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The Best Trip Ever--Loire, Dordogne, Provence 2007 Archives

April 17, 2007

Why is this the best trip ever?

Because we're going to three fabulous areas in France, because it's spring, and just because it's the next trip. Our worst trip to Europe was our first one, when jet lag, sleeplessness and the fact that we'd just quit smoking made us both semi-psychotic and hateful. Every trip since then has gotten better, as we've learned more about what what makes us happy and what doesn't.

April 23, 2007

Misc Paris Thoughts

I’m so over the Sixth.

I got my first glimpse of Paris years ago when we emerged from the Metro at Saint Michel and walked down St. Andres des Arts to our hotel near Rue de Buci. I loved it, and have been slow to accept that it’s no longer my favorite part of Paris. This trip our hotel was in the same neighborhood except on a street that should have been quieter, but was still noisy all night long. About the time the parties ended, the garbage collection started. And the streets were packed with kids all day long. It’s just not my scene. Next time we stay elsewhere!

The Orangerie.

I’ve wanted to visit the Orangerie for years, checking before every Paris trip to see if the endless renovations were complete and it was finally open. Finally this time it was, and we were able to visit the two rooms with huge Monet waterlily paintings and the long narrow galleries in the basement (sort of reminiscent of being down in the tunnels of the Metro). A couple of the Monets were magnificent, the others I thought were mostly just big, but not his best efforts. Definitely not my favorite Paris art museum.

Jet lag.

My doctor startled me a few weeks ago by chortling and rubbing his hands and saying “Have I got a jet lag cure for you!!” when I asked for Ambien to get over the rough spots of jet lag. In addition to the sleepy pills, he gave me something called Provigil to keep me awake and alert through the first day when we arrived. It worked—I felt wide awake all day but not jittery and slept as well as could be expected through the parties in the street outside my window. A couple of days later, I’m realizing it didn’t prevent the jet lag, just delayed it. Ho-hum.

I LOVE Paris.

I realize this sounds grumpy, but don’t misunderstand me. Even though we just stopped over two nights and one day in Paris this trip, I loved it. It was the most perfectly beautiful spring day you could ever imagine, and we walked all day long. And the Laduree macarons were perfect!

April 27, 2007

Our days in the Loire Valley

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Our time here has gone by so fast! We’ve shared meals with friends, taken some nice walks, napped, and done very little sightseeing. Since we know the area fairly well, it’s the perfect place for us to take it easy and remember why we love France so much (especially me). It’s quiet this time of year and seems almost entirely untouristed away from the chateaus.

Our only sightseeing was to a small village called Montresor that we’ve missed on previous visits. (photo)

From the Loire, we drove south to Sarlat, stopping for a roadside picnic along the way.

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My first impression of Sarlat was that I’d made a terrible mistake in choosing it. When we arrived, the traffic was insane, and we spent about an hour inching around the edge of town to where we could park to check into our apartment. I was surprised and a little dismayed to find our apartment right on the main street, although it turns out our huge terrace overlooking the street is private yet a perfect place to watch everything. The apartment is quiet when the doors are closed. When I got up this morning I discovered they’d set up the Saturday market right below us without me hearing a thing!

I still wouldn’t choose Sarlat again, because of the traffic, which must be unbearable in season, and because the number of shops marketing tourist junk is just overwhelming, but the buildings are SO beautiful. I keep imagining how beautiful it would be if I could just edit all of that out.

On our first day, we headed out to explore with no plan in mind and had a great day. A nice late morning drive led us to St. Cyprien for lunch in a café full of local construction workers and traveling motorcyclists, then we visited Beynac, La Roque-Gageac and Domme after lunch. Wow – what spectacular scenery!

We took a tourist boat ride down the river from La Roque-Gageac and enjoyed it. I was skeptical, but once I saw the crew wasn’t dressed as pirates, I decided it would be ok. It was a tranquil one-hour ride, with a recorded commentary in English to match the live commentary in French.

My overall impression of what I’ve seen of the Dordogne so far is that it is beautiful, but almost too manicured and too altered by its success as a tourist destination. Do they really sell all of that canned confit and foie gras?

This morning, the Sarlat market is waiting for me just outside the door!

April 29, 2007

Where have all the geese gone?

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The Dordogne is growing on me. After an unpromising start, I'm really starting to appreciate how beautiful it is.

We had an especially nice day yesterday, starting with a morning stroll through the Sarlat market. It's HUGE, winding all the way through town. I think I at least glanced at most everything, although I only bought dish towels. I can almost never leave an outdoor market in France without buying a few more dish towels.

The produce was lovely and tempted me, but our apartment kitchen doesn't seem convenient for any serious cooking so I bypassed it.

Then we drove north and found a nice place for lunch in a quiet village. A well-mannered cat joined us when the food arrived and requested one bite from each of us, then washed up and went back to sleep in the sun.

After lunch we visited Les Jardins de L'Imaginaire in Terrasson. I LOVED it. I always find formal gardens impressive but dull, but this is a very exciting contemporary garden that uses water in surprising and original ways. It was a guided tour in French, which went mostly over our heads, but they provided a booklet in English that covered the basics.

About those geese... When I was reading about this area before we came, I saw lots of pictures of grandmotherly ladies on farms tending their geese. We've done lots of driving around the countryside and seen lots of farms, and I've seen cows, sheep, horses, a few ducks, and quite a few chickens, but not a single goose. Where are they? Are they all already foie grased?

April 30, 2007

Geese!

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Today we found geese! They were on their way to lunch, following a guy on a tractor who filled troughs for them just at lunchtime. They looked fat, happy, and silly, as geese usually do.

Speaking of geese, we've eaten way too well here, but I'm already looking forward to menus that do not feature foie gras and duck confit. I know it's sacrilegious, but I'm not that excited about foie gras, which I find way too rich, and duck confit seems to me like a nice occasional treat, not a daily staple.

We've been especially happy with dinners here in Sarlat at Le Presidial, a very good restaurant with a lovely garden, and L'Octroi, a nice little bistro just outside the historic center. We had lunch on Sunday at La Belle Etoile in La Roque-Gageac, suggested by Ann from Hawaii on the message board. Although the weather didn't cooperate with our plan to eat out on the terrace overlooking the river, we had a lovely meal in a dining room almost entirely full of elderly British folk.

Today, in addition to visiting the geese, we took the tour at Lascaux II. I'm so glad we were able to take an English tour, because the explanations made all the difference. We stopped to buy tickets on Saturday and asked about the English tour, which they said they added just for us, but by today it was completely full. I was surprised by how beautiful the cave paintings were.

May 1, 2007

Adventures in the Dordogne

Adventure #1

So last night we're having dinner at L'Octroi, the little bistro we liked so much last week, on their terrace under one of those big canvas sun shades that covers most of the terrace. Suddenly there's a HUGE clap of thunder, and it begins to pour.

We’re in the center of the covered area, perfectly dry, so we watch as people sitting at tables around the edges are moved either closer to the center or indoors. But the rain continues, so before long, the staff of the restaurant is standing on tables around the edges of the cover laughing and poking with brooms to try to push off the water that’s accumulating on top.

Apparently those shades have an automatic safety feature, because suddenly it decides it’s had enough and starts to fold up, leaving us all out in the pouring rain!

About 20 people grab what they can – Frank took his cake, but I have my priorities straight so I took my wine – and run inside.

I was amazed at how well the restaurant personnel handled it. Within a few minutes, they had tables set up and everyone was back to eating dinner as if nothing had happened.

Adventure #2

We’re driving back to Sarlat this afternoon from a beautiful drive and lunch in Monpazier when suddenly a stone wall on the edge of the road leaps out and scrapes the side of the car, damaging the passenger door! At least that’s my version of the story, although Frank’s is much less imaginative.

He’s just spent an hour or so on the phone sorting everything out with American Express and Europcar, and we’ll be picking up a different car, one that doesn’t leak rain in the passenger door, tomorrow morning.

Going off line for a few days

We're leaving here tomorrow morning and taking two days to drive to Provence, staying somewhere along the way, so it's unlikely that I'll blog again until we're settled into our apartment in Lourmarin this weekend.

May 6, 2007

From Dordogne to Provence in the rain

The worst day of the best trip ever was definitely the drive from Sarlat to Millau, and it definitely wasn't a really "bad" day, just long and tedious at times.

First we had to backtrack to Perigueux to pick up a new car from Europcar since the damage to the first one had messed up the passenger door so that it leaked air and rain. This wasn't a bad drive, but it did take up most of the morning.

Then Frank and I followed our usual practice of picking out what looked like an interesting and direct route on secondary roads rather than taking the autoroute. From Sarlat to Gourdon to Figeac to Rodez to Millau took us through some pretty countryside, but the rain was heavy at times, the roads were crowded with big trucks, and every town was a bottleneck that we inched through in a parade of big trucks.

The second day was much nicer, in spite of our worries about the forecast of bad thunderstorms and heavy downpours. We turned north a little bit and took a mountain road through the Parc National des Cevennes, then down through Ales, Uzes and Avignon. It drizzled most of the way, but the scenery was beautiful, the traffic was light, and we were in Provence in time for lunch at Uzes!

Starting our week in Lourmarin

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Kevin "guaranteed" that the sun would return on Saturday, and he was right. About the time we checked into our apartment at Les Olivettes in Lourmarin, the skies cleared and the sunshine returned.

I'm completely pleased with this apartment. The only surprise to me was how fabulous our view is. I can see both the classic view of the village AND the chateau! It's also good to have high-speed internet access again for the first time in two weeks, although I'm finding it exhausting to try to get this blog up to date!

I'm so happy to be here. Lourmarin has changed dramatically since we first visited in 99, when it was a sleepy little village with a surprising number of good restaurants. I'm told it's because it's become a popular weekend destination for people from Aix, but it's become very upscale. The weekly market is much larger than the quaint little affair it used to be, there's a big new apartment development and what looks like a new hotel, and shops, shops, shops, where there used to be only two or three.

The nice thing is that they've done all this without really harming the charm of the village at all. That central collection of cafes is the same, the chateau is the same, the lovely meadow and the street lined with sycamore trees at the edge of the village, the fountains, and all the rest.

We walked around a bit last Friday during the rainy market here, but other than that I haven't really had a chance to explore yet. I think this afternoon after we return from our hike with Kevin, I'll take my camera out for a good look around.

A Sunday drive

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When I ordered a new copy of the Provence Byways Guidebook to replace our tattered old one from 1999, I noticed that the authors had changed a few of their backroads tours.

Sunday promised to be a beautiful day, so after breakfast on our terrace (did I mention that Les Olivettes delivers a basket with fresh baguette and pastires to our door every morning?), we grabbed the guidebook and our map and set off.

It turned out to be a glorious day! Once we left the N100 on the other side of Apt, we seemed to have all of Provence to ourselves. The wheat is still soft and green and just showing its tassels, the lavendar plants are still tidy little lumps in a row, and the poppies and wildflowers are everywhere.

The drive is through a lightly populated, out of the way area in the high country of Provence, on mostly one lane roads that wind through the hills and dip occasionally down into pretty valleys.

We stopped and walked around three or four small perched villages, most quiet and nearly deserted on Sunday afternoon, but we encountered what appeared to be a big boules tournament in Viens that was fun to watch.

I often wonder if Bob and Sue Winn, the authors of this guidebook, have any idea how many memorable days they have given to Provence visitors with their backroads tours. I hope so!

Just one more:

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May 7, 2007

Our first hike in the Luberon -- a fabulous day!

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After reading about both Kevin's and Kathy and Charley's hikes in this area, I jumped at the chance to join the inaugural hike of Kevin's new informal hiking club. What can I say? It was perfect, good walking, good conversation and a nice lunch in the shade of a cliff overlooking the Durance River Valley. The weather was just right, sunny but with a cool breeze.

Now my task is to talk Frank into at least one more hike before we leave!


May 8, 2007

Just another day in Lourmarin

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Did I mention that I love Lourmarin?

Yesterday morning I set out to follow our routine from home and go for a walk and meet Frank later for coffee. It's only about a 10-minute walk into town from here, so I improvised by cutting behind the chateau assuming there had to be a trail across that meadow which would let me walk a complete circle of the village before meeting him. Hah! After what seemed like about 45 minutes (but was probably less) on a nice trail through the woods leading away from Lourmarin, I finally encountered a little dirt road that crossed the stream and turned back toward the village. It turned out to be a great walk, but I still need to make my circuit of the village.

We frittered away the rest of the morning over coffee at one of the cafes. It was a holiday, so there were lots of visitors around, and the people watching was great! That led to lunch, which led to a nap. Finally late in the afternoon we managed to squeeze in a beautiful drive completely around the Petit Luberon before dinner.

Life is good!

May 9, 2007

Another day, another walk, another beautiful drive

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This morning I visited the Lourmarin cemetery, just down the road from our apartment. Although the entire cemetery is fascinating, the "star" attraction is Albert Camus, who died in an automobile accident in 1960 and is buried here. As graves go, his is a nice one, covered with lavender, iris, and oleander and only a small weathered stone.

From there, I circled around the village and entered at the Mini-Golf footpath, which leads to the village via residents' vegetable gardens. My fascination with vegetable gardens is endless, so I loved this. It looks like the veggies are a few weeks behind mine at home.

Then, before we left for our day's explorations, I joined Frank for coffee and people-watching again. This is where the biggest mishap of our day occurred when a bird deposited a huge and disgusting mess right on the front page of our International Herald Tribune (splattering Frank's shirtfront too). I forgot to ask Frank what the article was that earned such a comment. I guess I'll get by for another day without news!

We drove a big loop up past L'Isle Sur La Sorge etc to Bedoin for lunch, then part way up Mount Ventoux and back through Sault. A gorgeous drive!

May 11, 2007

Things I love about Lourmarin

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It's fairy-tale beautiful, yet it's a real community, not just a tourist destination.

It's hard to imagine that Lourmarin just grew without anyone planning to make it so beautiful. It's almost as if it had been artfully arranged by a set designer: the profile of the village with the Luberon mountains in the background, the Renaissance chateau set off from the main village by that pretty meadow of tall grass, the narrow winding streets that join to form Place de l'Ormeau with its group of cafes at the heart of the village, the winding back streets with brightly colored or faded blue shutters on elegant old buildings, roses climbing stone walls.

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The cafes in Place de l'Ormeau are full of charm and appeal for visitors, yet they are the community living room for the people who live here (and their dogs). Everyone seems to pass through, linger and chat several times a day. One big soft-eyed yellow dog knows that every cup of espresso comes with a "dog" cookie that is his by divine right. I don't argue with him because his face is too sweet.

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The local school is in a building that is breathtakingly beautiful and austere, like a museum, yet filled with the sounds of children's laughter. The school playground is completely surrounded by buildings and sheltered from the view of strangers.

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The dominant feature of Lourmarin is a clock tower, yet as hard as you try, you can't find its base. It's like it just magically appears over the village. I love this mystery! The clock tower chimes the hour, as does the Catholic Church tower, 2 or 3 minutes earlier or later. I don't know which is which, but the first one is anything but melodious. On our first visit, we were right in the center of the village and the bells startled me right out of bed every hour for the first few nights. Now, from a bit of a distance, the bells are familiar and restful.

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There are fountains everywhere, mostly old ones covered with thick green moss. They are illuminated at night, and a walk through the winding back streets in the dark is magical.

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The Friday market is arranged under a row of magnificent sycamores overlooking the meadow and the chateau.

Every morning we've been here I've walked into the village to explore for an hour or two before meeting Frank at the cafe. Every day I've been more charmed than the day before. We leave tomorrow, but I'm already thinking about when we can return.

The end!

I woke up early this morning dreaming that my cat Carlos was purring in my ear, so it's obviously time to go home!

After one last walk down to the village this morning for cafe au lait and a cookie for the dog, we'll turn in the car in Avignon this afternoon and take the TGV to CDG. Tomorrow we fly Air France to San Francisco, BART across the Bay and Amtrak home.

This really did turn out to be our best trip ever. The only thing I would change if I had it do do over would be to stay somewhere less touristy in the Dordogne, where I didn't have to see 35,000 cans of foie gras every time I walked down the street.

And maybe I wouldn't have eaten so much... nah, I enjoyed every bite!

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