Winter Solstice 2021

Looking up at a crystal chandelier and the light it casts on the ceiling.

Winter festivities
There’s a luscious full moon outside my window as I write this post, and the winter solstice is just two days away. In the northern hemisphere, this is the darkest day of the year, an occurrence that led to early rituals which continue to this day, many of them incorporated in more recent celebrations such as Hanukkah and Christmas.

Perhaps it’s human nature, or maybe it’s our western culture, but we tend to shy away from darkness, both the physical darkness of night, and the emotional darkness of some of our feelings. We avoid the darkness with busy-ness, never more so than at this time of year. We shop, we wrap, we cook, we decorate, and we party at a dizzying pace.

I think of the winter solstice as a reminder to slow down, to breathe, to be still. We can embrace the darkness as a time to reflect on the closing year, to express gratitude, and to set intentions. It’s a time to rest, to move slowly, and to prepare for when the light returns.

I’m not suggesting that you drop all your social commitments and burn your shopping lists. This is simply a gentle reminder to breathe. Between moments of busy-ness, I wish you moments of quiet.

This year’s delightful window painting in a nearby grocery store.
A Christmas-red Ford pickup truck parked in the ancient heart of Narbonne. I tried to find the model year, and I think it’s from 1949 (that grille is rather unusual). Cool truck.

A weekend in Provence, redux

Le Cheval à Bascule = The Rocking Horse

When we were in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in October, the fromager (cheese vendor) suggested that we return for a cheese tasting in her 12th-century cave, and that we plan it for the day in early December when Saint-Rémy would host its holiday festival of lights. We thought that sounded pretty swell, so we began planning immediately.

Monique contacted a centrally-located hotel that looked promising, and tried to figure out when the light festival would take place. This seemed to be up in the air (a clue), and after some hesitation, we were told that the date would be Saturday, Dec. 11. Hotel rooms reserved, we also made arrangements for a cheese dégustation (tasting). Our little group was Monique, Rosie and me, and given the busy season, we made it a one-night trip.

Take one excellent cheese shop, add a 12th-century tasting room, mix in glowing lamps and smiling faces, and voilà! It’s a dégustation de fromage (a cheese tasting).
Christmas lights mix with the French tricoulour projected onto the city hall of Saint-Rémy on a frigid night of shopping and hot spiced wine.

The day we arrived was clear and sunny, but the mistral was blowing ferociously and everyone was cold. We enjoyed our cheese tasting, and then headed out to explore the town’s many boutiques, darting from one to the next in search of warmth. Shopping was done.

Later in the afternoon, we returned to our rooms for a short break. We were staying at the Hôtel Gounod, a 17th-century building that was an early relais de poste (an inn, often used by riders carrying the mail), where a rider could get a meal, find a bed, and even change horses. Its earlier name was Hôtel Ville Verte, but it was changed in honor of composer Charles Gounod, who stayed at the hotel when he wrote the opera “Mireille.”

After our break, we went back out to see the light show. Oops, there wasn’t one. Instead of wonder, we had commerce: all the shops of Saint-Rémy stayed open until 10:00 pm, and served hot spiced wine, cookies, and tea to entice shoppers inside. True confession: we were enticed.

We’d found a place for dinner that was just across from our hotel, a cozy and popular spot with a nice-sounding menu. After enjoying a delicious dinner, we all felt sleepy and ready to return to our rooms. On the way out, someone told us the temperatures were expected to be even colder the next day, a piece of news that had Monique changing her mind about attending mass at the town’s ancient church across the street.

Waking up on Sunday, we dawdled over a yummy breakfast in the space that once housed the stables for the inn. Old stone walls and high beamed ceilings provided the rustic touches, while chandeliers and gold-framed mirrors lent elegance to the room.

When we stepped outside, we found that the mistral had blown itself to another town, leaving Saint-Rémy sunny and wind-free, which meant a fine day for exploring more of the town. We found some ancient buildings, a carved-stone sign from the 1400s, one of the original town gates, and yes, a few more shops. After lunch at a crêperie, we set our sites for Bize and home, arriving just as the sun was setting over an unusually clear, full expanse of the Pyrénées Mountains.

Nids de poule = hens’ nests = potholes

Parting shot
I passed this sign on the road in a nearby town, and thought, “Nids de poule?” Hens’ nests? And almost right away I realized the sign was a warning for potholes in the road. This needed a photograph.

A weekend in Provence

I recently joined three friends for a long weekend in Provence. One person wanted to visit the antiques market at L’Île-sur-la-Sorgue, and that was the seed of a lovely four days in one of my favorite regions of France.

Day 1 : Arles

We set off in two cars, because Maryse and Claude would be continuing on to Grasse, while Monique and I were returning to Bize. I won the coin toss to be the driver, so Monique became my co-pilote.

Continue reading “A weekend in Provence”

Road Trip, Last Day

Thanks to all of you who have been following along on my road trip through a lovely part of France. I had planned to make a couple of stops on my way home today, but when the tires began to roll on asphalt, I decided that I had done enough for this adventure. I’ll save those stops for another trip, another day.

Continue reading “Road Trip, Last Day”

Road Trip, Day 13

Fabulous light from a stained-glass window in the Abbatiale Saint-Austremoine.

This was another day where I didn’t make a lot of photographs. I’ll tell you why and show you a few photos from today, and then the rest of the post will include photos from the previous week that didn’t already make it into the blog. It’s a grab-bag of imagery—have fun!

This is my last night on the road; tomorrow I’ll set my course for home. Depending on the weather and my inclinations in the moment, I may take a detour along the way to see a couple of towns I found on the map. I’ll do one more post tomorrow to summarize the trip and sign off from the adventure of daily posting.

Today was a day that had its own to-do list, the last day to see things in this area before I head home. I returned to the cute village of Recoules-d’Aubrac, in the hope of getting into that 12th century church, but still no luck.

Next up was a visit to the atelier (studio) of a potter whose work I’d spotted last week. I called her to see if I could meet her in her studio, and today was the day. I quite like her work, and bought a few things from her, while playing peek-a-boo with her 17-month-old daughter.

I enjoyed a delightful lunch in Laguiole at a place named Le Bardière, which has a fresh, inventive, delicious menu and a friendly staff. After that, I’d planned to visit a shop a few doors away, named 12 Whisky, a local distillery. Alas, they were closed, so it goes onto the list for the next time I’m in the area.

The Cantal (top shelf) and Laguiole (bottom shelf) in the fantastic cheese shop named Les Buronniers.
More of the local cheeses available for sale at Les Buronniers. Yum!

I stopped into a shop called Les Buronniers (the fellows I mentioned yesterday, who used to live all summer in a stone buron in the mountains), with the plan of buying some cheese to take home. But the clerk told me that since I don’t have a proper cooler for the car, she thought it would be better for me to return tomorrow when I leave. So, that’s now first on the list for tomorrow morning.

I stopped to fill up on gas, and then took a meandering route back to my lodging in Aubrac, turning down more of those tiny, twisty country roads. Puffy white clouds skittered across the blue sky, sending their own shadows dancing over the rocky land. I saw more cows, and more of the raptors that seem to follow the cows; there are definitely peregrine falcons, and there’s another, larger bird (vulture?). It really is lovely here.

And now for a few new photos from the past week.
I was zipping along the mountain roads, returning to Le Mont Dore, when I rounded a bend and saw this. Who lost his/her boot? I’ve no idea, but it made the scene!
From my day atop Puy de Sancy: I made this photo to show what the French trail blazes look like. The national system for marking the extensive system of walking trails is remarkably well-organized and well-maintained. The top yellow line indicates a local day-hike (PR for Petite Randonnée). The lower blaze in white and red indicates one of the GR routes (Grande Randonnée), the much longer multi-day or even multi-week treks of France. I have no idea about the yellow dot. And yes, I realize that it looks like this trail drops off into the air, but I found that it doesn’t.
The next day I drove to Aubrac, where I spotted this Citroën 2CV. This car never fails to put a smile on my face.
I know, this is a little hard to read. But it’s cool, so I included it. It’s a piece of marble carved with various paths from other parts of Europe to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain.
Other kids play with their food. I play with light refracting through my drinking glass.
A column capital from the 11th-century Église Sainte-Marie in Nasbinals, depicting warriors.
A carved figure on a corbel of the Église Saint-Saturnin in tiny Recoules-d’Aubrac. I’d read that there are many more of these carvings inside, but I was locked out. This 12th-century church was built and used by the Knights Templar.

Parting shot
I’d stopped for gasoline on my way out of Laguiole today, finding a station next to a grocery store. While I was pumping gas, I noticed a car pull up to what at first glance had looked like a bus stop (I really wasn’t paying much attention). When I’d finished and paid, I turned to look and realized that the bus stop is actually a drive-up laundromat. I’ve never seen anything like this, but I think it’s a brilliant idea!

A drive-up laundromat in Laguiole. Eight kilograms equals just under 18 pounds.

Road Trip, Day 12

Calves! As I drove past this field, I saw a mamma licking her calf; by the time I found a place to stash the car and walk back, they were all having a siesta. It’s still cute.

Today’s forecast virtually guaranteed rain, so I hopped in the car to explore some of the tiny roads in the region—one of my favorite ways to see a new area. My plan was to see as much as I could before the skies opened up, but they never did. It was another full day.

I began by taking a turnoff from the larger road between Nasbinals and Laguiole, and found myself almost immediately in terrain that was even rockier than what I saw yesterday. I turned up a narrow track toward a place called Recoules d’Aubrac.

Recoules is an immaculate and lovely stone village/hamlet that boasts a big claim to fame: it was founded by the Knights Templar. I wanted to visit the Templar church, but it was closed (I’ll see if I can get in before I leave the region). But even without the church, it’s a lovely place to have a stroll.

I’ve been talking to you about lauzes, the thick, flat stones that are used for roofing around here. I finally found a place where I could photograph it for you, so you can see what I’m talking about.

Here’s a fabulous roof that’s covered in rounded lauzes (tiles made of stone, often a thicker piece of slate).
Here’s a closer view of the lauzes tiles. Like slate, if they’re of good quality and well-installed, they can last a lifetime (or beyond).
A closeup of the extremely durable lauzes tiles for roofs.

Like all the other settlements in the area, nearly all the buildings are made of stone. Here are two from the village of Recoules-d’Aubrac.

The windows and door on this house have exposed stones that probably date to the building of the house, while the remainder of the exterior finish is probably “newer” (even though it, too, looks plenty old).
This place looks abandoned, although it’s still oozing charm.

As you walk or drive through this area, you begin to notice large stone huts in the hills. These are burons, and they represent a way of life that has all but disappeared. In the summer, men would move the cattle into the hills (this is called transhumance); the buron was a home base. The structure was built into the hillside, to take advantage of the cooler temperatures provided by the earth. The buron provided a simple home for the men working with these animals, as well as the work space for producing and storing the cheese. These men were called buronniers.

This is the ancient method of production of Cantal and Laguiole cheese. Laguiole cheese dates to the 12th century, and its younger form (tome fraîche) is what is used to make the local dish called aligot (cheese and potatoes, a perfect combination).

Today, many of the burons are abandoned, and others have become popular restaurants that typically specialize in… yes, aligot! It turns out to be difficult to get a reservation, so I have to save that experience for my next trip to the Aubrac.

I saw this buron yesterday on my drive along winding, narrow roads.
I love turning down an unknown road, preferably small, and seeing where it will take me. Today I found a road that turned into a dirt road, although that’s a generous description. It was made of small stones, larger than pebbles, that sometimes made a good driving surface and sometimes sank like a soft pillow. Anyway, treasures are often to be found along such roads, and this buron was one such treasure.
A front view of the same buron. The cows in the fields across the way watched as I walked up and down the road to make photographs. I wonder what they were thinking as they watched.
Some of the stone walls I mentioned yesterday, many of which look like someone just dumped stones in a pile that eventually turned into a line. I’ve no doubt there’s more to it than that, but it looks a bit random.
I stood on a stone bridge that crosses this waterway south of Nasbinals.
This is the village of Aubrac, where I’m staying for a few days.

Road Trip, Day 11

The rocky countryside around Aubrac

I’m spending a few days in the far northeastern corner of the Aveyron, where it meets the Cantal and the Lodève départements. My whole trip has been in cattle country, cows grazing everywhere. I’ve spent much of my life in cattle country, but now I live in goat country, and it really is different. Before I left on this trip, my friend Sue said that Aubrac has beautiful cows, and she’s absolutely right. So, more cow photos coming.

This region is remarkably rocky, and as I drive along the winding roads, I see fields full of rocks of all sizes, many far too large to move without huge equipment. Some of the rocks that are “merely” large have been used to create stone walls. Again there’s something different going on here than where I live: the walls in my home region tend to be drystack walls, but the walls here are much lower and tend to look like someone just dumped the rocks there. I think that’s not actually true, but as I drive past, I find it hard to discern a building technique.

And all those rocks have been used for millennia to build structures in the region, from simple shelters to small houses to castles. This is cattle country, but it’s also rock country.

A lovely old stone barn outside of Laguiole.

It was a gorgeous day, one to be outside as much as possible. I took a drive to nearby Laguiole, famous for its cheese and its knives, and made a lot of stops along the way to admire the countryside.

Two stone houses in the center of Laguiole.
Another stone house in the center of Laguiole. This house and the one above both have lauzes roofs.
I stopped by the town of Saint-Urcize and saw this mermaid on a building with a historic marker. She’s from the 15th-16th century. And we’re a long way from the sea.

I wanted to have a cheese tasting, but that didn’t quite work out. Maryse had suggested that I try to have a tour of a buron, which is an ancient style of stone structure, usually found in relatively remote areas (not in town); they were used in the production and storage of cheese. Alas, they are no longer used for this, and many of them have been abandoned. Others are now restaurants, where one can go for a meal of aligot, the soul food of this region. I’m still working on finding a slot; so far, everyone I’ve called is all booked up. Dang, I guess I’ll have to come back!

Aligot, by the way, is a dish that is made of silky mashed potatoes, to which either Cantal or Laguiole cheese is added in copious amounts, plus some crème fraîche, to create a smooth, elastic sort of cheese porridge. It’s a trick to dish up, because it forms long ribbons that just keep stretching. It is total soul food, perfect for warmth and comfort on cold winter nights. It’s usually served with grilled sausage.

Another thing to do in Laguiole is to peruse their lovely knives. This area has a long-standing reputation for master knife-making, and there are shops all over town displaying their wares.

A display of single-blade folding knives with wooden handles. Knives from Laguiole tend to have a bee on the handle, and in this particular range, each knife has a different bee design.

Other bits I saw today
I love this sign for a car wash in Laguiole. That’s a model of a vintage Citroën, and I have no idea why there’s a propeller. Had to have a photo, though!
A stone wall in Laguiole with spring-green moss growing along the cracks.
An Aubrac cow I saw on my way back at the end of a wonderful day. What a sweet face!