Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Winter has finally arrived

We bought two warm coats for me at the huge annual sales the previous Saturday.  After two years of living in France I have a much better idea of what one needs.  My coat that we had to buy immediately on my arrival two years ago wasn't always practical.  And what luck I had - with a very mild winter until now, the coats were the best buys on the sales!  One marked down 50% and the other 60% (and today I bought pants marked down 70% - which meant I've paid what you'll normally pay in Woolies...).  In SA I tried to avoid sales, I hate the crowds and the big mess - clothes on heaps and you have to dig into piles to find something that might be interesting and then it is not nearly the discounts that we have.  Therefore, I brace myself and face the soldes.  Clothes are so expensive in France and with proper discounts, it is worth it to go.  The main purpose that Saturday was to find clothes for JL and his son (I'm sure most women will sympathise with me for having to go to the shops with TWO men!).  Although my coats were the biggest bargain of the day. And just in time, as the cold started to move in just after we've bought it.
With central heating you do not always realise how cold it is outside.  And I have to bite on my teeth to avoid my SA habits of opening windows summer or winter for fresh air (although I still sometimes do, but with this cold, not much longer than 5 min at a time!).  Friday evening we had friends over for dinner, JL was searching for the door key (in my handbag...) so I felt sorry for Geraldine who was almost frozen by the time they could enter the house.  I've learnt one should be prepared with the key in the door in winter!  Fortunately we did a pierrade for dinner.  In France they love to do raclette and pierrade.  And JL had one that is a combination, you can do both at the same time.  The bottom is a grill under which you put small pans, normally boiled potatoes with a slice of cheese on top and then you grill it (you can buy the cheese already cut in the supermarket, and it says raclette).  The top is a stone slab (pierre is rock in French) which gets very hot on which you fry different pieces of meat (and vegetables if you wish).  A very informal way to spend a good (and warm -lit and fig) evening with your friends.  So by the time we have finished, it was quite hot in the house!
As one always eat cheese after a main dish in France when inviting friends, I bought some cheese for the evening.  At the beginning I've always asked JL which cheese he would like, but nowadays I tend to forget and just buy what I feel like.  I chose one of my favourites, pont l'eveque, a cheese from Normandie, and then decided that I cannot remember what a Munster tastes like (a cheese from Alsace) and we have never bought a brie when we have visitors.  Well, I did remember Anita was complaining about the Munster that she had to face in Germany smelled like bad feet, but I have to admit - the smell IS very strong!  Most of the cheese was left over and I've put it in a tupperware.  By the next morning the whole fridge was smelling like munster, so JL wrapped the cheese in gladwrap before putting it back in the Tupperware! (and even then the drawer in which he put it, in the fridge standing in the garage, still smelled like Munster...
As we had to make a plan to finish the Munster, an impossible task for only two people, I've decided to adapt my tartiflette recipe and use Munster instead of Reblochon cheese.  And yesterday, as the cold crept in even more and JL had to spend the day at home, we had tartiflette for lunch.  For me one of the best meals to warm you during winter, I can understand why it is a favourite in ski resorts! (it is a potato dish with onions, bacon and the cheese and some cream)
Yesterday we had light snow and as I'm not confident to drive in snow, as I never had to in my life, I was considering cancelling my hair appointment in Reims this morning.  JL checked the weather forecast and told me not to worry, as our snow will only arrive later in the week, but we'll have a very cold week, with the max on Thursday only -3°! Well, this morning when I had to leave to Reims (at -2°), the snow started again, so I've just crossed my fingers and hoped it won't get worse.  On the road the radio announced snow warnings to several regions, although not ours (not yet). So I've made it there and back (arriving at 12h00 the temp increased to 0°) and for now, I just cuddle up at home, not going anywhere. And fortunately we have some tartiflette left over for tonight. And Thursday is Chandeleur, even though the origin was a religous fête, it nowadays is the day on which you eat crépes in France (with few people I think who knows the origin of Chandeleur)!  So food wise, no, I cannot complaint about winter.  Weather wise - brrr! Clothes wise - I love my new coats (even though you feel like an 'opgestopte worsrol' when driving in the car), but I'll need a diet before summer!

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Wallonie - kayaking, beer and crusader history

While blogging on other countries, I thought I'll finish the one on the Wallonie before continuing with France again.  In August we've decided to go the Wallonie during a long weekend, the weather prevision was good and as it tend to be a region with less good weather than here, hence we've jumped at the opportunity. Unfortunately, as we've decided on short notice and due to the long weekend, we could only find accommodation for one night :(
The Wallonie is the mainly French speaking part of Belgium.  It covers 55% of Belgium's surface but with only a third of the population.  With its iron and coal deposits it used to be the more prosperous part of Belgium, but after WWII it changed and the Flemish part overtook the Wallonie in wealth. 
The Wallonie comprises of different areas, of which the Ardennes lies in the southeast of Belgium.  The Ardennes continues into France (for those who forgot, our region is called Champagne-Ardennes, the Ardennes part north of the Champagne).  The Ardennes is a beautiful region of forests and hills within the Ardennes mountain range, with its famous geological formations.  The Ardennes was also the site of three major battles during WWI and WWII.
We booked a hotel in Bouillon, a town not far from the French-Belgium border and only about 1.5 hours from us.  JL often spoke about Bouillon and how beautiful it is, so I was glad that we finally got the opportunity to go.  And I was not disappointed! Except, the weather forecast turned out to be completely wrong.  The first day was overcast and at once stage pouring down quite heavily.  Fortunately the next day we had some sunshine (at times, with a surprise rain while kayaking).
Bouillon is famous for its castle, but I loved the town itself for its many flowers - on the bridges, in the windows, and the church bell playing Beethoven's Ode to Joy on the hour.
Duke Godfrey of Bouillon is one of the most famous former lords of Bouillon.  He sold the château of Bouillon to the bishop of Liège (northeast of Belgium) in 1099 to finance the first crusade to Jerusalem, to free Jerusalem from Muslim forces.  Even though the family had the option to buy the castle back once they have the money, they never could afford it.  Godfrey became the first ruler of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, but refused the title 'king' as he said that title belongs to God only.
The château of Bouillon is situated on a rock overlooking the Semois River, which forms a bend around the impressive site of the castle that offers a wonderful view over the town.  The château was first mentioned in a letter by the archbishop of Reims in 988.
From 1795-1815 Bouillon belonged to France, whereafter it was transferred to the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, that existed from 1815-1830 comprising Belgium, Luxemburg and the Netherlands.  In 1830 Belgium obtain its independence. However, William I of the Netherlands only recognised the Belgian state in 1839 at which stage the borders were finalised.
Above: the view from our room, on the church and the other side of the town,
as the river runs through it. You can see the church with its musical bells.
Below: the impressive castle
The flowers were really beautiful and provided colour to the grey day.  Along the river there are boats that you can paddle, but it was far too cold and wet to try that.
As you can imagine, with a castle on the hill, it s quite steep to get there
Bouillon's medieval fête started the following day, so along the river below the castle, as well as in the town, people were pitching tents and preparing for the festival (to JL's relieve we had the kayaking on our programme, so were unable to attend...)
Above: the entrance
Below: the view on the town
They had a show with this guy doing different things with various birds of prey.
With the wet rain the various staircases in the castle were even more slippery.  And as they were already very uneven after many centuries' wear and tear, I've only braved some stairs!
I would love to go back in autumn, I think these forests must be quite a picture
There were exhibitions of the crusades, the history and education inside some of the buildings in the castle - very interesting!
In addition to the exhibition on education and child labour, the torture room made me thankful for the modern age that we're living in!
Due to the busy weekend in the region, we went to Alle, a village not too far, on the first day to enquire about kayaking the next day. After they have convinced us that the weather should be fine and if not, we can still cancel on short notice, we've made our booking. I have never kayaked before, so was a bit nervous.  It was really not hot summer weather, despite being mid August and the idea of falling into cold weather wasn't exciting at all! At the offices the river made a rapid and I was hoping we'll start down stream.  One can choose the distance and JL decided the 12km shouldn't be too difficult.  The owners drive you with the kayaks upstream where you get launched, to finish at the office.  We were with Flemish people in the car, so I ended up chatting in Afrikaans with the lady. They were also doing the 12 km, as well as a group of French students.
At the launch, we got stuck on a rock straight away, but fortunately managed to move on.  After the driest summer in about 25 years, the river's level was quite low and at times we had to push ourselves with the paddles to continue. At least it was comforting that I shouldn't get too wet in the shallow water!  The sunny weather changed into some rain, fortunately the heavy rains only commenced when we had a late lunch afterwards!
It is beautiful along the river, very tranquil and we even passed some cattle grazing in the lush green grass. It was also around here that I've said to JL it would be so nice to come and kayak here in the summer.  On which he reminded me 'but my love, it IS summer!'. After a wonderful hot April and May, with temp going into the 30's, we had a miserable cold, wet July and Aug.  Hence, it was very easy to forget that we are in summer!!
From Alle we went to Rochehaut, another scenic village higher up, offering a view on our kayaking route and a small village, Frahan
Above: the same cattle we've passed while kayaking
Below: we were just in time to still get lunch at this restaurant, one of the most famous in Rochehaut. They have two restaurants, a hotel, a shop where we bought very good beer afterwards (with the name Rochehaut) and some farming operations. By then it was getting cold, pouring and we were happy that we have decided early in the morning to go kayaking in the morning rather than the afternoon.
And some sunshine just before we left.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Through the Pyrennees

Asking Julie and Cedric over Christmas which will be the best road from Madrid to Toulouse, where we've spent our last night with them on the way back home, they told us we'll have to go back to San Sebastian, in the north of Spain, and follow the highway.  However, looking at the map it just looked so much longer than to go through the Pyrennees (and a part of the road would have been the same than when coming from Fouras).  However, not knowing the Pyrennees and realising it might be difficult, I've explored different routes on google map before we left (there are a few options through the mountains) and found a route that will take the same time than via San Sebastian, but 100 kms less.  So I wrote down the route nr (not knowing there are different route nrs for one road and neither realising the route nr can vary along the route, I should have written down all the route nrs).  Hence, we've arrived in Toulouse in the dark after driving the same distance (and not the same time, but an hour longer!) than via San Sebastian.  At least we didn't have toll gates through Spain (while around San Sebastian there are many and many trucks as well) and it was a beautiful road (although nerve wrecking at some parts where it was narrow and some cars and trucks drove fast around the bends).  I think it must be lovely to have a summer holiday in the mountains (for the more adventurous there are ski resorts higher up in the mountains to justify a winter holiday).
I've managed to take a few photo's while driving (and regretted that we still haven't managed to clean the windscreen...).
From Madrid to close to the Pyrennees was quite dry and on a high plateau, closer to the Pyrennees we had very thick fog to drive through.  Once through the Pyrennees the contrast between France and Spain was huge, Spain being dry and barren, France being green and lush.
Driving through a village
A fort next to the road
An old castle/fort below (we have crossed the border):
You have to cross the river over an arched bridge to get there:
And then up this road:

A house in solitude:
And a small village behind the trees
With not much sunshine in winter, the snow takes longer to melt in this little village, the only snow we found next to the road
Above: And through the mountains, the road opening up
And a last stretch through mountainous roads (all along there are beautiful bridges):
And even though Portugal was beautiful and we have appreciation for the beautiful buildings in Spain, and even though France is only my adopted country, as a result of my marriage with a wonderful, patient French husband - I felt like saying 'oos wes tuis bes' on our arrival back in France, especially when we got home after 5 100 km!