Saturday, February 19, 2011

La Roque St Cristophe

When you sightsee you are naturally going for the most interesting places a country has to offer. We’ve seen the unusual and magnificent all across Europe. The town of La Roque St Cristophe was no exception.

This place is once again built into the side of a rock face. The medieval types in this area really saw the value of a good rock. It could have just been a case of using what was available but you’d think after millennia of use, people would come up with a new idea. On the other hand, perhaps those in the 15th century also thought it quaint to live in a place inhabited by humans for thousands of years. La Roque St Cristophe is perhaps the best protected medieval village we’ve seen yet; a kind of poor man’s castle.

Forget all the imposing castles; this place had one entrance, a narrow path along the rock face. Below is a nasty drop. Above is a serious climb. To get to the village, you had to pass along this path through a gate composed of stone. You weren’t going to be bringing in the cannon or even a wagon because although the path was narrow, the gate was narrower. You probably didn’t even want to be dressed in a bunch of armour with multiple weapons for this attack. People could throw down things from above and if you didn’t have the sure-footed balance of a goat, you were gone.

Once through the gate, things got a little easier. The stone widened, providing an overhang with a natural roof. This roofing technique looked awfully good to Tom and I. Those of you who are familiar with our roof problems this year or have ones of your own, may commiserate. We’ve seen a lot of rooves in our travels and if a thousand year old roof made of stones and no mortar or filler can still be leak-proof, what’s with ours? But I digress. The stone here had been carved out by human hands over time to include stairs, cupboards, higher arched ceilings, passages and even feeding troughs and tie-ups for animals. None of the wooden structures remain so it is up to one’s imagination to fill in the details in most places.

This was a thriving community with a whole market area and church, complete with bell, all clinging to the rock face. Friends of the rock have recreated many of the tools of the time to help understand how the people got so many things in and out of the village. They had to lift it all in and out! It seems like a ridiculous amount of work until you think about the uncertainty of the times.

Vikings and other brutish sorts were raiding the area and would sail up the river at the foot of the cliff to attack. The community had set up a clever system of lookouts up and down the river. Each lookout could see the next one. If one spotted raiders, they’d signal to the next point and it would travel up the river. In 6 minutes they could send a message 15 miles! That’s not bad for a place with no cell phones. Once the village knew an attack was imminent, they’d haul up the ropes and voila, the fortress is secure. Even if the attackers did manage to send up fire arrows to do damage, they weren’t going to get in. I’m not sure I’d have wanted to set up camp here but given the option of serfdom or this, there had to have been an appeal.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Thanks Mom!

We were sitting quietly in our dimly lit living space, each working on a separate task, when Tom got up to get more firewood and discovered a slip of paper from the post office attached to the door; a package had arrived!

Immediately, the calm working atmosphere I had struggled to create erupted in a flurry of “I’ll get it!” I announced that as Rhys and Julia were working on their schoolwork, I would pick it up. “I’ll open it!” was next. I announced that we would not open it until the time for working on school was finished. Aren’t I cruel?

As I traipsed happily off to the post office, I pondered why we hadn’t heard the post person. We had been there all morning. When other people had arrived at the house we had heard them. Guiltily, I wondered if I had been in the middle of my fishwife screaming routine when the notice had arrived. I know it probably surprises you to hear life isn’t just one happy event after another, and even more so that I would raise my voice. I’d like to remind you that I am traveling with two teenagers.

School has been most difficult this year. I had heard before we left that Europe was very well connected and finding Internet would not be an issue. This was important if the kids were going to do correspondence online. It seemed to be true when we arrived in England. A mobile internet stick cost about $50 and lasted the entire month we were there. We were told the stick would work throughout Europe and it seemed this was going to be the answer. We could get internet anywhere, even while driving, although that was sporadic. It was still August, though, and the online teachers were on holiday. The kids couldn’t get started until September.

After we left England, Internet became a whole new ballgame. In Greece, we spent two days and five whopping hours in the Vodaphone shop trying to get the newly purchased mobile stick to work. The one from England simply would NOT work under any circumstance, even with a new card and although the Vodaphone technician was a computer guru with the patience of a saint, we only managed to get the brand new $75 mobile stick to work. On arrival in Turkey a few weeks later, the Greek stick no longer worked and the English stick remained silent as well. It appeared this was not going to be the simple process I had anticipated.

We decided we would have to rely on Internet connections in our various apartments but as I hadn’t included that criterion when I booked them the previous summer, it was hit and miss. We also found that the pace of travel left very little time to focus on assignments. We would awaken at around 7 or 8 in the morning and return to the apartment around 5 or 6 in the evening most days. After dinner, emails and the occasional Skype call we’d all collapse into bed to repeat the process the next day. Life was a whirl of the new and unfamiliar. Information was bombarding our brains but little of it was the kind one answers questions about.

By Christmas, things were getting a bit intense. Very little school had been accomplished and I realized that we had to PUSH school during the weeks we stayed in one place for longer. Over the Christmas “holidays”, the kids worked on school every morning for a few hours. This routine seemed to work. Then we left for Paris and the whirlwind sightseeing schedule was back.

We had been able to find Vodaphone stores everywhere in Europe but apparently France missed the memo and has only Orange. Fine. We went to the Orange store to get a new chip for the sticks. I don’t know why I figured this would be as easy in France as it was in England. More fool I. The $60 chips didn’t work. I returned to the store and spent two hours with the technician to finally be told the Orange chips would not work with the Vodaphone sticks. One new stick would cost $130. Uh-huh. Once you buy a computer chip, you can’t get your money back so once again we had spent a fruitless $60. Were we going to make it a fruitless $320 for two new sticks? I don’t think so.

Now, we are in Provence for a month and there is Internet at our apartment. We have decided that the kids will do four hours of concentrated work each morning and we’ll sightsee in the afternoon. On weekends we’ll take the longer full day trips. This is an excellent plan. If only the two students would agree. It seems that waking up to do school is completely different from waking up to sightsee. I have never seen such exhausted specimens of life. Rhys can barely open his eyes and Julia appears to be getting a cold.

The day the package arrived was day two of our new plan. I had spent the morning using various tactics to get Rhys downstairs to work; many of which included loud verbal barrages. It would be just my luck to have the post person hear this.

I handed over the postal slip to the clerk at the office and she quickly retrieved the package and released it to me; no id, no questions, nada. Obviously, they didn’t realize the value of the goods inside.

The package sat on our counter in the kitchen, calling loudly to us all. The children focused studiously, giving the package and I furtive glances for the rest of the morning. Finally, the great moment arrived. Julia was elected to open. The rest of us grabbed our cameras. This was the biggest excitement since Christmas! As she opened the box, three cameras flashed furiously before we had to ask her to turn the box around so we all could see what was inside.

Oh, the treasures! Tom had his new glasses. Rhys had his new 5 block Rubics cube. Julia had her new book, Terry’s chocolate and Kraft Dinner. There was even a new t-shirt and article on Italy for me. We all shared the chocolate and the kids ate the Kraft Dinner for lunch. Rhys hasn’t put the cube down since it arrived and Tom announced his glasses to be perfect.

Thanks Mom!

Pont Julien Bridge

We came across a bridge just like many other stone bridges we had seen but it was a little older and has a more prominent history.

Pont Julien situated in Provence France, over the Calavon River, is a limestone three arch Roman built span. It is said to be 2000 years old. In fact they had a 2000 year celebration in 1997. It was part of the Via Domintia roadway linking France and Rome. The road still exists to the east of the bridge and is a cyclist route now. The bridge is built of local limestone and it uses no mortar. It is just finely fitted stone. It closed to car traffic in 2005 after 2000 years of service. You can still walk or ride your bike across. It replaced an earlier and therefore older bridge and you can still see the location of this previous foundation.

Sarlat and the Dordogne

The Dordogne Valley is home to foie gras, walnuts, truffles, cave paintings and us for a week. People have lived in this area for over ten thousand years. We spent our time here in a little town named Sarlat-le-Caneda. It has a nice ring, doesn’t it? Our place was just lovely. An English couple had restored an old barn and the loving care put into the restoration plus the attention to amenities (It had English TV!) made this one of our better weeks.

The Dordogne is well known for producing several different gourmet foods. First, it is the centre of fois gras country and we tried not to get too close to the details of that. While the town practically worships geese, it is not on the goose tourist map. Geese have been traded here for centuries and one can’t get far without tripping over a tin of fois gras. We tried some and it was quite yummy. This is also a big truffle area and winter is truffle season. Truffles are in the neighbourhood of $750/kg so we didn’t test those. We did try some truffle flavoured chocolate covered nuts, however. They were yummy. Nuts also figure prominently on the “things the Dordogne does well” list. They even have a “Routes des Noix”, or Nut Drive which we naturally found ourselves following on more than one occasion. No comments, please.

Sarlat was just as cute as a town could be, with twisty old streets lined with fairytale like structures. It had a distinct Italian feel to it and with good reason. Catherine de Medici, a powerful mistress to one of the Kings (more on her later, I’m sure) had a boyfriend who was an Italian Bishop and she set him up here in Sarlat. There are so many things morally wrong in that sentence, it begs a story. Just to further whet your appetite for that tale, the Italian Bishop stole the Sarlat’s money and ran away, leaving behind a town rich in Italian architecture, if not gold. It was fun rounding each corner of the narrow streets to reveal yet another charming scene. I mean, get a load of those crazy church doors in the picture to the right.

We all agreed Sarlat was the best place to stay but it had some stiff competition for “cute”. Driving around the valley, we came upon so many picturesque scenes it would be hard to describe them all. The most fantastic part of this was probably the fact that it was early February and the weather was spectacular and warm. I can imagine how gorgeous this place would be in the summer time but so can about a zillion other tourists and I think the crowds would detract from the charm.

The weather is probably one of the reasons people have inhabited this area for so long. The high cliffs on either side provide natural protection from the elements. There are caves where people and other animals have lived over the millennia. Even during the second ice age the inhabitants of this area were able to survive as the valley never completely froze. A narrow strip of vegetation provided snacks for all. A wide, slow river that flows through the area created an easy transportation route along the valley as well as providing a fresh water source. With its steep, high sides the animals would be channeled through the valley, so the people had the food coming right to their doorstep rather than having to seek it out. This has been the perfect home for almost as long as people have been around.

Roque Gageac is a town build between a lovely river and a cliff. There is just enough room to fit the road, which floods every winter after a heavy rain, and a line of buildings before one has to start moving up the side of the cliff if one wishes to reside here. One building even shows the record high water marks. The 1940’s really weren’t a great time for France. Okay, so this is a VERY cute place but whose idea was it to build in a spot with so little space? What kind of a defense system does one employ when one’s back is to the wall? We can only surmise that the town planners were way ahead of their time and realized what a great little tourist trap they had created. While the rock may not have been very forgiving space-wise, it did provide heat and this town is able to grow tropical plants that won’t grow easily anywhere else around. The picture on the right looks like a different country, n'est-ce pas? Lastly, I just had to include this picture of the Leper House. The town didn’t win any friendliness awards back in the day as visitors who arrived in times of plague had their boats confiscated and were thrown into the leper house for a time to see if they carried any disease with them. Fortunately, the town was fairly disease free when we visited so we didn’t see the inside of this building.

The Dordogne Valley is also filled with castles. In France we call them chateaus. My favourite chateaus were very close to each other. One was the Castelnaud (on the right) and the other Beynac. Castelnaud perched high on a cliff overlooking the river. So did Beynac. They were about a 10 minute horseback ride from each other, so close together you can almost wave to each other from the turrets. What I liked about them is their history. During the Hundred Years War, the French occupied Beynac on one side of the river and the English occupied Castlenaud on the other side. But that wasn’t good enough, so the English built a second castle on their side of the river, closer to Beynac so they could spy on the French. Not to be outdone, the French built a second castle closer to Castelnaud in order to spy on the English. The ridiculousness of this given the situation of the river and the castles still amuses me.

Castelnaud had a great tour with lots of interesting weaponry from the middle ages. Beynac (on the left), however, was my favourite of the two. I love the fact that the French occupied it because it looks just like the castle Monty Python’s gang clip-clops up to during the quest for the Holy Grail. Standing on the grass below, I could easily imagine the French soldiers glaring disdainfully over the edge casting aspersions on the hapless English knights. It is the straight-walled castle we build with Lego bricks and there is something completely familiar about it, though it in no way resembles the fairytale castles in which princesses lived. Perhaps it is the male equivalent.

There were plenty of other adorable towns. Martel with its towers, Carennac with its completely captivating creekside settings and Rocamadour, the pilgrimage site built up the side of a cliff. Each town had something unique to offer and each was a delight to explore but in the end, we were glad we had based ourselves in Sarlat.