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Armchair Uzès

la Vie Quotidienne

30 juin 2003
Uzès, France

A gem of a tour in the Lot
Des bijoux du Lot

On a recent road trip, we passed through an out of the way region that is as charming and splendid as any we’ve seen in our travels around la France profonde. We’d set out to visit Cahors via Toulouse (more on that another time), and on our roundabout way back we stopped in Figeac, installing ourselves in a hotel on the banks of the Célé river, the Pont d’Or.
     A few hours later, the raconteur/bartender at a nearby café took us aside and told us that if we wanted to take an exquisite day trip, there was a driving loop that we wouldn’t regret or soon forget. He pulled out our map, highlighted some small roads with his pen, jotted down a few phone numbers, and proceeded to offer us a drink in celebration of our next day’s excursion.
     Early next morning we set out on the D41 and passed through a hidden valley with a string of hamlets and towns, connected like little jewels along the winding Célé:  Ste-Eulalie, Espagnac, St. Sulpice, and Marcilhac-sur-Célé, where we arrived in time to watch locals shop and chat with the traveling butcher at his truck. Time seems to have stopped in many of these spots. Part of the special feel might come from the fact that it has always been part of a medieval pilgrimage route. Even today you see travelers, walking or bicycling, on their way to Rocamadour, Conques and other sacred sites in the region of Quercy.


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 The enchanted Célé valley of the outside Figeac

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A slate pointed roof, typical of Auvergne and Quercy


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Saint-Cirq Lapopie

     Midway on the loop, at the fork of the Célé and Lot rivers, looms the fairy-tale village of Saint-Cirq Lapopie. A haunt of artists and writers, this classic medieval fortress town has several castles, towers and a chapel perched over the village with its winding streets, gabled houses, and a lively art community. Views across the river valleys are impressive, and down below the Saint-Cirq Lapopie cliff are watermills, weirs, locks and a towpath to explore.
     The return trip along the Lot river brought more villages, beautiful light, sweeping hills and valleys. All in all, a journey that was inspiring and filled with beautiful sights, an inspiration for bicyclists, walkers, horseback riders, and roadsters as well.
     That evening in Figeac, after a quiet stroll through the town, we found a wonderful restaurant where we drank and ate local specialties (foie gras, duck, Cahors and Auvergnac red wines). A quiet town, a quiet region, filled with the kind of beauty that it seems only France
can offer. 

     For those who like touring by train, Quercyrail offers combination train/boat tours in the valley of the Lot. Starting from either Cahors or Capdenac (near Figeac), you amble along this beautiful valley in an old-fashioned slow moving train that runs 71 kilometers from Cahors to Capdenac with stops all along the Lot river, including at Saint-Cirq Lapopie. For more information visit the Quercyrail website.
 


Happy 100th Birthday, Tour de France
Le centenaire du Tour de France

One of the world’s most grueling sports celebrates its centennial in July of this year. For the 100th time, an international group of lycra-clad musclemen on two wheels will set out to ride thousands of miles for three weeks across the mountains, rivers and valleys of France to compete for le maillot jaune, the yellow jersey. On July 27th the Champs Elysées will be crammed with people eager for a glimpse of these superathletes when they arrive in Paris to cross the finish line.
     This renowned bicycle race began as a promotional stunt to gain newspaper readership. In a clever competitive move, the publisher of a sporting journal decided to boost sales by sponsoring a different sort of cross-country bicycle race, the longest ever (more than 1,500 miles) and in six stages over a period of time. The paper’s vivid day-by-day reports of progress of the 60 participants did much for bicycle sales, and the newspaper sold hundreds of thousands of copies as well. The Tour de France has become a French institution, and over the last century many a French school child learned as much about the geography of
France from assiduously following this summer race as from any classroom lessons.
     This year’s 22-day race covers 3,350 kilometers (nearly 2,100 miles) in 20 segments. Although the route is changed each year, it always includes steep mountain roads, rolling fields of grain, grapes and sunflowers, historic monuments, small isolated villages, and of course the grand finale down the Champs Elysées in Paris.
     This is a world of superstars. And heroes. American Lance Armstrong competes again this year, hoping to join the elite of bicycle racing with his fifth T-d-F win. But he is already a superhero, not only for his athleticism but because of his valiant fight with cancer in the midst of his career. Other famous names that roll off the tongues of true aficionados include the Spaniard Miguel Indurain, Belgian Eddy Merckx, Frenchmen Bernard Hinault and Jacques Anquetil, and Greg LeMond, the first American to wear the yellow jersey with his win in 1986.
     Today the Tour de France ranks as the world’s third most popular sporting event, after the World Cup and the Olympics. In fact, because these latter two occur only periodically, it could be said that this glorious race is the world’s most popular annual sporting event. Well, whatever…millions of people tune in to follow progress, via television, the internet, and, of course, the newspaper. For details on this year’s route, up-to-the-minute coverage, and profiles of racers, check out the Bicycling News site at www.tourdefrancenews.com. For French coverage, try www.letour.fr.

 

 

Lance goes for his fifth win
in the 100th Tour de France



Strikes are getting serious
La grève – c’est grave!

As you probably know, France has been hard hit this year with strikes and work stoppages. Some are likening this period to the May 1968 revolution, when the French social world turned itself upside down. Trains, planes and highway service have been interrupted on an almost weekly basis since April, when government officials began publicly discussing ways to alleviate the financial and economic crises in France. Particularly galling to workers is the proposal to increase the retirement age in France, while at the same time requiring workers to put in more years in order to be fully vested in the government pension system. Transportation workers feel they are being hit from all directions, not only by French government proposals but by new European Union inter-country transport pricing and policies.
     Quelle horreur for the average worker, but even more so for the average family:  How to get your child educated, get to work, much less plan a vacation when it’s not certain that on Tuesday the trains will be running or institutions will be operational. The culmination of this mess seemed to be in June when the annual student baccalaureate exams (le bac) were nearly cancelled because of strikes and stoppages.  
     Now another imbroglio has emerged during the hot summer months. Benefit rules for unemployed dancers, filmmakers, musicians, actors -- generally speaking those working in the arts -- are going to be made more stringent, and as a result a significant portion of summer arts events across France have been postponed or cancelled in protest. No actors, no dancers, no technicians…no show!


 

 

 

 

 

     This really hurts the towns and departments in the south of France, where summer festivals bring in more people and dollars than in any other part of the country. Rumor has it the Theatre Festival of Avignon might be cancelled, an event that drew 600,000 spectators last year. Postponements, cutbacks and cancellations in Orange, Aix, Marseille and Montpellier are wreaking havoc with local economies. “C’est catastrophique! This will be the end of small business” says a tourism official from the Provence/Languedoc region. Estimates of losses range in the millions of euros, and that’s not chicken feed. If you’re planning to attend any performing arts events this summer in France, be sure to check ahead on what’s still on and if you can get there. One source for up-to-date info might be www.franceculture.org, the Ministry of Culture’s website.
     Troubling times…but somehow these things seem to work themselves out. Just go with the flow, with fingers crossed for good luck.

 


Yes, the French are different
Oui, les francais sont particuliers

In the midst of turbulent Franco-American relations, several books have appeared this spring that might help get at the reasons behind our differences. Two French-Canadian journalists have tackled the thorny subject of "that French thing" in the just-released Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong: Why We Love France but not the French. (Glad it was written by Canadians, not Americans, given that title.) The book does an excellent job looking beyond generalizations. As the authors say in their intro, "we did not move to France to renovate a house in Provence. What we are trying to do is renovate some ideas." Bon courage!
     On a much lighter note are two books on the French feminine mystique.
Fatale : How French Women Do It, by Edith Kunz, has a great cover and plenty of entertaining and revealing reading in between. Entre Nous: A Woman's Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl (who thought up that title?) is amusing, light-hearted, and frivolous -- perfect for summer reading on the beach, the bus or the train.
     You know what? The French are different, and vive la difference! 

 


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