Hello beautiful world!
I recently wrote a series of facebook posts about my French holiday. I found it quite enjoying because I get to share my experience with my friends and leave a record of those precious moments.
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Starting your French holiday on a Sunday is great. It is very peaceful all around, there are no crowds in the streets, no shops open to buy your toilet paper from, there is hardly a cafe with an available toilet, all the crepe places work for a whole half an hour between 10:00 and 10:30, and best of all you have to enjoy that for one more day before business opens for real. 🇫
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I’m in a small green room overlooking the river Cher. The wallpaper has seen better days, some of the tiles are so worn in that you can almost trip on them and there are nicks and grime marks all over the door frames and furniture. Catherine Di Medici ran France from here for a few decades. It’s called the Green Study, but there’s little left of its regal past. Chenonceau is château #4 for us. We are drained and slightly bored despite all the reasons not to be. We are chateau-ed out.
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As I was passing through yet another UNESCO village the engine lights flare up again and I have to pull over in front of the boulangerie. At least it’s not on a river dam this time. I try disconnecting the battery and all the other tricks but it’s no good. It’s almost dark and we are 30km away from the camp. It seems rather risky to try and squeeze another few kilometres before we give up so we decide to spend the night in the car. We would call the insurance people in the morning and get to a mechanic but for now we are stuck here in a UNESCO village with a car full of shopping and a baguette machine.
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We are having breakfast at the campsite. Underspent, hungry and desperately needing a bath after a night in the car. Something flies by the corner of my eye and makes a light thud sound very close by. My eyes meet Raisa’s and I think: did a bird just shit on our table?! We look around and see a tea bag lying on the grass, still steaming. You can tell it’s an Earl Gray with milk by the smell. Our English neighbours must have thrown it over the hedge. - “WTF?” is my only response before I bin it. Raisa is much louder and far less diplomatic.
At least their dog is cute…
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We find ourselves getting help from a French farmer. We had found out that the car is draveable as long as we keep the RPMs low and our host had told us about a mechanic at the end of the village. The place was closed but the farmer trimming his hedge across the street wanted to take a look. He opens the bonnet and he’s like “mate, ze turbo is kaputt”, or at least that’s what I got out of his French. We communicate via the cutting edge NLP technology on my phone. He thinks it’s the air filter. He’s wrong but he gives me the final piece of the car trouble puzzle 18 months in the making. The DPF is getting clogged and increases pressure on the rest of the system which is manageable unless the turbo kicks in. Two of the injectors are leaking and now I know why. While we fuss around the car, an elderly lady rides in on a vintage Peugeot bike and chats up Raisa. Then a teenage girl with brackets and a freckled face shows up with some tools to help (I assume) her dad. They can’t fix it but they arrange for us to go to a place in the next town. I ask if we can pay them for their help and they smile and ask if we eat at the campsite restaurant. We say sure, but can we pay you? The Frenchman signs for me to follow him to his garden and starts going about gathering tomatoes. After a bit of small Google talk with the granny we get packed with tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers that look nothing like what you see in a supermarket. We later find them to be the best we’ve had for years. We say thanks and they say “See you next year”. This is when I get it. We are what runs his business. We have already paid.
P.S. This experience of genuine kindness couldn’t have come in a better moment and it made us feel so happy and welcome.
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Alcohol is our guilty pleasure and visiting distilleries is something we find both pleasant and interesting. It just so happened that we spotted a bottle of Cointreau in the guide book and here we are at a distillery in Angers. It doesn’t look like much from the outside but once in, you may as well be on mini Google campus with bottling facilities, distillers and marketing galleries. Our guide is a young and eager French lady, full of love amazement for the company. And that is hardly surprising, Mme Cointreau was giving 13th salary to her workers in the end of the 19th century. They must have that in the business sustainability books. After a flurry of facts and history our tour ends with a mixology lesson and… a cocktail.
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Our When-in-Rome moment arrived in a bistro in Saumur while ordering a dinner. We picked blindly two dishes from the menu which made the waiter somewhat uncomfortable.
“Are you sure about the steak tartare? It is how do you say it… uncooked?”
We had hedged our bets by ordering a white fish with artichoke purée, so we say yes. When the dishes finally arrive, we are anxious about the taste. It really is raw meat with some garlic and rocket seasoning. It reminds me of sushi but the rocket taste is a bit too strong for me. Raisa complains it feels too heavy in her stomach. The fish on the other hand is delicious. We decide it is a good experience but we are not ordering it again.
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We arrive at Fred’s place around seven. Just in time to settle in, pitch the tent and have a second dinner. It’s a farm campsite – those are our favourite. We are the only visitors apart from an English gentleman who’s been living there for some time in a large trailer. Even though it’s a campsite, the farm is buzzing with animals: a flock of geese shuffling around the yard honking nervously ever chased by the dog; a feisty rooster guarding his hens by the kitchen; a fenced coop full of doves, quails, canaries and oddly enough hares; a friendly black bore, eight piglets, and a big mama saw called Josephine; some goats and turkeys and a group of young cats overseeing the proceedings from the roof of the pig’s pen.
Fred is in his eighties but his spirit may not yet be eighteen. “I don’t know much about computers”, he says pointing at his old laptop, “I may watch a little bit of porn now and then but not much else”. His smile and tone of voice remind me of my grandad although he is nothing like my old man. Fred is at the heart of any conversation, he is full of saucy jokes, stories and adventure. A retired bohemian, he settled at the farm after having it with English snobbery (in his own words). He doesn’t speak French but he’s been building a community around the camp for the past 20 years. His crew of campers come every year on the first Saturday of August for a grand celebration. And it must be grand. The “Bath-BQ” that is now full of ash and debris hints at its scale.
The most peculiar detail about Fred’s place is the price list. Two adults with a tent and access to electricity summed up to a grand total of 7.60€ per night. We ask him if that’s really the price and he tells us a story about how years ago a “sign maker” was staying with him and painted the sign with the prices but he hadn’t been around lately to update it. The sign still has the original prices in French francs so we take that story with a grain of salt and we pay him the standard price.
Le Grand Chemin is an enchanting place. We wish that we had more time to spend there. We are definitely coming back.