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Saturday, 3 July 2021

Guest Blog - Alyson Sheldrake


For this month's blog, I invited my lovely, incredibly talented pal, Alyson Sheldrake, to tell us about her life and work in Portugal. As well as being a highly sought after artist, she produces an award-winning blog and is a best-selling memoir author. Alyson is currently working on a travel stories series and has just published her latest book, Chasing the Dream. Feeling breathless already? Read on!

I was born in inner-city Birmingham in the UK and escaped there as soon as I could to the beautiful west country. After my time as a student there, I joined the police force and served for thirteen years, which is where I met my husband, Dave. Few people can say they met the love of their life in a Custody Centre! I then moved into the world of education and reached the dizzy heights of Director of Education, working for the Church of England and managing 130 schools. The job was exhilarating and challenging – but also exhausting. I worked at least 70 hours every week.

We have always been adventurous holidaymakers, preferring to avoid the package holiday or guided tours, and exploring on our own. We had a motto back then, ‘never go back to the same place twice’, and we enjoyed many exciting holidays to beautiful destinations. And then we discovered the fishing village of Ferragudo in the Algarve, Portugal, and we were smitten. We rented a little cottage off the main street, and I can still distinctly remember the first time we arrived in our hire car and saw the village reflected in the glistening water of the Arade river. Painted boats were tied up, bobbing with the tide, the houses seemed to tumble down to the riverfront, with the majestic whitewashed church sat proudly above them keeping watch. It was idyllic.

We loved everything about the Algarve - the food, the people, the stunning beaches, and wide-open blue skies. The pace of life was
enticing, and the area captured our hearts. We returned seven times on holiday to the same cottage in the ensuing two years – so much for our motto!

It wasn’t long before we were house-hunting and purchased a modern property on the edge of the village. We still had the slight problem of working back in the UK, but we spent every spare minute we could in our home in Ferragudo. Finally, after five more years, Dave retired from the police. I handed in my notice (a scary moment!); we packed up the car and moved to live in the Algarve. Our new life in the sun could begin.

That was ten years ago now. It seems hard to believe all that time has passed by. Not that I haven’t been busy! I had a dream of turning my hobby of painting into a full-time career as an artist, and I have been amazed and slightly stunned at how well this plan has progressed for me. To date, I have painted – and sold – well over 200 paintings, including completing over 100 commissions for clients, and my studio is my favourite place to be. Dave had always held a camera in his hands since he was a young boy, so it was a natural progression for him to hone his skills and take up photography professionally.

We adopted a beautiful rescue dog, who we called Kat the dog. She is a Spanish Water Dog and has the sweetest nature. My walks with her every morning are the highlight of my day, watching her happily sniffle and snuffle her way along the river bank here in Aljezur, where we now live.

We moved to live in a lovely peaceful town on the west coast, surrounded by Portuguese neighbours. They have all made us feel so welcome and part of the local community. It is a rare week that passes without someone knocking on the door with fresh eggs, fruit or vegetables for us, all grown locally. You don’t get much more organic or local than your neighbour’s plot.

I started writing a blog when we first moved here, initially just to keep friends informed of what we were doing. It soon grew into an award-winning blog with over 100,000 views a year. I thoroughly enjoyed researching and writing our articles, all liberally sprinkled with Dave’s photography.

Many of our personal stories didn’t seem to fit the blog format, so I put them all to one side, and then eventually realised that I had a lot of material sat on my computer. People kept saying to me, “you should write a book”, so I sat down one day and started writing. It wasn’t long before I had written almost 80,000 words, and ‘Living the Dream – in the Algarve, Portugal’ was born.

It was a steep learning curve from that moment. Self-publishing was a whole new world to explore, and I relished it all. Pressing the ‘upload’ button on Amazon and seeing my book go live was an exhilarating – and slightly scary – time. I felt the same nerves I had experienced with our first art and photography exhibition – would anyone be interested in our story? My fears were unfounded. In the nine months since I published the book, it has reached the #1 bestseller status in several categories on both sides of the Atlantic and has amazed me with the number of sales and the positive feedback it has received.

At the end of the book, I mentioned we were about to move to start a new life in Aljezur, and that maybe there would be a sequel. I had so many messages from people asking for a second book that I had to get on with it! The result, ‘Living the Quieter Algarve Dream’ was released in November last year. I have described both books as ‘part guide – mostly memoir’ and they are a refreshingly honest and often hilarious account of our life here.

My last project involved bringing together the stories of a fascinating range of other people that have also started a new life in the Algarve. ‘A New Life in the Algarve, Portugal’ came out in April, and showcases the lives of 22 different people that have all made the Algarve their home. I was thrilled that the British Ambassador to Portugal agreed to write the foreword to this book too.

That gave me the bug for bringing together people’s stories and I am currently working on a new Travel Stories series. The first book, ‘Chasing the Dream – a new life abroad’, was released at the end of June.

It combines the individual stories of 20 different travel memoir authors all sharing their unique journeys and giving a fresh insight into what it is really like to move abroad – and explores why so many of us long for a new life in a different country. It will be a great way for readers to find new authors and books to read too, as the book showcases a wide range of different writers, countries and experiences, with links to each author’s books. I’m particularly thrilled with the covers for these books. I worked with a professional designer to create the ‘suitcase’ theme that runs through the series, and I can’t wait to see them all in print!

When I’m not busy writing or painting, you’ll find me walking Kat along the river, enjoying the peace and quiet in the early morning, and trying to spot the local wildlife. Recently I was thrilled to discover we have a nightingale that has made his home in a tree nearby. It was such an exciting moment when I actually understood one of the local farmer’s telling me all about him in Portuguese. I have always had fun trying to fathom this difficult language, but finally, after ten years, I think I am making some headway – enough to have a proper conversation about the nightingale at least!

We really feel that we have found our own little corner of paradise here. It’s less about the weather – although the 300 days of sunshine a year certainly helps – but it is much more about the local people, the gentle way of life, the beautiful beaches and coastline, and tiny villages where time seems to stand still sometimes. It is certainly a world away from our time as police officers back in the UK. We have absolutely no regrets about our decision to start a new life abroad, and can recommend it to anyone that has a hankering or a desire for a different – and quieter – way of life.

To find out more about my art and writing, you are welcome to visit my website:

If you fancy signing up for Alyson's newsletter, please click on the link below. It's an absolutely wonderful publication!

And here is the link for Chasing the Dream, Alyson's latest publication:

Saturday, 5 June 2021

Le Best Boulangerie


D’you know, I’ve always wondered how French bakers produce such fantastic bread. I decided to try and find out. I plucked up courage to ask Malik, an award-winning local baker if he would allow me a peek behind the scenes. 

He immediately agreed, although his response regarding timing did seem a bit extreme. I double-checked to make sure I’d understood his southwest French. 

“Yes, that’s right, I start work at 4 am.” “Ahem. Lovely, thank you,” I gulped, desperately wondering whether my alarm clock still worked. “I’ll…I’ll be there.” “Don’t worry,” he grinned, “come at around 5 am, that’ll be fine.”

I can’t tell you what time I arrived. My eyes wouldn’t focus on my watch. But it was horrifically early. I pulled up outside the bakery, which was bursting with homely cheer. Its lights shone like a beacon in the darkness, a haven welcoming insomniacs. And me. 

Still bleary-eyed, I opened the door to a deliciously enveloping ambience. That aromatic blend of coffee and freshly baked bread is a hard one to beat. I checked the café and retail areas for signs of life. The display cabinets for pâtisseries and the bread shelves behind had evidently just been filled, but it was too early for clients. 

Malik appeared from the back, waving ridiculously energetically.

“Here, coffee. And eat this croissant; it’s just out of the oven. Then we start work.”

It was precisely the perker I needed. Brushing an embarrassment of golden flakes off my jumper, I followed him through to the business end. First, I met Mikel, his fellow baker. 

Malik pointed to a machine in the corner, which Mikel was filling. “This is the mixer we use for making traditional French bread and Parisian baguettes. We will demonstrate the process of making the dough. After, you will see a different batch baked.” 

As experienced bread makers (unlike me) will know, the process follows three different stages. This is my interpretation of Malik's explanation.

1. Frasage/frasiage is the slow mixing of the main ingredients. The quantities must be correct using the best flour.   

2. Pétrir/pétrissage is the kneading/folding process. The time, temperature and humidity are all taken into account at this stage.

3. Lissage is the smoothing process. “It must be like the face of a baby,” said Malik, brushing a digit across his stubbly cheek.

I watched, mesmerised as the machine’s ginormous paddles slowly rotated the flour and water. When the mixture was resting, I asked Malik if he had any tricks to ensure that his bread was top quality. 

“Of course. The water, for example, must be cold, 4/5 degrees maximum. I have a machine that gives me water at exactly the right temperature. And just before the end of the preparation, I add 1½ litres of extra water, which makes the bread softer in the middle.”

“Interesting. Anything else?” “Yes. The dough must be resting at 22/23 degrees before cooking. It’s important. Oh, and some bakers favour fine salt. Not me. I use gross sel Guérande. This salt is unrefined and healthy. It makes my bread taste better.”

Malik showed me the oven, which had a series of deep shelves with intriguing steam-creating water jets. Apparently, they give the dough a kick start and help the crusts develop a sheen. “My pain traditionnel,” he said, “is cooked at a temperature of 260 degrees. In it goes, and after 18 minutes, voila! It’s ready.”

The timer dinged to signal that another batch was finished. I was dying to see it.

“Now, you will learn another trick. Humidity is critical. We open the oven shutters to allow the steam to escape. Sometimes we leave the loaves for five minutes, sometimes less. It depends on the weather. Our customers like crusty bread, so we must get this right.”

Malik stuck his head unreasonably close to the boiling hot oven. Nodding with satisfaction, he expertly slid the extra-long wooden shovel (which I’m sure has a special name) under a batch of loaves and drew them out. 

“Come here. Listen! The bread is croquant (crisp). It is singing.” It was, the bread was making crackly sounds. I couldn’t believe it.

Two hundred crusty traditional French beauties are made here every morning. Most are sold before lunchtime, and some go later via Malik’s self-service vending machine. I had never seen one of these before, so watched him refuel his metal monster.

The machine’s capacity is 72 loaves. Malik opened to restock and found some wedged down one side. Tutting, he muttered to himself. Convinced I had misheard, I asked him to repeat what he’s said.

“The engineer has not fixed my machine properly. I will pull his ears the next time I see him!”

Naturally, this has become one of my new favourite French phrases.

With so many loaves and pastries produced daily, I wondered about surplus food. He said there was very little, but any, such as the damaged loaves stuck in the machine, is given to farmers for their animals. Not a single slice is chucked away.

By now, Malik was dashing between his ovens and the front to serve customers. It gave me a second to digest everything I had learned so far.

Whilst some bits may have been lost in translation, I had a basic grasp of how two uber-popular French loaves were made. But there were others which had been brewing during my lesson. Each was baked in an individual foil container. I asked Mikel what they were.

“We bake about twenty different varieties of bread here. This morning you can see the maise, wholemeal and malt loaves. Malt is the dark bread; it has a stronger flavour.”

They all looked too good to be true. As fast as Malik stocked his shelves, the bread was sold. Worried I was getting in the way, I decided it was my cue to leave. As I thanked them for their time, Malik wagged his finger. “But you must come back. I want to show you how we make our croissants.”

It was an invitation I couldn’t refuse. I left with two loaves of traditional French bread and more croissants. Only one of the loaves made it home, and yes, it was yummy!

My next visit was at the altogether more social hour of 8 am. I arrived to find Mikel looking fresh as a daisy, busily brushing the floor. I asked him when he had started work.

“This morning, it was 3.30.” “Gosh, that’s so early, Mikel. Have you worked as a baker for a long time?” “Yes, since I was fourteen. I always wanted to be a baker. Look, this is why.”

Smiling bashfully, Mikel beckoned me over to the oven, where an infinite number of loaves were waiting for duty. He picked one up with great reverence.

“The aroma of freshly baked bread, there is nothing like it. To make the best bread is a wonderful thing.”

That fresh bready scent, it was cosy, huggable, comforting. It was evocative of all things nice. I understood exactly what he meant.

With that, he began to load the ovens with new batches of loaves. Flawlessly formed and snuggled in muslin cloths, he scooped them onto a special spatula and in they went for baking.

A different area had crates stacked with bread rolls and bags filled with loaves. Malik caught my eye.

“We have baked 1,000 rolls this morning. We supply five schools, so these will be delivered soon.”

Just in case there was any doubt about their versatility, Malik told me they make various cakes and pastries, including Viennoise, Tresses au chocolat, Chaussons aux pommes and Chocolatine (a chubby little pastry with dark chocolate in the middle). It was the latter I believed was shrouded in controversy.

“Just what is the difference between Pain au chocolat and Chocolatine? Isn’t it the same thing?”

Malik roared with laughter.

“This is a long story to this, but you must understand that Pain au chocolat is what the northerners bake. They are amateurs! Here, in the southwest of France, we bake Chocolatine. We are the professionals.”

So French! I was dying to know the history behind this but would have to find out another time. Now it was my croissant-making lesson. Mikel provided the demonstration. And it was a loud one. I had no idea there was so much violence and frenzied activity involved in making a croissant.

Mikel gently placed a lump of chilled butter on his work surface. And that’s where ‘gently’ ended. Grabbing his rolling pin, he repeatedly bashed it until it was flattish. Once satisfied, he reached for the dough he had prepared earlier.

A cloud of flour was fanned onto the work surface. Mikel rolled out a fat rectangular wodge and placed the belted butter on top. He folded the dough three times, completely enveloping the butter. The result was a neat parcel with an overlapped seam.

At this point, he told me he would usually refrigerate the pastry to allow the butter to cool down again, but today he continued. We had reached the le feuilletage (puff pastry) stage, and it was a speedy affair.

Using rapid, rhythmic movements, Mikel rolled and folded his mixture several times, creating many delicate layers. I stared in wonder at the multi-laminated result. Another flourish with the magic dust, and we were into the final stage.

The elasticity of pastry always amazes me. Still working quickly with his rolling pin, Mikel expertly stretched the dough and cut out triangles. Each one was hand-rolled into a perfectly formed croissant. All done, they would be left in a temperature-controlled room to ferment before baking.

“Before the croissants go in the oven, we wash them with an egg,” he said. “It gives them that golden colour. Et voila!”  

As Mikel whisked away his newbies, I checked the time. Once again, it had flown. Despite feeling as though I needed to leave, I had a strong sense that Malik and Mikel were happy to continue sharing tricks of their beloved trade for as long as I liked.

The café side of the boulangerie now had new clients, chatting happily as they tucked into a warm pastry. With so many bakeries in our corner of France, it was a familiar scene. But what sets this little boulangerie apart is that all the products are freshly made by hand. There are only eight others who do that.  

Malik has won several awards for his pain, and I’m not surprised. He and Mikel work incredibly hard, with a dedication and pride that is obvious for all to see. Baking different loaves, pastries, pizzas and cakes, their daily production rate seems endless.

I couldn’t have been more grateful for the time they gave me. I left with a million thank yous, and on my way out, I tried to buy some pastries. Malik refused with a hearty ‘Non!’ when I proffered my cents.

Later on, I savoured what was undoubtedly the best Pain au raisins I have ever tasted. My two visits had been a true privilege. For me, this really is le best boulangerie in our corner of France.

Saturday, 1 May 2021

Plants and Cadeaux



Does spring bring out the gardener in you? It certainly does me. Whenever time allows, I’ll be out there, sprucing up borders and resuming my annual battle against weeds. This includes my arch enemy, the dreaded couch grass (Elymus repens). A determined miscreant with creeping underground stems, it’s almost impossible to get rid of, and we have masses of the stuff.

Far more pleasurable is working on the shrubs and perennials. They get a good early feed and general titivation. Not forgetting the veggie patch, I’ll dig it over yet again, which is an awful job with our heavy clay-based soil. Meanwhile, my little greenhouse has been in use since February. It’s now bulging with a variety of border plant seedlings and baby legumes.

With the basics in place, it should be a matter of settling into the usual maintenance jobs. But it never quite works out like that. Like lots of my gardening friends, I always find room for some more plants.

It might be a shady corner that needs perking up or a pile of discarded rocks crying out to be remodelled as a rockery. My last effort was to create a stone border next to our château ruin. Even my gardening-hating husband, Jack, approved of that one. 

And, of course, there is always a need to replace plants that have had their day. Happily, at our place, the potential is almost limitless. The obvious solution is a trip to the garden centre.

When we moved into our French home, I had no idea where the nearest nursery was. I used my fumbling French to ask advice from our forester, Nathan. Keener on trees than flowers and understated about everything, he made a suggestion calling it ‘pas mal’, not bad.

I recount that first visit in my latest book, Fat Dogs and French Estates Part V. Here’s an extract that describes what I saw when I arrived.

Following Nathan’s advice, I turned off the main road onto a dirt track. Assuming this must be wrong, I was about to reverse when I spotted a couple of stray urns. They looked gardenish. I continued around a bend, and there it was.

Wiry briars held abandoned vehicles hostage. Savannah grass corralled rickety towers of pallets, and weeds sprouted through infinite numbers of plant-holders. There was vigorous plant growth going on here alright, but not the type I had anticipated. Fearing the term ‘garden centre’ had a looser meaning in French – like ‘shambles’, I parked next to a thicket.

Unusually, it had a rusty plough in the middle. I followed the chipped pot-ridden track towards a collection of voluminous, moth-eaten polytunnels.

Tumbledown though it looked, La Jardin Pépinière Delacroix, run by two brothers, quickly became one of my favourite places to shop. The prices were ridiculously low, and I never left without a couple of leafy cadeaux.

It is still my favourite horticultural venue and with lots of new plants needed, last Monday, I set off on a buying spree. 

A feature of our sleepy part of rural France is its constancy. Change is considered gradual, and rather like a good wine, it develops slowly. As I pulled up close to an ancient farm implement embedded in grassy scrub, it struck me that not much has altered since my very first visit. But there have been some recent improvements.

Last winter, the brothers had a purge on the entry route. No longer do us shoppers sprain ankles and accidentally jettison purchases on the way back to our cars. The path has been levelled and the jumble either side looks much tidier.

Having raved about this place in my book, I thought it might be fun to share this visit with you along with some photos. But first, I needed permission. I hunted around and found Christian, the younger brother. Here was another change, quite a dramatic one at that. I had never seen him looking so neat. We exchanged pleasantries, and I asked my question.

“No problem,” he said. “Do you want one of me?”

“Ooh, yes, please.”

“Shall I keep my bib on? I have just been in a meeting.”

“Yes, definitely. Thank you!”

That explained the dapper look, although I’m not sure what the bib was all about. I took my photo and headed towards the confusion of greenhouses and polytunnels. This is a magically misleading place, where at first glance, it looks as though there might be three, perhaps five at most. That would be wrong. 

The labyrinthine layout belies its size. Some of the glasshouses are part of the main building. They house the interior plants, where temperatures alternate between jungle-hot and boiling. It explains why shorts are de rigueur.

Outside, the structures are solar heated. They are ventilated by a combination of openings at either end, tattered holes in the covers and several which look like dinosaur rib cages where the polythene has shredded. There are lots and lots of these, as I found out during my very first visit. 

I had wanted to buy geraniums and asked where they were kept. A chatty lady took me along a weed-sheet covered track with rusty rails on top. We passed at least three pairs of ribby polytunnels and stopped at a lane.

This was where I thought my faltering French had failed again. I double-checked.

“Geraniums, madame?”

Oui, là bas!” she smiled, pointing ahead. 


We crossed the lane, and sure enough, there stood another collection of motley tunnels. The deliciously lemony peppery fragrance hit me before I saw the plants. Battalions of perfect specimens were lined in colour and type rows. Others hung from the ceilings in containers, just ready to be plucked off hooks and settled in homes. I was in heaven.

Nowadays, being a regular, I know my way around. Since this is the kind of inspiring place where it pays to browse, I removed a layer of clothing and started by mooching around the tropical sections. 

While the furnishings may be a tad shabby, the same cannot be said about the plants. There are acres and acres of them, all as pristine as their neighbours blossoming next door. It’s a feast for the gardener’s eye.

Crepe paper bougainvillaea, striking azaleas, begonias and orchids lit up one area, as did the hibiscus with their wonderfully extravagant petals. Two of those somehow found their way onto my trolley. An unmistakably pungent scent drew my attention to a different spot. 


In France, May 1st is Labour Day. The French celebrate with a national holiday and often give a bouquet of muguet-du-bois (lily of the valley), to loved ones and friends. It is a symbol of good luck and love. There is always one left on our doorstep. We still have no idea who the kind donor is, but it’s likely to have been bought from here.  

Oceans of red petunias filled another greenhouse along with the blue spotty varieties I tried last year. They had received a mixed reception. Nathan thought they were diseased, and Jack assumed I’d taken to buying artificial plants, which he approved of since they wouldn’t need watering. I thought they were very cheery.

Spotty petunias

Snuggled up to the petunias were a group of statuesque Arum lilies. Sensational swirls of colour, including coy pinks, decadent creams and virgin whites with cheeky yellow centres. The creamy white ones are hugely popular here. Many are grown by drainage ditches and ponds, providing a flash of colour for passers-by.  

Red petunias

I dragged myself away from the hothouses to search for the plants I had come to buy. Having recently excavated heaps of couch grass from a patch of lamb’s ears plants (so named because of their shape and velvety texture), I wanted to in-fill with ‘oeillets’, (dianthus), to help thwart the weeds.

These popular little beauties, also called pinks, belong to a family of plants, including carnations, and are characterised by their spicy fragrance. They come in a variety of colours and can flower for ages. 

Calla lilies

A lady I had never met before was watering in one of the polytunnels. I asked her to help, and off we trekked towards the geranium zone. Halfway there, she stopped and slapped her forehead, which seemed strange.

“Of course, madame, I know you now. L’anglais! My husband gave you some partridges.”

“Oh, I am sorry, I had no idea Monsieur Guirbel was your husband.”

“Yes, they were his cadeaux when you allowed him to pick mushrooms in your forest.”

“That’s true, it was very kind. We tried to refuse, but he insisted. They are beautiful birds.”

“He has many different types now. Do you like Japanese quail?”

“Yes, I love quail.”

“Then you must have some!”

“Goodness, no, really I…”

“Definitely, you must. When will you come back here?”

“Well, I’ll be back next week for my geraniums, but, honestly, madame, there’s no…”

“Good. That’s settled then. I’ll tell my husband you will have some. How many do you want? Ten? Twenty?”

And so the conversation went on. It was the typical kind of exchange we have here in our small community – often confusing, always warm and convivial. Madame refused to discuss money; it would be their pleasure to give us another consignment of feathery gifts.

I’d love to show you photos of the dianthus, but my hands were soon filled by the choices madame selected for me. A complete tunnel was filled with multi-coloured little ‘uns, including the mauves, which madame liked best. I ended up with three of those. 

With my order complete, we headed for the checkout via the monster potting machine. I have no idea how old it is, although similar to their other contraptions, it looked a bit dicey. I hoped not. The nursery has thousands of potted plants. It would take an army to prepare them all by hand.   

We passed through a hanging basket section. Hundreds of containers quietly brewing, ready to be shipped to local businesses and doting new owners. This one has an unusual outcrop of what looks like an unkempt jungle sprouting out of one corner. Somehow I hope they never tidy that up.



We reached the magnificently chaotic payment desk with a deadly fridge lurking in the background. It has never altered. Coins are chucked in plant pots, notes are stored between pages of a horticultural encyclopaedia or in pockets, and the credit card machine is usually gummed up with soil. 

Christian appeared and muttered something to madame as she totted up my bill. She nodded and stuck the empty seed packet covered with squiggles under my nose to confirm the price. Something wasn’t right.

“Ah no, madame, you haven’t charged me enough.”

“I have. You must have three oeillets as a cadeau with our pleasure!”

With remonstrations being pointless, I thanked them and left to the calls of ‘Au revoir à bientôt!’ Goodbye, see you soon! Anticipating a fun gardening session ahead, I couldn’t help smiling at the generosity of these lovely folks. With my geranium stocks to pick up, not to mention a confusing number of chubby quails, there’s no doubt I cant wait to go back!

Saturday, 3 April 2021

Guest Blog Vanessa Couchman - Why France is a Gift for Writers

I was absolutely delighted when Vanessa Couchman agreed to contribute a guest piece on my blog. Not only is she a highly talented novelist, but her writing skills also extend to producing short stories and a hugely popular blog. These abilities together with a shared love of France make her the perfect choice. Here's what she has to say. 


                                         Why France is a gift for writers

First, thank you, Beth, for inviting me. Your posts are so interesting. And your article about a town near us that I thought I knew well, Saint-Antonin-Noble Val, taught me some new things!

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in Southwest France nearly twenty-five years ago. My various careers all involved some form of writing. Then I turned to penning non-fiction (a blog, magazine articles) before launching myself into the deeper waters of historical fiction.

In normal times, France is the world’s number one tourist destination. Few countries offer so many attractions and advantages for visitors. France is also a happy hunting ground for writers. When Beth kindly invited me to write an article, after floundering around for a subject, I thought, “Why not explore what makes my adopted country, and my region in particular, such a writer’s paradise?”

Here goes.

The scenery

Who could fail to be inspired by the landscapes, towns and villages? France isn’t only Paris, but sadly some visitors don’t venture outside the capital to experience the wonderful variety of the provinces.

The French regions remain resolutely independent and proud of their culture, heritage and scenery. De Gaulle is reputed to have remarked, “How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?” (What a challenge, to track down and eat your way through all 246! I suspect there are more than that…)

Our region alone, Occitanie, is a land of remarkable diversity. It is bordered in the South by the Pyrénées, which you can see on a clear day from viewpoints not far from us, and the Mediterranean.

To the East stretches the high plateau of the Aubrac, studded with vibrant wild flowers in the spring and blanketed with snow during the winter. We visited with a coachload of French people in late May one year. This is when the transhumance takes place. The cattle are driven to their summer pastures after over-wintering indoors. The Aubrac is only a couple of hours’ drive from us, but the weather belongs to another continent. It was freezing cold. We heard it snowed the following day.

The extinct volcanic mountains of the Auvergne, where we love to walk in spring and autumn, lie to the North. The West is bounded by the rolling, green countryside of Gascony. Dramatic gorges carved out by the rivers over aeons crisscross the landscape.

Few countries have preserved their historic towns and villages, cathedrals and châteaux more carefully than France. Our region has its share of plus beaux villages de France (most beautiful villages in France). They are often medieval in origin and set on a hilltop with stunning views.

Inevitably, they are tourist hotspots in the summer months. You can’t blame people for visiting them, but I have the good fortune to see them out of season. I like to wander around the empty streets and imagine how people lived in times past. As recently as a century ago, they were working villages, but the mechanisation of agriculture and the lure of an easier life in the towns drew the younger generation away. A wonderful backdrop for so many stories.

The history

I am a self-confessed history nut. I studied the subject at university, but it really came alive for me when we moved to France. A country that has experienced wars, occupation, revolutions, ousted its monarchy more than once, and gained and lost an empire, often in blood-stained conflict, can’t fail to stir a writer’s story-telling DNA.

Our region is absolutely steeped in history. Today’s tranquil and picturesque villages conceal tales of more chaotic times. I often wonder what happened to the ordinary people during these turbulent episodes.

Our village alone is an example. The staunchly Catholic village and its equally staunchly Protestant neighbour were often at loggerheads. During the Huguenot Rebellions in the 1620s, our village became a temporary HQ for Louis XIII.

To entertain visitors, we took a Tourist Office tour of our village, and discovered many hidden gems. High up on the wall that flanks the road into the village, we saw this figure, cheekily poking out its tongue at its despised neighbours, should they have the audacity to venture this way. That rivalry continues today. Memories in country communities are long.

I love to collect stories and snippets for later use, as a magpie hoards shiny objects. They bring history to life. Not all of them are happy or uplifting, though. We heard a tale of a young woman during the 1900s whose parents kept her shut in their pigeonnier (dovecot) when they discovered she was pregnant. Having a baby out of wedlock brought disgrace on the whole family. I have shamelessly used this one in a novel, without the identifying details, of course.   

The language(s)

French as it is spoken and French as it is taught in UK schools, at least in my time, are two different things. My husband lived in Limoges for a few years and spoke French well. I had the grammar and a smattering of vocabulary (“my postillion has been struck by lightning”), but somehow I couldn’t fit them together in any useful way.

When you combine this with the broad regional accent of the Southwest, which adds an extra ‘e’ to the end of every word, I was lost. Thus “vin” becomes “veng-er” and “comment”, “commeng-er”. Our elderly neighbours, whose first language was Occitan, were unintelligible. There followed four years of intensive French courses, from which I emerged rather better equipped to communicate.

We still made many mistakes. French neighbours invited us to dinner. The conversation turned to smoking. My husband said to the rather grand lady next to him,

Vous êtes fumier?”

In fact, he had asked her if she was a heap of manure, certainly not a compliment in French. A shocked silence ensued.

I broke the ice by snorting with laughter. Everyone joined in, and the party became livelier after that.

Before French became the standard language, the people of our region spoke Occitan, a cross between Spanish and French with Latin roots. Occitan was not a written language, and words and phrases could vary between villages. Our friend Claude, now in his seventies, recalls that his parents spoke only Occitan at home. He doesn’t speak Occitan, although he understands it. The language was banned at school when he was a boy.  

Occitan is now enjoying a revival. You can still hear it spoken by some of the older people. They get annoyed if you refer to it as “patois”, as I once did.

“It’s a proper language!” Jeanine said, wagging the inevitable finger. “Don’t call it patois.”

I recommend Graham Robb’s excellent book, The Discovery of France, which explores the different cultures of France, with particular reference to language groups. It’s full of interesting and quirky anecdotes. For instance, I learned that people in parts of the Pyrénées could communicate across large distances with a whistling language. Sadly, it has died out.   

The people

If you’re a people-watcher, as I am, or a spy, as my husband prefers to put it, seat yourself at a café table in any French village and prepare to indulge your obsession. Our village’s weekly market is a microcosm of Southern France.

You rarely see men kiss each other in the UK, but it’s part of the panoply of greetings that enlivens French encounters in the market. One year, our friend René advanced on my husband and gave him three smacking kisses along with traditional New Year wishes for good health. My husband took it like a man.

Market habitués include the huddles of elderly men who chat while their wives choose the produce; the stall holders who arrived at first light and are fortifying themselves with ham baguettes and glasses of red wine at 10 am; the queue for the cheese stall, which diminishes slowly as each customer debates the merits of the cheeses before leaving with a bag groaning with them; and the man who plays the flute to his chickens. He claims it charms them into laying better.  

As a writer, however, one has to resist the temptation to caricature people: the sophisticated Parisian, the crafty peasant, the snobbish bourgeois. You’ll find elements of all of those, naturally. But in France they are individuals, just as they are elsewhere. They share elements of culture, education and upbringing that are different from our own. This can give the appearance of cohesion. In reality, it’s a veneer.

The so-called French joie de vivre, for example, is a bit of a myth, along with the bicycle-riding, beret-sporting onion seller. Some of the local fêtes can be boisterous events. The noise level increases in direct proportion to the quantity of wine consumed. However, French people can be rather restrained and not always easy to get to know. It is worth persevering.

I recently read Two Vagabonds in Languedoc, by Jan and Cora Gordon. They were British artists who spent four months in 1923 in the village of Najac, not far from us. The book captures their observations of village life. While they make generalisations about the lives of peasant-farmers, each of the people they portray has their own quirks and character traits.

For country-dwellers, the peaceful invasion by foreigners is a new departure. Generally, they appreciate the high standards to which crumbling properties are restored, and the new life that incomers bring to the local economy and the community. You hear rumblings from time to time, but overall we have been welcomed with open arms by our neighbours.

The food (and wine!)

French cuisine is, of course, world-renowned. It’s even inscribed on UNESCO’s list of Intangible World Heritage. I would argue that there isn’t a single French cuisine, but many. Every region has its signature dishes, which inspire heated arguments among their supporters. Mention the duck, sausage and bean stew, cassoulet, to the people of Castelnaudary, Toulouse or Carcassonne, and they will all forcefully claim to have invented it.

If you haven’t read Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking, you have a treat in store. When it first appeared in 1960, Britain had emerged from post-war rationing only six years earlier, and mass tourism was in the future. Her book presents a colourful, tantalising picture of France, liberally larded with anecdotes and stuffed with dishes she discovered during her travels. It’s not a cookbook. Elizabeth David assumes you know all about cooking times and techniques. Rather, it’s an analysis of a country through its food.   

We spent many happy holidays in France before moving here. We enjoyed local dishes and copious meals at ridiculously low prices compared to the UK. You can eat badly in France, usually (but not always) in places that cater for the passing tourist trade.

I have a strange talent for remembering menus from years back. Having spent a long morning viewing houses in April 1997, we were late back to our car. It was already 1.20 pm. Knowing the French attachment to lunch at midi on the dot, we were wreathed in humble apologies when we entered the village’s only restaurant.

“No problem,” said the waitress with a smile. “Sit here, and I’ll bring you the soup.”

You helped yourself from the platters the waitress placed on the table. The soup was followed by fat asparagus with ham and hard-boiled eggs, a tender veal stew with fried potatoes, a platter of cheeses and the sweetest strawberries I have ever tasted: my introduction to locally grown Gariguettes.

We drank the unlabelled bottle of red wine. It dawned on us only later that it was a whole litre. No wonder we felt light-headed.

The cost of this feast? 120 francs (about £12). For two. This wasn’t haute cuisine, but it was fait maison from carefully chosen local ingredients, appetisingly cooked and appealingly served.

Naturally, incidents like these, and the local dishes, have found their way onto my blog and into my fiction set in the region.

I had better stop there. My circuitous route through the fascination France exerts on writers (and travellers) can only be partial. I haven’t even mentioned the vast literary and artistic heritage or other aspects of French culture. Neither have I referred to the things that ail France. No country is a Utopia, and negative aspects can provide as much meat for the imagination as positive ones. But, if nothing else, I hope I’ve been able to convey the diversity of France, which offers endless possibilities.

Vanessa Couchman and her husband moved from London to Southwest France in 1997. She writes historical novels and short stories set in France or on the dramatic Mediterranean island of Corsica. She has also written a blog about French life, Life on La Lune, since 2010. Quirky true stories often find their way into her fiction or onto her blog, and she likes nothing more than pottering around ruined châteaux or exploring the lesser-known byways of France. Author website: