Sunday, September 30, 2012

Basque Country




We left the rugged peaks of the Pyrenees behind as we traveled west into the Pays Basque. Rolling foothills laced with lush green valleys signaled we were entering a new area of France. But when we began seeing the white houses shuttered in either red or green, we knew we had arrived in Basque country.









Our destination was the tiny village of Bidarray and the Hotel Noblia, our lodging for the night.
I love the neat, clean look of Basque houses.

Friday, September 28, 2012

The Music of the Mountains

As Edith and I stood along the road watching the various animals grazing peacefully in the huge valley, we noticed that one large flock of sheep seemed to moving with purpose down the valley. Then we spotted a large white Pyrenees sheep dog among them who was apparently directing the show. Soon we were joined by two trucks, one of which brought the real director to our pull-out. The herdsman couldn't have been more 'French shepherd' in his black beret, woolen sweater and calf-high leather boots with little tassels. As we watched in amazement, he began whistling 'commands' to both sheep and sheep dog. They immediately obeyed, lining up single file and moving more rapidly. We struck up a conversation in my pitiful French. He was very gracious and actually understood what I was asking. Yes, they were his sheep and his dog. And yes, those tiny white spots 'way up on the mountain top were his also...about 250 sheep in that flock. They, too, must have heard the whistles as they lined up and began moving down the mountainside to join the rest of the flock.
It was fascinating to watch. We felt so lucky to be able to witness this piece of local culture as sheep and the wonderful Ossau-Iraty cheese produced from their milk are what this valley is famous for. Edith asked the men if we could have a photo. Again with great grace and a bit of French humor, they humored us!
As we traveled down the valley ourselves, we came upon yet another shepherd, his flock and his faithful dog. While Edith spoke with him, I managed to capture some of the sounds of the flock on the move in this video.While you don't get the full effect of how much noise they make, you can hear the clanging of the bells. What you don't hear is the deep shuffling noise their feet make as they walk. It almost sounds like someone is playing a boom box with bells accompanying!

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Enroute to Spain & Back

After a quick morning trip into Laruns for postcards and photos, we began the 29 km journey to the Col du Pourtalet, the pass connecting France to Spain. Our companion on the way was the ever-present Pic du Midi d'Ossau. At 2,884 meters, it's not particularly lofty, but its easily recognizable profile makes it a popular landmark. The pass itself sits at 1,794 meters and is usually closed by snow during the winter months. It was clear blue skies and warm temperatures for us, though, and the scenery was magnificent...







The grass in the wide, rolling valleys was beginning to cure in the late summer sun, but was still perfect grazing for a wide variety of open range animals..
like horses, some camera-shy cows and three large pigs. Yes, really, pigs! I didn't believe it either until Edith showed me through her binoculars. Who ever heard of free range pigs?
But it was these fellows, along with hundreds of their friends, who were the stars in this day's adventure story. You'll 'hear' more about them in the next blog post.
And yes, we did make it into Spain driving about 30 kms to the small town of Biescas. There were some big ski developments just off the summit. Let's just say that I think they probably look better in the winter when everything is covered with snow!

Monday, September 24, 2012

Eaux Chaudes

L'Auberge La Caverne was our 'home' for the next two nights. Open year-round, it's not fancy, but it's clean and comfortable and all the people who work there are exceptionally nice. I was glad that I booked us under the demi-pension plan which meant we received breakfast and either lunch or dinner with our room rate. Our auberge was the only game in town! Eaux Chaudes' only other businesses are another hotel and the thermal baths which are only open part of each day. Meals, otherwise, would have meant a drive back down the winding road into Laruns. The hot springs were first mentioned in 890 when King Sancho the 1st of Aragon came here for the cure. Throughout 12 centuries of recorded history, the warm waters have drawn royalty and others to sit and soak.




We did our sitting here on the sunny terrace sipping sweet Jurancon wine and sangria!
The once-bustling baths and hotels in the village were quiet and partially-shuttered during our stay..
but the views of the surrounding mountains were stunning!

Saturday, September 22, 2012

An Adventure in French Basque Country Begins

As Edith and I were exchanging emails prior to her visit last month, she expressed an interest in the French Basque country. That was all the incentive I needed to plan an adventure in an area of France that I had never visited...the Pyrenees. Having Edith as a navigator (she is an excellent map reader; not everyone is, you know) made traveling all the little backroads so much easier. After driving past fields and fields of fading sunflowers, we pulled off here just outside of Fleurance to eat a picnic lunch and mark the rest our route on the map.(Note to self: I will return here in early  August next year to see all the sunflowers in full bloom. Those in the field just beyond the pond were just beginning to droop and wither.) We opted to skirt the bigger cities of Auch, Tarbes, and Pau. At Pau, though, we had to make a decision...visit Lourdes (with all its tourists) and take a tiny, winding mountain road over into the Ossau Valley or drive through the Jurancon wine country to Laruns and eventually end up at our destination for two nights, les Eaux Chaudes. We chose to skip Lourdes and take the easier route.

The beautiful verdant valley south of Pau gradually narrowed as we approached Laruns, and soon we began seeing the rugged peaks of the Pyrenees towering all around us. The road out of Laruns also narrowed as it wound its way up the valley towards the higher elevation at les Eaux Chaudes. I knew it wasn't going to be your typical drive in the mountains when we were flagged over to a stop just before we reached our destination. As we watched, a large herd of horses made their annual winter journey down out of the mountains to fertile valleys below. They were willing, however, to share the road with a team of Spanish cyclists!





I can't help myself...I'm a mule person! He and I invite you back as I share the rest of our Pyrenees adventure over the next few blog posts.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Chairs

Chairs in the dappled sunlight on a hot afternoon in Marcilhac-sur-Cele.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Cabrerets

There was some blistering hot weather during Edith's stay which made sightseeing during the middle of the day quite unpleasant. We opted instead to make early morning or evening trips to the close by places we wanted to visit and spend our afternoons at home reading or...I'll admit it...napping. One evening after dinner we drove to Cabrerets which sits on the Cele River just before it joins the Lot at Conduche. Cabrerets is definitely a river village catering to canoeists and kayakers. It reminded me a lot of southern California beach towns, only with river rats instead of surfer boys! There was a lively gourmet food market going on, but we found more interesting sights in the village's nooks and crannies...
like a piece of art commemorating the theft of a piece of art..
 this scary guy lurking in an alley,
and a pretty Virgin surrounded by straw and twinkling blue lights.
When's the last time you saw a sign for a telegraph office?

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Troglodyte Houses in La Toulzanie

I had a hunch that Edith might enjoy seeing the troglodyte houses in La Toulzanie, and I was right! She liked them so much that we spent the better part of an afternoon there taking photos of them.
We took so many photos in front of this house that the woman who lives here came out and invited Edith into  her garden to get closer shots of her flowers. Lovely as those flowers were, what the woman didn't know was they were not what intrigued us. This pretty still life tableau is what caught our interest...
We both loved the green glass bottle! Between the two of us, we must have close to a dozen different shots of it. If you look closely, you can see the reflection of the house across the street in it.
I think Edith did take a few photos of the woman's flowers...just so she wouldn't think we were totally crazy.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

"Site Medieval"

My Michelin map identified it only as 'site medieval,' but it received a one-star designation, meaning it was worth a stop. Worth a stop is really an under-statement in my opinion. Edith and I felt like we had discovered a link in time back to the Middle Ages! The map directed us to the tiny village of Peyrusse-le-Roc...nice, but nothing special. However, just off the square in front of the church, a path begins to descend down into a deep gorge. Soon this is the sight that greets you...twin towers perched on a knife-edged promontory with spectacular views off into a broad valley. Both of us wearing sandals, we really weren't prepared for this kind of a walk, but we were too intrigued to stop. Down, down, down we hiked in the hot afternoon sun...




Can you see that stairway in the bottom left corner of the photo?
Here's a close up ...
and here's Edith climbing it! 
I opted not to go, mainly because I suffer from a bit of vertigo. I know that sounds funny from someone who spent so many years flying in helicopters. Once I'm up, I'm okay. It's the climbing up and looking down over the edge that gives me shivers and makes my stomach feel funny.
Triumphant at the top!
Edith crossed the promontory on the narrow walkway to the other tower and said the view was splendid. I'm always impressed with the laissez-faire attitude of the French; the only safety precaution anywhere was a sign that read "unaccompanied children not allowed." Ya think?!?

And just how did the builders of this spectacular place haul the stones and other things up there to construct these towers? They had to have carried everything on their backs.
Looking back up at the tower.
The path continued down deeper into the gorge where we found the ruins of a large 13th century church
Of all the ruined medieval buildings we saw, I was most fascinated by this one...a hospital of 4 floors built during the Hundred Year's Was to serve 'the sick, the poor, and pilgrims.'

First mentioned in the 9th century, the village (then called by its Latin name Petrucia) was home to 40 noble families and by the 13th century boasted of 700 houses, some of which can still be seen in the ruins. The climb back up to the village was hot and long and sweaty, but the 'site medieval' was worth the effort. We decided that it really deserved more than one star. Who do I write at Michelin to make that happen?

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Toulongergues

Traveling just a few miles south of Villeneuve, our goal was to find this pre-Romanesque church in the tiny village of Toulongergues. The tourist brochure we picked up noted that it is one of the oldest buildings in southern France. We were fascinated with its round corners, dry stone constructed walls, and the lack of windows. Again according to the brochure, 'surveys carried out beneath the church show evidence of a 4th-century burial ground.' It's thought that this area was part of the Roman empire in Gaul where mining operations were conducted. Unfortunately, the church wasn't open for us to see the 11th century murals painted on the walls of the choir. Which means a return trip, I think!
We were equally intrigued by the even larger stone building next to the church which bore this stone carving over its door. With no identifying characteristics, the building's function puzzled us. As I sleuthed around on the internet seeking information to write this blog post, I found a mention at a 'friends of the church' site that the first prior whose name is known, Pons de Cardaillac, 'rebuilt the house next to the church' in 1450 making this the priory or residence of the person in charge. This same website is a wonderful source of the church's history and is illustrated with several photos of the interior. Although it's in French, it's worth a look just to see what the inside looks like. Click here to find it.

Our day of exploring isn't over yet. Follow this guy to our next adventure....

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Villeneuve and Beyond

Edith was a willing explorer while she was here and never hesitated when I suggested a new place to visit. This day our destination was Villeneuve, a bastide town in the Aveyron. Founded in the mid-11th century, the village was originally a safe haven, its church and priory offering the symbolic protection of 'God's peace' to all who entered. In 1231, Raymond VII extended the village making it a bastide town. Well-fortified, but with wide streets and arcaded galleries, it hosted numerous markets and fairs. Interestingly at this same time, the citizens were granted the right to govern themselves. There was a consul house and each small neighborhood or quarter elected a consul yearly to represent them. Areas of governance included administration law, trade, taxes, safety public health and road maintenance. Not so different than our local governments today.


Porte Haute, one of four fortified gates into Villeneuve is still in use by both cars and pedestrians

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The arcaded buildings surrounding pretty Place des Conques are still the center of commerce in the village hosting cafes, art galleries, book stores, and flower shops. In the photo below you see the building on the place that was designated as the King's House, a place for royal emissaries to stay when they visited the village. It's now the site of the mairie.

In the next few days, I'll take to you the sites 'beyond' Villeneuve that intrigued us during this day of exploration.















Saturday, September 8, 2012

Neither Pilgrims nor Priests Disappointed

I was a little nervous about sharing Conques with Edith. It's my very favorite place in the world, and I hoped she would feel the same. But you never know...maybe we'd both be disappointed. Luckily, we weren't. It was a beautiful day, we arrived early and avoided a lot of the tourist crowd, and she fell in love with Conques just as I did on my first visit. We spent the morning roaming the rues in search of photo ops and enjoying the peacefulness of the elegant Romanesque abbey church. Neither pilgrims nor priests disappointed us!