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After Provence - We must
Michael Bernard - All rights reserved
" We must do that..." How often have we said that....?
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.
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.
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!
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?
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
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.
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
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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
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.
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.
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setting. Back to INDEX
Now, on with the story,
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......
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 !
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.
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.
began the first of our " must go there " 's.......
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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.
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 !
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 ".
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 !
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
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!
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 !
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 !
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!
hungry and dispirited !
could only get better............. we must go there !!!.....
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 !
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!
Laurent de Mure, trusted us. Perhaps things were not so bad !
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 !
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
Bonne Terre " was everything its name promised !
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!
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
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.
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 !
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.
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...
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.
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.
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!
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.
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 !
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.
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.
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.....
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
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
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.
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.....
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 !
is definitely on the list. We must return........
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
fell asleep to the gentle lapping of the miniature waves the calm Mediterranean
was sending in to our beach.
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.
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
dialled. Where were the boys ? Only thirty kilometres away at Le Lavandou !
Would we pick them up on the prom' ?
were on our way.....
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.
technically off season in June, this part of the south coast was already busy
especially with many Dutch, German and Belgian cars in evidence.
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.
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
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.
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!"
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 ?!"
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.
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.
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
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
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 " !
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 '.
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.
route back was through Toulon and Aix en Provence.
passant, the twins asked us to go to Bandol, where they had stashed the rest of
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 !
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
is their photo), (Back to INDEX)
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
it was a nice area and, most important, very French.
booked, unseen, from an old Michelin guidebook.
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 !
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.
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.
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
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 !
just after Christmas that year we received a mourning card at home, advising us
that M'sieu had died suddenly and obviously unexpectedly.
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.
lovely place, with happy memories, ....we did go there......
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
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 !
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 !
an hour later we arrived in La Coste. M'sieu was there at La Bonne Terre to
welcome us back and meet the twins.
late afternoon sunshine on the fields, orchards and hills around cast its
spell. We were home, at least for the week !
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.
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.
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
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.
'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 !
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
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.
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..."
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.
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!!!
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.
to say we went back there a few times.....
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 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 !
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 !
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
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 !
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 !
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.
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.
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.
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 !
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 !
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
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.
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 !
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
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.
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 !
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 !
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....
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 !
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........
time in France was drawing to a close so we discussed with the boys what were
their next moves.
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 ?!
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.
found the route for Lyon and drove thoughtfully all the way to the airport,
only stopping for a quick snack on the way.
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!
passed. Work kept Sheila and me very occupied. But by early Spring my thoughts
were once more turning to France, land of my dreams!
first adverts for houses for sale were appearing in The Sunday Times.
'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" !
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 !
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 ?
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 !
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 !
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 !
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.
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
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 !
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 !
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.
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.
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 !
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.
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.
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 ? !
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.
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 !
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
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
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.
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.
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 ?
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.
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 !
three of us left the offices together, Guy walking back for his car, and we two
strolling along to look for somewhere to eat.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
time the receptionist smiled in recognition and immediately rang through to the
boss's office to advise him that we had arrived.
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.
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 ?
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 !
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 !
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 !
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.
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 !
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 ?! "
Langue started his engine, with a shrug., but without comment
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
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
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.
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 !
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 !
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 !
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
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.
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.
site ! But, what was the house like ?
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.
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.
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
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 !
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.
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.
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.
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 !
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
! Now there's a name to roll off the tongue !
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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 !
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.......
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.
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
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.
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.
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 !
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 !
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 !!.....
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 !
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.
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 !
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.
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.
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.
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 !
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.
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 !
waved triumphantly at the view- " Voila! What could be better ?!"
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 !"
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
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
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.
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.
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. ! "
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.
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.
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 !
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 !
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.
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.
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 !
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 !"
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.
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 ? "
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 !
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."
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 !
waved us off, as we left the hotel at Lamalou, on our way to Valras Plage.
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'.
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.
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
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 !
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.
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.
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 !
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!
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 !
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!
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.
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 !
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 !
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.
uneventful journey back took about half an hour. The views of the mountains
with the sun at our back were just wonderful.
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.
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 !
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....
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 !
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...."
could have knocked me over with a feather !
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....."
toilet ! Was that all! She could have it gold lacquered if she wanted ! Could I
believe my ears ?! Was this really my Sheila talking ?!
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
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 ?
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.
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.
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 !
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 !
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 !
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 !
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.
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!
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
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.
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
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....
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!
'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.
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 !
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.
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.
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.
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
meeting at du Langue's was set for two thirty, after prandial recess.
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 !
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
indicated that it was possible...could he 'phone his ex-wife ?
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.
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 ? "
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
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."
with that we signed up a purchase, and M.Monega, a sale, document. Hands were
shaken heartily, with looks of relief on all faces !
done it ! I had my dream house in France !
had to come back......again and again....and again!!!!
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 !!
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."
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 !
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.
time I attempted the dramatic left hand hairpin into the house driveway,
managed it, if only just, and parked behind M.Monega's car.
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.
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.
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.
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.....
made the right decision.....this was going to be our own little haven.
next visit was to be to the notaire, M.Estrelle.
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.
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. "
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.
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
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 !"
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 !
showed us out demonstrating his gentlemanly upbringing with his courteous manners.
pavement once more the summer air that constantly surprises bathed us in a
glowing warmth to match our own internal pleasure.
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.......
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
would be there...................................
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.
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.
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.
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 !
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
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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 !
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?!
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.
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.
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 !
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 !
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......
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.
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 !
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
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......
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
warned Greg about the Doberman, which came up for a sniff at the new stranger,
as we opened the car doors.
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.
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 !
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 !
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.
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.
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.....
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.
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 !
hard to see all the possibilities in such an uproar and Greg indicated that he
had seen enough and it was time to go.
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.
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 !
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 !
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 ! )
had driven up to the house, Greg drove us back to Bedarieux, to park in the
shady square outside Hotel Central.
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.
was fascinated by the sit-up bath and had a go ! Like a child with a new game.
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 !
was ready for bed, after his night on the floor at Marvejols, so we retired
immediately after eating.
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 !
however we had a quick look round the market. A good job we did !
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.
prepared we re-packed the car and headed off. Past Beziers and approaching Valras
Plage, we saw signs for Serignan Plage.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 !
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.
that vantage point it looked as if it was coming from Cap d'Agde and going all
the way to Spain !
may have been hundreds of people there but, because of the vast length, it
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.
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.
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 !
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 !
Back to INDEX
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 !
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.......
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 !
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.
in such a hurry to take possession that Greg told me to drive.
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
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
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
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
We took our two garden chair mattresses
upstairs, laid them out on the floor and gave ourselves up to the all
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.......
Day three dawned like all its predecessors,
with a golden ball in a blue sky, daring anyone to stay indoors and miss one
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
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 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
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
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
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.
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
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 !
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
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
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 !
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.......
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
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
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
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
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 !
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
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
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
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
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
This would be a good route for the ladies day
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
"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
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
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
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 !
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
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
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
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