Friday, 4 April 2014

36-hour flying visit to France

After nearly two years, it was finally time for me to go back to Cathy's house in Magnac-Laval in the Limousin. Cathy had already booked a quick trip to check on the house before the start of the summer rental season but it had initially looked like I wouldn't be able to join her due to work commitments. That turned out not to be the case so I grabbed myself some cheapy Ryanair flights and looked forward to a brief sojourn one of my favourite places in the world.

We arrived at Limoges airport at 4pm on Sunday and went to pick up the hire car. Because it was such a short trip, we had decided not to fork out for an extra driver but the very sweet lady behind the counter heard us talking about that, peered at Cathy's driving licence and said "It's your birthday in a few days. I offer you a present - the extra driver for no extra money"! Fortunately, I'd taken my driving licence so I was added to the paperwork and we were off, in a very shiny new Renault Clio. Well, we were off after we'd worked out how to actually start it. It was so new that it had a smartcard and a Start/Stop button instead of a key. However, it took us a while to work out that it was impossible to start the engine unless the car was in neutral and the footbrake was depressed!

By 6pm we were at the lovely Étoile de Mer. The village was completely silent and deserted, just as we expected on a Sunday. We sorted out a few things in the house and then went for our requisite constitutional round the village. Very little, if anything, had changed. All was quiet which backed up our suspicion that we would have to go further afield to find any dinner. We drove to Le Dorat where a restaurant we had been to before was open but seemed to have doubled its prices so we carried on to Bellac, convinced that even on a Sunday evening in March, there would be somewhere open for food! We were wrong. Well, almost wrong. Seemingly, the youth of Bellac are responsible for just one place staying open on a Sunday evening - a kebab shop (Matine Kebab, 9 Place de Palais, Bellac)! Until now, I had managed to avoid crossing the threshold of a kebab shop even once in my entire life but I have now broken my duck. Back home, we tucked into our enormous toasted feta panini and chips, washed down with the only alcohol in the house - vodka! It was, given our long day of travelling and what felt like an even longer search for food, absolutely delicious!

Tuesday dawned bright and sunny, neither of us having been awoken by the 7am church bells. We wandered to the supermarket to stock up on the small amount of food (yet alarmingly large amount of alcohol) we needed for the next 24 hours, then headed to Chez NouNou for breakfast and WiFi. Well, in my case, just breakfast. I have to say it does frustrate me that my (by no means cheap) iPhone regularly fails dismally to connect with free WiFi, especially abroad. Anyway, a lovely croissant, butter and jam filled a hole and we headed back to the house for a few housekeeping jobs and then off we went into the sunshine. First we went to the lovely Pont Gothique, between Le Dorat and Bellac, which was one of our early discoveries on our very first trip in 2004. Our standard delicious picnic lunch of Emmenthal-stuffed baguette moulée and (perfect) cheap greasy crisps set us up very nicely for the next part of our afternoon.

We drove to Roumilhac, a tiny winding village where the only people we encountered were a small group of farmers standing in the road staring at us as if we had just landed from outer space. The ensuing 7km walk made for one of the nicest days I've had for a long time. We had struck gold with the weather. We had blue sky and 25 degrees all day, with not a cloud to be seen. Our walk took us through tiny villages, along the banks of the Gartempe, over wooden and stone bridges, under a huge but now unused viaduct, up hills, down slopes, past a disused railway station and finally, back to Roumilhac. It was a wonderful, relaxing three hours during which the only sounds were birdsong, the rushing of the river, the snort of a wild boar (or so we thought - it turned out to be a crow!), the occasional dog barking and the sound of our own voices. I forget just how tranquil this part of the world is until I get back there.

Once we'd finished our walk, we had planned to head to a local lake to lounge on the sand in the evening sun. However, just a couple of miles outside Roumilhac, at Balledent, we stumbled across an enticing little café, Chez Isa - the front was fairly unprepossessing, it just faced the small track we had driven up. However, sneaking a peek round the side of the building revealed a rear terrace on stilts which was flooded with sunlight and overlooked the river. The lake idea was discarded and we ventured in to the café and out onto the terrace. It was such a beautiful spot, a real sun trap and, for a little while, we were the only customers. A cold drink, comfy outdoor seating and a chat with the very friendly owners made the next hour or so fly by. Eventually, we had to concede that it was time to head home and make some dinner. Magnac-Laval on a Monday evening is no busier than a Sunday! We rustled up a ginormous pan of pasta and veggie sauce and then opened a bottle of fizz to celebrate the fact that Cathy has owned this little slice of paradise for ten years!!! The first couple of Kir Royales slipped down far too easily so we moved on to normal fizz and then (!) on to 2 bottles of wine! It was probably just as well that we had enough pasta for half a dozen people to soak up all that booze. We played very silly board games, giggled a lot and sang along with the well-used 80s CDs (whilst noting which would go well for a forthcoming karaoke night in Brighton). At just gone midnight, despite the fact that we had learnt on our day of arrival that there had been a murder just down the road in January, and no-one had been caught, we decided to go stargazing. It was a beautifully clear night and we wandered over towards the very dark streets at the back of the hospital. We had our fill of constellations (no shooting stars though) and wended our way back home, just possibly singing a few 80s numbers a little too loud - bloody Brits abroad, eh?!

We crashed out as soon as we got home and were rudely awakened by our alarms the next morning, a bit too early! We completed the rest of the tidying and cleaning of the house, popped out to grab a couple of little pressies, dropped the recycling off and then drove over to see a friend of Cathy's. She lives in a lovely house with a huge garden and we spent a nice hour or so there, chatting and drinking tea before having to face the fact that it was time to head to the airport and go home. We had a brief fright when Cathy's sister texted her to say she hoped that the French Air Traffic Control strike wasn't causing any problems with our return. Er, strike?! What strike?! It was true, but fortunately, it was only hitting Paris, Marseilles and a couple of airports on the south coast apparently. So we headed off to Poitiers airport which, should you ever go there, has pretty dreadful signposting both to the airport and to the car hire dropoff. Still, we made it in time and before we knew it, we were back at Stansted and heading home.

It felt like we'd been away for a week. It's amazing how relaxing just a couple of days away from home can be, and how much we always manage to fit in to such a short space of time. I'm looking forward to my next visit, whenever that might be.

My photos are HERE