Our Family’s (2nd) Year in the South of France
Kids and Castles - Our year with kids in the South of France

Category — JM’s Perspective

In Paris with a Métro Day Pass

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August 25, 2013   1 Comment

Medieval Days at the Beaucaire Fortress

Once again, we had a plan, but we quickly got distracted.

We were supposed to visit the Tarascon castle, the famous Château du bon roi René (Good King René’s castle), but we got distracted on our way.  It turned out that the Beaucaire Fortress was holding a journée médiévale (medieval day) that weekend. The animated tours are held once a month in April, May and June, then every Wednesday in July and August. And so we changed our plans for the nth time and decided King René’s castle will be for some other time.

The Beaucaire Fortress

Well, it was a great choice. The Beaucaire Fortress only opened to the public last year, so is not in any guidebooks. Plus it was a windy Mistral day, and so the fortress wasn’t busy at all. Best of all, the animators were serious scientists who study medieval life in general and the art of medieval self-defense. So, we were set for an amazing personal tour.

First, meet the troupe de troubadours, the singers & jesters with their chest of ridiculous stuff…

Troubadours or Jester? ...with their treasure chest

Then we all had a turn shotting a 12th-century crossbow – adults and kids.

Shooting a crossbow at Beaucaire Fortress

Next, we were led by our guide to the triangular dungeon.

Inside the fortress

Here, we saw many old graffiti and other cool things.

 

Old graffiti in the dungeon

Tight dungeon stairs to strategically prevent any armed combat

We were treated to a demonstration of the art of medieval fighting.

Ready for battle...

The Art of Medieval Combat

Some little girls got to take part in the action!

Ready for Combat Training

June 9, 2011   1 Comment

XVIIth Century Hotel Stay…

Welcome to the Hôtel Doctrinaires, an old college founded by the Pères Doctrinaires of Avignon in 1635, now fully renovated and converted into a nice hotel in Beaucaire.  Surprisingly for a 17th century hotel, it was very comfortable, and our room was large with a jacuzzi bath.

Here are a couple of pictures to give you a sense of our stay…

Hôtel Doctrinaires – Founded 1635

Hôtel Doctrinaires Lobby

It’s interesting that this hotel was almost empty, despite its awesome charm and great comfort, whereas the much more expensive Best Western was fully booked.  Go figure…

Dinner with the girls (Diane taking the picture)

Dinner was revealing, however, when I realized that L had now fully developed her palate for French gastronomical cuisine.  Indeed, when given the choice between the standard “kid fare” of steak haché and frites (hamburger patty with french fries), she instead opted for the adult salmon main course – along with a small provençal quiche, an awesome preparation of mixed vegetables and a little side salad.  And Z who was notorious for eating only plain pasta, rice and bananas before coming to France, had to “copy” her sister and ordered the same dish. They’ve fully embraced the local culture.  Now that’s my girls !  🙂

L cleaning up her salmon dinner plate!!!

 

 

 

May 27, 2011   1 Comment

Roman Days in Nîmes

Roman Days

We are in the 1st century A.D. at the height of the Roman Empire.  Emperor Augustus is coming to visit Nîmes, and the city promises to mark this extraordinary event with a magnificent show at the Arena of Nîmes featuring gladiator fights, chariot races, chariot battles, barbarian prisoners from northern England, military exercises accentuating the Roman army’s mighty prowess, Roman and Celts simulated battles, etc.  In other words, an unprecedented show to highlight the Emperor’s days of remarkable glory…

The Nîmes Roman Arena before the show

Chariot Races in front of Emperor Augustus

Chariot Battles

Military Exercises by the Roman Cavalry: The flying green ball is a cabbage.

Showing off a Barbarian prisoner captured in northern England. Prisoners were let loose and if they could make it to Caesar before being stopped would be freed.

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The mighty Roman turtle formation

The Gauls in front of the Roman Arena

Two friendly barbarians

Young Legionaries in training…

 

The year was 127 A.D.     🙂

 

May 12, 2011   10 Comments

A Lucky Schedule: Mardi Gras in Venice

When we booked our trip to Venice, we choose our dates based on the school vacation. We didn’t check the calendar to see what was going on. So when we got off the train in Venice it took us a few minutes to figure out why the entire town was dressed up and partying. In one of our luckiest travel moments ever, we had arrived on Mardi Gras – the last and most festive day of the famous Venice Carnival.

We discovered afterwords that the Venice Carnival is known for being very sophisticated and family friendly. It is nothing like the craziness of Rio or New Orleans, so we had a total blast going out with the kids and seeing the sites. The costumes were absolutely amazing.

That evening, we went to the famous San Marco Piazza, near the Palais of the Doges, where it’s all happening.  There was a free concert, and lots of folks showing off their costumes.

We were there!

Of course, it was hard to get to sleep when we got back to our apartment. Folks outside were partying until about 4AM, blowing horns, trumpets and the like. But a calm, beautiful, and remarkably clean Venice was there to explore when we got up the next morning.

The Venice Carnival is definitely an event worth making an effort to see, and great for the kids. We’re very happy we were lucky enough to experience it.

April 8, 2011   6 Comments

Making Truffle Brie

After our truffle hunting adventure, we decided that we had to enjoy the fruits of our labor and so bought a (very small) truffle. The fact that we had no clue what to do with it didn’t stop us.

The Truffle

Fortunately, the truffle farmer’s wife had many suggestions and tips:

  • Truffles are about smell, and not so much taste.  So when preparing dishes, the objective is to get the dish to absorb their smell.
  • The smell disappears within about a week (or less), if stored in a fridge.  Use a sealed container.  (I actually forgot and the milk tasted like truffles the next day!)
  • Don’t overcook truffles – you lose all the flavor!  Now I prefer not to cook them at all.

So what dishes are good with truffles? A famous Provençal dish is the truffled omelet. One way to prepare it is to put the mushroom with the eggs in a sealed container for a few days, so the eggs absorb the smell (eggs in the shell, or without – both approaches work!)

Other folks make mashed potatoes with truffles (I tried, but we didn’t get much of a truffle taste, perhaps because we overcooked them).

But our favorite by a long shot, is truffled Brie cheese. It’s easy to do, and very addictive because it’s so good.  Here’s how to prepare it:

  1. Slice a wedge of Brie along its length (cross-section).

    Brie Cross-section with a Côte du Rhône for Proper Inspiration


    A sign of quality for black truffles is the number of nervures (white veins) the mushroom has.  The more the merrier (and tastier).
  2. Many 'nervures' Means High Quality

  3. Shave thin slices of truffles on the inside of the brie.  The thinner the slices, the better.  The idea is to maximize the mushroom surface area exposure to the cheese so as to transfer the mushroom smell to the cheese.

    A Few Microns Thick for Best Results

  4. Finally, wrap the cheese in a plastic wrap (saran wrap or equivalent) to seal it.  Store in the fridge for at least 24 hours – two to three days is even better.  This gives it time to impregnate the truffle smell properly.

    Ready in 48 Hours

Now you can proceed to a legendary dégustation with a glass of Côte du Rhône for proper pairing. Mmmm. C’est délicieux!

March 20, 2011   6 Comments

Truffle Hunting

Thanks to well-connected friends, we were invited to a truffière (truffle farm) to enjoy the action of finding truffles. With truffle season at its peak (and the high-demand mushroom selling at markets for about 800€/kg!), this was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up.

The first surprise was that it was indeed hunting, and not at all like when you pick mushrooms. Truffles grow underground on the roots of oak trees and they are found by smell. We went “hunting” with a specially trained truffle dog that was raised from birth to smell the truffles. Puppies from proven truffle dogs sell for 5,000€ each!

Truffle Dog at Work

The next surprise was how easily the dog found the truffles. For us, the hunting part was keeping up with the dog, since he found truffles faster than they could be picked up, brushed off, sniffed, and admired. The dog would smell a truffle, dig until the truffle was uncovered enough for the handler to gently remove it, yap non-stop until he got his treat (usually a piece of sausage), and then run off for his next find.  The truffle farmer normally does this every other day during the season which lasts from November to March.

Will Dig for Food

L Holding a Good One!

Of course, being in France, every hard afternoon’s work must properly end with the very famous and much appreciated (and well-deserved?) apéritif. Our group gathered at the truffle farmer’s house for a couple of bottles of wine and some truffle sniffing, while we judiciously selected the one(s) we wanted to buy. We choose a very, very small one. We paid well below market, but it was still très cher.

A Truffled Apéritif.

So why are truffles so expensive? It turns out that growing truffles is very much like gambling for the farmer. Some farms produce truffles on more than half of their trees while others don’t produce anything at all.  The farm we went to had 180 trees but only a dozen produced the beloved mushroom, giving a yield of less than 10% (this is not unusual). All trees were planted with truffle spores at their roots, and the soil condition was supposedly perfect for production. The trees at this truffière were 15 years old, and some started producing truffles only last year. So a farmer wants to keep every tree, even the non producing ones, as they may suddenly produce in just one more year. It’s the never-ending hope for the French version of  “black gold”.

March 14, 2011   3 Comments

Medieval Christmas

We’re living in an area surrounded by villages that date back to antiquity or medieval times. We frequently experience interesting and fun traditions just by walking around.

Earlier in December, we visited Taulignan for its annual Christmas market.  Taulignan is a fortified medieval village that prides itself on beautiful walls with a dozen defensive towers, generally all intact and quite spectacular.

Medieval Christmas Faire in Taulignan

Medieval Christmas in Taulignan

Many people take this event quite seriously, dressing up as knights, princesses, bards, medieval soldiers, priests, medieval farmers and so on.  Some folks even explore the market by riding a horse, just like the good’ol days.

[Editor’s side note:  Watch where you walk!]

Taulignan by Horse

The Christmas Market

But the highlight of our visit was the show of people who dance with fire and then spit it from from their mouths.  It’s really quite impressive.  To this day, I still wonder what they drink to make such a spectacular flame.  Perhaps this is a secret best unknown…

Too much chili for lunch?

Let's all sing together...

January 2, 2011   1 Comment

A Challenging Itinerary

One of the challenging things about car travel in France is the high distraction factor.  It’s very easy to get side tracked by really cool sites.

Case in point:  Diane and I took a few days off while my parents were taking care of the kids (Merci Maman et Papa!) and we decided to go to Avignon.  After driving for less than half an hour from home, we saw a really cool medieval fortress perched up on a cliff by the highway.

9th Century Mornas Fortress

9th Century Mornas Fortress

We simply had to stop and check it out. Our guide was dressed as a medieval soldier and spoke to us in old, medieval French (very cool).  We learned several useful tips on how to build our very own attack-resistant fortress, including:

  • Always build the main doors perpendicular to the natural path of travel to ensure attackers can’t get any momentum as they (try to) ram the door
  • Since attackers are right-handed, make the approaching path uphill with a right turn so it’s harder for them to swing their swords without hitting the wall (but easier for the defenders)
  • Put lots of large nails in wooden doors so it’s hard to break through with an axe

As an engineering geek, now I can’t help notice such building subtleties at other medieval sites.  Neat!

We also learned to speak the language of medieval soldiers and in particular how they described their coat of arms.  For example, the original Provence Coat of Arms is said to be “D’or aux quatre pals de gueules” (Of gold with four pallets of mouths). Note:  Yellow is said as “gold” and red is said as “mouths”.

Provençal Coat of Arms

Provençal Coat of Arms

We ended up staying in Mornas for the night, about 25 minutes away from home.

The next day, our determination to get to Avignon evaporated after driving for about 10 minutes as we got distracted by Orange and its famous Roman Arc de Triomphe, its world heritage Roman Amphitheater, and so on.

We stumbled on so many cool things on our way that we never made it to Avignon.

What’s the moral of the story?  It depends who you are:

  1. Drive with your eyes closed. Select a destination (at home, away from distractions), then drive straight there without taking your eyes off the road.  This way, you won’t get off track with really cool distractions.
    OR
  2. Planning is for losers. Just hop in the car, drive, and be surprised.  Chances are, you won’t go very far, but you’ll enjoy every minute of it.
    OR
  3. Focus on day trips. You’ll end up staying less than half an hour from home, so why pay for a hotel room?  Unless your objective is to prop up the French economy.

November 9, 2010   5 Comments

Friendly Rain

Since Z commented the other day that I had a “gros bedon” (fat belly), I decided that I couldn’t spend all my days drinking wine, eating cheese and sampling the saucissons secs (the excellent dry pork sausages – much better than it sounds). So today, I went out for a 5km run, despite a strong wind and the clouds promising rain.

The always reliable Murphy’s Law chose this opportunity to enact itself. When I was furthest away from home the rain started raining.  I didn’t really care because I was running and a little water wouldn’t hurt.

However, on my way back, and as the rain had effectively stopped, a car drove by and stopped besides me.  The lady in the car rolled down her window and said “Voulez-vous que je vous reconduisent à votre maison?” (Would you like a ride back to your home?).

Perhaps this is part South-of-France culture, or perhaps this is part small-town culture, but I was frankly not expecting that a lady driving her car offers a ride home to a dirty looking and wet stranger running on the road…

October 11, 2010   4 Comments