Saturday, May 14, 2005:

We got up a bit earlier (though not too much earlier) because there was a Farmer’s Market in the town square and we wanted to replenish the larder a bit, and see what a French country market looks like.  For the third straight day now, the weather was threatening though not actively raining, though the clouds were moving fast and there were occasional patches of blue so we had hopes that maybe it would break up later in the day.

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Denise at the Farmer’s Market

The market was rather small, but we managed to provide ourselves with sufficient amounts of bread, cheese, vegetables, butter, and so on.  I was most impressed by a fish market there, which had all sorts of seafood on ice -- the Atlantic isn’t too far from Azay-le-Rideau, so I assume these were freshly caught.  There were a few ‘interesting’ tables -- someone selling nothing but knives, another with bolts of cloth, and another with homeopathic remedies for various ills.

After the market, we walked up the hill to a cemetery we’d glimpsed on the way in -- I find old cemeteries fascinating.  Though this cemetery appeared to be fairly old from the condition of the graves, when we actually started looking closely we found that it wasn’t, with the oldest marker I could decipher being 1854.  That would make it fairly old for Ohio, but not for Europe.  Century old graves were piled hodgepodge with far newer ones, so it seemed this cemetery was still active.  It also appeared that they buried family member on top of one another, since single headstones might have four or five plaques on them, each different generations.  You’d be looking at a weathered headstone, gray and eroded and speckled with moss, and the top date would be 1947.  But the lowest plaque on the same stone would show a death date of 1890.  We also noted that many of the graves had ceramic flower baskets placed on them -- the ceramic piece consisting of both basket and flowers -- so that from a distance it appeared that fresh flowers were on the grave.  The frost evidently heaves the ground around here, too, since many of the graves that were 75 years old or earlier were canted at angles, or the marble tops of the graves had cracked as they twisted in the ground.  

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Ceramic Flowers

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Tilted Grave

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Decaying Grave

The plan, after the cemetery, had been to go the Troglodyte Farm about 3 km from the house.  We did go there, only to find that on Saturday they didn’t open until 2:00 PM.  So instead we headed off to Villaines-les-Rochers to see the Coopérative de Vannerie’s exhibition of basket-weaving.  Villaines-les-Rochers is a picturesque and tiny village, where it seems that most of the locals are involved in some part of the business of basket-weaving.  

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Villaines-les-Rochers

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Cut and bundled basket reeds

Near the center of the town is an exhibition hall where baskets are sold; it was there that the main demonstrations were going on.  However, we stopped first just up from the hall at a farm where, after a bit of confusion, we were ushered into a limestone cave -- you’ve surely picked up on the idea that the area is riddled with caves by now, oiu? -- where a TV and DVD player had been set up, and we watched a home-produced movie of the process of getting the reeds ready for weaving, from the planting of the willow to the harvesting, to the storage process, to the bark-stripping and final drying.  At the exhibition hall, with what might have been the world’s largest reed basket outside, we saw some of the processes we saw on the DVD in action.  More interesting to me, though, were demonstrations of the “old” way of doing it.  Nowadays, bundles of the reeds are stripped by a rotating wheel in a gas or electric-driven machine, which does the work in about three or four minutes for a arm-full bundle.   In the old method, a willow reed is placed between two upright spring blades and then pulled vigorously through it so that the reed is scored.  The bark then peels away easily -- several of the local kids, who were demonstrating that technique, were making balls of the bark refuse and playing with them.  The kids were able to strip a reed in about thirty seconds; obviously nowhere near as efficient, but at least it gave me a sense of how it was done in the past.

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Reed stripping now

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Reed stripping then

The exhibition hall had an impressive display of reed furniture and baskets, as well as pictures of what is evidently a town display or contest, where the young people (mostly the young women, though there were a few men as well) dress up in costumes made of willow reeds.  Now that I would really have liked to have seen -- some of the costumes were rather inventive.  Luckily, there didn’t seem to be a huge wicker man in the middle of the field ready to be burned with sacrificial tourist victims inside...

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The world’s biggest basket

We came back to the house for a quick rest before going out again to find gas for the car, as well as to see the troglodyte farm.  The gas was the big problem.  First, there aren’t many places that sell gasoline in the first place.  Secondly, Hania’s fabulous rental car with the Star Trek GPS device that popped out of the dashboard used Diesel fuel, so we also had to find a station with that pump.  We hit three or four stations:  they were all closed, as if the owners were thinking “Hey, it’s Saturday -- who’d need gas on a weekend?”  The Champion had one of the bays of their gas station open, the one with automatic pumps, because there was no attendant.  We also found out, with some experimentation, that one needed to have a special Champion card to use those pumps.  We, of course, had no special Champion card.  However, Dominique came to the rescue when we asked her if there were a station open anywhere around:  she let Hania use her Champion card to fill the tank.

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Dwelling at Troglodyte Farm

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Interior of dwelling

So we headed out to “La Vallee Troglodytique.”  Here, farmers from the middle ages through to the last century used the local limestone caves (and carved out some of their own in the soft rock) to stable the animals, to bake bread and store equipment, as well as to live.  The Troglodyte Farm is a recreation of some of the dwellings and processes of those times, and was an interesting few hours.  I especially liked their refuge cave -- a natural cavern than had been altered for the purposes of defense.  When threatened, the farmers would take everyone into the cave, as well as the small livestock.  The attackers would need to first batter down a large, stout wooden door, after which they were confronted by an entrance way that was no more than four foot high, and which branched off in a few directions.  The entrance and initial corridors were deliberately cut to those dimensions to discourage and frustrate the attackers.  They could not know which way the defenders had gone, nor which cave they’d taken refuge in (caves that were cut larger to accommodate people standing...).  If they did find the correct cave, they’d then had to contend with more wooden barriers through which the defenders would be firing arrows and thrusting spears -- certainly not an easy attack.  However, that defense had the admitted weakness of leaving the field and the outbuildings undefended, and sometimes the farmers would emerge to find their crops and remaining animals destroyed, as well as all the outbuildings burned.  Because of this scenario, the farmers here also used deep ‘wells’ to store their grain.

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Steve in Refuge Cave

An interesting tour, even without K and B to give us the sordid details.  And actually one of the nicest features of the visit was the staff of the place, who were pleasant and enthusiastic and who were trying very hard to work with us non-French-speaking folk.  Again -- where are all those rude and arrogant French people?  Everyone here has been extremely accommodating and understanding.

And afterward, back to Azay to shop for some desserts, then to the house to eat and relax...

Sunday, May 15, 2005:

Hey, Denise’s birthday!  No, I didn’t forget...  I’d brought along a card I’d made before we’d left (I have to make Denise’s cards after all those years of doing it; getting a store-bought card just wouldn’t seem right), and Denise had seen a small collectible teapot with a Degas ballet scene on it in one of the chocolate shops, and since she collects teapots and I’d told her that we’d find a present for her here, I suggested we get it -- so she had a birthday present also.

Patrick came out of their house while we were waiting to go eat in Azay, pulling a ladder out of one of the caves that serve as a garage/storage area for Le Plessis .  When I peered in curiously, he said “Wait a minute...” and went to retrieve another key.  The key was interesting, and answered a question I’d had regarding some keyholes I’d seen in the village, which looked to be incredibly ornate and very large.  Patrick’s key was of the same type -- he said it dated back into the mid-1800s, and the the mechanism was wooden, and that it still worked.

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Keyholes in Azay

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The Cave Key

He took Hania and I over to the Gite side of the house and opened the door there to give us a tour.  There’s a smaller, lower cave in the larger cave, covered over by steel doors, and Patrick took me down there to look around.  He believes that it was a refuge cave at one time, like the one at the Troglodyte Farm -- a place for the residents to hide out in times of political trouble.  The lower cave is a few small rooms carved out of the limestone, narrow and too low for either Patrick or I; we both had to stoop to move around.  There are broken wine bottles and sundry detritus in the niches there, which Patrick said that he’s left there since they bought the place thirty years ago.  On the wall near one of the niches the date 1855 has been scrawled -- since they know that the original building was erected before that, it’s possible that the date was written that long ago...  Fascinating little area, though not a place for someone with claustrophobia.

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Stairs to lower cave

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Broken wine bottles in niche

Denise had wanted to go to a café here in Azay before we got to Paris so we could practice going to a restaurant, so we asked Dominique and Patrick to recommend one of the restaurants.  Dominique said that Le Salamandre , where we’d been thinking of going, was okay, but that Les Grottes was excellent.  So we went to Les Grottes and were not at all disappointed.  The waiter and wait staff were excellent (and he spoke excellent English, though he stayed in French as long as we stayed in French, explaining late that he thought it polite to try to respond in the language the patrons preferred, and if we wanted to ‘practice’ our French on him, he was willing.)  Our dinner was excellent.  Denise and I had a salmon flan for our entrée and Hania had a peach and ginger cold cream soup, while Gin elected to order a main course a la carte .  We sampled each other’s appetizers -- they were all excellent.  For main course, I had halibut in cream sauce (exquisite!), Denise and Hania had a chicken breast with a caramelized maple sauce (incredibly tasty!), and Gin had medallions of beef, also excellent, she reported.  For dessert, we all ordered a chocolate mousse served with a vanilla sauce on one side and a coffee sauce on the other.  As with the entrées and the main course, the presentation was incredible and the food wonderful.  We all left very satisfied.

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Hania and Denise at restaurant

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The wine.  Always important.

Gin went back to the house, Denise went into Azay to shop, and Hania and I started out to pick up Don at the train station, but as we were driving to get him he called from the airport to say that he’d just arrived and (of course) wasn’t on the train.  “It was the unplanned stopover in Iceland,” he said... which indicated to us that there was a story to be told.  But it would have to wait until we picked up Don on the later train...  Don did make the 530 train -- there’d been a medical emergency on his flight and they’d needed to divert a heart attack victim to Iceland for treatment. We fixed a supper of chicken and vegetables, and Denise and I took Don on a quick tour of Azay.  

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Denise and Don, walking into Azay

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We noticed this sundial on the side of a house...

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And we saw the Ghost Cat of Azay with blazing eyes...

Afterward, back ‘home,’ we ate Denise’s birthday dessert, which was tres bien -- a light cake with a butter cream filling interlaced with fruit and a delicious glaze on top.  Gin went to bed soon thereafter, but Hania, Don, Denise, and I stayed up playing Anagrams, a seductive word game to which B and K had seduced Hania and me.  Don, despite the handicap of his exhaustion, won handily, stealing our words left, right, and center.  As punishment, we told him he couldn’t win unless he could use all the words on the table in a sentence.

He managed that, too.  The bastard.

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TO BE CONTINUED...