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Saturday, 2 January 2021

French Reflections 2020

 


For goodness’ sake, what a year! Attempts at recalling it are too painful for many, while others couldn’t wait to see the back of it. Here are some of the events that marked our topsy turvy year.

January 

You may remember me telling you about our annual multi-village carol concert. It’s held in January. Weird, I know, but there is a logic to the timing. Camille, our friend and her chums from other parishes, were in charge.

The idea of the concerts is for villagers to start at their local church and then hop into cars and drive to the next one. The same for singers. When the final venue is reached there exists the potential for a substantial gathering, many choristers and much confusion.

A couple of years ago, Camille had inveigled me into singing, and much to his horror I had volunteered Jack, my grumpy husband. We were now classed as regulars. The day of the concert came and, as usual, nothing at all went to plan. Here’s what happened when our shambolic choir plus add-ons arrived at the final venue.

The lofty church was already packed. A little croaky having sung for the best part of an hour, we sallied forth in a least two keys, eventually arriving at more or less the same one by verse three.


The next carol was announced as number eight on the church song sheet. This was unfortunate since we didn’t have a number eight, or a church song sheet. But we did know the tune, or so we thought.

We burbled vaguely until a spare sheet was found and passed along by the sopranos. There were lots of verses. By the final one, we felt we’d nailed it. Jack, now in top form, belted out one of his high notes. Out it rang, quite marvellous, completely wrong. It seemed the last verse was sung a little differently. No matter, his efforts were much appreciated.

Our Christmas carol concerts were over for another year. It had been another wonderfully eccentric event, a feature of country living here.

February

There was something wrong with Max, one of our Australian Shepherd dogs. Not unusual in his case as he is ridiculously accident-prone, but this had come out of the blue.

Looking dreadfully stiff, Max gave me a smiley lick, but it wasn’t his usual standing ovation-type welcome. He looked strained. I moved to his other side and encouraged him to rotate right. No. Not possible, his back was rigid. He winced.

Trying his best to please, Max manoeuvred like a freighter, shuffling in a slow sweeping motion. It was pitiful to watch. There was no doubting it a trip to Docteur Alice, the bone doc, was needed.

I had been initially sceptical about animal osteopaths, but having seen Max’s transformation after our first visit, I was instantly converted.

Once again, Docteur Alice knelt and put her arms around Max, her countenance almost hypnotic. Max stood like a wounded hero, nobly succumbing to her gentle manipulations. No yelps, no whining – unusual for him. After a while, she smiled.


“I know where the problems are.”

She continued, quietly working her way along Max’s chest, stomach and then spine. She released him.

“That’s it. He will be fine now.”

Max padded towards me. I motioned for him to make that right turn. Easy. He moved flexibly, completely relaxed.

“That’s fantastic, Docteur Alice, thank you! Do I give Max the anti-inflammatory medication from the vet? I have some at home.”

“No, nothing. Make sure he has 48 hours rest, though, his body will be fatigued after this treatment. Max is a high energy dog, so you may need to come back every three months. I have a feeling he will be ready for another session by then.”

He was.

March and April

The news had broken way back in January. Conspiracy theorists were abuzz with conjecture the world over. The much-discussed COVID-19 virus was present and making insidious progress through France. Drastic action had to be taken. The country went into lockdown.

In the reported words of Le Parisien, one of the largest, most respected newspapers in the country:

‘The measure is completely unprecedented in the history of France. The country had never asked its citizens to confine themselves to their homes all day long, as has been the case since Tuesday, March 17 at noon to curb the expansion of the Coronavirus pandemic.’ (Translation.)

Our first lockdown remained in place until mid-May. Terms like: clusters, contamination rates and virus hotspots were introduced, and are now commonplace as is new terminology such as the R number.

During the early part of confinement, I was trying to get used to the rules like everyone else. This included completing an authorisation form if I wanted to go shopping. You might remember me telling you about one of my early grocery visits.

Jack, wrinkled his brow as I was leaving. He was convinced I had forgotten something.

“Completed form?”

“Check.”

“Mask?”

“Check.”

“Gloves?”

“Check.”

“Alcohol?”

“Jack, I don’t need Dutch courage. I’m just going to the supermarket.”

“For your hands!”

“Oh, right! Check, I have that sanitising gel stuff I use after cleaning up the animals.”

“List?”

“Argh! I knew I’d forgotten something!”

Inside the supermarket, things had changed. Strips of tape were on the floor next to counters, check-outs and fresh food cabinets. All designed to encourage social distancing, all very helpful. My first port of call was the cheese section.

Forget toilet rolls, if there were a shortage of one product guaranteed to cause mass hysteria here, it would be cheese. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case. I chatted to our lovely fromage lady who was stacking creamy beauties. Even a mask couldn’t shroud that everlasting smile of hers.


I headed over to the butcher, stood the obligatory metre from the counter and bellowed through my mask. This was an evident challenge for monsieur, but he listened carefully.

“And your mushrooms, madame?

“No, minced beef, please.”

“But what about your mushrooms?”

“Honestly, I don’t want any, thank you. Just the minced beef.”

“The mushrooms in your forest, madame. Are they growing yet?”

“Oh! I’m so sorry. No, nothing at the moment, I’m afraid.”

“Ah, that’s life! Now about your mince. How much did you want, madame?

Mushrooms are right up there with cheese in popularity, and our domaine has the dubious reputation for being the source of many such earthy wonders. How he recognised me behind my mask, I couldn’t say. I left to the cheery sounds of “Bon courage!” reminding me what a small, caring community we are.

May

Special hugs here for all my Facebook friends, who supported me when I initially shared the detail of this awful saga. I was on a forest trek with our dogs on this unforgettable day in April. Aby was way ahead, as usual, bounding gracefully over fallen trees, deftly negotiating uneven ground. I soon lost sight of her. My attention was grabbed by the awful sounds of Max feasting on a pile of poo close-by. It’s an unsavoury habit of his.

I was in mid-lecture when I spotted Aby. She was coming towards us but looked different. Something was wrong. Breaking onto open ground she stumbled, faltering badly. Aby was staggering on three legs, dragging her fourth behind.

Horrified, I called to slow her down, but she was determined to reach us as quickly as possible. She stopped, sides heaving, her offside rear leg tucked up. I checked for visible injuries, but there were none.

Non-plussed, I wondered whether it had been a superficial knock. Aby tried to walk. There was no whine or yelp, but she immediately lifted the leg, which looked wobbly. It was evident she could not weight-bear.

Over the next few days, Aby rested. Frustrating though it was for her, we were hoping she had twisted the knee, and it would repair itself. After ten days, Aby could walk without limping but not run. Every time she trotted, up came that leg. We had tried everything. Lockdown or not, I had to call the vet.

Our COVID-compliant consultation was conducted in the veterinary clinic car park. It was as surreal as you can imagine. Docteur Puiffe took Aby away and ran several tests, eventually returning with bad news.

“Aby has ruptured her posterior ligament, and her knee cap is dislocating. Did you hear a clicking sound?

“Yes, occasionally.”

“It is internal damage. I think she has also torn her anterior cruciate ligament.”

Shocked at the severity of the injuries, I listened as Docteur Puiffe explained the recommended prosthetic surgery. All conducted in French; he was very patient as I fumbled through many questions to make sure I understood correctly. It was a big decision to take.

We eventually decided to go through with the surgery. Once Aby was confirmed fit enough to return home, I rushed back to the vet and anxiously hung around, watching patients come and go.

The nurse finally joined me with reassurances, pills and strict instructions.

“Until we see her again, Aby must have total rest. Do not allow the bandage to get wet. She will have her stitches out in 12 days when Docteur Puiffe will discuss her rehabilitation with you.”

I was still trying to imagine how our agile girl would deal with her first period of confinement when the door opened. Out came a snoozy Aby and the biggest bandage in France.

Aby spotted me and towed the cooing nurse across the car park in a mixture of excited whines and confused yaps. Somehow forgetting COVID protocol, the nurse and I gently put our pup in the car.

And so Aby’s ligament lockdown began.

June

After weeks of lead-only walks on flat terrain, Aby started to gain strength. A highlight came at the end of the month when we joined my sister, Di, and her two Jack Russell’s for a stroll along the Canal du Midi’s towpath. This was Aby’s first day off the lead, and I was a bag of nerves. Ironically, that turned out to be the least of our problems.

We parked next to a lock gate and set off, enjoying our beautiful surroundings.

“I suppose you know what we’re walking on?” said Di, looking supremely self-satisfied.

“A path?”

“Ah, hah! But this isn’t any old path. It’s been used by pilgrims for hundreds of years.”

“Really? Which ones?”

“This is a section of the catholic pilgrimage Route de Compostelle. It’s also known as the Camino Way. The destination is the legendary tomb of the apostle Saint James the Great in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain.”

“Wow, imagine that!”

“Yep, I knew you’d be impressed.”

I studied the path, which had assumed a new significance. We continued peaceably until a little while later it occurred to me that we were a dog down.

“Wait a minute, where’s Max?”

I gave him a call. Strangely, he appeared from under the bridge we had just passed. And he was looking suspiciously proud. Max trotted up to Di first.

“Oh my God, Beth, do something!”

“What’s wrong?”

“Max, he’s covered.”

“In what?”

“I don’t know, but it stinks.”

“Go on, Maxy, give Di a big kiss!”

“I’m warning you, Beth, this is toxic!”

“Okay, okay.”

She was right. Some dogs love rolling in carrion, others fox poo, but usually not Max. However, this substance was plainly irresistible. So much so, he had wallowed in it and savoured its dubious delights. We were on a public footpath. It could have been badger poop, it could have something even more ghastly. Neither of us could bear to think about that. Max reeked.  

“Right, Max, it’s no good. You’ll have to go into the water.”

Luckily, Max is a devoted water dog so getting him in wasn’t a problem. One belly flop later, and he was happily splashing around. The challenge was getting him out again. We had reached a point where the canal sides were sheer.


We eventually hauled him out. And, of course, what was the first thing he did? Joyously shake off excess water.

“Argh! Beth, he’s showering muck all over us!”

Eeeuw! And he still smells. Sorry, take your mind off it by telling me more about the canal.”

“I doubt that’ll help, but alright,”

Di’s gamely recounted potted history was interrupted by a shrill sound.

Dring, dring!

Bonjour, monsieur!” we yodelled as a pink cyclist zoomed past.

“You’d make a great tour guide, Di. Aside from being run down by a cyclist and dealing with a stinky mutt, this has been terrific.”

“I’d rather deal with a cyclist than the shower you’ll be giving Max when you get back. He still reeks!”

It had been a great walk, with one exception.

“Beth, open the car windows, please, I can’t stand that stink!” 

July

The month began with a rescue and ended with a flourish. During a regular deer feeding session in May, we found an ailing baby boar in the forest. It’s a tough life for a little ‘un out there. A skinny chap, he was being bullied by his siblings and wasn’t strong enough to fight for a decent meal.

For the next few days, we watched him dwindle, agonising over what to do. Knowing he would die if we did nothing, we took our hearts in our hands and caught him.


Little junior spent the next few days in a dog crate. We built him up with lots of feeds and warmth, and he quickly improved. As soon as his tummy was bulging, with much trepidation, we re-introduced our stripy patient to his mum.

Much to our relief, she accepted him, seeming not to have noticed he had gone. He trotted back to his siblings, this time with a fighting chance of survival.


Meanwhile, in the garden, my spring project was blooming lovely, the roses too. Completely out of control, they flowered with gay abandon sharing a sensation of heavenly scents and sights, which lasted for weeks.


August

This month brought a confession from La Poste, who admitted to losing a parcel I was due. They sent me on a mission to make a claim at the post office in the bastide town of Beamont de Lomagne – a long way from home.

I found the post office quickly. Observing the standard protocol, I waffled through my mask, and the lady hooted back through hers. After a verbal tussle, we worked out what one another was saying.

“You need a compensation claim form, Madame.”

I live in France, and this wasn’t a surprise. The lady produced a dangerously complicated-looking document with many spaces. I had a bash at filling them in, got stuck and asked for advice. She got stuck too, and the process ended up as a team-building event with two colleagues brought in to help.

I left the post office feeling a mixture of mental exhaustion and relief. It then occurred to me that having come all this way, I might as well have a potter, and why not? I was in a place of great historical significance. It was too good an opportunity to pass up.


The bastide town was developed between 1276 and 1279. Today, there is an air of tired crustiness about the place, but therein lies part of its charm. As with many ancient towns, the market hall is a centrepiece, and this one is a favourite of mine.

Constructed in the 14th century, it was the focal point for the weekly market and still is. Silly though it sounds, I love the thought of buying goods on the same site used by folks in medieval times.

I headed into the tourist information centre and asked for more information about the town. The lady’s eyes lit up.“Here you are, Madame,” she said, thrusting a wad of leaflets in my hand.

“Lovely, thank you.”

“You are welcome, and you must see this, come with me.”

Intrigued, I followed the girl out through the quad, down several steps and along a dark passage. Just as I was beginning to think something had got horribly lost between the folds of my mask, she abruptly stopped.

“Here,” she said, plunging an enormous key into an archaic lock. A clunk released the internals, and the door swung open. “Take these stairs,” she said, pointing at a stone spiral staircase. “At the top, you will see the view. Please close the door when you return.”

And with that, she disappeared.

So, there I was, down a shadowy passage looking at a flight of worn stone steps. Not precisely The Raiders of the Lost Arc, but I did feel slightly intrepid. I started climbing the stairs. Up and up I went.

Inexorably up, I finally saw a glimmer of light from skinnier steps that I presumed led to the top. Thigh muscles screaming, I finally made it. Those panoramic views of the town were fantastic.

After taking several photos, I retraced my steps. For someone who spends hours and hours dog walking, I was surprised how wobbly my legs felt by the time I reached ground level. Extreme stair climbing evidently requires the use of niche muscle groups.


I headed back to my car, traversing cobbled streets, passing crumbly shutters, massive oak doors and truly outstanding buildings. It had been a wonderfully unexpected adventure, one to remember. Oh, and did my parcel ever turn up? No, of course not!

September

For fairly obvious reasons, we had decided not to take a holiday. Feeling a bit itchy-footed, I bullied Jack into visiting a town I had been dying to see. With customary bad grace, he eventually agreed, and we set off.

  Deep into the countryside, we drove. There were none of the gentle fruit-growing landscapes we see in our area. This was big-boys rugged terrain.

“Wow! Jack, quick, look right.”

“I can’t on this bend, obviously.”

“Never mind, you’ll see it in a moment.”

There it was again. A slash in the landscape. We had reached the Aveyron Gorge, a natural feature more than 50 kilometres long. Vertical cliffs, some over 500 metres high, towered above the river flowing far below. A vast forest covered the landscape like a verdant duvet, bisected by the limestone fissure. It was an incredible scene.


We negotiated countless tricky bends, and finally, it came into view: Saint Antonin Noble Val, a secret town nestling at the confluence of the Aveyron and Bonnette rivers.

“Parking here is going to be a nightmare. You get out here while I find somewhere to leave the car.”

“Okay, where shall we meet?”

“I’ll find you.” 

I leapt out and walked beneath a massive cathedral-like archway into another world. Just for a moment, I was utterly alone on a cobbled way lined either side with medieval buildings. Some looked like homes, others, shops with living quarters above. I was entranced.

The narrow street was interrupted by openings to intriguing allies. I couldn’t resist a peek. There were balconies, twisty passageways, old and new masonry and planters – I imagined they were folks’ homes. 

Back out, and I passed several different shops, which looked as though they had been established centuries earlier. As the way broadened, cafés came into view with residents and visitors enjoying morning coffee in the shade of squashed-together buildings.


Soft pastel paint, flaky on walls provided canvasses for sprawling gnarled vines. Wood stanchions, battered shutters and balconies with intricate ironwork designs, I gazed in wonder at them all.

I returned to Jack, who was looking suspiciously relaxed, having neatly avoided the sight-seeing session. Determined he should see at least something, we drove out of the town via its ancient bridge. Inspired, at last, he pulled up to have a look.

The studded steeple of a splendid church dominated one side, surrounded by a cluster of buildings. There were homeowners taking tea on balconies. The benign river was a-bob with enthusiasts in canoes and kayaks, the perfect way to enjoy this waterway on a hot day.


Imbued by the beauty of this remarkable place, I pledged to return and spend more time here. It’ll be a highlight this year.

October

We were at the back end of a long hot summer, one which parched plants and turned our forest trails to clouds of dust. Not for the first time we’ve thanked our lucky stars for the brooks, and natural springs on our land.



The deer, being refined creatures, had taken to sheltering quietly in shady spots. We spotted some as they ventured out to feed and play in the evenings. Watching beautiful little poppets like this from observation hides reminded us of how charmed our lives are here.


Meanwhile, despite our neighbour farmers cussing the extra spend on irrigation, their sun-loving crops zoomed out of the ground and put on a dazzling show. Sunflowers, maize, apples, plums, tomatoes and grapes, were positively voluptuous.


Sadly, COVID had prevented us from participating in our friends’ vendange, grape harvest. Even Jack (who prefers the post-harvest celebration) missed it. Never mind, there will be plenty more to come.

November

This month brought a fun mission.

Di had an errand in a town called Marmande and asked if I would go along with her. Of course, I love quests!

As we crossed a bridge on the outskirts of the town, Di had a thought.

“Ooh, I wonder if we’ll see many tomatoes?”

“Why on earth would you say that?”

“Ahah! Well, clearly you didn’t know that Marmande is the largest producer of tomatoes in our part of France.”

“I’m going to confiscate that guide book of yours.”

“No, really, this is interesting. They’ve been grown intensively here since the nineteenth century. And get this. There are many producers of Marmande tomatoes, including the Grand Master of the Brotherhood of the Knights of the Love Apple. Love apple is what the tomato was called in the Middle Ages.”

“Classic! Fancy having a Grand Master. There has to be a tomato fête.”

“Of course! They make giant ratatouilles and enormous tomato tarts, which are washed down with the local wine and accompanied by lots of festivities.”

“Sounds perfect, let’s go.”

“It’ll have to be next year. It takes place in July.”

We reached our destination too early for Di’s rendezvous, so headed for the nearest café. The pâtisserie bulged at the seams with goodies. Gawping at the cake selection, we made our choices.


I couldn’t resist a tartelette aux fraises, Di had her heart set on tartelette au citron meringues, and who could blame her? With our tray of delectables plus aromatic coffees, we tucked into what we declared were among the best strawberry and lemon tarts we had ever eaten.

We were still early, so decided to have a mooch. En route to the town centre, we passed a collection of 14th-century buildings. Fascinating though they were, what we saw next couldn’t have been less medieval if it tried.

A colossal clock with signs of the zodiac on the dial was positioned in the square’s centre. A large bell with Chinese characters was suspended above. There had to be a story behind this!

It was the incongruous brainchild of the then town mayor, Gérard Gouzes. On his return from a trip to China in 2011, he announced that the Chinese citizens of Yuncheng, with whom Marmande were considering a possible twinning, wished to offer a typical bell, accompanied by a clock.

Despite many disagreements on suitability and cost, the mayor had his way with the town’s officials. Gérard Gouzes was allegedly delighted with the furore and was quoted as saying, “The controversy will create curiosity and attract people. I do not regret it. This symbolic gesture will resonate in our relations with China.”

Still unsure whether we should be impressed or amused, we strolled on. This quirky place was deserving of a future visit, and it’ll be during the tomato fête.

December

To say the end of the year was filled with thrills ‘n spills would be an understatement.

Our plans to launch Fat Dogs Part 5 before Christmas were foiled by a last-minute technical glitch. One small meltdown later we got it back on track. The revised publication date of January 16 is just around the corner, and I can’t wait to share our latest adventures with you.

Just when we thought we had everything sorted out on the technical front, our internet connection threw a wobbly. Over the past couple of weeks, Jack, mister determined-to-fix-everything-himself, has been up and down ladders more times than a window cleaner (although he had a very different term for it), trying to locate the fault.

No luck yet, but I know he won’t give in. In the meantime, we’re bumbling along at a sedate pace, and uploading images from a special spot I found the other day in the forest, and the local supermarket car park.

As the year drew to a close, instead of partying with friends, like so many others, Jack and I welcomed in the New Year at home. Snuggled up in front of the fire with the dogs and cats, we reflected on the dramas of 2020. With no health issues, we reminded ourselves of the many reasons we have to be grateful.



Aby is now back to full fitness, Max hasn’t crocked himself or rolled in any yucky poo for a couple of minutes, and La Poste hasn’t lost a parcel for, ooh, ages. All in all, it’s a great way to start the New Year!

A million thanks to you for following our adventures here in France. We wish you a happy, healthy 2021, a year filled with hope and renewed optimism.













Sunday, 6 December 2020

Captivated by Ruins and a Happy Announcement

 


I’m a sucker for history. The thought of becoming custodians of a tiny snapshot in time is pretty special. And purely by accident, that’s precisely what happened to my husband, Jack, and I.

At the start of our estate-hunting mission, I confidently set out with a masterful list of specifications. If you’ve read Fat Dogs Part I, you’ll know that my brilliant plan was fatally flawed. We would need to compromise, although I never imagined we’d end up with an ancestral relic.

I vividly recall some of the thoughts racing through my head when we were first shown the courtyard ruin. Wow, fantastic! Wonder how old it is? Oh dear, is it about to collapse? And how would we maintain it? Is it a listed building? That’s bound to mean wads of legal French documents. A moat, too? Blimey!

Despite it seeming the size of a hamlet, we were smitten by the property and its land, and, as I recount in book two, Le Palizac did eventually pass to our ownership. A long while later, we tried to find out about its heritage. Frustratingly, we came up against lots of dead ends.

The local Mairie (town hall) secretary told us that recording the history of domaines (estates) relied on families passing down information. I guess that makes sense. Sadly, there is little archived information that survived the generations for Le Palizac, but there is some.


Aside from the ancient structure, one of our early shocks was to find that parts of the buildings we had bought were either severely crumbly or in need of a total makeover. We needed help. That came in the form of a mixed bag of eccentric artisans, whose exploits I recount in Fat Dogs III.

The crazy band included an architect who assured us that the courtyard was built in the 15th century. Easily impressed, I thought this was marvellous. Jack thought his guestimate was inaccurate, and as it happens, he was right. We recently learnt a little more about the background of our new home.

My hiking sticks are against the filled-in doorway to give you an idea of the doorway's size

Palizac, a feudal castle with surrounding lands, was the seat of a lordship in the 13th century. It suffered under the control of a neighbouring parish ruled by the despotic noble, le seigneur d’Elocroix. He levied harsh inheritance charges, grazing rights, tithes and drudgery from his castle nearby. Tensions ran high between the rivals. Inevitably, something had to give.

Claus-Paws Examining a Hole in the Wall!

So far we haven’t found out much about the ensuing conflicts, although we do know they ended in disaster for Palizac. The tower, the wooden staircases and main walls of the great castle were destroyed. Was the devastation sustained during battle? I’m not sure we will ever know.

Centuries later, the responsibility for looking after the fortification remains passed to us, an honour we take seriously. We asked the artisan mason who had worked with us on our main house renovations to give us his opinion.

Patrick, habitually covered in cement dust, with logs for eyebrows shading his button eyes, is utterly wonderful. I tell his story in Fat Dogs Part IV. He starts work at what my Father used to term ‘sparrow fart time’, (dawn), which is somewhat less wonderful.

Patrick turned up with his rickety ladders. He had a perilous poke around the courtyard walls, pointed at some disintegrating Roman-style bricks and gave us his opinion.

 


“The walls would have been much higher,” he said. “The existing top level needs protection from further water and frost damage.”

Sure enough, the existing stone frames and horizontal supports indicate that there was at least one other storey. To preserve the shell, Patrick suggested applying a magical product to cap the top of the walls. This would prevent further water ingress. He was given the job, and the protective layer was splodged on.

My hiking sticks on the bottom ledge (rhs) to give you an idea of the window frame's size

More recently, we made another exciting discovery about our domaine, which gives me the perfect opportunity to make my happy announcement. It’s finally ready, Fat Dogs and French Estates Part V is now available for pre-order.

Among the mass of other tales, in this episode I’ll tell you what happened when an innocent situation became a matter of archaeological intrigue. Needless to say, I was thrilled to the core. 

As for our other escapades, well, I can’t wait to share them with you. You’ll meet old friends and new, and find out a little more about how we ended up with such a strange mixture of animals. The book will be published on the 16th January. If you’d like an e-copy now, just click on the book to reveal the Amazon link. 

Just the other day as I was finishing a gardening stint, I stopped to admire the magnificent old oak tree next to one of the courtyard walls. Its mighty girth suggests it was around during those fraught medieval times. Gosh, what stories it could tell about life here through the centuries. It has also observed the trials and joys of our lives here so far. And we’re hoping there will be plenty more to come.


Yep, there’s no doubt about it, ruins definitely captivate me as does our extraordinary French home. I sincerely hope you enjoy the latest instalment in our Fat Dogs adventures where more will be revealed!



Friday, 6 November 2020

The Famous Tomatoes of Marmande!

 



My sister, Di, had a suggestion.

“Want to come to Marmande?”

“Where?”

“It’s a town in the Lot et Garonne. I’m going there to get some equipment for my car. I’ll buy the coffees.”

“I’m in!”

We set off on a blisteringly hot day, taking a country route west into the Buzet wine-making country. Their official vineyard is near Agen in the Lot-et-Garonne. It’s sandwiched between the Côtes du Marmandais and Brulhois appellations – a paradise for imbibers.

Verdant vineyards garnished with purple and green polka dots were spread-eagled as far as the eye could see. I was amazed.


“Wow, no wonder they make so much wine with all those grapes.”

“Yep, and did you know that the Armagnac appellation is just south of us?”

“Huh, I knew it was around here somewhere.”

“And the Cahors vineyards are a little way northeast. In total, there are around 2,000 hectares of vineyards in the area.”

“You’ve been at that tourist information guide again, Di!”

We settled into a comfortable chat about favourite tipples, which took us to the outskirts of Marmande. As we crossed a bridge spanning the River Garonne, Di had a new thought.

“Ooh, I wonder if we’ll see many tomatoes?”

“Why on earth would you say that?”

“Ahah! Well, obviously you didn’t know that this is the largest producer of tomatoes in our part of France.”

“I’m going to confiscate that guide book of yours.”

“No, really, this is interesting. The soil is perfect for them. They’ve been grown intensively here since the nineteenth century. And get this. There are lots of artisanal producers of Marmande tomatoes, including the Grand Master of the Brotherhood of the Knights of the Love Apple. Love apple is what the tomato was called in the Middle Ages.”

“Classic! Fancy having a Grand Master. There has to be a tomato fête.”

“Of course! It's honoured here every year. They make giant ratatouilles and enormous tomato tarts, which are washed down with the local wine and accompanied by lots of festivities.”

“Sounds perfect, let’s go.”

“It’ll have to be next year. It takes place in July.”

We reached our destination to find we had peaked too soon for Di’s rendezvous. It provided an ideal opportunity for coffee and cakes. We headed for a large café close-by.


Its innocuous exterior belied the delights that lay within. The pâtisserie was bulging at the seams with goodies. Gawping at the cake selection, we randomly joined a queue, only to be turned away.

Je suis désolé mesdames, cette file d’attente est uniquement pour le pain. Mais, voulez vous du pain?

We were in the bread queue. While the look of those still-warm baguettes was very tempting, we declined madame’s offer to buy. Our hearts were set on other delicacies. We found the non-bread buying line, which had extended out of the door.

Being a fruity type of person I couldn’t resist a tartelette aux fraises, Di, on the other hand, had her heart set on tartelette au citron meringues, and who could blame her? With our tray of delectables plus aromatic coffees, we found a table outside.

As we tucked into what we declared were among the best strawberry and lemon tarts we had ever eaten, a group of youngsters appeared. Politely staying a COVID-discrete distance from us, I couldn’t help noticing their companion. The pretty girl had brought along her cat.

Far from being nervous, the curious young ginger ninja decided he fancied a nibble of our tarts. We may be ardent cat lovers, but when it comes to cakes, we do have our limits. Moggy junior was politely declined his treat, and he returned to mum for a snuggle.

Refreshed and ready to go, we were still an hour early for Di’s appointment. I pointed at a dot in the distance.


“Why don’t we have a quick walk up there?”

“Great idea, it looks like the old part of town.”

Off we pottered, enjoying the sunshine and surroundings which were gradually morphing into older, grander buildings. We passed a magnificent courtyard with mighty oak doors; it seemed to be the entrance to a military establishment.  

Farther along, we discovered half-timbered houses, one in particular caught our eye with its diamond pattern frontage. Since the town was founded by Richard the Lionheart in 1182, we guessed it must have been an original medieval property.

As with so many municipalities in the region, Marmande was at the centre of a turbulent period in history. The crusade against the Cathars, the Hundred Years War, plague, and the Religious Wars dealt the town a series of severe blows. Despite this tortuous past, it was evident from what we were seeing that it had managed to preserve remnants of a history spanning almost a millennium.

Still in Middle Ages mode, what we saw next couldn’t have been less medieval if it tried. A colossal clock with signs of the zodiac on the dial was positioned in the centre of a square. A large bell with Chinese characters was suspended above. There had to be a story to this!

Apparently, it was the incongruous brainchild of the then town mayor, Gérard Gouzes. On his return from a trip to China in 2011, he announced that the Chinese of Yuncheng, with whom Marmande were considering a possible twinning, wished to offer a typical bell, accompanied by a clock.  


 Despite many disagreements on suitability and cost, the mayor had his way. The bell was eventually purchased from the foundry in the city of Wu Han.

Gérard Gouzes was allegedly delighted with the furore surrounding the installation of this monumental clock and was quoted as saying, “The controversy will create curiosity and attract people. And I do not regret it. This symbolic gesture will resonate in our relations with China.”

Still unsure whether we should be impressed or amused, we strolled on. The dot we had been heading for finally took shape. It was the Church of Notre Dame, Marmande. The sun dazzled us as we admired this remarkable building.

With its Anglo-Norman style architecture, it was built between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries. At one time, the church had a fine Gothic spire with a copper cockerel on the top. There’s a quirky tale about this too.

In 1672 the consuls in Marmande (and I have no idea why) used the spire to store the town’s reserves of gun powder. Lightning struck the spire which exploded, causing significant damage to the chancel and demolishing the steeple section. It was a sad end for the steeple, but another gave rise to another fascinating story.  


I walked inside the church. It was cool, tranquil. The nave was paved with immense slabs, and wooden pews flanked either side. Tape marked points of social isolation. Even here, the perils of coronavirus were all too evident. The graceful vaulted ceiling, simple yet so elegant, restored serenity to this beautiful place.

Back outside and we spotted a sign for the cloister gardens. These were a must-see. We found information telling us that only one gallery remains today. The pilasters in the renaissance style are decorated with floweret and diamond motifs, and the capitals are covered in acanthus leaves.

The photo Di took!

The garden was created in the 1950s. Its design was inspired by the gardens at the Château de Langeais. Observing the seventeenth century rules for topiary gardens, boxwood hedges and shaped yew trees were planted. Walls of the arbours evoke the arches of the cloisters that have since disappeared.

I was dead keen to have a look. Di stopped, looked at her watch and gasped.

“Oh my God, have you seen the time?”

“Erm no, what’s wrong?”

“We’ve only got 10 minutes to get back. We have to go now!

“But, Di, the garden.”

“If you hadn’t spent so much time staring at that clock we’d have time to take a good look. I had a peek while you were in the church. It’s fantastic, by the way.”

“That’s right, just torture me with words.”

“We’ll have to come back another time.”

With that Di raced off with me moaning in tow.

Happily, we did make it in time for Di’s meeting, although I will admit to us both being a bit hot and bothered by the time we got there. As usual, the folks involved were utterly charming, graciously ignoring our flustered state.

By the time Di had finished, it was getting towards lunch, and that café beckoned invitingly. It was one of those moments. You know you shouldn’t, but you do anyway.


“Erm, Di, did you notice those savouries in the café?”

“I did. I’m starving after galloping back all that way. Fancy a coffee and snack before we go home?”

“You’re on!”

It had been another fun excursion, another French town – partially seen, and did we see a famed Marmande tomato? Nope, not a single one, but those cakes were delicious!