Sunday, May 13, 2018

Side trips from Pont De Vaux

It's the middle of April and we have only just arrived at the boat in its winter mooring at a Pont de Vaux. We have started cruising later this year because the weather has been pretty cold, with lots of rain. As we will be cruising on the Saône and Rhone and both have been in flood, we have had to wait till both of them are at reasonable levels and speed.
artichokes are in season and they are massive 
While in Pont de Vaux, we have taken advantage of having the car to do a few trips out into the countryside. We had heard that the market in Louhans was very big and it was a typical farmers market. Normally that means lots of fresh fruit and vegetables and artisan products. But this was literally a farmers market, with small animals for sale as well. While most of the livestock was poultry there were a few lambs, kids and a number of rabbits and hares. The famous Bresse chicken was also being sold by a number of stalls - not exactly the cheapest but James Martin, the chef from UKs Saturday Kitchen, says the extra price is worth it. We will take his word for it!
Bresse chickens
just a few quails
Louhans itself is a typical medieval village and being in Burgundy has a lovely tiled roof on the church.
typical burgundian tiled roof
After wandering around the market we then drove to Cuisery. The high street of this town was dying so some local volunteers decided to market the town as a centre for books, where such crafts as printing, bookbinding and restoration of books could be carried out in the empty shops. They also have a book market once a month. It was a Monday when we visited and the town still didn't look very prosperous but, typically, a lot of shops shut on Mondays.
Cuisery - centre of books
shops dedicated to all things books
We had grabbed some food from the market in Louhans so scrabbled together lunch to eat on the banks of the Seille river.
tranquil lunch spot
The "cheese" tower gives you a good view of town of Cluny
original stone work reveals the massive size of Cluny abbey
picturesque main street in Cluny
We also visited Cluny in southern Burgundy, a well known pilgrimage town and an equestrian centre. Cluny has grown up around its Benedictine abbey founded by Duke William I of Aquitaine in 910. The height of the abbey's influence was from the second half of the 10th century through the early 12th. The abbey was sacked by the Huguenots in 1562, and many of its valuable manuscripts were destroyed or removed. Then after the French Revolution many of its buildings were dismantled and the stone used for other building projects through the town. At one time the abbey and its related buildings was the largest in Christian Europe. What we can see today, represents only about 8%of the total size of the Abbey. Cluny also became known as an equestrian centre due to Napoleon choosing this site for his national horse breeding programme. Many equestrian events occur here during the summer.
View through the old gate to the abbey

view of Cluny from the "cheese" tower
tower in the Abbots garden

And, of course, we were in Burgundy so what better place to do a spot of wine tasting. On the way back to the boat we called into a family winery, had some very generous tastings and bought a few cartons as well.
Wine tasting in southern burgundy region
Domaine Fichet

Monday, March 26, 2018

Pretty Dordogne Villages - part 2

As the weather has started to improve and the sun is slowly making an appearance we decided to check out some of the pretty villages that we haven't seen before but are highly recommended on various web sites. Strictly speaking a couple are in the Lot and Garonne but what's a few kilometres between friends.
Starting at Bergerac on the northern bank of the Dordogne, we had a quick wander around the pedestrianised old town with its many half timbered houses before grabbing a coffee and heading back to St James church.
Preserved half timbered house facade with new building behind
original wall of the theatre
St James Church
Driving south of Bergerac, you come to the town of Monbazillac, famed for its sweet wine that pairs perfectly with Foie gras. A visit to the chateau with its art exhibition is recommended. And then it's onto Issigeac, another medieval town, linked to Sarlat with its Bishops Palace. While it lacks a central square it does have some lovely winding streets and interesting cafes and tea rooms to check out. Come summer the town comes to life every Sunday with its market and during July and August the night market on Thursdays is a popular event.
some of the boutiques in Issigeac
Typical medieval architecture
Intricate patterns on restored half timbered house
After leaving Issigeac we headed to Villereal. We arrived just as the Saturday market was finishing up so didn't manage to grab any bargains. But we did have a nice stroll through the streets and the central square with its covered market place. The town has been well preserved and there is an air of prosperity around it with its clean buildings and tidy streets. I can imagine that the covered market would make an ideal place for a spot of lunch on a warm summer's day.
covered market place
well maintained church and town square
The bastide town of Eymet on the banks of the Dropt River was our next destination. This could almost be called an English county as many brits call this area home and as we wandered through the square we didn't hear too many French accents. The central square is typical of bastide towns bordered by half timbered houses and arcades to provide shelter from the sun and the rain. Streets are in a grid pattern. There is a big market here on Thursday mornings and there are plenty of opportunities to purchase some of those English and even Aussie food stuffs that you may be craving.
arcaded buildings around market square
good example of arches in Eymet
lovely town square - minus the original covered market
Dropt River
Our final destination on our round trip was the chateau town of Duras. Not only is there the chateau but there is also the Maison des Vins.
Chateau in Duras
Duras chateau has a commanding view over the surrounding countryside

pretty dordogne villages - Part 1

France has many pretty little villages and there is even an association called Les Plus Beaux Villages that lists all of them. The Dordogne has a a great many of these and we have been fortunate enough to see a few over the years. This year we have revisited a few of our favourites.
We started with Sarlat. While Christmas was done and dusted the Christmas markets were still set up. The theme this year was all things British. This is hardly surprising when you consider the large number of British expats in the area.
Christmas market in Sarlat
Chalets selling lots of christmas fare
While it had been a rainy day, the sun decided to come out as we arrived so we deemed this to be an auspicious omen. The normal weekly market was just finishing but, given that it was the depths of winter, I was still surprised to see how many people were here. Parking is always difficult to find in Sarlat and today was no different. We did a lap of the main area before we found a spot.
Even in winter, Sarlat still has a lovely feel with the warm sandy coloured stone medieval buildings and all the colours and smells of the market place.
Market day in Sarlat is a colourful event
Geese are the main stay of Sarlat gourmet food experiences
amazing architecture in Sarlat
After a relaxing lunch of Breton crepes and cider, we decided to head to another of our favourite villages - Domme. This medieval hilltop bastide town is perched above the Dordogne River valley with a commanding view of the surrounding countryside. This would have give the town a distinct advantage in the days of the 100 years war. On this visit, however, we didn't walk along the town walls or wander aimlessly through the streets. The wind up here was bitterly cold and very few shops were open. I did manage to buy a postcard before snapping a shot of the Dordogne river from the Belvedere.
typical street in Domme
Belvedere Hotel - Domme
View of the Dordogne River from the Belvedere
The weather was starting to worsen so we headed back home driving through the troglodyte village of La Roque Gageac and then onto Beynac. Both these villages are worth wandering through on a fine day and the view from the chateau at Beynac is worth the hike up through the village.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Food Adventures in Bordeaux - Let's have lunch

Wherever you walk in the centre of Bordeaux you are faced with a huge choice of restaurants. Wine bars, tapas bars, high end restaurants, snack bars, cafes, bistros - the choice is seemingly endless. So far we have tried 2 restaurants and we have either been really lucky or the quality here is second to none.
Le Carreau is a mixture - wine bar, tapas bar and bistro. We had a great meal and the staff were exceptionally friendly. When we told them we were Australian, the owner told us he had a relative living there and kept coming over to chat in between serving customers. Great atmosphere and great food.
Interior of Le Carreau - Kevin blinked 
Three different meals and all tasted great
All our mains were tasty especially the prawns with saffron risotto
Yummy dessert
Pumpkin based Dessert
The other restaurant we have tried was Miles. This small restaurant can only hold about 24 diners with many sitting at a counter looking into a very small kitchen. It's a "trust the chef" style of menu and you really need to book. When you make the reservation you can state any food allergies etc and they will take that into account. Lunch is best value with 4 courses for €29. The whole experience of getting up close to these young chefs is a privilege.

Dishes prepared right in front of us
Sitting at the counter is a real cooking experience

Food Adventures in Bordeaux - where to have a decent coffee

I always planned this blog to be more about food but as our barging adventure began it slowly became more about travel. We have been living in a village near Bordeaux for several months now and have had numerous opportunities to try the food in this great city. Bordeaux has recently supplanted Lyon as being the best food destination in France after Paris and I can see why. There are lots of places to eat, catering to all tastes. The fact that there are so many expats, retirees from Paris, a large student population and closeness to Spain means that there heaps of food options at all price points.
Finding a decent cup of coffee in France can be a bit of a challenge. I think Australians are coffee snobs or maybe we have been spoilt by coffee baristas making really good coffee. Starbucks would never have been our go to coffee option in Australia but sometimes when overseas it's the only way to guarantee a halfway decent coffee.
Over the years we have honed our coffee ordering skills in France - from asking for an espresso with a small amount of warm milk to being told by one cafe owner in Brantôme that we should be asking for a cafe noisette. This has served us fairly well with the quality of the coffee being dependent on how bitter the beans are, what type of milk they use (there aren't too many places that use fresh milk - it's either UHT or even worse evaporated milk) and how long since the machine was cleaned. Sometimes it's better just to order a cup of tea! Or go home and make your own.
Flat white and a yummy cake
Flat white and yummy cake
The first cafe we walked into in Bordeaux was called Books and Coffee. There were a lot of customers and it just looked like it would have good coffee. We didn't even look at the menu - just ordered a couple of cafe noisettes and a cake.

And it was the best coffee we have had in France. Smooth, good crema and no bitter after taste. The waiter/owner was really pleased when we complimented him on the coffee and thanked us for the feedback. On our next visit I actually looked at the menu and was totally surprised to find flat white. It was the first time I had seen flat white on a coffee menu outside Australia and the UK. And the coffee was just as good this time as well.

Window display featuring dunes blanches
Window display of Dunes Blanches
Some Australian friends also recommended another cafe in Bordeaux - the alchimiste. Not only do they make great coffee, they roast their own beans. The cafe is in Rue de Vieille Tour opposite a nice little patisserie that makes these amazing dunes blanches. So you can order these bite size pieces of deliciousness from the cafe for €1 or go across to the patisserie and order a dozen or two. Alchimiste also has flat whites and cortados, both smooth and creamy. My preference is still Books and Coffee but it's probably about personal taste. Books and coffee serves meals as well whereas Alchimiste is all about the coffee.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Finding a Winter Mooring

Since we purchased the barge in 2013, we haven’t spent winter in the same place. Our aim is to see as much of the waterways of Europe but mostly France, before we decide to base the barge in one spot. So far the barge has wintered in Uxbridge UK, Cergy Pontoise France, Bruges Belgium, Strasbourg France and Pont de Vaux France. Mostly we have chosen our winter moorings based on either recommendations and, where possible, personal visits. As good winter moorings get booked early or have a high percentage of regulars you need to do your homework and put your name on a waiting list at least 12 months in advance.
Next year we plan to cruise down the Saône and Rhone to the Canal du Midi and associated canals in the south west of France. To that end we drove to the Canal Deux Mers region to check out potential winter moorings for 2018. We had 3 possibilities - Buzet sur Baise, Moissac and Castelsarrazin.
Buzet sur Baise had been recommended by a number of people mostly, though, for the great restaurants in this small town. The marina would be great for a stopover during summer or in winter if you had a smaller boat but for us it really wasn’t suitable. The moorings for barges, unfortunately, didn’t have any facilities. Another private marina also didn’t suit us.
Typical tree lined vista on the canal Lateral a la Garonne - private marina at Buzet
Marina run by tourist bureau in Buzet
Not much space in this marina in Buzet
From Buzet, we headed to Moissac on the Canal Deux Mers. We had visited here before on our quest for a barge. On that day it had been raining so we hadn’t formed a very good impression of Moissac. However, this time the sun was shining and the town, canal and river looked very inviting. A fellow Aussie who was moored in the marina for this winter commented that it was one of the best run marinas he had stayed in. High praise indeed. After speaking with the harbour master we decided to make application to stay here. Unfortunately, placements aren’t allocated till February.
The Tarn River at Moissac and the summer Quay
The summer moorings in Moissac
Autumn colours at the Moissac marina

So as not to be disappointed and maybe find ourselves without a mooring for 2018 we ventured on to the next town on our list,  Castelsarrazin.
Castelsarrazin is only 7km by road from Moissac but a good hour by barge. The main marina (J Y Cousteau) here, also run by the tourist bureau, has finger pontoons, mostly suitable for cruisers and smaller barges. There is, however, a Quay a little further away from the office that caters for larger boats especially those that are permanent, and the quay has water and electricity. Speaking to a local who has lived aboard here for 20 years, we found out that this area was quieter than the main marina but did run the risk of petty theft. Not exactly what we were wanting to hear but we still decided to register here as there are plans for video surveillance and the town itself has a number of services, and supermarkets and commercial zones etc are a short drive away.
Canal at Castelsarrazin

Sculpture at J.Y. Cousteau marina Castelsarrasin