Category Archives: France

France/Spain – Andorra, Camprodon & Olot (part 1)

We finished strimming the garden, reclaiming our pool from winter algae and tiling our cottage bathroom.  With cut hands and tired bodies we threw together some clothes and provisions, locked our shutters and drove south.  We needed a break, and the blue seas of the Costa Brava were calling to us.  Stopping only for a quick lunch at a farm aire whose shop was closed during our short stay, we inched our way along the map on straight roads.  We collided with rush hour traffic around Toulouse, snarled and static, causing us to reach our chosen destination after 6pm.

Auterive - free aire

We parked in the free aire at Auterive, ( 43.351670n, 1.476547e ) on the banks of the Ariège. The aire was pleasant enough, but the town itself, despite its grand historic undertones, looked scruffy and unloved.  A Netto was the sole remaining shop open, and buying milk and potatoes we watched as a disappointed chap had his card declined.  With no other means of payment, he sadly handed back his large basket full of vodka, wine and beers.  That moment of stolen promise, the disappointment, no easy out tonight, summed up the town for us.

After a night where we began re-watching Game of Thrones from Season 6 in preparation of the final instalments, we left early with the intention of lunching in the principality of Andorra.  We were crossing the Pyrenees into Spain and visiting there, especially when it was only 6km out of our way, was the least we could do.  The day began grey and monotone, not the warming blues we had hoped for when heading south.  We followed slow hairpins and narrow roads up into the mountains, climbing steadily through stone villages towards bluer skies and snowy peaks. The occasional car coming down the mountain was layered deep with snow, fresh from a recent dumping.

We turned off towards El Pas de la Casa and soon reached a customs border checkpoint that wasn’t manned and drove straight through.  We parked simply in a huge car-park to the side of a long row of buses and walked up into town.  I had been here once before, on a skiing trip more than twenty years ago.  My memory was hazy yet little seemed to have changed, but I certainly had.  I remembered being impressed then, but soon reached different conclusions this day.  It was full of shops selling tobacco, booze and perfumes, like an open-air departure lounge.  Some shops even had giant Toblerone that I thought only existed in airports.  We walked the grey sludgy streets, avoiding the copious drips from melting snow and smiling wryly at the fact we had planned a trip to sunny climes and sandy beaches and now found ourselves in a seedy ski resort.  But despite our reaction to the resort we availed ourselves of the tax-free shopping, snapping up 4 litres of choice spirits and a litre of port all for less than €25.

Camprodon - roman bridge

We arrived in Camprodon around 4pm, after a winding and tiring drive.  The aire ( 42.312331n, 2.362839e ) was empty of other motorhomes, with only a few other cars as company for Benny.  We headed out immediately for an evening hike/run up to Sant Antoni, a chapel on top of a local hill.  It was only meant to be a six kilometre loop, but we had failed to notice the 425m of height gain it contained, so the way up was more a slow walk through steep forest trails over gnarled roots.  At least we were rewarded with spectacular views over the surrounding countryside from the abandoned chapel grounds before a really enjoyable 4km downhill run back to town, a great leg-loosener.

Camprodon - hilltop view

That night we were awakened around 1am by a huge crashing sound.  Just behind us a boy-racer recklessly driving loops of the circular aire had ripped the entire front grille and right-hand wing off another parked motorhome.  We felt so sorry for them, the fright of the collision must have been incredible.  The assailant made a speedy getaway in the darkness and they were left to deal with the wreckage, the police and the ensuing insurance issues.  Nightmare.

Olot - defensive towers

After a lie-in in Camprodon, we arrived in nearby Olot under an empty blue sky, bright and clear.  We were here to visit the Garroxta Volcanic region and enjoy some day hiking.  We found easy parking just south of the centre, adjacent to the river ( 42.180199n, 2.493597e ) and walked in town from there.  We were hot and sticky in shorts and shirts, yet many locals were still wrapped in duvet jackets or thick woollen jumpers. A quick stop in the tourist office gained us a map of a 2-hour walk of all the sights, including the extinct volcanoes we had come to see.  We set off through the town, finding the base of the nearest caldera, it set in a sea of black volcanic ash, like Tenerife.

Olot - Nicky and Scarlet

The path spiralled around the hillside as it rose, opening up different vistas over Olot and its surrounding countryside. We passed several defensive towers, built in 1845 to protect the town against a repeat of a year-long occupation it suffered after the Third Carlist War.  The 120m diameter Montsacopa crater is unique in the area for having retained its circular form rather than having being eroded by later eruptions or disruptive lava flows.  The rim was once home to three separate chapels, of which only one, Capilla de Sant Francesc, now remains.  It is mostly a ruin, its walled courtyard home to a very modern, sharply detailed cafe that contrasts deeply with the wasting chapel stonework.

Olot - view from volcano rim
Olot - Parroquia Sant Pere Martir

We dropped back into the town and crossed to the next volcanic lump, rising up many steps to pass the monolithic 1950s church Parroquia Sant Pere Mártir.  The path then led around the edge of Volcá Montolivet through shady forest before opening out to a wide vista over the south-west portion of Olot. Here we passed a group of local artists searching for the ideal spot to set up their easels. As we returned along the river, we noticed rows of tents ahead and discovered it was an open air, one day only craft beer festival.  Yes, it would have been rude not to.  There were a dozen or so producers displaying, each with four to eight beers each on offer.  We blagged a few tasters in our new glasses before committing to spend each of our four pre-paid beer tokens.

The sun was blasting, everyone was relaxing and chatting.  The noise of rapid-fire Spanish was almost overwhelming, but a welcome contrast to the tranquil reflection of our walk.  With plans turned upside down, we sat sipping beer and munching chips in the glorious sun, enjoying the cheer. These impromptu moments, unplanned and spontaneous, are what make life on the road special.  Thirsts quenched and keenly aware we had a 10km race in the morning, we tore ourselves away and slowly returned to Benny.  We later moved to a campsite close to the start of our race, Font de les Tries ( 42.189736n, 2.509779e ), a rather scruffy and noisy spot not really set up for short touring stopovers, but we soon made our small corner of it into a cosy nest and enjoyed some afternoon downtime.

A&N x

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2019 Catch-up – What we’ve been up to lately…

Wow, it’s been over three months since our last blog post.  Time certainly moves on quickly when you fill your days.  We decided that this blog would be better suited for the recording of our exploratory travels in Benny, and that intermittent updates of our daily grind working on house projects were deemed not interesting enough to post about.  Instead, we have gathered together a few of our highlights of 2019 so far, to help capture a smattering of the interesting, noteworthy places we have passed through and a few events we have recently attended.

Angôuleme International Comic Festival (January)

Each year Angôuleme hosts one of the largest international Comic Festivals in the world.  Despite Nicky not being a particular fan of the genre, after some gentle persuading she was keen to visit and see what the festival could offer.  We thought of staying over, but decided to make it a day trip as the city is only an hour from our base.  The town itself was quite beautiful, set on a steep-sided hill dominated by a cathedral, and absolutely thronged with people.   There were many main exhibition venues spread out around the city, with free buses carting the crowds between each. The breadth and scale of each exhibition hall was incredible.  No longer the sole domain of superheroes, the comic genre reflects every conceivable topic; suicide to pornography, biting political commentary to historic tales, incestuous abuse to supernatural thrillers.  Every topic is described in detail, in a multitude of styles, the lined black inks of noir whodunnits through photo-realistic renderings of fantasy creatures to the large-eyed cartoon dramas of angst-ridden Manga teenagers.  We watched skilled artists personalise purchases of their novels by adding requested character artwork and personalised messages to any blank pages, and long lines queuing patiently for such a prize.  It was a great day out, fascinating to learn more about the process and the artwork and see a few of the big names behind the comics.  The only downside was the that almost all displayed comics were in French; I had held hopes that at a large international festival there would have been more availability of popular comics in English.

Chartres, cathedral city (February)

Heading home for our annual visit, check-ups and servicing dates, we stopped off just short of Chartres in Marboué, leaving our city visit until the next morning.  Here I had a hilly 10km training run around the nearby villages.  The next morning we found easy parking on the south of Chartres at a long gravel car-park that doubled as an aire, then walked along the gently meandering river an easy thirty minutes to reach the celebrated Cathedral quarter.  The city was quiet and still in the early morning, the sky a solid undisturbed blue, and only a few other walkers and joggers were around.  We walked slowly through the historic streets and enjoyed a visit inside the cathedral, marvelling at the intricacy of the carvings.

Trip back to the UK (February-March)
After Chartres, we competed the road north to park at Saint-Nicolas d’Aliermont, our usual pre-ferry stopover.  Here we went for another 10km run that proved much hillier than we’d expected, before crossing early the following morning.  Once back in Blighty our days were packed with appointments with dentists, opticians, MOTs, Benny servicing, and more.  We fitted in bouts of visiting friends, hopping from High Wycombe to central London to Northampton to Thaxted, before catching a flight from Stansted to Belfast.  There were more family visits around Lisburn, Ballinderry & Portadown, interspersed with lough shore runs, an American football game (more below) and a trip to my nephew’s student digs in Whiteabbey.

Craigavon Cowboys – our First American football game (March)

It was a freezing day with a bitter north wind on a playing field in the People’s Park, Portadown.  My nephew David was playing his recently discovered new sport with his local team, the Craigavon Cowboys.  We were there to support.   It was a little confusing at the start, not having realised that they only had one goal set up, effectively playing on a shortened pitch, so each change of possession required a direction and position change, with the team in possession always playing towards the one end-zone.  It was never fully clear what would happen in event of an interception, but I’m sure the black and white striped professional-looking officials had it all worked out.  With player shortages, my nephew played in both offense and defence sets, enjoying lots of game time.  The cold wind and less players to swap ensured less standing around time between plays, allowing the game to flow quicker than normal, to be constantly moving and action-packed.  We enjoyed the spectacle of it all.

After our return flight to England, we stayed with Nicky’s dad in Downham Market before reaching Nicky’s mum near Louth.  Here we had a few days of relative quiet, several long runs, a spot of tree surgery, and several days of opening and checking through the remainder of our packed possessions to see what could return with us to our French house.  We had a great night of comedy at Louth theatre, even if we had front row seats, an instant involvement in the show, and became the soft targets of several witty one-liners.   Then too soon again we were off, spending nights with friends in Market Harborough, Northampton and St Albans before finally reaching the south coast at Peacehaven to await our ferry.  We saw a monument marking the southern-most point of the Greenwich Meridian on UK soil and enjoyed our last fish and chips before returning (on an earlier 1am-5am ferry as our morning sailing was cancelled due to high winds) to France.

Nantes & its mechanical menagerie (March)

Nantes - visit (courtyard)

After our late ferry switch and a wild, rough crossing, we were missing a night’s sleep but a day ahead of schedule.  We paused at Fougères to catch up on sleep, then checked into a campsite in the centre of Nantes as a birthday treat.  Here we watched the exciting finale of the Six Nations, then the next morning caught a tram to the centre to explore the sights.  The Île des Machines, our main target, did not open until 2pm, so we had plenty of time to see the historic centre. There was a race on, a pink charity event, with many thousands dressed up, and we wished we’d known and could have participated.  Instead we became spectators, seeing the crowds of happy runners from all angles as we wandered the city.

Nantes - visit (elephant)

After lunch we made our way to the Île des Machines and queued to enter the venue, seeing the mechanical spider, sloth, crane and giant ant, amongst many others.  We climbed in one prototype  branch of a giant tree, the next extension to the park, due to be completed in 2020.  But the main event for us was the wandering Elephant, strutting and spraying at tourists on its slow trundle around the grounds.  A grand spectacle.

Marathon de Cheverny (April)

We drove to Cheverny on a slow Friday afternoon, leaving us time to find the designated free aire by the cemetery and settle in before the racing began.  Nicky was running the 10km on Saturday afternoon, and I was running my first marathon on the Sunday.  Each race was to begin in the grounds of the Château de Cheverny, an impressive house famous now for being the inspiration for Tintin’s ancestral home in Hergé’s comics.  Nicky ran well, beating her expectations to finish in 48 minutes, a new post-back operation PB. The pressure was on for me to meet my target.

The day began with a blanket of chilling cloud, dropping the temperature to 4 degs, before warming up slowly through the morning.  All my long training runs were through cold winter months, and a hot sunny day would have rendered them for naught as I wilt badly in heat.  Unfortunately, my mind failed early -I knew exactly what not to do, yet did it anyhow.  I began much too fast, still feeling I was going slow and backwards as many were wildly rushing past me.  It was only at the 10k point that I realised I was under 50 mins, far ahead of my projected pace schedule.  I reined it in, but it was too late. I was closer to my schedule on halfway, at 1hr 48 mins, but by 25k I was done.  My legs were lead, refusing to turn over properly.  I had never felt this level of fatigue on long training runs, so put it down to the over-fast start.  I paid dearly for it, struggling through the next 12k, then with 5k to go I ran hard again, forgetting the pain and pushing through to make it end.  I just made it in under my 4hr target, at 3hr 56mins.

We were running to support a charity – WalktheWalk – as Nicky’s friend Emma was recently diagnosed and currently undergoing treatment.  Our Justgiving page is still open should any kind readers wish to donate.  Many thanks.

So, that’s a few of our recent highlights.  In between, we have been catching up with friends ( Hi to Dave & Kate, and Chris & Peter ) reading, writing, painting, sketching, playing music, watching movies and completing DIY projects.  And running, lots and lots of running.  Our swim training will start again soon, with the warmer weather and water. Our wetsuits are certainly well rested, having gone unused since last September, and our bikes have been left unpedalled throughout autumn and winter.  With my marathon completed our running will likely taper back to only a couple of times a week, leaving time for more cycling and swimming.   This week we have a garden to cut back, dig over and plant out and then bathroom to tile, then we’re off to explore the Costa Brava for a few weeks.  Phew!

A&N x

2018 Highlights, 2019 Plans

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
Mary Oliver (The Summer Day)

2018; another year of memories gathered, activities enjoyed and goals achieved. In some ways it was more of a transitional year, a soft landing leading from constant travel in Benny to a return to a more rooted existence. House-sits and WorkAways helped reconnect us to the idea of motionless living. We regained the love of sitting still, of being a part of a small community. Of creating use from objects, of honest labour, productive acts, holding local knowledge. The coming year has much to live up to.

TMB Day 8 (Enjoying the downhill)

Annecy - (first view of lake)

Everything in our recent travels had been generalisation. We had spent little time anywhere, passing through and glimpsing only a sliver of the life of each place. One blurred facet of one afternoon, one small portion of a village or town, and yet we reacted and drew conclusions from the visit. We judged, we opined, we decided our mood and experience based on the scantest of evidence, the whims of the weather. Destinations were deemed perfect, poor, terrible or terrific on the strength of that short, solitary instant. We jumped to thin, creative judgements of boastful self-indulgence. Our experiences were unique to us, to that time, and, in all honesty, tell others nothing of true value of the place or the people we encountered. These travel-through screenshots represent a momentary mirage, an insubstantial connection as we rudely, uninvited, threaded our lives into those of locals. Nothing is complete, nothing lasts, no description by any tourist day-tripper can capture a place with dependable emotion and clarity.

Our House - (from the pool)

Now, we were settled. We have a base, a home. We are able to make longer judgement on an area, our area, no longer reliant on tentative and superficial first impressions. We no longer need to be presumptuous. We can creep below the surface and uncover a new layer of reality, a deeper understanding beyond the trivial veneer we normally witness. We are no longer only travellers, but residents, and have the right to both observe and absorb at leisure.

Our days are filled with a different type of experience. Different dreams.

Lake Vassiviere (swim exit)

Key highlights of 2018

Completed several house-sits and WorkAway projects, befriending great new people and learning new skills
Attended and completed our first SwimRun event at Lake Vassivière, France
Hiked the Tour du Mont Blanc, a 180km multi-day trek through three countries (France, Switzerland and Italy)
Crossed the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in the world near Zermatt, Switzerland
Bought a home in south-west France, to be our new regular base for future travels.
Participated in three 10km races in the wine regions of northern Spain and two more locally in southern France
Spent the days before Christmas soaking up the festive atmosphere in Paris

Paris (eiffel tower lit at night)

Key goals for 2019

To run my first marathon, with a finishing time starting with a 3. A 16-week training schedule is underway and going well so far. The distance and the time are both feeling achievable, barring injury or other catastrophe. We will see.

To write better, focused pieces, deeper dives into the meaning of travel, beginning with a new Medium account. The focus will be on improving the storytelling rather than simple diary posts following our daily travel exploits. I’m also writing a draft of my first novel, to see where the process takes me, even if the final product is unusable and flawed.

Additional time is to be given over to painting, specifically line & wash watercolours. I’m tentatively considering that the novel above could evolve into an illustrated graphic novel, but time, technique and talent may have a say on that outcome. My aim is to produce paintings I would be contented to see hanging on our new French walls.

To complete all the on-going projects around our new French home. Alongside the typical DIY works, I hope to build a few detailed furniture pieces, design and construct several stained glass windows, and plant a fruit tree orchard. All new skills to learn.

To continue to travel around Europe, with shorter trips to north eastern Spain, Cote d’Azur and the Italian Dolomites already planned, and others under consideration. We are also looking at trips further afield, a few flights of fancy to faraway lands.

DAY 11 - Brevents panorama

Brantome - (panorama)

Randa (Bridge Panorama)

Haro - (panorama)

We have nothing but time, yet we never seem to have enough. To paraphrase The Great Gatsby, life may well be much more successful when looked at through a single window, but we don’t want to sign up to the limitations that implies. We don’t want to expend all our energy on the pursuit of only one goal. We want to dabble in everything that interests us, and that includes many subjects. We may not be capable of achieving brilliance at any one activity without focused dedication, but that’s okay. Enjoying a taste of many things won’t bring excellence, but it will bring interest, satisfaction and stave off boredom. We dabble at kayaking, cycling, running, skiing, open water swimming, chess, free-diving, painting, furniture-making, woodworking, quizzing, gardening, cooking, writing, mountain climbing, guitar playing, piano, beer brewing, sketching, poetry, photography, mathematics, astronomy, theatre, scuba-diving, movies, learning languages, and blogging. We read biographies, science journals, logic manuals, graphic novels, contemporary fiction, Arctic exploration histories, travel monologues, legal opinions, and everything in between. And long may our thirst for the new continue.

We want to be generalists, not specialists. And we want to continue to explore every avenue we can.

A&N x

France – Christmas in Paris (mini-break Part 2)

<post continued from Paris Part 1 >

Day 3 – South of the River

Tired from our first two days exploring, we were late waking, having slept nearly 10 hours. We must have been properly exhausted, a body and mind overload. We walked south from the campsite, passing a hippodrome flanked by a closed tarmac road inundated by keen cyclists and runners. We caught the metro from Boulogne – Pont de Saint-Cloud to the end of the line at Gare d’Austerlitz and began the long walk back west. We first reached the Jardins des Plantes, adjacent to the Natural History Museum. The grounds were filled with large, wildly colourful and exuberant animal models that brought instant smiles to our faces. Walking here was such a different experience from other places in Paris, one of simple, childlike joy, a haven from the busy roads and towering architecture.

Paris (natural history museum)

Paris (garden bears)

Paris (giant turtle)

We lingered under the warm morning sky, enjoying each vibrant display. There were large groups of students being corralled into the museum as we passed, likely on a school outing. We passed through the inflated body of a huge shark marking the entrance to the adjacent zoo, it reminding us of silly sentences from learning French on DuoLingo such as “Le loup mange le requin”- when could I ever use that, really? We exited the park by a large brightly-tiled mosque and continued on to reach the impressive monolith of the Panthéon in the nearby Latin Quarter. We ate snacks amongst the chatting students lounging and lunching on elaborate timber benches. I eavesdropped on their loud conversations, catching less than a tenth of the words, making me wonder if I’ll ever get a proper hold on the language.

Paris (student area seating)

Paris (pantheon)

We dropped down a the hill towards Le Jardin du Luxembourg, but found ourselves distracted by a display of large, beautiful photos of polar regions that lined the boundary fencing to the park. We followed this exhibition right around the perimeter, loving the poignant quality of the work and dreaming of a return to the wilds of Greenland. Some day. We finally entered Le Jardin du Luxembourg adjacent to the palace, stopping first to glance at a formal pond and grotto. The sky was back to a glorious blue and it was warm in direct sun, so we sat a while at the edge of the gardens and enjoyed a bout of people-watching. It was a welcome oasis away from the crowded bustling streets, and these restful moments revived us for more exploring. We cut across the sparse gardens, heading north into the fray once more.

Paris (resting in Luxembourg gardens)

Paris (place saint sulpice)

Our route north took us through Place Saint-Sulpice to reach another pocket of colourful Christmas Markets in the plaza outside Saint Germain des Prés church. Here we bought some vin chaud to warm our hands as we lazily browsed the stalls. We returned to the banks of the Seine and walked along, passing the Musie d’Orsay, before reaching Passerelle Léopold Sédar Senghor, a bridge replete with love locks, conveniently sold by all the local hawkers. There were many thousands of locks, each with a name or message added to symbolise a thought, love or connection. The idea could be seen as either deeply symbolic and profound or as credulously trite, wasteful littering, depending on your given mood or perspective. But it certainly didn’t seem to be lessening in popularity over time.

Paris (louvre from bridge)

Paris (Wall of peace)

From here we crossed to Tuileries gardens and sat for lunch overlooking the manic traffic wildness of the Place de la Concorde. Huge numbers of blue flashing lights roared past, and we wondered if the Gilets Jaunes had begun protesting again nearby. We crossed back south of river, across stalled traffic, to reach Les Invalides and the École Militaire, and then approached the Tour Eiffel from the south. We made our way through the busy crowds to Trocadéro where we enjoyed the raised, expansive view as we awaited dusk falling and the turning on of lights. This was to be our last magnificent view of central Paris from this trip, a fitting memory for our short days here. Tired, we again caught the Metro back to Pont de Neuilly after dark, then undertook our now usual walk back to the campsite.

Paris (spproaching tour Eiffel)

Paris (eiffel tower panorama)

These two posts on Paris read like a Bret Easton Ellis novel, the long lists of places we visited like the detailed musings of Patrick Bateman. It’s difficult to step back and find a way to encapsulate the trip beyond the obvious linear diary approach. When you factor in the constant stimulation of culture, history, architecture, lights, smells and sounds, it takes a long time for the brain to fully process the experience and then recreate some order from the constant movement and delightful chaos. We walked 23km on our third day – it’s a huge city, and we only saw a small portion of it. Even utilising a pack of ten metro tickets (€14.90 for 10), we covered 64 kilometres on foot over the course of our three days. City breaks, at least the way we always seem to do them, are more exhausting than hiking mountains.

A&N x

France – Christmas in Paris (mini-break Part 1)

Day 1 – Arrival, La Défense & Tour Eiffel

After a hectic morning packing session, we left La Jourdanie in good spirits for our drive north.  We followed the A20 for hours, skirting around Châteauroux and Vierzon.  We swapped to the parallel D-road to avoid motorway tolls and later stopped briefly in an aire in Theillay for lunch. We swapped drivers and Nicky faced the first proper traffic as we reached the southern outskirts of Orléans.  We crawled through the centre, paying the price for avoiding tolls, and made our way to the town of Angerville to overnight by their stadium.  We were stopping an hour or so short of Paris so we could arrive early in the morning and have that day for exploring. We slowly walked around Angerville to stretch our legs.  A few late arriving lorries naughtily parked up near us, in a zone clearly marked as max. 3.5t, disrupting our otherwise quiet overnight stay.  We headed off early for the last hour or so into Paris.

Paris - (la defense display)

Paris - (approaching la defense)

We must credit Ju & Jay at OurTour for seeding the idea; we’d read their blog post on visiting Paris and we thought it would work for us to pop up for the Christmas markets.  Under six hours driving for a classic city break – why not?  We arrived in the Le Camping Paris (AKA Indigo Paris) campsite before 10am and had no hassles checking in early.  We arrived under blue skies but facing down a biting wind that whipped heat away from any exposed skin.  The only downside was that the usual navette was not running, so we had to walk directly from the campsite each day.  We headed first to La Défense, crossing a wide bridge to a long island and then on to the opposite side of the Seine.  On the main boulevard in the shadow of the Grande Arche we found a huge Christmas market with a vast array of stalls, incredibly busy with lunching workers.  We browsed the goods, smelled the foods and absorbed the atmosphere.

Paris - (nicky and grand arch)

Paris - (aaron at grand arch)

Paris - (la defense plaza and markets)

Security was tight, with intermittent bag checks and armed soldiers patrolling the perimeter.  It had only been a few days since the deadly attack at a Christmas market in Strasbourg, so the alert level was justifiably high.  Everyone seemed relaxed though, so the atmosphere was unaffected.  We ate lunch on the steps of the Grande Arche, sheltered a little from the wind and overlooking the lively markets, the vista stretching all the way to the distant Arc de Triomphe.  We watched runners threading themselves through the crowds and this seeded another idea for later. We returned through Puteaux, passing a cute kiddy Christmas display, then followed the western bank of the Seine south.  We saw the campsite across the river where we could spot Benny before reaching the next bridge to return.

Paris - (run into the city)

Paris - (riverside run)

With 10km of walking already in our legs, we sipped a cup of warming tea to recuperate.  Then we changed clothes and headed  back out to face the cold, this time for a run.  We headed through long stretches of woodland, crossing busy roads and along bustling city streets to reach the glorious sight of the iconic Eiffel Tower.  We approached along the river from the south, through a fairground and masses of tat-selling hawkers.  Here we were surprised to find new glass security barriers surrounding the perimeter of the tower that were not in place last time we visited (over 8 years ago, for my 35th birthday – time flies!)  A sad but likely necessary installation, reflective of the times we live in. There were long queues to enter the tower or the restaurant, with slow security checks, so we instead continued our run around the bare gardens.  More armed soldiers passed as we stopped to pose for obligatory tourist photographs.

Paris - (run past eiffel tower)

We happily walked a little, to better enjoy the crowds and buzzing atmosphere.  So many touts were selling the same tacky plastic pieces, flashing Eiffel Towers in all colours or gaudy keyrings, 5 for €1.  With our iconic jaunt complete, we returned through busy shopping streets, skipping past distracted shoppers and dodging a multitude of the powered scooters that seemed prevalent in the city.  Above us the skies dulled and clouded over as the sun dropped, sucking all the light from the day.  Light had faded to a low grey as we crossed the woodland to return to Benny.  We had completed a fully enjoyable 13km run, and just in time as the rains started for the night.  After long, wonderfully hot campsite showers, we wrapped up warmly and prepared a tasty dinner, contented with our first day in Paris.

Day 2 – North of the River

Paris - (louis vuitton foundation)

We awoke to the continued pitter-patter of rain on our roof, so indulged ourselves in a lazy breakfast of croissants and jam before leaving around 10.30am when the rains had stopped.  We walked north through the woodland, spotting flocks of bright green parrots in the bare trees, to reach the Louis Vuitton foundation.  This building was another Frank Gehry creation, and there were large crowds queueing at security checks to enter.  We walked around the perimeter, taking in the hypnotically constant flow of cascading waves that dropped down a long, wide staircase to a shallow reflecting pool.  We soon reached the metro station at Les Sablons and travelled 14 stops east to Bastille. The trains bore a strong similarity to London.  During the journey we did some back-of-a-napkin math and realised Nicky had sat on tube trains, from her days working in London, for more than a full month of her life.

Paris - (hotel de ville)

Paris - (notre dame)

We alighted and soon were walking through wide Parisian streets full of life, glittering Christmas lights and elegant people.  We passed a long line of nursery school kids, walking hand in hand, all adorned in fluorescent yellow bibs that made us think of the Gilets Jaunes and how they were starting their protesting young these days.   We followed side streets with attractive new shops and tiny stores hosting chaotic ancient trades, cobblers and tailors with shop interiors straight out of Harry Potter. We passed large groups of chattering students, looking much too young to be at university – we’re definitely getting old.  We soon arrived at the main Hôtel De Ville for Paris, a towering, decorative Neo-Classical building.  It was mostly inaccessible, surrounded by Christmas trees and tall metal fencing.

Paris - (notre dame and seine)

Paris - (shakesphere bookshop)

We crossed the Seine to Île de la Cité and joined the crowds admiring the façade of Notre Dame cathedral.  We watched over made-up girls take turns photographing each other, posing on tall bollards like catwalk models.  We crossed the river again to the south, to visit Shakespeare and Co. Bookshop, its aged shelves heavy with books.  The layout was all nooks and crannies and soft seating, indulgent and comfortable even when overcrowded with other bibliophiles; a wonderful place to browse.  We ate lunch back on the island, viewing Notre Dame and dodging pigeons, before heading back north then west along the Seine to Pont Neuf.   We slowly browsed the green market stalls that lined the banks selling books, art and tourist trinkets, considering a few sketches to decorate our walls.

Paris - (aaron at louvre)

Paris - (nicky at louvre)

We arrived at the rear elevation of the Louvre and sneaked through a small passage into a grand empty courtyard and then into the main plaza featuring  I.M.Pei’s iconic pyramidal entrance.  With no plans to enter we were simply enjoying the ambiance.  The reflection pools and dancing fountains had been drained for winter and the plaza was definitely worse for the loss.  We turned north to Palais Royal and along the diagonal to Opéra, it dripping with gold and colour.  We reached Place Vendôme, an impressive square bursting with expensive designer stores. All streets were full of top-end brands, with minimalist displays of pricey coveted goods, three staff members to each customer and private security on each door.  The roads were stuffed with chauffeured cars delivering rich patrons into roped off spaces.  We felt out of place in the lavish, almost vulgar, display of riches, so we dipped into a surprise find on the street – a Decathlon store – for quiet reflection.

Paris - (Opera house facade)

After, we sat on the steps of Madeleine church staring at the obelisk in the Place de la Concorde as we planned our next move.  We decided that would be a metro up to Montmartre and a visit to Sacre Coeur.  We soon alighted at Abbesses station and chose to climb the stairs over joining a queue for lifts, and 144 steps later my overused legs were not thanking me for that decision.  Outside we found cute timber market stalls, thick with wonderful Christmas smells, leading on to many more upward steps.  We shunned the funicular and walked up long flights to reach the first main platform, before turning for our reward – a stunning panorama over all of central Paris.  We stood and stared, picking out monuments and spotting buildings we’d visited.  It was a sharp, clear day, a perfect vista of Paris.

Paris - (view from sacre coeur)

After another security check to enter the Sacre Coeur, we sat a moment on hard wooden pews and absorbed the painted ceiling of the church’s domed ceiling in welcome quiet.  Then we continued into the heart of Montmartre, where we bought a small metal tray, just the right size for two cups of tea, that will act as a small daily reminder of our Paris trip.  We browsed the many artists’ varied work in a cobbled square lined with cafés and bars, enjoying the soulful ambience. We then picked out one restaurant from many and feasted on three courses alone in their warm interior, as all other customers felt compelled to shiver their way through their food at the outside tables.

Paris - (Nicky at Sacre coeur)

When we extracted ourselves, night had fallen and everything was lit up.  It began spitting with light rain as a talented busker sang Purple Rain to the crowds. The tat-hawkers were packing up, desperate for last sales. One guy follows me closely and, despite my polite but firm ‘non’ he continues to aggressively push his goods.  He then harshly grabs my wrist and refuses to let go, until I finally protest very loudly in colourful language. The possibility of drawing the attention of one of the nearby security guards leads him to scarper away, but also left me wondering what terrible, indentured slave-like contract he might be locked into to drive such desperation. It must be a miserable, sad life, and I immediately felt guilty for my dismissive impatience, even if his chosen sales technique was threatening and invasive.

Paris - (montmartre artists)

We fell downhill through more crowded markets and brightly lit shops to reach a large boulevard.  We followed this to Pigalle metro, where, before descending, we could see the lights of the Moulin Rouge beyond.  We caught the metro to Pont de Neuilly and walked the long road back to our campsite on low lit, very busy, urban roads, passing a large tent complex where Circus du Soliel were performing.   Even with liberal use of the metro we had walked over 18km around the Parisian streets  – an exhausting day.

A&N x

< Part 2 to follow >

France – Mums, Markets & Mulled Wine – Early Christmas fun with our mums

Leaving the elegant, damp streets of a rainy-day Pau, we drove further into France, homeward bound.  We overnighted in Villeneuve de Marsan at a free aire that offered two free electricity points but there were three other vans already plugged in and we had no splitter, so had to go without.  We walked into the centre of town, it looking scruffy and unloved, but was in the midst of new works to the streets.  It might be very nice when it’s finished.

The next day we cut diagonally to the north east, through beautiful rolling countryside, to return to Pugols, near to Villeneuve-sur-Lot.  This was an area we had grown to know well, having enjoyed a six-week house-sit there at the start of the year.  With fond memories we revisited the local swimming pool and spa for a relaxing morning treat.

That afternoon we called in to visit friends Dave & Kate, near Bergerac, with whom we had previously spent a week completing a rewarding WorkAway.  We had a lovely dinner and catch-up, picking their brains on quirks of life in France and pocketing great tips for the upcoming restoration works we are planning around our French home.

Pageas Christmas - (nicky and mums)

From then we arrived home and settled again into the pattern of decorating and pottering around our house.  The weather was entirely different now, wet and cold, so our focus was back on internal spaces.  Over the course of a few weeks we decorated our living room, kitchen and the second spare bedroom in preparation of two guests of honour arriving – both our mums were visiting for an early Christmas.  We arrived at the airport to collect them where we were greeted with a loud, improvised chorus of “We are the Mother-in-Laws”, repeatedly sung to an obviously practised tune, to the bemusement of local crowds.  We feared that Christmas spirits had already been liberally imbibed and this now how our next days would go.  We got back home quickly so we could begin to catch up.

Pageas Christmas - (Limoges river)

It was almost dark on our arrival home, so after a quick tour and room allocation we closed the shutters, turned on suitable music and settled in for an evening of drinks, food and chat.  The weather was grey and wet, but we sat cosy inside by the fire, catching up.  We had prepared quite a few different dishes, from wheaten bread with smoked salmon, French onion and potato & leek soups, pesto & lentil lasagne, chocolate cookies and lemon sponge.  All these and more were to be tasted over the course of the evening and the next few days.  In the morning we enjoyed a short visit to Châlus to wander around their festive market, along with a visit to the supermarket to stock up on essentials and treats; this short stay was all to be about indulgence, with some token light exercise to justify it all.

Pageas Christmas - (cathedral grounds)

Pageas Christmas - (cathedral plaza)

One morning we headed into the centre of Limoges, the first time we had returned to the historic city centre since our initial visit over a year ago now.  We walked along the riverbank and the mass of grey clouds parted for a few moments to display a wonderful blue sky, lighting up the vista and even warming our faces.  This morning break in the rain allowed us the opportunity to explore the historic quarter, climbing up through the old city walls to the formal gardens and the cathedral.  We later wandered through the under-attended Christmas markets, although it was a mid-week morning so most locals were still at work.  The rain returned briefly for one short burst, but we mostly stayed dry as we explored the shopping quarter, ice rink and all other quirky pockets of Christmas stalls.

Pageas Christmas - (nicky and tree)

Pageas Christmas - (woodland trail)

Pageas Christmas - (woodland walks)

We took the mums for a short walk around the local woodland trails that we know well from our run training.  The autumn colours still dominated the paths and everything looked rich and beautiful, despite the monotone greyness and constant threat of further rain.  We then warmed up again with a bout of present opening, replete with giggles and silliness and new Christmas hats all round.  We enjoyed a good approximation of a traditional Christmas dinner, with turkey, ham and all the yummy trimmings except for Brussels sprouts as they had been surprisingly elusive in France to date.  Stuffed and squiffy, we retired to the lounge to watch ‘A Good Year’, for a small taste of French life, as we polished off more food and drinks.  This was like the ideal Christmas days we remembered –  lazy and boozy.

Pageas Christmas - (pre-dinner drinks)

Pageas Christmas - (mum cheers)

On our final morning we attended a small local Christmas market in the nearby village of Les Cars, filled with stalls of hand-made crafts and local food and drinks.  It was nice to be a small part of a local event, but it seemed under-attended and rather empty, which was a shame for those who had worked hard on their wares.  A few trinkets were bought more from politeness than want, and then we retreated back home, out of the rain, to allow the mums to finalise their packing.  We dropped them off and said our goodbyes, knowing our house was going to be quieter, emptier and less joyful in the coming days.

But at least we have a new distraction to regather our attention – an upcoming trip to Paris to squeeze in before Christmas – the city of lights awaits.

A&N x