30 June 2011

La Basilique Notre-Dame de l'Epine

In a small village five miles east of the town of Châlons-en-Champagne, on the route de Verdun, stands the church called Notre-Dame de l'Epine. Seeing such an enormous flamboyant gothic structure in a tiny village, population 650, comes as a surprise.

Notre-Dame de l'Epine in Champagne
Click the image to enlarge it, and then click again to see it at full size.

The story, or legend, is this: in the 1300s, some shepherds in the area saw a thorny bush burning in a field. They approached it and found inside a statue of the Virgin Mary holding the Christ child. It was a miracle. A church had to be built on the site.

The church is known for its gargoyles, many of which
were restored (sometimes "abusively") in the 1800s.

Construction started in 1405 and the work continued until about 1525. The church was dedicated to the Virgin Mary and therefore called Notre-Dame de l'Epine — L'Epine ("The Thorn") also being the name of the village where it stands.

Some of the stained glass inside Notre-Dame de l'Epine looks
almost cartoonish. I don't know how old the windows are.

In 1914, the church in L'Epine was granted the status of "basilica" by Rome, meaning it is a church of special historical significance.

29 June 2011

Artichoke and grape status

I made a photo of an artichoke out in the garden into my blog banner a few days ago. Here's another photo of an artichoke. This one has opened up to produce a blue flower. You can see the sprinkler going in the background, making the garden grow.

An artichoke in flower out in the garden

Monday was very hot but not very humid here in Saint-Aignan. The temperature was somewhere between 95ºF and 102ºF, depending on what thermometer you believed. Yesterday (Tuesday) wasn't as hot — somewhere between 87ºF and 92ºF — but it was muggy, muggy, muggy. A dry heat is easier to cope with.

These are Chardonnay grapes, I believe

Last night we had some thunder and lightning, and a few drops of rain — what some might call, colloquially, un pipi de chat. There was one millimeter of water in the rain gauge this morning, and that's not much more than a trace. Watering was needed this morning. And now weeding is needed.

A different varietal, probably, but I'm not sure which one

Meanwhile, the grapes are really growing out in the vineyard. I enjoyed walking around with the dog this morning, now that the air is dry and the temperature is back down in the 60s fahrenheit. All feels normal again. I'm sure the grapes got a growth spurt from the heat, as did the tomatoes, eggplants, and corn plants in our vegetable garden, but this weather is good for them too.

Looking down a row of vines

Today will be a good day for weeding and other garden work. There's enough of a breeze to keep the gnats down. The sun is out but not too hot. Let's get going then...

28 June 2011

Cœur normal, but check your engine

Votre examen est normal, Monsieur. Your exam shows nothing abnormal. That's what the cardiologist said. That was good news. I didn't much appreciate the notation on my diagnosis that I have a surcharge pondérale. But I know it's true. Wonder why?

Other good news: the air conditioner in the Peugeot was working just fine. The thermometer readout on the dashboard showed 39ºC — 102ºF — all afternoon, outside. Inside, it was a cool 25ºC or less.

Red and black punaises (stink bugs) on parsley flowers

But then on the way home, just 10 miles from Saint-Aignan, as I slowed down for a STOP sign, the car conked out. It restarted okay and I drove it on home, but the témoin d'autodiagnostic moteur idiot light stayed lit up the whole way. That's the "check engine" light, I believe. So now I have to go see the mechanic. I hope he's not closing his garage for all of July and August — les grandes vacances.

This branch broke under the weight of the apples on it
when we had rain and a little wind last week.

It's probably time for a new car. Or a "new" voiture d'occasion. The Peugeot will soon be 11 years old. I really want a Citroën, but I have to find one I like. And I'd like for the dollar to go up a little against the euro, please.

The geraniums on the front deck are electric red this year.

It's raining this morning. Well, sprinkling. There was lightning and thunder overnight, but only a drop or two of rain. It's still hot (nearly 25ºC/77ºF) right now at 7:00 a.m. It's supposed to cool down quite a bit by tomorrow. With any luck, we'll get some more rain.

27 June 2011

Un pic de chaleur

J'en connais qui vont être heureux aujourd'hui. Certain people I know will be very happy with today's weather. Some people like and are used to hellish temperatures.

Yesterday our high temperature was in the upper 80s F. We recorded 30.5ºC on our thermometer, and that's already pretty hot. This morning at 6:30, our thermometer is still reading 21.5ºC, or about 71ºF. That would be a nice — and not abnormal — high temperature for a summer day here in Saint-Aignan.

Instead, MétéoFrance and France 2 télévision are predicting a high of 39ºC in Tours today. The city of Tours is about 60 km/35 mi. west of Saint-Aignan. Oh, 39º is over 100ºF. 102.2ºF, to be precise.

The sunrise at 6:00 this morning

This is not a canicule, or an official heat wave, they are telling us. For it to qualify as a canicule — "dog days" — daytime and nighttime temperatures have to be well above normal for at least three days in a row.

What we're having today is just a pic de chaleur — a heat spike. A mini-heat wave of short duration. Hot air coming up from the Sahara. Temperatures are supposed to plummet again tomorrow and on Wednesday, with rain coming in off the Atlantic Ocean. We need the rain, still.

We don't have air-conditioning at our house, but I'll be in the car during the hottest part of the day. We do have AC in the little Peugeot. I have an afternoon appointment with a cardiologist in Blois. It's a first visit, purely for informational and preventive purposes. In other words, I feel fine, except for the heat.

26 June 2011

Red wine from Champagne

A lot of people probably don't know that red wine is produced in the Champagne region. I know I didn't know it, until a few years ago.

I remember going to Champagne — the city of Reims, precisely — back in the early 1970s. I was traveling with a French woman I had met in Normandy — her son was a student of mine — and her two younger children. J. had lived in Reims as a young girl. Her husband was a Rémois, and her mother-in-law lived in an old row house just across the street from the famous cathedral. We spent the weekend there.

From October 2000: an oak barrel given by Napoléon
to Jean-Rémy Moët in 1810, and a display of very
dusty old bottles of champagne down in the caves

During the trip, J. bought some Champagne wines to take back home to Rouen. One of them was a still (not sparkling) white wine that was called blanc de blancs de Champagne — white wine from white Champagne grapes. That's when I learned that still wines are also made in the region, along with the sparkling wines.

The major white wine grape grown in Champagne is Chardonnay, so the blanc de blancs wine was a Chardonnay. Chardonnay is one of the grapes whose juice goes into sparkling Champagne wine. Still wines were produced in the Champagne region for centuries before the vinification techniques for turning them into effervescent wines were developed in the 1700s.

I call this one « Aÿ-Aÿ-Aÿ ! »

Fast-forward nearly 30 years. Walt and I went to Champagne in October 2000, and J. met us there. We wanted her to show us the area, and to take us to meet and buy wine from her favorite producer of sparkling wine, Alain Siret, located in a village called Gionges in the Côtes des Blancs district just south of Epernay. She did that.

She also took us to a grape-grower's house in the village of Bouzy, southeast of Reims and northeast of Epernay. I remember that we drove up to a modern house along a little road. I don't remember a sign saying wine was sold there, but maybe there was one. J. went up to the front door and rang the bell.

J. and Walt in front of a restaurant
in Le Mesnil-sur-Oger in Oct. 2000

A woman in a house dress answered the door. "We'd like to buy some wine," J. told her. All right, she said, come into the kitchen. We three went and sat at a formica table in the woman's rather plain, functional cuisine while she went to get a bottle to open. We tasted it and bought a few bottles.

It was a red wine, not at all sparkling. I was surprised. J. said that while non-sparkling blanc de blancs wines made in Champagne were harder and harder to find, local red wines were still available. I had never imagined that the Champagne producers also made still red wines. You almost never find them outside the region.

Riddling racks at the Pommery champagne house in Reims

The other important grape used in the sparkling wines of Champagne is Pinot Noir. So when you think about it, it's not surprising that some of that Pinot Noir gets made into still red wine. Pinot Noir is also the red wine grape of Burgundy, just a ways south of Champagne, and it thrives in cold climates — as does the Chardonnay grape.

One reason that it's harder to find non-sparkling Chardonnay wine in Champagne nowadays is probably the fact that there are two styles of sparkling champagne produced: the first and best known is the standard champagne, made with an assemblage — a blend — of juices from both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes (along small amounts of juice from other grapes). The Pinot Noir grape gives what is called blanc de noirs — white juice or wine from red grapes — when the pressed juice is not allowed to remain in contact with the grapes' red skins.

The other style of sparkling champagne is made exclusively with Chardonnay grapes — pur chardonnay — and is called, what else, blanc de blancs. All the Chardonnay juice goes into sparkling wines nowadays. Blanc de blancs the kind of champagne wine that I prefer. It doesn't give me a headache when I drink it. And it reminds me in that way of the Loire Valley's finest sparkling wine, Vouvray, which is made with 100% Chenin Blanc grape juice.

Red wine from Mareuil-sur-Aÿ in Champagne

A couple of weeks ago, driving through Champagne, I came upon a village named Mareuil-sur-Aÿ. I was surprised, because Walt and I live in the village of Mareuil-sur-Cher near Saint-Aignan. Then I spotted signs advertising a couple of local producers of sparkling Champagne wine. I had to stop and buy some. The producer I bought from is Guy Charbaut, in that other Mareuil.

So I bought six bottles of champagne — three assemblages, and three pur chardonnay — along with three bottles of Coteaux-Champenois still red Pinot Noir wine. It was expensive, by my standards, at 14 euros a bottle — the same price as the bottles of sparkling champagne. I normally pay about four euros a bottle for Loire Valley red wines. But the Coteaux-Champenois is a Pinot Noir, after all, and it's a local delicacy up there in Champagne country.

25 June 2011

All that we did...

Our friends left this morning to continue their travels elsewhere. We had been hoping for eight years that they would be able to come visit, and now they have. Looking back over these last few days, it's like we went through a whirlwind. And we enjoyed every minute of it.

A street in Loches seen from the castle keep

We tried to do a little of everything in just three days' time. We had lunch in a crêperie in Montrichard. We went to see one of the major châteaux, Chenonceau, and a less major one, Montpoupon. We spent an afternoon walking around in a picturesque French town, Loches, with its medieval quarter. We went to the Saint-Aignan zoo, which is a major attraction in the area.

Olives at the market in Selles-sur-Cher

We went to Selles-sur-Cher to walk through and buy food in one of the area's biggest open-air markets. We bought and ate delicous cherries, apricots, and strawberries at good prices and nice Toulouse sausage made the traditional way — meat chopped with a knife rather than run through a grinder. We ate bread delivered to our house by the bread lady.

We enjoyed one very warm evening sitting out
on the terrace until midnight.

We had dinner at the ferme-auberge — a local farm-inn, where you can pet goats, buy cheese, have dinner, or even rent a room and stay for a few days. We dined on goat — kid or, in French, chevreau — in a mustard sauce, and roasted guinea fowl, not to mention goat-cheese quiche and an apricot clafoutis. We drank the local wines, including an organic red from Catherine Roussel's Clos Roche-Blanche winery and a Pinot Noir made by Jean-Christophe Mandard.

Down in the crypt of the Saint-Aignan church

We walked around old Saint-Aignan, taking in the views of the rooftops and the river valley from the terrace of the château, as well as going down into the crypt of the church to see the 12th-century frescoes that adorn its walls. We took a little tour of the SuperU supermarket, just to see what it was like.

The old streets and buildings of Saint-Aignan,
with the château looming above

We went to the Domaine de la Renaudie for a wine tasting hosted by one of the owners, Patricia — a neighbor of ours. The wines were delicious, as always — including a citrus-scented Sauvignon Blanc and a peppery, bone-dry rosé made from local Pineau d'Aunis grapes — and the conversation was lively and informative. The wine visit turned into a highlight of the trip, thanks to Patricia's knowledge, enthusiasm, and warm welcome.

The house feels a little empty now. Bertie the black cat and Callie the collie will both miss their new friends once they realize they really aren't coming back later today. We'll miss them too, and maybe more so because they are old friends for us.

24 June 2011

Agnès Sorel, the king's ‘favorite’

Do you know the story of Agnès Sorel? She was a young woman who became the king's mistress in 15th century France. Her special place in history is this: she was the first woman ever recognized as a royal mistress. She presided over the royal court for a few short years.

The recumbent statue of Agnès Sorel on her tomb
in the church at Loches

Agnès Sorel was born in the mid-1420s to a family that was part of the minor nobility of the time, but didn't possess great riches. From 1444 until 1449, after having served the queen as a lady of honor, she became the unofficial "first lady" of France. The king, Charles VII, was the first king ever to bring one of his mistresses out of the shadows and into the spotlight.

In her day, Agnès Sorel was considered to be the
most beautiful woman in France.

Sorel had four children with Charles VII, who reigned as king of France from 1422 to 1461. She died shortly after the fourth child was born, probably from mercury poisoning. She was about 25 years old. It is not clear whether somebody poisoned her or whether the mercury that killed her was taken as some kind of medicine. Meanwhile, the queen, Marie d'Anjou, gave King Charles 13 heirs over the course of their marriage.

Agnès Sorel, the first royal mistress of France

The story of Agnès Sorel is inextricably bound to the history of the town of Loches, where Charles VII had his residence. Sorel's tomb now has a place of honor in the church up in the medieval city at Loches. It was moved there just a few years ago from the nearby Logis Royal after DNA testing of the remains inside the tomb proved that they really were those of Sorel.

Agnès Sorel's tomb in the old church at Loches

P.S. Yesterday, with our visiting friends we went to the market in Selles-sur-Cher, which is one of the biggest and liveliest in the area around Saint-Aignan. We bought fruit and sausages for the evening meal. I didn't, however, take any pictures. I was too busy shopping. In the afternoon, Walt and everybody except me went to spend the afternoon at the zoo in Saint-Aignan, which is nationally prominent in France and the town's biggest attraction. They said they had a great time...

23 June 2011

Montrichard, Chenonceaux, et Loches

We woke up to rain yesterday morning. We were a house-full: our friends from California were all sleeping downstairs. Ginny said it was nice to listen to the rain fall as she was waking up.

Partly because of the rain, we spent the morning in the house. We had cups of tea or coffee and ate good bread from a bakery in Saint-Aignan along with butter from Brittany and home-made plum jam. Some had cheese: an Italian peccorino (ewe's milk cheese), a local goat cheese (from Selles-sur-Cher), and others.

The château at Montpoupon, near Saint-Aignan,
Montrichard, and Loches in the Loire Valley

Then we decided to go to a crêperie for lunch. The one in Saint-Aignan is closed on Wednesdays, so we headed toward Montrichard. It's on the way to Chenonceaux, which was our first sightseeing destination of the day. In Montrichard, the clouds broke and we had blue skies and sun.

The ancient Royal Résidence — le logis royal
in the old town at Loches

After lunch, we did the river walk along the Cher up to the Château de Chenonceau. It was a little muddy because of the morning rain. Strangely enough, I didn't take a single picture of the château. There was scaffolding covering part of it.

Views out over the town of Loches from
up in the old medieval quarter

We drove on toward Loches, passing the Château de Montpoupon along the way and stopping to take a photo or two. When we arrived in Loches, we had to park some distance from the gate to the old city because of road works. We trudged up the hill under bright sun.

The crowd (minus yours truly) enjoying the views
over the rooftops of Loches

There were people but no crowds. After looking around in the old church where Agnès Sorel's tomb with a recumbent statue sits as a kind of shrine — Agnès was the first woman to be officially recognized as a French king's mistress, back in the 1400s — we bought tickets and went to see the castle and the fortress.

The towers of the old abbey at Beaulieu-lès-Loches

We walked through the Royal Residence up on the hill, and then enjoyed the nearly aerial views of the town of Loches below, from the ramparts of the medieval town. We walked to the other end of the old town and climbed all the stairs of the old towers of the fortress to get more views from up high. The wind blew hard, but the sky stayed just partly cloudy with many moments of sunshine.

View out a window in the Logis Royal at Loches

After we got back to Saint-Aignan, Ginny, Molly and I took Callie the Collie for a walk in the vineyard. And Bertie the Black Cat came with us. He followed us along the edge of the vineyard. At different points, Callie chased him a little, but she finally just lost interest and continued her walk without paying too much attention to him. That's real progress in dog-and-cat relations. Bertie seemed to enjoy following us around.

The unusual architecture of the church
in the medieval city of Loches

We also found that the afternoon's winds had broken a huge branch out of the biggest and oldest apple tree in our yard. That will mean more firewood for the winter and fewer apples in the fall, which makes the loss of the limb less distressing. That old tree is not going to live forever.

22 June 2011

Company — busy

We have company this week — old friends from California and their two grown children. We will be busy, I'm sure. I don't know how much blogging I'll do. So for today, just a picture:

The pond outside our back gate is drying up, and it has been almost completely taken over by the invasive jussie weed, also called Ludwigia or, in English, "water primrose." It might be hard to tell it's a pond by looking at my picture. I don't know if the village has any plans to do anything about eradicating the weed and returning the pond to its previous state.

P.S. It's 6:45 a.m. and guess what! It's raining. We're having a little thundershower, with just the softest rumblings from the sky. Now I have to hope the weather clears by noon or so because we want to take our visitors out and show them some of the sights.

21 June 2011

The fine wines of Chablis

Chablis, population 2600, is a village in the northern part of Burgundy where one of the finest French white wines is made. The village, located just a few kilometers east of the big town of Auxerre [oh-SEHR], is surrounded by vineyards growing up hillsides. I think everybody knows how to pronounce [shah-BLEE].

The Chablis vineyards cover 4870 hectares (nearly 50 sq. km) of prime Burgundy grape-growing land. That's 12,000 acres, or nearly 20 square miles. The vineyards were first planted more than 1000 years ago by monks who took shelter in Chablis after being chased out of the city of Tours by the Viking invasions of the 9th and 10th centuries. So there is a Touraine/Loire Valley connection.

A sign at a wine bar in Paris

Chablis wines have a very long history, then. But the vineyard used to cover eight or nine times more land than it does now. Chablis supplied Paris with white wine because barges could carry barrels of it to the city, 160 kilometers away, on the Seine River. That was the situation until the construction of the first railroads in the 19th century made it possible to bring to Paris the less expensive wines of the South of France, or even Spanish wines.

Three bottles of 2009 Chablis wine, which is made from
Chardonnay grapes in northern Burgundy

A vineyard so far north in France, like Chablis, is a high-risk enterprise, as wine expert Hugh Johnson points out in his Modern Encyclopedia of Wine (1983). Remember, Chablis is actually farther north than Quebec City, Minneapolis, or Seattle. The weather these days is iffy, at best, with some summers turning cold and damp. In spring, late frosts can — and often did, in the past — nip the grape crop in the bud. On top of all that, in the late 19th century the grapevine mite called phylloxera was accidentally imported into France from America and nearly killed the French wine industry altogether. Chablis suffered a triple whammy.

A wine shop in Chablis —
Le Cellier des Vignerons Bourguignons

It wasn't until the 1960s that the Chablis vineyards fully recovered. Modern practices that limit damage to the vines caused by late springtime frosts have made grape-growing around Chablis practical and profitable again. First, smudge pots were used, and later growers put in sprinklers that can coat the new shoots on the vines with a thin layer of ice to protect them when temperatures go below freezing. If Chablis white wines hadn't been recognized as some of the finest produced in France (and beyond), the vineyard would probably have disappeared generations ago.

Street scene in Chablis

The wine industry in California did a lot in the 1960s and 1970s to sully the reputation of Chablis wines in America. In California back then, red wines were marketed under the name Burgundy or Mountain Burgundy, and white wines were marketed as Chablis. No matter that Chablis is a place, not a grape. Even in the 1980s, Hugh Johnson writes, the name Chablis was synonymous, in Calfiornia and elsewhere, with white wine — wherever it came from.

A lot of the time, that white wine called Chablis was pretty bad. So people got the idea that Chablis was low-quality wine. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Chablis is made exclusively with Chardonnay grapes. Saying that, given the controversies surrounding the oaky, buttery California style of Chardonnay that used to prevail, doesn't help the reputation of Chablis very much either, I admit.

The main street in Chablis

Oak barrels used to be the only containers wine-makers had to store wine in. Nowadays, there are concrete, fiberglass, and stainless steel vats. While some Chablis vintners still prefer oak, many say oaking the wine changes — even denatures — its essential character. Chablis wine should be very dry and even flinty when young, according to many connoisseurs, like the Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé wines produced a little farther east using Sauvignon Blanc grapes and not aged in oak barrels.

The shop where I bought wine in Chablis a couple of weeks ago

The fact is, Chablis develops fullness of flavor with age, even if it hasn't been aged in oak. Chablis Chardonnay comes in four styles:
  • Petit Chablis, a light, acidic wine that is good with shellfish (oysters, etc.) or for summertime sipping
  • Chablis, which is a fuller-bodied wine that will stand up to a sauced fish dish
  • Chablis Premier Cru, a wine for aging, made from grapes grown on south- and west-facing slopes
  • Chablis Grand Cru, made from grapes grown on the very best parcels of land (at the center of the vineyard where grape-planting first started 10 centuries ago); it's obviously the best and most expensive
I bought two bottles each of Petit Chablis, Chablis, and Chablis Premier Cru for just over 50 euros from a grower/producer who has a shop in the village. I plan to keep the Premier Cru for a while, but we'll drink the others this year. I couldn't justify buying the expensive Grand Cru Chablis because we don't have a real wine cellar to store it in.

20 June 2011

La cathédrale de Reims

Two questions come to mind on the subject of the cathedral at Reims. First, how do you explain in English how the name of that city is pronounced? Second, what do you take pictures of when you are inside a very dark church?

A picture of Reims cathedral, with people in it for scale.
Click the pictures (twice) to enlarge them.

In English, we don't even spell Reims the same way the French do. We add an H — it becomes Rheims. And we say it this way: [REEMS]. The spelling with an H comes from old French. We also use old spellings for two other French cities that come to mind: Lyons and Marseilles. In French those names were simplified to Lyon and Marseille centuries ago. I couldn't tell you why. And I'm not going to spell Reims with an H.

Another picture, from farther back, to show
the scale of the building once more

When it comes to Reims, the French spelling, the H is gone but the S is still there. And it is pronounced. The problems that Anglophones have with the pronunciation are the other two sounds (or phonemes) — the French R and the nasal vowel that follows it. It's impossible to transcribe the pronunciation using the 26-letter alphabet so that an English-speaker can understand how to pronounce the word.

Outside and inside shots

Reims and the French word rinse — meaning, well, "rinse" — have exactly the same pronunciation. The R is a uvular trill and the vowel is nasal. Does that help? Probably not. Say the R as if you were gargling. To get Reims right, you just have to listen to a French person say it, and then imitate. Sorry I can't be of more help.

Detail of one of the rose windows

And what do you take pictures of inside a dark church? The stained glass — what else? The church is dark because of the stained glass, in fact. Reims is like Chartres in that regard. Unless you're there on a very bright, sunny day, it's going to be pretty dark inside. La cathédrale de Reims has a lot of beautiful stained glass, both ancient and modern.

Two modern windows in Reims cathedral

Reims cathedral is where a lot of French kings were crowned over the centuries. In fact, only five of the 37 Capetian kings of France since the year 987 were not coronated at Reims. Of course, the current building was constructed only in the 13th century, so many kings were crowned in an even older cathedral there. This building is celebrating its 800th anniversary this year.

The cathdral's Ange au sourire — the smiling angel —
has become the symbol of the city of Reims.

Notre-Dame de Paris and Notre-Dame de Chartres are both older than Notre-Dame de Reims — that's the cathedral's official name. The cathedrals at Amiens, Strasboug, and Beauvais were built a little later. Notre-Dame de Reims had to be rebuilt after intensive bombardments by the invading Germans in 1914.

19 June 2011

Les demoiselles

Not de Rochefort, but in the Brenne. I saw these two on a reed or rush of some kind and got a decent picture. I don't know how I missed posting it earlier this week when I wrote about our trip to the Brenne.

Am I blue? Click the picture to turqoiselate.

Busy day today and all this coming week. Walking, watering, wining and dining, and right now getting the house ready for company. Friends from California, a couple and their two now-grown children, arrive on Tuesday for a stay of a few days.

Une demoiselle is a damsel fly. Click the picture to dragonify.

After their visit, I'll have some picture of the local sights and sites to post here. Probably Chenonceau, Montpoupon, and Loches. Then some markets. Maybe Blois. Have a good Sunday.

18 June 2011

Senlis, near Paris and CDG

Senlis is a town of some 16,000 inhabitants just 25 miles/40 km north of Paris. It's close to Charles de Gaulle (CDG) airport and the town and château of Chantilly. I was in Senlis [sã-LEESS] two weeks ago and I was struck by the medieval character of the town's narrow, winding streets. It seems untouched by the passage of time — at least the old center of town does.

Central Senlis was declared a "protected zone" that covers nearly 100 acres in the town. Medieval buildings and many monuments have been carefully restored. The town organizes a varied program of cultural events to keep things lively, from what I've read.

All these pictures are ones I took in Senlis on June 5, 2011.

The cost of keeping the old town authentic and interesting is subsidized in part by tax monies flowing in from what is called une zone d'activités — a business park — outside town on the A1 autoroute that leads to nearby Paris on the south and Lille and Brussels to the north.

Senlis itself is about 2,000 years old, as far as can be determined. It was a Celtic city before the Roman conquest. For a time under and after the Romans, the town's name was Augustomagus, meaning "Augustus' market." It had status as a ville libre, of which there were only 10 in Gaul under the Roman administration, paying tribute directly to the emperor.

The temples, triumphal arches, palaces, and baths built by the Romans all disappeared over the centuries, with the exception a the Roman arena, of which visible ruins remain. Details of the town's history during the Middle Ages are sketchy, but Charlemagne and other Frankish kings weren't strangers to Senlis. In the year 987, it is said, Hugues Capet was elected king by his barons, meeting in Senlis. The Capetian dynasty — 37 French kings — lived on for nearly 900 years.

As late as the 13th century, judging by maps from that period, Senlis was a larger town than Paris. It was prosperous and known for its leather goods, woolens, and furs. It was an important market town for the region, and there were annual fairs and festivals. Senlis was even a wine town. The soil was sandy and light all around the town and was considered perfect for grapes. Even the king owned a vineyard there.

You get the idea. French towns have thousands of years of history behind them. Senlis is a beautiful place to visit, and it's especially close to the big Paris airport at Roissy. It's not quite a suburb of Paris, but it certainly is part of the larger Paris region, economically and geographically speaking.

When Walt and I arrived in France eight years ago, flying into CDG with our dog, Senlis was our first stop after we left the airport. It was a good place to take the dog for a walk after her 10 hour ordeal in the baggage compartment — she was fine, actually — and to get some lunch. Senlis has that old French feel and when you get there you know you're not in America any more, for sure.