shewhomust: (bibendum)
When I wrote about our day in Pau, I said that the next morning was another story: and that story is all about the shopping. Sometines this is a good thing.

Pau's organic market is held on two mornings a week, Wednesday and Saturday, and by a lucky chance, this was a Wednesday. The market is held in the scruffier part of town, in a cavernous old market hall where the stalls looked rather lost: but we walked round, buying good things for our picnic lunch and making hard choices, and it didn't look so sparse after all.

If I were a braver photographer, I'd have taken a photograph of one of our fellow-shoppers, a gentleman wearing a light purple pullover, clutching a deep orange potimarron (one of these), and a small bouquet of bright green herbs. Since I almost never photograph people, here are some carrots:

Organic carrots

We lingered by a stall selling organic wine long enough to pick up a leaflet, with a map. "Don't buy here if you can go to the domain," said the vendor, "You can taste the wines there."

We drove out of town past a mural, a picture of a man wearing a beret and holding an umbrella: "le dernier manufacture de parapluies artisanales de Béarn" - I hadn't previously thought of umbrellas as a craft product, but why not? This might be the business it was advertising.

Our route now took us into the hills and vineyards of the Jurançon. We made a not very satisfying stop at the Cave in Gan (easily identified by the giant bottle outside): they were perfectly pleasant, and let us try whatever we wanted, but since we didn't know what we wanted, that wasn't as much help as it might have been. Instead we headed for Domaine Tinou: down the road, and then up a smaller road, and on until the vines appear on the slope above you to the right: then turn into the farm drive, ring the bell and eventually the dog's barking brings M. Hondet (he was already producing wine here in 1964, when he converted to organic, so he can be forgiven for being a bit deaf). When we told him we'd piucked up his leaflet at the Marché Bio in Pau, he said, "Ah, you've met my son!" and ushered us into the barn where we tasted some delicious wines, from the lean dry white to the luscious golden sweet wine, not forgetting a light and refreshing rosé. We couldn't bring them all home with us, but we did our best.

I would have liked to spend longer exploring the area, but it began to rain, and back on the road we found ourselves nearing Oloron Sainte-Marie before we knew what had happened. Another time we will spend longer getting to know the Jurançon - and the Madiran - but right now we located our B&B, which was on the Place Saint Pierre:

Place Saint-Pierre

a sandy oval bordered with plane trees, a quiet place to picnic in the shade - except that it is also adjacent to the primary school, and serves as a handy playground for the children who are waiting for afternoon school to begin. Perhaps the bench we had chosen marked the goal of their football game? But being well brought up French children, one of them paused, retrieving the ball, to wish us "Bon appétit!"
shewhomust: (bibendum)
I thought I had written about the food fair in Bishop Auckland, but maybe not. Ah, well. Anyway, one of the things I bought there was some stewing veal, and yesterday I took it out of the freezer and made a blanquette de veau. It's a dish I haven't made in a long time (I don't manage to buy veal very often) and I was pleased with how it came out, the sauce all lemony and buttery, the meat sweet and tender. Since it's classic old fashioned French cuisine, I wanted a classic French wine to drink with it, and chose a bottle that we had bought at the Maison des Vins in Gaillac: the Domaine Philémon Perlé (information about the producer in English, and I wish I'd known about their Jurançon Noir, I don't remember seeing that). My only hesitation was that it might be too light, and I'm glad I didn't check the website which recommends serving it as an aperitif or with fish, or I might have been dissuaded from serving it with the veal. It was light and fresh, and the almost-fizz indicated by the name 'Perlé' accentuated that, but it had enough flavour, a good balance of fruit and acidity, to go well with the veal and its sauce.

Sometimes I wish I had asked the internet before deciding which wine to serve with what. D. brought us a bottle of Brana's Harri Gorri, which was particularly welcome as we had not been very successful in buying Irouléguy when we were there (short version: the domain we wanted to buy from was harvesting on the day we called, and too busy to sell; the local supermarket doesn't sell local wine and the Cave Co-op's wines are unimpressive. We bought some, but grudgingly). Harri Gorri (can't say that name too often) is much more elegant than we are accustomed to in an Irouléguy (I don't know how it manages that when it's 50% tannat, but it does), and would have been much happier with the following night's lamb stew, as the Wine Society's website suggests, than with whatever I served it with (don't remember). Then again, the Brana website says serve with game or grilled meat, which suggests something chunkier. It also uses the word "empyreumatique" which was new to me, and I had to look it up (show-off winespeak for the toasty flavours associated with oak, it says here).

One more bottle of Basque wine, this one from the other side of the Pyrenees, On the last day of our holiday we had made the most of our last chance to stock up at a Spanish supermarket. Choosing a last few bottles of wine with no better guidance than whether I liked the label, I picked an elegant little bottle of Beldui txacoli. All the text on the label was in Basque, so there were no clues about how to serve it. Eventually I opened the bottle and tasted it. At cellar temperature it was a little flat, almost musty, and I opened a bottle of red to drink with the chicken. But served chilled to accompany cheese and grapes for dessert, the txacoli's dullness was transformed into a subtle oxidation, an almost sherry-like edge. So that was all right. And oh, look, you can visit the vineyard...
shewhomust: (bibendum)
Pau was one of the fixed points of our itinerary from the start: once, long ago, we had paused there in passing, and now I wanted to know the town better. So we booked ourselves two nights in that very central hotel (this one: business-like but friendly, very reasonable for its position, recommended), and had rather more than a day to look round. I still can't claim to have much sense of the place, no feel for where its centre of gravity is. After an evening and a full day walking around the town, the only note in my diary is the web address of this wine producer: I not only didn't have any recollection of the wine, it wasn't until I found the label stuck to a flyer for the restaurant that I remembered where we'd eaten that night.

Never mind, there are pictures. )
shewhomust: (bibendum)
After our diversion to Gaillac, we returned to the motorway towards Pau, our next destination. Having successfully negotiated the Toulouse ring road, we felt entitled to leave the motorway in search of lunch, so we headed into the next town we came to, which happened to be Muret. Parked, strolled up and down the street considering the options, and settled for Chez Fanny, on a noisy corner by the bridge, giving its pavement tables a fine view of the traffic, the building works, the lethal motorcycles.

The establishment had an old-fashioned vibe: the menu was decorated with stills from the 1932 film. It was old-fashioned enough that when we had finished our first course:


our server, clearing the plates, returned the cutlery to us to eat our main course - in my case, andouillette de canard, accompanied by flat disks of potato and (very well-done, but still tasty) sprouts, the first of the season.

At the next table, between us an the traffic, were two smartly dressed young men: you can just see one of them in the corner of the photo. One sprawled at his ease, talking intently to his phone, while his companion methodically demolished a café gourmand, coffee and three not-so-mini desserts.

Meanwhile, in the background music, a sweet-voiced woman tackled some classic tracks. I was a bit startled to realise she was now singing:
Please allow me to introduce myself:
I'm a man of wealth and fame...
shewhomust: (bibendum)
From Figeac we turned south again: time to pick up the thread of our journey from north to south, from the Channel to the Pyrenees (and beyond, to meet the ferry at Bilbao - but not yet). The road brought us to Penne, a village we first visited on a long ago walking holiday around the Gaillac. What I remenber most vividly is that at the end of a long, hot day, when we could see that we were near our destination, we realised that not only was it a long climb up to the village (the root of the name 'Penne' is the same as the element in 'Pennine' which means 'high, head'), the path was not an easy one, but involved scrambling over rocks up the side of the hill. We emerged, hot and dishevelled, into the main street, and were confronted by our host, M. Lacombe, who ran the village grocery store, and who had come out to look for us. Much has changed since we were last there, but what I remember as the grocery still bears the sign 'Lacombe, Chambres d'hôtes'. There are major restoration works in progress at the castle, which I remembered as a ruin and the site of a son et lumière presentation (of which I remember only that M. Lacombe assured us that there would be no problem finishing dinner before the presentation began, because his son Sebastien was on the sound desk). The archway which led to the square where the local weights and measures were on display was familiar, but the walk around the ramparts was new to me:

Washing line

as was the courtyard with a view out over the hills where we lunched.

All the old towns, say my notes - Bassoues, Montcuq, Puy l'Evêque, Saint-Cirq Lapopie, Figeac - how have they survived? There are always some houses semi-derelict and for sale, and yes, some of the towns are more alive, some quieter and more abandoned, yet here they all are, one after another miraculously preserved.

Not to mention the bastides, which are technically new towns - but new towns built and fortified in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. We spent the night in Castelnau-de-Montmiral ('Castelnau' - that means Newcastle, doesn't it?) where we had a magnificent room at the Hôtel des Consuls (the 'superior room' pictured towards the bottom of the hotel's picture gallery, with its own ante-chamber, and beams everywhere. The hotel is on the arcaded square at the heart of the village:

The square at night

And the following morning we came to Gaillac, to which the same applies, but in red brick.
shewhomust: (bibendum)
And now for something completely different: a holiday post to cheer me up, featuring sunshine, a town which values its historic buildings (including at least one really successful integration of new and old), old buildings which it is not my responsibility to maintain...

A walk round Figeac, with lots of photos )
shewhomust: (bibendum)
As I was saying, the next stage of our French holiday took us through a series of extraordinarily pretty old villages. Here, for example, is Montcuq:

Into the old town

In the Lot valley, at some length )
shewhomust: (bibendum)
I've been posting about last summer's holiday in France all out of order, as it suited me. Time to pick up the threads, and progress a little. Where were we?

We spent two very happy days in Bordeaux, Sunday and Monday. On Tuesday we set off to our rendezvous with Helen, and ran into the transhumance in Saint Justin en route. Wednesday was the day we spent as guests of the Producteurs de Plaimont, learning about the wines of southwest France.

Thursday morning was fresh, bright and clear, and we could see the Pyrenees in the distance as we set off from the Relais du Bastidou. We weren't going that way, yet. Our schedule had brought us further south faster than we would otherwise have travelled; now we wanted to double back, to visit the wines of the Côtes de Brulhois, and maybe of Cahors, too. But first, we wanted to shop for some of the wines we had tasted the previous day. The Cave de Plaisance didn't stock Moonseng, but they did have, newly arrived, partly fermented grape juice from the current harvest ('bourrel?', say my notes, but I can't verify that name), pale and slightly cloudy, sweet but not cloying.

We drove along a ridge road between two green valleys, seeing no vines - but as we rose higher, so did the distant mountains. A signpost pointed to Bassoues reminded us that we had passed this way several times the previous day, so we detoured up to the hilltop village and admired its timber market hall, its quince trees, its 'donjon':


At the time it was a delightful morning's break, one last pleasure offered by a region we were about to leave. In retrospect, it was only the first of a series of beautiful old villages, any one of which would have been an extraordinary survival.

After the previous day's excesses, I wasn't expecting to want much for lunch, but the Routard guide recommended a restaurant, Le Florida in Verduzan, which was pretty much on our way. That recommendation alone was worth the price of the guide book.

Lunch break )

And onwards, through the sunflower aftermath, the single plants self-seeded after the harvest, multiple flowers branching exuberant from the stalk, unconstrained by whatever limits the main crop to a single flat disk per tall stem. A brief stop at the Cave de Donzac, and on to La Borde Grande for the night.
shewhomust: (bibendum)
Since our first day in Bordeaux was a Sunday, it follows that our second day was a Monday. This was not something we had planned; it was a consequence of an assignation in the Gers a couple of days later. Even if we had known that Bordeaux is closed on Monday, we couldn't have rescheduled, and we had a splendid time notwithstanding.

Details. And pictures. )

Could there be a more perfect ending to our first visit to the city of Bordeaux than dinner with friends in their eyrie above the Quais? Good food (the best meal of our holiday so far), good wine, good company, what more could we ask? Fireworks, perhaps? Well, as it happens there were fireworks too, a magnificent display down along the river. The internet claimed that there was a fireworks symposium in town, but we knew that it was really laid on just for us.
shewhomust: (bibendum)
By rights, the next holiday post ought to be about our second day in Bordeaux. But we drank a bottle of Gaillac the other night, and enjoyed it, and wanted to make a note of it, so here's a brief post about Gaillac instead.

It was the briefest of visits: [ profile] durham_rambler has good memories of a walking holiday in the region, and when he saw how close we would pass on our way from A to B (Figeac to Pau, in fact, but that's another story) he demanded a detour to buy some wine. Gaillac has a Maison des Vins, an organisation whose function is to promote the wine produced locally. You'd think this would be usual in a wine-producing area, but no, and it can be quite difficult to get a general idea of what is available: Irouléguy, I am looking at you. In Gaillac you head for the former Abbey of Saint Michel: it's very central, by the river, which is just as well, because the roads into town were busy, and some streets were closed - I was distracted by the site of a tanker parked outside one wine shop, blazoned with the description 'liquide alimentaire' - but we found the abbey (it's quite a landmark) and parking right across the way. Inside, we mooched around and looked at bottles and tried to guess from the labels what we would like - and there were some wines on offer for tasting, too.

I don't think we tasted the Mas de Grouze (it was this one, in fact, although ours was the 2012). So it must have been just luck. I'd have been attracted by the presence of local grapes (braucol and duras) alongside the usual suspects (syrah, merlot and cabernet sauvignon), and the price (5€) made it worth a try - though by this stage I was more concerned about where we would pack all these bottles!

[ profile] durham_rambler didn't think this would be a problem, so I left him to sort it out, and dived into the secondhand bookshop which was having a clearance sale: everything was 60% off, but as soon as you started to look the staff rushed up and warned you not to move anything. This was unnerving, but I still bought several very large and very cheap picture books. And there was enough of our two hours parking left for a quick stroll around town (which was mainly closed, because it was Monday.

Pink umbrellas, red brick

Gaillac was the first place we had seen these pink umbrellas (a regional promotion about screening for breast cancer) and they looked particularly well against the red brick of which the old town is built. We could have stayed a lot longer, but we had to move on. Just one more photo:

shewhomust: (bibendum)
I had thought of Bordeaux as a chilly, elegant city: the wide river lined with gems of classical architecture, the houses - and chais - of affluent wine merchants. For all I know, parts of it are like that, but not the parts we saw. With the help of [ profile] karinmollberg we booked ourselves into the Victoria Garden, which presents itself as a very flash, business-oriented set-up, but - and this may not be true of the rest of the chain - is actually a very comfortable hotel with friendly and helpful staff. It's possible that the rooms which front onto the Cours de la Somme are newer and smarter, but we were at the far end of the courtyard: affordable parking in central Bordeaux, a tree outside our window, no street noise. This placed us in the Quartier Saint Michel, and we didn't stray far from it for the duration of our stay.

Sunday )

And that was our first day in Bordeaux.

ETA 14.08.16: The Guardian travel supplement suggests the Puces Saint Michel as one of the places you might break your journey across France. They are not like us, the people in the travel supplement: I share their desire to break a long motorway journey, but I don't want to break it so thoroughly I can't put it back together again. However: it seems that when you have thoroughly enjoyed the street market, the place to lunch would be Le Passage Saint Michel, and I note this for future reference.

ETA II, 4.06.17: And once again, it's the Guardian travel supplement, this time on Bordeaux's top 10 wine bars. Some of its suggestions are so trendy theyu make my teeth ache, but bar at the Bordeaux Wine Council sounds like a good place to start. And les Carmes de Haut-Brion has as fancy a new cellar as any of those Spanish wineries - not cheap to visit, though as a way to try something outside our usual range, not impossible.
shewhomust: (bibendum)
Given the warnings about rough weather in the Bay of Biscay on the day we were to sail home from Bilbao, we both took seasickness tablets (warning: may cause drowsiness) and, whether for this or other reasons, both dozed through much of the day, in our little cabin full of sunshine.

Our last day in Spain had been heavy and overcast, but naturally the sun came out to let us know what we were leaving behind; we reached Portsmouth under grey skies, and a fine drizzle - ah, England! We spent the morning visiting the Mary Rose in Portsmoth's Historic Dockyard - and stayed altogether too long, and could happily have lingered all day. The museum has conventional galleries displaying a veriety of finds, but the most interesting part is divided in two by a stack of walkways, with windows on one side showing individual areas of the ship, complete with their contents: guns, a great stack of rope, the surgeon's cabin with his chest and jars of who knows what mixtures and remedies. On the other side, openings look out onto the great space of the ship's carcass, her timbers and decks run through with the great snakes of the conservation process - because thirty-odd years since the Mary Rose was raised from the seabed, conservation is still a work in progress, and by the next time we visit Portsmouth will have moved on to the next stage.

After this, the long drive home. Autumn has definitely arrived, and some of the foliage colours lit a flame on the motorway borders; the timing and the clouds conspired to give us a lingering sunset all the way up through Derbyshire and into Yorkshire, rosy and undramatic. Signs threatened a road closure because of floods, but by the time we reached it, the road was open again, so we abandoned our planned diversion and ploughed on into the roadworks. Oh, well...

And now we're home, doing autumnal things: Durham is buzzing with students (every night is party night), there are pumpkins in the shops, and it is Book Festival time. Both suitcases are unpacked and put away, and I can get the lid on the laundry basket. Excelsior!
shewhomust: (dandelion)
We are currently crossing a rather choppy Bay of Biscay.

When we checked in, and presented our ticket, we were asked, as we were on our outbound trip, whether we needed to park adjacent to the lift. We said no, but we know why they offered. The booking form asked whether either of us had any disability, and [ profile] durham_rambler very sensibly replied that he is deaf, and that while his hearing aids mean that, as long as he is wearing them, you wouldn't necessarily notice this, once he has removed them (e.g. overnight) he will not hear you.

In an emergency, you need to know about this disability. But it does not impair his mobility.
shewhomust: (bibendum)
We spent a wonderful day last week in the company of of our friend, wine-writer Helen Savage, as guests of the Producteurs de Plaimont wine co-operative.

Cut for length, wine neepery and the odd picture. )
shewhomust: (bibendum)
There's more to say about today in due course, but right this moment the thing I would like to get off my chest is that halfway round a splendid walk in the wine growing area of Irouléguy my camera decided that it had had enough. If you're reading this, you probably know just how catastrophic this is, but as a reminder, here's a scene from earlier along the route:

The vines of Irouleguy

For whatever reason,the lens has jammed: it's semi-zoomed, and won't retract or function. If provoked, it beeps and says "Lens error, restart camera." Switching it off then on again counts as provocation, and removing the battery doesn't help. The internet suggests that the lens may have been knocked off-centre (which could be the case, although not a recent injury) and that it can be pushed firmly but gently back into alignment (which it can't, or at any rate not by me or [ profile] durham_rambler).

Things could be worse. [ profile] durham_rambler has been very long-suffering about allowing me the use of his camera. And of course my phone is a camera too, because even the most basic model - which this is - has a camera. So this afternoon I took photographs with my phone, until it declared itself full (at 15 photos). This isn't quite the first time I've used the camera function, I tried it out when I first bought the phone, but I never worked out how to get the photos out of the phone and onto a computer. Still, it shouldn't be difficult, should it? I have a cable with a mini-USB connection at one end and a standard USB at the other (it's my Kindle charger, if you're picky) which is what it takes to connect phone and computer; we even, I discover, have Bluetooth. Yet the phone refuses to talk. So all the embarrassment of discovering myself to be, after all, one of those terrible people who photographs her lunch with her phone was in vain.

And it could be worse. I've just realised that in tablet mode, my new toy notebook is a camera...
shewhomust: (bibendum)
We continue to enjoy ourselves visiting and revisiting south-west France. I haven't posted for a day or so for a series of reasons: inconvenience of internet, being caught up in a long post which is still a work in progress, or just doing other things. But I couldn't resist sharing this view from our hotel window:

From my hotel window

We put in some serious motorway driving today, and relocated to Pau, within sight of the Pyrenees. I cannot believe how central our hotel is, overlooking the place Clemenceau with all the fountains (and the underground car park, where we have stashed our car).

And that's all I have to say right now.
shewhomust: (bibendum)
What could have been an agreeable but very bitty day, a day in transit, given focus by serendipity:

We made a leisurely departure from Bordeaux, breakfasting in our little nest at the Victoria Garden, dithering about how to spend the time before we were due at our next destination. Should we explore Bordeaux a little further, maybe the wine merchants' quartier? No, maybe next time. Well, should we detour to Arcachon, and see the seabirds that gather there? But after two glorious days it was raining; besides, time was passing, so maybe not a detour of that length! Eventually we settled on a visit to a supermarket on the ring road to buy fuel and a road atlas, then down the motorway up to a point to be decided, then on the minor roads to our destination, stopping to explore a small town or so.

We would have stopped in Roquefort (as far as I can discover, this isn't that Roquefort, but another town of the same name), but couldn't find anywhere to park. Villeneuve de Marsan seemed promising, and the nice lady at the tourist office (the oldest building in town, and probably the most interesting) gave us a leaflet with a suggested walk. But she was also able to explain a sign we had seen, announcing that the transhumance would pass through the neighbouring village of Saint-Justin this afternoon.

Transhumance we knew: it's the practice of taking the livestock up to the high pastures for the summer months. It seems that there are a pair of shepherds, father and son, who have turned this into an event - La Route de la transhumance: une aventure humaine - visiting a sequence of villages throughout the region where their arrival would be celebrated, mostly in the traditional French way, with a communal meal. We have other plans for this evening, but at least we could watch the arrival of the sheep. So we took the winding country road to Saint-Justin, a drive which would have been worthwhile for its own sake, and then we waited - and waited. This was exactly the kind of bastide town I'd been hoping to visit, so I was happy wandering around with my camera, snooping down alleyways and trying to get entire buildings into shot, watching the group of men who had decided that if the square was standing empty in expectation, then they'd have a game of boules...

And then there was the sound of bells, and the flock flooded in:

Transhumance in Saint-Justin

By the time we had taken all the pictures we could possibly want, it was beginning to rain again, and we dashed for the car and another scenic drive through Armagnac country to the Relais du Bastidou, where we have a date with our friend Helen Savage.
shewhomust: (dandelion)
For the last two days [ profile] karinmollberg has been shepherding us around Bordeaux, showing us her list of things worth seeing, being patient with us when we dashed off down side streets or into shops or down holes in the ground - and when I lagged behind because I had stopped to take a photograph, which was often. I've had a wonderful time, culminating in a gourmet dinner with fireworks, and I look forward to writing all about it with many, many photos. But I think that will have to wait until I have more bandwidth, and better picture-editing software.

While we're waiting, have a book post. I have been reading Sisters of Fortune by Frances McNeil, which will be reissued next summer as Halfpenny Dreams by Frances Brody (the name under which Frances publishes her Kate Shackleton murder mysteries).

Frances is a friend and a client: here's the page I made about the forthcoming reissues for her website. She was kind enough to provide me with a copy of the original edition because I enjoy her writing, so this isn't going to be an unbiaised review. But I wanted to write about the book, because it was such a great read and because I think it deserves a signal boost.

If you followed those links, you'll see that it's being marketed as a saga, a genre which has its readers but probably meets even more snobbery than the crime and F&SF which are my genre staples. It is not a multigenerational family history, it is not sentimental and although it is set in the past (the 1930s) it treats the period with a sharp-eyed sense of history, of how things worked and how people felt about that.

It follows the lives of two girls, who are not in fact sisters. Each of them could be described as a 'daughter of the Bank' Lydia because her mother abandons a repertory theatre company to marry the owner of Thackrey's Bank, Sophie because she lives in the slums of Leeds's Bank district. Their lives too are overshadowed by Thackrey's Bank. Lydia and Rosa narrate alternate chapters, at first as children and then as spirited young women. If you are looking for books with strong female characters in a historical setting, this one is full of them: not only Lydia and Sophie, and her sister Rosa, but Lydia's actress mother Phoebe and her friend Ada, May who runs a second hand shop, even walk-on parts like Rosa's friend Fenella.

Terrible things happen to both Lydia and Sophie, and they are not brushed off lightly. But there's so much verve and so much life in the telling, that the result is not grim and dark. If anything, the sequence of events, one blow after another and the heroines' response to them, has the heightened colour of melodrama - in a good way.

If we must classify books into genres, I can see why both publishers felt that the depiction of life at a certain place and time would appeal to saga readers. If you aren't one of those, consider it as a novel - or maybe a historical novel. But given the strength of characterisation of team Sophie and Lydia, I wonder whether Piatkus considered targeting the Young Adult market - I think it could have great appeal there, too.
shewhomust: (bibendum)
I would have been happy to linger longer in the Marais Poitevin: we were very comfortable at the Hotel du Marais, and enjoyed an after breakfast stroll through Coulon and along the river Sèvre. But we had made other plans, so we set off, at first following the river, which allowed us this glimpse of everyday life and appliance removal in la Venise verte:

La Venise Verte

then onto the more major roads. Fans of French roundabouts will be pleased to hear that someone in the department of Charente Maritime has been commissioning sculptures depicting relevant things on a very large scale: a set of beach umbrellas, deckchairs and a beachball for a seaside (Gironde estuary, in fact, but let's not be picky) location, and three giant pinecones in the woods backing the beach; a pair of giant hands opening an oyster in the fenlands where ostreiculture is practised, and my favourite, a giant hand holding a quill pen. I think it was near the town of Surgères, but if Surgères produced any writer famous enough to justify this tribute, Wikipedia doesn't know about it.

We stopped for lunch at Talmont, a walled town founded by Edward I on a promontory in the estuary. [ profile] durham_rambler and I first visited there long ago (though we disagree about how long) when it was just beginning to emerge from dereliction and decay. Now it is a pretty tourist resort, full of restaurants,and shops offering artisan soaps, shell jewellery and hand-made pottery. It's still full of charm, though, and reminded me of the nearby Ile de Ré:

A street in Talmont

We have a client whose website we have managed since 2008 without ever meeting, who has recently moved to this region,so that was our next stop: a lovely drive through gentle vine-covered hills to the back of beyond, and afternoon tea in the garden under the olive tree. Next stop, the Domaine des Graves d'Ardonneau, as recommended by Helen Savage, because now we are in the Bordelaise and must be serious about wine. Mentioning Helen's name saw us ushered upstairs to taste two white wines (with and without oak; unsurprisingly, we both preferred it without) and three reds. We had arrived towards the end of the day, and the lady who served us had family visiting, but when she started opening the more expensive reds, she called them to join us: "Come upstairs, have a glass of the Grand Vin!" They obeyed, though the men declined to drink red wine as an aperitif and insisted on returning to the white. Conversation became general, but we tried to focus on the wine: we had already tasted a bottle of the Cuvée Tradition which Helen had given us (and that's what we bought a case of, to take home); the Grand Vin was aged in new oak, and had a lovely edge and complexity; the Cuvée Prestige was in theory between the two, but I thought too assertively oaked.

Nothing for it but to trust our satnav to bring us through the complexities of Bordeaux to our hotel, which she did with only a few tantrums on either side. [ profile] durham_rambler has fallen asleep over his book, and [ profile] karinmollberg will be calling for us first thing in the morning: time for bed.
shewhomust: (bibendum)
It's a long time since we visited the Mont Saint Michel, and there have been changes in the interim: not on the Mont itself, but in the way you approach it. I had heard about this, and assumed it was all about relieving the pressure of ridiculous numbers of visitors, but there is more to it than that: the old causeway had been creating a build-up of silt in the bay, which was supporting the spread of vegetation and stabilising the resulting terrain. At this rate the Mont would soon cease to be an island.

So now you park well inland, and either take a free shuttle bus or walk or pay to ride the horse drawn shuttle (they have a name for this, but I've forgotten it). We walked the mile or so, along a track bordered with a forest of fennel, then detoured to admire the dam which regulates the flow of the river Couesnon to clear the sediment from the bay, and incidentally provides a new viewpoint of the Mont rising above the waters of the Couesnon. From here it's an agreeable walk along the causeway, with plenty of photo opportunities as the walkway curves round in the foreground, and the sun comes and goes on the face of the abbey.

The new road to the Mont St Michel

What you can't see in this photo is the young woman who rushed past us, wearing a Mickey Mouse t-shirt and waving her selfie stick, so that she could take a similar shot, but with herself and her friends in front of it.

We walked up the central street, as thronged with tourists and crammed with things for them to buy as it was when we first visited, and presumably for eight centuries before that. We didn't go into the abbey, but veered off at that level for a walk around the ramparts, lost ourselves in a quiet corner but found the way back down to the main drag through an alley that narrowed to such an extent that we took the last ten yards or so sideways. We picked one of the tourist-trap restaurants for lunch, and were impressed to find it skilled at delivering exactly what it promised, a classic 'formule brasserie' served by three tall thin waiters with speed, precision and charm. [ profile] durham_rambler had moules marinières, and pronounced them acceptable; I had the omelette du Mont, as described by Elizabeth David, cooked firm and dry outside, but all soft foam of whipped egg within. This is more palatable than the conventional, runny omelette but sorry, [ profile] desperance, I still prefer my omelettes cooked through.

Time to move on. We've spent all afternoon on the road, heading south. Memorable in a bad way: the Nantes ring road. Hitting it at five o' clock on Friday didn't help, but it was a slow and painful circuit, with only one highlight, the first sighting of a vineyard this trip. Memorable in a good way: after a shower, driving through the edges of the Vendée accompanied by rainbows: full arches, almost horizontal swathes high in the clouds, bright little stubs, hazy remnants, double bows, one stretch that seemed wide enough to work through the statutory seven colours and start again...

We are spending the night at the Hôtel au Marais in Coulon, near Niort, and very happy to be here.

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