23 March 2019

Six pix of chix

The house we rented near Le Puy-en-Velay is called un gîte rural — rural accommodation, a vacation rental out in the country. The first definition of gîte in one standard French dictionary is « Endroit où l'on couche, réside, temporairement ou habituellement. » — "Place where one sleeps, resides, either temporarily or habitually." The word gîte derives from the verb gésir, which means "to lie" in the since of "lie down, sleep."

The Le Puy gîte, although just a mile or so from a huge shopping center and a couple of miles from the center of the town, which probably qualifies as a small city, was certainly in a rural environment. The people who own it and rent it out to tourists and vacationers keep chickens. They were fenced in on a big plot of land right outside the gîte.

When I read about the gîte on the internet, I assumed that the owners were a couple and that they lived on the property. They had different last names on the rental contract, but that's not unusual nowadays. They also had four phone numbers — each one listed a land line and a cell phone. That wouldn't be unusual these days either. If both are professionals, it would be easy to explain so many phone numbers.

The thing I read right over in the description of the gîte on the internet was a quick mention that the house being rented was the owners' maison natale. That should have been a big clue, but it didn't dawn on me what it meant right away. On arrival, we learned that the man and woman who greeted us and showed us around the place didn't live on the property at all. They turned out to be brother and sister, each married. The brother lived across the way from the gîte, and not all that close. The sister lived in a different town, several miles away.

Very often, gîte owners do live close by their rental property, either in the same house or building, or in a separate building or house on their land. That was the case when we rented a little house on the coast, in the Vendée, last March. It wasn't a big deal, but you do feel you have less privacy when you see the owner every day, often several times a day. You don't have the impression that you really are chez vous in the gîte.

In Le Puy, the fact that there was a flock of chickens nearby certainly added to the rural atmosphere. Each time we went out the front door, the chickens would come running, clucking wildy because, I imagine, they thought we might intend give them something to eat. We never did. But they gave us something to eat. Freshly laid eggs. The owners set a basket of them on the kitchen table for us. They were delicious.

P.S. You can enlarge the pictures and stare into the chickens' beady little eyes by clicking on the images or "unpinching" them (on a tablet).

22 March 2019

Deux villages en Auvergne : Le Monastier et Goudet

We put our recent trip to the Auvergne region together very quickly, and at the last minute. My birthday was approaching, and I suddenly felt like doing something different that week. We arrived at the gîte we'd rented at Le Puy-en-Velay armed with a Michelin Green Guide, and with internet access linking us to Wikipédia and other sites and pages.

This is the Château de Beaufort, which looms over the village of Goudet in the Haute-Loire.

One excursion I had read about in the Michelin Guide would take us south to places named Goudet, Arlempdes, and Pradelles, three villages on the banks of the Loire river headwaters. We headed south in the car on Wednesday, March 6, heading toward a little mountain town called Le Monastier-sur-Gazeille (pop. 1,800). The drive took much longer than we thought it would because the roads were so narrow and winding.

The Château de Beaufort stands as ruins on top of a big rock.

When we finally got to Le Monastier, it was gusty and rainy, the sky was leaden, and we even saw a few snowflakes. I had read on one web site that Wednesday was market day in Le Monastier, and that it was a very picturesque market that has been a weekly event since the year 1495. Also, I'd read that the Monastérois (the locals) speak a distinctive dialect that I wanted to hear in person.

Tiny Goudet is located on the tiny Loire River in the Haute-Loire département of Auvergne.

Upon arrival, we saw a big sign that said Le Monastier's open-air market sets up on Tuesdays, not Wednesdays, so we were out of luck. We didn't even get out of the car. We just drove around in the rain for a few minutes and then continued on our way. Later, the owners of the gîte where we were staying said I probably wouldn't have heard the dialect spoken anyway, because it has pretty much died out.

The mighty Loire River doesn't look quite so majestic up near its source.

The next village I wanted to see is called Goudet (pop. 59 — not a typo). One of the reasons I wanted to see it is that on of the main landmarks in Goudet is the Château de Beaufort. Since my home county in North Carolina, Carteret Country, has the town of Beaufort as its county seat, I wanted see and take pictures of Beaufort Castle on the Loire River. It was built in the 1200s, and it's now in ruins.

Goudet is a "starry village" — the street lights are turned off at night so residents and visitors can enjoy good sky views.
Here are some of those photos. If you start traveling along the Loire River from its source, heading toward Le Puy, Beaufort is the second château you see along the way, after the one at Arlempdes. More about that to come...

There's at least one hotel in Goudet if you want to spend the night there.

21 March 2019

La Forteresse de Polignac, en Auvergne

Look way off into the distance toward the right in this panoramic view of Le Puy-en-Velay below and you see another looming monument. This one is the château fort or forteresse de Polignac. It stands on top of a volcanic "platform" 60 meters (200 ft.) high. The family that lived there back in the Middle Ages took its name as theirs. It's a monument to war rather than a monument to religion.

The viscounts of the Velay province were allies of the king of France, but they had a pronounced independent streak, rebelling against king Louis VI in the 11th and 12th centuries and against Louis XI in the 15th. Their château fort could accommodate 800 soldiers as well as the family and all its domestic staff.

I was standing more than four miles from the Forteresse de Polignac when I took this long-zoom photo.

The donjon or grosse tour was built around the year 1400. King François 1er and his entourage visited Polignac in the 1530s. The occupants of the Château de Polignac were allies of the Catholic French monarchy during the Wars of Religion later in that century, while the population of Le Puy and the Velay were mainly Protestants.

I wasn't much more than a few hundred yards from Polignac when I took this one.

In the 18th century, the viscounts of Velay abandoned their château fort and moved a few miles east to the more comfortable Château de Lavoûte-Polignac, on the Loire river. The donjon at Polignac fell into ruin. The Polignac family fled the country at the time of the 1789 revolution. The forteresse was declared to be the property of the state, was sold as such to a private owner, and was then operated as a stone quarry.

The Polignac family returned to France after the revolution and bought back the fortress in 1830. It was decared a monument national in 1840. The Polignacs restored and rebuilt the huge square donjon over the course of the 19th century. The site is open to the public for much of the year but closes for the winter, so we couldn't go up there. Thanks to French Wikipédia and the Michelin Guide Vert (Auvergne) for the information here.

20 March 2019

Views from the front porch

Imagine yourself standing around on the front porch of the cathedral at Le Puy-en-Velay. It's early March, and the weather is nice but fairly cold. You're waiting for somebody (Walt, in my case) to come back out of the cathedral after having a look around inside — you've already been inside yourself and had your look around. Why couldn't the two of you go inside together? Because one of you has to stay outside with the dog, that's why. So you take turns. You are just standing around and taking in the views of the church and the city.

City is a big word for a place with a population of less that 20,000. It's more a big town, but it's the biggest town in its département (county). And it definitely feels like a city. The first two pictures in this slideshow show another one of Le Puy's big monuments — it's a gigantic statue of saint Joseph that stands on top of a church in the neighboring commune (village or town) of Espaly. In the first image, the big white statue is off in the distance. In the second, it's a full-zoom shot. There are 20 photos in this slideshow. I slipped in a few that weren't actually taken from the front porch. The running time is only 1m15s.

19 March 2019

Autour de la cathédrale Notre-Dame du Puy [slideshow]

On one of our mornings in Le Puy-en-Velay, we decided to go see the cathedral. It's one of the most famous churches in France, in part because it was and still is a starting point for the long pilgrimage to the church in Santiago de Compostela — Saint-Jacques de Compostelle in French. The pilgrimage is a long walk that it takes at least two months to do.

Above is a photo showing you what the cathedral looks like in its urban setting, with the huge statue of Notre-Dame de France above and behind it. The statue dates back to about 1860. Below is a slideshow with photos I took in and around the cathedral.

The cathedral in Le Puy is also famous for its Black Madonna (Vierge Noire) — I managed to capture an image of it and you'll see it in the slideshow (the one in the purple cloak). It was very dark inside the cathedral so I don't have many other photos of the interior. The other images here are ones I captured as we explored the little streets of Le Puy's Ville Haute (the upper city) around the cathedral.

You can choose to view the slideshow in full-screen mode as well as control the speed of the show by using the YouTube tools in the lower right-hand corner of the window or screen. It lasts a little less than three minutes if you run it as I posted it. I've set it up to "loop" — to run again from the beginning after the last image displays.

18 March 2019

Food "interlood" — slow-cooked lamb

I cooked a leg of lamb over the weekend. It was and is un gigot de douze heures — I cooked it for 12 hours or a little more in the slow-cooker. I've seen recipes for slow-cooked lamb that call for roasting the leg for either five or seven hours. Nowadays, with slow-cookers a.k.a. crock pots, the lamb can cook at very low temperature for 12 hours.

 The lamb leg just barely fit in the slow-cooker. It weighed 3+ kg (7 lbs.) and simmered with:

• 2 cut-up carrots
• 2 sliced onions
• 3 chopped garlic cloves
• 2 sliced celery branches
• ½ bottle of white wine
• 2 Tbsp. tomato paste
• 2 Tbsp. dried thyme
• 2 bay leaves
• 1 tsp. red pepper flakes
• 1 tsp. ground allspice
• salt and black pepper

To cook the gigot, on Saturday night I set the cooker's temperature to low and its timer for 10 hours. And when I got up Sunday morning, I checked the lamb's temperature. It was at 190ºF or slightly higher (90ºC). At that point, the meat is starting to fall off the bone and is perfectly tender. I took it out of the slow-cooker, put it in a roasting dish, and set it in the refrigerator. At noontime, I reheated it for a hour or so in a slow oven.

It is pretty tasty too. There was a good amount of liquid — more than half a liter — in the pot, and a good bit of rendered lamb fat too. I de-greased the broth using a gravy separator and served the lamb with that flavorful broth and the onions, carrots, and celery that cooked in the crock pot with it, along with some pale-green flageolet beans out of a jar and some home-grown Tuscan "dinosaur" kale out of the freezer. Lamb is always good with beans, be they pale green, red, or white. And beans are always good with greens.

We had slow-cooked lamb for our Sunday dinner but, as you can imagine, we have quite a bit left over. This week, I think I might cook a dish of moussaka with eggplant, tomato-and-chopped-lamb sauce, grated cheese, and béchamel. And I plan to "pull" (shred, effilocher) some of the lamb and season it with barbecue sauce for sandwiches served with cole slaw. It will be good in Mexican-style tacos or enchiladas too, seasoned with ground cumin and chipotle peppers in adobo sauce. Some of the cooked lamb can go into the freezer for future meals.

17 March 2019

La Cathédrale Notre-Dame du Puy

Here are two composite images of the cathedral in Le Puy-en-Velay, in central France's Auvergne region. I took them about 10 days ago.

You can see the cathedral in its context in the photos in this recent blog post. I just read on this site (which includes a beautiful panorama of Le Puy) that in the mid-19th century, the cathedral was at risk of falling into ruin. It was not only restored but basically rebuilt later in that century. The work was finished in 1890.

The French-language Michelin Green Guide points out that Le Puy is unusual in France because when you are in the lower part of town ("downtown"), you can't see the cathedral at all. You can see it up close, or you can see it from various high points all around the town, which is located in a fairly deep basin or valley. For tomorrow, I think I'll do another slideshow of some of the details I photographed around the cathedral when we were there.

16 March 2019

La chapelle perchée du Puy

I posted one close-up photo of the Chapelle Saint-Michel d'Aiguilhe in Auvergne at Le Puy-en-Velay a few days ago, and you can also see it in several of the panoramic views of the town over the past week. We came back from Le Puy a week ago today. It was a place that I had wanted to see for years.

Here are three more views that I think might give a better impression of how highly "perched" this thousand-year-old chapel actually is. I took the photo above from street level right at the base of the old volcanic chimney, called une aiguille ("a needle"), on March 5.

The chapel took 12 years to build, starting in the year 969. That alone is pretty amazing. The rock "needle" is more than 80 meters (270 feet) tall. The towers of Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris are 69 meters tall. The floor of the church on top of the Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy is 78 meters above sea level.

I'm sorry we weren't able to climb the 268 steps, carved into the stone of the needle, to go to the top. We walked around the base of it again on March 7, and that's when I took the two pictures directly above. We were coming down the hill that the cathedral stands on.

15 March 2019

Le Château de Lavoûte-Polignac

Just a few kilometers up the Loire and the gorge from Retournac, the town I posted about yesterday, stands the 13th century Château de Lavoûte-Polognac. It's built on a rocky outcropping on the edge of a meander of the Loire just outside the village of Lavoûte-sur-Loire (pop. 850), just about 20 minutes north of Le Puy-en-Velay by car.

Walt and I drove up there from our gîte on my birthday, three days before we ended up in Retournac. CHM had told us about the château, so we wanted to see it. We were pretty tired after a long day, the day before, of packing up the car and then driving for about five hours in gusty and rainy weather to get from Saint-Aignan to our gîte in Le Puy. We got these views of the place from the opposite bank of the river.

Une voûte seems to be a local word for what is called une boucle or un méandre, describing a curve or bend in the channel of a river. The Polignac family, who had the château built, was a very old noble family in France dating back to the 9th century. The family line died out in the 13th century, around the time of the construction of this château, which is basically residential.

When we drove up to the château, hoping we'd be able to go inside, all we saw was a sign saying that it was closed for the winter. There's another castle, or fortress, in the town of Polignac, just a few minutes west, that's called simply the Château de Polignac. More about that one to come...

14 March 2019

Retournac, a town on the Loire in Auvergne

On our last day in the Le Puy area, we decided to drive up to the town called Yssingeaux (pop. 7,000). I had read that it was interesting as an example of a very old town in a remote area in mountainous country, and it's only half an hour's drive from Le Puy. Well, it was kind of a bust. Everything seemed to be under construction or restoration, with scaffolding and tarps on many buildings. It was crowded with people and cars, with no place to park the car, and the prospect of walking around it the town with the dog on a leash didn't seem attractive. So we turned around fast and just went driving. Walt looked at the map and said maybe we should drive down the gorge that the Loire River runs through as it flows north from Le Puy.

It was a pretty drive. The weather was cold and a little windy, so it wasn't conducive to taking a long walk on a hiking trail or along the river. Then we came to a town called Retournac (pop. 3,000), which I hadn't read about or even heard of. It's a town located on the banks of the Loire and it's also on the rail line that links Le Puy to the larger city of Saint-Étienne and on to Lyon, Paris, and Marseille. Retournac turns out to be a little mountain resort town where people come to spend their summer vacations hiking, boating, and relaxing.

I made nine photos I took there into the slideshow above. You can see the town and the river, the bridge across the Loire, and the town's at least partially Romanesque church, which is built out of what the Michelin Guide calls pierre d'une coloration jaune, with un clocher massif (a massive bell tower), and a roof made of lauzes — flat stones cut from sedimentary rock like limestone or sandstone. I pushed the door of the church open to see the inside, but it was very dark in there and a woman who was praying, I think, looked startled by the sudden light that shone in through the doorway. I quitely closed the door and moved on. The hilltop ruins you see in one photo are just outside of the town and show what is left of the Château d'Artias, which stands far above the river and is one of the oldest fortifications in the region. It was built in the 11th century and construction went on for 70 years. It fell into ruin at the time of the French Revolution.


Back to another subject: a couple of mornings ago, I was out walking Natasha when the little dog that lives three houses down came flying out of its owners' house, barking wildly. The neighbors' front gate was open. The young woman who lives there with her husband came running out behind their dog, trying to get him to come back into the yard.

We talked for a minute or two. She told me she is expecting her second child later this year. I remarked that her recently deceased next-door neighbor's house now has a for sale sign on the front gate. Yes, she said, I found the ad for it on the internet.

Do you know why the man's daughter and husband burned so much of his furniture when they cleaned out the house? Yes, she said, I talked to the daughter and asked her. We were very shocked by that incident, she added. The man had a nice house with a lot of perfectly good pieces of furniture. I agreed. I asked her what his daughter had to say about it all. The young neighbor woman (I don't even know her name — French people often don't share that information) said the explanation was that the daughter and her husband didn't want to have to make a lot of trips over to the déchetterie (the dump/recycling center) to get rid of everything, so they just burned it all.

All the neighbors I've talked to about the way this was done have expressed shock and dismay, remarking that with so many people in need, why would the family decide to burn everything? Why didn't they run an ad, open up the house, and just let people come and get what they wanted or needed? Sometimes it's hard to understand what people do, and why.

13 March 2019

Vers les hauteurs

Here's a long-zoom shot of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame du Puy-en-Velay and the huge Notre-Dame de France statue that stands on a big rock behind it. We walked up to the cathedral but decided not to go up to the top of the rock to see the statue up close. The zoom lens can do that for us. Besides, we were walking around with the dog on a leash.

Different web pages about the cathedral in Le Puy say that the number of steps you have to climb to get up to it is either 102, 117, or 134. Truthfully, we drove up and parked in a lot that is not all that far downhill from the cathedral. The weather was nice on that Thursday morning, March 7, so it was a pleasant climb. It rained in the afternoon, so we were glad we had gone up there early in the day.

In this longer view, you get a better idea about the cathedral and the statue in their dramatic setting. On the left, you can see the other major "perched" monument in Le Puy. It's the Chapelle Saint-Michel d'Aiguilhe — Aiguilhe (pop. 1,500) is a separate municipality that lies north of Le Puy proper. Aiguilhe is an old or dialectal spelling of the work aiguille, which means "needle." The chapel sits on a needle of rock left over from an ancient volcano.

The photo above sort of stretched the capabilities of my little camera's zoom lens. In other words, it's "soft" or blurry. But it does show the relative positions of the statue, the cathedral, and the chapel. The "needle" is 82 meters (269 ft.) tall, and the first chapel on top of it was built in the 10th century.

Here's a long-zoom shot of the Saint-Michel chapel. For people younger than I am, I'm sure it would be interesting to climb up there to see the Romanesque chapel and amazing views of Le Puy and the surrounding landscapes. The whole urbanized area is pretty amazing for a flat-lander like me, who spent his younger years on the sandy North Carolina coast and then on the central Illinois prairie.

12 March 2019

Le chemin du Riou au Puy-en-Velay

The gîte (vacation rental) where we stayed last week in the Auvergne region was actually located on the territory of the big town called Le Puy, which is the chief town in the Haute-Loire département. We were on the far south side of the town, in a rural environment. Still, there was a Casino Géant hypermarché and a big shopping center with a range of stores and businesses (a Darty home appliance store, a garden center, LIDL, a Décathlon sporting goods store, a McDonalds, other restaurants, etc.) just two or three kilometers away.

Here's what the neighborhood looked like. I think you could call it un hameau (a hamlet). That's a settlement with its own name but no church, no mayor, and usually no shops or stores. This one did have an auto-repair shop and a meeting hall called l'assemblée (salle des fêtes or salle polyvalente are other terms for such a building). The photo above shows you the hamlet. I'm looking north sort of toward Le Puy from high ground above our gîte. After I saw the landscape from this perspective, I wanted to go up to the highlands across the way, where some of the land is forested, as you can see. And we did.

The road into the hamlet, le chemin du Riou, is a dead-end road about a kilometer (half a mile) long that runs from a main north-south highway down into a deep, narrow valley, and then up a hill on the other end of the valley. To me, it's what would be called "a hollow" in the Appalachian Mountains in America. In the first photo above, you can't actually see our gîte. But in second picture, you can see it as my camera did from across the way, from a distance of a couple of miles. The dovecote wasn't hard to spot, and our gîte was right behind it. Here's a picture of it Walt has posted.

The highlands across the way gave us a view out over the town of Le Puy (pop. less than 20,000). This what I wanted to see by going up high. From the gîte, we didn't actually have such a view. In the background, you can see the cathedral and the statue of Notre-Dame de France standing on a huge rock. I'll be posting a lot more photos of Le Puy and surrounding sights. Click on them or "unpinch" them to see them at a larger size.

11 March 2019

La route est longue

Yesterday, I plugged the SD card that all my 2019 Auvergne photos are saved on into the USB slot on the big TV upstairs and looked at all the photos as a slideshow. That took a couple of hours and it gave me an overview of what I have to work with. Because their is no waste or cost to taking digital photos, I usually take duplicates or triplicates of each photo, hoping that I'll get one that stands out from the others in quality. And I take a lot of photos that have little chance of turning out, because, well, it's always worth a try. So I have a lot of sorting, organizing, and photo editing to do.

Here we are again, riding down the autoroute toward Clermont-Ferrand. It rained for much of the trip last Monday, on and off, and the wind was howling. That slowed us down. The speed limit on the autoroute is 130 kph when the weather is good, but it's prudent to go slower in bad weather. Walt had set the Citroën's cruise control (le régulateur de vitesse) to 120 kph, which is about 72 mph. That seemed fast enough. A lot of cars were going faster, probably closer to 140 kph.

It's about 300 kilometers (180 miles) from Saint-Aignan to Clermont-Ferrand. After the nerve-racking winds and rains along the way, we were pretty tired by the time we got there. After we paid the toll, we pulled into a rest-stop service area for a little break. Tasha needed a pee and a drink of water, and so did we. The photo above shows the view I saw from the rest area. A little research using Google maps tells me the name of the town is Le Crest. C'est pittoresque, non ?

We were then on a short section of a toll-free autoroute that runs south from Clermont-Ferrand down toward Montpellier and the Mediterranean coast. Finally, there's a turn-off onto small roads that lead past the town of Brioude (more later about that place) toward the préfecture of the Haute-Loire département — the big town called Le Puy-en-Velay — which was our destination. The speed limit on two-lane roads in France now is 80 kph (about 50 mph). It was 90 kph until a few months ago, when it was lowered in an attempt to reduce the number of accidents on such roads.

We drove through a few towns and villages, but the road to Le Puy runs mostly through open countryside. There's no autoroute to Le Puy from any direction — it is remote — though the roads in the Haute-Loire are being widened and improved. Le Puy is about 130 kilometers (80 miles) from Clermont, and Google Maps says it takes at least 1½ hours to drive that. That means you'll average about 70 kph (40 mph) on this stretch of road when there's rain and a lot to truck traffic — even though half the distance is four-laned (but curvy and hilly). We thought we'd never get there.

10 March 2019

De retour après quelques jours en Auvergne

We got back home yesterday afternoon. We spent the week — five nights — in the Auvergne, which is the volcano country in the center of France. Don't worry, the volcanoes have been extinct for millions of years. The highest peaks in the Auvergne top out at a little less than 2,000 meters (6,000+ feet) — that's the same altitude as the highest mountains in the Appalachian chain (which are in North Carolina).

Driving on the A71 autoroute, heading toward the mountainous Auvergne region.

Our destination this time was the small city called Le Puy-en-Velay, which I'd been saying for years that I wanted to visit. As my 70th birthday approached, and with no plans to go to the U.S. this spring, at almost the last minute I told Walt I wanted to go to Le Puy. I found a gîte rural that was available and would let us stay with the dog. We did the five-hour drive from Saint-Aignan to Le Puy on Monday March 4. We didn't say anything about the trip on our blogs because we didn't want to alert prowlers or burglars to the fact that our house was standing empty.

Driving past the city of Clermont-Ferrand (home of the Michelin tire company) — we didn't visit the city
but you can see its famous cathedral, built of black volcanic stone, in this photo.

Walt did the driving, almost all of it on autoroutes (the French equivalent of interstates but mostly toll roads). The speed limit is 130 kph (about 82 mph) and the toll from Saint-Aignan to the big city of Clermont-Ferrand, where we turned off on a toll-free road for the last hour of the drive, was more than 25 euros. Le Puy-en-Velay (pop. about 20,000, metro area 75,000) is the chief "city" of the French département called La Haute-Loire because it's home to the headwaters of the Loire River.

This is the famous Puy de Dôme, one of the tallest extinct volcanoes in the Auvergne at 5,000 feet or so.
We didn't go up there this time, but we did go to the top back in 1995.

Over the course of the six-day trip I took about 750 photos, including photos like these that I took out the car windows as Walt drove us down there and back. But never fear, you won't have to look at them all. Organizing them and processing them is going to take me a while. I'll just post a few each day until we all get tired of them. The weather for our semaine auvergnate was showery and gray, with high winds on a couple of days, so we didn't get to go to all the places we would have liked to see. At least it didn't snow...

09 March 2019

Le fleuve, l'île, et la cathédrale

These first three photos were taken downstream from the Île de la Cité on April 1, 2002.

This last one is a photo I took on January 3, 2000.

I've enjoyed my week off from daily blogging, but I miss it too. Today is a travel day. Tomorrow I'll come back to more current events on the blog.