Sheer Easter joy…..wonderfully sung by these pastors of the Adventist church.
À toi la gloire, O Ressuscité!
À toi la victoire pour l’éternité!
Brillant de lumière, l’ange est descendu,
Il roule la Pierre du tombeau vaincu.
À toi la gloire, O Ressuscité!
À toi la victoire pour l’éternité!
Craindrais-je encore? Il vit à jamais,
Celui que j’adore, le Prince de paix;
Il est ma victoire, mon puissant soutien,
Ma vie et ma gloire : non, je ne crains rien!
À toi la gloire, O Ressuscité!
À toi la victoire pour l’éternité!
We were four people, had arranged to pay for a four bedroom house and on arrival found one of those bedrooms locked, the door adorned with a paper upon which, in a child’s hand, was written
‘Our things are in here. You can’t go in.’
Not the best of starts…but we got round it, using one of the sitting rooms as a bedroom, and there was that to amuse us as using the loo needed a good sense of balance.
A lurch to the side to reach the loo roll…placed at gorilla arm’s length….and the whole throne would tip alarmingly, not having been securely attached to the floor.
Incompetence…or a device to encourage sobriety?
Made cautious by experience, when I returned to the Bergerac area I made a commercial booking of a rental house and all went well….we had arranged a ‘mother and daughter’ break for a few of us and despite disparity of age and background the mothers had a hoot, especially once introduced to wine tasting.
To see a group of ladies of a certain age waving tea towels toreador fashion while one of their number pawed and lunged in the manner of the bull, chorusing their intention of raising a bunion on Senor Spigoni’s onion should they catch him bending that night is a privilege vouchsafed to the few….
Wine tasting went well…..sanitary facilities outwith the house not so.
We had stopped for coffee in Bergerac when the urge overtook mother to overcome the habits of a lifetime and use the loo in the caff.
Her absence was of no long duration.
She returned at the speed of an Exocet, giving us to understand that the condition of the facilities resembled that of Tangier in time of plague….and, in a telling finale, announced that she wouldn’t be too sure of the cups….
The maternal element of the party rose as one and departed for the portaloo outside the church….
Still, even the charms of the wine of Pecharmant could not conceal from me that the area was uber-touristy…..the increasing range of English newspapers available being a telling sign…so when friends offered me the use of the house they had just bought in the south of France I was keen to see a new area.
Well, it was the south of France…but not as we know it.
It was Languedoc….in the Herault….in the backwoods behind Beziers.
It could not have been better.
I drove down via Clermont Ferrand and Millau….no Norman Foster viaduct in those days….and onto the Causse de Larzac where, if you stopped the car all you would hear would be the wind whipping through the short grasses.
Famed in my time for the local opposition to the expropriation of the Causse to extend a military camp, it has been an inhabited site since prehistoric times….unrestricted tree felling and sheep grazing have reduced it to the barren waste it appears to be at first sight….the old Templar stronghold at La Couvertoirade guarding the route by which salt came up from the lagoons of the Languedoc was then just beginning to attract the hippies and artists who now infest the place and the restaurant was already expensive.
The causses surrounding Millau form a wonderful world apart…..and there is no better introduction than a collection of photographs by Owen Phillips.
If you follow the link you will find a mention of the photographs on the right hand side of the page, with links to follow. These now form a book…but I cannot find an easier reference than that given in the link.
Down off the causses between Lodeve and Bedarieux following the River Orb, into the world of vines and thermal springs, shopping in a tired looking Intermarche in Herepian, having been warned of lack of shops at my destination, then travelling the road under great trees with white painted trunks, leaving Lamalou-les-Bains for a later visit, pressing on to the house at St. Martin de l’Arcon, tucked under the heights of Mont Caroux.
Over a picnic of sausage cheese and bread that night I wondered where exactly I was….on the edge of the Cevennes as notorious for the religious persecution of the Huguenots and the suppression of their Camisard uprising as celebrated for the exploits of Stevenson and Modestine.
In the other direction the Cathars and their bloody suppression in the Albigension Crusade…
I resolved to let history alone and enjoy the gifts of nature and thus, on the following day, set out to explore the lanes and tracks of the hamlets between the mountain and the river.
There was a ‘motorway’ to the square below my house, but otherwise the lanes were just wide enough to allow a laden donkey to pass and I could walk for miles between the vines to La Pomarede in one direction and towards La Coste in the other.
No sign of a shop….no vignerons offering ‘degustations’…
I met a man checking his vines. He laughed at the idea of direct sale to the public.
There was no public. Yes, things might change the way foreigners were buying up the old houses…had I seen all the new bungalows on the ‘motorway’, where villagers were finally able to afford comfortable easily maintained houses?
But if the foreigners were Dutch then there would be no point.
They brought everything with them.
I was to hear this over and over…in the one shop at Colombieres, at the car park at the Gorges d’Heric, in the shops at Olargues.
The Dutch arrived in vast camper vans…sometimes laagered up in whole deserted hamlets which they had bought….and passed their time walking and botanising. They spent not a franc.
It all sounded rather chicken and egg, given the shortage of commercial activity….but it was the locally held view.
Me? He let me come round later with my cubi and drove me back up the ‘motorway’.
I didn’t go far….I took the car down to Roquebrune on the Orb, with a micro climate so mild as to make it a haven for exotic plants…to Olargues to enjoy the old streets clustered over the river…to Herepian to do the serious shopping…and to Lamalou les Bains, with its air of somewhat faded dissipation….but apart from that I spent my days enjoying the peace of the upper village, until the arrival of a mad axeman – apparently intent on tearing apart the neighbouring house – drove me out.
The Gorges d’Heric are, in their lower parts, sneered at somewhat by the dedicated rambler for being too easy. There was a car park and the first section of the path was concreted. It suited me just fine, to wander up to the hamlet of Heric and a little beyond, dabbling my feet in the icy water of the pools.
There were plenty of walkers, plenty of families with excited children making death defying leaps into the water while the hamlet was deserted, all but for a few holidaymakers in high summer…and there was no buvette as there is, it appears, today. If you wanted something to eat or drink…you had to be Dutch about it!
In the other direction were the Gorges de la Colombiere…less tamed, more of a scramble, but also quieter….I walked up through the shade of the chestnuts and found a safe bathing spot, then made my way down again, seeing no one the whole time. However, as Genevoix said, in the French countryside you are always at risk of being observed from under the visor of a cap, so perhaps somewhere in the haut cantons of the Herault there is a blind man to whom I should make my apologies….
Present in all my ramblings was Mont Caroux, and there was a footpath to the summit from just outside the house…a steep lane of flat stones and short steps leading up through the trees.
I set out at first light, unwilling to brave the heat of the day on the open ground above, walking up through the stunted oaks and then the chestnut trees, passing the stone building once used to dry them for winter use….
Then out into the open, slipping on the flat stones, pulling myself along on the sharp uprights, until finally reaching the viewpoint….1059 metres above sea level…
I was not sure whether the blue I could see before me was one of the great lagoons lining the Languedoc coast, or the sea itself…but I was sure that the white capped mountains far away were the Pyrenees.
The summit was still above me…but if there was one thing I had learned from hill walking with my father in Scotland it was that nomatter how common it is to regard mountains as female…their summits are certainly male…and men were deceivers ever.
This lady was certainly going to expend no sighs on finding that having clambered up one hump there was another grinning behind. I contented myself by walking about, discovering that the plants differed from those below and finding the most enormous cricket I had or have seen and limbered up the knees for the descent…or slide downhill.
I enjoyed my time at St. Martin de l’Arcon….and have, as so often, regretted not returning…but work called and I had time only for one criminal act before leaving.
I took four flat stones from the sides of the path high above the house to set into my path at home….where they gave me much pleasure and many happy memories… then packed up and set off for the north, pausing in Villefranche de Rouerge to change money and being greeted for the first time in my life by a bank manager in shorts…..
I’d slept on trains and eaten picnics; I’d stayed in hotels and eaten in caffs, but I hadn’t stayed stayed, as it were, until a friend suggested that a group of us could book her cousin’s house near Eymet in the Dordogne.
Even then the Dordogne was known to be the mecca for the British seeking to live in France, but not rich enough for Paris or the Riviera. Not that those living there thought of themselves like that, of course….they were there for the peace of the countryside and the French lifestyle.
The cousin was going to be in England for a month, but we could only afford a fortnight between the four of us, even at ‘family’ rates and sharing one car, although, to be fair, none of us could have taken more time away from work, allowing for getting there and back even in the dog days of summer.
The idea was to drop down as directly as possible, avoiding the motorways – not that there were that many at that time – stopping if anything caught our fancy. Even sharing the driving it was clear from the map that speed was not going to be a feature of the trip, but at least the passengers would see something of the changing landscape of France.
Thanks in part to our maps and in part to our mapreading, we saw rather more of old town centres than we had bargained for….interesting though they were and, inevitably, became lost in Rouen. Years later I was still, inevitably, becoming lost in Rouen even when the European autoroutes swept drivers into tunnels which avoided some of the inner city roads I could still find myself in the fume ridden industrial area besmirching the banks of the Seine, or crawling through endless suburbs, red lights at every junction and cursing the Toutes Directions signs. I never remember seeing the cathedral…
Heading out over the waterless plain to the south we managed to see the church and chateau at Le Neubourg at least twice before escaping in the direction of Conches-en-Ouche under its ruined keep, and down into the woods and streams around Senonches before taking the main road to Nogent le Rotrou…passengers vowed to silence save for the navigator in the suicide seat.
It would be one of the few places passed or visited on this journey that I would see again…its narrow streets as much of an obstacle to progress then as they would be years later in that town hunched and cramped under its fortress on the hill.
Then via St. Calais to Montoire sur le Loir where Petain agreed to collaborate with Hitler, meeting him in the same railway carriage that was used for the German surrender at Compiegne in 1918. A pretty place, but we were off to Tours, joining the major roads and keeping our eyes open and our mouths shut.
The Loire disappointed…..such a small stream to bear so much history….it was not until later I realised that the bulk of the water in the Loire is brought in by the Vienne….the confluence being well downstream of Tours.
Through Tours and out onto quieter roads to Ste. Catherine de Fierbois where Joan of Arc stayed before her meeting with the dauphin at Chinon. The church where the sword of Charles Martel was allegedly discovered is later than her time….but the hostel for pilgrims where she put up still existed, though we were discovering that time was flying past us and we had to press on.
In and out of Chatellerault and following the Vienne upstream to Chauvigny, where at that point no one had thought to set up the now famous ‘Geants du Ciel’ spectacular, where birds of prey wheel over the heads of spectators above the towers of the fortifications, just one of the many attraction parks clustering round Poitier’s Futuroscope – Planet of the Crocodiles, Valley of the Apes – feeding off and feeding in their turn the cheap flights of the Ryanair empire.
We had planned to spend the night at Civaux for two reasons.
The first was that the hotel…found in a guidebook in those pre internet days…was cheap and the second was that two of us wanted to visit the remains of the Merovingian necropolis there.
We had had a tiring day….flasks and sandwiches rather than leisurely lunches as the drivers took their turns…so to find the hotel closed was not a welcome sight.
Why was the hotel closed in the height of the holiday season?
The notice in the window said it all.
Closed for holidays.
We pushed on to Lussac les Chateaux, whose cave drawings seem to attract far less attention that the paintings at Lascaux, found a bar with rooms to let and crashed out.
To this day I have not yet visited the necropolis….I’ve come close so many times, but something has always happened to derail my plans.
An early start and following the Vienne upstream through Persac to l’Isle Jourdain and on to Confolons, the Vienne still wide and full of water, via quiet Chabanais to Rochechouart, skirting the Limousin to arrive at last in the Dordogne, in the Perigord vert, at Nontron.
The last leg.
Brantome on the river Dronne, the abbey as beautiful as photographs portrayed it….Chancelade, not then swallowed whole by Perigueux, then some unwelcome main road until able to turn off on the road through Vergt in the Perigord blanc….which always returned to mind in the strawberry season when Vergt’s fruit would be seen as far north as the Loire.
Bergerac, before it’s bypass…then down through Fonroque, wine tasting signs appearing on the roadside until the driver called out…
This is it. Eymet!
Are you sure?
Yes, it has to be…the English are here. I’ve just seen a man in black socks and sandals.
Most of my memories of touring in northern France are of grey days and drizzle, with the odd day of hard winter sun, for by now I had my first little house to pay for and a garden to make….so escapes were made when nothing useful could be done at home.
A look at the weather forecast, a glance at the sky…and I’d be off, my small bag on the back seat and a map on the seat beside me. They weren’t always wonderful, those maps…but as long as they showed the main towns and villages I was confident I would not get lost.
After all, I was touring, not hareing down to the Riviera to the sound of Trenet and ‘Nationale Sept’.
I can’t remember whether the French Tourist Office had started christening every bit of coast in sight by some name or other at that time…..I was certainly not particularly aware that an area I liked to visit was called the Cote d’Opale, I just liked the area from the sands of Belgium to the estuary of the Somme.
Up north the land was flat, drained by ditches and canals…further west the hills started, villages strung out along the little rivers while the coast was marked by cliffs and inlets. Inland was the area I thought of as ‘the War’…the battlefields, the cemeteries, the waste of life…I stayed away.
Driving down from Boulogne on the main road was the sign to Montreuil sur Mer…..miles inland from the sea it had once been one of the main ports of medieval France perched on its hill high above the Canche. When you look at those ports…like Barfleur, the port used by the Angevins between their French and English domains…it brings home to you just how small were those ships which carried wool, grain…and armies… across the short seas of the Channel.
From port to fort…as the Canche silted up the town became one of the fortresses guarding the border of France with the Spanish Netherlands until sacked by the troops of Charles V who, as was usual for soldiers of the Holy Roman Empire, indulged in their traditional sport of pulling down the churches.
Rebuilt by Francois I, remodelled by Vauban under Louis XIV, war wandered away from Montreuil just as had its medieval commerce, leaving it a sleepy small town on the road to Boulogne, which is how Victor Hugo saw it in the 1830s when on holiday at Etaples and some twenty five years later used it as the setting for part of ‘Les Miserables’….Jean Valjean being maire of the town before ‘revealing all’ to save another from the galleys.
Pretty, a bit touristy even then, it was a gateway to the little valleys surrounding it….pretty villages, watermills, quiet stands of trees….and on the coast the seaside towns…more Hove than Brighton….where the litterati spent their holidays while the glitterati went to Deauville.
I could not efface all contact with’ the War’. At Etaples where nine base hospitals had operated the graves stretch into infinity…English laid with English, Africans with Africans, Chinese with Chinese….discrimination or solidarity..who can now know.
Etaples had been an artistic colony in the nineteenth century…as had Wissant before it.
Forget Monet and Giverny…look at Manet. Rejected by the Navy he never lost his interest in boats and seascapes.
While of a lesser order Chigot celebrates the shrimp catcher.
Those grey shrimps which have the taste of the sea……a pain to deshell, a delight to eat.
On this occasion I was returning to Boulogne to take the ferry because I wanted to see the column commemorating the army assembled under Napoleon I to invade England and, having decided not to climb to the top, drove into Wimereux to seek lodging for the night.
By this time I was broken in to French hotels…..you paid, had your passport confiscated and then carried out the French national sport which should by now have achieved Olympic recognition.
Charging up a flight of stairs with luggage in hand before the time switch on the light cut off, leaving you to find your room number in something resembling a wartime blackout.
This experience alone explains the theory of farce.
Having found the room, clean, but sporting a bedside table upon which every travelling arsonist had put in a training session with matches, you then had to find the bathroom.
It would be somewhere in the corridor, so you had to open your bedroom door while holding your keys and washbag and in the light from your own room identify the light switch.
Then, leaving the light on in your room, sprint up and down the corridor looking for the unnumbered door which would, with luck, be the bathroom.
It wasn’t guaranteed to be.
Someone’s granny could get a terrible shock as the visitor burst in looking for a loo.
‘Allo, Allo’ had nothing on it.
And don’t think about a bath…if one existed at all it would be one of those tiny tubs with a seat upon which you sat while soaping yourself.
Let no one say that the French lack innovative talent.
They’d invented the shower stool before inventing the shower.
Bit like minitel and the internet, really.
No, you usually had the loo, an occasional bidet and the wash basin. The hook on the back of the door served as towel rail and place to park your garments.
You’d forgotten your towel?
Another sprint along the corridor. And get some soap while you’re at it.
However there was usually a loo roll.
So the amenities at the hotel came as no surprise. Monsieur had two rooms available. Would I like to see them?
Indeed I would.
Monsieur led the way and opened the door. The walls and ceiling….but not the floor… were covered in blue grey shag pile carpeting.
Monsieur showed me the second room…shag pile again, but in a vivid flame orange.
I settled for the first, hanging a scarf on the door handle to indicate the exit.
It was like a night from Edgar Allan Poe….I felt the shag pile descending to smother me while outside there was a distinct and repeated sound of heavy breathing.
At dawn I gave up and drew back the curtains…grey but not shag pile.
Outside the window, on the leads, a large Alsatian regarded me solemnly, then turned his back and defecated mightily.
An aged Austin A30 which, despite the single wiper and the trafficators popping out from the door columns could give more lofty cars a run for their money at the lights as someone had souped up its engine.
While the more lofty car would soon make up the ground, London’s traffic light system would ensure that we met again at the next red light, at which point the determination of the male driver to grind this relic into the ground was palpable.
So I didn’t accelerate. Not until we met again at the next red light.
With a car I could extend my holidays from one day to two…or if lucky, three so the early hours of Saturday morning would find me at the docks…about to undergo the most nervewracking thing I had ever done.
Board a car ferry.
I was petrified. What I wanted was a clear run, to avoid having to stop and start on the ramp while cars ahead manoevred. The attendants wanted cars on the move.
I sometimes got away with it…the chaps thinking the combination of ancient car and woman driver indicating the path of least resistance…but usually not and the tension of the whole thing had hardly subsided before it was time to reverse the process and drive down the ramp on the other side.
It was worth it, though, to be able to see more…and, equally, not to have to carry anything, so Northern France became my weekend playground.
Mention Dunkirk and the mind turns to the evacuation of the troops from the moles and from the beaches between the 27th May and 4th June 1940, but British troops had been there before on a 4th June…. at the Battle of the Dunes in 1658 when the troops of Cromwell’s New Model Army, allied to the French, stormed a one hundred and fifty foot sand dune to rout the stoutest troops of the Spanish army, the cannon of the Commonwealth fleet clearing the Spanish troops from the beaches to secure a victory….and possession of Dunkirk for the British.
Needless to say, Charles II, Louis XIV’s pensioner, promptly gave it back once restored to the throne…even though he and his brother had been fighting on the side of the Spanish at the Dunes.
It is often thought of as a dull countryside…and so it is from the main roads…drainage dykes and canals running through the flat lands, but it has a quiet beauty, pale skies reflected in still waters and a few places spared the destruction of the warfare which has been the portion of this area for centuries.
I had intended to explore the town for a long time…but lunch came first.
Not being a tourist town…at least at that period before it became famous as the place where ‘Bienvenue Chez les Cht’is’ was filmed…there was not much choice of places to eat, but I found one with a menu outside…and knew exactly what I wanted to order!
Grey shrimp fritters followed by a potjevleisch with a Jupiter beer to accompany it and consumed in a cool dining room. Bliss.
Potjevleisch is a dish of rabbit, veal and chicken cooked together with onions and thyme and left to cool…served in its own jelly. Very bliss on a hot day!
I had wanted to visit Bergues as on one of my railway journeys I had spent the last day in Paris at the museum in the Invalides…and had found the wonderful relief maps of fortified towns made for the French army staff since the days of Louis XIV tucked away in a quiet section of the building.
Fortified to designs by Vauban in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as part of a chain of fortresses guarding the northern frontier of France from attack from what was then the Spanish Netherlands the relief map shows the provision for interlocking fire and the use of the existing canals for further protection….and what works of art all those relief maps were!
Houses, churches, trees all produced to scale…..the state secrets of France!
And after lunch I could walk the town ramparts and see for myself that the majority of the fortifications were still in place….could walk where the garrison had grown bored watching the horizon for threats which never came as the frontiers were pushed back and war entered a different phase.
Until May 1940, when Bergues was the hinge of the defence line holding the perimeter of Dunkirk while the ships and men of Operation Dynamo tried to lift off the armies of France and Britain from the bombed and blazing beaches of Dunkirk.
Starting work after university was a distinct financial shock. No regular income, taking students to make ends meet…it was a difficult few years and trips to France were well off the agenda. Trips anywhere were well off the agenda.
Still, things began to pick up and by my mid twenties I could once again think of crossing the Channel but, to start with, only for the day.
I took several day trips to Bruges and to Ghent which gave me a taste for Flemish Belgium which has never left me. Not just for the architecture and the frites with mayonnaise, but for the attitude.
Attempting to buy chocolates in a shop in Bruges and addressing the shop assistant in French she gave me a withering look and replied in good English
We don’t speak that language here.
So I learnt to refer to the town as Brugge…and its port as Zeebrugge where the ferry terminal had a caff which served the best grey shrimp salad ever.
As to France…I went first to Boulogne.
There was a sort of family connection, as one of my mother’s few stories was her day trip with her mother on a paddle steamer from Brighton to Boulogne just as war was about to be declared in 1939. The mother’s family spent the summers at Rottingdean..but this was the first trip abroad.
They disembarked, warned that they would only have a couple of hours, and, being British, went in search of tea. Peering in through windows of the shops in the square by the quay she and her mother were disturbed to find that there seemed to be no tea cups in sight….but that people were drinking from small bowls.
Her mother was horrified. She had ‘heard things’ about the French…but to see them drinking soup or whatever it was without a spoon confirmed her darkest suspicions. A heathen race.
Tealess they went in search of perfume….and each bought a small bottle of cologne. A travelling companion encountered in the shop told them not to be so stupid…never mind the customs regulations, just stuff the bottles into their corsets. After all, the customs officers weren’t going to rummage women on their return…not with a war about to start. They would be too busy looking for nuns with parachute strap marks on their posteriors.
Mother and grandmother were on the slim side…any article concealed in the corsets would not only give rise to acute discomfort but would be obvious to the passing glance. Their informant had no such worries. Under their astonished eye…and the cynical eye of the male shop assistant…bottle after bottle was inserted into darkest Africa and she went on her way.
Long before the announced time of departure the paddle steamer’s siren was blasting and as they walked across the square they noted the number of men, most carrying packages, heading into the town accompanied by women and children.
Mobilisation, said the purser…they’re calling up the older men now.
By the time of my trip,things had changed. The square no longer existed after wartime bombardments….and the day of the booze cruise was yet to come.
I found the market, surprised to see raw milk being poured into bottles brought by the customer, and investigated the stalls. There was not that much fish on offer, but plenty of meat, vegetables, cheese and fruit and what I was later to recognise as the staple of any self respecting French market, a stall where salmon pink corsets, full and truncated, flew like banners against the sky in the brisk wind from the river.
Accustomed to varied veg from my father’s garden, the abundance did not have the same effect on me that it might…though the artichokes were new…and I’ve never really fallen under the spell of the French market from that day onward.
Hungry, I sought an early lunch and found it in a caff on the corner of the road up to the old town. My first meal in France; moules mariniere. I fell under that spell immediately…simple food simply cooked at an honest price.
With two hours to go until I had to return I walked up into the old town…where the basilica proclaimed itself to be the site of the marriage of Edward II of England with Isabebelle of France…another bad decision on the part of the man who lost at Bannockburn….but as the original building had been replaced by a nineteenth century monstrosity to gain any sense of the atmosphere of that period I had to cross over to the chateau…a looming medieval beast commanding the town and the port.
I was still strolling the ramparts around the old town when I became aware of the time…I’d have to rush if I wanted to buy some cheese on my way to the ferry!
I descended the Grande Rue rather faster than I had ascended it, heading for the market…which was no longer there!
Crates were being stacked in vans, street sweepers were clearing the leaves and cardboard from the square….there was nothing to buy!
My first look inside France taught me a lesson that all my trips on trains had failed to do…..the lunch hour was sacred.