Across the Pyrenees (2017)
Wednesday, July 19, Grande-Bressac.
[Deb here: We packed up after B’s breakfast of fried eggs and coffee with Ned and Nancy. The skies threatened rain, so we put on sweaters and I threw on rain pants.
We didn’t get too far before we felt a drizzle and pulled over for a coffee break. Across the street, B spotted a kebab place and declared “that’s lunch!” — which worked out well since no sooner had we ordered our doner kebab with frites, than it started pouring! [B here: I asked what meat was used to make the doner kabab and was very skeptical when the answer came back: “chicken and turkey”. But it was very skillfully flavored and I enjoyed it.]
We ate through the downfall and by the time we were finished, the skies had cleared. We dried off the Vespa and took off for our destination, Grande-Bressac, where we’d found a promising manor house on the “Bienvenue au Chateau” site and reserved a room for the night. [B here: We’ve had uniformly great experiences with Bienvenue au Chateau, so in fact we went a bit out of our way to stay at this one.] Upon arrival, we were greeted by our charming hosts and settled in to one of their tasteful rooms. The bedroom was enormous with lovely [French] windows; the renovated bathroom featured a large walk-in shower that could easily accommodate five. The shower’s worth documenting as a future condo renovation idea!
Unfortunately, the wall surrounding the property blocked us from photographing the house from the street; B took this photo of the swimming pool from where we were sitting on the terrace under a walnut tree.
Our hosts suggested the restaurant in the next town for dinner (not much in the area) which turned out to be just fine and we sat under a trellis of vines and wisteria. Here are the two impressive menus:
B wanted to know what the rose melon was and I wanted to try it, whatever it turned out to be. As described, it was a Charentes melon cut into a rose on a mandolin and seasoned with salt and piment d’espelette.
After dinner, I expressed how I felt about our eating so many large meals and B captured it:
Home to bed!
B and Deb
Thursday, July 20, Montignac (Lascaux).
Quote of the Day: Deb: (holding the iPad trying to ensure that the blue dot [our position] stays on the blue line [our intended route]) “This is impossible! The wind keeps changing the position of the map!” B: “Don’t be ridiculous!” Deb: “Trust me!” Explanation: We discovered that the iPad has a feature called “shake to undo” which is turned on by default (!). Given the difficulty of not shaking the iPad while riding, it’s likely that the changes Deb saw were the result of unintended “undoing”. Denouement: We’re still arguing a week later about what was going on!
[Deb here: While I sympathized with B trying to be sure that we’re driving on the right road, B doesn’t understand that holding the iPad while riding the back of the scooter is fine until: 1) we hit a bump and the route that we were following disappears from the screen with the iPad replacing it with its recommendation that we take the superhighway; and 2) the strong winds that we were experiencing were whipping across the screen of the iPad just as if I’m using my finger across the screen and the route is replaced with the superhighway route.]
After an enjoyable breakfast with a Dutch couple who were antique dealers collecting fireplace andirons and backplates for their inventory, we headed off towards Lascaux where we had a 2:42pm timed ticket. We didn’t have any extra time for a leisurely lunch so stopped at the only bar in a tiny town we were passing through. The only things they were serving was steak frites for 9.50 euros. It was better than expected and although ordered “rosé” came out rather “blu”.
The new Lascaux museum (we’d seen the previous one in 2010) was enormous and had an excellent reproduction of the main chambers of the original cave. In the adjoining museum were further reproductions which were available for extended study and photography.
There were few places to eat a decent meal (tourist country again) so we went to a hip wine bar for tapas: foie gras and charcuterie/fromage:
Our three star hotel deserved one star and was otherwise forgettable.
One of our innovations this seventh summer of Vespa touring is to have brought along an American power strip (with the plugs turned 90 degrees) so that with one plug adapter we can accommodate five or more American charging devices.
B and Deb
Friday, July 21, Figeac.
Quote-of-the-Day: B: “Why didn’t we get a panorama of the garden the evening before last?” Deb: “Where were we the night before last?”
[Deb here: We left our hotel near the caves of Lascaux early this morning and had traveled about 50 meters when the rain started pouring down. Pulling into a roadside terrace of a hotel/restaurant, we sat under umbrellas and had another morning coffee until the rain stopped. We’d learned about a chateau with beautiful gardens only a few miles down the road in the direction we were traveling and hoped that we’d be able to visit once the skies cleared. They did and we did. The Chateau de Losse in the Perigord was, we’d learned, a completely abandoned fortress and had been forgotten after the forest and gardens had been overgrown. Completely restored and furnished with period pieces, it was one of the best chateaux we’ve ever visited. Here’s the largest gatehouse in southern France:
The gardens were filled with wisteria, grape arbors, and hedges trimmed into rows of trellises.
[B here: The walls of the chateau were surrounded by what I thought was a very deep moat to be filled with water but in fact it was merely a deep pit which attacking soldiers would have to negotiate:
We pushed on toward Rocamadour, very famous for the town built into the mountainside with fortress at the top of the mountain. Here is a view of Rocamadour from a terrace lookout of the town.
[B here: I know you don’t want to see another steak tartare, but I do! Another chèvre chaud for Deb, too!]
B and Deb
Saturday, July 22, Millau.
[Deb here: We were on the road early, trying to get to Nimes or as close to it as possible so that we’d be able to drive to Aix-en-Provence the next day. By lunchtime, we made it to Rodez, a town large enough to have several outdoor brasseries around a square with a large cathedral. We had a wonderful lunch: B ordered the sausage and aligot (delicious mashed potatoes that are made by adding and beating in cheese repeatedly until you think that the potatoes just couldn’t handle any more cheese and you continue to add more) and I had a plate of charcuterie.
After our successful lunch break, we hit the road again and pushed on, making it to Millau (a major camping and vacation area near the Tarn Gorges and the Millau suspension bridge [tallest bridge in the world, 2004]). A low point was that the only non-camping spots seemed to be budget chain motels and we booked a room at the Campanile. It was fitting that the most reasonable destination for dinner was the French chain, “Buffalo Grill,” which gives every impression of being an American eatery, but it is NOT! Seems that everyone goes there for the beef and our waiter was incredulous that we weren’t ordering a steak! We settled for a plate of quesadillas. I couldn’t believe that a restaurant could mess up something as simple as that, but they didn’t “get it.”]
[B here: Millau reminds one of the mid-West: a town large enough to be a major shopping destination but too small to have anything but franchise businesses. The Campanile is actually a very commendable realization of its goal: a simple, good-enough room for business and middle-class travelers. We’d eaten at a Buffalo Grill perhaps three years ago and hadn’t found it ridiculous, as this one was (but it had only been open four days). Anyway, it was a more than adequate sample of current French suburban life.]
B and Deb
Sunday, July 23, Nimes.
Another big day on the road, moving 145km eastward. We’re definitely caught between our ideal ambitions of slowly enjoying the sights as we travel and our shared desire to eat a meal we’ve cooked ourselves (this was our 29th day away). Although we’re passing up some things we’d surely love to see, we’re passing through lovely countryside climbing through passes and emerging to see the beautiful valleys on the other side.
We got off relatively early (10am) and stopped at a delightful small valley town called Nant where we watched some 4-year-olds riding very diminutive ponies. By lunchtime we’d gone 80km and settled down for a leisurely lunch in this town square.
We didn’t realized how leisurely it would be! The daily formule looked promising:
And we enjoyed the eggs so much we determined to add them to our rotation.
We had the first confit duck leg of the summer as well.
Only the rice pudding was a disappointment with an almost-burned caramel topping.
We want to remember a 450m tunnel we went through with no lighting; that was disconcerting but the real problem was that the tunnel roadway was only one and a half lanes wide so that oncoming cars had to slow and carefully pass us. (Scary indeed!)
When we reached Nimes (at the very respectable hour of 5pm), Deb wanted to book a hotel on Booking.com but I insisted that we go to the tourist office and look for a chambre d’hote. We couldn't find one which could take us for two nights so settled for one night. It was about 18km out of town and extremely hard to find. (We did learn for the umpteenth time that Google makes no distinction between an actual road and a back alley. We’re slowly learning!).
We had a very hospitable host who was concerned about where/how we would eat dinner. We told him that we had a few things with us but could he provide a bottle of wine? Yes, he graciously could, so we dined on foie gras, smoked cured duck breast and the two soft chèvre cheeses we’d not finished the previous night.
And after our quick and early meal, we jumped into the very nice swimming pool which was at just the right temperature to revive us (and to permit me to write this at 10pm).
B and Deb
Monday, July 24, Aix-en-Provence.
We decided that we’d treat the ride to Aix as a minor part of the day and stayed at the comfortable porch of our B&B until late morning writing and sending posts.
On leaving, our hosts were anxious to take our picture so we asked them to use our camera as well; one more in our tiny set of pictures on the Vespa.
We repeated yesterday’s difficulties in finding our way around the little town of Dion (not named after the doo-wop singer!) with its several detours because of construction. All in all we made it back to Nimes (15kms) around noon and set off south when we wondered when we’d encounter the next gas station. We backtracked a bit to get to a Carrefour with 12 pumps, exactly two of which were working; so we waited about 20 minutes to get to the pump. Then we discovered that neither of our credit cards was honored and had to search again. Another 5km out of our way we found an Intermarché which had always accepted our card and we were on the road again. (Except it was now 1pm!)
We stopped in Arles for lunch and found a terrific café/restaurant in the center. So terrific that we relaxed some more over our fresh chèvre with fig jam salad:
And pork tenderloin on a bed of olive oil mashed potatoes:
As we pondered where to stay in Aix, Deb remembered the wonderful two-star hotel we’d stayed at on two previous occasions and we quickly booked two nights. No more worries about what time we’d finally arrive.
Because of the long connection of Arles with photography, we searched and discovered that Joel Meyerowitz had a show of early work in town. With embarrassment that we’d been shortchanging sights, we determined to see it. Google, ever unhelpful, steered us on a labyrinthine route consisting of mostly pedestrian streets. Once we entered the exhibit, we were told that no, we couldn’t buy tickets there, we had to go elsewhere for them. Arrrgh!
So back on the road again, this time for the most uninteresting part of our tour: across the Camargue marshes with arrow-straight roads, no civilization for 30kms, a blip, and 30kms more. Finally we arrived in Aix and settled in. Deb was too full for dinner so I had some smoked salmon rolled around Boursin (picked up when we got our juice).
B and Deb
Tuesday, July 25, Aix-en-Provence.
This was our well-earned rest day before the short trip to Toulon to catch the ferry. We had several errands. Deb had dropped her iPhone6 on a stone floor and shattered the screen (fairly common, I understand), so we wanted to stop at the stunning Apple Store in the very center of Aix:
The service was quick and the repair was straightforward: a like-new phone!
We also needed to book a cabin on the ferry from Toulon to Bastia so we went to the only travel agent on the Cours Mirabeau. Only after we had purchased our Toulon-Bastia passage and inquired about Bastia-Livorno did we discover the problem. The agent said there were no ferries from Bastia to Livorno. Since we’d been on it several times we were confident in contradicting her and then she disclosed that the agency dealt with only some and not all ferry operators. I greatly regret not walking out at that moment but we accepted her suggestion that she go online masquerading as me and order the needed tickets (no cabin involved) using my credit card.
That done we went to lunch in a relaxed mood at a cafe with gastronomic pretensions. I particularly enjoyed this way of presenting pasta:
Deb had her usual composed salad, this time with mozzarella (garnished with a thick slice of prosciutto which had been fried like bacon), and I my last steak tartare of the summer (we’ve gathered lots of good new ideas about how to garnish our own when we return).
Early in our trip I’d bemoaned the fact that we wouldn’t be seeing “Dunkirk” on an iMAX screen. Deb picked up on this and discovered that the VO (version original, i.e., not dubbed but subtitled) was playing in Aix today, so we planned to see it at 7pm. Which left only a short time to grab something to eat beforehand; which meant that we could try the kebab place just down the block I’d seen earlier. Well patronized and tasty!
When we got into the three-screen theater,
I was shocked to discover that the screen was tiny (perhaps eight feet wide) but that was perhaps a good thing as there were no seats left other than in the front row! We were both surprised that the dialog was so hard to understand and glad that we could use the French subtitles to decode some of it. We were glad we’d seen it but would not recommend it as a must-see.
We rode home in the twilight, happy to be looking forward to sleeping in the same bed as the night before (a rarity). Here’s the exterior of the Hotel Mozart of which we’re now very fond (not least because breakfast includes raw eggs which one can soft-boil in a waterbath appliance).
B and Deb
Wednesday, July 26, aboard the Toulon-to-Bastia ferry.
Our sojourn in Aix completed, we lazily packed up for the easy trip to Toulon (80km). Happily, Deb remembered the terrific roadside restaurant we’d discovered two years before: the usual: one passes by an isolated restaurant with its parking lot crammed with cars: Bingo! So we had a reservation for the opening time of noon.
Few people there when we sat down but all these seats will be full of jabbering people in a half-hour. While Deb had one of the house-special salads:
I had to fall for the advertised specialty of the house, pig’s foot (two years ago as well although the fact that I could remember no details should have warned me off). This grilled delicacy has no meat whatsoever on it but the outside is delicious!
For the plat, I had a grilled trout, something I hadn’t seen on any previous menu.
And I was particularly delighted to see my favorite old-time French dessert available as part of the 19 euro menu: Île flottante. A superb version with cool crème anglaise.
With a nice Bandol rosé on the table, we were in no rush. We finally pushed off at 2:30p and had very good (and mostly empty) roads all the way to Toulon. We did stop at a Carrefour as we approached and Deb allowed me to go in and shop. I was greatly surprised as I knew that she knew that would mean I’d come out with a bulging shopping bag filled with things she would have vetoed. (Thanks, dear! So glad you liked most of it!)
Our ferry wasn’t until 10pm, so a great deal of killing time. We finally got on and found our cabin as welcoming as on previous trips.
B and Deb