Sunday, October 22, 2017

Rocamadour 9/28/17

Rocamadour is a town built into and UP the hillside in south central France, it looks as though it is just clinging to the hill. It has been a pilgrimage site for many years and there is a complex of churches and chapels that are built into and on the hillside, these are accessed from the lower level of town by way of the Grand Staircase.  Pilgrims of the past would climb these stairs on their knees, praying as they went. Ouch!

The town itself is built on different levels with parking and camping at the bottom of the valley, then the next level up is a street lined with shops and restaurants and two ancient portal gates.  The church complex is the next level above and then there is a series of switchbacks that climb the hill with the Stations of the Cross along the way.  At the very top is the Chateau and you can climb the ramparts for a €2 fee.

A little distance away, L’Hospitalet has some restaurants and the tourist office...and a great view of the buildings of Rocamadour clinging to the side of the cliff.  Google search for images of a Rocamadour, you’ll be blown away by some of them.

You don’t have to be a pilgrim or even religious to enjoy a visit here, though you should definitely take a peek in the Basilica Saint-Sauveur. The back wall of the church is built into the rock.  The Chapel of Notre Dame holds the famous Black Madonna too.

If you’re more interested in legend, look for Durandal, the sword of Roland. Legend says that Roland (nephew of Charlemagne) threw it a great distance to keep it from being captured by the Saracens and it lodged in the wall just above the Chapel of Notre Dame in Rocamadour. There is even a theatrical re-enactment of the story nearby.

The two portal gates are in the lower section of town and some nice medieval houses as well.  The view is great too, you can look down the valley from the upper part of town.  When we were on the ramparts of the chateau there, we saw a couple of huge condor-like birds circling upward on the air currents.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Dordogne/Vezere Day 4. (9/27/17)

Today is market day in Sarlat and I wanted to check out the morning market before we started our exploring for the day.  The Wednesday market is set up in the medieval center’s square. The market in the church building is open as well.  We walked through and saw lots of delicious looking fruits and vegetables, tables of big wheels of local cheese, breads of all kinds.  There were stalls selling sausages, fish, nougat.  Walnuts are grown in this area so one of the local products is walnut oil and walnut cake.  Truffles and mushrooms are popular too.  It was a great market and we bought some things to snack on, but you could tell that many people were there to do their regular shopping as well.

After the market, we drove to Domme, another village that overlooks the Dordogne.  Not much going on in town, but the views from the overlook were nice. The church in the village square is built inside of pretty honey-colored bricks, even the ceiling is brick.

It was a bright sunny day, so we pulled out our little cooler and had a picnic next to the river.  Several couples in canoes floated by as we were eating.

We saw a sign for a castle in Montfort but when we got there, it was closed. :( That actually turned out to be a stroke of luck because we followed a sign to Commarque, which is a castle ruin and we really enjoyed seeing it.  It’s a longish walk from the parking lot and it was a pretty warm day but it was worth the effort.  The man who owns it has spent several years reclaiming the remnants of the castle from the undergrowth that almost completely covered it.  You can see several areas of the castle, climb the tower and look out over the countryside, even play games.  They have a whole room that is dedicated to medieval games. I assume they use these when groups of school kids come to visit, but Mike and I had a blast playing some of the games ourselves!

Dordogne - Day 3

When you drive around the Dordogne, you see lots of areas of overhanging rock and many towns that are partially built into the hillsides. We decided to check out La Roque St Christoffe which I think is one of the largest Troglodyte settlements in the area.

La Roque is a huge fissure under a rock cliff, a couple stories above the ground. There are displays to show how people lived in these cave-like rooms and the everyday items they used. I have to say it was a little unnerving to walk around under this giant slab of rock. We would be tiny human filling in a big rock sandwich if any of it came down. Even so, it was very interesting to see the settlement had a safe, stables, blacksmith shop, church, etc. The entire settlement in its heyday was very large, several hundred meters I think. 

La Roque Gageac is a pretty town at the base of a hill, some of the houses are built into the hill as well. It sits right on the banks of the Dordogne River and has a few shops and restaurants.  Two of the gabarre boat companies are based here and we decided to have a ride on the river.  The live commentary was in French but we were given headsets with an English recording.  It was a pretty ride, passing the gardens of Marqueyssac above us on the hill, and also the castle at Castelnaud-la-Chapelle.  There were swans on the river and a couple of them took flight and circled the boat before landing back on the river.  

Remember when I talked about the rock possibly falling at the beginning of this post? Well, it happened in La Roque Gageac about 50 years ago, killing three people and destroying several houses. So I guess if it only happens once in 50 years, then our odds of being a human sandwich are pretty small.  Although seeing a bunch of steel pillars holding up some of the hillsides is a reminder that these folks live with that possibility every day. 

Speaking of rocks and caves, we also went to Lascaux to see the replica exhibit of the prehistoric cave art that was discovered in the actual cave at Lascaux.  The actual cave is closed to the public due to calcite and bacteria that built up from the moist breath of the over 1 million visitors to the caves in the last several decades. The replica was interesting and the accompanying exhibits are well done.  I’m glad we went but I determined that cave art is not something that fascinates me - I’m more of a medieval gal I guess. 

Dordogne - Day 2 (9/25/17)

True to his word, Mike let me sleep in this morning.  It was wonderful until he told me it was 9:00! Holy cow, I had slept almost 10 hours! Our plan for the day included two castles and a garden so I jumped out of bed and got ready in record time.

First up was Castelnaud-la-Chapelle, a 12th century fortified castle overlooking the Dordogne River.  This was a great visit, you start with a climb up a tower where there are canon and things at different levels. There was a huge display of crossbows, more than I have seen in one place before.  Some had ivory and bone inlays and some had ropes and pulleys to draw back the bow.  Outside there was a huge crossbow that shot a long spear, for killing dragons I’m sure. There were rooms with displays of armor, and mannequins dressed in period clothing.

Outside there were trebuchet, we would probably call them catapults but trebuchet sounds so lyrical for a war machine. They have demonstrations of how they work, but we were there at the wrong time of day so we missed that.  We enjoyed views of the river and other nearby castles from the ramparts.

Our next stop was the gardens at Chateau Marqueyssac. Built in the 19th century, the house is only partially open, just a few rooms have been restored - but the gardens are what brings people here. There have an amazing sculpted garden and then multiple paths you can follow through the gardens. We chose the Promenade des Falaises since it overlooked the river all along the way.  There were really nice views across the valley to Castelnaud-la-Chapelle and also Beynac-et-Cazenac. We walked on to the Belvedere, a viewing platform high above the river which gave some great views of the town of La Roque Gageac.  We actually found a well-disguised vending machine along the way and enjoyed a cold Coke as we walked along.  It may be late September but it was a warm day so the cool drink was really nice. We walked back along the Grande Allee, stopped at the woodcarver’s shop for a souvenir, and made our way back to the car.

Third and last stop of the day was Chateau de Beynac, another 12th century fortified castle.  Once home to Richard I (Richard the Lionheart) and the survivor of many battles during the Hundred Years’ War.  They have restored Richard’s bedchamber and you can see it through a barred door.  There were several interestingly restored rooms, I especially liked the kitchen.  It really seemed like a close replica of an original medieval kitchen and you could walk down into the room.  There was a ramp to one side that they used for moving supplies with horses.  There was also a display that said it was the armor that the Baron Adhemar de Beynac had worn on the third Crusade.

We saw lots of people on the river in the gabarres, small boats that take you past some of the interesting sites along the river.  We saw several canoes as well, it’s a popular way to see things along the river.  Given how many we saw in late September, there must be a huge number of them in the summertime.

France 2017: Sarlat-la-Caneda and the Dordogne Valley- day 1

We said goodbye to our friends this morning and scooted over to the train station to pick up our rental car. Unfortunately I didn’t remember that the car rental desk didn’t open until 10 on Sundays, so we spent an hour or so people-watching at the train station. We completed the paperwork and went up to the parking area to get our car.  The poor guys up there were stressed with people trying to pick up and return their cars that the guy came up to us, handed us the keys and said “your keys, your car, you go!” All with a disarming smile. So, we went!

We used the motorway to get us out of town, then set the GPS to avoid toll roads and motorways and to always take us on the shortest route.  Turns out that was a mistake because sometimes the shortest way is a pretty sketchy tiny road. We ended up out in the middle of nowhere because the GPS told us to take a road that looked like trouble so we took the other fork.  Unfortunately this road went deeper into the country and became really rough and bumpy.  We pulled over to debate trying to find a way to turn around versus continuing on.  A vehicle passed us and by the incredulous stares we received, it was pretty obvious we were really lost.  We decided to carry on and pretty soon caught up to that vehicle, which looked like a group of hunters judging by their reflective vests.  One of the men spoke about as much English as I speak French, so we managed to find out that the road ahead was equally bad and possibly worse up ahead of us.  Decision made! Back the way we had come to the sketchy road that by now looked like quite an improvement over the last one.  We passed some nice countryside and some chateaux, even a small town with a covered market hall that looked quite old.

We finally made it to Sarlat and were checking into our hotel, telling the receptionist about being lost and she said “oh, you should never set the GPS for the shortest route out here”. Thank you very much, wish we had talked to you earlier! Our hotel was just on the fringe of the medieval city center, so we took a walk to explore the town.

The medieval city center is a relatively small area, maybe seven blocks long and a few blocks wide but it was full of restaurants and shops and a couple of churches.  One of the churches is now used as an indoor marketplace in the mornings.   We had a bite to eat and went back to the hotel for a good night’s rest.  I told Mike I was tired of staying up late and waking up early like we had been doing on the river cruise the previous week and I intended to sleep in the next morning!

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Riverboat cruise France - day 5 & 6

Day 5: Today we opted for a visit to the market day in Libourne followed by a bicycle ride through the countryside. Libourne’s Market was actually pretty large, there were quite a few stalls. There were a big variety of things on sale - from plants to fruits and veggies, clothing, live chickens, a dead shark(!), and a lot of bread and cheese. It was a bustling place, especially since the market was set up in the square but the entrance and exit for the undergoing parking was also in the square, so you had to keep your wits about you to avoid the cars.

We gathered everyone together for the bike ride, I think there were about 30 or so people.  The cruise director said he had never had so many people sign up for the bike ride.  The bike company didn’t actually have enough bikes for everyone, so we brought along some of the riverboat’s loaner bikes.  Mike and I ended up with two of the ship’s bikes, which would have been okay except the gears kept slipping, so one minute you would be pedaling along and then the next minute you would be pedaling without any progress whatsoever.  I managed to fall into a bush during one of those times.  It turns our you really can forget how to ride a bike I guess! Anyway, it was a lot of work to try to keep up with everyone, so I turned back but Mike stuck with it. They stopped at a chapel along the way and met a lady who has spent the last ten years renovating it.

After the big bike ride it was time for lunch and a little cruising on the river as we headed back to Bordeaux for our final 2 nights.

We had a nighttime tour of Bordeaux on open-top buses.  I think Bordeaux is a really lovely city, especially along the waterfront.  The portal gates to the city are lit up at night and are really striking.  The Pont Pierre bridge is beautiful day and night.  They say the reason it has 17 arches is because there is one arch for every letter in the name of Napoleon Bonaparte.  He didn’t like it that the town had no bridge for his army, so he told them to build one! The church steeples are lit up at night as well as the very modern-looking Museum of Wine.  My favorite spot at night is the relection surface by the waterfront.  When the granite is wet, you get to see a perfect reflection of the grand buildings with all the lights on them.

Day 6: We went on a morning walking tour of Bordeaux with our guide Johanna. She lives in Bordeaux and was looking forward to showing us around her city.  First stop was a bakery for what she said was called a “dune”, a pastry that was very much like a super light cream puff.  It was so good, I went back later and had two more! :-D  We visited a chocolate shoppe that had been owned by the same family for over a hundred years.  It was seriously some of the best chocolate I have ever tasted.  Yum! We visited St. Andrew’s Cathedral and also walked through the main shopping street of Bordeaux. Once the tour was over, we had some pizza for lunch and went to visit the Museum of Aquitaine. Aquitaine is the region where Bordeaux is located.

The Museum of Aquitaine was pretty interesting but not many of the signs were in English, I don’t think this Museum is high on most tourist’s lists.  They have Roman artifacts from the days when the Roman’s settled here and first began to grow grapes for wine.  In the section about French settlements, they had the largest collection of model ships I have ever seen. They had a section with artifacts from the 12th -14th century that they keep finding when they do construction projects.  They had a rose window (the masonry portion, not the glass) that was about 15 feet in diameter that they found just covered up inside a wall somewhere.  It’s phenomenal to us to think about something that old just hidden in a building and nobody even knew.

Friday, September 22, 2017

The Mascaret

The mascaret is a tidal surge phenomenon that occurs on the Dordogne River at certain times in the area of Libourne. It was supposed to happen between 6:45 and 7:45 pm on our 4th night of cruising. Our ship had to be freed from the dock and had to sail in the middle of the river because sometimes the surge is 3-4 feet high and it comes in successive waves. A docked ship can be thrown against the dock, damaging both the ship and the dock. Sometimes it's big enough for people to surf on! The surge flows in the opposite direction of the river current, so you actually see the water in the river change direction.

We all went up to the sun deck and enjoyed some beverages waiting for the mascaret to come.  Finally the captain blew the horn once to let us know it was starting toward us. We waited and watched and then finally we could see the surface of the water starting to turn up into waves.

As we watched, a zodiac boat shot out across the river and dropped a surfer in the water.  The waves grew increasingly bigger and more frequent.  The surfer managed to have a pretty good ride while the guys in the zodiac got bounced around pretty well. The waves of the mascaret broke against the shores and the prow of the boat.  It was fun to watch and something none of us had ever seen before.

It happened again the next morning early, about 6:30 so we stood outside our room and watched it in the fog and semi-darkness. It was a little different this time because we couldn't see it coming due to the fog but we could hear it coming. That was a little eerie actually.