Sunday 29 July 2012

Coastal walk

The "Sentier des Douaniers" is a coastal path around Brittany that will take you, if you wish, from Mont St Michel, around the coast to a little way beyond Vannes, over 1700 Km. Our aims were a bit more modest and we took a short section from Perros-Guirec to Saint Guirec, the next village along.  And rode the bus back.

An early start saw the sailing schools getting ready for the onslaught, and the broad and well-signposted way filled with runners, joggers and walkers as we progressed.  The granite coast is rugged, inset with little tidal pools and bays, with impressive rock formations.   The pictures aren't the same as being there, but they will give you an idea of what you might see.

Saturday 28 July 2012

By the seaside

Feeling the need for a bit of a break, and with hot, sunny weather, a trip to the seaside was in order.  Not too far to go; a three-hour drive, and I got it into my head that I wanted to eat a breakfast of coffee and croissant on a sea-front café.  Mission accomplished: an early start, and three hours later I was in the morning queue for croissants in a bakery just back from the harbour, with a hot coffee waiting for me.

A day and overnight at Perros-Guirec on the North Brittany coast, famous for its pink granite coastline.  A stroll round the town and its shoreline, a nice dinner, a mosey along the "coastguards trail" the next morning, and back home via a fabulous garden.

 In the Google Earth image below, the town of Perros-Guirec is what occupies the peninsula on the right side of the picture.  We parked up by the marina at the bottom right of the picture, and spent the day strolling around the peninsula along the coast path, to the large beach you can see in the middle of the picture, and back through the town centre.  The Coastguards Trail took us from the left-hand end of the big beach, North-West to the peninsua and back into the bay in the top left of the picture.

View Larger Map

The area calls itself Hydrangea City, and you can see why: enormous Hydrangeas everywhere, the soil seems to be acidic which brings out the best variety of colours; blue, red, crimson even, and white.  They are everywhere.  Sometimes the paint job on the house doesn't quite harmonise with them, though.

Traditional house construction is granite and slate, and there were plenty of examples dotted between the modern pale yellow stucco constructions.  Some of the slate roofs were genuine hand-cut too, or seemed to be.

Monday 23 July 2012

The elephant

I'm not sure if it's a sign that I'm getting old, or whatever, but I found that I was looking forward to the local car boot sale this Sunday.  The sun is blazing, and so we stroll along the stands, looking at other people's junk, and I read the stories of kids growing up, toys getting broken and discarded, retired tradesmen selling their now-unused tools and equipment.  Plus the occasional trader with collectors' items, sweets or trinkets.

I used to love jumble sales as a kid, but the idea  of giving your unwanted junk away for other people to sell for charity seems to have been replaced by the car boot sale, where you sell your stuff yourself, and keep the money.  I don't know if they ever had jumble sales in France, but car boots are popular.  I think though, as a result, prices are higher.  You used to get some real bargains at jumble sales; I remember with particular affection getting an enormous box of Meccano for next to nothing.  I guess, in a jumble sale, everything must go, or some poor devil is lumbered with getting rid of what's left.  If you're selling your own stuff, perhaps it retains a sentimental value. 

I spot a Primus stove.  Now I like Primus stoves, they have real, malevolent, personality.  The modern butane camping gaz burners have none at all, you just turn them on, light them, and off you go.  But a Primus is a different thing.   They work by evaporating paraffin, and the vapour is then mixed with air and burnt.  They generate a lot of heat.  Because they work by evaporating paraffin, you have to get them warm first so the paraffin evaporates, a process that involves meths and a wick.  When it is warm enough, you then pressurise the paraffin in its container, the paraffin passes through the heated pipes, evaporates, is mixed with air, and is burnt.  In theory.

In practice, when you are a spotty teenager, out camping, and borrowing your Dad's Primus that he picked up dirt cheap at a jumble sale, you are impatient to get things going.  But if you pressurise the paraffin before the tubes are hot enough, it squirts out in liquid form, then catches fire (from the meths).   You then have to get the burning Primus stove out from under the tent.  Once all the little fires are out you have to start again.  And once they are going you have to keep them pumped up, and keep the nozzle clear of debris (using a pricker), and so on.  They need to be cossetted.

My Dad had a Tilley lamp too, that worked on the same general principle, but it was much less fun. I would have bought the Primus at the car boot for old time's sake, but he wanted 30 euros.  Outrageous.

I spot an elephant, or rather, a plant pot stand in the shape of an elephant.  Now porcelain elephants are not my thing, but my friend Leo likes them and has some dotted around his garden, supporting pot plants.  I'm not sure if he will like this one, but for the negotiated price it's worth the risk, so I buy it, and after the sale we take it round to his place.  He (and his wife, Thérèse) is delighted, and the added bonus is that it's Leo's birthday, too.

It turns out that Leo has a Primus stove as well, a modern one;  I have not seen one like that before, very compact and efficient-looking.  It even has a regulator.  I wonder if it has character?  We stay to enjoy a coffee in his delightful garden before setting off home for lunch.

Sunday 22 July 2012


The wet Summer has not been good for butterflies.  I would normally expect my Budleija bush to be swarming with them, but there are just a few random visitors.  However, they are not entirely absent.  There's white ones laying eggs on my brassicas, but here's some that aren't.

Saturday 21 July 2012

The project

Our place is a hop, skip and a jump away from the Canyon and Grottes de Saulges, a site featuring caves where prehistoric paintings have been found.  It is situated where the river Erve cuts a deep channel between limestone cliffs, and features a restaurant, a tourist information office, a gîte, a car park and a disused water mill (and a public toilet).  You can take a guided tour of two of the caves including one where prehistoric pictures have been found.  It is a pretty place, dramatic too with its vertical cliffs, and I often like to stroll down there, either as part of a longer walk or simply to have a coffee and shoot the breeze with Marie who runs the restaurant.

The picture below, courtesy of Google Earth, shows the general layout of the place. The most obvious feature is the car park to the centre-right.  To the left of it, the largest roof that you can see is that of the Restaurant le Canyon, and diagonally up to the right is the small tourist office, followed by the larger gîte that has some cars parked outisde.  Up from this group of buildings along the road a little is the red-tiled roof of the old and disused mill.  You can see very little of the river; it is mostly obscured by trees, but you can see a small section of it to the left of the cross-roads in the middle of the picture.

The picture from above does not give you any sense of the vertical scale.  The car park is some 25-30 metres above the level of the river, and the road, with its hairpin bend, between the car park and the restaurant and other buildings below, is steep.

Agrandir le plan

People come to the canyon for a variety of purposes.  Tourists take the guided tours of the caves (tickets on sale at the tourist office, along with relevant books and souvenirs), and local families come to pic-nic on the mowed areas, play football, or just stroll along the river beneath the cliffs.  The restaurant can take up to about 150 people indoors, so it hosts wedding receptions, baptism meals and large family re-unions, as well as workmen during the week with the "menu du jour".   The old mill is used as a teaching centre for groups of schoolchildren who arrive by bus.  It's scruffy inside, but serves the purpose.   Climbers enjoy the cliffs for training and fun, and interested people can pay for an initiation course during a Summer afternoon.  The gîte is used for parties, family holidays, and in Summer it houses the archaeologists who come to work on painstaking excavations and analysis of the contents of the caves.

However, there are plans afoot.

The Mayenne is dotted with museums covering different aspects of its history.  There is the museum in the old castle at Mayenne town, showing its medaeval past. There is the collection of Roman ruins and artifcats, along with a museum at Jublains.   There is the Centre for the Interpretation of Architecture and Heritage (CIAP) at Ste Suzanne (one of the "plus beaux villages de France", incidentally)  With a site of the archaeological importance of the Canyon, where better to put a museum of prehistory?  (For accuracy I should mention that the museum apparently will actually be described as a "maison de site" rather than a museum, but for ease of use of English I will use the word museum).

You will appreciate that there is no shortage of civil servants in France, and with a site like this, where commercial, tourism, Natural and historical interests coincide, quite a lot of local and regional state organisations have an interest in what goes on. To give you an idea, (if I remember correctly), when a tree that had become dangerous had to be chopped down, some 15 signatures were required.  Given that all these interests need to be satisfied, compromises are likely to be needed. So for, as I hear it, some ten years, local officials have been discussing how best to develop ('valoriser') this site.

The currently proposed project would involve various improvements to the site.  A museum, clearly, but also a place for archaeologists to stay and work, with offices, an improvement to the wheelchair access to the site, a banning of cars from the area by the river, improved tourist information and better preservation of the heritage.  The budget is about 1.3 million euros. To cut a long story short, where you and I might decide that the thing to do would be to renovate the scruffy and disused mill and put the museum in there, that is not the plan being proposed. 

One of the constraints is that permission has not be granted to extend the mill, which means that it's too small to use as a museum.  Moving on the the larger building that is the gîte, it has been decided that this will remain a gîte for the time being, I think with a view to perhaps later housing a site caretaker.  That leaves the restaurant.  At present the plan is to move the restaurant into the renovated mill, and put the maison de site in the current restaurant.

I'll just focus on the controversy surrounding the restaurant.  Marie rents the building from one of the local authorities, and has spent 5 years or so building up the business from nearly moribund to thriving.  Her rental contract doesn't expire for a few years.  The planned new restaurant will barely have capacity for 50 customers, and Marie makes a lot of her profit from large groups that she would no longer be able to accept.  The view that she expresses to me is that a restaurant of capacity 50 people is not commercially viable there, and that she will not be involved in it.

Personally I am wondering why the current form of the mill, a building that has been altered several times over the years, should be regarded as definitive, and why it cannot be tastefully extended.  I am also wondering why, in these times of financial crisis, a successful business (one of very few successful restaurants in the area) should need to be destroyed.  I am surprised by the lack of direct consultation undertaken with local people affected by the plans.   I am amused by the fact that the (water) mill is viewed as being liable to flooding, or not, depending on who you ask.

The request for planning permission has been deposited, and rumour has it that one of the government bodies who has to approve it, will reject it on the grounds of the floodability of the mill.  The local press is covering the project as if it were a done deal, and while the impression conveyed is one of near-unanimity, a little bird tells me that this is far from the case.   I will keep you posted.

Wednesday 18 July 2012

Fine day

At last!  A warm, cloudless day, the first good one of Summer.  Marred only by that fact that I have to visit the dentist.  With a few errands to run in Meslay-du-Maine I end up with ten minutes or so to spare, so I savour a coffee in this light, airy and welcoming bar in the square.

My attention is caught by this little water feature by the square, and my thoughts wander on to wondering how much it costs to run.  I wonder if it will survive the coming austerity in France.  I hope so, it would be a shame for it to become a weed patch.

Monday 16 July 2012

Garden update

This Summer has been famously wet.   The Tomatoes are suffering, but other plants are rejoicing.  Here's a short update on plant status from the throbbing metropolis of St Pierre sur Erve.  (French for throbbing metropolis: une fourmilière; i.e. an ants' nest.  They use it ironically too)

The damp days make for early morning mist, but at least it's not raining, so I can work in the garden.  I brought this plant of Ophiopogon Planiscapus Nigrescens from England, for no other reason than I think that black grass is cool.  I broke it up and spread it about the garden and this is the only place where it succeeds, so I'm leaving it there.

The Hydrangeas are against a North-East-facing wall.   This helps to keep them cool in hot Summers, but even then, they do wilt a bit in the dry months.  This year they have bloomed really well, growing enthusiastically in the wet conditions.   We are finding it easy to propagate them from cuttings taken from Autumn prunings,  just pushed into the ground. We maybe get a 30% hit rate, but we're slowly filling up the whole space available.

I love the strange symmetry of Crocosmia, and happily, they seem to thrive here in this dry and sunny spot, though I had always imagined they prefer moist.    There are two different types in the garden, the other is more orange in colour and is not out yet.

Both these Heuchera plants were freebies, picked up in plant swaps or donations.  I like the delicacy of the flowers, and the one with dark red foliage offsets its beige flowers beautifully.

Wednesday 11 July 2012


This slow-worm appeared the other day, by my veg patch as I was working.   Although they look and move like a snake, they are legless lizards.   If you try to hold them by the tail, it will break off, and the slow-worm will wriggle off to freedom.  And they move very fast.

Nowadays I don't touch them; they're getting rare, and are best left to their business.   But when I was younger I caught them and took them home to put them on the compost heap to eat the snails.  So if you really must pick one up to stop it going onto a busy road, for example, grab it quickly, gently and firmly just behind the head, and hold it at arm's length and look the other way.  Because it will writhe like crazy and spray you with excrement. It is easy to let go at this point, but if you drop it onto grass you will not catch it again, they are so fast.  Once it's finished writhing it will become calm and you can move it to safety.

They are instantly recognisable because their skin is quite shiny, glistening, and has distinctive colour: black sides with a fawn top, and a thin black stripe down the middle.  The head too doesn't widen out like a snake's; it looks, if anything, a bit like a blunt pencil end.

They eat garden pests, including slugs and snails, and are generally good for the garden.  They especially like to live in compost heaps, which is why you should be careful when digging in one, or turning it over.

Tuesday 10 July 2012

Le Puy en Velay

Our last port of call in the Auvergne was le Puy-en-Velay.  A pretty town built around a cathedral on a hilltop. We started Saturday with a visit to the market, a thriving affair with the whole world there, buying, sitting drinking the first morning glass of wine, pausing for coffee or nattering, generally doing the French market thing.  I woke myself up with a 15 megawatt coffee, very effective.

The cathedral is an impressive affair, worth a visit and worth the walk up the steep hill too. You can also visit the local volcanic needles that jut out of the ground and the view of Puy cathedral above is taken from one of those nearby (below).

Puy-en-Velay has two main claims to fame: lentils and a travel book.  Oh yes, and lace, but that's pretty much died out.  Lentilles de Puy are a locally-grown speciality, awarded an A.O.C and generally regarded, at least in Puy, as a little bit special: there is something about the fertile, volcanic soil, the clarity and colour of the light, the ideal winds, rainfall and temperatures, and the special texture and aroma of the local bullshit that all come together to make lentilles de Puy a product that is unequaled anywhere else.

Not that I'm against the idea of an A.O.C in principle.   Champagne was in danger of becoming a generic term for fizzy white wine, until the producers stamped their feet.  But you can take things too far: you can't even describe fizzy white wine that has been produced using the methods traditionally used to make champagne, as "méthode champenoise", you have to describe it as "méthode traditionnelle".   This is all very well but if won't help you if the Aussies (or the Brits even), start making something better and cheaper, and people, strapped for cash, start looking at value rather than cachet.  That could be now.

The other claim to fame arises from a visit by Robert Louis Stevenson (of "Treasure Island" fame), who wrote a book based on his hiking trip in the area, entitled "Travels With a Donkey in the Cévennes".  It's turned into a nice little earner.  There's a local society that promotes and classifies accommodation along his route; you can hire donkeys to walk the route with you, and various guide books are available for purchase to help you on your way.  Apparently it's impossible to get lost on the route these days; you just follow the trail of donkey droppings.

There is a special "donkey-friendly" label that you can apply for if you can accommodate both donkeys and people overnight.  The criteria (for the donkey part) are as follows:
       * There must be an easy-access, protected, hazard-free area of at least 50 square metres for the donkey, no more than 1km away from the accommodation.
       * There must be good quality hay and barley for the donkey, and a block of salt.  (Requirement for AOC not specified), and drinking water.
       * There must be somewhere to securely store donkey saddles, etc, overnight.

And fortunately for us, the guide books are able to correct the more obvious mistakes made by Mr Stevenson, arising, evidently, from his Presbyterian background and general poor taste.   He doesn't mention the wonderful architecture of Le Puy en Velay at all (because, although he passed through it before he started his trek, he didn't go there with the donkey) but the guide book starts us from there so we can correct this oversight.  All he commented on, apparently, in a note to a friend, was the lousy meal he was served at Puy (should have tried the lentils, obviously).

And he doesn't mention the pretty Auvergne ladies until about 2/3 the way through his trip.  Although this was probably due to the fact that he was pining for his girlfriend who had cleared off to the USA, and he was getting his emotions in order, we are guided to the conclusion that this was down to his Presbyterian upbringing.  Thank heavens for good ole Catholicism, eh?

Lacemakers and UFO spotters, both harder to find these days in Puy.
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