We spent 2 days travelling from Morges to Vendée and finally arrived at our French house-sit in the Vendee at 18:00, after stopping overnight at Bourges in the only campsite that is still open at this time of year. After checking in, the van suddenly refused to start, because we had been charging the leisure battery all the way, and the van battery had run flat. Our spirits sank, as we hadn't even got through the booms yet! So there we were - so near to our pitch, and yet so far. David hauled out the leisure battery and tried to boost with it, but eventually, in desperation David called the RAC for assistance. By dint of luck, prayer and invocations of all sorts, Mr Stubby started again, after a 30 minute rest, and David could cancel the call-out. We were so relieved that we treated ourselves to a superb meal at a French restaurant we came across, after wandering through the old part of town.
We also had a look at their superb Gothic cathedral, St Etienne; it must have the tallest nave we have ever seen, very stream-lined with no frilly bits, but quite breath-taking!
This old clock and astrological time-keeper has been going for hundreds of years.
The cathedral also looked stunning at night
This time "Molly" our temperamental satnav managed to steer us clear of the toll roads, but retaliated by sending us across some tiny country roads. Due to this confusion, and the extra mileage clocked up, we suddenly realised, with trepidation, that our fuel situation was lower than anticipated. The next village had no garage and nor did the next. The next one had tennis courts, so surely they would have fuel? Nothing! By now we were really below empty, so David asked for guidance in his best French, only to be told that the nearest fuel was another 15km away. With no alternative and the imminent prospect of running out on a deserted country road we set off. After a very long and stress-filled 15km, and many prayers, we at last found fuel, and the van sucked in 5 litres more than its capacity! Whew!!
With the unexpected delays, we finally reached our destination, as darkness was falling, and a rather concerned looking fellow came out to greet us. The British couple, who were the in-situ-sitters for the month before we arrived, gave us the hand-over rundown, and we finally met our three furry charges - face-to-face. We felt we knew them well already though, from photos and parental communications during the arrangement period.
Our first thoughts on seeing the place were: Wow, this is to be our house-sit for the next 7 weeks, and what a fabulous place it is! The approach is down a long, rough driveway through the fields, which opens out into a wide gravel area, surrounded on 4 sides by a very old French farmhouse with barns, cellars and 3 gites [holiday apartments].
The view of the house from the side
Ducking through the front arch, [in fact David has to duck through all the doorways!] one finds oneself standing on the entrance floor of undulating, large white flagstones. The white plaster on the walls is crumbling in many places, and patched up in others. At the entrance to the main house, where the plaster is still intact there are marvelous painted murals on both sides, which could date back to 12-15th century. Although faded, they are still distinct, making one wonder what stories are attached to their history.
Remnants of trompe l’oeil brickwork are seen in the recesses where the plaster has not yet crumbled. Next, one’s eye is drawn to the stone stairway leading upstairs, which is so foot-worn that one has to balance on each step! In fact, one's sense of balance becomes dodgy, especially when coming down the steps.
Note the hole halfway up the stairs: it provides a clear view of the front door from the toilet under the stairs, apparently through which invaders could be shot in days gone by!
The sitting-room [salon] upstairs and the bedrooms all have thick, gnarled, wooden beams, sagging under the weight of the terracotta tiled roof, with small dormer windows pushing bravely through. Plenty of opportunities here to knock oneself out! Which both of us managed to do, with great pain!
The stone walls are mostly about 1m thick, and one corner room has narrow slits [now little windows] through which the farmhouse could be defended if under attack.
The many rooms and attics are an Aladdin's Cave of books, old furniture, bric-a-brac, memorabilia, and antiquities - including this full-size suit of chain-mail standing in the corner of the back-kitchen. Quite creepy to some, no doubt, but highly amusing. Fortunately the spirits wandering about are all very benevolent - so we weren't spooked in any real way!
The TV show "Cash in the Attic" would have a lucrative field day here!
We spend most of our time in the enormous farm kitchen, which boasts a wood-burning stove-oven that is used both for cooking and heating the room [although there is central heating too]. The aromas and sounds of wood and bubbling food pots, rain on the windows and flagstones, along with the comforting vision of the three cats [Claudette, Max and Minnie] snuggling down on the comfy kitchen sofa beside the stove, make for an idyllic experience.
The “snug” is a tiny room, which also has a wood stove and has Sky TV [limited channels though] projected enormously onto the wall for viewing pleasure. After being TV-free for so long it's fun to watch again, especially since there's a new season of Strictly come Dancing and the X-Factor on at present. The three gites and the swimming pool are all locked up and “winterised” until the summer returns.
There is a herd of white charolais cows grazing lazily outside the windows on most days, dubbed Les Blondes by Sandi
and the chestnut and walnut trees have finished dropping their crop, which lays out like a picnic blanket below.
The pears and apples are still dropping their fruits; unfortunately the pears don’t taste as good as they look, but the apples have been divine just baked with raisins and cinnamon in the wood-stove, or enjoyed as traditional tartes au pommes, which Sandi has been producing with gay abandon.
We didn’t dare to taste these exotic looking mushrooms, which were later identified as Magpie inkcaps and toxic!
At night, under a clear, star-speckled sky, everything is still, except for the occasional hoot of an owl, a far-off bark or two, the occasional moo from one of the bovine girls, and the purring of cat "engines" - but also very often we're serenaded by the elements, as the wind howls, a shutter bangs, and the incessant rain drums diverse rhythms on the rooftop and skylight, as we snuggle under the duvet. From our bedroom window we occasionally witness a spectacular sunrise!
On Sundays the calm is interrupted with sporadic gunshots as the farmers go hunting.
Of the three cats that we are looking after, Claudette, the mother, is quite shy and took about 3 days before she came in to feed in our presence. But she's warming up to us rapidly.
Max and Minnie, her adorable children, are very friendly and happy to sleep on our bed at night, or one’s lap when trying to write on the laptop [and frequently they squat right on the keyboard when our backs are turned - with crazy results at times - deleted files, screaming screen etc!],
or settle on the "stylish" pink velour seats of the van in the hope of going on an adventure!
Minnie is usually the naughty one and will sometimes tear around the salon and hide under the chair-throws upstairs, or scarper in behind the lining of the kitchen sofa, taunting her brother with her fabric-draped, writhing antics. She doesn't usually like being picked up, but will allow Sandi to cuddle her on occasion.
Max, gorgeous, indolent and abundant lad that he is, came to supervise the gathering of walnuts, but preferred to curl up in the walnut basket and take a ride home.
Their favourite tinned food is lapin [rabbit], along with dried tuna and salmon pellets, which they seem to go through rather quickly, since they ignore other wet and dried food left here for them. So it's frequent trips to the store for more bags of seafood goodies! They're also all most partial to milk, and whatever tidbits are in the offing. You must be able to tell by now that we're besotted with these highly individual purr-factories.
Although we have had some sunny, clear days, the weather has been mostly grisly and cold with plenty of rain. In fact, the rain that started on our arrival, broke the dry spell since April. This is immaterial to us as we have plenty of work to do on the computer, and otherwise, as well as also needing the time to catch up the backlog of this travel blog. It's great being able to read in bed for several hours, and enjoy a patisserie with our morning tea - such a lazy treat. We have developed a dangerous taste for Pains chocolats au amandes!
Daily there is kindling to be chopped for the fires, food to prepare on the wood-stove and DVDs or TV to watch in the evenings [in between spells of other work-related activities]. Life doesn’t get much better or slower than this!
Sandi has surpassed herself by conjuring up the most delicious meals in the big, yellow-painted kitchen. Much of it is done on, or in, the wood stove/oven, but even with regular stoking it does not reach a very high temperature, so everything slow cooks, which seems to enhance the flavours! We have had Swiss fondue, raclette, tartiflette, roast duck in orange, minestrone, prawns in garlic butter, Hollandse biefstuk, tartes au pommes, au abricots, au pruneaus, au poivres et chocolat, etc.
Raclette and bubbly for lunch....can one be more Continental?
Tarte au pruneau [plums]
With her hair pinned up and wearing an apron in the yellow farm kitchen, it brings back fond memories of long-ago days, on the small-holding in Sunvalley where we lived 30 years ago, where Sandi spent many hours revelling in her culinary skills.