Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Sancy mountain high: Besse et St-Anastaise

Our recent trip to Auvergne yields lots of surprises: red cows, nail-bitingly narrow roads, incredible views and sweet mountain villages. We spend one morning in the lovely village of Besse et Saint-Anastaise in the Massif du Sancy. This area contains the highest peak in the entire 70,286-square-mile (182,040-square-km) Massif Central region of France.

View of the Massif Sancy from Saint-Donat

The buildings in Besse, made of gray volcanic lava rock (trachyandesite), are noticably different than those back home in the Lot-et-Garonne. The high-pitched roofs throughout this mountaneous region shout that we are in snow country.

Some of the grand buildings from the 12th through 16th centuries have ties to French royalty. The town became part of France’s crown estate with the marriage of Catherine de Médicis and Henri II in 1533. Their daughter, Marguerite de Valois (Reine Margot) is said to have stayed in Besse while fleeing her brother Henri III. (She eventually was arrested in Usson, imprisoned for several years and went on to marry Henry IV, King of Navarre and then King of France. She was the last surviving member of the House of Valois.)

On the sunny morning of our visit, the cafés and restaurants are preparing lunch. A concert is planned for the late afternoon on the square outside Saint-André church.

Église Saint-André in Besse is a Roman-style church
constructed at the end of the 12th century.

Besse merged with the town of Chandèze in 1790 and took the name Besse-en-Chandesse. Another merger in 1973, changed the name to Besse-et-Saint-Anastaise. The area received a much-needed economic boost with the opening of the Super Besse ski resort in 1961.

The sculpture in the Place du Dr. Pipet in Besse,
appears to have once been an architectural feature.

We have a lot on our agenda for today, but before we hit the mountain roads we take a stroll though Parc Louis Perrier.

Parc Louis Perrier in Besse

We spent two comfortable nights and had some great food at
this auberge in Saint-Donat, 22 km from Besse.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Mézin’s cork museum floats my boat

Inside le Musée du liège et du bouchon

For those who enjoy quirky little museums, a visit to the Musée du liège et du bouchon in Mézin, in the southern part of the Lot-et-Garonne, is sure to be fun.

I wrote a bit about the village of Mézin a few months ago. It’s a pretty mid-sized town to which a visit is easily combined with Nérac, 13 km to the north. On our recent Sunday afternoon visit, the market is just ending, and we have a coffee on the plaza and take a stroll while we wait for the museum to reopen after lunch.

Musée du liège et du bouchon in Mézin

We are the museum’s only visitors and are given a friendly greeting by the receptionist. She provides a quick orientation and says she will be happy to answer any questions we have at the end of our visit.

Cork production was once the cornerstone of the local economy, dating back to the 17th century. In 1830 there were 50 factories, each with around five workers, in Mézin and nearby towns. With mechanization, a century later these small shops would disappear and be replaced by four large factories. During the 1920s, these factories turn out 4 to 5 million corks each day. Until the early 1960s, the factories got their raw material (écorce de chêne-liège) from Algeria, but after the Algerian War, cork competition from Portugal caused the decline of cork production in the Lot-et-Garonne; the last factory, the SARL Girauc, closed in 2009.

A cork-tree forest display at the Musée du liège et du bouchon in Mézin

Cork bark (écorce de chêne-liège) in the Musée du
liège et du bouchon in Mézin

The simple but creative displays include a simulated cork tree forest and dozens of machines illustrating the automation of the cork-making process. Written explanations in English are available along with a few audio-visual effects.

An early cork-manufacturing machine in the Musée du liège
et du bouchon in Mézin

A cork-sorting machine in the Musée du
liège et du bouchon

A cork-manufacturing machine in the Musée du liège et du
bouchon in Mézin

Eventually we come to a wall lined with cabinets. Behind each door are displays of various products made out of cork. I am acquainted with cork flooring, fishing bobbers and bottle stoppers, of course, but I hadn’t realized how versatile cork is.

Cork display in the Musée du liège et du bouchon in Mézin

The museum also contains an exhibition of Mézin’s most notable native son, Armand Fallières, president of France from 1906 to 1913. On Oct. 1, 1906, the newly elected president visited his hometown. At the time, there were 35 cork factories in Mézin, employing more than half the population. The town welcomed Fallières with much fanfare and erected tall cork arches in his honor.

The small lobby contains some interesting items for sale — all made of cork, of course — and I can’t help but treat myself to a pair of cork earrings.

Musée du liège et du bouchon is open April through October. Summer hours are 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 2-6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, and 2-6 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Admission is 4 € with reduced admission for children and groups. For more information, call

It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a drone?

Andy Crowe's drone takes to the sky.

Although I have yet to see an actual drone in the wild, I hear that soon these flying robots will be a common site. Setting aside the scary drawbacks: killing and spying and whatnot, I have to say, at this time, I think drones are pretty cool.

Recently, our friend Andy Crowe bought a drone to supplement his aerial photography business. He invited Ken and I over to the lovely French countryside home he shares with his partner Nicky Frost.

A small camera is attached to the bottom of the drone.

Preparing for lift-off

Andy's potential clientele are those who need property surveys, roof inspections or marketing material for their gites. Some customers want beautiful photographs of their property to hang in their homes or unusual videos as keepsakes.

Sending a drone up is much more affordable than flying a plane, and from the ground Andy can monitor the hundreds of photos being snapped by the small camera and adjust angles to assure he's getting the best shots.

Ken and Andy watching the drone

Photographs or videos taken from the sky are monitored on the ground.

Andy says he won't dispatch his drone over crowds or where the drone may crash into a building or tree. (The drone has sensors that make such a crash very unlikely.) Additionally, the drone automatically stays within the limits of legal air space.

Another safe landing.

Andy's company is called Drone Images, and you can find more details on his website: droneimages.co.uk.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Gardens are the stars this weekend

Flowers frame a view of the Dordogne and Vézère rivers
in Limeuil.

Private and public gardens throughout France are celeberating Rendez-vous aux Jardins this weekend, June 5-7. The annual event, first organized in 2002, features around 2,300 gardens and parks, some of which are open to the public only this weekend. This year's theme: The Garden Walk. The event is a perfect excuse for me to visit a garden that's been on my "places-to-go" list for a couple of years, les Jardins Panoramiques de Limeuil.

Panoramic view from Limeuil's gardens

The lovely village of Limeuil (24510) is perched on a mountaintop at the confluence of the Dordogne and Vézère rivers. We park in one of the abundant free spaces at the edge of the town and take a walk by the river before starting the leisurely climb to the top. Kayaks and canoes dot the water, and even on this weekday, there are children wading in the river. The two riverside cafés are doing a brisk business, but we decide to explore a bit before taking a refreshment break.

Bikes by the riverside in Limeuil

We stop at the Mairie, which is closed for lunch, and admire the garden there, which honors fallen WWI soldier Jean Belanger. Also here is the Limeuil tourist office and a handy W.C.

Garden in front of Limeuil's Mairie

Along the way, we learn a bit about Limeuil's history via placards. This area has been inhabited since Magdalenian times (15,000 to 10,000 BC). Its name comes from the Celtic word lemoialum, meaning "place planted with elms." The Gauls were here, as were the Romans and Vikings. The stone fortress was built in the 12th century prior to the Hundred Years War. Several centuries of violence ensued, and Limeueil was a center for the "Croquants" uprising in 1594. Later, commerce replaced war as the village's primary enterprise. With its prime location on the rivers, the 19th century was a particularly fruitful one for the town. But the railroad and roadways put an end to Limeuil's prosperity until the late 20th century when the town was carefully restored as a tourist destination.

A placard along a rue in Limeuil

The jardin is just reopening after lunch when we arrive. When we see the artisan ice cream offered in the snackbar, we know have made a good decision to delay our refreshment: The green tomato, lemon and basil ice cream is amazing.

Inside les Jardins Panoramiques de Limeuil, we find more placards and signs explaining the various trees and plants. Clearly, this is garden that offers knowledge as well as tranquility.
This séquoia géant makes me think of home.

Learning opportunities abound at les Jardins Panoramiques de Limeuil.

Tying the knot at les Jardins Panoramiques de Limeuil

La font Jean Manein at les Jardins Panoramiques de Limeuil

The gardens also feature hands-on activities and a witch garden for young visitors. Near the summit, you'll find a wooden hive with windows that allow a glimpse of the bees inside.

La ruche at Les Jardins Panoramiques de Limeuil

An ancient cave at Les Jardins Panoramiques de Limeuil

Flowering tree at les Jardins Panoramiques de Limeuil

To celebrate this weekend's Rendez-vous aux Jardins, les Jardins Panoramiques de Limeuil have an array of special events planned. But beyond this weekend and throughout France, gardens can be a delightful destination or respite amid a busy day of sightseeing.

For more information, visit the official Rendez-vous aux Jardins page here.