Part II

It is every writer’s dream to land a housesitting job in France. I’d have three months to start (and abort) a novel while enjoying the medieval landscape. But how did my galpal and I land the job? We had met a nice British couple, the Brays, at a cocktail party thrown by ex-“Condé Nast”-boss James Truman’s mother, in the Caribbean (Montserrat, before the volcano blew), who said a French hippy was housesitting for them in France.
“He burns candles everywhere instead of using electricity,” Mr. Bray complained. Surely we were more qualified to housesit for them than a dirtbag flaneur?
So the next winter we arrived at the remote village of Couloume-Mondebat and took charge of the 15th-century farmhouse, whose barn had hidden American servicemen during World War II. We would be staying in the “gite” (guest quarters), which featured a master bedroom, guest bedroom, living room, kitchen, and bathroom.
Hot water was supplied via gas canisters, which had a nasty habit of conking out when guests were visiting, resulting in bloodcurdling cries, such as what happens later in this essay.
Our living quarters also boasted a bookshelf of pleasantly dated books, such as Brazilian Adventure by Peter Fleming, Eastern Approaches by Fitzroy Maclean, and A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby. No TV. Our only contact with the outside world was a telephone and a shortwave radio to listen to BBC broadcasts.

Expatriate Life

Over the course of three months, we lived an expatriate life reminiscent of Peter Mayle’s “A Year in Provence.” (My book proposal, Three Months in Gascony, upon which this article is loosely based, sounded derivative and unsaleable.)
The landscape is dotted with vernacular pigeonniers, windmills, churches, and “Inri” crosses–evidence that the Christian pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela passes through here. One of my favorite stops on “The Way of Saint James” was Lupiac, hometown of Charles de Batz, the real-life D’Artagnan immortalized by Alaxander Dumas in The Three Musketeers. His abode, the Chateau de Castlemore, was closed on the day I visited, but I seriously admired its grand façade, somehow resembling Tintin’s manse Marlinspike Hall.
It was near Lupiac, in fact, that I broke my tooth on a wild-boar cassoulet bone while dining in the village of St. Mont at a restaurant that requested anonymity (maybe: “The Auberge de Saint Mont”), overlooking a charmed thousand-year-old Roman vineyard. I paid a visit to the local dentist Monsieur Papillon (Mr. Butterfly), who promised to fix it right up.
As the demonic dentist drill hit dent, Mr. Butterfly joked that he knew how to deal with Americans: “I am Iraqi! I am Iraqi!” he mocked with his limited English, enjoying my feigned discomfort. Needless to say, my replacement tooth was a little too large, but for only a handful of francs, not euros, I couldn’t complain much. At least they had doctors in this medieval demesne, most of them living quite comfortably in ancestral chateaux.
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The Hunters’ Feast

With its many feast days, it’s easy to become a glutton in Gascony. Luckily, cannibalism is no longer practiced in France; after all, it’s been eons since ancient Gauls (like the comic book character “Asterix”) wolfed the flesh and gnawed the bones of barbarians babbling bad French. Still it was hard to shake the feeling of apprehension, especially after we’d settled in at the local “Fete de Chausseurs” (hunters’ feast), a word similar to the French for “shoes,” to find the event liberally garnished with Gascon hunters brandishing rifles and aromatic Gitane cigarettes.This was the fairytale slice of historical Gascony where many of the inhabitants come as fattened as the geese they devour. And speaking of geese, as my girlfriend and I got a gander at the unlearnedly accent-less hunters’ feast menu, we began to wonder if our own goose was cooked: “Garbure, Assiette composee fruits de mer, Truite sauce champagne, Civet de chevreuil, Roti de chevreuil, Legumes, Salade, Foret noire, Café, Armagnac.” You don’t have to delve into a Larousse dictionary to divine the gist: a meal of more than six courses, including a thick soup (with duck in it), a whole trout, and two deer dishes, accompanied by three kinds of locally produced wine and Armagnac (including a must-try white wine called “Pacherenc du Vic Bilh” –which is fun to repeat after a few snootfuls.)

Shades of Monty Python

Between courses I breathed “beaucoup” and “trop,” waving my fork in a feeble attempt to ward off food, and feeling like the fat guy from the Monty Python movie, “The Meaning of Life,” who is impelled by the French waiter, played by an evil John Cleese, to eat until he explodes. Which adds new meaning to “amuses bouches” (happy mouths) and “amuses geulles”(happy faces)—small gourmet bonbons to induce evacuation, Roman-orgy-style. The only other people at the “fete” who spoke English were an Anglo-Irish Earl, “T,” renovating an 18th-century chateau down the road (his ancestor was the Viceroy of India), and his wife, who handed me a business card: “Comtesse de ____.” (The Comtesse dabbled in real estate and assured me small chateaux were not “too dear.”)

Though this festive final lunch was supposed to last the traditional two hours, we were there from 12 to 5. And the worst thing was: we had a dinner date with some neighbors in just under an hour!

Where Is The Gers?

Taking a back road into Auch, France (population: 22,000), the remote ersatz capital of the Gers, in a rented Renault time machine, two hired housesitters pinched themselves. Auch! As the 15th-century Cathedral de Sainte Marie and the 14th-century Tour d’Armagnac, both protected by UNESCO World Heritage Site status, rose up into the elegant cobalt sky, our aching eyes climbed the Escalier Monumentale’s 232 steps (count ‘em) to the swashbuckling statue of the region’s most famous cadet: D’Artagnan, the Fourth Musketeer.

With a bright and breezy irreverent tone suitable for a Paid Advertisement, we decided that life doesn’t get much better than this: a three-month housesitting job in the remote French countryside. We were deep in the heart of gastronomical Gascony, the stomping ground of ghostly gourmets, a center of the foie gras trade, and the birthplace of Armagnac.

Gently Rolling Landscape

Known for its bien mangé (good eats), the Gers, France’s least visited and most rural département, with more ducks than people in it, is a leisurely two-hour drive from Bordeaux or Toulouse, and only an hour from the ski lifts of the gleaming snow-capped Pyrenees.

Newly expatriated from Les Etats Unis, we found this gently rolling landscape of ancient farms, vineyards, and fortified towns, dating back to the Hundred Years War (1337-1453)–which was neither really a war, nor did it last a hundred years–the ideal spot for adventurous eaters (gourmands) to explore the art of Gascon cuisine and live like aristocratic budget nobility against a backdrop straight out of a Medieval-era illuminated manuscript.

Boules-playing, beret-wearing Gascons are the first to admit they are “stuck somewhere back in the Dark Ages — but with electricity.”

What’s more, the Gers abuts the edge of the Pyrenees National Park, which boasts, besides birds like vultures, eagles, capercailles, ptarmigans, woodpeckers, and pigeons, also mammals such as marmots, chamoises, and bears. Unfortunately, maybe the fault of terroir chefs, there are only six bears left!

Since everything here involves festive sightseeing, there are not many things to do other than eat in idyllic mise-en-scenes out of your most extreme expatriate fantasies, except take part in the yearly Marciac Jazz Festival.

Here, in what many prefer to call the “Midi Pyrenees,” you can travel on no dollars a day (only euros)—but ten euros goes a long way, even with the hefty markup of French Elf “essence.”

Or, the occasional, blown Michelin “pneu.”

Historical Gascony

The Gascons derive their name from, but are not related to, the nearby Basques (Vascones). A vrai Gascogne (real Gascon), is recognized by the yellow mud sticking to his Wellingtons and will tell you he is Gascogne first. Yet, unlike his Basque neighbors, he is quite happy to be French second.
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Gascons fought on the British side during the previously mentioned Hundred Years War, and the Gers was the battlegound. The “Route des Bastides et des Castelnaux,” ideal for cycling around the over 50,000 hectares (37,000 acres) of grapevines, but fraught with pariah dogs, took us past some of the most dramatic scenery and sights, such as the 12th-century Cistercian monastery Abbaye de Flaran, filled with inebriated monks, and the so-called “Carcassonne du Gers,” Larressingle, also the name of a popular Armagnac.

Remember, a bastide is a purposefully built fortified town with distinctive grid-patterned streets and arcaded central squares; while a castelnau is an unplanned town growing up around a castle or a church, all built by either the French or the English. Fources, the only circular walled town, was, despite its froggy-sounding name, architected by the British.

If you think in terms of historical Gascony, this jagged-jigsaw-puzzle-shaped piece of geography includes both Les Gers and Les Landes, and is sometimes referred to as “Midi Pyrenees,” full of traveling Cirques, Roma caravans blasting “The Gypsy Kings,” and Course Landais stadiums, which hold bullfights without the bull, instead they use horned heifers. Even though they do not kill the cows here, they sometime end up as ingredients in such restaurants as “BASTARD” (really!) in Lectoure.

Mysterious Alchemy

The gist of the Gers is, of course, Armagnac, and this is where the amber after-dinner drink is distilled, bottled, and shipped worldwide. There are three Armagnac appellations: Haute-Armagnac (center: Auch), Bas-Armagnac (center: Eauze), and Tenareze (center: Condom). For obvious reasons, Condom is a popular place to pick up postcards to amuse one’s friends back home.

Predating cognac by over three hundred years, Armagnac was once believed to be a snake-oil-like aphrodisiac and cure-all. A 14th century cardinal, Prior Vital du Four, spake, “[Armagnac] restores the paralyzed member by massage; and heals wounds of the skin by application. . . . And when retained in the mouth, it loosens the tongue and emboldens the wit if someone timid from time to time permits.”
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During various “degustations,” I was taught to cup the glass and swirl it to release the aroma, leaving behind long golden Midas tears streaming down the edges. If you really mean business, pour some into your palms, rub them, and sniff them like the locals do.

“Hey, did you know if your hand is bigger than your face you are retarded?!”

“Hey, did you know if you rub your hands together they smell like pizza?!”

These two tricks do not really work among the cognoscenti in France.

One day a gregarious neighbor initiated me as a vrai Gascogne, giving me a glass of unaged White Armagnac to chug, which brought tears aplenty to my eyes.

“Cin Cin!” the producteur toasted.

“Tintin!” I managed with a pursed moue, leaking scalding tears reminiscent of the cartoon menace “Caillou,” the bald neo-fascist baby.

Or an infant Mr. Clean or Howie Mandell.

Fill Er’ Up

The region’s main magnet, though, is its mean cuisine. When the farmers aren’t protesting for unpasteurized Camembert, they are to be found with forks in their mitts, meandering over multi-course meals that last two hours or more.

Over the border in the département of Les Landes, also part of historical Gascony, one may visit one of the best restaurants in the world at the spa Eugenie Les Bains, where master chef Michel Guérard won three Michelin rosettes and invented “cuisine minceur” (less food for more money).
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But one of the joys of the Gers, we found, was driving or cycling around aimlessly, stopping at historic family-run inns serving more than just glorified peasant grub, like the Vieux Logis in Aignan (the former capital of the Gers), to enjoy four-course Gascon fare with regional VDQS Cote de St. Mont wine (fill ‘er up in plastic jerrycans at local vineyards), all for about twenty euros.

In the Gers, the two standout Michelin-rosetted restaurants are the Hotel de France (Auch), where master chef André Daguin invented “magret de canard,” and the Ripa Alta (Plaisance), where stuttering chef Coscuella served me, of all things, “pig’s feet” surrounded by a largesse of truffles. Plus, “palombe” (a kind of wood pigeon which makes a sorry little carcass).

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Climbing up the wide circular stone staircase to our hotel room in the Chateau des Ducs de Joyeuse on the first night, I knew this would be a very different trip. I could just as easily be accessing a medieval castle as a lodging facility — and then I found out I was. Although I suspect our room was a lot less drafty than those of the lords and ladies who preceded us.
Which certainly set the tone for our Walking Through History Tour of Southern France—conducted, ironically, by a company called New England Hiking. As we hiked through, around, up and over one medieval village after another, traversing castles and countryside and learning about the Middle Ages of the 11th-14th centuries, we were immersed in their history.
According to our guide, Richard Posner, every mountain, every hill, has great historic and cultural significance and his running commentary throughout the trip bore him out. Visigoth chateaux, Knights Templar towers, Cathar castles — admittedly I knew little about these guys but by the time we were done visiting their many abodes, I felt we were all old friends.
The walks ranged from easy to moderately challenging and the talks from fascinating to eyes glazed over, usually in direct proportion to the difficulty of the hikes when I might have preferred to be back at the castle courtyard relaxing with a vin de pays — but I was willing to wait. As one of our compatriots enthused about Richard: “He opens his mouth and facts fall out.” The fact that he could make these facts endlessly interesting was the real accomplishment.
Cresting a hill, I would often turn and look back down upon an expanse of beautiful countryside that was, of course, there the whole time, but I was too focused on putting one foot in front of the other to notice. As we walked, and everyone is encouraged to go at his/her own pace, we would come to a crossroads where multi-hued wildflowers whose fragrances accentuated the already-challenged senses, distant mountains, castle ruins, and crops of beans, vineyards and barley were all vying valiantly for attention — demanding notice in so many directions at once as to warrant whiplash.
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Our first visit was to the tiny medieval town of Cassaignes that does not see a lot of drive-by traffic. Consisting of a few houses and churches dating back 900 years, the sense of history was somewhat moderated by the large red tractor by the side of one house that appeared anachronistic by several centuries. Still, it was a start.
As we traveled from one medieval village to another, we heard stories of church intrigue and love stories, military battles and religious controversies, mysterious anecdotes of priests and royals and other local residents over the centuries that brought the towns to life in a very tangible way. For one, in the 1890’s a priest named Berenger Sauniere sold secret medieval documents he found in the hollows of the church at Rennes Les Chateaux for great sums of money. Those documents? Well, does Holy Grail mean anything to you?
And every morning, Richard’s wife, Marion, scoured the market in preparation for our picnic lunch, composed of different breads, cheeses, fresh fruit, French sweets and some local village delicacy which we feasted upon overlooking a lake, a garden, a vineyard or some random medieval ruin. Every day, the same response — it just doesn’t get any better than this!
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Accompanying us on much of our journey were the Cathars, Roman Catholic heretics who were prominent from the 10th-12th centuries, but were ultimately destroyed during the Crusades, and the Knights Templar, a well-financed military religious order of the 12th-14th centuries, and later rumored to be a secret society that exists to this day.
The impregnable Queribus Tower, the last of the Cathar castles to fall, was an old Roman structure, initially built in the 4th century. It was later refurbished by the Cathars to resist attack during the Crusades. The most recent restorations? They took place in the 13th century. This sort of time warp is ever present in southern France. The present and past – long-ago past — coexist harmoniously as one can travel back and forth through multiple centuries within a couple of hours of doing day-to-day errands.
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As we climbed the almost half-mile straight up, I couldn’t help but think “Why would anyone want to attack this place?” Obviously, I wouldn’t have made a good candidate for medieval knighthood. Views from one tower to the next compete with each other for their own personal sense of wonder and enormity of vision. But then again, how often are you looking over a vast countryside from a 360 degree angle from multiple towers in a single day?
One morning early, Richard pointed knowingly to a small abbey halfway up a mountain. Our collective response was, “You’re kidding, of course?” He wasn’t. Not only did we make it to the abbey, we reached the top of the mountain. Admittedly, the ascent itself was much less challenging than it appeared, but we still all felt unduly proud.
Near Rennes les Bains, we stopped at Mount Cardou, where one of the most controversial of the Knights Templar theories is in evidence — that within the mountainside is a cave containing the buried remains of the body of Christ. Whether true or not, just standing there felt like a spiritual experience. The Knights were ostensibly eliminated as a religious order by the 14th century — although that may be a surprise to Dan Brown whose DaVince Code perpetuated many of these theories.
But nothing we had seen up to then could prepare us for Carcassone, one of Europe’s largest and best preserved fortified cities, an entire medieval town protected by almost two miles of double walls and 52 watchtowers.
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Hard to imagine yourself walking among the knights, priests and ladies of the time with the proliferation of cafes and souvenir shops keeping you grounded in the modern world. Still, how often do you ask for directions to a bathroom and are told to take a right turn over the drawbridge? I managed to avoid the moat enroute…
Late in the evening or early in the morning when most of the tourists are gone, it’s much easier to imagine yourself a Cathar merchant meandering the cobblestone streets, through the maze of bridges, towers, concentric walls, castles, archways, tunnels and streets so narrow you can reach out your arms and touch both sides simultaneously. And then once they let the crowds back in, it’s possible to imagine another similarity to medieval times – only now the throngs, equally motivated, are coming to shop rather than siege.
As we left Carcassone, our exposure to medieval architecture and lifestyle wasn’t over, but our connection with the Cathars and the Knights Templar was, so it seemed an appropriate time to say au revoir.
For more information about the Walking Through History Tour of Southern France, visit nehikingholidays.com or call 800-869-0949.

Photography by Emma Krasov

Ancient Romans are often brought to mind in the wine-producing region of AOP Costières de Nîmes. The city of Nîmes, a BCE colony of the Roman Empire, today maintains its rich heritage reflected in the majestic ruins of the golden age. Located in the sun-kissed land and surrounded by seven hills, just like Rome, Nîmes still bears the coat of arms dedicated to Caesar’s victory over Egypt in 31 BCE. The image of a crocodile chained to a palm tree can be seen on ancient coins, in the paving of the old town, in a fountain on a busy city square, and in various contemporary art pieces. The city mythology has it that Roman legionaries returning from Egypt were granted lands in Nîmes, and turned it into little Rome – with all its conveniences.
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Roman-built grandiose amphitheatre, Arènes de Nîmes, for twenty thousand spectators is now used for bullfights, concerts, and games; La Maison Carrée is the best-preserved Roman temple in the heart of the city, and the nearby Pont du Gard is the most spectacular fragment of the ancient aqueduct that delivered water to Nîmes from the Eure River, 50 kilometers to the north.

The name of the region, Languedoc, which literally means “the language of Oc” and refers to Occitan language formerly used in the South of France, derives its historical identity from Celtic and Iberian tribes, Greek, Phoenician, Etruscan and Roman settlers; Alemanni, Vandal, Visigoth and Saracen invaders; Jewish religious scholars and Cathar religious rebels. The entire region is a rich mosaic of cultural tidbits and architectural monuments from the long gone eras.

The city of Narbonne – the first Roman settlement in France then called Colonia Narbo Martius – was founded in 118 BCE as a port on Aude River. The first Roman road that connected Italy and Spain across southern France, Via Domitia, was built at the same time and gave even more importance to the new colony. A paved fragment of the ancient road can be seen today at the Place de l’Hôtel de Ville right in the city center by the Town Hall, which used to be the Archbishop’s Palace before the French Revolution. A Gothic church of Notre-Dame-de-Lamourguier, a 13th century Benedictine monastery, shut down during the Revolution, is now the Lapidary Museum, where exquisitely carved Roman gravestones are stacked in impressive quantities.
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In the Middle Ages, Roman stone blocks were used in the construction of La Cathédrale Saint-Just-et-Saint-Pasteur, which was never completed, but in the Gothic church tradition conveyed a vision of paradise to its worshippers through the immense beauty of its architecture.

On the outskirts of Narbonne, Abbaye de Fontfroide – one of the best preserved Cistercian abbeys in the world – is built of local sandstone from the surrounding hills and boasts some recycled Corinthian columns from antiquity with elaborate finials which support its massive stone arches. Shut down by the Revolution, then periodically occupied and finally abandoned by the monks, the abbey was saved from decline by Gustave and Madeleine Fayet, who acquired the place in 1908, restored it, and turned into a cultural center.
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Our tour group stopped for lunch at the abbey’s excellent restaurant, La Table de Fontfroide which features Corbières AOC wines and beer produced on site following the old monks’ recipes. A small Gallo-Roman town in the 1st century BCE, Carcassonne, located on a hilltop over Aude River valley, became a fortress by the 11th century, and remains the largest medieval walled town in Europe and a tourist attraction visited by about three million people a year.

The history of Carcassonne is literally written on its walls. Typical Roman masonry is defined by neatly spaced arches and large windows for easy spear-throwing. When crossbow became a weapon of choice in times of Visigothic invasion, narrow vertical slits, or arrow loops, fit for an archer, punctured the stone in chessboard pattern.
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A stronghold of Cathars, Carcassonne was besieged during the Albigensian Crusade, and surrendered in 1209. In 1226, it was annexed to the domain of the King of France, at which time the outer walls of the fortress were built. Meticulously restored and preserved by the 19th century architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, Carcassonne is now a UNESCO world heritage site, and a fascinating maze of stone passageways, galleries, and watchtowers set against the snow-covered mountain tops of the Pyrenees. Stained glass windows of Basilique Saint-Nazaire-et-Saint-Celse de Carcassonne, some dating back to the 14th century, are considered the most beautiful of their kind in the South of France.
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From the nearby river port, our group embarked on a short cruise along Canal du Midi connecting the Atlantic with the Mediterranean. Built by Pierre-Paul Riquet, who poured his entire life and fortune into the project, it is considered to be one of the biggest engineering achievements of the 17th century. The tree-lined section of the 240-kilometer-long waterway is now a leisurely route for vacationers from all over the world, houseboat owners, and several short daily cruises, like ours, that showcase bridges, tunnels, some of the 63 locks, and an unparalleled view of Carcassonne.
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Thanks to the growing tourist interest, the area is studded with family-owned hotels and B&Bs. One night, our group stayed in Beaucaire, at Domaine des Clos owned by David and Sandrine Ausset. The hotel occupies a remodeled 18th century farmhouse with an enormous garden, green lawns, and an outdoor swimming pool.

Our dinner with the hosts was prepared by Sandrine using locally-grown produce, many from her own garden, and Costières de Nîmes wines.

Another night we spent at Saint-Gilles in a double-hotel Mas du Versadou and Château la Pompe.
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This historical property features a bamboo-lined canal that runs between the two buildings, open-air swimming pools, fountains, outdoor sculptures, a couple of free-roaming peacocks, and the hotel’s own Roman baths, made out of several gigantic wine vats placed next to each other, equipped with plumbing, and appropriately furnished and decorated. Both hotel buildings and the land around are owned and operated by husband and wife Marie and Michel Durand-Roger, who were previously engaged in winemaking.

Some of their neighbors combine their vine-growing business with hospitality, renting out a couple of rooms during tourist season, and offering home-cooked dinners made of local specialties. We had a memorable wine-tasting seminar and a delicious catered dinner at Le Château La Baume (“the cave”). The owners, Sandrine and Jean-François Andreoletti, produce white, red, and rosé wines with an image of an ancient Roman statue of Bacchus, the god of winemaking, on the label.
The original Bacchus statue graces the tasting room of the property that leads to the cave. This 18th century mansion occupies a site of an excavated Gallo- Roman villa.
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At dinner, Sandrine treated us to a succession of excellent wines with the Bacchus label, and explained the intricacies of the fermentation and blending methods employed by her husband, a fifth-generation winemaker.
In Sandrine’s kitchen, chef Eric Hugnin prepared a traditional Saint-Gilles meal – mixed greens salad with blue cheese; slow-cooked beef with Camargue rice and sage; and a dessert of local strawberries and cream.

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In late May 2010 the Second International Malbec Days Conference took place in Cahors, France. There were 100 Malbec producers mainly from France and Argentina, 150 journalists, 400 professional buyers and 3,500 wine connoisseurs attending this three day seminar and wine tasting. The conference compared the wines of Cahors and those of Lujan de Cuyo, Argentina. There were tastings of over 600 different wines all made from the Malbec grape variety, trips to vineyards and wineries as well as a wine tasting on a barge cruising along the Lot River. The famous Bridge Pont Valentre was transformed for the three evenings into the world’s biggest Malbec bar lounge, and the nearby Espace Valentre was dubbed Cahors Lounge where for three nights guests could sample gourmet finger food from the area’s top restaurants, informally taste Malbec wines and watch the Cahors Malbec band and Argentinean tango dancers perform. The lounge also hosted an educational seminar dealing with the terroir of the Cahors appellation. There was also a dinner in the historic center of Cahors where we were able to talk to the winemakers and select our favorite Malbec wines to accompany the meal. I was lucky to be seated with famed California winemaker Paul Hobbs (and Malbec producer in Argentina) as well as Bertrand Vigouroux, the proprietor of my favorite Cahors wineries, Chateau de Mercues and Chateau de Haute-Serre. In 2008 Bertrand wanted to increase the quality of his wines and started working with Paul. It really shows. The Prince of Denmark, also a vintner (he is married to the Queen of Denmark), hosted a tasting and tour of his Chateau de Caix. A non-wine highlight was an early morning hot air balloon flight over the vineyards.
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We flew to Paris and then on to Toulouse, which is the 4th largest city in France (1.1 million people in the metro area) after Paris, Marseille and Lyon. It was the capital of the former province of Languedoc and is now the main city of the Midi-Pyrenees region, the largest in France. It was less than an hour’s drive to Cahors which is in the Department of Lot within the Midi-Pyrenees region and has a population of about 30,000. This is a medieval city surrounded by the Lot River whose number one attraction is the Valentre Bridge. The bridge building (UNESCO listed) began in 1308 and was completed in 1378. It has three towers and was used for medieval defense of the city. In that century Cahors was a center of finance for Europe. French leader Leon Gambetta (1838-1882) was born there (his statue sits in Place Mitterrand), as was Pope John XXII.

Other interesting attractions in and around town are: Musee Henri Martin featuring works by the painter and an exhibit of the city’s most famous son, Leon Gambetta. Shop at the various truffle markets for the “black diamonds.” See the many “moulins” or windmills. Chanterie is a local museum devoted to wine. Saint-Etienne Cathedral (UNESCO listed) is the home to a museum of religious art and is a fine example of gothic architecture. Try to get to one of the painted caves featuring paintings and engravings dating back more than 20,000 years. There is a limit of 700 visitors a day so book in advance.
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Cahors is an Appellation d’Origine Controllee´ (AOC), which is part of the South West France wine region. The AOC Cahors can only be used for red wines. There must be a minimum of 70% Malbec in any wine called Cahors with the 30% balance Merlot and/or Tannat. The grape is known locally as Cot, Cot Noir or Auxerrois. The name Malbec can appear on the label if at least 85% of the blend is Malbec. Malbec only fully ripens at the beginning of October. Hence the weather in September is especially important to a successfully produced Cahors. This is the only AOC in Southwest France to prohibit the use of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. The wines can be quite tannic when young and definitely benefit from aging. There are many producers making a new style Cahors wine that is ready to drink when bottled. Although many growers produce white and rose wines, they cannot have the Cahors appellation which is solely for red wines. It was 90 degrees when I started tasting wines on the Valentre Bridge and I chose to only taste rose wines that hot afternoon. All the wines served during the conference used the Cahors ring-stemmed glass, which had an excellent resistance to breakage yet offered perfect transparence. 11% of the total acreage of Malbec worldwide comes from Cahors (19.5% if you include all of France), a total of 1.8 million cases. Argentina has over 71% of the Malbec plantings.The Malbec vine was brought to Argentina in the mid 19th Century by a French agronomist as a government program to improve all aspects of Argentine Agriculture.
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There are Tender & Fruity Cahors wines that are 70-85% Malbec. They pair well with white meat, roast poultry or grilled meat. Their light tannins go with a mixed salad or fish casserole and most Provencal dishes. The Feisty & Powerful Cahors wines are 85-100% Malbec. These wines boast complex fruit. Duck breasts and Quercy lamb are their perfect partners. Try with crepes, walnuts and chestnuts. With age and once their tannins have softened they go well with cheese. Finally, there are the Intense & Complex Cahors wines which are 100% Malbec. The passing of the years makes them the perfect partner for lamb, foie gras, truffles and wild mushrooms. Rabbit with prunes, deer with cranberries and pear cooked in wine call for the “Black Wine of Cahors.”
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The first vines were planted around 50 BC and during the Middle Ages the wine was known as “the black wine” (Vin noir). Tsar Peter the Great of Russia chose Cahors to be the Mass wine of the Russian Orthodox Church. Phylloxera destroyed the vineyards at the end of the 19th century. In February 1956, Cahors had severe frost, which once again destroyed almost all the vineyards. They were soon replanted and Cahors was awarded their AOC status in 1971. The vineyards are an equal distance from the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea and the Pyrenees Mountains. They are about 35 miles in length and 18 miles in width. Typical aromas characterize the terroirs of Cahors: violet, menthol, truffle, black currant, cherry, licorice and vanilla. During the second half of the 19th century Argentina adopted the Malbec of Cahors in the Mendoza region, at the foot of the Andes. Argentine Malbec has been rising in popularity over the past few years, as it provides the grape with a suitable climate for it’s ripening. Almost all of Argentina’s wine growing regions can support the growth of the Malbec grape as they are at high altitudes and sheltered from the rainfall from the Andes, providing the grape with around 320 days of sunshine a year.
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Best Restaurants & Hotels of Cahors

 
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Champagne, Taittinger & Reims: The lore of champagne is filled with courageous acts and bold people. Napoleon was a great lover of champagne and personally protected his favorite champagne house from invading armies. Churchill used champagne to elevate his spirits during England’s “darkest hours” of World War II and today has a prestige cuvee named for him. The pop of the champagne cork was heard resounding through James Bond’s greatest adventures.

The first wine was made in Champagne about 2,000 years ago. Champagne was already famous in the middle age. But it was not the same wine we drink these days. At that time wine was red or white, not sparkling and quite similar to wine from Burgundy.

People used barrels to ship their wines. They noticed that the next spring season following the harvest, the wine tended to foam. It was not good for business. The first Champagne was made in the 17th century. A monk called Dom Perignon was the first to understand the process of Champagne fermentation. He managed to mix red and white grapes from different villages and therefore perfected the way winemakers used to produce sparkling wine. He also invented the cork closure system to stop the bubbles from dissipating as well as produced stronger glass to strengthen the bottles and stop explosions.
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Located 90 miles East of Paris, the Appellation “Champagne” applies only to the wines produced in the Champagne region of France, whose two main cities are Reims and Epernay. The three main grape varieties used in the production of Champagne are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier. There are also limits on yields, pruning, the height, the spacing and the density of the vines, to ensure harvesting by hand. Measures have also been taken to lengthen the minimum aging time to 15 months for Non-Vintage Champagnes and up to 3 years for Vintage wines.

French law prescribes that all sparkling wines created in that area must undergo a special process called the traditional or champagne method. The French term is méthode champenoise. Champagne alternatives produced in other parts of the world in accordance with the méthode champenoise are referred to as sparkling wines.
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Pinot Noir, a black grape variety with white juice gives Champagne their aromas of red fruits, as well as their strength and body. Pinot Meunier, another black grape variety with white juice, gives Champagne its roundness and fragrance. Chardonnay, a white variety provides finesse and floral overtones. Champagne labeled Blanc de Blancs means only Chardonnay is used. Blanc de Noirs on the label means only Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier are in the blend. Brut Non Vintage (about 85% of the total sold) is the wine most representative of a producer’s style. It is a blend of wines from multiple years. Vintage Champagne is produced exclusively from the wines of a single harvest. It must be 85% or more of that year and is declared only in exceptional years. Rose Champagnes are produced by either macerating the black grapes or by adding a small amount of still red wine to the blend. Special Cuvees, whether vintage-dated or not, are made from the most subtle and distinctive wines. Demi-Sec Champagnes have a slightly sweeter taste… Extra-Dry Champagnes, despite the name, are not as dry as Brut. Prestige Cuvée or Tete de Cuvee Champagne is a proprietary blended wine that is considered to be on top.
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How Champagne is made:

 

1: alcoholic fermentation- the conversion of natural sugar into alcohol, the grape juice turns into still wine.
2: assembling the wine- liquid from different harvests, and different areas are blended together.
3: bottling- the Champagne is put in bottles with yeast and sugar.
4: secondary fermentation- the yeasts turn sugar into alcohol and CO2. The carbon dioxide (CO2) cannot escape from the bottle and is dissolved in the Champagne, forming the bubbles.
5: maturation- champagne bottles are stored horizontally in natural cool and dark chalk cellar for 15 months to 3 years, or more for Prestige Cuvees.
6: dégorgement- during maturation, the winemaker rotates the bottles every day to move the sediment (lees) toward the cork. The neck of the bottles is dipped in a freezing solution, turned right side up and the sediment shoots out. The bottles are then topped off and the aging process begins.

 

You’ve seen it, in the movies, many times. Someone pops the cork and foam sprays all over the place. Well, that looks great on film but in real life, this technique ruins the champagne. Here’s how! Remove the foil and the wire from the cork. Now, hold the cork with your left hand and turn the bottle counter clockwise with your right hand. The cork will slip out with the slightest wisp of noise. The bubbles will stay in the bottle where they belong and your drink will taste the way it was meant to. People often don’t realize that many Champagnes can age for many years. While most non-vintage wines are released when ready to drink, many of the vintage and Prestige Cuvees can hold or even improve for years after release. Most vintage wines will definitely improve with age in a cool cellar.
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What do they taste like and what foods do you eat with them? In general they are bright, intense and flavorful with a lively acidity and sparkle. However, while some may be lean, tight and crisp, others are rounder, fatter and lusher. The great majority of champagnes are Brut, but some are very dry with little sugar added, such as Brut Nature or Extra Brut, while others have an added dosage of sugar to give them a bit more sweetness and softness. Some are very sweet with high levels of dosage (such as Demi-Sec or Doux). Because of the yeast fermentation in the bottle, many have a toasty, yeasty quality to their aromas and flavors that some describe as “yeasty” or “doughy”. The richer wines can also often have a buttery quality. Combined with the yeasty, doughiness they can almost be like a nicely buttered toast. The best have a silky elegance to them with complex aromas and bright lingering flavors.

Although they are often simply used for toasts and celebrations, there are many uses for these sparkling wines when entertaining. They make outstanding and elegant aperitifs. They can accompany everything from shellfish like oysters on the half shell to baked fish and poultry. They are also incredible with Asian cuisine such as Sushi and spicy Indian fare. There are some foods that are natural and perfect combinations with Champagne such as Caviar, oysters, shellfish, and salmon. Try turkey, sausages, smoked fish, poultry, dim sum and roast lamb. Sweet desserts are a difficult pairing with any wine that isn’t also sweet, but fruit desserts, light cakes and soufflés can be enhanced by full-bodied champagne.
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The origin of Taittinger can be traced to 1734, when Jacques Fourneaux established a family Champagne business making Taittinger the third oldest champagne house. His son, Jérôme, succeeded Fourneaux who as well as looking after the family business and was also advisor to the veuve (widow) Clicquot. Around 1912, Pierre-Charles Taittinger was running a business involved in the distribution and export of champagne with one of his brothers-in-law. A young cavalry officer during the First World War, he made his first visit to the 13th Century Château de la Marquetterie near Epernay. Its vineyards were planted partly with white “Chardonnay” grapes and partly with red “Pinot”, giving the vineyards the appearance of a huge chessboard in the weeks leading up to the harvest. In 1932 Pierre Taittinger succeeded in acquiring this great residence. He decided that Chardonnay was to be the dominant grape for the brand.

Editors Note- I had lunch there with the family and interviewed Vitalie Taittinger in its garden. Pierre-Emmanuel told me, “We prefer to produce fewer bottles of champagne so that each one, the moment the cork is popped, delights, enchants and demonstrates that excellence is not myth but reality.”

The house style at Taittinger is Chardonnay oriented, elegant with creamy richness. The range of wine includes several non-vintage cuvees. The Brut Réserve is 40% Chardonnay, 60% Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, and aged three years in the cellar. Brut Cuvée Prestige Rosé is 55% Pinot Noir, 15% Pinot Meunier and 30% Chardonnay. Taittinger Demi-Sec is the same blend as the Brut Réserve, but with more dosage. Created in the 2000’s Prelude, a non-vintage blend of Grand Cru sites, uses 50% Chardonnay from the Cotes des Blancs and 50% Pinot Noir from the Montagne de Reims and is aged 5 years. Taittinger Nocturne is the other new non-vintage wine, a blend of 40% Chardonnay and 60% Pinot Noir/Meunier. An amount of cane sugar is added to make it a perfect accompaniment to dessert. The Brut Millésime is 50% Chardonnay and 50% Pinot Noir. Since 1978 this has also been released as Taittinger’s Vintage Collection. Finally, there is the prestige cuvée Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs, introduced in 1952. It is 100% Chardonnay, of which 5% is aged in oak, one third new each year. There is also a Comtes de Champagne Rosé which recently has been 70% Pinot Noir, and 30% Chardonnay, again made by the addition of red wine.

Reims or Rheims is 45 minutes east-northeast of Paris and 30 minutes from Epernay and is the center of the Champagne industry. Its population of 188,000 is much larger than the 30,000 people living in Epernay. It was the ancient capital of the Gallic tribe of the Remi and was conquered by the Romans. In the 5th century the Frankish king Clovis was baptized there, and in honour of this occasion most later French kings were crowned in Reims.
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In Notre Dame Cathedral (13th-14th cent.), Joan of Arc stood next to Charles VII when he was crowned in 1429. The Cathedral is a monument of French Gothic architecture. During World War I, heavy bombing, which nearly leveled the city, destroyed the interior, including most of the irreplaceable stained-glass windows. Restored, partly with funds from the Rockefeller Foundation, it was reopened in 1938. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was the scene of 25 coronations and contains 2,300 statues, plus Chagall stained glass and a panel depicting the history and production of Champagne. Think Westminster Abbey. The town hall (17th cent.) and the old Church of St. Remi (11th-16th cent.) were also gravely damaged. It is a UNESCO World heritage Site. The other UNESCO Site is Saint-Remi Museum, adjoining the Basilica. It is devoted to history, architecture, tapestries and military history. In World War II, On May 7, 1945, German emissaries signed the unconditional surrender of Germany at Allied headquarters in Reims.

Other sites worth visiting are the Vine Museum showing the history and making of Champagne. The Museum of the Surrender, behind the railroad station, has an intact replica of General Eisenhower’s map room where the Germans surrendered. The Museum of Fine Arts has works from the 15th-20th Century.

Reims is a very walkable city (once they finish the trolley) and has many pedestrian only streets. Below ground are the chalk caves and tunnels from the Roman period where the Champagne is aging. The Amazing Race was filmed in Reims by the statue of Joan of Arc and in the offices of Taittinger and Chateau de la Marquetterie’ surrounding vineyards.
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Though the Illinois snow tried to cancel my flight, I still made it safe once more across the Atlantic to Paris, France, just in time to welcome 2010. Parisian food, art and architecture are all pluses to bring visitors to this city, but there is also the opportunity to literally walk where kings and queens have, especially a certain queen known for her fashion sense and losing her head, Marie Antoinette.

Marie Antoinette was born Maria Antonia in Austria the year 1755. (Her name was changed to sound more French). In 1770 she married Louis XVI, in 1774 she became queen. (The same year another fashion icon, Georgiana, became the Duchess of Devonshire in England and a short time later, in 1775, our George Washington assumed command of the militia). In 1793 Marie went to the guillotine.

We shall begin tracing her steps backwards from the place she met her end, to where she spent her remaining days and finish by relishing in the full splendor of the ultimate pleasure Chateau, Versailles. Don’t worry. It’s not all about history. We will also find time to shop and
eat, bien sur!
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First stop: Place du la Concorde where Marie and over a thousand others lost their heads. In fact the obelisk of Luxor marks the exact spot where Louis the XVI met his end. Metro stop Concorde will take you directly to this area. Turn one way and the Champs-Elysees and Arc de Triomphe awaits, the opposite reveals the Tuileries and the Louvre where
Mona Lisa awaits your arrival behind bullet proof glass. (That’s one lady who knows how to protect herself). If walking is not your thing, but shopping is, take metro Concorde to metro Madeline for happy little nibbles and gorgeous things at Fauchon, Hediard, La Maison du Truffle and most important, Laduree at 16 rue Royale to purchase enough macaroons and pastries to fill one of their coveted green signature bags.
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Next stop: the Conciergerie a former prison which looks like a castle on the outside, but was the last place Marie called home. Cite is the closet metro stop. The Conciergerie rests on the Ile de la Cite, the same island as Notre Dame. For an energy boost take the small bridge (behind Notre Dame) connecting Ile de la Cite to Ile St. Louis for a cone of the famous Berthillon ice cream All their flavors rock, but I highly recommend the white chocolate or salted caramel. The cherry sorbet will give a pleasant pucker. On the same Rue de St. Louis en Lâ’TIle stop by Cacao et Chocolat for cocoa covered roasted cocoa beans, chocolate covered candied orange peel and luscious hot chocolate to go.

Marie had a small cell in the Conciergerie where a replica now stands where a mannequin Marie dressed in mourning garb bows it’s head in respect for Louis XVI who proceeded Marie to the guillotine. Marie insisted on wearing the colors of mourning even though it was considered
a sign of her attempt to hold onto her aristocratic position. It was her wish to wear these colors to the end, but it was forbidden. Instead she wore a simple white dress. Another area reveals a small courtyard where a patch of sky taunted prisoners who would never be free again. While looking up notice the inner courtyard is lined with spikes to dissipate thoughts of escape.
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If saving money appeals to you, purchase a combo ticket for both the Conciergerie and Sainte Chapelle to save a couple euro. Be warned, the line to Sainte Chapelle (a Gothic chapel) takes awhile because of a
security check. If you are hungry after both visits, and you know you will be, cross the street, boulevard du Palais, to find a lovely cafe, Les Deux Palais, awaiting you with delicious, and actually quick, steak and fries.

Our final stop is Versailles. Originally, Versailles began life as a hunting lodge of sorts, and grew into a place that when you visit you will think to yourself “These people had more money than they knew what to do with.” Grass not pleasing enough? Marble the outside courtyard. Look as far as you can see; that’s just the garden. To get to
Versailles you will need to take a RER train (Rick Steve’s Paris map shows all metro and RER stops throughout the city) Purchase a roundtrip ticket, and save those tickets, you will need them to get back out. (Mine required validation at the beginning, but when I returned I needed the second ticket to get out of the turnstile at my original starting point). Go early. Go early. Go early. Got the hint? Be there at 9 a.m. for opening time, or wait in an insanely long line. My favorite spot is the Hall of Mirrors. Marie walked through here on her way to her wedding, and even the treaty to end the First World War was signed in this room in 1919. To me it is pure decadence, which is the way I prefer to remember Marie Antoinette living her life.
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For more information
www.chateauversailles.fr,
www.cacaoetchocolat.com,
read Queen of Fashion by Caroline Weber to see how fashion can bring about both power and destruction,
watch the DVD Marie Antoinette starring Kirsten Dunst before and after your visit to Versailles.

Victoria L. Cooksey is the author of three cookbooks including Cooking
with Cooksey. She travels as often as possible. Contact Victoria at
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Cleopatra floating on her royal barge along the Nile could not have felt more pampered or majestic than I floating along the canals of the Loire Valley aboard Le Bon Vivant. There I was, happily soaking in the hot tub on the fore deck, sipping a tall cool glass of excellent Champagne, and watching the very blond and handsome Captain Gaetan vacuuming the deck. Ah yes, I thought, this is the life.
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Le Bon Vivant began her life as a river barge, carrying grain from one point to another. At a ripe old age she went into retirement and almost extinction. Fortunately she was rescued by New Zealander, Steve Pope and his French partner, Martine Gibelin, who had something else in mind for her. She was stripped to her bare beams inside and out, then lovingly restored, decorated and totally transformed into a floating 5 star hotel, joining her French Waterways sister barges La Bonne Humeur and La Bonne Amie, complete with luxurious bed linens and heated towel racks. Every detail was carefully planned and executed by Steve and Martine. Even the table linens were coordinated with the various sets of fine china, crystal and silverware.

Steve picked me up from my hotel in Paris in the French Waterways minivan. We made a stop at Orly Airport to pick up Martine, along with Kerry and Nita Grinkmeyer, who were going to share my weeklong cruise. The two other couples who were scheduled to join us had to cancel at the last minute because of business problems.
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We arrived at Le Bon Vivant, moored just outside Chatillon sur Loire, by mid afternoon and were greeted by the crew of four: Captain Gaetan (French), Chef Mark (English), Deck-hand-maid, server, tour guide Marie-Aurélie (French) and cheese and wine expert, tour guide, maid, server Rachel (English). Chef Mark had prepared a extravagant assortment of small tidbits and served cooled Champagne to welcome us on board.

Steve took us on a tour of the boat, explaining where everything was located: bikes on the fore deck, mineral water in the small refrigerator in the dining room, pausing to show us how to operate the Bose sound system. He pointed out that the bar was stocked with the drinks we had requested on the French Waterways questionnaire. Accommodating a maximum of eight passengers, there were four air-conditioned staterooms below deck, each with private bath, . My room was decorated in a charming blue and yellow Provençal pattern. The queen-sized bed was beautifully made with extravagant sheets and soft down pillows and duvet. The closet was big enough to accommodate my cruise wardrobe, with space for hanging garments and shelves for my other clothing. The well-lit bathroom had an enclosed shower, plenty of counter space for my personal items, a hairdryer and offered an assortment of fluffy yellow towels. The Grinkmeyer’s room had a similar floor plan and was decorated in soft blues and violets.
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After showing us around, Steve informed us that Le Bon Vivant was our home for the week and all we had to do was ask for whatever we wanted. Then he and Martine departed, leaving Kerry, Nita and me a little breathless.

Captain Gaetan told us Le Bon Vivant would remain tied up overnight, so we were free until dinnertime to walk into the village and investigate the incredible water bridge. Designed by Gustave Eiffel, and constructed between 1890 and 1894, the Briare Canal Bridge crosses over the Loire River and joins the Seine to the Saône rivers. Looking like something from an old amusement park ride, the middle of the bridge was a continuation of the canal, just wide enough and with water just deep enough to accommodate barges the size of Le Bon Vivant. There were walkways on either side to facilitate strollers, bikers, baby carriages and a multitude of other conveyances.

Chef Mark prepared a sumptuous feast that evening, including a beautifully executed salmon terrine, roast duck accented with a wild currant sauce, followed by a selection of local cheese and finished with compote of fresh berries. Rachel carefully chose a variety of wines to compliment each dish.
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Early the next morning, Captain Gaetan gave the order to cast off, and, as we sat eating our breakfast of heavenly fresh croissants and assorted baked goods, slowly navigated the Canal Bridge. Moving at the leisurely slow pace of three knots gave us ample time to enjoy the scenery. The canal wanders through a constantly changing landscape of farmlands, vineyards, forests of huge plane and poplar trees, dotted here and there with an assortment of châteaux and country estates.

Approaching the first écluse, or lock, the crew sprang into action. The lockkeeper slowly cranked open the giant gates to allow water to rise level with the canal on which we were waiting. He closed them again after Gaetan carefully eased the boat into the narrow opening, rather like threading a needle. Then, the gates at the opposite end were opened allowing the water to lower until it was level with the canal on that side. There are numerous locks along the way, some of them automatic but most of them old, even ancient, and had to be hand cranked. At some of the locks, Kerry, Nita and I got off our barge and either walked or rode the bikes along the path that followed alongside the waterway. Everyday around noon we would tie up for the day and enjoy a delicious multi course lunch.

Later, Rachel or Marie-Auriéle would drive us in the mini-van to a local museum, château, vineyard or other places of interest. We visited the famous Musée de la Faïencerie de Gien and fell in love with the delightful assortment of tea sets for children, displayed on tiny painted wood china cabinets. We went to Briare’s renowned enamel and mosaic museum with its extensive button collection and marveled over a black and white mosaic of the Mona Lisa. We trekked through a lovely vineyard in Sancerre, stopping for welcome tastes of deliciously cool wine then packaging a few of the precious bottles for consumption later. Kerry opted to take an early morning hot air balloon ride while Marie-Auriéle and I followed in the mini-van, pausing now and then for me to take photos. Nita chose to sleep in that morning. We made a special trip to le crottin de Chavignol, a famous goat farm where they make the most extraordinary cheese. Late in the day we would return to Le Bon Vivant for a refreshing soak in the hot tub, while sipping champagne and nibbling on small tidbits of caviar covered toasts, fresh vegetables, foie gras and smoked salmon.
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The days slowly passed by. The weather was glorious and we spent most of our time and ate almost every meal out on the large deck. We covered a remarkable 65 miles during the 6-day cruise. Most people travel that far in an hour. But the slow pace worked its magic on me and I could feel all the tension and stress of my normal daily life slipping away. Our every need was thought out and met by the crew. The water temperature in the hot tub was lowered. Mark discussed the menus and asked our preference on dishes he suggested. Rachel consulted us on wine choices. My bike was handed over the rail and ready for me when I was. Fresh towels were provided constantly. Gaetan gave me a lesson in navigation. Marie-Auriéle showed me how to assist with the lines at the locks. Wine or water was poured as we drank. A daily list of possible places to visit was presented for our afternoon excursions. Extra water was taken on our mini-van jaunts. Gaetan and Mark even taught me how to play Boules.
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On our last night, moored in Montargis, we sat under the stars enjoying another of Marc’s gastronomic extravaganzas. We savored each mouthful of lobster bisque, herb roasted chicken with crisp fingerling potatoes and buttered green beans, followed by an extraordinary selection of cheese and finished with homemade strawberry ice cream And, as usual, a selection of perfectly chosen wines were offered with each course.

We were reluctant to say goodnight, knowing that the next day we would be propelled back into our busy, stressful lifestyles. I wanted to hang on to the moment of total relaxation for a while longer. I found I had gotten quite used to having my every need taken care of and being pampered and feeling like royalty.
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While recently solo traveling in Paris, France I had the pleasure of participating in a French cooking class through Marguerite’s Elegant Home
Cooking. Attending a cooking class is a great way to take time out from being lonely, meet new friends, and learn new skills all at once. Just a few extra Euros covers the cost of a market visit before the class.
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Muriel-Marguerite Foucher’s website, www.elegantcooking.com, lists a full year’s worth of available cooking class schedules.
Tel/Fax: 33.(0)1.42.04.74.00. Her cooking stations accommodate eight participants, and special group classes may also be arranged. On the day I attended the class the recipes included papillotes vertes de cabillaud au
gingembre, croustillants au sesame, and crème au Muscat (cod fish marinated in white wine, lime and ginger then cooked in cabbage leaves
and sesame cookies with pistachios and a Muscat wine cream with grapes dipped in caramel sauce as a garnish).
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My group included two women friends traveling together, a family group of a mother, father, thirteen-year-old son and a sixteen-year-old daughter, a woman who was living in Paris for six months while her daughter studied the
French language, and myself. Our tour of the open air market at Neuilly lasted an hour and included information about the quality ratings classifications for produce, meats and cheeses, how to tell which
ingredients are the freshest, and even a few tasty samples of fruit and vegetables. Following the tour we traveled to Muriel-Marguerite’s
home to begin cooking, two people per station. Everyone received personal attention and easy to follow instructions, along with a printed copy of each
recipe. As a bonus, at the end no one had to worry about washing the dishes.

We enjoyed our delicious lunch (wine provided by Muriel-Marguerite) in Muriel-Marguerite’s dining room. One of her sons was home from school over his lunch break, so the younger participants of the class had
someone their age to relate to. We were also able to ask Muriel-Marguerite questions about French customs and even received some tasty recommendations for restaurants.
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From start to finish the market tour, cooking, and dining lasted 5 and ½ hours which cost approximately 110 Euros. Muriel-Marguerite speaks both French and English fluently, so all the information given is easy to understand. I would recommend this class for travelers of any age as long as they can manage walking up one flight of steps to the kitchen.

Bon appetit!