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France Rocks!
Rating: (4.9) (38 Votes)

Avignon, France
August 14, 2004

Pros: delicious French country cuisine and warm hospitality
Cons: none

Sometime in the 13th century, the powerful Count of Sabran sought to strengthen control over his territory in southern France by fortifying the castle atop the hill overlooking the village of Saint Victor la Coste. For example, stone walls were built along the path that zigzagged up the hill to the castle complex. While the improved defenses deterred crusader armies from invading the surrounding area, the passing of almost 800 years was not so kind to the castle walls of Saint Victor la Coste. Our job for the past two weeks was to restore these walls, stone by stone, using indigenous materials and methods of construction.

Of course, it wasn't just us who were responsible for restoring this historic French castle. Since 1969 a French organization called La Sabranenque has been working to preserve traditional architecture in the village and actual castle of Saint Victor la Coste. La Sabranenque, which is named after the Count of Sabran, coordinates restoration projects with a group of local experts and volunteers from all over the world in a region of France rich in history and culture.

Incidentally, we first heard about La Sabranenque during our volunteer stint in Thailand earlier this year. Based on one person's rave reviews of the experience (and food), we decided we would sign up and include La Sabranenque in our round-the-world itinerary. We were not disappointed!

Saint Victor la Coste is located approximately 15 miles north of Avignon in the Rhone valley. We slept in a room of a three-story stone house constructed by volunteers in years past, worked up a good sweat each morning hauling large rocks (hence the title of this entry), feasted on delicious French country cuisine, had afternoons free to read, rest or stroll about town and spent the nights talking and playing games with other volunteers. After two weeks of intensive sightseeing and long train rides in Eastern Europe, we were most relieved to unpack our backpacks and have a place to call home.

St. Victor La Coste is a tiny town surrounded by vineyards. The area is known for its Cote de Rhone wine. The town had one small grocery store, one payphone, a tabac shop, a post office, and two bars known to us as the one on the right and the one on the left. We rarely had the need to go into town as all of our needs were provided by the kind Sabraneque staff, including the most delicious chocolate cake Jill has ever tasted and a plate of French cheeses after each meal and a carafe of wine at dinner.

The work was hard but gave us a better appreciation for medieval architecture and the painstaking process of constructing a stone wall. We can't say that we graduated or even received a passing grade in the art of stonemasonry, but it was an interesting experience nonetheless. For all those people who complain about sitting in front of a computer all day and want a workout outside their local health club, La Sabranenque may be the ticket for you. Other volunteers from Europe and the States came to La Sabranenque for such reasons and left feeling more refreshed and muscular.

Some of the highlights from our experience included a day trip one Saturday to the town of Arles. Arles is best known as the old stomping grounds of Vincent Van Gogh. The idyllic city and surrounding countryside served as inspiration for many of his works of art and the city boasts a walking tour of the "Van Gogh trail." We were also lucky to be in rural France during a midsummer meteor shower. We spent several nights lying on top of a stone rampart watching the falling stars.

What probably made the experience, however, were the other volunteers. We met all kinds of interesting people and plans are already in the works for a La Sabranque class of August '04 reunion next weekend in Paris. We can't wait to see everyone again. We will undoubtedly have plenty of stories for our next travelogue!

Paris, 28th August 2004

One of the golden rules of traveling is to never pass up an opportunity to let a local show you around. We were fortunate to have two such experiences in France and discovered that the country has much more to offer than the Eiffel Tower and overpriced crepes in Paris.

As you may remember from our last entry, we had befriended a number of French people during our volunteer experience at La Sabranenque and had planned a reunion in Paris the following week. Remarkably, six people's schedules coincided and we all met for dinner and drinks in the chic Latin Quarter. We reminisced about our days hauling stones at La Sabranenque and shared stories from the past week.

One of our friends, Babeth (pronounced like Babette), had also graciously invited us to spend a few days with her at her parents' home on Carnac Beach. Carnac is located in Brittany along the Atlantic Coast and is three hours from Paris by high-speed train. The train was packed with Parisians also heading to the beach for holiday.

We were greeted at the train station by her father, a high-spirited man who was 8 years old living in Normandy during the D-Day invasion. He remembers seeing paratroopers in the sky on that day. At the house, Babeth's mother greeted us with a homemade chocolate cake specially made for our arrival. The house, Le Escale, was the traditional white with black roof and blue shutters seen throughout the region. The patio looked out onto the sea, which we could see, hear and smell as we sipped apertifs before dinner. Although the family lived in Africa during Babeth's childhood, they spent their summers in Carnac. She and her sister, Florence, showed us their favorite spots as we toured first on bicycles and then in the car. We drove up and down and the coast and stopped in small villages to step into stone churches. One of our all-time favorite memories will be eating fresh raw oysters and steamed mussels on a restaurant patio on the Cote Sauvage (Wild Coast). As we slurped down oysters and white wine, we could hear the waves crashing against the rocks about 100 yards away. The seagulls circled above, perhaps hoping for some leftovers. We left none. Although you'd think we were living the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, the bill was actually quite reasonable.

Babeth loves good food as much as we do, so she was happy to introduce us to the region's best. Her mother and sister cooked us two incredible three-course meals where we got to sample more French cheeses, wine, salads, quiche, cakes, and even an African dish from Reunion. We ate dinner at a creperie, a speciality of this region. They use a brown flour instead of white and fill the crepes with everything imaginable. Jill's crepe had smoked salmon and a bechamel sauce. Andy's had gruyere cheese, ham and mushrooms. We could go on and on about the food, but it's making us hungry.

Earlier in our Tour de France, we were also spoiled by warm hospitality, but this time further south in the Perigord Region to the east of Bordeaux. We rented a car in Bordeaux and drove 2.5 hours to Beynac where Christy and Blaine, Jill's friends from California, were staying with Blaine's parents, who live half the year in France.

Having a car gave us a freedom unknown to us thus far in our journey. On our first day, we followed the family on a road trip through the hills near the Dordogne River. We could see castles perched on hilltops, walled-in medieval towns, and beautiful views of the valley. We attended two fetes, parties thrown by French towns during the summer. The evening fete had a Spanish theme, and we enjoyed paella that tasted just as good (Jill thinks better) than the paella we ate in Barcelona.

The next day, we explored the area on our own. We went to Lascaux II, an exact reproduction of a nearby cave found in 1940 with 17,000-year-old prehistoric cave paintings. We toured Chateaux Milandes where the entertainer Josephine Baker lived in the '40s to '60s. A tour through the house also gave you a tour of her amazing life. Born poor in St. Louis, she rose to fame in France as a dancer and singer. She was involved in the French Resistance movement during World War II and adopted 12 children from around the world. We ate lunch in Sarlat and tried a regional specialty, foie gras (fattened duck liver.) We returned to the house for dinner, which started with a champagne toast. They served another regional specialty, breast of duck.

Unfortunately, we knew not a soul when we arrived in Barcelona for three days. We stayed near Las Ramblas, a bustling street through town known for its street performers and nightlife. Most of the other tourists seemed to be young European 20-somethings there to party and sit on the beach. We felt old retiring at midnight when everyone else was just getting their night started.

Barcelona was home to many modern artists including Picasso, Dali, and Gaudi. This love of modern and abstract art can be seen throughout the city in its architecture, museums and even churches. Gaudi's unfinished cathedral, La Sagrada Familia, was unlike any we'd seen thus far (and believe us, we've seen many, many, many churches and cathedrals this summer). We want to return in 20 years to see the final product. We saw Picasso's progression as an artist from childhood to his final years in the Picasso Museum. Jill rather preferred his early stuff and still can't understand why his pottery is "brimming over with brilliance" as the museum placard stated most matter-of-factly. We did take one afternoon to relax on the beach. We felt overdressed in our one-piece swimsuit and baggy bermuda shorts next to the bare-breasts, speedos and even one man in a gold G-string. (Andy was OK with this given his traumatic experience in a French public swimming pool near St. Victor la Coste where tight speedos on men were mandatory and he had to go in the tightest underwear he could find.)

We spent one full day in Paris. Babeth had given us a one-day whirlwind itinerary to see all the highlights down to her favorite chocolate shop. We took a short cat nap in the park at the foot of the Eiffel Tower and walked the span of the Champs Elysees from the Louvre to the Arc de Triomphe. We both thought the Sacre Coeur Basilica was more stunning than the Notre Dame, especially at night with a view of the Paris lights.

We spent even less time in London where we decided to see what we could on a two-hour double-decker bus tour. The tour guide was a little baffled as to why we weren't taking advantage of their hop-on hop-off policy. He was really hoping we'd hop off when we were the only two left on the bus and he had to give his tongue-in-cheek narrative anyway.

The very best part of London was the birthday present Andy's parents had given us -- a night in the tres chic Le Meridien Hotel in Piccadilly. Ooh la la! In the past, Jill would be jittery about walking into such a nice place just to ask directions. We were deliriously happy to have nice sheets, a smell-free room, an endless supply of hot water, real towels, and even Q-tips to clean our ears. All of this in the heart of the city!

This indulgence was well-timed as it was our last night in Europe before leaving for Africa. We're now in Nairobi and will begin our 21-day safari tomorrow. No nice sheets, just a sleeping bag and tent. But we're sure to see some amazing wildlife and scenery. Andy has been giddy ever since getting on the plane yesterday. Jill's still worrying whether we got the right visa at the airport.