My main news this month is writing of Two Go to Italy has finally resumed after my period as a "house-husband" while Mary recovered from her operation. In the last few days she has started driving again and even made a few gentle visits to the gym. She still isn't fully clear of pain but things are slowly getting better.
It is now just 6 weeks before we board the ferry to start this year's main holiday, where Sicily is the ultimate destination although we will explore as much as we can of the land travelled through, especially on the way back. Given the time of year the plan is to reach Sicily reasonably quickly then after a few weeks on the island begin to work our way slowly back. Going south to north seems to make sense when you are starting in early April.
I have included below part of an early chapter from Two Go to Italy, which covers some of our travels down through France. This is a first draft and the published version will probably be a little different, hopefully with fewer typos and what this version doesn't have, some photographs and maps. Our starting point was Roscoff on the north coast of Brittany. The picture above was taken in a church close to Roscoff and depicts what I believe might be a flying cornish pasty. The question is did the pasty fly to France from Cornwall or did pasties arrive in Cornwall from France? The latter would certainly cause the history books to be re-written!
South Through France
After stocking up with essential supplies, notably wine, fruit and cheese, we set off on the long trip down through France. Our plan to reach the south was to take an inland route. We had time to drive down the coast but having cycled up the west coast of France a few years ago I knew it has long stretches which are either busy, not very scenic or in a few places both of these things. So the interior it was and we were not to be disappointed.
France is sometimes referred to as “motorhome heaven” and whilst probably an exaggeration because dead motorhomes tend to go to the scrap heap rather than a home in the sky, it is undoubtedly true that touring through France in a motorhome is a lot easier than touring through the UK. There are a number of reasons why this is so, France has about the same population as the UK but twice the land mass and it is very easy to find roads relatively free of traffic but there is also a much greater acceptance of motorhomes in France. There is a bit of the chicken and egg about this, did the motorhomes come first and the rest of France reacted, or was it because as France became more welcoming, motorhome ownership exploded? No doubt the truth lies somewhere between these extremes but unquestionably if you want to go to a country which has ample facilities for motorhomes then outside of North America, France is where to head for. Not that the rest of mainland Europe is far behind. When we arrived in Italy much later we were pleasantly surprised to find facilities at a number of motorway (autostrada) service areas for discharging waste water and filling up with fresh. Somehow it is hard to see this ever happening at a UK motorway service area, though in defence of UK motorways most of them are free, unlike many in Europe.
It was main roads more or less all the way to Pouencé, a small town roughly midway between Rennes and Angers where we overnighted at a pleasant free aire beside a lake. It was only later I discovered Pouencé has an interesting old castle built along the classic round turrets at every corner style. Sadly, due to my lack of research we missed an opportunity to visit it but this incident did highlight just how much there is to see in France.
It was early afternoon when we arrived so we had our normal late lunch. This was to be the pattern of a typical day, drive during the morning, doing any shopping required on the way then pull into wherever was going to be the halt for the night for a (usually) late lunch then an exploration on foot around the immediate location.
I washed my lunch of bread, cold meats and cheese down with a Pelforth Blonde beer. I am a late convert to French beers, having previously been more inclined towards their wines but the small bottles of beer are very pleasant when well chilled even when it isn’t blazing hot outside. These beers are typically stronger than we are used to in the UK so coming in small bottles is sensible. Of course it isn’t just France who produce small bottles of beer - I am also very fond of Grimbergen beers from Belgium though these are typically a liver-shrivelling 6% or more in strength so only to be drunk sparingly and with discretion. Beers are a bit like cars these days in the sense the name on the label is not always much of a hint as to where it comes from or who made it. Grimbergen is a beer originally made by monks at the Norbertine Abbey at Grimbergen where the monks built a brewery shortly after the founding of the Abbey in 1128. The monks developed a reputation for their hospitality though their kindness to strangers did not prevent the Wars of Grimbergen in the late Twelfth Century. However, years later their product attracted the interests of the big brewers and legal position today is a curious one. Grimbergen sold in Belgium is brewed by a company owned by Heineken but the Grimbergen found outside Belgium is brewed by Carlsberg at their Kronenbourg brewery in France. To add a further layer of complexity the Grimbergen found in Belgium is marketed by Grolsch but it is not brewed by them. It is hard not to suspect these arrangements were only arrived at following enthusiastic tasting of the product during an extended lunch break.
The lake besides the aire was clearly a popular fishing lake and there were marked places, or “swims” as anglers call them, dotted all around it. Many of these were built like wooden piers, jutting out into the water to clear the marginal reeds but a few looked like converted agricultural trailers or carts. These generally had large metal wheels fitted to an axle below a platform, reached by a walkway hung between the cart and the shore. In the UK the fishing season would not have started this early in the year as coarse fish breed in the spring but here in France they seem to have a different timetable. A couple of angles were busy just below the aire though we didn’t see them catch anything so perhaps any breeding which might have been going on remained undisturbed. We walked all round the lake, keeping Charlie on a long lead which gave him just enough room to chase the numerous frogs basking around the margin back into the water. The weather was warm with blue skies and we had little difficulty settling down into a holiday mood. Perhaps the breakdown of our original ferry was something which had worked in our favour? We were now enjoying ourselves in a place we had had no plans originally to come anywhere near. France really is a good place to explore by motorhome.
We were parked on grass on this aire and we set up a pen for Charlie on it. The pen was a purpose made folding thing and it allowed him a bit of space off the lead and looked dog-proof. We were to be proved wrong before too long.
We were also wrong about the weather because the next day we saw little sign of blue skies and drove through some very heavy rain at times to Nieuil l'Espoir a few miles south east of Poitiers where we stayed at another aire very close to the town centre. The aire was free to stay at but water required a token or jeton which were available from the town hall but we didn’t bother to buy one as we had enough water on board to last us until the next day.
The city of Poitiers has a battle named after it though the battle itself, which occurred during the Hundred Years’ War, took place some distance from the city. The Hundred Years’ War, which lasted more than a hundred years and wasn’t so much a war as a series of battles followed by interludes of inactivity, had its origins in the Norman Conquest of England. The Normans, coming from France had lands there which they continued to rule. Over time the French kings strengthened their grip on what were seen as English possessions until eventually only Gascony in the far south west of France remained. Things started to go wrong in the early fourteenth century and a detailed description of how it all unravelled would probably take a book to explain and no doubt many books have been written on this subject. A sort of Horrible Histories version of the period might run along the following lines.
The mother of the reigning English king (Edward III) was Isabella of France, who was the daughter of the late Philip IV of France, which made Edward a grandson of a former French king. Meanwhile, back in France the French passed a law in 1316 preventing a women inheriting the throne so when Charles IV of France died without leaving a son to take over, the trouble-making Isabella claimed the French throne on behalf of her son, Edward, who was also a nephew of Charles. The French would have nothing with this scheme, claiming Isabella could not pass on a right she was not allowed to hold herself as a women. So the French chose someone else (another Philip) and for a few years the English accepted the position. Then the French started meddling in England’s war against Scotland, who were allies of the French and this so enraged Edward III he went to war with France and invaded in 1337. Initially things went well with English victories at Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt but the French had greater resources, fighting at home so to speak and began to fight back after a revival of the French spirit led by Joan of Arc. Subsequently, the French inflicted crushing victories over the English at the battles of Patay, Formigny and Castillon. Battles which few in England seem to be able to remember these days for some odd reason. Eventually, in 1453 following the battle of Castillon the war was effectively over. England remained technically at war with France for another twenty years but were no longer a threat because we took to fighting each other the following year in the War of the Roses, a conflict which had some of its origins in the discontent felt by English nobles at losing their French estates.
The Battle of Poitiers occurred early on in this long drawn out skirmish when there was still nearly a hundred years to go before the final whistle. The protagonists where Edward, Prince of Wales, the eldest son of Edward III and John II of France. Edward started by leading a chevauchée in August 1356. A chevauchée was a form of medieval warfare where a force moved through the countryside destroying as much of the enemy's’ economy as possible by burning and looting, the latter being particularly popular with the troops. The word comes from the French for a “promenade” though it also means “horse charge” and both translations are appropriate. Providing the attacking force could keep moving they stood a good chance of evading any enemy force which might be fielded to destroy them.
Edward’s force made good progress northwards from their base in Gascony to begin with but they lost momentum at Tours on the River Loire when they failed to take the castle and a timely or untimely depending which side you were on downpour prevented them burning the city around the castle. This delay gave John time to dispatch a force to intercept Edward who he eventually caught up with outside the village of Nouallé south east of Poitiers. Edward, later to be known as the Black Prince from the colour of his armour was aware the French king had superior forces and was prepared to negotiate a truce. A representative of the pope, Cardinal Tallyrand Perigord interceded on Sunday 18th September, 1356 to try and broker a peace but the French were not prepared to strike terms with “pillagers and looters” and agreed only to delay the inevitable battle until the following day rather than fight on a Sunday in what became known as the “Peace of God”.
When the battle did start the French really should have won the day but their forces were badly led and without reference to their king the French Marshals mounted disorganised attacks on different routes against the well defended English positions. The French elite cavalry were the first to fall, cut down by Welsh archers and things rapidly unravelled as first the archers then the English coutilliers (cutlass bearers) massacred the French forces in the natural traps of the marshy bends of the Miosson river and the surrounding woods and thickets where they hid in wait for their targets.
The French king fought on heroically to the last, reaching a point where only he and his son plus a few retainers were surrounded on all sides by their enemies before surrendering.
To find the site of the battle we had to head about four kilometres north west from Nieuil l'Espoir to the village of Nouaillé-Maupertuis. I didn’t know what to expect here so we headed into the centre and followed the signs for the Office of Tourism which was shut but next to it was a delightful old abbey with a moat and turrets.
This was the fortified abbey of Nouaillé founded in the seventh century and though the interior of the building was following the lead of the Office of Tourism and was firmly shut we could walk around the grounds. Which we did as it had stopped raining and it was an attractive place. Little if anything of its seventh century origins remain and the abbey had been rebuilt and extended over a long period before falling into disuse as an abbey in the eighteenth century. The abbey is certainly worth a visit and at other times of the year I am sure it can be found open. The grounds are scattered with several plaques which describe in both French and English the history and features of the abbey, including the “squinches” of the tower decorated with the twenty four Old Men of the Apocalypse which must be worth a visit on its own if only to view a decorated squinch.
From the abbey we headed back to the centre of the village where we followed the signs to the “Champ de Bataille” for a short distance, stopping momentarily at the Omme ford which I mistook as the site of the battle as there was a plaque fixed to a post here. However, this turned out to be the site of a long established tilery and brick works which had been functioning until quite recently. The ford did have a link to the Battle of Poitiers because it was in the marshes around the ford the English, or to be more precise, the Anglo-Gascon forces, were delayed in their flight which allowed the French forces to finally catch up and as they say in military parlance “close with them”.
There is only space for one or two vehicles to park at the battle site memorial a little further up the road but we had the place to ourselves. After over five hundred years you can’t expect there to be much evidence left of a major battle and there isn’t. The main woods are more or less where they were at the time and the course of the river probably hasn’t moved a lot but otherwise any reconstruction on the ground must inevitably involve a lot of conjecture. Nevertheless, the French have done quite a good job and the site, admittedly a small site, consists of a number of stands each with plaques which you can work your way through and read a potted history of the battle. It is no more than a memorial, the actual battle must have been held over a much wider area than this little lumpy field, in the middle of which was a coloured map of France.
After the battle King John dined with the Prince of Wales and he was eventually taken to England where he was kept in a number of places while very protracted negotiations took place over his ransom. The practice of ransoming high value prisoners was very well established and many significant fortunes were made this way. With a king of course the ransom demand was always going to be huge and eventually, after further battlefield skirmishes and the signing of the Treaty of Bretagne a figure of three million crowns was agreed. The sum could not be raised immediately but the king was allowed to return to France four years after his capture, in exchange for a large number of hostages, including Louis, his own son. That might have been the end of things but an impoverished France struggled to raise the ransom and Louis remained in captivity for several years and unable to negotiate his own release he escaped. On hearing this King John returned to England for reasons which are not fully understood. It may have been simply chivalric honour, which was at its peak during this era or quite possibly he had grown tired of ruling France, which was in turmoil as well as being broke and he preferred the pleasures of London because as an honoured prisoner he had freedom to travel and entertain while in ‘captivity’. Unfortunately, if the latter was his reason he was not to enjoy any pleasures for long as he fell ill and died within six months of arriving in England.
France took a long time to recover from the defeat and King John’s ransom emptied the French Treasury of golden écues (crowns) which in turn led to the minting of the first francs, a name derived from the French for “free” and a currency which was to endue for several hundred years before being supplanted by the euro.
After our tour of the battle memorial we drove a short distance into the Limousin, stopping a little west of Limoges at the well-known refuge of the Parc Verger campsite beside the village of Champagnac-la-Rivière where we planned to stay a couple of days, catch up on the laundry and do a little walking.
This is a site with a strong UK following having been run originally by a British couple as a stopover for RVs (large US manufactured motorhomes) but which had been recently taken over by a new British couple who were investing quite a lot of money into expanding its facilities and number of pitches.
It is a good site but the weather was more or less continuously miserable the whole time we were there. It didn’t pour down all the time and when it did rain it was a very light rain but it was overcast and sunless although we did have a long enough break in the weather to walk the four kilometres down the disused railway track to the nearby town of Oradour sur Vayres. I am not a great fan of walking on old railway tracks, or cycling on them either which is another popular pursuit. The main problems with old railway lines are firstly when they are not sunk into a cutting they are lined by trees either of which situations greatly reduce the view of the countryside through which you are walking. The second problem is railway lines tend to skirt anywhere interesting unless it is a major town with a railways station. I first noticed this when cycling in France on the old railway line which runs south from Morlaix in Brittany. This is a long stretch and takes most of a day to complete but you see very little of Brittany from it. Canal tow paths sometimes have the same issues with the added one they can prescribe long loops around hills, greatly adding to the length of your journey.
Oradour sur Vayres in the light rain wasn’t very inspiring but it was memorable for the price of the tomatoes, lettuce and courgettes we paid at a green grocers. There is a supermarket there but we forgot to get directions to it before leaving the campsite. If anyone retraces our steps the supermarket is nowhere near the old railway line.
From Champagnac-la-Rivière we continued south with the intention of seeing a few more French villages. The first stop was Saint Jean de Cole just inside the northern boundary of the Dordogne region. It is easy to become a bit blasé about French villages, with their narrow streets, impressive doors, watermills and pretty bridges but we spent a very enjoyable hour or so wandering around Saint Jean de Cole whjich had all of these features. which once, long ago won a prize for the “finest roofs in France” before we moved on to the much more touristy Brantôme.
Perhaps because it was a Saturday and it was no longer raining Brantôme was very busy. There is a large aire here with space for one hundred motorhomes which is good evidence of how popular the place is. There is a lot to see here but after squeezing into a car park by the River Dronne for lunch we decided not to linger and the troglodyte caves with the rock carving of the The Last Supper, where the first monks from the abbey used to live will have to wait until both another visit and a quieter time.
Continuing our gentle southerly direction we drove on a little further before stopping for the night at an aire at Sainte Alvère, which is yet another pretty little French village which we were able to explore on foot in sunshine for a change.
Sainte Alvère is a place about which little information seems to be available possibly because there are so many other places in the Dordogne region to compete against, but it is still worth visiting. There are the remains of a castle and ruined tower which we had a good poke around and in one of the narrow streets we came across a most curious structure. Fortunately, there was a sign next to it which explained its function. At first glance it looked a little like a well, as there was a small roof suspended on four posts but this was a device or perhaps more accurately an engine for replacing the shoes on cattle or as the sign said “ferrer leurs bœffs”. Of course iron shoes are not normally fitted to cattle but they are where they are used to pull ploughs and carts. The device worked by passing two ropes under the animal which were then tightened with windlasses to raise the beast off the ground so the farriers could complete their work. Why this is required was explained: “contrairement aux chevaux, les bœves ne savent pas tenir debout sur trois pattes.” Which means “unlike horses, the cattle could not learn to stand on three legs.”
We finished our walk with a beer at a pavement table, relaxing and enjoying the sunshine. If I hadn’t already declared the holiday as having officially started, I did now.
From Sainte Alvère we headed south the next morning but only a short distance initially as I wanted to see the view of the Dordogne from the Cingle de Trémolat. This is an escarpment overlooking a massive meander in the river where the Dordogne makes a full one hundred and eighty degree change in direction. The name Cingle derives from Latin and is an old word for a belt or to “gird” or wrap around something and is used in either this form or something similar in several European languages. The bend in the river looked impressive from the photographs in our guidebook but the reality on the ground was less so. The photographs I had seen must either have been taken from the air or at the very least from someone perched on a very tall ladder. For us on foot the views were just glimpses of the river, as the trees growing on the escarpment largely blocked the view. I suspect the guidebook had been edited by someone who moonlighted on their days off as an estate agent selling houses where a glimpse of a tiny bit of water in the far distance, obtainable only while standing on a table, would be described as a house possessing “sea views”. I may be being slightly unjust as we didn’t walk far on the path which ran along the escarpment and it is possible a better viewing point could be reached with a little effort but I was concerned about the security of the motorhome. This was something which had not troubled me on previous journeys but it was something which returned to me several times during this one - so much so once we returned to the UK I arranged for an alarm to be fitted. However, we didn’t have one at this time and I was a little worried leaving the vehicle for too long unattended in a fairly remote and largely deserted car park.
The Dordogne is an area long known to British tourists and we came here in the motorhome on our very first trip outside the UK, stopping for several days at a small campsite only a short distance from the Cingle, beside the village of Limeuil. Limeuil is another claimant to the title of “prettiest village in France” and it is certainly worth a visit, which you must do on foot as it is built on a steep hillside with narrow streets and if you meet anyone there you might find it easier to communicate in English as you probably both share it as a mother tongue.
Leaving the Anglo-French region of the Dordogne we travelled slowly on relatively minor roads into the Gers Department, the least populated of all the French Departments. Gers is still relatively unknown to many in the UK. It lies immediately to the west of Toulouse but viewed on a map it has no major towns other than in its centre Auch, pronounced “Osh”. Gers includes much of what was known as Gascony (a former English possession if you recall from the description of the Battle of Poitiers) although of the wines made here perhaps only Côtes de Gascogne is well known in the UK. Much more well-known is another local product, Armagnac brandy, which is regarded as the oldest brandy in France with a first mention in 1310 in a treatise on medicine by Prior Vital Dufour. In this the good Prior laid out the forty virtues of the liqueur.
''This water, if taken medically and soberly, is said to have forty virtues. It enlivens the spirit, if taken in moderation, recalls the past to memory, renders men joyous, preserves youth and delays senility.''
I’ll have some of that as the saying goes, and we did indeed buy a bottle in a supermarket. The Prior also goes on to say Armagnac “restores the paralysed member by massage” which I cannot attest to as the effect on me is usually the opposite although he did say, as quoted above, the virtues are only released if “partaken in moderation”. I must work on that bit if I wish to avoid paralysis of my members - or should that be member singular?
Our home for the next couple of nights was a house just outside a little village called Montesquiou, west of Auch, where a cousin of mine and her husband live for some six months of each year. I hadn’t seen them for decades and we only made contact again at the funeral of her brother earlier in the year. It was a strange meeting as we started chatting away as though the intervening thirty or so years had never taken place.
They live an idyllic life at Montesquiou which they share with two very large rescue dogs who Charlie made a great fuss over and received only the odd growl in return for his annoying attentions.
The first morning after we arrived we went with them to the market at nearby Mirande to buy some tomato plants and a few other vegetable seedlings including cucumber. The varieties were completely unknown to me although the one called “cerise” was fairly obviously a cherry tomato from the name but the rest were a mystery. We did our shopping in a large open-air market which was very busy. The customers at the market were all local apart from ourselves and the very occasional expat we heard. Tourists seem unknown around here.
For lunch we walked into Montesquiou, going for part of the way along one of the many paths used by pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela. Although the main pilgrimage route runs east to west across the top of Spain there are innumerable starting points where pilgrims can join it, both within Spain and in France and beyond. The path running through Montesquiou starts at Arles, crossing the Pyrenees at the Col de Pourtalet and then down to Jaca in Spain after which it soon joins the main route passing through Burgos, León and finally by way of Cabo Finisterre if you want to burn your socks, to Santiago de Compostela.
Lunch in Montesquiou was at a restaurant called the L'auberge de Montesquiou which is one of these places which doesn't need to advertise. It is at the end of a narrow side street with no signs pointing to it from the main road. Even if you look down the side street from the main road you will not see it because the little sign which hangs above the door is obscured by the branch of a tree the proprietors feel no inclination to prune.
The menus, of which there were only a few copies so we had to share one, were all handwritten. Today being Whit Monday they had a special €23 menu, normally it is €15 for four courses. Throwing animal welfare out of the window three out of the four of us had foie gras as a starter and very nice it was too. The handwritten menu was a challenge even to my fluent French speaking cousin, mainly because she didn't have her reading glasses with her but there were some words on the menu which were new to her. "Cayette" in the dish "cayette aux olives" was a female duck or more specifically the leg of one. I had the more familiar "magret" of duck breast. It was served quite rare and looked and had the texture of steak and perhaps, for symmetry, came from a male duck although I suspect if all the legs were being used in the cayette aux olives then a use for other parts of the duck needed to be found.
The restaurant has a very strong local following which is why they don't advertise with any signs. It can however be discovered if you look on Trip Advisor, otherwise you would never find it unless by a lucky accident. It is only open for lunches and the owners make a living from it even with such reduced hours, which is a good testimony to its popularity and success stemming from the quality of its food.
After our lunch we sobered up by walking gently around the village, the old part of which is built on a low hill. Though there do not appear to be any signs of the village ever having a wall around it the old buildings on one side are all joined together so their outer walls blend together to form a curve just like a wall would. There are a few windows in these buildings but they are generally small and high up. Montesquiou, whilst not a fortified village had its own way in days past of keeping out the unwelcome. In England during the Middle Ages it was necessary to seek a license to “crenelate”, that is build fortifications around your home or castle. It is quite possible the same applied in France and the permission of the local baron was needed before you could construct a wall around your village. I would assume permission was only granted to those who were deemed loyal to the king or other personage who was deputed to issue such licenses such as bishops. Otherwise, the fortifications could be used to keep out those such as tax collectors whose comings (unwelcome) and goings (most welcome) were something the ruling classes wished to see continue. Whether Montesquiou had earned the opprobrium of their local landlord or probably more likely they lacked the funds to build a wall we shall probably never know.
Returning to my cousin’s house by the local branch of the Way of Saint James we passed a farm which had several thousand geese running free range around the fields. Inevitably destined for the table but whether as foie gras, which I should point out translates as “fat liver” just so there is no ambiguity, or they were being reared for meat I could not tell. I guess the geese themselves were not overly concerned about the manner of their fate either, being unaware of it. What was interesting was that they were geese because although these are the traditional bird used for this delicacy, today they account for only 5% of French production and specially selected breeds of duck are now used for the rest. Foie gras production is of course highly controversial because the birds are force fed, a process known as gavage, a word which I find curiously apt for the process of force feeding simply because of the sound of it. Some countries have banned the importation or sale of foie gras on animal welfare grounds but the Chinese, not known for their animal welfare standards have developed a taste for it and as a result business is booming in France who are now producing 75% of the World’s supply.