Paris and Beyond

Our Personal Tour de France & Other Exciting Adventures!

Archive for the month “July, 2012”

It’s Complicated!! Pt. 2

The continuing saga…

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Grocery Shopping:
There are other challenges to contend with in the grocery store. You put the fruit and veggies you want in separate plastic bags just like you do at home. You shop for the rest of the items you need and you take it all up front so you can pay for it. The store is crowded and the checkout lines are long. Finally, it’s your turn. The checker scans all your items until she gets to those fruits and veggies you so painstakingly selected… and hands them back to you. She briefly explains that you have to weigh and price them back in the produce section which she waits for you to do while everyone behind you in line also waits for you. The first time this happens you are under great stress because you don’t even know how to do it. You rush around, somehow figure it out, and jog back to your place in line which has now gotten longer. Amazingly, none of the other customers get very impatient about this, however, and the checker couldn’t care less. Once you’ve had this experience you try to make sure not to have it again. The next time you go to a grocery store, you are prepared and immediately search out the small scale to weigh your items and spit out the required label. Then you discover not every store uses this system! They weigh it for you. So sometimes it’s a guessing game and you can get a bit paranoid about it which is crazy because you’re just buying fruits and vegetables. How to get those groceries home? Well, this one wasn’t too much of a problem for us, but it would be for a lot of tourists. You need to bring your own bags. Since we live in San Jose which just recently enacted a law that you must use your own bags (for everything, not just food), we are accustomed to having to do this. Even so, the first time out you might not have collected any reusable bags yet. I was proud of the fact that I had this one nailed as I brought a really clever nylon bag that squishes into a little pouch. Most of the time I remembered to take it with me when I went shopping, but once in a while I had to purchase un sac.

At “Home”:
As my mother always used to tell me in order to allay my fears about moving all the time when I was young, “Home is where you hang your hat.” I learned to live by this motto so it’s really easy for me to move in to someplace even just for a couple of days and make it home. For five of the seven weeks of our travel we lived in apartments or gîtes for a week at a time. In about a half hour’s time, I could unpack all our things and make it home. We planned ahead and brought a few things that would make this task easier — tablecloth, over-door hooks, iron, and other personal items. We also bought some things that we carried with us from place to place — cocktail napkins, picnic bag, fan, kitchen knives, and Norman’s favorite, the flyswatter. Nevertheless, we still had to deal with some things that we could never really understand or get used to. For example, we both like to use washcloths when we shower. Our hosts always provided towels but only bath and hand towels which, by the way, there was never a place to hang. Washcloths per se don’t exist in France. Occasionally you’ll find something that looks like a washcloth stitched into a mitt, but it’s just not the same. Only once were we given one of these. I had read about this before we left so I packed one for each of us and though it may seem trivial, it made shower time more normal. And sheets — the majority of the time we only had a fitted bottom sheet and a covered duvet — no top sheet or blanket. A couple of places had fancy jacuzzi tubs which the owners were proud to point out, but no matter how hard we tried, we could never figure out how to use them. How could THAT be so complicated?

Windows and doors were another issue. Windows never have window screens, hence, the need for the flyswatter Norman purchased and coveted. And, generally, regardless of the weather — even if it’s warm as it was in Provence, you are required to shut yourselves in every night by closing and locking all the shutters. At first this feels very claustrophobic. Doors and locks, oh, mon dieu
, these are a nightmare. There are no doors with round doorknobs. They all have some type of angled handle that has to be carefully jostled and coaxed into opening or closing the door with the aid of a key. Even our hosts had trouble showing us how to use them smoothly. Norman would usually figure out the trick to them by the end of the week and then we’d move on to a new challenging door and lock at the next stop. I never had much success with any of them so I was totally handicapped in that department. Too complicated! My only photographic regret is that I didn’t take pictures of all the different keys. That would have made a great photo essay. The variety was amazing from a skeleton key to one whose silhouette looked like a castle. I have a feeling there’s no such thing as copying keys in France either.

Our kitchens were variously equipped with eclectic collections of dishes, pots, pans, flatware, and utensils. Norman did a fantastic job of whipping up some of the best meals we’ve ever had despite any culinary items that might have been missing. This saved us a ton of money. I figured out that if you ate out even conservatively for 51 days — a petit dejuner (coffee, tea, juice, pastry — the French never eat a full breakfast) and one other decent meal — it would cost you around $7,000! The one thing that always frustrated him, however, was the lack of lids for pots and pans. He was always having to improvise with a plate or some other flat object and sometimes cooking was just complicated!

To Be Continued…

It’s Complicated! Pt. 1

As we have worked hard to understand the French language and the French and their customs over the past 7 weeks, we have constantly come away with a feeling that many things are complicated. So many simple tasks that we do at home and take for granted require much more effort to accomplish here. Of course, we are at a slight disadvantage due to the fact that our French is very limited and we, well… we aren’t French. Maybe if we had been born and raised here, it wouldn’t seem so complicated. Maybe.

Cases in point…

Store Hours:
Inevitably you arrive in France on a weekend. You crash on Saturday after your long flight and you get up late on Sunday, a little jet-lagged but ready to roll. Too late if you’re planning on getting groceries. Many grocery stores chains are closed on Sundays or only open till noon. In fact, most stores are closed because the French believe retail workers deserve a day of rest. Sunday is often a big shopping day for Americans because they’ve had to work a 6-day week to make ends meet. We are accustomed to everything being open all day on Sunday so it’s difficult to adjust to this in your new environment. This happens repeatedly throughout your vacation because all the places you have scheduled to stay for a week require you to rent Saturday to Saturday generally with no check in sooner that 4 or 5 PM. Convenient for them but not necessarily for us. Eventually we trained ourselves to get groceries en route between destinations with just enough time between purchase and check-in so nothing would spoil.

Automated Machines:
You get to the airport which of course is not really in Paris and you need to get to your apartment in the city about 45 minutes away. No problem. Paris has an outstanding public transportation system. Very convenient… if you are French. The machines which dispense tickets for the train you need to take only accept coins not bills which is all you have if you arranged to get a few Euros ahead of time. There are no change machines anywhere and no airport merchant wants to give you change unless you buy something. Plus, you need a LOT of change. Two tickets cost €18. But wait, the machines take credit cards. We have those. Ah, but we’re not French. So our cards don’t have the special security chip that makes them work in French machines. Eventually you finagle enough Euros in coins out of someone and you’re finally on your way.

This is a recurring story. Parking is rarely free. You are lucky enough to find a parking space and now you have to figure out how to pay for a ticket. There are usually machines located along the street every so many meters. You find a machine, you figure out the directions in French for using it, and then you realize it doesn’t take any kind of coin or paper money — only credit cards. So… You can’t park there.

You’re driving a car so you also need gas. As we have already mentioned, gas or in our case, diesel (known as gazole — I love that word and I plan on using it when I get home and need to fill the tank) is very expensive here. You get excited when you drive past a gas station and find “cheap” gazole, but you quickly learn that you can’t buy it because all the stations that carry cheap gazole are only manned by… you guessed it — automated machines that only take Euorpean credit cards. Many stations that do have an attendant are only manned by a real person who will take your real money during certain hours and definitely not on Sundays. Again we had to figure out how to plan ahead. There were many days when our first daily goal was to buy gazole and then we could breathe a sigh of relief and enjoy the rest of the day.

Even if you’re not driving a car, buying a ticket for the Metro can also be a challenge. The locals who use it daily buy long-term passes that are easily rechargeable (the Navigo — another word I like). These are not practical for the temporary visitor. There are several other options for travelers, but depending on the station you pick to begin your Metro trip, you may find that the ticket machines only accept coins or 🙂 credit cards. Ah, if only we were French! In the end, you learn how to beat this game too. You save your change — you don’t need it for tips anyway as they’re always included in your bill when you eat in a restaurant — and you buy carnets which are packets of 10 tickets so they’ll last you a while. And once in a while you have to resort to buying something small like a pastry at a local shop and handing the clerk a large bill (not popular) in order to get the change you need.

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Laundry and shopping also present similar dilemmas. If you have an apartment or gîte for a week as we did most of the time, all you have to do is figure out how to use the French washing machine. However, if you have to go out to do your laundry, you will need change… again. You hope you have enough to get through your wash and dry, or you just throw it in the car to dry on the way back to where you are staying. Most grocery stores have the plastic baskets, often rolling ones that you can use. But if you want a shopping cart, you will have to get one in the parking lot where they are all line up and locked together. Hmmm… how to get one loose? You need a coin, or even more challenging, a token to unlock it. And where do you get the token?? We never figured that one out. There was only so much work we had the energy to do. We always managed with the free and easily available baskets. After all, we were on vacation for heaven’s sake and it shouldn’t be so complicated!

To Be Continued…

Looking into the Mirror

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Seven weeks, 51 days, many, many cities, towns and villages, more than 4,700 kilometers traveled! What an experience! It is said that the value of travel is that you learn more about yourself when you are out of your own country than when you are in it. The first experience that I had with that phenomena was when I lived in Japan for a year when I was a graduate student. When you are away from your own culture, you become more aware of the customs, attitudes, and language that form and shape you. Granted seven weeks is really too short a time to expect to experience this but it does provide enough time for you to reflect on your own customs and culture.

What you notice more at the beginning are the obvious things that shock you. Things that are very different from your own customs. As time goes on, you begin to notice more subtle differences. And eventually, if you allow yourself to become aware, you begin to understand more complex differences such as in politics, attitudes and the various meanings in language. I suppose that the reason one becomes aware of one’s self is because of the natural tendency to make comparisons between your culture and the other.

Here are some examples. In the U.S. we tend to be rather direct and blunt with each other. We have less of a tendency to say “hello”, “excuse me”, “thank you”, and “good bye”. Public displays of crudeness, vulgarity and selfishness seem to be more freely expressed. Here, while the aforementioned can occur, it stands out because of its rarity. There is a concerted effort to adhere to polite, civil behavior. It is part of the national psyche. The benefit is obvious and this behavior is demonstrated everywhere. From everyday contact on a person to person basis, or while driving in a large crowded city like Paris or on the very narrow roads in rural villages to being in very compressed rush hour commutes on the metros. On the contrary, we tend to be short on patience, easily upset, and quick to react to any situation that disrupts our course or routine. While Americans have a reputation as easy going and quick to make friends, the French are reserved, formal and much more likely to take a long time to befriend others. In an earlier blog, I mentioned that most French homes faced inwardly so that the front of the home facing the street seemed to be the back. And that the nicest part, the courtyard, was never exposed to the street. This attitude goes back centuries when it was necessary to close yourself off from the street and lock yourself within the walls of your abode to protect yourself from any threat, real or perceived.

Historically, France was a land of many different cultures and languages. It wasn’t until a long series of battles for power and territory by various individuals or groups that the country was finally unified. Unlike Italy, France doesn’t have major cities or monuments throughout the country. Presently nearly 20% of the population lives in or around Paris which, apart from Moscow in Russia, is the largest city in Europe. The rest of the country is made up of smaller cities, towns, and villages. In order for everyone else to distinguish themselves from Paris, many regions throughout France produce regional specialties, mostly in gastronomy. This has created an incredible variety of products of the highest quality. Take cheese for example. Charles de Gaulle has been credited as saying “How can anyone govern a nation that has two hundred and forty-six different kinds of cheese?” Today by the way, that number is over 400 different types. I couldn’t even begin to tell you how many wineries there are throughout the country. The one thing I can say for sure is that the French (as well as the government) are concerned about quality. There are rules, regulations, and laws that govern and assure the quality of countless French products. While we (Americans) might feel that the government is excessively intruding in our private affairs, the French welcome their government’s direct involvement and see it as its role in preserving all that is French.

Cheryl and I have begun to learn to accept things that we would otherwise dismiss as being too intrusive, dumb or “backward”. It is always easier to frown and react negatively to something than it is to make the effort to smile and try to understand that that is different from you. This doesn’t mean that one has to accept EVERYTHING unconditionally of another culture’s customs. Here is an example, a rather intimate one. It seems that the French (and I have to say other European countries as well) have attitudes about “personal habits” that are completely contrary to ours. In the U.S., in many states, it is a crime for men (or woman for that matter) to relieve themselves in public. Yes, you heard me right. In 1990, I had the opportunity to come to Europe and travel throughout Italy, France, and Spain. While in France, I came across many places mostly in towns and villages outside of Paris where men could relieve themselves in public urinals that were essentially small curved walls on public streets. While I didn’t notice those types of publicly exposed urinals this time around, I constantly saw men, of all types and ages relieving themselves in public against any available wall that seemed slightly obscured from the public. Maybe I am even being too generous with the slightly obscured part. While in Biarritz, a very chic resort town on the south west coast of the French Basque country, to my dismay I witnessed a man in his thirties pushing an infant in a stroller, stop not more than twenty feet from a fancy store front where there were half a dozen ladies outside having a lively conversation, walk over to a barely obscured wall on the building next door, and relive himself! What did the ladies do, how did they react? Surely they could plainly see him if I could, and I was more than twice as far away and across the street! No reaction, none, nothing, nada. Life went on as usual. It reminded me of a college course I had in cultural anthropology many, many years ago where our professor set up the following situation and asked the following question. “In a remote African village located on a flat desert plain with no trees, brush, or rocks to hide behind, a man needed to relive himself. What did the villagers do?” Well, to our young unsophisticated minds that was quite a puzzle. Let’s see, the villagers brought out animal hides and surrounded the man to shield him from the rest of the people. Or, the man was required to walk so far away form the village that he couldn’t be seen. How about, all the villagers left the village and came back when he was done? No, the answer was elegantly simple. They simply averted their eyes. We came across this very example when we stopped in at a beautiful riverside village on our canoeing trip down the Dordogne river to use the facilities. The “facilities” consisted of a small building that had its double doors wide open. To the left were two separate doors where the toilets were. On the right with nothing to obscure it from public view was a wall where the men could relieve themselves. The ladies that needed to use the toilets, lined up facing forward not more than ten feet from where the men were relieving themselves. What does this attitude say about our own morals and customs? That, I will leave up to you.

On a more positive note, I have to mention how wonderful it is to have everyone greet you, no matter how brief the contact is. Yes, people are people everywhere. And they can have problems or issues that they are dealing with. And yes, occasionally you might come across someone that is not having a good day. But generally and far more often than not, courtesy and civility reign. It is something that we in the U.S. (much more so on the west coast it seems) could benefit positively from if we only practiced it more

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Today Cheryl asked me the following question: “Out of everything, everything we have experienced these past seven weeks, what is your most favorite thing about France?”
It took me a while to answer that. What I really truly enjoyed most about our experience here I have to say, is the country. By that I really mean the “country”. What struck me time and time again as we traveled from region to region, was how beautiful this country is. Every time I thought I had seen the most beautiful part of the country, the next place was just as beautiful but in its own unique way. I can understand now why the French are so proud of their country and why they make every effort to preserve it. Even though change is inevitable in this modern age, France is slow to adapt to change, especially when it comes to culture. And preserving and conserving the countryside IS part of the culture. I think the various regions in France will probably stay unchanged for some time to come.

Thinking back on my own country, it makes me appreciate how vast and diverse it is with so many beautiful and magnificent places, along with the incredible diversity of people and cultures that defines us.

Tomorrow we leave for home. I have often thought what it would be like to live outside my native country. I did it for a year after all. But the more I look away to other countries, the more I look back at my own. And so, standing in front of the cultural mirror of self reflection, I have to say…..no, not now. I realize what I have back home. Family, friends and a rich culture that while not perfect (and whose is), can never be replaced.

Hot! Hot! Hot!

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Returning to Paris this week, we found a very different city than the one we left 6 weeks ago. It was raining and cold the first week of our vacation and we wondered if we would ever see the sun here. Of course, we knew better than to complain. At least we weren’t hot and uncomfortable… until now. Though it only rose to the high 80’s for the last few days, which seems like nothing when compared to the 100+ degree temperatures we experienced for so many years living in the desert, it was HOT and (worse) humid. Nevertheless, we did our best to enjoy the last items on our vacation “to do” list.

MONDAY we arrived back at our same apartment in the Montparnasse neighborhood, checked in with the owner, left our luggage, and then made our way back to the airport to turn in our car. It was our last GPS challenge of the trip. It was a huge benefit to have a car for 5 weeks and really get to know many parts of France in a way that we would not have otherwise been able to do. The only thing we really missed about having a car this week was the air conditioning which we hardly used as the weather was cool and pleasant everywhere else.

TUESDAY we made a rather long but worthwhile trip out to the Musée Marmottan which houses the largest collection of Monet paintings in the world including Sunrise, his first painting done in the Impressionist style. It was thrilling to have the opportunity to see so much of his work at one time. While there, we also discovered a huge body of work by Berthe Morisot, a woman from the same era as Monet whose mother signed her up for some art classes simply for the purpose of painting a gift for her father’s birthday and ended up making it her career. She hung out with all the bigwig Impressionists of the time and married Edouard Manet’s brother keeping it all in the family. Her work was outstanding as well. This is a museum not to be missed if you are a fan of the Impressionists like we are.

WEDNESDAY we went on a special tour — “Behind the Scenes of the Eiffel Tower”. Since we had been to the top of the tower on a previous trip, we wanted to do something different and avoid the crowds at the same time. Our guide informed us of many interesting details about Gustave Eiffel and the financing and building of the monument which was constructed for the 1900 World’s Fair. Like many entrepreneurs who pursue grandiose ideas, he was very successful but died penniless due to constantly having to support his marvelous endeavor with his own money. We began with a tour of the underground bunker located just beyond the tower that was originally used to conduct and monitor telegraph communications and later as a military bunker twice occupied by Charles de Gaulle in times of emergency. It now serves as a galley and service area for the employees of the tower. Then we went below the base of the tower itself to see the workings of the elevator lifts. Finally, we ascended to the second level where we climbed a few more stairs to the roof of the restaurant for our own private view. Right now the tower is functioning with only one of its two elevators making the wait in line to get to the top longer than ever especially in summer months. Some people had waited 3 hours in the hot sun with very small children just to get to the entrance for the elevator. We thought this was kind of crazy as simply planning ahead would have avoided this basically painful experience. Our tour ticket permitted us to bypass these lines and go directly up with our guide. Something new is always brewing at the tower. Currently, they are installing a glass floor on the first level so you can look down at the emptiness below. Actually, you will be looking at a lot of people who are looking at you. No dresses for the ladies please. When it was time to descend, we decided to bypass the elevator lines and walk down… that’s 720 steps from the second level to the bottom!

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THURSDAY we sought out one of many hidden gardens of Paris. Thanks largely to former president Jacques Chirac who served as mayor of Paris for 18 years, there are over 400 gardens, parks, squares, and woods. He endeavored to make this his legacy to the city especially turning small hidden, out-of-the-way places into green havens of peace and tranquility. We explored the Vallee Suisse garden near the Palais Decouverté — smaller than we expected but definitely a great escape for Parisians who need a brief respite from the city sights and sounds. From there we walked to the Tuilieres Gardens to visit the Musée Orangerie, another museum mainly dedicated to Monet. In fact, he designed the space specifically for the work there on display. The museum consists of two large oval galleries each featuring four extremely large canvases titled Water Lilies that Monet painted of his gardens in Giverny from different perspectives. Each one is unique, some appealing more to one viewer than another. We found our personal favorites and savored them for a time.

By FRIDAY we had had enough of feeling hot and sticky so I knew it was time to enact the same strategy we always used on those super hot, humid days in the desert when the evaporative cooler in our house was not going to keep us comfortable… Head to the nearest air-conditioned mall to hang out and then catch a movie until it gets dark outside. Skeptical that we would be able to pull this off with the same level of satisfaction as we did in the U.S., we nevertheless set off for the most modern part of Paris known as La Defense where there is a 4-story shopping mall and cineplex. The source of our skepticism is the fact that the French have never stepped up to employing air conditioning as a way of making life more bearable during the hotter times of the year. Every other European country is much more on par with the U.S. on this topic and it’s unclear why the French have not accepted this technology as progress. They seem to prefer to sweat. Perhaps air conditioning seems excessive since they mostly only need it in July and August or maybe they fear it will somehow make them less French if they adopt one more universal habit. Who knows? But what we do know is that we had experienced very little cool air anywhere we went, be it department store, restaurant, or, heaven forbid, the Metro. So we thought we’d gamble that one of the more recently built structures would have unquestionably installed air conditioning. When we arrived, we did notice a slight improvement in the ambient temperature inside the mall but nothing like we are accustomed to at home. We sat for a while at a sushi boat-type restaurant (run by Chinese) and had a couple of cold beers and some snacks finding some relief from the heat and heavy French food. Afterwards, we purchased tickets at the cinema to see The Dark Knight Rises “VO” — very important! This stands for “original version” meaning it’s in English. We were craving that. Ah, three hours of English in a comfortable seat and a cool theatre. You know how you sometimes have to take a sweater to the movies in the summer? Well, don’t worry about that here. It was about the same temp in the theatre as the mall — only slightly cooler than outside. Norman swore the cement floor was even somehow being heated as he feet were getting hot. Fortunately, we were sufficiently entertained by the movie to forget about it all for a while and, at some point, I almost felt like we had teleported home. Once enmeshed in the darkness of the theatre, watching a movie in another country is no different than at home as long as it’s in English though I did notice that the French, who were forced to rely on subtitles, didn’t always get the jokes like we did. It was nice to have the upper hand for once.

With Paris clearing out as almost everyone goes on vacation for a month, it seems an appropriate time for us to head back home to our own little chateau the Silicon Valley which we are certain to enjoy with a new level of appreciation. After all, that’s what vacation is for.

Look, Listen, & Learn

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Well, after seven weeks of traveling throughout France, we have fulfilled a long sought dream. To visit and learn about most of the major regions in this amazing country and to experience it not as tourists, but as pseudo incognito French. Our goal was not to pretend to be French but instead to blend in as much as we could and visit sites and locations that were out of the way from heavily touristed areas.

The one thing that I must say about our adventure is that, wherever we went, we were mostly with French people and even though my French language skills are minimal, we were always treated with courtesy and respect. Not once were we dismissed or rudely treated. We were always met with a greeting. Our questions were always answered with patience and understanding. All it took to get someone to try to help us was an effort on our part to say in French a few simple sentences that let them know that our French was limited. Even if they couldn’t speak English, they made an effort to help you anyway.

One of the benefits of being in a country for such a long time is that in the native language, you start to hear what you weren’t able to before. Words that were difficult to understand suddenly form into sentences and while you might not be able to respond in the way that you would like to, you begin to understand what is being said.

One of the interesting things that we learned about the language was that like many other countries’ languages, there are variations and accents. The further we traveled south, the more regional the language became. In some places like Perigord, we heard Oc which is an ancient regional language still spoken there. In the Basque region, we heard Basque, a unique language with no ties to any other language. In Paris, we were delighted to listen to the beautiful soft sing-song lilt of a young lady helping us at a boulangerie and the difference between the Parisians saying “oui” (wee) and southerners saying “ouie” (way) for “yes”.

Although I have studied French on and off for longer than I care to admit, French is still very challenging. Some of the difficulty is due to the grammar but most of the difficultly is in the pronunciation. The nasal “r” is the most difficult sound of all. It is somewhere between the Spanish “r” and pronouncing the Spanish “r” while pinching your nose closed therefore creating the “r” sound from the back of your throat and your sinuses. Another challenge is to understand that many words that are spelled very differently have the same pronunciation. In English it is the equivalent to pronouncing “C”, “see”, “sea”.

After seven short weeks of speaking and listening to French on a daily basis, I certainly have improved my language skills considerably. You can learn a language better when you are totally immersed in it. It does take an effort, however. At times it is tiring, and I long to take a break from it.

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This afternoon Cheryl and I went to Saint-Germain-des-Pres in central Paris because she wanted to go shopping. If you aren’t familiar with this area of Paris, it is well known for its exclusive shops and many restaurants and cafes including the most famous one, Les Deux Margots, where many artists and writers of the past spent much of their time. This is our last weekend in France and just a few days before August. Paris is beginning to empty out (as the entire country goes on vacation in August). Those Parisians that are left are either preparing to leave or cannot go on vacation. In some instances, the service you get when you are out can be affected by this fact. Since we didn’t have breakfast we decided to drop into a cafe and get a pastry and something to drink. After waiting for quite a while to be waited on, I ran into a syndrome that I call the “you’re not here and neither am I” syndrome. This is manifested when you have a waiter/waitress that isn’t listening to you and whose mind is elsewhere on vacation. Wanting to order a pastry it took several attempts to get the waitress to focus enough in order to get the items that I wanted. Before I got the chance to put in my order, a young Frenchman next to me was having the same trouble. He had to repeat himself several times in order make himself understood. And he spoke perfect French! The waitress I had even admitted to me that she was distracted because she was thinking about her vacation. It seems that our timing to return home will work out just fine since we will have enjoyed the best time to have toured France.

Pleasant Surprises

Some of the best travel experiences are the unplanned ones. Such was the case with our stopover in Bourges between the Dordogne and our return to Paris. You won’t find Bourges in any popular travel guidebook for France, but I found what seemed like a gem of a B & B there for such a great price that I booked two nights. When we arrived, I knew immediately that I’d made the right choice as far as accommodations were concerned. Once we settled in, we were able to enjoy our picnic lunch on the terrace under the shade of a huge redwood surrounded by gardens filled with every kind of plant and flower immaginable. This is also where we had our petit dejuner each morning. In addition, there is an immaculately decorated parlor available to the guests where we spent some time the next day writing and painting while enjoying a cup of tea.

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Oustal en Berry is a 19th century guest house run by a couple and their adorable Westie, Elliot. It consists of four guest rooms all named after famous French women. We stayed in the Colette room. She was an author who wrote many books, the most well-known to Americans is Gigi. Colette is actually credited with discovering Audrey Hepburn whom she personally chose to play the role of Gigi in the original Broadway play. However, most people my age will better remember the movie version starring Maurice Chevalier, Louis Jordan, and Leslie Caron. The plot is that of a young girl being trained as a courtesan which was a very controversial topic to American censors in 1958 so the producers were forced to turn it in to a musical. Ah, the good old days of innocent movies. The house itself is truly a work of art and we were pleased to have the opportunity to share and admire it for a couple of days.

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On to the surprises… We really had no sightseeing expectations for this city. The first evening of our stay we were told there was a special light show we should see. So after a bit of a rest, we set off for some dinner and the recommended walk through the old part of town (always the most interesting in every place you visit) to see the lights. Since it gets dark so late in France this time of year, we had to wait until at least 10 PM. Bourges has some intriguing architecture. One is the 19th century style that you can see in the B & B — bricks used to create an alternating striped design around the edges of the building and its windows. Another style common in the old town area is half-timbered houses. They remind me of something you might see in an alpine village. The third is Gothic which was the focus of the walking tour of lights. For a couple of hours on certain evenings during the summer, the most distinctive examples of this architecture are lit up with lights as well as projections of images related to the building or the period during which it was constructed. There are little blue lights that mark the pathway from place to place which you are supposed to follow, though, believe it or not, we found this a little challenging like everything else in France. Eventually we got on the right track so to speak. It was pretty impressive and made us realize there was more than meets the eye in Bourges.

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The following day we were able to dedicate our “day off” from travel to visiting the interiors of two of the most extraordinary examples of Gothic architecture we have ever seen. The first was the Palais de Jacques Coeur, a financier in charge of trade and acquisitions for King Charles VII. As a shrewd businessman and with the king’s support, Jacques became very wealthy and decided to build himself a mansion in grand style sparing no expense. It is an enormous structure — one of the few examples of urban Gothic architecture that exists. We were allowed to tour many of its rooms freely on our own and it was a lot of fun to imagine what life must have been like. Jacques didn’t leave out a thing in the way of comforts. He even had indoor latrines and a sauna. Unfortunately, his glory days only lasted about 10 years before he was arrested for a number of crimes including poisoning the King’s mistress, coining light money, and fraud. Apparently these sorts of chenanigans have been going on for centuries. Those who were in debt to Jacques and had gotten fed up with his greedy ways showed no mercy and he was sentenced to death. Saved by a friendly Pope, he was given command of a crusade against the Turks during which he fell ill and died. Nevertheless, he remained a legendary figure in the history of France as he had successfully established direct trade between France and the Middle East for the very first time.

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After this we moved on to (yes, another) cathedral. We really thought we would have seen enough of these by now, but we kept stumbling across the “the best example of this” and “the largest one of that” and we just couldn’t ignore the gigantic, imposing Cathédrale de Saint-Étienne. One of the things that makes this church unique is that it was designed without a transept which is the section of the building that sits crosswise and forms the typical cross design of most ancient churches. This was revolutionary for its time. What is most impressive, however, is the myriad of Gothic flourishes and details including a variety of intriguing and amusing gargoyles that you see everywhere you look. While we were visiting we happened upon a concert put on by a girls’ choir from St. Jean, a church we had seen in Lyon. It was delightful to hear their voices resonate within the incredible acoustics of the cathedral. I stayed to listen to the concert and Norman decided to take in a tour of another part of the cathedral. Over an hour later after the concert had concluded, I was still waiting for him. I thought he had gone to climb the 396 stairs of the North tower and I panicked when I saw a young woman take out a large iron key and lock the tower door. She assured me that no one was in the tower, but, really, what did she know? I mean, did she really check?? I started to think about how I would have to muster my French skills and courage to rescue my husband. Finally, I decided to walk outside the church and, low and behold, there he was on his way in. I had misunderstood his intentions and he had actually gone on a tour of the crypt which had just ended. Whew!! French emergency averted!

You never know what you are going to find in your travels. It’s important to keep an open mind. We were really happy to have discovered the belles of Bourges.

The Three C’s of the Perigord

More on our exploration of the Dordogne…

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CASTLES & CHATEAUS:
As I mentioned previously, there are countless castles and chateaus in this part of France — reputedly 1001. Though that sounds like a convenient number, I imagine it’s not far from the truth. We decided we needed to check out at least one of these grandiose residences that was near our gîte. The Chateau de Losse is a medieval fortress that sits on the Vézère River, the same one we made our canoe trip on earlier in the week. Originally built as a stronghold by the Losse family from Flanders in the 11th century, it was updated to the Renaissance style in the 16th century by Jean II de Losse, a well-connected soldier who served all the sons of Catherine de Medici. His improvements to the family home can be seen in the architectural additions as well as adaptations for the use of firearms such as muskets and cannons to defend it from invaders. As you might expect, you enter the castle over a bridge and through a gatehouse across a moat which is now filled with grass instead of water making it possible to view the castle’s exterior details from various angles. Once inside, you’re standing on a sprawling riverside terrace overlooking the Vézère Valley. Ascending a grand stone staircase, you are given a tour of a few of the main rooms which have been completely decorated with period furnishings, tapestries, and paintings to show how they may have looked over 400 years ago. Our guide did an excellent job of bringing the more interesting details to light even though her explanations were in French. One item was particularly clever — a large imposing powder and armor chest with a very ingenious locking system built into the underside of the lid. There is a very large iron key chained to the wall behind it, but the length of the chain does not allow it to reach the lock. That’s because there is actually an invisible, secret button on the lid that reveals the real lock to where the key can easily reach. Once open, there is an ornate, decorative cover that fits over the complicated locking system under the lid making it impossible for any observer to discern how it is designed. Wouldn’t it be fantastic to have a clever safe like this at home? Surrounding the castle are a variety of immaculately groomed gardens which include grapevines, lavender, wisteria, and many other types of plants and flowers in purposefully orchestrated arrangements as well as several fountains. Additionally there are a couple of outbuildings that you can visit. My favorite was the the bath room (literally — no toilet) with its “modern” bathtub consisting of a large, round wooden tub with a small stool inside and encircled by a curtain that hung from the ceiling. Apparently, cleanliness had (finally!) become popular and you were really up with the times if you had one of these.

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CAVES:
There are literally hundreds of caves in the Dordogne region. Known as grottes in French, they fall into two categories — those with cave paintings and those with geological formations. The most famous of these, of course, is the Lascaux cave just outside Montignac which was accidentally discovered in 1940 by 4 young boys while chasing after their dog, Robot. They planned to keep the discovery a secret but after just a couple of days, the whole town knew about it. They summoned their teacher who went down into the cave with them to investigate further. Astounded by the numerous colorful, artistic paintings of bison, horses, deer and other animals, the teacher decided the next step was to contact the local priest who had an interest in and knowledge of archaeology. The priest confirmed that the paintings were indeed ancient and brought it to the attention of the proper authorities. From that day forward, he was known as the “Pope of Prehistory”. One of the boys is still living, now 87 years old, and comes to Lascaux every year to celebrate the anniversary of the discovery.

Unfortunately, Lascaux had to be closed to the public in 1963. Thousands of people had visited the cave and the introduction of carbon dioxide caused the paintings to deteriorate. The cave continued to be visited by scientists who wanted to study it which prompted the installation of a cooling system and high-powered lights. This coupled with still too many visitors continued to cause damage to the paintings in the form of a black fungus. Now only one individual enters the cave for a few minutes each week to monitor climactic conditions and a few scientists are allowed in for a limited number of days each month.

Meanwhile, a plan was put into action to reproduce a good portion of the cave and its paintings thus providing a new opportunity for the public to experience them. Just a few meters from the real cave is an installation known as Lascaux II which opened in 1983. We’re not big fans of recreations, so we had not actually planned to visit this site. However, everything we read about it claimed that it was worth seeing so, as our time in the Dordogne was drawing to a close, we decided we should make a pilgrimage to see the ancient art of early man. We’re delighted that we did. We had a very informative guide with a humorous and engaging manner who took us through the cave explaining all the details and sharing many anecdotes. A master painter with several assistants spent six years recreating the artwork from the original cave using the same techniques, materials, & colors. It is such an exact reproduction that the margin of error is said to be only 5 millimeters. It is truly amazing to stand in the presence of such ancient work and realize how long ago man took time out from the daily necessities of life and began to create art — sophisticated 3-dimensional art that is creative and at the same time realistic. While it is impossible to determine the exact age of the paintings due to the fact that they were painted with minerals which can’t be dated, scientists can estimate the possible age of the artwork to be over 17,000 years old based on items that were found in the cave such as candles made of animal fat and other artifacts. There are many theories as to the meaning and purpose of the images. There is no way to know precisely what was intended. Like any other work of art, I think it’s really up to the viewer to interpret and appreciate it from his/her own point of view. We certainly did.

There is only one cave left where you can actually see original cave paintings. We were not able to fit it in this time, but Norman hopes to do it when we return. These caves are not designed for claustrophobes like me!

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CANOES:
After our first canoeing experience on the Vézère, we decided we had to do it again on a scenic stretch of the Dordogne we had seen from our car earlier in the week. So we rented another canoe and set off on a 10-mile ride. One thing we find amusing about engaging in these types of activities here in France is how easy and casual it is. It’s very inexpensive compared to home at about $20 per person for 4-5 hours. They give you a life jacket, paddles, and an airtight container to keep your things dry, then lead you to a canoe. You get in and and they say, “Au revoir”. The whole process lasts 5 minutes. When we went kayaking in Ventura, it was 45 minutes before we got into the water with all the rules, precautionary advice, and instruction. Here it’s just “goodbye” and you’re gone! This time our route took us through an area filled with ancient hillside villages and imposing castles. The views were quite spectacular — really the best vantage point from which to appreciate the sights. We had a picnic with us and prepared to stop for lunch. We headed to a potential docking spot on the side of the river near La Roque Gageac we had visited previously. Unfortunately, Norman underestimated the depth of the river, so when he disembarked, he tipped the canoe and dumped us both into the water. More unfortunately, our iPhones ended up in the Dordogne with us and haven’t been the same since. Nevertheless, we found a better spot to dock the canoe, had our lunch with a beautiful view, dried out, and continued to the end of our journey. No regrets… Keeping in mind the phones are just stuff and the experience is much more valuable.

Whenever we get flustered about anything on our trip, we say to one another, “Relax. It’s a beautiful day. The sun is shining and you’re in France.” Can’t complain about that!

100 Years’ War Alive & Well

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This week we are spending our time in the Dordogne region of France. During the Hundred Years’ War (1336-1453), the French and the British battled it out for control of this area. Joan of Arc finally inspired the French to drive out the invaders and officially it has been theirs ever since. After a few days here, it is obvious what the fight was all about. More than any other region we have visited on our journey, this is undoubtably the most beautiful and desirable. It is lush and green and abundant with resources. One can easily understand why anyone would want to claim it. Indeed, the fight is not over. While the French have definitely been the owners of this territory for the past 600 years, the British have saved it. When the French could no longer maintain and make prosperous their small farms, the Brits bought them up and turned them into B & B’s and gîtes (with financial incentives from the the French government) welcoming everyone from around the world but most especially the English-speaking from the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and of course, their native England. We have been the beneficiaries of this trend in our stay this week. Our hosts at Le Manoir des Granges, Paul & Philippa, are a British couple in their 50’s who bought several acres with 3 gîtes, a main house, and a house for themselves from an elderly couple who could no longer handle it about two years ago. They live here and this is now their life’s work. They have been extremely hospitable. We were welcomed on our first day with a bottle of wine and bowl of walnuts that were waiting for us in our gîte. Later in the week, they provided us with fresh-picked peaches from their orchard and scrumptious homemade walnut bread. For these and so many more reasons, we’d have to say we have enjoyed this stay more than any other on our journey.

We began our visit with a trip to La Roque Saint-Christophe which is literally across the road from our gîte. We have a stunning, floodlit view of it every evening. This limestone cliff which towers 300 feet above the road and the Vézère River has been occupied by humans for the last 50,000 years from early man through Renaissance times. Stretching for more than half a mile, it consists of 5 terraces that show remains and recreations of all the necessary elements of a Medieval/Renaissance town — church, forge, smokehouse, individual houses, and various winches that were used to haul animals and products up the cliff side — all very interesting. The view of the river and valley below is breathtaking as well. The displays and explanations encountered as you walk along the terraces make it easy to envision what life must have been like in this sheltered haven. La Roque is one of dozens of prehistoric sites in this area which is not far from the famous Lascaux Caves, home to all those cave paintings you learned about in your social studies books.

Later we ventured south along a twisty, green, forested route to Sarlat, a medieval town that was destined for abandonment and ruin in the 60’s until writer, resistance fighter, and politician, André Malraux came to its rescue. The town was restored and has become a center for tourists who visit the Dordogne. Interestingly, we learned from our hosts that many of the seemingly perfect medieval buildings are actually just façades with empty interiors which explains why we had a Disneyesque feeling as we sat with a coffee in the main town square. In fact, the town is so exclusively created for tourism that it closes up from October to March due to lack of business. One of the distinctive features of its architecture are the lauze roofs — flat limestone rocks gathered by farmers when clearing their fields and turned into cheap building material — a style which is now apparently unaffordable. With one town square dedicated to the trading of geese, it is not surprising to see more references to foie gras here than anywhere else. There are statues, murals, and paintings of geese. They adorn every object in sight and the number of stores offering goose rendered products such as foie gras are countless.

From Sarlat, we followed a 27-mile scenic loop that encompassed some of the most beautiful and picturesque towns and landscapes of the region. First stop, a spectacular viewpoint just beyond Carsac. From atop the hill you can take in the entire valley officially known as Perigord Noir, or Black Perigord, named for all its walnut trees, one of several signature products including foie gras, truffles, cheeses, wines, and sausages. Next, my favorite stop of all, Domme, a tiny hilltop village with a breathtaking view of the Dordogne River and surrounding valley laid out in emerald greens and deep blues. We stopped here for our picnic lunch and along with the view, were entertained by some idle vendors who were playing a game of pétanque in between sales. For those who don’t know, pétanque is similar to Italy’s bocce and other such games in which the object is to throw or roll heavy balls as close as possible to a smaller target ball. It is extremely popular in France. Norman has been itching to play.

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After tearing ourselves away from this little paradise, we moved on to La Roque Gageac, another small, charming village with an interesting story. It’s a one street town carved into a cliff across from the Dordogne River. Every winter Gageac suffers an inundation than floods the first level of all the riverfront buildings causing them to be routinely vacated. In addition to a plethora of canoes, boats called gabarres ferry tourists up and down the river. They’re modeled after boats that used to carry local wine to Bordeaux and are recognizable to many as they were used in the movie Chocolat starring Johnny Depp. Braving more steep cobblestone paths, we wound our way almost to the top level and wondered how the locals managed to navigate these every day with their cars, shopping, and belongings while at the same time putting up with tourists constantly passing by and often peeking into their homes.

The last designated stop on the trip was Beynac, yet one more perfectly preserved medieval stone village built on a hillside. At the height of the tourist season, these one street towns are just about impassable late in the day and we decided to simply take in the view from the windows of our car. Every one of these villages boasts its own castle — one more grandiose than the next. Some are privately owned and others are completely decked out in period furniture and antiques and open to the public. They are remnants of times past when noblemen used them to protect their families and control and defend surrounding territories.

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Time to get off the rocks and into the river! Canoeing is by far the most popular way to spend time on the water here. The Dordogne and its many tributaries provide ample opportunity. We rented a canoe and spent about three hours paddling down the lazy, smooth-flowing Vézère just beyond our gîte. The 7.5 mile trip allowed us to take in the scenery from a totally different perspective. It was spectacular to see the varied lush green vegetation rising up from the river on all sides and view the towering chateaus above us. All along the way we were accompanied by peacock-colored dragonflies skimming the water and occasionally landing on the bow of the canoe. We passed under three bridges and a number of cliff overhangs dressed in delicate ferns clinging to their undersides. At times it felt like we were on a ride at Disneyland, but it was all very real.

Like the Brits who’ve come here for the beautiful countryside, warm climate, fine foods, and plentiful, high-quality wines, we’ve been captivated by what the French sometimes call “Dordogneshire”. I am certain we will be back very soon.

Stay tuned for more Dordogne adventures as well as photos on a new link at the top of the page.

Foie Gras and the Perigord

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The Perigord in southwestern France is an unbelievably beautiful place. Everywhere you turn you get a picture perfect postcard view of this magnificent area. This week our accommodations are located in long valley with the Vézère River (a tributary of the Dordogne) running through it. The area is very green with hardwood trees of all sorts including one for which it is most well known — the walnut tree. There are meadows with freshly cut hay and sprouting corn fields everywhere. (Corn, by the way, is only grown for animal feed. The French think it is appalling that people would eat it.) We have a wonderful view of a 300-foot tall vertical cliff of limestone layers more than a half mile long that dominates the landscape opposite our gîte. Over eons of time, the weather has undercut the softer sections of these layers creating shelves/overhangs that have been inhabited for more than 50,000 years. Small medieval villages hug the curves of the valley. It is quiet, peaceful and beautiful.

On our way here from the Bordeaux region, we stopped in at Périgueux a fairly large city at the western beginning of this region. While it is a large city, it has a small town town feeling. While we were there, we had the opportunity to shop at the farmer’s market that only happens twice a week. We had a great time looking at all of the fresh produce available and other products like fresh breads and cheeses, olives, etc. We wound up buying most of our groceries for the week there. One of the vendors we came across was selling foie gras. For the uninitiated, that is duck or goose liver. Having had foie gras in Toulouse, I decided to buy a jar of this local delicacy.

I am a pretty adventurous person when it comes to food. I have had many things that I thought I would never be able to eat and that were perfectly acceptable to the culture that produced or invented it. From raw sea cucumbers to snails, I have been able to appreciate and honor another culture’s culinary perspective. I feel privileged to have been able to do that. Foie gras has a taste that is difficult to describe. The closest that I can come to a description has to border on poetry. It is simply heavenly. Buttery rich, with a unique indescribably delicious flavor.

Foie gras is produced by feeding corn to ducks or geese two or three times a day. A funnel is inserted into the gullet of the bird and the corn is funneled into it. This causes the liver to fatten 7-8 times its normal size. Normally, ducks and goose fatten up before the winter in order to store enough fat to insulate them from colder temperatures and to give them a source of energy when food supplies are leaner. According to the French farmers who have goose and duck farms for the production of foie gras, the birds are not harmed by this method of feeding them because their throats are tough and they do not have a gage reflex. They live until they are at least six months old versus two months for chickens that are fattened with artificial hormones in the United States in order to speed up production. Also, the geese and ducks on these farms are free to roam the large enclosures where they are kept and are relatively stress free unlike the commercial chicken farms in the U.S. where the chickens are extremely tightly caged, highly stressed, and processed mechanically so rapidly that the chicken is usually contaminated when it is packaged making it necessary to take extra care when handling it to avoid potentially harmful (and possibly fatal) bacteria.

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Foie gras is by far the most delicious food I have ever tasted. Nothing I can think of compares to it. It is vey rich since it is comprised mostly of fat but not in the way one might think of fat from steak, pork, or chicken. In contrast, foie gras has a creamy, buttery texture, light brown or tan in color. It can be eaten simply on a small cracker or piece of fresh baked bread. For dinner, I baked quail that were stuffed with a mixture of mushrooms, finely diced carrots, parsnip, shallots, and foie gras. A sauce of shallots, orange juice, ruby port wine, and cherry preserves thickened with a little butter accompanied the quail which were surrounded by small quartered parsnips. We had this with a local Merlot and it was (if I do say so myself) absolutely delectable. A typical jar of foie gras contains about a quarter pound and already, we have eaten about half of it. I really didn’t expect to go through it this quickly, but I can see that we will probably have to buy another jar before we leave the Perigord.

Bon appetit!

Le Mascaret

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This week we have spent our time in the tiny village of Asques on the banks of the Dordogne about 40 minutes east of Bordeaux. Two small torrents above the town of Mont-Dore come together to form this river — the Dore and the Dogne. Where we are located, it is a wide, muddy river which is in constant flux. Daily it rises and falls, flows west, then east and sometimes swirls in both directions at once. When we arrived on Saturday afternoon, we had the opportunity to experience one of its rare unique features — the mascaret.

Known in English as a tidal bore, the mascaret is a phenomenon that is unique to only a few rivers around the world and it does not manifest itself every day of the year. We were only able to see it once during our stay. It occurs in areas where incoming tides are funneled into a shallow, narrowing river or lake via a broad bay, in this case, the Bay of Biscay whose waters we have been following all the way from the Spanish Basque country. The tidal flow runs against the river’s natural current creating large waves twice a day suitable for surfing especially during July and August.

Large numbers of people gather at its points of greatest manifestation waiting to take advantage of the opportunity to launch a surf board, kayak, or catamaran to enjoy this thrilling experience which produces 5-10 waves — sometimes 1 kilometer in distance and lasting up to 20 minutes. We were not quite here at the prime time nor are we so adventurous as to try out such an activity on a muddy, swirling river. Nevertheless, it has been fascinating to watch the river change daily from the windows of our gîte.

We have observed many a vessel traveling the Dordogne every day — sailboats, fishing boats, barges, skips pulling surfboarders… It is obvious to us that these sailors must be very familiar with the river in order to traverse it safely. Its changing directional flow and levels, the mascaret, and all the debris the unsettled muddy water carries with it must create a challenge for any seaman.

No challenge, however, for the local Labrador who likes to play in it at its lowest level when there is a mudflat along the edge making it easily accessible to him. Earlier this week he caught Norman’s attention, grabbed a long stick and begged him to toss it into the muddy waters so he could dash in and retrieve it over and over again — naturally finding it necessary to shake off his wet, muddy coat each time he deposited the stick at Norman’s feet. You can imagine the condition they were both in after a few relays. He was never satisfied that he had enough until his owner came to admonish his behavior and send him home as if he were a small child who had escaped from his mother’s watchful eye. Great fun for both participants at the moment though!

Now it’s time to move east along the river to our next destination on one of the Dordogne’s tributaries, the Vézère, along which many of the great prehistoric caves of Southwest France are located.

For some photos and a couple of great videos of the mascaret, you might like to check out this website: KayakDordogne.com.

Also… We invite you to take a look at the new link with photos from our week here in the Gironde.

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