Friday, November 03, 2017

Driving trip through France (and a little of Spain and Andorra) - Day 1 and 2

In September I went on a driving trip with my husband through southern France, and I thought I'd share it here. One of the many things I like about France is how proud they are of their regional products. It's not just wine and cheese, but pottery, knives and even lentils. You can buy many of these products throughout France, but they are still produced in the original region and not at some mega-factory/farm elsewhere (or out of the country). In fact France places strict control over these products by awarding a certification called appellation d'origine contrôlée, or AOC

Earlier in the summer I decided that I wanted to go to Bordeaux. Of course I knew they had good wine in Bordeaux, but I also just wanted to see that area of France as well as visit the Atlantic ocean from this side of the world. So I built an itinerary to drive to Bordeaux and back and include as many interesting stops along the way as I could. The trip took about 10 days, starting and ending in Châtel, in the Rhone-Alps region of France. 

The route - we went clockwise, from Châtel.

With so many regional specialties, our car soon filled up with goodies.

Many goodies from different places

Starting from the wood box on the left and continuing clockwise:

  • Roquefort cheese - bought in the region but not from the town itself (and yes, there is a town called Roquefort)
  • Hand crafted chocolate from a patisserie in La Mure - a much, much tastier "Nutella"
  • Knives from Thiers, the French cutlery capital (actually bought in Bordeaux)
  • Green lentils from Le Puy-en-Velay - prized by cooks apparently!
  • Chocolate caramel from Bayonne, which is called the French chocolate capital (actually bought in Bordeaux) 
  • Vichy candy purchased in Vichy
  • Touristy caramels in a tin bought in San Sebastian, Spain - only included here because they're in the picture :-) 
  • Chocolate from Kloster Bonneval - bought in nearby Millau (the wrapper got a little wet in our cooler, hopefully the chocolate is ok)

I didn't seek out all the fabric and yarn stores along the way, but did make two purchases:

Yarn from a market vendor in Millau

Yarn from San Sebastian, Spain

Years ago we had bought some French Alpico pottery from Williams Sonoma. I had planned to visit a large Alpico outlet near Bordeaux and add to our collection, but I found out that they closed a year ago. Fortunately our route took us near Limoges, where the pottery is actually made, and we squeezed in a visit to an outlet store there.

French pottery from Limoges

And of

Day 1: Châtel to La Mure to Le Puy-en-Velay

The first stop of our trip was specifically to buy some chocolate. We'd received a jar of a Nutella-like chocolate from a friend as a gift, and it was devoured rather quickly, although not so much by me, so I wanted to find some more. According to the label it came from a pâtisserie in a little town south of Grenoble. 

We managed to locate the store - nothing special from the outside. 

But inside, mmmm, delicious treats. Note the empty shelf above the case. They'd been closed for August vacation and it was their first day back open, so the shop was rather sparsely filled. More alarming, I didn't see any jars of chocolate! Fortunately, my husband spied two jars on another shelf. Whew! It turned out we were very lucky as these were their only two jars, and they wouldn't be making any for another week.

So much deliciousness!

Our fancy pastry selections, which we ate on a picnic lunch the next day...and the next. They were very rich.

I took this picture on the drive down to La Mure. It looked like a wave of clouds rolling over the mountains, which I thought was very cool.

A stop in Grenoble was not on this itinerary, but perhaps on a future trip. As we drove past, and through the mountains to the west of Grenoble, we saw many nut trees. Apparently the Grenoble walnut has an AOC label. 

Day 2: Le Puy-en-Velay to Millau

I initially chose to stop in Le Puy-en-Velay because I'd seen a video on Facebook about lace making at the Bobbin Lace Learning Center. I had high hopes to see an interesting museum and the machine making lace that I'd seen in the video, but I have to say that fortunately the town has some other very interesting things to see. 

First the lace. The exhibit is not very large, maybe two rooms plus a hallway. They do have some very fine lace on display, and there's a cabinet that holds some pieces in drawers you can open. The labels are all in French. In my opinion, there are much better lace museums in Burano, Italy and Brussels, Belgium, but if you're in the area and like lace, then you might as well stop by. I was disappointed that the only demonstration of lace making that I saw, by humans or by machine, was in a video that we watched (in French only) seated in a dank little cave-like room. Perhaps a group that has made arrangements in advance would have a different experience, and perhaps I misunderstood that this is more of a place to learn lace making and not so much a tourist stop. I saw a room and caught a glimpse of people in there who were possibly working on lace, but although the door was open, it was roped off and looked private. The young guy in the gift shop, who sold us the entry tickets (3.50 €), was pleasant and probably a bit surprised that two Americans were there to see the place. My husband said the guest book hadn't been signed in a few days. There is a gift shop that sells both souvenirs and lace making supplies. Though it was tempting, I decided not to add another hobby (and I actually have a beginning lace making kit in storage in the U.S. that I bought from Lacis a while back).

The town of Le Puy-en-Velay is very quaint and well worth a visit. I wish we'd had more time to explore it. I was so intent on visiting the lace museum that I didn't put much research into the town itself before we went, and we only had half a day to enjoy it. 

Le Puy-en-Velay is most notable for being the starting point of one of the main pilgrimage points in France that lead to the shrine of St James (Jacques) at Santiago de Compostela. 

Tower and dome of Catherdral Notre-Dame on the left and the Notre-Dame de Puy statue of The Virgin Mary on the right
Chapelle St. Michel d'Aiguilhe built in 969

Front of the Cathedral Notre-Dame (12th century) from the street

The symbol of the pilgrims is a clam shell, either because early pilgrims brought them back to prove that they made the journey, or to identify them to others as pilgrims, or because the shells were handy to use for drinking water along the way...or maybe all of these reasons. In French, scallops are called Coquille Saint Jacques. Many people today walk the pilgrim trails and we saw quite a few while driving the little roads south from Le Puy-en-Velay.

A pilgrim path marker 

The town was decorated for an annual festival the following week. I had only learned of this festival when I went to book a hotel and found prices were 5x higher the next week - over 300 Euro for a room at a budget Ibis (like a Super 8 or Motel 6). We stopped for coffee and the barista there said that the streets next week would be absolutely clogged with visitors for the festival. I'm not one for massive crowds like that so I'm glad we saw the town when we did. 

Poster for the upcoming festival. 
Not sure what the hanging "laundry" signifies, but it was eye catching
Lots of color in the streets!

I found plenty of shops in town selling lace...and walking sticks for would-be pilgrims.

I spied a mechanical lace machine in one shop, like the one I'd hoped to see in the Bobbin Lace Learning Center. I didn't get to see it operate, but at least I saw one.

Another thing that Le Puy-en-Velay is proud of is that they were the starting point for stage 16 of the Tour de France this year. This was actually our second experience with Tour de France 2017 because La Mure was the starting point for stage 17. Both towns had quite a few bicycle themed displays in and around town, and on the roads nearby we saw the remnants of some of the messages people write for the riders. 

Window display of a store promoting the town's part in the Tour de France this year.

Whew! That was a big blog post!

Next up: a bridge, medieval towns and a tiny country

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