Monday, August 8, 2022

To Brittany and Back


We are now back in Montpellier—home—after our month-long travels in Brittany. And… it is hot. And humid, here in the south. Our attempts to escape the heat by heading north were mostly successful. We had some powerfully hot days in Vannes, early on, but that heat spell broke (the heat wave moved north to Britain, where it set record-breaking temperatures in England).

Since then it’s been quite pleasant… until now!

Ah… but this is to be a blog about our trip to Brittany, not another rant about the weather. Since we’ve just returned from Mont Saint-Michel, let’s start there!


Even from miles away, the Mont is singularly impressive!

Although we have been here before, there is something endlessly powerful about seeing that massive cathedral on its rock with its endless spire pointing heavenward, set well away from the land. We arrived a bit before low tide, the island surrounded by a vast vista of empty sand. Signs were posted indicating a guide was required to explore the empty sand around the island, and indeed, there were a number of groups on the extensive plane, some in the far distance. (this idea of wandering on the sea bottom is very intriguing; if we’re ever back there I may take one of those tours, although there are so many other places to go…)

Paula (and Kate is in there, too!) marvel at the masterpiece.

We finally turned our attention to the city itself, and entered the ancient stone gate.

“Don’t go to Mont Saint-Michel in August!” we were warned. Yeah, well, best not to go anywhere in France in August, the traditional vacation month. It was crowded. It was very crowded, and there is only one street that winds up the hill that is Mont Saint-Michel.

Yes, it WAS crowded!

We slowly made our way up to the entrance to the cathedral, the big (only?) attraction on the island. We paid 11€ (pretty much $11USD, these days) each to get in. Well worth it, I think! The entry allowed us to continue up through the church’s buildings, providing magnificent views over the (empty) bay, and incredible interior views of the "Merveille" (the Wonder), 13th century buildings that medieval builders managed to fit onto what was then nothing more than a pyramidal rock.

Archangel Michael, to whom the Mont is dedicated.

On the way up (and up, and up, and up) Paula checked on the history. Its modern history starts in the year 708 when Bishop Aubert built the first sanctuary on the island (called Mont Tombe back then) in honor of the Archangel Michael. The Benedictines arrived in 966 and began to grow the monastery, which quickly became a place of pilgrimage, and a producer and library for illustrated manuscripts (“City of the Books,” it came to be called). The main group of buildings, the Merveille, is a testament to the expertise of the 13th century architects.

It's a very... vertical experience.

In the cathedral (also a vertical experience!)

We slowly wound our way down through the massive stone buildings, marveling at the Merveille, until we finally exited, still well above the surrounding sand plains. The fortifications added in the 14th century during the Hundred Years War are still evident. (The island held off a siege by the English for 30 years!) After the revolution at the end of the 1700s Mont Saint-Michel became a prison, curiously enough. “Bastille on the sea,” it was known as. France’s own Alcatraz…

The refectory, where the monks ate; part of La Merveille. (Note: Those aren't real monks!)

It was only in 1874 that the Abbey was named as a historical monument, and the long and complex restorations began. Today it is one of the most visited sites in France, and is listed as a "Pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, in France".

To be clear, Santiago de Compostela, the goal of many pilgrimage routes throughout France and all of Europe, is in Spain. “In France” refers to this part of the route itself.


The cloisters of Mont Saint Michel...

...with it's double row of pillars.

It’s an impressive place, and we were very pleased to be able to visit it again. The environment seems to be changing, though—the bay is filling with sand, so that the Mont is only surrounded by water a few times a year. We settled in the garden to watch the tide come in, but at 7PM we got chased out: time for the night shift! There is a night time event at the monastery that requires a separate entry. It was half way to high tide by then, yet there were still groups far out on the flats.

The empty bay. Shifting clouds and moving water channels make for ever-changing patterns.
he English Channel is out there, far off...

Still hours to sunset, but the shadows get long. Looking landward.

We rode the shuttle back to the enormous parking lot, retrieved our car, and found an excellent restaurant in the near-by town. We had an exceptional meal, very well prepared from local ingredients, and served by a delightful waiter.

We got back to our Bed-and-Breakfast (a real one, not the air kind) late, but no matter as it was still light at 10PM! The next morning we were almost overwhelmed as the hostess plied us, and the other guests, with seemingly-endless trays of home-made yoghurt and jams. It was nearly 9:30 by the time we pried ourselves loose and began the long, long drive back south.


In this blog from November of 2021 we talked about Sacra di San Michele, another monastery dedicated to St. Michael on a promontory just outside Turin, Italy. And about our astonishment at the discovery that there are seven sacred sites dedicated to the Archangel, all of them on prominent geophysical features in a straight line from Skellig Michael off the coast of Ireland in the north-west to Jerusalem in the south-east. Mont Saint-Michel is the third of these sites.

The astonishment is ongoing!

A misty Mont Saint-Michel seen from the parking lot.


Next up:  Looks like we're working backwards, so our next stop will be St. Malo, and the extraordinary rock carvings not far away.

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Return to the Lavender

Sunset over the lavender fields near Valensole, France

It’s been hot in Montpellier! Not hot hot, as in triple digit days (more than 100°F/38°C); instead, more humid hot: 85°F and 80%RH.  Growing up in California’s Central Valley I can appreciate dry heat, but I have no use for humidity. We run the AC—lightly—so it’s bearable, but this is only the first month of summer. September seems a long ways away! 

But summer also means… It’s lavender time in Provence. Those gorgeous, extensive fields so justly famous for their scented purpleness are once more in bloom. 

Two years ago we passed near the lavender fields returning from our trip to Lucca and Florence. We spent a night to get the full experience. (Click here for that blog)  This year we created a more deliberate, focused trip, with only one goal in mind: lavender fields! And we took some friends this time: Kate, Debora, and Adrianne, all of them previous travel companions.


Kate, Debra, Adrianne, Paula, and Paul of the long arms in a field of lavender.

Our biggest concern was the heat. How will we hold up in the heat and humidity? Should we go for one night, or two? How much petal peeping would we want to do in the heat? 

Ready, aim, shoot!
(Thanks to Paula for this great shot!)

As it turned out, heat was not a problem; we had magnificent, cool sunny weather… after a couple of record cloudbursts, one on each day. Both times we were in the car, and absolutely had to pull over and wait for the buckets of water sluicing off the windshield to abate. At one point we even saw hailstones—and heard them, rattling on the roof.

A road into the fields.

We expected to see fields of sunflowers, and were almost disappointed, until this one showed up!
(A photo by Kate)

Kate was fortunate enough to catch this little guy exploring a sunflower!

Us, in the town of Manosque, on the edge of the lavender fields...
(Thanks to Adrianne for this one)

Then the downpour ceased, and we drove on. After the deluge on the second day, as we slowly made our way back to the highway, we had a good laugh when what came up on the playlist was Johnny Nash’s song from the 1970s  “I can see clearly now, the rain has gone…” 

And indeed, it was a bright sunny day for our visit to the Abbaye Notre Dame de Sénanque and the nearby town of Gordes.

Nice find, Kate!

We had been here before, too, in recent memory. In fact, we'd visited the area with Kate last year. For info on the Abbaye (today again a working monastery) you can check another of our previous blogs, "Our Ride to Roussillon".

The Abbaye Notre Dame de Senanque in 2022.

Paula, with Kate and Adrianne, at the Abbaye.

After buying a few things at the gift shop—the monks do make their living selling things—we explored the monastery grounds a bit, then moved on to the nearby town of Gordes. Dramatically cascading down the side of a cliff, Gordes is (yet another) medieval town, quite filled with tourists on the day we were there. After a fine and leisurely lunch we wandered a bit, admiring the art and architecture. But it had been a busy day... and we soon headed home.

Just off the main street of Gordes, visitors relax in the shade.

Dramatic views from the city streets.

         The Cigales of Provence

Thanks no doubt to the hot weather, the cigales have come out in full force. These are a variety of cicada, living underground as grubs to emerge every few years and fill the area with their buzzy buzz. It’s truly the sound of summer here! 

We were fortunate enough to see a few hanging out on a tree trunk. Here’s a short video, with sound…

A cigale on a tree trunk--normally they're hidden in the leaves.

Next up:     We're off to Brittany! We'll be spending the entire month of July there (hoping to escape the heat—and have some adventures!). We may or may not get blogs out while there, but when we return, there will be tales to tell. 

The town of Gordes, seen from the highway (another one of Kate's great photos!).

Thursday, June 2, 2022

Springtime... Again!


The lovely town of Romorantin-Lanthenay.

We finally took our new car on a road trip! The occasion was a family reunion with my daughter Nina, her husband Riki, and my brother-in-law Christian and his wife Christiane. They live in a region of France north of us known as La Sologne, in the Loire Valley. That puts it in central France, a bit south of Orléans. In former times it was heavily forested, and the hunting preserve of the king. While it is associated with the famous châteaux de la Loire, for me it is always connected to my early years in France. Much of the land has been cleared for farms, but there are still vast tracks of forest, mostly privately owned, and mostly still used for hunting.  

Our trip north went well. It required six hours of driving, which meant the whole journey lasted about eight hours, what with lunch and other stops. We arrived in the town of Romorantin-Lantheny—Romo for short—where Paula had booked us a very nice Airbnb house. It was a classic Romorantin house, perhaps 150 years old but wonderfully modernized: three stories, two bedrooms (and an enormous bath!), plus a very pleasant sitting area in back. Nina and Riki showed up soon after we did and we all relaxed and chatted for a bit before heading over to see my brother- and sister-in-law.

Where we stayed in Romo--classic 19th century.

It turns out that they were not at their house, about a 10 minute walk from us, but at la cabine, their cabin, a place out in the woods they’d bought decades ago. We've been there a number of times, and I sort of knew the way. It turned out it was only about a 10 minute drive from where we were staying; we drove along a simple open country road. 

Christian greets us from the terrace of la cabine.

Worst. Boule. Court. Ever. Hey, it's out in the woods, what do you want!

We had a fabulous time, visiting with not just Christian and Christiane, but also their daughter Carole, her husband Bastian, and their two boys, Oscar and Adam. After hiking through the woods, studying the near-by river, or playing boules in the rough grass near the cabin, we had long, leisurely evening meals on the terrace. This far north twilight is long and slow, encouraging the French habit of lingering over a multi-course meal.

Things get a little fuzzy as the wine bottles empty... (Nina's photo captures the moment).

On our first full day we explored the town of Romorantin. Like many towns in France, it is not particularly distinguished today, yet has a long and interesting history. At one time it was slated to be the capital of France.

The Chancellerie de Romorantin--where the royal seals were kept when the king was in residence back in the 15th century.

François I, the King of France, wanted to make this town his capital in the 16th century. He enlisted the aid of Leonardo da Vinci to help him design a magnificent city and a huge palace. The original plan was to bring together three rivers from the area to make a vast water works centered on Romorantin. But the plague and wars—and time—intervened and that plan never came about. (Leonardo da Vinci did spend the last years of his life at the court of François I in the city of Amboise, an hour west—by modern car, not horse-drawn carriage!)

The four of us, with the river Sauldre and Romorantin behind.

Today the remains of this early work are still visible in downtown Romo where the river Sauldre splits around an island in the middle of town. It’s a beautiful area and we enjoyed our time walking and admiring the old buildings, mute testimony to the long history of the town.

A canal running through town, part of the early water works.

A classic home in Romorantin; we were almost hoping those were for sale signs!
(But no, this homeowner is content to be here)

We had two more wonderful evenings at the cabin (love those long, slow sunsets!) before finally heading out Monday morning. We started with a pleasant half hour drive through the countryside with Nina and Riki to the train station in another small town. They were returning to Paris and ultimately Seville; we, however, got back on the highway and headed south, arriving home in Montpellier well before dark.


An enthusiastic selfie by long-armed Ricardo; that's Christiane at the far end.


Yes, it’s happened! Spring is fully here. We’re in that delicious phase where the rigid cold (it gets down into the 40s here!) has passed, yet the dreaded summertime canicules (heat waves) have yet to start. The views from our apartment have greened up considerably, the birds in the trees behind us are going wild (Birds Gone Wild!) And we have become even more aware of the “pocket gardens” maintained by the city. These are little patches of land, odd corners stuck between a couple of streets, or in front of a wall or building, that have been nicely landscaped and kept up.


One of our favorite pocket parks: California desert plants!

Our view from the boules court: every few weeks new flowers appear.

The park where we play pétanque every Tuesday morning has several planter areas. It's satisfying that every few weeks the city comes by and replants them. One week we’re there and it’s a mound of dirt; the next week, new flowers! On a recent Tuesday there was a mound near the entrance. By the time we left (three hours, including our picnic lunch) it was full of flowers!

        Thanks, Montpellier!

When we arrived to play boules, this was a mound of dirt. These guys transformed it while we played!


What We’re Doing

What are we doing? Nothing much, enjoying the weather and planning our next excursions. We bought some gear for the beach, and we’ll be keeping the umbrella and the fold-up chairs in the back of the car. (Oddly, the excellent tram system here stops about a mile and a half from the sea!)

Of course, we are planning our next excursions. We’re hoping to get over to see the famed lavender fields of Provence (we visited them a couple of years back, read about it here). We also have plans to get back to Corsica in the fall, this time via ferry with our own car. And, we will be escaping the aforementioned canicules by spending the month of July in Brittany, part of it with Paula’s brother, Mark.


Stay tuned!

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Return to Travel?

An old windmill and landscape near Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, France

We've been hearing about the boom in travel, now that the pandemic restrictions have been (mostly) lifted. Pent up demand! Flights are full, prices are up… Seems that everyone wants to get out and start traveling. 

Well, we do too. In our case, though, traveling does not require a trans-oceanic flight; we’re already on the continent where we want to travel. Plus, now we have a car. 

And, spring is here! The trees are leafing out; while there are many evergreens in this area, the view from the window is very much greener now that it was even a month ago. The trees behind us are finally showing their leaves, providing some privacy for the birds that have been checking out the property for the last few months. We expect some serious nest building to begin soon.

View from our balcony; in full summer we won't see the houses behind us.

So what have we been doing? Well, we’re still staying home, mostly, although we did go to a rather fabulous concert recently. The local symphony orchestra and a 40-member choir gathered at the new opera house, the Corum (as distinct from the 19th-century opera house, Opéra de la Comédie). They did the musical parts of Miloš Forman’s 1984 movie “Amadeus” while the movie itself played on a big screen behind them. 

It was very well done! The dialog was intact, in English (with French subtitles), while the live orchestra and chorus were perfectly synchronized with the images. This didn’t improve the story line (or the depiction of Mozart’s irritating wife), but the movie was always about the music anyway. And that part was great! 

The opera house-cum-movie house, with full orchestra.

It was a fun evening, classy (we went to the opera!), yet down home at the same time (it was a movie… and an old one!). It’s a great way to engage people who normally wouldn’t come to an opera, particularly young folks. It certainly filled the opera house.


(On a technical note, there is a company—in Japan, I think—that provided the video track and the synchronized orchestral scores. I can’t imagine too many movies would work well with this technique, but they do have several more, including the 1979 sci-fi hit “Alien.” An unlikely candidate, I would think, but there you are. I’d love to see “Gladiator” with live music, but so far it’s not in the catalog.)


         Saint-Rémy-de Provence

We’ve visited this town before, but this time we arrived in our own car. Yes, we bought a car, at the end of February. Over the next two months we put about 100 miles on it—not much! Which made this our first big auto outing. We were five in all: the two of us plus our traveling companion Kate, along with American friends Debra and Adrianne . It started as a day trip, but we ended doing an overnight: there was just too much to do in one day. 

The car did very well, even fully loaded as we were; we did really well, too! First stop was the Carrières des Lumières, the fabulous underground light show, with images projected on the walls, ceiling, and floor of a former quarry.


We had been here before, twice, for the amazing Van Gogh show. This time the subject was Venice, with images and art from that fabled city. It was well done, as always, although we all liked the Van Gogh show better.


After an hour underground we climbed up to the medieval town of Les Baux. We skipped the ancient castle part, with the displays of siege engines (trebuchets and what not); we’d seen it before. Instead we climbed up the steep, narrow path between the ancient buildings that now house cafes and restaurants, stores selling cutesy clothing and those displaying local specialties to eat, wear, and/or hang on the wall. In other words, all the usual tourist shops. But nicely done, and fun to look at.


The narrow streets of Les Baux, overlooked by the remains of its 13th century fortress.

We made it! The five of us on the Les Baux plateau.

Another view of that 13th-century fortress.

Back down in the lower village, the irresistible charms of the tourist shops!

Next it was back down to the car, and the slow drive up through the Val d’Enfer (the Valley of Hell: bit of a misnomer, actually. It really wasn’t much of a valley.) After crawling through some pretty insane switchbacks the road smoothed out, and lead us to the town of San-Rémy and our hotel for the night, with its tall, 19th century iron gates.


Our hotel. Endlessly cute!

 After a wonderful meal that night we wandered the darkened streets of the city’s old town. Not for too long, though, because the next day was market day, and we had much to explore. 

Odd, a shop called "A Sunday in San Rémy" that's closed on Sunday!

Whimsical and colorful even at night.

Those blue shutters of Provence... it's a very cute town!

An artist at the market discusses his inspiration.


A must-do thing in Saint-Rémy is to walk the mile from the center of town to the Saint-Paul asylum, where Vincent Van Gogh resided in 1889. Spaced along the way are signs depicting some of the 150 paintings Van Gogh did during his year at Saint Paul’s, with excerpts from his letters to his brother Theo and to his mother.


Poppies among the olive trees, a timeless scene.

While perhaps the most striking, poppies aren't the only flowers out!

This is a route Van Gogh must have walked often, and while modern buildings now crowd much of the route, there are views of fields that have changed little in the last 130 years. Walking where he walked, seeing what he saw, reading what he wrote—and studying what he painted—gave a deeper sense of who he was and the inner issues he faced. It gave me a finer appreciation of Vincent’s life, and how he struggled simply to keep on moving.


An olive grove near Monastery Saint-Paul de Mausole, where Van Gogh spent a year.



Spring time. Poppy season! Around this time of year we see bright red poppies scattered along the side of the road, and, occasionally, whole fields of poppies. The walk to Saint Paul’s was punctuated by poppies—and other wild flowers—along the road, and in the fields. What we really wanted, though, was a solid field of those audacious red poppies!


A patch of poppies.

We did find it, sort of, just outside Saint Rémy. We pulled off the road onto a private drive, and then walked up to the field. Signs revealed that this was an experimental almond farm. A pleasant woman drove up and explained that they were trying different plants among the tress to attract pollinating insects, and it was important that we not enter the field.

Two flowers: Kate's exquisite poppy, and my less dramatic but no less complex dandelion.

Poppies amongst the almonds.

Well, we weren’t going to anyway, but we sure wanted to! After taking lots of photos we moved on a ways down the road to another field. Last year this field had provided a real poppy bonanza. But this year, nothing. A vast field with not one red spot to break the unyielding bright green. Ah well! Different year, different hot spot.



On the way home, at the end of our poppy explorations, we made one more stop, to visit a windmill famous in French literature. These windmills were used to grind grain into flour, an important function in the times before electricity.

The windmill we visited is known as the Daudet mill in honor of the French writer Alphonse Daudet, who published a collection of short stories in 1869, Lettres de mon moulin (Letters from my Mill). Life in Provence is often the subject of his stories, so his works are still quite popular in this area. The mill last turned in the 1930’s, but is preserved as a memorial to M Daudet and his works.


And we, at last, turned home, very gratified with our first automotive outing. There will be more!

Up Next:  This weekend we're heading for a family's reunion in the Loire Valley. Stay tuned!