(4.9) (38 Votes)
August 14, 2004
delicious French country cuisine and warm hospitality
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!
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
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
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.