Sunday, September 30, 2012


Part 3 of 3

Friends, Danny and Rozan and their little children,  joined us for a while in Moissac. Colin and Colleen will be our travel companions in France for a couple of months or so. 

One day when we were all together, we were invited to a very special lunch at the home of  a French couple, Claudine and Joseph.

This has been a highlight of our visit -  the wonderful hospitality extended of our French hosts. Claudine went to great lengths to prepare for all eight of us, an exceptional, traditional meal of the region that included local wines, home made foie gras and cassoulet

The meal began with aperitifs of cassis and her own orange wine. 

Before we moved to the table, Claudine gave the three women a small gift, wrapped in coloured paper and tied with a small ribbon. It was a memento of her home town.  
We left the table with very full stomachs, and arms full too. We were sent on our way with enough cassoulet, cakes and orange wine, and fresh tomatoes and aubergine from her garden for another meal or two.

We will never forget how Claudine and Joseph opened their home to us in Saint-Nicolas-de-la-Grave! 

A note about restaurants in Moissac:
Joanne selected our first night to dine out in Moissac from a brochure of recommended restaurants in the Tarn et Garronne that are noted for their excellent presentation of foods of the region. L’Abbeye is in Place Roger Delthil, the square right below our apartment, only metres from the abbey. Excellent meals at reasonable prices. We returned with our friends for our last dinner out in Moissac. Patrice, proprietor and formerly a Chef in Lyon, served us personally. The service and food was memorable. The first course of my Plat du Jour - grilled gizzards of duck - was delicious beyond comparison. Only the French could come up with such a plate. 
(Sorry, no photo).
During our stay in Moissac we enjoyed at couple of simple meals at Jean Pierre’s Fromage Rit, (a play on words) cooked by his mate Julie. 

Jean Pierre, a friend of Claudine’s, ended our dinners with complimentary glasses of his personal digestive concoction. It lightened our steps for our return to the apartment.

Third restaurant of mention is the Hotel Felix. Just on the edge of the city is this place that is advertised by a French billboard that depicts a  cowboy from the wild west. No North American tourist would turn in there, but we heard this place served the best escargots and grenouille (frogs legs) in the area. 

We ate there with Danny and Rozan. Wow! What a delicious meal. And inexpensive.

Funny thing is, this is essentially a motel with a western motif. The owner drives a big old Cadillac. The rooms are little houses: replicas (French versions) of the old American ghost town, complete with teepee, which happens to be constructed of cement. Needless to say, the owner has a passion for the American wild west.

What an unlikely French restaurant. The food was so good we had to return. We took the Lucases there.

Colleen, reluctantly tried the frogs legs. She did not like them! But she was brave.

The city of AGENS is in the Aquitane, about 45 minutes west of Moissac and well worth the drive for a visit.

We came here for a day trip.

It is a medium sized, rather cosmopolitan "alive" city that has a very wide traffic-free, people friendly,  bright promenade in the centre of town. 

The sign in the picture to the right: what does it mean?

Cooling down with water jets on the promenade

MONTAUBAN, about 45 minutes east of Moissac, is one of the most important commercial, medical, and administrative centres of the Midi-Pyrénnées. The three bridges that cross the Tarn are the first sights that catch one’s attention at Montauban. 

They are stunning with their unique architecture and they are adorned with lush overflowing flower baskets. 

About 56,000 people live in Montauban.

La Place Nationale

Some historical timelines in the history of Montauban help place its role in the development of France over a period of several hundred years:

1144 - founded by the Count of Toulouse as the first new medieval town in Southwest France

1560 - surrendered to the Reformation. Catholic Church is plundered and expelled. Became a Calvinist/Protestant stronghold

1629 - Catholicism restored by the Cardinal of Richelieu in Paris

1798 - after the French Revolution, Montauban is relegated to country town status

1808 - Napoleon reinstates the city as regional capital

For more travel photography with local information visit my website.

Friday, September 21, 2012


Part 2 of 3

Back again to the Moissac stories ....  

After our first couple of weeks here we had to get away to the light and the cheerfullness of the Mediterranean. The Camargue was a simple choice - only about 3 hours by car and a good price at this time of year for a Chambres d'Hautes. We have now returned to Moissac for one final week in our home exchange. On our drive back up north we picked up our friends, the Lucases at Blagnac Airport in Toulouse. They will be our travel companions for the rest of our time in France and Spain.

MOISSAC: some impressions, stories and images.

To recap, Moissac is situated in the southwest of France, in the Midi-Pyrénnées, Département Tarn et GaronneThis very old city, about an hour’s drive north of Toulouse, is situated about a kilometre east of where the River Tarn and the Garonne River meet.

This confluence of waters forms a lake at Saint-Nicolas-de-la-Grave. The summer drought and August heat wave have resulted in exceptionally low water giving way to algae bloom and turbidity - not friendly for water sports.

The 240 km long Canal des Deux Mers runs between Toulouse and Bordeaux. Along the way, it passes through Moissac. This extension of the Canal du Midi makes it possible to travel by boat between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.

These waterways are just down the street from our apartment.  

We often walk and cycle along the towpaths by several of the canal’s 91 locks. Sometimes we open a  gate for a passing boat.

One of the canal’s 40 aqueducts crosses the Tarn here.

The Pont Canal du Cacor at the confluence of the Tarn and Garonne rivers  was built in 1845 using stone from Bruniquel and brick from Toulouse. It has 13 arches and is 353 metres long.

These aqueducts  are  the sections of canal that carry boats over rivers, roads, train tracks or valleys. 

The Garonne River flows right by the Tarn at Moissac. The Aveyron River, tributary of the Tarn, is only about a half hour away.

Essentially, they are bridges for boats, and of course, walkers and cyclists.

Moissac is our home base for about a month. We are living in the 3rd floor apartment of a building constructed about two and a half centuries ago for the Préfect, or Chief of Police of the city (top two windows, left).

Though rather dark and dreary, it is a spacious apartment. Looking out our  living room window, slightly to the right, one can see that we are only a few dozen cobblestones away from the old medieval town square - Place Roger Delthi

Looking straight out the same  window is the abbey, built more than a thousand years ago. It is a UNESCO Heritage site, and a major stop along the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trail.

The Abbey bells chime on the hour ... actually, they are about ten minutes late - kind of like Moissac itself, rather behind the rest of the world, we feel. This city, and much of the region has seen better days.

One gets the feeling that the city is in decay. And this appears to be so for the entire region.

This area is largely agricultural, the main products being Chasselas grapes (for juice, jams and jellies), apple orchards and cereal crops. We have often remarked about how old the population is, I mean, how few young people there are. Indeed, farm families in decline and the exodus of youth to large urban centres is not unique to the agricultural communities of France. It’s just more noticeable here.

In Moissac and in all the neighbouring towns we see vacant and derelict buildings, crumbling and abandoned churches.

Council funds are insufficient to maintain them; congregations have withered away; the Catholic Church has simply dropped the ball.

Few of the 12,000 or so Moissagais (locals) speak English. Moissac is not a tourist destination, except perhaps for the pilgrim trail walkers, the occasional tour bus occupants who are herded here on a neo-Christian mission to see the awesome rock pile - the Abbey; and canal boaters who berth at the canal tow path and come ashore for a meal. All the people we meet, however, are friendly and courteous, and this makes us feel welcome. 

Our hosts in Moissac, Gaby and Dom, are the people with whom we are exchanging homes (they are in our house). They introduced us in advance to some close friends of theirs who have taken the time to show us around. We are very grateful for this. Claudine from St-Nicolas de la Grave and Christiane from Montauban, Jean and Nadia have all helped to make our stay here a pleasant one.

Saturday, September 15, 2012


Part One

I must be having a dream ...

I am lying outstretched high up on a narrow shelf, shifting ever so slightly, fearful of falling off my perch and tumbling down into the water below. It is a hot night.

I quietly calculate how much of a push I can give myself to clear the shoreline  and plunge safely into the soothing cool water lapping on the soft sandy bank of the river. 

I think a flock of flamingos are gathered there in the shallows, inviting me to join them as they forage on the river bed.

Friendly white ponies with big sad eyes graze in the grasses on the nearby bank. I imagine them beckoning to me. Join us. It is peaceful here. 

But there is danger. 

In a nearby field are powerful black bulls. Should I lose my balance and intrude into their world, heavy hoofs and sharp horns may inflict horrible pain.

I drift off again into a fitful sleep.

Now I am on the edge of my bed, this time more awake and I am making some sense of the mix of images that have intruded on what began as a deep sleep. I lower my feet to  the floor and it all comes back to me. 

We have been staying for several days now in the Camargue, at Mas St Louis, a Chambres d’hÔtes, not far from Aigues Mortes.

Yesterday was a full day filled with adventures. It began with the running of the bulls through the streets of Le Grau-du-Roi.


Joanne stayed safe behind the barricades. 

Afterwards, we walked into the market where we bought a paella for lunch and ate it on a seaside bench overlooking the Mediterranean. 

After days of being landlocked in the darkness of the Midi-Pyrénees, I plunged at long last into the sea, stretching out again and again and again with each stroke in the cool, clean exhilarating saltwater.

We took a long slow walk along the shoreline, waves lapping at our ankles, sun beating down on our bare skin. The Mediterranean sea breeze was warm and cleansing.

With still half a day ahead of us. We returned to the car and drove deep into the farmlands of the Camargue, destination Les Saintes Marie de la Mer. We drove the slow route passing by vineyards and rice fields. A small car ferry at Bac du Sauvage took about ten other cars and twice as many bicyclists across the Petit Rhone.

The Camargue is the vast delta of the Rhone River whose waters fan out in the last few kilometers of the river's long meandering journey from central France to the Mediterranean Sea. Marshlands and scrub lands, tidal pools, swamps and estuaries are rich with nutrients that sustain an exceedingly wide variety of flora and fauna. The history and culture of this intriguing region of France would take a lifetime to experience.

We stopped along the way to photograph flamingos feeding in the turbid still waters of an estuary. They are delicate but gangly creatures with long stick legs, serpentine necks and big parrot-like beaks.

These flamingos are a very pale pink in colour, and when they stretch their wings as though in a great big yawn, they reveal a beautiful cerise of varying hues.

We drove on from this peaceful scene to yet another. We rounded a bend in the road and we were suddenly upon a small herd of stocky white Camargue ponies grazing in the pale green grass by the side of the Petit Rhone, the final navigable tributary of the Grand Rhone.

The long manes and tails of the ponies were wistfully blowing in the wind in rhythm with the high blades of grass that surrounded them. It was still very warm here and the ponies were protected from the sun by the shade of leaning windblown trees. 

What struck me the most was the light, that perhaps only an artist or photographer might truly understand and be able to capture with brush or lens. The colours were pale and subdued, filtered in a way that I have never seen before.

Juxtaposed with this rather tranquil scene, was the fenced-in field of bulls across the road. They also were grazing, but they were commanding. They had a different kind of presence. These big black bulls are powerful, imposing creatures. 

They are dynamos at rest. In the morning we watched them in a controlled stampede through the city to the delight of spectators seeking thrills behind steel barricades at the annual Fall Festival at Le Grau du Roi. But here the bulls were as free as they could be, left alone to please no one. 

On the way back to our abode at Mas St-Louis we stopped at a roadside Ferme Directe where we bought local produit for dinner - fresh tomatoes, a dozen huitres (oysters), a couple of baguettes (from the third and final baking of the day), Vin Rosé of the region, and yet one more local gastronomic specialty: Saucisson de Taureau. Yes, of course - bull meat sausage.

Vin de Sables is a wine of the Carmague where the vines grow in the terroir of sand.

This dry rosé has a unique taste and very good one. 

We consume some of this daily while we are here, but only copious amounts during one memorable seafood dinner shared with our friends, Danny and Rozann. That was the night of my fitful sleep. It started with deep REM but then the fantasies of a dream began. We are sleeping in single beds here. I am not used to such a small cot. Are they narrower here in France? 

I was tossing and turning all night, fighting not to fall out of bed. During the moments when I did drift off to sleep I remember dreaming of falling into scenes of where we had been during that wonderful day! 

For more travel photography with local information visit my website.