The capital lies in the wealthy, densely populated, Île-de-France region and I love it. Paris is renowned for being the most romantic city in the world with its majestic tree-shaded boulevards laced with invitingly discreet boutiques and cafés. Interspersed amongst these are the restaurants and night-spots that boast of famous clientele and celebrated rebel-rousers who have added passion, art and reputation to its past. These are the places most frequented by those who are determined to see. And be seen.
Our route towards the coast took us through part of Les Landes, the largest maritime-pine forest in Europe. Tall, formidable trees arranged in green battalions dominate the landscape, flanking the route nationale in an orderly fashion. This immense forest supports a flourishing timber industry.
Capbreton, like Hossegor, is another surfers’ paradise. It’s easy to spot this as one rubs shoulders with fellow beach and bistro users who are often still super-glued to various sections of wet suit. They waft around in a semi-dreamlike state, sporting enormous shorts, oversize hoodies, bangles and smoking strange-smelling cigarettes. This relaxed transient community gives Capbreton a distinctly bohemian feel. Most things here go with the flow. But not Jack, of course.
He simply can’t.
The wind, loaded with rain and hailstones, was screaming, lashing the side of the building with relentless force. It raged for over two hours, leaving any thoughts of sleep out of the question. Instead, we catnapped, wincing every time debris slammed against the shutters, pummelling the metal. At around 6:00 am the clamour abruptly stopped, leaving behind a surreal calmness. Jack couldn’t stand it any longer. He grabbed some clothes and rushed out to check on the car. I dressed and was preparing to take the dogs out when he reappeared, his face white as a sheet.
It’s Will here,” roared the familiar voice. “And how are my intrepids this fine morning?” “Erm…fine thanks, Will. It’s a tricky road, but we’re making steady progress now.”
“Good, good. That’s what I like to hear. And what’s the weather like?”
I looked up through the car’s sunroof and couldn’t quite believe my eyes.
“Well, er, the weather is fine Will, but I’ve just noticed there’s a car in the trees above our heads.”
“No, I don’t think so my dear, it’ll be on the hairpin bend up ahead.They can give one the most horrid optical illusion. I understand they are a little steep on the approach to the domaine.”
“Actually, no Will, there is definitely a car in the tree. We’re very close to it now. It must have toppled off the road on the corner and it’s now stuck in the top of a tree. In fact I’m looking directly at its roof, it’s almost upside down.”
“Most unusual,” came the sotto voce reply. “But then again I do have to remind you how appallingly bad French drivers are – quite disastrous on the road.”
Waking up in the depths of Provence – how wonderful! In my heart of hearts, I’d always hoped we’d find our dream home hereabouts. After all, it has the second largest expanse of forest in France, which I was certain must be teeming with fantastic wildlife. The inland villages and countryside rival the very best the country has to offer and, with its celebrated year-round temperate climate, what could be better? I felt relaxed and supremely confident about the day ahead. “Oh no! What a nightmare!” came the groan from beneath the pillow next to me.
With a high-pitched giggle, signore led us into the salon section. It contained a substantial assortment of African wild animals, the most obvious of which was a full-sized stuffed lioness standing on a raised plinth decorated by what appeared to be a segment of the African savannah. The whole feline assembly was sensitively positioned for best effect in between a four-seater settee and two large armchairs. It completely dwarfed the furniture and destroyed any attempt for seat-users to converse unless they were prepared to chat at a level somewhere beneath the animal’s belly.
In this town we were on the very stamping ground of the jet-setting elite. As I half-listened to the men, I looked around expecting to see one or two beauties strolling down the ancient cobble street, designer dog in bag, or gracefully adorning an adjacent coffee table preparing to take a selfie. But there was only us. It was still just 9:30am so I guessed this might preclude most of these sophisticated night-birds from daring to face the early rays of the day. They’d probably be saving their energies for the arduous job of lifting a reviving glass of wine at lunchtime, an essential ingredient to sustain them for the rigours of an afternoon’s shopping expedition in Nice.
Gliding subtly into a moment of horticulture, I told him (Jack) Hyères is internationally famous for its palm trees, boasting 7,000 or so specimens. Their propagation began in 1867 when the first seeds were promulgated and the area proved to be an ideal growing location. This links to the thirty-nine kilometres of world-class pristine sand beaches and rocky inlets. Sadly I made a fatal mistake by adding that, because of their outstanding natural beauty, they can get very crowded in summer. Jack was onto it in a trice. “And that’s exactly why we should steer well clear of places like that, especially during the summer months. God, the place must be a total log-jam. Now what about the mistral? You haven’t read any health warnings about it recently.”
Christophe (our agent) was a scrawny specimen whose demeanour projected extreme nervous tension. His body language was strained, his movements staccato and he constantly looked around furtively as though he was being followed. I worried that meeting someone like my husband might not do this bird-like man’s well-being any good at all. He was dressed in a creased off-white linen suit and matching Panama hat, the latter of which might have been more appropriate for a hot day in Havana. Following my nod of recognition, he plucked off his hat in welcome with the finesse of a parrot pecking a peanut. This caused his carefully oiled mop of hair to flop out and reveal the fullness of his face. It was etched with worry and bordered by the most intricately designed and maintained goatee beard I had ever seen. This, together with pointy sideburns, created a piratical look. I imagined there was probably a medallion embedded somewhere in his chest hair.
“Oh my God!” he exploded. “Bloody hell Beth, when we agreed we didn’t want to buy a château I didn’t realise I had to include every architectural permutation, physical characteristic or international synonym to make the position clear. Just look at it, it’s a bloody castle. A Norman castle at that!” “No, I don’t think it can be Norman, darling… don’t forget that the Normans…” “Well, it bloody well looks like one!”
I’m afraid that Jack was more or less right. It was definitely a fortification of sorts and if he chose to term it a castle, or bastion, or even stronghold, these terms would also have hit the mark. It wasn’t Norman, but I was still shocked to the core. The other unavoidable point, one I knew he’d be working up to any minute, was that it was absolutely huge – as castles generally are.
It turned out to be a lovely place with a distinctly Spanish flavour. This was because of its close proximity to the border and the fact that this Catalan town had developed at a time when Roussillon belonged to the Kingdom of Majorca. As we wandered down the narrow streets we passed several art shops and galleries. Shop fronts were decorated with red and yellow banners, the combined colours of the ancient Roussillon and the modern Catalan flag. They flapped gaily in the morning breeze, giving the area a cheerful, festive feeling. Jack thought the whole thing was a bit excessive, but I loved it and could quite happily have spent the entire morning there.
Even our non-stop whizz through parts of the Loire Valley didn’t stop us enjoying the gorgeous countryside. This area trades game for grapes and is bursting with lush vineyards. It produces superb wines and the town of Vouvray is renowned for its andouillette sausages. The French do love a good sausage.
This city is famed for its wine industry, but has much more to offer. With over 1,810 hectares listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, it is internationally recognised as one of the great cities of the world. There are many reasons for this, not least of which is its architecture. Of particular note are the stately buildings, many reminiscent of Roman temples, that line wide boulevards on both sides of the River Garonne. It is a grand and majestic place.
Our approach into Montauban was via the railway station which, despite being served by the TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse, or high-speed train) amongst others, from the outside was decidedly unimposing. In fact, I was just thinking how unremarkable and scruffy the streets looked when we turned the corner to cross the river. It was still some distance away, but definitely worth a comment.
“The bridge we’re approaching – I do hope we drive over it.”
“It’s just a bridge, and yes, we will be driving over it.”
“Good. But it’s not just a bridge at all. It’s very important, I read about it earlier.”
“Honestly, this’ll appeal to your engineering skills. Hang on, luckily I’ve brought the book with me.” Ignoring Jack’s groan, I quickly retrieved my tourist guide.
They have garlic markets here which take place each week from July to January, but that’s not all. The locals are so passionate about this precious vegetable that they hold the Fête de l’Ail Blanc every July, after harvesting and drying the yield. Over 15,000 devotees flock to this festival, keen to immerse themselves in a packed programme bursting with garlic-related festivities. I picked up an information leaflet to learn more. A wide selection of local produce is offered during the fête, but nothing can compare with the star of the show. An estimated three tonnes of garlic are sold every year. One of the main attractions is the hotly contested garlic peeling challenge, the very thought of which made my eyes water.
Although we’re old hands at this game, setting off from the Eurotunnel complex in Calais can still be challenging. This is because one is immediately faced with a plethora of traffic signs and route choices. To confound things, SatNav lady has to be contended with. Usually irritated that, for no logical reason, her GPS coordinates of an hour ago have suddenly shifted 50 kilometres to the south. She now adds to the general buzz by telling us we should make multiple Uturns, ‘when possible’.
Our route north-east took us past Le Mans, probably more famous these days for its 24 hour car race, and then the cathedral and university city of Rouen, in Normandy. Built on the banks of the Seine, the river was the cause of Rouen’s development into another of France’s great ports. The autoroute here seems to take users straight through the middle of the city, which is somewhat incongruous. Nevertheless, it’s a handy opportunity to catch glimpses of the magnificent church and cathedral spires as one zooms past.
As we rounded another corner, my eye was suddenly drawn to a spectacular view. I’d read about it but never seen it. The scene that gradually unfolded was more evocative and majestic than anything I’d imagined. I was spellbound. Silhouetted against the blue sky on a hill above the river Aude was a seemingly endless number of towers interspersed with rows of pristine battlements. The sun’s rays jumped and danced as they reflected off each tile of the slate roofs. It looked like a scene from a fairy tale. This was Carcassonne, Europe’s largest fortified medieval city and today a very worthy UNESCO world heritage site.
Our journey took us past Orléans, the region’s capital. The city is famous for both its prodigious production of vinegar and its historic significance during the Siege of Orléans (1428–1429) which marked a turning point in the Hundred Years’ War between France and England. It was Joan of Arc’s first military victory and the first major French success following the crushing defeat at Agincourt in 1415. Today, although we’ve never been to it, this historic event is marked by understandably rumbustious local celebrations each year.