Enjoying space in France

WE LIVE IN A SMALL flat without neither garden nor a balcony, but near the centre of London and two large parks. For several years, we used to drive to France, where we hired country houses in rural locations from an organisation called Gîtes de France. A ‘gîte’ is essentially a furnished house available for rent to holidaymakers.

The organisation used to issue handbooks listing the houses available in various regions. Each home is given a category between the lowest 1 and the highest 3 ‘épi(s)’ (ears of corn). When we planned our trips, we used to choose from the houses on offer in the 3 épis grade. We had several criteria that determined our choice of holiday home. First, it had to have at least 100 square metres of usable space because we wanted to experience living in a spacious place for at least one week per year. Second, it had to be equipped with machines both for both clothes and for dishes.  In addition to fulfilling these requirements, there was one more thing we always wanted: a barbecue.

My wife had hired gîtes before we married, which is why we considered doing this for our family holidays. The first one we hired was in a small village, Poilly-sur-Serein near the famous wine-producing town of Chablis in Burgundy. The building was easily large enough to house my wife, her parents, who had flown over from India, our daughter, and me. We used the barbecue almost every evening, preparing vegetarian kebabs for my in-laws and meaty ones for the rest of us. Staying in Poilly-sur-Serein whet my appetite for trying other gîtes.

One April, we hired a lovely house in the south of Provence, not far from Orange. It was next to a cherry orchard and had a large garden. We could not use the garden much during the day because that year there was a heatwave in the south of France. Temperatures were hovering around 37 degrees Celsius and the best place to be was in our air-conditioned car, in which we explored the local and not so local sights.

One of our favourite hires was also in the south of France, in the Aveyron region. The house was located inside the walls of the ruined Templar’s castle at St Jean d’Alcas, which is but a few miles south of Roquefort-sur-Souzon, the centre of Roquefort cheese-making.   We visited the small town of blue cheese fame several times and ate some meals in its restaurants. At one of these, a cheese trolley bearing thirteen different types of Roquefort was wheeled to our table. Although they looked alike, our waiter patiently explained the characteristics of each before advising us that it was best not to select more than four of them on a plate at any one meal. At another eatery in the town, I could not resist sampling the ‘Menu Roquefort’, a three-course lunch consisting of dishes that included the town’s famous blue cheese. My starter was an omelette which incorporated the cheese. This was followed by meat in a sauce based on Roquefort. The dessert was a Roquefort soufflé. Although this might sound heavy, it was not because whoever prepared it was a good cook with a light touch.

The gîte at St Jean d’Alcas was so lovely that we hired it a second time, a year after our first visit. During the second stay, there was a grand celebration in the tiny village. It was probably Bastille Day. Long tables were set out in the lane running alongside our house. In the evening, we were invited to feast with the locals, who had flocked in great numbers to the usually deserted village. We joined the friendly crowd seated at the tables and were offered one of two main courses. On offer from huge cooking vessels, there was either tripe in a delicious sauce or grilled local sausages. It was a fine occasion with unlimited wine. The following morning, the tables and benches had disappeared, and the picturesque village had returned to its normal sleepy state. 

There was only one shop in St Jean d’Alcas and its merchandise was limited in range but delicious. It sold bottles of a liqueur like ratafia, but with a different name. Apart from that, we had to buy our food supplies elsewhere, mainly in street markets and supermarkets. Shopping for daily needs was one of the many attractions of having our own home away from home.

One curious feature common to all the gîtes that we hired was that each of them had only one toilet/bathroom however large the building. In 2000, we hired a large house in the Haute Loire at a tiny village with a ruined castle, Arlempdes. Its location next to the castle walls was wonderful. It overlooked a sharp curve in the river. This four-storey building had accommodation for eleven people, but only one toilet and shower. Both were inconveniently located in the basement of the gîte. Had there been eleven of us, or even just five of us, having only one toilet would have been extremely inconvenient. As we were looking for extra space to enjoy, this property more than fulfilled our requirements.

We gave up driving through France several years ago. Most of the places we wanted to visit were more than a full day’s tiring drive across France. On the way out, this did not matter as we had an exciting holiday to enjoy. But the return journey was never much fun. There was the long drive through France towards the English Channel, much of which involved driving through the often-dreary areas of the northern part of the country. Then, there was a shorter but much more exhausting ‘schlep’ through Kent and south-east and central London … and the prospect of returning to work. By the time we reached our tiny flat, we were ready for another holiday.

Changing travel plans

WE ARRIVED BACK IN LONDON from several months in India on the 27th of February 2020. Since we retired, we have taken to spending a few of the winter months in my wife’s native land, India.

We have often spent Christmas in the south Indian city of Bangalore, where we stay at the long-established ex-colonial Bangalore Club, where the young Winston S Churchill once stayed and then left without settling an outstanding bill. To date, we have settled all our Club bills, you will be pleased to know. However, maybe this is one reason why none of us has ever been elected as Prime Minister of the UK or any other nation.

Christmas is celebrated in style at the Club. Strings of tiny lightbulbs are draped all over the establishment’s buildings and the many lovely trees in the Club’s extensive grounds. Shortly before Christmas, there is an outdoor evening carol singing concert that ends with the lighting of a huge bonfire. There is also a lively Christmas party for the members’ children that culminates with the arrival of Father Christmas on a horse-drawn carriage. I always feel a bit sorry for him as he must dress not only in a bushy white beard but also in clothing that is far too warm for the December temperatures in Bangalore, which can be in the high twenties Celsius. On Christmas Day, members and their families, who are not vegetarian as many are in India, queue up for servings of roast Turkey and a wealth of other foods available at a luncheon buffet. There is plenty available for those who prefer not to eat meat. Well, we will be missing all of this in 2020, and a lot more.

Usually, a day or so after we return to London, we visit our travel agent to book tickets for our next ‘Winterreise’ to borrow a title from the composer Franz Peter Schubert. Air tickets become available eleven months before a flight’s departure date. When we were seated at our travel agent’s desk, we told him the dates of our proposed trip. He looked on his system and told us that we could book the outbound flight, but the return flight tickets would not be available for purchase until early April. He advised us to return in April and then book both outward and inbound tickets together. That turned out to be extremely sound advice.

In the middle of March, the UK went into a total ‘lockdown’. It was no longer possible to return to our travel agent or to do much else. In addition, things were deteriorating all over the world as a result of the spreading of covid19 infections. As the weeks went past, it looked increasingly unlikely that we would be making a trip to India at the end of 2020. We were fortunate that we had been advised not to buy our outbound air tickets. Now, having reached December, travel abroad is not advised and currently travel from the UK is being curtailed. Many countries, including India, are banning travel from the UK.

In August, when restrictions on movement were being relaxed, we spent a pleasant week in a rented cottage in Kingsbridge, Devon. We liked the cottage so much that we asked its owner whether we could reserve it over the Christmas/New Year holiday period. She was happy with the idea providing that future ‘lockdown’ rules did not find her trapped there. A couple of months ago, she informed us that the cottage would not be available after all. This was not because of travel restrictions, but because a friend of hers needed temporary accommodation for a few months in winter.

Undismayed, we managed to find another self-catering cottage in the West Country to rent during the Festive Season. Then, London was cast into Tier 3 covid19 preventive measures, which discourage travel outside the Tier 3 restrictions area except between the 23rd and 28th of December. We rang our landlady in the West Country to explain that we would rather not drive so far to spend such a short time and she agreed to rebook us in March 2021.

With the West Country shelved, we decided to stay in a hotel near Cambridge and to spend some ‘socially distanced’ time with one of my cousins, who lives in the area. As the 23rd of December grew nearer, we began planning our festive feasting programme and buying mouth-watering supplies for it. Then, we all learned that the coronavirus had become highly creative and managed to mutate in more ways that most of these bugs can usually manage. This new viral creation is far more efficient at spreading from person to person than its awful ancestors. As a result, and surprisingly sensibly for our strange government, London and much of southeast England was put under stricter restrictions, Tier 4, which include a travel prohibition that forbids travel out of Tier 4 and no relaxation of restrictions during the period that we had planned to spend near Cambridge. So, that was Cambridge ‘out of the window’.

Soon after London was made subject to Tier 4 regulations, we learned that even with the arrival of new vaccines it was likely that the severe restrictions on travel might continue until Easter. So, we reached for the ‘phone and asked our future landlady in the West Country to shift our booking until May 2021. Now, we will make the most of Christmas and New Year without leaving London for any kind of winter journey, let alone India. I hope that all of this does not sound too depressing to you, because we subscribe to the idea that ‘all’s well that ends well’, and we hope that by following the rules, as ad hoc as they might be, we will all keep well.

While we munch our way through all of the festive ‘goodies’ we have accumulated, we will think of you, our friends all over the world, and wish you a prosperous and healthy future.

Three towns in Devon

WHEN YOU LEAVE THE A38 road near Buckfastleigh and head southwards, you enter the Devonshire district of South Hams. This picturesque part of southwest England contains three towns that attract many visitors: Dartmouth, Kingsbridge, and Salcombe. Each is located on hilly terrain and has its own distinctive charms. All of them have steep streets that lead to places with great views.

BLOG HAMS 2

Dartmouth, the home of an important large naval college, occupies a position on the estuary of the River Dart. Although it attracts many holidaymakers, it has the feel of a working town. The river is filled with boats, some used by pleasure seekers, and others (including ferry boats and fishing vessels) are working craft.

Salcombe, like Dartmouth, perches on the slopes of the shore of an inlet of the sea. Of the three places mentioned in this essay, it has to win first prize for its setting and attractiveness. I have visited Salcombe both in August (high season) and in May (before the season began). During the high season, the small town is flooded with holidaymakers, day-trippers and those staying in the place (including many owners of second homes). The streets are almost clogged with people. In contrast, when we visited it in May, the tiny town was delightful and relaxing.

We have just returned from staying in Kingsbridge, which is a few miles up the same inlet as Salcombe. This is, at first sight, the least obviously alluring of the three towns. Hence, it attracts fewer visitors than Dartmouth and Salcombe. However, as you wander around the small streets in the historic centre of the town, its charms reveal themselves to the viewer. The town is rich in buildings from the 18th and early 19th centuries. The Quay, where the tidal inlet meets the town is beautifully landscaped. Visitors tend to congregate here to enjoy paddle-boarding, boating (when the tide is high enough), crab fishing, eating ice cream,and just passing the time of day. Also, the town has several excellent restaurants. Of these, I would single out: The Old Bakery (for well-prepared Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern style food), the Dodbrook Arms (with first-class cod and chips as well as other perfectly prepared dishes), and Woodys, which serves very good locally reared beef. Like Dartmouth, but unlike Salcombe, Kingsbridge gives the feeling of being more than a holiday destination; it is a real working town.

In between the three towns, there are many villages and beaches worthy of exploration. Of the three places, Kingsbridge has become my favourite and we hope to return to it soon to use it as a base to get to better acquainted with South Hams.