Beach Real Estate

We REALLY didn’t want to leave San Sebastian this morning! That city deserves a closer look on another trip. It seems very livable. San Sebastian and Bordeaux are battling for the Winning City Award from this visit.

For those of you looking at your maps, from San Sebastian we headed north for a little stop at St. Jean-de-Luz, which is on the coast just north of the border in France. This lovely old-school French beach resort town is one step below Biarritz on the not-affordable scale. King Louis XIV was married here. The current residents are only slightly less highbrow than Louis. Charm and good taste just pour out of the open shop doors.

The ship is hanging over the center of the church where Louis was married
Those are the Basque peppers hanging like curtains.
Sandwiched between the mountains and the sea
They have a beach that goes around the cove.

 

No calories in just looking

Paries pastry shop (that we had ead about) was splendid. Each raspberry was adjusted on each tart to the perfect angle. 

Each one is perfect.

 

There was nothing in that shop that didn’t deserve to be photographed. We did our best and then ate a couple.

 

 

 

 

 

St. Jean-de-Luz is a Basque town in France, but St. Jean-de-Luz feels French first and Basque second, while San Sebastian feels Basque first and Spanish second.

Follow the map north to the Arcachon Basin and the city of Arcachon. It takes fewer dollars to live here, but not many. The beach is wide with calm water. The area is known for its seafood and we needed to verify the reputation. We found a table at one of the myriad restaurants by the beach. Cindy had seafood soup and mussels while Jim had shrimp salad and marlin. Sitting by the water on a cool, sunny day and watching the people stroll by as you eat fresh seafood is a good use of time.

Grilled marlin
Mussels in spicy sauce
Shrimp salad
Fish soup served with cheese, croutons, and mustard
Arcachon and its wide beach

We then drove north to the north side of the Arcachon Basin and our home for the night at Lege-Cap-Ferret. Our hosts quickly made dinner reservations for us at their favorite seafood spot. Our lunch had barely been consumed before we had reservations for dinner. That’s setting priorities! This area is known for Europe’s longest sand dune. It does seem like another area worth more time, but alas we don’t have it. Our dinner spot was a tiny restaurant in Andermos near the promenade. When we arrived, people were already claiming their spots by the seawall to see the sunset. The sunset lived up to the hopes of the promenaders. The seafood could not have been any fresher if the cook had been sitting on the boat moored outside the restaurant.

Shrimp making a sacrificial offering of a lemon. It didn’t protect them.
Treasures from the sea

You map-readers may wonder why we selected Lege-Cap-Ferret. If you look east a bit on your map, you’ll see the Bordeaux Airport. We have a flight out tomorrow to take us back to Chicago. We keep waiting to hear of a pilots’ strike or something, but no luck yet. Our plan is to take the one hundred notes that were in the anticipation jar and look at one per day for the next one hundred days and use them to spark memories of this vacation that took us from the Neanderthals of 30,000 years ago, to the Romans of the first century, to the chateau-builders and Templar knights of 14th century, to modern architects, artists, chefs, and winemakers of today. It’s been a relaxing, entertaining, educational, tasty, memorable, joyful trip.

A Day in Three Acts

This was a day that no tour guide would put together, but we had a great time. After breakfast at the castle, we headed to the city of Perigueux which is about an hour and a half away. Again, those of you who read the Bruno mysteries know the name.

A model of the 2nd Century city. The home being excavated, is the large square near the middle.
Part of a perfectly intact Roman florr
One of the birds on the mosaic floor
Poseidon perhaps?
Seahorse?
The iPad shows what the room likely looked like. Note how much of the art at the bottom of the wall remains today!

Anyway, we went to a museum that is the excavation site of a Roman home built in the 1st and 2nd centuries.

Our jaws never made it off the floor for the entire visit. We had never seen anything like it. An enormous glass building was built over the excavation site, allowing visitors to explore the entire Roman home.

Each relic was the best of its type you could imagine. The Roman tiled floor was in perfect condition. The mosaic birds looked like they had been created last week.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Parts of the walls maintained their original decorative paint. Honestly, if we had missed this site, our trip would have had a giant hole in it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We then drove to Brantome for lunch. Brantome is “the Venice of the Perigord” which makes us chuckle. We wonder how many “Venice of the…” places there are in the world. Moving past that, it was a charming town. The pictures can’t do it justice, but we tried.

We had such a relaxing lunch sitting by the canal and letting the world float by. Cindy had an omelet and salad and Jim had roasted camembert with cured meats. It was a delightfully perfect lunch.

Now that’s a view, and the scenery is nice too.
Yummy omelette
Cheese and meet with a little bit of green

The third act of the day took us to the Brantome Police Horse Sanctuary. It is outside of town by a good bit, and in a picture-perfect setting with rolling hills and verdant pastures. The sanctuary is a home for retired British police horses. We learned about the horses and what they went through in their jobs. Several had been traumatized or injured during riots. Some were retired due to other ailments.

Like these horses, we think that when we are ready to retire, this would be a great option. The police horses are joined at the sanctuary by a couple of goats, chickens, donkeys, and about six dogs. After meeting the animals, we joined other visitors for a proper British tea.

Sometimes It’s Even Better

In January of 2017 I was sitting in my basement office as the snow fell outside and I was on email with a guy in France asking about meeting with him in October. We discovered Stephane Gabart through a blog written by a woman who wanted to learn about photography. We looked at Stephane’s site at myfrenchheaven.com and were taken by his images and words. Several emails into the conversation I felt we had struck a goldmine. Stephane lived in Chicago at one point and worked for the Four Seasons. He came back to France to be with his family and to live in his family’s home in Libourne. Libourne is a small city to the east of Bordeaux.

We met Stephane today in Libourne outside of his favorite pastry shop, Lopez. His warmth, humor, and openness were obvious right away.

He ordered some of his favorite pastries for us to share later at lunch.

 

 

 

He then took us to the market to buy the largest shrimp we have ever seen and a few cheeses to sample after lunch. After a quick stop at Stephane’s home to put things in the fridge, he drove us to Chateau de la Riviere. If any of you are looking to buy real estate in France, this place has a lot to recommend it. The major renovation of the property was designed by Viollet-le-Duc, the architect who renovated Notre Dame in Paris during the nineteenth century.

 

 

 

The four gargoyles at the chateaux are the same as the ones used in Paris. Perhaps they got a volume discount.

 

 

They have some bottles from the 1960s.
The quarry workers tallied their day’s work on the walls.

We toured their extensive caves and sampled some of their wines.

 

 

 

 

On the way back to Stephane’s home, we stopped at a famous Libourne bakery. They bake fresh baguettes every thirty minutes in a kitchen the size of an average dining room. The smells coming out of there would a make person swoon. Cindy got to carry the warm baguettes for the trip to the house. Ah. French heaven, indeed.

For lunch we made an amazing dish with the world’s largest shrimp, cognac, Jack Daniels, and cream.

 

 

 

 

 

After the shrimp were partially cooked, we smashed their heads to get all the flavor out.

 

 

 

 

 

The heads were then removed and the cooking was soon completed. The warm bread came in very handy to sop up any extra sauce.

 

 

The cheese course followed and then the sampling of desserts. The food was wonderful, but what we’ll hold closest will be the time talking politics, family stories, travel tales, and food adventures with a person we will now think of as a French friend. When January and the snow comes back, we’ll try hard to be warmed by the memory of today.

Sunset from our room in the castle

Wining Without Whining

Neither of us is a wine aficionado (Jim fancies himself a beer expert, and he’ll tell you that if you ask him). But today we ventured to St. Emilion, the holy of holies of the effete world of wine snobs. We had poked around St. Emilion a bit yesterday, but today we returned for an in-depth taste.

Following the advice of our innkeeper, we headed to St. Emilion’s Tourist Information office and purchased two sets of tickets — one for the “petite touristic train” and the other for a tour of the ancient church, which is private property.

We are not the types to frequent trains touristique, which operate in many of France’s towns and cities. They generally take a slow lap around towns and tell you a little bit about the attractions — but we try to research that kind of stuff ahead of time, so that we aren’t wasting time getting an overview. However, the tourist train in St. Emilion goes out into the vineyards, showing you the chateaux and vines of some of the priciest (and ostensibly the best) wine estates in the world. You can see how the locations differ and what the $$$$ locations have in common.

We stepped off the train to taste wines at a chateau close to town. The chateau guide took us underground, showing us the rooms in which they lay down barrels and bottles to age. It was a very impressive operation. When we emerged and went to their tasting room, we were offered a glass of wine — and we didn’t think it was all that great. Mind you, it wasn’t Two-Buck Chuck, but we couldn’t imagine forking over $40 for a bottle of something that we didn’t love. So we hopped back onto the train, empty handed, and returned to town.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hake
Sea bass

Our innkeeper had suggested a restaurant for lunch, so we headed there, grabbed a table (reservations weren’t required!), and had one of the best meals of the trip.

 

 

Truly excellent. The only problem was that the waitstaff — in truly French fashion — didn’t rush us, and we had to skip the cheese course (horrors!) in order to make our appointment for a tour of the church.

 

During the French Revolution, the populace of France turned against the church. In many famous cathedrals, such as Chartres, the statues on the exteriors still bear the scars of those times. Sculptures were “beheaded.” In the case of St. Emilion’s church, the church was sold to a family. So you can’t enter this church without a guide and a ticket.

It was founded by followers of St. Emilion himself (he was a hermit who was originally from Brittany, but walked to what is now St. Emilion and settled there). Parts of the church were hewn out of the rock, making it a troglodytic church — one of the largest examples of this type of church in the world. Most parts of the church were completed in the early twelfth century.

The best part of the day came when we returned to “our” chateau. The innkeeper gave us a tour of his winemaking operations. After two of the most delightful hours of our trip, we know more about the history of the area, the history of the property (including a tree that was a gift from Benjamin Franklin), and the story of his wine. This was a terrible year for this winery and many others in the area. He lost 95% of his grapes to a late-season frost. It is so very sad. He is the eighth generation here and he faces serious challenges keeping this property after the tiny harvest this year. His attitude is great and the wine from his past vintages are super. We have the feeling that there will be a successful estate to pass to the next generation.

Queen for a Day, or Night

We started our morning with a market in St. Cyprian to get more cheese and dried cepes. Cepes are mushrooms that are the size of condos for gnomes.

 

 

 

We also picked up some cheese because. Just because.

 

 

We then went to Lucco’s for a pastry or two and a quiche to keep for dinner since we knew nothing would be open on a Sunday night. We didn’t buy anything in this photo, but isn’t it beautiful?

We drove west and stopped in Bergerac to check it out. The statue to Cyrano was worth seeing.

Since we had a little time, we drove up to St. Emilion to get an overview before going back tomorrow for some in-depth walking about.

We’re now in the wine-growing area called Entre Deux Mers — “between two seas” — that lies not between two seas but between two rivers, the Dordogne and the Garonne. The grapes grown in this area are mostly merlot, with a bit of cabernet franc and malbec. The wines tend to be fruity and drinkable — they don’t need to be aged as much as the cabernet sauvignons from north of Bordeaux.

Their dog is a perfect match!
Seriously?
OH MY!

Perhaps a few of you remember the old television show called Queen for a Day. The grand prize was often a washer or vacuum cleaner. Well, times have changed. The jackpot prize today is getting to stay in a castle. We are now at Chateau Castelnau which means new castle.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This castle was begun in the 14th century and replaced the old castle that was a few hundred meters away. We’re staying in a room above the castle’s chapel. The owner is the eighth generation of his family to live here. He and his lovely wife make award-winning wine and rent out some of the rooms. In our room the shower is hidden behind a moveable bookcase. The owner is going to give us a real tour of the place tomorrow. Pinch me.

Looking from the front door, past the well, past the outer wall and gate, and down the drive. Yup.
To the left of the tower is the Franklin oak, or what’s left of it after a storm.

For now, we’ll send this message off and dream dreams of kings, queens, hidden passages, and being blessed to experience it all.

Lot Rocks!

We got up early and headed east and then south, being careful to mostly stay on roads with more than one lane. We crossed into the department of Lot and were immediately captured by it. While not completely accurate, imagine the part of the Dordogne in which we are staying as the opening scene of Beauty and the Beast only every other shop is selling foie gras and wine or walnut cake and postcards. Lot seems more real.

 

 

 

 

 

We had a date with the past this morning. By past, we’re talking 30,000 years ago. We went to Pech Merle. It is a prehistoric cave that was rediscovered in 1922. Unlike Lascaux, 700 visitors per day are allowed into the caves to witness the drawings and carvings firsthand. The pictures are taken from photos in the museum. We followed the rules and didn’t take pictures inside the caves.

It was very moving coming face to face with something that was created 30,000 years ago. The stencils of the artists’ or artist’s hands make you want to reach out and somehow make a connection across time.

 

This was a marvelous visit. We read that people were passing through this valley 600,000 years ago. They settled here 300,000 years ago. Mind blown.

When we emerged from the caves and got back to the road, we headed to Saint Cirq Lapopie, which some consider the most beautiful village in France.

The morning had been rainy, but once we got out of the caves, the rain had stopped and the weather was perfect for trying to capture the one photo of this picturesque village that hasn’t yet been taken.

We may not have succeeded, but we were happy with the pictures we took. High on a cliff overlooking the confluence of the Lot and the Cele rivers, this was another spot that was fought over throughout time. The buildings here don’t have the golden color of buildings in Sarlat or Beynac. Here the buildings are a warm gray with brown tile roofs. We walked around town doing nothing but admiring every turn and twist. Each vista was more charming than the last.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our final taste of Lot was Souillac. It is a town with a toe in Lot and a toe in Dordogne.

We had to stop here to try to track down a distiller who makes elixirs out of prunes. Cindy had tasted one of their treasures on Wednesday and would not rest until we found some to take home. Mission accomplished.

 

We picked up come groceries for a salad and light pasta dinner and headed home to pack for our early exit in the morning. New adventures await.

A Quiet Day in the Dordogne

What day in its right mind would want to compete with the day we had yesterday? Today became our vacation-from-vacation day with a much calmer schedule and no rigorous plans.

We drove around a bit and had a lovely lunch in Tremalot at Bistro de la Place on the town square. Cindy had the winning dish. It was grilled shrimp with crab mousse in tubes that were formed out of shaved artichoke.

 

Jim had vegetable soup . . .

 

 

 

followed by beans with duck and pork.

 

 

 

The dessert was a version of floating island except the island was a baseball-sized sphere coated in hazelnuts.

 

 

 

We needed to walk off a few of the calories so we went to Limeuil. It is a hamlet with 350 residents located at the confluence of the Dordogne and Vezere Rivers.

 

 

Rather than a fortification at the top of the hill, there is a lovely garden. The paths were steep, but it made us feel that we had earned that lunch.

We made a brief stop at a wine shop that is mentioned in the Martin Walker series. We did not buy the 4,700 euro bottle.

 

 

We spent our late afternoon and evening here at our country home soaking in some of the early autumn sun, reading, and eating some quiche we picked up from the local bakery. While it hasn’t been an unforgettable day, it has been a restorative one.

Off-Road Adventures

After spending yesterday on one-lane winding roads, we traveled differently today. Oh, what a day!

Beynac and its reflection

We began by canoeing on the Dordogne River. We shared the river with the swans and egrets, but as far as humans go, we had the river to ourselves. We paddled past the castles at Beynac and Castelnaud and watched as the sun warmed the stone walls. After the twists and turns of yesterday, the peace that we felt was much appreciated.

Our next stop was the Jardins de Marqueyssac. The gardens are tended by five gardeners who use only hand tools.

With a palette of only green, they make movement, mystery, and magic.

There were delightfully whimsical spots scattered throughout the park with nets for climbing and giant hammocks for family naps. There was a clearing with about fifty huge ceramic heads — each with a different expression — popping out of the ground.

Our lunch spot on the terrace of the garden overlooked the Dordogne River valley across to Beynac. Cindy had a salad with roasted tomatoes, walnuts, and goat cheese. Jim had a salad with smoked duck and foie gras. The violet kir was a fun sipper while gazing at the castle and letting the relaxation really sink in as a peacock walked past.

 

We made a little afternoon stop at a place that got such great recommendation that we felt the need to check it out. Lucco is a pastry shop that even our chef/host raved about. We bought a couple of small treats to have for dessert.

Drum roll, please. We took a hot air balloon ride over the Dordogne River valley this evening. The flight was Jim’s Valentine’s Day and anniversary gift.

We’ve been scheduled to take this flight each day since we arrived, but it kept being cancelled due to too little wind, too much wind, possible rain, and such.

This evening it finally happened.

We were joined by a couple from Israel and a couple from Toronto. Boris, the pilot was skilled and calm.

We flew over Beynac, the river, the park where we had lunch, and miles of forests and farms. It was unforgettable.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A champagne toast after landing capped off a perfect day in France.

One for the Ages

A steep climb

We drove enough one-lane winding roads today to last us for a long while. We made a pilgrimage to Rocamadour after a quick stop at the Wednesday market in Sarlat. We decided that we didn’t want to battle the crowds at Sarlat’s Saturday market. Anyway, Rocamadour is perched on or adhered to the side of a hill by force of will. The street is wide enough for an oxcart. There are a couple of hundred steps straight up to the church at the top from the street/town below.

At the top, the chapel contains the Black Madonna, whose face and hands have turned black over the centuries because of the smoke from candles.

 

 

The views from the top of Rocamadour are perfectly lovely, but we didn’t price any real estate. The hike to the grocery would be killer.

 

 

There was a goat farm we passed on the way, so we went back to visit the goats and have a little picnic lunch. We thanked the goats for all the lovely cheese we have been enjoying.

The fine folks at the goat farm lent us a basket to set up our picnic lunch. Rural life at its best.

 

 

 

 

The cave at Lascaux has been on our to-do list since we started planning this trip. You can no longer go into the actual caves because humans were causing damage by breathing and such. Within the past year, a new museum opened with a perfect replica of four or five of the caverns. The museums in France use cutting-edge technology to keep you engaged and to personalize the experience for you. The interactive exhibits at the end of the cave tour involved creating your own art exhibit using Lascaux-inspired art, digitally using the prehistoric tools to recreate one of the drawings, and when you approached a display it put everything into the language that worked for you. Between the time the last Cro-magnon was in the caves and they were “discovered” in 1940, over 20,000 years passed. AMAZING!

We had a lovey seafood dinner sitting outside in St. Cyprian this evening as the evening fell and town tucked itself in for the night. That seems like a good idea for us now also.

Food, Glorious Food

Back in March of 2016 on a still-snowy Sunday, we sat at the dining room table and decided that taking a day-long cooking class in the Dordogne region of France was a great idea. We booked the stay and the class and now we can say it was a great idea.

Our class was made up of two adult sisters from Australia and their two teenage daughters, a couple from Essex, and two women from Yorkshire. Our instructor was a delightful mix of Graham Kerr (the Galloping Gourmet) and Jamie Oliver. He was knowledgeable, funny, talented, friendly, and organized.

Duck, duck, and goose

We started by spending about two hours at the market in Le Bugue. For those of you who read the Martin Walker Bruno series, Le Bugue is the fictional St. Denis. By the way, the next Bruno book involves a cooking school that is based on Le Chevrefeuille. Anyway. We went to several of Chef Ian’s favorite vendors and got in-depth information on the products of the region. While I learned more about foie gras and duck than we’ll ever be able to use, it was all fascinating. The chef decided on the menu for the class based which vendors showed up at the market today. It was fun to watch his mind working it all out.

 

Le Bugue is a tiny town — population 2,762. But the market today was enormous (on a weekday morning!) by American standards — far larger than the Evanston market on Saturdays, for example. French villages and towns seem to be struggling with some of the issues we’re confronted with in America, as supermarkets/hypermarches open outside of towns — along with McDonald’s and KFCs — and siphon business away from traditional shops and restaurants. But the weekly markets still seem to be going strong, thankfully.

The setting for the cooking part of the class was a beautiful outdoor kitchen in the courtyard here at Le Chevrefeuille. What an inspiring spot for cooking. I really hope we can get the pictures to load because the dishes were beautiful. We began with an eight-day-old goat cheese in puff pastry with fresh greens, raspberries and a walnut oil, honey, and herb vinaigrette. Very special and destined to become a McPherson standard.

The main course was crispy duck confit with cabbage, butternut squash roasted in duck fat, roasted shallots, and a sauce made of mushrooms, onions, chicken stock, chestnuts, vermouth, cream, dried mushroom powder, and magic. It was amazingly good.

Dessert was a molten chocolate cake with banana ice cream, and strawberry mint coulis. We ate one course, then got up and cooked the next. This was very wise, as it helped to prevent a food coma from setting in.

 

It was a great day and we were grateful to be staying here so that after class we could just go upstairs and nap. This evening in lieu of dinner, we took a very long walk. We think we walked off at least .03% of the calories we ate today.