Monday, October 31, 2011

Carcassonne




On Friday the 28th we left the Périgord Noir region and headed to the south of France. On the way, we stopped in Carcassonne, a fortified French town that has about 2,500 years of history, first as a Gaulish settlement, then a Roman fortified town, and finally as an annex to the French kingdom in 1247, under Louis IX, becoming a border citadel between France and the Kingdom of Aragon (Spain).

But it was pouring when we got there and nobody felt like getting out of the car (the fortified village is pedestrian-only), so we decided to continue our trip, but not before taking a few pictures under the rain.






Sunday, October 30, 2011

Saint Geniès




On the way to Le Conquil we passed the Château de Salignac and another one we couldn't identify, and then we drove through Saint Geniès, a lovely little village on the side of the road that's so perfect it looks like a Hollywood set. At the center of the village is a beautiful ensemble consisting of the chuch of Notre Dame de l'Assomption and the castle.







Le Conquil




Well, according to the kids, not everything should be about visiting prehistoric sites and medieval towns, so on our last day in the southwest we went to Le Conquil, a place off the beaten tourist path that is officially called a Dinosaur Park but that's actually three sites in one: dinosaur park, troglodyte caves, where some of our ancestors used to live, and zip line park. The zip line park is at the end of the tour, and someone was getting a little impatient about not getting to the "fun part." In the end we all had fun and survived the adventure.




















Saturday, October 29, 2011

Gouffre de Padirac




We also visited another cave, a very different kind of cave, the Gouffre de Padirac (Padirac Chasm), located near Gramat.

The chasm was created when the roof collapsed into a large internal cavern. Apparently the cavern existed in the 3rd century and was inhabited during the 15th and 16th centuries. The cavern contains a subterranean river that is partly navigable by gondola. (The cavern system is made up of more than 25 miles of galleries but only a bit over a mile is open to visitors.)

You access the underground cavern by descending 75 yards by elevator (which seems as old as the cavern itself) or stairs. We took the stairs, on both the way down and back up. Pretending you can keep up with your kids helps to keep you young. You then explore the first part of the cave on foot and eventually get on a small boat that's handled by one of the guides, who takes you on a short trip over the river.

It felt a bit like a Disneyland ride, and I was expecting to hear "It's a Small World After All" at any moment. But the views down there are unique. The water is crystal clear and there are stalactites and stalagmites everywhere as well as various rock formations, including the one they call the Pile of Dishes, shown here.









Friday, October 28, 2011

Lascaux

At the beginning of the school year the kids learned about the Lascaux caves in French History class, so we thought it would be nice to visit them during the Toussaint break. It was worth the trip, but I think more for the adults, who can better appreciate the artistic value and historical relevance of the artwork.




Lascaux, located near the village of Montignac, is famous for its Stone Age cave paintings, estimated to be 17,000 years old. The most famous section of the cave is The Great Hall of the Bulls where bulls, equines and stags are painted. One of the bulls is 17 feet long, the largest animal discovered so far in cave art. Lascaux was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list along with other prehistoric sites in the Vézère valley.

The kids had told us the cave was discovered (in 1940) by four teenagers looking for their stray dog and that it had been closed to the public because of the damage the paintings had suffered after years of being open to visitors. The carbon dioxide produced by the visitors, as well as pollen and other elements introduced into the cave, was damaging the paintings.

So when you visit Lascaux, you're actually in Lascaux II, an exact replica of the two main cave halls and their paintings, which was opened in 1983, 200 meters from the original. But unless they tell you, you won't know they are reproductions.

You are not allowed to take photographs, so the ones here are courtesy of Wikipedia.






Thursday, October 27, 2011

Rocamadour

One of the most visited sites in France, Rocamadour is a cluster of chapels and churches built on the side of a cliff, high on a rocky plateau on the right bank of the Alzou river, a tributary of the Dordogne.




Rocamadour (from Roca, rock, and St. Amadour) was a dependency of the abbey of Tulle to the north. The main monument is the pilgrimage church of Notre Dame, whose altar contains a wooden Black Madonna supposedly carved by Saint Amadour himself. Its monuments and sanctuary of the Virgin Mary have attracted pilgrims for centuries, including in 1244 Louis IX (Saint Louis), and his mother, Blanche de Castille. A small chapel is dedicated to some of the most important pilgrims.






We started our "pilgrimage" at the bottom. After going through Porte Salmon, one of the 13th century gates, we walked or scooted up the charming cobblestone street. Although a bit bumpy for scooters, that didn't seem to bother the kids. After a lot of steps we reached the various chapels and churches.









At the very top of the mountain is a castle built in the Middle Ages to protect the sanctuary, which we had actually visited the day before on the way back from another site. You can climb all the way up, take an elevator, or reach by road.







Sarlat





One of the places we were told we had to see was Sarlat-la-Canéda, or simply Sarlat, a medieval town in the Dordogne department in southwestern France that's one of the most appealing in this region.

This is a beautiful time of the year to drive through the quiet roads of this area, and once you get out in the country there are duck and geese farms everywhere.





Sarlat was developed around a large Benedictine abbey of Carolingian origin. The center of the old town, car-free, consists of well preserved and restored stone buildings and is representative of 14th century France.





Besides Main Square, there's Place du Marché aux Trois Oies, a square that's adorned with a sculpture of three geese as a tribute to the region’s culinary heritage. The kids loved posing for photos on them. The square is surrounded by stores that specialize in goose and duck products, of which of course we brought some back home.





We loved walking around this picturesque town, discovering little alleys here and there.The specialties of every restaurant in the region are duck and foie gras, and we ended up having dinner at the Restaurant du Commerce, a busy place where we obviously had the foie gras and even the kids ordered the Confit de Canard.