Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Death by Baguette

Originally uploaded by simpsonatti
Baguettes, baguettes, baguettes. They come to me in my dreams, stalking me along the Paris streets under the arm of every French man, woman and child. The cliché is true, and inescapable. Everywhere I look I see the baguette in innumerable forms: baguette sandwiches; baguette with sausage; baguette with nutella. I fear death by baguette.

Disappointingly, the baguette carriers did not wear berets. And I had no-one spit on my shoe. In fact, I found the French generally friendly, welcoming, and very willing to put up with my complete lack of French.

I started in Paris, arriving on the Eurostar train from London in under 2 ½ hours. Despite a rather bad bout of food poisoning, after a long sleep and some food I was ready to explore the city.

Paris is a perfect city to get lost in. I avoided paying the hefty entrance fees to the main tourist sites (Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, Arc de Triumph, the Champ Elysees), although I did see them from a distance, and instead wandered the streets aimlessly. Montmartre was a definite favourite, with its mixture of cobbled leafy streets, shamelessly seedy strip (site of the Moulin Rouge and an long, long, long row of sex shops) and site of some of the best views of Paris. After a compulsory taste of escargots (snails), I grabbed a few cans of beer and dragged a friend to the top of the steps of the Sacre Coeur basilica, which overlooks the whole city and we happily enjoyed the drizzly sundown after a long day of walking.

I went through the well stocked but easy to get lost in Picasso museum and the quite disappointing Jewish museum with a few cafe stops in between.

I left the hectic and rainy streets of Paris for La Rochelle, on France's Atlantic coast. It's a pretty, well- monied but quaint yachting city, with a beautiful old city wall and tower facing the coast.

Fouras was the next stop. A smaller coastal town with a charming village centre, it boasts an impressive seafood market, packed with fish, crabs, lobsters, sea snails and the region's famous oysters, all gleaming fresh.

I seem to be making a habit of visiting famous liquor towns, so this time I visited Cognac, home of the world famous luxury tipple. Like tequila or champagne, cognac can only be called cognac if it is from a select few provinces in France and according to a very strict distilling process. Made from a combination of grapes from certain French regions, it is then blended and double distilled before undergoing an aging process to produce the final product. The town of Cognac is in itself a very pretty, with many of the buildings dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries.

From Fouras I was incredibly lucky to have the chance to stay in a medieval chateau, set amidst the wheat fields and woodlands of Sansac, Western France. Complete with winding staircases, banquet rooms once used by knights, turrets, secret passages and books dating back centuries, much of the time it was difficult to believe I was actually there. Largely uninhabited, the chateau produces delicious handmade goat's cheese from the cellar factory.

It would take too much time to describe all the quaint villages I passed through and stopped in- all very old and beautiful, but the enduring images I will have of France are vast barley and wheat fields; spectacular, almost surreal castles set dramatically on hills surrounded by emerald woodlands; countless medieval villages with rambling gardens; and amazing cheese.... even the local Spar (a European convenience chain store) had its own, extensive delicatessen!

Many thanks to Gerhardt & Annie, who housed, drove and fed me very well!

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