14 July 2012

Little England

We are warned by an English journalist propping up the bar of our hotel in Castres that Eymet in the Dordogne is full of expats, but we don't imagine that they will be quite so thick on the ground as they are. My friends from England have bought a house in Queyssel about 15 minutes drive from Eymet, and turned half of it into a gite which they let in the season, and in which we stay for a few days. Eymet has a night market on Tuesdays and a morning market on Thursdays. We go to both and as we walk around there are people speaking English on all sides. For some reason this part of France is in area much favoured by Poms escaping from the weather or the general malaise of the English middle classes, and it is also a favourite holiday destination for those who haven't yet made a permanent move. The presence of the English hasn't yet totally corrupted the local eating habits, but I am amused by a young English girl going into raptures over takeaway moules marinieres and frites: they were good but not that good, unless you've been eating hamburgers and fish and chips all your life. We find all this a bit disappointing - not much point in going to France to be surrounded by Brits. One compensation is that the market bookstalls are run by Poms selling English books, so we can restock our light reading for less than the purchase price of new books for our Kindle.
The gite itself is in a minuscule village, very quiet and with all mod cons, allowing us to catch up with our laundry, laze in the pool, watch some television. We spend our days visiting the local bastide towns, very attractive and generally with at least as many French as English people in the streets. We drive to Castelmoron on the (lower) Lot one day to look at the harbour there and the canal boats therein, gathering more useful information for our current dream of buying one in a year or two. In the evenings we generally eat with our host to keep him company as his wife is in hospital in Bordeaux, having exploratory surgery which results in her being operated on for a tumour, so he is understandably anxious and in some need of company. It is also disappointing for me as I was looking forward to seeing her again. We hope that early detection will enable her to make a complete recovery.
From Queyssel we drive north east, back roads the first day to see a bit more of the Dordogne, stay overnight in Saintes, then take autoroutes and routes nationales to La Baule. As we go north the towns are more industrial, less picturesque and charming, and we do see some very mundane suburban architecture, although it is just boring, rather than seriously ugly. As usual, it rains as we make our transit from the warmth of southern France to La Baule on the Atlantic coast. La Baule is quite different from any of the other parts of France visited so far - more in the next post.

13 July 2012

Afloat in France

We spend two of our five weeks in France afloat, in a hired canal barge on the river Lot. Babou Marine is in Cahors, which is about one third of the way along the navigable part of the haut Lot. We begin by going downstream to Luzech, then return to Cahors, continue upstream to Cenevierves, then back to Cahors. All but one of the twenty odd locks on this stretch of the Lot are manual, so we get plenty of exercise, going through each twice, once in each direction. Occasionally we are helped by young boys in their teens, very happy to work the lock for us, and we are sufficiently glad of the assistance to give them a few Euros for their trouble. An advantage of the manual locks is that that you can go through them at any time during daylight. On our last canal trip we had enforced breaks in the middle of the day because the locks shut then so that the eclusier/eclusieuse could go to lunch, and you had to be through your last lock by 8pm. On this trip we enjoy being able to move in our own time.

The little 8m Renaud barge is old, tiny, but perfectly adequate. The bunk is a bit short, but there are two small single bunks which are convenient spots for backpacks, clothes etc, a head, a shower, a hanging cupboard, then a long galley beside a table with banquettes on 3 sides. Has the advantage that you can put dishes in the sink without getting up from the table. The driving position backs on to the forward banquette with no seat so we steer standing. Small area in the bow with just enough room for a couple of chairs and a table, although the latter lives on the roof with the hired bicycles and we never bother to get it down. After a couple of days aboard we buy two mugs to add to the kitchen equipment as its crockery includes vast cups that are really large bowls or demitasses, nothing in between. Morning tea in a demitasse doesn't really work, nor does a huge bowl with a teacup full of liquid in the bottom.

As seems to be the pattern for our trip, we have rain the first day, then the weather becomes steadily hotter. I swim in the river almost every day, sometimes late in the evening when it is still warm. The Lot is a lovely river to cruise. Over the millenia it has cut its way through a limestone plateau. Its twisting course now has river flats on one side, limestone cliffs on the other, with the two features alternating as the river bends, cliffs on the outside of the bends, flats on the inside. Some of the villages are on the flats, some are on top of the cliffs or built into them. Many of the villages and towns date back to the medieval age, some like Cahors go back to Roman times. Chateaux appear here and there, usually high on a cliff.

Another feature of this river we particularly like is "nature" stops. Most villages have a small jetty or pontoon, marked with a picture of a blue bollard, which is where you can tie up. Although there aren't that many other boats travelling on the Lot, there are sufficiently few villages with mooring points that one is generally sharing the mooring. The nature stops are marked with a green version of the bollard sign attached to a tree, and you simply pull in alongside the bank and tie off to said tree. And there is only room for one boat, so you have a lovely quiet spot all to yourself (and the mosquitoes). We anchor at nature moorings for eight out of fourteen nights, spend four on town jetties and two at the marina in Cahors. As the weather gets hotter, we also use nature moorings as a cool place to eat lunch and have a rest and a swim in the middle of the day.

There are some extra challenges in travelling on a river, rather than a canal. One is the current, the other snags. Locks allow you to bypass weirs, and as you exit or enter the lock on the downstream side you are steering through the eddies created by the water pouring over the weir, making it difficult to keep the boat on course, especially as you try to enter the lock. You have to watch for bits of wood floating in the river, some of which are quite large, whole trees, and these tend to get into the locks and congregate there, sometimes jamming behind the lock gates as you open them. We became expert in moving the gates back and forth to swish them out. With some skilful rope work and the assistance of other boaters we moved one large tree ashore from the entrance outside one lock, and on another occasion were grateful for the extra long boat hook of one of the commercial party boats to assist in major log removal.

Highlights of our trip on the Lot are some interesting engineering: a train track on a long arched platform on the side of the deep gorge before it goes into a tunnel, riverside roads cut out of the cliff and diving through tunnels, small hydro power stations beside several of the weirs; medieval towns and villages like Luzech, Cahors, and St Cirq Lapopie, recently voted prettiest village in France; the prehistoric cave paintings and 25,000 year old footprints in the grotte at Pech Merle; a tour of the Chateau of Cenevierves given by its sprightly octagenarian owner; watching p├ętanque games in Luzech; buying provisions at the huge market in Cahors, where you can buy everything from earrings to pigs trotters, and which even had a very French accordion player and a jazz trio; several outstanding meals at restaurants; cycling to villages away from the river and up one of the tributaries; seeing the houses built into the cliffs at Toulzanie, and the towpath cut into the cliff at Ganil; seeing the amazing horloge by Zachariou in Cahors, the ultimate Heath Robinson clock which we watch mesmerised as the ball bearings roll back and forth.

Peter is now completely bitten by the canal boat bug, and we have started doing research in earnest with the idea of buying one in a year or two.

01 July 2012

Why we like France: part 1

Civilised. Everyone greets everyone as you pass. Bon jour as you go into a shop/cafe, Au 'voir as you leave. People are generally gracious about giving way, both in cars and on foot, in narrow streets and lanes. They listen patiently to bad ungrammatical French, and most have better English than our French. Waiters, waitresses, even the check out operators in supermarkets are friendly and helpful.

Architecture. At least in the areas where we have been there is no ugly suburban architecture, or urban sprawl. New French houses look just like their older counterparts, which can be as old as thirteenth century. Old houses are either stone or render, new ones rendered (probably brick underneath). Roofs are red tile or grey slate. It makes the towns and villages a bit monochrome, but at least your sensibilities aren't jarred by stores painted bright purple, pink or aqua, or by modern buildings with no symmetry and hitler-salute excrescences. The larger towns do have industrial areas, ZI Zone Industrielle or ZAC, Zone Activities Commerciales. The former contain factories making stuff, the latter large retailers selling stuff, the equivalent of Bunnings, or Harvey Norman, etc. But they are discreetly placed on the outskirts of the cities and towns, and usually in bland inoffensive buildings,

Absence of unnecessary competition. There is never more than one of anything, not like Australia where there are rival petrol stations or supermarkets on opposite corners. If it has anything at all, a village has one epicerie, one boulangerie-patisserie, one bar-tabac.

Minimal signage of all kinds. Locks have deep drops on either side of the lock walls and machinery you can trip over. But there are no railings, no protective covers, no warning signs (except on one very deep lock, a small picture of a falling cat). Tie up points for the boat are marked with a P or with a small picture of a bollard with rope attached. Villages may have a small sign for the bakery or grocery, but that's it. No neon, no Coca Cola ads. There are name signs at either end of every village which are slow down signs by default. When you are on an open road, you are supposed to know what the speed limit is, there aren't constant signs. It's simple: ordinary roads 90 kph, divided roads 110 kph, motorways 130kph in fine weather, 110kph in the wet. In any town or village, 50kph, occasionally there are 30kph signs if the streets are narrow. Parking signs are also minimal, usually just indicating that you can or you can't park, with small additional signs when you need to take a ticket. Most intersection control is via roundabout, again with minimal signage. Traffic lights are so discreet compared with Australia that you have to watch carefully to make sure you don't miss them (no overhead gantries). But it all just works, to the extent that we rarely had problems knowing what we could and coudn't do in the car, or in finding things we were looking for. Our only gripe is that there are no distances on signposts to villages or places of interest. Doesn't matter so much when you are driving but when walking or biking it would be nice to know if a restaurant is 0.2km down the road or 2.0km.

Cycling is a national sport. At first we were nervous cycling on busy roads with no verges, but rapidly realised that the French motorist accepts cyclists as normal, and simply waits behind you at cyclist speed (in our case, pretty slow), until there is room to pull out and overtake. Would that Australian drivers were that considerate.

France is beautiful. They don't call it La Belle France for nothing. (Thinks: does anyone talk about Die Schone Deutschland? Or even La Bella Italia). France finds it easy being green. Particularly if you are looking at it from the middle of a river, France is just so green, and so many shades of green. The scenery here is quite grand with cliffs cut out by the river, but also has typical rural views of wheat fields, orchards, vineyards. All the villages are picturesque to some degree, some stunningly so. There are summer flowers everywhere, roses, begonias, petunias, geraniums, breaking up the greys and fawns of the stone and render on the houses. Taking photos almost seems a waste of time: if it's rural fields and villages Cezanne did it better, and if it's any scene with water in it, then you're competing with Monet and Manet.

The bells, the bells. Every village has a mairie, with a clock tower, and at least one church. Church bells ring every now and then, just a single bell note repeated, not changes as in England, and the town clocks strike the hour and half hour. When they strike the hour, they do it twice, with a short pause between. We have yet to find out why. My theory is that it is just one more example of French practicality, they strike twice in case you lost count the first time round and are now unsure whether it is (say) nine or ten.

Food & wine. Requires a post all of its own. Coming soon.