Thursday, March 22, 2012

Blunders, Bloopers and Blatant Stupidity

 Blunders, Bloopers and Blatant Stupidity
As I reveal to you some of our more ludicrous moments, I'll randomly insert  photographs we took as we toodled around the country. Where possible I'll identify the location of the site. If some of you are familiar with the area, and feel I've erred in identifying the location, I apologize. The rest of you won't have any idea whether I'm right or not ;-) so just enjoy the photos.

This street is very typical of those found in the medieval towns and villages we visited. The streets are narrow, not much more than alleys in some cases, the buildings attached to the adjoining houses on either side. Often the back sides of the houses are without doors or windows, built almost like fortress walls (in fact many of them are fortress walls) for protection in a region that experienced recurring invasions, religious and secular wars.
 * * * * *

The instructions for entering our little French abode, Libellule, in Neffies, were to open a lock box with a secret code, and extract the key. With that key we were supposed to then open the mail box for the key to the house.

I'd forgotten the second step of the instructions, so we stood with a 21st century key in our hands trying to find a hole in an 18th century door into which we could insert the key. Nothing seemed to fit.

A very nice gentleman offered his assistance and we tried to explain with gestures and shrugs, not immediately able to remember out how to say in our halting, not yet well-practiced French that nous ne pouvons pas trouver le trou into which le clef would fit.

Eventually we realized that the only trou into which le clef would fit belonged to le boite aux lettres.

Upon opening the latter we found two keys, one about 6” long and another about 4.5” long, each weighing a pound apiece I'm sure, one for the lower door and one for the upper door to the house (see my first entry on the blog for a photo of these keys).

Finally, nous sommes arriver!!!

  * * * * *

 Situated on the edge of a river and nestled between two hills, Roquebrun is one of the more picturesque villages we've encountered. That said, the cluster of tile-roofed houses rising up the side of a hill is very typical of most of the medieval towns in the south of France.

 * * * * *
As civilized human beings and as parents, both Gill and I have done our fair share of laundry in our days. In the process we've been introduced to a variety of methods of doing so – hand-washing or machine washing, primarily, since neither of us is old enough to have beaten clothing against a rock.

However we met our match with the small washing equipment in our Libellule home in France.

We were faced with one piece of equipment new to us. Lifting the top lid of the machine we saw a steel drum that appeared to have no opening through which to place our clothing. With clever deduction and a pushing on the drum, we managed to turn it and reveal a latched opening.

Into that opening we tossed some laundry detergent followed by our clothing, and turned on the machine. It made a turning noise, but there was not the customary gush of water we all anticipate when using a clothes washer.

To our shock, we realized we'd put everything into the CLOTHES DRYER.

Quickly we turned off the machine, scooped out whatever we could of the detergent (luckily of the dry variety) and counted on the filter to remove the rest.

There appears to be no harm done to the machine, but this will go down in our individual personal histories as one of the stupidest things we've every done.

 * * * * *

 This area, with the weirdly eroded rock formations, is called Cirque de Moureze. This photo just doesn't do justice to how strange these formations are. 

 Same area, different view. Perhaps this photo more clearly shows the extent of the erosion.

* * * * *

Shopping and Dining France

The three best meals we had in France were at Les Goutailles in Neffies. Their crown roast of lamb was amazing; I ordered it on two separate occasions. Delicious.

 * * * * *

Store hours are problematic; in fact, the hours of operation of complete towns are problematic. It's been three weeks and we're still confused.

Neffies schedule is this: the epicerie is open from 7:30 to 11:30 and then 4:00 to 7:30.

The bistro is open from 12:30 to 2:00, then it closes to reopen at 7:00 p.m.

So if you're hungry in the afternoon you're S-O-L between the hours of 11:30 and 12:30 because NOBODY is open, and if you're hungry between 2:00 and 4:00 you're S-O-L because the bistro is closed until 7:00 and the epicerie isn't open for another two hours.

You could die from hunger ;-)

* * * * *
 View of the cemetary in Neffies; most of the graves here date back hundreds of years.

 * * * * *

One day went to Pezanas to do some shopping, totally forgetting that the stores there are open from 7:30 to 12:00 and then 3:00 to 7:00 or something like that - lazy sods - and it seems the restaurants don't open until 12:30.

So we arrived in the shopping area around noon – duuhhhh! There were only a couple of shops open - mainly the chocolate factory, and no restaurants.

The next time we went to Pezanas it was Monday and the whole town was closed.

Each town appears to have different opening and closing hours but I think you have to live here a long time to sort it all out. Peter Tanner, our landlord, tells me restaurants in Montpellier don't open until 8:00 p.m. How is a poor foreigner supposed to work this all out.

  * * * * *

 In Nimes we found this old/new reproduction of a Roman building. It was very convincing and fooled us until we read the small print.

* * * * *

Again, in Pezanas, though almost everything in town was closed, we found a Spanish/French restaurant (or French/Spanish) restaurant.

We ordered each a plate of assorted stuff thinking we could share, and a baked Camembert appetizer. We got Gill's plate and the appetizer together (I thought the server believed I'd ordered the cheese as an entre).

The brie was delicious, but the cold cuts on the plate Gill ordered took a lot of chewing and the options were either salty-rubbery or more-salty-rubbery.

After we'd finished that stuff the server arrives with my plate - two eggs barely cooked, I mean so sunny side up they were blinding, some blood sausage that was a little too clotty for my liking, a piece of chipotle sausage the colour of a cirrhotic liver and bacon so unbelievably tough you couldn't chew it.

We asked them to flip the eggs over and cook them on the other side; this created a major problem that we just couldn't figure out - something about the eggs being cooked on a plank and they couldn't turn them over.

Anyway, I guess they dug a frying pan out of the closet because they managed to cook the suckers.

We were both pretty stuffed by this time and Gill couldn't do the egg, so I got rid of them, cut up the sausages and spread them around and attempted to chew up parts of the bacon; didn't want to offend the cook.

It was the most disastrous meal (by a very long shot) of the whole trip.

 * * * * *

View of the Canal de Midi built during Louis 14th's reign by Pierre Paul Riquet to connect the Atlantic on the west coast of France, to Sete on the Mediterranean, allowing French traders to avoid sailing around hostile Spain, the Barbary pirates and the English. In return for funding the construction, Riquet's family was granted the right to collect tolls in perpetuity.

  * * * * *
We arrived in Sete on the Mediterranean, looking for a good seafood meal. It was around noon and we were starving. The whole wharf of restaurants was closed.
We started up a side street and found a Tapas, i.e. Greek/French, or French/Greek. We had little fried fishes about 2” long, shrimp with tiny strands of spaghetti-looking stuff, but actually mashed potato strands (very good, by the way), and some dreadful fried calamari.
Probably the second worst meal we had in France.
After dinner we returned to the wharf and faced about 25 seafood restaurants open for business and bustling with activity.
We returned a week later at the right time, in the right place, and satisfied our urge for seafood.

Driving in France
 This is not intended as a warning about driving in France, but situated in front of the Church of St. Vincent du Thongues in Pouzolles is probably the most spectacular crucifix I've ever seen. The figure is blood red.
   * * * * *

French drivers, while in general are courteous, do share one characteristic that drives Gill and I nuts – a tendency to drive right up your ass no matter how fast your going, or how slow, whether you're driving the speed limit or exceeding it.

We do all the normal things to encourage them to pass us, i.e. slow down or move to the right, but just like puppies they're right on our heels.

When we turn off the road to get free of them, darned if they don't follow us around the corner.

The exception is the large highways (I'd say 'interstates' but I'm not sure that applies here) where they whiz past, well exceeding the speed limits and making your hair fly backwards like you're on a roller coaster.

  * * * * *

  On the road to Beziers, a picturesque olive grove wit the refinery in the middle of the photo.  
* * * * *

 There are several traffic signs we have yet to figure out, but we have mastered the roundabouts (or carre-four) quite skillfully, have figured out the signage from town to town, though we do find it somewhat lacking in explication since you're almost in certain towns before you find the sign leading to it.

They don't give you the next town on the signs, but regularly give the one that's 50 km down the road. When you get within 50km of the town, the name suddenly disappears from the signs. We often go round and round the roundabout looking for the missing name, knowing that its within a stone's throw of where we are.

* * * * *

Another of the vineyards that border most of the highways in this area. 

  * * * * *

We've made several trips to Sete, on the Mediterranean; some of them were even planned.

As it happens, the off-ramp that goes to Pezenas which we must use to get to Neffies when returning from many of our januts, is the last one before the ramp to Sete which is 20K further.

The primary problem is the HUGE trucks who appear to have to drive in the right lane, unless passing.

This means if you decide to pass the slower-moving trucks, the long caravans of these vehicles can totally block out your view of signposts telling you that the next off-ramp is yours.

Luckily, Sete is a nice place to visit.

The liberty tree planted in honour of the men who died in the revolution, planted in the courtyard in the town center in  front of the Mairie, in Neffies.

* * * * *

The number signs for the secondary highways are rarely on the signposts on the carre-fours so you must guess the highway and hope for confirmation when you get on it, and the sign appears.

* * *

We got a parking ticket!!!! We still haven't figured out why. We checked all the area as we usually do for hidden signs. The French like to trick us foreigners by making the signage as elusive as possible. But after our lovely outing in Narbonne (see information in the Churches section) we found the sucker attached to our windshield.

Now we have to find a way to pay it since we don't have a bank account in France and we haven't figured out where else to pay.

We were going to stop police officers on the street (they're few and far between here, likewise police cars; this must be a law-abiding country) and ask them how to go about paying, but were afraid our halting French could possibly make them think we were trying to bribe them to make it go away.

We decided to give the money to Hertz Rental and let them pay the ticket. They would have a bank account and, after all, the car does belong to them.

* * * * *

Gas stations are problematic. Many of them don't take VISA. Those that do don't always have a simple system for using it.

As example: After a couple of days of extensive driving around southern France we realized our little Ford Fusion wonder car needed a drink.

We pulled into a gas station, figured out which gaz was diesel and which was sans plomb. I inserted my VISA card into the machine, which spun and turned and displayed various instructions that gave me the impression that my carte had been approved.

I cheerfully pumped gas until the auto was au plein (which here apparently means pregnant), screwed on the gas cap, hopped into the car and proceeded towards the exit. I was rather annoyed that the machine proved reluctant to give me a receipt for our accounts.

As I was about to turn onto the street, I noticed that the attendant in a glass kiosk at the edge of the lot was waving frantically at me, screaming, il faut faut payer. I thought I'd already paid.

Turns out I'd been approved to pump the gas but hadn't actually paid for it.

We parted on friendly terms, the attendant and I; he/she (I wasn't sure which) with l'argent and moi avec le recu. We were both happy.

 * * * * *

My usual view of Gill, 10-15 paces ahead of me just itching for the next sight ahead on our journey.

I hope you found my little blog interesting.

We're leaving Neffies tomorrow, Thursday the 22nd of March. We'll stop in Carcassone on the way to Toulouse, spend overnight in Toulouse then fly out of here on Saturday at 6:45 in the morning. Hope we don't sleep in and miss the flight.

Love Mom/Gramma/Awnty/Gramma Num Num

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Churches and Cathedrals

 Churches and Cathedrals
In silence listen to my stones; they are telling you something about the story of my life, 
they are speaking to you.

The statement above appears on the brochure describing the Cathedral of St. Nazaire, Bezier, France. This call could be applied to each of the churches described below.

As most of you know I am not a religious person. I am however frequently awed by the representations of religious beliefs through art, craftsmanship and architecture, created and sustained by the common man in worship of a simple carpenter.

And while I may believe that the cathedrals and churches that appear in all parts of the world were built more to glorify the institutions of religion and their idolators than the faith itself, it is impossible to enter one and not be touched by the presence, over the centuries, of common people who sat and continue to sit within its sanctuary in quiet prayer and simple contemplation.

 I am also touched by the people who have given their hands and their hearts to sustain these buildings through simple acts of maintenance, placing alter flowers and other embellishments, cleaning up wax drippings, ironing altar cloths and the unending other daily acts required to keep the buildings in good repair and reverent appearance, and the financial contributions from everyman that sustain this maintenance.

I recently experienced several examples of what I'm so clumsily trying to explain.

The Gothic Church, Neffies, France

 This small Gothic church is adjacent to the house we've been staying in during our visit to France. Compared to many others we've visited, this is an unassuming little church, built in the 13th century. 

The church is not open to viewing as other churches in the region are, but one day as I was walking past it, a workman was bringing supplies inside in order to make repairs. I grabbed the opportunity to take a photo of the interior.

The church appears also to be the source of local information. Periodically, our day is interrupted with "Allo, Allo," followed by an announcement of some kind coming from the speakers in the church bellfry.
Neither Gill's nor my French is strong enough to catch the sense of the announcements, other than the one that informed us of the recent Craft and Artisan's fair that was held on the church grounds.

The bells in the tower ring out the hours, around the clock, and announce the services. It's become a comforting sound in our daily lives, and I will miss that sound when I return home.

I am still trying to locate information on the church, and will add it to the blog if when it is available.

The Cathedral of St. Just and St. Pasteur, Ville de Narboonne, France

View of the church from the cloisters behind us. 

Construction began on this church in 1272 on a site that was the location of three previous churches – a basilica dating from Constantine the Great, Roman Emperor from AD 306-337, another Roman basilica about which I have no information, and a cathedral dating from the reign of Charlemagne, i.e. AD 780-900. 

The cathedral was consecrated in 1587.
 The cloisters, built between 1349 and 1417 have four vaulted galleries and flying buttresses decorated with gargoyles.

Four of the gargoyles in the cloisters.
View of the altar and the vaulted ceilings.

What immediately strikes you as you enter the cathedral is the extraordinary vaulted ceilings with arches that rise to 40m high. My poor little camera wasn't able to capture the grandeur of this in one frame. 

While the arches themselves are breathtaking, to try and imagine the methods used to build these amazing arches, and the risks taken by the artisans, is absolutely mind-boggling.

This is a crappy photo because the carved figures were eroded and damaged, but they must have been spectacular when they were new; they are still impressive in spite of the deterioration.

 Enclosed by a wrought iron screen is Notre Dame du Pont, a white marble statue of the Virgin with child dating from the 1500s. The statue used to stand on the St. Catherine bridge but was moved to the cathedral when the bridge was demolished in 1889.  

In one of the niches was this small statue called the African Madonna.

The main alter, supported by six Corinthian columns of pink marble, was constructed in 1694. 

The original organ, dating from the end of the 14th century, was destroyed by fire in 1721; the new and present organ was completed in 1741.  
 Of the churches we visited here in the south of France, this cathedral was certainly the most architecturally impressive.

As a bit of whimsy, the early influence of Rome in this area is aptly depicted by this sculpture of Romulus and Remus on an archway entering the square where the church is situated. 

Twin brothers who, as legend has it, founded the city of Rome, R & R were abandoned by their parents as babies, put into a basket and sent afloat in the River Tiber. The basket ran aground on the shore where a wolf found them and nursed the babies.

The Madeleine Church, Beziers, France
The apse of the church showing two of the beautiful stained glass windows. Unfortunately, my camera doesn't do justice to these brilliant windows.

The story is that Jesus manifested himself to Saint Madeleine, the converted sinner, who is believed to have evangelized in the Bezier region. This church is dedicated to her.
This serene little church was built in the 11th century. The amazing stained glass windows date from the 19th century and are absolutely spectacular. The statue is of St Peter.

Painting by Jean-Noel Sylvestre depicting the assassination of Viscount of Trencaval in 1167. This painting is about 6' high by 8-10' wide. Extraordinary 

In 1209, the Crusaders under the leadership of Simon de Montfort burned the churches and the people of Beziers who sought sanctuary in the churches of St. Nazaire and Madeleine. The citizens were suspected of protecting the Cathars, a religious group reported to tolerate and live amicably with those in their community who professed a different faith (imagine!!!) 

The Pope at the time, when questioned about  killing everyone, which would include Catholics as well as the Cathars was reported to have responded "Burn them all and let God sort them out."

The Cathedral of St. Nazaire, Beziers, France
View of the fortified western facade of the cathedral, dating from the 14th century.
This was the other church burned during the Crusades in 1209 by Simon de Montfort. During he blaze, the vault exploded. Reconstruction began in 1215 and the vaulted ceilings were raised.

The nave of the church with an extraordinary Baroque statues the reaches past the first level and well up into the stained glass level of the church. It was truly stunning. Gill particularly liked the head of the bull on the left side of the altar

The organ with walnut buffets.
The Rose window above the organ is 10 meters in diameter and faces the sunset, in contrast to the windows below which are illuminated by the sunrise, symbolic of the Resurrection.

Another example of the fine stained glass windows in this church. They were wonderful, but hard to capture by camera as the light coming through them was so strong.

 Cherubs looking down from the balcony.
Note the wonderful vaulted ceiling. I was completely impressed with the ceilings in this cathedral until I witnessed those at Narbonne.

Figure of a knight with a laurel crown.
Note the depiction in his lower right chest of the wound that killed him. Below is a photo of the location of his bier, in front of the vault in which we believe he was buried.

And so ends our tale of churches. We visited several others but I wanted to show the most interesting parts of what we've seen.

I hope you enjoyed the tour.

Mom/Gramma Num Num/Sharyn

Saturday, March 17, 2012


Olargues is a beautiful example of a French Medieval (i.e. 12th century) town. In fact, it is an example of an ancient town RESTORED in medieval times.

Town shown to the left – thanks to Wikipedia; we neglected to take a distance photo.

At the top of the hill is the bell tower. This is a remnant of the ancient (11th century) main tower of the medieval castle (Romanesque construction), converted in the 15th century to a church. The old village is clustered around the bell tower.

The Orb-Jaur valley where the town was sited has been inhabited since prehistory; neolithic traces have been found here.

The Ligurians (never heard of them before) arrived around 1000 BC; then came the Iberians, the Volcae Tectosages (also never heard of them), then the Celts.

In 118 BC the Romans arrived. With the ultimate demise of their empire, they were replaced by the Goths. The area was further invaded by the Moors, the Arabs, the Vandals, the Visigoths, and the Vikings (who knew that group came so far south) and so on.

The Devil's Bridge, the three arched bridge to the left in the photo above, is said to date back to 1202 and is reputed to be the scene of transactions between the people of Olargues and the devil, to protect them from further raids.

The transaction seemed to have Olargues became reestablished in the 18th century based on the prosperity of local farmers and artisans.

The town is entered through a medieval stone arched gateway.
Sorry this is so dark; I've been having camera problems.

Walking through the village and the castle remains you're always going uphill or downhill.


This is a staircase/alley leading from one level of the town to another.

This part of the village is like a rabbit warren with stairs leading to different levels. It appears to be part of a complex built within the castle walls.

This staircase adjacent to the church led to a large complex of a living quarters. In some areas the apartments or homes appeared vacant and neglected. But we were surprised to find that some apartments within the castle walls still seem to be inhabited.

There were new doors that appeared to indicate inhabited quarters; we saw one woman sweeping the area outside her door.

 Imagine living in a place that was built in the 5th or 6th century or even the 12th century. Talk about walking through history.

Various remnants of the past fortifications can be seen, such as parts of the original ramparts.

There seems to be major reconstruction going on in the ramparts of the castle. Note the exposed rock here. It seems like the whole village was built into and around the existing rock of the hill.

The above doorway bore a sign saying, "Place forte du Languedoc de 12 au 17 seicle. Distruction sur ordre de Louis XIII a la demande de Richelieu. Sur la route Vieille Toulouse de Nimes a Toulouse. The story of the stronghold's demise.

The Church of Saint-Laurent was built in the 17th century using stone from the ramparts.

At the bottom of the old town there's a new section. There we discovered a wonderful restaurant, Restaurant Laissac, in what would, here in France, be a new part of town, but in Canada would be considered historical.

We had one of the best meals in France at this location: an appetizer of smoked trout gelee and some smoked salmon with incredible French bread. For the entre we both had braised duck with delicious small chunks of potatoes.

For dessert, Gill had a lemon torte that she almost melted over; only prudence prevented her from having a second helping. I had creme brule. It was very good. Jen would approve of this place.

Some of the meals we've had here have been incredible. I'm starting to take photos of them to send to you.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Libellule - our French abode

 Libellule (Dragonfly), #7 Rue du Prince, Neffies - our French abode
This is an amazing house; the foundation dates from the 12th century. (Sorry, I forgot to take a photo of the house. It will come later)

According to a local historian, the row of houses in which #7 forms but one part were the first to be built in the area. The seigneur provided the housing for his workers some time in or following the 12th century. There are interesting remnants from many of the previous centuries still visible in the house.


Some the of the charming old houses in Neffies.

At street level in Libellule there is a series of rooms. At some point in history the first section was used to house animals – possibly a horse. The room behind this contained a wine-making area (this is wine country after all). The third room contained rubble from when the roof collapsed many years ago; the current owner dug out truckloads of this rubble and cemented the floor to make it usable

Currently the front section contains a tidy daybed and is reported to be a great place to sleep when the weather gets hot, as I'm sure it will here in the south of France. Not this month though.

Houses in this area certain display extreme adaptability in their use over the centuries.

When you enter the street-level door to Libellule's living quarters you face a staircase comprised of logs, tiled, and well worn through use. 

The entrance staircase to the living quarters.

The door at the top of the stairs, dating from the 1700s

Same door as shown above – from the interior. Note the old hinges near the top and the bottom of the door.

We need to lock the above door when we're home because it's so old it maintains the right to do as it pleases, in this instance to hang ajar, allowing a draft.

This is the key to the interior door; it's about 6” long.

There is evidence of the history of this house at every turn, lovingly retained over the years by successive owners.

Two views of the dining area with the plastered walls and portions of the original stone construction left exposed.

Note the heavy old beams in the ceiling and the remains of the original fireplace, no longer in use, on the right. At the back is the old dry sink. The window in the centre of the photo looks out onto the rue/alley. When you open the door there's a teeny balcony, about 18” deep and three feet wide with a wrought iron railing, very Mediterranean.

This is an old dry sink on the front wall of the dining area. That small dot on the right side appears to be a drain hole, no longer in the sink itself.

 View of the kitchen area
The stove is gas and cooks with the speed of light; there's a washer and dryer and the bathrooms are well-appointed and modern, the frig is modern and electric with more than adequate space for all the cheese, tartine, pate and moutard dijon than you can store;

There's an epicerie a three-minute walk away with everything you need including fresh meat, vegetables and fruit, and the all-important baguette, so food is readily available. Oh, they have a canned duck (if you can believe it) that's to die for.

When its windy the breezes howl through the eaves of the house and there's no central heating. The landlord has provided electric heaters for the rooms so in spite of the antiquity of our surroundings, we are quite snug.

Evidence of the original stone construction is still visible in the plastered overlay throughout the house; whether the latter was to fill gaps in the stonework, or to hold it together, I have no idea. The look is charming. 
 A photo of the bedroom I'm using, a blend of the old and the new.

The current flooring is tiled in a broad plank wood pattern, a modern update that retains the ambiance.

A view through my bedroom window. The walls are ancient; the puppy poo from the neighbouring dog is from this century.

The current owner of the house believes that the back part of what is currently his house was previously part of another house, there being a step up from the kitchen/dining area to my bedroom.

Since the above enclosed garden is the only one I've yet seen in the area, I wonder if the space had originally been part of the back of the house we're in. Otherwise, I can't figure out how the residents would have accessed the space.

The steps in the house are a challenge; each stair tread is a different height than the one before and the one that follows, often catching your toes as you climb. Obviously there were no building codes when they were built. 

Stairs to the upstairs sitting area.

The upstairs sitting area. The TV  has 500 stations; I've only managed a couple of movie channels, in English – what a cop-out, eh!

Probably most important, the bathrooms are airy and modern with hot water that arrives instantly.

My bathroom with the ever-present Sudoku book for contemplative relaxation.

Libellule is surely the best of both worlds.

For a little change of pace, I'll slip in here a photo of the banana and chocolate crepe we had a couple of days ago. Go ahead and drool ;-)

 I could display many more photos, but I think you get the picture – ha!

Coming up,  I'll give you a taste of various amazing locations we've visited, provide some commentary on getting around by car in southern France and observations about the French people, particularly relative to their driving habits!!!

There will be a special feature – Blunders, Bloopers and Blatant Idiocy, being tales of two women trying to make their way in a foreign land, speaking a foreign language and driving a foreign car.

Bye for now,

Love Mom/Awnty/Gramma Num Num/Sharyn