Apricot Pie, Michel de Montaigne’s spiritual daughter, St. Emilion and gourmet to go

Literary Tourist near Bordeaux, France

Did you know that Transat flies Bordeaux – Montreal direct? We did, and so decided to avoid the Paris crush by driving from Le Mans, where we were staying, through Chateauroux where my wife’s uncle and aunt live, along to Angoulême, host, every January, to the world’s third largest comic book convention; from here we scooted over to Michel de Montaigne’s Chateau, and finally, into Bordeaux where I visited the oldest, and arguably biggest, independent bookshop in France.

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It was some hot. How hot? Let’s just say we didn’t see any escargot sunning themselves on the sidewalks. It would have been lethal. Luckily Robert had rigged up a garden hose shower in the back yard


Caroline et Robert

and in the shade of some nearby trees it was possible to enjoy, in relative comfort, his chilled red wine, a selection of his choice barbequed meats, and his wife Martine’s delicious apricot pie-like, clafoutis-type desert.

It cooled off a bit over night (the outside temperature that is) so the drive to Angoulême wasn’t as stifling as the one to Chatalroux had been the day before (the a/c in our Enterprise rental car was on the fritz). We arrived in time for a late lunch. Just in time, in fact, for the hostess at the first restaurant on the square where we’d parked, to tell us there was no more food, we’d have to try next door. Yes, they could accommodate us, but we were lucky. The last ones fed.

Most French restaurants outside of Paris stop serving lunch at around 2pm. Despite the inconvenience I kind of like this practice; says something about the quality of the food. Good that it’s not available around the clock like it is in North America. Judging from the glee with which ours delivered her dispiriting news, it’s clear that at least some waiters over here do get a perverse pleasure in telling people, especially Americans, to get lost. But I’m being too harsh. Generally speaking the demeanor of French hospitality toward English speaking tourists has improved markedly over the past ten years.

I wanted to see Angoulême’s comic strip museum, ground-zero for the International Comics Festival that has taken place here every year since 1974. More than 200,000 attend annually; venues are spread out around the city. The Festival is known for the important prizes that it hands out. Unfortunately the place was closed (on Mondays). I did however get a photo

and along the way found evidence of Angoulême’s commitment to comics. Its street-names are displayed in cartoon speech bubbles

There’s also a 4,5 meter high obelisk that’s been erected in front of the train station in honour of Astérix scriptwriter René Goscinny. On it you’ll find memorable lines from the comic strip including “Strange guys, those Romans!”

From Angoulême we went Bergerac, which, I figured, had to have something to do with Cyrano. Turns out it didn’t. Seems like neither the real guy, nor the fictional guy ever stepped foot in Bergerac. The only connection is this opportunistic statue

Cyrano, statue

Still, it offered the opportunity to think about Edmond Rostand and his play, published in 1897. It describes Cyrano’s love for the beautiful Roxanne, whom he woos on behalf of his handsomer, less articulate friend Christian. Cyrano was first performed at the Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin in Paris in 1897, and in English in the United States in 1898. Its translation that year introduced the word “panache” into the English language. Anthony Burgess, among others, also translated the play. There have been numerous adaptations of Cyrano, among the best-known are the 1950 American film starring José Ferrer and the 1990 French-Hungarian film starring Gérard Depardieu.

From Bergerac, with its half timbered houses, we went to our hotel which looked, for a heart-stopping hour, like it might not be able to offer internet service. Luckily it kicked in after we got back from a run to the supermarché. The following morning we headed out to famed essayist Michel de Montaigne’s Château. It’s beautifully situated.


Surrounded by

vineyards.

Our tour was scheduled for 10am. We had the guide, Léa Seas, all to ourselves.

She started off by telling us that there was no love lost between Montaigne and: his mother, his wife, and his daughter Léonore, who was the only one of his six children to survive past childhood. He did at least love, and was loved by, his mistress, his “spiritual daughter,” as he euphemistically called her. We also learn that his mother outlived him, and his daughter was, predictably, jealous of the mistress.

There is some suggestion that his mother became pregnant with Michel by a local peasant, which may explain why he was raised in large part by this guy’s wife. Intriguing: Mom to-be has sex with peasant, and doesn’t love the result. Perhaps she was disgusted with herself and took it out on her innocent offspring. But ‘what do I know’?

I’m grateful to Léa for all of this good dirt. Makes for a very interesting tour. She goes on to tell us that Montaigne was one of the few Catholics in the region, living in a sea of Protestants, that he liked to say he slept in the tower ‘above the stars’ because his bedroom was on top of the ground-level chapel which has stars painted all over its ceiling,

Yes, this  is an actual photograph of the ceiling.

and that he was friends with the Protestant Henry of Navarre. Montaigne often used to ride his horse all the way into Bordeaux – 10 hours on this wooden saddle

– because his doctor said it was good for his kidney stones.

At the early age of 18, following his father (whom I’m pretty sure he loved just based on the amount of airtime he gets in the Essays), he became a magistrate. Here he met the poet Étienne de la Boétie. They became great friends (some say they may have been lovers). Étienne died five years after they met. Michel was crippled with grief. Writing his essay ‘On Friendship’ helped him put the pieces back together again.

The Chateau burnt down in the early 1800s, but the tower was spared, so it’s original and as such is what interested me most.

Montaigne’s servants carved these words

into the beams in the ceiling of his tower study, including Pliny’s great line “The only certainty is that nothing is certain.” (Check out the rest of the inscriptions at this great Tumblr page). It’s here where he worked on his famed Essays, from age 38 onward, here where he was surrounded by 1500 books.

Finally, another great thing about Léa: she’s pretty well exactly the same height that Montaigne was, or so she says.

Léa is proof, once again, of how important tour guides are to the literary tourist visitor experience.

After purchasing some of this

from the Chateau’s store, and Léa recommending we read How to Live: A Life of  Montaigne by Sarah Bakewell (as well as the Essays), we made the short drive over to St. Emilion, a wickedly picturesque Roman-medieval village in one of the principal red wine areas of Bordeaux. The main grape varieties here are Merlot and Cabernet Franc. This beautiful, prosperous town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, It features Romanesque churches and ruins, and steep, narrow photogenic streets, impeccably kept, chock full of curb appealing, stylishly renovated restaurants

and chic boutique shops, like this one

that sells macaroons, the region’s specialty, made only from sweet and bitter almonds, egg whites and sugar; and canelés, a small pastry flavored with rum and vanilla with a custard center and a dark, thick caramelized crust.

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It was another hot day. Patio patrons were staying cool under machines that sprayed heavenly mist over their heads. Tempting though this was, we decided just to grab something quick and easy. This place had exactly what we wanted:

gourmet meals to go. Man they were tasty.

Next stop, Bordeaux.

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