This family magazine would never normally print expletives…but when it’s in French nous pouvons fermer les yeux…I hope!
A week cycling the Loire, between Tours and Angers, and then a week meandering the countryside of Brittany, gave us contact with the country and its folk in a very special way. Not only did it titillate the palate and awaken all the senses to the delightful autumn of la belle France, but we discovered things under foot and under wheel that would make the average (non-dog owning) Brit cringe.
Now don’t get me wrong, this is not my opportunity to splurge column inches of invective against our dearest neighbours. After all, is it not nearly the first anniversary of the famous entente cordiale between the two countries? But let me ask you a question?
Are you a francophile? Do you wax lyrical about everything French? Are you one of those Brits who jumps across the channel at any given moment, even if it’s only to re-stock the drinks cabinet?
Well, I have to confess to sharing some of that. I wouldn’t go so far as to ‘wax lyrical’, but the French do many things well, and most things at least tolerably well. As a cyclist, for instance, I can vouch for the exceedingly high quality of their roads. Even small country lanes are delightfully smooth and pot-hole free.
But not everything is perfect. One day, in Pleine Fougeres, we arrived with our tandem in the car, parked in a very pleasant and convenient car park in the centre of this small town, and proceeded to decant the tandem and assemble it. Our plan was to cycle out to Le Mont St Michel.
Suddenly, Jenny pointed out that I might have trodden in some dog ‘merde’. I checked, and sure enough, I had put both my feet in it. And they weren’t just a couple of dried up, past-their-sell-by-date, dog turds…they were voluminous and freshly baked! I was, naturally, appalled.
So I decided to re-park the car, only to discover that every parking space sported equally large (and seemingly fresh) dog deposits, on both sides of the car, placed strategically so that the unwary driver and passenger getting out of their car, will joyously put ‘foot in the turd’ unwittingly. I had to admire the local planning on this. Someone had done his sums… It was a dastardly plan to keep British tandemists at bay.
So my ‘revenge’ was to go home and read Stephen Clarke’s A year in the merde and Merde actually. Both books transparently autobiographical, but written as fiction, with Paul West as the self-serving, French-bashing hero. The first book was inspired by the exceeding amount of dog ‘merde’ he encountered on the streets of Paris, but turned into an account of all the metaphorical ‘merde’ he met with when he was settling into the French way of life. And the title of his second book manifestly betrays the similarity of the story with the film Love actually.
Neither book would ever feature, even on a long list, for a major book prize, and Paul West’s relentless pursuit of the opposite sex becomes repetitive and even boring, but his prose would never tax the reading powers of the average literate reader. You can read his books in a couple of days.
We did, however, delight in riding our tandem midst chateaux and vignobles of the Loire valley, fuelling up on croissants and baguettes, re-hydrating on grandes tasses de café et bières a la pression, and when off duty (ie. off the bike), over the final meal of the day, popping the cork on a wine from Saumur or Anjou, and drinking till the lees at the bottom of the bottle told us there was no more…
Our cottage host, Yan, took us down into the underworld of his garden, a deep cavernous cellar below his lawns, to reveal wine racks that stretched around the walls, and offered us three of his collection…two full bodied reds and a sparkling Vouvray, which we corked to toast our own 37th anniversary.
The quiet days of October, with warmth still in the sun, is an ideal time to be exploring the Loire valley as a twosome. We covered most of the terrain between Tours and Angers, discovered the chateaux of Langeais, Villandry, Saumur and Ussé, and found time to idle over a typical French lunch, or be distracted by Caves, where the invitation to a degustation was too good to ignore.
The second week was spent in the holiday cottage belonging to a former student of mine, just outside Dinan, in Brittany. The countryside is a stark contrast to the Loire, with its rolling hills and variable weather patterns, but even in mid-autumn, the conditions were near-perfect to cycle out to the coast and discover lighthouses, chateaux and the inimitable Le Mont St Michel, the scene of the Grand Depart in last year’s Tour de Fance.
Frank’s blog can be found here http://frankburns.wordpress.com/