Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Not This Time

Painting in the 'Le Plage' bedroom
This is what my Christmas vacation at the ocean did not look like! No sun, no bathing suit, no picnic on beach. Maybe next time. This is a painting hanging in the bedroom that Lucie and I slept in. The 3-bedroom gite that Ankie rented was very nice...comfortable and tastefully decorated with a 'beachy' theme. It had a fenced yard for the dogs that was quite private despite being in a developed neighborhood. I loved the red and white kitchen with its red refrigerator. Very reasonable winter rate. It's a place I'd return to.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Beautiful Bordeaux

I only spent a few hours in Bordeaux, but it was enough to whet my appetite for a return visit. What a beautiful city! Parking on the outskirts of town, we took the tram into old Bordeaux disembarking here at Place de la Bourse. These lovely 18th century buildings at one time housed the Stock Exchange and an elegant hotel which is now the site of a museum dedicated to customs, tariffs, and taxes. The view from this spot along a big curve of the Garonne River is framed by several bridges and the houses of wealthy wine merchants who lived here in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Despite a light rain shower, we wandered down the medieval streets that at one time were the slums of Bordeaux. Now they're filled with tiny shops, hidden squares and gardens tucked between buildings...
When you wander in old French cities, it's always a good idea to look up occasionally. We saw this lovely stone sculpture above the door of an old building. It's of the Samaritan Woman at the Well from John 4:7...
The Christmas market was going strong at Place de la Comedie as was the carousel. The place was bustling with shoppers and children. We stopped in the tourist office for some information, drooled over the elegant Grand Hotel de Bordeaux, and snapped some shots of the Grand-Theatre awash in the afternoon sun.
The Grand-Theatre
We ducked into this swanky wine bar for a nibble of charcuterie and a glass of wine before boarding the tram and ending our visit. In the distance, the Monument aux Girondins beckoned from the Esplanade des Quinconces, but that will be for another visit, another day.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Unsettled Weather

We did see some peeks of blue sky during our three days at the ocean. We'd be teased for a couple of hours with the prospect of clearing skies, then have our hopes dashed by another round of thunderstorms, high winds and rain. I loved the line of foam that the high tide deposited on the sand, but was disappointed that I could find nary a shell. I thought the turbulent waves would definitely wash some ashore, but I found none. The photo below is taken looking south along the coastline. The sunlight makes a nice silhouette of Dino.

The unsettled weather brought us the gift of a beautiful rainbow...

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Christmas in Lacanau-Ocean

Low tide on Dec. 24th
Lucie found that cute little seahorse I showed you yesterday here...on the deserted beach at Lacanau-Ocean. My friend, Ankie rented a holiday house in Lacanau-Ocean for Christmas week and invited Lucie and I to join her and her dog, Dino, for a few days. Christmas at the beach...even in the dead of winter...appealed to me, and I couldn't be happier that we went. The  summer holiday town was almost empty at Christmas; we pretty much had the beach to ourselves.

The weather was wild! France was (and still is) being pounded by 'Tempete Dirk,' a powerful winter storm that caused major flooding and damage to areas of northern France. Even here on the coast due west of Bordeaux, we experienced heavy rain and 50-55 mile per hour winds. The waves crashed and the sand blew, stinging my face. But I loved it!
I think Lucie liked it, too, even though her ears went blowing straight back with the wind! She waded in the water, rolled in the sand, and sniffed everything the surf had deposited along the wrack line. And she found a seahorse!

The weather improved a little during our stay. Enough so that we were able to walk on the beach each day and explore a bit in Bordeaux. More of those adventures next time...

Friday, December 27, 2013

Where Did I Spend Christmas?

Can you guess where I spent Christmas Day? 

Answer tomorrow with more photos!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

A Living Creche

Although St-Cirq-Lapopie is jam-packed with tourists during the summer, it's eerily quiet in the winter months. Few people live there year-round and all the shops and restaurants are closed  in winter. Except at Christmas! This past weekend was the annual Marche de Noel or Christmas Market at St.Cirq. Many of the shops were open and there were two tents set up in the square by the mairie full of enticing Christmas goodies to buy...jewelry, pottery, candy, baked goods, etc. The biggest draw, however, seemed to be le creche vivante or living creche inside the church. We arrived just in time to catch the Three Kings make their way to the manger up behind the altar. The church was full of rapt visitors who were enthralled with the play-acting and carol singing.

Yes, that's a goat hind end you see. There must have been a shortage of local sheep, because a goat had to stand-in with the shepherds.
There was a lovely, patient donkey, though. Everyone wanted to pat him after the performance, and he obliged them all. What a sweetheart! He kept looking at Greg; he must have known that Greg's a donkey lover who was muttering something about sneaking him out the back door and home to Cadrieu.
The attentive audience stayed bundled up despite the heat lamps (orange rectangles on stands) placed around the sanctuary. These old stone churches are really cold in the winter.

Back to Cajarc for a quick coffee and then a 5 PM concert in the church there...two women, a male guitarist and an 11 year old girl singing Russian folk songs, opera and sacred music. Amazing voices all!

Thursday, December 19, 2013


We never need much of an excuse in France to share a meal with friends. This lunch yesterday at Bob and Kathy's house in the tiny hamlet of Bennac celebrated the end of our French lessons until next year. That's our host, Bob, on the right with the dark hair; his wife, Kathy is the blond at the end of the table. Eleven of us enjoyed a yummy meal. After an apero of vin chaud (hot mulled wine) and nibbles, Kathy offered three different kinds of soup: French onion, tiny peas with bacon, and parsnips with carrots, all served with slices of baguette and Bob's homemade bread. That course was followed by a baked brie covered with slices of ham all wrapped in a pastry crust. A traditional English sticky toffee pudding with vanilla ice cream or creme fraiche (or some of both in Eddy's case!) rounded out the meal. Oh yes...and lots of red wine. As our Brits would say...it was a jolly good time. After lunch we took a short walk to the edge of the causse and enjoyed a splendid view looking down on the tiny village of Cenevieres, its Chateau, and upriver a bit, the village of Calvignac I forgot my camera, but it's just as well...we were looking directly into the late afternoon sun, and it would have been almost impossible to get a good photo.
Bodil, Christiane and Eddy

Bob, Eddy and I are the French students. You can see Eddy above. Christiane is our professeur. No more homework 'til next year...yippee! Lunch at noon turned into a home-at-5-PM day. It takes time to enjoy good food and good friends.

Bob and Kathy run a chambre d'hotes (B&B) and also have a small gite (self-catering rental house). I've provided a link to their website: La Grange which has a slide show of the property. I love to look at what folks have done to restore and renovate old houses. This one is exceptionally pretty and very cozy. Take a look!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Best December Weather

The best December weather in my pretty river valley....foggy, frosty mornings followed by brilliant blue sky afternoons. No, it's not particularly warm, maybe into the low 50's F on a good day, but it sure beats blowing snow and ice!
Frosted leaves

Sunday, December 15, 2013

O Christmas Tree!

You might remember that my first Christmas living here in France I had a 'borrowed' Christmas tree. My friend, Laury, bought a live tree, decorated it with all her lovely ornaments, enjoyed it for a week or so, then loaned it to me for Christmas as she went on a work assignment to Holland. Last year, I decided not to have a tree and just put a big potted poinsettia on my kitchen table to show my Christmas spirit. This year I decided I needed a tree. My local Intermarche had artificial trees at a bargain-price 15 euros, so I bought one. I was pleasantly pleased with how nice it was when I took it out of the box. Now, of course, I needed ornaments. All my beautiful ones collected over the years are packed in storage 5000 miles away, so I opted for a trip to the big L'Clerc grocery store in Villefranche (think mini-Walmart with a bigger selection of wine and cheese)

I hate generalizations, so I'll just say that in my part of France beautiful Christmas decorations are NOT the norm. I'm always puzzled how a country full of the most beautiful art in the world can have such a lousy selection of greeting cards and Christmas decorations. Anyway... I passed on the orange and purple balls and turquoise garland, but managed to find some solid gold balls, white lights and shiny red garland that ended up making a decent looking tree. It'll have to do.

You might want to check out posts on 'Christmas Past' by clicking here here here and here

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Sounds of Christmas

Christmas carol lyrics in French
The sounds of Christmas are universal even if our language isn't. The small group of women I sing with met this past Tuesday night at Veronique's renovated farmhouse just outside Calvignac for Christmas carol practice. We'll sing the evening of December 23rd in the church at Larnagol. It will mostly be villagers, I think, and they will be asked to join with us as we sing. Janie tried to explain Christmas caroling to our French singers, but that's not something they 'get,' so she settled for singing one carol outside the church. They looked at us in amazement when we said that in England and the US people wander from house to house singing carols.'In the winter?' they exclaimed, 'don't you get cold?' Well, yes, but....

We sang for two hours, then ate a simple meal together. Christiane made a ham and cheese tart, Vero put together a big pot of choucroute,  Maryvonne made a lovely tarte tatin and stuck two bottles of wine in her basket for good measure.  I brought a bottle of wine and a pretty red poinsettia for our hostess. We ate and drank; talked and occasionally broke into song for another two hours. French friends, food and song...what a great combination!

Can you guess which carols these are in the photo?

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Marche de Noel

The first weekend in December marks the beginning of the Marche de Noel (Christmas Market) season in most of the villages in rural France. While the bigger cities 'celebrate' Black Friday, it's mostly unheard of here in the country. Christmas begins slowly here; nothing much happens until December arrives. Thank the Lord for that! My friends and I decided to visit the new Christmas market that was held in Marcilhac-sur-Cele last weekend. There were a few vendors selling goodies...I bought some freshly-pressed apple juice from a local farm as well as a jar of yummy raspberry/rhubarb jam. Which I have to say, is the first jam I've tasted here that rivals the jam made by my friend, Karen, in Des Moines.

Our local friend, Christine Gentou, had assembled her chorale group in the ruins of the ancient Abbey and gave a short concert of American gospel hymns and a few Christmas carols. As you can see, it was freezing cold in the stone ruins, but the acoustics were fabulous despite no roof and only partial walls. I can only imagine how wonderful the Benedictine monks' chanting must have sounded in this space in the 10th century when the Abbey was built.
After listening to the music, we warmed our hands and our hearts with a cup of hot mulled wine and wracked our brains for the name of the third Wiseman in response to a question the market's organizer was posing. We had Melchoir and Balthazar, but it took our friend, Peter, to remember Caspar!   After visiting a bit more, we then wandered through the narrow village ruelles which were strung with twinkle lights and large white Chinese lanterns.
Hot wine, some music and simple decorations....this is about as 'Christmasy' as it gets here. Nothing is over done. There is no competitive spirit for who can decorate the prettiest or string the most lights. It's all about simplicity, good food, and family at Christmas. I couldn't be happier about that!

The only things missing Saturday were those darn dangling Santas...remember them from last year??

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Bribe Me!

Thursday afternoon we have French class at Christiane's house. This year it's Eddy, his friend, Bob, and moi struggling to learn vocabulary, conjugation, sentence structure, etc. We usually have a homework assignment to discuss and today, Bob confessed that he had his wife (who speaks very good French) help him with his. That led to a discussion about how he bribed her to help. I asked Christiane what the French word for 'bribe' is. As always, the French have a delightful phrase instead of just one word. A bribe is a pot-de-vin...a pot or jar of wine! I love learning new words and phrases; this is one I won't forget.

Bribe me, please!!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013


Lucie and I didn't get our normal morning walk today, so this afternoon I took her across the road to the river. She can be off the leash there and run as much as she wants. She always takes a little swim and checks out all the dirt mounds left by the numerous moles that live in the small field right below Laury's house. I saw the debroussaillage sign as we crossed the road. Three or four times a year, the department cleans the roadside of weeds, bushes, vines...anything growing on the verge that might impede traffic or obstruct vision. You'd be surprised how much grows in and around the stone walls that line the road in places. The debroussaillage machine even scrapes off the thick moss that grows on top of the stone walls.

I didn't give the sign much thought until I heard the big tractor and mower apparatus coming closer. I looked up and saw this headed right towards us!
This time they were also trimming trees limbs! Lucie and I beat a hasty retreat down to the river and out of harm's way. Sure enough, when we walked back up to the road, our path was littered with tree branches. Which would have been on our heads had we continued!

(In the interest of honest reporting, I did zoom in to get the close-up. We had plenty of time to make our way off the path.)

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Dona Nobis Pacem

St. John's Episcopal Church
Boulder, CO
You may have noticed a new 'page' tab at the top of my blog. I've decided to migrate my previous blog, Dona Nobis Pacem, to this one. As Advent begins today, it seems like an auspicious time to renew my practice of occasionally sharing thoughts and insights that bring me deeper into Spirit. This Advent season I am again participating in an online retreat through Abbey of the Arts.I will post reflections from my experiences during the retreat on the Dona Nobis Pacem page. This year's 'Birthing the Holy' retreat focuses on Celtic Christianity. If you are looking for a way to enrich your spiritual experience of the Christmas season, joining this retreat would be an excellent way to do so. Chrisitine Valtners Painter leads marvelous online retreats that are deeply insightful and rich in content.

Not only will this retreat experience enrich me during Advent, but it is also preparation for a pilgrimage adventure that I will embark on late next summer. I will travel to the west coast of Ireland and join a handful of other kindred spirits in exploring early Celtic Christianity. Led by Christine and her husband, John, our group will spend 9 days steeped in such monastic themes as hospitality, service, Sabbath and conversion while visiting Celtic sites in Connemara, the Burren and the Aran Islands. I can hardly wait!

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

St. Paul-de-Vence

After spending most of the morning wandering through the wonderful modern art at the Fondation Maeght, I decided to walk the extra half mile up to the perched village of St. Paul-de-Vence. One of the oldest medieval villages along the Cote d'Azur, it became a favorite stop for many of the early 20th century artists who both lived and painted here. Matisse became seriously ill while living in the village. He was nursed back to health by the Dominican nuns and in his gratitude, designed the interior of a chapel for them, the  Chapelle du Rosaire. Marc Chagall lived here and is buried in the village cemetery. St. Paul is a must-see for tourists visiting the area. In fact as I wandered its narrow, cobbled streets, I ran into a family I knew from my bed and breakfast and my friend, Greg with his sister and sister-in-law. Everyone wants to see St. Paul! Both the cemetery and its collegiate church, the Church of the Conversion of St. Paul reflect the proximity to Italy with loads of Italian names on tombstones and ornate Italian woodworking in the church.
Ornate wood carving in the church

Not so typical, though, is this stone carving of a skull on an 11th century sepulcher....

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Beaujolais Nouveau

Next week millions of Americans will celebrate the harvest with the annual Thanksgiving feast. Last night 13 of us celebrated the 2013 harvest the French way....with a Beaujolais Nouveau party at Josi and Patrick's house. Wine IS the feast in France! We sampled over a half dozen different 'new Beaujolais' wines from this fall's grape harvest along with a couple of Gaillac primeurs...all pretty bad! There's a reason wine is aged; in its infant state it's not particularly tasty. Patrick's meal, though was plenty tasty. We had plates of charcuterie with cornichons and terrines of lapin, sanglier and lotte along with rillettes of pork. You'll have to click on the links to discover what all these taste treats are, but let me assure you that they were all good with big chunks of fresh French bread. A cheese plate and two dessert choices...rhubarb or apple tarte...rounded out our simple dinner. Christiane told me that our assignment for next week's French class was to write (in French, of course) the difference between the new Beaujolais and the new Gaillac wines. Let's see...awful, less awful, more awful, a tiny bit better...that shouldn't be too hard to do!

What really confuses me, though, is the term Beaujolais Nouveau. You see, 'nouveau' (the French adjective for 'new') always comes before the noun. So why are all the bottles labelled Beaujolais Nouveau? Christiane told me it's because in this case Beaujolalis Nouveau is a proper name and can be arranged however one wants. Do you see why it's so hard for me to learn French? They keep changing the rules!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

An Illuminated Mary

An illuminated Mother and Child from the Franciscan monastery church in Cimiez. Mary is very striking in the almost dark church interior. 

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Talking Camino

Pilgrim offerings in the Abbey church at Conques
I was invited to lunch yesterday at Richard and Anita Goodfellow's lovely renovated schoolhouse in the tiny village of Mazerolles near Najac. Our objective (other than enjoying a fabulous meal of curried carrot soup, a perfect omelet a la Richard, salad, berry crumble and wine) was to talk about walking pilgrimage on the Camino to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Richard and Anita are passionate walkers and have done pieces of the Camino both along the northern coast of Spain and along the Portuguese coast. They have also hiked extensively in the Pyrenees. As often happens when kindred spirits meet over wine, the conversation ranged both wide and deep. We talked about families, past lives, and the many other places in the world they have trekked. But we always returned to the Camino and what the experience is like to walk even a short bit of it. Richard and Anita walked the required last 100 kms into Santiago to qualify for the Compostela (certificate of completion) and attended the dramatic Pilgrim's Mass at the Cathedral there. We poured over guidebooks and photo albums. I came home quite inspired  The afternoon made my pilgrim's heart sing!

Next time, though, I promise not to talk so much so I can remember to take a few photos of the Goodfellow's wonderful old schoolhouse and its amazing view over the valley to Najac.
In France, the Camino is called the Chemin de St. Jacques
(the Way of St. James)

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Wine Smoking

Of all the many ruined buildings, temples and fountains in Glanum, these rooms were the most intriguing to me....

According to my guide book this building was constructed during the Hellenistic period (late 2nd-early 1st century BCE) and was originally a healing sanctuary. During Roman times, however, it was used for agricultural purposes. Each of the vaulted rooms had a fireplace that allowed for free smoke circulation within the room. The rooms were discovered filled with amphorae suggesting that the rooms were used for 'smoking' wine, a method of preserving it

Reading about the preservation of both natural and fermented grape juice (wine) in this article was very revealing. Not easy...any of it....in these ancient times. Wine quickly went bad becoming infected with bacteria that rendered it smelly, moldy and undrinkable. There were numerous methods for preventing this...adding boiled down must, adding salt, spices, or marble dust to the wine, or adding pitch or resin to it. Ick! These methods were not fool-proof. Wine was sold with the caveat that the buyer had 3 days to taste and approve of the wine. If it was still good after 3 days, he was stuck with it even if it went bad on Day 4. Once wine soured or developed a bad taste, there were some ways to fix it, however. One such way was to heat a roof tile in the fire, coat it with resin and then lower it with a string into the amphorae of bad wine. After sealing it in the jar for two days, the foulness should be gone. If not, repeat the process until it is!

Apparently, smoking was another way the Romans used to preserve their wine. Smoking artificially aged the wine in the sealed amphorae and kept bacteria from infecting the wine. At least, that's the theory. We'll probably never know how well it worked. Somehow I think that even the best Roman wine would fall far short of our modern standards.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Water-Spewing Man

This guy used to spew water into one of the baths in ancient Glanum. I think he'd look awesome spewing water into a pond in my garden. Of course, I don't have a pond. Nor do I have this priceless relic from Roman times in Provence. Oh well!

Thursday, November 7, 2013

View from the Belvedere

I climbed to belvedere to get a bird's eye view of Glanum. This is the most sacred part of the town. The source that feeds the town's sacred spring  lies to the right in the cleft of the mountains at the head of the valley.
Access to this area was limited here...there was a gate for wagons as well as a separate one for foot traffic. Imagine it looking like this....
There are several temples inside the gate. This one is dedicated to Valetudo, the Roman goddess of health and was built by Agrippa probably during his journey to this area in 39 BCE.
Next to it is the Temple of Hercules

We approach the stairs leading down to the sacred spring....
The original occupants of the town attributed healing properties to the waters of this spring and worshiped their god, Glanis around a simple hewn-rock pool. A building was erected over the pool in the 2nd century BCE. The Romans built their temples dedicated to Valetudo and Hercules on either side of it.