A Mini-Break at Montauban: Part 2

Waking up to birdsong outside our window, it was tempting to enjoy the serenity of Le Mas des Anges: but it was Montauban we’d come to see.  And what a town it is.  Here’s our day in the town, in a slide show.

Montauban’s got something of a Protestant history, and has had its share of bloody times, even having almost 10 years of English rule in the middle ages.  Now, however, life is more tranquil, with traffic-free streets.  There’s time to enjoy the ancient rose-brick streets and mediaeval squares; the secret courtyards; the slow progress of the Tarn with its central island which is a giant housing estate for egrets and herons; the gardens and open spaces.  For us, there were restaurants to choose between, and later, idiosyncratic tea rooms with calorie-laden cakes, and all sorts of non-chain-shops we’d have liked to explore…. We’ll be back.  We finished the day, tired but content, picnicking above the vineyard at le Mas des Anges, and later, talking with our hosts.  We’ll be back there too

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A Mini-Break at Montauban: Part 1

‘We worked on the house in England.  We’ve slaved on the house in France.  Enough!  We’re going to have a break’.  This was me, stamping my foot, and determined to get my own way, last weekend. And eventually, Malcolm gave in, reluctantly put down his saw, his chisel, his boxes of screws,  and we settled on Montauban, a city often overlooked in favour of Toulouse.

It was an inspired choice.  Getting there took most of the day, because we meandered along miles of country roads, bright with the sharp fresh greens of newly sprouting crops and creamy apple, cherry, almond and hawthorn blossom.

Castelnau de Montmiral

After lunch, we were in wine-growing country – Gaillac – and it was then that we started to hit a succession of picture-postcard-pretty villages:  three of them in fact qualify for the title ‘Un des plus beaux villages de France’: Castelnau de Montmiral, Puycelsi, Bruniquel.  We enjoyed mooching round all of them.  Each was different, but they all had charming mediaeval buildings and alleyways, pots of flowers and shrubs at doorways and windows, and lovely views over rather Shropshire-ish countryside.

Puycelsi

Not for one second did we hanker after living there.  No community notices about Loto evenings, vide greniers, concerts in the church.  No people, actually. In fact many of the houses were shut up (second homes?), and none of them looked as if they belonged to horny-handed-sons-of-toil.  Commercial activity, where it existed, belonged to the artisan potters, jewellery and textile makers.  But I’m glad they were there for us to while away an afternoon exploring.

Bruniquel

The day ended well, too.  Le Mas des Anges, about 5 miles from Montauban, turned out to be a big part of the inspired choice.  It’s where, after our first night there, we decided to stay another.

The wine cellarsJuan and Sophie, our hosts, absorbed us, apparently effortlessly, into their enthusiasm for their life there. ‘Passionate about…’ is a slightly hackneyed phrase these days, but Juan IS passionate about the wine he produces, and we had a great time looking at his equipment and cellars, before settling down to taste what he had to offer.  Sophie has a great talent for making the guest accommodation charming and welcoming, and the breakfasts….yum!

Labouring

Bits of last week were horribly unpleasant. Not as unpleasant as 6 hours on the English Channel in a Force 10 gale, but pretty nasty.

We have been getting rid of our central heating. It’s oil fired, and though it’s in pretty good nick, the radiators are too small for our rooms, and who wants a noisy, smelly boiler in their living room, especially one that caused one visitor to ask why we kept our washing machine in the corner of the room?

So it had to go. We had a keep-fit session that involved our manoeuvring a hundred kilos of boiler out into the garage, while before that, Mal had been curled up in impossible positions on the floor cutting away all the copper piping, then chopping it into lengths suitable to fling out of an upstairs window into the yard below.

The space which held the boiler

The boiler dismissed, we had a large chimney to block off. That was my job (unskilled, you see). Head stuck up the bottom part of the chimney: it fitted rather well, like an oversized sombrero, and with little room to move. I tried to manoeuvre wads of lining and insulating material into place. Every time I touched the chimney, about a pound of gritty, oily soot fell down, covering my head (which I’d not thought to cover), sliding down my collar to coat my skin beneath my clothes, and the clothes too of course. I inhaled soot, chewed soot, was hailed on by small chunks of masonry. What kept me feeling even slightly fortunate was the fact that I wasn’t a skinny little 18th century child chimney sweep who’d actually have to climb up that chimney, and others like it, day after day.

...and part of the chimney's in the yard...

Anyway, the pipes are done, most of the radiators are out, and that space in the living room is liberated. And, despite the dustsheets, dirty. Just now, the tame joiner (Malcolm) is shelving it out as a bookcase and log store. If you think that sounds fairly easy, you still haven’t registered that there are no 90-degree angles in this house, no straight runs of wall, and spirit levels don’t know what to make of our floor.

Omelette de Pâques

Come to the Ariège on Easter Monday, and you won’t be too far from a community omelette. Communes and clubs all over the department seek out their biggest frying pan, get hold of dozens of eggs, sugar and rum, to make this sweet confection to round off, with any luck, the first barbecue of the season. Why? Nobody in our walking group could tell me, and Google wasn’t much help, but it does seem to be an ancient tradition dating back to….ooh, 1973 at least.

Anyway, the Rando del’Aubo have made this an annual event for some years now. For the last couple, it’s been rainy and cold. Not this year though. Down at the bottom of the page, you’ll find a few pictures of our walk between La Pène, an Audois hamlet on a delightful small lake, and Monthaut, which is a hill….higher up. It was a great way to work up an appetite.

Because the weather was warm, sunny and spring-like, we relaxed at the lakeside after our walk, chatting and enjoying those woodsmokey smells of a barbecue coming to life. Apéros first: Muscat, suze, pernod, whisky…all the usual French tipples, with nibbles to stem our hunger. Then grilled pork, grilled Toulouse sausage, bread (and wine of course), Coulommiers cheese, vanilla or chocolate pudding. And then we still had to find room for the all-important omelette.

Since the beginning of time, it’s been Marie-Therèse’s ‘job’ (good French word, that) to make the omelette, and of course it all ended in noisy recriminations because there were too many cooks all muscling in, breaking eggs, beating eggs, heating the pan, greasing the pan, measuring the rum. Half the raw egg mixture tipped out onto the grass, and Etienne and Danielle dashed off to every farm they could find to buy another….. 4 dozen.

Finally, it was done. Really, this omelette is scrambled egg with lots of sugar chucked in at the end, and flambéed with rum. Once a year is quite enough.

It wasn’t the end of the party though. Oh no. We couldn’t go before downing glasses of Blanquette de Limoux, an Alpine eau-de-vie, then cups of coffee (with madeleines, in case we were still hungry). And as a final touch, Easter eggs.

We came away suntanned and rather full, at the end of an Easter Monday that was one of the first really hot and sunny days of the year. A taste of things to come?

An English Interlude

We were back in England for a while, getting our house ready to market.  Those TV makeover shows have got a lot to answer for.  It’s no longer enough to do a bit of casual dusting.  We de-cluttered surfaces, touched up paint, knocked the garden into shape, and even gave one room a total makeover (‘People are so thick’, advised one chap who’d come round to give us an estimate for removal. ’Just because you’ve got that room organised as a study, they won’t be able to see it as the house second bedroom.  If you can, get rid of all those books, and set it up as a bedroom’). So we did.  We boxed up several hundred books and put them in the garage, then covered the dark green walls in restrained buttermilk paint, and popped in a spare double bed we just happen to have, a chest of drawers, a bedside light or two.  Add an artificial orchid from Habitat, et….voilà…one genuine bedroom makeover.  And then we had to live in, and keep up with, all the unaccustomed tidiness.  We hated it.

But we did love being in England.  At least I did.  Here are my 13 reasons for happiness.  Definitely NOT in rank order

  1. Harrogate in crocus and daffodil season must be one of the loveliest urban sights in Europe.  The Stray, that splendid open parkland which girdles the southern part of the town, was all but submerged in a sea of purple white and orange crocus, gradually opening to reveal saffron coloured stamens as the sun teased the flower petals apart towards midday.  The crocus fade away to be replaced by an equally extensive display of daffodils. They were only just reaching their best as we left town, but we did at least see them.
  2. Radio 4. I had it on constantly. From Our Own Correspondent, Paul Merton on Just a Minute, Daniel Corbett’s animated and informative weather forecasts, Gardeners’ Question Time….. all to help the day go by as we scrubbed and polished
  3. Spending time with those fantastic twin boys, the grandchildren, as they discovered the new adventure playground in Harrogate’s Valley Gardens.
  4. Nidderdale LETS. What a great bunch of friends.  We’d organised a Task Force of willing members to tackle the overgrown jungle that was our garden. Naturally it rained on the day.  So everyone turned to in the house.  They scrubbed paintwork, wrapped ornaments, painted the above-mentioned bedroom, hoovered…And we all had fun, and lunch together.  How do people manage without LETS, or SEL as it’s called in France?
  5. Friends. We had little enough time to socialise, but those hours spent sharing time at our house, in Ripon, in Huby, and in various spots in and around Harrogate were all very special
  6. Charity shops. Whenever I’m in England, I spend time combing through the stock of books in all our local charity shops. With everything from the latest Man Booker winner to little-heard-of classics all going for anything from 30p. to a pound, why wouldn’t I want to stock up?  And this time, we off-loaded quite a few things too
  7. Freecycle. The amount of stuff that Harrogate Freecycle keeps out of landfill must be quite phenomenal these days.  And its members seem to be amongst the nicest people in town.  So we were glad to pass on some stuff to various happy recipients.
  8. Pontefract cakes. Nothing else quite hits the spot.  Oh, except perhaps luxury-end crunchy hand-cooked crisps from Marks and Spencer or Waitrose.  Chilli flavour.
  9. Power walking in the Valley Gardens, 8.30 a.m. Sunday morning, with Angela and Chris.  Best start to the week.  Not sure we really ought to call it power walking any longer though.  Power chatting maybe.
  10. Hot cross buns. When I was younger, Good Friday was the day of the year when we ate hot cross buns.  Maybe for a day or two after as well, but no more than that.  Freshly toasted and dripping with butter, the sugary cinnammon smells wafting through the kitchen, they were one of the food highlights of the year.  Now they’re available all the time, they don’t seem half so special.  But during this last English fortnight, Good Friday or no Good Friday, Malcolm and I made sure we got quite a few hot cross buns under our belts.
  11. Indian take-away. After hard days spent painting and cleaning, few things are more reviving than a good Indian take-away.  Hot, pungent, spicey, sour, the vivid flavours cheered us up and brightened our mood.  The French don’t know what they’re missing!
  12. Guardian and Observer. I know I could read Polly Toynbee, Nigel Slater et al on line.  But it’s really not the same, is it?
  13. Talking in English. The sheer relief of being able to chat, chunter, chew the fat, confide, discuss, digress, argue, amplify, explain, entertain, without pausing to consider whether I’ve chosen the right gender, the right word, the right ending.  Yes, perhaps this really is so precious it really needs to go right up to the top of the list at number 1.

Life on the Ocean Wave?

We’ve just come back from a fortnight or so in England – To Be Continued in our Next.  I just need to get our journey off my chest.

We generally cross the Channel by ferry.  Neither of us is keen on the Tunnel, and a nice breezy trip on a boat always seems a cheery, day-out-by-the-seaside way of travelling between England and France.

Not that Dover’s much fun.  Despite having some elegant and interesting buildings, Dover always seems a dingy, down at heel and down-on-its-luck sort of place. And this time, it looked as if we’d have longer than usual time to kill there, because LD lines sent a late text saying our ferry would have to leave at 1.30 p.m., not midday, and we’d arrived in town just before 10.00

Why not go down to the port, then, and see if the ship before had been delayed, and whether it could perhaps squeeze us in?  Down at the booking office, the news was that because of atrocious weather, the 6.30 a.m. sailing still hadn’t been able to leave.  But it was loading, but if we hurried, we could go too.

We hurried.  We caught the ferry.  We regretted it.  Even behind the harbour walls, the ship was pitching and tossing.  As we started our voyage, the well-named tug DHB Doughty struggled to keep us on some kind of suitable path between the harbour walls.  Out among the waves and spray of the open sea, the ship immediately started to lunge, roll, and sway, and kept up this uneasy surging throughout the trip.

I’ve always been a rotten sailor, but told myself firmly that this time it would be different: it was just a case of mind over matter.  Less than 10 minutes later I was sick for the first time.

Nearly an hour and a half into our hour and a half journey, the French coast was nowhere near.  Then the captain announced that some cargo had come adrift, and we’d have to stop till it was sorted out.  Half an hour passed.  Then yet again it was Our Captain Speaking.  There was, he said, a Force 10 gale going on.  He didn’t propose to risk getting into the harbour in Boulogne in these conditions.  We’d just have to sit it out.  I went green.  I went yellow.  I went glassy eyed. I used up several sick bags.  So did half the passengers.  The other half (including Malcolm) only had boredom and ailing partners to contend with, but they weren’t having a lot of fun either.  Malcolm struggled off to find water for me, and found broken crockery all over the cafeteria, books and souvenirs strewn over the shop floor, and the toilets awash.  He lurched back empty handed, though stewards came round with water and sympathy later on

And we sat, hunched miserably in our seats, until finally, the captain reckoned there was a slight change in the weather. At last the French tug Obstiné brought us into port .  Those tugs with those inspired names were the cheeriest things about the whole journey

The photos show the sea hitting the harbour in Boulogne.  That’s the sea as it lost power and hit the coast, not the raging sea we’d been putting up with in what felt like mid ocean.  For six long hours.

Next time there’s a storm, I ain’t sailing.  I’ll just sit it out on dry land.