Beer and skittles in rural France

We’re visiting our friends Jill and Simon. They moved to Lot-en-Garonne, near Villeréal in south west France five years ago, and now we’re grey nomads (I didn’t make that up but really like it) we finally have the leisure to drop in.

To reach their place we navigate a winding single track lane then a long downhill drive.  It’s very green and peaceful and seems far from 21st century life.  The only sounds are natural ones — birds, crickets, frogs, hens, three stroppy cockerels and the occasional sheep.

Jill’s a garden designer too, that’s how we met, but unlike me she and Simon work their socks off designing and building beautiful landscapes in France. On the day we arrive she’s off for three hours of French lessons. I think she speaks the language well, better than my mixture of schoolgirl French and sign language, but she needs to be pretty fluent so she can cope with long, detailed business meetings with potential garden design clients.

Simon doesn’t make it back for our visit in the end because he’s been delayed by this year’s fickle weather. They have a huge landscaping job for the owners of a chateau about a hundred miles away, and he needs to make the most of the break in the rain to catch up on the build. They’re also doing most of the work renovating their farm buildings too. It isn’t all beer and skittles, or even toute du vin et jeu de boules, but they love the place and after a couple of days we start to fall under its spell too.

Gertie’s parked up by the side of the ancient stone barn, looking just a little incongruous. She’s a big bride and not exactly unobtrusive, but we’re completely self-contained so are undemanding and pleasant guests (just in case anyone out there would like us to come and visit.)

The sun comes out as I write.  Hens are pecking gently around my toes, Jill’s dogs Ruby and Arnie sleep peacefully by my side and I am completely content. Who needs beer and skittles anyway?

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Steam trains and silkworms

We are in the Cévennes, a place of  narrow, winding roads, tumbling, rocky rivers, green, craggy gorges and mountains. It’s not considered a number one holiday destination by the French or most other tourists for that matter and yet it’s completely glorious. It’s France as it used to be, with great little restaurants, proper markets, more locals than visitors and a pride in the place and its way of life that’s palpable.

We are staying in the village of Anduze and discover that there’s a steam train, the Train à Vapeur des Cévennes.  The track follows the course of the Gardon river to Saint-Jean-du-Gard, 13.2 kilometres away. How can we resist?   A puff of steam, a toot toot, a train guard’s whistle, slamming of doors and we’re off. It’s like being on the Hogwarts Express. I feel like Hermione Grainger. Except except now days look more like Professor McGonagle…

The route is picturesque in a wild, untamed sort of way, with old stone mills, enormous vistas of the river, glimpses of ancient terracing between the trees. It’s mostly over viaducts, the eleven arches of the Viaduc du Mescalou being the most spectacular with the best photo opportunities of the Gardon bubbling away below.

At St Jean we resist the market and head for the Musée des vallées cévenoles, housed in Maison Rouge, once a large spinning mill used in the production of silk, the principal industry in the Cévennes right up to the second World War. The area produced more silkworm cocoons than the rest of France put together, fed on the leaves of the four million mulberry trees planted in the region between 1554 and 1606. The museum sits in beautifully designed wildflower meadows and is well worth a visit if you’re in the area.Wildflower meadows at Maison Rouge

We’ll be on the road again soon, usually something I relish, but this time part of me doesn’t want to leave. The peace, the wildlife, the river, the spirit of this place is very special and I know that one day I’ll be back.

Notes for campers: We stayed in Campsite Castel Rouge in Anduze, on the banks of the river Gardon.  Our pitch was right on the bank of the river and was very peaceful, although this was in May. It accepts the ACSI card.  There’s also a very good Aire de Camping Car in the village.

Starry starry night

Starry Night on the RhoneArles, provincial capital of ancient Rome, major city of the Camargue and inspiration to Vincent van Gogh who lived here from February 1888 to May 1899. The time he spent in Arles became one of his most prolific periods, completing 200 paintings and more than 100 drawings and water colours. It’s also where he chopped his earlobe off. We visit.

We collect a van Gogh Walk map from the Tourist Office, and wander off to take a look at just a few of the places in the city where he set up his easel or sketchbook. It’s a place to saunter and so we do, through little alleyways and grand boulevards, past Roman ruins. One of these is the Arles Ampitheatre, built around 900 BC and still in use today for bullfights, plays and concerts.

We find the first site, where van Gogh painted The Staircase of the Trinquetaille Bridge. The tiny sapling on the right of the painting has now grown into a huge, mature London plane tree (Platanus x hispanica).

 

On to the Place du Forum and ‘The Café Terrace at Night’.  The site was refurbished in 1990 to replicate van Gogh’s painting. Apparently today’s cafe isn’t very good. ‘Don’t go in. We get lots of complaints about the food’ says the man at the TO.

Toward the end of 1888 the first signs of Vincent’s illness became apparent, today recognised as a type of epilepsy that took the form of delusions and psychotic attacks. Back then he was Just regarded as a violent maniac. It was during one such episode that he cut off either part of his left earlobe or the whole ear (experts disagree on which it was.) The Garden of the Hospital in Arles (below) is one of two paintings created during his treatment there after the incident.

The Garden at the Hospital in Arles

It’s a touching, thought provoking few hours. His genius, sensitivity, joyous response to the colours and and people of Arles…and then his terrifying, destructive episodes where he descended into despair and self harm.  As we drive away I can’t get Don McLean’s beautiful song out of my head.

Notes for campers: We stayed at L’Arlesienne campsite, three kilometres from the city centre. Incredibly noisy as it’s in the middle of a large motorway network, and no cycle path into the city.  We didn’t like the idea of taking our chances on the busy roads on bikes so stayed just one night and then moved on to the motorhome aire on the banks of the river in the centre of Arles.  We decided not to stay the night there as there were lots of gypsies checking out the parked motorhomes but it was fine for a stopover for the day while we visited the city.

On the road again

At last! Because of various commitments we haven’t been able to travel that much in Gertie since we came home last December. We did manage to sneak in a very wet Easter weekend visit to the Queen’s estate at Sandringham but it was over so quickly it didn’t seem to count somehow.

Now we’re heading for the Camargue in the south of France and if you’re planning a first trip to France I thought you might be interested in our itinerary and timings.

We were booked in for a 10.36 Channel Tunnel crossing last Saturday, but as the sun was shining and it was a Bank Holiday weekend we were delayed just a little bit.  We finally got going from Calais at around 12.20 local time and headed in the direction of Lyon, the best route to the south of France if you want to avoid Paris and the dreaded Périphérique.

After a very short lunch stop we arrived at Camping Municipal Chalons en Champagne, at around 4.30pm.  This is a very peaceful campsite, albeit with dated facilities. The great thing about it is that it’s an easy cycle ride into Chalons, where there’s lots of the local brew to taste. Yum!

The next morning we headed for Lyon, a 450 kilometer drive .  As Gertie weighs in at 3.85 tonnes so is technically an HGV we try to keep to the statutory 90 km per hour speed limit on motorways so this leg took about five hours, but as we both take turns at the wheel it wasn’t too bad.

Our stop off in Lyon was at Camping Lyon in Dardilly, about ten kilometers from the city centre. It’s set in a country park and is surprisingly peaceful considering how close to the motorway network it is. And then on Monday we reached Arles, our first destination on this spring tour of the Camargue. It’s a beautiful city on the river Rhone, made famous by the paintings of Vincent van Gogh. More on this later…

Hoe hoe hoe

Last year I wrote a post about getting my garden ready to cope without me while I’m travelling, https://gertiethehymer.wordpress.com/2017/03/08/readying-the-garden-for-travel/. We’re just off on another jaunt, this time to the Camargue region in France (there’s a post about this trip coming soon), so I thought it would be a good time to let those who are interested in such things know how the garden is faring.

Most of the groundcover plants are doing well, although the Pachysandra terminalis, usually a survivor in any situation, isn’t thriving…or to be more precise of the six plants that went in only one survives, and that’s not looking too peachy either. I really have no idea why this is, which is one of the reasons why, perversely, I love gardens and plants.  You can’t make them do anything they don’t want to.

On the bright side, the other ground cover plants, Laminum maculatum, Erigeron karvinskianus, Bergenia ‘Overture’, Campanula portenschlagiana ‘Catharina’ (how could I resist?) and various varieties of Geranium are all doing the job brilliantly.

Having opened the beds out quite a lot, it’s given me the the opportunity to really get in there with the hoe, one of my favourite garden tools.  I know the fashion is for dense planting with as little soil showing as possible, but really there’s nothing quite so effective as hoeing to keep the weeds in check.  Done carefully it doesn’t break up the soil like a fork or rake will do, bringing more weed seeds to the surface. A hoe will disturb the nascent weed seedlings enough to prevent them growing and keep them in check for a few weeks so I’ll have less to deal with when I get home. Result!

Talking of weeds, this shy little beauty is known locally as Hairy Bittercress, or to give it it’s proper name Cardamine hirstuta.  It’s invaded our village over the last few years and is very difficult to eradicate.  If you try to pull it out the seeds will explode over a wide area.  The most effective way to control it is by hoeing.