Monthly Archives: Jun 2019

France – Les Sablettes and Toulon

We rose early in Sanary-sur-Mer and left with unusual proficiency.  We faced a leisurely drive along the urbanised main road through Six-Fours-les-Plages.  Some stretches proved to be very tight with overhanging trees or badly parked cars.  It took us all of nine built-up miles to reach our next planned stop, a free aire near to Saint-Mandrier-sur-Mer, on a jutting peninsula south of Toulon.  On arrival we found the aire was very small, but we fortunately arrived just as one van was leaving, and they gifted us the ideal corner spot we would have chosen in an empty aire.  Perfect.  We had a short jaunt to take in our new temporary home, spent some time making up lunch and then walked the short way to a local terminal where we hoped to board a ferry to the regional capital of Toulon.

Les Sablettes (awaiting water taxi)

Toulon- (boat crossing)

Several local were already seated, waiting patiently.  The ferries, like buses, had a ‘next service’ display, with only 14 minutes to wait for Toulon; or so we thought.  This boat failed to arrive, the timer tripped over to 32 minutes and the intermediate service simply disappeared.  More people arrived, some looking curious as to why so many were waiting.  Groups of fit students, likely gymnasts, competed with each other doing one-handed handstands whilst we waited.  Alongside the tourists and students, elegant women dressed for lunch in designer outfits, their Chanel and Louis Vuitton bags hanging from stiff elbows, chatted loudly.  Finally the ferry cruised into view.  It cost €2 each for a single ticket.  We sat up front enjoying the fresh breeze and welcome spray on our faces for the 25 minute trip.

Toulon - (boat arrival)

Toulon - (church and markets)

Cruising through the waterways of the busy military harbour, we alighted directly into the crowded streets of central Toulon.  We walked along the quayside, a long street of busy cafés and bars, noting the celebrated ‘Genie de la Navigation’ statue.  We then crossed the main through road to enter the colourful market stalls.  We immediately thought of Toulon as having a more north African feel; the quality of light playing on the stone walls and paved streets, the extensive markets, the people, their faces and dress.  And most of all, the smells – curry plants, jasmine, honeysuckle mixed with sweat and diesel.  At other times the streets reminded us of Havana or New Delhi, the colours flickering on a backdrop of tall, narrow façades, the play of light, the sun not penetrating to ground creating patches of deep shade and bright light, the flaking shutters, the cracked render.  There was a real sense of a imposing, crumbling grandeur.

Toulon - (Theatre)

Toulon - (Liberty Square)

Toulon - (Nicky by fountain)

We followed the colours and smells of the markets as they extended through many streets.  At one stall we paused to buy a few juicy nectarines and ate them as we walked, dripping sticky juice down our hands and chins. We passed many fountains and water features in varies styles and sizes, always pausing to run our hands through the cool water.  We passed tiny squares, empty of people, and large open plazas busy with cafés.  We circled the exuberant Toulon Opera building, the second largest in France (after Palais Garnier in Paris).  Drained in the heat, we stopped to eat our lunch in Liberty Square, near the fountain, in the only small patch of shade we could find.  The heat of the day was already repressive, and not conducive to exploratory city breaks.  We were dreaming of the beach.

Toulon - (Concrete ship)

Toulon - (rugby stadium)

Revived a little from our lunch stop, we wandered a few more streets, looking at places of interest marked on a tourist map we had picked up.  But our fortitude for city streets was waning, so we returned to the terminal and caught the next ferry back. Once back in Les Sablettes, we walked slowly through a shady park to a local beachfront.  We passed by many more crowded market stalls selling crafts and paintings.  Several very competent artists were displaying their works,  luminous oil paintings that piqued our interest but we ultimately declined to purchase.  The beach was full of supine bodies and running kids, loud music and the scent of salt and blossom filled the air.  We chose not to sit, but continued our slow walk further, people watching.  We ate expensive ice creams as a treat.

Les Sablettes (busy evening in aire)

Back in Benny early evening, a late edition to the aire arrives and, after securing permission, double parks across another van right in front of us.  This was their only chance of fitting in and made the aire look more like a storage yard, but it was an impressive piece of manoeuvring nonetheless.  We enjoyed a pre-dinner stroll to another small beach area south of the aire, set beside a thick pine forest.  We found it still busy with sun-worshippers and rowdy families enjoying the shade left behind by the low sun.  We walked a short portion of south coast path before hunger drove us back to Benny.  On our way we surprisingly found a shop open, on a Sunday night, and managed to buy some welcome snacks for later. A great day, and it confirmed the best way to arrive in any city is by water.

A&N x

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France – The calanques & beaches of Cassis and Sanary-sur-Mer

We awoke in our corner in Marly Parc to a cacophony of singing birds and revving motorcycles.  We paid up and headed south, away from Marseille towards the south coast.  Our first stop was in the tourist town of Cassis.  We managed to carefully squeeze into a space in the only motorhome-allowed area in town, tight to a weed-strewn rock on one side.  The last space, steep and weedy, was very difficult to access due to lazy car drivers using the aire to go play tennis, rather than walk the 50m from the ample and empty car-parking further down the hill.  From here we walked, stifled in the hot dry air, into town.  We passed several lovely beaches, a thriving market and a busy marina, the centre buzzing with holiday-makers.  We continued on around the coast, the crowds thinning as we left town.

Cassis - market streets

Cassis - marina

We were heading to a more special beach, the third of three celebrated coves.  The first calanque was utilised as a long marina, lined on both sides with large sailboats.  We followed a wide stony pathway thinking it would make a great aire, up and down following the rocky contours of the land.  We reached the second calanque, Port Pin, a white pebbled beach with shining clear, inviting water that was close to seducing us to stop.  Instead, we pushed on, 30 more minutes of sweaty walking through sparse woodland and up steep, dusty screes.  Birds of prey soared and circled overhead. We dropped into what looked like a dead-end canyon, a fully enclosed cauldron surrounded by high cliffs.  We thought it couldn’t access the sea.  But our eyes were deceived; there was a narrow souk on the right side, invisible from above, and this direction change led us between the cliff faces to reach the final calanqueD’En Vau.

First Calanque - marina

Second calanque - Port Pin

calanque D'En Vau - beach view

 

We had arrived at an utterly stunning stony beach, framed by tall cliffs, blue waters and thronged with people.  Given the number of supine sun-worshipping bodies, the beach was very quiet – no children, no music playing, no loud chatting.  Everyone here was of one mind – to relax in serene nature.  We plopped down in a rare space on the white stones and spent the rest of the day sunbathing, swimming and people-watching.  Some visitors had a more sedate arrival by kayak or canoe around the headland from Cassis, swelling the ranks on the beach.  Others climbed the imposing  cliffs and chose precarious perches on flatter rocks on which to rest, or jump into the calanque.  The waters glowed with turquoise luminosity in the bright sunlight, inviting us often into their soft, majestic coolness.

calanque D'En Vau - N on beach

calanque D'En Vau -from water

Having cooked ourselves sufficiently, we made the difficult decision to tear ourselves away from this little slice of paradise. We made our way slowly back, following the same route, passing the other calanques that no longer impressed us the same after seeing ours.  Once we returned to Cassis we spent some time around the marina and in the quiet town streets, browsing in colourful stores.  When we returned up the hill to where Benny awaited we found most of the cars had gone, enabling us to move to a more suitable and flatter parking space to overnight. The street was quiet, a no-through road, and only two other vans joined us.  We enjoyed  an exploratory walk around the tennis club site and buildings after dinner as the sun was setting, a simple restful stroll in the cool night air.

A on path to calanques

Cassis - second town beach

After a quiet night’s sleep we headed off again, following the coast road east.  We made a point of avoiding the tiny streets of Cassis.  Our plan was to follow the Route des Crêtes, a twisting, climbing coast road hugging the edge of the azure Mediterranean far below.  There were lots of spacious pull-off spots where a short walk led to a grand vista over the sea, and we took advantage of many as we snaked along.  The road cut back inland when nearing the next town, La Ciotat. We tried to stop for a look but could find nowhere amenable to motorhomes, so had to keep moving.  We drove the sea front of Saint-Cyr-sur-Mer, the most obvious resort town we passed, then along the busy roads and full beaches of Bandol to reach our destination, an ASCI campsite on the outskirts of Sanary-sur-Mer.

Route des Cretes- coastal view

Route des Cretes- sea view

 

As we flopped onto our pitch, the heat of the day, now reaching low 30s, sucked away our desire to move or explore.  After a competitive game of table tennis under a shady tent (not too competitive, Nicky trounced me), we lounged by their lovely pool, reading, dipping and dozing.  This was more like it.  The next morning was a different beast – a strong, wild wind blasted across the site.  It was blustery, demented at times, shaking every tree and blowing up dust clouds from the dry dirt; not a day for resting by the pool.  Instead, we chose a bracing exploratory coastal walk, back through Sanary-sur-Mer and on to a pointed headland called Pointe de la Cride.  There was a fort marked on maps, but it had the secretive feel of a government installation so we didn’t linger.  That evening we locked down the hatches, snuggled into Benny and watched TV, hoping a tree wouldn’t fall on our heads.

Sanary-sur-Mer - markets

Sanary-sur-Mer marian

Sanary-sur-Mer nicky at marina

The morning brought calmness and sun, a long way from the aberration of the previous day.  We ran an easy 2km downhill to the Plage de Portissol in the morning, relaxing and swimming often to cool off in the sticky heat.  Huge banks of seagrass were stacked up on one side of the beach, but clearly not enough, as we still had to wade through five soupy metres of it to get to clear open water.  We took turns having longer swims out to the extent of the buoys in the bay, it feeling good to use our arms rather than legs. After an afternoon back at camp we returned to the marina early evening.  There were market stalls, talented painters selling canvases, a harnessed rigging climb for kids, and some competitive water-based jousting.  The weather was too good for a restaurant, so we ate takeaway pizza and watched the various spectacles, enjoying a slice per bench as we moved around the crowded marina.

A&N x

France – Sausset-les-Pins and the calanques of Marseille

We left Remoulins late morning, and after an hour and a half of easy dual carriageway we arrived in Sausset-les-Pins, the location of our first organised 10km (well, 11.2km) race of this trip.  Here we got our first true glimpse of the Mediterranean.  We wanted to arrive early to ensure a space in the free aire (43.338412, 5.108487) , but found only two others in a spacious car-park that easily could accommodate twenty.  We settled in, ate lunch then cycled the two kilometres down to the beach and picked out a space to flop into.  We had occasional dips in the shallow bay, clambering over rocks carpeted with soft algae to reach the clear, cool water.  But mostly we lay still, slowly roasting under the heat of the afternoon sun.  We turned ourselves like burgers on a grill to ensure an even cooking, dripping hot sweat like fat on the white stones.

Sausset-les-pins - (beach front cycle)

Sausset-les-pins - (beach spot)

We had to rest up – we had plans for the next morning.  A 7am alarm, a quick breakfast and an easy cycle back to the seafront.  Before we left home we had signed up for an 11.2 km local run, and today was that day.  We locked up the bikes and warmed up, readying ourselves for the off. Over 1000 runners were taking part, a larger event than we anticipated, but there was a welcome, friendly buzz.  The morning was hot muggy grey, with flashes of distant lightning and growls of thunder and we had two short downpours to dodge.  Each left the air cooler, but thicker and sticky; difficult running conditions.  We set off exactly at 9am, following the coastline before cutting inland up a few dusty hills.  Our tops were instantly soaked through with sweat, the humidity making a sodden mess of us. Fifty-eight hot minutes of crowded countryside trails later we arrived back at the start, drained and gasping in the heavy air.

Sausset-les-pins - (a on race day)

Sausset-les-pins - (raceday selfie)

We helped ourselves to drinks, fruit and cake, picked up our finishing gift (a neat rucksack rather than a T-shirt) and our free beer and retired to the beach for a cooling-off swim.  There are few pleasures better than the joyful relaxing after a hard run, and we revelled in the restful simplicity of our sweat-removing dips.  Revitalised and fresh, we left the beachfront in Sausset-les-Pins and, after navigating our way through the markets, returned to Benny to eat lunch and pack up.  We were moving on, down through the centre of Marseille to reach Marly Parc, a paid aire south of the city and, from an overnighting perspective, the only game in town. Our drive took us through the central streets of the city and the thriving heart of the Old Port, and even from within our van we could feel the historic grandeur.

Sausset-les-pins - (passing the marina)

Sausset-les-pins - (nicky with rose)

We arrived in Marly Parc (43.338412, 5.108487), via a series of long straight avenues, and slotted into our designated corner plot which looked very tight but was surprisingly spacious once we were in.  This was to be our base to explore the rugged coastlines within the Parc National des Calanques. A quiet night of gentle planning led to preparing our bikes and we packing enough snacks and water to see us through a lazy afternoon.  We set off, under hot, clear skies, thinking the 6km ride to the beach would be a simple, casual affair, an easy jaunt.  But we had vastly underestimated the terrain we had to cross over to reach it, and joined others heading our way in pushing our bikes up most of the extremely steep 4km long hill.  Once over the top we swooped down the last 2km on the opposite side to the sea, all the time aware that we would have to repeat the effort back up.  We rolled into the Calanque de Sormiou, locked our bikes to a tree and walked to the water, joining hundreds of others who shared our plans today.

Calanque cycle - initial view

calanque cycle - (at the calanque)

The popularity of the main beach fuelled our decision to skirt around the back of the bay and explore wider.  A dusty path led to a couple of small beautiful-looking beaches in hidden coves.  Descending to the first and removing our shoes meant we could paddle and scramble over a rocky outcrop to reach the less accessible second beach.  At this time of day it was in partial shade, so had only attracted a few others.  Reclining on our towels we marvelled at the beautiful clear blue waters lapping a few short steps from us.  We had refreshing dips in the calm waters as small boats and larger yachts edged into the calanque, providing us with a murmur of friendly noise and pleasant people-watching opportunities.  An afternoon of intermittent swimming, sunscreen application, lunch nibbling, book reading, careful hydration and general relaxing kept us fully occupied for several slow and pleasant hours.

calanque cycle - (costal path)

calanque cycle - (main beach view)

Marly Parc - relaxing with beers

The return journey saw us slowly grinding the gears and pedalling away from the coast.  In contrast to our fast downhill approach, our speed on the return was slow enough to truly take in the beautifully craggy limestone valley that had been our host for the day.  With a few brief breathers on picturesque corners  and one bout of pushing our bikes, their handlebars higher than our heads, we soon made the summit of the pass.  From there, a quick provision stop at a nearby supermarket and a couple of simple kilometres led us back to Benny.  We remained at Marly Parc that night, quietly enjoying a couple of chilled beers tucked away in the shady warmth of our private little corner.

A&N x

France – Alzon, Uzès and the Pont du Gard

We crawled through the busy centre of Millau continuing south-east, to overnight in the village of Alzon.  We easily found the aire and settled in for the night. There was a local pétanque game in progress opposite and we sat with a  glass of wine and enjoyed watching in the soft evening sun.  After dinner we had a stroll through the village, the four storey buildings flanking the central shady square displayed a tired grandeur.  We paused here and enjoyed the peacefulness and the quintessential French feel of this hillside village, allowing the flow of history to wash over us.

Alzon - (shady square)
Alzon - (allotment view)

Our onward road clipped the bottom portion of the Parc national des Cévennes.  Grand red poppies lined our route, growing like weeds in unlikely places, but splashing colour and warmth wherever they were.  The countryside was becoming more Spanish in our eyes, with wide gorges, limestone bluffs, deep lush greens, and steep stone terraces overflowing with olive trees and pink flowers. The road followed the low-flowing river, snug between high cliffs and a sharp vertical wall dropping to the riverbanks below.  We saw nothing but blossoming nature for miles, then suddenly got trapped in a wild swarm of human commerce, hugely busy pockets of life and noise we thought from the map would be only tiny, sleepy villages.  Just as suddenly we escaped back to peaceful, empty countryside.

Uzes - tower
On leaving the park the scenery slowly transformed into expanses of olive trees and vines. The route was straighter, flatter, offering a more expansive view across to distant hills.  The only animals in the fields were horses, all land was given over to the cultivation of high end products.  Tall cypress trees and squat lime-coloured cactuses began transforming the land into a more Mediterranean feel; we were closing in on the coast. We passed hundreds of local domaines offering direct sales and degustation.  Each was either a ramshackle collection of rugged stone buildings surrounded by scruffy yards or beautifully finished, immaculate visitor centres dripping with wealth.

Uzes - domaine approach
Our first stop this morning was at one such farm store selling olive oil, wines, honey and jams, in the town of Uzès. Missing a turn, we did a slow loop around the town, enjoying the casual beauty of each street in turn.  From our slow-moving vantage point the town was replete with cafés and shiny shops, old stone churches and tiny cobbled streets.  (You could say it Uzè’d charm).  After a complete circle of the wonderfully vibrant town centre we finally turned off and found the Domaine St Firmin.  We had read the place was a popular stopover, and true to word we found it absolutely full, with around twenty vans in rowdy residence.  We parked awkwardly in their yard and had a quick degustation of a few summer rosés, purchased a bottle of our favourite, then got back on with our journey.

Pont du Gard - (approach side)
Pont du Gard - (far side)

Aother hour of beautiful, empty roads, their verges sprinkled with bright flowers, brought us to the busy outskirts of Remoulins.  We found the aire near the bridge (43.938068, 4.558423) and picked out a corner spot between some badly parked cars.  We scoffed a quick lunch then packed our swim gear and began, under a strong sun, the 3km walk to the Pont du Gard.  We were thankfully shaded most of the route by plane trees and stretches of light woodland.  We reached the gates to the park and walked in along the voie verte, immediately facing the famous three-tiered Roman aqueduct.  There were de-clothed bodies scattered everywhere we looked, soaking up the sun’s heat.  Large groups of visiting American students paddled in the shallows of the river, chatting loudly.  We crossed the lower tier of the bridge, taking in the immense scale of the ancient build.  The size of the each carved individual stone in the pillar bases was incredible, the organisational undertaking and size of the workforce must have been a sight to see.

Pont du Gard - (nicky swimming)

Pont du Gard - (beach time)

We dropped off the left hand side to reach a pebble beach where we flopped down by the calmly flowing river’s edge.  Groups of kayakers idly floated by as we eagerly readied ourselves for a cooling swim.  The water was warm and we played and cooled off, swimming across the river and climbing rocks to jump back in, like children.  We lazed in the sun, reading and relaxing.  Occasionally we would glance up and re-see the aqueduct in all its glory.  We would again marvel at the Pont du Gard’s domineering size and the privilege we had in being able to casually swim in its giant shadow.  By 4pm we were satisfactorily cooked and took our leave, with the firm intention to return later that evening to witness the colourful June light shows that were projected onto the structure.

Pont du Gard - (in trees underneath)
Pont du Gard - (sunset)

When we arrived back at Benny, the subtle heat of the day had a sudden change of heart and brought forth a storm of sticky humidity and, following that, heavy drops of rain.  We soon decided to forgo our return, but after the rains dried up and with the delight of an intensely bright red sunset later, we began to regret not returning to watch the light show illuminate the Pont du Gard as planned.  We could still have made it, as the show was not expected to begin until 9.30pm at the earliest.  But we were both still feeling tired from all the jobs at home and this trip was about recharging.  We need to learn to slow down and accept that rest is a part of life and not every moment needs to be filled with activity.  The choice to remain in Benny came with a sigh, but was likely the right call for us.

A&N x

France – Heading South: Gignac, Rodez & the Viaduc de Millau

After the glorious sun-filled days during friends and family visits, we had a return to the heavy rain of previous weeks.  We had planned to leave early on a damp Wednesday morning, but a calamity of errors and minor issues (a broken chair, a collapsing rose trellis etc..) left us with a late afternoon departure.  We drove south under grey skies smudged by thick raindrops, still intent on gaining some distance this day.  After a quick consultation to change our plans due to the lateness of our exit, we agreed to a stop in the small village of Gignac (45.005852, 1.456925), a little way south of Brive-la-Gaillarde, to overnight, only two hours away from home.

Gignac - church
Gignac - church interior

Once settled in the free aire, we undertook a short exploratory walk around the village, mostly to stretch our legs.  After a mini run-in with a couple of local dogs, we popped our heads in the open doors of the local church.  Here we had a friendly chat with local gent, all in French, about the history of the building and its value to the village.  His tales roamed from the Hundred Year’s war where the church had served, in the absence of any other fortifications, to hide the local population from the invading English, through later conflicts between Catholic and Protestant forces, to a description of a parade happening the following day to mark the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings. An interesting and passionate chap, softly spoken and knowledgeable, and we felt honoured to have briefly shared his time and memories.

Rodez - (church)

Thursday brought us a slow morning, warm and bright.  With the rain gone and the sun out, we were ready to travel.  We continued south-east, following two hours of winding, easy roads cutting through lush fields and plump woodland. Our route brought us directly to Rodez, and after a futile effort to park closer to the centre, we gave up and stopped in the aire outside of the city (44.357642, 2.594083) and walked in.  Our trundle led us past the Église du Sacré-Cœur de Rodez before reaching the historic centre.  We passed by the even more impressive Cathédrale Notre-Dame de L’Assomption, flanked by several medieval squares and many busy cafes.  It was a hilly town and there were plenty of viewpoints with grand outlooks over the surrounding area.  We sat to eat our lunch on a bench near the mairie and were passed by class after class of well-behaved primary school kids, the youngest classes hand-in-hand, making their way inside.  We pondered on if they were visiting a municipal library rather than a civics tour.

Rodez - (cathedral entrance)

Our lunch stop and city visit complete, we continued in the same direction, chasing the sun south.  Our next stop was at the Viaduc de Millau.  We avoided the toll road, instead driving underneath to a separate car-park area (44.097826, 3.024766) from where we could easily walk to the expo building and the designated view point.  We crossed over to view the exhibition on local foods and watched several interesting videos on the bridge construction methods.  Sir Norman Foster’s practice was instrumental in the design of the €400M project that utilised over 200K tonnes of concrete during the three years it took to construct.  We climbed the short hill to enjoy the view and to marvel at the size and elegance of the build, and also at the sorry lack of any traffic crossing it, likely due to the toll.

Millau viaduct - (approach)

We stood a while, soaking up the expansive vista and reflected that it was still only 24 hours since we left home and, although we’d not yet arrived in our main destination, we were already feeling like we’d had a fairly decent adventure.

A&N x

France – Spring-time visitors to Limousin

In the times between our trips away in Benny, we have been pleased and excited to be able to host a procession of visitors from the UK.  The first overseas guests of the year were friends from Northampton, Cathy and Graham.  They arrived to stay for a relaxing week in May, with some gentle exploring punctuated with tasty meals and long bouts of relaxing.  Unfortunately their visit coincided with the worst weather of the season.  We had to deal with a cold snap and a biting wind that forced us to retreat indoors for every meal and wrap up in coats for local walks.  It’s wasn’t totally unseasonal, just not filled with the delightful spring-time sunshine and blue skies we had all hoped for.

sdr

This drop in temperature didn’t stop us too much, but lazy days by the pool were swapped out for more local sight-seeing, market visits and long countryside walks.  Graham, although their visit was billed as time away from work (for all of us), was keen to assist with a couple of on-going projects around our grounds.  So, whilst the girls relaxed or pottered in the garden, we took a few hours each day to mix concrete and build stone walls.  The first project was a low-level corner to level off the area around our pool so that we could add a paved surround at a later date.  The second, a multi-day affair, was to rebuild a collapsed wall in one of our stone out-buildings, rebuilding the reveals and adding a chunky oak lintel above an existing window opening before closing in the stonework above.  Both of these were of immense help as they would have taken me months to get to and Graham enjoyed the change and the challenge.  They also made our evening beers taste that little bit better for the satisfaction of a job well done.

sdr

We browsed several vide greniers ( literally ‘empty attics’, or as we would call them car-boot sales) in local villages.  We inspected the vast array of colourful porcelain items available in one nearby specialist store.  Three of us went out for a couple of hilly rural runs.  We visited a Fête du Pain (festival of Bread) in another village, located on an old farm with a wonderful display of ancient tools and implements.  They had stalls selling everything from cheeses to cockerels, hunting dogs to hats, but we came away with huge loaves of bread and a fantastic strawberry tart.  We visited Limoges on a clear, bright but still chilly day, walking miles around the central streets.  We solemnly walked through the village of Oradour-sur-Glane, learning about the atrocity.  We baked, we cooked, we ate, we drank.  We even swam once, in our still cold pool (17 degs at the time), but for the refreshing shock rather than the exercise.

Strawberry tart on the patio

Less than a week later, Nicky’s mum and dad arrived.  This was a more sedate and shorter visit, and the weather was kinder.  We did much of the same things as before, only with more emphasis on the relaxing downtime.  Nicky’s dad, being very handy, was keen to assist with a few small technical jobs around the house, including repairing the belt chain mechanism that now allows our pool cover to be retracted by winding the handle.  We strolled around a local lake and along a voie verte, mixing exercise and fresh air with time resting in the sun.  We sipped gin and tonic by the pool, played bat and ball games on the lawn and held an overly-competitive game of pétanque one sunny evening.

Nicky with mum and dad - voie verte

One Wednesday, Nicky’s mum had organised to play bridge with a club in the nearby town of St Junien, an impressively gutsy decision to meet strangers and play such a complicated, subtle game all in French.  During her game, we returned to nearby Oradour-sur-Glane with Nicky’s dad.  This visit took on a more poignant feel as we realised that he was the exact age now as many of the 205 murdered children would have been if they had lived.  We looked at their photos, only 10 years old, and thought about what kind of lives they could have led, what they could have achieved, and how the future was cruelly taken from them all.  It underlined our privileged existence.

Playing ball games

Nickys dad relaxing in sun

We had exactly two weeks until our next visitors arrived.  We used these days to complete a few more jobs and tidy up a few more corners of our home.  A few days before their planned arrival a strange package arrived with us from Amazon.  Neither of us could remember ordering anything, so our interest was firmly piqued.  On examination, we realised it had been sent to us from our soon-to-arrive guests.  On opening it, we found it was a 8-person raclette set and grill, perfect for interactive fun meals with friends.  I later remembered a subtle text a few days earlier enquiring as to whether we had one, under the guise of reminiscing about a meal we’d had when skiing in Serre Chevalier, but I hadn’t considered the enquiry as anything more than happy French memories.  Very naughty of them to be buying gifts.

Warm evenings on the patio

Relaxing by the pool

We drove to the airport to pick up the gang.  Jon & Fiona and Ollie & Karen, more Northampton friends and ex-work colleagues of mine. This time the weather was firmly on our side. A solid week of grey-skies sodden with rain broke the day before their arrival and bright clear, sunny skies held until the day after they left.  They should visit more often.  It was a balmy 20 degs first thing in the morning, climbing to 31 degs in the shade at its daily peak.  The nights dropped to no less than 14 degs, but often held higher.  Our time together was focused on long tasty meals, local walks and lazy days around the pool.

Working on the pool shed walls

The Pool shed wall - progress

The guys wanted to help with a few jobs, and chose to assist with adding timber battens to our blockwork pool shed.  I had started this, but was unsatisfied with the colour and spacing of the battens I’d fitted so far.  Together we decided a tighter spacing was required and no stain, that letting the battens grey naturally was best.  Bringing out all their mathematical and architectural skills, the guys got down to work.  Ollie manned the tape-measure and chop-saw, providing Jon (and I) with correctly sawn lengths of batten to nail carefully into position.  Together we slowly progressed along the elevation, hiding the black waterproofing membrane below and bringing order and life to the once dull façade.  Another huge thanks to for a job well done, and for the delivery of beers to site by the ladies.

Relaxing in the sun

Visiting Limoges - botanical gardens

We ate every meal, breakfast lunch and dinner, in the breezy shade of our veranda. We spent long lazy evenings chatting, eating and drinking, catching up with our varied lives.  A favourite meal was when we agreed to a first use of our new raclette.  We all ate far too much, covering mountains of potatoes with self-melted cheese and various charcuterie slices, chunks of baguette, roasted tomatoes, buttered courgettes, leafy salads, mushrooms, fried eggs and much more.  We ate until full, paused for a drink and a chat, then ate more.  This was what days in France were made for; warm nights, fine food, great friends.  We hope to be able to welcome everyone back again very soon.

Gang having raclette meal

We said our goodbyes as clouds began to slowly gather, our hosting now complete, for a while at least.  We will take a few days to gather and organise ourselves and then we will head off for a month in Benny, to experience Provence and the Cote d’Azur.  We have entered a few 10km races to add a skeleton of structure to our travel plans, but beyond those fixed dates our days are open, free and easy, so we will see where the winds and our whims take us.

A&N x