The Bogtrotter

French Experiences

Steaming through the Gardon valley by train

by on Oct.17, 2009, under France, French Experiences

Preserved railway lines are something I always think of as typically English. Who else would spend so much time and effort lovingly restoring an outmoded, dirty, slow form of transport?

So imagine my pleasant surprise at finding a steam train line running throuth the heart of the Cevennes mountains. The Train a Vapeur des Cevennes runs from Anduze to St Jean Du Gard is 13 km, taking a route first opened in 1909 by SNCF after 12 years of planning and construction.

Steaming along in the Cevennes

Steaming along in the Cevennes


The line was closed in 1971, but taken over by volunteers in the mid-1980s and re-opened as a tourist line.

Many of the services are steam-operated but some (particularly the later or off-peak services) are diesel-powered, so check before you arrive if steam is your thing. Several of the carriages are open-sided, giving you the best views over the amazing landscape. But be warned – it can get dirty as the steam and smoke from the engine get funnelled down the train as you go through the tunnels and under the bridges.
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La Bambouseraie – a bamboo jungle in the heart of France

by on Jun.06, 2009, under France, French Experiences

Bamboo always makes you think of the far east – of China and Panda Bears. But tucked away in the foothills of the Cevennes in Southern France is a 15 hectare bamboo forest that provides an oriental oasis from the Mediterranean heat.

Bamboo Forest

Bamboo Forest

The Bambousarie park is a horticultural delight. As you would expect, much of the park is covered with waves of bamboo. But it is not a continuous monoculture, there are numerous varieties of bamboo from the blue-tinted Giant Bamboos rising over 20 metres into the sky to carpets of knee-high bushes, with a range of colours, shapes and sizes in-between.

There is even a small Laosian village set up to demonstrate how people use bamboo to create houses and other buildings, with small traditional garden plots dotted between.

Looking Up

Looking Up

As well as bamboo there is an impressive tree collection. Notably a column of Gread Redwoods (Sequoia) planted in 1861 that now climb 40 metres into the air, towering above the tallest bamboos. There are some of the largest Magnolias in Europe, great Oaks, and a 140 year old Ginko tree that stands over the Dragon Valley.

The Dragon Valley is a relatively new addition to the park – a Feng Shui inspired garden created by Eric Borja in 2000 (the year of the Dragon). With its colourful Acer trees, rolling landscape and Red Phoenix pagoda you really do feel you have been transported to the other side of the world.

Dragon Valley

Dragon Valley

Tucked away and easy to overlook are the smaller garden spaces that are equally inspiring. The water garden with it’s lotus flowers, the bonsai collection set over a pond, and the Victorian greenhouses which now house temporary exhibitions all bring another dimension to the park.

The Bambouseraie is easily accessible by car, but you can combine it with a trip on a steam train by taking the Train a Vapeur des Cevennes from Anduze or St Jean Du Gard and stopping at the Bambouseraie’s own station. Get more details on the park by visiting the Bambousaraie web site.

And if you get inspired by what you have seen you can buy your own plants at the nursery, and start creating your own oasis back at home.

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Modern Day Jousting – with a watery twist

by on May.12, 2009, under France, French Experiences

If you thought jousting was a thing of the past – think again. Jousting conjures up images of medieval knights in heavy armour taking to their horses to battle it out for supremicy.

Joutes

Joutes

But in the fishing ports of Languedoc in southern France they have a less violent but equally entertaining version that takes place on in the harbours. Joutes on the water is a speciality of Sete, but is also found in other ports such as Le Grau du Roi. During the summer these contests are a regular event, attracting tourists and locals alike. (continue reading…)

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Visit a vineyard and taste the terroir

by on Apr.07, 2009, under France, French Experiences

Visiting a vineyard can be seen as little more than an excuse to drink a few glasses of wine. But lets be honest – who needs an excuse? The real reason for visiting a vineyard is to try to find out more about the wines and what makes every wine so distinctive.

Vineyard near St Christol

Vineyard near St Christol


Good old Oz Clarke (now theres a job I want – paid to drink wine all day and talk about it) always talks about the terroir – the relationship between the wine and the land on which it is grown. It is this mix of soil and micro-climate which makes each wine unique.

Whether it’s a famous chateau or a small vineyard most will happily open their doors to visitors to let you “discover” their wines. When I’m in France I love disappearing into the back of beyond and stumbling across a small vineyard to drop into. One of my favourites is the Chateau des Hospitaliers jsut outside St Christol in the Herault region. The Martin-Pierrat family that owns it are always welcoming, the wines are excellent and the free tasting lasts as long as you wish. Needless to say I have now discovered the Chateau several times! If you do visit yourself then don’t miss their “green wall” – the plants growing on a specially constructed frame up the walls of the inner courtyard.

If you like wine then you should consider it your moral duty to get out and visit a vineyard. So go on – you don’t need an excuse.

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Traditional Les Saintes Maries de la Mer

by on Mar.08, 2009, under France, French Experiences

Les Saintes Maries de la Mer is one of those places whose name alone conjures up images of legends from the past. Set in the heart of the Camargues region of southern France, this coastal town is steeped in history and folklore. The local Camargue culture is infused with gypsy traditions, and the highlight of the local calendar is the annual gypsy pilgrimage to the town in May.

View from the roof of the church

View from the roof of the church

The centre of Les Saintes Maries de la Mer is dominated by the church, which towers above the surrounding buildings. Built between the 9th and 12th centuries it seems more of a fortress than a place of worship, which is probably why it survives so well today. The main attraction inside is the statue of St. Sara, a significant figure in Gypsy cultural tradition, which is found in the crypt to the right of the altar. After visiting the inside of the church, make sure you climb up onto the roof for panoramic views across the Camargues and out into the Mediterranean.
Over Les Saintes Marie de la Mer

Looking out over Les Saintes Marie de la Mer

Surrounding the church are a labyrinth of narrow streets, offering shelter from the mediterranean heat. There are shops selling everything a tourist may wish for, and the atmosphere is typically friendly and festive throughout the year.

For more information visit the local tourist office web site.

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The tallest sand dune in Europe

by on Feb.27, 2009, under France, French Experiences

The big sand dune of Pilat is a bit bigger than your average sand dune. At over metres high (between 105 and 117 metres depending on who you ask) it stands tall above the French Atlantic coast, just south of the holiday resort of Arcachon.

Dune du Pilat near Arcachon

Dune du Pilat near Arcachon

Said to be the highest of its kind in Europe. Pilat is also over two and a half kilometres long and 500m wide.

Head for Pyla sur Mer (the nearest village) and the dune will rise from the horizon in front of you. Anyone can walk on the dune, so just find somewhere to park, take a deep breath and get walking. Walking on sand is not easy at the best of times, but when you are climbing up the steep sides of the dune it is positively strength-sapping. But it is worth it for the beautiful views – of the coast on one side and the pine forests on the other.

Trees in the Landes

Trees in the Landes

The area to the south of the dunes is the featureless expanse of the Landes. From the top of the dunes you can see this vast pine forest seems to go on forever.

Apparently there have been problems with drivers falling asleep at the wheel whilst driving along the arrow straight roads in the forest, so the have now deliberately put bends and junctions in some roads to break up the monotony.

Once you have tired yourself out on the dunes, head back towards Arcachon and sample some of the famous Arcachon oysters. Oysters grown by the 350 growers in the Arcachon bassin account for over half of all the oysters eaten in France. And if they’re good enough for the French…..

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Paris for the weekend

by on Feb.19, 2009, under France, French Experiences

Why on earth would you go to Paris for the weekend? I can’t think of any good reason, apart from the iconic monuments, immense and diverse museums, chic cafe culture, and excellent food.

Arc De Triomphe at Dusk

Arc De Triomphe at Dusk

For those who haven’t been to Paris before, it’s hard to know where to start.  I would begin with a trip on the river boats – my personal favourites being the Vedettes du Pont Neuf which go from (unsurprisingly) beside the Pont Neuf bridge. The hour long voyage gives you the opportunity to get your bearings – as many of the key landmarks are visible from the Seine. The Eiffel Tower, Assembly National parliament building, the museums of the Louvre and d’Orsay, and Notre Dame Cathedral are all pointed out and described by the multilingual guides.

I’ve been lucky enough to visit Paris several times, so I’ve visited all the must-do sites. However I still keep going back, as I just love the atmosphere of the place.

Paris is a city best explored on foot.  Make sure you wander the streets – you will be surprised what you find.  Every area of the city has hidden treasures, from churches to arches to covered markets.  When you get tired, rest over a drink in a cafe and spend time people watching.  This is a distinctly Parisian pass-time, and one every visitor should indulge in at some stage during their visit.

Parisian Cafe before opening time

Parisian Cafe before opening time

And when it comes to mealtime – be adventurous.  There are so many restaurants it’s hard to know where to start. In many cases it is the unasuming discreet places that turn up the best food.  Get some ideas from the guide books then just get out there and try something new.  My last visit included a meal at Petit Canard, which has a menu almost completely full of duck.  There was duck liver pate, duck leg, duck breast, duck cassoulet, duck sausage – if you don’t like duck then it’s not the place for you!

If you can’t find enough to do to fill a weekend in Paris, then you need to broaden your imagination.  Just don’t try to visit everything in your first visit.

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Bull Running in the Camargue

by on Jan.18, 2009, under France, French Experiences

Running the bulls through Le Grau Du Roi

Running the bulls through Le Grau Du Roi

If you have ever wanted to chase a bull down the road then this is your chance!

The Camargue region of Southern France is one of the last remaining wild areas of Europe. Across the salt marshlands you will see jet black horses mingling with the famous white Camargue horses. The area is full of ranches (manades or mas) where bulls are bred for their meat, but also to play with.

All the local villages have an arena, whils Nimes and Arles maintain their impressive Roman arenas. But unlike in Spain, the French prefer not to kill the bulls. Throughout the summer “Course Camarguaise” are held, where the competitors win prizes by grabbing ribbons from between the horns of the bulls.

Before and after these events some of the bulls are run through the streets, guides by the local “guardians” on horseback. The locals have one aim – distract the horses and guardians, and allow the bull to roam loose through the town.

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Pont Du Gard

by on Jan.18, 2009, under France, French Experiences

Some monuments are visible for miles around. Others just creep up on you and suddenly hit you between the eyes. That’s how I first saw the Pont Du Gard.

Pont Du Gard, France

Pont Du Gard, France

I’d heard a lot about how impressive this Roman aquaduct was, but until I was there it was difficult to believe. True – seeing the pale stone set against a pure blue winter sky did help, but it really was a stunning image.
Just like a six year old, I was darting around trying to find the best viewpoints. It’s great to be able to walk across, under and around the viaduct without seeing hundreds of warnign signs or having a warden shouting at you to “get off”.
For directions and a history lesson visit the official Pont du Gard web site at www.pontdugard.fr.
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