Friday 27 June 2008

Automated living

In the absense of anything much that's open in small towns and villages, the French have found a way for some of life's essentials to carry on. Sadly light on job creation opportunities, the vending machine is nonetheless building a role for itself where real service has died out.

If you are stuck for entertainment with only cringe-inducing cabaret on TV or the cinema that has closed, you can always go to the hole-in-the-wall, insert your credit card and dial up a video or two, then post them back through the same hole when you're done. For more energetic entertainment it is nothing to see a condom-vending machine on the street - outside a school, a pharmacy, a post office, it doesn't matter.

You can weigh your letters and parcels, select your destination and class of post, print your stamp and pop your post in another slot, all without speaking to a postal employee; while as one of the ubiquitous motor caravan drivers you're able to park overnight in numerous laybys or picnic areas and, again with a flash of your credit card, access a modern tardis for water, waste disposal and electricity.

As well as the increasingly common - though only in cities - bicycles that you can borrow via a smart-card, in Troyes I saw my favourite vending service so far: at the car park outside the centre you can liberate an umberella or even a baby buggy for the duration of your visit. And there, the vended goods were free.

24th June 2008

Sunday 22 June 2008

Here comes the sun (and I say ...)

A few rays of sun change everything. All life is governed by the climate and although humankind has learned to make adjustments and created technologies to bend the weather to our wishes, it's still only bending and not a volte face.

While the weather has been an ever-present factor for us its impact on the communities through which we pass is equally inescapable. As I write, I'm watching through a white haze the swarms gathering at the Sunday morning market in Moissac. The temperatures reach the high 30s of late and everyone is happy. People stroll slowly in sundresses and shorts and even the Moissagais admit they have a holiday allure as long as the sun shines. Groups of friends are generous with the apéritives in the shaded cafés; and last night the biggest crowds ever assembled for the annual solstice Fete de la Musique in the square under the protective gaze of the famous Romanesque tympanum of the abbey church.

Warm weather opens purses, which gladdens the hearts of restaurateurs and farmers. Just eight days ago our host in the Auvergne fretted at the effect two wet summers would hane on his ability to stay open. And the bent-over farmer instructing his grandson in the ways of cattle moaned that for the second year he couldn't make hay so would have to buy feed during the winter for his unhappy cows.

People in the Lot and the Tarn et Garonne departments - a region called the Quercy - through which we are now passing stitch together a livelihood based on polyculture. Small plots of sweetcorn alternate with tobacco and sunflowers, but it is for fruit that the area is famous. Cherries, figs, plums, strawberries, Chasselas grapes and apricots - they are here in aromatic piles on the market stalls, but the prices are high. The late frosts killed off the blossoms and on many trees no fruit has set. The growers are left scrabbling for an income.

The sun was therefore heralded with glee three days ahead by shopkeepers, bed and breakfast owners and farmers. It was not just the English and walkers who were obsessed by the weather. "Summer will start tomorrow!" we were told by the butcher as he rubbed his hands and looked at the sky. We heard it again and again, till the statement took on the joyous certainty of an end-of-days prophecy. And start it did, with glinting dew and a shiver of bare arms that were breathing for the first time. The sky was silver above the crest of a hill in the instants before the sun blessed it. Such mornings draw us out early, peering at each flower as if it was the first. It's a coincidence, though it feels inevitable, that the sun arrived for the Solstice and our baptism on the "true" St Jacques route. Everything is different. The villages are big and lively, with busy cafés and resplendent butchers' and bakers' shops presided over by talkative shopkeepers. Homes feel richer than almost any area we have been through; the communities are viable and living at peace with themselves. And we are no longer alone. Twenty or more people follow the same path as us at roughly the same pace, making for the key villages and accommodation each evening. So although we don't always walk with other people, it does happen; or different combinations of familiar faces will share a table at a café or collect around a valued water tap. Our thoughts and conversation are thus levened by those of our temporary companions, and their ideas and perspectives on what we're all doing here. Outside the gites the festoons of washed clothes are almost festive each evening and rather than skulk in our room we sit in the late sun as it tickles us out from under the shade of a walnut tree.

As the temperatures mount it becomes imperative to walk early in the day and to spend the two or three lunchtime hours in shade. A hillside orchard could have been invented by Enid Blyton for its views over poppy-filled cornfields to a small green lake and the vineyards beyond. Afterwards, just up the lane, the farmer's wife sat under another tree offering cold, homemade lemon and honey drinks to enraptured walkers, along with her cakes, walnuts and prunes. There was an honesty box, but she did it as much for the pleasure of sharing her view with people from all countries. We were Canadians, French, Swiss, Germans and English to collect there in the breezy eddy of her farmyard. Where once we have been grateful for the offer of hot drinks and shelter from the rain, now a sign pointing us to someone's garden tap overwhelms us with the locals' generosity.

The baking sun is blinding against the white stone and it draws attention to the buildings. And now we come back full circle. In Normandy and Picardy the long, low houses were built of wood for warmth and their thick thatches tucked in tight the heat from the fire - even at the risk of catching fire themselves. The overhanging eaves were sloped to protect the outside stairs from snow and rain and to provide a place close at hand to build the barricades of logs needed to give heat all through the long winters.

Quercy houses traditionally have wide overhangs too, tiled in red and yellow terracotta for the heat to evaporate. It's when you see more modern houses, without the deep eaves, that you realize the wisdom of vernacular architechture. The rooms of the modern houses bake through the length of the day while those in the traditional style are in constant shade. And yet this district, with its recurring chalk and limestone ridges and valleys has moments of rain that can spring up unexpectedly and from any direction as the wind, confused, is buffeted by the rock. So we see that the verandas at ground and first floor levels stretch around three or even four sides, so there'll always be a place to sit or to stretch out laundry in the lee of the rain. The gentle contours of the hills lend themselves to building part of the house into the rock: cool constant temperatures for storage. Our table companions in the Fete de la Musique last night were a carpenter and his wife. He works in all the nearby villages and towns, in traditional styles and modern. We told him of a modern eco-house we'd seen built entirely of thick wooden blocks. Useless to do such a thing round here, he advised. The succession of rain and dry winds would twist and crack such a structure ina couple of years.

I'm fascinated at how the vernacular building styles change and adapt as much to the climate as to the landscape and local materials. As if the earth is given the natural materials people need for homes that will let them live comfortably and economically. In modern cities, in modern homes everywhere, such wisdom has been lost. We build for immediate economy and savings, but pay out in more than money alone to heat and cool our buildings with fossil fuels. Certainly, some architects research and promote other ways of building but cost for cost up front, we're nearly always frightened away from even this new-found wisdom.

Moreover, I'm confounded always by the folly of colonialisation. In our haste for resources and riches and in the pressure of populations humankind has driven itself further and further into parts of the earth where we have no right to be. We sat out a rain storm with a student from sub-tropical La Réunion, a French départment in the Indian Ocean. A nice life, tending towards laziness with only the periodic cyclones to keep an eye on. But in search of employment he had spent four years in Québec and was traumatised by the inhumanity of -40°C winters. And I'm left to puzzle over why people should have wanted to settle there in the first place.

Now, once again, there is talk of colonisation on Mars or some other such distant place, to escape the disasters we have brought to the earth. Does anyone know what the vernacular architecture for Mars would be - the one that would allow us to live in balance between our bodies and the environment there?

22nd June 2008

Yum-yum bye-byes

No, I'm not (yet) insane. It's a rough translation of "Miam-Miam-Dodo", the title of an intensely practical set of books covering the whole Composetlla route from Le-Puy-en-Velay to Santiago. Within two days of discovering them, "Dodo" has become our bible - as David just managed not to say to a priest who was cross-examining us. If only Lauriane and Jacques Clouteau had done similar books for all of the GRs in France, for all of the routes we have walked!

"Dodo" lists all accommodation, all food shops, post offices, banks, chemists, cafés and restaurants within five kilometers of the route. Even any stabling for donkeys. And to provoke grovelling, snivelling gratitude in us, it gives opening hours and closing days, and the information is checked every year. No more detouring to a village where the café shut up shop three years ago and the boulangerie only opens every third Wednesday. But this is tough love too. Before you get to their mouth-watering gobbets of information, the authors knock you into shape for the challenge. I translate:

"The Way of St James isn't the Club Med. If you expect a cheap holiday with delusions of luxury but a little frisson of the Middle Ages, don't start out. ... If after the first few days you are still moaning about the accommodation which doesn't quite live up to your standards, go home immediately!"

You have to be up to earning your food and your night's rest. My heartfelt apologies for all the whinging over the past few months. I am not worthy ...

After my previous outpourings of angst about the mountains, we really did try to keep going for a few more days, but the peaks facing us were over 5250 feet, at which heights the temperature was below zero. There was fresh snow on some of the tops, mid-June or no mid-June. The depressed farmers (prevented from making their hay) and restaurant owners (whose clientèle were too miserable to spend money) all agreed we were right to be wary of the peaks in such weather. They were equally adamant that by August the sun would shine and summer would come to the Auvergne. So we bid them à bientot and skipped on a little, local, lazy train via Clermont Ferrand and Aurillac to Figeac, to pick up the St Jacques route as it comes out of the foothills of the Massif Central and heads into the beauties of south west France. Still raining, but at least it was warm rain.

Then, at Figeac, I was able to pick up emails and read such a supportive and bracing reaction to "Fear" that I'm humbled. The description of the panic that assailed me in the mountains struck chords, it seems, and several sent caring messages sharing your own moments of fear and weakness, making me feel already not so alone in the darkness. And you described the ways you deal with those times - a variety of ways that stop me and give me hope to put them into practice if I need to. Perhaps the common thread is digging as deep into oneself as the fear is, to find the corresponding self-belief to balance it out. With a side order of self-hypnosis.

Some of the advice was bracing. You're with "Dodo" on this one.

"It's strange what sparks off the extreme reactions in each of us... It's better to face up to these things, focus on each instance at a time and not give in to it!" This from my sister Sarah, who we all turn to as the strong one. And from Sal:

"We did zip-trekking in Whistler, Canada last month and the fear of stepping off a cliff at twice the height of the Eiffel Tower attached to a wire by just a hook and a canvas harness almost bowled me over - literally. I thought my legs would give in and I was going to pass out. I felt tears behind my eyes with pure fear, but it was exhilarating to have conquered it and do it! ... So go girl, you can do it!!"

I'm afraid that one had me dreaming the next night of clinging to a rock face on top of which stood Santiago's cathedral.

So although life is all smiles since arriving in Figeac and I'm behaving like a regular person, part of me wonders if, had I been able to pick up emails in Noirétable, the concert of your support, encouragment and gentle telling off would have got me over those foggy mountain tops.

21st June 2008

Sunday 15 June 2008

Pardon my French

We're getting close to where the St Jacques' pilgrims will be legion and we have begun to wonder whether the tracks will be worn bare and whether every bed and café table will be filled long before we arrive. But our main cause of sadness that our (mostly) solitary peregrinations are about to end comes from the thrall in which the world holds the English language.

Until now we have resolutely conducted our life - outside of ourselves - in French. Not just me: David has thrown himself into conversations with our hosts or the people we've encountered in the language of the country we're visiting. When waiters, shop assistants or tourist officials reply in English we smile, continue for a few words likewise to show their effort is appreciated then politely return the conversation to French. And by now, indeed, it is easier for us to think and speak in French for such transactions: there is less risk of confusion. Regional variations of accent now throw us only temporarily.

Occasionally David experiences that fatigue from the fierce concentration of keeping up in a foreign language and he'll zone out for a while - keeping just enough of a sixth sense to smile or nod on cue. But then he might do that in English too, when the conversation rattles on to grandchildren or health or hairstyles; and once or twice - but very rarely - walk-weariness makes him impatient with my eagerness to gossip with anyone and everyone, just because I can. Although even I tried desperately to disengage from the discussion of the Queen's fashion sense in one village alimentation.

While my writing keeps me firmly in the anglophone world I increasingly relate our experiences to myself in French. So does David. He'll often break a walking silence to confirm some point of vocabulary or grammar. Back in January I still had to concentrate hard on other people's conversations or on the TV news to grasp everything that was said. Now, I'm in danger of chuckling over the joke at the next table before they do.

I wonder how I got this easy knowledge of contemporary expressions and slang? I remember when I arrived as an au pair fresh from passing A Level French it took me weeks to convert the static, written language of school into something to use in human relationships. And then it turned out most of my conversation was baby talk picked up from the kids. Homesick, I drifted into an English-based social life and at first my language was so bad that I and a fellow student at college struggled on for ages in French, believing each other to be French, before realising that we'd grown up not twenty miles apart in Derbyshire.

Later, teaching outside Paris, my lessons were (in theory at least) conducted in English, as were my off-hours due to the international nature of the teachers there. Only for a couple of months one summer in the Dordogne did most of my life get played out amongst adult-speaking French people.

So it can only be by osmosis - the method of lanuage-learning called "immersion" - plus constant brave attempts, that has brought us both to the ease in French we can claim today.

So why the sadness?

It's sad and seemingly inescapable that if you put more than two nationalities together their only common language will be English. In Prague during my rather more forlorn attempts to learn Czech, my friend Karla commented that she pitied English people and couldn't understand that I felt humble when all the rest of the world speaks English while native English speakers are such bad linguists. "But that means everyday your language is invaded by others," she said, "and therefore weakened, destroyed, made less than it really is." It was a wise comment, coming from someone who loves the beauty of words passionately.

So far the few other pilgrims we have met have been Dutch or Belgian and although we obstinated in French, their blank faces brought us quickly back to English. Even the Belgians. Despite the fact that these people are similarly spending several weeks or months in France and seem to expect to negotiate cheap or free lodgings and food at every turn.

No doubt when we ourselves reach Spain our smug attitude will disappear and we'll fall with relief on any English-speaking Spanish person to get us out of difficulties. But we hope not. We had planned to set aside a couple of weeks between countries to refresh our previous attempts to learn Spanish. That might no longer be possible, but if we can find MP3 versions of Spanish lessons for our phones we will at least try the immersion tactic in Spain too. It's yet another reason to continue to prefer chambres d'hote over the more international (and therefore English-speaking) walkers' hostels.

15th June 2008

Saturday 7 June 2008


How long have I felt this way about mountains? The foreboding; threats seeming to lie heavy on my mind. I know some people – Julie Andrews, for example – in whom the heart sings when they’re on a mountain top. But when we were sixteen and went youth hostelling in Hampshire, it was the wide horizons of open moorland in the New Forest that gave me that singing feeling, stretching away under their enormous ellipsis of sky.

For more than two weeks now we have been rained upon. Sorry, Europe has been rained upon; ceaseless waves of rain and lightening storms pushed up from Africa way to deposit their load on the Mediterranean and up as
far as Britain. Those same storms in one evening stripped forty percent of the grape flowers from the vines in the Midi-Pyrenees; they caused landslides in the Cantal and flooding in Italy and Germany. And they have turned some of our tracks into tumbling mountain streams.

Because for the last ten days, and much sooner than we had expected from our cursory survey of the road atlas, we’ve been above 2000 feet and most often around 3000 feet. That’s a Munroe, back in Britain. These are not jagged peaks of mountains. Thank goodness. They are smooth rolls and long ridges, densely wooded with dark pine. Occasional roads thread through the valleys and a village of two thousand inhabitants is reckoned a buzzing town. ‘Reckoned’ so only, since being in another valley, the people we ask don’t quite know for sure.

In my outdoors-y, walking-y youth I was brought up to respect nature. You know: not walking alone, leaving notes in the car or at the post office to say where you’re going and when you expect to be back. Taking spare clothes and food, a compass and whistle even if it’s cloudless when you set out. Knowing how to read a map, that sort of thing. So some of my nerves at these mountains can be traced there: are we respecting these foreign hills as we should? Are we respecting the foreign weather? Although we always reserve our beds in advance, sadly too many previous walkers have changed their plans without letting the accommodation. Now a no-show is seen only as bad manners, certainly not a reason to call in the search-and-rescue. But of course I’m exaggerating: that’s the thing about fear. We’re following the
GR3 which is very well signposted even if it is deserted. And while waiting out a thunderstorm under a single tree is an acknowledged bad idea, there’s no reason to suppose a lightening bolt will seek us out in a whole forest of trees.

As we entered the mountains with their heavier rain and closer clouds, we also entered a phase where to stay in a gite d’étap – a walkers’ hostel – is not a lifestyle or budget choice but a necessity. Excellent though many of these places are (and they are, especially the year-round ones in the mountains that double as skiing chalets), you’re never quite sure what you’ll get till you arrive. Cooking facilities, hot showers, blankets and sheets, ok. Sometimes a room to ourselves, sometimes a heater. Even meals provided, sometimes. But always lino or stone floors, no towels to wring our wet clothes in and an atmosphere that defies the drying abilities of even our technical clothing. Just two days of hostels and rain means everything we have is wet. Wet socks rub the wet feet raw; wet overtrousers summon up red welts on each hip. Overnight, moisture leaches from the wet to the once-dry, dragging that clamminess familiar to all campers and caravanners as they wake.

So far, so grim. But not worthy of terror, surely? And yet it is terror I have been feeling, the same closed-in panic I suddenly felt one day inside a plane and that spread out of the pressurised
container to infect many more corners of my life. It’s shameful for a daughter of Derbyshire to admit it, but the depression goes beyond physical wariness. This is something more elemental, an animal presence lurking. I prefer to close my eyes, not to look out.

So what’s to be done? There are weeks still at this altitude in the Massif Central, till we descend to the lower lands near Figeac. And more mountain ranges to come in Spain. Perhaps lifting the lid of these clouds would help? We agree that it’s not a physical inability to walk in the mountains. Although I plod slowly up the steep stretches and although my lungs and heart pound long after the exertion has stopped, in truth it’s not too hard and even the sack no longer feels so heavy, provided the straps are all pulled tight just so … But anyone who has had panic attacks themselves won’t need me to describe the waves rising up the body, the heat, sweat and paralysis. Yes, it’s irrational. Knowing that doesn’t help, since it’s the reason that is sick. And for me, with my sensitive metabolism (“Finely-tuned,” I tell David, “like a Ferrari”), the mind is hot-wired to the body. I lose all appetite but not my churning stomach. It
ceases to be traceable to any specific factor of rain or cold. It’s all-pervasive, yet amorphous. Something to run from.

We hold a summit meeting, in a valley. The sensible thing is sensible to be flexible and to sit out the weather when we need to. David can’t understand my fear, my panic. But he accepts it’s me. Does he too feel some sort of panic, at the idea of spending even a day, let alone two or three, in a mountain hostel or cheap hotel room in some one-sheep village? Nothing to do. Nothing to look at. A panic in the face of boredom? Or simply of emptiness. I, in my turn, cannot conceive of that feeling.

After coming through the winter and its difficulties; after adapting to the snows and floods of spring and yet still keeping on track, it has been salutary to experience these past two weeks and to be reminded that the Camino is not simply going for a walk on a nice day, as I put it. It is hard, a challenge – and there are many possibilities of failure still ahead of us. Yet now the challenge for us both is from the inside, and perhaps that makes it all more valuable. Will this experience teach me to conquer my panics once and for all, freeing David from the shackles they place on our lives? But softly, softly. A doctor once explained I needed to feel in charge of situations that might provoke the
panic and that I should look back on previous times and remind myself that nothing bad happened then, so why should it now? The second instruction I can do; but as for the first, those tumbling streams of inevitability drag me on, like just another storm-dislodged rock, not hearing my cries of “Stop! Just stop and let my mind catch up!”

6th June 2008

Thursday 5 June 2008


The sun is hot in the courtyard and the bird boxes sway in the tree branches. The uneven flagstones wash against flower troughs full of colour, and I settle under a parasol for lunch. Our hotel in Auxerre. Basic, but the courtyard is a charm. And just then the chef starts singing.

I’m shocked, like a cold cloth on a sleeping face. Song is something we don’t hear. I don’t know what he is singing, but it sounds like an old song, a folk song, and pretty. Just a short snatch, for the joy of it, and then back to work.

Back in St-Rémy-en-Bouzemont in icy March, one of the Dutch pilgrims staying at the same bed and breakfast said that the thing she most missed on the walk was music. We hadn’t quite empathised. Music was not something we had felt a lack of, even though at home we have music playing nearly all the time, mostly classical or choral these days, going back to favourite symphonies, still learning them. But here we haven’t seemed need music. Neither of us plays music, neither of us can sing, so music is something we have accepted as being absent from the year.

Until the chef’s trilling woke me up. I remembered an article in the last Confraternity newsletter telling of two women pilgrims, university friends who came together through music, and whose Camino was counted out in daily sung services of Evensong in honour of the place music had in their spirituality and in their pilgrimage. If only David and I could sing, could play!
Instead, we have birdsong without stinting. In the forests it greets us in volume in the mornings, varied and melodious. The chorus teases us to look up and try to find the singers, to spot one species form the other and to name them.

At Easter I read a book called Animal’s People. A vigorous tale set in India, with sharp overtones of the Bhopal chemical disaster, but not in the least as dreary and worthy a book as might be feared. One image stuck with me as I was reading it and returned to me, appropriately, now. An older man, a musician whose happiness was destroyed by the disaster, has been unable to sing since. But he discourses with Animal, who is the only one not to consider him mad when he says (something like) “there is music even in the croak of a frog. They use the same scale….. If it were rearranged it would be music.”

On the road from St Léon to the Chateau de Montpeyroux there is a large pond in a field. And there we are given back our music. The late afternoon song of frogs celebrates the rains, a whole pondful of them. Two days later it is a Charolais bull, jealous that his cows flock to witness our passing, and who chimes his anger in a resonant baritone.

Maybe we will catch up with pilgrims who speed their days in songs of the road and in hymns, and we will listen with pleasure, envy and fear that we might be invited to join in. Until then, we might learn to re-calibrate the animals and hear songs all around us.

(PS: However hard it has been, I have not yet resorted to dirging “Onward Christian Soldiers!” as I walk!)

30th May 2008

Memorable hosts #2

The three short weeks since we came back to France have been varied like they were two months. And once again it is the people we’ve spent time with and the places we’ve stayed that make up the kaleidoscope. Shake the tube and here’s what we see:

-  Madame Marie-Marthe Maitre’s garden is the love of her life, or has been since her husband died. She warned us she might not answer the door when we arrived. “But don’t worry; just go through the gate at the side. I’ll be in the garden.” After an evening meal and a breakfast where like a grandmother she sat at the side of the shadowy room making sure we ate, she led us outside. We had made the grade. The garden was dripping, as much with climbing roses and clematis as with exhausted raindrops. There were fuchsias and lilies, hydrangeas and peonies. A few years ago Mme Maitre bought the garden of her elderly neighbour, doubling her own plot. But already it was full and she ought to stop buying new plants. “But there are just so many I fall in love with!” It is good she has the garden, as she’s thinking of retiring. Not so much from offering bed and breakfast (to the relief of walkers in this sparse area) but from the restaurant and bar she also runs in her old, stone-built Burgundy house. The house too felt like we were visiting our grandmother – full of the collected fancies of a lifetime. Glass bottles, china cups on a china cup stand old farm implements, embroidered pictures that she did herself, back when she had time. The food was robust and her assessment of the way village life was going, candid. “The factories have closed and when the only customers in the bar are two old grandpappies nursing a glass of wine all day, forget it. I could be working in my garden!”

-  Monsieur and Madame Prevot of La Renouillère are relaxed but their rooms are new and comfortable, and their long dining table is at the heart of matters. Monsieur’s deadpan delivery is underpinned by an inherent consideration for his guests. When he said we should telephone if we couldn’t get back from Bar-sur-Seine under our own steam we believed him, though thankfully didn’t need to exploit his kindness. Mme Prevot, who has the delightful name of Edwige, speaks decent English and like her husband is alert to people’s needs: the elderly and hesitant couple forced home early through illness had no sooner considered calling a hotel in Arras than Edwige had, unasked, sought and printed off details from the internet ready. The thoughtfulness was not oppressive because it came with humour and self-mocking. M Prevot claimed they cast spells on their guests to make them return – and a young French couple, there for the second or third time, confirmed it was true. If comfort, good food with local and home-made ingredients, interesting conversation and the offer of bike hire or escorted mushroom forages in the Forêt d’Orient are a spell, then bring on the magic.

-  Gilles and Catherine Fonteniaud bought Le Cloître three years ago in the little village of Diou on the banks of the Loire, south of the medieval-cum-spa town of Bourbon-Lancy. Diou is strung-out and ambivalent, a place which the busy road batters and whose large but boarded-up hotel speaks, for once, of marital breakdown and a descent into gambling more than a loss of local industry – which in fact seems to be thriving in the form of a concrete staircase maker. But enough of the barman’s gossip. There’s also a craft pottery, a pretty church and walks and fishing by the river. And a marina over on the canal beside the town.

The Fonteniauds call it the Cloisters but it isn’t really. It’s an eighteenth-century landowner’s house with an inner courtyard and wide verandas outside. You step through the grinding iron portal from the street and find you’re surrounded by as much peace and greenery as any traditional cloister could offer. A shaggy garden full of colour and running out into the trees of ‘le parc’. It’s Alhambra-like in the warm rain, dripping and scented.

The rooms of the house are mainly accessed from outside, from the wide, tile-floored veranda with its old metal tables and chairs, its box of galoshes for the guests to borrow, its pile of tennis racquets and glimpse of the swimming pool. The young Labrador sits and whines a few doors down but is happy to investigate us and David’s stick-wrestling skills. Outside our window is a rich kitchen garden fringed with wild strawberries. Less wild but nearly as scented garden strawberries appear for dessert on the table later. It’s around the table under the wood-beamed ceiling that we and our hosts pass a long, chatty meal while the dog brings each of us a tea towel from the kitchen to play with.

Although Gilles and Catherine bought their dream house only recently, they are local people from Dompierre-sur-Besbre with a love for the history and traditions of the region, traditions that include good gardening and good eating. Peasants here used to eat their fromage frais with salt and pepper not with sugar. That’s how Gilles eats it, and now so do I. This area gave the French it’s Bourbon royal dynasty and received in return a wealth of small chateaux, courts and fortified farms in the hills all round.

When they acquired the house it was run down and Catherine wouldn’t move in until their own living space was done. Since then, it has been a continual job of converting and renovating room by room, learning how as they go. Gilles was still up a ladder painting in the hall when we arrived for dinner, but hid his physical weariness well. Our bedroom was peacefully spacious and the bathroom palatial. Palatial too the two dining rooms that open into each other and that can seat twenty-one for meals, if they have that many staying. But it felt just as natural with four. Meanwhile, in the spirit of their parents, perhaps, the Fonteniaud’s two sons take time out from more serious jobs to put on juggling and acrobatic festivals.

- The Chateau de Montpeyroux near St Léon is one of the small chateaux built in the region by the followers of the Bourbon court that Gilles had spoken about. Dating to the eighteenth century times its farmhouse, land, school house and ancient chapel and presbytery were the heart of the little Montpeyroux village long before St Léon was thought of. It remained in one family long into the twentieth century, eventually passing to a niece who had an excess of castles already. Now the Fizzarottis own it, calm and laid-back chatelains thoroughly enjoying their retirement from international business. And they’re bringing the castle back to what it was: a mostly self-sufficient unit embedded in the local community. As we arrived, wild laughter leaked out of a barn. We peered inside to see a group of middle-aged women busily restoring and reupholstering furniture amid avid gossip and giggles. A cottage industry, we assumed. A ladies’ club we later found out – for fun, but useful too.

We had asked about a meal when we booked the room but were told they would be too busy, so we asked if sandwiches were possible. Sustenance rather than entertainment was what we needed, which was how we came to be eating around the Fizzarottis' kitchen table, sharing potluck and leftovers while our clothes dried in the machine. The tasty food was almost wholly home grown – even the duck terrine that they had taught themselves to make and the bread that was came from their wheat, milled at a neighbour’s watermill. It was the most relaxed, homely meal yet, maybe because our frames of reference, underneath, were similar and Emmanuel and his wife were such good company. They laughed over their mishaps in learning to be farmers and refused to get worried by anything. A grand hobby I suppose, rather than a living.

Then we had a tour around the chateau, which was like the set for Gosford Park, all hidden doors for the servants and ballrooms, a boudoir in a tower and walls half-a-metre thick. The kitchen table where we ate was in the butler’s pantry, but there was a grand room for more formal tables d’hôte. Upstairs, the rooms have been lovingly decorated by Mme Fizzarotti in period style with furniture hunted down in sales. All except the ‘historic room’ whose four-poster bed, heavily-carved furniture, silk walls and velvet drapes were all original, made to measure for the Lord’s bedchamber. You can book to stay there too. But we thought it might have ghosts and anyway, David was so in love with a beautifully-carved medieval blanket chest in the hall that I think he would have slept there if he could, vampire-style.

-   Le Relais du Lac might not be an obvious place to recommend, but the owners made it memorable. A sizable hotel by the lake just south of Le Mayet de Montagne, we were nevertheless the only people staying there. We had an idea we had been the only guests for a good while. I suppose we chose it for the Logis de France label, a symbol of reassurance. And yet the Cazals seemed so dazzled by idea of having guests that they couldn’t have put themselves out more. Did we want a shower or a bath? We had booked a shower, but it had been a hard day and we fell on the suggestion of a bath. Could we ask him to put the heating on to get our clothes dry? Of course! And Mme Cazals took all our clothes to hang up in the huge basement boiler room where she dried all of her laundry, kicking the almost as huge guard dog out as a precaution. Later, as the only diners in the long rustic-style restaurant, we heartily welcomed the full plate of mixed salad and the steak with onions and potatoes – fortifying food, and tasty. And we appreciated, almost despite ourselves, the USP of the place: Mr Cazals playing his accordion through a synthesiser at the far end of the restaurant, just for us. He was a surprisingly good musician, and the sounds coming out felt like a whole band not just one player. It was our wedding anniversary and the only thing missing was The Girl from Ipanema. Afterwards, Mr Cazals leaned by the table and talked music with us as one disciple to another and his references ranged far beyond the horizons of a little town in the Auvergne. It was easy to giggle, but there was something majestic about his belief in music. Even if the only civilised countries in the world, according to him, were France, Britain, America and Germany.

-   Half an hour from Chabreloche the day’s rain finally caught up with us. We pulled into a tree-shadow to shroud our rucksacks in orange and to pull on jackets and hoods. And there we stood, oddly contented as the tree was providing more thorough protection than usual. Still, when a white shape in the doorway further down beckoned, I grabbed the poles and ran. It would have been rude not to. We hoped only for the deeper shade of their open garage, but “Voulez-vous du café, un boisson chaud?” A hot drink – that would have alerted me, even if the whiff of Merseyside didn’t. We were in an English household, unsure of their French but determined to rescue the drowned rats. So for the length of the downpour we settled to mugs of coffee and biscuits around their kitchen table. We’d been speaking English with Dutch and Belgian fellow walkers, but this was English with English people, and we all knew what we meant, down to the hinterland of TV programmes and village fêtes. Nigel and his wife buck all those horror programmes of moving abroad, I’m delighted to report. Their purchase went well, as have the renovations and repairs. They are surrounded by friendly and chatty neighbours and a welcoming local church, and they are loving every minute. So no documentary-makers needed there, thank you.

2nd June 2008