Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Rhone, the Mistral, & Roquefort

As my adventure in Ardeche was coming to a close, it tossed me one final travel freak out experience.  

The scenery was beyond lovely--along another route even more beautiful than the one I had seen on arriving.  This route ran parallel for a good distance along the Rhone, a river I had never seen, but which is legendary in France.  Birthplace of the mistral, the Rhone is notorious for harnessing a wind that can reach speeds of up to 90 kilometers/hour, and has inspired many a song and poem. 

Lost in the reverie of composing a mistral poem myself, and anticipating a final coffee with Catherine at the Grenoble train station, I suddenly snapped out of it.  The clock was ticking.  We were barely down the mountain, and had far more stops to make than time to make them, according to my calculations. 

I began timing the stops; at the rate we were going, I wouldn't arrive until at least 8:30 pm.  I was supposed to meet Catherine at 7 pm, and my GEM colleagues were picking me up at 8 pm for our ride into Germany the next morning...hmm....would I miss my rendez-
vous with Catherine?!

Was the bus driver inspired by the mistral, or the panicked look on my face?  I can't be sure, but as the Rhone came into full view, Grenoble tantalizingly on the other side, we began picking up speed.  Swerving around rotaries then at top speed (time-honored European trick designed to give you a workout while you sit for hours on end), the bus threw us from left to right as it zeroed in like a torpedo on the connecting bridge.  The tension of trying to hold my seat distracted me from the tension of possibly missing my friend.   

Next, stops were abandoned--first the random one or two, then whole dozens.  By 7 pm we were roaring into Grenoble, for an on-time arrival.  Amazing.  I released my white-knuckled fingers from the seat I had been gripping.    

I wish I could say I saw Catherine on the quai waving and smiling, but no.  It took another half hour for us to connect--and to call my GEM friends to ask for a delay in pick up!  (Sans problem!) 

Coffee was forthwith replaced by tapas, and Catherine and I had the luxury of sit-down wonderfulness  on the square behind the station--something we hadn't done in over a decade.   The cafe was all modern and cool, in complete contrast to what I had been seeing:

Which is actually pretty cool too.  Of course, any cafe in France is cool.  We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, and then it was time to move on again.

But before we close this chapter on Ardeche, let me leave you with a final random factoid: Ardeche produces the prince of all cheeses, Roquefort!

Au revoir, L'Ardeche!

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Place de La Paix

As you have surely guessed by now,  leaving was not easy.  Lunch was rushed (apostasy in France), so we could load the car and serpentine back down the mountain for another death-defying trajectory along the narrow two-lane, with Gilbert's missing sideview mirror.  Round and round the mountains we went, cars routinely passed us on curves, into oncoming trucks. 

We still had not figured out exactly which of the three Aubenas bus stops was the best bet to ensure tickets would be sold, buses would be running, and information would approximate reality.  In spite of Gilbert's misgivings, Place de La Paix was our best hope.  

He steeled himself for this most distasteful option, and I soon realized why.  We drilled our way into the labyrinthine city center, in the heat and traffic, foiled by one-way streets everywhere.  There was no parking anywhere near the ticket office, and it was probably 150 degrees.  That might be a tiny exaggeration, but the cigales were in complete cacophony, if that gives you any indication. 

While Josy harassed Gilbert with directions that would have broken laws in several countries, Gilbert sighed in exasperation that she had never learned how to drive, or she would know why he couldn't.  

"I grew up in this city!  I know this street takes us to Place de La Paix!" she shrieked as he drove by street after street she insisted he turn down. 

"You can't drive somewhere just because you can walk there!"  

Finally we worked our way to the small parking in front of the bus station, which was of course closed. 

Gilbert pulled over into the taxi lane to ponder next steps.  Josy hopped out with me to investigate matters at the cafe.  When we returned, a bus was pulling in, bound for Grenoble!  Could it be this easy?  We hurried over to ask if tickets were available on the bus--yes!  We couldn't buy or board for another hour; but we weren't going to budge.  For the next hour, we 'squatted' in the taxi lane, while Gilbert struck up a conversation with the bus driver.  

"He can talk to anyone," Josy fretted, sure that sunstroke was about to fell him any moment. "He shouldn't be out in this!"  I was having enough trouble in the shade of the car.

In another public transportation miracle, no taxis appeared in that entire hour.  We were able to sweat in peace, watch the little public dramas unfold around us in other waiting passengers, and wonder what Gilbert and the bus driver were talking about. 

But then the hour was up, my ticket purchased, my luggage loaded.  With hugs and bises we took our leave of one another, the doors closed, and off I went to Grenoble--3 hours away. 

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Provencal Spy

I'm not sure I remember dinner...but I do remember being jolted awake shortly after dawn to the sound of a weed whacker.  Gads.


I had a day and a half here, and that half day was about to be eaten up by din.

No more cigalle lullabies, tranquil mountain reveries, or mercy--only the relentless tree cutter, splintering wood and splitting our ears, for the next five hours.  Long enough to run into lunchtime.   

We then entered another film scenario as the Bouchers offered the tree cutter a drink, and he plopped down in a dangerously comfortable position in response--a ball of sweat with the air of a raconteur warming up for a command performance (with the famous Provencal twang I have only rarely heard).  The first story involved a recent mechanical breakdown with his Peugeot, for which an exorbitant repair price was quoted, to which he retorted, "What do you take me for, an American?" 

How long was this to go on?  Under other circumstances, I might have been as engrossed as Josy, sitting opposite him at the picnic table, apparently riveted to his not-so-riveting story.  But I had precious little time with the Bouchers, and a bus to catch...I glanced at the clock...was I to be foiled again by the French savoir vivre?! 

For one does not rush an important member of the fabric of life in a French countryside, especially at meal time.  Although I suspected Josy wanted him to move along so we could get back to our visit, our weed whacker had recently gleaned an important tidbit of information, which could be profitable for them all.  Parisians (who seemed as distasteful to him as Americans) had been seen scouting for Renaissance stones--the exact sort of stones he had been clearing off on their property.  They could fetch quite a handsome price.  If ever the Bouchers should decide to sell them, they must call him first.  Not the Parisians.

I smelled a rat, but Josy was now riveted, and Gilbert kept pouring.  "Careful what you say, my friend," he chuckled, while uncorking another local vintage.  "We're from Paris too remember!"

Soon Josy was satisfied that she had pumped our spy for any glimmer of truth that they had a small goldmine on their property, and this charming episode came to its conclusion.  She chased him off in a hospitable sort of way--the bum's rush, as we might say.  We had an hour to eat lunch and catch the bus.  Quelle horreur. 

Friday, September 13, 2013

Funerals, Frescoes & Fizzy Water

I laid down briefly and just smiled up at the cobwebbed beams overhead, listening to the cigalles.  This was way too delicious to sleep through.  I got up, grabbed my sketchbook and charcoal, and headed for the veranda.  Too hot.  Under the trees in the driveway--better.  I sketched while the lizards ran up and down the walls, and under my feet, until I heard the car start, and the crunch of tires on gravel.  The Bouchers were ready to roll.

First stop: figure out my train ticket back to Grenoble.  We entered picturebook Thueyts (prounounced "too-ay") and ran promptly into a funeral procession.  You haven't lived until you've encountered a funeral in a small European town.  It will grind things to a halt quicker than a New York minute.  We parked outside of the town center, with Josy berating Gilbert for driving with a broken sideview mirror, and having to walk the distance in the heat.  Then off we went to the tourist office for information.

Mostly what we learned was about who died: a state trooper, who had swerved around a truck on a curve, and been killed instantly.  Not to be callous, but a state trooper funeral in a small European town is even more problematic to getting anything done.  God rest his soul.   This breaking local news prompted another hour of conversation in the car as we watched car after car taking enormous risk to get around truck after truck, on a two-lane serpentine bordered by stone walls.  Cliffs and gorges on either side, to be sure.  With each passing car, Josy reminded Gilbert to pull more to the right, and to get that mirror fixed!  I put my faith in "you're immortal till your work is done!"

We were on our way to Nyrac-les-Bains, at the foot of a volcano, famous for its thermal baths, dating back to the Romans in 121 AD.  And a little further up the road, to Meyras, Medieval city with two chateaux, dating back to the 12th C., and its trompe l'oeil frescoes recreating life in the ancient city.

If you have 7 minutes, you may want to enjoy this virtual tour of Meyras, to see more of the frescoes.

We continued our stroll over to the local watering hole, and I do mean that quite literally, with the variety of thermal waters to be drunk in these towns.  We chose this fizzy one, which we sipped to the tune of a drunken uproar behind us.  A crowd of dreadlocked, tattooed hooligans, totally incongruous in this idyllic spot, had obviously found something a little more stiff to drink.    

And then it was time to meander back to Balou...the sun descending, the heat broken, a cousin to visit, and then of course, dinner!

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Way They Do Life Here

I couldn't see much on arriving, as it was now dark in Balou, but after a quick dinner, I didn't want to see much more than the backs of my eyelids, from a horizontal position.  There were three buildings on Balou--mine was the renovated garage on the highest part of the property, and Josy accompanied me up with a flashlight and tucked me in for the night.  "Breakfast at 9!" she called out as she descended in the dark.  I think I fell asleep before she got back to her cabin. 

I woke to the sound of the cigales--French cousins of the hot bugs I love to hear in my native New York.  I opened the window to see the mountain in the distance--Mount Moriah, Gilbert called it, where Abraham had sacrificed Isaac.  Um...think Gilbert had his theology and his geography a bit tangled...

Breakfast at 9...I showered, flicked a slug off the bathroom sink to brush my teeth, then grabbed my camera to head down.   The mountain air was brisk, although the forecast was hot and humid in the afternoon.  It was too cool to eat outside - I found the Bouchers hunkered down in their tiny kitchen, toasting bread in a pan.  An array of homemade jams lined the table, and the big breakfast bowl of tea sat on my plate. 

Two hours, one pot of tea and massive quantities of French bread later, we arose and wobbled over to the phone to see about train tickets.  No information was forthcoming, to no one's surprise, so we decided we'd stop in town at the station before some sightseeing.  But first--lunch!  Ah would only take an hour, Josy assured me, and shooed me out to take some pictures and keep Gilbert out of her hair.

The property was lovely, and Gilbert took me on the grand tour, practically naming every flower or fruit tree he had planted, pointing out the ruins of the chateau dating back to the Renaissance, pulling weeds, and plucking a few figs.  He was dismayed at how damaged the long curving driveway was from recent rains.  They'd have to get that smoothed out, and the landscaper in...he prattled on while I snapped photos and ooo'd and aaah'd over every little flash of beauty.  "Oh yes, that's a good one," he would comment as I'd lean over some flower.

And then we were back at the table...this time for a full-on pork chop meal, with mashed potatoes and veggies, cheese and crackers, bread, nuts and local wine.  A stunning rice/apricot cake filled any microspace left in our stomachs, after which we went into food shock and needed more than sightseeing...we needed a nap!   

Monday, September 2, 2013

With the Gorge's Smile

I never get tired of staring out a window at new landscapes.  This one was no different, but I was not prepared for the beauty of the region I was entering.   Distracted by the logistics of how to get to the region, I was not prepared for anything other than a good long nap, as I began my third day of travel, with all of 10 hours sleep under my belt.

But as we left the Drome, crossing the Rhone into Ardeche, I sat upright.  OMG...From the graffiti-stained ghettos of Grenoble, I was being transported into God's Country.  We were rounding a bend and the earth dropped away beneath us in a fabulous...gorge?  crater?  valley?  Too pastoral for the drama unfolding before us.  Rivers, waterfalls and cliffs beefed up the beauty, as we serpentined down,  up, around, in and out of rock bridges and medieval towns.  I felt a sudden urge to reach for a travel guide.

And then the destination marquee caught my attention...there were 3, count 'em 3, Aubenas destinations.  Oh brother...which one was mine?!  (Note to self: I must learn to ask about this in future travels!) 

I studied each name as the 3 scrolled around.  Place de la Paix was out--Gilbert had been clear about that.  Gare Routiere--a distinct possibility.  Gilbert has said to get off at the old gare (station).  I turned to the woman behind me and asked if she was from Aubenas--yes!  She consulted with her boyfriend and they decided that yes, I should get off at Gare Routiere.  Good.  Back to the scenery.

A few minutes later she tapped me on the shoulder and said, no, we think it's actually the SNCF Gare...oh boy.  Should I trust these two or lurch up and ask the bus driver?  We pulled in then to Gare Routiere, and I decided this couldn't be it--it was brand spanking new, too far out of town, and no one was around...except that one elderly couple...could that be...I craned my neck as we left and hoped that wasn't the Bouchers.

Next stop: SNCF Aubenas, and off I jumped, looking around quickly while the door opened for luggage.  I heard my name and turned to see Josy, waving wildly and crossing the street without looking--, her characteristic enthusiasm intact at 80 something.  We were soon hugging and talking at once, while Gilbert waved his cane and laughed from the cafe.  We joined him for a quick drink before the last leg of the journey: a slow crawl through Pont de la Beaume, Thueyts (I dare you to pronounce it) and Barnas, where we turned off to the right and navigated another kilometer or two of cliffhanging switchbacks, to the tall green gate that was our entrance into Balou. 

I repented for wondering what in the world could be out here in Barnas-par-Thueyts.  And the French have it all over us when it comes to the gated community thing.  The property was modest but steep, with three structures perched on its incline.  My quarters were in the first, closest one: a renovated garage.  We dropped my luggage off, and continued on down a small switchback to land at their cabin.  Dinner would be served shortly. 

Sunday, September 1, 2013


I had a couple of hours to wait for the next bus, which I spent in diligent homework over connections and station maps.  I first had to buy yet another ticket, de-code the transportation chaos: excursion buses hired by the train station--tickets sold at the train station not the bus station, connections dubious.  Scurrying back and forth to find all this out helped me locate the rest room and check that off the list.  Once I was planted safely on the appointed quai, and Catherine satisfied that I would indeed get off safely, we said our goodbyes.  In two more days, I would be making my return trip to Germany through here; perhaps we could get a cup of coffee together?!  

And then it was time to board, destination Valence.

"Which Valence?" the bus driver asked, as I handed him my ticket.

Um....."There are two Valences?"

"Valence TGV or Valence Ville?"


"Do I have time to go check at the ticket counter?"

"No, get in, we'll go to Valence Ville."

Throwing myself to the mercies of bus drivers who know more than I do, I boarded and promptly fell asleep.   Valence would be dealt with later--after a good cat nap to take another layer of jet lag off.  I drifted off as we passed the white Chartreuse mountains and woke in Valence an hour later.  

I schlepped into the train station to find my connection.  Next stop: Montelimar, where I would get a bus to Aubenas, where the Bouchers would pick me up at the 'old station.'  Not the new, Place de la Paix, the old station, Gilbert had been careful to underscore. With a half hour wait to go on track 5, I milled with the French and their dogs, wilting in the heat.

When the train pulled in, on time, the crowd surged forward, but I hung back.  The sign was right, the track was right, the hour was right.  But this train was definitely wrong!  Not the sleek French bullet train we were all expecting, but a lumbering giant from Moscow!  What?! 

To add to the confusion, French conductors descended, to fend off the frenzied and perplexed mob, shouting things I couldn't understand in the uproar, but didn't need to.  I knew we weren't going to Moscow!  

While we all tried to decode this bit of fun (I think this is when my sense of the absurd kicked in), behind us and the lumbering gray from Moscow the bullet train whooshed to a discreet halt, and doors opened.  

The mob--this time including me--surged backwards and scrambled for correct car and seat (the bullets are notoriously brief in their station stops).  And promptly two minutes later, we were whisked away deep into the French interior, the Massif Central, geologically the oldest part of France.  Goodbye Valence--both of you!!!