Nérac, Calignac et environs

Having spent three weeks in the little village of Calignac, I have fallen in love with this area. I’m told that Lot-et-Garonne is one the poorest areas of France. This most southern part of the district that abuts Le Gers is more like Le Gers. Nérac is a bustling large town that is busy all year long. The river Baise flows from Agen and it is very popular with tourists to rent a boat and take a week going from town to town along the river.

Here the river runs under the bridge with old Nérac on one side and the Chateau where Henry IV spent his teenage years and newer Nérac on the other side.

The Saturday outdoor Nérac market is one of the largest in the area and attracts natives and tourists alike. It goes on rain or shine although many of the non-food stalls don’t show up on rainy days.

At the Saturday Nerac Market
The Saturday Nerac Market is one of the largest in the area.

During the heat wave (canicule), if anyone was silly enough to go outside, we sought places that were shady to rest. Like the small mini-park below that is just before the bridge in Nérac.

Walking along the river Baise in Nérac.

I visited an artist friend in the small town of Francescas, which lies just before one enters Le Gers. There are miles and miles of small roads all numbered D131, D112, etc, winding around each other, going in and out of these small towns and hamlets. Some have only houses left although they once would have had an ironsmith and a boulangerie. Others will have a café that might also sell bread.

Francescas

In the town of LaPlume on D931, the ruins of an old church, L’Eglise St. Nicolas, sit without a roof, its insides empty but a thriving and full cemetery. LaPlume has a new church (around 1856) but it seems that the old church is being somewhat restored. There will probably never be a roof but in the future, it may be much more presentable. Meanwhile wire mesh keeps teens and partiers from going in.

The Cemetery at LaPlume looking out over Lot-et-Garonne

No matter how lovely a balade en voiture is, it is always nice to head ‘home’ at lunchtime for a nap, a good book and food out of the garden.

Heading home to Calignac
Vegetables out of the garden here where I am staying!!!
Lavande from the garden.
Looking out the window from the room I’ve been writing in.

As all my readers from last summer know, sunflowers are everywhere. Huge fields of them, alongside all the roads, next to hiking trails, visible from house windows. They are planted in late Spring and reach their peak in mid-July. These sunflowers aren’t grown for cutting flowers. They are grown for sunflower oil which is prolific down here. People cook with sunflower oil and use olive oil for eating. Now a couple of days into August, the large, heavy heads of the sunflowers are bowing down toward the ground. They will eventually turn black and in early Fall, will be mowed down and their seeds will become huile de tournesol.

Sunflowers at sunset

A bientôt,

Sara

Le Gers bis

France is divided into 101 departments, 96 of which are in mainland France. The first two numbers on the postal code tell you which department you are in. 75 is Paris. 32 is Le Gers where I spent the summer last year. 47 is Lot-et-Garonne where I am at this moment. I tried very hard to find a place to rent or house-exchange in Le Gers but no one wants to leave in the summertime! So I am in a very small village called Calignac, next to a large town called Nérac and both are about 30 minutes driving from Condom which is close to where I stayed last year. So I’m still telling people I’ve come down to Le Gers but really it’s Le Gers bis (just behind or next to)!

I arrived last Monday evening. For whatever reason, I had a hard time leaving Paris. I have been looking forward to this vacation for a year but as I said good bye to Bijou and closed the door of my apartment, all I could think of was how much I love Paris. I made the train on time and, voilà, down in Le Gers. I slept on and off for the next two days.

Calignac

One of the reasons that people don’t leave Le Gers in the summer is the music. There are festivals in every area of the department. In Condom, during the summer, there are organ recitals every Tuesday evening at 6pm in the Cathedral. They are followed by an optional tour of the Cathedral followed by what’s known as the Night Market. The night market is an extremely popular event all summer long and one could go to one every single evening of the week. In french, it is known as the Marché des Producteurs régionaux. Different “companies” or farms bring gourmet meals in trucks to sell. Long tables are set out in the town square or nearby. People come in droves to eat together or meet and party with their neighbours. Often there is a band or bands playing and the evening will go on until the sun finally sets around 10:30pm.

Cathedral of Condom–evening of Les Amis de l’Orgue

We went to the first organ recital of the summer last Tuesday. Gospel music on the organ and trumpet in the confines of a huge cathedral space! Absolutely divine!! Literally.

One of my favourite towns is La Romieu. It lies west of Lectoure and east of Condom. All three towns and villages are on the Compostale of Saint Jacques. This weekend is the the 9th Music Festival en Chemin. And last Thursday, the 18th, was the Avant-Premier concert held in the Gardens of Corsiana, a private large garden reminiscent of Longwood Gardens in Penna. My friend, Barbara and I, arrived early to see the gardens quietly before everyone else arrived. We brought a picnic dinner which we ate on one of the many picnic tables on the property. At 8:30pm, an outbuilding that has been constructed for weddings, small concerts and events was filled up with at least one hundred people and the concert began. The quartet was made up of a family: 2 brothers and 2 sisters on violins and a cello. They are young and only recently have been traveling and now are winning awards for their interpretations of Mozart and their playing. It was a magical evening and a wonderful start to my summer vacation in Le Gers.

The Quartet Tchalik

If only I could figure out how to attach my videos, I would also include the sound of the summer music. But…..

A bientôt,

Sara

Bonne Année 2019

With the French tradition in mind, this blog is my New Year’s card to all of you.

The French have a tradition that I really like.  Instead of sending Christmas cards, they send New Year’s cards.  They can send them any time during the month of January. If you tip a service person, you put it in your New Year’s card. So what happens is that here in France people prepare for Christmas with the presents and the parties and going to Galleries Lafayette to see the windows without the fuss of writing Christmas cards. Then, after you take the tree down, put it out on the sidewalk for pick-up, you have the rest of the month to write cards. People are still saying Bonne Année to me. It’s nice. I feel like I’m slowly moving into 2019 with the daily reminder to make it a good year.

The French have a tradition that I really like.  Instead of sending Christmas cards, they send New Year’s cards.  They can send them any time during the month of January. If you tip a service person, you put it in your New Year’s card. So what happens is that here in France people prepare for Christmas with the presents and the parties and going to Galleries Lafayette to see the windows without the fuss of writing Christmas cards. Then, after you take the tree down, put it out on the sidewalk for pick-up, you have the rest of the month to write cards. People are still saying Bonne Année to me. It’s nice. I feel like I’m slowly moving into 2019 with the daily reminder to make it a good year.

I spent New Year’s Eve in the town of Annecy in the Haute-Savoie region of France. Annecy sits at the north end of Lac d’Annecy, a lake that has a 32 kilometre circumference that one can walk, run or bike easily.

Pier just south of Annecy

My friend, Barbara, and I spent four nights there. What for me is the most amazing part of traveling at any time of the year in France is the transportation. Annecy is southeast of Paris, about an hour south of Geneva. By car, the fastest driving route takes five and a half hours if you don’t stop. By TGV (fast train–often going up to 200 km per hour), the trip is a bit over three hours. Marseille, in the south of France, is just over three hours. Bordeaux is two hours. Even the small towns along the Côte d’Azur where the train stops at every famous spot, one wouldn’t spend more than five or, at the very most, six hours on the train. These are comfortable trains with tables to write at or play games. There are always one or two “Bar” cars that sell sandwiches, drinks and sweets. There is every kind of discount card imaginable. A senior card that often has first class fares that are lower than second class fares for the under 62 years old set. A weekend discount card, a weekday discount card, a youth discount card, a student discount card.

The old city of Annecy

To go such a distance for only four nights is easy. Our AirBnB was a five minute walk from the station. We spent one day just walking around the town of Annecy, especially Le Centre Historique and Vielle Ville with cobbled streets, winding canals and pastel-colored houses. The Marché de Noel was alive and well and open until January 6. We took a bus ride up to La Closaz, a ski area, hoping to ride the chairlift to the top of the mountain. We were told that the winds were quite bad that day and the lifts weren’t operating while we were there. So we took the bus back and went to a movie!

On our last full day, New Year’s Eve day, we started on a walk down the west side of the lake. We stopped for a coffee in Sévrier, about 7km south of Annecy, and ended up eating lunch. We walked out of the Café to blue skies and a warm sun, the first we had seen of the sun during our trip. It transformed the lake and everything around it. We now could see what everyone was raving about when they told us how much we would love Annecy, how beautiful it is. Indeed, with the sun bouncing off the snowy white mountains and reflected in the lake with it’s multitude of sailboats, it was dreamlike.

We stopped in a store as we walked home and Barbara asked about fireworks. The salesperson looked at her and said “This is Annecy. We don’t have fireworks here.” “Completely calm and quiet?” Barbara said. “Oh yes.”

We leaned out the living room window just before midnight and heard people counting down the minutes to midnight at the top of their lungs. At midnight, we saw a few fireworks very far off in the distance. It was hard to tell if it was a suburb or where they were originating from. After a few screams and yells, a siren or two, all was quiet by 12:30am!!

East side of Lake Annecy at sunset

As we got off the train at Gare de Lyon the evening of January 1, 2019, Barbara and I looked at each other and said almost at the same time, “This is so easy. The train ride flies by in no time. I got so much done!!!” And we both went towards our separate routes home. The metro for me and the train to the suburbs for Barbara.

Welcome to 2019. I hope to see you in Paris this year.

A bientôt,

Sara

Le Gers in late Autumn

Five pm and the sun was setting casting a rusty orange glow over the empty fields as I drove up the one-lane road to Tourré.  I turned the corner and there she stood in quiet majesty just as I’d left her in August.   A ranch-style stone house with a covered yet wide open terrace, she welcomed me back for a too-short week of rest and writing.

IMG_2024.jpg

I had been afraid that I would be disappointed in Le Gers once the summer was over. In the summer, the fields are full of people-sized sunflowers, their huge heads following the daily path of the sun until, in mid-August, they are bowed way down by the weight of their dying beauty, waiting to be cut and turned into sunflower oil.  These same fields are now brown and bumpy from being turned over by huge machines plowing their way up and down the non-existent rows.  A glorious burnt-sienna light is spreading out quilt-like over the gentle ups and downs of the Gers countryside.

IMG_2039.jpg

If anything, it is more beautiful than summer.

I parked my Renault Clio and sat in an arm chair looking back the way I’d arrived.  Taking in the absolute quiet, the solitude of the surrounding Tuscan-like landscape. It is a gentle, spacious and friendly landscape. One that hasn’t changed in decades.

IMG_1998.jpg

At night, the half moon will quiver in the slight wind and cold as I stand under the heavens reminding myself of the constellations that I can’t see in Paris.

I feel full of anticipation.  To be here, to walk here drinking in every golden leaf, every blade of grass, every spire of each church that stand in the center of the many hamlets of fourteen or fifteen homes.  There are no big cities in Le Gers.  Just small villages and hamlets, some still have the ramparts surrounding them that were built in the 13th/14thcenturies.  There are no large byways only two lane roads that never have many cars on them, although those cars are always speeding.

IMG_1999.jpg
D931 with the ‘city’ of Condom in the distance

I read that there are more animals here than people.  It is a place that God has favored, loved and cared for.  I am so grateful to have found this place, to be able to spend time here.  Now I realise it doesn’t matter what time of year it is, it will be beautiful.  It’s Le Gers. Trite as it sounds, I feel my heart leap into my throat each time I turn off D931 and make my way back ‘home’.

IMG_2040.jpg

IMG_2044.JPG
Boudu, my companion for the week.

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone who celebrates it.

A bientôt,

Sara

 

 

Thalassotherapie and Spa, Roscoff

Roscoff-sol-10_960x320_opti.jpg

For my birthday this week, my friend, Barbara booked Body scrubs and massages at Institut Spa Valdys in Roscoff, a town about one and a half hours west of Perros Guirec, Brittany.  I was quite excited and kept telling people that I was “taking the waters” at the Spa.  Finally she said to me, “Have you never heard of Thalassotherapie?  I can’t believe it.”                                                                                                                                                              I hadn’t.  I wasn’t sure I’d even heard the word.  It looked Greek and that was about it.   Thalasso means ‘sea’ in Greek.  Thalassotherapy is the use of seawater as a form of therapy.  So I may not have known what I was talking about, but I wasn’t that far off the mark.

vueroscoffsmal.jpg

After chatting away happily for a one and a half hour drive, we arrived in Roscoff.  The landscape had changed about ten minutes before entering the town.  It seemed flat and grey.  Although we could see the sea, there wasn’t much attractive about the geography.  We followed the directions on my iPhone to the Hotel Tulip next door to the Spa.  We found parking and began our day at Noon.  Unlike American spas, this spa checked us in and left us on our own.  No ‘Welcome, let me show you around’.  No ‘First you go here and change, then you go there and’ …..American Spas, at least the ones I’ve been in, treat every person like a Queen.  I wasn’t sure if this was the french way or just this Spa.  We wandered around a bit lost until we finally asked someone what we do.  She explained where to change our clothes and get a robe.  Then to come back to her floor and sit in a jacuzzi or steam bath or swim in the swimming pool.  Upstairs on the 4th floor was a gym with bikes and walking machines.  No one was there!

_DSC9365-2_opti.jpg
Swimming Pool–high tide outside

At 2pm, we sat in waiting rooms waiting for our names to be called.  When called, I was asked what kind of scrub I would like.  I asked her what the difference was.  One was for sensitive skin which I don’t have so she suggested the ginger scrub.  The word in French is Gommage.  I hadn’t asked for a translation so I wasn’t quite sure what I was in for.  It turned out to be delicious.  She rubbed my entire body with this oily exfoliating scrub and after showering the particles off, I was left with  glowing sweet smelling skin.  I wanted to keep the oil on forever.  She took me back to the waiting room where I found Barbara and we compared experiences.  We had picked different scrubs but the looks on our faces probably said to anyone looking that we had both loved it.

_PHM7026-3.jpg

My name was called again and this time I was led to a massage room. My massage was good but not great.  At the end, I was relaxed and happy.  Barbara had a great massage and couldn’t believe how effective it was.  Her masseuse had told her go to the Solarium and relax.  So I followed along.  The door that said Resting Room opened up to eight chaises longues with buttons to push for music or heat.  I tried to read but promptly fell asleep.  Barbara’s chair had a view of the sea at low tide.  There were tide pools, tons of algae, three large pools for swimming that filled up at high tide.  We decided to get dressed and go for a walk.

The sand had the strangest little curly-que details.  It was like pieces of thick string wound up and dropped.  I thought maybe it was droppings of some sort but when I put my foot on it, it collapsed into sand.  They were everywhere.  I was trying to imagine how the water would roll in as the tide rose to make those little ‘decorations’.  I was stumped, it was beyond my imagination.

So what exactly is Thalassotherapy?  This is what Wikipedia has to say:

“It is based on the systematic use of seawater, sea products, and shore climate. The properties of seawater are believed to have beneficial effects upon the pores of the skin. Some claims are made that thalassotherapy was developed in seaside towns in Brittany, France during the 19th century.[3] A particularly prominent practitioner from this era was Dr Richard Russell,[4][5][6]whose efforts have been credited with playing a role in the populist “sea side mania of the second half of the eighteenth century”,[7] although broader social movements were also at play.[8] In Póvoa de Varzim, Portugal, an area believed to have high concentrations of iodine, due to kelp forests, and subject to sea fog, the practice is in historical records since 1725 and was started by Benedictine monks; it expanded to farmers shortly after. In the 19th century, heated saltwater public baths opened and became especially popular with higher classes.[9]Others claim that the practice of thalassotherapy is older: “The origins of thermal baths and related treatments can be traced back to remote antiquity. Romans were firm believers in the virtues of thermalism and thalassotherapy.[2]

In thalassotherapy, trace elements of magnesium, potassium, calcium, sodium, and iodide found in seawater are believed to be absorbed through the skin. The effectiveness of this method of therapy is not widely accepted as it has not been proven scientifically. The therapy is applied in various forms, as either showers of warmed seawater, application of marine mud or of algae paste, or the inhalation of sea fog. Spas make hot seawater and provide mud and seaweed wrapping services. This type of therapy is common in the Dead Sea area”

Well, whatever it is, I enjoyed it.  I didn’t wash the oil off my skin for eighteen hours!

IMG_3764.jpg
And here we are oily, relaxed and very happy!!!

A bientôt,

Sara

 

 

 

https://www.thalassa.com/gb/spa-hotel/1114-dinard-novotel.html?source=SEA&campaign=ppc-ath-mar-goo-ww-en-din-bro-sear-bp-cen&xts=201912&xtor=SEC-41-GOO-%5Bppc-ath-mar-goo-ww-en-din-bro-sear-bp-cen%5D-%5Bath-v1089-dinard%5D-S-%5B%2Bthalassa%20%2Bdinard%5D&gclid=CjwKCAjwq57cBRBYEiwAdpx0vd5Y7-sprOpw038aGHGxj4dR9z5UvqFqSQy5iNTecRzJNXdZnf64jRoCIUkQAvD_BwE

Paris: Back Home

Anyone who has ever visited Paris in August immediately senses that something is out of whack.  Other than the Parvis in front of Notre-Dame or the Tour Eiffel, Paris is practically empty.  It is the Congée Annuelle otherwise known as August.  There are plenty of parking spots on the street, seats are empty on the metro.  At least half the retail stores are closed for the month with a sign thanking us for our understanding.

IMG_1637.JPG

I walked outside of my apartment building this morning at 10:45.  There wasn’t a person to be seen.  It was eerily quiet.  The Boulangerie on the corner is closed.  Two out of the three fruit and vegetable markets are closed.  The Greek deli is closed. The pizza and sandwich shop is closed.  The one and only Women’s clothing shop is closed.  The chocolate shop is open with an ice cream stand outside the door.

IMG_1630.JPG

Where Parisians live, it is silent.  Where tourists gather, there are more people than ever.  Trying to walk across the Parvis to meet a friend at a cafe was like negotiating one of the hardest obstacle slalom courses one could find.  Tourists don’t walk.  They amble—as they should.  How else is one to take in the beauty that is Paris?  However, if you live here, as I do, tourist places should be avoided at all costs.  Especially if you need to be somewhere.  It is a good reminder of the awe that most of us felt when we first arrived.  When rambling was the height of entertainment.

IMG_1627.JPG
Walking towards Cathedral Notre-Dame

IMG_1628.jpg
Line snaking around the Parvis–waiting to go inside Notre Dame.  Not nearly as crowded as the day I tried to cross it to get to a cafe.

Quinze Août (August 15th–The Assumption of Mary) is a holiday within the vacation month.  Then absolutely everything shuts down.  I asked Barbara, “Isn’t it a contradiction to have everyone celebrating a Catholic holiday in a Socialist Country?”                           She responded “no, not at all.  Unlike the US, we have total separation of church and state.”                                                                                                                                                    (Note: now that Macron is President, France is no longer a Socialist country).

IMG_1631.JPG

The stores that are open have tiny signs in their windows telling us that things are still at “very small prices.”  Les Soldes is over but they hope to get rid of all their stock before La Rentrée.  La Rentrée which literally means The Re-Entry.  When everyone comes back to Paris, back to work and back to school.

But we have one more week of August yet to go!!!

A bientôt,

Sara

IMG_1636 2.jpg

 

 

Le Gers: Sacred Places

When I wrote about le Chemin de St. Jacques that starts in Le Puy and works it way down France to Lectoure and west to Condom and Montreal, I was fascinated by a big detour.  As the Way goes west from Lectoure, it suddenly goes due north 8 kilometres to the  Collegial of La Romieu and then back down 8 kilometres and makes it way to Condom.  La Romieu had to be something very special to the pilgrims.  I learned it is classed as a World Humanity site by UNESCO.

IMG_1428.JPG

The Village itself was founded by two Benedictine monks on their return to Rome in 1062.  The word Romiau means Roman pilgrim.  Later, Cardinal Arnaud d’Aux wanted to build a Church that would be the tomb for his family.  Today, Le Romieu hosts a beautiful church, Sacristy with painted ceilings, Cloisters and a tower.  From the top, on a clear day, one can see the Pyrenees.

IMG_1499.JPG

What charmed me was the story of Angeline and her cats.  The short version is that during the middle ages, the people in the village were starving and took to eating cats and dogs.  The child, Angeline, hid her two cats.  When the time of starvation passed, the rats came.  Angeline’s cats killed the rats and saved the village.  We ate at a restaurant called Angeline’s.  Everywhere you walked, a stone cat or fascimile would be gazing into the distance.

 

IMG_1465.jpg    IMG_1456.jpg

Driving up to Le Romieu, one sees two towers not one rising into the sky on either side of the Collegiale.  It is a magnificent skyline.  In July, a music festival and Fete is held on a long weekend called Festival Musique en Chemin.

IMG_1453.jpg

My ticket to Le Romieu gave me access to Les Jardins de Coursiana, a 900 meter walk from the village.  The Botanical gardens are actually four different gardens: an English garden, a medicinal garden, a huge vegetable garden (plenty of vegetables were on sale in the Boutique), and a PotagerIMG_1531.JPG Familial.

Entering a well loved garden has always given me a deep sense of peace, much more so than many churches and cathedrals that I have visited. These gardens were created in 1974 by Gilbert Cours -Darne, an eminent French botanist (he was awarded the Olivier de Serres prize, the highest distinction bestowed by the Academie d’Agriculture), the arboretum occupies 6 hectares and contains 700 different species of trees and shrubs. Situated by the road to Saint-Jacques de Compostelle with a view of the St Pierre de La Romieu collegiale, the Coursiana Gardens offer you a serene pause in a beautiful environment. Veronique and Arnaud Delannoy, the owners of the arboretum, as a result of their painstaking work, received the national Edouard d’Avdeew’s prize, awarded by the Association des Parcs Botaniques de France. In 2001, a partnership was established with Fleurance Nature to create a medicinal and aromatic plants garden, which opened in spring 2002. (most of this from TripAdvisor).

IMG_1521.JPG
The magnificent Oak

Some reviews say “Come in May”.  During the first two weeks in August, I saw: Wisteria shading lilac plants, large orange marigolds protecting long rows of tomatoes, green beans and aubergines.  Next to a lake with two swans and 3 ducks, rose an Oak tree that had been planted two hundred years ago.  It towered majestically over the rest of the many trees nearby.  It’s branches, in almost a perfect circle hung canopy-like over the bottom of a Japanese Fountain and waterfall.  Hanging to the sides of the lake were the largest Hibiscus plants I have ever seen.

IMG_1525.JPG  IMG_1522.JPG

The brochure says it takes 1.5 hours to walk the gardens.  That’s a rush for me.  I wanted to sit on many of the wooden benches strategically placed for contemplation.  The gardens were very quiet.  Visitors seem to respect the deep spiritual sense of beauty that the gardens instil.

IMG_1532.JPG

A couple of days later, with only one day left in Le Gers, we visited L’Abbaye de Flaran.  It  is a former Cistercian abbey located in Valence-sur-Baïse, The abbey was founded in 1151, as a daughter house of Escaladieu Abbey, at the confluence of the Auloue and Baïse rivers, between the towns of Condom and Auch. The abbey was founded by Burgundian monks and today represents one of the best preserved abbeys in the south-west of France. (Wikipedia)

IMG_1586.JPG    IMG_1613.JPG

After years of tumult, almost being sold off and ending up in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the site was purchased by the department of Gers in 1972 and underwent an intense restoration project; it is now the site of numerous cultural activities. The site houses a permanent exhibition on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, the Way of St. James.

IMG_1605.JPG

At the turn of the Century, Michael Simonow donated all his art collection to the Abbey.  They have been showing exhibitions every since.  The one we saw on the First floor looking over the Cloisters was called The English School.  It was a lovely exhibition but…it gave the Abbey a feel of a museum.  Downstairs is the permanent exhibition of Les Chemins de St. Jacques.  Entering that stone room with two stone sculptures of what Jacques must have looked like, I was immediately transported back to the spiritual feelings this being (me) almost automatically soaks up when near this Way.  A bit like being wrapped up in a light shawl.   I am so looking forward to starting on Le chemin next summer.  I don’t even care about getting to Spain.  Just being around it, so close to it for over a month, has given me a great feeling of longing to walk on the path that so many pilgrims have walked on. I even talked a fish market into giving me a half shell of a  Scallop to place in my small terrace garden.

To learn more about any of these places, go to…

https://www.brouquere.com/visit/collegiale-romieu_en.htm

www.jardinsdecoursiana.com

https://www.brouquere.com/visit/abbaye-de-flaran_en.htm

Why is the Scallop Shell symbolic of the Way of the Pilgrim?                                                                                   https://caminoways.com/the-scallop-shell-and-the-camino-de-santiago

A bientôt,

Sara