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Of food, technology, movies, music, and travel—or whatever else strikes my fancy

French impressions

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On our fourth trip to France (after our honeymoon European tour that included parts of northern France, the 2006 Valentine week in Paris, and the Pauwell’s tour in Provence in 2009), we mostly visited the Languedoc-Rousillon region, which is in the Southwest, near Spain. We also spent a couple days in Paris. These are the things that particularly struck me on this trip.

Everything is beautiful

Much like Spain, which of course it’s close to, this is beautiful countryside: mountains, beaches, castles, vineyards, charming little towns of stone, rivers, bridges. It didn’t hurt that we had constant blue sky, but every day, wherever we went, we had fantastic views. (And Paris is in the most beautiful city in the world.)

More photos

The roads are insane and the GPS will try to kill you

We purchased a new GPS before this trip and loaded European data onto it. This did prove very handy in finding our way in our rental car. Finding the anglicized pronunciations of French streets and cities near incomprehensible, we switched it to French mode, and let the nice GPS lady tell use which sortie to take in the rond-point and when we had to serrez à gauche. If we happened to miss a turn, she would recalcule and find us the next best route.

The only thing we were having trouble understanding was why, despite selecting the “fastest route” option, which should have kept us on the major roads (such as they are in this region), we were forever being directed onto tiny little winding sideroads, sometimes on the edges of cliffs, that seemed barely wide enough for one car, let alone two. Or that in the little cities, instead of taking the main road through towns, she had us go turn off onto tiny laneways and over what certainly appeared to be pedestrian bridges.

It took a number of days of hair-raising adventures before we figured it out. The French, it appears, take a very simplified approach to speed limits. In town, it’s 50. Approaching towns, it might be 70. Between towns, 90. And highways are 110.

But that 90 between towns—that’s for every road, no matter how tiny, twisty, or cliff-hanging. Of course, nobody actually drives anywhere near 90 on them. But the GPS, not knowing, would look at the many 90 speed-limit roads available to us, and select the shortest one, or the one interrupted by the least towns. So it wasn’t trying to kill us. It just lacked a windiness/narrowness factor in selecting the “fastest” route. (It become quite a game watching the GPS’s “estimated time of arrival” creep up and up as we wound around the 90-limit road at around 40 K an hour…)

You will eat when we say you can eat

On the first day, our B&B owner warned us that, in this region, meals were served between 12 and 2, and between 7 and 9. Period. So part of daily planning was always making sure to be in a city during those hours, so we could eat.

The very first day, this plan was stymied by another, unmentioned factor about this region: Restaurants may be closed on any given day. And apparently, if one is going to close in a city, quite possibly they all will. So our Monday plan to have dinner in Mont Louis was stymied when all three of its restaurants were closed for dinner on Monday, leaving only one, that was overrun with a bus tour group.

So we took to the road, but of course, the GPS had us some crazy narrow winding road, so our estimated time of arrival kept creeping up and creeping up, threatening to make us miss the 9:00 deadline entirely. And we were hungry! In the end, we were saved by Pierre Lys’ willingness to seat and feed us, despite the 9:02 PM hour.

Less dramatic but still somewhat astonishing was the restaurant in Espéraza (where we were staying) that we tried to go to four times, finding it open only once. (It was really good, but we were the only people there. Wonder why.) One of those nights, our second- and third-choice restaurants also proved to be closed, although it was Thursday! We ended having to eat at the same restaurant we’d eaten the night before, the very elegant Duc et Joyeuse. Excellent food and service, so there are worse things. But still.

Paris was quite refreshing in that we could eat at whatever time we wanted.

100 mile diet? Try 100 yard diet. (At least for wine)

Local takes on a whole new meaning in an area that has as many vineyards as Languedoc Rousillon. When the restaurant says C’est du vin local, they mean that it was made within walking distance. So as we visited different little towns, we got to try different wines with our meals (though often made with similar grapes).

What we didn’t do was visit any wineries. As we were afeared of the weight limits on our flights, we didn’t want to buy any wine. No buying meant why bother going to taste them at the wineries? In a way it was a relief, as the opportunities were plentiful, and trying to narrow down the choices would have been chore—albeit a fun one.

And actually, it isn’t completely true that we didn’t visit any wineries. Part of our trip package included a two-hour wine-tasting course. But although it did take place at a winery, it was independently run, and featured wines from 8 different producers. It was really well done. We were particularly taken with the sparkling, fruity wine from Limoux and a wonderful Cabernet Franc (not a typical grape of the region), but really, all 8 were good.

… As was lunch afterward. And this was my first experience on getting refills on a glass of wine. A glass. “I love France!” I exclaimed after every pour. (Possibly, as the DD—designated drunk, so Jean could drive—I was a little tipsy at this point.)

Other highlights

Lest you think we only drove, ate, and drank… We also did and saw cool stuff. Like:

  • Shopping at the Mirepoix market
  • Seeing Carcassonne, the second most-visited city in France
  • Walking through the Gorge de la Fou, France’s Grand Canyon
  • Climbing up into Chateau Perpeytuse
  • Enjoying the beautiful beach city of Collioure outside of peak tourist season
  • Reading the story behind the Rennes-le-Chateau mystery, while on site
  • Visiting the Paris neighborhood of the Marais

Of course I’ll be writing more detail this and the rest later…

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