Travel logs
2015 France
May 21 – Sarlat-le-Caneda
On a gorgeous Thursday afternoon, our merry little group set out to explore Sarlat: the capital of the “black Perigord” and our home in the Dordogne area for the next four days. As we learned from our guide, the small town of barely 9,000 inhabitants, was once a lively merchant center, largely independent, and marked by a series of religious wars between Catholics and Protestants. After the French Revolution, it fell into benign neglect – which worked to its advantage. Thanks to 40 years of restoration work started in the 1970s, the town again prospers, largely thanks to tourism. We strolled around in the charming old town center with narrow alleys, passageways, and limestone buildings of glowing ochre, focusing on several sights: the Cour of Chanoines, the 12th-century tower of St Bernard, the Gothic Church of St. Mary, whose modern, 20th century iron doors open onto a covered market, and the houses of several rich merchant families of centuries gone by. We ended up at the St. Sacerdos Cathedral, a building of multiple styles, having been built over a period of almost 200 years. We capped off the day with a welcome dinner, feasting on local specialties: foie gras, white asparagus sautéed with duck breast, and for dessert, a frozen soufflé with green walnuts and their liqueur.
May 22 – Rocamadour, Loubressac, Souillac
On our way to the pilgrimage site of Rocamadour, we learned interesting facts and heard a few of our guide Bruno’s stories on the local processing of walnuts and the secrets of finding truffles. We experienced Rocamadour as tourists rather than pilgrims, passing the Stations of the Cross in reverse order, walking down instead of up the steep path along the wall of a deep ravine, where a small 11th-century oratory with a famous statue of a black Madonna is located. The oratory is carved into the sheer limestone cliff, so the view is rather dramatic – whether seen from the top or the bottom. Our guide told us the story on the body of a supposed hermit (later claimed to be Zacchaeus, the shy tax collector Jesus called down from a tree) for whom the site was named Amadour (ama-dura = the one who likes the rock), and the stories of the exterior murals of St. Savior Basilica, mostly in bad shape, having been executed in the 12th century, but surprisingly still recognizable! Lunch was in one of France’s most beautiful villages, Autoire at a local “auberge,” where the expected menu of Perigourdine salad, roast lamb and escalloped potatoes, followed by Malakoff cream, was further enriched by foie gras as a starter and a variety of cheeses to precede dessert. Not surprisingly, almost everyone dozed off in the bus on the drive to Loubressac, another of the 100 prettiest villages in France. Perched on a hill, it has lovely stone houses, narrow streets, myriad flowers blooming everywhere….and a great view of the valley below and the green, undulating hills around. We finished the day in Souillac, at the austere Romanesque-Byzantine church of St. Mary, inspired by the Haghia Sophia in Istanbul, where we admired the exquisite sculptural ensemble depicting the story St. Teophilus’s selling his soul to the devil. A center pillar from a double door that once led into the church is an amazing work of art: starting from its base, the image depicts fantastic beasts and monsters devouring several species of animals and birds culminating with a human – a strong message to everyone entering that humans are easily corruptable.
May 23: Jardins de Marqueyssac, Domme, Beynac

We kept our travelers very busy today; each of the sights on the schedule was unique, so we couldn’t eliminate anything. The first stop was the Marqueyssac Gardens, “a true painting of the landscape,” as our guide characterized it. 19th-century boxwood bushes trimmed into groups of rounded shapes of different sizes give rise to maize-like alleys, in perfect harmony with the rolling hills around the property. The bold, innovative design was the plan of the owner, Julien de Cervel, who also added cypresses and pine trees, and nearly four miles of walkways to complement the picturesque Romantic aspect of the garden.

We explored Domme on the “little trains,” as they are called – walking up the hilltop village would have been quite strenuous and there is no way to get a bus into its narrow streets. Founded by Philip the Bold in the early 13th century, Domme is a typical “bastide” – a fortified town, with several gates, built along a grid patter of intersecting streets, with a market square in the center. An interesting story relates to the Knights Templar of Perigord, who were imprisoned in one of the gate towers. Several inscriptions bear witness to their presence, but their authenticity and significance are unclear.

Lunch was at a local farm-auberge – a true feast of fresh local specialties: a soup with an amazing variety of vegetables cooked in duck stock, salad perigourdine (more duck, marinated this time), with a main course of roast duck leg with roasted in duck fat followed by walnut cake for dessert. A cherry-leaf liqueur was offered as a “digestif” before the main course: unique and quite refreshing to the palate!

It was just a short drive to Rocque Gageac, a village built under sheer cliffs (from prehistoric times until the 1940s, people actually lived IN the cliff side), from where we embarked on flat-bottomed boats called “gabares” for an hour-long cruise on the Dordogne River. Not only did it provide a fresh vantage point for pictures of the castles and countryside, it also acquainted us with the flora and the fauna of the river. We ended the day at the Chateau de Beynac, where we were given insights into the everyday life in the Middle Ages, as we explored the scantily furnished, austere castle associated with Richard the Lionhearted.  Our guide had fascinating stories to tell, whether about medieval weaponry, politics, and architecture or his own minor role as an extra in a few movies filmed at the castle.
May 24: Les Eyzies, Rouffignac, La Madeleine, St. Amand de Coly

Today we stepped back into prehistoric times to discover our “distant” ancestors, from the exhibits at Les Eyzies Museum of Prehistory through the cave paintings at Rouffignac to the troglodyte village of La Madeleine. We all came away with a deep appreciation for our long-forgotten predecessors, whose amazing cave art – as seen in Rouffignac -- baffles laypeople and experts alike.  Unfortunately we couldn’t take pictures in the cave, so you’ll have to google images to see the art. We also learned about the long cave system of Rouffignac – 8 kms of galleries on 3 levels -- most of which cannot be entered except by scholars. But the part we saw from a little electric train was truly fascinating – representations of mammoths, horses, bisons, woolly rhinos, and ibex (mountain goats), all works of the Cro-Magnon and the creation of fully fledged artists. On the banks of the Vezere River, sheltered by a rock formation, lies La Madeleine, a troglodyte village inhabited for thousands of years, right up to the 19th century. Only accessible from the river, the village proved to be the best defense against intruders or attackers. La Madeleine, like other troglodyte villages along the Vezere, had a watchman or sentinel post called “cluzeau,” a small, inaccessible cavity in the cliff, from where the watchmen communicated by blowing a horn or some sort of visual signal to alert not only their own village but others up and downstream of approaching danger. The village even had a chapel, constructed in the 14th century, with superb Gothic arches and a sun dial fresco.

We ended the day at the impressive fortified church of St. Amand de Coly, an abbey church dating back to the 12th century. Austere and simple inside, the massive church nonetheless has quite interesting decorative elements: grotesque or bizarre corbels of men with open mouths, and a fresco in bad shape that depicts the Crucifixion with Jerusalem in the background. 
May 25: Cadouin, Bergerac, Bordeaux
We traveled to Bordeaux today via Cadouin and Bergerac. The former is a 12th-century Cistercian abbey with a cloister added in the 15th century that is a masterpiece of flamboyant Gothic art. The cloister is a UNESCO World Heritage site and an outstanding example of intricate pendentive keystones and corbels. We felt like we were on a spiritual journey, from temptation and sin through repentance to the Final Judgment – a strong moralizing message for all who enter the cloister.  The stories of the lais or fablieux depicted in the stone sculptures on the corbels or above the doors were quite fascinating. We then drove on to Bergerac, less than an hour away. A lively merchant town during the Middle Ages due to its geographical position, today it is famous for its wines, mushrooms, and tobacco. We took a nice stroll in the Old Town, meandering through its narrow streets of medieval buildings, made of sand, straw, bricks, and chestnut wood, lovely squares with cafes and shops, and statues of Cyrano de Bergerac – who, in fact, had nothing to do with the city of the same name! Lunch today was a six-course “menu decouvert” of local specialties, making us think of the Cadouin cloister’s warning against the sin of gluttony. We were not deterred from enjoying exquisite and quite unusual dishes such as scallops with a truffle emulsion, duck breast with celery mousse, and ice creams between courses made of foie groie and of cheese. We recovered from that divine meal with a nap, as our trusty driver conveyed us safely to Bordeaux.

After quickly settling in at our hotel, we walked to Bordeaux’s 18th century Grand Theatre for the first musical performance of the tour: Bellini’s Norma, with Elza van den Heever in the title role. Having gotten a vision of the Inferno thanks to our spiritual journey of the morning, we found ourselves “in heaven” this evening: we watched the opera from center front seats of the uppermost gallery called “Paradis.”
May 26: Bordeaux
This morning was dedicated to the city center. We started our walk on the posh shopping street where our hotel is located, the Cours Clemenceau, stopping to admire the late 19th-century multistoried shopping center of Les Grands Hommes, and Place the Tourny, named after the mayor of Bordeaux who redesigned the city in the 18th century by destroying the old ramparts.  As we walked toward the Quinconces square, our lovely guide told us about the history of trade in Bordeaux, thanks to which the city became a very powerful over the centuries. Quinconces is a huge open square created in the 19th century on the spot where a fortified castle existed in the 15th century; a tall monument was added in the early 20th century commemorating the Girondins, the politicians executed for their ideas for the Republic following the Revolution of 1789. We couldn’t help but give a sigh of admiration for the noiseless trams that run without overhead cables – quite an aesthetic solution of integrating the modern with the old. The 18th-century church of the Dominican order acquainted us with three unique bordelaise architectural solutions: stereotomy (art of cutting stone to fit tightly into protruding arches), open oculi, and beautiful wrought iron railings, all atypical of most church architecture.  We learned about the Victor Louis technique of building with long colonnades named after its inventor, who designed the impressive Grand Theatre, the largest 18th-century opera house still standing and in regular use. Through one of the standing city gates, the Dijoux, we made our way to the Cathedral of St. Andre, the St. Pierre quarter with the Church of St Pierre, and the grandiose Place de la Bourse with the 18th-century harbor.
May 27: Saint-Emilion and Pomerol
Our guide, a connoisseur of wine, took us on a two-day journey through the Bordeaux wine region. After four chateaux with a wine tasting at each place, we proudly touted our fresh knowledge of the winemaking process from picking to bottling, and the differences in appellations, soil, and micro climate of the areas we visited.

St. Emilion is a charming medieval village named after an 8th-century hermit who founded a Benedictine monastery here. Due to his “miracles,” the village became a favorite with pilgrims on the pilgrimage route of Santiago de Compostela. Our first stop was a remarkable church complex carved into the limestone. Romanesque and Gothic frescoes adorn the 13th-century Trinity Chapel, with interesting representations of God the Father and chimeras of the underworld. The underground cemetery’s cupola includes remnants of the spiral staircase that led from darkness into the light, symbolically establishing the connection between earth and heaven. Pierre de Castillon was inspired to have a church carved into the limestone shelf that underlays much of the region from what he saw in Cappadocia – and the outcome is an impressive sight. As we looked around the dimly lit monolithic church, our guide explained the reasons for the huge steel reinforcement structures around the massive limestone columns, and the most unusual sculpted images in the choir – supposedly depicting the fight of good and evil. Unfortunately, in the 18th century, revolutionaries scraped the church walls to collect saltpeter to make gunpowder, so most of the frescoes are lost.

In the St. Emilion and Pomerol region, on the right bank of the broad Dordogne River, Merlot is the primary grape cultivated, which is blended with smaller amounts of Cabernet Frank or Cabernet Sauvignon. We visited two chateaux, one in each appellation, with a copious meal (and fabulous wine) at yet another chateau in between! We staggered back to the bus but left the driving to safer hands.
May 28, Medoc and Pauillac
Today we drove northwest along Bordeaux’s old harbor and Chartrons district, where the abandoned warehouses of wine merchants have been redesigned into posh shopping centers, galleries, bars, and restaurants. We had two visits with tastings today, one in Medoc and one in nearby Pauillac. Both chateaux – Lascombes and Pichon Longueville Baron – belong to insurance companies, and comprise a much bigger area than any of the St. Emilion vineyards. On the way to Lascombes, we stopped for a photo op at the famous Chateau Margaux, designed by Victor Louis’s student – and hence reminiscent of the Bordeaux Grand Theatre’s neoclassical façade. We took a tour of Chateau Lascombes, which impressed us with its lovely 17th-century façade clad in crawling greens, the innovative blue light design in the caves, and the very elegant tasting room. We learned that the petit verdot grape, when added to the merlot and cabernet sauvignon, brings out the tannin, the spices, and the color, creating a more complex wine – and of course we tasted their namesake wine to experience it. The second chateau, built in the style of the famous Renaissance castles of the Loire, was a bit more opulent – and the three wines we tasted were very different from one another. Being 2012 vintages, they were too young to display the full effect of the Longeuville-Pichon wines --too bad we weren’t offered the opportunity to taste an earlier (and much pricier) vintage!
May 29: Villandry and Chateau de Chissay
En route from Bordeaux to the Loire Valley, we stopped in Poitiers for two hours, giving everyone the opportunity to discover the Old Town on their own or have lunch, or do both. Most of us were determined to see the jewels of this lovely town: the Cathedral with its incredible Romanesque façade, the imposing Church of St. Pierre, and the 4th-century Baptistery (the oldest Christian monument in France). Before reaching our destination, the Chissay Castle, we visited the famous Villandry Gardens – a true multisensory experience to which no pictures can do justice. The gardens, laid out in four terraces, comprise a water garden, an ornamental garden, and a kitchen garden, offering beauty, diversity, and harmony, with the lovely Renaissance chateau as backdrop. With our overnight at a real chateau, dating back to the 15th century, most of us took delight in discovering the complex structure, replete with little passageways, external spiral staircases, and even a chapel! Dinner at the Chateau offered us the first opportunity to sample the Loire Valley wines as we ate in a regal setting.
May 30: Chenonceau, Amboise, Manoir de Clos Lucé
Our first chateau today was Chenonceau, probably the most elegant – and certainly the most visited – of the Loire Valley chateaux. Nicknamed the “Ladies Chateau,” Chenonceau passed hands from Diane of Poitiers (Henry II’s “favorite” or mistress as we would say these days) to his powerful wife, Catherine de Medici, who was quick to remove Diane from the court’s entourage once Henry II died. The furnishing of the castle is scant as the court was migrant in those days, taking everything along as they traveled from one place to another. However, there are beautiful 16th and 17th-century Flemish tapestries and precious paintings in several rooms. After perusing each of the rooms and some free time in the gardens, we sat down in the elegant Orangerie of the chateau, for a meal befitting royalty: smoked salmon salad, lamb, and the famous “Chenonceau glacée,” accompanied by delightful wines of the Loire. We then hopped on the bus for a short ride to Clos Lucé: the manor house where Leonardo da Vinci spent the last three years of his life, from 1516 to 1519, having been invited by the young king Francis I. None of the original furnishings remain but one is captivated by the models of machines that Leonardo invented – an armored tank, a flying machine, a chain-driven bicycle, a helicopter, and even a parachute. Next was the imposing 16th-century fortress chateau of Amboise, the main residence of the Valois and Bourbon kings of France. Charles VIII set up his court there after successfully “annexing” Brittany by marrying Anne de Bretagne in 1491, and Francis I spent his childhood there before acceding to the throne in 1515. Amboise has a fascinating history that we discovered, room by room – births, marriages, conspiracies – thanks to family paintings, furnishings and memorabilia, from the reign of Charles VIII to the late 19th century. Another hour’s ride took us to Orléans, where we spent the next three nights.

After settling in our modern hotel at the edge of the Old City, our coach took us to Olivet, a suburb of Orléans, for tonight’s concert at the Festival Sully/Loiret. The setting was a Gothic parish church which was enlivened by a very creative use of light. The Chamber Orchestra of the Auvergne offered a varied program, ranging from innovative folk-based miniatures by a contemporary Georgian composer, to a dramatic overture by Schubert, including a symphony by a composer none of us had ever heard of – Frederic Mendelssohn – all sensitively performed.
May 31: Sully-sur-Loire, Saint Benoit, and the Oratory of Saint Germigny
This morning we did a quick bus tour of the old city center of Orléans on our way to Sully-sur-Loire, for the second musical event of the Sully and the Loiret Festival. The concert took place in the Sully chateau – a fortified castle with moat and parapet walls from the 14th century. The castle was acquired in 1602 by the Duke of Sully, Henry IV’s finance minister, and remained in the possession of that family until 1962, when the last Sully, bankrupt, had to sell the castle to the state of Loiret. The concert was a terrific chamber music event – a piano and a cello duo, with commentary of the program. After the concert, we took a leisurely lunch in the small village – a skate fish appetizer, poultry baked in crust, and citrus cream soufflé.  We then returned to the castle for a closer look, even trotting up to the attic to admire the original 15th-century beams supporting the roof, which looks like the skeleton of a boat upside down.  The abbey church of Saint Benoit houses the relics of St. Benedict – an 11th-century Romanesque church knows for its beautiful capitals of biblical scenes and anthropomorphic motifs in the open vestibule. Germigny-des-Prés Oratory is the oldest church of France; dating from the 9th century, it is in the shape of a Greek cross, reminiscent of Armenian churches. No wonder, as the architect was Armenian himself. The private chapel was commissioned by Theodulphe, who was one of the most trusted counselors of Charlemagne, abbot of St. Benoit, and bishop of Orleans.  The oratory is notable for its 9th-century Byzantine mosaic comprised of 130,000 pieces, depicting the Ark of the Covenant – accidentally discovered by children in the early 19th century as they played in the abandoned building.
June 1: Chambord, Cheverny, Blois
Today some in the group opted for a leisurely day to explore Orléans, but most chose the optional day-trip to see more castles in the Loire Valley. The first stop was Chambord, the biggest castle of them all. The “small hunting lodge,” as the young king Francis I dreamed it, soon turned into a colossal architectural edifice meant to immortalize its creator and impress his enemies. The Renaissance palace (it really isn’t a defensive castle) boasts 426 rooms and 282 fireplaces; it took 150 years to finish – had Francis I seen the end product, he would have doubtlessly been very proud! There are many architectural novelties, including the Greek cross shaped central corridors and the double spiral staircase designed by Francis’s protégée, Leonardo Da Vinci. The two helixes ascend three floors and never meet, as an open, air shaft in the center lets in light. The ladies ascended on the left, and the gentlemen on the right – but we took the liberty of mingling the sexes for a photo op!

Lunch was at a great find – a Michelin-star restaurant close to Chambord. The innovative presentation and the savor of the dishes rose up the fame of the restaurant, making the “culinary journey” through the courses a very special and memorable experience for all of us.

Cheverny is a very different abode: built in the 17th century in the classical Louis XIII style, it has been in the Cheverny family for 800 years. The first glimpse offers a striking sight: gleamingly white façade, diverse architectural rooflines, all in blue slate (domes, bell towers) with contrasting red chimneys. The interior is again a surprise: rich furnishings in impeccable condition and exquisite artwork, in all the rooms. The gardens were a real delight, and many of us took the opportunity to inspect the hunting dogs’ kennels and watch as they mournfully bayed anytime their trainer or keeper went in. 

We ended the day in Blois – a charming little town with its imposing Chateau, once the seat of the dukes of Orléans and the home of several French kings, right in the center. Many chose to climb the narrow streets of Old Town to the Cathedral of Saint Louis; others stopped for refreshments or explored the lively pedestrian shopping area.
June 2: Chartres
En route to Paris we stopped in Chartres to discover the eponymous Cathedral with Malcolm Miller, one of its most respected authorities. Chartres remarkably survived the anticlerical Revolution of 1789, as it was not thought of as a Christian church – but as a Temple of Reason, meant to spread the ideas of the revolution: "Liberté, égalité, fraternité." The Cathedral was built in the 12th century with elements added in the 13th, standing above an 11th-century crypt. The unique stained glass windows (mostly originals), were paid for by different strata of society – kings, noble families, merchants, and craftsmen. Malcolm pointed out the significance of many of the windows, and then took us outside in the cold and wind to talk about the design and meanings of the sculpted portals. We learned that key elements of the New Testament are based on the Old Testament, which he went on to point out in the glass and stone adorning the Cathedral. Lunch was at a nearby restaurant, where we had quail egg with caviar and chilled gazpacho as mis-en-bouche, followed by fried fresh foie gras, rabbit, and for dessert, citrus and pistachio cake. We arrived in Paris later in the afternoon, in time for most of the group to attend Offenbach’s “La Belle Helene” at the 19th-century Theatre du Chatelet.
June 2-7: Paris
More than four full days in Paris allowed us to explore the city at a leisurely pace, with thematic tours on three mornings and optional performances in the evenings. There were as many as 18 musical events to choose from, so decisions about how much and what to attend were not easy for everyone to make! Our thematic tours focused on Gothic Paris, the Marais district, and the Hassmanization of Paris in the late 19th century. We also visited the Cathedral of St. Denis with an expert medievalist before attending the opening night of the St. Denis Festival: Schumann’s oratorio “Le Paradis et La Peri,” which was beautifully performed by the National Orchestra of France, a cast of fine soloists, and the Chorus of Radio France.