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Our first night of the 2017 Alps-to-Atlantic trip was spent in Saint-Emilion.  This small medieval village is known for its status as a UNESCO World Heritage site and extremely well known for its red wine.

Our hotel “Au Logis des Remparts” is located at the edge of the village center and was built using a part of the remaining defensive wall. The village is so small that the hotel’s location is essentially central.

There are three floors. There is an elevator for luggage but not people.

One can see parts of the rampart with a walkway on top and a stone parapet.

This village was recognized by UNESCO in 1999 and it was the first wine-making entity that was listed as a “cultural landscape”.

While our room is unremarkable, the garden is heavenly.

Geometrically-shaped trees in the middle.

We and our friends really like it and spent a good few hours lying on the lounge chairs, staring up at the trees, and falling asleep.

We had it all to ourselves.

Can’t remember the last time we had such a naturally serene and relaxing moment.

Since it was the beginning of the season, the owner was moving the sculptures around the garden looking for an optimal place to show them.

The pieces are apparently all available for sale.

The weather was perfect to be outside. But it is too cold for swimming.

The patio has the perfectly shaped shady olive tree (I think it is an olive tree).

We took our breakfast underneath it one morning.

Highly recommended.

Today is the day of the French presidential election. The future of Europe depends much on this result. Apt that we blog about France here aujourd’hui.

We spent a week on the west coast of France over Easter. On our drive towards the Atlantic from the Alps, Clermont Ferrand is roughly the midpoint after Lyon. Our  friends, Fa and An were heading in the same direction for their vacation. So we decided to drive together, two cars in tandem. Our first night was at Saint-Émilion.

Fa volunteered to find a good restaurant around Clermont Ferrand to make the boring drive more enjoyable (Google estimated that it would take about 7 hours). As he rightly said, it is not often that he or any one of us will likely pass through this part of France (Auvergne) in the near future.

He made a reservation at Le Pré in Durtol near Clermont Ferrand. The restaurant stops receiving diners for lunch at 1:15pm. To make it there on time, we had an excuse to drive rather fast (… I got a speeding ticket through the mail after returning to Switzerland).

The restaurant is in a modern building and the dining room and bar are located in the mid-section. We had a hard time finding the entrance in the beginning. As we arrived a little bit after our reservation time slot, the maître’d gave us the most frosty welcome. (This is not Switzerland, come on).

The main dining room was almost full so we had our private room. Hehe.

The chef of this Michelin 2-star restaurant is Xavier Beaudiment.

There are 86 two-star restaurants and 12 new ones in 2017.

He won his second star this year – that is probably why it was so full for lunch on a weekday.

There is a poached egg down there. Went very well with the white asparagus.

” … a unique menu elaborated according to the inspiration of the moment, with the complicity of a whole network of small producers and wild herbs in the region. A “kitchen of instinct”, allied to a true sense of flavors, …”  – The Inspector’s words (translated, courtesy Google)

We did notice unique flavors – clearly distinguishable and not muddled – which were much appreciated.

A detour to this restaurant took us off the monotonous motorway and we drove through the Auvergne regional park built around a long-dead volcano range – Chaîne des Puys.

The source of the international brand of mineral water – Volvic – is not far from the restaurant. And we were drinking the local water with our meal.

One of the dessert is all about chocolate – five or six ways of preparing it – I (Chris) am not a die-hard chocolate fan but really enjoyed it.

The bar/lounge area is nicely decorated. While the nice large windows give the space lots of light but there is not much to see outside. Suburban homes and the parking lot.

Quite a collection of cognac and armagnac.

Recommended.

Dear Readers, Happy New Year !

This is our first post of 2016. It is almost a tradition of this blog – the first post takes a look back at some of the places we visited last year.

Click on links, where provided to read more about the places of interest. There are usually a series of related posts per location, you can discover them easily in the calendar at the bottom of the post.

In reverse chronological order:

Swiss alps featuring Matterhorn – we went up to Zermatt on December 30 – this was taken from a view point at Gornergrat – ‎3,135 m (10,285 ft)

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Piazza San Marco, Venezia, Italy in October

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Tree of Life, World Expo 2015, Milano, Italy in October

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Chamonix, France in September long weekend

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Crozet, France in August, business meeting

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BBQ on Lac Leman lake front, Lausanne

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Basel, Switzerland in July

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Annecy, France in June – day trip ended with surprise firework display

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Louisiana Museum of Art, Humlebæk, Denmark in June

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Copenhagen, Denmark in June

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See next post for the places we went in the first half of 2015.

 

 

 

It was August 1, Switzerland’s National Day and everything was closed around us. Our friend A and F thought – why not spend a day in France ?  Since many shops were holding an end of the summer sales, we could benefit from some dernière démarque, tax-free shopping. So off we went to Annecy.

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Annecy was super-busy and we were so glad that we booked our table at La Ciboulette in advance.

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We made a one’o clock reservation, the restaurant was full; and we were the last to leave, hence, the empty tables.

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La Ciboulette serves contemporary continental fare. It was the first time for all of us.

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The dining room has modern oak paneling, and during the summer it is opened to a courtyeard filled with plants.

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Interesting silver salt and pepper shakers (Angry Birds) and bougeoir on each table.

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We all had the “Gourmandise” set menu which started with an amuse bouche – a cool cerviche.

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We were very happy with our lunch, the service and thought that the whole experience calls for one michelin star.

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Well, when we looked the restaurant up online back home, they do indeed have one michelin star.

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Cheese course – the trolley and cheeses is ….

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Desserts

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We ended the day with one of the most fantastic fireworks shows we ever saw. Annecy had its Fete de Lac on that day and the fireworks were synchronized with music from the 70’s to the present. The show ended with Sia’s Titanium.

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We are happy to know this place as Annecy is packed with touristy restaurants.

Highly recommended.

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H a p p y  2015 !

Now that we are back from our year-end vacation, we are taking a look back at some of the places we visited last year. This is the second of two posts; Part 1 is here.

The photos are organized in reverse chronological order. Some of the trips are business trips and some are vacations. Click the links where provided to see the actual posts. There are usually a series of related posts per location, they are uploaded around the same time – you can discover them easily in the calendar at the bottom of the post.

June 2014 – Val de Loire, France – It was a road trip with our “new” car and we saw V and her families.

Chambord

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Orleans

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Chez Liz, Orleans – thanks, we had a great time seeing every one.

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May 2014 – Cologne, Germany

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April 2014 – Milan, Italy – I (Chris) went to see the Salone Internazionale del Mobile.

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April 2014 – Korea – Sue went with her family for a tour.

Seoul

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Busan (부산, 釜山)

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Jeju Island (제주도, 濟州島)

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April 2014 – Morges, Switzerland – Annual Tulip festival

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February 2014, Chateau d’Oex, Switzerland with IT who came to see ballet, eat fondue and buy accordion.

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January 2014, Times Square, New York. I (Chris) took this from the building where I worked many years ago on the corner of Sixth Avenue and 44th street.

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We are wondering where we will go in 2015.

 

Let’s talk about cheese. Mont d’Or. Like most cheeses, it is named after where it comes from. This place is named Gold Mountain because of the cliffs in this mountainous area which reflect the golden light of the setting sun. By the way, the mountain range is named Jura which gave rise to the name of a geological period – Jurassic – which is in turn made famous by the dinosaur movies – Jurassic Park 1, 2….

Mont d’Or, or Vacherin du Haut-Doubs, from France, or Vacherin Mont d’Or from Switzerland is a soft, rich, seasonal cheese made from cow’s milk in villages of the Jura region. Both cheeses are strictly controlled by its Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) or Appellation d’Origine Protégée (AOP) and there were histories of rivalry between the two countries.

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The French version has a grayish-yellow washed rind and contains 45 to 50 percent milk fat and is produced between August 15 and March 15, and sold between September 10 and May 10. We checked before going on a September weekend. It was a cross-border day trip up the Jura mountains from Lausanne. Our friend F joined us and we left shortly after lunch on a sunny fall day.

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The Swiss Vacherin Mont d’Or is generally made with pasteurised milk, while the French Vacherin du Haut-Doubs is unpasteurised. That means the French version is illegal in the US and one should expect it to be confiscated by customs if it is discovered.

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The cheese is traditionally made in the winter months when the cows come down from Alpage and there is not enough milk to make Comte. It is marketed in round boxes of various diameters made of spruce, and often served warmed in its original packaging and eaten like fondue.

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The destination of our little trip was the Sancey Richard Fromagerie in the town of Metabief, no more than one hour drive from Lausanne. The cheese factory contains an exhibit of their old equipment as well as a short film about its history.

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They also constructed a viewing area where one can see in a hygienic way how the cheeses are made. This area is for making Comte and Morbier.

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The grand dame of the family that owns the fromagerie received the National Order of the Legion of Honour (Chevalier légion d’honneur) presumably for her family’s contribution to the local cheese-making culture.

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Attached to the factory is the shop (fromagerie) that was doing brisk business. We bought 2 Mont d’Or, about 0.3 kg of each of Comte Fruite and Comte Vieux as well as a wedge of Bleu de Gex.

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In the shop, we were most impressed by this hydraulically-operated, laser-guided cheese cutter (see the line of red light). Very professional and lethal !

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We started snacking on the Comte as soon as we walked out. It is one of our favorite cheeses.

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Back home that evening, we pushed several pieces of whole garlic into the cheese and poured some white wine into a little well we dug in the middle. After 25 minutes in the oven, it melted and we ate it like a mini fondue with potatoes and charcuterie also from the Franche-Comté area.

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Great local-style dinner, fine wine and good company. Cheers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you have been following our trip to the Val de Loire, and our story about finding the chateau we booked (click here to read), this is the second place where we ended up. Because we cannot extend our unplanned stay at Chateau des Arpentis (click here to see it), the owner, Sylvie offered us a room at her other property in Vouvray,

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Domaine des Bidaudieres is a restored 19th century property located on a terrace of a vineyard. The 15-hectare is no longer producing wine. The web site has many more pictures.

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We liked the spaciousness of the entrance hall. When we arrived, a couple of potted small lemon trees with ripe fruits perfumed the glass-enclosed space making it very inviting and relaxing.

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Sylvie told us that this property is very popular for weddings and are booked every weekend in the summer. We can see that the entrance hall is really good for a reception or dining area.

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The property has a swimming pool on a lower terrace and an interesting stone staircase.

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A photogenic spot for weddings.

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There is an orangery next to the pool which can also be used as a residence with a glass-roofed sitting area.

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This is one of my favorite spot. I(Chris) can imagine having a nice dinner al fresco … watching sunset from the terrace at dusk and then later with candles on the chandelier suspended from the tree …

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We did not have time to explore the grounds of the property.

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The rooms, each named after one of the Vouvray vineyards, have a view over the pond and the grounds of the estate on one side and over the swimming pool terrace and the surrounding countryside on the other.

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Our window has a view of the pond. The water was so clear that we could see the vegetation on the bottom from where we stood on the second floor.

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Sylvie lives here with her family in a separate area.

bidaudieres-7Breakfast room

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Common room

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Vouvray is located along the Loire on the east of Tours. It is very well known for still and sparkling white wine made with the Chenin Blanc grape.

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Sylvie recommended checking out the cave of Domaine Marc Bredif. We did not have time to tour the cave but bought several bottles to take home and a magnum of the sparkling variety for VC’s birthday party. It was a really good drink for the summer.

Another place to come back to next summer.

This is one of the three chateaux we visited in the Loire Valley. We chose Villandry because of its famous beautiful gardens.

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Villandry is unusual in that it is a Renaissance castle that was the residence of neither a king nor a courtesan, but of Jean Le Breton, Minister of Finance for François I.

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He drew on his experience supervising and directing the construction at many sites, including Chateau de Chambord (one of the trio, click here to see our post).

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Its construction started in 1532 around a Medieval feudal fortress. In 1754, the interior was significantly upgraded in the neoclassical style by the then-new owner – Marquis de Castellane.

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The interior of Villandry is much more habitable than Chambord and Chenonceau (the other famous chateau we saw, click here to see the post).

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In 1906, it was purchased by Joachim Carvallo who began restoring the castle. The Carvallo family is the current owner of the estate.

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Not only the castle was restored, the gardens which had been outstanding since the beginning was also recreated and reinvented according to the Renaissance style, based on old plans, archaeological and literary clues.

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As you can see, there are many gardens: a water garden, ornamental flower gardens, and vegetable gardens.

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Some of the photos looked like SimCity screenshots ?!

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From the top of the turret, one can see all the formal gardens in their complex geometric shapes.

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The gardens are laid out in formal patterns created with low box hedges.

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At the ground level, the shapes are actually much bigger than we thought.

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In 1934, Château de Villandry was designated a Monument historique. Like all the other châteaux of the Loire Valley, it is a World Heritage Site.

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It is worthwhile visiting their web site here for their collection of photos of the seasonally-changing gardens over the past years.

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With Villandry, we concluded our visits of the chateaux of the Loire Valley.

Chenonceau is the second château that we visited in the Loire Valley in June of this year. Click here to read about our visit to Château de Chambord. Like Chambord, Chenonceau is also well known and thoroughly written up – see the official website here.
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The chateau presents itself and distinguish it from the many others in the area – apparently by its destiny!

Chenonceau is an exceptional site not only because of its original design, the richness of its collections, its furniture and its decorations, but also because of its destiny, since it was loved, administrated and protected by women, who were all extraordinary and who, for the most part have marked history. … The iron, but very feminine, fist in the velvet glove has always preserved Chenonceau during times of conflict and war in order to make it forever a place of peace.

 

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Compared to Chambord, this is a smaller but much better decorated chateau.

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 The castle was built around 1513. King Henry II offered the château as a gift to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers. It went through several expansions between 1517 and 1559.

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Diane’s garden

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After Henry II died in 1559, his strong-willed widow and regent Catherine de’ Medici forced Diane to exchange it for the Château Chaumont. Queen Catherine then made Chenonceau her own favorite residence and added gardens.

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Catherine’s garden

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On Catherine’s death in 1589 the château went to her daughter-in-law, Louise de Lorraine-Vaudémont, wife of King Henry III. At Chenonceau Louise was told of her husband’s assassination in 1589 and she fell into a state of depression, spending the remainder of her days wandering aimlessly along the château’s corridors dressed in mourning clothes amidst somber black tapestries stitched with skulls and crossbones.  (Wikipedia)

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Kitchens were constructed in the piers of the bridge.

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My wild guess of this contraption is an automatic rotissserie that was powered by the flow of the river. I think the pulley is connected to something that is being dragged by the water below.

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We had lunch at the chateau’s restaurant, L’Orangerie. It was almost 2’o clock and therefore we managed to get a place … at other times, reservation is a must.

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It was noted that King Henry II’s insignia, which is stamped on the cutlery we used at the restaurant, contains an intertwining H (for Henry) and C (for Catherine) but there is also a D for Diana in the background. The beauty and brains of the two women, their background and competition for the king’s attention must have inspired countless hours of period TV drama. There is a good article here about the rivalry.

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On the grounds of the chateau is a maze, newly reconstructed based on Catherine’s design.

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Upon reaching the centre of the maze …

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There is really a lot to do here beside wandering inside the castle. Check out their very helpful website here.

On our trip to the Val de Loire in June, we visited three famous chateaux. According to an official tourist leaflet, we have a choice of as many as 70-plus chateau in the area. These buildings are national monuments and not the kind that has been converted into a hotel or B&B – like the one we stayed overnight. Click here to see our chateau.

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Château de Chambord is probably one of the most celebrated if not the most visited chateau in the Loire Valley.  Definitely a top tourist magnet, it is also the largest chateau in the area.  The government has done a great job promoting and managing it.

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As the chateau is very well known, there are tomes written about the architecture, its creators, inhabitants and rich history. And there is a very colorful website – here. So I will be very brief here.

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The construction started in 1519 by Francois I. It is one of the few buildings of the Renaissance age that has survived without major modifications to its original design. It is a blend of French medieval and Italian Renaissance style.

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It was not meant to be a permanent residence but an architectural jewel that the king liked to show to visiting royalties and ambassadors as a symbol of his power.

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It was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981. The domain of Chambord is completely enclosed within a 20-mile stone wall, all 5,440 hectares of it.

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That’s the equivalent of the city of Paris and the largest enclosed forest in Europe.

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Nowadays, there are about 700 deers and 1000 wild boars on the grounds. As it was intended to be a hunting lodge for the king, there were many antlers on the walls.

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One of the architectural highlights is the spectacular double helix open staircase that is the centerpiece of the château.

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The two helices ascend the three floors without ever meeting, illuminated from above by natural light at the highest point of the château.

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On display are some furnishings but it is relatively sparse compared to the other chateaux (see later post). I suspect it is partly because of its size and the fact that it was abandoned from time to time in its history.

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Also on display are modern art pieces.

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It functions as a gallery for contemporary artists.

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We had a fun day but were exhausted by the amount of walking inside the various wings and levels of the chateau.

Come back later for photos of two more chateaux.

 

This is the chateau we landed when the one we booked canceled our reservation. For the full story on how got here, see our earlier post here. On its web site, the history of Château des Arpentis is as follows:

The first well-known lord was Christophe Thomas in 1313. Around 1410, the chateau became the property of Jean du Bois, majordomo of the Duke of Guise. During 16th century, it became the property of the military, and then in 1612, Louis Charles d’Albert, Duke of Luynes, became the owner, and it is also where King Louis XIII was invited to dinner on the 20th of June 1619. During the 17th century, the terrace was built on the walls that surround the moat and castle. The castle was restored in the 19th century.

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In the middle of a park of thirty hectares, the castle was entirely restored in 2007-2008. The chateau has a grand total of only 12 guest rooms. arpentis -34

Like many chateau and manor houses in the area, for the nobles, hunting was the main activity. So the whole place is decorated by all kinds of hunting trophies. Some of these stuffed animals must look pretty scary at night. arpentis -41

Despite the animal heads, no guns or weapons of any kind were displayed. arpentis -44

There is a “common” room on the first floor where drinks were served at certain times during the day and the guests could congregate to chat, play pool, and socialize.  A large family of Americans were there when we arrived around 9pm the night before. arpentis -31

Above the fireplace, the metal emblem in the shape of an animal with a crown on its back is a porcupine. This animal seems to be the mascot or something of the place – there were more little sculptures of them lying around the room. arpentis -30

This room on the ground floor was not opened. But it can certainly support some social functions. arpentis -35

The chateau is a life-size Cluedo playboard, it could be a perfect place to host a murder mystery party. And the setting is authentic enough for something real to happen, given the right combination of people and motives. arpentis -36

We met the owner who bought the property several years ago and now runs it as a hotel. The couple owns another property in the area where we also stayed, see later post. arpentis -39

Except breakfast time when we saw the other guests, there was hardly any one around. arpentis -38

How big is 30 hectares of land ? Where were the animals we saw the night before ? arpentis -42

There is a stream running in front of it and a bridge that takes one to the meadow and the pond. arpentis -33

Although we were there at the end of May, it was too early to open the pool. This outdoor space must be great during the long summer days. arpentis -40

This is such an idyllic spot to linger, read a book, take a nap.arpentis -43

According to one of the guidebooks, it says that the Loire Valley has long been described as exemplifying la douceur de vivre (if we were in Italy, it would be la dolce vita). … “The overall impression conveyed by the region is one of an unostentatious taste for the good things in life.” We were curious as to what is being offered in this region to qualify such a statement.  Voilà.

arpentis -32 We hope to come back for a longer stay. In mid-summer.

Continuing with our journey in the Loire Valley …  after a few days in Saumur, we went up river to see the chateaux that made the area famous. In the countryside around the city of Tours, we visited several chateaux that are justifiably France’s national treasures and deservedly tourist magnets. We will share those pictures in later posts.

Hailstorm in Tours city center, one of the bigger city along the Loire

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As many of the smaller chateaux have been repurposed as hotels or bed-and-breakfast, we decided to book a room at such an establishment. Originally we made a reservation at Château du Paradis through Booking.com. We chose it because it had good reviews and was situated in the middle of a forest. After having slept in a cave (see earlier posts here and here), we wanted to try a château in a forest.

Deserted streets in Tours after the hailstorm

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Big problem !  We did not realize this place requires that the guests arrive before 8 pm. The owner called us while we were having dinner in downtown Tours (after a totally unexpected but spectacular hailstorm). He canceled our room reservation and volunteered to book us into a similar establishment nearby. He did not charge us because someone was waiting to take our room. This turn of event was a little disaster in the making. Apparently, the notice about the early check-in was in the original web page when we booked, but it was hidden behind a link and not in our email confirmation so we forgot/missed it when we were on the road. Booking.com need to make such special requirements more prominent in their paperwork.

Driving along the Loire towards Amboise

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We really did not have a choice at that time. So we accepted without knowing what the place looks like except reassurances from the owner of the Chateau du Paradis.

Amboise in a distance

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We finished our dinner quickly and started heading towards Amboise looking for a chateau for which we have only the vaguest directions – go to Saint–Règle.  Any more detailed address is useless in the countryside.

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Fortunately, the place was not that difficult to find. After turning off the public country road, we drove on a partially paved road for about 5-10 minutes before coming up to a gate. Et voila.

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Given the circumstances, we lowered our expectations. But we were pleasantly surprised upon arrival.

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The room afforded us this view out of the window including a horse in a meadow. Very calm and relaxing.

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The room had a distinctly home-y feel which was welcoming. It even had a working fireplace.

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Antique-ish metal bath tub and modern showers …
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It was a relief for us after the surprise and panic, and allowed us to rest after a long day of sightseeing.

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More pictures of Chateau des Arpentis to come.

Continuing with our journey into the caves of Saumur … People in the area did not just live in caves, they use it to store wine and to grow mushroom. See earlier post here about the museum.

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The caves provide an environment of high humidity and constant temperature that is perfect for growing mushroom. Many of the caves were once part of a quarry. This facility at the museum produces four types of mushrooms commercially: white or brown button mushrooms, shiitakes, oyster mushrooms including the yellow pleurotes and blue foot mushrooms aka blewits (something new for us).

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Using a plastic culture bag is the preferred way, as it is more flexible and prevents the spread of pests.

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The white button mushroom or champignon de Paris (Agaricus bisporous) were first cultivated in the disused quarries in the Paris region, and then in the late 19th century, they moved to the Loire Valley.

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Apparently, more than half of the mushrooms cultivated in France come from this area and Anjou (just a bit downstream of the Loire river).

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The facility aims to provide ample ventilation (otherwise the mushroom will become deformed !), temperature at 10 to 18 degrees celsius, 14 degree being the optimal, and 85 to 90% humidity.

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Shiitake or 冬菇 (Lentinus edodes), also known as black mushroom or oak mushroomare grown in the caves on substrates that were hung and resembled tree trunks.

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Apparently, they are slow growing and do not appear until 2 to 5 years after inoculation. The growers stimulate growth by exposing the culture to shock, such as sharp change in temperature, mechanical vibration (including artificial thunder ? That’s what it said on the explanatory notes on the wall) or soaking in water.

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Pleurotus ostreatus or 蠔菇, the oyster mushroom, are mainly cultivated in large polyethylene bags stuffed with hay, sawdust, wood chips, etc in layers, and spawn sown between these layers.

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Pleurotus citrinopileatus, the golden oyster mushroom (tamogitake in Japanese) is the other type of pleurotes that are grown in this facility.

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The last type of mushroom cultivated here is Clitocybe nuda (also recognized as Lepista nuda and Tricholoma nudum, commonly known as the wood blewit or blue stalk mushroom). We know nothing about it. According to Wikipedia, it is an edible mushroom, found in both coniferous and deciduous woodlands. It is a fairly distinctive mushroom that is widely eaten, though there is some caution about edibility. Nevertheless it has been cultivated in Britain, the Netherlands and France. … Blewits can be eaten as a cream sauce or sautéed in butter, but it is important not to eat them raw, which could lead to indigestion. They can also be cooked like tripe or as omelette filling, and wood blewits also make good stewing mushrooms. They have a strong flavour, so they combine well with leeks or onions. They were not in season or something … as this is all I could find in the tunnels.

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Back to sunshine, the museum shop offers freshly picked mushroom for sale or as a snack. If it was our last day before heading home, we would have bought some.

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It was an interesting and unique visit.

Continuing with our visit of the Val de Loire …

People in the area did not just live in caves (see our hotel in caves here and here), they use it to store wine and to grow mushroom.

Apparently, more than half of the mushrooms cultivated in France come from this area and Anjou (just a bit down river).


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We went to a museum of mushroom which has a production facility attached to it. The museum part was quite boring. It started with collections of objects that are mushroom shaped – essentially anything that has a cap and a stem.

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The other part of the museum, just inside the entrance of the caves, shows samples of different kinds of fungi preserved in plastic. There were lots of text accompanying the exhibits to educate the public about the varieties, as we all know, many of which are poisonous, and some are hallucinogenic.

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Many people here enjoy country walk, mushroom picking and then eating their harvest. Some toxic mushrooms look just like the normal pale white innocuous boletes type but can kill or at least send people to the emergency room. My friends told us that many villages have a local expert who can recognize the toxic ones, and people are encouraged to show their pickings to the expert before eating it.

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The really interesting parts start deeper inside the caves. The museum keeps a small collection of live fungi beside those cultivated commercially.

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Below is black poplar mushroom – Agrocybe aegerita, a species that is really easy to cultivate, even at  home as a hobby.

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This is Coprinus comatus, the shaggy ink cap, lawyer’s wig, or shaggy mane, a common fungus often seen growing on lawns, along gravel roads and waste areas. According to Wikipedia … The gills beneath the cap are white, then pink, then turn black and secrete a black liquid filled with spores (hence the “ink cap” name). This mushroom is unusual because it will turn black and dissolve itself in a matter of hours after being picked or depositing spores. When young it is an excellent edible mushroom provided that it is eaten soon after being collected.

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Hericium erinaceus or 猴頭菇 (monkey head mushroom) is a choice edible when young, and the texture of the cooked mushroom is often compared to seafood. It often appears in Chinese vegetarian cuisine to replace pork or lamb. I have never heard of it let alone eat it.

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Trametes versicolor – turkey tail fungus – too tough to eat but believed to have anticancer properties.

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Each species has a unique requirement of substrate (wood, compost, etc) and temperature and humidity (essentially the natural environment of the caves). We forgot the name of this species.

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One of the more bizzare-looking species is lingzhi (靈芝or reishi (Ganoderma lucidum) which is well known in Asia as having medical properties and a symbol of good fortune. They look like strange tongues or paws reaching out from a block of wood or rock.


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I (Chris) have not seen a living species before. Even if I did, since it has that shiny sheen and smooth surface, I would have thought that it was a cheap plastic model of the real thing. The top and white tip were covered in a fine layer of spores.

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In our next post, we will show photos of the cultivation areas.

 

Towards the end of May, we visited the Loire Valley and stayed at a hotel with rooms that are built into caves. Here are some more examples of cave dwellings which have been modernized.  We found these homes just a few minutes down the road from our hotel, between Turquant and Saumur.

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Here are some more pictures of our hotel – the Demure de la Vignole … Beside having guest rooms inside caves (see earlier post here), there are other interesting features…

This is a view from our balcony  overlooking the hotel reception building. Notice the parking area situated under the cliff. Above the cliffs are vineyards !

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The ugly grey rock on the left is part of our dwelling, our bedroom is upstairs with the triangular windows. The gap between the grey rock and the new (chateau-style) stone building is the main (very narrow) driveway to the hotel parking area.

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The hotel’s fitness “center” is also situated inside a cave. The equipment is functional but overall it is a bit shabby.

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Sauna ? Did not try it.

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The most unique feature is the small swimming pool. This is the entrance to the fitness area and additional guest rooms.

cave hotel-29The changing area and shower have a Moroccan accent – quite common in France …

cave hotel-26 We had the pool to ourselves … bathing in the colored lights reflecting off the white cave walls.

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The rocks in the area are known as tufa, a type of limestone, similar to travertine.

cave hotel-31There was nothing special about the water, it was simply standard very lightly-chlorinated swimming pool water. The water was not naturally there.

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The rest of the B&B/hotel and common areas …

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Dining, reception areas

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Terrace (with frogs hopping about)

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View from the hotel front garden. The river Loire is just on the other side of the road hidden behind the trees.

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More from the area in the next few posts …


 

 

This is the first of a series of blog posts on our trip to the Loire Valley (Val de Loire).

The main purpose of this trip was to attend our friend – VC’s birthday party (actually as surprise guests) at E’s place in Orleans, France. Rather than flying up to Paris, we decided to take the car. By going this way we get to see more of the countryside and explore the Loire Valley at our leisure. We chose Saumur as a starting point on the West and slowly worked our way upriver along the valley until we reach Orleans. The Loire , the longest river in France, flows east to west into the Atlantic near St Nazaire, passing through cities like Orleans, Tours, Saumur and Nantes.

We split the driving from Lausanne to this region into 2 legs (stopping one night at Troyes). Our first two nights in the region were spent in this unusual hotel at Turquant, just outside Saumur.

 

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This small B&B/hotel – Demeure de la Vignole offers rooms and facilities that are built inside caves !  Our room is actually a small two-storey dwelling, the back of which are caves and the walls of the cliff.

 

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Looking out from inside the cave.

 

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The toilet and bathroom as well as an “entrance hall” is on the ground floor.

 

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A spiral staircase rises through a hole cut into the rocks creating a passage to the cave above.

 

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Our bedroom, “living room” and balconies are on the second floor.

This is the view from our bed.

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It did not feel claustrophobic, contrary to what we thought …

 

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Caves are naturally cold and humid and our room was equipped with a dehumidifier. There were stickers on all the thermostats around the unit to warn us not to adjust them as they were carefully set. We can imagine that if the humidity is not kept low, the environment would encourage mold to grow (as witnessed in our trip to a mushroom farm (see later post)).

 

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The place was spotlessly clean with no sign of insects or molds.

 

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View from our balcony, looking out towards the Loire river at dusk.

 

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Our room and balcony is next to the lighted spot next to the cliff on the right side.

 

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Historically, some settlers in this area has carved into the cliff sides and made dwellings out of the caves. According to Wikipedia,

A cave dweller or troglodyte is a human being who inhabits a cave or the area beneath the overhanging rocks of a cliff.

We became troglodytes for two days.

More to come about the hotel.

 

 

* H A P P Y  *  N E W  *  Y E A R  *

W i s h i n g  – y o u – a l l – t h e – v e r y –  b e s t – i n – 2 0 1 4  ! !

As the end of 2013 is upon us, we are taking a look back at some of the places we visited. The places are organized in reverse chronological order and there is a part 2 to come tomorrow. Some of the trips are business trips and some are vacations.

Click on the link to jump to the posts – there are usually a series of related posts per location, they are uploaded around the same time – you can discover them easily in the calendar at the bottom of the post.

December 2013

We just came back from a cruise in the Caribbean sea on Celebrity’s Reflection. This was taken in San Juan, Puerto Rico – one of the ports of call. The pictures will be up here soon.

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The cruise started and ended in Miami – we spent a few days at the Epic Hotel, downtown Miami

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Barcelona, Spain in October 2013

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Sao Paulo, Brazil in October 2013

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Jungfraujoch, Switzerland in September 2013  (posts to come in 2014)

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Near Interlaken, September 2013

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Lavaux, Switzerland with VL in July 2013

2013 review-23Glacier 3000, Switzerland with YS – July 2013

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Lac Liosin, Switzerland with YS – July 2013

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Chambery, France with IT in July 2013

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There were 7 separate trips in this second half of 2013, and another 7 trips in the first half – see next post.

Annecy is a touristy town in the Haute-Savoie region of France, so there are restaurants and cafes everywhere you turn, especially in the old town area (see earlier post).

The local specialties – Savoyard dishes – typically  served on black slate, feature cheeses and cured meats (which we had plenty in Switzerland). So we feasted on beef  throughout that weekend.

Beef raw.

Beef cooked in butter at our table. Cholesterol overload !

Beef grilled and served with herb butter. Some of the fries in this region are cooked in duck fat.

We were not searching for a gourmet experience and did not consult any restaurant guide. We just picked those places that looked comfortable.

There is a restaurant boat – the MS Libellule – which serves lunch and sunset dinner on the lake. We did not book in advance and missed it.

Many of the tourists visiting Annecy came from other regions of France and because Savoyard dishes are somewhat different from the rest of the country coupled with the idea of terroir, they loved the local stuff. This region (Haute-Savoie) became part of France in the 19th Century after it was sold to France by the Piemont noble family.

The amount of mussels served in that pot was enormous, a rare occasion when an European dish beats the size of a regular American portion. Yeah!

This dish –  la choucroute (de la mer) is unusual as it serves potato and sauerkraut (piled under the fish) with seafood instead of sausages or pork meats. I did not put that langoustine up  – that was how the dish arrived.

We had the choucroute at La Taverne de Maitre Kanter – apparently the only Alsatian brasserie in Annecy.  (The Alsace region is further North of here, bordering Germany, which we will visit soon).

Many of the restaurants are located along the waterways.

For some restaurants, you can see them across the canal but can’t get there without finding a bridge first. And when you have crossed the bridge, the entrance to the restaurant may not be prominent because the dining room may be located at the back facing the canal while the kitchen is on the street side.

We would like to come back to visit Annecy and explore the communities around the lake in the summer next year. Staying further out on the far side of the lake and hopping over for dinner, perhaps by boat – sounds like a plan.

Annecy is located about 100 minutes drive from where we live. We knew about the town and had wanted to visit it for the last 2 years. But it was only until June last year when we spent a weekend there. Yeah, this post has been in the draft folder for months.

Annecy is the capital of the province (department) of Haute-Savoie. It lies on the northern tip of Lac d’Annecy and is 35 kilometres south of Geneva.

The Palais de l’Isle, also called the “old prison”, was built from the 12th century. It is the symbol of the town and is among the most photographed monuments in all of France, according to Wikipedia.

With these pictures, we are helping it keep that status.

Annecy has hosted the Annecy International Animated Film Festival since 1960, an event we just missed by only a few weeks. We have to remember to attend this festival next year.

We arrived around noon on Saturday when the town’s market was in full swing.

The town has many waterways criss-crossing it – some said that it is the Venice of the Alps. We think there is a huge difference between the two – Annecy’s canals are so much cleaner than that muck in Venice – there is no comparison.

No gondola though.

Beautiful at night.

The town is on the shore of Lake Annecy, the second largest lake in France (if Lake Leman is excluded) and reputedly the cleanest lake in Europe.

There are a lot of public spaces around the lake front – sightseeing ships, peddle-boats, speedboats … All forms of enjoyment of the lake are catered for.

In my opinion (Chris’s), Annecy is the most pleasant city that is integrated with a system of waterways. This is based on our recent visits (see earlier posts) to several cities with canals – Milano- Il Naviglio Grande (one canal), Colmar (small network of canals) and Amsterdam (a much bigger system with a harbor).

Annecy is full of restaurants – next post!

Evian-les-bains is a very scenic, historic spa town that catered to the elite of the early 1900’s. Like many of the spa towns in the area, it has “les bains” in its name to indicate the presence of spas, e.g., Aix-les-bains, Thonon-les-bains, and on the swiss side Yverdon-les bains.


After our visit to the source of the Evian brand mineral water (see last post), we took a scroll along the lake front. Two strange trees lean over the path creating a sort of green arch, this is one of them.

On the lake front is a casino which entertains the spa guests between their treatments. It was built in 1911 and probably a very glamorous place back then.

Also on the lake front, next to the casino, is the Palais Lumière (the Evian Baths from 1902 to 1984) which has served as the town’s cultural and convention centre since 2006. It was running an exhibition about Charlie Chaplin when we visited. The palais is named after the Lumière brothers who invented cinematography, made a fortune, and built a villa in Evian (now used as the town hall).

The building is pale yellow and white in color – and according to some, a prestigious example of spa architecture (didn’t know there is such a specialty?). The entrance has big mirrors installed on either side – presumably to make the spa guests more aware of their looks and shape ?

Wall paintings of bathing nudes on both sides of the entrance. The mirror shows the painting from the other side.

Source Bonnevie – the “Good Life” spring in the main entrance hall.  The skylight, the pastel shades of the mosaics on the floor, and the statues make the interior very airy, soft, and comforting. The spas are now operating at the modern lake front Hilton and further up the hill at the Hotel Royal.

We returned around 6pm. This is the boat that would take us back – it was approaching Evian’s pier.

Back to Ouchy, Lausanne – 13 km across the lake.

A very nice day indeed.