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Monday, December 3, 2012

Albi, France III & Rodez (5th in a series)


Albi, France III & Rodez

(May 19th)
Albi (tour)
Without Aaron in tow, we had a guided visit of Albi and this proved to be a blast as we walked past Toulouse Lautrec’s home and learned of his prowess with the women.  Not sure if I believed most of what was said as this man’s diminutive size would normally preclude him from attracting the fairer sex altogether.  Needless to say, I knew it was all true and felt that perhaps there is hope for me as well….okay enough about me.

Cathedral / Sainte-Cecile
Our next visit was of the cathedral located smack-dab in the middle of the town nestled along-side the Tarn River.  The spectacular Cathedral Sainte-Cecile of Gothic origin and style was built in the 13th century in the heart of Cathar country, is the largest brick building in the world. Perched high on a hill above the River Tarn, it looks more like a fortress than a cathedral. The interior is opulent with frescos and very interesting stained glass windows depicting not only medieval times but those of modern events as well.  I was enthralled with the “open-minded” attitude of the ruling clergy to allow such free thinking to enter their religious domain.

Votive candles sending prayers

The opulence is magnificent!

The entrance to the cathedral is grande

Gargoyles are rampantly adorned 

Boat ride of “Gabarre”
The boat ride of “Gabarre” on the River Tarn was nice but all too short.  The ride and tour lasted about 45 minutes but proved to be a visual spectacle of flora and fauna creeping into and onto the local architecture that was damaged and bombed in World War II.  The remnants were quite stark and there was evidence of great destruction and I became a bit melancholy at the thought of seeing German war planes dive bombing such splendor as the surroundings of Albi, France are quite beautiful.

A view from our boat on the Tarn River

Looking through the aqueduct and bridge

The Cathedral reigns supreme over Albi

Albi has enough charm for two cities

We retired to the bus to head to lunch at restaurant L’Ispien Port in Les Brisses Gaillac…former rugby play Revallier is a chef/proprietor of this establishment and one would wonder what a ruffian like a former rugby player have to offer us?  Charcuterie, squab atop haricoverts, cheese dumplings and wicked aperitifs!  I ate too much and didn’t care as I tortured myself before this trip losing 15 lbs. knowing that I would put it all back on.

Wine, food and new friends made for a perfect trip!

More wine tasting
Our next stop is a visit La Cave de Tecou for another wine tasting.  It’s a wonder that France’s population isn’t totally plastered all the time as we, seemingly, drink wine all day long.  Regardless, we tasted a very tart white as our first offering (I didn’t like it) but then came the full-bodied reds with undertones of earth, pepper, nutmeg, pear, faint citrus with fragrant and flowery grapes.  Absolutely fantastic stuff and I was very pleased – probably due to the fact that I had become inebriated - a detail that gave me shivers as I had given Aaron a serious tongue-lashing in our hotel room prior to our day’s departure for doing this very same thing.  I was quite secure in my resolve to keep my clothes on and gave my drunken state a pass as I was going to enjoy myself albeit in a responsible manner.

Anyone for some wine?

This stuff was pretty wonderful!

Enjoy myself I did
As it turned out we all wanted a bit more fun after such a long visit and we had a long bus ride to Rodez the next day and figured we could sleep on the bus if needed.  We just so happened to be staying in a hotel where the lobby also doubled as a bar and the beer was flowing quite nicely.  I led the way with a round on me and we started to play cards and then the laptops came out to facilitate our fellow students need to become Facebook® friends.  Some of the older students didn't even have accounts but after much prodding; they gave in to the peer pressure and signed up for a share of the fun in the distribution of photos, comments and overall merriment.

Bailey enjoying a nice French beverage while a pregnant Tiffany looks on...
 Some members of the group made up songs and words (me) to go along with various tunes that were playing on the hotel sound system.  Others were engaged in hangman, chess (yes, the hotel had a board available), checkers and euchre (a nice Midwestern game).  Suffice it to say, we had a good, clean, all-American time and we kept our clothes on.

Come morning, we straggled downstairs one by one wearing sunglasses, wrinkled clothes and sporting a lot of wet hair as time ran short to use a hair dryer (that extra few minutes in bed really DOESN'T make a difference on how you’ll feel the rest of the day).  Our last night in Albi would be my last one of being “over-served’ as my father would call it.  Most of the group would not venture down that slippery slope of alcoholic messiness including me for the rest of the trip but I must say…..we had a swell time that night and I’m glad we all enjoyed ourselves and developed a nice bond among the group.

(May 20th)
The Roquefort cheese cellars were a treat just to understand how the process evolved.  First we were schooled on how the geography had changed over hundreds of thousands of years.  The earth literally broke away from what eventually has become a small mountain and fell hundreds of feet below.  This process of the earth breaking apart and falling formed the caves of Roquefort and started a process of drafts that would carry with it spores of penicillium that imparts the cheese with its sharp and full-bodied nature.

 The process was discovered, of course, by accident when a Sheppard laid down a piece of bread and cheese but forgot it over a period of a day or so.  When the Sheppard returned he discovered a type of mold had grown on both pieces of food.  The bread tasted foul but the cheese tasted divine and thus the process was born and refined over hundreds of years becoming a legendary food product of France.

After our history lesson, we entered the caves and immediately felt the drafts that were spoken of in the video and lecture we received.  The second thing that you notice straight away is the smell which is that of a peculiar type of mold that is musty but also fragrant.  It’s kind of funny how the air doesn’t smell like the cheese itself as there is loads of it lining the shelves that are built to house it for storage during its curing process. 

Getting into the French spirit!  Yes, that's a genuine beret (I had to right?).
 If memory serves me correctly there are five stories of shelving just like that of an actual building.  That doesn’t mean that there are only five stories of cave – oh no, there is an undisclosed number of levels as some of the facts regarding the Roquefort caves are cloaked in secrecy.  I’m not sure why but were also instructed to NOT take pictures during our stay beneath the earth’s surface.  I still heard a few clicks as some group members did not heed the rules set forth by our guide.

Of course there are stories of ghosts and tragedy strewn along our walk throughout the tour but most of that went in one ear and out the other for most of us.  I was really looking forward to the tasting that came after and I was not disappointed!  There were several variations (aged at different periods) that were very different.  I wouldn't think that a few months would make that much difference in the taste of the cheese itself but it really does. 

After our Roquefort tour - full of cheese and wine; I was VERY happy!

We first tried 3 month, 6 month and 12 month variations.  The longer aged cheeses were, of course, much stronger in flavor but this doesn't mean better.  We all spied a 24 month old cheese and assumed that this would be the best tasting but it was not…..be careful of the theory of diminishing returns.  In my opinion, this older variety was musty and dull tasting but I was assured by our tour guide that it is a delicacy.  Most of our group felt much the same way I did.

Have a great day and never give up!

Mark (Sparky)

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