A Travellerspoint blog

France

Interior Design a'la Cro-Magnon

semi-overcast 18 °C

The Aquitane region of Southwest France is a sweet land of rolling hills and meandering rivers where the fertile soils have nourished humans for many thousands of years. Today, the area is best known for its wines, sunflowers, tobacco and, especially, foie gras. However, there was a time when lions, bison and reindeer roamed this land together with wild horses and bulls. How do we know this? Because here in the limestone hillsides above the town of Montignac are the most famous cave paintings in the world.

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This bull,and many similar ones were painted on the wall of a cave in Lascaux almost twenty thousand years ago by paleolithic cro-magnon men.

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There are thousands of sophisticated paintings and inscriptions on the walls and ceilings of the Lascaux Cave and wild animals of all kind are easily recognisable. Lions and bison no longer roam these hills but the horses and deer are easy to spot...

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The amazing thing is that the cro-magnon artists were well versed in the art of prospective long before the 15th century Italian Renaissance painters dipped their brushes in oils and everyone applauded their amazing discovery. Sorry Leonardo– the French beat you to it by nineteen and half thousand years. The painted caves at Lascaux were discovered in 1940 during World War II, but once the war was over they quickly became over-run with sightseers. The public has been barred from the caves for many years so we were planning to sneak in when we discovered that the canny French had created an exact replica right next door. Phew! Imagine coming all this way and not getting a look at this incredible picture?

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The caves are just one of the many attractions in this region of France and our first stop on the riverside road from our temporary home in Bergerac to Lascaux took us through many historic villages and past many great chateaus. We followed the rivers upstream from Bergerac until we came to the tiny town of Tremolat...

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Ivy covered cottages surround the church that is one of the stops for pilgrims en-route to Santiago de Compostela and this is the picture perfect old mill...

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This is the view of the Dordogne River from the top of the hill overlooking Tremolat...

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But the two hour drive to Lascaux took us through many similar picturesque villages of buttery limestone cottages, any one of which would have enough scenes for a complete set of table mats.

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Finally we arrived in Montignac on the banks of the Vezere River just in time for the market...

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But almost everyday is market day somewhere in this region. There is so much history, wine and foie gras here that we will never cram it all in this week - but we will do our best.

Posted by Hawkson 12:24 Archived in France Comments (3)

Beginning in Bordeaux

sunny 26 °C

A couple of ferries, nine hours on an A380 super jumbo jet, and a coach, took us just 26 hours from our island home to the storm-lashed south coast of England. However, between downpours, we visited the Channel port of Shoreham where a maritime junkyard has been turned into a semi-floating village by an ad-hoc army of landlocked seafarers. Dozens of dilapidated ships sit on the mudflats and only come afloat during the highest tides. Among the numerous unseaworthy vessels now turned into a home is one of the first motor torpedo boats to have arrived in Normandy on D-Day in 1944. However, first prize for ingenuity must go to the person who stuck a broken down bus, an airplane cockpit and several scrapped vans onto an old barge and rents out 'rooms' to tourists looking for something different!
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We think the (seemingly) unexploded bomb in the mud next door might be off-putting to some prospective guests.

We have some 'different' accommodations lined up for us in the near future but our next port of call was a lofty apartment in the historic French city of Bordeaux, 60 miles upriver from the Atlantic on the banks of the Garonne River. There are no sinking relics on the riverbanks here – just a British three masted schooner and an enormous cruise liner overshadowing the grand waterside buildings. The city has a wealth of interesting architecture from the middle ages with triumphal entrances to the city...
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...and church spires dating back to the 12th century...
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The riverside square known as le Place de la Bourse is surrounded by magnificent buildings from the mid 1700s, but Bordeaux has been an important city for millennia. It was a great Roman city nearly two thousand years ago and, despite the fact that it is the South of France, it was an English city for 300 years (1154 – 1435). The whole region was English thanks to the marriage of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. But all that glitters is not regal and some of the backstreets of Bordeaux are as dismal and derelict as many of the boats on the skids in Shoreham...
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However, on a Sunday afternoon the pedestrianised shopping streets were abuzz with Bordelais...
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Traditional cinnamon cakes, called canelés, are everywhere in Bordeaux and we had no idea why some bakeries had window displays full of the unsold little delicacies while others couldn't make them fast enough. Here's just a part of the long line-up at one of the popular places...
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We soon discovered the allure of this patisserie – the canelés were a third of the price at other places.
Bordeaux was interesting but was just a one-night stopover for us to get our bearings, pick up a hire car and brush up our French before heading inland to our first destination – the famous wine region of Dordogne.
No sooner had we left the city of Bordeaux than we slipped off the main road and weaved our way through the vineyards that have made this region famous throughout the world. Names of villages and chateaux slip by like a walk through the French aisle of a classy liquor shop. First stop – the village of St Emilion where the grape harvest is in full swing. Grapes grow everywhere here – even on the slopes of the 13th century keep of the king's castle that towers over the picturesque town...
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The ancient streets of St. Emilion are delightfully calm, (especially on Mondays at the end of September).
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This year's vintage isn't in the bottle yet but we were able to snap up a very nice bottle of red that has a sell by date somewhere in the 2030s. Cheers for now. Next stop – Bergerac: another town whose name is synonymous with happiness in a bottle.
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Posted by Hawkson 01:26 Archived in France Comments (9)

Last of the Summer Wine

sunny 23 °C

Summer lingers longer on the Cotes d'azure in the South of France and we were lucky to enjoy the warm seas, spectacular vistas and sunny skies that this part of the world is renowned for...
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The palm-treed beachfront promenades of Cannes are packed with visitors from around the world in summer, but most have gone now and the locals get to enjoy a leisurely afternoon stroll...
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The real heat of the Mediterranean sun has gone, along with the mega-rich owners of the many super-yachts and fancy villas that litter the hillsides along the coast. Some of the hotels and restaurants have already shut up shop for the winter but temperatures in the mid-20s have brought out the sunbeds and filled the remaining beach bars and restaurants, (although it took us a couple of hours to get lunch in one place). A modern five-masted cruise liner sits off the coast while people still enjoy a dip...
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However, the coastal roads that can be a total nightmare in summer are at least navigable once the masses have gone...
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Although the road traffic may have lessened, the Port of Cannes is still full of the yachts of the rich and famous...
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And the castle that has been a beacon to sailors for centuries still stands sentinel over the ancient harbour that was just a haven for a few sardine fishing boats before it was transformed into one of the world's most fashionable haunts of the glitterati...
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We are now refreshed and relaxed after a family holiday and are briefly back in England to enjoy a typical autumn day – maybe the rain will stop later! Tomorrow we head back south to the sunny Aegean island of Rhodes. We hope you can join us there in a day or so.
Au revoir from France.

Posted by Hawkson 05:41 Archived in France Comments (3)

A Year in Provence

sunny 21 °C

Crisp, starlit nights melt into misty dawns. A chorus of song birds awakes us to another glorious day. The clocks have lost an hour and Halloween is upon us, but we still bask every day under the warm Mediterranean sun. Our 'home' for the week is an ancient country cottage, with low beams and a log fire, surrounded by vineyards and oak trees, and it is easy to see why people would want to live here...
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Medieval villages of mellow sandstone flow down the hillsides and land gently in the verdant valleys below...
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Vine covered cottages grow out of the rocks and clamber slowly up the cobblestone road to the centuries old church...
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And everywhere is tinted rouge by the grapevines as they blush from yet another successful vendage...
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When Peter Mayle wrote his bestseller about life as an expat in the nearby village of Menerbes in the Luberon he could not have anticipated the effects, both positive and negative, that his autobiographical tale would have. Ancient stone farm buildings that were once just abandoned shells are now ritzy holiday villas for the well-healed business folk of London and Paris...
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Pierre Cardin, the billionaire fashion designer, owns the Marquis de Sade's ruined castle and half of the village of Lacoste and is reportedly trying to buy the other half...
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Restaurants that once fed the workers for a few sous now charge the earth for a plate of fancy lettuce, and the village shops that at one time catered solely to the daily needs of the locals are now filled with tiny jars of truffled foie gras and large tins of caviar. Fortunately the supermarket prices in the nearby towns of Coustelet and Cavaillon are generally comparable with those at home. However, it has been a long time since we could buy a baguette for one dollar, a Camembert for two dollars and a nice bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon for five dollars in Canada...
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Tourism is a double-edged sword in any community and in the summer months these deserted village streets in the 'ochre' village of Roussillion are jammed with visitors from around the world...
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Luckily for us we are able to enjoy the wonderful sights, scents and sounds of the Luberon much as its inhabitants do – in peace and harmony with nature and with the vines...
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The Luberon is surely one of the most beautiful and fascinating parts of France but, despite the timelessness of the landscape and its ancient villages, time moves on. The vignerons have picked their grapes for another year and the newly fermented wine is headed for the bottling plants; truffle hunters are training their pigs and dogs ready for the harvest of black gold in December; and the lemons and oranges are ripening ready for Christmas. Life in the Luberon truly is 'La vie en rose', and after a week under the warm Provencal sun it is tempting to stay. But we still have many places to explore on this trip so now we must say “Au revoir” to France and “Ciao” to Italy.

Posted by Hawkson 10:03 Archived in France Comments (7)

The Markets of the Luberon

sunny 21 °C

We thought that we had written enough about French markets over the years, but that was before we came to the Luberon. There is at least one market every day, except Mondays, in the villages of this region and many are small affairs with just a handful of stalls selling expensive 'local' products to tourists. However, there is one market every Sunday that rivals the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul for its size and range of products. It is the market that sprawls along the banks of the river in the town of L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue...
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Many thousands of people flock to the town each weekend to buy their groceries and to haggle over a piece of bric-a-brac in the brocante section where old industrial bobbins seem to be a staple...
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The colourful market snakes through every street and alleyway and fills every plaza and square. There is a festive atmosphere as the crowds wend their way though stalls selling everything from women's lingerie to fresh fish from the nearby port of Marseille...
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Garlic, onions, shallots and lemons grow in abundance under the hot Mediterranean sun and now is the time to stock up for the winter...
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Provence is world renowned for its herbs and lavender. Herbes de Provence are sold in the market by the kilo...
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We missed the lavender harvest, when the fields of Provence are a photogenic purple and the air is heavy with its sweet perfume, but now the crop has been cut the market stalls are laden with all manner of scented toiletries...
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Despite the disastrous frost of 1956 there is still an olive harvest in the Luberon and it is amazing to see so many varieties so beautifully displayed...
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Olive oil is still made here on a small scale, and this is one of the stone mill wheels that once lubricated the economy of this region...
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The river Sorgue begins life as a mountain spring in nearby Fontaine du Vaucluse and the power of the gushing water has been used to make paper there for centuries. With the wind driving the olive mills, the river turning the waterwheels and the sun ripening all of the crops, the Luberon has been at the forefront of renewable energy for thousands of years.
Now It is Sunday, the market closes at 1pm and our week in sunny Provence is coming to an end. Just one more day and another bottle of the delicious local wine before we have to leave.

Posted by Hawkson 10:32 Archived in France Comments (3)

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