Heather’s adventures in no-common-sense land

After waking up, Rhea, Will and I discover that 3am is rather late to go to bed and life is hard afterwards if you do this (I’m just thankful we’d run out of wine, at this point). Rhea and I hug in the kitchen: “Rhea, I can’t justify eating meat”, I say – “Yeah, I can’t justify abolishing the concept of family either, really” (you had to be there – Rhea’s Brave New World vision is all kinds of terrifying, I suspect she reads too much sci-fi).

 

It’s market day out the window, so eventually we venture outside; predictably, there is a lot of tourist-attracting tack and typical products. It seems the entire local production revolves around making things out of walnuts (walnut oil walnut cake walnut liqueur walnut biscuits walnut pate walnut wine walnutwalnut walnuts WALNUTS), and killing all the ducks in the world. Will is being led around the market by Heather who’s finding all of the free samples (apparently the walnut aperitif tastes like sherry); meanwhile Rhea and I are scouting all the restaurant menus for vegan options. There are none. It’s the worst possible French region for vegetarians, let alone vegans. All the things have dead duck in them, or at the very least major amounts of cheese. The two “vegetarian menus” we find have salmon (!).

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Meanwhile, it appears that Heather has managed to convince mushroom-hating Will to spend eight euros on a single truffle, “to taste”, despite the fact that both Hev and I have previously established that we do not like truffles (in the interest of fairness I will admit now that days later when we do taste it, it’s actually really nice). Rhea’s impressed with the massive white asparagus that the French favour and buys a kilo of it – Will meanwhile has weathered last night’s debate on meat eating much better than me (presumably he’s used to it) and happily buys a dry sausage. Then it’s time to select one of the imperfect restaurant offerings and attempt to make it vegan; Rhea ends up with a gigantic mound of fresh salad ingredients all chopped up together to make up for the absence of the cheese which would have graced the original recipe. I have a mushroom omelette and Will and Hev have a three course dead-duck-based meal, and I’m not even tempted (although duck’s not my favourite, so yeah, easy). Eliza’s exhibiting her usual impatience with three course meals and we take it in turns to get up and round the shop opposite the restaurant a few times during the meal. The lady sat behind us seems quite disgusted that we’d dare bring a baby to a restaurant, so I spend many minutes hovering by her table with a radiant smile and making Eliza’s hand wave at her cutely, just to annoy her a bit more, the old sour cow.

In the afternoon, I’m worried about the weather and campaigning to visit the prehistory museum in Les Eyzies, but the others want to space out the cave-based things evenly through the week so they vote for Marqueyssac garden, which have been recommended by my parents. Eliza’s finally asleep so we’ve pushing the pram up the hill from the car park to the garden, which is perched atop a long rock promontory– the view is already totally glorious, over the impressive town of Beynac with its castle atop a rock face, verdant fields, the Dordogne river and the big-ass medieval fortress of Castelnaud a few kilometres away all decked up in flowing red banners. Unfortunately as we reach the top after getting our tickets, it starts to hammer it down with rain almost immediately – that’s kind of lucky, as it turns out, because had we been halfway down the garden there would have been no shelter. We shun the manor house which is already packed with bedraggled wet people, and stand wetly under the awnings of the little tea room watching the rain come down.

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It comes down for a long time. In the end we opt for a cup of tea inside; somehow the baby is still asleep! Finally, the rain lets up, and we start up a lovely path framed by snaking patterns of rosemary and lavender plants. We’re going for the “cliff path”, which goes along the edge of the garden; we’re almost alone, there are more glorious views all along on our right and a rock face covered with vegetation and interesting little paths going up it from time to time.

At the top (and the tip) of the garden is a belvedere looking over the Dordogne and La Roque Gageac, another of those impossibly pretty villages that seem to dot the whole region. From there we wander towards the heart of the garden, at the very top, through forested paths like tunnels of green.

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We stumble upon some black netting, a “pathway through the treetops”! Eargerly Hev and I throw ourselves in (Hev has vanquished her fear of heights so now she’s all over anything involving heights); Rhea follows although she’s not such a fan of the heights. Will remains stuck with the pram and the sleeping baby, bless him! The netting is extensive, it turns out – over a hundred metres in length, high up in the trees, it’s great fun.

When we get to the end, Hev and I can’t resist having another go with Will, and we wrestle in there and throw each other down in the net laughing. In fact, we’re in there for so long that by the time we start down the path back to the manor house it’s pretty much closing time, but nobody’s around to hurry us up so we meander down the green paths, spotting birds, flowers and even a tiny frog (I pick it up to show Eliza and it jumps from my hand onto the ground where it lay kinda still for a while afterwards and Rhea glares at me for hurting it – but it’s not hurt at all and jumps happily away after all, phew!).

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At the foot of the manor house is the best bit of the garden – an area of shaped boxwood hedges all in curves and bobbles and waves of vegetation. Rhea is jumping about excitedly repeating “we found the bobbly bits of Marqueesey-sack!” (correct pronunciation “Mar-kay-sack” by the way), there are peacocks strutting about, the light is golden yellow, it’s a pretty magical moment.

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A short moment later after going via the loo then getting the cleaning lady to open the gate for us to let us out (we’re that late), we find ourselves on the car park, ecstatic and grinning. “Where’s the car key?” quips Heather happily? “You have it”, I reply, “you locked the car”. “So I did” she replied, patting at her pockets unconcernedly. Ten minutes later we’ve patted everybody’s pockets, opened all the bags and strewn all their contents around the car, stripped the pram – no car keys. Heather remembers that she’d placed the keys in pretty much the most stupid place she could’ve chosen: out of the closed bags, the zipping pockets of our rain jackets, or even the buttoned pocket on her trouser leg, she’s chosen the flowy, gaping pockets of her flowy woven trousers – and then frolicked in the netting in the forest. I am aghast. The gardens are closed. The gates are locked, the car is the only one left in the car park, the place is isolated in the middle of the countryside.

Rather fuming, I leave Rhea and Heather with a hungry Eliza in the car park and stroll back fuming towards the park – Will offers to come with me, because he’s lovely and Rhea’s keeping the supremely sheepish Heather company by the car. We find an open outbuilding where a young employee is finishing his day’s work by emptying out a pile of cardboard boxes from a wagon; when I explain what’s happened his face falls – he’s going to have to stay and try to help us find the keys. We start at the loo, but of course, no luck… The man shares my pessimism regarding the chances of finding a small black plastic fob among the massive stretch of greenery ahead… But we set off nonetheless towards the very bloody top of the garden – the netting – at a pace I can only describe as “breathless”. The guy is reeling off all the other stupid shit people get up to in the garden, and we nod sheepishly, unable to speak due to practically running to keep up. We reach the netting and spread out to look – the whole length of the treetop adventure, we look – nothing. In the end, there’s a little square of netting close to the ground where Hev jumped in order to get stuck in there on purpose; I check it hopelessly, and there it is! The key fob. At the furthest point possible from the car. I can’t believe we found it, I feel giddy with relief, everything looks beautiful suddenly. The dude keeps shaking his head in disbelief as we run back down to the car, the empty garden settling into dusk around us, Will and I grinning like idiots the whole way. We leave the employee alone with a sizeable tip, to finally go home over an hour late, and return to the car as heroes.

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Who’s a mega sausage? That’s Hev!

The mood is of exuberant joy after narrowly missing such a major boo-boo, and we decide to celebrate by eating out at the only restaurant we’ve seen listed on the Internet as having a vegan menu! It’s a three course meal in a quite fancy restaurant, and the vegan food is delicious (I deviate from the vegan dessert in order to luxuriate with chocolate profiteroles, my favourite childhood dessert – these make me utter slightly inappropriate sounds, they’re so delicious).

Altogether a rather excellent day is had by all!

They’re here!!!

We wake excited to see our friends Rhea and Will, and after a relaxed breakfast due to a flight delay, Marie heads off to the airport to collect them. I pass the time by taking Eliza for a nice walk around the town, happy I can fully indulge in some shopping- only to discover that what Marie has been saying everywhere we go is really, thoroughly true here- the typical produce shops really are all the same! As are the restaurant menus it turns out- full of foie gras and duck with nothing for vegetarians, let alone vegans (one of our friends visiting is a vegan). It’s also a Monday, so all the other shops are shut, just restaurants and tourist-focused shops open, so that maybe accentuates my experience. People are smiley toward Eliza though, so she has a nice time, and many of the shops have taster samples, so it’s not without its benefits.

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Fully embracing the French custom by eating the end of baguette on the way home

The mission I’ve set myself is to buy and prepare lunch for their arrival. It being a Monday seems to mean all bakeries and other shops useful for this task are closed, so my walk through the town is pretty extensive, finally finding an open bakery on the outskirts of the opposite side of the town. Eliza falls asleep as I’m walking back so I speed up a bit, hoping to get home in time for her to have some of her nap in her bed…that all goes really well until I pause while some Australian tourists coo over her and she wakes up!

An awake baby makes for some interesting food prep, with most of it taking place while sat on the floor beside her. I try to get her interested in her toys, but she’s far more interested in what I’m doing, so ‘toy lettuce’ becomes a thing! Before I’ve quite finished, I hear the door and Rhea and Will walk in. Eliza gives them a winning smile and Rhea is literally beside herself with happiness, squealing and clapping as Eliza shows off her full repertoire of smiles and gurgly noises.

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We sit down to our salad and have a good catch up, deciding to go for a swim in the river that afternoon. Chloe (who was already the source of stellar Sicily advice) has given us directions to a local river spot so Marie goes off to write them down, coming back to read them out- the highlight being ‘ignore signs saying strictly prohibited’ and we set off. The drive is pretty and perhaps we’ve become a little too accustomed to using a satnav, as we’re all chipping in to try to spot the landmarks on the instructions and guess the distances- it works out well though and we find the very clear and explicit ‘don’t you dare park your vehicle here’ signs and pull up directly beneath them. There’s one other car here and we can’t decide whether to be relieved that someone else is doing it too, so it’ll probably be OK, or worried that the other car belongs to the land owner and we’re sure to be in for it! Eliza meanwhile has gone into a very deep sleep, so continues this in her car seat on the banks of the river while we dip our toes in- ooooh it’s cold! Too cold for Eliza so it’s just as well she’s sleeping. It’s very pretty though, with lush greenery in every direction.

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We pass most of the afternoon with Will and Marie skimming stones while we all stand in the river in our pants – Will’s the best at this I’ve ever seen so I spend a while trying to capture it on camera, I’m not sure how well it works though but he manages to get loads of bounces right across the width of the river. Rhea also has a go, which is somewhat entertaining, sending stones soaring up into the sky then plopping soundly into the water below- she does manage it a few times though, and I can’t really talk as I don’t even give it a try!

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Look at this belly

We’ve noticed a pretty loop of small villages to explore after our river swim, but think better of it when Eliza sleeps almost until it’s time to leave and decide to head toward the first one and then just see how it goes. How it goes is that Eliza is quite clear that it’s time to be walked about and see things, not time to be in her car seat, so we stop reasonably promptly. During the drive my body has decided it’s quite unhappy with something I ate at lunch and I make a quick dash to find the nearest bar with a toilet. I hear the others arrive shortly after me and joke with the bartender- it’s in French so I don’t know what Marie said, but I’m sure as a good, supportive wife it’s nothing to do with my current predicament!

[Marie interjecting here, to report that it didn’t in fact have anything to do with her predicament, it had to do with the bar’s dog, so there, can I have my good supportive wife medal now?]

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Beer passion is still ongoing with Zaza

We then sit and enjoy a beer / cider and go for a little explore around, finding a nice viewpoint over the Dordogne river, a small bakery for Will and Marie to enjoy a chocolate éclair, a castle  that Rhea would quite like to live in and an array of disabled cats- one missing an ear and one missing a leg – Will makes friends with both.

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The journey home from here is a little complicated, with us going both ways through the roadworks our host advised us to avoid- the little village beside the roadworks is pretty though. Eliza is quite content in the back, so it could be worse.

The next day we decide to get on with seeing what most attracted us to this region- prehistoric cave art. Rhea and Marie, with an interest in art, Will as an archaeologist and me, with a chapter dedicated to it in the History of Art books Marie wrote me, are all equally keen and we spend the morning discussing the various options nearby.

Rhea is feeling a bit under the weather and Eliza’s cave interest was somewhat variable earlier in the trip so we decide to start with Rouffignac, a cave with prehistoric art on the walls and a little train to take you deep into the cave to see the art. To describe Rhea as a bit under the weather is in fact somewhat of an understatement and whilst she valiantly soldiers on, she can be found lying down anywhere flat between activities.

We arrive and park up a little down the hill from the entrance. Many of the caves nearby have limited daily tickets so we’re unsure if we’ll get in. Marie decides to take one for the team and pop up the hill to try to get tickets, while Rhea heads off to find the local toilets. I wait with Will by the car, convinced Marie has accidentally left with the car key….a while later we’re still there and agree that I’ll go up to get them from her…I reach the top, find Rhea laying on a wall and Marie informs me that no, she left them with me. Now, the old Peugeot had a self-locking feature…we’ve not tried it to find out if this has the same, but our housemate’s Peugeot does so you can picture the scene- me legging it back down the hill, arms flailing slightly as my running style resembles Phoebe’s from “Friends”, reaching the car in a panic and yanking at the door- phew, all is well, it’s open!

Crisis averted, we have 20 minutes left to wait and Marie has been advised that there may be mushrooms in the surrounding woodland, so she’s off on a hunt with Will to accompany her, while we chill next to Rhea on the wall. Eliza is enjoying the sights and smells and the attention from other visitors. In the distance we can see Will and Marie returning with something small in their hands- could it be mushrooms? Nope, not mushrooms, but they have managed to find some little strawberries that they share with us- a little sour for Rhea it turns out, and a bit too small for Eliza to try.

It’s now time for the cave and we’re in luck- first ones through means we get the front seats in the train. It’s a surprisingly long train journey through the cave to the first stop, where a mammoth is scratched into the wall. Further along still and we pass scratches in the ceiling and on the walls. The next stop is a pretty impressive image of mammoths in a row, facing in toward one another.

[Note: pictures not allowed in Rouffignac cave, so these are lifted off the Internet – Wikipedia, Youtube and the cave’s website]

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At the end, the train stops and we get out, all over the walls and ceiling are images of ibex, mammoths, goats, rhinoceros, horses, all kind of layered over one another. The effect is a little messy, by our idea of art today, but I wonder if it’s an earlier representation of perspective or some other effect or meaning that made sense at the time. We’re shown where the floor would have been at the time- really high up, meaning people would have crawled in, with animal fat candles, to draw in almost darkness, never being able to get far enough away from the images to see them in their entirety- it makes for some interesting animal body shapes, but also leaves me wondering why cavemen would venture so deeply into the cave, through such massive areas to crawl into this tiny bit to do all the drawing?

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Humans weren’t the only beings to use the caves and I’m flabbergasted to see rows of bear nests (nests? I’m not sure what’s best to call them) used for hibernation, all next to one another- presumably not all used at the same time in an orderly bear dormitory, but used by many bears over thousands of years, perhaps each time making a new space rather than reusing old ones. Beside them are big claw marks where the bears have scratched at the walls. It also brings home some of the risks the cavemen would have taken in coming in to do their art in the caves.

The rest of the day we decide to chill, making dinner at home and Rhea having a bit of a sleep. This somehow revitalises her though and she stays up with Will and Marie, setting the world to rights. At 3am Eliza wakes me up for a feed, I find myself in an empty bed and can hear the emphatic debating continuing in the kitchen. ‘Er….guys….do you know it’s 3am already?!’. Discussions come to an end shortly after this and Marie collapses into the bed saying ‘there’s lots I need to think more about…I can’t justify eating meat’.

En route

Our departure from Carcassonne is not without its hitches. While packing, I decide to leave Eliza to ‘swing free’ on the bed, mid nappy change and carry on clearing away in the living room. Sometime later, the calm, relaxed tone of my wife wondering ‘Heather!? What the F***?!?’ can be heard emanating from the bedroom… ‘What do you think nappies are for?! she’s p***** all over the bed!’

Hmmm….what to do? Guess we’ll have to erm, let it dry out and assume he’s going to change the sheets before he sleeps in his bed again…and erm…hope it’s not seeped down too deep? Feeling guilty but unsure what else to do, we pack up and leave in search of breakfast. It’s not a remarkable breakfast but it looks good- a half warmed up, half cold in the middle croque monsieur from a bakery chain.

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From here, we’re keeping all our fingers and toes crossed for a long, long morning nap as Sarlat, our next destination, is a three hour drive north up the motorway. It starts well and Eliza is asleep by the time we’ve joined the motorway…it doesn’t end well though and she’s awake again 2 hours later. We consult the map for a good stop off and notice that the village of Saint-Cirq Lapopie is relatively nearby so hop off the motorway to stop there for lunch. Marie already has it on her radar, as a pretty hilltop village near to some caves she wants to explore. ‘Relatively near’ on the map turns out to be a forty minute windy drive while Eliza objects in the back, so we’re very glad when we finally arrive.

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Beautiful is an understatement. We’re surrounded by deep green hills, the wide, calm Dordogne river passing below us and the village opening up in front of us with the church as the centrepiece. The village in front of us, beside us and then…behind us, as we follow the signs for the parking. We’re led past the village and out the other side, up and up the hillside into a parking lot which turns out to be surprisingly close to the village on foot. It’s baking hot sun so we bag a spot in the shade and promptly discover a poonami in the back of the car, which gets sorted out on the car park tarmac, for lack of a better option.

We walk down to the village, Marie regretting instantly her choice of jeans for the day and us both wishing there was a cooler way to carry Eliza than in the sling, but she’s just a bit too heavy to carry for any distance in our arms now. We’re both quite thirsty so head straight for lunch, choosing a place specialising in salads with local goat’s cheese, smoked duck and foie gras (we’ll pass on the foie gras thanks!). The salads are good, with a hearty portion of potatoes on the side and Eliza enjoys her first taste of cucumber and watermelon, which are both a hit…ish. We don’t think she exactly swallowed any food, but she had a good munch and had both going in and out her mouth a few times.

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From here we set out to explore the village. Now, here is where you get the difference between Hev exploring a village and Marie exploring a village. The key question being- are the inside of shops considered an integral part of the village worthy of exploration? I think so, heading straight for the craft shops and typical food shops we are passing. Marie disagrees on this, wanting to see the outside of the buildings, the church, the views of the river below… we decide to compromise on seeing these first and then going in a few shops. A few steps further and I’ve stopped to buy an ice cream, seeing ahead of us a big mound with a viewpoint out the top and knowing instantly that this is our next destination. It actually isn’t as hard a climb as I’m imagining (it’s still blistering heat, otherwise it wouldn’t be a problem at all), and the views are pretty cool from the top.

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From here we head downhill, aiming to make it down to the river to dunk our feet in. Meanwhile,  Marie has been messaging our AirBnB host to explain that we’ve had to stop and will now be arriving 3 hours later than we’d initially said. She’d not had a response for some time, but now receives one- the lady is not impressed and would like us to know that she likes to go to nice places on Sundays too and does not have internet on her phone, which we should apparently have known, so we should have texted her instead of using the app, she won’t be in at 6, when we’re now planning to arrive, but we can try calling her daughter who may be home then…this leaves us both feeling a bit miffed, but we decide to continue enjoying our walk anyway.

The village is really pretty, with narrow, cobbled streets and rose bushes with gorgeous full flowers. We visit a saffron museum, which is mostly a saffron shop, a pottery shop and some other ones selling clothes and jewellery….then we see an ice cream shop selling rhubarb ice-cream (pretty much my favourite flavour of anything and I’ve never seen rhubarb ice-cream before)…I can’t have another ice-cream though surely…maybe on the way back up…

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We continue downhill, realising we’re about halfway to the bottom, having come quite a way already. It’s still baking hot and the people walking the other way look far too hot and bothered to be having a nice time…Marie meanwhile is having a bit of a hard time with her swollen knees rubbing against her jeans as she’s walking, from the car incident the night before. She calls quits on the expedition and I happily agree with both Eliza and I also feeling too warm in the sling we’re wearing. This brings us quickly back to the ice cream stall and it’s delicious! The shop owner has a suggestion for cooling Eliza down too and wets her sunhat, explaining that her husband is a roofer and does this on hot days. I’m a little concerned it may give her brain freeze, but it seems ok and she seems happier for it, so we have a sit in the shade to cool off.

From here, it’s a pretty steep climb all the way back through the village toward the car. As we approach the top of the village, there’s still quite a way to go to get back to the car. I leave Marie with Eliza and the bag, offering to bring the car down to them and head off on what turns out to be a long and steep uphill climb, owing to the fact that I’m easily confused with directions and wind up climbing twice and high as needed and then having to walk back down to the car…great, I’m so soaked by the time I’m done that I decide I’ve had the medicinal benefits of a sauna for free- everyone else is also really pleased by our car being stopped in the middle of the road on the way down…perfect! We have timed things well for Eliza though and she falls asleep as Marie places her into her car seat, giving us a very relaxed and enjoyable scenic drive down the hill and alongside the river.

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Despite the arsey message from our host earlier, we are greeted by a friendly woman outside her ceramics shop and led upstairs to a two bedroom apartment. She greets Eliza in French and then Italian, when she hears our tales of enthusiastic Italian elderly ladies, and is perfectly friendly and welcoming. Downstairs, her shop showcases her clay art, which seems to be a celebration of curvaceous women and women’s fertility, unsurprisingly I quite like it. Marie later picks the image with the largest bottom and claims she looks just like that (she doesn’t).

Marie settles in with Eliza/ collapses from the heat and rests her knees while I go out on a search for dinner. The mini market I’m sure is open turns out to be closed, as is the boulangerie next door. A little further is the main high street and just off it, lots of little restaurant filled side streets. My brief search finds lots of reasonably priced three course meals that all seem roughly the same- about 15 euros for a starter involving foie gras, a main involving duck and a dessert- should be nice and easy to eat out with our vegan friend then! I return to give Marie the option of this or takeaway pizza, she chooses the pizza.

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There’s a takeaway pizza place directly opposite our apartment and I have a link to their online menu, but our host recommends another one. My limited French is enough to explain that we’re getting a pizza, but not enough to clarify whether this recommendation is based on the best pizza around or based on which one she thinks will be open on a Sunday. We decide to follow it anyway and also agree that Eliza would enjoy a walk to the pizza place, so I take her off in my arms. We say hello to a bench full of elderly people on our way there and back and to a couple with a dog sat enjoying an aperitif on the terrace of the restaurant. Eliza enjoys watching the dog. After some time staring at the menu, and then going back again to double check the name of the chosen pizza, I’m ready to order. Orders are taken at the bar and I ambitiously order a pizza with gorgonzola on it, requesting that it’s only put on half the pizza (in French guys, in French- and the barman didn’t reply to me in English!). While waiting for the pizza I asked for a glass of water (also in French, but that’s less impressive) and then had a brief conversation with a toddler (also in French) who was trying to tell his family that a baby had entered the room.

Now came an unexpected challenge- carrying a baby in my arms and keeping a pizza flat in my hands for the walk back which seemed at least twice as long in my new predicament. It worked though, mostly, there was a small slip at one point but the pizza barely suffered for it. Opening and closing the front door with a baby in arms and while keeping a pizza flat was almost a step too far. Having survived this and climbed the stairs I knocked on our apartment door and called ‘pizza delivery’ – Marie thought this was a ‘hello’ and remained relaxed on the bed while I struggled with the door ‘did you not hear me?’ I asked, once in ‘yeah’ – ah apparently ‘pizza delivery’ is not equivalent to ‘please open the door for me’ – she has a point there! Now comes the moment of truth- has the pizza survived these challenges? We’re in luck, it has, although Marie is in the most luck as the egg on the pizza is pretty much entirely in the gorgonzola half- bless her she tries spreading the egg around without spreading the gorgonzola. We enjoy our pizza dinner and a relatively early night, looking forward to our friends arriving the next day.

Many emotions are felt

I have always wanted to go to Carcassonne! I’ve seen pictures of its impressive walled medieval city (the “ville haute” or “cité”) topped with pointy round towers, and we’ve decided to make a huge detour to see it, sweeping right to the South-West corner of France before going up to Dordogne to meet up with Rhea and Will. Heather has found us an AirBnB option in the “ville basse”, i.e. the real, everyday Carcassonne, and miraculously James the Satnav behaves and we turn up at the correct time, find parking pretty much in front and meet up with the host, an ex-military guy turned physiotherapist. The apartment is simple and functional, it will do very nicely! We venture out towards the city centre in the ville basse for lunch; it’s only a few minutes’ walk away across a wide boulevard, and soon we’re in pleasant pedestrianised streets lined with high street shops, bars and bakeries. It’s a bank holiday weekend in France, though, so much of it is closed, and we end up in a tiny restaurant selling savoury crepes, along with a retired Englishman who’s lived here for seventeen years. He seems delighted to be talking in English and we cannot escape his constant conversation, so we give in, and learn how Brexit is already having a major impact on his life, because his pension from the UK is suddenly worth much less than it was a year ago, and he’s had to change his shopping habits and lifestyle quite a lot to compensate. Eventually, him and his dog Bobo leave us to finish our meal (the dog is French, so must only be spoken to in French, you see), not before giving me some detailed instructions on how to find the post office that we need to send off Heather’s proxy voting form.

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And find the post office we do! The ladies behind the counter are falling over each other to greet and speak to Zaza; but they don’t sell envelopes for international mail, they inform me. I should go to the supermarket or the craft shop for those. Grumbling slightly, I exit towards the supermarket, leaving Heather to deal with the continued cooing onslaught in the blissfully air-conditioned post office. In front of the supermarket is a man begging for some coins; in front of him is a group of five or six teenagers. A girl drops something on the floor as they are walking away and the homeless guy calls to her to alert her to this.  Her friends turn around and disdainfully inform him that she only dropped a chocolate bar wrapper; why, does he want to eat it? They all guffaw. The man shakes his head and says nothing. I’m disgusted, but as I go to shout at the kids they’ve all jumped on bikes and are gone already. I give all my change to the guy, it doesn’t seem enough.

En route back to the post office with envelopes in hand, I somehow accidentally purchase three sleepsuits for the baby (the ones she’s got are too small or too warm!). By the time we’ve posted the forms, I’m boiling hot and irritated. Then it’s time to walk to the medieval city! It’s not far, but the heat combined with very strong wind (apparently Carcassonne is well known for being super windy) make it fairly hard going with the baby on my front. When we reach the foot of the cité, I’m already feeling slightly sub-par, and the throngs of people surrounding us are not making things better. The city walls are really impressive, though – the medieval city is perched on a rocky hill, its massive fortifications crowning the top.

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The history of the city is interesting; it was a stronghold of the cathars (Catharism was a sort of Christian sect who believed in two separate Gods – that of the New Testament as a God of good, and that of the Old Testament as a God of evil / Satan; it was popular in the South West of France in the Middle Ages, but persecuted by the Catholic church as heresy) in the thirteenth century. Viewed as a heretic city, it was targeted by a crusade, fell under siege and was given to the dude who led the crusade to rule. He installed an inquisition court there, with all the joyous results you can imagine. In 1240 the inhabitants rioted and were vanquished – the King ordered them to be banished from their city on the hill, but allowed them to settle the other side of the river, and that was the birth of the “ville basse”. Over the centuries, the new city actually fared much better economically than the fortified one, until the medieval fortress city was almost a ruin, a shell of itself. In the nineteenth century the French became suddenly more enthusiastic about preserving their cultural heritage, and a vast salvaging operation was launched under the leadership of architect Viollet-le-Duc, a guy who made his name with several major restoration projects of medieval bits all over France. He is known for restoring major French monuments including the Mont-Saint-Michel and Notre-Dame-de-Paris; but his name is also associated with somewhat controversial visions of “restoration”, in that he kind of rebuilt stuff according to his interpretation of how they should look, rather than with scrupulous accuracy. Nevertheless, the restoration of Carcassonne is pretty epic, and the city is magnificent to behold.

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However, as we climb the hill, cross a drawbridge into the fortified city and find ourselves immediately assaulted by tourist tack all over the street, I feel like I need an immediate break, so we sit down for a drink under some imposing stone walls as we watch the incessant flow of tourists go by.  I feel bad being in such a bad mood, poor Heather is just trying to enjoy the sights, but the thought of staying here for three more hours in the heat and crowd before we can contemplate dinner is making me sad. We compromise with a stroll through the streets, and a plan to return to the cité tomorrow closer to the evening – for tonight though, we’ll have dinner in the ville basse. We have a gander inside the medieval church, we wander all over the little streets, and we enjoy a great slow descent through a long staircase going down over the hillside through the layers of fortifications. We are unfortunately accompanied by a family who have made the fatal mistake of purchasing a “medieval calling horn” for their children, who are blowing it continuously (you can tell it was the grandmother who did the deed, and her son-in-law follows far behind gritting his teeth and glaring at her the whole time).

Zaza is awoken from her nap by the medieval horn, too, and that is never good. She is grumpy, and her mood is not improving. We end up having dinner on the main square in the ville basse, Place Carnot, a lovely tree-line d space with little cafes and restaurants; but the going is hard with a grumpy baby, and our little family meal consists mostly of one of us walking Eliza around outside and waving through the restaurant window at the other one who’s trying to finish her food alone so she can take her turn. Not the most successful evening ever.

The next day we take th morning easy. It’s Saturday, so it’s market day on Place Carnot, and Hev is suitably excited, so we have a lovely time checking out all the stalls and buying our breakfast / lunch. The strawberries are unbelievably pricy! But we somehow end up buying two punnets anyway after a stall holder makes us taste his production, a variety called ruby of something, which is honestly the best strawberry I’ve had in my life. We are trying to recreate a salad which Hev had at a restaurant in Pitigliano: strawberry and mint salad with ricotta. There is no ricotta to be found anywhere (although many cheese shops are visited), but we find a local equivalent, and finally we return home with our arms laden with produce and a very asleep baby: it’s hard work looking at a market!

In the afternoon, I take a cabin-fevered Zaza for a stroll along the Canal du Midi, the canal between Toulouse and the Mediterranean; it’s very hot, it’s very windy, and people keep looking at me weird for walking my baby in this weather – but they don’t know the wrath of the cooped up Zaza, clearly. She’s having a blast. There are ducks, there are people fishing, it’s all brilliant.

After a while we turn back, and I spot a pile of “nomad books”, these books that people leave lying around to be taken, read and then left somewhere else to circulate. I pick up a 1970s copy of the Hobbit, settle down on the grass near the water and start reading it to Zaza. She’s not feeling it, though. Her eyes are on a man wearing an orange djellaba, who is smiling at her from afar; he has one plastic bag with him and looks a bit worse for wear. He approaches us smiling, and I smile back; he settles on the grass about twenty feet from us and I’m keeping an eye on him as I read. Suddenly as I’m turning a page, I see something being placed in the grass on Zaza’s lap! It takes me completely by surprise and I jump with a little startled noise; the guy jumps back at the noise, then I discover that he’s given Zaza the contents of his bag: a plait of garlic gloves, and a small phial of perfume with Arabic writing. As I glance up I see that he’s stepped back to his spot where he’s now sitting with his empty bag. I get up and go to him to explain that he doesn’t need to give us his things. His speech is very garbled and he’s struggling with French, but he tells me his name is Miloud; we shake hands and I introduce myself and Eliza, he seems very moved by her and keeps putting his hand over her head and kissing his fingers, grinning. Suddenly, he starts pulling at his clothes and I prepare to make a hasty retreat – but he only wants to show me a small handmade tattoo on his shoulder; it’s a heart with Arabic text inside, “Zara”, he says, his daughter. He repeats the name, touches the heart and kisses his fingers. He looks so sad I feel tearful. I ask him how old she is but he doesn’t understand. I try again to give him back his garlic, I explain we’re driving, we’re not likely to use it – I don’t want it really but I don’t want to be rude. He asks if I believe in God, I say no, unsure what’s going to happen now. He shrugs and smiles, points up and then kisses his fingers. He tells me he’ll take the garlic but I must keep the perfume. He says he’s sorry I stopped reading, so I read a bit more for him, and then I give him the book and he’s smiling a lot, it’s the best possible destination I can think of for this nomadic book. Eliza and I leave Miloud stroking the book and kissing his fingers. I regret not taking a picture with him, but I remember his kind face and that will do.

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Reunited with Heather, in the evening we return to the cité – the light is golden and although the wind is still strong, our spirits are high. There are much fewer people today, we stroll around buying souvenirs for our friends and family, and distractedly looking out for a restaurant. A beautiful terrace catches our eye and we ask for a table; they don’t have one… But seeing our disappointment they rejig things a bit and find us a spot! We enjoy a delicious dinner of cassoulet (had to be done! It’s the regional dish, pork sausages, confit duck in butter beans cooked in duck fat – not good for your wasteline) and farm chicken, followed by the most spectacular pudding: a dark chocolate sphere which is melted away by pouring hot chocolate sauce on it to reveal a core of berries. AMAZING.

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First trial of official “grown up baby” position

On the way back from the cité, as we’re crossing the wide boulevard near our accommodation, a car which was stopped at a garage on our side of the road randomly starts speeding towards me, and before I have time to compute what’s happening, it’s hit me! I sort of half squat instinctively for impact (thanks, roller derby!) and it hits me square across both knees before stopping, thankfully without hitting Heather who’s carrying the baby, or knocking me down! The guy parks his car on the side as we walk off, and he runs behind us offering apologies and babbling how he hadn’t seen us and are we okay, and do we need driving anywhere; the dude is so shaken by having hit me with his car that I end up having to pat him on the back and make sure he’s okay!

Well, Carcassonne, you’ve been a place of many emotions.

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Orange

We’re returning to familiar territory as we drive West through Provence. It’s now later in the year, so the crops have grown and the orchards and fields seem full with life and crops. I’m reminded how beautiful and fertile the area seems and am excited about our next destination. Orange was on my list on our first go through the region, for its large Roman theatre and its pretty, old town which seemed a good, manageable size for an overnight stay. We didn’t quite make it though and I’ve campaigned reasonably heavily to stop off on our way through to Carcassonne now.

We arrive in blazing sunshine, discover free parking just on the edge of the city and, feeling fortunate, find out that free parking isn’t our only arrival discovery…Eliza’s done a poonami on route. So, here we are, first impressions of Orange, on our knees, Eliza laying on a change mat in the only slither of shade we could find near the car, with poo up to her armpits and all down one leg- ah, nothing like that to immediately endear you to a place!

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With a clean baby and a couple of hours to spare before hotel check in, we decide to get some lunch  and have a bit of an explore. I’ve read that there’s a large market in Rue de la Republique and spotted some of the stalls on the way in, so I lead us in that direction, Marie meanwhile making it clear that she needs the toilet so we need to stop as soon as we see somewhere suitable.

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This is the tale of no markets- despite our best efforts and arriving about an hour earlier than our arrival in Die the day before, we are totally out of luck and arrive to stalls closing and vans manoeuvering through the centre. For the second day in a row, we choose a lunch spot on a nice looking terrace right in the middle of all the market clear up- lovely! Haha ….oh well….the waitress is kind of rude too. The salads are good though and Eliza seems happy with the attention from other diners.

From our central lunch spot we head south, toward the Roman theatre, noticing the closed shops on the way through, due to it being afternoon siesta time. The whole centre is pedestrianised and it’s got its charm, though not quite as oldy-worldy as nearby Arles, so it’s not exactly as I’d expected.

As we approach the edge of the town, the Roman theatre looms ahead of us. Unlike any I’ve seen, the back wall is fully intact and it is this, as the outer street facing wall, that we see first. Tall and solid in a yellow stone, it’s totally different to anything I’ve seen before. I’m excited to get inside and after a 5 minute delay waiting for an elderly American lady to demonstrate over and over again to her husband Larry how to use the ticket barrier, we’re in. So is Larry, I’m sure you’re pleased to know!

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We have been given audio guides which, as usual, are quickly abandoned, in favour of just having a good look around. It’s gorgeous and it’s still used- in fact there are people setting up the stage for a show that very evening. Unlike other used theatres, the equipment fits in well with the Roman remains, adding to the atmosphere, rather than taking from it. Most of the seats have been restored in stone, rather than replaced with wooden and metal benches, so it’s looking much like it would have in Roman times, which is great. I’m excited, but it’s also baking hot so carrying Eliza up the steps in the sling is quite a challenge- it happens with a few well-placed pauses to turn around and take it all in. The wall behind the stage still has remnants of the columns and other decorations that would have once been there and in the centre of the wall is a large statue of Augustus, standing above the performance.

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We have a nice, cooling walk through the old tunnels leading between the seating once we reach the top, and then slowly descend the very steep staircase, while a tour group of elderly French women express concern at Eliza’s fair skin being out in the sun (under a sun umbrella and covered in factor 50 baby suncream).

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By the time we’re back at the entrance I’m completely boiling and hopeful that the museum visit that is included in the ticket will be nicely air conditioned to cool us down. As we cross the road I have a longing look toward the ice cream parlour opposite and we agree that it will be a great stop after the museum. The museum is NOT air conditioned…the tiled floor is cool though so whilst I resist the temptation to strip off and starfish on the floor, I can’t help but spot a seat in the corner and subtly remove my sandals to cool my feet on the floor. This helps, a little, and suddenly I can take more interest in the things around me, noticing some of the mosaics found locally and some of the finer detailed decorations from the theatre, which are now housed in the neighbouring museum to help conserve them.

The ice cream that follows is nothing short of delicious and re-energises us for the hotel hunt. Once found, we cool ourselves with cold showers and flop around in the cool room for the rest of the afternoon, hoping things will cool down outside meanwhile. Eliza takes the opportunity to catch up on some sleep.

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Out for an evening stroll and we decide Orange is pretty at night, with the front of the theatre illuminated and pretty coloured houses lining the street opposite. After several months of French and Italian food, we decide to mix it up a little and sit down at the terrace of a Thai and Vietnamese restaurant with a view of the theatre. What follows is a welcome and delicious meal, with Eliza well entertained by the dog at the next table. The only downside is that we appear to be sat on the cruising road of choice and the local “boy racer” equivalent seems to be really noisy off road bikes that circle round and round, startling Eliza on every trip, without any girls hanging out nearby to impress.

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All in all, a lovely stay in Orange.

Die, Die My Darling

We’ve left the Alps! There’s a definite feeling of “going home” and it feels lovely, fuzzy and warm. That doesn’t mean that great things are over on the way, though. We stop over in Die, at the foot of the Vercors massif, for an eminently great reason: we love the wine that’s produced here! Clairette de Die is a very light, slightly sweet fizzy white and Heather has quite the passion for it, so it seems like a fitting stop. To vary the pleasures, I have booked us for one night into a “glamping” tent – when we arrive, we find ourselves in the cutest, green and tree-filled little municipal campsite in a village on the road to Die, in which have been erected a handful of fancy canvas tents with little wooden terraces and shaded “patios” out the front. Ours has two double beds, a fridge, a little fabric wardrobe, an electric heater and a bunch of novels and art magazines on the bedside tables.

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Small French children are running around everywhere screeching in a traditional game of girls vs boys – the girls’ castle, the disabled loo, is under siege, but they have taken a prisoner and we can hear him scream as we change Zaza at a nearby cubicle – who knows what’s happening to the poor kid in there. He emerges later looking rumpled but grinning, having escaped through the use of copious amounts of water, judging by the state of the captors.

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In the village is one bar/restaurant, one grocery store and a beautiful view out towards the Vercors mountains and their great rugged cliffs and plateaus (apparently even if you nick a French word to use it in the English language, you neglect to finish it with the appropriate French ending – which is plateaux, if you were wondering). After arriving, we decide that it’s too relaxing a setting to go anywhere, so we mooch around playing in the grass, and in the hammock, while we sip cold Clairette from the grocery store. It’s so nice that we book another night straight away.

In the evening we enjoy a dish of a local specialty, the ravioles, tiny ravioli-like fresh pasta filled with a cheese and parsley cream, which I fail to cook properly on the little camping gas stove, but still taste nice, accompanied with salad and more Clairette. The sunset in the background paints the Vercors a deepening shade of orange, we can hear crickets and frogs, then slowly a soft blue and balmy night falls as we walk Eliza round and round the campsite to send her to sleep.

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This is one of the best night’s sleep we get in ages! Zaza and Heather enjoy a very long lie-in while I happily read in the hammock with a cup of tea. Total happiness.

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Morning croissants and Zaza’s nap taken care of, we move tents (the campsite is set to get busier today as it’s the start of a long weekend for the French) to a similarly lovely one next to it, before setting off for the little town of Die a few kilometres from us. It’s the very very end of the market, to the despair of Heather who still manages to spring forward like a devil out of a box and purchase apple juice and more fresh ravioles with goat’s cheese and honey in them. It’s blisteringly hot today, so we’re slinking in the shadows close to houses and trees with Zaza who’s grumpy about the heat. The main square under the church, where a veritable army of maintenance dudes are now at work clearing the remnants of the market, is lined with little cafes and restaurants with shaded terraces, so we sit down and I enjoy a big plate of salad with ravioles and cheese (I do really love ravioles, guys, what of it?) while reflecting yet again about how lucky we are.

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We take a short walk through the town as it is awakening from siesta time – Heather is on the prowl for what she calls “hippie trousers” to replace the ones she killed by falling in Agerola, so we’re going in and then out of many shops without success. There is one shop which picks my interest, with nice ceramics and some fabric lampshades… but when I turn the items over to check the price I put them back down as if they burned, because they are SO expensive. Unprepared to spend fourty pounds on a single mug, we make our way back to the car; the town is now lively, with an atmosphere of calm but not too stuffy, quite fun and arty too, and a good mix of people young and older. We think that living here would probably be quite pleasant.

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Back at the car, we’re now on the hunt for a particular Clairette vineyard recommended by my parents in a village nearby – we don’t remember its name, only the name of the village, but somehow manage to pick the right one among the dozens that line the road! We enjoy a nice extensive tasting, and of course leave with a case of Clairette, some olive oil, and a couple of presents for parents, as well as some fizz glasses for the house! The car is now reaching critical levels of rammed again.

Because it’s so hot, we’re quite keen to get in the river – on the Clairette lady’s advice we drive a few hundred metres away where a path snakes down under a high road bridge to the Drome River, a great blue tree-lined ribbon. There are “beaches” of white stones and we set up under a straggly tree, strip to our swimming costumes (apart from Zaza who strips to no costume at all) and gingerly put our toes in – it’s cool but delightful! Zaza gets to splash with her feet, widening her eyes when her bum touches the cool water, then splashing harder! But it’s too cold for a long swim for this baby, so we take turn entertaining her on the riverbank and swimming in the river, splashing upstream before letting ourselves be carried back down by the strong current. It’s great fun, so much so that Hev cannot bring herself to stop, so I take the baby for a little stroll on the path above while my wife plays in the water to her heart’s content.

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Back at the campsite it’s time to fry the ravioles, make more salad, open more Clairette, and enjoy another lovely al fresco evening (before you’re too horrified at our wine consumption, please note that Clairette is twice weaker than the weakest red wine, it’s more like the alcool content of beer). In the morning, we pack up regretfully before setting off for our next stop, the Roman ruin-filled Orange down in Provence.

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Les Alpes

It truly is a magnificent drive and I’m 100% converted now, who knew snow topped mountains could be sunny and warm? I’d always thought it was a choice between pretty but cold mountains or a sunny holiday by the sea- turns out you can have a great time in sunny, warm, beautiful snow topped mountains and pretty little lakes.

Our arrival in Villars d’Arene begins with a wander round the village with all our bags to find ‘base camp’. There is nowhere with this title and we eventually relent and ask someone, showing them a photo of the place. Another local is called over to consult and we are then led to our home, where the neighbour lets us in. It’s a pretty village with a central square with a restaurant, local shop, a (closed and falling down) large church and a fountain in the centre. The square seems to be patrolled by a large St Bernard (or, Beethoven dog if you’re my generation) who is quite happily wandering around, helping himself to the water from the fountain.

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Our hosts are up in the mountains for the day, so we settle in and await their arrival, noticing how all the shoes are designed for mountain use and spotting a wide selection of skis and ski boots on the first floor. They’re lovely- if our last place was like staying with family, this is like staying with friends. A couple a similar age to us, who spend the evenings having drinks with their neighbours in the front garden. It’s great, and we feel welcomed and included throughout, enjoying a takeaway pizza and some wine with them on the first night and then sharing homemade soup and a salad on the second (we made a dish each). It’s also a perfect place for me to get back into French, as the guy also speaks English and their speech is slower than Marie’s so easier to follow. I don’t get it all, but am pleased to recognise several words in every sentence and know the gist of what they’re talking about some of the time. It’s a pleasant surprise that, after a month in Italy, I’m finding it much easier to speak and understand on this arrival in France than I did at our first arrival in France, two months ago. It’s still frustrating though as I’d hoped to be almost fluent by this point!

Unfortunately Eliza has one of her worst nights yet, screaming excitedly all evening and then crying inconsolably in the night- Marie even has to get dressed and take her for a walk outside to calm her down as nothing is working. It’s a bit of a mystery but our best guess (from Google) is too much dairy as the pizzas were pretty loaded with cheese. It’s pretty bad timing as this is the first time we’ve done AirBnB as a room in someone’s house rather than having an apartment to ourselves and they both have work the next day.

 

We awake to what appears to be an empty house. In a break from tradition, I take Eliza to the little shop to get breakfast and a picnic for later while Marie has a bit of a break at home and Eliza is suitably adored by the shop owner and another customer. We enjoy breakfast on the patio and a little later, the female host comes down the stairs with a sore throat and cold and is very polite about Eliza’s crying in the night, saying she thinks she only heard her because she was awake anyway with a sore throat. As we’re packing up ready to go on a walk, the male host pops home on his lunch break and says we haven’t kept him up in the night. Phew! He lends us a hiking map and his backpack for our picnic and we follow his recommendation to find a local lake.

It’s a very short but windy drive just outside the village and then up a hill. We’re climbing up level with the tops of the surrounding snow topped mountains and it’s completely beautiful. Grassy banks on our side and snow covered rock in every direction. Aside from one local guy on the way to his house and one person all kitted out in mountain hiking gear, we see no one on our way and feel excited about having the place to ourselves.

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The walk up to the lake is quite windy, so we do our best to shield Eliza’s ears, covering her with a hood and then putting our hands on top. It’s kind of hard to believe how beautiful it is around us, and also that we’re surrounded by snow in shorts and tshirts!

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Initially, for me, the lake isn’t as ‘wow’ as I’d hoped, as we reach it at the same level as the water. However, a short walk around it puts us slightly above it and then it’s really gorgeous with clear blue-green water and these weird seaweed sticks, standing vertical in the lake. We can see little fish swimming about and we settle ourselves on a bank for a nice picnic, Eliza also joining in with her meal.

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After lunch we decide to finish our tour of the lack, climbing across some of the little streams going in to the lake as we make our way around, with cute little flowers by our feet. Marie spots two eagles overhead (I miss them) and has her eyes peeled everywhere for marmots, I’ve no idea what they are, except ‘furry things’ by Marie’s description. She tells me that throughout her childhood she’s been searching to see one in the wild, looking for them whenever they were in the mountains, but has never managed to see one.

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All of a sudden I spot a furry shape moving down off a rock ‘Oh! There! Is that one?’

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It is! We move closer, silently pleading with Eliza to keep quiet…she doesn’t, but that doesn’t seem to bother it. We watch it go from one den to another, having a good munch on the way, it looks so soft and fluffy and pretty relaxed.

I’m fixated on the one marmot, but meanwhile Marie is scanning the area and spots two more on the slope ahead of us. We look closer and spot loads of den entrances up and down the slope. Our original marmot stops to stare at the other one for a while and then carries on with its business. We decide to spend a while watching them, imagining what it’s like for BBC wildlife documentary cameramen and relishing in this treat alone on the mountainside.

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Eventually we decide to carry on, squelching through marshy land back to the path to the car. Our next stop is La Grave, the pretty village we were initially trying to stay in. From our viewpoint we can see it at the bottom of the valley below us and I both want to stay by the pretty nature things all day and want to go and explore the village.

It’s the village where our host works as a primary school teacher and it’s afternoon playtime when we arrive. The village is small and the village school is tiny, with one class for 3 years of children. It’s an off season ski resort so the pretty shops I was hoping for are hard to find and then closed. The village itself has pretty stone houses and narrow, windy streets to explore. Eliza is asleep so we push her around in the buggy and decide to stop for a drink once we do find an open bar, enjoying a pretty mountain view from the terrace.

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From here, we head back, arriving in time for after work aperitifs on the patio. We catch up with the  blog a bit and Eliza falls in love with a giant yellow beanbag- so much so that we repurpose it into a bed base for the night. We have a lovely dinner of salad and soup with our hosts and a much better night’s sleep.

Our sleep is so good that we sleep in the next morning…oh and also because 5am-8am were not really sleep times for Eliza. Our breakfast is so late that as we’re finishing it off, our hosts sit down to lunch! With fond farewells we’re off on our travels to Die, home of the Clairette de Die wine that I completely adore.

As for the Alps, I’ve completely loved them, so much more than I imagined (I was pretty much just humouring Marie’s love of mountains when we set out to stay in the Alps for a couple of days). I can’t wait to come back and explore the region more.