Sunday, 17 May 2015

A Slice of France ...


A few weeks a go, I was delighted and surprised to receive a message from an old school friend who had recently bought a ruin of a farm house in the south of France. "Can you steal four days in a couple of weeks, for a visit?" My immediate response was, "Yes!" A much needed break was most definitely on the cards.

The day arrived to travel to France, beginning with a coach ride to Luton airport, from Victoria, London. Adrenaline buzzing in the wake of a sleepless night, I swiftly purchased a large coffee and pastry and found my seat in the waiting area. An announcement was made that the coach was delayed by twenty minutes. No worries, I had especially booked early to allow for this. So, I took my rucksack, coffee and pastry and headed towards the little girls room for a pre-journey wee. Carefully, I placed the rucksack in the corner, on the floor, with pastry balanced on top, then gently placed the coffee cup (very large) on the top of the loo roll holder.  When the deed was done, I carefully pulled out some paper and .... the holder moved suddenly and jerked the cup which proceeded to fly in my direction, projecting the lid one way and the coffee ... in slow motion ... surging... like a wave towards me. "Nooo!" The over spill of coffee was forming a small reservoir on the floor and moving like wet, hot lava, towards the rucksack. Quickly grabbing the sack off the floor and suffering immense heated face syndrome from the sheer embarrassment of my own idiocy, I sat for a moment and contemplated my next move.

With only five minutes to go, before leaving for the airport, I decided to grin and wear it. Wet hair and (just washed) wet jacket, were worn proudly out to the departure area. Wafting an aromatic scent of coffee, I thought... It's okay, I'm on holiday, and with that thought my stress dispersed.

The flight to Nimes was a smooth ride and ten minutes before landing the views above the mountainous terrain were evoking bundles of excitement. The clouds were wispy cotton balls and feathers, floating in the blue sky. As the plane made its final turn, tilting slightly towards the runway, a smile stretched across my face.

As I stepped off the plane and down the steps, the heat kissed my brow and welcomed me. Then, I heard a voice call my name and turning to look, I saw my friend behind the fence and began to weep with happiness. I had not seen Caroline for three years, so, had been moved to tears - I had arrived.

This region of France is named Languedoc-Roussillon, The true South of France. It borders the other French regions of Provence-Alpes-Cótes d'Azur, Rhóne-Alps, Auvergne, Midi-Pyrénées on the one side, and Spain, Andorra and the Mediterranean Sea on the other side. It is the southern most region of mainland France. (1)

Leaving Nímes

We were on our way to the farmhouse. The firs and pines clasped on to the rugged terrain and the land appeared arid, yet, surprisingly lush with flora. It had rained recently and the green was greener and the untamed, delicate flowers of lilac, yellow and blue were sprinkled with bright red poppies. I could not stop smiling. The Land Rover was well suited to the environment and filled with conversation, elation and laughter.

As we drove in to Quissac, my eyes were opened wider by the quaintness and authenticity of this small town. The narrow streets and cafés were filled with locals, smoking and sipping, faded blue, grey and green shutters framed windows and a sleek, black cat, strutting across the road (in her own time), seemed to cast a spell of good luck. It was as though the people of Quissac had weaved their own narrative, and this was a place which sat in blissful union with its enchanting and rustic landscape.

The bridge and river, Quissac

It has to be said, things just got better. "Did I mention that the house was situated in one hundred acres of land?" Chirped, Caroline. "Yes", I replied, with a child-like eagerness. The driveway was sheltered by over hanging trees, muddy and uneven, leading us to a secret location and nurturing my anticipation.

Yes, it was a ruin, but a beautiful sight appeared before my eyes. An old stone house with large gates which opened in to a courtyard. The barns at the back were once shelter to animals and still had the remnants of previous life. Also an old pheasantry, in its day, and the rolling, wild landscape, once a vineyard. I was shown my room, over looking the courtyard and swiftly dumped the rucksack and removed the coffee scented jacket. 

Following a cold glass of lemonade, we called the dogs and began a walk around the garden. First stop, the chickens. Caroline has thirty chickens and a cockerel. Two dogs, A French bulldog named Major, Lolly, the jack Russell, A Bengal called Diego, who resembles a miniature snow leopard and a moggy named Sanchez. I was in heaven - being the animal lover that I am. That said, I was greeted by Major with a slobbering hug, followed by snuffles all over my sweatshirt and thus far, a combination of coffee and slobber had wonderfully enhanced my casual attire. 

 The chickens


 The house

 Outside of the barn

View of the garden landscape

We walked for miles and as the clean air filled my lungs, we stumbled across some prints in the earth. Boar prints, to be exact. Wild boar roam with their young, hiding in the woods, digging up the ground and leaving broken branches in their wake. This was a true wilderness. Sadly, the boars are culled and from time to time we did hear gunshots which left me feeling somewhat agitated. I found myself hoping that the hunters had missed their target. It was May, a time of year when baby animals are abundant and I couldn't help but feel sadness for any potentially orphaned piglets. Also known as the wild swine or feral pig, quietly, I disagreed with Caroline's justifications for the cull. Although it is her private land, it is not her choice, but it has to be accepted, that seasonal hunts continue. However, the wild piggies make a plentiful feed and still have the freedom to wonder in the wild for a considerable life time. Apparently, there is one very large, mature boar, who cannot be killed due to his strong and healthy genes. And ... God help anyone who comes face to face with him and his massive horns, you certainly would not want to surprise him.

Supper was naturally, omelette, crusty bread, green salad and a bottle of red wine. Not a wine drinker as a rule, but on this occasion, it would have been very rude not to participate. This region of France is one of the best regions for wine and thus, the local wine which I was taking my first sip from, almost convinced me that I could become an avid wine drinker. It was nectar... a soft sweet breath of grape and dark berry and a mellow, warm, soothing, after taste. Delicious.  

The day embraced the night and I stepped outside for a final roll up and glass of wine. The silence almost knocked me over. The demands of life back home, including recent disappointments and losing my best (cat) friend, Jaffa, which had given me terrible grief and an almighty sense of loss, were gently washed away in this tranquil moment. I looked up at the star-filled sky and listened to sounds through the silence. A couple of owls were 'twit-twooing' in the woods, frogs were croaking and a woodpecker tapped and drummed from a nearing branch... perhaps they were saying "Goodnight".

When morning broke, we collected the eggs from the chickens and paid a visit to the local café. After buying our pain au chocolat and croissant at the 'basic' bakery, we sat at a table and ordered, deux café crème, to gently arouse the senses. I dream of moments like this and cherished each mouthful of fusion between coffee and pain au chocolat. Needless to say, the magnificent surroundings also injected me with a pure slice of France.

Then, we were on the road, heading towards the beach. I love a mini road trip and was able to feast my eyes on the scenic landscapes and pretty towns and villages, all with a twist of Tuscan, Spanish and medieval flair. 

 View of medieval village

 Medieval church bell

Passing through Lunel

The landscape changed and suddenly widened to reveal a massive reservoir, and gracing us with their presence were three pink flamingos. Something I did not expect to see. As we drove further, sand dunes gave way to the sea. Once again, a smile of utter delight stretched across my face as we  arrived at la plage. 

Le Gray-du-Roi is alternatively known as the secret seaside, unsung and almost empty. Not far from Montpellier, the region's capital. A hidden gem of sandy dunes, tufted grasses and a plethora of blue sea. A boundary between stretches of golden beach and the cowboy land of the Carmargue. Bestowed upon my eyes was a vision of extreme sand beyond which lay a vast wilderness of ocean. I had to take a swim. The Mediterranean became the alluring elixir which I desperately needed.

Lini's Basket ...

Le Gray-du-Roi

The white gulls quietly drifted over me and the gentle white horses broke breezily ...sending me off to the land of dreams. A few moments passed and I awakened from my complete repose. The sun had dried the salt on my skin and sand had found its way between my toes and fingers. 

We sat up and ate a picnic lunch of crusty bread, ham, cheese and melon. The juicy, sweet fruit was more nectar to the taste buds, albeit slightly peppered with sand grains. The crunch just added to the ambience and flavour of this glorious and heartfelt moment. In this moment, on this beautiful beach, in the south of France with my oldest friend, Caroline, I was ... happy.

The journey back was merely an extended road trip and filled my eyes with more of the good stuff. At one point, we were side by side to another vehicle and took the opportunity to ask directions as we had wondered off the beaten track. I noticed something familiar about the driver, then, it hit me. He looked exactly like the actor in 'Betty Blue', could this have been an idiosyncratic moment or just a coincidence? The latter, I am sure, but it felt personal and a little quirky, nevertheless.

 Giant flamingo

Road trip reflection

The few days that followed all began with collecting the eggs from the chickens (which I had grown extremely fond of), breakfast from the bakery, eaten with café crème, then a road trip. This, on one occasion, was proceeded with a hearty lunch, that consisted of paté, salad, crusty bread, olives and meat slices, and that was just for starters. The main course was a medium steak with pomme frites, then, dessert and, of course, cheese. After which, a visit to a friend, market ... a little further dose of the café society and to that end, home, for a long, late afternoon, early evening walk. The arid landscapes, natural pools of fresh spring water, scattered forests and hills of rugged terrain were all encased within one hundred acres of wild and honest land. Such was life in this private wilderness, within a rapturous and wondrous part of Southern France.

Avenue of trees

French thistle

Foal, the neighbour



Rustic house

Chicken portrait

The final evening was spent sipping red wine and munching on a croque monsieur with pomme frites at the Quissac festival. This famous event is traditionally based on bull fights and bull runs. I naturally felt anxious at the prospect of seeing an animal suffering torment and distress. The bulls are chased through the streets by people on horseback, which keep them on the straight and narrow, preventing the bull from running off and causing harm or damage. Although this is a cultural and historic run, it must be very stressful for the animals. A part of me was curious to witness the chase, but my heart was relieved to have missed it. Thankfully, I did not see the bull fight either. Quissac is also known for its music festivals, when art and food are also bountiful.

Animation, Quissac

Quissac festival. A storm drifted in and the light suddenly became luminous, enhancing the fair colours. Then, magically, a rainbow appeared like a glaring beam in the sky.  

The following morning we were bound for Sommiers. A town with a market rich in colour and full of fresh produce, artifacts, vintage and retro clothing, bric-a-brac, antiques, lively cafés, bakers, cheese stalls, fishmongers, artists, books and so on. It was positively buzzing and vibrant. We had our usual café crème and croissant whilst listening to Beethoven's ninth choral and observing the passersby.

 The market

View from table

 Narrow street

Rooftops over Sommiers

View of Chateau from Sommiers

Sadly, it was time to leave Sommiers and head back to Quissac for a swift lunch before driving to the airport. I packed my rucksack whilst Caroline, kindly, prepared lunch. Happily I ate two boiled eggs, collected earlier from the chickens and a bowl of fresh strawberries from the market. Then, I ran up the hill to say, "Au Revoir" to the chickens.


Quissac, river and mountain 


View of Medieval v Tuscan village

Two chickens

This spontaneous and surprising trip to the pure region of  Languedoc-Roussillon, in the south of France, presented me with a life of honesty and simplicity. Unspoiled and preserved, taking me back in time and enabling the senses to awaken and thrive. It reminded me of the importance of embracing life in its more refined way and most importantly, it brought back my smile.


Photography by Helen Ratcliff

Reference - (1) wikipedia, 15/05/15.