Saturday, August 18, 2012

Winnebago Nights (Part Sept)

So we decided to stay at Saint Bertrand for one more night after leaving La Mongie. But what could have been a memorable last evening at our favorite stop turned pear shaped when we chose poorly! Instead of going back to Chez Simone, we thought we'd give the other restaurant a try. L'Oppidum looked okay from the outside, located on the ground floor of the only hotel in the tiny church village, but it was a very frustrating dining experience.

At first it seemed okay with a few tables already seated with people happily eating away. But as the only man there sat us at our table, we began to realize it might be a bit of a struggle. First of all, my plate was full of tiny dead insects. I switched plates with the empty place setting next to me. When we started to order, it was clear that the man did not speak a word of English. And even though M could speak a few words and have not had any problems ordering at any other restaurant, turned out our man had hearing problems. So D took out his iPhone with a few French words downloaded to show him, and he couldn't see!!! AUGH!!! So he went away for a long while clearing plates and bringing people their food and came back with his glasses. He finally understood what we wanted. At one point during our wait, we almost stood up and walked away. But our curiosity to find out how the food would be held us back.

Hubby ordered the fish, I ordered the duck confit and I forget what D and M ordered. Since I ordered from the set menu, our man brought out a whole POT of soup for my soup course. I tried to ask him if it was all for me or if I was just suppose to get what I wanted, and by the looks of his sign language and body reaction, it seemed like he had no idea as well. After the soup we had a mediocre salad. After that everyone's food came except mine. We thought it would take awhile but when everyone finished and our man asked what we wanted for dessert, I told him I didn't even get my main yet! He did the head slap reaction and quickly brought out my duck. At least the duck was good. By then we were so disappointed with the whole dining experience that we just paid and went back to the crepe place to have dessert.

The next day we went to Stage 17 of the Tour. This would be the last stage we would visit. We went to the town of Loures-Barousse which was literally next to Saint Bertrand, parked on the side of the road and walked into town. We found a spot right at the point where the sprint stage ends and waited. It just so happens that one of the sponsors, PMU, had a whole stage set up there with music, a host and lots of give aways! All of us were given t-shirts and giant foam hands. After a while the sponsor trucks came along and we added to our collection of crud bits. It was funny watching the boys get in on the freebie scuffle with the kids next to us.

Me, at the finish of the sprint stage, dressed in my free t-shirt.

Our boys.

Cadel Evans is the second guy.

There he is again on the left. At least I finally got a good shot of him.

Hubby in his crazy wig and free foam hands.

I had to take a picture of the oldies all seated along the street. They were waiting to be pushed back home after the bikes passed.

After we watched the bikes zoom past, confirmed Evans is definitely out of the first place running, we started our drive northwards toward Dijon. I got a bit excited because it was not a Sunday and I knew there would be more shopping opportunities there!

On the way to Dijon we stopped at Brive-la-Gaillarde to have dinner and saw this vending machine. I have never seen such a huge vending machine selling all sorts of pharmacy stuff.

After we got to Dijon we ate at this truck-stop looking place. Hubby had to take a picture of the mustards.

We found a campsite in town which was great and walked a bit to get into the heart of town. We did a bit of shopping, checked out the mustards and while the boys sat down to have a few beers M and I did some more shopping.

Picture of the streets of Dijon.

That night we ate at La Dame d'Aquitaine which is a restaurant located beneath the street level of Dijon in a restored 13th century crypt. Although we thought it would be dark and foreboding we were pleasantly surprised to find it brightly lit and spacious. We quickly ordered our food and was again not disappointed with our choices.

Entrance of the restaurant as you come down the stairs.

Amuse bouche.

Duck terrine. Yum!

Fish carpaccio. Sorry, forget what kind of fish.

My fish dish. Fresh, simple and full of flavour.

Hubby's steak. He says it was staggeringly good!

Duck wrapped in bacon. Need I say more?

It was a shame I didn't take a picture of the cheese cart. I chose these 3 goat cheeses. I only wished I could have brought a whole bunch back with me to HK.

Strawberry, 3 ways.

Entrance of the restaurant.

La Dame is a restaurant that offers an eating experience with an explosion of ambiance. Although the food wasn't mind blowing, just sitting underneath a structure that was oozing with history took our eating experience to another level.

After we were happily fed, we headed back towards our campsite with hopes that there would be a shop still open and selling wine. None was to be found, but we did walk past a bar. Not wanting to miss a chance to have a few drinks before bed, we sat down while the boys got a few drinks and made friends with the locals. We met someone who claimed he was a butcher and that the lady he's with is his mistress! Well, we think he's a butcher, we aren't sure. But the mistress part we're pretty sure because he referred to her as the aperitif and that his wife is a black lady and they have 2 kids. The mistress was quite friendly and was trying to communicate with me. I had my phrase book with me and she still couldn't understand me! With all the alcohol everyone was having except me, it was hilarious watching everyone laughing and not understanding what was going on. I was laughing out load and at the same time telling the lady I have no idea what she's saying. We were also invited by the couple to go back to their place. Although it was very nice of them, we didn't want to be butchered in a strangers house so kindly excused ourselves and went back to camp.

Glad that we escaped the possibility of being butchered the night before, we headed towards Metz the next day. Only 3 more days until the end of our trip!

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Winnebago Nights (Part Six)

After 2 relaxing days at Saint Bertrand de Comminges, we headed to La Mongie which was about an hour away to watch Stage 16 of the Tour. It is one of the most sought after stages because the riders would be going up the Col du Tourmalet which is one of France's highest mountains. And with such a steep incline, the bikers would be going slow enough for people to cheer on and maybe even run along with. La Mongie is the ski resort town that is located on the Col du Tourmalet.

After the boys did their research and plotted our course, we reached the town and found that we were already a bit late. There were no parking spaces available in town so we ended up in a parking lot a bit down the hill. It was almost empty which we thought was really lucky for us. It would be a little bit of a climb to walk back up into town, but with such a scenic view, it would be worth the extra effort.

La Mongie is a typical ski resort. Since it was summer, many of the ski shops were closed, but the restaurants were all bustling with activity. We decided to do our first and only touristy thing which was to ride the Pic du Midi cable car. It was not cheap! It cost 32 euros per person to ride it. Its a 2 part cable ride. The first takes you halfway up, then everyone gets out to go up the next one. When we reached the top, which was around 2877 meters up, it was surreal. Since we went so far up, I thought it would only be an observation deck with nothing more. But once you step out, you see a restaurant, a children's play area, a sun dial and lots of room for people to sit under the sun and enjoy the scenery. When I looked over the ledge, my legs turned to jelly. We were SO high up, it literally was like you were on a plane. I had never been so high up in my life before other than on a plane. I had to make a few more tries before I could keep my gaze downwards and take in the distance! We checked out the awesome scenery and after a few minutes I wasn't feeling very good. I looked at Hubby and he said he was feeling a bit yucky too. I think we actually got a bit of altitude sickness! Because we were feeling less than average, we decided not to hang out there much longer and took the cable car back down.

Beer that they served where we had lunch. What's with the kid drinking beer as their logo???

View of La Mongie coming down from the cable car.

A small river that runs through the town.

We had a bit of a look around some more after we got off the cable car, had some drinks then headed back to our happy van. We thought surely, by the time we get back there would be much more cars parked in the parking lot. But when we reached it, there were only a few more. Although it was nice to see that we weren't in a crowded parking lot, we started to wonder what was going on. After some more research by the boys they realize we were on the wrong side of the mountain! No wonder there was no one in the parking lot. Oh well, so that means the bikes will be ZOOMING past us at top speed from where we were parked.

Our empty parking lot.

Another fabulous meal created from our happy van. This time we finally used the pan and cooked a few steaks.

The next day we went back up into town again. Originally M and I were just going to hang out near our van and cheer the bikes on from there, but because we were on the wrong side, we decided to walk into town too. Since I didn't get to have my cheese filled meal when we were in Geneva, we choose a restaurant that served raclette. I was introduced to raclette many years ago while still living in Manila. I fell in love with it. I love melted cheese, and to actually eat it as a meal was heaven. Then when we went to Zurich a few years ago, I think I ordered raclette every chance I got. But the raclette I had this time was an experience in and of itself. The raclette cheese came attached to this medieval looking contraption that plugged into the wall. Once the heat started melting the huge half wheel of cheese, you just scrapped off as much as you want and eat it with all the accompaniments. If only I wasn't feeling so constipated I would have had MUCH more. haha!

Our half wheel of cheese attached to a torture-like machine to melt it.

Mouth watering cheese melting onto our plate.

After lunch the boys started their hike up to the top of the mountain and M and I stayed behind like last time and waited for the sponsor trucks to come around. But unlike last time, most of the trucks zoomed past, didn't slow down, had no one on it, was having lunch or just looked too tired to do anything. Only a few chucked things out and we were more than happy that the one item we really wanted came our way and we both got one! Oh, it was a cow key chain. Really cute.

After the trucks all left the waiting game began again and we eagerly anticipated the sound of the helicopters. What seemed like ages past and finally it all happened at once. The helicopters came, we waved like mad, the bikes zoomed past in clusters, our man Cadel Evans zoomed past, or at least we think it was him and the "finish" van drove past to indicate that was it folks.

An overly friendly mule checking out the meal being eaten by the folks at this camper van parked on the side street into town.

It was a bit of the usual adrenaline rush to watch the bikes go past and it was a calming stroll back down the mountain to our happy van. On the way down, we took the time to watch the scenery and finally noticed the graffiti along the concrete walls. One said Gladiator Lance and the other said Armstrong dope. We think the second one was talking about the doping allegations Lance Armstrong is currently facing. Its a bit of a reality check.

After we got back we waited for the boys. It was great listening to all they saw up at the top. It was packed! There was so much people there was hardly any room for the bikes to go through. Hubby had originally wanted to run along Cadel with his crazy wig or his Sloth mask from the Goonies movie. But since there was just so many people, there just wasn't much room to run next to anyone. Cadel also rides with his team surrounding him, so no point running next to them.

Happy with yet another day at the Tour, we went back to Saint Bertrand de Comminges for one more night. By this time the boys realized their man Cadel Evans would be out of the running for first place, so we started plotting our way back to Frankfurt. It was Wednesday by then and we were at the southern part of France. Frankfurt is up north. It would take us at least one whole day of driving to get there. Had Cadel redeemed himself and got back into the game, we would definitely have planned on going to the final stage at Paris on the way back. But with Cadel being 6 minutes behind, it would take a total wipe out for Wiggins in order for Cadel to get back into the game.

So we decided next stop will be to check out Stage 17 which was on the way back, go past Metz and maybe Luxemburg.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Winnebago Nights (Part Cinq)

The thing with going on holidays without making any reservations or hard core planning is the excitement/risk you make when it comes to a place to stay. Some find it more relaxing to go with no schedules while others want certainty. Although I was really worried, not having a set schedule worked out better for us over all. This was the case except in Narbonne.

Narbonne is located at the southern end of France. Beaches line the shores with towns scattered all across. Since the summer holidays had just began, we found ourselves going from one campsite to the next all with no vacancies. In the end, we were fortunate enough to find a parking lot devoted to camper vans right next to the beach and decided to park there for the evening. Its times like these we are thankful to be driving around in our own little house.

Although we were parked in a parking lot for the evening, we were right next to the beach. Can't think of a better parking spot than that.

Another dinner created from the tiny kitchen of our happy van.

After checking out the beach, we settled in, made dinner and enjoyed the ocean breeze. But as evening came and the sun began to set, we found ourselves restless and decided to walk into the nearest town. It took us around 45mintues to get there, but was quite happy we did. What looked like a sleepy town with rows and rows of quiet town houses as we approached, we suddenly reached the town center at the beach front and saw a bustling night life, full of stands, shops and restaurants. We picked a restaurant facing the beach, ordered our desserts and drinks and enjoyed the evening with a mediocre band playing on the beach. It was only the next day that we realized it is Bastille Day, thus the festive atmosphere the night before.

A happy me waiting for my dessert.

The next day we decided to head back northwards, towards the direction of Stage 16 since it looked like there would be no vacancies anywhere south. We ended up in a town called Saint Bertrand de Comminges and camped just next to it at Camping Es Pibous. Since we were nowhere near the beach, we were able to get a spot and settled in for the day. This would be our favorite campsite of the trip.

Hubby next to our campsite sign.

From afar, Saint Bertrand looks as if it has just popped out of a story book. The Cathedral Sainte-Marie stands proudly, with village houses clustered underneath. You could mistake it for a castle, like so many others and imagine the times when kings and queens sat on their thrones, watching over their people. We all thought there would be nothing much to see at the top of the hill, just the church. But as we entered the stoned walls and reached the church, we were welcomed with a few hotels, shops and restaurants. It was in this little town that we found my favorite restaurant of the trip, Chez Simone.

Entrance to Chez Simone.

Balcony seating.

To tell you the truth I was never impressed with French cooking. All the french restaurants in HK have their noses up each others butts and many times I don't know if people actually like the food or just say they like it because its French. I didn't see the beauty of cooking in so much butter and salt. How can you enjoy the true goodness of the ingredients if they're drowned in butter. Whenever we ate out and I was asked for a suggestion, I would always say as long as its not French, I'm game.

After eating at Chez Simone, I suddenly told myself, "so this is French food!"

Local wine recommended by the server.

Pate/terrine that was at least a whole cup worth.

Blue cheese salad big enough for 2!

Garbure. Doesn't look like it, but it was a BIG bowl.

Cassoulet. Trust me, at least 3 people can have a meal out of this.

The servings at Chez Simone are huge! It truly is a family style restaurant. We had starters of salads and terrines and were greeted by 4 huge plates of food. After struggling to finish them, we were presented with 3 POTS of food. The cassoulet is a french stew with beans and meat. The garbure is a cabbage soup with pork, potatoes and vegetables. M ordered a chicken stew that was so darkly cooked in its sauces it was falling apart. We knew there was too much food, yet we couldn't stop eating. I could taste each and every ingredient clearly. In each bite and slurp, I can taste and smell the hours and hours of stewing, of energy put into making each dish. I was impressed that in a place where a restaurant could easily become a tourist trap, because there are only 2 restaurants in town, that they still made the effort to make good food. Chez Simone is a proud restaurant. It is there not because it so happens to stand on a cliff, next to a church with patrons at their mercy. It is there because it offers good food. Simple as that.

Because we did not have to be at the next Stage until Tuesday, we decided to stay at Saint Bertrand for 2 nights. It was the first time during our trip that we stayed put for more than a day and just relaxed. We did some laundry, read our books and just enjoyed the scenery.

View of the town from up top.

Cathedral Sainte-Marie.

Random shot of Hubby walking down the road after dinner.

One of the crosses on our walk back to camp.

Every morning around 5am this farmer walks his cow to whichever pasture for the day. Then in the afternoon he walks them back for the evening.

The life line at each campsite. Its funny how all the outlets and water taps are from the same source. I wonder if anyone has ever gotten zapped. So you take your cord, plug it into the outlet then plug the other end into your camper van.

Our camper van, laundry hanging in the background.

View of the church from our campsite.

I had to take a picture of our neighbors kitchen set up. How cute is that?

Next stop, Stage 16, Col du Tourmalet.