I have an idea…

When the idea was born to go to Europe this year, it was to meet up with friends and do a river cruise on the Charentes River from Jarnac in the Cognac region of France. The cruise would be 5 nights out of a 5 week trip. We were still two days away from our bare-boat charter reservation. En route to Jarnac we went inland to a small town called Descartes.

We stopped in Richelieu, a small, walled town, to buy supplies. Richelieu, France! This was the powerful man who pushed Louis XIII to colonize New France – Canada. He pushed the French aristocracy out, centralized French government, and before his death, paved the way for Louis XIV to be the most powerful monarch until the revolution broadsided that. Another history lesson…And we were in his walled town. By the way, it is paved in marble. The grocery store was ok and we bought fresh lamb, eggs, fruit and almost a few earthenware pate terrines that the deli discards after the terrines of duck, rabbit or pate de campagnes are sold. They were only 1-2Euros each. Don’t need them. They won’t fit in the trailer. Not packing them through France and Spain… And they would make good gifts too!! Nope.  But oh my, if our life were considered normal….

Why Descartes? Because we found a couple of rooms online, in a house that was affordable and quaint. It was definitely out of the way but as with many travels, sometimes the odd ones are the best. Descartes is the birthplace of philosopher René Descartes who revolutionized dualism as thinking and matter, paving the way to modern physics. His famous quotes such as “I think, therefore I am.” or ” It is not enough to have a good mind, the main thing is to use it well.” are solid ideas that still make it on to T-shirts and Pinterest posters! We were in this smarty-pants home town.

We arrived at the address, “Le 37” (also the name of the accommodation), and rang the ancient doorbell. Nothing. Tried again…then there was some thumping and the door six meters away opened. In we went into a century’s old “house” with 3 floors and a tower. The storefront was just a ruse. Each bedroom boasted a comfortable king sized bed, with crisp white sun dried linens and a private bathroom. There was a large spiral staircase up to our rooms and the kitchen was on the ground floor and a garden courtyard just outside the kitchen door. The “younger-than-us” owner, Pierre, spoke his beautiful English/Parisian French accented language, as he showed us our home for the next 20 hours. He had fresh tomatoes, nectarines from his garden, a loaf of bread, cheese and jams for us to help ourselves, and lovely stories of the area. He acquired the home from a family that had lived there for many generations. The 60+ year old son of the elderly couple who still lived in it had to sell it because they were 100+ years old and didn’t want the son to have it. Why not? Because he married a divorcée!!! Sacrè Blu! Fast forward to their deaths and he had to sell quickly, and Pierre was there at the right time. It was in pretty bad shape as the old parents had not renovated it at all and many generations of history were on the walls. This was actually fortunate because all the “bones” of the place were good without having to survive poor quality renovations.

He said his motivation to purchase the house was the tower, but discovered the most interesting part of the building was underground. Below the yard and the building was a well that he used to water his garden. It was surrounded by a tunnel entrance and a cellar that dated back to some original constructions from around 1200-1400 AD. They were typical to many small towns as the tunnels lead to the church of Saint Georges and most were under the roads. His wine cellar was below, and he took Albert and another guest (who, coincidentally was a real estate evaluator with civil engineering background from the UK) for a tour.

Pierre is an artist and truly a gentle soul, with a quick wit, keen eye and a highlight of our trip. We didn’t take enough pictures of his garden but there are great photos on booking dot com here https://tinyurl.com/yyhcevvr

The next morning the whole town came alive for the Sunday market. We bought Paella and Tajine from a rotisserie food truck, drank a lovely café au lait, and hit the road en route to our next stay near Jarnac and the Charentes River. 

Our cruise was dreamed up by our friends Bill and Luba who we were traveling with. The boat had 4 staterooms so 2 more couples, and long-time friends, came along as well. Lori, my bestie for more than 50 years, Mike her hubby, from Calgary, and our friends from Qualicum, Jill and Cam. We had a fun meal in Paris with Lori and Mike before Albert and I headed to Normandy. They were continuing to Carcasson after Paris with Calgary friends then meeting us at Le Boat. The night before our cruise began, we all met in Jarnac for a meal. We brought our market finds and the rest of the menu was cheese and bread, of course!!

3/4 of the group, bread and cheese in Jarnac with Paella and Tajine…and sparkling happy water!!!

Albert and I were staying just outside of Jarnac and on the way in the next day we stopped in a vineyard, nibbled Bread with Bordier Butter (4% salé) and fresh preserves….

Bordier butter and Jam in a Pineau de Charentes vineyard….

The next day we provisioned the boat, parked the cars at the “Le Boat” secure parking, got on board, set off, opened our first bubbly, and headed downstream towards Cognac. Jill and Cam were meeting us there. They just finished an epic Morocco trip including sleeping in the Sahara in a tent and 4 days of travel on camel back. Le Boat had asked us to come early because the river keepers were closing the locks along our route on the river to work on a bridge.  What!!?? We had 3 locks to go through before they shut it down, so we made tracks.

We went under the aforementioned bridge…there was really only half a bridge, a crane and a bunch of trades guys. We got to the third lock and they wouldn’t let us through because the river was too low. One of the weirs was stuck open. The “Le Boat” staff had driven down river to meet us and we ended up going back to Jarnac for the night with the possibility the weir would be fixed quickly, and we would be able to get through the next day. We could have changed our plans and headed upstream but there were a lot more locks in that direction. The locks were not mechanized. We hand cranked every one of them to empty, fill, open and close. We contacted Jill and Cam, and they hopped aboard in Jarnac.

We pushed off upstream and camped for the night with the instructions that we could tie up anywhere unless there was a sign saying privé. The Charente river is a gentle flowing, tree lined, narrow reservoir that is full of life. The trails and paths along riverbanks were formerly roads used to drag the barges of merchandise for trade and security. There are swans that are a bit pushy and follow the boats looking for treats. There are many dens along the riverbank that may house Coypu (or another name is Nutria), beaver-like mammals that we never saw. There are many fishermen, campers, and even in parts, water-skiers. It is “clean” even though the “le Boat” staff said the sewage was macerated and flushed…into the river…

We had our first night in the bag and the next morning we were given the all clear to head down river. We had 4 more nights before the boat needed to be back. Our ultimate destination was Saintes and a return to Jarnac. These are not long distances and we had a slow boat. The weather was perfect, and we were able to be out on the top deck while we motored. The deck had loungers, two large tables, a small fridge and sink. The 4 stateroom-cabins each had a washroom with toilet, sink and shower. The kitchen was well appointed with a large fridge, stove oven and huge table. The interior was air conditioned so during a particularly hot night we ran the AC. Travelling on the river through the shade of the trees gave us a gentle and cooling breeze, so we were entirely comfortable the whole time. We did cool down with some Pineau de Charentes, beer, sparkling wines, G&T’s too!!!

We traveled into the town of Cognac where the massive Hennessy Cognac house is. Courvoisier is in Jarnac along with Louis Royer. This was Cognac after all!!! Mike and Bill did the Hennessy tour that lasted over an hour and a half on both sides of the river, including a cruise in the Hennessy launch traverse to the other side where their cognacs were aging. Albert gave everyone a lesson in why the buildings in the region were black. A mould that, due to the distillation and aging processes, feeds on “the angels share” and grows on the sides of the buildings in the town.

On the Hennessy tour day, Albert sustained an injury to his leg (fluky, weird, cramp in right quadricep mid air causing severe charlie-horse of insane proportions on landing) while jumping off the boat to go through one of the locks, so he missed the Hennessy tour. When we got to Saintes the next day, Lori, Mike, Albert and I did a mini train tour of the town. Saintes is a great little town with a large Roman Colosseum ruin. The train took us up and down all the hills and past all the great landmarks, churches, and historical sites for over an hour.

Another small town we stayed beside, Chaniers, had a free power and water hookup and a short walk to town. We toured around the centuries old town and stopped for crêpes near the river. The bakery had a sign on it, closed for a few weeks well-earned holiday and would open the next day. We made note of this and graced their doorstep before heading out the next day. They also had an after-hours baguette vending machine. We didn’t attempt push button baguette.

Most of the small towns in France that we visited or drove through seemed like ghost towns. Gone are the days of the neighbours sitting out on doorsteps, visiting and watching the world go by. Granted the siesta time in the afternoon is real, and people do relax inside away from the frantic pace the world runs at, but I also think watching kids in the playgrounds vs screen time may play a big part in the cultural landscape everywhere including small town France. Our boat trip was a lot of fun, very comfortable, relaxing and we all had a great trip. This was the first time we had stayed in the same bed since Paris for more than one or two nights. It was great to be able to cook and share a big meal with everyone. There was no shortage of laughs and suspense from 400+ collective years of travel stories. When we returned up the river, we were prepared to duck our heads under the demi bridge, but that half was gone too, so we understood the reason for the earlier closure just a few days before. Our cruise was complete, and we were on to the next adventures. Cruising on a riverboat was a great idea. Thanks Bill and Luba!!!

Stay tuned…Jill and Cam left us to travel north and the rest of us traveled to the city of Bordeaux.

To the sea!

We had been jumping from city to city for the last two weeks. Montréal, Quebec, New York City and then 5 nights in Paris so the transition to the French countryside was welcome. We headed out along the Paris Perimeter freeway, the Peripherique, past Versailles, heading for Honfleur and ultimately, Juno Beach.

First stop Giverney, where famed impressionist artist Claude Monet lived. This small town has one street going along it called, you guessed it, Rue Claude Monet. They have completely turned his estate and surroundings into a tourist destination. There is a museum, his home and garden, the little church with his resting place and a gift shop. Or two. That said, it was very calm, quaint, in fact the setting was gentle.

As we arrived, there were numerous arrows pointing to many parking lots but the feel of the area was not pushy. There are a few Gites and centuries old buildings that have been gently crafted from barns and forges or old farmhouses into tasteful, artful accommodations. We walked the path to the church first. It was modest. The graveyard was small. Monet’s plot was full of flowers that were overgrown. He was laid to rest with his loved ones. Pretty normal.

We walked back to his home, paid for entry and then the magic truly began. His house is a museum of his motivations. There were many prints of Japanese influence and some of the other artists of the time. The furniture was still displayed as if he lived there and the garden was fully visible from the large windows. Most of the European houses and accommodations that we have stayed in have small shuttered windows with thick walls. Monet’s house had large windows on all sides of the building allowing natural light to brighten even the darkest room. Then he layered colours and patterns throughout.

His dining room was bright yellow in contrast to the adjoining kitchen that was blue and lined with copper pots and pans. The walls in the hallway were a soft pastel green. We were in his colour palette!!

The garden has been maintained and continues to be an inspiration for many visitors. If you could sit on a bench, it was yours and there were a couple of people painting “en pleine air”. We walked through the colours, textures and themed displays. There is a tunnel that goes below the road and when we exited on the other side we were at the famous Monet pond. This pond had a lot of people taking pictures on the bridges, the trailways and the benches. Everywhere around that pond was beautiful. The reflection, the stillness and the colours made everyone speechless, and it was quiet even with the many people touring around the grounds. To have been there when it was a private garden would have been soothing and ever-changing depending on the light, the season, the weather, or the mood. Monet’s tribute was well worth the stop and could be a beautiful place to stay, en Gite, for a few days with day trips to nearby towns or hikes in the countryside.

From there we were on our way to Honfleur. This little seaside town is across a massive bridge from le Havre.

small pictures make big objects seem small….this bridge was enormous

Honfleur was a major a shipping hub until le Havre took over. It was a very quaint seaside town that had the most remarkable wooden church, St Catharine’s Catholic Church, near the boat basin. The northern coast of France saw alot of destruction during the world wars and much of it has been rebuilt. So to see this church still in tact was a surprise.

We walked the many tiny streets and found the old prison, where pirates and nasty folks spent their last days in chains with their friends the rats. Honfleur has many restaurants that line the boat basin with good drinks and mediocre food. We were directed not to eat there by the woman who checked us into our accommodation. We found the restaurant she suggested and we were not disappointed. Luba and I had the Moules et Frites and wished we’d had the platter of langoustines.

We rented an apartment that was hidden away between a bunch of buildings in what was probably a courtyard at one time. Our apartment had a small window in each bedroom and a sky light.The foot print was about 40 ft by 10 ft. It was 2 floors high and remarkably light inside with white walls. The bedrooms were on opposite ends of the top floor. The architect managed to allow light through the floors with a spiral staircase and glass floor panels between the bedrooms. Unique, but no opportunity to look out a window so a bit claustrophobic and happy we were staying just the one night. Such a contrast from Giverny and Monet.

No going commando here!! Or maybe….

The road to Juno Beach has many signs of the battles won and lost. There are mini memorials along the route and what are now large fields of corn, hay and sunflowers, was mud and destruction before our lifetimes. There were references to the allies, the resistance, the names of locals who died in the wars, and the many graveyards with the military crosses in rows. We arrived at Juno Beach on a cloudy windy day. The English Channel was grey and foreboding. It was easy to imagine the action and the museum display at the Canadian “Centre Juno Beach” was also immersive.

When we walked in, there was a woman with an Anglo-Canadian accent. We asked where she was from. She said Victoria. We said Parksville. She said she went to school in Parksville. Her mom taught there. Turns out Haley was a year older than our kids, knew them a bit and her mom was Elly’s favourite teacher. Ha! She talked about her opportunity to work there as a tour guide and staffer. The Centre is funded by a foundation but her employment and that of others is through a federal government student employment grant program. She was 6 months into a 7 month contract. The Centre was staffed with bilingual Canadian youth, who were post secondary students between levels or taking a gap year. She was over the moon and loved the work she was doing, the people she met and the paid opportunity to improve her French…IN FRANCE!!

Juno Beach is one of a number of points of land that was occupied by the Germans during WWII. The area is flat and the beach is long. 150,000 allied troops advanced on the Germans from 5 different beaches spanning about 80 kilometers. On D-Day 14,000 Canadian troops were responsible for advancing on the beach codenamed Juno. There were heavy casualties that day with over 10, 000 allies including over 1000 Canadians being hurt or killed, but the sheer number of troops overwhelmed the Germans and was the pivotal moment for the allies against the Nazi occupation. The remains of Nazi bunker and tunnels throughout the region are still evident and at the Centre there are tours through the ones near the building.

We went down to the sandy beach where the sand is a tan red colour sprinkled with many scallop shells. We dipped our toes into the English Channel, acknowledged the losses and proceeded to Brittany and Saint Malo.

Normandy is known for orchards and spirits derived from the apples. Calvados and Cider are featured in many roadside markets, farms and shops. The coastal foods of both Normandy and Brittany feature oysters, whelks, mussels, scallops, cockles, limpets, various fish and the famous Agneau pré-salé, Salt Marsh Lamb. The fish are caught, cooked and eaten, but the lamb is famous for it’s diet. Sheep that graze on the marshy lands along the sea produce a meat that locals say has a much richer flavour. Sadly, we missed tasting the lamb while we were there but we did have some lovely meals. A New York Times article that I read says that the lamb is marketed and available, though very expensive, throughout the world. It also mentioned that other seaside communities around the world are growing lamb this way, including in BC. I would love to know who. We will find it…we will!!

Do you see them? Grazing on salt marsh delicacies…

In the town of Saint Malo, we went to find the butter. A while ago on Mind of a Chef, I saw the excerpt of Bordier Butter from Saint Malo. So this was my one and only planned food pilgrimage. Google it. Watch it on Netflix. Find the show. The fine craft of handmade and shaped butter. I bought the salted butter and the seaweed butter. We waited a few days to taste it with our friends….

Saint Malo was built by opportunists (pirates) who ravaged the working seafarers that shipwrecked along the rocky coastline. The fortified wall around the town now serves as a touristy walkway above the town where at one time it housed cannons and muscle. The richest merchants (pirates) built their multi story armed homes into the walls of the city in order to watch for wayward trading ships in order to steal their loot.

The church is dedicated to the many maritimers who spent their lives on the sea. Jacques Cartier, a resident of Saint Malo, was sent to find Asia and wound up finding the Saint Lawrence. He mapped it and contributed to the forming of New France. His crypt is in the church in Saint Malo along with a story of his legacy. I am not sure if I should be happy about this, the colonization of North America and the treatment of our aboriginal people, but I love where I am from and this a part of our collective story.

One of the reasons for the stay at Saint Malo was to visit Mont Saint Michel. There is a large cathedral built on top of an island and a surrounding walled town snakes up the mountain to the cathedral. It was formerly an island at high tide but now there is a dyke road that shoots out to the bottom of the island. Surrounding the road are fields of salt marsh and SHEEP!! Many of the massive tourist centre hotels and restaurants along the road advertise the “Agneau pré salé” . Who knows if they are legitimate or just serving regular lamb? The obvious tourism this landmark has produced is overwhelming.

We were advised to arrive at the island at 5 to avoid the crowds. The massive parking lots have large shuttle busses that ferry the tourists to the gate at the base of the mountain. We walked up to the cathedral only to find that it doesn’t let people in after 5. WHAT???!!! So we poked around. There are a couple of old hotels, many tourist shops, some overpriced mediocre restaurants and lots of stairs. We left there and went back to Saint Malo. We weren’t really disappointed. It is pretty spectacular, but not seeing the cathedral was ok. We have seen alot of beautiful old churches along the way. The crowds were similar to pushing our way through Versailles the Louvre and any other major tourist attraction.

We spent two nights beside the walled city of Saint Malo in an apartment on the isthmus called La Cité. We could see the walled city from our small village across one of the bays. across the street from us was a small restaurant that had two staff. The front and the back. In the front was about 25 seats, a wood fired brazier/grill, a small bar and a window through to the kitchen. The old brick, stone and mortar walls had a blackboard with the daily offerings and another wall had green leafy branches in water in glass tubes hanging from a few sticks. It was cheap, effective and gave a feeling of a fireplace in a forest beside a stone wall. Very cosy. In fact the name of the restaurant was Cozy Braise. The man on the grill also did the bartending and service, while the apprentice in the back prepared the plates for the grilled items and the salads. It was excellent! So simple and so tasty. The menu was small with steak, lamb chops, duck breast, local sausages and scallops. I ordered the lamb, unfortunately not the marsh fed lamb, but it was excellent and cooked to perfection. Luba and Bill had a mixed grill and Albert had the duck magret. Side dishes were roast potatoes that were cooked in duck fat and a salad. We shared two skewers with scallop and prawns. So simple. The guy was a master at keeping his coals perfect, working the full room, mixing drinks, opening wine then pouring the first glass, and making sure the food was done just the way the customers asked.

The next day our destination was near Carnac on the South-West side of Brittany. En route we hugged the norther coast along the English channel and went to see an old light house at Cap Fréhel. It was fairly remote and when we got there we parked and headed down the path to the large lighthouse structure. Arriving at that lighthouse we saw the old one and headed to it. There are very few trees here and the landscape is covered in heather and prickly gorse.

There are trails that hug the coastline and we could have hiked along to the next point of land 5 k away, but we were still a long way from our final destination that day. France, and probably most of Catholic Europe, is covered in trailways that have been used for millenia. The local lore said that the trails along the coast were part of the pilgrimage trails that lead to the many monasteries, churches, cathedrals that dot every town, mountain and valley throughout Europe. The Spanish Camino de Santiago de Compostela is a Hollywood-famous (if you have seen the movie “The Way” with Martin Sheen you will understand the reference) set of trails that accommodates thousands of hikers from around the globe every year. These trails join the trailways that also lead past this gorse infested French trail and the route to the Mont Saint Michel among others. So if you want to walk and walk and walk, there are plenty of pilgrim trailways to be had.

We set off away from the Cap and headed inland to cut through to the Atlantic side of Brittany. We stayed at a Gite (France’s agritourism accommodation) in Plouhinec. We brought a dinner of charcuterie, wine, cheese and bread. The garden party was on.

Next morning we headed out in search of the Carnac stones; France’s Stonehenge. The Carnac Megalithic Alignments are part of a series of large granite stones that have been placed in long rows or as dolmens throughout the region. When we left our Gite, we saw many homes and yards with similar granite displays but we were not convinced that these were authentic. Suddenly there was a series of about 80 enormous rocks in rows beside the road. We quickly pulled over, took pictures and continued on to find the rest.

Our car GPS and our friends GPS in their car obviously had different satellites to work from because that was the last we saw of them and they missed the visitor centre, interpretive centre and the road that skirts along the 4 kilometres of the rest of the stones.

In the area were also some temples, dolmens, and other structures that we had no time to find, but if we had planned to stay longer we would definitely have tried to see all the 5 areas that had these Neolithic displays from over 6000 years ago.