Monthly Archives: Jun 2018

France – Lake Vassivière & our SwimRun challenge

We left the garage and our boxed-up belongings as neat and organised as we could, ready for pick-up and delivery at the end of July, when we take ownership of our new French house.  Job done, we had a lovely, slow run into the nearby fields to relax, before opening a celebratory bottle to end our stay.  The next morning we drove, with Nicky’s mum, back to East Midlands for our flight back to France, feeling satisfied with our flying five-day UK stop-over.

Sereilhac - sitting by lake

Lake Vassiviere (lake map)

Only a few hours later we arrived back as scheduled in Limoges, all very simple, with Benny patiently waiting for us in the long-stay parking.  Nicky’s mum was, as organised months ago, flying out the following day from Stansted to join us for a week around Lake Vassivière, so we had no desire to move on too far.  We had overnighted at several other nearby aires during our house-hunting, but never at the small municipal aire in Séreilhac, only 15 minutes from the airport, so that became our plan for this evening.  We were the only van in residence, and settled comfortably into a sunny corner.  We had a cup of tea sat at a grassy picnic table and after enjoyed a short walk around the nearby lake; it was such peaceful place, a little haven, yet so close to the city and the main north-south road through the park.

Lake Vassiviere (bench)

Lake Vassiviere (free aire in Aupelle)

Lake Vassiviere (wine by the shore)

A lazy morning and big food and drink shopping trip followed, before arriving back at the airport early afternoon to collect Nicky’s mum.  From there we doodled around Limoges and then cross-country, always heading east.  We passed through Saint-Leonard-de-Noblat before stopping in Peyrat-le-Château for a brief cup of tea and to pick up the forgotten cash required for our apartment deposit.  Soon after, we hugged the northern coast of the lake to reach Masgrangeas and began the long process of extricating everything we would need for the week from its place in Benny into the small rental apartment.  When all trips were complete we had a local explore, taking a glass with us down to the water’s edge where we sat a while and enjoyed the view.  Blue skies, rolling tree-covered hills and shining, flat water; this will do us very nicely, thank you.

Lake Vassiviere (woodland trails)

Lake Vassiviere (hillside view)

Over the next few days we undertook a few exploratory walks and visited a few islands, some of which we would later be swimming to or running around.  We rarely saw anyone else until the day of our race.  We impatiently had our first swim at a small stretch of sand only a few minutes from our accommodation.  Our thermometer confirmed the water was a balmy 20 degrees, quite perfect for swimming sans wetsuit, as we were.  There were warmer and cooler patches as we moved through the water, sometimes catching us by surprise by their contrast.  The water had a rare silky quality, almost moisturising, feeling rather slimy on our skin when submerged but leaving us soft and smooth after drying off.  The sun warmed our backs and dried us quickly, making each short dip a sensual pleasure.

Lake Vassiviere (lunch spot)

Lake Vassiviere (evening stillness)

Lake Vassiviere (mother and daughter)

Another day we climbed a 777m hill to enjoy a panoramic overview of the lake, before dropping down to visit a small island we had spotted, linked to the mainland by a curving timber walkway.  Verges of tall wavy grass were dense with white michaelmas daisies and buttercups, dotted with spears of bright purple foxgloves.  Behind these, wide strips of curling ferns separated this wildflower verge from the woodland trees.  Everywhere we looked the lake coastline was simply intoxicating.  We stopped for a bite to eat on a snaking timber walkway before deciding that even though we hadn’t planned to swim, we had to strip off and slip into the inviting waters for a post-lunch skinny dip.  Refreshed and invigorated, we walked back along the coastline of the lake remembering our treasured memories of spontaneous swim dips in various Swedish lakes the previous summer.

Lake Vassiviere (swimrun start)

Lake Vassiviere (fun swim)

Lake Vassiviere (hillside walk)

One of many 2018 challenges we set for ourselves was to undertake a SwimRun.  This is now a recognised formal discipline originally borne from competitive Swedish guys challenging each other to race, via many islands, across an archipelago.  It has evolved into a team event with pairs who race the course never more than 10 metres away from each other.  As this was our first foray into Swim Run we decided to keep it simple. We chose the Short Course event, to keep the distance within our comfort zone.  We had about 10km to go, roughly 8.5k running and 1.5k lake swimming.  This meant no stress for us, meaning we could relax and enjoy both the event and the wonderful scenery, and that spectating for Nicky’s mum would not be a long day.  It also gives us a base platform to later build on, so we could step up and improve and push our performance should we wish to continue entering future races.

Lake Vassiviere (on the move)

Lake Vassiviere (in the water)

On the day of the race we parked easily at Auphelle, before transferring to the start by bus. There were a few competitors lining up looking very hot in full wetsuits, but also others wearing only speedos, trainers and the compulsory race bibs.  Many had customised leg-floats and large swim-paddles at the ready.  A few ingenious runners had small floats laced securely into the tops of their shoes, for additional buoyancy.  We had decided we didn’t require floats, but Nicky had chosen to use swim-paddles to better match our swimming paces for our chosen combination of clothing.  We wore 2mm thick neoprene shorts with rash vests under our bibs, enough to offer adequate warmth and some additional buoyancy but nothing that would inhibit us or make us overheat on the run sections.

Lake Vassiviere (swim exit)

Lake Vassiviere (Swimrun finish line)

We had done some decent training over recent months, including more recently at our Ribérac housesit, where at nearby Jemaye Lake we were able to experiment with transitioning between swimming and running and try various clothing options, so we felt like we were suitably prepared.  There was a great friendly atmosphere throughout the day, collaborative and supportive, not at all combative, even at the elite level.  People chatted and offered tips and were ready with a helping hand if required.  With a mass start, we ran 2k first, before entering the beautifully clear, warm waters, fully supported by kayaks and small power boats.  Our swim routes were marked by easily-spotted red buoys, our runs on wooded trails with a cushioning pine needle floor.  We soon found ourselves surrounded by similar-paced teams and experienced an ebb and flow as we passed them on the runs and they passed us on swims.

Lake Vassiviere (swimrun completed)

Lake Vassiviere (elite teams pass)

We were 66th team home, in 1hr 33 minutes, satisfyingly faster than our pre-race estimates. We enjoyed the vocal support and a friendly atmosphere throughout.  It was well marshalled and we were impressed to be handed beers and lots of great snacks at the end.  We really enjoyed the challenge and now want to do more, especially in areas with similarly impressive scenery.  The following day, after a long lie-in, we decided to visit a small peninsula opposite where we were staying, to spectate and offer support to competitors in the long course event.  We parked at a large, flat motorhome area and walked to where the passing runners would pause to re-enter the water.  We set up camping chairs and cheered the lead teams as they passed, appreciating their efforts.  Later we walked up a steep hill to take in a higher vista of the lake, spotting islands, paths and beaches where we had swam or ran previously.

Lake Vassiviere (playing in water)

Lake Vassiviere (longer island swim start)

Each night the stillness of the lake drew us back to its shores, the evening light quality providing an enchanting scene of exceptional tranquillity and beauty.  The surrounding hills were sometimes lit with patches of vibrant lime-greens where the setting sun caught them just right, their bright reflections mirrored on the glassy surface of the lake.  We greedily soaked up the sights and sounds, revelling in the humble, accessible pleasures of such an unspoilt facility, simply perfect for swimming, running, hiking, kayaking, fishing or sailing, over and above the intoxicating natural beauty.  And best of all, it sits only ninety minutes or so from our new house – ensuring that we’ll definitely be back.

A&N x

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France – Brantôme, and a flying visit home

We had, mostly, readied ourselves and the house we were tasked with looking after for our imminent departure.  Our host Eric telephoned to say he would be home a day earlier than originally expected, so we cut short our final hours of sun-worshipping to complete the last tidy-up tasks, made a cup of tea and awaited his return.  We spent the evening catching up and chatting with Eric, then on to bed.  The rain returned the next morning as we removed the final traces of our presence, we said our goodbyes and, for the first time in six weeks, we were back on the road.

Brantome - (river view)

Brantome - (bridge and weir)

We didn’t venture  too far.  We had been harbouring plans to visit the town of Brantôme for months, and the time had now arrived.  We scorned a few free aires nearby for a centrally located ACSI campsite, as a gradual stepping-stone transition from a large, comfortable house to life back in a 6m box.  Set on the banks of the river Dronne, Campsite Brantôme Peyrelevade was a very tidy, peaceful haven, complete with a lovely swimming pool and set an easy five minutes away from the heart of the historic centre.  The heavy rain had followed us here, but soon lessened to a trickle and we decided, after an obligatory cup of tea, that it was time to go explore.  By the time we left the grounds of the campsite the sky was clearing, the rain had stopped and there was a threat that the sun might break through.

Brantome - (abbey from bridge)

Brantome - (abbey gardens)

A gravel track led us easily to a large canoe centre where we could cross a small tributary of the river to enter the central streets.  Brantôme central is a circular island, surrounded by a natural moat formed by a split in the flow of the river Dronne.  Five bridges, like extended spokes on a wheel, connect the island to the surrounding mainland.  Its foremost attraction, although not itself positioned on the island, is the 8th century Benedictine Abbey, founded by Charlemagne.  The original cloister and church were joined by an 11th century Romanesque bell tower and further monastic accommodations.  But life was lived out here long before the abbey was built; there were residents in the extensive cliff caves behind, and many relics from these original troglodytes are now displayed within the church.

Brantome - (nicky at abbey)

Brantome - (abbey from bridge)

Patches of blue sky appeared overhead as we wandered through the historic streets.  We had fully expected our walk to come complete with dreary grey views and a proper drenching, but with the ever-brightening day came a similar rise in our mood and expectation, and everything felt like a welcome bonus.  We walked slowly through parks and gardens, relaxed and happy.  The city streets were busy with tourists, the restaurants spilling out into small squares.   We heard lots of English voices, more than we’d experienced in France before, but it is certainly the season for it; the summer madness was ready to explode into action.  We watched people kayaking around the river, made complicated by weirs blocking routes, and passed a wonderful rusty curved cello sculpture set up on a bridge.

Brantome - (river view of abbey)

Brantome - (nicky plays cello)

We returned to the campsite by the same path, happy to have enjoyed a break in the weather for our town visit.  Huge swathes of grey clouds began gathering again on the horizon and we expected the rain to return soon.  Before that happened, we decided to have a quick dip in the pool.  We swam a bunch of lengths in the too-hot water, showered and dressed, making it back into Benny with only seconds to spare before the deluge returned.  The rest of the night was spent with the sound of rain for company, along with never-ending tea and multiple back-to-back episodes of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’.  The morning was, thankfully, dry.  We had a quick exploratory walk around the campsite and its riverbanks before heading off north; we had organised a quick visit to (almost) our new house.

Flavignac (local lake)

Flavignac (playing at lake)

We parked at the nearby village of Gorre, in a huge empty carpark adjacent to the church.  After lunch, we got out our much under-used bikes and cycled a hilly 19km around beautiful local lanes, all soon to be forming the starting point for longer cycle trips from our new house.  We met up with Julia again and measured up a few rooms and took a few other dimensions to help us ascertain which items of furniture we should bring with us, or what new pieces we may need to consider.  After a tour of the flowering garden we said our goodbyes and cycled back to Benny to relax.  We decanted back to nearby Châlus to overnight, feeling like regulars there.  We had a brief visit over to Flavignac the following day  to check out a possible swim lake, but an outbreak of blue-green algae has closed it for now – shame.

Solignac (playing fields workout)

Solignac (riverside run)

After a quick supermarket shop and a lazy brunch, we popped into Decathlon for a few items, before stopping to overnight at a free aire in Solignac.  Here the sun reappeared and dominated our restful afternoon, lazing by a football pitch, watching the groundsman cut the grass with exacting precision and dedication.  A few guys turned up to train equally lazily on the neat football pitches.  The next morning, Thursday, we dragged ourselves out for a jaunty 7km run through the village and back along the muddy riverbank, before making our way to Limoges airport; we had work to do.  We parked Benny in Long Stay and that afternoon we caught a flight home to go through all our stuff currently stored in Nicky’s mum’s garage and decide what was going to come back with us to France.

Limoges - Airport

We deliberately organised a small removals van of 15 cubic metres, so we have to be selective with our needs.  We’ve proved we could easily live with just what little we have in Benny, but houses are different animals and demand to be filled with stuff.  We needed, as always, to be disciplined and sensible.  After 18+ months of travelling light in Benny, we had pared down our lives to a simplified palette of what was really necessary.  And even then, we have found ourselves not using or wearing many items that we brought with us, after what, at the time, was thought an extreme and difficult cut in personal possessions. We were never hoarders before, and never had a real desire for things, at least relatively compared to others we know.  But even what little we had collated over the passing years now seemed, when viewed through the hindsight of our recent existence, like an embarrassing abundance.

Packing - our worldly possessions

We had box after box of clothes, books, ornaments, crockery, kitchen utensils and stationery items, alongside rows of wardrobes stuffed with even more clothes, linen, blankets, tablecloths and towels.  We had gardening tools, bike tools, DIY tools, buckets, planters, ladders, cables, strimmers and clippers.  We had rows of bookshelves groaning with books, DVDs and magazines.  We have no idea what to do with it all, as after three days of opening, checking and repacking every box, we are taking less than a quarter of it back to our house in France.  We discarded some items, gave away a few boxes of others, but the rest, deemed too good to throw away, is simply being left behind for now.

A&N x

France House-sit – Vanxains, near Riberac (Part 3)

Visits to Lacapelle-Biron and Cazeneuve

The long sun-drenched days in Vanxains simply glided by, our hours filled with nothing substantial but brimmed with relaxation and rest.  We rewarded every two hours of strenuous physical effort, either running, walking, swimming or cycling, with double that of lazy sitting or lying in the garden, reading and watching the burning sun slowly drift across the sky.  It’s a great balance for us, the daily exercise and the deliberate rest, and this easy luxury of filling our time exactly as we wish has a wonderfully cathartic effect.  The hours and days of the week have constricted in their use to hold little meaning to us, as we now live solely on the timescales of the rising and setting of the sun, and of the changing seasons.

Villereal - (Covered market)

Villereal - (Church)

Nicky has an old university friend with a holiday home in Lacapelle-Biron, near to Monpazier, and we organised a visit for when they were in-country.  After a brief stop in Bergerac on the way, we enjoyed a flying visit to the bastide town of Villeréal, where we walked the historic streets, taking in the elaborate timber marketplace and tall stone church.  Not long after, we arrived at Mandy and Simon’s villa, where we were soon splashing in their pool, sipping beers and swapping stories, all generously accompanied by birdsong and afternoon rays.  We later retired to their patio for dinner and wine, eating and chatting long into the night, punctuated with earnest discussions on what music to play next.  The following morning we ate a tasty late breakfast outside under the shade of a wisteria-covered pergola.  We were, surprisingly and gladly, experiencing only the dull hint of the fully-expected hangover.

Lacapelle - (Mandy & Nicky)

Lacapelle - (Mandy & Simon)

We said our goodbyes as we had another lunch date with Ken & Monica in Cazeneuve, which was spent relaxing by their pool, complete with much more chatting and eating.  It was fascinating for us to see Cazeneuve blossoming into summer, such a different appearance from before.  Every vista was now green, lush and fruitful, more opaque with dense foliage than the skinny, dormant mud-browns of the winter months we had recently spent there; it was transformed.  Monica & Ken were expecting the arrival of an Australian couple later that afternoon, their guests under Home Exchange, a scheme that we hope to utilise in future years with our new French home, opening up more travel options further afield.  We thanked them for lunch and left them to prepare for their far-flung visitors.

Cazeneuve - Poolside dining

Cazeneuve - Poolside lunch

One damp Monday morning, we decided to drive to the nearby market town of Chalais.  We had been informed it was one of the most worthwhile local markets to visit, but on a dull, grey day under the constant threat of rain it seemed rather small and basic.  Perhaps this was because the scattering of stalls were widely spaced out along many streets, rather than clustered together in a central location, and the day’s meagre crowds didn’t stretch wide enough to offer a hearty noise or an interesting buzz.  Or perhaps we had so recently been spoiled by the large markets in Issigeac and Ribérac that we were anticipating more, our personal expectations raised and dashed through no fault of Chalais.  We walked up a steep hill to look at the local château before disappearing back through the wet streets.

Chalais Market (town streets)

Vanxains - flood defenses

Another day we visited the village of Saint-Aulaye, where we squeezed through a tight timber gate to access the ample parking before undertaking a self-guided walking tour of the village’s Roman highlights.  We kept up our schedule of long countryside runs and quiet evening walks, punctuated with lots of down-time, disguised in our minds as ‘recovery’.  We enjoyed several more swims and runs around Jemaye lake, further training sessions for our upcoming SwimRun event.   On several occasions we experienced serious thunderstorms and minor flooding at the house, interspersed with momentary losses of electricity.  Once these storms broke, we were usually treated to wide-reaching and spectacularly deep sunsets across the expansive valley, all visible from the bottom of the garden.

Vanxains - Lazy cats

Vanxains - (Garden sunsets)

On our last Friday we cycled a beautiful cross-country route vaguely northwards, on chalky paths and tiny roads, their grassy centre-line a testament to the lack of use.  We struck out a winding route into the west of Ribérac, dropping down into the edge of town via a fantastic descent through wheat fields on a stony path.  We weaved through the neat suburbs before we again joined the crowds at the weekly market.  The conversational buzz and bright colours of the busy centre were striking in contrast to just moments before, where only the muted colours and tweeting noises of the countryside existed.  We parked up and walked a loop, enjoying the contrast with the green silence. After exhausting the market stalls, we had a quick stop at the Hôtel de Ville before cycling out of town.

Riberac - busy market

Riberac - hotel de ville

We returned home by a new route, finding a quiet stretch of road alongside a small trickle of a river, it passing through woodland filled with the bending trunks of tall, graceful trees.  The route was a continuous ribbon of green rolling hills, each crest offering far-reaching views of the surrounding lands, made up of expansive hectares of manicured fields with only a light scattering of stone houses and outbuildings visible.  The fields were planted with barley, sweetcorn and sunflowers, still small and green, but ensuring the vista would evolve yet again, to be resplendent with brilliant yellows in the months to come.  Legs tingling from our efforts, we settled back into our lazy garden life, soaking up the sun in the close company of cats, again feeling like the ones who got the crème.

Vanxains - Last night sunset

Vanxains - Last night reflections

We spent a large part of the day readying for leaving – we packed up all non-essentials, tidied up the house and, under a scorching sun, completed a last cut of the fast-growing garden.  With everything in good shape, we decided to make a little micro-adventure for ourselves after dinner.  We took our camping chairs and a bottle of single malt with us and walked up a local grassy chemin to a nearby hillside, where we took up temporary residence on a gravel plateau to enjoy the setting of the sun over the lush valley.  We settled in, each poured ourselves a glass and sipped in silence as the sun slowly disappeared behind the horizon, just like the fun-filled days and weeks we’ve spent here have now vanished into the past.  Here was the end of another, very different but equally wonderful, house-sit, and we felt so fortunate to have been offered the opportunity to spend such quality time in these peaceful surroundings.

A&N x

 

France House-sit – Vanxains, near Riberac (Part 2)

Our days have continued to pass much as they have done for much of this house-sit to date; filled with short bursts of frantic activity framed with large doses of lazy sun-worshipping.  Or, when rains arrived, and they really arrived, catching up on missed TV shows, movies or books, whilst marvelling at the tropical-like deluges ripping up outside our windows.  It’s been a varied and interesting stay to date, a fine mix of activity, exploration, reading and rest.

Aubeterre - riverside

Aubeterre -rooftop view

One fine day we decided to cycle to a nearby beaux village of Aubeterre-sur-Dronne – 14km of hilly cross-country with a few off-road stretches on dusty, chalk paths that reminded us of the South Downs Way in England.  Avoiding all main roads, we soon reached a campsite on the outskirts of the town and stopped in to admire their public swim beach on the river; it looked like a nice aire to visit should we be back here in future days.  From there we followed a steep cut-back uphill, passing the entrance to cliff-face caves, to reach the beautiful, shady main square.  We locked up our bikes and walked around the pretty centre, through steep, narrow streets, visiting the dominant stone church before buying a baguette back at the main square for lunch. We sat a while and people-watched in the glorious sun.

Aubeterre - central square

Aubeterre - people watching

Another day we cycled the 16km to Bertric-Burée, with the intent of attending an advertised Snail Festival.  We crossed the calmly flowing river Dronne at Épeluche, sticking to rural back routes and quiet gravel trails on the way.  It was a beautiful cycle, but it turned out we chose the wrong day; the three day local festival had a different focus each day, and the snail stalls would only appear on the Monday, not the Saturday.  Even then, the festival began after lunch, 2pm, so there was nothing open when we arrived – zut alors! Still, it had been worth a look and the car-free roads offered some fantastic cross-country cycling.  We considered a return in two days, but that weekend turned out to be scorching hot, so instead we spent it vegging in the garden, slowly pottering with the blooming plants.

Vanxains - arriving home

Vanxains - garden chilling

Another day we went for an 11km countryside run in the early morning, but it was still not quite early enough.  The day was not yet 9am but already a blistering 25 degrees, and had not a breath of wind.  We ran along many beautiful tracks and passed through a few sleepy stone villages, but we were both a hot, sweaty mess when we got finally got back home. We had a quick, cold shower then headed straight over into our neighbours’ pool, where the cool water sizzled from the heat of our skin.  It was such a refreshing feeling to cool off properly after some good work in the repressive heat, and made us glad that our recently purchased house comes with a pool.  The following day, in deep contrast, we spent a very rainy afternoon mooching inside, and got our UK tax returns and other paperwork sorted.

Vanxains - Table tennis

Vanxains - Iris and sunset

Vanxains - Terrace breakfasts

Returning from one walk, we popped in to see neighbours Judith and Pierre, and invite them to apéro later in the week.  We agreed that the coming Saturday was best.  They arrived shortly after the agreed 6pm and we spent a happy hour and a half chatting with them, half in French, half in English.  We drank lots of wine and nibbled at the bruschetta and other savoury snacks we prepared.  We had no experience of what apéro should be like or what their expectations may be, this being our first with actual French neighbours, but we seemed not to have offended too greatly.  We mentioned we had spotted a table tennis table in their garden, and Pierre said that it had sat unused for five years, so we could borrow it.  We jumped at the offer, and he delivered it to us the next morning – excellent!

Vanxains - countryside wlk

Vanxains - long walk

We continued with more swim-run training sessions at the Lake Jemaye, returning several times to enjoy long swims or short bursts combined with various transitions and runs.  We rarely saw others there, other than a few staff members tasked with woodland maintenance or beach clean-up.  Even after bouts of heavy rain, the lake water remained comfortably warm and we revelled in the solitude, in contrast to what we imagine the short, hectic summer months must be like in such well-provisioned place.  On one occasion we arrived on a French Bank holiday and had a taste of what it must be like in summer, the place brimming with motorhomes and cars, with large tables laden with food and wine everywhere, everyone enjoying the sunshine.  We were still the only swimmers though.

Vanxains - cycle selfie

Vanxains - off-road cycles

We took long day walks in scorching heat, exploring the nearby hills and woodlands.  We played games of table tennis nearly every day, although in all the time there I took only one game off my annoyingly talented wife.  We continued to dabble in necessary gardening, although the lawn had recently developed a spiky infestation that had suddenly made areas of the garden extremely treacherous to bare feet.  We initially suspected it was a kind of invasive knotweed, but later discovered it was self-seeding bamboo. We enjoyed wonderful, red-bursting sunsets almost every night from the west-facing garden, settling into little rituals that gave a semblance of structure to our easy existence.  We had a forged a slow, humble life, free from encumbrances, filled with exercise, outdoor-living and simple pleasures.

A&N x