Sunday, April 25, 2010

An Abundance of: Foie Gras, Wine, and Volcanic ash

First, here are some postcard scans of the Bayeux tapestry that we visited in Normandy. Since we weren't allowed to take pictures inside, the postcards are the next best thing. See how long the tapestry is? It's about 70 meters long. It wraps around the room.
William the Conquerer taking ship to England

Joan of Arc, in front of the Mayor's Office. You can see the bullet holes in her dress from WWII.

I last left you, dear readers, in Orléans, where we returned after our visit to Normandy. Andrew's parents enjoyed the slow pace of Orléans, the lovely farmer's market, and the splendid dinners Andrew and I prepared for them. One day we went to Chambord, accompanied by the lovely Catherine from Canada, and had a picnic in front of the castle after our visit. Here, we finally tried our cheddar cheese, which had been aging for six weeks. It was identifiable as cheddar, though it had a slightly sour aftertaste.
Chambord Château
Da Vinci staircase
Our picnic, with the potato and brie quiche I made
The red stuff is the wax we put on for the aging process

In preparation for the upcoming Joan of Arc Festival, the entire town has been decked out in flags and flowers, including our beautiful cathedral. After visiting the cathedral again, I've definitely decided that I like the Orléans cathedral best of all the cathedrals I've ever seen in France. I've also decided that if I ever see another cathedral again, I'll probably puke. Church overload!!
Joan of Arc stained glass windows

We treated A's parents to delicious pastries at our favorite patisserie, Les Musardises.
Pictured: Strawberry cream cake, a "hedgehog," (bet you can guess who ordered that one), and a "coeur de france", which was so delicious I've forgotten what was in it.

After three days in Orléans, we packed up again and traveled south to the Dordogne region to meander through valleys, climb limestone cliffs, and trace our ancestral roots. Our first stop was Montignac, site of the Lascaux caves. The original caves closed in 1963, not too long after they were first discovered, but they created a very detailed replica that is open to the public. It was wonderful seeing the different animals depicted by men who lived 17,000 years ago.
Montignac, on the Dordogne River

Random château we came across on our drive through the countryside

After visiting the caves, we stayed the night in nearby Rouffignac, a very small town with only one hotel, one restaurant, and not much else. We were pleasantly surprised by the cleanliness, comfort, and suberb service we received at our hotel, La Renaissance. Andrew and I splurged for the dinner menu, and were very pleased. One of the highlights was the foie gras platter, which included foie gras cooked in an apple sauce, slices of cold foie gras, and the real kicker, foie gras ice cream. Andrew wasn't too keen on the latter, but I loved it!
This lamb was so delicious, and I love how they wrote the name of the hotel in sauce

The next morning we decided to try out the caves at Rouffignac, and again, weren't disappointed. We traveled about a kilometer by electric train through the caves, stopping to look at the charcoal drawings of bison, horses, and wooley mammoths.
Entrance to the caves
Wooley mammoth etching

After numerous recommendations from French friends, we continued to Sarlat, a quaint medieval town. I was disappointed. The architecture was interesting, but there wasn't much to do, and it was heavily commercialized. Every single restaurant had the exact same menu: foie gras entrée and a duck and potato dish that was particular to this region. And every shop sold the same touristy stuff: cans of foie gras, local wines, and more foie gras. Makes sense for the region that produces foie gras, but it was still tiring. It got boring real quick. Andrew and his parents seemed to enjoy the town, but it was a let down for me.
Andrew has deemed this house fit for our habitation, should we ever return to France
Sarlat city center

On our way out of Sarlat, we stopped at Castelnaud, a medieval castle perched atop the cliff. The castle was still in excellent shape, and was a change from the fancy châteaux we were used to. Andrew spent entirely too much time playing with the weapons and drooling over suits of armor. He's such a boy!
Can you tell I'm afraid of heights?

Our final stop was Bordeaux, a big sprawling city known for it's wine. Naturally, we opted for a wine tasting. We tried three different red wines, all of which were terrible, but at least we learned a lot about the different tastes in wine, how to taste, how to know if it's a good wine, etc. But really, the best part was the visit to the cheese cellar. There were about 250 cheeses available, and while I'm sure they later regretted it, they said I could try them all. I actually only took about 30 different samples, but I was definitely the greediest of my companions. Andrew took about three samples before he ran away whimpering, completely overwhelmed by his choices. My favorite was a very sharp gouda, but I also enjoyed many of the goat cheeses and the softer cheeses, like brie. Unfortunately, the cheeses were grouped by type (blue, goat, hard, soft, etc.) so I didn't really get an idea of what I was eating. But the cheese alone was worth the 25€ we paid for the tasting!
Very Disney-esque tower
Bordeaux cathedral. Again, so tired of churches!
Ruins of an ancient Roman amphitheatre!

Probably the highlight of our Bordeaux visit, at least for Andrew, was staying with a couchsurfer named Matt, who also happened to do medieval sword fighting every Wednesday night. Andrew and I of course accompanied him one night. It was a total geek-fest, but Andrew seemed to like it, though he was in pain for days afterward.

P.S. If you're ever in Bordeaux, don't buy tickets from this travel company. Their geography isn't so great...

Our two week vacation quickly turned into three when we heard that all the airports in northern Europe were closed. Thankfully, our house exchange meant that A's parents didn't have to fork out money for a hotel, and that we didn't have to entertain them as much and could work instead. They finally got an outbound flight Saturday morning, exactly one week after their original flight. The extra time also allowed Anne to come to school with me and Andrew and meet our students!
My 9th grade advanced English students

With their extra week here, we mostly continued doing the same things: consuming a dangerous amount of wine and cheese and pain au chocolat everyday. Andrew and I had the day off on Wednesday, so we returned to Blois so they could visit the château. While there, we finally paid a visit to the Magic House, a tribute to Blois-born magician Houdin, from which Houdini stole his name. It was pretty cheesy and silly, but great fun. Every hour a six headed dragon emerged from the windows of the Magic House to entertain visitors in the square.
The Great Houdin(i)
Six-headed dragon (one of the heads wasn't working at this time)
View of Blois

As my grandmother can attest, I'm a little picture crazy. My first trip out of the country, she gave me a camera and three rolls of film for my 10 day trip to Spain. I returned with 10 rolls of used film. Having a digital camera has only made my obsession worse, and I took over 400 photos on this two-week trip. Sorry for the sensory overload, but if you'd like to see more, go to my Picasa album.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Mont St. Michel and Chenonceau

I'd been waiting years to see this place, ever since my high school Latin teacher showed us pictures from his trip there one year. Mont St. Michel is a mountain of an island with a huge abbey at the top. During high tide, the island is surrounded by water, but during low tide you can walk from the mainland out onto the island. The tide recedes up to 9 miles! Imagine being on an “island” surrounded by wet sand and you can't even see the ocean because it's receded so far! The abbey was interesting and very big. I enjoyed walking along the steep, narrow cobblestone streets, and all the lovely views from the top.

We've been traveling with a friend's GPS device, and while it's been useful, it's definitely changed our vocabulary for the worse. The GPS is voiced by Cartman from South Park, so now everytime we want to say “Turn Left,” instead we scream, “Turn left you goddamn Jew!” or “Go around the circle road-thingy.” or “Turn around you tree-hugging hippie asshole!”. Somehow it hasn't ceased to be amusing.

After Mont St. Michel, we began the long drive back to the Loire Valley, stopping off at the Château of Chenonceau. Unfortunately, the front of the castle was being renovated, so we didn't get as many interesting shots. I really enjoyed the very detailed booklet the castle gave out, even though Andrew thinks it was information overload. It had a lot of interesting details about all the women who had lived in the castle, particularly Diane of Poitiers and Catherine d'Medici.

Chartres, Bayeux, and Normandy

Tuesday morning we picked up the rental car from Orléans and drove to Chartres to see the cathedral. It was pretty impressive, but very dark inside. The town was also really charming, but we didn't have long to stay because we had to hurry to Bayeux, which was three hours from Chartres. Bayeux is an amazing little town with lots of charm and probably the coolest cathedral in France.
Let's do a picture comparison: which city boasts the best cathedral? Paris, Orléans, Strasbourg, Chartres, or Bayeux?

But the very best thing about Bayeux is the Bayeux Tapestry. This tapestry from 1090 is 70 meters long and depicts William the Conqueror's Ass-Kicking of the British. This would have been very overwhelming but there was a really useful audio guide which explains each of the 58 panels. I'm going to work on translating the Latin over the summer because it was so interesting. Because Bayeux is such a small town, everything closed around 7pm, including most restaurants and all shops, so after strolling around town we called it a night and returned to our hotel.

On the way out of Bayeux the next day we stopped at Omaha Beach, one of the D-Day beaches in Normandy. It was freezing cold, windy, and very wet, and since there wasn't much to see except some monuments, we quickly took to the road again and arrived in Mont St. Michel in the late afternoon.