We returned to Europe on November 22nd and went directly to Duelmen, Germany to pick up our motorhome Romy after his long sleep in the freezing cold of winter, only to be greeted with more of the same. We did, however, spend a few days in the neighborhood since this is our ‘home’ on the European continent and Duemo Reisemobil, where we bought Romy, can and always does provide us with whatever we need to have him running perfectly. Fortunately he was in great shape and only too glad to be back on the road.
Rather than spend all of our time at Duemo, we headed the short fifteen kilometers over to Munster, the area’s biggest city and stayed in a lovely campground on its fringe that we had visited last fall. The city itself was already alive with Christmas. The central square around the cathedral was jumping with the Christmas Market, a strong German tradition, and featuring an endless variety of goodies for the holidays,
Santa on his rather contemporary sleigh,
and endless quantities of the traditional Christmas drink, hot mulled wine!
Munster, being a university town, also had a huge herd of bicycles nearby, even in the dead of winter.
The weather being what it was, we were intent on heading to warmer climes, particularly Spain and Portugal, so it wasn’t long before we turned south. Our only real stop before southern France was in the small Bavarian town of Frankenthal. Bonnie had spent a good deal of time over the prior year doing genealogical research and found that her German ancestry came from that region. More specifically, there was a church in Frankenthal where her Fourth Great Grandfather was married in 1785. Here is the church where we spent part of an afternoon with the docent, Joachim Martin, a wonderfully helpful volunteer who even showed us around the town when he finished his responsibilities at the church.
Note the Christmas Market in the square facing the church, which we found in every village we visited in Germany.
From there we sped across much of France heading for the Dordogne Valley, renowned for its beautiful towns, food–especially truffles and cheese–and those famous caves containing paintings done by Cro-Magnon people between 20,000BC and 10,000BC. We spent our first night at Rocamadour in a free camping area atop this cliff and beside its churches, chapels and chateau which climb the 350 feet of a spectacular limestone. Pilgrims have journeyed here for centuries, drawn by the miraculous cures to maladies provided by prayer to a Black Madonna statue of the Virgin.
Still a pilgrimage site today, the time we spent there was breathtaking, not only for the views but for the sense of sacred historical significance this site has long held. It remains magical even today.
It was quiet when we traversed this area early in December and we spent the five days we had there visiting one town or village after another, often with beautiful countryside in between.
One of our favorites was Sarlat-la-Caneda, famous for its twisting narrow passageways and secret, hidden squares.
This one holds a statue of geese, the source of the town’s famous foie gras. Indeed, Sarlat holds a Goose Festival each year celebrating the birds and the wondrous foods they provide. But it was the narrow still alleyways that held us while there, surrounded as they are by some of the best preserved medieval architecture in all of Europe. Here is a typical quiet entry to a medieval home.
From Sarlat we went off to see the famous Cro-Magnon paintings in three of the caves, but because no photographs were allowed, there is very little we can share. Needless to say, it was an amazing experience to spend hours in the presence of the earliest art in all of Europe, much of it graceful, detailed and lifelike, and created by early modern humans who no longer exist.
Before leaving southern France, we felt we had to visit Bordeaux, its largest city and wonderful for its spacious and invigorating city center.
Its main square is large and blessed with its most famous hotel, and on a day rain slicked and sunny it was a delight.
It also holds one of Europe’s most iconic sculptures, this oxidized and rusted corten steel head by Jaume Plensa.
We then went over to the Atlantic coast and to the town of Arcachon where daughter Leila and husband have a European home. Arcachon is a lovely place with the biggest sand dunes in all of Europe and beaches which seem to stretch for tens of miles along the coast. We also discovered a treasure trove of cheeses at a local market which filled our refrigerator with delights!
We ended the day with a trip out to a hotel designed by Philippe Starck set against the sand dunes and had a drink on the terrace as the sun went down.
Finally turning south towards Spain with resolve, we made one final stop in France at St Jean de Luz, a beautiful fishing town on the Atlantic and close to the Spanish border. It is overwhelmingly Basque and famous for its anchovy and sardine catches, brought in by the local fishing fleet.
It has lovely squares with restaurants serving up the local catches.
Beyond lay that stretch of northern Spain so strongly Basque in its culture and heritage, and home to several of its most interesting cities. We turned Romy south and went for it!