Sunday, October 31, 2010

france - day 7

We were back on the road again this morning, headed to St. Malo on the English Channel. But first we went back to Vannes, an important port on the Golfe de Morbihan. There we learned more about Brittany and the Breton people and language. Originally Celts, the Bretons share the roots of their native language with the Irish and the Scots. Today, parents can choose to have their children learn both French and Breton in school. Brittany was strongly independent for many years, but in 1532, signed a treaty to become part of France. The Bretons still honor their past with many festivals during the year where they wear their native dress, including the tall, lace headdresses of the women. Each headdress is specific to a certain parish, so Bretons can tell where someone is from just by looking at their attire. Here is the sign (in Breton and French) commemorating the signing of the treaty:

Again, we saw impressive gardens; these are near the old medieval walls of the city:

We approached the Cathedrale St-Pierre through a side street:

Begun in the 13th century, the cathedral has been remodeled and restored. I believe this window is original, however:

After a stop in the city square for possibly the best hot chocolate I have ever had in my entire life, we were back on the bus for the drive to the small town of Josselin. But along the way we were stopped by the cops. A gendarme (military police) was standing in the middle of the road and signaled Placido to pull the bus over to the shoulder. He wanted to see all of Placido's paperwork, including the activity log from the bus' computer. Off he went to his vehicle, returning 5 minutes later. He returned the paperwork to Placido and sent us on his way.
Placido told us that the gendarme ran his computer disk, showing when the bus engine is turned on and off and the top speed of the bus, and only because Placido made sure to take his 45 minute break the other day, was he allowed to go and was not fined. The gendarme also asked Placido when his next day off was scheduled. Bus drivers are only allowed to drive 6 straight days and Placido was scheduled to have a full day off the next day in St. Malo. We were all glad to be headed to the hotel and not to jail!
But first was a stop in Josselin, a charming village which is dominated by a medieval chateau owned by the de Rohan family since the end of the 15th century. We approached and were let in the small red door:

We had a tour of the inside of the chateau, but were asked to refrain from taking photographs, as this was a private home:

The gardens are beautifully maintained and although they look as if nature designed them, they were in fact designed by a famous landscape artist, who determined the placement of each plant:

We were then delighted to be introduced to the Duke and Duchess de Rohan, who were at the chateau that day. Both English-speaking and very charming, they welcomed us to their home. While not in Paris, this is where they live and have raised their children. The Duchess has an extensive doll collection and when Larry asked if she had ever seen the Margaret Woodbury Strong collection of dolls, she said she had not, but that she was very familiar with the collection. They were on their way to New York City in a couple of days, and she asked how long it was to get to Rochester. When told it was a six hour drive, she said that it would have to be another time.

The 72 year old Duke, Josselin de Rohan, was mayor of Josselin and has been a member of the French Senate since 1983. He served as regional president of the Brittany region until 2004 and is currently president of the foreign affairs, defense and armed forces commission. Here is his official Senate portrait:

We were very impressed that they both took the time to speak to our group. After they left us, we saw them sitting for an outdoor portrait with a professional photographer.
After looking at the Duchess' doll collection, we were off to our next stop, St. Malo. Located on the windy English Channel, this was the view from our hotel room window:

We made a joint decision that we were NOT going to go windsurfing, but did take a nice walk down the boardwalk.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

france - day 6

As I was signing on to write this post, I saw that it was post #201. Who would have thought I would have so much to say?? But I have already heard many positive comments about our trip travelogue, so let it continue. Here we go with Day 6...

One of the downsides to traveling with a group is that you have little flexibility to march to your own schedule. I like to take my time when I'm on vacation; I like to have time off. So this morning I decided I would stay at the hotel, in the bed, with the curtains closed tight and get some extra sleep. Larry, meanwhile, got up to go see a prehistoric burial mound and a WWII bunker. He took the Flip and not the camera, so we have no pics to share, but he said it was all quite interesting. I am happy to report that my morning sleep-in was equally delightful!

After the morning group returned, we met a chartered boat on the Golfe du Morbihan and cruised the gulf to the city of Vannes. We enjoyed a delicious lunch on the boat while we passed many of the more than 40 islands that dot the gulf. We were told that one island was recently sold for 2.5 million Euros. Pretty snazzy neighborhood.

Placido and the bus met us at the docks in Vannes and off we drove to the charming, medieval village of Rochefort en Terre, home for many years to both French and American artists.

This small village almost felt like it was a movie set, but real people actually do live here.

There is an annual national contest in France to judge how well the towns decorate with flowers. Rochefort en Terre has won the national contest and it's easy to see why. Winning is allowed only once; from then on the town rests on its laurels, but continues to showcase its floral talents each year.

Meandering down the streets and alleys was a visual delight, with new vistas around every corner. I can only imagine what this town looks like at the height of the summer....more tourists than flowers??

Back to the hotel for an evening on our own. We hit the local Wegmans (no comparison!!) and brought back some bread and cheese, which was completely delicious. It was a pretty relaxed day...and I needed that.

Friday, October 29, 2010

france - day 5

Day 5 was a long driving day. We needed to get from the Loire Valley all the way over to the west coast of France, on the Atlantic. But, as usual, there were interesting stops along the way.

First up was the chateau in Angers, which is the historic capital of Anjou, home of the Plantagenets and the western gateway to the Loire Valley. The chateau, built by Louis IX from 1230-40, stands on a rocky hill in the town center. The pepperpot shaped towers were removed in 1585 by Henry III and the fortress, which doubled as a munitions depot in World War II, was heavily bombed during the war.

Inside the chateau is the longest (338 feet) and one of the finest medieval tapestries in the world. It tells the story of the Apocalypse, with battles between hydras and angels.

The Loire and Maine rivers come together in Angers:

After a delicious lunch by the riverside, it was back on the bus for a two hour ride. French law demands that bus drivers may not drive for more than 3 hours without taking a 45 minute break. Placido's break came at Les Salines de Guerande, the Guerande salt marshes.

There are 190 member salt workers in the "Les Salines de Guerande" cooperative, operating 70% of the salt marshes in activity. The job of a salt worker is one of the few agricultural professions that does not use heavy mechanisation or chemicals. This traditional production technique is a thousand years old and not ony produces quality salt but also helps to preserve the site. In Guerande, salt is harvested daily and by hand only. Today, the Guerande salt marsh is one of the last places in France to produce traditional salt. Both coarse salt, which is slightly grey, and fleur de sel (flower of salt), which is finer and whiter than coarse salt, are harvested here. When we visited, the harvest of the salt had just ended and there were huge, covered mounds of salt near the information center.

Then we were on to the Miramar Crouesty hotel, located right near the Atlantic Ocean at Port Navalo. Designed to look like a cruise ship, the hotel resembles a ship both inside and out. There is also a well-regarded spa at the hotel and other hotel guests were seen walking everywhere in their spa robes, even into the restaurants.

The view from our balconey was breathtaking:

Before dinner we took a walk to the beach, where there were both sailing and surfboarding schools. But that day the ocean was like a lily pond and not a ripple was to be seen. Later we watched the sun set in the western horizon, sinking into the Atlantic. Atlantic sunrises are our norm, so this was a whole different geography to take in.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

france - day 4

Day 4 was a full one - horses, vineyards, gardens, chateaux and royalty....just a regular day for us. :)

In the morning we traveled to the charming town of Saumur (which has its own chateau, too) where we visited the world-famous National School of Equitation. Only the best of the best train here and we saw the horses, the grooms, the riding masters and the students. It was starting to sink in that there were going to be many sights and visits available to us that would not have been, had we been traveling on our own.

The stables were beautifully maintained. The riding areas contained felt mixed with dirt - the felt absorbed moisture but also muffled the sound of the hooves, so that the complicated dressage movements were done in complete silence.

This guy is the oldest and most honored horse at the school:

Here he watches his neighbor being brought into his stall by one of the 90 grooms on staff:

After touring the outside areas of the school, we went inside to watch the riding masters put their horses through their routines. Unfortunately, cameras were not allowed inside, but it was a magnificent sight. There was even an "equine choreographer" who trained the horses to "dance" just the right way.

Then it was off to Le Moulin Bleu (the Blue Windmill) for a tour of a Bourgueil region vineyard, a wine tasting and a delicious lunch.

This is a familiar sight to us, living in New York's wine country, but our steep hillsides were replaced by a flat plane leading out to the Loire River:

Back on the road again, we headed to the Chateau de Villandry, known for its magnificent gardens. Villandry was the last great Renaissance chateau built in the Loire Valley, a perfect example of 16th-century architecture.

The gardens were restored to their original splendour by Dr. Joachim Carvallo, whose grandson continues his work today.

The delicate roots of the 52 miles (!!) of boxwood that outline and highlight each section mean that the whole 10 acres of gardens must be weeded by hand. Ouch!

Can't you just picture Rapunzel letting her hair down from  this tower window?

We left Villandry to return to our hotel to change for dinner and then we were off to yet another chateau, this time the Chateau de Champchevrier. Today's owner is Pierre de Brosse, Baron de Champchevrier. The "castle", as he calls it, has been in his family since 1728. A smart marketing executive, the Baron opens his chateau to select groups for tours, helping to pay the enormous cost of maintaining the house and grounds.

The Baron has a large pack of hounds that are trained to hunt for stag in the forest surrounding the castle. As a demonstration of their excellent training, the masters of the hounds brought the pack to the front lawn for us to see, keeping them completely still before giving them the signal to eat the meat that had been laid out for them. The ground steak had been hidden under the skin of a stag, so that for the visitors it looked like the hounds were finishing him off. In real life, the hounds only trap the stag and it is up to the hunters to make the final coup de grace.
Also present were the horn players. Before the age of cell phones and wireless communication, messages about the hunt were relayed to the hunters by various hunting tunes, each of which meant something different. There is an especially regal sounding tune that tells of the stag having an extremely large rack - he was truly a king among men.

The last chateau of the day was our very own. Our hotel was the Chateau de Rochecotte - so yes, I can now say I've slept in a castle. But boy, the bed was really uncomfortable with that pea under the mattress!


Tuesday, October 26, 2010

france - day 3

After being introduced to our driver, Placido, we all piled into our luxurious Mercedes-Benz coach. One of our fellow travelers pronounced it the most comfortable bus he had ever been on...and he was a tall and hefty guy.

Our for its magnificent cathedral with its stunning stained glass windows. We first went to the stained glass restoration center and had a most informative introduction to the world of stained glass as it has developed over centuries. I was especially taken with the gorgeous cobalt blue for which Chartres is known.

We could see the twin spires at quite a distance. The taller one dates from the start of the 16th century and is Flamboyant Gothic in style. It contrasts sharply with its very solemn Romanesque counterpart. (Scaffolding covers the West Rose Window, which is undergoing restoration).

We entered through the Royal Portal (1145-55)...

...and had a glorious view of the nave. As wide as the Romanesque crypt below it, the nave reaches a height of 121 feet.

The North Rose Window depicts the Glorification of the Virgin, surrounded by the kings of Judah and the prophets, c.1230:

All the stained glass windows were removed for safekeeping at the beginning of World War II and were then reinstalled in the cathedral. The windows above the choir bring additional light to the nave:

The astronomical clock is surrounded by ornate carvings:

Small chapels, with their own stained glass windows, surround the altar area:

Overall, the windows of the cathedral cover a surface area of over 28,000 square feet. We were told that the French government pays for the upkeep and restoration of the exteriors of the churches, while the Catholic church is responsible for the upkeep of the interiors.

We had lunch at a nice creperie and tried their onion soup, continuing our 40-year hunt to find the BEST French onion soup ...anywhere! (This one did not make it). And then it was back on the bus to drive to chateau country in the Loire Valley.

Monday, October 25, 2010

france - days 1 + 2

We boarded our Air Transat flight in Toronto for an ontime departure around 11pm and I promptly took 50mg of Benadryl to help me sleep. Didn't help. I was awake for the entire flight and watched the sun come up as we flew east. Larry worked on his snoring technique.

We were met at Charles de Gaulle airport just north of Paris and were driven to our hotel in Versailles, a western suburb of Paris. For the very first time, we were joining an escorted Tauck tour. Normally very independent travellers, we decided to let someone else do the driving and the schlepping of the luggage this time. We had heard good things about Tauck from our friends T&J and decided to give it a try.

Our driver took us to our Versailles hotel:

We arrived a day ahead of the tour so that we could try to adjust to the new time zone before the opening bell. After meeting the tour director, Richard (a French-speaking native of Montreal), we found our lovely room and promptly took a nap. Somehow, somewhere, I needed to sleep. That Benadryl was finally starting to kick in.

The next morning we walked to the downtown market and enjoyed seeing and hearing all the action. This booth, selling fresh meat, seemed to specialize in rabbit. I was somewhat surprised to see a patron at the case who looked like she was wearing the skin of a couple of tasty treats on display in the case in front of her:

We returned to the hotel for a brief stop and then walked around the corner to the park of Versailles. It was a gorgeous Sunday afternoon and every family in Paris seemed to be out for a stroll.

We picked up our tickets for the park and palaces and off we went, wandering down a country lane that had livestock grazing on both sides of the road. First stop was Marie Antoinette's farm, where she would retreat to get away from all the court hustle and bustle:

Restored in the early 1990's, this is a working farm that just exudes charm:

Then it was a bit of a hike over to the Palace of Versailles, a tourist mecca that was overflowing with crowds of people. The fountains were to be turned on later in the afternoon - last time before the winter schedule went into effect - and everyone in Paris seemed to have turned out for it.

Built by Louis XIV, the Sun King, construction began in 1668. Much of the decor is an homage to Louis himself - Louis was quite impressed with Louis, it seems. Here is the gilded gate by the grand courtyard:


The Chapelle Royale was magnificent. The royal family attended services on the second floor choir, while the courtiers stood on the ground floor:

Perhaps one of the best-known rooms in the palace, the Hall of Mirrors was where the Treaty of Versailles was ratified in 1919, ending World War I:

Imagine having this magnificent view every day:

We walked back to the hotel, met our fellow travelers at a nice reception and dinner in the Gordon Ramsay restaurant in the hotel (2 Michelin stars but not so good food and no ranting Gordon on site). Our lack of sleep was catching up with us again and we were ready to crash. But in the morning, we took one last look at the palace from our hotel room window. What a gorgeous beginning to our trip: