From the archives…

Fleur de Sel

The last word in gourmet salt

In general, I don’t have very expensive tastes. I bought my TV for $10 at a garage sale, my home is furnished mostly in low-end IKEA, and I rarely wear anything fancier than jeans and a T-shirt. When it comes to food, though, there are some exceptions to this rule. Although I don’t usually eat like a gourmet, I do take my coffee and cheese pretty seriously, and I like to sample, at least, foods that are rare and unusual—if also somewhat pricey. So I was intrigued by a television show I saw about one of the world’s most expensive kinds of salt: Fleur de Sel (French for “flower of salt”).

Fleur de Sel is produced in several temperate coastal areas around the world—but particularly in France, and within France, particularly in Brittany, on the north coast across the English Channel from Great Britain. It’s a type of sea salt, but a very expensive one indeed. Whereas you might pay US$0.25 for a pound (about 0.5kg) of plain table salt, Fleur de Sel will run upwards of $25 per pound. At 100 times the cost of table salt and ten times the cost of ordinary sea salt, it’s probably not something you’d want to use for everyday cooking. Fleur de Sel is not just any sea salt, though; it owes its price to a very special method of collection, about which more in a moment. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Color Purple

Shades of royalty and mythology

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From the archives…

Salzbergwerk Berchtesgaden

Mining salt in Bavaria

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

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From the archives…

Bookcrossing

Passing the book

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From the archives…

Paying It Forward

Spreading the good deed meme

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From the archives…

Affiliate Programs

The benign internet marketing virus?

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From the archives…

Text-Based Ads

Taming Web advertising

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From the archives…

Rent-a-Dog

Canine company by the hour

On my last trip to Costa Rica, I was walking along the beach in a small town on the Atlantic coast that’s best known as a hot spot for surfing. There were a number of dogs playing on the beach—catching sticks and Frisbees, sniffing the tourists, and generally having a good time. The dogs may have been strays, or they may have belonged to local residents—the people playing with them did not appear to be their owners. But in any case, the dogs were apparently healthy, friendly, and well-cared-for. I’ve always liked dogs, though for a variety of reasons I can’t see myself owning one. Still, that afternoon on the beach, I was thinking that it would be great to have a dog to play with for just a few hours, and that some enterprising person ought to set up a little dog-rental business there to cater to people such as myself who could not bring their own dogs to this remote location.

I filed this idea away in the back of my head along with all the other goofy and implausible notions I’ve come up with over the years. And then, last month, I read an article in a local newspaper about a growing trend at luxury hotels and resorts around the world: free (or inexpensive) loaner dogs for the guests. Maybe my idea wasn’t so goofy after all. A few Web searches turned up many businesses that loan or rent dogs for short periods of time—often, though not always, as a way for tourists to have canine companionship away from home. This idea seems to be catching on so rapidly that I thought it merited a bit more research. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Micropayment Systems

Giving your two cents, digitally

In 1994, when the Web was still young, I attended an internet technology conference. A well-known programmer who had written some internet software for the Macintosh was discussing the commercial potential of the internet, and as an illustration, he told the following story (which I’m reconstructing from memory as best I can, as I’ve never been able to find independent confirmation of the details). Back then, there was a relatively new internet payment service called First Virtual, which employed a clever mechanism whereby one person could send money to another over the internet—even in an email message. A man signed up for the service but was skeptical of how well it would work, so he did an experiment. He posted a message on a newsgroup asking for help testing the service. Everyone who sent him US$1 through First Virtual would receive, for an entire year, a new limerick each day by email. Within three months, over 60,000 people had signed up. This was a mixed blessing—the experiment worked, but he encountered major technological problems in sending all those email messages, and soon discontinued the offer.

Enter Credit Card Information Here
First Virtual went out of business years ago, largely because of the proliferation of banks and services that allow merchants to accept credit cards over the Web. By comparison, First Virtual was awkward and low-tech. And certainly for most purchases one might want to make online, credit cards are a convenient way to do so. But there are a few major difficulties with online credit card purchases. First, they’re fine for paying a merchant, but what if you want to send money to a friend or family member? If the recipient doesn’t have a merchant account, you’re out of luck. Second, lots of people don’t have credit cards, or don’t feel safe using them over the Web. And third, credit cards don’t make sense for very small payments of less than a few dollars or so. The reason for this is that banks charge merchants a fee for every credit card transaction that consists of a fixed amount plus a percentage of the transaction. Because of the way the fees are calculated, a merchant could end up paying only $0.60 for a $10 transaction, but $0.33 for a $1 transaction. That means the $1 purchase is not very profitable, and a purchase of less than $0.33 would actually cause the merchant to lose money. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Donate-a-Click Programs

The humane side of internet advertising

When I began using the internet back in the early 1990s, it was still the province of universities, governments, and large corporations. It was actually quite difficult to find a commercial internet provider, and when you did manage to get access, the experience was one of obscure command-line programs. The World Wide Web hadn’t been invented yet; the internet was a world of text, not of graphics, animation, and sound. And companies that contemplated advertising on the internet worried that they’d get in trouble because commercial use of the network was contrary to the government rules in existence at the time. (Ah, the good old days…)

The commercialization of the internet over the past decade or so has been one of the most important and far-reaching cultural developments in modern history. Of course, all the wonders and convenience of the internet have been tempered by the modern demons that invade our computer screens constantly: spam, pop-up ads, and Web sites with so many annoying, flashing graphics that you can’t see the content for the advertising. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Spotted Handfish

Fish that walk

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From the archives…

Carfree Cities

Revenge of the pedestrian

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From the archives…

Labyrinth Walks

The twisty path to clarity

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From the archives…

Wife-Carrying Contests

Obstacles to a healthy relationship

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From the archives…

New Orleans Walking Tours

Ghosts, vampires, and history

The first time I visited New Orleans, I didn’t know anything about the city except that it was legendary for its Mardi Gras celebrations. But the more I learned about New Orleans, the more I came to love it. The history of the city is immensely colorful and complex. New Orleans has some of the most distinctive cuisine in the United States, a well-earned reputation as a center of music and culture, and a vibrant nightlife. But what I find most interesting about the city is its rich collection of legends and myths. The best way to learn about them is to take one of numerous walking tours of the French Quarter.

The Spanish French Quarter
The French Quarter—the focal point of the city for most tourists—is a well-defined area about 13 blocks by 7 blocks, bordered by the Mississippi River on the south. This was the original city of New Orleans, established by French settlers in 1718 and controlled by France until 1762, when it was given to Spain. The city remained under Spanish rule until the early 1800s, when it was secretly returned to France, only to be immediately turned over to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase. The French Quarter is so named because for many years it was the district in which the majority of the French-speaking population lived. However, much of the original city was destroyed by massive fires in 1788 and 1794. Since Spain was in control during that time, the new buildings for the most part reflected Spanish architecture, and that is what survives today as the French Quarter. Most buildings are only three or four stories high. Wrought-iron balconies extend over sidewalks in the business district, and louvered shutters cover most windows and doors. The French Quarter has the feeling of being very old—for a North American city—largely because of strict construction rules designed to protect the historical character of the buildings. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Pilgrimage to Santiago

Spiritual walk across Europe

Each year, tens of thousands of people walk hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of kilometers from various points in Europe to the town of Santiago de Compostela in the northwest corner of Spain. In this town is a cathedral built over the tomb believed to be that of the apostle St. James (Santiago is Spanish for St. James). The tomb was discovered in the ninth century, and by the 12th century, the spot had become almost as popular a destination for Catholic pilgrims as Jerusalem and Rome. Not only do people still travel this route, but the number of pilgrims has increased dramatically over the past couple of decades—over 74,000 made the trip in 2003, and over 154,000 did in 1999 (a Holy Year).

For some people, the journey along the Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James) is a purely religious one; they are going to visit the relics of St. James, and perhaps (during a Holy Year) seek a plenary indulgence—a remission of sin. For others, the pilgrimage represents a less specific spiritual journey—an attempt to discover purpose in life, to practice physical and mental discipline, or to contemplate one’s vocation. For a few, it’s simply a themed vacation, a novel walking tour of Europe. But for most participants, whatever their motivation, the pilgrimage is much more about the journey itself than the destination. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Pedometers

Your mileage may vary

Thomas Jefferson was born in 1743 and served as the third president of the United States from 1801 to 1809. He drafted the Declaration of Independence, founded the University of Virginia, and built a famous home called Monticello. These accomplishments are all quite impressive, and every schoolchild in the United States learns them (and then promptly forgets them after their exams). What I did not know until recently, however, was that Thomas Jefferson invented macaroni and cheese. That’s right: I owe yesterday’s dinner (and my favorite dish as a kid) to Mr. Jefferson. Were he alive today, I’d vote for him on that basis alone.

But that’s not all Jefferson invented. He is also responsible for the swivel chair (a descendant of which I’m now sitting on), an improved version of the dumbwaiter, the hideaway bed, and even the machine used to make macaroni. For all his innovations, he never applied for a patent, believing that his inventions should benefit all of society and not just the inventor. (He’d fit right into the open-source movement today.) But few people realize Jefferson also invented the pedometer, the little gadget you wear on your belt to tell you how far you walked today. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Yo-Yo

Giving an old toy a new spin

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From the archives…

The Trapeze

How Jules Léotard revolutionized the circus

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From the archives…

The Steadicam

Taking unwanted motion out of motion pictures

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From the archives…

Charlie and His Orchestra

Swing music as Nazi propaganda

My son, Ben, plays trombone in his school’s jazz band. I think this is very cool—and in fact I’m a bit jealous, because I never got to be in jazz band when I was his age. As a trumpeter, I just wasn’t good enough. Later I switched to baritone horn and got a bit better as a musician, but the baritone wasn’t one of the instruments needed in the jazz band. Although it would be a stretch to refer to the music my junior-high jazz band played as true jazz, I certainly found it more interesting and more moving than the stuff the concert band played. And in some sense, that’s the point of jazz: to inspire a visceral reaction, an unfiltered, direct emotion. Never was this more true than during the early days of the 20th century, when jazz was young, new, and shockingly unconventional.

This American invention was outrageously popular not just in the United States, but also in other parts of the world—including places where English was not the primary language. In the 1930s and 1940s, German residents were just as enamored of jazz as everyone else, but Nazi leaders saw it as much more than mere entertainment: they saw it as a threat. For one thing, the Nazis felt that jazz lyrics encouraged a level of sexual permissiveness that was at odds with the standards they set. But more deeply, jazz represented the enemy—both literally, in the sense of its being American, and figuratively in the sense that its African roots made it racially degenerate, an offense to Aryan purity. To enjoy jazz music was to thumb your nose at the Nazi cause. There were also those who claimed that American Jews were behind the whole jazz movement, and the Nazi anti-Semitic rage only added to their distrust of jazz. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Image-Stabilizing Binoculars

Complex solutions to a simple problem

When I got married, my wife gave me a wonderful wedding present: a pair of binoculars. I don’t recall ever having said, “I sure wish I had binoculars,” but I couldn’t have been more delighted at her choice. I remember having two distinct thoughts about the gift: first, that this woman must know me awfully well to discern that this is the kind of thing I’d think is not merely cool, but perfectly appropriate as a wedding present; and second, that I now had the ability to see things at a distance. This latter point is not as trivial as it sounds. I have good eyesight and don’t wear glasses, but whether I’m at a concert or play, or on a street corner in a strange city trying to get my bearings, it seems that I’m always about 20 meters too far away to make out the significant details of whatever I’m looking at. For some reason, it had never seriously occurred to me to solve this problem by investing in a pair of binoculars, but now that I unexpectedly had the ability to see things farther away than normal, I found myself very excited by the possibilities it would open up.

I am not exactly the target audience for most binoculars—which is to say, I’m not into hunting, boating, professional sports, amateur astronomy, or voyeurism. That said, I do find it quite handy to be able to get a closer look at a variety of things on occasion, and looking through binoculars has the curious effect of always making me wish I could see just a little closer still. In other words, if the binoculars reveal that the blur in the distance is in fact a bus, I inevitably wish they magnified the image slightly more so that I could read the number that would tell me if it’s the bus I’m waiting for. Unfortunately, if my wife had bought me binoculars with higher magnification, it actually would have worked against me. The facts of geometry being what they are, small hand movements are amplified dramatically when you’re looking at something far away, so that in most cases, magnifications of greater than about 8x require a tripod to steady the binoculars if they’re going to be useful. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Foucault's Pendulum

Low-tech proof of Earth’s rotation

Science museums are among my favorite places to visit. In probably a dozen or so museums in several different countries I’ve seen an exhibit called “Foucault’s Pendulum,” in which a heavy weight, suspended from the ceiling by a wire, very slowly changes direction over the course of a day, knocking over a small peg every hour or so or tracing patterns in sand. I was vaguely aware that this was supposed to have something to do with the rotation of the planet, but I never really understood what that was. And to be perfectly honest, I always thought that watching a pendulum swing for an hour so was about as exciting as watching wheat grow.

Then, in the early 1990s, I read Umberto Eco’s novel Foucault’s Pendulum. The novel has little to do with the pendulum as such, but some of the characters muse over its philosophical implications, and the climax of the story takes place at the site where the original pendulum is now hanging—the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers (Conservatory of Arts and Trades) in Paris. Eco’s story piqued my interest, and while vacationing in Paris I decided to visit the Conservatoire and look a little more deeply into the science and history of the real Foucault’s Pendulum. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Oropendola

Wacky gymnast of the bird world

I’m not much of a bird watcher, but on my first visit to Costa Rica I kept hearing this strange sound, almost like one bird trying to laugh while another one is whistling. That made me look up, and when I spotted the bird that was making the sound, I started to laugh. I had the distinct impression that it was putting on a show just to entertain the tourists, and it immediately became one of my favorite rain forest animals. The bird is called the Oropendola (often, and understandably, misspelled as “Oropendula”). It’s a largish bird that looks black from a distance but is actually dark brown, with bright yellow tail feathers. There are two species of Oropendola: the Crested Oropendola (Psarocolius decumanus) and the Montezuma Oropendola (Gymnostinops montezuma). Oropendolas are native to Central America, with some found as far north as southern Mexico and some as far south as Ecuador and Brazil. In the parts of Costa Rica I’ve visited, the Montezuma Oropendola is more common.

Swingers
Both species of Oropendola share a unique and rather silly characteristic, as hinted at by the bird’s common name (roughly, “gold pendulum”) and the Latin genus name Gymnostinops. A male Oropendola stands on a thin horizontal branch, with his claws wrapped most of the way around it. Then the bird spreads his wings and swings around the branch so that he’s hanging upside down, his yellow tail feathers prominently displayed above him. Sometimes he reverses the motion and springs back to the top, and sometimes he flips all the way around the branch like a gymnast on the horizontal bar. At the same time, the bird lets out its loud, goofy call [click here to listen]. During mating season (January to May), this goes on pretty much all day, every day. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Burghausen

The longest castle in Europe

Guest Article by Morgen Jahnke

On a visit to the Louvre a few years ago, I was astounded by the amount of stuff there was to see—everything from da Vinci to Dührer to ancient Egyptian papyri. The collection is simply huge—the museum displays around 29,000 works of art in its endless halls. If you were able to stand in front of every object in the museum for only twenty seconds it would still take a full week, day and night. Not surprisingly, the “container” for all this stuff—the former Louvre palace—is gigantic as well. From its origin as a fortress during the reign of Philippe Auguste in 1190, to its present state today, successive governments and royal regimes have modified and beautified and expanded it along the length of the Seine into what it is now: a very large frame for the Mona Lisa.

After walking what seemed like miles past more Madonnas and children than I ever hoped to see, I had to keep reminding myself that there is a castle in Europe that is longer than the Louvre. Many years ago, when I was sixteen, I visited this castle while I was at a summer language camp in Bavaria. On one of our field trips, we went to Burghausen castle, 68 miles (110km) east of Munich, and 31 miles (50km) north of Salzburg. At the time, being a naive North American kid, castles and centuries-old European culture were still a novelty, and Burghausen made a huge impression on me. Heavy rain could not dampen my delight in visiting this imposing fortress, even though for my European friends it was just another castle. I was particularly wowed by its history, its size, and by the fact that Napoleon had once stayed there. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Freeze Drying

The amazing science of lyophilization

I remember where I was when I heard the news that Elvis died. On August 16, 1977, I was in Washington, D.C. on vacation with my parents. We were watching TV in our hotel room while getting dressed for our day of sightseeing when the news was announced. Although they would not have said so, I suspected my parents were secretly relieved that the world was rid of a corrupting influence. As for me, I was only vaguely aware of Elvis from commercials pitching his records, and from the fact that he and my father had the same birthday. I was much more concerned that we have time to visit the National Air and Space Museum, which had just opened the previous summer, and which was to be—for me, at least—the highlight of this trip. The promise of getting to see a real spaceship, real moon rocks, and so on was, for this ten-year-old kid, incredibly exciting.

The museum was everything I had hoped it would be—and more. The last attraction we saw was, naturally, the gift shop, and I tried to get my parents to buy me as many of those amazing goodies as possible. One particular item near the checkout caught my attention: freeze-dried ice cream (“like the astronauts eat!”). At that time, Astronaut Ice Cream was not available just anywhere, and this curious novelty was too good for my mom, a confirmed ice cream junkie, to pass up. We bought a packet and marveled at how this warm, dry stuff nevertheless tasted exactly like ice cream. I had previously thought that the coolest thing about astronauts was that they got to go into space. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

The Musée Mécanique

Good old-fashioned interactive multimedia

Fog, as I have said for many years, is my all-time favorite weather condition. Other than its impact on driving, I like everything about fog—the coolness, the dampness, the way it muffles sounds, and especially the mysterious, spooky quality it gives its surroundings. So the first time I took a streetcar out to San Francisco’s Ocean Beach years ago, I was delighted to discover that, more often than not, the entire area is covered with fog. Morgen and I walked along the beach and up a hill to a building called the Cliff House, a restaurant with a majestic, sweeping view of the mist—and, occasionally, bits of the ocean and nearby Seal Rock. The Cliff House is a favorite tourist destination—not so much for the food but for the view, the gift shops, and a few other attractions nearby. The attraction we had gone there to see was located inconspicuously around the back, downstairs in the basement of the Cliff House—and advertised only by a small, folding wooden sign on the sidewalk near the restaurant that said, simply, “Musée Mécanique.”

The Old Machine and the Sea
The Musée Mécanique (or Mechanical Museum) looked like something that belonged a century in the past—an effect enhanced considerably by the fog. Inside a large room with peeling paint and a crumbling ceiling was a collection of hundreds of very old mechanical toys, games, and other amusements. For example, there were dozens of automatons—machines in which small figures walk, dance, or otherwise move around when you insert a coin. There were fortune-telling machines, games to test your strength (the electric arm-wrestling machine was frighteningly strong), flip-card “movies,” a player piano, and all sorts of other mechanical shows and diversions. The amazing thing was that all these machines—ranging from the very campy to the very sophisticated—were fully functional. Admission was free, but nearly every machine required a quarter (or two) to operate it. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Oradour-sur-Glane

Ghost of a massacred French village

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From the archives…

Bodie, California

The liveliest ghost town in the West

One year for my wife’s birthday, I bought her a book called Ghost Towns of Northern California. I was excited to find it, because Morgen is not an easy person to shop for. Ask her about her favorite things, and “decay” will be close to the top of the list. By this she doesn’t necessarily mean antiques; age itself is not the issue. She likes artifacts with visible signs of the passage of time. What do you buy for a person who likes decay? I figured a book on ghost towns might be just the thing—especially since many of them were close enough that we could actually visit them. And I was right: the book was a hit.

We decided to rent a car and drive to one of these towns over a long weekend. After perusing the book thoroughly, we chose Bodie, a day’s drive east of San Francisco, near the Nevada border. Bodie was said to be the largest and best-preserved ghost town in the United States, and it seemed like an ideal place to experience decay. [Article Continues…]

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From the archives…

Sarlat La Canéda

Time travel, French style

For the past decade or so, I’ve been in the habit of reading every new Michael Crichton novel as soon as it’s released. I like the stories, but what appeals to me more is the depth of historical and scientific research he puts into his work. It’s often had to tell where reality ends and fiction begins, which I’m sure is exactly what he’s aiming for. Given my fondness for France, I was especially interested in his book Timeline, published in 1999 (and made into a disappointingly forgettable movie in 2003). Most of the book’s action takes place in the Dordogne river valley in southwestern France—partly in the 14th century and partly in the 20th. In particular, Crichton’s description of the town of Sarlat caught my attention. It’s the site of just one minor scene and is only given a passing mention. But what the book describes is a quaint town preserved as it was in medieval times—a place full of history and character. Guidebooks generally speak highly of the town too, and I thought it sounded like a great place to visit. On our first trip to France, in 2000, our schedule did not permit an excursion to Sarlat, but Morgen and I decided we’d do our best to go there the next time we were in the area.

Getting There Is Half the Fun
In June of 2003 we returned to France, and we hoped once again to visit Sarlat. We had left the last week of our trip deliberately unplanned to allow ourselves the option of doing whatever seemed most interesting at the time. When it finally came time to choose where to go, we were in the French Alps (on the east side of the country near the Swiss border). We discussed Sarlat as one of several options for our final destination. The friends we were staying with tried to talk us out of it. “It’s really touristy,” they said, “and very hard to get to. We can recommend lots of places you’d enjoy more.” So we agonized over the decision for a long time, but finally agreed that we wanted to go with our first choice, touristy or not. We went to the train station to figure out how to get there. When the ticket agent heard “Sarlat,” he rolled his eyes and sighed as if to say, “You can’t get there from here.” Actually that would have been an overstatement. You can get to Sarlat from the French Alps, but it requires taking five different trains and a bus—a trip lasting about 12 hours in total (and not an inexpensive one either). We decided to rent a car instead. [Article Continues…]

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