Thursday, June 2, through Friday, June 3, 2011 Auxerre and Saint Fargeau, France
On Thursday, June 2nd, I took the train from Paris to Auxerre, a small city in the Burgundy countryside of France. It was the closest I could get by train to the site where a group of archaeologists, castellologists, master stonemasons, carpenters, and other traditional craftspeople were building a castle in the style of King Phillip Augustus of the 13th century.
But I am getting ahead of myself. First, I stayed overnight in Auxerre. The city is old, dating back to Roman times, and became it's own commune or township in the 12th the century. It has seen many changes and suffered hard times through the 100 Year's War and the War of Religion. In the 19th century it got a “modern” infrastructure with the building of a psychiatric hospital and a train station, among other things. The town center is dominated by an horologe: a clock that is suspended by an arch over the cobbled streets. Just below the clock tower is a gold boot hanging over a cobbler's shop. It's probably just a shoe store, but cobbler shop sounds better. Not a crowded city. The tourists seem not to know about it. But it has all the old churches and ancient walls, and even a river that comes through town. I stayed at Hôtel Le Maxime right on the Yonne. I was able to watch the boats chug by or come into the docks from my seat at the bar at the back of the hotel.
Thursday night, I came down to the front desk to inquire about a place to eat. The manager recommended a traditional Burgundy restaurant and she called ahead to make a reservation for me. Dinner didn't start for another hour (the French reserve their full restaurant service for after 7pm). Meanwhile, I sat in the bar and the manager poured me a taste of the local wine. I took a sip, swished it around in my mouth and swallowed. It was exquisite! Rich, earthy, blackberry and just the right amount of tannins. My reaction delighted her: her eyes lit up as she poured me the rest of the glass.
So, at the manager's recommendation, I ate at Four Chaud. I took my kindle e-reader to the restaurant with me. It had become a good companion for eating alone when I wasn't scribbling in my notebook. While I ate a four-course meal, I read from Julia Child autobiography, My Life in France. (Editor's note: See the blog entry, ”My Dinner with Julia.”) Every course at Four Chaud was fabulous. My favorite was the poached eggs in wine sauce. I sat by the fire and was quite warm, even sweaty. I didn't mind because I was loving the homey atmosphere.
The next day, Friday, I picked up my rental car, a tiny Toyota. I didn't realize until I was already on my way to Saint Fargeau, the town where I would be staying to make my foray into the forest to investigate Guédelon, that the gas tank was almost empty. I stopped at a gas station along the country highway but could not get my credit card to work at the pump. The card reader only accepted chip-and-pin technology. I had the old-fashioned magnetic strip (the credit card companies in the U.S. didn't start to convert to chip and pin until 2015). There were no other people about. I walked around the station looking for a way in to talk to someone, but there was no obvious front door and no one was about. I finally walked around to the back and tried a door there. No luck. I peered through the window and saw what looked like a family sitting down to a midday meal. I did not wish to interrupt them, so I just took off and prayed that I had enough fuel to get to Saint Fargeau.
This was another moment during my European sojourn when I did not have enough information. Who knew that the gas stations in France required chip-and-pin technology? I probably should have guessed that. But my travel agency should have known! The weird thing here, though, was that there was no human nearby in case there were problems at the pump. Or to take cash from a tourist who was very eager to give them money. Perhaps in the country they were not used to a lot of traffic.
Luckily I found an old-fashioned gas station in Saint Fargeau before my return trip where there was an actual person and a cash register. The owner of the gas station insisted that if I paid him in cash, I had to tell him how much petrol I would pump in euros ahead of time. I had to do a quick calculation to figure out how much gas I needed and how much that would be in euros. I was successful and managed to return the car with half a tank. The rental car dweebs got a deal off of me!
Journal excerpt: Friday, June 3, Hôtel Les Grande Chenes, Saint Fargeau. I made it to the place near where I get to see the site where they are building, in the middle of a forest, a fortified castle using medieval methods and techniques with materials. Tomorrow I will see Guédelon.
I arrived at the Hôtel Les Grande Chenes in one piece. Driving was actually pretty easy in the French countryside. I was able to drive on the right side of the road and shift with the right hand instead of doing both on the left as I had done when I drove through Ireland with my mother six years before. And there was very little traffic. I drove up the lane toward the hotel underneath huge oak trees and was greeted by the proprietor, Rachael. She was a British expat married to a Frenchmen, and they had two adorable tow-headed children. The hotel was a converted manor house, which used to preside over the surrounding farms. The setting reminded me of the setup for a British children's novel such as Swallows and Amazons, The Secret Garden, or The Ship that Flew, especially when you add in the tow-headed children.
My American travel agent had made this reservation for me, and somehow Rachael thought my agent and I were traveling together. So she set aside a large room with two beds at the top of the hotel. The price was still pretty cheap compared to a Boulder B&B--about 50 euro. The hotel was quite charming. The breakfast room was modern with a reddish-brown tiled floor and lemon-yellow walls. The tables and chairs were wrought-iron with cushions in multiple bright colors so the dining room looked like a summer garden. A set of curving, wrought-iron stars went up from one end of the breakfast room to the upstairs landing, which led to guest rooms. The second story roof was low and set at a steep angle. I think the upper floor probably was the solar, or the private rooms, of the master and mistress of the original house.
One of the things that attracted to staying at the Hôtel Les Grande Chenes was that it had bicycles for rent. So, that afternoon, I secured a bicycle for the next day. I was an avid cycler at home and wished to be as active as I could while traveling. The big meals I indulged in were taking a toll on my waistline. First world problems!
That night I drove into the center of town and walked to the old square surrounding Saint Fargeau Chateau. Although privately owned, the chateau is a museum and is also the site for outdoor pageants. There were many people milling about on this late Friday afternoon. The weather was mild, so I sat outside at the Sarl la Demoiselle and enjoyed soup, salad, and a fish filet. I drove back to the hotel and made it an early night, proud of myself that I had been navigating a foreign country in a car so successfully. The next day, I would take my rented bicycle along the dirt roads outside the town, and visit Guédelon. Stay tuned!