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Thursday, August 22, 2013

Vacationing in the South of France

When my friends Julien and Sarah moved from Paris to the Southwest of France, where they were originally from, they told me that there was a room with my name on it. A few months ago, I decided that mid-August would be a good time for a holiday in France, so I made arrangements to take them up on it.

I left Atlanta for Paris on Saturday evening, and arrived Sunday morning in Paris, connecting to an Air France flight to Pau-Pyrenees airport, where Julien, Sarah, and Matthieu met me. First, we went to Julien’s mother and father’s house nearby, with beautiful views of the countryside. This gave me the chance to take a quick shower after the long flight and to freshen up a bit.

The view from Julien's parents' terrace

Afterwards, we stopped by an outdoor church sanctuary where there was a mass going on. It was beautiful. The creek behind it used to be Julien’s playground, he said. Then, we went into central Pau where we saw the Chatâteau de Pau where King Henry IV was born.

Chatâteau de Pau

We met Julien’s sister Sarah and her boyfriend Sebastien for a wonderful lunch at Brasserie L’Aragon, with spectacular views of the Pyrenees as we sat outdoors.


Walking to the beach
After lunch, we drove to the coast to La Plage des Cacernes near Seignosse.  We all played in the huge waves, and I napped some on the beach.

La plage des Casernes, Seignosse, France
Julien and Sarah's house
When we got to Julien’s and Sarah’s house in Mont-de-Marsan, I was greeted by Grispoil, Sarah’s cat who I had met years before in Lille. She really liked me – I think she remembered me.


Julien cooked a dinner of pasta and steak, and we sat outdoors to dine around a table that would become quite comfortable and familiar over the next few days.

The next morning, Julien and Sarah prepared ratatouille with all fresh ingredients, as well as a mushroom omelet with incredible mushrooms porcini mushrooms, called cèpes in France.  (The mushrooms cooked slightly then stored in a jar with sunflower oil for years.)

Preparing lunch
Lunch is served!
After lunch, we drove just just east of Mont-de-Marsan to Arthez-d'Armagnac to visit Domaine d'Ognoas, about 1600 acres of farmland used for winegrowing and growing oaks for the oak barrels. The wine produced is distilled to make Armagnac, a kind of brandy distilled in this region. (This was the first region of France to begin distilling.)

The distillery
After touring the distillery, we go to taste some of the final product (barreled in 1994, and served from the barrel.)

Serving from the cask

Afterwards, we tried to do a three hour walk around the grounds, but somehow took a wrong turn. That armagnac must have been strong. So instead we stopped at a nice little brasserie for some beers before heading back home for dinner.

Tuesday morning, we drove to Col D'Ibardin in the Basque region of Spain. On the way up the hillside, we had to stop to let goats cross the road.

Once we got to the top, this was our amazing view, looking back towards Saint-Jean-de-Luz, France.We had lunch outdoors overlooking this spot. Afterwards, Julien and Sarah did some shopping for what would be an incredible dinner.

On the way back to Mont-de-Marsan, we spent the afternoon in Bayonne, France - a beautiful city in the Basque region. (Interesting side note, Bayonne is the birthplace of the bayonet. Soldiers running out of bullets shoved their knives into the barrels of their guns.) Bayonne was a fortified city during the Roman occupation of Aquitaine. It's fortifications are part of the Unesco World Heritage sites, and the Cathedral there, the Notre Dame is part of this, though the spires (pictured below) were added in the 19th century.

Inside the Cathedral:

We walked around town, saw the river (the Grand Bayonne) had some drinks at a brasserie, then stopped by another outdoor cafe by the Cathedral, where we sat under huge magnolias and enjoyed another beverage.

The Grand Bayonne
Sarah and I in Bayonne

That night, Sarah and Julien cooked an amazing meal using all of the fresh ingredients they bought in Spain, and Julien's sister Sarah and her boyfriend Sebastien came over for a wonderful dinner.

The next morning, we were joined by one of Sarah's coworkers for lunch, then traveled to Léon to a lake there (le lac de Léon) where we rode a boat down "Le Courant d'Huchet, a coastal river that runs from the lake to the ocean. It was a wonderful four hour trip -- very beautiful and peaceful.

Boats leaving the lake

Duck hunting cabin on the edge of the lake

Matthieu as we make our way out to the river

Swamp Hibiscus 
Roots of the giant bald cypresses

Reaching the dunes of the ocean
The ocean 

That night, we had a fabulous dinner for my last night in France. We drove out to Morlanne to a fantastic restaurant called Cap E Tot.

Ravioles de lapin au citron
(or Rabbit Ravioli with creamy citrus sauce)
Magret de canard aux poires et foie gras
(Duck breast with roasted pears and foie gras)

This amazing seven course meal was a fantastic way to end an amazing trip. Julien drove me to Bordeaux the next morning and I flew back to Paris for my return flight to Atlanta. For my first time in the southwest of France, I covered a lot of territory!

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