Sunday, September 18, 2016

Midi mesdame: Three days on a bike

A pair of Canadians, two Brits and an American walk into a bar. Oh, no ... I mean: A pair of Canadians, two Brits and an American (that's me) recently spend three amazing days biking a portion of the Midi Canal.

The ladies' bike trip is the brainchild of Susan, my friend and neighbor here in our small village in south-west France. She, along with her friend Veronica from Vancouver are seasoned cyclists. The two Brits, Ursula and Carole, who also live in our village, are less experienced riders. And I am somewhere in the middle. 

I discovered my love of bike riding since moving to France four years ago, but before this trip I had never cycled more than 30 km in one day and had never carried along luggage.

Along the Canal du Midi

The Canal du Midi links the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. Susan and her husband have cycled the entire 434-km (270-mile) Deux-Mers Canal, which includes both the Canal du Midi, which runs from Sète to Toulouse, and the section from Toulouse to Bordeaux, known as Canal Latéral de la Garonne. 

Along the Canal du Midi

Romans dreamed of building a waterway between seas, and so did Leonardo da Vinci. Eventually, in the 17th century, 12,000 men and women took on the task of constructing what was then considered to be one of the greatest projects of that time. The Canal is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is very popular with cyclists, pedestrians, fishermen and boaters who slowly cruise up and down the waterway via a system of locks. 

Fishing along the Canal du Midi

Two kind husbands drive the five of us and our bikes and stuffed paniers to our starting point in Gardouch, about three hours from home. After our picnic lunch, we take off toward Castelnaudary. 

The Canal is a beautiful place to ride. Some parts of the path are unpaved, and we dodge tree roots and squeeze to the edge when meeting other riders. The biggest advantage to riding along the Canal? No hills! 

Riding the Canal can be a leisurely trip. There are locks to look at and canal-side cafés that offer cold beer, potable water and, most importantly, toilets. 

Tow path along the Canal du Midi

I had volunteered to book our accommodations and I am somewhat nervous that I won't be possibly able to please everyone. Night 1, and no complaints. So far, so good.

Castelnaudary is known as the birthplace of the the hearty French casserole cassoulet, and appropriately enough we stay at and eat at Maison du Cassoulet, right in the middle of town. We arrive early enough for some sightseeing, which I'll write about in a future blog post.

The city of Castelnaudary claims that cassoulet was created here.

Day 2 is our longest stretch. By the time we find our apartment in Carcassone we've ridden 50 km, most of it on narrow unpaved paths and nearly all of it directly into the wind. I visited here with Ken five years ago, and I am eager to accompany Veronica-from-Vancouver on her first visit to le Cité médiévale, a picture-perfect fortress, about a 20 minute walk from the "new" part of town.

Cité médiévale in Carcassone

We are in no hurry to get started on Day 3. The owner of this evening's accommodations has asked us to arrive after 4 p.m. and since we only have 20-ish kilometers left, we check out our Carcassone neighborhood and eat sandwiches on the canal before we take off. We also enjoy an extended rest stop at a canal-side café in the pretty village of Trèbes.

Pont de la Rode in Trèbes

Maritime-type sign on a restaurant in Trèbes

Our Night 3 accommodations at Château de Blomac are amazing —  I am a rock star! After a glass of wine on the terrace, I shower off the dust and head for the infinity swimming pool. A dinner at the table of our host, Jacqueline, her assistant, and a sweet Dutch couple who had gotten married here the week before, caps off an amazing trip.

The refreshing infinity pool at Château de Blomac

Here's what made this premiere ride of the Midi Mesdame so amazing: Great autumn weather, lack of breakdowns and no accidents to speak of (well, one minor fall due to tiny rider, heavy bike) makes us all feel very lucky. Luckier still is the rapport of our little group, some of whom I hadn't known too well beforehand. There is a fair amount of political talk — Brexit and Trump being the most heated topics. We share stories of our various travels and careers, of husbands (past and present), our parents and our kids. We congratulate each other for a ride well-done. And we eagerly start to plan next year's ride. Count me in. 

Rain threatens but doesn't appear on Day 3 of our bike ride along the Canal du Midi.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

That alligator is smiling at me

There’s nothing quite like looking an alligator in the eye. Even better: watching an 8-year-old garçon look an alligator in the eye. We recently took our little buddy who just celebrated his birthday to the Aquarium du Périgord Noir in Le Bugue.

A smiling (or is it sleeping?) alligator at Aquarium du Périgord Noir
in Le Bugue

Here, at the largest private freshwater aquarium in Europe, we spend a fun few hours admiring fish and lots and lots of reptiles. The aquarium has 30 pools populated by more than 6,000 fish. While fish-watching, we check out the educational tidbits and truth/false quizzes along the way. Much of the information focuses on fish that populate the Dordogne river.

Freshwater fish at Aquarium du Périgord Noir in Le Bugue

Aquarium du Périgord Noir in Le Bugue

A fancy fish at Aquarium du Périgord Noir in Le Bugue

Before long, we’re entering Alligator Park — inspired by the famed (or perhaps fictional?) alligator-hunter-turned-ardent-defender Jo McClack. (I can’t find anything about him on the internet, so let’s just call him legendary.) We oooh, aah and eeeww over bright snakes, stripped snakes and spotted snakes. The frogs are cute, the lizards are exotic, and the alligators are sufficiently scary. Alligator Park includes a turtle beach and iguana greenhouse.

A pair of iguanas at Aquarium du Périgord Noir in Le Bugue

A vibrant lizard seems to be checking me out at Aquarium du Périgord Noir
in Le Bugue.

A sunbather on la plage aux tortues (turtle beach) at Aquarium
du Périgord Noir in Le Bugue

All too soon, we’re at Le Jardin des Carpes where our buddy gets to pet the fish. Several times a day animations including fish feedings and reptile demonstrations are held in this plaza. A café offers ice cream and other treats. As with all such attractions, the path to the exit runs through the gift shop where a colorful array of fish-themed souvenirs are offered.

Le Jardin des Carpes (carp garden) at Aquarium du Périgord Noir in Le Bugue

Our aquarium outing also includes a round of golf on the 18-hole course. The jungle motif miniature golf course doesn’t include bells and whistles, but my husband enjoys showing off his golf skills to our young friend. 

Jungle Golf at Aquarium du Périgord Noir in Le Bugue

We bypass the Labyrinthe Prehistorique mirror maze and instead enjoy a picnic lunch by the river. We’re glad we’ve brought a blanket to sit on, as there are only a few picnic tables.

Aquarium du Perigord Noir is open mid-February through Nov. 11. Admission prices vary depending on number of people in your party and whether you include miniature golf and and/or labyrinth. Aquarium visitors get a coupon for 1 euro off a visit to the neighboring attraction Le Bournat. Check the aquarium website here for hours, directions and tariffs.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Hautefort’s medical museum is an offbeat gem

A bit of Château de Hautefort as seen from the village

Just because the kids’ summer vacation is over, it doesn’t mean you have to stay home. This is the time of year when our travel season resumes. Crowds have disappeared and the weather is great. It’s time to get out and explore. Acting on a suggestion from a reader of this blog (thanks, Hazel), we head up to Hautefort. This is a beautiful little village in the eastern part of the Dordogne (in the Périgord Noir area), about 45 minutes from Périgueux. 

A view from Hautefort

Hautefort is best known for its Château de Hautefort. It was the castle that first enticed me to visit Hautefort four years ago, shortly after I arrived in France. But more about the château at the end of this article, for this visit is all about a quirky museum that I really enjoyed: Musée d’Histoire de la Médecine.

Musée d’Histoire de la Médecine

Re-creation of hospital ward at the Musée d’Histoire de la Médecine in Hautefort

Our first stop in any village is the local Office de Tourisme and we receive a friendly greeting here. Conveniently, the History of Medicine Museum is located in this same historical building. A royal decree in the late 1600s instructed local officials to establish provincial hospitals. This one was founded by Jacques-François de Hautefort and was opened in 1717 — 300 years ago. The hospital was run by nuns and the building reflects a fair amount of religious symbolism. 

Ceiling of the chapel at Hautefort’s Hôtel Dieu, now the Musée d’Histoire
de la Médecine

Museum visitors can explore three of the four four wings centered around a chapel. (The other wing is the tourism office.) The tour is self-guided with audio and plenty of signage in English. The first wing is a fascinating re-creation of a hospital ward. Each room contains medical equipment and paraphernalia that is explained in detail, which gives us a good (and sometimes gruesome) glimpse of medical care through the centuries.

We spend about two hours at the museum. I share here some of the pictorial highlights, but urge you to visit the museum in person, especially if you’re looking for something a little out-of-the-ordinary. It’s also a site that would hold the interest of the average tween or teen.

A display including a drill and skull describe the 17th-century
medical procedure, or chirurgie, at the Musée d’Histoire de la
Médecine in Hautefort.

One of several wheelchairs on display at the Musée
d’Histoire de la Médecine in Hautefort

Amazing and intricate stone floor in the chapel at the Musée d’Histoire
de la Médecine in Hautefort

One of my favorite exhibits at Hautefort’s Musée d’Histoire de la Médecine
is the re-creation of dentist offices through the ages.

Teeth and dentures on display at the Musée d’Histoire de la Médecine
in Hautefort

The garden of medicinal herbs at the Musée d’Histoire de la Médecine
in Hautefort

Musée d’Histoire de la Médecine is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. through Nov. 11 and reopens in mid-March (closed for lunch in October and November). Admission is 6 euros for adults/4.5 euros for children 10-14 years old. Check the tourism website here for more information or call

Château de Hautefort

The château dates back to around the year 1000 when it was a fortress whose first owner was Guy de Lastours. In the 12th century, the medieval fortress passed to the De Born family, which included two feuding brothers, one of whom was Bertran de Born, a famous troubadour. The De Gontaut family took possession in the 15th century. By the 17th century, the former fortress was transformed into a glamorous modern-style castle, resembling the châteaux of the Loire Valley.

Château de Hautefort survived the French Revolution, was eventually sold after the last of the Hautefort heirs died, and fell victim to neglect until it was purchased in 1929 by Baron Henry de Bastard and his wife Simone. The baroness reportedly loved the castle and greatly improved the residence and gardens. However, in 1968 a fire destroyed a portion of the castle. Simone de Bastard, with help and encouragement of the village, friends and celebrities, restored the château and created one of the prestigious monuments in southwest France.

Château de Hautefort

The castle has many furnished rooms, which can be leisurely explored on a self-guided tour. No photography is allowed inside, so I can only share one photo from my archive. Through the month of September, Château de Hautefort is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. It remains open with reduce hours in October and through Nov. 11 before it closes for the season from Nov. 12 through February. Visit the official website here for complete information.

Hautefort village

We’ve brought a picnic lunch with us, so we don’t have to choose among several tempting restaurants in cafés in the village. We spend about an hour walking up and down the pretty flower-lined streets. The village also contains some cute shops and inviting shady spaces to rest and plan our next stop in the Périgord Noir.

Flowers and pretty houses along une rue in Hautefort

Bicycles are part of the décor in the village of Hautefort.