A Travellerspoint blog

Les Château Milandes

semi-overcast 23 °C

Here's a puzzle for our regular readers. Whose home did we visit today?


If Americans are asked to recall Saturday April 12 1975 they may remember that it was the day they were forced to abandon their secret war in Cambodia.and evacuate the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh. They may also recollect that Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the longest-serving president in U.S. history, died of a cerebral hemorrhage. However, few Americans will probably acknowledge that one of the most famous American dancers and singers of all time died that day. What has the death of a 68 year old American entertainer to do with the Dordogne in Southwest France? The answer lies inside this magnificent mansion...


This is Les Château Milandes, a grand 15th century manor house near the Dordogne town of Sarlat-le-Caneda. It was the residence of the lords of Caumont who preferred to live here instead of their large, uncomfortable medieval castle of Château de Castelnaud-la-Chapelle. Here's another view of Les Milandes...


However, we are not here hoping to spot the ghost of a medieval chevalier. We are seeking to retrace the steps of a young black woman who topped the bill in the the most fashionable of Parisian nightspots in the middle of the 20th century. Following sold out performances at the Folies-Bergère she would have danced her way though this 600 year old doorway to her grand bedroom on the 2nd floor...


If you are not French her name may not mean much to you, but the owner of this building, (and the entire village), was born in 1906 to a single mother on skid-row in St. Louis, Missouri. She had little education and dropped out entirely at the age of 10 to support her family. She married badly at 13 and again at 15 and was seemingly destined for the street – but she could dance. By 16 she was dancing in revues in New York and at the age of 19 she was the talk of Paris in the Roaring Twenties. In no time she was one of the most sought after dancers and singers in the world, but she was shunned in her home country where black women were expected to know their place. Sixteen of New York's top hotels refused to serve her and she was only given a room in the seventeenth because she agreed to use the kitchen entrance and the staff stairs. Here in her magnificent mansion in the lush valley of the Dordogne she never had to worry about climbing the spiral staircase inside the fortified tower...


And she could have wandered these beautiful gardens which must have seemed like the Garden of Eden to her...


During the Second World War she became French and served as a leuitenant in La résistance. She was awarded France's highest award for gallantry – the Legion d'honneur – along with numerous medals and citations: no small feat for a black kid born on the wrong side of the tracks in St. Louis.

In her determination to unite the peoples of the world she and her husband adopted twelve very young children from different countries and brought them up together here. But her generosity and naivity eventually backfired: she was bankrupted and evicted and forced to go back on the stage in her late sixties. The trauma of losing all she had worked so hard to achieve was too much and she soon died. But here in Les Château Milandes in this beautiful corner of France her memory will live forever...


To find out more about our heroine click here and ignore the Japanese advert:

Posted by Hawkson 13:03 Archived in France Comments (3)

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.


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.


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...


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?


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...


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...


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


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.


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


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!
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...
...and church spires dating back to the 12th century...
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...
However, on a Sunday afternoon the pedestrianised shopping streets were abuzz with Bordelais...
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...
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...
The ancient streets of St. Emilion are delightfully calm, (especially on Mondays at the end of September).
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.

Posted by Hawkson 01:26 Archived in France Comments (9)

Memories of a Sweet Summer

sunny 16 °C

As summer slipped imperceptibly into fall the autumnal rains perked up the plants in the garden of our Canadian home and spurred them to new growth. But their optimism will be short lived: wintry chills and a dusting of snow are not far off.
The mid-summer sun that rose so triumphantly at cock’s crow in July, now wakes hazily in time for breakfast and can barely keep its head up after dinner. Summer is already fading into memory but, thankfully, we have the books, the works and the photos to prove that we didn’t spend all of our time on the beach. First: the books:...
We are gradually transforming our travel blog into books so that when we eventually lose our marbles we will have something to remind us of all the wonderful places we have seen and all the amazing people we have met along the way. We began with 'Slow Train to China' a couple of years ago and, until this summer really got underway, we sat down and put together three more books chronicling our journeys in India, Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia and Australasia.

Once the books were in the bag we celebrated our friend Eileen’s 99th birthday in April. James’s cake for the occasion was an edible basket filled with 99 fondant roses...
This is Eileen with two of her great grandchildren.
Sheila was also into basket making and created this beautiful fabric piece...
Once the darling buds of May burst into bloom James ditched the chef’s uniform and began work on the long awaited teahouse in the Japanese garden. In true Japanese style James built without nails or screws and by the end of August the building was finished. Only the interior and the landscaping remained when Paco and Lourdes, (honeymooners from Spain who are travelling the world for nine months), stayed for a couple of weeks and did a great job creating a truly Japanese rock garden complete with dry riverbed...
The happy, helpful couple also created a truly authentic paella for us and a group of friends...
The visit by our Cuban friend, another Lourdes, at the end of July gave us an excuse to take a break and become tourists in our own land. Lourdes, from Havana, was enchanted by the pristine beauty of British Columbia. She loved the lakes and forests...
She was enthralled by the historic charm of Victoria on Vancouver Island and intrigued by the floating houses at Fisherman’s Wharf...
She just adored the beautiful flower displays in Victoria's Beacon Hill Park...
But now, as the summer flowers fade and the rain sets in, it is time for us to head out in search of lands less visited. Stay tuned as we travel half way around the world to the heart of Central Asia. First stop – a hop across the pond to visit some spectacular structures of medieval Europe.

Posted by Hawkson 23:19 Archived in Canada Comments (10)

Guanajuato's Underworld

sunny 29 °C

The city of Guanajuato is precariously perched on near vertical cliffs and we can't help feeling that if there were an earthquake here the whole lot would crumble to the valley floor. There's not a flat bit of land in the whole place, which is not good on the legs but it makes for scenic views from the rooftop garden of our hotel....
On the surface, Guanajuato is much like many other colonial Spanish cities with grand palaces and beautiful, ecclesiastical edifices like the Basilica in the city's historic centre...
However, because of its location on the sides of the mountain there is not one central plaza but many, and each has its own iconic buildings. The Juarez theatre in the Union Garden is particularly elegant, and, unusually, it is open to the public when no performances are taking place. The auditorium and proscenium are splendid.
Guanajuato is the first colonial city in Latin America where we have had to constantly remind ourselves that we are not in the Mediterranean.
This is the first governor's palace - now an art gallery.
One of the first things we noticed about Guanajuato was how little traffic flowed through the steep, narrow, cobble-stoned streets even though this is just about the busiest time of the year. Two major events clashed this past weekend – the Festival of Candelaria and Constitution Day, when Mexicans celebrate the signing of their constitution in 1917. The streets were packed with pedestrians but very few cars...
And then we discovered the underworld...
Nearly all the roads in Guanajuato flow beneath the city in tunnels and it's possible to drive from one side to the other without ever coming to the surface. But the tunnels are not just for traffic. Pedestrians and cyclists use the tunnels as well, although we found it a little scary at first – especially when we got lost. There are sidewalks, bus stops, and signs in the tunnels, just like any other road, and they are fairly well lit. But is is certainly strange to see cars and people disappearing into this murky subterranean world...
The tunnels were originally the access tunnels to the many silver mines that brought wealth and notoriety to this city, and when the silver ran out they were turned into a road network that rarely sees the light of day...
Now we are leaving Mexico to visit our friends in Cuba. We have grown accustomed to clear skies and temperatures in the high twenties for the past two months so you may question our sanity in returning home in a week or so. However we have a busy spring and summer so we have decided to get a jump start on several projects – despite the sub-zero temperatures and occasional snow. Maybe we will be wondering if we had made a mistake in a couple of weeks, but for now: Goodbye Mexico and Central America, we had a great time. Hola Cuba.

Posted by Hawkson 16:59 Archived in Mexico Comments (5)

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