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Michael Bernard FIMgt

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Quality translations for you ! French into English

GRANTS raised for Expanding Businesses in Scotland & France.

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I translate books by Marek Halter, the internationally famous French author, published in French by Editions Robert Laffont of Paris.

The latest published in English :- La Force du Bien, published by Open Court Publishing of Chicago as:

Stories of Deliverance       by Marek Halter/Michael Bernard

ISBN no: 0-8126-9364-7

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House in the Languedoc

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After Provence - We must do that.....

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51500 words

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED Copyright 2000. No copies or extracts may be made without the author's written permission. For permission to print this book please contact the author for terms and conditions. Back to INDEX

1.

After Provence - We must do that.....

By Michael Bernard - All rights reserved

" We must do that..."              How often have we said that....?

Sitting here at a table beside an open double glass door on to the bustling quayside, in the warm February sunshine, everyone in Sete seems to be either heading home for lunch, or joining the three of us in one of a row of speciality fish restaurants which line the northern bank of the river, reminiscent of a venetian canal. One of our favourite " ...must do... " places. The wooden door and window frames of each one of them is painted a strong shade of blue or green to match the colours of the clear blue sky above or the green slopes of Mont St Clair, behind. Shimmering blue-green reflections from the sparkling water ripple in the wake of each passing small motor boat. Looking past the huge bulk of the modern fishing fleet tied up alongside, painted the traditional clear royal blue and white of practically all indigenous Mediterranean boats, the houses and shops on the shadier side of the river reflect their brighter hues of yellow, pink and white, in the moving matrix of colours crossed at intervals with very low stone or metal bridges that allow cars driven like dodgems to pass over the water to our left. Only the small boats of individual fishermen can gently pass underneath on their way upstream where they vanish in the interlacing canals between houses and shops signed in languages from all parts of the world, Mexico, Indo-China, Pakistan - other reflections from time and space.

The sun warms to the bone. We take off jackets and woollen sweaters donned in anticipation of northern seaside chill at this time of year 'at home'. Slung over backs of chairs, comfort restored, interest in the menu is stirred by the attendant staff - a young woman and an earringed blond fellow in his twenties. Our attention is distracted by a quartet of very French business men sitting at a neighbouring table whom my two companions seem to find particularly attractive. The voluble chatter, the gestures, the absolute essence of life draws appreciative looks and teasing comments from my happy spouse, backed up by quips of forced gaiety from Pamela who is really only with us to help her black out the only too recent hurt of a shattered marriage.

Our inattention to the menu had caused the dark young woman to move away to serve others in the rapidly filling restaurant. Although lit up from the huge windows by the bright southern midday sun, inside it was low ceilinged, a somewhat dingy area divided by arches, as in a wine cellar, once painted white but now, like the diners, in need of some refreshment. Somewhere in the depths, the two staff could be seen taking orders and serving starters. We commented on the way a place like this, with about twenty tables all set with pretty dark red gingham table cloths, cutlery and glasses glinting in the slanting yellow sunbeams, could be served by two people where four or five would be the norm in Britain. Perhaps the pace of life is slower here, where, every lunchtime, at least an hour and a half is sacrosanct and devoted to the good god gourmand!

Return of the relaxed and smiling be-spectacled bringer of comestible delights. Would we have the 50 Franc menu with the house specialities of fish soup, followed by either stuffed mussels with pasta or a steak au poivre, or did we wish to order from the other menus, or even have a la carte?

Pamela and I choose the menu, though mussels farcie for her and an entrecote for me.- ---" Seignant?, au point?....&qqqquott;, efficiently making sure the meat would be cooked to my preference, the waitress noted down my answer on her pad. Sheila chose moules mariniere followed by faux filet. Again the questions, though, not really liking meat which has hardly been singed on the flames, Sheila responded with " a point ". " Aperitif?, du vin? de l'eau? " We decided to have a small pichet of house white wine from the locality and then sat back to wait whilst enjoying the glorious weather and the ever-changing moving theatre of life outside and inside our little goldfish bowl.

The girls chattered away, just making polite small-talk whilst I watched a fisherman finish tidying his nets before disappearing, presumably for his lunch, down below the deck on his super-modern trawler, the bridge absolutely bristling with radio and radar aerials, red, yellow and brown nets stacked high in amongst the winches and other high-tech gear on the main deck aft. A vendor of North African origin tries to sell me coloured beads or a suede jacket through the door open to the pavement. I always thought we took beads to the natives ! Shades of our Imperial past, my mind wandered off, down the route of long-gone explorers of the Dark Continent.

My pleasant reverie was interrupted by the clinking of glasses against a wine jug. A carafe of ice cold water covered in condensation, along with a basket of sliced chunks of fresh French bread also arrived, as if supported by the many invisible hands of our server, to be set out before us.

Did we come here just by chance ? Or did the stars have something to do with our decision ? Click on the blue button to find your personal horoscope, now...

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Conversation turned to food as first our fish soup with a huge plate of large croutons and a ramekin full to overflowing of rouille - a house speciality of garlic and saffron mayonnaise - was delivered, and Sheila's mountain of mussel shells was placed before her. The smell of the warm Mediterranean was here on our plates and we were ready to lap it up like children on their first beach picnic of the year !

The normal leisurely progression of lunch in these parts gives plenty of time for Pamela to relieve her burden of pent up feelings in talking of her trials and tribulations since Guy left her three months ago to take up with a local village nurse half his age. Between courses we heard the sad story of how " Ma " had been transhipped in a wheelchair from Montpellier to London to be placed in a horrendous nursing home in Surrey whilst Pamela returned to see to selling the house. " Selling the house " - that ever traumatic event, seems even more so in France. Here she is, after three accepted offers - all withdrawn on some pretext or other - still showing people round ! She has even been offered a part-exchange deal for an apartment fifty miles away. And " Ma", .....over 90 years old, who emigrated with Pamela and Guy when he took early retirement to make their joint dream life in the Languedoc, .....having been transported back to the UK, falls, breaks her thigh and ends up in a general hospital a thousand miles away ! Thankfully, Pamela's daughter in Surrey is able to relieve some of the self-induced guilt by maintaining contact with Ma. After this tale of woe, to which our sole response could be sympathy and words of support Sheila and I were really almost glad when it came time to pay the bill and go. The physical movement to another place would create a natural and much needed break.

To go home we drove round the pretentiously named " Corniche " and stopped for a while on the very plain, and rather ugly, square of sand, Sete Plage. About a couple of hundred metres square, protected from the sea by a stone breakwater, a brisk walk in the sun and sea breeze lightened the conversation to more mundane matters. We dropped Pamela off at her very modern village bungalow later and, holding hands whenever it was safe, drove home.

Before you read on, here is a property my friend let's out in the South of France - it's well worth a visit to his web-site if you are thinking of visiting France :-

GITE STYLE apartments in Languedoc, the "other" South of France, “ Deux Soeurs” (Two Sisters) in the ancient village of Roujan near Pezenas & Beziers. Restored by one of San Francisco's premier decorative artist families it presents an old French family atmosphere.
Overlooking the vineyards near the foothills and a myriad of ancient and unspoiled villages, the entire Languedoc region offers Historical Tourism at its best within a half hour of dozens of refreshing streams and soft sandy Mediterranean beaches.

Eric's e-mail: lansdown@mnet.fr Contact him now for fabulous prices in a perfect setting. Back to INDEX

 

Now, on with the story,

2.

" Home ", once more just the two of us, in our own happy little house in the foothills of the Cevennes, 20 miles north of Beziers, we reflected on our own situation and how lucky we seemed to have been, and how many things we still had to do and places to go. We must go there......

It had all started many years ago for me. My mother had long had links with family in France, cousins and the like. After the Second World War, and some of the aftermath had been tidied up, as a child of eleven, I was taken for my first holiday in France. I fell in love with the country and its way of life. I kept coming back, later with our own family, and, after many years was in the happy position of being able to buy a house here. It seemed the fulfilment of all my dreams, and, to an extent, is due to Lisa, my schoolteacher daughter, then only seventeen, who, when my wife poo-poohed the whole idea of going to look for a house to buy, said that Sheila should not dampen my enthusiasm as everyone needed a dream to come true...... Funny how wives will listen to daughters !

That was over seven years ago now. I had just sold my share of a small consultancy business to the other partners and, apart from looking for somewhere to invest the cash thus raised, I needed something to do to occupy the additional leisure time now available.

Sheila, who, at that time, still ran her own pharmacy and was beloved of her customers, agreed that she should take some time off and we should go to France on an exploratory visit in June. As I had made some previous enquiries there were a few areas and properties to investigate. We therefore booked flights to Lyon and a hire car from there.

Thus began the first of our " must go there " 's.......

********

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Sorry for the interruption, back to the story.... 3….or…. Back to INDEX

As our plane was to land after dark, I had taken the precaution of looking up Michelin maps and Guide for the area near the airport, and booked a small hotel in a village about ten miles away from the terminal and well off the flightpath.

Now Lyon airport, although growing, is not very big. However, first finding the car-hire desk and then someone who would own up to being in charge was no mean feat. A snappy little blonde eventually decided she could deal with the booking we had made through a Glasgow travel agent - but only in her own time and under her rules of engagement ! This included demanding my credit card and insisting that if I did not sign a blank credit card invoice, then as far as she was concerned I could walk the ten miles to our hotel or anywhere else I fancied for that matter, as I certainly wouldn't be using one of her cars ! Of course, as soon as she had elucidated that we understood a little, the conversation was conducted in my schoolboy and halting holiday French while, disregarding all misunderstandings as tempers frayed, she rattled on full speed ahead having apparently now also discovered that we were the last arrivals of the day and she wanted to go home! - We rued the day of this confrontation when, six weeks later, we found a huge bill for excess car insurance on our credit card statement, for which, when we challenged it, we were virtually advised - " hard lines, you suckers signed the bill " ! The joys of travel !

Our blond virago finally led us out of the airport building, through a back door and abandoned us among about a hundred identical Citroens within a badly illuminated carpark having handed me a bunch of keys bearing a registration number with a curt " Bon soir, au revoir ".

After an organised search, Sheila going up one row and me another, we found 'our' car and duly set off for our hotel. We reckoned without a moonless night, no street lights and the most confusing set of road junctions and signs around the airport ! The first road we followed, which looked as if it was at least going in the right direction, prescribed a huge gentle half circle and we found ourselves five miles in the wrong direction before we could turn off and return to whence we came !

With Sheila navigating using a map which she couldn't see in the dark and me guessing, we argued our way through various junctions and near misses with juggernauts thundering down to the south until we stopped and asked the only pedestrian we had seen in miles for directions. No wonder he looked surprised at these funny foreigners; we had stopped to ask for directions absolutely opposite the gates !

The gates !  No hint of a sign just a tiny notice that this was a hotel. Two huge, firmly bolted, beautiful wrought iron gates, at least fifteen feet high and twenty wide, barred our path into a large driveway leading through a garden up to, what in England would be called, a small stately home in the palladian style. The gates were hung on massive pillars attached to a high stone wall which ran away to both sides for about fifty metres and then returned at right angles up dimly lit side streets at each end of the frontage. Not a light to be seen. I checked my watch; even allowing for the change between Greenwich and local time, it was only 9.30 in the evening ! I left Sheila with the car parked blocking the gates, and walked around the wall to the right where there seemed to be some extra light in the street. Walking for about a hundred metres I came to a little solid wooden gate of some age let into the thick wall, on which I first knocked, and then hammered with my fist. To no avail ! Disconsolately, I walked back to the car where Sheila was by now waiting impatiently. As I turned the corner, a glint of light reflected off a bell, the size of a small church bell, suspended from the top of one of the gate posts, with a rope hanging down to shoulder height. As there was still no sign of life other than two large guard dogs who had now appeared and were looking through the bars at us as if sizing up which would make the better meal if we did try to enter their domain, we decided to pull the bell rope. Clang! Clang!

Horrified, we gaped at each other. In the centre of this deserted village we were sure we had set off the call to arms, the air-raid warning - or at least the fire station alert in the event of attack ! Clang! Clang! Clang! Clang! It would have wakened the dead !

It apparently did ! Within a few seconds, which felt like hours to the two miscreants who had set off this infernal din, lights appeared, first in the upstairs windows and then a series of them lit up as someone clearly moved through the house illuminating stairs and hall in the passing. The huge glazed front door opened wide letting light spread out in a giant wedge shape over the garden - a small towzled plump apparition in a flowing white nightie and slippers but no dressing gown almost ran across the garden to face us through the other side of the gate where we stood dumbstruck !

Silence again reigned. She came close. " Qu'est ce que vous voulez ? Il est tard ! ", she barked, as if to speak for the two silent watch-dogs by her side. School French to the rescue, once more ; we explained who we were, that we had booked, and why we were a bit later than expected. Her suspicious gaze cleared....." Ah, monsieur Bernard, bien sur....." and she opened the gates to let us and our bags, but not the car, into the garden drive. I pointed to the Citroen abandoned in the road at the gates, she shrugged and indicated to leave it where it was if we wanted in for the night. In those far off days we had not yet learned to travel light and now we suffered as we hauled two large cases across the garden, up the entrance stairway befitting a palace, into the hall, and after a short pause to sign the register, up two large flights of stairs to............a plain modern bedroom, absolutely incongruous in this beautiful building ! Realising that we had not eaten since early afternoon we asked if we could have sandwiches or..??? " Oh, m'sieu, a cette heure, ce n'est pas possible ! " So ended day one of our search for a sun-soaked retreat near wonderful restaurants in glorious France!

Cold, hungry and dispirited !

Things could only get better............. we must go there !!!.....

4.

The following morning, up early as is my habit, I went in search of a dining room or kitchen, or for that matter any kind of food delivery area in the mansion !

At first I tip-toed about like a burglar, but , as I went from room to room on the ground floor - through everything from what was obviously an office crammed full of old Second Empire furniture including a large leather-topped table desk with the gilt rubbed off, boasting an open cash box in the middle, to a modern extension at the rear of the building like a giant conservatory with a thirties high bar with brass-legged stools in one corner - I realised we were alone!

St Laurent de Mure, trusted us. Perhaps things were not so bad !

I went out, through an open iron-framed French window, into the garden, at a point which appeared to be at the rear of the building. Although only eight o'clock the sun was already strong and a soft warmth pervaded. The garden, although somewhat neglected, was full of summer flowers with all their attendant colours and perfumes. Mindful of the two watchdogs from the previous evening, I walked carefully round the house and eventually spotted them playfully rolling on the ground near where an elderly man in blue overalls and a beret was weeding a rockery. "Bon jour m'sieu. Where can we have breakfast ? ", I stammered out in bad French. "C'est xxxxxxx aaaaaaa gggg rrrrr madame la proprietaire.........", he rattled off at high speed, then pointed down the road to where last night's apparition had been transformed into the epitome of rural French decorum walking across a square, coming towards us carrying an enormous wicker basket with at least a dozen baguettes sticking out of one end. I could almost smell the sweet odour of the fresh bread at a hundred metres !

After the customary "...bon jour m'sieu..." "...madame..", without which no self-respecting French man or woman will let you start a conversation, the owner, for this was her, indicated that if we would like to be in the conservatory bar in ten minutes she would have coffee ready.

Following our first real taste of any food in fifteen hours, never mind delicious french bread, coffee and croissants, we paid the most amazingly meagre bill - having discovered that the French consider anything but July or August off-season - and found a telephone to call and let mother-in-law and daughter still at home in Scotland, know we were OK. On this call we heard the disturbing news that our twin sons, whom we had known to be bumming around France, had called home to say that, if we were in the vicinity, could we please look them up and give them a meal! Our children starving ! The vicinity!? There was a snag. They had not asked where the twins were ! The family at home didn't know where we were. If you have ever looked for a needle in a haystack, you have some idea of what searching for someone "in France " could be like! It's a big, big country! However, at least they had arranged for us and the twins to telephone home in two days time to try and co-ordinate.

Needless to say, "...my boys are starving!... Oh, poor things!..." etc were all Sheila could think about for the next two days! House hunting was forgotten as maternal instincts took over! Her babies, Gregory and Paul, were out there somewhere on the verge of starvation! The fact that they had already spent a 'year out' in various parts of the America's without their bleached bones being sent home in a shoebox did not console. Perhaps it was just my poor male chauvinist way of giving comfort that was inadequate!

To fill in the time till the pre-arranged 'phone calls, we decided to go down to the Riviera coast through Provence, spending a night on the way, wherever we found somewhere we both fancied.

We drove down the Autoroute du Soleil until Aix en Provence and then turned off the main road south onto the more leisurely west to east roads, built in a bygone age, which were to lead us into the now well kent " Peter Mayle " country of Provence proper. Wandering through the green cultivated valleys, road edges full of the brilliant red poppies so beloved by Monet and his ilk, between the high, light grey and dark green craggy Luberon mountains, under clear blue skies, almost by accident we came across a sign " Chambres d'hote", indicating that a mile farther on there was an approved stopover. From this and later experience we were to find that such places were usually a step up from a "Bed & Breakfast " but still run by the owner and not as restrictive or formal as a hotel.

"La Bonne Terre " was everything its name promised !

5.

Built half way up a steep hill crowned by the partially restored remains of the castle of The Marquis de Sade, La Bonne Terre is just that - The Good Earth!

The owner, a retired architect, separated from his interior designer wife, has done a splendid job of first converting one small house of local grey limestone into an upmarket large bedroom furnished in a very modern style with en suite bathroom and toilet, and then added to the whole with a most cunningly disguised run of other stone built rooms with similar facilities, all facing the same direction out over the warm cultivated plains rolling towards the folds of the Luberon in the distance. In total there are six of these suites, most with ceiling to floor glass picture windows to frame the views which constantly change colour as the sun travels the sky during the day, giving the light effects so beloved of the impressionist painters at the end of last century.

This accommodation area is carefully built, on the middle one of three ancient vine growing terraces which have been cleared, backing on to the matching light grey stone of the wall supporting the upper terrace. Up a few stone steps, the upper terrace backs into a heavily wooded hill which climbs steeply upwards to the bottom of the very walls of the remains of the castle, home, and scene of the notorious deeds, of the Marquis de Sade.

Walk down a similar set of stone steps and the grassy third terrace leads to a crystal blue swimming pool with its surrounding patio and sun terrace, sheltered at one end by a gnarled old olive tree. A cooling dip in the hot afternoon sun let me float and swim gently, dreaming as I looked over the edge at a view which stretches past the typical village of Bonnieux, built on a steep-sided small conical hill with the ubiquitous steepled church on its summit, through the orchards and vineyards pushing through red-brown soil, to the larger market town of Apt in the far distance. La bonne terre indeed !

Incorporated and concealed into this heavenly retreat is a kitchen and utility room for shared use of the " house guests ". The outstanding feature is the large blackboard with the name of each room printed alongside a space where every guest is requested to list exactly what is wanted for breakfast the following day, be it bacon and eggs or mere croissant and chocolate, and the time it is required. This culinary alarm clock is duly served by m'sieu himself, at wood and metal green tables and chairs reminiscent of Victorian park bandstands long ago, on the upper terrace, where, if you are one of the dawn risers, like me, the world of Provence opens up before you with rapidly changing, multicoloured sunrise and various bright birds starting about their daily foraging in the verdant forest which sweeps down from the brooding, somnolent castle above to within a metre or so of your chair.

After this heavenly afternoon and overnight in one of the world's hidden treasures we set off south, to make for the coast. But, we must return there...

6.

We rejoined the Autoroute, near Cavaillon, for our leisurely, as much as any drive on an motorway can be described as leisurely, completion of our journey to the coast.

The sun, that sun which always seems to shine bringing its all-embracing warmth in the part of France below the Lyon latitude ( sometimes described as the olive line ), was performing one hundred percent as we drove along with every window open as far as possible, through the undulating countryside of exposed red earth, ploughed up between the rows of dark green vines aligned north/south like soldiers on a show parade. As we moved south the hills and curves on the autoroute became almost scary in their elevation, angle of ascent and descent. Their sweeping curves could last for a kilometre or more as they cut through the light grey rock where the raw ochre edges still clearly bear the marks of the dynamite used to carve out these wonders of modern engineering.

And then, from the top of one of these motorists equivalents of a tarmac ski-slope, approaching Marseilles, the first view of the sea - no !! it wasn't the sea, it was the huge almost land-locked brackish lake, with Marseilles airport on one edge between us and the water, and, over the water, the port of Martigues with its great oil and petroleum facilities and storage tanks blotting the landscape, as only French industrial installations can!

Typical of most major towns, the approach through the suburbs travelling to the centre of Marseilles is rather grotty, with great volumes of traffic and its accompanying fumes, smoke and noise.

However, as we neared the centre, miraculous changes in scenery, starting with the enormous stone castle rising out of nowhere, apparently up to the sky, imposed on the senses. Then following signs to "The Old Port", the road led round a grand marina, below the castle walls, packed full of expensive looking yachts and motor launches from twenty footers right up to three masted schooners and floating gin palaces reminiscent of James Bond films. Sights not to be forgotten, where we must return !

Leading up from the port, the main road took us to the city centre with its inevitable underground car parks typical of French towns which only King Mynos outdid with the complexity of his maze design! But like miners of old we struggle back to the surface and "fresh" air among the seething crowds of pedestrians hurrying and scurrying on their daily errands.

At first we could not see any hotels. Puzzled, we walked around until a chance upward glance revealed that hotels seemed to occupy the upper floors above the rows of beautifully stocked shop windows whose incandescent output had blinded us to the truth, as, of course, they are meant to do.

We entered the hotel door from a side street and climbed one flight of luxuriously carpeted stairs to an unattended brightly lit reception desk and a small cocktail lounge, but again empty. The brass hand-bell like a miniature dome of St Pauls on top of the counter beckoned. Somewhat gingerely, after having woken half of the population in the Departement of Rhones-Alpes with our escapade in St Laurent de Mure, I tapped gently on the plunger. A feeble almost inaudible ping resulted. The feeble ping produced equally feeble results ! That is...... none ! A little braver, I tried again. Like the bell on the old steam locomotives seen in ancient movie westerns, the clang and its ensuing reverberations set the building astir!

" Bon jour, m'sieu dame, qu'est-ce que vous veuillez !", from this slinky personage of oriental origin, who had appeared, as from nowhere, smiling widely. Oh, oh, here we go again ! However, between the three of us we negotiated a price and booked a room for the night. I left Sheila to go and lay claim to it while I returned to the car, in that dungeon of a carpark, to retrieve what luggage we needed for the night. On my return I climbed the flight of entrance steps, past the, once more, empty reception area, and took a dinky little lift to our bedroom floor.....

The ascenseur door opened automatically and I stepped out into a passage whose walls were covered in expensive tones of green silk material almost identically matching the inches deep carpet on its floor. Soft lighting let me see the room numbers delicately traced on each door. Arriving at our number I knocked gently.

Sheila opened the door and greeted me with a giggle and then burst out laughing as she closed the door behind me and then turned to fling her arms around my neck and kiss me in a most unaccustomed way. " To what do I owe this ?", I exclaimed, thinking fast! " Why, look around you, m'sieu!" she retorted. And look around I did ! The unusual entrance, the unusual lack of hustle and bustle in a hotel entrance way, all began to make sense ! The room was beautifully furnished with rich dark coloured rosewood modern furniture and the walls, curtains and bed were all draped in lavish silk and satin matching materials in heavy greens with -- piece de resistance ! --- mirrors everywhere !! Ceilings, wardrobes, walls, dressing table, you name it there was a mirror!! We had booked in at the local "homme d'affaires" lunch-time rest room !!!

As it was clean and comfortable, we decided to stay. It was only for one night anyway. So, tidied up and wishing to look round, we left the " hotel" about half past three and wandered around the excellent, but expensive, modern shopping centre which surrounded our very special stop-over.

Passing Marks & Spencer, Sheila gasped at the goods on display - more haute couture underwear on display than Harrods ! And better quality, at that ! The shops around were all displaying quality at quality prices which would never be seen in provincial cities at home. There must be some money here !! Sheila was reticent to even go into any of the stores to look - we must go back there.....

We ended our wander by finally entering a patisserie such as I have never been in outside of Paris ! All cream plaster, large gilt mirrors and idyllic eighteenth century pastoral scenes on every wall, with high fluted pillars interspersed by marble tables at which cream and gilt chairs with backs and seats upholstered in silk tapestries completed the picture. High ceilings, windows from waist height to these ceilings with their fancy rococo plasterwork let us look out on to the busy thoroughfare and its passing tide of people from all nations. Around the perimeter inside were various large antique glass display counters filled with rows of the most varied and delicious delicacies that human hands can create from mere flower, cream, sugar, fruit and chocolate. Spoilt for choice, I chose a mille-feuille full of fresh whipped cream and strawberry which almost floated onto my plate of its own volition, while Sheila, pretending to watch her waste line, chose a gallette of simpler appearance but, I am sure, equal calories! Coffee and hot chocolate, overflowing with even more fondant cream sealed our fate !

Marseille is definitely on the list. We must return........

7.

The next morning we left for the short drive along the coast, passing through the old town and busy port of Toulon, streets full of sailors proudly wearing their bright red pom-pom berets, before finding Hyeres, where oddly enough I don't think I had ever visited before.

Saltwater pans like huge paddy-fields crowded with pink flamingoes on their funny awkward looking stilt legs first made us pay more attention as we left the heavy traffic on the edge of Toulon and moved east into the flat land sandwiched between the mountains of the Massif des Maures, which rise so sharply to the sky behind Hyeres, and the blue sparkling Mediterranean.

Once more following a combination of instinct and roadsigns to "les plages", we found a tree lined road running parallel to the beach with a row of neat "pensions", small private hotels, fronting the road, whilst the rear of their buildings were actually built out on to the beach itself.

We picked one, almost at random, and went in. The unattended entrance hall led straight through to the kitchen where a slim dark haired woman wearing a plain brown dress and a colourful apron was preparing vegetables. This turned out to be Madame la patronne. On hearing our voices she rapidly dried her hands and greeted us effusively, as many latins are prone to do. We are used to this nowadays but at that time our British reserve still tended to make us feel a little non-plussed by such over enthusiasm. However she was very friendly and we arranged for bed and breakfast after being taken up a flight of stairs and shown what was to be our very clean and bright bedroom with open windows virtually on the beach and literally within a stone's throw of the water's edge.

As it was late afternoon by now, we had a short walk on the beach, and then retrieved the car from its parking place under the large stand of lime trees spreading their leafy parasols over the other side of the road from the hotel. We drove up to the ancient, originally fortified, town built on a steep hill behind the modern area which lay between the beach and the Massif.

Tomorrow being the day we were to 'phone home to find out where the twins were, Sheila was scrutinising every group of young men that we passed, hoping to beat the gun and find them earlier. We walked through as many of the cobbled streets and runnels, running up and down the old town, often lined with little old fashioned shops cheek by jowel, as our legs would allow. Finally having been unsuccessful in her search, Sheila agreed that we should sit down in one of the open air restaurants and partake of some of the culinary delights for which Provence is famed.

The meal and wine were absolutely up to my expectations, but Sheila, still dwelling on her darling boys, only picked at hers. We left the high walled stone fortress town, probably earlier than we might have done otherwise and returned to our beach residence, passing the brightly lit and very colourful permanent fairground on the way. The bright lights reflected all their varied colours like moving stars in the water of the salt pans, gently rippled by the flamingoes wading around, still sifting their dinner from the muddy bottom.

We fell asleep to the gentle lapping of the miniature waves the calm Mediterranean was sending in to our beach.

Both of us wakened early to the tantalising aroma of fresh coffee and croissants being prepared by Madame in the kitchen, and, of course, because this was the day we were to 'phone home to find out the twin's location.

Eating our breakfast, more to pass the minutes till the appointed time we were to 'phone, than because of hunger, we did however enjoy the delights of the burgeoning sun warming our world as its bright rays spread over the water towards us.

I dialled. Where were the boys ? Only thirty kilometres away at Le Lavandou ! Would we pick them up on the prom' ?

We were on our way.....

8.

The road to Le Lavandou from Hyeres is a busy commercial route of no particular beauty. However, once near Bormes les Mimosas, we began to see the real Cote D'Azur with its palm trees and the expanses of low red tiled roofs on light coloured houses so beloved the world over.

Although technically off season in June, this part of the south coast was already busy especially with many Dutch, German and Belgian cars in evidence.

Flowers in the central part of every roundabout and along the edges of the unhedged gardens lit up the area as if Monet and friends had been let loose overnight with huge pots of crimson, bright sunshine yellow, blue, violet and white paint. The palm trees waved their rustling green fronds in the warm air which was fondling our skin so gently, both as if greeting old friends.

We drove on through till we arrived at the large curved promenade which encompasses the wide open fine sandy beach that is Le Lavandou, and parked the car.

The promenade is nearly as big as the beach itself and, just before lunchtime, it was seething with people. On this warm sunny day there were many people on the beach and even in the sea. A mass of colour and movement! How were we to find Gregory and Paul ? As luck would have it, I am fairly tall and the twins, who are equally as tall, spotted my white hair from a distance, waved to attract our attention and came over to meet us.

Four months bumming around had not done much for their appearance! Were these really our boys ? Beautifully tanned, but with long sun-streaked hair down to their shoulders, clad in scruffy tee shirts and shorts, with worn-out Doc Martins incongruously on their feet, somewhat thinner than we remembered them, they hastened over to give Sheila enthusiastic hugs. Gregory's bongoes gave him the look of a medieval travelling minstrel about to relay the gossip to one and all. Paul's tatty sports bag really said it all! They had had it rough - a lot rougher than they had expected. " Where are we going to eat ? ", the first words spoken , after "Hi, there!"

Sheila looked them up and down, the hint of a tear in her eyes. Food ! Before tidying them up and buying some new clothes ? ! " Absolutely ! "

" We're starving !! ". " We ran out of money days ago, because we thought you would be here sooner ! ", the words came tumbling out ! " We had to sing outside supermarkets to earn enough to keep us alive ! "

" OK, ok !", I intervened, " what do you want to eat, a burger, fastfood or....". I was cut off in mid-flow! " Not likely !, you two here in Provence to treat us... and you talk about fast-food! " came the indignant reply. " We've sussed out a great looking place, come on ! ". Sheila and I looked at each other, looked over these two escapees from the poorhouse, shrugged widely, and she said, " Let's go, then !", clearly thinking, " My God, what will people think ?!"

We didn't need to worry. Whilst our table was obviously the sole topic of conversation at every table occupied by well-dressed bourgeoisie, the experienced maitre d'hotel who showed us to our table under the white canvas awning, whilst metaphorically holding his nose, acted impeccably as if our two sheepdogs were dressed in finest silks and perfumed with Chanel No 5.

The designated restaurant must have been in the top three in the town - both for quality and price ! The boys had chosen well and ate themselves through every course of delicious Provencal food that was placed before them. We greatly enjoyed seeing them after so long a break, and, once the edge was off their appetite, hearing of some of their tales and adventures during the four months they had been out here.

It transpired that it really had been very difficult for them to find the work they had originally set out to do, so as to pay their way. They had often slept rough, though in general the weather had been kind and that did not seem to have been such a trial as it might have been. They had met lots of other youths trying their hand for the first time in a foreign country to make a living, and said that all had the same sort of story. There was very little casual work in France and what there was seemed to be reserved for their own. They had, however, enjoyed most of their time travelling about, and did seem to have made enough for survival, even if only at minimal levels. However, they both thought that if we were coming out anyway it would be a good idea to receive a shot in the arm of regular sustenance to fit them for the rest of the time they intended staying in the Midi - probably till the end of the season in September.

Licking the cream from the sweet and the taste of Provence off our lips, we wandered slowly from the amiable restaurant in a quiet square, through the rows of small shops, lining the narrow, but modern, streets, which were just re-opening after lunch.

First call was at a shoe shop where, at the door, Gregory's boots had to be almost peeled of his feet before we could allow him to go in ! Thank goodness a cool breeze was moving through the street to waft away the smell! A pair of flip-flops was the best he would choose, and then only on the promise that he could keep his beloved boots which we were quietly trying to dump in a dustbin, but, after a brief altercation, we gave in on the principal that anything was better than " those boots " !

After buying tee-shirts etc, as " anything better would be stolen ", which hinted at other stories yet to be heard, we sat down to discuss ' what next '.

It did not take overmuch persuasion on our part to convince the pair of them that we should all go back up-country for the week we had left, to the little patch of heaven we had found at La Coste - La Bonne Terre.

We did go there......

9.

The route back was through Toulon and Aix en Provence.

En passant, the twins asked us to go to Bandol, where they had stashed the rest of their gear.

Bandol, that most French of all French resorts ! What memories that request brought flooding back ! And the twins had gone back there ! No wonder ! What a holiday we had had there many years ago !

That holiday had been in an old Peugeot 505, eight seater estate car. We had driven all the way from Glasgow. The whole family was together - Simon the eldest, who is now married to Gill with three lovely children Michael and Danielle and Holly

( this is their photo), (Back to INDEX)

 was about eleven at the time - Jason, now a surgeon and married to another surgeon, the delightful Tamsin - Gregory and Paul, who at a year younger than Jason must have been about nine - and Lisa about six, with that long hair that little girls of that age wear so well, but want cut off because of brother's tugging to annoy. We had also taken Gagy, Sheila's mother who has lived with us for many years.

I knew it was a nice area and, most important, very French.

We had booked, unseen, from an old Michelin guidebook.

The journey had been fairly uneventful, apart from the frightful drive around the Peripherique, circumnavigating Paris, in the daddy of all downpours ! However, only this week when talking to Simon on the telephone, he reminded me how, on the journey down, it was the first time he ate frogs legs and snails, in a little restaurant overlooking the river at Macon. And Jason, the gourmand in our family, ( to the extent he was known as the family dustbin when he was fairly young ), will never forget the meal at Saulieu, the gourmet centre of the French road network, between Auxerre and Chalon sur Saone on the main road south, when even he could not face the volumes of richesse and ran for the toilet before the meal was finished !

But, back to Bandol. The little town is a very Mediterranean French quiet town, built around a semi-circular beach like a croissant with a boom across the points of the croissant to stop motor boats entering the peaceful lagoon full of bathers and swimmers. Pedaloes are the fastest things in the water, and the children had a ball jumping off them into the clear clear water. The beach at the centre of the croissant is under a steep cliff like slope, about twenty metres high which gives absolute shelter from the prevailing wind. The cliff then slopes down at either end to level out with the sand at the eastern end and the rocks covered in sun-worshippers at the other. A second bay, behind the first, provides a long straight promenade and small marina, with shops facing out over the prom to the sea. This is reached by walking round the tree-lined road at the top of the cliff, or walking to the last edge of the fine sand at the eastern end and round the narrow grass-covered green point of land jutting out into the blue sea where the road runs past the sports centre, for football and tennis, to the town centre.

We stayed in Le Goeland ( The Seagull ), a large converted villa and grounds at the far western end of the bay, above the rocks, run by a delightful family. Indeed the rocks were just outside the protective boom and our boys, who were all good strong swimmers, loved nothing better than the swim in round the rocky promontory into the bay, diving to cross under the boom of rope and coloured floats and then continue over, either to the beach where Sheila, me, Lisa and Gagy usually sat, or across to the raft in the centre of the bay where all the strong swimmers went to lie sunbathing or watching the shoals of little fish darting about in the sparkling greeny blue water beneath.

We still have our souvenirs of that holiday - two large milk jugs with colour pictures of a Normandy cow on one side. The children admired the ones on the breakfast table so often that Madame la patronne gave them to us when we were leaving.

We fed well there on specialities of the region which either Madame or M'sieu prepared themselves . After their delicious meals, served in the garden, we all played "boules" (Petanque) or table tennis, with the other guests, on a terrace left aside for the purpose. After dark, in the evenings we went for walks along the promenade, through the multitude of stalls and small shops which all vied for the passing trade in silver jewellery, paintings and summer clothes, or we sat in one of the cafes watching everybody else. One of the best family holidays I think we ever had !

Unfortunately, just after Christmas that year we received a mourning card at home, advising us that M'sieu had died suddenly and obviously unexpectedly.

Once we had picked up the twins " stashed gear " from near a campsite on the outskirts, which gear turned out to be a freezer box they stored their clothes in as it was waterproof, we did drive around Bandol, for old times sake. Sadly, for us, the Goeland is now an estate of pretty little Provencal houses with red tiled roofs, created after the family sold up and left.

A lovely place, with happy memories, ....we did go there......

10.

I telephoned La Bonne Terre to make sure they could accommodate us, which they could. Half a days drive took us back with our recovered loot - Gregory and Paul.

By now they seemed to be recovering their strength and feeding them had obviously worked wonders. In the car, on the way, they started to tell us about some of their worse experiences first - probably to increase the sympathy factor ! They had been robbed, threatened at knife point, chased and starved, slept under bridges and in ditches ! Sung for pennies, and played in a band for food !

On the way north, after Aix, but somewhere between Pertuis and Cadenet, Gregory's boots, which we had thought well wrapped up, started to make their presence known, or felt! or something!! What a honk !! The heat of the sun beating down on the boot lid must have cooked them ! Ventilation had to be attempted by stopping and opening the boot, which only gave temporary relief !

Half an hour later we arrived in La Coste. M'sieu was there at La Bonne Terre to welcome us back and meet the twins.

The late afternoon sunshine on the fields, orchards and hills around cast its spell. We were home, at least for the week !

Although Sheila and I had stayed in one of the older converted buildings on our previous visit, this time we were allocated one of the very modern en-suite rooms, right next door to the one given to Paul and Gregory. Nothing could have been more pleasant or convenient.

The twins disappeared for the first showers for some time, I suspected, while we went to the pool for a quick swim in the warm late rays, to ease the tensions of the past few days. At long last Sheila started to relax, lying out in one of the comfortable loungers. She had her boys, and me, and a place in which she felt comfortable and at home. That was all I wished ; for she was then, and is now, everything to me.

Having all eaten to overflowing at lunch in Le Lavandou, and, tired from travelling in the heat, we decided to leave " Simian's " of ' A year in Provence ' fame, for another night and went out to search the village of La Coste for more simple fare.

There are three restaurants, in the two small main streets, which, starting well apart at different levels on the hillside, gradually come together at the end of the village to form the point of a hairpin bend. The slightly winding streets forming this giant ' V ' shape are full of stone-built houses dating from before the Marquis de Sade took part in his sexual excesses in his castle high up above, and is in process of renovation, witness lots of recut stones and bright new pointing cement between them.

As 'Simian's' was for another time, and ' The Marquis de Sade ' looked rather large and gloomy, we settled for the un-named bistro bar at the very point of the ' V ', on the roadside. Being on the absolute edge of the road it had four white, garden type tables and chairs strung out along the protective railing overlooking the sheer drop of thirty or so feet to the next level of road below, with a magnificent view past local groups of farmhouses or Mas's as they are known throughout the south of France, each tucked into their own little tree covered hill for shelter. These outside chairs were mainly occupied by coke swigging teenagers enjoying the final rays of the sun. We looked into the building and saw it had a long bar running parallel to the four outside tables inside a series of vaulted stone ceilings, just like the old vaulted coach-houses of swashbuckling swordsmen seen in films of the Three Musketeers and their like, with long large heavy wooden rough hand made tables and chairs apparently left over from the same film set !

There a couple of rustic characters, such as one sees in a spoof about France - blue dungarees, dark beret, swarthy, gitane puffing - were talking to the young barman, propped up on the bar as we entered. They lazily looked us over and then returned to their conversations which we had obviously interrupted by our entrance.

As all the eight huge tables in the caverns were empty, and there did not appear to be any staff, the four of us sat down, two and two, either side of the second table from the bar. Greg asked what drinks we'd like while we were waiting and went over to the bar to get them and ask what was to eat.

He waited, and waited, and waited! The conversation at the bar went on, and on, and on..... Our thirst increased proportionally to the time we waited ! Eventually we urged Greg to break into the private chat and ask for his order. "Oui, bien sur, je m'en vais....." Greg returned to join us at the table empty-handed and after another ten minutes or so, the barman stirred himself enough to place our order, without menu, on the bar. Greg and Paul went over to collect the drinks and ask about food as it was now about seven and we were feeling peckish. " Oh, you're far too early for that......my wife's gone home to feed the baby.........she'll be back about half past.....she'll make something for you then..."

As we did not feel like trekking about to see if there was anywhere else, and our thoughts about "Simians" and the "Marquis" remained the same we decided to thole it ( as they say in Scotland ) and drink our drinks slowly until Madame arrived. Anyway the atmosphere was good and very different from anything we knew at home.

About quarter to eight, just when we were about to give up, a woman in her early thirties arrived and started setting knives and forks out on some of the tables. She eventually came over to the four of us, now feeling as if we hadn't eaten for days, and asked if we wanted something!! "What have you got for eating ?"......." What do you want? Steak and chips, omelette, salad?...." Apparently, it was going to be simple fare. Well, simple fare it may have been, BUT, what fare ! Fantastic, huge steaks ( before anyone had heard of BSE !! ), cooked to perfection ! Omelette which covered the whole plate and just melted in the mouth ! And, French Fries !!!! Why can't you buy such fries anywhere else but in France ? Heaped salvers of them, big enough to serve a banquet were placed on the table for us to serve ourselves ; the same with the freshest of fresh mixed salad, which was so fresh it crunched as you bit into the beautiful green leaves dressed in a vinaigrette sauce to die for. And the twins had tomato sauce on the chips!!!! ....Philistines!!!

Replete from this cornucopia, served with a large jug of the local vin de pays, we had to finish with strong black "cafe" to sober us up enough to pay the meagre bill and stagger on our moonlit way back through the, by now, sleepy village to La Bonne Terre and a satisfying night's rest.

Needless to say we went back there a few times.....

We had heard that the next day was market day in Apt, the nearest reasonable sized town. So, breakfast on the lawn disposed of, we climbed in the car and set off.

To go to Apt we had to take a small country road which, almost as soon as we left La Coste, started to rise steeply , winding its way around the edge of the next village, Bonnieux. On this lightly wooded hill which was causing the car engine to think twice about whether it really wanted to take us up, cyclists clad in luminous racing gear, actually passed us, going in both directions !

We visited Bonnieux, bonnie as its name suggests in lowland Scots, on another day, climbing up through the village on foot. Past little shops, which were almost just like open living rooms set into the walls in the tiny stone houses which fronted the cobbled main street, mostly with doors lying open to the sunshine outside. Shops selling local produce such as honey, lavender, hams, fruit and, of course, wine. A miniature Boulanger and Patisserie dispensed bread and sweetmeats to passing tourists as well as local residents. The view from the grassy churchyard at the very top was awe inspiring and quite frightening at some points in the crumbling walls of old stone, overhanging a sharp drop which form a sort of rampart, as if this had been a fortified church at some time. Perhaps, at some long past time, this had been one of the towns involved in the wars of the Cathars in the twelfth century, who knows? But, we can dream !

The rest of the road to Apt was over almost flat rolling country, probably the flood plain of the little river we crossed over, using an old narrow steeply arched stone bridge left behind from the days of cart and horse, about a mile from the edge of the town. Certainly very fertile, with fields of grain crops being harvested, vines, vegetables and fruit trees all ripening for a later harvest.

Apt is a proper town with a population over eleven thousand, greatly swollen by market day influx, when its main streets built like a spiders web within a large rough square round the large Church of Sainte Anne are lined with stalls selling every possible item, useful or not, to customers besotted with going home carrying a bargain !

Our approach to the town itself was very slow owing to the press of traffic preceding and surrounding us. Once into the main square on the perimeter of the shopping centre, with a view of the river on our left, our first priority was to find a place to park the car, which, in the heat of the late morning sun was becoming like an oven as we crawled along, even though all windows were down as far as possible. We followed the main road round the centre, to the right, but could not find a square inch of space. At the end of the town centre we turned left down towards the riverside and lo and behold a car moved out from the pavement, right beside us ! What luck! They must have come early and be going home for lunch !

Four or five of the streets, shaded by tall stuccoed buildings, seemed to lead into the town from the riverside. We crossed the road from our parking spot beside the promenade pavement on the river side, making for one of these. The narrow streets were thronged with, mainly, happy people, gently pushing their way through, either to move from one stall to another or to gain access to one of the many little shops lining the streets. This was not just a produce market, though produce there was in abundance. I think that it was the most comprehensive market I have ever visited, even more all-encompassing than the large travelling market, of specially built trailers bigger than buses, which goes around other provincial towns like Tournus in Burgundy.

The women obviously treated the day as special and were all dressed up in their summer finery of many colours giving a bright moving background to the whole affair. Many of the stalls, especially those selling take-away food or demonstrating obtuse devices, had men performing feats of daring with flying pancakes or spinning mixers to amuse the onlookers. Every stall or shop selling anything at all to do with music, from tapes and cd's to drums and double bass's, had at least one and sometimes two conflicting, ghetto blasters beating out their noise. Everyone seemed to be talking at once - the gay chatter rebounding off the high surrounding walls to double its volume. Flower stalls and shops, were popular stopping places for a gossip with old friends, whilst the butchers roasting fresh chickens outside their door on the pavement were doing a roaring trade. We thought this a good idea and stopped to select a plump juicy bird just in the early stages of the process. The butcher told us to come back in three quarters of an hour when it would be perfect. "Do you want paid?...or a deposit....?" "M'sieu,..certainly not ! When you return....." Return!!...We could hardly tear ourselves away from the heady perfume of herbs and sizzling chicken fat mixed with the golden olive oil grown locally with which it was being basted by an obviously caring assistant in white coat, waving the basting spoon in the air with a flourish to advertise his wares. But, what trust ! People in small towns still live some of the ways of earlier times, in spite of their growing crime figures.

We wandered on and Sheila bought some small knickknacks as presents for those at home. Greg and Paul took off for a while to explore a musical instrument shop they fancied. By half twelve, we all met again, with the crowds thinning as many of the locals went home for their traditional long lunch. Feeling the need for sustenance ourselves we made our way back to the butcher who was on the point of removing our chicken off the spit and wrapping it up in greaseproof paper and then aluminium foil to preserve both the heat and the juices. It looked so delicious, as he made it ready, that we decided to find the car and scoot the ten miles to eat it with some fresh bread in the relaxing peace of the terrace gardens of La Bonne Terre.

That was a good idea ! But.....! Where was the car ? I thought I knew exactly where it was, and set off at a brisk walk. I was wrong ! The little streets which all looked the same, were anything but the same ! I ended up at one end of the riverside walk scanning the horizon for a non-descript little Citroen among hundreds of clones ! - The French do buy French, when they can ! Finally, as tempers were beginning to fray in the midday heat - "You fool, how can you not remember where you parked your car?!?.....etc.,etc!!..." - we split the twins up and sent each round the centre in the opposite direction. The ruse worked, to cut a long story short we found the errant machine a hundred steps down the road, climbed in, and set off for our sunshine picnic par excellence !

We spent the next day or two lazing in the hot sun, swimming in the pool, occasionally taking a gentle stroll round the village. In the late afternoons it was our special game to see which of us could guess who out of the queue of cars that would turn up each day, M'sieu would accept as guests. He was unbelievably fussy, sending away disappointed about twice those he accepted. What a profitable business it must be ! ( I offered to buy it, but he just laughed me away.) We began to think ourselves something special that we were allowed to stay so long !

A visit to Cavaillon, the nearest town of any size ( about twenty five thousand inhabitants ) was a bit of a disappointment. A very ordinary town, in every sense, we didn't stay long as we were very unimpressed. A "hick " town in the American sense, with nothing to recommend it if you don't live there.

However, the day we climbed the rough cobbled runnel, through La Coste, leading almost from the little Post Office, open once a week for business, up and up between rows of old stone buildings which you can touch if you reach out both hands, was an afternoon to remember.

The sun was hot. The twins had found a camera and were desperate to show off their photographic skills. A subject had to be found - after all, who wanted pictures of us round a pool ! Any idiot could take those ! Lets go up to the castle ruins. OK !

Despite their laughter at our skills, I still have a fantastic photo, albeit forty five degrees off the square, of the two of them sitting on the edge of the upper terrace, with their backs to what looks like a rolling carpet of many shades of green, undulating away to the Luberon mountains in the far distance. Happy days !

To maintain decorum we put on tee shirts and shorts and left the garden through the direct exit, a wrought iron gate for pedestrians only, which led quickly to the village square - well, pocket handkerchief though it was, that was its designation ! Sheila, relaxed and happy with her boys, was skipping along with the best of them, all three of them teasing poor old dad. Up and up we went, and then...amazingly just below what we could see was the top....above the closed up and broken down old houses we had passed on the way up, many labelled with old 'For Sale' or 'To Let' signs half effaced with time....we came to a little street of completely refurbished tiny houses with people in residence and children playing about. The street was so high up the hill that their roofs were level with the bell tower of what must have been the original town church, perched right at the top, but underneath and outside the remains of the walls of the actual castle which towered even higher above us. Between each of the houses we could see for many miles in most directions. The old church bell still hung, almost at eye level, in its wrought iron cradle, supported from the four corners of the church tower by four rusty elegantly curved spars which ended above the bell in even fancier scrolls framing the view as any artist would be proud to paint.

We went on the little bit further demanded in order to come out in what must have been the castle proper. Although it was relatively disappointing after the find of a village being regenerated with government aid ( as we discovered later ), the site and the position were magnificent. Only a very few of the walls were still standing, having been destroyed partly by revolutionary aftermath's, partly in order to reuse its stone building blocks, and partly to erase the horrible shame of its owner's legacy. The walls that do remain give a sense of grim foreboding - I know I wouldn't have relished being shut up in there when the owner was functioning !

The twins took all the photos they wanted of butterflies and wild flowers which flew and grew on the flat surface where once the ignoble Marquis' castle stood. Paul even climbed into a part of the castle clearly marked 'Forbidden' and gave us quite a scare when he first disappeared and then reappeared later with a whoop and a howl. Boys will be boys, even if they are really men !

That evening we went to the restaurant called ' The Marquis de Sade ' and had a very passable meal in solitary state, being the only people there that mid-week night. We drank a very tasty thick, blood like wine, labelled with the house name. Needless to say, although it was much more expensive than its flavour warranted, we just had to buy a bottle to bring home for drinking some day when the twins come visiting together. That day is now long past and the bottle a memory. We must go back....

Our visit to ' Simians ', which was to be the culmination of everything for Sheila, our " Year in Provence " devotee, was, as predicted by all the locals we spoke to, an unmitigated rip-off, celebrated in solitary style !

Simian himself had become so much the character in Mayle's book that he was larger than life. His flowery kisses of Madame's hand and the air all around told of seeing too many nineteen twenty movies. " Will Madame sit here ?....or would she prefer here ? A fine aperitif ? Madame is so beautiful, she overwhelms the flowers......etc..." Too much for any woman to resist! He took little persuasion from Paul and Greg to have his photo taken with Madame.....But, revenge is sweet,....the camera flash wouldn't operate and all that remains of that inordinately expensive night out is the empty wine bottle ornately decorated with flowers intertwined with our daughter Lisa's name and a faded, half indistinguishable photo of Simian trying to cuddle Madame ! I doubt if that's on our list to go back........

Our time in France was drawing to a close so we discussed with the boys what were their next moves.

They decided that, reserves refreshed from a week of good eating at our expense, they wanted to continue their wanderings in France, more or less where they left off. Could we take them to Marseille ? Of course we could...... Sheila would have taken her lovely boys to the end of the earth, if they had wanted to go there ! Marseille was only a half day south and then another half days drive for us back to Lyon for the plane ! What's a day here or there ?!

To catch our flight home we would have to set off early the next day, which, of course we did. Down the autoroute, into the heart of Marseille to a great open grassed parkland where Paul and Greg seemed to know they could meet up with acquaintances on similar expeditions. Sheila could hardly contain her tears when the time came to let them out and they walked away, across the wide expanse of green, into the sun.

We found the route for Lyon and drove thoughtfully all the way to the airport, only stopping for a quick snack on the way.

It had been a wonderful holiday and we have always been a lot ' closer ' to the twins since then. BUT.....we came out to look for a house ! Where had the time gone ? Oh well, we must go back.........another year!

11.

Winter passed. Work kept Sheila and me very occupied. But by early Spring my thoughts were once more turning to France, land of my dreams!

The first adverts for houses for sale were appearing in The Sunday Times.

I 'phoned two or three of the agents who were advertising that they had properties in Provence and the Languedoc. All of them sent me a short list of available houses, farms, gites etc., from their surrounding area. Out of about twenty, there were two that particularly interested me - a house with forty acres of chestnut groves between Aurillac and Rodez, and a four hundred acre, broken down sheep farm in the northern Languedoc, which I had grandiose ideas of converting to a luxurious mansion which would pay for its upkeep ! One agent in Provence was so snooty about any property under a hundred thousand pounds that I told him to "get lost" !

Although Sheila had enjoyed her " Week in Provence ", so to speak, she was not really encouraging me too much in my fantasies. However, she did agree that, if I could find one or two ' nice ' places for her to go and look, she would go with me on another holiday specifically to see what was available. But, I must have definite things to see and places to go - no arriving at an airport and driving around till inspiration or a house fell on top of me ! Not the strongest of encouragement, you understand, but a gleam in the dark which was like a searchlight to my fervent imagination !

I began with the agents. Not knowing them from Adam, I had to see what they could do. So I picked on or two types of house from the lists they had sent me, said I would be out in May, and what else could they find ?

The house with the chestnuts still was favourite, but Guy, in Beziers, had found one or two more possibles to see, and said he had an " arrangement " with two local estate agents who would give me more to see, once they had met me. Yes, this was Pamela's " Guy " - presently her bete noir !

Looking at the map, we decided it would be best to fly to Marseille and hire a car there, drive through Montpellier to see Guy and his agents, and then up through Rodez to the chestnuts. At worst, a pleasant holiday itinerary was planned !

12.

This time we cut the baggage down to one case and the usual bits and pieces every woman seems to end up with in a hand-case. Landing at Marseille, coming in over the Autoroute, we knew exactly where we were as the plane touched down on the runway parallel to the water with the view over to the ugliness of Martigues disguised with bright sunshine and blue skies reflecting off water rippling gently in the late Spring breeze. Still, not the best view in the world ! But I knew it would lead to better things !

We had decided to drive, in our little hired car, to Montpellier and spend a night there. Two reasons really. One, we wanted to see this proud university city, and two, we could 'phone Guy from here to see if he had anything of interest for us in the area, before we shot off north to the 'chestnut' house.

Arriving at Montpellier, having first taken a wrong turning on the Autoroute and ended, twenty five kilometres off-route, almost into the middle of Marseille before I could turn round, I approached Montpellier with more caution. However, I still managed to miss a turn somewhere and landed up in the one way system which threads its way between four storey high buildings in the old town. From odd glimpses up one-way streets into which we couldn't turn, and various signs, we gathered that if we kept moving in a relatively uphill direction we should come out near the town centre where we would be sure to find a small hotel to suit us.

Great thought ! The narrow roads kept twisting and turning as I relentlessly pursued our theory. UP, up ! Round and round ! OK, so far. But, as we neared what we were sure was the top, the streets narrowed even further. To such an extent that my wing mirror now regularly brushed a bush or a pavementside pillar as we passed ; the wheels were stuck in tramlines formed by the pavement edges on both sides. Then, horror of horrors, a motorbike, chained to one of the posts lining the edge ! And its mirrors stuck out into the road beyond ! What to do ? I did what any red-blooded Frenchman would do.........I closed my eyes and drove on....and kept driving despite the tearing sound of metal against metal and the tinkling of mirror glass sacrificed !

Escaping into the fresh air at the top of the hill we found ourselves practically at the door of a small hotel, The Hotel du Palais, into which I almost threw Sheila to see if they would take us in. Sitting in the car outside, in case anything wanted past, I was relieved when Sheila came out of the hotel door shortly, with a wizened old creature who looked at me sitting in the now battered car with disinterest, and indicated I should go and park the car in the underground carpark along the road and come back when done.

The Palace hotel was no palace, but reasonably comfortable and suited us for one night. We ate locally, in a small restaurant, near the flower market, run by a man and his wife, and, having arranged to meet Guy the next morning, at some crossroad junction at ten o'clock, we retired early, without really seeing many of the obvious delights Montpellier had to offer. We must go there.....and we would many times.

13.

Next morning, we had an early petit dejeuner, which we mistakenly took in the hotel when we should have crossed the narrow street and had a much better croissant, for half the price, in the little cafe opposite, with its lace-like white metal chairs set out on the pavement, at round marble topped tables, to catch the awakening sun. We paid our bill to the rather strange woman who obviously ran the hotel, and realised she probably wasn't as old as we had taken her for on our arrival - a bit odd, though ! However, we remarked that we would go back, as it was clean and tidy with one of the best situations in town to use as a base for exploring Montpellier.

Exploring Montpellier, that would have to be a treat for another time, as we had arranged to meet Guy at a cross-roads said to be about half way between Clermont-l'Herault and Bedarieux, two small towns, themselves respectively about forty and sixty kilometres to the west of Montpellier.

We looked the meeting place up on the map, and it seemed reasonably simple to find. We had reckoned without three major snags ! The first was the rush hour traffic in the city, which is no hick town ! Rush hour is rush hour wherever you are, and we were there in the middle of it ! The second is one we should have picked up on, after our adventures the previous evening, entering the town centre - the one way traffic system, which takes all sorts of unexpected twists and turns, completely confusing to the uninitiated, and which makes one lose all sense of direction ! The third, and again one we should have been prepared for, after our unintended visit to Marseille centre yesterday - the French signposting system on the roads ! Whether or not to confuse the enemy, I don't know ! But, road direction signs on all southern French roads have two things in common - one, the place you are looking for is never on the signboard until you are practically past the junction and you are going too fast to slow up and pull across other lanes of speeding traffic to make your exit, - and two, the town name displayed on all the signs is the nearest large town at approximately one hundred kilometres distance from where you are now and never the one you are looking for !

Having survived the rush hour mass of hooting, swerving, kid-racers, we then found ourselves on a main road, signposted for Millau. Mil..where??? Panic set in. I turned off the first major turning that looked as if the road from there would go to the left where I thought the west should be. After a gigantic curve the road landed us in a large housing scheme of high-rise apartment blocks, school and parking areas ! Worse still the whole development was one huge cul-de-sac ! I stopped the car, being slightly hot and bothered - time was moving on, not like us ! We studied the maps together.

We didn't have a road plan of Montpellier, thinking all we had to do was follow roadsigns, and couldn't even find Millau on the district map we were using, until we eventually found it as a direction arrow off the north edge of the map, as Michelin is prone to do - probably to encourage purchase of the next map section ! Having found this, life became easier. Retracing our steps back to the Millau road we were, apparently to follow the Millau signs for some twenty kilometres, before turning off left on to the D908 which, when we found it, was signposted about ten yards from the turning, to Clermont l'Herault.

This Clermont is a mainly agricultural town of no great size or attraction that we could see, with small engineering and tractor workshops very much in evidence along the principal roads which took us through, following signs for Bedarieux, the next listed town, agreed by both the map and the signs !

We found the appointed junction, which was the cut off from the road we had come on heading towards Bedarieux, leading to Lac Salagou. As we were ten minutes late and there was no sign of any other car we parked in the lay-by on the edge of the road curving down a sharp descent to Salagou. From here we had a tantalising view, first of the most peculiar shaped grey-black rocky outcrops, anything up to forty feet high, like frozen victims of sighting the Gorgon's head, rising out of the green background of grass and gorse which surrounded them, and then in the far distance a large lake in the middle of flat land down below where the soil was all of the colour of reddish chocolate ! We must go there...and we did later.

A beat-up red Renault drove up and stopped beside us. It was fairly isolated and very quiet, apart from the birds chirping. Were we going to be attacked by bandits ?! No, this to our disappointment, but relief, was Guy. I must say, we had expected a smarter rig - estate agents at home do all right in the take-home stakes. Maybe things were different here.

A tall thin, almost gangling, but fit looking man of indeterminate age, well tanned, with a good head of grey hair and neatly trimmed beard to match, dressed in khaki shorts and a maroon sports shirt, stepped out to greet us. " Hi, Michael and Sheila, I presume ? " Did we really look that British, despite our French registered car ? Oh well, " Yes, Hi, ", we responded as the introductions took place and we sized each other up. Guy spoke with a soft Scots accent, pleasant to the ear. More pleasant than his news - " I'm afraid the house I wanted you to see near here was sold just yesterday. " Damn!! - Not a good start for Sheila ! After all my promises of houses to look at and places to go, how could I persuade her to look at houses that disappear before we even get there ? !

Guy told us where the sold house was from there, but that was now of no great interest. He joined us in the back seat of our car while we discussed whether to just move up country fast, to go north to see the chestnut farm, or whether to accept his invitation to meet two of the estate agents who were located, and had houses which Guy was sure would interest us, in or near the next town to the west, Bedarieux, about twenty kilometres further on. The scenery, beautiful while rather wild and unpopulated, settled the discussion for us. Sheila thought it amazing and attractive but would " ..rather be a bit nearer civilisation." Guy left us for a few minutes private conversation. " Maybe it was silly to hare off, a hundred and fifty kilometres north, before we investigated twelve, fifteen miles away." And this was a LOT nearer the Mediterranean - Sheila loves the seaside, be it Troon or Saint Tropez ! Indeed, where we were parked was probably less than thirty minutes from Cap d'Agde, one of the most famous beaches in Europe ! And we were still within the foothills of the Cevennes, where I had always fancied ! The question settled by mutual agreement, we would go on to Bedarieux to investigate, leaving the Auvergne/Aveyron property for another day.

I got out of the car and told Guy, whose face lit up - " I really am sorry, not a good start, and all that, " he said really seeming concerned and sincere, "You follow me, it'll be easier that way." Expecting a relaxed slow meander behind the red sardine can, as we had rudely, and privately, dubbed his car, we were absolutely taken aback when it shot off at considerable speed and nearly disappeared in a cloud of dust ! Racing up the curving shoulder of the obviously new stretch of hill road between the recently blasted yellow/orange rock face on our right, and the view out over the ever-changing greens of the Languedoc plain on our left, we hardly had a chance to take in these tourist delights as I concentrated on keeping Stirling Moss II at least within the limits of the horizon !

In about twelve minutes, we saw him slow up ahead, in the distance, as we approached the outskirts of the town, passing a Lycee ( High School ) on the way in. Very pleasant suburban bungalows and small villas, pink washed with red tiled roofs, standing in their own detached gardens, went on by as we continued to follow the would-be Red Baron right into the town. Then under a massive stone viaduct, remnant from the railway age, towering over the rows of houses, three and four stories high, which lined the streets, before the left hand side opened up to reveal a small river coursing behind a row of plane trees just beyond a small stone parapet. The road continued on past a small square, Place Cot, with a statue of its namesake, a literary gent, in one corner, but a small slip road led into this square where we could see Stirling Moss had already parked under some shady plane trees, and where, some minutes later, we followed.

Brakes on, we all stood up and stretched in the warm late morning sunlight. Guy suggested we go along the road to see the first of his estate agent friends Jean du Langue, whose office was only a stone's throw from where we were standing.

Less than a hundred metres along the road we came to a recognisable Estate Agent's premises, windows full of coloured photographs and typed details of all sorts of properties on display. Sheila and I had a quick look, but didn't really see anything of great interest - certainly not " That's THE one !" of my dreams ! Guy went in first.

The interior was like any such premises at home, with a receptionist behind switchboard and desk, facing out to greet us as we came in to the cool dark haven, after the brightness and heat of the streets outside. Guy went over to her and seemed to be explaining who he was, as well as who we were - rather odd ! After a minute or two, he came back and told us M. du Langue was on the telephone to a client and would be with us shortly.

Ten minutes, or so, later a very large well built man of about fifty, appeared from an office behind the receptionist, gave her some papers with obvious instructions, and then he turned rather quizzically towards us. Dressed in a tailored light coloured sports shirt and impeccably creased light trousers, although he looked very smart, it was our first experience of meeting a businessman in, what to us were casual clothes. " Bonjour Messieurs, 'Dame, " and carried on in French, " What can I do for you today ? ".

Guy was noticeably taken aback at the lack of recognition. It was, however, apparent that he was not as well in with M. Jean du Langue as he had made out to us. He had to explain in French with a heavy English accent how he had 'phoned and made arrangements with M. du Langue to bring these British visitors in to see him, as they were looking for a house to buy, " You do remember, don't you ? " " Ah, oui,...some time ago, OK,".

" Come in....Follow me..." he said as he turned towards the office from which he had emerged. His office, which he referred to as his " Cabinet ", was expensively furnished in a plain but functional style, evidencing much dark polished wood and leather upholstery.

Once seated, with the help of Guy's translation when one or other party became stuck at the language barrier, we gave a rough description of what we wanted - something in or near open country, but, remembering Lac Salagou, not too isolated or remote ; a house, preferably with some local stone or design about it, some land perhaps ? , one to three bedrooms, water and power, septic tank?...that held no fear for us, having lived most of our married days in the country. We expected him to produce a book or some folders with pictures and descriptions for us to browse over, but no, that is not the way things are done here ! It was nearing a quarter past twelve by now, after our peregrinations of the morning, lunchtime was from twelve thirty until two....." Could we all meet back here at two-thirty when he would take us round some suitable properties ? " " Quoi faire ? ", as they say in French ! What else could we do ?! So it was arranged. We asked Guy to join us for a bite of lunch, but he said Pamela would be expecting him, and excused himself, probably not a little embarrassed over his initial reception at du Langue's !

14.

The three of us left the offices together, Guy walking back for his car, and we two strolling along to look for somewhere to eat.

We had dined well in Montpellier, the night before, and neither Sheila nor I felt terribly hungry, also I don't think we had become used to such an early lunch hour, yet. We found a bar close by, which had a hand-written board outside and advertised the equivalent of our fast food - croque monsieur ( hot-dogs), omelettes, ham sandwiches, etc., - and went in. The bar-bistro of all films portraying France ! Dark wooden bar along one side inside, with etched mirror glass reflecting shelves groaning under the weight of rows of bottles of just about every variety of alcoholic drink known to man. A dark polished wooden dado ran around the other three walls, above shoulder height when we sat down at one of the old converted Singer sewing-machine tables with four dark bentwood chairs at each. The nondescript dark beige walls, in the poorly lit interior, boasted an odd selection of old travel posters and fading photographs of past years local football and petanque teams randomly displayed. The wooden floorboards must have been the originals and it was hard to walk quietly over them. However noise didn't seem to matter as a tape player or radio was booming out a crooner doing his best to make the words of his song unintelligible to our ears - and succeeding ! As no-one came to us after we sat down, I went to the bar and ordered a pair of ham salad sandwiches, an Orangina for me and a cafe-au-lait for Sheila. The drinks were promptly placed on the high bar top, so I took them over to the table and then returned to the bar for the food. " No, no Msieu, I will bring them over when they are ready, " from the somewhat untidy girl, dressed all in black, serving behind the bar, reasonably busy with other customers whom she obviously knew.

Ten minutes later, when everyone at the bar had been served and were all talking among themselves, with much hand waving of smouldering Gauloise's and shoulders being shrugged for emphasis, she wiped her hands on a dish-cloth and went out a partially concealed door at the rear of the bar. Returning a few minutes later, she brought in an armful of bread baguettes, a couple of large lettuces and some tomatoes in a thin plastic bag, and, a whole ham, dumping the lot on a counter which was out of our line of sight, behind the high polished bar top. Busying herself with a large knife, she then proceeded to make us two of the largest and freshest ham " sandwiches " I have ever seen ! The only sacrifice to delicacy was that she trimmed the two round crusty ends off each end of the two feet long oval loaves which she then carried on stuffing with as much of the salad and ham as she could force into the bread which she had first sliced longways to liberally butter. What a meal ! We could have done with a quarter one each ! You don't starve in France!

Between the delay in our food coming and the slow pace with which we ate these monsters - after all her trouble we were reluctaaaaant not to eat all that we could manage - it was now two o'clock. Not quite timeee to return to du Langue's office, but overburdened as we now were with food, we decided to opt for a gentle, very gentle, stroll down the main street outside, where the small shops were starting to come alive again, after their long lunchtime break.

Turning right, out of the bar, onto the pavement, the first shop we passed was.....a Patisserie ! Displays of what must have been the most tempting selection of cream, chocolate and fruit gateaux only nauseated us, and we hurried on by ! The main street of this market town is only a couple of hundred metres long in total. For its size there are a good selection of shops, including three chemists only three doors away from each other on one side of the street, separated by a sports shop, a delicatessen ( yes ! more food ! ), and a toy shop - Sheila was really intrigued by the three chemists together as it would be almost impossible at home, and, if it did happen, normal commercial competition would soon close one or two of them. This was our first peek at how a very different health service operates.

We wandered down the rest of the way, passing small jewellers windows glinting with gold items in much higher carat ratings than home, estate agents, ladies and gents clothes shops, the ubiquitous florist, a real draper such as has completely disappeared from our streets, the usual banks and insurance companies just like home, a somewhat untidy although apparently busy computer shop, a few cafe-bar-bistro's, some more food shops, butchers etc, a tabac - that peculiarly French dispenser of newspapers, tobacco and postage stamps - and, something again that would not be found in a small country market town in the UK, a very well displayed, fairly large shop displaying produce and artefacts produced in the Region, for sale on the spot or with literature to guide one directly to the producer. The one thing missing was that essential for life, the Boulanger, the baker ! We saw people carrying the typical long loaves, but where from ? Looking up various side streets as we moved along, we finally traced them - almost every little run-off from the main street had one ! No wonder they needed so many, most shoppers had anything from two to four under their arm or in the wicker baskets many of the local women carried.

Our stroll had taken us down to the end of the main drag, where we caught a glimpse of a fairly wide greenish river running on a stony bed contained between man-made walls which spread out from either end of a multi-arched stone road bridge whose green-painted wrought iron work stopped the bustling pedestrians pushing each other off the narrow pavement into the trout filled rushing water below. It was time to turn round and head for the 'cabinet' of M. du Langue, right at the other end of the street which we had just traversed.

15.

Back at du Langue's, Guy was waiting for us. He held the glass door open for us and, Sheila first, we all entered the refreshing air-conditioned cool of the converted shop. It was hard to imagine being grateful for such chill air in Scotland !

This time the receptionist smiled in recognition and immediately rang through to the boss's office to advise him that we had arrived.

Very much more in control this time, du Langue emerged from his office, brief case under his tanned arm, and quickly said " I have three properties for you to see - we'll go in my car, its an estate with plenty of room." Which said he made for the door with the three of us tagging along behind.

Out in the sultry warm air, he smartly turned right and then immediately right again, into a little alley which ran round the side of his building. There, with perhaps six inches either side to spare, sat the biggest, most luxurious, American white Jeep with its tail only just off the edge of the pavement. He squeezed into the driver's seat and reversed it half out into the public road where he stopped regardless of blasts on the horns of passing motorists to let us clamber aboard. My faith in the viability of estate agents, whether French or British, was restored ! I began to wonder just what was Guy's relationship with this one ?

Du Langue set off at breakneck speed, in a straight line, in the opposite direction from that which we had entered Bedarieux, with Place Cot and the town at our back. Boy, were we glad of seatbelts !

After about five hundred metres we passed under what must have been another part of the massive viaduct under which we had entered the town - was it only that morning ?! The road then rapidly narrowed to the one width tracks of French country roads that we were to come to know so well, but which, at first visit, are absolutely terrifying ! The view of green countryside, broken by sun-drenched terraces with local style houses and other stone walls was mostly obscured by the high walls alongside the road, which in their turn accentuated the feeling of horrendous speed. Breaks in the walls for gates and small side roads did, however let us have glimpses of the area - whenever we dared uncover our eyes to look !

Suddenly, the Jeep swung crazily right off the road and up one of the steeply inclined rough side lanes and, twenty metres farther on, shook to a halt within six inches of a pair of rusty metal tubular steel gates covered in equally rusty chicken wire. A heavy rusty chain and padlock completed the welcome. This was property number one, M. du Langue proudly announced !

To be fair, once he had opened the gates, using a key from his voluminous briefcase, we walked up the incline and saw a very pretty little modern house facing us. With another key, he opened the front door - the only door - leading from a sort of entrance terrace of stone slabs, into the house. Inside the layout and decor was very much " Homes & Gardens ", as if an architect had been given free rein to turn a wee ordinary house into a split level dream design. Downstairs was an open plan kitchen cum dining room, with the sink at a window looking out of the gable end of the house over the sunny terraced wooded view of the hillside across the valley. The eating and sitting area was sparsely, but brightly furnished with a Habitat type settee and a bright limegreen coloured folding tubular metal table with a white plastic top, and four matching folding chairs. These were laid out under the high pointed ceiling resembling a church interior, looking over the view from the front door towards the viaduct, with the town beyond. We climbed up the individual treads of the open plan dark mahogany wooden stair which led to a totally open mezzanine floor in this peaked roof space, only protected from the drop at the stair side by a low double sparred handrail of polished pinewood, to give good colour contrast. On the shiny wooden floor, a large rug, a double bed covered in a patchwork spread, a chest of drawers which doubled as the dressing table, a stool and a chair were the total furnishings. A window had been let into the angle of the roof, giving plenty of light and a view, parallel to the front door, but, being higher, of a much wider nature. The garden was mainly flat and just about a size I could keep under control, I thought. Sheila seemed taken and was wandering about touching things, almost fondly. A very pleasant nest for two. The asking price was not too bad, at 285,000 Francs (£35,000), at least compared to prices at home. It would give problems if we ever wanted anyone to stay, but there was plenty of room to build on...... OK, a possibility, let's see the others.

Back, the way we had come. Practically all the way back to du Langue's office, and then a sharp turn right along between high houses in the early nineteenth century style, plain, shuttered, black fancy wrought iron railings at first floor window level, some of the doors to the pavement displaying the commercial plates of advocats, printers and locksmiths. Then, past a bright pink modern building, walls festooned with large cartoon character drawings, obviously the junior school, and on past a large shop with great windows in which were displayed many types of brightly coloured ceramic tiles, and outside of which hung a digital sign with a moving red display of time, date and temperature - 25 degrees in the shade - no wonder we were stewing in the Jeep ! Onward, over a modern stone bridge, with recesses in it for stone boxes overflowing with multi-coloured flowers, punctuated at intervals on either side of the road with solid decorated cast iron lamp-posts each bearing two large globes of clear glass suspended from similarly decorated arms reaching out from their central post. At the end of the bridge we faced a small roundabout, in the middle of the road, covered in flowers matching those on the bridge, over which we could not miss the towering shape of a four storey mansion behind huge impressive wrought iron gates which put the lampposts on the bridge to shame, and which we took for the local Mairie. As the Jeep joined the traffic on the roundabout and turned right we saw clearly our mistake - a large, but dignified notice on one of the tall gateposts declared " Centre des Impots " - the local Inland Revenue !

Bowling along a main road lined with plane trees for shade, we went for about half a mile looking at beautiful large villas standing apart from their neighbours in large garden areas - one or two even seemed to have small vineyards within the walls. In his Gallic way du Langue turned the vehicle sharply off the road to the right, into a sort of turning place with a large oval of grass and young cherry trees on the left, and a row of three houses on our right. He pointed to the middle one, a pleasant single storey white stuccoed house with dark brown shutters on the four windows facing the road and the roof tiled with the usual half moon red clay tiles of the south. A long fairly flat garden area obviously ran away from the back of the house. Cars were rushing past the other side of the grassy island, less than fifty feet away. Without getting out Sheila and I looked at each other - " No, this was not for us. Too many neighbours, too flat, and most of all too near traffic ! " " Next ?! "

16.

Du Langue started his engine, with a shrug., but without comment

This time he moved the Jeep slowly forward to the edge of the main road, at the end of the turning place, and stopped at the white line. Our assessment of the traffic must have been justified to extract this element of caution from our driver !

Instead of turning left back to town, or right to rejoin the main road, as soon as the last of the passing cars went by he drove straight ahead crossing the main road at right angles, into a narrow road which we had not even noticed because of a villa on one side and the high plastered wall of the next garden facing the villa.

The single track road rose quickly, first passing under a stone railway tunnel, which du Langue assured us only had one train a day, and then climbed steeply up what I can only describe as a miniature gorge or very narrow steep valley. The valley floor and walls were covered in trees and bushes of every imaginable shade of green, with bursts of bright yellow broom here and there and the pink of wild campion mixing with the greens of the grasses at the track side.

Immediately after the tunnel, there were two large villas, an ochre coloured one standing high above the road on the left, and a large white, two storied thirties building with Mediterranean sailor's blue painted window and door frames on the right. This latter had a large area of land around it, mainly cultivated, with about twenty large cherry trees laden with half ripe fruit , a vegetable garden and what appeared to be chicken houses high up on the terrace parallel to the upper storey stretching back into the hillside, and a swimming pool! Almost rural, but civilised ! More like it !

As soon as we had passed the end of this, the Jeep accelerated and, as the angle of ascent tipped us back in our seats, the wild roses and brambles reaching out from the walls close to each side, scratched at and scraped the Jeep's pristine paintwork. The road twisted and turned, climbing all the time following a dried up bed of a stream, round sharp blind bends at which the only concession was a loud blast of the horn !

There were passing places, mere patches of verge roughly cleared of vegetation, precariously poised over drops of fifteen feet or more. Luckily we did not meet another vehicle !

The whole valley was very lush, silent apart from our vehicle's obvious noise, and gave the air of being miles from anywhere, whilst we had only left the main road two hundred metres back and only had a hundred to go before the Jeep swung first to the right, off the road onto a passing place and then, sharply left, describing a full hairpin bend onto a little half hidden rough track up an even steeper hill, which fortunately only carried on for about thirty metres where we came to an abrupt halt, on the level, at the side windows of a charming looking house.

The view through the front windscreen was superb, amazing even. As we had now reversed our direction we were looking straight down the valley, across its floor to the hills rising on the other side. The sun was beating down, lighting up the world as only sun in that latitude can.

INDEX

We sat there for a minute, taking in the slightly neglected but well laid out and stocked flower garden, interspersed with specimen trees, which seemed to stretch from our viewpoint to the horizon, before apparently dropping off the end at a hedge where the view turned into that of vineyards and little houses on the far slopes.

What a site ! But, what was the house like ?

Leaving the Jeep, the first thing we realised was that the gable nearest the vehicle was virtually all glass supported by a large square-cut modern chestnut beam, about a foot across, at floor level of the upper storey with two vertical thinner beams running down from the roof edge to meet the large cross beam and then continue on down to ground level. The red traditionally tiled roof sloped from the back of the house to the front in one unbroken straight line. The rear wall of the house was pinkish rough plaster, but was almost entirely hidden from view by the trees and bushes which grew close up to it.

This house was occupied. A man in his early fifties, with a neat waxed dark grey moustache, wearing clean blue dungarees and boots, came from the front to greet us. Well tanned arms and face told of long exposure to this beautiful weather we were experiencing with such enthusiasm. His round face creased into a smile as he and du Langue shook hands, " Bonjour, comment allez-vous, ......bien, merci, et vous?" " I have brought some people to see the house ". " Welcome, come in, look round, comme vous voulez !" A round of hand shaking and then he led us forward under the glass veranda roof at the front of the house. This was M'sieu Monega.

He waved Sheila and me through the beaded curtain into the house, while he, Guy and du Langue stayed talking on the veranda, shaded from the hot afternoon sun by the large intertwined leaves of a spreading mulberry tree, like some living green umbrella!

Going through the open doorway, the curtain of brown, beige and orange wood beads click-clacked as we separated their strands, the house was quite warm and cosy. Despite the wall of double glazed glass on our right, the interior was rather gloomy, but we put that down to the contrast of light intensity after coming in from the very bright sunlight, and the partially drawn curtains. There seemed to be a lot of dark exposed wood - all the ceilings were timbered in the local reddish brown beams with boards above them, and there was a mahogany, open plan, staircase on the right hand far wall leading up. However, the first thing to catch our eye was the large, mica-glass fronted metal fire, in a fire surround of stone which occupied half the opposite wall, and while parallel to the walls till half-way up, then tapered almost to a point at ceiling level. A small stack of logs indicated it was wood burning. Wow, what a feature !

The place was rather cluttered with assorted furniture. A heavy brown leather settee with dark wooden arms was immediately behind the farmhouse-like wooden door on our left which, on entry we realised was wide open, and would normally close over the bead curtain. In front of us, to the right of the fireplace were a couple of bright red military chests with dull brass fittings, one of them bearing a large old fashioned looking television set in the corner nearest the window wall, and in front of that an occasional chair of indeterminate origin. The floor was tiled in what appeared to be dull browny yellow ceramic, somewhat past its best.

The tile floor carried our eyes over to the left of this long single room. At the far end, in the corner under the stair, was a large yellowish cylinder, about eighteen inches across, standing on four small legs and going almost up to the ceiling - we learned later that this was the perfectly insulated hot water tank. Next to it was a kitchen cabinet, veneered in some form of grey and brown formica. Standing in front of this was a square old-fashioned dining table and four upholstered oak chairs and to the left again was a cooker, a small fridge, and a unit with two sinks and a draining board in front of a small square, porthole like window with an outlook over the garden, bringing our quick scanning view back round to the settee. The fireplace wall was papered and painted a sort of dull beige, while the walls round the " kitchen " area were covered in a light brown tile patterned washable vinyl material, and the buttress half hiding the sink as well as the wall behind the settee were of natural rough hewn grey stone with apparent light brown discolouration on most of it. So much for the ground floor.

We climbed the stair together, in contemplative silence. I liked it, even if it was overcrowded, and I suspected not too clean - both aspects of which I had no doubt Sheila will have noticed ! The wooden stair led upwards in one straight flight to an L-shaped landing of polished wood. Both were well lit from a Velux skylight in the high ceiling at the rear of the house. The ceiling sloped gently from back to front to match the outside tiled roof profile. The long part of the L being to our left we squeezed past a giant mahogany bookcase which faced us on arrival at the top, turned off the stair in that direction, walking along some ten or so feet, through a white smooth roughcast stone arch, some two feet thick, into a large bedroom with ceiling to floor windows facing us, and a small window on the far right hand wall. To the left , and straight ahead of us was a beautiful feathered mahogany bed, but, the piece de resistance was behind the bed ! Completely covering the wall to our left, a huge hand made tapestry in all shades of red and orange, with smaller touches of other colours, a huge horse, dragon-like, rearing up to the ceiling ! Wow ! What an impact in that light ! - against the green sunlit background across the valley competing for our attention through the picture windows ! We almost missed the fitted cupboard in the left hand corner of the room, and the off-white military chests ( mirror images of the red one's downstairs ) against the right hand wall. A quick glance through the small window confirmed that it too had a magnificent outlook right down the wooded valley and out over to the vineyards on the opposite hillsides. Turning our backs on the picture window we re-entered the small hallway.

In so doing we noticed what appeared to be a cupboard door on the immediate left. Opening it - we discovered the loo ! and a dirty old shower space ! The only attractive thing to be said for it was that it had a window let into the front wall to the outside with the same fantastic view as the window in the bedroom we had just left. In addition a fancy bow-fronted wrought iron set of bars on the outside gave it character. The size of it meant we were only able to go in one at a time, but watching her face from the hall, one look at Sheila was enough to know this room could be a serious obstacle to my ambitions to be a householder in France !

The other end of the hall led to a doorway behind the bookcase, through another very thick wall to a small single room set out as another bedroom. Not much room and more military chests, but a good ceramic tiled floor, and a half glazed door out to a little sunbathing terrace which , in turn, fed on to a flight of four stone steps leading to an upper terrace of grass, with a row of young fruit trees planted in a straight line up the middle, running away from the house. At the far end of the terrace, which must have been a vineyard long ago, stood a spreading evergreen oak giving welcome shade.

There being no more inside to see we walked through the rough grass to the oak tree. A particular vista from this vantage point, looking away from the house, let us look over the valley, above the vineyards, to a mile long escarpment of high wild looking, and mainly light grey coloured rock, but, with a contrasting splash of pinky red, as if some ancient giant had spilt his pot of paint, about a hundred feet long on the right hand edge of our view. We learnt later that this, and Lac Salagou's earth are full of aluminium oxides giving this strange colouration.

Turning to look at the house, we realised it stands on three old terraces, each supported by a nine feet stone dyke wall of the grey local limestone. The top terrace, we were on, the next one down, the garden area, running downhill slightly, away from the front door and veranda, and a third even larger one below that, again with fruit trees on grass, surrounded by evergreens.

INDEX

The house itself was two storied, with the first floor just under the level of the top terrace and the ground floor just six inches up a step from the garden terrace level. From the height of the top terrace we could see that part of the ground floor, at the kitchen end must actually be built right into the rock. The red hump-backed tiles on the roof were all below my line of sight and, although old, I reckoned they would do a few years yet. Some of the front was exposed stone with cement grouting and other, larger areas were plastered with a smooth roughcast and painted a gentle pink. The glass roof of the veranda ran the whole length of the groundfloor, from the stone dyke holding up the upper terrace at the left, to the edge of the path where the Jeep was parked. It was supported by good square timber posts to match the other beams in the house. We walked down an outside stone stairway, which led down, from the four steps which had taken us from the small upper sun-terrace to the top, under the veranda to join the others.

I looked at Sheila, she looked at me. " We quite like it, but it's only the second house we've really seen, we'll think about it....." she said to Guy, who, in turn, translated for the others....." and, " Oh that loo !....", to me. Oh well, let's hope tomorrow's are better ! Because, this was all du Langue had to show us, but Guy assured us that, tomorrow, his friend Jean-Luc would do better.

Jean du Langue took his silent party back to the centre of Bedarieux where we said our au revoir's and went off with Guy to collect our cars in Place Cot.

We agreed to meet Guy and Jean-Luc at the latter's office in Lamalou the next morning at nine, so we took Guy's advice and booked in at quiet hotel just behind the town in Lamalou-les-Bains, to give it its full title, just five miles further west. Guy lived near there anyway, making it handy for everyone.

17.

Lamalou-les-Bains ! Now there's a name to roll off the tongue !

A little town of two thousand-odd people nestling in the valley of a small river which runs down to the flood plains of the Orb. A living relic ! Mostly built at the turn of the last century when " taking the waters " was the thing for gentlefolk to occupy their time. With the French pre-occupation with anything that has a remote chance of having healing powers, it has managed to retain some of its former glory.

Nowadays, its main facilities are a handful of private clinics offering expensive treatments with " healing waters ", and very special orthopaedic hospitals and clinics, which were originally established when the military had need of them, but are now mainly full of civilians needing special care and attention from the specialist doctors who, once here, settled themselves in this most pleasant part of the country.

One of the first sights which strikes you on walking about Lamalou is the pavements. All of them are designed for invalid carriages and wheel-chairs. There are special red tiled crossing places everywhere. The edges of all the pavements have pillars to protect the mobile invalids from the traffic. Plane trees line every street, to the extent that it is always cool in summer and even when it rains light summer rain, the drops are cast off into the gutters, leaving pedestrians and invalids alike, dry. There are, of course, in a town so designed, many wheel chair victims as well as perambulatory orthopaedic patients walking about, many with the aid of sticks or crutches, hirpling along with their extra load of heavy white plaster. Cars and parking are well controlled, making the level street a very pleasant place to meander along.

Having been set up in the late eighteen hundreds, there were several large hotels with quality stars on show ; all but one are now closed and looking somewhat sad and empty, their imposing fronts with many shuttered windows starting to lose their paint, flake by flake, speaking of better days.

The Casino is the star building ! The facade, reminiscent of all such buildings of the period in France, has received a new lease of life, with the coming of slot machines, and an enlightened view from the Mairie, allowing it to become the centre of night life, relieving the visitors' boredom at the same time as his pockets !

Small shops of all kinds line the short main street. Mostly expensive gift or perfume shops, but with a large proportion of eating places to support the itinerant population here visiting relatives or taking the cure themselves, there is of course, a magnificent ( if small in size ) florist which does roaring trade in such an environment.

We turned off the main road, at the traffic lights as directed, making a right turn into " Lammers", as Pamela affectionately christened it. Under the high unused railway arch of another age, and into the heavily tree-lined streets. At the first flower bedecked roundabout we turned right, over the river bridge, behind the recreation park where petanque continues day and night with seemingly no change of players, and saw the hotel. On, but above, the sweeping bend, proclaiming its " Three Stars with Swimming Pool" on a large painted blue and gold board, stood our home for the night. We drove up the incline and on the level, at the top, followed signs for the carpark past the empty, algae covered pool of cracked and broken aqua-marine mosaic. "Oh, oh, was this really what we wanted ? ". " Well..?? " I asked cautiously. We were both fed up with travelling and couldn't be bothered looking elsewhere, but we did notch up another suspect point against Guy's judgement ! If tomorrow was a disaster we would shoot off up to the chestnut place in the Auvergne !

To be fair, and to the contrary of any indications we picked up from the pool area, the hotel and the family who run it were very pleasant, a little old-fashioned - but we liked that - the food was quittte good and the rooms comfortable. In fact we have been back there.......

18.

The bright blue sky had a few powderpuff clouds floating by on the light breeze. The movement of air caressed our faces like a warm bath as we walked over the river on the way to Jean-Luc's office, which we had noticed on our way past, the previous evening. As it was not very far we had left the car in the hotel carpark under the shady trees.

Guy was already in Jean-Luc's, and the pair of them were talking away like old chums - that looked better. Perhaps with a closer relationship we would see more houses.

They both turned to greet us as we entered. Guy said he had explained what we were searching for and Jean-Luc asked one or two questions which we tried to clarify for him. A very genial man, younger than du Langue by maybe twenty years, tall slim, Sheila thought dark and handsome best described him. " On y va !...Let's go ! " he said cheerily, leading us outside to his dark green Range Rover parked outside the door.

Like most French drivers he only seemed to have one pedal in his car, the accelerator ! We shot off, racing up to a red light at breakneck speed, to quickly turn left, almost before the colour changed, onto the road to Bedarieux. This time, not driving, or trying to navigate unknown territory, we had a chance to see the surroundings.

Stopped at the traffic lights for a minute, immediately across the junction we caught a glimpse of a supremely well laid out riding school with some youngsters on beautifully groomed ponies and horses, exercising them in a very expansive, high fenced, prepared area, where all kinds of jumps dressed with red and white poles were on show. It looked an expensive set up but Sheila nudged me to indicate that I would not be bored here - my love of horses and riding being one of life's delights !

Once on the main road we saw that it had rows of great old lime trees at close intervals, forming an arch of green to make travelling more comfortable. Travelling, I say deliberately, because these same trees are old enough to have seen Napoleon's troops, never mind our modern noxious vehicles which, every so often, try to knock lumps out of the mottled skin, which is the bark of these sleepy giants, as some over vinified gourmand misses the bend !

Approaching Herepian, the old small village between Lamalou and Bedarieux, we passed a golf course, in shape reminding us of links courses at home but with a well watered green colour that spoke of much care and attention to its fairways. Not a player to be seen - we must go there....if we find a house in the area ! Seven years later, I must tell you, we still must go there !!.....

At Herepian we turned right, away from Bedarieux, and along a rising main road, signposted to Beziers, coursing through another of these green, green valleys with their flattish cultivated floors and the mountains ( for one can hardly call them hills ! ) rising to the sky on either side. Steep slopes covered in evergreen oaks mixed with chestnut trees, broom and other varieties to give a panoply of shades like no other, also, we were told, cover for wild boar and other game for which hunters at home would give their eye teeth !

The road continued to rise, steeply at times for about four miles. Vineyards, both well tended and apparently neglected for some years, nestled side by side in the lea of the hills, for no reason that we could see. Someone explained to us, much later, that it was very often due to the French hereditary system where land is split equally between the deceased's surviving family, whether or not they are interested in carrying on farming. Sometimes good productive land can lie fallow like this for many years before a second, third or even fourth generation descendant reactivates it.

After a long, particularly steep drag, up a section of road which had obviously recently been renovated, the Land Rover levelled out and, before us, spread out like a vast green tablecloth, we had a wide vista of the relatively flat plain which runs from The Cevennes, the Caroux and their associated mountain chains, to the sea fifteen miles away, ahead of us, with the ex-volcanic cones of Sete and Cap d'Agde visible thirty or so miles to the left and, in the heat haze to the west, eighty miles away, the rising teeth-like points of the Pyrenees ! On a clear day I don't know of any other view like this !

The road now dipped to follow the slope down to the plain. We passed the Co-operative wine-making sheds and their attendant stainless steel storage tanks at Faugeres, on the left, as we followed a steeper descent. The old, one short-platform, railway station on our right is as one left out of a world-war-two movie about the Resistance - it very well could be; the Resistance were very active in these parts, ruled with an iron fist, at first by the Vichy Government, and then later in the war, by the Germans directly.

A mile or so farther on we came to a crossroad with a smaller road signposted to La Liquiere - that sounded good ! - and turned off to the right. The road twisted and turned like an old converted coach or cart road, every so often rising high enough above the surrounding vineyard-covered terrain to give us views of little conical hill villages, with their ubiquitous red roofs and their predominant church tower right at the top.

Two or three miles of this and we arrived at the flat start of one of these villages. Jean-Luc signified we were here and stopped the car at the door of the second house we came to. We looked around, and at each other. For politeness we better get out and look ! It was nothing like what we wanted! White, modern, semi-detached, close to the neighbouring house, its small back garden was crammed with garden furniture and childrens toys. A small artificial looking wooden pergola led, from the garden, through a French window into a long lounge-dinette. Having gone this far we had to follow Lean-Luc and Madame through the direct door to the small, but modern kitchen and upstairs through the two bedrooms and little shower-room. It was just not our scene ! We have been spoilt with large houses, mainly in the country - the claustrophobia that living on top of each other and our neighbours could produce would not have worked ! In any case we had specified that we wanted to be somewhere with a view, not on a piece of flat ground where the only view was at the neighbour's fence or the next house wall ! This was a long drive for nothing, we were very sorry but told Jean-Luc and Guy that this was way off beam ! Jean-Luc seemed a little hurt, but quickly revived and said the next one he had was a property ripe for development, nearer Bedarieux, on a hillside.

We climbed back into the Land Rover and raced back up the winding narrow road to rejoin the main road to Bedarieux once more. Turning left to retrace the way we had come earlier, we went back over the hill with the views and shortly after turned right onto a road we had not noticed before which was signed to Bedarieux. This was definitely not a road for heavy lorries ! It twisted and turned its way up, rising sharply at each bend, bordered on each side by tiny vineyards and cherry orchards which must be tended by goatmen! About two miles on we saw a roadsign " Allumez les feux " - " Light your fires ! " What the devil ?! Were we going so high we were going to freeze to death ?! Guy laughed at our query ! We quickly came to a dark tunnel - Jean-Luc switched on his headlights !

Emerging from the darkness of the hundred metre Tunnel de Buis, through the Pic de Tantajou, we experienced a magnificent view of the Orb valley with Bedarieux at our feet, lit up, as if by stage lighting, but in reality, the sun. The descent was less hair-raising, either that or we were becoming used to our chauffeur's style ! The views became better and better as we went nearer and could see, past the surrounding trees, farther up and across the valleys on either side. We passed close by the pink escarpment we had seen yesterday from the house on the hill. We tried to see where it was located from here but the speed and constantly changing directions as we descended defeated all attempts.

Finally, as we started to enter the obvious start of the town edges, Jean-Luc swung the car left, at right angles to the road and we climbed up a steep very rough bumpy track into what appeared to be a grassy field with the occasional half dead old cherry tree dotted about. The grass was up to the edge of the windows, all around but we continued for about a hundred yards to a heap of rubble and a pile of concrete blocks, like the ones used for building blocks of modern flats in a hurry. We stopped abruptly !

Jean-Luc waved triumphantly at the view- " Voila! What could be better ?!"

OK, but where was the house ? Our worst fears were confirmed as he turned, with a sad spaniel's look in his eyes, and pointed at the mass of broken masonry ! " Are you serious?! " I thought Sheila was about to cry, but she bravely smiled and said, " Let's see the next one. At least we're seeing the countryside, let's enjoy it !"

Once we were all safely - is that a word to use when a passenger in a Frenchman's car ?! - ensconced, the Land Rover resumed its journey back into Bedarieux but proceeded on out the other side, as if back to Herepian. Full circle ! We felt we were beginning to know where we were. That is until Jean-Luc turned off, first left and then right, when we began climbing steeply once more, but this time up a narrow mountain road completely hemmed in with trees which gave not one glimpse of where we were or where we were going - just up ! and up ! and up !

Fifteen minutes later and still climbing we passed through a length of about a hundred metres where the trees and scrub on the right hand side of the road was being cleared, giving us the first idea of where we were. Why it was being cleared, I still don't know. But, we could see from the land steeply dropping away from the roadside on our right that we must be about two or three thousand feet up from the Orb valley bottom where our jungle journey had started. And jungle is the nearest I can come to describing it ! For miles, all we could see were trees tops, just as in a TV travelogue ! Not a sign of habitation, and, apart from this mysteriously cleared patch of a few hundred metres, no sign of mankind.

Quickly back in the shadows we continued to climb for another five minutes when we apparently breasted the mountain top and started an equally steep descent down the other side. In this direction the tree growth was a little thinner and we could see that we were going into a bowl in between a number of mountains all shelving down into a small virtually tree-covered rolling plain about five hundred feet below. The light was so bright, after the shaded woody climb, that we were screwing up our eyes to see properly.

About half way to the bottom Jean-Luc turned the car onto an almost hidden mud and stone track to the left. As we bumped along it seemed as if each of the wide tyres was half over the edge, so close was the vegetation scraping the sides as we went. Crossing a low tiny bridge over a stream the track then straightened out and rose slightly round a bend where an amazing complex of stone buildings hove into view.

At first glance the wall nearest us gave the appearance of a small medieval castle, rising to over thirty feet. The wall of dark reddish stone put together like a stone dyke, although slightly forbidding, reflected the warm sunshine like a dark mirror. Jean-Luc opened his door, turned, and said " I think you will like this . Follow me. ! "

He walked ahead of us, up the path, as I looked back over the footpath where he had just driven us in. I wouldn't fancy driving over that in the dark or in bad weather ! Never mind up the miles of mountain road to get here ! Well, first time and all that, I suppose you can get used to anything! We followed on as we had been bidden.

Rounding the corner nearest to us, the building stretched away from us for about a hundred feet, rising and falling at different levels which indicated divisions internally. Quite dramatic really, it did look like a small castle, but without any visible fortifications or castellations, and the wall we were now walking under seemed to be the front, as any stone slabbed window frames that we saw were looking out over the tree covered bowl of the valley towards the south, signalled by the sun over the top of the nearest ridge.

Jean-Luc told us, through Guy, that this would have originally been a little self-contained hamlet of maybe twenty souls, living a good life off the game in the surrounding forest, supplemented by chestnuts and any other small patches they would have cleared for grain and vines, along with a possible domesticated pig or two. Empty for anything up to a hundred years, it had now been reconstructed into three luxurious houses - that's what he said !

We went up a coggly flight of wide stone steps, through an arch in the middle of the frontage. The first vision to greet us was a large barn-like structure, on our right, with its walls certainly in a good state of repair...., but, with various large rotten beams angled down from the walls to the rough stone-littered floor, lying just where they had fallen, and the roof-space open to the perfect blue skies above ! " Oh, don't worry about that, they've not quite finished yet, " Jean-Luc casually flung at us with a broad grin ! " Two of them are, though. " Sheila screwed up her nose and I could see us heading off for the house with the chestnuts at a great rate of knots !

Leading on past the demolition site, over a roughly laid stone path, Jean-Luc was the first to arrive at a large door of rough-hewn timber studded with black metal and hinges to match, just as in a castle of old. He produced a large key, in keeping with the size of the door, turned it easily in the lock and threw the door wide open.

Well, talk about contrast ! We entered what could have been the poshest of hotel suites ! Floors tiled in top quality large ceramic tiles shone in the sunlight flooding in through a picture window at the far end of the room. The furniture was polished oak whose sideboard and other matching pieces must have been craftsman made. This room, after entry, had a wide step down from what I would describe as a reception area, with plants and coat hanging area around the door, into a space, perhaps, thirty or forty feet by twenty. Furnished in impeccable taste, wooden beams exposed in the ceiling, I could see Sheila was taking a bit more interest now ! The view from the windows was beautiful, if somewhat restricted by the surrounding mountain ridges. We moved into the bedroom next door, together. This was right up our street - if it wasn't for the view and the access, and the fact that we would have semi-detached neighbours ! We went out on the balcony outside - it was beautiful, looking over a private walled garden below that we had not been aware of before - but could we get used to the journey ? - and that ancient footpath of a driveway ? ! Without saying much, possibly because of the proximity of Guy and Jean-Luc, we looked at each other regretfully and shook our heads.

We had certainly seen something of the country we had not known before. To that extent it had not been a complete waste of time, and, had perhaps even tidied up our ideas as to what we would really like, if we could find it. It did appear, however, as if Jean-Luc either had no good idea of what we were looking for, and where, or he was determined to show us what he had on his books, suitable or not !

With a last glance around this isolated petite palace we walked out into the sunlight where Guy and Jean-Luc were standing talking. " Well. isn't it beautiful ? " " Yes indeed," Sheila responded on our behalf, " but although inside its so attractive, the surroundings are too claustrophobic for me - all those trees, like people crowding in - and that drive here ! No, sorry lads, home James !"

The drive back to Lamalou took a little less time than coming. Whether Jean-Luc was trying to prove the distance was nothing, or had taken to heart that he was not going to sell us a house, is immaterial, but we just about took off down that mountain road and were only too glad to reach terra firma when we stepped out at his office door.

Guy walked with us a little way, towards the hotel where our car was parked. " What did we think ? Was anything we'd seen of any interest ? Did we want him to try and contact some of the other agents that he knew in the district who might have a better selection ? "

It was now late morning. We were both a bit disappointed, truth be told, especially me. I thought all we would have to do was step out in this large country, point at that one, and it would be ours ! Magic ! That's what I wanted !

I said to Guy, " Look, we'll need to get our thoughts together. It's nearly lunchtime. What we're going to do is go down to the seaside ( about half-an-hours drive away ), because I know Sheila will like that, have a bite of lunch, then later go back to Bedarieux ( where I had seen a small hotel in the main market square ), book in for the night, look around the place and decide whether to go on up country to the chestnut house or what ? ". " I'll 'phone you later. We may even go up to the chestnut house and come back - I just don't know at present."

Sheila was delighted at my suggestion - house hunting was becoming something of a bore, and she did consider this part of her annual holiday ! To the seaside - land of her dreams !

19.

Guy waved us off, as we left the hotel at Lamalou, on our way to Valras Plage.

Back through Herepian, passing the ever-empty golf course, and the bell foundry, which we noticed for the first time, advertising conducted tours. Over the steep road which breaks out into that ever-surprising view of the Languedoc, from Sete to the Pyrenees, down, this time all the way to Beziers - the county town. Taking the by-pass we followed signs to 'les plages' which eventually, in about thirty minutes of leaving Lamalou and driving through the rolling vineyards stretching from the mountains to the coast, became more definitive with one pointing to 'Valras - les plages'.

Over a large roundabout, we crossed the main non-motorway east/west road from Marseille to Spain, which leads directly from Montpellier to Beziers, Narbonne, Carcassonne and Barcelona on a line which has been used since the times when the ancient Greeks and Romans occupied this land. Always a busy road, but so much more picturesque than the Autoroute, with its tall poplar trees lining the road, forming a dividing line between the edges of the road and the Canal du Midi which runs alongside for parts of the way. The bow-wave of a barge passing below the low bridge we went over, as we turned right towards Valras, sent ripples of reflected sunlight in all directions like Christmas lights twinkling on the shady side of the poplar's leafy branches pointing up to the heavens.

After the canal, the land flattened completely as we drove the last two miles across the very edge of the Camargue. This part, however, over time, has been drained and every square inch is taken up with vines growing in sandy soil - so very different from the " schist ", or " stony " soil in the hilly areas, divided by wild uncultivated stretches - producing different grapes and types of wine, even though, in many cases they grow the same varieties.

With the blue, blue sky above, and every imaginable shade of green and brown, we could have been studying any one of the Impressionists' living masterpieces. Even Sheila was coming under the spell of this amazing countryside with its magnificent light !

The long straight approach road into Valras began to show signs of seaside attractions. Here, a forecourt like a garage, but selling all kinds of motor-boats, ski-boats and expensive accessories. There a track with miniature racing cars - whether for children or adult boy-racers, we never found out ! Then, round another roundabout and we were in the town.

Carefully driving the short distance to the beach, through the narrow one way streets full of people and small colourful shops, we turned left and were quickly parked in the large, and free, municipal carpark adjacent to the riverside marina on the left, and the beach on the right.

It was good to get out of the car, which was very hot. The tails of our shirts were that horrible wet way that cools instantly on contact with fresh air, and then clings to the skin ! So shirt tails out, like everyone else around, we shed our British reserve !

Most people seemed to be heading for the multitude of restaurants and large cafe-bars which were laid out cheek-by-jowl along the built up side of the promenade facing the sea and sand. It was that sacred time again ! Dejeuner!

We looked around quickly and decided on a small restaurant, specialising in seafood, just round the corner from the main drag, but seemingly popular and fairly full of French people - always a good sign where restaurants are concerned in France. Going in, a stainless steel tray, about six inches deep and a yard and a half long, full of crushed ice, displayed a selection of mussels, prawns, lobster, squid and octopus, and several fish we did not recognise. All were so fresh and shiny that they looked as if they would jump off into the pan !

Not feeling too hungry, because of the heat, we sat down at an airy table near the door with a good view of the rows of large white yachts and 'tripper' boats tied up the length of the river mouth, from the small lighthouse on the sea end of the breakwater, almost a quarter of a mile upstream to the marina full of all shapes and sizes of power and sailing craft. We assumed that the 'specials of the day' would be smaller portions because of the comparative lower prices and ordered accordingly. We had miscalculated ! The only difference in quantity, between this and a Boston restaurant, is that in Boston you are served with one huge portion whilst in France, like a war of attrition, the courses just keep coming, one after the other, one more delicious than the rest ! Despite our apparent initial lack of appetite, by the end of an hour we were both stuffed ! Feeling like two overfed turkeys being prepared for Thanksgiving, we waddled out into the hot sunshine determined to walk it off!

Turning right, out of the door, we walked directly towards the sea. Sheila's delight ! At a break in the seemingly constant stream of cars drifting slowly along, we crossed the road, which runs the length of the town from the river, west for about a mile or more, between the cafes with their striped awnings unfurled under the three storey low apartment blocks, and the wide promenade dating from more elegant and leisurely times. The beach is wide, flat, and of the finest sand. The edge of the 'prom' has a wide low wall running its whole length, where people can sit, children can run along and jump safely into the soft sand below, and which, at intervals, has entrance walkways sloping gently down. A fairly large organised play area, with beach games, rope traverses and other delights to usefully entertain while parents get on with the serious business of sunbathing, is a prominent feature.

Strolling along, we realised that we could see the sandy extension of the beach, after the promenade finished near the end of the town, run on for what appeared to be all the way to Spain ! I believe it almost does, apart from breaks for rivers to join the sea !

A bit farther in our walk, Sheila could resist the pull of the sea no longer! Shoes in our hands, we crossed the burning sand, past golden bodies showing up our pallor, and gratefully walked in the cooling, but yet warm Mediterranean for the first time that year. What a nuisance our beach clothes were still packed ! But we really were not prepared for this in the middle of a house-hunting trip - that almost forgotten reason for us beeeeing here at all !

Paddling over, we retraced our steps to the promenade wall where we found a space and sat on the hot sand, legs outstretched. I pulled my shirt off and Sheila pulled her skirt up and the top of her summer dress down as far as it was decent - why it should be considered indecent to pull clothes to the margin and decent to lie out, as many young maidens were doing, with nothing at all on except a very brief bikini bottom, I'll never know !. The heat went out of the sun about four thirty and we headed back to the car so that we could arrive at Hotel Central in Bedarieux with plenty of time for a look about the village and a wash and brush up before dinner.

20.

The uneventful journey back took about half an hour. The views of the mountains with the sun at our back were just wonderful.

Going back with no sun in our eyes we saw many more of the landscape features as they came to meet us. The first place of note was just outside of Beziers, as we left the ring road, we passed a fairy-tale chateau on our right - all pointed round towers and walls of yellow stone, with roofs of differing coloured slate worked into stylised patterns, copying the palaces of the Loire valley, the whole surrounded by high old spreading trees.

Further on we approached what seemed to be a huge old umbrella pine tree at the roadside ahead and I noted it was about one third the way to Bedarieux. As soon as we drew level the tree appeared to split into two separate trees each one as big as the other - an optical illusion, no doubt, but forever more they have been christened Dad's two-in-one-tree !

Among others, Magalas looked a hill village worth seeing, but that day we sped past ...we must go there someday, the church tower on the hilltop beckons....

Back in the main square at Bedarieux, I parked under the low plane trees, cut for generations in such a way as to form wide-spreading parasols, which stood in rows shading the total tarmac'd surface.

Less than twenty paces took us to the Hotel Central, boasting its two stars on the sign which ran down the outside wall for two out of the four storeys. The remainder of the walls were that yellowy-white of sun-baked emulsion, partly covered in dark green ivy and virginia creeper, wherever doors or windows with their heavy brown wooden shutters didn't form square breach's declaring man's triumph over nature. Along a plain side wall was a long clothes line with a selection of red and blue gingham tablecloths, interspersed with some obvious bed linen hanging out to dry - most unusual really, but somehow very natural somehow, in this peaceful spot.

The hotel was at one corner of the square, making a corner of its own, jutting out to give it unwonted prominence. The building had that solid appearance of centuries past. Double leafed doors glazed with obscure glass led us into a small hall - it could have been the hall of any rural farmhouse, down a red tiled step, with a settee and a couple of smaller hall chairs, a mirror on the wall, an oak umbrella stand and a large brown victorian central heating radiator being the outstanding features to hit one's vision on entry. It was a bit gloomy, but cool as the designer had intended. However, empty ! The only other door was what I can only call an ordinary door that is usually found between the hall and the kitchen quarters in any un-modernised victorian house, painted dark brown and again with two vertical panels of obscure glass. Sheila and I exchanged looks, without speaking, " Would we? won't we ?!" It looked clean, so I knocked gently on the door and pushed it open.

The door led to a very large T-shaped room, the front two parts, at the window end, being set out as a dining room with about a dozen tables, whilst the rear section, divided by the way the furniture was set out in the room, stretched right to the back where we could just see an old-fashioned black wooden head waiter's desk dividing a bar area from a serving area, and then, right in the gloom, we could see the stainless steel of the kitchen equipment, through an arch at the rear. Bottles of wine everywhere - we could have got smashed and no-one would have been any the wiser !..... Still nobody !

" Hallo...O-oh...!" This produced a result ! A little old lady, dragging a club foot, came up the room from the kitchen. Dressed in dark brown floral dress and pinny to match the decor, " M'sieu, Dame ? " " What can I do for you ? " " Do you have a double room for the night? " Of course she did at that time of year, before the season is truly started, " Would we like to see it?" I thought we should. She led us across the dining room to a great big door, painted to match the dull floral wallpaper, which she opened for us to find ourselves at the foot of a wide stone spiral staircase. " Up here," she said " I'll give you the best room ". The stairs led on up for at least another two flights, but we stopped at a door giving on to the first landing, almost on the step of the stair. A large key at least six inches long came out from her pocket to open up.

The room was large, full of pre-war heavy old furniture. Well polished mahogany gleamed everywhere. No duvet on the bed - good old-fashioned sheets, blankets and eiderdown ! The en-suite bathroom was adequate, with a sit-up-in bath ! The windows, when we opened the shutter had a great view through geranium filled pots on the narrow artificial balcony overlooking the umbrella trees, past the PTT ( Post Office) and the other apartment blocks on two sides of the square, down to the river. We would take it.

21.

After a ' donner ' round some of the bits of the town we hadn't seen previously, including a short stroll beside the river bank looking through the clear water at the thousands of fish, mainly trout, anything from an inch to two feet long, darting about in the rushing water as it gurgled and glooped over the rounded stones on the bottom, we went back to the hotel for a bath before getting ready for dinner at seven thirty.

Sheila was washing her hair in the bathroom, so, while I was waiting I took my pad and pencils out of the case and stood at the window to draw the first sketch I ever did in that part of the world. I drew the higgledy- piggledy apartments, with their little shops below, directly across the square from us. I am so glad that I did. I still have that sketch at home - it has always been a happy reminder, and, about three years later, one of the sides of the square was taken down and re-built - I captured the original !

Once the main operation was done, Sheila came out of the bathroom to dry her hair. Standing together, at the window, looking at the peaceful scene lit by the last sunbeams of the day, she slowly turned to me, and tentatively, as if not sure of what she was saying, said, " You know, that one du Langue showed us last, yesterday, it has possibilities...."

You could have knocked me over with a feather !

I didn't know how to react. Too enthusiastically and she might go off the idea. Too gently and she might get the wrong impression ! My mind racing, I tried to sound calm as I said " Do you mean it ? I thought it was lovely ! It would tidy up beautifully ! " " Well, yes,...That's one of the things....you'd have to promise me that we could have a new toilet....."

A new toilet ! Was that all! She could have it gold lacquered if she wanted ! Could I believe my ears ?! Was this really my Sheila talking ?!

To be honest I had practically given up. My last hope had been hanging on an unseen house a hundred and fifty miles farther north, in a part of France I didn't know ! And then, what I did know was the weather must be better here, on the edge of the Mediterranean, than up-country with its reputation for cold hard winters.

22.

She was serious. It was a lovely house in a great position. Only a mile and a half from the town centre. Up a hill, with a view. OK, it was a bit dirty, but that could be dealt with. How much did he say it was ? Can we afford it ?

I agreed with Sheila on the desirability factors. Price ?....well, first of all, it seemed to me that the asking prices were all higher than they expected to receive ; secondly we must take into account what Guy had said about professional fees here. The latter were evidently geared to the selling price and usually represented an addition of ten per cent on to that price. " Let's nip up now, while the light lasts, it's only five minutes away, see if you're still interested after a second look, " I suggested coolly, although bursting with excitement inside. "OK, that's a good idea, " she came right back to me with a hint of excitement in her voice.

Seated in the car, once more, her natural caution returned. " Shouldn't we let M. Monega know?...telephone him ...? ..or something? " " Well, its too late to 'phone du Langue, he'll be away home, and I don't know Monega's number. Anyway if he wants to sell he won't mind us looking round. " I calmed her apprehensions and we set off.

I found the new bridge, with all its flowers. Just before we went on to it I noticed a sign over a door on the right saying " Rugby Club " and pointed it out. Sheila is an ardent fan of Scotland and supports France when Scotland are not playing. ( I think Jean-Paul Rive, with his long blond hair had something to do with it, but I'm not sure ! ) A Rugby Club must be an added attraction - and I was looking for allies !

The ' five minutes ' took ten. Firstly because I was finding my way, and second, because I drove up the hill in bottom gear hooting the horn at every one of the ten bends, large and small, to make sure we did not meet a Frenchman dreaming of being Nicky Lauda in the Grand Prix. The drop over the side looked twice as bad when I was driving as I remembered it was when ensconced in the comfort of du Langue's luxury Jeep, but I didn't dare tell Sheila ! We were on our way to see a house !

Agreeing that it was a bit rude just to turn up unannounced, we decided I should park in the passing place, just below the house, where du Langue had done his hairpin bend trick on it, to turn into the driveway. We got out, crossed the road to climb up the short sharp incline to the house - we had forgotten that M.Monega had a great big Dobermann !

The brown and black shiny monster came bounding down the drive towards us, barking as she came ! We were done for ! She leapt up at me ! I had taken the brave action of calling to attract her attention from Sheila !

Licking my face, giant paws on my shoulders, I nearly died of fright ! She was welcoming us, in her fashion ! M.Monega appeared around the corner of the house, a smile of curiosity on his face. " Bon soir, do you mind if we have a look around, even just outside if we've come at a bad time ? " I stammered out haltingly.

" Of course, " his welcoming swing of the arm emphasising his genial direction to " look where you like, go in, anything, would you like an aperitif?" Refusing his offer of a drink , and feeling rather embarrassed at such an effusive welcome, we went in and commenced our re-examination in which we conducted our comparative and questing discussion sotto-voce in an effort to disturb him as little as possible.

Needless to say we found things we hadn't noticed before.....but nothing which put Sheila off ! She was looking at everything with very practical eyes, which someone had to do ! Left to me I'd have given him the cheque and taken possession before she changed her mind!

We didn't spend too long in the house and asked if we could take a turn around the garden terraces. The resultant tour drew us deeper and deeper into the seductive trap ! We loved the place - inspite of the toilet !

" I think we're really interested. We'd like to go back to the hotel, have dinner, talk about it, sleep on it,......and then, if we are still interested contact M.du Langue to arrange another formal visit....Is that OK ? " M. Monega caught the drift, if not the whole story ! We left holding hands like teenage lovers and kept looking back over our shoulders. We must come back!!!.................

23.

Dinner that evening, in the hotel dining room, virtually deserted apart from ourselves, one other single man, and Madame Narp, the proprietor, who clucked around us like a mother hen looking after her brood as she produced course after course of delicious local produce cooked by her husband, was a leisurely affair giving us plenty of time to talk through all the implications of what we were thinking of doing.

Prime question, now that we were faced with the serious possibility, did we truly want a house here, in France, anywhere away from home ? This house?, any house ?

It really is a lovely house - and what a site - the view - the loo ?! We'd keep that room upstairs as the main bedroom......but if we put a bed settee there instead we could use the room as an extra sitting room. Half the furniture would do downstairs......it was quite a big room if all the clutter was cleared out......who needs a table and four dining chairs ?........with the weather here we would eat outside all the time......a garden table and chairs could stay on the veranda......and so on....

Now, what about the money ? The asking price was 390,000 Francs.....add to that ten per cent for fees,.....that makes 430,000 ( about £52,500 at the prevailing rate of exchange ). It was time for me to confess that I had noticed a photo and details of the house lying in du Langue's office, while we were waiting - it had been on the market since at least last October, the photo of the garden was quite autumnal. Guy had told us that all prices were negotiable. After dinner we 'phoned him and said we thought we might be interested if the price could be made right. He said he would speak to du Langue in the morning and if we would 'phone Guy early he would give us his answer so as we could decide whether to stay another day or move on to the ephemeral chestnut house. We went to bed, but kept waking each other up with questions - all pointing to a desire to buy!

I 'phoned Guy at the appointed time. The answer was "..... most things are negotiable. Do you want to have a meeting to discuss it ? " We asked him to fix another visit time within the next hour or two and a meeting in du Langue's office for the early afternoon.

We went up to the house again. Madame Narp told us at breakfast that the area on the hill was known locally as Le Causse and was regarded as a ' quality ' district. We looked around more carefully this time. On the other slope of "our" valley, and about fifty feet higher taking a straight sight line, there was a magnificent large modern house and outbuildings in amongst many well-kept terraces of grass and fruit trees, backing onto the wild woodland rising above and beyond. All painted in dusky pink with brown shutters - a picture postcard house - near enougggggh to be neighbours but far enough away not to encroach and disturb. About a hundred and fifty metres away, slightly above and behind "our" house, was another low set of older buildings surrounded by maybe seven or eight acres of large flat terraces of tidy grass covered in fruit trees laid out in the traditional north/south alignment. Neither of these houses could be seen, or see us, when we stood in "our" garden or grounds, ...perfect ! The surrounding wild trees and bushes provided all the cover needed. We also now saw that the track which led from the road up to the house went on past to another house higher up the hill, also well screened from us by dense foliage. Like a fairy village - everyone was there but invisible !

M. Monega, expecting us this time, had the dog on a lead, and had made a fair bachelor's ( for we took him to be that as we had seen no sign of a woman's touch ) attempt at tidying the interior. It looked even better than we had remembered it - something about the morning light, maybe, I don't know.

Sheila and I had another chat about it , standing on the top terrace looking from the pink mountain opposite back round to the house. Look, it was great, we both loved it, if we ever wanted there was room for extension, and a pool would fit just perfectly there where his vegetable garden was, immediately below us, on the garden terrace which ran down from the house towards the sun.

OK we'd go for it. But what price should we offer ? After dinner the previous evening we had made a quick tour of the four estate agents windows in the town. The asking price seemed fairly high in comparison to others - but, there was no exact comparative property in respect of site etc.

If we were already thinking of extensions and pools.....those cost money! We reckoned we should try and buy it for 340,000 Francs all-in. We hoped we would return.....!!!!

24.

The meeting at du Langue's was set for two thirty, after prandial recess.

Because of the heat of the day, Sheila and I were in shorts and summer shirts. Guy arrived in sloppy shorts, a red tartan sports shirt and Jesus sandals. Jean du Langue was his usual smart self in well pressed fresh trousers and shirt, sporting polished leather shoes and M. Monega - well ! He arrived in collar and tie, dressed in a smart tweed suit, hair absolutely plastered down with Brylcreem, or the French equivalent, mustachio waxed, and absolutely reeking of Cologne ! What a group we would have made for a photograph !

Extra chairs organised, we were shepherded into du Langue's room. The formalities and pleasantries over, du Langue turned to me and said something along the lines of ".....well M'sieu Bernard, I gather you like the house. Would you like me to draw up the papers ? " With a fair bit of help from Guy, especially when it came to technical words about the house and money ( amazing how many words are needed in a vocabulary when talking about money ! ), we put over our wishes and price limit including all expenses. This completely flummoxed du Langue, the imperturbable. " We don't do things like that here.......etc.!"

"Well that's all we are prepared to do, and we can't deal with any open ended deal on professional fees, it's up to you. " Sheila and I had rehearsed our act well. I would probably have given a bit, if pushed, but she sounded and looked absolutely rock solid.

Confused himself, but wanting commission from a sale, du Langue explained what was happening to M.Monega. The professional fee restriction was obviously new to them, even if the question of discounted price did not seem to cause other than expected looks of pain,.....how could he speak for the notaire?....and estate agents fees....ceux sont normales ! Would we retire to the hall and let him discuss the question of such a big reduction in price with his client ? If that was possible, we could come back and discuss the fee situation.

We sat quietly in the waiting area trying, in vain, to catch snatches of the machine-gun French conversation we could vaguely hear going on behind the closed door. After about ten minutes du Langue opened the door and asked us to go back in.

Once seated he explained , through Guy, that there were a few difficulties in what we suggested. Obviously the price we suggested was ridiculously low for such a fine property........, and M.Monega would have to consult his wife! (Surprise ! surprise ! it turned out he is divorced, but French property laws being what they are.....). As to professional fees, he, du Langue, would have to speak to Estrelle, the notaire, if the Monega's agreed. We stuck to our price, as there looked like a possibility of acceptance, quoting all the reasons that house buyers everywhere do.....'that loo'.....'the hill'...etc.

M.Monega indicated that it was possible...could he 'phone his ex-wife ?

Once more out in the hall, Guy commented that he thought we had done well and looked like we had a good chance. We weren't so sure - oh well, wait and see ! Ten minutes later du Langue invited us back.

OK, Madame Monega had reluctantly agreed to the price - all he had to do was speak to Estrelle to see what they could do about fixed and limited fees. He lifted the handset and dialled the lawyer's number. A fairly lengthy conversation ensued - at one point du Langue turned to us and asked if we wanted a separate lawyer or whether we would use the same one, as he assured us was quite usual in France. (We learned later that the reason this is usual is that a notaire in France is almost a government agent charged with the responsibility of ensuring that all parties to a transaction keep to the Law, not like the adversarial position of the lawyer in the UK.) The conversation over, he turned to M.Monega and a discussion about the total fee to come off the selling price went on for several minutes. At last du Langue turned once more to us - " You strike a hard bargain ! But Estrelle and I have agreed to reduce and limit our fees and M.Monega has agreed to the deal on that basis - shall we sign up now? By the way how are you going to pay ? "

Ah ! An important point. We didn't have an account in France. We only had holiday money and a credit card with us! " Do you need a deposit today? " " It would be better, and you really need to pay the notaire up-front!" I only had a cheque book drawn on a Scottish bank, would that do?

" Oh yes, anything at all - just make it out to Estrelle for nine hundred and forty Francs." " Will it go through the banking system here? - It wouldn't at home." "Yes, no problem, any bank, any currency - you can pay the balance by banker's draft from home !" " When ? " " The day before entry."

So, with that we signed up a purchase, and M.Monega, a sale, document. Hands were shaken heartily, with looks of relief on all faces !

We had done it ! I had my dream house in France !

We now had to come back......again and again....and again!!!!

25.

The first thing we did was ask M.Monega when we could go back up to look again and, this to time plan for what we would need in the way of cooker, furniture etc. It was really ours ! Almost unbelievable !!

He had to go round to the notaire now to set up the paperwork - could we leave it till the morning ? What could we say ? We couldn't do our part with Estrelle until Monega had done this anyway. " See you at ten."

Our fourth, but now proprietorial visit, was the culmination of years and years of hopes and dreams for me. Sheila could hardly keep my excitement within respectable bounds - if she were honest she was as excited, if not more so, than me, now that the deed was done. We were like a couple of kids with a new toy as we drove up the hill once more !

The little road up to the house was becoming much more familiar and less daunting with repetition. I now only felt the need to honk the horn at three corners, instead of all ten ! As we had never met another vehicle on it anyway, the exercise seemed academic, but better safe than sorry ! All the car windows open in the ever present hot sunshine, and now driving in a higher , less noisy gear, we could hear songbirds serenading each other as we rose up the valley.

This time I attempted the dramatic left hand hairpin into the house driveway, managed it, if only just, and parked behind M.Monega's car.

The dog, lying stretched out on the warm sunny stone of the veranda, lazily turned its head to look at us as if " You two again !, " little knowing that two months from now she would be moving as we took possession.

M.Monega greeted us as friends now the deal was done, making us feel very much at home. He told us how, since the divorce he had lived here on his own, but wanted to move farther into the country from where he had originated before getting married and having run the local garage service station near the roundabout with all the flowers, at the Depot des Impots, less than a mile away. His wife had been the gardener....that was why it was a bit neglected, but there were some good plants - a good weeding would be my first job, I reckoned.

We had brought a notebook to list essentials and things that were needed but could wait. M.Monega asked us if we wanted to buy any of his things. The only thing I liked was the tapestry of the giant horse over the bed upstairs, but it was too big for the scale of the house, and Sheila didn't like it, so we agreed not to even ask about it. Sheila took one good look at the cooker and fridge and decreed they would have to go ! That didn't leave much of interest so we gently had to turn down his offer, by saying it was only going to be a holiday house and we wouldn't need so much in it.

Therefore, before anyone could stay in the house, we would need a bed, or to be more exact, as we had already discussed, a bed-settee, maybe even two, one upstairs, one down, that would allow us to have visitors...... On entry we would quickly thereafter need a cooker, fridge and a set of garden table and chairs. Really, nothing much else, until we could see it empty. Cutlery, crockery, utensils, curtains for the downstairs window, linen, towels, etc.....

We had made the right decision.....this was going to be our own little haven.

Our next visit was to be to the notaire, M.Estrelle.

26.

The only thing to distinguish M.Estrelle's office door from that of several plain looking house doors on either side, was the professional brass plate declaring " Estrelle & Fils, Notaire " at the side and a large brass knocker in the shape of a fine human hand in the middle of the door.

We went in to a large reception area, giving memories of doctor's waiting rooms of old, with a row of chairs on the opposite side of the pale grey painted room, facing the entrance door and the glass screen which separated the clients from the secretarial staff enclosing a square within it, to the left of the door. A wide wooden counter at a break in the glass screen added to the effect of separating everybody in the firm from their clients. I pressed the bell push on the counter. An efficient young woman responded quickly, asking who we were and who we were to see. " Please sit down, M. Estrelle won't be long. "

It was pleasantly cool here with the shutters and door excluding both the heat and the light of the sun, but somehow offices like this give me the shivers and I'm always glad to move out.

A tall handsome young man in his late twenties appeared. Dark-haired and tanned with almost film-star looks, he towered above me, although I am six feet tall. Charm himself, he ushered us into a large, if it had not been so dull, palatial room with a huge, late Empire style desk as its centre piece. Most of the walls were covered in glass fronted bookcases of the same period. One or two large pictures and many certificates decorated visible bits of walls over the dark silk wallpaper. Two comfortable chairs were placed in front of the desk on an elegant carpet, around which he passed to take his own massive high-backed chair.

He gave us the impression that he did not speak any English and relied on our French. As most educated French learn English from an early age, I was inclined to believe that he did this for professional reasons, not to give an incorrect translation etc., rather than to embarrass us. As Sheila said afterwards, " What a lovely man ! I wonder if he is single? Oh, how could I manage for our Lisa to meet him ?, he's gorgeous !"

With the frequent help of the dictionary I had brought, he gave us to understand the procedure, which technically and legally would not be finished before October or November - this was only June! But he explained, the papers had to go to Paris government offices, and they more or less shut down over July and August, and then the civil servants came back to a backlog.....he shrugged and smiled. However, that did not affect our entry date, which we had agreed with M.Monega, as the first Monday in July. As that was a little difficult for timing, could I please arrange to have the banker's draft for the main balance of money in his account by the preceding Friday ? That settled, the house papers having been signed and witnessed, he turned to other matters.

" Do you realise that French inheritance laws are different from the UK ?". I hadn't given it a thought. He cautioned us to make a will. We said that at home our wills left everything to the survivor, if one of us dies, and thereafter to be divided equally between the children. It was not quite possible to do exactly the same thing in French Law, but after explaining several different ways of doing it we resolved on one which would allow Sheila to retain use of the house if anything happens to me (the format was called a Tontine in French - there's a historical name to conjure wwwwith !). The only residual problem being that she would not be able to sell it without the permission of each and every one of our five children who would have to receive equal shares of half the proceeds of any sale. Like any law, far too complicated for its own good ! But, being the best of a bad job, we signed !

M.Estrelle showed us out demonstrating his gentlemanly upbringing with his courteous manners.

On the pavement once more the summer air that constantly surprises bathed us in a glowing warmth to match our own internal pleasure.

Two days of our week left. What should we do ? No point in going to see the chestnuts house now - we'd probably never go there.......

We extended our stay with Madame Narp. We would go down to the beach - relax a bit after the hectic few days we had spent successfully househunting. We 'phoned Guy to ask him if we owed him anything, to which he replied the du Langue would " see him alright ", and invited him to bring Pamela to a restaurant for a celebration dinner one evening, but she was busy and we would meet her another time. Guy told us that they tried to keep business and clients' affairs separate from their private lives and we respected that. He asked us if we wanted to make an arrangement for him to look after the house, or do errands or....whatever? I said I didn't see any point at this juncture as the house wouldn't be empty until takeover day at the beginning of July, but after that we could talk. We said thanks for making contact with du Langue, and au revoir until July.

We would be there...................................

27.

What an adventure ! It felt as if we had been here for months ! In reality it was one week ago that we landed in Marseille airport.

I drove the hired car to the farthest away parking spot I could find in the compound where the Europacar office was located, near the front door of the main airport building. We humped the cases to the door, where Sheila sat on them absorbing the last of the Mediterranean sun she would see until September - what a long time - at least I would ggggget back in July to take possession of the house on Le Causse ! I went in, and, as luck would have it, the place was swarming like a beehive ! The girl at the desk didn't want to know about ".....the little scratches and dents on the passenger side!" " Give me the keys, here's your receipt. - Next ! " I fled gratefully, if a little guiltily ! Though perhaps that paid them back a little for the insurance scam the Lyon office had played on me the previous year ! I assuaged my guilt with that thought as we walked over the road to check in.

I asked for a window seat on the port side to see if I could spot the house on the way up. A fond hope ! The heat haze stopped me seeing anything farther than Martigues industrial outline and even that was fuzzy. In any case I would not have known where exactly to look, as I've said before, in a different context, France is a big, big country.

The flight, which mainly followed the Rhone valley north over France was uneventful. We touched down in Glasgow in time for dinner. Lisa met us at the airport to hear all our news firsthand, - and first !

We settled into work routines, but my mind was constantly reviewing what we had done and planning what we were going to do. One thing was sure......we must go there!!!

28.

The next couple of months dragged by, till I could go back !

" Would you like to come out to France and help me make the house ship-shape for your mother's first stay ? " I asked Gregory one day as we were having Sunday lunch at home. Since his return from France he had been very depressed and, unemployed, he had been living in little better than a squat with some of his pals. To try and cheer him up we often asked him for Sunday's lunch. " What would I have to do ? " he replied a little suspiciously.

I explained that, in total, I did not know yet. It would depend partly on what M.Monega left us to deal with, although I did know the whole house, inside, needed a good coat of white emulsion, and I wanted to try and tidy up some of the garden. How long would we be there ? Well, I could only go for a week but he could stay as long as he wanted - how long do you think it would take ? We agreed that three weeks should be adequate to paint the house and for him to have a real holiday.

Next I started thinking about all the things Sheila wanted me to take out to the house - you'd think it was darkest Africa, nooooot civilised France we were going to ! " We could buy a garden set cheap in B&Q ! - and I saw a really cheap dinner service in Makro!" etc.,etc. But it did set me pondering. The house was about an hour's drive from Montpellier airport - we couldn't afford to hire a car every time. To buy one there was a bit of a risk ! - It was bad enough dealing with second hand cars here ! I scanned the motor pages in the Sunday Times. There were several firms advertising left-hand drive cars - but all in the area around London ! I decided to 'phone a few of them. Two of them sounded out and out rogues, but one particularly impressed me, that it was a family company, they'd been there for thirty years, we could buy on a trial basis, etc.

The long and the short of it was they had a Peugeot 309, D registered, that was five years old at the time, with about forty thousand miles on the clock ( which he said he knew the previous owner and was sure it was genuine ) for two thousand pounds. With service and various warranties it seemed a fair buy against other similar, but, right hand drive, cars advertised in the paper, which was all I could compare it with. We did the deal on the 'phone and arranged for Gregory to go down on the bus, on Tuesday night to Heathrow, give the man his cheque and drive it back up home during the week. The long term plan being that the two of us would drive it to Bedarieux when the house was ready for our entry, and leave it there for future use, flying or taking the train back as available or economical.

It worked a treat ! Gregory called me from the car showroom to say the car looked a beauty and went well - almost as if it shouldn't ! He handed over the cheque and came on home.

That sorted out, Sheila went on a shopping spree for household items. The end result being the car was so full we had to flatten out the rear seats to make it into an estate car, with all the attendant problems of where could we park it so as not to be broken into ? Gregory's comment was that anyone who wanted to steal any of that junk was welcome - that it looked like the remnants from a flitting ! Perhaps he was right - no-one even tried the doors !

We were to uplift the keys for the house from du Langue on the afternoon of Monday the 4th of July, Independence Day - what could be more appropriate?!

We planned back from there and decided we had to leave Glasgow, early morning on the preceding Friday. Not a good choice ! Apart from all else it was the first day of the Scottish school holidays. The roads were pandemonium ! It was after six in the evening before we arrived in Dover and booked on to one of the many available ferries sailing that evening to France.

We drove on and decided, enough was enough, we would find a little hotel in Calais and stay the night. Having driven into the centre, around the amazing town clock, we found a side street full of pensions and chose the best looking one, a corner building with lock up garages opposite, wherein, despite Greg's laughter, we stashed the car for the night. A quick walk and a cafe in the pleasant town main street finished the day.

The next day we were unlucky enough to pick up the major part of the first of the Paris holiday traffic leaving for the Midi ! The autoroutes were wheel to wheel at seventy five miles an hour. No joke driving in that ! Even the motorway stops were so full that we had to fight for parking spaces and even for seats on the grass to sit down and eat baguette salad rolls fought for in the second battle of Waterloo ! Queues for petrol were the norm !

After we passed Clermont-Ferrand, and started down the new motorway to the Languedoc, the traffic at last thinned out. The scenery, as we first climbed one mountain after another then descended their flanks on the steepest motorway roads I have ever seen, through the Massif Central, has to be seen to be believed ! We were literally up there with the eagles - we saw several pairs circling in the afternoon thermals, searching the horizons for prey in the dense green wilderness all around ! In some sections, when all vehicular traffic seemed to have deserted us for a moment, the loneliness and the scale of our surroundings was almost scary !

When the motorway ended, just north of Marvejols, we reckoned we had done enough ! Today, the autoroute goes a bit farther south, but on that day we'd had it ! Hot and tired we parked the car and went in to the first hotel we could see- Full! After trying a few, we finally found one from the same era as Hotel Central in Bedarieux, Hotel de la Poste, which could give us one room ! We ate a good meal there, and, after a brief wander in the stone walled old town, in this town which had been the centre of much Resistance activity during the Second World War, we retired to bed. Well, to be honest, I retired to bed. Gregory refused to sleep in the same bed with me, with which sentiments I was in accord, and no other beds or mattresses being available, he slept alongside on the hard floor ! His bumming around must have inured him to such suffering, for when I got up at my usual time, he was still fast asleep! So much so that I went for a pre-breakfast walkabout before going back to wake him. With many of the crowds of last evening still in their beds it was a pleasure to walk about, exploring this old market town. I even found a whole field of allotments, just round the corner from our hotel, with men hoeing and watering their prize vegetables before going off to work. A lovely place where I have promised, we must go there......

That day, Sunday, we set off after our croissants and cafe, following the road through Millau ( I had finally found it ! ) to Lodeve, through ever lower mountains as we came towards the coast through the Cevennes - but mountains they still were with all the twists and turns they reserve for unwary motorists. At Lodeve by ten o'clock, we carried on, the latter part of the way on the plain through which flows the Orb, past Bousquet d'Orb and Tour d'Orb - villages with romantic names, famous locally for their honey, but whose mining past has left them touched with the finger of industrial decline and no appearance. Ten minutes later we passed by the bottom of the road where OUR HOUSE was, on our way to take up the booking I had made with Madame Narp at Hotel Central in Bedarieux.

29.

Although it was Sunday, I was so impatient that I could not contain myself till the next afternoon - I was here, I had to see the house !

I telephoned M Monega - could I bring my son up to see the house ? - weak excuse ! I hope it won't disturb you too much - lies, all lies ! - I wanted to see the house again!

M.Monega indicated that it would be no real problem in the afternoon, except, of course, I must expect the house to be in turmoil - packing and all that, and the removal van wasn't coming till tomorrow morning......

Greg was a bit taken aback by the road up from the main road, wondering if his parents had completely flipped, but I assured him that he would become used to it. He was even more surprised when I did the hairpin bend trick into the driveway !

I had warned Greg about the Doberman, which came up for a sniff at the new stranger, as we opened the car doors.

M.Monega came round the corner of the house, in somewhat dirtier dungarees than I had seen him wearing, smiling pleasantly, shook hands and was introduced to Gregory. After a polite but friendly short chat M.Monega asked if he could be excused as he still had lots to do, because the removal people had let him down and weren't coming till the next morning, and did I mind showing Greg around by myself. That was fine by us, really what we wanted. He went back into the house, and we were just about to follow when a smart blonde in her late thirties came to see what was going on, virtually blocking our entrance. Obviously embarrassed, M.Monega made a hasty introduction, mumbling the woman's name in a clumsy attempt to prevent us learning who she was - of course, it really didn't matter to us, we had no-one locally to gossip with, if that was what he was frightened of. Anyway if he did have a girl friend, so what ? - he was divorced, he was leaving, it was none of our business.

Signalling to Greg, we retreated a bit and I suggested we would look round the garden first. We then did a tour of the boundary of our land - as any good farmer would ! Hardly a farm, but our territory ! Greg seemed quite impressed and, I think he quite quickly fell under the spell the place had cast on Sheila and me. No wonder ! What a time we had picked to arrive !

When Sheila and I had been in May, there was blossom everywhere - now it appeared, we were the proud owners of small orchards with, among others, three apricot trees, so covered in fruit that the branches were trailing the ground with the weight ! And what apricots ! Plump, golden, with a light touch of pink, a.n.d....so sweet and juicy, when you ate them, it was like taking a drink of fruit juice ! We quickly learnt that they had to be picked only at the point that when you touched a fruit gently it felt soft and literally fell in to the hand. No wonder I don't like apricots at home - they're a different breed ! The two cherry trees didn't have much fruit left on them, as it was evidently too late in the season, but three plum trees were laden with fruit ready to ripen in a week or two, and there were about eight almond trees, from only a couple of years old to big ones, most bearing a few green shelled nuts which we hadn't a clue when they would be ripe. Some fig trees, a gooseberry bush, and a couple of currant bushes completed the initial stock revue. Later we were to discover that the mulberry tree produced beautifully sweet fruit, like black strawberries, but the shape of small raspberries, and that we had two young peach trees, as well as, what was called, a strawberry tree, and the herbs !

The garden air was heavy with all kinds of scent. Bay trees lined one of the top terrace walls. We found a rosemary hedge at the end of the garden, sheltering sage and thyme below it. Alongside were two varieties of lavender bush. Wild garlic and the smallest variety of wild mint pushed up wherever grass grew giving out their pungent sweet odours when walked on.

The garden itself had red floribunda roses in full bloom. A pathway wandered through the middle, dividing the layout roughly in two. The edges of the overgrown path were lined with a plant we call ' lambs ears ' which so aptly describes their soft grey leaves. Various bushes, day lilies and other flowers, somewhat smothered in weeds, tried to fill out the rest with the help of some feature trees, strategically planted. There was a large old cherry tree which, from the stones and rotting fruit at its feet looked as if it was still very prolific. A red maple, perhaps seven or eight years old gave a splash of contrast in amongst all the greenery. Then the piece de resistance for us northerners - the finger cypress, specimen from eveery painter's trip to the Mediterranean, but real and twenty foot high to its tip !

" Let's go and look inside, " I said, after we had been in every nook and cranny of the three terraces and were climbing back up the narrow path, built into the wall leading from the lowest of the three, the one which overlooked the narrow public road below, to the veranda.

Standing on the veranda looking out, I noticed traces, at the edge of its four inch step down to the garden, of the remains of a crazy paving extension to the veranda, shaded by the mulberry tree and half covered in earth. I made a mental note to come back to that.....

We entered the chaos. One on top of the other, boxes of clothes and papers jostled with those overflowing with books or household utensils. Chairs were up on top of the table to give more floorspace.

I led Gregory through it. Where pictures or mirrors had been taken down it was obvious that something odd had occurred over a period. The walls were almost white in the spaces. When we were upstairs and no-one else could see, rubbing a little piece of the yellow wall, with a finger stuck in the corner of a handkerchief dampened with a bit of spittle, the yellow came off! One careful sniff elucidated that it was nicotine ! The man must have smoked a thousand a day to do this to the whole house !

It was hard to see all the possibilities in such an uproar and Greg indicated that he had seen enough and it was time to go.

Outside the downstairs door to the veranda again, M.Monega came out to join us. He said he had done, more or less all he could on his own. Once the van came tomorrow it would be better, and did we mind if he left some things which he didn't think would fit in his new house ? I said "OK" as long as the giant bookcase on the upstairs landing went, as I didn't see how it could be moved. His face fell - I am sure it had been his intention to leave it - but he accepted the restriction gracefully.

I asked about the garden, and if there were any special plants or instructions for general care. He answered me by saying that the garden had been his wife's province and he knew little about such things. So that's why it was so neglected, although well-planted and laid out. Someone had loved it !

M.Monega seemed quite happy to talk of other, for him probably happier times. He told us that, when he was running the garage in town, he had bought this tiny old shepherd's mas as a ruin, designed the very modern features and even built most of it himself. He spoke of it lovingly, and I am sure was reluctant to leave and felt circumstances had forced him to leave his baby. I assured him we would look after it and enjoy living in it. He then showed us a part of the veranda wall, the bit running out from the kitchen to the stone steps which lead to the upper terrace. It was built of traditional stone, and to us, at first glance looked like any other part of the walls supporting the terrace above. He lifted down a large empty bird cage to expose a hole, in the wall adjacent to and almost level with the square kitchen window, about two feet square featuring heavy stone lintels supporting each of the sides and the top and bottom of the wall around it. Pointing into the hollow, which was about five feet cube inside like a little dark room, sometimes called priests-holes in old castles, he explained that this was the original storage place for water for the house called " le puits ". It seems in winter all the rain channelled off the roof, by gutters, into this, for storing until needed in summer. They must have been hardy people to drink that ! Thank goodness the house now shares its water supply from a borehole shared by seventeen of the houses round about! Seventeen houses? - We had only seen four ! Obviously, some exploring still to be done !

Having given us some background, I thought we should leave him in peace until tomorrow. He agreed, but first wanted to show us how the electric worked, which was fairly different from that in Scotland, using a push-button system even for the mains supply, and most important, how and where to turn the water off and on. We were intrigued because we had to go out to the road and then up a little half-concealed path on one of the roadside walls, remove a stone coverplate, and then uncover a very modern stopcock and water meter. ( We later learned how important it was to shut off the water when away - one of our neighbours, a nice German family, from Munich, left the tap open one winter, the pipes froze and then burst - it was a week later before someone did anything about the unusual water running down to the public road ! - His bill for the lost water was equal to several years supply ! )

30.

As I had driven up to the house, Greg drove us back to Bedarieux, to park in the shady square outside Hotel Central.

Madame Narp had given us a key to the back door, which led directly on to the spiral staircase up to the bedroom so we carried anything of value straight up to our room, rather than leave it in the open all night.

Greg was fascinated by the sit-up bath and had a go ! Like a child with a new game.

That evening Madame Narp's home-made vegetable soup started us off on a delicious meal of house specials, during which, in spite of her bad leg, she managed to fuss all round us as she served each course. She is the nearest thing to going to Granny's ! Sheila and I still go in there, especially when we are dying for some good wholesome simple cooking, as only the French can do !

Greg was ready for bed, after his night on the floor at Marvejols, so we retired immediately after eating.

Next morning, woken early by the sun slanting in the half-closed shutters, and noises of vehicles and voices setting up the Monday market, we decided to go for the beach - there was little else we could do until two thirty that afternoon when we were to pick up the house keys from M. du Langue at his office, and we had been warned that our car must be away by eight in the morning when the market took all the car park - and just about every other square inch of spare space in the town !

First however we had a quick look round the market. A good job we did !

Wandering around, before they were properly open, we saw a stall selling foam mattresses, for garden sunbeds, and suddenly realised that, if we were going to sleep in the house that night, as was our every intention, we had nothing to sleep on ! So we bought two, one inch thick ones, with cotton covers of bright emerald green with a royal blue motif - we still use them for the garden chairs today, but that's another story. As it would be so warm at night all we needed then were two sheets, which we also bought.

Thus prepared we re-packed the car and headed off. Past Beziers and approaching Valras Plage, we saw signs for Serignan Plage.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained ! - so we turned off the main road and followed a series of signs which led us through more flat vineyards for a mile or so, some of which were proclaiming their wares, and even the grape varieties grown, on little placards. The road picked up the side of the Canal du Midi again and here and there we caught glimpses of barges and pleasure craft, either gliding slowly along or tied up at the bank lolling in the early morning peace and sunshine. A couple of stalls were being set up, on the wide flat verges between the road and the waters edge, to sell melons and other fruit to passers by.

Quite a number of cyclists were already about and we saw several signs pointing along narrow off-shoot roads to invisible camping and caravan sites. The odd Dutch yellow number plate identified the origins of some of the few cars on the road.

As the road left the line of the canal, we came across a large wooden corral like an old Western movie, with a few horses looking for any odd blade of grass which they could find on the bare earth, touting its services on a large wooden sign hung insecurely on the gable of the ramshackle stable block stuck at one end of the compound.

Next the road led between a row of single storey food and beach equipment shops on one side and colourful wire fenced compounds which contained more visible evidence of facilities for campers and caravaners, on the other, and, farther down, on both sides of the road.

People in multi-coloured beach gear were walking about, with many young children in evidence, most of them on the road to the beach that we were following. Cars like our own were crawling along towards a wide open space at the end. The open sandy car park space was about a quarter of a mile by a hundred yards across, with an extension to the left leading onto the next beach, where we could see one or two cars parked.

There were two mulberry umbrella trees, each about five times the size of the one at our house. Two or three cars already being there we joined them, trying to find a bit that would be shady in a couple of hours when the sun could make the car roof hot enough to fry an egg.

Locked up, we crossed the stony sand towards an old wartime concrete bunker on the edge of a sand dune where the trace of a path showed human presence.

Once at the dune the sand turned to fine soft desert sand, hot to the soles of bare feet and moving away from every firmly planted step. The climb up was hilarious - two steps forward, one back !

But, at the top of the dune, covered in coarse grasses, with a few scrub bushes to give a little shelter we found ourselves looking, down the slope of the dune, onto one of the longest finest deserted beaches I have ever been on.

From that vantage point it looked as if it was coming from Cap d'Agde and going all the way to Spain !

There may have been hundreds of people there but, because of the vast length, it looked empty.

We chose a spot and lay down on well spread beach towels, after Greg dug a deep hole and buried the lemonade bottle up to its neck in sand to keep it cool.

Being of a fidgety nature, I went for a walk to see what else there was, while Greg slept in the sun. I discovered a big hut selling drinks and pre-packed ices, a pedalo ' stand ', and lots of seashells at the waters' edge where the warm water lapped coolingly at my feet. By the time I went back Greg was starting to feel the heat and woke up.

A quick swim refreshed, and then we both lay out to dry. Because of our early start it was now only about eleven o'clock. We found, on this our first day's sunbathing, that it was just too hot - if we didn't leave we were going to be badly burned !

Gathering up our gear and Greg's bottle of cool pop ( to my utter surprise his burying trick had worked very well ! ) we headed across the Sahara ! All I can say is, that hundred metres to the dunes was torture - I would never like to have to cross the real thing !

 

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31.

Returning to Bedarieux, we had lunch in a small restaurant called ' le Cevenol '; run by a Spanish looking woman in her late thirties who wore her long hair loose and was dressed in coloured tight leggings, which did absolutely nothing for her, showing just about everything below the blouse which was tucked into her waistband ! However, she welcomed us in and we demolished her civet of rabbit a la grand-mere along with the rest of the tables full of local workers. Washed down with a pichet of wine, starter and sweet all included, for about a fiver, we were well satisfied !

We would come to know Madame quite well over the years, but the odd thing is that, although I know her nine year old daughter's name is Kelly, and that Madame was born in the Reunion Islands off Madagascar, I don't even know her surname ! Nowadays we know her as Madame Midi-Minuit, because the Sanitary Inspectors closed her side street restaurant down a couple of years ago, and she set up business in a totally refurbished modern bar restaurant in another part of town and called it Midi-Minuit ( Midday to Midnight ). In fact, by pure chance, we were there on her opening night when, being the first customers, she proudly took us into her spanking new stainless steel filled kitchen and showed us all her new gadgets and fittings. We do go back, regularly.......

But, I digress. After lunch we went round to du Langue's office, where my impatience had us there so early we had to wait ten minutes before anyone arrived to open up ! Gregory was embarrassed by my eagerness !

The receptionist had just let us in when du Langue arrived and swept us into his office. He had two yale keys and a couple of pieces of paper on his desk. He passed them over to me. The papers were a receipt for my banker's draft to Estrelle, settling the sale. " Bonne chance, Monsieur Bernard, c'est fini, c'etait un plaisir, " he waved us cheerily out of the office. With such a pleasant send off he must have done alright out of the commission split ! He certainly always greets us pleasantly when we meet nowadays in the street.

I was in such a hurry to take possession that Greg told me to drive.

32.

Over the Pont-neuf ; I hardly noticed its flowers, past the floral roundabout where I noticed for the first time that the shining modern sculpture in the centre was a slightly surreal letter " B " - B for Bedarieux, certainly, but B for Bernard ! this was our town now! Right past the garage, I could hardly control the accelerator foot to keep the speed below the mandatory fifty kilometres an hour along the Avenue de Lodeve, under the plane trees and the viaduct, turn right at the turning place to stop at the white line on the left.

The traffic was fairly quiet, everyone was probably still at market which goes on till four. The Peugeot responded to my instructions and surged across the main road, up the slight incline, under the miniature tunnel of the stone railway bridge and up the chemin du Figaret.

I saw nothing until we pulled up at the door! Then it hit me ! Like no other house we'd bought before ! I had never ever been what you might call ' really excited' about any of the five or six we had lived in - but this one!!! I could hardly get the key in the lock !

The dark wooden door swung inwards, letting a flood of light rush in. Gregory uttered some profanity ! The place was absolutely hacky ! FILTHY !!!

We looked at each other! There was no way we could bring Sheila here !

Greg and I walked through the ground floor and up the stairs. It was the same everywhere, floors and walls covered in dark sticky dirt and dust, dead flies on every flat surface and wood-lice scuttling at our feet ! Talk about a busted dream !

To add to the picture Monega had left half a dozen of his military chests spread about the rooms to clutter them up. They were as dirty as everything else.

" Right !, lets get all movables, including the chests onto the veranda, then we can see what we need to do, " I said, starting to regain my composure, and realising it was only muck, no structural damage.

That done, I sent Greg to the nearest shop he could find for oodles of Javel, that all purpose French bleach cleaner, and two sets of rubber gloves ( of which I may say neither of us had much previous experience ) while I dug out the sweeping brush we had brought from home and started on the loose stuff. Amazing how even that first lick of a broom helped the appearance.

That afternoon we slaved away, washing walls and floors at least three times each - some parts with neat Javel to melt the nicotine goo! We had the downstairs tiled floor awash with the stuff and were sweeping it out the open door in waves ! The house smelled like a public swimming bath when the chlorine mix goes wrong! We ripped up the only fitted carpet, in the upstairs bedroom, and dragged it out to the bottom terrace for future burning

We had to get out ! We were dead beat, hungry and the fumes were killing us ! But, we ponged ! Sweat and Javel ! What a mixture ! Who would have us ? We didn't dare even try Granny Narp !

As a compromise, I volunteered to be the one to go down to a pizzeria, Baptiste's, near the floral roundabout, this side of the bridge into town. The owner's looked at me rather oddly, as if they had a bad smell under their noses ! However armed with two of the largest pizza's I have ever seen, I retreated thankfully and, I must say, we enjoyed them out on the veranda in the warm evening air, as the sun went down on our first day's efforts.

Later we 'phoned Sheila for sympathy, but were greeted with peals of laughter at the thought of me even knowing what a rubber glove was for ! After all, we were in her lovely house in the warm sunshine while she was slaving away at work ! etc ! etc !!!!

Looking at our handiwork we felt quite pleased, but realised that all the woodwork was going to need treated and all the walls painted with at least two coats of white. I 'phoned Guy to ask advice on paint stores to be told that paint was both thin and rubbish - we'd probably need twice what we had first thought of ! Taking that with a pinch of salt ( though he was later proved correct ! ), I did take his advice, that we should go to a Superstore, in Beziers and buy the twenty litre size, rather than mess about and have the extra expense of lots of little tins, which is apparently all we could buy in the immediate locality. However that was a job for tomorrow.

We took our two garden chair mattresses upstairs, laid them out on the floor and gave ourselves up to the all enveloping fatigue.

In the morning, waking to the warm sun streaming in the picture windows, I went to find a bakers for our bread and returned with a baguette still warm from the oven. We set the white plastic table and chairs, which could be seen in every store here at the same price and like idiots we had brought all the way from Scotland, out on the veranda. The first meal, on our own terrace in the sun, although simple bread, conserve and tea, was like the Last Supper in reverse for me - a blessing for life !

Breakfast done, we took the road to Beziers, and, as directed by Guy, instead of going round the by-pass to the beaches, we turned right at the second roundabout ( the one overlooked by a huge circular glass building sporting the Citroen sign in large letters, high up, and highly polished cars flashing in the sunlight, below ), and after half a mile turned left into a car park for over a thousand cars outside a collection of massive metal-skinned utility buildings painted with names like Mammouth, Conforama etc., in ten foot high letters, bright coloured, modern, as if graffiti artists had been let loose one night.

Confused, we first went into the wrong building. The glass swing doors let us enter an unsuspectedly large shopping centre such as we still don't have in Scotland. A furniture showroom, as big as any Marks & Spencer at home took our eye, and then various smaller shops selling everything from curtains to pets. Walking on through marble tiled floors we passed a couple of restaurants with at least a hundred tables, a coffee bar, and then entered the largest one-level shop or store I have ever been in ! This was Mammouth ! Basically a supermarket for everything that didn't need anything doing to it ( except of course, for cooking food items.) Electrical, clothes, garden furniture, televisions, toys, all stacked to the roof, and the huge food area - our largest Sainsbury's at home would fit in one corner ! But, no paint !

Retreating, we retraced our steps to the car park and then saw that our target store was actually another complex on the other side of the entrance road to the carpark. Like the biggest B&Q ever - Castorama - at the time the similar large superstore B&Q opened in 1997 was still in the planning stages at home. The store was so big, we had to ask an assistant to show us where to find the paint and brushes we wanted. Buying the two tubs like white plastic well-buckets, and a couple of tins of wood treatment, we staggered across the road back to the car. Having hoisted these weighty containers up into the boot, the poor old car took on the appearance of a speedboat with its nose in the air. Come to think about it, I think our arms took quite a time to regain their original length !

Sheila had given us the awesome task of buying a gas cooker and a fridge, a vacuum cleaner, a telephone and a radio. For this we had to drive back to the main road to the coast and into another even bigger estate of commercial outlets, about a mile from Mammouth, which had Geant Casino as its anchor store.

Geant Casino struck us as being a bit more upmarket, but, although the layout seemed almost the total reverse of Mammouth, it actually had very similar stock - and was packed.

The cheap radio and the telephone were easy. We argued over a vacuum cleaner, but having decided on one, turned to the Big Task ! Have you ever tried to choose a cooker, when you don't cook ! From the simplest aspect - should it be white or should it be brown to match the decor ? - should it have three rings or four ?----- should it have an electric ring to allow for gas running out ? - how big an oven ? - is a split oven better ? - a glass door or a solid front ? I think my stress rating jumped a hundred points ! If we bought the wrong one and Sheila didn't like it.......!!!!!

Once we had chosen a white cooker, the fridge was relatively easy - they had a bargain which would exactly fit the space we had allocated for it in the kitchen ! A fridge is a fridge.........isn't it ??

The assistant took down our order and could only arrange delivery for two days later - oh, well, we'll just have to keep on eating out for a few days ! What a pity, we won't have to cook our own !

Business done, and choosing a cooker having raised our culinary expectations, we made for the " cafeteria ". Well, they christened it that ! - not us ! Five star restaurants at home could not have done better ! What a choice - from fillet steak in wine sauce to lobster mayonnaise !!! For a fiver we ate like kings and crawled out of there to cruise slowly home for siesta !

In Geant Casino we had spotted some foam mattresses that were about four inches deep at good prices, so we tried them out on the terrace, in the sun, when we arrived home. That was better, the thin ones, for sunbeds, could go into store. Sleeping off the heat of the day, we awoke refreshed to carry on with operation Javel.

The house itself actually looked and smelled a lot better ! Gregory had a go at the windows with a mop and squeegee we had bought with an extending pole, while I took neat Javel to the military chests on the veranda, in a kill or cure effort. I think it worked - we still have them all today - despite Sheila's remarks about other peoples cast-offs !

The final job of the day was to go to the local Bricomarche, buy a do-it-yourself carpet and a Stanley knife, and fit it in the large upstairs room to replace the one we had jettisoned.

Only day two - we had done so much, it seemed like a lifetime ! We had even cleaned out Sheila's pet hate - the toilet shower room - it was almost passable.

This time we slept without feeling the floorboards had a grudge against us - the new mattresses worked a treat ! Just hope the cooker would.......

                                                                                               33.

Day three dawned like all its predecessors, with a golden ball in a blue sky, daring anyone to stay indoors and miss one minute !

Greg started on the paintwork, breaking off at one point to go down to a local store for a roller to speed up his job, while I decided it was time to meet the neighbours, if I could find any, before I tackled the garden - my next target.

I climbed the reasonably steep rocky path up to the Raasch's house immediately behind ours. It was a plain white oblong building, with two storeys and the ubiquitous red tiled roof. There was obviously no-one in and all the windows and doors were shuttered, as if it had been this way for some time. In poor condition, one can see why locals do not like holiday houses - I hoped we would be able to use ours more than this ! I noticed a small building at the end of their garden and assuming it to be a tool shed, made a note to see if we could do something about building one. ( I learned much later that this was the cludgie ! - an outside toilet, in this day and age!)

Continuing my climb, up three little stone steps, I found myself in the grounds of the next house, on a terrace not unlike the top terrace in our garden but, apparently with access to the house at this level, a Peugeot estate car standing as if abandoned half way along under some trees covered in pink mimosa-like flowers. Colourful, well-weeded rose beds bordered with profusions of low growing flowers of various types and hues led on my right to a covered pergola, just before the start of a bungalow house built of stone stretched away to the other end of the terrace where it disappeared in a mass of flowers, bushes and low trees.

As I approached, I became aware of a plump woman in her early sixties, tending to some vegetables in beautiful brown soil beds on a sort of half-terrace just below the pergola. Her shape reminded me of my mother when she was younger - though I don't suppose either of them would take that as a compliment ! I called out so as not to scare her. " Hallo, I'm your new neighbour ! "

She straightened up at my voice, " Bon jour M'sieu, we heard that you had arrived, its a pleasure to meet you - come and have a drink " , all in one breath. For this is my everlasting memory of Iliane Goguet - always welcoming, always hospitable, almost to the point of being overwhelming. Even then, she hurried up the slabs forming wide steps, which led up between the house and the terrace, where she had been working, to the fantastic round marble mosaic table where we met and shook hands under the roof of the pergola.

" Do come in and meet my husband, he is not too well and has to stay in out of the heat. " " Rene, this is M'sieu Bernard, our new neighbour ", as we went into the shady room, a cross between a parlour and a dining room. Rene, a retired banker from Grenoble, was sitting stretched out on a settee. He was a heavy built man of medium height and above his cheery face a shock of white hair. " Its my heart you know, got to be careful, " apologetically as he raised himself up to shake hands, " ...some days are worse than others. " Iliane, dark short hair bobbing about as she went through to the adjacent kitchen and returned bearing a selection of bottles that any good bar would be proud to own, carried on talking over her shoulder " Good to have a new neighbour so quickly. We didn't know M.Monega - saw him on the road occasionally....etc ". General small talk about who we were and what we did. Making my excuses to leave - "...the garden, Greg would wonder....", I was nearly away when Iliane said, " Come to lunch tomorrow, we're having duck. Do you and Gregory like duck ? " Do we like duck?!! How could I refuse ?! We would be back.........

                                                                                              34.

Back in the garden I decided the first thing I needed to tackle was a tall overgrown hedge, which ran the whole length of the garden area between the garden and the bottom terrace. It was of a semi-wild species which when it didn't seed itself everywhere it saw bare earth, it sent out a sucker ! Growing to nearly twelve feet, and having obviously been left to its own devices for a few years, this was going to be this visit's major effort, if the garden was to look anything for my return with Sheila in September.

I drove down to the main road and bought a pruning saw, secateurs and gardening gloves from "la foire fou" ( literally the mad fair ), a yard with a couple of large farm sheds, owned by a man called Amerique ( yes, the American !). Amerique, whom we came to know over the years until he retired this autumn, had just about everything - he bought job lots - anything he could obtain cheaply - one winter's day he told me that he had just bought Spain out of decorative garden pots to save their factories going bust! I wouldn't be surprised ! His special charm for me was the elfin roguish way he dealt with everything - including the Revenue ! He had a cash till near the door of each of the two sheds - he once pulled me up for buying a pair of dungarees from one shed and taking it to the other shed till to pay for them along with the Javel etc that I had selected there - when I asked why it mattered, expecting some scientific stock control method - he answered with a grin, " Oh, that till is for the Taxman, this one is for me ! "

Armed with my weapons I waged war on the hedge. I cut, and cut and cut.

I swear it grew as I was cutting it ! The piles of cuttings were filling up the whole garden area instead of clearing it ! In the end I decided to make a bonfire of it all when I finished, so I dragged every piece down to the end of our ground nearest the boundary and piled it up there. By the end of two days of hacking and cutting the pile was twelve feet high and about twenty feet circumference - and the garden looked twice the size, and so much tidier. At lunch the next day, however, we were to learn the worst - Bonfires are banned by Law from June to October ! What on earth were we going to do ? It ended up, after I went home, with Gregory taking this mountain of branches and twigs to pieces, bit by bit, and pulling it away into a nearby ravine - he tells me it took him two full weeks to clear away completely !

                                                                                             35.

Duck day arrived !

Gregory, by nature is very shy. However a duck dinner was not to be missed, even if it meant going with Dad to visit complete strangers who didn't speak a word of English !

We had been invited for eleven forty five, early by our standards, but, working all day, Greg at painting and me in the garden, our appetites were good and at the duly appointed time we walked up the rocky path which went the length of the boundary wall, along its top, hence the stones. At the top we paused for breath and a look at the view from this different angle.

The Goguet's house, straight ahead of us, was built into the side of their terraces, a bit like our house, but lengthways instead of end in to the hill. Standing in a commanding position over their orchards, which were about six or seven times the size of ours, on much wider grass terraces, they must have a good view of the land and trees from their windows. I said to Greg, " They must keep goats or something similar to keep all that grass under control." Sometime later when I repeated this to Iliane she retorted " Yes, we do. I'm the goat !!"

Seeing movement near the pergola we went on up. Rene was sitting there looking better: while Iliane was occupied bringing out glasses and a wicker basket full of bottles of what looked like Advocaat in various colours. Curious, when offered, we each tried a different one. They were fruit cordials which she had, literally, made herself from the fruits of her garden. Very pleasant, until starting to feel a little unsteady after my second, I asked if it was strong - not very, only about 171/2% !! - more than half as strong again as the average red wine ! No wonder Rene stuck to his panache ( mild shandy ) !

A mountain of salad, in a bowl was set before us, as we sat down at the large oak dining table, also baskets of bread cut to easily managed lengths. The vinaigrette sauce on the salad was yummy - everyone mopped up with some bread. Rene poured some red wine, which by the way he handled the bottle, I knew he considered a treat. Iliane alone, took bottled water - " I never take anything other than my Badoit, " when she saw us looking. A tee-totaller with her own liquor factory in the cellar !

Salad finished, Iliane took the bowls into the kitchen where, from the noises emanating, something was being prepared. Rene carried on a conversation, with us nodding agreement at everything we couldn't understand !

Then Iliane returned bearing a large oval oven dish and placed it on the table in front of me. First of all, it was a picture ! A brown thick sauce on the bottom matching the outside colour of the dish, separated from the edge of the dish by a row, all the way round the interior, of the most thinly sliced small oranges I have ever seen. Then, set out in an oval shape, leaving an inch width of sauce between the orange edge and itself, were enough slices of pink magret of duck breast to feed an army ! A flower pattern of orange slices completed the picture in the centre of the oval of duck. It was a shame to break up the picture ! - but the perfume ( now I know why the French use that word for food ! ) was irresistible - we were having to hold ourselves back!

It was even more delicious than it looked ! We made pigs of ourselves, lapping up every drop of sauce with bread, and, never resisting once when Iliane offered ' seconds ', ' thirds ', or even ' fourths ' !

We were a bit appalled when Iliane disappeared once more into the kitchen for what she said was the next course ! Thanks be to goodness, she reappeared only bearing a tray of grilled tomatoes lightly dressed with toasted garlic breadcrumbs which were a delicious, and unexpected, foil to the duck.

A pause of about ten minutes ensued while Iliane cleared away, offering a very welcome coffee.

Coffee came in the usual small cups, AND, a whopping great apricot and chocolate chou pastry cake ! No is not a word in Iliane's vocabulary ! We were each given a slice big enough to sink the Titanic !

Literally sinking in my chair, I wondered how I would get home, albeit only a hundred yards away. The fruit cordial, the superb wine at table, and then the food - I was beat !

It must have shown. Iliane started clucking round me like a mother hen. " I have just the thing, " she said, brandishing a teaspoon and what looked uncannily like a small bottle of Medinite or similar proprietary medicine flavoured with peppermint. " Here, take this, I guarantee a cure, " she insisted as the teaspoon of thick liquid neared my lips. " What is it ? " I gasped in a last ditch defence. " Only a digestif, " Rene chimed in, " great for hangovers ! " I was beat. I swallowed the herby syrup. A fire developed in my stomach and then flowed smoothly through my whole body, like one of those miracles one sees in children's' science fiction films when they all light up! Then I was cured ! It was a miracle !

That was my first encounter with Elixir of Benedictine ! - 71% Proof !

We wanted to go back....and, to be honest, we had many good meals there over the years, with our good friends - and, in return, they just love Sheila's stew with dumplings ! Unfortunately, just this year, ill health has caused the pair of them to retire to Grenoble, their home town - the journey every year became just too much.

                                                                                             36.

The evening before I had to leave we were asked for a barbecue supper by Guy and his wife, Pamela, who were having some other Scottish visitors in. Before their marriage broke up they lived in a typical village house built in the thirties, overlooking a vineyard and, behind that, the river Orb - that fast-flowing river which is never very far away in this green fertile valley.

When we arrived, we were greeted at the gate as old friends and made very welcome. Parking with difficulty in the small drive we were then ushered up a flight of outside stairs, a wrought iron handrail giving a super overview of the neighbours luxuriant vegetable garden on our left, on into a cool hall with original drawings and paintings of Scottish scenes on the walls. The kitchen which led off this hall had French windows wide open to a balcony opposite.

The balcony ran the whole length of the southern face of the house at first floor level, giving a bird's eye view of the vines and the green tree covered hills behind. At a table and chairs sat the three other Scots with a little old lady wrapped in a shawl, despite the temperature still being well up in the eighties. At the end nearest the kitchen a barbecue was smouldering nicely and starting to give off odours to make the mouth water.

We were introduced to the visitors and to " Ma ", Pamela's mother , who was then in her late eighties. For all that a great character, full of fun and wanting to join in.

Our introduction to Kir, a cool sweet cocktail of chilled white wine and Creme de Cassis beloved of the region, completed our initiation.

Everyone was very chatty and friendly. Even Greg showed no sign of shyness and talked away to Guy especially. Pamela was one of those whose personality can only be described as gushing ! " Oh my pet !", and " Darlings ! " being forever on her lips ! But she was sincere and really succeeded in making everyone happy and contented. Although painfully thin, she was bright and attractive company.

Our curiosity about the pictures was answered as they told us how they had lived in Scotland for nearly twenty years and then had emigrated here to the sunshine, with Ma and her husband, when Guy retired. Guy was quite arty, and also musical - we learned later that he was also a computer buff. Pamela was a radiographer, and, as she was several years younger than Guy, she had bravely, and cleverly, retaken all her exams over here, in French, so that she could carry on working, if only part-time ! (Ma's husband had died only one year after removing here.)

By the end of the evening we felt we had made some really good new friends.

Guy offered to take a look at the house every week or so, while it would be empty, and to collect us from the airport whenever we were coming out. I insisted he accept payment for this most friendly and welcome service but he showed that he really wanted to do it out of friendship by only agreeing to accept a pittance, which would probably hardly cover his costs of fuel. In addition, to save attracting thieves to our house and leaving the car parked up there, we could leave the Peugeot at their house. I said if ever they wanted to use it for a second car to do so - but they were both so nice, I don't think they ever did !

I was looking forward to Sheila meeting them both, and left saying so.

Gregory stayed on to finish painting the house and enjoy a holiday without parental advice always ringing in his ears. He made a great job - Sheila just loved the bright whiteness everywhere when she eventually saw it. After I left, the local furniture store delivered the clic-clac Greg and I had chosen - a settee which literally clic-clacked as it was transformed, in two easy movements, into a double bed - why don't we have them at home instead of the oh-so-clumsy bed settees ? The house had all the basics and was waiting its royal visit from the queen of my heart.

My week over, I had to go home. Very mixed feelings chased each other through my head as Greg waved me off to catch the TGV - France Railways' superfast train from Beziers. I loved the place, but Sheila was waiting for me at home !

                                                                                              37.

The first break Sheila could organise from her business was in September. Two months to wait.

The house in the Languedoc was the talk of the family - photos were passed round - Dad had really done it this time !

Jason, the surgeon son, 'phoned home - if we weren't going out till September could he and Tamsin go for a week ? They went at the hottest time, in August. Jason is one of those people who just melts in the sun! So he went for a haircut to Thierry, a cheery young barber I had found in Bedarieux. " La brosse " ( brush-head ) was the talk of the hospital till it grew out ! Never mind ! He did manage to put up a shower curtain one day when he was hiding from the sun !

But, finally, it was time for us to go out.

Excitement had been building all day, but the plane's approach into Montpellier airport is one of the best for visual impressions and it really had me going - I was glued to the window. The descent started while we were still over the high massif after flying past Clermont-Ferrand. The air was clear, the high peaks and the gorges and troughs were all foreshortened but the size of them was hardly hidden by this optical effect. On another flight, at another time, huge orange patches among the dark greens had me baffled, but then I realised it was broom in full flower, its colour altered by the slight heat haze. This time, leaving the green foothills ten miles behind, we flew in low over the city. At first over suburban houses, all red roofs and blue swimming pools, then over schools, industrial estates, until overflying the very centre with its golden stone municipal heart and university campus the plane, now only about a thousand feet up, keeps on, past the green edge to the sea and heading out over the calm blue sea, turns in a fairly tight u-turn, descending quickly down to about a hundred feet, when it levels out and flies in a straight line over the translucent water of first the sea, and then crossing a stretch of golden beach, over an etang ( salt-pan ) where pink flamingos are almost looking in the windows at us ! Two seconds later, touch down, and we are pressed back in our seats as the wheel brakes counter the speed of our landing.

Guy was waiting for us in the long hall, next to the impressive, well-staffed Chamber of Commerce desk. A cheery wave, hand-shakes, " Good flight?" and we were outside in the balmy warm air and sunshine, heading for his car - his new car ! The red sardine can was no more, a new Citroen, no less ! ( A good job of a translation had apparently paid off. )

We were glad to see him, anyway. The newness of the car had not slowed him down any ! - In fact I think he was determined to put it through its paces just for us ! We flew along the autoroute, la Languedocienne, and seemed to pass Beziers in no time at all - I was sitting in the front pressing my feet surreptitiously to the floor, while Sheila, seated in the back, assured me later that she had her eyes closed most of the way, even at the expense of the view!

Dropping us off in the main square at Herepian, where Pamela and he had left the Peugeot for us, we said our thanks and farewells but promised to 'phone them "tomorrow" to let them know how everything was at the house and to make arrangements for the two ladies to meet.

The warm air taking hold of us we were half-inclined to stay for a while in the shade of the plane trees to watch the men playing boules, but commonsense prevailed and Sheila had me drive to the Intermarche supermarket to buy essentials before they closed. No late night or Sunday shopping here, not even Saturday afternoon ! They even shut from twelve thirty until two, for lunch ! And why not ? It's a much more comfortable life for everyone ! Life truly seems to move more slowly here, and that's part of the attraction for us.

Having wrestled with the ten francs in the slot shopping trolley ( they didn't reach home for another five years ), and finally retrieved our coin, milk, eggs, butter and various other " those will do us for emergency " items being stashed in the boot, we were on our way.

Herepian old village is only about four miles from home, as I must start to call it, and Intermarche is about one third of that distance, so it only took us about ten minutes to be on that magical ride up "our valley " to the house.

Stopped outside the sitting room windows, I opened the front door inward off the veranda and would have carried Sheila over the threshold if she would have allowed me !

                                                                                              38.

Suffice to say we were enchanted as ever.

Sheila even accepted that the loo, on which Greg and I had expended so much energy and Javel, could be used until exchanged - we were not going to be reduced to usssssing the bushes !

We agreed that the highly coloured clic-clac, convertible settee, that Greg and I had chosen, was to go upstairs to the large bedroom and be our bed, and that we would need another smaller settee downstairs. Small things like that.

The main thing was the toilet and shower room, - room ! its only six feet by three !

Well, having read Peter Mayle's trials and tribulations with tradespeople, we thought we must organise better - we couldn't be as stupid as that !

I rang du Langue, the estate agent, on the principal, " he deals with property all day, every day, he must know good reliable tradesmen ". Delighted to be of service, he gave me three names of " good " plumbers.

Plumbers - plumbing, toilets and showers - we were to live and learn !

Shades of Mayle, the first one said he could come in about a month to look at what we wanted ! One down, two to go ! The second one, I kept getting his wife on the 'phone, who kept telling me I had just missed him - ".....he will 'phone you..." I'm still waiting ! The third, and by now my last resort, was Jean-Paul Planes ( pronounced plan-nesss locally).

Contrasting with the hours kept by shop-keepers, " ...can I come up about six thirty this evening ? " - we would have said yes if he'd said one in the morning, by now !

Jean-Paul Planes, in big green letters on the side of a large walk-through van, announced his arrival at our door. Six-thirty on the dot ! We'd got it sussed !

A jolly plump man, not overly tall, dressed in a clean white tee-shirt with jeans parting company from it in the middle, where a propensity for good-living was starting to show, came to the door and shook hands with us both.

Happily business-like, he wanted to be shown what was required. Sheila led up and we followed. We described, as best we could with words, a dictionary, and signs, that we wished the little room gutted, new pipes and wastes fitted, behind the walls, instead of surface run as now, all the fittings replaced and the walls and floor tiled with ceramic tiles - " Normale ?, Oui?" " Oh, Bien sur ! ....easy ! " " BUT, we'll need a macon to do the walls for me, and to do the tiling ! " " Do you know a good reasonable macon ? ", I asked somewhat apprehensively. " Yes, of course. Can I bring him up tomorrow evening to see the job - he will have more to do than me....then we can both give you estimates."

Monsieur Mhailac ( My-yac) was as punctual as Jean-Paul Planes. Much more formal, a wee slip of a man, neatly dressed in smart slacks and a shirt, when we shook hands my first thought was " how can this be a builder ? " His hands were soft as a girls ! But, this was the macon !

Once more we all trooped upstairs. By taking turns inside, with the remaining three craning their necks round the door jamb at differing levels, we were able to describe what was wanted in the smallest room. Just as Jean-Paul had taken rough sizes the previous evening, M.Mhailac went to the opposite extreme this evening. Everything was measured to the nearest millimetre !

Back downstairs, Mhailac took control. Quiet. inoffensive, but very much the boss ! " You will need a tiler, " half questioning, " ...and an electrician and a joiner for the wall cabinet and the mirror?" Our first experience of French demarcation.

Whoaaa....! This was getting like the song about the Gasman comes to call.... Come one, come all ! The whole loo was only four cubic metres!

I said to them, " Come on messieurs, let's be sensible,...." " I want the work done after we've left. It won't be possible for me to call each of you in turn."

Mhailac again took control - OK he'd be the main contractor and co-ordinate things....but we'd still have to have at least two estimates, one the plumbing and then all the rest.

Right, " When can we have the estimates ? ". " As soon as M'sieu and Madame have chosen the tiles, the toilet, the shower etc, etc... "

We were given directions of where to go. Tomorrow's job, I guess !

As we had decided to have white basin, toilet and shower, for coolness and to look as small as possible, we were going to splash out with the tiles. What colour ? Greens, browns, reds, orange.....not one we could agree on!

Then, in a corner, we spotted a strong cobalt blue - that would do nicely for the floor - walls of white ? OK, a bit plain ! " We've some edge and border tiles to match the floor tiles ", offered the showroom assistant. That's it !

When we told Mhailac, he said " Best tiles in the place !", cash register ringing in his ears ! Two nights later he came up to the house with four sheets of closely typed quotations from him and Planes. I didn't want to build a new house ! Only refurbish a loo ! How could we reduce the quotation ? Hardly at all. The dearest item, apart from the labour was the tiles, but at less than ten percent it wasn't worth spoiling the ship for a lick of tar ! We went for it !

I think that loo is the talk of the Languedoc - everyone who comes to the house wantsssss to use it !

It did take from October to February to build, presumably with all the tradespeople using it as a wet-day fill-in, and even then I had to chase Mhailac up on the 'phone several times in the week before we were due out again, to make sure it was ready for use !

At the other extreme, during one particularly hot spell when the temperature was up in the nineties, in the shade, we decided that we had to have water in the garden to cool us down.

We singled out a spot, behind the rosemary hedge, where the original vegetable patch had been, almost level, open to the sun but sheltered from the view of others. We could have built a swimming pool, but we reckoned for all we would swim, and for the tremendous difference in cost, a dip pool would be adequate to save us the necessity of leaving our lovely garden to drive through the heat of the day to a beach.

Iliane, our kind neighbour, had recommended a local jack-of-all-trades in lieu of M. Mhailac and his entourage. So we called up M. Barcelone, who has since become a firm and useful friend, Vincent and his wife Denise.

Vincent, a small rugged man of iron, just fifty, who always wears a smile on his face, appeared the same evening. " What did we want ? " A pool, two metres cube. " That's easy ! " " Where ? " We showed him. " When ? " Well, we go home in twelve days - we'd like to use it before we go for a few days........ The look on his face would have stopped a bus, if there had been one there !

He scratched his head, regarding these mad Scots quizzically. Were they serious ? " If I can get my two prospective sons-in-law to help me.....it might just be possible...." " I'd have to fit it in with my other work.....I work from four in the morning till noon....for my social security, you understand..."

To cut a long story short, he and Alain arrived with another lad in his early twenties and started to dig. From one o'clock, in the heat of the day till nine at night !

On day two they hit rock ! No matter ! Out came the picks ! We were so fascinated by the operation that I took photographs every day, at different times, to monitor the progress. Without those photos, of which both Vincent and I have copies, no-one would believe anyone could work like that!

Day by day, the earth became a hole, the hole was lined with reinforced concrete, the concrete was skinned over, the top was tiled, the two steps inside had their tops glazed green, and the surround was completed with cream shaped slabs, the interior was coated - by day five it looked ready for water !!

But Vincent made us wait two days more - for the concrete to cure.

Seven days, from start to finish - like the Biblical tale !

The opening ceremony of G&T's and kir's, taken while sitting in the water on the first step, is remembered to this day !

Don't ever tell me the French don't know how to work, when they want to!!!

Needless to say, I have used Barcelone again........

                                                                                           39.

Spending our days, half sun-bathing holiday, half shopping for curtains, another clic-clac for downstairs, some wicker chairs, garden tools and the like, time sped pleasantly by and we started to know where the good things and nice people were.

The visit to the curtain shop in the main street in Bedarieux provided such a meeting. Madame la proprietaire, a large edwardian looking lady, dressed in black, had just buried her husband that month and was in tears whilst serving all and sundry and telling her story, but by the time we had finished with one string marked in red for length, and the other in blue for width, with material spread out all over the counter she had almost forgotten her troubles trying to solve ours. She was so helpful and friendly that we often pop in just to say hello.

Madame la chocolatiere is another favourite. We first made contact with her after being invited out and looking for a small gift to take our hostess. Madame is a big, bustling, blond, in her early fifties, always talking to three or four customers at once, while serving. Chatter, chatter, chatter - she talks so fast we only catch half of what she says. But, her chocolates ! All hand made ! Scrumptious ! Every season, or festival she has chocolates made specially in shapes to suit the occasion. Recently we went in at Carnival time to bring some presents home. Sheila spotted some chocolates in the shape of different Carnival figures. Reading the price as five francs each we thought a goodly bag each would suffice to take home for our mothers. The two clear cellophane bags were wrapped in beautiful coloured ribbons, and then in individual bags, while the queue of shoppers watched and waited - a picture to behold - I handed over about fifteen pounds equivalent of Francs. Madame looked at me, I thought because I had given her too much - " Oh no, M'sieu, that's not enough ! " - They were fifteen Francs each ! £1.50 per chocolate! Our fault, me with no glasses and Sheila only half looking - though she swears Madame had written the numbers badly just to confuse us ! How could you believe that of such a sweet smiling charmer ! You couldn't ask her to unwrap those beautiful packages and take out half ! The shop was full of people. We paid up ! We will go back - but we will be careful !

One evening, to celebrate our purchase of the house, we decided to ignore local advice and go to the restaurant called La Forge, the would-be Claridges of Bedarieux !

Driving through the black cast iron gates set in the high wall, a carpark for about twenty cars is on the right. Crossing the pebbled driveway there are some half dozen tables and chairs set out under the trees. On the left, quite a high white building covered in bougainvillia and other creepers beckons us toward the door. The evening being cooler than normal we went inside. At a dark wooden bar, a smart looking, but po-faced woman comes to meet us - " Have you booked ? " An affirmative answer cheered her up a little and she led us through a pair of swing doors behind her.

What a sight greeted us ! High vaulted white ceilings soared away from us like some giant church ! Along the walls on the left were three smaller, but still huge vaulted transepts. These smaller sections were full of giant bellows and other equipment, relics of the time when this building was a working cannon forge ! The decor took our breath away! Condescendingly, " Would we like a seat at the window or well inside ? ", we hardly heard the question.

Coming to, we chose a window table so that we could see everything. Seated with mouth-watering menus we realised that, apart from about six staff, we were alone ! It was gigglingly funny ! " Had we booked ?!!!! "

To be fair, although the meal was expensive, reflecting the surroundings, we did enjoy the evening and will go back there.

During our stay we ate twice with Guy and Pamela, once Sheila made one of her first dinner parties at home and the other time we met them in a restaurant. It was the beginning of a great and loving friendship. We felt so ' at home ' with them ! Our educations were similar, our interests amazingly compatible. The girls were best buddies by day two, with Guy and me sharing ideas in the slower way men do. Histories were told and futures planned.

One of the things about living here, which I think Sheila feared, did not seem to be happening - isolation.

That first holiday in ' our house ', we did very little sightseeing, although we did visit the beaches a few times, including one day we spent at Cap d'Agde, walking among the hundreds of boats tied up in the marina, and having a seafood lunch at one of the many restaurants on the edge of the walkways round. We still have not been all round Cap d'Agde. There seems to be a large inlet in the middle of a point which juts out to sea, which acts as the safe harbour, and then beaches either side of the point, one of which must be the famous nudie beach ! We must go there......

We had gone for some long exploratory walks on the quiet roads about the house. On one of these we found a little aerodrome, used nowadays by the local flying club, but almost certainly a leftover from the war. One Saturday the droning of one particular plane's engine above the garden, caught our attention. It was going round in circles, but very much higher than usual and very slowly, as if having a great struggle to keep going. All of a sudden it seemed to shoot ahead, as if released from a catapult ! We watched as four black objects seemed to drop away from the plane. Then brightly striped parachutes opened and four men slid to earth trailing blue and orange smoke. We had to go and see what was going on ! We walked the half mile to the aerodrome in record time ! Arriving slightly puffed we found Bedarieux aerodrome was the venue for that years "Parachutist de France " competition. The table of silver cups glittered in the sunshine - we never did work out how they were awarded, there seemed to be at least two for every competitor ! After watching for a while, until we got cricks in our necks and they stopped for lunch, we went back to the house where we found the angle of vision actually gave us a better view of the afternoon's proceedings !

Sheila actually promised me a flying lesson there for my sixtieth birthday, but when it came around, chickened out saying she didn't want to lose me, yet ! Beware the gift of a flying lesson !

For good simple meals we went a few times to a small restaurant pizzeria run by a man and wife team, Baptiste's. When talking to them he had worked in Scotland, for a few years, only ten miles away from our house there ! It's a small world ! Baptiste's was recently taken over by a woman from Lyon - she does the cooking and her daughter serves - a bit more upmarket but good.

Lunch at the Goguets' and a reciprocation when Rene and Iliane's daughter and son-in-law came too was a widening of our circle.

Aperitif's at another neighbour, a Bedaricien and his wife, the Bayol's completed our social whirl.

With all this we were being recommended to go there, visit that, etc., and were building up our list of " we must go there's..."

But, it would have to be for another time.......this visit was fast growing to a close and we would soon have to shut the house up for the winter, and, apart from the ministrations of the plumber, the macon and Uncle Tom Cobbley and all putting in the new loo, leave it unoccupied till the following February.

We would be back.......

                                                                                           40.

Apart from the infrequent telephone conversation or fax between Guy and myself, our house could have been in another world. But it did exist !

The winter took its own time, but February did arrive, the loo was finished.

I had persuaded Sheila that this would be the right time in the year to start our visits. Winter would be over, Spring would be sprung, and so on ! If she had ever seen my fingers crossed ( they were so crossed they were twisted ! ) behind my back........... But I was lucky ! So far, each year that we have been, the middle of February has been sunny, at least double the temperature in Scotland, dry and calm - the best gardening weather of the year.

We arrived in time for the almond blossom bursting, a few daffodils and the deep pink of the giant saxifrage, all in bloom. Roses budding enough to need pruning, weeds needing weeded !

The macon having quoted me over a thousand pounds, that first February, my self-delegated task was to take up the crazy paving extension to the veranda, find out what size it really should be, and then re-lay it, pointing all the joins with mortar as I went. Now to any ordinary man that may sound quite simple. For me it was like asking a four year old to build Sydney Harbour bridge ! But innocent at large, I dived in !

Lifting up the pieces of flat stone, levelling the sand underneath, and re-laying the stones in some sort of pattern covering the bare earth was relatively easy - even for a handless oaf like me !

That is it seemed easy, until halfway along it struck me that although the bottom of each stone was level with its neighbour on the earth, because the thickness of each one varied, the top surface was like a rough sea !

It occurred to me that I better stop at this point and see what would happen if I stuck it all together with cement. Cement ! What kind of cement ? I had heard workmen talking about such things. There were different mixes for different purposes, like sellotape and superglue ! Off to Bricomarche !

" Ready-to-use Cement ? " " Ciment, c'est par la ! " " Its over there ! " OK, they must only have one kind - that makes it simpler ! Ha! Ha! over there, were six different piles ! Ciment, Beton, avec sable, sans sable, plus sablee, moins sablee, fireproof ! Any instructions on the bags were either illegible or too technical for me to understand ! When I asked an assistant " Pour patio ? ", " Oui, Oui, pour patio ! " So I did what any red blooded Scotsman would do - I took a bag of the cheapest !

Like pictures from a comic book, those on the bag, showed clearly how to add the water and mix. I was good at that ! The first lot was so wet it was like slurry and all ran away down through the sand under the stones ! Erring on the cautious side, the second lot was so dry I couldn't spread it ! Third time lucky, and by now with sore knees from kneeling on the hard stone, I had a mix I could work into the cracks and gaps and which didn't disappear. It looked good - but, it went nowhere ! I had spread about a tenth of the ' patio' and my bag of cement was empty !

I went back to Bricomarche, pushed my trolley round to the place in the yard where the cement was, just like the pro I wanted to be - they wouldn't think this foreigner didn't know what he was doing ! The pile where my bag had come from was empty ! I looked round for an assistant - "...have you any more in the store ? " " Non, we only receive a delivery once a fortnight. You'll just need to use one of the others. " Great ! So I took the next cheapest! Three this time, that must be enough !

As soon as I was back on my knees on the rocks of Sodom and Gomorra, I realised I was in trouble ! This cement mix was a different colour ! But I carried on. It was a lot better looking than when I had started.

To cut a long story short, because of other things we wanted to do, and the fact that my three bags ran out about a quarter from the end, I had to leave that until my return in April when, guess what ?? - neither of the cements I had used werrrrre available, and because of the good weather and everyone doing-it-themselves there was only expensive fireplace cement left - they had their own back on the cheapskate Scot !

However, I'm still quite proud of my handiwork, which has stood the test of time !

One day, when patio cement was not the flavour of the day, Sheila demanded that we start going to some of the " there's " that were building up on our list of things to see. " Its a bit windy today, lets go to Carcassonne."

Carcassonne, city of history, only seventy miles away, towards Spain, yes, I liked that idea ! Mind you I suppose it will only be old ruins, but, so what, its something new and different.

Twenty minutes down to Beziers, then onto la Languedocienne, heading west, away from Montpellier, following the coast along the plain. I don't know where we went wrong, but at Beziers, somehow we managed to miss the motorway ! Oh, well, despite the wind it was a nice sunny day, so we just carried on along the A-class road to Narbonne, the first big town on the route.

Rolling through vineyards and wheat fields, more as we went west, we were so glad we had not found the autoroute ! We saw little country towns and villages we would otherwise have missed. We even passed a sign which said " This way to Toulouse Lautrec's House and estate " - that for another day, we must go there......

Narbonne itself seemed to come and go in a not very interesting way. I had always thought it a fairly romantic town, but all we could see were dirty industrial buildings. Maybe the road deliberately swung us away from the interesting bits - we must go and look one day....

Entering Carcassonne, the impression is something like Narbonne, but bigger. After five minutes or so of suburbs and commercial buildings, signs for the " old town " start indicating a high bit of the town to the left. Following these we were cleverly guided into a one way system ending in a carpark with an attendant, even in February, doing well. A number of bus tours had just arrived, fairly obviously either going to, or returning from Lourdes which was only a few small hours away in a fast coach.

Looking back up the road which had led us into the carpark, a stone wall about fifty metres high faced us. In reasonable condition, as if refurbished, and yet it looked quite old.

Moving up the slope, we came to a huge wooden drawbridge over a deep moat, with a tower either side, then through walls as thick as a house - and that's what they were ! There were houses built into the walls !

Inside, the castle clearly became more than just that ! There was a whole town in here !

Carcassonne was originally a township, known to have been occupied by the Iberians as early as the fifth century BC, taken over by the Romans, the Visigoths, the Moors and finally the French - even the English Black Prince vainly tried to capture it in the fourteenth century.

Everyone wanted it for its wine ! Even today, it is one of the main wine towns in the world - and, amazingly, much of the wine is still shipped down the Canal du Midi ( the one we followed near the beaches, seventy miles away) to the port at Sθte.

Turning left, following a cobbled street first into a square of a dozen shops, mainly of a tourist souvenir or cafe type, and then carrying on, in a rising curve, we walked for about half a mile past old houses, all refurbished, until we came to a large square with a cathedral on the opposite side.

The whole town has apparently been subject to renovation works since 1844! What an undertaking !

However, so pleasant for a stroll round on a cool day. The shops nearer the cathedral had more interesting items on show. Sheila keeps nagging me to go back and buy one of the clocks which were very different from any we have seen anywhere else. I bought a book, in one of the many bookshops, all about the Cathars - one of the first of the tragic Christian sects to be persecuted, and then virtually wiped out by their brethren. I was amazed to read in it that the knight, Simon de Montfort, who made King John, in England, sign Magna Carta - the first step towards the "Rights of Man" so talked about today - was a mercenary minor noble employed by the Pope of the day to massacre the Cathars ! Wars of ethnicity - nearly a millennium later will Man ever learn ?!!

But, what an interesting place ! Something for everyone !

We finished our visit by climbing three or four steps up to the door of a restaurant facing the cathedral. From our vantage point, as well as enjoying an excellent meal, we were able to watch the conducted parties from schools all over being shown the points of special interest by their guides, and to compare the similarities and differences of the various other tourists wandering about.

I don't think we saw half the interesting things .....we must go there, again !

Returning home, we completed the circle by following the road through the world-famous Minervois wine country (where today Australians and Californians are making their mark with new production methods ) to St Pons and Bedarieux - the "wine road" as it is known locally, and if tales are true, has been known by that name since the Greeks drew their supplies from here long before even the Romans had arrived !

                                                                                              41.

My next visit to the house at Figaret was in April, just after Easter.

In my view there is no better time to be in the Languedoc. The cherry blossom in just about every field and garden reflects a pink and white glow over the whole area. In some parts, near our house, there are miles of hillsides covered in orchards where a quick glance gives the impression of a recent snowstorm having engulfed this sun drenched landscape !

The sun shone every day, to the extent that one day, after hacking through the foot high grass with a strimmer had drained my resources, I lay down in a chair-bed for " ten minutes " and woke up an hour later frazzled - lobster red!

Apart from being there to make sure the garden was all tidy and ship-shape for our next visit, in June, when we were going to bring out the three grand-dames of our families, I also had firm instructions to find "nice" drives within easy distance, with possible stop-off places where they could wander.

To find such, I started with the longest likely, or possible, by looking up my old friend the yellow Michelin map for the region. It looked an easy run to go down to the seaside at Narbonne Plage, then swing inland to St Pons and back home through Lamalou and Herepian.

The proving run started shortly after lunch one day as I did not reckon it would take me too long. The run down to Narbonne Plage was familiar from our trip to Carcassonne, but I did turn off the main road to make sure that the actual place was presentable - only the best would do for Tanny, Sheila's maiden aunt, my mother, Mamie, and Sheila's mother, Gagy, the first two in their late eighties and Gagy running hard to catch up.

That done I turned inland following the road signs - I should have known better ! When Michelin shows a few u-bends on his map there might be a mountain or two on the way ! The beginning of the run was a pleasant rising road through now familiar vine country. However, the road intermittently started to follow a river valley which twisted and climbed, and climbed and twisted till I thought I was going up Mont Blanc ! After about ten miles of climbing through the tree country nearly up to the rocky summits, the road broke out onto a rolling plateau of fields and gentler hills with cows and sheep grazing - I pinched myself to make sure I was awake - I could have been in northern Perthshire in Scotland ! Even the types of trees and fencing could have been taken straight from there ! It was uncanny and even started to rain the kind of soft wet rain that I had thought peculiar to Scotland ! After some miles the plateau gave way to a descent commensurate with the ascent I had accomplished an hour earlier, down into St Pons, that dull one street town, once so important to the wine trade, but now, because of the coming of heavy lorries, only a shadow of its former glory, shaking and shuddering as the megaton loads rattle by on roads designed for donkey carts.

The road from there to Bedarieux, with the sun once more shining on the Caroux mountains to the left, was fairly slow, about an hour of many twists and turns, following the Orb valley home, from the halfway point, Roquebrun, - the bridge at Roquebrun, where the canoe school hire their cockle-shells to would be heroes, for life and death struggles against the river, on its way to the sea from Bedarieux, overlooked by the aptly named Black Mountain ! - " Dad, you old fogey, it's so exciting, and quite safe!"

This exploratory trip over, four hours later, however much it had interested me, I decided it was not one for " the ladies ". Tomorrow I would have to try again to find something a little less ambitious !

Driving around, I had seen a couple of notices advertising the " old town of Boussages " - Boo-sa-gess in local pronunciation. Referring to my old friend Michelin, and then a local district map which I found the bookshop sold, Boussages looked a good bet.

The route de Boussages actually starts at the floral roundabout with the surreal letter B in the centre, at one end of the new bridge out of Bedarieux and climbs up, about a thousand feet, through a mixture of modern and traditional houses, some perched very precariously on the steep hillside, but all having superb views over the Orb valley and the town itself, way down below.

Reading the map carefully, I saw that I could join the same road by going up hill from our house, about half a mile, and joining it just past the little aerodrome - like most country areas there are linking roads everywhere, if only you know where they are !

The road plateau's out at the aerodrome level although hills covered in cherry orchards spread on upwards all around. The road narrows to a single track shortly after passing a goat farm, advertising goats' cheese for sale. ( The conditions in which their cheese is made would not be tolerated in the UK, but I, who do not like cheese, can tell you that this is out of this world - the ultra-fresh " first day " variety is just like eating pure ice-cream on a hot sunny day under the veranda's shade ! )

The empty road winds on round each successive hill, roughly following a level, giving sudden views of distant blue-green mountains in the Cevennes and beyond, vineyards dropping away steeply from the road edge, cherry orchards, masses of white rising just as steeply above, then stopping in a straight line below some rough scrub or outbreaks of rock at the very top where blue sky and golden sunshine meet to light up the whole picture.

Five miles, but because I had to go slowly on this unknown path, with its hidden corners, and also stopped several times to take in some particularly spectacular vista, the leisurely drive took about half an hour.

The first sign of buildings was a broken down roofless chapel on my left. However, it was different from others, in that inside a pair of wrought iron gates, wide worn steps led up to a stone altar which seemed in fairly good condition considering its apparent age. It looked as if it might occasionally be used - not that deserted image of many such sites.

Farther along, on the right, high broken walls of stone denoted a castle of sorts - "Danger" notices proclaiming it unsafe to venture near, I drove slowly on.

A cross-roads then let me see room to park outside two large wooden gates set into a high stone wall which seemed to be a continuation of the broken castle wall round the corner, but, which had obviously been rebuilt.

Walking through the gates was like taking a step back in time ! Under the arch, feet met small smooth rounded cobbles leading upwards. The path was about seven feet wide and gave access on to a street of stone houses which had all been rebuilt in recent times and, which were all occupied. Living history !

Every house had entry at differing levels, some directly off the cobbled way, some up flights of stone steps anything up to ten high, some straight, some twisting, some with landings covered in pots of bright red and green geraniums. A picture postcard village! and alive!

Definitely a place for the ladies - we must go there....

But the itinerary was not complete. Even allowing for the time the ladies would take to wander round this idyllic spot it would only occupy an hour or so - my brief from Sheila was to find day trips !

A few hundred metres, going back along the road home, I noticed an even smaller road descending, on the right, in a westerly direction. I checked my local map where it was noted as going on down to join the old Toulouse-Albi road to Herepian. Worth a try.

Careless again of contour lines on the map - after all if a map says there's a road, there's a road,......... isn't there ?!! - I turned right.

Well, the first couple of hundred metres if a little steep and narrow, led down the side of a very steep hill on the traverse so as to cut the effect of the angle of descent. The surface, like the road I had just left, was tarmac. The view across a deep valley was magnificent - greens and rusty soil mixing in the sunlight from a golden globe, now directly behind me. It was warm, but with the windows open, not unbearable. That is, until I rounded the next bend !

The road dropped straight down a section of dried mud and stones, steeper than any road I had ever driven on ! My temperature went up ! What was I to do ? I did not fancy reversing up all the way I had come - what would happen if I made a mistake and went off the edge ? No four wheel drive, Nobody for miles ! I might not be found for days ! Panic was not far away ! Well, if the English could climb Everest, a Scot could drive down a road ! Clenching my teeth and sweating profusely, I drove on in bottom gear. The noise of the revving engine in that peaceful valley was awful !

Once engaged, the descent did not seem so perilous - at least I convinced myself ! The mud track turned into concrete after a hundred or so metres.

It must have taken ages to bring the concrete lorries up here - I gave up count after the dividing marks between loads laid reached two hundred - perhaps a relic of German wartime efficiency ?

Down, down for two or three miles, when suddenly the road flattened out, turned back into tarmac, and swinging round a large bend on the valley floor, went through a tiny hamlet of maybe a dozen stone houses with a little children's playpark at one side, beside a boules pitch. Civilisation - I didn't care how old - just thanked my lucky stars that I had made it !

Winding through the hamlet, a more normal road went out in front of me to join the main road to Herepian.

Believe it or not, whether out of bravado, or just to give the ladies some excitement, I did take them over this route, that June, and they had a lovely day out.

After " Terror Hill " the flat winding road at the valley bottom follows a river, at one point over the Devil's bridge, to Villemagne.

Another old village whose importance has declined, but whose magnificent stone abbey still dominates the surrounding houses. Here, on Guy's recommendation, we made ourselves known to the two men who run the Restaurant de l'Abbaye. They had managed to acquire part of the buildings on the edge of the abbey complex and turned its ancient vaulted stone ceilings and arches into one of the best, and most interesting eating places around. ( They have all sorts of special dishes and even a Gourmet's Mystery Menu, which if I ever have the guts to risk..... - volume, content and price all being relevant in this context - ......I must go back there.....!!). I think the trout we had was caught that morning from the river, only a hundred paces from the door, whose banks are invaded sporadically by sleepy fishermen who don't need to do any work as the thousands of silvery fish queue up to be hooked !

Two miles along to Herepian with its huge church which looks ancient, but, in actual fact was only built, albeit on old foundations, during the last century.

There is a sad little story, which is said to be true, told locally, that when this church was finished, the bishop came all the way from Montpellier to open it. To thank him for such an honour, the elders decided to send him a present. As the countryside around was famous for its apples in those days, what better than two panniers of local produce for his lordship to enjoy. They loaded the panniers on either side of the village simpleton's donkey and gave him instructions how to make the two day journey, and who to ask for when he arrived at the bishop's palace. As it happened, the weather was extremely hot, the poor messenger did not think to protect the fruit from the burning rays - the apples, exposed for two days, cooked in the sun's heat ! Arriving at the palace, overjoyed at the honour he had been given, to deliver the town's present to the bishop, the proud simpleton was absolutely amazed when the bishop's guards pelted him with the wet mush from his own panniers and sent him on his way !

The church behind me, ten minutes later I was home.

This would be a good route for the ladies day out !

                                                                                              42.

June was bursting out all over - the three very young elderly ladies had been talking about nothing else for weeks !

The only thing spoiling Mamie's anticipation, was the thought of catching a plane at six forty five in the morning ! Such times of day didn't normally exist for her !

However, to ease the logistics a little, everybody stayed at our house, the night before. It put the loo's under pressure, but they all survived !

We made the airport on time, where a queue of wheel chairs awaited ! - There was no way Sheila and me were going to handle luggage and the three wobbling wanderers ! Gagy, to prove fitness, pushed hers !

The sight was even better at Gatwick, where the airline had organised one of their miniature indoor coaches to transfer us between terminals - Sheila and I rode on it too !

Excitement mounted as we actually landed in Montpellier where Guy and Pamela met us with two cars, so that the ladies had no hanging about, and took us all home. The chatter in the car, cruising along with the windows all open to the soft warm air, had to be heard to be believed.

Every sight that we had come to know so well was a cause for new excitement and wonder. The long hill just before Faugeres, where the sixteenth century windmill hoves into view near the top of the Garrigue, roused their interest even more when told we were only ten minutes from home.

"Oh, Michael, this is wonderful, " - " Sheila, darling, super, fantassssstic,...." from all three, as they got out of the cars in the driveway.

A place for young and old, they had a ball !

Invited out to lunch to Rene and Iliane's, afterwards they rolled down the path to the sunbeds - starting at noon, it was nearly four by the time we returned home! Eat, eat eat ! Drink, drink, drink..... Every one of Ilianes' potent fruit juices had to be tried !

A barbecue with Pamela and Guy went down well. They all made friends, and of course, Ma had three, almost contemporaries, to chat to in English - a rare treat for her !

The weather did its best and part of every day was spent sunbathing - that was after the queues for our one superloo were sorted out, sometime between dawn and eleven a.m. ! Breakfast on the veranda had to follow a similar disrupted timetable - especially as time had to be allowed for each of them to choose and pick their own cherries fresh from the tree. It suited me, in a way, because I always managed to do some gardening while they sorted themselves out.

One day we went to Narbonne Plage for lunch. The drive through the fairly wild empty roads for the last couple of miles surprised them - everyone forgets how big and empty France is !

Entering through the new part of town, with small villas of ochre coloured walls and red tile roofs, we carried on, via the shopping street, such as it is, to the little port at the mouth of a small river.

Crossing the stone hump-backed bridge, over the river, below a towering monument, we turned left into a small carpark in front of a row of single shops and two or three restaurants. I parked the car almost on top of some of the small boats tied up at the quay.

The river itself widens out to form a little harbour for smaller boats, while nearer the sea we could see a large marina full of rows and rows of boats in all shapes and sizes, overlooked by what, for want of better description, I called a control tower - glass all round its top level, just like in an airport !

The restaurant nearest the sea and the marina beckoned and we went in. Like most food places here the menu had just about every kind of fish imaginable. The average age of our party must have drawn attention ( or perhaps, just sympathy ! ) because the service and the food was excellent.

We staggered out after coffee, needing a gentle stroll to make room in our legs for some of the surfeit to go !

A pleasant warm breeze fanned our faces as we passed by the control tower, moved round to the right and walked along the top of the breakwater made of huge raw rocks blasted out of some poor mountainside, and covered with concrete to form a pathway. The breakwater, about a quarter of a mile long, divided the sea from the tied up boats, their wires and ropes clicking and clacking as they rolled in their quiet berths on our left, but also from a long sandy beach which swept away to the west on the other side. Somehow air from the sea, where there are boats, always seems fresher and we all felt the benefit of walking in the warmth of the afternoon sun to the miniature red lighthouse at the far end before turning for the return to the car and home. We have been back....

Another day we went to Roquebrun, for lunch in the Petit Nice restaurant - petit it may be, but nice it is ! Only the French could use up all the land overlooking the river Orb going through some of the most glorious waterfalls and scenery, to the extent that there is no space for a kitchen in the restaurant! The glass screened patio which encloses the eating area for about thirty tables absolutely overhangs a precipice, whilst the kitchen is across the road, in a little hotel/bar, next to the Mairie which doubles as a school - a legacy from school reforms in the last century. For some reason, despite its recommendation in the Michelin guide, we didn't reckon the meal up to much - we must go back to see if it was just an off-day !

While the walk to the top of this village, literally built into a cliffside, was considered too difficult for Tanny and Mamie (who incidentally, both died in their beds at home in the winter of 2003, aged respectively 96 and 95,) Sheila and her mother set off for the famous tropical garden sited right at the topmost point, way up beyond the church, in a maze of little streets from a bygone age. I stayed with the other two. Nearly an hour later the two explorers returned, chagrined looks on their faces. " What was wrong ? " They had made it, with much effort, right to the garden gates, only to find they did not have one French coin between them to pay the entry charge ! Another reason to go back !

Sheila and I did go back, last February, but not for the gardens. The Fete de Mimosa ! Words to conjure with !

                                                                                              43.

I saw a notice about the Fete in the Midi Libre - the local rag. It sounded almost too good to be true! - even down to " free wine " !

We arranged to take Pamela, now living on her own, for lunch first, at one of our favourites, le Grand Pin, about three quarters the way to Roquebrun.

On the patronne's request, when I made the booking with her, we were there sharp at a few minutes to noon. We went down the wide steps cut in the embankment, from the lay-by which they somehow seem to have acquired for a parking space, down into the large sheltered garden at the restaurant's basement level, thinking we might have our aperitifs there sitting in the glorious warm February sun. We were only there a minute or two, laughing at the six-inch high electric fence to keep the rabbits from running away, when Monsieur, who is also the chef, came out for some wood for the open fire, inside the restaurant, and more or less shoo-ed us in as he obviously wanted to start serving - he probably wanted to finish early to go to the Fete !

Back upstairs, entering the restaurant from the car park at street level through a glass panelled door, the first impact was the huge open fire, in the right hand corner, with a whole side of pork turning on a spit over the red hot embers of a fire whose remnants showed it to be of twisted old vine wood - and the smell !!!! Mmm....mmm ! They don't need any signs up " salivate on entry " !!!

Pamela commented that this is what the locals consider a proper restaurant because the dark wood tables were sporting red and white check tablecloths! They were also set with glasses and cutlery sparkling in the rays of the sun blasting in the open windows opposite.

As we were early Madame let us choose to sit at a window where we could watch the side of pork gently rotating and savour the Spring air. She and a friend were the only two there to serve - how they do it is amazing, but no-one seems to wait and food and drink all come as required, in a constant flow. Her husband, a cheery handsome dark-haired man in his late thirties, cooks everything over the open fire with little pans and a range of special swivelling griddles, then carves each portion direct off the spitted joint, sets it out on the plate and hands this and an individual bowl of vegetables to one of the ladies to serve the thirty odd hungry clients. With a different type of roast each visit, goose, duck, wild boar, lamb et al, variety is never a problem - but we have discovered, by accidentally being late one day, that there is only ever enough of the chef's special for about three quarters of the customers ! At such times the sight of a pork chop on the plate, however well cooked, is quite a let down !

The meal, finished off with home made profiterolles filled with chocolate ice-cream, had us reluctant to move on, but the pre-event write-up on the Fete intrigued us, and even though Pamela had lived in the area for about seven years, she had never been.

So, with the bright afternoon sun reflecting off the surface of the Orb below us on our left and lighting up the green mass of the Caroux mountains on our right, we drove off towards Roquebrun, in a mile or so turning left over the suspension bridge off the St Pons road.

What is normally a quiet country road seemed extraordinarily busy - We obviously were not the only ones to have read Midi Libre !

Winding its way along the wall of grey-white rock, gouged out of the verdant hillside over the centuries by the river, the road finally opens up to let us have first sight of Roquebrun ahead - and the queue of traffic heading there !

The crawl over the last half mile gave us time to look at the houses built on the steep slopes to our left, and a glimpse of the church half-way up the hillside. Mimosa trees were flooding the gardens with their bright yellow florets, covering them from top to toe - in amongst these, in particularly shady spots, were orange trees with oranges on them ! Oranges !, this was February ! But real live oranges they were !!

The road edges were nose to tail with cars parked by the early birds ! However, the row of cars ahead kept inching slowly forward so we stayed with them. The cognoscenti knew what they were doing ! About half a mile past the first of the parked cars, two gendarmes, a man and a woman, were directing our stream of traffic into a field to park right before the first village houses. One or two very Gallic arguments were slowing the procedure as, every so often, either a villager, or a conman, tried, with much waving of arms and raised voices, to outwit the two police and drive on into the village !

Once parked, we followed the crowd on foot over the remaining half mile into the village centre. As we approached, now walking under the mimosa and orange trees, people everywhere were seen either carrying mimosa, or wearing some pinned on to their clothes. We carried on, feeling a little naked !

All along the parapet to the pavement on the river side of the street were stalls with gaily coloured awnings selling local produce, to eat, drink or take away - cheese, churros ( a hot freshly cooked Spanish crispy potato and flour croquette ), crepes, wine, honey, craft gifts and balloons, as well as bags of confetti !! Now what on earth could that be for ??!!

The crowds were so thick near the Mairie, at the centre, opposite the Petit Nice restaurant which itself was so full that the waitress could hardly squeeze her way in with the dishes of food that had survived the tumultuous street crossing, that we three decided to climb up on the Mairie steps and sit down there for a drink.

Whether by design or sheer chance, we had chosen the best seat in the place to watch the proceedings to come !

Slightly elevated above the crowd, we were the first to see the majorettes in their bright red, white and blue uniforms, as they marched along the street being followed by a film-set French Oom-pah band ( as Sheila called them - all Oom-pah and no tune ! ). They marched to the far end of the village and then stopped while others apparently organised the next part of the entertainment. Meanwhile the good-natured crowds were milling around, trying the stalls, talking and gossiping in the warm afternoon air - so warm and sunny indeed that I was sitting in short sleeves getting sunburned, just like everyone else.

Then the band struck up and two stilt walkers, cleverly dressed up as mimosa trees, with real mimosa branches, came towards us, chasing young children out of their path, then the majorettes, from class teacher down to four year old, followed swinging their silver batons to the music of the Oom-pah.

Behind them, at about twenty foot distance came a narrow vineyard tractor pulling a flower and mimosa covered float portraying shoemakers at their trade - with ten year olds as the shoemakers ! Then more floats, each one loaded with children dressed in old fashioned clothes acting out the parts of the tradespeople their float depicted, from blacksmith to washerwomen !

Now the confetti came into play ! The children on the floats were flinging it at the crowd, and the crowd retaliated in kind - the youngest children even being allowed to use " sticky string " multi coloured sprays ! Nobody was spared - we all looked as if we had been to a wedding ! But it was all done in so friendly a way that we could not do otherwise than join in with the laughing happy crowds.

Another band struck up ! This time more of a traditional jazz band, but still with a hint of Oom-pah ! Another float came towards us - bigger than all the previous ones, with three huge wine barrels stacked on the front. The vintners float ! But behind the barrels........Four women were standing at open taps, placing plastic glasses under each, as soon as one was full handing it to someone in the crowd and replacing the space under the tap gushing red wine with another. It was good too, I can tell you !!

Immediately following that float came the highlight of the procession ! Half a dozen men dressed as bakers and millers, all in white coats and hats, two of them taking turns to push wheelbarrows full of flour, while the others danced round in circles, in time to the fast music, brandishing bellows which they kept refilling with flour and scooshing all over the spectators - who in turn responded with confetti ! --- We later learned that one of these rascals was the Mayor ! --- Being immediately behind the vintners float many full glasses were also lubricating flour filled throats! That party was going to run and run !!

The highlight of our stay, we left for home with the music ringing in our ears, flour and confetti leaving a colourful trail behind us on the walk through the cheery crowd to our car. We must go there again.......

THE END

Copyright - no more than one copy may be printed without contacting the author for permission and arranging payment for same.

After Provence - We must do that.....

By Michael Bernard e-mail: mbernard@ntlworld.com

All Rights Reserved 2000 Mobile: 00 44 (0) 77 11 64 92 15

51500 words

BANNER EXPLODE ID 41500

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