31 January 2015

Montréal countryside views

We had some snow yesterday, but it lasted only 15 or 20 minutes at most and didn't stick on the road or the grass. The worst part of yesterday's weather was the wind — it was stiff and frigid. Walking out into the vineyard with Callie in the morning meant facing a freezing headwind, but the walk back was easy with the wind at my back. Good-bye, January.

Meanwhile, I'm doing another in my series of posts about Montréal in Burgundy. Here are some photos of the views out over the countryside that we enjoyed from the top of the village, near the church.

Above and on the right are photos of what the Michelin Guide describes as « une vaste ferme bourguignonne fortifiée » — a impressive Burgundian fortified farmstead — below Montréal.

I have too many photos and I'm not good at picking and choosing. Instead of leaving any of these out, I'll just make some of them smaller. You can click on any photo to see it at a larger size.

On the left and below, local Charolais cattle graze on green pastureland.

On the right and below, are views in two different directions.

Below, Callie is tempted by a country road that winds down toward the fields below. We didn't walk down there, but the dog enjoyed her stroll through the streets and parks of Montréal.

Finally, after our walk around Montréal, we got back to the car and headed over to the village of Thizy, which you can see in the photo below, off in the distance. I took some photos there too.

The weather here in Saint-Aignan is turning cold again, and it is a pleasure to look at all the green in these photos and remember how warm and sunny it was that October afternoon at Montréal in Burgundy.

30 January 2015

Montréal : l'église collégiale

At the summit of the little village of Montréal in Burgundy stands a church surrounded by a graveyard. The church dates back to the 12th century and is known as la collégiale Notre-Dame-de-l'Assomption. It was restored by Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th century. I found the cemetery very picturesque.

The photo above shows a sign that struck me as funny. It's posted on the fence right in front of the church, and it says "Space reserved for Father Jean Michel". My first thought was that the space referred to might be a grave. I think it was actually the priest's parking space.

I also enjoyed seeing the inside of the church, as did Walt. While he went in to look around, I stayed outside with Callie. Then I went inside and Walt stayed outside with Callie. That's how we have to do things. I'll post some photos from inside the church in a day or two. Maybe Sunday.

Yesterday I posted a photo of a salamander that looks suspiciously like the one that was king François Ier's "logo". Well, it probably is just that. I read this morning that François visited Montréal twice during his lifetime (first half of the 16th century).

From the church, there are views out over the surrounding countryside. It was all very green when we were there — photos later. Montréal was a fortified town, built on a high hill for strategic reasons. It seems that it was surrounded by vineyards until the end of the 19th century. The phylloxera scourge must have killed off the local wine business.

Montréal only about 8 miles from the town of Avallon. I didn't even realize that when we were there that Thursday afternoon, because we drove in from the other side. We had been in Avallon two days earlier. I guess if you lived in Montréal, Avallon is where you would go for shopping and other basic services like banks, doctors, and coiffeurs.

29 January 2015

Montréal en Bourgogne : details, details

Not much to say this morning. I'm just going to post some pictures I took during our leisurely walk around the village of Montréal in Burgundy in late October 2014. If you read this blog regularly, you might find it repetitive with these kinds of details, but the fact is that I don't know who will look at the blog at what moment, or what post people will land on first, so each post needs to be pretty much self-contained. Details...

This set of photos shows a lot of details I noticed around the village and found interesting. The first photo above shows somebody's sense of humor, with a car license plate from the city of Montréal in Québec — « Je me souviens » — nailed to an old door in the village of Montréal in Burgundy. Next to it is a photo of another village house for sale. It looks like it might need more than "freshening up." (I just found a web site with photos of that house above. It has already been sold for 45,000 €...)

The photo immediately above is a mystery to me — what does this decorative detail on a house actually represent? Those curly things at the top look almost like eyes, but they're not. And what is that tree in the middle?

I really liked the way this unused doorway on one of the village streets had been condamné, as they say in French. Rather than put up a wooden door that would need paint and other maintenance, just fill in the gap with stones. Clever. And it has a nice salamander with it too.

Above, a beautiful window in an old house. How many windows can one photograph in a lifetime? The answer: millions, if one is in France. So many are so beautiful.

And doorways too. Potted geraniums nicely dress up that old stone staircase on the left above. And the door on the rignt shows how wood doesn't hold up to the weather all that well, especially in a damp climate.

28 January 2015

Montréal in Burgundy: Houses

The population of the village of Montréal in Burgundy is only about 180. Most of the houses must be vacation places.

The shutters were closed on many of the houses. We didn't really see many people — half a dozen at the most — up in the old town as we walked around with Callie and took pictures.

Except that Montréal is so clean and spiffed up, it was a place that seemed frozen in time. Car traffic in the old town is restricted to residents only, if I remember correctly.

It was especially pleasant for a long, slow walk because it was sunny the way it had been the day before in Chablis, Tonnerre, and Irancy.

If you are interested in buying a house in Montréal, the one shown above is for sale — À VENDRE. I just found it on a real estate web site. The asking price is 90,000 €. At today's exchange rate, that's 102K US$.

Here's a photo of the house from the web site I found. Three bedrooms, 1 bath, 1 WC, 120 sq. meters (1300 sq. ft.), garage. It's described on the site as ancien (old). It looks like it could use some freshening up inside, as you might expect.

27 January 2015

Montréal en Bourgogne

« ...ce petit bourg compte parmi les plus caractéristiques de Bourgogne » — "...this little town is one of the most distinctively Burgundian villages in character." That's from the Michelin guide. The name is Montréal, and it doesn't have much to do with the city in Canada except the coincidence of its name. The village was known as « mont régalis » — the royal mountain — as early as the 1100s.

The royal personage connected to this Montréal was the Burgundian queen named Brunehaut a.k.a. Brunehilde, who reigned in the 6th century. She was a Visigoth princess born in Spain who became a Frankish queen when she married king Sigebert 1er, a direct descendent of the great king Clovis, in 566. She lived to be nearly 70 years old and died by execution in the year 613. One thing I read said that Brunehaut was not popular and that she has not been treated kindly by historians.

Anyway, all that is ancient history. Brunehaut supposedly loved the place now called Montréal. So did we. As you will see from my photos, between Époisses and Montréal the clouds suddenly cleared off and we had a sunny, fairly warm afternoon. Callie finally got to spend some time out of the car.

We parked down below the old town, in front of the post office. We took a few photos and had a look at the Monument aux Morts before walking through what is called La Porte d'En-Bas (the lower gate) up into the older part of the town. This was last October 23.

As the Michelin guide says, « ...l'ensemble du village est parfaitement entretenu. » — the whole village is beautifully maintained. A church is located at the top of the town, and there are fine views over very green fields and hills from up there. More to come...

26 January 2015

Époisses... oh yeah, it's a village

I got so carried away with the cheese yesterday that I neglected to post pictures of the village of Époisses itself. Below is the main entrance gate to the grounds of the town's château — it's where we parked the car and had our picnic.

Having picnics at lunchtime reminds me the days when we would come to France from California, back in the late 1980s and during the 1990s, when we were young and did a lot of driving around the country. We often stayed in hotels, not gites, so we couldn't cook. We didn't want to eat in restaurants twice a day so we would have a picnic at lunchtime and a restaurant dinner in the evening.

Above is another view of Époisses from our parked car. We didn't go into the château, partly because of the dog and also because it's closed between noon and 3:00 p.m. Despite the drizzle, we would have taken a stroll around the grounds of the château, which are open at lunchtime, except for the big sign on the gate saying that dogs were not allowed in.

Above is what I assume to be some local artist's rendering of the village of Époisses. It's street art, painted on the side of some kind of electrical or telephone switching box near the town's recreation and sports center.

And finally, above is a photo of the Château d'Époisses. You can tell I didn't take it the day we were there — look at that blue sky! I grabbed it off the internet at www.all-free-photos.com. If you want to know more about the château, here's the web site: http://www.chateaudepoisses.com/

25 January 2015

Époisses, a cheese village

The village of Époisses « doit sa célébrité à deux monuments : son château et son fameux fromage à pâte molle. » That's what the Guide Michelin has to say. It's another village whose name I knew very well, but I'd never been there. Semur-en-Auxois was a name I knew because I'd often heard people recommend it as a beautiful and interesting place. Époisses (pop. 770 or so) was a name I knew because of the cheese of the same name.

I know you are tired of hearing me say this, but the weather was still gray and drizzly when we got to Époisses (pronounced [ay-PWAHSS]). We had decided to have lunch there, but not in a restaurant. We'd bought some sandwiches and we thought we might have a picnic and give Callie a chance to run around for a few minutes.

No dice. We ended up sitting in the car in front of the main gate of the château and eating our sandwiches in the car. That took a lot less time than a restaurant would have taken, and we had two more villages we wanted to go see in the afternoon. Anyway, we didn't go to Burgundy to eat in restaurants — not with the dog in tow.

We have friends in California who especially love Époisses cheese. In fact, one of them is having a birthday today (Bon Anniversaire, C. !) I wish they could be here so that we could dig into a ripe Époisses — as you can see, you pretty much serve it with a spoon. We can buy Époisses here in the Saint-Aignan area on the markets and even in the supermarkets. The Fromagerie Berthaut's web site is here.

Reading about Époisses cheese, I just learned a couple of things I didn't know. Part of the cheese-making process involves using rennet that is flavored with black pepper, cloves, and fennel. All are optional but are often used. Époisses cheese is eaten fresh in summertime, and in its aged form in wintertime. The famous gourmet Brillat-Savarin called it « le roi des fromages », and if you've tried it you might understand why.

24 January 2015

Moving on up

The U.S. dollar is worth nearly 90 centimes d'euro this morning. That's 90 eurocents or nine-tenths of a euro. Just a few years ago, the USD was worth as little as little as 65 eurocents for a while. Today's exchange rate represents an increase of 25 eurocents per dollar compared to the dollar's low point. In American terms, it's as if every time you change a dollar ($) into a euro (€) now, the bank throws in an extra quarter.

As a result, for every $1,000 a retired American living in France gets in retirement income from U.S. sources, she or he gets approximately 900 € instead of 650 €. That's 250 euros more. Say, hypothetically, that you have $3,000 a month in retirement income from U.S. sources. Now you have 750 € per month more than you had just a few years ago. You can afford to travel more, have more meals in restaurants, or buy a needed new refrigerator or washing machine.

When the euro replaced the French franc (FF) in early 2002, one dollar was worth not 90 eurocents, but about 1.14 €. The U.S. was still prospering as it did under Bill Clinton's administration, and the dollar hadn't yet suffered the George W. Bush downturn. By the time we bought our house in France in the spring of 2003, the dollar was down to 92 eurocents. The dollar declined steadily for years, and after going as low as 65 eurocents finally stabilized at between 70 and 75 eurocents in recent years.

If you have dollars, this would be a good time to pay for a vacation in the Eurozone countries (France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Holland, or Ireland, for example). For us who live in France, the lower euro means that our airline tickets for travel to the U.S. are less expensive too. My annual trip is coming up, and I need to get a plane ticket soon. The airlines, including the American ones, require me to pay for the ticket in euros, because my principal residence in in France. If the ticket costs about 750 euros as it did last year, that will be more like $900 rather than $1000 or more.

The smart thing for Walt and me to do would be to put some of the dollar/euro windfall away, of course, and save it for a rainy day. Who knows how long the U.S. dollar will continue to fly so high? The reality, though, is that we need to buy a car, and we may soon need replacements for our old refrigerator and the washing machine. I've been waiting for the dollar to strengthen before buying a car, hoping the old Peugeot wouldn't give up the ghost in the meantime. Maybe the moment has come.

P.S. If you are used to thinking of the value of the euro in terms of the U.S. dollar — as most of us do, I guess — let me say that the euro's high point against the U.S. dollar was very close to $1.60. Over the past two or three years, it has stayed between $1.30 to $1.35. Now it's down to $1.12.

23 January 2015


One of the things I love about traveling around in France is having the chance to "install" in my brain a real-life image of places that I have before only known by name. And, of course, to take a few photos too. One such place is the fortified town of Semur-en-Auxois, just 12 miles south of the Abbaye de Fontenay, in Burgundy. Semur rates one star in the Michelin Guide Vert. Something about the place seemed vaguely southern — méridional, I mean, as in South of France — when we were there, just as the area around the Loire Valley town of Chinon feels méridional too.

I got to take exactly two photos in Semur-en-Auxois. It was raining, and we drove through without getting out of the car, so I took the photos through the windshield. You can see the raindrops on it. Once we were in the center of town, the narrow streets were dark, and even if we had wanted to get out of the car and walk around, I think we would have had a hard time finding a parking space. There seemed to be a lot of construction and road improvement projects under way, so traffic was backed up all over the place. If you want to see more photos of what is evidently a very pretty town (pop. 4,500) in sunny weather, look here — which is what I've had to do.

Semur, which some might think is a name very similar to the name of the Loire Valley town of Saumur, but in French the latter is always two syllables [soh-MUR] where the former is pronounced by some as a single syllable. That would follow the rules of standard French, where an unaccented E between just two consonants is called a "mute" E, meaning it does not have to be prononced. The pronunciation dictionory I have in my book collection confirms that: Semur can be pronounced as [suh-MUR], or just [SMUR] in rapid speech.

And Auxois — how do you think that's pronounced? Well, if you are familiar with the town of Auxerre, an hour so north, you might know that its name is pronounced [oh-SEHR]. In other words, the X has the value of an S. In Auxois, it's the same. The pronunciation dictionary says it's [oh-SWAH], and that saying [ohk-SWAH] is an error. (You'll hear some people say [ohk-SEHR] for Auxerre, but that's an error too.) Those are some of the joys of French pronunciation and spelling.

By the way, you'll notice that I took pretty much the same picture twice. We were stopped because of one-lane traffic around a construction zone. Since I only have two photos, I decided to post them both.

22 January 2015

Fontenay Abbey in Burgundy (3)

That web site about the Abbaye Royale de Fontenay that CHM mentioned in a comment yesterday has an English-language version, here. I grabbed the text that accompanies my photos in this post from the Fontenay Abbey site, which itself features  many excellent pictures of the whole complex as well as of the interiors of the buildings.

Fontenay Abbey in Burgundy was founded in 1118 by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, a leading French saint, and is the oldest preserved Cistercian abbey in the world.

Recognized as French historic monument in 1862, it was declared World Heritage by Unesco in 1981. It was one of the first French monuments on this list, which has distinguished the exceptional interest of the Abbey and its natural environment.

After the French revolution, which led to the departure of the monks, it was converted to an industrial use which preserved all the buildings of the Romanesque period: the Abbey Church, the Dormitory, Cloister, Chapter Room, the Common Room, and the Forge.

The Abbey is decorated with a landscaped park which was listed in 2004 as "Remarkable Garden" by the National Council of Parks and Gardens. 

Located in northern Burgundy, it is nestled in a fully preserved valley which extends over 1,200 hectares.

Since 1820, the Abbey of Fontenay has been the private ownership of the same family, which continues to preserve this exceptional site opening to public visit all year round. The Abbey welcomes 100,000 visitors each year who come to admire the beauty and purity of architecture unspoiled for 900 years, and enjoy the quiet of a place designed for spirituality.

21 January 2015

L'Abbaye de Fontenay (2)

It seems to be snowing west and slightly north of Tours this morning. We might get a few flakes later today, but it's supposed to be minor. I hope it's not too icy out because I have to get into the Peugeot and go to five different shops and stores before noon.

Meanwhile, here are some more photos I took at the Abbaye Royale de Fontenay in Burgundy last October. Some people might not know what an abbey is, especially those who are not Catholics — it's a convent or monastery that's home to a religious order. The Michelin Guide says that Fontenay, perfectly restored, gives visitors a very accurate picture of what a 12th-century abbey looked like.

I'm sorry we didn't get to stroll around the grounds. The rain was a surprise, and the guard at the front gate was assuring people that it would soon clear away. He was telling people to come back in the afternoon. Walt and I had other plans, however. Another time...

Fontenay is now privately owned. New owners started restoring the complex in the early years of the 20th century. The abbey church, consecrated in the year 1147, is one of the oldest Cistercian churches in France. I would have loved to see the cloister, of which the Michelin Guide calls "incredibly harmonious" and "elegant" in style and proportions.

I have an idea what it all looks like, because there is a well-preserved Cistercian abbey not too far from Saint-Aignan, over near the city of Bourges, called Noirlac ("black lake"). CHM and I went and spent a few hours there back in June of 2009. The first three posts you'll find by following this link show pictures of the Abbaye de Noirlac.