Castres in the Tarn

We were fortunate to be chosen by Caroline to care for her beautiful home and two dogs, Martin and Griboule, or Marty and Gribby as we fondly call them, for the month of November.

Martin
Gribby
Martin loves the fire
Gribby loves her tummy rubbed
Martin had an allergy to something from the garden so after a visit to the vets for tests, needles and a prescription for pills we had to give him every day, he also had to wear this scratch guard. He never got used to it and ran into doors, walls and us for the 10 days he had to wear it.
Marty is happy and smiling as he has his bucket off now
Gribby in her favourite resting position

There are also two cats here, one is lovely friendly little black stray we have called Zorro because of her colour and that she a short Z shaped tail, maybe it was caught in a door or a hereditary trait as she is part of the *clowder* of cats from the farm down the road.

her tail really looks much more bent in real life

*I just recently learnt this new word ‘clowder’ which is a collective noun for a group of cats and have waiting to use it in a post.

The other cat we haven’t yet seen Caroline inherited when she bought this house. It has a chip that opens a door where her bed and food are, it’s getting eaten so she must be around, although we have not seen her in the ten days we have been here.

Caroline lives in a wonderful area of the Tarn Department, near the city of Castres, in an architecturally converted barn that sits on 7 acres.

The property sits at the end of a quiet road with only three houses on it.

the last two windows on the right are our bedroom
the pool is closed for the winter
our breakfast view every day
Gribby

As we entered through the huge iron gates and then proceeded along the circular drive that leads you to Caroline’s house, we both looked at each other and said, WOW we get to spend nearly a month here, so lucky!

from inside the front gates
drive leading to the house

walking around Caroline’s property
beautiful autumn colours

The Tarn in Occitanie is a lovely area that we had not explored before. Mountains, forests, rivers, fortified towns and the vineyards that produce that delicious Gaillac wine. We have all heard of the wine regions of Bordeaux and Burgundy but this area has been producing wine for more than a thousand years more than those regions. Don’t forget that the Romans came from the south and they favoured hillsides for their vines, this area also had rivers for transport.

Castres is often called ‘Little Venice’, it even has a Carnival held in March every year. It is a lovely town built along the River Agout, which also, by the way, borders Caroline’s property.

one of the pedestrian squares in Castres
colourful houses along the river

In Castres brightly coloured 12th-century houses with corbelled facades and their basements immersed in the river make a good photo I think. For centuries they served as workshops for tanners and parchment makers who used the water from the river to work the skins. The drying rooms had the open balconies and the living area was the top floors.

We are still in one of the largest duck and foie-gras areas of France, they even have a special market that runs every Saturday from November until April in Castres called the ‘Foie-gras market’.

fresh duck confit from the market
Saturday duck market in Castres
the special duck market that runs in Castres starting in November
little chocolate Christmas treats
this is a magnificent 1m high Christmas decoration made from chocolate
Christmas tree is up outside the Hotel de Ville in Castres
signpost to foie-gras, duck producers and the pigeon towers

We have noticed many high sandstone, slate or tile-roofed towers with small vents very close to the top. Could they be for storing grain, corn? Maybe, but no, on further investigation we found out that they are Pigeon houses, des pigeonniers in French.

pigeon tower
another pigeon tower

It was the Romans that first bought “columbaria'” or pigeons to France and since Roman times anyone who had enough land to support a pigeon population was permitted to build a place where the birds could breed and be protected from predators. Later, French kings tried to restrict the privilege to members of the aristocracy and higher clergy, but this rule was defied in the south, thus explaining why most of the older pigeon towers are in the south of France.

There are hundreds of pigeon towers in the Tarn.

our local pigeon tower

They are built with external ledges to prevent rodents from climbing up to the accommodation area where the pigeons nested in alcoves or hanging wicker baskets. Access for the birds was through flight holes in the upper level, which were small enough to prevent owls and hawks from entering. Human access from the ground floor was usually by an internal ladder. As the tender meat of pigeons was and still is highly appreciated in Europe, and before chemical fertilisers emerged in the 19th century, the market for pigeons, and their droppings as fertiliser, was very profitable and, in these areas of poor soils, the pigeon was an important source of revenue to farmers and landowners. Pigeons were of course always used as “air mail’ and in WWl a pigeon house was erected in Albi to carry messages to the forces.

The pigeon houses were also commonly part of a wife’s dowry and considered very valuable, sadly nowadays pigeons are considered a pest.

dove on the left, pigeon on the right

Colombe is the word for dove in France, and the beautiful name of a friends granddaughter, French is such an exquisite language.

Albi and Cordes Sur Ciel that I spoke about in a previous post are in this area and if they aren’t enough to put this Department on your ‘bucket list’ I will just have to tell you more.

Regional Natural Park of the Haut-Languedoc

The south-eastern part of the Tarn department falls within the Regional Natural Park of the Haut-Languedoc.

the trees have really lost many of their leaves in the couple of weeks we have been here

The unique rock-strewn scenery of the Sidobre region centred around Castres features a wonderful landscape of balancing boulders and forests which is a great place to get out and have a walk with Gribby and Marty. Although with their own lovely 7 acres to explore every day, they don’t really need it, but with our daily baguette and lovely French cuisine, we sure do!

Granite extracted from this area accounts for more than half of the granite production in France. It’s commonly used in building, flooring, airport runways and headstones.

Lautrec
Lautrec in the Tarn, another one of the lovely Beaux Villages of France

A few pictures from the lovely village of Lautrec below.

road to Lautrec from Castres
you can see for miles
these wooden walkways used by soldiers to protect and defend the city
one of the seven gates from the old fortifications still in use
a copper statue on the old town walls
market square
old road sign
the steps to the ancient moulin
I love these faded old advertising signs painted on the sides of buildings
Lautrec is famous for its pick garlic
the market had just finished when we arrived, the fishmonger was just packing up
many of the houses had similar bunches of wheat on their doors, not sure of the significance
beautiful brick and wood buildings
the Hotel de Ville (Town Hall administration building) is housed in what was once a 15th-century convent

Tomorrow we will leave Castres and the lovely Tarn, heading in a southerly direction looking for sun and warmer weather for our second winter in Hermione, so the next time you hear from us will likely be from Spain!

BACKROADS and the LOCAL WILDLIFE

Naturally, we take the back roads, some lead us through the gentle countryside peppered with villages of half-timbered houses whose beams look to have been arranged in such intricate patterns that resemble a Fair Isle jumper pattern.

Others lead us past fields full of those distinctive reddish-brown Salers cows with their long horns and big eyes, that I so love taking pictures of. 

this trio had been wading in the mud

But honestly the moment you stop on a side road, no matter how remote it is, someone comes along wanting to use it.  We joke ‘a tractor will be along soon’ and sure enough even though a minute ago there was nothing in sight, and I have my perfect photo setup you will hear the familiar rumble of agricultural machinery, and there goes a tractor.

there he goes
very smart dogs in France, this little guy thinks he can drive

It’s along those back roads you get to see to nature, something that I believe I have taken for granted after growing up in Australia and then living in Canada for more than 24 years.      

In both of those countries, you see regularly see native animals.

In Australia, its kangaroos hopping along the side of the road or emus flapping their wings while running. Or cars driving around the slow-moving and lucky wombats waddling across the road. And of course, living near the sea now we often see whales and turtles cruising by as they move north to warm waters have their babies. 

Canada introduced me to brown bears, elk, moose and the everyday visitors that came to the garden, squirrels and those mischievous masked raccoons that could open the garbage can with ease, even though I struggled with the catch every time.

In Europe it’s rare to see wildlife, but luckily on those quiet back roads we take so often, staying away from the motorways, we have been lucky to see so far at least twenty peacocks with their hens and babies off for a walk down the road, they completely filled the road so we had to stop, but that also gave me time to take some photos.

peacocks running down the middle of the road
peahens and babies

At other times we have seen a family of sanglier, mum, dad and their four little piglets strolling through a paddock, quite a few foxes, nesting storks, numerous hares and rabbits and a couple of deer. 

nesting storks

And just today, what actually gave me the idea to write about the wildlife, was seeing a beautiful pair of pheasants that just sat quietly on the side of the road and watched us drive past.

watch out little pheasant, it’s hunting season

                                                                           

                                                          

GASCONY, ARMAGNAC, FOIS GRAS, CONDOM and the GERS.

If you look at a map of southwestern France you will notice an area just west of Toulouse where the train lines don’t run and the motorways veer away like a river around giant rocks.

That space is Gascony, one of the most rural and unspoiled regions in France

Lying in South West France and spanning the area roughly between Toulouse and Bordeaux, Gascony enjoys a warm, sunny climate, very similar to Tuscany in Italy that lies at about the same latitude.

Gascony is the beautiful, unspoiled and completely rural area of southwest France, with pretty honey-coloured bastide villages, many dating back to the middle ages. It’s bordered by the Atlantic Ocean at Bordeaux in the west, in the south, it spreads close to the Pyrenees Mountains and then east to Toulouse.

It’s fairly clear where the heart of Gascony is located; it’s more or less the modern-day French departments of the Gers, with historic Auch at its center.

The big problem with Gascony is that it no longer exists on the map of modern France. It is not a clearly defined entity, but an area whose borders and territories have changed over time and feudal wars, and in today’s France Gascony is neither a region nor a department, and actually spreads over two regions.

The name Gascony was officially abandoned following the French Revolution, but the Gers department uses the name Gascony for tourism purposes.

This is where I get confused in France, departments, regions, and areas with long abandoned names that are still being used. Oooooh la la it makes my head hurt trying to figure them all out sometimes.

But what I do know for sure is that Gascony is a “gourmet region” in France, well known for both its free-range poultry, including quail and other game birds, and its duck paté de foie gras. 

The food here is definitely rich. It’s where everything is cooked in duck fat not olive oil. Roasted potatoes, sausages, eggs and in the case of that pillar of Gascon food, duck magret or confit all cooked in good local duck fat.

Autumn is a great time to be here with the leaves on the turn and the vineyards red and yellow and heady with fruit. Come autumn, most villages will have a big harvest festival – with dancing in the streets, wine tasting, and local food. We just happened upon this one.

pressing apples to make juice

Duck is on the menu here like beef and lamb are in Australia.  Confit of duck with white beans, roasted duck, cured duck breast in a salad, and one I haven’t yet tried duck gizzards are just a few.

charcuterie plate

The Department of Gers is not very big, and although not the most sparsely populated district, it is the most agricultural, with more land under cultivation than any other French district.

The air is clean, it’s quiet, and when the sky is clear you see so many stars as there is very little light pollution.

Humans in the Gers are vastly outnumbered by livestock, especially ducks.

Hedgerows of broom reminiscent of the UK, line fields of corn, grazing pastures and the important vineyards that grow the special white grapes for its most famous product, Armagnac, a barrel-aged grape brandy similar to Cognac, but stops short of the double distillation required for Cognac. It’s smooth and golden and even for a non-brandy drinker like me, a lovely way along with a piece of chocolate to finish off a splendid meal.

Floc, usually drunk as an aperitif, is a local drink that was new to us, it’s a mix of fresh apple juice with a dash of Armagnac, and it’s delicious. It could nearly come under the label of a ‘health drink’, well it does have fresh apple juice in it!

local market stall

Gascony is another rarely visited area, it doesn’t have the ‘bucket list’ grand chateaux, opulent palaces or soaring basilicas. This region’s treasure are tucked just out of sight like they are waiting to be given their moment.    Again another of France’s best-kept secrets.                                                                                                     

Auch (rhymes with gauche) is in Gascony, and it has a magnificent cathedral, yes there are not many churches I can walk by even now.

Auch
Cathedral

It looks like a fine example of Gothic church building, with handsome twin bell towers, step inside and you find beautiful stained glass windows but the piéce de résistance is its vaulted ceiling choir with 113 thronelike stalls of intricately carved oak, depicting biblical scenes and figures, some of them in gruesome detail, that is some of the most beautiful woodworking we have ever seen.

beautiful stained glass windows but I’m not sure how comfortable that armour would be, maybe that’s why she has a funny look on her face
The Musketeers
cloister
The beautiful staircase with a statue of D’Artagnan who was born in Auch and served as a musketeer under King Loius XIV, and who Dumas based his character of the same name in his book The Three Musketeers

I suppose I should mention why we made a little side trip to visit this special Gascon area, apart from of course the ducks and Armagnac. 

There is a little town called Condom, a name that makes us English speakers chuckle but of course, the French can’t see what the fuss is all about as their word is préservatif. 

Not surprisingly the now well screwed down road signs are routinely stolen and taken home, souvenirs to be displayed on garage walls and in “man caves”.                                              

The name is really just the shortening from its Gaelic historic name of ‘Condatomagus’, which means a meeting of two rivers. But to say ‘I come from Condom’ would be funny, well for me anyway.

Of course, I just took a photo of the town’s name, the sign was too large to fit in my bag.


                                           

‘Les Plus Beaux Villages de France’,

France has a special designation called ‘Les Plus Beaux Villages de France’, meaning The Most Beautiful Villages in France, which promotes small rural villages that have a rich and cultural appeal.

Their collective aim is expressed poetically as only the French can do; ‘to avoid the pitfalls of the village museum without heart …and to give again life around the fountain or the shaded place of limes and plane trees’   The selection process is rigorous, so to achieve this status is a great honour. It’s not surprising to me that Carcassonne is not a “Beaux Village”                              

We have found that every single one we have visited certainly deserves that designation.             

Below are just a few of my pics, and some descriptions/stories of my favourites of the designated Beau villages we have been to in the Loire, Burgundy, Avergne, Aveyron and the Tarn and Lot in the past couple of months.

our camp for the night in front of the castle

Many times, we feel as though we have found a chink in time and blundered through it.            

goats on the front steps, why not?
this shop had so much stuff (junk)
24hr baguette machines always make Brian smile
autumn colours
St Cirq
Conques

Ancient gates, many still have their deadly portcullis and ramparts that surround and protect these fortified towns.  

Beautiful Gothic style churches with their intricately carved doorways, some parts almost as fine as lace and the medieval half-timbered houses, often with walls that lean out precariously or built haphazardly around a tree-lined main square.                                                                                                             

choir stalls

Many of these villages are not more than a kilometre square, and we wonder what it would be like to have lived here, where everyone knew each other.                                                                                      

It would be a dream to have a ‘holiday house’ in a place like this. I guess I will just have to start buying those lottery tickets!

For Sale; 140,000 euro in one of the most beautiful villages, Lavardens , and that’s the castle you can see behind. Does anyone want to go shares?

After our very peaceful night at the Ostrich farm we were ready to conquer Conques.                                   

curious

Conques was the third place that Georges suggested we visit, and it was another excellent suggestion!

It is another one of those places that must be seen to be believed, photos just don’t do it justice.  Again, a hilltop town and named after the shell-shaped basin, Concha in Latin, on the slope and high above a river, cocooned by forest and the lush green valley below.                                                      

There are only apparently around 100 full-time residents that live in this village of half-timbered houses that look like it’s out of a fairy tale, complete with castle, sounds delightful, but in peak tourist season sadly its unbelievably busy.                               

Conques has been a religious site since the 8th century when a hermit monk decided to build a small chapel.  Soon after the relics (skull bones) of a young Christian girl, Saint Foy, martyred nearby were bought to the chapel, from then on Conques started receiving pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostella in Spain.  Now the pilgrims have the beautiful Romanesque Abbey Church of St Foy to visit and the Treasury where they can see the golden, precious stone encrusted statue of St Foy.

Figeac is another of those very special medieval towns with a still very much lived-in feel.                 

this is now a beautiful hotel but was once two mansions
red rooftops

But it was the museum that caught my attention here.  Jean-Francois Champollion the man whose efforts in deciphering the Rosetta Stone and thereby provided the key for cracking the Egyptian hieroglyphics was born in this tiny, medieval village.  Now the mansion where he was born is devoted to the history of writing and has a huge slate Rosetta Stone in its courtyard.

Rosetta stone

Miniscule St Cirq Lapopie teeters at the crest of a sheer cliff, high above the River Lot, it’s terracotta-roofed houses and vertiginous streets tumble down the steep hillside.  It’s another one of those villages with incredible views you would love to live in, but then as we pass through the ancient gateway we see a sign advising us that we may not bring our horses in.  Damn, so there goes my dream of living in the country and having a horse.  Maybe they might let me have a cow or goat. 

Collonges-la-Rouge  I think the label “most beautiful village of France” could have been born in Collonges-la-Rouge. 

Imagine a village built from red sandstone and centered in the middle of a beautiful green setting. Its unique colour comes from the iron oxide found on this red sandstone plateau in the heart of the Dordogne.   Collonges was once famous for its wine, but the phylloxera virus destroyed the vineyards, now the economy is based on tourism of course, but also walnuts and their oil and chestnut production.   All through this beautiful red soil area are thousands of beautiful walnut trees, their leaves starting to change colour in Autumn.

This village would be an artist’s delight.

Cordes-sur-Ciel;  or  Cordes in the sky is no ordinary hilltop town, its medieval streets and buildings are literally in the clouds… its centuries-old stone houses so typical of the bastide villages of the Tarn, Cordes-sur-Ciel is a striking sight that has barely changed for centuries.

In centuries long gone this area marked an important frontier during the Hundred Years War so many bastide towns or villages were built up and fortified back in the Middle Ages, usually set up in a grid-like fashion to make them easily protected, and featuring a central square in the heart of the town.

Rocamadour is one of those places that I will remember forever.                                                                                             

It sits dramatically clamped to the side of a vertical cliffside, its 14th-century ramparts and chateaux at the top, then by a winding twelve level Chemin de Croix, each with a station of the cross until you reach the 14th-century chapel which houses the miraculous statue of the Black Virgin.                        

chapel built into the hillside
the pilgrims climb these steps on their knees
the Marie or Town Offices

Millions of pilgrims have made their way to Rocamadour over the centuries, many enter on their knees over the hard-cobbled streets. Henry Plantagenet, the King of England and Count of Anjou made his pilgrimage during his reign and was apparently miraculously cured. There is also a church bell that rings all by itself when a miracle at sea happens. I did hear bells, but I’m sure they were just striking the hour.                                                                                                                                                  

we walked down, but came back up in the funicular

The best view of Rocamadour is from the opposite side of the valley.

Rocamadour from the opposite hillside
afternoon colours
sunset
cutie wanted her photo taken

ALBI, the fourth of Georges recommendations actually has two main claims to fame, a truly magnificent cathedral and a truly marvelous painter.     

The Cathedral Ste Cecile resembles a castle more than a church, built entirely of countless millions of bricks, it is one of the largest brick structures in the world.  Begun in 1282, the cathedral took well over a century to build, it’s defensive walls hark back to many religious wars.

church paintings
painted
the cloisters
palace gardens
covered market
inside and on the 2nd floor of the market

The painter was Toulouse-Lautrec, Albi’s most celebrated son.                                                                                          

this is a beautiful painted wood ceiling that was concealed under plaster for hundreds of years
it’s really striking the colours are still bold, it’s a shame the pics don’t do it justice

The Museum Toulouse-Lautrec is lodged inside a 13th-century palace. The Berbie Palace, is one of the oldest Bishop’s castles in France, even older than the famous Palace of the Popes in Avignon.

the old bishops palace now houses the Toulouse Lautrec museum

And the price of admission to access to that alone was worth it. Built on a naturally fortified site overlooking the River Tarn, and of the same red/orange brick as the Cathedral, with the most magnificent brick interior vaulted ceilings, Brian was drooling, and sadly not because of the art.   

Brian loved these vaulted brick ceilings
Berbie Palace gardens overlooking the River Tarn

I do love Toulouse-Lautrec’s work and remember many vividly from my Art History classes, especially his work from the Parisian underworld, particularly the dancers of Moulin Rouge and the prostitutes of the Montmartre district of Paris. Now thinking about those I’m surprised that the nuns allowed us to study them in my Catholic Girls High School.

His skills as a cartoonist and lithographer made him a pioneer of poster art.

this one is especially for all our cycling friends

CAHORS is the last Beaux Village I’ll tell you about.    Tucked into a rounded nook of the Lot River, is another of those areas you may have never heard about, not on the major tourist route, but the majestic surrounding Lot Valley is just waiting to be explored. 

It was the unshakable Valentré Bridge we came mostly to see.  With its three towers massive towers which all once had portcullises and gates to close against the enemy.   It took seventy years to build and legend has it that the builder made a pact with the devil to help in the completion of the bridge. There is apparently a carving of a devil at the top of one of the three towers.

We had a major storm system pass through this area the day previously and the River was raging, lots of debris including some very large trees passing by.

Cahors is also famous for its wine, a deeply coloured red wine in the Malbec variety.  It is said that you can tell a true Cahors wine if when you hold the glass in your hand, you should be unable to see your fingers through the wine.  We had to try a few, just to make sure we had the right one

beautiful autumn colours

CATHAR COUNTRY

Cathar Country is one of the most fascinating areas to visit in Southern France. With an incredible heritage and turbulent history of heresy and crusades, Cathar Country or (Pays Cathare in French) in the Occitanie region is an area of medieval castles, villages and Romanesque abbeys related to the Cathars and Catharism.

The CATHARS

As I mentioned the Cathars in the Carcassonne story on the Canal du Midi part 1 post, and promised a follow-up, here it is.

Hopefully, you are as interested in world religions as I am, and I thought you may like to know a little about the Cathars.  If not maybe just skip this post.

  • The Cathars were a religious group that appeared in Europe during the 11th century and flourished in this Languedoc region of France, where we are now.  They were also called ‘Albigenses’ (as coming from the town of Albi).
  • Cathars (from the Greek katharos, which means “unpolluted” or “pure”)

They believed in two principals, a good God, and his evil adversary, much like the mainstream Christians, but rejected the idea of priesthood and of the use of church buildings.

They did have a sort of hierarchy of men and women elected as leaders and unlike the Catholics, they believed men and women were equals.  These leaders worked, often as weavers or in manual trades as did their congregation.                                                                                                                          

Cathars cut themselves off from others in order to retain as much purity as possible.                                                                                     

Cathars believed in reincarnation and refused to eat meat, were strict about living in poverty, not telling lies, or swearing oaths and allegiances.                                                                             

They looked upon the Catholic clergy bejeweled in their finery, living in palaces and preaching poverty with ridicule.

Cathar practices were often in direct contradiction to how the Catholic Church conducted business, especially with regards to the issues of poverty and the moral character of priests. The Cathars believed that everyone should be able to read the Bible and translated it into the many local languages.

The Cathars also had no objection to contraception, euthanasia or suicide and not surprisingly Catharism was supported by the nobility as well as the common people.

Arguably just as interesting, Protestants share much in common with Cathar ideas, and there is some reason to believe that early reformers were aware of the Cathar tradition.  Even today some Protestant Churches claim a Cathar heritage

The Cathars also would not pay taxes to the Catholic Church, that was probably their undoing.

The head of the Catholic Church Pope Innocent lll appointed a Holy Army and called a crusade against the Cathars, and over the next two centuries an estimated half a million Languedoc men, women, and children were massacred, Catholics as well as Cathars, as the crusaders killed indiscriminately.

The Pope’s Crusaders
Cathars being taken from their homes
Cathars being burned at the stake

Languedoc once a sophisticated and wealthy region was in economic decline, but the all-powerful Catholic Church in a sustained campaign of genocide had exterminated the Cathars.

Memorial to the Cathars at Minerve

Canal du Midi (part 2 updated)

gate open to fill so the boat can pass
canal bridge built over a river

BACK to the CANAL du MIDI

Brian was interested in seeing the dam Riquet built at Revel, the barrage of Saint-Ferréol.              

After a quick stop at Castelnaudry to have the town’s famous dish Cassoulet for lunch (I will share the recipe at the end of this post ), we arrive at Revel.                                                                                                                                     

the dam
the channel that feeds the canal
sluice gates open to feed the canal

There was an interesting museum about Riquet we visited that helped explain some the technical things that Brian needed to know about the Canal du Midi’s construction, and the water catchment system and how the streams that run from the dam feed into the canal at the water divide, the highest point between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean sea.

The water supply system that feeds the canal starts in the Massif Central, the Saint Ferreol reservoir, the dam, is located in its foothills. In order to supply the Canal du Midi, Riquet diverted part of the mountain’s water by means of a hydraulic network combining channels and reservoirs and was at one time released by three bronze taps, it was updated in 1994 to hydroelectric sluice gates.

photo shows the channel from Revel and the Basin St Ferreol down to the canal. You can also see the little green camper sign, that was the angora goat farm we spent the night at.

The 18kms of channel feed both slopes of the canal feeding in at Naurouze.

Then it was onto another France Passion camper stop at an Angora Goat Farm,  

The wool was beautiful, but I couldn’t imagine ever wearing an angora jumper living in Queensland, so we just bought some fresh goats’ cheese, and had a very peaceful night’s sleep.

this was our view for the night looking over the valley

Toulouse is the end of the Canal du Midi, and I was excited to reach it.     

Brian was very impressed with the water pumper for riots
lots os Police presence because of the Marathon in Toulouse

Not that I was getting tired of watching the canal boats slip quietly by those magnificent plane treed lined banks, or trying to manoeuvre through all those locks, but I was excited to finally be in Toulouse, a city we have driven around and past so many times on our way somewhere else.                                                                                                                                                                                    

Toulouse is a magical town, so vibrant it almost leaves you breathless with its bustling streets, trendy cafés and the most magical red/pink brick buildings.                                                                                                       

With no local stone at their disposal, the city’s forefathers became artisan bricklayers, building magnificent churches, townhouses, and public buildings in a handsome red brick that turns from a fiery orange to a soft pink with the setting sun.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, much of Toulouse’s wealth came from its trade in ‘Woad’ a blue dye derived from plants, and if anyone has read about Boudica, the warrior Queen from Britain who came close to defeating the Romans, you will know all about woad.

Woad merchants mansion

Nowadays Toulouse is probably known more for its Aerospace industry, with the headquarters for Airbus, the Galileo Positioning System, and Spot Satellite Systems that supply Google with those GPS directional maps we use to get to places, and the detailed terrain images you can use to look up pics of our homes, and check out to see if our neighbour was caught on camera mowing his lawn in his undies, not naming names of course CRAIG.                                                                                                        

And just to add to all that bustle, Toulouse was hosting it’s huge annual Marathon this weekend and there were some very fit, lycra-clad bodies wandering the sights as well.                                                

Toulouse, known as La Villa Rose or the Pink City, I think it’s one of France’s best-kept secrets.

Castelnaudary Cassoulet recipe

This is a classic, original Cassoulet recipe from the village of Castelnaudary, France

Ingredients

8 servings

  1. 3 T Duck Fat
  2. 2 Garlic Sausages, 1/4″ sliced
  3. 2 Duck Legs, Confit, Shredded
  4. 1 splash white wine
  5. 1 Yellow Onion, Julienne
  6. 2 1/2 c Chicken Stock, Unsalted
  7. 4 Garlic Cloves, Smashed
  8. 2 Roma Tomatoes, Diced
  9. 1 lb Haricot Beans, Cooked
  10. 2 T Fresh Parsley, Chopped
  11. 1 Bouquet Garni (3 Parsley sprigs, 2 Rosemary sprigs, 1 Bay)
  12. 2 Heirloom Tomatoes

Steps

60 mins

  1. Take a dutch oven and grease it with the duck fat. Brown the sausage and duck confit.  
  2. Remove the meats, add the onions and garlic. Slightly caramelize, then deglaze with a touch of white wine.  
  3. Add beans and meat. Stir for a minute.  
  4. Add chicken stock, Roma tomatoes, and chopped parsley. Bring to a simmer.  
  5. Add tomato , bouquet garni and simmer on low for 1 hr to infuse the herb flavours.  
  6. Add portions to bowls, garnish with fresh thyme, and serve with French baguette and enjoy.

Probably just should mention all those beans could give you a little gas, not saying it happened of course……..but maybe try the cassoulet when you are living somewhere larger than a 6m x 2.5m motorhome.

CANAL du MIDI

PART 1

A few years ago, we watched my favourite British chef, Rick Stein filming his ‘French Odyssey’ BBC TV series, cooking and cruising the Canal du Midi in a beautiful boat built especially for canal travel.                                                                                       

Ever since Brian and I have talked about how great it would be to do something similar, except for the cooking hahah, so here we are doing it our way, (as usual) in Hermione.  No Brian hasn’t been busy making her amphibian, there are roads that run right alongside most of the canal.

A little history about the Canal du Midi first;

Stretching for 241kms between Toulouse and the southern port of Sète, the Canal du Midi is the queen of French canals.

A waterway that connects the Atlantic to the Mediterranean had been dreamed of since Roman times and was finally realized in the 17th century under the extraordinary visionary, Pierre-Paul Riquet, a salt tax collector who saw the economic and strategic advantages of a waterway that bypassed the pirates, storms and the long journey around Spain.

Riquet a mathematical genius painstakingly devised a system of aqueducts, tunnels and locks to overcome the areas difficult terrain, and solved the problem that stumped the Romans of a steady water supply to the canal, by harnessing the springs and streams of Black Mountain into a huge dam, then channelling it to keep the canals filled where at this highest point of the canal the water could run down both slopes, towards Toulouse at 130m and Sete at sea level.

The canal took 15 years and 25,000 workers to build, it has 65 locks to pass through the largest, the Fonserranes, consisting of a row of 9 oval-shaped locks that drop 33m over a 300m length.

The old wooden barges laden with barrels of wine, flour for the mills and livestock were pulled by horses at a distance of about 10 kms per day.

The canal today is used just for pleasure, and we have seen flags from many different countries displayed proudly, we even had a chance to chat with some Aussies as they passed through one of the locks we just happened to be parked up at.

Sadly, Riquet passed away before the completion of the Canal du Midi, but he did secure his family’s financial future with the taxes and excise charges paid to use to the canal.

The Canal du Midi became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.

Some 20,000 Plane trees line the Canal as it meanders through ancient villages, under Roman bridges and fortifications, and as we are of course in the South of France, alongside vineyards.

Most nights we manage to find a nice quiet place to stay, overlooking the canal or the towpath, like tonight at Capestang where on one side we look at the boat lined canal, and the other side, the cemetery.

Our next night’s stop at Le Somail was so good we stayed two nights. There was an amazing very old book shop, where we managed to fill a couple of hours, that must have had a million books in it, but better yet on a barge that had been converted to a mini-market I found Vegemite!  We had run out over the summer and I was so desperate for some Vegemite I asked Jess to mail some to me, as far as we can tell it’s still caught up at customs in Germany.                                                                                

Solex bikes actually have a small motor that you start by pedaling
this was a surprise
I love that house with the blue shutters

The speed limit is only 8 km along the canal, so the boats just seem to slip by with barely any wake or noise.

we spent two nights parked just on the right near that first boat you can see

NARBONNE

The city of Narbonne is not on the Canal du Midi, but there is an offshoot, the Canal de la Robine that leads us there for a look at this old Roman city, and that is off the tourist track, so just the type of place we like to seek out.

cute cat
street cleaning machine, Caloundra needs a few of these.

The impressive town square sits right over the top of the Via Domitia, the very important road that ran from Rome, right through the south of France to Spain.  We sat drinking our coffees at a café on the square picturing the merchants using this very area to sell their wares, and Roman soldiers marching through here.  It was only discovered in 1997 and is a stunning memento in the centre of this city of its Roman inhabitants from 2100 years ago.

OK so before anyone says anything, its a BAGUETTE in Brian’s right hand.

We didn’t think much could top seeing the old Roman Road, but just behind the Archbishops Palace we discover the L’Horreum, subterranean galleries built in the 1st century B.C., and thought to be an underground warehouse.   They were found in 1838 and only partially cleared out and explored.             Capitals, columns, reliefs, and inscriptions can still be seen on the walls, as well as a collection of amphoras for storing wine and oil that were found in some of the tiny storerooms.

people that lived the houses above used these as a cellar right up until the 1800’s

Brian was very impressed with the fact that the structure was still intact, and we could still walk around in these subterranean tunnels, once again just proving how impressive those Romans were.

old pottery found

We also love a good Market Hall and the beautiful Les Halles, built over 100 years ago didn’t disappoint.  Butchers, bakers, fruit, and veg as well as several lunch counters that were bustling with lunchtime customers.  The busiest was owned by a former French Rugby player, Gilles Belzon, I’m not sure if they had the best food, or that his fans just wanted to get up close to him.

check out those ‘cauliflower ears’

In a city like Narbonne with so many beautiful buildings it’s hard to pick a favourite, but this one located right on the town square, ‘Aux Dames de France’ or  the ‘Ladies of France’ was once an exclusive department store, now it’s a Monoprix where you can buy anything from makeup (I bought my new lippy here) and clothes to groceries.

We’re back on our ‘Canal route’ and staying at another of the fantastic France Passion sites.  This one right beside the canal in Trèbes is a wine and olive oil producer, and if that isn’t enough, they have donkeys and the portliest pig we have ever seen.  She could barely waddle over for some apple slices.

portly pig

CARCASSONNE

Jutting from a rocky spur of land the fortress of Carcassonne was one of the Cathars’ (a little story about the Cathars to follow) most important strongholds and is also now considered to be the best conserved medieval castle in Europe.

Founded in Antiquity it became a very prosperous trading city in the Middle Ages due to its location.

Bristling with 2 sets of zigzag battlements, stout walls and 52 spiky towers topped with their distinctive ‘witch’s hat’ looking roofs, the fortified city looks like something out of a storybook.  Somewhere I read that the old town’s population is only 120.  That’s just twice the number of its 52 towers.

The first view is captivating, two sets of zigzag battlements, parapets, turrets and 52 spiky towers with their distinctive conical slate tiled roofs that like polished grey pencil points, or witches’ hats. The two concentric rings of town walls total 3km of battlements, and that surprises me, somehow it looks larger, as from the valley below Carcassonne sitting high on the hill is visible from many kilometers away.                                                                                                                                                   

It’s not surprising that Carcassonne is a UNESCO World Heritage site, but we find the place relentlessly touristique, it seems to have lost whatever soul if may have once had.

We here in October and I dread to think what it must be like in August when the tourist coaches disgorge groups of fifty or more at a time.  An estimated 6 million tourists descend on Carcassonne every year.  All along the lovely cobbled streets where there were once homes are now shops selling postcards, soap and souvenirs marked as ‘produits régionals’, that sadly on a closer look at the label are not.

We have visited here twice over the years and both times it’s been relatively quiet, and we have been able to easily wander the old cobbled streets that previously the Gauls, Romans, Visigoths, Moors, and Franks have walked before us.                                                                                                                     

Still the history here never ceases to amaze me.

How to distinguish your Brie’s from your Pyrenees

(I was going to write a story (with pics) about the different breeds of cows we have seen here, but Brian suggested that maybe a cheese story would be more interesting) so hope you enjoy this.

It’s hard to find stats for exactly how much cheese is produced in France each year, but some estimates put the figure as high as 1.8 million tonnes a year. 

France is a nation of cheeses, and one of the things on my bucket list is to try them all!

Probably one of the most mentioned quips of General Charles de Gaulle is, “how can you govern a country that has 246 varieties of cheese?             

I’m not sure whether he was commenting on France or French cheese.                                                                                                                                             What I think he meant was that France as a country is as diverse as it’s cheeses – or vice -versa.  And just as France is physically one of the most varied countries in Europe, so its cheeses reflect this wide and rich cultural diversity.

Every region in France has its own particular cheeses, and now there are a lot more than 400 varieties, many have the AOP label or ‘appellation d’origine protégée’, traditional regional designation. 400!

You can probably divide French cheese into three main families:    Pressed or hard cheeses, like a Comte or Cantal.

Soft cheese’s such as Brie or Camembert

Blue cheese

Then there is the milk they are made from: Cow’s milk                                                                                                                     

Goats milk                                        

Sheep’s milk

The first one is easy, pressed cheeses are all made from cow’s milk.  Two favourite hard kinds of cheese of ours are Cantal, a tasty uncooked cheese from the Auvergne region, and Comté, a cooked cheese made from the cows grazing at at least 400 metres altitude in eastern France close to the Swiss border.  Comté is the traditional cheese used in fondue, and the way of making this cheese has changed little in hundreds of years.

Now with soft cheese there are literally hundreds of different varieties from different regions.  We visited the tiny village of Saint Nectaire specifically to taste their cheese. Thankyou Georges for this suggestion, I love this cheese!

                                                                                                                                           Again, the cows are grazed at altitude and this cheese is still hand pressed into molds similar to the way Monks made it hundreds of years ago.  It’s then taken from the molds washed, salted, wrapped in cloth for a few days, after which it’s pressed again.  Finally, it’s moved to the cellars where it ages for a minimum of three weeks, and now I have to say I’m definitely adding it to my list of favourites.  We all know about the mild Brie and Normandy’s stronger tasting Camembert so no more advice to give except serve it soft, but not runny.

Roquefort is a well-known Blue cheese made from sheep’s milk, but did you know that it is only made from one particular breed of sheep?  Made from the milk of the grass-fed Lacaune ewes, Roquefort cheese is matured for at least 90 days in cellars that run deep into the steep hillside, the ripening aided by the special natural ventilation from the fleurines which are tiny gaps in the cave wall to let fresh air in.                                                                                                                       

We visited the caves of one of the oldest producers, Société in Roquefort to see where their cheese is aged for a minimum of four months.  Good Roquefort is creamy and soft and goes well with figs.

Fourme d’Ambert is another blue cheese, but made with cow’s milk, and comes from the village of Ambert (also a special side trip to taste it).  I really like this blue, it’s creamy and delicate, and to me has a slightly fruity flavour.  Not sure if it’s available in Australia, but if you see it give it a try!                                                                                                                                    

In Ambert there was also an interesting Gallo Roman pottery museum, so all was not wasted for my ‘ non-blue cheese-loving’ wonderful, patient, kind, etc., etc., etc., partner Brian.

Goats cheese or fromage de chèvre in French, self-explanatory about where it comes from, but did you know that it’s available in many forms, including cheddar, brie and of course the one we all know the logs or soft rounds we find mostly here in France?  It’s also a good alternative to eat if you’re allergic to cows’ milk.   The longer it ages the ‘stinkier’ it gets, and it’s delicious warm on a fresh baguette.

There are loads more French cheeses to write about but all of the above are from the regions we have been in over the past month, (except Normandy). 

So next time you’re looking at all the different cheeses at the deli, try a new one, hopefully, you will be delighted by its taste.

And the Pyrenees are of course a mountain range in South West Europe, that forms a natural border between France and Spain, but I’m sure you all knew that I just couldn’t think of another word that rhymed with Bries’.

CUTTING YOUR CHEESE, THE FRENCH WAY.

For round cheeses make pie slices, log-shaped cheese cut parallel slices and square cheeses, triangles are the way to go. 

For wedges of Brie or Roquefort, cut along the side (and don’t chop the “nose” off).

And don’t pre-slice your cheese before your guests arrive. 

Wine, the best knives in France, Volcanos, fantastic feats of engineering and Ostriches.

I warn you in advance that this post is long, so grab a cuppa and I hope you enjoy it.

The last time we were in the Loire it was the Spring, the vines were just starting to get their new shoots, and the valley was green after the winter rains.

Now it’s Autumn, and sadly the effects of a very dry and hot summer are visible.                                           

The Loire River

The Loire River is so low it’s frightening, there are islands of sand visible along its length much larger than its flow of water.                                                                                                                                              We even saw cattle grazing on one particular grassy patch in the middle of the river.

It’s all very busy in this part of France at present, the grapes are being harvested, mostly now by large mechanical harvesters, and tractors pulling large metal wagons full to the brim of grapes to the wineries to be pressed and made into this area’s most delicious and well-known wines.

But the Loire is so much more than just wineries and Châteaux’s’, the Loire Valley has been home to the Gaul’s and Romans, then warring medieval Queens, Kings, (and their Mistresses) plus countless powerful figures throughout history.

Chinon Castle

Towns like Chinon where the stones of the Loire landscape colour the village buildings in shades of white limestone and black slate and their famous Touraine wine is still ripened in troglodyte caves carved out of the limestone cliffs.

And Loches, a Cite Royale where we spend a couple of days parked in a great position alongside the canal and looking at the 500 year-old Royal Citadel.                                                                                                                                                                       

a favourite mistress of the Kings

It’s also where in 1429 the “Maid of Orléans,” Joan of Arc returned from her victory at Orléans to persuade French Crown Prince Charles to claim his rightful French crown.                                                                                                                                        

Loches has a fantastic market every Wednesday morning that we of course we had to check out.    The limestone laden soil not only produces great wine, but goats seem to thrive in this area as well and there are now a couple beautiful creamy goat cheeses in our fridge for later.

We had tried a Sancerre wine at Manuela’s and Georges place the previous weekend at lunch, so had to make a stop there of course!

THIERS

I’m sure most have heard of the famous French brand of knives Laguiole, but did you know there is a very small town called Thiers near Clermont-Ferrand that produces 70% of all the cutting products in France, i.e. knives, blades for food processors, etc.,  and have been doing so since way back in the 15th century.

No Pic isn’t sideways (this time) this is the way it used to be done laying by the side of a stream, often with a dog on their legs to keep them warm

Now there are only 100 or so knife manufacturing companies in Thiers, most only small employing less than 10 people, but they still manage to produce around 60 million items a year.                                                                               We watched a knife being hand made from start to finish, which included him laying on a board elevated over a grinding wheel.  The most expensive handmade knives worth easy a couple of thousand euro may take up to 30 hours,

these knives cost over 1000 euro, each!

So next time you pick up a knife that has ‘Made in France’ stamped on the blade, remember Thiers.

The Auvergne region is an area that is often overlooked by luxury travelers.                                        

It’s a vast region but essential to visit if you want to try gourmet cheeses, visit historic chateaux’s and its scenery is also spectacular with rugged gorges, fast-flowing rivers great to kayak, cliff-top villages, and beautiful verdant green high pastures where the Salers long-horned cattle, prized for their meat and milk graze.

Near Saint-Nectaire, the village I speak about in my ‘cheese guide post’ we stopped in the parking lot of a church at the very small village of Orcival to have our lunch.                                                              Outside you think, “well it’s a very big church for a village this size maybe we should have look inside”.                                                                                                                                            The Basilica d’Orcival was built to house a treasure, ‘The Good Virgin of Orcival’ a 2m golden statue, that pilgrims have been visiting for over 900 years.   Once again, off the tourist track, you see the most amazing things!

PUY de DOME

This area is a geological phenomenon, formed by massive tectonic faults millions of years ago, ‘The Continental Breakup’.

There are around 80 domes, cones, volcanic lakes, and lava flow sites, that form the 32km long Chaîne des Puys, perfect for hiking, but the best way for us to see them is by catching a cog rail train up to the top of the 1,465m Puy de Dôme.

We had a quiet and dark night staying in the parking lot for the train with about 6 other motorhomes. We had arrived the previous afternoon to rain and low cloud, not the best time to visit the top of a nearly 1500m high mountain, so I put the time to good use and cooked us a very French lunch of duck fillets served on a bed of green and yellow beans, delicious, and all we needed for dinner was some great Saint Nectaire cheese on fresh baguette.

our quiet spot
duck fillets with green haricots

The next morning was sunny and clear, the perfect day to catch the 25minute Panoramic des Dôme cog rail train to the top of an extinct volcano, where apart from a spectacular view, we’re surprised to see a 2nd century AD Roman temple dedicated to Mercury, that was only discovered in the 19th century while building the weather station up there.                                                                                

Once again, those Romans and their building ability amaze us!

Le Puy-en-Velay was formed by that same Continental Breakup, it is also one of the main pilgrimage stops of the Camino de Santiago route that starts in Paris and finishes in Spain.

There are two main extinct volcano peaks around which the town has been built, and on the top of those peaks stand two impressive structures, the first on the Corneille Rock platform is the statue of Notre Dame de France, the patron saint of France.                                                                                       Erected in 1860 made from the metal of 213 cannons captured from the Russians during the Crimean War.  It stands 22.7m high and weighs 835 tons.                                                                                                           

Notre Dame de France

This is directly across from where we are parked, and at night lit up by the surrounding spotlights its beautiful.

The other is the Chapel Saint Michel, built-in 961 after the bishop at that time, returned from his pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. 

Sometimes these feats of building back in those times just boggle our minds!                                                                                                                                                                           

Black Madonna

We were also lucky to arrive on the last weekend of ‘Illumination’ which is when many of the historic buildings in the town are lit up by the most amazing light shows. I didn’t think my sore tired legs would make it back down the hill and into town that night, but I’m sure glad we did, it was spectacular!

Georges had given us the names of a few places he thought we would find interesting, two being viaducts.                                                                                                                                             The first was built by Eiffel in 1882 is the Garabit viaduct, a wrought-iron railway bridge that’s still in use, 565m in length and 124m above the river, and when finished was the highest structure in the world at that time.  We thought it was pretty good.

The next Viaduct blew the socks off the Garabit.                                                                                                           

The Millau Viaduct is not only an amazing technical feat but this outstanding structure, conceived by a French engineer and a British architect, is beautiful as well.                                                                                     

Comprising of 7 concrete piers and a steel deck topped with 7 pylons the viaduct reaches a height of 343metres.  Total length is nearly 2.5 kms, and the highest pier is 245metres, the highest pier in the world to date. 36,000 tonnes of steel make up the 65,000 square m surface area of the deck, and the concrete foundations and piers weigh in at 205,000 tonnes.

To me, it looks like a gossamer thread, seemingly supported by nothing more than seven needle-thin pylons, that glide over the Tarn River, amazing!

It cost 394 million euro to build and in my mind is worth every single centime, and I’m sure the 5 million people that drive across it yearly feel the same.

We took some Millau pictures from Peyre, a small troglodyte village that clings to the cliff-face, and where the first inhabitants lived in caves carved into the rockface, about 5 kms away for our Millau distance shots.   The narrow flower-lined streets are beautiful and many of the current residents still have at least their garage built into the rockface.                                                                                              

church
vertical garden when you live literally on the side of a mountain

It’s amazing to think that in the 21st-century humans can design and construct something as outstanding as the Millau Viaduct, it just astonishes me how far we have come.

We needed an overnight stop before our next destination of Conques and decided on using our France Passion book of farm and winery motorhome stops, to stay at an Ostrich farm.                                                  La Ferme aux Autruches (ostrich in French) was perfect, we were all by ourselves on a grassy area with a beautiful view over the valley.                                                                                                              

But the best part was the ostriches, such funny birds, they prance and dance and are so curious, I had to be careful to keep the camera away as they kept trying to grab it.                                                                                                                               

The farmer gave us a personal tour and told us all about the hatching to maturity cycle and we bought a terrine d’Autruche au Cognac. Sorry, but they are killed at around 2 years old for their meat which is very lean and tasty, then their skins are tanned and the leather used for bags, and the feathers sold as well all in their little stall.                                                                                                               

You can also buy ostrich eggs, he showed us one, it must have weighed 2kg                                                                                                                              

So, one night at apero time, after we have finished most of the fridge full of cheese we have bought recently, we will open our terrine and think about those funny birds and their dancing.

So you made it to here, you did well! That has covered about the first three weeks of this six-week little jaunt through France, I’ll get the next couple of posts up soon as I can.

Keravy, and a building project for Georges and Brian.

Manuela has been working steadily since moving into her new home just two years ago on her garden, lawn and landscaping, and has transformed the blank landscape of a new home, into a colourful ‘French country garden’, and it looks beautiful.

Freida the Husqvarna robot mower takes good care of keeping the new lawn in shape, working tirelessly, only taking a break every hour or so for a quick recharge before heading right back out.                            I suggested they rename it, Craig, after our fantastic neighbour, and excellent lawn maintenance man, but Georges likes the idea of a Frieda ‘cutting his grass’ instead of a Craig.

Georges is excellent at commanding a huge army of soldiers in battle, but Manuela wasn’t so sure about his ability to build a trellis strong enough to withstand the biting winds of Brittany, and knowing that we were only in Paris before heading down their way for a visit, suggested to Georges he could ask Brian for a little help with the construction.  If Craig and Roger are reading this, you are both probably having a good belly laugh right now, thinking back to Brian building our arbour at home).

By the time we arrived George had the job planned with military precision, even making up a cheat sheet that Brian could use if he needed to go to the hardware store, with all the necessary words in both French and English such as hammer – marteau,  to dig – creuser,  to drill – percer, concrete – béton, and one he didn’t need any help with, beer – bière.

There was the usual standing, looking and discussing the job site, and Brian mentioned more than once that he usually just calls the concrete pump for his jobs, instead of using a watering can and a bag of concrete.

But soon the job was done, I barely had time between loads to snap a few pics they were so fast and while I tested out Manuela’s new washing machine on our mountain of laundry, the guy’s got the job done,                                      

So now all it needs are some lovely climbing plants, and by the Spring it will be beautiful like the rest of Manuela’s garden.

Our time with the Gautier’s wasn’t all building and laundry though, one night while the boys went to see a Rugby match, Manuela and I went out for lovely dinner at my favourite restaurant in Vannes.  We also were invited to attend the 10th-anniversary party at an Organic Farm that was catered by one of the ‘fancy’ restaurants they sell to, delicious food and a live band, and best of all we got to see Sophie, Georges daughter there as well. 

Manuela, Sophie and Georges

Our time with the Gauthier’s always includes a trip to see the ocean, and this particular day a very famous French Sailing Race, the Tour Bretagne Voile was finishing, and we got to see the magnificent yachts up close.

All too soon it was time to say au revoir, but the Loire Valley beckons us once again.