Paris and Beyond

Our Personal Tour de France & Other Exciting Adventures!

Archive for the month “June, 2015”

What’s for Dinner?

imagePreparing dinner night after night is always a challenge. Try doing it when your are in a different kitchen every week and the kitchen is or is not outfitted with the utensils you need or are used to. Keeping it simple is not only a must but may be your only choice. What really makes the difference when you have to keep it simple is the freshness of the ingredients that you cook with. We have always read about how the French pay more (percentage wise) for food than Americans. We were somewhat puzzled by this because over the years we have noticed that chain supermarkets such SuperU, Leclerc, Carrefour and Intermarché seem to be almost everywhere in France and so you can buy just about any kind of food you desire at prices that are comparable to the U.S. And there isn’t a lack of customers either. But what we are becoming more and more aware of is why most French rush to the farmers’ markets early in the morning and purchase most of their fresh foods for the day there.

Out of necessity, the first week or two we bought all of our food at the local supermarket. And I’ve prepared what I thought were some decent tasting meals. Since arriving in Périgueux, however, we have gone only to the farmers’ markets. The difference in quality is astounding. Fruits and vegetables taste like what fruits and vegetables used to taste like when we were just kids. Ripe, juicy and full of flavor! I mean flavor that with every bite you keep nodding your head and saying to yourself “this tastes amazing!”. The French have long insisted on freshness and traditional growing and harvesting methods of unmodified foods. Unfortunately, most of the supermarkets I’ve mentioned sell produce that is imported and mass produced. The quality varies widely and freshness and, therefore, flavor suffer greatly. 

imageWe’re on our second box of strawberries purchased yesterday and this morning at the local farmers’ market that is just a short walk from here. They have so much flavor and are of such a consistent texture that every one, every single one is completely ripe, deep strawberry red in color, juicy and delicious. Rarely if ever have we had anything near this experience back home. Usually, the strawberries are picked too early, have little flavor and so you might add sugar or honey and as they “ripen”, they tend to develop soft spots or rot quickly.

Most French understand what we used to understand as well — that the best quality of any produce follows the seasons. Peaches, cherries, strawberries, summer/winter vegetables all have their seasons. And one must change one’s diet along with the seasons. Think about it. Watermelon in December? Tomatoes all year long? Unfortunately, unless you buy your produce at a local farmers’ market, freshness and flavor will most likely be absent. Maybe this is why Americans tend to add heavier amounts of salt, pepper, and herbs to their foods. When eating the freshest foods possible, very little condiments are needed.

So, I think we are beginning to change not only where and when (seasonally) we buy our produce, but how much we really need to eat to feel satisfied. You’ll be amazed how satisfied one feels when one makes an effort to slow down. Make a meal last an hour or more. Eating slowly, savoring every bite will bring satisfaction and your waistline will benefit from it as well.

Bon appetite!

“Grondin Rouge” Anyone?

imageThe following is a recipe I hope you will enjoy. I created it for dinner using a fresh fish we have never had before. It is called Grondin Rouge in French (Red Gurnard) and comes from the eastern part of the North Atlantic. It was very tasty and had a subtle slightly sweet taste. No worries, any firm flesh fish such as cod, sturgeon, red snapper, or other saltwater fish will do. It is very important, however, that the fish and all the other ingredients be very fresh. Enjoy!

Serves 2

2 very fresh medium fillets of snapper, cod, or other firm flesh fish, deboned & scaled

2 Tbsp. good quality extra virgin olive oil or vegetable oil

1 clove of garlic, finely minced

1/4-1/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice

1-1/2 Tbsp. Herbes de Provence

Salt and pepper to taste

1/3 cup or more of a very good quality dry white wine

1 to 1 1/2 medium very ripe, very fresh tomato, chopped into 1/2″ pieces

1 medium shallot, thinly sliced

1 Tbsp. butter (optional)

1+ Tbsp. mixed olives (optional)


Add the oil to a skillet (with a lid)

Mince the garlic, chop the tomato, and slice the shallot.

Pat the fillets dry with a paper towel and season with salt and pepper on both sides.


Heat the oil in the pan on medium.

Add the garlic and shallots, sauté for a minute to release their flavor.

Add the Herbes de Provence and continue to sauté for another minute.

Add the tomatoes and continue to sauté until the tomatoes start to break down (about 4-5 mins. more)

Add the wine, salt, and pepper to taste.

Add the fish fillets and cover the pan.

Simmer the fish for 2 min. on each side or until the fish is cooked to your liking. (Be careful not to overcook the fish as some fish will either fall apart or become tough if cooked too long).

Add the lemon juice over the fish.

Remove the fish to the serving plates.

Add the butter to the sauce (optional).

Adjust the seasoning and spoon the sauce on and around the fillets.


Accompany the dish with green beans, carrots, or another of your favorite vegetables.

Spoon the olives on one side of the plate (optional).

Serve warm.

Pair with a semi-dry white wine, if desired.

P.S. If you haven’t figured this out already, any post about food preparation written in the first person (I) refers to Norman. I’m responsible for cocktails, cleanup, and making lists. ~ Cheryl



An Artist’s Journey Through France

By the way, as you may have noticed, Norman did some watercolors on our previous trip in 2012. This time he brought along his drawing pad, watercolor pad, and watercolor set as well. He has started drawing and painting scenes from our trip. So go to the Gallery page and take a look. The page is a little image heavy so you might have to wait a bit for it to load… Or maybe it’s just our French Connections that are slow. Hope you enjoy it!




Marché aux Puces

imageOne of the popular events that we’ve read about which happens in many cities are the flea markets known as Marchés aux Puces. This morning after a light breakfast, we walked back to the farmer’s market and bought some more strawberries because the ones we bought yesterday were incredibly ripe and delicious. We also bought some haricots verts (green beans) and a few fillets of fresh fish for dinner tonight. Just before getting back to the apartment we noticed a young woman walking past us carrying on her shoulder a plaque mounted with what looked like a deer’s head. A little bizarre we thought but just then we noticed that there were lots of people milling around a short block from our street. Turns out, it was the Sunday flea market. The roundabout and several streets in each direction were blocked off and a multitude of vendors were set up with their wares. It was fascinating to walk around and see the huge variety of items you could purchase. Like back home, you can find just about anything — copper pots and pans, glass and dinner place settings from simple to elegant, toys, tools, tin cups, dolls, furniture, clothing, and everything else you never knew you needed.



On to Périgueux

Spending a slightly restless night (an annoying mosquito kept buzzing our ears), we said our goodbyes to John and Yvonne, our gracious hosts of their gîte, Le Cerisier. We picked up some pain au raisin for breakfast on the go and headed south to our next destination, Périgueux.

Heading south we noticed that the terroir (the land) started changing. From gentle, low-rolling hills and open fields planted with grapes vines, wheat and sunflowers to hills with deeper valleys and forests of a variety of large mature trees. Along the way we passed through some charming villages with church spires poking at the overcast skies and chateaus seemingly everywhere. It was a wonderful drive through this beautiful part of the country.

Périgueux was established in Roman times and has had several major events during its history that have added to the character of the city. Next to Bordeaux, Périgueux is the largest city in the northern part of the department with roughly 29,000 inhabitants. On our arrival, we parked near our next logging just a few blocks from the farmer’s market held on Saturdays and Wednesdays in the two plazas near the town center.

Saturday Market near Saint Front Cathedral

Saturday Market near Saint Front Cathedral

Saturday’s farmer’s market must be an important day to go out, purchase fresh fruits and vegetables, fresh bread, specialty meats and of course, foie gras. On entering the market, we were amazed to see what seemed to be the entire population of the city there. The two squares where the markets are held are by no means large, in fact, they are rather small. Nevertheless, every inch of space is made use of and what seems to be chaos is actually a very lively scene of people of all ages making their food purchases. Add to that the abundant cafes and restaurants lined with tiny tables and chairs that are fully occupied, the sights and sounds envelope you and can overwhelm the senses.



After shopping for a few items, veggies, fruit, fresh baked bread and, of course……foie gras, we settled into a corner cafe to sip on some coffee and tea as well as to plan the rest of our day.

Just Chillin' in Périgueux

Just Chillin’ in Périgueux

The location of our gîte is very close by and makes this an excellent location from which to explore the city. Our gîte is actually an entire apartment located on a quite side street. The apartment is owned by a mother and daughter who have owned it since 1960 and now rent it out.

The Salon

The Salon

After relaxing at the cafe for a while, we took a walk through the streets of this area and discovered several small plazas tucked away among large shade trees. All of them had cafes and restaurants with tables set under the trees. We also strolled along the pietons or streets that were blocked off from cars, window shopping along all the varied boutiques, shops and stores that a larger city can offer.

Chocolate Deux Cheveaux

Chocolate Deux Cheveaux

One of Cheryl’s favorite places to window shop is Le Chocolaterie, a very high end boutique offering exclusive chocolatey creations such as the replica of the iconic French car, the Deux Chaveaux. Three years ago when we were here, displayed in the window was a grand piano complete with bench, hinged top and sheet music.

The "Soldes" are on!!

The “Soldes” are on!!

Another of Cheryl’s favorite things to do is shop at the “Soldes” that are offered only twice a year. Unlike the U.S. where stores offer sales every week, “Soldes” (sales) are uncommon in France and occur only in June and January lasting 4-5 weeks.

Typical "Formule" Menu

Typical “Formule” Menu

Restaurants and cafes are abundant here and most offer a lunch “special” known as the formule. It may include an entrée (appetizer), a plat (main dish), a dessert and sometimes includes a drink of your choice. All for a set price (tip, tax included). This is the best deal for your dollar…er..euro, but maybe more food than you want to eat.



Those who want to eat something simpler or get something to go can usually get a variety of sandwiches, or baked goods in the many patisseries and sandwich shops that abound. Sandwiches here are unlike the U.S. version. They are more like sub sandwiches made from freshly baked baguettes stuffed with all kinds of cold cuts, cheeses etc. They are quite tasty and provide an easy meal for just a few euros.

The Périgord area is famous for its gastronomy, Michelin starred restaurants, wonderful cafes, shops offering specialty items such as hand made chocolates, foie gras, truffles, and walnut-based products. We’re looking forward to exploring not only the city itself, but also the surrounding towns and villages.

A Taste Beyond all Others

imageOne of the benefits of staying in gîtes or vacation homes rather than hotels is that the owners provide a wealth of information about the area along with some great recommendations for things you might never find out about on your own. Our current hosts, Yvonne and John, at Le Cerisier suggested we visit a local cognac producer, G et C Raby, within a few minutes walking distance of our gîte. This is a small family run business that has been in the Raby family for four generations. It is currently owned and operated by Gérard and his daughter, Cécile, one of the only women in the region to be in charge of such an operation. We had a marvelous experience — a very intimate, private tour. Just the two of us. Our guide, Miriam, a vivacious young lady spent an hour and a half explaining every detail about cognac production, touring us through their small facility, and providing a very informed tasting at the end at no cost nor expectation of purchase.

Back in the U.S., we have visited many vineyards in the Sonoma and Napa valleys near our home and while in Kentucky, thanks to the hospitality of my cousin Robin, learned how bourbon is made. While there are some similarities in the process, cognac has its own unique requirements.


Copper Stills

First of all, it is important to understand that unlike wine which can be produced all over the world, cognac can only be made from grapes grown in this small region of France. It all began when the Dutch traveled by ship during the 13th-16th centuries to trade salt for wine. They discovered that the wine began to deteriorate on the long return journey to the Netherlands so they used their newly established distilleries and transformed it into “brandswijn” — burnt wine, hence, the name, Brandy. Eventually, they came up with the idea of “burning” it twice creating what is called “eau-de-vie” that becomes better and better the longer it is aged in oak barrels.

The grapes for making cognac, mostly Ugni Blanc, which are too acidic to eat, are harvested and pressed using traditional wine-making methods. Once the grapes are pressed, the juice is left to ferment for about a week at which time it is ready for the first distillation in a copper still. It is not so much “burnt” as it is boiled, creating vapors that when passed through a long copper coil to cool the vapor, it once again becomes a liquid. Managing the result of the first distillation is the responsibility of the master distiller who has to make “the cut” separating the “heads” and “tails” of the vapors and reserving the “heart” for the second distillation which will produce the final product.

Oak Barrels

Oak Barrels

The length of time the alcohol, or eau-de-vie, remains in the oak barrels determines the quality of the cognac which is finished with a variety of designations. VS, Very Special, is the youngest, and, therefore, least expensive cognac requiring at least two years of aging. Next, VSOP, Very Superior Old Pale, requires a minimum of four years. The best cognac, XO, Extra Old, is aged for at least six years. These numbers represent only the minimum requirements. In reality, the various levels of cognac are aged for many more years — the highest quality for as many as 40 years or more.

Three Grades of Cognac

Three Grades of Cognac

Of course, the best part of any tour is the tasting. We were fortunate to be treated to a taste of the VS, XO, and one a level above all others designated Extra. The color, aroma, and taste of each are totally unique. Once you have experienced the best, you certainly get spoiled. While the most expensive brand of some cognacs can cost upwards of $200, here at the source in the Charente, we were able to purchase it for only $60!


White & Red Pineau

One of the other products produced when making cognac is Pineau, a sweet aperitif or dessert wine. It is very popular in this area and we were offered a tasting of two different types – red & white — both of which were very delicious. Pineau is made by pressing very ripe grapes with a high sugar content and immediately adding cognac to stop the fermentation after which it is aged in oak barrels for 14-18 months and the very best Pineau for as long as 10 years.


Norman enjoying a taste of Cognac

After such an informative experience, we came away from our tour and tasting today with a new appreciation for cognac. While I haven’t been much of a fan of cognac, Norman has enjoyed it for some time now. The quality of the cognac produced here, however, is incredible. Like any fine liqueur, the longer the aging, the the better the taste. The best we were served was a deep golden amber in color, had a faint aroma of licorice or anise, and felt smooth and luscious to the mouth.


The Best of the Best

Sorting it Out

As we’ve mentioned before, this trip is not really a vacation but rather an opportunity to explore different areas in a couple of regions that we have identified as potential retirement locations based on previous experience and much research. Every so often throughout our stay, we plan to head out in one direction or another to visit the towns and cities in the area as well as take in the landscape and environment in an attempt to find out what appeals to us the most. By the end, we hope to narrow down our choices to one or two places where we would like to spend more time next summer and get to know even better.


Regions of France & Their Capitals

France is about the size of Texas. It’s divided into regions which you might think of as states. Each region has several departments; think of these as counties. There are currently 22 regions in France and we are focusing our research on two of them — Poitou-Charentes and Aquitaine. However, as of January 1, 2016, all the regions will be consolidated into 13 in an effort to reduce administrative costs throughout the country. So, next year, we will be returning to the combined region of Aquitaine-Limousin-Poitou-Charentes. Whew! That’s a mouthful. These are interim names and, at some point, they will have to agree on more manageable names for each of these “super regions”. I am uncertain as to whether or not we will notice any change other than the official label as the French are fiercely proud of their individual identities and, truthfully, that is what makes the country so diverse and uniquely interesting.


Region of Poitou-Charentes

Today we set off on another  “reconnaissance mission” in the region of Poitou-Charentes. Beginning in our current location near Segonzac inthe department of Charente, we traveled west toward the Atlantic and completed an 80-mile loop that included five major towns/cities. This took us into the department of Charente-Martime, which, as its name implies, borders the western coast. Our first stop was in Barbezieux (pop. 4,600), one of many towns with an imposing chateau as its central landmark. It is set on a hilltop which makes it pleasantly inviting. We spent our time walking through the small but adequate outdoor market set up along several narrow streets that were lined with a variety of shops and boutiques. From here we moved on to Jonzac (pop. 3,500), best known for being a spa town where thermal waters that were discovered about 30 years ago draw thousands of visitors each year. It seemed rather nondescript and didn’t really attract our attention. We stopped for a pastry and then continued on our journey.


The Donjon at Pons

Next, we visited the town of Pons (pop. 4,400) which sits high on a hill overlooking the Seugne River. Its central square, La Place de la Republique, is dominated by an massive donjon, or castle keep, established during the Middle Ages by the Lords of Pons. We particularly liked the setting and location of this town along the river and were impressed with its beauty.


The Charente River in Saintes

A planned stop for lunch in Saintes (pop. 26,500) situated on the banks of the Charente River turned out rather well. We made our way to the old town center with its extensive pedestrian area and stopped to eat at La Musardière, a Spanish tapas restaurant, set in a welcoming courtyard next to the Musée de l’Echevinage and its clock tower. Afterwards, we walked through some of the streets and took in the sights. Saintes is surrounded by many small towns which are adjacent to it. It is a transportation hub connected by several major highways and roads making destinations such as Bordeaux, Poitiers, and even Paris easily achievable. We could imagine ourselves living someplace quiet on the outskirts of this area far enough to avoid the city noise and have plenty of space around us but close enough for easy access to services and cultural activities.


Le Pont de Cognac

Turning back east, we arrived in Cognac (pop. 19,000) and parked along the quai of the smooth-flowing Charente River that is punctuated by a beautiful arched bridge. This is the location of several of the major Cognac producers such as Hennessy and Camus. The river banks are lush, green, and inviting and we saw several people relishing the day in their rented canoes. Then we drove to the central square, La Place François 1er, with its own unique pedestrian area and enjoyed some delicious French ice cream. Somewhere outside of Cognac would probably be equally as appealing to us as Saintes.

Finally, it was time to return home to our gîte, Le Cerisier, have dinner, and sort out all that we had learned from our expedition. Admittedly, we didn’t spend very much time in any of these places, but first impressions are important and at least, we came away with more of a sense of what we do and don’t want for the location of our future home in France. We’re kind of like Goldilocks when she is testing out the Three Bears’ chairs, porridge, and beds — too this, too that, ah, this one is just right. Hopefully, by the end of our time here, we will find one or two places that will seem “just right”.

France Through the Lens…

You know what they say… A picture is worth a thousand words. Well, we all know that’s true. So make sure to check out our Photo Blog on the right-hand side of the page. It’s organized by cities and regions throughout France including all the places we visited in 2012 and the new places we’re visiting this time around. Enjoy!

Experiencing the Charente

imageToday, Wednesday, June 17th, we arrived at our next destination, Le Manoir La Betoulle. Our gîte was Le Petit Bois (The Little Woods).  This area of France is agricultural. There are beautiful forested areas punctuated by farm fields of a variety of vegetables and grape vines. Situated only a few minutes walk from the little village of St. Claud, the gîte is owned and operated by Penny and John Hitchings. On our arrival we were greeted warmly by our hosts and very pleased to find a beautiful cluster of buildings that were surrounded by mature trees of all types and lush green grass that needed no watering because it was watered naturally by the occasional rains that meander through this area. As we were being shown our gîte, our host provided us with a welcome gift of a bottle of excellent regional red wine and a small jar of delicious homemade apricot jam. Our little gîte was an impressive two story natural stone structure with two foot thick walls and an interior reminiscent of King Louis the IV. On the ground floor and immediately to our left, was a salon where there were heavy red velvet curtains draped on each side of a small window that looked at a small stone building and the larger gîte across the way, a small glass table to eat on, and a comfortable two person couch, small LCD TV, and DVD player. Down the hall was a tiny one person kitchen that proved to be just enough space to prepare our meals and across it was a very nicely appointed blue-tiled bathroom with plush towels that were greatly appreciated.

Upstairs was the spacious bedroom with built in wall closets whose doors had full length mirrors as well as a wash basin and a very large and comfortable bed. Throughout the unit, there were many lavish details of molding along the ceiling edges, chandelier lunettes, and decorative wallpaper. In the red-carpeted stairway, there was wainscoting and molding and many other decorative details that added to the impressive atmosphere. To top it off, we had our own Romeo and Juliet balcony that overlooked large maple, pine, and aspen trees and the lush green lawn. The balcony was accessed via two large wood framed glass “French doors” accented by heavy, deep red velvet curtains.

Once we settled in, we made plans to explore the area the next day. Penny is an enthusiastic and informative host. She told Cheryl about major sights, restaurants, events, and areas to visit. Because we wanted to become familiar with this area, we planned a trip that would take us through four larger villages that were laid out in a rough triangle — Confolens, Saint Junien, Rochechuoard and Chabanais.

Unlike the U.S., France is made of a few large cites and thousands of small towns and villages that seem to be spread out rather evenly throughout the country. Of the four villages and towns we visited, the first village was a site to behold. Bisected by the Vienne river, it was a postcard picture of medieval beauty. The incredibly blue sky punctuated by cottony white clouds, the smooth flowing deep green river that reflected the heavens and the medieval stone buildings with thick green grass and wonderful mature trees lining the river was a feast for the eyes! On days like this, perfection is all that matters and perfection it was.

Now, back to reality. Anyplace, anywhere can have something that, at the right time of the year and from the right angle, can be amazing. Confolens is a pretty little village and like most French villages, it has its share of charming squares, narrow streets, cafes, and restaurants. But its single most striking feature is the view from the wider, larger modern bridge to the much older, narrower pedestrian bridge. Beautiful yes! But does it have what we will need to live here or nearby?

One of the things that we must consider about living in the southwestern part of France is to be near essential services that we can get to easily. So, as we continue our journey, we will try to keep track of those cites, towns, or villages that can provide those essential services. As for the other villages we visited that day, let’s just say….we visited them.

After picking up some groceries in Chabanais on the way back, we headed back to our little “chateau” in the woods. One of the things that I have long been anticipating, is a quiet long night’s sleep. While we like our home back in California, we live in a city, a very large city. And as with any larger city, come all the sounds and noises that you either get used to (or not). I have always been a very light sleeper and would wake at the sound of a feather slamming to the floor…..but here, out in the country, the quiet surrounds you. I slept like I haven’t slept for a very long time.

On our last full day in our gîte, we decided to go to two small villages that Penny had told us about. One Nanteuil-en-Vallée was participating in the summer “fêtes” (parties/festivals) that occur all over France at this time of the year. Nanteuil-en-Vallée was hosting a rock pop concert outside in the village square and the choir from the nearby town of Ruffec was presenting a variety of classical selections at the local church. The other village Penny suggested we visit was Verteuil-sur-Charante which, like many villages in this area, is a small medieval village dating back centuries. We went there first. As we approached the village from a narrow, winding country road, we were struck by this immense chateau with tall round towers with sharply pointed cone-shaped roofs and large rectangular buildings straddled between the towers. We parked the car close by and walked to the back gate of the chateau and found out that, unfortunately, it was closed and we would not be able to visit it. Undaunted, and because Penny told us that there was a nice restaurant near the river that provided a beautiful view, we walked down the very narrow street behind the chateau. After going around a corner of another street, we came onto a small bridge that crossed the small river La Charente. We noticed people lounging on some pool-style lounge chairs and a small restaurant on the bank of the river. What at first we didn’t notice was the incredible view of the front of the chateau. It was immense! Facing the river with its imposing towers, buildings, and large central semi-circle gorge overlook and defensive wall, Château de Verteuil took your breath away. In front of it was the most bucolic scene one could imagine — a small, slow-moving, dark, deep green river that was split by two small wooded islands, with the narrower faster-flowing part of the river on the right side of the islands and the slower flowing wider part of the river on the left that had a thick low stone dam built from the bank of the river nearest us to the first island causing a lake to form and a beautiful small waterfall that gently spilled across the length of the dam. On the small lake were two snow white geese standing on the dam, preening and caring for each other. In the water was a mother duck with a large brood of ducklings trailing after her, two very nice wooden canoes tied to the river bank, and a small grassy shore where a small remnant of an ancient stone wall from a mill once stood. Across from us on the opposite side of the river and lining the bank, were well kept stone houses with tall trees extending their branches towards the river. We were told that this was a “pretty” place, but we couldn’t have imagined this! So we settled in and savored a locally brewed beer as we took in the soft sound of the waterfall and the impressive views.

After relaxing in this beautiful place, we headed back to the music festival at Nanteuil-en-Vallée.  On entering the village we headed to the church which was surrounded by tight clusters of stone buildings of a few stories. In order to navigate to and fro to these somewhat remote villages, it is essential to have a car equipped with a reliable GPS navigation system. Without it one would have to spend the time to make very detailed directions and on arrival to a village or town for that matter, figure out how to find the street address all the while maneuvering the twisting and turning narrow streets.  Making a sharp right turn just 50 feet from the church was a parked car that left only inches to crawl slowly past. No one seemed concerned and all the other cars that were going that direction made it past it without issues. Once we found a parking spot, we walked to the church. As we approached we could hear the choir practicing inside. The stone 15th century Roman style church of Saint Jean Baptiste was of medium size with a bell tower that rose several stories and inside there were three main pointed arches along the length of the church. The choir was composed of three rows of a dozen “chanteuses” warming up for the evening concert.

While entering the church, we noticed heavy wooden scaffolding on either side of the first arch that reached all the way up to the ceiling. It was obvious that after all of these centuries, the roof was seriously threatened with collapse! Large cracks had formed in several places and part of the ceiling had sagged. Yikes! No worries, repairs were underway and the structure was cleared for use at the moment. Not the most reassuring feeling however. Since the concert would not begin for at least half an hour, we went out and took an exploratory walk along one of the back streets. We followed it to the end where we came upon the remains of the 12th century benedictine Abbey of Notre-Dame de Nanteuil. This abbey was built on the site of an earlier, 8th century abbey, founded here by Charlemagne. Unfortunately, it was closed for the evening. Walking back to the church we passed several examples of timbered houses and looked at historical plaques with photos and descriptions of some to the village’s original buildings. Once in the church, we took our seats and since we had arrived early, we got to see the greeting customs of various arriving audience members. Overall, there were somewhere around one hundred and fifty people of middle age to the elderly. The program started with introductions in both French and English. This area of France has many British expats who have retired here, come for the summer holiday, or run gîtes that they built from renovated farm structures. First to perform was a well-known elderly gentleman whose musical career started at a very early age. He performed a composition by Chopin on the piano — a very melodic yet invigorating performance. The choir’s performance was excellent. The threatening cracks in the ceiling took nothing away form the great acoustics and the wonderful rich sound of the choir. They performed several compositions by various classical composers. During the performance, people kept arriving and most stood in the back. Among them was a couple with three very small children possibly two, three and a half and five years of age. The parents stood in the back and the children all sat on the stone floor in front of them. For the duration of the concert, no one, not the adults nor the children made a sound. Everyone was concentrating and listening to the concert. It made for a wonderful musical experience that we will add to the treasure chest of our memories.

The Key to the Journey

imageThe first stop on our trip was in Bordeaux in the Aquitaine region located in Southwestern France. After we picked up our car at the airport, we still had a couple of errands to do before arriving at Lignan-de-Bordeaux where we would be staying for 4 nights. Although we were exhausted from hours and hours of travel with little sleep, grocery shopping and picking up a few other necessary items you just can’t pack like a good chef’s knife and a fan were unavoidable for our comfort on a self-catering vacation. If you arrive on a Saturday afternoon as we did, you have to get your shopping done then because stores close at 7 PM daily and on Sunday the few places that are open close at noon. You have to be prepared to relax on Sundays because that’s what all the French are doing — what a concept! Seems Americans used to do this on Sundays too until they became consumed by commercialism and chasing the dollar. From our last trip, we learned about many of the most economical places to shop, such as the Super U for groceries and other miscellaneous items and Leclerc for groceries and everything else.

With our Peugeot’s gas tank full of diesel and the beginnings of our French pantry purchased, we headed off to our apartment in the countryside about 20 minutes outside of Bordeaux. Once we exchanged pleasantries with the owner and received our unique, old-fashioned skeleton key and some recommendations for places to visit during our stay, we happily settled in to our first French “home”. Every accommodation is a new experience. Most have their pros and cons. The secret to happiness on an adventure like this is to make it your own and not let the little things bother you. Sometimes that requires rearranging furniture or buying a few items that should be provided but are not. Case in point, at this apartment which I found via TripAdvisor and is billed as a “Country Retreat”, our hostess invited us to knock on the front door and let her know if we needed anything. Shortly after our arrival, I realized there was only one small, half full roll of toilet paper. We are accustomed to buying a supply, but there are usually a couple of rolls to get you started. Since it was Saturday night with little chance of shopping until Monday, I thought I had better ask if she had an extra roll. After several attempts at knocking on the front door and ringing a possibly inaudible bell, I finally got the attention of the man of the house who saw me through the glass front door but chose to exit out of a side garage door. I said “hello!, you must be William” and proceeded to tell him that his wife had encouraged us to inquire if we needed anything and I asked him if he had a roll of toilet paper we could have. Almost before I finished making my request he abruptly and emphatically responded with, “No!” No greeting… “Hello, I’m pleased to meet you. How are your accommodations?” Nothing! Well as you can imagine, with such a curt and abrupt response like that, I was shocked! After a second or two however, he thought better of it and said he would get one for me and surprisingly returned with two. Whew! OK! Well, remind me not to ask him for anything else. As we settled in, we noticed that the husband, was working on remolding a bedroom next to our unit. He kept drilling, hammering and scraping well into the night!] He seemed to be very busy renovating the rest of the house perhaps to add more rental space. Unfortunately, the work went on all day long and on one night, he kept at it until after 1 a.m. the next morning. Another odd thing that happened was that for the first two nights there wasn’t any hot water (the hot water seemed to be cut off starting at noon). Norman didn’t realize this was happening until I told him on the third day so he decided to heat water on the stove to wash the dishes with. Since the range was electric, he used both the range top and the electric tea pot to heat up the water. This led to a blown fuse and everything went dark. Of course, the owners were affected by this as much as we were so power was quickly restored. I suppose the husband decided that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to cut off the hot water after all and for our last night, we had all the hot water we needed. One last thing that made us realize that maybe the owners were trying to keep their cost down as much as as possible was that while at first, the Internet connection seemed ok, later in the day however, and all evening long, it took forever to load a page on the Internet. Nevertheless, we were able to laugh about it all and make the best of it knowing that it was not a permanent situation and we had many more lodgings ahead.

Our location did make a good home base from which to begin to explore Bordeaux, a port city on the Garonne and hub of the famed wine-growing region. It’s population is about 250,000 with over a million people in its greater metropolitan area. It is the location of the world’s main wine fair, Vinexpo, which was taking place while we were there. The Bordeaux wine industry takes in 14.5 billion euros each year. On Sunday, we headed in for a quick tour on foot that helped us get a feel for the layout of the city. It was relatively quiet and mostly occupied with tourists both French and foreign. We saw a few of the main sights and planned what we might do when we return for a stay in the city at the end of our journey.

Our second shopping trek took us to E. Leclerc, a French hypermarket (superstore) chain — combination grocery store and department store — with more than 500 locations. It was established in 1948 by Edouard Leclerc, a man perhaps ahead of his time. The size and selection of the store can be overwhelming, but you can certainly find anything you might need at very reasonable prices — perhaps like a WalMart superstore on steroids with much better quality. As one of the things the French are famous for, the choices of bread alone are unending. Even when you are not buying your bread specifically from a boulangerie, the taste and texture are generally far superior to anything we can buy at a store back home. On this particular visit, aside from additional food items, we were in search of a few more necessities such as paper towels, laundry soap, umbrellas, beach towels, and, of course, toilet paper! We also wanted a nightlight for the bathroom. Apparently, the French think nightlights are only for children because in that huge Leclerc store, we could only find one and it was just “too cute”, obviously designed for a two-year old’s bedroom, but since we had no other choice, we purchased it — one of many things we will be leaving behind and the end of our trip.

One of the cleverest things we have found in our travels throughout France involves shopping carts. It is such a smart invention that I can’t believe we haven’t borrowed the idea. When you go to most supermarkets, the shopping carts are gathered in certain areas in the parking lot lined up neatly one inside the next — not unlike what you might see in the U.S. except that they are locked together via a chain and “key”. In order to remove one to take inside the store, you must insert a €1 coin into a slot in the handle that releases the key that is chained to the cart from the one in front of it. After you have finished your shopping, you simply slip your cart back into the row of connected carts, insert the key from the dangling chain that is attached to the cart in front of it, and the €1 coin pops out for use the next time. No employee ever has to round up the shopping carts, there are never stray shopping carts all over the parking lot or along the street for that matter, and there are always plenty of shopping carts available neatly clustered together for your convenience. We could take a lesson from this idea. We keep our 1€ coin in the car to use on the next shopping cart and never have to worry about getting a cart for our entire trip.

Still suffering a bit from jet lag which seems to last longer and longer each time we travel, we finished up our stay in the Bordeaux countryside with a lot of needed rest and relaxation. I read and researched online (albeit slowly) and Norman completed several sketches. This area is no doubt beautiful, but too far from any small town with basic necessities. In order to make the cut for our list of top places to retire in France, we would need to be able to walk, bike or have a short drive into a village or town for our daily purchases. Our next stop will be in the region of Poitou-Charentes.

Post Navigation