Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the category “hidden treasures”

Freeway-Free in France: Dallying in Domme

P1030157webDomme is a medieval island perched on top of a bluff, too remote from normal four-lane roads to have been changed much by the advent of the automobile.  As we trudged up the winding road, we were wishing for a donkey cart!

But when you get to Domme, it’s worth it.  It’s like a visit to Brigadoon, if Brigadoon had a three-star hotel  featuring  gourmet cuisine, 15th century ramparts on three sides , a view out over the whole of Scotland on the fourth side, and a comprehensive walking tour which included a famous author’s home,  a prison whose stone walls are covered with graffiti carved by imprisoned Knights Templar,  and a subterranean cavern where the peasants could hide in case anyone made it past the ramparts or scaled the bluff. Plus a very good ice cream shop.

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Above is the view from the bluff which protects the side of Domme which looks over the Dordogne River.

After doing the city walk, nothing could be better than returning to the Hotel Esplanade, which sits on the main square of Domme next to the promenade along the bluff. Not only did our room have a view to die for (see above) but the food was superb.  I don’t usually publish pictures of meals I have eaten, but I can’t resist showing you these beautifully presented dishes:

At breakfast, we found our buffet of lovely edibles presented in the sitting room above, with the early morning view of the valley just clearing from low-lying  fog. One almost did expect this fairy-tale place to vanish in a puff of vapor as the sun rose!

Freeway Free in France: Up and Down along the Dordogne

20160919_003919cropThis day was the scenic highlight of our walking – we stayed the previous night at Beynac, beneath the cliff topped by the medieval fortress which we had wandered through the afternoon before.  After our breakfast of croissants, cafe au lait, and local yogurt and strawberries, and after wrestling our luggage down three flights of narrow stairs, DM, DB, and I set out along the “grassy track” by the Dordogne River.  (W has developed a painful knee after too many ups and downs and decided to cop a ride in the van.). The path led along the river through woodsy patches – lots of bird calls, some families of ducks on the water, the occasional fisherman, the occasional egret.  We stayed mostly level through a series of acricultural meadows and fields (DM sampled the sunflower seeds, I sampled the fresh asparagus spears pushing up from the ground) and took turns pointing out the yellow sandstone castles on the successive cliffs – Beynac behind us, its hated rival Castelroud across the river on the English side.P1030117web

We continued past Montingnac and a couple of others unnamed in our guidebook, ending with Roque Gageac where we broke for lunch.  This is a point where the cliffs come almost to the water, and the oldest homes are carved into the Rock faces – “troglodytic  dwellings” per our guide.

 

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DB stopped at a sandwich/boulangerie shop and ordered a panini with ham and cheese. I watched in horror as the young man took a perfectly lovely baguette and squished it flat in one of those icky panini presses. Yuck. We picnicked at a quiet park next to the little quay and watched the tourist boats plying the river.

Then began the up and down part which had intimidated W.  First we went up “Banana Alley” to admire the work of a gardener who had learned to grow exotic fruits and plants along the south facing sheltered cliff – very lush and lovely, then further up on narrow roads with improbable “parking privee ” signs posted on narrow ledges next to elegant and not so elegant sandstone homes, some of them evidently refurbished antique dwellings, others more modern knockoffs, but all of the same glowing yellow stone. P1030129web

We snaked up along the angles of the woodsy cliff side, mostly following an ancient stone wall held together by moss and ivy, and finally came to the top where we had our first view of Domme, perched on the top of a distant cliff on the other side of the river. Then down past more elegant farmhouses and homes, some with old ramparts and fortifications still, now on “Tarmac roads”, crossing the river on a narrow bridge with an even narrower sidewalk- only one km to go! P1030141web

But what a kilometer it was, up and up and up in almost the only full sunshine of the day, stopping at every patch of shade and every wayside bench, til we finally reached the medieval gateway with its arrow slits to use against invaders still intact.  The hiking guide led us straight up to the central square, a knockout view, and our elegant hotel right there on the edge of the bluff.  Our room has a view out over the valley, a fitting reward at the end of a day of wonders20160919_093221doc.

 

 

Freeway Free in France: Ambling around Arles in Vincent’s Footsteps

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This morning DM was picked up at 9″30 by her Swiss cousin and his wife who happen to live about a half hour from Lunel.  Right afterward the remaining four of us set out for Arles, known for its Roman ruins and former resident Vincent Van Gogh.  We saw a lot of both.

vvgoghfondOnce we got to Arles and rather miraculously found a free parking space that I could maneuver into, we headed first for the Bureau Touristique for city maps, and then, at WB’s insistence, went first to the Fondation de Vincent Van Gogh, which was sponsoring a special exhibit of Arles’ favorite summer tourist. C scoffed “This isn’t Paris!  There will be no queue!” But there was one, and a twenty minute wait for tickets.  Rather than retrace steps, we shifted our plan of saving the nice air conditioned museum for later in the afternoon and plunged into three rooms of I would say B-level van Gogh’s on loan not from the Rijksmuseum but a less prestigious Vincent van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. 20160909_030921doc

The only well known work on view was the one of fishing boats on the beach.  It is a beautiful work.  There were a couple of others that I wouldn’t mind having on my wall, and a couple that I would NOT want to display  too dark and foreboding. Once out of the museum (including an ascent to La Terrace, with a wonderful view over the rooftops of Arles) we discovered we were starving.  We tried a couple of places with recommendations from Michelin and Routiere but found them with no available places, and ended up rather serendipitously at la Cafe de la Nuit, which was famously painted by Van Gogh, and which I had used as a focus point for one of my Lamaze experiences.  The lunch was better than expected, service snail like, but the locale could not be beat!

We rounded out our VvG experiences with a visit to l’Espace Van Gogh, which is the asylum to which he repaired after falling out with Gauguin and cutting off his ear.  It is a lovely enclosed space with a garden that blends the formal French garden with an Impressionistic flair. It is now a tourist center with one of the world’s greatest collections of postcards, and tour groups ebbing and flowing constantly.  I had to wonder whether the current buildings are painted as they were when Van Gogh was there or painted as he painted them (not necessarily the same.) Then we started our Roman ramblings. Maybe it would be good to consign that part of the day to a separate email.

Freeway Free in California: The Anderson Valley

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The Anderson valley, centered around Boonville, is so remote that linguists used to visit to study the evolution of “Boontling”, the dialect spoken by the inhabitants when keeping secrets from outsiders.  The valley is accessible only by twisty and nausea-inducing Hwy 128 at one end, and the “Tunnel to the Sea” through a second-growth redwood forest along the Navarro River on the other end. But if you make it over the pass, you will feel as though you have gone back in time and space to  the Napa Valley as it was a half-century ago.

Here in late May the rolling hills are just finishing  with spring, looking like sun-faded green velvet curtains dropped in heaps.

Here wineries make award-winning pinot noir and cabernets, and the traffic is nominal, the parking is easy, and the tasting is mostly still free.

Here you can buy chilled apple cider and many old-fashioned varieties of apples at Gowan’s Oak Tree, just next to the road in Philo surrounded by its orchards.

Here is a State Park where you can see old-growth redwoods without having to take a shuttle bus with a ticket in advance. Hendy Woods State ParkP1040234doc was bequeathed to the state of CA by James P. Hendy, whose fortune came from the steel company whose sign you can still see bordering the railway tracks in Sunnyvale, so there is a local connection.

Here the coffee shop (there is only one, the Redwood Café,) has regulars instead of WiFi, and you can hear the morning’s gossip about who bought Dan’s old truck or admire the 5th Grade Science Fair ribbon won by the owner’s grandson which dangles from the wall along with team pictures of the Boonville Panthers basketball team and the cheerleading squad (which looks to be large enough to provide a cheerleader girlfriend for each guy on the team.)

The valley can be hot  in late spring and summer, so you can go for a dip in the Navarro River (access by the bridge just outside the park) or escape to the coast, with coastal scenery rivalling Big Sur, and a thirty-degree drop in temperature.P1040260web

You can go north at the coast to the famously quaint village of Mendocino, once an artist colony but now the home of film festivals, bed & breakfast inns, and other trappings of cutesification.  You can go further north to Ft. Bragg and the Mendocino Botanical Garden, a floral extravaganza in spring featuring 10-foot rhododendrons and azaleas, turning in summer to feature dahlias and roses. P1040257doc

If you want more of the coastal scenery, you can cross the Highway 1 bridge going south across the Navarro River and wind your way down to Elk (Population 208).  Don’t miss the left turn on the Philo-Greenwood Road or you will find yourself on a very steep, twisty section of Hwy 1 with no guard rails and very few turnouts. The Philo-Greenwood Road itself is narrow and twisty, but encased in what seems like deep woods – until there is a gap and you realize you are perched on a ridge with a steep drop on either side, with the Anderson Valley spread out like a patchwork quilt of vineyards and apple orchards on the right, and the coastal view to the ocean dropping away on the left.

When out-of-state visitors come and want to visit the Napa Valley, I usually direct them to Sonoma or to the Alexander Valley north of Healdsburg instead. They come back happy with memories of the quaint Sonoma town square, and of visits to Dry Creek Vineyard or the Coppola Vineyards Tasting Room replete with “Godfather” memorabilia.  The Anderson Valley is a bit too far for tourists, the road a bit too challenging.  It is still (until now) my secret step back in time.

 

 

Hidden Treasures: the Hiller Aviation Museum, San Carlos

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Maybe you have wanted to take your kids to the National Air and Space Museum at Dulles Airport in Virginia or the San Diego Museum of Flight down in Balboa Park.  Maybe you have been daunted by the distance, or the cost.  You can give them a good taste of the experience by taking them to Northern California’s Hiller Aviation Museum, just off the Bayshore Freeway in San Carlos, California.

20150819_115401docI had driven past this museum many times, but given the name I had assumed it would be all about helicopters. But when my ex-helicopter pilot brother was visiting recently with his young son, we decided to give it a look.  There are indeed helicopters, but so much more, including full-size models of early flying machines, a giant unmanned glider whose wings span the length of the football-field-sized museum, the cockpit of a 737, a walk-in exhibit of the full front fuselage of one of the first 747s, hands-on flight simulators, a widescreen Google Earth projection from which you can zoom in from outer space to your own front yard, and, on Wednesdays in the summer, your choice of goodies from a half-dozen food trucks in the parking lot. 20150819_125934doc

In summer the museum also hosts a series of summer camps, so you might see a gaggle of ten-year-olds testing their experimental paper airplanes in the back patio, or a parade of backpack- toting sub-teens getting their introduction to flight simulation software in the Flight Lab.  As much fun to watch as to do!

20150819_115608docThe museum includes some special exhibits about early women aviators, Chinese-American aviation pioneer Feng Ru, and others you may not have heard of.

And of course there is a gift shop, stuffed with all sorts of magical flight related toys, model kits, and fluttering gizmos.  And the docents are enthusiastic volunteers with a lot of knowledge they are eager to share about the aircraft exhibits, some based on their own experiences of helping to build or fly the aircraft.

Admission is only $15 for adults, $10 for Youth and Seniors – you can get a coupon from their website for a $1 discount on Sundays.

Go ahead and indulge your inner daVinci, Wright, Lindberg, Earhart, or Yeager!

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