UK – Last days & prep for return to France

We’d been busy in our first days back in the UK.  After a few more days of relaxing, eating too much, drinking far too much and rarely exercising, we waddled off southwards.  We had a flying visit with Nicky’s dad, enjoying a nice catch-up with him and happily helping out with several jobs around his house and garden. Then on to park Benny at Stansted, in a huge, entirely empty parking lot, before catching a flight to Dublin, Ireland.  We had more family and friends to visit on the other side of the pond.

Stansted - empty parking

We were met by Mary at Dublin airport and driven north to their home in Co. Meath to catch up with Andy and their two girls, all bounce and noise and smiles.  A late night and a few drinks then followed, us all trying hard to capture our highlights of the past year in easily-digested sound bites. Saturday morning took us all out for a steady run around some very pretty woodland near the town of Virginia (no, not that one) before finishing with a short walk with the girls to locate all the pretty fairy doors built into trees around the park.  On Sunday we had a lazy morning playing around the house then, with the weather clearing up and looking brighter, we enjoyed a cycle trip around a nearby lake, followed by a park walk and an ice-cream with their extended family. It was a wonderful, relaxing few days catching up, something we only manage to do once a year or so now that our lives are taking different paths.

Meath - lakeside cycle

But Monday morning brought with it the requirement for our friends to return to work.  With a very early start and bleary eyes, we drove with Andy to a local station then caught a train into Dublin Connolly, before saying our goodbyes and us catching the Enterprise up to the north, where we were smoothly met by my sister around 10am.  From there we had a quick pit-stop at hers before driving on northwards, back into the Republic, to visit Buncrana. From there we drove to Malin Point to be the most northerly people on the island of Ireland, at least for a brief moment, walking along the cliff path and enjoying the views out over the wild, foaming ocean.  A raucous family dinner out completed our visit then a long drive back to my sister’s home for a well-deserved long night’s sleep.

Malin Point - Panorama

The next morning we awoke to visit my mum, and headed out for a lovely lunch at the local golf club.  Later we played family games; chess, Monopoly, Texas Hold’em, talking nonsense and having lots of fun.  Our few days in where I still refer to as home, passed quickly, as always, and soon we had to again say goodbyes.  Hopefully we can all meet up soon in our new place in France, should we ever find this illusive home we have been searching for.  We returned from Belfast international to a patiently-waiting Benny at Stansted and drove north, back to the wilds of Lincolnshire for our final days of packing and organising.  In one dry-weather window we managed to fit in a windy beach walk on Mablethorpe strand and afterwards a muddy and wet 10km run home cross-country, passing by all manner of water management installations and huge, stalking wind turbines, spinning furiously in stormy skies.

Lisburn - games night

So, packed up and ready to go, we said sad goodbyes to our host Mummy Finch and headed south.  We still had a few friends to see.  First we called in to see Jannette & Paddy in Market Harborough for dinner and drinks, then we briefly called with Cathy in Northampton for tea, cake and a catch-up chat, before reaching Louise & Nigel in St. Albans where we enjoyed lamb curry, prosecco and whisky.  The night was a tamer, more civilised affair than many other nights spent in their gregarious company but it was mid-week school night for them, so excuses were readily available. Our love to all, great to have seen you and thanks for fitting us in. We had then hoped to visit Brighton, but it all seemed to be quite anti-motorhome, so we skipped on and parked on the expansive seafront in Seaford, a much more welcoming place for larger vehicles and also much closer to our next morning’s goal – the ferry terminal in Newhaven.

Walking the seafront, we passed through the ruins of Tile Mills, the foundations of an almost entirely lost mill complex that has slowly been eroded either by the encroaching sea or the changing flows of tides.  We continued our meandering beach walk to a fishing pier right by Newhaven harbour and later we enjoyed proper chip-shop fish & chips as we watched the sun set over the still sea and pebble beach.  Our last meal in good ol’ Blighty was a tasty one, and we felt contented with our jobs and whistle-stop tour of the UK, feeling we saw and fitted in as much as we realistically could.  We quietly overnighted in a curved area of the seafront that was set back a little from the main road; the signs suggested we could stay for 12 hours, and we overstayed this a little, but were gone before 9am to catch our ferry to Dieppe; the opening gambit in our next exploratory chapter back in the heartland of France.

A&N x

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France – Château de Chenonceau & home

Our very lovely house-sit in Cazeneuve finally came to an end, as all things must do. We had a final dinner and beers with our returned hosts, hearing tales of their travels and sharing our experiences of our time in their beautiful home.  A final clean up and packing up session after breakfast the next morning and we were off, sad to be leaving our cosy nest but also eager to be back on the road in Benny, our first real trip out in several months.

New House-sit - Riberac

We headed north, our first stop a call in to meet the host of our next house-sit, beginning in mid-April. After a missed turn and then a rather wild trip through managed forests on single track lanes with tall grass growing up the middle, we finally arrived.  We spent an hour with our host Eric, a fellow Brit who has lived near Ribérac for many years but who now splits his time between it and Montenegro.  We had a tour and a tea, and got an initial feel for the house, the immediate area and the neighbours.  We also met our new masters, two proud cats who we will dote on for our six week stay, if they are predisposed to let us.  We are also hopeful of some good, warming spring weather for our long days there, as they would bring our first experience of perfect summer days we hear tales of.

House-hunting - (Limousin)
From Eric’s, we continued north and then east at a leisurely pace, stopping to visit Hautefort château and town, along with other places that caught our interest. We had arranged to meet various agents who would show us select properties, arranged over two days of viewings.  It was raining for most of the time, but at least we were seeing them at their worst, and not being seduced by glorious sunshine. We ended up viewing five very different properties as we passed through Limousin, giving us a feel for what we can get, or more importantly what we want to get, for our money.  Nothing yet pinged our ‘must have’ urges, but some interesting possibilities arose and we came away with a bit more clarity on our expectations and desires.  We’ll return to the house-hunting in April with gusto.

Chatreau Chenonceau (approach)

Chatreau Chenonceau (panorama)

Chatreau Chenonceau (selfie)

With persistent rain and grey skies following us as we made our way north, we had only one dry, clear day on our route home. Happily, this bright but still chilly day coincided with when we were passing through the Loire valley, so with minimal diversion we called in to visit the impressive Château de Chenonceau.  After a false start dashed our plans to picnic in the grounds (no food allowed, bags thoroughly checked) we ate outside then made our way under the arched canopy of trees towards the formal gardens.  To delay the big reveal, we cut left into a small maze and, after a short loop through pretty woodland, we arrived at the north bank of the river Cher, at the back-left corner of the formal gardens, allowing wonderful views of the tall château as it spanned out across the river on stone arches.

Chatreau Chenonceau (river bank view)

We skirted the edges of the gardens as we approached the château, admiring the setting framed by a deep blue sky streaked with white cotton clouds.  Our Wild Swim France book lists a curious swim here, starting from the publicly accessible south bank of the river Cher – the river was flowing wild on our visit, but we may partake on our way back south.  We continued our tour inside, visiting most of the bedrooms, state rooms and kitchens on our route.  We wandered back into the gardens, passing rows of many heavily pollarded trees coated with thick moss, to visit the 16th century farm buildings.  These once housed the extensive staff required to tend the grounds and produce all necessary food for château guests.  There were large barns filled with buggies, carriages and old farm implements.

Two days and a very early ferry journey later, we were deposited back in the UK at Newhaven for a busy month of visiting, shopping and servicing.  These are always the few hectic, expensive but wonderful weeks that refresh, renew and exhaust us in equal measure, but also allow us to enjoy the simple freedom during the rest of our year.  It is also great to catch up with friends and family, with multiple stops this time all over England and Ireland, in between all the pre-organised events – Benny’s service and habitation check, fitting of new tyres, attending birthday parties, visiting dentists & opticians, training runs and much needed shopping trips to replace worn out gear.

We’ve also had to deal with some proper Blighty weather since our return, braving snowy storms and wild rainy weather when out on walks and runs.  It’s been a good reminder of the weather we are hoping to avoid in future years with our proposed move to France.

A&N x

France – Penne d’Agenais and around

With very few good weather days over the past few weeks, we have had to be ready to jump when the mists lift or the clouds depart enough to allow a little sun through.  One morning we rushed out to cycle to the nearby village of Castelmoron-sur-Lot, taking advantage of a bright, clear start to the day.  We first cut across tiny country roads with absolutely no traffic to join a dedicated voie verte in the settlement of Temple-sur-Lot, stopping briefly to take in the church and the eponymous castle, now seemingly made into residential apartments with shops and restaurants on the ground floor.  From here we rolled on into Castelmoron, crossing the iron bridge and circling the central sights.

Cazeneuve - spring approaches

We left the town hugging the north bank of the river, following the voie verte back towards Sainte-Liverade.  The sun was bouncing off the still water, creating beautiful reflections of the opposite bank. We stopped off in the centre of Fongrave, where we found a small cantilevered viewpoint behind the church, looking out over the river and beyond.  We paused a while to soak up the view, feeling so pleased we’d made the effort to get out and see this stretch of the cycle-path.  We watched a van with a trailer awkwardly launch a small rib-boat into the river via a concrete slip, before continuing happily along the sunny, tree-lined banks.  We closed out our loop just before Sainte-Liverade and returned over the steep hill to Cazeneuve, contented with our morning activity.

Fongrave - viewpoint

Fongrave - riverside view

One later morning we awoke to similar bright skies, yet with a deep cold in the air.  The air temperature was stable around 3degs C, but could feel much colder when the wind blew strong, or very much hotter when the radiant sun directly reached your skin.  We headed off in the opposite direction to our previous cycle, over to the next valley hills to join the voie verte near to Villeneuve-sur-Lot, heading east. We lost the path on the outskirts of town, so made our own way along quiet country roads in the general direction, bending round woodland and up some steep, forested inclines to catch our first glimpse of the hilltop town of Penne d’Agenais, standing proudly on the far horizon.  The cycle and final climb was reminiscent of a long cycle back in Portugal, heading to Monsanto, where we could see our target from miles away.

Penne dAagenais - (our destination awaits)

We made our way onwards and upwards, ever upwards, snaking around the sides of the hill as we climbed to the town. We slowly closed the distance to nudge ourselves to the very top, with the expectation of the upcoming view acting as a welcome reward.  Penne d’Agenais, a fortified medieval village set high on a steep hill with outstanding panoramic views, was topped off in grand style by the metal-domed Notre-Dame de Peyraguade.  This was a huge basilica that had been positioned on the site of a 13th century castle built by Richard the Lionheart, itself on the site of an original 11th century chapel.  The sanctuary forms, as many similar places do, another key stopping point on the pilgrimage route of Santiago de Compostela.  The myriad routes leading to northern Spain dominate the European landscape and the historic built environment, shaping so much of what we have seen on our travels.

Penne dAagenais - (nearing the top)

Penne dAagenais - (town square)

After a brief look around the town, we scrambled up the cobblestones to the plaza around the front of the sanctuary building.  It was worth the sweat.  The expansive view over the shining, silver domes of the basilica and the nearby river was exceptional, and made all the better by us being the only people who had chosen to visit the village, and the sanctuary, this glorious day.  We soaked up the view as we wandered around the grounds, before heading off to fully enjoy a super-fast descent down to the nearby town of Saint-Sylvestre-Sur-Lot where we stopped on a park bench to top up on snacks as we watched over the glistening river and the shining dome of the recently left basilica. Then it was back onto the voie verte, north of the river and eventually into Villeneuve, before heading home again.

Penne dAagenais - (the view out)

Penne dAagenais - (at the top)

Penne dAagenais - (cycling streets)

We’ve been busy on other fronts too.  Alongside our daily French language practise and training runs, we have been improving our table tennis, archery and pétanque, and more importantly, planning out the months ahead.  We have secured another French house-sit in May near to Riberac, a little closer to the area where we hope to settle.  We have a few upcoming house viewings to try to get a feel for what we ultimately want to buy.  We have entered our first Swim-Run event in Lake Vassivière near Limoges, in June.  We have organised to walk the Tour de Mont Blanc circuit in early July, eleven days and 109 miles of glorious hiking in the high Alps, through France, Italy and Switzerland.

Penne dAagenais - (panorama)

Afterwards, we have vague plans for a quick scoot around northern Italy before returning to France to, hopefully, finalise the purchase of our chosen house.  We have lots to look forward to, and surprisingly, this year will be our very first summer spent in France, so we will see it lit up in the full glory of summer sun for the very first time; we’re excited.

A&N x

France – Agen, Pujols & around

An update on our activities over the past few weeks during our house-sit in Cazeneuve.

It’s been around three weeks since our last blog post, and we’ve been keeping busy, but not in adventurous ways that we feel are worth sharing more regularly.  Our days are full with learning, activity and exercise, with the odd venture out to visit a local town.

Agen (back on the Garonne)

Recently we had one such day-trip out to visit Agen, our closest city.  First we swam a steady 2km in their wonderful 50m competition pool, before finding a spot to park on the riverside and walking into the centre.  We passed under vast rows of pollarded plane trees set in the riverside park, their gnarled white branches contrasted heavily against the uniform blue sky, like arthritic knuckles reaching into the void.  We wandered through tight medieval streets and the modern, wide pedestrianised centre, enjoying the sights and the buildings of Agen in bright sunshine.  The cafés were bustling with people and we were immediately impressed with what the busy town had to offer.

Agen (pollarded trees)

One morning we decided on a leisurely cycle, a wide triangle on a voie verte taking in Villeneuve-sur-Lot, Casseneuil and Sainte-Livrade-sur-Lot.  The air was a cold 4 degrees, and we wrapped up well before we headed up over the hill, a steady 2km long climb that led into a flat ridge cycle before being followed by a fantastic flowing descent of 5km.  We picked up the voie verte heading north and arrived in the medieval centre of Casseneuil a few easy kilometres later.  After a short explore, we headed south along the banks of the river to Liverade and through, back over the hill again to home.  We later discovered on our return that we had lost our camera somewhere on the cycle, it having jostled its way out of a side pocket, unknown to us.  After a thorough search of the house we concluded it was definitely missing, but outside had turned from borderline sunny to a grey, sodden deluge in that time, so we didn’t venture out to look.

The next morning we visited the Mairie in Allez-et-Cazeneuve and the Hôtel-de-Ville in Liverade to report our missing camera in the hope some kind citizen may hand it in.  We also left a note at the central police station, but they had very little interest in our petite drama.  After we reported the camera, we then ran the last 11km of the track we had cycled home the day before, in two portions, checking along the verge, ditches and hedges for any sign of it, but to no avail.  We can only hope it was swept up by someone walking along the path before the previous night’s deluge and that they will hand it in next time they are in town (perhaps next Friday, on market day), but we’re not holding our breath for it to reappear.  It’s always disappointing to lose photos of a good day, along with our well-used and loved compact camera.

Cazeneuve (enjoying a window of sun)

Cazeneuve (veg patch weeding)

We are passing our days in generally similar ways, with a welcome routine of reading, exercise and rest.  We have a few hours of French most mornings.  We watched the opening weekend of the Six Nations snuggled up with a few beers, content that both our teams got off to a winning start even if Ireland left it very late to nick it from the French. We had a not entirely awful go at archery in the garden.  We played a few games of table-tennis and pétanque, had a few pool swims, a couple of cycles and runs, and have pottered in the garden, between rain storms.  We’ve been visited by both le chien noir and la chienne rouge.  Below is my (corrected) French homework story that tells a little more of how we spent our week, should you be interested.  The dreaded green pen wielded by our tutor Rebecca did not get its fullest workout this week, so something must be improving in my French-feeble mind.  Peut-être.

Cazeneuve - French homework

This week, rather than our usual Tuesday morning swim, we awoke to a bright, clear sky and decided to postpone for a day and undertake a long local walk instead.  We drove a short distance to Lacépède and followed the marked trail out of the completely dead village, through sleeping plum trees and empty, ploughed fields.  The path was thick with leaves and mud after the recent rains, and was difficult to progress on.  Being so muddy underfoot made the hilly portions tricky and sliding, but we squished around 11km of lovely rolling countryside with no sign of anyone else.  We reached a small reservoir with bird-watching huts and some interesting, colourful sign-boards describing the lives of local bees that we photographed to fully translate later in our next ‘French hour’.  We arrived back in the village just as the rains began to fall, followed closely by a wandering dog who seemingly wanted to be our very best friend.

Lacepede (church on route)

Lacepede (forest rrails)

After one pool swim, we finally drove up and visited the medieval centre of the nearby village of Pujols.  We had often looked at it from the comfort of the large Jacuzzi bath post-swim, but had as yet not ventured up the hill.  We had left it long enough since our last beaux village visit to regain the excitement and interest of a new place, and were pleasantly surprised by its neatness and beauty.  The sun appeared for a few moments, lighting up Villeneuve-sur-Lot below and the white stone façades of the ancient streets, giving it a wonderful glow.  We saw the church, the covered marketplace, the detailed model of the town in the tourist office, the truncated once-circular well-stone now cut back to a semi-circle to allow vehicles to pass, the remains of the original ramparts and finally la porte des Anglais, the English Gate, named for the route the English soldiers fled along from a lost battle during the Hundred Years’ War.  We passed through it too before making our escape from the frigid, icy air back to the car and home.

Pugols (viewpoint)

Pugols (a in main square)

Recently, the days had been sharper, fresher, colder than before, with a deeper mud grey blanket of cloud spread across the sky.  Twice we have had a light falling of tiny flakes of snow, forced out of the chilled clouds with obvious reluctance, not at all like the proper snow we have been reading about back in the UK.  For a few quiet moments it was beautifully still and tiny white flakes swayed gently in the air, glistening with reflected light and looking quite magical.  Then as quickly as they appeared they have gone, but the chilly, biting air remains.  Several times we have stood outside for a few long moments reflecting on the changing moods of the days and weather, taking in deep red, moody sunsets, before scampering back into the comforting warmth of the awaiting boulangerie for some warming tea.

A&N x

France – Villeneuve-sur-Lot and around

Our house-sit in Allez-et-Cazeneuve continues on full of reading, learning and exercise.  And downtime – plenty of that too.  Here’s a taste of what we’ve been up to recently –

On one dry day we cycled over to see the main local town of Villeneuve-sur-Lot.  We climbed up and over a steep local hill then enjoyed a very fast but all too-brief downhill to reach the valley on the opposite side.  We found and followed a grassy, damp abandoned railway line, now a designated cycle way that ran parallel to the main road a few hundred metres distant.  This led us all the way to the centre of town where we stopped on a modern bridge to enjoy the view over to the parallel 13th century stone bridge with its very imposing 26m wide and 18m high arch.  The river was wild below.

Villeneuve-sur-Lot (bridge view)

Villeneuve-sur-Lot (town streets)

We cycled around the historic centre, impressed by the neat shopping streets and decorative squares, before reaching the Église Sainte-Catherine de Villeneuve-sur-Lot, a tall Gothic red brick church dominating the square.  After a look, we circled around past the modern Hôtel de Ville and along wide tree-lined streets before cutting back through the narrow town centre to cross the river Lot on the ancient bridge.  Here we passed under one of several gate towers before following a quiet country road back towards Allez.  We had to climb over the hill again to return to our base valley, a harder climb in this direction especially as we’re no longer bike-fit.  It was only a 22km cycle trip to the town, but felt longer by virtue of being book-ended by the same steep 2km long climb.

Cazeneuve - (nicky summits hill)

On another exploratory day out, we found ourselves visiting the local swimming baths at Pujols.  We swam a good number of lengths in their wonderful 25m pool before availing ourselves of the largest Jacuzzi bath either of us has seen, followed by a stint in the thick menthol mists of the adjacent steam room.  It is a fantastic facility that is now set to become a key part of our weekly agenda.  We occasionally undertake a short walk with the neighbour’s dog, know only as le chien noir, when he chooses to come visit us.  In our more passive downtime we are doing lots of house-hunting, and have looked on-line at hundreds of potential places over the past few weeks.  We have fired enquiries out to many agents but have yet to locate the perfect property for us.  But we now have a feel for what is available and what we want (and don’t want) so will hopefully manage to find our perfect property soon.

Cazeneuve - (walking black dog).jpg

Along with our weekly formal lesson in French, we have been reading select news articles in French to improve our vocabulary.  I’ve also taken to translating a few children’s books, them filled with many words still challenging for my fledgling French (En Route is my favourite so far, a story of a young bear making her way in the mountains).  “Le monde est plein de surprises!”  We have been watching a French movie most nights too, but the speed of the spoken French renders it practically incomprehensible, even if we know the words.  Translating words on a page to spoken sounds is the next, more challenging hurdle we face.  Still, we are giving ourselves the very best time and opportunity to improve.

Cazeneuve - (the knowledge centre)

We practise piano most days, Nicky very decently rebuilding her repertoire of tunes whilst I, having started from scratch, am struggling through a children’s Grade 1 piano book, playing scales and hand exercises until I can no longer bear the incessant noise.  I may need a silent piano to practise on first until I manage to improve.  Learning to read music is another language, another set of arcane symbols my weary mind has to translate before being able to fully utilise.  In the midst of all these efforts, I also had the strange notion to begin learning Japanese, and have spent a few weeks learning kanji symbols along with a few basic words.  By now you perhaps understand why our brains are challenged; learning anew is not a natural state for gnarly old brains constantly abused by too much wine.

Cazeneuve - (sunset)

Our brains haven’t had so much pressure to learn new things put on them since our school days.  It’s proving to be very productive, but also tiring and we can’t do much more than a few hours each day before fading out.  Little and often is said to be the key, so we break up our self-led French lessons by going for a run or playing table tennis, or a little bit of garden maintenance.  Several hours of French study followed by bracing hilly runs or cycles to clear the mind and awaken muscles works well, but also serves to wear us out.  We are feeling very tired at the end of each day and are sleeping long and soundly.  It’s a very nice life here in this very beautiful corner of South West France.

A&N x

 

 

Starting Our Second House-sit – Allez-et-Cazeneuve

Arriving in Allez-et-Cazeneuve to begin our latest house-sit commitment.

We are now firmly ensconced in our second house sit of this French winter.  We arrived here last Wednesday, near Villeneuve-sur-Lot, after sadly leaving the tranquil beauty of Barie and the easy company of Ozzie and Tilly, the two loving cats we were looking after.  We spent the afternoon catching up with our hosts Monica & Ken then left them in peace to finalise their packing as we settled into our new accommodation.  The following day we travelled with them to Toulouse airport, said our goodbyes and returned with their car to the rural calmness of their lovely home.

Since then, we have been quite disciplined with our anticipated learning, helped by the abundance of rain that has fallen.  Whilst our hosts are enjoying the extreme heat of Australia, we are enjoying having very little we have to do, but so many available options for things we want to do.  Every day we have been playing piano, practising our French, reading books and watching French movies.  We had our first formal French lesson today with Rebecca, Ken and Monica’s friend and tutor.  She kindly agreed to continue her weekly visits and language instruction although after hearing the abomination that is my spoken French she may well be regretting that decision.  When the weather dries up we hope to practise archery in the garden along with fully exploring the rather hilly local area on our bikes.

We have had one exploratory cycle, where we quickly realised the heavy winter colds we’ve both been carrying were not fully cleared and our lungs did not enjoy the steepness of the local hills.  We are off for a slow run this afternoon to see how we hold up, and this offers a chance to clear our heads, currently full to overflowing with new words, phrases and musical notes.  We are settled here until the first week of March, so we have plenty of time to improve the aspects of our knowledge we wish to, and to rest in between in a comfortable and peaceful environment when we want to.  We’ll hopefully be wiser, leaner and fitter by the time we leave, and living here should give us more insight into what we are looking for in own French property, the purchase of which is one of our key goals for 2018.

We’ll update more about the local region we’re in when our explorations have taken us a bit further afield.

A&N x