France – Pageas and our new French home

Leaving Séreilhac we had only a few miles to travel to reach our destination.  We met the sellers, Pat and Julia, again on Monday morning to take final meter readings and inspect that all has been left as contractually required.  We had a brief master-class in how to look after the pool, hoping we have understood, alongside gaining knowledge about other more familiar aspects of how the house works.  Then we drove to the Notaire and revisited the purchase agreement, signed up and were handed the keys.

It is real.  It is ours.

Our House - (Nicky in pool)

Our House - (breakfast on terrace)

Since then, we’ve been settling into our new French home for about a month.  We are loving it, but there are so many things we want to do, to sort out, to tidy up, to change, to fix, that we need to stop ourselves occasionally and take time to smell the roses.  Each day, from waking at 8am to dinner at 8pm, we work.  We scrub the floors, the kitchen units, the fridge, the walls.  We cut hedges and bamboo and trees.  We build a compost heap to corral all the cuttings in one place.  We clear moss and ivy off old stonework.  We clean out the sheds and ready them for new concrete floors.  We remove all pots, balls, old tiles, bits of metal and discarded tools that litter the site to one busy corner, leaving an area of our garden looking like an abandoned brocante store.  We end our days grubby, tired and contented.

Our House - (Trimming the roses)

Our House - (clearing wisteria)

We replace or renew window handles.  We trim over-zealous plants to regain a semblance of control.  We scrape peeling paint and varnish off sun-bleached doors.  We remove nails and screws and hooks from walls, refiling then sanding down in preparation for upcoming re-painting.  We call all utilities and set up our accounts.  We organise to have TV and internet installed, eventually.  Our hands and arms are speckled with petty cuts and bruises from the fights we’ve had with the garden.  We unpack boxes and decide where our things should be, them looking meagre now in such large spaces.  We pot up lettuce and herbs, to hopefully be ready in a month’s time.  In the glaring heat of each day we sweat and toil, but reward ourselves with dips in our wonderfully refreshing pool at key strategic intervals.

Our House - (cottage lounge)

Our House - (barnside lounge)

We make lists and tick off jobs as we complete them, satisfyingly.  Every third day or so we drive to the outskirts of Limoges with long lists of required items, buying shears and secateurs, gardening gloves, a wheelbarrow, tins of paint, rollers and brushes, wood-stain, furniture pieces, French plugs and adaptors, kitchen cooking items, lights bulbs, large bins, extension cables, pool treatment chemicals, curtain poles, plant seeds, and all the rest.  All the things that we have not had to think about for the previous two years as we doodled around, unencumbered, in Benny.  But mostly we love it, and keep staring, amazed, that this is our space, our garden, our pool, our land.  Our home.  Each night we go to bed exhausted but happy, tired from our efforts but happy in our choices and progress.

Our House - (Benny on driveway)

Our House - (removing walls)

One afternoon we cycled to the nearby town of Pageas to visit the Mairie.  We registered that we had moved in and had many questions answered by the helpful secretary.  We registered our bin delivery (each bin is bar-coded and is weighed and charged per kg of waste) and signed up for a déchetterie card, allowing us to begin removing the discarded items we’ve uncovered.  We cycled one Thursday to Champsac to meet the local Brits at a pub night; a necessary introduction, but not something we wish to make a habit of.  We have run a few of the local paths and chemins, slowly finding our way around the local lands, excited by the variation and ease of off-road trails.  We have immediate access to some lovely running routes straight from the house, although it’s been too hot to go far.

Our House - (from the bottom of garden)

Our House - (cutting the paddock)

We’ve met many of the neighbours, getting rather drunk with them on far too many occasions, considering the short time we’ve been here.  Everyone has been fantastic, helpful and very welcoming.  The house has been measured and drawn up, in anticipation of sorting out semi-major renovations to both bathrooms and the addition of a pool surround.  The future addition of a balcony to our master suite has been sized up, designed and the only remaining item to source is the preferred guarding.  One of our small stone outbuildings has been ear-marked as a potential writing den and hideaway, once it has been tidied up and re-roofed.  One guest bedroom has been fully completed, taking three or four coats to sharpen up, after weeks of filling and sanding and rubbing.  All is going very, very well.

Our House - (weeding the garden)

Our House - (view from balcony)

When we look at what we’ve achieved already, against the time we’ve been here, we are quite amazed.  Our hands are cut and sore, we have a multitude of bites and scrapes, but already a basketful of great memories.  But we are still impatient for more, as we can clearly see the full potential of our home and wish it to be completed.  Orchards, wild meadows, a full vegetable patch, walls rebuilt, a secret garden area for the evening sun – we have plenty to keep us busy.  We are also looking at upcoming trips in Benny, keen for a short break and a new adventure in the Pyrenees or Spain.  Or the Italian Dolomites.  Or Corsica. We shall see how the fancy takes us, as whilst we love spending time in our new house, we do also miss the easy freedom of the open road.

But we have nothing but time.

A&N x

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Tour de Mont Blanc – hiking the TMB (a personal reflection)

Tour de Mont Blanc – hiking the TMB (a personal reflection)

Through scratched perspex, we looked down like giants on the rows of tiny buildings and straight roads that littered the flat valley base, carpeting the flat plain in dense, interlocking patterns.  It all became toy-like, insignificant in the deep shadow of the high mountain massif.  Opposite, we watched as the white domed cap of Mont Blanc came slowly into view as we rose higher in our gently-rocking cocoon.  The famed peak would be the focal-point of our next ten days as we hiked a 170km oblong circuit around it, through three countries.  We were both buzzing with anticipation.

We arrived at the top of Plan Praz from Chamonix, France, to begin our trail.  There were others here, colourful, noisy day-trippers, but we saw no one likely to be starting the hike alongside us.  This was unsurprising, as we had chosen both an unconventional place to begin, and were walking the opposite direction to most.  With a little trepidation, partnered with nervous excitement, we followed a dusty path of loose gravel up behind the lift station, gaining height with each forward step.  We felt alive, readied for the challenge, eager to get moving and to begin discovering the path ahead. We were soon engulfed by the tall sides of nearby mountains.  Their dry faces towered above us in grey knuckles of coagulated rock.  Smudges of pristine snow remained set in deep gullies and rubbed high on deeply shadowed slopes.

Around them the earth smoothed to a shrub-speckled plain, and on all sides the horizon was closed-in by snowy peaks, pale in the distance.  We traversed this stony face on a well-used trail, leading through pockets of vivid-green fir trees on narrow, dusty trails. Combined with the remaining blotches of greying snow this created a Christmas postcard feel, jarring in our imaginations with the muggy heat of the late morning air.  In the next valley, deepened with heavy shadows, we could see dots of colour approaching, lined like caterpillars along the obvious snaking path.  These were the groups of tradition-respecting anti-clockwise walkers we expected to meet each day.  We nodded and smiled our way past them, glad for each spark of company but occasionally craving the clear and quiet solitude of an empty trail.

With us walking clockwise, against convention and crowds, we experienced wonderfully alone mornings, full of welcome solitude.  We could stumble and sweat up our morning climbs in peace, without witness.  Around halfway through each day’s walking we began to meet others, usually on a downhill stretch, for us.  We enjoyed these sociable afternoons, brimming with cheery greetings and occasional chats, as we silently, selfishly, revelled in the thought that we had completed the most difficult stretch of our day.  All those we passed had still to face the climb we were now descending from.  On occasion we jogged small stretches of downhill trails, slow in hiking boots, but it was much easier on our knees to fall with rather than fight against gravity.  We were occasionally passed by committed cyclists on fat-tired bikes, belligerently forcing their way up the steep, rutted trails, or joyously falling fast down them.

The circuit contained a continuous accessible beauty, and we never tired of the new vistas each section brought.  Flowering meadows crowded with bell-ringing golden cows, villages of perfect timber chalets decorated with climbing roses, and high mountain peaks topped with snowy domes, scarred with deeply-clawed gullies.  Set above the treeline, in shaded crevices, we stared at the ragged tongues of rough-surfaced glaciers as they prodded menacingly towards the valley floor.  At smaller scales, tiny alpine flowers brightened each path, their tiny star-blues and butter-yellows a reflection not of insignificance but robust hardiness.  We longed for each upcoming change, to see what was next, just as we wished a favoured view could stay with us longer.  Nothing was permanent, yet every change was valuable and worthy.  We soaked up all that we could, breathing in the views alongside the fresh, clean air of the high mountains.

We saw this trip as a break from our normal van life, each night after walking a treat of long showers, clean sheets and prepared food, away from the usual daily chore of shopping, cooking and washing up.  Both the daily freedom of the mountain hiking and the welcoming comfort of the hotels were our reward.  In such clear weather there was no mistaking the path, so we walked free of concern.  Each day, rather than bringing weariness, made us stronger.  We got hike-fit by doing, each completed climb a strong, building session for legs and lungs. We grew to crave every tough rise, the constant sweat and burn of sustained effort and the joyous reward of a newly earned and compelling mountain vista.  Each passing Col brought us the next visual wonder and a new valley to explore on the opposite side.

At Les Mottets, we were sat on long wooden benches, by long tables, in groups of fourteen or more.  Each course was brought out in huge serving bowls or platters to be distributed by each table of guests. We hesitantly plated up what we thought our share, trying to judge a fair portion and not offend our neighbours.  But we need not have been cautious as unending refills were available to any who requested them.  We ate hungrily whilst discussing the trail so far and sharing a sketch of our outside lives with the nearest others.  Our hosts entertained us with traditional organ music from a colourful box, the tunes magically read from punched cardboard sheets fed into one side.  Once sated, the majority retired to a night in the dreaded bed-lines of the cramped dormitory, but we had a coveted double suite.

Despite our private room, we still suffered a disturbed night.  Stiff from sleeplessness, we stepped slowly back into the glaring sun. Our day began with another cloudless sky over a dusty gravelled path that carried us upwards.  We passed supine cows wearing thick leather necklaces hung with heavy brass bells before rising sharply along a series of stony hairpins to reach a grassy bluff, surrounded by a curtain of sheer grassy slopes.  The dusty grey valley turned to green-yellow slopes lined with deeply-worn brown tracks. Minute alpine flowers speckled the grasses with dots of vibrant colour.  We passed idle, furry marmots nuzzling in tall grasses.  We crossed rivers flowing over wavy rocks, worn smooth with time.  We marvelled at the swirling-lined strata under a shallow waterfall, veined with vivid colours, a freak creation of geology and water.  Our rich salty sweat, mixed with sun-cream, all but blinded us as we rose sharply.

Hours passed and the stubborn mountain greens gave way to patches of loose shale, steep and crumbling, and a return to a hard, all-grey landscape.  The only softness found here were the ribbed blobs of last winter’s remaining snow, pristine white, untouched.   A bright sea of hikers was dropping down the opposite slope, giving scale to our path, our only true reference in the monotone greyness.  We stumbled onto a hard-to-see path, denoted only by knee-high cairns stood grey on grey against the discarded shale, and followed this up a long line of tight turns.  Eventually we were led to the snow-capped summit of the Col des Fours, at 2685m. We paused here, satisfied from our efforts.  We took time to savour the moment, breathing in the thin cool air and examining the expansive view.

As beautiful as each vista was, we always felt a constant impatience to keep moving.  We knew we still faced a long downward path to reach Les Contamines.  We dropped off the Col on long stretches of crisp-topped snow, with well-worn deep channels of muddy-brown slush denoting the path.  The kilometres fell away easily as we lost height, passing multitudes slowly slogging their way up to the Col des Fours.  We fell alongside the green-glass river, passed pristine churches and scalloped rock pools of deep, frothing blue, to reach the outskirts of Les Contamines and our boutique Hotel Gai Soleil.  We were treated to a tidy, characterful room with a balcony overlooking the gardens.  The in-house chef prepared us a stylish reinvention of the traditional French raclette, serving salad, potatoes and hot, melted Camembert, followed by a wonderfully tart berry sundae.  The hard kilometres fell away in sudden luxury.

Our days passed in a familiar pattern, each flowing inexorably into the next. We crossed from France to Switzerland to Italy with little change but the daily greetings we shared on the mountain pathways.  Each day we climbed high and each night slept low, secure in small valley settlements or in lonely mountain refuges.  We rose early to breakfast and began walking before the sun broke in glorious rays over the peak-lined horizons.  Days began with a steep return to re-join the main circuit, and the cooler dawn air was a welcome relief as we forcefully regained the altitude lost the day before.  We found the trail became a series of moments, of views, sounds and smells, each vividly distinct yet impossible to separate from the whole.  Everything seen was but a glimpse, an ephemeral whisper of the landscape.

Rising out of Les Houches, the deep shade of the woodland trees brought some relief from the sun’s direct oppression, but offered little respite from the intense heat of the still, close air.  When the wind blew through the branches we instantly felt renewed, revitalised, our repressive tormentor temporarily removed from our burning skin.  The path was formed from gnarled, swollen roots jutting out of dust-brown soil like giant arthritic knuckles attempting to escape a grave.  Grey boulders sat immobile between the roots, forming helpful steps or high barricades to assist or slow our progress.  The dry soil was scalloped in places from the passing of a million boots.  We climbed in silence, and with no view out through the dense trees, we both looked inwards instead, pushing ourselves with a quiet intensity.

The burning satisfaction from our steady efforts kept us striding out strongly.  We rose high, yet were more affected by the intoxicating closeness of the stifling afternoon heat than any achieved altitude. In many ways the higher passes, over 2000m, were a relief to us as they came packaged with a welcome breeze and much cooler air.  We passed by Refuge Bellachat and entered a different landscape, a grassy plateau of bumps and lakes.  This suddenly changed again to a sculpted path of flat boulders, built as steps, weaving through a loose, grey moraine.  Beyond here we reached the crowded lookout at the top of Brévent lift at 2525m, our final climb complete.  With quiet celebration, we began our short descent through snowfields and grey dust to return, days later, to the top of Plan Praz, set above Chamonix.

We completed the walk, our distances measuring a total of 183km including offshoot tails to reach accommodations.  The route may have looked wild, challenging, even escapist on occasion, but it never truly felt it.  We were always close to safety, to other hikers, to the easy comforts of a hotel.  We never thought of ourselves as being alone, isolated, even if experiencing that hint of danger or spark of adventure was something we both deeply desired.  It was a tame, civilised hike, a calm and comfortable multi-day wilderness walk.  It may not have proved to be the difficult, testing physical or mental challenge we had expected, even craved for, but it remains a wonderful route replete with quiet, thoughtful beauty and deeply impressive mountain scenery.  And we can’t rightly fault it for that.

A&N x

Previous posts (of a more chronological nature) from the same trip:
France – Tour du Mont Blanc: hiking the TMB (Part 1)
France – Tour du Mont Blanc: hiking the TMB (Part 2)
France – Tour du Mont Blanc: hiking the TMB (Part 3)

France – Saint Pardoux, and our new French house

Note:  We’ve been sans Internet for several weeks as we worked our way through the maze of French bureauracy, so are only now catching up with ourselves on the blog plus, we’ve been busy settling in, as you can read all about in our next exciting update. If you like.

We left Neris-Les-Bains in good form, and after another easy hour west we reached the shores of Saint Pardoux, a large, popular swim lake north of Limoges.  It was busy on this sunny Friday afternoon, with lots of frolicking locals enjoying down-time on the pleasant lake-side beach.  We drove through the extensive parking areas, them looking empty of cars in comparison to number of available spaces, and found the dedicated motorhome aire set in a shady corner of the site.  We picked out a spot and quickly packed for the beach, and made our way to join the crowds.

Saint Pardoux (spacious free aire)

Saint Pardoux (relaxing at Benny)

There were picnickers galore, quiet dippers cooling off, noisy children playing boisterously and jumping off a floating platform, and a few proper swimmers grinding out lengths tight along the buoy-marked edge of the demarcated swimming area.  The longest available length we guessed was around 250m, so decent enough for a training swim.  We soon joined them, wearing rash vests as protection against the hot sun rather than the cold, to swim a few lazy lengths. The lake water was 27 degs, the hottest we’d found so far in France.  After four lengths we decided that was sufficient and lazed on the beach, reading and people-watching.  As the afternoon passed the crowds grew, with more and more weekenders joining the fray and filling up the once generous spaces between sites on the hot sand.

Saint Pardoux (beach setup)

We showered off at the beach and, with the thumping music from the adjacent slide-pool complex ringing in our ears, we returned to Benny for dinner.  Afterwards, we had a quiet walk to another part of the lake and watched a deep red sunset over the now-still water.  We sat under the trees in silence and sipped at wine. Later that evening we moved Benny to help accommodate another British couple who had arrived late. They had parked up in another area of the park and only at 9.30pm had the Gendarmes passed by and told them to move as, despite there being no signs posted, overnighting was not allowed.  With a quick retraction of our awning and a minimal amount of repacking, we rolled back and over on our large pitch, allowing them squeeze in beside us, earning grateful thanks.

Saint Pardoux (sunset drinks)

That night there was to be a blood moon eclipse.  We checked in early but the sky was thick with cloud, although in short patches we snatched the occasional glimpse of the dull, reddish moon not yet being eclipsed.  But by 11pm the cloud cover was breaking up, so we returned to the beach area and continued to watch with patience.  The moon kindly appeared in revealing bursts of bright light, framed by the residues of wispy cloud.  Other spectators had decided on a late swim and now lay out on the lake’s floating pontoon, under the stars, taking in the softly glowing spectacle.  Satisfied, we returned to Benny and to welcome sleep.  Short hours later, a morning bread van visited the aire, beeping softly to attract our attention, and we treated ourselves to soft, fresh croissants and pains au chocolat.

Saint Pardoux (blood moon 1)

We spent a lazy day in and out of the lake and decided early to pass a second night in this fantastic aire.  As we had each evening, we walked back to the beach, a large glass of red in hand, and watched ITV4’s highlight show of the Tour de France.  This was the nearest spot from where we could utilise the much-appreciated free beach WiFi for streaming – Le Tour with a view.  We watched jealously as large gatherings of friends and families set up huge barbeques in various locations around the park.  We had a more modest meal in Benny.  Later we watched a deep red sunset set over a quiet part of the lake with an encore glass of red, thinking what a wonderful resource this place was, all provided by the local council.  We will be returning again to enjoy its warm, cloudy waters and quiet paths.

Saint Pardoux (sunset lake)

Saint Pardoux (selfie cheers)

On Sunday afternoon we drove to Séreilhac, an aire we had visited previously, and one only a few easy-driving minutes from our new house.  We had a quiet evening, equally apprehensive and excited.  Tomorrow morning at 9am we had organised to meet the sellers, agent and notaire, to finalise all formalities and formally collect the keys to our new place.  It’s really all very real now – we will now be, baring catastrophe, new home-owners in France.

A&N x

 

France – Macon, Moulins & Montluçon

Just two days into her antibiotic schedule, Nicky was feeling much perkier; it was time to move on. We left our rest spot in Abondance and returned back down the mountain.  We had to revisit Thonon hospital for some follow-up blood work, as instructed.  We parked easily in the empty hospital car-park and waited only a few minutes to see the specialist nurse, blood was extracted and we were away.  This visit was more efficient and endurable than the first.

Being so close, we decided it would be unforgivable not to have a dip in the glimmering coolness of Lac Léman.  There were two aires nearby, so we first headed to the nearest, set right on the lake shore.  The road in was very narrow and busy with badly-parked cars and I, squeezing through at around 5mph, clipped wing-mirrors with an abandoned Land Rover.  Stopping to check, their mirror was entirely fine, but ours had popped out and the bottom glass shattered.  What a week we were having!  We continued to the tight motorhome parking, a row of three diagonal spaces between the cars on the road, only slightly wider than the spaces surrounding them.  We sneaked in and assessed the damage, and with super glue and sellotape managed to fix up the mirror enough to get by for now.  We were metres from the water, so to relieve tension and soothe our minds, we changed and jumped straight in.

Lalleyriat (lakeside walk)

Lalleyriat (rainy parking)

After a mind-chilling swim and a spot of downtime, we made our way west once more.  We decided to stop at Lalleyriat, a recently refurbished aire by an almost-completed lake.  There was a kid’s play park and a small sandy beach being enjoyed by a few families, although the weather had turned.  It was now cloudy and grey, and they soon began packing up with disappointed looks.  We walked a slow loop around the small lake then snuggled in for the night as the sudden arrival of heavy rain bombarded our roof.  The skies were back to their usual clear and bright when we awoke, so we moved on.  We passed through Nantua and Bourg-en-Bresse to stop by a private vineyard in the small village of Prissé, on the west side of Macon.  A French Passion site with a wine shop, a perfect base for us.

Prisse (winery shop)

Prisse (free shop aire)

The popular aire, spaciously housing only six vans, was also positioned directly on a voie verte leading into Macon centre, about 9km away.  We passed two pleasant nights, and Nicky managed the casual cycle on the voie verte to Macon.  We saw hilly fields of ripening vines, green and lush, on the way.  Approaching the town we gravitated to the tall church before snaking through the central streets under the shade of brightly coloured umbrellas.  We rolled along the riverfront as far as a municipal swimming pool in a leafy park, then doubled back to cross a stone bridge and view the city frontage from the opposite bank.  Macon centre was a lively mix of old and new buildings, dynamic and discoloured, scruffy yet dignified, with the long promenade following the river bank by far the best feature.

Macon (cycling past vines)

Macon (central streets)

We reluctantly dragged ourselves away from this comfortable, quiet spot and travelled on, with an extra 10 litres of tasty wine on board from the farm shop.  We maintained our westward driving, this time stopping near to Moulins.  We entered a huge barriered aire, with the look of an abandoned campsite, with the devastating cost of €0.10/hour.  The site felt like it may be an occasional flood plain to allow control of the nearby river.  The signs said it was meant for up to 90 vans, but there were 69 vans there the night we arrived (yes, we counted on an evening stroll) and still lots of space for another 60 at least.  We walked to examine the tall bunds around the site, set under a high railway bridge spanning the site and running across the river.  The rest of the day and evening we sat, enjoying the shade.

Moulins (view from campsite)

The next day we walked into Moulins under a blistering sun to see both of the twin-towered cathedrals.  We walked the pretty streets searching out shade, and truly enjoyed the blissful coldness of the cathedral interiors.  Everywhere was alight with vibrant flowering borders and hanging baskets.  We crossed the main square where street cafés served customers crowded under red umbrellas and excited kids played in the shallow fountain waters.  But the efforts of our short walk in such draining heat proved too much for the still-recovering Nicky, so we returned to base and spent a lot of downtime around Benny, sitting and chilling.  The welcome rest in such a spacious, shaded aire was exactly what we needed, and definitely worth the €4.30 it eventually cost us when we rolled out two days later.

Neris-les-Bains (shared book box)

Neris-les-Bains (traditional dancing)

We moved on to Neris-Les-Bains, an €8/night aire with electricity, Wi-Fi, WC, shower and all services, a row of six spaces set just outside the gates to a large campsite.  There was nothing available inside the triple-priced campsite that we didn’t have outside, except a three night limit, but we planned to stay only two.  It was a short walk into a town that prided itself on keeping busy; a large poster listed all upcoming events – it had five or six listings per day throughout July; art classes, markets, dances, fairs.  We helped ourselves to a French book from a sharing library box in a small flower garden before watching a display of music and dancing by elderly locals dressed in traditional costume.  We passed the baths that feature in the town’s name, still a strong business interest, drawing in crowds.

Montlucon (voie verte bridges)

Montlucon (church garden)

The following morning we cycled to Montluçon along another easy voie verte, gently downhill all the way.  We crossed high bridges spanning deep, lush valleys and rolled through occasional patches of deep shade from tightly-knitted overhanging trees.  We were soon deposited into the busy centre’s roads at a small park and slowly cycled a loop of the medieval heart, stopping in each small square to look around.  We found a modern golden hall beside an old stone church with a beautifully planted walled-garden behind.  The streets were neat and clean, with several restaurants making their first efforts to open in expectation of lunchtime crowds.  After visiting all the main streets, our eyes turned upwards to take in the domineering central château, its high defensive walls a prominent feature.

Montlucon (view from chateau)

A short, steep ascent led us up to the stone and timber château, the main focal point above the town.  It had a decorative clock tower and was hung with well-tended baskets of red flowers.  We left our bikes against a tree and walked the perimeter walls, overlooking the entire town.  Montluçon looked messy from above; the rear façades of the older central buildings were dirty and grey, their grimy shabbiness contrasting with their immaculately presented fronts.  Outside the medieval centre, the town had expanded in too much of a hurry and in all the wrong ways, with dingy industrial units peppered throughout the landscape and garishly-coloured ugly tower blocks blighting the distant horizon.  We passed the Hôtel de Ville as we left, enjoying their playful fountains in the empty stone square.

Montlucon (chateau facade)

Montlucon (hotel de ville)

The next morning we serviced and left Neris-Les-Bains, for another short hop towards our new home.  We were now near to Limoges, but still had a long weekend to wait out, and where better to sit out this achingly hot summer weather than at a large swim lake?  Shady trees and cooling dips were calling us, and we could not ignore their cries.

A&N x

France – Abondance & our first experience of a French hospital

We returned from Zermatt by the same route, the only route really, via Sion to Martigny.  Only here we deviated from our previous path, leaving Switzerland by a different Col as we climbed and wiggled our way to the mountain town of Abondance, back in French territory.  We pulled onto the spacious gravel of the town’s free aire and had our choice of spot, with only three other vans in residence; the large aire could absorb maybe thirty vans.  We were undecided about our onward route, and had many days to spare before returning to sign for our house, so we decided to reduce our travelling time and stop here. Plus, Nicky wasn’t feeling very well and wanted to rest up.  The latter was later to define our time here, as her painful symptoms exacerbated quickly and rest brought little relief.

Abondance (view of town)

Later in the afternoon we had a short hobble around the centre of Abondance, Nicky still suffering with her pains.  We looked in several shops and had our obligatory visit to the church, but the effort was too much and Nicky had to return to bed for a longer lie down.  We passed a quiet night, but the morning brought her no respite.  We could no longer ignore the jabbing stomach pains, especially when a Google of the symptoms brought up a litany of possible, all worrying, causes.  So we shuffled over to the only open doctor in town at 8am, thankfully a walk-in centre where we were the only patients, and paid for a consultation.  The concerned doctor said the pains were not normal and we needed to go to hospital for a scan.  Concerned with us driving a motorhome to the hospital he ordered an ambulance pick-up to come from Thonon-Les-Bains, 30km away, and deposit us directly in their A&E department.

Abondance (walking through town)

Back at our van we packed a bag with some obvious essentials and awaited their arrival.  30 mins later Nicky was, with over-precautionary detail, laid down, wrapped in thin white, cloth and strapped to a folding-leg gurney for transit.  I sat in beside her, holding her hand for comfort as we were driven down the mountain to Thonon.  Midway there, interrupted by the opening of a sliding partition from the front seats, we had a form thrust at us, stating that the ambulance service was a private enterprise and as foreigners we had to pay a spot fee of €240 for the privilege of their service.  A card machine also magically materialised and was soon sucking on our credit card hungrily.  To add further insult, we soon arrived at the hospital, passing through huge swathes of car-parks, all empty and free for hospital visitors.  Benny would have easily been accommodated in any number of the larger corner spaces.

Abondance - ambulance pick-up

But at least arriving at A&E afforded us a modicum of queue-jumping, and we were soon in a ‘box’, an examination room, where Nicky had a cursory chat and examination, all in French, by a very young but thoroughly professional doctor.  Bloods were taken for analysis and we were soon demoted to a corridor space for several hours before a scan opportunity became available.  We had had only one experience with French health care before, when we had to attend a doctor appointment in Villeneuve-Sur-Lot to have the necessary certification form signed allowing us to compete in our SwimRun event at lake Vassivière.  This was a much more stressful day, with Nicky’s constant pain, long periods of not knowing what was happening, when we would be seen, or what the next stage might entail.

Thonon - hospital examination room

We were stuck in a corridor with several very unwell people, especially one poor lady who had serious vomiting issues.  She would retch and splutter and bark much louder than we thought was physically necessary, the noise both distracting and nauseating.  Hours later she was still loudly attempting to evacuate an empty stomach, her dry, screaming rasps painful to both her and us. Another sick patient, perhaps with additional mental health issues, was locked into an examination room next to us and would desperately knock the window to gain our attention, punctuated with occasional screaming and cursing in French.  She would also have terrible periods of mimicking the vomiting lady; each desperate throat-rasping evacuation she suffered was repeated sarcastically, louder and more elaborately-voiced, from the small window of the room.  It was not a good space to relax in, yet we had to spend seven hours here, living with the guttural sounds and the tense, medically unknown and unresolved situation.

Thonon - hospital canula

Nicky was eventually called for her scan, whereas I was denied entry and instead ejected to the public waiting room.  She was wheeled off as I waited outside.  During this time she was left locked in the room with no information or guidance, anxious.  An hour later a kindly passing nurse informed me my wife was back out, dumped again in a nearby corridor.  I found her and we sat another long while, before our young doctor reappeared to explain the situation.  Yes, an obvious inflammation was confirmed on the scan and coupled with the blood test results an infection in Nicky’s gut was confirmed.  Yes, antibiotics will clear it all up, here’s the necessary prescription.  But there was more.  We had to collect prescription off-site, not in the hospital, and it was now late; we had sat, between a small examination room and the busy corridor, for an amazing nine hours in total, since our arrival.  We’d had no opportunity for lunch and had to beg several times even for a refill of our one water bottle.

Abondance (neighbours arrive)

We walked a loop around the hospital but found all buses into town had stopped running at 7pm, so returned to the main reception to request a taxi to town and the exact location of the after-hours pharmacy.  After a long day of waiting, we had another 45 minutes to restlessly sit until the promised ‘in 20 minutes’ taxi arrived.  He took us into Thonon, but to the wrong pharmacy.  Stranded, we asked how much his taxi back to Abondance would be and he quoted over €100, so we declined.  We managed to walk a few hundred metres and find the correct pharmacy.  We picked up the required medication, but it was now pushing 9.30pm in an unfamiliar town.  With limited options we decided the taxi fare back to Benny was better spent on resting up, so we located a central hotel and happily procured a nice room for €69, opposite the bus terminal that would take us back to Benny for €6 each tomorrow.

Abondance (in the aire)

Exhausted from the day’s stress and drama, we sprawled out in our room, so glad to be somewhere other than a hospital corridor. Nicky took the first round of her medication, hoping for quick action.  We’d not eaten since breakfast, other than a shared dry cereal bar, but didn’t have the will or energy to worry about dinner – sleep was more immediate and necessary.  We slept soundly until 9am, even with the heat of our top-floor room. I popped out for breakfast bananas and croissants, the latter fresh out of the oven and beautifully soft; never had croissants tasted so buttery and sweet, or been devoured so fast.  The colourful Thonon markets were in full bloom, but the stifling morning heat combined with continuing stomach pains were too much for Nicky, so we lay supine on a patch of shady grass for an hour, overlooking the glistening Lake Léman as we awaited the next bus back to Abondance.

Abondance (sunset)

We boarded and watched the mountains draw closer, surprised at there being so few customers on the double-sized bus. Forty minutes later we were ejected on the main street of Abondance and walked the short distance back to where Benny was waiting, relieved to be reunited with our own deeply comforting safe space.  Rest and recovery for Nicky was now our key objective for the coming days.

A&N x

 

Switzerland – Zermatt’s Matterhorn & Randa’s bridge

After the successful completion of the TMB hike, we rested up at Le Grand Champ for a further two rainy nights.  We tasked ourselves with the necessary jobs of laundry, photo-sorting and rest.  But we also had an eye towards our next mini-adventure, so were cooking up a few ideas.  After some deliberation, Switzerland was put on our agenda.

Zermatt (church in Tasch)

We left on a quiet Sunday morning, stocked up in a busy SuperU then headed east towards Switzerland.  We drove back through Chamonix, Argentière and Trient, spotting many places we had recently walked, before climbing up towards Martigny.  A few kilometres and many hairpins later, we were duly summoned into Switzerland with a bored look and a casual swipe of the arm at the nominal border point.  Tall stone terraces bursting with vines and soft fruits, predominantly apricots, lined the steep valley sides. We dropped drastically to the valley floor and on long straight roads made easy progress.  This part of Switzerland was more business than pleasure.  Dominated by light-industrial sheds and strips of garishly-coloured store fronts heavy with parking areas accessed by over-wide roads, it looked much more American than European.

Zermatt (on route from campsite)

Zermatt (on cycle route to town)

We turned off towards Zermatt, heading south through a series of villages on the only road into the valley.  We considered stopping in a cheaper aire in Täsch, nearer to Zermatt, but on inspection it was only the back corner of a car-park, behind a garage on a busy section of road, so we passed on it and doubled back to Campsite Attermenzen to overnight.  The site was an open field, so siting was entirely at your own discretion.  We picked out a quiet spot on a small plateau behind the main field and set up a cosy camp.  As it was only 2.30pm we had a decent portion of day left, so made the decision to quickly grab our bikes out of the garage and go see Zermatt immediately.  20 mins later we were organised and away, assuming the 9km route there would be a simple jolly along a cycle-path by the river.

Zermatt (us at Matterhorn)

Zermatt (Matterhorn and cloud)

It started well, in bright sunshine, rolling through the centre of Täsch, but soon after the track crossed the railway and rose steeply up through the forests on the opposite slope.  We faced a steep, difficult and technical ascent, a narrow dirt trail with gnarly roots, large boulders and overhanging nettles.  Whilst we thought we had had a decent, active summer, filled with swimming, running and hiking, we soon found our fitness for this type of off-road cycling was sadly lacking.  With lungs bursting and legs screaming for mercy, we had to dismount and walk portions of the trail on several occasions, decrying our inability to get up the track on our bikes.  We had underestimated the cycle, judging it by the short distance and not thinking of the height differential.  But we made it into Zermatt eventually.

Zermatt (walking bikes through centre)

Zermatt (happy chappie)

Our first impressions of Zermatt were not great. We had visualised a cutesy ski-resort, wonderfully car-free, all stone, timber and glass, in a comforting cauldron of snow-speckled mountains.  Instead we entered by a rough, debris-strewn building site, both sides of the road lined with dirty piles of stones, discarded bent materials and desolate-looking buildings.  It was a disturbing and rather grim first impression, but we were very soon distracted from it all by our first sighting of the incredibly imposing Matterhorn, standing tall behind fast-moving clouds.  We followed the river and cycled straight through to the southern edge of town for a closer look, stopping near an Activity Park to take in views of the iconic mountain.  Yet even here the parks were lined with red builder’s tape, degrading the view.

Zermatt (central streets)

We pushed our bikes through the glitzy, kitschy, touristy centre, the busy streets lined with top-end branded stores and expensive hotels.  We passed neat churches, almost apologetically nestled into tiny corners, their importance lessened in the face of the new, dominant religion of commerce.  Visitors mingled with quirky locals in national dress, popping in and out of cafés and souvenir stores selling the usual T-shirts and tea towels.  We heard mostly German being spoken, but smatterings of French, English, Spanish and Japanese completed the cultural melting pot.  At one point a herd of long-haired goats were driven through the streets by young teenagers, dodging the constantly buzzing electric hotel taxis, looking more like a scene from Nepal than Switzerland.  We cycled on, passing yet more hotels and shops in traditional timber and stone, with an ever-present snowy mountain backdrop framing each view.

Zermatt (bikes and goats)

We’d been lucky with the weather, as the forecast had suggested thunderstorms in the afternoon.  But grey clouds were now gathering overhead and the air changed; rain was brewing.  We decided to stick to the road going back, and found it a fantastically long, sweeping downhill for most of the way.  We reached Täsch in minutes, flowing at over 50km/hr, definitely enjoying this direction more.  Large, slow drops of rain plopped on us and the smooth road surface as we passed through the town, threatening much more.  We pushed on to reach our campsite with only moments to spare before the main deluge finally arrived, with us safely back under cover.  We packed away our bikes, made tea and chilled for the rest of the evening, feeling glad we had decided to make the effort to quickly visit Zermatt.

Randa (the path upwards)

Randa (mini cairns on path)

We set an early alarm, had a quick breakfast and got our boots on before 8am, as the forecast was for more storms.  We wanted to complete a circular hike, from the nearby village of Randa, and to visit and cross what was reported to be the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in the world.  It was still chilly when we left, the sun slow in rising and not yet having warmed the air.  We first passed through the traditional timber buildings of Randa, enjoying the colourful vegetable patches and hanging baskets decorating the houses.  We filled our water bottles from a spring in the village then started our ascent via a narrow street between ancient timber hay barns.  We rose quickly on steep, rooted paths through the woodland, our legs dealing easily with the gradient after the gruelling miles of the TMB.

Randa (first look across the bridge)

Randa (n + a on bridge)

Randa (Nicky on bridge)

We were all alone when we reached the 500m long Charles Kuonen Hängbrücke, the suspension bridge, so we had the fortunate opportunity to play around and take a few photos and videos.  We then crossed over, apprehensive at one short portion that looked only loosely connected and rather shaky, but made it safely across.  From there we walked further up the mountain to the Europahütte refuge at 2220m, guarded by a huge resting black dog that eyed us suspiciously.  The view from their verandah was quite spectacular, but we didn’t linger.  Instead we climbed a further few hundred metres through a boulder field to reach a classic picnic spot with an unbeatable view of three separate glaciers.  We sat a while, eating apples and soaking up the view with only the sound of calling birds to distract us.

Randa (nicky and mountains)

Randa (picnic with a view)

There was the possibility of continuing around the mountain and returning to Randa by a different route, but instead we retraced our steps past the Europahütte and down to the suspension bridge, this time passing under the northern end and dropping quickly downwards.  Another steep woodland path led us down past a few groups of walkers now struggling upwards, until eventually levelling out in rolling grassy meadows back near to Randa.  We paused a while on a lonely red bench to eat sandwiches and take in the overview of the village.  We said goodbyes to neighbouring horses and descended to the village church, circled the beautifully kept cemetery, then continued back to camp. Our wonderfully fresh morning walk was a hilly 12km, taking the best part of four hours, with almost 1000m of ascent.

Randa (village view from red bench)

Randa (Benny at campssite)

Our afternoon was spent doing little more than people-watching and gentle stretching on the grass, until the dark clouds rolled back in overhead and drove us inside.  It was here we made the decision that it was best for us to move on, and that meant a return to France.  We had business to attend to back in Limousin.  In less than two weeks’ time, our new house purchase would complete, so our slow march westward now begins and our new responsibilities await.

A&N x