Our trip to France in May was with a party of six this time, and took just a little bit more organising than our usual spontaneous trips! My mum and dad joined us, or rather we joined mum and dad, for four nights at the base of the Pyrenees and three nights in Paris. Mum has an old school friend who has been living in the UK for probably the best part of twenty years now, and it was to Mr B’s converted water mill and barn in the rural countryside of France, outside of Toulouse, that we found ourselves.
The day we arrived at Mr B’s town the sun was shining, it was peaceful, and there were very few people about. After the long journey from Windsor, this was nice. The day started in the cold and dark with a maxi taxi pickup at 6.15am for the 50 minute trip to Gatwick airport, which was done in much less time thanks to our crazy, breakneck taxi driver. The time we gained there was lost in airport delays due to foggy, inclement UK weather. We arrived in Toulouse in the mid afternoon, glad the connections had all lined up and ready to pick up the people mover. Toulouse, right down in the south of France, was true to its geographical location: it was hot, and nothing but big open, blue skies. The boots and long pants, deemed essential that morning, were totally out of place in Toulouse!
Into the people mover we piled. What followed was a confusing mess of French road signs, left hand driving, an imposing snow capped mountain range in the distance, boys who finally decided to sleep after a 5am start, near misses on the right hand side of the car, and three too many backseat drivers…poor Anthony – he was DD for the whole road trip. And did surprising well I must add. We finally rolled in to town, struggled to decide whether the parking was free or metered, ‘conversed’ with the local deli to buy a very late lunch (involving much pointing, smiling, merci’s and awkwardness) and ordered at a terraced cafe what I thought was a cappuccino using my excellent above mentioned conversing skills. What arrived was coffee at the bottom, whipped cream (to represent frothy milk?) and an artistic display of coffee beans scattered on top. I honestly expected the coffee to be good in France. And I can honestly say that I didn’t have a good one the whole week! Oh well. At least it looked good right? It is, after all, France. Good thing there are croissants! And chocolate…and wine…and cheese…and bread…
We stocked up on all of these good things at the local supermarket before following Mr B home to the farmhouse. The supermarket in itself was mind boggling: it was huge, and things are kinda confusing when everything is in French. Particularly when all the French you know is limited to three words! It would have been really useful to know the French word for ‘horse’ – we discovered the French have somewhat of a penchant for horse meat and I really, really hope I didn’t inadvertently eat any of my four-legged friends. In terms of supermarket size (and the importance placed on wine!), the wine section alone was as big as an all-rolled-into-one meat deli, fruit and veg section, Asian cooking and health aisles and bakery section back home at Coles in Figtree…oh my. Wines from every region, for every budget.
Mr B’s house was awesome: rustic, rural, farmy, and covered on one side with ivy. It’s older than Captain Cook’s voyage to Australia (although the converted barn is decisively modern). As we approached, smoke could be seen curling out of the chimney, giving it a romantic feel and reminding us that the temperature does indeed drop during the night. The main and original house still has all the original features, including a rather wonky and noisy staircase with some beautifully dark wooden, well-worn treads. The house and barn sits atop a stream which can be heard burbling and trickling wherever you are on the property; in fact this is the only sound you hear really, as the nearest neighbours are over a paddock away. All of which was just so lovely after the busyness of traffic and close living quarters we find with life in the UK. You could sit and read a book on the window sills, the recesses are so deep; the walls so thick. The boys wasted no time in exploring every inch of the house, tearing up and down the stairs, peering out the huge windows and as boys do, making use of each of the (five?) bathroom facilities…sorry Mr B.
Our time in the country was a good mix of relaxing and road tripping. Our host led us on some terrific all-day drives through the countryside on not less than two days. We passed through St Beat and Valentine, two typically French villages at the base of the Pyrenees, before making the climb up the mountain, at which point we really noticed the temperature start to drop. On most occasions, these villages were really quiet and not one person was around. The odd farmer we passed would stare at us as though we all had three heads – I don’t suppose they get too many tourists this far off the beaten track. The buildings butted right up to the narrow village lanes and were a dusty, orangey/creamy colour with terracotta roofs and pastel shuttered windows. The term ‘shabby chic’ comes to mind, but the French farmhouse look is so much more beautiful when it’s authentic and in its natural setting. We noticed the window shutters were almost always shut – our host shared with us a funny little fact: all shutters must be closed at night – if you are broken into during the night and your shutters aren’t closed; well that just voided your insurance policy! Every town had it’s Mayor’s office and memorial to WW1, which in a lot of cases was a woman mourning the loss of her son or husband. The countryside was green and agricultural with a dusting of buttercups and wildflowers. Really, it was a stunning location, the central Pyrenees.
Despite the warmth, there was still snow on the peaks and we even managed to track down some snow at Le Mourtis ski resort. Hamish loved it, Angus not so much! Bit cold in shorts I suppose! Another first for the boys – snow! Finally…it took us two days to find it in the mountains as it was rapidly melting in the spring sunshine. The drive to the ski resort was amazing – we climbed our way up the hugely steep Col de Mente, one of those crazy mountain stages on the Tour de France. Anthony swears he wasn’t afraid but only because he had a steering wheel to hold onto – he pushed the performance of the Seat, so he says (I was in the car in front), on the switchback hairpins that made up this section of mountain road! The gradient was so steep it was pant wettingly scary (and I wasn’t even driving) and at one point I felt compelled to ask ‘are we really going down there?’ – I don’t know how those guys ride it on bikes.
We lunched at Luchon, a pretty mountain spa town, and had coffee in Aspet, a gorgeous little village with a central market square and quintessential cafés with wrought iron chairs and flower boxes. We crossed the border into Spain while in the mountains and wandered around Bossost, a village on the River Garona with cobblestoned streets and cute houses. It was all very gorgeous. Mum, Dad and Mr B made every stop a coffee stop while we were keen to run the boys around. It mostly worked!
A definite highlight was visiting the town and Cathedral of Saint Bertrand de Comminges. The Cathedral sits at a high point in the central Pyrenees countryside, and looking down to the town below is looking down onto a sea of red roofs. The Cathedral has passed through 800 years of history, suffering only a very small amount of damage and amazingly, no damage from the world wars. The design is Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance: built in three different periods and styles. It was very peaceful up there, with cow bells being heard from the nearby farms. The site is on a pilgrimage trail and it’s easy to see why. Walking back down to the town, we passed a simple plaque on the wall of a house, noting it as a French resistance operations house. I want to come back here. And read about a billion books on the French Resistance.
Our time on the farm was relaxing and fun (and a nice change from the car). Anthony and I borrowed some bikes and pedalled around the country lanes, over an old Roman bridge and up to an old cemetery (a bit morbid, but the views to the Pyrenees were amazing). Anthony tried out one of those three words of French we know – Bonjour – on one of the old farmers whose dogs were madly barking as we cycled past. Anyway this old guy must have thought it was his lucky day, someone to talk to, and began to initiate conversation. At a complete loss of what to say, Anthony notched it up a gear and kept on riding! Lest he get found out. We discovered that while the people in this part of France were extremely friendly and really quite lovely, they spoke only French. Which is quite unfortunate for people who only speak English!
The nights were spent eating way too much cheese and bread, and probably not enough wine for this part of the world, and ended around the cosy fireplace eating chocolate. I’d like to say the boys romped around the paddocks, floated sticks down the stream and experienced adventures galore: but they merely proved they really aren’t countrified, and instead whinged and whined about the grass scratching their legs! Rides on the lawn mower and in the tractor trailer were in order though, and were a definite winner. We enjoyed poking through a traditional village market one morning, and taking up an offer of afternoon tea with Mr B’s friends at their expansive home and garden in the afternoon.
We said our goodbyes to the countryside and Mr B, with promises to return (and an invitation to stay, lucky us), maybe in the winter with the boys, try our hand at skiing? Or the summer.. And before we knew it, we were back to Toulouse and boarding the fast train to Paris.
Stage 2 of our Tour had begun.