There can be nothing better than escaping to France for a few days holiday, to sample the culinary delights and to simply relax and take in the culture. Digi and I did just that a few years ago, and here is our story...
Monday 22nd August
We went to work today happy knowing that the next day we would be going on holiday, staying at my aunt Fay's cottage in France, just south of Poitiers. Fay had come over to England a couple of weeks before and had been doing the rounds seeing friends and family; it had been arranged a long time ago that we would go back with her. This kills two birds with one stone; Fay has company for the long drive home and we share the cost of fuel and have a chauffeur.
As my friends know, Iím not too keen on flying, so for me driving was the best option. The downside was the time of the Eurotunnel le shuttleís departure, 1:30am the next morning!
We packed the car and left at 10:30pm. I was ready for bed, let alone having to travel all that way. I was the passenger and I knew it was going to be hard to stay awake, so thank heavens I wasnít driving.
I was happier knowing that Fay had had a couple of hours sleep but Digi and I were already tired from being up all day at work.
Great, we were at last on our way and the journey down to Folkestone went quite quickly and we got there at 12:45am. After a bit more hanging about in a cold and empty terminal, the call came to board the train.
At 1:30am we left Folkestone and then tried to cat nap during the crossing
but without much success, Digi however, had slept most of the way through the journey so far,
Fay had her eyes closed; Iím assuming she was asleep!
Fay drove us off the train at 3:10am local time. God, 420 miles, itís a bloody long way to go. I was feeling a bit disorientated and perhaps sleep would quickly take over. The weather was disgusting - it was that horrible fine rain that you can get drenched in in seconds.
The lorries made things worse, especially on the auto routes and overtaking them was, to be quite honest, scary. The wipers were going ten to the dozen getting past the monstrosities. The lanes on the auto routes feel narrower than ours, so a lorry on our right and the concrete central reservation on our left was not doing my nerves any good. Every time we passed a lorry, you could feel the car being sucked in towards the wheels and Fay would fight against the force and then the central reservation would be getting near again. Bricking it now!
I was worried about Fay keeping awake and as we all know when your passengers are asleep the driver soon follows. However, I shut my eyes but I had enough gap in my eye lids that I could see the road but I just couldnít relax to go to sleep. Fay and I ended up chatting about all sorts of non-important nonsense, just to keep each other awake, Iím sure I was helping, I hope! All this time Digi was fast asleep!
Fay had been driving for 3 hours since we had left the terminal and I decided it was about time we had a break and stretched the legs. The garages were few and very far between and eventually we found one, which was just as well as my bladder was nearly bursting. Phew, what a relief. It was another two and half hours before we stopped again but that was just for me to stretch my legs again.
I was in agony with the back of my right thigh; itís sciatica trouble Iíve had for years, it goes numb and I just canít sit for very long without being in pain. Time had passed after my leg stretch and it was now lightish at 8am and Fay and I were barely functioning. Digi seemed refreshed, not surprising as he had had more rest than us two.
God only knows how Fay kept going; could be she was used to it, but she was happy to keep driving because the more she stopped, the more her body went into shut down mode she told us. So I felt really guilty asking her to stop.
We drove past Orleans, Tours and then Poitiers and then there was only 50km to go. At last we arrived at Fay's at 11:30am and Fay was totally shattered. Apart from a 45 minute break, she had driven 901km and we had taken 13 hours to get here. I think a quick nap might be in order, Fay was asleep but it didnít work for me.
As I wrote this, the time was 6pm. And as I was sat sipping a couple of cheap beers from Lidl, slowly our batteries were being recharged. We eventually went to bed at 11pm, which made it 39 and a half hours being awake.
We all slept well that night.
Ah! What a difference a good nightís sleep makes, we had gone from zombie back to human again.
A friend of Fayís brought over two bikes from his house in Civray for us to borrow for our stay. One of the bikes was a Trek that Digi was going to use and the other was a womanís bike which was small enough for me.
We spent a while changing the handlebar and seat positions on both bikes, but couldnít go out for a ride because we all had to go to Ruffec to buy a top loader washing machine for Fay because the old one had packed in. She had a load of washing to do, so this took priority.
The new machine that Fay selected was very narrow, about ĺ of the width of the machines we get in the UK. We simply paid for the machine, drove around the back of the shop and loaded it into the car. An hour later Digi and I had the washing machine plumbed in and ready for use. We were very impressed that we could take it home with no hassle, instead of buying something and then waiting in all day for it.
In the evening we had a barbecue, the ash was blowing all over the meat because of the whirling wind but this added flavour to it anyway. We sat outside for a while but it was already cooling off so we blew all the candles out and went in doors to watch TV.
Oh great itís raining, typical I thought, now we have the bikes, but we didnít want to go out and get our arses wet. Soft ainít we?
The plan for today was to put the bikes in the car and drive to Champagne Mouton, to watch the third stage of the Poitou-Charente 5 day stage race. Then Digi and I were going to ride back home.
However, it was still raining so we didnít bother with the bikes. We went to a little village called Benest on the D36 and stood in the rain waiting for the race to arrive.
The riders came hell for leather around the downhill bend for a hot spot sprint. It was raining cats and dogs and it was very dangerous riding conditions. I could not believe the organizers had set up such a dangerous sprint on a bend and we were all waiting for a crash.
Despite the bad weather, there was a huge crowd smiling and cheering the very wet bike riders on. It was great, even the gendarmes were waving when they went past on their motorbikes and the drivers were tooting their horns, the atmosphere was electric. It was a scene that felt almost like a stage of the Tour de France and made up for not seeing the Tour this year.
After the race Fay took us to meet some friends who lived in the lodge house in the grounds of a huge Ch‚teau that they were caretakers for. The Ch‚teau was owned by an American man who lived in Japan but before him it was owned by the local ĎMarieí for many years.
Fayís friends also look after the huge garden and swimming pool, they showed us around the Ch‚teau. Every room had Japanese furniture that had been collected over the years, ranging from small tables to large beds. The base of some of the beds were also used as tables as they were solid pieces of wood, I wasnít sure what kind of wood but it was very interesting. There were loads of ornaments everywhere, some of which looked like shrines, each piece had a story to tell.
The Ch‚teau didnít look like it was lived in, the place was covered in spiders and cobwebs that looked like they had been there a while; it definitely had an eerie feel to it. On occasions it got rented out to various members of the American's family and friends. Thankfully Fays's friends weren't responsible for keeping the Ch‚teau clean, what a job eh, dealing with them spiders. (I hate them big time.)
After spending quite a bit of time going around the Ch‚teau and grounds it seemed to both of us that Fay's friends had quite a nice job attending to this little lot; in the hot sunshine, outside in real fresh air! Hmmm! Nice I thought, not too difficult to do.
Anyway, later we took advantage of the pool and apparently this is where Fay
and her friends do their aquarobics once a week. The pool was freezing cold but
we didnít care after all we were already wet from watching the race. We didnít
have cossies, just a towel each so we swam in our underwear; well we are family! The
air in the closed pool had a nice smell of dampness caused by the mildew on the walls which
were a nice shade of green.
On our way home, Fay drove us to Ch‚tain to have a look around, by this time
it had stopped raining and we were beginning to dry out with the help of the wind blowing.
Once home, it was too miserable to sit outside but too light to sit inside, so we compromised and sat in the conservatory for our evening meal.
Digi and I had taken our own pedals and SPD shoes with us and so we fitted our pedals onto the borrowed bikes. We planned a route but werenít sure of the distance or the terrain.
The Trek that Digi was riding was a road bike and he wasnít used to such things, the angles were completely different from his mountain bike obviously, so I thought he will have trouble as time went on.
Going south seemed a good idea and it wasnít long before we stopped at a place called VoulÍme and found a bar called ĎThe Little Kitchení which turned out to be run by an English couple. Just canít get away from them Brits, but they were friendly anyway.
We zigzagged our way doing a long loop and crossed over la Charente River several times during our zigzagging. I could not believe that Digi and I were overtaken by a total of three cars, phew, must be rush hour. If only it were like this at home!
Twenty three miles and a few hills later, we were back at base. I know itís not a huge distance but it did have hills in it. Digi commented on having ďa sore arse and numb handsĒ. The pressure on his hands caused by the handlebars being too low really hurt but we couldnít get the handlebars up any further so he looked very uncomfortable riding his bike.
Later on Fay drove us to a lovely spot called Comporte which has a picnic area for caravans and campers. It was equipped with an outside sink, work top and under cover table. Yay, we were the only ones there, which was just as well because as soon as we finished our lunch Fay and I became children all over again. Playing on the swings and the slide and generally being silly and all this time Digi was taking photos of us, he couldnít believe what we were doing.
Still I donít suppose thereís anything wrong with being kids; after all it keeps you young in mind and spirit. And Fay and I had some catching up to do because of 24 years being apart and we were just loving being together again. Silly or not, Fay said ďYouíre a carbon copy of meĒ, which was followed by laughter all round.
Today Fay drove us to meet more of her friends, Diana and Sid, at their place at Chatain, which was out in the middle of nowhere. It was a very hot day and we had been invited to swim in their pool, which was upto 3 metres deep and 10 metres long. Diana and her son Miles are both deep sea divers and are able to train people to dive down to 50 metres depth. Iím happy with 2 metres thanks.
We were there for two hours messing about but I spent the longest in the pool because I was learning how to snorkel.
Three years before this day, I had tried to snorkel in the Philippines in the sea but with some difficulty. Iíd never done it before, and as soon as I put my face in the water I panicked. Ok I thought, donít panic and relax, but in the Philippines I couldnít overcome the fear. My brother Barry sat and watched me panic, thanks I thought, youíre not a very good instructor! However this time, I had Diana to help me and yes again I panicked as it brought back memories of that time in the Philippines.
Diana persevered and soon she got me to breathe and swim properly with the flippers on. She also got me to dive down and then blow the water out of the tube.
As we all sat at the table watching the sunset and supping beer, Diana invited us all back the next day for another lesson and I was very quick in taking them up on their offer.
It started off cloudy but the sun soon came out, so I was looking forward to another go in Dianaís swimming pool.
Hmmm! We were all feeling slightly unwell because of a very late night (2am) and a little bit too much to drink, well it was our hols eh! And it was our last night with Fay and I was feeling very emotional leaving her.
Both Diana and her husband were instructing me and I managed to do everything they taught me. Diana was again in the pool with me, which helped a lot.
Wow, they were really good instructors and after an hour it looked like Iíd been snorkeling for years! Everyone praised me for being an excellent student and it didnít cost me a cent. I was feeling so much better after that and I certainly felt sober, it did the trick big time.
It was 9pm when we got home and unfortunately it was early to bed as Digi and I had to catch a TGV to Paris in the morning for the next part of our holiday.
Blue skies met us this morning. I got up early and went for a 12 mile bike ride; I didnít have a lot of time to spare but it was better than nothing. Fay and Digi took the Trek back to its owner as it was needed for training.
Digi and I were both feeling nervous today as we had never been on public transport in France before. Fay drove us to Poitiers town centre first, so we could have a look round for a short while. On our travels, we bought some fresh baguettes for our journey.
Time to get going now and I was feeling more nervous, Digi on the other hand, as always, seemed cool and collected.
Once at the station and after a quick pee, the time had arrived to depart and we had a very emotional farewell. It was at this point that we both felt very exposed and alone, so once through the barriers, it was a matter of finding the right platform.
Oh my God, it was packed; 'donít panic Capt. Mainwaring!' I was thinking but we had trouble seeing where to go and the feeling of isolation was very strong because we didnít know which half of the platform the train will be stopping at. In the end, I showed our ticket to a lady platform attendant, who said something (I donít know what) and pointed. It turns out that you stand at the relevant point on the platform matching up your car and seat number on your ticket.
After a bit of confusion Digi and I finally got on the 14:02 TGV. It was crazy with people pushing, trying to get to a seat before you. Luckily, our seats were booked but hey what difference does that make when you eventually find someone sitting in your seats! Grr!! Not happy, so in a harassed state, I just looked at this imposter and pointed to him with our ticket and gave him the universal 'OUT OF MY SEAT!' sign, with my thumb. Ok, it was a bit rude but I didn't know what to do or say as my French isn't very good.
Finally we sat down with our baguettes, much to the amusement of the two girls sitting opposite us, who were laughing and whispering.
God, get me out of here quick; it was certainly going to be an interesting time in Paris. Ha! Ha! So we waited for the train to leave, TGVíS are never late... except this one. Itís ok, I got a text from Fay saying it was delayed because of a technical problem but they didnít know how long it will take to resolve.
I felt happier knowing Fay was still about and after another text to say itís about to leave, we texted goodbye and at last we departed at 14:45pm.
Well it was worth waiting for. Once we were moving the TGV wasn't hanging about! The train must have been doing 200mph, it was smooth except when we went around bends as it felt a bit jerky. There were only three stops so the journey only took 1hr and 50mins, just enough time to scoff our baguettes.
When we arrived in Paris, the exhaust fumes from the trains were so strong that I could hardly breathe. The difference from coming from Fayís to here was incredible, only to be expected I suppose. Our noses will soon get accustomed to it though. Oh my God, we hardly spoke to each other because we were in shock due to the changes in every respect; this part of Paris hadn't been this dirty or smelly the last time that we had visited. I knew Digi was thinking the same as me though. Oh well, too late now; just have to get through it. It made London look positively clean.
Anyway we got tickets for the Metro from a nice man who spoke English, I did try speaking French but again I got it wrong. Digi and I got the Metro because it was too far to walk to the hotel. However, it was still a bit of a walk between the Gare du Nord and the Metro and it was certainly long enough for the bags to cut into our shoulders. Ouch!
Once we were on the Metro, we relaxed slightly. It took about twenty minutes to get to our stop at Ch‚teau díEau. Then it was a painful ten minute walk to find our hotel, which was on the Boulevard de Strasbourg. Digi and I were here at this same 2 star hotel in November 1999, on our honeymoon for three days. Itís a bit far out from the centre town but itís cheap and itís just a couple of streets from the red light district, which is always a laugh.
Right, pigeon French time at the hotel to get us booked in; it didnít matter as he spoke English as well but we tried thatís the main thing. Once settled in, it was time to hit the high life, after all, that why weíre here. We wandered around for ages checking out the eating places that we had been to before but sadly, these had changed too. A lot of places were shut and boarded up, a shame but Paris had suffered from the lack of tourism since the 9/11 attacks!
This part of Paris did look run down, coming across tramps sprawled out on the pavements; it was not giving out a good image of the place. I was also saddened to see the streets had a lot of rubbish and dog filth and to top it all, to see the locals rummaging through boxes, bags of clothes and household rubbish, that just sickened me.
There was not a lot we could do about it and so we shall continue to ENJOY OURSELVES! At the time of writing this in our room, we must have heard 10 sirens already and it was only 10:30pm, Iím just so glad I brought my ear plugs.
We woke up to what looked like a hot day, it certainly felt like it already. The breakfast was the usual croissants and bread with our tea and coffee, which was fine, no complaints but the service was a bit slow, so by the time we finished it was nearing 10am. Ho hum!
Going to the Eiffel Tower was the plan of action today and the challenge was to walk up it. It was going to be a sweaty one.
Anyway when we finally got there it was just as we thought, all three lifts at three legs had long queues of what looked like a two hour wait. NO thank you; so as planned, we walked up.
As previously mentioned, the last time we were here was in November 1999, for our 3 day honeymoon. At that time it was very cold and the view from the top of the Eiffel Tower was misty, which was very disappointing. However, today we had a clear blue sky with fantastic views. Digi and I walked up and back down, totalling 12,000 steps and 8.5 miles according to my pedometer. My legs were shaking when we finally reached the ground.
Of course, after that we had to walk up the Champs-Elysťes and I imagined
what it would be like during the last stage of the Tour! Oh well, maybe one day! Anyway
while we were going up the Champs-Elysťes, a long and heart pounding trek, we came across
a car showroom in a shop and yep - we couldnít resist - we went in.
Inside we found that they were selling the Peugeot Quark, a very futuristic looking quad-bike thing!
After that we continued up the Champs-Elysťes and then we walked around the Arc de Triomphe. Phew, one needs to take a break from the beaming sun, it was so, so hot (I must be getting weak with the sun thing). We sat down under a tree and people-watched for a while, well thatís what the French do!
It was nail biting watching the traffic, especially when motorbikes and cyclists were narrowly getting missed by cars. Crikey, rather them than moi!
After a nice chill time Digi and I walked back down the Champs-Elysťes and ended up at the Place de la Concorde. It was at that point I started to visualize the scene during the Tour de France, nothing like the real thing.
From here it wasnít far to get to the Flame of Liberty at the Pont díAlma, at that time it had been adopted by the public as the unofficial memorial to Princess Diana. The following day would be the 8th anniversary of her death.
Our feet and legs ached big-time when we finally got back to our hotel. We had walked 15 miles that day which had taken us 6 hours. As the French say, je suis fatiguťe!
Today was even hotter than yesterday. Too hot for me Ė and I like the sun Ė but 39°C is a bit warm. Digi and I went to the Sacrť-Coeur, we didnít go in as we did it the last time we were here. We felt that our legs had been through a washing mangle, one good reason why we didnít climb the steps to the top of it.
Instead we went to the artistsí square, Place du Tertre, where much of the centre of the square is taken up by tables and chairs from the surrounding restaurants. A woman explained to us that it is only like this in the summer, whereas in the winter, the artists have the square to themselves. We learned something today.
We had no particular place to go, just meandering and seeing what came our way. The river wasnít too far from us, so we crossed it and went to sit outside Notre Dame. It really was so hot, there were loads of people sitting very close to one another in the shade.
After a bit to eat, we decided that we should get back over the river before we were too tired to walk back. We didnít have anywhere in particular to go and so we ended up at Forum des Halles, where there was a fountain and I just had to cool my feet down, much to the amusement of passers by.
After a much needed cooling, it was time to head back towards the Hotel but as the Moulin Rouge was near by, Digi and I had a quick look at it before we moved off again.
At last we got back to the Hotel and next door is a cafť, hooray, so a quick cold Leffe was very much needed. Todayís mileage is 11 miles of walking and over 4 hours of standing time, which had left us very hot and tired. Nice shower before bed.
Thursday 1st September
It was time to go home via a train and a plane. We had earlier found out how to get tickets for our homeward trip via Charles de Gaulle airport, so with breakfast over we checked out of the hotel and headed off to the Chateau díEau metro station.
It was only two stops to the mainline station, Gare du Nord, where we were due to catch the train to Charles de Gaulle airport. Unbelievably there were no timetables, no info on when the trains were due or how long it takes to get to the airport. Thankfully a man in a kiosk told us what we needed to know.
We got to the airport only to find our flight was going to be one hour late leaving. It was 11:30am, we had booked in and even though it was early, I had the need for a lager to help calm my nerves down. As I mentioned earlier I have never liked flying, for one thing my ears are always affected. They pop and ache and I sit there in pain whilst ascending and descending. The bit in the middle though is good, no problem.
Digi and I found a bar!. It was a one-man band affair on wheels, plonked in between two boarding gates. There was another bar but that was on the other side of security, but we also spotted there werenít any toilets there either. We made do with two tins, then another two (they were only small, alright?) to doubly make sure my nerves werenít going to throw a wobbly.
And there it was, our holiday all over and done with and all so quickly too, back to reality.