Roman Antiquities in Nimes

Nîmes, our next stop, was an important outpost of the Roman Empire. It’s known for well-preserved Roman monuments such as the Arena of Nîmes, a double-tiered circa-70 A.D. amphitheater still in use for concerts and bullfights, the Pont du Gard tri-level aqueduct, and the Maison Carrée, a white limestone Roman temple, all around 2,000 years old.

I first stumbled across Nîmes on a poorly-planned, solo driving tour of France and Spain, back in the mid-80s, and wound up staying by chance at a wonderful hotel, The Imperator. It’s still there (listed as a Five-Star now so a bit above our budget for this trip) but I have no idea if it has retained its charm. Ahh, your impression of a place is certainly informed by where you stay and so, prior to our recent visit, I had a pretty nice impression of the town. My enthusiasm was tamped down on this trip, I’m afraid.

We had a frustrating time getting to our Airbnb in the Richelieu neighborhood because the car navigation system and Google Maps both kept trying to send us down one-way (the wrong way) and pedestrianized streets. We were passing places for the third time and patience was wearing thin when we finally arrived.

Our Airbnb was something else, over-decorated, with almost all of the walls lined with shelves containing thousands of CDs and DVDs. Sitting on the toilet brought you face-to-face with an enormous Star Wars movie poster and there was no shortage of red lights. Still, it was clean and the AC worked. It wasn’t in a very nice neighborhood, though, and we were stunned to find, tucked away across a major plaza, the Les Magnolias restaurant, where we quickly fell to reviving ourselves with an outstanding lunch.

We were really very lucky to have great weather during the entire trip, which allowed us to eat outside almost all the time, which helped allay COVID anxiety.

The next day we set out to see the Pont du Gard, the amazing Roman aqueduct about 30 minutes north of town. It’s a national park and a UNESCO World Heritage site and is probably jammed during the summer. Our visit was timed just right, and it wasn’t crowded at all.

What an awesome sight! The Romans knew how to use water as a political tool and they used this aqueduct and others to deliver water to Nîmes, growing the city’s economy and creating a lever for controlling the city as well. We spent half a day there and had a very good lunch at the nearby park restaurant. The associated museum, on the opposite river bank, has excellent exhibits that explain the engineering techniques used to build the structure. I was surprised to learn that a work force of paid, skilled laborers, not slaves, was employed to build it.

Nîmes is loaded with antiquities, such as the Emperor Augustine Gate, shown above, sprinkled through various neighborhoods.

Per our plan, we split up here, with our two friends taking the car to view the cave paintings at the Cave de Chauvet, while we took the train to our final tour stop, Lyon. They met us there at the end of the day.

Carcasonne’s Medieval Treasure

Carcassonne, a hilltop town in southern France’s Languedoc area, is famous for its medieval citadel, La Cité, which has numerous watchtowers and double-walled fortifications. The first walls were built in Gallo-Roman times, with major additions made in the 13th and 14th centuries.

Carcasonne is an easy 90-minutes east of Toulouse

We had an easy drive to Carcasonne, which loomed dramatically above us as we approached. We installed ourselves in our Airbnb rental and walked to the nearest restaurant for lunch. Which turned put to be a real jewel: tables in a large shaded garden, with a modest number of customers and friendly waiters.

L’Os ou l’arete cassoulet was outstanding

Everything was perfect! The food was memorable, the service friendly, and our hours-long lunch languid and relaxed. I had the regional specialty, cassoulet, which features white beans, duck, and sausage, roasted for hours. Incredibly tasty, and paired well with a local pilsner. We spent the rest of the day and evening in a virtual food coma and spent the time doing laundry and taking care of business online.

Castle and ramparts loom above us

As it happens, a set of very steep stairs at the end of our street leads up to paths that ascend to Carcasonne’s walled city and we managed the climb without too much effort. We took a self-guided tour through the castle and all long the city’s ramparts, which was fascinating. The Middle Ages were brutal and defense was paramount, as reflected in the many fortifications. It was a work-out, too, as we ascended and descended many steps, circular stairs, and changing levels.

Carcassonne became famous for its role in the crusades when the city was a stronghold of Occitan Cathars. In August 1209 the crusading army of the Papal legate, abbot Arnaud Amalric, forced its citizens to surrender. The people of Carcassonne were allowed to leave—in effect, expelled from their city with nothing more than the shirt on their backs. What a horrible fate.

Vegetable soup starter

Our fate after leaving the castle, of course, was much better and we suffered no privations, as the rest of the walled city is packed with modern tourist shops and restaurants. We were lucky to have escaped our touristic compulsions lightly, emerging with just half a dozen postcards. It’s a Saturday but crowds were light, which was a very good thing; I can imagine a crowded, hot, summer day here would be stifling. We ate a marvelous lunch at a place called Le Saint-Jean, in an outdoor area adjacent to the castle. The local Ortola wine perfectly complimented our meals.

My comrades are out foraging for tomorrow’s breakfast, after which we head for Nimes and its remarkable Roman ruins. Thanks for coming along!

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Vineyards and Toulouse

Today, we’re in Toulouse, the capital of France’s southern Occitanie region, which is bisected by the Garonne River and sits near the Spanish border. It’s known as La Ville Rose (“The Pink City”) due to the terra-cotta bricks used in many of its buildings.

We stopped at two vineyards along the way from Bordeaux, by appointment, for tours and tastings. It was fun to learn about the vineyards, to taste their wines, and of course to buy a few bottles.

At Chateau de Gensac
Enormous barrels at Chateau Caze

In between, we had lunch at a fabulous restaurant we’d never have found in a million years but for a vineyard owner’s recommended.

Fine outdoor dining at Chez Vous, in tiny St. Puy

In Toulouse, we’re staying in an Airbnb, just south of the river. Inner-city traffic is really congested and it took us quite a while to get to our place.

Our day in Toulouse included visits to the Capitole plaza, the Basillica of St. Sernin, and the Victor Hugo Market, punctuated with a great outdoor lunch. We used the subway system, which was easy to navigate, fast, and convenient.

St. Sernin’s claims to be the burial place of St. James (disputed by competing claim from Santiago, Spain) and five other apostles!

We ended our day with a superb Moroccan dinner at La Marocain.

Couscous and other treats at La Marocain

Tomorrow, we’re off to Carcasonne.

In Lovely Bordeaux

We spent a nice day walking around Bordeaux, seeing its architectural high points, and touring the Museum de Aquitaine. The museum has a great collection devoted to pre-historic man, with artifacts that go back 25,000 – 30,000 years, which is of particular interest to our traveling companions.

Porte Cailhau gate

At the medieval Porte Cailhau city gate, we encountered a large brass plaque that references St. James, patron saint of the Camino de Santiago, of particular interest to me:

Traditional pilgrim routes went through Bordeaux

Our passe sanitaires have worked smoothly whenever they’ve been required and we generally feel quite safe in public indoor spaces, knowing others around us are vaccinated.

In case your French geography needs a refresher

We’re traveling in a leased, diesel Peugot 3008 SUV and France has plenty of nice, high-speed toll roads. The navigation system in the car has been spotty at times though, so we’ve had to do some Google Map verifications and a u-turn now and then. But it’s all been good.

Tomorrow, we head southeast to Toulouse.

Gaming the Coffee Machine

We’re in Bordeaux, on the second day of our drive-and-dine roadtrip through southern France.

Our hotel has a lovely buffet breakfast laid out and I’m finding myself very entertained by my fellow guests as they do what’s necessary to get themselves their morning coffee. The ”coffee machine” looks like this:

Espresso, coffee, latte, cafe creme, americano, and hot chocolate

The machine is pretty simple to use: put a cup in place and tap the desired picture. This snazzy, single-serve machine will then grind the necessary beans, brew the coffee, and dispense the right amount. So easy!

And yet… Some of guests have noticed that the large, generous cups are not filled all the way, so they figure they can run a second choice into the same cup to top it off.

I can understand thinking you can double up on the caffeine by running an espresso in on top of a regular coffee, for example, but what I don’t get is how badly people seem to estimate how much room is left in the nearly-full cup. Some hilarity ensues.

As the cup fills and overflows, one guy panics and punches multiple buttons to make it stop, without success. Another keeps discreetly tipping some liquid out of his cup into the drain tray until the second cycle ends. And my favorite was a lady who just pretended nothing untoward was happening and walked off with her full-to-the brim cup, leaving a trails of spills through the dining room and the machine dispensing the remaining coffee directly into the drain.

What did they think was going to happen, I wonder?

Me? I drink tea.

Southern France Road Trip

I recovered from mild jet lag quickly and enjoyed being reunited with the New French Girl Friend (NFGF), both of which which involved good French croissants and champagne.

The French are taking COVID restrictions in stride, despite some weekend protests in major cities. The basic deal is that you must have a passe sanitaire, a national vaccination record represented by a QR code, and must have it scanned in order to enter restaurants, bars, the Metro, large event venues, and more.

French folk get their QR code via their national health system when they’re vaccinated. Vaccinated foreigners like me can apply for one online, and the US CDC vaccination is accepted in many places as a substitute. I received QR code a few days after arriving in Paris.

Publically, the French thought the passe sanitaire was an infringement on their freedom (hence the protests) but it turns out that privately they thought it was great to be assured that everyone in the bar, restaurant, etc. with them was vaccinated. So vaccination demand soared when this was put into place and, as of now, 85% of the eligible population here has had one dose, and 78% are fully vaccinated.

Social distancing and the wearing of masks in public spaces indoors is pretty widely practised.

All of which is very reassuring and lays the groundwork for our Southern France Road Trip.

The 2021 Edition is a 10-day driving tour, featuring great wines and wonderful food, starting and finishing in Paris, with stops in Bordeaux, Toulouse, Carcassonne, Nimes, and Lyon. We’re traveling with some American friends from San Diego.

Expect some gorgeous food and scenery pictures!

Ahhh, Travel

It’s good to be back on the road again.

I left Dulles airport, near Washington D.C., and flew Air France direct to Paris – Charles de Gaulle. I was asked to present my passport and U.S. CDC vaccination card before being given a boarding pass but otherwise the flight was uneventful. Everyone wore their mask, no one brawled with the stewards, no police were called to the gate. What a commentary on the times were in today!

The view from my seat in the Air France lounge at Dulles

Upon landing at CDG, my two docs were examined again. Not examined: the Passenger Locator form distributed on the plane, nor the French health attestation form I was told to download and complete before the flight. I also took a PCR test 24-hours before departure (negative, of course) but no one wanted to hear about that – it was mostly for my own peace of mind and a hedge against any last-minute flight restriction changes.

Wending my way through Charle de Gaulle airport

Very impressive baggage return system they have at CDG, with lots of status information provided as you stand around and wait. My bag appeared out of the maw of the belt machinery pretty quickly, so I had no need to test my first-time use of an Apple Airtag for luggage tracking.

Had a looonng taxi ride into town, with many jams and lots of rain, so I was glad I opted for the flat fare taxi (€58) instead of an Uber, which with ”surge pricing”, might have been double that.

Great to be back in Paris! Need some coffee and a croissant, and then a shower.

Au Revoir, Paris

I can hardly believe that it’s been three months since I arrived here in Paris from the U.K. on the Eurostar train at the end of October, in a rush to get here before the sudden 2nd French lockdown began. There was a huge, hours-long traffic jam that night, as many Parisians fled for the countryside before the midnight deadline.

The Tower in January

I’ve had a lovely time, staying with my New French Girlfriend, in the pleasant 15th Arrondissment. We rejoiced over the U.S. election results, enjoyed the holidays, and rode out the latest pandemic restrictions together. We masked up, obeyed the curfew, and got better at Zoom and Facetime. We cooked fabulous meals and enjoyed some great wines. We drank champagne and shed tears of joy on U.S. Inauguration Day, when French friends and folks we didn’t even know congratulated us.

Chimney pots over Paris

However, pandemic or not, the Schengen Treaty still applies and I can only stay in the E.U. for 90 days at a time, so I must leave soon. I’m flying out in a few days, just ahead of implementation of the CDC’s new requirement that all U.S.-bound passengers present a negative COVID test prior to boarding. I have a direct flight and I’m rigorous about safety protocols, so I anticipate a safe arrival.

Our Thanksgiving Holiday table

The second and third waves of COVID cases have caused almost all countries to impose strict requirements for entry, and some have even banned tourists altogether. I’m not keen on returning to the U.S., the “COVID capital of the world”, but at least I can and I hope to get the COVID vaccine in the next few months.

Traveling internationally as a lifestyle requires that you learn about a lot of things, which is good and stimulates the brain. But the pandemic has added a thick layer of other, rapidly-changing, travel-related information that now also needs to be understood, and of course it has increased the risk. Frankly, it’s exhausting and, because “planning ahead” is no longer possible, frustrating. But you play, as they say, “the cards you’re dealt” and make the best of it.

Ready when there’s somewhere to go

For me, that means a few months in Northern Virginia for sure, and possibly a longer stay through the summer. I look forward to traveling again when things become more normal. I’ll continue my musings here, but the locales may be less exotic.

Parisian Gourmet: Frozen Food?

If you’re in my age group, you may remember growing up consuming lousy frozen TV dinners and tasteless frozen vegetables. Fresh vegetables were not a “thing” back then. For example, because I was raised on mushrooms from a jar, I had no idea how delightful fresh ones could be until I was in college. Later, of course, the healthy-eating tidal wave conditioned us to embrace fresh vegetables as the only sane choice.

So, it was with some surprise that I discovered the passion here for frozen foods. Yes, in France, with its fresh markets and reputation for fine cuisine, frozen foods are extremely popular. However, these are not my mother’s tasteless, freezer-burnt, Birds Eye offerings; rather, they’re flash-frozen, high-quality products processed in such a way that they retain all of their nutrients and, in some cases, have more of them than “fresh” produce does.

In France, large grocery stores do offer baked goods and fresh meats, but the neighborhood boulangeries (bakeries) and boucheries (butcher shops) have the best products, and they’re where most Parisians buy them. But I was surprised to find stand-alone stores that offer nothing but frozen products.

Welcome to Picard (no, no relation to Jean-Luc of the Enterprise), which started off in the early 1900s as a supplier of ice. Now, with over 1,000 stores, it can be called one of France’s favorite grocery stores, and it’s also established in several other European countries. Picard’s 1,200 flash-frozen products include veges and fruits (regular and organic), spices, meats, soups, pastries, desserts, and much more. Picard chefs make all sorts of prepared meals that are very popular.

Their freezer-filled stores are clean and modern, with good signage. You can order online for pickup or delivery, and they also sell insulated bags for your use taking food home.

In researching this post, I found quite a few articles extolling Picard. Here’s a good one by Ann Mah that does a great job of introducing Picard.

I’ve eaten quite a few Picard products in the last three months and they’ve all been really good. Boeuf Bourguignon (Beef Burgundy) over Aligot de l’Aubrac (cheesey mashed potatoes) is one favorite and their Yellow Lentil Curry soup is another.

You can visit the Picard website to see their many tempting offerings: https://www.picard.fr/

When I was staying in Dublin last year, I found a similar chain called, of all things, Iceland. I didn’t try their products so I don’t know if their quality is as good as Picard’s but they seemed quite popular.

Sadly, Picard is not in the U.S. and is not likely to be, for the reasons set forth by Ann Mah. Too bad!

Christmas Is Different Here

In my last post, we talked about Christmas trees in Paris and in this one I’ll share with you some of the common Christmas traditions here that are quite different from those in the U.S.

Wrapping Supplies

There are no wide ribbons or big, ready-made bows here. Narrow “curling” ribbon and small “confetti” bows are the preferred wrapping options.

Mistletoe

You’d think the romantic French would be all over this, but mistletoe is hung here as a decoration that brings good luck. Not as a license for kissing.

Marché de Noel

Christmas markets are huge in France, although perhaps not exclusively a French Christmas tradition. There are a quite few towns and villages in France where artisan-produced gifts and local culinary delicacies, such as foie gras and confit de canard, are sold in the run-up to Christmas.

No Christmas Cards

Typically, the French do not send Christmas cards to friends and family. Instead, cards are sent to celebrate the New Year.

Santa Letters

Letters from French children to Pere Noël (Father Christmas) don’t just disappear into recycling bins in France. Since 1962, France has had a law that stipulates that any letter to Santa must be responded to, in the form of a postcard. The law has no doubt helped boost the myth of Father Christmas among French kids, although it’s doubtful that postal workers appreciate all the extra work.

Le Réveillon de Noël

The French hold a traditional Christmas Eve dinner, the Réveillon de Noël. At around midnight, French families eat a special meal to celebrate the very beginning of Christmas Day. Dishes might include roast turkey with chestnuts or roast goose, oysters, foie gras, lobster, venison, and cheeses. For dessert, a sponge cake log called a bûche de Noël (yule log) is normally eaten. In some parts of France, the meal is ended with 13 different desserts!

Shoes, Not Stockings

The stockings are not “hung by the chimney with care” here in France. In fact, “Christmas stockings” are not a thing at all. Instead, St. Nicholas beats Father Christmas to the punch by dropping in on the night of December 6th and leaves gifts and treats in the shoes that French children leave by the fireplace or window. Father Christmas does his thing in the wee hours of the 25th, as in the U.S., probably when everyone’s in a food coma from the Réveillon meal.

No Early Happy New Year

For Christmas, French people wish each other Joyeux Noël or Bonnes Fêtes. However, it’s important never to wish anyone a Bonne Année (Happy New Year) before midnight on New Year’s Eve, as this brings bad luck.

Fête des Rois

The official end of the Christmas season is the Fête des Rois (Three Kings’ Day or Epiphany to U.S. folks), and is celebrated here with the Galette des Rois, or king cake. It’s a flaky pastry, generally filled with almond cream, and hidden inside is a fève (a tiny baby figurine). Whoever gets the cake slice with the fève gets to be the King or Queen for the day. Most bakeries even sell the cakes with a paper crown! This is similar to the Mardi Gras cake tradition in the U.S.

However you celebrate Christmas, have a very merry one!