The Return Questions – Harriet

Best bit?

What an impossible question.  And I set the questions….

Pre-Covid my favourite city was Budapest. I loved its slightly seedy, gritty grandeur.  I could have happily visited the Szchenyi baths over and over again.  We stayed in a great flat too.  

But in terms of what we did,  our graffiti wins hands down. I suspect I will not be the only person to pick that.  We,  together,  created something of which we were all, rightly, proud. I’m so pleased we did it. 

In St Pierre the best bit were the people.  We have made some real friends.  

And afterwards, if I must pick something, it would be a beach. But which one is too hard to say.

Worst bit?

Brussels.  It wasn’t Brussels’ fault. we did and saw lots of great things there, but a lot of the first month of the trip was a bit of an emotional rollercoaster of adjustment for all of us. There was a moment in Brussels when I really thought that we, as a family, might not survive this trip. That sounds like it was Ben and me fighting: it wasn’t.  We realised that the children and we had very different expectations and needs.  I think we have,  gradually,  found ways to accommodate each other,  but Brussels was definitely the low point.  Covid aside,  obviously. 

How have you changed?

I think I have become more relaxed about lots of little things. I’m happier to let the children put a packet of marshmallows in the supermarket trolley, or use their phones in the car.  I think I, hormones permitting,  catastrophise less and generally I feel that dread, anxious, weight in my chest less often. It hasn’t gone altogether,  but I think it is better.  Whether that will last is a different question.

It may or may not be related but for the first time in my life I have strong and healthy fingernails.

I’m fitter, too. 

Have we changed as a family and if so how?

I think we have learned to get on better, even if it doesn’t always feel like it. I think Ben and I have learned (or perhaps just had time) to listen more. That has felt like a real privilege. I think we just know each other better than we did.

What are you most looking forward to about being home?

The people.  And my kitchen.  

I’m excited,  but daunted, about starting my new master’s course too.

Is there anything you’re not looking forward to?

Erm. Pretty much everything else.  The day to day relentless routine and the constant pressure to keep up and keep everyone happy.  Or just in the right place at the right time. 

Will we ever get to Tokyo? When? Do you want to?

I really,  really,  hope so.  I’d love to think we will make it for the Olympics next Summer. That is certainly the aim,  but depends on so many factors,  over most of which we have very little control. 

How do you feel about what Covid did to our trip?

We’ve talked before about how we have passed through the many stages of grief when it comes to our long-held plans.  I think at the moment,  in France, I’m at acceptance.  I suspect though that there is still quite a bit of denial in there. I think that may come crashing down on me when we are home and I am faced with the unchangeable truth that we really didn’t fulfil our dream. 

Best baked treat?

Kouign-amann. If I lived in Brittany I’d be the size of a house.

I might have to find a recipe.

Worst/best thing about lockdown

Perhaps oddly, I quite enjoyed the limited structure and routine of proper lockdown. The days and weeks went very quickly. The daily walks in particular were a huge benefit to body and mind.

Favourite thing you have acquired on the trip. 

Either my stripey jumper or my flamingo scarf.

The most useful though were the trousers and jacket Ben made me buy in Brussels. Both have been invaluable.

Have you lost anything? If so, what?

My lovely sunglasses. Now polluting the Atlantic Ocean. Still cross with myself about that.

Biggest regret of stuff we didn’t do.

Uzbekistan. I was first invited there over twenty years ago and I still haven’t got there. It looks so amazing and I was so excited finally to be on our way. And Mongolia. We had (and still have) an amazing-sounding experience booked there. I wish we had got to do that.

But actually, really, any of the part East of the Urals…

What did you bring (or buy) that has been unexpectedly useful?

My dress. I bought it on a whim from a closing down shop in Kelso and I never intended to take it with me,  but having a packable,  un-creaseable dress has been hugely useful.  I won’t travel without one again. 

What did you bring that you haven’t used at all?

Any of the kit for epic travels. And my travel coffee mug.

How do you feel now?

This week has been very strange. We got back on Friday lunchtime and by Sunday morning I was naming school uniform. It feels as though we have got back to what passes as normal frighteningly quickly.

I thought I would feel, and be, different. I thought I would come back having had a life changing experience. I thought being back would be very difficult as a result.

Instead I feel much more as though we have just returned from a holiday, in that way that you forget so quickly: before the suitcases are unpacked and the laundry put away you are back into home mode and the holiday feels months ago. That’s normal after two weeks, but I didn’t expect it after six months.

But I think I have changed too. I am, still, more relaxed and I am, which I never was before, more spontaneous – I went to the beach on Tuesday at no notice leaving the to do list undone. I’d never have done that before the trip. Whether any of that will survive the return to work I don’t know, but it’s good while it lasts.

Week 26 (France 21 – Paris, Angres and home)

Where were we?

We arrived in Paris last Saturday and spent three days exploring. Then on to Angres, just south of Lille for a night before spending our last day driving through Belgium and most of the Netherlands. A night on a ferry and this is the penultimate sentence we will write of this post. We are back in Scotland… nine miles to go.

Where should we have been?

Even back in January, in those almost unimaginable pre-Covid days, we had plans for this week. We were to head north from Atami, to Matsumoto, and hopefully from there to see some monkeys. Ben’s brother was also planning to come to the Olympics and as a final fling, all eleven of us were going to climb Mount Fuji. We should have summited early on Wednesday morning and spent a night nearby before heading back to Tokyo and the airport for our flight home very late on Friday.

We will get here one day.

We should have got back to London at lunchtime on Saturday and the plan was to get a train – overland trip, remember – back to Berwick-upon-Tweed. We were hoping someone might pick us up and take us home…

The parallel worlds of our trip have become multiple worlds too. There’s another, also Covid-19 infected, world where we spent our last night in Ghent, eating waffles and wandering the streets. However, with cases rising in Belgium and restrictions tightened, we cancelled that booking last week and stayed in France instead. With the announcement last night that the UK government has taken Belgium off the “no-quarantine” list, that turns out to be a very good decision.

What did we actually do?

Paris

Where do you start in Paris? Silly question. You go to the Eiffel Tower. It’s so iconic it’s got an emoji 🗼.

So we did. Ever mindful of the budget, and after lots of practice climbing hills and bell towers, we saved ourselves €30 and got the stairs to the second floor.

After that, the lift is the only option (a good thing), so up we went. It’s one of the most famous buildings, and views, in the worlds, but despite that, it didn’t disappoint: Paris spread out below us.

Then down, and down, and underground. Lucy had read about the Paris Catacombs and asked to visit. There was something rather pleasing about visiting Paris’ touristic high and low points in one day.

We had read the brief history, but nonetheless didn’t really know what to expect: in the late 18th and early 19th century, Paris’ cemeteries, which had been used since the 3rd century, became overfull, and faced with a threat to public health, the authorities decided to move the bodies, all the bodies, into a series of disused quarries that were then outside the city limits.

You descend a spiral staircase and then walk for what feels like a very long time through a series of gloomy subterranean tunnels before coming into an open space. There should be a series of information panels, but they were all covered up to prevent visitors standing around too long, breathing in this enclosed space.

So you enter through a door, into the empire of death:

And there are bones. Wall and walls and endless corridors of skulls and femurs, neatly, sometimes artfully, arranged and grinning at you.

It is estimated that there are more than six million (six million) people here, all jumbled up, with all the other bones piled behind the tidy structures. Some of them will be in the region of 1800 years old.

It is the most extraordinary, quiet and eerie place. Not scary as such, but an inescapable reminder of the brevity of life and very hard to forget.

Our second day in Paris took us to the Louvre, recently reopened with limited visitor numbers.

The Louvre is the biggest art collection and most visited museum in the world. It’s thus a little daunting (and this may explain why Harriet, depsite having briefly lived in Paris, had never actually been inside). Any visit, particularly one with children, can barely scratch the surface.

We gave ourselves a time limit (no more than an hour before we break for a coffee) and a target (Sophie wanted to see the Crown Jewels) and dived in.

Highlights for us: the Raft of the Medusa (Gericault), the Davids and Delacroix, the extraordinary building itself and some cheeky Roman ducks.

If you look up Paris tourist advice on line, much of it is about beating the queues. Of course this is where Covid-19 has been our friend. There were queues at the Louvre, and social distancing seems really to have been forgotten in many cases, despite prominent signage, but we had no issues in getting into anything, and once in, never felt over-crowded. (Although we did draw the line at standing in the line to look at that painting of Lisa Gheradini)

The Louvre is, bear with us on this, a bit like Las Vegas: having got you in, they are reluctant to let you go. It took us a good twenty minutes of increasingly hot wandering before we were finally spat out into the blessed cool and shade of the Tuileries gardens for our sandwiches.

Thus refreshed we went from the massive to to the tiny by visiting the Orangerie. At the best of times, this is a small gallery, but now, under renovation, it has only eight paintings available for viewing: Monet’s massive Waterlilies murals.

Back in that parallel world, we would have been coming to the end of our time in Japan, and we marked this by introducing the children to sushi, in full conveyor belt style. True to form, Magnus ate nothing, but the girls all tucked in and Lucy, in particular, was definitely a convert to the joys of raw fish.

Oddly, given Paris is one of the world’s great cities, we were slightly at a loss for an idea of how to spend our third day: too hot for a bateau mouche, not cultured enough for the Musée d’Orsay… so we headed first to Montmartre and then to the Marais for a bit of a wander and some Parisian relaxation: eating and shopping.

Sophie delighted us by chosing to come into the Basilica, where we enjoyed the splendid mosaics and were amused to find card payment an option for the votive candles, before we found a lovely shady pavement café and settled down for a good lunch.

In the Marais, we struggled to find the quirky interesting shops we had promised the children, but we eventually satisfied everyone’s end-of-trip needs for presents for friends, a new school bag, the jeans they weren’t allowed to bring with them (and given the amount they’ve all grown this was probably a necessary purchase) and some (more) toy cars.

Roubaix

We have got our packing and leaving routine pretty slick now, and leaving Paris would have been no different were it not for Harriet’s dithering desire for a beautiful cake from the pâtisserie at the end of our road. But we left eventually, with cake, and headed out north and east towards Lille.

We were actually staying in Angres, an hour or so south of Lille, but we couldn’t check in to our new house until 5pm.

Almost the first idea we had written on the Tweed to Tokyo whiteboard, on the kitchen wall in Kelso, was La Piscine at Roubaix, a 19th century swimming pool re-purposed as a gallery and museum.

Despite this it hadn’t made the cut onto our original route, being too far out of the way. This was our opportunity.

True to form some of us liked it better than others, but we all found something to enjoy in its quirky and eclectic collection and in particular the main pool, where the tiled changing rooms are themselves windows to cabinet or tiny galleries in their own right.

Angres

Angres is a not entirely interesting small French town that is home to a reasonably priced AirBnB for six within an hour of the Belgian border.

It is, though, also the nearest town to Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, the French National Memorial and also the location of the Anneau de la Mémoire.

Almost six months ago, we were in Belgium, visiting World War 1 memorials and cemeteries, so maybe it was fitting that this was our last stop of our penultimate day.

The Anneau de la Mémoire was created in 2014 to mark the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the War. It is unlike any of the other memorials we have seen. It records 576,606 names of those who died in this area of France, of all nationalities and all ranks, listed in simple alphabetical order. We looked for, and found, well-known names, but there is nothing to mark them out. They are simply the fallen.

It is no reflection of how extraordinary the memorial is that we did have a small snigger to notice “Sir….” under S and “The Hon.” under T.

The North Sea and the Road Home

Another day of driving for Ben yesterday as we headed straight through Belgium to the North of the Netherlands. We had been a little concerned about the border crossings but they were so seamless that in one case (Belgium into the Netherlands) we blinked and missed it.

The boat, DFDS King Seaways, was waiting for us when we arrived and, after a little frustration when we first boarded, soothed with a drink and a cake, we had an exemplary crossing. The North Sea was bowling green flat, the bunks/double bed comfortable and all the staff charming and efficient.

The sunset (Ben and Harriet) and sunrise (Harriet only) were an extra treat.

The two hours to get through immigration (not helped by being the third last car off the boat), heavy traffic and roadworks were less of a treat, but even through the grimy car windows North Northumberland was as stunning and familiar as ever.

How was it?

Good bits:

Ben: Paris is a great city, and I have loved each of my trips here. This one was over 4 months late, and didn’t involve a trip to the Mongolian Embassy, but it was great to be there. Our Airbnb was possibly the best of all our non-St Pierre accommodation.

I am pleased we went for delicious Sushi, and pleased too that this joins the list of foods (most of) the children will eat.

I was delighted that Sophie joined me for my last TweedtoTokyo run, fetching the car from its parking at Gare d’Austerlitz.

Our journey home from Paris via Angres, then through Belgium (holding our breath!) and then on to the Amsterdam-Newcastle ferry has been straightforward and as good as it can be, particularly the beautiful flat calm sea at sunset.

The whole trip has been a fantastic privilege. Thank you to everyone who made it so, especially my family, who have been my constant companions, whether they liked it or not, over the last 181 days.

Lucy: I actually quite enjoyed the Catacombs I thought it was really cool. I enjoyed shopping and buying nice things for my friends. The flower ice creams were beautiful and delicious as was some of the sushi. I am glad to be going home.

Sophie: Paris in general was gorgeous but in particular I enjoyed going to Amorino (it’s a ice cream drinks and ice creams in the shape of flowers that’s only in London and France). I found the Louvre interesting although I thought the Mona Lisa was gonna be bigger. My run with daddy was fun. The view from the Eiffel Tower was nice. I am so excited to be home.

Magnus: Going home.

In Paris I liked buying my hotwheels cars. My favourite thing in Paris was the skulls and bones because they were arranged in a cool way.

Aurora: I loved buying my new jeans even though they took ages to find. Going to get sushi was super tasty. I enjoyed shopping for my friends and family and the ice-creams. Going home will be a change but quite fun!

Harriet: It sounds silly to describe the Eiffel Tower as an unexpected pleasure, but it was, in that I wasn’t expecting it to be so pleasurable. The views were astounding and on the sheltered side, even at the top, it was warm and gentle.

Our Paris flat was probably the best we’ve stayed in.

I loved our ferry crossing, particularly watching the sunset with Ben, reflecting on the last six months and pondering the future, as the water reflected turquoise and gold and the dolphins (really) lept.

Bad bits:

Aurora:Not having Duplo and going home!

Harriet: I’m still not sure I entirely get Paris. I worked here for a couple of months when I left school and then, although I had a great time, I thought the city itself was dirty, smelly and full of dog poo. I entirely failed to see what all the fuss was about. It probably didn’t help that it was January. I did like it better this time and I can definitely see that it would be a brilliant place to live but I’m not sure it is my tourist destination of choice.

More generally I have, predictably, had moments this week where I have viewed our (very) imminent return home with dread. Sometimes that has presented as anger, sometimes as frustration, only once, briefly, as tears. I got unreasonably both indecisive and emotional over cake.

After crossing 14 international borders over six months without so much as a queue, the nearly two hours it took us to enter the UK this morning was both predictable and depressing. And that’s before Brexit. It wasn’t the best welcome home we could have wished for.

As Aurora wisely said: if I didn’t have friends [and family] I wouldn’t want to go home at all.

In some ways that’s a good thing.

Sophie: I was very sweaty after my run with daddy. The view from the Eiffel Tower was nice but we have seen lots of views so if I saw it 6 months ago I would have been amazed but it was still cool.

Lucy: I am sad to be stopping our trip.

Ben: There have been times this week when our understandable nervousness about our return has simmered over into bickering, snappiness or just resentful frustration. Our souvenir shopping trip got a bit drifty too.

Paris is eye-wateringly expensive, whether parking, museums, food or delicious patisseries. Delicious cakes and melting credit cards may have loosened the belt this week, but this wasn’t the time for belt tightening – that comes next week.

Magnus: I didn’t like the sushi because the idea of raw fish wrapped in seaweed is just “no thank you”

What did we eat?

Sushi! Not in Japan, but nonetheless Japanese and utterly delicious.

We enjoyed beautiful ice creams from Amorini too. Three times in three days…

And after disappointment and indecision, we finally managed to get some astounding looking pâtisseries from the Cyril Lignac pâtisserie at the end of our road. Even eaten slightly melting in an unattractive rest stop of the side of a Northern French motorway they were as good as they looked.

What’s next?

In the next ten minutes or so we will be home, to the house we love and haven’t seen in six months.

The children go back to school on Tuesday. For Aurora and Sophie this will be the start of their High School career.

Ben, having given up his job to go on the adventure of a lifetime, has to find a new one.

Harriet has three weeks to readjust before going back to work (presumably from home) on 1 September. She is also starting to study (part-time) for a Masters in Law (LLM).

We are still determined, jobs, schools and viruses permitting, to travel overland to Tokyo. We still have our Olympics tickets, now valid for next year.

Where shall we go?

We will not be writing weekly on this blog any more, but we will be documenting some of our re-entry on instagram, so do follow us there if you don’t already. We will be blogging here intermittently too so to be sure of seeing those posts, click the blue subscribe button…

…Tokyo here we come. One day.

Week 25 (France 20 – Brittany, Puy du Fou, Nantes and Le Mans)

Where were we?

This time last week we were in Brittany, with one more coastal day ahead of us.  On Monday we retraced our route south and east, past Nantes to the small town of Mortagne-sur-Sèvre.  This was chosen entirely for its proximity to Puy du Fou, allegedly the world’s best theme park, and where we spent the next three days.  We left Puy du Fou on Thursday and went back to Nantes.  A day and a half and a brief stop in Le Mans later and we are now in Paris.

Where should we have been?

After Hiroshima and the Seto Inland Sea, this should have been our Olympic week.  We had tickets for the judo yesterday and women’s rugby 7’s today.  We should have been based in Atami, on the coast outside Tokyo.  We had hoped to spend a bit of time on the beach too.

What did we actually do?

Mont St Michel

Mont St Michel is an icon, an almost impossible island of layers of buildings rising to a perfect point.   It’s also one of France’s major tourist attractions, with organised parking on the mainland and bookable shuttle buses to and from the island itself.

Our travels seem to have become much less obviously “cultural” since we left St Pierre de Chartreuse and it was in that vein that we decided not to visit the island itself, with its medieval streets and Abbey, but to drive around the bay at high tide and eat our sandwiches overlooking the island as the waters receded.

We did wonder whether the sight of it might inspire the children to want to visit but although there were votes in favour, the thought of the parking guddle and the compulsory masks at all times while on the island was enough to send us heading for St Malo.

The view looking the other way

St Malo

If we had wanted to avoid a guddle of parking (our preferred French phrase is bordel de merde) St Malo was the wrong choice, but happy chance and about 20 minutes of driving round and round eventually found us a space.

We were, therefore, all a bit hot and grumpy when we walked through the imposing walls.  An ice cream later, however, and St Malo began to work its charms on us.

It is set on a spit of land jutting into the English Channel/La Manche and surrounded on all sides by walls.  On the seaward side the high tide line laps at the walls themselves and in a wintry storm the waves crash over into the city.  On a beautiful day in July however, a glorious strand was revealed.  The tide was going out and what had been off-shore islands when we arrived were soon a gentle stroll away across the sand.

We settled down to hunt for worms (none), crabs (five) and other seaside delights. We enjoyed a paddle in our third salty body of water of the trip. (Is there a collective noun for sea/ocean?).  The water bubbles up through the sand and makes excellent moated castles.  Our beastie of the week (despite stiff competition later) was a determined winkle, solemnly trudging across the sand towards the receding sea.  Rumours she was hoping to find a whale for a world trip remain unconfirmed…

Ben heroically undertook to return to the car for swimming things and some of us also enjoyed a dip in the huge lido with its iconic diving platform (although no one was brave enough to take the leap).

One small leap

We had such a good time that it was after 9pm when we got back to Ploërmel.

Josselin and Mortagne-sur-Sèvre

We left Brittany on Monday, stopping first in the nearby town of Josselin. We knew nothing about it, and so its lovely château (sadly closed on Monday mornings) and multi-coloured half-timbered houses were a surprise and a delight.

After a sandwich we we on the road again, broadly following the route of the Loire towards Nantes, and round the delights of its ring road, before heading past vines being farmed on an industrial scale to the small town of Mortagne-sur-Sèvre. 

This was an unexpected treat.  We merely wanted to be near Puy du Fou for an early start the next day, but Mortagne proved (if only to Ben and Harriet – everyone else having opted to stay inside with the WiFi) to be surprisingly interesting and beautiful.  We enjoyed ancient walls, a walking route based around notable local women (including the embroiderer of Princess Grace’s wedding dress, and a counter-revolutionary martyr (not the same person)), lovely riverside gardens and a rare breeds farm.

We finally identified our plant of the week here too. A Persian Silk Tree. We wonder if it would survive in Scotland….

Puy du Fou

Where do we start talking about Puy du Fou? It’s one of craziest, most over the top, most full-on, most jaw-dropping, campest, silliest, most unbelievable and most EPIC places we have ever been.  With a permanent sound track to match.

It is, loosely, historical, although we suspect the professional historian in the family (new book coming out in September: get your copy here) might be horrified at the lack of any subtlety or nuance in how various events are presented.

We did start to notice after a while a recurring theme of traditionalist, Catholic, French victory over evil foreign invaders.  A quick google led us to its founder, Philippe de Villiers, a politician, historian, entrepreneur and author whose closest UK equivalent seems to be Jacob Rees-Mogg.

But if you can put that aside (and we did), the sheer exuberance, effort and excess is extraordinary.  There are 20 separate shows or experiences all based around a different period or event, and using an extraordinary array of actors, animals, special effects, fire, water, music, magic, costume, engineering, artistry, agility, and more.

We are not normally (whatever it may look like from this blog) a theme park sort of family but we had been told that if we were going to come to Puy du Fou we needed more than one day. So we booked into one of the history-themed hotels on site. We could have gone for a Merovingian stilted hut, a Gallo-Roman villa, a medieval citadel or a belle époque chateau (to be honest that one was a bit like a conference centre) but we ended up in the Field of the Cloth of Gold. With loos to match.

It is, of course, all in French, but English maps and daily guides are available and there was a “simultaneous” translated voiceover available on their app for most of the shows. That said, the epic soundtrack and deafening volume made the translation rather hard to hear much of the time and so our children tended to resort to us, which was sometimes fine, and sometimes very hard indeed (the Musketeers show was particularly incomprehensible, in any language).

Generally, too, there was a natural assumption that we would have a basic level of general French historical knowledge. Even though Ben has lived here and Harriet has a degree in French, we didn’t always. We didn’t, for example, know anything about counter-revolution in the Vendée or the ill-fated expedition of Laperouse. But in a way that was a good thing – at what other theme park would you end up discussing Robespierre, the Reign of Terror and the novels of Victor Hugo over lunch with your children?

A few highlights:

The evening show: so good we saw it twice.  The most ridiculous confection of classical music hits, fountains, flying cellos, floating violinists and a lake like a magician’s hat, out of which appeared lights, fire, a piano, a glowing carriage pulled by giant swans, six ballet dancers, a sparkling pagoda, and an entire organ blasting flames from its pipes and played by a man on fire. Bach will never be the same again.

The circus show wowed Magnus, Aurora and Sophie, with gladiators, a man herding geese, a parade of ostriches, a tiger and lions and a chariot race in which one of the chariots lost a wheel and another charioteer ended up dragged behind the traces.

Jacob Rees-Mogg aside, and although the children liked them, the big cats were the one part that made Ben and Harriet very uncomfortable. In 2020 using wild cats (even if all they did was run into the arena and lie down) doesn’t feel entirely appropriate. The lionesses in particular looked very cowed by their handler.

Generally though, the use of animals was astonishing in a good way. Any of them was a worthy contender for our weekly title. We will long remember the vicious Viking hound bringing down a runaway peasant (his tail giving away quite how much fun he was having), the amazing horsemanship and teamwork in the jousting and in particular the extraordinary bird show. This was far and away Harriet and Ben’s favourite with over 300 birds and 80 different species, including eagles, owls, hawks, marabou storks, spoonbills and even a secretary bird. Harriet is now wondering if it is too late to train in falconry.

Nantes

Nantes was really (sorry Nantes) a stopping point between Puy du Fou and Paris.  It does, of course, have its own rich history, being the seat of the Dukes of Brittany.

However we were shattered after our three full on days of history (however bowdlerised) and there was a vote for no more.  We couldn’t, in any event, have visited the 14th Century cathedral which is sadly currently closed following a serious fire (allegedly arson) earlier this month.

Instead we went for miracles of visible engineering, and spent an afternoon being wowed by the Machines de l’Ile.   An entire area on the banks of the Isle de Nantes has been taken over by the theatrical engineers of the Compagnie des Machines de Nantes.  In their workshops they build fantastic moving animals and plants from wood and steel.  We visited the gallery, where they display and test their prototypes and maquettes and had a glimpse into the workshops.   The current project is a 30 metre high, 50 metre wide tree which will rise from a disused quarry further along the Loire. It will be home to caterpillars, hummingbirds, sloths, predatory plants, birds of paradise, ants and two enormous herons, which will take wing each carrying up to 16 people. 

Lucy was asked to test the mini heron, and Ben and Aurora were in charge of the mating dance of a male bird of paradise,  with Magnus providing the sound effects.

The centrepiece of the machines here in Nantes though is the Elephant, extraordinarily realistic, despite the visible driver and workings, who promenades around the island, carrying up to 50 people in his palanquin.  He’s definitely a he – we saw him having a wee….  He also, understandably, gets hot, so cools himself off in an inimitably elephantine way.  If you happen to be nearby, you may get wet.

He is awe-inspiring (and free) to see but we decided to go for the full experience and ride on him too.  This was a wonderful (and wet) 25 minutes, a very smooth journey with an entourage of excited children (and adults) and an up-close view of the extraordinary feats of engineering and craftsmanship that go into creating such a fabulous beast.

Le Mans

Lying halfway between Nantes and Paris, Le Mans plays host to the annual 24 Hour motor race. When we were planning our Tour de France home-leg, one of our number had given the Le Mans 24 Hour Museum a “yes please, we must absolutely go there”, while the other three had said “meh, whatever”.

Despite all of us enjoying the Le Mans ’66 film this week, it was only Magnus and Ben who paid a visit while the girls went to the supermarket.

The museum itself was quite small, but completely packed with a history of motor racing, with cars dating back to 1889, as well as jaw-dropping supercars of today.

Magnus was particularly impressed by the Ford GT40s, which won several races from 1966 onwards, as featured in the film. There was a section of the museum dedicated to the film with cars, props and costumes.

The room containing models of every car to have raced was spectacular – a collector’s dream, and Ben gave a wistful look at the 2CV, adorned with flags, which made it to Tokyo from Paris.

We did at least make it to Paris, four and a half months later than planned, to a beautiful flat which will be our home for the next few days.

La vie est belle à Paris

How was it?

Good bits:

Magnus: Le Mans Museum (CARS). The Circus at Puy du Fou and the Vikings at Puy du Fou. They were cool because they had fire and excitement. I liked the chariots and the Viking longship rising out of the water.

Lucy: I enjoyed Saint Malo, it’s a lovely town and I had fun on the beach. Puy du Fou was AMAZING, I loved the birds, the evening show and the history. The mechanical animals were beautiful and really cool, I enjoyed going in the heron and the elephant.

Harriet: A week of amazing sights, as you can probably tell from some of the gushing paragraphs in this post. I could have watched the bird show at Puy du Fou over and over again. It was utterly astonishing. I loved the evening show too for its utterly shameless extravagance.

The Machines de l’Ile were extraordinary as well. I was slightly reluctant to ride on the Elephant as I thought it might be better to appreciate it from the outside but it was amazing to be inside the beast and to witness both its workings and the brilliant reactions it receives.

I adored St Malo too. I’d love to have stayed longer. It felt somehow more “real” and less tourist oriented than some of the other walled cities we have visited. As a bonus I treated myself to a Breton jumper.

The yellow one is Lucy’s..

Aurora: Everything in Puy du Fou was soo fun, the beach pool was quite cool. I liked watching loads of Friends. I thought the elephant was really great because it was so extremely big and really just cool!

Sophie: I have loved all of Puy du Fou. One of my favourite parts was the bird show because there were so many birds and they all got so close to us. I’ve also watched lots of Glee (a program I have been watching a lot) The elephant was amazing because of the view and when we were hot it sprayed water on us! Sleeping in a four poster bed was super comfy.

Ben: I thought St Malo was stunning.  I would happily come back. Our unexpected highlights – Josselin and Mortagne-sur-Sèvre – were more examples of things we would never have seen by not being stuck in France.

Puy du Fou was a riot. Huge eagles diving from a suspended balloon, over a soundtrack straight from the blockbuster school of soaring strings, pounding drums, heavy brass chords and a wordless choir, was breathtaking. Watching the horses accelerate and gallop at the chariot racing was another eyes-on-stalks moment, and the whole Baz Lurman meets Game of Thrones meets Liberace shazam of the place was great.

Engineering meets biology meets art makes smiles

The Machines de l’île joined Puy du Fou in making me appreciate the artistry and bloody-mindedness of the people who don’t just dream of these things – why don’t we make a 3-times life-size moving beautiful elephant out of wood and hydraulics? / why don’t we have vikings attack out of the water on a rising submerged longship? – but actually make them work and give people a thrill watching them. How many times must they have heard “it will never work” and still found a way to make it happen, and be beautiful and successful? There’s a lesson in there.

Bad bits:

Lucy: I got rather grumpy at the Machine place.

Sophie: There weren’t any bad bits this week really.

Ben: The increasing heat and crowds on successive Puy du Fou days didn’t sit well with my peely-wally grumpy side, and as I read about rising Covid infection rates across Europe, I started to glare angrily (from behind my correctly-worn mask) at the hordes who made no effort to socially distance / wear a mask properly / wear a mask at all. Despite the months of exile, I’m clearly still British, with all that glaring, though you will be able to guage my grumpiness by reading that I did actually ask people to keep their distance at times. By the mid-afternoon of day 3, I had had enough of Puy du Fou. It was amazing, and I would thoroughly recommend immersing yourself in the full experience, but perhaps it is like eating meringue and marshmallows, dipped in chocolate, rum and sprinkles for every meal…

Magnus: Being hot and angry at Puy du Fou.

Aurora: Not having Duplo A and I am missing the Chartreuse.

Harriet: There have been times this week when my desire to do has clashed with others in the family and I have found their lack of enthusiasm very irritating and upsetting. I got very vociferously cross with Lucy for losing a brand new mask (subsequently found) and very similarly disappointed with Aurora and Sophie who spent much of our time in the Galerie des Machines on their phones looking bored. I think we are all quite weary.

It’s been too hot to wear my new jumper. Not really complaining though.

What did we eat?

It was perhaps a less exciting week for food, although we did have more pancakes and cider in St Malo (the plan was to head home for supper but we were having too nice a time). Excellent ice cream there too.

The food at Puy du Fou was probably better than your average theme park but still not enormously noteworthy. The children did though enjoy the surroundings in the 18th Century dining room, and Ben and Harriet were particularly chuffed that Sophie declared a vegetarian panini (with aubergines and courgettes) “delicious”.

What’s next?

We are into our last week. We arrived in our apartment Paris a few hours ago and plan to make the most of our three days here.

After Paris we had planned to spend our last night in Ghent, revisiting its medieval finery and its waffles.  Once again, though, Covid-19 has other plans. The infection rate in Belgium has increased, restrictions have tightened and there are rumours that quarantine will be reintroduced for those who have visited.  So instead we have one night in Angres, still in France and as close to the border as we can get. We will then drive straight through Belgium, stopping for neither petrol nor wees, and on to the Netherlands, Amsterdam and the ferry home.

Week 24 (France 19 – Arcachon, Poitiers and Brittany)

Where were we?

This week found us heading north, for cooler climes, and in the gradual direction of the Amsterdam to Newcastle ferry.  We began the week still in the Arcachon bay, then headed to Poitiers and thence further north and west into Brittany.

Where should we have been?

We should have been in Kyoto, exploring its historic streets and temples, and trying not to stare too much at the sight of geishas and maikos in full dress and make up. 

Obviously we didn’t take this picture.  We’d have loved to have been able to.  It’s from Pixabay.

Mid-week we would have headed south and west, probably to Kyushu and Hiroshima and thence to explore the Seto Inland Sea.

We imagine that Olympic fever would have been increasing too. The opening ceremony should have been yesterday.

What did we actually do?

Arcachon Bay

After our exertions on our Tour du Bassin last Saturday we decided we deserved a quietish Sunday.  After a lazy morning we piled into the car and headed off to the beach.

The problem was, of course, that on a hot weekend in the school holidays, everyone else had had the same idea. Despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that the beach stretches for more than 100 uninterrupted miles north to the mouth of the Garonne and beyond, there was nowhere to park at our chosen beach.  We drove round, and round, and round the car parks before, for the first time any of us can remember, giving up for want of a space.

The next beach to the north is called Le Jenny.  We headed there.  Until we were brought to a halt by a sign:

We are peely-wally Scots (some by residence if not birth) and there’s not enough suncream in the world for that kind of behaviour.

Further north again, to Le Porge Océan, where a van pulled out of a space with perfect timing.

It was so exciting we took a picture.  The space is on the right.

Happy days! The beach was, predictably, very busy, but the water was fabulous and the sand at times painfully warm underfoot. The Atlantic waves, unimpeded by Cap Ferret, as they had been in the shadow of the Dune du Pilat, broke with dramatic crashes of surf.

These were perhaps a little too dramatic: Harriet, having a wonderful time with the girls at the breaking point, timed a wave badly and resurfaced without her sunglasses.  Having lost her previous pair in the Mediterranean she is going to keep her new ones well away from the sea (ocean).

Grumpy footsteps. Horrid sea.

Poitiers

Our next destination was Poitiers.  We took the allegedly scenic route there, away from the song of the cicadas, and avoiding the motorway tailbacks which seemed to be a particular plague in this area.  Unfortunately Harriet’s carefully planned route proved to be rather dull, and too far west to go past any spectacularly expensive wines, as Ben had perhaps hoped.

Still, we enjoyed a lovely crossing of the Garonne in the very efficient and well socially-distanced ferry from Le Verdon-sur-mer to Royan.

Poitiers itself was really just a stopping point for us but Ben enjoyed a run through its historic centre and we appreciated some of its grand architecture and its position nestled up against impressive cliffs.

Harriet was very taken with the vast passionflower rambling over the wall of our neighbours’ house too.

Futuroscope

Many years ago Lucy was given a beautifully illustrated children’s atlas. She loves it and it has given hours of pleasure.  It has also strongly influenced our trip.  She was adamant that she wanted to visit Mongolia because of what she had seen in the altas.  We haven’t got there yet but we will…

It also featured Futuroscope. This is a slightly unusual theme park near Poitiers, and was the main reason for us being in the area.  It is ostensibly themed around “multimedia, cinematographic futuroscope and audio visual techniques” (whatever that means).  In practice it has rides and experiences housed in fantastically designed buildings, themed around science and technology and of varying degrees of scientific accuracy.

The more scientific ones have excellent commentary, entirely in French, which provided a great opportunity for Ben and Harriet to practice their simultaneous translation and to wrack their brains (more of a struggle for Harriet where science is concerned) for the correct terms in English  (optical microscope was a particular stumbling block).

We all hugely enjoyed the 4D experience Ride around the World, in which we had a front row seat in a futuristic balloon as it soared over mountains and oceans.  Snow fell around us and warm winds blew.  It made Ben very sad that we hadn’t been able to do any of it in reality.

The “dynamic” experiences (the ones where you sit in a jolty chair and get shaken around while a hand held camera film jerkily plays in front of you and you get occasionally splashed with water) met with varied approval.  Harriet was not keen at all, but Magnus (who gets wildly travel sick) thought they were wonderful.

There is only one rollercoaster and it had a queue of Disney-esque proportions. Undeterred, Ben and the girls undertook a mission to Mars.  They came out perhaps more exhausted by the wait than thrilled by the ride but said they had enjoyed it nonetheless.

Having arrived shortly after 10, we left at after 7 pm, secure that we had overlooked nothing, and not feeling any great need to go back.

Brittany

And thence to Brittany.   As we drove, the fields of sunflowers became maize and then wheat.  We took  the opportunity on the way to buy some essentials: new sunglasses, Lucy’s fourth pair of flip flops, and a cafetière for Ben after one too many houses with a different coffee-making system for which we don’t have the right equipment.

We are staying in Ploërmel, a smallish town in the centre of Brittany, perhaps 30 minutes north of Vannes.  The house is far the biggest AirBnB we have ever been in, with, blessedly, separate bedrooms for Magnus and Lucy.

Three French hens.

It also has chickens, who get an honourable mention for beastie of the week.  They are making us feel very at home (and happy to have something to do with leftover pasta), but, oddly, have no nesting box, instead laying directly onto the ground in the corner of their enclosure.  Is this a French thing?

There was no competition for flower of the week though.  It appears (and perhaps we should have known this) that Brittany is famous for its hydrangeas. The banks of the Lac du Duc, just outside Ploërmel, have a hydrangea walk, the Circuit des Hortensias.  The photographs don’t do justice to the intensity of the blues.

Harriet wasn’t a fan of hydrangeas before, but she may have been forced to change her mind. 

Ploërmel also has an excellent Friday morning market.  We gave the children each some money and told them they could buy anything they liked but had to carry out the transaction themselves in French. Despite Magnus’ distress that no one had any lego or toy cars for sale, they successfully negotiated the purchase of some dried fruit, some wool (for making pom-poms), a number of baked goods (Lucy got a discount for her French) and a t-shirt with a tattooed and studded Disney Ariel on it (guess who).

Carnac, Quiberon and the Côte Sauvage (Sausage)

While we were in St Pierre de Chartreuse, all the children devoured the old Asterix and Tintin books which are kept there. Obelix and his menhirs are a regular feature, and in Asterix and Son Obelix pays for milk with menhirs, which the farmer puts in rows in a field. In real life, this field of menhirs is in Carnac, where we started our South Breton trip on Thursday.

Magnus was unimpressed – they’re just stones – but Harriet and Ben loved these stones, and their link across the generations. We are blessed with various prehistoric rocks and carvings near our home in the Borders and have thrilled to our visits there too.  Just as with the cave we visited in the Ardèche, there is a sense of wonder and connection through the longevity of these carefully placed rocks.

We didn’t, despite this, get entirely up close and personal with them. In high season access is only in guided groups and we decided that an hour-long tour, however excellently (ahem) simultaneously translated, was probably too much for all of us.  A stroll round the edge fitted the bill instead.

On to Quiberon at the southern tip of the amazing Presqu’île (literally “almost island”) which is connected to the mainland by a narrow isthmus, only just wide enough for the road. We stopped off at the Côte Sauvage (Wild Coast), 5 miles or so of rocky cliffs, which feature in a lasting childhood memory of Harriet’s as an elemental tour de force, with crashing waves, salt spray and beautiful chaos. This time it turned out to be more Côte Sausage, with clear calm seas and very little in the way of its more brutal nature on display, though very pretty nonetheless.

It was also home to this week’s runaway (wriggle-away) beastie of the week: Timmy. Timmy was a lugworm, peacefully minding his own business in a U-shaped burrow under the beach at the north end of the Côte Sauvage.

When we came to have our picnic on this beach there was a man digging it up with a fork. He explained to us that he digs up the lugworms, which he then sells on as fishing bait. He showed us their feathery, silky gills and explained that their blood is richer in haemoglobin than ours. Sophie in particular was very taken with them. He had rejected one as too small, and Sophie decided to call him (or possibly her) Timmy. The bond was immediate.

But short-lived. Sadly Timmy met a tragic end some five minutes later, when Sophie fed him to a waiting seagull.

Quiberon itself was a pleasant seaside town, with no shortage of shops selling stripey clothes (Harriet heroically resisted) and welcome ice creams.

Paimpol

Twenty years ago, when Ben worked in France, he made a good friend, Bertrand. He is a Breton, and although no longer based here, he is back for the whole of the school holidays. He lives some four hours from where we are staying so we met in Paimpol, a mutually inconvenient two hour drive from each of us – past fields of artichokes and, once, hydrangeas – on the north coast of Brittany.

We hadn’t seen him or his wife for about thirteen years and had never met their children, so it was lovely to see them all. We had a delicious meal and a wander around the pretty fishing village of Paimpol. Magnus particularly enjoyed a bit of boy time, and Sophie attempted to dig up a friend for Timmy.

The weather was trying to make us feel at home: grey and threatening rain (which on the way home became a relentless downpour), but the Isle de Bréhat nonetheless looked moody and picturesque across the emptiness of the bay at low tide.

How was it?

Good bits:

Magnus: I liked the beach I played rugby on at the Coat Sausage, Futuroscope and the pizza we had in Poitiers was sooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo GOOD.

Ben: It was lovely to see Bertrand again, and his family, and catch up over a splendid meal.

The space we have in our Breton AirBnB feels familiar and welcome, and I enjoyed the locally-made cider here. In typical Scottish fashion I am also absolutely fine with the air being 10 degrees colder, and have had better sleep at nights too.

The very peaceful and sunny 25 minutes as we crossed the mouth of the Garonne on the ferry was an unexpected joy.

Sophie: These week I have a tie of favourite memories! One of them is going to Futuroscope because we just all went around and did everything we wanted! The other is meeting Timmy the beach worm. I also really enjoy playing and diving under waves at the beach. I like how big our new house is which gives everyone lots of space. Learning some new French at the market was interesting. I liked the barbecue and phone afternoon too.

Aurora: Futuroscope was SO fun. Meeting and killing Timmy. The market was awesome because I like buying stuff. Going to the beach. The barbecue was nice and meeting Bertrand.

Lucy: The beach was splendiforous fun especially playing in the sea. Obviously Futoroscope was excellent, I especially loved the “Extraordinary Voyage” ride. The house here reminds me of home – they are so similar. I enjoyed doing transactions at the market yesterday and the amazing crepes I have had here.

Harriet: It is always lovely to see friends and so it was a particular treat to have lunch with Bertrand and his family, not least because I had possibly the world’s best pudding. I think the coast of Brittany is wonderful. I’d take a rock pool over baking white sand any day (much as I love the baking white sand too) and I got a huge amount of pleasure over how interested and enthusiastic Sophie in particular was in the sealife (and not just Timmy).

That said, and despite the sunglasses incident, swimming in the Atlantic was a delight too.

I’m enjoying the chickens too.

Bad bits:

Lucy: My flip flops broke again! And before we got to the beach I was worried that we weren’t going to be able to go because we couldn’t find a parking space. I didn’t like standing in the queue for the roller coaster.

Harriet: Losing my sunglasses was incredibly annoying, particularly as it was my own stupid fault. New sunglasses are an expense we can do without and given the effort we have made to reduce our plastic consumption on this trip, it was especially irritating to start throwing plastic straight into the sea. For the second time in my life.

Although the house in Ploërmel is lovely, on a location, location, location front it was the wrong choice. We (Ben) have had to do too much driving and I think we have not been able to enjoy as much of Brittany as we might have liked as a result. Of course the counter to that is if we had been somewhere more interesting wouldn’t have been forced to travel around so much…

The 20 minutes I spent in the second dynamic ride Magnus and I went on at Futuroscope were among my most excruciating of the trip. Even with my eyes closed.

Sophie: No bad bits really.

Aurora: Not having Duplo A and missing the Chartreuse because we know where everything is and lots of people speak English.

Twinned with the Edinburgh bypass

Ben: It has been a heavy week for driving, with Nantes a particular lowlight. Nantes is one of those cities which has clearly grown faster than its road system. All the driving has made me miss my old iPod too. I got a free replacement, but without my songs, all on a disc drive back home. Spotify downloads are a small substitute, but not the same.

The Around the World ride at Futuroscope was probably the best of all the rides, but its sweeping vistas of Asia, over a soaring soundtrack, brought back the enormity of what could/should/would have been, and left me a little desolate for a while.

Magnus: The sand at the beach where Mummy lost her sunglasses when I had left my shoes at our house was boiling on my feet.

What did we eat?

It was a good thing we bought a tourteau in Audenge as the only one we found in Poitiers, its spiritual home, was plastic-wrapped and uninviting in the supermarket. Instead we continued our world tour of cake with a Broyé du Poitou, a sort of cross between a cake and a very buttery shortbread. Apparently it’s all in the technique – tiny bits of dough are ripped off and then reincorporated. Once again we were amazed at the many different (yet extraordinarily similar) things you can make with flour, butter, sugar and eggs.

Brittany’s similar offering is the Gateau Breton, which is more cakey in consistency and comes often layered with fruit or other flavours. We tried pre-packaged raspberry and caramel as well as an apple one from the proudly artisanal Biscuiterie de Quiberon. We may have bought a whole one too. It lasts five days apparently.

It survived two. We are, in fact, not sure it was actually supposed to be the same thing as we bought at the supermarket. It was so much more buttery, sugary and, in fact, less cakey than the previous ones as to be unrecognisable. Aurora gave up because it was too sweet.

It doesn’t look like much, but if you’re ever in Quiberon…

We may, though, have found the zenith of the flour, butter, sugar, egg combination in the Kouign-amann. This is, according to the New York Times “the fattiest pastry in Europe” and, despite Bertrand’s recommendation, Harriet probably wouldn’t have ordered it if she had known that. It’s a jolly good thing she didn’t, because it was utterly, extraordinarily, delicious: a caramelised, sugar-soaked, buttery, crispy, chewy pastry of wonder. If you go to Brittany, forget your waistline and order one.

In the spirit of trying everything, at the same meal Ben had a far breton. It wasn’t as nice (more like a clafoutis or a very thick undercooked pancake) and thus didn’t deserve to have its picture taken.

It would be sacrilege to be in Brittany and not eat galettes (rye pancakes) and drink cider, so on Friday lunch we did both, enjoying an array of pancake flavours (chicken curry, anyone?) and cider out of the traditional tea cups.

We had bicycle-shaped pasta too (not in a restaurant). Why wouldn’t you?

What’s next?

This time in two weeks we will be home.

Before then we are continuing to explore France. The highlight of next week is three days at Puy du Fou, the world’s best theme park (apparently) and the one place that every single French person we have spoken to has said il faut absolument y aller. So we are taking their advice. There are no roller coasters and no 4D dynamic rides, so one at least of us will be happy.

Week 23 (France 18 – Carcassone and Audenge)

Where were we?

We began the week in Carcassonne, then headed west to the Atlantic coast and the Bay of Arcachon.

Where should we have been?

Tokyo.  Actual Tokyo.  Still feel a bit (a lot actually) cheated. 

And Kyoto, where we should have stayed with Ben’s friend Waka and where Harriet was longing to find out more about (and maybe even wear) a kimono.

What did we actually do?

Carcassonne

We had one full day left in Carcassonne. We didn’t exactly have a plan, but some tips from friends and a quick google saw us formulating a very busy last day.

The Canal du Midi runs through Carcassonne and was a short ten minute stroll away from where we were staying.  Harriet had visions of a leisurely meander along a wide, plane-shaded towpath and Ben was fondly remembering a family narrowboat holiday some thirty years ago.

Sadly it was not quite to be. The towpath was very narrow and crowded with cyclists and litter-pickers (heartfelt thanks to them) and so there was rather a lot of leaping into the nettles.  It was also very hot.  The lovely plane trees did a fabulous job of shading the road that runs along the canal but left the towpath itself in full sun.  Quite a few of our walking party had been unenthusiastic when we left, and their spirit of adventure deserted them further in the dusty heat.  We headed home…

But only briefly as we had decided that although we generally try to cook for ourselves, we fancied a Sunday lunch out. Sophie had identified a nice looking restaurant back in the Cité and so we headed up the hill (for the second time that day for Ben who had heroically been for a run before breakfast) for a slap up meal of duck and ice cream (not together).

We had a quick peek in the Basilica too.

Then off to the Lac de la Cavayère – a man made lake about fifteen minutes from Carcassonne and home to Carcassonne Plage. We staked out a spot on the beach and enjoyed the welcome cool of the water. We even got the Strandbeest to work!

We were in full sight of an array of It’s a Knockout-style inflatable obstacles and so after a good hour of splashing and dunking in the shallows we set off round the lake to have a go too. 

It was after 5 and we were the last group allowed in so our paid-for hour ended up being nearly two as we clambered, sprawled, fell and laughed our way up, over and in.  It was extraordinarily hard work and brilliant fun.  We all had achy shoulders and random bruises the next day, but they were worth it!

Lac de la Cavayère was also home to our beasties of the week though sadly only some of them would consent to be photographed. As we walked through the woods surrounding the lake, the noise of the cicadas was all around. Lucy and Ben spotted one high on a tree.  It was surprisingly big and made a ridiculously loud noise for an insect.  

At the lake itself, Harriet disturbed a proud mother and her eight babies.

And on the way back, Magnus spotted a bird he’d never seen before. Harriet turned her head just in time to see a flash of orange and a chessboard of black and white.  Our first ever hoopoe!

We didn’t take this picture.  It’s from Pixabay. But how brilliant is this bird?

Audenge

We headed away from the arid hills of Carcassonne on Monday morning, travelling West and North towards the Atlantic coast.  The landscape became greener as we travelled, with fields of sunflowers making way to rows of vines.

We crossed the Garonne, wide, oily and green like a lazy python and came into a flat land of bare-trunked pines and big skies.  The houses are single-storey and often wood framed, with shallow pitched roofs.  It feels an entirely different country from the Chartreuse.

If the Bay of Arcachon is a dolphin leaping in from the Atlantic, we are almost at its nose, in the small town of Audenge. We picked Audenge on the basis it was half-way between Arcachon and Bordeaux and because the house fit all our criteria. It was a lucky find. The village is sleepy and quiet but with two excellent boulangeries, a greengrocer and a useful supermarket. More excitingly, it has oyster-fishers huts in fisherman’s-jersey stripes, and a massive free salt-water swimming pool. Harriet has enjoyed an early-morning swim or two.

We haven’t spotted many interesting wild flowers this week, but the hedgerows are full of both blackberries (mostly disappointingly not quite ripe, although we have been enjoying those that are) and sloes. Harriet is wracking her brains as to how she can a) fit them in the car and b) keep them going for three weeks before we get home. Gin anyone?

We also found the world’s biggest pine cone.

Dune du Pilat

One of the major attractions of the area is the Dune du Pilat: Europe’s largest sand dune – 107 metres high and containing 60,000,000 cubic metres of sand. It is still growing and is moving inland, swallowing up the ancient oak and pine forest behind it.

On Bastille Day, after a quick dip in the salty pool, and forgetting that the entirety of France was on holiday, we headed out to explore it.

The car parks were heaving and there were more people at its base than we have seen in one place for many months. There were not many masks in sight but they had installed both the ubiquitous hand gel and a one way system to approach the dune.

You pass through the shady gloom of the woods, sand underfoot, not entirely sure what to expect and then the wood ends suddenly and there is, quite literally, a wall of sand one hundred metres high in front of you, people spread across and toiling up it like desert insects.

We joined them. The landward side is the steep side and the walk up was a short and very sharp shock; the epitome of two steps forward one step back. (There are temporary stairs fixed in high season, but we didn’t fancy them). The sand was bakingly hot underfoot, and entirely pristine to our right where no one had walked.

At the top an entirely unexpected vista. Colour blocks of turquoise blue, palest gold and impenetrable green.

The seaward side is a much gentler slope and although we knew that to go down inevitably meant to come up again, the sight of the Atlantic and Cap Ferret across the bay were too tempting. We ran down. For the sheer joy of it.

A hard hour or so on the beach and a rather harder slog back up the dune were rewarded with an excellent ice cream from one of the many shops at the car park side of the dune. We may have to go back.

Wine tasting

Harriet had done her research (of course) and several websites had recommended Château Bardins, in Pessac-Léognan, as having child-friendly tours. The château and vineyards are just south of Bordeaux, so we braved the typically heavy traffic and watched as the pine forests gave way to ranks of well-tended vines.

The château itself is a stunning nineteenth century house, looking very friendly and lived-in. Stella, our host and fifth-generation winemaker, made us feel very relaxed and welcome. Her English was excellent, which meant the children could be more engaged, and she first apologised that her dog – looking on longingly from behind the door, could not join us on the visit, as he had been a naughty boy and got muddy in the river. We then started our visit by feeding a bucket of carrots to some sheep.

The visit continued by visiting a vineyard, where we learnt that grapes can get sunburnt, and how new and old vines differ. After pausing to have a conversation with a chicken, while Stella sold some wine to a wholesaler, we went inside the winery itself.

Up to this point, everything had felt rather timeless, possibly a bit dusty, and organic – indeed the wines are Bio-certified. Inside was much more industrial, with polished metal presses and vats.

The racks of oak barrels brought us back to more organic geniality, then on to the tasting, which included grape juice (hints of apricot, perhaps?) for the children, and a range of increasingly smart wines for us. It would have been rude not to buy a little…

Bordeaux

From our wine tasting we went on, by popular demand, into Bordeaux. None of us had ever been here before and we were hugely impressed by how beautiful and stately it was.

A particular treat was the Miroir d’Eau, reflecting both the magnificent buildings of the Place de la Bourse, and, rather less magnificently, us.

It was also the first day of the sales, so Rue Sainte Catherine, the longest pedestrianised shopping street in Europe, was heaving with unconcerned but mostly mask-wearing bargain-hunters. We managed to escape with only 15 minutes in H&M/ the lego shop.

Aqualand

When we were planning our World Tour of France Magnus had one request: could we visit a water park?

So on Thursday we did. It was dull and overcast but that just meant less suncream.

Aqualand Bassin d’Arcachon is a bit shabby but otherwise entirely fitted the bill, with an array of slides, lazy rivers and wave pools to keep everyone happy for a full day.

Magnus was, in his own words, “a bit sad and angry at the end”, but nonetheless he also says he had a good time and a bit of food and some sleep seems to have fixed it for the moment.

Tour du Bassin

The entirety of the Gironde has been blessed with a fantastic network of Cycle Paths, some on old railway routes, some purpose-built meandering through forests, and others separated from the roads they run beside.

In the main they are well-signposted and well-maintained. There is also a well-practised custom of priorité-à-velo with the majority of cars stopping to let (6 increasingly hot and bedraggled) cyclists over a road, where the cycle path crosses. Unlike cycling in Chartreuse, there are no hills.

On Saturday we took advantage of this network, and bit off as much as we could chew by attempting the Tour du Bassin: a complete circuit of Arcachon Bay, including a ferry across the mouth from Arcachon to Cap Ferret.

Having booked ferry tickets for us and our bikes, we hired said bikes the evening before, leaving the car there, so that we could set off earlier, and avoid some of the heat expected on Saturday.

Our morning route to Arcachon and the ferry varied between entirely rural, suburban and occasional town centres, with highlights being lovely pine woods (they smelled fantastic) south of Gujan Mestras, the mansions of Arcachon high society and long straight stretches of former railway tracks down from Audenge to the brilliantly named Biganos.

The ferry was a little uncomfortable – a hot wait on a pier followed by sitting in a mask and not eating the lunch we had just bought and thoroughly deserved. Very little attempt at social distancing too, which is uncharacteristic in such an enclosed space. There were good views of the Dune de Pilat as we crossed.

After a sandwich lunch upon arrival at Cap Ferret, our second half rolled gently through coastal pine forests, accompanied by cicadas, along smooth sinuous paths which kept us away from both roads and any sight of the miles of beaches just over to our left.

We were grateful when we were in the shade, as the heat was intense, and while Ben was delighted with being on a bike, everyone else was getting more uncomfortable in both legs and bottom. (Business idea No. 35856: invent a bike saddle that actually suits a woman)

Having turned the corner to head inland and home, we stopped at the first place we could find in Arès, for cold drinks (and a pot of Assam tea) then rejoined the old railway to pedal the weary last few kilometres home.

We were hugely impressed by all the children. 71.7km is a long, long cycle, and given the heat, a magnificent achievement. The car thermometer was registering 42°C when we got back, and although this seems a little exaggerated (I (Ben) always think that measuring temperature is not a car’s core skill) it was well over 30° from lunchtime on. We all slept well after a barbecue on our return.

How was it?

Good bits:

Magnus: The Carcassone lake was good because of the fact that there were inflatables. Aqualand was AWESOME because: water park, what’s not to like?! Dune de Pilat was literally a desert or a mountain of sand.

Sophie: My favourite memory of this week was the waterpark because there was so much to do that was all fun!! I also really enjoyed when we did the inflatable thing in the water. At the beginning I wasn’t sure about the pools of sea water but after a little bit I really enjoyed playing in them. When I had an oyster was quite exciting! I had good fun when we had pizza and phones for a night. The beginning of the cycle was fun as well.

Lucy: The Carcassonne lake was awesome, I had such a fun time. I enjoyed swimming in the seaside pools. Bordeaux was lovely – I adored the Mirroire d’eau and I actually enjoyed the sales shopping (especially because I got a new jumpsuit). The cycle was lovely at times. Aqualand was fun – so much that I didn’t know what my favourite bit was!

Ben: Uncharacteristically I have enjoyed some of the sandy and open watery activities this week. I even went into the sea, briefly, below the Dune de Pilat.

Lots of lovely memories this week – I loved cycling through the forests on our big ride, tasty bread, oysters, a lovely meal out with Harriet (thank you brother Tim), a great Airbnb house to stay in, but I think my favourite was the city of Bordeaux.

I didn’t have any expectations and I was blown away by its magnificent river front, and then by its beautiful streets and sheer class. I would love to return and explore it more fully (perhaps we should just move permanently). We worked out we could get there by train from Berwick-upon-Tweed in time for supper.

Aurora: The inflatable lake thing was SO fun, the pools by the sea were really cool, Dune de Pilat, Aqualand was THE BESTTT. Late night and pizza was super fun and the cycle was amazingly sore on my bum but fun.

Harriet: There have been lots of good bits this week. I feel safe (as it’s actually been 8 days) in tempting fate by saying that there have been many fewer arguments. We may actually, after 24 weeks/17 years (delete as applicable) be learning to live together.

For me the unexpected highlight of this week has been the pools here in Audenge. I have snuck off several times for a swim on my own and the combination of sun, salt water and yet no pesky waves or, barely, other people, has been bliss. Even better when I get to bring back blackberries to put in my breakfast.

The Dune du Pilat was magical. I have never been anywhere like it. It has veen a very long time since I have run just for the sheer pleasure of running, but going helter skelter down the sand towards the endless blue of the sea was a memory I will guard.

I hugely enjoyed our cycle, at least until my bottom got sore. Pootling along mostly flat ground is my idea of cycling. I loved the cicadas too, especially the pair that were perfectly matching triplets against quavers.

I thought Bordeaux was wonderful. I’m very excited about the possibility of a grown up weekend there in the future. We have worked out we can get there by train in less than 12 hours.

Bad bits:

Aurora: Not having Duplo A to talk to!

Harriet: Now that we are travelling again I am realising that I am very bad at doing nothing. I need, most of the time, to be doing something (Although I get a bit cross when I feel as though I am being expected to do everything). At home, or in St Pierre, there was, and is, always something that needs to be done. Now that we are travelling again, if we are just in our accommodation, the children, and to a lesser extent Ben, are very happy just disappearing into the Internet. I, on the other hand, get antsy. I could read my book (and I do sometimes) but I start to feel as though I should be doing something constructive, making, or tidying, or, given we are travelling, going out and seeing. I think it is worse because this is not what we planned. I feel we really have to make the absolute most and best of this time in order to justify what we have lost. And some of the time (a lot of the time) a vocal majority of my family don’t agree…

It is an odd thing but four weeks travelling round France, which in any other lifetime would feel like an extraordinary and endless opportunity, doesn’t feel long enough at all.

The return home is also looming and is, if I’m honest, a big dark cloud on the horizon. I’m not entirely sure why I am dreading it so much, but I am. This week people tried to organise a lovely catch-up for shortly after we get back and I went into a flat panic. I can’t cope with the idea of having things that we will be “obliged” to do, even if we are only obliged because we have accepted kind invitations from people we love. I am very frightened that the weight of expectation (mostly in my head) will descend as soon as we return – the need to do everything right and keep everyone happy, and I will end up failing at all of it.

It may be that being aware of the risk will lessen the likelihood but at the moment all thinking about it is doing is ruining my pleasure in the moments we have left. Four weeks has never felt so short.

On a much more trivial note, the traffic around both Bordeaux and Arcachon is awful. We’re not used to that any more.

Sophie: I didn’t like the traffic on the way to Aqualand. My bum being really painful and also my neck.

Lucy: I got a sore bottom towards the end of the bike ride and the traffic jam was rather boring.

Ben: Apart from some traffic delays, any disappointments this week have generally been when I look at what we’re doing from an external and relative perspective.

Now I’m going to whinge about having 4 weeks holiday in France, which feels very inappropriate, but it’s not the adventure it was meant to be. In itself it is lovely, but I can’t help thinking about how I will feel on my return, and there is a lot of regret at not making it to Tokyo, particularly this week.

Brexit has been making me really angry this week too, because of all the conveniences we have been enjoying, which will be gone next year, for not a single benefit. No phone roaming charges, subsidised health care, freedom of movement, and a collective sense of belonging, all disappearing. Most things will be possible, but with greater costs. I am ashamed of the mendacious politicians, and their agents, who have, either by dishonesty or incompetence, brought us here.

Magnus: I didn’t like the cycle because my butt is still sore.

What did we eat?

Oysters! Audenge and the Bassin d’Arcachon are a big oyster-producing area and fresh oysters and other shellfish are sold out of the very picturesque stripey shacks down by the harbour.

Despite reservations from some of us, we headed off for a slap-up lunch. The children were told they didn’t have to eat anything they didn’t want to, and so Magnus may have had an entirely bread-based meal.

Lucy, however, managed a prawn and some aïoli and Aurora and Sophie hugely impressed us by eating an oyster each.

Ben and Harriet had no problem at all in polishing off the leftovers.

We continued our tour of Europe in baked goods by testing Bordeaux’s delicacy, the canelé, a sort of syrup-soaked sponge. It is rather less nice than it sounds.

In the local delicatessen Harriet also spotted some intriguing blackened cakes. They are, she was told, tourteaux, a cheese-based sweet treat. It was too good an opportunity to turn down.

At the till, she wondered if they were local: “Oh yes, from Poitiers!”. Poitiers is, in fact, about 200 miles away. It is also where we are going next so we’re calling the cake early research – it was delicious: very fluffy and light inside and not bitter at all on top, despite appearances.

More mundanely we had to get creative with our easy supper after our afternoon at the lake. We have yet to find an AirBnB with egg cups.

It was a memorable journey from Carcassonne as Ben ate the very last of the sweets we had gathered in Cologne, all those months and hopes ago.

It is perhaps not surprising that the last sweet was liquorice

What’s next?

We leave Audenge on Monday and head North, probably up the left (west) Bank of the Garonne, partly to avoid the motorway traffic, partly to get a kick out of passing all sorts of expensive wine appellations and partly for the fun of the ferry across the mouth of the river.

We have then got two nights in Poitiers, where we may eat more Torteau and we will certainly (by popular request) go to Futuroscope.

Week 22 (France 17)

Where were we?

Here. For the last time.

Though we will be back.

And also here.

Carcassone, where we arrived yesterday

Where should we have been?

In that parallel Covid-free universe, this is the week that Tweed got to Tokyo.

We had a great few days in Shanghai before leaving China on Wednesday on the ferry (slow boat from China?) to Osaka. It has a mahjong room and a karaoke suite…

We got the train from Osaka – our first bullet train – to Tokyo and arrived here yesterday. Ben has enjoyed speaking Japanese, which he has been practising daily on our route here. We have a long list of things we want to do here. Including, by popular demand, Disneyland Tokyo. Some of us are terribly excited.

What did we really do?

St Pierre de Chartreuse

Ben found Harriet’s bank card. It was in Lucy’s pocket. Lucy had apparently looked everywhere.

It’s not here…

On Monday our landlords unexpectedly announced they were coming for an inspection visit and arriving on Thursday. As five of us are their direct descendants this was actually pretty good news, but we did want them to feel we had been looking after the place so a cleaning and tidying frenzy ensued.

The conservatory as no one has ever seen it before.

Shuggie and Ele, Ben’s parents and our enormously kind and generous landlords, duly arrived on Thursday evening after an epic drive from Rotterdam. It was utterly lovely to see them.

We had about 16 hours with them but we managed to cram in a swim, a garden inspection, a meal (and some wine) and a lot of chat and cuddles. Lucky us.

Earlier in the week we had another strawberry-fuelled walk. This time we headed up to the Source du Guiers. The Guiers Mort is the river which features large in many of our pictures, although possibly not quite as many as that mountain. It rises in a deep cave in the cliffs behind the village before tumbling down a waterfall and is a pleasant two or so hour walk up.

The route passes through the usual birch woods and up forest tracks, where the strawberries were thick on the ground, before opening into an enclosed meadow. Harriet and Ben did this walk on 21 July 2004, the day they got engaged, and, although it sounds like they made it up, really did find a four-leafed clover in that meadow. It hangs in a frame on the kitchen wall. A few years ago we did the walk again, as a family, and again Aurora found another clover.

Hopes were high, and we were determined, and ten minutes of searching produced not one but three good luck charms.

The cynical ex-biology-teacher among us points out that having four leaves is clearly a mutation that is simply passed to many of the clovers growing in that field but we (including the cynics) are refusing to let that ruin the magic.

Makes us all smile

We also met a lot of our tadpoles’ country cousins, happily swimming in a large puddle. It was reassuring that they too showed no sign of having legs.

The three girls spent a lot of time with their American friend Riis this week, including a movie night, a trip to the mini golf down the hill in La Diat and an ice cream party.

Aurora and Riis got on particularly well and are now trying to work out a long-distance relationship…

Harriet had her second girly drink in two weeks, again with Debbie and Carol and this time with the addition of Debbie’s daughter Chloe. It turns out that having a giggle, and a glass of rosé in the sun, is very good for you.

Magnus meanwhile discovered an ancient bottle of bubble mixture and drove everyone mad leaving a snail trail of soapy water on all the clean surfaces. Harriet then found an online guide to making bubbles within bubbles and she and Magnus had lots of fun (and some frustration) with that. In an appropriate location.

Magnus was also invited to spend an afternoon with his friend Sam. This was a great opportunity for four of the rest of us to go “climbing in the trees” and for Ben to head into Grenoble to claim back the cost of his doctor’s visit, tests and drugs, and to run some other errands.

The climbing in the trees (Is there an English word for this? – in French it’s accrobranche) was great as always, but Ben had a rather more frustrating time in Grenoble. He didn’t have exactly the right forms in exactly the right order to reclaim the money (although this can be done by post) and the china shop, where he wanted to replace some broken plates (astonishingly dating to before our arrival) wasn’t open when it said it would be, and when it did open didn’t have the plates we needed.

So he consoled himself by buying a fondue set. Retail therapy of the most cheesy kind…

At Sam’s, Magnus made a new friend: Oli, whose dad lives in the village. Oli has a trampoline and a scalextric set. Magnus was very happy there for several hours on Thursday while the rest of us cleaned and packed.

Carcassonne

On Friday morning, 117 days after arriving in St Pierre de Chartreuse, we packed up the car, left the fondue machine in the care of Shuggie and Ele, said our goodbyes to our wonderful friends and headed off South and West to Carcassonne.

This wasn’t the most fun journey we’ve had. The traffic was very heavy and it was extremely hot: 37° when we stopped outside Nîmes for a wee and an ice cream. Nonetheless we arrived safely in our home for the next three days, a very nice flat in a rather less nice corner of Carcassonne.

But this is just around the corner

It is a bit of a shock being back in a hot city and none of us slept brilliantly – the bikers of Carcassonne seemingly holding a rally at 2 a.m. didn’t help – but we were up bright and early to take advantage of the welcome overcast skies and cooler temperatures.

We have left the garden and wildflowers of the Chartreuse behind, but the agapanthus in Place Gambetta in Carcassonne were a pretty good replacement

We walked into La Cité, the medieval walled town of Carcassonne and found it just as beautiful as we remembered (but less steep, says Harriet) We were delighted that all four children asked to go and visit the castle and its ramparts.

We were hugely touched by the response to yesterday’s Instagram/Facebook post. People were enormously kind about what we have written and posted in the last 117 days and in particular about how we, especially the children, have coped with this unexpected situation.

We celebrated how proud we are of them all with a lolly/ crêpe/ very large ice cream in the shadow of the ramparts of Carcassonne.

How was it?

Good bits:

Ben: For our Friday Instagram post, I described the process of losing the dream of our transcontinental journey as conforming to the seven stages of grief. I’ve been through anger, denial, bargaining, sadness, etc. The last of these is Acceptance and Hope, and (for the moment at least) this has been my mood during our farewell to the Chartreuse.

I’m delighted my parents came to see us in our / their home, and pleased with how pleased they were with what we had done to (and in) the house.

I am very grateful to the people who discovered antibiotics. I am feeling much better than last weekend.

On a lesser note, it is good to see our “where we are” dot on the blog move, even if it’s not going to get as far as it was meant to.

Sophie: I really enjoyed Riis coming over lots, the ice-cream party was good and I had loads of fun watching a movie on Riis’s terrace and playing with his cat. I had lots of fun at Indian forest although I got lots of wedgies. I adored being able to see Ele and Shuggie.

Lucy: I enjoyed the Source du Guiers walk especially when I found a four leaf clover because I feel we need some luck in this unlucky year. I enjoyed spending time with Riis especially the film and obviously Shuggie and Ele coming was awesome. I love climbing in the trees so Indian Forest was good. Carcassonne is lovely but I don’t have much to note about it.

Magnus: Oli’s house was good because we got to play on his Scaleletrix. I had a blue Mercedes AMG.

Ele and Shuggie coming was good because, well, Ele and Shuggie are really nice. I mostly hugged Ele.

Source du Guiers is one of my favourite walks, because it has these metal crates that you jump across to get across the waterfall.

Harriet: The Source du Guiers walk is always a favourite and didn’t disappoint. I loved the climbing and in particular being aware of how much more physically able I am than I was five months ago.

It was lovely to see Ben’s parents and (honestly) a massive relief that they seemed delighted with the condition of the house. It is good too, although tinged with all sorts of regrets, big and small, to be back on the road again.

The children hate me saying it but I am so proud of how they have grown and changed over the last wee while and the people they are and are becoming.

Aurora: Hanging out with Riis made me smile loads. Indian Forest was fun but I got loads of wedgies. Seeing Ele and Shuggie. The movie with Riis was fun. I loved doing the ice cream party for Riis, skipping bits of cleaning to have lunch with Riis and making Tiktoks with Riis.

And cleaning windows with Riis…

Bad bits:

Aurora: Not having Duplo A and saying bye to Riis.

Harriet: I am sad, for lots of reasons, to be leaving the Chartreuse. There is the big picture of the fact that this really does mean we have failed to do what we set out to do. We will not get to Tokyo in 2020. There is the medium picture of the fact that we have, over the past few months, really begun to put down roots with people and place in the Chartreuse and I will miss them all. And then there is the small stuff – I didn’t see the tadpoles grown up. I never made any wild strawberry jam. There are walks unwalked and rivers unforded.

I am, and I know it’s a controversial opinion, underwhelmed by Carcassonne. The Cité is of course spectacular, but as medieval walled cities go, I think I preferred Aigues Mortes, and the more modern town feels a bit run down and depressed (though the umbrellas are lovely).

It looks great from here though

Magnus: Riis coming round. Cleaning.

Sophie: I am already missing my friends from Saint Pierre (Riis and Milly).

Strawberries can’t help with that.

Lucy: We didn’t do a red Indian Forest run which I wanted to do, there was a lot of waiting around for Daddy after our climbing and it was VERY hot yesterday.

Ben: My trip to Grenoble was a frustrating one, which made me a bit grumpy, and I didn’t enjoy the drive to Carcassonne – too hot and too many cars, and (I’m sure) nothing to do with the nice wine the evening before.

But at least the car was (briefly) nice and clean.

What did we eat?

A lot of leftovers. And the contents of the freezer.

And some very large lollies.

What about the tadpoles?

One of the many lovely things about Ben’s parents arriving is that they can take charge of the tadpoles. This had previously been a cause of concern. We will be following their progress from afar and will keep you updated.

This week they have continued to swim happily, though appearing only when the sun is off their respective pools.

It is nonetheless a sadness that we didn’t see them grow up. We knew exactly where we were going to release them and Harriet in particular was very much looking forward to having, temporarily, an actual box of frogs…

What’s next?

We are here in Carcassonne, fulfilling all Ben’s nine-year-old Dungeons and Dragons dreams, until Monday when we head to the West Coast, between Arcachon and Bordeaux for a bit of beach and wine. It’s not sake and sushi, but it could be a lot worse.

Week 21 (France 16)

Where were we?

Still here.  For our last full week.

Where should we have been?

Still in China.  We would have been wending our way North and East towards Shanghai.  Our boat from Shanghai to Osaka was planned for next Wednesday.

What did we actually do?

Ben’s birthday

It was Ben’s birthday on Thursday, the last of our three family Tweed to Tokyo birthdays, none of which has been quite as we expected.

Quite aside from the fact that we are not in Shanghai, Thursday was forecast to be rainy so we had abandoned the idea of a big walk, much to the children’s “disappointment”.

In the event it was gloriously sunny, but in order to keep the birthday peace Ben decided to go on a bike ride instead. It wasn’t too much of a hardship.

We had invited Debbie and Philippe for dinner and we had a fantastically convivial evening with them over three courses, a bit of wine, cake and even some Chartreuse.

Not all of this was drunk.

It possibly wasn’t the most exotic and well-planned birthday Ben had ever had but he says he enjoyed it.

And everything else

Last Sunday Ben and Aurora took advantage of the fact that borders are now open and drove back to Switzerland to see if they could find the long lost Duplo A, last seen at a motorway service station between Geneva and Bern.

Aurora had made a Duplo playlist, and agreed with Ben that this was at best a very long shot of recovery. There is a recurring joke in Asterix in Switzerland about Switzerland being very clean and tidy, so the chances of finding a teddy, from 15 weeks ago, still lying on the ground in a car park were vanishingly slim.

From “Asterix in Switzerland”

After 3 hours on the road, the sight of a man with a leaf blower clearing the car park on a Sunday morning was predictable. There was nothing at lost property either. We came home, knowing we had done all we could for the much-lamented Duplo A.

We started to really think think about packing up and leaving this lovely place. There are various jobs that need to be done to leave it in the best possible state.

We began by turning out the cupboard of old ski kit. A dormouse (of the large, Romans-used-to-eat-them variety) had clearly made a lovely home there over the winter so this wasn’t the nicest of jobs. It is however now done and all the ski kit has been claimed or chucked.

The after photo. Viewers of a sensitive nature might have found the before picture too distressing

Ben got to take his post birthday hangover to the tip as a reward….

The height of fashion and good taste in about 1989. These didn’t make it into the “save it” pile.

We weeded, tidied and swept the garden, cleaned all the kitchen drawers and delved so far down the back of the sofa that we found a pine cone and a very small lego superman watch. We have no idea who either of them belong to.

We also packaged up and posted (at an eye-watering cost) lots of the things we had been so kindly lent, and an even greater number of things that we don’t want to leave here or throw away but which we won’t have room for in the car.  Having arrived here with the bare minimum of winter clothes we have acquired a lot of necessary summer clothes and quite a bit of not-so-necessary stuff.  We will look forward to hopefully seeing it again in 5 weeks.

It turned out that Harriet should have been slightly more sympathetic (not one of her core skills) about the hangover as it wasn’t entirely self-inflicted.  A trip to the doctor for Ben on Saturday morning diagnosed an infection (not Covid for anyone who was wondering) and, this being France, necessitated a trip to Grenoble for blood and other tests.  It all felt a bit like overkill, but he came back with antibiotics and is beginning to get on the mend.

We had another long and fabulous walk up and round the Col de la Saulce.  Ben had cleverly planned this, which was mostly in the shade, for the hottest day we’ve had so far.  Once again we were privileged to be among extraordinary beauty, with woods and meadows and mountains.

Our wild flower stars of this week were the orchids.  We saw five different varieties, three of which were new to us on that one walk.

It is true to say that the orchids have done a great job with their branding. There a doubtless huge numbers of equally rare and wonderful flowers here, but we (aka Harriet) don’t get nearly as excited about them.

A leaky pipe about 100 metres away from the house needed fixing on Thursday (Ben’s birthday). This meant that we were without water for about six hours, although we could (and did) fill buckets from the basin of the fountain. This wasn’t hugely convenient when we were trying to prepare a birthday meal, but did mean that the children learned the important life skill of flushing a loo with a bucket.

Note the fountain itself isn’t running…

Harriet’s lovely pale blue shoes didn’t survive their first proper walk entirely intact. 

This made her unreasonably sad.

We did well on our foraging, collecting a large number of (admittedly very small) wild strawberries. We made good use of them in Ben’s birthday cake.

Harriet’s bank card has disappeared. This is irritating rather than anything more serious as we are certain it must be in the house somewhere (she gave it to Lucy to go to the boulangerie and it has clearly been abandoned somewhere Lucy-ish). It’s been temporarily frozen, so all we have to do now is find it…

The lavender is out in the garden and playing host to an array of butterflies, bees and beetles.

We have a new category: fungus of the week. The first winner is amazing, and, when you think about it, quite obviously named, yellow coral fungus.

Magnus and Harriet tackled a kit that he had been given for his birthday and made a Strandbeest.  So far we’ve only manage to make it work with the aid of a hairdryer, but we have high hopes for the Atlantic beaches.

Our best real beastie this week was a very large, very green, cricket.  Sadly he was missing a leg so we suspect he may not have been feeling his best.  It did mean he was pleasantly still for the photo though.

Harriet went out for a spontaneous (uncharacteristic), twenty minute, girly drink with friends Debbie and Carol mid-afternoon and mid-week. It was brilliant fun and she talked way too much.

Lovely friends (former colleagues of Ben’s) came up to visit on Saturday afternoon. They arrived while Ben was in Grenoble getting poked with needles but Harriet had a delightful time sitting in the sun and drinking elderflower cordial with them and their children. 

And later that day we had a party.  We realise that that seems an impossibility for anyone in the UK, but it is totally permissible here and although we did provide hand gel, we don’t think Covid was on anyone’s mind. 

The kids turned it into a pool party and the adults chatted as the sun set over the mountains.  Plentiful rosé was drunk (we will be bringing some back) and nibbles nibbled.  We have been very lucky to meet such lovely people during our time here and it was a delight to be able to spend time with them all.

How was it?

Good bits:

Sophie: I liked the tasty barbecue, and while we’re on the subject of food the naan breads and Daddy’s birthday cake. My favourite part was the party.

The teddies in the window at the tip made me smile.

Lucy: Daddy’s birthday obviously. It was very fun and I enjoyed the dinner. The party – I had some good chats and had lots of fun in the pool. The walk was nice. The strawberries were nicer. Sophie and Aurora were really kind on the day I didn’t have my phone. And I enjoyed today as well.

Magnus: The naans were really tasty and yummy. My Strandbeest was cool. I liked the walk to Perquelin with Sophie and Aurora.

Harriet: Apart from Ben being ill it has been a lovely week.  We really feel as though we have put roots down here and it is lovely feeling part of the village.  Our party was great fun and our little dinner for Ben’s birthday perhaps even better.  I feel (and those who know me will realise this is not always the case) very relaxed.  I am enjoying spending time with our children,  which also isn’t always so.  Perhaps the fact that I am writing this in the hammock and none of them is in earshot may have something to do with that…

Having an excuse to do lots of baking is always a good thing as well. It makes me very happy when people like the food I make.

I was very proud of myself for putting the Strandbeest together too.

Aurora: Going to Switzerland with Daddy was fun but we didn’t find Duplo. I enjoyed making flapjacks, brownies, popcorn and biscuits and helping Mummy make nibbles for the party. The PARTY!!! Athough I spent the whole time trying to get everyone go swimming and no one would come in. I liked going to Riis’s house and getting my new hat because I kept stealing Riis’s. Swimming was really fun and Daddy’s birthday was amazing. Fabulous, beautiful, marvellous, wonderful food. I am the best eater.

Ben: I had a lovely birthday, and am still loving being here and feeling very at home. We have made lovely friends here (whether now or my old colleagues from 20 years ago). It has been satisfying finally to do some of the tasks that I meant to do fairly early on in our stay.

I was quite proud of myself being a big brave boy during my blood test. I am never the best with needles, and I was feeling ropey too. But for goodness sake, I’m 48, and I perhaps I should grow up, and not be such a scaredy cat. Maybe all those injections against rabies and encephalitis weren’t a complete waste of time and money after all.

Bad bits:

Ben: I am rubbish at being ill, and would have liked to have been better company at our leaving party. I’m glad that as I write this (one day later) the antibiotics are having a positive effect, though the side effects of tendonitis (no running or big walks advised) and sun sensitivity, as we set off for the sunniest beachiest bit of our trip, are a bit foreboding.

Aurora: Not having Duplo. People being annoying (I can’t say who but you can probably guess).

Lucy: It all got a bit frantic before the party and there were some scratchy bits on our long walk.

Magnus: I got a massive headache at the party and went to bed in the middle of it.

Harriet: The ten minutes after Ben came back from the doctor and announced he needed to go to Grenoble when we had thirty-odd people arriving three hours later were perhaps not my finest and most supportively wifely moment.

I was disproportionately cross about getting my new shoes muddy, even though I knew it was inevitable.

Sophie: The long walk wasn’t bad if you know what I mean, but you know, it was a long walk.

What did we eat?

Snails. Ben’s birthday treat.

We also had an Eton mess birthday cake, with our foraged strawberries and redcurrants from our friends’ garden (ours aren’t ripe yet). Despite a lot of internet research Harriet yet again failed to identify a variety of French cream that will whip, so it was perhaps less stable than some cakes, but it was tasty nonetheless.

Our party required a lot of nibbles, which, with several sous-chefs (some more enthusiastic than others) and a maître pâtissier in the making (Aurora), were fun to make and even better to eat.

How are the tadpoles?

Not sure. The ones in the bird bath are being more elusive than ever. It has been hot and cloudless for much of the week and we don’t think they like that at all. We have barely seen them all week, and only when it is cloudy. The outside sink colony continue to do well but we still have no sign of legs from any of them.

The water really is that green.

On the upside the outside sink is also now home to a large number of other larval things. If these tadpoles do ever turn into frogs they won’t go hungry.

Probably baby crocodiles. Or unicorns.

What’s next?

This week will mostly be spent tidying, cleaning and packing up. We leave here next Friday.  We have planned and booked our route home and we now know where we will be every night until 6th August when we have a ferry crossing back to the UK. 

The children then go back to school on 11th.  What could possibly go wrong…?

Five tips for travelling in a post-Covid world

For those who don’t know us, we set off with four kids from Scotland in February with high hopes and meticulous plans. We were going overland to Tokyo to arrive in time for the Olympics.

Coldstream, Scotland 10 February.

Five weeks in, borders started to close and we made a dash for France, where we have been ever since.

Lockdown in France began to ease in mid-May and from 2 June we were allowed to test the travelling waters again. A week later we packed up and spent ten days staying in hotels and AirBnBs in the South of France. Next week we will pack up for good and slowly make our way across France to head back to the UK (where the Scottish school term will re-start, early, four days after we get back).

Camargue, France. Six days after hotels reopened. We were allowed to travel up to 300km.

As borders start to open up and people start to wonder about travelling again, we thought it might help to share what we learned on that brief trip and what we will be remembering as we travel onwards:

1. Check the rules for your destination and stay up to date with them

Each country has its own Covid rules. These rules change quickly and sometimes without warning. Make sure you know what they are and get the information from official government sites rather than the media.

We thought long and hard about going to Spain next week. Harriet was keen to sneak in an extra country but Ben was worried. He had read in Le Monde (highly respected newspaper in France) that there were quarantine rules between France and Spain. We checked the French Foreign Ministry website. It wasn’t true.

This ferry only goes across a river, but the ones to and from most UK ports are open now too. Check if you can travel.

For us, too, things are further complicated by the fact that we are British, living in France, and wanting to go to Spain. We therefore need to be sure what the rules are for Brits as well as the rules between France and Spain. They aren’t always the same. Different countries are treating different nationalities differently (Greece has just restricted entry for travellers from Britain – does that mean us? We don’t know…). It may also be relevant where else (if anywhere!) you have been in the last few weeks.

Check, check and check again!

In the event we aren’t going to Spain – partly because it will be too hot and partly because the rules for UK travellers coming in by land still aren’t, to our mind at least, clear – but it’s a good example of the need to check your sources and to make sure the information you’re relying on is true.

12 June. On the move again. Avignon, France

Once you are in a new country check the local rules again – Do you need masks? How many people are allowed in one place at once? What are the rules on social distancing? You will feel much happier on your travels if you know you’re not going to get pulled up for doing the wrong thing!

2. Check out the Covid policy before booking accommodation

In our normal life we manage a holiday cottage. It reopens next week and we have been bombarded with sometimes contradictory advice about how to make it safe for guests.

This has, though, given an insight into what to look for when booking accommodation. The key thing, to our mind, is to book somewhere that acknowledges Covid on its website. You can be sure then that they have at least thought about the issues. If you can, call up and ask. Facilities may be different: swimming pools may be closed, breakfast may no longer be served or there may be particular rules on the use of public spaces. Again it pays to research all this before booking.

As far as AirBnB is concerned it seems to us (and we have no proof that this is Covid- related but it may be) that more and more hosts are not providing sheets and towels. Check this! They are “essentials” in the list of amenities and it is not always made clear in the listing if they are not provided. We didn’t realise…

This AirBnB was spotlessly clean and had a private pool. We were delighted to find it available. It had sheets too

3. Check what’s open and book if you can

Many tourist sites, at least here in France, are now open, but do check before visiting. You may need to book in advance as numbers may be limited. You may well also need to bring a mask or make other preparations. At the extraordinary and highly recommended Grotte Chauvet 2 in the Ardèche we had to download their app to enable a non-guided, guided tour.

Equally some places may have different restrictions in place. During July and August for example only residents of Barcelona can get tickets for Gaudì’s Sagrada Familia.

The upside of this is that many normally very busy places are much more empty – all the Barcelonans will doubtless be delighted to have their cathedral to themselves. And for us tourists, this means that you really can get that photograph where it looks as though you are the only person there…

In a normal year, 10,000 people a day visit the Pont du Gard. When we were there it really was just us. And yes, that is Magnus shouting at his sister.

4. Carry a mask, use hand sanitiser and keep your distance

If you have a mask with you at all times you can use it if required. We have found that some places (restaurants, shops etc) require masks and others don’t. Many say they do, and then actually don’t when you are inside. You won’t necessarily know until you are there. Many restaurants in France require a mask if you are inside the building moving around. So you’re fine sitting on the outside terrace but if you don’t have a mask and you need to go inside for a wee you’re in trouble.

Masks are obligatory on public transport in France. In Spain you can be fined up to €1000 for not carrying one with you at all times.

If you enter a building and they provide hand sanitiser at the entrance, use it. You don’t know what you’ve touched since you last washed your hands and it’s only polite to the other people there.

Find out what the social distancing rules are (of course you’ve done that already because you read tip 1) and stick to them. In fact be generous with them. Just because you feel safe around other people doesn’t mean those people feel safe around you. We met several people working in shops or restaurants who didn’t seem to be comfortable being there, but who had little or no choice. It is only respectful to try to put them at as much at ease as you can.

Palais de Papes, Avignon, again almost eerily empty. Social distancing wasn’t difficult.

5. Remember opinions differ

There seem to be as many different opinions on Covid as there are people we’ve met. Some people will tell you it’s all been blown out of all proportion and some will say you are not being careful enough. One person we met in the South of France said she had given up swimming in the sea because it wasn’t safe with Covid. We never did work that one out.

Staying well away from the sea… just in case.

If you want, and feel safe, to travel, and the advice in your country and the country you want to go to is that it is safe to do so, don’t let anyone else’s opinion stop you. Listen to them, take account of their concerns, make sure your behaviour doesn’t make them unsafe (or even feel unsafe) and then go and enjoy yourselves.

Bon voyage!

We should have been in China now. We’d have seen and done amazing things. But we wouldn’t have seen this or so much else.

Harriet

Week 20 (France 15)

Where were we?

Back in the safety and familiarity of St Pierre de Chartreuse.

It doesn’t get old

Where should we have been

This should have been the end of our third week in China. By now we would have visited Xian, Chengdu (where we would have seen pandas) and Lijiang. We would probably now have been in Guilin.  We would also hopefully have been very familiar with the vagaries of Chinese trains. And very good at eating everything.  

Some of these hills are not like the other ones. Image from Pixabay.

What did we actually do?

After our early morning start to see the sunrise a month or so ago, we thought we would go bigger and better for Midsummer.  The Solstice was actually on Saturday but in Harriet’s head Midsummer’s Day is 21st June and in practice there was less than 4 seconds difference in day length between Saturday and Monday.   Sunday was, however, forecast to be cloudy, so we nominated Monday for an early start.  The intention was to see the sunrise from the top of Charmant Som (1,867m) at 5.29 am.

Alarms went off at 3.30 am and everyone headed into the car (wrapped up warm and armed with a thermos of hot chocolate and a box of biscuits) for the half-hour drive.  The skies were perfect: cloudless and studded with stars.

As with many of our well-laid plans though, it didn’t go quite as intended. As we travelled up the road, the clouds came down to meet us. By the time we were getting out of the car we were in thick fog. We know the path well, so following it wasn’t hard, one step in front of the other. Up into the cloud, we went, the pools of light from our headtorches bouncing in front of us. We could hear the jangling of the cow bells but not locate them.

There was an unspoken hope that either the cloud would clear or we would come out above it, but it was not to be. The summit was wet and cold and the view non-existent. The hot chocolate was all the more welcome for it. Sunrise was also, we discovered, not until 5.49.

Having reached the top at about 5.10, we decided not to hang around for a sunrise we were unlikely to see, and as we descended, the skies lightening around us, the sun suddenly broke through.

It wasn’t the sunrise, as such, but it was pretty close and it was very beautiful.

On Thursday we had a better attempt at Charmant Som, climbing it in blinding sunshine before having the traditional slap-up meal at the Auberge du Charmant Som. In previous years we have felt that the walk earned us the meal. It must be a sign of how much fitter we are that we weren’t entirely convinced we deserved it this time.

Later that day, Louise, a local 13-year-old came round to do some language chat with Lucy. It turns out that she is the daughter of the owner of the Auberge where we had been that afternoon. They seemed to get on OK. Mostly in English though.

Harriet did her annual cartwheel. It was fun: she might have to do more.

This week’s runners up for beasties of the week were rather bigger than usual (and further away in one case)…

The actual beasties of the week were also pretty tame. Sheep are still pastured on the high alps here and they are still moved on foot from place to place along the paths and roads. Some had been moved into Debbie and Philippe’s field (not a high alpine meadow, but still) earlier in the week. On Sunday evening we got a call – they’re on the move.

They are accompanied by big dogs, that look beautiful but which, we are told, would attack anyone who came close (we didn’t try) and, rather less obviously logically, a donkey (with a bell) and a number of long-horned goats.  The ewes are still lambing, on the hill and unattended, so there were a dozen or so day-old lambs among the flock.  These had to be tracked down and lifted into a van as they aren’t strong enough yet for the walk. They, and their mothers, weren’t delighted to be separated. Harriet and Lucy, on the other hand, were very happy to take the opportunity for a cuddle.

We had another accidental walk on Sunday courtesy of the useless new walks book.  What was supposed to be a beautiful hour’s stroll to a pass turned out to be a rather dull thirty minutes. So we kept going and were treated to spectacular meadows, flowers, woods and views. 

The children weren’t hugely impressed by the additional three hours but were nonetheless very good about the abortive ice cream (the café was useless) on the way home.

Bored with waiting for our tadpoles to do anything interesting, we embarked on a rather speedier biology experiment and are growing cress.

Day 2. The tadpoles are on week 15.

This week’s wildflowers to excite Harriet were Great Yellow Gentians, the last of the Troll (Globe) flowers, Fragrant Orchids (disappointingly un-fragrant), and fabulous Martagon Lilies like something out of the 1001 nights.

We had a fruit of the week too: the wild alpine strawberries that are glowing like sweets in the hedgerows. They’re better than sweets though.

Harriet finally discovered why her feet have been getting so wet on our walks when Sophie pointed out the multiple holes in her six-year-old walking shoes. A trip to Brun Sports in the village sourced her a pair of lovely new ones in an entirely impractical shade of turquoise. Mme Brun also provided an explanation as to why Harriet has been slipling over a lot. The soles had worn entirely smooth…

Whoever designed them clearly never goes walking in the rain.

We had a lovely meal, with ping pong, table football and the Minions movie, with Debbie and Philippe.

Top garden highlight this week were these ridiculously over-pimped (yet self-seeded) poppies.

Ben had a (sort of early birthday) treat on Tuesday, while Harriet and the children had a constructive day at home. Not just a real done-in-a-hairdressers haircut (though that did happen before breakfast), but a big-day-out-on-a-bike. Hiring a gravel bike from the local sports shop (no true road bikes available) he set out to explore some familiar and unfamiliar roads, including some of the areas we had walked on Sunday. 63km, 4 Cols, 1700 vertical metres and the bizarre Voie Sarde (a 17th century path, which enlarged a narrow gorge and greatly reduced the pain of crossing the hills between Dauphiné and Savoie) provided the scenery and adventure for a lovely (if extremely hot) first cycle of 2020. Empty roads, a lovely lunch and a cool off in the pool on a proud return made it all the better.

A warning light came on in the car as we were coming home on Thursday. Just oil needed, but irritating. We pulled in to the only garage in the area (they don’t sell fuel) intending just to see if they would sell us a bottle of oil. They get top marks for service – they came and checked it, did the statutory humming and hawing, decided it couldn’t hurt to put some in, did so, and charged us….nothing.

We gave them some money anyway.

Inspired by the cave paintings we saw in the Ardèche (ish) we went hunter-gathering for our lunch on Wednesday.  We took Magnus’ friend Sam with us too. About half an hour away you can catch (and despatch) your own trout before having it served to you, cleaned and grilled and with excellent chips.   When you stop and think about it, it’s a rather odd thing to do – the trout are clearly farmed and then put in the ponds – but it was an idyllic setting, in the shade by the river, and five of us had never caught a fish before.  Two of us still haven’t but the lunch was excellent.

On Friday – with the forecast for very hot weather – we went to one of our old stamping grounds: the Cirque de St Même. This is a natural wide and circular valley surrounded by towering cliffs. The Guiers Vif (the twin of “our” river, the Guiers Mort) flows out of a cave in the cliff, down a series of waterfalls and through the valley bottom. It was not, in the end, quite the endless sunshine we were promised: we left early afternoon with thunder echoing off the cliffs and came straight back into very heavy rain, but we still managed a good bit of guddling.

More guddling today when we decided to revisit the “fishes” walk along the old route de St Bruno towards the monastery. We had done this for the first time three weeks ago in very heavy rain with the river pounding its way through the gorge. Today was totally different. In glorious sunshine we paddled in water so clear it seemed impossible. It was bitingly cold but that didn’t stop all six of us getting our toes (and ankles, and knees…) wet.

And Ben and Harriet finally made it into the pool, to great joy and much shrieking from the rest of the family.

How was it?

Good bits:

Lucy: I loved the sheep, especially holding the baby lambs. I liked getting up in the morning and seeing the sunrise. It was really beautiful, I think even prettier than when we saw the sunrise the first time. Just as we were getting in the car to see the sunrise the stars were amazing too. There were so many of them and they were so pretty. I really liked the wild strawberries on our walk. There’s something so energising about that little morsel of sweetness when you put it in your mouth. I enjoyed Cirque de St Même. I always do. I thought the walk today and the guddling today was absolutely amazing. I loved it. I liked swimming as a family together.

Magnus: I liked the sheep, climbing Charmant Som in the sunrise and table football at Debbie and Philippe’s.

Sophie: I loved the sheep because when all the baby sheep were in the car the Mummy sheep would go “maaaaa” and all the baby sheep would go “maaaaa” together like a choir. I liked climbing Charmant Som both times and the sunrise was really pretty. I loved getting Kevin (the teddy Debbie and Philippe gave us). He is a marmot. I also liked playing ping pong and the meal at Debbie and Philippe’s. They are so nice. The fishing was good fun.

Ben: It has been a good week for walks, and I’ve enjoyed each of them in different ways. I am a big fan of walking in beech woods, and the Chartreuse is full of them, even though it often looks to be all fir.

I was relieved that the sun came out on our dawn walk. It had the makings of a TweedtoTokyo classic – looks like a brilliant plan, executed in detail, ruined by factors outside our control.

Getting a haircut has been a bit overdue, and a neater head of hair has been more of a pleasure than it should be.

My bike ride was glorious, and I had been eyeing that route for years, though some saddle adjustment is needed next time – I thought there was something under the carpet when I did morning 5BX sit ups the next day, but it was just a bruised bottom…

Aurora: Fishing, guddling, seeing the sheep, Debbie and Philippe are really nice – I love being with them, getting Kevin, omelettes, making a cake, cleaning the pool, ping pong.

Harriet: My favourite moment of this week was either cuddling the lamb – we had sheep when I was a child and it was amazing how familiar it felt – or sitting on a rock in the middle of the Guiers Mort this afternoon. The water was so extraordinarily clear and fresh and seemed both eternally unchanging, almost solid, and yet endlessly different and alive. Pictures don’t do it justice.

I loved our meals out too. We had a fabulous time with Debbie and Philippe, who seem to have featured large in this weeks post. They have become fabulous friends and we are very lucky to have met them and to have been made so welcome, not just by them, but by so many others in the village. I enjoyed the fishing too – although I wasn’t allowed actually to hold a rod. I am quite proud of how unsqueamish I was about the necessary nasty bits of fishing. (Apologies to any vegetarians). And Charmant Som is always a winner.

Our sunrise expedition was a great example of snatching a victory from an experience that got very, very, close to being an utter disaster.

Bad bits:

Aurora: Not having Duplo A and moving rooms.

Sophie: I think I might have lost my Tiktok no bickering streak this morning. And my slight tan has turned into a bit of sunburn.

Ben: I was determined to be positive this morning, and smile, and sail through any complaints about needing to clean the house, but breakfast was a particular needle-fest and it took our walk and paddle up the gorge to settle things down.

I’m not looking forward to leaving here on a permanent basis. Having spent weeks and months (and some particularly bleak days) wanting to be in other places, there feels like so much more to do here before we go. I feel very at home here. I will miss it hugely.

Magnus: All the flies at Charmant Som

Lucy: It was a bit annoying having my period at Cirque de St Même.

Harriet: I’m not sure Magnus is having a great time at the moment. He seems very angry and frustrated and is very resistant to much of what we suggest, be that new foods or walks or even games. I suspect he, and we, will come out of it, but I am finding that hard and not always reacting very well.

As ever, the bickering has been getting to me too, for all that only one of the children has mentioned it this week.

I am disappointed not to be going to Spain. Ben was reluctant and I do understand why, but I just wanted to be in another country. That’s not a reason to take an unnecessary risk, and, as with the Gorge de l’Ardèche (where I was the reluctant one) we are taking the sensible path.

Separately, I feel (dull introspective thought here) that I spend too much time as an observer. I take most of the photos (although I realise I’m in three of the pictures we’ve posted this week) but that means that much of the time, I am not the one doing or living the experiences. It is interesting that my favourite experiences of the last few weeks have all been ones where, for various reasons, I have not been able to hide on the sidelines. Being me, I am beating myself up about this.

Look! In front of the camera...

How are the tadpoles?

Unbelievably still here, and still tadpoles.  We fear that the hot weather and resulting evaporation has made the water in some of the sections of the birdbath much less hospitable. This is a nice way of saying we think that quite a lot of them are dead. But they may, again, just be hiding. The ones in the increasingly murky, but cooler and shadier, sink, seem to be doing better.

What did we eat?

We enjoyed two lovely meals out (with apologies if that feels like gloating to anyone in the UK).

First, our self-caught fish and chips. 

Magnus would have preferred them battered

And then the always reliable deliciousness that is the Assiette Montagnard and Tarte aux Myrtilles at the Auberge du Charmant Som.

Back at home we were quite chuffed with our home made burger buns.

It’s the salad that makes it too tall.

Lucy and Aurora went baking-tastic and made a fabulous Victoria sponge (which we failed to photograph) and some very large (and very tasty) biscuits.

What’s next?

Tomorrow sees the start of our last full week here, and there will be lots to do to make this happen. We have started booking our stays after Chartreuse, and we will be leaving this wonderful place on 10th July. Our route (North and West in France) is planned, with our departure slightly later than we had originally thought, as we decided not to include a trip to North Spain within our plans. The risks (having problems with getting back into France, Covid uncertainty, not speaking the language – and hence not being able to fix the car or be sure what the ever changing rules are) seemed to outweigh the positives (actually going to another country, being able to find accommodation in Barcelona, churros). We need to book more next week.

Ben has already started washing duvets and bedspreads, with other cleaning (windows, cupboards) planned. It is not all sunshine and mountain views…

It mostly is, though.

There will also be two celebrations. It is Ben’s birthday on Thursday (how bizarre to have had all our TweedtoTokyo birthdays here instead of St Petersburg in April, Mongolia in May and China in July as we expected; when we arrived here we had hoped to be gone by Lucy’s birthday) and we are going to have evening leaving drinks next Saturday with many of the lovely people here who have helped us with so much, and made us feel so welcome.

Sunshine and showers. There’s a metaphor in there.

Week 19 (France 14)

Where were we?

There and back again: we started the week in Avignon and ended it back in the safety and familiarity of the Chartreuse.  It wasn’t an epic trip across China, but we did see things that were even older than the terracotta warriors.

Where should we have been?

China.  The original plan was that we would spend a month there, arriving in Beijing in early June and leaving by boat from Shanghai in early July. When we left the UK in February, we hadn’t finalised many more detailed plans than that – at six months distance we didn’t think it was necessary and with news of a strange flu-type disease in Wuhan province, we thought booking anything at that stage was silly.  So all we can say is that we should have been in China, somewhere.  It’s a big place.

Where were we really? What did we do?

Avignon

After our tourist-heavy day in Avignon last Saturday (which culminated in Aurora finally being allowed to buy the shoes she’d wanted since before Christmas and hadn’t been allowed to have as they’d be no use on the trip), we headed away from this beautiful town on Sunday morning.

Unfortunately the handy park and ride bus doesn’t run on a Sunday so Ben and Sophie walked back across the Rhone to get the car, while Lucy and Harriet took a stroll up and behind the Palais des Papes to admire the bridge from above.   It was much better (and cheaper) that way.  And there was an entirely incongruous duck pond.  Magnus and Aurora decided to stay in the flat and enjoy the wifi, which had been much missed in the Camargue.

Suze-la-Rousse

From Avignon we headed North for a little less than an hour to Suze-la-Rousse.  You won’t have heard of it (though it does have a very nice chateau) as its major attraction (for us at least) is that Harriet’s Uncle and Aunt live there. They had very kindly invited us for lunch – their first guests since deconfinement.

This was therefore a first glimpse for us of what it must be like for many of you reading this – we saw family but only from a safe two metre distance.  It was lovely to see them and they treated us royally (including digging out books for Harriet and a huge amount of lego for Magnus, which we have borne off in triumph).  They also gave us some great hints and tips for the Ardèche, where we headed next.

Ardèche

Vallon Pont d’Arc

We were staying just outside Vallon Pont d’Arc, in another lovely lucky AirBnB find, with our own pool and the best equipped kitchen we have seen so far.  This was actually the second AirBnB we had booked in Vallon having discovered (after paying and too late to get a full refund) that the first place provided neither sheets nor towels.  You live and learn.

Haven’t seen one of these since Scotland
Grotte Chauvet 2

We arrived on Sunday night and the plan was to canoe down the Ardèche Gorge on Monday morning, however when we rang to confirm our canoe booking we were told that it wouldn’t be possible as the storm we had experienced in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer had had a rather dramatic effect on the water level.  The river was well above safe limits and there would be no canoeing on Monday, although it might be possible on Tuesday. 

Left with a day to spent in the Ardèche, we had time for the obligatory supermarket shop (Lidl let us down by having no fresh milk at all – if we can’t cope with UHT, we should perhaps be counting our lucky stars we haven’t had to try yak) and a splash around in the pool in the morning.

We then headed with our sandwiches for a picnic lunch in the shade of the famous Pont d’Arc, a natural rock bridge over the Ardèche.  Again, it was a treat to find it, if not abandoned, certainly much quieter than it would normally have been on a hot day in June.

After lunch, though, we headed off, at Harriet’s Aunt’s recommendation, to the Grotte Chauvet 2.  This proved to be, for Harriet at least, the unexpected highlight of the entirety of the trip so far.

The Grotte Chauvet was discovered in 1995 and is one of the oldest known painted caves in the world.  The paintings have been dated back 36,000 years and the cave was blocked off by a landslide some 21,000 years ago.   It is extraordinary to think that humans knew about it and used it (though they didn’t live there) for 15,000 years – and that was still 12,000 years before the Great Pyramids was built.

The cave itself is, for obvious reasons, very off-limits to the public (Magnus was hugely impressed by pictures of the bullet proof door), but, some 5 km away, a complete 3D replica has been created, down to the bear footprints on the floor and the stalactites hanging from the roof. 

It was, and is, utterly extraordinary.  We were, once again, lucky to be here now: the site only reopened last week and so we were among very few visitors.   Rather than being led around by a guide, they have created an app, so we used our own phones.  There was only us and one other family in the cave system and we felt almost entirely alone.  The paintings are indescribable, not because of what they portray: rhinos, bears, mammoths, deer, aurochs, horses and even an owl, but because of the power and vitality of these incredible images, which have endured across an almost incomprehensible span of time, yet were made by people who were, really, just like us.

The rest of the site is lovely too, with a small museum (interactive, and unusually, with everything working – though masks and gel were everywhere) and a paleolithic encampment, with a hugely knowledgeable (and English) curator, who explained to us (some more enthralled than others) who these people were, what they would have been like and eaten (Clue: not potatoes) and how they would have made lived.

It was a brilliant afternoon, topped off by another swim.

Canoeing the Ardèche Gorge (well, a bit of it, at least)

We had rung the canoe company (of which there are an almost untold number) in Vallon Pont d’Arc on Monday night and been told that the river was still not yet low enough to confirm whether it would be safe to attempt the descent on Tuesday morning.   As instructed therefore we rang at 8 a.m. on Tuesday and were told that it was all systems go, if we could be there by 9.  This was a bit of a panic as, having booked only two nights’ accommodation, we had to pack up and move out of our lovely modern house and across the road into the owner’s mum’s more 14th century gite (no food processor here).

We made it, ish, only to discover that in fact everything was very laid back, in a classically surfer-ish (canoeists seem to be rather the same) way.  We hung around, while other groups came and went, for what felt like ages.  Having become used to people being desperate for our business, it was rather odd to be somewhere where there were clearly plenty of clients.  When we were finally at the front of the queue, we were rather crestfallen to be told that it really wasn’t advised for us, five of whom had never done the descent before, to attempt the full, 24 km version.  The water level was within legal limits, but only by 5 cm.  Ben was quite keen to go ahead regardless, but Harriet, with vivid memories of her father and a friend capsizing on the Tarn thirty years ago, was less keen.

Eventually we compromised on doing the shorter 8 km top section that day, with a view to doing the longer one the next if it went well.

It might perhaps suffice to say that we didn’t go back the next day.  

The longer version is that the river was, as promised, very high and fast: there was no need to paddle at all on any of the non-rapid sections.  This didn’t stop us trying to paddle and getting a little cross and shouty with each other as a result.   There were also more people on the river than we have perhaps seen in one place since the beginning of March, so it wasn’t the relaxing, calm, merrily down the stream experience some of us had imagined.   It would probably nonetheless have been more positive had the inevitable not happened to Harriet, Lucy and Aurora going over Charlemagne, the last and biggest rapid before the Pont d’Arc.

Clearly we were all fine, and we all did what we were told, and floated feet first out of the rapids.  We also did exactly what we were told not to do and managed to rescue all the paddles (Aurora), five out of six flip flops (Lucy) and the boat (Harriet), before swimming hard under the famous arch (failing entirely to appreciate it in the process) and making for a beach, where we landed rather out of breath and (in Harriet’s case) very concerned to find out if her phone (and all the photographs) had survived the experience.

They had, but a small sense of humour failure nonetheless ensued.  This was assuagued by some lunch and a swim back under the arch.  We set off again, restored to ourselves, and thoroughly enjoyed being washed, effortlessly, down the last kilometre or so to our rendezvous.  Nonetheless, five out of six of us decided that we weren’t keen to go back.  Not for a couple of years anyway.

Instead we headed back to our little house and into Vallon Pont d’Arc for a little shopping (to replace the missing flip flop) and a well-earned pizza.

St Pierre de Chartreuse

We returned to St Pierre on Wednesday and have had a relatively quiet time since then.

The journey back was uneventful, although we enjoyed spotting the pink feathers of the tamarisk trees, endless lavender (Harriet did her press-ups), wheeling vultures, the thick scrubland of the Garrigues and even a flash of blue from a jay. As we headed back into Rhone Alpes proper, the lavender was replaced by orchards and wheat fields before we climbed the hills back into the Chartreuse, which was ominously grey and cloudy.

Nothing hugely exciting seems to have happened without us. The garden has survived our absence, but the peonies have been destroyed by the heavy rain that apparently persisted all week. The flowers of the week are therefore these roses.  Everything else is mostly deadhead.

The beasties of the week were a very large llama which had got out of its field on our walk yesterday and decided that it was king of the path.  We walked round its back end rather nervously (would it be better to be kicked or spat at?). We also enjoyed a very small flying thing that does, if you squint, sort of look as though it has “love hearts” on its wings.

Ben was delighted that his new cycling bib shorts have arrived (courtesy of a voucher that was a leaving present from work) and has booked a hire bike for Tuesday. He’s having a hair cut first just to make sure he’s super aerodynamic and to shave (no pun intended) off a crucial 75 grams or so.

We resumed our daily walks, at first just along the familiar routes we trod during lockdown, but today further afield, relying on a new book of walks we had treated ourselves to yesterday. It was not an unmitigated success. We suspect that the writer hadn’t actually been on the walk he was describing because rather a large number of the paths didn’t exist and the words didn’t match up with the map. Nonetheless we had a lovely stroll through head-high meadows and along another beautiful stream. We rewarded ourselves with an entirely unnecessary and very large ice cream afterwards.

We have put a large warning sticker on the book.

Also new this week were Sophie and Aurora’s Primary School Leavers Hoodies and P7 Kelso Cougars Rugby tops. The rugby tops in particular are a big deal – they won’t be able to play for Kelso again until they are adults as there is no girls team and mixed rugby has to come to an end once they leave primary school. They were hugely touched to have these posted to them.

Primary school leavers hoodie and Kelso Cougars P7 top

Chartroussin wild flowers of the week were new to us (i.e. Harriet): the pinkest of pink musk mallow and the pincushion-like of the masterworts. Top of the wild plants of the week though were the alpine strawberries which are beginning to ripen along all the paths. They’re much better than Haribo for keeping a walk going…

What were the highlights?

Aurora: Getting my leavers’ hoodie, getting my Kelso Cougars new top, my Vans, kayaking, having pizza, the pool being clear, salmon wrapped in Parma ham (best thing ever), coming home to the rest of the teddies again and pizza all together.

Ben: The massive silver lining in the small cloud that was not being able to go kayaking down the Gorge on Monday was the Grotte Chauvet museum/reconstruction. Having the cave to ourselves (normally there are 28 in a group) was an unrepeatable treat.

I was struck by the realism in the artwork, but also their longevity despite their fragility. The oldest pictures were 36,000 years old, the most recent 21,000, just before the rock slide which blocked the entrance to the cave. That meant the oldest pictures had 15,000 years of human contact all of which they survived – it would have taken a day or two out of any of those 15,000 years to destroy or deface them, yet they are still there, still exquisite.

I loved our day canoeing, and would be delighted to go back and do more, even if it’s not this year. I think that days when I exercise are generally better days. The press up challenge Harriet and I have been doing to raise awareness of the RSABI has been fun, and I’m looking forward to cycling next week.

Magnus: I liked the canoes because it the water moved us really fast and it was nice. I like my new lego. My favourite bit is the Star Wars lego.

The pool in Vallon was awesome. It was so clear and nice and it wasn’t too cold or hot.

It’s good to be back here because there is actually a duvet in the cover.

Sophie: I really enjoyed the cave paintings and thought they were inspiring.I really enjoyed the pool being clear too and the pool in Vallon. Some of my favourite bits were listening to Percy Jackson with Lucy and Aurora, and Lucy telling us about Greek myths.

I also enjoyed getting my Edenside leavers jumper and rugby tour t-shirt.

Harriet: I was, however much of an unbelievable cliché it may seem, moved to tears by the paleolithic art. I don’t know whether it was the sheer minimalist beauty of the paintings, or their age, or the atmosphere of being almost alone, but I could have stayed looking at them for ever, and having to leave them made me weep.

I loved clambering around on the rocks bordering the Ardèche. The extraordinary colours of the water, the stone and the trees were a joy.

I enjoyed our walk today, through the alpine meadows, for all that the uselessness of the book was rather irritating.

Lucy: The cave paintings were amazing and really thought-provoking. I enjoyed being on the Ardèche beach especially the non-Newtonian fluid sand. Coming home was nice but I do want to go away too. I have also enjoyed listening to Percy Jackson with Sophie and Aurora.

I also really liked how clear the pool was in Vallon.

Any bad bits?

Magnus: I didn’t like the rapids because we got absolutely soaked through and it was so scary. I didn’t like the pizza in Vallon because I was grumpy and bored.

Aurora: Not having Duplo A to talk to and share the experience, Everyone being annoying.

Sophie: Bad bits were us fighting in general.

Lucy: Falling in the Ardèche and cleaning.

Harriet: I was really disappointed in myself that I did not enjoy the canoeing. It wasn’t the capsizing (although that didn’t help); I wasn’t enjoying it before that. It was too stressful and shouty with the children yelling at each other and the many other canoes. I really wanted it to be brilliant – this is something Ben has wanted to do with the children for years – and it wasn’t and that was, at least in part, my fault. People had all told me how fabulous it was and then it wasn’t. My sense of humour failure on the beach was at least in part because I felt I was letting everyone down by not enjoying it.

More generally we have definitely got out of the way of travelling: we lost more things (a watch, a pair of goggles, some shorts) in eight days than we did in five weeks at the beginning of the trip. Emotions run higher too while we are travelling and I had forgotten that. We have been bickery (particularly about who slept where and with whom – Ben and I don’t get involved in those ones) and scratchy at times in a way that I felt we had learned not to be over the course of lockdown. Change will do that, I know, but however explicable it wasn’t fun.

There are a lot more mosquitoes in the Ardèche than in the Camargue.  Just saying.

Ben: There are days when small things – usually children bickering, getting something wrong, or a minor setback – can really take a toll in my happiness in a disproportionate way. Friday was one of those days when many a mickle made a muckle, though thankfully today (Saturday) is another day, on a more even keel.

Being back here has led to mixed emotions. I love the Chartreuse and lots that it offers, but waking up, groundhog day-style, back in the same bed again, not on an exotic Chinese adventure, provoked a somewhat world-weary sigh.

On a more prosaic note, I didn’t like the mosquitos in the Ardèche.

What did we eat?

Being back in AirBnB accommodation meant we could cook for ourselves again. This was mostly pasta but Ben made an excellent parma ham wrapped salmon that (much to Harriet’s surprise) everyone declared delicious.

Weve been baking again since coming “home”. One of our lovely readers (Angela) sent us a recipe for millionaires chocolate flapjacks which we happily sacrificed the last of the home made golden syrup for. It was well worth it.

What about the tadpoles? Did they miss us?

Not noticeably.  They are still there but they still don’t have any legs.  We are beginning to wonder if they’re doing it on purpose.

What’s next?

Much of the talk has been thinking about what we will do with our remaining time for TweedtoTokyo. This week we finally admitted that Tweed will not get to Tokyo this year, and cancelled our flight home and our Japanese accommodation. This had been looking likely for a while now, but now it is done we need to look at what the last seven weeks or so will look like.

We think the planning will take us about two weeks, and there are various things we need to do (planning, booking, packing, maintenance) and would like to do (Ben’s birthday in early July, some walks, some socialising, a little cycling) before we go. In the first weeks of pre-lockdown adventure, we achieved a lot in 5 weeks, so even if we wrap up the Chartreuse stay in 2 weeks, that gives us a lot of room to play with.

Which route has potential for fewest wobbles?

There are questions we have to resolve in the planning: should we take advantage of the opening of most Schengen borders and plot a route through Italy, Switzerland, Germany (or further afield)? Will we finally get to Slovenia for Bled cake? Should we head for somewhere beginning with T so we can rename ourselves TweedtoTrieste or TweedtoToledo?

The current front runner is probably to stay mainly in France and take a long route home, which might feel a little unadventurous, but still offers a lot of scope. The reasons against the exotic other (though we would have laughed at the idea of Germany being exotic five months ago) are both practical – in France we speak the language, we know how things work both generally and new regulations-wise, and there are many ways we can have fun – and a bit of once-bitten-twice-shy risk management – the potential of getting stuck somewhere and not being able to cross a border, potentially not even back to France, and this wonderful bolt-hole in case there is a second lockdown.

We think, and this is still very vague, we will head South and West, before turning North probably along the Atlantic coast. If the Zeebrugge/Hull or Amsterdam/Newcastle ferries are running, that will be our route back to the UK. Currently we think that only Calais/Dover is available, which with current quarantine regulations would require a Dominic Cummings-style 450 mile dash with no stops for fuel or a wee, before 14 days of supernoodles, clothes-washing and Netflix in isolation at home.

Suggestions – on all fronts – welcome.