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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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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

 

France – Saint-Junien & Saint Pardoux

After our relaxing, relatively speaking, week of birthdays and dinner parties, we continued with our renovations and works.  We were refreshed, attacking jobs with a renewed vigour and keener eye. We ticked off many items but our to-do list continued to grow longer as we discovered other items needing replaced or other projects we suddenly felt excited by.  Ensuring variation in our tasks kept our interest and energy high.  Our focus is on working hard, but we have the freedom to stop, rest, take a day off, have a dip in the pool or try something new when the mood takes us.  We are tied to nothing, our time is ours to use as we wish. We have been foraging, baking cakes, learning music and languages, stone wall building, roofing, planning orchard tree layouts, digging our fledgling vegetable patch.

LaJourdanie- (our first veg bed)

A previously ignored stone chicken shed, with a semi-collapsed roof, surrounded by weeds and with years of thick, compacted rubble inside was suddenly seen as a potential man-cave.  I would sneak away to work on clearing this at intervals between prepping or painting walls.  Looking for more outside jobs whilst the weather was good, Nicky got excited about uncovering the circular stone well set tight on our boundary.  It was almost entirely blanketed in ivy, with a thick carpet of moss on the broken canal tiles scattered loosely around its ineffective roof.  We added its revival to our long list of to-do works.  We dipped in and out of these unessential garden jobs at the whims of mood and weather, enjoying our time outside and the constant, obvious progress that such distinctive clearances offered.

LaJourdanie- (Well roof - before)

LaJourdanie- (Well roof - after)

We had a visit from friends Monica and Ken from our previous house-sit in Cazeneuve.  After a long, enjoyable road trip on their shiny new Triumph motorbikes, they arrived with us early afternoon.  We fell into their easy company, swimming in our pool in the afternoon heat and sipping beers as we caught up.  We later walked around our place, giving them the full tour and garnering their helpful opinions and experiences on the works we are undertaking or planning to do.  We took a leisurely walk along a local grassy chemin to loop around a small lake, before returning for an al-fresco dinner and drinks.  We sat outside until darkness then retired to our lounge and chatted long into the night.  After breakfast we said our goodbyes as they headed off to further explore our region, visiting our recommendations of Oradour-sur-Glane and Brantôme.

St-Junien- (nicky with planes)

St-Junien- (aerobatic planes)

One fine day, as a different sort of effort, we cycled the 30km to Saint-Junien to visit an advertised airshow.  We followed minor roads and off-road trails where we could, waggling our way north all the time. The route was mostly downhill, a very pleasant roll passing through the small hamlet of St-Martin-de-Jussac to the river Vienne where we crossed the bridge into St-Brice-sur-Vienne.  Only then did we face a long, steep climb away from the river to the top end of Saint-Junien to reach the hosting airfield.  We abandoned our bikes and walked into the event, exploring lines of classic cars and obscure farming equipment, cannons and warfare implements, all manner of motorbikes and of course, small acrobatic planes that were the star of the event.  Local flights were available for all who wished it.

St-Junien- (classic cars)

St-Junien- (before and after car)

We checked out the museum displays and small stalls, surprised that the show was not busier.  We read posters describing in detail many planes and their uses, and watched a long queue of people take their turn to experience a virtual reality flying experience.  After a thorough look around and a few cheap sugary crêpes to fuel us, we got back on our bikes.  We took a different route home, simply for variation and exploratory purposes.  We passed through similar scenery and beautiful but hilly woodland paths, before stopping at Saint-Auvent to look in their pretty church.  Soon after, we paused at the étang de la Pouge, a long, thin lake that we hoped might have swim potential.  There were no signs saying no, but with the presence of fishermen, we feared it was not the best location for swimming.

Condat-sur-vienne - (race start)

Condat-sur-vienne - (us at race)

We entered a local 10km race, as something to shake us from our slumber on an otherwise lazy Sunday morning.  We drove twenty minutes to the village of Condat-sur-Vienne where the race would begin, parking in a nearby Lidl car-park.  It was a busy event, popular and bustling, and we felt good to be a small part of such a thriving running community.  The run took us on closed roads and along gravelled woodland tracks, with overhanging trees providing welcome shade from the morning sun.  52 minutes later we had completed our two laps of the marked 5km loop, having enjoyed the wonderful paths and the cheering crowds.  The mayor and other eminent locals presented a wealth of prizes in multiple categories, along with a tombola, using your race number, that gifted bottles of wine.

St-Pardoux - (Running walkways)

After a further few weeks of house-related works, we decided to treat ourselves with another break, this time a long weekend at Saint PardouxWe had visited it previously, enjoying the swimming lake and woodland trails, and it was close by, only 40 mins north of us.  We reached the comfortable aire, much less busy than on our last visit, and picked out a prime spot to relax into.  We knew our way around from before, so it was easy to plan our days here.  We ran each morning, following the coastal woodland trails on soft paths of tree roots and pine needles.  With only one bridge splitting the lake, we faced either a 27km loop of the entire lake, or more local laps around the lake edge and inland backroads.  The latter enabled us to create circular routes of 10 to 12km which suited our running level.

St-Pardoux - (lake sunset)

St-Pardoux - (causeway to island)

St-Pardoux - (returning to the lake)

Post-run, we rewarded ourselves with plenty of beach time, thinking of nothing other than the book in our hand as we soaked up the toasting sun.  We had frequent cooling dips into the cloudy water, but little real swimming.  Still feeling a little disappointed with her swimming performance in this summer’s SwimRun event, Nicky tried out various combinations of trainers, floats and neoprene shorts trying to find the optimal, speedy solution for her.  From the beach I timed her swims from buoy to buoy to ascertain how each outfit fared.  We ventured out for short evening walks, enjoying the burst of deep-red sunsets over the still water and the soothing sounds of calling birds.  Other motorhomes came and went, milling around busily, as we stayed still, unruffled, the calm centre of our restful universe.

LaJourdanie- (picking apples)

Fresh bread, croissants and pastries were available from a well-stocked vending machine behind the tourist building, refilled twice daily, so we had no need to move.  We could have stayed longer, enjoying our running and the fresh, lake-side air.  But we decided to return home after two nights and three days, as we found ourselves missing our house, and jobs not yet began were creeping back into our thoughts.  We were being taken over by a compulsion to work, to keep busy, to better our nest.  We wonder how long the novelty will last, this daily excitement of hard, physical work, so we want to utilise our willingness and drive whilst the determination still exists.  Yet these two nights in Benny, our time filled with runs and swims, re-sparked the interest and excitement of the road again.

Longer trips will soon be visible on our horizon.

A&N x

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

WorkAway in the Dordogne (with Kate & Dave)

During three days of house-viewings (more on this later), where we mostly over-nighted in the surprisingly quiet aire in Châlus next to a popular lorry park, we were contacted by Kate and Dave, registered WorkAway hosts.  They were a well-travelled British couple who now run a large gîte complex in the Dordogne, offering high end lettings.  We had had no specific intention of undertaking WorkAway projects at this time due to being busy with our house search, but as they had been let down at short notice by other WorkAwayers who unfortunately had to cancel due to a family emergency, they proactively contacted us via the WorkAway website to ask if we could possibly step in and help.  We were not too far from where they were, only a couple of hours’ drive, so after discussion we decided that we could.

Workaway Dordogne (our cottage)

Workaway Dordogne (pool cleaning)

We finalised arrangements with Kate and the next morning we were off, heading south to find them in the wilds of the Dordogne, near to Bourniquel. We were greeted with grateful smiles and first given a tour of the extensive properties and grounds.  We were offered the opportunity to enjoy staying in one of their luxury couples studios, a nice break from Benny, and to enjoy their home cooking in exchange for our help.  The site was set on the edge of rolling countryside, overlooking Dordogne meadows with beautiful Limousin cows and their very young calves roaming nearby.  It was a very peaceful, tranquil place.  We enjoyed exchanging stories with our fellow Brits, learning from their experiences of living in France, before settling into our spacious studio to rest up before the work began.

Workaway Dordogne (tub planting)

On this Workaway we would be tasked with mostly gardening and maintenance tasks around the two hectare site. For our first project, we started with the group activity of planting up 160 separate geraniums into many, many pots.  On a large sheet of tarpaulin, we mixed batches of the old, exhausted soil with bags of new compost and re-potted the multitude of containers and hanging baskets.  Varied mixtures of different coloured geraniums were added to each container for maximum effect then all were repositioned under the covered verandah ready for setting out round the complex.  Nicky then redressed and positioned several scarecrows (or more accurately in this context, scaredeers), utilising her innate fashion sense and artistic skills to make them look as scary and as French as possible.

Workaway Dordogne (scare deers)

Workaway Dordogne (sunset scarecrow)

Over the course of the week we learnt more about our amiable hosts.  Kate and Dave had both been involved in high end sports, sports training and teaching sports ethics for most of their lives, Kate a gymnast, Dave a Judo champion. They had travelled all over Eastern Europe and beyond with their training camps, and had lived in Zimbabwe, building a centre of excellence and helping setting up the international sports structures there.  We enjoyed the wild and colourful stories of their trials and tribulations during their varied working lives.  After the constant rains of our first day, the weather backed off and we were lucky enough to enjoy some hot and sunny weather for the next few days.  We had a hot run one night in the evening heat, finding a loop of around 6km through the local woodland.

Workaway Dordogne (shutter sanding)

Workaway Dordogne (shutter painting)

Over the coming days I rescreened two gates with mesh, constructed some makeshift anti-deer fencing to protect young trees and organised and re-covered the woodshed piles.  I cut and collected grass as Nicky weeded borders and planted out additional lavender plants.  I helped construct a sun shelter on the end of the cottage and stained an area of decking, readying it to receive an outdoor hot-tub.  Nicky & I sanded, filled and painted (twice) the external timber window shutters to the exposed façade of the main house.  We scraped, cleaned, filled & painted a curved garden wall, before cleaning and repainting the adjacent decking, creating a neat, peaceful corner to watch the sunset.  We strung solar lights between the creeping plants on an arched structure defining a well-worn garden path.

Workaway Dordogne (deck staining)

Workaway Dordogne (n painting)

But it certainly wasn’t all work.  One evening we visited Couze-et-Saint-Front, a local village, to see an old mill and ancient caves, before enjoying apéro in a local, friendly tabac with a wonderful view of the slowly meandering river.  We briefly met the owners as we swapped stories.  Another, we had an early evening visit to the nearby beau village of Limeuil, set beautifully above a slow, curved bank of the Dordogne river where the Vezère joins. We sat on a terrace outside and enjoyed waiter service drinks as we watched kids play in the river shallows.  The hot day had tempered to a delightfully comfortable temperature and we stretched out and relaxed, chatting and sipping as we soaked up the stunning view.  It was exactly moments such as these that prompted our decision to move to France.

Workaway Dordogne (Limeuil view)

Workaway Dordogne (Limeuil drinks)

One bright morning we were driven to Issigeac Sunday market, one of the largest in the entire Dordogne region.  We walked the streets soaking up the quintessential Frenchness of the morning, snails included, even if there were more than a few English accents scattered throughout the busy streets – it is Dordogneshire after all.  The white stone of the circular bastide town was thrown into contrast by the colourful stalls stacked high with produce and colour.  The buzzing streets were filled with a happy liveliness, with the many wares of local artisans proving to be a very popular draw.  We stepped away from the crowds and into narrow backstreets, learning a little of the town’s history and of prominent local characters from informative plaques positioned on select medieval buildings; a wonderful morning’s distraction.

Workaway Dordogne (Issigeac market)

Workaway Dordogne (Issigeac square)

We completed a few outstanding jobs then spent our last afternoon relaxing in one of their two swimming pools, in welcome sunshine.  We slid back the pool cover to allow views of the surrounding countryside and bring the outside light pouring in as we splashed around and cooled off. It was a fitting, relaxing way to end our days in such a tranquil spot.  A family of hoopoes were nesting in the grounds and we could occasionally hear their distinctive calls, but unfortunately never managed to photograph their colourful crowns, an ornithological challenge given to us by a friend at home.

Workaway Dordogne (us in pool)

We packed up the following morning, said our sad goodbyes to Dave & Kate, before heading off back up north to sort out more than a few things about a property we had recently viewed.  Before arriving at the Workaway we had had an offer on a house accepted; times they were, as Dylan would say, about to be a-changing.  (more to follow)

A&N x

 

France – Limoges & Uzerche

Limoges and Uzerche

We left the leafy aire in St. Priest Taurion to head for Limoges on roads that were empty on a bright November morning.  There was a biting chill in the air early on, around 5 or 6 degs, but the day warmed up after a few cold hours to a scorching 22 degrees, feeling even hotter under the direct sun.  Limoges was a place we knew nothing of, and were again, as in Ghent, very happily surprised.  We parked easily in a large free car-park on the riverside, only a few hundred metres from the historic centre. The river was beautifully lit in the morning sun, and was being actively used, with runners everywhere along the banks and rowers skimming silently across its calm surface.  The city had a real energy about it, even on this, a lazy Saturday morning.  The bright, crisp November day and the tree-lined river paths were both perfect for exercising, and it was great to see so many out enjoying the city as we sauntered by.

Limoges (catherdal on approach)

Limoges (river view)

We walked along the northern riverbank of the Vienne and crossed at the historic Pont Saint-Étienne, dodging runners coming from all directions as we took in the view.  The bridge was constructed in the thirteenth century to assist pilgrims reaching the town’s cathedral, an important place of pilgrimage on the extensive route leading all the way to Santiago de Compostela.  We slowly wandered along the leafy paths of the opposite bank, with views across to the high-sited historic centre and the Jardins d’Évêché that surround the cathedral.  We crossed the Vienne again on the Pont Neuf, the new bridge, and climbed a set of long steps up through the high walls to the gardens.  The historic quarter was almost empty of others, which was rather surprising considering the warm, clear day and the obvious beauty of the surrounding gardens, but we certainly weren’t complaining about having it all to ourselves.

Limoges (Fine Arts gallery)

Limoges (cathedral from garden)

The Musée des Beaux Arts was the first building we approached, fronted by colourful flowerbeds with spiral trees and a circular fountain.  The museum, a former episcopal palace, was closed when we visited, but houses a large collection of enamel sculptures and Egyptian artefacts. The backdrop of the Cathédrale Saint-Étienne was ever-present in our view, so we approached, passing the large-windowed Orangerie and the formal vegetable gardens.  There were many exceptionally pretty trees close to the cathedral, each twisted and bent into sculptural poses.  Began in 1273 CE, the cathedral has been consistently added to over the past six centuries, but has retained its balanced and unified Gothic style throughout.  The interior was all white stone, unadorned, quite cold and stark.

Limoges (cathedral gardens)

Limoges (Nicky by cathedral)

Limoges (cathedral entrance)

The historic cathedral quarter was quite compact, all together in one small corner of the city, so easy to visit.  From there we walked into the more modernised centre, with boutique cafés and stores, along with the expected presence of established international brands.  But beyond the partial standardisation, we walked along neat cobbled streets lined with neatly manicured medieval timber buildings, and through a vibrant city market in full voice.  A nearby internal covered market selling fish and meats complimented the external farmers’ market with its cheeses, vegetables, cakes and breads.  Small stone plazas had traditional cafés spilling out into them, many busy with customers enjoying rest after their shopping sprees.  Limoges was pulling off tranquil, relaxing and lively all at once.

Limoges (central streets)

Limoges (train station)

It was safe to say we fell for the easy beauty of Limoges.  The stunning river setting with the number of people we saw living life outdoors, the medieval streets lined with cafés and eateries, the busy food markets and its plentiful gathering of other pretty stores all made Limoges seem like it could be the ideal base for us.  It has an international airport served by Belfast, Birmingham, East Midlands and Stansted, so after our visit Limoges gained our coveted seal of approval and jumped into contention for the possible positioning of our future French pied-a-terre.  Early days, but anywhere within an hour of here could potentially become our new base.  With that in mind, our next move was to explore the smaller villages in the nearby hills and see what other as yet unknown delights we could uncover.

Uzerche (riverbank walks)

Uzerche (Benny parked in aire)

Uzerche (town view from aire)

With one eye on the nearby countryside and a constant vigilant consideration for the region, we drove south to the nearby mountain town of Uzerche.  We first visited a SuperU, completing laundry whilst we shopped, before continuing to the town’s free aire at an old railway station on the banks of the passing river Vienne.  We decided to leave the exploration of the town until the following day, so we spent the night relaxing around the aire, enjoying the view of the old town across the river.  Unfortunately we had chosen poorly when parking, positioning Benny underneath an overhanging tree.  When the rains begin during the night, we were bombarded with large drips and falling fragments of tree, pattering and bouncing loudly on our roof, so our night’s sleep was not all we’d hoped for.

Uzerche (az approaching church)

Uzerche (view from the church)

But the morning brought a bright, clear and still day, so with a spring in our step we set off along the river bank.  The path was deep with fallen leaves and we childishly kicked our way along.  We crossed a pedestrian bridge, hoping to find a way up into town, but turned out we had to walk all the way back on the opposite bank as all the stone steps we could see from the aire were within private gardens.  We followed the road up through the winding streets to reach the top of the town, where the tall church dominated the small central square.  There was a plaza to the front with far-reaching views out over the river and the rest of the town.  We spent a moment enjoying the vista and the sun on our faces, delighting in such great weather.  We returned to the aire, by way of a boulangerie, to eat lunch.

Uzerche (town view from river)

Uzerche (n on leafy walks)

After eating, we had hoped to complete a signed 5km walking route named for Simone de Beauvoir, but only 1km into the walk we found a bridge was closed for remedial works, so we could not progress.  With no clear option, we returned the same direction, only this time on a lower path, set between the trees right on the river’s edge. We passed a kayaking centre with a white-water course marked out with hanging poles, the opposite bank covered with sit-on kayaks, stacked high.  We decided to stay a second night in the aire, moving over a few places to ensure we didn’t have to endure another night of noisy drips. We enjoyed a lazy afternoon, with a visit from a local farmer in a small van selling his freshly grown wares our only distraction.  We had shopped recently so bought only a few pears as a token gesture for his efforts, feeling a little sorry for him as we were the only motorhome customers left in the aire today.