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France

From the Rhône to the Rhine: Annecy


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Our arrival in Annecy put us firmly in the former territory of the legendary House of Savoy, which was ultimately deposed by the French government in the late 18th century. Annecy is well-known as a city of canals and is often called the Venice of the Alps but the scenic body of water that travels through the old town from Lake Annecy is actually the short river Le Thiou. The canals of Annecy are short, discontinuous, and murky so the comparison to Venice isn't really justified. The old town is quite beautiful, however, especially in the areas directly on the river and the adjacent narrow alleys.
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We had some difficulty meeting up with our Airbnb host in a nondescript apartment complex a few blocks from the old town. He had neglected to advise us that there was a barrier gate at the entrance to the complex that we couldn't pass and seemed bemused that we weren't able to drive directly to the front of our building. Eventually I had to strike out on foot and meet up with him at the apartment in order to get the fob that opened the gate, return to the car and then drive in. It was an annoying rigmarole that we've been through dozens of times in southern Europe but seems to be gradually becoming less frequent. We deposited our belongings in the apartment and immediately set off for the old town. We passed through one of the medieval stone gates and found ourselves on a very busy and colorful street lined with antiquated buildings and countless restaurants. We immediately noticed that the wear and stains on the building facades created a different atmosphere from the polished and freshly painted surfaces of the old towns of Lausanne and Zürich.
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After a couple of turns in the old town we found ourselves on one of the innumerable pedestrian bridges over Le Thiou. This was the view that was most reminiscent of Venice with outdoor cafes lining the walkway on the north bank of the river. As we walked east towards the lake we got a better view of the iconic Palais de L'Isle. This small but imposing fortress was built on a natural island in Le Thiou in the 12th century and was mainly used as a prison as recently as World War Two. It was subsequently restored and most of the building is now a museum.
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It was now the peak dining hour and I realized we needed to focus our attention on the final meal of the day. The old town had become substantially more crowded in the half hour since we had arrived and it seemed we might have some difficulty finding a table in one of the busy establishments around us. Surely enough we were denied at several restaurants before being seated at a rather touristy place on the north side of the river. It wasn't a great meal but the menu was faithful enough to the local Savoy specialties and we felt we could have done far worse. The old town was especially beautiful as the sun disappeared behind the buildings and the streetlights began to glow.
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We might have spent more time absorbing the atmosphere but the crowds were only growing thicker and it was clear that the area was a prime destination for late night drinking. It suddenly seemed that bars and nightclubs were everywhere and we decided it would be a good time to take a look at the lake shore. We followed Le Thiou to the east and walked along the promenade of the city park Jardins de l'Europe. From here we could see across the peaceful lake to the mountain range on the opposite shore. Once we completed the semicircle around the park we crossed the Le Vassé canal via Pont des Amours. Local legend says that anyone who kisses on the Lovers' Bridge will stay together forever. Mei Ling and I weren't aware of that at the time but since we have no doubts regarding the permanence of our relationship I don't think we missed an important opportunity.
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I knew that there was a festival of animation taking place in Annecy that week but up to that point we hadn't seen any sign of it. We walked back west along the canal between the Jardins and Le Pâquier, an enormous grassy field often used as a staging ground for festivals and other cultural events. We saw hundreds of people seated on the grass in front of a giant screen and decided to join them despite my misgivings about the late hour. There was a sense of anticipation but unfortunately the screen was just showing ads and short previews in a loop. We waited for about twenty minutes before I decided that we were jeopardizing our early arrival at the morning market. Of course just as we finished corralling the kids the screen jumped to life but I overrode their protests and we made the long walk back to the Airbnb.
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In the morning we decided to pack the car and drive to the market instead of taking our purchases back to the Airbnb. It was a significant walk from the Airbnb to the old town and I'd seen some good sized parking lots close to the center the previous night. I figured we'd get a good jump on our day by having breakfast in the market and continuing onward. We also didn't have to worry about cutting our market visit short to get back to the Airbnb in time to make our ten o'clock checkout. What I hadn't figured was that those nice half-empty lots would be packed full of cars even at eight in the morning which forced us further away from the old town until we'd lost most of the gains we'd made by driving. I also had a near miss accident drifting out of my lane in a rotary while I was looking for the entrance to a lot, which was a good reminder of the inherent dangers of driving in a series of unfamiliar cities and countries. We eventually found a spot and entered the old town from the east near the Jardins de l'Europe. We could see right away that it was going to be a great market, even larger and more energetic than the previous morning in Thonon. Naturally all the usual fruits and vegetables were there but there was also a good selection of cooked food ready to eat. The sheer density of the colorful and appetizing food on the counters was almost overwhelming. There were fresh juices for the kids and an amazing variety of meats and cheeses with a Savoyard twist. One local specialty I learned about from the cheese vendor was Tomme de Savoie, a wheel-shaped cheese with a grey rind. There were countless varieties of tomme, which is just a generic term in the French Alpine region for round cheeses made from skimmed milk.
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We bought ourselves some stewed chicken, roasted potatoes, and black bread and found a cafe which agreed to let us eat at one of their tables once we purchased coffee and croissants from them. We sat outside and soaked in the morning energy while we filled our stomachs. After breakfast we made another pass through the entire market to make sure that we hadn't missed anything. It was easier to focus on the small details now that we no longer had to worry about putting together a meal and finding a comfortable place to consume it.
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Once we had taken our final swing through the market we found it hard to make our final departure. Even though Annecy was more of a tourist magnet than we had hoped we still found it to be irresistibly beautiful. The reflections of the colorful old buildings and medieval stone walls in the clear waters of Le Thiou is a sight I don't think I'll ever forget.
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Twenty minutes west of Annecy the River Fier has cut a narrow and deep canyon through solid rock over countless millennia. In 1869 a narrow walkway was built along the limestone cliff providing tourist access to the natural attraction known as the Gorges Du Fier. Apparently we were stepping out onto this very same path although neither the solid wooden blanks nor the sturdy metal railings appeared to be a hundred and fifty years old. This was the kind of activity we had been accustomed to on previous trips to the American Southwest and Iceland but it seemed incongruous in such a historic and refined region as Savoie. The path was set about midway up the moss-covered cliff, enough to create a thrill but not so high above the narrow river as to be vertiginous. Because of the turns and twists in the gorge there was a new discovery around every corner. Some of the rocks had been given strange shapes by the gradual erosion from the rushing water so that we saw a face in one place or an animal in the next. The kids kept running ahead and out of sight which made me nervous even though the platform seemed very secure. At the end of the serpentine path was the Glade of the Curious, a field of eroded limestone full of deep, irregular potholes known as giant's kettles.
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One of the trademarks of our road trip itineraries is that we never bypass a potentially interesting city. I would rather slow the trip down than realize at some later date that I had driven right past a place we would have enjoyed seeing. Perhaps that's why we take such a long time to pass through geographic areas despite exploring individual cities so quickly. For many people travel is all about skimming through the highlights and the top ten lists but for us we like to see some of the places that the tourists ignore. That's the reason that we found ourselves in the small city of Chambéry, the historic capital of the Savoy region.
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We only had a couple of hours and everything we wanted to see was in the old town but all the roads leading inward were marked with a sign that had a red circle on a white background. I figured that meant no entry except for locals, a common designation in southern Europe that can lead to stiff fines if violated. It wasn't too hard to find a spot on the major avenue that ran along the southern edge of the old town so we parked there and entered by foot. We soon found ourselves in a lovely network of old streets that were busy without having any touristic vibe whatsoever.
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Over the last two days the weather had been getting warmer and it appeared we were at the beginning of a heat wave. The late afternoon in Chambéry's old town was uncomfortably hot so to keep the kids going I told them that we were hunting for an elephant. Of course I meant La Fontaine des Elephants, a fountain at the other end of the old town that had become a symbol of the city. I knew exactly where it was but I pretended not to know how we were going to find this elephant. The kids immediately became very enthusiastic and competitive about the hunt and started seeing elephants everywhere. They were the first to notice that there were circular brass plaques embedded in the cobblestones stamped with images of elephants and concluded that they were a trail to the target elephant. I figured out that they were only a guide for tourists to reach the old town's designated attractions and had to drag them away in the correct direction. Along the way we ducked into ancient courtyards and traversed enchanting medieval alleys such as Rue Basse du Château and Rue du Sénat de Savoie.
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Besides the fountain the only other specific destination on my list for Chambéry was the chocolatier Cedric Pernot. We arrived a little before their closing time and I didn't get the impression the proprietress was thrilled to see us. I imagine they get more than their share of the few tourists that pass through the town and probably a lot of parents don't stop their kids from touching the chocolate and the display cases. We did monitor the kids pretty carefully, especially Spenser, as we admired some of the more elaborate constructions. Eventually we bought a few relatively inexpensive chocolate covered biscuits and escaped the penetrating gaze of the lady behind the counter.
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Cleo was naturally the first one to spot the elephant fountain and shouted in victory. It is quite a remarkable structure for a region that has so little to do with elephants. The fountain was built in 1838 to commemorate native son Benoît de Boigne, who distinguished and enriched himself as a merchant and general in India before ultimately returning to his hometown. Before his death de Boigne contributed much of his fortune to the establishment of hospitals and other public edifices in Chambéry. De Boigne's connection to India indirectly resulted in elephants becoming the unofficial symbol of the city. Water gushes from the trunk of each of the four elephants on the fountain and I realized that if I leaned back far enough I could achieve a simple solution to the oppressive heat of the city.
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On the way out of the square I felt a sudden sharp pain in one of my toes as though it was being pierced by a needle. I immediately thought a piece of glass had worked its way into my sandal and pulled it off to inspect the damage. There was nothing in my sandal and no sign of blood on the injured toe which now felt as though it was being squeezed in a vise. I looked around and saw a few yellowjackets buzzing around a grate a few steps back and I realized I had inadvertently caught one in my sandal and been stung. The toe remained extremely painful for several minutes and I just stood where I was feeling my heart pound and waiting for the pain to subside. Surprisingly my toe never swelled or reddened and eventually the discomfort dissipated. We resumed walking and it was like the sting had never happened. At this point we were just a couple of blocks from the River Leysse which marks the northern boundary of the old town. Remembering Le Thiou from Annecy I thought it might be worth walking the extra distance but unfortunately the river was nearly dry and the surroundings were rather unattractive. On the way back to the car we admired the outside of the Castle of the Dukes of Savoy which is still the seat of the local government.
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In the end we were quite happy we had set aside a couple of hours to explore Chambéry. It was quite a contrast to Annecy whose old town was more beautiful because of the river but also smaller and much more touristy. There was much more of a feeling of discovery within the small alleys of Chambéry and we felt that our strategy of visiting lesser known cities was validated. Now it was time to move on to Grenoble, a city with a familiar name that I actually knew very little about.

Posted by zzlangerhans 00:05 Archived in France Tagged road_trip family chambres family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog gorges_du_fier Comments (0)

From the Rhône to the Rhine: Thonon and Geneva


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When I created our itinerary Thonon was just an inexpensive place to lay our heads before driving to Geneva in the morning. Airbnb's in the French town were half the price of those in Geneva. Once I began my usual investigations I discovered that in an enormous stroke of luck the town's weekly market was on the morning after we arrived. I also realized that we couldn't miss the medieval town of Yvoire a little further west on the lakeshore. The full day I had planned to spend in Geneva was shrinking rapidly but on the bright side we would have more than enough interesting activities to fill the day. We were eager to see the town and we still had the matter of dinner to attend to so we walked along the outskirts of the old town to an Asian fusion bistro that seemed to have good reviews. It was an interesting change from the European food of the last few days but not as tasty as we had hoped. On our walk back to the Airbnb the sun had already disappeared behind the mountains on the opposite shore of the lake but its glow still illuminated the clouds and gave the rippling water an eerie shine.
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In the morning we followed my first rule of France, which is that if you aren't out of the house before eight you're going to be out of sync for the entire day. In France the energy of the morning markets has dissipated by eleven and they are essentially closed by one in the afternoon. Lunch is best taken between noon and one thirty and dinner best completed before nine. Then it's early to bed to be ready to rise at seven. It seems that every time we violate this principle we suffer some adverse consequence. I did a good job herding everyone out and we had completed the short walk to the weekly market while there was still some early morning crispness in the air. We were really surprised by the size of the market considering that Thonon had seemed like such a small and sleepy town. Besides the extensive selection of fruits, vegetables, meat and fish there were several vendors preparing cooked food. This was a welcome change from Switzerland where it had been somewhat difficult to put together a satisfying breakfast in a morning market.
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One of the best things about being up early and within walking distance of the market is that we had plenty of time to bring all our purchases back to the Airbnb to have breakfast instead of sitting on a curb or negotiating with a cafe. We were able to enjoy our roast chicken, paella, and fresh produce in the comfort of home and then pack our belongings once again. It was time to get back on the road.
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Most of the towns along the shore of Lake Geneva look like typical lakeside resorts with modern housing similar to anywhere else in Europe. One exception is the village of Yvoire which has somehow maintained its medieval character with well-preserved stone houses on a small network of narrow streets. It's unclear how Yvoire remained intact while other villages were tearing down their old structures and building updated accommodations to attract vacationers. Entering the village feels like passing through a time warp to the 13th century, although the illusion might be more complete if it wasn't for the hordes of tourists and all the boutiques and cafes that clearly weren't intended for the town's few residents. Although Yvoire lacked the appealing cobblestone streets of other old towns the buildings were dramatically decorated with colorful flowers in pots and planters as well as thick clusters of ivy on the stone walls. It was clear there was a coordinated effort to create a certain aesthetic impression and I have to admit it was remarkable.
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Close to the water the imposing Château D'Yvoire stands apart from the rest of the village. The building is largely a 19th century reconstruction from ruins left after a fire in 1591. The castle is privately owned and not open for visitation. Small sailboats bobbed gently in the transparent, blue-tinged water of the harbor.
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Aside from the lovely town itself the main attraction of Yvoire is the Garden of the Five Senses. This garden close to the château has five small sections each of which is devoted to a different sense. It was interesting to think of plants as having separate visual, tactile, olfactory, gustatory, and even aural characteristics. It's not a historic garden nor is it cheap but we found it to be quite well-designed and enjoyable. If one was looking to economize I definitely wouldn't describe it as an essential stop but I'm partial to gardens and greenery.
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In comparison to Gruyères, the other medieval town we had visited, Yvoire felt more antiquated and charming but it was still very touristy. From the ubiquitous flowers to the painted shutters and the omnipresence of ice cream it was clear that the town had embraced tourism as a primary source of revenue. It was a beautiful village but not somewhere I would go to feel transported back to medieval times. One other advantage over Gruyères was that there was less emphasis on souvenirs and postcards and more on genuine artisanal crafts.
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Geneva occupies the opposite end of Lake Geneva from Vevey and Montreux. Although Geneva is culturally affiliated with France and was once part of its territory, the defeat of Napoleon and the subsequent Congress of Vienna in the early 19th century resulted in the city being incorporated into the Swiss Confederation. Because the surrounding areas remained with France the border was drawn to create a polypoid intrusion into France that included Geneva and the adjacent villages.
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As we drove into Geneva along the coastal road it was clear that we were entering our second true metropolis of the journey after Zürich. The inland side of the road was lined with an endless series of stately apartment blocks and the boats in the harbor were several sizes bigger than we had seen in the other lakeside towns. We were arriving too late for the Plainpalais morning market but we adhered to our plan to begin our exploration in Place du Bourg de Four. This central square of Geneva dates back to Roman times and is considered by many to be the cultural heart of the city. Despite it being a weekday the cafes were quite busy and the air was filled with the hum of conversation. It took some time to absorb the human energy that permeated the square and admire the architecture of the distinguished buildings that surrounded us. I didn't even notice the incongruous white upright piano that stood on the sidewalk until the kids sat down and started to play it. It felt as though it had been placed there just to welcome us to Geneva.
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Outside of Place du Bourg de Four, Geneva's old town was rather compact and devoid of commerce. It mostly consisted of the side streets around St Pierre Cathedral, the famed site where John Calvin successfully advocated for Protestantism in the 16th century. St. Pierre was one of several Roman Catholic cathedrals in Switzerland that were co-opted by the Protestants with attendant destruction of much of the religious ornamentation within.
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We continued our walk into the modern, commercial neighborhood at the southern tip of Lake Geneva. This is an area where many of those "Top Ten Things You Must See in Geneva!" are located so there were many expensive boutiques and sidewalk cafes here. We crossed a wide thoroughfare to reach the Jardin Anglais, which contains the most famous flower clock in Switzerland. There was a street food festival going on inside the park which would have been tempting if we weren't still rather full from breakfast. They did have an impressive variety of cuisines from around the world and we would certainly have returned if we had been staying the night. From the promenade at the shoreline we could see Geneva's landmark Jet d'Eau. This two hundred meter waterspout was originally born as the solution to a technical problem of sporadic increases in the water pressure at the city's hydraulic plant. Although that technical issue was eventually resolved in other ways the jet had already become a popular attraction and a new version was installed at a more visible location. It has subsequently become an emblem of the city and is prominently featured in articles and videos about Geneva.
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Part of the reason why I had shortened our visit to Geneva to just a few hours was that I had a difficult time finding specific things to do. Guide books and blogs prominently featured the flower clock and the water spout but how much time could one really spend looking at those simple things? We decided to walk west along the promenade where the Rhône emerges from the lake and begins its southwestern journey to Lyon. We encountered another Globus department store and decided to try the food court, remembering the beautiful selection we had been forced to pass on in Lausanne. Unfortunately this Globus didn't match our first experience in quality or atmosphere but at least we were able to resolve the issue of the kids' midday meal.
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We crossed the Rhône via the pedestrian bridge and made our way to the Quai du Mont-Blanc, passing the ornate Brunswick Monument. From here the view of the lake was a little different but it was essentially the same scene of joggers and bicyclists as every other part of the lakeside promenade.
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At this point we had exhausted all our options for the areas within walking distance so we decided to head back to the car. I had saved Geneva's covered market, La Halle de Rive, for the end of our walking tour. The market was so inconspicuous that when we arrived at the designated location I thought that Google Maps had misdirected us. Eventually we figured out that rather than having its own structure the market occupied the ground floor of a banal office building that blended into a long line of similar edifices. Despite the inauspicious setting the market was quite enticing once we were inside, full of the smells of cheese and freshly cut meat. A great deal of care and creativity had been put into the displays of food within the refrigerated cases and piled on the countertops, although the market wasn't very busy. The prices were quite high and we knew we would be seeing similar products in the French morning markets for the next few days so we didn't make any purchases.
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Before leaving Geneva we drove to the adjoining town of Carouge on the far side of the River Arve. Carouge was established in Italian architectural style by a descendant of the Dukes of Savoy who wished to create a rival to the cultural metropolis of Geneva. Although still a separate municipality Carouge was reduced over the years to a suburb of greater Geneva and is considered one of its more bohemian and iconoclastic neighborhoods. We had a dual purpose with our Thursday afternoon visit: to explore the neighborhood and to see the weekly market on Place du Marché. We started with the market which proved to be relatively small and sparsely-attended although the atmosphere was pleasant enough. Afterwards we moved into the side streets which were pleasant enough from an aesthetic standpoint but hardly energetic. The asphalt streets were quite wide and the buildings were relatively low which detracted somewhat from any feeling of intimacy. There were a number of galleries and cafes making a game attempt to stir up a bohemian vibe but they occupied a much smaller area than we had expected. Overall Carouge seemed like just another nondescript neighborhood we might have passed through on a city walk without stopping. Perhaps the area is more dynamic on weekends but on this afternoon it was something of a disappointment.
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Geneva was the impetus for the Swiss leg of our trip but we felt less affinity for it than several other cities we had visited in the prior days. Zürich had been especially enjoyable and there was no question that in atmosphere and energy it had been far superior to Geneva. Even the smaller cities of Lausanne and Bern had been preferable. Of course we were only in Geneva for about five hours so it's certain that we missed many hidden attractions, but as far as first impressions go we didn't find any overwhelming reason to return. It wasn't anything we had to dwell on because we were coming up on one of the most highly anticipated sections of our trip, the stretch that would take us through some of the most beautiful and gastronomically distinguished cities in France. We piled back into our car for the short hop to Annecy where we were due to meet our Airbnb host at seven.

Posted by zzlangerhans 12:03 Archived in France Tagged road_trip family family_travel travel_blog yvoire tony_friedman family_travel_blog Comments (0)

An Epicurean Odyssey: Coastal Aquitaine


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We didn't waste any time leaving Bordeaux because the market in Cap Ferret had the reputation for being one of the best in the region. What we hadn't counted on was the horrendous traffic on the D106 on Saturday morning. It seemed like everyone in Bordeaux was headed for the coast for the weekend, and once we reached the peninsula the highway turned into a parking lot. It took more than an hour to traverse the last twenty kilometers.

The market had a large outdoor area devoted to clothing and crafts with just one small building to house the meat and produce. The area was crowded with domestic and English tourists and didn't have a very authentic feel, although some of the artwork was fun and original. There wasn't anywhere to sit and eat inside the market so we found lunch at a seafood restaurant in town.
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Despite being directly across the mouth of Arcachon Bay from our next destination, we had to drive for another hour and a half around the bay to reach our next destination due to the lack of a car ferry. I knew the long drive to Dune du Pilat would be worth the trouble since I could still remember visiting the gigantic dune from my own early childhood. I'd been looking forward to surprising the kids with the enormous mountain of sand for the whole trip and I wasn't disappointed. As soon as we reached the end of the short trail through the woods and they looked up at the dune, their jaws dropped. It takes a lot to impress my kids but the Dune du Pilat definitely did the trick. Once we'd clambered to the top the views around us were breathtaking. Inland was a forest canopy that extended to the horizon, and from the other side we could see across the bay all the way to Cap Ferret where we'd spent the morning. It was a great reminder that the natural world has as much to offer the intrepid traveler as the urbanized one.
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We'd already seen a lot but the day's excitement was far from over. While the kids slept and shed sand in the back seat of the car, we drove south towards French Basque country where we were planning to experience the last day of the annual Fêtes de Bayonne. Although this five day event is the largest annual festival in France, it's barely known internationally. I only learned of it myself when doing my customary search for local events along our planned itinerary. Even though I reserved our accommodations months in advance, I was only able to find an Airbnb in the neighboring town of Boucau. We were lucky to get that as it was one of just two Airbnb's left in a ten kilometer radius around Bayonne.

The house in Boucau turned out to be a great spot with plenty of outdoor space and a damson plum tree whose branches were bowing with fruit. We gave the kids about an hour to stretch their legs in the yard and play with the swings and then girded ourselves for a long night of partying.
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We didn't know what to expect from the Fête but I've had enough experience with massive outdoor festivals to know that we weren't likely to be ushered into a prime parking spot ten yards from the entrance. On the other hand, we were nowhere near within walking distance and public transportation seemed highly unlikely. Ride share might get us there and then be impossible to find once it was time to go home. That meant we had to get as close as we could by car and hope there would be somewhere to park that wouldn't require an interminable trek by foot.

Pretty soon after leaving Boucau we started to see young people in the traditional white outfits with red scarves inspired by the more famous Fiesta de San San Fermín in Pamplona. At one point a crowd of kids about twelve to fourteen years old blocked the road. One came to the window and, after ascertaining our nationality, requested two Euros in halting English for the privilege of passing. In another context that might have annoyed me but the kids weren't old enough to be threatening so I just handed over the coin and was allowed to pass through. There was quite a lot of traffic once we got to the bridge over the Adour River and I briefly considered parking inside the roundabout but decided to press on. Both banks of the river were crowded with tents and once we got to the Bayonne side parked cars were lined up on each side of the road as well as in the middle. We drove around a little and eventually found a spot a little off the road that didn't seem any more illegal than where hundreds of other cars were parked.

We had about a ten minute walk to the town center where the first thing we found was a carnival with typical rides and fast food. Of course, there's no way to get kids through a carnival without allowing them to do some rides so we let them have a few runs on the giant slide. We didn't feel like eating the junk food so we managed to get them past the rest of the rides with the promise that we would come back after dinner.
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Downtown Bayonne's main drag, Rue Thiers, was crowded with outdoor restaurants. Despite the crowds we found an open table and were served briskly enough. The food was ordinary but the important thing was that we were fueled for the evening ahead.
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As we were finishing dinner the sun descended rapidly and revelers in white began to fill the streets. In the square in front of the Old Castle of Bayonne a band was playing and circles were starting to form for a traditional dance. Much as I would have liked to stay on the edges of the festivities, Cleo kept pulling me with her into the circles and I stumbled as best as I could through the dance. Despite us not being dressed for the occasion, the locals were very welcoming and forgiving of my inability to keep up with the steps.
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We drifted from the square back through the narrow streets of the old town to the edge of the river, where thousands of celebrants were congregated. This was the River Nive, a tributary of the Adour which splits the old town and is traversed by several brightly lighted bridges.
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At this point the crowds, while good-natured, were becoming thick and inebriated enough that we realized it was no longer a great idea to wander around with the kids. We got them back to the carnival as promised and let them all play for a while on the bungee trampoline before heading back to the car and the quiet of Boucau.
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In the morning the kids were clamoring to go back to the carnival. I briefly considered it but Mei Ling wanted to press on and ultimately I decided she was right. This gave us some time to kill before we had to be in San Sebastian and some quick research revealed that the covered market in Biarritz was open on Sunday. This was quite unusual in France and Spain, to the extent that I planned our itineraries to minimize the effect of Sundays on our market experiences. Interestingly enough, I'd looked into Biarritz before the trip and made a conscious decision to skip it. I got the impression it was a rather bland resort town that had seen its best days a century earlier. Nevertheless a market was a market and it was just fifteen minutes from Boucau.

Biarritz was a decent enough town with some attractive old buildings and plush mansions, but nothing that would have attracted us to the town outside of the market. At one point we were admonished for allowing the kids to ride some colorful plaster sheep outside a boutique. I couldn't imagine what else they were expecting when they put the sheep out there.
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As soon as we entered the market I was thankful that Mei Ling had talked me out of going back to the Fête that morning. It wasn't the largest covered market we had been to during the trip but it was packed with vendors displaying the freshest produce and countless gourmet delicacies. The cheese counters were especially amazing, with several varieties I'd never seen before. Behind the main market was a smaller building devoted entirely to seafood.
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The covered market was lined on both sides with crowded cafes and tapas restaurants. The circulation of people in and out of the restaurants and through the market infused the area with high energy. We selected a tapas place with a very appetizing seafood menu and had a delicious lunch.
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Biarritz had put a fantastic exclamation point on the nine day French segment of our road trip, but it was time to return to Spain for our journey along the northern coast to Galicia. We returned to the car and set a course for San Sebastian.

Posted by zzlangerhans 08:12 Archived in France Comments (0)

An Epicurean Odyssey: Bordeaux


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Thanks to our prolonged visit to Chateau de Bridoire, we didn't roll into St. Émilion until mid-afternoon, too late for lunch at any of the more heralded restaurants in the center of town. The name had been such a mainstay on the wine bottles that populated my father's cellar that I expected a reasonably sized city. As it turned out, there wasn't much of a town outside the small medieval center. After being turned away from all the restaurants we tried in the side streets, we eventually found a tourist cafe in the central square in the shadow of the imposing limestone church. The best I can say about the food is that it was edible. We only had a few more minutes to explore St. Émilion's pretty cobblestoned streets, as our Airbnb host in Bordeaux had imposed an early evening deadline for our arrival.
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Our annoyance at having to rush our drive to Bordeaux was compounded when our host wasn't there to meet us. After a few minutes of futile doorbell-pressing and knocking I decided to call him, at which point he seemed surprised to hear we had arrived. After another fifteen minutes he drove up and as best as I could understand he had gotten the impression we would be arriving later. This was quite ironic as we would have loved to have arrived later and he had insisted that we absolutely had to be there by six. All of our prior communications had been through the Airbnb app and seemed crystal clear to me when I reviewed them, but perhaps something had been lost in translation. There turned out to be quite an extensive list of rules and precautions at the apartment as well, made all the more frustrating by the fact that French is not my strongest language and our host didn't seem to believe in pacing his speech. Eventually we managed to shoo him out and we turned our attention to making the best of the rest of the evening.

Our central location proved to be ideal for exploring Bordeaux. We were just a couple of minutes walk south of the Porte d'Aquitaine, one of the more recently constructed of the eight city gates of Bordeaux. The arch stands incongruously at the northern end of the expansive and bland Place des Victoires. Its only companions in the square are a pink marble obelisk that celebrates winemaking and a gigantic bronze tortoise that signifies the steady growth of the Bordeaux wine industry. The lack of traffic in the large, open square creates a false sense of security for those unfamiliar with the area. If one doesn't pay close attention to the tracks, one risks being turned into paté by one of the frequent tram cars that whisks silently through the cobblestones.
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Aside from imbuing Place des Victoires with character, the Porte d'Aquitaine is also the threshold of Bordeaux's main pedestrian thoroughfare Rue Sainte-Catherine. This gritty, throbbing commercial artery courses through the heart of Bordeaux for a dozen cafe and boutique-lined blocks before it terminates at Place de la Comédie.
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Place de la Comédie is the quintessential central square of a major French city. It is the home of the magnificent Bordeaux Opera House. the Grand Hôtel de Bordeaux, the obligatory colorful carousel, and a giant rust-colored statue of a human head. To the north we could see the tall column of the Monument aux Girondins in Place des Quinconces.
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A right turn down the stately Cours du Chapeau-Rouge brought us to Place de la Bourse at the western bank of the Garonne. Close to the river's edge is Le Miroir d'Eau, a water fountain the size of a soccer field that intermittently fills with water and drains dry. The fountain is famous for its reflecting surface, but between the gathering dusk and the ripples from all the splashing children there weren't many reflections to be seen. On the opposite side of the fountain from the river is an imposing semicircle of 18th century municipal buildings that are currently mainly used as a convention center.
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The kids were quite annoyed with us for not having had the foresight to bring their bathing suits, but we much preferred not having to deal with soaked kids with the sun dropping out of sight and dinner still ahead. We opted for the drier alternative of watching a funny and energetic breakdancing crew put on a show next to the fountain. One of the things I enjoy most about being in the center of large cities is the chance to watch street performances, and hip hop dancers are usually the best shows. This particular group did a great job of working humor into their routine and it felt good to drop a sizable bank note into the hat they passed around at the end of the show.
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We meandered through the center of the old town looking for a place to have dinner. The streets were surprisingly gritty with a large number of fast food and cheap ethnic restaurants. The pubs were already starting to draw crowds and it looked like downtown Bordeaux was a place for heavy drinking on most nights. The best place we could find to eat was a Japanese restaurant where the friendly owner chatted with us while we wolfed down an unexceptional meal. On the way back to the Airbnb, the tourists and shoppers were gone from Rue Sainte-Catherine. Instead there was an array of panhandlers, derelicts, and a few hoodlums gathering in the shadows. I herded my brood back through the darkening city with my head on a swivel.

I was surprised that in a city the size of Bordeaux I was only able to find one daily produce market. However, the Marché des Capucins seemed to be very well-regarded as a destination for Bordeaux's renowned chefs to purchase their fresh ingredients. We enjoyed a quiet walk through a pretty, residential neighborhood of Bordeaux on the way to the market.
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I'm not sure exactly what we found lacking at Marché des Capucins. Perhaps our expectations were just too high given the gastronomic reputation of Bordeaux. The physical plant of the market was uninspiring. It felt like shopping in a parking garage. There was certainly an attractive selection of the usual standards, but very little that wasn't familiar. Even little Pau had had a more tempting assortment of prepared foods.
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There were several small restaurants in the market and we eventually settled on Moroccan cuisine, which proved to be a pleasant change from the endless magrets we had been having in the Périgord.
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I had heard there might be another daily market in the square around the Basilique Saint-Michel but once we arrived is was clear that it was purely a flea market with no produce to be seen. The basilica was an impressive sight, standing alone on the eastern side of the square.
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We gave up on the idea of markets and walked around central Bordeaux for another couple of hours. The center was pleasantly busy and colorful with some dramatic medieval edifices like La Grosse Cloche.
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Once we'd made it back to Rue Sainte-Catherine we knew we had seen the bulk of what we would find interesting in the city of Bordeaux. It was still early afternoon so we spontaneously decided to take a drive into the Médoc wine country and look for new adventures.

Anyone who has done a fair amount of traveling starts to understand the enormous significance of rivers. Historically, rivers have performed a similar function in civiization to the circulatory system of an animal. They have transmitted nourishment and commerce from the coasts to the heartlands and back since long before roads usurped that role. When I think of many of the world's greatest cities, one of the first things that comes to mind is the river that sustains it. Southwestern France has two great rivers, the Dordogne and the Garonne, and Bordeaux is where these two legendary arteries come together and begin the process of emptying into the ocean. The Gironde estuary, which begins at the confluence of the rivers, is a gaping slash in France's Atlantic coast. Half river and half ocean, the estuary is responsible for the deposits of mineral-rich silt on the western bank which caused the Médoc to become the most acclaimed wine region in the world.

I half-expected to be welcomed into the Médoc by satyrs and nymphs playing panpipes at the roadside, but the drive was relatively flat and nondescript. Naturally there were countless wineries along the way but I didn't know enough about Bordeaux wine to recognize the individual producers. We decided to press ahead until we reached the names that anyone with a passing familiarity with wine would recognize, Lafite Rothschild and Mouton Rothschild. The Rothschild family has been producing wine in the Médoc since the mid 19th century, with a vigorous rivalry between the two branches of the family. We had flirted with the idea of scheduling a tour of a winery with a tasting before our trip, but eventually decided that our three little beasts were too much to inflict on such a distinguished place. We've had some of our better experiences just winging it anyway.

We eventually passed through the pretty coastal village of Pauillac and found the small road marked as the entrance to Château Lafite Rothschild. It was close to five in the afternoon and we were able to drive right into the vineyards without a single sign of human activity. We eventually pulled over among the vines and got out to examine the grapes. They were plump and shiny and just beginning to ripen. We sampled a few of the ones which had already tuned purple, which was as close as we were going to come to Lafite Rothschild wine that day. Down the road we encountered some rose-hued warehouses and floral gardens, but still no sign of people. It appeared they had already shut down for the day.
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Back in Pauillac we visited the Maison du Tourisme et du Vin, where there were more attendants than customers. Here we finally found our tasting, so we didn't have to depart the Médoc completely dry.
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Bordeaux isn't known for night markets, but fortunately our experience in the Périgord had motivated me to do some online investigation and I found one. Saint-Macaire is a village on the Garonne well to the southeast of Bordeaux. Between the drive and a surprising difficulty finding the old town once we arrived, it was almost two hours between Pauillac and the night market. Fortunately the experience proved to be well worth the effort to get there. A short walk through ancient limestone houses took us to an open courtyard filled with communal tables. The food selection was as good as at Montignac, the best of the night markets we had visited in the Périgord. The kids were full of pent up energy after the long drive and had a blast racing around the perimeter of the market and dancing to the live band.
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Everyomne was exhausted by the time we finally arrived back in Bordeaux. Despite having had only two days in the city, we felt like we'd gathered the essence of the city and the immediate surrounds. The next morning we wasted no time and got on the road immediately for Cap Ferret.

Posted by zzlangerhans 13:44 Archived in France Tagged travel blog tony bordeaux friedman st._emilion saint_macaire pauillac medoc Comments (0)

An Epicurean Odyssey: The Dordogne part III (Sarlat)


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I had come across mentions of Sarlat-la-Canéda several times in my research on the Périgord, but somehow came away with the impression that it was just another of the many pretty little villages in the region. The Saturday weekly market was supposed to be one of the best, but we would be long gone from the Dordogne by then. I figured that a quick visit for an hour or so before the night market we'd chosen would be sufficient. In the end we didn't have a choice. Parking close to the old town was nearly impossible to find and I was eventually forced to use a space that was limited to thirty minutes.

The southern entrance to the old town is via Rue de la République, which is an attractive but fairly typical commercial street for a touristy French village. It wasn't until we ducked down one of the many little alleys into the eastern side of town that we were able to see what made Sarlat so notable among the small cities of the Périgord. We found ourselves in a series of small cobblestone squares that were enclosed by buildings made of the same weathered brown stone that was typical of the region. However, the buildings in Sarlat were substantially taller than in other villages and boasted more medieval features such as turrets and carved stone facades. This part of the town was hilly and wide paths ascended in several directions to the periphery of the town. The effect was imposing and austere, yet somehow warm and energetic at the same time. It was very easy to fall in love with Sarlat and I soon regretted having compromised on the amount of time we would be able to spend there.
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In the main square we encountered a street magician setting up for his performance, which proved to be quite professional and entertaining for the kids. They were pained to be extracted from the show before it ended but I didn't want to spoil the mood of the evening with a hefty parking fine right before the night market. The vitality of Sarlat seemed to emanate from the right combination of tourist development with the historic beauty of the town. It was clear that I'd made one of my rare itinerary mistakes by staying in Bergerac rather than Sarlat.
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The night market at Saint-Amand-de-Coly was just a couple of miles from Montignac. I'd chosen it because I'd never come across the town's name in all my research and I hoped to have the same good fortune as we had the previous night. The village was tiny and pretty, although it didn't have a river to make it as warm and charming as Montignac. The night market was also very local though, with a lot of kids for ours to play with, and we were very pleased with the atmosphere. At some stalls one could buy raw and marinated meat which could be grilled to order at a nearby pavilion.
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Wednesday morning was fairly easygoing as the major weekly market in the area was in our home base of Périgueux. It only took us a couple of minutes to climb up to the large square in front of the grand and ornate Saint-Front Cathedral. It was a very functional market with a lot of variety and much less of a touristic nature than Issigeac or Le Bugue. It was perfect for us because our focus was on assembling the ingredients for a delicious market brunch at home.
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Our prizes were plump St-Jacques scallops, magret stuffed with foie gras, freshly baked bread, and plenty of flawless fruits and vegetables. The scallops, magret, and red peppers ended up sauteed in their own juices. We complemented the meal with a bottle of excellent Bergerac wine our gracious host had left for us.
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Wednesday's itinerary

On the previous two days we had passed a water park on our way to our destinations near the Dordogne and hadn't given much thought to it. On our last full day in the Périgord, we didn't have quite the same appetite for the remaining villages and châteaux on my long list. We decided we'd give ourselves a break and give the kids a treat and spend the afternoon at Jacquou Parc. The kids loved the water park, although naturally they scattered in different directions meaning that the whereabouts of at least one of them was always unknown. Fortunately we averted disaster in the water and took them on a couple of the park's creaky and antiquated rides. By the time we had collected ourselves, it was already closing time for most of the sights in the area.
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We were delayed another half hour when one of the other departing patrons needed my help jump-starting her car. We decided to head to the former residence of Jospehine Baker, Chateau des Milandes, despite it being unlikely we would arrive before the closing time. On the way we passed through Saint-Cyprien where the streets were festooned with garlands in preparation for some sort of flower festival.
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We had hoped to be able to at least walk around the outside of the Chateau des Milandes if we arrived after closing. Alas, when we arrived at the château we found the gates shutting behind the last visitors and a tall fence surrounding the grounds. I was only able to manage one photo from outside the fence.
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We had chosen the Wednesday night market in Belvès because the town was well-known for its exceptional beauty. We arrived late and had some difficulty finding a place to sit. The food was fine but the patrons were almost all tourists and the atmosphere was nowhere near as congenial as the previous two nights. We missed the live music and dancing as well. We had seen posters advertising a circus in Le Bugue that night so we decided not to linger over dinner.
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The Cirque Ullman was tiny but had a magically antiquated atmosphere that made me feel like it could be any moment of the 20th century. Older kids might have been skeptical of the limited acts but ours were thoroughly entertained. Between the markets, the water park and the circus, Mei Ling and I felt like we'd given the kids as good a day as anyone could imagine.
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On our last morning in the Périgord we had one final treat for the kids. Chateau de Bridoire is a restored medieval castle which specialized in family entertainment. There are lots of activities on the grounds and several rooms inside the castle largely dedicated to games. There were so many options that we eventually had to practically drag the kids out so that we would be able to make it to St. Emilion in time for lunch.
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The Périgord had been a spectacular stop for everyone. We had been extremely busy over our five days and I still had enough towns and activities left on the list to fill up another five days. Part of the nature of road trips is that eventually we have to move on, even from the places we love the most. Easing the sting of our departure was the fact that we were headed towards one of our most keenly anticipated stops of the trip, the region of Bordeaux.

Posted by zzlangerhans 13:35 Archived in France Comments (0)

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