A MONTH IN THE DORDOGNE
JAMES P BINNEY
What is recorded here is a kind of ‘diary’ of a two and half months camping holiday in France that my wife Julia and I went on in the summer of 2011. I say ‘kind of diary’ because I have made some use of poetic licence, although all the incidents and characters in this narrative are based on true people and true events. I have tried to avoid specific names of people and campsites, but occasionally I have used correct names to celebrate the goodness and kindness of certain people who hopefully won’t mind 15 minutes of fame. So enjoy the book, and go visit the places mentioned, especially the Dordogne for yourselves!
IN WHICH WE MEET A FAMOUS BELGIAN, GET THE SACK FROM OUR CHURCH, MOVE TO DORSETSHIRE, PLAN A TRIP TO FRANCE ESPECIALLY DORDOGNESHIRE, AND JUST ABOUT AVOID TAKING A STOWAWAY WITH US.
Monday 27 June: ‘What the hell are you doing!’ I shout, as the large Mercedes van with the prominent tow bar starts to reverse towards us at speed. Of course the shouting does no good whatsoever, the air conditioning in our car is on, and all the windows are shut, and our ancient Vauxhall Corsa doesn’t stand a chance. I don’t even have time to sound the horn, take off the hand brake, or reverse, before the Mercedes smashes into us and punches a hole right through our car radiator.
Do you know any famous Belgians, apart from Hercules Poirot of course, and he’s not real, only a fictional character? Well here’s another one for you, Baldwyn Smit, the driver of the Mercedes van who, for some inexplicable reason, decided to change lanes at the Péage for the Millau Viaduct, in Southern France, even though there were only a handful of cars waiting at the Péage, and reverse at speed without looking to see if there was anything behind him, nearly writing our car off in the process! Julia and I are unhurt fortunately. We just sit there stunned as various people come rushing over to the scene of the accident. What set out to be the holiday of a lifetime for us, two and half months camping in France in the summer, is nearly over before it has really started!
October (the previous year): ‘Well what shall we do now?’ Julia asks. ‘Let’s do that extended trip around France we’ve dreamed of!’ I reply. We have just been given notice to quit! I should explain that Julia and I are both ordained Baptist Ministers. I am the Senior Minister, and Julia the Associate Minister, of a large and growing church on the edge of London, but I am two years beyond retirement age, and Julia has been ill with ME or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome as it is sometimes known, for the past few months. Even though Julia is showing good signs of recovery, the church leadership has come to the conclusion that ‘it is in the best interests of both ourselves and the church’ that we leave. So I ‘retire’ and Julia (who is fourteen years younger than me) takes a year’s leave of absence, and we move to Dorset to ‘house share’ with Julia’s elderly mother in her lovely large thatched cottage in the small hamlet of Rodden.
With the money the church has given us as a farewell gift we buy a new tent, additional camping gear, and some suitable all-weather camping clothing. We have been camping in France before, so we know that we need to cater for every possible contingency, especially since we are planning an extended stay in the Dordogne. Our initial wild plan of going for five months, taking in Spain and Portugal as well as France, is eventually drastically cut to two and a half months just in France, but with the occasional day foray into Spain perhaps? The fact that Julia is still not well – the shock of having to leave church, job, home and friends – has set back her recovery significantly, is the primary reason for this extended trip to France. We hope it will aid her recovery, and as it turns out two and a half months is just about the right length of time for us both!
January: We have settled in well in Rodden. Christmas is over, the family have gone home after the festivities, and we get down to serious planning for our proposed trip to France. Despite not feeling too good Julia is determined to go ahead with the trip in faith. She believes that she will be well enough to go when the time comes to leave, indeed we both believe that this trip will prove to be beneficial to Julia’s eventual recovery, and our doctor agrees. We decide to go from the end of June until the first week in September and settle on two weeks on the Mediterranean coast, two weeks on the Atlantic coast, and a month in the Dordogne, with a leisurely drive down and a leisurely drive back stopping overnight at cheap hotels and a two day trip to Lourdes on the way from the Med to the Atlantic. We are particularly looking forward to our month in the Dordogne. We have been several times before and really love the area. We also both have the feeling that this will be an important time spiritually for us. We want it to be a time to prayerfully wait on God for his guidance as to the future, a time in which we hope to receive some revelation and understanding as to what his plans and purposes for us in the future may be.
Julia makes all the arrangements, she is good at that sort of thing, and before we know it our little Vauxhall Corsa, with the welcome addition of a new roof box, is packed to the gills with camping stuff and we are on our way to France. Well, almost on our way? First we have to remove a stowaway. Reggie, Julia’s mother’s Jack Russell has deposited himself in our car somehow. Obviously he fancies an extended camping holiday in France as well!
IN WHICH WE ENJOY THE SUN, MEET SOME AMAZING PEOPLE, MANAGE TO RACK UP SOME HUGE MOBILE PHONE BILLS, COPE WITH THE ENDLESS SAGA OF GETTING OUR CAR REPAIRED, AND LEARN TO RIDE BIKES ONCE AGAIN
Friday 15 July: We are in the Accueil at the campsite in Grau d’Agde where we are camping. The campsite is owned by a lovely French family consisting of a father, mother, uncle, and two grown up children, Lionel and Severene. Lionel is on the phone to Mustapha at the garage where our Vauxhall Corsa is still awaiting repair three weeks after we arrived here in Grau d’Agde. Each week Mustapha has promised that our car will be repaired by the following Saturday. And each Friday we have phoned to see if it is ready, only to be told that the vital parts needed to complete the repairs have not arrived from Germany. Today we really are in ‘the last chance saloon’! Thus far we have been able to extend our stay at this lovely campsite in Grau d’Agde for an extra week or so, but now the site is fully booked from next Tuesday onwards, so we have to leave here by then. If the car is not repaired we really don’t know what we will do? Our hire car went back a week ago – it was already pre-booked by someone else and the hire car company didn’t have a suitable replacement car for us. All the other campsites in the neighbourhood are fully booked and it is the beginning of the national French holiday period, and the French flock to this area during the summer. Lionel and Severene have been an indispensible help to us while we have been here. They both speak good English, Severene especially, and they have made a lot of phone calls on our behalf to the garage, the various insurance companies involved, the hire car firms etc. Julia and I both speak a bit of French but not enough to deal with the complexities of being involved in a car smash in France where nobody drives a Vauxhall Anything, and any spare parts have to come from the mother company, Opal, in Germany. Lionel’s conversation with Mustapha is very intense. It is impossible for either of us to pick up the gist of the conversation. Finally Lionel puts the phone down. He looks at Julia sadly and shrugs his shoulders. ‘I’m sorry’ he says, ‘the car is still not fixed and Mustapha doesn’t know when the parts will arrive?!’
When Baldwyn Smit reversed into the front of our Vauxhall Corsa at the Millau Viaduct Péage, smashing our car radiator and doing goodness knows what other damage to our car, little did we know then that our problems had only just started. If we had known the kerfuffle that was to follow, we probably wouldn’t have started out on this great adventure in the first place. After all is said and done, Dorset’s Jurassic Coast is just on our doorstep. Weymouth is just down the road if you want a fun town and a sandy beach in the summer. And Dorchester is only 20 minutes drive away if you want some culture!
On the day of the accident we are towed off the motorway to a garage near Millau. Mustapha is in charge today. He does not own the garage but seems to run the show. He looks our Corsa over and confirms that it is beyond a ‘quick fix’. Not only does it need a new radiator, but the tow bar on friend Baldwyn Smit’s Mercedes van has done considerably more damage to our car than is immediately obvious. We have to leave the car there, and Mustapha will try and get it repaired within the week. It all depends on when he can get hold of the parts? Vauxhall is a subsidiary of Opal – nobody has heard of Vauxhall in France apparently – and Opal being a German company, all the spare parts have to be ordered from Germany. The earliest that the parts can arrive is Wednesday or Thursday, but if they do arrive, Mustapha will get the car fixed for us by Saturday. The only other snag is the car insurance, not that we are uninsured, nor that Baldwyn Smit hasn’t admitted liability in writing … it is the Claims Assessor?!
We phone our brokers in the UK. They get us to phone the insurance company, who’s policy they have sold us, direct. They put us in touch with their European arm who will deal with the claim, who happen to be in Austria, who phone their agent who lives in Germany, who contacts their Claims Assessor who lives in Paris, who arranges with Mustapha to come and see our Corsa for himself. He will come perhaps by Wednesday, perhaps not, perhaps sometime later? Mustapha, very understandably, doesn’t want to order any parts for our Corsa until the Claims Assessor has given the o.k. Two hours later, umpteen phone calls on both our mobile phones later, a potentially huge mobile phone bill in the offing, something is agreed. We are not sure quite what has been agreed? Mustapha will repair the car for us, when the Claims Assessor has eventually been to see our Corsa and agreed with Mustapha’s assessment, or not, as the case may be. So what seems to have been decided, by everyone else but us, is that our Corsa may be repaired by Mustapha, or not, when the Claims Assessor eventually sees the car, or not, and if Mustapha can get the necessary replacement parts from Germany, or not. Julia and I look at each other and wonder if Brussels has been somehow drawn into this unfolding saga – after all Baldwyn Smit was Belgian. Is this yet another example of EU bureaucracy gone mad? ‘Forget the insurance company, forget the need for a Claims Assessor’ we tell Mustapha in a mixture of French and Franglais, ‘just order the parts and repair the car, please!’ ‘We don’t want the Claims Assessor to write our Corsa off, we don’t want to be stuck in France with loads of camping stuff etc. and without a car – we wouldn’t know how to begin to buy another car here in France – we will pay for the repairs ourselves!’ ‘Sorry’ replies Mustapha in hesitant English, ‘it’s gone too far now. It is already in the hands of the insurance people!’ He shrugs sympathetically. We shrug in despair!
Mustapha’s garage doesn’t have any cars to hire but Mustapha gives us a list of local car hire firms in and around Millau. We systematically phone every single one of them. We need a car big enough to get the entire contents of our Corsa, plus what’s in the roof box, in. Not a single car is available for hire anywhere in Millau. There is a Naturist Convention being held for two weeks in Millau, and the naturists have hired every single hire car of any description in the area! We don’t know whether to laugh or cry. If it wasn’t true you couldn’t invent it, could you? Eventually in desperation we try phoning car hire places in other large towns in the area. We eventually find a car hire firm in Rodez, about 50 kilometers from Millau, that has a Citroen Picasso they can let us have. The only problem is that the garage shuts in an hour. Mustapha knows a local taxi driver however. He phones him for us, and tells us that his friend will be with us ‘toute de suite’. Half an hour later we are still waiting for Mustapha’s friend? We have almost given up, and are beginning to think that we will have to spend the night in our car, when we see a taxi hammering along the road towards us at speed! It is Mustapha’s friend, Henri, who tells us not to worry, he knows exactly where the car hire firm is, and he can easily do the 50 kilometers in 30 minutes. We jump in the taxi, and so begins the most scary car ride of our lives, as Henri drives us at break neck speed across country, down narrow back roads, overtaking on blind bends. Julia and I sit there with eyes tight shut, praying every inch of the journey. Amazingly we arrive just in time. We pay Henri the 160€ fare, plus a good tip for getting us there, not only on time but alive, and go to collect our hire car. ‘There was no need to rush’ says the young lady behind the car hire desk, ‘I’ll be here for another hour or two at least.’
We drive the Picasso carefully and sedately back to the garage near Millau. It takes us a lot longer than half an hour. We then load all our stuff from our Corsa into the Picasso. The garage is closed for the night and we have been told to put our car keys through the garage letterbox. The tow trucks that rescue people like us, who either break down or have accidents on the nearby motorway, are still working however. As we are about to leave one of them pulls up outside the garage. It is the owner of the garage. He is transporting another car that has broken down. It is a French family, mother, father, several children, just at the start of their holiday. We feel very sorry for them but there is nothing we can do. At least they are able to phone relations who are able to come and collect them and take them home again. We leave the keys to our Corsa with the garage owner and get back into our hire car to drive the 80 kilometers to our hotel in Béziers, where we are already booked in for the night, before travelling the short distance to our camp site in Grau d’Agde the following day. A Dutch guy comes over to commiserate with us and wish us well. His car has also broken down, and he is spending the night in his caravan which is parked outside the garage. The spare part for his car is arriving tomorrow, he tells us. We hope his car is not a Vauxhall? We stop at a roadside service station for a meal on the way, it has been several hours since we have eaten. The meal is absolute rubbish, much as our day has been!
The campsite in Grau d’Agde is really nice. It is situated right next to the River Hérault, one of the most beautiful rivers in France in our opinion. The staff are very welcoming and helpful, especially when they learn of the problems resulting from our car accident at the Péage at the Millau Viaduct. Our pitch is spacious and within easy walking distance of the various camp facilities. We unload the Picasso, pitch our tent, and soon settle into the life of a French campsite. We don’t go too far during our first week in Grau d’Agde. Julia doesn’t really like driving the Picasso, it has a manual gear box, is left hand drive, and you can’t see where the bonnet ends and the road begins. I don’t want to drive it at all, not because I was driving the Corsa when we had our accident, but because it is some years since I have driven a car with a manual gear box. Julia says I am no good at driving a car with a manual gear box – apparently I find it difficult to steer and change gear at the same time – hence why our Corsa is an automatic. It does mean that we spend our first week at Grau d’Agde just resting however, apart from one trip to the supermarché to stock up with food and wine, reading our books, swimming in the lovely campsite swimming pool, and strolling by the beautiful River Hérault.
At the end of our first week we telephone the garage near Millau to see if any progress has been made with our Corsa. We phone from the campsite Accueil because our French is limited and Severene has volunteered to help us sort out the problem. Mustapha tells her that absolutely nothing has been done at all. There has been no sign of the Claims Assessor, so there has been no permission given for any repairs to take place, so Mustapha has not been able to order any parts. However, Mustapha has just had a somewhat belated phone call from the Claims Assessor in Paris to say that he hopes to be down to assess our car sometime during the following week, or maybe not? Hopefully it will be ready by next Saturday, Mustapha tells us, if the Claims Assessor turns up, and if Mustapha can get the replacement parts in time? Mustapha obviously thinks purely in terms of getting cars repaired by Saturdays!
Julia is on the warpath! For someone suffering from ME/CFS she is quite amazing. With both our mobile phones on the go at times she is taking everyone to task – our Insurance Brokers, the Insurance Company whom our car is insured with, their European Partners who are dealing with the claim, their Legal Representatives who are covering our need to hire a replacement car, etc. It is a wonder that our mobile phones have not melted by the time she has finished for the day. And this is just the start! She is on the phone every day to them – we are well aware of the typical French laissez faire approach to life. In between times we actually manage to enjoy ourselves with the occasional car trip down to the sea front at Cap d’Agde or Grau d’Agde for a swim in the sea, or a meal in one of the floating restaurants, or conversations over a glass of wine or two with the various new friends we are making around the campsite.
At the end of our second week in Grau d’Agde Severene phones Mustapha for us again. There is good news and bad news. The good news is the Claims Assessor has actually turned up and assessed the damage to the car. It will cost 2,000€ to repair, but it is not going to be written off. Julia’s endless badgering seems to have paid off. The bad news is that although Mustapha has ordered the replacement parts, he is not at all sure when they will arrive. He ordered them as soon as the Claims Assessor had given permission, but unless they arrive today he will not be able to repair the car by tomorrow as promised? We don’t hold out much hope for that happening even though we are due to leave our campsite a week Tuesday, and go to Lourdes for a few days before going to a campsite at Hendaye on the Atlantic coast, in the Basque country, not far from the French-Spanish border. Severene kindly phones the garage for us once again early on Saturday morning, and no parts have arrived. Mustapha tells her to tell us not to worry. He will have the car ready for us by the following Saturday! Severene shrugs her shoulders and puts the phone down. We shrug our shoulders in response – we are perfecting the Gallic shrug! We phone and cancel our booking at the apartment in Lourdes. We phone the campsite in Hendaye to tell them we will be arriving a few days late. We phone the car hire company in Rodez to see if we can extend the rental of the Picasso, but we can’t, so we arrange to return it to them. We phone several car hire firms in Agde to see if we can hire another car and discover the prices are astronomical, so we hire a couple of bikes for the week ahead instead. We arrange with Severene for us to stay on at this campsite for another week. Thankfully they can fit us in!
At the end of our third week in Grau d’Agde Lionel phones Mustapha for us again. Severene has a well deserved day off, so Lionel steps into the breach. Lionel is a character. He is in his early 20s and usually does some of the maintenance work around the campsite, but occasionally helps out in the office. He and Julia have a ‘thing’ going on. She teases him about the amount of work he doesn’t do, and he teases her about her speaking too fast so that he cannot understand what she is saying. Despite our anxiety over the car we have had another very enjoyable week. We have taken the Picasso back to the car hire company in Rodez. A very nice English couple on the campsite whom we have become quite friendly with, Dave and Pauline, drove up to Rodez behind us and then brought us back again in their car. We enjoyed a marvelous boat trip up the River Hérault and along the Canal du Midi, and we have just loved cycling around the area on our hired mountain bikes. But today we really are in ‘the last chance saloon’! We have to leave our lovely campsite by next Tuesday, all the other campsites in the neighbourhood are fully booked, we no longer have a hire car, and even our bikes have to be returned by Sunday. If our Corsa is not fixed we are well and truly stuffed with a capital ‘S’!?
Lionel’s telephone conversation with Mustapha is very intense. It is impossible for either of us to pick up the gist of the conversation. Finally Lionel puts the phone down. He looks at Julia sadly and shrugs his shoulders. ‘I’m sorry’ he says, ‘the car is still not fixed and Mustapha doesn’t know when the parts will arrive?’ For a moment I think Julia is going to burst into tears. Lionel senses it too and quickly breaks into a smile and says, ‘I’m only joking. The car is repaired and you can pick it up any time you like. I was only getting you back for all the times you talked so fast I couldn’t understand you!’ Lionel books a taxi for us for the following morning – another 160€ plus tip – so we can collect our car at long last and the following morning. Bright and early we take the taxi to the garage and pick up our lovely Vauxhall Corsa with its nice shiny new radiator and all kinds of interesting new bits and pieces that we are sure weren’t on the old front end. We thank Mustapha for all his patience and help, he really has done a good job on our car and all the various delays have not really been his fault. We give him a generous tip to show our appreciation and drive back to Grau d’Agde and to a last night at our wonderful campsite where everyone has been so kind and helpful to us. They all turn out to see this legendary Vauxhall Corsa that has been the subject of so much conversation and so many phone calls over the last three weeks. They seem a bit disappointed when they finally get to see a Vauxhall Corsa? What were they expecting, a Rolls Royce!
HENDAYE HORROR SHOW
IN WHICH WE FOLLOW THE PILGRIM WAY, EXPLORE THE BASQUE COUNTRY, MAKE NEW FRIENDS, MEET OLD FRIENDS, FIND AN UNUSUAL SPANISH SUPERMARKET, AND ENDURE DAYS OF ENDLESS RAIN
Sunday 31st July: We are relaxing by the swimming pool at our hotel in Bergerac where we have arrived for an overnight stop on our way from Hendaye to our final campsite near Sarlat in the Périgord Noir region of the Dordogne. Bergerac is also in the Dordogne of course, but in the Périgord Verte region, or as Julia puts it to me when I tell her that having arrived in Bergerac we are technically in the Dordogne, ‘It’s the Dordogne, Jim, but not as we know it!?’ Our original plan, pre-accident at the Millau Viaduct Péage, was to have a couple of weeks in the sun at Grau d’Agde on the Mediterranean, and then have a leisurely drive across south-west France to spend a further two weeks in the Basque country at a campsite in Hendaye on the French-Spanish border. We planned to take in another of our favourite places in France on the journey, Carcassonne, and then have two days in Lourdes before eventually arriving in Hendaye.
Sadly, we have had to cancel the visit to Lourdes, we will have to leave that to another time, and we do not even have time to stop off at Carcassonne, we can only observe it from a distance when we stop for coffee at an Aire overlooking Carcassonne and content ourselves with reminiscing about our previous visit there some years ago.
Purely by chance however, or is it one of those ‘God-incidences’, we stop for lunch at another Aire at Hastingues where there is a wonderful exhibition about the famous Pilgrim Route to Saintiago de Compestella in Spain. Julia and I are both very interested in the Pilgrim Route. We have visited various sections of it over the years and one day we hope to visit Saintiago de Compestella ourselves. We are particularly taken by the statue of a Pilgrim and the fascinating description of what taking part in such a pilgrimage entailed back in medieval days.
We arrive in Bergerac after two weeks in a campsite in Hendaye on the Atlantic coast – the wettest two weeks in summer that most French people can remember. At one stage in rained solidly for four consecutive days, and even though our tent is a sealed unit and completely water-tight, we felt at times as though we were walking on top of a water bed as the water flowed under our tent. Several of our fellow campers were not so fortunate and were washed out on more than one occasion. The bad weather had its compensations however, not least in the way in which people are drawn together in adversity. There were a number of French families on the campsite at Hendaye who have been coming to this same campsite for 25 years or more. Indeed the tradition is now being passed down to second and third generations of the same families. Several of them were on pitches next to, or near to, ours and we became very friendly with them. When the weather was at its worst, and the rainwater was simply flowing down the slope where all our tents were pitched, they came and helped us dig a big channel around our tent to take away the worst of the rain water. When it was completed they stood one side, and we stood on the other side, and we christened the said trench ‘La Manche’ – ‘the (English) Channel’!
These nice French families mostly do their ‘own thing’ during the day although occasionally they go out together in a group, but they always get together of an evening for a shared supper and drinks. We are invited to join them one evening and we have a very pleasant time. I even managed to make a new Facebook Friend as a result, Mylène, a third generation member of these wonderful French families. They tip us off about a very unusual super market called Peio at a place called Col d’Ibardin that straddles the French-Spanish border high in the Pyrenees right at the heart of the Basque country. Apparently you can get all sorts of stuff at really good prices. They always go when they are here and stock up for their two weeks at this campsite in Hendaye.
We decide to take a drive up into the Pyrenees to find this supermarket. We want to visit Sare anyway, the guidebook describes it as ‘a charming village … typical of the Basque country’ and when we get there we find it is just as the guidebook says. The high fronton wall of the pelota court, the shaded streets, and the fine church with its galleries, raised chancel and Baroque altarpiece are all delightful. We stop for coffee in a café-bar in the main square and watch the people passing by. There are some fascinating local characters, and in the café-bar itself there is a memorial to heroes of the ETA movement on prominent display?! It is a further reminder to us of the fact that people who live in the Basque areas of both France and Spain actually consider themselves as Basque rather than French or Spanish – they even have their own language. When we first arrived in the area, on our way to Hendaye, at the Aire at Hastingues (where the exhibition about the Pilgrim Route was) we noticed a big map on the wall of the café where we had lunch. It was a map of the Basque Country and neither France nor Spain were referred to at all. ETA (or Euskadi Ta Askatasuna in the Basque language) is the main organisation of the Basque National Liberation Movement and the most important participant in the oftentimes bloody Basque conflict for independence. On 5 September 2010, ETA declared a ceasefire that is still in force today and on 20 October 2011 ETA announced a ‘definitive cessation of its armed activity’.
After a very pleasant stop in Sare we drive through the upper Sare valley, a delightful pastoral landscape of sheep, dairy cattle and Pottock ponies between scattered hamlets with fine dovecotes and eventually find our way to Col d’Ibardin which is just over the border in Spain. When we get there it proves to be quite a shock. Whereas we expected to find just one supermarket, there are in fact scores of supermarkets, shops, and eating places. There are no houses, just loads of supermarket type places, all in the middle of nowhere. It’s not like shopping at Harrods in London or Bloomingdales in New York. It is a tourist trap with a difference. The location is on a small mountain, right on the ridge. If you sit in a bar on the left hand side of the main street, you have the most spectacular views of the Pyrenees, on the other side of the street you have magnificent views of the sea, Saint Jean de Luz and Biarritz. For me the choice is simple – I have a beer on both sides, while Julia wanders round the various shops.
Since Col d’Ibardin is just inside Spain, and in Spain (at this moment in time) petrol, cigarettes, spirits and beer, and food, are a good deal cheaper than France, it is a good place to shop. We do our shopping, buy lots of food and drink, and go back to our campsite. We are pleased the rain had relented and we were able to visit on a clear day. Obviously you need it to be clear to see the amazing views from this supermarket complex, but if it’s not clear you can always sit in one of the several café-bars – at least the beer’s cheap!
The break in the bad weather proves to be short-lived and soon it is pouring with rain again. It rains incessantly for four days and despite our wonderful tent, and the remarkable interlocking Anglo-French trench system we have built around our tents, we cannot keep the water out. Our tent is at least dry inside, even if it feels like we are walking on water at times. But we feel damp and cold most of the time, despite the fact we are wearing numerous layers of clothing and waterproofs, so much so that we end up rolling around the campsite looking rather like Michelin men. Our nice French neighbours refuse to let the horrendous weather spoil their holiday, however. They spend most of one day erecting a huge tarpaulin shelter so that they can continue with their evening get-togethers unabashed!
It is still a horrible experience camping in continually wet weather, however. Despite having an excellent tent we still manage to get rather muddy at times, and we continue to feel damp and cold most of the time as well. Even our nice French neighbours are feeling it now, especially when one of them literally gets washed out of their tent in the middle of the night! There is not much we can do in this horrendous weather around the campsite, so one day we go out for a drive in the hope of finding somewhere interesting to visit perhaps? Somewhere warm and dry where we can have some lunch … and amusingly we find ourselves driving through a place called Saint Pee? This is very appropriate we feel, since it has literally been peeing down with rain for days. We just have to stop and take a photograph!
We are camping on the borders of France and Spain – if you are going to get warm weather anywhere in Europe during the summer it ought to be here surely? We go on to the internet and check what the weather is like at the moment in the UK and discover that it is actually warmer and dryer back in Weymouth than it is here in Agde! Just when we are beginning to feel really fed up with the constant cold wet weather, I get a phone call from some old friends of mine, Bob and Lorraine, who just happen to have a house near Agde. We knew they had a house somewhere in the south-west of France but didn’t know it was so near to where we were camping. Bob is one of my Facebook friends, and he has been following my daily journal, so he knows about our predicament. They invite us to come over for lunch, and bring our dirty washing to put through their washing machine and dryer. They have a beautiful house in the foothills of the Pyrenees with a magnificent garden that Lorraine (with a bit of help from Bob) has created out of a wilderness. They rent out the main house for some of the summer and decamp to their ground floor apartment when they are there and when they have guests in and they have a family staying now. They are sorry there is no room for us to stay over but we are very grateful for their hospitality, and for somewhere to wash and dry our muddy clothes and damp towels. We spend a very enjoyable time with them before returning to our rather wet campsite.
Towards the end of our stay in Hendaye the weather starts to improve. The sun even shines sometimes, and we finally get to swim in the campsite swimming pool. Julia’s health is steadily improving all the time, and so one day we take the hour’s drive into Spain to visit Gernika, a place that we have both really wanted to visit ever since we read Dave Boling’s book Guernica. Gernika is the site of one of the Spanish Civil War atrocities where, on 26 April 1937, German Nazi planes bombed the town, killing more than 1,000 people, as a dress rehearsal of tactics they planned to use in WWII. This atrocity was immortalized by Pablo Picasso’s painting Guernica which can be seen in the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid, although there is a copy in the Peace Museum in Gernika, and an impressive mural in the town itself. Although Gernika is disappointing as a place, completely devoid of decent restaurants where we can get a decent lunch, we are impressed by the Peace Museum, which we find very moving as well as informative. We especially enjoy our visit to the Casa de Juntas, the place where the Basque Parliament meets, with its amazing stained glass picturing the famous Gernika Oak, and the opportunity to visit the remains of the Gernika Oak, contained within a small temple outside the main buildings, where in the Middle Ages the newly created Lords of Biscay came to swear that they would respect local privileges.
Now that we are in our final few days in Hendaye with the sun condescending to shine at long last, we not only spend time in the swimming pool, but get out and about exploring in and around Hendaye itself. We meet Bob and Lorraine for lunch in Saint Jean de Luz, the smart summer and winter seaside resort just along the coast from Hendaye. The company is great but the lunch is disappointing. One of the joys of coming to France, for us, has always been the food. But the high standard of food, wherever you went in France that we had come to expect, has dropped in recent years. We have learned to be a bit more discerning about where we go, and what we eat, when we go out for lunch or dinner these days. Normally we get it right but today we get it wrong! Lunch is o.k. but nothing to write home about, despite the waiter’s patter.
We spend a day exploring Hendaye itself, it is so much better in the sunshine, and discover that it has a wonderful beach and beautiful gardens overlooking the yacht basin. We have a lovely time wandering around just enjoying the beautiful weather and each other’s company and we end up having ‘Sex on the Beach’ but don’t get too excited folks it’s only a cocktail, before we have dinner at one of the numerous restaurants by the yacht basin.
It is almost the end of our stay in the camping site in Hendaye and since the weather is now really nice we decide on another foray into Spain. Julia wants to go to San Sebastián. She tells me that it is not far and it will be a lovely drive along the coast. According to the guide book San Sebastián is a fascinating old town with narrow streets that come alive at the apéritif hour when locals and tourists crowd the bars and small restaurants to enjoy tapas and excellent seafood in a glorious setting on a scallop-shaped bay framed by two hills and the Isle of Santa Clara with two vast and sandy beaches that follow the curve of the bay. We are both looking forward to it and plan to stay on into the evening and have dinner there. In reality the trip turns out to be something of a disaster!
It hadn’t really registered with us when we went to Gernika how different the south west of France and northern Spain are. The part of France around Hendaye is beautiful. Everything is nicely cared for, the houses, the gardens, the parks, the shops, even the roundabouts have beautiful flowers and even interesting pictorial displays. But as soon as you cross the border into Spain everything becomes drab, dirty, seemingly uncared for, industrial. The difference is chalk and cheese. It is probably different up in the hills, but down here on the coast is another story. Jane, our SatNav, takes us the direct route to San Sebastián, and it is really boring and depressive, and it seems to take ages to get there. And when we get there we don’t like it! San Sebastián is built up and busy with traffic everywhere and nowhere to park. After driving round for ages, we eventually find an underground car park and, after driving round that for ages, a bay to park our car in. We emerge from the bowels of San Sebastián to find ourselves right by the crowded beach with hundreds of half naked bodies everywhere as far as the eye can see. And that’s all there appears to be to San Sebastián, huge ornate shops and office buildings, and the beach. We cannot even find a decent café or restaurant to have a drink in while we recover from our horrendous journey, leave alone a nice fish restaurant where we can have dinner later.
It is only much, much later, when we get back to our campsite and consult the guidebook, that we inconveniently left behind us, that we discover we spent our time on the wrong beach in San Sebastián! We never even got as far as the glorious scallop-shaped bay, historic old town, and crowded tapas bars and fish restaurants? We are so fed up with San Sebastián by now that we cannot get away fast enough. But getting out is almost as problematic as getting in was in the first place? Jane the SatNav comes into her own however. She guides through the chaos of the end of a Spanish working day and back to the boring auto route back to France. And to top it all, on the way back to our campsite, the sunshine disappears and it starts to pour with rain again! Well at least we are not on the beach in San Sebastián with hundreds of others, in the pouring rain!
Even though we are both feeling pretty miserable by now – I am in a particularly bad mood – we decide that we will still have dinner out, but not in Spain! We can’t face any more awful Spanish restaurants and terrible Spanish food. We will go back to France, to another of the restaurants by the yacht basin. To be honest neither of us is really in the mood and in hindsight it would have been better just to have gone back to our tent and had an early night. Sometimes that is the best, and only thing you can do when you have had a bad day, tomorrow is another day after all. We end up in what appears to be a very nice restaurant with some interesting dishes on the menu. Julia, always adventurous when it comes to food, plumps for the baby squid cooked in their own ink?! She scoffs the lot, and promptly feels really sick and ill. We drag ourselves wearily back to our campsite and the end of a pretty awful day to be honest.
We wake the next morning feeling much better about things. It is time to start packing up so that we can move on to the Dordogne for the major part of our two and a half month sojourn en France. Not necessarily major in terms of length of time, but major in the sense that this is the time we have been most looking forward to, the time when we anticipate God revealing his will to us concerning our future. Needless to say the sun is shining brightly now, and the weather forecast promises sunshine ahead, just as we are about to move on. We are not sorry to be moving on. Virtually all our nice French neighbours have gone now and only one elderly couple remain. At least the weather is sunny so that we can pack our tent away in the dry. We are going to stop overnight in Bergerac on the way to our next campsite which is near Sarlat. We take everything out of the tent and pack as much as we can into the car. It all looks chaotic with stuff lying around in various piles but soon we have everything packed with the exception of our sleeping bags, and the tent itself of course.
We have packed everything away, including our cooker, so we decide to eat out yet again. We don’t want another foodie debacle like last night, so we decide to eat in the campsite restaurant. We haven’t eaten there before. In our arrogance we thought the food would be rather ordinary and expensive. It actually turns out to be rather nice, and reasonably priced, and we settle for good old fashioned steak and chips. You can’t go far wrong there we think, and we are right. We have a lovely final evening together and wonder why we have not eaten at the campsite restaurant more often? We are up bright and early the next morning. We dismantle the tent without too much difficulty, and wash off the mud that is still caked underneath, and once it is dry we pack it in the car along with our bedding. The lovely elderly French couple come to say goodbye to us, and having paid our bill, it is off to the next stage in our great adventure, a month in the Dordogne!
IN WHICH WE MEET MONSIEUR LE PATRON, MADAME, SON AND HEIR, MONSIEUR CRICKET, MADAME ELEGANCE, THE LADIES THAT LAUGH, LOVE’S YOUNG DREAM, MONSIEUR LAPIN LAPIN, AND LOTS OF OTHER FASCINATING PEOPLE
Monday 1 August: So nice finally to be back in this part of the Dordogne again. We spent last night in Bergerac, which technically is in the Dordogne of course, but for us the Dordogne is the area around Sarlat. The Dordogne region of France is also known as Dordogne-shire because of the large number of Brits who now live here. Fortunately most of them seem to live in and around Eymet, an area we tend to avoid simply because there are so many Brits there. It is also so good to be back at our favourite camp site in the whole of France, an absolute gem that remains largely undiscovered by the Brits at least. It is not a large campsite but delightful with pleasant spacious pitches with water and electricity, all near to the facilities, set on a hill overlooking Sarlat and with amazing views over the surrounding countryside. It has been seven years since we were last here but it still appears to be much the same. Even Monsieur le Patron, and Madame his wife, who run the place, look exactly the same, a little older perhaps but still their same delightful selves. Since we last camped here they have been joined by their son who has ostensibly arrived to take over the running of the campsite. We immediately nickname him ‘Son and Heir’ although we sense that as long as his father is alive he will never be allowed to actually run the campsite even though he is now well into his 40s! Son and Heir speaks passable English so we naturally turn to him whilst registering, only for Monsieur le Patron (who speaks little English) to break into the conversation to tell us that he remembers us well from the last time we stayed here and that he has therefore reserved us one of his best pitches, with wonderful views, just along from where we camped seven years ago! Of course Monsieur le Patron does not really remember us, we were not that impressive. He has obviously looked us up in his records! But he has indeed reserved a most delightful pitch for us, sheltered but with everything we need, and within easy walking distance of the facilities, which at my time of life is always a bonus!
The sun is shining and we are surrounded by French, Dutch and Belgians who are already camped on the pitch above us, and the pitches to our right and left. The French are in a trailer tent, the Dutch are in a camper van, and the Belgians are in a caravan. The French unusually are quite surly with us. We say hello to them and scarcely get even a nod in return, but then I suppose we are about to pitch our tent and rob them of the wonderful view that they have had all to themselves. The Belgians are not on their pitch when we arrive. We know they are Belgians, however, because their caravan is displaying a prominent letter ‘B’. Since our ‘accident’ at the Millau Péage we have become somewhat paranoiac about cars or vans displaying the letter ‘B’ on their bodywork or number plate. Fortunately there is no sign of a Mercedes van with a prominent tow bar! The Dutch are chatting with friends when we arrive. They are very friendly and helpful. They tell us straight away that we will have trouble with the electricity because most of the available points don’t work. It turns out that none of them work. Julia sends me up to the Accueil to report the problem to Monsieur le Patron. Son and Heir is delegated the responsibility of fixing it for us and in due course he turns up on our pitch with a huge bunch of keys. Eventually he finds the right one and unlocks the electricity point by our pitch. All the fuses bar those the French, Belgians and Dutch are using are blown. Son and Heir gives us the ‘you have obviously done this because you are English and don’t know what you are doing’ look?! I play along with him and, lifting my eyes to heaven in a resigned look, say ‘Ah! Les Anglais!’ Son and Heir (realising that I am simply putting into words exactly what he is thinking) falls about laughing. Immediately we have our nickname. Soon all the French people on the campsite, whenever they meet us greet us with the words, ‘Ah! Les Anglais!’ But then, after all, we are the only English people on the site.
The electricity is now working and we have unpacked the car and erected our marvelous tent – a Fistral 4, light weight but roomy, strong, watertight and storm proof. We are experts now at setting up. It only takes us two hours from unpacking a loaded car to setting up our fully equipped home for the next month. The weather is beautifully hot and sunny and we are getting very suntanned since we spend most days just in shorts and vests. What a change from the awful weather in the Basque country. We tell Son and Heir about the days of continuous rain we experienced in Hendaye immediately prior to coming to the Dordogne. ‘Well what did you expect?’ he replies, ‘the rain blows in from the Atlantic and gets trapped by the Pyrenees, the Dordogne is much better!’ We hesitantly agree, knowing that the whole of France (including the Dordogne) experienced awful weather during July. We are hoping that the delightfully warm weather of the last few days will continue. Son and Heir reads our minds and assures us that the whole of August in the Dordogne is sure to be hot and sunny. We would like to believe him but we have been here before and we know the normal summer weather pattern – several days getting hotter and hotter, followed by an amazing storm and torrential rain!?
Tuesday 2 August: I wake early, get up, make myself some tea and sit quietly simply enjoying the view from our pitch over the surrounding countryside. It is so very quiet and peaceful here. No one else seems to be up and about on any of the pitches around us. Apart from various novels I have brought with me to read, I have also brought a copy of Richard Baxter and Margaret Charlton: A Puritan Love-Story which I finally managed to purchase (at great expense) after many years of trying to track down a copy. Richard Baxter (the seventeenth century Puritan cleric) is one of my heroes, the subject of various academic papers I have written, and an inspirational if somewhat complex character. Richard Baxter was the ‘Vicar’ of Kidderminster, Worcestershire from 1641 to 1661 and witnessed an amazing revival during his time there. He was excluded at the time of the Restoration of the Monarchy and went to live in London. During his active years at Kidderminster he chose not to marry because he thought that marriage would limit the effectiveness of his pastoral ministry. On moving to London, however, in 1661 he surprised everybody by, at the age of 47, marrying Margaret Charlton, a young Puritan lady of aristocratic lineage who was 26 years of age at the time of their marriage. Despite the difference in age between them Margaret proved the ideal marital companion and they enjoyed nearly 20 years of happy marriage before Margaret sadly died. Theirs is a wonderful story and I am really enjoying reading this book, it is both moving and inspirational, and full of the most wonderful insights.
My peace is broken by Julia emerging from our tent, much earlier than usual, to tell me that she has had a disturbed night because she thinks we have pitched the tent in the wrong place and that we need to move it three feet to the left of where it is now?! All thought of Richard Baxter and Margaret Charlton’s idyllic marriage is blown away immediately as a major argument between the two us breaks out! Julia is insistent that I move the tent and I think that the whole idea is plain daft as she only wants it moved a matter of three feet?! Eventually I give in and after breakfast we take the tent down and re-erect it three feet to the left, while all the other campers on the pitches immediately surrounding ours look on with amusement. ‘Ah! Les Anglais!’ they say nodding knowingly to each other. I’m glad they know why we are doing this because I haven’t got a clue? The whole operation goes more smoothly than I anticipate however, and when it is done I have to admit that it does give us more room between the tent and the edge of our pitch so that we can sit comfortably in some seclusion and enjoy both the views and the evening sunshine!
It is getting so hot here that we decide to do nothing else today, having spent the morning re-positioning the tent, but spend the afternoon in the swimming pool and then sunbathe. It is so hot and close, that the entire population of the campsite seems to be in the swimming pool. But as we lie there taking in the rays the weather starts to change and the sky clouds over. Those of us who are familiar with the Dordogne read the signs immediately and scurry back to our tents. Despite Son and Heir’s promises we know what is coming. Dordogne virgins laugh at us. ‘It’s only a bit of cloud’ they say, ‘it will soon pass!’ Within minutes of getting back to our tent we hear the ominous rumble of thunder in the distance and soon we see the flashes of lightning. We know, from having camped here before, the direction the storm will be coming from. We have therefore pitched our tent accordingly, and check to make sure all the pegs are in place and the guy ropes secure. Almost immediately the wind gets up and within moments torrential rain begins to fall. We sit snugly in our tent smugly watching the Dordogne virgins, still in their bathing togs, scurrying back to their tents in a vain attempt to batten down the hatches.
We are so glad we managed to get our tent up in bright sunshine. The rain reminds us of our miserable time on the campsite in Hendaye for the last two weeks in July when it poured continually for four days and we were literally floating on a sea of mud! At that time we looked up the weather forecast for the UK on the internet only to discover that it was hotter and dryer back in Weymouth than it was in Hendaye? It rains solidly for the next three hours. What to do about dinner is the question? We have some interesting French sausages that need cooking but we can’t cook them inside the tent?! Eventually we set up our big sun umbrella just outside the tent and attempt to cook under that. It looks hilarious, and we keep our fellow campers well entertained for the next twenty minutes or so, until the storm suddenly moves to a new level of malevolence! I attempt to hang on to the sun umbrella while Julia continues cooking the sausages, whilst both of us are also falling about laughing, which seems to be what our fellow campers are doing looking out of their tents watching us. I am sure that I hear cries of ‘Ah! Les Anglais!’ carried on the wind, and then the sun umbrella turns inside out and almost takes off, at which point we abandon the sausages to the wind and the weather ‘MacArthur Park’ style and settle for cold meat and salad in our tent before going to bed and falling asleep to the sound of thunder echoing round the hills and heavy rain falling on the tent. In the morning the half-cooked sausages are gone? Well there are quite a few poor students camping with us on our site!
Wednesday 3 August: This morning the sunshine is back although the weather forecast for the next few days is uncertain. Everybody is up reasonably early clearing up after last night’s storm, including Son and Heir who clearly has a passion for motor vehicles of one sort or another. We have already witnessed him bombing around the camp site on a jazzed up version of a golf buggy, and this morning he is on a big tractor and trailer replacing the gravel that has been washed away by the rain from the approaches to some of the pitches. The noise he is making is probably the reason why most of us are up so early. Our tent is fine, only a little bit of water in the entrance porch which is easily swept away. Others on the site have not been so fortunate, especially those who didn’t have sealed units. We feel sorry for those with their bedding hanging on lines or over bushes in the hope of drying in the sun.
The Dutch in the camper van have gone. It was the violence of the storm that finished them. They have been here for a couple of weeks and we gather the weather has not been that good despite Son and Heir’s blinkered belief that the Dordogne has better weather than the rest of France. I say they have gone but they very nearly got stuck on their pitch as they couldn’t get their camper van up the slope to the road, until Son and Heir and his tractor and load of gravel turned up. Their replacements are a couple of French student types who arrive that afternoon in a car containing two of the fashionable Quechua Pop Up tents, you know the kind, two minutes to put up, two hours to take down?! They are obviously very much in love, well she is anyway. Every few minutes it seems she insists they stop whatever they are doing for a kiss and a cuddle, and as a result they become known to us as ‘Love’s Young Dream’!?
Love’s Young Dream have a four person tent and a two person tent, and we sit transfixed for an hour or more watching them arranging these two tents, in between the hugs and kisses, in the most complex, elaborate, and totally unsuitable (for the Dordogne) way. It is easy to put these kinds of tents up, you take them out of the car and throw them where you want them and, because they are internally braced they more or less erect themselves. Love’s Young Dream position their four person tent facing the direction the wind and rain will blow when the storms come again, and leave the side entrance open to the elements so that they can position the two person tent (which they clearly mean to use for sleeping in) half in and half out of the four person tent. What tent pegs they have are pushed in by hand, and there is not a sign of a guy rope anywhere? Julia and I look at each other in astonishment! ‘We can’t let them leave it like that?’ Julia says. ‘How are they going to take a couple of Brits old enough to be their parents (and in my case grandparent) attempting to give them advice?’ I respond. Julia takes the bull by the horns, wanders over to them, introduces herself, and then in a wonderfully fluent mixture of French and Franglais, tells them about the unpredictable Dordogne storms, what they have done wrong, and how to do it right, and lends them our mallet. Love’s Young Dream are left looking somewhat stunned! Those of us who have had the privilege of hearing Julia preach know how they must be feeling when confronted with undeniable truth that we need to respond to in some way! I suggest we go out for a drive somewhere and leave them to it!
We drive out to Tamnies, and a hotel we stayed at for a week three years previously courtesy of the generosity of Lionel and Carole, friends of ours from Beckenham. We remember it well, not least for the exquisite five-course dinners every evening, French cuisine at its best. We wonder if Lionel and Carole are staying there again? They go there every other year. But there is no sign of Lionel’s Jag in the car park. We think about booking in for dinner, but settle for a drink on the terrace instead, and wonder if they still serve the fabulous minor munchies with our drinks as they did three years ago? After fifteen minutes vainly waiting for a waitress to come and serve us we go to reception, where we wait another fifteen minutes?! Eventually a woman somewhat reluctantly comes to see what we, and several others who have joined us by now, want. We remember her from when we stayed here. She is just as miserable and grumpy as ever, but she takes our order and eventually our drinks arrive, along with the fabulous minor munchies! The hotel seems somewhat tatty now, so after a nostalgic wander round Tamnies we drive back to our campsite. We discover Love’s Young Dream have gone out for the evening, having completely re-arranged and secured their tents, exactly as Julia had told them to!
We take a stroll up to the bar-bistro area after dinner. There is an ‘entertainment’ planned for this evening in the Games Room – a meal followed by a concert by a group of local singers and dancers. All the tickets were sold in advance so we couldn’t have gone even if we had wanted to. When we get up there the concert is in full swing, and all the doors are open so we can go in and watch anyway. The group of local singers and dancers are all about 150 years old, all dressed in quaint old-fashioned costumes, at least we presume they are costumes and not their normal attire? They are fun to watch however, with an amazing variety of weird instruments and quivery voices, especially when several of the elderly ladies perform a ‘bottle dance’ in which they dance round bottles of wine on the floor, rather like girls in the UK in the 60s used to dance round their handbags. In this case, however, the dance ends with each of the old dears grabbing a bottle from the floor and having a quick swig of the contents?!
After the entertainment we go to the bar where Monsieur le Patron, Madame, and Son and Heir are holding court to about a dozen French campers. Son and Heir tries to persuade me to enter the Ping-Pong Tournament the following evening! I decline, primarily because I am frightened of losing. I used to be very good at table tennis but haven’t played a serious match for some years. Jokingly I say I am not entering the competition because I am seriously good at ‘Ping Pong’ and it wouldn’t be fair on the others since I was ‘Champion d’Angleterre’! Strangely enough everybody present takes me seriously? There are nods of recognition, as though they somehow know this to be true. They have heard of me it seems, seen me perhaps on the television? Later, in the privacy of our own tent, we fall about laughing!
Thursday 4 August: We have developed a morning routine while we have been in France. I get up first and make myself a cup of tea and read for a bit – usually my Bible or a devotional book of some description – until Julia wakes up, and I hear her plaintive cry of ‘Jimmeee!’, which interpreted means ‘I want a cup of tea!’ We sit in the warmth of the early morning sun drinking our tea – my second cup of the day. Then we read a chapter – they are very short chapters – from another little book I have brought with me to France, George Herbert’s classic description of the calling and work of a parish priest in early seventeenth century England, The Country Parson. George Herbert is a fascinating character. He exchanged the privileges which his aristocratic background entitled him to, for a living in a rural parish with tumbledown churches and an uninhabitable rectory. Herbert died just before his fortieth birthday and his book – which was primarily written to remind himself of his duties as a country parson rather than for general publication – was not published until nearly twenty years after his death. Written at a time when country people were often shunned by the clergy, who found them too ‘low’ to know, and church buildings were scandalously neglected, Herbert’s book is a wonderful mixture of the quaint, the humorous, and the deeply moving! Thus, writing about the Parson Preaching, Herbert encourages the frequent use of narrative and story because ‘Countrey (sic) people … are thick and heavy, and hard to raise to a poynt (sic) of Zeal and fervency, and need a mountain of fire to kindle them … but stories … they will remember’!
After we have showered and dressed, I go and empty the chemical toilet we bought before we came away – an absolute boon for gentlemen of a certain age like me – while Julia prepares a healthy breakfast for us. No full English breakfasts for me are allowed while we are away in France?! The warm weather seems to have brought out a large number of very annoying French wasps, that and Julia’s marvelous cooking of course! I don’t like wasps but not to worry, Julia is becoming a dab hand at dealing with them! Armed only with a can of insecticide almost as big as Julia herself, she attacks them with gusto, crying out as she chases them round the pitch, ‘They don’t like it up ‘em, Captain Mainwaring!’ The majority of campers around us, who have never watched Dad’s Army on TV, haven’t got a clue what is going on. I know what they are thinking, however – ‘Ah! Les Anglais!’!? Many of them have constructed little home-made wasp catchers made out of plastic water bottles cut in half with the tops inverted in the bottoms, and containing water and fruit juice. As far as I can see, however, they haven’t managed to dispose of a single wasp yet?
Later on in the day we decide to take a trip out to Domme, one of our favourite places in the Dordogne. Jane, our Sat Nav, has found a nifty way round Sarlat for us, taking us down some nice country lanes and on to the new by-pass. Jane speaks in a cultured English voice, and she and Julia argue constantly about which is the correct route to most places, but today they totally agree with each other that it is an absolute necessity to avoid Sarlat town centre even though it is not market day. Domme was founded by Philip the Bold in 1283 in order to keep watch on the Dordogne Valley, and check the desire for expansion by the English who were already well established in Gascony. Domme is situated on a rocky crag overlooking the River Dordogne and just has to be visited, not least for the amazing view from the escarpment and the beauty of its flower-crammed streets, where petunias and scarlet geraniums cascade from baskets and window boxes. There are a number of interesting things to see in Domme, including the caves, but our favourite remains the Porte des Tours, a late thirteenth century gateway flanked by two massive semicircular rusticated towers which were used between 1307 and 1318 to imprison some of the Knights Templar rounded up in the infamous purge of the Order orchestrated by King Philip IV of France (who was deeply in debt to the Order at the time) and Pope Clement V. What is of particular interest is the graffiti the imprisoned Knights Templar have carved into the interior walls. Denied possessions and food, other than bread and water, fingernails and even teeth were used to scrape away the sandstone. Much of it thought to contain mysterious symbolic meaning, and an understandable side swipe at Pope Clement V! We wander round Domme but decide not to eat out there, and settle instead for a chilled mineral water for Julia and a cold beer for me in a café by the Bélvedère de la Barre, which offers the best panoramic view of the valley below. When the bill comes however, we think we might just as well have ordered dinner – at just about any other eatery in Domme because it would probably have been cheaper!
We drive back to our campsite and try out our new barbecue. It is what is sometimes called a ‘Bible Barbecue’ because folded up it really does look like a black Bible. When you open it up however, and slot the innards into their rightful places, it turns into a rather nifty little barbecue. It was Julia’s bright idea to buy it. ‘It will fit conveniently into the car!’ she said, ‘It will be really useful!’ she said. But even though we have been in France for six weeks we have not used it once? I unpack it, assemble it, set it up in hopefully the right place so that the smoke will not blow in our faces, load it with charcoal, soak it with wonderful French lighting fluid guaranteed to get any fire going, and set it alight. Julia has some very interesting brochettes that she wants to barbecue and which I am looking forward to eating. Our Bible Barbecue is useless! After half an hour there is still no sign of anything significant happening to the brochettes, other than them falling apart. In the end we cook them on our portable cooker! Julia tells me it’s all my fault for not piling up the coals correctly. I tell her that it’s all her fault for buying such a stupid barbecue in the first place instead of the bigger one I wanted to buy. Nevertheless the brochettes turn out to be absolutely delicious, and washed down with a glass or two of local Bergerac red wine, we are soon the best of friends once again.
Friday 5 August: When we planned our extended trip to France we had a clear agenda in mind. The first few weeks were designed to be real holiday weeks. A slow but steady journey down to the south of France, followed by several weeks simply soaking up the sun, firstly, in Grau d’Agde on the Mediterranean coast and secondly, in Hendaye on the Atlantic coast down by the French-Spanish border. Our month in the Dordogne was designed to be a more reflective time, a more spiritual time, where we would deliberately be on a camp site we knew and loved, situated in an area of France that we also knew and loved. It would be an opportunity, especially for Julia to continue to rest and recover from her illness, and a time for us to prayerfully reflect about our future and the possibility of Julia returning to the Baptist Ministry at some time in the next year or so, dragging me along with her of course as her number one fan and chief supporter. Well someone has to keep me in the manner and style of life to which I have become accustomed?! We therefore usually take between half an hour and an hour, after breakfast each morning, reading the Bible and praying together, seeking to discern God’s heart and mind for the way forward for us. We are using a Bible Reading Fellowship Commentary on The Letter to the Hebrews, written by a former Principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, the Rev Dr Dick France, as a guide. It is proving to be a very helpful and profitable time for us. Not only are we beginning to understand a complicated bit of the Bible, but we are gaining a sense of direction from God at the same time.
We try and do our Bible reading and prayer at a time in the morning when it is fairly quiet around us. The French seem to get up, have breakfast, then go and have a shower, and then go out for the day. We tend to get up, have a shower, and then have breakfast, so after breakfast is usually a good time for us to pray together. This is not always the case, however? The French family camping on the pitch directly above us never seem to go anywhere very often. There is Mama and Papa, and anywhere between two and six children at any given time? We know that they are Mama and Papa because that is what the children call them, thus they are immediately nicknamed by us, the ‘Mamas and Papas’ after the American-Canadian vocal group of the 1960s. On reflection we think that they actually only have two children themselves – a young teenage son and a younger daughter, but these two gather other children from around the site. The noise the children make can be quite horrendous at times, although thankfully with the hot weather, they seem to spend a lot of their time in the swimming pool. The teenage son we find particularly fascinating. He has probably never seen the Harry Enfield Show on TV, and therefore has no idea of who Kevin is, but he is just like him?! While the rest of his family sleep in their trailer tent, ‘French Kevin’ has his own little tent, and it is proving impossible for his parents to get him up in the mornings! Mama – it is always Mama rather than Papa – has to literally drag him out of bed, sleeping bag and all, anytime between 10 a.m. and twelve noon!? In between getting out of bed and going back to bed in the evening French Kevin mopes and chunters, or plays computer games on his iPad! In the process we discover that ‘teenage’ is a universal language consisting primarily of words like ‘euuhhhh’, ‘mmmmmm’, ‘o.k.’, ‘cool’ and of course ‘Facebook’!
Today we decide to go exploring. We have visited many of the sites and monuments that the Dordogne has to offer in the past, so we don’t plan to spend this month rushing round them all again. We always recognized that there are so many ‘must see’ places in the region, that we could easily have several holidays here and still not see everything that we would like to see. Our plan for this month is to visit a few cherished ‘old friends’ so to speak, and visit some of the places we have either not managed to get to in the past, or that have opened since last we were here. Today we decide to pay a fleeting visit to the village of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil (to give it it’s full name), and then go on to Tursac. We know Les Eyzies well. It is the home of the French National Museum of Prehistory, which we plan to visit while we are here in the Dordogne, but not today. Today we just stop for a coffee, and then on to Tursac for a picnic lunch and a visit to the Maison Forte de Reignac – a kind of fortified Manor House that has been built into the rock.
Maison Forte de Reignac has been closed to the public until fairly recently and therefore we have not been here before. It turns out to be well worth the visit. It is the only cliff-castle of its type in France that is totally intact, and a tour of the building reveals many rooms with period furnishings plus the odd anomaly of a stone wall or stone roof. One of the notorious inhabitants of the chateau in the past was Eugene El Roy – known as the ‘Billy Goat of Reignac’ – because, as Lord of the Manor, he exercised his ‘right of the first night’ over the women and girls of the region with a particular brutality. One would like to think that such male chauvinistic behaviour is long gone, but in another room we are told of Men’s and Cleric’s Views of Women in the Middle Ages, I quote: ‘Literate men, both lay and ecclesiastical, believed that women were inferior, untrustworthy temptresses because they descended from Eve … Great medieval philosophers such as Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote that in the natural order of things, women’s place was to serve men … Men were considered innately intellectually superior and had to dominate and defend them … In 1350 Pope John XXII asked the Franciscan monk Alvaro Pelayo to write a book about women’s 200 vices and flaws … To mention just a few they are: disciples of Satan, talkative, argumentative, jealous, sexually insatiable, monsters of idolatry, imperfect objects, hateful beings, the cause of discord between men, instigators of crimes.’ As a female ordained Baptist Minister Julia wonders if things have actually changed much as far as the Church is concerned? Roman Catholic, Anglo-Catholic, Conservative Evangelical and (sadly) even some Baptist Christians still want to relegate women to a secondary role. Nevertheless we enjoy our visit and think that the new owners of Maison Forte de Reignac have done a brilliant job in opening this remarkable place up to the general public.
We return to our campsite and have another crack at making the Bible Barbecue work properly. This time we are having sausages. You can’t really go wrong with sausages can you? I pile up the charcoal properly, as instructed by Julia. The Bible Barbecue is still more-or-less useless, but eventually the sausages are cooked, and we enjoy a very nice dinner – cooked by Julia of course, who now knows her place in the scheme of things! After dinner we have a game of Scrabble, in which I am completely thrashed by Julia, just to prove that women truly are the superior sex despite what Augustine and Thomas Aquinas may have taught!
Saturday 6 August: Today is market day in Sarlat-la-Canéda – Sarlat for short – and we decide to go. Sarlat is at the heart of the Périgord Noir. The Périgord is a former province of France which corresponds roughly to the current Dordogne département, now forming the northern part of the Aquitaine région of France. It is divided into four areas: the Périgord Noir, the Périgord Blanc, the Périgord Vert and the Périgord Pourpre. The geography and natural resources of the Périgord make it one of the most attractive and unspoiled regions of France. Sarlat grew up around a Benedictine abbey founded in the eighth century. Its golden age was in the late thirteenth/early fourteenth century, and its charm today lies in its preservation of the past and it still gives the impression of a small market town with narrow medieval streets, restored Gothic and Renaissance town houses, and its famous Saturday market!
We have been to the Saturday market before in previous years, and we know how busy it gets when just about every available space in the old town is taken by stalls of one kind or another. Today it is ridiculous! There is literally nowhere to park our car. It is too far for us to walk to the market, and we notice that people are actually parking at the bottom of the driveway up to our campsite which is a mile from Sarlat old town?! In the end we give up and decide to drive completely in the opposite direction, to the little village of Sainte Nathelène instead!
Our main reason for going to Sainte Nathelène today – it is only a ten minute drive from our campsite – is to suss out where the church is. When we have been on holiday in the Dordogne previously we have usually gone to church on a Sunday in Limeuil, where the Anglican Chaplaincy of Aquitaine has a congregation that meets at Sainte Catherine’s Church. The Anglican Church of Aquitaine has a total of eleven worship centres located in the Gironde, Dordogne, and Lot-et-Garonne. We have always enjoyed our visits to the church in Limeuil but it is an hour’s drive away so we wonder if there is anything nearer to us. Through the wonders of the internet we discover that the church in Limeuil has planted a congregation just down the road from us in Sainte Nathelène. We find the church building easily enough. Sainte Nathelène is not a big place. There is nobody at the church but the building is open, and it is delightful! Since the French Revolution all the church buildings in France belong to the local community rather than the Roman Catholic Church, and this one has been recently renovated judging by the beautifully cleaned internal stonework. After a good look around we take ourselves off to the café just across the road for a coffee, and then it’s back to camp for some lunch and an afternoon snooze. It’s getting hotter and hotter and we wonder if the weather is going to break again?
We are woken from our afternoon siesta by the sound of the wind getting up, followed by the patter of rain drops on our tent. Soon we are the middle of another amazing Dordogne downpour! Fortunately we have anticipated the storm and all our stuff is safely under cover. We sit comfortably inside our tent watching the rain fall, and the water cascading down the terraces around us. We wonder what it is like at the market down in Sarlat and are glad that we are not there. Love’s Young Dream return to camp. They have been to the market in Sarlat by the look of them. They look somewhat bedraggled! Sheltering under an umbrella they come over to thank us for our advice earlier in the week. They have shipped a little water in their four-person tent, but not much. And their two-person tent, the one they sleep in, is perfectly dry. They don’t appear to have bought much back from the market, but they do remember to give us our mallet back.
Later that evening, during a break in the rain, we wander up to the bar-bistro area where about a dozen of the French campers are sheltering under the big umbrellas chatting with Monsieur le Patron, Madame, and Son and Heir. ‘Ah! Les Anglais!’ they say with affection, and grimace at the wet weather as though they are more disappointed for us than for themselves. Thinking of the sunshine in the UK, while it was pouring with rain in Hendaye when we were there, I tell them, ‘En Angleterre … le soleil!’ I have forgotten that they believe everything I say?! ‘Le soleil?’ they reply, ‘En Angleterre?’ ‘No’ I respond, ‘it is raining there too!’ We all fall about laughing at the improbability of sunshine in the UK during August!
Sunday 7 August: We are up early today. The Worship Service at Sainte Nathelène doesn’t start until eleven, but we want to be there in good time. We have our morning tea, and then up to the shower block for a shower as per usual before breakfast. Julia comes back to our tent somewhat concerned. As she went into the female showers she met Monsieur le Patron coming out of the female showers? This is the third time this week that this has happened apparently? We know he owns the place. We know that he has built up the place from scratch over many years. But such behaviour seems a bit out of order?! I confuse matters further by telling Julia that today I also bumped into Madame, as she was coming out of the male showers? What on earth is going on in this place? Nobody else seems to be bothered by the fact that Monsieur le Patron goes in and out of the female showers whenever he likes, or that Madame is reacting to her husband’s odd behaviour by doing exactly the same in the male showers?
After breakfast we have an enjoyable drive through the beautiful countryside to Sainte Nathelène. We manage to forget all about Monsieur le Patron and Madame’s eccentric, even sinister behaviour in the showers. We arrive in good time for the Service, and are met at the door of the church by a very cheery man who welcomes us warmly. He wants to know straight away if we live in the Dordogne or if we are just on holiday? He seems disappointed that we are just on holiday, but brightens up when we tell him we are here for a month, and will be worshipping with them for the next four Sundays. Apparently they only meet here regularly during the summer, when the tourists are around, but want to establish a regular congregation that meets in the area all year round.
We really enjoy the Service. It follows the traditional Anglican pattern, but they have several good musicians who play a mixture of traditional hymns and modern worship songs, and they make quite good use of a data projector as well. Even better the Service only lasts an hour?! The Service is led by various members of the church itself. The Anglican Chaplaincy of Aquitaine has been unable to send an ordained member of the clergy to officiate this Sunday. Nevertheless the worship is well led, the Bible readings are well read, there is a good, interesting biblically based sermon, and thoughtful prayers of intercession – just like being back at Elm Road, Beckenham in our time there?! There are about 30-40 people in the congregation – a mixture of English and French – and several children who go off half way through the Service for some teaching of their own, and who come back and tell us about what they have done at the end of the Service. The only negative thing for me is that the entire congregation are given shakers half way through the Service to shake in one of the more lively songs?! I just don’t feel in a ‘shaking things mood’ so firmly put my hands behind my back as they are being distributed! The cheerful lady distributing the shakers is not going to give in, however. Seeing my reluctance she simply stands there in front of me holding out the shakers. It is a battle of wills. This lady is clearly used to winning this type of confrontation!? Julia comes to my rescue by taking the shakers offered to me, and the lady steward continues on towards her next victim somewhat satisfied. Julia now has four shakers and only two hands, but nevertheless she joins in with everyone else making ‘a joyful noise unto the Lord!’
After the Service almost the entire congregation stays on for coffee and a ‘bring and share’ lunch, including us even though we have not actually brought anything to share. They are a really friendly crowd of people and they make us very welcome. They discover that we are both ordained Baptist Ministers and it turns out that quite a number of the resident congregation are also either Baptist-Christians or originally from Free Church or New Church backgrounds. France is a secular society and the authorities are very funny about religious groups so it makes a lot of sense for the Anglican Chaplaincy of Aquitaine to operate as kind of ‘cover all’ for Christians of various denominations to come together to worship, work and witness in the surrounding area. The only problem is that the Anglican Bishop over the area will not recognise ordained Ministers or accredited leaders from non-Anglican denominations or churches. To their credit, a number of these gifted people who live in Aquitaine are going through the various hoops in order to gain some form recognition within the Anglican Church in order to serve the various churches. It seems so sad that in these ecumenical days – days when the universal Church (especially the Church in France) in the west is struggling to make an impact on society – that the Anglican Church should behave so parochially?! Looking on the bright side, however, such a stance means that we won’t actually be asked to do anything by the church while we are here, and we can continue to enjoy our break away in the Dordogne. We return to our campsite mid afternoon after a wonderful time of worship, lunch and fellowship during which we have made a number of new friends.
We are right in the middle of the French holiday season and a number of campers left the campsite yesterday to return home including the Mamas and Papas. We wonder just how many children they actually took home with them? We wonder if they have left French Kevin behind somewhere on the campsite, still in his sleeping bag, still in his own tent? We have got to know quite a lot of people on the campsite, by sight anyway, during our first week here. We love the way everyone is always so friendly. We all say ‘Bonjour’ to one another, and ‘Bon appétite’ whenever we see anyone having a meal of any description! Several families have gone, and we wonder who has replaced them? Strolling round the campsite later I discover another British couple have arrived judging by the GB sticker on their car?! They have a posh tent, and a posh car, and the man turns out to be quite posh as well. He is busy polishing his posh car as I walk by. He looks at me quizzically in my sleeveless tee-shirt, natty shorts and flip-flops. Nodding at the GB sticker on his car I raise my eyes to heaven and say, ‘Ah! Les Anglais!’ He is indeed English and we get into conversation. It soon becomes apparent that he thinks I am French, even though I am speaking to him in English? As I take my leave of him he congratulates me on my command of the English language!? Back at our tent I tell Julia the whole story. We fall about laughing!
Monday 8 August: Today we decide to visit Sarlat again. Its not market day so we think we might be o.k. for parking. We would like to see the historic old town again. Sarlat carries fond memories for us, and some not so fond, but more of that later. We are up reasonably early and go off to the shower block, where Julia meets Monsieur le Patron in the female showers once again? And when she goes back later he is still there! The mystery deepens? Sarlat is almost as busy as it is on a Saturday, but after driving round in circles for a bit we spot a parking space. A nifty bit of driving by Julia involving a three point turn in the middle of the road, and some skilful reversing, gets us into the parking space. It also gets Julia an envious thumbs-up from a French driver who is also vainly looking for somewhere to park.
Old Sarlat really is a delight. We wander around drinking in the atmosphere and refreshing our memories … Saint Sacerdos Carthédrale, Ancien Évêché, Maison de la Boétie, Rue des Consuls, Place de la Liberté and so many more wonderful places that we know and love. There is, however a place that only opened in April this year. A place we have not been inside before, even though we have walked past the outside of the building many times. A place that is high on our ‘must see’ list. It is the Manoir de Gisson – a listed building in the officially protected old quarter and one of the most remarkable buildings in this medieval town. Formed by two constructions of different architecture, linked with each other by a staircase inside a hexagonal tower, it dates back to the thirteenth century. The vaulted cellars and the apartments, now open to the public for the first time, house an outstanding exhibition of the history of justice from the Middle Ages up to the French Revolution in 1789. There are magnificent staterooms and antique furniture dating from the middle ages to the seventeenth century, large fireplaces and a lofty terrace overlooking the Place des Oies (the one-time goose market) and the alleys of the old town.
After our visit to the Manoir de Gisson it is time for lunch and we think about going to La Rapiere, just opposite the Cathedral. Despite the fact that I once made the mistake of having steak tartare for lunch there, and spent the whole night in the toilet as a result, it remains our favourite restaurant in Sarlat. We have had some memorable meals there in the past – memorable for other reasons beside spending all night in the toilet?! In the event we decide to leave our visit to La Rapiere until towards the end of our stay in the Dordogne and perhaps dinner instead of lunch, so we find another nice little restaurant, the Chevalier de Tour, just off the main street in the old town. This whole area is famous for its various duck dishes and therefore we have a delightful meal consisting of an entrée and plat. We have goose gizzard salad for our entrée, followed, by magret of duck with a honey sauce, together with salardaise potatoes cooked in duck fat with garlic and parsley. It is absolutely yumacious! The restaurant is packed but we are surprised to see that the French family on the table next to us order fish fingers and chips for their young daughter instead of introducing her at an early age to the delights of genuine French cuisine? This would appear to be further evidence of the destructive influence of what has become known as the ‘McDonaldization’ of France! We are, however, distracted from our contemplation of this alarming trend by the appearance of a new waitress who has apparently just started her shift. Most French women I find to be quite slim and chic in appearance, but this particular waitress is big and when I say big I mean big! She has a monstrous bosom, and is trying to hide it – or perhaps not hide it – behind a particularly skimpy, tight blouse. She weaves her way with incredible speed around the various tables, causing considerable panic amongst the diners, and at the same time giving a whole new meaning to the sign on the wall that says, ‘Duck Breast’. Perhaps it is not a menu board after all? Perhaps it is a warning sign!
Later on in the day, while we are just ‘sat sitting’ enjoying a pre-dinner drink or two, we observe what is happening on the various other pitches situated around ours. A couple of new French families moved in while we were at Sainte Nathelène on Sunday including a couple on Mama and Papa’s old pitch and a younger couple on a pitch near them. They both use the electric and water points near our pitch so we naturally fall into conversation with them. One of the couples speaks quite good English and the other couple seem to understand our mixture of French and Franglais. Both couples seem to have heard about the posh English chap who thinks I am French. They think it is very funny. The French people on site obviously have independent line of communication!
Our attention is primarily taken up, however, by Love’s Young Dream. A portrait we saw in the Manoir de Gisson reminded us so much of them?! They are actually attempting to cook a meal together. It is clearly a pasta dish of some description, and they are having difficulty? We had wondered what on earth they ate. So far all we have seen them consuming is crisps and coca cola. In our ignorance we presumed that they must eat out most days? Being students, however, we know that they probably haven’t got a lot of money at their disposal and therefore they surely can’t afford to eat out all the time? Clearly they are feeling the financial pinch and have decided to eat in camp from now on. And now we know what they actually bought at the Saturday market in Sarlat – pasta, and a tin of something or other to go with it?! After fifteen minutes of vainly hunting in all their stuff for a tin opener, they borrow ours. And then after boiling their pasta they discover they haven’t got a colander either, so they borrow ours. In the end Julia more or less takes over and cooks a meal for them. Well, she feels sorry for them and wants to make sure they do get something to eat. She was a poor student herself once upon a time, and she is an amazing cook!
Tuesday 9 August: The mystery of why Monsieur le Patron spends so much time in the female showers, and why Madame, his wife, spends so much time in the male showers is finally solved. There are internal doors at the far end of each shower block which are normally kept locked, but this morning, when we go for our showers, they are wide open! The door at the bottom of the female shower block leads to the boiler room, which is why Monsieur le Patron spends so much time in the female showers. He is making sure the boiler is working efficiently so that we have plenty of hot water to shower with! The door at the bottom of the male shower block leads to a big store room where Madame keeps all the bedding etc. needed for the various chalets on the site. This is why she has been wandering in and out of the male showers periodically. It is quite a relief to know that our hosts are not perverted after all, although we can’t help wondering why the door to the boiler room is not in the male shower block and the door to the bedding store is not in the female shower block?
We plan to spend today quietly on the campsite. After our exertions of the last couple of days we need to take things a bit easy just to be on the safe side. Julia suffers with ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis) or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome as it is better understood – a condition which a growing number of people in the UK suffer from, an illness that is finally beginning to be seriously investigated by the NHS. It was because of this illness that Julia was asked to stand down from her position as Associate Minister at Beckenham Baptist Church in the autumn. One of the major reasons for us taking this extended break in France this year is in the hope that it will aid Julia’s recovery and enable her to return to the Baptist Ministry in due course. We have deliberately come to the Dordogne, to a campsite which is not too big and where we can find some peace and quiet, so that we can spend some quality time prayerfully waiting on God for healing and renewal for Julia, and seeking God’s guidance for the way forward for both of us. Julia has been doing really well while we have been in France but we do not want to overdo things. So we try and have one day on, visiting places, and one day off, just relaxing around the campsite. It seems to be paying off!
As for life in the campsite, I now have a fan club, much to Julia’s amusement?! Four French ladies of indeterminate age are camping on a pitch near ours, a pitch we pass whenever we go anywhere in or out of the campsite. They arrived on Saturday and are here for the next ten days or so! They arrived in two cars and have set up camp with two tents, a table and four chairs, a small cooker, and several umbrellas equally useful for sun or rain! We call them the ‘Ladies that Laugh’ because they never stop laughing from the moment they get up to the moment they go to bed. Not the kind of raucous laughter that is really annoying but a joyful laughter that makes you want to laugh as well!
At first we wondered if they were part of a French Feminist Commune, but judging by their pursuit of me (or any other man around the campsite) that is clearly not the case! When I first walked past their pitch the day they arrived I was greeted with a chorus of ‘Bonjours’ from all four of them?! When I was on my way to wash the dishes after dinner later the same evening, and cracked a joke about what I was doing being ‘Travailler pour un homme !?’ they all fell about laughing and promptly offered me their dirty dishes to wash up for them! This evening I am waylaid on my way back to our tent and literally manhandled into their camp for a drink?! I vainly look around for Julia to come to my rescue, but she is nowhere to be seen. They don’t really speak any English but nevertheless they manage to get across to me that they are all single (three have been married before). I learn all about who they are, where they are from, what they do, how many children (and grandchildren) they have, and they want to know all about me? They find everything I say both interesting and amusing. They even fall about laughing at my jokes. Eventually Julia comes to rescue me. They may prove to be a handful these Ladies that Laugh but they are no match for Julia!
After dinner I take the dirty pots and pans etc. up to the Wash Up Area to wash them. I take the really long circuitous route to avoid the Ladies that Laugh. I am joined at the Wash Up Area by our nice new French friends who are also doing their own washing up after dinner. When I arrive I accidently drop the cutlery and the nice French couples kindly help me pick it up. At that very moment the posh English bloke – the one who still thinks I’m French but knows I speak good English – happens to walk by. Seeing me drop the cutlery he says pompously, ‘That’s what happens when a man does a woman’s work!?’ In response to such a sexist remark I raise my eyes despairingly to heaven, and say, ‘Ah! Les Anglais!?’ The nice French couples – who know I’m English – fall about laughing! The posh English bloke is completely nonplussed. He hasn’t got a clue what’s going on?!
Wednesday 10 August: Today is market day in Sainte Nathelène. We were told about it at church on Sunday and so we plan to go later in the morning. After breakfast we sit outside our tent in a quiet corner to do our daily bible reading and pray together. As we are concluding we hear Love’s Young Dream saying their prayers as well – well that’s what it sounds like to us?! They are hidden away in their two person tent. She is speaking continuously very quietly and fervently, and he seems to be saying ‘Amen’ every now and again! Are they ‘closet Christians’ perhaps? Or maybe Roman Catholics or Muslims? Whatever, we can’t stop and ask them right now. They are still ‘praying’ and we have to get off to the market before everything is sold. So we leave them to it!
The market in Sainte Nathelène is a great little market. There are only about twenty or so market stalls at the most, but all selling local produce of one kind or another. It is only open during the tourist season, July and August, but it is packed out with locals (as well as us holiday makers) who also know a bargain when they see one. We go round all the stalls. This is so much better than having to fight our way through the crowds at the market in Sarlat. We buy loads of fresh produce for next to nothing – fruit and vegetables, home made jam, walnuts, cheese, wine, and the most amazing duck with prune or fig brochettes and magret of duck for barbecuing. If only we can get the damn Bible Barbecue to work?!
From Sainte Nathelène we drive out to the Château des Milandes. We have brought a picnic lunch with us and we plan to stop somewhere on the banks of the River Dordogne to enjoy it. Château des Milandes was once the home of the legendary Josephine Baker. We have been before, not long after it first opened to the public, but we so enjoyed our visit then that we want to return and see how the restoration has developed. We want to avoid Sarlat town centre again so we hope Jane, our SatNav, will take us on the nifty route round Sarlat that she introduced us to a few days ago. We switch the SatNav on and, calamity, the cultured English tones of our Jane have been replaced by the annoying nasal tones of a female New Yorker, whom we immediately call Sonia, because she ‘getSONYERnerves’!? She is literally driving us to distraction when fortunately I find the right button to push in order to annihilate Sonia and resurrect Jane! Jane takes us round Sarlat and down the amazing Valley of the Châteaux. We stop off en route at a point where you can see several different châteaux at the same time including Castelnaud, Beynac, and Marqueyssac. We take photos of each one even though we took exactly the same photos seven years ago, the last time we were here?!
We stop off by the River Dordogne just before Les Milandes and enjoy an excellent picnic lunch including some of the fresh fruit that we bought from the market in Sainte Nathelène earlier in the day. We watch the people, in an assortment of canoes and kayaks, meandering slowly down the river. It inspires us to follow suite and take a canoe trip ourselves before we leave the Dordogne. After our picnic we drive up to the Château through the village. We know the way up through the village well, but as we approach the road up to the car park we notice that some men in yellow and white bibs are shutting the road off? A quick bit of nifty driving from Julia and we manage to beat a man with a big metal barrier before he manages to block the road! Strangely, we find ourselves alone on the road up to the Château des Milandes. And even more strangely we find ourselves five minutes later breaking the tape as we drive across the finishing line – winners of a local cycle race even though we are driving a Vauxhall Corsa and not riding a bike!
When we get to the Château des Milandes we discover that they are in the process of closing all the surrounding roads until later in the evening after the cycle racing?! We have a choice – either visit the Château and be trapped there for the next five hours or beat a hasty retreat in the hope of finding the road out still open, and come back another day? We beat a hasty retreat and just get out in time! We are very disappointed but decide not to go home and visit another nearby Château that we also want to see while we are in the Dordogne. This is the Château de Marqueyssac, a seventeenth century château and gardens located at Vézac. The Château itself is very small and, apart from an amazing roof that weighs several hundred tons, quite insignificant. It is Les Jardins de Marqueyssac that we really want to see, and they are truly amazing! Situated on cliffs overlooking the Dordogne Valley, the original garden à la Française featured terraces, alleys, and a kitchen garden surrounding the chateau but later on it was modified to include a chapel and a grand alley one hundred meters long for horseback rides. In the 1860s thousands of boxwood trees were planted, and today there are over 150,000 – carved in fantastic shapes, many in groups of rounded shapes like flocks of sheep. The garden also includes linden trees, cypress trees, and stone pine from Italy, cyclamen from Naples, rustic structures, and five kilometers of walks that provide the most amazing views over the Dordogne Valley and La Roque-Gageac! Our disappointment at not being able to visit the Château des Milandes is well and truly dissipated by the pleasure of visiting Les Jardins de Marqueyssac!
We return to the campsite tired but exhilarated by what we done and seen today and determined to have another go at cooking our duck and prune brochettes on the Bible Barbecue! We look at the Bible Barbecue … and decide we haven’t got the energy. So we cook the brochettes on our cooker and jolly nice they turn out to be, especially when washed down with a glass or two of local wine!
Thursday 11 August: Love’s Young Dream are ‘praying’ again! Julia wants to go over and ask them if they are Christians, and if they are indeed ‘praying’? I persuade her not to, primarily because I am a coward?! I do concede however that, thinking about it, there has been a lot of ‘praying’ going on in their two-person tent over the last few days. I’m not surprised about this because judging by the number of intense conversations she is having with her mother on her mobile phone – during which he keeps very quiet – I get the impression that her mother thinks she is away on holiday with a girl friend?! Now I am the last person to make any judgment on other people’s behaviour. We live in a messy world where once accepted values are constantly being called into question. And in any case, can people really find their way in life without God’s help? We really like Love’s Young Dream for some reason, and feel concerned for them. Even if they are not praying themselves, at least we can pray for them, so we do!
After our exertions of yesterday we decide on a quiet day today, and we have the site pretty much to ourselves this morning. Love’s Young Dream have gone out for the day – they seem to have a lot they need to talk about – both nice French couples are out for the day, but we don’t know where they have gone, and Ladies that Laugh are also out for the day visiting the Gouffre de Padirac and Rocamadour. We have visited both the Gouffre de Padirac and Rocamadour in previous years, and love both of them, but we certainly wouldn’t want to visit them in the height of summer with all the crowds of tourists around?! The Gouffre de Padirac is amazing – two lifts and some staircases lead down to an underground river where a flotilla of flat-bottomed boats takes you on an enchanting journey over astonishingly translucent waters to a series of remarkable caverns. Rocamadour, with its slender castle keep towering above it, comprises a mass of old dwellings, oratories, towers and precipitous rocks on a rugged face of cliffs rising hundreds of feet above the Alzou Canyon. It is one of the most extraordinary places in France – a historic site and a place of pilgrimage steeped in beliefs and legends. Both places are well worth a visit, but not for us during this visit to the Dordogne.
Instead we decide on a quiet morning in camp doing some watercolour painting. Julia and I both like painting, although neither of us is particularly proficient, but we have brought a minimal selection of our paints with us and try and paint the view from our pitch. Julia’s painting is very good, mine is rubbish?! After lunch, and bit of a rest, Julia wants to continue with her painting but eventually I persuade her that it is time to pack the painting in and go for a swim in the pool instead. When we get to the pool it is a scene of consternation and disgruntlement?! Apparently a German family arrived on the campsite this morning and the first thing they did, even before they had set up on their pitch, was to reserve several sun beds by the poolside by leaving their towels on them as soon as the swimming pool opened?! We thought that such behaviour was just an anti-German story that non-Germans made up in order to paint Germans in a poor light, but seemingly not so! We usually arrive at the swimming pool too late to get a sun bed anyway, so it doesn’t really affect us. The nice French couples, back from their days out, join us in the pool. They are particularly irate about the behaviour of the Germans! We sense that there is unfinished business here!
When we eventually get back to our pitch we see that Love’s Young Dream are back from their day out as well. They disappear into their tent for some more ‘praying’. Later on they come over to see us. They are leaving tomorrow and want to say goodbye. We have an interesting conversation with them. She asks us if we have heard about the trouble on the streets back in the UK? We tell them we have. They both think it somewhat ironic that we should be here in France (where there is periodically trouble on the streets) at a time when there is actually comparative peace and quiet in France while there is rioting on the streets in the UK?! They ask us what we think of President Sarkosy? I look under the table to make sure he is not there before I answer! They both think this is very funny. Julia doesn’t think it is funny at all?! Fortunately they don’t like Sarkosy, so I haven’t put my foot in it after all?! We ask them about themselves? It turns out that she is a student who has just finished her degree, and hopes to be a school teacher. He is … well we are not quite sure what he is, but he does work for a living although he obviously doesn’t get paid much. In the course of conversation it comes out that we are Christians, and not just Christians but Baptist Pastors to boot. They obviously haven’t got a clue what a ‘Baptist Pastor’ is – after all what exactly does a ‘Baptist Pastor’ look like? It also turns out that they have not been praying after all! She is going for an interview for her first teaching post in a few days time, and he is helping her learn the words of a verbal presentation she has to give without notes as part of the process.
Friday 12 August: The new German people on the campsite not only reserve the sun beds by the swimming pool first thing by leaving their towels on them, they also reserve the shower cubicles by leaving their wash bags in them while they are having breakfast?! When I went for my shower this morning there were hardly any shower cubicles available. We all had to queue up for the couple of cubicles that were ‘free’? The atmosphere is tense! Clearly something is brewing! But we don’t know quite what?!
Love’s Young Dream are packing up to go back home. They manage to pack away their four-person Quechua Pop Up tent but they are having real trouble with their two-person Quechua Pop Up tent – two seconds to put up – two hours to pack away?! After an hour of watching them struggle I look up Quechua Tents on the Internet. I know that on You Tube there is an instruction video on how to pack away a Quechua Two Second Tent, and sure enough there it is – a video showing a young lady packing away said tent all on her own in just a few minutes! Armed with explicit knowledge of how pack away said tent I go over to Love’s Young Dream and try to help. We are doing fine until we get to the point where the rigid tent frame has to be twisted at an unnatural angle – the place where the instruction video says, ‘Don’t be frightened to use excessive force at this point!’ Love’s Young Dream panic at this! They think I will break their tent and won’t let me use ‘excessive force’!? This is a great shame because not only do I want to help Love’s Young Dream, I now have a ‘thing’ about Quechua tents! There are scores of them all round the campsite, and I am looking forward to using ‘excessive force’ on one of them?! My poor French, and increasingly eccentric Franglais, fail me on this occasion. But the day is saved by the nice French couple on the pitch immediately above ours. Even though it is the couple who do not really speak much English at all, they sense what I am trying to communicate, and the husband comes to join us on Love’s Young Dream’s pitch. He pushes us all out of the way, and with ‘excessive force’ twists the Quechua Two Second Tent into the shape it needs to be in order to pack it away! Love’s Young Dream’s gasps of horror quickly turn to cheers of joy … and exactly two hours later than planned they pack away their stuff and leave for home The nice French couple grin at us, lift their eyes to heaven, shrug their shoulders and say … ‘Ah! Les enfants?!’
We decide to have another crack at visiting Château des Milandes. Hopefully there will be no more cycle races around there today. We stop for another delightful picnic by the River Dordogne on the way. It is another really hot day. People are swimming and canoeing in the river and we agree that we just have to get out on the river ourselves while this great weather lasts. After lunch we resume our journey and arrive at Château des Milandes about twenty minutes before their Birds of Prey Show starts. We remember how good this show was seven years ago and decide to see it again before going on a tour of the Château. The show is even better than last time with kestrels, and huge owls, and eagles flying around our heads. Château des Milandes don’t just keep birds in captivity in order to show them to the public in this way but they are engaged in a very important breeding programme as well. After the show we go to the café-restaurant for a drink before going round the Château and, being a gentleman of a certain age, I take the opportunity to visit the gents toilet. Julia wants to know why I am doubled up with laughter when I return from the gents? I show her the photo I have taken on my digital camera whilst in the toilet?! It is of a prominent sign stuck on the wall above the cistern, in French and English. The English translation says: ‘Press hard to flash!’ The phrase ‘Lost in translation’ comes to mind?!
After we have stopped laughing, and consumed some suitable refreshment, we go on a tour of the Château, and very good it is too! Josephine Baker was a fascinating woman who led an extraordinary life, and a tour of the Château – which Josephine Baker called her ‘Cinderella Castle’ – offers a fascinating glimpse into her life. Josephine Baker (1906-1975) was a black American dancer, singer, and actress who found fame in her adopted homeland of France. She is noted for her contributions to the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, for assisting the French Resistance during World War II, and for being the first American-born woman to receive the French military honor, the Croix de Guerre. It was also during her time at Château des Milandes that she began adopting children, forming a family she often referred to as ‘The Rainbow Tribe.’ She wanted to prove that children of different ethnicities and religions could still be brothers and sisters. Sadly the whole venture ended in tears, but Josephine Baker continues to intrigue. We are glad to have had the chance to make another visit here to the place that was the much loved home of a truly extraordinary woman!
We return home to our campsite to discover that a new young couple have moved on to the pitch next to ours, previously occupied by Love’s Young Dream. She is Dutch and he is Belgian, and they have a delightful baby daughter who is at the crawling stage and who is off like a shot at every given opportunity!? They also have a tent – not a Pop-Up Quechua Tent this time – but something more akin to a Circus Big Top?! It is made of canvas and has somewhere in the region of forty-eight old-fashioned wooden tent pegs to go round the edges in order to keep it in place in addition to various tent poles and guy ropes! We sense that this is going to take more than two seconds to put up – more like two hours we guess – and another two hours at least to take down again, and they are only staying here for a few days?!
Later that evening we are up at the bar-bistro with the nice French couples, and a group of others, drinking coffee when the posh English bloke – who still thinks I am French – turns up. He is irate, almost incandescent, at the behaviour of the Germans – towels on the sun beds, wash bags in the shower cubicles?! ‘It’s just not cricket!’ he says loudly, before storming off somewhere or other. The Nice French Couples want to know what this ‘cricket’ is he is going on about? I give my best Gallic shrug. ‘It’s like Petanque’ I say … ‘only different’?!
Saturday 13 August: Our late breakfast is interrupted by the news that there has been a violent crime on the campsite! Someone has apparently thrown the Germans’ towels into the swimming pool!? If this is true, I hate to think what the perpetrators of this ‘crime’ did with the Germans’ wash bags?! The nice French couples break the news to us. They have seen the German towels in the swimming pool themselves so they know it to be true! They want to know if it was me, or ‘Monsieur Cricket’ as they now call the posh English bloke, who did it? Despite my fervent denials they simply nod and tap the side of their noses knowingly! Julia just sits reading her book … with a smug smile on her face. I begin to wonder if she did just go for a walk earlier that morning as she said she did?!
The Belgians in the caravan on the pitch next to ours are leaving. We have only really spoken to them during the last few days. They always seem to be out doing something. When we first arrived they were kind enough to lend Julia their miniscule caravan spirit level when she decided we needed to move our tent three feet to the left on Day 2 of our stay here, and Julia wanted to make sure we would be on level ground if it poured with rain?! I recall rolling around with laughter as Julia crawled around on the ground with said miniscule spirit level trying to work out which direction the slope of our pitch lay? The Belgians are sorry to be leaving – the weather is very hot and sunny. They give us a farewell present of some Belgian beer! Julia puts it away somewhere safe. It is 14% proof compared to the light French bottled beer I occasionally drink at 3% proof?! One glass of the Belgian beer at lunchtime and I would be asleep for the rest of the afternoon!
With the Germans on the warpath we decide to escape from our campsite for a while. We need to do some shopping anyway as we are running out of food so the supermarché it is then. Jane takes us on another nifty route around Sarlat to a supermarché on the outskirts. We like the supermarchés in France – they are so much more interesting than super markets in the UK with their large fresh fruit and vegetable sections, and wonderful fresh fish counters. We pack our trolley to the brim and queue up to pay. There is a lady in front of us who is deliberately going as slowly as possible whilst packing away her stuff. She is waiting for her husband to get some things she has forgotten. Our queue is getting longer and longer, and more irate as the minutes pass and the lady gets slower and slower, stopping between each item to wander off and see if her husband is coming back yet?! Eventually the cashier has had enough herself. She puts a final item through the till, demands the lady pay up immediately and move to one side and let everybody else through! She does it with such authority that the lady does what she is told and pays up – just as her husband returns with the extra items. And they have to wait there until the rest of us have gone through! We are very impressed but can’t imagine such a thing happening in the UK somehow?!
On the spur of the moment we decide to buy a new double air mattress and an electric pump to blow it up with. Thus far on our extended sojourn in France we have slept on two very shallow mattresses taped together. They have served us well, but we are both beginning to feel the aches and pains of sleeping virtually on the ground for nearly seven weeks. There is a camping store nearby so we pay them a visit. We have been impressed by the really nice, large blow up mattresses that some of our fellow campers have brought with them. Even Monsieur Cricket has one … and the nifty electric pumps some of them have to blow them up with. Monsieur Cricket doesn’t have one of these. He blew his double air bed up with his mouth?! ‘Ah! Les Anglais!?’ the nice French couples said in astonishment at the sight of Monsieur Cricket going red in the face with the effort of blowing up his bed?! We recall this incident with amusement as we blow up our new bed and install it, complete with new bed sheet, in the sleeping compartment of our tent. The nice French couple on the pitch above ours, seeing us setting up our new bed, do a very funny impromptu impression of Monsieur Cricket blowing up his bed by mouth! They want to know why we – since we too are really English and not French – are not doing the same? We all fall about laughing!
Sunday 14 August: We wake up this morning, after a wonderful night’s sleep on our new bed, early. We are planning to go to church at Sainte Nathelène today and we need to pay a quick visit to the supermarché again to get some food for the shared lunch after the Service. We couldn’t get it yesterday because we haven’t got the refrigeration capacity to store the large French apple tart we want to get. I am also beginning to feel really guilty about Monsieur Cricket – who still thinks I am French – for not telling him that I am actually English. Before we leave for the supermarché and church, I go over and invite Monsieur Cricket and his wife to join us for a drink sometime. I somehow manage to intimate, without really intending to, that this is because I want to improve my command of English?! I don’t have the time to clear up the confusion immediately. I go away feeling that I have missed an opportunity and that I really do have to confess?!
The supermarché is really busy, much busier than Saturday. We recognise immediately that the supermarché has replaced the Catholic Church as the place for Sunday worship! We grab a large French apple tart, and a few other things, and manage to escape the crowds just about in time to get to Sainte Nathelène for the start of Morning Worship. There is a reasonable congregation once again, and the Service is being led by a lady Anglican Priest who is very good indeed. She leads the worship well. We have some good hymns and songs, although what she introduces as ‘modern songs’ are really stuff we used to sing back in the 60s and early 70s?! I enjoy them though – it is like revisiting my past when I used to play a guitar and most of the songs (as against hymns) we sung then only required three chords at the most. The sermon is very good – biblical, interesting, preached without notes, and challenging. We appreciate the prayers of intercession – some in English, some in French, even though they include a section that seems to go on for ever mentioning just about everyone who belongs to the Anglican Chaplaincy of Aquitaine by name?! During the Service we are told that this little church that meets at Sainte Nathelène are holding a 24 hour prayer vigil next weekend from 11.00 a.m. on Saturday to 11.00 a.m. on Sunday with almost everyone taking an hour each around the clock for 24 hours. We think that this is a great idea and agree to join with them by signing up for an hour ourselves, although we choose a sensible time during the day, rather than some unearthly hour of the morning.
After the Service we all have lunch together again. We are glad we bought a huge French apple tart because no one else has brought anything for pudding other than us. Even so the tart is so big there is enough to go around. All the regulars seem genuinely pleased to see us and we soon learn all their names, where they are originally from in the UK (or in France), what their denominational backgrounds are, and how they all think Baptist-Christians like us are really wonderful – good, spiritual, biblical, devout, committed. Its obvious that most of them haven’t been members of a Baptist Church then? During lunch we get into conversation with a lovely, obviously very devout Christian lady who tells us all about her church back in the UK. She is particularly enthusiastic about all the young people in her church back home. She tells us that they are a very devout bunch – these young people – because they spend loads of time on a thing called ‘Faithbook’!?
When we get back to our campsite after lunch we become more convinced than ever that we need to have that drink with Monsieur Cricket. Everything is beginning to get rather surreal?! We discover that Julia’s nightie, and the eye mask that I wear at night to keep out the light, have mysteriously disappeared from our tent? The nice French couples suggest that this could have been act of revenge by the Germans, but we look in swimming pool and the nightie and eye mask are not there. Later that day, while we are having pre-dinner drinks, the nice French couples tell us that a rumour is circulating to the effect that Monsieur Cricket has been seen around the campsite wearing strange apparel?! We tell them about our missing articles … and we all fall about laughing at thought of Monsieur Cricket wandering around the campsite dressed in my eye mask and Julia’s nightie?!
Monday 15 August: We wake up to the sound of rain, not the torrential rain that accompanies a typical Dordogne storm but a steady downpour. After our morning tea we put our waterproofs on and, sheltering under our big multi-coloured umbrella, go up to the camp shop to get the baguette we have ordered. We meet several of the nice French people on the way. They all greet us the same way – ‘Ah! Les Anglais’ they say, and pointing upwards add, ‘En Angleterre … le soleil!’ And off they go chuckling to themselves. We join in the joke every time, even though it is always at our own expense! When we eventually arrive at the bar-bistro area, Julia goes to the Accueil to pick up some leaflets leaving me to go to the shop to get the baguette. Madame is serving when I go in. She is always very pleasant, always smiling, always so pleased to see me. As usual she patters on to me in very quick French. I haven’t got a clue what she is on about. I wonder if, like Monsieur Cricket she thinks I am French as well?! I resort to my usual tricks of the Gallic shrug and the knowing nod accompanied by the occasion ‘Mais oui!’ as though I really know what she is on about!? Eventually I manage to extract myself and return to our pitch.
After breakfast and our prayers, Julia carries on with her water colour painting and I take myself up to the bistro area. I have some work to do on the column I write for the Baptist Ministers’ Journal and the internet reception is better up there than on our pitch. I buy a cup of coffee and park myself in the almost empty bistro. There is an attractive French woman serving today who I haven’t seen before. She turns out to be Son and Heir’s wife. I sense a story here but my command of the French language is insufficient to ask all the poignant questions I would like to ask?! After an hour or two I finish my article and e-mail it to the editor. Julia joins me, having finished her painting, armed with our table tennis bats and we go off to the games room. While we are playing Son and Heir comes in and tries to persuade us to enter this week’s Ping Pong Competition. It would be so good to be able to advertise we have ‘Le Champion d’Angleterre’ playing this week, he says. I am beginning to regret making that joke a week or so ago?! We decline gracefully, and after a couple of games in which I just manage to beat Julia, we go back to our tent for a late lunch and some down time.
When we wake up from our afternoon siesta the rain has all gone and it is a lovely evening. We are having drinks with the nice French couples when I see Monsieur Cricket in the distance. Monsieur Cricket’s strange apparel turns out to be a floppy white hat, an ancient rugby shirt, the baggiest shorts you have ever seen, and a pair of trainers that are so old and tatty they must date back to the Victorian era! Spotting me in the nice new rugby shirt that I bought in Hendaye (where it was so cold we needed extra clothing) – and still thinking I’m French – he comes over and asks us who is going to win the Rugby World Cup, France or England? The nice French couples tell him that France always beat the New Zealand All Blacks, to which he replies, ‘And then we beat you Frenchies (chortle, chortle)!’ We find this all very embarrassing, and I am not at all so sure that England is going to do very well in the Rugby World Cup this year?! English Rugby seems to be going through a torrid time at the moment. The nice French couples treat Monsieur Cricket’s comment with the disdain it deserves. Julia and I look at each other and share a smile. I know we are both recalling being in Paris eight years ago when England beat France in the semi final of the Rugby World Cup. We watched the game on French TV in our hotel room, and fell about laughing at the French commentators summing up of the game afterwards – ‘Johnny Wilkinson … le one-man show!’ Can’t help but think Johnny is well past his prime now, sadly?!
Tuesday 16 August: We have had no more problems with the Germans leaving their wash bags in the showers since the swimming pool incident, so the rest of us are able to get into the shower cubicles with no problems. I was very amused this morning, however, having previously learned that ‘teenage’ was a universal language, to also discover that ‘whine’ is the same in any language for the 3-8 year olds!? There was a boy with his father in the shower cubicles this morning. The father wanted his son to take a shower but the son didn’t want to. Despite my limited grasp of the French language I understood absolutely everything the boy was complaining about, even though it was in French?!
After breakfast we take a drive out to Saint Julien de Lampon for coffee. Julia’s younger sister, Livy, and her husband Jack, are thinking of possibly buying a house in France and we have said that we will keep an eye out for the right property for them. We have heard that the Manor House in Saint Julien is up for sale. It has several outbuildings and some land, and when we get there it looks ideal. We discuss it over coffee in the town square and wish we had enough money to buy it – it would surely delight the people in the church at Sainte Nathelène if we came to live in France permanently. As per usual it is just a pipe dream for us!? We go for a drive round the area and end up at a delightful bar-restaurant in Carsac-Aillac where the French cuisine is excellent and we enjoy a wonderful duck gizzard salad with foie gras. There are four professional footballers on the table next to us. We know that they are professional footballers because of the flashy cars in the car park, the flashy bling-bling they are all wearing, and the fact that people keep asking them for their autographs?! We also know they are French professional footballers because they are stuffing themselves like pigs, drinking like fish, and smoking like chimneys! I wonder if they have been to pre-season training this morning and this is their response to said training?! Julia goes over to their table. They think she wants their autographs as well, but all she wants is to borrow the salt from their table. They seem quite shocked, and spend the next 20 minutes looking across at her in sheer disbelief?!
Leaving the footballers to their after-coffee cognacs we drive on to Château de Fénélon, a beautiful castle on a rocky promontory situated above the village of Saint Mondane. The castle dates originally from the thirteenth century, but the castle we see today is more from the sixteenth century refurbishments by the owner, an important local gentleman who wanted to live in luxury. One of his children, the Fénelon, was the author of a celebrated story of Telemachus, much published and read in France during the eighteenth century. The castle was a Cathar stronghold during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and played a strategic role during the Hundred Years War. We really enjoy our visit despite the fact that the weather is pushing 40 degrees today!
We return to the campsite and go to the pool for a swim. There is still no sign of Julia’s nightie or my eye mask – no sign of the Germans either for that matter. After our swim we go back to our tent for a rest, and having well and truly stuffed ourselves at lunch time, decide on a light supper instead of dinner. While Julia is preparing our light supper, and I am enjoying a glass of wine, the Ladies that Laugh descend upon us in force! We ask how they got on with their visit to Gouffre de Padirac and Rocamadour? They tell us they really enjoyed both places but had to queue for more than three hours to get into the Gouffre de Padirac?! We sense that reporting back on their trip is not the real reason why they have come over and, sure enough, they soon make it clear why they have descended on us?! There is going to be some more organised entertainment tomorrow night. It is going to be a Paella Evening and there is going to be a famous French singer performing?! We have seen the advertising posters up around the site – including a picture of a very glamorous female singer about 25 years of age?! Ladies that Laugh want to know if I am going – not Julia and me – just me?! Do I like paella? Do I like dancing? Am I planning to go to the entertainment? If so they will reserve a seat next to them on the table they have already booked?! Julia thinks it is very funny! I am really embarrassed?! I fob off the Ladies that Laugh and, after a quick supper, we jump in the car and drive down to Sarlat to escape?!
Summer evenings in Sarlat are great! There are lots of people milling around in the old town, all the restaurants and cafés buzzing, there is loads of free street entertainment. We have a great evening, and Julia manages to buy only the odd necklace or two while we are there! We get back in time to have farewell drinks with the nice French couples, one of whom is leaving tomorrow. When we get back we discover that Julia’s nightie and my eye mask have reappeared as mysteriously as they disappeared!? The nice French couples suggest that either the Germans have decided not to throw them into the swimming pool after all … or Monsieur Cricket has had enough of wearing them and has returned them?! They then dissolve into laughter once again at the thought of Monsieur Cricket in Julia’s nightie! As we are laughing at this Monsieur Cricket strolls by on his way to the bar for late coffee and cognac and nods to us. As he does so the nice French couples start humming a version of ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot’ … which then somehow transposes into ‘La Marseillaise’!
Wednesday 17 August: We say farewell to the Nice French Couple on the pitch directly above us and we wonder who will take their place? And then we go off to Sainte Nathelène because it is Market Day. The market is pretty crowded but the produce is as good as it was last week. We buy lots of stuff again – fruit and vegetables, home made jam, walnuts, cheese, wine, and more of the amazing duck with prune or fig brochettes and magret of duck for barbecuing. We cooked the magret of duck we bought last week in a pan on our portable stove but we are thinking of trying the Bible Barbecue again. The Dutch-Belgian couple with the young baby and the big top tent also left this morning, and bequeathed us another huge bag of barbecue coals to go with the huge bag of barbecue coals we already had?! With typical female logic Julia is convinced that these coals, even though they look exactly like the coals we already have, will do the trick and prove that the Bible Barbecue she insisted we buy was not such a duff buy after all! We had a very interesting conversation with them before they left. It turns out that her parents are Mennonites, and that we therefore share Anabaptist roots. Although she is not a practising Christian these days she seems to still retain considerable affection for the Mennonites. Perhaps our conversations may help to stimulate her to discover the Faith of her parents for herself?
We arrive back on the campsite after visiting the market to discover that we have various new neighbours. Several of them have inflatable double mattresses like ours, but they don’t have electric pumps like ours judging by the number of new campers who come over and ask to borrow our electric pump? We happily lend it to all and sundry – after all how often do you need to blow up an inflatable bed? A Spanish family have also arrived on the camp site – a mother, father and several children. Fortunately they are several pitches away from us! I say fortunately because they are always arguing. She clearly rules the roost and is constantly shouting at the children. She also shouts at her husband all the time! We immediately nickname them the Addams Family because she looks just like Morticia?!
The nice French couple on the pitch immediately above ours who left today have been replaced by a nice German couple. They have already heard about the shenanigans the other German family got up to and assure us that they are not at all like them. In fact they tell us that that German family have now moved on as well, much to everyone’s relief?! They are both teachers and speak very good English. They have travelled all over Europe and beyond in their camper van – indeed they seem to have been to more places in the UK than we have?! The Dutch-Belgian couple have been replaced by a young Dutch couple, who have another small Quechua tent, and the biggest inflatable double bed you have ever seen?! They have to put the bed in their tent deflated and then pump it up because they would not get an inflated bed into the tent?! We sit over lunch watching him vainly using a hand pump to pump up this huge inflatable bed. After twenty minutes with no sign of much happening I offer to lend him our electric pump. She is off around camp somewhere so he jumps at the chance, and within a couple of minutes the bed is fully inflated. When she returns to their pitch she is very impressed with his efforts – until he confesses that he has borrowed our electric pump.
We spend the afternoon in the swimming pool. We are joined by the new nice German couple who, like us, have to spread their towels on the paving round the pool because they did not reserve any of the sun beds before hand by leaving their towels on them. When we return to our pitch the nice German couple show us their barbecue. It is a ‘Bible Barbecue’ they tell us ‘because neatly packed away it looks like a Bible.’ ‘You know like a Gideon Bible in a hotel?’ they say. ‘We have a Bible Barbecue as well!’ Julia tells them, ‘only ours is more like a Study Bible!’ And indeed it is being somewhat bigger than theirs. We set up our Bible Barbecue, lay the new barbecue coals we were bequeathed by the Dutch-Belgian couple, soak the coals in the explosive French lighting fluid, light the blue touch-paper, and stand back! The Bible Barbecue is brilliant! So brilliant that we cook all the duck brochettes and stuff ourselves! Julia gives me that ‘I told you so!’ look. Who am I to question female logic?!
After supper we wander up to see how the Paella Evening is going, and what the famous, twenty-five year old, glamorous French female singer that we have never heard of is like? We arrive to see the imported chef cleaning out a huge paella pan – about the size of a small flying saucer – used to cook a giant paella to feed all the guests. Julia has a post graduate diploma in hotel and catering management and, in a previous life, has worked in hotels, night clubs and conference centres. She looks at the chef and the paella pan and I immediately know what she is thinking! I am glad that we did not go tonight after all, and not just because of the presence of the Ladies that Laugh?! The famous glamorous French singer turns out to be well into her 50s, heavily made up with lots of lipstick etc. The publicity photograph was obviously taken years ago?! She has a nice voice, however, and everybody seems to be having a good time. As she takes a break before her next set of songs I am spotted by the Ladies that Laugh. They are seated in the far corner but that doesn’t stop them. They stand as one and start whistling, waving, anything to attract my attention. It is all very embarrassing! I wave back, and then we run for it, cracking up with laughter all the way back to our tent. The nice German couple invite themselves over for coffee and brandy. He brings his own bottle of brandy, and then drinks ours. We don’t mind however, and they are a really nice, interesting couple. They tell us knowingly that they saw the paella being prepared. Nothing more needs to be said?!
Thursday 18 August: We wake to the sound of retching! People are being sick in various parts of the camp site, particularly the Addams Family several pitches above ours. One of their boys had several helpings of paella apparently?! The boy is retching, Morticia is shouting, her husband is hiding – what a racket?! We wonder how the Ladies that Laugh are feeling, and the famous French singer? I suggest to Julia that the experience probably took years off her life?! The sound of raucous laughter from the corner pitch suggests that Ladies that Laugh are feeling o.k. – they all have iron constitutions I suspect judging by the way they live their lives?! The nice German couple emerge from their camper van. He appears to be none the worse for consuming half the bottle of brandy I was planning to take back to the UK?! When the sound of retching starts again they nod knowingly in our direction, and lift their eyes to heaven?!
We had another amazing storm last night. It suddenly came out of nowhere, typical of the Dordogne. The weather had been getting hotter and hotter, then all of a sudden the wind got up, followed by torrential rain. Fortunately we were tucked up in our nice new inflatable double bed, ear plugs in, eye mask on. All we could hear was the drumming of the rain on the tent. It was quite soothing really, knowing that our tent was secure and watertight. We wonder how the young Dutch couple on the pitch next to ours – the couple with the huge inflatable bed – got on in the storm?! Not too good they tell us later. Their huge bed has a slow puncture which they have unsuccessfully tried to mend with a bicycle tyre repair kit, and he had to get up in the middle of the storm to pump the bed up again with their hand pump?! I lend them our electric pump again so that they can blow it up fully and suggest that they need to repair it properly. We lend them our repair kit, but they are particularly useless at anything practical, so I end up doing it for them! I strip off the temporary repair and find a major slit in the mattress about and inch and a half long. I think the bed has had it really and they either need to get it professionally repaired or go and buy a new one. They tell us that it has to be repaired. He has borrowed it from his brother and has to return it after their holiday. I do my best, and replace their temporary repair with a proper patch from our own repair kit. I suggest that they don’t inflate the mattress straight away but give the adhesive time to dry – perhaps inflate it later that evening.
The weather is warm and sunny again after the storm so, after a late lunch and a bit of a rest, we jump in the car and drive to nearby Beynac. Beynac is a very attractive village spread along the northern bank of the River Dordogne with narrow lanes winding up through traditional honey-coloured buildings to the highlight of Beynac, the castle set on top of a high cliff above. The village and its chateau are not to be missed if you are in the Dordogne region. It is one of the most impressive sights in France. Its current tranquillity standing in stark contrast to the turbulent battles it has known in the past. During the Hundred Years War Beynac was a French stronghold, while the English had to make do with the equally magnificent Château de Castelnaud on the other side of the river. We tried to visit the castle seven years ago but being very French it was closed for lunch?! This time it is open! There is an excellent explanatory leaflet in English, and we can wander round on our own without having to endure the seemingly endless patter of a French tour guide?! We thought Castelnaud was good when we visited seven years ago but Beynac is even better! The panoramic view over the River Dordogne in particular is absolutely stunning, and the castle is fascinating. Repairs have been minimal and functional, and the castle is gloriously tatty. We just love it. We wander round for ages exploring every nook and cranny, and then we drive back to our campsite. We feel the call of the Bible Barbecue and the magret of duck!!
When we get back to our pitch the young Dutch couple are out but they have left us a note thanking us for our help and telling us that they have borrowed our electric pump again and inflated their huge bed and, even though they haven’t waited long enough for the adhesive to set as I suggested, it seems o.k. We enjoy a really nice supper. The Bible Barbecue is working brilliantly and the magret of duck was out of this world. After supper we are relaxing enjoying the stunning views from our pitch when the young Dutch couple return. They park their car and immediately come over to see us. They have been down to Sarlat for a final meal and they have bought us a nice bottle of red wine to thank us for all the help we have given them, especially me for repairing their inflatable bed for them. We tell them that no thanks are necessary, we are just glad to have been of help, but we accept the gift anyway! The young Dutch couple go back to their tent to see how their bed is doing? It is saggy and soft – obviously Jim couldn’t fix it this time?! They come back and tell us the sad news. I am very embarrassed. I apologise profusely. We lend them our electric pump again, and tell them to keep it overnight. In response they confess they probably should have allowed more time for the adhesive to set before pumping the mattress up. Then we all fall about laughing at the comical nature of the situation … and drink the bottle of wine!
Friday 19 August: We are woken periodically during the night by the sound of our electric pump being used by our young Dutch neighbours to inflate their huge bed. I try not to feel too guilty, after all it was a rather large split in their mattress, and I did do my best!? They are leaving today, heading off for another camp site, so in the morning we tell them where we got our inflatable bed and pump from and off they go to buy themselves a new one on the way to their next destination!
On the way back from the showers I bump into one of the Ladies that Laugh the one that speaks a little English. Somehow they seem less formidable when on their own. She tells me that they are leaving tomorrow. Their vacation is over for another year but they have had a wonderful time! For once we have a sensible conversation. She asks me what I do for a living? I tell her that Julia and I are both Christians and Baptist Pastors to boot. She seems to understand something of what a ‘Christian’ is and even what a ‘Pastor’ is. I explain that I am sort of ‘retired’ but that Julia is taking a year’s ‘leave of absence’ because of her problems with ME. Lady that Laughs seems very sympathetic, genuinely interested and concerned, and when the other Ladies that Laugh turn up as well she relays the whole story to them. One of the other Ladies that Laugh asks what a ‘Pastor’ is, and before I can answer the first Lady that Laughs explains to her friends that we are like their Priests, only in our case we really believe what we say, are genuine and sincere, and know what we are on about! I sense something has changed in them because of our conversation!
Julia is feeling good today so we decide to make a bit of a day of it and head out to Les Eyzies de Tayac again! This time we plan to have lunch there and then visit the French National Museum of Prehistory. We have another wonderful lunch in a small restaurant off the main track and then off to the museum. It is very impressive but totally beyond me really. Julia finds it fascinating! She wanders round every exhibit, especially those dealing with time lines, while I sit and watch the various video presentations in different parts of the exhibition. When Julia has finally seen all she wants to see, and I have seen every video presentation at least three times, we finally wend our weary way home.
No one has moved into the pitch vacated by the young Dutch couple which gives us the opportunity of observing more closely the couple on the pitch next to theirs – the pitch we camped on seven years ago. She has been over to make use of the water tap near our pitch a couple of times, and with there being no one on the pitch next to ours at the moment she comes over again. We have nicknamed her, Madame Elegance. She is in her late 30s, early 40s I would guess, and typifies many French ladies of her generation in that she is always immaculately turned out – clothes, hair, make-up, the lot! Now if she were in Paris say, this would not be out of the ordinary. But she and her husband have been here camping in a tent much like ours for more than two weeks!? When she emerges from their tent first thing in the morning she is immaculate, when she returns from the showers she is immaculate, when she goes out for the day she is immaculate! We have never seen the same set of clothes twice. Even the way she keeps the tent, arranges the chairs and table, and presents the meals is … immaculate! We exchange greetings as she fills various immaculate pans with water. Julia is dressed in shorts and a T-shirt and is still hot and sweaty from our busy day – Madame Elegance is wearing an immaculate dress, nicely polished shoes, immaculate make-up etc., etc. Julia looks at her in astonishment!? ‘Doesn’t it make you want to spit?’ she says!
Neither of us feel like eating much after such a big lunch in Les Eyzies earlier, so we make do with some nice cheese and bread and olives and some very nice local French wine of course. We are sitting there quietly enjoying the peace of the evening when suddenly an amazing scene unfolds before us! A ferocious fight breaks out between an older Dutch couple – a husband and wife – in a caravan a couple of pitches above us?! Everybody sits around stunned as a shouting match between them suddenly degenerates into fisticuffs! I want to intervene but Julia won’t let me. She says my command of Dutch isn’t as good as my command of English and in any case they, like lot of Dutch people, are built like the Klitschko brothers?! In the end she storms off, and he shuts himself in their caravan! The remaining nice French couple, and the nice German couple, and ourselves, look at each other in astonishment. Madame Elegance goes to change her dress!? Probably a little black number is my guess!?
Saturday 20 August: Today being a Saturday is the major change over day, even though a number of people seem to come and go mid-week as well. Unsurprisingly Mr and Mrs Klitschko have gone. He was up very early this morning, hitched up their caravan and drove off! We hope she was inside at the time?! The Ladies that Laugh are also going home. They come to say goodbye to us and wish us well for the future. They ask Julia to take a photograph of me with them?! Perhaps me being a Pastor has not deadened their animal instincts after all? Julia takes the photograph, and tells me later that she didn’t mind because it was a dreadful photograph anyway because I was pulling a really funny face at the time?! The nice German couple in the camper van are going as well. They have stayed longer than they originally intended because it is so nice here. They are heading down south to the French-Spanish border. We hope they have better weather down there than we had?!
Later that morning another nice French couple arrive and set up on the pitch vacated by the nice German couple. They don’t speak much English but are very friendly and as per usual we manage to get by with our combination of French and Franglais! It is so hot today that we feel quite sorry for them having to set up their tent in the blazing sun. Indeed it is so hot that after a light lunch we jump into our nice air-conditioned car and drive down to the air-conditioned supermarché where we spend a couple of hours just enjoying the cool. We have some shopping to do but I can honestly say that it is the most enjoyable supermarket shopping that I have ever had to do in my whole life. We eventually tear ourselves away and venture out into the blistering heat. It is around 40 degrees again. We drive back to our campsite and dive straight into the swimming pool. It is heaven! Just before five o’clock we go back to our tent and spend an hour or so in prayer for the little church at Sainte Nathelène. It is a real joy to be able to join in with their 24 hour Prayer Vigil. We write down the thoughts we have had during our prayer time to share with the church tomorrow as they have requested us to do.
Two more English families have arrived on the campsite – a couple in their late 20s-early 30s I would guess, with a nice car, a big tent, and a slightly older couple with two young children in a really old VW Camper Van. The first couple are fascinating. She is tall, attractive, intelligent, cultured, well read, and he is … well he is … her bit of rough really!? There is no other way of putting it! We have an interesting conversation with her. She tells us that he is only her boyfriend, that she has a high pressure career job in London, that they have been in France for a week or so already, and that he spends every day running, swimming, cycling up and down hills etc., while all she wants to do is lie in the sun and read her book. Well each to their own we think, although Julia and I go away thinking that we are really glad to be married to each other! The family in VW Camper Van are on the pitch vacated earlier by the Ladies that Laugh. They are delightful, especially the two young children, Daphne and Zoe. While we were in the swimming pool earlier, their mother asked me to look after the girls for a while when she went back to their van for something or other. Three year old Zoe was playing happily in the paddling pool where I could keep an eye on her, while five year old Daphne and I floated about in pool chatting. Daphne is very chatty. She tells me all about her mother, all about her father, all about her sister. She tells me all about herself – her school, her teacher, the new class she is going into when they go back to school next term. She wants to know all about my family – my children, my grandchildren. She wants to know if we know everybody in the campsite because she has heard that we have been here for such a long time? I tell her that we have a friend called ‘Daphne’ back in the UK. She is not surprised. After all she says, ‘Daphne is a really nice name!’
Later in the day we are having a pre-dinner drink when a new couple arrive and start to set up on the pitch next to ours vacated by the young Dutch couple the previous day. They have a car with UK number plates so presuming they are Brits we say hello to them. It turns out ,that despite the UK number plates, they are in fact German!? He is a University Professor and they live in the UK! Both speak perfect English albeit with slight accent. We get on really well together. Spotting their number plate, and thinking they are fellow Brits, Monsieur Cricket comes over and asks where they are from? ‘Bellingen’ they reply. Monsieur Cricket thinks they have said ‘Belling Ham’?! ‘Not quite sure where that is in UK’, he responds, ‘but don’t tell me, I’m good at accents, I’ll get it eventually?’ and off he toddles! ‘What on earth was that all about?’ ask the new nice German couple after Monsieur Cricket has gone. We recount the whole saga – how Monsieur Cricket thinks I’m French (even though I am English) – how he now thinks they are English (even though they are German)?! We all fall about laughing!
Sunday 21 August: We are up early to make sure we arrive at Sainte Nathelène in plenty of time for church today. We got everything we needed at the supermarché yesterday including some stuff for the communal lunch after the Service today. There are lots of people at church today and the place is really buzzing after the 24 hour Prayer Vigil. Even the somewhat staid person the Chaplaincy have sent to take the Service today fails to dampen down the sense of enthusiasm and expectancy. Lots of people share what they had received from God during their personal prayer slots – stuff pertaining to the little church at Sainte Nathelène itself, particularly to do with the way forward – and more personal stuff for individual members of the church and congregation. Some people even have encouraging stuff for Julia and myself, and come and share it with us – stuff pertaining to our futures that fits in very much with all God has been saying to us while we have been in France. The worship band today comprises of keyboard and guitars, and also flute, and hurdy-gurdy?! Fortunately all the songs fit with this most interesting selection of instruments. I must confess that I would love to have heard ‘Walking, and leaping, and praising God’ played on the hurdy-gurdy?! One of the church families have a daughter who also suffers with ME, and Julia is able to have a long and helpful conversation with her about coping with such a problematic illness. We promise to keep praying for her.
During lunch a lady, whom we have noticed in the congregation in previous weeks but not really spoken to, comes and sits next to us. ‘You smell!’ she says, looking directly at us!? ‘Well we have been camping for several weeks’ I respond, ‘but we do shower every day, and wash our clothes regularly?!’ Seeing the consternation on our faces, she tries to explain what she means. ‘Not smell exactly,’ she says, ‘you both give off a fragrance. There is something about you. A presence!’ It is a mixed congregation, this church at Sainte Nathelène, both in terms of nationality and theology. We are never quite sure where people are coming from or going to for that matter, so we don’t know what to make of this lady’s comment? ‘It must be Jesus!’ says the lady. ‘Yes, there is something of Jesus about you!’ and off she goes to talk to someone else.
When we get back to our campsite after a very enjoyable lunch, amongst an increasingly delightful people, we discover that Monsieur Cricket has been over to see us while we were at church. We had not seen him for a day or two – until last evening when he came over to see the new German couple – who he thinks are English?! The new nice French couple tell us that they didn’t really understand what he was going on about. Something about an Indian mouthwash apparently, they tell us? Julia and I fall about laughing. We don’t even try to explain about England playing India at cricket to this new nice French couple, or that the English newspapers are describing England’s five zero drubbing of India in the recent Test Series as a ‘whitewash’?!
A new young French couple have also arrived on the campsite, and set up on a pitch just above the new older nice French couple. They have a small tent, and a huge gazebo which they set up alongside their tent. They are obviously very much in love. They sit there all evening gazing lovingly into each other’s eyes in the candlelight!? Both nice French couples have come over for a drink after dinner. They nod knowingly towards this new young French couple. ‘L’amour toujours!?’ they say! And so they are now known to us as the ‘L’Amour Toujours’! We look at their small tent, and huge gazebo, the gazebo secured merely by four frail tent pegs, one in each corner!? L’Amour Toujours obviously don’t know about the violent winds that spring up suddenly here in the Dordogne ?! Winds that will launch their gazebo into outer space?!
Monday 22 August: Julia is feeling tired today so we decide to have a quiet day staying on the campsite, especially since we are thinking of finally making our planned canoe trip down the River Dordogne tomorrow. I leave Julia asleep for most of the morning. I wander up to the bar-bistro area with my laptop. I have some more work to do for the Baptist Ministers Journal and I have started to put snippets of this diary on Facebook so I need to update my page. I have been pleasantly surprised by the positive response I am getting to these snippets. I seem to be picking up quite a following, even friends of friends?! Several people are asking if there is going to be a book eventually?!
While I am up at the bar-bistro area Monsieur le Patron and Madame stop for a chat and, even though I only understand one word in five of what they are saying, I enjoy their company?! Monsieur le Patron wanders round the site most days. He doesn’t seem to have any fixed responsibility – after all he has supposedly handed the running of the campsite over to his Son and Heir?! But then again he did start the campsite many years ago, and he has lived here all his life, so I guess it is hard for him to really let go? Madame is a gem, always cheerful and happy, she seems to be everywhere all at once. If she is not serving in the shop, she is serving in the bar-bistro, or changing the beds in the chalets. Madame looks after the beautiful flower beds around the campsite. One often sees her deadheading flowers or doing a bit of weeding here and there. Son and Heir joins us. It must be getting near lunch time for them, and I learn more about what they have achieved here over the years, and what their plans are for the future. I particularly like the fact that they plan to keep with the original vision that Monsieur le Patron had many years ago. A quiet, peaceful campsite, not too large, for people with tents, caravans and camper vans and not just more and more chalets! It is time for lunch. Madame goes into the bistro to prepare lunch for her husband and son, and I go back to our tent to see if Julia is awake? She is not only awake but up and dressed and our lunch is on the table?!
We have been pleasantly surprised at the number of campers who bring their dogs with them on holiday, and have made some marvelous new doggie friends as a result! There was Dobby (named after the house elf in the Harry Potter stories) for example, an energetic three year old Labrador who would nuzzle you to death given half a chance. Then there was Olymph, an elderly 13 year old Labrador who still managed to enjoy life despite his arthritis, and Penelope, an elegant 11 year old Golden Retriever, and Rosie, a cross between a Jack Russell and West Highland Terrier, that tried to bite Julia when they first met, and Mikey, a Yorkshire Terrier who had developed the ability to throw its own ball and then chase it himself and kept this up all day long, and Emma, a two year old Spaniel who was shy at first but became very friendly especially when we got the crisps out at wine o’clock of an evening! And then there is Hanki, one of those white fluffy French handbag dogs, who belongs to a French couple camping several pitches away from ours and who we pass whenever we go to the wash-up area. Later that evening, after a quick game of crazy golf in which Julia slaughters me, and after another stupendous supper cooked on our now stupendous Bible Barbecue, we stop to talk to Hanki’s owners on the way back from doing the dishes. ‘He has a pedigree’, his owners tell us very seriously pointing to their dog, ‘his proper name is Hankipanki!’ Julia and I fall about laughing!
Tuesday 23 August: The weather today is still very hot and we sense a storm is on the way if the Dordogne weather pattern follows its usual course. We think it is time for our canoe trip down the River Dordogne before the weather breaks again. Julia has picked up a leaflet from the camp Accueil with information about how to hire canoes from Canoë Copeyre based at Vitrac. Julia phones them on her mobile to book a place and, after preparing a picnic lunch to take with us, we drive down to Vitrac.
The girl Julia spoke to on the phone deals with us personally. She speaks very good English and she has an Australian boyfriend who also works there, who speaks reasonably good English?! We hire a two person canoe. The trip is one way from Vitrac to Beynac. It should take about two and a half hours to get there and the Canoë Copeyre bus will bring us back to Vitrac! There are two girls at Canoë Copeyre – our nice girl who speaks very good English and her friend – who are doing all the work! They sort out our booking, provide us with life jackets, paddles suited to our respective heights, a water-tight plastic drum to keep our cameras, phones, wallets, picnic lunch etc. in?! We are taken down to the river where the canoes are and where Bruce, the Australian boyfriend, and three other blokes are just standing around doing absolutely nothing?! Bruce helps us get into our canoe. Julia wants to go in the front because she thinks that that is where you steer the canoe from – its exactly the same philosophy that means she does most of the driving in our car?! I say nothing but dutifully take my place in the back of the canoe. I know that it is actually from the back seat where the canoe is steered from, and where the strength to drive the canoe along is needed All those years of canoeing in the boating lake in West London as a child finally find a use in later life?! Bruce gives Julia some last minute directions. He especially warns her to be careful when we get round the first bend, and past the island in the middle of the river because there is a 10 foot weir, and if we go round the wrong side of the island we will be in serious trouble?! Julia believes Bruce Almighty and begins to panic, until Bruce and his friends start to laugh, and she realizes that they are having her on! I wonder just how many times he has played that joke on his customers.
In actual fact the river is quite shallow, and the gentle current takes us down towards Beynac without us having to actually do much paddling at all if we don’t want to. We soon get used to paddling and steering the canoe, and we have a memorable trip – us and several hundred other people in a motley collection of canoes and kayaks from various canoe-hire companies situated along the River Dordogne. We are not tied to taking just two and a half hours so the trip takes us actually four and a half hours, with various stops for coffee, then our picnic lunch, then an afternoon ice cream, along the way. The trip takes us past Domme, La Roque-Gazeac, Castelnaud and Marqueysac and it is just wonderful seeing these places from the river. For a time we mooch alongside another canoe with some fellow Brits in, only he spends more time out of the canoe swimming along behind holding on to the stern pushing the canoe instead of paddling it?! He tells us that he needs the exercise. He has eaten far too much foie gras since he has been in the Dordogne! We take a photograph because it is such a funny sight – only Brits would do something like that?! When we finally get back to Vitrac later in the day Bruce asks Julia how she got on with the 10 foot weir? I ask Bruce about how Australia are doing in cricket these days? That shuts him up?!
We arrive back from a delightful day canoeing on the Dordogne to discover a new Dutch family has moved onto the pitch the other side of ours. After the incident with the other Dutch couple the other evening they are being eyed with suspicion by all the nearby campers. It turns out they are very different. Mr and Mrs are very placid Dutch intellectuals who spend a lot of time sitting and admiring the wonderful views from our campsite or reading their books. Their teenage Geek son spends most of his time playing computer games. They have a very nice camper van – most of the Dutch have either a camper van or a caravan – and bikes of course. The Dutch always bring their bikes on holiday with them. These bikes are a bit special though because they have electric motors – ideal for getting back up the steep hill from Sarlat to our campsite! Julia immediately says that she wants one, and knowing her I wouldn’t put it past her to get hold of one in the not too distant future. The only faux pas so far is that their teenage son has parked his bike on our pitch! Being Brits we choose to ignore this of course. We simply pretend it is not there and walk around it! The original nice French have noticed it however. Nodding towards said bike they ask, ‘Are you going to throw that in the swimming pool as well?’
Wednesday 24 August: It is Market Day once again in Sainte Nathelène and we get up early to get to the market in good time. Once more we stock up with loads of stuff, especially duck we can cook on our Bible Barbecue. While we are there we come across the family we met yesterday on the River Dordogne – the man who spent more time in the water pushing his canoe rather than paddling it! Needless to say he is buying more foie gras?! We direct him to the stall selling the fabulous duck brochettes and magret of duck. We think he will like them as well! We just love this little market, and so do the locals evidently. Particularly one elderly local lady who we have seen around in Sainte Nathelène quite a lot. She drives around in an electric invalid scooter with a basket on the front. In the basket there is a little dog, and on market day there is a selection of huge baskets stuffed with market produce she has bought hanging from the handlebars. There is a stall selling coffee and pastries at the market this week so we stop for a coffee, and run into the other nice French couple who have followed our advice and come to stock up for the week ahead.
We drive back via a fine looking château at Temniac we can see from our campsite. It looked wonderful from a distance but when we get there we discover that it is an old ruin closed to the public?! When we get back to our campsite we discover, disaster of disasters, that Monsieur Cricket has gone home! And we didn’t even have the chance to say goodbye, or have that drink, or confess that I am really English and not French? The original nice French couple, who will also be going home soon, tell us he called round to say goodbye while we were at the market. They tell us that they didn’t let him in on the joke because of the way he spoke to them at times!? This original nice French couple speak reasonable English but Monsieur Cricket didn’t understand this – he just shouted loudly at them in English whenever he wanted them to know something! At first they thought this was funny, but it was obviously beginning to wear thin by the end. ‘At least you two try and speak French’ they tell us ‘instead of expecting “that everyone foreign should speak English!”’ they say (quoting Monsieur Cricket)! We are sorry not to have been able to say goodbye to Monsieur Cricket, but perhaps it is a good thing he has gone home. A Spanish couple who speak excellent English have just arrived on the campsite, also driving car with English number plates!? He would never have coped with that!
We enjoy a really nice lunch of pate de foie gras, home grown lettuce, tomatoes and radishes, walnuts and locally pressed walnut oil etc., all bought at the market earlier, and washed down with a bottle of the 14% proof Belgian beer. After lunch I feel very tired – after all the exertions of recent days of course, nothing to do with the beer – so I go for a little rest. When I wake up – about four hours later – we go for a walk around the campsite followed by another game of table tennis. The campsite is slowly beginning to empty. There are spaces now here and there whereas it has been completely full for the first three weeks of August. Son and Heir told us to expect this to happen once the annual French holidays came to an end. There are still a lot of people around, however, including quite a few Dutch and Germans, including one German family in biggest camper van I’ve ever seen! It cost 120,000€ the owner proudly tells me! It soon becomes apparent why he needs such a big camper van. He and his wife have four huge teenage sons. As we continue our walk we come across one of the strangest set ups we have ever seen on a campsite – a French couple with a tent literally pitched on top of their car!? It even has a small ladder, similar to a bunk bed ladder, running up the side of the car so that they can get into their tent at night. We stand there absolutely amazed. Don’t they know about the strength of the winds here when a typical Dordogne storm breaks out?!
After dinner I go to the communal wash up area to wash our dirty dishes. ‘What is it about you?’ says the tall Dutch lady standing next to me while we are both washing our dishes! They are very tall, this lady and her boyfriend, even bigger than the German father and his boys. He must be at least two inches taller than me and I am 6’ 4” tall. She is the spitting image of the comedienne Miranda Harte on the TV. We have said hello to them in passing a couple of times but never had a real conversation so I am puzzled by her question. Seeing my puzzlement Miranda explains her question. ‘We have been talking about you and your wife’ she says. ‘You are always so happy, always smiling and laughing. What is it that you have got?’ I wonder if I should come out with the standard evangelical answer: ‘It’s because we are both born-again Christians!’ But by the time I think about it the opportunity is lost. And in any case I can’t help but think about those times when we weren’t always happy, always laughing, always smiling? Those times when we smelled of something quite different!
Thursday 25 August: It is very hot today. We suspect a storm is on the way in the next day or two so we decide to make the best of the weather and take a trip to visit the Grotte du Grand Roc, and then go on to the lovely little village of Saint Léon sur Vézére. Julia prepares a picnic lunch for us and off we go. We have visited most of the prehistoric sites in the Dordogne previously but we have never been to the Grotte du Grand Roc. It turns out to be a small but delightful cavern situated only about a mile north of Les Eyzies. There is a guided tour that lasts about 30 minutes – it is in French but we are provided with an explanatory leaflet in English. We find ourselves standing with another English couple as we are being shown round the cavern. She is a retired geology teacher so we have our own personal guide who explains all sorts of interesting things to us as we journey round together. The Grand Roc cavern was opened in 1927. It is remarkable that it was discovered at all because the entrance is half way up a cliff face. It well worth the visit, however, because the cavern boasts some unusual triangular crystallised rock formations as well as the more usual stalagmites and stalactites. We spend a very pleasant couple of hours at Grand Roc looking round the cavern and the accompanying prehistoric site as well.
Following our visit to the Grotte du Grand Roc we drive on to Saint Léon sur Vézére. We have been here before and Julia went canoeing on the River Vézére by herself when we were last in the Dordogne with friends some four years or so ago. Saint Léon sur Vézére is a pretty village on the River Vézére at the heart of prehistoric Dordogne. It has two castles and one of the finest Romanesque churches of the Périgord. The village particularly comes to life in August during the Festival Musical du Périgord Noir. There is not much happening today however. We settle down by the river and enjoy our picnic and then we wander round this delightful village enjoying the quaint houses and beautiful scenery, recalling our enjoyable previous visits here. Once again we are amused by the municipal campsite that is situated right in the middle of this picturesque village, which needless to say is packed with camper vans, caravans, and tents?!
We return to our campsite after a wonderful day and check the internet to see what the weather is going to be like. It is getting oppressively hot and we suspect that there is a another storm in the offing? We consult the internet and the weather forecast actually predicts not just bad weather but a violent storm here in Dordogne, possibly tonight?! We are not the only ones who are taking the bad weather warning seriously. We see Madame Elegance having a long conversation with her husband which it results in them packing up late in the afternoon and moving on before the rains come – immaculate decision making it turns out in the end! As they get ready to leave, having taken down their tent in record time and packed their car, Madame Elegance returns to the car from the washing area … with a tea towel … freshly washed and ironed! ‘I feel sick!’ says Julia looking at the state of our tea towels!
Madame Elegance’s decision to pack up and go confirms the weather forecast of a storm for us. Is she ever wrong we wonder? I go to visit L’Amour Toujours and try very hard to explain to them that they need to move their gazebo. I tell them that if a typical Dordogne storm comes it will be very sudden, it will begin with a strong wind, and unless they do something with their gazebo the wind will blow said gazebo away. Despite my limited French, and their non-existent English, I thought I had got through to them when they nod to each other and then start to dismantle their gazebo. Later that evening I discover that they have not taken their gazebo down after all? They have simply re-positioned it literally over top of their small tent?! Ah well love makes you do strange things I guess?
Friday 26 August: Spectacular storms here last night – ‘thunder and lightening, very, very frightening’ as Queen would say. And the rain – it absolutely poured non-stop for several hours, and it is still raining this morning It is typical of the Dordogne – several days of lovely sunshine with it getting hotter and hotter and then the weather suddenly breaking with an amazing storm, and then the pattern starts all over again. Lots of people are leaving for home now. The nice German couple who speak excellent English, and drive a car with GB number plates, have gone. Like Madame Elegance they managed to pack up before the storms began last night and made a quick getaway. The other English people we got to know on site have gone – Daphne and her sister and parents in their old VW Camper Van, Miss Attractive High-Powered City Woman and her bit of rough. The Addams Family has gone – Morticia was still screaming at her husband and children as they packed up. I feel really sorry for him, and the children, they can’t really be that bad can they? The Dutch Intellectuals with their geeky son and electric bikes have gone. The nice French couples have also both gone. They stayed until today and had to pack up in the rain this morning – an absolute nightmare for them! When I got up this morning there was no sign of the ‘L’Amour Toujours’ either?! They have obviously gone as well but nobody seems to know what happened to them? We hope they managed to pack up and go before the storm really hit and aren’t drifting somewhere across northern France still attached to their gazebo?!
The Germans in their huge camper van that cost 120,000€ have gone. All they had to do was simply get on board the Starship Enterprise and drive away. Even so their departure was not without incident. This morning the father and his four huge sons reverted to the stereo-typical behaviour associated with Germans and commandeered the shower cubicles by leaving their wash bags in the cubicles while they had breakfast?! Nobody said anything because they are all so big – even Mr and Mrs Klitschko would have had a problem taking them on. We all took the coward’s way out and decided to shower later in the day. When I return later I discover that one of them has left his expensive German electric razor behind in the shower cubicle. I think of returning it to them, but then again, if I take the long way round to get to their pitch I do have to go past the swimming pool?!
The weather is so bad today that we do very little other than listen to our Paul Temple CDs that is! We both just love radio plays and audio books and I managed to get hold of four Paul Temple stories on CD really cheap in Weymouth before we left for France. Paul Temple is a fictional character created by Francis Durbridge for the BBC in 1938. Temple is an amateur private detective and author of crime fiction. Together with his journalist wife Steve, he solves crimes with subtle, humorous dialogue and rare action. Always the gentleman, his use of the phrase ‘by Timothy’ is the nearest he ever gets to swearing. Between 1938 and 2011, the Temples featured in over 30 BBC radio dramas and serials. I remember them from listening to the radio in my childhood. I particularly remember the catchy theme tune – Coronation Scot I believe it is called. Julia is also now hooked and so we sit snug and warm in our wonderful tent listening to one of the CDs and joining in the theme tune as it is repeated after each exciting chapter … do, do do, do do do do do do!
Later on in the afternoon the rain stops for a while and we go for a walk round the campsite. It really is beautiful here with amazing views wherever you look. We can’t escape the fact however that there are lots of empty pitches now, and since we are staying until the end of August we wonder if we will be the last people to leave? About wine o’clock we wander up to the bar-bistro area where Monsieur le Patron, Madame and Son and Heir are holding court. They and the last of the remaining French campers are having a farewell drink together before the French campers return home tomorrow. ‘Ah! Les Anglais!’ they say when they see us, ‘En Angleterre … le soleil!’ They all fall about laughing as it starts to rain again!
There are amazing cloud formations over the Dordogne this evening. We have never seen anything like them before. Julia is cooking magret of duck on our gas cooker, sheltering under our sun umbrella from the intermittent showers of rain! I have been sent up to the camp bistro again to buy a large ‘portion de frites’ to have with our duck. I am still feeling somewhat disturbed that I didn’t say more to Miranda the other day about us being Christians. I feel that perhaps there was another question behind the question she actually asked – a more important question? Maybe she is searching for something?! I hope and pray that perhaps I will have another opportunity to speak to them before we both leave the campsite. While I am waiting at the bistro for our ‘portion de frites’ I am joined by Miranda’s other half, the tall Dutchman from the wash up. He is taking photos of the amazing cloud formations. ‘I am not one of those people who believe in God’ he tells me for no apparent reason, ‘but when I see skies like this, I can’t help but wonder if there is a God?!’ He goes on to tell me that there is a saying in Holland that thunder and lightning are God’s way of trying to attract our attention – knocking on the door of our hearts and lives!? We have an interesting conversation as a result, during which I tell him we are both Christians – Baptist Pastors even – which may contribute to any sense of happiness or contentment we unconsciously exude. I say this knowing that he will tell Miranda, and hopefully she will join up the dots!
Saturday 27 August: The weather has brightened up somewhat so we decide to visit the famous Saturday Market in Sarlat. We are guessing that with the French annual summer holiday period over, and many of the tourists heading for home, it will not be so crowded at the market and finding a parking place will be easier. We can’t help but notice the number of vacant pitches around our campsite already today as more of our fellow campers also head for home. But it appears that we will not be the last ones left on the campsite at the end of August as a number of new visitors start arriving. Some tell us that they are only stopping for a night or so as they journey north but others are obviously here for a late holiday as well.
Amongst these are a very nice young Dutch couple. They have a nice tent, much like ours but older, and they speak good English. Most of the French people on our campsite have gone home now but the Dutch oldies are returning. We are getting to love the Dutch more and more. You just have to admire their canniness, particularly the retired Dutch campers. They come to France in April when the campsites open, and leave at the end of June when the cost of hiring a pitch goes up, only to return at the end of August again when the prices are reduced! They are so organised with their little motor thingies to move their huge caravans. Boy’s toys Julia calls them as we watch a Dutch guy maneuver his caravan into place using something akin to a play station joy stick?! They all speak excellent English and are so friendly. Mr and Mrs Klitscho being the exception that proves the rule perhaps, although they were very friendly towards us, not just towards each other I guess? We were surprised therefore to hear that each week vans come down from Holland containing Dutch food to sell to the Dutch campers on the various campsites in the area – much to the consternation of the French traders.
We love French food ourselves, which is primarily why we go down to the Saturday Market in Sarlat, although the market sells much more than food. We park in a car park used by the locals that we found it earlier in the month but haven’t used it yet and walk the short distance into the historic old town. There are fewer tourists around but the market is still amazing with hundreds of stalls selling just about anything you can think of. I have to drag Julia away from the stalls selling clothes, beautiful bed spreads, exotic table cloths – I bet Madame Elegance came to the Saturday Market every week while she was here and bought loads of stuff!? Julia has to drag me away from – well from several stalls in fact – but particularly the food stalls. There is one stall where they are in the final stages of preparing the most amazing giant sized fruits de la mere paella together with an equally giant sized pan of salardaise potatoes. I immediately want some?! It is obviously well known because people are queuing to buy portions of this incredible looking dish. Julia only has to whisper ‘Remember Paella Night at Camp?!’ however, and I am happy to move on. We end up buying just more fresh produce, although we do stop for a coffee and a pastry for me – just to keep up my energy levels you understand!? The weather is pleasantly warm again and we have a very enjoyable time simply wandering around the market taking in the scene before returning to our campsite for a late lunch and a rest.
It is very strange being back on our pitch but not surrounded by other campers – only ourselves and the new young Dutch couple are left in the immediate vicinity. We still have more than enough barbecue coals to use up before we start our journey home so we employ our Bible Barbecue and cook ourselves some delicious steaks for dinner washed down with a glass or two of good local French red wine! One of the things we have really appreciated about our campsite is the peace and quiet that you find here. You can literally just sit sitting for hours under the shade of the amazing broad leaved Indian Bean Trees just drinking in the views. Despite the presence of so many happy campers, especially during the height of the season, the sound of silence seems to pervade the site … that was until this evening?! With the weather forecast suggesting that we are in for an extended period of sunshine a few late campers are arriving – people of a certain generation shall we say! Amongst those who arrived on our campsite this afternoon is an elderly French man – Monsieur Lapin Lapin (Rabbit Rabbit) as we now call him. Those familiar with the 80s singing duo Chas and Dave will know that ‘rabbit, rabbit’ is slang for talking non-stop in a noisy, boring way. This man has not stopped talking since he arrived. It doesn’t matter where he is on site, he can be in the furthest corner and you can somehow still hear him! He is beginning to drive those of us still left on the site up the wall. Even Son and Heir has got his big motor mower out again and is mowing pitches he has already mown just to drown the noise of Monsieur Lapin Lapin’s endless talking. We stop to talk with his wife after dinner on our way back from the wash up area – her husband has gone up to the Accueil for something – we hear him in the distance somewhere or other?! ‘What I like about this campsite’ she says, ‘is the silence?!’
Sunday 28 August: Today is our last Sunday here in the Dordogne and our last Sunday worshipping with the little church in Sainte Nathelène. We have thoroughly enjoyed being with them Sunday by Sunday since we have been here and we will miss them when we go. We set off for Sainte Nathelène, waving goodbye to Miranda and her boyfriend as we go. They are leaving today. We take lots of nice food with us to share with everyone during the communal lunch after the Service. It has been so nice sitting outside Sunday by Sunday, sharing a meal and talking together in the shade of this lovely church building. It is a Communion Service today and the Service is taken by an Ordained Lady Anglican Priest. She is very good. The prayers in particular are thoughtful and the sermon relevant! She forgets to let the children in the congregation go off for their own teaching slot however. They have to sit through her sermon. It probably won’t do them any harm I think, but this doesn’t stop the Sunday School Teacher who grabs the children just before Communion and takes them away to teach them the lesson she has spent the previous week preparing. The Lady Vicar hasn’t really picked any songs suitable for shaking the various shaky things, maracas and tambourines that the lady steward usually gives to every member of the congregation, whether they like it or not, but this doesn’t stop the rather jolly lady steward dishing them all out to us in time for the closing hymn. It isn’t really suitable for shaking shaky things to but we all do our best?! We have a lovely lunch together, and then say our farewells, and promise to keep praying for them and come back and see them again soon!
After lunch we drive back to our campsite to discover that quite a few new people have arrived. It doesn’t seem so deserted as earlier today, and Monsieur Lapin Lapin is still talking, talking! The young Dutch couple tell us he hasn’t shut up since we left for church earlier that morning?! What makes things worse is that Monsieur Lapin Lapin has an orange toy poodle whom we have nicknamed Yapin Yapin?! That’s not its real name of course but that is what it does most of the time – when it can get a bark in edgeways that is. Like master like dog I guess?! We have some very good ear plugs however – they are made of wax and you can mold them to the shape of your ear holes. You can only get them in France and not in the UK apparently! In they go as off for an afternoon siesta we go on our nice comfy inflatable bed in our nice tent. I suppose we ought to offer Madame Lapin Lapin a box of them, if she doesn’t know about them already?!
In the evening we decide to go back down to Sarlat for a slap up final meal to celebrate a wonderful month in the Dordogne. We dress up for the occasion in all our finery and drive down to the historic old town. We plan to go to our favourite restaurant in Sarlat – La Rapiere where we have had some excellent meals in years gone by. When we get there, however, it is closed for the evening?! Fortunately there are loads of other restaurants in Sarlat that are open on a very pleasant warm Sunday evening. So we wander up to the main square and find a table in one of them with a great view of the evening entertainment that goes on in Sarlat during the summer months. The meal is great, but the entertainment is very poor. It is definitely the ‘B’ Team that is on tonight now that most of the holiday makers have gone home. There is a rather crude visual comedian who nobody finds even slightly funny, and a woman who dances round a hat stand?! Where are the acrobats, the fire eaters, the jugglers that have the crowds whooping and clapping in amazement? There is a statue however nearby – well a man dressed up as a statue of Charlie Chaplin – but entirely in white. If you put some money in his box he performs. He is quite comical and after watching him for a while, Julia decides to put some money in his box and have her photograph taken with him. I take so long sorting the camera out, getting the correct nighttime setting etc., that Monsieur Charlie Chaplain starts to get a bit fruity with Julia?! He is a proper Charlie if he thinks he can get away with such behaviour with her?! She gives him one of her full optical looks and he gets the message. If he is not careful he will find his walking stick shoved somewhere he would not want it to be shoved?! We wander round the streets of Sarlat enjoying our last views of this amazing place. We find pockets of quite good street entertainment in various places – perhaps not every member of the ‘B’ Team is hopeless after all? There is just enough time for a coffee and brandy, and then we return home tired but exhilarated after a delightful evening, and so to bed.
Monday 29 August: We are woken at 4.00 a.m., along with the entire campsite, by Monsieur Lapin Lapin and his orange poodle Yapin Yapin?! Yapin Yapin must have sensed a fox or something because he really went off on one, only to be followed moments later by Monsieur Lapin Lapin also going off on one shouting at his dog to be quiet?! Everything quietens down again after 20 minutes. We assume that Monsieur Lapin Lapin and his orange poodle Yapin Yapin have both gone back to sleep again. Shame about the rest of us on the campsite who are now fully awake? Later on in the morning Monsieur Lapin Lapin comes by while we are talking to the nice Young Dutch Couple. He is taking his orange poodle Yapin Yapin for a walk. Of course Yapin Yapin is not the dog’s real name – just our nickname for the noisy dog. We ask Monsieur Lapin Lapin what his poodle is called? ‘Faberge’ he replies, ‘because he is so precious to me! Aren’t you my precious!’ he says, picking up his orange poodle and noisily kissing said dog on both cheeks. He puts the dog back down on the ground and off they goe to continue their walk. The nice young Dutch couple and ourselves just stand there looking at each other. Then we all fall about laughing. ‘Faberge?’ says the nice young Dutch man, ‘Faberge! Precious? I came precious near to murdering that damn dog this morning!’
We are due to leave for home this coming Wednesday so we decide to start sorting out our stuff today. We will have to pack tomorrow anyway, but just in case it rains on Wednesday we want to be ready to pack up and go tomorrow if we have to. The last thing we want to have to do is to pack our tent away in the rain and although it looks as though it will stay warm and sunny you can never be one hundred per cent sure that you won’t suddenly get a major rain storm in the Dordogne. Julia takes our dirty clothes up to camp launderette while I start to dismantle and pack away all our non-essential gear. It seems really strange to be packing up now after nearly a month in the Dordogne. We kind of feel it is home here after such a long time in one place. We survive a major scare when the boot of the car refuses to open – we can open the car doors but not the boot – the battery in our car key that controls the automatic locking system has gone dead? I dismantle said key and manage to coax a bit of life out of the dead battery. With an audible, feeble sigh it opens all the doors and the boot one very reluctant final time, and miraculously resets all the locks including the boot so we can use the key to get in and out of the boot! Julia has brought her bread-making machine with her to France. It has proved a real God-send for her enabling her to maintain her wheat free diet! She makes another batch of bread, while our dirty clothes are washing and drying, and then into the car goes the bread making machine along with the small fridge, the sun umbrella, the tent carpet and porch groundsheet, the Bible Barbecue, and loads of other stuff! We don’t pack away our cooker. Julia is cooking coq au van tonight. I am already salivating at the thought of it!
After we have finished our various jobs, and we have enjoyed a light lunch, we go off for a wander round the campsite. I take my camera to take some final photos of things that I have forgotten to take before, to add to the hundreds of photos I have already taken. We really will have to be brutal when it comes to sorting them all out and dispensing with everything other than the best of them before we inflict them on family and friends!? As we wander round the site we come across a number of French couples. Obviously not all of them have gone home as we had thought and some new couples have arrived! Admittedly they are all of a certain age – the French retire earlier than we do in the UK and they are taking advantage of the nice weather to either stay on for a few days more or get away for a few days. The funny thing is they all seem to know who we are?! ‘Ah! Les Anglais!’ they say when they see us, and pointing towards the sun they say, ‘En Angleterre … le soleil!’ And off they go chuckling to themselves!
As we are wandering around the site we see Monsieur Lapin Lapin. Julia had noticed him earlier on in the day, around 12 noon when the French all stop for lunch, on her way back from the campsite launderette area. Monsieur Lapin Lapin was preparing lunch for his longsuffering wife and was laying their picnic table by their camper van. He had covered it with a very nice embroidered table cloth – the kind of thing the French do so well. He had picked some of the beautiful wild flowers that grow around the perimeter of the campsite and put them in a nice vase. When he had it ‘just so’ he got his camera and took several pictures of the table, with its beautiful table cloth and beautiful flowers, before going off to prepare the lunch for himself and his wife. When we see him again now, in a different part of the campsite, he still has the table cloth and the flowers and he is setting them up in different places against different backgrounds and taking photos of them. Absorbed in his work, Monsieur Lapin Lapin, is strangely quiet. We stand and watch him for a while. We see another side of Monsieur Lapin Lapin, a more sensitive side. We think that maybe we have got him wrong. He just talks a lot because he is perhaps lonely, and in reality he is actually quite an artistic, sensitive soul.
Tuesday 30 August: The weather is bright and sunny again today so we don’t have to pack up early. Instead we have a lie in followed by a late breakfast! After breakfast we have our Bible reading and prayer and then we finish off the next stage of our packing. Just about everything but our nice inflatable bed and the tent itself is packed into the car. It is strange but we seem to have more room than usual. Is it that we have lost things during our stay in the Dordogne, or have we just become better at packing the car? We pack our nice portable gas cooker – we plan to have a meal at the campsite bistro tonight – so all we have to do tomorrow is to deflate our bed and dismantle our tent and pack them away. We are not the only ones who are leaving however. Monsieur Lapin Lapin and his wife and his orange poodle Yapin Yapin, or ‘Faberge’ as we must now call him, have packed their stuff into their camper van and are leaving tonight. They are driving overnight back up to the north of France. When we query the sense of this with Madame Lapin Lapin, Monsieur Lapin Lapin being, how shall I put this, a gentleman of a certain age she just shrugs as though she has given up trying to persuade her husband to see sense about probably a whole number of things.
After four weeks on our campsite I have finally been persuaded to enter the Ping Pong Competition in our last week here. Julia and I have been playing together almost every day and she has pronounced me good enough to win the competition. I have finally got used to playing with the really cheap bats we bought on our previous campsite for 5€ the pair (plus three free ping pong balls), and I feel myself to be playing well. And besides, all the other really good ping pong players have already gone home?! During the morning therefore, I wander up to the bar and duly sign up to play in the competition this evening. For lunch we eat more or less everything we have left that won’t fit in our electric cool box. It is a strange mixture of tinned fish, cheese, sliced meats, salad stuff, bread … but washed down with a glass or two of wine it tastes very nice. After a bit of a rest we spend a couple of hours in the swimming pool – a last chance to enjoy a relaxing swim and sunbathe and with not a German towel in sight! We even manage to make use of a couple of sunbeds!
We decide not to go to the bistro for a meal after all. Julia has looked at the menu and there is nothing on it that she really fancies, and I am too nervous about the Ping Pong Competition to even think about eating much. There is still some stuff left over from lunch, and some nice French bread for me, so we make do with that. Promptly at 8.00 p.m. I arrive at the games room by the bar-bistro area in my tracksuit and pumps, ready to play in the Ping Pong Competition, with Julia to cheer me on. There is no sign of any activity whatsoever? We go to the terrace bar where Madame is serving the usual dozen or so French people who gather there each evening. Seeing us they chorus together, ‘Ah! Les Anglais!’ Madame explains that the competition has been cancelled. Only six people entered the competition and they needed 16 to make the thing viable. ‘Je suis desolate!’ I cry, using my latest acquired bit of French! All the French couples sympathize with me. ‘You would have won easily!’ they say, ‘You would have been the champion!’ they say with a smile … after all you are ‘Le Champion d’Angleterre!’
Wednesday 31 August: After a month here in the Dordogne it is finally time to leave our wonderful campsite overlooking Sarlat and start our leisurely journey back home to the UK! We wake up early feeling a strange mixture of sadness and excitement. Sadness to be leaving this wonderful campsite and leaving the Dordogne, and excitement because this has been a wonderful time of spiritual as well as physical and mental renewal and we really believe that God has spoken to us and is going to open up the way back into the Baptist Ministry for us. We boil some eggs on our mini-burner – the one we keep just for boiling a kettle if we stop for tea or coffee in the car somewhere – and very nice they are. Then it is just a case of deflating our wonderful bed – the electric pump we bought actually sucks out air as well as blows in air – and taking down our marvelous tent. The whole process only takes a couple of hours, including hosing down the groundsheet and leaving it to dry in the hot sun. We are only going as far as Limoges today. We are taking about five days to get back up to Calais, stopping over each night in the wonderful B and B Hotels that we have grown to really love over recent years. Once our tent is packed away in our car it will stay there until we get back home to Rodden! With most of the pitches around ours now vacant we have plenty of space to spread out the groundsheet to dry, and the tent to fold up carefully. Various people come and say goodbye to us including the nice young Dutch couple who are here for another week at least. Perhaps they will have the honour of being the very last people to leave the campsite before it closes after the summer season comes to an end?!
Finally the tent is down and the car is packed and we go to say our farewells to our wonderful hosts Monsieur le Patron, Madame his wife, and of course Son and Heir. We find them on the terrace by the bar-bistro. They are just finishing their lunch. ‘Ah! Les Anglais!’ says Son and Heir. ‘Ah! Le Champion d’Angleterre!’ says Madame smiling! We exchange handshakes and kisses. ‘En Angleterre … le soleil!’ says Monsieur le Patron’ and we all laugh. They seem genuinely sorry to see us go. ‘Retournez’ says Monsieur le Patron. We don’t know if it is a question or a command, but whatever, we certainly will Monsieur le Patron, we certainly will!
On the way to our car from saying our farewells to Monsieur le Patron and his family we meet a couple of newcomers who are obviously English – pale skin and pristine clothes! We both look very French now – good suntan, long straggly hair, baggy shorts, tight skirt (in Julia’s case), and sandals!? ‘Ah! Les Anglais?’ I say. They look at us quizzically and stop to talk. I do my best to answer their questions – about the site, the owners, the Dordogne! As we take our leave of them he looks at me and says very seriously, ‘For a Frenchman you have a very good command of English!’ We fall about laughing!