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Trip Report: Dordogne, Bordeaux, Chaumont, Paris

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This is the French part of my trip reports. Readers of the Italian part (type Faenza in the search box to find it) may be aware that we were in Switzerland, but since it was a family visit, there is little for us to report in regard to tourism except that Lucerne is a nice town, food prices are outrageous, and the Alpine scenery to and from Lucerne is gorgeous. From Lucerne we went to Annecy to see some friends overnight. From there we took secondary roads with very nice scenery to go to the Dordogne. The trip took us two full days, with an overnight stop in Florac. We used the Michelin Red Guide for our hotel and meal--I believe that the hotel is also listed in Logis de France. The room was fine, nothing to write home about. The Gorges du Tarn are very nice, quite steep and represent slow travel. What amazed us were the terraced hillside that were obviously farmed in times past. We stopped in Ste. Enimie and visited this plus beaux village de France and then stopped farther down the road where picnic table were available to have our picnic from items purchased in Florac. Ste. Enimie is very picturesque, but I wonder what the residents do in the winter. It seemed to have a residential college (secondary school), but not much else, and its agricultural base has disappeared since the terraced slopes are no longer farmed. But I do not wish it the good old days, because it must have been a miserable village at that time. Then we drove straight to the Dordogne, by-passing Millau, stopping in Cahors for a coffee and arriving at our destination in the early evening. Anyone who plans to do a one day drive from the Dordogne to the Provence should simply abandon the idea of sight-seeing and take the autoroute as much as possible.

We settled down in the house in the Dordogne, calling the various contractors who have been doing repairs, upgrades or might be involved in anticipated repairs. For those dreaming of a summer house in a foreign countryside, remember that do-it yourself is more difficult unless you are willing to put out a considerable outlay for tools from the very beginning; besides, constructions codes are not the same, nor construction methods. For example, I know how to sweat copper joints, but in France the plumbers do not use connectors between tubes, rather they expand one end of the tubing, stick the other tube in and use copper wire with an acetylene torch to sweat the joint. Home Depot type places do exist; one is called Brico Dépot and has the exact same layout as Home Depot. But generally you need to rely on local plumbers, roofers, carpenters, etc. and unless you are fluent in the language, communication can be a real problem. And of course, their busy season is when you will tend to need them also. Our house is in the middle of a half hectare field, so that the grass is cut by a local farmer who needs the hay. We also have the semblance of a lawn in the immediate perimeter of the house cut by someone else. Such arrangements require local connections which we fortunately have. A humorous note: Earlier this year I received a 14 euro check from the French government for my crop losses due to last year's drought.

Shortly after settling in we had the visit of a European friend who lives in the States. He came for a long weekend, and we squeezed in as much as possible to give him a taste of the Périgord. We picked him up at the Thiviers train station and from there went to St. Jean de Côle for a coffee and something to eat. We visited the old church and the old bridge, and then drove to Hautefort to see the Medicine Museum, which he found very interesting. From there we went home. On Saturday we took him to the Périgueux market (I prefer it to Sarlat), and then drove to Bourdeilles. We picnicked on the terrace above the chateau, and I suggested the tour of the chateau, but he declined. We walked around town, across the old bridge and along the river, and then went to Brantôme. Visited that town and the church and then went home. The next day we went to Montignac and made reservations for the 11 o'clock English tour of Lascaux II, and had enough time to visit St. Amand de Coly. He liked St. Amand and was very impressed by Lascaux II. We went on to Sarlat, with lunch at the Auberge de Mirandol--he could not believe the price-- (type Mirandol in the search box for a description of the menu), and then walked off the lunch by walking around the town. Sarlat, Domme and La Roque-Gageac which we visited later that day disturbed him greatly by their pristine museum quality. They represented towns that were turned into something that they had never been, and seemed to clearly reflect bourgeois values that excluded the lower classes. I agree with him when it comes to the "frozen" aspect of these towns--un des plus beaux villages could turn out to be a curse on the French countryside in the long run and my wife and I are amused by the flower ratings of the towns--but I suspect that the lower classes aspire to the same bourgeois values even if they can't afford them. At any rate, tourism is what keeps these towns alive and tourists really do not want to smell the barnyards when they walk through a village. I have heard that farm animals may no longer be taken down the main street of a village, but must go directly from the barn to the fields. I can attest to the fact that cow and sheep dung has disappeared from my hamlet. It also used to have one swimming pool 20 years ago, installed by "crazy" non-French residents, and that now has 9 for a population of 95. They also installed street lights and put all the wires underground, yet there is truly absolutely nothing that will attract the tourist to this location. The hamlet has been affected by nimbyism in that one of the local recent residents (last 5 years) has been a strong advocate of forbidding construction around the core of the town to maintain its traditional appearance.

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    After two weeks in the country, my wife felt a need to see a large city. We took a long weekend to Bordeaux and loved it. Visually the city is impressive, as there are no buildings aside from traditional spires that exceed the 4 story limit of eighteenth century construction. The waterfront is in the process of being redone, but until it is finished, it provides the cheapest long term parking close to the center of Bordeaux. It is on the downstream side of the bridge. We stayed at the Opera Hotel, which is fine as long as it is not too hot (98.60 euros $120.74). The rooms have no air-conditioning, it is centrally located and therefore noisy if you keep the window open. But the location was perfect: 5 minutes from the Ste. Catherine walking street which I consider the spine of old Bordeaux and around the corner from the Allée de Tourny. The Allée is a large square which is turned into a food "festival" in the summer time. The food is not upscale but good as long as one stays with the plain and simple--moules frites was our choice. Bordeaux is a waling town, full of late 18th century and early 19th century buildings. For us, the most interesting area was between the avenue Victor Hugo and the Basilique St. Michel because it has not been renovated. It is a predominantly North African neighborhood with the street life that this implies. (Note for Internet users: The avenue Victor Hugo spreads out into a small square, more like an intersection of non-parallel streets just before the porte Bir-Hakeim. In that area, on the St. Michel side, there is a store front that advertises and offers internet connections.) While walking and photographing in that neighborhood and man stopped to talk to us. He explained that the second (American) floor of a particular building actually had the Gothic pillars of the remains of the convent supporting his living room ceiling while the exterior was 18th/19th century. He also said that the houses was full of rotting original wood paneling that had never been maintained and is slowly disappearing. We found the Quartiers des Chartrons (starred by Michelin) less interesting, perhaps because we were there on a weekend. But the public gardens are wonderful, and a good location for picnicking. A Sunday must is a visit to the market near the warship the Jean Bart. Oysters and other seafood is available for a snack or even a lunch, with a stand selling wine by the glass across the aisle. One can sit at their table and eat the bread, cheese, charcuterie or seafood that was purchased elsewhere. A very pleasant way to spend an hour or so if the weather is nice. The Musée d'Aquitaine is interesting, and tucked away in different areas are modern architectural curiosities. There is a food convention center in the Chartrons district, an enclosed market near the allée de Tourny, and a strange silo like complex of courtrooms in the cité judiciaire. None of them destroy the Bordeaux skyline, although some might argue that they nonetheless do not fit in the neighborhood. Wine lovers can visit various wine shops, some of them with tasting, near the Grand Théâtre. One is right next to the Hotel Opéra, but was unfortunately closed on Mondays, so we went across the square in front of the Grand Théâtre to a shop called l'Intendance. I like my wine, but make no pretension of being a true connoisseur. So I simply asked for a wine I could bring to friends who appreciate wines but without trying to impress them. They sold me a Côte de Bourg that my friends said--perhaps out of politeness--was very good. The building of l'Intendance is something to see. The outside is 18th century Classical style, but the inside is a circular stone tower with a good part of their collection lined along the walls of the tower. I wondered if the the higher one went, the higher the prices. The one negative comment about Bordeaux: People who complain about dog droppings in Paris have seen nothing. Paris makes a conscious effort of cleaning up and asking owners to clean up. We saw no evidence of that in Bordeaux and it shows.

    From Bordeaux we went back home via Cognac, stopping by several small towns on the way to Cognac to visit their Romanesque churches. Chadenac was the most impressive and is a must for anyone visiting the area (Google Chadenac if interested). Cognac is disappointing as a town. It has a large old center which is fairly dead. We found one café. Upon leaving town we came upon the main square outside the old town where most of town life seems to exist. We tasted some cognac, bought a bottle, and went home. While I am happy with my purchase, I suspect that a cognac connoisseur would visit cognac producers in outlying small towns unless he wanted to stick to the famous brands.

    We took one other excursion while in the Dordogne, which was a trip to Cadouin, Belvès and Monpazier. Cadouin is very interesting, and I like the idea that the hostel section of the monastery has been returned to its old function by becoming a youth hostel. The restoration is, in other words, intelligent. We also found an English potter who does very nice work and whose prices are not excessive. In Belvès we picked up a few excellent apéritif based on fruit and walnut flavors, all hand-crafted by a small producer (I took seven bottles of various wines and alcohols back to the States, wrapping them in bubble wrap and held together by a filet which was my carry-on luggage), most of it unfortunately already consumed. We were familiar with Monpazier, but always enjoy that town. I had an interesting discussion with a antique book dealer whose store is on the square when I remarked that the translation of Sir Walter Scott's complete works had a publication date that preceded his death. We picked up a rotisserie chicken from the local butcher, knowing that we would get home late and would not be in the mood to cook, paid 15 euros for it, but he could give us the name of the woman who had raised the chicken and it did last for 4 meals.

    On our way back to Paris we stopped in La Borne, near Henrichemont, to visit a friend. La Borne is a potters' community. Anyone interested in modern potting, as distinct from getting traditional pottery as found in Quimper or Gien, should stop there. The only épicerie in town is also a very nice restaurant. From La Borne we went to Chaumont to see the annual garden festival at the chateau. It was very stormy, with thunder showers rolling through, which was not the best time for garden viewing. Nonetheless, I strongly recommend a visit to these annual show to anyone who happens to be in the area. This year's theme was chaos, and not all exhibits were clearly connected to the theme, some of them were tiré par les cheveux. Two stood out as literal representations of the theme: one was a garden built in the midst of a giant pick-up sticks game, and the other one consisted of two or three rows of pillars which were breaking up the more one advanced into the garden with plants becoming more and more profuse, including, if I remember correctly, brambles. In one exhibit the plants were the order in chaos, and in the other one, they were the chaos taking over the order. We left for Paris around 4 and did not get to our friends' house until 8, with the last 70 km. taking 2 hours. The next day we returned the car and relied mainly on public transportation for the rest of our stay. We visited the passages, St. Denis (interesting, but not a first choice if you have not yet seen Notre Dame, Ste. Chapelle and other interesting churches in Paris), les puces (having never been, c'était mon dépucelage), the Luxembourg exhibit on self portraits, Le Corbusier's Villa La Roche (and the neighborhood around it, including a Guimet building on the Ave. Mozart) and his Villa Savoye in the suburbs, Conflans and a return trip to the Musée d'Orsay. Our final evening in Paris was Bastille Day, and we saw the fireworks from behind the Trocadéro. Our return flight was delayed for an hour, our connecting flight was moved up one hour, so we were placed on the next flight. The luggage did make it with us, but US Airways was so uncommunicative that we did not expect the luggage to be automatically sent on the next flight, nor did we fully expect to have a seat on that flight. The food was overall horrible--we always fly steerage.

    Eating: The Florac hotel had a restaurant for which Michelin had a on mange bien icon and we made the mistake of thinking that we might be interested in more than the basics. The basics might be satisfactory, ordering from the carte was a mistake because the considerably higher prices were not justified by the quality. Lesson learned: If Michelin thinks that you can get a meal at a good price, take that meal, don?t assume that the chef will be able to provide a good price to quality ratio beyond the Michelin recommendation.

    I have written about the Auberge de Mirandol elsewhere (type Mirandol in the search box), and still feel that it is one of the best buys available. However, I would not order steak from them, which looked suspiciously like the steack semelloïde of Roland Barthes' Steack et frites. I would stick to the Périgourdin, aware that what the restaurant offers is not haute cuisine. Similar to the Auberge de Mirandol, with the same price structure, is La Bedaine which has a more pleasant terrace dining area.

    Another nice find was the Vieille Auberge in St. Geniès. The garden overlooks the stone roofs of the church, the food is good. It is a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours. The menus start at 16 euros.

    We had a birthday meal at the Moulin de l'Abbaye in Brantôme. Lovely setting by the water, but I would not have been half as pleased if I had to sit inside, and a very good meal (241 euros, $296). But as my wife pointed out, for another $100 you can get a incomparably better meal and wine at the Herb Farm in Seattle. As far as I am concerned, it is nice to go to a fairly fancy restaurant (neither ties nor jackets were de rigueur), but one goes because it is the occasion to go, not because that restaurant is necessarily a destination. For destinations, one can stay in the States. But I have never experienced a three star restaurant, and besides, I clearly prefer interesting bistro cooking.

    We went back to Hercule Poireau in Périgueux. We had fond memories of a good meal there 4 years ago. Alas, they upscaled themselves, and we feel that it is somewhat overpriced (134.40 euros $164.86). The atmosphere is nice, in a vaulted cellar close to the cathedral, there is nothing objectionable about the food, and I would not hesitate to recommend it to the person who wants a dependably good meal experience, but I do not need to go back.

    In Bordeaux we picnicked for lunch, snacked at the Sunday market, had one dinner on the allée de Tourny as mentioned above, and splurged at La Tupinade. Their web page gives a rave review of their roast chicken. I preferred something more adventurous. I had calf kidney which was a grilled entire calf kidney cooked to perfection (rosé) presented on the plate bare. It was absolutely delicious. We had a couple of amuse bouches before that, one of which was the best andouillette, again plain grilled, that I ever had, and the first one was a variety of their charcuteries. Diners next to us ordered steak, and the waiter presents them the raw steak for their approval, and then takes it back to the kitchen for cooking. The cost is by weight, and I suspect that this would be the one place that might be able to prove that French beef is as good as American beef. On the Place du Parlement--I believe--there is a very good breakfast café, right next to a bakery, but the café's baked goods don't come from there and are better.

    In La Borne we invited our friend our to dinner to the only place available: the local épicerie/restaurant (65 euros $81.45 for three). Good food, good local wine. Maybe the company changes the atmosphere, but I would not hesitate to go back there. The salads had a nice touch of Indian spices, the magret was perfectly cooked, nothing pretentious about the place unless one wants to see a sort of reverse snobbism in its plainness.

    In Paris we ate in various places, mostly with friends. We had the best cassoulet I remember at a friend's house. We warned him that a neighbor in the Dordogne had given us a confit de cannette entière that we were bringing back to Paris and that he would have to construct a meal around it. So he did a modified cassoulet with fresh white beans, Toulouse sausage and a pig's foot, to which he added the canette for the final cooking. It will be my benchmark. We saw the July 13 suburban fireworks from a friend's top floor terrace, eating foie gras and then a nice big refreshing salad of anything and everything al fresco. Our Bastille Day evening meal was in an apartment in the 16ième, a simple meal of roast beef, the meat fitting the surroundings, but not for public consumption. We did have a few restaurant meals. One in Conflans was forgettable. The others were in the Gourmet de l?Ile (66 euros $82.74), which offered a decently priced meal but clearly oriented towards the tourist wandering in that part of the Ile St. Louis, and the Café l?Industries (75.80 euros $95.09 for three)--the name bothers me as grammatically off: Café de l'Industrie? or Café des Industries? and yet the credit card reads as first written--which is an in place for a young crowd. It is noisy but the food is good, although not particularly cheap for what it is. We met a friend at Le Rostand, opposite the Jardin du Luxembourg. Prices are high for what you get, but we were there for the conversation, not the food, yet it was lunch time.

    This is the end of my reports of this summer's travels. For photos, not yet completely organized, give me an e-mail by replying to this post. Specify your interest, and I'll edit the photos accordingly.

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    Thanks for the report Michael.

    I enjoyed reading about Bordeaux as I'll be there in December. If you don't mind I'd like to see photos from Bordeaux.

    The e-mail adress next to my name is valid. Thanks!

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    Interesting report, thanks. I laughed out loud at the pun (always a little embarrassing when you're the only one in the room) and was intrigued to see that you visited the Mies buildings. Can you tell me how to get to the Villa Savoye on public transportation? And where is the Villa La Roche?

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    Indy: the photos are sent, although as I said, the digital versions are much darker than the slides and the colors are off. I intend to ask Photoworks about this.

    Shellio: My cousin took me to the Villa Savoye by car, so I do not know how to get there by public transportation. Interesting that you mention it as a Mies buidling because the recent article in the NY Times about a Mies building in Bratislava (?) reminds me of the Villa Savoye. The Villa La Roche is on 10 Sqaure du Docteur-Blanche, 75016 Paris.

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