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Going Native in the Midi-Pyrenees: Nikki's trip report

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Sep 12th, 2007, 03:44 AM
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Going Native in the Midi-Pyrenees: Nikki's trip report

In August, I spent two weeks at a house exchange in the foothills of the Pyrenees with my husband and two daughters. I had fantasized for years about exchanging our house for one in the South of France, but this opportunity just fell into my lap when I saw a notice on an internet message board.

After a year and a half of discussion and planning, we were ready to go. My husband and I spent a week before the exchange in Portugal and Spain, and I have written about that portion of our trip here:

http://www.fodors.com/forums/threads...2&tid=35062668.

Photos from France are posted here:

http://www.kodakgallery.com/I.jsp?c=...&x=0&y=-57syru
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Sep 12th, 2007, 03:46 AM
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After spending a week traveling in Portugal and Spain, my husband and I flew from Madrid to Toulouse on August 17. Our two daughters had arrived in Toulouse from Boston earlier that evening. We met them at the Hotel Albert 1er, where we were all spending the night. Our double room was nice enough, with a large new bathroom, but when I woke up the jet-lagged girls and saw their room, I wanted to switch. They had a beautiful big room with two beds, great tall windows facing the street, and a large fireplace with a mirror over it. I actually went to the desk and asked whether there was another room like that one available, but the desk clerk informed me that our room was actually one of the nicer ones in the hotel and that they were full for the night.

I paid 85 euros for each of the rooms, booking through the hotel’s website, www.hotel-albert1.com. I had chosen this hotel based on its location near the Place du Capitole, figuring that we could walk there when we arrived late in the evening and find a place for supper. So that’s what we did. We chose one of the several cafes surrounding the large square and sat outside, eating a somewhat un-French meal for our first night in France: pizza for some and paella for others.

Two women at the next table were eating a terrific looking ice cream concoction, so my daughter and I followed their lead and ordered a dish I believe was called something like super-choco. Ahh.

The next morning my husband and older daughter walked to the train station to pick up our rental car. Two hours later, when they had not returned, the desk clerk offered to call the rental office to see if they had gotten there. Oh yes, they left an hour and a half ago with the car. I called on my cell phone and found out they had been driving around Toulouse all that time trying to find the hotel, which was on a street that was blocked by some construction. They were three blocks away, at the Place du Capitole.

The desk clerk gave my husband directions on the phone. A half hour later they still had not arrived. I called again and was told they had parked the car at the Place du Capitole and were walking to the hotel. When they arrived shortly thereafter, the looks on their faces made me refrain from asking any questions. We hauled our suitcases to the garage under the Place du Capitole and drove to the exit.

The way out of the garage led past automatic machines for payment by credit card. My heart sank, knowing that our US credit cards lacked the chip that would make them work. So we backed away from the exit and drove around the garage until we found an office with a person working in it and paid in cash. An inauspicious beginning to our stay in France. But it was about to get much better.
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Sep 13th, 2007, 01:06 AM
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I had printed directions to our destination from the website www.mappy.com. The directions included a note that there was a speed camera at a certain point on the autoroute. Very useful information. We slowed down (along with everyone else on the road) and saw the camera as we passed it, feeling very smug. Ha. We would be repaid for that smugness later on.

When we left the autoroute, shortly before the city of Tarbes, we had our first confusing moments. We couldn’t locate the road indicated in the owner’s directions to the house and made a wrong turn. Seeing a sign pointing toward a town I knew was in the right general direction, we started down a series of smaller and smaller country roads that did eventually get us where we were going, but that were not exactly the direct route.

When we did find the tiny hamlet that contained our house, I was surprised to find that it was on a fairly major road for the area. Neither my map nor the owner’s directions had made that clear. But it made getting around a lot easier than I had feared from our initial approach on narrow roads through the cornfields, over the hills, and around tiny country churches with enormous crucifixes.

We did find the house and it was wonderful. A 200-year-old manor house at the top of a hill with a big in-ground swimming pool and huge stone fireplaces. You wouldn’t think we’d need the fireplaces in the South of France in August, but you’d be wrong.

We dropped off our bags and drove to the nearest town, Trie sur Baise. It was Saturday, and we figured we’d better shop in case stores were closed Sunday. It turned out that things were open Sunday morning also. But it was bustling in Trie Saturday afternoon. The town is a bastide, as are many in the area. The streets are laid out in a grid and there is a central square with a church and an old covered market. The shops are all arranged around the central square.

We visited the butcher, the baker and the produce store. At the butcher, when I attempted to pay with my credit card, there was a period of confusion while the butcher and the woman who worked in the shop tried to get the US card to work in the machine. They were clearly unfamiliar with the swipe type of credit card. American visitors are evidently fairly rare here.

While the people in the shop were being confused by our credit card, we were being confused by the meat. The cuts were almost all different from the ones at a US meat counter. So between my far-from-perfect French and the unfamiliarity of the items on display, I felt like it was an accomplishment to walk away with our veal chops, burgers, pate, and saucisson. At the boulangerie, we stood and gawked at the selection of bread loaves before selecting one as well as a tarte aux pommes. The shop girl found us amusing.

Armed with the supplies for dinner, we then stopped at the supermarket on the outskirts of the town. Back to the house to put everything away and to have our first French supper prepared on the grill. With all our goodies, I felt like a kid in a candy shop deciding which ones to put out. By the time we got to the apple tart, I was in “pinch me, I must be dreaming” mode. And soon it was time to start dreaming for real.
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Sep 13th, 2007, 03:37 AM
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Good starts so far. I can't wait to find out if the rest reads more like "Babes in Toyland" or "Babes Lost in the Woods."
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Sep 13th, 2007, 03:46 AM
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hi, nikki,

looks like some of your research here paid off.

looking forward to the rest of your report,

regards, ann
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Sep 13th, 2007, 04:28 AM
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Kerouac, oh, so you've met my daughters.

Ann, yes, thank you for the recommendation for Hotel Albert 1er. Not sure my husband would thank you though, since construction on that street made it so confusing to access that he gave up trying to drive there from the train station after trying for two hours.
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Sep 13th, 2007, 04:39 AM
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This is great! Do you have a link to the rental house so we can get an idea?
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Sep 14th, 2007, 01:16 AM
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While I stayed at the house as part of an exchange, it is also available for rental at www.frenchescape.net.
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Sep 14th, 2007, 04:44 AM
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On Sunday morning we went back to Trie to shop, just because we could. There are at least two butchers and three bakers, and we hadn’t been to all of them the first day. After lunch we headed out with the maps and the guidebooks in search of the Grotte de Gargas.

Navigation was a bit awkward because it took us time to figure out that a road shown on our map as N117 was actually called D817 on the signs. We went around a few traffic circles several times before we caught on. When we arrived at the Grotte de Gargas without reservations, we had to wait an hour for a tour and ended up on the last tour of the day. All tours were given in French only.

By the time our guide arrived, it had started to rain. We climbed up a fairly steep path to the entrance of the cave and then filed in. This is a cave with prehistoric art. There are some engravings of animals, but the most visible form of art is a remarkable collection of hands stenciled on the walls by prehistoric artists, who blew powdered ochre and charcoal onto the walls around their hands to create the outlines. Many of the hands have missing or partially missing fingers, and there have been many theories proposed to explain this. Evidently this is one of only two caves in which hands are missing fingers in this manner, although many caves have painted hand stencils (we saw some at Pech Merle two years ago).

Scientists have considered whether the prints are of hands that were mutilated either through disease or some form of ritual, but a more current theory is that the prints portray a form of sign language. No way to know for sure, of course.

There were several young children on our tour, one of whom cried and screamed continuously. I was already straining to understand the French guide and translate for my family, and the noise made it more difficult. But the total experience was very positive. Being in the presence of the creative works of people who lived up to 30,000 years ago gives one a sense of perspective and of awe.

We drove back to the house for another dinner on the grill chez nous. Restaurants in the countryside are sparse, and few if any are open Sunday night. But the amazing fruit, vegetables, meat, bread, and wine all originating within a small radius of where we were consuming them made eating at home a great pleasure.
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Sep 15th, 2007, 06:51 PM
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Monday’s excursion took us in a new direction. We were hunting for Gallo-Roman towers scattered throughout the countryside. According to my guidebook, Cadogan guides Gascony & the Pyrenees, these towers are especially dense in the Gers departement, in the valley of the Baise River. They are about thirty feet tall, and most have niches for statues.

We found one in a cornfield next to the Baise, across the river from a pretty old mill, near the village of Biran. There was no marker and no clearing from which to view the tower. There were ditches alongside the road and a farmer working in the field. So we stopped in the road (not a whole lot of traffic there) and took pictures. The tourist information provided by Les Amis du Vieux Biran says this tower is known as la Turraque in Gascon and dates from the end of the first century.

There was a sign in the road pointing to a twelfth century church. We followed the road a short way and came upon the church, but it appeared to be surrounded by private property, and as we drove up the driveway, a curious dog followed us. It wasn’t clear that we were supposed to stop there, so we did not get out and explore further.

We drove on to the village of Biran, a one street fortified hill town known in Occitan as a castelnau. We went inside the church to look at its huge carved stone altarpiece and to get out of the rain. There is a square tower remaining from the ruined castle, and a round tower attached to a fifteenth century manor house, or gentilhommiere.

We drove from Biran toward Auch and visited the cathedral there. The gorgeous stained glass in the cathedral was created by the French artist Arnaut de Moles in the sixteenth century. Even though it was cloudy and gray outside, the color of the windows was bright and intense. After admiring the set of windows, we went inside the choir stalls, an enclosure in the center of the cathedral, which required a small admission charge. There is an amazing amount of detail in the over 1500 carved wooden figures inside. The wood was soaked in water for fifty years before carving in order to harden it and preserve it. The technique seems to have worked; according to the tour guide, in 500 years there has never been any maintenance required for the wood other than dusting it.

The road from Auch was a bigger one than the country roads we had been traveling on, and as we cruised along heading for home, a bright light flashed. Oops. This is how we learned that those speed cameras aren’t just on the autoroutes.
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Sep 15th, 2007, 07:11 PM
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Am loving this, Nikki. And I never knew the origin of the word castelnau, so thanks for that!
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Sep 15th, 2007, 07:58 PM
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I'm excited about this report as well. I'm considering a home rental in the Basque area for next year.

We just returned from a trip that included a home rental outside Bordeaux. So far, your experiences (and even the photos of the home) are strikingly similar to ours. I'm looking forward to more. Thanks for posting.
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Sep 16th, 2007, 05:38 AM
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Enjoying reading your report. Thanks.
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Sep 16th, 2007, 06:06 AM
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Tuesday was market day in Trie. It was raining, and the vendors seemed somewhat sparse, or at least there were fewer than I expected. I wondered whether there were more when the weather was better. But there was more than enough for sale to fill a couple big market baskets to take home, and to provide a fertile ground for photography. One stand was selling four or five varieties of melons. I can still taste them as I write this. There was a truck selling cheese, and the vendor there was cheerfully giving out wonderful samples to all passers-by. It worked on me; I’ll take a chunk of each one please. I took a pass on the chevaline truck though.

After lunch we headed out in a new direction with the goal of touring vineyards in the Madiran wine region. We got a bit turned around in Artagnan and found ourselves once again on back roads through the corn fields for much of the trip, which made the drive a longer one than necessary. No musketeers came to our aid, but we crossed and re-crossed the Adour River and found our way in the driving rain through villages with water running along both sides of the road.

By the time we started seeing grape vines alongside the road, the rain had stopped. We followed signs and drove around for a while deciding where to stop for tastings. Our first stop was at the Laplace vineyard at Chateau d’Aydie. The three wine drinkers of the family sampled and chose a couple bottles for purchase while I took photos of the beautiful grounds and of the workers trimming the vines. The host in the tasting room was a serious, picturesque fellow whose portraits graced the walls.

My older daughter, who has toured vineyards in California, was surprised and delighted to find that here the tastings were free. However, my husband found that these free tastings ended up being fairly costly because after the effort the wine makers put into welcoming you and providing all these samples, you felt obligated to buy something at each stop.

After visiting a second vineyard, we had a few bottles to take home, and my husband wanted to stop with that. But we were having fun and wanted to see more and so he was outvoted. We stopped at Domaine Pichard and the host poured several samples. The Madiran wines are all red, and are distinguished by a large percentage of tannat grapes. But there is also a white wine produced in the region, Pacherenc du Vic Bilh, and the host here told us that it is customary to drink this with foie gras. So we ended up buying some of that also. And then the host threw in a free, unlabeled bottle for us to try at home.

I love the French.
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Sep 16th, 2007, 06:12 AM
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Nikki, please tell me about the unusual orange creature in the photo! I am loving this report. Was the house pretty and comfortable on the inside?
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Sep 16th, 2007, 06:52 AM
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Thanks for the comments; they are much appreciated.

StCirq, I got my information about castelnau from the web site of Les Amis du Vieux Biran (http://tinyurl.com/yuvza4).

ekscrunchy, an observant reader has informed me that the creature is "an ordinary slug," although it doesn't look ordinary to me. In French it is evidently known as une limace.

My husband at first thought it was a ceramic garden ornament. Then it moved.

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Sep 16th, 2007, 07:06 AM
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I thought it was a slipper!!! Really weird!!

So..more about the hosue inside, please...
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Sep 16th, 2007, 09:32 AM
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We drove home and I forced my husband against his will to agree to go out for dinner. We had eaten at home the first three nights and I was ready to go to some local restaurants. I pointed out that I had no complaints about his abilities as a grill chef, but after all we were in France, and we didn’t get to go to restaurants in France very often.

We ran into difficulties finding a place that was both nearby and open. We ended up at a restaurant at a hotel in Trie. I was happy enough with my meal, since if I’m eating duck confit I’m going to be pretty happy no matter what. But my husband was not happy with his meal so the evening was not a success. We would have better luck later on though; we just had to learn that spontaneous meals in the immediate vicinity were not necessarily the best choice.

Our evenings in the house were mostly spent reading. I was fixated on reading guides and maps of the area and planning our excursions, but everyone else went through an enormous quantity of books. The house had two very large living rooms, only one of which we ever used. Both were furnished with comfortable sofas and we made a fire in the huge stone fireplace because it was really chilly in the house. We could have turned on the heat, but that seemed so odd in August in the South of France and the fireplace was so much more atmospheric. My husband spent much of each night sleeping on the sofa because it was so comfortable that he fell asleep reading.

The house was so very attractive, and on such a grand scale, that my husband’s comment on arrival (other than that we had gotten the better end of the house exchange) was that he expected the local peasantry to come batter down the doors and windows and revolt against us.

It was pointed out to him that the French revolution took care of most of that sort of thing quite some time ago.

In addition to the living rooms, the first floor had a dining room and a large, well-equipped eat-in kitchen. There were laundry facilities and a ping pong table in an area which must have been the barn. Two half baths downstairs, one off the kitchen and one off one of the living rooms.

Upstairs there were five bedrooms and three baths, one of which was inside the master bedroom along with two sinks. Clearly this place was much too big for us, and we thought it would be a great house for a much larger group. Lots of party potential. The beds were all new. There was also a small living room with television and computer upstairs.

This is a two-hundred-year-old house, so there are floors, stairs, and walls at all sorts of odd angles, with steps going into and out of rooms. Lots of woodwork throughout. Lots of character. And a resident dormouse population that can be heard scrambling about above the ceilings and between the walls, especially at night. We learned all about dormice from a book on the subject that we found in the living room. And our older daughter caught a glimpse of one when it scampered through her room one night. I am told that hasn’t happened before.

But we’re used to this aspect of country life. We caught a plumber once in a mousetrap at our house on the Cape.
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Sep 16th, 2007, 11:36 AM
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Wednesday morning a blazing sun was shining into our bedroom window. Excited by the possibility of a warm, dry day, I got up early. The peaks of the Pyrenees were visible through the window for the first time since we arrived.

By the time anybody else was up, the sun was gone. We never saw the Pyrenees from the house again. The rest of my family probably thinks I was hallucinating.

I had not yet driven our car in France. It had been decades since I had driven a car with standard transmission. But this morning I decided to take the plunge, and I brought our older daughter along as a guinea pig to go to the bakery in Trie.

A word about topography. A glance at the area on Google Earth shows that North of the A64 autoroute there are many ridges extending northward from the Pyrenees like fingers. Separating these ridges are slivers of flat land with cultivated fields. Local roads that go in a North-South direction are fairly flat, bordered for the most part by cornfields. But roads that go from East to West go over the ridges on winding roads with impatient drivers behind you.

There was only one of these ridges to cross between our house and Trie. I only stalled about three times trying to get out of the steep driveway from our house to the road. Once on the road, I was fine, probably shifted later than I should have going up the hill, but we made it to the bakery without incident.

While in Trie, my daughter decided to get a haircut. A morning of bold decisions all around. I needed to accompany her to tell the hairdresser what she wanted done. Although my daughter took French in school for five years, she feels unable to use it at all. Neither one of us remembers the chapter in her book about hairdressing vocabulary, although we both remember that there was such a chapter.

The first beauty parlor we looked at had people waiting. We walked to another one, where there was a woman all alone. We went in and asked if my daughter could get her hair cut. The woman said yes, but that it would be done by a man who was walking in. He started putting on an apron and asked what she wanted. I quickly ran out of words and started pulling up my own hair to show the idea of layers. Her hair is long, my hair is short, but somehow he got the concept.

The haircut came out great. The hairdresser said she really needed it. He said she looked “plus mignonne”. I had to agree. I think he said that layering is called “dégradé”.

I think I only stalled a couple times getting out of the parking lot and made it back to the house without annoying too many drivers. Emboldened by my success, I decided to drive both girls to Tarbes after lunch for some shopping. Tarbes is the nearest city, but we had not been there yet. The road to Tarbes went over several ridges, punctuated by several flat stretches. My younger daughter told me I seemed calmer than I am when my husband drives. Well, appearances can be deceiving.

But we got to Tarbes and found a place to park and started to explore. I went into an antiques shop and the girls went off in search of more interesting fare. We met up a short while later and I heard the sound of a piano coming from inside the large market building. We investigated and found that there was a band setting up for a performance in the tango festival that was going on all week.

While the band rehearsed, I stayed to listen and the girls headed off to shop. They came back and told me they had found a street with lots of promising shops, so we walked back there together and I browsed in a bookstore until I was summoned to come pay for some purchases. I could hardly deny them a new sweater for one and a jacket for the other; after all, we had not packed appropriately for this cold, rainy weather. As for me, I had brought only one long sleeved shirt, and I had worn it every day since arriving in France.

The stores were all starting to close, so we walked back to our car and drove home. I really wanted to go out for a nice restaurant meal, but at this point I had reached planning breakdown. The few very local restaurants I tried to call were closed. So we got in the car and drove back to Tarbes.

We ended up at a place we all liked a lot called Aux Tables d’Antan on the Place de Verdun in the center of Tarbes. We arrived after 9 PM, and the waitress had to find out whether they would still serve us. Dinner here is eaten earlier than we had become accustomed to in Spain and Portugal. This restaurant served very hearty regional fare in large portions. As we finished at around 11 PM, our waitress put on a helmet and went out to her motorbike to drive home. There is a website for the restaurant at www.aux-tables-d-antan.fr.
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Sep 16th, 2007, 01:17 PM
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I am enjoying this so much!!! Although I promised myself I would set aside today to pack for my own trip coming up, I am staying glued to the screen to read the installments...sounds like a great trip!!
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