European travel

Wildlife / migration around Kusini Camp, Serengeti, Tanzania, March 2006.

What do Bill Gates, Hillary and Chelsea, Martina Navratilova and Prince Charles have in common? They’ve all taken an Abercrombie and Kent safari in Tanzania. I figured that’s a pretty good recommendation.

As little as five years ago, some Americans still thought of Tanzania as an exotic destination; now more and more are choosing it as a vacation alternative to Kenya. And when most people think Tanzania, they think Serengeti. They picture millions of wildebeest and zebras stretching endlessly across the plains in their annual migration during the dry season.

Tanzania; Ngorongoro Crater Pond
Tanzania; Ngorongoro Crater Pond

Although A&K’s Tanzania Wildlife Safari includes the Serengeti, as well as Lake Manyara, I’d trade those “Endless Plains” for the relatively tiny expanse of the nearby Ngorongoro Crater. Spanning only 102 square miles, this 2 1/2 million-year-old volcanic crater is a virtual microcosm of all East Africa. Just about every conceivable species of wildlife is represented, which makes the Ngorongoro Crater the only place of its kind in the world! Unlike the other parks, the Crater is the only place to see and photograph the wealth of wildlife without high-powered binoculars or large telephoto camera lens.

Despite the many animals visible alongside the road in all the parks, for the most part it’s a constant quest for viewing privileges, necks craned, eyes strained, heads bobbing from side to side hoping to be the hero in the jeep to make the next sighting. The Crater, instead, is Mother Nature’s Zoo — a huge expanse of wild creatures surprisingly willing to share their open spaces, with each other as well as us. From the hatched-roof vehicles, designed for ultimate sightseeing, we leer, gawk, ooh, ah, jump up, sit down, jump up again, all the while snapping picture after picture, while the animals pretend to ignore us.

It’s hard to describe the wonder of a leviathan elephant whose tusks almost reach the ground, a black-maned lion baring his teeth or half-a-dozen adolescent zebras cavorting around a waterhole within feet of the jeep. Home to some 30,000 animals, I felt I had climbed into the Discovery Channel.

Tanzania; Serengeti; Elephant
Tanzania; Serengeti; Elephant

The highlight of the Crater is the endangered black rhino, of which only 26 are left. As in the days of Hemingway, when he and his hunting cronies were obsessed with tracking down The Big Five — rhino, elephant, lion, leopard and cape buffalo — poaching remains the biggest threat to the future of the rhino population. Not unlike Hemingway, the goal of many safari participants is also to pursue these most elusive, and dangerous, of prey. Their sport, however, is to shoot photos, not rifles. My safari mates and I — 11 of us total — saw all five beasts, an accomplishment in which we took great pride. Considering its menace, the rhino doesn’t seem to do much. I guess when you’re the second largest animal around, there’s not all that much incentive to move. In contrast, the graceful loping antelope is a much more spirited animal.

Tanzania; Ngorongoro Crater; Rhino
Tanzania; Ngorongoro Crater; Rhino

Little did I know prior to my trip that an antelope is not itself an animal but a generic term that covers a wide range of creatures, ranging from an 11-pound dik dik to a 2000-pound eland. Also springboks, riverbucks, hardebeest, wildebeest, impalas, topis and gazelles among others, with horns from curved to straight, twisted to rippled, rounded to wavy. The list goes on as far as the antelope can run. The imploded crater, the largest of its type in the world, provides both temporary and permanent residence for its vast hordes of wildlife dwellers. So many animals peacefully coexisting — at least on the surface. Hyenas, zebras, wildebeest, ostriches, elephants, lions, warthogs, hippos, baboons, cheetahs, leopards — and that’s just for starters! The latter two, especially, are rare safari finds — and among the most sought after by experienced safari-goers.

We novices got lucky. Not only did we see two leopards virtually indistinguishable from the tree branches they were wound around, but also a family of cheetahs frolicking nearby. I was mesmerized by the four cubs romping and rolling over each other, periodically returning to mom for a little grooming and reassurance. She, on the other hand, was eyeing several gazelles about a quarter-mile away. We watched, some more anxiously than others, while they played a little cat and gazelle game, as mama debated whether or not to go and bring back lunch. Prey and predator eyeing each other, each evaluating its position, flirting with danger one moment, retreating the next. You can feel the tension, irrevocably caught up in the life-and-death dance that forms the very essence of their existence. I was both relieved and disappointed when mama decided against take-out. And sometimes success — depending, of course, from whose perspective — is obvious. Case in point: the lion whose matted mane was so close, I could see his whiskers tremble, his stomach visibly distended, clearly indicating how well he had feasted the night before. Our guide, Joseph’s input: thirty to forty pounds of raw meat will satiate him for 4-5 days. What a way to live! I, on the other hand, was ready for lunch.

Tanzania; Serengeti; Lion
Tanzania; Serengeti; Lion

One of the most intriguing photo ops was of a vast flock of flamingoes, numbering in the thousands, occupying most of Lake Magadi, a shallow soda lake on the bottom of the crater. They resembled a feathery pink blanket stretched out along the shoreline. Through Joseph’s well-trained, eagle-eyed and extremely knowledgeable tutelage, we were soon all amateur zoologists, identifying a previously generic starling as a Ruppells long-tailed glossy or the ubiquitous antelope as a hardebeest or Grant’s gazelle. By the sixth day, it was “Don’t bother getting up, it’s just another herd of elephants!”

A travel story is often enhanced by the obstacles overcome, but on this particular trip, I was out of luck. The sun was brighter, the accommodations nicer, the food better, the flies less bothersome, the dust lighter than I had been led to expect. Although I understand this to be rare, I actually returned to my hotel with clothes still resembling the color they started out with. Be forewarned, this is not always the case.

The roads were another story, a definite obstacle that can’t be overcome unless you walk — which is definitely frowned upon in the wild! Anyone with back problems, or allergies for that matter, should probably not even consider the trip.

Seated on my hotel balcony at 7:30 a.m. the last morning, I listened to a concerto of birdcalls as I observed two Thompson’s gazelles romping about with a topi. A small flock of guinea hens grazed within 50 yards, assiduously avoiding a passing wart hog.

Tanzania; Serengeti
Tanzania; Serengeti

But what especially struck me was the presence of all the other animals, hidden in grass and shrubs, that I knew I was not seeing. Occupying those omnipresent endless plains were millions of hoofed animals continually on the move in search of pasture for survival, constantly watched and pursued by the many predators whose own survival depends on feeding off them. For a while, I watched for the slightest movement, as a hungry predator might do as it seeks its next meal. Then, I reluctantly left for home, knowing that this strange combination of imposing terrain, tenuous commingling of wildlife and inevitable brutal killings will continue long after I’m gone. Welcome to the harsh — and wonderful — realities of nature. For more information, visit abercrombiekent.com or contact Abercrombie & Kent at 800/554-7094.

 

 

The year is 1645. The most virulent strain of the Bubonic Plague has immobilized Edinburgh, Scotland, claiming the lives of more than half the city’s population. The area hardest hit: Mary King’s Close on High Street, a busy thoroughfare and lively 17th century street of pubs, shops and residences. Cries of suffering have replaced the friendly chatter, and the stench of death, the pungent aroma of tea and scones.

The place, the time, the horror have been resurrected as one of Edinburgh’s most unusual attractions. Archaeologically and historically accurate, the alleys you walk upon, the rooms you visit, the stories you hear are real. This is not a recreation; it is a resurrection of what already existed so many centuries ago.

Beneath the City Chambers on Edinburgh’s famous Royal Mile, lies Mary King’s Close, a series of narrow, winding side streets with multi-level apartment houses looming on either side, which has been hidden for many years. In 1753, the houses at the top of the buildings were knocked down to make way for the then-new building. Parts of the lower sections were used as the foundation, leaving below a number of dark and mysterious underground alleyways steeped in mystery — and misery.
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The exhibit breathes new life into this underground world dominated by death. Reconstructed as it was then –- though without any contagious aspects –- the Real Mary King’s Close provides amazing insight into a period of history with which many are totally unfamiliar –- and it’s been preserved in an authentic environment and historically accurate depiction that defies most “commercial” historical reproductions.
It is eerie meandering up and down along dark, circuitous unpaved passageways, beaten down earth floors (good walking shoes are a must; wheelchair accessible it is not) –- past room after room, each with its own story to tell –- a projection of people who lived in the Close in the mid-16th-19th centuries. I almost feel an intruder, the subtle lighting enhancing the effects of a shadowy past.
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The inhabitants — ranging from those gracing a grand 16th century townhouse to plague victims of the 17th century to the third-generation saw makers who departed in 1902, when the last section was finally interred — are not composites of might-have-beens; the lives recounted are based on real people gleaned from primary documentation (written at the time) and preserved in the Scottish Office of Records and its archives.
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Lighting conveys the supernatural nature of the attraction as much as does the narrative. Only “practicals” –- original methods of lighting the dwellings –- are used, re-creating the actual lighting conditions of the 17th-18th centuries. Candle light illuminates one room, while the glow of firelight casts its spell in another. A single low-watt light bulb brings others into hazy focus.

The dark hallways are lit by lantern-like “bowats,” providing only as much light as was necessary to light the streets at night. The lighting levels in each room are just enough to highlight its architectural features, furniture or inhabitants –- no more or less than was available to the tenants at the time. The concept of atmospheric lighting takes on a whole new dimension.

Rounding one curve reveals a large window, lit by a gloomy, greenish, unhealthy light. A doctor emerges, tending to bed-ridden figures, covered with sores, boils and diseased skin. It’s the home of John Craig, a grave-digger who has already succumbed to the “visitation of the pestilence,” his body awaiting “collection.”

His wife, Janet, and three sons suffer from varying stages of the deadly malady. The Doctor is lancing a boil on the eldest son, Johnnie, with a hot iron to seal and disinfect the wound. Repellant odors arising from the family chamber pot of vomit provide a little more “reality” than even today’s cable TV has prepared me for. By the door there is bread, ale and coal delivered to the quarantined family. The townspeople want to ensure the afflicted stay in their homes, so the healthy have good reason to give generously.

And therein lies the tragedy of Mary King’s Close -– much of its history parallels that of the plague. The epidemic struck its residents fiercely; as the deaths rose, the bodies accumulated outside to be carried away by those designated to perform the loathsome task. Mary King’s Close was a pariah in the neighborhood –- and ultimately fell victim to its own diseased fate. It disappeared, as well.

With more than two dozen stops along the tour path — each accompanied by an intriguing bit of personal history –- I became intimately acquainted with the residents who lived there.
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Mary King herself, of course, who moved here with her four children in 1629 after her husband died. You’ll get to meet her personally and boy, does she have some good stories to tell!

While listening to the story of another early dweller, the narration is interrupted by a scream from across the way. We quickly run to see what happened. The widow Allison Rough, murder weapon in hand, is standing over her son-in-law Alexander Cant, a prominent Burgess of Edinburgh, whose body lay on the floor –- the dowry agreement over which they have been fighting still in his hand. Events leading up to the murder, as well as its aftermath, are wound into a true-to-life rendition of Allison’s memorable life.

Similar stories, some enthralling, others bizarre –- all authenticated by original documentation –- abound as we wend our way around the windy, up-and-down corridors. Shifts in lighting reflect the various circumstances. Not to mention the assorted ghosts (the only residents not authenticated by original documentation) who are said to inhabit the property.

Edinburgh native Jennifer West is awed by this backyard discovery. “This really brings to life all the stories I’ve heard over the years about this part of the city’s history. It’s hard to grasp that these underground chambers were once bustling street-side shops.”

One of the most important — and saddest — among a multitude of rooms that witnessed much sadness is one in which eight-year-old Annie died of the plague in 1645. A Japanese psychic, visiting in 1992, could barely enter the room because of all the misery she felt there. As she turned away, she claimed to feel a tug at her leg. Annie, in rags with long dirty hair, was standing by the window, crying because she had lost her family, her dog and her doll. The psychic brought Annie a doll to comfort her –- and people from around the world have been leaving trinkets and toys ever since.

Key chains, jewelry, dolls, stuffed animals line the walls as a shrine to the sad little child who has long since passed away. ”What a sad story,” laments 10-year-old Harriet Peterson, visiting from London. She slowly adds the small stuffed teddy bear she is hugging to the other offerings.
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There was a lot of life lived within these buildings –- and a lot of lives lost. As one of the most fascinating and unique walks –- literally — through history I’ve yet to tread, the unsettling stories, the ethereal lighting, the serpentine alleyways remained with me, even as I explored the many other, more traditional sites of Historic Edinburgh.

The Real Mary King’s Close is open daily, with tours at 15-minute intervals. Price is adults, $23; children 5-15, $13; seniors and students, $20. For more information, please contact: VisitBritain at 1-877/899-8391 or visit www.realmarykingsclose.com.

Just 51 miles long and 35 miles wide, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg is one of the smallest countries in the world, yet it has all the ingredients of a large country, from modern euro-city to wooded countryside.

Confusingly Luxembourg is the name of the capital city as well as the country, but more of that later.

Our base for the trip was the picture-perfect village of Vianden, thirty miles from the capital and just six miles from the border with Germany. Its main attraction is a gloriously theatrical medieval castle perched on an outcrop overlooking the town. The castle has been the subject of considerable renovation and is well worth the walk up the steep streets or, in summer, a ride on the chairlift.

A great centre for touring on foot, bicycle, car or coach, it is famous for the nut market, usually held on the second Sunday in October. This celebrates the area’s history of walnut production. At one time, a fifth of all Luxembourg’s walnut trees grew in Vianden`s orchards. Now all kinds of walnut based products are on sale at the market including, walnut milk, walnut confectionary, walnut cheese, walnut bread, walnut sausages and (the very potent) walnut liquors and brandy. Indeed, these are so potent that all leave is cancelled at the nearest hospital and a fleet of ambulances stands at the ready on the edge of the village, which is closed to traffic during the event.

French author Victor Hugo stayed in Vianden on several occasions between 1862 and 1871 and during those times was inspired to record its beauty and setting in poetry and prose. In modern day PR terms, Hugo did a good job of promoting Vianden’s attractions to the outside world.
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Less than an hour’s drive brought us to the capital, Luxembourg City, which evolved from a 10th century fortress on a rocky promontory with steep drops to the river below. We had a guided tour of the sights including the Hotel de Ville (Town Hall). Originally a monastery for Franciscan Monks, it was re-modelled in 1838 for its current purpose.
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Another building worth seeing is the Grand Ducal Palace, a modest chateau and official residence of Grand Duke Henri, the reigning monarch. It is guarded by a single soldier, a reflection perhaps that this city is renowned for its safety. It is also a great place for some retail therapy but ladies would do well to forget the heels and wear flat shoes, the cobblestones can be hard to negotiate otherwise.

Luxembourg is well known as a world banking centre and home to the European Court of Justice. This part of the city is built across a bridge on another plateau and full of modern glass and concrete edifices. It was interesting to take a look but there is so much more this country has to offer.

The Moselle river forms a natural 25 mile natural boundary between Luxembourg and Germany and we hopped over to the ancient town of Trier, arguably Germany’s oldest city and dating back to the first century BC. It contains many fascinating buildings from its Roman past, perhaps none more spectacular than the ‘Porta Nigra’ or black gate, which was built around 200 AD.
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The banks of the Moselle contain many vineyards, the main product of which is Riesling, for which Luxembourg is famous. Some of this wine is turned into a smooth sparkling wine called Cremant, using the ‘methode champenoise’. We visited a vineyard, saw the wines being produced and were offered generous samples. The locals are very hospitable. It was a good job we were on a coach trip!

Just when you think this little country has run out of surprises, up pops another. On our way back from the vineyards we drove through an area called Little Switzerland. No, it doesn’t have any mountains, just some rocky outcrops, woodland and a much photographed waterfall.
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It’s a great place to enjoy the fresh air while crunching along the woodland trails, or for the more adventurous, hiking or mountain biking. The Perekop rock is almost 130 ft high, overhangs the road and daredevils can take the staircase carved out of a narrow crevice in the rock to its summit. Watch out if you are driving!
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For such a small country, Luxembourg really does pack in a wide variety of attractions and scenery and, despite being bordered by the much larger France, Germany and Belgium, it is proud of its individuality. The country’s motto is, ‘Mir wëlle bleiwe wat mir sin’ (‘We want to remain what we are’). A strong motto for a small land, but then the Grand Duchy is very much its own country.

For more information, visit www.luxembourg.com

What do William Wordsworth, William Yeats and Jemima Puddle-Duck have in common? Well, they all lived in and around the fairy-tale villages of England’s Lake District, but only one of them actually is a fairy tale. And possibly the most famous of the three — at least among the under-10 set. Ms. Puddle-Duck, along with her good friends and neighbors, Peter Rabbit, Samuel Whiskers and Pickles among many others, were brought to life by Beatrix Potter, another famous resident of the Lake District — and the one most responsible for maintaining the environmental integrity of the area since her death in 1943 when she donated 14 properties to the National Trust thereby preserving much of the land that now comprises the Lake District National Park.

Okay, is there anyone who actually made it through childhood without at least a cursory introduction to Peter rabbit, Flopsy and Mopsy and that mean old farmer McGregor? Well, this is where they lived until Beatrix caught them and immortalized them forever in little 5” by 4”-sized books.

Her books sold more than any other children’s stories ever although I suspect Pat the Bunny, Peter’s more tactile cousin, has since given him a run for his money…

So first, something about that Lake District which Beatrix Potter so loved. The countryside is so tantalizingly green the color needs a new more enchanting name.

Quintessentially English replete with requisite sheep, rolling hedgerows, low slung stone walls criss-crossing the landscape into checkerboard squares, slate-roofed stone houses, and hot pink, orange-gold and deep purple explosions of color so vibrant as to rival the most brightly lit of neon Nikes so popular today. And by contrast, in the middle of the district, craggy mountainous regions lend an even more dramatic flair. And, oh yes, then there are the lakes — 16 of them; ergo, the District’s name.
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A world so clichely picturesque, with OMG moments at every turn, which serves to explain the many artists who flocked here to replicate its beauty on canvas. An entire expanse of visual wonderment extending for miles in every direction that makes scenic overlook signs ridiculously redundant. All of which is a walker’s wonderland with public footpaths as plentiful on every country road as Starbucks are on every street corner in the U.S. No wonder Beatrix Potter fell in love.

I saw so many rabbits scampering about as we hiked the countryside, I felt this was an open invitation — as it must have been for Beatrix — to follow them further into their world, even if that turned out to be a very commercial but wonderfully inventive, creative, interactive enterprise appropriately nicknamed The World of Peter Rabbit. But more on that later.

And splattered throughout the countryside are hilly historic towns with cobblestone streets and hidden alleyways that now sport shops, pubs and curbside cafes, with such lyrical names as Branthwaite Brow, All Hollows and Beast Bank Lane. And a lot more stone, this time on buildings, many from the 16th-18th centuries, evoking memories of Renaissance–era maidens and merchants plying their trade, oblivious to the KFC establishment right across the street.

But there is nothing modern about a visit to Hill Top, Beatrix Potter’s home for 38 years and the site of many of her creations’ adventures. Many homes reflect the personalities of their owners — and sometimes even their pets. But rarely is a home so filled with the immediacy of its owner’s creations as is Hill Top, first purchased in 1905, that they appear so alive as to permeate not only the house but the surrounding village and countryside, all of which became additional characters in what were soon to become a series of beloved children’s books. And once you enter the grounds and garden of Hill Top, with all its original furnishings, you are transported back to the world as it was until the day she died. Except for the occasional young visitor who has been known to ask the guides, “So is she Harry Potter’s granny?”
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Pick up “A Tale of Samuel Whiskers” lying about as you walk in and follow the book’s tale as you see the holes where the mice lived that threatened Tom Kitten! You can accompany Pigland Bland as he wanders thru the village and seek to protect Jemima Puddle-Duck’s egg as it lays hidden in the rhubarb patch. You can almost hear the Two Bad Mice discussing the ham and cheese that don’t seem quite edible because they are, of course, from Beatrix’s doll house which is right in front of you in the parlor.
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And not only her stories — but her life. Her desks contain letters she wrote, often illustrated with little cartoons and drawings; the first edition of Peter Rabbit, which started simply as a story written in letter form in September 1893 to cheer up a sick son of her former governess, is available for viewing.

The whole house becomes alive through the illustrations in her stories – or is it that the illustrations become alive because they re-create the reality of her home? The parlor contains a table with some partially eaten biscuits and some correspondence Beatrix was evidently in the process of completing — clearly she is expected to return at any moment…

So much of the house, the grounds and the village reflected in the books remain unchanged, you can relive the delightful tales of your youth in a way no perfunctory read in your own living room can provide.

And indeed every area shop seemingly sells some version of Peter Rabbit. memorabilia. Emblematic of how much he invades the neighborhood, when my husband and I stopped at a local pub for some requisite fish and chips, he asked about the soup of the day. When told by the bartender that it was carrot, he quipped: How appropriate. No doubt Peter Rabbit’s favorite…”
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And remember the rabbits cavorting in the countryside? Well, here’s where their namesake really comes alive. In the downtown section of Bowness-on-Windermere there stands a very different testimonial to the creations of Beatrix Potter. More commercial perhaps but no less intriguing. The World of Beatrix Potter Attractions, unconnected with the National Trust preservation of Hill Top, offers an animated version of all 23 of Potter’s tales brought to life in an indoor re-creation of the Lake District countryside she loved and her lovable characters inhabited complete with sights, sounds and smells.

I mean how thrilling is it to find that Jemima Puddle-Duck was a real duck that lived at Hill Top whose efforts to hatch her own eggs, thwarted by a conniving fox nearby, were protected by Kep the collie, Beatrix’s favorite sheepdog. You can’t get more real life than that — and we’re talking cartoon characters!

Throughout the attraction are life-size dioramas of scenes from her books, sometimes comprising an entire forest, that it’s hard to imagine that they were once only illustrations in a book the size of 4X5 inches. The whole exhibit replicates a stroll through Beatrix Potter’s home and garden.
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Each exhibit entreats the viewer to press a “Find out more” button which provides an explanation of what inspired Beatrix to write that particular story and how she developed those particular characters. Each larger-than-life display lifts the characters from the page to inhabit your consciousness in a way few fairy-tales — or for that matter, adult literary protagonists — ever will. There is so much background information about each character — and there are dozens — that it is almost impossible to absorb it all unless you are a very devoted Beatrix Potter aficionado. It’s a journey through a lifetime of literature.

Adele Wilson from Scotland, with nary a kid in tow was so obviously enthralled by the exhibits that I couldn’t resist asking why. “My granny used to read these books to me at night, and seeing these presentations brings it all back to life. I had forgotten how much I had loved all those stories.” She isn’t alone.

For more information, visit http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/hill-top and http://www.peterrabbit.com/en/beatrix_potter/lake_district/the_world_of_beatrix_potter_attraction.

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.