Monday 9th March 2015, Exeter
This year our European travels have been restricted as we wait in vain for my eye to heal. I have finally been told by the hospital that I should not expect any further improvement. As there has not actually been any improvement so far as my vision is concerned I am left to conclude that I henceforth will have to manage with the sight of my remaining eye. I suppose I should count myself lucky that eyes come in pairs and I can still see clearly with the remaining one. Hearts, limbs, internal organs and so many other health matters are totally debilitating if damaged. So long as my other eye stays healthy and I wear dark glasses for much of the time I can cope perfectly well. Much of the discomfort has now eased and the inflammation has at last disappeared. The eye is healthy but the shingles blistered the surface of the cornea leaving scarring that apparently will never improve. Thus I view the world through “frosted glass” from that eye.
I recently drove up to Carlyle by way of Hull, returning home after around 1,000 miles of driving with no ill effect. My post-viral fatigue has eased and with Ian’s support and navigational expertise (I am still not allowed a satnav), I feel capable of driving the byways of Europe once more.
The catalyst for this decision was an invitation we have received to attend the wedding of Susanne’s and Roland’s grandson Thibaut in our much loved Jura region of eastern France near the border with Switzerland. We are so delighted to have been invited. As regular readers will know, I have been a friend of Susanne since I was seventeen when we both taught at the village school in Champagne-sur-Loue. I remember Thibaut’s dad Hugues being born and eventually his son Thibaut. As a schoolboy Thibaut sought our help with English conversation and he would send me email messages with homework queries. His English developed rapidly, more thanks to JK Rowlings than us I suspect as he eagerly devoured each Harry Potter volume as it was published in English rather than waiting for the French translation to appear.
After their wedding Thibaut and his new wife Camille, a recent graduate from the University of Besancon like Thibaut, will be setting off on the adventure of a lifetime. They will fly to St. Petersburg for their honeymoon before setting off to walk and hitch hike from there to New Zealand! They’ve assured their families they have worked out routes that will avoid danger zones or regions of conflict. The optimism of youth is awesome and I think we will all be relieved when they come home again. Visas and documents are ready and waiting and they confidently expect to find employment in New Zealand to rebuild their finances for their return journey.
So, as so many times before, we will be passing our home over into the safe hands of resident friends while we take time out to carry on our mopping-up operation of the few corners of Europe Modestine has so far not yet fully penetrated. We hope that, also as before, some of you will be happy to come along for the ride, vicariously following our travels from the comfort of your armchairs.
Wednesday 25th March, Dole, Franche Comte
Tonight we are camping on the banks of the river Doubs as it curves below the town of Dôle. At the summit stands the impressive, heavy cupola of the basilica. We have spent three days making our way the 400 miles or so across France and tomorrow we will be back with our friends Roland and Susanne in the village of Champagne-sur-Loue. The weather has been very wet and icy cold. At night we have hibernated beneath our blankets in Modestine while outside the temperature has dropped to minus 3 centigrade. Even inside it has only been around 2 degrees! Sometimes we wonder whether we are quite sane to be doing this at our age!
Last week we spent in Caen enjoying time with Geneviève and the many friends we have made over the years. One day we visited an English friend living in a 19th century château hidden in the depths of the Normandy countryside.
We also enjoyed a lunch with six friends now retired from working for the Caen library service. It was delightful to see them all again and to know our friendship is as warm as ever after sharing work experiences for so many years.
One afternoon we went to see the progress on the new library taking shape on the banks of the canal. It would never win a prize for its charm but what it lacks in aesthetic quality it makes up for in size. It is due to be finished by summer 2016 and perhaps we will be there for its official opening. France carries on with its many grandiose projects despite being in a severe recession. We never cease to be amazed at France’s attitude to the current economic situation. There always seems plenty of money for projects we in Britain can only dream about.
On the day of the solar eclipse the weather was so dark, cold and damp the eclipse passed unnoticed. It did however coincide with the high tide of the century. We noted the century is only 15 years old but everyone in Caen seemed very excited about it and we joined hundreds of others to crowd the sea front at Cabourg in an icy wind to gasp at the waves breaking on the sand. Personally it just looked like any other tide to us but locals were obviously very impressed. That evening Geneviève’s neighbour rang the doorbell and happily presented us with three huge ormers he’d collected while fishing up in the Cotentin as the tide was perfect. Ormers are the huge, meaty shellfish that dwell inside the beautiful large mother-of-pearl shells that can sometimes be found on the beaches of Brittany, Normandy and the Channel Islands. He told us he loves fishing but hates fish so would we please take them. As we were leaving next day Geneviève will have to eat ours as well. Shame, they would have been a great treat - he even gave us the recipe for cooking them!
Every day we were invited somewhere. On our last evening we went for an apero’ with a friend of Geneviève whom we’d met on previous visits. When we arrived there was no reply to our ringing and we became concerned. Inside the television was on and there was the promised fire burning in the grate. The room however did not look prepared for visitors and there was no sign of our hostess. After much knocking and ringing we heard a crash and a cry from inside. All was then silent and we decided to call the emergency services. Within minutes the sapeurs pompiers and an ambulance crew arrived and banged and shouted in vain. Eventually one of the pompiers smashed a window with his hammer. This produced screams from inside the house. The pompiers discovered our hostess collapsed upstairs and took her straight off to hospital with much noise from their sirens. We were left to close the shutters over the broken window and make our way back home speculating on what must have happened. We left Caen next morning but Geneviève has since contacted us to say all is well and her friend seemed to have reacted badly to her medication. Feeling ill she’d gone upstairs and collapsed. When we arrived she tried to answer our ringing but fell – hence the crash we had heard. So it was fortunate we arrived when we did and contacted the emergency services. All has now ended happily and she is safely back home after being in hospital for observation overnight. Such are the risks to those living alone!
Leaving Caen we reached Gien on the banks of the Loire by late afternoon. Here we slept really well overnight but woke to the sound of rain tapping on the roof. We had planned to visit Guédelon about a hour’s drive from Gien, the nearest campsite we could find open so early in the year. It was essential we visited on that day despite the awful weather. Guédelon is another, off the wall, grandiose French building project that quite takes your breath away. Back in 1998 someone had the crazy idea of building a mediaeval castle from scratch using mediaeval techniques, tools and materials. The project is expected to take around 25 years and the workers, who are all experts in their crafts, even wear mediaeval clothing to do their work! The castle is currently about half built. 1998 equates to 1229 and the fictional owner is imagined to be a vassal of the Touchy family. We have to say we are completely captivated by the project. Some of you may have seen the BBC series about the project shown last summer. That’s where we got the idea to visit. Until then we’d never heard of it. Only the French could come up with something that must cost millions to build and is completely pointless when they have so many original ones littering the countryside, but it is absolutely brilliant!!
It is built inside a disused quarry which provides the necessary stone and is named for the surrounding forest providing the timber. The mediaeval village has been constructed to give an authentic record of living conditions for the workers. Stone is carried around the site on wooden carts hauled by horses. Pot-bellied pigs, geese and sheep wander freely around the mediaeval village. There is a seventy strong workforce consisting of rope makers, carpenters, stone masons, quarrymen, metal workers, tile makers, spinners, dyers and weavers. Lime and mortar is produced on site and even the lime wash and coloured pigments for decorating the castle’s interior walls are produced on site from the local soil. Clay for the tiles is found in the surrounding woods and mediaeval crops are grown around the castle site to replicate the diet of the workers. Deep in the woods we were introduced to an authentic replica of a mediaeval mill and shown exactly how it would have worked. Our guide for this wore doublet and hose and explained that peasants were obliged to use the mill of the seigneur and pay a heavy tithe for the privilege – perhaps a third of the grain they had milled. The workers are all professionals and the aim of the project is to discover just how tasks were actually achieved. How is the dressed stone raised to the ramparts? How are arches made and the stone cut to fit exactly when in situ? To us the greatest wonder is that anything is ever achieved as the workers are only too keen to explain what they are doing and happy for the groups of eager schoolchildren to try their hand at twisting twine or pressing clay into moulds to form tiles. Carpenters explained to us exactly how the timber hauled in from the woods was cut and stacked ready to form everything from hurdle fences and scaffolding against the slowly mounting castle walls to doors, panelling and flooring for within the castle, and not forgetting drawbridges and defensive gateways.
Natural dyes from mediaeval plants are used to colour the wool used to make the clothing of the workers. Absolutely fascinating! Also amazingly muddy and wet on a cold soggy Tuesday in March. Needing to warm up in Modestine we were stamped with a blue print of the castle on our hands so we could leave and return later. We are still trying to scrub it off two days later.
Friday, 27th March 2015, Champagne-sur-Loue
Well here we are again. We arrived yesterday afternoon and we are currently staying on the village campsite until after the wedding tomorrow. Susanne has complete chaos happening in her home at present as young friends of Thibaut and Camille arrive from Paris, Besançon and Dôle for tomorrow’s festivities. Roland is busy keeping out of the way and collecting the wine from his cave ready for the vin d’honneur tomorrow. The rest of the family have been occupied gathering wild daffodils and flowering branches of pink cherry blossom to decorate the salle de reception and poor Susanne escaped to the hairdresser this afternoon returning with a very becoming new hairdo but still wearing a rather worried expression. She seems quite bemused by the hectic coming and going of so many people.
To briefly recall our journey since Guédelon ...
We spent Tuesday night somewhere in the wilds of the Morvan region – a sparsely populated area of winding country lanes and deserted hillsides. It rained continuously all day and all the following day. The temperature hovered around freezing and we were glad next day to stop at the lovely town of Beaune to wander once more its charming old streets and explore some of the many wine cellars beneath vaulted stone buildings. We broke down here many years ago and were obliged to spend several days exploring the town and the surrounding vineyards with a hire car as we waited for an engine replacement to arrive from a scrap yard in Dijon! Yes, we’ve had more adventures really than we care to recall but invariably the French people we have met have been wonderfully helpful to us.
So icy were the streets that we were happy to linger as long as possible in a charming cafe with our coffee and croissants before once again returning to the freezing streets and heading for the Hotel Dieu with its huge roof covered in stunning enamelled tiles so typical of the belltowers and important buildings of Burgundy. The building has been a hospital since mediaeval times and still functions as such today!
At lunchtime we made our way to the local supermarket to refuel – diesel for Modestine and the plat du jour in the canteen for us. Warm and full again we continued to Dôle where we knew of an open campsite down beside the river. It was excellent after the indifferent one of the previous evening and even offered us free wifi.
Next morning we woke to bright sunshine and a warmer temperature. As we were not expected in Champagne before the afternoon we left Modestine beside the river and climbed the steep mediaeval cobbled street up into the centre where a market was taking place beside the huge basilica. It was here that Louis Pasteur was christened in 1823.
Dôle is a delightful town full of wonderful old buildings and winding narrow streets. The river Doubs curves below and at the bottom of the town we found the house in which Louis Pasteur was born. It is now a museum of his life and scientific achievements. His father was a tanner and at the time the street was one of the worst in Dôle, filled with disease and reeking from the animal skins that were treated there in the canal that runs behind the houses. Nowadays it is beautiful, clear and clean with pretty public gardens beyond and tubs of early flowers fixed to the railings. There are a couple of smart restaurants and Louis Pasteur’s home is the smartest in the area. Nearby, at the bottom of a flight of worn stone steps, we discovered underground Dôle where a fountain and stream dating back many centuries still run below the streets of the town. We followed its course, balancing along old railway sleepers dropped in the bed of the stream, clambering up another steep flight of steps to emerge in the centre of the town once more.
We also attempted to visit the town’s art gallery. At first we thought it was closed until the staff assured us the crumbled plaster and thousands of smashed and broken tiles covering the floor of the main gallery was actually an exhibit! Apparently walking through it and covering your shoes in dust and cement before walking across the polished floor and carpet of the next room creates a work of art!!! In the corridor we found staff busy washing the floor so a fresh work could be created as we left our messy footprints on the wet tiles. Upstairs we found the more traditional works by local painters such as Gustave Courbet. Ian also found another installation of fluffy bunnies and pretty dollies but just as he called me to have a chuckle the alarm went off and someone came bounding up the stairs to rescue us. We naively asked whether it was part of the art installation. The poor curator insisted it was a genuine fire alarm and we were the only visitors in the museum. He had to escort us to safety. Outside, the rest of the staff were huddled in the cold waiting for the pompiers to arrive. We left them there and when we returned later they were still waiting. It seems to have been a false alarm but they were freezing without their jackets.
Returning to Modestine we picnicked beside the river before continuing through the familiar countryside, passing through villages so typical of Franche Comté, all familiar friends, until we reached Arc-et-Senans, itself no more than a village but boasting a supermarket where we bought cakes and flowers for our friends. Then, following along the bank beside the clear green waters of the beautiful river Loue, we made our way to Champagne. As we arrived Hugues was loading his trailer with wood and flowering branches. We all went upstairs together to be warmly greeted by Susanne and Roland. Immediately we were seated around the large kitchen table drinking coffee and catching up on news. Susanne told us we’d been ousted from the flat until after the wedding but the mayor had arranged to open the campsite early, especially for us. That evening we joined our friends for supper in their kitchen and the usual tasting of various wines from their cellar before returning to Modestine on the campsite beside the Loue for the night.
This morning we woke to bright sunshine and it has remained lovely all day. Fingers crossed for tomorrow. We also woke to discover that although the electricity was working, the water had not been turned on! We couldn’t use the loo or take a shower! Fortunately Susanne could sort out our immediate problems and once the mairie opened Ian called in to explain our predicament. He found the mayor busy rehearsing his role for tomorrow. He explained that this was his first term of office and as he’d never conducted a marriage ceremony before, he was very anxious to get it right. He promised to send somebody down to sort out the water situation immediately and by the time we returned to the campsite somebody was busy doing things with a spanner. Roland, at 83, has at last been replaced as village handyman! He explained that he’d sorted out the water but couldn’t get the boiler to work as he needed longer matches. He had to rush off as he was also the local train driver and had to get to Besançon to drive the TER to Dijon. After his departure the mayor arrived with some longer matches but despite us all lying on our tummies beside the boiler, none of us could quite reach to light it. It’s a busy life being mayor of a village of 120 inhabitants !
Next a huge German campervan arrived. Seeing us they rejoiced that there was a campsite open so early in the season and decided to stay as well. We explained the site wasn’t yet officially open but the mayor was letting us stay because of the wedding. The Germans were delighted at the idea of a rural wedding in such an idyllic little place and told us they’d discovered Champagne some years ago when they’d got lost and had come back for a nostalgic visit.
We went off for an eight mile round walk to Arc-et-Senans to enjoy the sunshine and recharge our personal batteries with the beauty and familiar charm of the local countryside. The brown and white montbeliard cattle looked up with mild curiosity as we passed and one of the beautiful tan coloured percheron heavy horses with her golden mane proudly showed off her tiny blond foal. In Arc-et-Senans we headed for the bakery where we indulged in coffee and french pastries before facing the rest of the long walk home. By the time we finally reached the village my feet were aching. It’s some time since we’ve done such a long walk.
After pausing at Susanne’s to say hello to Thibaut’s mum Christine who’d just arrived, and to admire Susanne’s smart new hairdo, we returned to the campsite to find “M. Chaudière” the boilerman had arrived with an extremely long match and finally got the boiler working for the season! Now all is right with the world and we are on a delightful site beside the river with both the Loue and the loo fully functional.