Sunday, 29 April 2012

5 days in rural France (in great detail!)

Saturday April 21st, 0515hrs - yup, in the morning! As usual, I got up wishing I'd gone to bed earlier but never mind. I had a holiday to look forward to. It was time to return to Magnac Laval and to Cathy's little house, Étoile de Mer. At 6am, we set off from Cathy's to our park-and-ride place 10 minutes from Stansted. It really is time somebody started flying to Limoges from a more convenient airport! Still, the journey to the airport and the flight itself were uneventful and before we knew it we had landed in grey, rainy Limoges. Cathy's lovely little Renault 4 (Renée) had been helpfully left in the car park by a friend so, after a slightly faltering start where we both managed to forget that the car had a choke which was needed to start her, we set off. After a stop for necessities from the supermarket, we got to the house. It had had a little facelift since the last time I saw it - brand new shutters upstairs and all the shutters and the front door had been given a coat of very lovely blue paint. We dumped our stuff then went for a wander round the village. First stop was unexpectedly l'Escapade, the local bar where, even though it was technically closed, we were allowed in to say hi to Tony and to watch a bit of the setup for the karaoke that night. We'd already made dinner plans but we promised to pop along later, thinking we could always dip out if our nerve failed!
The cute but very old-fashioned village supermarket had finally closed down due to a combination of the ill-health of the owner and the presence of a "proper" chain supermarket half a mile away. It had been replaced by Chez NouNou, a little café with a good selection of drinks, basic snacks, a TV and, most importantly, free WiFi.
In the evening we headed off to Restaurant La Gartempe, a 20 minute drive from the house. It's run by a lovely British couple - I should know both their names having been there three times now, but I can only remember that Rachel is the front-of-house half while her husband concocts gorgeousness in the kitchen. The food is always utterly scrumptious with a good vegetarian option. This evening's fare was sweetcorn and chickpea balls, followed by spinach and potato pie with salad. Despite being pretty full, I couldn't resist hot red fruits and ice cream. We'd had a long chat about the first round of the French elections which were due to take place the following day. Rachel is actually on the local council for La-Croix-sur-Gartempe but as a resident Brit, she can't vote in the regional or national elections.

And so we headed back to Magnac and to l'Escapade. It was packed and we nearly changed our minds but we're glad we didn't. It was a fantastic evening - everyone threw themselves into karaoke (including us), VAST quantities of wine were drunk, and we bumped into Jo, a girl we'd met there last August during another raucous drunken evening, and her new bloke, Mark. Although the bar was populated almost exclusively by Brits for this particular night, three brave older local guys came in, plonked themselves down at a table and, after watching proceedings for a while, attempted to join in despite clearly not knowing a single word of English. They seemed to do pretty well with Beatles numbers. One of the tables had a birthday group - the birthday girl herself, Elsie, turned 91 at midnight and she was presented with a huge cake. 91 or not, she was up and dancing with the rest of us! The bizarre highlight of the evening was one of the regulars disappearing out to the loo, only to return dressed very convincingly as Bob the Builder, which led to an odd karaoke version of the theme tune. Rather a lot of us knew all the lyrics, rather worryingly. At half midnight, we were finally prised out of the bar but the evening wasn't over. Jo had told us that there had been a rather strange man wandering the streets of the village late at night recently so she and Mark walked us the 50 yards back to the house. Seeing as there was plenty of booze in the house we all went in and carried on for a couple of hours. Drunken darts. Drunken Guess Who. Drunken everything. Jo and Mark left at 3am but then, instead of sensibly going to bed, we decided to go stargazing! We finally gave up at 3.45 am, nearly 24 hours after we'd got up.

Sunday 22nd April - I woke up at 11am feeling alarmingly well, all things considered. The less said about poor Cathy until about 4pm the better! We finally made it out of the house at 1.30, but only to stagger to Chez NouNou again. We slobbed on the sofas, drank coffee and hot chocolate, watched the Monte Carlo tennis final (well done, Nadal), managed some stodgy hangover food and then made it back to the house. It was still raining, as it had been pretty much since we arrived, so we started giving the house a spring clean. At 5.30 there was a break in the weather so we went out for a walk all round the village. Just as we were getting back, we noticed something scuttling along the gutter heading straight for the crossroads at the centre of the village. It was a tiny mole, and it was heading for certain death! Mad English animal lovers to the rescue. What a task it was! We tried stopping it with our hands (I can confirm they have rather sharp teeth!), with my coat, with our feet but no matter what we put in its way, its incredibly strong little nose and front feet managed to force through. In the end, Cathy emptied her tiny handbag out and we managed to get the squirmy, squeaky little bugger zipped up inside! We hurried to a nearby field which houses 4 horses and 3 donkeys and let him go. He only went about a foot before burrowing neatly down into the ground and vanishing! On the way back, we popped to the square to see if anything was happening at the Mairie (the Town Hall) at the end of the days' voting. We'd heard that the count of the ballot papers is frequently public and lo and behold, we could see lots of frantic counting and various locals watching. We were too embarrassed to go in and watch so we went back to the house, rustled up a chickpea stew, played a few very silly games but by 11pm we were trashed and crashed!

There's a mole in there, I promise.

Monday 23rd April - After 10 hours' sleep, we managed our obligatory croissants for breakfast from Mme Monediere at the boulangerie on the corner, and then went out for another rainy wander. After completing necessary practicalities at the Post Office and the bank, we visited Joelle, a lovely local lady who is very welcoming but incredibly hard to understand due to a combination of hardly any teeth and the fact that she makes no allowances for our ropey French. Still, between us, we managed a conversation about the election (including the rather spectacular results achieved by Marine le Pen of the National Front), the retirement age and rather inexplicably, the danger of older men falling off rooves (there may have been a translation problem here). Joelle's husband returned at one point and the chat became a little easier because he speaks much more slowly and clearly. As we were leaving, Joelle gave us five dinky little eggs from her chickens and we knew what we were having for dinner.
We drove to Le Dorat to meet Collette, a South African lady who lives out there and who had helped Cathy out by booking Renée in for her MOT, due to take place on Tuesday. We popped into my favourite church (yes, I'm an atheist but I'm still allowed to like the buildings!) and then on to La Petite Fontaine, a lovely café which is popular with Brits and French alike. In rather British fashion, I had a jacket potato with baked beans! When we left, it was still absolutely tipping it down but we decided not be put off. We grabbed the map and just headed for somewhere neither of us had been before - l'Isle Jourdain, about a 40 minute drive to the west. It turned out to be lovely. The main square is up on high, but you can then follow winding, narrow streets through the oldest part of the village right down to the river and the bridge across to the other side of the village. Halfway across the bridge we spotted two wrought-iron gates, chained, but along the overgrown driveway we could just about see a very rundown but absolutely massive house. Attached to the gates was a For Sale sign so we started to speculate on what it actually was and how much it might be on the market for.

Just upriver is a huge viaduct which can be reached on foot but just as we were contemplating taking a stroll up there, the heavens opened and we headed uphill as fast as we could back to the square. We stopped at a deserted café to warm up then grabbed the car and drove back through more torrential rain.  We read for a bit while more rain hammered down on the roof of the sun (!) terrace, then made a delicious omelette with the eggs from Joelle. We listened to music and played more silly games until bed.

Tuesday 24th April - What on earth was going on? We woke up to blue sky and sunshine. After a leisurely brekkie of croissants and Emmenthal we headed first to the reduced-price porcelain warehouse, where I got two sideplates for a stupidly low price (€4.25) and then on to our favourite tat shop, Ecogem, to buy cheap plasticky pointlessness. Then it was on to Bellac where we stopped for lunch at Madame Corbett's, a little sandwich shop run by a friendly Scottish lady. She was lovely but, no offence, not really the best at running a café despite saying she had been working as a waitress or similar for over 30 years. She got our drinks order wrong, we waited over 20 minutes for a simple panini (there were no other customers) and the arrival of 5 other customers practically finished her off. It will be interesting to see what it might be like in there in July and August - let's hope she takes on some staff. The food was good and excellent value though. It was time for Renée's MOT so we dropped her off at the testing station and went for a walk. Cathy was quite convinced that she would fail the MOT, the car is 21 years old, after all, and four years ago, there were a few "avises" - suggested work to be done, though not obligatory. Just as, rather unsurprisingly, it started to rain, we went back to see what the damage was. Hurrah - she had passed with absolutely no work needing to be done!
We drove to Collette's lovely house where we were happily assaulted by her two friendly dogs, and I was impressed by what she and her husband Ron have there. There is the main house they live in, then another little house behind it, a huge brick building where Ron has his forge and also a large barn. Their garden is beautifully kept and they have a few chickens - it's obviously the done thing! From there, we followed Collette to the house of the lady who will be looking after Renée until Cathy's next visit. Sue lives right next door to her estranged husband in a beautiful house in a tiny village. It used to be an apple orchard and there are still loads of apple trees although she doesn't harvest them any more. The place is up for sale at the moment but has been so for three years with no movement at all. The property market in France just isn't good at the moment. With Renée happily installed in the huge (but very dry) barn, Collette drove us back to Magnac for our final evening.

We went for another constitutional round the village, but in the reverse direction to our usual one, then back to the house for a huge dinner of pasta with lentil and vegetable sauce, most of a baguette and some proper "foreign crisps"! Then it was back to l'Escapade, this time to meet Alison and Tony. Alison looks after Cathy's house between visits and sorts it out before and after the other guests who stay there a few times a year. It was another fairly riotous evening with very entertaining chat, more wine and lots of laughter. In the end, we had to admit that our last evening was over and we headed out for one more attempt at meteor-spotting (the Lyrid meteor shower was meant to be around now) but even though the night was clear and there were plenty of stars to be seen, we still didn't see any shooting stars.

Wed 25th April - We got up earlier than any other day of the holiday and set about the final clear up of the house. Recycling went down to the bins by the river. We cleaned the kitchen and bathroom, sorted the floors (OK, Cathy did that!) and packed up. The lovely Collette came to pick us up and drove us to the airport. We were rather earlier than usual but passed the time with a delicious scrambled egg and toast combo from the newly opened restaurant upstairs at the airport. After the usual 45 minute wait in the world's most boring departure lounge we were off and heading for equally rainy Stansted. Our lift arrived, took us back to the car, we aquaplaned most of the way down the M11 and the M25 and then we were home. Booo. All over. It was lovely, as always and we're already planning a return trip.

All my photos can be found HERE.

PS - Re the huge house for sale in l'Isle Jourdain, we'd estimated an asking price of between £180,000 and £270,000. When we finally found the listing we discovered we were a bit out. It was on the market for £535,000 but did include a mill and an ancient fort as well as the four massive buildings on the island and an associated 2000 acres of land on a fishing lake 2km away. Don't think we'll be putting an offer in!