La Rochelle

We’re back in our favorite city, La Rochelle. We love this place and find that we enjoy it more every time we’re here (this is our fourth visit). This time the weather is working to dissuade us, but it won’t work. In 2013 we came twice because our first visit, in late-June encountered cool and cloudy weather. Still we loved the place, not least because we got a room on the top floor of our hotel, overlooking the entrance to the La Rochelle harbor and we spent hours just watching the activity of boats in and out of the harbor. We came back in September, asked for the same room and encountered about the same weather, but our love of the city just increased. Last year we decided to come in late July, knowing that even though the city would be stuffed with French families on vacation, the weather would be better, and it was. So it was that we booked for mid-July again this year, again asking for “our”room. We arrived yesterday in 98 degree sunshine. Woke up this morning to rain, lightning, thunder and winds (our hotel is named les Brises and it lived up to its name today!). But what the heck, we still love it. Here’s some pictures.

Le P’tit Bleu

La Rochelle is on the Atlantic coast, and the old city is ranged around an ancient harbor, so it stands to reason that La Rochelle would have some good seafood restaurants. In fact, it has hundreds. One of our very favorites, though, may not qualify as a real restaurant. This is Le P’tit Bleu, which stands on the promenade along the old harbor.

Le P'tit Bleu. Maybe not a real restaurant as such, but the best grilled calamari ever, and fabulous mussels (moules).

Le P’tit Bleu. Maybe not a real restaurant as such, but the best grilled calamari ever, and fabulous mussels (moules).

Though I’m not a fan of food-photos, here’s the calamar grillé.


Here’s the view to the west from the eating area of Le P’tit Bleu, looking out the mouth of the La Rochell harbor. The two towers were build in the 14th and 15th centuries:


And to the east, looking at the restaurants ringing the old harbor.


Another good thing about Le P’tit Bleu: you can have six or seven glasses of wine with dinner, because they give you glasses that are more like slightly large thimbles.Here’s Laurie ready for her first glass:


The Harbor

We were worried last year about visiting here in July, as that is when French families come here – in droves – on vacation, and we usually aren’t too excited about being in a place full of tourists. But we found that it was great fun to be part of the tourist crowd, part of the families enjoying it here. Look at this picture taken along the waterfront: there are young couples, old couples, in-between couples, families, singles, everything, just enjoying a beautiful evening. I might also point out that this picture was taken at about 8:30 o’clock at night. Sunset here is about 9:50, which makes for beautiful evenings.


We went on a long, interesting walk today; I think I’ll save that for another post.

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Last week, when we stayed in Cahors, we took a day and drove to the small town of Moissac. Moissac is a nice town with one beautiful “must-see:” the cloisters of an old monastery. I’m finally getting around to posting some pictures and writings about our day in Moissac.

I don’t know exactly why we’re drawn to cloisters, but we are, indeed. There is something beautiful and peaceful and historic and spiritual about them. When we read that Moissac has what are said to be the most beautiful Romanesque cloisters anywhere, and saw that it was about an hour south of Cahors, off we went. We were not disappointed; here are the cloisters of Moissac.
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The capitols of the seventy-six columns alone are worth the trip. Each is unique and each is exquisitely carved. Half are Biblical scenes, half are abstract designs.


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We spent hours in the cloisters. Rooms off them offered exhibitions about the monastery and monastic life, including a large display on the illuminated manuscripts done by monks here over the years.

Cloisters served several purposes. They were simply means of getting from one part of the monastery to another; glorious hallways, so to speak. And they were used by the monks for “walking prayers.” Monks spent at least eight hours a day praying, and they could do some of that as they walked around the cloisters. I think that would have been my preferred route: I don’t know how I could tire of this beautiful place.

And, of course, in the middle of serious cloister-appreciation, we had to stop for lunch, across the place from the cathedral to which the monastery and cloisters are attached.


Then it was back into the cloisters for one last long sit…


We’ve seen a lot of cloisters in our day – we always take time to visit one nearby – and the cloisters of Moissac rank right at the top of our list.

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La France est compliquée!

Life can be complicated here, even in simple things. When I say that to people who have lived here a long time, I sometimes get some pushback: “No, it’s not that bad. Not so complicated. Used to be worse,” etc. Right. Here’s complicated.

Tonight Mary and Gilles are having a dinner gathering for us, another couple and, of course, them. Laurie asked if we could bring a dessert and Mary said, “Bien sûr!” So this morning we went to get a cake at the bakery. There is a boulangerie/patisserie that we know has excellent cakes near the cheese shop in Bois-le-Roi, and as we needed some cheese we decided to go there.

Whoops. Closed: de vacances for three weeks. Okay, there’s another bakery in town so we’ll go there.

Whoops. Closed: this particular bakery is closed every Wednesday. Well, there’s a good bakery in our current hometown, Samois-sur-Seine, that we know is open on Wednesdays, so we’ll go back there.

Whoops. Closed: sign in the window says, “Closed this Wednesday morning uniquement.” Closed just this particular Wednesday, just for us. Okay, now we know there’s a bakery in Samoreau, a ten-minute drive away.We do not know if it’s closed for vacation or closed on all Wednesdays or closed this Wednesday uniquement. Off we go.

It’s open! Yahooo! And parking right across the street! Whoo-hoo! And…they have no cakes. Really. They do, fortunately, have a selection of beautiful tartes, of which we buy six and call it a day.

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Complicated. Let’s go buy a cake. Four bakeries later we have dessert, but no cake. Complicated.

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An Amble West of Cahors

We found a suggested route to the small towns on the Tarn River west of Cahors, so off we went.

Nice countryside, eh? This is taken from the patio of a quite expensive hotel.

Nice countryside, eh? This is taken from the patio of a quite expensive hotel.


Laurie likes the chair and bench in the vegetable garden, all the better to watch the garden grow.

Roses on an old grave; nice.

Roses on an old grave; nice.

I’ve mentioned that we like bridges; here’s an old suspension bridge across the Tarn River.




This café seemed to be closed permanently and I think maybe we could buy it and re-open it. Laurie disagrees.

This café seemed to be closed permanently and I think maybe we could buy it and re-open it. Laurie disagrees.

Decorations from a wedding the previous day. I think most churches in France look like this Sunday morning, as Saturday afternoon is the big day for weddings.

Decorations from a wedding the previous day. I think most churches in France look like this Sunday morning, as Saturday afternoon is the big day for weddings.


Many churches have modern stained glass windows. We think they're beautiful.

Many churches have modern stained glass windows. We think they’re beautiful.

Jeanne d'Arc. Almost every church has some reference or statue of her.

Jeanne d’Arc. Almost every church has some reference or statue of her.

An old door in an old church.

An old door in an old church.

See, nothing very special on this amble around the countryside. But we had a very nice day and ended it with a late lunch at this beautiful restaurant. It was located in a tiny village, and was one of the best lunches we’ve ever had. It was also one of the most expensive lunches, but what the heck: we’re in France where Sunday lunches are actually dinners, and we sat outdoors and had a fine time.


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To wrap up our first ramble, we went to the town of Cahors. There’s nothing particularly enticing about Cahors, but it is a good place to see some local sights. Yet, Cahors itself has some charms, among them, wine made from the malbec grape and renowned for its darkness. That’s true; the wine we had was almost black, and while not up to Bordeaux or Burgundy standards, darn good. There’s a surprise: good wine in France…

Anyway, here are some sights from Cahors. I’ll post about a couple of day-trips we made from here over the next couple days.

Now, here's a bridge! Pont Valentré, built between 1308 and 1379 and has survived, largely intact, to today.

Now, here’s a bridge! Pont Valentré, built between 1308 and 1379 and has survived, largely intact, to today.

Looking from the east end of Pont Valentré.

Looking from the east end of Pont Valentré.

Another view looking westward across Pont Valentré, from about a third of the way across.

These steps, on Pont Valentré, have seen some feet. I guess in 800 years some wear can be expected.

These steps, on Pont Valentré, have seen some feet. I guess in 800 years some wear can be expected.

A slightly more modern bridge. I am realizing that I really like bridges: they can be beautiful and they're all marvels of engineering.

A slightly more modern bridge. I am realizing that I really like bridges: they can be beautiful and they’re all marvels of engineering.

Cahors is essentially a peninsula, wrapped on three sides by the Tarn River. Walking along the river is lovely.

Cahors is essentially a peninsula, wrapped on three sides by the Tarn River. Walking along the river is lovely.

The old part of Cahors is known for its narrow streets. These are not much changed over the last six or seven centuries.

The old part of Cahors is known for its narrow streets. These are not much changed over the last six or seven centuries.

Gotta love it: want to have a reception for your business?Set us some tables in the street and have at it.

Gotta love it: want to have a reception for your business? Set up some tables in the street and have at it.

Cahors is also known for its "hidden gardens" which didn't seem very hidden to us. They're all over, a pleasant interlude in the city.

Cahors is also known for its “hidden gardens” which didn’t seem very hidden to us. They’re all over, a pleasant interlude in the city.

That’s Cahors. Not a place high on our list for another visit, but we enjoyed our stay here very much. Next up: two day trips, one to the beautiful cloister in Moissac and another an amble along the Tarn River to the west of Cahors.

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An Amble Around Monpazier

Monpazier sits in the Lot River valley, a beautiful area. Most Americans visiting France keep themselves to the Paris area, or maybe Nice, on the Mediterranean coast. These are big cities, and so those tourists never see and enjoy rural France. In fact, much of France is rural, and much of that rural France is beautiful. In both our Monpazier visits we’ve taken long, slow drives through the area and have found it to be a wonderful look at a France most tourists miss.

Our first trip here (eight years ago) we drove into the country-side and, at one point, saw a sign with an arrow and what appeared to be a route name. We continued to follow the arrows and entered Villareal, a town not far from Monpazier. A stop at the Office of Tourism solved the mystery: there are four routes for bikers drawn up for this area. They follow small backroads and are from 25 to 40 miles long. This trip, we went straight to that tourist office and bought two of the maps (for a whole $1.10 each) and set off. What follows are pictures from our two trips through the countryside. We finished neither route, averaged about 15 miles per hour, and loved every minute.


Don’t see this when you limit yourself to the autoroutes…


Get outside the cities and towns and this is what you’ll see.

Every city, town, village and wide spot in the road where someone lives has a monument to the soldiers from that place who died in World War I and World War II. Both are heart-breaking, World War I also being jaw-dropping. In that war, France lost 1.4 million soldiers – almost 5% of its population, and somewhere around 30% of its men of marriageable age.  (The United States lost 0.13% of its population in that war and 0.32% in World War 2.) That France recovered is, to me, a miracle. In our walks around these rural towns and villages, we always stop at the monument to pay our respects.

To give you an idea of the magnitude of the World War I losses, here is the parish church for a small town; you can see how small it is. The town and area around it has maybe 50 houses and farms.


Here is the monument outside the church to losses from this area, all of whom would have been members of this parish:


There are eleven names on that monument; eleven young men from a village of maybe 200 people. The soldiers on every one of these monuments get a sharp military salute from me.


Almost every town has a church, and in these small places, the cemetery is almost always around the church. For some reason, we like walking through them.


Some more countryside pictures…



We love these long, very slow drives through the French countryside. It certainly gives us a different view than the cities, a view we like very much.

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Eight years ago we came to Monpazier and have wanted to return ever since. We were able to arrange it this year and we are so glad we did. This is an amazing town, with quite a history, situated in the beautiful Lot River valley.

First, a bit of history. For centuries, England controlled quite a lot of what is now France, a result of Eleanor of Acquitaine marrying the future king of England and bringing the lands she inherited from her father. This was kind of okay until 1337 when Edward III of England got ticked off at Philip IV of France and re-asserted his claim to the French throne. The war was fought off and on until 1453 (so it really should be the One Hundred and Sixteen Year War) when France kicked England out of the country for good. (This is way simplified; French/English history buffs are invited to expand and correct in the comments section. Please keep such expansions/corrections to 20,000 words or less.)

What’s all this got to do with Monpazier? During the war, both sides built bastide towns – England more than France. These towns were built along whatever the border was at the time, and were designed and built to make them easy to defend. So at a time when most villages and towns were a hodge-podge of crooked, narrow streets, the bastide towns were rectangular, with straight, wide streets that made it easy to move troops from one side to another as a battle progressed. There are a number of these bastide towns remaining, and Monpazier is the best preserved by far.

Here’s a look down a main street of Monpazier:


Wide and straight. Take away the cars and you’ve got a bastide town of 700 years ago.

Monpazier also has about my favorite main square in the world. Here’s a panoramic  view of it, showing about 2-1/2 sides of the square.


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The bastide towns almost always have arcaded buildings on the square.

And many of the bastide towns have their original market hall; here’s Monpazier’s.DSC00583

The population of Monpazier is about 500 people, though the area around it has probably another 500. An oddity is that many of the houses in town are owned by Brits, who love the whole Dordogne and Lot River valley areas. Most of the tourists here were Brits. We found that during the day Monpazier was populated by tourists – this surprised us, as memories of that first visit do not include many tourists, British or otherwise. But we found that in the evening the tourists left (there are only about 30 hotel rooms in the town and half a dozen chambre-d’hote rooms), and Monpazier returned to looking a lot as it did 500 years ago.

Some other pictures of Monpazier:

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We like Monpazier, not least because the hotel we stay in here is beautiful, with a way-above-average restaurant. Here’s Laurie looking out the “tower room” of our room.

DSC00667I have little doubt that we will come back here. One reason is Monpazier, another is that the Lot River valley is beautiful, but that’s the subject of the next post.

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Fronsac and Le Clos D’Iris

From Bordeaux, we drove to Fronsac. Now, Fronsac is not exactly a world-famous destination; with a population of about 300, it hasn’t exactly made a name for itself.


Fronsac’s main street. Not exactly a lot happening.


A back street of Fronsac; still not much happening.

But Fronsac has something that makes it worthwhile for any visitor to this area: Le Clos d’Iris – a simply wonderful bed and breakfast. Coming from me – a long-time B&B curmudgeon – that is high praise. We loved staying here! What other bed and breakfast has owners who invite you to share wine and aperitifs with them in their beautiful garden? What other bed and breakfast has owners who, when they meet guests in a nearby restaurant, share their wedding anniversary bottle of wine with the guests and talk with them about life, the universe and everything in Fronsac. Well, that’s Joëlle and Regis, hosts of Le Clos d’Iris.


The garden, where we shared aperitifs with our hosts.


Now this is what I call a breakfast. Many homemade items, everything delicious, beautifully presented.

Now, I know that not many of you are planning on heading off to Fronsac in the near future, but if you want to visit the area around St. Emilion and try its wines, or if you know anyone else who is heading in that direction, Clos d’Iris is a great place to make the center of your explorations. Check it out at

Wine Buying

Our hosts sent us to a winery for a bit of tasting. At the winery, they were bottling one of their wines.


Bottling wine. Yes, done by a portable bottling facility on a truck. The equipment to bottle wine is not cheap, and few wineries have the need to buy it. Most wineries, including high-end ones, bottle their wines using a truck like this.


Finished bottles, in a tightly-controlled environment, ready for shipping.

The wines were great, and not very expensive, especially compared to a similar-quality Napa wine. We bought a little:


Gilles is going to install extra-heavy-duty shock absorbers for our next trip, which will be to Vertus in the Champagne region.

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Ramble #1, Part 2

After we left Bordeaux, we drove to the rather smallish town of Fronsac (population: 300). Fronsac is near the famous wine-growing region of St. Emilion, home of some of the finest (and highest priced) wines in the world. Here we stayed at a Bed and Breakfast that could serve as the model for all B&Bs: it was just wonderful. More on that later…

St. Emilion

We’d heard much about how beautiful the town of St.Emilion is: on a hilltop, overlooking vineyards, wonderful streets to wander about, etc., etc. True, true and not so true. St. Emilion realized someday not too long ago that there was money not just in wine, but in catering to all the tourists and so it gussied itself up for them. The result is that, for me at least, the town of St. Emilion is too pretty, too cute and too touristy. I overheard a couple comments that sum it up: an English woman in a tour group, asking her guide, “Do these stores take credit cards?” Do they ever… And another group of young women discussing their afternoon schedule and concluding, “That means we have an hour to shop before we have to do anything.”

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St. Emilion does have some good things to see. The best I cannot show, as pictures were not allowed. It’s an underground church, carved out of the stone that makes up the hill on which St. Emilion sits. This is no small church: 40 yards long, 30 yards wide and 40 ft high. It was started sometime around the end of the 11th century or start of the 12th and was completed in something like 50 years. 15,000 cubic meters of rock were removed to make it. It is yuuuuuge!

St. Emilion does offer some beautiful sights…


We never miss a chance to visit a cloister.


Taken from the top of St. Emilion looking down on a square. This picture is taken from above the underground church; its entrance is below us.


A rare sighting: a priest in a soutaine. Even rarer: it is a young priest. Not many of them around.



Gotta love a bit of whimsy…

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Ramble #1, Part 1

We’ve been on a ramble for the last week, and I’ve been remiss in posting about it. The first week has been in the Bordeaux region: two days in the Pauillac area, two days in Bordeaux itself, and two days in Fronsac, near the famous wine town of St. Emilion. We’ve had great weather and excellent adventures.


I won’t write a lot about Pauillac, as we were there a short time in a less-than-memorable B & B. Actually, I should say it was quite memorable, but not in a positive way. Best thing was that the woman running it (born in Aberdeen, WA – 90 minutes from Seattle) knew the wine-makers in the area and set us up with appointments at a couple. We did enjoy the wine-tasting – no surprise there. Pauillac wines are made with what’s thought of as the “traditional” Bordeaux blend: mostly cabernet sauvignon with a fair amount of merlot and small amounts of petit meunier and cabernet franc. Nice wines… We had some at a large chateau (the wine makers here are called “chateau” even though they are unlikely to have a physical chateau building anywhere) and a very small place. Prices were large and small, respectively, but all the wines we tasted were excellent, matching their prices to their quality.


Bordeaux is an ancient city, existing long before Rome conquered it in 60 BC. Its golden age was in the 18th century and during that time many beautiful buildings were constructed of a golden limestone. For whatever reason, the years since did not result in those buildings being destroyed as in so many cities. The got tired and dirty, but they remained. Over the last couple decades, Bordeaux has cleaned and restored many of these buildings, pedestrianized many downtown streets, and built an excellent tram system that makes getting into and around the city quick, easy and cheap. To say we liked Bordeaux understates how we feel: we are looking forward to returning already.

Both readers of this blog know we like beautiful buildings. You can imagine, then, how we felt when we first stepped into this street:


Most of Bordeaux’s central core has streets like this! Walking around the city is a treat for us building aficionados. Some more:

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It’s not perfect, though. You may recall that in my Le Corbusier post I mentioned that there’s a lot of UGLY modern architecture; Exhibit 1:


This is essentially a Court House. It is slammed against a beautiful tower left from the city’s protective wall; no one can explain what those cone things are or the wavy roof. One explanation said that its openness is to symbolize the “transparency of justice.” Right. This is one ugly building, surrounded by beautiful buildings 250 years older. The one bright spot, as Mary pointed out, is that it will be gone long before that wall tower disappears. The tower has been there centuries; I can only hope the building doesn’t last that long.

La Cité du Vin

Are you surprised that Bordeaux – one center of France’s wonderful wines – would have a wine museum? In fact, it has at least two; one of which is brand new and shows what modern architecture can be. This is a spectacular building (in my always humble opinion).DSC00320

The exhibits of the museum use technology to explain the history of wine, how it’s made and how to appreciate it. When we bought our tickets (not cheap: $22 each) we were told to plan for two hours to see it; after two hours we had not seen everything but we were, indeed, finished. So we went to the observation room at the top where we were able to try a glass of wine (part of the admission fee) and look over the city. From there it’s possible to see the rebuilding of this previously derelict area of Bordeaux; the museum has generated a renaissance here, and in a few years it will be surrounded with new buildings and apartments.

That’s Bordeaux. We are already planning to return. We loved the city.

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