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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.
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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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)

An Epicurean Odyssey: The Dordogne part II (Périgueux)

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Our Airbnb host in Périgueux was a very kind lady who insisted on giving us a tour of the town center. Our apartment was situated on the bank of the River L'Isle. which nestles the town in one of its many sinuous curves. Just a hundred meters away was a preserved 14th century watchtower that perched improbably on a narrow stone base.

Périgueux is the largest city in the Dordogne and also its capital. The center was as lively and commercial as Bergerac had been inert. Tables were filling up in the outdoor cafes, and numerous shops were doing a brisk business in local specialties such as foie gras and walnut oil.

We weren't in the mood for cafe food, but none of the restaurants we passed were ready to prepare a real meal yet. Eventually we found a gourmet store on a pretty square that had begun serving lunch. It was a little less substantial than what we were craving, but it was enough to launch us into our day's itinerary.

Many of the top attractions in the Périgord are clustered around a short segment of the River Dordogne near the cliffside village of La Roque Gageac. We started our exploration of the area at Les Jardins de Marqueyssac. There are several famous gardens in the Dordogne and my research indicated this one would be the most impressive. From the foot of the hill the gardens are perched on, we could see across the valley as far as Château de Beynac and Château de Castelnaud. Both were festooned with banners declaiming "Non au Massacre de la Vallée", a protest against a new road being built in the area.

The centerpiece of the gardens were the carefully contoured boxwood shrubs that formed layers of whimsical shapes.

The gardens gave way to a park which stretched to the east. From the paths we had gorgeous views of farmhouses along the southern bank of the Dordogne, which was littered with kayaks and small tourist barges.

In the middle of the park there was a crafts station and a playground to entertain the children. This provided some welcome relief from their complaints about there being "nothing for kids" that day.

At the summit at the eastern end of the gardens was a balcony from which we had an unparalleled view of our next destination, the village of La Roque Gageac.

The Dordogne is full of beautiful villages, but La Roque Gageac is one of the most unique. Most of the town consists of a row of similar-appearing stone houses that face the main road through town along the Dordogne. A few more houses are placed along the road that ascends the steep hillside, and behind the hillside is a sheer and formidable cliff. In the upper reaches of the cliff is a medieval fort built within a cave. At the riverside are the companies operating the tour barges, or gabarres. We arrived less than an hour before the last departure of the day so we didn't have time to climb the road up the hill. Instead we ordered some ice cream and let the kids play in the makeshift sprinkler on the town plaza.

The boat ride was a little out of character for us but I was determined to get up close and personal with the river that gave the Dordogne region its name. We cruised slowly a few kilometers downstream, passing the Château de la Malartrie at the western end of the town. If your dream is to stay in your very own Dordogne castle, this château is available to rent for about $5000 a week. Further down were campgrounds on the riverbank and rocky beaches with numerous sunbathers and waders. The river was clearly beloved by locals and tourists alike.

We were behind schedule so I decided we would change the evening's market from the popular one I had chosen previously to the one in Montignac, a village on the way back to Périgueux. Montignac was simply one name from a list of Monday night markets and I hadn't found a single reference to it elsewhere. The car was low on fuel and we stopped at a couple of gas stations around the town of Sarlat. The offices had already closed and the card readers at the pumps wouldn't accept any of my credit cards. We decided to press onward to Montignac, figuring dinner was the more immediate issue and we would eventually find a gas station where we could refuel.

Montignac was spectacular. The small village is bisected by the River Vézère, a branch of the Dordogne. Old-fashioned streetlamps cast a warm glow on the stone buildings as the sun fell. The northern bank upstream from the bridge was lined with outdoor cafes which were filled with patrons.

The night market was the best we were to experience. The selection and quality of food was enormous and the vendors were very friendly and attentive. The usual specialties of duck breast, foie gras, and walnut cakes were complemented by an unusual variety of red meats and seafood. The best part was the clientele, who were clearly almost all locals who knew which village to go to for the best food and ambiance. And the language? Nothing but glorious French, all around us.

Once we'd emptied our plates for the last time, we danced along with the other early arrivals to a very talented and energetic cover band. It was a jubilant conclusion to a great evening in the Dordogne.

During dinner we had put the issue of the gas tank out of our minds, but now that it was pitch dark we had to focus all our attention on solving that problem. Our gauge was telling us we would run dry in 28 kilometers, nowhere near enough to make it back to Périgueux. We found a sizable station just outside of Montignac but the office was once again closed and the pumps wouldn't accept our cards. I saw a man using the station's hose to wash his car and was able to communicate our problem to him, and he advised me that we needed some kind of special card to access the pumps. Could we use his and pay him back in cash? No, he didn't have one. I wondered how he filled up his own car. I saw another car pull up to the pumps adjacent to our own vehicle and raced over. The young driver was already filling his tank when I reached him. We were saved. Could he use his card to fill our tank if I paid him back in cash? I held the bills up, offering a substantial bonus over the cost of the gas. I can't, he answered. This is my mother's car. Ummm ... what? I repeated myself in disbelief, showing him every bill I was offering. He shook his head and hurriedly jumped back in his car and drove off. I had to wonder if it was a common scam in France for a couple to throw their three small kids in a car and head to a petrol station to trick people out of gas money.

We waited at the station another half hour but no one else pulled in. We'd been in gas trouble a couple of times before in our travels but this was the worst. We were looking at a serious possibility of spending the night in the station. I used the search function on Google Maps and found another station slightly off our route back to Périgueux, 13 kilometers away. That would surely be our last shot with 22 kilometers reading on the gauge. When we got close to the station, my spirits were lifted when I saw it seemed to be a different chain from those we had failed at earlier. The card reader looked completely different as well. I pushed the card in and waited a few breathless seconds until the card was accepted. I've never appreciated the comforting rumble of gas running through a fuel nozzle so much. The kids were all asleep at this point and I looked at their faces through the window of the car. I was astounded that we'd encountered this kind of problem with international credit cards in Western Europe in 2018, but I resolved to be extra careful about our safety and comfort for the rest of the journey. Even in a place like France, it can be very dangerous to become complacent.

We got a slow start the next morning and didn't arrive at the weekly market in Le Bugue until nearly eleven in the morning. We found the market exceptionally crowded and also with a preponderance of souvenirs and other merchandise aimed primarily at tourists. We did find one decent seafood stall where we bought some whole cooked crabs and bulots which we consumed at an outdoor cafe (with drinks we purchased there of course).

We returned to that same short stretch of the Dordogne we had visited the previous day. Les Jardins de L'Eau, also known as the Water Gardens of Carsac, was a stop for the kids more than anything else. The water gardens are probably a fairly recent creation to take advantage of the influx of tourists into the Dordogne. However, they've made it a very beautiful place and the kids really enjoyed feeding the koi. If we'd had one less day to explore the area I'm sure this wouldn't have been on the list, but as it was it made for a pleasant hour for everyone.

The hilltop village of Domme was just a few minutes from Carsac, on the other side of the Dordogne. The prime attraction is the promenade on the northern side of town with views of the Dordogne valley that are breathtaking and limitless.

The town itself was attractive enough but even more saturated with ice cream shops and souvenir stores than Monpazier had been. We didn't stick around for long. We had perhaps the most renowned city in the Dordogne to squeeze in before that evening's night market.

Posted by zzlangerhans 12:01 Archived in France Tagged travel blog tony dordogne domme la_roque_gageac perigord montignac friedman marqueyssac perigueux Comments (0)

An Epicurean Odyssey: The Dordogne part I (Bergerac)

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France is a country composed of smaller pieces, each with their own distinct renown. These regions to some extent correspond to the administrative divisions, but also have invisible boundaries that have been shaped by more than a thousand years of history. There's Paris and its surrounds. Provence, of course. Brittany and Normandy. Alsace. The Loire Valley, Bordeaux and Bourgogne. One of the smaller areas to enjoy this legendary status is the Périgord, more widely known outside of France by its departmental name of Dordogne. The Périgord epitomizes everything that is wonderful and unique about France, from the verdant countryside to the iconic towns and castles to the delicious cuisine. We were excited to have four entire days and part of a fifth to work our way through a long list of markets, villages, and historic landmarks.

Our previous forays into the Loire Valley and Provence had taught us well that France can't be approached in the same way as Spain. Whereas Spain has less to offer in the early morning and forces travelers into late bedtimes, France is very unforgiving of slow starts. A typical market in the summer has seen its best moments before ten in the morning and is basically over except for the tourist stragglers by noon. On Sunday morning we set our alarms as early as we could stand and raced a half hour southeast to the weekly market of Issigeac, one of the most heralded in the Périgord.

The first thing we saw as we walked into the center was a woman tending a counter with an array of enormous pans, each containing a different tantalizing preparation of meat or seafood. We resisted the temptation to begin eating right away, knowing that every minute that passed would bring larger crowds to impede our progress through the market.

Issigeac was a tiny village with narrow streets, stone and half-timbered houses, and the ancient Saint-Félicien Church overlooking the bustling central square. The atmosphere for our first Dordogne market couldn't have been better.

After a couple of circuits through the market, we'd selected our bread and cheese, strawberries, freshly-shucked oysters and other delicacies and retired to a park bench to enjoy a messy breakfast.

It turned out we'd escaped just in time. We ventured back into the market to let the kids play with the soap bubble guy and found it jam-packed. Arriving early had saved us from having to compete with crowds for the attention of every vendor.

We continued southeast to Château de Bonaguil, one of the most picturesque castles in the Périgord. This formidable medieval edifice suddenly appeared at the top of a hill as we approached on the access road, inspiring an immediate rush of traveler's euphoria.

A castle on a hill like Bonaguil is really two experiences in one, each with its own distinct pleasures. The first part is the climb up the winding path to the castle past ancient, crumbling stone walls and a carefully restored limestone church.

Once we reached the top of the hill it was time for the main event. A stone bridge crossed the crevasse between the hill and the rocky outcropping, or aigeulle, on which the castle is perched.

It took a half hour to explore the half-ruined fortress. The crumbling masonry created surreal, Escherian perspectives of the interior elements of the stronghold. We could only imagine the majesty of the castle during its heyday in the 18th century.

The views of the Périgord countryside from the tall castle keep were spectacular. We were getting a dramatic introduction to this extraordinary and singular corner of the world, and we were energized to continue onward to the other destinations in our day's itinerary.

Our next stop wouldn't have ideally been another castle, but on the way back from Bonaguil was Château de Biron. Like Bonaguil, this château was a spectacular sight both at a distance from the road and close up. Biron has been preserved and renovated to the extent that the main building can host art exhibitions. By the time we arrived, both the boys were sleeping so I took Cleo for a walk along the side of the enormous castle. I don't think we missed much by skipping a tour of the interior.

In the Périgord there are numerous villages that have been clearly designated for tourism. They are featured in every guidebook and they have a support system of cafes and souvenir shops for travelers. Are they truly the most picturesque of all the villages in the region, or simply the ones that prefer the financial boost of tourism to peace and quiet? We weren't going to be staying in the area long enough to uncover all the secret towns that the tour guides haven't discovered, so we followed the crowds to Monpazier.

Monpazier was certainly picturesque, a well-preserved bastide that was established in the 13th century in the run-up to the Hundred Years War. On the day of our visit they were having a book festival, and the central square was filled with vendors of old magazines and used books. Much to the kids' enjoyment, a craftsman was demonstrating the historic method of making paper from the pulp of old fabric.

We only spent another half hour in Monpazier, enough time to absorb the best examples of medieval architecture and the colorful decoration of the narrow pedestrian streets. In the end it was hard to overcome the feeling of Epcot Syndrome, the term I use for environments that feel more like a theme park pavilion than an authentic travel destination. Perhaps the best examples I can think of in France are Aix-en-Provence and the walled city of Carcassonne, but even central Paris suffers from it to some extent.

We had skipped lunch in anticipation of an early arrival to our chosen Sunday night market. Monbazillac is a small village just south of Bergerac best known for its château and sweet white wines. On the road approaching the village we encountered a whimsical art installation of colorful bicycles.

The roadside market wasn't as picturesque as the one in Audrix, but the selection of food was much larger and the vibe was more local. Whole farm animals roasted on spits and a woman tended to an enormous basin of simmering mussels. We ate reverentially in the shadow of the château.

On Monday morning it was already time to leave our first Dordogne Airbnb. We hoped we could replicate our success with the Pau daily market in Bergerac but it wasn't to be. The market was open in name only, with just a couple of stalls in business and nothing that could be considered a decent breakfast. There was no point in trying to make it to a weekly market as we still had to pack, so we walked around the largely deserted center of Bergerac. There were more than the usual number of attractive half-timbered houses and an intriguing little plaza where an upright piano had been converted into a miniature garden.

It was still far too early for any restaurants to be open for lunch, so we decided it would be best to head straight to our next Airbnb in Périgueux. Once we were settled there we wouldn't have to worry about rushing back in the evening to meet our host. We hadn't even made a dent so far in our list of destinations in the Dordogne.

Posted by zzlangerhans 14:27 Archived in France Comments (0)

An Epicurean Odyssey: Over the Pyrenees and into France

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This was our second time driving from Spain into France through the Pyrenees. Two years earlier we had gone through Andorra and the drive had been underwhelming, but the route via Spain's E-7 was a different story. After we passed Jaca, the road quickly ascended and began to wind through beautiful verdant mountains, with the occasional majestic crag projecting upward like a broken tooth.

The views from the road became even more breathtaking once we crossed the border into France. We were now about mid-level among the mountains, and on every side were steep, lush green slopes dotted with fluffy sheep. There was just enough mist to create an eerie ambience but not enough to obscure visibility. I was the only one awake at this point and I wanted someone to stir and share the moment with me so badly, but I figured we would be better off in the evening with everyone well-rested. One of my biggest regrets from the trip is that I didn't pull over and take some pictures, but there never seemed to be a good spot at the most beautiful locations. I figured that eventually someone would wake up and be able to pose in the foreground of my shots, and then suddenly it was over and we descended to nondescript flatlands. I never got my photo but I was able to find this one from the web that gives some idea of what I was seeing, without all the sheep.

Pau was an obvious choice for our first night in France despite the fact that I had never heard of the place before I planned the trip. It was the first mid-sized city between the border and the Dordogne which meant it probably had a decent daily market. There was also an old town with enough sights to occupy us for the morning before we got back on the road. We arrived at our Airbnb amidst a chilly drizzle in the early evening. Our host hustled everyone inside where we found a very pleasant and spacious loft-style apartment. Our good fortune with accommodations seemed to be continuing. Once the rain died down we went for a walk in search of dinner. I was surprised to find that we weren't encountering any restaurants, despite the fact that we were relatively close to the town center and the covered market. TripAdvisor only found us one good candidate within walking distance, and when we arrived I was a little disconcerted to see it was a rather dignified family-run restaurant with a prix fixe menu. At this point we had no good alternative and they just happened to have a free table the right size for us. I was very self-conscious with the three kids but they couldn't have been better. They quietly watched their iPads on low volume until the food came and then ate very peacefully. The staff and other patrons didn't even bat an eyelash at us.

The following morning it was Saturday, the best day for daily markets, so we walked to Les Halles de Pau with high spirits. We were initially crestfallen to see that the market was undergoing renovations, but it soon became apparent there was a lot of activity despite the disarray. I don't know if I can put it into words, but there's a clear difference between Spanish and French municipal markets. In Spain there's an emphasis on cured meats, olives, preserves, shrimp, dried fish, and similarly tangy and salty items. In France one sees much more roasted meat and rotisserie poultry, grilled vegetables, and more shellfish than crustaceans. Which do I prefer? Probably whichever country I happen to be in at the time.

We had a blast reacquainting ourselves with French culinary specialties and brought home a delicious and savory haul that included a roasted leg of lamb, grilled endives, a head cheese salad, yellow plums, and fresh bulots (whelks). We celebrated our first morning in France with an exemplary French market lunch.

After the listlessness of the area around our Airbnb and the market, we were surprised to find Pau's old town humming with activity just a few hundred meters away. The most well known sights are clustered in a small area adjacent to the Boulevard des Pyrénées, the town promenade that overlooks the valley of the Gave de Pau river and provides sweeping views as far as the mountains on a clear day.

The center of the old town had magnificent, perfectly preserved old buildings that looked as though they had leaped right off a postcard. The wrought-iron balconies, wooden shutters, and colorful flowerbeds in the window sills were quintessentially French and almost felt like a personal welcome to one of our favorite countries.

The Gothic Église Saint Martin dominates one square in the center. The angular, imposing bulk of the church is softened by the lush greenery that surrounds it.

A few steps from the church is Château de Pau, the city's most well-known attraction. There has been a castle at this site since the 11th century, but the existing Renaissance edition was built in the 16th century. The trapezoidal courtyard creates an optical illusion that the building is much longer than it actually is. Mindful of the long drive ahead, we passed up a tour of the interior. We've seen the inside of enough chateaus for a lifetime.

Outside of Pau my eye was caught by a colorful mural that was painted circumferentially around a water tower on a hill. We left the road for a closer look at the whimsical painting. Later I looked up the signature and learned that the mural depicts pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago. This artistic cooperative called Ateliers Adeline has decorated countless water towers in the French countryside, and also specializes in remarkably lifelike trompe-l'œil paintings.

Our afternoon stop was Auch, another lesser known mid-sized city in an unheralded area of south-central France. Auch merited a visit mainly due to my philosophical opposition to driving long distances in Europe. In my experience, if you've driven more than three hours without stopping then you've missed something. Auch once played a more prominent role as the capital of the historic region of Gascony, which roughly approximates the French Basque territory. Like Pau, the old town of Auch is perched on a hill above its river which in this case was the brownish-green Le Gers. Instead of a funicular to the lower level, Auch has the Escalier Monumental. This 19th century stone staircase underwent a comprehensive renovation in 2017 and is supposed to be lined with vines representing Gascony's viticultural heritage, although none were visible from the top.

The most impressive sight in Auch is the Gothic-Renaissance Cathédrale Sainte-Marie, whose western facade dominates an open plaza at the highest point of the old town. The cathedral had a beautiful beige color and was pleasingly symmetric. Each of the three levels of the twin limestone towers is fronted by decorative Roman columns and clearly demarcated by balconies with stone balustrades.

Auch's old town was a pleasant place to wander around for an hour. Ancient limestone townhouses with classic French shutters lined the narrow streets, with the occasional half-timbered house disrupting the uniformity.

On the long drive north to the Dordogne, we passed through an undulating landscape of sunflower fields and farmland. Each new expanse of sunflowers seemed to be more golden and vast than the one before. There's not much written about this unusual love of the French for sunflowers, although one thing I hadn't realized was that the plant is native to the Americas and was only introduced to Europe in the 16th century.

One of the features that attracted us most to the Dordogne was the famous night markets. These aren't markets so much as communal dinners which have evolved to become commercial events. Assorted vendors provide the local culinary specialties and wine which is consumed by a variable medley of locals and tourists. As one might imagine, the more the mixture is constituted of locals the more authentic the food and the vibe. Of course, finding those night markets that have retained their authenticity is easier said than done. Most of the markets provide such amenities as dishes, cutlery, and cups but these may require a deposit and also tend to run out. It's much better to be prepared with one's own supplies, with the plates preferably sturdy enough to be laden repeatedly with juicy entrees. I would recommend buying inexpensive hard plastic plates and wine glasses that can be deposited into a plastic bag when used and then washed at home. It's also advisable to arrive early or you might find yourself forlornly circling the tables or sitting on a doorstep to eat.

Saturday doesn't have a one of the larger selection of night markets in the Dordogne, but we didn't have much difficulty finding a seat when we arrived in Audrix an hour after the official start time. It was clearly a more touristic market, with the predominant flavors of patrons being English and German. There were dishes and utensils available and the vendors were a little impatient. We didn't know it at that time, but it was also the smallest assemblage of vendors we would see at a Dordogne night market and the most limited variety of food. Nevertheless we ate well and were pleased with the communal atmosphere in the small, quaint village.

Our Airbnb was almost an hour away to the east in the larger town of Bergerac. I had rather carelessly chosen the two largest cities in the Dordogne as our pieds-a-terre without noting they were well to the east of the Dordogne's most attractive villages and castles. I'd also underestimated the travel time due to the paucity of major roads in the region. The results was an hour or so of extra driving most of our days in the Dordogne, but the sting was eased by the rich landscape of the region. Our apartment in Bergerac was also one of the best of the entire trip, with two spacious levels and a large pool that delighted the kids.

Posted by zzlangerhans 06:50 Archived in France Comments (0)

An Epicurean Odyssey: Aragon part 2 (Zaragoza and Huesca)

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When we're in a city with a market it's easy to organize our day. The market has to be the first destination, and then we head to whichever on our list of sights is closest. Zaragoza's covered market is a beautiful building reminiscent of Mercat Colon in Valencia, but unfortunately it was in the process of being renovated. Bummer. The temporary replacement was a block away, but it was overcrowded and devoid of atmosphere, with barely anything to eat.

Just a few steps from the rear entrance of the temporary market is Plaza de la Seo, which is one of the most breathtaking public squares that I've seen in Spain. At the eastern end is the tall Mudéjar belltower of the Zaragoza Cathedral, La Seo del Salvador. Occupying most of the north side of the square, bordering the river, is a far more impressive structure than the Cathedral. The Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar is the tenth largest Christian church in the world. The square that these two churches preside over is elegant and unique. At the western end of the Plaza is the magnificent Fuente de la Hispanidad, which was constructed in 1991 as a part of the most recent remodel of Plaza de la Seo. Water runs down a concrete incline and spills over a jagged rent in the otherwise smooth surface into a pool. The water then runs underneath a walkway into another pool with a strange irregular shape. I didn't learn until later that the open space in the fountain including the pools forms the shape of Central and South America. Behind the fountain is yet another church, the stately Iglesia de San Juan de los Panetes, this one in Romanesque style with a precariously leaning tower.

Closer to the center of the square is another quirky modern sculpture, an enormous sphere whose provenance and meaning I never learned. After the sphere, the rest of the square is wide open to admire the amazing Basilica. The only building in Spain I can think of whose exterior is comparably spectacular is the Catedral de Sevilla, and I have to say I prefer Zaragoza's Basilica. Not only is it massive, but also colorful and satisfyingly symmetrical. We spent a fair amount of time trying to figure out a way to photograph the entire structure in one frame without using panorama and ultimately concluded it was impossible.

Although a striking building in its own right, La Seo del Salvador seems almost like an afterthought after the Basilica. The prodigious bell tower was a conversion from the minaret of the mosque that formerly occupied the site. In the foreground of the cathedral is the unusual cubical structure that marks the entrance to the subterranean Museo del Foro de Caesaraugusta.

We hadn't found much to eat in the market so lunch was becoming a pressing need. Fortunately, we were now adjacent to Zaragoza's "Tapas district", El Tubo. This small pedestrian quarter was colorful and atmospheric, although we found the restaurants to be touristy and not particularly good.

After lunch we walked north until we reached the Puente de Piedra, also known as the Bridge of Lions for the statues that guard its entrances. From the bridge we had another view of the Basilica as well as the greenish, uninspiring Ebro.

By this time the sun was at its peak and Spenser was sleeping on my back. Ian was passed out in the only stroller we'd brought and Cleo wasn't going to last much longer. Mopping the sweat from our brows, we abandoned our plans to explore modern Zaragoza on the northern side of the Ebro and headed back to the Airbnb for siesta. In the late afternoon, once some of the heat had dissipated, we ventured back out in the opposite direction towards Palacio de la Aljafería. The Aljafería was originally a Moorish palace, but it was repurposed by the Christians after they conquered Zaragoza in the 12th century. Today the building houses the Aragonese regional parliament, although much of it remains open for visitors. It's an appealing building, but not something I would have visited Zaragoza for specifically. We had time to kill before dinner so we looked through some of the dry exhibits. It was enough to remind us why we don't drag the kids through museums when we're traveling.

We don't usually eat at the same place twice, but there were no second thoughts about returning to Puerta Cinegia Gastronómica for dinner that evening. We weren't excited about walking all the way back from the Aljafería, so we tried our luck at the nearby bus stop. Although it was a straight line down the road to the old town, we learned that only one of the bus lines that came through would be heading in that direction. Naturally, it was the last one to come and it was packed. Mei Ling tried to shoo some people in further in order to get our stroller on but the driver waved us off. We had to walk, but the silver lining was that we found a cheap barber to lop off Ian and Spenser's shaggy manes.

Puerta Cinegia Gastronómica was great again, although we arrived a little early for a couple of our favorite stalls to open. After dinner, we walked down the main pedestrian street of the old town, Calle Alfonso I, at the end of which hovered the luminous central dome of the Basilica.

The only thing we saw in Zaragoza more amazing than Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar in the broad light of day was the illuminated Basilica at night. The Fuente de la Hispanidad was also eerily lit up with an ever-changing series of vivid colors. If anything, the Plaza de la Seo was more busy than it had been during the day.

We left Zaragoza having seen much less of the city than is typical for us. Perhaps because we'd seen so many neighborhoods in Valencia we hadn't felt the need to explore as much. We had definitely made it to all the important highlights of the central city, and I think that's likely going to remain our entire experience of Zaragoza. It had been worth the visit just for Plaza de la Seo and Puerta Cinegia Gastronómica, but there's no compelling reason for us to return. Of course, we have many years of traveling still ahead of us so there's no way of knowing for sure. On the other hand, I'm confident that we'll be back to Valencia, Madrid, and Barcelona in the future.

We had to be in France by dinner time so there was no time to waste getting back on the road. It took us less than an hour of highway driving over featureless Aragonian landscape to get to Huesca. Like Teruel, Huesca was a small city with a good-sized old town. We wandered through a few picturesque alleys and squares before finding a tapas restaurant that seemed right.

The central part of the old town was a rising maze of small streets that eventually culminated at Catedral de Huesca. The 14th century Gothic church is most recognizable for its ornate arched doorway flanked by stone statues of the apostles. We treated the kids to ice cream in the nearly-empty plaza before heading to our last stop of the first Spanish leg of the road trip.

Castello de Loarre is just a half hour from Huesca via scenic one-lane roads. After taking the turnoff from the route that proceeds to the town of Loarre, the road rapidly ascends into the foothills of Sierra de Guara. At the highest point, a well-preserved medieval fortress commands sweeping views of Aragon's countryside. Castello de Loarre played a critical role in the reconquest of the surrounding area from the Muslims in the 12th century, and is now considered to be one of the most well-preserved Romanesque castles in all of Europe. Kids love castles, and this one had all the elements necessary to generate happy oohs and aahs from Ian and Cleo.

The views from Castello de Loarre reminded me a little of Rocca Calascio in Italy, although the access here had been much simpler. There were plenty of rooms, staircases, and ramparts to explore. As we ascended into the higher part of the castle we heard beautiful music which I assumed was being played on a speaker. We arrived in a chapel and saw two people already there who had such an understated presence that it took a few moments before I realized the amazing sound was actually their voices. They were taking advantage of the acoustics of the chapel to create exquisite, resonant music. It was over far too quickly, but it was a great reminder that the most memorable and wonderful moments of a trip can come at unexpected times.

Posted by zzlangerhans 13:26 Archived in Spain Tagged zaragoza huesca aragon Comments (0)

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