Wednesday, May 11, 2011

9-14-2010 South to Thara-Gotha

It's time to move on again after spending a couple of nights in Toulouse - and the weather outlook is not great. Over dinner, we had been discussing where we should go next, and the debate was joined by a truck driver passing through the area.

"Avoid the coast!", He warned. "The winds are strong and gusty."

The weather report confirmed his advice, further adding that a coming storm will drench the whole region. If we were to work our way a little further south we will likely run into seasonal high winds near the Mediterranean Sea which the French call "le Mistral". The Mistral winds can average speeds of about 50 kilometers an hour during the day, which is not a lot of fun on a motorcycle.

Taking a look at our options, we decided to head to Spain for a few days.

Zaragoza is within a day's ride and it's an interesting place to hang out for a few days. We will ride over the Pyrenees into Spain until we get to Lerida (Lleida) then north to Zaragoza on the longest, straightest, boringest stretch of road we have been on so far this trip.

It's a plan.

The day is fair and sunny as we leave Toulouse, heading west on the highway through flat corn-field farmland; to our left we can see the silhouettes of the mountains like layered gray torn-paper silhouettes against the sky. Within an hour we are heading south, towards the border between France and Spain and into the mountains.

The pass is not particularly high, but beautiful. The Pyrenees are mostly composed of masses of hard gray granite rock, which is fairly resistant to erosion, wild and sparsely populated. While there is not much in the way of snow cap, we pass by many small streams and mountain torrents and through dramatic narrow rocky gorges.

Descending into the Spanish side of the mountains, we find ourselves often stuck behind large trucks who have chosen to avoid the toll roads and take the small mountain roads instead. As we descend we pass through villages, through acres of fruit orchards ripe with apples, peaches, cherries, oranges, we also experience the stomach-turning smell of pig farms and occasional trucks laden with pigs, their pink snouts and butts pressed up against the mesh sides of their enclosure on the truck. Spain has some of the best pork in the world; the smell is the downside. We try to hold our breath as long as possible as we pass the trucks and leave them as far behind us as we can.

Once out of Lerida, we hit the highway. The land has almost completely flattened out and is brown and dry and dusty; the road stretches out in front of us, straight as far as the eye can see. Within a few hours we are in Zaragoza.

Zaragoza is not on the international tourist trail, though it has many things worth seeing. The main draw for visitors is probably the beautiful Basilica del Pilar, set on the banks of the river Ebro. There are also many remains from the Romans (who gave the town its name) which one can visit; Forum, baths, ampitheatre, port, city walls. There are also many buildings that show the mark of the Moorish occupation; such as churches with beautiful Islamic style designs on the outside and bell towers that resemble the square minarets of the Moors.

Moorish decoration on the side of a church

I have talked often about the pilgrimages in Europe, notably the trail to Santiago de Compostela; the basilica here is an important stop. If you know the story of Saint James, you probably already know that he had a vision that the virgin Mary appeared to him on a pillar of flame; the pillar purportedly appearing here in Zaragoza in the spot where the basilica is now.

By the way, in case you were wondering about the title of the post, Thara-Gotha  is an approximation of how the Spanish pronounce Zaragoza...

Saturday, April 23, 2011

9-12-2010 Medieval dreams in Languedoc

Last night, we talked about where we would head next, and decided to spend a few days in Toulouse to explore a new region of France called Languedoc. It was once an independent province of France, with its own culture and local language (spoken throughout the south of France) called Occitan. It's a province full of history and clashes, of Cathars and Crusades. Time to pack up and head out in the morning!

This morning before we leave, heading into the center of Brive for breakfast, we get that sinking feeling - it's pretty deserted in town today. Did we forget that it's Sunday and everything is closed?

Yep, Sure enough, 'our' coffee shop is closed (sigh).

Not to worry, there is a bar nearby where we can get teeny, bitter cups of French espresso, and another bakery where we can get some food. (crispy, flakey warm croissants filled with chocolate; how could you go wrong with chocolate for breakfast?! Ah, the French...)

Before too long we are heading down the Péage - the toll highway - and to our destination, about 130 miles south of Brive. The French highways are good for getting to your destination, quickly, and the tolls are about 40% lower for Motorcycles. See, I told you the French can be civilized!



Blue skies and breezy. Time for a ride!
Typical road in Southern France; shady, tree lined roads through farmland.

Our first stop was Carcassonne - a beautiful little town with a charming medieval Cité perched on the hilltop overlooking the "newer" part of town. La Cité is a UNESCO world heritage site and looks like a fairy tale castle with sturdy, unbroken walls, shining slate roofs and pennants flying in the breeze.

The newly-built aura of the citadel can be attributed to the fact that it was "recently" restored by the famous French architect Viollet-le-Duc in the mid 1800's, although some of the oldest sections of the Keep date back to the Roman period, around 100 B.C. Up close, the main portal into the city resembles an entrance into a disneyesque castle; complete with large parking lots full of tour busses and scores of tourists milling around.

As I stand outside the walls mulling over the comparison, Jan echoes my thoughts, remarking, "gee, I feel like I'm at Disneyland".

Between the defensive walls

We pass over a drawbridge which spans a deep ditch, through an honest-to-gosh portcullis complete with iron gate and a double set of defensive walls. Inside the fortifications, the passageways were packed with people enjoying the charming atmosphere and shady terrace cafes, crowding gift shops and walking the ramparts.

As cute as the cité is, my favorite view is from a distance where one can view the citadel as a whole, slate roofs gleaming in the sun, towers topped with cone shaped roofs and the crenellated walls enclosing the whole.  I read that Viollet-le-Duc may have taken some liberties with the design of the renovations, for example, the conical roofs and slate roof tiles are not a traditional style for the area. However, the result of his work is a charming, romantic fantasy, much more than if he had followed the local preference for flatter roofs and terra cotta roof tiles.

I can't find the picture that I took, but I found this photo on the internet to give you an idea of the grand panorama. It's a Ren-Fair fan's dream for sure!

We are tired of crowds and ready to move on, and I know just the place, a charming and quiet village nearby that we have been to several times before. The village doesn't look like much until you get to its Gothic style cathedral; then, if you wander around it to the small plaza, you will be totally captivated by a collection of amazingly well preserved medieval half-timbered houses built in a ring around the square.

The buildings were built in a fairly typical fashion (for that period); in which the second story is built out over the sidewalk to form an arcade. The wooden joists that hold it up seem to be the originals and in many cases, the ends were carved into comical figures and weathered faces of people and animals.

How could you resist a face like this? I found this guy crouching at the corner of a house making faces at passersby.

Friday, February 18, 2011

9-11-2010 Brive-La-Gaillard

View from our breakfast table
 After the brilliant ride we had yesterday, none of us is in a hurry to leave Brive. We have a leisurely breakfast in the square across from the church that marks the center of the town, and discuss our options for the day.

If you are curious, breakfast is fresh pastries and chocolate croissants from the bakery nearby, still warm from the oven, and a caffe latte to go with it. A Latte is not a typical French drink, but this is an Italian style coffee shop.

When we learn that today is market day, it seems inevitable that we will stay another day to browse the market. By the time we arrive, the vendors are already assembled in the biggest farmers market I have ever seen, arranged under a huge covered area and sprawling out all around it in the sunshine. It's not a pale imitation of a farmers market like the ones we have in America; this market is quite a sight to see.

Freshly baked breads and pastries, the ripest, sweetest fruits, gorgeous vegetables, large bouquets of cut flowers as well as honey, fish, meats and locally made cheeses are all found here.

Live animals - for pets or for .. uhm... the table - could be found in one corner of the market while in another area outside you could find freshly baked pizza, roasted chicken, huge pans filled with paella, various potato and sausage dishes and other hot foods. 

At the back of the market there is even a flea market selling clothing, shoes and other household items.

There's a long list of local specialties, which are found at the market depending on the season,  including foie gras and other goose and duck products, milk-fed veal calves, and a special local breed of pig called cul noir known for its thick fat layer. Mushrooms, truffles, apples with their own certificate of origin, walnuts as well as cherries and strawberries are grown locally. Some of them will be incorporated into such products as walnut liqueur walnut oil, cake with walnuts and chestnuts, clafoutis - a custard like tort embedded with cherries.

We were inspired. How about another (short) day ride today, and pick up some picnicking supplies at the market? With that plan settled on, we set about gathering the ingredients to a feast : a fresh baguette (cut into three pieces so it would fit into a motorcycle bag), half of a roast chicken, cheese, fruit and dessert. I bought some of the most amazing strawberries I have ever put in my mouth: small and oddly shaped, like wild strawberries but sweet and with an unusually fragrant, perfumy sweet flavor that was incredible.

A short ride suits us today and the weather is gorgeous, perfect for eating outdoors. Having stowed everything carefully and making sure picnic kits were packed (camping silverware, small plates and cutting board, wine opener), we set of on today's adventure.

I had heard of another village nearby on the most beautiful villages list. Turenne is a small village sitting on the sides of a hill with a 13th century chateau on the hilltop overlooking the surrounding countryside with a faintly patronizing air. We stop under a tree by the church's grassy lawn and spot the perfect place for lunch; a picnic table with a view out over the valley.

While Mike stretched out on the grass under a shady tree, the rest of us hiked up the steep hill to the top to see the Chateau and the view from the top.

There isn't much left of the Chateau; it was mostly demolished in the 18th century. In the 15th century and at the height of its power, the chateau was the home of the Viscount of Turenne, who ruled over 1200 villages independantly from the French king. By the early 18th century, Turenne's power would come to an end when the last viscount, who was unfortunately fond of gambling, amassed such an enormous debt that King Louis XV bought the chateau and ordered it dismantled. Today, all that is left to see of the chateau is a 12th century tower, a guard house and a beautiful garden (designed in the 1920's).

Time to go now!

Friday, January 21, 2011

9-10-2010 It's a Beautiful Day for a Ride...

It was one of those amazing days of pure blue sky perfect for riding, sweeping roads through farmland and picturesque towns, the wheels of our bikes leave a swirl of leaves in our wake. Although the temperature is perfect for riding, autumn is definitely in the air, in the smell of leaves and cool air and drifts of wood smoke.

Not far from Brive, we stopped in one of the picturesque towns; a medieval village built from the unusually red local stone, called appropriately enough, Collonges-La-Rouge. (La Rouge means The Red, but I am sure you already figured that out). It’s a charming little village, with turreted houses draped in green vines, sunny little courtyards and arched passageways.

It's easy to see why Collonges is a member of the "the most Beautiful Villages of France" association as well as the listing of many of its buildings as historical monuments. It's a popular stop for local tourists and today is no exception. Within a half hour of our arrival, not only have a couple of tour buses stopped but our motorcycles are surrounded by another dozen European bikes.

Parking a motorcycle is easy - just find a wide spot on the sidewalk. Preferably under some shady trees! 

Back to the road. We flash by medieval villages dominated by ancient churches, crumbling towers on hilltops, over and around small hills and forest until we came to rest on the banks of the Dordogne River, to a restaurant we know well. The French, in a fit of imaginative place-naming called this place the Beautiful Spot on the Dordogne (Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne).

The chapel

The name doesn't lie: for me, this is one of the most beautiful spots in France. What amazes me is how it is virtually un-touristed despite the fact that a few hundred years ago, this town was once a bustling stop on the pilgrimage trail due to the medieval abbey that was sited here. All that remains of the abbey is a chapel, closed to visitors, and the cluster of buildings that make up the town. The village sits at the water's edge at the spot where the river is slow and wide, thanks to a weir which slows the water down to a mirror-like stillness.

For us though, an important part of the draw of this place is the brilliant food we have had at a guesthouse restaurant called Les-Flots-Bleue.

Today is no different; Today’s menu is classic French but beautifully prepared, such as Truits Meuniere - trout filets drizzled with browned butter, and another take on my favorite, the Salad Chevre Chaud - green salad with a creamy vinaigrette and small toasts with warm, melty goat cheese on top. For dessert, a trio of home-made ice-cream; Strawberry Mint, aromatic lavender and a third flavor which escapes me at the moment, so startling was the perfume fragrant lavender...

The food must have been good since we didn't take the time to take a picture of our meal!

I'm stuffed. time for a nap?

With the sun, the great food and the gorgeous setting, it was tempting to stay there for the rest of the day - but we have ground to cover. Time to get rolling.

Before leaving Beaulieu, we take a moment to consult the maps and check to see if we are still on schedule; Yup, I think we can make it to Puy Mary and back, though it will be a long day. If you remember, Puy Mary was the objective on one of our rides from Clermont in which we were foiled by the weather.

We pick out a route where we can hit as many wiggly roads as is practical and set out again through the countryside, through ancient stone villages and large tracts of farm land, golden field of corn and herds of reddish Salers cows.

Villages of old stone buildings along the way...

volcano land...

The road traffic is light but typically French; as we come up on cars in our lane, the driver moves right towards the shoulder of the road in order to let us pass. (you won’t have that happen in America!) France is one of the most motorcycle friendly countries we have every traveled in. Although the French have a reputation for being standoffish, they are certainly a lot kinder to bikers.

Before long, we are starting to ascend the old volcano (the largest volcano in Europe). Mike tells Bob to go first and meet us at the top; within minutes he and Jan have disappeared around a curve ahead while we take a more leisurely ride.

That little spec in the road is Bob,  just disappearing around the bend...


If it had been the weekend, the top of the Puy would have been crowded with bikes, and riders sitting at the outside terrace of a small restaurant at the summit, drinking strong coffee and eating some of the home-made pastries on offer.

the top of puy mary is in sight!

Today is different and a chilly breeze makes Jan and I decide that a hot chocolate break would be more pleasant inside rather than outside on a terrace overlooking the valley.

Our goal reached, it's time to head back. It’s getting late, the sun is slanting through the trees along the road and I begin to worry that we will not make it back to Brive before dark. We have come a long way and there is no quicker way to get back than the roads we came in on; there are no highways nearby.

Never fear. We roll back into town just as the sun is starting to go down. Time to find some dinner...

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

9-8-2010 Wet in the Auvergne, part Deux

Today, we took a strange day ride from Clermont, hoping to ride some of the nicest roads in the area. The photo in the blog title above, the one with the green hills and blue sky and cows? That was what we wanted to show Bob and Jan; that photo was taken in this area but on another trip, one where we had much better weather.

You see, we're in an area of ancient cinder cones and lava domes which spring from the ground in softly rounded cone shapes. A few of the taller ones have roads that wind to the top and are popular with weekend bikers, such as Puy de Dome just south of Clermont. This puy (pronounced pwee), is so high it has a communication station on top, near a gallo-roman temple to the god Mercury.

The road leads straight into the fog...
  Unfortunately the weather is not cooperating, and we spend most of our ride looking for ways to avoid riding through rain or fog on wet and slick roads. We started out heading for Puy de Dome; from a few miles away we could see the thick cloud cap at the top. A quick on-the-fly itinerary change and we're heading towards Mont Dore and La Bourboule instead; part way up we quickly change our minds again when we run into a dense bank of fog rolling towards us.

Up ahead the road is obscured in minutes and we make a quick u-turn, take a few minutes to admire the gorgeous and intensely green country side below us then head back down. We met a pair of British bikers riding BMW GS's who had come through the area we were trying to ride; they described a wet and slippery road and said they had almost gone down a couple times. That does it - Time to find some lunch. Let's head for the sun...

We stopped in St Nectaire for lunch after browsing the menu of a nearby restaurant. I was determined to have one of my favorite regional specialities - Aligot! It has to rank up there in the world's best comfort foods, it has all the important ingredients: mashed potatoes and stretchy melted cheese. Local lore says that a properly made dish of aligot should stretch several feet when a forkfull is pulled from the bowl. Add a side of country bread, local grilled sausage and a beautiful French green salad and you have one of my favorite meals!

Bob, about to enjoy his first., chewy fork-full of Aligot!

We are getting a little tired of the frustrating weather,so after a group conference, (in which we all consulted our weather apps on our IPads), we decided that it wasn't worth hanging round Clermont waiting for the weather to change. If we head south we should be able to catch some sun and good riding. Tomorrow we are off again to find the sun, taking the opportunity to hit the back roads to a small town called Brive-La-Gaillard. It's a nice little town, not touristy, but a pleasant place to hang out for a few days. More importantly, there is some good riding and sightseeing in this area.

Brive is located only about 75 miles south west of Clermont in the Corrèze department, but the character of the countryside changes to present a lovely area of rolling hills and roads with sweeping curves just perfect for the GTS's, ancient villages and ruined castles perched on 8 out of 10 hilltops. (or so it seems). In the medieval period, this region was in almost constant conflict with the English, so many towns developed as Bastides - fortified towns with castles and thick walls surrounding the city. Some of these towns survive to this day though many of the defensive towers and castles lay in ruins.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

9-7-2010 Wet in the Auvergne

After a few nice days of riding, it's raining. I mean really pouring. The hotel we stayed in last night is full tonight, so earlier this morning, we were obliged to pack up and search for another hotel in the rain. For some reason, the town we're in, Clermont-Ferrand, is almost totally full...
It's a good opportunity to do some work though we have been holed up in a tiny room so small that to turn around in the capsule-sized bathroom, you have to step out of it first. Well, ok, that's an exaggeration, but it really is small. At 37 euros, it's pretty darn cheap though...

We are in a beautiful area of France, just south of smack dab in the middle of France, in Auvergne. It's a lovely green country with rolling hills and ancient villages built of stone. We took back roads from Paris yesterday, winding down through vast fields of golden corn and nodding sunflowers, their huge heads turning brown, and endless pastures full of cows.

We rode through the area called Morvan in the Burgundy region; the weather was fairly cool and the sky threatening. We made a stop in the small hilltop village of Vezelay to see the 11th century abbey dedicated to Mary Magdalene.

You may have heard of the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, or read about it in some of my past stories. To remind you, the pilgrimage routes started in the middle ages when people would set off walking halfway across the continent to do penance or affirm their faith by trekking towards the northwestern corner of Spain. The final destination was to be Santiago de Compostela, the supposed final resting place of Saint James, one of the apostles of Jesus. There were many stops along the way to visit churches and shrines, and a network of pilgrimage inns were established. The route is still trekked to this day, and the pilgrim is easily identified by the staff and backpack they carry, usually adorned with a scallop shell which is the symbol of Saint James.

Vezelay became one of the starting points in France of the pilgrimage route, when a monk named Baudillon brought some bones purported to be those of Mary Magdalene. In 1058, the pope confirmed that the bones were genuine. Since it is now well known that most of the relics touted as saintly remains were ancient scams it is debatable whether the bones are really hers. In any case, the confirmation was important to Vezelay as it brought prosperity to the town from the many pilgrims that started flowing through the abbey.

Nowadays, the church is fairly quiet except for a few tourists and some bikers (us!) that have taken refuge from the rain that is starting to fall. 

In the hushed grey interior of the abbey, the ceilings arch high over head and light spills in through windows set high in the walls. The great age of the building is clear from the naivete of the carvings which top the columns. These curious carvings seem to detail various tortures awaiting sinners in the afterlife.

9-2-2010 Lost In Luxembourg. and Belgium, and France...

We're lost in Luxembourg. Not unusual, I just wish I had remembered that we have had problems in the past navigating through it...

It started out innocently enough, when we left Maastricht this morning, heading south through Belgium through the Ardennes mountains to a coffee break in a famous little town called Spa, then plotting a route to Paris that would take us through some nice countryside. The map showed a lovely looking country road that entered the Luxembourg from the north and cut off on a road that would take us to Belgium and France. Just a quick loop through Luxembourg, what could that hurt? It's a very small country, after all.

The trouble started shortly after we got gas - fuel here is about .35 euro cents cheaper per liter, by the way. Just when we were enjoying the pretty countryside, we hit the first deviation sign which shot us off on a tangent from the direction we wanted to go. You can imagine, armed with an inadequate map and even worse road signage, we were more or less traveling blind.

Ok,Ok I'm being a little dramatic. We did manage to get out of Luxembourg after detours that seemed to take us miles out of the way, then a detour through heavy rush hour traffic through Luxembourg city. Then across the lower edge of Belgium, and into France through lush forests and rolling fields of corn, cows and sheep.

Once we were in France we were in Champagne country, riding along roads that curve through a vast area of rolling hills covered with crops, mostly corn, already turning gold.

Four countries traversed in one day, not bad for a day's work!

It's quite late when we finally reach Paris, having lost quite a bit of time in Luxembourg. One should note that at 10PM, almost the only food available is Turkish and Arab fast food, at least in our neighborhood. Needless to say, our first meal in Paris would be kabob...

We stayed a few days in Paris, acting as tour guides to Bob and Jan: a trip to the eiffel tower, a hair-raising ride at night around the Arc de Triomphe and Paris, a stop at the Louvre so that they could see the Mona Lisa.  And of course, some of our favorite cafes and shops...

(Sue taking picture of Arc de Triompe at night from the back of the motorcycle)