Lost In Limoges

From the sheep-dotted pastures of France's underpopulated Southwest, Limoges rises in all its grey glory. The city's claim to fame: fine porcelain. The half-timbered houses of the Medieval center are surrounded by strip malls and McDo. Land-hungry Brits descend with flailing pocketbooks (thanks, RyanAir). The weather is remarkably cool year-round. Sure, I live on rue de Nice, but this is NOT the Cote d'Azur. Welcome to Limoges, "the middle of nowhere"-- or as Pierre says "everywhere"-- France.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Merry Christmas and an Ode to Crème Brulée

This is how it's done. The crisp outer shell (which crackles just so when the spoon makes contact), the smooth creamy texture inside, and that pretty plate drizzled with sauce. After buying a crème brulée set at the Montcuq market, Pierre has subjected countless poor guests to our pathetic creations-- sometimes burned, sometimes cold and full of lumps, too custardy, or too sugary. We can't figure it out. Maybe it has something to do with the Old School sugar-burner which we heat over the stove's gas flame. I think Williams-Sonoma could help us out. (Hint, hint.)

Happy Holidays. I'll be back soon with updates from the southwest of France!

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Marvels of the Millevaches

Hiking across the Millevaches Plateau is like jumping back in time. (For my first encounter with this mystical, Druid-haunted place, check out this post.) The word is Occitan, and has nothing to do with a "thousand cows." Millevaches actually refers to the number of springs bubbling from the sloping pastoral landscape. In the middle of France, indeed in the middle of nowhere, this granite plateau abuts the Massif Central. Villages are sparse. You won't bump into many other folks out there, but you'll see lots of cows.

Three brothers and I set out for the last hike of the season and ended up with numb fingers and ears. We traversed fields and forest, lost out there in the cold. Though when we walked through protected hollows, where the wind was buffered, we felt toasty warm in the sunshine. Plus, chocolate-covered madeleines, a regional specialty, served as the best kind of sustenance.

Summiting a mountaintop, we stumbled upon three enormous stone crosses. So we stopped to picnic beneath them, overlooking the Lake Vassivière in the distance, despite the wind roaring across the peak. Shivering, huddled together, we appreciated the glorious vista and our ice cold wine.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Les Petits Ventres: Medieval Food Fair on the Rue de la Boucherie, Limoges

The frères came to visit at the end of October, coinciding with Les Petits Ventres in Limoges. Despite the freezing temperatures and the rugby match on TV (talk about a distraction), we hit up the fabulous food festival. Convivial and jolly, the ancient fair dates back to 930 AD. All the local butchers set up stalls and grills along the Rue de la Boucherie (literally: Butcher Street) and serve up tasty local specialties like boudin aux châtaignes, tripe, and foie gras. (The trade in this quartier dates back centuries).

The half-timbered houses were twinkling with lights and the crowds packed the tiny medieval alley. We were swept along in the current of people (wine cups in hand, sloshing everywhere). Quite the street party. Manu and I ate a foie gras sandwich, I kid you not. The first and only time in my life that I've seen this delicacy slathered between two hunks of bread.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Ars, the Phare des Baleines, and Other Charms of the Île de Ré

What could be better than a pot of coffee and crossaints (with lots of jam and butter) overlooking Saint-Martin's citadel and the sea? At the charming hotel La Galion, our windows opened out onto the seaside park and lighthouse, encircled by Vauban's ramparts. The mist was heavy that Monday morning, so I was so glad we had soaked up so much sun the day before.

After breakfast we walked along the water's edge, following the fortifications. From the sky, this fortress at Saint-Martin appears to be star-shaped. Vauban was the military engineer for Louis XIV, the Sun King, who constructed a string of forts along the Atlantic coast in the 17th century. France was impenetrable. Now the town of Saint-Martin, along with 13 other sites representing Vauban's work, is a candidate for admission to the UNESCO World Heritage list. (These forts run along the Charente-Maritime coast, and into Bretagne.)

Circling the island by car, we really got a sense of the lay of the land. There are some 30 kilometers of sandy beaches, the best on the southern part of the island. The northern coast is marked by mudflats, oyster farms, and salt evaporation pools. (The day before, we had biked around Loix and discovered the salt marshes and bird sanctuaries there.)

At the westernmost edge, we stopped in Ars-en-Ré, listed as one of the most beautiful villages in France, and picked up a picnic of quiche, baby pizza, and desserts galore at the boulangerie, where the line out the door was slowed by the baker's gossipy exchanges with each customer. The town is known for its bizarre church steeple (check out the photo on the official site)-- a black and white conical thing jutting into the sky. It's some 40 meters high and serves as a beacon for sailors. The smattering of whitewashed houses and tangled web of alleyways, fragrant with flowers, are utterly charming.

Dating from the 11th century, the village is surrounded by salt marshes from where workers harvested the coarse sea salt (fleur de sel). Folks still gather the salt from the Fier d'Ars marshes. It was fascinating to see the salt evaporation pools; the mountains of salt near the cooperative of small producers. The piles of salt actually look like dark pebbles.

Stomachs growling, we veered north and headed towards the island's most famous monument, the Phare des Baleines, for our picnic. The first tower built by Vauban, the Grand Phare was in operation from 1682 to 1854. The adjacent lighthouse is one of the tallest in France at 57 meters. I expected to find the crashing Atlantic surf, waves pounding against the beach, but no such luck. Saint-Martin is obviously protected-- not only by the stone fortifications but also by the natural geography of the island, which curves to the north and thus shields the coastal harbor towns from Atlantic surges. But even at the western tip, everything was still and quiet, cushioned by the mud and tidal pools. (It must have been low tide.)

Instead of heading to the top to check out the views, we hopped the high wall to get down to the beach and eat! (So maybe those famed fortifications weren't as foolproof as I thought...) The beach was deserted, except for some fishermen out on the flats. There is a specific method of fishing, native to the region, and those who pêche are adamant about protecting it. Centuries ago, jetties were painstakingly constructed, fitted with rock and nothing but rock to hold them in place. From there, the fishermen can venture out over the sea to fish. Or at low tide-- as we witnessed-- use the jetties as a way to reach the distant tidal pools.

We chatted with a fisherman about the strange sea life we observed from our perch on the jetty. The weirdest mollusk I've ever seen, with wings flapping like a sting ray, inching along the bottom, but sometimes flailing out of the water...

Pictured: The view from our hotel window; a boat tied up in the fortified maze leading from sea to the harbor at Saint-Martin; view of the wind-swept beach on the southern side of the island from the ramparts; shots of the village of Ars; the Phare des Baleines; the fishing jetty; looking back at the lighthouse; no fishing-- except for members of the local association...

Saturday, December 08, 2007

La Baleine Bleue: Dinner in Saint-Martin de Ré

It was such a good meal; I'm kicking myself that I don't remember every little detail! Pierre ordered the fish paired with vegetables prepared in a tagine style (those clay Moroccan pots where all the flavors simmer for hours, the aromas steeping, slow-cooked to perfection). My fish came with sautéed cèpes and a tiny pot of saffron-flavored crème brulée. In fact, the menu was brimming with choices of freshly-caught fish-- like a bountiful marketplace of the local catch.

We hadn't made reservations, just walked in. And it turned out to be one of those meals that lingers with you. So even if I forget the exact ingredients of those perfect sauces, I remember the artistic presentation, the glasses of Loire Valley wine, the big white plates against white tablecloths, and most of all, the cobble-stoned lanes along the harbor where the lights reflected in the water, the boats perfectly still (protected by Vauban's impressive reinforcements against the marauding English invaders), the air heavy with the sea.

The harbor may be perfectly picturesque during the daylight hours, but it is a million times so at night. Under shadow, with the sea fog rolling in, mysterious and romantic. We took our time strolling back to the hotel after a meal like that. (The finale? Delicious dessert with a flaming firecracker/birthday candle shooting sparks.)

PS. La Baleine Bleue's been around for 18 years and it's still serving tempting, tasty plates.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

L'île de Ré

I was content to wander around the port but Pierre insisted we get back in the car. La Rochelle was not the surprise! We circled past the little airport, where RyanAir now dumps thousands of pasty-white passengers for a quick dose of sun, and suddenly an enormous bridge loomed into view. This bridge is an impressive, modern construction; it seems to span out endlessly over the sea, soaring over the mud flats and brilliant blue Atlantic. On the other side? L'île de Ré.

The toll is hefty-- some EUR 16.50 in the summertime (EUR 9 in the winter)-- but it doesn't slow down the tide of tourists who venture out to this island. This long piece of land jutting out into the sea has become quite the posh summer getaway for Parisians. And apparently the traffic in the summer months is obscene. So we couldn't have picked a better time to come. A Sunday night in the middle of October-- we had our pick of the lovely hotels on the island.

St-Martin de Ré is the island's main town. Surrounded by 17th century fortifications, it's a picturesque fishing village of white-washed houses sparkling in the sun and a harbor full of wonderful workboats, sailboats, every kind of boat. You'd think we were on the Mediterranean coast. And I thought La Rochelle was nice. On L'île de Ré I was in hog heaven.

Biking is the best way to get around the island, and it couldn't be easier to rent a bike. (In fact, it's the preferred method of transportation. Check out the adorable elderly couple in the pic.) Scenic trails, a network of paved bike paths, cut in every direction. Just as quickly as we arrived and checked in our hotel, we were already on bikes, pedaling like maniacs, the sea on one side and miles of vineyards on the other.

Even while racing Pierre, I gripped the camera to snap the little hamlets as we sped by. And the burros. There is a tradition on the island to wrap up the legs of the donkeys to protect them from mosquitoes as they work. Absolutely hilarious.

We biked through small seaside towns where the traditional houses have green shutters and flower boxes full of geraniums. We noticed the mudflats where boats were stranded in low tide, the salt evaporation pools (the region is famous for its salt), the nature reserves for birds. The smell of the sea is everywhere. When we biked through fields and saw hunters camped out in camouflage, lingering at the end of the vines, Pierre obnoxiously sounded the alarm with his bicycle bell.

We paused for cokes at a café and soaked up the sunshine. Mid-October was actually hot. What a great way to spend a birthday. I didn't have time to think about the passing of the years...

At the end of the day, we pedaled back into St-Martin just in time to watch the light fade orange across the harbor's cobblestoned paths. Kids swarmed around a merry-go-round. A line snaked behind the kiosk for churros. We paused at the harbor's edge to have a kir at sunset.

Pictures: Notice the fortifications; the town of St-Martin is actually protected from both the land and sea. Also, check out the cat keeping watch outside an art gallery in St-Martin. Pierre loved the colorful paintings there.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Birthday Surprise: La Rochelle?

So I celebrated a big birthday last month. Pierre, trickster that he is, stealthily set the alarm for a Sunday morning and announced (at a dreadfully early hour) that we were going somewhere, that I needed to pack my bags. Hiking boots? Ski equipment? Bathing suit? The guy was mum so I was really at a loss.

In typical Pierre fashion, he refused to tell me where we were going, even when we were all packed away in the car, the trunk bulging with too many bags. (A girl's got to be prepared!) So began my sleuth work. We headed east. Could it be Bordeaux? I waited til we passed a few helpful road signs (the French rural routes are marked not by the cardinal direction, but by the towns passed along the way). Angouleme? Cognac? Santes? Only when we were about an hour from the coast did I have a clue.

La Rochelle!

I love La Rochelle. It is one of my favorite spots on earth. Positively baking in the sun (it's got as many hours of sunlight annually as the Mediterranean coast), the city is a historic marvel of seaside fortifications built by the famed military engineer, Vauban. I like to think that this is the spot from where the French ships sailed to help the American revolutionaries.

The harbor is packed with boats, which navigate a channel between two huge towers. Temperatures were surprisingly mild for mid October so we sipped some kirs au soleil, watching the pretty people walk by on the sea-smelling harbor promenade. I can think of no place better to eat lunch.

But La Rochelle was not our final destination.

PS. I am sporting some dreadful $10 sunglasses. After a good five years, I finally managed to smash my favorite pair (but thanks, Brookie!)