Summer is gone and half of autumn.  It was raining hard as I left Paris this morning.  I’ve probably been to Paris fifteen times and every time it has rained at some point during my visit.  I felt reassured that this visit was no exception in the precipitation department.

 My plane is now just two hours out of San Francisco.  Angel is asleep in her carrier under the seat in front of me.  This was her fourth trip to France, a few more for me.

John left me at the airport this morning and headed north to the UK to visit friends.  He’ll be in San Francisco before the holidays.   I’m ready to be home but already miss my little village and the dear friends there.  I feel like I have one foot in each continent and that the world is a pretty small place.

It helped to spend three days in Paris rather than facing the culture shock of my home city immediately upon leaving Abeilhan as it has given me time to adjust to city life again.  During this last five months I feel much more part of the village and am bonded closer to our friends there.  Life is simpler there but it feels deeper in many ways – the closeness of living so near to everyone.   Things feel so familiar, the people you see each day just going about your activities of daily living.  The way people just drop in, to share some conversation and usually bring you something.  The day before we left Yves brought us the last tomatoes from his garden and three figs just to let us know he’d miss us.  Suzette made a cake to have with coffee when I came to her place to say goodbye.  Ricou dropped by with some unfamiliar fruit from his garden and I have no idea what it was.

The weather helped make me feel it was time to leave.  Gray days and cool evenings, we even had a fire one night to keep warm.  Things do seem much more seasonal in France than in San Francisco.  The produce is always seasonal and these last weeks porcini mushroom (cepes in France), pumpkins, butternut squash, and brussel sprouts are in abundance.  The vendange finally ended and this weekend the rabbit hunting season is to start.

I feel anxious to restart my San Francisco life but melancholy leaving the French one behind for awhile.

It has been over ten years since I have been here.  It was one of my favorite places in my travels coming here many times, usually in the autumn.  The place is the Chianti part of Tuscany.  It lies directly south of Florence and is just a little less than half way to Siena.  It is high fills and valleys with vineyards, old villas, hilltowns, and cypress trees.  No trains come through it and since this isn't July or August, there are relatively few tourists.  It is colder than I expected with a rainstorm that refused to leave during our entire visit.  Usually it only rained at night and we we awoke in the mornings a fine fog hovered in the valleys.

I had some concerns in coming here.  Would its beauty be less than I remembered?  What if the food wasn't the earthy mix of wild boar, porcini mushrooms, black truffles, and pasta that has remained in my taste bud memory so loved for so long?  I was taking people I love to this place so special to me.  What if they didn't like it after all?

My sister, Judy, and her husband Mike had arrived a day earlier coming from their cruise through the Greek Islands.  They were sleeping when John and I got there.  Soon the rest of the group Kay & Tony, Steve & Mary drove up the drive.  We are staying at Monti Poni which consists of a large farmhouse with multiple lodgings (in three apartments) and also the owner's home in a separate building.  There is a beautiful swimming pool, although sadly we never did use it as it was just too cold even for me.   It is a beautiful spot and the accommodations were lovely although we never were quite warm enough due to the unseasonably cold weather we had.  The fireplace was huge and did provide good heat but the chimney didn't draw well so we our clothing always smelled of the log fire and each morning I felt like I had smoked a pack of cigarettes (yuk).

Still it was a lovely place and we had such a wonderful time.  So good to be with the people you love in a place you love.
Morning clouds nestling in the valley by Monte Poni.
Monte Poni
The pool at Monte Poni
That first evening we drove up the nearby winding road to the top of the mountain above the town of Greve to Restaraunt Lamole.  I remembered the first time I came here over 20 years ago.  The place is unchanged except that everyone is 20 years older - me, the owners, the owner's son (who was a our waiter).  I remembered him as a 6 year old running around the restaurant.  Now he is a very charming, well educated, entertaining fellow who has a degree in geology and spent several years at Yosemite National Park.  

Being Monday night the restaurant was almost deserted, except for us.  We had the attentive service of three wait persons and they provided such a memorable evening.  To begin prossecco (Italian champagne) and then starters that can hardly be described - an egg slow cooked in the oven at a very low temperature yielding a silken shimmering white an yellow oval, a vegetable flan covered with shaved truffles, oh my oh my I can't remember the rest.  For mains there was truffle pasta, boar stew, sliced rare beef (covered with truffles), oh my oh my I can't remember the rest.  Cheese course was shaved romano which may sound boring but was just lovely.  Oh did I mention the wine?  Lamole Chianti Classica Reserva - yum.  And then of course dessert........   With all of this there was charming conversation, laughter, and photos.
Then back to the Villa on a cold evening. We got some matches at the restaurant so we could have a fire.
The next day Judy, Michael and I walked to the next village, Panzano.  A beautiful cool morning.  We saw them picking grapes by hand in a local vineyard.

Picking grapes by hand. Seen during our walk to Panzano across the countryside.
Panzano Church
The closest town is Greve.  It has a large square for the Saturday market.  There are a number of good restaurants and shops.  One of the most interesting is a cheese and meat shop.  
Tuscan pig - domestic and wild is highly prized.
I particularly liked this one.
We did lots of short drives through the countryside.  The roads are windy and mountainous - not for the faint of heart or those prone to motion sickness.  The beauty of this area is intoxicating.  We saw a huge stag fallow deer run across the road in front of us and then along the roadside.  Unfortunately no one had a camera ready.  One day we saw boar hunters at work on a moutain road in their orange vests.  One group was standing above a ravine blowing horns and banging pans while another group further down the road was entering the ravine with shotguns in hand.  We also saw men hiking through the mountains with baskets I suspect for truffles and porcinis.
Statute in Greve square, more well endowed than Michelangelo's David.
A highlight was our cooking class.  Two lovely Tuscan women came to Monte Poni to give us a Tuscan cooking lesson.  Gaila and Maria Victoria arrived with all the ingredients, printed recipes, and aprons for each of us.  The menu:
La Bruschetta (tomato)
Fresh Pasta (with vegetable sauce)
Pollo Al Tegame
Apple Cake

We got to work.  Gaila was "la maestra" and she ordered us to do her bidding.  Maria Victoria (her mother) was that "artist" with the pasta.  Everybody pitched in and it was great fun with a delicious result.
Notice that Michael is the only cook sitting down.
I love my Sis!!
Mary looks pretty comfortable at the controls.
"I am the teacher. This is how you do it."
Once the pasta was rolled out it was hung by the fire on chair backs.  Later it was cut.
Now we eat!!!! Delicious!
On Thursday all of us piled in two cars and off for a day of culture in Firenze.  Both Mike and John did great driving into this busy city filled with Italian drivers.  After 5 days in the quiet countryside it was a bit of the other kind of culture shock.  We managed to meet up at the Academy and saw David (wow!!) and other old stuff (not so wow).  Then we had a really lovely lunch in front of the Duomo.  Walks after lunch and to the Uffize for really great old stuff (my favorite "Venus Rising").  It rained of course.  We had long walks back to our cars, were exhausted but a great day.  We remained in the countryside the rest of the trip - oh la la the tranquility of it all.
One rainy day John and I drove to Arezzo.  This is to the east and a little south.  Actually it is very close to Siena and resembles Siena in may ways.  However, tourists don't seem to have discovered it and it was just and a few Italians wandering about on a rainy day. 
View from Arezzo
They have a palio here in Arezzo just like Siena.
Saturday evening we had reserved a spot at the table of the famous butcher of Panzano, Dario Checchino (sp?).  He is a genuine person who grew up in Panzano from a long line of butchers.  He was going to be the first son not to follow the profession and was studying in college when his father died and he needed to save the family business.  To say he is a character is an understatement and he is the darling of many a media foodey/traveler e.g., Mario Butali, Tony Bourdain, and Rick Steeves.  His butcher shop is a big gathering spot for locals and for tourists.  You might say he put Panzano on the map.  When you visit his shop you are offered wine, little tastes of meaty snacks, etc.  He does look larger than life.

He has several restaurants - one a sit down one for steaks (huge Tuscan ones) and another that is six courses of meaty family fare (you have whatever they are serving).  This is the one we ate in.  He also has MacDarios - which is fast food - surely delicious but we didn't sample it.

The dinner was very good if a little wierd, meat broth, some sort of preserved beef cheek, stewed beef, Tuscan beans.  I know there was a lot more but I can't quite remember.  Anyway we had a great time.  Dario was in and out (mostly out).  After dinner everyone hangs out in the street and Dario serves grappa.  Amazing.
Dario holding court in his shop
After dinner grappa anyone?
Our last day, Sunday, we John, Mike, Judy and I drove to Brolio castle.  Of course is was another rainy day but no problem.  Brolio castle has been owned by the Ricasoli family since the 1100s and they still live there.  The castle was always associated with Firenze even though it is closer to Siena and many battles took place in the area.  The Baron in the mid 1800s was actually responsible for creating the Chianti wine "recipe".  Thank you Baron.  According to the leader of our museum tour he was also quite a guy - very important in the Italian government when they were making Italy all one country, a scientist, and an artist.

Anyway his castle is certainly beautiful and the view outstanding.
Of course our last evening we had to return to Lamole - the place we began our little Tuscan trip.  Again the food, ambiance, service, wine, EVERYTHING was great.  Filippo, one of the owners was there and it was great to see him.  He is just as charming as ever and is very proud of his restaurant's success.

The biggest hit of the evening was the Florentine steak for two that John and I ordered.  It was unforgettable - and we were able to share it with the rest of the group.  Kay particularly enjoyed it.   
On Monday the trip was over.  We had to leave this beautiful place.  I loved sharing my favorite place with people I love.  It will be fun remembering all our good times.  We are a special family.  I love you.
On October 5 the whole gang (me, John, Kay, Tony, Steve, and Mary) headed to Nice which is close to the Italian border.  It lies on Mediterranean coast of  Provence.  The topography along the coast is very different than Languedoc (our region) in that the beaches are steep and rocky (ours are long, flat, and sandy) and the countryside is quite mountainous as the Alps come right down to the sea.  Our region is more open vineyards.

Although the drive to Nice is all freeway, it is still a long drive.  We stayed there for two days before going on to Tuscany.  Nice feels very related to Italy and this area and northwestern Italy were one kingdom, Savoy, not so very long ago.  The Old Town, which many tourists miss altogether,  is a small area with tiny narrow twisted streets and churches on most blocks.  It reminds me of the old Jewish Ghetto in Barcelona.  The rest of central nice is fillede with large architecturally pleasing apartment buildings with orange roofs, some luxurious hotels, and palm trees.  The Promenade Anglais, a wide sidewalk along the beach, goes for miles.  Here the Mediterranean is deep blue and turquoise contrasting with the white stucco or pastel buildings and orange tiled roofs.  It looks very much like paintings by Matisse (maybe because this is mostly where he was when he was painting!).
In the large square trying to figure out how and where to go to get a good view. We went on a little train with wheels to the top of the hill by the water to the old castle site.
Looking east toward the Alps. The sky threatened rain all day but it stayed in the mountains.
Looking toward new Nice and the Med.
Large square with quite an impressive statute.
We saw Steve and Mary strolling on the rocky shore.
There was some sort of professional catamaran raise going on. Not the "America's Cup" but it seemed pretty exciting.
John and I walked up to see the Russian Cathedral which is quite the same as the beautiful churches I saw in Russia. There has been a Russian community in Nice for over 100 years but a great many "White Russians" arrived to escape the Soviet Revolution in the early 1900s.
One evening we went to a open air restaurant in Old Town recommended in a guide book. It was mobbed but we decided to wait it out. We were told to wait on the steps of the church next door which we did for over one hour. When a table finally came empty we almost got into a fist fight with some younger Americans who insisted it was "their table" until the maitre d' came to our rescue. The Americans glared at us all through dinner.
The next evening we went for cocktails at a famous and fancy old hotel on Promenade Anglais.  It is the Le Negresco - quite old worldly elegant with some modern twists.  The cocktails were VERY expensive but the experience as worth it.

After cocktails we returned to old town to a very nice restaurant where we had reservations - L'Esplanade - so no table grabbing competition.  The food was very good - especially the bowls of chickpeas.  Unbelievably yummy.
Le Negresco Hotel
A quirky piece set among medieval tapestries.
And Monday off to Tuscany!
A car pulled up in front of the house on September 30th, "We've arrived," and in came my "cousins" Kay, Tony, Steve, and Mary from the USA.  Was I ever happy to see them!  I was just starting to feel a bit homesick and missing friends and family so a visit from the Wernert/Pero gang was very welcome.  They were staying with us for 5 nights and then we were heading off together for Nice, France and then Tuscany.  I got lots of enjoyment showing them some special sights here in the south of France and introducing them to our friends here and to our life in this village.  Of course the weather didn't much cooperate so we had little sun and lots of rain.

On Tuesday we headed north to show off two beautiful small villages.  The first, Villanavette, was founded by Louis XIV with the purpose of making flags and tapestries.  It was a "factory town" with homes for the workers inside the town wall.  It continued to be a factory until 1953.  Now a few artists and other arty types live quietly in the tiny village.  Few tourists seem to know it and you can wander the grounds in silence except for the gentle breeze that always seems to blow.  However, on this day there was a commercial photo shoot with pretty models showing off very high trendy heels that seemed very out of place among the cobblestones.
Breakfast of croissants in our garden.
"Honor Work" marks the entrance.
Steve, Mary, Kay and Tony but the center fountain.
Next we went further north to the Millau viaduct.  The bridge was built above a very wide and deep river canyon about 10 years ago.  It is famous for its engineering and its awesome architectural design.
My friend Linda had suggested that we visit La Couvertoirade, an old village not far from Millau.  Since her suggestions have always been outstanding we decided to check it out even though it was late afternoon by the time we got there.  Once again she was right!  I couldn't believe we'd never visited it before.  It is beautifully preserved, peaceful, and hardly a soul was there (except you could almost sense ghosts nearby).  We were sorry we didn't have more time to just sit quietly and absorb the quiet beauty of this place.
Remains of the old castle at La Couvertoirade.
Wednesday was also beautiful (very lucky as rain was predicted).   Everyone must go to Carcassone at least once, in my case its been about eight times but I still enjoy it (more at off-peak season like now) than during the summer.  The "cite" was the center of "The Midi" in medieval times.  This region was very tolerant of other religions and the Cathar religion grew.  I told my cousins the tales of the Cathars, the Crusade launched by the Pope and the French king to rid The Midi of this pesky religion that was Christian but believed the hierarchy of the Catholic Church was not needed in order to communicated with God.  The crusade was successful and the crusaders slaughtered thousands (20,000 in Beziers alone).  

Carcassonne decayed over time but some years ago it was fully restored and is a world heritage sight.  In the summer it is hard to appreciate due to the throngs of tourists and all the knick knack shops.  In October it is not crowded and you can really appreciate its beauty and history.  We even had a pleasant lunch inside the Cite.
Entrance to Carcassone.
Still in a Cathar state of mind we continued north to the deserted village of Minerve.  It was one of the last hold outs for the Cathars who had escaped Beziers and Carcassone.  They were killed here instead.  Minerve stands at the confluence of two rivers and had the reputation of being easily defended - but not from thousands of blood thirsty Catholic Crusaders.

Today it seems a lonely monument to those tragic times.  In summer there are a number of small restaurants and craft shops.  Now only a few are open selling sodas and ice cream.  It feels deserted and lonely but with awesome stark beauty.

This was a good day.
The next day looked like rain was threatening but that wasn't going to stop "cousins" wanting to see all they could of our little corner of the world.  Off we went to the south.  First stop was Abbaye Valmange, one of many in the area where monks built beautiful buildings in which to pray, meditate, eat, drink, and ???   Most were destroyed by peasant protestant uprisings, in the case of Valmange the uprising was led by one of the monks. 

The abbaye eventually became a winery and has been owned for 100 years by the same family.  It is still a winery and you can rent it for a day or evening with 700 of your friends for a steep price I'm sure.
Abbaye garden on a dark and rainy day.
Abbaye garden fountain in the rainy gloom.
Kay & Tony gazing at the Monk's garden.
After the abbey Tony insisted that we find the beach he visited last covered with shells and rocks.  That was the only description he could provide.  This was a bit baffling as ALL the beaches here are wide and sandy - not like the rocky craggy beaches along the Cote d'Azur to the east.  We tried to find it anyway, and drove to a lot of very sandy beaches in the rain.  We finally gave up and found a lovely restaurant in Bouziques where the oysters and mussells are farmed in the huge inlet from the Mediterranean just north of the town of Sete.

Here we are before dinner in Bouziques.
Their last evening here we had another dinner party - yes and it rained of course.  It was so much fun to introduce the cousins to some of our friends here - lots of laughs and interesting French/American/English conversation.
We left the next day to head to Nice and to Tuscany with the "cousins".  It was fun to share our friends with them and vice versa.  A lot more than a tourist gets to experience.  Ooh la la Languedoc.
It seems every time we have a party it has rained.  This is strange because rain is relatively rare in the summer.  When it does rain though, it really does it (usually with lightning and thunder).  Our last two parties were no exception.

We rotate hosting Saturday evening appertifs here with good friends.  As our turn rolled around, it clouded up and then BOOM, BOOM and down came the rain.  We just went ahead and set up everything inside our small living room/dining room and everyone had a great time.  Here are a few pictures of the Saturday gang.  They are lots of fun and though our French is very limited, and their English the same, somehow we manage to communicate quite well.  I feel like I have as many good friends here as I do back home.
At 10 pm the rain had stopped and we moved outside where everybody admired our "English Garden". We were proud. The crowd got a bit noisy late in the evening and the next day one neighbor complained. So sorry.
John is a great host.
"Farewell to the Highlands, farewell to the North,
The birth-place of Valour, the country of Worth;
Wherever I wander, wherever I rove,
The hills of the Highlands for ever I love.

My heart's in the Highlands, my heart is not here;
My heart's in the Highlands a-chasing the deer;
A-chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe,
My heart's in the Highlands wherever I go.

Farewell to the mountains high covered with snow;
Farewell to the straths and green valleys below;
Farewell to the forests and wild-hanging woods;
Farewell to the torrents and loud-pouring floods.

My heart's in the Highlands, my heart is not here;
My heart's in the Highlands a-chasing the deer;
A-chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe,
My heart's in the Highlands wherever I go."
Robert Burns
In mid-August we ventured north to the Highlands of Scotland and the England Lake District.  It was time to cool off from the heat of the Southern France summer.  Neither of us had ever been sightseeing in the part of the world and what a delight it was for both of us.  Cool, green, fields of purple heather, sheep bleating, birds of prey in the sky, sheepdogs seriously doing their jobs, hunters in wool caps, a crazy Scott doing his intoxicated Highland fling, the deep blue lochs, little villages with gaelic names, friendly people, plaid, waterfalls, cool breezes and misty rain.  We loved it all.
A sweet cottage with a true English garden in the town of Windermere
We started out in the Lake District - Windemere - just south of Scotland and west of the industrial part of northern England.  Clear deep blue glacial lakes.  We took a boat ride on a regular tourist boat but were a little sorry we hadn't known about the very old small steam boats available there - they looked like something from the movie "The African Queen".  

We walked down the long hill from our hotel both nights to eat at an unbelievably good Thai restaurant - something we don't have in our part of southern France.  What a treat - probably the best green papaya salad ever!
A sheepdog trial was held  the next village the last day we were in Windermere.  The dogs were thrilling to watch.  The dogs were brilliant following the whistle commands of their masters.  It was a competition in which each team had only a few minutes to herd several sheep who were let out of a pen at the far side of the field and then the dog would carefully but aggressively bring them down to the open gate and try to herd them into it.  No easy task.  Of the ones we watched only one team was successful in this fete.  These are obviously the most intelligent of the canine species.

After Windermere we started on the road further north and into Scotland.  Our first stop was just north of Glasgow and around a major military super secret base and then across a little peninsula bordering on a loch.  The "hotel" was Knockderry house and it was out of a dream - not really a castle but it had once been the home of a very wealthy Glasgow manufacturing family.  It was probably the loveliest place we stayed on the entire trip.  The view looking out at the deep blue loch was so beautiful and the hotel made you feel like you were just visiting a Scottish country grand house.  The restaurant and bar were beautiful gleaming old wood.  Best of all were the two border collies who lived with the hotel owners.  They were usually laying on the carpeted stairs but we played "fetch" outside with tree branches.  

Everything was delightful at Knockderry and it turned out to be our favorite spot.  Even the breakfasts there were memorable - would you believe it included haggis and the haggis was good.  Haggis is one of those things that you will like it better if you don't know what it is made of (sheep heart, lungs, liver, and other "parts"), seasoning added, and then it is stuffed into the sheep's stomach and cooked.  We found a lot of variation in haggis in the different places we tried it - some good like Knockderry's and some really dreadful.
Knockderry House
After leaving Knockderry we traveled north and west - it was a rainy day, only light rain though.  They highlands were magical in this weather.  Suddenly there were waterfalls everywhere.  When we parked the car and started to walk on the tundra it was almost liquid - very squishy.  It was easy to see that the glens were formed by the glaciers during the ice age.

The further north we got the more beautiful the highlands were.  The purple heather covered the upper elevations of the mountains.  The glens below were more forested and brilliant green.  When we stopped to take a picture or take a walk the sounds were mainly the baabaa of the sheep and trickle sounds of water.  At one particularly spectacular viewing point we were so enjoying the tranquil when suddenly a huge bus filled with elderly tourists pulled up behind us and piled out of the vehicle.  
We were so lucky with the weather.  It wasn't hot but it certainly wasn't cold either.  We had very little rain and it was "soft".  During the day we didn't even need a sweater.  We had been warned about the summer mosquitoes for which the Highlands are famous so we came well prepared with insect repellent and bite remedies.  None needed - we never even saw a mosquito during the two weeks we were there.
The lochs are inlets from the sea and they are everywhere in the north.   We looked for Nessy at Loch Ness but she didn't show.  Because it is so far north the Highlands get a lot of snow.  However, the mountains are not very tall at all.  We came across a "ski" area.  The vertical was almost nonexistent.  
This is a ski hill?
Most "locals" in these parts drive 4-wheel drive vehicles - Land Rovers seem prevalent.  One day as came over the crest of a hill we saw about 15 of them pulled off the road.  We thought there must be some special sight or hiking path so we pulled up alongside.  No one was there.  Then we spotted them coming down off the highest mountain briskly descending, carrying rifles, and each with his dog.  They looked like they'd just stepped out of the British TV series -"Monarch of the Glen".  They were all dressed in woolen tweed - brimmed hats, jackets, pants, and "wellie" boots.  They quickly loaded up the dogs in the back of the Rovers and hopped in themselves (5 to a car) and off they went to try the next spot down the road.  We did manage to learn that they were hunting grouse.  
In the town of Tain we visited the Glenmorangie Distillery.  It has been in business over a hundred years.  What do they make?  Scotch whiskey of course.  There are many distilleries throughout the north, and these Scotts do love their drink.  We took the tour which was actually very interesting.  No pictures inside as the fumes from whiskey making are highly combustible so no cameras or cell phones.  The stuff starts out as straight alcohol made from grain.  On the tour you were asked to take a whiff of the stuff from the huge vat - yikes it practically took my head off.  It goes through quite a complex distillation process and then the stuff is placed in barrels (just like wine barrels).  In fact they are used wine barrels.  The scotch gets lots of its flavor from the barrel -  port gives is a chocolate taste.  Also at some point peet smoke is added to some batches giving it a smokey flavor which I definitely did not care for - tastes like you are drinking water out of an ashtray (yuk).  At the end of the tour you are given a "dram" of scotch.  I am not a whiskey lover so I was surprised that it was actually pretty pleasant - especially if you add just a wee bit of water.  Still it is not "my cup of tea".

Most inhabitants of Tain work directly or indirectly for Glenmorangie.  The men (yes they are all men) who work within there are distillery itself or called "The Men of Tain".   The distillery is in operation 24/7 so there are shifts.  In the old days these Men of Tain were given a dram of the good stuff at the beginning and at the end of their shift.  Seems like a strange practice for guys who are working with something about as flammable as rocket fuel.
Castles, Castles, and more Castles.
There are a heck of a lot of castles in these parts.  Some are very, very grand and others diminutive.  I lost count of how many we visited but it was quite a few and some were more memorable than others.
Inverarry was our first castle and it was magnificent.  It looked familiar as it was the Scottish Castle visited for the Christmas holidays two years ago on Downton Abbey.  It was also interesting that the original castle lord fought against the Brits during the Jacobite wars.  This was an uprising of the Scotts against the Brits at the time of Mary Queen of Scotts.  In this castle and in many others there are A LOT deer heads mounted on the walls.  In fact the only deer we saw on our two week trip were on signs saying watch out for the deer and dead deer heads on walls.
Guns in designs at Inverarry
And then there are some wee castles that are so charming.  We stopped for lunch at this one.  It was a small castle - now a B&B with a restaurant.  Its small grounds were beautifully landscaped and included an interesting path with little fairy houses along the way.
The gate at Balmoral
Of course we had to stop at Balmoral Castle even knowing that it was closed to the public in August as this is when the Royal Family in in residence there.  We got to see the gatehouse and the guard.  John had a nice visit with him.
Braemar Castle
Braemar Castle certainly was not the grandest or most impressive castle we saw.  It was h castowever our sentimental favorite.  It is adjacent to the village of the same name and is only a couple of miles down the road from Balmoral.   Its pretty small for a castle and looks quite rundown.   The castle has had a hard life, once owned by a young lord and his much older wife who was an eccentric clothing designer in the 1950s.  Another owner was a megalomaniac who squandered his fortune on the "good life" (bad bad man) and neglected the castle letting it fall into ruin.  It is not part of the Royal trust (as are many castles in Scotland) so there is no funding for it.  Because it was in such a poor state the government decided to tear it down.  The villagers were horrified as it was "their" castle and, even if was a mess, it was a castle.  They ended up taking it over and have slowly been restoring it.  It has a long way to go.  Right now they are trying to raise the funds for a new roof which it needs in the worst way - price tag $1,000,000.  

Everything is done by volunteers including a guided tour.   During the tour we learned that they have pleaded with the Royal Family (specifically Prince Charles) to provide some funding.  They thought he might be swayed since as a child he used to play there with the family's daughter, Suzie.  In the end he declined but said he'd like to buy the original Queen Victoria toilet (he collects them)!  This time it was the village's turn to say "No".
The castle highlight has to be Dunrobin.  It was by far the most majestic, most northern, most interesting of all.  The castle was grand and the gardens the most beautiful.  If you only visit one castle it should be Dunrobin.
But best of all was the bird of prey demonstration.  The falconer is a man likely in his early 50s.  He became fascinated with birds as a child.  He has been the falconer at Dunrobina for something like 30 years and obviously he loves his job.  He has never taken a day off during this whole time. 

He has about 20 birds of prey and has raised each of them from babies.  They relied on him to feed and nurture them from infancy.  He begins training them when they are still very young and he says they learn quicker than people.  They fly free and could leave at any time, but they don’t. He gives them commands and they fly as directed sometimes returning after an extensive fly.  They now hunt small mammals such as rabbits which they share with their master.  We saw him with peregrine falcons, hawks, owls, and eagles.

His “show” included his birds doing their flying, hunting, and other behaviors.  He had them flying just over our heads.  Throughout he entertained us and educated us about the birds, ecology, and need to preserve nature.  After the “show” was over he went over to where the birds roost during the day.  Then one of the hawks who hadn’t flown in the morning show “told him” that it was time for him to fly even though he wasn’t scheduled till the afternoon.  He said he tries to accommodate the needs of each bird, it its time to fly just go ahead and go.

The birds are completely bonded to him.  It is awesome to behold.

Then off to Edinburgh.  What a delight it was.  It isn't a huge city but it is beautiful, very user-friendly, lots of culture, and good food.  We were fortunate to be there during the "Fringe Festival" and military Tattoo.  The Fringe goes on for about a month and there are hundreds of entertainments to choose from .  There are plays, comedy, music, and whatever - much of it on "fringe so to speak".  Entertainers line the main thoroughfare just down from Edinburgh castle.  Many are giving you a preview of what you can see later in their venue if you buy a ticket.  Much of this is really first rate.
From atop Edinburgh Castle
We saw this play later that evening "The Armada" - it was great.
We’d been told to try to get tickets for the Military Tattoo.  This spectacle is held every year during August.  We had to buy “black market” tickets as the tickets sell out almost immediately each year when they go on sale.  They were expensive but the show was definitely worth it.  It is a true spectacle.  This year some of the visiting entertainment was from places like Mongolia, Mexico, and New Zealand.  It rained for about five minutes but no one seemed to mind.  Of course the finale included a huge fireworks show.

 Saturday night was the "fete petanque" - petanque is the southern France version of boche ball so this was the annual social event of the local petanque club.  We were with a group of about 10 local French friends and John and I and our English friend John were probably the only non-French people there.  It started at 8 pm and first you hang out for an hour and a half, talking, drinking (pastis, beer, or wine), and smoking (not us of course).  Then they serve the dinner which was a nice salad and then a HUGE beef chop (unbelievably huge) and french fries.  It was definitely quantity rather than quality.  Most of the meat from our group ended up in a doggie bag for a real (big) dog belonging to one of the group.  Then cheese of course and some kind of dessert which I didn't have.  All of this was of course accompanied by pitchers of local wine.

After dinner was loud recorded music and dancing, dancing, dancing, dancing.  First the music was old time French that the older people to a paso doble dance to (very beautiful to watch).  Than the music changed to modern - much with a middle eastern influence.  All the women danced alone or in groups. Many young children got on the dance floor and really rocked never stopping through the evening.  Then some young men joined in (of course our older charming french friend Yves who is a wonderful dancer danced the whole time taking turns with the women in our group).  Finally both Johns joined in and my John ended up in a circle of the women doing kind of a mock boy toy routine.  There was also a major conga line number led by the mayor.  Quite a raucous and fun evening ending (for us) after midnight.  Goodness knows how long others stayed.

Unfortunately we didn't bring a camera to this event.  The pictures would have been classic.

Then last night we were invited to a small dinner party at the home of a delightful French couple Jean Baptiste and Rosemary.  Both grew up in this village.  He is an architect.  Her parent owned the building and grounds that is now their home.  It was originally the house upstairs and the stables and work areas downstairs including what is now the garden and was previously where all the equipment was.  In back originally was the huge garden.  Her family owned vineyards.  Jean Baptiste redesigned the place so that it is now an unbelievably beautiful home and is absolutely not expected from the street.  It is an oasis of beautiful design, cool spaces, and many exceptional and eclectic art pieces.  The garden in the rear is shaded by huge ancient trees and it is all light with tiny lights in the trees.  Jean Baptiste has an outdoor kitchen in the garden from which he cooked much of the food.

The food and company were just wonderful with many, many appetizers - lots of seafood and then a lovely small main course.  Of course after that lovely cheese, small apricot tarts, and then delicious watermelon with some kind of syrup to cleanse the palate.  Jean Baptiste and Rosemary were skilled and warm hosts.  We spoke both French and English - most guests were Brits living here.  We left after midnight feeling very fortunate to have been included in such a lovely evening.

Dinner party at Jean Baptiste's and Rosemarie's.
Jean Baptiste cooks in his outdoor kitchen.
Throngs of tourists arrive in this part of southern France the first of August.  The locals here avoid going anywhere close to the beaches this time of year as the crowds are oppressive.  We did venture out one evening the Cap d'Agde in the middle of the northern invasion.  We had a nice evening people watching and had one of the worst meals ever.  
Yves, Jackie and I by the fountain
Us next to the fresh water spring in the center of the town square
This young fellow was happily drinking from the spring until we pointed out the sign "non potable".
Yesterday our friends Yves and Jackie invited us for an afternoon drive in the countryside just north of us.  Yves was the chauffuer in his aging mercedes on winding roads up over the low mountains.  From the summit we could see all the way to the Mediterranean overlooking the vineyards that go all the way to the sea.  This is country we'd never been through although we've skirted all around it on other drives.  Our first stop was the tiny village of Villeneuvette which I'd never heard of - what a charming out of the way place.  It is the most beautiful village I've seen here.

The village was founded in 1671 as a textile factory to serve Louis XIV.  The buildings housed the workers and the textile mill.  It remained in operation until 1955 and since then all the buildings except for a hotel and a couple restaurants must be used as private housing.  There are under 100 residents and it looks like most of them are artists.  It is preserved beautifully with the stone buildings and wood trimming in a muted moss green.  Even the wood piles are stacked artistically.  The plane trees are thick around the tiny village so it is nicely shaded and there is always a cooling breeze.

There are a number of small shops selling wares by the owners - jewelry, potteries, sculptures, and paintings.  One painter's works I fell in love with, hers were very much in the old style.  I particularly liked one of a seated man who was apparently a fisherman in northern France.  I expressed an interest in purchasing it but she showed no interest in negotiating - perhaps we will return.

This village is probably much like it has been for hundreds of years.  There are no cars inside its walls, they park outside and you enter through gates that can be locked from the inside.  It really isn't advertised, no one I've talked to has ever heard of it so there are only a few tourists.  The result is that it is very tranquil, a soft breeze, bird chirps, and a feeling that you've returned to a time gone by.
This sign is over the main gateway to the village. Honor of Work.
About two months ago a small shop selling  "Produits de le Terre" opened on our main street.   At first it sold only fruits and vegetable - local and fresh.  The shop was an immediate hit.  It is open every day - early morning till noon and then again from 4 pm - 7 pm.  Our village has two boulangeries, a bar/cafe,na pharmacy, a tobaccanist, and a Proxi grocery (little chain stores selling limited variety of things like milk and mustard.  Now we have a really terrific little store with the freshest produce, locally produced meats (boudin, entrecote), eggs, wines, honey, pasta, and such.  Best of all are the owners, Natalie and Ronald, delightful people we've known for some time.  The shop has become a place where I often run into friends also doing the daily veg shopping.

Last evening Natalie and Ronald through a soiree to celebrate and EVERYONE, including the mayor, showed up.  There was plenty of good things to eat as well as local wines of course.  Since the shop is on the narrow road, that is the main thoroughfare through town, traffic control (or lack thereof) was interesting.

Everyone, old, young, and in between got into the party spirit.  We wish this shop a great success.  If last night was any indication, it is already!

The shop entire, vegies in front meat case in the rear.
The beginning crowd.
Me and Natalie.
Ronald waiving from above the shop.
Two of our friends with the Mayor on the right.
Tee shirts with written messages are very common here. This one seemed really appropriate.
As the evening continued things got pretty festive.  Natalie and Ronald led a line dance in the middle of the street.  There was a brief interruption for a car to pass.   As you can see the younger crowd loves a party here.