Monday, May 29, 2017

Chapter 16teen: Brittany - Carnac Cold Front

Brittany: Cold Front over Carnac

Carnac is situated on the south coast of Brittany, on the Gulf of Morbihan. On April 26, cold moist Atlantic air collided with the much warmer atmosphere over a large stretch of France's western landmass. When we drove into the city, Carnac was in the middle of a storm front. 

All afternoon, big puffy clouds were building,

 larger and larger, higher and higher, fluffier and fluffier.  

The cumulous clouds in the photo below, an hour or so after the shot was taken, became cumulo nimbus with black hammerhead tops, the bane of aircraft pilots who would alter course to avoid being torn apart in the fierce winds in the dense anvil-shaped blackness.

The sky was dramatic during our few days in Brittany. Rainstorms came and went, usually off in the distance. We were spared again. 

In the photo above, the ground is jagged with pre-historic standing stones, some of which are about three times the height of a tall person.

Carnac may have Europe's largest concentrations of neolithic standing stones, called megaliths, or menhirs. They date back over three millennia.

We came upon a large field of these mysterious formations on our way into town. The ancient stones pop up all around the city and in the outlying areas.

In the Carnac forest on the way to our B&B, we passed by the Mane-Kerioned Dolmens - a burial site of huge stacked stones reported to have been erected circa 3,500 BC.

In 1972 we visited Stonehenge, and at that time we could walk right up and touch the rock, wander around the mysterious structure, and feel the vibes of the Druids. It has long since been fenced off. But not here. Not yet, anyway.

I dropped Joanne off at our digs and returned to explore the dolmens on my own. 

I spent too long in the caverns, stooped over, knuckled fists balancing me on the rough earthen floor, low-browed and squinting for light, grunting from the sore back and creaking knees. 

I thought I was alone.

On exiting the tomb with a load groan, I was met with the screams and wide eyes of two small children who were looking into the black hole, at a safe distance, waiting for the caveman. 

I did not know they were there. They startled me, and I yelled. They ran like hell to their parents. 

When the parents saw that the caveman was wearing jeans, T-shirt, and Nikes, with a camera hanging from his neck, they  laughed at their children.

I walked over to them with a smile on my face and a bump on my head from hitting it on the keystone when I heard the screams.

I wanted to reassure the kids that I was not the bogeyman, but my version of French probably scared them just as much. 

The next day I went to church - not to confess my sins, but to photograph the unusual steeple of the 17th C St. Cornely Church. 

Saint Cornely - protector of horned animals

The granite baldaquin, in the shape of a crown - unique in Brittany - surmounts the porch on the north side of the church.

Carnac is really much more than stone. It is a place for all kinds of R&R.

The beaches are sandy and clean, the water, clear and cold. The place is alive with tourists in the summer, seeking sunshine on the seaside, smothering the sounds of surf and seabirds with their hubbub and havoc, their water sports and their wailing kids.

Blogs can be dangerous places where poor language and opinions get posted.

I might have to come back to edit this piece out.

Dinner Recommendation: La Brigantine on Rue Coloray.

For more travel and other photography visit my website 

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Chapter 14teen: Aquitaine and the Norwegians

Aquitaine and the Norwegians

From Biarritz we headed north, stopping for only a few hours in Bordeaux, then on to our next destination near Pugnac, a small village in the Bordeaux wine region of Blaye.

Bordeaux is another magnificent French city of grandeur. There is so much to be experienced in this majestic centre that we felt a little like hitchhikers, just passing through without taking the time to stop before our next ride on down the highway. As with Toulouse, however, we only lunched in Bordeaux, then burned off calories from the mid-day meal with a good walk around town. 

Miroir d'Eau, Gironde Waterfront Redevelopment Project, across fro, Place de la Bourse

We picked up the Tourist Office map and did a three-hour self-guided tourist walk, getting a glimpse of some very historic architecture, monuments, and innovative city landscapes.

One may wonder why I would choose Miroir d'Eau (photo above), with which to stamp my post of Bordeaux.  One reason is that, while I have several shots of the old stuff, they can all be seen online elsewhere. The photo captures what France represents to us - inspirational people places that have been commissioned by local municipal leaders, created and engineered by very innovative people, all of whom have collaborated to provide interesting, safe and communal playgrounds right in the middle of their cities.

This "water park" is about a hectare or so of smooth cement surface that is at one moment a thin surface of water, then it drains and becomes a field of drifting mist, then vertical jets of water. I wanted to stay to see all its transformations, to play in it, and to see its marvels, also when lit in the dark. Maybe in another lifetime.

Our Chambre d'Hôtes, situated by a crossroad of farms and vineyards, is owned and operated by the Fitzgeralds. It was a comfortable, colourful and cozy home-away-from-home

Sometimes we get really, really lucky and find such a bright and cheery B&B. One cannot compare a quiet and peaceful place like this to an accommodation in a city. Thank you Sarah and Patrick.

The wisteria was in its final days of bloom.

We did a day trip to Saint-Émilion, parking our car in a lay-by at the western edge of the city on Avenue du 8 Mai 1945

Saint-Émilion is an appellation,  bijoux (jewel) among the Bordeaux vintages.  The town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as interesting as any we have seen in the old world. But if one is not there for the wine, well ...  I felt like the American redneck who took a wrong turn on the way to Hollywood, and ended up on Rodeo Drive (LA). Rather in-your-face wine merchants confronted us with over-priced wines. We both felt that, were we driving a Porsche rather than a Peugeot 308, we might have bought a few bottles.


It is indisputable that the wines here are world-class. This is a mecca for wine connoisseurs, aficionados, sommeliers, would-be's, and wanna-be's, but we were not here as buyers, or even tasters. We were close by, curious, interested in the old city as a UNESCO site, and hungry for a meal in Place du Clocher. 

Lost in translation: the highlight of day-tripping in Saint-Émilion was engaging with our table-mates. Actually, Joanne was my only table-mate, but remember, this is France, so there being elbow-room only, even out in the square, one is rubbing elbows with your neighbouring tables - hence table-mates. (See Chapter 4).

On both sides of us were Norwegian tourists, unknown to each other. I tried to ignore them, as one tends to do in very close quarters in Europe because of the need for privacy. But I could not resist, and Joanne did egg me on.

I can speak one or two consecutive sentences in Norsk - with a flawless accent because the dialects are so varied up there that one fjord tongue does not know exactly what the next fjord tongue sounds like anyway.

The mayor of a small town and her boyfriend from somewhere north of Oslo was at our eastern elbow. At our west elbow, was a semi-retired fisher couple from the south coast. I introduced one table to the other.

They had no French, which I have some of, so I was the tri-language translator. Their biggest surprise came rather soon when I ran out of Norwegian vocabulary and they learned that I was not really from Stavanger, but from Canada.

Ole on my right and Sven on my left were at first confused, but then Joanne explained that my father had emigrated to Canada, I had become a Norwegian sailor, then we all laughed - in both languages.

We drove back to the B&B for an aperatif in the farm field, then closed the farm gate after our twilight dinner of vin rouge, fromage, pâte  de foie gras, saucisson de sanglier, and cornichons in the setting sun.

In the ancient French bedroom that night I related how often we have stumbled upon travelling Norwegians, (and even Swedes, hah), on this trip, and how I could not stop myself from prattling on with them, and how taken aback, how surprised they are when they hear me (try to) speak their language.

"Well, not many people other than Norwegians speak Norwegian you know. Why would they?

I have a wifi connection for my iPad. Please go to sleep."

Dinner Recommendation: La Popote, Pugnac. When she handed us the menu, the server said, "Everything here is for sale." 

For more travel and other photography visit my website 

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Chapter 15teen: The Charentes then into Brittany

The Charentes then into Britanny

I would have loved to have posted some great photos here to help tell the story of our visits in the Charentes, staying with our friends, Theresa and Tommy at their Chez Thomas in Segonzac, but, sadly, I laid my camera down. After a few thousand clicks, I needed to cool off the camera and give my trigger finger a rest.  I will, however, resort to some quickie little smartphone shots

I recommend to all explorers of France, that if you ever want to visit the Cognac region, namely, the Charentes, book some time at the Chez Thomas Chambre d'Hôtes.  The famous city of Cognac, and touring opportunities at the distilleries there, are only a short drive away.

Segonzac is the real centre of the cognac producers. This is where Raymond Desse, grand viticulteur, produces his award-winning cognac. 

On this visit to France we visited him again, honoured to be invited to his home with our friends for an aperatif dînatoire, prepared by his wife Marie Noel, a most gracious hostess, and a true ambassador for France. 

Raymond proudly showed us his award, a distinction of honour in his industry. 

We celebrated with samples of his eau de vie.

M. Desse gave us a tour of his property. 

Several years ago he planted a small grove of oak trees at the back of his house. The trees facilitate the propagation of truffles. These he harvests in February with the help of a friend's dog.

The other side of the house is flanked by a perimeter of bushes (sorry, I did not get the plant name). These also promote the growth of truffles. Raymond harvests these ones in May/June.

Tommy has the truffle eye: he picked one out of the ground on our little tour!

Wow! Now who has their own private "truffle plantations"? And this is not all. M. Desse also cultivates his own escargots.

He picks the snails off his grape vines and places them into a big garden pot that he covers with a lid. There is flour in the pot for the snails to eat, which purges them of toxins.

Before we said au revoir, we followed the viticulteur into his personal cave where we selected a very special bottle of VSOP to take home to Canada, and two bottles of his Pineau des Charentes for consumption during our weeks in France. 

The last glass of the Pineau we consumed this evening!

Merci beaucoup, Monsieur et Madame Desse!

With the exception of just a few wet days, we have been blessed with almost two months of rain-free days in France. T-shirts and shorts on a lot of hot April days. Friends back home in southwest BC have repeatedly messaged us about their biblical rains - 40 days and 40 nights ... 

The rain did finally catch up with us though, when we pointed our little Peugeot to the Atlantic coast. We pulled into Brouage for a look. 

17C Citadel
This pre-Roman settlement had, by the 16th century, developed into one of the most thriving commercial centres/seaports on the south Atlantic coast of France. 

More than half a century ago Brouage was the centre of France's salt trade.

This, the birthplace of Samuel de Champlain (some say) is a "must-see" for the French Canadian in search of his/her roots.

I was jumping in and out of the car between rain showers in the old fortified city, determined to capture some of our past with my lens. 

To avoid a sudden downpour I ducked into a musty, cavernous chamber at the top of a flight of worn stone stairs. My eyes quickly grew accustomed to the dark and I was able to make out some of the details in the room. 

I was in the latrine. I swear there were about six black holes on a smooth old bench, a big bum width between each. Wow! Hell, I'll pay a euro to use the toilet by the Tourist Office.

I had a lot of questions, among which:
What were these guys talking about, all shitting together?
How bad was the air? 
Was it unisex/co-ed?

We stayed at a hotel in La Rochelle that night, grey, cold and dreary in the Atlantic rain.
Tour de la Lanterne

The seafood dinner was excellent, even with (maybe, because of) the smell of the muddy banks in the lowering tide.

Dinner Recommendation: Restaurant Le Bar AndréRue St Jean du Pérot


The following piece is a jump ahead to the dark side. 
I promise that the next post will be a much brighter Brittany.

Dinan is the city in the north of Brittany if you have a penchant for the Dark Ages with crooked half-timbered buildings, streets shared by only old people and tourists. We felt we should stop here to check it out. Ricky Steeves recommends it highly ...

It was a rainy day and very gloomy in the old city. My wife used the word, "spooky".

I wanted to find a restaurant that served up local Breton dishes. A Crêperie seemed to fit the bill - in the photo, located under the arch, bottom right, of the 1,000 year old building. 

I was sure we had chosen the right eatery: 
Firstly, because I was having trouble understanding the French.
It wasn't. It was Breton.
Secondly, the food - I had no idea what it was. I like mysteries. But it turned out to be downright medieval. 

"Slow-food-France" has both advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, the slow, civilized pace is healthy, calming, and provides an ambience for good conversation; on the other hand, the pace can be unhealthy, stressful, and conducive to grumbling and nastiness. 

I was famished by the time we were shown to our table. When the food finally arrived I was ecstatic about the grand, veined  saucisson laying large on my plate. I ravenously wolfed down the first half of the andouiette. Then my taste buds kicked in. They slowed down my knife and fork. I put smaller and smaller pieces of the sausage in my mouth, garnishing each one with more and more dijon

After much ado, the Breton wiener, reduced now to a thumb-sized length, lay lonely and abandoned on my plate. 

Joanne said, "What's wrong?"

"I don't think I like this. What is it anyway?"

"Chitterlings," she said, with a smile on her face. "Tripe."

I hate tripe. It is the only thing in the world I don't eat. This might be a psychosexual repression Freudian thing from my childhood. Ugh! Andouiette. I should have known.

We got out of Dinan.

For more travel and other photography visit my website 

Monday, May 8, 2017

Chapter 13teen: Biarritz and San Sebastian

Biarritz and San Sebastian

Grande Plage

Biarritz is beach, Biarritz is Basque, Biarritz is beautiful, and on and so much more. This seaside city, established in the latter half of the 1800's, lies at the foot of the Pyrenees on the Bay of Biscay.

We have never been here before. Biarritz has not been on our list of places to visit in France, perhaps because of the wrap it has had: you know, a retreat for the royalty, the wealthy, the elite. But that is its early history, and while it remains a magnet for the monied, this is a place for people with many interests, especially lovers of the sea, the warmth, the food and wine.

We finally came here for a look. 

Anne Sophie, the lady of the house, greeted us at the door of our accommodation with such an infectious smile, from head to toe, that my road weariness disappeared at once. We were welcomed to Biarritz with open arms.

The second of our three days here, we went to Spain - just a very short drive down the coast to San Sebastian for some tapas. More on that below.

the blue, the red, and the green

Lucky for us, Anne Sophie had a day off work and was a willing and knowledgeable guide. 

This is the Basque country of France, in language, food and drink, and architecture. The ancient Basque language, that bears little relationship to either French or Spanish, is taught in some schools here. Street and road signs, and business signs are bilingual, just as they are back home in Canada; and as we will find them to be in parts of Brittany with the Breton language.

Basque traditional colours are blue, green and red. These we see throughout Biarritz and the surrounding countryside.

Blue represents the sea - the fishermen
Red represents the blood of animals - the farmers of warm blooded creatures
Green, for the farmers of non-animal agricultural products.

The buildings in the photo above are typical for the area.

Hôtel de Palais

Napolean  lll built this palatial "summer home" for his wife, Eugénie. It has become the signature hotel for Biarritz. We walked freely through the lobby and dining room. We'll get a room next time.

The sculpture at the entrance to the Hôtel de Palais. (the big white house in the centre is many blocks away. My long lens just happened to place it there).

Plage de la Côtés des Basques

The guys on the right jogged, we walked - for about ten kilometres, starting from our room at the south end of town, down into the city, on to the north beach, then all the way back, UP hills and stairs. It was T-shirt and shorts weather. 

Pointe Datalaye

The shoreline includes everything from rocky outcrops and shipwreck  rocks, through old marinas, to beautiful sandy beaches, with surfing waves and calm swimming coves.

The local marine rescue team put on a show for passersby with a training exercise.

We watched the simulation of a man stranded way offshore, in danger of drowning. A rescue team paddled out to him at speed, dragging a long tether out with them from the shore. 

They secured the injured man on a floating stretcher and brought him to the beach where he was treated with medical intervention.  


San Sebastian, is a very sizeable city just across the border to the south. For some reason we expected a small fishing town, and were quite surprised at the size of the city. 

We parked in the usual Euro-city centre underground parking garage - challenging to find, to pay for, to exit - then we walked around the streets of the old town like all the other tourists. April 19 is definitely a bank/school holiday week. It was almost like family day at Disneyland (well, not quite).

See the church? 

Now see the closeup of the centre apex (below). I call this the crown, the ship and the ogre. But the student of Christian architecture will have a much less touristic name for it, and a volume of very interesting facts that go way beyond the scope of this blog.

A good friend and fellow traveller (Bill McGowan, I think) once told me that you can always pick out the tourist on the street in New York because he is always looking up, gazing in wonder at the skyscrapers, a perfect target for the pickpocket. 

Well, that's me, I guess, but it is the photographer in me that is always looking up. Actually, I am a bit of a bobble-head, always looking for the next great shot, wherever it might be. 

For example, check out the next picture that I call fishing for love.

I wonder how many people saw these guys up on the third floor balcony in a very narrow street. I have not yet been pick-pocketed, by the way.

We are really here for the tapas and we were not disappointed. Tapas bars are everywhere in the old city. The second tapas bar we went to was far more colourful than the one in the photo, but I had packed my camera away and missed that shot. Sorry about that.

Typically, one enters the crowded bar, standing room only, bellies up to the counter, not rudely, but not casually either or you will never be served. The objective is to make eye contact with one of the busy Basque servers who will hand you a large plate that you fill up with your own personal selection of tasty food samples. This is a smorgasbord with colourful concoctions of seafood, meats, egg, vegetables, sauces and spices - culinary inventions without limit.

This was like eye candy for me. The challenge is to be patient for your turn, not to drool on the platters, not to take too much time with your selection to piss off the Basque guy behind you who actually knows what he is doing and knows that you do not. And, of course, balancing your full plate on one hand, while fumbling with your wallet (trying not to get pick-pocketed for the first time in the elbow-to-elbow crowd), not having a clue how much the server is asking for. One of your four eyes is seeking out a place to stand and eat this stuff, the other is on your partner, so as not to finally lose her in Spain, your third eye is on the small stubby manzana wine glass, marvelling at how the server is able to pour a generous serving of local white from a metre above the glass as is the local custom, without wasting a splashed drop anywhere; and your fourth eye, and so on ... 

A riot of colours and an anarchy of tastes. What a trip, as we would say in the sixties.

The next day, back in Biarritz, Anne Sophie introduced me to her friend, Mark, who together with his brother, run the oyster bar in the covered market downtown. Needless to say, I bought the taster package: 6 huitres + 1 verre de vin for nine euros. And we traded stories too.

les Halles

Place Jean Baptiste Lasalle (below) is one of the most people friendly places we have ever experienced. Why? This is a place where people of all ages, from great grandparents to toddlers, from  jocks to the disabled, can hang out with a drink in their hand, bought at the bar or brought from home. 

Kids are swinging on tree branches, a game of pétanques is being played on the hard packed dirt, bicycles are permitted, as are courteous smokers.

We walked here from our room, five minutes away. I was drinking a cold beer from my backpack, Jo, a glass of Aperol spritzer from the bar at the promenade. This was the magic hour, in the fading light of day when the shadows are long and the colours become saturated.

We gazed out at the perfect Atlantic horizon until well after the sun set.

Dinner Recommendation: La Tantina de Burgos

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Friday, May 5, 2017

Chapter 12elve: On to Gascony

On to Gascony

Toulouse, after Paris, Lyon, and Marseille, is the fourth largest city in France. Except for a lunch break on the drive from Montpellier we did not spend any time in Toulouse.

City Hall

While there is much to see here, alas, we were on a mission to get to small town Gascony and into the country of the Auquitane.

Toulouse, the capital city of Haute Garonne, is Europe's largest Aerospace centre, the hub of the aviation industry for France and the rest of the EU. 

The city has a fascinating history for those who want to delve into it. What stood out for me in several reads was the widespread power of the Bishops of Toulouse, in a diocese that has included most of southwest France since pre-Roman times.

The Garonne River winds its way past Toulouse. There are lots of canals in parts of the city, the most significant of which is the Canal du Midi, that links the Atlantic Ocean at Bordeaux, through Toulouse to the Mediterranean Sea.

One thing that really stands out in the architecture of this region is the use of red brick. North to Montauban and east to Albi, in all types of construction from barns and bridges to houses and cathedrals, red brick is overwhelmingly the dominant building material.

the yellow fields of rapeseed are in full bloom, soon to be harvested for oil

Our major destination after Montpellier is Biarritz where we will stay at a Chambre d' Hotes for three days. It would seem that the logical road-trip would be over the Pyrenees, through Pau, then down to the coast. However, I have kind of had enough of twisty mountain roads. As stunning as that drive would be, I wanted a break from the peaks and valleys and hairpin turns.

So we drove north on the toll road for a while, then cut west into farm country. 

In Gers, I took off for Condom. 

The countryside was fabulous with rolling fields of green, patched and capped with crops of brilliant yellow rapeseed. This plant, known in Canada as Canola oil, is used not only as a consumable vegetable oil, but also as a biofuel. (more on this when the blog takes you to Normandy).

Cultivated fields gave way to vineyards as we approached our destination. Gascony wines may not be universally known, but they are delightful. We stocked up.

Our accommodation was right off the map, unidentified road on our GPS display - just a line that we were driving along. Not to worry,  the GPS coordinates of latitude & longitude - degrees, minutes, and seconds - that were emailed to us, were way better than what Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus, and Roald Amundsen had in their day. We arrived at a big old farm, like a bastide, creatively restored and updated. Our room was decorated in a Kathryn Hepburn theme, right out of Meilleur Gites et Jardins. 
(sorry, was too tired to take pictures).

Not a word of English was spoken, so I employed my version of French, which has been improving daily. Here in the remote region of Gascony, a stretch from Condom, I was accused of being either Swiss or Quebecois. This, they accepted. I did not prevaricate.

Hunger approached and we were directed to a fine restaurant in the city for the evening meal an hour before sunset and returned to our quarters in the dark.

The seldom travelled road (above), winding along the Petite Baise River is magical in the light of a sunny day, but spooky black at night when we drove back on it with faith in the great gift of our geostationary satellite positioning system.

Normandy is known for its calvados, the Charente for its cognac, and Gascony is known for its armagnac. We did not buy a bottle, but we did purchase the prunes soaked in armagnac. My gosh, what a taste. Like honey to a bear, we'd scratch the bark off a tree for it - a wonderful end-of-the-day treat.

Before leaving this warm pre-summer countryside - the land of Alexandre Dumas and his Three Musketeers, incidentally - we toured the 13th Century fortified village of Larressingle, one the one hundred or so Plus Belles Villages de France.

The castle, had much to delight the eye of the new world tourist: stone bridge, arrow slits, moat, embattlements, gothic arches, towers, embankments, and crenellations; and ghosts for the wandering mind.

In the medieval church stands Saint Sigismond, considered to be one of the first Christian Kings. He was martyred in 504. 

"He strikes a rather gay pose." (Joanne)

We piqueniqued  here with the usual baguette, pâté, fromage, cornichons, fruits frais, et naturellement, un petit verre de vin, just pumped that morning into our travelling carafe (emptied water bottle) at the Condom Co-op Cave. 

The last hour or so of our drive to the coast was through some decidedly dull and boring countryside. But we were rewarded by the cheerful, friendly greeting of our host when we arrived in Biarritz. Little did we know, that not only would there be more adventures in store for us during the next three days, but we would have a new special friendship develop while there.

Dinner Recommendation: Hotel Continental, Condom

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