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….