Monday, 2 August 2021

The Route Departmentale D923(65)

A couple of weeks ago we wrote about walking into Spain (link here)

The route we took was the D923 (65) (or RD923 (65)), a departmental road in the Hautes-Pyrénées (65) which connects Gavarnie to the Port of Boucharo.

The first part of the road is a fairly typical Pyrenean Route Departmentale, with a decent surface, a fair number of safety barriers, and some spectacular views.

It was originally intended to be the final section of the RN21 (Route Nationale 21), which ended near Gavarnie until 1973. The idea was to make a century old cross-border route passable by car. The French section of the route was opened in July 1969 as a departmental road and was surfaced up to the Port of Boucharo. On the Spanish side, the work reached Bujaruelo, but the section up to the pass remained incomplete.


The resealed section stops at a landslide

That's a Route Departmentale - honest!

When the Monte Perdido Massif was listed as a World Heritage Site, the road was cut off at the Col des Tentes and the section up to the Port de Boucharo was abandoned. In 2012 the first 800 metres of the abandoned section was restored with a 1.5 metre wide sealed section, which creates access to part of the site for people in wheelchairs. The rest of the abandoned route is now unpaved, although the occasional patch of tarmac is still visible.

Sunday, 1 August 2021

The Australian Alps

We have posted quite a few pictures of the Pyrenees, and in the past varous Swiss, French, and Italian Alp pics, as well.

This time, the Australian Alps. The difference is that our photos from the Pyrenees were taken from half way up, yet we were higher than Australia's tallest mountain. The vegetation - at a glance - looks remarkably similar.


Saturday, 31 July 2021

A Far Too Easy "Guess Where"

On our way back from the Pyrenees we had a two night stopover. You may be able to guess where from this photo of a heavily over restored medieval bridge.


I am glad we visited, but I wouldn't make it the focus of a holiday.

Friday, 30 July 2021

It's Official: We Love Cauterets.

We returned from our holiday yesterday, and have decided that Cauterets is the perfect place for us to visit. Neither of us are much into beaches and we both like mountain scenery.

Three years ago we went to Switzerland (read all about it here) and really enjoyed it. The scenery was excellent, as was the mountain driving, but neither of us particularly enjoyed the food, whereas Cauterets is a proper small French town with good restaurants and shops, and prices which are more or less what we would expect to pay at home. It also benefits from being a 19th century health resort with traditional architecture, rather than concrete monstrosities designed to cram as many skiers as possbile into the smallest of spaces.

Here are some pictures:

We had a one bedroom apartment in a 19th century hotel. Our balcony can be seen
above the roller shutter for the restaurant.

The mountains in Cauterets start where the town stops. The wooden building was the train station,
now the bus stop and theatre

The old casino, now the Cinema. It also has a swimming pool
tucked around the back

The cable car starts close to the middle of town, and it feels like it is vertical

There are a number of walks we didn't do and wish we had time for, and we didn't go swimming. Neither did we go to a spa (of which there are still a couple). We would also like to visit Lourdes, and some of the other small towns of the area (Gavarnie in particular, but maybe on a day when it isn't absolutely heaving with visitors).

We would also quite enjoy sharing our holiday with family and friends. Maybe when the dreaded pestilence is finished....


Thursday, 29 July 2021

A Mystery Post

Follow the question mark to find out where we went yesterday. Photos weren't allowed.



Wednesday, 28 July 2021

A Brief History of French Bread Ovens


Oven in a bakery, Indre et Loire, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.
A modern steam injected oven in a bakery in Preuilly. On the right is a receptical for pouring in water to provide the steam, on the left a wheel which rotates the stone base of the oven, for ease of getting loaves in and out.

Bread has been a staple in France for centuries, and central France is the biggest producer of wheat in Western Europe.

Restored bread oven in a garden, Indre et Loire, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.
An old bread oven in a farm house garden.

In the 19th century rural houses often had a separate little building that contained an oven for the household that would have been used on a daily basis. The oven was a brick dome surrounded by a fairly standard limestone and terracotta hut. It was constructed away from the dwelling because of the risk of fire. Every day a wood fire would be lit inside the dome and once reduced to coals the embers would be pushed aside and the day’s loaves put in, directly on the brick base of the oven. Today if you live in a house with one of these ovens you have likely renovated it and cook pizza in it. 

Ruined bread oven next to an abandoned house, Indre et Loire, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.
The ruins of a bread oven next to an abandoned salt smuggler's hideaway in the forest.

If you lived in or near a village in feudal times then you were obliged to use the four banal, the communal oven, which was owned by the local lord, who charged a fee for access to the oven. The lord was responsible for the maintenance of the oven, and he had to make sure that bread was baked perfectly, otherwise he was fined. But on top of taking one sixteenth of his peasants’ grain production as a general tax, he took another one sixeenth as a fee for the use of the four banal. In addition, the lord would have owned the mill where everyone had to get their wheatground into flour. Those who lived close to the oven were disturbed by the endless comings and goings as well as the noise and heat of the oven or ovens. Those who lived further away were annoyed that they could make the most perfect dough, but by the time they had brought it to the oven in summer it had over proved and by the time it arrived to be baked in winter it was too cold. The baker put in charge of the communal oven had to be available day and night in case someone turned up to bake their bread. 

Restored bread oven in a garden, Indre et Loire, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.
A nicely restored bread oven in a farm house garden.

The first four banal appeared in the Middle Ages in Paris near the Tour Saint Jacques, and they quickly spread throughout France, in populous communities becoming huge complexes with enormous and multiple ovens. These fours banaux are similar to the smaller private ones in construction and use. Not just bread could be cooked in these ovens, but gratinée style side dishes of vegetables would commonly be placed in the oven to brown and cook in the cooling bread oven after the loaves had been extracted. If you ever see a dish on a modern menu that is something a la boulangere, it will be one of these homely comforting old meals.

Bread oven in a barn, Vienne, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.
The bread oven in a friend's barn.

After feudalism ended in France commercial bakeries started springing up everywhere and the boulangerie, named after the traditional round boule loaf, was born. At first they had big brick ovens and baked all the same breads that everyone had always baked at home. They would also take housewives’ gratin dishes and cook them at the end of the baking day, for a small fee, as at this time many village houses did not have ovens at all and were cooking on stoves.

Partially renovated bread oven attached to a barn, Vienne, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.
A bread oven attached to a friend's barn -- mostly renovated, but still with a fig tree growing out of it. They are undecided as to whether the oven or the fig tree will win.

At the beginning of the 20th century a technological change meant that ovens changed. The baguette had been introduced, and it required a steam injection oven. Today that is what most bakers still use, to give their bread that crunchy crust we’ve all come to expect, and most have switched over to gas or electric rather than wood fired. But the heavy stone or brick bases of the ovens remain, as by law in France, certain traditional breads must be stone baked the old fashioned way, resting directly on the hot base of the oven and not on a tray or a shelf. 

Bread oven in the kitchens of the Chateau of Chenonceau, Indre et Loire, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.
The bread oven in the kitchen of the Chateau of Chenonceau. Because Chenonceau is a grand stone building, and built over water, there was no need to build the bread oven as a separate isolated shed. Here it is very conveniently right next to the big boiling and roasting open fire.

Street sign for rue du four banal (communal oven), Indre et Loire, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.
Most towns and villages have a rue du Four Banal.

Four banal (communal oven) below chateau, Indre et Loire, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.
The four banal in a Loire Valley village, set into the hillside between the castle and the centre of the village. Access is from the front at ground level, but also from on top, behind the oven, via a set of steep steps.

Four banal (communal oven), Indre et Loire, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.
The four banal in a Loire Valley village, with wood store on the right. This oven has been completely restored and is fired up occasionally for village events. Usually they will bake fouées or fouaces, a type of pita bread.

Pizzas cooking in an old bread oven in a troglodyte cave, Indre et Loire, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.
The oven in a troglodyte cave, fired up on a village fete day. Some tomato sauce made by the chefs at the Michelin starred restaurant and pizzas are in the oven.

Large bread oven being swept out, Indre et Loire, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.
My friend John sweeping out the large oven in our village's chateau gatehouse.

Restored bread oven in a garden, Indre et Loire, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.
A nicely restored oven at a local potter's place (used for pizza not pots).

 

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For details of our private guided tours of chateaux, gardens, wineries, markets and more please visit the Loire Valley Time Travel website. We would be delighted to design a tour for you.

We are also on Instagram, so check us out to see a regularly updated selection of our very best photos. 

Tuesday, 27 July 2021

Simon and Susan invade Spain

As is our want (this week, anyway) we went for a walk yesterday.


This time is wasn't in Cauterets, but in Gavarnie, the valley one to the east of Cauterets. We drove up to the car park at Col des Tentes, and walked to Port du Boucharo (Puerto de Bujaruelo). No great distance, (about 2km each way), but we can now claim we have walked to Spain.

This is what Spain looks like without selfie-takers:



Monday, 26 July 2021

Lunch at Lac de Gaube

Yesterday we continued our walking. We caught the shuttle bus from Cauterets to Pont d'Espagne, then the cable car and ski-lift and a 15 minute walk (discounting entomological breaks) to Lac de Gaube, where we lunched.

The hotel restaurant at Lac de Gaube is quite a surprise.  Although the 20euro per person menu was basic, the food was good (and the tarte citron was excellent) and in many restaurants you would pay a lot more than 20euros just for the views.

The path back to Cauterets was extremely technical, the shale of Thursday having been swapped for granite boulders that required a fair amount of scrambling. It is called the Chemin des Cascades, and follows the river downhill - except where there have been rockfalls, where the path climbs before dropping to the river again,

In all we walked a little over 11km, with a descent of 840 metres. The path was quite challenging in places, as I hope the photos show.



Sunday, 25 July 2021

Lunch at the Waterfall

After Thursday's walk we took some time to recover: we both had extremely sore calf muscles and were having difficulty walking upright. That meant that on Friday we led a very sedentary life, not straying much further than the boulangerie or a restaurant for dinner.

Yesterday we decided to test how our legs were recovering with a walk to lunch of about three kilometres along a fairly level track.

We found an excellently inexpensive restaurant, la Cascade, at Raillere. We ordered the 13€ menu main and dessert, and a half litre of rosé. My main was the "assiette des cyclistes" shown above, and Susan had an excellent burger. We both had Myrtilles and Fromage Blanc for dessert.


The view from the restaurant


After lunch we took a slightly more challenging route back to Cauterets, passing a number of waterfalls. This is the restaurant we ate at from the bridge over the Cascade du Lutour.



The restaurant is the building on the left, photographed from the bridge over the cascade

 The path was very picturesque, with the sort of views that might make Lord Byron faint with joy.

When we reached Cauterets we were amazed to find that we were only 30 metres from the church - but looking down on its spire. It then took another 15 minutes of "lacets" (switchbacks) to get down to the town. This is a very vertical area!

Cauterets, from not very far away!



Saturday, 24 July 2021

Lunch with a view

When your apartment is situated between a very good boulangerie and the local produce market, and the balcony has a view, who needs Michelin stars?



Two Terrible Towers

 

Eiffel Tower at dusk from Trocadero, Paris, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.
The Eiffel Tower at dusk, photographed from Trocadero.

The Eiffel Tower was constructed for the 1889 World Fair. Today it's the most visited paid entry monument in the world, with 7 million visitors annually. But more or less everyone at the time it was constructed hated it. It was derided as skeletal, as if it was just the framework for an unfinished building. It was a 'skyscraper' in a low rise city. It was metal, in a city built of white limestone. So unattractive that 'even the Americans wouldn't stomach it'. It was so reviled that it took 70 years for permission for another skyscraper to be built to be granted. That was the equally reviled Montparnasse Tower, which is still considered a blot on the landscape. It does claim, with some justification, to have the best views in Paris though.

Eiffel Tower with the Seine in flood, Paris, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.
The Eiffel Tower, from the other side of the Seine, in flood and threatening nearby houseboats.

Tour Montparnasse photographed from the Eiffel Tower, Paris, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.
The mid-20C Montparnasse Tower in the distance, photographed from the Eiffel Tower. You can see why the Montparnasse Tower is not loved.

 

Friday, 23 July 2021

Seeing out my 60th year in Style

Susan and I are in Cauterets, in the Pyrenees. It's a 19th Century spa town with older roots, as it is on one of the old roads into Spain.

Yesterday we went for a walk down a hill, We caught the cable car and ski-lift up to Cirque du Lys (2300 metres) and walked back down to Cauterets (970 metres) in 30C plus heat. It was tiring but interesting; a walk of 12km, downhill on a combination of sheep paths and shale scree roads. Being so high, there was no shade, so we were pretty rung out by the end of it.

You can follow the path back to where we started, centre right on the horizon

 
We lunched at lac d'Ilheou


I can only imagine how disheartening the walk up must be
 
the Cascade du Ilheou


Thursday, 22 July 2021

La Grotte de la Vierge, Paulmy

We got taken to a rather extraordinary site today, one that we didn't even know existed, despite having lived in the area for more than a decade.

19C Calvary constructed of reinforced concrete, Indre et Loire, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.
A calvary, constructed of reinforced concrete.

It is a faithful copy of the grotto at Lourdes, built in the 1860s out of reinforced concrete, hidden away in the woods in the park of the Chateau of Paulmy, 20 kilometres away from where we live.

Basin in a 19C shrine complex, Indre et Loire, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.
The basin.
 

The grotto was commissioned by Gertrude Stacpoole, Marquise d'Oyeron, just a couple of years after the original sanctuary was created, and made by a master rocailleur (landscape scale artificial rock artisan) from Tours. She had visited Lourdes often, and so decided to have her own version made. In addition to the grotto there are rustic bridges crossing the carefully landscaped stream, a circular basin and a mound that acts as a calvary.

A 19C bridge with faux wood rails, Indre et Loire, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.
Bridge with faux wood rails and a cascade.
 

The site now belongs to the municipality of Paulmy, but can't be accessed without permission. These days it is like walking into an ancient Mayan site, barely cleared of the encroaching jungle. Fallen trees lie at all angles, victims of a hurricane in the 1990s.

Reproduction of the shrine at Lourdes, Indre et Loire, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.
The replica shrine, with a mature oak tree fallen on it.
 

Gertrude, who was the daughter of a duke, came from a fabulously wealthy but disfunctional Anglo-Irish-French family. Her father abandoned his English wife and numerous children in Rome. He then went on to set up home with a couple who were close friends in England and left the bulk of his fortune to them. Much of his collection of art and fine objects is now in the Wallace Collection in London. Gertrude married Auguste Fournier de Boisaigrault, who inherited the Chateau of Paulmy estate, and whose mother was a member of the powerful Voyer d'Argenson family, who owned multiple grand properties around Les Ormes.

A stained glass window made at the end of the 19th century by the famous Tours based artisan Lux Fournier depicting the grotto can be seen in the church in Paulmy. There was an annual pilgrimage to the shrine on 15 August from 1885 to 1955, which several thousand people participated in. I was interested in how much at pains my French companions were to let me know that this was a Catholic tradition and not something they knew much about.

A 19C "Lourdes shrine", Indre et Loire, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.
The stream is divided to create islands, with the shrine in the background.

Wednesday, 21 July 2021

Types of Oysters in France

 

Oyster farm, Arcachon, Atlantic Coast, France.
An oyster producer in the Arcachon basin on the Atlantic coast.

There are four main varieties of oysters to look out for:

Oysters au naturel. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.
Oysters au naturel prepared by Cédric the sous-chef at the Hotel Clos d'Amboise.
 

La Plate ('the flat'): for centuries this was the only oyster to be had on the coast of France, but a disease caused their disappearance in the 1970s. Quite rare today, you find them sold as belon in Brittany and gravette in the Arcachon Bassin and Bouzigues. The wild variety is called pied-de-cheval ('horse hoof'). L'huître plate can be recognised by its round shell and grey-white flesh. It has a full-bodied flavour, very salty and should be prepared with the greatest simplicity.

Tile panel in Tours train station, Indre et Loire, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.
An historic painted tile panel in Tours train station. Once upon a time you could catch a train from Tours to Arcachon.
 
La Creuse ('the hollow'): This is by far the most common and the most affordable. They vary subtley in flavour depending on their geographical origin - salty and nutty from Normandy, iodiney and recalling the shallow estuaries in Brittany, delicate and invigorating from the Atlantic coast. Allow 6-8 oysters per person if you are eating them raw, and 5 if they are served warm. They are numbered from 0 (the biggest and fattest) to 6 (the smallest). On a platter, numbers 3-4 are ideal.

Oysters au naturel. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.
Oysters au naturel prepared by me for an al fresco lunch.


La Pousse en Claire ('the saltmarsh grown'): A little gem from the Charentes, protected by a Label Rouge certification, this is the most desirable variety, unlike any other. Raised from 4 to 6 months in shallow water, only 2 to 5 oysters per square metre, they acquire an almost crunchy firmness. Generously filling out their semi round shell they have a mild sweet taste. If you find them, eat them as they are, as they need nothing to enhance them.

Oyster boats heading out to the oyster beds, Marenne Oléron, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.
The flotilla of oyster boats heads out to the oyster beds from Bourcefranc, in the Marenne Oléron marine park.
 

La Fine ('the fine'): A speciality of Marennes and Oléron, these oysters are finished in the old salt marshes. The fines stay there a month, 20 oysters to a square metre. An even more deluxe version, the spéciales, are only 10 to the square metre and stay in the saltmarsh twice as long, developing more flesh with a very sweet flavour. The vertes (green fringes) are very prized, retaining traces of a microscopic algae. They are eaten plain or with a drop of lemon juice, a trace of shallot vinegar and bread and butter.

Oyster, Ile de Ré, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.
A big fat oyster from the market at Ars-en-Ré, probably the best I have ever eaten.

 
Oyster producers' huts, Ile d'Oléron, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.
Oyster producers' huts on the Ile d'Oléron.

Oyster finishing pools (claires) in the Brouage Marshes, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.
Claires, or oyster finishing ponds in the Brouage saltmarsh.

Opening oysters. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.
Me opening No 2 Speciales (large saltmarsh finished oysters) in our freezing cold kitchen before we renovated.

Box of oysters, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.
A 3 kg (3 dozen) box of No 2 speciales, with opener.

Oysters at a market, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.
No 2 Oysters from the islands off the coast of the Atlantic coast, brought 2 hours inland to Preuilly sur Claise in the Touraine Loire Valley for the Saturday market. €5.40 a dozen.

Oyster beds, Ile de Ré, France. Photo by Loire Valley Time Travel.
Oyster beds on the Ile de Ré.


************************************************

For details of our private guided tours of chateaux, gardens, wineries, markets and more please visit the Loire Valley Time Travel website. We would be delighted to design a tour for you.

We are also on Instagram, so check us out to see a regularly updated selection of our very best photos. You may also like to check out our YouTube channel.