Tag Archives: history

France –  Valensole, Gordes & Abbaye de Sénanque

We tossed and turned throughout the night, uncomfortably hot in our tin box at the bottom of the hill in Moustier-Sainte-Marie.  We finally found some welcome sleep, until the Gendarme arrived and knocked on our door to confirm our ticket purchase, although it was clearly visible in our window.  It was time to move, and today we were heading into lavender country.  Our first miles took us west and it wasn’t long before we began seeing wide seas of purples replace the greens and yellows of alternative crops.   Our first stop was in the town of Valensole, seen as the heart of lavender production in this area.  We stopped at a small museum with displays explaining the history of growing and harvesting, alongside historic tools. In the attached shop the many uses were very much in evidence.

Valensole - Village profile

Valensole -Nicky in lavander

Back on the road, we soon stopped again in a dusty parking area to have a closer look at the lavender in-situ.  We walked through the rolling purple fields, up and down the neat rows, wilting in the hot, hazy air.  Several other cars had stopped in the same place for that important lavender selfie.  After a short walk we returned to find half the people huddling together in the shade of Benny’s tall side, the only respite from the harsh sun for miles around.  We drove off leaving them scurrying through the lavender rows and visited a farm shop, buying a few small gifts.  We later called into a larger lavender museum in Coustellet where, despite their huge range of products, we couldn’t harness any excitement. We lingered, feigning interest, but our concern lay in the quality of their air-conditioning.

Valensole - lavander rows

Coustellet - Museum of Lavander

We had planned on spending several days in this area, taking our time to explore many of the lavender-related curiosities and historic sites.  But it was just a little too crowded, a bit too samey, over-commercialised, and much too hot.  We were drooping badly, even from minor efforts.  We drove through Roussillon, planning to see the red ochre cliffs, but did not stop as we could not face the midday sun.  It was silly; we were in one of the most beautiful areas of France and had the means to explore it all, but all we could think of was getting to a campsite and getting underwater.  So we abandoned all sight-seeing and headed straight to Camping des Sources, set a little way north of the historic town of Gordes.  At last, we had shade, a decent swimming pool, and some downtime from the heat.

Camping les Sources - (pool at sunset)

Gordes - (central castle)

Unable to sleep, from both the heat and an unusually repetitive bird-call, we decided to rise early and go for a gentle walk/run into the village of Gordes. We left at 6.30am, in cool morning air with the first rays of light breaking through the trees.  A downhill stony path provided an easy trail into the village centre less than 2km away.  It felt good, our first run since our 10km in Aiguines, the breeze of our movement keeping us cool.  Early morning starts will now become an essential to our sight-seeing plans.  We paused to explore the central streets of Gordes, trying to spot where scenes in the movie ‘A Good Year’ were filmed.  We saw viewpoints overlooking the beautiful Provençal countryside, the rolling hills scattered with cypress and olive trees shimmering beautifully in the early morning light.

Gordes - (countryside view)

Gordes - (cafe in square)

We had exhausted the quiet streets of Gordes centre and it was not yet 7.15am, so we decided to visit another nearby landmark – the Abbaye de Sénanque, set in a valley around 4km north-west of Gordes.  We set off up the hill, rising steadily.  The sun was also rising and the air was heating quickly, our cool morning run already becoming hot and sticky, but not yet debilitating.  We walked some steeper portions of the route, not wanting a full-on workout.  Soon  we reached the highest point of the road and dropped quickly down into the shaded valley to our left, entering the gardens of the abbey.  Even without the sun the manicured rows of lavender bushes surrounding the abbey provided a bright splash of colour.  There were several other visitors already setting up photos in the early light.

Abbaye de Senanque - (view from above)

The sun had not yet penetrated the depth of the valley floor, but blocks of light were moving quickly down a side wall so it would soon arrive. The neat rows of purple-tipped lavender were covered in thick clouds of tiny white butterflies, landing and alighting in a blur.  They would tickle your skin as they flitted by, or gently land on your arms, legs and head as you walked through the flowering rows.  It was an engaging sight of such simple beauty, their soft frolicking ways brought instant smiles to our faces.  We met a cyclist amongst the lavender who had passed us on the road up.  We had known from the timbre of his passing ‘bonjour’ he was an English speaker, and turned out to be from Melbourne.  We had a chat about his travels and quizzed him on places around Melbourne as we have plans to visit his city next year.  As we talked the sun rose to breach the valley and light up the grey abbey facade, adding life and warmth.

Abbaye de Senanque - (us and butterflies)

Abbaye de Senanque - (the sun arrivves)

Camping les Sources - (relaxing in pool)

We found a different path back out of the valley.  A white-stoned path, narrow and overhung by foliage, led up the face in the direction of Gordes.  We arrived back at Benny by 8.30am, feeling good for the exploration and for having avoided the worst of the heat.  But it was coming.  The days have held so sticky and close that sometimes the best part of the day is when a breeze blows through and cleanses your skin.  But that is rare; the air, static and burning, offers little respite. It’s been many years since we experienced such high temperatures.  We couldn’t face any activity and had forgotten just how debilitating it was, how draining.  We showered and headed straight to the pool.  We dipped often as the sun quickly cranked up the air temperature to the mid 40°s, the peak showing  of the heatwave.

A&N x

France – Plage de Pampelonne and Saint-Tropez

We awoke early, and as we packed up we chatted to our Slovenian neighbour, the late arrival and aire comedian.  After a few morning laughs we were soon retracing the coast road around and through Toulon After several wrong turns and a couple of sudden sharp exits to avoid various tunnels under the city, we crawled our way east.  The coast road was similar to some in Costa Brava, with beautiful, steep rocky cliffs, private coves and sheltered bays, overhung with gnarled trees with thick foliage.  Black-trunked trees twisted out of the dense undergrowth, giving definition and shadow. Wide and tall umbrella trees, casting dark circles of shade, were scattered throughout.  Huge, deep hedges of bougainvillea, glowing magenta in the sun, defined the edges. We spotted many white beaches dotted at short intervals, each lapped by the shimmering azure ocean and busy with people actively doing nothing.

Road to Toulon

Plage de Pampelonne aire

It was a difficult undulating road complicated and slowed by its many cyclists, but slowly-does-it was the best way to experience it.  We were heading for a large commercial aire right on the sea at Pampallone beach, set a short way south of our main destination – Saint-Tropez.   It was a huge aire, one of the biggest we have ever stayed in, with hundreds of vans scattered around different areas of the land.  We settled in to the accompaniment of loud birdsong and cicadas, with a worrying backdrop of bulldozer.  After a walk to examine the extent of the aire, we unloaded our bikes and set off on our cycle to Saint-Tropez.  Our chosen way began with a rough gravel off-road track, before becoming an easy rolling route on the side of the not too busy main road.  We reached the marina in 25 minutes.

Saint-Tropez (yachts in harbour)

Saint-Tropez (yachts and town)

Our first impressions were as expected – Luxury yachts, polished glamour, a timeless old-school feel, dripping with money.  We locked our bikes to a convenient post and walked all around the marina and through the old town streets, enjoying each vista in turn.  We had expected to be disappointed, predicting that reputation would overstate the reality, but instead we found the town, despite its obvious new-found commercialism, utterly charming.  We walked around a circular tower to another small beach and beyond to a jetty where several others were sun-bathing.  Although we had no towels or suits with us, we were unable to resist and we both stripped for a wonderfully cooling swim in the bay, recapturing the memory and spirit of Bardot and Hepburn.  We were a small part of it all, now,

Saint-Tropez (old town streets)

Refreshed, we climbed to the castle to view the town from above, then returned to the marina for a walk full of dreams of buying a yacht.  The Universe clearly thought we’d had too much of a good day and was ready to even it up.  Cycling home, my front wheel slid off a deep drop on the side of the tarmac and, unable to right myself, I was thrown to my left back into the road.  I landed on my side, slid a few painful metres and lost skin from my ankle, calf, knee, thigh, hip, elbow, tricep and shoulder; quite the bloody mess.  At least the car behind me on the road stopped sharply rather than bumping straight over me, so it was not half as bad as it could have been.  After a few choice words I picked myself up and rolled back home, marking my route with thick drips of blood.

Saint-Tropez (marina selfie)

Saint-Tropez (swim off jetty)

Once back, I cleaned up my cuts, sanitising them and removing lumps of stubborn gravel.  Deciding it might be of help we hobbled to the busy sandy beach for a swim.  The salt water stung and itched my wounds, but that probably meant it was doing good.  At least I was staying cool, even if I looked like an extra from ‘The Mummy’ when resting on my towel.  With my hydro-therapy complete we returned to the shade of our awning, re-patched everything and decided I needed special vineyard medicine.  As night fell the site echoed with the incredible croaking from breeding toads, drowning out our attempted conversation and television watching.  We were meant to move on, but decided another day of gentle recuperation wouldn’t go amiss, so we decided to rest up another night.

Plage de Pampelonne - busy afternoon

Pampelonne Beach - sunset panorama

Pampelonne - Nicky on rocks

We spent a second day supine on the beach, with only occasional jaunts back to Benny or into the sea disturbing our laziness. We enjoyed a sunset evening walk to a more local beach, where few other people ventured.  This was a curved bay of rounded stones, the shore lined thick with smooth bleached driftwood on one end .  The water was calm and clear, framed with pink skies.  This was to be our final stop on the Mediterranean, on this trip.  In the morning we took the coast road north, passing busy Saint-Tropez and crawling through Saint-Maxime.  We passed busy beaches, none motorhome friendly judging by the barriers, but all very pretty.  We were heading inland, and soon reached an ACSI campsite in Roquebrune-sur-Argens.  We snuggled into a cosy corner plot surrounded with pink flowers.  At our disposal was a 25m lap swimming pool, adjacent Jacuzzi area, sauna and adult-only spa pool.

Benny in leafy campsite

Roquebrune-sur-Argens - (chilling in spa)

We had come to the area to kayak on the Argens river, and were delighted to discover that this campsite offered free kayaking to guests, another welcome bargain.  We happily accepted and were garnished with paddles and life-vests.  Minutes later we were gently floating down the river, full of smiles.  The flow was slow from lack of rain and the surface held a lot of debris, so the river not as beautiful as perhaps it could be.  But this made for more engagement with the living nature rather than the subjective beauty.  There were thousands of tiny blue and yellow dragonflies dancing on the still water surface, stuck together in breeding pairs.  Patches of lime-coloured waterlilies hosted hordes of black-winged butterflies and shy frogs who hopped underwater every time we neared.  The surface was alive with playing, surface-skimming insects and we could clearly see the bottom through the pristine water.

Roquebrune-sur-Argens - (river swim)

Some fishermen were fly-fishing off a sandy bank, casting across most of the width of the river, so we paddled by close to the opposite bank to offer them a wide berth.  Beyond them, we had the river  to ourselves.  Feeling hot, I stripped off for a cooling swim on an empty stretch of river, loving the soft water on skin as I sizzled myself cool.  By slowly breast-stroking I could approach busy insects even closer, increasing my connection to nature.  I did not have the most dignified re-entry back into our canoe but I made it and we floated back slowly as I sun-dried myself, before a rushed redressing when other kayakers were approaching.  We passed our evening reading at their pools, trying their Jacuzzi and spa, quietly enjoying the relative coolness of the evening night air filled with the scent of blossom.

A&N x

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

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)

Another 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