Observation: Did I mention that there are chestnut trees everywhere, and big, fat chestnuts litter the ground in many places? There were a lot of them in the parking lot at Fontenay Abbey, for instance, but we have seen them throughout France, although less so in Provence, I think.
Observation: Although we have left Provence, I continue to hear "merci" pronounced as "merci-sh" on occasion. I finally asked Kristen about this, and she agreed that it is a a common practice, having nothing to do with Provencal pronunciations. It's also sometimes heard after "oui". I mentioned that I was often hearing "oui" pronounced as "wa" (sort of like "way", but with the "ee" lopped off). She says this is sort of equivalent to the English "yeah", and is most common among younger people.
Breakfast at Hotel Les Cymaises is back to the more simple fare: Coffee, tea, hot chocolate, or even espresso if you're very nice to the owners; A factory-packaged small stick of emmental-like cheese; Prepackaged orange marmalade or red current jam; baguettes and croissant. The coffee is very hot, and very good.
Our next-to-last bus trip (although some folks will catch the bus to Gare de Lyon in Paris after breakfast tomorrow) is to the Abbe de Fontenay. This is a Cistercian Abbey (monastery) dating to the early 12th century. The abbey is currently privately owned. Entrance fees are used to maintain the property. The Cistercian movement (an offshoot of the Benedictines) was dedicated to a return to poverty, work, contemplation, and prayer. The Abbey was therefore to be "self sufficient", as much as possible. Decoration is very minimal. Although Fontenay was built in the same time frame as the large and ornate Chartres cathedral we saw at the very beginning of the tour, this church is of an extremely simple romanesque design, with a few gothic elements to open up the interior.
The grounds of the Abbey are likewise very simple, elegant, and beautiful. Brigid says that based on the clean, unadorned architecture, she gets a stronger impression of sincere spirituality from this place than from any of the huge, ornate cathedrals of Europe. Actually, the first thing that strikes your eye is the ivy, as the coming of Autumn has caused it to blanket the buildings in flaming red leaves. (The grounds are so picturesque that they have been used in films, including a version of Cyrano de Bergerac, with Gérard Depardieu.)
Back to Semur, we decide on pizza and salad for lunch, going to Le Sagittaire. The outdoor cafe is deserted, but the inside is jam-packed. We try to enter, and this très petite young lady tries to tell us to come back later, perhaps 30 minutes? Her superior calls her over, to point out a table (in a rather tight, but usable location) into which we could be accommodated. They bid us to come and sit. As I said, the place is packed, and the table is in a bottleneck. It seems like a third of the patrons are smoking -- something we had managed to avoid quite successfully for most of the trip. Nevertheless, we're hungry, and the place looks decent.
Our last déjeuner en France est:
A pizza with olives, anchovies, and capers. The waitress asks if we want something-or-other to go with the pizza. I manage a "Quoi?" She says something-or-other-different, avec piments. That I recognize -- peppers. Oui, s'il vous plait! She brings a bottle of oil, packed with tiny hot peppers, but warns us that "C'est très fort. Seulement un peut pour madame." == This is strong stuff. Use only a tiny bit. Well, perhaps it's très fort for the French, but it's very light duty for us. I like the idea of peppered olive oil much better than the pepper flakes we use.;
A salad crudité. This was a very sad salad, indeed. The dressing is mustard-based -- pretty typical for Burgundy. On the plate are some overcooked haricots verts (string beans), probably from a can (ick!), slices of tomato and cucumber, and some shredded red cabbage that has been blanched in salt water (not bad, actually). I'm still looking forward to gorging myself on copious piles of raw veggies at Souplantation!
And finally, a bottle of cidre brut -- hard cider, dry. This cider has 4% alcohol, similar to beer. I end up finishing most of it. Brigid liked it, but it didn't agree with her when she had some on an empty stomach.
We meet up with Dina, Sarah, and Kristen at Semur's TI, to arrange transportation for tomorrow. Dina, Brig and I will be catching the 7:06 TGV (Train de Grande Vitesse = really fast train = "bullet train") to the Charles de Gaulle airport. Less than an hour and 20 minutes! This will put us at CDG 4 hours before flight, which is only slightly early, by our standards for an international flight. Sarah will share our cab, since she will be catching a 7:30 TGV, enroute to Milan, for her next tour, which is back-to-back with this one!
We then come back to the hotel room for a brief nap for Brig, some journalling for me, and to start the packing process.
The bus to Flavigny (the other "Chocolat" town), where we will have our "grand dinner", leaves at 6:00 PM.
The bus glides through Burgundy's lush countryside, turned golden by a setting sun. More of the famous white (limousin?) cattle float by, resting or munching grass. Rennaissance era music wafts through the sound system.
Once in Flavigny, we stroll up to the town square, such as it is. It's only around 60' by 60', and the storefront used for the "chocolate shop" remains unoccupied. Our dinner is in La Grange, a farm co-op restaurant, run by wives of the farmers. This looks like a great place to eat, actually. The prices are relatively low, and the place is very unpretentious. You won't have to worry about protocol-conscious waiters here! It's family style.
We have the place to ourselves for the evening. Dinner begins with a slice of leek-onion-potato torte. We were expecting a quiche-like item, but it really isn't. There doesn't seem to be much, if any, egg in the filling. It tastes of carmelized onion and leek. Sarah suggests that the potato might be used as a thickener, and that there might possibly be some cheese in it. I might try a little red wine reduction (pinot noir, for authenticity?). I need a recipe. This is absolutely delicious.
Oh, did I mention that vin ordinaire (red, of course!) is included, this evening? Folks get progressively happier, as the evening goes on.
The main course is Boeuf Bourgignon and Pommes Gratinee. Well, I'm not a big fan of beef, but this is pretty darn good. I take a couple of big chunks, and happily sop up the gravy with a big slice of country bread. Yum! The potatoes are good, too.
Fromage blanc is the stuff from which La Ferme de la Huppe made its palette cleansing mousse. It tastes like a bland, fairly smooth, yogurt cheese. Kristen suggests sprinkling it with a little sugar. It's nice, but quite plain, with only a hint of a tang.
Epoisse is the cheese that Rick Steves describes as smelling like "the feet of an angel", and Sarah as "wet gym socks". This is a relatively fresh epoisse (a "good starter", as Kristen puts it). I actually don't find the smell objectionable, nor does Brig. And we both enjoy the flavor. Next trip, we'll try it a couple of weeks old, when it really stinks, and looks as nasty as it smells. Apparently, you want to be careful to refrain from touching it, because the smell is persistent.
Finally, there are two goat cheeses. One is fresh, and the other is aged. I enjoy both, and, well, Brig already knows not to bother to touch them.
Dessert consists of slices of tarts: rhubarb, apple, plum, and pear. The plum and the pear are delicious. We didn't get to taste the rhubarb, but several reports indicated that it was exceptional. Next time...
Susan gets up and offers a Letterman-style "top ten" list of reasons not to travel with Kristen or Sarah or Tony. They were clever and funny, but I'm afraid I didn't manage to record any of them.
At this point, Sarah distributes her beautiful watercolored schedules via the grab-bag-with-stealing method. Stealing was heavily used, but everyone seemed to end up with a schedule they were satisfied with. We were lucky enough to get the Gorges du Tarn schedule to commemorate the day of our bottoms-up canoe ride.
Sarah should feel very pleased that folks were fighting over her artwork!
Thank-you's were exchanged; heart-warming (and relatively brief) speeches were made; and Kristen and Sarah distributed gifts (very appropriate wine and cheese refrigerator magnets) to the tour members; a bottle of wine to Tony, to make up for having to miss out on the wine tastings.
We cruised through the night, back to Semur. Kristen loaded some oldie-moldie pop songs into the bus' CD player, and folks sang along ("Those were the days, my friend..."), as we sailed along. More hugs and goodbyes were exchanged at the hotel door, and then it was over...
Ooops! It's 12:30, and we have a 6:30 AM taxi to meet. Sleepy-bye time!
Postscript: The trip home isn't wasn't particularly eventful. I took no photographs on the way. I think the parts that impressed me most were:
The taxi driver's extremely odd manner of getting us out of town. She ended up backing up around 100 feet, in the pre-dawn dark. I think she could have simply gone forward, but what do I know...?
The TGV ride from Montbard to Charles de Gaulle was very impressive. The ride is quiet and smooth as glass -- no jerking or rocking or bouncing. Just a smooth acceleration to a Grand Vitesse, and the occasional 3 second blur as you pass another TGV going in the other direction. The seats are very comfortable, and there are non-smoking cars. Interestingly, nobody ever checked our tickets. I suspect it must work on the honor system, with massive fines if you get caught. I sure wish we had these trains in the U.S.
Brig and I thoroughly enjoyed the trip. Kristen and Sarah did a fabulous job, 10 out of 10 (at least). Kristen's enthusiasm and love for France has been infectious, and I think we both learned a tremendous amount. I kidded her about her "bad" jokes, but I'm awed at her ability to maintain that sense of humor despite the occasional cranky tour member or potential tour planning disaster. She (and Heidebloem and Tony) really pulled a rabbit out of a hat back in Montignac, when Juan unexpectedly had to leave the tour. And she has already learned of, and figured out a workaround for a potential disaster for the Village France tour that begins in a few days: Just yesterday, she learned that the last day of operation for the Aiguille du Midi coincides with their arrival date in Chamonix. When the gondolas shut down, there's not much to see or do in Chamonix! She has figured out a way to get to Chamonix in time for one of the last rides up. Yikes.
I really enjoyed chatting with Sarah about various subjects, most especially about food ideas. She's clearly a very imaginative person, and I'm envious of her artistic and culinary potential.
Tony did a fabulous job, maintaining his cool and sense of humor no matter what. His language and driving ability floor me. Now, if he could only take the opportunity to enjoy some of the destinations in which he gets his days off!
We had a really great tour group, and that makes all the difference in the world. Folks were, by and large, prompt. They kept a good sense of humor, and there was relatively little crankiness. I wouldn't hesitate to travel with this group again.
We very much look forward to keeping in touch with these folks. It was a pleasure travelling with them all!