Sunday, June 26, 2016

Les Plus Beaux Villages

The list of the most beautiful villages in France must be a very long one because I have seen quite a few and I have hardly been anywhere yet.

Hard to pick a winner from those I have seen. Image result for domme
Maybe Domme, a hilltop walled medieval town with stunning views of the Dordogne directly below the ramparts?

Loubressac or Autoire, both visited with Nicholas?

Or Beynac-et-Cazenac, creeping up the cliffside beside the river and dominated by a fairy-tale castle, once besieged by Richard the Lion Heart? Image result for beynac-et-cazenac dordogne

Image result for la roque-gageac
La Roque-Gageac with cream stone houses and brown-tiled roofs, clinging to the riverside not far from Beynac, or Carrenac where I stopped randomly, probably for coffee, only to discover it has an eleventh-century priory. Image result for CarrenacImage result for Carrenac

Each one perfect in its own way and so different. Mmmm...

No, I know. Saint-Guillem-le-Desert is my favorite. Matt and I went there from Montpellier, and I went back with Nicholas to do a walk in the valley beyond. Favorite so far, anyway.

In which Black Betty and I Set Off on a Grand Adventure

Bretenoux is where my cycle tour began. Nicholas drove me down from Candes, bike in the back of his van. First to the Poste to send a few things off to London, then to a restaurant in the lovely village of Gagnac-sur-Cere. It is run by an Irishwoman called Karen. She does a set menu with four courses for 11 Euros and the setting is a dream, under the grapevine loggia in a small square. Worth at least 4 stars for ambiance and conviviality. Not even a wine at lunch but off I went on the bike. Wobbling like crazy. Mumbling "Stick to the right. Stick to the right."  Packed all wrong, with my laptop backpack strapped on top of the back panniers. Top heavy and too light in front. I managed for a couple of days to
Interesting cathedral at Souillac
Souillac though, where I bought a pair of front panniers and made the bike shop a gift of that laptop bag. Then had to learn to wrestle the load all over again with weight in front. Betty the black bike quickly became Bete (Stupid Beast) going uphill. Lucky that following the Dordogne means mostly flat roads.

Carrying tent, sleeping bag, stove and bike kit doesn't leave much room for clothes. But the tent has survived a dramatic evening thunderstorm, keeping me dry. I have never been in a storm like it. Deafening thunder didn't stop rolling around the heavens in all directions for at least half an hour without a break.

So that first day I rode to Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne, had a look around, and soon set off the way I'd just come, but on the other side of the river. Unpacked the brand new tent at an empty municipal campground - just me, the two caretakers and hosts of mosquitoes that sent me off to bed early. Off to a very thin sleeping mat, anyway.

Oh, those bruises on my hips? Nothing that could keep me awake after a day of rolling along through the French countryside.

Not to mention an 8km ride the next morning before I passed the first cafe and boulanger. Did I mention the gorgeous landscapes, the sunshine, the birds, the scent of honeysuckle?

Candes, a tiny hamlet in the Lot Region

For photos - in the meantime they are on my pinterest board at

Nicholas bought his farmhouse in the Lot three years ago. There were two people living in Candes then but one has since gone into a retirement home, so now it again has a population of two and when Nicholas is in Montpellier over winter that leaves only his neighbour Susu, who is in her 80s. The house was sold as "habitable" - if living without electricity and a bathroom is your thing. He got it rewired and put in a hot water system, a shower and washing machine, and a gas stove to supplement a large woodburner. He is still waiting for a septic tank, and in the meantime uses a composting toilet (as necessary. Bonuses - I can now spot even a tiny stinging nettle and I know what phase of the moon we are in).  The house, built in 1780, came with land - a small lot over the road, a bit of forest not far away and a paddock on the other side of the other side the hamlet, As well as the house there is a beautiful old pig sty and a stone barn with no roof. What a conversion project! Perfect for a holiday gite or two.

At one end of the house there is a huge bread oven that is like an extension of the ground floor, with it's own domed roof. Inside the kitchen, there is a smaller cake oven that would make perfect pizzas except it would probably take at least 3 days to bring it up to the right temperature. Upstairs there are 3 bedrooms off a big living room, and downstairs is the kitchen/living room and the bathroom. There's a huge attic. In the garden Nicholas has planted roses and peonies, and lots of fruit trees and vines, even feijoa trees. He has big walnut trees and a spreading vegetable garden. We walked in the woods and found a local delicacy, the bright orange mushrooms called girolles. An excellent omelet for lunch with just-picked salad greens.

Did I say road? A couple of cars go past each day, maybe a tractor too. A boulanger in a van stops once a week, there is a municipal rubbish collection. The wifi is excellent. For a few months in summer a Dutch couple, Otto and Nico are in residence, who like to entertain. A hundred years ago Candes had a population of 100. Turns out that when Nicholas arrived, the average age in the commune dropped considerably (he's just a bit younger than me). So sad to see these lovely old buildings, houses and barns in the local vernacular architecture, falling into ruin with absent owners who are unwilling to invest in just a bit of restoration that would preserve this beautiful place for another 100 years. I'd love to be able to help out by buying Simone's old place but the old stone tiles are leaking and the floor has rotted - major building work for it just to be livable, as charming as it is. Comiac is the nearest 'town' - although there's not much there either. A cluster of traditional houses around a square and a few closed up commercial buildings.

For shopping there is Bretenoux or St Cere - both less than 20 km away but down windy roads through beautiful deciduous forest and dramatic gorges.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

The Way - the road to Compostela

The Pilgrims' Way passes by the end of my little street. The golden scallops mark the Way as it passes through the old part of Montpellier.

Corner of Rue Fabre
Walking one way would take me to Arles, one of three main starting points in France. People would be walking the other way though.  The destination of this pilgrimage is Santiago de Compostela in the north of Spain.

The shells lead me to several of my favorite places for coffee and to the market halls where I buy fresh local produce.

Following The Way through pedestrianised streets of Montpellier

Cafe in front of St Anne's, which has a refuge for pilgrims

Fun band playing What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailor,
on the steps of St Anne's on a Saturday afternoon
They are dancing to the music!

The golden scallop shell markers lead on past these important places of pilgrimage to the Church of Saint-Anne, where there is a refuge that is open in the summer months, and then out along the remains of the Roman Aqueduct and off into the suburbs and eventually the hills around Montpellier.

Les Arceaux
Now marking a traffic roundabout

Saint-Anne over the rooftops

Well, EVENTUALLY it would take me across the Pyrenees and onwards. That's another story. This post is just concerned with the bit of the route that passes through Montpellier.

Out and About (around Montpellier) - Pezanas

For $1.60 I take a one hour bus trip westwards, through wine county to Pezanas. This small town has two significant attractions, but I suspect most visitors either use it as a base for visiting the vineyards or browsing in the broquanteurs - the antique shops. Twice a year there is a bit of a fair and all the second-hand dealers set up stalls in the street. Now that would be worth a visit but it isn't happening any time soon unfortunately.

In the 16th and 17th centuries Pezenas was a great centre for theatre and travelling musicians. The French playwright Moliere lived here for a while.
 What a pleasure to stroll around the old town and its narrow lanes with little arty shops, galleries and cafes. Even though it is quite a touristy little place, the shops all close for lunch, perhaps a conspiracy to force us into restaurants. I sat in the courtyard of a grand old mansion and had a crepe with local cheese and jambon.

Wandering around today you can see some of the grand mansions and peer into stone-paved courtyards with grand staircases.

Something must have sunk into my mind when I read my guidebook to the Languedoc region, which is in French (of course). I found myself walking around taking photos of doorware - locks, hinges, mailboxes and knockers.

So when, late in the day, I actually came across the Museum of Doors, well, I can only say it made me quite excited. Spread out though a rabbit-warren of rooms on different levels, some man has collected and documented doors from many of the old houses in the town. Some are being restored, others are just being stored. . It is free, so that is an incentive.

So guess what happens now? I'm sharing the joy. Yes, you get to see some of my photos of doors.

Out and about - Paris

Paris wasn't in my plans for this trip, but I thought I would able to apply from France for a UK Ancestry Visa so after a couple of days redoing my online application I booked an interview in Paris.

The UK government has outsourced all the leg work of visa processing and the application process is mostly online but the final step is front up for biometric details to be gathered. All in all, a huge palaver that I won't go into except to say that even after rebooking the appointment, changing my train reservation to be able to stay an extra day, redoing the application yet again and running around Paris getting printing done and photocopies made, I was finally told I can only apply from Australia. It was an expensive exercise but who can regret a trip to Paris? And what about when you have to take the Metro to Beaubourg to use an internet cafe - not too much to complain about actually.

This is the Metro station near the visa office.

I had booked a room through Airbnb and for the extra night I found myself staying with my host's friend upstairs in the same block of apartments, and as he was travelling for work, he just gave me the keys and I had the whole apartment to myself. The best thing about Airbnb is that you see how and where people really live. I was in the suburb of Port Orleans, with easy access to the Metro.

This view across the rooftops from the apartment really fascinated me. I loved that there were 4 grocery stores in the local block and 3 of them were organic. I also loved that the patisserie near my metro station had won significant prizes for its croissants and made good coffee too.

In between getting to know the lovely people at the visa processing centre - they were really kind and helpful even though they eventually had to turn me away - I managed to visit the Orangerie to see Monet's huge water lilies installation. It took nearly 2 hours in the queue in a freezing wind to get tickets so the the next morning I was at the Musee D'Orsay early, as the queue was just starting to form. By the way, what is it about Americans and Paris?

Here's one painting by my local Montpellier artist, Frederic Bazille; his portrait of Renoir. So tragic that Bazille died at 28.

And who can resist taking a photo of one of the best views of Paris from the cafe upstairs at the Musee d'Orsay?

I even managed to fit in a nostalgic visit to Le Printemps and Galleries Lafayette (the bottom two pics here). My excuse was I needed a sunhat after mine blew off up in the hills above Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert. The one I really loved was 160 Euros but in some cheap British chain store I found a squishy one that was a better match for my budget.

It is fifteen years since I was last in Paris, and that time I was with two fifteen year old Australian boys. We stayed in an attic just near here...
Notre Dame, which brought back memories of ducking under the barriers in the Metro and eating frozen pizzas to save a few centimes, back in pre-Euro days.
A reminder of how the threads of life interweave across time and geography - I had a postcard with a view similar to this one, it lived in my office in the library in Cairns, feeding dreams for many years.

Friday, June 17, 2016

The real France

Now I am in the heart of France in a very rural setting in the south west, almost in the Midi, in the Lot region. 

Six weeks in Montpellier went by in a flash. I met some wonderful people at the Le Bookshop's French-English conversation evenings on Mondays and Fridays. One turned out to be a close neighbour, Jean-Antoine, who lives in the apartment just across the courtyard, so close that we could have continued the conversation from our respective windows had we wanted to. When Nicholas came down to the city from his place in the countryside, the wife, Marie-Christine, invited us to visit them. The invite was for after 8.00pm and I assumed that would mean we were invited for an after-dinner drink. Silly me, it was a dinner invite. Pity I  had already eaten - lucky I hadn't had all that much. Marie-Christine speaks no English so I was forced to display my appalling accent but I managed to mostly keep up with the conversation and at least I can make people laugh with my mistakes and misunderstandings. 

Then there were some great rides to places around Montpellier on the back of an older BMW motorbike - places I would never have got to on my own.

I had to drink a lot of coffee during the last few days in Montpellier to be able to set myself up in one or other cafe to use the WiFi for hours on end, and with help from Nicholas I took the plunge and bought a bicycle and a tent. 

Two years ago I was living on hospital nutrition drinks that went directly into my stomach via a syringe and tube. I could only manage short walks and was just starting to be able to drink a coffee when I went out. I slept most afternoons and was challenged by the gentle yoga sessions at the Cancer Council in Rotorua. Now here I am enjoying a really wide range of French foods, walking up to 20 km a day and seriously planning to cycle down the Dordogne River. I don't take any medications, I sleep well, I'm making new friends and living my dreams. I don't know how to say it without sounding simple, but very single day I count my blessings and wonder at how far I have come. And every day I thank the friends that supported me when I really needed it. I wouldn't be here without the kindness of my family and friends in Australia and New Zealand and I am so grateful. 

The new bike went into the back of a van for it's first trip. So far I have just been doing short rides from Nicholas's farmhouse in a tiny hamlet called Candes in the Lot. 

I'll get back to my usual blog posts soon. Unfortunately I had to ditch my little camera. The lens got stuck, and I couldn't fix it so now I just have my phone. One less thing to carry on the bike. Faster blog posts ahead. 

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Out and about - Barcelona

Why not Espagne! Sunday morning in Montpellier and a text comes in from my sister who is in Barcelona. It's only a few hours away, why not go and surprise them? By that evening I'm in Figures, in Spain, having tapas in the town square. There are Catalonian flags everywhere. The separatist movement seems to have really strong support.

A rapid train into Barcelona in the morning. Deb and John are doing a cooking class at La Boqueria so I walked from the train station down to La Rambla to see Palau Guell, a house that Gaudi constructed for some rich dude.

And then wandered along the waterfront which was completely redeveloped for the Olympic Games way back in 1992 (and remains impressive - they did a great job reconstructing the beaches) and through part of the old quarter, the Barri Gotic.

Hola sister! We celebrate with champagne in their luxurious waterfront hotel room, then go out, way too early, for tapas and a stroll. They walk me to my hotel just as the streets are starting to come to life - my $50 room up five flights of worn stairs with a tiny window onto a smelly lightwell, a single bed and cracked handbasin with a dripping tap. I had to roll the duvet under me because I was in danger of developing bed sores from the mattress springs.

The thing about early nights is that the day gets going early - yay. Empty streets and a soft morning light. We meet up at the market halls, Mercat de la Boqueria, for breakfast (absolutely not tripe, and not piglet heads or intestine sausage either) and then they go off on their next gourmet adventure while I visit Sagrada Familia.

I didn't get to see many of the sights this time but I walked miles and it was a great orientation to the city. And to tapas. Life will not be the same - those little white anchovies, spanish black olives, tomato toast and tiny fried green peppers.

The train would have been faster, but the 4-hour bus was cheaper so that's how I got back to Montpellier on Tuesday night. Intrepid travellers have to save money where they can.