Well, for the most part of this month, if you arrived in Sos at midday, you wouldn’t know that February was still a Winter month. Despite some deep frosts at night, and sparkly white early mornings, we’ve had glorious sunshine streaming into The Warehouse to wake us up and the warmth arrived by mid-morning followed by sunny lunches and sunny afternoons. No “lazin’ on a sunny afternoon” at la gare de Sos though – another busy and productive month! Read about our two trips to other parts of France and Lee’s life of perpetual painting and, of course, the food…..
Remember how much we were looking forward to our “Soirée Tartiflette” on Thursday 2nd February after our month of abstinence? It was absolutely “Tarti-Licious” and great to get back in our Bistro Sotiate again – the night was well supported with a convivial atmosphere and that first glass of lovely red wine sipped in front of the wood-fired grill…divine. We generally order wine in pichets, always good value local Co-operative wine but treated ourselves to a couple of bottles of cuvée Philippe, a red wine produced by a third generation Gascon vigneron – Jegerlehner-Prataviera, not far from here, near Gondrin. The vines are spread across the beautiful Gascon landscape and we’ve visited a couple of times for wine tastings – they have numbered their range of wines which makes the purchasing after a tasting session a lot easier (if you can just remember the number!)
See the photos of the tartiflette and the scrumptious puds that followed. A couple of nights later we were back for a planned celebratory night out with the gang who dieted with us in January. For non-French speaking visitors who use translation tools or dictionaries, you might think twice about ordering “Souris d’Agneau” but I promise there are no mice in this French dish. Two of us chose this option – a big, braised lamb shank, slowly cooked on a low, low heat in its own fat & juices and with local prunes – it melted like sweet chocolate in your mouth. There’s a pic of a homemade beef pie and our Valentines Day treat – Lee went out for building supplies and came back with 2 lemon tarts – Tracey was just about to eat a bowl of chopped mango for a healthy lunch too!
We headed off at the start of the month into The Auvergne Region – an extremely long day trip of 550 kms each way! Once off the autoroutes it reminded us of Shropshire & Mid-Wales at this time of the year, the landscape & the weather – it was cold & damp, with snow still on the mountains and slushy, sludgy, muddy roads. We’d forgotten about road conditions like this – we just don’t get that level of dampness in Gascony and we’ve never had our roads gritted round here. We seemed to be heading up, up, and up onto the top of the world and soon saw signs that dictated the use of winter tyres or snow chains – oops – this is a legal requirement in mountainous areas of France during Winter months. Hats off to anyone who can read that middle D16 sign post – how on earth do you make the sound of a letter Y, followed by a letter R in “St. Yrieix”.
Fortunately, following the directions, we then started to head downwards into a steep and narrow valley. One that got steeper and narrower with every switchback – a bit like a smaller version of Alpe d’Huez!
Where are they off to you might be wondering…well, Mr Green, had found a French chap with a garden railway of his own who has decided to sell up his rolling stock, track & some other bits and pieces of railwayana and this was our destination – we had difficulty imagining houses being built on this snake-like road, let alone someone building their own garden railway here. But there it was and what a welcome we received with good coffee, homemade cheese flan & chocolate cake and free rides up and down! Lee agreed to buy four Hudson wagons – a flatbed to be re-purposed as a brake van, a hopper wagon and two converted passenger wagons. He really wanted the Diesel Loco “Walter” but it’s not for sale – it’s going to a narrow gauge railway society but that didn’t stop him from playing trains. We also parted with (a-hem, a-hem) euros in return for a wonderful, old framed French railway & waterway network map, now installed in room 161, and an original enamel SNCF sign. We do have the logistics problem now of going back to collect the rolling stock, yes, down that narrow, steep valley, with nowhere to turn the trailer. Lee is also in negotiations with this Monsieur to dig up his narrow-gauge track – Watch this space.
It’s been a busy social month here – lots of local dog walks with friends, a trip into The Gers department to an Irish Bar to watch the Six Nations, where Ireland beat France! A games night at la gare de Sos, (a game called Catan, don’t ask), a fabulous community Sunday lunch followed by Rugby on a big screen, France v Scotland at the Salle des Fêtes at Sainte Maure. This last event was arranged by the young people on the village “Comité des fêtes” and it was packed out – what a great job they did – serving all the guests, serving at the bar & clearing up afterwards – a really great afternoon with the locals – just 5 English and about 120 French – great opportunity to practise our language skills too. For 20 euros, we had soup, bread, poulet au pot, cheese, a great chunk of creamy gateau, coffee & Armagnac and as much local wine as we could drink.
Here’s a few local shots from some of the dog walks:-
I mentioned Lee’s life of perpetual painting in my introduction and whilst we’ve enjoyed the above social events this month, Lee has worked incredibly hard – It’s rare to see him without a paint brush or roller in hand these days and some of the building work has been very strenuous – manoeuvring the beams and the floorboards and then those plasterboard sheets. The Engine Shed construction is complete with just a door from the abri into the huge cathedral-like workshop to install. Painting those huge doors in Station Red, both sides, was an enormous task – undercoat, then three red coats. The abri side had to be varnished too. He’s installed half of the mezzanine floor in his existing garage and installed the stairs – plaster boarded it all out, and then painted, 2 coats on rather awkward sloping low ceilings and withstood loads of head bumps. Plenty of space to stand upright in the centre section though and we’ll use the space of those sloping eaves for storing stuff, like all our camping gear. He’s also had the great idea, when the other quarter of mezzanine is installed, of hoisting a couple of the motorbikes up there to make more space for his collection downstairs. The new utility area, where all our gite laundry is done by Tracey, starts this week.
It might not sound too difficult to tolerate to all our working readers but honestly, some days it’s been back breaking work and he’s asleep with physical exhaustion as soon as his last spoonful of pudding has gone down – “eat your heart out – You Ragged Trousered Philanthropists” (what a bizarre expression – how would I explain that to my French friends I wonder?) Tracey decided “enough” – we haven’t come to France to grind out long, relentless days so let’s be off to the seaside. We headed over to the Cote d’Azur – South Eastern France, another ridiculously long trip, for three nights just outside of Cannes on the Frightfully Glamorous French Riviera – in the camper van, in a Villa top, with a cool box full of beer & sausages and a carrier bag full of crisps & peanuts – (“Eat your heart out You Millionaires – we know how to live!) We stayed at the only campsite we could find open all year round at Mandelieu-La-Napoule and it was a great site, just a tad cool at night and twice the price of any campsite in The South West. However, the sanitary block was clean and heated, our spot, between two huge motor homes, one German, one French, had electricity and water and there was a security barrier for access in and out so it felt very safe. We backed on to a tranquil Marina where the “smaller” Riviera boats are moored – a bit more about Riviera Maritime later.
Saturday, we walked the whole bay of Cannes, over two hours gentle walking, taking in the views of the coastline and following the train line and then came back via the train – that Riviera coast route would be marvellous to see by train – an exceptionally beautiful bit of Mediterranean landscape from Toulon through to Nice, Monaco and Menton, the border with Italy. The tracks are right next to the sea at Cannes, trains and a huge railway yard one side, the beach & sea, the other. How the property developers must want to get their hands on that chunk of railway land. We met up with The friendly French Villa Lions to watch the Arsenal game too but we won’t talk about that one – the company & the Guinness was great though.
And what luck, directly opposite the campsite was a Chinese restaurant that let us eat inside on a Saturday evening with Daphne – Lee was in heaven as you’ll see from the photo. (if only the waiter hadn’t reminded us of the football result!) We miss Chinese & Indian meals so much that this was a rare opportunity for us to enjoy some lovely Chinese food in a place frequented by the locals. Sunday we had a picnic at the beach and a coastal walk and a few drinks at a laid-back bar in Mandelieu. Nothing for Lee to lift except his drinks – it was a lovely, relaxing weekend and a good time to visit the Riviera, without all the hordes of people. Interesting to note that the temperatures were higher in SW France than The Riviera and Tracey was very pleased to have Daphne as a replacement for a hot water bottle at night. Had it been too cold to withstand sleeping in the van, the hotel next door to the campsite was only 770 euros per night! We noticed that one of the pro-cycling teams were staying there for the Tour des Alpes Maritimes et du Var which was taking place that weekend. We didn’t get into the mountains to watch any cycling because once we’d set the camper van up we were happy to use the train & walk around the local area. Lee had done a lot of driving. Mandelieu-La-Napoule has a cracking little station – the access is quite hidden between bars and restaurants, you walk through a bar’s courtyard to the platform with an amazing painted mural and use the railway underpass, all decorated to look like Jules Vernes 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, to reach a really relaxed part of Mandelieu, that felt a bit like Montmartre in Paris. Little bars with outdoor seating where you can just sip a coffee or glass of wine for hours and watch all the goings on.
A few of the coastal and estuary shots around mandelieu, apologies for the posing, wasn’t intended:-
And here are some of the boats in just one of the many posh Riviera ports – imagine owning one of those properties on the cliffs…..Spotting trains going over the viaduct is fun from the port, if you like that sort of entertainment.
Lee likes boats – they’re not boats on the Riviera. They’re luxurious floating palaces owned by the mega-mega rich – “high-net-worth individuals” as the estate agents brochures say. I can’t actually take it all in when we mooch around the quays – yachts as big as houses, some that have their own garages, with stupidly expensive cars in – the affluence is disconcerting and, at times, just feels gross. The Maritime sector is clearly massive business here and I couldn’t help thinking about the pollution down here in the summer months – with the colossal number of super cars of the residents and the huge numbers of tourists that populate The Riviera during holiday season and all these bloomin’ big boats – I can’t imagine the air quality being good– give me rural France “in me wellies” any day. I felt like that Ronnie Corbett character in that Class Sketch “I know my place” and it’s definitely not here! One older yacht was banging out diesel fumes, right next to a pollution dog poop sign – the absurdity of that.
Sorry about that little rant – it was obviously bothering me but it’s off my chest now and don’t be put off The French Riviera – I’d recommend out of the main holiday season visits though. The yellow Mimosa is already in flower and the sparkling blue sea is mesmerising. If you stay somewhere like Mandelieu, and not in the big places like Cannes, you can find decent places to eat where you won’t get ripped off too – just follow the locals!
See the photo of the wretchedly thin random cyclist’s rear that we followed from Mandelieu to St. Raphael on our way home, taking the D559 coast road and stopping at Frejus and one of the Autoroute stop overlooking Carcassone and, finally, the sun setting back home in The South West as we arrived home. We wanted to visit a WW2 landing beach, “Plage du Debarquemont du Dramont” on our return leg where 20,000 American GIs of the 36th Texas Division of the US Army landed in August 1944 with all their tanks & artillery, in less than 10 hours. Sadly, a lot of carparks on this coast route have height restriction barriers and because of our roof tent, we couldn’t access the parking. We suspect that any form of wild camping or overnight stop overs in camper vans or motor homes is discouraged on The Riviera. So, on our route home we talked a bit about WW2 and what life in Provence and the Cote d’Azur would have been like and Tracey pondered the hypothesis of another invasion of France. When we got home, the French news feed told us about Operation Orion that was taking place along the Southern coast of France – a military training exercise to practise high intensity engagement exercises – a load of military mayhem was going on right under our noses and we missed it all!
Other goings on at la gare de Sos this month – This time of the year means that Tracey is suffering from her seasonal tree pollen allergies and wearing her ridiculous Minion goggles to try & alleviate the allergic reaction in her eyes – a big thank you to clients last year who bought packets of Piriton over – really appreciated.
We have had so many deer visiting la gare this year – most days we’ll see a single deer or a small group wandering down the cleared embankment. Daphne starts a low growl when they’re around, building into a crescendo as they get closer. Clarence is waiting for Spring to properly start before his outdoor activity begins – he must spend 20 hours sleeping now. He decides to wake up and play just as we’ve settled down in the evening with a cuppa and pressed “play” on whatever programme we’re catching up with ( currently The Gold, Jack Ryan and we’ve just watched the complete box sets of Rome, what a shame they didn’t make any more – fabulous).
So it’s heading into March and that means one thing – Welsh cakes on Saint David’s Day – better get baking – thanks for reading, au revoir mes amis and bon appétit, whatever you’re eating over there, nothing in short supply here……yet.
We did a bit of research for a client recently and thought we’d share this information, if anyone likes train travel adventures instead of planes – this trip was costing just over £200, booked on specific trains, and excluding the Paris transfer which would be cheap by metro, more expensive by taxi. This was for travel on Saturdays in June and bare in mind that these prices and train availability on the websites seem to change constantly so may have changed by the time you read this:- The 08.31 Eurostar from London St Pancras to Paris, with 2 changes, Paris and Bordeaux, could get you into Agen for 17.30. An hour later you could be sipping that glass of wine at la gare de Sos. The return Saturday departure time was around 09.00 from Agen, back in London before 18.00. Our advise to train travellers would be to travel as light as possible and leave enough time for the Paris transfers, then sit back and watch the French country side whiz by.