The big breakfast

Today we decided to finish our day off in Aubeterre-sur-Dronne because we’d heard there was a pretty good church there. Two, actually. So, having driven around the countryside looking for Romanesque churches, we finally arrived in the hilltop town of Aubeterre. And it was here that I saw one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. It ranks up there with the Lascaux cave paintings and Stonehenge. An extraordinary achievement. However, as I said, that was at the end of the day. Before we did anything, we returned to the cafe to finish our breakfast from yesterday.

Generally our breakfasts in France are small and simple affairs. Breakfast at Comme a la Maison is anything but that. After yesterday’s aborted attempt to eat all 37 courses, we wanted to give it a proper outing today. And we managed to finish.

The bread, the muesli, the French toast and the compote I’ve already mentioned but today we managed to reach the egg and bacon course. And it was delicious. Well worth saving a spot in the old tummy. We’ll probably return tomorrow for Round Three and maybe the fish course…

But it was soon time to sally forth and head out for our discovery of the Romanesque churches of the Perigord Noir. Apparently there’s lots of them and they’re all quite famous. We managed to find two and one of those was shut. We also managed to visit a church which wasn’t Romanesque. Still, it was fun.

Firstly we turned up in the village of Lisle where the church looked a bit foreboding but was locked up tight. Mirinda thought it may have been because the place was undergoing some sort of work (there was scaffolding around the back). So I took a photo and we then drove all the way back to Brantome because Mirinda had left her e-reader in the cafe where we’d had our breakfast.

Lisle Romanesque church
Lisle Romanesque church

The staff in Comme a la Maison were very pleased to see me back until I told them I didn’t want more breakfast but did my wife leave her e-reader behind? They all laughed and handed it over. Such a jolly bunch. We then returned to the trail, hunting for our next Romanesque church.

This time we were a lot luckier. We pulled up outside the massive edifice that is the church at Grand Brussac. It is seriously imposing. There’s also a small carpark which is easily accessible and had a spot free, two things that were rare today.

From the imposing front, the church seems to shrink on the inside (a sort of reverse TARDIS) and seems a lot friendlier.

I forgot to mention that it was Ascension Day today. This is NOT as I have previous claimed, the day that Mary was given the bad news. Actually it is the day that Jesus went to Heaven, possibly on a cloud or a winged horse or a Frisbee…I don’t know. Neither, I suspect, does anyone else. Still, it doesn’t stop the conjecture. I think I’ll go with a Frisbee.

Anyway, the last time we were in France on Ascension Day we were in Saumar and everything was closed apart from an Indian Restaurant and a betting shop. It convinced us that Ascension Day is a crap day to be in France. However, everything is different in the Dordogne because, if anything, more stuff was open than we’d ever seen before. Which is a very good thing.

But, back to the church in Grand Brussac…

Romanesque church in Grand Brussac
Romanesque church in Grand Brussac

I got to know this view extremely well over the next couple of hours because a sparrow was stuck inside and Mirinda was convinced that if we just stayed very, very still up the end of the church and waited, it would eventually fly out the door. Time ticked slowly by as we watched it fly from one end of the church to the other, completely ignoring the open door. It was a long, agonising wait but, you guessed it, the sparrow flew out of the church and disappeared without a care in the world.

Mirinda asked if I liked having the kind of wife who didn’t let sparrows die in churches. I said I’d rather be married to her than to a wife who DID let sparrows die in churches.

I do really have a kind wife.

Anyway, having seen everything there was to see in the Romanesque church in Grand Brussac, we set off for our next one. This was to be in the town of Montagrier.

We sort of saw the tower as we drove by. There was no parking (that we could see) in the town and the overflow carpark outside the town was on the edge of a very steep field which Mirinda was frightened to drive down, fearing she’d fall off the edge. So we kept driving.

We wound up in the town of Tocane-Saint-Apre, sitting at a slatternly Tabac drinking a beer and an apple juice (they didn’t have pear) and contemplating the distinctly un-Romanesque church across the road.

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We had a good look around the church before collecting the car and setting off for Riberac.

Now, Riberac doesn’t get a lot of good write-ups. Apparently it’s a favourite haunt of the English and, therefore, the French don’t rate it very highly. For this reason, we decided to skip it and head directly for what was planned to be our final Romanesque church, the one in the village of Aubeterre-sur-Drone. We didn’t see it. What we did see blew us away.

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The subterranean church is extraordinary. The inside was hand hewn starting in the 7th century by Benedictine monks then enlarged considerably in the 12th century when the owner of the chateau above it returned from the Crusades and decided it needed enlarging. I guess because he’d survived he felt he had to do something for the god he believed he was fighting for. And so he ordered other people to dig out a big church in solid rock using only primitive tools.

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The church is over 70 feet high and features stairs that allow the visitor to look down on the entire place. Of course it’s not as impressive as it was when the place was actually used as a church but even so…it does tend to take your breath away. Mirinda wondered how they could have done it. I suggested it was just what people did before TV.

Simply amazing.

There was nothing else to do afterwards but have a delicious ice cream (it was another lovely day and the temperature reached 28!) on a terrace, overlooking the valley.

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We then strolled back up through the village, stopping for a drink at a handy bar, before collecting the car and heading back to Brantome for dinner.

We tried to get a pizza but the only person making pizza in Brantome had orders up until 8:45pm (it was just after 7pm) so we decided against pizza. Anyway, my trio of fish was delicious though Mirinda was less than enthusiastic about her lamb chops. She was rather hoping for pizza.

Walk me outside with an ice cream

I misheard Mirinda today. She was telling me how she’d like to die lying in a field, looking up at a perfect blue sky (like the one today). She then said that if she died in a hospital I was to walk her outside to see the sky. I thought she said to walk her outside with an ice cream. I then told her that if I was die in a hospital that she should walk me outside with an ice cream. Preferably pistachio or Smurf…or anything except chocolate. And even chocolate if that’s all there is in the shop.

The colour of the Smurf ice cream is exactly how the sky looked today. The blue was so unbelievably deep that we didn’t believe it. Even so, it was. The temperature managed to reach 24 and the air conditioning went on in the car as we drove back to the chateau…having eaten our ice creams beforehand.

Today was our city day; the day we spent in Perigueux, the capital of the Perigord. A lovely city though a city divided into people, places and periods.

There is the early Gallic which was overtaken and expanded into the Gallic-Roman. There was then the shrinking of the Gallic-Roman because of outside forces who believed that the long held Roman peace was somehow a bad thing. Then came the Medieval period followed quickly by the Renaissance. Then came the Modern with everything that holds. And you can see it all! Perigueux is a wonderful tapestry of its past lives.

We began in the middle, joining the throngs of people buying and selling at the sprawling city market that appears every Wednesday and Saturday. Piles of fresh fruit and veg, yummy pastries and bread…it’s all there. Little changed since the Middle Ages, the market sprawls.

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We happily joined the crowds, stopping first at a Salon de Tea for breakfast but then heading for the cathedral which forms the back wall of the market.

The cathedral of St Front is unlike any cathedral I’ve seen. The shape is that of a Greek cross and above each point is a massive dome. The legend of St Front shows how he founded Perigueux…which had already been founded by the Gauls and then the Romans and then probably the Vikings. Though, naturally, the religious claim they founded everything because prior to them everything was heathen.

More importantly the cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which is always something we’re pleased to see. It is seriously an amazing looking church with hints towards the East as well as France, Italy and Spain. I rather liked it, especially the stained glass.

But we couldn’t stay in church all day. We had to head across the Medieval and out towards the Gallic-Roman section of town. This meant walking passed the Military Museum which we managed to avoid. I have to admit that while I’m interested in most things historical and museum-ish, military stuff leaves me a bit cold. And the thing is, I have an Art Gallery Voucher which allows me one visit per trip. (The voucher can be transferred for an unexpected museum visit if necessary.) The Voucher system means I’m not fast and loose with my visits. So we avoided the Military Museum.

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Down the street, across the amphitheatre park (where the remains of the Roman amphitheatre blend in nicely with the grass and trees where once had been 20,000 fans screaming for blood) and through the crowds of high school students gathered around the ruins of a chateau, we eventually found the Roman remains of Perigueux.

Well, actually, that’s not exactly accurate. First we visited St Etienne which is a sombre and forgettable church on the edge of Roman Perigueuex.

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The first thing that stops you in your tracks is the remains of the temple to Vesunna. It’s massive. When you see the model of it, it doesn’t look that big but when you see it in real life, it just blows you away. The photo above doesn’t do it justice. It really is massive.

Then comes the really amazing part of the day.

In the 1960’s it was planned for a big block of flats to go up in Perigueux. Before they started, a bunch of archaeologist were sent in to have a bit of a look see. They found the remains of a Roman house; a domus. It was then decided to build a museum above and around the precious finds and so the Site-Musee Gallo-Romain de Perigueuz was born.

Brilliantly designed by Jean Nouvel, the entire structure sits like an umbrella over the ruins while display cases give an indication of life in Roman Perigord.

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Truly a masterpiece of a museum. Superb. Seriously there are not enough superlatives for it. We spent a long time wandering around it.

However, eventually we were exhausted and headed back to the chateau before venturing out again for our 25th wedding anniversary dinner at the Michelin starred L’Essential.

And what another brilliant find the restaurant was. The food was magnificent, the wine more than a delight. I’m not going to go on about the food because mere words could never do it justice. I’ll just finish with a photo of my dessert with a celebratory candle.

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I dream of fields of cheese

Today’s title comes courtesy of Mirinda who made the comment about me while I stared off at a massive ploughed field quite near the chateau we’re staying in.

Breakfast this morning was something of a giant undertaking. We went to Brantome to the lovely little place we went to yesterday because they advertised that they served petit dejuener. Perfect, we thought. We sat down and asked for breakfast and they brought it. Then, not satisfied with muesli, yoghurt, compote, baguette and jam, they thought we might like two pieces of cake. I also had three cups of coffee to wash it all down though this was my own fault because I inadvertently ordered Mirinda a second coffee which she didn’t want.

Well fed, I stood to pay only to send everyone into a flap. There was more. We hadn’t had the bacon and eggs yet! Really? Like we were totally full and they expected us to shove even more on top? We paid and left with the promise that we’d be back on Thursday to finish our breakfasts properly.

Thus fortified, we set off for the Grottes de Villars only to discover that we’d missed the 11:30 tour of the cave and they were now shut for lunch. No problem, we said, we’d head over to Chateau Puyguilhem first. Unfortunately, the chateau was also closed for lunch. Then Mirinda pulled a wonderful rabbit out of her hat: The ruined Abbeye de Boschaud.

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(It was a Cistercian Abbey so it has a link with Farnham and Waverley Abbey which was the first Cistercian Abbey in England way back in the fog of time.)

The word Boschaud comes from the Latin Bosco Cavo which means ‘wooded dell’ and it describes the place where the abbey was built rather than name it after the place or some non-existent saint. And it is perfect. The abbey sits in a lovely little dell, surrounded by green. It’s quite a peaceful place especially on a lovely day when there was no other people there but us.

Returning to the car we then went to Mirinda’s second surprise destination, the beautiful little village of St Jean de Cole. I should add that that’s not just my opinion…it is OFFICIALLY one of the most beautiful villages in France.

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The first thing you notice about the village is that it seems to be inhabited by fake flowers. They are everywhere, on bushes, on trees, in hedges…it’s as if the people of the village have given up with the natural way and gone for tissue paper and green wire. We then realised that the village has a floral fair every year and this year it starts on Thursday this week. Basically we saw the decoration dress rehearsal. I reckon it’ll be a bit crowded on Thursday so I’m rather glad we visited when it was almost deserted.

Mirinda asked me where I thought all the inhabitants were. She always wonders this because these places are so small and yet nearly always completely deserted. The funny thing is that I always tell her the same thing: “They’ve all gone to work!”

We sent a lovely hour wandering the street (there’s really only one) and checking out the ‘…Romanesque Byzantine church of St Jean Baptist built in the XIIth century and with a quite unusual rounded shape..’ which is the first church so far this trip. And, wonderfully, there was a painting of Saint Sebastien inside. Unfortunately there was no information about either the painting or the artist (though in typical fashion, lots about the St Seb story).

We then stopped for a drink in the only place open in the village. There’s no way we were wanting any food. Not yet. It had only been four hours since a huge breakfast after all. So we sat with our drinks realising that sitting on the terrace of the local restaurant/bar in the early May sun was as close to heaven as I think it’s possible to get.

But heaven was only for the briefest of stops as we continued on our trip, this time to the Chateau Puyguilhem.

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What a wonderful little chateau. And what an equally wonderful guide we had. I say ‘we’ because it was just Mirinda and me…and the guide. And he really loved his subject. His English was excellent and his passion obvious. He took us through the house, showing the various periods and uses. We almost went all over. It was a fantastic hour we had with him and very informative.

The chateau has been lovingly restored (it took 20 years after the state took control in 1939) and even features a few bits that had disappeared. These bits have been reproduced but in such a way as to make it obvious they are new. I really love when they do that. In the case of this place, it was mainly a series of carvings of the Tests of Hercules. Only one of the original carvings remains and it’s a bit destitute as it is. The restorers knew what the other ones were of so they recreated them but in a more modern style. And it looks fantastic.

When quizzed about what happened to the originals, our guide shrugged and said “These days kids burn cars but years ago they didn’t have cars so they broke up stone carvings.”

Eventually we bade farewell and headed over for our final tour of the day, the caves at Villars.

I am so glad we went. Absolutely amazing. Long tapering stalactites dripping onto stalagmites, sheaths of draperies almost translucent and glittering calcite glistening in the limestone. And this goes on for the entire walk of 600 metres way underground. As you walk, you are very close to the incredible formations – you could touch them if you had to though you must not…of course.

Then, to top it all off, there are cave paintings at the end. Amazing representations of horses, bison and a human. Extraordinary artistry so far underground. At one stage our guide turned all the lights off and it is truly black down there. Drawing even a rudimentary figure would be very difficult with only a flickering fat candle but to make it obviously a horse seems impossible.

The paintings are gradually succumbing to the calcite and limestone as it constantly drips over them but that is the wonderful thing about the intransigent nature of humanity – one day we’re here; the next day we’re not. If you’re lucky you’ll see us before we’re gone.

Naturally, the whole tour was in French (though we had handy little laminated sheets in English) but it didn’t matter a jot. We sort of understood some of her talk but the important thing was the amazing formations. It really was enough to make you truly believe in Geology.

The long walk down to the cave
The long walk down to the cave

Back in the daylight we made our way back to our chateau for a bit of a rest before heading out to a small dinner (we were still digesting breakfast after all) at a lovely little restaurant in the nearby town of Bourdeilles. We sat out on the terrace, enjoying the early evening sights and sounds as well as the very friendly dog.

According to Mirinda’s little friend, today was the worst weather we’re going to have for our week. If that’s the case I’ll be more than happy. Today started overcast and then just grew better until the sky was cloudless by the end of it.

We only have three life jackets

I would easily class Brantome as one of the loveliest places we’ve ever been to. From the tiny medieval lanes to the hand cut river running round it, Brantome is a delight.

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We popped over because it’s not far from where we’re staying and because we needed petrol. One of the things about staying in the middle of nowhere is the lack of conveniences…like petrol and shampoo. We found both in Brantome.

It’s only a ten minute drive through beautiful countryside and narrow French roads and suddenly you’re there.

Brantome wasn’t always on an island. A bunch of monks decided it would be a rather jolly jape to cut out a channel right around and into the river Dronne. This formed a sort of moat around the village.

Before the impressive river works, a massive standalone bell tower was built on top of a rocky out crop near where some early inhabitants lived in caves. The tower still stands after over 1,000 years. And the bell still rings. I heard it.

A little while later the abbey was built and the monks would go and spend time in silent, if shivery, contemplation in the caves directly behind them. Then some bright spark had the idea of building a wall around the town and did so thereby making it a fortified island. The abbey was fine because it just had this massive great hill behind it which was fortification enough.

For reasons I don’t know, the first wall around the town was pulled down and a second built. This time the people in the town were a bit wary of the monks and their hangers-on so they decided to block them out and build their own church. (This church, incidentally, is now the Tourist Information Office.) Then this second wall gradually vanished as well with people building homes and stables on the foundations.

Actually the town would regularly flood so the smart people of Brantome lived on the first floor, leaving the ground floors of their houses for their animals or just storage (of things they didn’t mind getting wet, I guess). You can still see this sort of arrangement on the faces of some of the buildings although these days things are a lot more logical…and it doesn’t flood anymore.

We sat outside just such a house and had a delightful hour (or so) sitting in the sun drinking and laughing and trying not to befriend a stray dog who had adopted the cafe as his house. The little spot was so much nicer than the place we’d visited earlier. At the first place we asked if they served breakfast and were met with a rather gruff ‘NON!’ We’ll definitely go back to the second place.

Brantome itself is so small that we managed to walk down every street, alley and road. It must have taken us at least 25 minutes. We saw a lot of Bob windows and ancient history signs and very few people. This, of course, will change on Thursday when the Virgin Mary’s annunciation is celebrated all over France and people go on a frenzy of four day holidays.

(I remember how this particular festival impacted on us a few years ago when it’s occurrence happened to coincide with our trip to Saumur. I’m afraid the place has been blighted with this experience as far as I’m concerned.)

Back in Brantome…the crowds were not really and we had a quite perfect morning wandering the streets looking for all the world as carefree as a couple of Australians can look. Then, after 2pm which is the time that everything re-opens in France after lunch, we went on a boat trip along the river Dronne.

What utter joy! There is never anything quite as marvellous as joining a boat along a waterway especially one as quiet and green as this one. We powered up the river (the water never gets much deeper than 50cm) then let the current bring us back. In order to steer, our guide, armed with a rather big and solid pole, pushed us, punted us and generally kept us from going off course.

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She was a lot of fun with her commentary. She spoke mainly in French but then would switch to English (the passengers were about half and half with another family of unknown origin). The thing was that when she spoke English I’d then need to translate it for Mirinda. Then, just behind us, another English speaker would translate it for his wife. I asked Mirinda about this but she assured me it was because we men liked doing it and the woman were just humouring us. I didn’t believe this but pretended I did then proceeded to tell her about the little beach at the caravan park where campers could swim…just like the nice French lady told me.

One of things she told us was how the boat only carried three life jackets. She hoped we could all swim. As Mirinda pointed out, if the boat did capsize all we had to do was walk to the bank and clamber ashore. The water wouldn’t have reached much above our ankles.

Leaving the boat (nice and dry) we then went and visited the abbey remains and the troglodyte caves behind it. How amazing! The caves rather than the abbey which was damp and smelly more than anything. The caves, however, were extraordinary.

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It was well worth the €5 each it cost to go in! I say this because I read on Trip Advisor how one reviewer said it was too expensive and should be €1. I wonder how far €1 would go to keeping the place looking as good as it does. Really, some people should think before they type.

Anyway, I couldn’t moan, the whole place was an incredible enigma with so much left to the imagination one could run riot. At least I did. There is some explanation, of course, but little known about the inhabitants before the monks arrived. I reckon they were pretty amazing and probably knew the guys at St Christophe’s cave where we went with Bob a few years ago.

I did find this rather odd woman in the caves and figured she must have been left behind by some tour group…

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She was actually complaining about the Dolls House Museum which, until a fair few number of years ago, existed in Brantome. It seems that it has closed after a general lack of interest revealed there wasn’t a lot of point in continuing it. This has happened before and, I dare say, will happen again.

After the caves we took in the display of the work of Fernand Desmoulin (1853-1914) who’s early pencil studies of people were unbelievably life like. He then decided to leave reality behind and concentrate on the imaginary world. His later pictures, while somewhat ethereal and spectre-like were nowhere near as good as his earlier stuff. Poor Fernand thought there was a spiritual realm where the unknown appeared to be inhabited by floating heads with closed eyes.

We escaped Fernand and headed out into the bright sunshiney day. Then, after a delicious French cake in the park which used to be the Abbott’s garden, we headed back to the chateau where we’re staying for a bit of a lie down on the grass.

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Dinner was had back in Brantome at a lovely little restaurant (and possibly the only one open on a Monday night) called Les Saveurs. Delicious food served at breakneck speed by the waitress who, I guess, couldn’t wait to get home. My scallops were possibly the best I’ve ever tasted but the creme brulee was sadly lacking.

Finally we drove home through the dark country lanes until we fell into bed, exhausted.

First class site, third world toilet

I’ll never understand why the French are happy to put up with squat toilets. Beijing I understand but the French? It’s beyond me. But that’s what greets you at Chateau Villandry. The house and gardens are so lovely that it comes as a bit of a shock when you finish and find something out of the dark ages behind the toilet stall door.

Still, I shouldn’t concentrate on the ancient when we visited such a beautiful example of Renaissance architecture as Villandry.

Actually it was originally completed in the Renaissance but then fell into the usual disrepair over the years as well as having various people remodel it in ways that were both ghastly and unpleasant. Then along came the Spanish scientist, Joachim Carvallo and his American wife Ann who, in 1906 decided on two things. Firstly they would restore Villandry to its former glory and, secondly, he would become a Catholic.

And what a splendid job they did. The whole place is amazing. The rooms are bright and airy, the gardens a wonder. As you wander around it’s almost like you can feel the love that Joachim and Ann had for the place oozing from the walls. Even the kitchen is lovely.

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But as lovely as the house is, it fades into a distant second place when viewed in one corner of the extraordinary garden.

The Love Garden seen from atop the keep
The Love Garden seen from atop the keep

When you realise that the massive gardens were restored in 1906 along with the house, it is just even more amazing. The whole thing looks so old and established it’s hard to believe that it’s only 116…at the most.

One of my favourite things about the Chateau is the fact that the original designer decided against the usual symmetry you find in these things. He called it the ‘monotony of symmetry’ and so purposely added little touches to keep it from going too even. For instance, as you stand at the entrance to the main courtyard and look towards the building, the middle of the three sets of windows in front of you is not in the centre of the wall. Also the two wings of the chateau are uneven. It all pleased me immensely though I could almost hear Nicktor’s disapproval.

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I think Chateau Villandry is my favourite of all the chateaux we’ve seen. It even had a St Sebastien hanging in one of the rooms…always a bonus.

Chateau Villandry
Chateau Villandry

It was, however, time for lunch so we popped into the patisserie next door for a baguette and cake before heading for the Dordogne.

And it was a long and sleepy drive south. Poor Mirinda was struggling to stay awake to the point where we stopped at a services for a disgusting coffee and a packet of sour sweets to keep her eyes open. Oh, and I was forced to buy a new hat and throw my old, ratty one away. It was a bit sad. I’ve had that hat for a few years now and it had a bit of Freya mud on it. Mind you, throwing a hat away makes a change from losing it like I normally do.

Serves bad coffee
Serves bad coffee

Eventually, though we reached Chateau de la Cote near Biras, our home for the next five days. And what a quiet place. Snuggled up in a landscape devoid of anything but nature, it both looks and feels the perfect place for rest.

We found our room and settled in before heading down to the restaurant for a lovely dinner though I feel it important to mention that fact that the waiter had no idea what soda water was. Even when Mirinda told him the French for soda water, he had no idea. I’ve never heard of such a thing. It’s completely bizarre. It’s hardly rare.

Still, that was just a blip. Everything else was perfect.

Negotiating the deviation

Another fine sailing saw us arrive in St Malo early Saturday morning.

Getting our stuff together we set off for the self service for my essential coffee. While sitting charging my phone using my egg, we were joined by a curious chap who goes by the name of Maurice J Kirk. I don’t mean he was ‘curious’ per se, rather he was curious about my egg, wondering what it was doing.

This was enough of an introduction for him to then tell us that he was a pilot who had flown from London to Sydney in a race about 13 years ago. He told us about how much he loved Sydney and…well just about everywhere in Australia.

When he left us, he handed us his card which claims he is a ‘Bon Vivant, Chronic Litigant and Aviateur.’ I’ve never met an actual Bon Vivant before so this was wonderfully unexpected. This was not the only unexpected thing to happen today.

Given we’ve been making this trip almost every year since 2003, it came as a big surprise to find that Europcar are no longer at the station where they have always been. They have relocated to across the road. So, not a problem, especially given our luggage is on wheels. The really weird thing is that they appear to have been evicted from the station carpark where their cars are usually picked up from and delivered to.

The chap who handed us the key and documentation, also took great pains to hand us a map showing us where the car could be found. He even highlighted the route then took me outside to show me where the first roundabout was. Mystified, we set off.

It was about a five minute walk and there the car was, parked on the side of the road. Not that it was the expected Fiat 500. Still, we loaded it up and set off, after Mirinda had assured herself she knew how to turn on the wipers and sound the horn and I’d worked out how to use the onboard SatNav.

Incidentally, the SatNav (who we’ve christened Doreen) has an Australia accent and is really rather good. Naturally we have Linda with us and, to be fair, she was a lot better at getting us to our first accommodation at Les Chat Courand in Villandry. Not that we reached Villandry without a bit of an unexpected adventure.

We were happily pootling along when I realised the road to Angers was on diversion and we were going the wrong way. It called for a quick reversal, sending both SatNav ladies into a spin of recalculations as we followed the deviation signs to Angers. The lovely outcome of this diversion was the discovery of Chateaubriant, a lovely town which we’d otherwise never have stopped in for a coffee and delicious pastry.

Obviously, there’s a chateau in Chateaubriant…

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Chateaubriant also features a child who has a love of rattling toilet door handles when someone is occupying the facilities, a fact that Mirinda was not best pleased to discover as we left the bar where we’d had our coffee. It was rather disconcerting but not a major problem. Of course, it did mean I had to position myself outside the door and guard it from any handle twiddling.

Leaving Chateaubriant we eventually and successfully completed the 500 mile diversion to rejoin our original route and make both Linda and Doreen happy.

Our next stop was Villandry where the Chambres d’Hote into which we’d booked is advertised as being ‘just across the road’ from the Chateau. Strictly speaking this is sort of true however there is a river in between and the bridge is about 10 miles away…in both directions. Not that it mattered. The house and garden are both stunning and the bed very welcome for a post-drive nap. Furthermore, it’s only a short drive into the town on the other bank.

The wonderful Chat Courant, Villandry
The wonderful Chat Courant, Villandry

On the recommendation of our host, Eric, we went to dinner at l’Etape Gourmande up the hill in Villandry. Well, what an amazing place to eat. We thoroughly enjoyed the food and the wine was, as the sommelier said “A delight!”

Just for the record we had slow cooked egg in a sort of creamy soup with truffle croutons (me) and three types of fois gras (Mirinda) for entree, crispy duck on sweet potato mash with cubes of various root vegetables (me) and beef faggot in broth (Mirinda) and, finally, local cheese with chutney for dessert. It was fabulous and I couldn’t recommend it highly enough.

In fact, we liked it so much we made a booking for our return visit on Friday.

Savonnières, the other side of the bridge from Chat Courant
Savonnières, the other side of the bridge from Chat Courant

International dance day?

Little did this pair of innocent faces know what was in store for them.

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When I left them at the kennel, Emma really didn’t like me leaving her . Her tail went down and a deep sadness was in her eyes. The woman almost had to drag her away. Freya forgot me almost immediately.

That was first thing in the morning. The rest of the day was spent working (Mirinda) and organising for our holiday (me). And things were going very smoothly. Then… almost a catastrophe.

Back at the beginning of April we hired a convertible for our trip to the Dordogne. As far as we were concerned, it was all done, dusted and paid for. Enterprise Car Hire assured me it was all fine and we didn’t have to reconfirm or anything like that. I’d booked it through Expedia (because they were the only ones offering a convertible) rather than Europcar who we’ve never had a problem with but who don’t have a convertible.

Then I get a phone call this afternoon. Actually it went to voice mail and the message was pretty bad. It was also virtually impossible to understand. I did catch the words ‘Expedia’ and ‘car’ and knew, suddenly, that our holiday was in danger of ruination before it had even started. I checked my email and there was a rather badly formatted message from someone called Alam Basha saying the convertible didn’t exist.

Here’s the email. (I viewed and copied it from my laptop because Expedia haven’t heard of smartphones.)

Thanks for being with Expedia.

This email is with regards to the car reservation and the itinerary number : 71720xxxxxxxx

As per our records you have booked Compact Convertible with Enterprise Car rental. Car Vendor Enterprise had a system error on their side where they confirmed bookings for Compact Convertibles, where as, they do not have these cars in their fleet.

We will be able to assist you with booking these cars with other suppliers. I did try calling you and reached voicemail. I would kindly request you to contact us immediately and we will assist you in getting this sorted.

I apologize for the inconvenience caused in this matter.

Regards,

Alam Basha
Expedia.co.uk
Escalation Team

What I want to know is what kind of system error occurs when someone advertises something they don’t have? How can that be a system error rather than something decidedly dodgy? Rather than a convenient ‘system error’ I reckon this is a way of getting customers who can’t be bothered going elsewhere when the original hire company doesn’t actually have the cars in their fleet. I mean, how can they do that? And, more importantly, how come a respected company like Expedia have them on their system if they’re playing fast and loose with non-existent stock?

The other thing about this email is the complete absence of a phone number to call Alam back on. So, not only was I well pissed off to start with but then I had to get even angrier while I searched for a phone number then went through the indignity of explaining everything to someone else. (Mirinda said she’d trained me well in the art of giving customer service people short shrift.) And before anyone suggests that I could have just called back the number he called me on…I tried that first but received the annoying message that it wasn’t a phone number that received calls. Really? How can there be such things? Here was me thinking phones were for communicating in both directions.

Anyway, everything turned out okay because I simple went back to Europcar and hired a Fiat 500 instead. It’s not a convertible (and that’s sad) but at least I know the car will be there tomorrow when we arrive.

Disaster beautifully averted, our taxi turned up and whisked us away to the ferry terminal for our trip across the channel.

There were two treats awaiting us. Firstly, my first Liverot for a year…

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…and secondly the sight of man with his head in a granny Smith apple.

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It was a delightful way to end International Dance Day and the beginning of our French holiday for 2016.

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The Internet returns

“Is that the suave Gary?” Asked Ann as I walked out of the Talking Newspaper studio.
“Suave? I was going for disheveled,” I answered.
“Well, you’ve certainly pegged that!” Replied Rosemary with a delightful sparkle in her eye.

The reason she called me suave was because of my Ecuadorian hat…which looks about as suave as a turnip.

Is that a turnip I see before me?
Is that a turnip I see before me?

See?

The only reason I mentioned this little exchange is to point out how the people at Talking Newspaper relate to me. They are so relaxed they feel quite happy taking the piss. I really, really like that level of acceptance.

Today I was presenting the Haslemere edition and had a good team so it all ran very smoothly. We had a new engineer today with Pete trying to stay awake in the corner. He sits there in case anything goes wrong with the new engineers. Nothing did, so he just struggled to stay awake.

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On the way home I spotted a lovely tree in the park and hereby include it as one of my favourite trees… though it’s probably the light more than anything.

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… then, at home, the Internet had returned! Weird! I’d turned everything off last night and left it till I returned from the recording. Having turned it all back on it suddenly connected and worked! Weird!

So, tomorrow, I shall have to cancel the engineer… if it’s still working tomorrow.

The end of the Limited Edition

What an odd day. Unexpectedly the Internet went off today. Okay not the whole Internet just my little bit of it. Things started going a bit odd in the afternoon when I was trying to update the blog software. It was running very slow and kept timing out. Fortunately I’d already sorted Linda out for next week.

Eventually it all died and I was forced to ring BT after trying their online fix first… as I should. The lady in India took me through all manner of tests and asked all manner of questions but, eventually, she just booked me an engineer. The trouble is, he won’t be coming until May 9. Good job we don’t depend on the Internet for just about everything entertaining in our life… bugger!

Apart from the annoying hour on the phone to India, I was busy removing individual blades of grass from the Wildflower Patch. And it was as painstaking as it sounds but will be worth it in the long run. (I note that it was a year ago today that Chris first laid the Wildflower Patch.) I also did some weeding in the Hot Border. In fact, apart from the annoying hour on the phone to India, the day was basically spent in the garden.

Of course we went up to the park.

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I can report that the cows are back in the Queen’s Bottom. They always add a little something to the landscape…I don’t mean manure though there’s plenty of that as well. We avoided it because I don’t want Freya getting her nose interested in the wet sloppy ones that Day-z was quite partial to.

Avenue of Trees
Avenue of Trees

So we had a lovely ball throwing stroll up to the castle (the long way round) and back so I could spend an hour on the phone to India.

There was one other thing today…the extraordinarily delicious maple syrup Muller Rice has ceased it’s limited run at Waitrose Farnham. There is much sadness in our house as a result.

Mysterious iron tree fence

On the news today there was a lovely little story about a dog called Pero (I kept thinking the announcer was saying Peril, which would have been delightfully ironic). He is a four year old sheep dog from the Welsh village of Penrhyncoch who was sent off to work in Cockermouth, 240 miles away. He was out working one day, herding sheep, when he decided he’d had enough. His owner said he just took off, without a backwards glance.

Meanwhile in Penrhyncoch, 12 days later, the original owner walked out the front door to find Pero sitting there, happy and bouncy. He was fit and healthy, well fed and deliriously happy. The family were so amazed at his loyalty and desire to live in Wales that they have decided to keep him. Amazing.

What else is amazing is that I’ve been walking the dogs in Farnham Park for many years and yet I still find new things. For instance, today I was walking through Badger’s Wood and I spotted this iron fence.

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It’s ridiculous that I’ve never seen it before… but there you go.

We managed to stay dry in the park although we had lots of little showers today. While mostly blue, occasional black clouds would swoop over and drop fine slush. I say ‘slush’ because it’s basically very late snow. There’s been a bit of snow across Britain today. I guess it’s something to do with the Arctic winds blowing very cold air at us. Of course, the minute the cloud goes the snow is nothing more than a memory.

One of today’s showers that wasn’t so little, chased us back home. Here it is coming over the top of the hill near Squirrel Tree:

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Fortunately we were back in the house when it struck. We watched little bits of snow fall. Two minutes later, the sun was back and ten minutes later the terrace was dry. So there’s only my brief sighting of white to verify that we did have snowfall in Farnham today.

And, speaking of Squirrel Tree…it was looking quite verdant today with the onslaught of new growth around it.

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As you can see, the sun was a welcome visitor when I took that photo.

That aside, I spent most of the day in the garden. I had new plants to plant and old weeds to de-plant. I put a few dianthus (not delphiniums) in the raised beds to fill the holes left by the acid loving plants I moved out last week and planted various annuals in the Crazy Bed.

It was a pretty full day, what with Skyping mum as well, but very fulfilling.

BTW the shop from yesterday is on the corner of Upper Church Lane, directly opposite Loaf the baker. Across Downing Street and down a bit is the Paisley Cat.