Chartres – Cathedral a 10, Food ??

On Thursday we took the two-and-a-half-hour drive to Chartres. It is a big, modern, and clean city; quite nice. After lunch we went straight to the Cathedral, the city’s main attraction for most visitors thanks to its historical importance. It has some of the best Gothic construction ever, according to those who know such things. We would return multiple times during our stay. One of the most memorable visits was when we went on a tour of the crypt, which is not actually where people are buried but is a series of chapels built under the church. It serves as the foundation for the structures above.

Even in the presence of such a beautiful, as well as spiritual, icon, we soon were searching for food. Our lunch at the first bar/tabac we saw was actually one of the better meals. We sat outside in a lush courtyard accompanied by un petit oiseau with a nest in a decorative sculpture. The server was friendly, easily interpreting our French. The portions were just right, which for Tricia and me means small.

The next day, we tried one of the restaurants near the Cathedral. It was OK but not great. I fear we were the recipients of tourist fatigue, little attempt to speak French to us, just English. As is often the case in tourist areas, the cuisine is just passable since most customers will never return. However, to France’s credit, that is not as common as in some tourist places we have visited over the years – the French are proud of their food.

We ate at the Cafe Blue for both lunch and snacks. Even though it as close to the Cathedral as possible, it had great service and food. Its setting is perfect for gazing at the church and watching the people parade by.

On Sunday, needing some variety, we ate at an Italian place. Sadly, the service did not live up to the ambience of the shop/restaurant. Our French is understood most everyplace we go. Tricia is often complimented on her French, and occasionally even my much less elegant elocution is given positive marks. Yet for some reason it appeared the servers were snickering at us. When I told one man that the meal was délicieux, which was a stretch, but I was being kind, he cocked his head as if he didn’t understand. They must have understood, as they brought us our orders and such without ever a word of English. I could have overlooked the less than stellar food, but the arrogant attitude kind of took the glow off of the meal.

Walking along the river, we spied a couple of cafes and bistros perched above the water. Both of them were away from the Cathedral, which may make them more local oriented. So my conclusion is that the Cathedral is a 10. The food, however, is still inconclusive. We may go back to Chartres one day. If we do, it will be to visit some of the less famous churches and explore the food in more depth. Both of those pursuits are worth a trip.

A Week of Food and Friends

Tricia and I are foodies; we talk about food, we plan our next meals while eating, and we both read food blogs. When we travel, seeking out a good place for lunch is as important to us as visiting some iconic sight. Thankfully, our friends Tim and Lisa enjoy good food as well, so their time with us has included varied venues, both geographically and culinarily. Thank you Tricia for most of these photos.

Not all of our meals were in restaurants. Sandwiches, or paninis, which of course are the same thing, but panini sounds more exotic, were a mainstay. Lisa with her comfortable stalwart of sliced turkey, Tricia with tomatoes and sliced goat cheese. Tim and I had sardine salad with spices, onions, and pickles. One day we had grain bowls, a welcome vegetarian break from meat-heavy French cooking.

Sundays were at home, since open restaurants on Sundays in France are not common in the rural areas. Sunday Lunch is a revered tradition in France which I suppose contributes to the restaurants being closed. We cooked breaded chicken one Sunday, braised lamb and mash the second.

We visited a number of restaurants, Saint Julien’s twice. We went with Tim on his first day here. Last Tuesday all four of us went.

Menu du jour at Saint Julian’s

We had Indian food in Mayanne. We even went to the Buffalo Grill to have American-style hamburgers. One night our neighbors invited us over for the UK version of chili, which is not Tex-mex at all, yet was quite good.

Last Wednesday we went to Au Point Nommé  in Saint-Fraimbault. Tricia and I went there in March of 2020 when we were here to check out La Thebauderie, it was good to go back. We sat in the sun and enjoyed the meal.

On Thursday we took a long drive to Granville, a historic town and the location of one of our favorite restaurants in Normandie, La Citidel. The lunch was a gift to us all from Lisa’s mom who lives in far away Southern California. We enjoyed every moment, sitting outside under an awning that gave some of the photos an orange tint. Thank you so much Anne.

Apéros and oysters for a perfect start to a meal by the sea.

Tricia had scallops, what an amazing presentation. Tim and I had seafood towers.

Friday we took them to our favorite place nearby, which I have written about before, Auberge du la Source – wonderful, c’est normal.

It has been a good time. Thursday we all head for Chartres to visit the famed cathedral. Of course, as iconic and historic as the Gothic church is, Tricia and I will be in search of good food.

Normandie – Or “The French UK”

It is beautiful here in Normandie in the spring. How can you beat a sunset like this one?

For centuries Normandie has attracted foreigners who attempted to make it their own. The earliest residents were pre-historical. They left behind cave paintings and mysterious megalithic monuments. When Julius Cesar invaded in 58 BC there were thriving Celtic tribes. Rome established multiple sites with ruins and names which are still in use.

At the end of the 3rd century AD the Germans came, destroying much of what the Romans had built in what is now Normandie. The Germans were followed by the Viking raids that started in the early 800s. These raids continued for years and eventually the area was called  Normandie, the land of the Normans. Then, a Viking descendent, William the Duke of Normandy, attacked England in 1066, which resulted in Normandy becoming part of England. In 1204 Normandie was freed from English rule and rejoined France. Yet Normandie has never lost its English roots.

These days Normandie is overrun with tourists intent on visiting the D-Day Beaches, Mont Saint Michelle, churches, and sampling the food. Folks from the UK relocate to Normandie in numbers large enough that some villages have more English speaking residents than French speakers. We can go days never speaking French because all of our neighbors speak the British version of English.

The architecture of Normandie, from my non-professional eye, seems more English than French. On our recent trip to La Rochelle the change in architecture was evident as we drove south.

Compare this old cottage in England (left) with the one we see looking out of our window.

The food is one of the few things that remains more French. Cuisine tends to be influenced by the terroir of the land, thus Camembert and cider are icons of this region.

We like Normandie but are enthusiastic about exploring other regions of France, so we travel. Curiosity fuels the urge to wander; thankfully we share that urge.

Printemps en Normandie

Springtime in Normandie – food, a bit of sprucing of chez nous, and kicking-up our French.

Auberge de la Source in Sainte-Cyr-du-Bailleul remains our favorite place to eat in our area. We are regular enough that we share bisous (the French kiss on each cheek greeting) when we arrive and au bientôt when we depart. So it is always a treat to chat with the owners, she handles the front of the house, he, the classically trained chef, does the magic in the kitchen. Back from our trip to La Rochelle where we were spoiled with good food we headed to la Source for a local fix.

During the week the only offering is the menu du jour. Friday’s was of course perfect. It was bar, a common menu fish here, not so common in the US.

Tricia usually does not order the dessert, but she most always steals a bite or two of mine, you can see why.

It is Tuesday 9 May 2023 as I am writing this, we have been busy getting ready for tomorrow, when our dear friend Tim arrives to spend almost three weeks with us, on Friday his wife Lisa, another dear friend, who is conveniently married to Tim, it works out so well, will also arrive. Part of our preparation was redoing our gallery wall to accommodate an original painting we got from the artist named Canard in Ars-en-Ré while on our trip to La Rochelle. Here is his gallery and studio, he has been painting for years and I am sure some of the brushes and such are as old as I am.

He paints boats and people of the sea. We bought this painting as it reminds us of our trip and we also commented that it made us think of La Conner in Washington.

Here is the finished gallery wall, well as it is for now. We find that these walls are never finished and that is part of the pleasure of it all.

One of the reasons we came to France was to enjoy France more as residents than as tourists. Part of that has been the French languasge which we both have studied for years. Our Neighbors however all speak English, well the UK version of said language, so we don’t get to speak as much French as we would like. So we found a tutor. She is a delightful lady with a delightful chien, they all live in a house older than ours. AND … She said Tricia was the most advanced student she has, me, I get to play catch-up.

We so like France, the food, the art, well even the language though it is a challenge. It makes the expat challenges all worth it. Hope wherever you are reading this you take some time to appreciate the beauty around you and the joy of good food and friends.

La Rochelle, Not New Rochelle

La Rochelle is located in Nouvelle-Aquitaine on the Atlantic coast, about a four hour drive southwest of us. Though rich in history and reputation, thanks to the Dick van Dyke Show, my enthusiasm did not match Tricia’s though I never said anything. Every time she would mention going there, reminding me of the city’s frequent mentions in the book “A Bite Size History of France,” which we had both read, the first image that came to my mind was Dick van Dyke who lived in New Rochelle on his old TV show.

Well, we went to La Rochelle and I am so glad we did. It is one of my favorite places in France, hard to make a list of better places, and of course one of the criteria for a great place is the food, La Rochelle has some of the best we have had.

The Pont de I’le de Ré takes you to I’le de Ré. It is 19 miles long and 3 miles wide, with a number of small communities. We ate lunch at La Marine in the village of Saint-Martin-de-Ré. We ate outside next to the harbour and of course had seafood. Tricia had hake, which she said was great, I stole a bite and do agree. I had Cocotte de la Mer, a seafood stew of mussels, shrimp, langoustines, and shellfish, in a cream sauce all baked with a puff pastry crust. (You get just a peek of Tricia’s hake in the distance.)

A wonderful meal for sure, the sauce was so rich and the seafood perfect.

The next day we ate near the old harbour in La Rochelle. We had heard that Andre’s restaurant was the best in the area, but we passed by it as a bit touristy. Just a few yards down the street we stopped in front of Le Bistrot d’la Chaîne, greeted by the delightful owner we took a table, and we are so glad we did. Other bistrots around us and the crêperie across from us had more people, but I know none of them, including the patrons at Andre’s, had a better experience than we did.

We both had one of the best meals ever, the kind that makes it difficult to recall any other meal that was ever more enjoyable. The service was perfect, she helped us with our French, we watched a parade of people walking by, and spent a pleasant couple of hours on a warm but not hot day.

After an entrée of raw oysters our mains came. Tricia had scallops, I had grilled shrimp and risotto.

Thanks to Tricia for the photo

Travel is about learning and of course food. Two lessons from this trip. First off don’t let old blurry mental images prevent you from visiting a place you really have no sharp image of. The second lesson, which I have mentioned before, is to not rely too much on guide books or other bloggers, yep that includes me, for your decisions. You might go to Andre’s and have the meal of your life, or you might go to d’la Chaîne and wonder why we raved. All I know is we loved La Rochelle, and really loved the two meals we had there – we are pretty sure we will return.

So keep trying new places and tastes, you will discover the wonder of the world along the way.

I Needed a Burger, in France

Thirty six years ago this month I went on a date with the lady who would become my love, the mother of our wonderful daughter, my best friend, as well as my travel and food buddy. We have made it through the ups and downs of any relationship yet we still love to eat and travel together. Today I had my first real hamburger in over 16 months – before we moved to France.

When we moved to France we did so with the intention of embracing the culture, and we have done so quite well. Our UK friends still have people bring them beans and brown sauce from the UK, we have only asked for red pepper flakes and Panko. We strive to eat what is here, though we do make nachos at home now and then. But we live in another country, one that is known for its food, which we accept and enjoy.

One of the challenges of living as rural as we do is that the variety of famous French foods is limited. At even the smallest of cafes the food is done quite well but often without variety. It is the same if you live in rural USA, all the restaurants have similar food, I know as I have traveled there. So we do at times crave different tastes. We go to Mayenne to have Indian food, we get to Paris as often as practical to visit wonderful cafes. But every now and then a food from the past gets into my brain as a craving – a hamburger.

Early in our relationship Tricia, who has a degree in nutrition and food science, told me, “If you are going to have a burger then have the juiciest greasiest one you want, enjoy it, but just don’t do it everyday.” Some folks, when they learn that she has a degree in nutrition, give me their sympathy, thinking we must have an austere diet, au contraire, we eat most everything, but with a bit of balance – frites don’t count of course. So it made sense that when I began to vocalize my craving for a burger she was completely supportive.

The French do eat hamburgers, it is common to see them on menus, even at rather upscale restaurants. McDonalds are relatively common, and it is not because McD has forced themselves on the French. McDonalds is a big business, they would not stay in France if the French were not patronizing their restaurants, the French eat hamburgers.

BUT… Often the burgers I see on the plates of other diners do not look much like what the burgers in the US look like. I did order a burger last summer, the bun was black, not gray, not burned from grilling, but black. I have no idea what kind of flour or process made it that way, I have seen the same at other restaurants. It’s texture was like a macaroon, almost like eating air; defiantly not a genuine burger in my book.

The other interesting difference is that when you see a person eat a burger in France it is almost always with a knife and fork, not picking it up and eating it with your hands. In France most everything is eaten with a knife and fork, even pizza.

There is a chain of restaurants here in western France that promotes itself as American food, Buffalo Grill. We have driven by them over the year but never stopped, well today we did, in Le Mans.

They have burgers, ribs, chili, even buffalo. So the time and place was right to fill my craving.

I ordered the Extra Cheeseburger – here is the menu description: Steak haché de bœuf façon bouchère ou galette végétale façon chili, cheddar, sauce cheddar, sauce premium, oignon, salade, cornichon. Or, thanks to Google Translate: ground beef steak or vegetable patty chili style, cheddar, cheddar sauce, premium sauce, onion, salad, pickle.

Confusing description aside, it was a genuine American style cheeseburger and I enjoyed every bite – and of course I picked up and ate it properly, with my hands. Tricia had fish and chips, again quite good. So my hamburger craving is satiated for now, and we discovered a place that will work well if we want a taste of non-French cuisine.

I started this blog yesterday, today we are in Montmorillon in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region of France. We had lunch with friends at a crêperie where I had a galette with chicken and curry sauce, so delicious. French food is great, but every now and then a bit of home comfort is required. We will visit Buffalo Grill again, there is one just 30 minutes away in Flers.

Shoots Out of a Dry Stump

This old tree witnessed history – seasons of plenty and of want, Napoleon’s armies, two world wars, and generations of farmers – only to be felled one day by a chainsaw – its majesty sacrificed for firewood.

It’s glory may gone but not its will to live – new shoots are testimony to spring and the hope of life to come.

Waiting in France

“Waiting time is not wasting time. Waiting patiently in expectation is the foundation of the spiritual life.” Henri J.M. Nouwen

If Nouwen is correct then France is a good place to develop your spiritual life for this culture has waiting woven into its very fiber. At times I welcome the lessons waiting teaches, other times lack of patience and uncertainty rear their unspiritual heads.

The ubiquitous drive-up service in the US is pretty much non-existant here in France. Starbucks has drive-through and of course you can order on your phone so as to not be inconvenienced by waiting in a line to place your order then waiting again while your order is prepared – no chance of prompting Nouwen’s spiritual life here.

In France you sit in a delightful café and wait patiently for the server, which will most always take much longer than any place you go in the US. Yet you don’t see people looking around trying to catch the eye of the server or overtly flagging them down as would be common back in Seattle. Or compare Japan where many restaurants have a button on the table for the sole purpose of summoning someone, nothing like that here.

Knowing how important un café is, it is usually brought out relatively quickly. However if you are sitting down to lunch minutes will go by between being seated and someone coming to take your aperitif order, and more minutes until it comes – so it goes all through the meal. Wait times between courses would earn even the best establishment poor reviews outside of France.

Yet the French take it in stride, just as they do waiting in a line at the supermarche. Just this morning we waited for a few minutes while the couple in front of us carefully bagged and stacked their groceries into their cart, then engaged with the also patient checker to pay, which was slow as the shopper methodically entered numbers into a keypad. There were at least three more folks with carts behind us, no one was impatiently glaring, they, like us, chatted, knowing their turn was coming.

One does learn to flow with the waiting pace as it applies to shop hours. Yes, many shops close at about noon only to re-open at 2.00pm. Many are closed on both Sunday and Monday. And it is not uncommon to find a place you were intent on going to, which you expected to be open, be closed with little explanation. The only explanation of course is C’est la France!

The most challenging waiting comes from anything associated with the government. France is famous for their bureaucracy and its associated paperwork, something that even my best pre-moving mind preparation did not grasp. No matter what it is you want to do there is a dossier involved and it is impossible to get all of the documents correct the first time.

In June of 2022 we submitted a 1.5cm thick packet of documents to get our Carte Vitale, healthcare card. So far it has been returned, yes the whole packet, four or five times requesting additional information. We last returned it with a letter two months ago, our relocation consultant says that since we have heard nothing from them that is good news, yet we check the mail daily.

Car insurance requires more than just a call with the VIN number and your drivers licence number as it does in the US. All of that for sure, but copies of your visa and all the accompanying docs get sent in. I am enrolled in a French Driving school to get my French licence, the paperwork for that was about the same as getting our visa. You submit it all and days or weeks go by until you hear.

We renewed our visas, starting in January, and of course received multiple requests for more info. We are all set, we have our provisional visa renewal yet are still waiting for the final card, or actually the notification that we can make an appointment with the prefecture to go an pick up our card.

The aspect of waiting that Nouwen does not mention is the uncertainty that waiting can produce. Since he is a man of God he would probably advise that uncertainty is an opportunity to express faith, and I am sure he is correct. BUT when you are waiting for a visa to see if you can stay in the country, car insurance to allow you to drive, etc. it can be a bit stressful as well.

Yet we are getting pretty good at it, or at least used to it. As I finish this blog I realize I get to face the uncertainty of what will happen when I attempt to uploaded it since we have painfully slow internet service out in rural France. So I will hit publish, refill my d’eau minérale gazeuse and hope you get to read it. In the end my goal is to be more like Neville, he has this down perfectly.

A Bistro, an Auberge, or Both – You Choose

Should you ever get near enough to meet-up with us in our rural part of Normandie for lunch we would recommend a choice between two places: Le Bistrot Saint Julien or Auberge de la Source. Both are about 15 minutes away.

The first restaurant we went to after moving into La Thebauderie was Le Bistrot Saint Julien. In another blog soon I will address the different terms for eating establishments here in France: Bistro, brasserie, auberge, café, bar, restaurant. We chose Saint Julien for the same reason we would take a visitor there, it is next door to the ruins of Château de Domfront, a place we were anxious to see. We have also discovered that in the Michelin Travel Guide for Normandie it is one of only two restaurants listed for Domfront.

A bistrot (bistro in English) is usually a smaller more casual place with a local feel about it. Most will have a menu du jour, which is always the best value. Bistrots usually follow the traditional opening hours of 12h00 to 14h00, though keep in mind that does not mean they accept seating until 14h00, we have been to many places that stopped seating at 12h30 – 13h00. Many reopen later for dinner, Saint Juliens re-opens at 19h00.

This is where we go most often for lunch, we rarely, well I guess never, go out for dinner in Normandie. You know when you have become a regular when instead of au revoir (good bye) when you leave, the owner says à bientôt (see you soon). We have been on à bientôt terms for some time now.

In addition to a changing menu du jour, which at any restaurant in France will have fish on Fridays, Julien’s has a menu of local specialities. One of our favorites are the many tartins. Here is one Tricia had, as always thanks for the photo.

Look at that wonderful chèvre! One of my favorite tartins is chorizo. When our friend Tim visited he was daring enough to try the andouillette, an acquired regional taste; as I remember he quite enjoyed it.

Here is another dish that Tricia had, cod on black rice, and one of my plates.

Auberge de la Source is located in the tiny village of Saint-Cyr-du-Bailleul.

Auberge translates into English as “inn” or “hostel.” Some do have rooms as well as a restaurant. Most tend to be a bit upscale from a bistro but not always – traditional and local products are the norm.

During the week Auberge de la Source only has a menu du jour, while on Friday and Saturday they have quite an extensive menu and no menu du jour, though they do have prix fix options. Like Saint Juliens it is operated by a husband and wife team, something that is quite common here in rural France. The chef at la Source is classically trained and it is evident as soon as you see the first dish, even if it is the apero.

We have had many great meals there, and will have more. Here are a few more photos, thanks again to Tricia for almost all of these in the blog, check other photos out on her blog.

There are plenty of places we go to eat, but these tend to be our most frequent stops. It is a pleasant characteristic of rural France that in some of the most out-of-the-way villages you discover a bistro or auberge, that may be quite plain in its exterior appearance, yet the food and experience is truly memorable. For Tricia and me that is one of the joys of travel, whether it is around where we live or in another country, we do love food – and of course we love it when friends join us.

Manifesting Paris in Spite of Les Manifestations

After a week in the warmth of Faro we headed to Paris planning to spend a couple days there before catching our train to Flers on Monday. There were moments of trepidation as we anticipated being in Paris. The unrest in France over the legislation to change the retirement age from 62 to 64 is still strong, and the accompanying les manifestations are happening every day or so, some turning violent. Paris being the largest city and the capital experiences the most frequent of them. When we were in Paris 11 days ago there were huge piles of uncollected garbage on the sidewalks, since the sanitation workers are still on strike we knew they would only have grown. So the thought of just flying to CDG and pretty much heading to the train station instead of spending the weekend was discussed a few times.

We decided to wait until we arrived in Paris and had a chance to assess the situation firsthand before determining our next move. We arrived in Paris and the next morning we went to Le Musée Rodin just as planned – aside from the garbage piles Paris was pretty much normal. Tricia took this beautiful photo.

The years I spent traveling for work taught me that most travel situations are worse on the news than in real life. I have had my share of delayed and cancelled flights, hotels that lost my reservation, etc. but as far as actual nightmares I don’t really have any stories to tell. My practice was always to take as many precautions as I could, like always getting to the airport at least two hours early, and think of alternative plans should there be a problem, more often than not everything would go according to plan, or with just a change in flight time or something.

Years ago I traveled to Jakarta to do a seminar, during a time of major political upheaval in the country. Some acquaintances insinuated I was nuts to go there; I went any way. I landed, took a taxi to the hotel, checked in, then took a taxi to Planet Hollywood. BTW the bar there was so cool, it was built around a volcano that erupted and shook the place every 30 minutes. Not a rioter in sight, but I did get cool t-shirts for my nieces.

In the morning, before we left for Le Musée, I did what I always do on a Paris morning, I went to le cafê for un café and a sketch. Le Maine Café on Avenu du Maine was just a couple of blocks away. This morning I had company from the friendly café kitty. Other than the garbage merrily flying up the street thanks to the brisk wind, it was normal Paris. (Please though do read my note at the end of the blog)

Walking back from the Rodin we were on the alert for lunch, a passion that we share wholeheartedly with the French. We rarely search the internet as the adventure of exploration is part of the pleasure and internet comments are usually written by tourists, we like looking for where the locals go. We came upon Le Standard Rive Gauche, and what a find. At the moment it is our new favorite in Paris.

Another photo by Tricia

My entree, Le Tigre Qui Pleure – I have no idea why it is called “the crying tiger” – was one of the best beef preparations I have ever had, the sharp knife they provided was not at all needed. The sauce was amazing with just a whisper of soy and spice. Chef Paul Bocuse would be proud, though I am sure it was not found in his strictly traditional cookbook.

I actually took this photo

So the moral of the story is that people and the news tend to focus on the negatives and exaggerate them – something I fear I do as well, but must strive to avoid. So my advice as theTravelsketcher is to plan well, but not over plan, allow plenty of time, and above all be flexible – more often than not the worst case will never happen, and if it does, well embrace it as part of the adventure.

Travel as much and as far as you can, even if the longest trip you can take is just around the block, don’t let the fear win.

Note: I do understand the issues that the protesters are upset about, we try to see it through French eyes not our American eyes. So my thoughts on being able to travel to Paris without the strikes affecting us are not meant at all to trivialize the importance of the issues, nor the inconveniences they are causing, it is as Dickens said “The best of times, the worst of times” and I hope suitable resolutions are reached soon. Today as I write this it is another planned general strike day, and already there have been disruptions to the plans many folks, many will not be able to see the Louvre as planned, I do hope they will explore and make the best of the day, Paris on its worst day is still an amazing place.