Tuesday, May 23, 2017

En Route Encore

Tim's sister is kindly letting us store some of the possessions from our house in the garage of her chalet in Chatel so we're making a quick overnight trip from St Remy. The little town of Yvoire, 16 km west of Thonon, beckons us in for lunch and a look around.

Officially one of “The Most Beautiful Villages of France", sleepy, wisteria-wrapped Yvoire, on the shores of Lake Geneva, makes a great day trip.

A former fishing village, fortified in the early 14th century, it's a riot of turrets, towers and old stone houses.

Ah, the French Alps and mountain air—two of Tim's favourite things. We're in Chatel and this is just a glimpse of the spectaculaire panoramic view from his sister's chalet.

Chatel is a moo-velous village and ski resort in the Haute Savoie, located on the French-Swiss border.

Les Cornettes Hotel in the neighbouring village of La Chapelle-d'Abondance has been in business since 1884 and run by the same family for five generations.

The hotel lobby is curious, to say the least.

After our long day's journey a three-course dinner is in order. We start by deciding what to have for dessert, bien sûr.

Vacherin and chartreuse—two must-haves when in France.

The hotel has an amusing museum well-worth seeing too. The wax former owners and staff are very welcoming.

Heading back to St Remy we stop at the elegant belle-époque spa town of Évian les Bains, a favourite country retreat of the Dukes of Savoy, which sits grandly on the southern shore of Lake Geneva. Its spas, flowery parks and stately buildings draw crowds mainly in summer.

Discovered in 1790 and bottled since 1826, the mineral water that has made the town famous takes at least 15 years to trickle down through the Chablais Mountains, gathering minerals en route, before emerging at 11.4 degrees celsius.

In the days when Marcel Proust came to enjoy the Belle Epoque grandeur, Evian was the haunt of the very rich. Proust modelled his “Balbec baths" on Evian's.

Today, the spa, with its promenade and elegant casino, attracts a broader range of guests—it's not just for the rich anymore.

Sandi has long-admired Anduze pots, the iconic symbol of French garden decor, originally created in the 16th century by potters inspired by the Medicis.

There are many potteries making Anduze pots in the Cévennes region of France but Sandi's favourite is Poterie de la Madeleine situated just outside the town of Anduze. We're here and one of these beauties is going home with us (one small enough to fit in Sandi's carry-on) so Sandi can check another box on her “Bucket List" (although she is resigned to come back for a larger one, or two, some day).

Market days are the best days.

Hail the snail! Escargot ready and waiting for butter, shallots, garlic, parsley, le four (the oven) et la bouche (the mouth).

We're taking the scenic route back to St Remy de Provence via the Gorge du Tarn.

Clinging to the cliffside, teeny Ste-Énimie is but yet another charming village with a cobbled quarter full of restored timber houses and stone cottages, along with the 12th century church and flour market.

Le palais du poulet.

Oh France, you're like a virtual postcard.

Slicing down the flanks of Mont Lozère, the plunging canyons of the Gorges du Tarn wind for some 50km through the Parc National des Cévennes southwest from Florac. Steep cliffs carve through sparkling blue-green waters and limestone escarpements. As the narrow, twisting riverside road is notorious for summer traffic jams, the best way to explore is on the water in a kayak or canoe.

La vie en rose in Le Rozier.

The bustling provincial town of Albi has two main claims to fame: a truly mighty cathedral and a truly marvellous painter. Looming up from the centre of the old town, the Cathédrale Ste-Cécile is one of France's most monumental Gothic structures.

The Cathédrale claims to be the largest brick building in the world.

The most interesting decoration is the huge mural of The Last Judgment that covers both sides of the rounded west wall of the nave. Painted between 1474 and 1484 by unknown Franco-Flemish artists, it is considered one of the most important works of art of the Late Middle Ages. The scene is divided both vertically and horizontally: the blessed are on the left and the damned on the right; heaven is shown along the top, with the resurrection of the dead below, and hell at the bottom. The vision of the underworld stars a variety of monstrous demons and suffering humans, organized around the theme of the seven deadly sins. Labeled in old French, they depict pride, envy wrath, greed, gluttony and lust. Sloth is missing—maybe the painter didn't get around to it.

Set against a background of deep blue sky, the vault frescoes are the largest (97m long by 28m wide) work of Italian Renaissance painting to be found anywhere in France.

Next door is the fantastic Musée Toulouse-Latrec, dedicated to the groundbreaking artist Henri de Toulouse-Latrec, who was born here in 1864 and went on to depict the bars and brothels of turn-of-the-century Paris in his own inimitable style.

Toulouse-Latrec didn't paint it but the ceiling in the Musée is pretty fantastic too. Albi's old town is worth a wander, although it's surprisingly small given the town's sprawling suburbs.

Peering above clouds that gather in the valley below, Cordes-sur-Ciel is one of the most spellbinding bastides (fortified towns) in Toulouse's surrounds. Cobbled pathways wiggle their way up to its soaring vantage point over meadows banking the Tarn River.

We're staying at the Hostellerie du Vieux Cordes located at the top and in the heart of the medieval city.

It's Sandi's birthday today (May 20) and Tim is treating her to three nights at Chateau de Mercuès, a beautiful medieval castle perched on a rocky outcrop overlooking the picturesque Lot valley and Cahors vineyards, giving exceptional views from every vantage point. Strolling along the castle's wide halls one finds a small chapel hidden away inside one tower, or down the immense staircases to the underground cellar where their wine is aged. A perfect combination of elegance, gastronomy, fine wines and the beauty of nature, and perfect for Sandi.

The view from our hotel room.

Sandi adores truffles so her choice of the six-course Menu du Truffe is an easy one. Here's how it's going down: 1. amuse bouche de moment, 2. pan-fried foie gras and black truffle ravioli in Elderflower juice, 3. slow-roasted perch with root vegetables in onion and Malbec reduction, 4. roasted sweetbreads with black truffle purée and veal juice with laurel, 5. savarin with black truffle and, 6. chocolate mousse with jelly, Malbec reduction and mulled wine sorbet. A meal fit for a queen.

Tim's not sure whether to eat it or put the bowl on his head. Maybe both.

If you've ever wondered what it's like to live in a castle, here's a taste.

And a castle with it's own winery is even better. Aside from their famous Malbec the vintners produce a unique, incredible 100% Malbec Brut Rosé.

Now we're off and continuing our travels through the Dordogne and Loire Valley, bound for Paris.