Wednesday 10th November 2010, Exeter
Well we are now safely back in Exeter and thoroughly enjoying the comfortable familiarity of our home, not to mention all the space, our own bathroom and a kitchen with all the cooking appliances I've proved we don't really need but still enjoy having around me once more.
Since we left the Jura we have had no opportunity to complete this final travel blog for Modestine4. If we continue travelling and decide to keep a blog in the future we will need to open a new site as our past two years of travels have used up all our permitted space. However, at the moment we have no immediate plans to do other than spend some time in England and visit friends and family here.
On our way back across strike-ridden France we managed to find a restricted quantity of fuel near Orléans. It was enough to relieve our fears of being stranded along the way until the blockaded delivery tankers could reach the pumps. We camped in the cold and wet on the banks of the Loire at Jargeau-sur-Loire, near Orléans.
That day the French government ratified the change to the age for retirement, raising it from 60 to 62. They carefully judged it to be just before the country went off on holiday for a week. Holidays are sacrosanct so there would be a few days for everything to simmer down until work recommenced after the Fête de Toussaint.
On the 24th October we visited the centre of Jargeau, where, despite the cold, it was the fête des andouillettes. Food stands were doing brisk business selling burned and greasy sheep's entrails, tightly packaged into sausage skins, along with glasses of the local wine.
We followed the banks of the Loire to Orléans where we walked across the bridge into the city. Strangely, it is a place we had never stopped before and it turned out to be a delightful city though rather disrupted at the moment as the new tramway is laid around the streets of the centre and along the road leading up to the Cathedral.
Along with the cathedral the main building of note is the beautiful early 16th century Hôtel Groslot. Originally built as a private residence by Jacques Groslot, after the revolution it became for a while the city hall or Hotel de Ville. It was open without charge to the public. Inside we marvelled at the heavy, beautiful 19th century decoration of the walls and ceilings, the ornate fireplaces and old furnishings. We discovered a panorama of Orléans which we dutifully photographed for Ralph in case it had slipped through his net. Outside the building stands a statue of Jeanne D'Arc, known to history as the Maid of Orléans after she led the French army against the English occupying the city in 1429. She is riddled with bullet holes and shrapnel, presumably from bombardment during the Second World War.
During the fading light of a wet afternoon we continued across France, bypassing Chartres and arrived in Caen in time for supper where we received our traditional warm welcome from Geneviève.
We spent longer than usual in Caen this time. During the day Ian would frequently disappear off to the city archives and the library to check through caches of documents, books and illustrations he'd discovered in his search to comprehensively gather material pertinent to the 18th century book trade in Normandy. Meanwhile, I accompanied Geneviève on her various missions to find such diverse things as an alarm clock, purple potatoes and coquilles St Jacques.
On the Monday evening we were invited for aperitifs across town with Françoise who accompanied Geneviève to China in 2008. She lives in a delightful cottage that once formed part of the stables of a 19th century house. It is hidden away in a secret garden completely unsuspected from the street. Aperitifs are one of the really good things about French social etiquette. They can be as elaborate or simple as your host wishes. They can last a courteous half hour or linger on longer than a supper party. Françoise and her cat opted for the full monty with choices of several quality wines from the Loire, Pinot de Charente and an expansive collation of canapés which we enjoyed snuggled around a log fire in the large open hearth of Caen stone.
On the Tuesday morning we walked across town to visit our friend Claire. Her daughter Katie, whom we have known since she was nine years old, was visiting from Paris with her three children. It was a chance to see them all and to catch up on family news.
Returning into town afterwards we called off at the Abbaye aux Dames. Formerly a convent founded by Matilde, wife of Guillaume le Conquérant, it is now the headquarters of the Conseil Régional (County Hall).
The cloisters, the monastery and the neighbouring abbey, set in their extensive grounds all date back to the 11th century and they are stunningly beautiful. From the high mound in the park there are views across the city while the Caen stone abbey is a mix of architectural styles. The windows are rather gaudy modern stained glass but the surrounding stonework, the columns, romanesque arches and gothic fan vaulting are all exquisite. In front of the altar is the tomb of William's queen while the walls to either side are currently hung with modern tapestries of popular female saints.
During the afternoon we drove out to Torteval to check on Zoe and Eva, Chantal's teenage Vietnamese daughters currently on school holiday and left alone at home for the first time. Chantal has at last found a suitable job and is working in Orléans but cannot yet take time off for the school holidays so is reliant on Geneviève's help.
On Wednesday, while Ian continued his trawl through the archives, I received a cookery lesson in Geneviève's kitchen learning to produce pâté de saumon. During the afternoon
We drove to Courseulles in pouring rain in search of those essential coquilles St. Jacques. They were being sold on the quayside direct from the boat and were removed from their shells and cleaned for us while we waited. This was my first glimpse of the sea since we set off towards Romania back in late August. Despite the cold and the damp we walked along the sandy beach in the rain. Unpleasant as it was, it was highly invigorating. Nor were we along. Several young men along the beach were receiving tuition in windsurfing while out at sea wet-suited masochists clambered onto their surfboards to rip back and forth parallel to the shore at astonishing speed. This stretch of coastline formed part of the D-Day landing beaches where the Canadian forces came ashore in June 1944.
The above was written after our return home. We now pick up the account that was written at the time:
Thursday 28th October 2010, Caen, France
This morning we filled every possible space in Modestine with French canned groceries, wines, coffee and chocolate. All these are cheaper in France than England and as the entire country will be closed for the holiday of Toussaint next Monday there may be no other opportunity before we leave.
Sometimes I think this is a strange country. Laic it may be but it has more religious holidays than most countries. Really the day is intended to be spent thinking about family members who have died. The cemeteries are full of carnations and relatives can take the opportunity to polish up the gravestones and tidy around the family tombs. Many however seem to treat it as an extension of the week long holiday taken by parents across the country to tie in with the school holiday. Others add it to the weekend which at least gives them the opportunity to visit relatives a bit further away. France is a big country and families are frequently widely scattered.
The fuel pumps were still mainly closed today despite shortages having gone on for well over a week. The situation has improved however and returning home we managed to refill with diesel though the pumps for petrol were dry. So we will still be leaving France with a full tank of cheap fuel. (1.13 Euros, almost exactly £1 per litre even during a crisis.) Petrol is far more expensive in France so most vehicles use diesel. The government has ordered fuel companies back to work and distribution priority is being given to diesel. In the few places where petrol has been available the prices are said to have increased greatly.
Back home Geneviève was busy making a cheese soufflé for lunch. At the crucial moment Chantal arrived unexpectedly with her Vietnamese daughter Eva. There had been a demonstration against the passing of the retirement law in the centre of Caen and they'd been taking part. Really there is little point in objecting now as it has become law but I've given up trying to understand why the French behave so irrationally sometimes.
Somehow the soufflé survived the interruption almost unscathed – not quite as high and fluffy as Geneviève wished but pretty amazing by my standards. French meals are frequently bits of this and bits of that so we easily accommodated two extra friends for lunch which was a very enjoyable interlude with Chantal practicing her English which she rarely has chance to do. Later Ian and I were sent off to the florist for a bouquet of roses for Marie-Françoise who had valiantly offered to host a reunion supper tonight for all our library friends, including Bénédicte from Bayeux and Odile and Gaston who gave us the inspiration for our travels to Romania.
Just before we were ready to leave, little Anouk, who lives next door and at ten years old is just starting piano lessons, came around for a practice session on Geneviève's piano, treating us to an experience we have not had since our daughter Kate disappeared off to university leaving behind her piano and music, never to take it up again.
Our reunion with our friends from Caen library service was a very happy time for all of us. With the exception of Odile and Bénédicte we are all now retired. They meanwhile struggle along, preparing for the new 54 million euro library planned to be built over the next few years while the rest of us sympathise with the chaos it is causing and feel relieved that we no longer have to face such problems on a daily basis. Marie Françoise had excelled herself as usual with an entire battery of wine glasses on the table and canapés and champagne as an aperitif. Geneviève's rillettes de saumon were greatly appreciated as an hors d'oeuvre and Marie Françoise's roast pork with mushrooms, peas and carrots was perfection. By the time the cheese course arrived I was losing track of the conversation and four of my wine glasses lined up in front of me were beginning to look wobbly around the edges. Fortunately it wasn't me who was driving home. It was such a delight to us to find ourselves in the company of friends we have now known for many years and represent for us everything we love about France. Whenever we pass this way they go to great trouble to ensure we all meet together and we take the utmost delight in their company. Thank you all for the warmth of your welcome, Gaston, Bénédicte, Odile, Geneviève and especially Marie Françoise for hosting the evening.
Friday 29th October 2010, Caen, France
This morning it was market day at the Fosses Saint Julien. Even if we'd needed nothing we'd have gone. French markets are the best in Europe by far. However, our friend Claire is coming for supper tonight and we needed the poissonnier for several shining, slippery mackerel to be cooked with parsley in white wine. For the starter Geneviève is preparing the coquilles St. Jacques we bought off the boat at Courseulles the other day. All this makes me feel very inferior with my "put it all in a pot and hope for the best" school of cookery but I am following her directions and may yet learn how best to sauté a kidney or skin a rabbit.
Talking of which, this is exactly what I observed in the market this morning. Unfortunately Ian's photo misses the blood and guts as well as the body being pulled out from inside the rabbit skin as it was deftly prepared for the customer while she waited. Geneviève commented to us that her grandfather used to hang the rabbit on a hook and pull the skin off over the rabbit's head. Overhearing us the man paused, as he prised the skin away from around the eyes and cut off the ears, to explain he too found this by far the easiest method but EU market place health and safety regulations did not permit him to string up and gut rabbits that way in public. He said if an inspector caught him he'd be fined 150 euros for each animal on his stall. He then wiped the blood off his hands onto his apron, popped bunny in a bag and took the customer's money, rummaged in his tray and handed back some smeared and sticky change! He'd got rabbits and chickens he'd prepared earlier (sounds like Blue Peter) which were lying unwrapped on the counter but that was apparently okay. I never cease to be amazed by French interpretation of EU regulations concerning public health and hygiene!
Once we'd filled our shopping caddy with mackerel, organic carrots, purple potatoes, red onions, beetroot and freshly laid farm eggs we went for hot chocolate in the market cafe which Ian and Geneviève found very atmospheric. On the way home Ian and I bought a pot of chrysanthemums which we took around to the cemetery to place on Alain's tomb as it will shortly be the Fête de Toussaint. Geneviève will make her own visit later.
Walking through the huge city cemetery we were amazed at the bustle of activity taking place. Many of the graves already had several pots of flowers on them, others were being cleaned up by the families and polished with brushes, brooms and buckets of water.
Alan died 14 years ago now. His grave, with its polished granite book, symbol of his life's interest in libraries and rare books, stands beneath a tree shedding leaves as golden as the chrysanthemums we placed there. It's hard to realise it was so many years ago that he and Ian planned to work together on a publication once they retired. After his death little did we realise it would actually happen. Ian now has all the material he needs and a deadline for producing the publication Alain started so long ago.
This evening Claire came for supper. A very agreeable and relaxed affair. By the time she left it was pouring with rain which continued all night.
Saturday 30th October 2010, Caen, France
By contrast with last night the sun has been shining brightly all day showing the autumn colours of the countryside to full advantage. This morning we drove to Bayeux to visit the renowned Saturday market. The town is as charming as ever and we felt nostalgic for the happy weeks we spent there just two years ago.
After a sandwich lunch with coffee in the town we called on Bénédicte whom we had warned we might be in Bayeux and in need of an after lunch coffee. During the afternoon we drove across the flat countryside to the cliffs overlooking the brilliantly sparking blue sea where the ferry crossing to England could be seen on the horizon.
Normandy formed the main defensive area for the occupying German forces and bristles with defences. There more than forty blockhouses along the cliffs in anticipation of the invasion from the English coast that eventually came on the 6th June 1944. They make up the most concentrated section of the defences that form the Atlantic Arc – a line of blockhouses that stretches right around the European coast from Spain to Scandinavia. We have written about the events of D-Day in a separate blog. The area we visited today at Longues, lies between Arromanches to the east and Pointe du Hoc to the west. The blockhouses were bombarded relentlessly from warships off the coast and although eventually knocked out, many of them stand today as solidly as they did sixty-six years ago. Today the cliff tops were busy with visitors enjoying the crisp sunshine as they enthusiastically explored the bunkers with their mighty gun turrets.
We walked down the steep cliff path to the pebbly beach where we watched the waves breaking gently on the shore. The sea is something that we always welcome after travelling deep into Europe. There may be mighty rivers and huge lakes but the sight, smell and breeze from the sea is something very special that no freshwater lake, however large, can quite match.
Sunday 31st October 2010, Caen, France
Halloween and this evening the doorbell seems to have been ringing continuously. No sooner had one coven of three or four tiny witches scuttled off down the path clutching their broomsticks and some sticky sweets than the next little group would arrive. By the sixth visit we'd run out of sweets and chocolates and the novelty was starting to wear a little thin. "Trick or treat" is definitely a girlie thing, the only boy being a small wizard with Harry Potter type glasses carrying a demon's head on a pole, who'd been dragged along by four of the girls in the street with promises of fruit flavoured sucettes and free chocolate. None of their mums could have been left with much make-up judging by the black around the eyes, the painted fingernails and the red blood smeared on their chins and clothes! Romanian vampires were as nothing to these youngsters!
Geneviève's mother Germaine, and her nephew Camille joined us for lunch, a very pleasant affair which was followed by a typical French gateau, exquisitely decorated and tasting of coffee, apples and chocolate. Having walked Germaine home during the late afternoon we took Camille down to the station with his luggage to catch the train back to Paris, where he is studying French literature at university.
This morning, while Geneviève prepared lunch, we left her in peace and took a stroll beside the canal basin in the town centre. Here, as usual on Sundays, it was the huge market where couscous, paella, tartiflette and roasted chickens are prepared in the open air for thousands of Caennais to take home for lunch. Many people here are given luncheon vouchers by their employers as a tax-free perk. They are intended for use at lunchtimes in certain restaurants. However, on the market today they were being traded as currency for take-away family-sized meals of hogroast or chicken with roast potatoes.
Having searched in vain for a replacement sink plug (totally essential when camping in Europe where they are never, ever supplied) we crossed to the crowded bar of the PMU for coffee and to enjoy our usual market pastime of watching the punters filling in their betting slips over a pernod or three.
Just outside, a lady was selling jars of jams, pickles, pâtés and tapenards. To our ears her French was excellent but detectable as English. As we tasted some of her delicious samples she told us business for her was booming. She's moved to the town of Flers from South West England four years ago and while her partner was working on a house restoration project, she was teaching English as a foreign language and producing her jams and chutneys all week in her kitchen, travelling to the markets of Bayeux and Caen to sell them at the weekends. Even as we talked French customers were lining up for tastings and purchases. She then told Ian she recognised him and that she used to live in Exeter! We'd never mentioned where we came from and were suitably astonished to have been recognised. We wished her luck, promised to look her up on our next visit and purchased a jar of her elderberry and plum conserve and another of her four fruits cinnamon chutney, produced using fruits from her own garden, as gifts for Germaine and Geneviève.
As we were chatting a lady stopped to try a sample and tell us she'd just arrived this morning from Philadelphia for a year long course at the University of Caen. She was delighted with her samples and has promised to patronise the stall while she is here, particularly as she already now knows somebody here who speaks English. As she left, a couple of Irish students on an Erasmus exchange with the University arrived, also interested in samples. So business is booming for some!
Now, a message for all our Normandy friends. When you are looking for the perfect gift for your supper hostess, there is an alternative to chocolates from Jeff de Bruges. Near the tower at the Sunday market in Caen, or on the market place of Bayeux on Saturdays, you will find a little stall selling pretty and delicious jars of jams, marmalades, confits of figs or onions and fruity chutneys to accompany cheeses, salads and roasted meats. Or you may fancy being really adventurous yourselves and trying a breakfast spread of beetroot and white chocolate! You could also practice your English if you like although Rita speaks excellent French. Mention too that you are friends of Jill and Ian from Exeter as we promised we would let all our French friends know about her wonderful market stall.
Wednesday 10th November 2010, Exeter. Continued
Our final day, 1st November, was a national holiday in France. The weather was bright and sunny and as we had all done our duty earlier visiting the cemetery, we packed up a picnic and drove up towards the Cotentin for the day. Here we stopped to explore again the unspoilt little fishing village of Grandcamp-Maisy. During our time in Bayeux we first visited the quayside during the fete de coquilles St. Jacques, a lively event when the coquilles are brought ashore and are cooked and served right there in tents beside the boats and people in local costume dance to the music of an accordion. This time we are a bit early. Dragging the seabed to scrape up the coquille has not yet begun and the fish market was more involved with the sale of crabs, lobsters, shrimps, mussels, mackerel and sea bass. The village is unspoilt and would be a far more interesting place to live than the prettified and touristified nearby resort of Port-en-Bessin which is especially popular with British house buyers in Normandy.
We followed a nearby footpath, once used by customs officers to control smugglers, along the shore of the bay. The landscape here was very flat and light while out in the shallow grey waters of the bay were wheeling gulls and hundreds of oyster beds. The ruins of a blockhouse, a gun emplacement and pieces of rusted military detritus evidenced that this too was once part of the defences against a probable invasion from Britain.
Inland from the coast near Isigny we discovered a series of fish ponds and settled beside one for our picnic lunch. At most ponds there were despondent fishermen casting hopefully upon the water without success. Suddenly a tractor appeared with a huge vat of fish on the trailer. At each pond the driver netted four fish from his vat and tossed them into the water. Eagerly the fishermen resumed business with fresh enthusiasm, hooking them back out again! As non-fishermen we are left bemused. Wouldn't it have simply been easier to hand the fish straight over to the fishermen?
Deciding fishing was a rather boring pastime we made our way through forests of glorious autumn trees to Cerisy-la-Forêt with its eleventh century abbey overlooking the monks' fish pond. In the late afternoon sunshine it was a beautiful, peaceful setting.
Back home Eva had arrived to stay with her godmother until boarding school restarted in a couple of days' time, while her mum Chantal and sister Zoe had returned to Orléans after the national holiday of Toussaint.
Next day we were away before daylight to catch the ferry at Ouistreham. We reached Portsmouth by lunchtime. Like Switzerland Britain is not a signatory to the Schengen Agreement. Unlike Switzerland, customs officials examine passports in great detail. We waited ages while everybody's document was scanned. When ours eventually went through they seemed to have information about us. Our travel pattern is unusual certainly, passing through the port every few months, and we were asked, very nicely, how long we'd been away, where we'd travelled, whether we'd been staying in one location, whether we'd been in Bucharest or down into Bulgaria and several other questions about our travels. After checking something on screen our passports were returned and we were heading homewards.
First though we had friends to see in Andover. Erik's owners Lesley and David, with whom we travelled in Greece, were hosts to our mutual friend Charlotte from Munich. Regular followers of this blog may recall we visited Charlotte and her husband Hans back in June. Very sadly, shortly afterwards Hans died and Charlotte has been rebuilding her life without him. Visiting friends from her past in England on her own cannot have been easy for her, though I'm sure she found happiness surrounded by so many well wishing friends. Several mutual friends since our teenage years converged on Andover to see her and to share her favourite English supper of shepherd's pie that evening. Next day we all joined yet more mutual friends for lunch in Salisbury.
We reached Exeter to find Kate had prepared supper for us. It was a joy to see her again. She is still living with us, still job seeking and still cheerful, though increasingly frustrated at the lack of jobs available for helping young people connect with society. Whenever anything is advertised now it pays little more than half what she earned managing the Teignmouth and Exeter youth inclusion programmes, closed down by the present government! As a money-saving measure it intends abandoning the care and development of disadvantaged and disruptive children to volunteers as part of its plans for the Big Society. It is making the professionals redundant, expecting them to work for jobs that pay little more than the national minimum wage and then accusing them of being work-shy!! With a degree, postgraduate teaching qualifications and years of experience and self sacrifice helping others she is deprived of employment, receives no more than the basic job-seekers allowance (c£64 per week) and is obliged to live with her parents. Meanwhile bankers, who caused all this mess in the first place, are still receiving their massive bonuses. Proud to be British?
Kati, Peter and Huba arrived back in Exeter from Romania nearly a month ago. We arrived home just in time for Kati's latest exhibition of raku pottery. She is a really talented artist. You can see examples of her work and contact her at http://www.users.waitrose.com/~vamos/
Over the coming months there are likely to be major changes taking place in our family with which we will be involved. The immediate one is that Neil and his little family will shortly be moving to take up a new research post in Hull so we are likely to be heading northwards far more frequently than we have done in the past. Friends north of London beware!
Thank you everybody for travelling with us. We hope you've enjoyed the ride. Now though, it's time for you to have some peace from us – unless you live in Britain when we hope we will be seeing more of you before long.
Blogs of related interest include
D-Day Describes the events along this stretch of the Normandy coast in June 1944.
Tapisseries and patisseries There is a description of the Bayeux market as well as our impressions of Bayeux and a description of the Bayeux tapestry.