Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Around Cognac

We chose to stay just outside of a very small town called Mosnac, in a delightful working mill with attached hotel and very good dining room. It was on the mill stream diversion of course, so we had water outside the window of our room and below the terrace where it was warm enough to eat on our first night. So we broke our rule of always staying within  a town to have eating options and places to wander at night, and it did turn out to be a minor problem.

Our room and terrace on the water
mill-wheelThe mill wheel, for grain and olives. There was not enough water for it to work while we were there
We were there for three nights and the options for eating in Mosnac looked pretty dismal, two bars basically. So we had a full meal the first night and then just a main course for the others. Not that we regretted this, as the food was very good indeed, imaginative and tasty. We also allowed ourselves to be seduced by the “library” of cognacs in the lounge area on the first night, though we chose one at a reasonable price.
Chicken crumble and rolled, poached
chicken leg
Which congnac for madame, monsieur?

There was no option for breakfast other than the hotel and we were annoyed that the breakfast cost E13.50 and consisted of reconstituted OJ, prepackaged cereals and fruit, pastries, bread and jam and coffee. If you wanted eggs that was a E6 supplement and so on. After the wonderful meals of the previous nights it was quite a letdown.

We used the mill as a base for exploring the surrounding countryside, beginning with the very large citadel of Brouages. Once a thriving fortified army town, an armed fort, it was also the birthplace of Simon Champlain, the founder of Quebec, so there are strong Canadian ties there. The fort is very long, over 400 metres, with multiple lookout towers, even two forges and two under-wall harbours.

Brouages' walls

But the sea has receded and the need for the fort diminished with Vauban’s later chain of fortifications. More recently the place has been restored, there are shops and people, even a school, in line with the French philosophy of making these places alive again, not just exhibits.

Shop, roses, baskets, toys; scene on the main street of Brouages
A sentry box on top of the walls
Nearby is the town of Marennes, famed for its oysters. The marshes have multiple ponds of water where the oysters are fattened for market. I had 9 of them in a pretty cafe on the square in Marennes. Very briny, bigger than our Sydney rock oysters but just as tasty. I note the French do not loosen the oyster from the shell which made eating them a little awkward, but I am sure I can get the knack quite quickly.

Across the square was an ENORMOUS church spire, 85 metres tall. It looked big enough for Salisbury cathedral (123 metres) especially attached to a smallish church. Nick joked it was a bell tower with attached church. Called St Pierre it had inside, hanging from the ceiling, a beautiful model ship also called the St Pierre. So far I haven’t found out why though it may be something to do with the wars of religion and the Hugenots or the settlement of New France in Canada.

Huge spire
The “St Pierre”

We also visited the waterfront near the long bridge over to the Isle d’Oleron to see the fort of Louvois which can be reached by walkway at low tide. Of course it was high tide and the tourist boat rides out have not started, but it was an interesting little port area with many flat bottomed fishing boats, presumably for the marshy shallows and maybe for the oysters.

fortlouvoisFort Louvois and flat bottomed boat

Long bridge to Isle d’Oleron and the beginnings of the walkway to Fort Louvois
 Our other excursion was to Saintes and Cognac. Saintes has an amazing Abbey de Notre Dame complex, quite vast and now used as a conservatoire and art centre. The abbey church was quite lovely stone with a detailed carved arch entrance. Inside were a number of very beautiful tapestry/embroideries which were conceived by an artist but embroidered by the parishoners; quite an amazing participation of faith. The tapestries depict Genesis. In the nearby cathedral there is another depicting St Peter. Lots of churches around here seem to be dedicated to St Pierre, maybe because he was a fisherman.

The parting of earth and waters
Side nave of the abbey church
Murderous battles on the portal arch

The little town of Cognac was unexpected. We walked up the hill from the quai area through massive stone buildings, the headquarters of Cognac distilleries, plus some grand old homes. At the top was another church of St Pierre and a great little shopping street full of interesting little shops. We spent a pleasant time before our guided tour at Hennessy Cognac.

Cognac town and St Pierre church

The tour began by crossing the river in their special boat to warehouses where they displayed all the information in a walk through museum, from soil profiles to vine pruning to harvest and distillation, all methods and growers controlled by Hennessy’s exacting requirements. Then we walked into the storage and blending area where the Master Blender and his assistants ensure that each batch of cognac tastes the same through a process of tasting and blending up to 100 different variants. What a nose and palate he must have!

Beautiful handwriting records the year and the vineyard of origin
Samples to make the master blend
Lots of barrels to add to the blend

Cognac vines are planted and trained for mechanical harvest, wide apart and flat rows. The grapes hang low on the vines.
To end, we got to taste two different types of cognac, their Very Special against their Fine de Cognac. The bar for this was very conveniently in their gift shop. We declined to buy the Paradis at E2,040 for a 700ml bottle. We were told that most of this prestige cognac is sold to the Chinese who use it as a display of their wealth, whereas most cognac per se is sold to the USA. Very little Hennessy is sold in France, only 0.5%.

The other drink from this area is Pineau des Charentes, a grape juice cooked down then mixed with cognac from the same vineyard. Used as an aperitif over ice and as a liqueur. Unfortunately we didn’t get to taste it though Nick had it as a gelee with his foie gras and said it was delicious.

Next time: The Loire valley and its gardens and castles.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Conques; Pilgrim town

From Millau we wended our way towards the small village of Conques, a stop on the Santiago de Compostela route of pilgrimage.

As usual we passed through lots of villages, one having a grandiose calvary cross. We halted also at the city of Rodez which has an enormous cathedral in the centre. The nave and side naves are attractive though I have some doubts about the more modern glass that has been installed which bathes the church in odd colours of mauve and yellow and which in themselves have a washed out look to my mind. The rose window is lovely though.

Calvary cross, unusually ornate
Rodez cathedral rose window

Rodez cathedral
The side nave lit by the modern glass

Unusually, the modern altar was placed at the west end of the church. I guess they decided not to change the choir area when new requirements for the involvement of worshippers came in at Vatican II.
The approach to Conques lies along a tree lined valley with some gorgeous old houses and mills, including one mill which is still milling flour. Probably not using the water power however, but it is nice to see the old buildings being used for their original purpose.

The house and weir for the mill race
But don’t shoot the ducks

The village really exists for the abbey church which welcomed pilgrims. They may still stay and there are still monks, Canons of the Premonstratensian order whom we also met on our previous visit to France. So “pelerins” with cockle shells on their packs still traverse the streets. We stayed at the appropriately named Auberge St Jaques and apart from very steep stairs to our room, the place was a delight, especially the terasse where we ate both nights. Scrumptious food, the best so far in France.

Auberge St Jaques. Our room was above the terrasse
Duck breast with sour cherries

The Romanesque church of Ste Foy (or St Faith) is quite amazing, from the  detailed tympanum over the door showing the Last Judgement to the very modern glass windows, this time quite tasteful in shades of grey and white glass, by Pierre Soulanges from Rodez. I thought at first they were windows in alabaster stone. But they are glass and intended to inspire contemplation. The glass they replaced was reasonably modern and very bright, so I think the grey and white is sympathetic.

The tympanum which still retains some colour
Angels of religion and war afloat on the seas
The apse with multiple chapels and the black and white glass
The dome of the crossing
 From the apsidal chapels in the ambulatory behind the altar looking back to the entrance
Weighing of souls. I love the glare of the angel as the devil tries to tip the scales
In the triangle to the left is Ste Foy, a young woman martyred by the Romans. Below her are various groups of saints in heavenly glory
An angel in the columns of the crossing. A feature of Conques sculpture is the deeply incised eyes.
A Pierre Soulanges window
The soaring nave

Around the edge of the tympanum runs a ribbon or banner, and holding it up are tiny faces and hands called “curieux”  which I think means the curoius ones. Again, the eyes and the neat, parted hair are typical of the sculpture at Conques.

curieuxA “curieux”
A capital in the cloister

The village is sweet, very old and often medieval in construction. The whole place is regarded as an historical monument and one of the “Plus beaux villages de France”. Everything is in harmony with no obtrusive signs or anachronisms.

Street view in Conques
conquesConques from above, nestled in its valley

Next posting: On towards Cognac country.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Millau, home of the glorious viaduc

Those of you who know me know that I fell in love with the huge viaduct of Millau which spans the Tarn valley with elegance and at a height that makes one wonder; higher than the Eiffel tower.

As usual, Nick chose the scenic route so we came via the Tarn Gorge, quite lovely as you drive it low down and see little villages from across the river. The road dives under rocks and cliffs and is spectacular without being too scary.

Under a rock or two
A village across the river

We visited Millau in 2008, and so made it a stop on our way across France this time also. maybe people are right; you can never go back, not at least with quite the same experience. Despite having booked a room in the Chateau de Creissels with the viaduct view, this time we got a room with only a partial viaduct view. So no pictures out the window at all lights and times. We were simply told the room we had before was not available. Grrr!

Then the weather on our full day proved quite cloudy so the views were different and the photos also. Plus the glorious swathes of poppies that covered the hills nearby on the last visit were all gone, despite it still being poppy season.

Here are some scenes from the area on our stay. I was impressed with the rock formations around the hills, already in blocks just ready for building.

This is a natural landform
Bridges across the streams in the gorges
This is what the rock might be used for. A stone house and a lauze roof
Old mills abound too

On our day in Creissels and the day we left we also went a bit further afield and discovered the villages of the Knights Templar and Knights Hospitaller. These towns were fairly ruined but they have been restored. The nicest part is that people live in them again, maybe running a cafe or the bread oven, perhaps having a shop making wool clothes on a loom. Not cutesy “reliving the old times in costume” stuff, but respectfully bringing the towns back to life. The two towns were La Cavalerie and La Couvertiorade, each surrounded by large walls.

Village square, La cavalerie
La Couvertoiraderose
Gorgeous old rose. Roses are blooming everywhere
Interior of church

Ancient doorway with two alternative dates, 1460 and 1753

In Creissels a natural stream moves through the village, filling a pool on the way and providing a home for the swan. And there are poppies, just not the fields of them under the viaduct that we experienced last time.

millau-swan millau-poppies

Anyway, to return to the viaduct, one must make the best of what presents itself. So we have some moody, cloudy shots. And the bridge is still unbelievably massive and light at the same time. We did get some sunny shots the next day, so in no particular order, the Millau Viaduc.


Viaduct from the hotel garden


Nick’s graceful panorama

Cloudy lighting
Approach for the crossing
Black and white
Crossing the bridge (E6.40 thank you!)

The last two photos show the bridge crossing. I had jury-rigged Nick’s GPS holder with my small camera, rubber bands and band-aids,  and was all set to get a movie of the crossing with this contraption stuck on my window. Alas! for some reason it took pictures for all of two seconds. I must have pressed the button twice.

Next instalment: The beautiful pilgrim town of Conques.