As most of you know, Kieran and I have recently been on holiday in the South of France. Provence to be more exact. Fougassiere near the village of Le Broc to be precise. And whilst I have indeed borrowed from Peter Mayle’s book title, parts of our holiday did at times seem to draw parallels with his experiences: 36 hours without running water and a few more without electricity. The idiosyncrasies of French plumbing and wiring. Although to be fair the farmhouse we choose as home for the week was quite literally in the middle of nowhere. The ‘drive’ – and I use the term loosely – was about five miles long and no wider than a small car, possibly not even that in parts.
Was lovely. After the obligatory bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape the night before… well when in France. The first morning started promisingly. A leisurely breakfast basking in the sun ‘out front’. The sound of birdsong filled the air. I watched the Jays darting across the front lawn between trees and was suitably soothed by the bees buzzing around the heavenly scented jasmine plant. Incidentally, bees in this part of Provence are enormous, and jet black. I did wonder how they even fly.
Tranquil is not the word… Until the donkey woke up. Apparently when you’re surrounded by mountains, all sound is hugely amplified and the ass became somewhat of a noisy neighbour. But it could be worse.
So breakfast over I’d spied the promisingly large shower head in one of the bathrooms – I do like a good powerful shower. Well I was about to be bitterly disappointed. A mere sprinkle. To add insult to injury K later reported having had a wonderful shower earlier on *sigh*. This was the first sign of our impending water troubles… but we didn’t know that at the time.
I wanted to visit Grasse so off we went. It was pretty uneventful to be honest other than we got absolutely soaked to the skin in one of Provence’s infamous ‘showers’. If only I’d taken my shampoo. Although we did take shelter in a chocolatier which was fortunate on two counts. Firstly, they sold chocolate, lots of it. Secondly they made the chocolate on-site so taking pity on us, they gave us a comprehensive demonstration of the chocolate making process, including tasting samples, until the rain stopped. It would have been rude not to buy any after that. So we did and it was delicious.
We arrived home still slightly damp from our soaking (wouldn’t you know that in my infinite wisdom I’d decided to wear white jeans – see through when wet it turns out) to find that we now had absolutely no running water. So in the spirit of adventure we duly collected water from the stream outside the door to wash up with and got on with preparing our meal. And it was all a bit of fun until we realised we couldn’t flush the toilets. But optimism prevailed (wine bravado more like) and we retired to bed certain that running water would have returned by morning.
K gets up before me practically every day – in the middle of the night sometimes I swear – and, due to the continuing absence of running water, he’d had to have a wash in the freezing cold stream water. He did bring it inside and put it in the bathroom basin – we hadn’t resorted to skinny dipping at that point. His assessment of the experience was that: ‘you see muscles you never knew you had’ when you wash in water so cold… He made a note to advise Dan to try this before his next physique comp.
I have to say I didn’t enjoy it any more than him. And if you’re wondering why we didn’t just heat it up in the kettle, well the kitchen was over the other side of the house up and down two steep and circling staircases. I’m quite accident prone so for health and safety reasons, I wasn’t allowed to.
Anyway, by day two K was itching to get his walking gear out and get moving. He’d decided we’d set out from the farmhouse on foot rather than drive anywhere so picnic and waterproofs packed, off we went. All went well until after about half an hour we reached the end of the path. Or so it seemed. The path was in fact a kind of driveway that disappeared into three farm houses. That coupled with the numerous forbidden entry signs and to top it all, a beware of the dog sign made us question our map reading. But K was adamant he was correct and that we were on course.
So we’re standing scratching our heads said ‘chien féroce’ arrives on the scene. Turns out it’s quite docile and kind of cute. Well he disappeared into the undergrowth to reveal what looked suspiciously like a path. We followed and it was. In fact we followed him in this manner for miles through dense undergrowth and beautiful woodlands, him dutifully leading us right down to the river in the bottom of the valley. We did wonder at what point he was going to trust that we knew where we were going and return home. Turns out he wasn’t. He was with us for the duration.
Le chien then reveals he hasn’t been across the river before and started looking to K for direction. Marvellous. By this time it was scorching hot and the air heady with the scent of thyme. We assumed responsibility for the dog at this point and all three of us started on up the other side of the valley. Halfway up K says he can hear shouting. What sounds like the hysterical shouting of a family looking for their beloved pet dog. Great. After a few minutes of listening, we agree to set off back the way we’d come to deliver le chien back to his rightful owners. At that moment K catches sight of a crowd of people on the side of the mountain. Turns out they’re cheering on the competitors of the Nice Ironman competition, not looking for dogs at all. Onwards.
We reach the top of the hill to be confronted by a main road, le chien doesn’t know his green cross code and ambles out into the pathway of said Ironman cyclists – who are coming downhill at some not inconsiderable speed. I grab his collar (hoping he doesn’t whip round and bite me) and a collision is avoided. We reach the safety of a cafe in Bouyon and order a couple of espressos. They arrive on a tray with a pristine bowl of fresh water for ‘our’ chien. No I say – it’s not my dog (I have waited my whole life to use that line… and I have no idea if he bites).
Now neither of us are fluent French speakers but we manage to convey, with what little we can remember – that the dog is ‘perdu‘ and he has followed us from the other side of the valley. After much tutting and scratching of chins – as is customary in France – they find a man who by some random chance knows where the dog is from and offers to drive him home. Result.
We return home to the ongoing water (or lack thereof) saga. K has now had enough of playing Ray Mears so decides to take action. He spends the next hour or so identifying the problem and sorting it with the owner. At last we have running water.
Day three and finally a torrent of hot water from the shower. We’re feeling human again. The weather is predicted to be hot and sunny today so we decide this would be a good day to visit Cannes. Neither of us have been there that we can remember – and probably neither of us will rush back there.
It was, as billed, scorching hot. We walked along the marina and there were some huge yachts there. Ostentatious doesn’t cover some of them – but others were very nice indeed. Apparently there had been some music event over the weekend and a few stragglers were still hanging around. All a bit ‘look at me darling’ posturing for us so we hopped on a boat across to the very tranquil Île Sainte-Marguerite for a stroll amongst the Eucalyptus tress. And relax.
Possibly the worst hike of my life so far. We made our way to our starting point at Coursegoules and we were just getting our rucksacks out of the boot when the heavens opened. We walked for an hour along a road in the pouring rain in full waterproof attire. Soul destroying, but that’ wasn’t the worst of it. Things looked up for a while when we turned off onto a country path and the weather cleared up. The sun came out and we baked for a while amongst picture postcard wild flower meadows and delightfully woodland dells.
But, as the day wore on a cluster of rather menacing clouds started to roll in and we could hear the distant, yet distinctive, rumbling of thunder in the next valley. Naturally, we were at the bottom of the ‘hill’ and needed to get up and across the ridge before the storm reached us. Marvellous. K set of at quite a pace – those of you who follow my ‘sc-ramblings’ will know that K is a decidedly more natural endurance athlete than myself. And whilst I do like to watch lightening scissor across the sky – that would preferably be from a distant vantage point, being out on an exposed mountain top with it is not my idea of fun. So I put a spurt on and tried to keep up. My ‘spurt’ it turns out is a bit too pedestrian for dodging weather – it moves faster.
After what seemed like an eternity we reached the summit. It was one of those relentless climbs – you know one of those that’s all uphill steps over rocks and has numerous fake tops – you think the end is in sight but when you get there, you catch sight of the next summit. Suffice to say I was exhausted when I finally got to the ridge and if it hadn’t been for the impending storm, could quite happily have curled up and gone to sleep. K was fine – no visible signs of exertion at all.
The Gorge du Verdon was the whole reason for our visit to Provence. We were planning to walk part of it on our last day – a climax to the holiday if you like. I’d visited nearby Castellane as a kid and was keen to revisit – not wanting another hustle and bustle ‘city day’ we decided today was the day. We’d do a recce for our gorge walk too.
We took the scenic route to Castellane. Along winding, narrow mountain roads with hairpin bends and mere twigs separating us and the sheer drop off the side. I’m sure the French think the wooden barrier was ample to prevent a car plunging over the edge. I wasn’t convinced and I’ve subsequently found out that there are shrines in the valley below for people who have ‘fallen off’ the road. I’m not sure whether Wayne is winding me up but it’s a good job I didn’t know at the time.
Castellane is famous for The Chapelle Notre Dame Roc – a church that sits on top of a rocky outcrop high above the town. It’s well worth the quite short and pretty easy climb up there – the views are amazing. All-in-all a relaxing day spent in the sun drinking coffee and eating. The only spoiler came when we visited the tourist office they advised us against walking the gorge the next day as there were more thunder storms forecast – apparently they cause falling rocks.
Gorge walk off, we decided to brave a trip into Nice. We really struggled to find good food last time we stayed there but this time we were prepared… We researched a few places to head for as soon as we got there. Find them and check the menu – ahead of 12 noon.
The mistake we’d been making all week was to arrive at our destination bursting for the loo and starving hungry. Never a good combination at the best of times but when driving a strange car, on the wrong side of the road and trying to navigate foreign places in a different language – a recipe for disaster. We’d rush to the nearest coffee shop and then head off for our picnic. By the time we were next hungry, lunch service was over. We were determined not to let this happen on our last trip out.
We did our full recce and then selected a coffee shop we actually fancied and ordered our ‘deux cafés‘ – we didn’t eat the pastry obviously, good as it looked. Across the street for a veggie juice, a wander around the old town of Nice (or Vieux Nice as the locals call it) and so to a thoroughly enjoyable lunch at Restaurant du Gésu in the shadow of a rather impressive church. Finally, a stroll up to the Le Parc de la Colline du Château where we parked ourselves on a bench under the shade of a rather large tree. Most pleasant. We’ve cracked it!
We enjoyed our trip so much we’ve already planned the next two: firstly to Ronda in the Malaga Province of Andalucia and secondly to Cockermouth in the Lake District. However, our next trip is our honeymoon to a place near Gairloch in the North-West Highlands of Scotland I believe. Highly recommended by Jo, Chris and Wayne so looking forward to that.