Léoncel near Valence – Romanesque church

On Wednesday, 5th of June 2019, we drive back to Switzerland, with a break in Léoncel in the Vercors mountains.


Approaching the Vercors mountains

After an overnight stay in the practical IBIS hotel of Valencia, we cross the Rhone valley and the Vercors mountains are ahead of us.

The Vercors mountains belong to the Western Pre-Alps. Their highest peak reaches 2341m. The mountains consist of four districts that are separated by cliffs and canyons. These rough mountains were one of the strongholds of French resistance in the Second World War. Now it is a natural reserve that tourists come to for hiking, climbing, cross country skiing and skiing.


Looking back into the Rhone valley around Valence

Our car climbs uphill, hairpin bend by hairpin bend. We look back down to the Rhone valley around Valence…

… hiding behind grass and blue flowers.


Reaching the high lands of the Vercors

We definitively leave the Rhone valley at the Col des Limouches – at 1086m above sea level.

We are now in the Vercors. Meadows around us and in the background more steep mountains.


Approaching Léoncel

In these secluded and rough mountains, the Cistercians founded a monastery in the 12th century.

Donkeys and horses welcome us on the meadow in front of the church.

The well-kept garden with yellow lilies leads to the entry gate.

We enter the church.


Inside the church of Léoncel

As it is typical for the Cistercians, the church is sober inside. Five ribbed vaults in the nave. Some adornments on the chapters of the columns. The oculus above the choir symbolizes God. Or, as the panel in the church says, it is to remind us that we adore one single God. The arch that partially hides the oculus, remains from the former one nave church that ended there.

In front there is a modern ambo that has been selected with care. A panel explains that the stone comes from Tavel. Engraved is a curved cross, giving it a dynamic aspect.

An octagonal cupola covers the crossing.

We find some artefacts such as this icon of the Madonna and her Son.

In the church we had noticed the tomb slab of an abbot that froze in the cold winter of the Vercors. Indeed, the Cistercians have selected a rough place for their monastery.

Near the entry I find this religious panel written in French. It is difficult to translate the elegance of the French language.

Let me try nevertheless:

What did you come to see in Léoncel?
A lost place wiped by the wind?
Well, what did you come to see?
Stones placed harmoniously
on top of one another?
But much more than stones!
Will you be able to hear them breathe
conveying the singing and silence of a thousand years?
Will you be able to find the praying and the belief of the men
hidden in each of them?
Will you try to detect which Presence lives in them?
Will you not drink from the source of the Word of God?
If you would like to understand,
it is this Word that the stones testify.


Leaving Léoncel

The sun enlightens the pentagonal central apsis, the two smaller apsides and the tower from the south east – it is still morning.

I walk around…

… and uphill.

I say good-bye to this church that has withstood the obstacles of the Vercors mountains for a thousand years.


Driving home with one last lunch stop in Voiron

We continue driving north and have our last lunch stop in Voiron (Département Isère). The Rossignol skis are produced in Voiron, as I learn. We have a light meal – salad with fish – in the Café de l’Europe. The friendly servant says that the manager speaks German and does not like to write menu cards – that is why they do not have any… and indeed, the manager comes from the Black Forest and has lived here in France for many years.

We spend one last night with our friends in Monthey in the Valais – and then, after more than five weeks, we are back at home to unpack, to wash and to meet neighbours and friends.

Around Bayonne – much visited coast in France

On first of May 2019 we take our car, leave Hondarribia and Spain and return to France. It is only about 30kms to Bayonne. At the border we get confused. We are in France, but at the next roundabout, we find a Repsol gasoline station. Right, we are back in Spain.

Using the Route Nationale, we drive along the coast line and find a free parking space right near the old castle in the center of Bayonne. We walk through the narrow streets of Grand Bayonne, with the typical half-timbered Basque houses that we already know from Hondarribia in Spain.

We reach the river Nive which separates Grande Bayonne from Petite Bayonne and which enters the river Adour later.

After an espresso, we visit the gothic cathedral Ste Marie which is not far from the river.

We love the ambiance inside the cathedral…

… and in the cloister.

The cloister is very busy on this first of May. There is a market of creative handicrafts, made by artists from the area.

For lunch we enjoy tapas, ham of Bayonne, cheese from the area and tasty paté.

In the narrow streets we look for the old palace Bélzunce from the 15th century.

This house may need some renovation, though the Salon de Thé on the ground floor looks inviting.

I have already learnt that the Bayonet was invented in Bayonne in 1703. This window tells me that the Makila, the armed stick (la canne armée), has also been invented in Bayonne.

We cross the Nive using the lowest bridge and look upriver.

Vauban has fortified Bayonne after the Peace Treaty of the Pyrenées in 1659. This is the part that protected Petite Bayonne.

The main church in Petite Bayonne is called Saint André. It has been built around 1850.

We return to Grande Bayonne. Not far from the old castle we catch another view of the cathedral Ste Marie.

Then we pick up our car and drive along the coast to Biarritz. We drive along the coast line with many, many fin de siècle grand hotels. The coast line promenade is full with tourists, and there is no place to stop. We continued south of Biarritz to a place called “Chambre d’Amour” with lush mansions, huge hotels and cliffs.

People are swimming in the cold water enjoying the waves of the Atlantique.

We continue to St-Jean-de-Luz. Tourists and tourists… just 7 parking spaces left in one of the park houses. We found one of the slots (uff, narrow!), have a drink in the Pergola and watch life on the windy beach of this beautiful protected bay.

St-Jean-de-Luz has a pretty old city with the cathedral Saint Jean the Baptist built in the 17th century.

The altar and the wooden balconies give it a solemn atmosphere. When Louis XIV married the oldest daughter of Philippe IV from Spain here in 1660, this church was still under construction.

We follow the coast line to Hendaye and stop above the cliffs. I catch the evening ambiance.

Hendaye and Hondarribia both stretch along the Rio Bidasoa, Hendaye on the French side and Hondarribia on the Spanish side. This is the view of Hondarribia seen from Hendaye.

The evening sun plays with the water here.

We say good-bye to another great day. Now we understand why Napoleon III loved to recover near the rocky Basque coast that also offers sandy beaches.



Donzenac – charming medieval village in south west of France

Again I travel to Spain with my friend Ursula. It is end of April 2019. After having shared a traditional Raclette with friends in Monthey, we leave early in the morning, drive to Geneva, leave Lyon and Clermont-Ferrand behind us, follow the signs to Bordeaux and around 4pm we arrive in the charming medieval village Donzenac. One of the medieval houses is the hotel Lagamade, where we have reserved a room for one nght. It is a very cosy hotel with wall paper in bright blue, all tastefullly decorated.

The small medieval City (about 2000 inhabitants) has existed since the 8th century. It is perched on two hills or “puy”.

This is the market square with the fountain decorated for Easter.

On the market square women used to wash their laundry in the laundry house (to the left).

From the market square this gate leads into the one of the two city centers perched on two hills.

The streets are narrow.  Cars are permitted, but not everywhere…

In the 17th century, a former house has been reconstructed to become the chapel of the penitents. Saint John the Baptist stands above the entrance holding the agnus dei (sheep) in his arms.

On the second hill, we find this house from the 13th century that has been carefully restored.

Not far from here, we look back to the first hill with its castle, now a beautiful mansion with a Tower. You cannot visit it, people live here.

Donzenac is full of live, with children, play grounds and kindergardens around the townhall, cosy corners and well kept gardens.

We have a light dinner in our hotel Lagamade – I discover that poultry stomach on salad is delicious (a specialty here). I wrap up the evening with a vieille prune du Périgord (old plum). We are very happy with our first day traveling.

I love the small country towns and villages of France – and I keep on discovering more small gems beyond the beaten tracks.


Via Portbou in Catalonia to Valence, another ancient Roman city in France

In November 2018 we spent three weeks near Tarragona. Now I tell you about the last stage on our way north and home, starting from Cadaqués to Valence in France, with a commemoration stop in Portbou (Catalonia).


Portbo, the small city next to the border with France, reminds of the drama of Walter Benjamin

Portbou was the scene of the dramatic death of the German Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin in autumn 1940. We stopped in Portbou to commerate him. Walter Benjamin succeeded in crossing the border from France to Franconian Spain. He and a group of Jews intended to travel on to Lissabon and then to the US. But Franconian Spain had just changed the law and would not let the group continue to Lissabon without a valid confirmation that they were allowed to leave France. Which, of course, they did not have. Benjamin committed suicide, and the rest of the group could then travel on to Lissabon. This monument called Passatges reminds us of that drama: Stairs lead into the sea.

At the bottom there is this thought of Benjamin: “Schwerer ist es, das Gedächtnis des Namenlosen zu ehren als das der Berühmten. Dem Gedächtnis der Namenlosen ist die historische Konstruktion geweiht.”  This has been taken from Benjamin’s thoughts about the term “history”. This is the translation: “It is more difficult to honor the memory of the anonymous persons than that of the famous. To the memory of the anonymous the historical construction has been dedicated.” For me, these thoughts are difficult to understand. Yes, the flow of history is told to us as the series of deeds by famous actors, but in addition it is the result of many more actors that remained anonymous. Is it that, what Benjamin had in mind?

What touched me was to be again confronted with the sadest part of German history. I hope that nothing like that will happen again. The monument was erected with support of Germany in 1994.


Growing wine on steep slopes above the Mediterranean Sea

We cross the border to France and drive through the steep vineyards of Banyuls. It must be tough to grow wine here. Along the road, we come across a small wine shop, where I buy a bottle of Mourvèdre from Collioure.


Valence – an ancient city with some charming corners

After a quiet night in the sober, but practical IBIS hotel of Valencia, we park our car under the Champs de Mars or Mars Field.

Emerging from under the ground we find this heart of Valence.

It carries the hashtag #moncoeurvalence. Sorry, we are not selfie addicts (the hashtag suggests to make selfies here). We enter the old city center, as seen through the heart.

We slender through streets and enjoy the busy market – everything looks tempting here. Then we walk over to the cathedral behind the market.

The Romansque cathedral St. Apollinaire collapsed in the 17th century, but has been reconstructed true to the original. Inside are three naves of almost the same height…

… and the colours of the windows are reflecting mysteriously on the wall.

It was here that in the 12th century, Barbarossa married Beatrix, the heir of Burgundy.

The only construction left from the cloister behind the cathedral is the so-called “Le Pendentif”, erected in renaissance style in 1548. It is the tomb of a capitular.

We stroll through the narrow streets.

The House of Heads or La Maison de Têtes has been built by a university professor in 1530, as a plate explains. Its style is characteristic for the transition from late gotic to renaissance.

French style squares or plazas are always inviting with their trees and restaurants. It is just a bit cold now.

Valence strives to be clean, but how did we say forty years ago at university: “French planning is more French than planning”. I really could not find, where I could take the sack, in case I had  a dog, be it small or tall… but I love the humor that guided the author of this plate.

Never have I seen this street sign before – surfboards are forbidden here, only that! Bicycles, rollerblades, everything else is allowed – or am I mistaken?

We leave Valence and head north following the vineyards of the Côte du Rhone. In the Saint Joseph area, I take a foto of the vineyard of one of my favourite wine growers, Chapoutier.

In Serrières, we park our car to eat a a sandwich. When we come back, some Gilets Jaunes with their motor cycles have filled up the parking. They tell us that they like the Swiss and show to me, how to get out of my parking lot amidst their motor cycles without damaging one of them. Some four hours later we are back in Monthey in Switzerland to share a night with our friends that allowed us once more to stay in their apartment in Catalonia. We look back at another wonderful trip.



  • Thomas Schröder: “Katalonien”, Michael Müller Verlag, Erlangen 2015
  • Thorsten Droste: “Romanische Kunst in Frankreich”, DuMont Kunstreiseführer, Köln 1992
  • Thorsten Droste: “Provence”, Dumont Kunst-Reiseführer, Köln 2011

On the road at Pontgibaud near Clermont-Ferrand and the volcanos

End of October 2018 we are on the road again. Our target is Spain. Clermont-Ferrand is located at about half the distance between Basel and the Pyrenées. We selected Pontgibaud close to the motorway to stay overnight. We discovered a nice small hotel and a nice small town stretched along the Sioule river. It counts some 800 inhabitants.

The Hotel de la Poste has just opened, because the owner expects spontaneous guests that get stuck in the snow announced. It snowed slightly, when we arrived.

We have dinner – I eat braised calf cheek – a plain and excellent meal.

In the morning, we find the sky covered, but there is no snowfall. We walk around the small town built using the black volcanic stones of the area . The dormant volcanos called “Puy” are not far. This is the townhall or hotel de ville ornated with the black volcanic stone.

This house with its watch tower has been built in the 15th century. 

In pre-Roman, Roman and medieval times, lead was retrieved in the area. This might have been the reason for fortifying the town and buliding  the castle (Source: Städtische Wirtschaft im Mittelalter). The inhabitants of Pontgibaud are called Gibaldipontins.

From the town fortification, the city gate is left.

Across the gate starts the park of the Castle.

The Castle was built in the 12th and 15th century. 

The park – now slightly powdered with snow – overlooks the small town with the church Saint Benoît from the 13th century.

We say good-bye to this friendly small town and leave for the Val d’Aran in the Pyrenées. After having arrived in the Pyrenées in the evening, we hear that in Clermont-Ferrand traffic had been halted by a heavy blizzard. Good for the Hotel de la Poste at Pontgibaud that might now be full of guests that got stuck in the blizzard and decided to stop their journey.

On the road in France visiting some of my favourite castles in the Loire Valley

Some 25 years ago I visited the Loire Valley in France and I enjoyed it so much that now, in April 2017, I went back to see the ONE castle: Chenonceau that has been shaped by six ladies. In addition we explored four other royal castles: Charles VIII’s Amboise, François I’s Chambord, and Louis XII’s Blois. We have selected a room in the small hotel Anne de Bretagne in Blois – close to the Château de Blois and close to the castles we want to visit.


Chenonceau – crossing the river Cher with “a certain springing lightness”

Henry James travelled through France in the 1880’s and he wrote: “Chenonceaux is not large… Henry II., on ascending the throne, presented it… to… Diana of Poitiers…  Catherine de Medici… turned her out of doors… (and) devoted herself to making the place more completely unique…  If a certain springing lightness is the characteristic of Chenonceaux… nothing can confirm this expression better than the strange, unexpected movement with which… it carries itself across the river… the aspect of the whole thing is delightful.” Look at the “certain springing lightness”, as Henry James describes it in his A little tour in France. 

It was the wife of Charles VII’s chamberlain, Tom Bohier, who built the main castle, while leaving the tower of the former mill. Her name was Katherine.

Diane de Potiers then added the bridge, and she set up this garden named after her.

Diane de Poitiers kept herself fit by swimming in the river Cher – she was attractive for king Henry II, though she was 20 years older than him. Diane had to leave Chenonceau, when Henry II died. Catherine de Medici wanted Chenonceau for herself and added the galleries on top of the bridge giving space for some of her festivities:

It is worth to visit the castle inside. It is furnished, adorned with tapestry and beautifully decorated with flowers.


The widow if Henry III, Louise de Lorraine, lived here and two more ladies (Mmes Dupin and Pelouze) saved Chenonceau for today. In all it was six ladies shaping Chenonceau.

The Auberge du Bon Laboureur is located close to the Château de Chenonceau. Let me quote Henry James from around 1880: “(From Chenonceau) we took our way back to the Bon Laboureur, and waited in the little inn-parlour for a late train to Tours. We were not impatient, for we had an excellent dinner to occupy us; and even after we had dined we were still content to sit awhile and exchange remarks upon the superior civilisation of France. Where else, at a village inn, should we have fared so well? Where else should we have sat down to our refreshment without condescension? … At the little inn at Chenonceaux the cuisine was not only excellent, but the service was graceful. We were waited on by mademoiselle and her mamma;… she uncorked for us a bottle of Vouvray mousseux. We were very comfortable, very genial…” The Bon Laboureur is no longer just a “little inn”, but a four star hotel with all amenities. A long tradition!

Now it was not the right time for us to stop in the “Bon Laboureur”. I remember having had an excellent meal here 25 years ago. Later we enjoyed a nice dinner with local specialties in the Le Castelet in Blois.


Charles VIII’s Amboise – a great sight above the river Loire

Amboise is a beautiful small town on the river Loire topped by its royal château.

The French kings acquired the castle in the late 15th century. Poor Charles VIII hit his head in Amboise and died from that (1498). His wife, Anne de Bretagne, then married his cousin, Louis XII who followed on the throne. The windows on the left hand wing below show vertical gothic arches dating back to around 1500. The right hand wing is Renaissance, as the vertical lines on the windows underline – the Renaissance king François I also stayed in Amboise.

The Hubertus chapel is the place where Leonardo da Vinci has been buried. Invited by François I, he spent his last years in France.


François I’s Chambord – royal grandeur at its best

The Renaissance king François I built the castle of Chambord as a hunting lodge. It is the largest castle in the Loire valley. A royal hunting lodge!

The rooftop is full of small towers. From the balcony, the ladies could watch the hunting activities of the king and his entourage.

Leonardo da Vinci conceived this famous double spiral staircase that links the floors.

Inside there is some furniture and tapestry. This is Henry IV, the first king of the Bourbon family. He is dressed in a practical way – he had to fight for his kingdom.

Louis XIV, Henri VI’s grand-son, is dressed luxuriously. We admire all the ties that the Roi Soleil (Sun King) wore – they must have been impractical for walking…


Louis XII’s Blois – gloomy scene for the murder of Henry de Guise

The statue of Louis XII welcomes the visitors of the royal Château de Blois. Around 1500 he made Blois his favourite residence.

The brick construction of Louis XII with the attached chapel choir are mainly of gothic style.

François I also stayed in Blois. He added the Renaissance wing with the master piece, the staircase.

The sign of François I, the salamander, ornates the staircase (and many more places in the Blois castle).

It was in the Renaissance wing where the French king Henri III murdered his cousin, Henri de Guise (1588).

It is a windy and chilly day today. Some ten degrees outside. The castle is cold inside. I am shivering and I cannot imagine that it has been very comfortable to live here in winter time.

Let us look back to Blois with its castle and its church Saint-Nicolas and to the river Loire. Let us say good-bye to the Loire Valley.

Our next target is l’Hospitalet de l’Infant in Spain (or more precisely in Catalonia) with a short stopover in Millau (south of France).

(Sources: Michelin Guide de Tourisme: “Châteaux de la Loire”, 1985 and “Loire-Tal”, DK Dorlingkindersley 2015/2016). 

France: Detour to Châteauneuf du Pape

15th of November 2016. After a day in Avignon, we drive back to Switzerland with a detour to Châteauneuf du Pape which is just some 20 minutes away from Avignon.

This is the château or castle of Châteauneuf du Pape. Hm, I am disappointed. For the excellent wine that is produced here, I had expected a majestic castle. And I find this small castle.


The first consuls and treasurers of Châteauneuf du Pape from 1756-1790 indicate an old tradition.


In the small village with the French charm, we buy a bottle of Châteauneuf du Pape: Le Vieux Donjon by Michel Lucien.


We have two espressos in a restaurant that is closed – this is French charm. The lady owner tells us the route to explore more vineyards – and we follow her advice. Here are some impressions from our explorations – vineyards in autumn colour.



Then we leave the vineyards, continue our way to Orange, catch the motorway and drive directly to Monthey in Switzerland. We stop quickly in France to buy what we need to cook Spaghetti. We share the meal with our friends and have one of the bottles from Montsant. There is so much to tell – we had wonderful late autumn days in Catalonia and in France.