water constantly dripping in. The last shot shows pottery that they put under the high volume water spray for a year thereby giving it a hard sparkly limestone coating.
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Further along and east of Sarlat high above the Alzou River, we found Rocamadour perched on a cliff with its castle and medieval sanctuary. This is the second most visited spot in France, and we were glad we were there in May, not July. The first shot shows the castle above the town and the next gives you a view down the Alzou River valley which Jennifer and Steffi enjoyed while sitting on a rock. One of the notable things displayed at the Rocamadour Basilica was a black statue of the virgin Mary and Jesus.
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La Foret des Singes
Nearby a park named La Foret des Singes (monkey forest) houses over 100 Barbary Macaques monkeys who used to inhabit this area hundreds of years ago. They are examples of how much man has changed Europe over the millennia from its natural state. The monkeys now live in Morocco. We were able to get real close to these monkeys. We were given popcorn (gourmet only!!) to feed the monkeys, which was great fun. If you click on the second picture, the fingers of the monkey are easy to see and discern how dexterous they really are. Last, Steffi offers her last popcorn to a monkey who was not interested. Either the popcorn was not good enough or the monkey had its fill.
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Vezere River Valley
We proceeded up the very scenic valley along the Gorge of the Tarn River, which had high limestone cliffs similar to those you might see in Colorado or Utah. We enjoyed a French picnic lunch along the side of the river.
If you click on the next picture, you get a view at the highest point of an old monastery that was probably built between 1200 and 1400. As you can see, it has mostly fallen off its perch. Below is a lovely town and another church built high on a hill. Here is a view of a town along the river bank. Many of them were nestled right up against the rocks with little room to spare. All are clearly popular tourist spots in the summer, with sports such as canoeing and kayaking being advertised.
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Avignon, on the Rhone River, was our stopping point for three days to allow us to travel the countryside and get our chores done (LMAs, remember -- Life Maintenance Activities, such as laundry, bill paying, email, and the WEB update!!). It is the largest town in an area called Vaucluse in the district of Provence. Denny and Stephanie were both recovering from bad colds, so it was nice to stay put for a while. Avignon, like many towns, is a walled city with the old entrance gates, such as this one, across from our hotel and the train station. Next, a view inside the walled city showing the main street lined with trees.
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Souffleurs de Cristal (Glass Blowing)
One day we took a tour of the surrounding Provence countryside. A first stop was to a glass blowing factory in Fontaine de Vaucluse, just east of Avignon. While the operation was small compared to others in France, such as the famous one at Biot, we enjoyed watching the glass blowers create a very large container used to hold three or four champagne bottles in ice. The first picture shows the turning of the initial glass after it has been taken out of the furnace. Next, you can see the glass blower blowing into the end of the pipe to give the glass its shape. Finally, two men work together to fashion the glass. We watched the whole operation for about a half an hour and it took up to three men at times to do the job. At times, one man would turn the glass, another would shape it with a glove and a third would use wooden paddles to smooth the ends or shield another person from the heat. A very labor intensive process which makes you wonder why the glass does not cost more than it does already. It was fun!!
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In the French countryside in all of Provence, we saw beautiful early spring flowers. Click on the first picture to see a field of red poppies which are in contrast to the green backgrounds. These poppies were planted all over France after WW I as a reminder that it was the "war to end all wars." Let's pray that in the future, the poppies will really fulfill their promise in France and all over the world. A close up shot of some small yellow buttercups in a large field.
There are towns and old castles perched in many places along our way, too numerous to visit every one. Nevertheless, you can get a sense of the wonderful views the people living there have today and you can also see why the tops of hills became positions where a good defense could be mounted against invaders, such as the early Vikings who sailed their shallow bottomed boats up the rivers to pillage whenever they wanted. In a valley below the hills, a monastery was built which is still in operation. One of the cash crops to fund the monastery is the herb, lavender, which you see planted here in front of their chapel. Later in the summer, these fields will all be bright purple. For now, we had to imagine the colors and look at pictures in our guides.
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Les Baux de Provence
At the end of a long day of touring, we ended up at the one of the best sights we saw. This was Les Baux de Provence about 50 km to the southwest of Avignon. This is the site of another old castle, but it is more spectacular than any we have seen. In the first picture, Jennifer and Steffi are listening to their English audio guide explaining one of the models showing how it was constructed. The large wall at the right was the main building (or keep) built into the rocks. The next shots show the ruins of the actual fortifications.
There is one funny story to relate. As we were planning our day and our visits, Jennifer checked with the hotel reception for advice and direction. The lady was a helpful local and gave Jennifer tips on places to go. After a long drive, we ended up at the place we were directed to. Jennifer thought it was the city of Les Baux, but, instead, it turned out we were actually at a place with a similar name called the Fort de Buoux. This is a fort reached after a long hike to the top of a high hill. Jennifer consulted all her guides and maps and figured we were about 90 km east of where we needed to be. We were all still not feeling too well and decided to forgo the hike. Les Baux sounded great so, Jennifer agreed to drive the distance late in the day, as Denny was not up to it. We are now glad we did because Les Baux is delightful even with a short visit. We wonder what the Fort de Buoux looked like, but, as we have learned, we can't do it all, especially late in the day!
Near the ruins as we took our audio tour, we saw examples of various medieval weapons or devices that would have been used, though not necessarily at the top of a hill. Steffi shows how a battering ram could be used to knock open a strong door. The roofed covering was usually made of a fire retardant material and would keep the soldiers from getting hurt by material and fires thrown from above. Of course, the stockade was used to punish people when they committed various offences. Steffi tries it out to see what it feels like, just as she did in old Williamsburg, Virginia last summer (click on Virginia to see what she looked like there). Finally, a view of the French countryside with its vineyards, olive trees, hills and rocks. A very tranquil place today.
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We turned in our Hertz rental car in Avignon after completing our tour of the Provence Vaucluse countryside and hopped aboard the French TGV (Transit Grande Vitesse) high speed train to Marseilles and then on a slower train to Nice. We have learned you need to make (and pay for) a reservation on these trains prior to going. The cost is minimal ($5 or so), but it does guarantee you a seat. Once on board, you can enjoy the nice seats, quiet comfort and some first class service. We hope to be able to use these trains a lot as we travel through Europe. After arriving in Nice, we found it a large city, but very clean and well laid out. In sum, as Jennifer and Denny learned about five years ago when they were there, Nice IS nice!! Steffi now agrees. The main bus station and parking structure is on a major boulevard and is covered by a park and hanging flowers. Europe has lots of ways to keep energy expenses down. This little vehicle was one of the most colorful and we would guess extremely efficient. Cars are almost all very small and motor scooters and motor cycles are very very common.
Here is a shot of a new sculpture and grass on the park which leads to the bus station and parking lot. Next, a shot showing the parking used by the local Nice citizens for their motor bikes. You can see why they are popular when you look at the size of a street in the old city that Jennifer and Steffi are walking down. We did observe one person driving a medium sized car go down one of these streets and have to work VERY hard to make a right turn up another street. It probably took 6 forward and backward operations to make the turn. Last, we have previously commented on the beautiful tile in Portugal. Various spots in France also have some nice tile. This is an opening in a wall along a street in the old city in Nice.
Of course, the French Riviera is noted for its weather and beautiful Mediterranean Sea. It is called the "Cote d'Azur," which is French for "blue coast." You can see why it is so named in this picture looking over the Nice beach. The only difference from a regular beach is that there is no sand; it consists of small to medium gray rocks. Steffi decided to try the water and found that it was cold in May. Jennifer enjoys the warm sunny day with the coast line in the background.
Nice is known for its flower market which takes place on a long street in old town weekends and possibly other days as well. Of course, it is not just a flower market, but a venue to sell vegetables, meats, bread, pastries, cheese and other goodies. The flowers are beautiful as are the displays of other items for sale, even meat. Steffi much preferred this market to some others she has seen, notably in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong market was not designed for the public and this one most certainly is. People were everywhere!
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Marc Chagall Museum
The famous French artist, Marc Chagall, is honored in his museum in Nice. Steffi loves museums and decided we should visit at least one while in Nice. This museum contains a very large collection of Chagall's works. Most notable is a series of 17 large paintings done in the 50s and 60s depicting various scenes from the Bible. The scene that Jennifer and Steffi are studying is one relating the story of Abraham and the Three Angels. The second shot is of a beautiful stained glass window in the form of flower petals, entitled Blue Rose. His work is very enjoyable and we had a good time interpreting the various Bible stories.
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As you may know if you look at your maps of Southern France, Nice is right between Cannes and Monte Carlo (the tiny country of Monaco) on the French Riviera coast. It turned out that the Cannes Film Festival was going on when we were there, so we decided to take the train west to Cannes and check it out. What we observed was a lot of tourist and local people spending a lot of time watching each other. This town of 10,000 people had 10,000 temporary employees and another 10,000 or more tourists for this single festival. It was hectic! So, for people watching, it was great. We could have viewed a movie if we had more time, but decided to pass due to the large crowds. The trip to Cannes on the train itself was an experience with lots of Police trying to keep rowdy teenagers in check. The 20 minute trip took about an hour to complete!
Lots of rich movie types do show up in Cannes and you can see the wealth represented in the very large boats that they bring and park in the harbor. There must have been a hundred of these multi-million dollar pleasure boats all lined up side by side. Finally, a shot of the beach at Cannes. It IS sand, but we don't really know if it is natural or if they just hauled a lot of it in to replace rocks.
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Further east from Nice is the country of Monaco and its city and famous casino, Monte Carlo. We chose to go there on a Sunday, but they really shut down on Sunday. Almost everything was closed and the city was VERY quiet. Maybe they were all in Cannes...???
On the train between Nice and Monaco, you see some more beautiful beaches (sand) . After we got there, we had to walk around many detours because the city was preparing for the Monte Carlo Grande Prix to be held on May 25. We were slightly tempted, but we won't be back as crowds are not our favorite thing! Jennifer and Steffi look over the hills, the city and the many boats in the harbor. You can see some of the blue spectator stands being set up for the race.
To say that Monaco is a rich country is a bit of an understatement. With no taxes and very favorable laws for banks, lots of money pours in and not just from gambling. The city recently completed their new train station shown here. It is in the middle of the mountain and is reached through moving sidewalks in very long marble tunnels or down from elevators (lifts) above. In the bright, marble covered station, Jennifer and Steffi are discussing a sign which shows the Charte des Droits (Bill of Rights) for the formation of the European Union (EU) of Nations. While similar in concept to our Bill of Rights, it has, as Steffi says, "Tons of different things in it."
We are getting a chance to see how the European Union can work first hand. The countries are certainly all very different, but we can see they are all related, too, in so many ways. The language differences make things interesting for us, but don't appear to be slowing anything down. Right now, we have to exchange all our money when we go from one country to the next. Starting in 2002, all money in Europe will be in the form of the Euro Dollar. Today, that value is printed on everything, but you still pay with local currency. It truly will be interesting to see how these countries, with so much history, pull together.
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