A Travellerspoint blog

France

LAVENDER, OCHRE and SUNFLOWERS

sunny 38 °C

We travelled to Coustellet in southern Vaucluse to visit the excellent Lavender Museum. IMG_3359.jpgIMG_3357.jpg
Although small, the museum is crammed full of a variety of old copper stills and other interesting artifacts from the lavender industry. Sandi had a ball capturing the wonderful exhibits - wishing her ex aromatherapy students were there to experience the pleasure too.
IMG_3362.jpgIMG_3372.jpgAn itinerant still for distilling lavender as well as fruit alcohols, which travelled from farm to farm.

An itinerant still for distilling lavender as well as fruit alcohols, which travelled from farm to farm.

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IMG_3387.jpgThe steaming lavender biomass

The steaming lavender biomass

This rare still was hammered without any welds, and may have been commissioned by a wealthy merchant.

This rare still was hammered without any welds, and may have been commissioned by a wealthy merchant.

An ovoid or egg-shaped still.

An ovoid or egg-shaped still.

A still to produce lavender concentrate.

A still to produce lavender concentrate.


We were instructed in the difference between lavender and lavandin by a pretty French lass who spoke perfect English. True lavender historically grows in poor quality rocky soil, high on sunny mountain slopes at an altitude between 500m and 1500m. It has been prized and harvested for centuries for its high quality essential oil yield. Lavandula angustifolia

Lavandula angustifolia


Lavandin is a modern hybrid with more spectacular flowers and a bigger yield, and is cultivated in fields on lower slopes. The chemistry, aroma, application and prices differ, respectively.
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Nearby, perched high against les Monts de Vaucluse, we visited Gordes, rated as one of the most beautiful villages in France. We browsed through some interesting ceramics on sale, then had our picnic lunch in the shade of an olive tree.
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IMG_3420.jpgLooking out across the Luberon Valley.

Looking out across the Luberon Valley.


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Dry stone walls are a feature in the Luberon region.
IMG_3424.jpgIMG_3441.jpgTypical farmhouse with the Vaucluse mountains in the distance.

Typical farmhouse with the Vaucluse mountains in the distance.

The next village on our route was the village of Rousillon, perched atop colourful cliffs. We had a steep walk up to the village itself, which was exhausting in the heat.
IMG_3449.jpgWe passed this interesting, old painted door on the way through the village.

We passed this interesting, old painted door on the way through the village.


The vermilion, yellow and red ochres are mined in open-air quarries. Even the colours of the houses reflect the warm colours of the ochre.
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Many shops sell the minature nativity clay figurines made in the time-honoured manner by the santonniers, which brought back childhood memories for David.
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Cicadas, which are plentiful, are the quintessential summer-sound of Provence. Their continuous rhythm is reminiscent of vuvuselas - or zillions of seriously fed-up buzzing and screeching goggas. Although one hears them constantly, one never sees them, except as souvenirs in the shops. At night, when their cacophony stops, the silence is suddenly exquisite - and as the sun rises higher in the heavens after dawn, one knows that their frenzied song heralds another day of rising heat.
IMG_3450.jpgDavid was scolded by the shop-owner for photographing his beautiful ceramic creations.

David was scolded by the shop-owner for photographing his beautiful ceramic creations.

Up till now, we had still not seen the fields of lavender for which Provence is renowned. We drove past orchards full of peaches, nectarines, apricots and cherries, and farmstalls selling melons everywhere. As we meandered along twisting, hilly country roads heading back towards Carpentras, we started to see more and more fields of lavendin, as patches of hazy purple in the landscape.
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After a long day, our final stop was at Beaumes de Venise for a wine tasting occasion. About a dozen local vintners offered tastings of their Muscat, for which the area is famous. They were all delicious and we got back to the campsite quite tipsy! It was time for the monthly camp-site social; Paella Party! Leon, the manager, spent the whole day cooking paella in 2 of the largest paella pans we have ever seen! It was delicious, and we danced the evening away, encouraged by the French singer and guitarist.
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Friday was our last day, and we spent it in Carpentras at the huge weekly street market. The narrow streets were decked with hanging paintings, and the stalls extended throughout the centre of town, selling Provencale linens and other goods, foods, household wares, plants etc. Fabulous!
IMG_3475.jpgIMG_3476.jpgWe stopped for a coffee at a cafe next to this fountain.

We stopped for a coffee at a cafe next to this fountain.

Sadly, we had to pack up and leave early the next morning. We had 18 hours of driving to cross France from the SE up to our ferry port at Roscoff in the NE. We crossed the Rhône, passing many fields of sunflowers en route.
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Bales of hay, tree-lined lanes [plus luscious cherries and strident cicadas] will always bring back happy memories of France for us.
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We used the France Passion book to find an overnight stop halfway, on a farm next to this meadow of flowers.
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The last night was spent in Roscoff, where we treated ourselves to a last French meal in a cosy restaurant, before crossing the Channel to Plymouth the next day.
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First stop on UK soil - PCWorld Plymouth - and immediate replacement of a laptop so we could once again be in touch with our other world, since there were no English keyboards or software in Spain and France!

Posted by davidsandi 00:47 Archived in France Comments (0)

UNDER THE SPELL OF MONT VENTOUX

sunny 38 °C

Using the France Passion guide again, we made our way to Chateau Gleon, in the Corbieres wine region of Aude, for an overnight stop on the way to Provence.
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The proprietor, a kindly old Frenchman, allowed us to pick our fill of ripe figs and brought us ice - a welcome essential in the high heat. After petting his dogs, big black Diablo, and an ankle-nipping little 'un, we stepped into his cool "cave" for a wine-tasting. We sampled most of his delicious wines, and bought a couple of bottles for our continued journey, plus one to savour with our dinner. While chatting to him it emerged that there is an estate nearby called Comte Durban, and he had some specially etched tasting glasses depicting a recent celebration there, which he insisted we accept as a gift each. What a sweetie! David's is no more, but Sandi's glass has so far survived the rigours of campervan living. As the shadows grew longer we had our supper and spent the night overlooking the river and the old bridge. The next morning we returned his ice-bucket, together with a gift of Sandi's soap, which seemed to surprise, yet delight him, and bid him a fond au revoir.
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David discovered what he thought were giant thistles growing next to the bridge and came back to report the find to Sandi, who informed him that they are actually artichokes! Guess who gets teased whenever thistles appear?
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The next afternoon we arrived at our pre-booked campsite in the village of Aubignan, Vaucluse. In the near distance we could see the Dentelles de Montmirail and Mont Ventoux, which looks as if it is permanently capped with snow. It is actually an exposed outcrop of limestone.
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The campsite was quiet and unsophisticated, and hot, hot, hot - but sadly had no swimming pool. It is perfectly situated for exploring the surrounding area that makes up southern Provence. We befriended several campers from the UK and Cyprus, who return to this same site every year for the summer, year after year.
Dentelles (laces) de Montmirail

Dentelles (laces) de Montmirail

On Sunday we visited Avignon, the regional capital.
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The old city is still enclosed by the original city wall, and access is gained by walking or driving through one of the original city gates. It was an important city during the Middle Ages as it was the seat of the Papacy for many years, before it returned to Rome. Seven successive Popes ensured that the area became commercially successful, and the county only became part of France after the French Revolution. The Jewish community thrived here under the protection of the Papacy.
Palace of the Popes

Palace of the Popes


The famous bridge of St Bénezet, better known as the Pont d’Avignon, stretches part-way across the mighty Rhône river. David can still hear his mother singing to him as a baby:
"Sur le pont d'Avignon, l'on y danse, l'on y danse. Sur le pont d'Avignon, l'on y danse, tous en rond..."
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The centre of the old city was pulsating with visitors, buskers and students - a festival atmosphere of note - rather like the Grahamstown Fest. The students were passionately enacting parts of their stage-acts, trying to entice one to book for the whole show.
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We wandered around, enthralled by the sights and sounds, until midday when suddenly the streets emptied and everyone settled down for lunch in one of the many street restaurants. After perusing all the menus on display, we chose the most appealing one that suited our budget, and joined the crowd for a leisurely lunch.
Ornate architecture in the main street

Ornate architecture in the main street


An arborial busker

An arborial busker


A delightful statue of a baby elephant

A delightful statue of a baby elephant

A grand building opposite the Palace

A grand building opposite the Palace

This bronze by Christine Remy took Sandi's fancy

This bronze by Christine Remy took Sandi's fancy

A potter in the street

A potter in the street

The festival bustle and vibe was a good solace to our post-Granada emotions, as we could focus on something other than the robbery and our recent losses. The next two days were spent exploring some of the quaint villages in the region. Beaumes-de-Venise had a little street market with some interesting ceramics on sale. It took extreme self-control not to buy some, and if weight, size, and budget was not a consideration the van and our kitchen back home would have boasted a few choice pieces.
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The olive oil mill was unfortunately closing for lunch when we arrived, so we had a drink on the café terrace next door.
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By this time our St Paddy's Day emblem - a silicone gel shamrock on the inside of the windscreen had melted in the 50C heat!
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Many of the old villages are perched high up against the rocky outcrops as a means of defence in times gone by.
The village of la Roque Alric with the Dentelles in the background

The village of la Roque Alric with the Dentelles in the background


The castle of le Barroux commands a grand view over the valley

The castle of le Barroux commands a grand view over the valley


On the farmland, the typical farmhouse is called a mas. It is of a rectangular construction, usually around a courtyard, with a sloping tiled roof, and faces south to protect from the biting Mistral wind in winter.
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Many of the country lanes in France are lined with trees like this.
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All the farmstalls and orchards along the roads were full of the bounty of summer; cherries, nectarines, melons, apricots and figs. Sandi indulged her cherry passion to the full, gobbling them daily in Fantastic-Mr-Fox style! [Singi and other Roald Dahl aficionados will relate to this reference.]
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We came across cheerful ceramics in almost every village. These were in the old Roman town of Vaison-la-Romaine to the north.
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The old Roman bridge and a narrow alleyway in the same town.
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On Wednesday we travelled down to just north of Aix-en-Provence for lunch with our buddy, Paddy, and her friend Hilary with whom she was staying. Hilary lives in Scotland, but rents a top-floor apartment in a grand chateau in the countryside. We spent a wonderful day with them, and enjoyed a delicious Provençale lunch.
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Posted by davidsandi 00:45 Archived in France Comments (0)

TWO NIGHTS WITH FRANCE PASSION

Our first night after leaving Bob and Bear, we stopped at Chateau la Piolette SE of Bordeaux.
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We took a wrong turn to a Chateau Prioulette, then had to ask for directions to la Piolette. We were warmly welcomed by the wine farmer and his wife, Alain and Dominique, who are 3rd generation on the farm and very sad that their kids are not able/interested to continue the line. They did not speak a word of English, but we managed with our limited French. She presented us with a chilled bottle of their dry white wine for supper, which we had on some picnic benches overlooking the vineyard, while we watched 2 pairs of hoepoes scratching amongst the vines.
IMG_2844.jpgSandi, thrilled to discover that Toulouse-Lautrec used to live nextdoor!

Sandi, thrilled to discover that Toulouse-Lautrec used to live nextdoor!

We had the use of a very nice shower/toilet built specially for campers next to the wine shed. In the morning she gave us a private wine-tasting and we bought some of their delicious wines before moving on. She also gave us the remainder of the bottles we had tasted! Such generous and friendly people, and altogether a lovely experience!
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We spent a couple of hours of the morning walking around the old village of Cadillac and visited the Duc's Chateau.
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Every room had a huge ornate fireplace.
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Tapestries in blue and gold adorned the high walls.

Tapestries in blue and gold adorned the high walls.

IMG_2874.jpgIMG_2876.jpgSome of the wooden ceilings are ornately decorated.

Some of the wooden ceilings are ornately decorated.


Help, I'm starving and can't get out of my bedroom!

Help, I'm starving and can't get out of my bedroom!


A curved, solid stone stairway for use by the servants.

A curved, solid stone stairway for use by the servants.


In restoring the building we felt the French "sanitised" much of the reconstruction to look nice, thereby losing much of the authenticity. This stairwell had not been restored, and looked real, but was barred to the public!
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The garden at the back of the chateau is another missed opportunity, as it is neglected and inaccessible.

The garden at the back of the chateau is another missed opportunity, as it is neglected and inaccessible.


This road in the town has been lived in since 1280 AD.

This road in the town has been lived in since 1280 AD.

We then headed down to the Pyrenees and Molly [our GPS] got us completely lost in the hills. We then retraced our steps and followed the limited directions in the France Passion book and found the farm [When in doubt read the instructions!]. It was a ramshackle place up in the foothills of the Central Pyrenees, with sheds filled with old farm wagons and wheelchairs going back at least a hundred years. No wonder it is called a "Conservation farm"! The farmer's wife welcomed us and spoke several languages including English. She invited us to gather mushrooms, and even gave us some much-prized Boleto [also known as Cep] for our supper!
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The toilet hut was quite a way through the long grass and quite wild! Sandi opted to hold on! As we settled down for the night a buck came grazing nearby.
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So, our first two host-sites with France Passion were lovely but very different. We think it has the potential to allow one to experience rural France in a very close-up and informal way.

We spent the morning in Lourdes, enjoying the market and marvelling at the excessive symbols of religiosity on sale everywhere, before setting out to cross the Pyrenees.
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Posted by davidsandi 10:25 Archived in France Comments (0)

SUN AND RED SQUIRRELS IN VENDÈE

Our friend Bear contacted us while we were in West Yorkshire, to ask if we could extend our stop-over with them, to look after the cats and booked guests for a week, while she visited her very ill mother in Sheffield. We crossed the Channel from Dover and, having landed in Calais, we set off on the long road to Vendée. We were amazed at how much of the land in France is used for agriculture; maize, sunflowers, wheat, beets, rape-seed, fruits and vines, and beautiful, sturdy charolais cattle everywhere.
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Not only was the French terroir enticing, but we witnessed the most spectacular red sun sinking slowly down as we approached Rouen. We wanted to park in an Aire for the night, but in order to find one we had to get onto the peáge autoroute. We eventually found one and settled down for the night [the toll cost us €11 but the parking was free].
En route we crossed the mighty Loire river.
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We arrived at la Maison Neuve the next afternoon, and soon our chums, Bear and Bob, were finalising their plans to catch a plane to Leeds and a ferry to Plymouth. Having been primed by Bear regarding the needs of their expected guests we were to mind, we looked forward to meeting them. Once we had greeted the French ladies for the chambres d’hotes and given them their breakfast, we welcomed a young English couple booked into one of the gites [holiday cottage]. All that remained of our duties were to water the garden and feed the cats, birds and squirrels.
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The courgettes grew so fast they became marrows in the blink of an eye.

The courgettes grew so fast they became marrows in the blink of an eye.


We so enjoyed being back in Vendée, just loving the relaxed lifestyle. Contrary to our previous visit, when we were escaping the Venetian freeze at New Year, the weather was hot and bright all week with the temperatures in the 30s.

We're not sure who was enjoying the sunshine more - us, or the darling moggies.
Flattened by the heat

Flattened by the heat

We started doing Qigong [thanks to Simon's instruction] in the back garden, facing the river, with the solid farmhouse behind us. Perfect placement!
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La Maison Musings ......... To stand outside at dusk, at about 9pm, and soak in the simmering end of the day, is heavenly. There is a calmness, in spite of the beads of sweat on the skin and the buzz of myriad flies and bees [frantically finishing their business before the light goes]. Occasionally there is a slight breeze, wafting the scent of lilac and roses from the climbers around the door. The Little owl and her fledgling scrutinise the courtyard, from the safety of the chimney pot, “chirring” raucously whenever a cat saunters into their sights. Then without a flutter, they glide into the chestnut tree nearby.
Lord of "Owl" he surveys.

Lord of "Owl" he surveys.


Long shot of Captain Inscrutible.

Long shot of Captain Inscrutible.


The light finally fades and even the hum quietens down, as one reluctantly steps back inside.

We picked the last of the cherries with a long ladder, and clusters of blackcurrants, which were delicious as a coulis with crème fraiche. Enjoying leisurely, late suppers in the big farm kitchen is bliss, especially the very affordable crevettes, duck a l’orange and galettes. We also really enjoyed visits to the French supermarkets, picking out the delicacies we had been hankering after since our last visit. What a pleasure to savour these treats again, but this time in the sunshine, under the umbrella, with the cats snoozing nearby or flirting with us for tidbits .
IMG_2711.jpg IMG_2792.jpgIMG_2789.jpgApple tart making, with evidence of our personal red wine tasting in progress.

Apple tart making, with evidence of our personal red wine tasting in progress.

We came down one morning to make tea, and saw the baby red squirrel, who had been keeping its distance, way up the drive at its own tree-trunk feeding hatch, having a feast on the bird feeder outside the kitchen window. Such a thrill!
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It was soon joined by its mother, and we revelled in the spectacle, taking lots and lots of photos.
Mama peanut cruncher.

Mama peanut cruncher.

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Red squirrels are almost extinct in Britain, as they have been squeezed out by the hardier, and more aggressive, grey squirrels.

On Saturday we visited the market at Fontenay-le-Comte, which was bustling and far bigger than the one we had visited in winter.
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We had some delicious [if somewhat light] galettes for lunch, in the shady garden of a little restaurant. Since the temperature had soared to a very humid 38 °C, we needed the shade. Even the pastis with ice-cubes and cold water didn't help to lower the internal temp!
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The charming young English couple staying in the gite introduced us to France Passion, a different approach to camping. It requires an annual membership, which allows for an overnight stay on selected French farms and vineyards. You simply choose a site, arrive and greet your hosts, and stay overnight for free! While some sites are grand and provide well for campers, other sites have rather limited facilities. It promised a fun way to meet the locals and get away from the big campsites.

One sunny afternoon we went for a walk in the Mervent forest, where we had picked holly in the winter. We had just been reading about snakes and snake-bites in France, so Sandi was adamant about keeping to well-defined paths, while David poo-pooed the whole idea - in spite of there being a dead snake on the road en route to the forest. Portent of things to come, or self-fulfilling prophesy? The path we chose started out well, but soon became quite rustic. Suddenly there was an almighty rustle in the leaves to one side and Sandi saw a sturdy silver-grey whopper of a snake disappear beneath the leaves. slaty_grey_snake.jpg
Much to David's dismay that was the end of the walk in that part of the forest! The rest of the walk proceeded rather sedately along an open bicycle track.

Bob and Bear returned at the weekend, and we started on the long journey towards Portugal and our time-share week. We had planned to visit Provence for a few days en route, but since our 2-day Vendéean stay had extended to a week, Plan-B was implemented. Provence would have to wait for our return from Spain. Fortunately we managed to secure a campsite near Avignon to coincide with the change of plans.

Our last supper in the Vendée was with friends, at a Pizzeria - not a Nye-favourite option [due to David's cheese and wheat allergies], but it was fun, even though we had hoped to finally get to eat at Le Donjon. We were amused to see that all the pizzas and pasta dishes were presented with a raw egg yolk on the top! This caused quite a bit of consternation at our table, as it was definitely not to everyone's taste. Maybe Italian food should be confined to Italian cooks?!

The journey back to La Maison, for our last sleep before hitting the road again, was illuminated by a beautiful full moon.
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Posted by davidsandi 10:11 Archived in France Comments (0)

SOME THOUGHTS ABOUT THE FRENCH WAY OF LIFE

We both really enjoyed living in France. Contrary to popular opinion the people we interacted with while shopping were really polite and friendly and always wished one a “Bon journée”. The shopping experiences were good too; the village and street markets, although full of character, were a bit daunting unless one is able to express one’s desires fluently, but the supermarkets are superb.
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Every small town seems to have at least one, Super-U, Hyper-U, Intermarché or E. LeClerc, and they are big and modern with an amazing variety and selection of high quality goods.
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The variety and scope of dairy products is mind-blowing; all sorts of cheeses from cow, goat and sheep, yoghurts, creams, etc. The selection of French wines was dazzling and we bought many kinds for about €2 a bottle, notably an excellent Bordeaux red which we got on special for €1.85 a bottle! We made the mistake of trying a local Vendéen white, which was undrinkable, and went into the pot! Otherwise the quality was faultless; even the French Jaffa cakes were better than the British ones! Sandi is still besotted with her perky little plaid French cap, found in a street market in Montmartre many moons ago, which has been worth its weight in gold during the cold, frosty winter.
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Although we didn’t come across many kids, the French children are generally polite, well-mannered and respectful of their elders. The teenagers seem not to indulge in binge-drinking as they do across the English Channel. There seems to be more emphasis on family life, with the whole family having lunch together between 12:00 and 14:30 every day, and grandparents forming an integral part of the extended family. Is this the secret to civilised society?

According to local British expats, since the Brits [rosbif] moved into the countryside in their droves, things have never been the same. Apparently they presented so many bounced cheques, that the government has now made them illegal - and they shop lift. Sandi was stopped at the check-out of the supermarket one day, and asked what she had in her Tesco shopping bag. We are sure she was questioned only because the cashier thought she was British - thanks to the distinctive shopping bag - [and therefore a potential shoplifter?] In spite of everything that could sour relations, the French seem to be very accommodating to the immigrants.

The countryside is quiet and the roads far less congested than the English ones. There are only 65 million people here spread out over a very large area. One gets an impression of lots more space, and property is still considerably cheaper than in England, in spite of the strength of the euro. The French do not have to pay any car tax or road tax, but one does pay heavily to use the toll roads.

The houses, generally, in the villages are very drab and dull in appearance, and they do not have gardens of any consequence - unlike the lovely British gardens we've seen - but some of the sunrises were breathtaking.
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Apparently the French are more concerned with functionality and interior comforts, than worrying about how things appear externally - not a bad philosophy, holistically speaking. The houses are nearly all built in stone with terracotta tiles on the roofs. All the windows have shutters, which often remain closed all day, giving most villages a ghost-like and deserted appearance during winter.
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We did drive along a very picturesque valley in the south of France, between Rodez and Figeac, where the villages were very attractive, but this seems not to be the rule. One evening we met a young man who is moving to Bordeaux to get his family out of congested and “nannified” England. He can afford a house with a garden near the beach for what he could sell his pokey, urban flat. Although, as a modern first-world country it is heavily regulated, it is not nearly as bad as the over-regulation in Britain. The French are not as burdened with being politically correct, but you do not mess with a policeman! The yobs in the UK could learn a bit of respect for these law-enforcers!

Unfortunately the French do not have the same respect for their animals. Like the Italians they are proud to wear fur coats in public. Hunting is a popular pastime, every Wednesday and Sunday, when most farmers can be heard shooting pheasant, hares etc. Only twice a year are they permitted to shoot deer and boar. We saw hundreds of cows up to their hocks in freezing mud in mid-winter when it would have been more humane for them to have barn shelter, or so we felt. One hardly ever sees a fence in the countryside, as the stock is contained by electrified wires around the fields [the use of which is apparently banned in the UK].
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So one gets the sense of wide-open pastures, unlike the patch-work of stone walls and hedges covering England and Ireland. Nowhere did we see any animal rescue shelters, such as one finds often in England.

In spite of some shortfalls, there’s a lot going in favour of living in France, and we've missed living there many times since leaving. Vive la France!
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Posted by davidsandi 10:06 Archived in France Comments (0)

REFUGE FROM THE BIG FREEZE

VENDEE AGAIN

snow

We drove west along autostradas all the way across the Italian country-side to the French border, reaching it by dusk.
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We had aimed to get to Nice by 19:00, which we did, so we pulled into an Aire [off-road comfort stop places] and warmed up some left-over chicken stew for supper. Not feeling tired yet, we decided to push on, otherwise we would have to drive 15 hours the next day to Vendèe. We drove until 23:00, then snuggled down for the remainder of the night in another Aire. But ...... about an hour into our slumbers we were rudely awoken by 3 men trying to break into the front of the van. Fortunately, when they saw us peer out behind the curtains, they jumped into their ready-and-waiting car [parked beside us] and sped away on the autostrada. Although it left us mighty spooked for the night we were very thankful that neither ourselves, or the van, was injured.

As it happened, we ended up driving for another 15 hours the next day, as we were determined not to sleep another night on the road. We decided to avoid toll roads, as it would have saved us only an hour, but would have burned another hole in our pockets, as toll fees are ridiculously expensive. We were however surprised to find ourselves climbing over several mountain passes, up to 1045m, in the Cevennes National Park, which was not clear from our map. There was plenty of snow on the ground, it was very misty, and rather hair-raising when looking at the looooong drops beside the winding roads.
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At one point we went around in a circle, as David refused to follow Molly’s directions [our Satnav] when she wanted us to head south for 27km over some more passes, but eventually he relented when he realised it was the only way. We finally arrived at La Maison, Vendèe at 23:00, to the sight of Christmas lights twinkling in the house windows. So although exhausted, we were immensely relieved to be warm and with friends [2-legged and 4-legged]. What a treat to see Max, Minnie and Claudette, the fine felines, again.
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Bob and Bear have been very welcoming and provided us a soft place to fall, until the weather conditions improve such that we can cross the Channel back to the UK. It has been a time to catch up with our blog, watch birds and squirrels feeding, make some repairs to the cupboards in the van and take the cats for walks in the snow.
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We were lucky enough to catch sight of 2 roe deer in the back garden at dusk one evening. Daily we look at the weather conditions in the UK on BBC 1; heavy snow-falls, sub-zero temperatures and black ice on the roads, causing severe survival conditions. Here in Vendèe we are having some light snowfalls and temps of -8 °C to +3 °C.
The cats tend to cramp one's computer space - but Sandi doesn't mind!

The cats tend to cramp one's computer space - but Sandi doesn't mind!


They also know that Bear's lap is really warm

They also know that Bear's lap is really warm


Claudette having her turn in the new cat bed

Claudette having her turn in the new cat bed

No opportunity to sun is wasted

No opportunity to sun is wasted


Bear, a great bird-lover, had erected a bird-feeding structure outside the kitchen window, and it was fascinating watching the colourful variety of visitors feeding on the sunflower seeds, peanuts, niger seeds and suet balls. She spent many hours each day cracking garden-harvested walnuts for her beloved birds - and the squirrel box wasn't forgotten either. We saw great tits, blue tits, marsh tits, nuthatches, green finches, chaffinches and a few gold finches who were attracted by the niger seed. And of course robins, blackbirds, thrushes and lots of LBJs.
Blue Tit

Blue Tit


Marsh Tit

Marsh Tit


Goldfinch

Goldfinch

We thoroughly enjoyed our visits with some English friends of Bob and Bear, Maggie and Robin, who have been farming in the area for the past 20 years. Robin showed us a 1936 wood-frame truck he had bought in Paarl and shipped back to France, still bearing its original CJ licence plate! We walked around their pond which was frozen as solid as we felt. Brrrrrrrrrrrrr!
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Bob found an abandoned beehive in the snow, and managed to extract several bottles of honey from the comb.
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Sandi relishing the thought of eating her huge pomegranate - a New Year's treat bought at a Venetian foodstall

Sandi relishing the thought of eating her huge pomegranate - a New Year's treat bought at a Venetian foodstall

Bob and Bear took us to Emmaus, which is an organisation that provides shelter and work for disadvantaged people. David bought a French clown doll for 50 cents in the shop, but the bric-a-brac on sale outside was covered in snow and ice!
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Bob and Bear on a shopping trip to Roche-sur-Yon

Bob and Bear on a shopping trip to Roche-sur-Yon

David enjoying a tarte au citron

David enjoying a tarte au citron


Many good meals were prepared and enjoyed in the big kitchen

Many good meals were prepared and enjoyed in the big kitchen

After two weeks the weather forecasts in the UK finally improved, and we could book a ferry crossing from St Malo to Portsmouth. Sadly we bade farewell to our friends, the cats and the warm snug. we drove up to St Malo in the rain, arriving at the ferry in the dark. After a good supper on board we tried to settle down on the recliner chairs we had booked for the night. In spite of having a wide-screen TV to ourselves, we had difficulty settling down as we were irritated by some rigging outside which clanged all night long.

Arriving in Portsmouth next morning, the sun was shining [yippee], as we drove down to Ebford. We noticed that all the snow and ice from the previous week had melted, and were awed, yet again, by the power and wonder of Nature.

Posted by davidsandi 09:08 Archived in France Comments (0)

VISITORS FROM SCOTLAND

rain

The much anticipated visit from our South African friends living in Scotland, Bernie and Estrelita, finally dawned. We picked them up in Niort and headed back to La Maison in the gathering dusk, very ready for Sandi's fine pot of minestrone soup and baguettes that were waiting for us. Plans for the weekend included meals with as much regional cuisine as possible, and taking in some local sights and activities. The weather was not kind to us, but we managed to duck into a cafe for a meal or a drink when the rain came down.

On the Saturday we headed off again to the street market at Fontenay-le-Comte. IMG_1052.jpgIMG_1051.jpg
We bought a Tarteau fromage, a local speciality, just because it looked intriguing. It tasted like a very bland, light, baked cheesecake, and is apparently best eaten with preserves.
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After browsing the market we walked the Route de la Republique looking for hats for Bernie and Estrelita, because they fancied Sandi's chic little Parisian cap, eventually retreating from the rain for a coffee.
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We then found a cosy restaurant near the market where we had a good 2-course lunch.
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We peeped into the church on the town square.
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We had heard that there was to be a Christmas market at Vouvant on the Sunday, which we visited, but unfortunately it was underwhelming.
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What proved more interesting was a cafe offering vin chaud. We then came home and made more vin chaud and all got cooking in the kitchen.
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Sandi has always liked violets and found violet syrup in the supermarket, which is divine when added to champagne!
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Here is the mistletoe we picked on the way home, which looks good with the holly.
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Sandi was fascinated with the raindrops on the window.
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We had raclette for supper and Bernie enjoyed it so much she licked her plate clean!
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On their last day we took them to see the local nursery which seems to specialise in topiary,
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and old olive trees.
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Having eaten like gourmands all weekend, it was sad to see it come to an end, but the memories linger on.

In our last week at la Maison it rained almost constantly. David got very frustrated trying to ascertain where the water was leaking into the van. After sealing the whole windscreen area, it still leaked! [hoping that when Bob returns he will have a brilliant solution] The other nagging problem is the big speakers which keep wrenching free of their moorings every time we go over a bump. Sandi has come up with the idea of creating a sling for them to rest on which we think is going to work!

Sandi produced a series of profound quotations for David to ponder while he sprinkled the porcelain.
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Max and Claudette keeping warm near the woodstove.
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Claudette became more and more sociable and ended up sleeping on our bed most of the night [and day too!]
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Minnie discovered that the best way to warm one's belly is right on the radiator.
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After raking up 15 large bags of leaves from the quadrangle, sweeping the house and mopping the kitchen floor and chopping loads of firewood, we were ready for the owners return on Sunday evening. We liked Bob and Bear [Francesca] immediately and bonded with them at once. They have spent the past three months motoring up and down the Florida coastline in their boat, which they are hoping to sell. They surprised us with a monster hamper of English Christmas goodies, including mince pies and mini Christmas puds, as a “Thank you” present, as well as two gorgeous porcelain kitty mugs [from the cats!]
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Bob, Bear and the Tinsel Strangle

Bob, Bear and the Tinsel Strangle


The next day Bob tackled the tricky van jobs with David, and together they managed to sort out the gas flow to the heater. It turns out the tap was hidden and in the “off” position, but this was only discovered after all the gas lines had been disconnected and blown out with compressed air! Then the window leak was sorted [we hope] and the recalcitrant speakers finally bracketed into position securely.

We were taken out to dinner at Mervent as well as to a Chinese restaurant the next day in Roche-sur-Yon where we met some good friends of theirs.
What's good about Christmas when you can't eat these?

What's good about Christmas when you can't eat these?


We were offered a 7-day sit in Rome [2 dogs, 3 cats] from 30 Dec to 6 Jan, but it didn’t work out for us, so we declined after 3 days of frantic Googling. Parking the van securely was the obstacle [Rome being notorious for crime, congestion and parking problems], as the only place we could find was a campsite, outside the city, at great expense – €300 for the week – and we’d not even be there to use the facilities. And that’s even before the cost of public transport to get around, food, etc. We’ll get to Rome at some other stage, and accept that this was not meant to be for now.

Finally there was time for a quick kiss under the mistletoe, before we bade our sad farewells.
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Leaving La Maison was an emotional experience for us, as we had just made some new friends, and of course, missing the kitties is the biggest lump-in-the-throat thing imaginable. So strange not being be-catted, especially at night, for the first time in 7 weeks. We feel very blessed to have had this experience.
IMG_1166.jpgMax saying goodbye

Max saying goodbye


One final golden sunrise before we bid la Maison Neuve "adieu".
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Posted by davidsandi 09:03 Archived in France Comments (0)

LA CÔTE ATLANTIQUE

On a sunny day we headed down to the coast, about 1½ hours away from La Maison. The skies were clear and full of plane trails.
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We passed through Chantonnay and around Roche-sur-Yon down to the seaside town of Sables d’Ollone. We walked along the harbour quay, passing dozens of tempting restaurants and cafes, along to the magnificent beach, where several people were swimming.
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We then meandered back through the pedestrianised shopping area, but all the shops were closed as it was lunch-time [David reckons it's the best time to take Sandi shopping!] We happened upon this charming little street with shells decorating all the walls.
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By now we had worked up an appetite, so searched until we found the most appealing menu. We had a scrumptious lunch of langoustines, seafood paella, poisson et coquillages facon bouillabaise, duo de pot de creme and Baba au rhum.....delicious!
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Then we drove back home the long way, via Luçon and Fonteney-le-Comte.

One morning we found Max lying on the sofa looking very poorly. He had a dead mouse next to him, which he had not eaten, which was unusual! Over the course of the day he seemed very lethargic and refused to eat. We eventually decided to take him to the vet as we thought that perhaps the mouse was poisoned. It was also a possibility that he had had a severe fright, or a narrow escape from dogs or a car, as his fur was matted in places. As soon as we produced the cat box he perked up, so we decided to watch him overnight. He started drinking some milk and later some food, and spent the night recuperating in this old pram in our bedroom. By morning he seemed back to his usual self.
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We had heard that the market in La Rochelle was even better than the one in Fonteney-le-Comte, but we had to wait for 2 weeks before the weather cleared with the promise of a sunny day. We set off in thick mist in faith that it would clear, which it did. It took about 1 ½ hours to get there, but once there we enjoyed browsing the large outdoor market as well as the indoor stalls.
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We wandered through the old centre of town to the old harbour and the quay-side, where we enjoyed a good plat du jour in the sunshine.
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The old city gate and clock on the quay.
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In the town centre, the shops are protected by ancient stone collonnades, to keep the shoppers dry.
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Just look at the temptations the Patissier puts in his window!
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On the way back to the car park we came across this beautiful carousel.
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Later we tried to drive over the connecting bridge to the island of Ile de Re but turned back when we saw the toll was €9, and since we've already paid out a small fortune for French tolls, with more to come, we decided to capture the experience digitally!
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Posted by davidsandi 03:03 Archived in France Comments (0)

EXPLORING VENDÉE

The Vendée countryside is very pretty with expansive, finely ploughed agricultural lands, trees displaying all the shades of autumn, and lots of sturdy cows.
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The country lanes are very quiet and even the villages seem to be hibernating. The houses are functional and floral gardens are almost non-existent; certainly nothing like the beautiful colour-filled gardens of the English. There seem to be quite a large number of retired English folk living in the area, and we have met some of the neighbours. One of them, Jane, explained the possible origin of the many large crucifixes to be seen dotted all over. Apparently, they were erected about 50 years ago to commemorate successful missions to convert the heathen in foreign continents.
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We were puzzled by these parasitic bundles growing in many of the trees, and were later enlightened that this is Mistletoe!
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The town of La Chataigneraie [la chataigne is a chestnut] is about 14km away with this grand example of a French chateau on the way.
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It has a superb supermarket, Super U, with the most mind-boggling selection of cheeses, regional wines, patès, chocolates, baguettes etc, and other foods that we hadn’t even dreamed of! Cheeses, thick cream [crème fraiche epaisse] and wines are cheap even by SA standards, but fresh fruits and roast chickens are expensive. Apparently there are over 1000 types of cheese made in France [including an array of goat and sheep cheeses, which makes David very happy!]
The mini trolley is definitely not big enough for what we want to buy!
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Celery this big makes Sandi very happy!
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On our first Sunday we went to the nearby village of Bazoges-en-Pareds. Pareds comes from the Latin for "land of grassy valleys". The history of the village goes back 6000 years! We visited the Dongon, which is a medieval castle built in 1380. With spartan rooms on 4 floors and a outside parapet around the top, it is more like a fortified tower than a residence.
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The view of the village from the open parapet.
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The adjacent castle garden has been reconstructed along medieval lines, and is divided into 16 squares, each bordered by chestnut hedges. The squares are divided into areas for vegetables, medicinal plants, aromatic plants, and plants used in witchcraft. To the right one can see the round dove-cote.
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Beautiful, but toxic Aconite flowers.
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On the side there is an orchard [where we scrumped a few windfall apples and pears] and a large round dove-cote. It was built in 1524 and owned by the Lord of Bazoges, as only noblemen were allowed to own a dovecote. Every pigeon hole represents ½ a hectare of cultivated land owned by the Lord. When he sold off some land he had to block off the required number of nests.
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One Saturday we went to the street market in Fontenay-le-Comte, which is a little town about 30 minutes away. The market was both outdoors and indoors and full of bustle and atmosphere. A big clothing section as well as foods; cheeses, olives, patès, honey, fish and shellfish.
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One day, while shopping in Chantonnay, David decided to have his hair cut [Sandi's attempts at hair-cutting not being quite up to par!] The hairdresser was happy to accommodate him without a rendezvous, but he got tongue-tied trying to explain, in his best French, how he wanted his hair cut. She hauled out a catalogue of young, dashing men modelling different hair styles, which made it even more difficult! Anyway she got on with it, gabbling in French, which was hard to keep up with while sounding intelligent, and the outcome was a little shorter than intended!
Decorative cabbages, which Sandi loves, in the streets of Chantonnay.
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The nearby village of Mouilleron-en-Pareds is proud of its good patisserie and of being the birthplace of Georges Clemenceau. The streets were full of lovely autumn colours.
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We took a frosty walk up on the hill to look at the old windmills [which give the village its name] and the views over the countryside.
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One of the mills now contains a tiny, round chapel!
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After several days of rain we found two crops of mushrooms growing in the garden.
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They looked like the brown mushrooms we buy in the shops, but to be sure David took one to the pharmacie to be identified. Unfortunately the young pharmacist didn’t really know, and wasn’t prepared to say whether we could eat them or not. One of the English neighbours, David, said he would eat them, so we decided to have some for supper. They were delicious, but Sandi stayed awake most of the whole night, just to make sure we didn't stop breathing. A few days later we took some of the second crop to another pharmacy in Chantonnay, and the older pharmacist had no hesitation in giving us the OK. So we picked the whole crop with glee!
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On another sunny day [there have been only three in two weeks!] we drove to the little village of Vouvant; reputedly one of the most beautiful villages in France. It is an old village on a hill surrounded on three sides by the river Mere.
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The Melusine tower forms part of the old ramparts.
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The Church of Notre Dame has a high ceiling, but is without much adornment, except for the Norman carvings around the door.
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From there we went for a walk in the Forest of Mervent-Vouvant and saw plenty of holly, some plants even sporting a few bright red berries on the tallest branches. We couldn't resist bringing a few sprigs back to grace the kitchen table. The forest was originally owned by the lords of Mervent, then in 1674 became the Royal Forest; it is now a national park.
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Posted by davidsandi 08:30 Archived in France Comments (0)

LA MAISON "House-and-Cat-Sit", VENDÉE

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.
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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!
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This old clock and astrological time-keeper has been going for hundreds of years.
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The cathedral also looked stunning at night
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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].
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The view of the house from the side
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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.
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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.
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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!
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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!
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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.
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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!
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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.
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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
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and the chestnut and walnut trees have finished dropping their crop, which lays out like a picnic blanket below.
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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.
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We didn’t dare to taste these exotic looking mushrooms, which were later identified as Magpie inkcaps and toxic!
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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!
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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.
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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!],
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or settle on the "stylish" pink velour seats of the van in the hope of going on an adventure!
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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.
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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.
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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!
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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?
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Tarte au pruneau [plums]
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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.

Posted by davidsandi 08:20 Archived in France Comments (0)

VERSAILLES

rain

The Palace of Versailles, even in the low season and on a miserable day, is a busy place. We joined a very long queue, in the rain, to get entrance tickets, then jostled our way through the crowds to see the sights of the palace.
The roof of the  Royal family chapel

The roof of the Royal family chapel

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View of the gardens from the first floor

View of the gardens from the first floor


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The famous Hall of Mirrors

The famous Hall of Mirrors

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Front facade of the Palace

Front facade of the Palace


The King's bed

The King's bed


Marie-Antoinette's bed

Marie-Antoinette's bed


Here is a selection of some of the murals, paintings and chandeliers in the many rooms.
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Napoleon Bonaparte


A long hall with paintings depicting all the famous French battles.
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Descartes

Napoleon

Napoleon


The Palace from the front

The Palace from the front

The Palace from the gardens

The Palace from the gardens


Splendid as it all is, both the crowds, and the opulence, eventually become a bit overwhelming, and we gladly decided to call it a day. Enough is as good as a holiday, or so the maxim goes!

Posted by davidsandi 08:32 Archived in France Comments (0)

LA FRANCE ET VOILA PARIS!

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We had pre-booked a ferry crossing via the Camping and Caravanning Club for Sunday at 12:15. We arrived at the Dover terminal in good time, and found the check-in very efficient and speedy. We were allocated to queue in lane 172 until boarding, which also happened surprisingly quickly. After driving on board, we found a table on the restaurant deck and shared a plate of roast chicken and chips and a slice of chocolate cake, washed down with our can of smuggled-in Stella, as we bade farewell to the white cliffs of Dover. They are truly white from a distance, but close-up they look quite grubby! The trip over took 90 minutes, but we had to add an hour onto our watches when we arrived.
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Driving off the ferry we soon joined the autoroute; a new experience for David to be driving on the “wrong” side of the road! The signs soon indicated it was a toll road [peage], but gave no idea of how much it might cost. We went through a gate where we picked up a ticket, which we eventually had to hand in at the exit gate 250km later. We were stunned to be charged €35 [R400]! The road was good and we enjoyed the drive, stopping off for a pique-nique lunch on the side of the road at one of the frequent, excellent rest-stops [aires].

The fun and games started when we hit Paris, as firstly the traffic became insane. Thousands of cars and people, and we didn’t know why! The road to the campsite was cordoned off and the police refused to let us go past and refused to explain. Very stressful for a while. Anyway, we parked off-road and Dave hopped out to go and find out what was going on [in his best French]. Turns out there was a HUGE Grand Prix event at a stadium, which flanked the road we needed to reach the campsite. The road was eventually opened and we could go through, but arrived at the campsite in the dark, much later than anticipated. So it was hook-up, eat-up, and sleep!

We spent 2 days in the campsite in the Bois de Boulogne [which is the area famous for prostitutes!], but our site was hooker-free [but unfortunately nor hook-up free]! The toilets were so dirty compared to the UK ones [one generally has to squat and most people seem to miss!] and we paid twice the price for the site [€30], but we were camped beside the Seine after all!

The weather in Paris was wet and grey, but that didn’t stop us exploring the city with our Mobilis cards, which gave us unlimited travel. Only problem was that we were unaware of the crazy opening times for many of the tourist sites. So off we went on Monday morning to visit the Rodin Museum, only to find it is closed on a Monday! The restaurant where we enjoyed a romantic [shared] omelette and glass of wine in 1979, as a newly-engaged couple, was still there though. We were tempted to go for a deja vu repeat experience, but opted instead to head for the Champs-Élysées, la Madeleine, the Tuileries gardens and the Louvre Art Gallery.

Our first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower through the mist

Our first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower through the mist


Hotel des Invalides, which houses the army museum

Hotel des Invalides, which houses the army museum


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We were fascinated with the statues and lamps on the nearby Pont de Alexandre III.
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On the other side of the river we found this statue of the familiar and famous [but not French] statesman.
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Here is the Petit Palais and across the road, the Grand Palais.
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Fabulous buildings and statues, but no access indoors anywhere. We walked up the Champs-Élysées to the Place de la Concorde.
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This was the site of the execution of Marie-Antoinette, and previously called Place de Louis XV, then Place de la Revolution.
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The red-granite obelisk in the centre was a gift from Egypt and used to stand in front of the Temple of Luxor 3300 years ago. It weighs 250 tons and proved quite a technical challenge to transport 180 years ago.
IMG_0369.jpgIMG_0358.jpgThe description on the obelisk of how it was transported

The description on the obelisk of how it was transported


The nearby two matching fountains represent the Seas and the Rivers.
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The Tuileries Gardens were very sparse in winter.
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Sometimes one is the statue, sometimes one is the pigeon!

Sometimes one is the statue, sometimes one is the pigeon!


Some thoughtful authority had decided to jolly the drabness up with some modern sculptures.
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We unfortunately didn't get to see inside the Louvre because we arrived there an hour before it closed, and we couldn’t justify the entry fee for only 1 hour …… and alas, they were also closed on Tuesdays!! We had no internet connection at the camp-site so had relied on the old copy of The Lonely Planet guidebook Jamie had given us, which was out of date regarding opening times etc.

Not to be daunted, we set off for Montmartre to visit the Sacre Coeur church, which was splendid, and enjoyed listening to a beautiful service of music and song, delivered by 6 nuns with heavenly voices.
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We then explored the area, which was great fun, with Sandi finding a really cute little ooh-lal-la purple plaid cap, which has been great for keeping the cold off the noggin ever since!!
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After that we had a Moulles et Frites supper at a sidewalk café before heading back to the camp-site to rest our aching limbs. On the way we had a spectacular view of a silvery full-moon over Paris from Sacre Coeur, but unfortunately our camera battery went flat, so we missed the photo opportunity!

We found out Versailles was open on a Tuesday [but not a Monday] so headed there for the morning. [See next posting for photos.] What an astonishing place – all gold, crystal, and historical splendour. Hell on the feet though! After spending a few hours there [including an hour queuing], among thousands of tourists, we headed back into the city to the Latin quarter near the Sorbonne. We enjoyed the magnificent fountain of St Michel
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and a brief visit to Notre Dame Cathedral, before doing some window-shopping.
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The quaint streets are full of brasseries, cafes and tourist shops [we didn’t even venture near all the fancy brand-name stores]. By then we were whacked, so stopped off for a beer at a side-walk café; it was fun to watch all the people going by and guessing what they were up to.
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The restaurants were all offering special “menus” for supper, many displaying brochettes [kebabs] with sea-foods in their windows.
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So we succumbed and each had a delicious meat brochette in a cute little Greek café after the guy enticing patrons in, offered us a reduced price of €10. After watching some street break-dancing, it was au revoir to Paris as we descended to the Metro to get back to the campsite for some sleep and prep for an early morning departure to Switzerland.
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Posted by davidsandi 08:03 Archived in France Comments (0)

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