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

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Digoin to Pont de Vaux

Fortuitous indeed! Our next town was Paray Le Monial. So glad we missed Digoin for this gem. In the DBA (Dutch Barge Association) waterways guide someone had mentioned that this town had the most moorings they had seen for a town of this size. We certainly didn't have a problem finding one. As we were entering the tree lined canal that runs on the edge of the town we were bombarded by a thunderstorm so made the decision to tie up to the first suitable mooring. As it turned out this was a good choice given that the next few days were hot and we were mostly under the shelter of the trees.
Sacre Coeur

Once we had settled in and the rain had stopped we strolled into Paray Le Monial. What a lovely maintained town this is. Kevin commented on how prosperous it looked and I said it was probably due to the number of pilgrims who visit here. He scoffed at this idea saying that it was an old fashioned notion. Well it obviously isn't because when he enquired at the tourist office they informed him that just in July and August alone 50000 people visit to attend services at the church. There was also a huge tent area where many multi denominational services are held. I read somewhere else that about 1000000 people visit Paray Le Monial every year. A nun, Marguerite Maríe had several apparitions in 1671. These were verified as true visions of Christ, hence the reason Paray became a popular pilgrimage site and it is also a stopping point on the route to Santiago de Compostella. She was canonised in 1920.
The town had lots of people wandering the streets and the restaurants and cafes were also busy. Paray is also noted for its mosaics with classes conducted at the museum. The old church of St Nicholas also had an amazing display of mosaics by talented Italian artist Giulio Candussio and Thomas Denker.
Some of the amazing mosaics in St Nicholas

It had also been suggested that a wander into Paray once the lights came on would be a treat. So on our second night here we waited till about 9 pm before heading into town but it doesn't get dark in this part of the world in summer till about 9.30. On the dot of 9:45 the lights came on and revealed another aspect of this lovely town.
Old St Nicholas Church at dusk
Sacre Coeur by night
The rear of Sacre Coeur
While we were here we noticed a barge coming up behind us and thought it looked familiar. Out came the binoculars and we saw it was Friesland, the barge we did our ICC licence on. It has since been bought by fellow Aussies, Steve and Kim, who we met in Verdun last year. They moored behind us and once they had settled in we had drinks and caught up on their travels over the last 12 months.
After being in Paray for three days we decided it was time to move on. The canal du Centre is a pretty canal and what you expect when you first think of canal cruising - bars and restaurants along the route, picturesque small villages, pretty moorings. So we took our time cruising along this section, sometimes only doing 10 kms a day. We weren't in a hurry anyway.
Church ruin
Pretty garden at lockkeepers house
Quiet mooring
Villages make an effort to entice visitors with lovely gardens
Another quiet mooring spot with a restaurant just over the bridge
Hanging garden in a lock
When we arrived at St Leger sur Dheune we managed to get a good mooring on the Quay outside the harbour masters office but just far enough back from the turning point. Apparently 19 hotel barges come up the canal du Centre from the Saône with St Leger as their turnaround point. So boats moored here have to make sure they leave enough room for the 38m freycinet style barges to turn so that they can complete the return journey to Dijon. St Leger is another nice little town with an excellent restaurant right on the canal. "Au p'tit Kir" is run by an Englishwoman and the food was really good. 
Once again we weren't in any hurry to move on so stayed for 3 days as we knew some other barging friends, Stella and Simon,  on Grizzled Skipper were planning on staying here. When they eventually arrived they rafted up to us as by then spaces were limited. We had a very impromptu drinks and dinner in the adjacent park. It's so convenient having a park next to the boat where you can sit under the trees having dinner and watching the marathon boules game. Unfortunately I didn't get any photos but the three guys would have played for 6 hours -drinking, smoking and chatting. 
From St Leger, it wasn't too far before the deep lock that heralds the end of the Canal du Centre and entrance onto the Saône.
Inside the last lock
The guillotine type gate that you go through to get onto the Saône
Looking back at the last lock or the first depending on which way you're going
We were now on the Saône and heading south through Chalons sur Saône, Tournus and then onto a side canal to our winter destination of Pont de Vaux.
Flower beds commemorating the link between Chalons sur Saône and the USA in 1917
One of several bridges over the Saône at Chalons
Commercial lock on the Saône - we're about halfway along so it's a biggie !
The locks on the canals are mostly only designed to fit a boat of a maximum of 38m, however once you're onto the big rivers the commercial barges can be 120m long and so the locks are designed to fit at least one of these but sometimes 2 or 3 commercial barges of varying size. When there isn't much commercial traffic we can be in one of these huge locks on our own. Seems a bit of a waste of water but it's the only way to get around rapids etc.
The marina at Tournus - boats over 15m have to moor further upstream
Tournus church
Marina at Pont de Vaux - home for the boat this winter
Our first day in Pont de Vaux was market day and we were suitably impressed by the size and number of vendors and the quality of produce
Some of the specials at the markets
A large number of stalls and plenty of people
We stayed at Pont de Vaux for a couple of weeks before we picked up our car at Lyons airport so that we can explore further afield and away from the canal system. Pont de Vaux is a lovely town and quite a lot bigger than we were expecting with all the services that you need within walking distance from the port. It even has a Michelin 1 star restaurant which we have yet to try.
A lovely lake and park on the outskirts of town
Weir over La Reyssouze
Colourful bridge from town to the lake
Scattered throughout the town are these unusual water pumps
Pretty little wildflower garden in an allotment near the port