Category Archives: France

Wild and wonderful…

They may only rate a passing mention in some guidebooks, but Moustiers Sainte-Marie and Gorges du Verdon will leave you speechless. That said, I have to bang on about it for a bit…

The road to Gorges du Verdon leads us through stone villages, olive groves and fields of lavender, towards a hazy mountain range.

Copyright: Louise Ralph

Lavender fields of Provence – imagine these in flower. Phew.

The plan is to drop into the tourism office in Moustiers Sainte-Marie to pick up a map for the gorge walks.

But we are about to be stunned. We round a sweeping bend, see the ancient village of Moustiers nestled into the mountains, and experience the first of many Oh.My.God-moments we’ll have today.

Copyright: Louise Ralph

Moustiers Sainte-Marie. Sigh.

For me, one of those moments is catching sight of the church high in the ravine above the village and the endless stairs leading up to it. I just know what EB is thinking…

But first, we walk into absolutely the most beautiful village we’ve seen in France so far – and that’s saying something.

Words and photos can’t adequately capture this place – it’s something you must take in with your eyes and heart…

Copyright: Louise Ralph

Copyright: Louise Ralph

Magical Moustiers

 

Okay, that’s enough Zen for now. There’s that ‘hill’ above the church to get up.

EB is gleeful to discover there is a way. Weaving ever upwards, we follow yellow way-finding markers to leave the village far below us.

When we finally reach the top, we are breathless (in more ways than one). But others have taken the OMG moment to the next level, soaring above us in paragliders.

Copyright: Louise Ralph

Eventually, we follow the path down to meet an ancient Roman roadway carved into the mountainside.

It leads us down to the village, where we join locals and tourists kicking back, sharing gossip and wine.

We soak up the sun before it dips behind the mountains and the village slips into shadows. It’s time to find the Gorges du Verdon… and be smitten yet again.

Copyright: Louise Ralph

Gorges du Verdon

The road winds precariously around the mountains, with narrow gravel stopping-places, where you can fight vertigo to peer thousands of metres into the gorge below, and gasp over the emerald river snaking along it.

The kayaking businesses are closed for the season, but we’ve already vowed we’ll be back. Who could resist this?

So put this one on your must-see list. You may wear out your camera – and possibly your legs – but, like us, you won’t be in a hurry to leave.

Copyright: Louise Ralph


Totally wild in the Camargue. Perhaps.

Imagine… wild white horses galloping through the wetlands, pink flamingos taking flight at sunset, slender black bulls with upright horns lifting their heads to snort and observe you, against a backdrop of deep blue.

October 3: Of course the Camargue was at the top of my list for places to see in France. I love wetlands and wildlife, and this promised to be 40,000 hectares of lakes and marshes teeming with life.

But Sylvia the GPS refused to cooperate. Je ne sais pas où c’est, désolé (she speaks French now), i.e. haven’t heard of it or words to that effect.

Y’know, there are times when you should see the signs and not just look for them.

The Camargue is a big place and there are two sides. Clearly, we chose the wrong one.

First we saw the saltworks that have been operating since ancient times. Between March and September each year, 15,000 tons of crystals are gathered each day, and washed and stored in salt mountains called camelles.

Copyright: Louise Ralph

Camargue’s salt pans…

Then we saw random beach camping that, along with burnt-out caravans and other debris, would scare away anything wild (except the locals).

Copyright: Louise Ralph

One of France’s natural wonders: random camping

So, wildlife. Um. You couldn’t stop to look and you couldn’t really walk through it. What you can do, apparently, is park up and go au-naturel.

Apart from wild pig footprints, we saw a few birds and one horse…

Copyright: Louise Ralph

Gotta love that zoom lens…

A helpful parcs officer told us we could drive around to the other side of the wetlands and we might see some bulls and horses.

Frankly darling, by that stage, we didn’t give a damn.

Instead, we headed off to the Arenes de Nimes, an impressive Roman arena that was the original (and harsh) reality entertainment complete with hunter-beast and beast-eats-prisoner warmups, followed by gladiator battles to the death.

These days, the humane version of bull-fighting is on the agenda, along with bull running. This is a bit of fun for the lads – unless they miss their footing when leaping out of the way of a feisty Camargue bull with those brutal horns…

And so the sun set on a challenging day in Provence. The only way is up, baby.


A week in Provence

And so it begins…

We were on a wine tour in Provence today, and EB had just bought some wine. Mid-chat with someone, he’d walked away leaving (I thought) €14 change behind.

Our lovely English-speaking French guide was standing nearby and, to be sure I wasn’t taking someone’s money by mistake, I asked him:

“Is that Frank’s or yours?”

Say that out loud, with a bit of a French accent, and you’ll know what’s coming next…

“It’s euros. We don’t have francs here anymore,” he replied.

I smiled. “Oh, no,” I said. “I mean, is that Frank’s change?”

Bien sur, we change many years ago.”

“Ah, oui,” I said, shrugging in that very-French way I’m learning.

But behind us, one of the other Australian ladies on our tour was looking confused. “Who’s Frank? Are you Frank?” she said to him.

“No, he’s Jacques,” I said.

“Then who’s Frank?”

But some things you just can’t explain…

So, apart from practicing French with the tour guide, I learnt that France is very prescriptive when it comes to viticulture.

Appellations mean that each region can only use certain grapes in their wine making and often at particular percentages. 

This is pretty handy to know, and explains why the labels clearly identify the region, but often don’t mention the grape variety.

It also explains why a waiter looked at me oddly the other day when I asked for un verre du vin blanc, s’il vous plait. Sauvignon?

“Sauvignon? Non. Bergerac.” he said, which I had a vague idea was a region…

Oui très bien seemed the appropriate answer.  At €2.50 a glass, I wasn’t about to argue.

At least I know what I’m ordering when I see a wine from Provence… I think. We may have worked out the whole wine thing by the time we leave, but I doubt it.

Oh well…When it comes to French wines, ignorance still ends up being bliss. Bonne journée!


Squeezing into Avignon

Copyright: Louise Ralph

French-kiss parking in Avignon

After an overnight pit stop in the rain-drenched Carcassonne, we arrived in Avignon.

First, Sylvia the GPS tried to take us down a one-way street into the city, then she tried to have us jump bollards and go the wrong way on the main road.

It was time to shut down Sylvia until we’ve found our own way into the city… Eventually, we let her off the leash and she leads us to our apartment.

Of course I’d been completely distracted, so hadn’t organised a key pickup.

Without a phone card or functioning mobile phone, we went in search of the Office de Tourisme. Which is when the adventure started.

One right turn was all we needed to lead us into the rabbit-warren of impossibly-narrow back alleys.

But we’ve been around long enough to know that very little is impossible in France when it comes to cars.

So we sucked in our breath and wove our way around until we finally came out at a main road – no closer to the Tourism place. C’est la vie.

Time to stop at the nearest hotel, not for a drink, although we definitely needed that. Instead, EB soon had them calling our apartment owners and arranging for us to meet.

Talk about opening doors (and leaping language barriers) with just a smile…

And who said blokes didn’t like asking for directions?


When in France…

You can picture it, can’t you? A young girl, cycling past a field of, um, ducks, filmy skirt streaming behind her (but not getting caught in the spokes), a bunch of fresh flowers in the bike’s basket – and, of course, a baguette.

This is not me.

Unfortunately, I’m the one in the ugly bike duds, cycling in the other direction.

But let’s not spoil a good story with the truth. The star of the show here is not the lovely young thing. It’s the ubiquitous baguette.

This humble bread stick defines French life.

An old lady, crumpled and stooped, orders her dinner: a baguette and crepes, with un verre du vin rosé.

An old man with a cigar-rasping voice, and a grumpy dog at his feet, chomps into a baguette with his beer.

A tradesman heads home for lunch, baguettes in hand.

A toddler in a stroller chews on the end of a baguette longer than he is. His mother takes advantage of a moment’s peace to indulge in some window shopping…

In every restaurant, baguettes are served along with the main meal, or earlier. But always there.

Everywhere you look – absolutely everywhere – there are baguettes. And it’s not long before we are caught up in the tradition.

Lunch? A baguette, fromage and juicy tomatoes, washed down with a delicious vin rouge. Sounds perfect. And having perfectly strong teeth is a prerequisite for making your way through that tough crust.

Okay, I may not have the filmy skirt or the bunch of flowers, but I have the baguette (and all my teeth, so far).

And, in France, that definitely counts for something…


A river somewhere: paddling the Dordogne

After three duck-weather days, the sun peeps out from behind the clouds this morning and gives us a wink and a nudge.

It’s a sign. We jump in the car and head to Couleurs Périgord, one of the 23 canoe hiring places along the Dordogne.*

They are open, and we’re soon on our way to our drop-off point in Carsac, 22 kilometres up-river.

Apparently there can be up to 6,000 canoes on the river on summer days.

The Dordogne is slightly wider than a four-lane carriageway, so I’m guessing it would feel a bit like a freeway at peak hour. Joy.

Today, the air has a distinct chill and the sun is weak so, for us, this is the best time to be on the river. We are alone out here, just the way we like it.

Copyright: Louise Ralph

…the Dordogne from the Château féudal de Beynac

Like every hire kayak, this one is built tough. And heavy. It weighs at least 56 and a half kilos. Well, maybe not, but it moves like a slug and we’re happy we’re going with the flow…

We paddle past delightful stone villages and under bridges, past castles high on the cliffs, and chateaux nestled in amongst the trees.

The river is flanked by lush green forests, splashed with Autumn reds and golds. The water is so clear, we can see fish of all shapes and sizes darting beneath us.

Every now and then, we catch a flash of cobalt blue as a tiny kingfisher swoops down from the trees to snatch les poissons du jour.

The trip is supposed to take four hours, but that doesn’t account for the outboard motor in the back of our kayak. That’s EB, who has no off-button.

So two-and-a-half hours later, we round the last bend of the Dordogne to face the incredible view of Beynac and the Château féudal de Beynac towering above it.

Yesterday, we were up there looking out across the valley (pictured). The river view is so much more impressive.

Ahead, between our landing place and us, is a small flock of rather large ducks. More like a gaggle of geese.

These things are enormous, and stretch out to appear even bigger when they spot two dangerous and slightly soggy intruders.

Three of them swim towards us, necks outstretched, furious and protective of their young. The leader opens his bright orange beak and lets out a powerful hiss.

There’s no giving them a wide berth. They paddle faster than us, especially when we’re laughing too hard to paddle at all.

Luckily their hiss is worse than their bite, and a couple of waving paddles keeps them at bay until they’re satisfied they’ve put the fear of le canards in us.

It’s times like this I wish had a waterproof camera. Damn.

At the end of our paddle, we are slightly chilled but ridiculously happy – and we feel one of those leisurely people-watching afternoons in a Sarlat café coming on.

As soon as we peel ourselves out of these wet clothes…

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

*Couleurs Perigord are fabulous – friendly, helpful and they also offer de l’escalade et de la spéléologie (caving and rock climbing).


Fortress, castle, rock… playing up in Dordogne

A sprinkle of rain and a bit of cloud cover. Perfect paddling weather, or so we thought. Wrong. The kayaking hire places were closed, so we had to ditch the river views for a few days and play a little fortress, castle, rock…

Copyright: Louise Ralph

Ducks are the stars of Dordogne – on the plate and in bronze

Quacking up

It’s been great weather for ducks, which is quite fitting here in the Dordogne.

Let’s just say, there’s a few of them around. Fields full of them actually.

And, as we’ve discovered, chefs have come up with hundreds of ways of preparing le canard – including a delicious gizzard salad (a must for vegetarians, not).

Getting historical

Immersing yourself in the history of this place is inevitable – and wise, if only to avoid food and the temptation to buy real estate.

Here’s a snapshot or two…

We walked the steep cobblestone streets of the stunning medieval village of Beynac and up to the fortress above the village.

Cleverly built on the edge of a cliff like an eerie, they had an eagle’s view of the valley and only two sides of the fortress to defend.

Château féudal de Beynac is such an impressive place and not surprising it was the set for Luc Besson’s Jeanne d’Arc (1999).

Then there’s the impenetrable La Roque Saint-Christophe – a town built into the cliff-face along five terraces in the Middle Ages.

EB and I found this place fascinating, with its smokehouse, cowshed, village kitchen, houses, a church and more – all carved into the rock.

Copyright: Louise Ralph

This ancient town rocks…

But these natural terraces first sheltered hunter-gatherers, and possibly Neanderthal man and then Cro-Magnon man as well…

We also visited Grotte de Lascaux, site of the most famous Paleolithic cave paintings in the world. The original cave was getting loved to death, with over a 1,000 visitors a day in the high season.

All that breathing and body heat, as well as pollen transported in on shoes, was destroying the artwork. So a perfect replica of the cave was built and the paintings precisely reproduced in Lascaux II, making this an awe-inspiring place to visit.

These paintings are so beautifully proportioned, colourful and even three-dimensional it literally takes your breath away.

You get a sense, in the Dordogne, that there really is nothing new under the sun – that humankind has been around for a very long time. And that they were smarter and had more ingenuity than we might sometimes think.

Hitting out…

Feeling a bit castled-out, we decided to take a relaxing stroll through the countryside. Which was only ruined by having to hit golf balls along the way, and go off-piste to find the miss-hit ones in the magical forest lining the course.

It was a seriously beautiful course and the wind was just chilly enough to make you feel alive.

Copyright: Louise Ralph

EB teeing up at the Souillac Golf and Country Club

And the golf? EB played with his usual panache, but me? Well, when I pulled a pitching wedge out of the bag, with the ball 60 metres out from the flag, it was anyone’s guess where it would end up.

Instead, it soared… and dropped within a foot of the hole. There was an eerie silence, if only because EB had stopped talking.

It was a truly historical moment – me hitting the ball well, not EB being silent.

To put this in context, my skill at golf is similar to a vegetarian cooking the perfect steak (I can’t do that either, by the way).

I have to admit, the French air definitely agrees with me.

It was a perfect day under cloudy skies. All we could wish for was a little sunshine, because the Dordogne is waiting to be paddled… and we don’t have a lot of time to hang about.


Enchanted in Dordogne…

Copyright: Louise Ralph

Magical Sarlat…

As if driving through the magical countryside of the Dordogne isn’t enough, we arrive at Sarlat-la-Canéda and step straight into an enchanted medieval village…

It was début d’après midi (early afternoon) and the height of Sarlat’s buzzing Saturday market that lines the rue de la République, spills down alleyways, and takes over the place de la Liberté.

With most of the streets in the centre ville closed, poor Sylvia (our GPS) went into a spin, trying to lead us down alleyways that only a scooter could negotiate. And even one with stairs.

Eventually, we ditched her and the car, and walked into the mayhem in search of our ‘home’ for the next week.

Copyright: Louise Ralph

The alleyway to our apartment. Magnifique…

We find our delightful apartment in one of those enchanting alleyways that wind away from the main street. Ah, bliss…

Being in Sarlat is like stepping into the scene from a fantasy novel, with its turreted stone buildings, tree-lined town square, and smaller meeting places tucked away down secret alleyways.

This is a place where you can’t help but question the frenetic pace of life back home.

The French really know how to live. Late starts, long lunches, the most deliciously fresh food, promenading at dusk, closing their shops or restaurants when something more important comes up… C’est la vie.

Nobody minds. There is always tomorrow…

Dordogne is a place we’d move to in a second, but home is where the heart is. So we’ll have to be content with taking a little bit of this lifestyle back with us.

Meanwhile, if all goes to plan, we’ll be kayaking down la Dordogne from Carsac to Beynac tomorrow. If not, there’s always the next day… c’est la vie.

Thanks to the lovely Leila, from France at Leisure in Brisbane, who booked our accommodation from the Loire Valley through to Dordogne, into Provence and Burgundy… including our Burgundy cycling trip. 


Let’s hear it for the girls…

Copyright: Louise Ralph

The Chateau de Chenonceau

Never say never. My sister suggested we go and see the Chateau de Chenonceau – and who am I to argue with someone who should really be writing guidebooks?

We went, and she was absolutely right (thanks, sista).

The promos say it is “a chateau loved, managed, and protected by women” and it clearly is.

Katherine Briçonnet built it in 1513, Diane de Poitiers and Catherine de Medici added their creative flair, and later the beautiful Louise Dupin (who strongly believed in the equality of men and women) saved it during the French Revolution.

In World War I, the chateau became a military hospital for the French Resistance and the kitchen was transformed to cater for this new development.

It’s no surprise it’s referred to as the ‘Ladies Castle’. It’s stunning structure, intimate interiors and the gardens, labyrinth and moats surrounding it all bear the touch of a woman.

It is lovingly preserved, with fresh flowers in every furnished room – and stepping into the kitchen takes you back a few centuries. It even has probably the world’s first pizza oven – well, a baker’s oven, but it’s not much different from the ones we see today.

And there are only a couple of deer and boar heads hanging around the place. Which is so much more restful than those drafty hunting lodges…

Yes, yes, men can be so dull at times. But they do make good drivers, apparently.

Copyright: Louise Ralph

…spanning the Cler River


Driving Ms Lazy…

I admit I’ve been a bit of a diva in France – with EB, my personal chauffeur, I’ve been kicking back and enjoying the journey.

But today I decided the time had come. When in France, do what the French do – and I don’t mean buy a baguette (that’s a story for another day…).

So I told EB to pull over, and I jumped into the driver’s seat.

The left-side thing – seat, clutch, gears and stuff – was okay. It was judging the pesky road edge that did me in. After a couple of times of hitting the gravel, EB was almost under the dashboard (not hiding, but cracking up with laughter).

Then there were those tight turns between stone walls in little villages. Oh god.

I stuck at it and thought I was pretty relaxed really. I mean, I’ve been speaking French… I can do anything, right?

But when my left arm went numb, I realised I wasn’t quite as chilled as I thought. Let’s just say, I have renewed respect for EB’s ability to jump in the car and drive us out of Paris

A while later, I was pretty happy to slide back into the passenger’s seat.

There’s something about watching the world go by… especially when the feeling comes back in your arm.