Wednesday, May 14, 2008

A vacation from a vacation

Timing is all. Or nothing. In our case it's iffy. We had planned to go to the south of France for a few days with Odile over the long PentecĂ´te holiday. We had train tickets, B & B reservations. So we got up early last Thursday and we looked at the weather forecast: rain. Forecast for Paris: sunny and warm. That's what I mean about timing.

Ever hopeful, we took the bag packed with lightweight clothes (no time to repack) and headed off on the metro for Gare Montparnasse. Here's one of the things we don't like so much about Paris. The Montparnasse metro station connects directly with the train station so all those travelers can take public transport to their train; good planning, right? Sort of.

There are several miles of tunnels (OK I exaggerate, but not by much) between the metro station platform for the major north-south line and the train station. Bad enough. But between these tunnels there are STAIRS! MANY STAIRS! FOR PEOPLE EXPECTED TO BE CARRYING LUGGAGE!

End of rant.

So we get to our destination on the amazingly quick TGV and take off for Odile's aunt's house in the Gers, a still incredibly rural area of France known to those of us who read The Three Musketeers as Gascony, home of Dartagnan. Rolling hills, villages built entirely of local stone since the 11th century, pale cows known as blondes d'Aquitaine and chateaus to die for. Aunt Monique lives in Montfort, the village that spawned Simon de Montfort, a Crusader and leader of the army that destroyed the Cathar rebellion. Legend has it that when asked how to tell good Catholics from Cathar heretics he said "Kill them all. God will know his own." Nice guy.

Monique is wonderful. At nearly 80 she has energy and warmth enough for two and welcomed us to her lovely sprawling house and garden as if we were her own children or grandchildren, cooking great food, pouring wine, insisting I take one of her sweaters to wear over the too light clothing I had on.

This part of the country is where Odile's mother's family comes from and we drove around visiting the places Odile spent her early childhood summers, bathing in the small rivers, riding bikes up and down the hills and taking care of the ducks. It sounds idyllic for a 6 year old.

It's difficult to understand the connectedness of these small villages until you see it in action. When Monique couldn't find a brochure on the town in English she left a message on the machine of the local tourist office guy. Ten minutes later, no kidding, ten minutes, a car pulled up to the house, someone jumped out, said good morning and handed me an English version of the town walking tour, jumped back in the car and roared off.

We visited the Chateau de Gramont, a gorgeous mix of medieval castle and Renaissance chateau set in beautiful gardens at the top of a hill.

We shopped in Fleurance, a nearby village with the typical covered market hall, open all around, in the center. We ate wonderful food (this is duck and foie gras country) and discovered the local aperitif, Floc de Gascogne, made of grape juice and Armagnac. It's so good we're bringing some home, so be nice to us!

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