The Sting

Well, it happened again. I got stung, this time on my forehead above the eye. And you know how I always say honey bees are uninterested in humans? That they don’t sting out of sheer meanness, like, say, yellow jackets?

For the most part, this is true, and we’ve got thousands of bees living just behind our house to prove it. However, every so often, you come across a bee that just seems to have a gripe with the world.

Well, for me, today was that day.

There was a bee stuck between the two slding doors that open onto our deck, so I was outside to trying to help her to freedom when along came another bee flying right at my face.

Out of sheer instinct, I waved at her, trying to get her to fly away — exactly the thing you’re not supposed to do.

Suddenly I felt that searing sensation on my forehead that told me I’d been stung.

I brushed at my face with my hand — another thing one shouldn’t do when there’s a bee around — and she began flying around my head and face, so perhaps her barb didn’t enter or leave her body completely.

Who knows?

I began scraping at the area, trying to make sure the stinger wasn’t still under my skin pumping in more venom, and yelling for The Engineer to make sure she was off me.

Then, I swore a lot and called that bee many profane names. I could feel the venom moving through my veins and was afraid my eye would swell shut.

After a minute or two, I found the sting kit I keep with our bee gear. It contains several different antihistamines. A nurse anesthesiologist spoke at our beekeeping club this winter, and these were part of the protocol she advised, along with icing the area.

Here, among my wrinkles and grey hairs, you can see where I scraped at what I thought was the bee stinger.
A few hours later

You can see the antihistamines and ice did their job. The area is puffy and sore, but not nearly as bad as it could have been.

I’m still annoyed at that bee though!

Once it was clear I wasn’t having a major reaction to the sting, we went outside and split the second big hive.

Unfortunately, we didn’t find the queen, so this was a true “walkaway” split, where the beekeeper divides the hive, making sure both the new colony and the old have eggs to make a new queen. The hive with the queen will let the eggs develop normally; the hive without a queen will make one or more from the eggs.

At least that’s the plan. It remains to be seen if the bees fall in with this plan or not. It takes sixteen days to raise a queen from egg to adult, and even longer before she begins laying eggs, so it will be a while before we know if the splits are successful.

Our new set up: (l to r) 8-frame hive with a queen, 10-frame split with no queen, Nuc colony that may or may not have a queen, 10-frame hive that may or may not have a queen, and 10-frame hive with a queen.

Right now, four out of our hives are a little riled because we’ve been moving their houses around. We won’t be messing with them for a few weeks, but the hive on the far right (the weakest of the three that came out of winter) should be inspected again soon.

And that’s all the news from the OH Honey beeyard!

Mead Ginger Rogers

The Engineer has been crowned Mead Supervisor of the OH Honey Apiary, and today he declared it a good use of our beekeeping downtime to rack (bottle) our latest batch of mead. We made it in September 2021 and it’s clarified nicely as you can see from the back row bottles. I can also vouch for its flavor — pleasantly gingery, without being too strong.

Actually, I don’t think there’s such a thing as too much ginger and would be happy with more fire, but others disagree. ๐Ÿ˜‰

I can’t describe why I like sipping mead so much. I think it’s because the alcohol level (usually 16.8%) is neither high, nor low, and I always feel quite mellow after a small glass. It probably also has something to do with the fact that it’s 100% natural — basically honey, water, and yeast, along with whatever flavor we decide to use. In this case it was freshly grated ginger.

We have yet to decide on a flavor for the next batch, although The Engineer does have a growler on the go with hops and orange zest. Our backstock includes bottles of Cessna (just plane mead), Coffee Bee-n, Hot Mama, Cherry Baby, and Raspberries. And we’ve finished or shared all the bottles of Sourpuss (grapefruit).

Maybe we’ll try a cyser in the fall when the local cider comes in, but the Mead Supervisor wants to get another batch going before then.

What flavor should we try? It’s way too early for our raspberries to fruit (or even blossom). Maybe a strawberry basil in June? Or vanilla bean sooner? I keep finding recipes for vanilla bean and chamomile, but who has chamomile flowers at the ready? Not us, that’s for sure. I wonder if chamomile tea would work.

I kind of wish we’d added a vanilla bean to at least some of the Coffee Bee-n, but I guess we’ll save that for another time.

Hmmm … worth thinking about!

I also made a loaf of sourdough bread, but won’t share a picture of that because I cut into it immediately. It no longer looks pretty, but it tasted delicious slathered with butter!

It’s Splitting Time!

Today we finally(!) had temperatures warm enough to split a hive.

This is the same hive that briefly had two queens last summer. When we checked it earlier this month (before all the cold weather), it had a lot of brood, so we decided it should be the first of two we plan to split.

I’m not sure if I mentioned it, but we over-wintered all our hives with honey supers this year. That’s the smaller top box (the proportions are skewed in this picture because of the angle from which it was taken) which was quite full of nectar and honey last fall.

During the summer, we place queen excluders between the brood boxes (the bigger bottom ones) and the honey super to keep the queen from laying eggs around the honey.

Many people prefer not to use queen excluders, calling them “honey excluders,” but we have found them useful. Maybe sometime we should experiment by leaving it off one hive and see if we get more honey.

In winter, we take the queen excluders out to allow all the bees access to the extra food, even though we knew we might end up with brood in the honey at the start of the spring nectar flow.

That’s exactly what happened, so when we checked the hives for the first time, we put the queen excluders back. We’d seen the queen in the hive that’s not as strong as the other two, so it was only in the two strong ones that we needed to remember the queen might have gotten caught upstairs.

I actually thought if she did, it might actually make it easier to split the hives. Supers are smaller, so there would be fewer bees, ergo the queen would be easier to spot.

As it turned out, she was in the super of the hive we split, and I actually spotted her. Me! The woman who has only ever spotted the queen one other time in a hive in my life!!!

This made splitting the hive much easier. We just moved the frame with the queen into the new eight-frame box* and filled the rest with a couple of frames of brood and some honey. We know most of the hive’s foragers will return to the orignal hive because they’re oriented to it, so we’ll be giving sugar syrup to the new split (with the old queen). This syrup is a ration of 1:1 sugar to water, with some Honey B Healthy added to encourage them to feed. I also added Honey B Healthy’s Amino B Booster, which supposedly helps with brood rearing.

We also discovered the wax foundation frames we experimented with last year were full of drone brood — not necessarily a good thing because Varroa love drone brood because its growth cycle is similar to the mite’s. Ugh!

I’m not sure if you remember, but we tried a couple of frames of wax foundation last year because we heard the bees really like it.

Newsflash! Ours didn’t. They dismantled it and rebuilt it with their own wax cells, which they decided should be drone cells.

The queen obligingly filled every one with drone brood.

We removed one to freeze (Try to look upon this as euthanising a few drones to benefit the hive because that’s what it is), which will take care of some of the problem, but we probably should have done both. Maybe we can find a moment to pull it when we work the other two hives.

The other issue is there is now a short super frame in a deep box (because it had the queen on it and we don’t have a great record of managing to move queens anywhere without damaging them). You can bet your life the bees are building comb on the bottom of it even as I write this post.

So, we’ll have to get that out too and replace it with a regular deep frame.

Still, it was a fairly easy split.

Of course, since the queen had been laying in the super, that meant all the eggs were up there, which meant we had to put the super back on the original ten-frame box so the bees could make a queen from the eggs.

Alternatively, we could buy a new queen to introduce, which would be faster because she wouldn’t have to be raised and then do the whole mating flight thing. However, a new queen costs upwards of $40, so we usually let the bees at least try to make their own first.

Obviously, we didn’t put the queen excluder back in because we don’t want to infringe the bees movement in any way while they are at this delicate point, nor do we want to separate the new queen from the rest of her hive if they are successful in this operation.

We know there were queen cups, but we’re not sure if they had eggs in them or not. So, they may be working from scratch, which could result in a smaller, weaker “emergency queen.”

In the past, we’ve only split after seeing queen cells in our hives, but we’ve learned that’s cutting it fine and risking a swarm. However, by splitting sooner, before there are full-sized queen cells, we may be taking the risk of them raising a not-so-great queen.

It’s sort of a “damned if you do, and damned if you don’t” scenario, as seems to often be the case in beekeeping.

On another note, some people say if you split a hive, you need to move the new colony two miles away. But, we’ve learned otherwise. As long as you make sure there are plenty of nurse bees in the new hive, it will be fine. The foragers will mostly return to the old hive, but the nurse bees have never been outside, so they’ll stay and raise the young.

From one hive into two! Original, now queenless, hive is on the right, and the new hive with the old queen is on the left.

As you can see from the photo above, the bees are confused for a little while after the split, but they settle down pretty quickly.

We also took a quick peek in the super of the other strong hive to see if there was evidence of a queen, i.e, new eggs or very small larvae. There wasn’t, so she’s down in the brood boxes where she belongs.

Here’s a slo-mo and a time-lapse video of the girls bringing in pollen, which I took before we got busy with the split. I love to watch them come in loaded with beautifully colored pollen!

Next we need to turn our attention to the other big hive and do a check of the not-so-busy one too.

I’ll keep you posted!

*In an effort to keep The Engineer’s back healthy, we are trying to shift our hives from ten-frame to eight frame.

Retirement and Bee Busy-ness

I worked my last day on Friday 15 April. At least that’s the theory if all goes to plan. When I retired from the library and started at the grocery store, I planned on staying for a year or two. It worked out so well I ended up staying for 5-1/2 and intended to work until next February, when I’m eligible for a (reduced) Social Security benefit.

However, after The Engineer finished work in December, and we started to plan things, even working part-time seemed to get in the way. Also, since I’m four years older than him, I began to wonder why I was still working when he wasn’t. This isn’t quite true since he’s actually doing a little contracting, but it sort of felt that way.

So, we had a look at our budget, with and without my salary, and concluded if we couldn’t live without it, then we were spending too much money.

I’m convinced we can do it, even though — as is usually the case with our monetary moves — this decision runs exactly opposite to what the economy is doing right now. I’ve gotten a little lax with my spending, and this is a good time to cut more of my wasteful habits.

In addition, we — or at least I — have reached an age where it’s time to think about how we’d like to spend the years we have left. We don’t know how many years that might be, and I’m determined to begin to do more of the things I’d have liked to do in the past if I’d only had the time.

And what might those things be, you ask? At least, that’s what everyone else asked when I told them the news.

Here’s my list:

— Clear out every cupboard, drawer, closet, shelf, and storage area in our house and cut my belongings by at least a third

— Have a garage sale with those items

— Work with The Engineer to get our house in marketable condition, sell it, and then move into a smaller place

–Start working again on my family tree

— Read (even) more

— Travel (even) more

— Take more hikes

— Go cycling more often

— Fly more often

— Volunteer for park cleanups and other one-day events

— Go to garage sales and thrift stores again with an eye to re-selling items on eBay

— Work the bees when the weather is good instead of having to fit that work around two schedules

— Possibly grow our OH Honey apiary to include a few more hives (but not too many)

Anyway, that’s enough to be getting on with. I’m quite sure we won’t be bored.

And since we’re talking about bees, I think it’s time for an update.

I am happy to announce that all three hives made it through the winter. Two seem quite strong, and the remaining one is still active, if not quite thriving on the level of the others.

We were finally able to inspect the colonies about a week and a half ago, and although we (The Engineer) only spotted the queen in one hive, they all seem to be doing fine.

As expected, two were doing a little better than the third, but all in all, they looked pretty good.

They are bringing in a lot of pollen!

Some of the pollen was light green, and we even saw some blue. (The green didn’t show up very well in the photo, and the bees with blue pollen moved too fast for me to get a photo.)

Can you see the larvae in the cells on the left?

After attending two sessions on swarm prevention, we both concluded we’ve been lucky to never have had any of our bees in the trees. Apparently, we’ve been splitting our hives rather late in the swarming process.

They’ve already been hatching drones, and we saw several queen cups. Even though we didn’t see any big queen cells, we weren’t able to see if the cups had eggs in them, so they may or may not have been the beginning of an actual queen cell. Our bees almost always have a queen cup or two in their hives, so it’s hard to say.

Queen cups in a poorly focused photo

Nonetheless, the presence of drones, and the number of bees in the colony indicated it might be time to do a split as a means of swarm prevention. I’m not going to try to explain how and why this is so because there are others who can explain it much better including Perfect Bee and Honey Bee Suite. If you really want to delve into the subject, I suggest you take a look at Swarm Essentials by Stephen Repasky. He literally wrote the book on swarms.

We decided to split the two larger hives, one at a time.

Unfortunately, it then got cold.

And we had snow.

Today, the sun is coming out, but it’s later than predicted, so we will split a hive tomorrow instead.

It’s so nice to be retired and have that option. ๐Ÿ™‚

Oradour-sur-Glane: The Martyr Village

It is difficult to write about Oradour-sur-Glane, even more challenging to do so without resorting to cliches, but I will try.

Oradour panorama, 2022

In 1944, Oradour-sur-Glane was a prosperous village of about 350 people. Its location, on the River Glane about fifteen miles from Limoges, made it a popular destination for picnicking and fishing.

On 10 June, four days after the Normandy landings, the town was bustling with activity. Its population had grown with the arrival of refugees from other areas, school was in session (as was customary in France until early this century), and monthly tobacco rations were being handed out to the area’s residents.

Before I recount the day’s events, it’s important you understand that many French citizens resisted the occupation of their country. Some in the Resistance knew D-Day was approaching, and to try to ensure the success of that operation, the Maquis were making life as miserable as possible for the occupying forces. There were attacks on German divisions, there were German soldiers being killed by Resistance groups in the area around Oradour, and the Nazis had begun to respond to such activity with ever increasing savagery.

According to the Holocaust Encyclopedia “those who had seen service on the eastern front and whose response to partisan activity had been conditioned by the extraordinary brutality of anti-partisan measures there, radicalized and intensified responses to real and perceived resistance activity.”

The 2nd Waffen Panzer Division Das Reich was one such troop, having seen two years of combat action including against the partisans (Resistance) on the eastern front. And it was they who approached Oradour on 10 June 1944.

Led by SS Major Adolf Diekmann, the division rounded up the town’s inhabitants on the “fairground” or village green.

First, they claimed to be checking identification cards. Then, the Nazis said they were searching for weapons. And finally, they began to separate the men from the women and children.

The latter were herded into the church, the former divided into six groups which are moved into various buildings while the town was searched.

Around five, an explosion served as a signal to commence firing machine guns at the groups of men. They shot until all the bodies lay still.

At five, soldiers entered the church, placing a large chest trailing a long fuse near the altar, and then retreating, lighting the fuse before shutting the door. The chest exploded creating a suffocating smoke. The women scrambled frantically toward the door, eventually ramming through, only to be met by machine gun fire.

One woman, Mme. Rouffanche, survived by somehow climbing on the altar and jumping out a window, surviving the ten foot drop to the embankment below. Another woman followed, handing out her baby before jumping, but the child’s cries attracted the attention of soldiers who shot all three, killing the mother and infant. Mme. Rouffanche was injured but managed to crawl into a garden where she spent the night among the pea plants.

Sign below the church window
The outside of the church

In the end, 642 civilians — the youngest only eight months old — were killed. Six people survived.

The Nazis then looted the village, burning the remains of the dead as well as the structures of the town.

A little later, the tram from Limoges arrived. The soldiers forced the passengers off the train and sent it back empty. Strangely, they held the passengers for two hours, warned them not to enter the village, and then released them to find their way home.

The tram tracks are still there, and the station.

The village is still there too, or what remains of it. In 1946, the French government proclaimed the whole town a memorial and gave orders for it to be preserved.

Below is the official German version of the events as relayed by the Holocaust Encyclopedia.

The German Army High Command  … offered this explanation to the State Secretary in the Vichy Ministry of Defense, General Eugรจne Bridoux, after Vichy diplomats had sent a formal protest note that contained an accurate account of the events of June 10. The German explanation stated that:

  • The men of the village died during the fight
  • The fight had been initiated from the village
  • The women and children had taken refuge inside the church and died as the result of an explosion from an nearby insurgent ammunition supply dump that ignited the inside of the church.

As I tried to translate the signs of the village — “Ah, this was a bakery, and here was a dentist” — I couldn’t help but be struck by the ordinariness of the lives that were snuffed out suddenly and seemingly without reason, certainly without justification.

A cafe — You can still see where the awning once hung.
The girls school
The infants (primary) school
The wine and spirits shop
The local garage
The post office
Nearly every house had the remains of a sewing machine amongst the rubble.

There were other signs.

Ici lieu de supplice, un groupe d’hommes fut massecre et brule par les Nazis. Recuillez vous: Here, a place of torture, a group of men were massacred and burned by the Nazis.
Ici dorment les morts. Pelerins pensez a eux le silence et le recueillement: Here sleep the dead. Pilgrims think of them in silence and prayer.
Ici fut retrouve le corps de M. Poutaroud: Here was found the body of M. Poutaroud.
(Translated via Google Translate)

The memorial also has a crypt filled with the daily bits and pieces found among the remains, the sort of items a person might carry in their pocket.

Pocket watches and thimbles
Eyeglasses and more watches
Loose change and bills
Pocketknives, most complete with a corkscrew

There were also children’s toys.

Bicycles and a toy pram
Whole families perished.
In the hallway of the entrance/exit, there’s a gallery of photos of those who died, with blank spaces for those for whom a photo seems to be unavailable.

Oradour was just a town that fell in the path of the 2nd Waffen Panzer Division Das Reich on their way to Normandy.

To walk its streets was to struggle to comprehend the magnitude of what happened there. Worse, to do so two weeks ago was to be forced to reflect on the likelihood of it happening again.

Now, two weeks later, after seeing the photos and reading the stories from Mariupol and Bucha, I know that it has, and still, I cannot comprehend … not any of it, not then, and not now.

There is no magic there, or mayhem, only futility and loss.

View from a Viaduct and Saint-Germain-de-Confolens

Following our usual procedure, we arrived at Auntie J. and Uncle G.’s after a brief detour down their neighbor’s driveway/farm track. During our stay we enjoyed many convivial glasses of wine, delicious meals prepared by Auntie J., and forays to see the sites of the area, during which we tried to walk off some of the calories.

We walked across this viaduct. Since I don’t have the best head for heights, so I stayed right in the middle. The view was lovely, but I find I didn’t take any pictures, probably because I was concentrating too hard on crossing without freezing in place!

The next day, we visited the ruins of the castle at Saint-Germaine-de-Confolens. Local lore says there has been a castle on this site for over a thousand years.

The castle was cordoned off, so we weren’t able to take a closer look, but we enjoyed looking just the same. The town and river are beautiful.

Whenever we visit the UK and France, as an American, I find it hard to imagine living in buildings that have been there for centuries. At home, a structure is old if it survives fifty years!

French graves often have these little plaques, which Uncle G. explained are given by family, friends, and/or organizations the deceased may have belonged to. He learned this while riding with his local cycling club when the group stopped to place one such memorial for a member who had died.

I noticed this tree, the likes of which I’d not seen before, and was told it’s a mimosa. Now, when I enjoy a champagne and orange juice with brunch, I’ll know what the drink is named after (although the English call this drink “Buck’s Fizz”)

One afternoon, we walked into Pleuville. The commune (area), which is also called Pleuville, was divided by the occupying Germans during the second world war. From the time of the occupation until 11 November 1942, the village of Pleuville was in “Vichy France” (the so-called “free” zone), but the its nearest neighbor, La Courcelle, was occupied. As a result, Pleuville (the village) was a hotbed of resistance, with messages, and even people, regularly smuggled across the line.

Google Translation: “In memory of the maquisards: Tombs 3 August 1944 for the liberation of France with the passage of a German column, Jarrassier Clement, Mandinaud Ernest, Quiring Joseph, Bourgoin (Canadian)”
One memorial, two wars
Google translation: “For the children of Pleuville who died for France, 1914-1918”

“In Memory of all those who fought, who suffered and died for the homeland and for freedom”

“Deported: Pautrot, Alche; Thromas, Marcel, F.F.I.; Jarassier, Clement; Jaud, Henri; Mandinaud, Ernest; Quiring, Joseph; Sauzet, Jean; Polet, Raymond
Soldiers: Petit, Pierre; Thomas, Marcel; Bourgoin, Louis, Canadian, P.G.; Buissonneau, Alphonse; Nadeau, Emil; In occupation: Michelet, Denis”
I found F.F.I. listed as meaning the French Forces of the Interior, but didn’t find “P.G.” or “EN A.F.N.”

We also passed this grave marker in the back of someone’s garden. Auntie J. knew, or at least knew of, the people who own the house, and I think she said the deceased wasn’t related to them. It’s nice they are maintaining the grave though, isn’t it?

Back at Auntie J. and Uncle G.’s I was taken by the sight of this old gate, which I thought was picturesque.

On our last day, we went to dinner at this restaurant. Of course, I can’t remember its name or where it was, but the setting was beautiful, and the food phenomenal.

We had one more outing with J. and G., but it requires its own post, so you’ll have to wait.

Meanwhile, I’m happy to report our stay with them was all travel magic and no mayhem!

Those Clever French

Sometimes when we travel, we notice small details that make me think, “How clever! Why don’t we do that at home?”

For example, when we went to Berlin, I was quite taken with the fact that the cafes provided cheap fleece blankets for customers who chose to sit outside on cooler nights.

Obviously, I’m sure they don’t do that now due to COVID concerns, but it was a great idea. Bring them in each night, throw them in the washer, and put them out again the next day. Simple!

It was the same in France, and I took a few pictures to show you what I mean.

First of all, in most cases, the plumbing was amazing.

You think I’m joking? I’m not.

I had the best shower ever at Auntie G’s house.

I mean, look at this thing! There’s the “gentle rainfall” option for overhead, which I was able to pair with the wall-based squirty things — here’s the important part — without losing water pressure or changing the temperature!

Hard to believe, I know.

Plus, I had the option of the handheld nozzle for rinsing my hair.

Exhibit #1: The Shower

Now, before you tell me you’re sure they sell this type of shower in other countries, I’m going to cut you off and say, “I know!

I’ve taken showers with a similar setup in hotels, and they were — excuse my French — merde! If I turned on the wall-based nozzles, I lost all pressure in the rainfall showerhead. Sometimes the temperature changed too.

When I raved about their shower to Auntie G. and Uncle R., they told me the water pressure is much higher in France, and although French plumbers are notoriously expensive and hard to schedule, their work is excellent.

Auntie J. and Uncle G. agreed.

Our hotel in Paris seemed to be the unfortunate exception to this rule. The water was warm, but the pressure was nearly non-existent, so maybe showering heaven only exists in certain regions of France.

More research may be necessary, and I might just be the one to do it!

Exhibit #2: The Water Bottle

Have a look at this water bottle. Do you notice anything different? Study the cap. Do you see how it’s attached to the bottle, even though the bottle is open?

This means when the bottle is recycled, the cap is too.

Think about it. How many times have you seen little bottle caps just like this one by the side of the road or in a parking lot? Wouldn’t it be better if the cap stayed with the bottle in the waste/recycle stream?

Then, even if the bottle isn’t recycled, at least it’s less likely a bird will eat the cap. And, unfortunately, it’s not likely to be recycled either in the U.S. or France because our rates of recycling are 34% and 35%, respectively. (Germany puts us all to shame coming in at 62% [possibly because the homeless do a lot of trade in bottles — see earlier link about Berlin], and even the UK does better [39%]).

On a side note, while looking up information about birds eating plastic, I found this story about a man who invented a bird feeder that accepts bottle caps from birds as payment for their food. Talk about clever!

Exhibit #3: The Shoehorn

When we went through TSA on this trip (I think it was in Cleveland, but it may have been JFK), we were told we had to take our shoes off, which I found a little annoying. A couple of years ago, we paid to get “known traveler” numbers, were therefore TSA Prechecked and not supposed to have to take off our shoes or unpack our electronics and liquids. I had chosen my footwear accordingly — a comfortable pair of slip-on, go-anywhere Blundstone boots. And these boots, while slip-on, are challenging to get off and on.

When we got to the TSA agent by the belt where we had to put our carry-ons, I asked him, “What does TSA Precheck do for us?”

His answer? “You don’t have to take off your shoes.”

“But, we were told to take them off,” I replied.

“Oh.” he said. “Does it say ‘pre-check’ on your ticket?”

I showed him my ticket.

“You can put them back on,” he said.

Well, that was a super-helpful exchange.

Anyway, when we finally cleared TSA, I found a place to sit down and put on my boots.

It did not have a shoehorn. It never would have occurred to me to look for one.

In France, they have shoehorns — cheap ones, obviously, because I’m sure they get stolen — but shoehorns attached to the little benches after TSA.

How clever is that?

And before you start talking about foot hygiene, let me just say, I would have happily made use of that shoehorn with my boots. You may feel differently, but I say five seconds contact with someone else’s foot cooties on the outside of my socks is a risk I’m willing to take.

So, how about it, what clever details have you encountered in your travels? Feel free to leave a comment and share your experiences.

Travel Magic and Mayhem Score: Miniscule moment of mayhem in US TSA line and small amounts of travel magic encountering new ideas in France.

Saint Robert and an Almost Visit to Lascaux

The sky was an eerie color as we drove from Bordeaux to Orgnac sur Vezere, which I now know can be attributed to the Sahara sandstorm.

Still, the drive was pretty much routine, that is we only got lost — I prefer to think of it as slightly misplaced — at the very end when we missed Auntie #1’s road, and we had to backtrack (just a little). So, as I say, routine for us when traveling in France.

Upon arrival, Auntie G. and Uncle R. made us very welcome. Neither set of Aunties and Uncles had seen any family members for two years thanks to the pandemic, so they were very happy to see us! You can read more about their place in my 2019 blog post about their gite.

Here’s a view from their place.

We had planned to stay only two nights with Auntie G. and Uncle R., which turned out to be a good thing as a close friend of theirs, who had been very ill, died while we were there. Since they were involved with his care and looking after the widow, as well as grieving themselves, they weren’t able to go to Lascaux with us.

We set off on our own. As usual, I navigated with the aid of the GPS (SatNav) and my French road atlas. Eager to see more of the countryside, we decided to avoid the highways. The GPS took this to mean we wanted to visit every hamlet between Orgnac and Montignac, where Lascaux IV is located.

For once, I’m not exaggerating. Since I was following along in the atlas, I could see several times where the GPS had us get off a well-traveled road to take another much smaller road — sometimes more of a track — that did kind of a “U” and ended up back on the well-traveled road perhaps a half-mile from where we’d turned off. Since the distance we drove on the smaller road was usually more than the distance we would have gone on the well-traveled road, this made no sense.

On a positive note, I’m sure we were the first visitors from America to see some of those hamlets since World War II, so at least we gained that distinction.

In case you haven’t heard of Lascaux, here’s a little background on these ancient cave paintings. Due to the damage from the volume of visitors, you can no longer visit the actual caves. Instead, the government entity responsible for French culture created a replica called Lascaux II, which has since been replaced by Lascaux IV.

Although this sounds like it wouldn’t be nearly as authentic, the replicas were painted using the same techniques and paints as the original and are said to be quite spectacular.

We don’t know because we didn’t see them, showing up fifteen minutes before the next French tour and about twenty-three hours before the next English one.

Lest you think we are complete idiots, I’d like to point out that I looked at the website before we visited, and although it mentions buying tickets ahead of time, the link was a dead one. And nowhere on the site — at least not in any obvious place one might look — does it say anything about English and French tour times, although I’ve just now managed to find the place to purchase a ticket, and it doesn’t specify either.

I asked if there was any kind of self-guided tour, and the answer was a firm, “Non.”

Ah, well. Another time, perhaps. And maybe then, Auntie G. and Uncle R. will be able to go with us.

Instead, we turned back the way we came, deciding to stop at Saint Robert, a medieval village we’d passed on the way.

The church was built in the 11th century, so the town is quite old.

This “Garden with Pillars” is part of the remains of Chateau Verneuil, built in the 15th century for Bertrand de Vilhac, a gentleman and lord of Verneuil. The Chateau and its chapel were used as a refuge by the people of Saint Robert in 1575 during the religious war. The Huguenots invaded the castle, looted it and set it on fire. (Information via Google translation of a plaque next to the gate.)

As we wandered through the town, I couldn’t help wondering what its residents thought of strangers like us showing up and walking their streets and pathways. I also considered the fact that they all must be quite fit because the village is built on a steep incline.

A new building by Saint Robert standards: Note the date above the doorway.
I took this just because I like chickens and the coo-ing noises they make.
The Engineer supervising a building project. I liked the contrast of the old tiles on either side of the brand new slate roof.
View of the valley from behind someone’s house in Saint Robert. Imagine seeing this every day!

That night, we all went to dinner in Uzerche. The Engineer and I had wandered around this town in 2019, and it’s a beautiful place. I wish I had written down the name of the restaurant we went to, but I think it was the Hotel Restaurant Jean Teyssier because I recall Auntie G. maybe saying something about a hotel. On the Yelp map, it looks like it’s in the right place too.

Well! France’s reputation for great food is well-deserved! Every meal we ate was delicious (with the exception of our self-cooked eggs). Also, I’ve noticed servers seem to approach their work with an air of professionalism not always found in the US, and rarely found in the UK. There’s no waiting for plates to be cleared as new courses are served, no looking around to find someone to ask for another drink, and yet, no hovering at one’s elbow either.

I found myself thinking, “Yes! This is how things should be done!”

The restaurant in Uzerche was no exception. Our server (I’m pretty sure he was actually the maitre’ d) was wonderful. When he learned we lived in the US, he asked if we watched baseball or the NFL. When I said neither, that we only enjoyed Premier League football, he asked which teams we supported. I said Liverpool and think I made a friend for life. It’s always fun to bond with another Liverpool fan. Go Reds!

Uncle R. had him select a bottle of wine, which Monsieur Maitre’ D proffered efficiently and with style. As we perused the menu, M. Maitre’ D helped by describing any dish we were interested in. This helped immensely, much better than piecing the information together from my phrase book.

The restaurant offered a fixed price menu, which is common in France (and some other parts of Europe too). A customer may order an entree (what we call an appetizer or starter) and a plat principal (what we call an entree or main dish) with or without dessert, a plat principal with dessert, or a plat principal and fromage (cheese) to finish the meal, with set prices for each variation. In each category except cheese, one is given three or four options.

It’s a great way to do things, simpler for the chef and servers, and less expensive for customers.

Once we decided on our selections, M. Maitre’ D, reappeared with what appeared to be little appetizers for everyone. I was confused because I’d opted for the plat principal and dessert choice, but found out later this how things work at nicer restaurants in France.

These little appetizers are called amuse-bouche (mouth amuser) and are chosen and created by the chef to prepare diners for the meal and to give them an idea of the chef’s style.

Ours were a salmon mousse – delectable! – and some kind of curryish lentil sauce or soup. I practically licked my bowl!

For my plat principal, I had sea bream stuffed with a mashed potato filling with just drizzle of a delicious creamy sauce. Again, I was scraping the plate, trying to scoop up every delectable morsel.

As for dessert, it was creme brulee, predictable tourist choice, I know, but oh, my heavens! Swoon!

We greatly enjoyed the opportunity to partake of such an incredible meal with family, and I think for Auntie G. and Uncle R., it was a break from what seemed to be a difficult time.

The following morning we would set out for Auntie #2’s. But that story will wait for a future post.

Travel Magic and Mayhem Score: The magic of discovering Saint Robert, a visit with Auntie #1 and Uncle R., and that fabulous meal in Uzerche more than made up for a little mayhem with our Lascaux mishap.

Bordeaux — Cite’ du Vin and Chateau La Freynelle

Before we went to France in 2019, we were in Kentucky, and I made The Engineer stop at a Liquor Barn, kind of like a supermarket of alcoholic beverages. We were inside wandering the aisles of the wine department when a salesman approached, volunteering that he knew a lot about wine and asking what we were looking for. I told him we were interested in trying some French wine before our trip, and he pulled a few bottles from the shelves saying they’d be a good start.

The only one I remember is Chateau La Freynelle Bordeaux Blanc. We like that wine, like it a lot. Surprisingly, because I’m not an oenophile, the critics seem to agree. Wine Enthusiast gave the 2018 vintage an 87 and “The Reverse Wine Snob” called it “A juicy French Bordeaux blend that is a great alternative to boring whites.”

Still, our 2019 trip was already jam packed, with no room left for any extra stops. It also hadn’t occurred to me we might actually be able to visit the actual Chateau where they make such deliciousness!

That particular lightbulb didn’t go on until much later when I spoke to the wine specialists at the grocery store where I work. One told me the store might be able to arrange visits to some vineyards, and the other mentioned La Cite’ du Vin, a new(ish) museum of wine in Bordeaux.

Pulling out my big map of France, I saw Bordeaux was only about two hours from each of The Engineer’s aunties, who we planned to visit again.

And that’s how we ended up in Bordeaux a few short weeks ago.

The drive there was dreary, under an atmospheric sky.

Balls of mistletoe in the trees — We saw lots of these on our way out of Normandy.

When we stopped for fuel, I took a picture of how much it cost to fill the tank of our compact rental car. Fuel, which is sold by the litre, is a lot more expensive than here in the US. However, public transport is a much better, and most cars get many more miles to the gallon than the ones driven in America. I saw very few of the huge trucks and SUVs so common here, and there are charging stations for electric cars in the cities.

Calculated by today’s exchange rate, that’s $94.99.

The morning after arriving in Bordeaux, we took the tram to La Cite’ du Vin. It was cheap, easy to use, and riding it gave us a 44-minute tour of the area.

As for the museum, I liked it, and The Engineer was bored.

The exhibits are interactive but in a techy kind of way. Upon entering, each visitor receives a pair of (uncomfortable) headphones attached to what lookes like an iPhone. You sort of point your “phone” at each display, then select the topic you want to explore.

The audio and video sync so you see and hear about the subject in whichever of the eight languages you selected when you bought your ticket. Some of the subjects were more physically interactive, exploring the smells used to describe wines and selecting wines to pair with different foods.

The virtual sommelier gave mixed reviews on my choices. For one, he said, “Why not?” and talked about my unexpected, but interesting, pairing. On another, he said, “You’ll never be a sommelier if you make choices like that!” His response made me giggle.

To end the tour, visitors take the elevator to an upper floor for a glass of wine.

I liked the ceiling.

View from above: gardens on a roof

The view was nice, but the glass of wine was small, so we headed out to see a little more of the city of Bordeaux.

We ate at a small cafe across from the river Garonne, on which Bordeaux is situated. The server didn’t speak English, so we got out the phrasebook to figure out what to order. A minute or so later, she appeared with the chef, who asked in a stiff Scottish brogue, “Can I help you?” After telling him we wanted to order lunch, he said, “What do you want?” (Sadly, I can’t capture the sound of his speech in writing, so you’ll just have to imagine it.)

“An omelette.”

He asked what we’d like in it and how we’d like it done — something neither of us had ever been asked before in regard to an omelette. We settled on some ingredients, omelette well-cooked, and I asked for a “pain du chocolat,” which he corrected to something else.

A few minutes later, we received a huge omelette, with a beautiful salad, and my chocolate pastry.

It was wonderful, a small incident of travel magic.

Because we’d had such a nice lunch, and dinner options were limited around our hotel, we did a little shopping at the local Aldi, which was similar enough to our local ones at home that I could navigate with no problem.

Cans of beer were 44c, and the baguette we bought was under a euro; if I recall correctly, it was under 50c. We bought a big hunk of cheese, a baguette, four cans of beer, a bottle of wine, a bag of crisps, a large bar of chocolate, some fruit, and a package of about fifteen mini squares of chocolate. I may have forgotten a few items, but the bill was only 18 euro, far less than a meal out.

It was even less than the 34 euro it would have cost to eat breakfast at the hotel, and since we had the bread and cheese and fruit for both dinner that night and breakfast the following morning, I think we did well. And it was delicious. We only finished the hunk of cheese at Auntie #2’s house on the last night before we left to return to Paris for our flight home!

But before we left Bordeaux to visit those aunties, we were off to the vineyard.

I had emailed Chateau La Freynelle when I was planning our trip, asking if we might arrange a tour and tasting, and gotten a reply a few days later from Veronique Barthe saying they would be delighted to welcome us. I was thrilled!

Veronique is the first female head of her family’s vineyard/chateau, taking the reins in 1990 after it had passed from father to son for seven generations since the French Revolution, so she’s a bit of a trailblazer.

Chateau La Freynelle was established in 1789 by Jean Barthe using gold he received from Napoleon for marrying on the same day, and is now one of several chateaus owned by the family.

As seems to happen whenever we look for anything in France, we spent some time trying to find the vineyard, despite having GPS and an address. There are vines everywhere and many, many chateaus, but eventually we found the right road and saw a small sign for La Freynelle.

We were met by Jade, who had arranged the logistics of our visit, and as she greeted us, she remarked on the condition of our car, saying it had caught the sand from the Sahara too. Although we’d noticed the dust on our hotel window and car that morning (how could you not?), we hadn’t known where it had come from. It was interesting to learn the explanation.

Jade was pursuing a Masters Degree, with a focus on marketing wine, and was interning at La Freynelle. She couldn’t have been nicer as she showed us around.

Cases of wine in what will be a public sales area
Barrels of wine, with one experimental clay vessel in the middle
A pair of would-be wine connoisseurs
Some of the wines available to taste at Chateau La Freynelle — I especially liked the Clairet (which Jade is pointing at) and the Cabernet Sauvignon. The Engineer preferred the Rose’.

I can’t describe how welcome Jade made us feel — as if we were celebrities instead of just a couple of people from Ohio who like to drink wine. We’ve been to some tastings here at home, and although they have been fine, we’ve never been treated as we were at Chateau La Freynelle, like honored guests instead of a couple of novices come to sample wines.

Jade told us about each wine, providing just enough detail for our level of knowledge. We also talked about climate change, and the steps they were taking to deal with, mostly experimenting with new grape varietals if I remember correctly.

The changing temperature is a great concern because the rules for watering vines in France are very strict. In fact, according to Jade, irrigation is not allowed in the Bordeaux appellation. From what I’ve read that’s because watered vines can grow bigger grapes, but those grapes make a poorer quality wine.

It’s certainly a challenging time to be a winemaker.

Tasting so many good wines made it difficult to decide what kind to buy, even though I’d previously received a price list via email and been amazed at the price difference between a bottle at the Chateau and one at an Ohio grocery store.

I’d also already hatched a plan to buy several cartons to take as host/hostess gifts to The Engineer’s Aunties (and Uncles) and bought a couple of reusable wine bags for travel at La Cite’ du Vin so we could take some home.

Eventually, I came to a conclusion, and Jade packed up the bottles.

Of course, I promptly forgot who was meant to get what, and had to figure it all out again when we arrived at Auntie #1’s!

Before going outside, I took one final picture of the building.

As we said goodbye, The Engineer asked if we could picnic under a tree in the parking area, which was fine as long as we watched out for boars.

Fortunately, we planned to stay in the car anyway because it was chilly, and we were able to enjoy our lunch — more bread and cheese ๐Ÿ™‚ — before hitting the road for Auntie #1’s house.

Travel Magic and Mayhem score: 100% Magic thanks to Jade and Chateu La Freynelle.