Sunday, January 23, 2011

Scotland in June

       Exploring the corners and crannies of Britain provides endlessly fascinating travel pleasure.  Although my husband and I have driven the backroads of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland many times, my son and grandson had not until June experienced the fun of  exploring corners and crannies well known to UK citizens but less so to Americans.  My son is fascinated with Romans, so our route beginning a two-week trip to Scotland dictated northern England's premier Roman site, Hadrian's Wall, which stretches some 80 miles east to west just below the Scottish border.  We flew into Manchester, and immediately drove north, an easy turn from the airport onto the motorway that carried us through the Lake District to the region near Carlisle on the western edge of the wall.

      The Bessietown Grange Guest House provided gorgeous views of the blooming spring countryside looking toward and into Scotland, luxurious bedrooms and fabulous breakfasts.  "We have eggs, bacon sausage, to-mah-to, mushrooms beans, haggis, black pudding and toast,"  our host, clad in green suspenders with red Welsh dragons marching down their length, announced to my grandson on our first morning there.  "Do you want The Full Monty?"  The Full Monty, he explained to us, is the full spread of choices, named after   the Commander of Britain's forces in World War II,  Field Marshall Montgomery.  Popularly called "Monty," he believed that soldiers fought better on a full stomach, so ordered large breakfasts every day.  Grandson Cameron, a brave lad, tried it all, pronounced that he indeed liked haggis, and even managed the black pudding at least once.  His fascination with haggis overcame even American astonishment at tomatoes and mushrooms for  breakfast, forgetting how often at home he has asked for salsa for his scrambled eggs.
             Fortified for a full day of exploring, we set out to find Romans, but first found sheep, grazing freely around the ruins of a border castle.  Surprisingly, we also found llamas, frolicking with the sheep.

      We would see sheep, more sheep, and even more sheep though, during  the next two weeks.  Cameron quickly learned to identify the differences between a Swaledale Ewe and a Scottish Blackface.

     Nearby, we stumbled on a tiny little church guarding a graveyard and the remains of  a seventh-centuy cross.  Humbled by its mystery, we paused to ponder the lives memorialized on lichen-covered gravestones, thinking of blustery winters and long, lonely days during the long centuries of the Middle Ages among small communities building churches of this tiny size.

                                                          Bewcastle Church, Northumberland

        And we did, finally, find the wall, and Romans.  In amazingly good  repair, the long stretches of the wall can be hiked between frequent mile castles and a sprinkling of restored forts.   Begun in the first century A.D., it remained the last bastion protecting Romanized British citizens against marauding barbarians for nearly four hundred years.  It is a vivid  testimony to the engineering skills and military organization of the Roman Empire.

             The museums scattered along the length of the wall and  maintained by British Heritage tell the story of the frontier between civilized Roman territories and the wild land of the Picts and the Scots who never succumbed to the mighty  Roman military engine. Reconstructions, artifacts and videos bring  to life the conditions of Roman life along this  long borderland.  The four hundred years of Roman occupation from the construction of the wall until the Roman withdrawal in the fifth century is  a time span hard to mentally process until one remembers that the settlement of what is now the United States of  America is scarcely four hundred years old.

      The emblems of the  legions look surprisingly modern in their abstractions, but tell of troops marching long miles along Roman roads to fulfill their tours of duty along this northernmost imperial frontier.  In later centuries of the wall's existence, the third and fourth and the final fifth, these troops were more than likely British-born though Roman in lifestyle and culture, but the early guards who came north from the sunnier lands of Italy must have strongly cursed the cold winds that sweep this land even in summer.
             We would eventually get to Scotland, and that was equally fascinating and exciting for all of us. But that is a tale for another post.  Northumberland and the country of Hadrian's Wall are alone worthy of a week or more exploring backroads and country lanes.  We spent three days there, and longed for more time.   If you go in June when the flowers are fresh and plentiful and the air is crisp and invigorating, you can begin the day with a Full Monty and spend the rest of it tracking barbarians, Romans, Medieval citizens, llamas and sheep, yes, lots and lots of sheep.   Stay in a country guesthouse--Bessietown Grange if you can get it--eat Monty-sized breakfasts, and be grateful for the travel gifts that come your way.  Choose any road--in this case, almost all do in fact lead to Rome, or at least to the Roman wall.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Forgotten Corners of French Louisiana

Everybody knows about New Orleans, though the mythical city that lives in most people's minds is not always the same city found on the Mississippi River in southernmost Louisiana.  Sometimes it isn't even the same city that lives in my mind, and I lived there for over eight years, but a long time ago.  Lots of folk who lived there just five years ago find that the city that is there now isn't the same city they left, and many of those who came back after the Katrina cleansing still long for the city that they knew.

 But New Orleans is a topic for another day.  Today I want to share some of the pleasures of a part of the state that is often not considered part of the more Gallic, Catholic, hedonistic southern sections of the state.  North Louisiana is predominantly Protestant, Anglo-American and less-often-visited by non-Louisiana residents.  But the oldest French settlement in the state is in this northern section, close to the Texas border.  Natchitoches, settled as a French trading post by Juchereau de St. Denis, retains its colonial atmosphere and its French flavor, blended with a  rich African-American heritage and a treasure trove of early colonial and southern planter architecture.
                                               The Badin-Roque House Kitchen at Isle Brevelle

The kitchen of the Badin-Roque House as it is known today is a well-preserved example.  One of the oldest surviving structures in the Mississippi Valley, it served the bousillage (mud and timber), dirt-floored house built by and for the Ursuline Nuns when they first arrived in the still largely unexplored Louisiana territory in the 1790s.  By that time Natchitoches, only a short ten or so miles away, was a thriving settlement.  The house itself stands nearby in an amazing state of preservation.

                                               The House, once the home of the Ursulines

 The small Cane River Community of Isle Brevelle is home to several generations of Louisiana Creole families descended from a former African slave named Marie Therese but called by her more familiar name of Coin-Coin and a French military officer and planter named Metoyer from the Natchitoches Post.   Theirs is not an unusual story in some ways, and extraordinary in another.  After fathering twelve children with Coin-Coin, Officer Metoyer decided that he had to have a white, Catholic, French wife.  Giving her forty acres miles away on the Cane River, Metoyer freed her, but not her children.  Cultivating the land diligently, she succeeded in buying all of her children from slavery and with them built one of the most famous early-nineteenth century plantation homes in Louisiana, Melrose, just across the Cane River and about a mile from the Badin-Roque house.  The house came into the families of some of her descendents who intermarried into other free famililes of color, many of whom in Louisiana were affluent, highly skilled, and well-educated.   Some of  Coin-Coins own grand-children were educated in Paris, returning home to Louisiana with worldly ideas as well as silver-headed walking canes and rock-crystal tumblers decorated with sterling heads of Napoleon Bonaparte.

     A visit to Natchitoches offers  a fascinating opportunity to explore deeply into the inter-connected history of Old World France and New World Louisiana.  Anyone seeking European side roads would be well repaid in spending several days in the too-often forgotten corner of the American south.  And a day or two relaxing at nearby Toledo Bend Lake, especially in the Fall and Spring, will provide some of the best of Louisiana's pleasures.

Friday, July 23, 2010

French Louisiana

The Lafayette, Louisiana Museum, home of Alexandre Mouton, President of the Secession Conference, 1861
I (Bonnie) live in the southwest corner of Louisiana, the heart of what is known as "Cajun" country. When I was growing up here, French was commonly heard in and around my home town, most of the merchants and businessmen spoke French or had someone around who did as so many of their customers spoke only that language. After the spread of American affluence and television, the language died out except in remote areas and country pockets, but a determined effort in the 1950s and 60s by a local congressman by the name of James Domengeaux created an agency called CODOFIL--the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana. CODOFIL is still strongly promoting Louisiana French language and culture, and the degree of its preservation that exists is the result, and the result of the determined efforts of young Louisianians of French heritage who have appreciated and promoted their culture. The popularity of Louisiana French music, now widely appreciated as a unique cultural expression along with Creole and African-American musical forms has ensured that Louisiana's distinctive French-influenced cultural gumbo has survived. "Cajun," though, is widely misunderstood outside its home territory--even in the state at large. "Cajun" on menus throughout the U.S. and lately way too often in London and even in provincial England simply means drowned in red pepper. Those of us who know the richness and subtleties of true Cajun cuisine run like mad when we see "Cajun chicken" or other such frights on British or New York menus--we know it will be a travesty of any of our proud culinary dishes.

Over 500 years old, Lafayette's Cathedral Oak has presided over a unique blend of cultural influences.
A visit to southwest Louisiana and to "Cajun Country" is a visit to a complex cultural pocket containing a blend of Caribbean, African-American, French, Spanish and Anglo influences, spiced lightly with Irish, German, Vietnamese and other strains. From town to town, even close neighbors less than twenty miles away, cultural dominance can change. Franklin, for example, with its many Greek-revival plantation-style nineteenth-century homes and moss-draped oaks, was formerly dominated by southern Anglo-American elites. Now populated by the descendents of early planter families and of their African slaves, it remains a pocket of American plantation culture only a few miles away from both the French areas to the west and the bayou regions to the east. Driving through the southern regions of Louisiana is a drive through time-warps of multiple cultural colors.
        And all of this is not to say anything about New Orleans, America's unique port city, the city that almost everyone first thinks of when one hears "Louisiana." New Orleans is truly sui generis and worthy of its own entry. But if anyone is looking for a European sideroad, he or she should certainly look here, to Louisiana, starting with the Queen City perhaps--no one should die without experiencing it--but going on beyond, into the regions where the cultural European past still lingers, still resonates, still fascinates.
         A trip to Louisiana is in many ways a trip to a foreign country, and equally compelling.  It is quintessentially American, yet not like the rest of America.  It is southern, yet unlike the rest of the American south.  Its languages are English, often spoken with a strong accent, various varieties of French like yet unlike the mother tongue.  Its cuisines are rich and proud; food is a religion here.  The oil rig spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a far greater disaster than the national news media generally recognizes. Its threats not only to the environment and to the economy is dire, but its threat to one of America's richest unique cultures is heartbreaking.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

After a hiatus of more than two years, I am hoping someone out there will still be interested in reading our blog. I have just returned from my first trip back to Europe since 2008--the longest time between trips for me since the early 1980s. A year in Washington, D.C. and a prolonged re-entry following kept me not only from traveling, but from having much to add to a blog that involved exploring fascinating roads and by-ways. But I have learned that the U.S. has just as many interesting sideroads, with many, many connections to Europe. So I am going to continue to expand the interpretations of the term "sideroads of Europe" to include those in the U.S. that invite European discoveries in other ways. That was one of the many things my year in D.C. taught me. I have been a shameless Europhile for so long--I guess that comes from being educated from the age of 12 by an order of French nuns and from living in a region of the country that proudly proclaims that it preserves the French language. Southwest Louisiana is one of those European side roads, so often both American and yet different.
France in late May, early June 2010, after a two-year absence--was similar: familiar, yet different. I found the streets of Paris dirtier than I had ever seen them, but the spirit of the Parisians as energetic as I remembered. I was there, sadly, to empty the apartment my family has enjoyed for over eleven years, a sad task that involved sifting through memories of so many pleasant experiences, even those that would probably have been trying but for the excitement of place. Sifting through STUFF and trying to figure out what to do with it wasn't easy either: what does one do, for example, with a ten-year old, burnt-out ten-inch television set? But we sold the apartment to friends, which made it much easier to part with it in so many ways. And I found that all of my wonderful, varied friends acquired over the years in Paris jumped to the task of helping, rallied round strongly, and solved all the problems, the television set among them. One wonderful friend simply came to pick it up and take it to the "dechitrie", wherever in the nooks and corners of Paris that might be found.
It wasn't all hard work, so later posts will detail some of the interesting moments. But on June 5 I closed the door for the last time, left the doors and the street that I have greeted with such joy for so many years, and said good-bye to the 12th Arrondissement street that I think is one of the most beautiful in the city.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Exploring The Luberon

Provence is a huge area in France encompassing many different regions, all interesting. Many people think that the Cote d'Azure on the Mediterranean is Provence and it is but only a small part. In my opinion, one of the most lovely and fasinating sections of Provence is the area known as the Luberon and I put together a driving tour of some of my favorite places. It really can't be done in one day but it would be possible to split it into two days with north of the Luberon mountains one day and south the next but be sure to take the chance to savor what makes the Luberon so special. From lavender fields to perched villages, rolling hills covered in vines, fruit trees or olive trees, the Luberon is a place to which you will want to return again and again. Be sure to keep your eyes open for advertisements on little signs announcing either vide greniers or brochantes for buying local Provencal products, antiques or maybe just someone's junk. Especially investigate at tourist offices if there are any festivals which are always fun and which give a unique view of what makes Provence what it is.

Most of the Luberon lies around the Grand and Petite Luberon Mountain range and there are intriguing things to see on both sides. The roads themselves can be narrow, always two lane, sometimes seeming more like one lane with barely room for two cars to pass each other. After a while you will get used to driving along, going around a corner and suddenly seeing a car or truck heading towards you. Just slow down and get over but be careful of the deep ditches that often run along side the roads for water run-off. I often won't give highway numbers but you will easily find the village you want by being alert as you come to round abouts which don't always give highway numbers but only which villages or cities lie in the direction of the exit. By the way, there is nothing wrong with circling a round about several times deciding which exit you need to take.

Heading north from the lovely city of Aix-en-Provence on D 956 you will reach Pertuis not, in my opinion, a very interesting city although it does have a nice tourist center in the old section of the city located in a nice tower. If you go west on D 973 in the direction of Villelaure, there is a really nice winery to visit, le Val de Joanis. It has a magnificant garden and a quality gift shop. Follow the directions for la Tour d'Aigues which you will reach by continuing through many round abouts on D956. la Tour d'Aigues has a charming ruined chateau and you can take a tour of the mostly empty interior. (You many notice that there are several villages with the word “aigues” in there names. This refers to their location in the valley of Aigues. Aigues is an old Provencal word meaning water.)

La Tour d'Aigues

Driving through la Tour d'Aigues continue on D 956 to the perched village of Grambois. It is worth the stop for a look at its petite square and the charming church. If it is Monday and if you have the time, there is a huge market-the largest in Provence- in the mornings on a town outside of the Luberon area called Forcalquier reached by taking N96, a major highway and taking D 12 or N 100 which is on the north side of the Luberons. From Grambois or la Tour d'Aigues follow the signs to Ansouis, winding your way through vineyards. Ansouis has a castle at the top of the village with tours given and a really lovely chapel attached and fantastic views of the country circling around. From Ansouis follow the signs seen at round abouts for Cucuron. Cucuron has a wonderful rectangle pond once used for tanning surrounded by two hundred year old plane trees. The inside of the village itself is interesting to walk around, and you can see how the typical person lives here.


Another alternative when in the area of Grambois is to take D33 in the direction of Vitrolles-en-Luberon, over the mountain and down into the village of Cereste. From there take N100 to Apt which is the site of a good market on Saturday mornings. It is fun to wander through the old streets and to visit the Cathedral of Saint Anne. On the way to Apt is the little village of Saignon well worth a visit. There is a stupendous view from a rocky cliff with lavender fields down below in the summer and, although there are only a couple of small streets, there is a beautiful fountain in front of a hotel and many photo opportunities. It makes a refreshing stop. From apt you can head on to Gordes or Roussillon.

Leaving Cucuron, follow the signs once more to Lourmarin, D 27. This will probably be your favorite village. It is a delight, especially on the Friday morning market day, full of all sorts of Provencal wares to buy as well as fruit, vegetables, cheeses and more. Wander around the alluring streets and sit and have a drink at one of the cafes for a spot of people watching.


An especially lovely drive is the one on D943 from Lourmarin to Bonnieux, another perched village with breath-taking views of the valley below. From here you can visit Lacoste and Menerbes if you wish. I would recommend that you go to Roussillon, an ochre and rust colored village reflecting the ochre that was once mined there. There is a valley there to walk through too but it will leave your shoes covered in orange dust.


Gordes is nearby, a gorgeous perched village built totally of stone. There is a wonderful view of it as you approach.


Not far away is the interesting village des bories, a deserted little city built entirely of rock and, lovely when the lavender is in bloom, Senaque Abbey. For those interested in antiques, Ile sur la Sorgue is a must although it is not within the Luberon. Sunday is the huge market day there but it is packed with antique shops and it is a delightful place to wander around as there are canals and water wheels everywhere. You can end in Cavaillon, a good place for wandering around, eating or shopping.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Corsica Part 3

After a nice breakfast (typical French with great bread) we backtracked a little as I wanted to see a village called SantAntononino. We were high in the mountains and as we took turn after turn we could see villages high on top of hills that we had just driven through across a valley or see the next village we would arrive at perched on top of a hill looking a long distance away but quickly driven into. We went back through Ile Rousse, a popular tourist stop packed with people and traffic as it is a sea side village in a beautiful setting with turquoise and dark blue water curving around the cliffs and beaches which we could see as we climbed again to find SantAntonino.

The whole area gives me the feel of Provence with rocks and boulders everywhere, and many perched villages, although there is a lot more vegetation called maquis here in Corsica. The village was one of those built totally of rocks easily found here with winding climbing steets also of stone reminding me of Gordes. There wasn't that much there to see other than the stellar view-just a few shops and places to eat. We stopped to see a 12th century church inside a cemetery with primitive carvings on the outside in the area.

Then we crossed what is called a desert here, although I'm not sure why. There were mainly rocks but there was vegetation, not sand with very little else to see. Maybe nothing can be grown there.
We made our way up and then down many curves and twists to St Florent, a little harbor village which we didn't like nearly as much as Calvi although my husband had good memories of it when he went sailing with friends years ago around the island. It didn't have the neat beaches and architecture of Calvi although there are apparantly beaches to be found only not easily accessed.
Our hotel was interesting. When we first pulled in we were appalled as we entered an unpaved parking lot full of weeds and unfinished walls. We would have driven on and found another place but we had already payed for our room with a credit card. We went through a garden which badly needed weeding to a dirty, messy office. Thank goodness our room turned out to be clean and it had a/c and a TV so all was fine. They even served drinks in the evening with a few munchies on a porch with a view of children's toys everywhere in the weed overrun yard and cleaning products and equipement on shelves with spiderwebs everwhere (I am a critical viewer of other people's housekeeping) and we met everyone staying there. The owner of the hotel is a Harley Davidson owner and so was one of the guests. He=2 0told us about really delightful sounding but remote beaches but it would require a four wheeler or be a three hour walk. A nice little lady sat next to me at the “cocktail hour”. She and her husband were from Paris and she told me that they had come to Corsica several years ago and fallen in love with it. Then she told me that on her first trip she and her husband had circled the island on their Harley Davidson motorcycle. This surprised me as she certainly didn't look the part sitting there with short gray hair cut in an old fashioned curly short style. I looked at her husband and he was more the type with a sleeveless t-shirt and beard. Just goes to show—you can't judge a book by its cover.

The next day we drove back to Calvi after passing through a really bad traffic jam in Ile Rousse. All the highways in Corsica are two lane and when you enter villages and towns it can really be crowded. After picking lunch, we headed on to Piana climbing, twisting and turning as all roads seem to do here passing breath-taking views of the deep blue sea below breaking on cliffs, and finally entering the famous calenques which are cliffs and rocks in shades of red and rust in all sorts of intersting shapes. It is really lovely.

We had dinner at the gite where we spent the night in Piana which featured wonderful salads made up from vegetables from their own garden-jullienned zuchinni, carrots, onions and anise and another of jullienned beets. We were also served sanglier, wild boar, which, as expected, tasted gamey but I ate a little of it for the experience. The gite is set up rather like a dorm-we have a room with a bed (no a/c or TV), and the bathroom is down the hall with showers down stairs. I haven't done something like this since high school camp. There is a young couple here riding their bikes. They started in Accacio and plan to ride up all the way to Ile Rousse which is over 150 kilometers with lots of climbs. It is rather dangerous with cars as one must slow way down to get by approaching cars. We had a really fabulous sunset as we sat outside in the rather chilly air eating dinner. Everyone went and got coats, sweaters and long pants. I'm not sure if it is a cold spell, or due to the wind, or if it is normal for this part of Corsica.
The next day was spent in Cargese where we scuba dived which was disappointing due to the lack of much to see. The town itself was interesting with two lovely churches and a tiny harbor down at the bottom of the hill on which the buildings tumble down. Back to Ile Rousse the next day where we caught the ferry for a five hour ride to Nice.
We really loved Corisca. We loved it so much we are going back next June. It's undeveloped and simple and, best of all, close to France.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Corsica Part 2

We left Calvi and set off to do a bit of exploring. First we went to the west coast to see a chapel called Notre Dame della Serra which turned out to be closed but was set up on top of a cliff overlooking a spectacular view of Calvi and the bay. A statue of the Virgin Mary was on top of a big group of rocks.

There are huge rocks in this part of Corsica, some with very strange shapes with part of the shell of the rock broken off with a halow section inside. It isn't unusual to see buildings using these in their structures. The whole area reminded me of northern Arizona which has an area that is very rocky, especially one called Granite Dells near Prescott.

Next we went back through Calvi and then took highway D 151 which took us to Calenzana where we had lunch, then to Zilia, Lunghignano where there was an olive press turned by a friendly mule named Charley where we bought some olive oil and a t-shirt.

The road kept curving up and up until we reached the summet full of some vegetation but mostly rocks and boulders and, I bet, snow in the winter. We finally made it to our village called Speloncato which turned out to be charming with two unusual churches and interesting streets winding up to a view of a lake far down below. Our hotel, A Spelunca, was made from the former summer palace of Cardinal Savelli, a minister of Po pe Pius IX.

There were no elevators or air conditioning (or WiFi or TV) but it was very charming with antiques all around. Our room had a strange little cubicle and a plastic curtain for the toilet but here was a nice shower in our room. The hotel was totally full and we understand that after the 15th of July it is almost impossible to get a room anywhere in Corsica, especially in August when most of Europe and especially France take vacations. We decided that we very much want to retun to Calvi again and stay at the same hotel we were in, l'Onda, which is near the beach but it will probably be in June to escape the crowds. We had a nice meal at the cafe across from our hotel in Speloncato with lots of Corsican rose. When the sun set the temperatures cooled off and with the open window I was thinking we would have a cool night which we did. By the way, there were signs all over the hotel warning clients to close the windows and shutters when they were there or left the rooms due to violent winds. I'm sure they must really blow around here with the village on such a high mountain. When we went into our room for the night there was a wonderful crescent moon in the sky that we could see from our window. Such a nice stop.