Saturday, 18 November 2017

Saint Seurin d'Uzet - Chilly potterings in the SW of France

Saint-Serin d'Uzet (also called Chenac-Saint-Seurin-d'Uzet since a merger) is a small village on the right bank of the Gironde estuary, South West France with a tiny port, a church and a chateau. The day we visited it was offering howling wind and icy temperatures.

It is, however, caviar which is its greatest claim to fame. It was the most important producer of caviar from the female Sturgeon fish in France and possibly only one of two important suppliers in Europe in the past.

Around 1920 a white russian got the inhabitants to start producing caviar. Fifteen years later it was in full production and in the 50s the annual production reached 3-5 tonnes. The sturgeon became rare and fishing for it was outlawed from 1982. The museum was not open and functioning when we visited.

The village is in the heart of Pineau country meaning lots of a particular wine from the Charente region and the village is included in the area that produces cognac.

In this part of France's geography the estuary is near and so the river is very, very wide and it was difficult to see the other side of the river. We watched container ships moving up and down the river to Bordeaux while the weather made up its mind to rain or not.

We were surprised to see an ancient roman town being excavated. Originally it was by the sea but over 2000 years the sea has retreated leaving some cliffs so the old village is stranded a bit further inland though can be subject to flooding at times.

The old church is still functioning of sorts but I doubt there are many avid church-goers here. The population is small and sometimes seasonal.
The church is quite old with Roman style architecture. The sea comes up right alongside.

While in the area we visted Royan near the mouth of the Gironde. It's a beach resort sort of place but wet, windy and cold when we visited so we had to use our imagination as to how it might seem in Summer.
The houses have some interesting architecture.

 I finished off my visit to this area by sharing a little Kiwi culture; making a pavlova in the kitchen of a local couple - she French, he American.

We stayed a night with them before heading back home. The internet networks can certainly facilitate unexpected meetings and sharings.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Bordeaux - chic in its own right

I had been told that Bordeaux was a more chic version of Paris, the sort of Paris that Paris itself wanted to be. That piqued my curiosity.

As we arrived from driving through roads bordered by vinyards I really was impressed by the eighteenth century architecture along the Garonne river. The river travels over 600kms from Spain to empty into the Atlantic at Bordeaux.

Beside the river sits the city with it's Place de la Bourse water mirror. The day was hot and many families were making the most of the thin film of water supplied now and again by the municipality. Practical and aesthetic. Well laid out with generous spaces this city seemed cleaner than Paris. Trams help with getting around but it's easy to walk it. I toddled into a bookstore and came away with a travel guide on the area, in English. I tried on hats in a specialist hat shop and admired recent collections of Villeroy and Boch tableware. Shopping is varied but the usual big brands are everywhere.

Lunchtime dictated a meal in a specialist steak restaurant l’Entrecôte which operates on 4 levels so the staff get a daily workout negotiating the stairs with trays of steaks and fries. There is no menu here. The only thing you can order is a steak and fries and because they specialise they do it so well. Scrummy chips with an inhouse sauce for the steaks, cooked to whatever perfection you wish. I really did enjoy the meal. This restaurant is part of a well-known chain of restaurants all providing the same thing.

Another restaurant in the town at the other end of the scale is Gordon Ramsey's Le Bordeaux located across from the Grand Théâtre. Too expensive to even bother to cross the road to look at a menu..

The theatre is like an opera house but we were quite disappointed in it. There wasn't much to see. Yes, there's the grand staircase, yes there's a nice painted ceiling and the theatre has a big stage but when we visited the stage was in blackout. Trying to walk across it in almost pitch dark was unpleasant. There's a cute little souvenir shop but almost nothing of interest to see, wasted spaces other than a foam construction near the entranceway. The building façade dates from 1780 and the theatre hosts operas, dance & music performances.

The Place des Quinconces  is one of the largest public squares in Europe. It was laid out in 1820, two years after the trees nearby were planted. The fountain and column, created between 1894 and 1902, are a memorial to the Girondins, a group of moderate, bourgeois National Assembly deputies during the French Revolution, 22 of whom were executed in 1793 after being convicted of counter-revolutionary activities.
Much of this fountain statuary was removed during the German occupation, destined to be melted down by them to make canons but later found in Anger where it had been secreted. The bronzes were reinstalled in 1968 so what we see now is completely restored. I had the good fortune to come across a volonteer guide at the fountain and the old man enjoyed explaining to me the various parts of the design. They are allegorical symbolising vices, freedom and the triumph of the Republic. Bordeaux is easy to get to via the TGV train from Paris. We needed a lot more than 4 hours to explore this city so plan accordingly. I'd like to come back one day to to explore a lot more of this beautiful city.

Friday, 27 October 2017

Saint Emilion - picture postcard wine stuff

Happy to pay a lot of money playing tourist? Want the maximum choice in good wines? Want them shipped back to your country without stress?

Visit the delightful medieval town of Saint-Emilion not far from Bordeaux in the South-West of France, just a 40-minute drive away.

 Here the vines grow right up to the ancient ramparts. Everywhere you look it's bucolic. Saint Emilion is not really a grand destination but it makes for a pleasant trip if you are based near Bordeaux and want a break from the city.

In this wine-obsessed part of France you'll discover the Grand Crus. This town and vinyard were awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 1999.

Excellent and varied wines are created here due to the exceptional soil and microclimate ideal for grapes. The grapes are mostly merlot, blended with cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon or malbec.

The place is full of underground tunnels made when extracting the limestone blocks used for building the town and some places in Bordeaux. Good wine, beautiful countryside, historic monuments and architecture and an enthusiastic tourism focus all combine to make the place a magnet for visitors.

Restaurants and cafes are back-to-back in this town which bears the name of a monk who is said to have accomplished some miracles in the eighth century. Saint Emilion's history goes back two thousand years. We took a pause in the central square. Drinks were expensive. I had a browse in the souvenir shop and was tempted by a number of quality things but time ran out and the shop closed before I could make up my mind. It's possible to go up the tower for a better view.

Lonely Planet has this to say... 

Yes, it's all designed to make it easy for you to part with your euros but still a special place to visit. They do tourism very competently.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Cognac - from one Frances to a Francois

This town owed its initial fame to being a supplier of salt but is today mostly known for French brandy production and King Francois 1er.
Francois 1er king of France and great rival to England's Henry VIII was born here in 1494. This statue to him in Cognac's town square shows him trampling his enemies - a nice bit of political propaganda for the times. It's obvious his ennemies were nobles by their clothes and armour. He was the first King of France from the Angoulême branch of the House of Valois, reigning from 1515 until his death in 1547. 
Francois had a notable military success at Marignano and a notable failure at the battle of Pavia on 24 February 1525 where he was actually taken prisoner, kept in Madrid and had to make major concessions, with his two sons being hostages in order to gain his freedom. Francois is always recognisable for his ski-jump nose. A great patron of the arts he brought the Italian renaissance to France along with Leonardo da vinci and the Mona Lisa. He built and renovated so many lasting French chateaux and monuments, in particular the grandiose Chambord that it's impossible not to come across his influence when travelling through France today.
Cognac is famous for the past 200 years as the greatest cognac producing area in France. I didn't have much time to spend here but did enjoy its quaint streets and interesting architecture. Driving around this area you pass several famous names in the cognac wine-growing industry. Vinyards are everywhere. And buying cognac is possible from almost every second shop.

For more information on Cognac visit:

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Jarnac - cognac and classic cars

Jarnac is a pleasant town on the banks of the Charente River in the new region of Nouvelle-Aquitaine. It lies between Angoulême and Cognac and can thus be expected to be obsessed with brandy. It certainly is, having the Courvoisier factory located centrally there as well as other cognac houses.

It's a tourist spot which likes to promote itself as the birthplace of former president Mitterand. Having learned that, I was determined not to visit the museum celebrating what I consider an immoral and rotten politician. For starters, he signed off on the Rainbow Warrior bombing and then denied everything and imposed trade sanctions on New Zealand. Still, ignoring that part of its history, I enjoyed my time in Jarnac.

The mairie puts a big effort into beautification of walkways and municipal gardens. I loved the little free lending library box where anyone can leave a book and others can choose one to take away and read; the whole thing based on honesty and a sense of citizenship.

There's no mistaking we're in cognac country here in Jarnac. Some of the buildings have been warehouses for this alcohol and they bear the tell-tale signs - black mould. This mould arises from the vapours of this double-distilled brandy. Passing by one of these buildings (still in use) I could actually smell the brandy inside, the vapours escape from every crack and pore. This is, of course, a dangerous situation as they could combust so stocks of cognacs are spread here over 11 sites in case of a disaster. That way not all stock would be lost in an explosion.

The mould starts growing almost immediately and nothing can be done about it. It must have quickly identified hiding places in the past.

We visited the Tiffon Cognac house which now markets under the name of Braastad. It shares town space with other famous cognac houses such as Bisquit or Courvoisier. The brand Braastad was created when a Norwegian named Sverre Braastad married into the Tiffon family. We were given an impromptu tour of part of the premises and explored tastings in the shop. Cognac is normally far too fiery for me to drink but I enjoyed the creme liqueur version. It's very like Bailey's Irish Creme but with more of a kick at the end.

The distilling and storage information was interesting. I noted some smaller wooden barrels with fancy plaques on them. Two of them contained private cognac created for Prince Albert of Monaco, one each for his children and named for them. This is not uncommon.

Elsewhere in the town is a well-appointed public swimming pool. For the first time since my one and only dip in the Mediterranean in 2011 I donned my togs and enjoyed some cool widths. I'm a poor swimmer but it was a clean and pleasant break in a hot afternoon.  Drying off, it was time to check out the collection of classic and vintage cars assembled for the weekend.

This display piggy-backed on the car race that would occur at Angoulême the next day. I don't know anything about cars other than appreciating some of the aesthetics so I'll leave you with an assortment of images to enjoy, and maybe identify.

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Angoulême for cartoons

As I contemplate the results of this weekend's elections in NZ I feet the cartoon on the left sadly appropriate: "Worse than that, it's reality!" It's a cartoon painted on the side of  a building in Angoulême, France. Earlier this month I was in the cartoon capital of the world as a tourist escaping what seems to be the end of my dream to live in France which has been a bitter-sweet experience over seven years. Being down in this wine-growing area full of old history and also vibes from my French ancestors, along the Charente River,  I was reminded of why I love France, why I have persisted so long to stay here despite so much adversity. 

I was in touch with my soul but my head knew perfectly well that I would have to say goodbye to France and start the whole ghastly process of letting go my dream; what I'd worked hard to achieve here, throw out yet more 'things' and head into what is, at this time of writing, a big void. This time it's much harder going to the other end of the planet. I'm not going to a dream, or hope and certainly not a job yet. Three nights in this part of France would be all I would have to remind myself of how I feel about this country. So let's start with day one: Angoulême.
I was down in the SouthWest of France in a major wine-growing area which specialises in cognac, not far from Bordeaux, to stay with an ex-colleague of mine (Liz) from Waitakere City Council days at her cousin's holiday home in a neighbouring town. Angoulême is located in the Charente département and is famous for cartoons and vintage car races. It is also the centre of the paper-making and printing industry, with which it has been connected since the fourteenth century. With booze, cars, French food and cartoons it was going to be an interesting short stay.

The TGV train from Paris stops on its way to Bordeaux first at Poitiers and then Angoulême which was very convenient for us. The trip down was uneventful except for a lengthy stop at Poitiers where a couple of youths from our train were expelled under suspicion and later led away by the police. We wandered around Angouleme on a warm morning, along the old ramparts, past buildings decorated with cartoons and trompe l'oeil.   We stopped to take pictures outside the historic town hall with its medieval tower and later additions. 
There were a lot of municipal flower beds - this city seems to take a pride in good aesthetics. Everywhere we were reminded of the history of cartoons, comics and animated films. There's a museum to this in the town. Herge the famous cartoonist of Tintin fame is recognised here. He was a belgian cartoonist who fled to France during the second world war. It was The Adventures of Tintin and subsequent prjoects which gave Herge fame though he became increasingly irritated by the success of the creators of the Asterix books.

There's also a regional centre of fine arts in the city and each September one of the last remaining street races (Pau and Monaco are the other two) is held. You can see a view of the city and the Charente River from the ramparts in the photo. It was this river that my French ancestors travelled down on their way to New Zealand, leaving Rochefort in 1840.