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21 September 2011

The Alpes Maritimes, and Haute Provence.

Sunday at Embrun in the Province des Alpes Maritimes, high in the alps near the Italian border, for La Journée de Patrimoine, or national heritage day in France. The French take great advantage of this annual heritage day, there are special openings of historic buildings, places, conferences - all about their country steeped in history, and they love it and are proud of it.

Its pouring rain, so we hope it clears a bit for our tour of the town this morning.
The journey south was quite easy, with the new Lyon airport road towards Grenoble making a huge difference. Not too much traffic, except passing Grenoble. That is when dramatic country appears. Sharp, very high mountains and twisting climbs and dips. Very slow driving this part. We were in fact, following the route of Napoleon for some of the way. Apparently he passed through Gap on his way through the alps.

Embrun itself is an ancient town high on a cliff, very near the Italian border and divided from Italy by very high mountains.
After checking in to this little old fashioned hotel, we assembled at the Tourist Bureau and followed a street theatre group wandering the narrow streets. They portrayed a story about Clovis Hugues a writer, poet and activist, a comedy and very entertaining. We ended up by a sculpture made by his wife soon after his death in 1902, with a bust of him and a gorgeous sculpture of his grandchildren reading his poems.
This was in a park at the edge of the cliff, near the very splendid cathedral (Lombard architecture of course) looking out across towards Italy. We tried to work out the direction and the valley where the invading Lombard barbarian tribe would have come from in 575, when they invaded and devastated this town.
After that it was an organ recital in the cathedral,
on a magnificent 15th century organ, -the photo is a carving at the base of the organ - before wandering back here for an apero and dinner. This morning, despite the awful weather we joined a tour of the town concentrating on its military history.
The Romans were here up to the end of the 5th century. The region was declared Catholic by Emperor Constantine resulting in a bishop being appointed at Embrun. The first bishop recorded was Marcellin in the years 365-374. He was eventually made a saint for his evangelism in the province of Alpes Maritimes, making many converts. There is a square and a fountain and streets named after him.

We are particularly interested in the Lombard invasion and the local hero who eventually managed to chase the Lombards back into Lombardy. It is a town of nine fountains,
each important as a water source for the inhabitants in days gone by. We had a very good guide, who pointed out fortifications, and covered a wide range of history at the same time. This afternoon a tour of the cathedral and the treasury and at 5pm a seminar on Lombard art and architecture. Hopefully it should be interesting and contribute to John’s history of the Lombards.
Weather is pretty awful for photographs, see how I go – luckily we brought rain coats and umbrella!
We had been struggling around all day in driving rain, feeling very cold, and were happy to have a break in our cosy room.
After half an hour’s rest, we went out again to the tour of the Treasury in the Cathedral. We lined up at a door inside the cathedral, and fortunately managed to get into the tour of the first 50. We were ushered into a treasure cave, the treasures are stored in what is an old secret chapel of the cathedral, no windows, no doors, beautiful but for me claustrophobic. It was unbelievable, the clerical vestments embroidered in silver and gold, several hundred years old, the silver and gold vessels of the mass, the extraordinary relics of some saint or other, the paintings, the altar of walnut intricately carved, the ancient small organ – a present from the dauphin of the time, beautiful. The treasures were held in two rooms, part of an old secret chapel. The first room had glass cabinets with embroidered vestments, gold and silver accessories of the mass, and the second was a small chapel with a magnificent altar. I had to step back into the main part, as just couldn’t cope with the feeling of claustrophobia. Packed in with 50 others, no windows or doors, just one small escape door, I just couldn’t manage it.
However, the whole tour was magnificent, and the guide excellent, she obviously loved her work and was passionate about it all.
After that exhausting and exhilarating dose of history, we returned again briefly to our room before setting out again for the Lombard conference. What a shock – the rain had cleared and the mountains all around us were topped in snow!!!
No wonder the temperature had plunged. After taking some pics, we went into the hall, and the presenter was great. She was an architect, and fascinated and passionate about the Lombard influence on the art and architecture of the region. We were able to record her talk and although she used many of the resources that John already had, its always interesting to see another approach. She did an illustrated computer presentation, and many of the churches she showed us are in Italy. It was all good information, and can only add to our interest.
Monday we set off from Embrun, and had a spectacular drive down from the mountains to the road around Lac Serre Poncet. We then climbed up again taking a corkscrew road – stopping now and again to look at the view. There is a huge dam at the end of the lake which provides electricity for the region.
Headed over past Sisteron towards Apt – for the meeting with Kathy and Valentine Morozoff, the Russian Americans who found me through my book. Their grandfather knew Kathleen ffrench - he grew up in Terenga where Kathleen inherited her great uncle’s estate. Their family escaped during the revolution through Harbin for a short while, but ended up near Kobe in Japan and started a confectionery business, specialising in chocolate. The business is still going, but they are gradually getting out of it as they are ready to retire now. Val is the third generation to run the business, but his sons live in the USA and are not interested in continuing.
We had a great and very lively evening, non-stop talking!!!
Tuesday saw us on the road home – the auto route was busy, so we had a few breaks, but got back here in the afternoon, in time to harvest tomatoes, beans, raspberries, figs and spinach.

16 September 2011

Autumn arrives in Chateau

We have had an enjoyable few days with visitors, Trevor and Penny Fishlock. Both former journalists and friends from our Moscow days. They live in Wales and Trevor mostly writes books connected with Wales.

We went for some glorious long walks when they were here, the countryside looking so beautiful. The first day we walked along the country lanes to the other side of the valley, to the goat cheese farm. Made our purchases and walked back along the road. The second day we went for a much longer walk. Climbed the road at the top of the valley, curved around high up along a forest walk, came out at the Woodcutters’ house, back down into the valley, checking out the fruits on the trees. That includes the eating kind of chestnuts, walnuts, lots of apples and pears – with fruit falling off everywhere into ditches and unto the road. The countryside is still very green, but dotted here and there with autumn colours. The sky is very clear and light blue, the afternoons very hot, just for a couple of hours. In the late afternoon the temperature drops dramatically, fluffy clouds soon break up the sun shine and overnight it is really cool. It is still rather dry, and the farmers are again complaining about the drought.

Yesterday I pruned the dead raspberry stakes, and the pile for the bonfire is mounting. There are still raspberries on the young stakes, and shortly I will go out and pick a supply for today and tomorrow morning’s breakfast.

The hunting season starts on Sunday, so I am glad we won’t be here!

11 September 2011

Sunday - time for the Vendange

11th September

I think the peculiar weather is global - we can never work out what is going to happen here, and the leaves are definitely changing colour. The garden is still producing madly which we are enjoying of course, but John groans when I bring in another bowl of green beans.... However, he likes much better the wonderful bowls of fresh raspberries for breakfast!
Last night we had dinner at a next door hamlet, 10 mins walk away. We decided to walk as the weather was so beautiful with a full moon. Walking home was stunning, the light extraordinary. We were walking the quiet country roads sometimes under overhanging trees with very little light filtering through, then out into full moonlight again. We sat on our gallerie with a whiskey nightcap when we came home, we couldn't bear to go indoors for a while.

All of the country around us is covered in vineyards and at the moment it is abuzz from morning to night with the grape pickers working - the vendange has started and it looks fabulous. Huge trailer loads of grapes pulled by tractors going to the wineries for pressing or to the co-op. Guys with huge baskets on their backs groaning with grapes as they stagger up the hills to tip the grapes into the trailers. A neighbour's family own a vineyard in the Maconnais and she is helping to produce 3 meals a day for the pickers 7 days a week!!

I will continue to work on my village writing project in Australia, that is if I get a minute to do so - sometimes its good to write while stepping away from it.

As part of my French village story I have started to look at wild plants for eating, ordered a few books and now I am trying out some plants in salads. Fascinating stuff, I now know how all the pilgrims ate when they trekked all over Europe long ago - there was always something to eat, perhaps harder in winter. But I expect they rested in winter for a lot of the time. I will be interested to try out some Aussie plants when I get back.

John is glued to the TV at odd hours watching the Rugby World cup - this morning he was up at 5.30am... he enjoys it a lot. Today, Sunday is the "vide grenier" in this village. literally translated means empty your attics - so a kind of village fair or sale of second hand goods, or flea market. We will walk down at lunch time, buy a hot dog and glass of wine to support it. Probably all good things for sale will have gone by then, but even so we will put in an appearance and show our support.

We are expecting some friends from Wales to arrive Tuesday - some former colleagues from our Moscow days. Both retired journalists, but continuing to write books. They will be here for a few days, and then on Saturday we leave for a trip south to the Alps Maritimes - near the Italian border, to a town called Embrun. It is National Heritage day on Sunday, and there will be a guided tour of the cathedral and treasury and in the evening a conference on the Lombards in the Alps region. The barbarian Lombards invaded Embrun in the 6th century and destroyed it – it is a fabulous fortified town high up in the alps.

The local historians are delighted to have a true Lombard attending the conference!! After that we go a little bit south to Apt, to meet up with some Russian/Americans - they found me through my book, as their grandfather used to live at Terenga in the Simbirsk region near Kathleen ffrench and knew her!!! They come to France twice a year on holidays, so a great chance to meet them.

After that we have some friends from Aus coming for a few days, then my flying visit to Ireland on 30th, back on 5th and we leave here on 10th!! Time will fly by and I have so much to do. Lots of pruning in the garden and my annual bonfire!!!

I can now genuinely say to Aussie friends 'see you soon'.

29 August 2011

September on the way.

After a week of almost 40c heat, the rain started. It rained cats and dogs for three days, almost non-stop. We were trapped indoors, not even a break long enough to go for a quick walk using an umbrella. As a result the garden is a jungle, weeds everywhere again in the courtyard, groan groan. Back to normal again now, with cool nights and beautiful warm days.

The garden is still producing - the roses are magnificent, they love the rain. Our neighbours all around us are trying to give away some of their huge harvest of stone fruit - trouble is, everyone has supplies at the same time.
Every time I pick beans, there are more the next day. John groans when I bring a bowl of beans again from the garden. Now we have heaps of cherry tomatoes, so starting to work our way through them. Salad is finished, and probably the last few potatoes unless some are hiding as they often do.
What a season this has been, we have not had to buy fruit and vegetables at all this summer, except in the first few weeks after we arrived. It has been incredible.l
The sun is going down a little bit earlier, and its still slightly dark when John gets up around 6.30 to look at the internet. I don't we will be eating outside in the evening for much longer, but enjoying doing so while we can.
Being trapped indoors for some days meant we both got lots of work done on our computers. I managed to do a great deal of research reading and making notes, sometimes with the help of a friend for translation. John was writing, and happy with all the work he managed.
I had my book group lunch last week, at a country auberge sitting outside on a terrace looking over rolling green hills, in a tiny little stone village. The French countryside is dotted with beautiful small villages, aged stone houses, 10th and 11th century churches, and lots of lots of flowers this summer.
Neighbours call in from time to time, and we do the same to friends around us.
Sunday is the day for the grand "puce" or flea markets around the villages. Yesterday we went to two and bought some DVDs and very old postcards which tell a story in themselves. We enjoyed our drive through the countryside, I never get tired of the beauty of our surroundings here. On the way back we stopped for lunch at an auberge, a very pleasant end to our outing.
A local farmer has moved some young rams into the orchard opposite our window, they are madly eating the blackberries as far as I can see. They will probably jump over the wall and cause a chase down the road (this is a frequent happening and amuses us greatly).
Our goods and chattels have been delivered to our new home in Tallong, and we will be setting off in six weeks time to return and settle in to our new surroundings. We are looking forward to it very much. So much to do, but hopefully it will be lots of fun.
Well, better go out and pick some more of those dratted beans!

25 August 2011

a slow French holiday!

This family is wandering around our valley in a little wooden caravan on wheels drawn by two beautiful horses. They have a little trailer behind with their bicycles, and their dog is trotting along beside them!!

10 August 2011

Some more photos for post Tarn Gorge and Mende

We have just had a wonderful dinner at the hotel in Mende, so at last I have time to upload some more photographs from our trip today:

The tapestries and altar at Mendes cathedral.

Florac to Mende and the Tarn gorges

Today we crossed, recrossed and crossed the River Allier again as we followed its gorge through the mountains.

We left the hotel and parked at the station. There was another person waiting, a Dutch guy. Shortly afterwards a bus drew up, the driver came out to us and explained there would be no trains today, but that we would be picked up by the bus on its return journey from La Bastide about an hour later. Changing our plans, we decided to skip the train and continue to follow the track of RLS across some high mountains, where today there are ski resorts in the winter.

The trip was so worth while, and the views were stunning. We sat at the summit of Mount Lozere, 1600 metres high – at the top of a ski slope – and got out our hot box to connect with the rest of the world as we had had no internet access the previous evening. We felt as though we were on top of the world almost! The wild flowers were beautiful -

enormous thistles with bees having a great time busy in their huge purple flowers. As we set off down the road we were surrounded by a large flock of very healthy looking sheep of various colours who didn’t seem to be at all concerned about our car driving slowly amongst them while trying to manoeuvre our way through. A bit further on we came across a couple who were using a donkey to carry their packs.

Earlier we had seen several families with children using donkeys for the walks. Most of the time, the donkeys seemed to be doing a lot of grazing, and not too much walking! However, they all seemed to be having fun with these patient animals.

I guess it turned out for the best, as we would never have seen that spectacular scenery at such a height if we had taken the train.

We then came into the Tarn gorges – I have to use the word spectacular again – rocky, severe mountains, pine forests, steep plunges and winding roads into gorges and out again. A lot of people around with baskets collecting mushrooms and myrtle berries in the forest. Apparently with such a rainy season, the locals said “its raining ceps”; a great season for this very sought after mushroom. Also a great season for berries - for wild strawberries and raspberries as well as myrtles.

We revised our plans and decided to try Florac. No accommodation in Florac so we revised our plans again and decided to miss the rest of the trail, and head for Mendes.
On the way we continued along the Tarn gorges, passing the area covered in menhirs and dolmens(prehistoric burial sites). An area very busy in this the high tourist season. The dolmens and menhirs can be dated back to around 2,600 years BC according to the information we found. There is a great deal of speculation as to how the huge blocks of stone were moved to erect the huge menhirs and to build dolmens, it is thought they were moved on logs. One of the largest dolmens near Florac, contained the bones of 13 people (6 of them children) dating to about 2,500BC. Hard to imagine. Various decorations, jewellery, and pieces of ceramic have been found in some of the graves. All dating long before JC.

Well here are in Mende, a very ancient town, going back to Roman times and before.
We are in very comfortable accommodation, internet again and about to go downstairs for an apero and dinner. We have had a great wonder around this historic town, and sat in awe at the wonderful Aubusson tapestries hanging in the cathedral. It seems to be a cross roads for several regions around, and according to its history, this was a great market place in ages gone by.

Perhaps we will head home over the Millau bridge tomorrow or towards the Auvergne, see what happens.

St Bastides, Pradelles and on to Chasserades

Wednesday, 10 August
At Monastier, the jazz concert at the hotel turned out to be very pleasant. A large group of young keen musicians playing trad jazz. However, some of the happy guests were very noisy returning to their rooms around 2am or so…
We set out towards La Bastide, driving through beautiful countryside again, covered in volcanic cones and bowls. Passing through St Martin de Fugères and Goudet, we stopped at Pradelles for a coffee. An interesting fortified town, but sporting the most ugly bright red statue of the BVM – hideous. At the lookout we could see three different counties. Had a good walk around but we were freezing cold, so huddled in a café for a large coffee to warm up.

On the way to St Bastide, we visited the monastery of Notre Dame des Neiges occupied by Trappist monks of the Benedictine order. RLS stayed overnight here. What a beautiful setting, high up around 1,000 metres, amongst pine woods, the trees whispering and murmuring in the wind all the time. They have accommodation here for walkers, and also for people on retreats. We visited the shop, where there was a lively business going on in sales of wine, lots of cookery books on using medicinal and other wild plants, and various religious souvenirs. We had a walk around, and sat in for the end of a mass. The monks who were dressed in traditional garb of a white hooded robe with a brown belt, seemed to be all very elderly.

Our next stop was at St Bastide, a quick visit to the tourist centre for wi-fi, and a pleasant salad lunch at a Relais. No accommodation available there, so we decided to push on to Chasseradès. Found a delightful small accommodation house there, the Relais de Modestine, and tried what is called a ‘demi-pensione’. This gets us a room, breakfast and dinner and is good value.

We went for a walk while waiting for our room, and noticed a neat small bright red train buzzing along. When we enquired we discovered we could train to Mendes and back going through delightful country, so decided that would be the plan for the next day. Apparently the train is very busy in school terms taking country children to school in the larger centres. There are several tunnels, built to keep the train clear of snow in the winter, as it can be very heavy here.

In this out of the way accommodation, most of the guests are walkers on the RLS track. A van comes to transport their luggage to their next stop, where they have booked in for the following night. What was very interesting for us was that dinner was served at 7.30pm, aperos before if so wished, and all the guests sat down together at a large table, 10 of us. People from all parts of France, most of them serious walkers. The couple beside me told me they walk 7 hours each day. One woman was on her own, and she carried her own baggage!! It was very interesting evening, nothing controversial, mostly conversation about the track and comparisons of the different Relais (rest-houses) they had stayed in. A pleasant couple own this house, the husband sat down with us to dinner. We had copious servings of potatoe and vegetable salad, a casserole of chicken and green lentils, and another casserole of chicken and rice with spicy sausage. A large green salad, a platter of cheese and home made myrtle tart for desert. Very good!
This morning for breakfast we were served juice, home made yoghurt, coffee in large bowls, and several home made jams with fresh bread. Several of the walkers set off, the van came to collect luggage and we decided to take a train ride.

08 August 2011

Following in the footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson, without Modestine the Donkey.

On impulse we decided to follow in the steps of Robert Louis Stevenson when he walked through the mountainous country of the Cévennes, with a donkey named Modestine carrying his pack, 150 years ago, in 1878. In all he walked 220 kms, in 12 days, quite an achievement when you take into account the steep climbs on tracks winding up and down mountains.

We arrived this morning in Le Monastier and booked into a hotel by a small lake, by the side of the walking track. We couldn’t have access to our room until the afternoon, so we decided to have lunch and walk part of the track near our hotel. The lunch wasn’t so great, but the track gave us a tough climb over rough ground, with a beautiful view when we got to the highest point.

We visited the oldest church in this village - it had a very beautiful altar.

We are in the rugged southern foothills of the Massif Central, a sparsely populated region with stunning scenery, mostly designated a national park these days. With ruined castles dotting the skyline, megalithic standing stones, Roman churches, abandoned farmhouses and chestnut groves, this is dramatic country. The castles and farmhouses are built of local granite, mostly rather sombre grey and black. The red tiled roofs give some colour relief.

After a walk around Le Monastier – it was Monday, nothing was open and much to our disappointment even the museum was closed, despite the fact that this is in the tourist season with a music festival on at the moment. The streets were fairly unkempt, with weeds and dog pooh, so that didn’t thrill us overmuch. A jazz concert is promised at apero time at our hotel, that should be enjoyable.

We went for a drive to some of the other villages that RLS and Modestine passed through, we had to keep stopping, the scenery was so beautiful. Gorgeous wild flowers everywhere along the roadside, the colours so gentle and pleasing to the eye against the deep green richness of grass and wooded hillsides.

The road we travelled wound around the Loire gorge, and as we approached Solignac sur-Loire, we stopped to take a photo of the stark outline of the church tower and three bells, high on a hill in the town.

We continued on to Cayres, oohing and aahing about the scenery all the time. We were heading for Le Bouchet Saint Nicholas where RLS spent his first night at an inn. We found an inn ok, and had a beer to try to settle the greasy lunch sitting on my stomach like lead. I felt much better after that and we drove on to Goudet – another stunning village with a ruined castle on a rock and another castle with a colourful tiled cone like roof. This brought us on to St Martin de Fugéres, where we stopped to look back at Goudet and take some photos.

03 August 2011

With the Gallo Romans in Lyon

We spent a very enjoyable day at Lyon – exploring the Gallo Roman area and museum. Lyon was settled by the Romans about 43BC, where they built many beautiful villas, arenas for gladiatorial fighting, debating, and for the circus. Under the Romans it was called Lugdunum. Roman veterans from the 5th Legion settled at the confluence of the Rhône and the Saône.
There are many traces of the Romans still around Lyon, and many great examples of these traces are contained in the Gallo-Roman museum at Fourvière.

What a position high up overlooking the river and island between the two rivers. Gauls from a Celtic tribe were settled along the river banks and there was a great deal of trading between merchants. The river was used as a highway, and boat Captains were important. Apparently Caesar Augustus appointed his son in law, Agrippa, with the creation of the road network around the town.

There are wonderful mosaics preserved in the museum depicting scenes from the day to day life of the Romans. Originally they would have been on the floors of their houses. The huge open air amphi-theatres or forums, could seat 30,000 spectators, and in another one,10,000.

After an exhausting and thrilling morning in the museum, we walked down steep stone stairs to the old town and had a delicious lunch, before returning home.

Early in the week we had a visit from Richard and Beth Payne who are travelling around France in a very luxurious motor home. It was quite tricky getting it into our courtyard. A very pleasant visit indeed, including a lunch at Berzé la Ville looking over the vineyards.

Alain will come for his English lesson soon and we are expecting more visitors tomorrow, should be fun.