Monday, September 29, 2008

The Chemin de Saint Jacques

September 29, 2008 The Chemin de Saint Jacques
Today we decided to hike from our village of Kientzheim to the neighboring town of Riquewihr about 2½ miles away. We left at noon with lunch in our backpack, cutting through the vineyards, headed directly toward the hills. At the first crossroad there was a stone crucifix and markers showing the direction of the path. Suddenly we saw a shell symbol on the marker. We were on the Chemin de Saint Jacques! It’s the French segment of the Camino de Santiago. We never realized that we would actually be walking the trail in France before we began it in Spain next spring. As we continued to climb, the day warmed up and we took off our long sleeved shirts. When we finally traversed the last hill, there lay pretty little Riquewihr in front of us.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Burgundy and the Grape Harvest

September 26, 2008 Burgundy and the Grape Harvest
Today after a typical Burgundian breakfast of coffee or hot chocolate and a basket of croissants, spice bread, pain de vignerons (a raisin nut bread) and baguettes served with local honey and jams (strawberry, apricot and blackberry jelly along with dandelion, a new favorite); we left for the vineyards. The weather was clear and crisp. The rows of grapes stretched as far as we could see, up the side of the hills and throughout the valley. Workers picked in groups of about 20 – two or three with huge plastic baskets strapped to their backs wandered through the group while the rest cut the grapes, placed them in small pails and when they were full, dumped them in the large baskets. Along the road near each group a truck pulling a metal vat waited for the harvest. What an opportunity for us to be here right now to see this! A limestone cliff lined the west side of the valley, so we made our way through a small village with a 10th Century church of the Templar knights and climbed to the top of the cliffs. The view was fabulous - small red roofed villages and miles and miles of straight rows of vines outlined in short stone walls that have surely been there for centuries. The best vineyards even had huge wrought iron entry gates with the names of the label they produced. What an experience!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Our Medieval Picnic

September 20, 2008 Our Medieval picnic
Today we left Amboise in the Loire Valley headed for Burgundy, our car packed with the picnic lunch we would enjoy. We were hoping to find a picnic table along the road. About 1:00 we were getting hungry and decided to just pull into the next town we saw and hope to find a park. That town was Mehun-sur-Yèvre, a small village just outside of the large town of Bourges (we had never heard of either). What a find! We followed the signs for Centre Ville (downtown) and there we saw a sign for a château. Well, unlike the others we had see, this was a château in considerable disrepair – only two towers were left and some of the lower walls. Perfect. We sat on an old stone wall which must have been a lookout station in the 11th Century under the shade of the towers. Down below us meandered a little river with a park on the opposite bank. No one else was there. After our picnic of baguette, Brie, roast chicken and apples we climbed down the old castle ruins to cross the river. There in the park was a wedding party posing for pictures in the idyllic setting. Another perfect day of our adventure.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Vive la différence!

September 16, 2008 Vive la différence!

We’ve only been here one week and everyday we feel like we’ve got a lot to learn before this will all seem normal. It’s part of the adventure, but here are some of the differences that we hadn’t expected:
1) TV programs start anytime, not just on the hour and half hour - 6:50 PM is just fine.
2) Public toilets are everywhere – nice - but for men you go into a large phone booth type place on the sidewalk behind a metal half door. Flushing turns into a waterfall – look out for wet shoes!
3) Mini lap top computers (10 ounces!) – cost $425.00 – but watch out for the French keypad!
4) Cars yield for pedestrians in the crosswalks (don’t try that in Spain!)
5) Restaurants only serve from 12-2 and again after 6PM – don’t try to eat in between, no service.
6) Stores don’t pull down an iron grate over their windows at night.
7) When you pay with a charge card at the restaurants, they don’t take your card out of sight; they bring a hand held swiper to the table.
8) You can only park in spots outlined in white, not blue (we learned that the hard way).
9) When you are eating a block of cheese or getting butter from the stick, you need to slice it so that it retains its original shape (ie. Don’t cut the tip off the Brie or cut the corner off of a stick of butter). Paul cut the corner off of the new block of butter at one of the B&Bs while we we eating with the owners – glances were exchanged.
10) We have a combination microwave/toaster oven above our stovetop.
11) We wanted ice for our cooler at a grocery store– none to be found. One store person suggested a box of icecream!
12) When you set the table, forks are placed tine side down.
13) Dogs are incredible – no runnings around, jumping on people, barking – even without leashes. Owners barely say anything, let alone yell, and the dogs stay right with them.
14) When you go to a restaurant or café even for just a coffee, the table becomes yours for as long as you wish to sit and watch the world go by. No one comes to see if you want something else to encourage you to move on. It is impolite to bring the bill before you ask for it.
15) When you meet someone, even for a dinner party in which you will be sitting at the same table for several hours; people do not share their first names. Even people who know each other well call each other Madame or Monsieur.
16) The Hotel de Ville is not a hotel. We saw the beautiful building in the center of town and decided to go in to check out their rates – it’s the City Hall!
17) There is very little graffiti here and the streets are super clean.
18) We found the WalMart/Sam’s/Target of France! It’s called E. Leclerc and it’s a huge building complex on the edge of town with really nice quality and selection at cheap prices - gas ($6.75 per gallon), electronics (we bought a coffee maker for $20.00), pharmacy (haven’t needed it, yet!) and food (we bought a whole baked chicken for $7.00, usually over $20.00). There are some things about the USA that we really do miss!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Table d'hôte and the Market

September 12, 2008 – Table d’hôte
We just experienced our first Table d’hôte. What’s that?! (We weren’t really sure what to expect, either.) Before we left the USA; Martine, the French teacher at Parkway South, had told us that a table d’hôte was a fun experience that was a good value for evening dining – and she was right! Basically, the owners of a country inn invite a limited amount of people (6-8) to have dinner in their home. We paid 20 Euros ($28.00) per person for the "mystery" meal and were told to arrive at 7:45PM. We weren't sure what to wear, so we opted to go dressier rather than casual – good idea. We watched for the other people to arrive and walked in with them (on time, not like in Spain). There were 8 of us – the two owners, a couple from Switzerland and a couple from France. Thank goodness three of them spoke English! The lovely table and candles set the mood and we were off – first course, pâté and goat cheese on small toasts served with a grapefruit liqueur mixed with rosé wine from Chinon ; second course a tiny glass of cucumber, garlic, crème fraiche, and avocado mousse; third course, sweet cantaloupe with Basque ham served with a red wine from Chinon; fourth course, salmon with julienned carrots and onions en papillote (that means it was baked in a little paper bag for each person), angel hair pasta with a cream sauce topped with shaved truffles; fifth course, a cheese course of three different local goat cheeses and a Brie; sixth course, a plum tart tatin; seventh and final course, coffee and liquors. We left the table at 10:45 after three hours of wonderful food and interesting conversation. Now we can’t wait for our next table d’hôte next week in Burgundy!

September 14, 2008 – The Market
Today is Market day here in Amboise and since we finally have our own kitchen, we wanted to take advantage of the fresh produce and local cheeses, meats and fruits sold there. We knew that we should carry our own cloth bags for the purchases, like the locals - and we did (but no one was fooled – I’m sure we looked like newbies, since we oohed and aahed at every display). Food, even at the market, is expensive; but a lot of it is organic. They really advertise it and that’s where you see all the locals buying. We saw whole rotisserie chickens for 12 Euros ($18.00), which is actually cheaper than they usually are. (We still didn’t buy one.) We stocked up on huge brown eggs, fresh butter, shallots, garlic, zucchini, tomatoes, and local melons. One stand had fresh prunes that were outstanding (even Paul likes them!). When we threw our baguette of French bread in the sack and it stuck out the top, we felt like we were in a French movie.
After a stop at the regular grocery store for milk (no refrigeration necessary) and Diet Coke (so American!), we headed home for a great lunch. The windows are open (no screens, no bugs) and the temperature is in the mid 70s. So we’re off to visit the Château du Clos-Lucé (Leonardo Da Vinci’s home and gardens), which is about a 10 minute walk from our house this afternoon. We might have to stop for a pastry on the way back. I’m making it my mission to learn the names and flavors of all of them while we’re here – it may be difficult, but I’m going to keep at it!

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Loir(e) Valley, France

Sept. 10, 2008 – The Loir Valley, France
It’s hard to believe this is real. Even though we’ve been to France several times before, we’re constantly discovering so many new things – kiwis the size of pears growing on vines that look like grapes, tomatoes that look like huge banana peppers, begonias the size of saucers, pears and apple trees shaped like topiaries and loaded with fruit – all in the stone and rock wall enclosed garden where I’m sitting right now behind the manor house, doves cooing, the smell of lavender filling the air and the weather absolutely perfect.
So many things are different than we’ve experinced in Spain – libraries and churches have doors standing wide open all day – no charges to enter, even in the great cathedrals like Chartres. When we went into a phone store today to look for a surge protector for the computer, the man handed us a brand new one in the box and told us, “No charge”. Wow! When does that happen - anywhere?? The grocery stores are filled with local wines ($2 - $7.00 US per bottle!) and cheeses. We can’t wait until next week when we have our own kitchen. But for now we’ll just have to settle for a bottle of “Two Buck Charles”.

Sept. 11, 2009 - The Loire Valley, France
After leaving the northern Loir Valley, we traveled about ½ hour south to the Loire Valley (two different rivers, both pronounced the same). Wow, is that confusing?! Beautiful gardens at Villandry, but then it started to rain and the temperature dropped from 78 down to 55. That kind of ruined our walk through Azay-le-Rideau; so we headed for our B&B near Richelieu and with the help of the GPS in our Renault Scenic van, we came right to it. It’s a beautiful manor house with servants’ quarters. (That’s where we’re staying, of course - just like our last place.) The owners can probably never afford to keep the places they have without renovating and renting out the old stables, etc. It’s actually really nice and the rooms are larger than I would have expected – room for a table, desk area, seating area, etc. (Be sure to check out the pictures on our website.) But we’re not here to sit in a room! Hope the rain stops tomorrow!