Over four weeks ago I set out for France by car. Here are a few vignettes from my trip and an update on events since my return.
Yer guinness is below par!!
It’s Monday July 9th, approaching Toulouse. Mrs Parky, although not a fan, is on the ball nevertheless when it comes to the far side of rugby.
“Shall we call in and tell Trevor Brennan his Guinness is still below par,” she suggested playfully.
“No I I’ll not bother,” I replied, “The last time I was here, I promised to pee in his doorway and run away,” following his act of barbarism against an Ulster fan.
It’s Monday 16th July and we are in motorway services, about 170 miles north of Toulouse. Parked beside us are group of middle aged French couples enjoying a bit of a rest and a laugh.
I noticed a Stade Toulouse sticker on one of their cars as I reversed past and then one of them enquired what country we were from.
“Irelande du Nord and Ulster rugby,” I replied.
“I had a good weekend in London,” the man retorted as our car drew away.
I was puzzled by this remark. Then it dawned on me, he had seen my hoodie lying in the back of the car, emblazoned with ‘ULSTER Twickenham 2012’ and had enjoyed his weekend to the Heineken final.
Expect the unexpected!!!
Bonjour, bonjour, bonjour!
The 3rd leg of my holiday was near Carcassone, a place famous for its old walled city and best known for its connection with the crusades.
We were staying in the village of Leuc, 4 miles from the old city.
Leuc is a rambling collection of dilapidated stone buildings, narrow streets barely capable of taking a car, flanked by the river Aude and Pyrenean foothills.
It is home to a mainly elderly French population in their twilight years.
A railway halt, Post Office, Mayor’s house, Boulangerie and a Tabac represent its commercial heart. If you want something more than a stamp and a croissant, then the hypermarkets on the periphery of Carcassone are a requisite visit.
The village has charm, dominated as it is by the old stone church tower. They don’t do bell ringers anymore in France, just an automatic chime/chimes on the hour, every hour, interspersed with a melody when calling the elderly worshippers to service.
Not even the archaic, church can escape the vicissitudes of modern day France. A couple of recycle and rubbish bins, de-rigeur in this country, nestled beneath its crumbled cement stone facade.
If recycling is mandatory then the greeting of ‘bonjour’ was obligatory in response to total strangers. This was amusing but I soon became used to receiving a crisp ‘bonjour’ and an occasional friendly smile.
A Whole Chapter of History to be Explored.
The Languedoc region where Carcassone is located, is warm due to the Mediteranean influence just a three quarters of an hour’s drive away. The temperature rarely dips below 15 degrees during daylight hours in the summer.
Even when the the Cers, blows from the Pyrenees out to the west, which it did for a few days, the sun maintained a degree of warmth.
Our morning and evenings were generally spent on the secluded Terrace of the house sheltered from the winds by the stone walls of the surrounding buildings.
There we drank wine, barbecued and gazed across the stained orange tiled roofs to the church tower where swifts swooped and soared almost 24/7 it seemed.
From the Lord of the Rings vista of Minerve village, located in a canyon (in the Minervois wine growing region) to the crisp sand of Narbonne Plage, there resided a whole chapter of history to be explored.
The old walled city, which although vastly commercialised, with for example 2000 parking places available for visitors, still retains the grandeur of ancient fortifications.
Lost in Vines
My time relaxing near Carcassone was interspersed with trips on a borrowed mountain bike up into the hills behind Leuc and across the Aude into the vineyards.
At the top of the 6km climb up to Villeflourie you could see across the rolling forested hills to the blue silhouettes of the Pyrenean peaks rising majestically into the sky.
My personal Tour De Carcassone took me through the vineyards one day, where I got lost and ended up bouncing my way up and down vineyard dirt roads before I finally located tarmac, having spent a hapless half hour searching for signs of human habitation.
Out there no-one can hear you scream!
The first leg of the tour was spent in Bourg, near Le Paul, in what is a toned down version of Leuc. Bourg features a collection of rambling stone built houses and a small modern development out of sight of the main road.
The village’s most redeeming building is a large chateau.
Standing like a grandiose sentinel, complete with moat, and inner courtyard, hidden behind stone towers it apparently remains unoccupied most of the year until the owner ascends from Paris during August for his holidays.
If the chateau maintains a lonely, mainly unoccupied vigil, then so too does the pub. It is up for sale, the English owner has given up the fight to make it viable and occasionally returns to open it in the evenings.
Like the chateau, it broods in the evening sun, an edifice without purpose, echoed by the houses, half of which appear unoccupied.
They sit in the sun tightly shuttered up, whilst the other half appear to be occupied by a population seeing out their twilight years.
You make your own entertainment here.
Melancholia With a Bite
One evening as the sky filled with swelling bulbous clouds interspersed by the tourquoise blue of a fading sun and underlined on the horizon with a blood red streak, I wandered through the twilight to the chateau.
It was warm and the occasional door to a hallway lay open, dark and uninviting. Some shutters lay adrift as if trying to draw cool air into the interior of the dwellings.
Nothing stirred. The road through the village lay unused, the sound of silence echoed in the still air. It was as if the whole place had fallen into an evening rip van winkle slumber.
The chateau sat ghostly in the gathering gloom, its moat showed numerous ripples reflecting in the evening sunlight as fish swarmed in schools, large and small. Thoroughbred horses in a nearby field swished their tails to ward off flies, delighting in the evening swelter.
For a moment the clouds cleared and the empty road towards the village brightened, silhouetting the church against the evening sky. As the sun dipped below the horizon, the curtain came down on this sad little village, that appears to be dying on its feet.
The air of redundant neglect is a metaphor for France’s ageing population. It is a country where youth have left the rural travails for the brighter lights of the cities and universities. The remaining population sit out their declining years as if already in a graveyard.
Postscript – whilst indulging in evening melancholia in a deserted French village, I achieved an enormous mosquito bite on my left calf which swelled to twice its normal size. It would be several days before it returned to anything approaching normal.
Sometimes evening melancholia comes with a bite.
Friggins Cleans Up
The Wiggey/ Froome combination have cleaned up the tour De France, in case you haven’t noticed. Watching the SKY cycling machine has been rather reminiscent of the England 2003 Rugby World Cup winning team.
All pace and power and little sporting joie de vivre to savour.
Best moment of Le Tour was when Phillipe Gilbert, a Belgian rider was unseated by a stray dog which its owner retrieved and put on a lead.
The negligent owner and the wife hugged the errant dog round their legs whilst their 9 year old daughter shielded it on the other side
The enraged Gilbert remonstrating with them made for a great photo opportunity showing him gesticulating in a threatening manner at a cowering little girl, shielding a large shaggy black dog, whilst BMC team personnel act to restrain the aggrieved rider.