A visit to France - 2012

About three years ago, I kept  a blog about my trip to France. Then I changed my web site and the blog disappeared. I stumbled over it again today, and thought I'd post it here, just in case anyone's interested. Originally, each day was separate, but I've posted them all together here. I don’t know when I fell in love with Paris. I remember the first time I went there, but I don’t think it was then. A colleague and I were in Paris in the very early 70’s for a high-powered project meeting. It must have been late November, because we were offered newly arrived Beaujolais Nouveau, which neither of us had ever heard of before. Well, it was before it became a  craze. We had at least a bottle each and I was not a well boy the next morning!

Judith and I had our honeymoon there. We did all the usual tourist stuff - the Louvre, Musee D’Orsey, Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower. Of course, we had a wonderful time. We went back a few times after that, for the odd weekend, and as a stopover when heading further South. I even had the privilege of living and working there for six months in the 90’s. I rented a small apartment on the Isle de la Jatte, on the outskirts of Paris. It’s where Seurat painted probably the most famous example of pointillism. Just round the corner was the Cafe de la Jatte, which has a huge dinosaur skeleton hanging from the roof of the dining room. Rumour has it that it was frequented by Mitterand and other famous people, although I never saw any on the few times I went there. I watched Germany knock England out of Euro ’96 in an Irish pub down the road with a German that I was working with at the time. We were surrounded by French, Dutch, Irish and a few other nationalities as well. Even though we lost, I had more fun watching that game and trading banter than any game since.

But it was on a business trip with another colleague in the late 80’s that it happened. We were walking from our hotel to look at the sights. We came round the corner and there it was. The Pont Neuf, lit up in all it’s glory. The effect it had on me was electric. The same feeling you get when you see your loved one arriving to meet you. A mixture of joy and excitement that gets your heart racing. It took me totally by surprise. Suddenly I felt as if I had come home.

I’m just passing through. It’s been ten years and it’s like meeting up with an old lover again. It is a multi-cultural city - full of Indo-Chinese and Africans as well as just about every other nation in the world, and even a few native Parisians. France’s Empire included Indo China, Algeria, Tunisia, and a few other Africa countries whereas ours included India, Hong Kong and the West Indies as well as most of the other African countries. That is why our national dish is curry and France’s national dish is (almost) cous cous. But, somehow, the immigrants have become Parisians. The centre is clean and pretty much graffiti free. Parisians are thought to be rude by most, even other French people, but “please” and “thank you”, plus the addition of “monsieur” are universal. So much better than the grunts and averted eyes I get in the shops at home.

I take the Metro to St. Michelle. Someone in front of me has left their credit card in the ticket machine, so I hand it on to the ticket office. Someone asks me how to get to Notre Dame. I explain that I am a visitor too, and then tell them.

I’m having a three course “menu” for 12 Euros. It’s a place I’ve been to about half a dozen times over the last 30 years. Nothing fantastic, but typical brasserie grub.

It’s a lovely warm night. The streets on the left bank are teeming with people, mostly tourists. There’s a buzz about the place. Barkers are encouraging customers to come into their restaurants, street musicians are strolling from place to place in hope of a pourboire, and people are just walking about enjoying the sights. Old and young. There’s no yobbery or threatening behaviour, no drunken louts to be seen. Enjoying food and drink is a national pastime, but getting drunk is considered bad form.

Walking along the banks of the Seine, I see groups sitting on the embankment. Some are couples sharing a quiet moment, others just enjoying the chance to chat, enjoy the scenery and  chill out. The pyramid outside the Louvre is lit up like a Christmas tree decoration, and great it looks too. There are dozens hanging around the Tuileries. Some are playing football. Everyone is having a great time. And I am too. It’s infectious.

Paris is a wonderful place to live if you are young. I can imagine none better if you are a student. The French respect art, music, philosophy, and all the things that make life special. Everyone should try it, if you can. But it’s not cheap, and I’m not sure it would be the ideal place to bring up children. Big towns usually aren’t. And if you’re very rich, then you can have plenty of space in a nice part of town and just party on when you feel like it.

But I don’t think I could live there again. Not for very long anyway. I am neither young, nor rich. My mistress has not got any older, but I have. I would not have missed this brief flirtation for the world, but now I’m off to look for a quieter, more relaxed life in the countryside of rural France.

---------------- It’s time for a lunch break at a service station near Orleans. There is a kiosk outside the main building, selling demi baguettes with loads of different fillings, quiche, various deserts and all of it looking fresh and inviting. I take a ham and cheese baguette sandwich and sit down at a table with that and a bottle of Orangina. There are three or four sparrows nearby. I wouldn’t have given them a second thought, except that there aren’t so many around at home anymore, especially in London. I don’t know why. Sparrows used to be everywhere in London, which is why people still refer to cockney sparrows (or sparrers, to be precise).

I went to Orleans some years ago with a group of folk dancers. I was a morris man then, and played the concertina too. We took part in the annual Joan of Arc festival, which celebrates their famous saint, as guests of the “Union Berrichonne”, a French folklore group. As we paraded past the cathedral and St. Joan’s statue, I felt it only fitting to play “The British Grenadiers”. Fortunately, the meaning was lost on the locals. I also remember a friend and I were asked by one of the local lads what the English slang word was for breasts. We spent some time trying to persuade him that the correct phrase to use was “frontal protuberances” , as in  “cor, look at the frontal protuberances on her!”  I’m not sure we convinced him. But, if you ever hear that phrase used there, you know who to blame.

A sparrow looked up at me cheekily. I tossed him a large crumb from the end my my baguette. After all, he might have been an ex-pat.

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I’m in Niort this evening. Nothing special, as far as I can see. It is simply a town that was on the way to where I want to go, and where I could fine a hotel for a reasonable price. The countryside from Paris to here is pleasant, but nothing special. At least, thats as far as I can tell from the motorway. Ideal farming country, I imagine, Not entirely flat, it goes up and down a bit, and there are hints of forests here and there. Pleasant, homely, but nothing to take your breath away.

Niort has seen quite a bit of recent development. There are lots of new buildings, and there seem to be some serious office buildings. It turns out that it is the location for the headquarters of lots of mutual insurance and bank companies. It’s only an hour from the seaside at La Rochelle, so it’s not a bad location as these things go.

My hotel is opposite a large square that is being rebuilt. They have put a car park underground, and covered the top with grass. More like a small park, really. There are seats, a children’s playground and people are already laying out in the sun, even though the construction work is not yet finished.

Just a small walk to the adjacent side, and there are half a dozen pavement cafes. All seem to be doing good business. My steak is rare, and the creme brûlée is excellent - not covered in a hard shell of sugar, but lightly crisp. The house wine is not bad either - better than the stuff I had in Paris.

The clientele are a cross section of the town, as far as I can see. Young and old. Couples, groups of lads out for fun, everyone sharing the experience, and listening to the rooks settling down for the night in the plane trees surrounding the square. In the cafe next door, a waiter has taken a contraption to a table of lads to serve their beer. It is essentially a vertical tube, about a metre high, with a tap in the base. He can serve several beers from that without going back and forth. What a great idea.

I shall miss out on La Rochelle tomorrow. I’m sure it’s very nice but I have seen enough to know that this area is not one that would immediately win my heart. Very pleasant place to live I’m sure, but I hear the sea and the mountains calling.

Tomorrow, I will be in Capbreton, just north of Biarritz, to get a good look at the Altantic coast, before heading to the valleys of the Aude.

----------------- Here’s a thought for Northampton. Knock down the bus station, adjacent car parks, and as much of the area around it as you can. Even perhaps the Grosvenor Centre. Build a huge subterranean, multi-storey car park and turn the top of in into a large square and park area. The car park itself should be well lit and have some architectural detailing to make it look attractive. Arrange bust stops and shelters along one side, but only allow buses and taxis there. Install fountains, a children’s play area and flower beds. Make it look really nice. Around this new, large square, build some office blocks and maybe even some posh, serviced apartments as well as more retail space. One or two restaurants (not fast food)  could be on the ground floor overlooking the new square. Make sure there are retail units large enough to attract some of the majors, preferably large enough to compete with Milton Keynes. This is essential if you are to bring shoppers back to the centre of town.  Lifts from the shops to the car park would help shoppers load their purchases. Deliveries to shops could be either from behind or, better still an underground delivery area (like the Bullring in Birmingham, but less brutal).

If you want to get an idea of what it could be like, visit Niort, in France. It has a population of about 60,000 and a bit, with 137, 000 or so in the urban area, so it’s not dissimilar to Northampton in size. I saw something very similar in Perpignan. The idea is not uncommon in France.

Of course it would be expensive, and it may be necessary to subsidise the rent of some of the offices and shops to attract the right sort of tenants. I know we have too many empty retail premises right now, but that may not always be so. On the plus side, the cost of borrowing is so cheap that now’s the time to do it. But something on this scale needs to be done to prevent the town from becoming a complete dump.

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I’m sorting through some photos and writing this from the balcony of a hotel overlooking the sea and the channel into the port of Capbreton. There are some very nice yachts coming in and out of the port. It’s more like a marina really. although there are still some real fishing boats using the harbour. There are market stalls selling freshly caught fish. Each stall has it’s boat’s name on it.

We face on to the Atlantic. There is nothing between here and the USA except sea. The yachts reflect this. There is none of the flash “let’s take a trip into the bay so we can show off and get a nice tan” type of sailor here. Motor boats have 12 ft fishing rods on them, obviously meant for more than mackerel. No sundeck and ladder for getting on board after a quick splash for them The yachts are designed for real sailing , and there’s even a big catamaran built for long distance cruising in Atlantic wind and weather. High tide is at 8:30 p.m.. It’s getting dark, and the bigger yachts are coming in and out of the harbour. You have to be a true sailor for that. At the other extreme, I’ve just seen three jet skis go out into the bay.

I drove straight down from Niort, past Bordeaux. I have seen pictures of Bordeaux and it’s famous vineyards, and I know it’s very nice. I just didn’t have time to do it justice, so sped on past. South of Bordeaux, they are building a new payage, so there are plenty of road works and the service stations are not so well appointed. The outside loos at the one I stopped at were still of “crouch over the hole in the ground” variety, although there were modern ones inside the cafe and shop.

It was strange to hear as many Spanish radio stations as French ones. I’ve been listening to classical music on France Musique and found another station playing jazz, funk and all sorts of good stuff, from Parchment Farm to what I can only describe as funk accordion.

Capbreton is very nice. I reminds me a bit of holidays I had with my parents at Broadstairs when very young, and when resorts like that were a good place to go. Lovely sandy beaches and a family atmosphere. There are stalls selling ice cream, the candy smell of fresh waffles, and a couple of serious games of petanque in progress. You can tell when a game is serious - they actually measure distances to make sure the scoring is correct.

It was over 30 degrees C earlier, but the breeze from the ocean is fresh and cooling. Beats air conditioning any day.

Time for tea. It’d better be fish, then!

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I left Capbreton behind, with the smell of sea and fish, not to say garlic, in my nostrils. Today I am especially grateful for the fact that my car has air conditioning and cruise control. The temperature is over 30 and I have a long way to go. I like the heat, but am not keen on being roasted in a tin can.

It took a while to see the Pyrenees. The area was nice and hilly, and quite forested, and then I saw the mountains to my right. They were covered in haze and looked blue, although it was obvious that they were covered in trees and should be green. and then I saw much bigger mountains behind them. Like naughty children playing peek-aboo behind  the curtains, they would appear and disappear from behind the haze. And then the forest obscured my view. I stopped at a picnic area to see if I could take a photo, but the rest stops are clearings in the forest. Lovely and shady for a cool drink, but you can’t see past the trees.

I decided against trying to take a quick pic with my phone while driving at 130 kilometres and hour. Even I didn’t think it worth the risk. My photographers eye told me that there was too much haze to get a really nice shot anyway. You can use uv and polaroid filters all you like, but they wouldn’t see through that stuff.

The road steered away from the mountains a bit after that. It goes past Pau and Lourdes, and on to Toulouse across a plateau between the Pyrenees on my right and a couple of other mountain ranges on my left. Finally, just before Carcassonne, I turn off the motorway and head for Limoux and Quillan, where I am staying.

This is Cathar country. Catharism was a Christian sect, tinged with some aspects of Middle Eastern philosophy, and was said to have been brought back from the crusades in the 12th century. Cathars believed in the struggle between the good spirit world and the evil material one. The idea was to practise abstinence and so become pure enough to escape this material world on death. This contrasted greatly with the Catholic Church, which was seen as being wealthy and corrupt. The fact that the Cathars did not demand a tithe may well have made it more attractive to the nobility. The sect grew very popular, and spread throughout Northern France, the Low Countries, Spain and the Languedoc.

Naturally, the established church didn’t think much of this. After all, if everybody started giving wealth to the poor and renouncing power, where would it end? Anyway, Pope Innocent III decided enough was enough. Rather than engage in a direct argument, he decide the most loving and Christian thing he could do was declare them heretics and kill the lot of them. That way they could put their point of view to God directly.

It didn’t seem to matter whether those being killed were actually Cathars or not. In 1209, Beziers, the Abbot of Citeaux gave the order to burn down a church where locals were sheltering, with the words “burn them all, God will know his own”.  There followed a ferocious campaign led by Simon de Montfort to exterminate the Cathars, although he died at the siege of Toulouse when a catapult missile fired by women and children bashed his brains out. It took over a hundred years to complete the job, with both sides not averse to committing dreadful atrocities. Some 225 were burned alive at Montsegur Castle, and the final Cathar community was tried by the Inquisition in Montaillou in 1321. The countryside is littered with hilltop castles that perished in that period.

I drive past fields of brown ripening sunflowers and fresh looking vineyards. Limoux claims that Dom Perignon first invented sparkling wine here, before transferring to Epernay. Wikipedia seems not to agree with this.

The route follows the river Aude up the valley gorges to Quillan, where I finally arrive. I have seen it several times via Google Earth, but it is different in real life. I sleep for a while and now it’s time to get an evening meal and make plans for the next few days.

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I think it says something for the improved quality of English restaurants that I’m not entirely blown away by the French ones. I’m not eating in the most expensive places, just local brasseries and bars. But there are noticeable differences. The staff are working really hard, hurrying between tables, making sure everyone is served efficiently, and managing to be polite as well.

There are one or two small children here too. All well behaved. A boy of perhaps three or four years old  is playing by himself by the tables outside the pizzeria. There is no traffic in the square and he raises his arms and makes a growling noise to try to scare two ladies approaching us. They smile indulgently, and the scary monster runs off. Perhaps he’s been to the dinosaur museum just down the road at Esperanza. His parents call him, telling him to stop when he crosses the road, which he does obediently, before coming to their table. Then he’s off again, in his own land of imagination, just a little way off and quieter this time. Later, he is taken under the wing of a girl aged about seven, who has left another table. It’s quite late and you can be sure that any children up at this hour have already had a few hours sleep before they came out. No tiredness tantrums here.

Most of the wine is local. There’s not even Spanish or Italian wine here, let alone any from the New World. The Languedoc is reckoned to be the biggest wine growing region in France, producing more than either Bordeaux or Burgundy. People that know about these things tell me that the quality has been improved over the last few years. Minervois, Limoux and Corbieres can be found in most UK supermarkets but the wine menu here is full of local producers I’d never heard of before.

I’ve discovered why there are so many pizzerias, rather than bistros or cafes. Apparently, at one point, restaurants had to charge 19.6% VAT whereas pizzerias were classed as fast food establishments and only had to charge 5.6%, or something like that. Obviously the bistro owners rushed to change their name and classification to “pizzeria” adding pizzas to the menu while retaining most of their normal dishes. Sensibly, this distinction has now been removed, and they are all rated the same.

One big difference I have noticed is that I’ve been offered vegetables as an alternative to the ubiquitous frites. The other day it was haricots. French green beans, which arrived with at least a couple of cloves of garlic pressed over them. I must try that at home. Yesterday it was ratatouille - real home cooked stuff. Today there was both ratatouille and carrots - practically paper thin red discs, also with garlic. I’m afraid if you don’t like garlic, you’ll have a pretty thin time of it in France!

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In the morning I stopped at the market in Esperaza. Apparently there is a “hippy” commune nearby, and they certainly dominated the market here. A girl is dancing to a French folk tune played on a melodian, there is a strong smell of joss sticks and perhaps just a hint of something else. As a lunchtime snack, I had a vegetable samosa. It was gigantic - more like a Cornish pasty to look at.

Esperaza is a pretty town, and not quite as high up the valley as Quillan, where I am staying.

On an impulse, I decided to drive back via Quillan to Perpignan and the coast. The first 40 kilometres pass through gorges that can only be described as stunning. In places, the road has been scooped out of the mountainside so that the rock overhangs the road. Imagine a tunnel with the wall on one side missing. As always, very few places where it is safe to stop for photos. Later, the countryside is flatter and the valley is wider, as if the lady Pyrennees has made a lap for us to travel down.

This is still wine country. In Quillan, in Winter, it gets below zero at night, even though it may be 20 degrees the next day. Occasionally, it’s even colder. Minus 18 has been mentioned as the coldest recent night. Five or six inches of snow can fall one day and be gone the next. That’s why there are no palm trees or bougainvilleas here until you reach the coast.

The road is a two lane route, and passes through the centre of many very nice little villages. Eventually I arrive at Perpignan and manage to navigate round or through it to the sea. At last, the Mediterranean. Its all as you would expect of a seaside town on the med. The sea is like a mill-pond. The sky starts clouding over, the temperature is down to the low 20’s and it looks as if it may rain.

Sunbathers start to pack up and leave the beach, while the motor boats head back to port. Probably don’t want to risk getting their hair wet. Not like Capbreton.

The whole place has an end of season feel about it. Even at gone five o’clock, most of the restaurants are closed. It may be because it’s a Sunday, but more likely because so many of the tourists have left. I’m sure I felt a spot of rain on my cheek, but there’s no sign on the pavement. Perhaps it’s just me.

I have a galette and an ice cream overlooking the sea. It has to be done, after all. Then head back. I tried to be clever by relying on old fashioned maps and google maps on my phone. Looking at the messages warning me how much my phone is costing, I would have been better off buying a satnav. Google maps doesn’t tell you when your turning is coming up, or when to turn back because you’ve missed it. There are times when it is useful to be nagged about things like that. I think there’s also a fortune to be made for anyone who can design a gadget to let you take or insert parking tickets and pay at a payage through the passenger side window. I must look an absolute idiot as I dash round the car to do the business, then dash back again.

On the way back, the mountains are hidden by clouds, but the sun eventually breaks through and lights up a mountain castle from behind. The hills look more welcoming now, and I’m glad to be back among them, away from the touristy seaside.

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I have been doing a great deal of driving lately, so I thought I’d try out public transport. I took the train from from Quillan to Carcassonne. It was only a single motorised carriage, but modern, comfortable and air conditioned. It cost me just one Euro each way for a journey taking about an hour and a quarter long the Aude valley. Now that’s what I call value. The timetable lists a service roughly every hour, but most of these services are coaches. Only about two actual trains run each way per day.

Carcassonne is much like any other Southern French town, except for two things. First, the Canal du Midi goes right through the centre and, second, just up the hill is the most enormous medieval castle you have ever seen. It’s huge.  I urge anyone making a film involving  a fairy tale princess, knights in armour, in fact anything that involves a castle or walled city to come here. It is perfect. I spent another Euro taking the bus from the station to the castle.

The walled city and castle fell into ruin, but have been restored and now accepted as a World Heritage site. It is naturally full or tourist attractions. You can take a horse-drawn trip around the walls, see a torture chamber containing the tools used by the Inquisition, or buy all sorts of souvenirs including reproduction swords and axes. In that sense, it’s like any French tourist hill village, only more so.

There is considerable science behind the design of castles. It’s not just a matter of building very strong walls, although that obviously helps.

There is a double outer wall to protect the city. Imagine attacking, breaking through the walls, and then finding you have to do it all over again with boiling oil, and crossbow bolts raining down from you as you are hemmed in between the two walls. You finally break through, indulge in fierce hand-to hand fighting through the narrow city streets until you reach the inner walls. You break through the portcullis and into a small square. The last wall defending the vital parts of the castle are the other side of a moat and the drawbridge is up. Again, you are sitting ducks surrounded by defenders firing missiles at you. At this point better men than me would start to wonder whether it was all such a good idea after all. Short of an atomic bomb, the only way to get in is by trickery (look up Cacrcassonne and 1209) or prolonged siege.

I took the tourist train back to the main square  -  another two Euros - and had a beer to pass the time before taking the train back. I get chatting to the man sitting at the next table. Apparently he was a press photographer and had one or two scoops. After a while he disappears, and I head to the station for the return journey.

Imagine my surprise when I bump into the man again when I get off the train at Quillan. He is thinking of getting a workshop here, and has a friend with a place further up in the mountains. We shake hands and wish each other good evening, and my day’s adventure is over. Not bad for 5 Euros, plus beer!

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Yesterday I drove to Gruissan, on the coast near Narbonne. There was no particular reason for picking this place other than it was in the general direction I wanted to go, and I could get a good room rate. The reason for that is now obvious. The hotel is just on the edge of town and is attached to a Casino. Thats a real Casino, with poker and slot machines, not a Casino supermarket. The layout is like an American motel - a row of rooms on two floors, with an outside door to each.

Gruissan has a nice ruined tower, and a marina. Actually, many of the smaller towns along the coast seems to have towers and a marina. They have probably grown out of old fishing and trading ports. There are two identical ocean-going catamarans in the harbour - his and hers. They are registered in Panama, and have signs on them saying they are crewed by some company or other. so I imagine they are either for hire, or owned jointly by a consortium. Each has a shade on the to deck for sunbathing under. This is all small beer compared to the riviera around Nice and Monaco. There, they have an English language radio station that I once heard advertising an interior design service for your yacht that could include staff uniforms to match the decor. Think of that for a moment - there must have been enough work of that type to justify (a) a company specialising in that service and (b) advertising it on the radio.

Most of the restaurants appear to have closed for the season, so I eat at the hotel. The starter is a salad. Well, I say salad. There is a pile of warm mussels, baby squid and salmon, all sitting on some lettuce leaves and roasted pine nuts, with dressing, obviously. Last night, in Quillan, I had probably the best warm goats cheese salad I have ever tasted. Friends who know me accept that I don’t normally eat salad. It’s a long story, but goes back to being put off school salads when I first went to school. To this day, I’d rather starve than eat a typical English salad. It’s silly I know, but I can’t help it, and I’m unlikely to change now. But French salads are something else. I’ve had them made with citrus fruit, chicken, bacon and mushrooms.Never like school dinners.

In the restaurant, an attractive young lass in her 20’s is serving the next table. She is slim, with partly blonde hair in a bob, and wearing black trousers and a black jumper. Tight fitting but discretely so. She is animated and looks intelligent as she talks to the diners - fun and almost cheeky. From the age difference between them and her, I think they may be her grandparents. She gives them a kiss. I am also probably old enough to be her grandfather, but I don’t get a kiss. Such is life.

On the way out, the maitre d’ asks me where I am from. I tell him Northampton. “Ah, they have a good rugby team” he says. It’s good to know the town I live in counts for something in the world.

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I have heard a lot about the Camargue. The famous white horses, the flamingos, and the wild, rugged countryside. So I drove there today. I stopped just outside the national park itself at a place called Augies Mortes. The seventh and eighth Crusades embarked from here. I only stopped to pick up some bread from the market, but I wish I had spent more time there - it looked interesting and there is obviously lots of history to it.

As it was, I was concerned I would run out of time, so I pressed on.

The Camargue is the delta of the river Rhone. Areas are very marshy, and it is criss-crossed with little rivulets and lakes.

I spent about three hours driving round the national park of the Camargue. I did see flamingos, but only on the outskirts of a town, where there were a couple of dozen in a small lake. I think it was part of a visitor attraction. I saw horses too, but only in fields - not in herds roaming wild. I saw an area where, a notice told me, thousands of duck and water fowl spend the Winter from September to March. That must be from the end of September then, as there were hardly any there when I went past.

As Noel Coward said of Norfolk, it’s very flat. Like a warmer version of the Fens.

I have no doubt that there is a multitude of flora and fauna that is unique to the area. A botanist would have a field day, I’m sure. But my advice to any visitor is to do more pre-planning than I did. I believe you can hire a horse and go on a guided tour to places where the roads don’t go, and the local guides will show you where to find horses running wild, and huge flocks of flamingos. But don’t expect to find the just by driving around. It’s not like  looking for ponies on Exmoor.

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I left Gruissan this morning to return to Quillan. I left with the sun shining through a cloudy sky, but it soon started to rain. I felt myself relaxing as I approached what I have come to feel are “my” mountains. The rain is soft and warm, and brings out the colours, The greens are greener, the yellows are yellower, and the autumn browns are browner.

My Auntie Anne and Uncle Jack retired to Porlock, in the foothills of Exmoor. My parents and I spent several summer holidays in that area. It often rained, and I have a photograph somewhere of my mother wrapped in a plastic mac, reading a newspaper by the sea in Porlock bay. The rain reminds me of that. Perhaps that’s why I seem to have an affinity with hills and mountains. I am certainly more comfortable here than in the resorts by the sea.

Seaside holidays are great fun when you just need to relax for a while, and when you have children to play with. Kiss me quick hats and dodgems are just the thing then. But, as a lone traveller, I find it all a bit much. I need things to do, and places to see.

As I arrive back, the rain lets up and the sun comes out. I am welcomed back at L’Olivette by my hosts, Silvia and Roy, and given a special welcome by Scamp, their small, white scottie-like dog.

Walking round the town this afternoon, I am getting to really like it. Although it is cloudy, the rain has freshened up the streets. There is a house that I had seen for sale on the internet. It looks very nice, and is on a leafy boulevard, right next to the church. The disadvantage is that it has no parking, only a small terrace at the back and, most important of all, it is in a location that gets very noisy in the summer. A notice on the door says that everything inside is for sale, and must go on the 19th. Apparently it has been rented out for the last couple of years and the owner has decided to sell it after moving to the far east.

Noise is one disadvantage of the houses in the centre of town. Another is that most have no parking spaces, gardens, or even terraces. Many are built as back to back terraces. That’s literally back to back, not with gardens at the back as happens in the UK. They have three shared walls, with just the front of the house on the outside, and with windows. They look picturesque, but most locals avoid them nowadays.

There are more modern properties just outside the centre - blocks of flats, houses, and all sorts. Many were built in the 50’s. They are nowhere near as attractive, but more sensible if you want a house with a small garden and somewhere to park.

Additional fees on top of house prices can be in the range 10 to 15 percent. Some of this is the equivalent of our stamp duty, some are legal fees, and about 7 or 8 percent are estate agents fees. Many estate agents quote a price that includes their fees but not all do, so that’s something to watch out for. I’m told that, because of the size of the agents fees, a great many French people sell directly to each other. So, if I want to buy somewhere here, the best thing to do is to spread the word round the community and see what happens.

Quillan is where Formica was made. The factory is still there, but is no longer manufacturing. Like many places, there is less work here than there used to be. I did notice some fancy chocolate in a service station shop that came from Quillan, but haven’t yet discovered where the maker is. That’s a job for tomorrow!

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I’m writing this on a terrace with a view overlooking Quillan. The sky is blue, the sun is shining, and there is a gentle breeze making the leaves sound like a small waterfall. The sound of an occasional car but all is calm and quiet. Even the donkey next door is having a rest.

This is my last day here. I’m heading back tomorrow. I’m only having the one overnight stop, near Orleans, and it will be a long thrash.

I found the local chocolatier. They are also bakers, and have a little unit near the Carrefour supermarket on the outskirts of town. Although it was mid morning, and the sign clearly said it should be open, there was no-one about. I carried on to Limoux, to stock up with some wine and some other bits and pieces. It is still possible to get local wine for just over a pound a bottle, although more expensive stuff, like Champagne, is roughly the same price as in the UK. Basically, the tax rate here is higher but is charged as a percentage, and there is no flat rate duty added first.

The supermarket has a cafeteria where I have a quick quiche and a coffee. The quiche is notably light - the pastry is thin, perhaps half the thickness we get at home, and the filling is much lighter too. The choice of other dishes would put many UK restaurants to shame and there is a good choice of wine, different types of coffee and a selection of deserts to tempt a palate recovering from shopping. Morrisons, eat your heart out.

There is a MacDonalds nearby. I wonder how they manage to get any business at all. And here’s my top tip for the day. If you are looking for petrol and you can’t find any, follow the signs for MacDonalds if you see some. They are generally in out of town retail parks next to big supermarkets, just like home. It worked for me in Narbonne the other day, anyway.

I drive up to Rennes-Le-Chateau, made famous by the Da Vinci code. It is at the top of a small mountain, with some of the best views so far. There are lots of rumours and stories about what might have happened here.

History just oozes out of every stone round here - look in Wikipedia for some of the background. But it’s the same for almost every village in the area.

What is certain is that Father Berenger Sauniere renovated a church that was in a dreadful state of repair and that no-one is sure where the money came from. It is possible he may have discovered treasure, but everything is pretty much speculation. Local folklore asserts that the child of Jesus and Mary Magdalen arrived in this part of France, and that may be just as likely as Jesus having visited Glastonbury when a small boy. Either way there are sufficient stories to put together an interesting yarn, especially if you add a conspiracy by the Catholic Church into the mix. They have been involved in conspiracies and cover ups of one form or another, from the Diet of Worms to paedophile priests. So almost anything you accuse them of can sound believable.

By all means, go there to see the relics and the devil holding up a holy water bowl, but go there too for the fabulous views.

Whoever made this countryside should get an award. I wonder if it was Slartibartfast? After all, he did a terrific job with the fijords.  (That’s for Hitchikers Guide fans).

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And so I head home. This time there’s just one stopover, at Orleans, via Toulouse and Limoges. The road skirts though the national parks at Quercy and the Limousin.

I drive out of Quillan past their rugby ground, which proudly proclaims that they have been playing there of over a hundred years. I must get myself a Northampton rugby shirt. It’s probably the best way of making friends quickly anywhere in this region of France.

The sun is popping in and out of the clouds, and the colours are changing with light and shade, as if an invisible hand is working a giant kaleidoscope. I pass through the vineyards of Limoux and join the motorway near Perpignan.

Near Cahors there is a round, whitewashed windmill, sitting on top of a hill. I have seen many electricity generation windmills here and there, but this is the first traditional one I have seen. The route goes through the department of Lot and just misses the Dordogne. The cloud is clearing now, and the sky is rapidly becoming a radiant blue.

I can see why this area is so popular with the British. The road doesn’t give much of a view of the towns, except for a teasing glimpse of a small chateau here and there. But the countryside looks pretty good. There are lots of hills. They are not as spectacular as the mountains of the Pyrenees, perhaps like the hills in the UK. They don’t have the red warmth of Devonian sandstone, nor the wildness of Cornish granite. Think South Downs, only much more so.

I need a change from French radio. I put on a CD of “Under Milk Wood”. It’s the full length BBC version with Richard Burton as the narrator. For me, it is possibly the best piece of writing in the English language in the last hundred years at least. The humour of the pen portraits and dialogue has me laughing out loud. And I try not to weep with Captain Cat when he dreams of his old friends and his lost love, Rosie Probert. You’ve got to hand it to Dylan Thomas for christening the town Llareggub, which, just in case you didn’t know, is bugger all, backwards.

After that, the country settles down to a less imposing, broad and pleasant view. I Put on some rock’n roll instead. Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs - “Why don’t you stay, just a little bit longer?” I wish I could.

My hotel is the cheapest I could find, a Fasthotel. It is modern after the style of American motels, with an outside door for every room. I’m on the second floor and there is no lift. It is  in the commercial area on the southern outskirts or the town, just down the road from a new exhibition hall. A modern tramway runs along the road, and the whole area looks prosperous in a business-like way. The hotel is hidden in a maze of roadways leading round various offices, shops and the occasional restaurant. I would never have found it if I hadn’t seem it from the road. In fact I’m still not sure how I actually found it, even then.

Tonight I shall turn in early, after a seven hour drive. Tomorrow will be about the same, but with a break for the ferry crossing.

As I arrived, I just managed to pick up the end of the Hants vs. Warks 40 over cricket match on radio 5 Live, and I discover that Arsenal put six goals past Southampton. There are some things I’m looking forward to catching up with when I get home. And I’m really missing Izzie the cat!

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Driving back from Orleans, I took a wrong turn in Paris. I took the turning labelled Boulogne and then immediately realised it didn’t mean THAT Boulogne, but Boulogne-Billancourt, a suburb in the West of Paris. I got back on my route by driving along the side of the Seine, which took me right past my old apartment.

I couldn’t resist the chance to take a look.  It’s exactly the same as it was those years ago. The restaurants are still there,  as is the artisan baker where I used to buy bread and almond croissants. The only thing different is the number of joggers out in the Sunday morning sunshine. All looking very fit and chic. It’s in Neuilly-Sur-Seine, which is a very chic area. I would live here again in a heartbeat if I had the money and the opportunity.

I had a steak last night in La Boucherie - a steak bar chain, near the hotel in Orleans. The clientele were a broad cross-section. There were families with children, young couples. even old fogeys like me. It clarified something that had been in the back of my mind for a while. In the Aude, the people in the restaurants and shops were mostly “of a certain age”, that is, my age or thereabouts. There wasn’t the “buzz” that I found in even Niort and Orleans. Apart from a small number of artisans and shop workers, the younger element move to one of the larger towns such as Carcassonne or Toulouse to find work. There is apparently an active jazz scene, but in places like Perpignan and other towns that are at least an hour’s drive away. There are folklore festivals in the Summer, but I couldn’t see any indication of local folklore groups. And I’ve no idea how far away the nearest opera group would be. It would be like living in Northampton but travelling to Birmingham, Nottingham and Luton every week to take part in leisure activities. I’m not sure I could handle that.

The clouds got heavier as I headed North. By the time I hit Normandy, the country looked very much like the UK, and I could pick up UK radio. No wonder estate agents call it “Lower Kent”!

I spent my last 20 Euros on a three course fixed menu. The main course, cote de veau, was about an inch thick and the size of a shovel. I wondered if the petits pois and carrots were tinned - they didn’t seem either fresh or frozen. They tasted good though.

The ferry crossing was uneventful. I watched the ferry manoeuvre into the dock at Dover. It’s remarkable how such a huge ship can dock with such accuracy. Sub Lieutenant Phillips wouldn’t stand a chance here. Finally, the deckhands throw up a thin rope to someone manning a motorised capstan. The rope is hauled up and, attached to the end of it, is another, much thicker one. It is threaded onto the capstan and the final adjustments started. I go down to the car deck while the drawbridge is lowered so we can drive off.

I left Dover accompanied by a red, cloudy sunset. Driving straight through London for a change, I took the route through the Blackwall tunnel. It’s the first time I’ve seen the O2 arena and all the new office blocks from this part of town. It all looks very impressive. I can still remember when there used to be docks all around here and this was pretty much all bandit country. I once played a rock gig near Charlton in the early 60‘s and it was probably the dodgiest area I’ve ever played in. And I’ve played in a few!

I’m listening to Tim Rice on the radio. He’s playing music from New Orleans, and I’m enjoying every track, Fats Domino, Clifton Chenier, US Bonds, loads of old favourites. Even an old Elvis number from King Creole. I’ve never met the man but I feel i know Tim well.

I arrive back in Northampton after cruising through the longest roadworks I’ve encountered between here and the South of France. It’s between Luton and Milton Keynes. I’m careful, as there are cameras here to make sure you don’t go over 50, no matter how little traffic and what time of night, and whether anyone is working there or not.

Izzie the cat comes down the stairs to greet me, we have a cuddle, and she purrs. I make a cup of tea and sit down to recover from the journey before I head to bed. It’s better than any bed I’ve slept in while I’ve been away. It’s good to be home.