City of Lourdes OR Who Knew?

The  City of Lourdes hit the big time in 1858 when a peasant girl of 14, one Bernadette Soubirous, experienced visions (appearances?) of Our Lady of Lourdes in a cave alongside the River Gave de Pau.  From that auspicious beginning of an eventual 18 appearances came the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes, the church that the Virgin Mary asked to be built.  And indeed it was, right over that humble cave…

In 2022, at the city of Lourdes, CrossCountry Bob had a vision of his own. It wasn’t in the same elite category as that of Saint Bernadette (canonized after her death in 1879), but it was significant to CrossCountry Bob just the same.  It happened simply enough. There was a procession on the grounds in front of the church (for what CrossCountry Bob wasn’t sure) and in that procession was CrossCountry Bob 60 years ago.  Well, not CrossCountry Bob exactly, but an altar boy just like CrossCountry Bob was all those many years ago,

Way back then, CrossCountry Bob didn’t get to swing the incense lamp.  No sir, that was reserved for the priest.  And the priest in Ocean Falls was the man.  And when CrossCountry Bob, during a Mass, zoned out a bit, forcing the priest to rap his knuckles on the altar to get CrossCountry Bob’s attention to get off his knees and light some candles or open a prayer book (CrossCountry Bob’s memory is vague on exactly what), well, that was the beginning of the end of the altar boy career of CrossCountry Bob. He was changing.  A chewing out after the Mass by the priest sped things along (being nice is not a requisite personality trait for a priest, as young CrossCountry Bob learned right then).

So now, after sixty years, CrossCountry Bob had a faint smile for that altar boy in the procession at Lourdes, wondering how his journey would turn out.  He seemed to exhibit the same fading enthusiasm that CrossCountry Bob once had on his transition from altar boy to, well, someone with a more practical view of us humans

And that is all CrossCountry Bob has to say about Lourdes…oh, other than the place (population 14,000 give or take) somehow handles more than 6 million visitors every year. It has been said that Lourdes has more hotel rooms that any other city in France except for Paris.  That tells you something.

While all this was happening, CrossCountry Bob and Paintin’ Peggie were staying at a cabin in a small village called Omex about five kilometres outside Lourdes.  The French countryside in the shadow of the Pyrenees was a fine place to be (once you found out where you were as CrossCountry Bob got entirely lost finding the AirB&B cabin and ended up on a goat trail halfway up a mountain.  The GPS was as lost in the narrow jigsaw puzzle of lanes as CrossCountry Bob.  Now picture CrossCountry Bob and Paintin’ Peggie knocking on a village door and having a nice French lady try to give directions when she didn’t speak a word of English.  Small wonders occurred as CrossCountry Bob’s brain dredged up a few French words from high school French and figured out it was the beige colored house with the black roof that we could just see from where we stood while the French lady motored on in French, gesticulating, trying to be as helpful as she could.  Eventually, a cousin of our host, who spoke some English, found and rescued us from the medieval maze that is a feature (flaw) of so many French villages.

Paintin’ Peggie swinging in Omex, happy after we found our Air B&B!

After settling in at Omex, the Pyrenees came up Aces, especially when CrossCountry Bob and Paintin’ Peggie hiked into the Cirque de Gavarnie.  The Pyrenees may not have the vastness of the Coast Mountains or the Rockies but certainly have their own cachet.

And then it was time to turn towards Spain.  Up and more up on a winding secondary French road towards a high pass through the Pyrenees pass.  But one last thing about France… there is an unlimited supply of fascinating secondary roads, many seemingly descended from the wagon tracks of the medieval days (so figures CrossCountry Bob based on all the stone bridges still in use).

Bye, bye to the (insane) bungee jumper and France. CrossCountry Bob and Paintin’ Peggie drove up, up and….up, and then there was the “frontera de España”.  El Portalet Pass, elevation 1,798 meters (5,898 feet).

Notice there is no snow yet.  Every day so far has been over 20 degrees with just the odd shower (Paintin’ Peggie is a good luck charm when it comes to weather).

Then, at last, CrossCountry Bob and Paintin’ Peggie were sliding down into Spain and CrossCountry Bob was sure happy to see those highway signs in Spanish that he could actually understand.

The Spanish side

“Bienvenidos a España” says CrossCountry Bob.

“What?” says Paintin’ Peggie.

 “Welcome to Spain”, says CrossCountry Bob.

The Dordogne Region OR Going Where the Tourists Aren’t

The title is true but not entirely accurate, meaning there are tourists everywhere in France, there are just far less of them in Dordogne because you need a car to experience the area (there are no trains and few buses).  That was fine with CrossCountry Bob as a rental car is his preferred mode of travel in any event.  Stop when you want; stop where you want; and perhaps most importantly, stop AWAY from the tour buses (when CrossCountry Bob sees flocks of tour buses the usual result is a snappy U-turn).  Often, the so called “lesser” sites are just as fine and, with no crowds, more than fine.  Besides, Paintin’ Peggie prefers to paint and draw or take photos without tourists cluttering the composition.

The centre of the Dordogne region and the base for CrossCountry Bob and Paintin’ Peggie was Sarlat-le-Caneda.  CrossCountry Bob booked a bed & breakast there, something he rarely does (not so private and neighbours for breakfast are a couple of CrossCountry Bob’s reasons).  But this B&B turned out rather fine with gracious and friendly hosts (check out the photos on Paintin’ Peggie’s album).

One claim to fame for the Dordogne region is a high density of castles perched along the limestone cliffs of the Dordogne River and the Lot River, a legacy of the hundred years the English and French quarreled from 1337 to 1453 (give or take) over land, treasure and who gets to be king (the usual, in other words).

One of the more impressive castles was Beyac…. Hard to believe but CrossCountry Bob and Paintin’ Peggie paid their money and went inside.  Paintin’ Peggie said, “oh my god, we are doing the tourist thing…”. CrossCountry Bob shrugged (a Gallic shrug already?) and the exploration was on.  Fascinating place and a stark reminded to CrossCountry Bob that only an idiot would want to go back to those brutal days of warfare, constant threat of famine and working for the man (well, at least war and famine have receded in North America, two out of three is not so bad thinks CrossCountry Bob).

If castles and chateaus tire you out (one helping per trip is enough for CrossCountry Bob), the Dordogne also has numerous restaurants tucked into the various medieval villages.  Cautious after St. Emilion, CrossCountry Bob and Paintin’ Peggie decided on lunch, choosing one some distance up the hill from the Dordogne river (a theory of CrossCountry Bob: price falls and quality increases as you migrate in the opposite direction of the tourists.  And…..success!  Confit de Canard for CrossCountry Bob and a French variation of Risotto with prawns for Paintin’ Peggie. Both delicious even if CrossCountry Bob’s choice easily won the gold medal for calories and fat content. But no slouch in the competition department, Paintin’ Peggie cleverly upped the calorie ante with crème du brule…oh so good…

You would think from that type of lunch that perhaps eating would be the national sport or preoccupation of France.  It is a contender of course but not quite championship material according to CrossCountry Bob.  And no, not soccer either (“le football” as the French refer to it), nor cycling (although CrossCountry Bob noticed a fair number of cyclists of his vintage hammering out the miles with muscled legs of a different league that CrossCountry Bob’s spindles…

To find the true national, simply get in your rental car and start driving.  It won’t take long for the French players to emerge.  For the national sport is the challenge of approaching as close as possible to the car in front, preferably while both are traveling at a high rate of speed (the Frenchman behind usually wants to travel at an even higher rate of speed which initiates the contest).  Even better (for the French) is the approach to roundabouts.  Now, even closer!  And perhaps a horn and French wave of the hands for emphasis. This applies even if there is a line of cars and it is entirely obvious that no car is going anywhere fast (it is the French sport after all, so logic need not apply).  It seems that the only critical rule is don’t brake suddenly (even though CrossCountry Bob has occasionally been tempted).  It all works because all the drivers are playing the same game, seeking the same adrenaline rush (or so CrossCountry Bob rationalizes as he recovers from his own frequent adrenaline rushes, the only difference being CrossCountry Bob’s come from glancing in the rear view mirror and seeing nothing but car with a driver who might as well be picking his nose for all the concern he shows for being inches from CrossCountry Bob’s rear bumper.

Since this is France, you might be wondering when CrossCountry Bob is going to mention wine again.  The answer is “Now” and so CrossCountry Bob asks you, dear reader from Canada, “Have you heard of the wines from the Dordogne region?” No, of course not. That is like being in a French chateau and asking if they have heard of Okanagan wines.  The reason you don’t hear about these wines is that the Bordeaux merchants who controlled the Bordeaux ports always made sure the Bordeaux wines shipped out first and the other wines later (maybe). Sort of like being in a BC Liquor Store. You think you have a selection but not really.  You see what the man wants you to see and pay what the man wants you to pay (don’t get CrossCountry Bob started…).  Here is a Dordogne wine CrossCountry Bob thoroughly enjoyed… 

Appellation Bergerac – not available in Canada; sorry!

Dogs, of course, don’t drink wine, even in France,  But there must be some other secret French sauce that certain doggies cannot leave alone…

You should see him run – magifique!!

Medieval villages are both a highlight and a common occurrence in Dordogne.  One of CrossCountry Bob’s favourites was Rocamadour.  Living here requires learning to climb like a mountain goat (or, more accurately, like a chamois, the local cliff dwelling goat-antelope of which CrossCountry Bob has so far seen exactly zero).

Paintin’ Peggie was taken by Rocamadour as well and decided to sketch it…

Paintin’ Peggie draws Rocamadour

And with that, the Dordogne region fades in the rear view mirror.  The wines of Cahors (Malbec, just like in Argentina) went untasted (CrossCountry Bob is enforcing an approach of quality over quantity and so some areas must, regretfully, be casualties).

Even the wonderful medieval bridge “Pont Valentre” is only entitled to a stroll across and back…

And then, with Cahors is in the rear view mirror, CrossCountry Bob and Paintin’ Peggie are motoring south towards Lourdes (home of the fabled grotto where the Virgin Mary appeared to a peasant girl in the 1800’s) and where CrossCountry Bob, unaware, will meet a vision of himself as he was some 60 some years ago.


St. Emilion OR How its Grand Cru wines whispered come hither to CrossCountry Bob

Well, let’s get it over with right at the start, the wines of St. Emilion are in a horse race with Cote de Rhône for the wine affections of CrossCountry Bob.  The tannins are easier than the Bordeaux greats and the taste is smooth enough to cause the bottle to drain at an alarming rate (that is not a negative).

A favourite:

A favourite – one of many

There. That particular sacrilege is done.  To those dismayed by CrossCountry Bob’s conversion on the “Road to St. Emilion”, he says, “Travel to St. Emilion, taste as he tasted and your dismay will vanish”.  

Putting wine aside (if that is even possible), what else does St. Emilion offer besides an abundance of French people thriving on the tourists.  Here it is the middle of October, shirt sleeve weather, and the medieval setting of St. Emilion is alive with “touristes de vin”.

Sitting ducks for the French who are predators armed with a smile and suave words.  Speaking of being preyed upon, CrossCountry Bob had duck in a run of the mill French restaurant and, sure enough, the duck itself was run of the mill.  Sometimes CrossCountry Bob never learns it seems or perhaps he prefers to hope for the best.  One lives longer as an optimist (he thinks).  Paintin’ Peggie had prawns but they arrived with the heads still on and she certainly didn’t like that.  The 5 euro bottle of water (high level predation) served with a flourish (bottle top off and water poured before CrossCountry Bob could remember the French words for “no thanks” – in other words a few nanoseconds – those French waiters are no slouches when there are euros to be plucked)…where was I…yes, that water turned out to be a blessing. CrossCountry Bob discovered the next day that very water is available as a six pack of one liter bottles for 4 euros in the supermarche (supermarket) and is a smooth tasting still water that CrossCountry Bob has made his go to water (at least while in France).

French water is better if you ask anyone in France

CrossCountry Bob and Paintin’ Peggie are staying in the heart of St. Emilion and can walk the town from there.  And it is quite the medieval village, more interesting than the somewhat humdrum city of Bordeaux.

Outside what little remains of the medieval town walls, the countryside is smothered in every direction with regimented vineyards guarded by Chateaux so numerous than even the locals could not possibly have tried the wine from each,

Perfect country for Paintin’ Peggie to create a few spectacular canvases that never cease to amaze CrossCountry Bob who has trouble holding a brush correctly, let alone actually using it.

Artist at work

The nearby town of Libourne has a wonderful Sunday market. Perfect for cafe aux lait with croissant (CrossCountry Bob) and almond pastry (Paintin’ Peggie), and then checking out the French shoppers and picking up a few fresh items for dinner.

That is right.  No French dinner for the fattening duo tonight.  Instead, they crave a big salad with fresh strawberries, a large baguette and a trio of brie, camembert and blue cheese. And, of course, a St. Emilion Grand Cru (Chateau Bernateau) to savor with no quantity guardrails (except the common sense arising from being of a sufficient age to realize that even the best St. Emilion wine requires moderation if one intends to be functional the following morning).

Touring through the vineyards was pleasant in the warm weather. CrossCountry Bob and Paintin’ Peggie stopped to explore an intriguing Chateau that had nobody about (it seemed).

Then CrossCountry Bob approached a warehouse door to check out a portable windblower and an alarm started up. Uh oh! Must have been a motion dectector by the door in case of wine thieves (thinks CrossCountry Bob). At that point, CrossCountry Bob and Paintin’ Peggie made a smooth (and rapid) exit up the driveway to their rental car parked on the road. In the car and away…no one in pursuit. Okay, then. That was different.

And so ends the time of St. Emilion. See you at the next stop, a two hour drive east to Sarlat de Caneda, the heart of the Dordogne region and the home of foie gras and a landscape littered with castles from the Hundred Years War between the French and the English.  It was only after that war that the French had time to really become expert at winemaking.  And what did the English eventually do with time on their hands?  You might have heard of the British Empire.  But to the French that is no match for their opinion of themselves and their wine.  After all, CrossCountry Bob can still drink St. Emilion Grand Cru but he can’t find the British Empire no matter how long he searches.  One day CrossCountry Bob will return to England to explore all that, but that day is for later.  Today, CrossCountry Bob is in the embrace of France – liberte, egalite, fraternite – and much wine fit for a king (that would be CrossCountry Bob in his dreams) and also fit for a queen (that would be Paintin’ Peggie.)  

Back in the Travel Saddle – repost

There are a limited number of direct flights to Europe from Vancouver but one of those is Air France direct to Paris.  Back in September, CrossCountry Bob scooped two tickets, departing October 12 and returning November 20.  And with that, the trip was a go.

On October 12, YVR was not crowded and! CrossCountry Bob was feeling blessed at that point. Hence the smiles you see below…

After settling in at the departure gate, CrossCountry Bob started with what were once familiar tasks…passports, check, wallet, check, credit cards, check, charge cord for iPhone, check, charge cord for extra battery – oops.  Well, the smooth oiled travel machine lodged in CrossCountry Bob’s brain was clearly running rough due to lack of use and Covid cobwebs.  This trip will fix that (he hopes).

The actual planning details of the trip are a state secret not to be disbursed at this time to you, dear reader, but will be leaked out gradually as the trip progresses (sorry for the secrecy (not really) but CrossCountry Bob likes to imitate those in charge as that makes him feel somewhat important.

In any event, it was a smooth flight but then a three! hour wait for the train from Paris to Bordeaux (CrossCountry Bob has come to notice that whenever he leaves a large time buffer, the plane leaves on time and arrives early).  One thing the French have right (aside from no mask mandates anymore) is their high-speed trains.  CrossCountry Bob is a big fan (please note that CrossCountry Bob does not hesitate to extend credit to those in charge when they (rarely) do something smart).

But then, high-speed trains aside, reality intruded once again and reminded CrossCountry Bob that not only is he not in charge of anything, the French are clearly not either – as evidenced by (gotta laugh): NO GASOLINE!  Said more succintly: not a good time to rent a car in France.

Which is exactly what CrossCountry Bob and Paintin’ Peggie are doing today.  In a panic, CrossCountry Bob quickly double checked that the wine makers were not also on strike and that the supply of Bordeaux wines would not suffer.  With an affirmative on that crucial aspect, the trip, not mortally wounded, will continue. Paintin’ Peggie noted that CrossContry Bob had a faint smile when he observed that the French strike about a lot of things but never about their wine.  Gasoline might be essential but wine was important (see how CrossCountry Bob is starting to understanding how those in charge think).

More to follow… meanwhile here is the Bordeaux train station viewed from our hotel window which is a converted stone mansion of some indeterminate age.

Au revoir. Time for breakfast. Most likely cafe au lait and croissants.