‘Quatre vengs’

For his 60th we took over the first floor of our favourite Italian restaurant; for his 70th we cruised the Norwegian coast ‘hunting the light’, the Northern lights…and saw them plus took a husky ride around a frozen lake within the Arctic Circle…

So for his 80th I thought that ‘I’m only the chauffeur’ would be up for another adventure so explored possibilities focussing mainly on the Glacier Express, a train that follows the mountain tops between Zermatt and St Moritz. He wavered for a while but ultimately decided he didn’t want a fuss despite his nephew being very keen on a grand fete, so I resigned myself to a quiet celebration, if any!

One of our traditions since retirement has been to spend his February birthday raquette walking on the snow, wherever we can find it within France. We have clumped around parts of the Pyrenees, the Jura, the Alps and, nearer to home, the Auvergne.

La Bourboule, a frequent destination in recent years, scores well due to the variety of its walks, the number of good restaurants in the town centre and that it is only two hours away by car so I wasn’t surprised when himself decided that a short break there would be his choice of a birthday treat. We have a favourite hotel that is close to the centre, has a swimming pool that I enjoy and most importantly for ‘I’m only the chauffeur’ a covered garage where he can attach the tyre chains, if needed, in the dry rather than on the side of a snowy road.

The hotel has a long history going back to the 1930s when it was mainly a restaurant catering for the early glider pilots who flew their planes from the Banne d’Ordanche, a strange volcanic ‘lump’ that can be seen looming above the town. There are many nods to that aviation past and not just in its name. The lobby is decorated with jazz age style stained glass depictions of planes as is the bar.

Lovely comfy armchairs echo 30s style and are great for curling up in with a book. Or with your phone when the internet is temperamental in your room!

Just before we left home on the Thursday I booked our preferred restaurant for the Friday (birthday) evening as I suspected the town would be busy. As it was we spent our first couple of hours in La Bourboule rediscovering the town and finding somewhere to eat that wasn’t ‘complet’ that night. In fact, when one place reluctantly turned us away we took the opportunity to book for the Saturday to avoid disappointment.

The pressure on the various eateries was very apparent when we succeeded on finding a table but only because we were just two and happy to eat at seven. Sitting in sight of the door we watched as a succession of people were turned away throughout most of our meal. It was hard not to feel smug!

All the cafes and restaurants in La Bourboule have similar menu choices, heavy on the potato, meat and local cheese. Oddly, our first evening was spent amongst a very extravagant Spanish decor, the dirty dishes disappearing up a staircase into a mock finca. Go figure? But the waiting staff were welcoming and cheerful despite the pressure of the holiday season. February school holidays in France are always two weeks and everyone who can goes off to play in the snow. A small girl on an adjoining table had a cupcake arrive to sound of the waitresses and waiters singing Happy Birthday, in English, despite her being French. She was two, her parents told us. I whispered to her we were celebrating a birthday the next day…

Typically we woke up to pouring rain on the birthday itself. But, no matter, we needed to sort out a possible slow puncture (no) and pump up the spare tyre if necessary (yes) by which time the rain had turned to gently falling snow. After a coffee and some sandwich buying we drove up to la Stele espace nordique, our favoured walking area.

The road was mostly clear and we caught sight of snowy trees as we climbed…a good sign?

After a picnic lunch in the car (too cold outside) we set off through the forest on the multi-activity piste.

The snow wasn’t deep so walking boots were fine. We had our raquettes in the boot of the car but hoped not to need them as we find wearing them a tad exhausting now. A stick each for the tricky bits and we were fine. The sky even cleared a bit and showed us some blue.

Invigorated by our walk but ready ‘to rest his eyelids (birthday boy) we drove back down to the hotel for a cup of tea, me, and a nap, for him. The WiFi was intermittent in our room but the aforementioned lounge on the first floor had much better reception so I caught up on the national news and my word games.

That evening we tried to contact our grandson but with poor WiFi and in a rush to get to our restaurant we only managed to receive birthday greetings and the news he had something to show us. We promised a proper facetime in the morning.

Our favourite restaurant didn’t disappoint and we were served by a chirpy waitress who tried out her English skills with us. I opted for a kir flavoured with the local speciality birlou, chestnut liqueur, as my apero. Himself has acquired a taste for Ricard since we’ve lived here. A clear yellow liquid that takes on a sinister cloudy appearance after the water is added. I haven’t got used to it, too redolent of aniseed balls that I hated as a child.

Les Thermes (spa baths) were illuminated and looking beautiful as we left although the usual sparkling trees were in darkness despite the lights that we could see hanging amongst the branches. Energy saving, I suppose.

A sunny Saturday morning and we collected the hotel picnics that we had intended ordering on Friday but forgot until it was too late. As promised, we facetimed le petit fils and were told about his lost tooth, his first, that came out on Dada’s birthday as he chewed his lunchtime sandwich. The tooth fairy had already been and left a pound. A richer tooth fairy these days!

We had decided to go up to the lac de Guery and after a routing error that took us out to the heart of Le Mont-Dore ski centre, which was heaving, we finally found the narrow road out of the middle of Le Mont-Dore town. Later, I discovered the road number differed from the one in our Michelin map of France. Don’t blame the navigator! 😊

Sadly, as we climbed we lost the sunshine but were surprised that, once there, there was less snow although we were at the same height as yesterday’s walk. The lac de Guery is the highest lake in the Auvergne at 1244m. The ‘piste pietons’ was signified by a fox and we remembered virtually crawling up a steep slope beside a waterfall the last time we were here before deciding we must be following the wrong balises. Today we would be more alert despite the plethora of signs!

Less snow but more mud so we were glad of our sticks on the stickiest parts. There were fewer people about than our last visit so we could hear the few birds braving what was becoming quite an icy wind in the more exposed places and the sound of water from the many little streams of snow melt. The lake was still frozen at the end nearest us and there were repeated signs about not skating although I had seen a set of charges for skating so it must happen when the lake is really solid.

Halfway up a slope we came to a junction with ‘our’ fox indicating a right turn whilst a yellow butterfly indicated left. I remembered that butterfly which we followed last time. Not today! We could hear a family higher up and hoped they were more agile than we had been. (later, back at home I discovered that the yellow butterfly marks a walking route that is only open when the espace nordique is closed which makes sense as it would be much drier in the summer months)

Back at the ‘point de depart’ by the chalet that includes the toilets, ticket office etc. ‘I’m only the chauffeur’ thought it would be good to walk on the track up to the plateau that we had also walked last time. Today, as then, the whole espace was open to everyone as the snow cover didn’t allow for ski de fonde. But after a few hundred metres he decided it was too cold. I was mightily relieved as I remembered it as a wide open expanse that was very windy last time.

Once again it was a picnic in the car, the hotel pack proving excellent value for 10 euros each. The car park is beside the Col de Guery at 1268m and provides views of the two bizarre volcanic features of Tuiliere and Sanadoire.

Tuiliere is the remains of a volcanic chimney and its rock has been used as roof slates in the surrounding area while Sanadoire is part of the volcanic cone. It is called Sanadoire or the singing stone because of the ringing sound it makes when struck. Up until 1477 when there was an earthquake in the region that swept the summit away there was a castle on the top that it is said housed English mercenaries during the 100 years war!

Opposite where we were parked there was a footpath sign pointing into the forest that read 6km to the lac de Servieres. That seemed a tad too much to tackle as it would be 12km in total by the time we hiked back. I repaired to our Michelin guide to France (stupidly neither of us remembered to bring our IGN map of the area) and spotted the lake was quite near to the road further along from where we were. So off we drove past the two rocks and over the Col. The road to the left of us opened up onto an amazing sweep of scenery that gave the impression we might be able to see Paris on a clear day, or at least the motorway home. No layby so no attempt to capture it on camera.

We dropped down from the Col and soon found the lake signposted to our right. It looked oddly circular on the map page and so after we had parked up I went off to read the sign and find out why. Himself was too snug in the car by now. The lake turned out to be in the crater of an ancient volcano and is called a ‘maar’. As I walked towards it, cursing that I was no longer in my walking boots and had left my thick woolly ‘bonnet’ in the car, I was approached by a jolly lady who asked me if I was going to see the lake. A bit nonplussed, I concurred (why else would I be there?) ‘C’est tres chouette (nice)’, she replied. An enthusiastic local, I decided.

Hugging my coat as closely as I could and hunching into the collar, I walked the few metres to the lakeside. Wow, was I glad we hadn’t walked up to the plateau back at lac de Guery. The circular shape was clear on the ground too and there was a sign saying how the site is protected due to the rarity of its plants. Once more, swimming was interdit as was the lighting of fires. It was a 2km walk around the lake, easy but for a less windy day.

The car park had filled up in my absence, albeit brief, and Lou commented on the number of people milling about. The jolly lady’s role suddenly became clear. She must be a guide and had mistaken me for an early arriving member of her group. I didn’t envy them as the wind was getting stronger and icier so I was very happy to opt for the warm car. Then it was back over the Col and past the lac de Guery, formed by a lava flow blocking the river ‘Mortes’ as it left the plateau, the same stream that fed that waterfall of our last visit?

After tucking up the car in the hotel garage I went off for a swim while himself settled down to watch the six nations on French TV.

Another hearty dinner that final evening. I opted for saucisse d’Auvergne thinking it might be a lighter option but the sausage would have fed both of us and as for the chips…! Once again, the place had a ‘complet’ sign on the door as we arrived so our impromptu decision to book had paid off.

In the morning we were told as we checked out that despite the sunshine the wind up at la Stele was 50km an hour and the temperature minus 7. Defo time to go home!

A bientot!

NB I have reread the blog I wrote following our last visit to La Bourboule in 2020. We walked a lot further that trip. Was it the warm sunshine and dry ground under our feet? Or the fact we were three years younger?

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tunnel vision

I come from a big family – I am the eldest of six – a big family that is getting bigger (a niece is pregnant as I write this) and that isn’t even taking account of the USA branch or my UK cousins.

As a stroppy teenager I felt that having anklebiters around when I was getting into boyfriends was the pits. My best friends were a younger sister and an only child and their relatively empty homes seemed oases compared to our crowded one.

But as I grew into middle age I had more and more friends who told me they envied me my ready made support group especially the ones who had lost siblings or had just lost touch over the years. The saddest thing for me was to hear someone say that they no longer spoke to a family member due to some event that had divided them.

We have avoided that despite our brother disappearing to the ‘frozen north’ and a sister going to live in the westernmost county of southern England. Not to mention my retiring to France after spending every available school holiday for the previous fourteen years in the tiny village where my husband and I now live.

After getting married our parents moved from North London to Kent although our town was sucked into the expanding greater London in later years. With two sisters as well as mum still in the county we all travel back when the occasion demands it and for the last ten or so years that has mainly been Christmas. Mum passed in 2021 and covid restrictions meant not all the family could gather to celebrate her life so our traditional family ‘do’ became even more missed as doom virus continued to be the biggest hurdle for travel and one we couldn’t circumvent but we knew that when we could we would… and this last Christmas was when we could. An extra motivation was the visit by the nephew and his family who live in New Zealand so the hall was booked and the plans were begun.

For we expats the logistics have to be sorted out. Over the years we have tried different combinations of routes and channel crossings and thought we had got it just right. But.. we’re getting older and that brings additional issues. Since getting our cataracts done we are happier about the driving but still don’t like doing it in the dark. So timings become more important. Another problem for me in the winter is that the English channel seems to be getting rougher, either global warning or my imagination, but it puts me off the ferries. Having to hang around at the port as boats arrive late due to weather conditions or even bobbing about outside Dover because it’s hard for the ‘driver’ to get us through the harbour entrance. That happened not so long ago and made us two hours late arriving.

I surprised ‘I’m only the chauffeur’ by stating it would have to be the tunnel. After recovering from the shock (I’m claustrophobic and have fretted through tunnels all my life) he went off to compare prices while I checked for hotels around Rambouillet, a town about halfway ‘up’ where we could stop well before it got dark and have a little snooze before looking for a ‘gruffalo bill’ for a steak and chips supper.

Covid fears still loomed large and the French government were recommending getting your latest jab if applicable before the festive season. We sorted out ‘himself’ but I had to wait until mid January for mine, after the statuary six month between boosters. So it was crossing my fingers that we stayed fit I began to wrap presents and make journey preparations.

The date for the ‘do’, dubbed ‘chrimbo limbo’ by the sister who organised it, was the 30th December which meant we’d be travelling back on New Year’s Eve. (To the surprise of friends our blighty trips are invariably quick dashes as we have resident cats to consider.) I went online and discovered it was very easy to book the ‘gruffalo bill’ next to our hotel in Beauvais. Fortunately the menu does extend beyond steak and chips.

It was a relaxing start to the day, much better than getting up at ‘crack of sparrows’ and leaving before it is fully light. We left around ten and took it gently, stopping for coffee at the aire north of Limoges which has changed it name after twenty years. Pourquoi? I wondered. We bought sandwiches and stopped in a later aire with a view and a biting wind close to la Creuse where we had that lovely week last September.

Around Orleans the road was still under reconstruction of lanes and the traffic increased. We swung off for Rambouillet and found the hotel fairly easily. I had had an email about emergency plumbing being necessary and moving us to their sister budget hotel. Was I happy to accept? They offered free breakfast to persuade me. I did accept as it was a good place to stop but warned Mr McGregor to mind his head on the child’s bunk over the top of the bed. He had cracked his head on the metalwork at another hotel in this chain some years before and swore never to sleep in a ‘family’ room again. (I hung a spare sheet over the rail and hoped it would save his forehead!)

Breakfast the next morning was pretty basic so I was pleased we hadn’t had to pay for it. The nerves were beginning as I contemplated the appointment with le Shuttle later in the day. As we drove north of Paris the winds got fiercer and fiercer until every windsock was streaming horizontally. Birds hung in the air going nowhere despite manic flapping of wings. I was beginning to admit to myself the tunnel would be a relief!

As novices we were a bit slow navigating the booking in system at le shuttle terminal. Nobody in the booth, just a screen that asked questions and demanded the card we had used to pay in advance. Fortunately, himself had it to hand. We were offered an earlier train at no extra charge but queued for so long at the two border posts we missed it.

At the second and British border stop the lady smiled and said what a relief it was to have a car with only two people in it! We had noticed how full most of the UK vehicles were, packed with children and, quite often, a dog too.

We still got onto an earlier train than the one we had booked which was good as my nerves were building. As we descended to the platform we were waved into the nearest carriage and up a slope. We had had to follow ‘small and medium cars’ so we were going to be travelling on the top deck.

To my relief it didn’t feel too enclosed. I had been concerned as my only two experiences of le shuttle had been in a camper van and a coach when we travelled in the full height carriages. But my abiding memory had been how smooth the journey had been. Not so this time! Armed with my word game to distract me from my subterranean surroundings I tried hard to write in my answers but the pen skewed across the page as we swayed and wobbled our way to Folkestone.

Only twenty one minutes in the dark I noted as we rattled into daylight again. Watches already put back, we read carefully the running commentary above the dividing shutter and readied ourselves for disembarkation.

Whatever my misgivings I had to admit it had been very slick and well organised. Fingers crossed for the return journey.

With only an hour’s drive to reach our hotel we had time to check-in and go off to find a bank and pick up the first of the items on our UK shopping list.

It was a pink and blue winter evening and Rainham was looking like an advert for an old English village. I spotted some lovely buildings suggesting Georgian origins.

The day was rounded off with a jolly evening with my brother and his family who had also decided to come down a day ahead.

On the morning of the ‘do’ we were able to go over to Hayes to visit my parents grave, the first time for us since my mum had passed. We were married in the village church so a sentimental journey.

It was a quiet moment before the fun and games in the evening with all my extended family, not to mention cuddles with our grandson. Sadly, covid had claimed a few victims including the sister who had organised it all but the kiwis made it.

There was a lot of eating, drinking,chatting, dancing and general silliness…who brought the dinosaur? And the mandatory group photo at the end…

And our traditional ‘sibling’ photo, lined up in age order albeit wobbling about. Due to covid absences a nephew and niece stood in for their mums!

After breakfast with the sons and grandson next morning it was off to the shuttle again, this time feeling more confident about the checking in system but still a tad nervous about the crossing. I reminded myself the weather was still windy and the boats probably bouncing about in mid channel!

Once again we were in time for an earlier train as you are told to arrive at least an hour before so we had. Top deck again but I was ready for the wobbling and completed the puzzle before we ran into the light again. I must have been calmer?

The reception of the B and B hotel at Beauvais opened for the evening just as we arrived and the receptionist gave us a friendly welcome. It was the same at the Buffalo grill where a smiley waitress looked after us beautifully. Such cheeriness despite working on ‘Reveillon’. She got a generous tip from us in response.

An easy drive home the next day although we were tired by the end of it so I assumed that would be the last trip for a while.

But no, an invitation to a UK 80th birthday party in April turned up a few days later and ‘I’m only the chauffeur’ accepted with alacrity….so to make things speedier, it will be the tunnel again. Despite the nerves, I’m a convert. Well, out of season, anyway!

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La Celle Dunoise…or spot the village on the TV!

I love watching cycle races, to which family and friends will attest. ‘She’s been glued to her men in lycra’ ‘I’m only the chauffeur’ will tell people who have tried to get in touch. To live in the home of the Tour de France was not the reason for moving here but was and is a definite bonus.

Our eldest son was a keen cyclist in his teenage years and rediscovered his enthusiasm for it in his 30s. His bike ownership grew with his passion as did the length of his rides culminating in several thousand kilometres on a trans continental race that had me glued to his ‘dot’ on my computer screen while praying fervently he would return safely. Watching other people’s sons and daughters isn’t quite so harrowing.

In 2012 the Tour came through our department and, owning a camper van at that time, we pitched up alongside the route the night before and lived through the madness of the tour caravan and subsequent swoosh of the peleton the next day having been joined by fellow enthusiasts.

That was the iconic year for UK cycling. Bradley Wiggins had won the Paris Nice race in the spring. One stage had also come through the Lot and I’d been there with my tiny union jack on the hill above St Cere shouting for ‘Wiggo’.

He went on to win the Tour and find gold at the London Olympics. In the subsequent years the TV coverage by the UK improved a bit but my best find was the French l’equipe channel that our neighbour alerted me to despite its reliance on showing the various petanque matches! So my afternoon ironing sessions are accompanied by my ‘men in lycra’ during the spring and summer months.

It was spring this year while watching the Paris Nice, famous enough to be shown on France3, that I watched the peleton pass through a pretty village in the Creuse. It is often said that the viewers are more interested in the French landscape than the races and it is a delightful extra.

I am prone to noting down names of charming/historically interesting places that I look up later. This village was in the Creuse, a river we use as a waypoint on our trips to Blighty up the A20, but a department we have never explored. The scrap of paper joined the other bits and bobs in my ‘places to visit one day?’ file.

Every September it has become a tradition since retiring here to take our main summer holiday early in that month. The tourists have mostly gone home, the children are corralled back into school and the days are still warm. It’s also the time we celebrate our wedding anniversary.

Pre doom virus we tended to go beyond France driving in our camper or, more recently, our car. There have been some wonderful memories made. Now we recognise that we are getting older so planning a road trip that covers around two thousands kilometres in total makes us tired just thinking about it so quieter options are considered. During covid camper vans became very popular here in France as you could take a holiday while staying within your own sanitised bubble. We regretted not still owning one as camping with our tent we would need to use the shared facilities which we were not prepared to do. So a couple of times recently we have rented a chalet/mobile home on a campsite from which we enjoyed walking and exploring local places of interest.

This year we ummed and ahhed about where to go and I remembered that pretty village in the Creuse. A bit of googling and I discovered they had two campsites with a few chalets to rent plus an auberge restaurant with good reviews by the bridge across the Creuse. I took a chance and booked us into chalet 1, L’isle, on the ‘Camping de la baignade’. I should add that the tent has joined the ‘we’re too old now’ option. It’s currently on le bon coin!

After a lovely july and august busy with family, I approached the impending chalet stay with some trepidation. After a hot, dry summer the meteo was promising a week of dreadful weather plus the mairie website had a not very good photo of the chalets and I was anxious that I had booked an elderly and maybe an over used and tired holiday home. I needn’t have worried. After our gps did its usual ‘all round the houses by goat track’ approach we descended a hill to the Creuse with the handy auberge on our left and the campsite just beyond. The chalet was on the top of a rise with the river behind and below it. Great, not too many mozzies and only a small risk of flood if those storms arrived. The campsite rolled gently away from our veranda with a view of a small valley. A dried out stream ran from left to right along the bottom of the slope.

The cheerful ‘guardienne’ soon arrived and let us in. The chalet was bright and clean and very well equipped. So breathe….

After a quick rearrangement of furniture (that table takes up too much space there) and zealous use of my anti covid bleach wipes, we unloaded the car and Mr McGregor cracked open his arrival beer.

Someone in La Celle Dunoise has taken the trouble to create circular walking routes with very clear explanatory ‘fiches’ which you can download and print…so I had. The next morning we set off to explore the first one that looped around the upper part of the village on the other side of the river. The sun was warm, the sky was blue and the landscape beautiful.

Having climbed up the village High Street we were directed down a minor road that followed the river with stunning views back towards the village church. The summer heatwaves had stopped us walking very far as it was so unpleasant but this was perfect. Soon we were climbing a hollow way slippery underfoot with fallen leaves. My ‘fiche’ told me this was the most difficult part. It soon opened out onto a cart track between fields. Used to walking on our beautiful but dry limestone causse, to be surrounded by green arable land was heavenly. I watched as a buzzard skimmed the treeline in the distance. Later, a smaller raptor took off from our left calling crossly as it did so.

At the highest point we walked along a grassy track with views stretching for miles to left and right. Then it was down again through a small hamlet where a sign warned drivers to mind the resident cats.

Back down through the village where I photographed a plethora of signs. I planned on looking them up later for ideas about further visits.

Across the Creuse and then drinks in the garden of the auberge. We’d eaten well there the night before and I had loved their fish and chips, a rare treat in France. Mr McGregor had taken a liking to one of their beers too. 😊

After lunch on our deck (must make the most of the dry weather) himself retired to ‘rest his eyelids’ and I searched on the elderly TV for the good old l’equipe channel which was showing the Tour of Britain cycle race that had just started. During boring bits I read my latest Christian Signol, picked up at our village Vide Grenier the week before. And so the pattern was set for our lazy week….or so we thought!

I duly googled those high street signs and discovered the site de Monet and the Confluent de Deux Creuses are one and the same. There were two photos of a river and one of a metal bridge. That was Monday morning sorted…if it stayed dry.

It did, so we set off to Fresselines, the starting point, which turned out to be a pretty village full of wheeling house martins. Getting ready for migration? We did our usual thing by following a sign for the path but then doubting ourselves as there was only a small car park…with an UK registered car…and nothing else. After a certain amount of indecisive faff we pulled on our walking boots and headed down the cart track, hoping some affirmative sign would appear sooner rather than later.

The track went down…and down into the trees. ‘If we’re walking down we’ll be walking up when we’re tired at the end of the walk,’ I shouted after his retreating back.

As the path wound into the trees we came across the first of the Monet panels I had read about online. So we were in the right place after all.

It was blissfully quiet under the trees along the Creuse river bank. So quiet I could hear fish jumping…or was it frogs? We came out on a point of land between two streams. The Confluent, we assumed.

After taking the obligatory photos we wondered where the path continued and where that metal bridge might be. A couple with a dog came along from the direction of the petit Creuse. In French, I asked how far it was to the bridge. Taking the hesitant reply as a clue, I asked if they were English. They were, owners of that UK car we’d parked next to, and they proceeded to give us directions for the rest of the walk. We didn’t swap names so I shall have to say a big thank you to them here as it was a beautiful walk which we only attempted due to their helpful instructions.

The sun on the water was captivating and we walked in dappled shade most of the time.

We found and crossed the metal bridge and saw our first balise…

That’s when I realised that tiny yellow sign ‘in the steps of Monet’ was relevant! We had passed several more of the panels commemorating his art works created in this valley.

Curving away from the river (which bothered Mr McGregor who immediately worried we’d gone wrong), we were soon back in sight of it and the lovely old stone bridge we’d been told about.

After crossing it and stopping to admire some pottery aquatic animals created by local school children…

…we began the steep climb back out of the river valley just as I had foreseen. More of a gorge at this point of the Petit Creuse. We came out on a road on the opposite side of Fresselines from where we had started. Of course, there were also loads of signs this end of the walk telling us where we had just been…

…plus a bigger tribute to Monet. I read later that he and the other artists who had flocked here to paint had become disenchanted when the big dam was built on the Creuse at Eguzon in 1926 and they began to drift away. Maybe it flowed more dramatically before?

The house martins had gone as we walked back past the church with its unusual spire and down the track to our car.

Home for lunch and another lazy afternoon in front of the Tour of Britain in a warm glow from the morning’s experiences.

It was later that we discovered a problem with the car that was going to keep us close to our temporary home for the rest of the week. The warm glow cooled somewhat!

The weather began to change too over the next couple of days but at least that was expected. Undaunted, we made a couple of short excursions to buy a local map and some provisions from Dun-le-palestel and to explore another ‘beach’ upstream at le Bourg d’Hem. (Wonderful names in these parts) The beach and nearby campsite were completely deserted and, despite evidence of jolly holiday activity, it was a depressing place. The ‘lac’ had been formed by a dam downstream and I always find reservoirs rather gloomy although I couldn’t explain why. Perhaps those painters felt the same?

One evening we walked to the end of the campsite and found the swimming hole enshrined in the campsite’s name, ‘camping de la baignade’. It was dry so we continued along the pretty path to the bridge. People were walking their dogs or quietly contemplating the river where someone was fishing from a boat.

The proximity of the auberge was very useful and we took our aperos there again but inside as the temperature had dropped..

On Thursday morning, after a wet night, the sun came out and the meteo said it would stay out until storms moved in around lunchtime. Keen for some exercise we stuffed raincoats in our backpacks and decided to do part of a ‘boucle’ upstream along the riverbank and hope to get back before the rain.

We started from the swimming hole after both sliding on the lethally damp stone steps down from the campsite, thank goodness for walking sticks!

The sun was trying to shine and we were under the shade of the trees so it was very pleasant to be walking again.

The ‘fiche’ said we would pass a ‘moulin’ which always sounds so romantic. France is a land blessed with many rivers and there are a great number of watermills in various states of disrepair on a lot of them. The one we were walking towards had been used to generate electricity in its most recent guise. We have a surviving one in our village that our neighbour remembers as milling flour in her childhood before it turned to sawing wood.

This one, called the Moulin de Fanaud, was just a few outer walls and muddy puddles where the mill race once flowed. A reminder that time moves on and demands change.

Studying the route I had suggested we turned back at a stone bridge over a stream running from our right called the Chantadoux which sounded very pretty. Firstly, all we found of the stream was a dry and rocky bed and then the expected bridge was barely visible being the same height as the path we were on. I hopped down to take a look and spied a curve of stone under a blanket of green moss and trailing ivy.

A quick discussion about whether to press on but we decided to head back. We’d passed three separate dog walkers and we met the last one again coming back in our direction. Keen to find a different route home we asked about a side path we’d seen and asked if it would take us to the village. He assured us it did and if we wanted to get down to the riverside further on there was another path along the side of the village football pitch that we could take. What helpful fellow walkers we met that week.

A bonus was the side path took us up out of the trees and into the warm albeit intermittent sunshine..

Having got used to the temperamental television, I found the rolling French news channel as it was too late for the lunchtime editions and so we discovered the Queen had been taken poorly and the family were travelling to Balmoral. From then on, we hopped between the Tour of Britain and the news. Later it was confirmed she had passed. Subsequently, like so many other people, I imagine, we kept the TV news switched on. The French channel BFM gave over its whole coverage to the information coming from Britain so we felt very connected despite being on a tiny campsite deep in the heart of the Creuse.

It cast rather a sombre shadow over our anniversary celebration on Friday which was spent packing up while the television commentators searched for fresh things to say from outside Buckingham Palace and Balmoral. I was impressed by how much respect was being shown to a foreign event. The weather turned really damp too so it was armed with raincoats and an umbrella that we walked down to the auberge for a final evening meal of their remarkable fish and chips.

So it was a bittersweet holiday for us and a week I’m sure many people will look back on, remembering where they were when the longest reign in British history thus far came to an end. La Celle Dunoise will be much more to me now than just a village the Tour cycled through.

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family fun….

The swing has been taken down, the flotilla of pool inflatables deflated (a bit like me), the toys rounded up, the child seat wrestled out of the car…. Yes, the family have departed after a very hot fortnight in la France profonde.

The last time they were here was just after Christmas 2019 and the last summer visit the previous July. During doom virus and confinements and travel restrictions our petit fils has gone from a threenager to a schoolboy about to go into year one and celebrate his sixth birthday. We have been very grateful to facetime for keeping us in touch but it’s not the same as welcoming family here. A bonus was our other son decided to come over and work from home so we were all together, albiet briefly, to share the sunshine. The ridiculously high temperatures meant visits to the local attractions were planned for mornings rather than afternoons when it was painful to be outside.

A top favourite has always been ‘les petits trains de Seilhac’, the incredible work of a train enthusiast and his wife who have turned their back garden into a railway lovers’ delight. Trains of all types chug around complicated tracks complete with tunnels, stations and shunting yards. There are model stations, farms, garages, roads and even a stream running through the site. Several layouts permit little enthusiasts to operate trains themselves, so long as they remember to switch them to stop before moving on.

For the grownups and children there is a paper and pencil spotting game which we don’t even try to resist. Our wandering is punctuated with ‘have you found the lady asleep on her plate?’ while the child’s version is hunting for animals lurking amongst the plants and rocks.

Huge trees shade the whole place in the morning so perfect for hiding from the heat.

Bizarrely, we have a ‘foret des singes’, a woodland on the causse at Rocamadour given over to a community of macaques. Our first visit a few years ago celebrating the second birthday of petit fils was later in the year and we were allowed to feed popcorn to the monkeys as we came upon them. Post covid this has stopped but a keeper told me the animals are calmer now.

The car park was heaving when we arrived but fortunately the ‘foret’ wasn’t too crowded. It didn’t afford much shade but we did see lots of monkeys and even a baby celebrating its one month birthday. It transpired the keeper who shared that information was a girl I’d helped with her English homework the first year we were here. I was ashamed not to have recognised her but it was a long while ago and she is a mum with two children now!

Morning visits meant lunch was often taken in situ so we became au fait with the various offerings although chips were top favourite as was ice cold orangina.

The big animal park at Gramat has always been a must. A huge space that takes a couple of hours to walk around and with lots to see. The collection is devoted to European animals, some of which we could still feed special granules. The petit fils has the freedom to run in safety while the grown ups amble along enjoying the space and calm.

Three bear cubs were born the spring of the first confinement and after it was lifted ‘i’m only the chauffeur’ and I visited hoping to see them. Not a bear in sight despite returning hopefully throughout our time there. Now they are huge! One of them was pacing up and down, enjoying his/her waterfall whilst I was amused by a butterfly that flitted about his head.

Sadly the window between us was grubby so apologies for the dirt in this shot.

As we descended to the bottom level the family shouted for me as he/she was stretching up on his/her hindlegs.. impressive!

The heat meant several animals were asleep or hiding from the sun but suddenly we were overtaken by pigmy goats that appeared to have escaped their area. A passing keeper seemed unconcerned apart from shooing them back towards it. They soon sussed I had granules in my bag (the designated carrier of water, suncream, afterbite.. ) so we all took turns feeding them.

The highlight of our visit. They were still waiting for us as we left the bears!

Before we hit the cafe for that cold orangina and chips with everything we had to say hello to the pelicans, notorious within our family for the sudden attack on our son’s jacket on an autumn visit!

When we weren’t out visiting the various attractions there was the Saturday market and village play park plus endless word games in the cool of the house. The fun in the pool was kept for the early evening when the sun had lost some of its ferocity. The diminishing water level, ‘interdit’ to refill due to the ongoing drought, which I had found frustrating, was perfect for petit fils who could stand with his chin above water for a change.

One new, positively urban, addition to our nearest town is a bowling alley so on the only damp afternoon we trooped off to try it out. Petit fils with the help of a tobaggan for rolling his bowling ball and bumpers up along the gutters meant he beat us all hollow, even ‘ Mr McGregor’, our usual champion..

As usual in the summer, there are lots of fetes and marches around and about. One of our favourites took place during the visit so armed with picnic cutlery and plates, extra water, etc etc we joined the many local people who converge on the wine village on the hill above ours. The vignerons very generously offer free degustation for two hours during the evening while local food producers sell their wares so you can make up your picnic. Big BBQs are available but we decided it was too hot to bother with cooking. The ubiquitous chips were ready cooked!

Tables and chairs (new since the last pre covid marche) are laid out in the adjacent and shady walnut orchard so safe for petit fils to run off in search of other children. Although he soon returned and demanded I teach him to speak French there and then! But like all small children they were soon roaring up and down in mutually understood games. His top favourite were the ‘bandas’, very noisy brass bands who took up position next to us and allowed him to choose tunes and tap on drum and cymbal.

We bumped into several friends and neighbours who, like us, were very happy to be taking part in what had been a normal activity before covid turned our world upside down.

A completely new experience was visiting the local reptile house, not somewhere I had ever fancied going. As a teacher I had visited a few and always found them a tad grubby. But petit fils spotted the brochure on the stand at the local Leclerc and got very excited about seeing a crocodile and tarantulas. He had bravely touched a tarantula that had visited his pre school when no one else would. So we went, not once but twice! And it was a great success and a pleasant surprise. Spotlessly clean and very well organised. On our first visit we sat through a long introductory chat and watched a live mouse fed to a snake!

Our second visit was great fun as we skipped the chat and were able to watch the snake cabinets being cleaned by a keeper who crooned to them as he expertly scooped out individual pythons and calmly proceeded to refill water pots and clean windows.

So full marks to petit fils for changing my attitude, even if I am still in two minds about captive animals. All the animal parks say they play an important role in conservation and watching our grandson’s excitement may, hopefully, develop his care and concern for the natural world.

And so the holiday came to an end although still with very hot temperatures here and back in the UK. After the turmoil of the last two years it was very precious to be spending the summer making memories and sharing new experiences with the people we love….

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‘your reservation is confirmed…’

I have booked several hotels so far in 2022 but none of those trips have generated a blog chapter. There should be a good reason for that but, mostly, it’s because I just didn’t feel up to it. Spring this year has been an emotional one but reading back on previous posts I realise that my blog has taken on a diary aspect rather than being simply holiday accounts. So I shall try to marshal some sense out of the last few months.

Back in January I watched an item on the French lunchtime news, a source of lots of incidental information if I can follow the quickfire delivery! This particular series of ‘feuilleton’ items concerned the various ski stations gleefully opening after the enforced covid closures and limitations. It has been a tradition of ours since retiring to France to go off in search of snow around Mr McGregor’s birthday in February. We have always done some raquette walking but recently decided it was getting a bit too strenuous for us as we get older. Despite all that I decided to research one of the featured ski stations referred to as ‘familial’ which made it sound cosy and not too touristy. It was up on the Massif de Chartreuse, a village called Saint Peter en Chartreuse, a complete change from our usual destinations. I went ahead and booked a hotel but making sure it could be cancelled. I didn’t check with ‘I’m only the driver’ as I knew he often grunts negatively only to turn around a week before his birthday and suggest we go away. By then, in the midst of the ‘vacances scolaire’ it is impossible to find anything available. Sure enough as February drew closer murmers about going somewhere emerged and I began the ‘well, actually….’ conversation.

The journey was the well known path to Lyon and then south to Grenoble before winding up onto the Massif. The last part of the journey was along a gorge above a stream called Les Guiers Mort, gloomy by name and by nature, with very steep sides and a very scary drop below my side of the car!

But the village was up higher with wonderful vistas of snowy tops and our hotel room was comfy with two adjacent windows opening onto balconies with fantastic views.

We loved the family run place, typically idiosyncratic but welcoming with a classic mountain supper of fondue with an interruption as we all rushed out onto the terrace as the owner shone a torch on the slope below to show us some grazing deer.

True to form I had searched for local walks labelled possible for raquettes or ‘pietons’ and judging by the lack of much snow in the village I reckoned we could easily walk them. This was confirmed by the owner and the postman!

We started up through a stony alley and then onto tarmac, climbing through houses with stunning views. We met the biggest dog we’d ever seen. A Tibetan mountain dog, with an amazingly thick coat that he sheds in summer in order to survive the heat, his owner informed us.

Squeezing behind a substation we found the continuation of the marked path going up a precipitous and rocky slope covered in a mixture of snow, slush and mud. ‘If we go up that there’ll be no coming back’, I announced, ‘we’d have to do it on our bottoms and still might break something!’ We struggled up, very grateful for the sticks we always take on such expeditions. The first point de vue was by a chapel on a side path.

But looking at the path’s 45Β° camber we decided against pushing up just to have to slither back to the main ‘chemin’. Around our feet were clusters of wild yellow primroses and hellebore, recompense for our efforts.

As we continued, breathing heavily and watching where we placed our feet on the treacherous snow and rocks, a young girl came skipping down, (well, I lie, but that’s what it felt like) from the opposite direction with a dog. We bonjoured and pressed on.

Later we came out on a main road a few minutes walk beyond the village and made it back in time to get the last table in a crowded pizza place that served excellent salads and a beer for ‘I’m only the chauffeur’. Then a lazy afternoon to recover!

The second day we drove down to a nearby Espace Nordique for my second walk. Comme d’hab there was a deal of faffing as we tried to find the start of the trail, passing some very loud huskies about to whizz off with a sledge full of youngsters who seemed to be from a colony holiday.

The snow was deeper here but didn’t impede us as it was meadow underneath and, as we climbed up, the view of the mountains all around us was superb, unlike an enormous black cloud that we hoped would blow away in a different direction to ours.

The path wound up and across a lane and on up to run alongside a ski de fond course. A few skiers swished by but no small children, fortunately, as that always demoralises us! By a pretty cabin we stopped and drew breath.

A little further on, the path joined the tarmac to continue and we decided that that was going to be a tad boring as it was an aller-retour walk and that cloud was still hovering. We took a different path back and at the village I dived into a church that had become a Musee de Beaux-Arts, the Musee Arcabas en Chartreuse, all of its artwork painted or sculpted by the same artist Jean-Marie Pirot known as Arcabas. My stick is probably still sitting in their umbrella stand where I was instructed to place it. Afterwards we lunched in the espace’s restaurant we had thoughtfully booked before our walk.

When we left the next morning the kind lady owner refunded us two breakfasts as she was concerned we had initially booked a three person room, the only one available on booking.com when I reserved. She told me she had changed our room for our lovely double but couldn’t change the price as it was set by booking com but as we had ordered breakfast once we were there she could refund us that way. She told me to book direct next time. Sadly, we probably won’t be going back. There were no more walks that we could manage and most of the restaurants were closed which meant trying to find somewhere to reserve in the morning before we went walking which was a pain.

Our next jaunt was to Geneva to see family. No wretched border paperwork to worry about anymore and we had a great time. I especially appreciated the comedic sculptures along the bank of the lake.

Sadly, we had to make a return visit a month later to take a final farewell to a close family member but it did give us the opportunity to meet up with younger family that we hadn’t seen for several years.

In amongst these outings Mr McGregor had both his cateracts seen to which involved overnight stays in Brive as the arrival time at the clinic meant leaving home hideously early. The hotel was quite scruffy but handy for the centre ville and some good restaurants. We made the most of the occasion to try somewhere new.

Then it was my turn in early June. Fortunately I was alerted the afternoon before about what time to arrive at the clinic and a hotel wasn’t needed. There was a certain amount of activity curtailment after the surgery, mostly to do with gardening and housework, as we needed to avoid dust and the attendant possibility of developing an infection.

Meanwhile, the weather was getting warmer and our youngest son took his family to Mallorca for a few days during the UK half-term. Suddenly our WhatsApp was full of photos of frolicking in swimming pools, building sandcastles and paddling in the sea. I began to get very nostalgic for some sun, sea and sand, the sort of holiday we haven’t taken since our kids were young. I voiced this, expecting a horrified response but didn’t get one…result! So back to booking.com and Google earth to find something. Where we live we are equidistant between the east and west coasts of France so it was a choice of Atlantic or Mediterranean seaside. I decided east would be possibly warmer and calmer. Then a search for something that wasn’t just a strip of buildings facing the sea across a main road. Around Narbonne and Perpignan this seemed to be the norm. Then I stumbled on Argeles-sur-mer, where the endless beach was backed by pine trees without a road before the houses started. I found a fancy hotel that boasted about its sea views and plumped for it. At this point I need to own up to camping no longer being an option for us. After years of a trailer tent followed by a caravan and then a camper van and, finally, our more recent tent, we can’t face crawling about on the grass fighting with tent poles and, worse still, having to get up from said grass with our creaky knees and arthritic spines…so hotels it is.

And so we found ourselves on the third floor of the Grand Hotel Lido with the aforementioned balcony giving us a wonderful view of the sea and sand to the east and some stunning sunsets to the west. The sand was hot under the soles of our feet when we walked across it to the water’s edge although I decided against swimming remembering the instructions of my eye surgeon but I paddled!

There were lots of little restaurants tucked away in the streets behind the beach where we feasted on fish and seafood. As usual with us, one day of beach and meandering was enough so the second day we drove up to Elne, a place famed for its cloister right at the top of the town.

I dragged ‘i’m only the chauffeur’ up the alleyways to explore it. Only a few euros entrance fee and we had the freedom to wander at will. We were advised to climb up to the roof via an exceedingly steep, narrow and winding stone staircase to take in the views, so we did.

Then it was a calm wander around the cool of the cloister, avoiding the group of ‘troisieme age’ being lectured by their enthusiastic leader.

Not finding any restaurant open for lunch in Elne, a rather deserted albeit pretty village, we decided to drive back to Argeles proper, the centre ville set back from the coast. It was the end of market morning in the town which had taken over every alley and square.

We wandered around enjoying the atmosphere while looking for a shady terrace for lunch. Back on the main, pedestrianised street we bagged a table in the shade and munched through salad bowls while watching the stallholders packing up and manoeuvring their vans through the cafe tables.

Our lunch stop was just a few steps away from the Memorial du Camp, a museum dedicated to the memory of the thousand of Spanish refugees who fled over the border at the time of the revolution. This is a dark chapter of French and Spanish history and we first became aware of it some time ago through a photo exhibition. Always happy to travel to look at photos we had visited Bram, a little village near Carcassonne, to look at work by Robert Capa, an American photographer who had recorded the camp experiences during what is known as the Retirada. In fact, just outside our hotel there was a plaque marking the southern edge of the Argeles camp.

So we had to visit it after lunch. It is tiny but full of information; photographs, film clips, contemporary art work, personal anecdotes plus the political background to the events as France was invaded by the Nazis and the Vichy government set up. The curator was very happy to talk to us and mentioned Orwell’s writings. In response I suggested he look out for Laurie Lee. Much food for thought as we left.

We were sad to leave our lovely view the next day but both felt we had had the break we both needed and I had had my paddle in the sea!

A bientot…

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all dressed up….

On her first visit here a cousin described our home as having chateaux every direction…which is true and she didn’t even know about the one in the Correze at around eleven kilometres to the north of us. That one I visited many years ago with our local history group. I had no idea why at the time as it seemed a gloomy edifice and we couldn’t even visit the interior. Built at the turn of the 20th century as a hotel with great views it is now one of the ubiquitous chateaux featured in Escape to the Chateau DIY, just in case anyone is looking for a wedding venue!

But to ‘return to the sheep’, as the French say, my favourite chateau, Montal, of the three in easy reach of home, had advertised it was holding an exhibition of Renaissance costumes, not originals but those created for films and theatre. This sounded very interesting and by the time we get to February I am always desperate to get out after days spent inside, especially since doom virus stopped a lot of activities and the bitter January weather meant I was disinclined to walk, preferring to ride my exercise bike in the warm.

It was a gloriously sunny morning when I parked up in a deserted car park below the chateau. Lots of scaffolding suggested the roof was receiving attention. The chateau used to be in private hands, the last owner’s descendants benefitting from usufruit until fairly recently. When I first visited in the 90s there were private apartments closed to visitors. Since the Historic Monuments department took over they have steadily restored various parts. When it closed in 2015 for a big refurbishment I was very anxious that the intimate quality that I had loved so much would be lost. Happily, when I was finally able to visit again I discovered it was still ‘my’ chateau, just a better entrance and tiny shop having been created and the garden opened up for visitors.

Maybe it is its size or the fact it was designed by a woman that appeals to me but I love it. Not much is known about the original chateau, simply a mention of a repaire Saint Pierre in 1474. The northern and western facades have retained their typical medievil defensive architecture, pepper pot towers with cannon slots.

But it is the southern two sided courtyard that is the main attraction. refurbished by Jeanne de Balsac, daughter of Robert de Balsac, seigneur d’Entraygues, widow of d’Amaury of Montal, seigneur de Laroquebrue. She had two sons and a daughter and it was for her eldest son, Robert, away fighting with the French army in Milan that she dedicated the work, starting around 1519. Sadly he was lost in battle in 1523 and the work was finally suspended at her death in 1534, meaning the completion of at least one more wing around the courtyard never took place. The medallions set into the walls facing the courtyard are of herself, her husband, their sons, Robert and Dordet and daughter Nine and Nine’s husband, Francois de Scorailles.

Much later, after several disinterested owners, in 1888 parts of the chateau were dismantled and sold off. Just before the scheduled dismantling of the central staircase which apparently would have meant the building collapsing, a saviour, in the form of an industrialist and well connected art collector, Maurice Fenaille, bought the chateau in 1908 and set about reuniting all its treasures, in some cases commissioning artists such as Rodin to recreate certain items.

This is a potted version of its history, gleaned from various sources, but such a romantic one. Saving these old buildings for posterity isn’t just a modern phenomenon despite what the tv shows would have us believe. The nearby Castelnau Bretenoux (joint ticket of 12 euros gets you into both) was also saved about the same time by a tenor of l’Opera Comique, Jean Moulierat.

The girl at the box office was probably glad of my arrival. The chateau was deserted apart from the sound of a unseen guide delivering his version of its history in the courtyard. Armed with the printed guide to the costumes I set off, pausing to feel a piece of ‘brocatelle’ as instructed by a small tablet beside it. This was a chance to appreciate the ongoing conservation work of the fabric covering several of the walls in certain rooms. It is a fabric woven from a mix of mostly silk and cotton.

I went into the large hall that runs at right angles to the corridor from the entrance. It is beautiful with a ceiling of low ribbed vaulting, a huge dining table, a flagged floor and splendid fireplace with the blazons of various Balzac family members . The costumes were placed sympathetically around the space with small explanatory panels.

Moving through to the ground floor bedroom, my eye was taken by a beautiful yellow dress. During the renaissance this colour was obtained by using saffron imported from the Levant or so my brochure told me. The turret room in the corner of this bedroom has two gunports, used for cannon and firearms, so although elegant this chateau clearly wasn’t taking any chances!

I peeked into the kitchen built in the 17th century and saw it has a souillard as indeed does our house. This was the food preparation area, big stone shelves on each side and a sink with a drain out to the exterior on the rear wall. If you ever see a small hole in the wall of a house in our area with a stone beneath with a small channel cut into it, chances are there are the remains of a souillard on the other side.

Now it was time for the upstairs rooms but first I had to stop and admire the staircase, the removal of which might have caused the chateau to disappear forever. It is truly beautiful and I am so glad it survived. I always have to pause to stroke the marble and try to make out the symbols, ‘putti’, carved on the panels, amongst them candelabra, birds and dolphins.

The stairs look slippery so, for me, progress is slow but it gives you time to look at the carving underneath the upper steps as you ascend, carefully!

And a pause to note the scallop shells indicative of the Compostela route said to pass nearby as pilgrims made a detour from Figeac to visit Rocamadour. Plus a peep out of the window as you catch your breath.

The upstairs grand hall has several tapestries from Fenaille’s collection. There is a sumptuous fireplace topped by a magnificent seated stag. I much prefer the stone versions to the stuffed ones that used to be much more prevalent on restaurant walls when we first started visiting this area.

The dresses in here were pretty special too. Several were worn by Cate Blanchett in the film Elizabeth. I was delighted to find they came from the Angels collections in London. Many years ago when working in repertory theatre, it was my job to collect costumes from Angels. Ah, memories.

Beyond this huge salle is the master bedroom, furnished in the regency style by Fenaille. There is a beautiful bed with lots of golden curtains to keep out the draughts. I love the tiled floor in here as it is the same pattern as the tomettess that make up our kitchen floor but much shinier.

Another glorious dress but I forget which film. In the corner is the master dressing room with a modern ensuite which always makes me giggle at its incongruity.

Crossing past the top of the stairs (access to the next floor is not permitted) you find three more bedrooms which are kept dark. I assume it is to protect the brocatelle. In the first I found costumes from ‘Shakespeare in love’, the dress stunning but looking very uncomfortable to wear.

As I turned I was momentarily spooked by a figure in the tiny bedroom in the corner. This was Rhys Ifans, or rather, a costume he had worn. The bed in this room reminds us how short our ancestors were.

I still had the chateau to myself, if you didn’t count all the headless mannequins.

In the last bedroom I was amazed at how small the dress was worn by Natalie Portman as Anne Boleyn. I wish!

It was past midday and the chateau closes at half past so, reluctantly, it was back down, carefully, the beautiful staircase and,

after a quick peek in the courtyard where the guide was still talking to one other person, it was home for lunch.

ps the costume exhibition runs until 8th May 2022, closed on Tuesdays 8 euros to visit the chateau, exhibition free http://www.chateau-montal.fr

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city break…part three

Before entering the Basilique de Notre Dame de Fourviere I was warned I might find the decor a bit too much. However, once we were allowed in (numbers being carefully monitored) I was stunned by both the enormity of the space and the fabulous decoration. It moved me to tears, in fact. On closer inspection, I realised every surface was embellished in some way. The glowing colours on the walls were not paint as I had assumed but mosaic. It was like standing inside a jewelled cavern that reached up way over our heads.

I put my phone on its widest setting but failed to capture the sheer height and magnificence of it all to my satisfaction.

We stumbled out into the dusk somewhat stunned.

Walking across the place alongside the Basilique we came to the wall on the edge of the Fourviere hill and found a space to take in the view of Lyon.

Ahead of us it is sometimes possible to see Mont Blanc apparently but I couldn’t make it out that evening. But we see could the Croix-Rousse away to our left and the big wheel lit up in place Bellecour and the river Saone at our feet..

Not too far away there is a Roman theatre still used for concerts but that would have to wait for another day. It was time to return to Vieux Lyon and more wandering ..

First a goodbye to the Virgin on her tower….

And then the funiculaire… perversely I can cope with funiculars and never suffer claustrophobia when travelling on them. But metros and cable cars..!

The lights were on by the time we began our stroll through the old streets that run parallel to the Saone river. These are full of the grand Renaissance houses standing cheek by jowl with beautiful carved entrances that lead to courtyards behind. There is wealth of history here to discover but that would need to be another visit, possibly with a specialist guide to take you into places hidden from the general public. French tourist offices are very good at organising these.

This part of Lyon is famous for its ‘traboules’, passageways that linked courtyards and alleyways that thread their secret way between the streets. Sadly closed at the time of the fete but we entered the beginning of one at 16 rue de boeuf with its famous Rose tower.

Complicated staircases were very a la mode during that epoch and we managed to glimpse one at the Maison des Avocats with its balconies

And all the time as we came out into little squares we would see the Basilique shining above us with its huge illuminated sign with its ‘Merci, Marie’ message.

Eventually it was time to turn back along the Saone and say goodbye to the captivating streets….

We were caught at that time between business life closing down before the fete took over so the junctions were full of gendarmes closing roads and drivers desperately trying to get out before they did!

On foot it was easy to slip through and begin the walk beside the river that looked so much better than it had in the morning now lit up on each side with reflections hiding the muddy surface.

Our friend continued to point out favourite local features like this famous ice cream shop then the Palais de justice with its 24 columns while further on, the Primatiale of Saint Jean-Baptiste..

A return visit is clearly a must!

Aperos on our minds, we walked back through place Bellecour with the souvenir stalls opening up for business,

past the torn paper installation….

And back to our friend’s apartment for a lovely family evening of ‘do you remember…?’

A footnote…

The snow we had avoided going to Lyon lay in wait for us for the journey home. Very scary but ‘i’m only the chauffeur’ brought us safely through it…


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City break….part two

After a long and busy day it was a slow start to our one and only full day in Lyon. The ibis breakfast buffet had fresh fruit decoratively presented in tumblers so was noted as an hotel to return to. Love fresh fruit in the morning, especially if I haven’t had to prepare it myself!

Virginie, our pet guide to Lyon, had suggested we meet later, giving us a chance to explore the Croix Rousse. We were very close to the Mur des Canuts, a huge trompe l’oeil, representing the life of the silk workers, so that was our first stop.

It was enormous and truly ‘tromped’ our eyes. We debated whether the bank depicted at street level was indeed a real one…it wasn’t!

Walking further on we came to Place des Tapis where a less stylised painted wall rose behind us. This place had several cafes and an Irish bar. There was a definite village feel to the area and I was glad we had a dry day for exploring it.

We turned a corner towards the Croix Rousse metro in order to find the viewpoint from beside the Gros Caillou. But first there was a wander past a fish counter with oysters, a cafe terrace and Christmas trees being sold. Shouts from the children playing in a nearby maternelle added to the cheerful atmosphere

The sun was trying to come through but the view when we got to the edge of the plateau was too misty for good photos. we had decided that to walk down the long and apparently magnificent descent into the centre ville was too much for either of us. my dodgy knee meant I was walking with my souvenir walking stick from the Great Wall of China! yet another thing to juggle with, but we had popped into an optician next to the hotel and bought a string for my glasses to dangle on when i got exasperated by the ‘bouee’ caused by my obligatory mask and it was proving to be really useful.

So it was back to the nearby metro where we bought a day ticket for all transport from a machine that offered English amongst its choice of languages. this city is really well organised.

Once back by the Hotel de Ville we walked towards the Saone river. our friend’s daughter had suggested we look out for the Mur de Fresques of various Lyon celebrities. however, on arriving at the river side we discovered the water was running high and the lower quai was underwater. assuming, wrongly, we found out later, that the Mur would be partially submerged we headed south along the embankment.

It was a pleasant walk as we spotted interesting buildings down side roads and traversed a market with the usual display of fabulous cheeses…

and all the time with the cathedral on the Fourviere hill looking down on us from across the river.

We walked as far as the pont de Bonoparte and texted our friend where we were. desperate for a sit down and a coffee we walked into place Bellecour and down a side street to a patisserie/salon du the. we were told later that it was a branch of the best patisserie in Lyon! although it was French lunchtime we were able to sit in a corner with our coffee and recover.

Out into place Bellecour once again where we met up with our friend near the torn paper installation looking sad in the daylight…

Virginie had suggested some of her favourite places that we might visit, the first being the Grand Hotel-Dieu. What I have been calling the centre ville is actually referred to as the Presque-Ile, nearly an island, the area between the two rivers, Saone and Rhone. The Grand Hotel-Dieu faces across the Rhone for several hundred metres and truly lives up to its name.

We entered through one of its many doors on the opposite side to the river. Our friend remembers it as a huge hospital but after closing in 2010 and lying unused for a while it has been refurbished and now houses boutiques, restaurants and a museum and is recognized as a UNESCO site, as is most of the area around it.

There are a series of beautiful courtyards with neat gardens, some of which are furnished with sunbeds in summer for lazy passing of the time..

The walls and window frames have been painted in the original 18th century colours and architectural features retained where possible. There were tantalising glimpses of towers and cupulas above the roofline. Finally we came out into the Place de l’Hopital outside the front entrance of the Chapelle Hotel-Dieu.

pausing to photograph a particularly spectacular door, our ‘guide’ pointed out the stone above it commemorating a poetess.

the Lyonnais equivalent of a UK blue plaque?

now we headed for the vieux ville across the Saone, threading our way through the streets past the place des Jacobins where lumigions were being sold the night before to raise funds for this year’s chosen charity. I hadn’t realised the significance but took a photo as they looked pretty!

historically, this square has changed its name several times and evidence of Roman settlement has been found here. In the Renaissance era, Florentine merchant bankers moved to Lyon and adopted a now vanished church on this ‘place’ as their own. There is so much fascinating history to Lyon that I look forward to discovering.

in place Celestines we passed a theatre and crossed the river by pont Bonoparte and into place Saint Jean. Feeling peckish we sought out a restaurant still happy to serve us a late lunch. A surprising possibility for us in a French city used as we are to country kitchens that shut firmly around 1.30pm!

we were now in vieux Lyon, an area saved in the nick of time for posterity when about to be demolished in the gung-ho 60s. The buildings are mostly of the Renaissance era with arched windows and entrances on the ground floors and rising three or four stories above narrow and cobbled streets.

Virgie led us up a steep chemin to the entrance of a narrow alleyway with a sign that announced this was the oldest building in the area. Somewhat neglected but presumably with some sort of protection order on it. It still had typical wooden balconies on each floor.

i wondered aloud if we could contemplate carrying on up the hill to Fourviere but was advised it was a tough climb. Better to take the nearby funiculaire. Happily, as we all had day tickets, we could bypass the queue! Virginie had said she wanted us to see the view from the top at dusk and we had timed it well but first the cathedral or rather, the Basilique of Notre Dame de Fourviere….

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City break…part one

Well, despite the unexpected recent rise in doom virus numbers, we are off to Lyon for the Fete des Luminaires. We have been staying close to home except for occasional forays and as we aren’t going to blighty for the annual family ‘do’ and lots of regular activities are on hold we find ourselves free to do something we have often talked about but never got around to doing. we have both been triple jabbed and as the main events are all outside we are taking a calculated risk and going for it before France decides to lockdown again or, at least, limit travel….

The fΓͺte des luminaires takes place every December, starting on the 8th, the day the Lyonais put candles in their windows to thank the Virgin for saving them from various disasters down the centuries. I had forgotten this fact and thought it was an odd but kind gesture to be given on arrival at our hotel a decorated bag with maps and guides and a candle in a small glass. We had no windowsill and I wouldn’t have left a lighted candle in our room but a lovely gesture even if I didn’t quite grasp it at the time.

The drive to Lyon is about four hours from chez nous but longer with a lunch stop for our ham sarnies, crisps and a shared Twix. We have our traditions too! We had coffees in the aire towards the end of the A89 and were pleased that the snow we’d seen was on the fields rather than the road.

The drive is beautiful as you go east from the Lot, crossing the Correze with its forests and then Puy de Dome with its ‘volcans’ and snowy mountain tops. A flat bit after Clement Ferrand then up into the Livradois-Forez. The GPS gets muddled around the autoroute changes north of Lyon so we ignored him for a while but listened once we got into the outer suburbs. He took us straight to the hotel, crossing the Saone river and winding up the hairpins to the Croix-Rousse plateau above Lyon’s centre ville.

The Croix Rousse hill is traditionally called the hill that works as opposed to Lyon’s other celebrated hill of Fourviere as the hill that prays. Croix-Rousse was the home of the silk workers, canuts, from the 19th century and is now known as the boho and artistic quarter. With a dodgy knee and claustrophobic to boot I had decided that buses would be a good way to get down to the centre ville. Searching online as ‘I’m only the chauffeur’ rested his eyelids I discovered that due to the fete all buses would be stopping some distance from where we wanted to start our wander. So the metro it would have to be. All public transport was free from 4.30pm on Wednesday 8th so, after looking at the tube stations online and finding one was in the open air, I braved it.

After landing on the wrong platform we ascended back to the street, crossed over and tried again. The platform was hardly any distance down from the road so I didn’t feel too much entombed. The trains run frequently so we were onboard and away pretty quickly. Just three stops and one of those was outside with a very steeply inclined platform!

Hotel de ville is the terminus for our line from Henon so out we piled and followed the ‘sortie’ signs. Our very dear friend who lives in Lyon was very excited that we were coming and had booked a restaurant for 9pm so we had time to wander around looking at the lights. As we emerged onto the square it was clear that things were very well organized. A posse of security people checked bags and reminded people about mask wearing. We noticed that most people were heading in one direction and, after checking with a security girl who confirmed it was a ‘spectacle’, we joined the flow. The Place Terreaux was on my map of places to visit and it was pretty spectacular when we arrived. The commentary was beyond my translation skills but the lights on two sides of the square were not!

As the show ended ‘sortie’ with a big arrow flashed across the facade of the Musee de Beaux Arts and the crowd obediently exited stage left! We got a bit concerned at the closeness of the crush but with some dodging into side streets we got back to the main rue, that of la Republique. The restaurant was at the southern end of the centre ville and we started in the north so were able to saunter along enjoying the atmosphere and light installations despite the slight drizzle.

At one point we felt the need for a sit down and some liquid and plumped for a Starbucks. I went for a fruit juice as even their small coffees come in gallon beakers! We sat in an neglected window and watched the people enjoying the evening outside. Lou wanted me to buy a crown of lights that were being sold everywhere but I resisted. Juggling misted up glasses and a mask plus phone camera was quite enough…

place jacobins

Finally we arrived at Place Bellecour where an enormous big wheel was slowly turning and an affair that I nicknamed the torn paper tent was changing colour as music played. I tried to work out if the colours related to the different notes but gave up and just enjoyed it.

Wandering out of the Place into a long square we passed several very busy restaurants and arrived by the river Rhone.

It was nearly time to meet our friend so after a few more photos it was along the rue des marroniers to Maison Mounier, a ‘bouchon’. We have learned that these are emblematic of Lyon. Tiny, usually, and very authentic bistrots that serve the traditional dishes dearly loved by the locals. Not so much by our British palates, andouilette, tete de veau and tripe. Happily, boeuf bourguignon and the famous quenelle of Lyon were listed on the menu so we chose the quenelle filled with pike which arrived bathed in a delicious fishy sauce.

We had been led through to a tiny and busy back room just off the kitchen which our friend, when she arrived, assured us was typical of a bouchon, bottleneck in English. We loved it and pushed our anxiety re doom virus to the back of our minds, almost.

It was fabulous to catch up on family gossip as we hadn’t seen each other since 2013. Her daughter and I giggled about the lady at the next table who was clearly fascinated by the mix of English and French being spoken at ours.

Finally we dragged ourselves away and with help from our local ‘guide’ found our way to the metro and back to the hotel. The security was very much in evidence down on the platforms so, despite the late hour, we didn’t feel anxious and they were happy to point us in the right direction when we needed to change trains.

I was getting braver on the metro ….but, then, it hadn’t stopped in any of the tunnels!

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Back when I was working I used to wonder about my retirement, those sunny uplands awaiting me after the hard graft of the working years, always assuming my health would still be sound, god willing. Probably helping out in school (once a teacher and all that) going in as a helping granny (not that I was one) rather than a mum; visiting the theatre; joining the national trust; travelling to London for the art galleries that I loved so much (and still do) and getting around to writing that novel we are all meant have inside us.

but we moved to France.

This had been the plan for several years but I suppose a part of me didn’t believe it would actually happen. And when cancer struck ‘i’m only the driver’ I really thought it wouldn’t. In fact, the future vanished and a black hole loomed where our shared dreams should have been. Mercifully, speedy action by the consultant meant he was spared, albiet with only one kidney remaining.

and we moved to France.

For a while my new life was taken up with the learning curve that emigration to a country where you struggle to understand and be understood is much steeper that you imagined it would be. Gradually life calmed down, especially after the seemingly interminable restoration work on our retirement home finally finished and we moved out of our tiny holiday house. By now we had three cats, a circle of multilingual friends and several dinner table anecdotes on creating a new life in a foreign land.

As for my intended activities a few obstacles needed to be overcome.

In order to help out in school it gradually became clear that things in France are very different. No offering my services and having my hand snatched off by a grateful staff. There were issues surrounding insurance, I discovered. In fact, insurance looms large in several extra curricular activities. Before starting any kind of sport activity you need a medical certificate from your doctor confirming you are fit enough to undertake said activity. For the ‘primaire’ school this proved insurmountable without my taking a ‘formation’ to gain a qualification. Not happening! Unbelievably, I managed a short trip away as a helper with my friend’s class of infants despite not being allowed into their classroom on a regular basis. Go figure. Several years later I discovered a homework club where I was welcomed with open arms as a native English speaker. This is with secondary level youngsters. We all agreed that my language skills are not a good enough model for helping primaire children. The ‘college’ kids enjoy pretending not to understand and correcting my grammar.

Visiting the theatre is stymied by those poor language skills. This is a shame as we have a vibrant theatre in a nearby town working out of a sympathetically converted suitcase factory. They hold a music festival each summer which is more accessible for obvious reasons. However, for several years, our own village hosted a story telling festival, something embedded in french culture. I resolutely attended every spring and slowly began to understand more and more. Storytellers use a steady delivery and there is only one voice on which to concentrate that makes it easier. A quickly delivered punchline often had me cursing my incomprehension or appealing to a friend for a translation although the moment was lost.

I’ve not discovered an equivalent of the national trust in France. In fact, one of the odd things we discovered was that our retired status doesn’t afford us any discounts at ticket offices of any attractions we visit. That ‘liberte, fraternite, egalite’ constitution? The only place we have paid less was at an art gallery in Toulouse in the early days where we had to show our passports to prove our ages. I’m not sure which thing pleased me the most, the discount or being thought younger?

Which brings me to the art galleries. Paris is a six hour drive away and we haven’t visited it as much as we could have done despite its having several fabulous ‘musees’. But we have exercised our mutual love of photography and grabbed the opportunity to visit photo galleries and exhibitions when we travel, often the first thing I google. Recently we have discovered a tiny gallery an hour away dedicated to one of our favourite photographers.

We have been known to drive down to beyond Carcassonne, about three hours away, to visit another favourite venue. Living in la France profonde doesn’t necessarily mean we are in a cultural wilderness. There are always exhibitions advertised in the local paper. Some of these might be arranged by a local painting group and be somewhat erratic regarding talent but there are often happy surprises, several of which are hanging on our walls. But it is photos that are the biggest attraction for us both and recently we have had some real treats.

Last month we went to the tiny gallery, la gare Robert Doisneau, to look at black and white photos by two African photographers, Fatoumata Diabete and Malick Sidibe. These were black and white street photographs apparently posed in a pop up pavement studio while others made use of strongly patterned background or clothes to make dramatic images.

Afterwards, we had lunch at a rather idiosyncratic auberge that scatters fruit across its salads. On the way back we stopped at Souillac where an abandoned church makes a beautiful exhibition space, the Salle Saint Martin and about which I had read in our local paper.

The current exhibition is inspired by Nancy Cunard, a 20s socialite, who, we discovered, was a champion of African artists and writers and had once lived in the Lot, our department. Reading the brochure I realised the photos we had just seen were all part of the same celebration and that there were some paintings in another gallery over on the causse the other side of Rocamadour.

So another outing was organised. We drove out to Rocamadour and beyond, through the glorious autumn landscape. There is a particular tree that flares orange and looks magnificent against the limestone of the wild and rugged causse.

I had found a restaurant in Cales,the same commune as the gallery. As the exhibition wouldn’t open until 2pm we had time to enjoy what turned out to be a sumptuous and fairly expensive lunch. The bistrot menu I was expecting is a summer season only offering. Tant pis, we treated ourselves to two fabulous courses each.

We had passed the gallery entrance on the way so easily found it again. The house and attached gallery lay at the end of a long and bumpy track with stunning views. A dog barked and a woman came out with the keys and opened up for us.

The artworks were colourful and naive and there were not many of them. Our eyes were caught by a few photos on the wall and these turned out to have been taken by our hostess. ‘I’m only the chauffeur’ perked up straight away, paintings not being his thing, and while I chatted to our lady he leafed through her photo books on a side table. Of course, we bought one, moody black and white prints of scenes from the causse around us. So, replete with a good lunch and a chance meeting, we drove home very satisfied even if a little lighter of pocket!

On Guy Fawkes day we had another foray but closer to home. In St Cere, a local town, the one with the theatre, there is an association called le lieu commun. They are an eclectic group of artists, crafts people, musicians and interested locals who promote and/or agitate about issues close to their collective hearts. A subset regularly chooses three or films each month that are felt to be deserving of promotion by being shown at our nearest cinema. Sometimes they put on exhibitions in St Cere and this week it was a photographic one. More importantly, it was of China, a country we had visited in 2007 and the reason this blog came into being.

I was a little sceptical as I had made the mistake of attending a talk and slide show by one of the members on the theme of local birds many years before. It was poorly attended and the slides were blurry. I had to impatiently sit it out as my departure would have been too obvious as we were so few!

This time was very different. The photographs of Tibetan festivals were colourful and beautifully presented. The photographer was present and very eager to explain her experiences plus she had had several leaflets printed to give some historical background. We were fully absorbed by it all and I felt sad that it wasn’t better attended especially as it is school holidays. Just the sort of thing I would have encouraged my former pupils to visit.

Afterwards we had an excellent lunch in a local restaurant that was full of families with children. An abiding feature of French culture.

And so retirement is busy, just not with the things I had anticipated. Certainly not the rock class that I have attended since almost the beginning and only stopped due to the dreaded doom virus. My last jive dancing had been as a teenager. ‘i’m only the chauffeur’ is notorious for having two left feet and never dancing. And that novel? Well, I took a writing course the second year we were here and was fascinated by my fellow students. I quickly realised who were the talented ones and I wasn’t amongst them. But, as I noted earlier, within a couple of years along came the growth of social media and with it the ubiquitous blog. So here I am writing the words without having to convince a publisher but not being paid for them…swings and roundabouts, swings and roundabouts! 😊

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