Work colleague Kate has made a bold decision and emigrated to France. Tina and I are going to visit, it’s a first outing for Thelma and Louise, a practice run for the Big Trip, in my mini convertible. We are going to be staying in the gite that Kate used to holiday in before she made The Decision. She now has a remote farmhouse. We are aiming for the nearest village, St Andre de Valborgne, buried in the heart of the Cevennes Mountains in the southern reaches of France.
The GPS takes us along happily on the whole, though there is one heart stopping moment on the Paris perpherique when we misinterpret directions (I’m being polite here), take the wrong slip road and somehow end up facing three lanes of traffic all heading towards us. Fortunately, the French drivers are forgiving and it isn’t very far to another slip road to get us facing the right way. We manage to avoid getting caught by the many intimidating speed cameras erected along the AutoRoute (or maybe we don’t and they can’t be bothered to track us down) and not to run out of petrol.
Thankfully there aren’t too many hold ups (‘Attention: bouchons’ the sign on the gantry warns) and we overnight near Clermont Ferrand. Its an area famous for its goat’s cheese and our evening menu touristique involves cheese at every course. By dessert enthusiasm has been replaced by an overwhelming feeling of nausea. Before we head off to the mountains we take a whistle stop tour of the Parque des Volcans, home of Volvic and Evian (Perrier comes from further south in Gard itself). It’s very evocative with the mist (and some hot air balloons) hovering over the distinctive peaks.
It’s a very relaxing week, resting by the river and testing the local cuisine. Kate has a veritable menagerie, chickens, boisterous dogs (one that bites almost as much as it barks and it barks a lot), cats and llamas. The latter have been rescued and live up to their reputation for spitting. It’s also very warm and we end up struggling up hills at times after visiting the village for shopping and a restaurant or two. (Our gite is out in the sticks too).
Kate’s partner Richard zips past us on his mountain bike on more than one occasion. He’s clearly much fitter than we are. It takes an hour to escape the mountains (if that’s the right word, as they are magnificent, if a little forbidding. We make excursions to Montpellier, (imposing monuments), Nimes (excellent arena/colosseum), the incredible Pont du Gard and my favourite, Aigues Mortes. This is a medieval town with walls it’s almost compulsory to circumnavigate for views across the town and out to the flamingo filled lagoons on the edge of the Camargue.
This time I’m flying EasyJet to Montpellier and Richard meets me and conveys me to the farmhouse. I only have one night there before embarking on a new adventure that Kate has suggested- a yoga of relationships group that is meeting for a week at a retreat near St André. We manage a catch up gossip and a visit to picturesque Anduze, the gateway to the mountains.
St André looks much the same. Stone houses, a turret or two, a fountain, a few small shops, the boucherie, the droguerie. The hanging baskets on the bridge are slightly differently arranged. The stereotypical French village with everyone out walking their poodles. The menagerie is still in fine voice. The new cockerel is cleverly named Gregory Peck and there is another dog, a springer spaniel, George, who only threatens to bite when the mongrel does. The llamas have gone, so at least I won’t be spat at.
The retreat location, in a quiet valley could not be bettered. The meadows are carpeted with spring flowers and there is a little beach by the gushing river. Evening camp fires and gentle sing songs are atmospheric and the sunsets complete the perfect view. The retreat is family run and the host’s mother, Frances who’s in charge of the vegetarian kitchen lives in a yurt in the field above the main farmhouse buildings.
I’ve stayed in touch with Frances. She escapes the yurt and the gloom of the winter, when the retreat is closed, to sojourn in India, Thailand and Australia. Now I’m going to spend a few days staying with her in the yurt and with Kate in her farmhouse.
Yurt living is considerably more comfortable than it was in Kyrgyzstan, but it’s still not for me long term. Its cosy - there’s an eco-stove and charmingly decorated with Frances’ art, but the toilet is an earth closet just outside the door. You have to top it up after you go. And the bathroom is in a log cabin up the hill. I lose my way the first time I go for a wash and end up scratched and muddy enough to need two baths. There’s a commode for night tim e- in the kitchen behind a screen. During the day its de rigeur to pee outdoors, its saves toilet emptying and it fertilises the flowers. It’s quicker too.
Its blue sky sunny but windy and sitting outside is an act of fortitude. Over to Kate’s where the mad menagerie has been extended. There are now three cats, all named after soap characters: Elsie, Bet and Lola. Lola is a new arrival. There is absolutely no connection between this and the midnight attack on the chicken coop. Gregory’s comb has been sadly mistreated. He is more aggressive than ever. And very confident - he fought off the attacker despite the damage, though not all the hens were so fortunate. If I approach the cage he runs full pelt to try and head-butt me though the netting.
We stroll up the mountain looking for eagles (but they are elusive) and visit the market in St Jean du Gard, one of the little villages up the valley. There’s the local specialty - boar sausage- in a variety of flavours. Kate buys pate for our lunch but it doesn’t make it to the table; George spots in on the kitchen counter. There is much bad language.
It’s more sheltered in the garden here and I can sunbathe, visited by the animals in turn. Elsie creeps up and head butts me too.
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