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France 2006 Trip Blog

Tuesday, August 29, 2006
Greetings from Noizay, France.

....In spite of all the travails on the home front, France has been wonderful! It has been raining off and on since we arrived but when you are inside a castle or cathedral or Troglodyte dwellings and stone quarries it doesn't really matter if it is raining or not.

Wednesday, Aug 30, 2006
We arrived Friday and spent a LONG time trying to get our rental car at the airport. There is a reason you've never heard phrases like, "French organizational skills". How is it possible that a country that is arguably the most civilized in the world, certainly has the best food, and where people really know how to live, is so disorganized? Never mind, we have a car that automatically came with GPS - what a difference when you're travelling! No more car fights!

We drove straight to Chartres, which was not the best timing, since we were both pretty jet lagged. But it is so beautiful, hallowed by centuries of prayer - even the most distracted tourist must be affected by this holy place. As I was struggling to get my camera to function in a dark environment w/o flash, totally un-present to the moment, I heard angels singing. Well, not quite. It was a troupe of pilgrims who came in singing and processed around the cathedral, leaving by the same door they arrived.

We are actually quite enjoying this lovely part of France, where the food is so good and the countryside so idyllic, it's hard to believe they were slaughtering each other here when Joan of Arc was a girl. Oh, and then those Protestants, who had to hide in caves. We, however, are staying at a very nice chateau and driving around to see how nice a life you had if you were royal way back when. It is beautiful weather after a couple of days of drizzle. This morning we got up early and went for a balloon flight over Chenonceau castle, which arches over the Loire. A very girly sort of castle, built by Diane de Poitiers and Catherine de Medici, a couple of real party girls. And a very good architect, who used the light that reflected off the river to great effect.

We went to Loches, where Foulques de Nerra (a very nasty man) built a dungeon, with a castle above as a sort of afterthought. Under Loches there is a honeycomb of tufa quarries. Tufa is the beautiful, soft, warm white stone that all the castles are made out of. And people have lived in these excavated caves for a very long time. They're called troglodytes, which simply means that you live in one of these underground spaces. Some troglodyte dwellings are half-set into the cliff and elaborately carved, used as second homes by contemporary Parisian troglodytes. We toured one of these caves that went 600m. back into the rock.

We went to Villandry, yet another castle, most remarkable for its stunning garden, restored and made magnificent by and American, Ann Coleman, and her Spanish husband in 1915. They were the first to use purple cabbages as garden decor. Today the gardens are stunning, and all edible.

Tomorrow is our last day in the Loire Valley - more from Paris and the Dordogne.

Saturday, September 2, 2006
A Perfect Day in Paris

After cafe au lait and a croissant at a sidewalk cafe we made our way to the Rodin Museum, once the artist's house. A very large Beaux Arts palace, really, with plenty of room for a studio and huge sculpture garden. Many of his tortured souls on display, the Thinker, pondering existence, the gates of hell...the one I liked best called the Hand of God. A giant hand holds a cloud (try that in marble), out of which drifts a couple locked in an embrace - the teamwork of Love's creation.

I had heard that the Orangerie in the Tuileries had reopened after years of neglect and a renovation. I remember as a teenager going there and seeing Impressionist paintings housed, even 40 years ago, in such damp and dingy quarters. The restored facility is stunning. Very simple, but the lighting of Monet's huge water lilies is absolutely magnificent.

NOTE: Click on the image below to get a full view! This was only one of 8 paintings ranging from 2 meters (6.5 feet) by 9 meters (29 feet) to 2 meters (6.5 feet) by 17 meters (55 feet)!

The building's main floor is divided into two oval rooms. Each oval is crowned with a ceiling of cotton gauze, above which are two rings of indirect lighting with a glazed roof above that. So the colors of the paintings just jump out at you under this subtle, even light. It is wonderful lighting for people, too, and was not overcrowded, so the observers become almost part of the work. The four canvases in each oval, each 20 or 60 feet long, just shimmer. He was in his eighties when this work was done. He must have had a huge studio, too, to get far enough away from the work to see it while he was working on it, since it is unintelligible up close. I remembered only one of these ovals, so was delighted to find a second with hundreds more feet of water lilies. It is hard to describe the effect these enormous canvases had on both of us - it was visually moving beyond my power to convey. The background matter noted that Monet painted these to provide an antidote to the stress of modern life. If it were true then, how much more so now!! Maybe we should devote some of that homeland security money to paying artists to create beauty.

Then there was a whole downstairs with Paul Guillaume's enormous collection of Impressionist paintings - the mother lode. This museum is a jewel - if you go to Paris, don't miss it.

After this I trudged up the Faubourg St. Honore (shopper's danger zone) and the Champs Elysee. Looking at photos of fashion models after Renoir's comfy nudes, I wondered how our ideal of beauty got to be so mean looking. What happened? Why do we want to look like hostile, underfed waifs in army fatigues? Let's hear it for volupte! (she said as she scarfed another creme brulee). Never mind, we put a combined 18+ miles on our pedometers today. Ready to join our walking group tomorrow. More later.

Au revoir, nos amis,

Eliza & David

Saturday September 9, 2006
Dordogne River region

Well, finally we get to the preliminary reason for our trip! We have just concluded our one week hiking tour of the Dordogne (River) region of France. Some of us had doubts about David's ability to take on a walking vacation (including David!), but, here at the end of our journey, David has clocked over 50 miles on foot these past two weeks, about 35 in the Dordogne!

This is a typical path we hiked on - from 3 to 5 miles at a stretch.

Our guide for this "Classic Journeys" experience was a Belgium born man who has lived in the Dordogne for the last 17 years. He has multiple advanced degrees in art history and pre-history and other related disciplines. If we had known that this would be essentially a post-graduate seminar in the earliest art history of or species and of our evolution through pre-history, we might have had second thoughts. In retrospect, it has been one of the most interesting journeys we have been on - ever!

This is the main gate to the fortified village "Domme". It was one of several we visited during this week. This fortress was built by the "Knights Templar" as a fortress against either the English or the French (Whichever side the Knights were on) to protect themselves from the other side during the 100 years war.

The walls, the gates and the buildings inside were all constructed of this lovely yellow limestone that turns black when water runs over it for extended periods of time. This building and the ones to its left have been converted to shops selling various things, but nearly always one of the shops specializes in Foie Gras. Foie Gras was served in nearly every restaurant, probably including the small cafe at the bottom left of this picture.

The Magnon family lived in this small house during the middle of the 19th Century. When the French were building the railroad that passes nearby, they came to the Magnons and asked if they could avail themselves of the abundant gravel in the pit to the rear of their house. They gave consent and during the removal of the gravel, 5 skeletons were discovered. On analysis they turned out to be the oldest skeletons of homo sapiens  ever discovered, many thousands of years older than the 6,000 years that was then understood to have been the dawn of humanity. They were thus called "Cro Magnon" or "pit of the Magnons". You can imagine the controversy all this caused then...and ever since.

This picture is here because we thought it was a beautiful doorway and the next picture is of the "Cepes" mushroom (king bolete), which is delicious in omelettes. This week is the height of the season.

The next picture is entitled "Sears Tower" because this castle is owned and lived in by the divorced wife of the CEO of Sears.

On many of our walks we had great overlooks. Here are a couple of views from above:

The following picture is of "Pope Eliza" Pope Julius frequented this Chateau, which was owned by a friend of his. This seat was a natural chair from which the Pope could view the village below. It was his favorite perch.

Just so we don't leave David out, here is a picture of one of the many places he rested!

The colors of the flowers and butterflies were quite intense. Here is an "Intense Glory" for your pleasure:

And, finally, here is the incredibly congenial group we walked with. The cave is the entrance to the "Font de Gaume", one of the magnificent and ancient caves we visited. The man on the left is Bart, who was our guide.

We leave for home tomorrow and look forward to seeing many of you in the upcoming weeks!

Love and peace,
David and Eliza