I live in a region in France – the Loire Valley – known for its troglodyte houses so it was rather fun to discover the same concept in Spain, but with an entirely different result. The cliffs here are clay and the cave houses in Guadix have white chimneys. Altogether, there are about 2000 troglodyte houses inhabited by 3000 people. It’s believed they date back to 1492 when Grenada was taken over by the Catholic kings, causing the Moors to flee to the surrounding mountains where they dug houses in the clay hills. The name Guadix comes from the Arabic Wadi Ash meaning the River of life.
The Cordoba cathedral mosque or mezquita-catedral de Cordoba is quite extraordinary. The architecture and decoration are sumptuous. It has changed religions several times over the centuries and is an incredible mix of Moorish and European architecture. The great mosque was built in 785 on the site of a Visigoth basilica. It was then expanded many times up to the late 10th century until it was able to accommodate 40 000 people. It was turned into a cathedral in 1236. The structure remained much the same until the 16th century when a Renaissance nave and transept were inserted into the middle. I’ve tried to illustrate these changes in the following photos.
This post was written early January but somehow didn’t get published! It started by saying that I was earlier this year than I was last year in wishing you all the best for the coming but I was sad to say that my ideas of writing more blog posts have not come to fruition! I do have more spare time than before but it is mostly spent on welcoming family and home exchange friends, gardening, going on holidays, cycling and making the most of our yearly pass to Château de Chenonceau!
Our first trip of the year, in late March, was to Sicily which had been on my list for a long time. We rented a car and drove around the island, but I have to admit we were disappointed. On the whole we found the country very dirty and dilapidated and not particularly welcoming. We did have one wonderful evening though watching the sun set over the salt marshes near Marsala with good friends from my Fontenay days who just happened to be there at the same time.
We then stayed at home in Blois until the end of June, getting in as much cycling as we could in preparation of our summer holiday. Jean Michel built a beautiful stone retaining wall in the back garden where we dine al fresco as often as we can during the fine weather to make up for all those indoor winter months. Gardening has become one of my great pleasures but we have clay soil and a large slope at the back to give us that extra challenge. I retired on 30th June from my main translation work but am still doing 10 to 12 hours a week of certified translations.
We began home-exchanging again this year after a break of two or three years. I was able to arrange a one-week exchange in the outskirts of Copenhagen through www.homeexchange.com quite easily. In mid-July we left for Denmark by car with our e-bikes behind us via Belgium with a first stop at Namur along the Meuse. It was the first time we’d cycled in Belgium. Our spirits were a little dampened by the awful weather but we managed to cycle every day and one of the highlights was Dinant, the birthplace of Adolphe Saxe with all its saxophones from different countries. The cycling paths in Belgium are of uneven quality and are often conspicuously absent.
We then headed for Germany, visiting Aix-la-Chapelle, Münster and Lübeck. Even the north of Germany, with its industrial reputation, has lots of pretty villages and towns and the entire country is truly a cyclist’s paradise. Wismar, for example, is a world heritage site on the Baltic Coast from which we cycled to the neighbouring island of Poel joined to the mainland by a levee where I had the best meal since we left France in a little restaurant next to a marina – a seafood platter with scallops, calamari rings and shrimp, all very fresh. We went to the tip of the island where people were swimming in the Baltic but we didn’t join them even though the outside temperature was a good 22 degrees
After a final stop in the north of Germany, during which we visited Lübeck and Schwerin Castle, inspired by our own château de Chambord but built much later, between 1847 and 1857 by Grand Duke Friedrich Franz II of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, we headed for Copenhagen. Because we had not thought to book ahead, we were not able to take the ferry so went the long way adding an extra 200 km to our journey, 500 km in all, via the 18 k_long Storebaelt bridge with its 33 euro toll.
We were very happy with our home exchange despite the small bedrooms, but the living area downstairs was very spacious and we had a large garden and an enclosed winter garden. Our first day in Copenhagen was somewhat marred by the overcast sky and three short downpours but it was easy to cycle the 13 km from Bagsværd to the centre of the city as the bike paths are excellent, although a little busy and frightening at times. I counted 35 bikes waiting for a green light. We managed to photograph the Little Mermaid without too many tourists.
All in all, I have to say that Copenhagen and Denmark were disappointing. We did not find the architecture very attractive and the countryside, with a few notable exceptions, was flat and uninteresting. It was also generally unsuitable for cycling apart from Copenhagen itself. We did enjoy our ride up the coast to Helsingor, site of the Elsinor Castle of Hamlet fame, and Frederisksborg Castle was quite stunning.
On the way, we went through a couple of little villages with quaint thatched cottages.
One of the policies in Denmark is to tear down old buildings and replace them with new ones rather than retore them. The town of Aarhus in Jutland houses an open-air museum called Den Gamle By (the old town) started by a teacher and translator, Peter Holm, in 1914, to save the mayor’s 16th century house (second photo) from demolition. Today there are 75 buildings from 20 towns, many furnished and often illustrating traditional services and trades. Not far away, in central Jutland, is my favourite modern building in Denmark – the Wave.
We decided to spend the next ten days in Germany, which is one of our favourite countries for cycling, visiting the Lake District, the spa town of Bad Bevensen where we treated ourselves to whirlpools every day, the Harz district with its stunning wooden churches, Marburg and Lahntal before returning to Blois via Sedan and Charleville Mézières where we cycled for an hour and a half in pouring rain!
We came back to the hottest summer on record although we had escaped the worst of it. Our poor Danish home exchangers were not as lucky! We weren’t even allowed to use our well water so our lovely green grass slowly turned a sad brown. Since then, I have studied up on all the flowering shrubs that don’t need much water and am planting lots of them in the spring so that, if we have another hot summer, we will still have flowers. We had a bumper tomato crop though!
And after the sun came the rain. After a few days cycling in Brittany late September we weren’t able to cycle very much. But the grass turned green again ….
The new rental studio apartment in the historical quarter of Blois, Châtel Rose, got off to a good start and was occupied for several months by an Australian retiree who wanted to live the French life and improve her language skills. I think she had found more friends than I have in five years by the end of her stay!!! Our aim is to give holiday makers a near-perfect experience, offering top-level services and an in-depth French experience.
This coming year we are buying a yearly pass to Château de Chaumont ncluding its wonderful garden festival. The permanent garden is already a great inspiration to me and the interior of the castle is richly furnished.
Our next travel project is Crete in March where we will be using our home exchange “guest points” to stay in Chania and Agios Nicolaos.
Thank you for remaining faithful despite my infrequent posting. I would like to wish you all a very happy new year – health, happiness and optimism!
It’s nearly mid-January and I have only just found the time to write this new year post. Even though we have up until the end of January in France to do so, it’s still better to wish people a happy new year within the first week of the month. But lack of time is the story of my life at the present. Working full-time as a freelance technical and legal translator (I am now certified with the courts as well), looking after a large house and garden, cycling in the warmer months and hiking in the winter seem to take up most of my time.
After a delightful Christmas with all our children – my son from Boston, my daughter from New York and Jean-Michel’s sons from Brest and Limoges – in addition to my brother,wife and three sons, from Sydney, we welcomed in the New Year in front of a blazing fire, with warm thoughts for all our family and friends.
Travel-wise, 2017 was not quite as exciting as 2016 when we spent three months away altogether. However, we had a welcome short break and change of scenery in Angoulême at the beginning of February, followed by a most enjoyable week in Cyprus at the end of March with warm days and blue skies. We particularly liked the northern, Turkish part of the island with its wonderful painted monasteries.
We came home to spring, always the best time of the year in the Loire Valley. In April we had a fun day in a vintage car traffic jam in Blois with our friends Susan and Simon who take visitors on tours of the Loire Valley in their 1953 Citroën Traction Avant. I checked out family photos of my baptism so we could dress the part.
The end of April took us to the Médoc (a four-hour drive south) for another long weekend where we combined cycling with wine-tasting and a breath of sea air. Living in the centre of France means that we are well-placed for this type of excursion.
In May, we finally made the decision to invest in electrically-powered bikes for two reasons – to save our ageing knees and to free us from restrictions related to the lie of the land. Our plan was to go to Romania in June, a country we have avoided up until then due to its very hilly countryside. We were not disappointed. Jean Michel applied his usual thoroughness to choosing the right bikes for our needs and we can now go quite effortlessly up amazingly steep hills. In fact, I’m more worried going down but our disk brakes are reassuring.
So, on 1st June, we left Blois with our bikes on the back of the car for a holiday that took us to Lake Iseo in the north of Italy, Maribor in Slovenia, where we tested our ability to scale new heights on our bikes, Eger in Hungary where we nearly got washed away in a freak flood, then Sighisoara in Romania, home of Dracula and sister city to Blois, which we used as centre to visit the fortified churches of Viscri and Biertan.
Suceava was the next port of call from which we cycled to many very beautiful painted churches, reminding us of our visit to Northern Cyprus. In Marmures, we stayed with a Romanian family where the head of the house spoke French and we learnt a lot about this still very backward part of the country with its beautiful wooden churches and friendly people.
We then started on the road back to France, via Levoca in Hungary, then the absolutely enchanting village of Czesky Krumlov in Czech Republic where our hotel had a garden overlooking the castle, the perfect place for a picnic in the evening twilight after a hard day’s riding. We then stayed in Slavonice before crossing into Germany and discovering Burghausen with its marvellous hillside castle. It was good to be back in a country where I could at least read the signs!
To end our journey, we decided to return to our beloved Danube using the little village of Herbertingen as our base. Taking the train and cycling, we went as far as the source of the Danube at Donaueschingen.
By the 28th June the weather was starting to deteriorate so we changed our initial plan to spend a couple of days in the Black Forest and went to Orta San Giulio in Italy instead where rain and shine alternated enough to let us ride around Lake Orta and up to the sanctuary of Madonna del Sasso, at an altitude of 700 metres! Once again, our power bikes proved their worth. We arrived home via Lyon on 2nd July, having been in eight coutries and covered 5,000 kilometers.
In July Jean Michel went walking in the Jura Mountains for 9 days with his sons while I stayed home and worked, looking forward to my retirement in June 2020 more than ever! I did discover a bike route into Blois that avoids the main road though. We then cycled as much as we could during the weekend and evenings until the weather turned too cold.
September took us for a week to Istanbul which we loved. We rented an apartment just next to Galacta Tower which proved to be the perfect location. It had a quiet little balcony and small garden which provided well-earned rest after a day out in the busy streets of Istanbul. We often set out quite early to visit the sites to avoid the crowds.
On the home front, our automatic watering system is up and running but we don’t quite have a mini Giverny as initially planned, mainly due to our clayey soil, but we are learning as we go.
Renovation of the studio flat I bought last year is making progress at last and should be ready for holiday accommodation this summer. We plan to offer an 18th century decorative experience with all modern conveniences. It is ideally located in the most historical part of Blois known as Puits Chatel and even has a little shared garden.
I’m still keeping up with my daily photo on Loire Daily Photo even though Aussie in France is vitually at a standstill but I hope to be able to post more in the future, especially when I retire!
We are on our way from Blois to Romania and Jean Michel has chosen Lake Iseo as our first stopover. We’ve booked an apartment for two nights in Cazzago San Martino 2 km from the Turin-Trieste motorway. By 5 pm, we are on our bikes and ready to begin our holiday.
The scenery is delightful as we wind our way along small country roads through the vineyards of the Francia Corta region. This is our first “real” ride with our new electrically-assisted bikes and we are more than convinced! The itinerary is graded as “easy, family” but the Italians are used to hills and bad roads I guess. I would hardly think that loose gravel, occasional main roads and quite steep descents are suitable for children. With our power bikes though, it’s a breeze!
We join the bike itinerary at Monterotondo where there is a local fête in full swing. Throughout the evening we hear a lot of music and later learn it is Italy’s national day, festa della Repubblica.
A dirt path takes us through a natural peat bog reserve and we glimpse tiny lakes surrounded by vineyards and cane fields. We meet many other cyclists and joggers.
The next village is Cremignane and we have our first view of the lake, followed by a quiet road to Clusane sul Lago. We are attracted by a lakeside restaurant called Rosmundo. It’s still early so we book for 7.30 pm which will give us time to reach the end of the itinerary at Paratico. The last 5 K are not very interesting. The bike path runs along one side of the main road.
We arrive back at the restaurant in plenty of time, ready to sample the local specialities. Jean Michel has fried fish from the lake while I have an excellent scallopina al limone. We have a carafe of frizzante and I finish off with tiramisu.
It’s 8.30 pm by now and we have a 15 K ride home. We have the bike paths to ourselves now and the light over the little lakes is lovely.
After Monterotondo, we have a a bit of trouble finding our way back to our apartment and it’s nearly dark when we get back at 9.45 pm. We’ve done a round trip of 43 K which we could never have done with our previous bikes.
Next morning, the sky is clear and blue and we set out for Breschia at 10 am. Once again we join the itinerary at Monterotondo and head in the opposite direction. The castle of Dosso rises majestically from the surrounding vineyards.
We have a cappuccino break in Paderno Franciacorta along with the locals. Jean Michel reads the Brescia Times in Italian, seated in front of a poster of the Empire State Building while drinking a cappuccino and eating a pain aux raisins. It’s 11 am and a group of men are already drinking Campari.
We pass a square with a mediaeval castle and an angel of mercy. A local comes up to talk to us (in Italian) and tells us Breschia is 13 k away. It’s getting hotter by the minute. We have trouble finding our way out of town – the bike signs are not very visible – but ask some cyclists who reassure us we are in the right direction. All we usually get is that little green squiggle on the signpost below. This is the only time we see one that shows distances.
At Rodengo-Saiano, we stop to visit San Nicola’s but it’s already closed for lunch. We will stop on the way back. The bike sign says that Breschia is 9.70 k away. In fact it is 12 K. We pass through Gussago and see a beautiful private home with stunning frescoes.
It’s the end of the Saturday market in Breschia. It’s also steaming hot and we are thirsty and hungry as it’s nearly 1.30 pm. We find a rstaurant in a shady street off Piazza Paolo VI and sit down without even looking at the menu. It turns out to be a “bistrot” with salads and pasta. It’s called Dei Notte di Calabria. We order pasta al ragù and a glass of chardonnay. Jean Michel goes into mild depression when he sees the small plate of pasta (what did he expect for 8 euro?) but I reassure him that he can order something else if he’s still hungry. We then order focaccia stuffed with steak tartare and patatine which I can’t finish but Jean Michel is looking happy again. We have a cold glass of rosato to go with it.
In the meantime, the piazza has filled up with people obviously dressed for a wedding. At first we think they are Jewish but more turn up and the Catholic church is chock-a-block by the time we visit. It’s an interesting piazza, with a round Romanesque church from the 12th century over an 8th century crypt, next to a 17th century Baroque cathedral and a typical Lombardian palazzo and tower.
Next is piazza della Loggia, with its 15th century Venetian palace and monumental clock.
After visiting the vestiges of a Roman forum, it’s 3.30 pm and 34°C so we decide that the World Heritage monastery of Santa Giulia will have to wait for another time. We still have a 2-hour ride home.
This time, having finished all our water, we stop for a cold Coke at another bar in Paderno Franciacorte. We are next to a group of 4 teenage boys. It’s very amusing to listen to their antics in a language we can’t understand.
By the time we get back to our apartment after stopping on the way to buy fruit, vegetables, cheese and yoghurt for an at-home dinner, it’s 6 pm and we have clocked up 65 K. Our total riding time is 4 hours which means an average of 16 K which is pretty good going and certainly better than the 12 K we did with our other bikes.
We can highly recommend the Breschia–Paratico bike itinerary for its great variety, lovely scenery and interesting architecture. However, I would not say it’s easy riding! The instructions given by the iseolake.info website are essential if you are to find your way. Our choice of Apartamento Franciacorte in Cazzago San Martino, found on booking.com, was excellent. It was very comfortable and the owner was friendly and helpful. At 180 euro for two nights, it was very good value for money.
Famagusta on the east coast of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, was the first stop on our one-week self-driven tour. In mediaeval times (particularly under the maritime republics of Genoa and Venice), Famagusta was the country’s largest port city, trading with the ports of the Levant. In Turkish it is also called Gazimagusa which can be a little confusing. The old city is entirely surrounded by walls. The town has a very interesting and colourful history. Unfortunately, during the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974, Famagusta was bombed causing the entire Greek Cypriot population to flee into the surrounding fields. They have never returned. Many of the original Catholic and Greek orthodox churches have been turned into mosques.
The archaeological remains of Kourion, one of Cyprus’ most important city-kingdoms in antiquity, are the most extensive on the island, and excavations have unearthed many significant finds. The city-kingdom was built on a hill overlooking the fertile valley of the river Kouris. The archaeological finds suggest that Kourion was associated with the Greek legend of Argos of in the Peloponnese and that its inhabitants believed they were descendents of Argean immigrants. The once-flourishing kingdom was eventually destroyed in a severe earthquake in 365 AD.
We are visiting the ruins of Salamis, an ancient Greek city-state on the east coast of Cyprus. It’s a perfect spring day. There are yellow wildflowers everywhere and, in particular, yellow daisies.
We see a young woman making a crown of daisies. A little further away, her husband is playing with their two sons.
I ask if I can take a photo and she immediately poses.
After spending quite some time among the different ruins, we start walking back towards the entrance. We see the young woman again. This time she’s wearing the crown of daisies. She waves at us. I hesitate to take a photo but don’t want to intrude.
As we are walking away, her husband calls out in English. We stop and the young woman comes forward and gives me the crown of daisies.
It’s too late to take a photo of her and it would seem rude if I refused the crown so I smile and thank her.
A little further on, I ask Jean Michel to take a photo of me with the crown, but I really would have preferred to take one of the young woman. I have neither the look nor the age to be wearing such a traditional object.
But what a kind gesture on her part. I feel part of the Cyprus spring.
We haven’t had a break since we went to New York in September what with having to fill the coffers again after our three months’ holiday in 2016, digging the trenches for the automatic watering system and Jean Michel’s varicose vein operation but he’s now up and about again so we’ve chosen to spend two nights in Angoulême, which is 280 K south-west of Blois. Sunny weather is predicted with temperatures around 11 or 12°C during the day.
By the time we leave it’s nearly midday so we plan lunch at L’Embarcadère in the troglodyte village of Rochecorbon, not far from Vouvray. We’ve been there twice before and enjoyed it. I book a table but needn’t have bothered as there are very few people. The February “ski” holidays are in full swing which means that local tourism is down. We have a pleasant lunch with real chip potatoes, always a good way to start a little holiday.
After another couple of hours’ driving, we arrive at our apartment-hotel in Angoulême at 5.30 pm. We nearly had to give up the idea of Angoulême altogether as the local hotels were either too expensive or too “modern” with garish coulours that I could never have slept with. Angoulême is the “comic book” capital of France and a lot of the interior decor caters for the annual comic book festival held at the end of January each year.
In the end, we decided to try Appart’City at the bottom of the hill leading up to the old town. The building, which we later discover is an old abbey, is not very attractive, but the one-bedroom apartment, with a separate kitchen and bathroom, is excellent value for money at 70 euro a night (optional 8.50 for breakfast). It’s clean, with white walls and sober colours, the bed is comfortable, the kitchen has everything we need, even a mini dishwasher, it has a decent shower and it’s not noisy. Excellent choice.
After a short rest, we take the zigzag path up to the old town, with sweeping views across the newer part of the city which has a total population of 42,000, much less than I would have imagined, but “greater Angoulême”, created in 1989, has 141,000 inhabitants. The Charente River is below us.
We wander through the old town which is surrounded by ramparts. All the streets have paving stones. We find it quite animated with many shops and bars. The comic book influence is everywhere but we are also surprisesd by the large number of beautiful old façades.
The sun is starting to set over Angoulême’s main monument, the Romanesque Cathedral of Saint Peter, built in the 12th century and renovated several times since then.
After a glass of wine on one of the town’s many squares we walk back down to our hotel, taking the direct route this time. On the way, I am intrigued by a building which has a comic strip projected onto it, one panel at a time. Not being an adult comic fan, I don’t know who the characters are, but the result is very effective and there are several sequences.
We are perfectly happy with a platter of bread and cheese with a good glass of red wine in our little apartment.
Next day is sunny and not too cold. We walk up the hill again and have a cappuccino at the François I opposite the impressive-looking Law Courts built in 1826 in the neo-Classical style by the architect Paul Abadie who seems to have been involved in the construction or reconstruction of most of the main buildings in Angoulême.
We continue our walk through the city in search of the “last haberdasher’s shop” in Angoulême. This is a dying race in most towns in France these days. A little chat with the owner confirms this. She will be retiring in three years’ time. The shop belonged to her parents. She explains why the shank buttons keep coming off my jacket. It’s their concave shape, it seems, so I buy some straight ones.
Our path takes us around the ramparts until we reach the cathedral whose dome and bell-tower we keep seeing in the distance.
The inside is somewhat disappointing, mainly due to all the reconstructions that have taken place.
By now it’s nearly lunchtime so we wander back to Le Saint André which I reserved when we went past earlier. As n° 1 out of 176 restaurants on TripAdvisor, I thought I should. It quickly fills up. At 14.90 euro for a three-course set menu, it’s good value for money. The leek and conté cheese tart is excellent, the kefta meatballs aren’t bad and the apple and pineapple tatin tart is very good. Jean Michel has the pork mignon and moka and praliné sponge roll. He says they are simple but refined. The restaurant is obviously a favourite with the locals and the two owners explain the menu and chat with their regular patrons.
After coffee, we walk back down the hill for an after-lunch siesta. We would like to visit the paper museum across the other side of the Charente in the afternoon. There are many old water mills and reconverted factories along the banks of the river, including the international comic book centre in a series of old wine and spirit stores.
Only the bottom floor of the paper museum is open. The museography is not very good and gives little idea of what was once a huge industry.
We take a different path up to the old town. Jean Michel takes me straight to a Salon de thé he noticed during our morning walk – Parfums Sucrés Daniel Hue. The cakes and tea are both good.
We finish our rampart walk in the other direction and return to our hotel from the other side as the sun sets over the city. We settle for yoghurt and salad in our apartment. We rarely eat out at night when we’re on holidays. You can have too much of a good thing!
Next day, it’s cold and overcast. We chose our two days well! More photos below if you’d like to have a more complete idea of Angoulême.
It’s 25th December and overcast. The sun has obviously decided not to waste its energy on people about to tuck into Christmas lunch inside their homes where they won’t know if it rains or shines. We celebrated Christmas with just the two of us last night as our four adult children are all elsewhere this year, which is not a problem of course. We need some rest! We’ve had our brunch and are ready to go for a little hike. Despite the lack of sun, it’s really quite balmy at 9°C. Our recent walks have been a lot chillier.
I’ve chosen Montrichard as our starting point because there is a GR hiking trail high above the Cher River and it seems there are even troglodytes. We try to hike in winter in places where we can’t cycle in the winter.
We park in Montrichard and there is not a soul in sight. It’s easy to take photographs with no one around – not even cars! The ruins of the mediaeval castle are omnipresent. We hadn’t realised how many Renaissance buildings there are in Montrichard.
There are also several brightly-coloured 15th century half-timbered houses.
Our GR trail takes us up a hill past the 11th century Preacher’s House, the only house that survived when Philippe Auguste ordered the town to be razed to the ground by fire in 1188 to get rid of the English invaders.
We walk up steep winding steps until we reach the highest point where the castle stands.
The path then takes us through a little wood and down another steep path.
A little blue boat seems a little far from the river today.
Around the next corner we come to a vineyard.
We walk through another forest and come to a bitumen road just after two picnic tables and several mounds of beer bottles. This can’t be right – we must have missed the signs, so we back-track and find ourselves overlooking a village with more troglodyte houses.
After a teabreak halfway down to the village, we start heading home. The sky brightens a little and then it starts spitting lightly.
We walk around the castle but there’s a fence to keep trespassers out of course.
We end our walk along the Cher. We can see a couple of people on the “beach” where we enjoyed a welcome ice-cream the summer before last after a hot ride along the river.
Our path back to the car takes us past the town hall, looking very festive. Joyeuses fêtes, it says, “Happy Holidays”. May I wish you all a happy Christmas as well!