Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Scratchetty ratchetty

When you are in your cheapie, modern hotel, with air-conditioning and your best beloved, you have this opportunity for FALLING OUT.  Is the room intolerably hot, or not? Is the fan intolerably loud, or not? Is it FAIR PLAY to change the mode while the other one is asleep, or not? Eh?  The only thing I can say is, we were both actually alive in the morning when we woke up, and not dead, which is something.

Breakfast in these Etaps/Ibis Budget hotels has been pared down to a simple, excellent service. The orange juice from the machine is delicious. The muesli is unsweetened (hooray!) There are various  yoghurts in the tiny fridge, including unsweetened (hooray!) There is a good selection of breads and brioches to choose from, and the marmalade (which comes in a long thin plastic squeezey tube) is very good indeed.  Well done!   They should apply the same careful thought to the weird lighting arrangement for the toilets in the rooms.  The light goes on automatically when you go in, and then goes out, and leaves you sitting in the dark and no means of finding how to switch it on again.   Hmmn.

Our last day in France was spent grinding up through the great plains of the north. Blois was truly lovely in the morning light. For some reason, we chose to believe our satnav when it suggested going via Paris... surely, surely we knew that the péripherique of Paris is the WORST ROAD IN THE WORLD?  And even worse, when we got halfway round and decided to ditch Beauvais and head out past Charles de Gaulle Airport (more direct), we found we were in a further colossal TEN MILE traffic jam right through the rural countryside, which is so bad and has been there so long that they even do traffic reports on it in English (except we hadn't heard about it).

My beloved had promised me 'lunch in Beauvais'.... so when he said we might be better getting a sandwich from one of the aires along the road, I said Non! non! Non!   We peeled off at Pailly and looked first of all at the restaurant touristique which is called le Gentilhommerie, and where the menu is 24€ - i.e. too much food if you still have to drive a further 150 miles or something.  So we chose the Turkish pizza caff in the village instead, and had a very nice snack - my kebab was excellent and I recommend it.

While we are on the subject of food (again!) I must record some more of what Tom Vernon told us. He feels that life in France is a good 40 years behind life in England, still laying great emphasis on manners, family, study, society, etc.  (I worded this so much better 30 mins ago, but lost the whole of the blog and I am now trying to recreate my words... it's not how I said it last time).  All the English people we have met who choose to live in France say the same thing. They like the certainties.  Everyone knows who they are and how things work.  Tom obviously is a fan, but he said there are three things the French don't eat: parsnips, gooseberries and rhubarb.  Gooseberries exist (for the French) only in relation to mackerel. They  have no independent existence away from fish. So if you offer them gooseberry jam or gooseberry fool, they are amazed.  He also said there is a (new?) kind of onion grown slightly to the south of Valleraughe - it is red, sweet, mild and dry - great for eating raw. It is so important, so highly regarded, that it has an AOC of its own - an appellation controllé.  I wish I had found one to bring home (and grow) but it was a jour ferié on Monday, so no shops open.

We were so late and so stressed because of the traffic and the awful night's sleep that we did not manage to call in to see our friends Jeremy and Mary Kemp at Morienne, near Aumale, on the way. That was a shame, but they may not have appreciated my horrible sore throat and cough, and we would only have been able to stay for about 20 mins. Jeremy is working on the proofs of his book about art produced apparently in the trenches during the first World War. He happened upon this extraordinary and previously little-known subject when he kept finding marvellous (shocking) prints and aquatints showing the total destruction of villages and towns in northern France. These were made by various artists, who may or may not have known each other, and who were recording a kind of 'end of the world' - their homes and communities smashed to shreds by fire and bombardment.  The book will be timely with the centenary of the War shortly upon us.  Our drive, through the heat of the afternoon, was through the very landscape which appears over and over again in his book... today all was calm and rich, with peaceful fields full of barley, and quiet villages and trees.  Then it was all destruction and death.  We drove past the Somme, Vimy Ridge, Albert and Peronne...  Makes our little squabbles over the air-conditioning seem really puerile.

At Calais we went through the usual thing. Someone passes your passport over a scanner and then looks at you to see if you are the same person (difficult in my case as my passport self is a redhead but I am now a stripey blonde).  The ticket lady give you that card to hang on your mirror bracket, which says '2', meaning two people should be in the car, but no-one really checks. Is this security? Does it matter?  Here we are on the ferry, with free wifi (thank you), and surrounded by maybe two or three hundred English school children. They are quite well behaved, but much noisier than their French counterparts would be. They are growing up in a restless, fast-changing, self-doubting, contradictory, media-led world. In France, though, the old values are still evident. First and foremost, everyone in France is FRENCH!  The handwriting, the manners, the communities and their facilities, the time-table, everything is consistent.

Crossing the Channel now, in fog, like we did on Monday last week also in fog, it seems to me we will never really understand each other.  It means France will always be a wonderful place to go on holiday.  We can go back in time. We can eat fantastic food. We can experience truly huge landscapes. We can grasp some of our own history - the time when 'their' kings and ours were the same super-rich tribe, playing a massive game of Monopoly with castles, countries (such as Aquitaine, or Normandy for example), wars, torture, dynastic marriages, murder etc etc....   It's like looking in a strange mirror. They are 'the same' as us, and yet quite different.  They remain wedded (aesthetically, at any rate) to concrete and cement in a way we do not. They have colour schemes which would never work in England. They do not apparently make puns very often (apart from one we saw in Albi - in a dry cleaners' shop where they do ironing, and a sign said 'Savoir Fer', which seemed pretty good to us). They all know what to do, how to be French, and I often think people in England don't know how to be English, which is what actually makes them English.  They have FREE PARKING for two hours at lunchtime.  They can all shrug in a peculiarly Gallic way and we cannot.  They cannot spell pony and they cannot pronounce 'th' (which always comes out as 'z' (why?).  They are out and out republicans but they adore the Queen (do we?).   So - that's why we go there for our holidays.  Marvellous place.

Now we are approaching Dover in the fog. A teacher has ROARED at all these children and told them to BE QUIET!!!!  All in good humour.  What a week it has been.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Loir et Cher

Just arrived at our cheapie hotel on our way home. It's called an Ibis Budget and it opened less than 2 weeks ago.  Feels like we may actually the very first people to stay in this room! It's basic but v well designed - little loo cubicle, smart spacious shower, basin, desk, double-bed, aircon, upper single bunk, and quite good TV channels.  All up (including secure parking and breakfast €54.90 which is about £45.
We'll head off into Romorantin for supper in a few moments.

I just want to bid farewell in my mind to Tom and Sally Vernon in their amazing house, in a deep, steep, forested valley on the southern edge of the Cevennes. A heron coasted by the mysterious terraced wooded garden this morning.  A nightingale was singing last night. The rain had kept everything pristine - every wall, every nook and cranny, every step and wall is filled with tiny flowers. There is an amazing perfume from the Provence roses which Sally has tucked in everywhere, and soft wild campanula softens all the edges.  It is completely magic. The three house cats disdain to be stroked but control things pretty well.  The Vernons say it's quite something that the chasseurs have not so far shot these beautiful animals. Many English residents find their beloved moggy left on their doorstep, shot, because the locals think they are too much competition when it comes to catching wild things.

The little village of Valleraughe - just further up the valley - is (very slightly) reminiscent of a coal-mining village in Wales, something like that - made of dark stone, not much space, tall houses and passages, walls, the river rushing down the middle....   It is, very surprisingly, a centre of Protestantism with no less than five sects discernible. It was a silk-weaving town, maybe some of the Huguenots fleeing the pogroms after the Edict of Nantes and the infamous massacres of St Bartholomew's Day settled there .... but the Vernon's house is not the only great edifice built for the production of the finest silk imaginable.

Sally has been saying there has been a scourge of illness lately - cancer is so prevalent that no-one raises an eyebrow nowadays when someone's diagnosed. She was going to visit various sick friends in hospital today....   Last night, some friends came round with a piano for them. It was strapped to the back of a trailer and Andrew took the opportunity of playing it - it's a lovely upright Bechstein and in perfect pitch too. See the little video clip on FB:

They'll have brought it into the house by now, using a tractor to unload it.  It will live in the huge new salon they have made... I wish I was there to hear and see it.

Tom has spent his life as a musician, writer, broadcaster, thinker, cook, film-maker, actor, traveller and host...  He is a true polymath.  Now he has been ill, and is working through the considerable indexes of his life's work... trying to bring together the many recording media which have come and gone in his lifetime, to make sure everything is accessible for the future. Among his works are at least 2 CDs of original songs written and performed by him - some political, some romantic, some funny and all bitter-sweet; he recorded a huge amount of Dickens' work on  BBC Radio London, he produced and recorded many rare operas, he wrote and made TV films using his 'Fat Man on a Bicycle' brand - around England, Scandinavia, Europe, and further afield. His 'voice' in all this is so humane, so loving - the whole thing needs to be archived properly and made available again to the public. He was hugely popular till the everything at the BBC went wonky - the great exodus of real broadcasters and producers was a massive cultural loss to Britain and the world. I hope he can maybe get some sort of grant to help him get all this work gathered up and properly presented - it might make him some money (and why not?) but the world would be a richer place if all this was available again.  It was really lovely to see him and Sally again. They look absolutely happy in their mountain valley, with their fantastic garden, rushing river, lush forests, and that amazing old silk-merchant's house.

Today we had a divine drive through the Cevennes, where the wildflowers along the rocky verges were so rich and varied it was completely indescribable. Each section of road seemed to attract a particular combination of flowers - some pinks and blue, some pinks and purples, some red, some white, some blues and purples, some brilliant yellows.  There were millions of them. Stunning, breathtaking.  We went through medieval country and Roman, had lunch in Marejols which has 13 towers and 3 fortified gates (but a lot of closed-down shops in the centre). We were rushing along through the most spacious, beautiful countryside... we must come back.  There is so much more to explore.

Now - being really tired and with supper to find, I will end for tonight. Tomorrow we head up to Calais, having done more than half the journey from south to north today.


I will add a postscript. We drove into Romorantin to find supper. Parked, strolled, found a place near the river Sauldres with its weirs and lovely old bridge.  We could have a demi-menu for €11.50 - quite a good price for an evening meal.  Andrew had an assiette de crudités  which turned out to be green and red tomatoes with strawberries and lots of flowers, and I had a tartare de concombre which was a little dish with chunks of cucumber, covered in cream, and the plate on which this sat was fantastically carefully decorated with hundreds of individual elderflower florets and petals of gorse (?) or some other yellow flower.  It was nearly impossible to eat - the cream being far too runny, the flowers being far too flimsy.  Really weird.     The main course was salmon for A and chicken for me...  it took a very long time to arrive, and was mostly out of a packet, I think.  My glass of rosé never arrived.  A party of Dutch tourists arrived, ordered, and waited and waited and waited.....  We thought it was all rather funny.  On the way back to the car, we found two women holding a bundle (surely not a baby?) and wailing and rushing about, outside a vet's.  They shouted at us - incomprehensible - but it seemed they wanted to ring the vet (office closed) using our portable... but I had left my mobile in the hotel by mistake.  The bundle was a dog. They were running around, really distraught.  Nothing we could do.  They were shouting, running, waving at empty shops, the older one holding the dog in a huge pink blanket, the younger one wailing and calling out. No-one answered.

We have filled up with diesel in one of those sensible pay-by-card-automatically pumps which are open 24/7 as they say. Now back at the base, dog tired.

Monday, 28 May 2012

Setting off north

We're off heading back north very shortly. Yesterday was a lovely quiet interlude. Andrew managed to get the chainsaw going and he cut logs while I stacked them. The timber came from trees along the banks of the Herault, at the foot of Tom and Sally's land. The commune came and felled a line of trees near the water after there had been terrible high floods - the idea was to remove these potential hazards in case the river should rise again, sweep them from the banks and thus risk the bridges downstream. So they have a fine pile of wood to cut.

We also had a grand tour of the house - the huge old room upstairs which once housed the trays of silkworms (magnanerie) has been transformed into a salon of great beauty with a new wooden roof and ceiling (Dutch elm), a polished wooden floor (chestnut), a mezzanine of elm approached by a wonderful elegant and easy spiral staircase, and with such space and height - it could be used for concerts, parties, card games, yoga, theatre, what-have-you....  It has taken Tom and Sally 20 years to plan and execute this (and pay for it) and it is superb.

Later in the evening, during supper, a friend of theirs arrived bringing with him on a trailer a fine upright piano. The friend and his son deemed it best to unload this tomorrow (today) using a tractor to lift it off, but in the meantime we had a short impromptu concert with Andrew leaning over the edge of the trailer to give us a couple of numbers. Then the Bechstein was careful led back down the lane to an agreed parking spot, wrapped lovingly in plastic against further rain, and we all went back inside.

Now it's time for breakfast - I hope Sally will be able to give me cuttings or babies of two of the most wonderful plants from her garden - we will stay at a new cheapie Ibis near Bourges tonight, and get to Calais tomorrow.  Our holiday has been dogged by rain and storms but we have had an interesting time and it's been lovely seeing friends.  Right now, the sun is shining on those magic steep woods opposite, and a sea of (3) cats are weaving round Sally's ankles waiting to be fed, like the cats in Gormenghast.
We will be leaving in an hour or so.


Time to say goodbye to Sheila and Chris.... we never did get into the swimming pool because although it felt warm on the top few inches, the water deep below was really still cold. There had not been enough sun to warm it through during this week, hélas!  They have such a pretty house, in such a pretty place, and they are very happy there.  They will have fun managing the gardening of the steep slopes on their terraces, but those could be planted with shrubbery or bamboo in due course, and meanwhile they have their roses, fruit trees, lawns and woods, all very charming and enticing.
We left Caumont in fine clear sunlight, following the old road towards Toulouse, through ecstatically beautiful gentle country, and abandoning our first plan to go via Castres, diverted up to Albi. Parking just outside the old city, we wandered around and a man asked what we were looking for. After a confusion caused by my reply - 'un petit déjeuner' (meaning a light lunch) - which he took to mean 'breakfast' - he suggested he take us to a place he knew, where, unlike the other restos all around, there is a real kitchen. He said he had a bar of his own but did not serve lunch, and we said we'd take a look. So he led us on a roundabout route down little alleys and twists into a hidden courtyard which looked very promising. That is where we ate - whether hustled or not - and it was wonderful... Andrew had a confit de lapin, and I had joues de porc....  copious amounts of perfectly cooked regional peasant food, with chips cooked in duck fat and lovely salad.   All up, 33€, and worth seeking out if you are ever in Albi. It's called Lou Sicret, which (you've guessed it) means The Secret in the local patois.
Albi Cathedral was emptying of Whitsun Confirmation crowds - with dozens of local children in their best dress and photos being taken, and all the loving families clustered round. We slipped in to see the inside - this is the largest brick cathedral in the world - and huge too. Inside it's all painted, something we are not used to seeing in England - but with vivid highly detailed geometric designs right up through all the vaults, and every surface covered with something or other.....   I have never been into Indian temple but I imagine it might be like this.
Then we headed east again, and through part of the Cevennes National Park - up and up, to thousands of feet, all forest, zigzags, stacks of felled trees by the side of the road waiting for collection, stunning distant views back down onto the plains we had just travelled. Our satnav eventually threw a hissy fit, could not understand where we were, told us to go back, turn around... like some demented seer or prophet, foretelling doom and indeed our position on its little map seemed irretrievable, but in fact of course, this is an ancient road which knows exactly where it's going and that is to our friends' house just below Valleraughe.   We have not been here 14 years, and it was a bit of a game trying to find which turning we should take ... but there it was... up across the Herault, past the old houses, into a cool green lane, down and up... and there's Tom! Looking thinner and older but still the same, how lovely.
We bring various bags and boxes in, too much stuff even on the road... some foie gras for their fridge and Pineau des Charentes.  The drinking water for our meal comes from a tiny cistern outside on the terrace, fed by a little spout with water straight from the heart of the mountain. We settle down to tea, supper, memories, conversation, laughs and eventually - sleep. Our bedroom has a high dark wooden ceiling. Sally has created a shower room next door with pebbles laid as mosaics in a pretty design.  No need for curtains - there is a tree outside the window and the only view is of the steep mountainside on the other side of the river, covered in forest, only about four hundred yards away. It's all silent, deep, hidden.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Goose quills

Yesterday, when we were having a quiet local mooching day, it was dark and grey and nearly drizzling. Today, when we will be in the car moving east to the Cevennes (six hours) it is sunny and already hot at 8.30am.  Darn it.
My sister took us to Auvillar yesterday - another surprise.  This is a little brick town on top of a hill - with an ancient clock tower, a large sloping triangular arcaded place, and a marvellous Romanesque grain market in the middle of it, complete with columns, an auctioneer's platform, and very old signs showing where each kind of grain should be found - rye, wheat, barley, oats etc.
The town is definitely on the pilgrims' route and though the day was drear there were quite a few of them about, encouraged by cute little statuary showing how nifty and easy it is to be a pilgrim.
The town has ancient roots of course, as revealed by its architecture, but it kept itself going in the 18th and 19th centuries making faience (13 factories 150 years ago), and goose-quill pens.  Trade was by boat on the Garonne - 3000 visited in one year in the early 19thC.  All this carried on till someone went and built the canal des Deux Mers (not close enough), and then the railway (even further away).  Everything dried up. The huge factories are now either art galleries (closed) or for sale, or empty.
We walked round St Peter's church which had large 18th century artworks casually leaning on the arches, admired the spectacular view over the Garonne river from the chateau carpark (the canal and railway barely discernible), tried to get lunch at a creperie which had wonderful purple metal tables and chairs on its terrasse and was firmly shut despite having a large notice saying it was open, ate in a pilgrims' cafe, then headed into Valence d'Agen to shop for supper. The two fountains in the place in Valence are noticeable for having all the water coloured with bright turquoise dye.
We chose to make a tapas for our last night - this and that... the anchovies from the Intermarché were superb, I must say. The lady behind the fish counter assured us that the brandade de morue in a packet was exactly the same as the brandade de morue out on display. That was nice too.
We cooked and ate out by the pool - Tom and Kate were there too - as the evening gently warmed up, and then the stars gradually revealed themselves, and then Andrew and I came in and zonked out, leaving the locals to enjoy themselves.
Now it's time to set off to the east - maybe go through Toulouse which we have missed out on this trip. We are heading into the country of the great Herault river, with its enormous glaciated valleys and forests.... that is what I remember from last time, anyway.

Pilgrimages, Buzzards

This whole area falls within the ancient pilgrimage route for those thousands of people who walk to Santiago de Compostella. As an activity, it was the old-time version of going on a holiday, with the benefit of a special kind of blessing for those who could say they had touched the tomb of the saint. Every country had its pilgrimages - the devout went to Walsingham in Norfolk to meet up with Mary and to Canterbury to ponder on the brave end of St Thomas. And some, like the amazing Marjorie Kemp from Kings Lynn, actually made it to Jerusalem. But northern Spain was - and is - a popular destination for people from throughout Europe.
Actually, I even know of two people from little Faversham who are engaged in this particular pilgrimage - Mefo Phillips who travels on horseback and has written books about it, and Carolin Clapperton who is doing the walk in stages, a modern variant where you tick off each section of the walk as you finish it, and then go back to complete the next one.
Today's pilgrims are readily recognised hereabouts. They look tanned and wiry. They carry backpacks - judiciously packed with essentials only, not too heavy. Some have one walking stick, some have two.  They sometimes are carrying a little picnic, and they stride on, along the roads or up to the cathedrals and abbeys, which for these dusty travellers must be like glittering palaces of statuary and gleaming gold, havens, oases of cool air, somewhere to pray and give thanks that another stage of the perilous journey has been accomplished.  We saw them in Moissac, and at Auch, and along the roads and passes.
It's impossible, really to reconfigure the medieval mind, but I feel we can get tiny glimpses into it by watching these walkers and their ecclesiastical destinations, and all the cafes and lodging houses and tat-shops clustered around. It would be another thing to go on a long-distance holy walk myself. Perhaps - one day.

There are wonderful birds to be seen and heard here - notably buzzards and black kites at the top of the predatory tree, I suppose, but we hear songbirds (what is it?), and last night, amazingly, in the middle of absolutely nowhere, a solo peacock.    There are hawks and herons and swallows and martins.  I wish I had brought my bird book.

We saw the peacock en route to a restaurant at Bardigues - quite a smarty-pants place. It's run by a team who rent the premises from the commune - a common idea in these parts.  The meal was swanky and brilliantly described by our waiter while we were ordering. It was also (for us) very expensive and maybe not worth the money - but the evening was warm, the terrasse was welcoming, the decor was pretty, the scenery beautiful, the service reasonably deferential, the wine slickly presented, and the food looked very pretty on each plate.  The best things were the snails in a garlic sauce, the borage flowers decorating my foie gras, and a cheese from somewhere (the chariot de fromages had about 40 to chose from).  The worst thing by far was an inedible portion of veal (gristly and tough), and the smell of the ashtray which my sister insisted on filling, in a continuous chain of fags between each course.   It is a loathsome and unpleasant habit for anyone sitting near, but it is an addiction and the worst part of it is the truculence and belligerence which accompanies it all.  Sigh.  We haven't fallen out over it yet, but we might.

Back to the house, under the stars.  They are pure and brilliant.  It would be worth investing in a telescope.

Today we had planned to go into Toulouse but I am pleased that we decided to stay around the house and do very little. We will cook a tapas type meal this evening, and Tom and Kate Absolom will come over. Then tomorrow we're heading off towards the Cevennes, about six hours away to the east, to see Tom and Sally Vernon, old friends from my BBC days.  We were last at their house - a maison de maitre - belonging to a silk grower, 14 years ago.

Friday, 25 May 2012


For several years, I have had an ambition to see something I read about in a history book. It said that there was a misericord in the Cathedral at Auch with a carving of the popular medieval saint, Eloi, performing one of his miracles - namely shoeing the devil (who was in disguise as a horse) and overcoming the wild and dangerous stamping of the horse by the ingenious method of cutting its leg off, putting the new shoe (Christianity) onto the horse's foot, and then restoring the leg to the horse.
I have seen a marvellous early English alabaster carving of this episode in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, but the one in Auch has called to me for about 15 years, maybe more. Today was the day to go and find it!  Auch is about 50 miles from my sister's house, and we passed through the particularly pretty town of Fleurance (with a lovely arcaded place and ancient covered market), on our way to the Cathedral. Auch is quite a city, well appointed and bang central in the department of Gers.... very historic and rich.
The Cathedral is quite something - most of the ancient work has long since been swept away, but in the 16th and 17th centuries it was all built up again and then adorned. The choir is stupendous - almost a closed room on its own account, with utterly amazing oak carvings all round. The scenes are a mish-mash of Biblical, Classical, imaginative and and monstrous - literally hundreds of panels, portraits, stalls, ledges, seats, morals, lessons and so on. Dazzling.  Earlier work would have been scriptural only, but here they did not stint on the new ideas of the Renaissance, so everything is jumbled up together. It's absolutely terrific. You pay €2 to go in, and that is worth every penny.
My hopes were high, as there is actually a whole chapel dedicated to St Eloi down the nave - he stands carved in wood on top of a marvellous wooden Nativity, with his anvil and his hammer (patron saint of blacksmiths).
However, I could not find him in the misericords. There is a nice George and the Dragon, with a spirited and beautiful horse, and a false hope in a carving of a decapitated woman being restored to life, but no misericord of  St Eloi.
I am really downcast. I cannot remember where I read about this little work. It may be that it is in a different church in Auch.
The reason I want to find images of this saint, who appears twice in the Canterbury Tales, by the way, as St Loy, is that this story of a saint shoeing the devil-in-disguise-as-a-horse, is duplicated for another early saint, Dunstan, who was Archbishop of Canterbury. He was also a metal-smith, and patron of metal workers including blacksmiths.  Dunstan and Eloi were both real people, working for royalty, who had been missionaries to the Low Countries (where as we know great horses were bred for centuries), and both may well have taken Christianity into horse-worshipping territory at the end of the Dark Ages. So the metaphor of shoeing the horse may be quite important.
And the back-story for all this is that I do just wonder if the old, widespread, pre-Christian religion of Europe was horse-worship.  You are not allowed to take horses into churches. You will find almost NO images of horses in early churches, despite their fantastic importance throughout history as beasts of burden, war, aristocratic connection, intelligence, farming, etc etc.   Why should that be?
Anyway, don't get me started.
If I had found St Eloi in Auch I would have been ecstatic. But this setback won't stop me.
I have more questions - especially after spending all this time in rural France. Who on earth are (or were) all these saints who gave their names to so many obscure places? St Clar, St This, St That.....   Hundreds, thousands of them. I bet they are not all post-5th century. I bet a huge number of them go back way before Christianity - local deities, of water, woods, light, fertility, war and love.....  Their names are especially well preserved in Gaul - by the Romans and then the Roman Church.  A treasure trove of names and stories.... if only we can work out what it all means.

Escaping the Gestapo

I had some trepidation going to lunch yesterday. It was to hear an old lady talk about her experiences as a child in France, escaping the Gestapo - because she was Jewish.  I wasn't fancying anything too harrowing.  We picked up a friend en route to the venue. She had invited us to come along and said it was a Ladies' Group who had fixed the whole thing.
We met in a spacious salle des fetes such as is found in most French villages, and there were about 80 mostly English people. We were offered Pimms, or orange juice and then sat at pretty tables to eat curry. The speaker was introduced - called Yvonne Franklin. She was 12 in 1939, born in England and the daughter of a Polish/French pianist and composer called Roger Jalowicz or Sinclair, living in Paris. The terrifying sequence of events - registrations, deprivations, removals, escapes, betrayals, abandonments, midnight journeys through the forests, having to trust complete strangers, guns, questions, loss.... on and on.  The great-aunt who blithely told the police 'Oh yes, I have family - they live a xxx...'  The man who stole all their money. The strangers on a train who led them to shelter, only for neighbours to denounce them.... The group of young men taken hostage and shot for nothing. In the end, this little family all got through. A statistical fluke given the numbers of people who vanished. The audience in the hall gave her a full applause, and we were all served birthday cake to celebrate her forthcoming 86th.
Heading home, we sat by our friend's pool and soaked up the sun.
Then back at my sister's we did almost nothing... relaxing at last.
Her pool is now almost finished - all honey-coloured and with salt water, surrounded by blonde stone and tiles.  We ate a very English cauliflower cheese out there, watching bats flitter about, and listening to bullfrogs down in the valley.  All calm.
How fortunate I have been in my life - no wars, no genocides in my country, no terror to speak of.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

First sunny morning

It's quite ridiculous to feel so peeved, and so personally slighted, by weather. We left Kent on Monday morning on a dull greyish morning - but as we crossed the channel, things at home were heating up, and friends and neighbours have had sweltering sun, lovely brightness and summery pleasures all week - while we, spending ALL this money, driving ALL this long way (about 1000 miles), being SO much in need of a holiday - have had rain, cold, wind, darkness, fog, mist, drear..... oh horrible.  Surely 'it' KNOWS we came here to the south of France for some 'guaranteed' warmth and tanning? Isn't anyone listening?!?!?!?

Then reasonableness creeps in - this aberration of the weather is just a trifle, an inconvenience, nothing at all. There are people whose whole lives are endangered by mad weather, so what am I complaining about, eh?

My instinct to beat myself up over things like this is somewhat mollified this morning, as the sun is actually shining. Outside, the first of the workmen has arrived to start on installing a shower beside the new swimming pool, which so far consists of an elegant basin surrounded by tiles...  and that all set in a swathe of mud and weeds, and banks of bare earth.  They've had such weird weather during the early part of the year, and the tile-maker created the wrong kinds of corners, so the pool is way behind schedule.... all my dreams of lounging beside my sister's own fab pool will have to be delayed till our next visit (if I can bear the ciggie smoke which I keep forgetting about. I wish she would give up. Apart from the fact it's clearly killing her - cough, cough, cough - it makes everything smell disgusting, clothes, hair, skin, furniture.... I truly hate it).  Oh dear, see how easy it is to slip back into negativity.

So, the sun is shining. A bird (unknown) is singing its heart out. A cherry tree down the lane is laden with glossy sweet fruits, free for the picking. We will go and see the confluence of the Garonne and the Tarn in a little while. Both rivers are swollen brown with flood waters. The village set where they meet is called St Nicholas de la Grave - St Nick as patron saint of sailors, and the 'Grave' being gravels which have been loaded onto boats as ballast since Roman times.  Then we're going to hear an old lady talk about how she survived as a Jew under Vichy government (a talk arranged by one of Sheila's friends), and we're following that with a curry.

"I didn't come all this way to the south of France to eat curry!"

'Oh yes you did..."

Other items on our itinerary are the city of Auch (where I want to see a misericord showing St Eloi - have I mentioned this before?), and the city of Toulouse....  Quite a lot to fit into the next 2 or 3 days.  In the SUN!!!!!!!!!!!!


Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Local land and buildings

The typical Gers farmhouse is quite modest in appearance outside, but spacious and generous in their inner capacity - Tardis-like, in fact. The walls are made of mud bricks, which are sturdy enough as long as they remain dry. Under their Roman-style roofs made of undulating and alternating tiles, cased in a tough waterproof coating called crépis, and with their doors and window openings made of expensive and beautiful local whitish limestone, these walls are secure enough, but should water get in anywhere, or if the mud-bricks are exposed to rain or damp - then they rapidly crumble into dust.
The layout of the houses, which are low and organic-looking, with wide barns or sheds pulled in under the same roof, often centres around a long, wide, central hall running the length of the building. With a modernising eye, this central space can become a stunning gallery-like walkway. In the old days, once the harvest was in, the hall served as a festive dining area, with a long trestle table set down the middle, and all the workers and hangers-on allowed into the master's house, to celebrate the end of the season's work and fruitfulness.  The wide, light rooms of roughly square proportion, all open off the hallway, giving a symmetry and classical feel to the building, despite its modest and quiet use.
In fact, one could trace a lineage for the design of these houses back to some of the early chateaux up in the Loire, and I am thinking of Chenonçeau in particular, with its Italian origins and stylised layout.  But these houses are not in the least aristocratic.  Just practical, made of local stone, very beautiful and unassuming.
The farms are quite numerous in any landscape here, presumably because the land was rich enough to support a family in a smallish acreage.  They are set among marvellous undulating hills and valleys, with groves of oaks or other firewood, and small streams, and bulbous swellings of land, and views of no more than say a mile or two of distance, but lovely and contemplative.  None of the houses looks to be older than the early 19th century - so God knows where the peasants round hear lived before the Revolution. In shacks and hovels, presumably. I must find out.
We went for lunch to a  cafe in a little bastide town called St Clar: three courses for 11€, and totally delicious. We looked at the lovely, wonky, typical arcades around the two town squares, bemoaned the effect of the recent opening of an Intermarché supermarket on the all the little local shops, admired a useful 24/7 automatic laundry machine with drier, set into the supermarket carpark.
We called in on Tom and Kate Absolom, who've lived here for about 4 years and have made their own Gers farmhouse into something so radiantly beautiful that it could be a New York loft, set down in this medieval and empty landscape. Stunning.
We came home again. The men set to getting the new hover-mower to work, and started transforming whole swathes of rough grass and weeds into smooth velveteen.  I cooked supper, opened wine, made salad, listened to the crickets, picked nettle tips to make anti-hay-fever tisanes, and now - at quite an early hour - have fallen into bed to try to do nothing, and catch up on rest and sleep.
Downstairs, my sister has lit her new magic patent double-burning hearth called a Polyflam.  It's supposed to pump hot air round the house.  Not sure if it's working.
Tomorrow we are going to hear an elderly Jewish lady talk about how she survived the war and Vichy government in France, and then we are having a curry lunch.  Very Aryan, I guess. This was booked for us before we left England, as someone thought it would be suitable entertainment. I am not sure if I am looking forward to it or not.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Driving in France

The péages in France are excellent. Empty, clean, quiet smooth motorways, no hold-ups.  In England I would feel incensed having to pay to use 'the Queen's Highway' but somehow, away from home, it all seems a good idea.
Even going cross-country, covering the vast distances which represent an every-day experience in France but which are colossal to this 'little' Englander, the place is empty. We covered mile after mile, sometimes in regions where the farmhouses are clustered quite closely together, sometimes going through empty regions, with huge fields and forests, and no-one in sight. Compared to England, France is a void.
We had an excellent simple breakfast in the Etap in Tours, and headed off before 8.30 towards Poitiers.  I had no idea what a treat was waiting for us.
It's a lovely, inspiring place.  A collection of medieval houses, hotels, courtyards, squares - now largely occupied by the university, and well labelled for the casual tourist, makes any simple walk around the citadel a delight. Music shops everywhere.  A waitress confirmed - lots and lots of English people live in or visit the city.
We watched a beggar-woman settle heavily into her accustomed spot on a pavement. Once plugged into her pitch, nothing was going to move her for the day. Very professional.
We had a coffee, went into two stupendous churches from the early medieval period - one being a fantastic marriage of Romanesque and Flamboyant, and the other even earlier and still ablaze with wallpaintings and decoration, such as no longer exists in England.  I am too tired to remember their names now, but will add these in tomorrow.
Eventually, leaving the city, we had a bit of a struggle trying to extract diesel from an automatic pump in a Super-U garage - it should have been simple but apparently our debit card couldn't be accommodated. Eventually a very nice man (speaking perfect English) helped us - we used a different pump and all was well.  He had been sent as a child to speak English every year since the age of 9 - his parents thought he should be bilingual.
Then we drove to stylish but louche Angouleme, where we had lunch in a Gallerie-Cafe: very English, very laid-back, very nice.  Very hippy, in fact. The 'art' on display was pretty dismal but the atmosphere was accommodating and gentle.  It was all in a stone building of superb quality and finish, now rather down in the world.
We set off into the unknown towards our destination near Toulouse - gradually finding vineyards, seeing really very few people, loving the light on the huge landscape. Unlike some of the territory further north, which we are more familiar with, here there are no empty houses waiting to be done up. It's all plush, green, well-cared for.
Hill and valley, huge rivers, bastide towns, forests, bridges, more hills and vallies... it's a lovely country. No wonder kings fought over it, back and forth.
I find I am very excited by maps and new country. It's the place-names which do it.   I keep imagining love affairs, historic duels, tragic ends, love matches, jokes, hoaxes, puns, cunning tricks.... I want to be an EF Benson of these countrysides.  (When will I get on with it?)   For instance, I saw a place called something like Chef Boutonne. Chief Button?????!?!?!?!   Wild.
We finally reached my sister's house just after 7pm - about 11 hours on the road, including meal breaks etc.   A little old Gers farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, still a bit of a building site, with swimming pool installed but not fully tiled, and the garden all mud.   Inside, lovely tall rooms, wooden stairs and beams, thick walls, uneven floors, packing cases, loose wires....    Outside, the lovely light but with a  cold wind still blowing and treetops bashing about a bit.
Chris made us a supper, we ate and drank and did some catching up.
I am SO tired.
So tired.
I wish my sister did not smoke. It's disgusting and poisonous and makes me want to retch. But her house is charming and she is a perfectionist about how she wants it arranged.   We must find a compromise.
Tonight, now after 10pm, I am almost weeping with tiredness.  I hope things will read more coherently tomorrow.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Fog fog fog fog

It's three weeks into May but it might as well be November. All across Northern France, a thick dark cold wet windy dark murky fog covers everything.
We have left a balmy 24 degrees in Kent (with all the attendant flower-pot-watering problems now in the care of a diligent neighbour), but here in the Hexagon it might was well be the Falkland Islands, or Wales.
Still, P&O obligingly gave us passage on an earlier crossing, the motorways were empty, and we reached Tours in enough time to bag the last empty room in Etap.  Supper was an Italian/French melange - anchovy, salad, olives, osso bucco, filet de bar....
Our room overlooks the railway lines just outside the terminus. We called into the station on our wet way back to the hotel. The building is undergoing extensive modernisation, in the best possible taste, as Kenny Everett used to say.  The town is also installing a tram system. Gaston and his wheelbarrow still have a lot to do, but it's shaping up nicely.
Outside, a late train clanks into the station.
The TV has the ubiquitous, horrible BBC World on... a rushing, frothy, urgent, sham-glam, meaningless, violence-addicted vomit of rubbish, but all in perfect accent.
Bed beckons.
Tomorrow, we head south to Poitiers and eventually, the comforts of my sister's house in the rural NW of Toulouse.
I am too tired to write. More later.