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 Cavay̬re Рa 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 ch̢teau 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 Рlooking 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.

My Worries about Volcanoes 😶 🤯 🌋 ⛩

Hi it’s Magnus,

One of my worries is Volcanoes and we are planning to climb Mount Fuji!!! In case you didn’t know Mount Fuji is a volcano!

So i did some research on wikipedia and found out that it was an active volcano not dormant like i thought. Its last eruption was from 1707 to 1708.

The experts thought it might erupt soon becacase of an earthquake in 2011 but this was “speculative and unverifiable” which means they don’t know and they can’t tell!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I think it’s less likely Mount Fuji will erupt because the last eruption was  312 years ago!!!👴

bye, Magnus 🙃