Monday, 30 November 2015

The best kept secret in France- the Aquitaine Region in the South West corner of France

Not too long ago, one of our clients made the comment that the Aquitaine is one of the best kept secrets of France. Only for some though, for centuries the Europeans have been visiting this region and it has only been lately that North Americans are beginning to discover it.

The Aquitaine Region has had a turbulent history leaving the region a rich architectural and cultural heritage. From the M├ędoc to the Pyrenees, the southwest region of France boasts one of the most diverse landscapes in Europe. The Atlantic and the Pyrenees form natural borders for this interesting region, while the rest is made up of the rivers and valleys of the Dordogne. These natural borders have allowed the region to retain its traditional qualities. It is far from provincial here though, for the region boasts its own style and sophistication.

The Aquitaine is the south of France at its best. A region full of beauty, wide open spaces, sports and activities, heritage, interesting towns and cities, sumptuous wines and gastronomy, events and festivals and much more welcome the visitor.

Whatever your interest, the Acquitaine has diverse activities, whether your interests are as an historian exploring the famous prehistoric caves of Lascaux, or medieval towns from the 100 Years War. The charming towns of Sarlat and Domme possess the highest concentration of medieval, Renaissance and 17th century facades of any town in France. Protected by law, the buildings form an open-air museum. As well, Sarlat, is famous for having one of the best markets in France.

The Caves de Lascaux can be found in this region, the most famous of the prehistoric sites.

Gastomics discover wonderful wineries and sophisticated bistros. Food lovers will enjoy the culinary specialties of the region – fois gras, truffles, fresh salads dressed with walnut oil and duck prepared a dozen ways. Wine connoisseurs have reached heaven. The vine has always taken pride of place creating a breathless landscape from Bordeau to Bergerac.

For the sport person, the French call their southwestern coast the Cote d’Agent because of the pristine beaches. Gleaming white beaches stretch for miles, perfect for surfing. As well, the finest golf courses are found in this region, having more than 50 to choose from. Pilgrim paths to Santigo de Compostela dating from the Middle Ages include age-old towns, villages and magnificent landscapes for you to hike and explore.

Friday, 27 November 2015

What is There to See in the Dordogne region of France

The South West corner of France in the Aquitaine encompasses the regions of the Dordogne, Lot and the Midi Pyrenees. Long fought over between the France and the English in the 100 years war the region is full of small, fortified, walled hill top towns and enchanting castles. Home to the wines of Bordeaux, Foie Gras and Truffles the region has become known as one of the cradles of French gastronomy. Adding to this appeal are fruit orchards bursting into bloom in the springtime and autumn sets the wooded landscape ablaze with colour, scattered with prehistoric sites and the Rivers of the Dordogne and Lot flowing through this landscape make a beautiful holiday destination any time of year.

In this well- loved part of France, the river nourishes the region in every way; lush green pastures support numerous traditional farms and bountiful vineyards, while the beautiful scenery it has carved through the limestone plateau is pocketed with thousands of caves and grottoes.
The stretch of the river Dordogne downstream from Souillac to Limeuil is the most beautiful, further downstream the area flattens out into the vineyards of Bergerac. Smaller rivers such as Vezere run into the Dordogne and they, too, have very attractive small valleys. The countryside along the river Lot is more rugged upstream from Cahours, while to the west of the city the valley widens to accommodate vineyards

History begins with prehistoric man who established himself in the Vezere valley around Les Eyzies where today you can visit the best examples in the world of cave paintings and artifacts. Many of the grottoes and caves are open to the public.
The Middle Ages saw this region under English rule and as centre-stage for the Hundred Years War 1337-1453, fought between the English and the French for control of this part of France. The legacy that survives is a wonderful collection of fortified castles perched on hilltops such as Beynac, once held by Richard the Lionheart, and Castelnaud, which watch over each other across the valley to this day. There are marvelous, walled fortified ‘bastide’ towns with arcaded squares which cling precariously to the rocky outcrops and are amongst the ‘plus beaux villages du France’,
The traditional architecture of the Perigord is a constant delight: honey- coloured stone, mellow red-tiled
roofs, some still with the traditional stone ‘lauze’ tiles and on the grander buildings many ‘pigeonnier’- pigeon towers and turrets.

As elsewhere in France, there is plentiful food and drink for the connoisseur in the Dordogne and the region has established a reputation for being one of the cradles of French gastronomy. Here you will find some of the richest and best pates, sometimes with truffles, the famous “confit” (meat cooked in its own fat, usually goose or duck), foie gras, traditional lamb dishes, game in season, marvelous mushrooms, notably “cepes”, black cherry clafoutis, gateaux aux noir and delicious walnut treats, the walnuts themselves and all manner of fruit; cherries, plums, peaches, pears, apricots etc.
The best local wines come from around Bergerac and Chaors in the valley of the Lot. The local sweet dessert wine is from Mantbazillac, south of Bergerac. The Bordeaux vineyards are within drivable distance though allow for a whole day. There are also local “eaux du vie” made from walnuts, hazelnuts, and plums.

Bordeaux is the fifth largest city in France and has been focused on the wine trade for centuries. In the 18th century the old town of Bordeaux went through a re-development to give the waterfront a classical look. Built during this time is the Grande Theater, with its classical lines, grand staircase and acoustical sound has it considered to be one of the finest in France. The old quarter is also where the fashionable boutiques and cafes of Bordeaux are to be found; as well the Maison du Vin, which gives information on winery tours.

St- Emilion to the wine enthusiast is the mark of a fine red wine, but it is also a medieval village in the middle of the wine growing region where there are many private wineries, which invite you to go for a tour and “le gustation” ( a wine tasting) in their cellars.

Rocamadour was built into the side of the cliffs in the 12th and 13th centuries hanging high over the Alzou canyon . During this time these churches and shrines were one of the most popular places of pilgrimage, where over the last nine hundred years countless pilgrims have ‘climbed’ the 216 steps of the Great Staircase to the holy city on their knees, to pay homage at the mystical shrines housed in the middle of seven outer chapels. The site is still a holy shrine but is also a popular tourist destination and is France’s second most-visited tourist attraction, after Mont St Michel

Condom is the center for Armagnac trade. Armagnac is one of the world’s most expensive brandies of which only a small portion ever leaves the country. It is for sale at many small independent producers in the town.
St-Cirq-Lapopie. Considered one of France’s prettiest villages it has a 15th century church and wooden framed houses built into the cliffs above the river Lot.

Cahors is almost surrounded by the river Lot the town’s landmark sight is the Pont Valentre. This fortified six arched bridge was built in the 14th century, took over 70 years to complete.

Sarlat-la-Caneda possesses one of the highest concentrations of medieval, Renaissance and 17th century buildings in France, thanks predominately to a conservation law passed in 1964. Sarlat is the regional capital and has a wealth of tradition and history, faithfully restored to its seventeenth century magnificence, with, medieval houses and winding streets lit by gas lamps. The town is also famous for one of the best markets in France. It takes place every Saturday where the produce of the season is for sale, horses, poultry, foie gras, nuts, truffles, and much more

The ancient capital of Perigueux is another highlight, rich in monuments, with both Roman and Medieval remains and rich in gastronomy with foie gras and truffels being the local specialties. The town is made up of 3 distinct areas. The Cite, the old Roman town, Le Puy St Front, the medieval quarter surrounding the cathedral and the new modern area. The roman ruins hold a 85ft tower an amphitheatre and the remains of a temple to Vestuna. The medieval quarter began to prosper in the 12th century when Perigueux became a stop for pilgrims travelling the route to Santago de Compostella. The cathedral is a unique design of 5 white domed roofs and is built on a plan of a Greek Cross, an unusual design in France.

Monpazier is possibly one of the finest preserved bastide towns in the area. Founded by Edward I, in 1285 king of England and duke of Aquitaine to claim the area. The town is constructed on a north south axis with east west transverse streets dividing the town into blocks for easy defense. The Place des Cornieres, the town main square, mirrors the towns layout has a covered market with antique weights and measures

Grotte de Lascaux, the world-famous cave art of Lascaux, was created by prehistoric man around 25,000BC, can be found here. Discovered by accident in 1940, it holds prehistoric cave paintings of bulls, deer and other symbols, which cover the ceiling and walls of the cave. The original cave is closed to the public for conservation reasons, but the full sized replica is well worth a visit.

Amongst the most visited is the amazing Crystal Cathedral cave at Proumeyssac (where you can be lowered down into the depth in a basket, if you’re feeling brave,) and the Padirac caves, where you are taken by gondola, along an underground river, amongst glistening stalactites and stalagmites

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

The History behind wearing the Poppy on Remembrance Day

The tradition of wearing a poppy on Remembrance Day stems directly from the poem "In Flanders Fields" by John McCrea.
Lieutenant Colonel John McCrea was a Canadian physician, whom at the time was located at, what is now, the Common Wealth War Graves Essex Farm situated just north of Ypres (Iepre in Flemish), Belgium during the First World War

the field dressing station at Essex Farm

On the 22nd April 1915 the Germans launched the 2nd Battle of Ypres with a gas attack. This was the first time that gas had been used as a weapon.
During the battle McCrae was running a Field Dressing Station on the main road between Ieper and Boezinge. The local farm had been nicknamed Essex Farm and it was this name that was eventually to be given to the cemetery, which had grown up alongside the Dressing Station.
As the battle reached its height with the secondary attacks against the Canadian positions, the Field Dressing Station ended up even closer to the front line.
On the 3rd May 1915 McCrae composed one of the most famous and popular poems to come from the war, in response to the death of his friend the day before.

'In Flanders Fields'
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Essex Farm Cemetery monument to John McCrea

John McCrea died suddenly on January 28th 1918 in France in a British Field Army Hospital from a self-diagnosed case of pneumonia, brought on from chronic asthma and the lingering effects of the German gas attack. He is buried in the Wimereux Communal Cemetery, just south of Calais on the coast of France

In 1918 Moina Michael, an American war secretary with the YMCA, was deeply moved by McCrae's work and it was she who first wore a poppy as act of keeping the faith. Others that she had bought she sold to friends, giving the money to Servicemen in need.
In 1920 Madame Guerin from the French YMCA, inspired by this idea, suggested that artificial poppies should be made and sold to help ex-Servicemen and their dependants.
The idea of mass producing poppies and selling them as a charity was put to Field Marshal Earl Haig in 1921 and he agreed with the idea. Thus the Royal British Legion's annual Poppy Day was brought into being and so too for the veterans groups throughout the Commonwealth.