Normandy and Franche Comte

Monday 9th April 2007, Caen
The weather this Easter has been wonderful. Yesterday we had Sunday lunch in the garden with Germaine, Geneviève's mother. French tradition dictates that on Easter day one always eats roast leg of lamb. It's a rather good tradition in our opinion, especially when served with green beans and a bottle of Bordeaux.

Lunch in the garden, Caen

During the afternoon we even managed to fit in a visit to the nearby botanical gardens before Etienne, Alouis and Camille, the younger contingent of the extended family arrived in a group from Paris where they are students, for the start of the Easter holidays. In the evening Geneviève's brother Yves and his partner Christine arrived from Rouen. It was good to have the house full, as it used to be for Easters in the past when all our children were small and there would be at least eight youngsters playing noisily in the garden and as many adults chatting noisily in the house.

This morning it was again hot and sunny - an ideal day for a picnic and a walk in the Suisse Normande near Clécy. This is an area of largely metamorphosed limestone where a high escarpment of grey rock drops straight down to the valley of the river Orne. It is a popular spot for climbing and canoeing, particularly on a warm Easter Monday. Not to be outdone, and in need of serious exercise, Jill joined the climbers near the viaduct for a clamber up the cliff face to the summit. Most of them had ropes and full climbing equipment but it didn't really seem necessary. It was surprisingly easy getting up though considerably more difficult getting down again. It justified the effort though with beautiful views along the escarpment, down onto the bend of the river and across the surrounding fields.

Impressive or what! Jill's afternoon workout above the river Orne near Clécy

View from the top, Suisse Normande

Above the viaduct, Suisse Normande

After a picnic lunch nearby we took a more leisurely walk along a marked footpath above the river, through a woodland of as yet leafless trees where the ground was a swathe of bluebells and white stitchwort. Amongst the rocks beside the path were occasional clumps of tiny purple orchids and beneath the trees were several nests of huge wood ants.

Suisse Normande, above the river Orne

Jill and Genevieve in the Suisse Normande

Wild orchids, Suisse Normande

Why did we need to go all the way to Trinidad?
Ants' nest in the Suisse Normande

We have all caught the sun today and even after we returned home it was warm enough to sit outside for a glass of wine before supper.

Thursday 12th April 2007, Champagne-sur-Loue, Jura
How could we not call in to see our friends Susanne and Roland as we crossed France on our way south towards Italy and Croatia? Yes, that is our aim and we are anxious to reach the south before it becomes too hot for us. This is therefore a flying visit for a couple of nights, though already, after being here for a mere three hours, we have settled back into the flat in the basement so completely that we want to stay for weeks rather than a weekend!

Over the past few days we have enjoyed continual sunshine and friendship. On Tuesday afternoon we left Geneviève in peace for a few hours and walked down into the centre of Caen where we spent a relaxed afternoon revisiting old haunts, sitting on a terrace with a couple of beers overlooking the "port de plaisance" with its moored sailing craft, and investigating an exhibition of Chinese sculptures in the grounds of the massive castle that looms over the town. During the evening our friends Claire and Jean-Pierre joined us for a supper of rabbit with prunes prepared by Geneviève. It was a delightful end to a very happy few days in Caen. Thank you everyone for the warmth of the welcome we received. We have moved on, our thoughts filled with many happy memories.

Chinese sculptures within the castle walls, Caen

Yesterday we left Caen mid-morning and travelled south-east, cross-country, mainly using departmental routes. Progress was slow but the scenery was far nicer than on the national routes or motorways. We stopped in Sées, a pleasant, peaceful town with a cathedral famed for its twin towers. We have frequently seen them from several kilometres away as we have passed by, so decided to investigate the town more closely this time. The façade of the cathedral is ornate but is very damaged, the statues being badly worn and defaced. Outside we found a row of posters depicting all the candidates for the forthcoming presidential elections when Jaques Chirac will be superseded. The first round will take place in a couple of weeks with the final choice the following Sunday. Under the French system, at the first vote citizens use their hearts and vote for the candidate they really want. Once the results are known only the chief runners go through to the next round. Here electors use their heads and vote tactically, frequently against their political persuasion. Most of our friends are still unsure how they will vote and are none too happy with any of the choices. Ségo (Ségoline Royal) or Sarko (Nicolas Sarkosi) seem the main contenders, and as ever, Jean Marie le Pen is standing for the National Front.

Twin towers of the cathedral, Sées

Election posters outside the mairie, Sées

Leaving Sées we continued in hot sunshine for countless kilometres across an empty, flat, almost treeless landscape with nothing but pastureland, ploughed fields and acres of bright yellow rape (colza as it is called here) as far as the eye could see. The fields literally hummed with insects and soon Modestine's prominent brow was scarred and pocked by the pollen sacs and the guts of countless unfortunate bees.

Soon we were crossing the Loire with its wide expanse of water lined by slender poplar trees just starting to wear a hazy gauze of green. There is however, a shadow across this rural idyll. Along its banks, and indeed right across the country, are scattered huge cooling towers for the nuclear reactors that generate the country's electricity. Strange that it is a French company, EDF who control most the British power industry where we are non-nuclear. Is there a hidden agenda somewhere? Of course, on the south coast of England we'd be in easy range should any major accident occur at any of the generators in Northern France.

Twin towers of the nuclear reactor near Gien

We followed its course towards Gien where we hoped to find a campsite for the night. Seeing a very pleasant one at Olivet, south of Orléans, we stopped there instead. The evening was far milder than back in Caen and we sat outside Modestine, on the banks of the Loiret, enjoying a glass of excellent wine with a selection of patés, followed by coffee and fruit cake, presents from Gaston, Odile and Geneviève. Several rowing boats passed just beside us. One ended up in the bank as the team's attention was more on Modestine than their oars, another shouted congratulations at Britain's football prowess – we gather Manchester United won a match in the European cup 7-1 but the rowers were long gone before we could find out who they were playing!

As darkness fell, around 9pm, we retired for our first night's sleep in Modestine. The pattern we established last year was readopted automatically. Hinge and Bracket (who insisted on coming with us again) were relegated to the front seats, leaving the rest of the vehicle for us to make up our surprisingly large and comfortable bed. We slept like logs despite the temperature turning very chilly during the night.

This morning we left the campsite early and were in Gien by breakfast time where we stopped for coffee and some exercise climbing up the sleep flights of steps from the river to the restored but impressive brick château with its pointed black slate-roofed towers. Our route followed the Loire until we turned eastwards towards Vézelay in the Morvan regional park. Vézelay is one of the major places of pilgrimage on the route to Compostella and stands amidst vineyards on a high promontory to be seen for miles around. We have visited it several times already but it never fails to attract, despite the coach loads of tourists deposited at the bottom of the little town who wend their way up the cobbled streets past the restaurants, ice cream and souvenir vendors to the 12th century Romanesque basilica, heavily restored in the 19th century. Inside many of the capitals and original carvings remain and we find it architecturally a very pleasing building. In the crypt are the remains of St. Mary Magdalene to whom the basilica is dedicated. The little town has been an important centre of Christianity for centuries. St. Francis of Assisi settled here and Bernard of Clairvaux preached the crusade in the basilica in 1146.
Château de Gien

Roofscape with the Loire beyond, Gien

Approaching Vézelay

Basilica, Vézelay

Interior of the basilica, Vézelay

Road up to the basilica, Vézelay

From Vézelay the scenery became more varied and the roads less straight. To add to the interest, we had to ensure we did not travel on any of the same roads as last year. Our route then had been marked on the Michelin map in pink. This year we have used yellow and generally have avoided much overlap. We still followed the departmental roads across county, passing through small white stone villages and fields filled with cowslips and dandelions. The French really care for their woodlands, of which there are very many, and they can be vast. In early spring they are filled with white anenomies and cowslips and there is a soft veil of green as the budding leaves attempt ineffectually to clothe the bare limbs of the trees.

We crossed the wine growing region of Burgundy where the vineyards are as yet bare and stark. Dark stumps stick out from the ground supporting a single withered stem which is tied to a wire. Soon this will bud and spread, bearing the grapes that will become next year's Nuit St. Georges. Here the land was familiar to us. Returning to England some years ago the engine of our car exploded in the town of Beaune and we were forced to spend several nights there unexpectedly, paid for by our insurance policy which also paid for the loan of a car so we could explore the surrounding area while we waited! Poor us, marooned in the wine capital of Bourgogne! You can imagine our distress!

Vineyard near Nuit St. Georges, Burgundy

It is 435 miles between Caen and Champagne and we arrived on the dot of 7 pm as we had predicted. Susanne and Roland were waiting for us in their kitchen overlooking the grounds of the old convent where Jill used to work. There was much warmth in our reunion, our first visit since we left after our extended stay here in 2005 to make our way south to the Langedoc and the rest of our travels. (See our earlier blog for a full account of this region.) Roland was quickly pouring us an aperitif, made from his own grapes, fortified with eau de vie. With supper he served us wine made from the same grapes we saw growing here last time and with desert we drank a sparkling vin mousseux, also produced from his own grapes! He's not allowed to call it Champagne even though it was literally produced in the village of Champagne-sur-Loue.

Roland serves his Champagne de Champagne

Friday 13th April 2007, Champagne-sur-Loue, Jura
Today has been a real Friday 13th with quite enough misfortune. It started well enough with us driving in to the beautiful old town of Arbois and using most of our available cash to fill a very hungry Modestine with diesel. In the market we replaced Ian's missing sunhat – the first of the season – before succumbing to the lure of La Cuisance, the restaurant on the banks of the river that so enchanted us on our previous travels. We were not disappointed, enjoying Quiche Lorraine with salad, regional sausage braised in a Bourgogne sauce served with gratin de pates and haricots cocos (noodles and baked beans with a banger in wine sauce to you lot.) This was followed by a selection of local cheeses and mousse au chocolat with coffee to finish. When will we finally start our diet?

Eglise St. Just, Arbois

Peaceful scene on the Cuisance, Arbois

By now our stomachs were full and our purse empty so we headed for the nearest cash machine. Our card was rejected. After trying three different banks it dawned on us that we had a problem! Returning to Champagne we collected our second card and drove to Salins where it was rejected by three more banks! Panic was fast setting in as we headed for the internet shop to consult our bank account. Had it been raided since Tuesday and our pensions stolen? We could think of no other reason. It was lovely that the young man in the internet shop recognised us, remembered our names and told us our account was still active as we'd told him we'd be back one day. However, we didn't fully appreciate it at the time. There appeared to be nothing wrong with our online account and no explanation from our bank. None of the banks in town knew why we had a problem but eventually we made phone contact with our local branch in England. We were relieved to learn it was a problem with the bank rather than our account but were told there was nothing they could do to help us until it was sorted out and priority would be given to blocked accounts in Britain. So here we are with 40 euros between us and no idea when we will be able to get any more! We planned to move on tomorrow but Susanne has said we can stay on here until the problem is solved. It has brought it home to us very forcibly just how vulnerable we are and we are grateful to be with friends willing to feed and house us rather than in a country where we cannot speak the language and would soon be without enough to pay for food and a camp site! From now on we'll keep a hidden supply somewhere for emergencies.

Later this afternoon we accompanied Susanne on a walk through the woodland above the village and up onto the clos from where we had spectacular views towards the foothills of the Jura mountains in one direction and the plain surrounding the little town of Arc et Senans in the other. Everywhere is so familiar and we have to confess to having no desire to move on anyway and half hope our account has not been sorted out by tomorrow so we can enjoy this idyllic landscape a little longer. Our route through the woods was lined with purple orchids, cowslips and perventes (we don't have our dictionary and the word is new to us) while the fields were gold with dandelions. The young heifers and beautiful, gentle tan horses with their white manes watched us as we passed, following the track that lead to the vineyards that now cover the sunny slopes of the clos. The industry has developed over the years and there are now over 100 hectares of vines here, all managed by the few residents of this tiny, unknown village.

Woodland flowers, Champagne-sur-Loue

Cattle in the fields above Champagne-sur-Loue

Roland's vines, Champagne-sur-Loue

Crucifixion. Pour du bon vin, il faut que la vigne souffre

We returned home along beside the river Loue where Hugue's poplar trees, planted seventeen years ago when Thibault was born have recently been sold to an Italian company and new ones already planted.

Hugue's new poplar trees on the banks of the river at Champagne-sur-Loue

Back home we were invited to join our hosts for supper again. Roland was eager to test out the differences between the bottle of Normandy apple Pommeau we'd given him and his own fortified grape wine. So we started with a comparison as an aperitif. Our meal, like last night, was accompanied with a variety of home produced wines, all excellent but unmarketable as he is not a professional producer. Conversation was animated and it was way past our hosts' normal bedtime before we left them in peace and staggered downstairs to the flat they have lent us while we are here. Even this evening the temperature was reasonably mild outside and we could hear owls hooting in the garden.