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 45° 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!