Spires and Fragments

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Monday was raining quite heavily in the morning, so we dithered a bit about doing a walking tour.In the end we decided that we wouldn’t melt,and so headed to Westminster . We met up with a London Walks guide for the basic “This Is London” walk, covering the history of the Westminster area. Although the London Walks tours aren’t in the same league as with a good private guide or Context, they’re entertaining, cheap, and a good choice for first timers like Evan.

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From Parliament and Westminster Abbey, ducked down some side streets with elegant Georgian buildings, then we continued down the Birdcage Walk skirting St James Park to see if the Changing of the Guards would take place in spite of the faint drizzle. As we walked, the sun came out and we could hear the band warming up. Playing the theme from Star Wars, of all things. Our guide dryly  commented that Dancing Queen is also in their repertoire.

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Tons of people were waiting, crammed along the fence in front of the barracks and against the barricades in front of Buckingham Palace. And how wonderful, in the midst of this tradition, to see some women among the band and guards.

We continued our walk, listening to the guide talk about Buckingham Palace as we walked down The Mall, through Admiralty Arch and into Tralfagar Square, frantic with traffic and pedestrians after the quiet of the Park. We identified the buildings as we passed , the various Admiralty buildings (I was reminded of books set during the Napoleonic Wars, where people were always running into Admiralty House), horse Guards, where people we posing in front of taciturn horses and guards, and Banqueting House, which is still on my to do list. We ended at Downing Street.

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I’ve wanted to get to the Denis Severs house in Spitalfields for a while, so we took the Tube to Liverpool Street. Another stop off was for Evan to see the statue of the Kindertransport children in front of the station, commemorating the safe arrival of the Jewish children who were sent out of Nazi Germany by their families. Larry’s 13 year old father, along with his four siblings aged 3 to 15, were among them. The children were sent to orphanages or to work,and never saw their parents again. Those five children had over 30 descendants.

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Larry and I had walked through Spitalfields ten years ago, when the covered market was first being developed, and the crumbling neighborhood was in the beginnings of gentrification. We were struck by how scrubbed and lively it is now, with tons of people eating in restaurants, shopping for trendy clothes, and walking the narrow streets of what was a slum not too long ago. In the 18th century many silk workers had their workshops and homes here, and the area went into a decline in the following century. On the outer fringe are blocks of new construction of luxury apartment buildings, with the gleam of the City just beyond.

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We got a table at a crowded Vietnamese restaurant, and had a good lunch of pho for me and Evan, chicken curry for Larry.

Denis Severs bought a derelict house on Folgate Street in the 70s, and gradually turned it into sort of a visual novel to tell the story of a fictional family of Huguenot silk weavers who lived in the house for five generations. No photography is allowed to encourage you to more fully experience your visit. You enter a few at a time, and silently explore the ten rooms by candlelight,each meticulously arranged with items that give a sense of moment in time. In the basement kitchen you seem to have interrupted a meal in progress, complete with the scents of food, candle wax, and fire. The next generation appears to have acquired more wealth, with books, an excess of knickknacks, gentlemen’s wigs forgotten on a chair, cups of tea and glasses of wine half full. Beds look like the sleepers have just left, dressing tables are covered in personal items, family photographs and newspaper clippings clutter surfaces. In a parlor, you hear recorded murmurings of conversation, embroidery work has been cast aside and elaborate mens coats hang from chairs.  When you climb the steep, rickety stairs to the top level, you feel the cold as you pass through tattered laundry strung up to dry among the peeling walls. This top floor, with recorded sounds of the cannons being fired to declare then death of the old king and ascension of the young Victoria, is particularly evocative of the diminished fortunes of the family, now living in poverty.

We took a bus back home, enjoying the street scenery from the top level. As I was knitting in the living room I glanced out the window to see two rainbows stretching across the sky. I snapped a photo and then ran downstairs to see how far they went. By the time I got outside, they had vanished.

We continued Evans education with the last scone from Gail’s bakery in Exmour Market to go with our afternoon tea; and Sunday Roast for dinner. I’d read good things about The Pig and Butcher, and it lived up to its promise. Huge plates of pork, lamb or beef; with vegetables, leek gratin,  roast potatoes and Yorkshire pudding. Loved the condiments, two kinds of mustard, horseradish, mint and shallot jam. I’m not too much of a meat eater, but this was fantastic.

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Settling In

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We flew the new Norwegian Air service from Boston. For $420 you get a seat, but no checked luggage, food or selected seating. It was fine, with a new Dreamliner plane with huge storage bins. Larry got some sleep, Evan and I did not. I did fall asleep for the 1/2 hour train ride into London.

Our apartment in Islington is spacious, quiet, and comfortable. Only big downside is the very high tub/shower, where I have to gingerly transition myself in and out in order to not land in a heap on the floor. At least there’s nice hot water.

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Happily, the cleaners had finished when we arrived, so we collapsed for two hours and then took the Tube over to Borough market, where we introduced Evan to the world’s best grilled cheese sandwich, the cheese toastie from Kappacasein. We also had the first conversation about The Donald; the charming young South African-born counterman essentially asked “WTF, America?” We all shook our heads.

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We wandered around the market, picking up some cheeses, bread, tea (Evan our tea connoisseur was having a field day) and salami. Lots of free samples of cheeses, teas, pates, oils and vinegars, this and that. On a Friday afternoon it was lively, but not too crowded to enjoy.

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We strolled along the Thames for a while, and then backtracked to the Angel tube station near the apartment. We picked up a few groceries at Waitrose (ah, I love Waitrose) and then popped into a neighborhood Turkish restaurant for dinner. Very good, inexpensive, and enough leftover to take home for the following day. We all slept well, until the neighborhood cats woke us at 5:30 with a very loud discussion.

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On Saturday we joined up with a London Walks walking tour concentrating on Shakespeare and Bankside. Our guide crisscrossed through history as we walked through Shoredich and Bankside, and even though we know this area we learned a lot.I really like these tours, especially as you don’t need to book and they’re only 10 pounds. I’d never noticed the ferryman’s seat on Bear Street (named for the bearbaiting dens popular during the Elizabethan era and beyond) from the 16th century, found during the excavation around the Rose Theater..

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Afterward we walked over the Millennial Bridge and caught a bus to Whitechapel to go to an Indian restaurant we’ve liked before, Namaste. Luckily I looked at the webpage, and saw they’re closed for lunch Saturday. So instead we headed up near to the British Museum to another favorite Indian, Sagar. Excellent vegetarian food, lots of good flavors.

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We popped into the British Museum, another old friend. We  first enjoyed the Clocks and Watches galleries, and caught one of the gallery talks, in the Middle Ages rooms. The docent showed us some highlights from the collection, giving wonderful details of the Anglo-Saxon, Viking, Byzantine, and later Medieval objects. The last piece we explored was a collection of 13th century tiles illustrating created stories of Jesus’s youth that don’t exist in the New Testament, what Evan hilariously called “Jesus Fan Fiction.”

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Tired. The British Museum is best done in small bites so as not to overwhelm and so you can truly focus on what you’re seeing, so we’ll return. Took a bus home, rested, reheated Turkish leftovers for dinner. A rainy night.

 

 

London, Take Four

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Dr. Johnson had it right.

I adore London. For its deep history and sense of place, for its looking ahead and stretching boundaries of who is a Londoner, its architecture, neighborhoods, cultural institutions, urban infrastructure with all its ease and hilarious horrors, long twisting river, alleyways, parks, good Indian food and cream tea.

Oh, and I can (usually) understand what people are saying! I can even walk into a butcher shop without linguistic trauma, unlike in some other countries I could name. *cough*

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We’ve been to London three times, and this trip will be our longest stay to date, two weeks. The apartment where we usually stay had sadly been sold, and so I booked a new place in a neighborhood new to us, Islington. It has a small second bedroom, serendipitous and as it turned out. With Evan home doing an internship until December, he was able to tag along for the first five days.

We’ve had good experiences using London Walks for their interesting and inexpensive themed walks, so we’ll be doing a few during that first week to introduce Evan to the city.Also planning some museums.  He’ll love the British Museum  and the British Library I suspect; and we’ll finally get to the Denis Severs House in Spitalfield’s. Some food experiences–that glorious grilled cheese and caramelized leeks sandwich at Kappacasein in Borough Market, Indian veg lunches,fish and chips, a proper afternoon tea. I also want to get out to Hampton Court.

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After Evan heads back, Larry and I plan on more museums–there are some great shows happening– there’s a Georgia O’Keefe at the Tate Modern which ends soon; Beyond Caravaggio at the National; Picasso portraits at the NPG, also William Eggelston photos there; Abstract Expressionism at the Royal Academy; and I’ve forgotten what else. Oh, some interesting looking Dutch landscapes at some gallery in Dulwich (need to look at a map for that one!) and an exhibit of photographs of Soho at the Getty Gallery. As usual, we can spend hours at the V&A.  I’m also burning to get up to the William Morris Gallery in north London.

We’ll be seeing Larry’s Liverpool cousins; getting together with some friends; and seeing a play–Pinter’s No Man’s Land, with Ian McLellan and Patrick Stewart.  We’ll also be celebrating my birthday during the week with dinner reservations at Nopi , and a lunchtime tasting menu at the two-star Marcus.

Taking Norwegian Air, I was able to grab round-trip direct seats for $425, not bad at all. No assigned seats, checked luggage or food, but who cares, we pack light, bring along sandwiches, and have plenty to read.

Leaving Thursday night, whee! And if anyone wants a London travel companion anytime, I’m your gal.

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To the Sea

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We were a bit undecided on what to do with our last day in the Charente. The weather had turned iffy again, and so since my weather app showed that the coastal areas would likely avoid rain longer, we headed west. The landscape is lovely, our neighborhood of rolling hills of vines giving way to flatter coastal plains, and finally marshland as we got closer to the Estuary.

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Before we reached the coast, we made two church stops from my Google map. The first was in the village of Chadenac to see the Romaesque Eglise Saint Martin, where the keyholder living next door ran out to open it for us. Back in the day, this church was one of the pilgrimage stops on the way to Compostela. There are some wonderful carvings, particularly on the exterior. More of the twin motif, devils, and a little scene on the corner of the Three Kings.

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A few miles down the road in Marignac, we found Eglise Saint-Sulpice. This was a church I was really looking forward to seeing, and we were thrilled to find it open on this Friday morning. The rather grim exterior gives no hint of what is inside. It has some of the best preserved early wall paintings in the Charente in the Romanesque crossing and apse (the nave was rebuilt in the Gothic style after destruction during various wars in the 14th and 15th centuries)

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Vines, animals, flowers, geometric shapes on the capitals, a carved and painted cornice band that really highlights the animal carvings. The whole thing is marvelous, and really gives a sense of what these churches looked like before time, war,  and changing tastes.

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We finally dragged ourselves away, and continued to the coast, stopping briefly in Mortagne-sur-Gironde for a bathroom break and to pick up brochures from the tourist office. The road winds along the coast to Talmont, giving peeks at the Estuary.

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Talmont-sur-Gironde is a jewel of a setting, although heavily tricked our for the tour bus groups. I doubt there’s anything like a real village anymore. On this cold windy day, there were few visitors, primarily French and a few Brits. Given the huge parking lots in front of the pedestrian-only village, it’d likely be a nightmare in season.But most of the shops were selling artisan items, there are beautiful views out of the estuary and the fishing weirs, and an imposing church perched on the rocks.A wedding was about to begin, and the poor bride was trying to maintain her hairdo and gown in the midst of high winds while getting photographed.

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We walked around, and then got a table at what seemed to be a popular restaurant, Auberge Le Promontoire, although sadly because of the wind had to sit inside. We didn’t have high expectations, but our lunch was delicious. We shared mussels, then I had a gorgeous grilled dourade in a buttery sauce while Larry had steak, then an ille flottant for dessert for me and a cognac crepe for Larry. I was fascinated by two gentlemen across from us who went through piles and piles of langoustines, and then demolished a huge platter of fish, and were on their second bottle of wine when we left.

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We drove up to Meschers-sur-Gironde where there are cliff dwellings, but this looked to be a rather tacky commercial establishment so we went to look at boats in the harbor instead, and the view back toward Talmont.

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A small sign for “Gallo-Romain Site Fa” just before Talmont grabbed our attention, so off we went up a gravel road through the fields. There we found a partially-excavated  site with a small museum.

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Although it was known there was “something” buried in the fields, it wasn’t until aerial photographs showed shapes from different colors of the crops that signified minerals from stones under the soil that anyone realized how extensive the ancient city was. So far they’ve uncovered a huge bath system, a Temple, the main street with buildings on either side, and a theater. They do educational programs here, there’s a cool space where schoolchildren can pretend to excavate, and a lovely Roman-style garden where I was entranced by the flowering artichokes.

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We drove back home (going by the direct route, it was less than an hour) for the sad task of packing. I used leftovers to make a last meal of pasta with lemon and herbs, our last artichoke, salad, and cheese for dessert. And the last glass of cognac sipped next door to where it was made.

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Angouleme and Around–Old and Older

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Angouleme is a small city just to the east of us, known mostly as being the center of a comic book  festival and museum, a classic car race in September, and  the beautiful  Romanesque Cathedral of Saint Pierre.

Our first stop was the large glassed in Les Halles market, which had many fish vendors, butchers, and produce and cheese stands. We bought some already-cooked large shrimp, two different chevres, and some gloriously-good smelling white peaches. We were prepared with our ice packs, for once.

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It’s a short walk through the pedestrian zone to the Cathedral. It’s been added to frequently over the past 900 years, but the impressive facade is medieval carving in a particularly high form. The designer was a bishop who was also a noted artist. The facade is chock full of figures, with the Ascension and the Last Judgement spreading upwards.

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My favorite portion is a little frieze illustrating the Song of Roland. Poor Roland, after heroically fighting the Moors in the center,  is dying his dramatic death on the right.

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The interior of the church is much less interesting, and it’s fun to walk around the exterior to see the additions in different styles.

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By now the rain had started in earnest, so we walked around just a bit. The city is built on a hillside, with the old ramparts lined by a walkway. There are some beautiful old buildings in town.

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Angouleme has invited comic book artists to create murals around the city, the tourist office has a walking trail to follow to find them. Pretty cool.

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We peeked at menus at the many restaurants around Les Halles, but nothing really appealed. I checked good old Michelin, and found recommendation for a place in the lower town, one of the “good food at good value” listings we generally have good luck with. It was a bit of drama driving there with the GPS, Angouleme is full of twisty, heavily-trafficked streets. L’Art des Mets was along a drab street, but inside is a contemporary, attractive little place with husband in the kitchen and wife serving. The 3-course lunch menu had two choices for each course, all for 16 euros. And it was all delicious–a cool tomato soup with a little side salad, my salmon wrapped in pastry (Larry chose the pork, which sadly they had run out of–they apologetically offered him the salmon or sea bass, and brought over 2 glasses of champagne), and cherry clafouti with apricot sorbet for me, something decadent and chocolate for Larry.

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The rain looked to be ending, so I consulted my Google map to see what might be interesting for the afternoon. When we were visiting the La Forge gardens on Saturday, I had somehow missed someone had told me that there was a site of prehistoric rock carvings in the town, so we headed back to Mouthers-sur-Boeme. We found a small sign pointing down a small street to La Chaire a Calvin. The street ended at an abandoned factory and millpond, with a house at the end. Past the house, we followed a dirt path through the woods to a fenced-off large rock outcropping. The rocks form a large shelter, you can certainly imagine people dwelling underneath.

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At this site were found many animal bones, a crude sculpture of a jaguar head, some bone and stone tools, and one human molar. Etched into the rock wall, you can just make out three animal shapes– 2 early forms of cattle, and a wild horse.

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As we were heading toward home, we stopped in to see yet another signposted 11th century church, Eglise Saint Pierre , this time in blink and you’ll miss it Eraville.  As I was looking at the facade, a gentlemen in the vineyard next door cake running over, asked if I wanted to see the church, and ran to his house for the key. Although he had no English, he was happy to tell us about the ongoing restoration of his town’s church. The floor had been dug out to get to the original floor level and they repaved using the found stones, and they’re gradually uncovering some of the original wall paint.

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He was thrilled to have people come see what they’ve been doing, and then told us about the earliest church in the area, an 8th century unconsecrated chapel just outside Châteauneuf-sur-Charente)

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Down a street outside the town, next to a chateau, is this tiny, tumble-down Romanesque Eglise Saint Sirin. The roof obviously caved in at some point, since the wooden rafters are quite new. Bare, dark and austere, it is nonetheless moving in its simplicity. You could probably put 30 people in here, likely the former population of the village.

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Since we were in Châteauneuf-sur-Charente, we stopped in to see the beautifully elegant (you guessed it) 12th century Romanesque Eglise Saint Pierre. Carvings of a similar standard to those in Angouleme, and sympathetically restored during the 19th century. Unlike in Angouleme, the interior capital carvings have been preserved.

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More tortured souls outside.

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And how cool is this–there’s a snail shell, the long-time symbol of the Charente. (and after seeing the hundreds of snails that have to be picked off our landlady’s garden every morning, its no wonder the local people took to eating them in self defense.)

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Best easy dinner ever–cooked shrimp, lemon mayo, cool white wine.

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And we turned on the tv for the first time in three weeks.

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How The 1% Lived

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We wanted to stay closer to home after yesterday’s long drive, so decided to go to the Chateau La Rochefoucald on Thursday, a beautifully sunny day. We put together a picnic, and drove over to the town La Rochefoucauld. The attractive and lively town has a main street with more shops than most of the small towns in the area, and we bought a baguette and a slice of pate. The Chateau sits on a hill at the edge of town, and when we arrived, there was a sign on the door saying “at the library, back in 15 minutes.”

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We waited on the immense lawn beyond the moat with just a few other people, and finally our hostess opened the door and let us in. She had a leaflet in French and English to give out, and visitors can wander the public rooms of the chateau. Part of the chateau is still lived in by the family, and they rent out two rooms as a B&B, pretty cool.

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The original keep (part of which is still standing, though under repair) was built in the 11th century, with the towers and front portion built in 1350, then extended again a century later. The flanking wings were added in 1520, and more rebuilding has been done over the centuries. It’s a striking place, and it is great fun to wander the public rooms, furnished much as they were in the 19th century, and well stocked with family portraits, and more modern photos and memorabilia.

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Love the ceiling details, and this fantastic renaissance style central staircase, said to have been built according to the drawings of Leonardo Da Vinci given to Anne de La Rochefoucauld by the king of France

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The downstairs kitchens have the most enormous hearth I’ve ever seen.

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And here is my favorite room, a little boudoir with painted portraits of chateaux and properties owned by the family, painted in the 17th century.Imagine the concentration of wealth amidst the poverty of the overwhelming majority. Let them eat cake, indeed.

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At 1 pm, our hostess met us in the top floor library, where we saw a portion of the library, with books dating from the 18th century. We were also taken to the Map Room, with artfully displayed old maps.  And even more cool, the archives room, containing documents relating to family holdings and business going back centuries. Here our guide is showing a ledger from 1572.

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We sat below the chateau in a little park to have a picnic lunch, sipped wine and briefly napped in the sun until I was woken by someone’s exuberantly friendly dog.

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We aimlessly drove around a bit following historical market signs, and chanced into the village of Coulgens, with its 11th century Eglise Saint-Jean-Baptiste. The sign outside mentioned murals inside the church, so we went over to the Mairie, got the enormous key, and went inside. Portions of the 14th century wall paintings have been uncovered, some highlighting the story of Saint Barbara. Just lovely.

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For dinner that night, we reserved a table on the patio at L’Esille, the place where we had such a wonderful lunch a few days previously.We both ordered the least expensive menu.  I started with oysters, then went on to stuffed squid, and finished with a light dessert of sauteed apples and sweet cream. Larry had fish wrapped in vegetables for his entree, then a really delicious pork stew flavored with ginger, and a chocolate mousse-sort of thing for dessert. Everything was good, but I thought our earlier lunch there far better.

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La Rochelle

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Several travel friends had recommended La Rochelle as an interesting visit, and so we headed there on a sunny Wednesday. La Rochelle is an attractive, bustling small city on the Atlantic, an important seaport since at least the 10th century. During the 12th century and later during the Hundred Years War, it was under British control.

We fought some morning traffic diving in, and after a wrong turn found the Verdun parking garage, very close to the Les Halles market and the pedestrian zone. The market was in full swing, with many seafood vendors, butchers, greengrocers, and specialty traiteurs. It’d be a fabulous place to shop for a rental kitchen, and we regretted not bringing our ice packs and a cooler.

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From the market, we walked to the harbor, and fell more in love with the city. White buildings, dramatic towers, blue water, lots of people going about their business. We saw the first tour groups we’ve seen in the Charente. We picked up a map from the tourist office, and followed the marked walking tour around the historical center. Would enjoy a few days here. We started talking about a possible future coastal trip of a few days here, a few days in Bordeaux, and then down to San Sebastian.

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Arcaded 15th century buildings, and streets paved with the stones used as ships ballast. Selfie taken at the harbor, with the 14th century St. Nicolas tower in the background.

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For lunch, we ordered an assortment of things from the small cafe Le Comptoir Saoufé. Crevettes (shrimp), bulots (sea snails, delicious dipped in mayo), fish soup, and some good oysters. Low tide snacks and crisp white wine, perfect.

We were curious about the two islands offshore which are beach destinations. We decided to go to the more southern one, Ile d’Oleron. There’s a long causeway out over the estuary, and a two lane road which much be maddening in busy summer. The towns are built up with junk shops and touristy thing as you’d imagine seaside resorts will be, though there are some quiet back roads, long stretches of oyster beds, cafes on the water in a few places, and some lovely beaches.

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We spent some lazing time on the beach at La Cotinière, and then drove south, stopping at coves along the way connected by roads shaded by pine trees. On the way off island, we again regretted not bringing a cooler and ice packs to bring back some oysters from the shacks dotting the road.

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Back home, some wine and leftovers for dinner, enjoying the golden light on the barns next door.

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