Friday, August 22, 2014

Tour de France, no, not that one, another one, this one ...

A number of things suddenly occurred to us, I'd not had a holiday for a long while, although her ladyship had sloped off to Mykonos with the girls for 10 days (which could be seen as a break for both of us). We wanted to meet up with family in the Dordogne, we'd also been promising to visit chums in Languedoc-Rousillon ever since they finished  building their house some nine years ago. 

So we bought a breathalyser kit, a big bag of sweets jumped in the motor and set off for the Channel Tunnel. The plan was essentially to tour a few expat, or semi-expat, family and chums, stop at each for a day or two, then leave before our presence became objectionable (normally about an hour if I'm on form). I believe the technical term for this type of trip is freeloading so in order to arrive bearing gifts we stocked up on home-made ketchup, chutneys, marmalades, sloe gin, sloe port and garlands of dried chillies. In my view one of the many problems with French cooking and the produce available to support said style of cuisine is the adamant refusal to accept the existence of spicy food, even to the extent of blanding down tagines and other North African dishes to avoid exciting the somnolent French taste buds. 

We pootled our way southward, enjoying relatively clear roads, Paris was particularly pleasant with the population crammed, I'm guessing, into Deauville and Le Touqet. We'd invested in one of the telepeage transponders that let you cruise through the tolls at 30kph but my nerves failed every time, causing me to hit the brakes seconds before the beep and the raising of the barrier. I did form a few strong opinions as we progressed specifically with regard to our EU chums from the lovely land of Belgium, where I'm guessing that the driving test is totally verbal with no practical examination. 

Something along the lines of:

"Do you have a sense of direction"?
"Do you have a Volvo"?
"Do you have any spatial awareness or peripheral vision"?
"this switch that makes the flashy orange lights on the corners of the car go on and off, when should you use it"?
"Immediately after any random change of direction, speed or mind"
"Do you have a ridiculous caravan"?
"Do you have many friends with ridiculous caravans and Volvos from whom you just cannot bear to be parted"?
"Congratulations here is your Belgian driving licence, now get out of here, head south, carry the message of Belgian chauffeuring incompetence across the EU".
"Merci, er, which way is south again"?

Anyway, we had a lovely time in the Dordogne, indulging Mrs Stuffy in her seemingly endless pursuit of curious earrings and I heartily recommend, as an exercise in conversational French, trying to stop a gang of French market ladies from flogging her every piece of broccante bijou tat on their stalls without creating an international incident. Mrs S is also the only person I know who will take the side of the vendor when her loving husband is trying to haggle the hawkers down to a less obscene price. 

One of the highlights of this trip was the cunning way we managed to arrive everywhere just after the good weather had moved on, or a day or so before it arrived. Luckily this meant more time to enjoy pleasant meals, lovely wines and the company of friends without any of the distraction caused by a game of golf, lazing in the sunshine or playing in the pools. 

Moving on South to Limoux and staying with friends in their gorgeous hillside hacienda we were ideally positioned for a train ride followed by an early morning tour of Carcassone, a long postponed destination of choice, a beautiful old walled city which was lovely pre-invasion, early in the morning, enjoying a breakfast in the square, a trundle around the ramparts and in my case a tumble into a muddy clay puddle anointing my beautiful virginal white shorts with a huge brown blot across my taut derrière which might cause amusement, if you were the sort of women (as my two companions seemed to be)  who couldn't help giggling incessantly at another's evident discomfort. 

Free financial advice- The tourist trap of Carcassone old city is not the ideal place to buy a reasonably priced pair of replacement shorts.   

Inevitably the hordes started arriving and we left before my tourist tolerance reached breaking point, heading back on the excellent train service, a quick lunch and then off to enjoy a canoe ride on the Aude with a couple of other house guests. 

It's been about thirty years, no, forty, since I was a regular and enthusiastic canoeist but I assumed that old skills would re-awaken and would suffice. The sheer professionalism of the chaps organising the trip was awe inspiring:
"Can we have helmets?" 
"Non, we've run out" 
"Can we have a briefing?" 
Sure, come downstream, stop when you get back here, go right at the first killer waterfall, left at the second killer waterfall, it will take about three hours, try not to die" 

Into a builders skip, painted up to look like a minibus and up the gorge for thirty minutes, then down the bank, into the water and into our kayaks and that, it appears, was all the obligations of our guides, dispatched. 

The river was delightful, a fine mix of occasional tranquil calm, and much challenging but manageable rapids providing regular episodes of adrenalin fuelled exercise. 

We made good time and 66.6%of our three-person team stayed in the traditional canoeing position of, canoe in the water, pilot not in the water.   And only one of our team, (the same 1/3) managed to ram an innocent swimmer, the only vulnerable thing in a 30 metre wide expanse of river.

Regaining dry land back at Limoux we thanked the team of totally uninterested organisers and headed for the town square to enjoy, for me, the essence of a French trip, a pleasant bar, a glass or several with friends, old and new, and a wind down before an amicable and agreeable supper.

Our return leg was planned with a stopover in Versailles, a place I've long had on my "why have I never visited?" list. We were less than impressed with the eateries, there's a catering school somewhere teaching the French restaurant workforce to ignore the centuries of fine cuisine and the massive improvements in customer service now de rigeur in many civilised countries. The graduates of this college are not employed anywhere but in tourist towns, I'm sure that by now Mrs Stuffy has delivered through tripadvisor her damning opinions on the Restau  'le Bouef a la mode'. 

We were up at a sensible hour for our planned tour of the palace, but alas so were about  90 bus drivers and their passengers and we arrived in front of the palace to find a queue that officially qualified as 'interminable'. We had bought our 'access all area' tickets at the hotel but we both hate queuing so pootled off to the gardens in the hope that this early rush of trippers would abate a little. 

The grounds were astonishing and we delighted in the sculptures, the gardens and the fountains, enjoying a leisurely hour or so of ambling before heading back to the courtyard to find that the queue had magically expanded even more, Disney could teach the successors of Louis Quinze a thing or two about managing a line of punters. We looked at each other, voicing the hitherto unspoken question, "can we be arsed to line up, for ever?" 


So we donated €40 worth of tickets to a young (and very surprised) french couple queuing for tickets, thus doing our own little bit for the entente cordiale and we headed for Blighty. 

All in all a high mileage but most excellent voyage of reunification, rendezvous and discovery and our thanks to family and friends, old and new who made it such fun.

Now just a month till we return to France, specifically Corsica for the Team Tuxedo Tour of Cap Corse ... Watch this space.

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