Champagne-sur-Loue at last!

19th August 2005, Champage sur Loue

Modestine has brought us to this little village of 120 souls situated at a height of about 250 meters on a bend of the River Loue in the foothills of the Jura mountains. It is a land of small villages and, as far as we can tell, an internet desert. Yesterday we cycled along the country lanes by the river to Arc et Senans, the nearest larger village which boasts the Saline Royale, a salt works designed as a model village by the visionary architect Claude-Nicholas LeDoux in the 1770s and now housing, in a typical French love of the Great Idea, a Centre pour le Futur. Even here there was no internet access but we discovered small computer shop in the village where we asked whether they provided access. “Non” was the abrupt answer. When asked whether there was anywhere in the locality, the same monosyllabic response. So when this reaches the blog site is anyone’s guess.

We finally left England as planned on 10th August. Right up until the day before when we found the courage to make the final commitment of purchasing our Channel crossing we somehow couldn’t really believe that it would happen! It was such a massive relief when we stood on the deck of the Normandie, crossing from Portsmouth to Caen, to realise we really had done it and were on our way, with a whole year ahead of us to explore Europe, with no commitments forcing us to return. The crossing passed in a sort of haze. We kept thinking we’d wake up and discover it was a dream! We both realise there will be black moments as well as golden ones, but it’s all a very life enriching experience for us to share.

We landed at Ouistreham at 10pm in darkness so Modestine first experience of French roads was straightforward with little traffic around. She had no trouble reaching Caen and we turned into Genevieve’s driveway on the dot of 11pm as anticipated.

Since our arrival we have been as spoiled by our friends on this side of the Channel as we were by so many of you on the other before we departed! We don’t know what we’ve done in life to be surrounded by so many wonderful friends but long may it continue! It gives us a permanent warm glow!

On the first day (11th) Modestine was opened as a show house being visited by our French friends! The weather was wonderfully warm. Sitting in the garden beneath the shade of the acacia tree with a glass of red wine and a selection of Normandy cheeses it was hard to realise this was not just a pleasant interlude, but the first real day of our new lives!

In the afternoon, with Genevieve we visited La Colline des Oiseaux to the north of Caen. Before the war this was the rubbish tip for the city. Later it became the dumping ground for the rubble resulting from the bombardment as part of the D-Day landings. There is a series of gardens of the world including a Devon garden, complete with cob wall and thatched shelter. We had been given a sum of Euros by a group of Devon local history societies on Ian’s retirement, on condition that we spent it on frivolous things. So our first frivolous expense was an ice for ourselves and Genevieve by the Devon garden in Caen.

Friday 12th was an opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with the wonders of the French market at Fosses St Julien where we went to purchase food for the evening’s dinner party. In the evening Genevieve’s table decoration was a work of art, with the cloth being carefully chosen to match the bowl of fruit which formed the centrepiece together with eighteenth century crystal and silver decanters filled with dark red wine. Good food (chicken with tarragon and a selection of Normandy cheeses) and the pleasant company of friends from Caen Library combined to make a most enjoyable evening.
On Saturday 13th we drove toEmmaüs, an enterprise in the heart of the countryside near Douvres-la-Délivrande run by offenders as part of their rehabilitation programme. It is a national programme with a centre in each department which collects unwanted items from people’s homes and resells them cheaply to raise fund for its programme. Here Jill got asked for assistance by a customer who mistook her for one of the staff. The offenders are accommodated in a beautiful but dilapidated chateau with the sales taking place in a range of dusty courtyards and out-buildings. We spent an hour pottering around with throngs of people from Caen seeking bargains. They seemed ready to buy the most unlikely things, birdcages and kennels were piled up with old shutters and windows, baths and bidets shared space with sofas and saucepans. Everything looked messy and it was necessary to rummage through endless rubbish to find a bargain. That though was the fun, the thrill of maybe finding by chance exactly what you needed, even if you didn’t realise that you needed it – like the saucepan we bought for Modestine.

We left Emmaüs for Bernières-sur-Mer, where families played on the beach like seaside holidays used to be, with no commercial activity at all. We walked along the sea front past the groups of white painted beach huts. This beach, so peaceful, relaxed and evocative of the days of Marcel Proust, was the site of the D-Day landings by the Canadian forces on Juno Beach. The first house liberated here still stands on the sea-front. It was awesome to look around from its front gate and imagine the troops disembarking under heavy fire with no protection on 6th June 1944. Small wonder over one hundred were killed within minutes of landing, perhaps the same number as were on the beach today. It was as if every person in sight had been killed by bullets as we stood there – a very sobering thought. Their brave actions are recorded on an old German block-house and a memorial on the sea-front.

The evening was spent dining with friends where Ian sampled a family heirloom, some very old Armagnac, perhaps dating from the late 19th century. Unfortunately the cork disintegrated on opening but the effect of the drink remained very powerful.

On Sunday (14th) we visited the nature reserve at Salenelles on the marshes at the estuary of the Orne where we had the strange sight of the ferry leaving Ouistreham for Portsmouth, seeming to be travelling along a road behind a distant hedge. Strange too to think that we would not be on it for some months yet! We walked between the beds of reeds and salsify, which is used as a pickled vegetable. An interesting contrast with the nature reserve at Dawlish Warren at the mouth of the Exe.

We left Caen on Monday 15th August aiming to travel as far as possible along routes départmentales. Striking east towards Lisieux we passed the massive basilica to Saint Thérèse and then made for L’Aigle, where we hoped to visit the artificial insemination centre - a candidate we thought, for our second item of frivolous expenditure. But our holiday curse had not left us now we had ceased to be holidaymakers. The centre was closed that day. We made our way on, stopping only at Frazé where we were attracted by a fairy-tale castle beside the road. We arrived ten minutes before closing time, but the young gatekeeper allowed us to wander round the courtyard free of charge, disturbing the carefully raked pathways and admiring the immaculately trimmed hedges and trees which framed the Renaissance gateways and halls. We found a quiet campsite by the river Loir (not Loire) at Châteaudun and found our way over the river and up flights of steps that reached the tops of the cliffs which provided protection for the town and its impressive castle. Much of the town was destroyed by a fire in the early 18th century, so what remains is a mixture of 18th century planning and a huddle of narrow medieval streets around the castle.

The next day (16th) was a frustrating crawl through the villages that cluster along the banks of the Loire (not Loir) with an occasional glimpse of a castle or tower in the towns on either side of the river which, although low (more than seventy departments in France are suffering from drought), was still higher than the last time we had visited the area.

Leaving the Loire just north of Nevers we struck off west towards the Morvan area and stopped in the village of Saint Saulge. There was a strange feeling of déjà vu as we parked in the little square in front of the gendarmerie. The French are driven by a strange impulse to hang things on their churches. In Sainte-Mère-Eglise in the Cotentin there is the macabre sight of a paratrooper hanging from the church tower – a reminder for tourists of the day in 1944 when the hapless American watched his comrades being killed in the square below during the d-Day assaults. Here in Saint Saulge however we rediscovered a life-size model of a cow. It appears that the folk of saint Saulge had a reputation for bizarre actions. Why the cow is there is unclear, but it is said to derive from an event during a previous drought in France when a cow was hoisted up to graze on the grass growing in the gutters of the church – or so they say.

Eventually we found a campsite at Châtillon-en-Bazois, where the wide Canal du Nivernais crosses the road. It is logging country and it is possible to follow the route taken by loggers as they floated their logs down the rivers and canals from the forests in the hills of the Morvan. Rising early next morning (17 August – the day the Trafalgar dispatch arrived in Exeter) we cycled along by the banks of the canal with the little river Aron on our other side where cream coloured cows came down to the banks to drink. We overtook a large river boat named the Adelaide and stopped to look at the first lock, l’Ecluse de Mingot, with its little lock-keeper’s cottage and beautifully tended garden, intending to return to the campsite after that. By then the Adelaide had caught up with us and the skipper, a cheery man of about our age, saw us watching while he tethered his boat to the lock-side. He offered to take us and our bikes up to the next lock. Too good an opportunity to miss, so the bikes were hauled aboard and we glided along the still waters. Ian was even given the opportunity of steering the boat along one of the straighter stretches. It was remarkable how sensitive the large boat was to the slightest touch. The next lock came in sight, with a charming girl of about twenty as a lock-keeper. It seems that lock-keepers, like the rest of France, go on holiday in August and that the job is such a sought-after holiday employment for students that they are strictly limited to one month. Our keeper was a medical student at Clermont-Ferrand and she serenaded our slow ascent in the lock with folk tunes played on the accordion – a magical experience and one which our skipper, who lived in the north of France and owned a boat in the south, had never experienced in the several hundred locks he had passed through in the Adelaide. He offered to take us on to the next lock where, to our delight there was a young man who also serenaded us on the accordion. It turned out that he was a student of politics at the same university and the boyfriend of the medical student. Perhaps it was their love of folk music that had brought them together. Ian helped to open the lock gates, and then we decided that it was time to leave Luc, our good-natured skipper, and cycle back to the campsite.

We continued westward. The Morvan is the home of Francoise Mitterand and it is largely to his influence that motorways have been kept away from the area of the national park. At Château-Chinon there is even a museum in his memory with all the presents he had received on state occasions. If a similar collection of such gifts on display in Colombo Museum in Sri Lanka is anything to go by, it would have been an excellent museum of bad taste and good for another piece of frivolous expenditure of the Devon “research grant” but time was pressing so we drove on through the vineyards of the Bourgogne and across the plain of the Saône toward the limestone mountains of the Jura which we could see in the distance.

Soon the familiar village names began to appear - Villers-Farley, Cramans, Arc-et-Senans and finally Champagne-sur-Loue where we were welcomed by Suzanne and Roland. They had undertaken a lot of work on the basement flat since our last visit. The kitchen had been brought up-to-date from the 1950s to the 21st century, the cramped sit-up bath had been replaced by a shower, but the welcome was still as warm and old-fashioned as before and we were invited to a simple supper preceded by ratafia and wine made by Roland himself from grapes grown in his small vineyard on the hill behind the village.

The morning after our arrival (18th August) we looked round the village of Champagne-sur-Loue, which had received many improvements since our last visit a few years back – and even more since Jill had taught English at the Maison Rurale du Clos in the little château behind Suzanne’s house in the 1960s. The school has now closed and the château has been sold by the Domincan sisters to a Parisian family. The old farmhouses with their massive arched entrances and high roofs are better maintained and are adorned by pots and boxes of bright flowers. The campsite has been overhauled and the war memorial cleaned. No English settlers as yet (apart from our temporary presence) but a Dutch couple have taken over one of the large farm buildings and set up a gite. The wife also practises some sort of alternative therapy using hot stones – hope we won’t require that! We unpacked Modestine and unfolded our cycled. In the morning we cycled to Arc-et-Senans,as already mentioned, passing a snail farm where thousands of the little creatures were basking under rows upon rows of inclined slabs as they were drenched by sprays of the precious waters, of which there is such a shortage. The sight even intrigued a passing French couple who stopped to take photographs.

Arc-et-Senans looked so much busier than we remembered it, but we had never visited in the holiday season before. The Saline Royale contains an excellent bookshop with much on architecture, utopian ideas and, of course, salt, as well as regional literature. We purchased a detailed 1:25,000 map, to guide our future cycling expeditions. The map posted up for tourists by the car park was much less helpful. The railways were shown as routes nationals and the cartographers had even invented complex junctions to enable the motorist to join these non-existent roads – a hazardous undertaking when one of the lines is used by the TGV! How such an inaccurate map could have been accepted by the commune beggars belief, but it is only the worst amongst a number of inaccuracies we have seen on such panels during our recent travels. We stocked up at a small supermarket and cycled home for lunch, in the afternoon making off in the other direction along the Loue past fishermen and bathers to Port-Lesney, where we had a beer on a shady terrace to shelter from the temperatures of 32 degrees in the sun.

We finished our day with a walk round the village with Suzanne, who has to exercise her foot regularly after breaking it earlier this year. We passed the grove of sixty poplars planted by her son Hugues, a forestry advisor, fifteen years ago when his son Thibault was born. They are somewhat taller than Thibault now, standing some fifteen metres high but the leaves are already brown and they are suffering from a disease which is afflicting many poplars in France. They will have to be felled but the price of timber is low at the moment.

After sunset we decided to phone Neil and Jeev from the village phone box. We had purchased a phone card in Caen for such eventualities but on entering the phone box we became tangled in a mass of spiders’ webs complete with their plump occupants who had gorged themselves on the swarms of insects attracted by the light in the ceiling of the box. We decamped rapidly to the flat and returned with a broom to evacuate the tenants and clean up the handset. The box had clearly not been used for weeks – a sign of the universal penetration of mobile phones. Even in these remote parts Roland takes his mobile when he goes to cut wood from his copse or to work on his vines.

Jardin du Devon, Caen

Our dinner table

Salenelles nature reserve

Chateau de Frazé

The Adelaide on the Canal du Nivernais near Châtillon

The lock keeper

Ian working the lock gates

Goodbye to the Adelaide

The snail farm on the route between Champagne and Arc et Senans