Friday, October 25, 2013

Day 4: Canoeing the Dordogne

When I was planning this trip, the one thing I fixated on most was canoeing the Dordogne River. We'd glide past picturesque villages and castles, take in fall foliage, and maybe stop in one of the villages for a picnic or a drink.

We woke up on Day 4 of our trip kind of kicking ourselves that we hadn't squeezed the canoe trip into warm, sunny Day 3. It was market day in Sarlat, so we drove there as planned to shop for our canoe picnic. The sky was cloudy and a few raindrops fell, so we were concerned that we'd really blown it. Sarlat is a charming medievel village, with those windy cobblestone streets and half-timbered houses (bottom level a medievel stone structure, top made with timbers during the Renaissance). We bought carrots, radishes, two foie gras stuffed figs, a pack of smoked duck breast, some soap and a bra. oh, and a little round of strong goat cheese and half a loaf of heavy brown bread and a little jar of walnuts with honey. The first part of the market that we went through was all clothes and other goods -- piles of blue jeans, and the bras in little packets.

We were just wondering where all these great products from the French countryside were when we looked down another street and saw tables with produce and refrigerated cases with the duck classics:   Entire fattened livers, rillettes, breasts, and confit and gizzards. Other cases held rounds and slabs of cheese, big and small. We sampled slices of nougat and bites of foie gras and bits of cheese.

Then we sat down at a cafe with a good view of all the people -- the men in sweaters under jackets, women in skirts looking at smartphones as they walked. We wrote post cards to the kids. Then we rushed to the Post Office to send our cards to the kids before its Saturday noon close, and didn't want to walk back to the market so we bought two bottles of wine at Lidl, a French version of Aldi from the looks of it.

When we arrived at the canoe area in La Roque Gageac, the canoe stand was open as promised but the canoe man was gone, probably eating lunch.bSo we sat down at a picnic table by the river and ate our picnic. A few raindrops fell on us.

When the man came back, he took our 14 euros each, gave us life jackets and paddles, and pushed us into the river in our canoe. We were off, and almost immediately the sun broke through the clouds. la Roque Gageac looked more beautiful from the water, because the stone wall protecting the city from the river rose up beside us.

Then there was a bit of nature, then Catelnaud came into view and soon we were heading for the first bridge, aiming the canoe at one of the semicircular openings and noticing how the water quickened just there. We were completely alone on the river, save a duck or two. The company running the large tour boats seemed to be open, but perhaps no one showed up to take a tour because none passed us on our journey. We spent a lot of the trip taking long rests between paddles, swiveling our heads around taking in the views of the cliffs and castles. There were windows in the high cliffs, and the odd house set in the trees high up on the left bank, and all the houss and castles and churches were the same color as the cliffs because of course they were all built of the same stone.

When we came to Beynac, the village, on our right, we had to decide whether to pull over to go "boire" (drink) as the canoe man had suggested, or maybe grab a coffee. But we were enjoying our paddle and we did not feel like having anything, so we just paddled on, pointing out the restaurant where we'd eaten the first night and the pretty, steep village that we hadn't entered.

All too soon we were at the end point, marked by a tall white wooden cutout in the shape of a kayak. We made landfall and pulled up the kayak without much trouble, took off our life preservers, and looked around.

We thought that the trip would end at a village, but we actually found ourselves near a country lane alongside farmer's fields. We checked out the crops -- chard-looking greens growing out of huge tubers that might have been massive turnips or sugar beets. The fields were small by US standards, alternating with a few rows of this and a few rows of that. As we walked, a farm truck drove by, followed closely by a couple of small barking dogs. We sat down on a stump and ate a snack, and then the canoe man arrived to pick us up.

He told us on the way back that we were the only people to cnoe today. We felt sad for him since he had been sitting there, stoicly in his booth all day, with all the canoes and life jackets helpfully displayed. But when we returned there was a single older gentleman waiting there, and the canoe man said goodbye and walked over to talk to him. Looked like there might be a second canoer before the end of the day. We marveled at the fact that the weather was so beautiful -- and it was a holiday weekend since a two-week school holiday had just begun, and yet no one who lived in the area wanted to come out and canoe that day. It seemed funny to us because in the U.S., autumn is a big season for tourism in the countryside, but here, it seemed, once summer was over, the season was just over, no matter how nice it was out.

We decided to drive back to Sarlat for dinner, since we had not seen enough of the city at the market that morning. We walked up and down the little alleys, looking at old half-timbered buildings and shops, and reading restaurant menus. We walked up a steep street just because it looked interesting, and happened upon a nice looking restaurant in a garden outside a grand-looking building. There was one table occupied, but when I approached the people there looked up at me quizzically. I asked if it was a private party, or tried to, and they explained that the restaurant would open at 7 p.m. Apparently I had interrupted the staff dinner. I smiled and promised to return, and we enjoyed walking around for another half hour, popping into a bookshop just before it closed. We realized that a lot of our time in France would be spent waiting for the right time to do things -- waiting for a restaurant to start serving dinner, or for a museum to re-open after the two hour midday lunch break. But the waiting so far had always been pleasant because there was so much to see while we waited.

The restaurant was called Le Presidial, and we were the first customers to be seated in the beautiful flower garden at 7. Even though it was dark out now it was still plenty warm to sit outside comfortably. The wait staff was sweet to us and other parties started showing up and filling other tables -- all French people, which made us feel good about our find in this tourist city. Erik had cassoulet, and I had duck breast with peaches and potatoes Sarladaise. TIt came with green beans served in a little cup made from a crepe, and was delicious. We had apertifs and a small bottle of wine, but no dessert. As we walked back to our car we raved about how well everything had gone on this trip -- the sun coming out just in time for our canoe trip, finding the perfect outdoor restaurant on an unseasonably warm night, everything.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Day 3: La Dordogne and Castles

We woke up on our first morning on the ground in France to the smell of coffee and the sound of children -- the three sons of the other family staying in our B&B. We breakfasted with the family -- two parents, three kids and a Frency granny -- and our hostess, Anne, on croissants and fresh bread and butter, yogurt and jam. Conversation was lively, and we were happy we'd chosen a bed and breakfast instead of a more solitary hotel stay.

After breakfast we headed out on foot, leaving our car in the parking lot, to check out the castle that had been floodlight the night before and visible from our window. It's called Castelnaud, and it's a medieval fortress that has been renovated and turned into a museum of medieval warfare. The morning was cool -- 49 degrees with mist hanging over the river -- but as we walked up steep cobblestone roads and stone stairs up to the castle, we quickly warmed up. By the time we emerged from the castle in the afternoon, the day was positively summerlike.

 The museum was right up our alley. We loved walking up the narrow, steep stone staircases winding through the corner turrets, we loved noticing the differences between original castle materials, and newer, machined replacements, and we loved the exhibits -- trebuchets, catapults, armor, canons, etc. The castle is built on a rock cliff, and so when you enter the floor below you is not smooth because it is actually just the rock surface the place was built on. When you step out into a courtyard or onto a rampart, the view of the valley below is panoramic. You can look down the valley and see the next castle down in each direction, and joke about how you see your neighbor getting his trebuchet ready to roll over to your walls. There were two large groups of students moving through the museum, and I liked eavesdropping on their guide's lectures to learn tidbits like about how the lords enjoyed the privilege of the hunt.

 After the museum we walked down the cliff to a brasserie on the riverbank and ate a pizza and a salad - with foie gras and cheese, of course. We could see the village canoe company from our table, which interested us very much because one of my big goals for this trip was to kayak or canoe the Dordogne River. But the shop appeared deserted, which was not unexpected -- our hostess had told us that the local canoe companies might open for the weekend but not on weekdays at this time of year. Just as we were finishing, though, we saw someone go into the shop's shed and come out with a paddle. I walked over and caught the guy just as he was dragging his kayak down to the river, and asked if he worked there. He said yes. I asked if they would open tomorrow, and he said no, that we should go to La Roque-Gageac, the next village down the river.

 So after lunch we made a short stop at our B&B to freshen up, and then walked down the road to La Roque-Gageac. That walk was not as easy as our walk across the bridge to Castelnaud. There was little to no place alongside the road to walk, and the road was busy. I hit a stinging nettle bush with one bare leg. But after about half an hour we arrived in the village and found a canoe company that looked open. Only problem was, no one was there. By this time it was about 4:30 p.m. The sign said that you could only canoe if you started out by 5 p.m. So we waited around for about 15 minutes and then gave up and took a walk around the village, which according to the sign is rated one of the most beautiful villages in France, instead. The village is very steep, with stairways and roads winding up a cliff face. There were windows high in the face of the cliff, making it apparent that someone had at some point inhabited caves way, way up there. A red hot air balloon rose slowly from a little farther up the river. It was nice.

After we came down, we saw that there was no someone at the canoe shop, so we went back to confirm that they were closed for the day. He looked at the clock and said yes. But they would be open tomorrow? Yes. And did we need reservations? No. The canoe man was very nice, and I was feeling good that I could handle everything in French. I said I'd see him tomorrow, and he said, "avec plaisir."

 We walked back to the B&aB, stopping to check out a castle on the way that turned out to be private property. When we got to the B&B, all we did was grab a wine opener and we were off again, this time in the car, to a garden just up the road where we thought we could eat a picnic dinner and watch the sun set. The garden turned out to be a pay-to-enter thing, and it was closed, but that was just as well, because there was a lush picnic area at the edge of the site -- this was also on a cliff -- and absolutely no one else there. So we took a picnic table on the grass, just outside an ancient stone barn, and ate our bread with truffle mustard and drank our wine, first facing away from the sun because it was just too bright, and then watching the cloud streaks in the sky turn pink as the sun disappeared behind the opposite cliff. A peacock and a few peahens wandered up to see if we might offer any handouts, and a cat showed up just to make friends, but the peacock chased it off. We sat in that beautiful, isolated spot until floodlights turned on to the walls and castle that the garden was built around, and floodlights turned onto the castles across the river as well. We just couldn't believe how much we'd packed into this first, beautiful day in France. We corked the wine and drove back to the B&B, where we found our hostess and her dog, Rose, out for the evening, snuck into the kitchen for a couple wine glasses, and hung out in the living room using the Internet for about an hour before heading to bed.

Friday, October 18, 2013

40 in France: The Journey

OK, I'm not literally turning 40 in France, but the trip is my 40th birthday present to myself (and from my parents, who are giving me TWO whole weeks of childcare to make it possible).

On Wednesday, Oct. 16, I leapt out of bed, knowing that it was The Big Day. Since Epu was not going to work, he took Toth to school while I ran around attending to last-minute details. When Epu got back we went and got haircuts, deposited a large payment to myself from my business account into our checking account, and then took BART to the airport.

Everything went so smoothy that I was afraid to post on Facebook, lest I jinx us. There was no BART strike as had been threatened. A neighbor walked by just as we were stepping out of the house to take the bus to BART, and insisted on driving us there. We got to the airport in plenty of time and were even able to get one of those desks with charging stations. The plane boarded on time.

When we got on the plane, though, it was clear that our 11 hours was not to be spent in luxurious comfort. I don't know if coach seats have gotten smaller since I last flew internationally or if we have gotten bigger (I think it's both) but these seats were nuts. You could not easily unfold a newspaper because you are so close to the seat in front of you, and besides the motion would cause your elbows to hit passengers on either side. I can't imagine flying in the middle seat between strangers, because Epu and I were pressed up against each other so I could avoid leaning on the lady on the aisle seat.

That lady, by the way, turned out to be a super nice nuclear researcher who lives in Paris' Bois du Boulogne, with large round red glasses, who had just been at a conference on nuclear radiation at Lawrence Berkeley. When we told her that we were going to the Toulouse area her face just lit up, and when I got out my guidebook she pointed out all the places that she considered "magnifique." In particular she pointed out a cave painting site that we hadn't thought to visit, which is much closer to our friends' house and might make a great day trip.

Chatting with Marie-Terese made me feel much more confident that I would remember how to speak French. And aside from the crowded quarters, the flight was good, with a decent dinner, a nice glass of wine and a lot of movies on the personal TV screens (we watched "The Heat," which was dumb). My only beef with Air France is that they passed out ice cream bars when the lights were out and people were trying to sleep, and the ice cream bar packages were very crinkly.

I slept a little on and off, but gave up 7 or 8 hours into the flight, which would have been 10 p.m. my time but as 7 a.m. France time. Before we knew it we'd eaten breakfast and were landing at Paris Charles de Gaulle. Being there brought back so many memories of my junior year in France -- mainly of meeting loved ones who came to visit me. Then we boarded our flight to Toulouse, which literally flew by as I read the new David Sedaris book on the iPad, and it was time to pick u our rental car and drive to the Dordogne river valley.

At the point when we got into our rental car, it was 4 p.m. local time, or 7 a.m. according to our body clocks. So we were operating on a night where we'd slept just a few hours -- Epu more than me so I made him drive -- but at least our bodies thought it was morning. The drive was challenging. Erik hadn't driven a stick shift in awhile, I had to translate all the signs for him, we had disagreeing sets of directions from our B&B owner and Google maps, and man -- All. Those. Roundabouts. About half way there I started to nod off, but Epu told me I had better goddamn stay awake to help him read the signs, so I slapped my cheeks a few times and hung in.

Right about then the scenery got amazing, which helped me stay awake. River gorges, cliffs and castles started popping up. A few sheep here and there, and a medieval village or two. Each town had a large sign with an attractive illustration of the local attraction. The road was a toll road, which we hadn't expected, but fortunately we had gotten some Euros. When you got on the toll road, you were issued a ticket, and you paid when you got off. Clever!

After driving fast along an autoroute for an hour and a half, we took an exit and made our way toward the country bed and breakfast, going much more slowly on windy roads and through villages. The sun was going on and we kind of felt like pulling over and going to sleep in our car. But we finally pulled into the B&B's parking lot and our hostess stuck her head out an upstairs window and welcomed us. We had made it!

The first thing we did is ask our hostess if she could recommend a local place for dinner -- by now it was about 6:30 p.m. local time and we hadn't eaten since that breakfast on the plane to Paris. She made a couple phone calls and found a place that was open. Apparently weekdays are pretty quiet in this area now that tourist high season is over. We went to the place she recommended, down the road in Begnac, and enjoyed a Salade Perigourdine (I think?) and a plate of sauerkraut with sausages (my husband is weird). Better yet, I inquired if it was OK to bring half our bottle of wine with us, and of course it was. So after dinner we drove back to the B&B, put on our jammies, and finished our wine while gazing out our bedroom window at the floodlit Castelnaud Castle. Then we took some melatonin and hit the sack -- and slept for about 10 hours! We were so happy since we'd expected to either not be able to stay awake until a normal bedtime or to wake up way too early. But we woke up to the smell of the coffee our hostess had made us, and headed downstairs to start our first day of vacation.

Monday, October 14, 2013

My Fabulous 40

Once upon a time, about 10 years ago, our friends go married. In France. In the South of France. Erik and I thought it would be lovely to attend the marriage, but the airfares were high and our bank accounts were low. I don't remember if Nutmeg had been born or not. We didn't go to the wedding, and the rest of our friends did, and they had a wonderful, wonderful time.

Ever since that day, my husband has mentioned now and then that he still would like to go to the south of France. But we were busy having babies, and moving across the country and back, and working on old houses and losing and finding employment and launching and scrapping blog empires, and travel took the back seat for many years.

Until now. We decided that we should celebrate my 40th birthday by going to France. Oh, I also celebrated by getting diagnosed with a cataract today, but I'm going to focus on the France part.

Forty eight hours from now, Epu and I will be on a jet plane, headed for France. We'll be staying with the same friends whose wedding we missed so many years ago, who are now living on the old farm where they wed all those years ago. And we'll go a few other places. And, listen to this part, people, because I may only say it 20 or 39 more times: WE ARE NOT TAKING THE KIDS.

Wow, you may say. I didn't know you could go to southern France and back in a quick weekend. And here's where I blow your mind: We are not going for a quick trip. We are going for two weeks!

For two weeks, my parents are going to be in charge of the kids here in Alameda. They're flying out here to take on this task. Yes, I have the best parents. You don't even know.

So I'm sitting here with my hair blueing, experimenting with melatonin for the first time as a jet lag prophylactic (Status report: I ingested 1 mg and so far I do not feel very sleepy. Tomorrow night I will try taking more.). And I thought, I think the Internet needs to know our itinerary. Actually, I thought, I should write down our itinerary so we know where we're going, and whenever I write something, I pretty much just publish it, so here it is.

Day 0,.Tuesday Oct. 15
Mom and Dad arrive at Oakland airport around dinner time. They embark on intensive initiation.

Day 1. Wednesday Oct. 16
Depart SFO at 3:40 p.m., Air France, because I want my flight attendants to be French!

Day 2, Thursday Oct. 17
Arrive Paris CDG at 11:10 a.m.
Depart CDG 12:45 p.m.
Arrive Toulouse 2:05 p.m.
Pick up rental car, drive to Chateau Nineyrol. It's not really a chateau, it's a bed and breakfast! It's on the Dordogne River, near a castle called Castelnaud, and it was "rebuilt in 1860 on medieval cellars, by a returning war hero from Napolean's army."
Rad, right?
6 p.m.-ish crash in exhaustion

Day 3, Friday Oct. 18
We'll see how we're feeling. We could get up early and try to get tickets to see a Neolithic cave, or we could just take a little walk up to the castle and try to stay awake. Or tour Sarlat.

Day 4, Saturday Oct. 19
Kayak the Dordogne, past castles and picturesque villages! predicts a high of 72 degrees! The company Couleurs Perigord, just up the road from our B&B, says their shop is not open in October but as long as we call the night before, they'll have a canoe or kayak for us. This will only take part of the day, so we can go to Sarlat or Castelnaud after.

Day 5, Sunday Oct. 20
If we haven't seen a cave yet, visit Font de Gaume and/or Lascaux II.

Day 6, Monday Oct. 21
Drive to Maleville to visit our friends.

Day 7, Tuesday Oct. 22
Go on a day trip in the area. See some really old stuff like menhirs.

Day 8, Wednesday Oct. 23
Another day trip. Horseback riding with the horse rental place up the road?

Day 9, Thursday Oct. 24
Head into Villerfrance de Rouerge for the weekly market, then return the car to Toulouse airport and take the train to Carcassonne. Check into the Carcassonne Guesthouse, sit on the terrace, and enjoy amazing views of the medieval city.

Day 10, Friday Oct. 25
Explore Carcassonne.

Day 11, Saturday Oct. 26
Rent bikes and ride to a country winery or along the canal du midi.

Day 12, Sunday Oct. 27
Take a day trip by train to a nearby city? Possibly all the way to Nimes to see Roman ruins.

Day 13, Monday Oct. 28
Undetermined! If we are loving the Carcassonne area we can ask our hosts to extend our stay for one more night, if not we can take the train to Toulouse and get a room in the city for one night.

Day 14, Tuesday Oct. 29
Check into Ibis Budget Toulouse Aeroport Hotel, from which we can actually walk to the departures terminal. (1/3 mile!)

Day 15, Wednesday Oct. 30
Depart Toulouse airport at 7:15 a.m. Arrive CDG at 8:45
Depart CDG at 10:40 a.m., arrive SFO at 2:15 p.m.
Hug kids and try to stay awake until their bedtime!