Tuesday, December 24, 2013
After our breakfast, we walked through the really fine market. Once again there were lots of artisanal stalls as well as the usual fruit and veg, meats, cheeses and much foie gras. We stopped at a fruit and veg stall, where we had to wait to be given some plastic bags for our produce. The lady put a few bags in front of me but before I could even pick them up, they were gone. Obviously, you have to be quick at these French markets. We bought some staples to take home with us including some very tasty small grapes. In all the markets we saw they sold cooked beets alongside the fresh ones. That would save some mess at home.
I leave you with these words of Henry Miller who wrote, "I believe that this great peaceful region of France will always be a sacred spot for man and that when the cities have killed off the poets this will be the refuge and cradle of the poets to come. I repeat, it was most important for me to have seen the Dordogne: it gives me hope for the future of the race, for the future of the earth itself. France may one day exist no more, but the Dordogne will live on just as dreams live on and nourish the souls of men."
Sunday, December 22, 2013
We finally arrived at the caves just in time for the lunchtime closing. Back in the town of Montignac, we wandered around for awhile, particularly enjoying the walk by the river. After deciding that we didn't want black or blood sausage, we settled on a little bistro for lunch. We had had a coffee there earlier, and I had noticed that duck lasagna was on the menu. First we had a lovely green salad, with bib lettuce of course, followed by the amazing lasagna, which had a thin top and bottom of pasta and the rest was duck. We made owner very happy with our praise of this magnificent lasagna.
We got back to Lascaux cave promptly at two o'clock, but were made to wait another twenty minutes until the tour started. Several of us waited patiently reading the books in the shop. The Lascaux caves are a perfect modern copy of the original that was closed in 1963 as the paintings were beginning to deteriorate. The caves were found by a young man out walking his dog, Robot in 1940. It is as the local Abbé Breuil suggested, "the Sistine chapel of prehistory," an unforgettable experience that overwhelms you with with a sense of art, history and a certain, "Je ne sais quoi," but something very powerful.
The artists may have lived 17,000 years ago but but they were people who were much like us, with aesthetic sensibilities and a sense of humour shown by some of the paintings of cows, deer, horses and some whimsical animals. The perfectly proportioned and colourful pictures will never be forgotten. Frustratingly, photography was not permitted.
We backtracked to a small museum that reproduced some drawings not in the Lascaux caves. Again they were quite stunning. Outside there was a zoo with some of the animals represented in the drawings.
Driving along we had passed several goose farms, duck farms and even a snail farm. We stopped at one of the goose farms watching the antics of the geese as they followed one another around the field with much flapping and honking. I bought a tin of jugged goose -- civet d'oie -- for dinner one evening. It is to be served hot with steamed potatoes.
Since we hadn't yet bought any wine, we drove to Le Bugue. After a quick stop at a patisserie for a reviving coffee accompanied by the brightest pink marzipan pig you can imagine, we visited the famous cave of Julian de Savignac. This was highly recommended by Bruno. Here we bought some of his favourite Perchament red and some Malbec. It was a fine finish to the day, or just perhaps that honour goes to the frites cooked in duck fat that accompanied our dinner. Oh my! How much porridge will we have to eat to counteract that?
We had our coffee on the square in the old Bastide town of Lalinde, which is right on the Dordogne river. Our plan today was to visit a few of these Bastide towns, which are wonderful examples of medieval town planning. Built as new market towns that were also fortresses, they had big squares for the market, defensible walls, and a sturdy church to act as a bastion. The English and French each built them during the Hundred Years' War for defense in depth but also because the markets provided tax revenues that could go to the king rather than the local barons.
I stopped to admire some polar fleece in the window of a shop and then decided to drop in. I was looking for a polar fleece vest. When I asked the owner why you couldn't find them, I was told in no uncertain terms that vests were not elegant or sophisticated. Oh dear! I did try on a very nice jacket in a lovely blue colour. After being assured that I looked very chic, I succumbed and bought the jacket, only to find out that all the polar fleece was made from recycled plastic bottles from Canada.
We had lunch in one of the lovely half timbered houses. It started with langoustines, followed by thinly sliced duck breast, potatoes and yet another glass of lovely red wine.
Walking back to the river we stopped to admire one of the traditional river barges. One of the things to do in the summer is sail in one of these on the river.
Saturday, December 21, 2013
We then visited the market in nearby Le Bugue. This market is renowned as the best market in the region. After parking precariously right by the river, we climbed the steps to the market square. Immediately we were assailed with a sight of wonderful cheeses, breads, fruit and veg and of course foie gras. The market stretched on both sides of the road and went on forever. It was a delight walking along the food stalls, artisanal clothing, jewelry, and handbags just to name a few. This wasn't a market of Chinese clothes with 'Made in Italy' labels. We stopped to buy some home made chutneys and some mince meat pies. Later we were lured by a round of goat cheese covered in cranberries and another soft, tasty cheese covered in peppers. We bought two small tins of foie gras rather than the fresh, and some fig aperitif that we are looking forward to opening soon. Le Bugue market is a foodies heaven.
By now it was lunch time and following 'Bruno's advice', we sought Auberge le Roussel. With a little bit of help we soon found it, up a narrow road full of twist and turns. The restaurant was filled with locals, always a good sign. The lady immediately brought a pichet of red wine and some bread to the table. This was followed by a tureen with vegetable soup, and a ladle; you just helped yourself. Next came a green salad with thin slices of duck followed by roast goose, scalloped potatoes and a kind of ratatouille. A plate with huge slabs of cheese was placed on the table so that we could help ourselves. I asked the name of one very tasty soft cheese only to be told that it didn't have a name and that it was just "cheese from here". We had our choice of six desserts. Seamus had the local nut tart, while I opted for my favourite isles flottant. All this for only €12.50. Incredible!
We drove on to the magical town of La Roque Gageac before ending up at the medieval hilltop town of Domme with it's great views over the valley below.
Our final stop of the day was Sarlat, a town whose centre was largely built in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and which has changed little since. They could film another version of The Three Musketeers here without changing anything except for a few modern shop windows. It stayed that way because the local swamps and malaria put the town into a long decline with little new building until DDT tamed the mosquito. We enjoyed walking around the town, especially the Christmas market with lots of nougat, marzipan, wine, foie gras of course, Christmas items and a booth from Quebec selling maple syrup.
By now it was dark and time to wend our way back to Tremolat for a beet salad and a simple omelet.
As we passed Carcassone and Castelnaudry, catching glimpses of the Canal Midi, we began thinking about lunch. Since we were very last minute, we hadn't taken any food with us. But when we pulled off at the next highway stop we found a restaurant overlooking a backwater of the Canal Midi complete with a couple of canal barges. What a beautiful setting! We actually sat down and got served a lovely menu of the day lunch. Our first course was a salad with sliced duck and goose gizzards. Delicious. The main course a lovely sausage on large beans or frites. Guess what we had? Dessert was fresh white cheese that tasted like yogurt. Of course I had a glass of rose. This restaurant, right on the highway, in a lovely setting, was a great find.
North of Toulouse we left the main highway and began driving, in the dark, along some narrow, very windy roads, before finally arriving at our hotel in the small village of Tremolat.
By now it was time to eat again. All we wanted was soup and salad. We had another green salad, like only the French can make, with lovely bib lettuce and a vinaigrette dressing. In between courses we were presented with a little, deep fried ball filled with duck and a little pastry with foie gras. Next came our pumpkin soup but not before some creme fraiche was put in the bowl. Then came a little deep fried piece of bread wrapped in Serrano ham. We didn't ask for dessert but who can resist raspberry mousse? Then of course we had a little chocolate truffle with coffee. Just imagine how much food we would have been presented with if we had ordered a regular meal?
Saturday, December 14, 2013
Back home we heard the revving up of chain saws and the roar of a bobcat as it cut a swathe through the woods behind us. Our stone pine were being thinned out to reduce fire risk. Much as we hate to see trees being felled, this is a necessary measure. Our village is surrounded by wooded parkland, and summer fires are a constant danger. Undeveloped lots quickly fill with brush and pines, and so our township was given permission to thin these areas out.
A large pine right against our fence line was the first to go. It was amazing just how large it was. And then the other, which was partially dead anyway or I think that's what the lumberjack told us. The bonus for us is that our view across the valley and down to the port will be greatly enhanced. They will be back on Monday for more cutting and to clear up.
I don't know what it will do to the wildlife, the deer and the wild boar. Last week we had a pine marten walk by our window that looks out on to the terrace. I think they will just move over to where the pines are thicker away from the houses.
With another beautiful day, we decided to visit the Aiguamolls nature reserve. As we left the car we could hear lots of quacking and honking from the main pond. When we arrived at the blind, we could see that it was almost "standing room only" in the pond with lots of greylag geese, a few Canada geese, mallards, shelducks, European wigeons, northern shovelers, teals, and northern pochards with their distinctive rust-coloured heads. There was plumage of almost every colour and the noise was almost overwhelming.
As we walked deeper into the Aiguamolls we passed the still empty stork nests, then looking down into a marshy area we stopped and watched a long legged spotted crake tug, tug, tugging away at something that might have been a frog, finally winning and running deeper into the marsh with its trophy.
Since it was such a nice day, we decided to continue our walk down to the beach, stopping to watch the antics of the Camargue ponies. We were surprised to see so many foals since our last visit. The cattle egrets were happy to see the ponies since they kept flying in to perch on the ponies' backs. A black, glossy ibis went about its business in one of the ponds. We were very excited to see a flock of what looked like large, black birds fly and land in a field. Were they the elusive Grus Grus - European Crane? We raced off to their landing spot to find out that they were storks. They certainly look impressive when flying in formation.
Finally, we crossed the long, sandy beach to the water. I thought it might be inviting but it really did look cold. Since the sun was moving lower in the sky it was time to retrace our footsteps.
Back in the village we decided to go for a glass of cava at the Nautica. There was a birthday party for one of the server's five-year-old daughters going on. Now for us it was very interesting to watch a birthday party Spanish style from our perches at the bar. All the parents were socializing having a beer or glass of wine, while the partygoers were having their faces painted, eating, socializing or playing games in small groups. Everyone, young and old was having a good time. We felt very welcomed, when the uncle of the birthday girl offered us a little glass of home-made, not sweet, jello-topped with whipped cream and sprinkles and some homemade cookies. It went quite well with the cava. There were a couple of gifts of toys and clothes and one big gift everyone had chipped in for. We couldn't clearly see what it was but maybe a dollhouse set. There was a set time for the end of festivities so that the restaurant could return to normal but we were long gone by then.
Monday, December 9, 2013
We took a different track back down more farm lanes passing more olive groves with lots of people out harvesting their crops. Back at the Empordalia frantoia the olives were dumped through a grate, and then suddenly they appeared on a belt that took them to a machine that removed branches. Next they were washed and the stones were removed before the olives were ground into a thick, goopy paste. It was mixed again and with gravity the oil was extracted.
Now we moved to the bottling room, where everyone took their turn to fill a bottle with lovely, fresh, green oil. The bottle was moved to the capping machine and the process was complete. We were very happy to leave with a good sized bottle of delicious olive oil. What a lovely morning.
Every kind of salad imaginable was available and I have mentioned several of these. Kebabs were popular as was mansaf, which is chunks of boiled lamb served on a bed of sticky rice with pine nuts on top. This was often served with goat's milk yoghurt on the side. Good fish was rare and of course pork is forbidden.
At the time of writing tourists are staying away from Jordan because of the situation in Syria and Egypt. I would venture to guess that our hotels in Amman and the Dead Sea were at about ten percent capacity. They were extremely quiet.
Any Jordanians we encountered told us that it was a safe country and to tell our friends. We certainly found it that way but we were on the tourist trail. Nevertheless visiting Jordan was an incredible experience and perhaps we will return someday.
Sunday, December 8, 2013
Soon we were at the airport, where the computer system was down. It didn't seem to matter, everyone was calm and at one time we had three people helping us obtain our boarding passes. Soon we were in the open plan duty free. What a lovely airport. It was so stress free.
Back home again we were faced with all the builder's mess on the roof. It hadn't been repaired and of course once again the furnace was broken. We had gone from 32 degrees at the Dead Sea to 12 degrees in our unheated house! Still it didn't spoil our memories of a wonderful trip.
Back on the road our little tourist bus was stopped by the traffic police. It seemed a little incongruous that here in the desert he checked the windshield wipers but something was amiss. Our tourist policeman, guide and bus driver all got out to have a conversation with the official. After some heated words eventually we were allowed to leave. The bus driver was furious and we shot off, passing road signs for Iraq, at full speed. This then caused words between our tourist policeman and bus driver, all very exciting.
The Dead Sea is flanked by mountains to the east and the rolling hills of Jerusalem to the west, giving it an almost other-worldly beauty. Although sparsely populated and serenely quiet now, the area is believed to have been home to five Biblical cities including Sodom and Gomorrah.
We checked into our hotel and headed off to the beach. I had on my water shoes and was very glad of them since the rocks were quite sharp. What an experience, just floating in the warm, soothing, super salty water itself – some ten times saltier than sea water, and rich in chloride salts of magnesium, sodium, potassium, bromine and several others. The unusually warm, incredibly buoyant and mineral-rich waters have attracted visitors since ancient times, including King Herod the Great and the beautiful Egyptian Queen, Cleopatra. All of whom have luxuriated in the Dead Sea’s rich, black, stimulating mud and floated effortlessly on their backs.
Of course I had to try floating on my front. It wasn't a pleasant experience. The water stung my face and it felt like I had super salted my neti pot. I did have my goggles on. Quickly, I maneuvered back on my back. It was a lot of fun in this water but you couldn't really swim because you were so buoyant. You could float upright in the water, completely out of the water from waist up. Finally we tried to get out but that was difficult going from lying on your back to an upright position because of the salinity. The lifeguard on shore grabbed us to help us out.
There was a lovely big pot of the dark, Dead Sea mud on the shore. We helped each other mud up and then sat in the sand, while the mud dried. Then it was back in the water to clean the mud off, which was easier said than done. It was a wonderful experience and one that I will never forget.