Sunday 11th January 2009, Pocé-sur-Cisse, Val de la Loire
We stayed in this house in Pocé-sur-Cisse during very hot weather in July 2007 when we described the village and this part of the Loire in some detail. Please do read it again as it provides a contrasting account to this winter one and saves us repeating what we have described already.
After a mere couple of weeks back in England we have returned to France, this time to the Loire Valley. We have planned to spend a couple of months here, in a house loaned by our Caen friends, over the worst of the winter and we expected to be enjoying the warmer climate for which the region is renowned. What we are actually contending with is plummeting overnight temperatures and a blanket of snow. This morning our thermometer registered minus 10 outside and a mere 12 inside the house! As can be imagined, we are extremely grateful not to be reliant on Modestine for shelter at the moment! She, poor thing, stands outside, axel deep in hard-packed snow with ice covering her windscreen, both inside and out. This morning we discovered several bottles of water left inside her were frozen solid.
Before travelling down to the Loire we spent a couple of nights with Geneviève in Caen where we arrived just at the start of the January sales. These, like almost everything else in France, are covered by legislation and cannot begin before 6th January. Every shop in Caen was plastered with posters proclaiming massive reductions of up to 50%. The streets were crowded with shoppers and, despite the financial crisis which is currently affecting all the European countries, most were carrying several bulging bags of bargains. Personally, I found the sales rather a disappointment. French fashions in clothing, shoes and furnishings are very different from Britain and, with the recent plummeting value of sterling, even with their 50% reductions, they all seemed dearer than the normal price back home. Broadly similar items could be found in British sales for half the price.
France celebrates the Epiphany. This seems slightly strange in a laic country but the celebrations have almost nothing to do with religion as far as we can gather. From 6th January until the end of the month a special cake, filled with apples, pears or marzipan, and known as a "galette du roi" is eaten. So when friends Marie Françoise and Bénédicte came for supper, we discovered what it was all about. Inside the galette is hidden a fève. This really means a bean but nowadays it is usually a tiny ceramic figurine and the person finding it in their portion becomes the king of the table and wears the special crown that accompanies the cake.
The big freeze showed no sign of ending but the main routes were clear so we left Caen on Friday morning to make our way down to the Loire. At Alençon we stopped to investigate the regional archives and register as researchers. There is material there Ian will need to consult concerning book trade personnel in lower Normandy. Somehow I seem to have become his research assistant! The staff there were very friendly and helpful and we were grateful for their advice to stop for lunch at the bistro they all use rather than walk down into the town along the slippery, icy streets. It made a very pleasant break during our journey though meant we did not reach the picturesque little town of Amboise until after dark.
Pocé lies just four kilometres from Amboise. Our neighbour here had turned on the heating for us before we arrived but this is definitely a house that is intended for summer rather than winter use. It had stood unoccupied for several months and the electricity supply proved unable to cope with the heavy demand we made on it. As we turned on radiators in hallways and bedrooms the system kept cutting out, leaving us in total darkness without a torch in a strange house with no idea where to find the fuse box, and an external temperature of minus six degrees! What a contrast to our previous visit in the summer heat of 2007!
Next day the weather was even colder, never rising above minus four all day. Things were easier though. The house had warmed up and we were able to open the shutters onto a snowy but sunny garden. We unloaded Modestine and settled in before deciding we needed bread, vegetables and other essentials. In common with thousands of similar French villages Pocé has no useful shops other than a pharmacy, post office and baker's. We needed to drive into Amboise but it had been so cold in the night that for the first time ever, Modestine objected to moving, coughing and spluttering as we tried to start her engine. Her diesel had started to solidify overnight!
Eventually we got her moving and made our way along the icy road through the village towards Amboise. Crossing the Loire into the town we saw that around the pillars of the bridge the river had frozen over and the many islands and sandbanks that lie in its usually shallow waters were completely iced over. In some places it looked possible to walk from one islet to the next, though in the centre the river was still flowing fast and turbulent, carrying blocks of ice rapidly downstream.
In Amboise we found the streets beneath the high stone walls of the fortified castle deserted. Many of the shops were closed and the pavements were covered with ice and snow making them lethal to walk on. The town seemed so inhospitable in the biting cold that it was hard to recall that last time we were here we had sat beneath shady umbrellas outside that pretty patisserie complaining about the heat!
It was so obviously dangerous in the town that we returned home with just a few essentials and contented ourselves indoors, apart from a brief afternoon walk around the village with our hiking boots and sticks. The lake was completely frozen over and several ducks and a heron were slithering around looking rather puzzled and hungry. We walked through the snowy grounds of the village château, along its avenue of dark bare trees and on through the village to the church. Just behind lies the château that for more than 25 years has been the second home of Rolling Stone, Mick Jagger. Many of the recordings of the Stones were made here in this little village! We don't know whether he is still here as we had heard he may be moving. In any case, he will surely be enjoying some winter sunshine at his home in Moustique rather than shivering in his château at the moment. The drive to his home is completely inconspicuous and the château invisible from the road, though it is reputed to be magnificent.
In the evening we managed not to overload the power supply, by heating only the lounge, and discovered just how dire French television can be. They revel in boring chat shows where scruffy looking men and chic, smartly dressed women drone on for hours about themselves and their emotions. After thirty minutes of deep philosophical introspection from some ageing rock star, politician or French sports personality, the adverts, with their syrupy voice-overs and chirpy jingles come almost as a welcome relief! There are only five channels but they all seem dreadful. The news programmes are almost exclusively concerned with internal affairs with little about World events – though current fighting in Gaza was discussed. The weather (metéo) is fascinating. France is a huge country with conditions that differ greatly in the Alps, on the Mediterranean, over Central France, and the northern and western seaboards. Somehow the entire country is covered in seconds giving a detailed regional breakdown of expected conditions over the coming few days. It left us exhausted just trying to follow the bit for our area.
Today has been just as cold, though the afternoon sun did have snow melting from our roof for an hour or so. Making the most of it we wrapped up and set off with a large scale map to explore the woodland and the ridge behind our house. We saw nobody on our three hour walk across fields of virgin snow. There were animal tracks – wild boar, rabbits, deer and birds – but we saw only a couple of crows and a robin. Stunted rows of dormant vines studded the hillside, harsh and black against the white landscape. Ponds and rivers were frozen and the roads were ribbons of hard-packed snow winding through deciduous woodlands where the dark, bare limbs of the trees were hung with huge clumps of gold-green mistletoe. Most impressive of all though was the complete silence. Even our feet made no noise as we plodded on through the snow. As we returned home through the neighbouring village of St. Ouen-des-Vines the temperature dropped rapidly again as the sun sank in a fiery ball in one direction while in another the full moon shone silver in a sky of deep dusky blue fading into mauve and pink.
Back indoors again our home felt almost hot by contrast as we warmed our fingers on mugs of tea.
Monday 12th January 2009, Pocé-sur-Cisse, Val de la Loire
It's still icy cold but certainly an improvement on yesterday with the temperature actually rising slightly above freezing for much of the day. We seem to be turning into moles or badgers, hibernating in bed until late in the morning. Today we slept right through until 10.30am. Our only excuse is that we have all the shutters tightly closed at night to conserve the warmth so we have no idea when it's daylight outside.
Once again we ventured out in the afternoon for a walk along the ridge on the opposite side of the valley. It started with a walk through the grounds of the local château. Here we discovered that in the 19th century an iron foundry existed in the castle grounds employing up to 500 people. The foundry specialised in the production of statues, fountains and garden ornaments and provided some of the figures to be found on the bridges across the Seine in Paris and even in the grounds of Versailles. Several examples produced here can still be seen around the village.
Returning from our walk, at the far end of the village we discovered several troglodyte dwellings built into the limestone hillside. On the front they look like ordinary houses but inside they are cave dwellings. They even have chimneys sticking up through the cave roof into the woodland above! Even our house has a cave cut into the steep wooded hillside in the back garden. In summer it is deliciously cool and houses the garden furniture. We've not explored in there this time as we know there are bats hibernating inside. It's not the weather to risk disturbing them.
Tuesdayday 13th January 2009, Pocé-sur-Cisse, Val de la Loire
Today the freezing weather is in retreat. Temperatures have risen, the roads are clear and there is a constant dripping sound as the snow melts from our roof. We took a drive to the neighbouring town of Montrichard on the river Cher. It is probably a pleasant enough place in the summer but when we arrived there around 1.30 this afternoon it was completely deserted, a penetrating damp was blowing up from the river, the streets were slushy and to cap it all, it had started to rain.
Yesterday we were impressed to see troglodyte dwellings in Pocé, but we are coming to realise they are quite normal in this area. Away from the main street of Montrichard there were very many such houses, obviously still lived in but looking in a dreadful state of repair. Of course we could not see inside but the windows on the front were generally dirty or broken and the doors hadn't seen paint for many years. Smoke rose from stacks in the cliffs above the dwellings and dogs barked as we passed. It is easy to imagine that inside the caves will be equally scruffy and neglected.
The French are a very strange people in some respects. How, in an advanced nation of Western Europe can citizens choose to live in such a mediaeval peasant manner in the 21st century? Until now we'd always assumed the caves were for storing wine, growing mushrooms, keeping tools and equipment or offering shelter to hibernating bats. It is disquieting to see such dilapidated buildings still used for housing, while all around the region there are chateaux of exquisite taste and beauty standing empty. What actually did the French achieve with their Revolution? So many of the old peasant habits seem to continue whereas finesse and good taste seem to have ended with the aristocracy. I know this is a sweeping generalisation but it is not without foundation. Over recent years we have been repeatedly shocked to realise that a country that has produced amongst the very best in literature, music, art, architecture and science can accept without question its scruffy pavements (an obstacle course of bollards, broken drains, "dejections canines" and parked vehicles), its disgusting public sanitation and its frequently hideous modern buildings. It sees nothing strange in placing supermarkets or advertisement hoardings immediately in front of stunning Romanesque buildings, and indeed the walls of such buildings are frequently the accepted place in the town for the public urinal!
Time to stop ranting and go to bed!