Monday, November 25, 2013

Big Mistake!

Yesterday, Sunday, was one of the recurring "continuing hikes" on the towpath.  It was in the area beyond Hancock, MD called Cohill Station- that was a station on the now defunct Western Maryland Railway.  It was also very very cold. 

I carpooled with my friends in Pat's car.  We waited a few minutes for a man who'd said he was coming but sometimes he says that and then doesn't show up.  This was one of the no-show days.  While we waited, however, we chatted with a woman who was waiting for her son's Scout Troop to arrive by bike.  They'd been camping at one of the hiker-biker campsites downstream and were going to stow their camping gear in her SUV and continue on up the towpath.  Boy, were they loaded down with gear when they arrived.

All of which, of course, meant that my friends and I were standing around in frigid (25 degrees) weather.  I realized that it was a little hard to breathe and wrapped my scarf around my face.  And so we began walking and talking.  I began dropping back, being a rather slow walker.  My friend slowed down with me.  She knows how breathless I can get.  This was really worse than ever.  I finally had to admit that I'd been overly ambitious about my ability to deal with the very cold air.  I needed to stop, turn around, and go back to the car.  No intention of going anywhere - just wanting to get out of the wind.  Did I forget to mention the wind?  It blew in gusts, unexpectedly. 

With her car keys in hand, I walked back - - probably three-quarters of a mile.  Got into the car, used my pack as a pillow (not a very satisfactory one) and took a nap.  The car was parked in sunlight so it didn't really seem very cold.  Eventually I was startled by a tapping on the window - - they were back and I'd been asleep for about 2 hours.  Good grief, that's a long time.

We all went back to Hancock and had late lunch at Weavers and headed back East.  I was home by about 4 p.m., very tired, with a funny voice.  Could the cold cold air have affected my vocal cords?  It's still a little funny today.  I've another medical appt. tomorrow morning; we'll see what the doc. thinks.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Southwest France - the final tour

September 23, Monday - - Of course the hotel was comfortable and I awoke refreshed, had a good breakfast, and took a short walk along the river and part of the town of Cahors.
The new railway bridge at Cahors.

And the older bridge - I don't know how old.
Cahors is on the Pilgrim Route, and this brass scallop embedded in the sidewalk tells the walkers they're not lost.
Then we had a rather long ride to the Canal de Lalinde, a 19th century canal that's being rebuilt by local people.  It has triple staircase locks near where we stopped for lunch.
Canal de Lalinde here is right next to a power plant; you can see the great power lines.
Lunch had been purchased earlier at a supermarche (supermarket):  packaged sandwiches, apples, bananas, and bottled water.
For some reason (perhaps weary of formal dinners) I just loved this lunch.

Wonderfully casual for dining al fresco beneath the trees near the lock. And a short distance away we discovered a roadside fruit/vegetable stand, and gave the proprietress a lot of business.
Our group quickly bought out her strawberries, some grapes, and a few apples.
Somewhere before arriving here we passed through a tricky junction of two roads and the canal.  DEM said that in 1964 eleven Tour de France riders were killed in a road accident so horrific that the intersection was redesigned.  I'll have to research that on the internet.

Having explored the canal and its aqueduct, locks, basin and dry dock, we continued.  Our destination was the town of St. Emilion, not for the wineries but for the town itself.  St. Emilion has something called a Monolithic Church.  At first I thought the guide was referring to medieval Catholicism as being monolithic.  Not at all.  The church was carved and cut into the limestone rock centuries and centuries ago.

The gothic windows were built into the rock wall.
 Over time more was built on top of it.  We learned more that I can remember; but what I experienced was pretty awesome.

We first went down what the guide called the "least steep" cobbled street to the former town market square.
On a lovely September afternoon on a crowded street in St. Emilion

Steep?  yes!  Note how we are looking down toward the next footstep.
The monolithic church formed one side of the square, with added parts mirroring early gothic style (e.g., pointed arch windows).  To my dismay (I don't care to be underground) we climbed down narrow stairs to the "hermitage" of St. Emilion to note the well, the stone bed, the fertility chair for women wishing to become mothers.  Susan asked if it worked for grandmothers as well. With the affirmative answer, she sat in the chair. We also descended into a very dimly lit catacomb, which I was glad to leave and to enter the monolithic church itself.  The hugely tall naves (three of them) were braced up to about 27 feet.  This all made me feel a little claustrophobic and was happy to leave there.  One has to be very impressed with the devotion and persistance it would take to carve out so much stone.  The hermitage and the monolithic church are privately owned and photography was strictly forbidden, a shame, for the structures were massive and impressive.

Then back to the bus for the long ride to Bordeaux and the end of the tour.  The Garonne River is tidal at Bordeaux, and very wide and very brown.
Crossing the Garonne to the west side and Bordeaux.
 It was evening rushhour and impossible to drive the coach to the hotels. We all descended in the midst of traffic (which wasn't going anywhere anyhow),
David Edwards-May discusses our problem with the coach driver.  Clearly we were not going anywhere in a hurry.
we retrieved our luggage, and began walking along the long pedestrian plaza toward the Best Western Grand Hotel.
Well, I think everyone managed to quickly retrieve belongings; we would not see that coach again, ever.
 The room was quite nice, with a tub and two shower heads. A quick hop into the shower, change of clothes, and set out to explore before dinner at the brasserie. My friends Barbara and Pat were staying at a different hotel but showed up to go exploring with me.  Actually they wanted to show me their hotel, so off we went.  Luckily, we could also persuade the concierge to print our boarding passes for our flight to Paris the next day.

Dinner at the Brasserie was fun.  We were seated in the wine cellar (really!), around two very large tables. Here are photos of the entire group, many of whom I shall not see again until next year in Milan.
L-R = Roger, ??, Ian, Agnes
L-R = Dennis, Kerry, Barbara
L-R = Norman, Jill, ??, Carol
L-R = Rod, Pat, Jill, Clive, David
L-R = Sylvain, (coach driver), Susan, Rod, Pat, Jill, Clive, David
L-R = ??, ??, Sylvain, (coach driver), Susan
L-R = Agnes, Vicky, David, Mike, Roseleen
After this very nice final dinner together, the next part of the trip was leaving.  Leaving friends is always leavened by the prospect of being together again next year in Italy.

The return home on Tuesday was lengthy (taxi, flight to CDG, flight to IAD, ride to the house) and the hours went by slowly. An unexpected and wonderful thing at Dulles Airport was that the Arrivals Hall was nearly empty so we whizzed through all of that quickly. And was home with my husband at last.

Southwest France - Next-to-Last Tour

September 22 - Sunday.  Leaving Chateau de Mercues was easily done.  There are a lot of very helpful staff.  The luggage was driven down to the coach, so we just walked down after a very nice breakfast.
Some of my breakfast - - the buffet had quite a grand array of pastries.
Such a little milk container, probably intended for coffee; I used it for my muesli.
Looking back at the chateau, I thought it would be a wonderful place to spend lots of time, if money were not a question.

The next stop was quite a treat:  the Pont Valantre, at Cahors.  As David Edwards-May wrote in the guidebook, it is a magnificant medieval fortified bridge with seven pointed arches and three towers, built in the mid-14th century. We arrived while it was wreathed in the morning mist which quickly burned off - beautiful weather for exploring this beautiful bridge, but not nearly enough time.

In this back-lit misty photo, I see three of the arches, two of the towers, and part of the great lock.

Looking through one of the towers toward the third, and beyond it, the town.
Looking from the bridge down at the lock's downstream gate.

The weir is very long and parallel to the shore - were there many mills there?
 Below in the Lot River there is a very wide lock to allow more gabarres in the chamber.  It is now obsolete, as the gabarres no longer carry coal as they did in the 19th century.  Sounds like the C & O Canal Company's problem, too.

Next was Bouzies, where we were to take a 3.5 km walk of the towpath. David Edwards-May noted that it is invisible to the prying eye of Google, for part of the towpath is cut into the limestone cliffs.
You can just make out the line of the towpath about 2 meters above the waterline.
This spot is exactly what I had seen online some years ago. I would have loved to see it, but my respiratory condition would never let me make the climb up to Saint-Cirq-Lapopie at the end.  Some of us stopped in the village for a rest break and coffee,
For some reason we could not have our coffee inside the cafe; but this was comfortable, friendly, and quiet.
and then took a short walk along the waterway, scrambled up to a railway embankment, and hiked along this abandoned track.  We stopped at a small industrial park where the motor coach awaited us.
On the abandoned railway bridge over the Lot.
Saint-Cirq-Lapopie is a village that just tumbles down the cliff above the Lot River.

Rather like Positano or Taormina, the road wound and twisted up and down but mostly zig-zaged. The village was all small buildings connected by narrow alleys, for people, not cars. Full of artists, craftsmen, cafes, and shops selling artisanal foods.
At this Charcuterie, I ordered a ham sandwich.  Pretty tasty, but also pretty chewy ham.
The mountain top is also an overlook, accessed by stairs, which I did not attempt. I enjoyed what I could do and see.
I think you can just make out figures on the top of this crag.
Further along at Flagnac we boarded the L'Olt for a cruise down the river in the company of local folk who are promoting restoration of navigation in the Lot River in the area.
The logo of the group hoping for restoration.  The name "L'Olt" is the occitan word for "Lot".
As we entered a lock, we were amused to see one of the female staff head up to the lockgate with a Black & Decker electric drill, and proceeded to "bzzdt" open the paddles. Hence her nickname, "Rosie", as in "the riveter."  Sorry, no photo of Rosie.
Well, actually, the figure at the end of the right-hand lock wall is Ms. Rosie.
We pulled into a small boat harbor where we left the boat and we lay around on land relaxing, while the caterers rearranged the boat's cabin for a buffet lunch . . . .
It's always wonderful to have a little "down-time", even if it's only 20 minutes or so.
Dessert = red fruits, chantilly, sprinkles of caramel.
which we consumed on the ride back to Flagnac. This was a very nice way to have a very good meal.
Here are two important men:  David's assistant, Sylvain, talks with our bus driver.
So (for lack of  photos for I was busy eating) I shall describe:  a nice selection of meats and finger foods, one a small something made of (this is exactly what she said) spinach, prunes, herbs and spices somehow blended and cooled and cut into rectangles.  And it was delicious. And fruity desserts served in tiny glasses rather the size of a shot glass - also excellent flavor (I had at least three).

And, finally, a photograph of our servers/crew aboard The L'Olt.
Ah!  That's Rosie, on the left.
From here we had quite a long ride back to Cahors where our destination, Hotel La Chartreuse, was built atop an abandoned lock.  Cahors sits on the inside of a great meander in the Lot; the hotel is on the outside bank with views up- and downstream to both a very old bridge and a much newer railway bridge.  We arrived late and if there was dinner, I probably slept through it.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Southwest France - Three days to go

September 21st - Monday.  This morning we left the Moulin de Moissac in deep fog.  Everything looked rather mysterious.  Especially the aqueduct at Agen that carried the Canal lateral a la Garonne across the Garonne on 23 arches - quite long.
Quite beautiful in the early mist.  Note the canal boat on the aqueduct.
And we drove to the town of Nerac, a city on the Baise River, and home to the 17th century king, Henry IV, whose statue graces the tip of the Ile de la Cite, next to the Pont Neuf in Paris. At the Chateau Henry IV we had a very enthusiastic and witty guide, Marie (I believe).   Marie explained that the only remnant of the original building was one wing of a four-sided fortress.  The loggia along this wing was defined by 12 columns named "the Apostles".  Each was carved in a spiral pattern; eleven went one way and the twelfth had spirals in the opposite direction.

The contrary spiral was, of course, to represent Judas Iscariot.
This bridge, the Pont Vieux, across the Baise is reportedly built upon Roman foundations. 
After a walk through a quite lovely forested park we were surprised by some chain-saw furniture, though our destination was a grotto dedicated to Fleurette, a maiden stricken with such love for Henry IV that she killed her self.  Nice legend but not true. We were told that she died at age 28, mother of several children.
Is this a car, a bus, a locomotive? Speeds up to zero mph.
Walking along the towpath by the Baise River was a very pleasant change from riding on the coach. Eventually we came to the Pont Vieux, and walked through the very old part of town, past several half-timbered buildings.
I like this old building for the eccentric patterned half-timbering.
Lunch was to be en plein aire at a cafe we'd walked past.  Very nice buffet, lots of wine, even a barrel organ.  The little shop tempted me to buy a striped shirt and a calendar.
This was just the first course; a woman was also grilling meats for the main course.
Our guide, Marie, had a generous hand with the wines.

Entertainment throughout the dejeuner was the barrel organ and its singing operator.
On the motor coach again we drove from the Baise to the Lot River, past places with interesting names like Aiguillon where there is a lock beside an old mill converted to a hydroelectric dam and power plant.  At Villeneuve-sur-Lot (whose charter dates back to 1264) we stopped to visit the new 43 ft. deep lock and dam.

How does David Edwards-May manage these apparent coincidences? A boat rounded a curve and headed into the lock.
A fairly large solar-powered canal boat enters, far beneath my camera.
Once the boat has passed beyond the large gate, the gate closes and the lock fills with water.
It turned out to be The Kevin, owned and captained by a middle-aged woman who named it for her late son (he'd been her co-owner/operator as well).
It happened that David (on the left) was well-known to the boat-owner (the pony-tailed woman), and they had quite a conversation while waiting for the upper lock gate to open.
We lined up like birds on a wire to watch the boat exit the lock beneath us and cruise on into the river.
Interestingly, the boat looks much smaller when not viewed from above.
At Puy l'Eveque we left the coach and participated in a wine-tasting of Cahors wines at the Cave des Vignerons, a local cooperative. Some of us were sad that we could not buy lots of wine - no room in our luggage.
Translation:  "Abuse of moderation impairs consumption"
Just one of the displays.
This was quite a welcome although brief visit.
We reboarded the coach and drove quite a distance, then up, up, uphill to the amazing Chateau de Mercues. Before I describe the chateau, I need to vent.  The coach was too large, or so the driver believed, to fit through the entrance gate and so we had to haul our luggage up the long steep cobblestoned drive. My Irish friend Roseleen helped me by carrying my tote bag. nonetheless I was gasping for breath before long and used my inhaler.  To my fury I learned that the hotel's front desk were appalled that David Edwards-May never called for a van to carry at least our luggage!

I hesitate to guess how long is that driveway. Hauling wheeled luggage on cobblestones did not make for a good experience.
But now about the Chateau de Mercues.  The square hilltop fortress was built around a central courtyard, and at least one chambre was in the former chapel. Dating back to the 13th century it's been described as an authentic immersion the history of France during the Middle Ages - this was the summer residence of the Counts and Bishops of Cahors for seven centuries. That may be slightly exaggerated, for we now enjoy such non-medieval pleasures as hot running water, electricity, and elegantly presented dinners. 
Photos of Chateau de Mercues, Mercues
This photo of the entrance to the courtyard of Chateau de Mercues is courtesy of TripAdvisor,
This is one of the entrances near a small parking lot (where the hotel's vans were parked).
I followed the bellman to a short curving stone staircase to a lovely room with blue toile cloth as curtains and wall covering,
There were two windows with outside shutters (to close off the early morning sunrise?). Take note of the thickness of the window wall.

Once I was settled in, the views, the room, the furnishings, all were just lovely. This was truly a luxurious place, if only I had not been exhausted by the long uphill walk.
Once I was settled in, the views, the room, the furnishings, all were just lovely. This was truly a luxurious place, if only I had not been exhausted by the long uphill walk.

Dinner table discussion involved the British Heritage lottery's restriction on additional grants to a Canal Trust, a visit by a Brit to Georgetown with the mule-drawn boat, costumed personnel, and stories - he was sorry to hear that the boat is now out of service.  Dinner was fine (I think), but I was completely done in and left before the cheese course.