Strasbourg, or the solution to the Alsatian equation

Strasbourg is a joyous city to explore, with deep roots, a rich but troubled past, but also spring in its step, for it has solved the painful equation of Alsatian identity. As I travelled through the lovely Alsace, I was struck by how large World War II still looms in the locals’ psyche. The peopleContinue reading “Strasbourg, or the solution to the Alsatian equation”

The Alsatian chocolate box

Firmly in France but forever looking East to Germany, Alsace is not only incredibly pretty, but also a fascinating place to explore for its culture. Already in the Vosges, I could feel its cultural influence. Red and pink geraniums on every balcony and windowsills. The culture of turning fruits into delicious liqueurs and eaux-de-vie. PretzelsContinue reading “The Alsatian chocolate box”

The Cathar castles

Since childhood I have wanted to visit the Cathar castles, “les châteaux cathares”.  And thankfully, the vertigo citadels, high on the Corbières’ peaks,  were up to my expectations. The Corbières are the hills which link the Pyrenees to the Massif Central; in the wider valleys grow wines, but the hills are covered in Mediterranean garrigue.Continue reading “The Cathar castles”

Along the Pyrenees 3: Saint-Bertrand-de-Commingues

The village of Saint-Bertrand-de-Commingues was a turning point as I made my way east along the Pyrenees. It was the first time I felt I was going towards the Mediterranean. It was the first day of unblinking sunshine in a while, and I welcomed the dry heat, after the cool, damp high mountains. But theContinue reading “Along the Pyrenees 3: Saint-Bertrand-de-Commingues”

Along the Pyrenees 1: Béarn

From the Basque country, I drove westwards along the Pyrenees, staying on the French side of this magnificent mountain range. Straight as an arrow between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, a natural border between France and Spain, between the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts. If you want to go anywhere fast, stay in theContinue reading “Along the Pyrenees 1: Béarn”

The Basque hinterland

The hinterland of the Basque country is, in my opinion, even more pleasant than the coast. There the landscapes of rolling hills building up to peaks is just as spectacular. And the culture is less diluted than on the coast. On the hills, pottoks (pie ponies) and cows live semi-wild. Their bells provide as soothing,Continue reading “The Basque hinterland”

Bayonne and the Basque coast

We often say France is the most beautiful country in the world, because of the variety of its landscapes, its fabulous food culture, and its stylish lifestyle. Frankly, the Basque country could say the same. This pocket country, a picturesque and characterful kaleidoscope of coast, mountains and cities, packs quite a punch. The Basque country,Continue reading “Bayonne and the Basque coast”

La Roque-Saint-Christophe

The Roque-Saint-Christophe is a striking site. It encapsulates the extraordinary history of Périgord, mind-bogglingly long, and full of bloody twists and turns. The South of Périgord is structured around powerful rivers, such as the Dordogne, the Isle and the Vézère, and the steep valleys they have carved out. Cliffs and rocky outcrops everywhere mark theContinue reading “La Roque-Saint-Christophe”

The land of Cockayne?

The land of Cockayne (“le pays de Cocagne”) is a utopic country of endless plenty and rest, a kind of paradise for the medieval peasant. If you ask a French person where it is, almost half would situate it in the South-West. It might be because of the similarity between the words “Cocagne” and “Gascogne”.Continue reading “The land of Cockayne?”

Home abroad

Somewhere between Montluçon and Limoges, I drove past a sign informing me I was entering the “pays d’oc”. As a linguist and an explorer of France, I got very excited. First of all, entering a new country is always exciting. The French language has the word “dépaysement”, for the feeling of being in a newContinue reading “Home abroad”