Friday, November 24, 2017

Belcastel melds medieval past with modern art

The village of Belcastel is perched on the slopes of the Aveyron river.

A common tale is that of a once-magnificent castle that falls into ruin. Thankfully, the story of the Château de Belcastel in Aveyron (12) has a much happier ending. In 1974 the famed architect Fernand Poullion purchased the château and began a massive restoration project. He encouraged local residents to help in the restoration of their village, and the result is un plus beau village — one of the most beautiful villages in France.

An unusual altar is found midway across Belcastel’s stone
bridge. In the 15th century passersby would stop here
to pray and pay. 

Pouillon, who was born in Cancon (47) in 1912, has a very interesting bio, from architectural projects in Marseille to a stint in jail and a prison break. (He eventually was acquitted of the original crime.) Pouillon’s last years were spent in Belcastel where he died 1986.

An artsy fisherman stands along the Aveyron river
in Belcastel.

We decide to make a short detour to Belcastel on our way to Millau. We park in a lot beside a grassy river bank where we have a picnic lunch before hiking up to the village. This path across a bridge and along the river bank was the only way to enter the village until the second half of the 20th century, and the short walk provides us with a memorable perspective of Belcastel.

An ancient stone urn beside Belcastel’s church is filled with flowers.

Belcastel’s 15th-century church contains the tomb of
its founder Alzias de Saunhac.

Our first stop is at the village church, Église Sainte Marie-Madeleine. Inside are a contemporary set of Stations of the Cross by artist Casimir Ferrer along with the tomb of Alzias de Saunhac, who had the church built in the 1400s. Saunhac, who was once Lord of Belcastel, also is responsible for the stone bridge. Halfway across the bridge is a cross and altar where those who crossed over would stop to pray and leave offerings.

Belcastel’s Four a Pain Fagegaltier was constructed in 1953.

Scattered throughout the village are whimsical sculptures that seem to pop out of doorways and from behind trees. A pretty garden on the lane leading to the château contains several of these contemporary pieces of art.

Art seems to be everywhere in Belcastel.

A pretty garden appears along the stone path through Belcastel.

Belcastel has a number of cafés and restaurants, and a stop that the whole family may enjoy is La Maison de la Forge. This museum dedicated to the ancient trades of blacksmith, fisherman and clog maker, is open April through October. A visit to the museum can be combined with a guided visit of the village. For information, contact the Belcastel tourism office at or visit the Belcastel website here.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Detour to the Tourtrès windmill

The mill in Tourtrès originally was built in 1620.

Our relaxed lives here in south west France mean we are rarely in a hurry. Out on a drive one pretty day on our way to do some research for another Lot of Livin’ blog post, our GPS, which sometimes gives us questionable directions, takes us by the village of Tourtrès. I’ve noticed this windmill high on a hill many times, but finding ourselves in its shadow seems too good to pass up. Certainly, our original errands can wait.

Tourtrès is located in the Lot-et-Garonne about 2 km from Tombebœuf, 50 km north of Agen and 33 km north of Villeneuve-sur-Lot.

Our car’s GPS unexpectedly (and fortunately) directs us to the
tiny village of Tourtrès.

We park in a lot and take a short walk up a paved path. The village of Tourtrès (pop. 136 in 2009) has only a few houses and no business that I can see. What it does contain is Église Saint-Pierre with a four-arcade Gothic bell tower, centuries-old cypress trees, and the aforementioned mill. The crystal-clear day also provides beautiful views across the surrounding countryside.

In addition to a windmill, Tourtrès contains an ancient church.

Église Saint-Pierre in Tourtrès has a striking four-arched Gothic bell tower.

It is not until a few months later as I am preparing to write this post that I discover the mill’s rich history. Originally the village contained three mills; the one that still stands was built in 1620. In 1892 the mill was demolished, only to be rebuilt three years later. The mill worked until it was abandoned in 1925.

Centuries ago, three mills in Tourtrès provided a
livelihood to villagers.

In 1950, a Swiss poet named Armel Guerne bought the mill, which, by that time, had a collapsed roof and failing walls. Guerne restored the structure so he could live in it. During the restoration, epigraphs from 1801 were discovered. After Guerne died in 1980, the mill was purchased by one of his relatives and was again restored in 1997. Although the mill doesn’t actually work, it is lovely to look at.

A stop in the village of Tourtrès provides pretty views across
the countryside.

Tourtrès most famous resident was artist Eliane Thiollier (born in 1926 in Saint-German en Laye) who was known for her paintings and lithographs. She died in an automobile accident in the Lot-et-Garonne in 1989.

I am grateful for the Region Aquitaine website that provided me with the mill’s history. And I am also grateful for the reminder to never pass up an interesting detour — there’s always time to be a little late.

This wayfarer’s cross stands in Tourtrès.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Terceira is a fine finish to our Azores trip

Monte Brasil can be seen across Fanal Bay on the island of Terceira.

Our recent trip to the Azores ends in Terceira, an island that may be my favorite of those we visited. Like other islands (São Miguel, Faial, Pico and São Jorge) Terceira has incredible views, blue oceans, green pastures, delicious food and friendly residents. What sets this island apart for me is its largest city Angra do Heroísmo (or Angra for short). With a population of around 35,000, Angra is an ideal size in my book. Here we find a good array of restaurants, a swim-able beach, and plenty of opportunities to explore the history, culture and natural beauty of the city.

Fortress of São João Baptista is located at the base of Monte Brasil in
Angro do Heroísmo on the island of Terceira.

On our ride from the airport, our host tells us that one thing we absolutely must do during our week here is to hike up Monte Brasil. This volcanic peninsula, flanked by the Bay of Angra and the Bay of Fanal, has a couple of peaks that can be reached by a series of trails, but we opt to mostly stick to the paved road. (Two in our party take a taxi to the top and then leisurely walk down the mountain.) We're uncertain what to expect, but it turns out to be a nice 45-minute walk. As we begin, we pass Fortress of São João Baptista, also known as the Fort of São Filipe or Fort of Monte Brasil. We veer off the main road and check out a small chapel. As we near the top of Pico das Cruzinhas, we meet our party and pause for a few minutes to watch some military target practice on the slopes below us.

Angra is seen through the flora on Monte Brasil.
The monument atop Monte Brasil's Pico das Cruzinas
honors the Age of Discoveries.

We've brought along some sandwiches and have no trouble finding picnic tables on Pico das Cruzinhas. There's also a zoo here, along with a soccer field, playground and a monument honoring Portuguese occupation of the Azores during the Age of Discoveries.

Buildings along Angra's main street are adorned with iron balconies and
borders of color.

Visitors are welcome to check out Angra's city hall (Paços do Concelho).

Jardim Duque de Terceira is located in the center of Angra.

The windows of Casa do Sal cultural center in Angra are delightful. 

I'm amused by this unusual mural in Angra.

Sé Catedral de Angra do Heroísmo was built in the 16th century.

Chapel of the Misericórdia of São Sebastião in Angra do
Heroísmo has a beautiful ocean view.

Angra is a walkable city, filled with buildings accented with ornate iron balconies and several colorful churches — a refreshing change from most other churches we have seen in the Azores. The pale yellow Cathedral and sky blue Misericordia are two standouts, but my favorite is Church of Our Lady of Guia, part of the monastery São Francisco in which the Museu de Angro do Heroísmo is located. The explorer Vasco da Gama's brother Paulo is buried here.

Igreja da Nossa Senhora da Guia is part of the Museu de Angro do Heroísmo.

We are delighted by the museum. We had expected our visit to be short, but we end up staying nearly three hours. The museum is filled with a large variety of pieces, from ancient stonework to a re-creation of a cinema. There are signs in English and several spots to sit down and watch short films.

Museu de Angro do Heroísmo is located in the monastery São Francisco.

A replica of the ship Santa Catarina do Monte Sinai can be found at Museu
de Angro do Heroísmo.

A stone warrior stands inside Museu de Angro do Heroísmo.

Old photographs are part of the ecclectic collection at
Museu de Angro do Heroísmo.

Our visit to the Algar do Carvão on Terceira provides us with the
singular chance to visit the inside of a volcano.

As our time on Terceira is nearly over, we hire a taxi to take us to the Algar do Carvão, an attraction that is on my can't-miss-on-Terceira list. Located in the center of the island, Algar do Carvão is a large volcanic cone accessible to the public. We pay a small admission and walk downstairs about 80 meters nearly to the bottom of the crater. Being inside a volcano is incredible. Milky white stalactites and stalagmites cover the walls and roof of the volcano, and lush vegetation lines the upper portions of the opening at the top. The lava tube (algar) is home to beetles, centipedes and spiders, although we don't run into any of the natives during our visit here.

The cavernous Algar do Carvão was formed around 3,200 years ago.

Flora inside Algar do Carvão includes dozens of species of
liverwort, moss and ferns.

Our last day here, we are driven to the airport by the brother of our host, who stops at a miradouro for one last group photo and one more spectacular view.

We pose for one last photo on Terceira before heading home across
the Atlantic — two head east and two head west.

Read about our earlier stops in the Azores by clicking on these links for São Miguel and the central islands.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

The islands of the Azorean triangulo

A stop at a miradouro provides this view of the Baia da Ribeira
das Cabras on the northern shore of Faial.

After five days on the island of São Miguel, we travel by plane to the second stage of our visit to the Azores. During our week here, we stay on two of the islands that make up the triangulo: Faial and São Jorge. We also spend the day on the second largest island in the Azores, Pico.


Caldeira do Faial is a volcanic crater located in the middle of the island.

Our first stop is Faial, where we hunker down in Horta, the island's largest city. Faial is known as the "blue island," in tribute to the abundance of hydrangeas that grow here. Once an important whale-hunting port, Horta remains a stopover point for yachts en route across the Atlantic.

Peter's Cafe and Scrimshaw Museum is popular with tourists.
Peter's various enterprises take up most of this block in Horta.

Our guide shares with us his favorite view of the Faial coast.

A church on the Faial coast comes with a magnificent ocean view.

A huge volcano erupted here in 1957 and the result was a change in the local geography. Our guided tour of the island includes a stop at the Volcão des Capelinhos on Faial's western coast. We also have a chance to peer inside the Caldiera at the center of the island.

Ponta das Capelinhos on Faial is the site of a large volcanic eruption. 

Lava from a large volcanic blast in 1957 added some real estate to Faial.

The city of Horta hugs the waterfront, and steep streets continue up the hillside. Our calf muscles get a workout here. The pleasant weather on the island contrasts with choppy seas, which thwart my plan to go whale-watching while we're here. My disappointment is short, however, as we discover some simple delights during our walks around the city.

I didn't know bananas grew upside down until I came
upon this bananeira in our Horta neighborhood.

As one of our travel companions is a retired firefighter, a visit to Horta's
Corpo de Bombeiros is required.

Horta's harbor-side road is Avenida 25 de Abril — commemorating the
overthrow of Portugal's authoritarian regime in 1974. 

This statue is inside the Igreja de Nossa Senhora das
Angústias, one of Horta's many churches.


Pico is the highest mountain in Portugal (7,713 feet).
You won't find white sandy beaches on Pico, the second largest island in the Azores, but its offbeat black lava beauty is breathtaking. Dominating the island is Pico mountain, the centerpiece that brings hikers, bikers and other trekkers here. Our primary reason for visiting is because this is the island where many of my husband's ancestors came from.

On a warmer afternoon, this would be a sunny spot to relax on Pico.

After we disembark the ferry in Madalena, we stop for coffee and sweets and hire a cab to take us to the village of Santo Amaro, where Ken's great great grandfather is buried. Although we're unable to find his grave, just being here is moving for my husband and his mom.

Grapes are grown on the hills above the village of Santo Amaro on Pico,
an island known for its wine. 

Our taxi driver takes us along the northern coast of the island, past vineyards where Pico's renown wine grapes are grown. He points out the changing landscape, some parts are green and fertile, others are black and rocky.  Pico's lava beds were turned into orchards and vineyards in the centuries since the island's most recent volcanic eruptions in the 1700s.

Paved paths allow us to get an up-close look at Núcleo Cachorro on Pico.

São Jorge

This bright red gazebo in the Velas's main square, Jardim da República,
is a refreshing splash of color against the gray sky. 

São Jorge's history is a bit of a mystery, although there already were settlers here when its main city, Velas, was established in the 15th century by Wilhelm van der Haegen, a Flemish nobleman. Although Velas contains some charming touches, it is not my favorite stop in the Azores. The best part of our stay here is a scary dip in the ocean at a lagoon very close to our apartment.

We're a bit wary of the waves in this swimming lagoon in Velas.

This swimming lagoon on São Jorge is calmer than the one near where we stayed.

Like nearly all the churches we see in the Azores, Igreja Matriz in Velas is constructed of lava rock and thus is the requisite black and white. The city's auditorium/library, however, is a modern, bright orange structure at the edge of the water.
It seems that nearly all the churches in the Azores are black and white.

The modern Auditorio/Biblioteca in Velas stands out for its shape and color.

A rare touch of humor emerges from this fountain in Velas.

I am enamored of the burst of red in the center of Velas's main plaza.

Our taxi tour of the island takes us along steep coasts that dip down to small flat areas called fajãs at the water's edge. At one stop, we can see a crowd gathering on the edge of a village for a bullfight. At least a quarter of our party is uninterested in waiting around for the main event; I prefer my cows to be peacefully grazing on a mountainside. The main industry here is dairy, and these cows certainly earn their sweeping ocean views.

The dairy cows here are responsible for the famed São Jorge cheese.

The views are never dull in the Azores.

Next up on Away to Live is Terceira. In case you missed part 1 of the Azores posts, click here.