Breakfast? Yeah, same thing. We're the last to breakfast, except for Kristen, who approves of our efficiency. 8-)
We bid adieu to the Hotel Sainte Mairie, and hike down to the bus. Yves (the hotel manager) has taken our bags down by car.
Our destination this morning is Conques (possibly derived from the word for a snail shell, for the hollow in which the town is built). We're coming here for two purposes. First, Kristen wants to show us one of the best-preserved church tympanums remaining from the 12th century. This otherwise-undistinguished romanesque church has a large semicircular bas-relief sculpture above the western entrance, depicting the last judgement. There are the usual characters. The most amusing depicts an angel and a demon, weighing the good-vs.-evil properties of a soul in a balance. The demon's clearly got its thumb on its side of the scale, but the angel wins on this one anyway.
The town was also on one of the many pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela. This town was placed on the route when a monk stole the reliquary of Saint Foy (a 13-year-old girl who was martyred) and brought it here. This brought great wealth to the town, in the form of many donations, including some from Charlemagne (who is depicted on that tympanum, as an acknowledgment to his contribution). The reliquary of St. Foy (pronounced "fwah") is guilded and encrusted with gems. There are lots of other reliquaries that were donated to the town, from the 12th to 16th centuries. The museum doesn't seem to say what is contained in each one, though.
As for lunch, there are relatively few places to eat in Conques. We settle on the cafe directly across from the church. First of all, we can get some nice, simple food here. No more duck, for awhile! Second, the place comes with a house kitten. I order a crudité salad (too much "french" dressing, but otherwise just fine) and a bottle of cidre doux (much better than what we had in Chinon). Brig has a ham and cheese crepe, and it's delicious. The bread is relatively salty -- very reminiscent of the bread we ate when we were in Spain. We're detained for a little while, as kitty decides to fall asleep on Brigid's lap. Eventually I convince Brig not to try to steal the kitten and smuggle her onto the bus. Besides, kitty seemed to be crawling with some kind of insect -- probably fleas.
On the way back to the bus, Brig tries to use a public toilette, but it's just a trifle too rustique (i.e., smelly). We rush back to the café, to use more civilized facilities.
And we're back on the bus, heading for the Languedoc. This is the southern portion of France, a distinctly different culture, which used to have its own language, where "yes" was "oc" (as opposed to the north, or Languedoeil, where "yes" was "oeil" and was eventually transformed to "oui").
But first, an Autoroute stop, beneath the ruins of another 12th century castle. There is one public Internet access computer available here, and another tour member gets to it before we can. Besides, the keyboard layout is thoroughly permuted from the American layout. The machine doesn't become available until it's time to leave. We pick up some pastilles that Brig tasted and liked, in flavors of rose, violet, and jasmine. And then we're on the road again.
Our destination today is the town of La Malène, in the Gorges du Tarn region. This area, a mixture of granite and limestone, has been carved into a spectacular landscape by the Tarn river. It is a popular vacation and recreation spot, with plenty of opportunities for boating, hiking, and canoeing. La Malène's resident population is only 50 — until our bus shows up, at which time they will experience a 50% population explosion!
Our hotel in La Malène is Manoir de Montesquiou. Our room, number 8, has been dubbed "Le Romantique". Brigid invites everyone on the bus to come visit us -- Hmmm... Not so romantique!
Dinner is in the hotel restaurant, and it is tremendous (the food, not the restaurant)! This is the best meal we've had, to date. According to Kristen, this hotel is a family-run business, and Mama is the chef. If true, it's hard to believe. The sophistication of the menu and the execution are fabulous. Tonight and tomorrow night, we can *EACH* choose any entree (that's the term for a starter or appetizer in France), any main dish, and any dessert. Here are our choices for tonight:
My starter was salad with smoked trout and cepes mushrooms. The smoked trout looked and tasted very much like smoked salmon (i.e., lox). The salad consisted of red leaf and butter lettuce, and endives. The lox was just fine, but the real prize were the cepes. There were plenty of them, and they were large, tender, delicious morsels.
Brigid chose a truffle soup. She was served a huge bowl of savory cream soup, absolutely swimming with morel mushrooms and julienned vegetables. I thought it tasted pretty good, but I'm not a huge fan of cream soups.
The bread, by the way, was excellent, and very fresh. There were two kinds. One seemed to be a rye/whole-wheat mixture, while the other was a nut bread.
For my main dish, I chose "Carpaccio St. Jacques". In France, St. Jacques refers to Saint James (or Santiago, in Spanish), whose symbol is the scallop shell. In other words, whenever a menu item says "St. Jacques", expect scallops. I figured that a carpaccio of scallops would involve some cured and/or dried scallops. Not exactly. This was essentially a scallop ceviche. The scallops were served on a large white glass plate, with a subtle white-on-white spiral pattern. They were sprinkled with finely minced orange rind, and the center of the plate held more sliced endive and mushrooms. Not what I was expecting, but very good. The scallops were melt-in-your-mouth tender, and their sweet underlying flavor was offset against the intense lemony marinade.
Brigid chose a beefsteak piece, served with mashed potatoes and morel mushrooms. The beefsteak was encrusted with fresh mint, wrapped with fatty netting, and roasted until medium done, per Brigid's directions. The morels were cooked in a cream sauce, and they were like mushroomy sauce sponges.
Next course: cheese, of course! None for Brigid. I taste a slightly aged goat cheese with walnuts (damn, I'm starting to really enjoy goat cheeses), a roquefort (intense and delicious, but on the salty side), an herbed goat cheese (very garlicky and delicious), and finally, a hearty hard sheep cheese that is out of this world. So much saturated fat, so little capacity in my arteries...
I chose a tarte aux poire (pear tart) with a small scoop of vanilla ice cream. Was it good? You know it!
It's time for bed. While washing up and taking care of the journalling, we watch the incredibly awful movie, StreetFighter, with Jean Claude van Damme and Raul Julia. God, what a klunker, even with the idiotic dialog dubbed into French. They sure did make the most of Raul Julia's ability to bug his eyes, though.