Friday, August 12, 2011

Great food and a conspiracy theory

Sometimes the best meal you eat is somewhere or something totally unexpected. When we were staying in the Carcassonne region, our hosts suggested that we might like to venture to a little village called Rennes-le-Chateau. It had a contentious history in more recent times with the discovery of a possible conspiracy theory, suggesting blackmail of the Catholic Church and the possibility of a descendant of Jesus - the real Da Vinci Code!!
So we drove to this tiny little village on the edge of the Pyrenees, not really sure what to expect but open to any suggestion that this may be real. It was an uncharacteristically cold day and as we climbed higher into the mountains it became colder and windier. Neither of us had brought a jumper so by the time we started wandering around the streets of the village looking for the church we were starting to get really cold.
What better way to warm us up then a good meal and a decent cup of coffee. In Rennes-le-Chateau there are only 2 restaurants - the first looked dark and cold but the second - Amarante- looked warm and inviting. The daily menu included a hearty soup and duck confit, both of which sounded perfect on a cold windy day. My soup was excellent and my husband commented that his duck was the best he had eaten on the entire holiday. That was quite a statement as he had eaten so many ducks that I was half expecting him to lay an egg!! The house wines were also good but then again what house wine isn't good throughout France. However, the highlight for me was dessert. I wasn't going to order anything until I saw it being served to the table next to us. Chocolate fondant! It was so yummy that I wanted more - I actually scraped out the bowl and if it hadn't been hot, I probably would have licked it as well. Compliments to the chef.
Anyway, onto the conspiracy of Rennes -le-Chateau. The church had fallen into disrepair by 19 century but suddenly priest Father Berenger Sauniere had at his disposal funds to totally renovate the church. An investigation was conducted into how he suddenly had funds to not only renovate the church but build a large villa for himself as well. The investigation centred on documents that he is alleged to have found hidden in his church, and his alleged wealth. There has been a BBC documentary and  a novel "The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail" explaining possible scenarios and, of course, the Da Vinci Code. Sauniere was temporarily suspended with reinstatement on the condition that the "misappropriated goods" be returned to their rightful owner. Of course, he was unable to do this so lived the rest of his life in poverty.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Like a local

We have found travelling is most rewarding when you live like a local. Staying in upmarket hotels and eating out at Michelin star restaurants is one way of seeing a city but it is very artificial. You don't get to see how the real people live, where they shop, where they eat. During our recent holiday in France we found that staying in self contained accommodation gave us the opportunity to see the other side of travel. The side that says, yes, I could live here. It also means that it is quite affordable to stay for extended periods of time so that you get a real feel of what life could be like if you decided to make a life changing decision to move here.
Our Paris accommodation was a well equipped apartment in the 6th arrondissement, just metres from the Seine and near to Boulevard Saint Germain and it's designer shops. This district is an eclectic mix of people - tourists, students, locals - thus giving lots of options for shopping, eating out or dining in. The local market at Rue de Buci offers an array of shops selling food and wine but, remember, that like most of France (and Europe) not many shops are open on a Sunday. Wandering around the back streets to the Luxemburg Gardens, window shopping at some of the amazing antique shops or strolling along the Left Bank of the Seine to Isle St Louis are some activities that can be done on a Sunday. The other thing that we really enjoyed was the number of talented buskers that wander around the streets in the evening, particularly near restaurants and bars. Some of the jazz players were exceptional.

In the countryside, the benefits of living like a local are even greater. The lower cost of accommodation and the ability to shop at markets at a different town or village every day means that your holiday suddenly becomes really affordable. To be able to buy direct from the producer means you get the freshest produce at the best price and you know that the producer is getting all the profit - a win-win situation. When we stayed at Vitrac on the Dordogne River we were surrounded by market towns, where they sold not only fresh produce but local arts and crafts. Sarlat has the biggest market but we also found St Cyprien, Domme and Cenac had good choices for a quick, fresh lunch or a gourmet dinner. In fact, the foie gras and duck, bread and cheese, lovely fresh asparagus and the most amazingly cheap cherries became our staple diet for this part of our holiday.

Add to that the amazing history of the area and you have, what we believed was the best place to holiday. Not only are there the usual chateaux and cathedrals but there are prehistoric caves and modern troglodytes, beautiful gardens and quaint villages. Entry prices to tourist attractions were really reasonable so you left feeling that this was an experience everyone could enjoy - it was not an exercise in ripping off the tourist.
A few years ago, I had read a book called Europe through the Back Door by Rick Steves. His philosophy about living like a local, trying to learn a few words of the language and not advertising the fact that you are a tourist made so much sense that we have adopted this. We enjoy blending in and soaking up the ambience of every place we stay.

Segway- a different view of Paris

If you are looking for a different way to see Paris then Segway it!! We had been to Paris a few times before so really didn't need to climb the Eiffel Tower, go inside Notre Dame or the Louvre - what could we do that was different? Segway, of course. We had seen them on travel shows back home and they looked like fun so we decided to book with City Segway Tours. These tours have a maximum of eight people plus a guide and last for 4 hours including training and a coffee break. So they are more intimate and you get to know your fellow tourists.
We met our guide at the Eiffel Tower who took us back to the Segway offices where we were given lessons on how to ride a Segway and safety tips. I was really apprehensive about stepping onto the Segway as I thought I would look totally uncoordinated. I needn't have worried because it felt so natural and before long we were all zooming along as though we had been born on a Segway.
Our guide was a young American  who was studying drama in Paris and who was knowledgeable about the tourist sites and  a mine of information about where we could eat and other activities that we wanted to do during our Paris stay. The sights visited on the tour included Les Invalides and Napoleon's Tomb, Pont Alexandre III, The D'Orsay, The Louvre, The Tuileries (where you stop for coffee and to recharge the Segway batteries) and Place de la Concorde. Obviously because you are on the Segway you can only see the outside of these but our guide made them so interesting that we decided to visit Les Invalides Military Museum and Napoleon's Tomb in the following days.
However, don't be fooled into thinking you are riding around on a platform that requires no effort. You really need the coffee stop to rest tired legs. Whether it is tension because you are on a contraption that is alien or the slight muscle movements that are required to maneuver the machine it is really quite tiring. On top of that you need to be able to maintain your centre of gravity. For two days after our Segway jaunt, my stomach muscles were as sore as if I had been doing multiple sit-ups or had a big Pilates workout.
I didn't realise how exhilarating tearing around Paris on a Segway could be - we were like celebrities - people stopped to look at us and take photos -  riding at 20km/h in bike lanes with the breeze in your face.
I want to buy one!!