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An extremely common question, especially for those heading to Europe for the first time, is what kind of plug adapter to use for their cameras, laptops, phones, iPads etc. In this video, I take a look at three common adapter types and show you how they work. I also show you what to look for to make sure your particular device will work on European voltages, and what kind of devices won’t work.

This really is one of those topics where literally taking a look at the converters is so much better than reading about them. Enjoy!

On American Tax Day, 15 April, it seems fitting to remember a time 800 years ago when tax strategies began to shift towards sales and property taxes. Enjoy!

North-by-North-west of Toulouse, the Lot and Dordogne departments are a joy to behold: well-preserved medieval towns called Bastides with their neat churches, gridiron layouts and square covered markets cling to the limestone banks of the rivers for which the regions are named. One of life’s pleasures in this region is to sit comfortably in a café in the shade of a Bastide’s covered market on a summer’s day, enjoying a glass of the local Cahors wine. What the tour guides fail to mention is that these picture-perfect villages are the result of 13th and 14th century global economic forces, shifting tax strategies, technological innovation and plain old real-estate speculation.

Medieval covered market in Belves, a Bastide in France
Medieval covered market in Belves, a Bastide in France

The first clue to the commercial purpose of the Bastide is its layout – specifically, the location of the church. Elsewhere in France and other European countries, the church usually occupies a strong, central position. Often it has its own square, vying for attention with the market square. But in Bastides, the market occupies the center of the village, with the church pushed off to one side. In this photo of Belves in the Dordogne, you can see the church is on a side-street of the main market square.

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The covered market in the bastide town of Monpazier, Dordogne region, France.

The second clue is that this central market square contains a large covered section – a fairly complicated structure, as you can see from all the exposed woodwork in the photograph of Monpazier to the left. Why go to all the trouble and expense of a covered marketplace?

Siena Duomo and city center, Tuscany, Italy
Siena Duomo and city center, Tuscany, Italy

And then there is the grid-iron layout of a Bastide. To Americans, this may not seem remarkable since most American towns and cities are structured as a grid. In Western Europe, this is very unusual compared to the complicated twisting, turning streets typical of towns, villages and cities. All of this points to the fact that the marketplace – and by implication, trade – was important, but why? Also, why the division of the village into regular blocks?

To find the answers to these questions, consider that the first Bastides were built in the 13th century, some time after 1229. This was a time of crusades, knights in armor and pitched battles fought by men in plate and chain mail, with swords and shields. We tend to think of medieval times as backward and simple. In fact, the 13thcentury was also a time of major economic change, as the importance of trade grew, and power exerted through the feudal system began to slip away.

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Beynac castle on the Dordogne river in France. This castle was on the front line of the 100 years war between France and Britain.

In feudalism, the general population swore fealty to a lord. These vassals (literally, property) of the lord paid tithes – taxes – out of whatever they could produce. A lord kept law and order: police, judge and jury all in one, enforced by his private army. The army was led by knights – local gentry with allegiance to the lord. However, war technology had weakened the power of knights, to the point where they were becoming less decisive in battle. The development of the pike – essentially a long pointy stick – meant that foot soldiers could unseat charging knights very efficiently. A knight in plate armor knocked from his horse was lucky to be able to get up, never mind fight. Compounding the problem, the development of the bow – and in particular the English longbow – meant that archers could decimate a group of charging knights before they even reached the pikemen.

This was bad news for the French lords, because without effective military protection, vassals resented tithes even more than they had before. At the same time, money was becoming a problem: French lords enjoyed a lavish lifestyle (for the time) and there had already been several expensive crusades to the holy land before 1229. Some years later, the 100 years war with England would begin, putting a further strain on finances. Farmers didn’t make a lot of money, and mostly grew grain and raised enough cattle to live, with only a little left over. Lords needed another way to finance their lavish lifestyles, the crusades, plus whatever demands the church made. The lords needed a way to generate more money than the tithe system could produce.

The Bastide was devised to solve this problem. The idea was to clear some land, build a fortified village and attract the local population to live there and work the land around it. If critical population density could be achieved (the speculative part), this would attract merchants to the markets, which could be taxed. The incentive for people to live in a Bastide was release from fealty to the lord, and exemption from tithes.

Men who moved to a Bastide became free, yet still enjoyed the protection of the lord’s army – the beginning of the end of feudalism. The lord could now make money through property taxes on those living in the Bastide, and also sales taxes on the town market. The market was the center of the town instead of the church because it generated sales taxes. The Bastide was laid out on a grid because that made assessing property taxes easier and more equitable.

The laws of the Bastide said that trade could only take place in the market square, and the purpose of the covered area was to protect the weighing and measuring devices of the lord’s representative and tax collector. Despite the ravages of the Hundred Years War, Bastides survived well, though many came close to demolition or “improvement” in the earth 20th century. They were saved by the recognition of the contribution that tourism made to the local economy. The glass of Cahors you drink in the cafe is not just a good bold, dark wine – it’s also a way to preserve Bastides for future generations.

Want to learn more about Bastides? Check out these resources:

Agen tourist office

Espace Bastides
Place des Arcades
47150 Monflanquin
Tél : +33 5.53.36.40.19
Fax : +33 5.53.36.42.91

Email : [email protected]

Centre d’Etude des Bastides
5 place de la Fontaine
12200 Villefranche de Rouergue
Tél : +33 5.65.45.23.37

Fax : +33 5.65.45.39.61

Making a phone call home from Italy, France, the UK or indeed anywhere else in Europe is easy since all countries in the European Union agreed on one standard way of making international calls. You dial two zeros (00), the country code, and then the number. The country code for the US is 1, so a call to the San Francisco number 415-555-1212 is dialed 00-1-415-555-1212.

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Beautifully arranged mounds of fresh Italian ice cream await at a Gelateria in Siena, Italy.

Dialing works the same way on mobile phones, or you can use the shorthand of “+” instead of the two zeros. The benefit of this approach is that this works anywhere on any mobile phone network world-wide, not just in Europe — which is handy for numbers you put into the phone’s memory or contact list. In my example, you’d dial +1-415-555-1212, and this same number would work when dialed in the US as well as in Europe.

On regular land-line phones, you can speed up the connection by dialing a # at the end of the number (more precisely, this cuts short the “post dial delay”). This tells the phone network that you are done dialing your international number, and it starts connecting the call immediately. Otherwise, the phone network will sit and wait in case you want to dial any more digits — several seconds — because unlike domestic calls, the network doesn’t know the exact length of phone numbers for every area of every country. This isn’t required with mobile phones because you hit the “send” or “call” button at the end of the number.

One more thing about the ‘# at the end trick’: it works in the US too when dialing internationally. Try it and see!

Want to learn more about calling from Europe? See Using cell phones in Europe part 1, and using mobile data services (part 2)

Chateau de Biron is in the Dordogne region of France, south of Bordeaux in the South-Western corner of the country. Started in the 12th century, the chateau was in the hands of one family for 800 years, the Gontaut-Biron, and enhanced and expanded until the 18th century.

Chateau de Biron, Dordogne, France

Chateau de Biron, Dordogne, France

The castle itself with its renaissance galleries and chapel with carved effigies are well worth the visit — it’s not far from Monpazier and can easily be done in the same day. Lord Byron, the romantic writer, was a distant relation of the family. Unfortunately, it only took one man to end 800 years of ownership. At the end of the 18th century, the final member of the family to own the castle spent his entire fortune in the casinos of Paris, and the castle was sold along with everything else to pay debts. Today it belongs to the Department of the Dordogne.

The picture is taken with a polarizing filter — the deep blue of the sky is a give-away — from the end of the car park below the castle. The filter also helps to reduce the harshness contrast of the afternoon sun, and brings out the colors of the walls and greenery. With plenty of good light, the picture was taken hand-held.

My sister-in-law lives in The Jura, an area of Eastern France near the Swiss border. It’s not a particularly well-known part of the country and you’ll have to work hard to find it in many guide books (honorable exception: The Rough Guide To France). It’s a pretty part of the country, and plonked in the middle of a forest is a remarkable set of pre-revolutionary buildings: the Royal Salt Works (Saline Royale, for those of you who speak the lingo).

Royal Salt Works, France

Royal Salt Works, France.

It’s a remarkable sight for many reasons. The architect was Claude Nicolas Ledoux (1736-1806), an architect in the neo-classical style (as you can see from the photographs). To me, his style can best be described as idealised form of classic architectural styles. Indeed, his grand plan for the salt works was an ideal city. It was one of his more ambitious projects and about half of the first phase was built before economic reality intervened (the site was constructed between 1774-79). Chaux was chosen because it was close to both the salt mines themselves, and also the forest — the energy source used to boil brine pumped up from the mines to extract the salt itself. Piping brine from miles away via wooden pipes was very inefficient, and huge quantities of wood were required to fuel the evaporation of what was left. In 1790 the salt works closed for good.

From a photographic composition perspective, the buildings offer regularity of form in their elements (like the alternating discs and squares of the columns, above) as well as massive scale. The photos were taken on a sunny afternoon in November, which really helps with the lighting: the sun doesn’t get too high in the sky at that time of year, so the light is softer, more golden colored, and leads to fewer harsh shadows.

Ask for a glass of wine in any bar in South-Western France, and the chances are you’ll get Vin de Cahors (pronounced “Ca-hoares”), which will be at least 70% Malbec. Ironically, Malbec is now better known in the US thanks to Chilean and Argentinian imports; there are now at least 25,000 acres of the vine planted in Argentina alone. However, Malbec has a long and distinguished history in France — the “Black Wine of Cahors” was well known 600 years ago in the courts of medieval France.


Ponte Valentre, the medieval bridge over the river Lot in Cahors

A glass of Cahors is dark red or “inky”, but also smooth, tannic and blackcurranty. For many years it was used as a blending wine for Bordeaux claret, until a severe frost in 1956 killed 75% of the Malbec vines in that area. Now, in France you find it almost exclusively in Cahors wine and nowhere else.

The grape was first taken to Argentina in the mid-19th century when a regional governor asked Michel Pouget, a French agronomist, to bring cuttings. Interestingly, Argentinian Malbec has smaller grapes (berries) in tighter clusters than that found in France — clearly a different variety. Maybe the original French Malbec has evolved, or the original variety doesn’t exist any more after France’s great 19th-century rescue from Philloxera blight by grafting onto American root stock.

Today, the limestone soil of Cahors, found in the flood plain of the river Lot as it winds its way through soft limestone cliffs seems to suit the grape as well today as it has for hundreds of years. Try some next time you fancy ordering outside the usual Bordeaux, Burgundy or Loire favorites.