I do love a good horse (nearly as much as I hate a bad one), and in he Camargue, there are lovely horses.
Riding in the Camargue had been high on J’s bucket list for a long time. It was lower on mine due to the risk of getting a bad horse. Horses are a bit like bosses. If you have a good one, life is fantastic. You feel like you are mostly achieving things, it’s easy and fun, but you still have to work hard and listen to the boss when required. A bad one makes every minute a bit of a challenge, and not in a “I’m James and I love a challenge” kind of way. More in a “I’m James, and how many rocks do I need to break before I can enjoy my bowl of cold gruel” kind of way.
I had a good boss in the Camargue and it’s a really beautiful area to see from the back of one. Our horses were a mix between the white local horses and Arabic ones. It was a cross that Napoleon favoured (I have taken snuff from the hoof of one of Napoleon’s horses in the mess at St James’s Palace on one of my last nights in the army. I didn’t mention this to my horse in fear he would think I’m a cunt and throw me in a ditch, and he was perfectly behaved. He tolerated my bad riding.
The Camargue is a mix of lovely countryside, canals, rivers, fields, birds, horses, cows and flowers. Bloody lovely.
We stayed for two nights in Arles on the edge of the area, in an airbnb that was always going to be an airbnb; ie, style over substance and all too minimalist. Arles is nice: some lovely old bits, a couple of really great new buildings and a fresh food market that has great cheese, meat, fruit and bread, and there are some lovely places to run. The only disappointment was that the next door neighbours decided they hated each other, shouted a lot all night, banged and shouted at our door when we helpfully banged on the adjoining wall and made me question if my ninja skills were up to scratch enough to protect us.
From there it was am epic long drive on the peage (that we could afford thanks to our Valencia prudence) to striking distance from Paris. My plan was to drive north until I got bored, jump off the motorway, then find a cheap place to crash. By the time I got bored there was few cheap places to crash……. We ended up in an old grand house in an old grand village with an old (closed) grand cathedral.
At this stage I had thoughts about why I am more at home in Spain than France. Firstly I can have a bit of a chat. More importantly, Spain seems to be just a little bit more open (as in shops and stuff are open) and a bit more relaxed. And a bit warmer……..
We ate bad pizza, drank good wine, went to bed early, had a terrible breakfast and hit Paris.
As we were on our way to Giverny, I hated Parisian driving, and we were on a tight schedule, I didn’t want to drive into the city so we parked the car and all our possessions in a dodgy car park on the outskirts of the city, took a train and hit the embassy. We were very proud of our commitment and without declaring how we voted, we didn’t think ‘How good is that!’ when we heard that the misogynist, shit for brains cunt Morrison was to lead our nation for the next few years.
From there we were off to Giverny, the old home of Monet. I have to admit that I really, really love Impressionism, not because it’s a thing that people are supposed to like, but I love light, joy and romance and, to me, it has a bit of all of this.
The village itself is beautiful but is also heart-stoppingly expensive to stay in, so we opted for an airbnb about 30 mins away. The pictures of the place on the tinterweb looked very Monet but the reality was rather more Hogarth (a bit highbrow, but he painted shit places)…. Or Aggie and Kim for the lovers of daytime TV.. I am very tolerant of mediocrity, but the overflowing laundry bin, the filthy kitchen, a garden that looked like Monet had become a badly behaved alcoholic and the loo that made me want to wash my hands before I did anything in there was too much. We left and found a lovely place in a pretty but dead village and only stretched the budget a little. Luckily when we provided a few pictures to Airbnb and suggested we had been miss=sold the place, we got a full refund.
As I said, I was probably predisposed to like the place, but I have to say that Givernay is magical. In spring, it is full of colour and form. The people who manage to get the shape, colour and feel of the place so right are exceptional people. Despite the fact we shared the experience with many, many strangers (go on a week day) and the weather was not great, I could have spent hours in there. I don’t know why, but I genuinely felt emotional to be there. It was perfect…… for me. If you like nightclubs, hard house and fast living, it’s a bit shit. Actually, I like both, so whop wants to build a great nightclub just outside the village with me?de
We only had a rough plan as we headed south. We needed to be in Valencia on the 11th April and wanted to get a couple of days skiing in Andorra es we went. Other than that, we wanted to find towns off the normal radar that had cheap AirBnBs available.
The first of these was Bourges, a few hours south of Paris and boasts a friggin huge Cathedral on a hill, some lovely parks, a huge reclaimed marshland full of small canals and allotments.
Next was a small, very old village a few hours further south and roughly in line with Brive-La-Gaillarde called St Cyprien. Our AirBnB was a basically a small shed on the side of a big shed. Small, but functional. My memory of the place will be a lovely long and flat run through French farmland and old villages.
To break the travel we decided to stop for a few days in Mirepoix, a reasonably sized town overlooked by the Pyrenees and surrounded by old castles on hilltops. Over the course of the next few days we discovered that most of the lovely castles were closed and in fact most of the area was closed, but we did manage to drink wine in the sunshine and I got to do the longest run I had managed to do since the Berlin marathon. Can’t say I enjoyed it too much but was glad to be heading in the right direction.
The tightness of our clothes and the state of our bank account made us realise just how much we had over indulged in Canada and England so we decided to impose a budget and food ‘hard routine’ and mostly in Mireprox we stuck to it, whilst sill enjoying ourselves. Aren’t we good children!!
Our clothes were also a bit smelly by then so e needed a laundry and discovered that in many French supermarket car parks there are huts with washers and dryers, so I got to spend a few hours in our car, sitting in a car park, watching our pants go round and round. What fun.
The moment we got off he Eurostar in Gare du Nord we realised that the adventure was starting again. The language, the food, the culture the way of doing things is all so very different. Spending time in the UK is like spending time with close family; Canada is a slightly more distant cousin. France is a mysterious stranger you meet in a bar. So much to learn, to understand and to enjoy.
Thanks to airline points, we spent the one night we had in Paris near the station in a very quirky and comfortable hotel called Robinet d’or before picking up a car and hitting the road.
One of the great things about being in France is that pretty much everyone knows the company I work for and many are rather proud of this huge French successes story. This also means that we get good deal with car hire companies, and I’m pretty sure the faux X 4 SUV I picked up is rather better than the 208 I booked.
Before we hit the road, I had a lovely run – following the canal south to the river, then heading west along the banks, around Notre-Dame and then back. Notre-Dame has had a tough time since then and I went to sleep rather upset the night it was on fire but was delighted that it was saveable when I woke the following morning.
I’ve mentioned before the tension I feel between my views on the negative impact of religion, past and present and the majesty of the buildings that are so many have produced. I find myself getting annoyed that so much money is spent preserving buildings rather than looking after those that need help, then getting annoyed when I see an ancient building crumbling away because the organisation want to spend all of their money looking after their communities.
The vast amounts of money pledged to restore the magnificent building shows one thing; we can afford to do both, we just choose not to.
We left Paris, keeping ‘The bear in the middle of the road’ – the phrase J uses to remind me to stay on the correct side of the road – and headed south to our first stop; Bourges.
Corsica…….. wow……….wow…….wow! I had few expectations of Corsica. I thought it would have some good beaches, some nice countryside and good French food. We were going because it was close to where we were and we hadn’t been before. It wasn’t on any bucket list, but it should have been.
Our approach to the trip was as ‘methodical and planned’ as always: we chose a place where we could get cheap flights to, and planned to leave from the port closest to Sardinia, then we got a guide book; The Top 10 Guide to Corsica, the only English language guide we could find in Montpellier, and after a quick flick through, decided on a route that took us around most of the island over 6 nights, from Ajaccio, to Golfe de Porto, to Calvi, to Cap Corse, to Corte then to Bonifacio, and booked a hire car.
Corsica is not huge. Only 183 km long and 83km at it’s widest, we figured driving would be relatively light each day and we could explore our destinations with plenty of time. However, Corsica is also very mountainous, with its highest peak being 2,706m (twice the hight of Ben Nevis), and this makes the terrain challenging, spectacular, beautiful, mostly rather tiring to drive on for too long and at times a bit frightening.
Many of the roads along the coast are narrow and wriggly, with a cliff wall on one side and a drop to certain death on the other. They rarely allow one to get out of second gear and the average speed is about 30kph, unless you area local when it seems to be twice that. But as I mentioned, the views are spectacular. ‘Wow’, ‘Incredible’, ‘stunning’ ‘awesome’ and ‘crazy fucking idiot!’ were all over used on a daily basis, and each time, with complete conviction. The upshot is that we spent lots of time on the road, but that’s no bad thing.
They advise those with a nervous disposition to drive clockwise around Cap Corse so that your car is on the inside of the road. I am very glad we took that advice. I also often had a glass of wine with lunch to steady the nerves.
Often the view was just the tiny, wriggling road, the gigantic cliffs and the clear blue sea, interspersed with small inviting beaches. At other times, like in the area of the Calanques de Pinas’ and the National Park around Corte, there are amazing rock formations and mountain vistas that took our breath away. On the coast we stopped at small beaches to cool off in the clear water of the med. Inland we stopped off at river pools for a swim in the cool clear water coming from the mountains. We drank good Corsican wine and ate good food, except when we tried supermarkets, which in general, sucked.
There are small towns and villages in every part of the island, in terrain that would never be built on now, hanging off hills and cliff faces, along exceptionally challenging roads, each with a café, some lovely old buildings and an unjustifiably big church. We would have more photos if it wasn’t so bloody difficult to stop anywhere.
The towns we stayed in all had very different characters, though all were welcoming and with the exception of Golfe de Porto, were steeped in history. Ajaccio had a great market, from Calvi we got a slow narrow gauge train along a stunning coast, at Porto we took a boat ride along the coast and stopped in a village only accessible by foot or boat which sported cows on the beach, on the Cap we witnessed a wedding party nearly getting blown off a hill trying to get that iconic Corsica photo. Forte felt like the alps and Bonifacio set a new standard to the meaning of super yacht. Top tip, if you are interested in the history (Napoleon and his family were from there, and there are some interesting museums), don’t be interested in the middle of the day. History takes a very long lunch in Corsica.
In the interior, close to Corte, there is an amazing ruined village that dates from about 2000 BC that is well worth a visit. It is set amongst thick Holm Oak forest and was only ‘re-discovered’ in the 50s (I use the ‘ ‘ as I am sure the pig farmers in the area were well aware of the big lumps of stone in the middle of the forest}.. It is well preserved and fascinating, as well as in a beautiful and peaceful setting. In 2000 bc, they built a walled road to the village entrance, and it is still largely intact. I don’t know what is more amazing; that it is intact or that 4000 years ago our ancestors had the time and skill to build such a thing.
One of the things I was nervous about in Corsica is that it would be cripplingly expensive and whilst it isn’t cheap, it isn’t ridiculous. Most of the hotels we stayed in were fine, with exception of the place we stayed in in the small village of Erbajolo, high above Corte, which was really lovely and had a great swimming pool. That said, the budget took a battering but we have decided not to be too obsessed with it. We are careful where we eat, what we drink (sometimes remembering that quantity has a quality all of its own) and where we stay, but we have decided to do the things we want to do and enjoy the experience. There is no point in just being here, and no point in being miserable due to staying in crappy places or not feeling safe. If the house doesn’t sell, well, we will have a great time but it may be shorter. And start planning the next trip for when it does finally sell.
There is an upside of being on a budget. We are often lucky enough to be staying in nice hotels in the thick of the action in our normal life but right now budget puts us on the fringes. In Calvi, we found ourselves on the other side of the bay to the old town, about a 2km walk and with no bus options. There was very little around us, but there was a beach about 10 mins walk, so we went to a crap supermarket, bought a picnic, a bottle of rose, and a bag of ice, and sat alone, watching the sunset, and looking at the bright lights of the town whilst listening to the waves lapping the shore. A perfect evening and something we could have missed if it wasn’t for the budget.
I was relieved and a little amazed to hand our car back at Bonifacio with no dents or scratches and we jumped on a ferry to Sardinia having very much enjoyed discovering a bit of this lovely island. If it’s not on your list, it should be.
After a couple of Ryanair experiences over the years, J and I decided that if the options were either walking or Ryanair, we would walk. Well, this was tested when we couldn’t get train, automobile or other plane out of Porto and decided walking was not an option. Our bags were too heavy……. So Ryanair it was.
Top tip: if you pay for every upgrade (allocated seating, priority boarding, checked in luggage etc), you get treated like a human. Downside is that it costs an arm and a leg to be on a budget airline.
We were off to Bordeaux for 2 real reasons; you can get good flights to Corsica from there and we wanted to visit Chateau Talbot.
Chateau Talbot is a Grand Cru and a very good wine. My father had a thing about it so I probably had my first sip of it about 40 years ago and have enjoyed it infrequently from then. J brought me a case for my 30th and we drank the last bottle at the end of our first Christmas at the Folly.
On previous visits to the area, you really needed to know someone who knew someone to be able to arrange a visit here, but it is slightly easier now and J is very determined. More about that later.
We stayed in an Airbnb, close to Bailique Saint-Michel on the south side of Bordeaux city centre. We had a private room with our own bathroom in the house of an artist and her husband, both of whom could not have been more helpful or more charming. That said, the English in us translated ‘please treat our home like yours’ to ‘let’s keep a very low profile and have no impact outside our room’. Luckily we had plenty to do so were rarely there.
The first highlight was meeting up with Nic and Jacqui Beecher, old friends from the UK who were holidaying in France and decided that they were close enough to us to change their plans and join us. It was lovely to see them both and we enjoyed a great dinner in a lovely restaurant that had been recommended by our Airbnb hosts. As ever, with old friends it is easy to pick up where we left off and we were reminded that the thing we miss most about the UK are our friends.
We had a good wander around the town the following day, through a great fresh food market, along the river and in and out of the easy to navigate city centre. After N & J began their long drive home, we followed another recommendation from our hosts and headed to a small garden type thing on the east bank of the river, where a band plays, and with a bar selling bottles of wine, sausage and cheese. It was described to us as a ‘very French thing’ and it felt it. I think we were the only none French there and we enjoyed a perfect afternoon. The only downside is that the bar shuts before sunset. The upside is that there is a bar in the boat club next door, so we popped in for another bottle of wine to accompany the sunset, which in turn was accompanied by a great selection of music from the hipsters behind the bar. The following morning we felt a bit ropey and couldn’t understand why……..
On all the tourist guides (online and otherwise) list of the top things to do in Bordeaux is a visit to the Cite Du Vin, housed in an impressive building on the riverbank and a monument to all things wine. It covers the history of wine, wine from around the world, wine in various cultures and the characteristics of wine. And it was dull. Really dull. J and I like wine and we like to visit wine regions all around the world. We like the landscapes, the individual stories about the areas, the people we meet and the odd adventure that starts with a long day tasting the stuff. Ultimately it’s about drinking wine, and there is very little drinking to be done at Cite du Vin. If you have children and you want to get them into wine at an early age, in an educational way, or have come to wine late in life and want to understand the basics, this could be the place for you. If not, go to a good bar, and learn there!
We had another lovely ‘small world moment’ there. J and I were enjoying a water in the café before we started (much needed after a 3km stroll through the city in the midday heat), and I looked at my Facebook to see that Denis Currie, an old army colleague whom I hadn’t seen in over 10 years, had just ‘checked in’ to the Cite. It was great to catch up and enjoy a glass of wine at the end of the tour with him and to meet Laura. They had driven from Belfast, were camping and I think eating army rations. Now that is hardcore!
Chateau Talbot is on the edge of Saint Julian, a small but significant village in the heart of the Medoc. We left Bordeaux to stay in an Airbnb in the village so that we didn’t have to drive. We opted to walk the 1.5km to the chateau for the same reason and discovered a romantic walk along country lanes through ripe vineyards is a different proposition in 33c heat, so we didn’t quite represent the sophisticated visitors I think the chateau was used to; we were sweaty, pink, dusty things who should visit other, lesser chateaux.
The place is impressive and we had an informative, if unenthusiastic, tour guide who took us around modern and beautifully designed production facilities that showed the kind of investment that only comes with considerable profit. ‘This cellar is designed to look like an organic forest’. Of course it is. Looking like a cellar would be dull.
I am glad we went, really to connect with a bit of family tradition (no Talbot has ever really owned the land as a vineyard and it was named after a Knight of English origin (Sir John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury) – whose ancestors would have been Norman – who was gifted the land after fighting the French in some war or other), but without that connection, I wouldn’t put this high on my list of recommendations.
We took a short cut home and emerged, dusty and giggly, from the vines at the same time as our Airbnb hosts were driving by. Marvellously, they stopped and gave us a lift to the tourist info centre in Pauillac, which was hosting a number of small vineyards for a tasting session. Wonderful.. A lack of taxis and an imminent last bus prevented us from making the most out of this.
Now, do you remember the bad old days in France, where arrogant waiters in restaurants made you uncomfortable and pretended not to understand you unless you spoke perfect French? Well J and I joked how we missed that in the ‘new France’ of the polite and the helpful. Careful what you wish for. There is only one open restaurant in Saint Julian in the evening and it’s called the Saint Julian for ease. It really is traditional. To us good food is about three things: the food, the service and the location. Together they make the experience. The experience left us both seething, but despite my very average French, the words terrible and mediocre are common to both and the waiters face suggested he understood my summary of the evening.
We drove back to Bordeaux via a place called Fort Medoc, an old barracks that was part of the Garonne river defensive system. At the time (17th Century ) it was a bit of a punishment posting as it was built on a swamp and the chances of getting malaria were high. Now it is peaceful and beautiful and well worth a small detour.
Next stop: Corsica……On a different budget airline.
Organising a piss up in Champagne.
Up to this point our itinerary had been very heavily influenced by 2 things: The fact that when we committed to this trip, whilst a bit pissed in a bar, we could get to Barcelona on air-miles and the fact that we wanted to meet Bridge and her friends for Champagne en Fete.
The latter has involved many of our favourite things: Champagne, festivals, cheese and old picturesque villages.
We made it to Troyes, the closest town to the villages involved in the event that had accommodation for 12 people, on Friday afternoon. We had made it the 16,852km from Sydney with relative ease. All we had to do now was make it the last 52km……..
As J and I arrived before everyone else, we popped into the tourist office to ask about buses to the area…………and they laughed at us. We asked about hiring a minibus and driver, getting a cab, or a driver and we would hire a car. They continued to laugh and told us one of us would need to drive.
This kind of news represents a challenge to Jodie and she doesn’t like to be defeated. So after a bit of investigation we found that you could indeed get a bus; the L4 to Bar-Sur-Siene, where the main office for the festival is. We found the bus using an app called Rome2Rio, which is genius app that helps plan travel and has often found options that Google had failed to find. Hurrah….. perhaps.
We had a pleasant Fri night, sitting by the pool in one of the Airbnb’s that had been rented, meeting the gang as they arrived in dribs and drabs over the evening (and into the next day, as French train strikes, storms, and Franks hired van showing positive for explosives as he and Charlotte boarded the Eurostar, turned straightforward journeys into epics). Sally, whose 40th birthday was the reason for us all to be there, arrived with Kym mid afternoon and we provisioned the big house (that had a pool – a god send in a heatwave on a continent that doesn’t do aircon) and debated the booze to food ratio intently, concluding that as long as we had enough booze, snacks would be fine. Fiona, Stuart and Jenny arrived later, Fiona having escorted a stray dog being rehoused in France from Tunis to Orly, and Stuart and Jenny having set out from Cork at 4am that day. J, Kym, Fiona and I, all staying in the ‘not the big house’ committed to getting the 9am bus the following day and left the rest to it. ‘It’ turned out to be a session ending at 5am.
The Big House
So, bright and breezy, the 4 of us set out to quaff Champagne, nice and early. Everything seemed to be going well. The bus existed, it left on time and 50 mins after leaving we arrived in Bar-Sur-Sienes attractive square. We bought our tickets, which was a pack containing a Champagne flute, a thing to keep it round your neck, tasting tickets for the 18 Champagne houses involved in the Fete, 1 water ticker, and a bag thing that was a breathalyser, then went for a coffee to plot the day. It was over coffee that we discovered the potentially day ending challenge. We were still 11km away from the first village, and there was no bus. Also, the only taxi in town, driven by the local ambulance driver, was booked until 11pm. Bugger. We had made it 16,904km and seemed to be defeated by the last 11…….
This kind of news represents a challenge to Jodie and she doesn’t like to be defeated.
A quick chat between us established that the big camper van sitting in the square was owned by 2 English speaking Dutch ladies, currently enjoying a coffee outside a café……… so J was off. Enter Greete and Doreen, 2 exuberant ladies on holiday in Doreen’s sons campervan (a keen surfer who used it to follow the waves and who had decided the most essential thing in a van was a huge stereo system, so complicated G&D couldn’t switch it on) who were happy to take us to the first village as long as one of us was happy to sit on the floor.
Success…. And we managed to secure a cab from Troyes to pick us up at the end of the day at a reasonable price.
The day turned out to be wonderful. We did 2 of the 5 villages on the first day, visiting 7 separate champagne houses over the day and loving every minute. The atmosphere was like a really civilised party with different bands in each place and great food in the houses or on the street. The tasting measures were healthy and buying an additional glass of champagne cost a very respectable €3. We ate oysters, escargot, local bread, cheese and sausage, and a dangerously good caramel spread that was a heart attack waiting to happen. Perfect.
On the way back we managed to (or rather Fiona’s fluent French managed to) negotiate enough transport so that the whole group could return the next day and try three more of the villages. More hurrahs.
By the time we got back to the house the gang were complete. Bridge had made it from her exhausting course to become a qualified explosive ordnance disposal operator as part of her UN career, Penny had made it from the UK and……….. G&D were there. By a happy coincidence they had been in need of a room and there was a spare one in the big house. Serendipity.
Everyone was pissed. Very pissed. It is great to meet kindred spirits!
Day 1 photos
Day 2 was a little different. Each village had fewer houses, the villages were further apart and the day was hotter. We tried some great bubbly, we met one of the few female champagne producers in the industry, saw some lovely countryside, and ate some interesting food, but try to picture the end of the day, with 8 slightly tipsy tourists (Stuart and Jenny had split from the gang and had been picked up by 2 Belgium girls who took pity on them and drove them to the last village) strung out over a km of road, clutching warm glasses of bubbly in various states of discomfort. It was a bit Champagne en Fete meets the retreat from Moscow……. But with less snow……. fewer dead horses……. and no Cossacks. There was a snake though. A swimming snake, in a river that seemed to be a great place to cool off tired feet, but perhaps wasn’t.
It was a great few days in which we made new friends, drank great bubbly, have found a reason to visit Curaçao in the Caribbean (to visit D) and it was lovely to see Bridge. The group was a a real mix of interesting, fun and easygoing people, who made us feel very welcome and really made the experience a great one.
But…. FFS, how hard is it to organise a piss-up in a Champagne growing area? There is a generalist, borderline racist, joke about what you pick nations for…….. Italians for lovers, Brits for fighting etc. it suggests Germans should do all the planning and the French bring the food and wine. I think a few Germans may need to move to Bar-Sur-Siene……..
From Troyes, it’s off to Lisbon via Orly Airport.
The route from Montpellier to Troyes is a blur of medieval towns and amazing buildings that are in danger of become all one memory. Especially if you go the long way.
Day one was a reasonably straight forward drive from Montpellier to Avignon, once we had left the town. All that wonderful hippy bollocks about no cars can be a right pain in the bum when you are trying to get as close to your accommodation, in the heart of the medieval bit, in a car to avoid dragging your bags through the streets in 33c. It was a 12 minute walk to the Avis office and, after 45 mins of expletive laden driving in circles, I had to admit defeat and park the car a 5 minute walk away in an underground car park that had spaces 5mm bigger than the car. At the top of a hill from our Airbnb.
After a few more circles, we sprung out of the town rather like a rocket leaving the earths orbit and drove the backroads to Avignon. The only stop we made was in Uzes, a beautiful, decent sized town within striking distance of Avignon and, up until we needed some scoff, one that had never been on our radar. It is a charming place, with a huge café lined square, interesting shops and narrow streets. It was nice enough for us to pick up an estate agents brochure which was very useful the following day.
To spend less than 24 hours in Avignon is a sin and we experienced a tiny bit of what the town has to offer. Finding our Airbnb allowed us to experience parts of the town that most tourists wouldn’t get to. There was a festival on in the town (the largest contemporary arts festival in Europe), so choices are a bit limited when you try to book a room with three days lead time. We found a place ‘5 mins from the town centre, in an old farmhouse with a pool, well served by public transport’ and turned up to a house with boards over some windows, locked behind rusting gates in an area that was less than comfortable. ………….. we kept driving and pulled into a car park for a WTF moment. LuckIly, the WTF was that we had programmed the Satnav badly and whilst, the right place seemed nothing to write home about, we felt that we were less likely to get killed in our beds.
Once we were inside the walls of the garden of the place we were meant to be staying at, we were very pleasantly surprised. The very lovely Fanny had restored and decorated a rural building in an areas long since swallowed up by urban sprawl into a real hidden gem. Our room had a bath in it, a balcony and most importantly – aircon. It had been in the 30s for days and J and I had barely touched each other for days as no one likes to hold hands with a bucket of sweat.
Fanny was fantastic and on arrival gave us both a cold beer and chatted to us in French. I drank the cold beer and marvelled at how well J could turn school girl French into a reasonable conversation.
We hit a very very busy Avignon for the night and were entertained by street performers and bustling streets. We chose a place to eat that soon after we sat down had some interesting entertainment nearby: a man doing flamenco dancing on a board……… semi naked………. covered in sweat and needing a good bath. Not quite my thing, especially when eating.
We managed a few hours of sightseeing the next day, visiting the Le Palais des Papes and the famous incomplete bridge. The palace is incredible, as is the way it is organised. In the price of a ticket is an iPad type thing that not only gives you a guided tour but also a bit of VR. In many of the rooms, you point it at a symbol and the screen displays an interactive image of the room in the 14th Century. Wherever you point it, you see the wall hangings, furniture, books and roaring fires that would have once been there and it really brings things to life, so much so that I question why everywhere doesn’t have them.
The commentary played to one of my rants a bit. When I get to these most amazing religious buildings, wherever I find them in the world, I find myself having mixed feelings about the awesomeness of the achievement as well as the implications of building such things at a time when people were living in extremely harsh conditions. A clear concentration of wealth is delivered through fear of the afterlife and the words of religious establishments who are looking after their own interests.
The palace tour was great: this is the room where they counted the money; this is the room where they stored a lot of the money; in this room they decided how to collect the money; this is the one where people were tried and convicted for not giving enough money or suggesting this whole money and the afterlife thing may be a bit of a scam. The Carthars, who centred around Carcassonne, felt that worship and Christianity had nothing to do with money, rather it was all about good deeds, and the Church should not be interested in collecting so much of it……………… so Pope Innocent (you protest too much Sir!), sent an army over and killed them all. Then collected more money in the name of God.
From Montpellier to Avignon
From Avignon we went north……. ish. We had a long debate about whether to drive to near Lyon for one night, then up to Dijon for night 2, or do 4 hrs of driving in one day and have two nights in Dijon. We went for the latter and then decided to go via Vacqueyras for lunch (after a recommendation from Leslie via IG), then in search of lavender in bloom in Provence.
The recommended lunch Château in Vacqueyras was booked out so we hit the village centre and were reintroduced to the France of our childhoods: the one with surly waiters who pretend not to understand you, no matter how well you pronounce your requests, and FFS, J and I are reasonably well practiced asking for a glass of red wine! We did manage to procure a magnum of wine produced by the place we couldn’t get into from the shop across the road and this kept us going for a day or two.
The lavender hunt proved to be a bit of an epic, and from Vacqueyras we went through the hills to Sault, where we found the lovely purple fields and from there headed north to Dijon through beautiful winding roads and small villages, clinging to hillsides set amongst a huge national park. And it only added about 5 hours onto the drive (which would have been a few hours longer if we had stuck to our no toll roads rule)…….. so the last few hours of the 9 hour epic was fuelled entirely by Redbull, junk food, chewing gum (‘making intelligent people look like cows for generations’) and J reading me details of the houses we could buy around Uzes.
Avignon to Dijon
Avignon to Dijon
We arrived at our Airbnb just before 10pm, which was a small, very hot studio on the second floor of an old farmhouse on the edge of the old city, reached by the steepest stairs known to man. It was still above 30c and the room was cooled by a fan that had all the blowing power of a 70 year old man who had smoked woodbines since the age of 9. If lots of people live like this, we can see why they stay drinking in the town squares all night, rather than go home to their little sweat boxes.
Dijon is another beautiful town and on my morning run I ran along a leafy riverbank to a big, tree lined lake, then back along a canal, then through formal parks that had deer and other animals in enclosures, then through the wide boulevards of the 18 century town before finishing in the narrow streets of the medieval town. Getting all this done before breakfast is one of the upsides of running.
Dijon is very visitor friendly, with a great tourist office, who give you more information than you could ever need, has free wifi all over town and free entry to all museums and public buildings.
They also run a wine tour around the city every Thursday night for only €25. The downside is that it is only in French but, as the guy said in the tourist office, ‘the wine will taste just as good’. It was an odd evening and the first bit was spent walking around the city, stopping in front of buildings and being talked at. We think that we were being told funny stories about famous people who had come to Dijon, drank wine and done interesting or funny things. We tried to look engaged and laugh at the right moments, but they could have been saying anything.
The second bit involved going to a school, in a very old building, to be met by a leading wine expert/writer. The school was still in use, well known but closed for the summer holidays, and we were taken to one of the classrooms to drink the first wine. I got horrible flashbacks to school, where I never excelled at French (when I got 15% in an exam and came last in my class, Mr Land wrote in my report ‘A well merited result. Resents chastisement’). We were sat at a small desk covered in graffiti of boobs and ejaculating cocks, whilst drinking cremant de Bourgogne, listening to people talk and understanding 1 word in 20. The wine was good though and we met a lovely couple of architects from Switzerland to chat with after the formal bit.
We left Dijon reasonably early to drive to Troyes, meet Bridge and her gang of friends and take part in the reason for choosing this route: the two day Champagne en Fete.
I am a bit preoccupied by grey noise: the droning of urban life that those of us who live in cities just accept. We rarely register it as our minds have adapted to block it out so we don’t go mad, but all that effort of blocking it out has a negative effect on our mental health. This is one of the many reasons I love The Folly, and one of the reasons I really liked Montpellier too.
The wonderful mix of medieval buildings, winding streets and street cafes mean that it is impossible to drive around the centre of the city, and a great tram network means that most people seem to use public transport to get around. The result is a wonderful calmness and an atmosphere built of gentle chatting & laughing, glasses clinking, bicycles creaking, the working waiters of the town’s thousands of restaurants & cafes or just silence. Bloody marvellous
One of the first things we needed to do was find a laundry. Readers of my old blog will know that traveling is often about pants. You can only carry so much stuff and whilst you may be able to live with a smelly shirt for a day or two, clean pants are a non negotiable and we have spent hours wandering around South American towns trying to find laundries in the past.
We struck gold in Montpellier. A self service laundry just around the corner from our Airbnb, with a bar directly opposite and the two were close enough to still allow access to the free wifi that came with the washing. The bar was a bit of a ‘local place for local people’ and was imaginatively called Bar Place. At 6pm on a Thursday it was pretty full of boisterous people, playing table football and dropping things. Tattoos were in. I rather liked the place. We sat outside, watching the world go by, drinking rose and trying not to scream like a kitten when a hornet showed too much interest in my glass. It reminded me a little of the Unity in Balmain, but with more women. You could even bing your own takeaway food there, just like the Unity. I decided to christen it the ‘ne’er-do-well bar’ and we went back reasonably often.
Wandering around Montpellier is a real pleasure. Around every corner there are surprises, be they huge old churches that you can’t see until you are on top of them, shady, café lined squares, lovely architecture, interesting street art or colourful bunting. Outside the medieval city there are wide boulevards, huge squares and some parks, and I will mention the lack of parks a little later.
Wandering only takes you so far though, and on day two of no real plan we realised that a plan was needed if we weren’t going to kill each other. Initially we had just wanted to start the trip. Then we wanted to get a bit of a plan re where we were going to go, when and book some stuff. Our realisation was that when you get to the place you were going, we needed a plan of what we were going to do once there. As Jodie points out, at least 28 times a day, this last bit is easier with a Lonely Planet.
The first thing we did was a happy accident. On the Friday evening, Montpellier was having a bit of a festival, with food, wine and entertainment in one of the gardens. We like food, and we love wine.
It was a perfect evening. It was busy, without being so busy that we had to queue for more than a minute or so to get stuff or too busy to fill up all the seats on the long shared tables. The crowd was a great cross-section of France: young & old, on all parts of the wealth spectrum, families and singles and from all parts of the world. They were merry without being drunk and everyone played nicely. Perhaps the 10 or so very alert infantrymen, in combat body armour, carrying assault rifles with helmets clipped to their belts is a reminder that not all is well, but the size and good nature of the crowd is a reminder that those who conduct the acts of violence that lead to this presence are a tiny minority of the population.
The band was pretty good too, playing French crowd pleasers that people could chant along too, and encouraging people to dance. Jodie observed the clear difference between the enthusiasm of women and men to let it all go and have a good boogie, especially if women are of a certain age. The women danced like they have just had their ability to walk restored after a lengthy paralysis and want to repeatedly check that all their joints worked in all directions, even if some of those joints were old enough to wear out soon. For the men………… well, the recovery from the paralysis was far from complete. Perhaps only one leg has recovered, or just one foot. Except for the gay guys. Thank god for the gay guys.
We made a great scoff discovery too. The local specialty (agliote) is a thing that is basically mashed potatoes and cheese (and sausage if you are not a veggie). It is a great way to soak up the great Rose wine.
A huge thunderstorm stopped play at about midnight, which was perhaps a good thing as we were at the ‘one more bottle of wine for the road’ part of the evening………../morning.
The next day we went to the medieval town of Saint Guilem Le Desert. It was a bit of a last minute thing as both of us had lost a day somehow, so we had packed up one Airbnb were trying to coordinate handing over the keys and get to the next one when we realised we were there another day. Call it a dress rehearsal.
Getting to Saint Guilem involves a tram to the edge of town, then a bus to the village. The 308 bus we jumped on was pretty much exclusively full of 16-25 year old males, with ‘youth hair’ and leisure wear. We/ I assumed that they would make make a right old racket on the bus, and would be reluctantly studying an old town for a school thing, but hair does not maketh the man, and besides the need to share overly elaborate handshakes with each other, they were barely noticeable and all jumped off a few stops before the village to throw themselves off rocks into a river.
I mentioned in the last blog that smart phones make life easier. On this day we had ‘tinternet’ issues so I was at a high state of anxiety for the whole trip, concerned that we would miss our stop and end up in some deserted village waiting a day for the next bus. At one stage, as we went down a small road in a steep valley into seemingly nowhere, my concern was high enough to consider that the village didn’t exist at all and we would spend a day in the baking heat starring at a ruin. How quickly we become lost without all our gadgets.
Luckily I was wrong and we ended up in a spectacular little village which made Montpellier look like a bustling, modern metropolis. In the heart of the village is an old church next to a small but lively square. Parts of the church date back to the 5th century and it is a solid, huge lump that made me marvel at the skill of those that built it. However one feels about religion, it is hard not to be hugely impressed by the buildings that are likely to be their legacy even after the world has moved on from religion.
J and I started the off with a lovely lunch in a restaurant with a shady terrace overlooking the ravine. They had a real thing for salad, and whilst I settled for the menu de jour of spaghetti, J had a Brie and potato salad. Not exactly nil calories but with the potential to be healthy. What J got was a slightly less healthy complete wheel of baked cheese, with lightly roasted potatoes and about 2 lettuce leaves. That really is my kind of diet. I tried to out do that with my desert. A tiramisu that was essentially cream and booze.
Sant Guilem Le Desert
Next on the doing things agenda was a bit of free jazz. There is a beautiful old Château on the edge of Montpellier that is set in 24ha of grounds and at this time of year has a free Jazz concert from 10pm each night, with a warm up act from 8.30. We had an interesting journey getting there, getting off the tram at the main entrance, walking most of the way through the gardens before discovering you couldn’t get to the concert that way (which explains why we were alone), backtracking out, then walking along the hard shoulder of a busy road to get the the amphitheater entrance, all the while I was thanking my lucky stars that it was J and not I that had planned this.
We spent an hour or so eating snacks and drinking a bottle of cava bought on our trip to Sant Saduri D’anoia, sitting on long shared tables with jazz lovers. We were a little younger than most people and didn’t have either cardigans, hats or facial hair so stuck out a bit. The warm up band came on fashionably late and after about 15 minutes we realised that they were not still tuning their instruments and had actually started. We had a couple of minutes of heated discussion before we agreed on this and after another 30 mins realised something else: we don’t really like jazz. Funky, Dixyland, dance your ass off Jazz we love, but cardigan, hat and facial hair jazz, the stuff of the Fast Shows ‘Jazz Club’ sketches will probably always be beyond us, or at least this side of dementia it will be. We gave the main act a miss.
The last big excursion tok us to to Carcassonne, 90 mins by fast train to the west. We chose the destination through the power of Instagram. J had put out a call to our city or sticks followers asking for suggestions for a day trip, and Carcassonne won. We were expecting a quiet town on a Monday but instead had another happy accident: the Tour Du France was in town. The riders were having a day off (lazy buggers) but there was a local produce market, a fan area and street bands as part of the event. At the market we discovered a lovely local fortified wine called Carthagne which in hindsight we should of got more of. The bottle we brought only lasted a couple of days.
The highlight of the day was a tour around the old medieval citadel on the hill above the new city. Around since the third century, a real visionary in 1850 decided it should be preserved and in places restored. The result is complete walls, an amazingly preserved cathedral and shop filled streets. It seemed like somewhere only possible when recreated for films, but with Nutella crepes and cold beer. Despite being so old, the council had taken the bold step to allow a modern artist to add a temporary installation which was yellow tape on the walls that from nearly every angle looked random but from one spot are perfect huge concentric circles. Incredible skill and vision. See photo.
Before we left, we brought from the market a chilled bottle of rose, some bread, meat and cheese then sat by the canal watching the world go by until our return train. The spot we chose may also have been close to the railway line, and a busy road, and the locals may have been looking at us like I look at people having picnics in lay-byes on the A1, but it was a pretty perfect way to end the day.
Running in Montpellier was rather good too. It was flat. I managed to get back in the swing of things and am pretty much on track of the trading schedule, pushing out a 29km run to the beach and back as my long run of the week. I have a blister or two and maybe loosing a toenail but I think that has as much to do with heaps of walking and the 34k steps I did in boots on the day of the Winterfest street party as it does with the running.
The only downside to being physical in Montpellier is the lack of green space near the centre of town and the fear that the disproportionate amount of dogs to green leads to very well fertilised grass, so not the best place to exercise.
All in all, Montpellier is well worth a visit if you get the chance.
Next stop: Avignon and a three day wander by car to Troyes via Dijon.