Saturday 5th April 2008, Caen
When we first retired one of the greatest joys was to have time to visit those friends we had seen all too rarely while we were at work. Over the past three years we have had the joy of visiting many of them and already, at the start of Modestine's latest adventures, we are indebted to several for the warmth of their hospitality as they offer us shelter and send us on our way.
We left Exeter last Monday to pass our first night with friends Peter and Kate in Dorset at their holiday cottage in Charmouth. Together we walked across the cliffs down into Lyme Regis returning home fresh from the cold wind to enjoy the evening together with glasses of wine in their lounge as we watched darkness fall gradually over the sea and the cliff-top crest of Golden Cap.
Next morning we continued to Portsmouth where we took the near deserted ferry "La Normandie Celeste", to Ouistreham, arriving in Caen around 11pm to find our usual warm welcome with Geneviève.
Since then we have simply pottered around Caen, visiting various friends and driving to Pont L'Evêque with Geneviève for lunch and to discover the town. Here we found an antiquated ironmongers where it is still possible to buy those old fashioned things from our childhood that are rarely seen in shops today – camphor balls, starch, woven baskets, brushes, varnishes, cleaning fluids and straw brooms. The owner waxed lyrical about his stock and it was a delight to see someone who still takes such pleasure in providing customers with an old fashioned service.
Tuesday 8th April 2008, Autun, Burgundy
The weekend in Caen passed all too quickly. A freezing walk by the sea along the D-Day landing beaches on Saturday was followed by a stroll in the Normandy countryside around Bayeux where, in Sully, we peeped through the gateway of the former home of Geneviève's late father-in-law Pierre. The house had been a 16th century hunting lodge restored by Pierre where we had spent many happy afternoons over the years while our children, and Pierre's grandchildren, had played on the huge green lawn in the summer, or the hearthrug before the carved stone fireplace with its coat of arms during the winter. It was sold several years ago and this was the first glimpse any of us had taken since then.
In the evening we were invited to supper by Marie Françoise, a friend from Caen Municipal Libraries. She had arranged a small party for us where we were able to meet up with other long-standing library friends Benedicte, Odile and Gaston. By the end of the evening our heads were reeling with the combined effects of the champagne and red wine together with the bubble of French conversation around us.
Sunday we woke to a hailstorm and biting wind. Even that did not keep us from our usual delight of strolling through the huge market down on the quayside where most of Caen seemed to be buying Moroccan couscous, roasted chickens, Chinese nems paella and unctuous tartiflette, all cooked in vast pans on open stalls around the market.
We had been invited to Sunday lunch by Geneviève's brother Yves, where we were joined by their mother Germaine. It seemed strange to be such a small party after years of family gatherings that covered several generations. Now though, Pierre, Alain and Bernadette are no longer with us and all the children have left home or are away studying. So from sixteen at table, we are now reduced to five. Yves had excelled himself producing an enormous dish of baked mullet stuffed with parsley and garlic that was really delicious.
Yesterday morning we woke to find Caen covered in a blanket of snow with the weather colder than it had been back in February. We packed Modestine and, bidding farewell to Geneviève, we set off across a white landscape towards the Loire on the first stage of our route across France. As we progressed south the sun appeared and soon patches of green returned to the fields though the snow remained in the roadside ditches and shady patches. We travelled along minor roads through countless pleasant little stone villages and towns, each looking exactly like thousands of others across France. We stopped in one such, Saint Marceau just north of Le Mans, near the abbey, overlooking the river for a picnic lunch inside Modestine – far too cold outside.
By 6pm we had crossed the Loire near Amboise and arrived at the home of English friends Susan and Ray where we had been invited for supper and to spend the night. This meant we could all enjoy chatting and drinking wine late into the evening without having to worry about getting to the campsite in nearby Loches. Readers of our earlier travels will recall that we first met Susan and Ray down in the Languedoc and bumped into them again by chance when we passed through the Loire several months later. On that occasion they offered us their hospitality as we were like drowned rats after seemingly weeks of rain. The hospitality was just as warm and welcoming this time.
After breakfast this morning we drove into the charming and picturesque town of Loches to explore the bustling pedestrianised streets with their bistros, cafes, charcuteries and bakeries. Above rose the mediaeval grey stone citadel with its solid, defensive donjon – one of the tallest in France, the curiously shaped 12th century church with two pyramidal cones forming the roof, and the beautiful residential palace.
Too icy to linger though and, as we are heading towards the southern sun, neither of us had packed hats, gloves or indeed warm jackets, so we scurried down to the town to warm up with hot coffee in a bar before continuing our journey eastwards across France on minor roads. It takes longer this way but passes through the open countryside, past ancient sprawling, tumbling farmsteads and little villages where heads turn to follow Modestine as a curiosity, possibly the first unknown vehicle to pass through all day. We have travelled about 200 miles today and have seen probably no more vehicles than we would have done crossing Exeter during a weekday morning! The countryside, away from the autoroutes and routes nationales, is almost completely deserted.
Our troubles began when we started searching for a campsite. This part of Burgundy is not really a tourist area and the sites are not yet open. It is far too cold to consider sleeping in a lay-by so we were mighty relieved when we reached Autun to discover the municipal campsite opened a few days ago and there are actually two other vehicles already here.
So we are preparing for our first night in Modestine for nearly six months! We are snug and warm with our fan heater and as darkness falls we are both working away on our computers. Outside across the field, silhouetted against the sky, stands the huge Roman arch that marks the entrance into the ancient town of Autun. We stopped here briefly last September but had no time to visit the sites. We hope to do so tomorrow before the last part of our journey to Champagne to see our friends Susanne and Roland.
10th April 2008, Champagne-sur-Loue, Jura
Yesterday we woke to grey skies and continuous rain. It has continued so throughout the day and all through last night. We seem fated not to visit Autun in comfort. This is our third, brief, disrupted attempt to see the many treasures the town has to offer. However, we did manage to visit the massive Temple de Janus set amidst wet green fields browsed by desolate white cattle on the edge of the city, and the Roman theatre above the town. We picnicked in Modestine with a birds-eye view down onto the site and Ian even ventured down to explore. He returned with soaking jacket and wet shoes to remain in discomfort for the rest of the day.
Not having far to travel we continued on the tiny byroads, passing through the vineyards surrounding Beaune where the famed Burgundy wines such as Nuit St. Georges are produced. The vines are still no more than blackened stumps tied firmly to the wires that stretch across the deserted grey landscape, but in a few weeks the hillside will be covered green as the tendrils start to develop.
Soon we were back in our beloved Jura, crossing the familiar landscape to reach Champagne mid-afternoon. Roland was in hospital having a cataract removed but Susanne made us as welcome as ever and we chatted happily over glasses of her peach aperitif late into the evening.
This morning Hugues arrived from Dôle together with his children Thibault, Tiphaine and Valentin. They spent the morning working down in Roland's cellar, trying to salvage last year's wine which is suffering some kind of malady. When we see how much work goes into the production of wine it is amazing that it can be bought so cheaply in the shops! Once the rain eases they will be up in the vines working, despite the cold, replacing the supporting wires and training the new shoots along them. All this work throughout the year and always the risk that the wine will be ruined!
Around midday Roland was brought back from hospital. His eye was red but otherwise he seemed well and relieved to be home again. During the afternoon he was already down in his cellar organising cleaning operations when he should have been sleeping off the anaesthetic. We were invited to join the family for lunch, a very cheerful meal around the large kitchen table, each course interspersed with various of Roland's wines. We even tried the immature wine that Hugues says is fit only for vinegar. It may just be possible to salvage something but it's poor by comparison to other years.
During the afternoon we braved the doubtful weather for an 11 kilometre round walk to Arc-et-Senans, returning just in time to avoid the next bout of thunder and torrential rain. We again gathered in the kitchen where Thibault and Tiphaine practiced their English with us. Tomorrow we move on from Champagne. Our visit has been all too short but we have had just long enough to see our friends again. Maybe we will return for the next vendange.