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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