Friday, October 28, 2011


I have been amazed by the countries that people view my blog from: France to Latvija to the US, Mauritania to Suriname, I’ve had to refer to an atlas one or two times for a quick geography lesson. The world seems so small at times! However, a few days ago I had an unexpected visitor to Femme au Foyer, brought to my blog by and the funniest search keywords (in my opinion) to date….

“Is truffade safe in pregnancy?” the reader wished to know.

Uh oh, if it isn’t, I’m in trouble! Just like my cravings for cheesy-fries-with-bacon during my 1st pregnancy, I’ve finally been hit with the potato-cheese-bacon cravings in the 2nd. And truffade fits the bill perfectly! A traditional Auvergne dish, truffade ranges from a casserole to a thick pancake made with potatoes that are first fried, then mixed with thin strips of tomme cheese and lardons, or bacon. Although the version I make at home is more of a casserole and less the cake you’ll see in a restaurant, a cook really can’t go wrong with tons of cheese, bacon, butter and potatoes!

I first discovered truffade shortly after our move to France, and it has been a favorite ever since. When asked, most expats will give an immediate response to “best truffade in Clermont-Ferrand?”, and I have set out on a quest to find my favorite as well. So far I have not met one that I didn’t like, and thus far my favorite is at Le Dôme, a brasserie in Centre Jaude (right next to the movie theatre). Served with ham, sausage or steak, a giant pan is delivered straight to your table, along with two wooden spoons to serve the molten cheese and potatoes. I’ve also eaten at several of the “traditional Auvergne food” restaurants and enjoyed myself immensely each time, although a common refrain seems to be “I should have brought a tupperware” due to the enormous helpings. But there are still dozens of restaurants to visit!

So to the pregnant reader I must reply, “everything in moderation.” But if it weren’t for truffade, this pregnant woman would be eating a ton more chocolate!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A victory all the same!

Sunday was a big day in France... The French rugby team, Les Bleus, played the New Zealand All Blacks in the Rugby World Cup final. Some predicted a blowout, but it turned out we were in for a great game. The final score was 8-7, and in my opinion France should take great pride in the team that was not expected by most to go this far in the tournament.  Up to the last minutes, there was a chance at victory.

We managed to squeeze in a breakfast of plānās pankūkas during halftime, eating quickly in order to get back to the game. After lunch we headed into town, where the mood was definitely subdued, despite the gorgeous fall weather. Should France have won, the streets that day and evening would have been full with revelers and cars honking horns in victory, but fans now must wait four years for another opportunity at the next Webb Ellis Cup.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Stylish Blogger Award

Thanks to Aiden at Conjugating Irregular Verbs for passing on this award! It feels like a kind of bloggers' chain letter, but at least in the place of 'threats of terrible things to come if I don't pass it on', I've been called stylish :)

Being 27 weeks pregnant and surrounded by très chic French women doesn't help one feel super-stylish. Especially being surrounded by très chic pregnant women who wear their bump like a fashion accessory. Which is why I have little tricks of my own to make me feel like a fashionista, if not exactly look like one...

1. The hair band. I take that extra roomy pair of cute jeans I bought after Lauris was born, then wrap a hair band around the button to close the top. Putting off wearing pregnancy jeans for another three weeks, worth it!

2. The BellaBand. Guaranteeing the nice folks at the local Carrefour won't have to see the undercurve of my bump or my bare back while I'm packing the stroller or picking up after Lauris. Because I don't always realize that my clothes are fitting funny, and I do want to wear my stretchy shirts for a few more weeks.
3. Lots of walking. Lauris and I go out every day: to the store, to the park, to playgroup or just around the block, but we walk everywhere. The fresh autumn air (even if getting a tad chilly) helps clear the head, and I believe this lifestyle agrees with pregnancy.

4. Fresh flowers. Who doesn't feel like their home is straight out of Real Simple with a bouquet of dahlias from the marché on their dining room table?

5. Comfy shoes. OK, this one is actually anti-style, especially if comparing my gym shoes to the gorgeous boots coming out of the afore-mentioned French women’s closets. But come on, cut the pregnant woman some slack!

6. One or two more-expensive pregnancy outfits. On those days I really feel clumsy and hormonal, I put on that soft woolen sweater my sister helped me pick out (insisting that it's ok to buy a few articles of clothing that cost too much, even when you will only wear them a few months, because by gosh, you're worth it!) or that bump-hugging trendy black top. It boosts self-esteem and reminds me that pregnancy is a wonderful time to be enjoyed... because in three more months when that screaming bundle of joy is around there'll be even fewer days of feeling stylish.

7. Roberts. Makes me feel like the most beautiful woman on earth... Even if he does sometimes bump into my belly as if he wasn't expecting it to be there. <Smile> 

I would like to pass the award on to these lovely ladies:
Barefoot Roses at A Barefoot Rose By Any Other Name for her unique barefoot style
Mamma M at Mamma 'Round the World for her parenting style
San at Life of a West Coast Latvian for her stylish Etsy finds
La-La-Liene at Never a Dull Moment in LA-LA-Land for her honest, positive blogging style
And Barbara at Footprints in the Sand for her two-weeks-more-pregnant-than-me style!

(Step 1: Your list of 7 things. Step 2: Pass it on!)

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Bordeaux, part trois

A trip to the region wouldn’t have been complete without a stop in Bordeaux itself. Due to our late arrival on Friday however, this visit was delayed to Sunday, and had to be cut much shorter than I would have liked, to complete the 4 hour drive back to Clermont-Ferrand. My parents-in-law had an early flight back to Latvija the next morning, Roberts had to prepare for work, and Lauris’s naptime was best utilized in the car, not while sightseeing.

I had not found parking information in any of the maps I had looked at, so it was with some trepidation that I directed Roberts into the downtown area. Luckily there were quite a few parking areas available (although finding them is another matter!) and we managed to make our way to one within a block of Église Notre-Dame, built between 1684 and 1707. A service was taking place, so I only peeked in, but the interior stonework was as impressive as promised by tMg. Although awarded one star, I felt that a visit to Cathédrale St-André would have been a better use of the limited time we had, from the quick glimpse I caught driving past it on the way into the city center. The same was with the Grand Théâtre (awarded two stars by tMg), it wasn’t as impressive from the outside as I suspect it would have been from a tour of the interior; I read that there is a chandelier with 14,000 drops of Bohemian crystal hanging in the auditorium.

Our luck turned with our arrival in Place de la Bourse. The beautiful Three Graces Fountain in the middle of the square was gushing pink water and sporting pink ribbons in support of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, but this didn’t diminish the view of the grand Stock Exchange (after which the square is named) and National Customs Museum. We crossed the street to the miroir d’eau, a giant reflecting pool right next to the Garonne river that alternates between 2cm of water and a fog effect. With the warm sun on our backs Lauris and I shed our shoes and spent the next hour walking and splashing in the water.

Lunch was quick and informal at a nearby crêperie, and then we returned to the car to begin our trip home. The crêpes were delicious, the ice cream and crêpe chocolat a perfect dessert, and I was already planning our next trip to the area to sample more of the wonderful cuisine and wines. When planning this trip, I was challenged with picking restaurants without knowing exactly where we would be for dinner both nights. I had plenty of advice from friends who live in the area and who had visited before, and this came in handy Friday night when we ended up very late in our arrival. Instead of eating dinner in Bordeaux as I originally planned, we ended up at a restaurant I had originally heard about from Kim, but that numerous expats have visited since, Le Baron Gourmand.

Arriving after dusk our ride through the dark country roads was harrowing (and I surprised myself by navigating right to the gate without a single wrong turn!) and upon our arrival I might have assumed the restaurant was closed if not for the reservations I had made 2 hours previously. We parked and walked down to the restaurant which turned out to be full of diners, wonderful smells and delicious food! I was a little disappointed in the size of my plat, but then again I suppose I should have ordered a viande dish instead of seafood. My father-in-law and Roberts ordered beef that was grilled on an open fire right in the middle of the dining room in a big fireplace that also took the October chill out of the stone walls. My mother-in-law wasn’t as impressed with the restaurant as I was; she felt that the service was rather informal compared to the prices (an entrée, le plat and dessert was 32 euro), but we had a lovely dinner with a couple of bottles of a local red (Château Haut-Gayat), and left for the château Langoiran feeling full and happy.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Bordeaux, part deux

The most spectacular portion of our recent trip with the in-laws to the Bordeaux region was our lodgings. I found the Château de Langoiran in the book Chambres d’hôtes au Château. It is the first of the châteaux from this book we’ve stayed in, and after our experience I hope it won’t be the last!

We arrived late – at 10pm - but the owners were waiting for us to show us to our rooms. The approach to the castle was something else, the pictures in the book (although fabulous) do not do it justice! Spotlights illuminated the walls towering over the surrounding homes and vineyards, and as we wound our way up the driveway I felt as if we were entering a movie. We parked and then crossed what used to be the moat over an old stone bridge, passed through the giant wooden doors, then crossed through the courtyard. When we booked we had been warned about the stairs, and now we understood what the warning was about! A long, stone staircase led up to the second courtyard, and from there another steep stone staircase before we were at the door to our rooms; this château is not wheelchair accessible, and I would advise arriving earlier for your first check-in time, but provides an adventure to those willing and able.

The château has one room and one suite; we had booked the suite for four people at 100 euro/night. It looked exactly as in the book, with antique furniture including a four-poster bed with canopy, a beautiful china cabinet and candelabrums on the walls. We had a separate room from the grandparents, a bed for Lauris, and in addition there was the shower/toilet room and a tiny kitchenette complete with mini-fridge, stove and cupboards. We could have stayed a week!

The first thing I saw in the morning when I woke up was the most picturesque view; fog from the Garonne river was slowly lifting to reveal rows of grapes, stone outbuildings and poplar trees laden with yellow leaves. Fresh croissants and baguettes awaited us each morning on the doorstep to enjoy with jams and coffee. The mini-fridge was also pre-stocked with milk and juice, and the owners presented us with a local bottle of Bordeaux red to enjoy with lunch/dinner/at Christmas the next day.

I recommend this château highly, not only for the view, price and very warm, pleasant customer service (French, some English, some German spoken), but also for the adventure. The location is ideal as well, perfectly situated 30 minutes from downtown Bordeaux, 45 from St-Émilion, and surrounded by world-famous vineyards, I certainly couldn’t ask for more. 


A quick history of the château according to a leaflet put out by the owners (translated by moi and Google translate) (more information is available on the website):

The Langoiran château was built in the 13th century by the powerful family of Escossan. The tower remains a testament to the past prestige of the lords of Langoiran, who were loyal vassals to the Duke of Aquitaine, King of England.

During the wars of religion, the family of Montferrand owned the château. At the time, the brothers Montferrand, Charles (Catholic) and Guy (Protestant) played a role in the political and religious life of Guyenne. In 1650 the château was destroyed. Abandoned, it was not until 1972 that restoration began.

For over 20 years, the Association “Les Amis du Château” worked to restore the château for cultural, touristic, social and educational purposes. The château now offers a range of services:
·                     A location for weddings, anniversaries or other events.
·                     A gîte in a pleasant environment with exceptional panoramic views over the Garonne.
·                     Different cultural events: dinner-concerts (traditional Gascon, Celtic and jazz music), historic days.
·                     Workshops and interactive learning for schools, universities and recreation centers.

At this point I add that it is possible to visit the château without renting a room for 3 euro/person. Also, the château is a separate business from the winery, which operates next door, the driveway to the château is just beyond the entrance gate to the winery. The owners of the château were enthusiastic to arrange the degustation of wines for us at another local winery and can suggest local restaurants and wineries to visit if you desire.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Bordeaux, part une

France: the land of wine and cheese! My goal this past week was to show the visiting parents-in-law a slice of our life in France. With tours of Clermont-Ferrand, a climb of Puy de Dôme and marché shopping crossed off the list, the focus turned to food and drink. Over the week we sampled at least ten local cheeses and a few wines. Our tour guides from the Université Blaise-Pascal were a trés informatique on local cheeses, but other than a few books on wine I wasn’t able to provide much information on vin and the different areas of wine production. Roberts and I had not yet been to Bordeaux (we drove around it on our way home from Fort Louvois but did not stop), and I decided what better way to learn than a trip to perhaps the most famous wine region in the world.

With the tourist season and grape harvest over, we were guaranteed a calm visit, however we lucked out with the weather. Sunny, clear skies and warm temperatures complemented the scenery, and I remarked often that the vistas seemed taken from a photography book. We arrived Friday night just in time for a dinner, and then continued to our château. Saturday we started the day off with a degustation at the local winery, Château L’Hoste Carney.

Lestiac-sur-Garonne is a tiny village on the north bank of the Garonne river, southeast of Bordeaux. The grapes for the rosé wine were grown just behind the wine chateau, while the rest adorned the hillside up towards our lodgings, no doubt enhancing the scene I had admired just twenty minutes before. The host led us through the entire selection of wines, from the rosé to the dry white, two reds and finally a sweet white desert wine. We learned in detail where the grapes were grown, what blends were used and which meals to serve with each wine to complement the wine. We left with several boxes of our favorites and a new appreciation for each of the thousands of tiny wineries throughout the region.

Examining the vines with grandma

Nearby we stopped in the city of Rions, a small fortified town entered through the 14th century Porte du Lyyan with all its original defensive features intact. The ramparts were impressive, as were the old houses. Next, Cadillac, with the remains of the 14yth century walls still visible. We had just missed the morning market, and the vendors were busy dismantling their stalls in the narrow cobblestone streets. The Château de Cadillac was prominent right in the town center as well as a beautiful little church. Several cafés and ice creams later we were back in the car, continuing southeast along the Garonne river.

I had been looking forward to Ste-Croix-du-Mont ever since I had read about its caves in the Michelin Green Guide (tMg). Hollowed out from a thick fossilized oyster bed that dates to the Tertiary Era, one has been turned into a cave de degustation where visitors can sample the various white wines which have made the reputation of this little village. However, it was not meant to be; the caves were a steep hike down from the parking lot and the tasting cellar was also closed for the season. I swallowed my disappointment as we piled back into the car and headed north.

In the hallow of a valley are the remains of the Benedictine Ancienne Abbaye de Blasimon, an old abbey which was once encircled by fortified walls with one remaining tower. The church, built in the 12th and 13th century has the most intricate carvings I’ve seen to this point here in France above the main doorway. We relaxed and enjoyed the sunshine and fresh air; Roberts and Lauris found a spot in the meadow with grandpa to soak in some rays while I photographed the abbey and wildflower meadow planted next to the ruins.

The one remaining tower

Our final stop of the day was St-Émilion, the renowned wine center north of the Dordogne river. Surrounded by vineyards the town is a maze of steep, narrow streets, stairways and small squares that merits a return visit. We started with a walk along the ramparts admiring the scenery, before heading into to the 12th century Église Monolithe (UNESCO World Heritage Site), the largest monolithic sanctuary in Europe to be carved from a single solid block of rock. The view of the town and surrounding area from this point was fantastic. On our return trip we will have to explore the town further; we only saw the belfry but the side of the cliff is filled with caves, catacombs, a hermitage, a chapel and an underground church. At the foot is Place du Marché, the main square and market place circled by wine shops and restaurants, at one of which we ate dinner. Le Bouchon was suggested by tMg, and with its central location, reasonable prices and outdoor veranda turned out to be a great choice. My in-laws really liked the food, I wasn’t as impressed with my plat but did agree that the service was impeccable and the cuisine traditional and fresh. The chocolate crêpe to top everything off made up for any shortcomings…

Dinner in the Place du Marche

Friday, October 14, 2011

Meet the in-laws!

Never a dull moment when you have guests! Between sightseeing, constant eating, planning the weekend trip and hot-water heater drama, I’ve been busy doing things I love: walks in the park, cooking all my favorite meals and spending lovely time with family. But yes, we could have skipped the hot-water heater failure/fixing! It seems that whenever something like that happens, we have guests, the laundry and the dishes are piling up and all I want is a hot shower!

With the grandparents at the scenic overlook of CF

Monday morning Lauris had another adaptation session at the halte garderie, and this half-hour went no better than the last few. It seems a certain little boy has grown quite attached to his mother in the last few months. But then he surprised me later, when he didn’t even think twice about waving, singing his little atā in soprano, and letting me leave for a quick run to the store.

I’ve been taking full advantage of the extra hands around the house to sneak out to the IWC book club, monthly meeting and photography club session. Thank you very much to the grandparents for minding Lauris, as well as for all the help around the house with the everyday stuff. It is wonderful watching Lauris hop into your laps clutching a book to read, and great seeing how quickly he has picked up new skills. I love that he signs “delicious” when he’s enjoying his lunch, and he knows at least three new animal sounds. It always seems to me that he develops more quickly when he is surrounded by the extended family.

Reading "The Smart Book"... is it working?

Tuesday we were lucky enough to join some other IWC ladies in a guided walking tour of downtown Clermont. Our very knowledgeable guides, Ludivine and Michelle are students at the Université Blaise-Pascal here in Clermont-Ferrand. Not only are they taking classes in tourism, but they are simultaneously learning English! The whole tour was en anglais, and after a start in Place Delille we headed west towards Notre-Dame-du-Port. From there it was on to Place du Terrail, Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption, then on to the Amboise fountain. I was pleasantly surprised how much of the history and fun facts I knew, but also aware that I don’t remember dates and numbers well, so this tour was extremely valuable in teaching my parents-in-law more about our current hometown. We walked about 4 miles total, including a stop in the Marché Saint-Pierre to discuss meats, cheeses and other local delicacies.

The captive audience

Thursday I drove the visitors up to Puy de Dôme, and while I certainly am in no shape to climb it, the grandparents were up to the challenge. Although the weather held and it did not rain, the summit was engulfed in clouds and there were no views. They seemed satisfied with the climb nonetheless, and to make up for lack of visibility I stopped at the scenic overlook on the way down to Clermont-Ferrand that we take all our guests to, and luckily the whole city was visible along with the mountains in the distance.

And so the eating, exploring and relaxing with family continues…

Monday, October 10, 2011


Columbus day in the US (as well as my grandmother’s 80th birthday celebration in Gaŗezers), Thanksgiving in Canada and Cervolix in France. OK, it’s not an official holiday, but from what I had heard, the kite festival/air show is a once-a-year spectacle for the entire family. The last time I had been up on the Plateau de Gergovie I was about 5 weeks pregnant but didn’t know it yet. I hiked up with the IWC hiking club and Lauris on my back in the baby backpack and wondered, “can I really be this out of shape?” My lungs were burning and I was so very tired, yet somehow managed to finish the hike without embarrassing myself. Knowing that I have an additional 20 weeks of pregnant belly I was relieved that the festival is accessible by car; the event is actually free, and you can park your car right up on the plateau for only 5 euro.

I should also mention we have visitors! My parents-in-law arrived last Thursday evening, and although we’ve done some sightseeing in the city, the festival was our first venture out of Clermont-Ferrand. A wonderful dinner at Crêperie Le 1513 on Friday night, a visit to the Chamalières marchè on Saturday morning, then an afternoon spent downtown looking at the sidewalk sales. We had seen the braderie signs everywhere, and although I’m familiar with soldes, I had to look up this new word which I now know means clearance. It was a festive atmosphere, France had just beat England 19-12 in the quarter-finals of the Rugby World Cup, there were vendors selling their wares from tents all along Bd François Mitterrand from the Jardin Lecoq to Place de Jaude, and many stores had tables outside with discounted items. Since the Cervolix festival is both Saturday and Sunday, we settled on Sunday to make the 20 minute drive to Gergovie, as neither the marchè nor the sales would be open.

After a morning visit to the marché aux puces we packed the car and headed south. It was only once we had parked that it started to sprinkle, and about an hour later this became a steady drizzle. We had packed a picnic, but as a majority of the kites had been lowered, the model airplanes grounded and no idea of when the rain would let up, we decided to head back to Clermont-Ferrand and spend a lazy Sunday indoors instead. Maybe next year we have better luck with the weather!

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Fort Louvois

Last stop on our impromptu Atlantic coast trip: Fort Louvois. An hour by car from La Rochelle, two from Bordeaux, the fort is not far from the town of Marennes, the gateway to Île d’Oléron (another popular holiday resort island). The island is linked to the mainland by France’s longest bridge, almost 2 miles long. More than half the oysters eaten in France come from the Marennes-Oléron basin, and although they are grown to maturity in parcs à huîtres, it is only in the region’s claires that the adult mollusk is fattened.

We arrived an hour before lunchtime during high tide. The little harbor had some colorful boats, and the views of the fort, bridge and island were nice, however it was the lunch at the restaurant/hotel Le Terminus that we really enjoyed. I had the fresh catch of the day with fries, Roberts the salmon, and Lauris fries and ice cream. Yum!

We finished lunch and walked back to the edge of land to look out at the fort, and by this point the walkway had started to emerge from the water like a magic bridge that materializes only when you need it. We had read that the fort is accessible only on foot during low tide and so weren’t completely surprised, but as the tide receded even farther and the oyster baskets in the surrounding basin emerged, it seemed to be a completely different place! The boats in the harbor were now completely beached (as we had seen in St-Martin-de-Ré), the boat ramp ended with a 10 foot drop to the water and locals were out in the shallows fishing and searching for non-cultivated oysters.

Fort Louvois is the last maritime fortification commissioned by Louis XIV, designed to defend the southern harbor and arsenal of Rochefort and the channel between the island of Oléron (and the 17th century fortress Château-d’Oléron located there) and the mainland. Fort Boyard to the north completes the fortifications of the Charente estuary.

Classified a historical monument in 1929, it was severely bombed during World War II. In 1960 it was fully restored and since 1972 houses an oyster museum and a permanent exhibition on the history of the fort, including models made of all the coastal fortifications. WWII buffs will enjoy the extensive exhibit located in the troop barracks, and before crossing the walkway back to the mainland be sure to stop by the gift shop; it has some wonderful photographic prints from the area for very reasonable prices.

Oui In France

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Île de Ré

½ an hour from our Chambre d’hôte in Dompierre-sur-Mer is the island of . Connected to mainland France by a long bridge, Île de Ré is a popular vacation destination and it was obvious why. With its beautiful beaches, quaint little towns and vineyards/open land, it reminded me of the Outer Banks in NC or Martha’s Vineyard. We started our day trip at a café in Rivedoux Plage with coffee and pastries, then a stroll past the local seafood marché. Lauris had had enough of the carseat not long after getting back in, so our next stop came fairly quickly, in the largest town on the island, Saint-Martin-de-Ré. We walked the city’s sea wall and ran through a park, and after a visit to the tourism bureau we settled in at a brasserie for lunch. My crab with avocado and tomato was definitely not shaped as expected, but was delectable. The view to the harbor provided us with a surprise; as we were sitting down to lunch the tide went out, and what had been a harbor full of water and boats now was a harbor full of boats on sand. The tide would star often in this weekend’s visits!

Once back in the car Lauris promptly fell asleep. Our next hour of driving was quieter, but also we couldn’t really get out and wander around too much. We drove out to the Pointe du Grouin where the Ilates lighthouse was visible far offshore, but more interesting were the dozens of people out collecting oysters. I’ve always wanted to give this a shot, but today wasn’t the day and we continued west to the Baleines lighthouse. If Lauris had been awake we might have parked and done some sightseeing and shopping; there were vendors selling everything from flip-flops to locally harvested salt, but since he was still out cold I hopped out to snap a picture of the lighthouse before we drove on. Les Portes-en-Ré (a former salt-marsh workers’ village) is known locally as the “tip end of the island” and once Lauris woke up it was clear that we would have to find a good spot to park and walk around. So we headed back to the Forêt domaniale du Lizay and parked, then found a beautiful little shady spot in the dunes among the pines for a second lunch. A short stroll away was the beach, and the next hours were spent in the sun and the surf, relaxing in the sand. The spot at which we emerged on the beach had an interesting reminder of WWII; up in the dunes sat several large pillboxes.

Whenever time is spent in the sun on the beach, both fatigue set in and dinner time approaches.  We cruised back through Ars-en-Ré and three more little villages looking for a good spot. After getting routed on one-way alleys that were getting narrower and narrower, with corners that required three point turns, I grew frustrated and we shot back up north to La Flotte, a village we had seen on the way in. Our arrival coincided perfectly with the last hour of daylight, and after a walk on the boardwalk and a short visit to the nearby playground we found a place to eat dinner with a prime view of the setting sun. Then, with a belly full of salmon we took a moonlit stroll past the quay, in the atmosphere of twinkling lights and vacationers dining in the outdoor cafes. On our next visit we’ll have to find lodgings on the beach, or at least on the island…

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

La Rochelle

Spontaneity is becoming a habit on weekends.  With almost no planning, no reservations and no packing, we had a wonderful weekend.  Friday morning we threw together a suitcase, then packed the diaper bag, a bag of toys, a bag of snacks, the baby backpack and the stroller and were out of the house by 11am, which surprised even me. Destination; La Rochelle. Why? Proximity to the ocean and several other beautiful spots described in the Michelin Guide (tMG). The trip took a little longer than expected as there are no large highways and so the choices are either to make a loop around on a highway or wind through the countryside roads. About an hour out (of the 5.5 hour trip including stops) we called a place listed in tMG and made room reservations. This was a quaint little “isolated old farm… surrounded by stone walls and its inviting garden… full of flowers and trees,” exactly as described. For a very reasonable price (48 euro/night including la petit-déjeuner) we didn’t expect room service (and correctly so; my big recommendation though is to bring your own bar of soap as there was none provided) but received a two-room, three-bed space with a mini fridge and lots of room for Lauris. If you’re willing to stay at more out of the ordinary lodgings, I would recommend Chambre d’hôte Margorie in Dompierre-sur-Mer.

Once settled and having stretched, we drove the very short distance to La Rochelle. Pleasantly surprised by the old fortified fort guarding the entrance to the old port and the picturesque streets of the Old Town with its arcades and squares, we spent more than a few hours wandering around. Of the many architecturally significant buildings my favorite was the Hôtel de Ville, built in the 15th and 16th centuries with an interior courtyard that currently sported a garden exhibit, with much of it planted in and on the carcass of an old truck.

Roberts liked the arcades (he said "reminds me of Torino") and the ramparts encircling the Old Town. I already mentioned the old fort, which was the entrance for ships into the old harbor. One half, Tour St-Nicolas was built in the 14th century and has an interesting pentagonal footprint. The 42m/138ft tower is actually leaning, although we didn’t notice this at the time, nor do I know how recent a development this is. Across from it stands Tour de la Chaîne, which owes its name to the heavy chain that used to be stretched across the harbor mouth at night. Also built in the 14th century, it used to be a powder magazine. And farther west along the ramparts is Tour de la Lanterne, which is not as old as the other two, nor as aesthetic (except the spire and lantern), for it was built with military imperatives in mind. I liked the Porte de la Grosse-Horloge, a pedestrian entryway into the Old Town with a giant clock at the top of a Gothic tower. *

We ate dinner at one of the many restaurants along rue Saint Jean du Perot. Our initial stop was a more touristy spot on the Cour des Dames esplanade, but after 20 minutes of waiting for any attention from one of the multiple waitstaff we left, and this decision turned out to be a stroke of luck for Baïtona had excellent service, and the atmosphere was ten times better. I was in the mood for a steak, and although my meal was delicious, I need to make it a rule to always order seafood when I’m so close to the coast; my meals over the next few days were all seafood, and all delicious.

After a romantic walk along the edge of the water back to the car we returned to our little countryside retreat. Day one of our impromptu long-car-drive trip was a success!

* There are many more historically and architecturally significant buildings, to learn more about them I would suggest the “French Atlantic Coast” Michelin Guide, it has various walking tours that visit a selection of locations as well as a good overview of the history of the city and area.

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