Wonders Of France

                                                                                 The Wonders of France
Yes, France is truly a wonderful country. This is not just my opinion as France is the number one tourist destination in the world despite doing relatively little touristic advertising. What is there not to like? Beyond its obvious attributes of culture, nature, wines, cuisine, history and agreeable climate, there is the je ne sais quoi such as the way one feels just being there. It’s almost like being transported back in time where one can be immersed into Roman, Greek, medieval and French culture simultaneously.

Freddie and I, during our many visits to France took copious notes and many photos documenting many wonders of France. Certainly, we could not see them all as there are far too many. There are the hundreds of hilltop villages, and “Most beautiful Villages,” the Cote d’Azur, restaurants, Mont Ventoux, Roman ruins, wine tastings, carousels, the markets and so much more. We will share these wonders of France with you in the form of episodes which will be renewed from time to time. Enjoy, and feel free to enter your comments and/or questions.

                                                                             The Most Beautiful Village of Gerberoy

France has a huge number of villages designated as “Most Beautiful Village.”Most of them are in southern France. This vacation, we were in Picardie, northern France in 2011, and only two MBV’s are located there.  Having visited so many castles, cathedrals, and churches, we decided to change the pace by visiting Gerberoy, one of the villages located about an hour rand a half away.

We did our usual coffee, breakfast, getting ready routine, and took off for the village. We made good time on the autoroute and then left it to drive a series of country roads. We got to the turn leading to the village – a very small, narrow road.  When we approached the village, we had to park outside of it on a huge, grass parking lot. There were only about three cars parked there. We parked the car and looked around. We saw beautiful countryside for long distances from our elevated vantage point. We could see woodlands, fields of hay and other grasses. As is often the case, this most beautiful village was located up on a hill and only residents could have a car in town – necessary because the heavy tourism would literally lock up the town with stalled traffic. Many of these villages have parking lots outside of town.

We then walked up toward the main part of the village and saw immediately that there were flowers, and vines all over – a good thing as colorful flowers and vines on ancient stones make a romantic setting. We were surrounded with beauty as we got into the heart of the village–a commanding view of the beautiful countryside, cobble stone narrow streets, and flowers and vines all over. The most wonderful thing was that we were just about the only ones here, and we felt like all of this was our personal time to visit without the crowds. It seemed that even the locals stayed inside as not to obstruct our views or disturb our serenity. The pottery woman had told us that on weekends, thousands of tourists overrun the village.

Like most “Most Beautiful Villages,” Gerberoy has an ancient past. It was a fortified site as early as the 1200’s and experienced many invasions throughout history. Its age did not contribute to great growth in population. Today, about 300 or so people live here. What an idyllic place with its hilltop location and beautiful views of the countryside. One felt good just being there ambling down its streets and along its ancient walls.There were a couple of homes for sale and the prices were most impressive-expensive. It was noon, so we looked for a restaurant. In a town this size, there was not much choice – only

two restaurants.

The first one we checked would not open until 2:30 in the afternoon – too late for us, and it looked very expensive. We found the second one, a little bistro in a very picturesque setting. It was mostly an outdoor restaurant with a canopy top. We sat down and it was most wonderful being among ancient walls, flowers, and trees. Freddie ordered a salad with goat cheese and I ordered a combo plate with quiche, rilliets, cheese, salad, and ham. We got a half liter of rosé to go with it. I finished with a cup of coffee and Freddie got a scoop of strawberry ice cream – all very good.

We paid our bill and continued our exploration of this jewel of a village. I took many pictures of the streets, houses and flowers. We walked to the church and went in. It was not large and not fancy, but well maintained. Several musicians came in with instruments, probably for a rehearsal. We walked out and went down the little street past the church. Freddie stayed behind because she was tired and didn’t think it would go anywhere interesting. I went on down and was rewarded with a gorgeous view of the outer wall covered with hanging vines and flowers. Above the wall, I could see the picturesque houses and part of their gardens and a little vista. I took some pictures with the camera and tablet. I showed Freddie what she missed by staying behind. We walked more and covered every street in the village.

After returning home and resting, we started dinner around 8:00. I baked codfish with seasonings, herbs, garlic and onions. We also baked a potato and micro waved some zucchini. We set the table and started to enjoy our diner. The fish was good – clean tasting, flaky, and perfectly done. It was a wonderful dinner. We had a delightful Fumé Puissy with it. We then had some goat cheese, paté, olives and a little bread. We finished with a super sweet cantaloupe. Freddie mentioned how much her mother would have enjoyed a cantaloupe this sweet.

By Sidney P. Bellard, author of A Cajun IN France

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The Wonders of France are not confined to beautiful scenery, excellent wines and fabulous cuisine. We have met scores of wonderful people who enriched our journeys immeasurably.One such person was a remarkable elderly man named Luc (Luke)

                                                                                          Luc

About two weeks after our all night soirée in Brittany 2002, I saw Luc, our 84-year-old neighbor, walking past the house pushing his wheelbarrow. We hadn’t seen him since the soirée. He was dressed in his usual blue overalls and was still quite robust despite his 80 plus years. He lived across the road, to the right of our house and kept a beautiful vegetable and flower garden. He also had goats, chickens, rabbits, and perhaps some other animals. What we didn’t know at first was that he also owned the house next door to us on the left. The house had belonged to his deceased sister, and he inherited it after her death at the age of 93 a few years ago. He also maintained a large garden there. We had learned that the farmhouse was in its original state along with its furniture and furnishings. Our interest was highly piqued because, in the thousands of miles we had driven in France, we had seen a multitude of old, picturesque farmhouses. They were usually 100 to 300 years old and usually included stables next to or nearby the house. These often renovated or modernized houses often lose their identity from over modernization.    

I walked to the old farmhouse to make conversation with Luc, hoping he would invite me inside the house. He was in the process of cutting grass for his rabbits. I asked questions about the farmhouse which he willingly answered. I was so happy that I spoke French well because there was no way I could have profited from this opportunity if I hadn’t. After a little more conversation, he could see my keen interest, and asked me if I wanted to see the interior of the house. Excited, I responded in the affirmative. Stepping into the house was tantamount to stepping back in time. The main room, sparsely furnished with antiques, served as a kitchen and living room. There was a wooden table in the center, and there were two mantles filled with family pictures from ancient, faded, black and whites to relatively recent color photos. The two huge, ancient, whitewashed support beams sagged due to both the weight of the centuries, as well as the brick floor above it in the attic.

Luc  reverently proceeded to show me around. He pointed out his military picture and explained that he had been a prisoner of war for seven years in Germany. There was also a military picture of his brother, Theophile, who died in action in WWII. He pointed to a picture of his third brother named Klébert, who had been a Catholic missionary bishop in Africa and had died of liver cancer at the age of 71. He proudly showed a large oval-framed picture of his parents on their wedding day. At this moment, I asked him if I could go get Freddie to share in this wonderful experience, and if we could take some pictures and videos. He readily agreed, and I went and got Freddie and the cameras. Unfortunately, the video camera had no battery life left.

Back with Freddie and the camera, we continued the tour. I filled Freddie in on what I had learned thus far. Luc took us to the portion of the house that was modernized for his sister while she was in the hospital with a broken leg during the last year of her life. She never returned to her house. He explained to us that part of the structure once had housed the cows that provided warmth during the cold, damp winters of Brittany. Next, we went to the bedroom whose ceiling had much smaller whitewashed timbers.  There were two large, old armoires next to the walls, and a fireplace with a mantel covered with family photos. The floor was of beaten earth, and I images in my mind of a modern homemaker trying to keep it clean.

Luc then took us to a room in the back of the house that was a virtual museum. It contained items necessary for farm life and life in general from the past 100 years. There were tools such as a wheat flayer, scythes, wooden pitchforks, and a small barrel used in the past to store salted pork, much like my family and ancestors had used crock jars for the same purpose. In addition, there was a crock jar used after the barrels to store salted meats. Two huge, chestnut barrels once stored apple cider. I saw an old, rickety, wooden ladder going up to the attic and asked permission to go up for a look. With his permission, I was quickly in the attic. My first impression was that it was enormous and constructed of rough-cut timbers. I walked to the attic over the main room and saw the brick floor that provided insulation from the cold and a surface for processing the wheat. There were also manual machines used to process wheat. This large attic reminded me of the early Acadian homes in Louisiana that also had large attics—I saw the connection.

After coming down from the attic, I asked Luc if the attic ever served for living space. He responded by telling me that the attic was used only to store wheat. Next, he showed us his WWII military great coat and the blue jacket his brother used as a missionary. We took some pictures of the coats and Luc, which captured his obvious pride and reverence. We walked outside and took some more pictures of the house, outbuildings, large cast iron pots, and Luc. It was a little past noon, and he told us that he had to go home for his lunch. We expressed their appreciation as he locked up the house, and we were soon on their way to their own lunch.

What a wonderful experience right next to our house. It was better than a museum as museums are often so contrived. This house was a history of a man, his family, and culture. How unique it was to meet and know a person who could step into a house and see his and his family’s long history preserved in all the tools, pictures, clothing, and furniture. One could understand his reverent demeanor as he walked into an abode frozen in time, an abode that contained memories of childhood, parents, ancestors, siblings, farm life, and indeed a way of life that has disappeared forever. How different from modern life where the evidence of existence is quickly discarded to town dumps which prompts many to compensate with endless searches at flea markets and antique stores to purchase their past.

The house was on the market, and undoubtedly, someone would buy it. When these homes are sold, the contents are often sold with the house. We hoped that the new owner would understand and preserve the memory and the memorabilia of well-lived lives.

PS- The house and property were sold a short time after our visit. The new owners preserved many of the antique items and furniture. Luc lived well into his 90’s before he died from burns caused by a spilled pot of boiling water. What a tragedy.

                                                                                                                   Excerpt from A Cajun in France by Sidney P. Bellard

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In France, beauty and wonder manifest themselves in great frequency and in many forms. While the mountains, hilltop villages, Most Beautiful Villages, beaches, and magical cities get most of the attention, a small town not in the above categories could be one of your most lasting impressions. Certainly L’Isle-sur-la–Sorgue in Provence was one of our most memorable experiences.

                                                                    L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue

In 2000, we visited this most remarkable Provencal town of 19,000 inhabitants. Upon entering the town, it was obvious that its most striking visual attributes were the crystal clear streams which crisscross the community, and the ancient water wheels that once drove mills to process wheat, wool, paper, and silk. The river Sorgue, its tributaries and canals ran over a series of dams producing   perpetual sounds of surging water as they wove their way around this picturesque town illuminated by the dazzling Provencal sun. What a pleasure it was to amble about taking in its beauty and magnificent ambiance. It was a photo op per second.

Incredulously, the source of all this sparkling water was a 900- feet deep hole in the ground located not far away in the Village of Vaucluse which we had previously visited. In addition to the hole that spewed forth a river, additional water was distributed to the river through fissures in the ground. This little village was well worthy of a visit in its own right as it was also a mill town and made famous by the Italian poet and scholar, Petrarch, who spent some time there in the 1350’s.

As we continued our exploration of L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, we learned that this town was also famous for its multitudes of antique shops and flea markets. Then there was the Sunday open-market day established in 1596 and one of the largest in France. We experienced such a Sunday when the market day, flea markets, and all the antique stores opened at the same time. Needless to say, navigating the crowds was a challenge, but fun and exciting. If a couple of friends are separated in the crowds, the odds of finding each other again are minuscule.

We managed not to get separated  and found our way to a quaint little restaurant with a table next to the gurgling stream. We observed the bottle-green water that swayed the aquatic fern-like plants into poetic motions. Among the plants were fish, and on the surface, ducks with ducklings. As we enjoyed our meal and rosé in this idyllic setting, we recognized that we were quite fortunate to be there. We had no way of knowing that we would return three more times in the future.

By Sidney P. Bellard, author of A Cajun in France

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                                                                  Hilltop villages
They stand alone in the sky atop prominent hills overlooking vast panoramas of exquisite countryside in all directions. Ancient stone buildings crown the tops of the hills with earthy shades of tan, brown, red, yellow and white. They could be  small with a few dwellings on the top, or a small town, and most are surrounded by fortified walls. Almost always a church steeple pierces its way into the sky above the surrounding dwellings as if to proclaim, “I am closest to God; therefore, the most important.”

As a family of tourist approach the picturesque village after a long ascent, they quickly observe that they are not alone— there are thousands like them with the same destination. Cars are parked in large parking lots outside the village, and visitors walk the remaining distance to the top where they are greeted with a hoard of humanity mimicking a disturbed red-ant hill. Never-the-less, the tourists feel exhilarated as they can see forever into a countryside composed of perhaps another hilltop village, vineyards, towns, olive groves, limitless blue skies and the long car lines of tourists coming to join them. Depending on the size and location of the village, there are shopping opportunities of all levels and restaurants of all tastes. The cobblestone streets, often steep, are slowly navigated to access every square inch of the village. They all go home with a camera filled with digital images and minds crammed with indelible memories.

Probably, the vast majority of these tourists do not realize that these villages were not always sites of great beauty and pleasures. Most of these villages were built during the Middle Ages when life was very uncertain and wars were constant. They were built on hills for protection, but were often conquered by armies, sieges, thirst, disease and starvation. Even in times of peace, life was hard. Due to poor sanitation, such as animal manure in the streets as well as human waste and trash, diseases were rampant. Additionally, there was always the possibility of an attack. Daily activities were difficult as citizens had to constantly walk up and down steep slopes for every daily activity. For the weak and the elderly, life was difficult. The average lifespan was around fifty years. These citizens could never imagine that their little town would one day provide pleasure, beauty, income, and entertainment for millions of tourists.

                         Gourdon

We walked the short distance into the village and were immediately transported into another era. This village has buildings dating back to the 9th century. Later, in 2012, parts of the movie, Les Miserables, would be filmed here. The quaintness, beauty, colors and altitude left us in breathless awe. We felt great just being there. We did our touristic amble to explore this charming village while taking in every detail.

There was a pottery shop with wares seemingly every color of the rainbow. Naturally, Freddie wanted to buy everything, but the weight was a problem. Other shops were souvenir shops, a crystal shop with beautiful cut-glass ware and the obligatory restaurants.  We made our way to the south edge of the village and were blown away by the view which extended to the Mediterranean Sea in the horizon.

The walking and fresh, cool air rendered us ravenous. We chose the restaurant near the wall facing the sea and the other hills. I had coq au vin and Freddie had a goat cheese salad. We ate our lunch deliberately and sipped our pitcher of red wine slowly to extend our pleasure — and what a pleasure it was.

                                                                    By Sidney P. Bellard, author of A Cajun In France

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MOST BEAUTIFUL VILLAGES

In 1982, France began designating certain villages as “Most Beautiful Villages.” To be a candidate for consideration, a village had to meet three criteria. First, it must have a population of less than 2000 inhabitants. Second, it must be a rural village. Third, the village must be the site of at least two national heritage sites. Today, there are 156 designated “Most Beautiful Villages” in France. These communities have the responsibility of keeping their village attractive and welcoming.

Freddie and I have visited dozens of these villages, and we have never been disappointed. Most of these villages give the opportunity to step back in time to explore its attributes at a leisurely pace. Usually, these villages are well restored and embellished with flowers (often bougainvilleas), shrubs and vines. Attractive restaurants are usually available to please the hungry tourists and provide them with a couple of hours rest.

Although these villages are dispersed throughout France, the regions of Dordogne (SW France), Alsace (eastern France) and Provence (SE France) have the highest density of “Most Beautiful Villages.” Some of these villages are also hilltop villages, which gives them additional appeal.

These beautiful rural villages are so much more relaxing to visit than large cities with their congested traffic and rush-rush lifestyle. The drive through the countryside itself is relaxing and painted with scenes of ancient farm buildings, mountains, flowered towns, sunflowers, vineyards and much more. Often, it is possible to visit two or more villages in one day.

I will cover several of these Most Beautiful Villages on this website and as usual, I will rotate them from time to time to vary your reading experiences.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       IVOIRE

In 2008, we made a home exchange with a delightful couple in Haute Savoy (the Alps). Martine and Camille made every effort to make our vacation most memorable—guided tours in the Alps, restaurants overlooking sky-blue lakes and mountains, introduction to Génépi, snow-capped mountains, meeting their family, and directing us to many unforgettable destinations.

One such destination was Ivoire, a designated “Most Beautiful Village.” We left Annecy, (a striking medieval town where we stayed) to begin our trip of the day. We set our GPS (now an indispensable item) for Ivoire and were on our way. We drove through some spectacular mountains—some forested, some granite-topped and some snow-topped. In an hour and a half, we were facing the entry of our destination. The walk to the village, lined with kaleidoscopic flowers and a view of Lake Geneva was a harbinger of what was to follow. The entry to the village was a gate of its fortified ramparts and also decorated with multitudes of flowers.

Once in the gate, the view of the village was almost spellbinding—medieval buildings covered with vines and flowers next to sky-blue Lake Geneva. We walked down the hill to the lake where there was a striking hotel/restaurant on the lake with rows of flowers and vines clinging to its honey-colored stones. Probably nine million others and we took pictures of this surreal setting.  Next to the hotel/restaurant was a small port that was also awash with flowers. From here, we could see the city of Geneva across the lake in the horizon. We also saw a huge chateau which was part of the village—a very nice view.

We walked into the heart of the village and the magnitude of flowers and plants literally bejeweling the ancient stone architecture blew us away. This town is one of the most flowered villages in France and one of the most beautiful of “The Most Beautiful Villages.” We did our touristic amble and were awed at each slow step we took. We were not alone as many others were under the same spell. If it had been July 15 to August 30, we could not have walked the streets for all the tourists. Of all the outstanding sites we had seen thus far, this was truly one of the most impressive.