France August 2020

Ah, summer on the Mediterranean!  Usually it’s much hotter than the Atlantic coast and our home base of Jarnac but this year, in an unusual turn-around the Med was a beautiful 28-30 degrees while the Atlantic and the inland sweltered. Jarnac had temperatures of up to 42 degrees!

We spent the first 10 days of the month at Serignan-Plage, on the coast near Beziers. We were very surprised by how crowded it was, following our stay just a little further south near Narbonne, where the campsite was half-empty.

In Serignan we were in a wonderful camping ground of some 600+ bungalows and pitches. It was right next to a Yelloh! camping ground that was even bigger!

There was a lovely sandy beach about 100m from our pitch and we were about the same distance from the pool complex. There were 5 pools at our campsite and even more next door. We loved the balneo area, with its three pools that didn’t allow anyone under 16 and were closely supervised for Covid compliance. In the height of the busy family holiday season we were getting very sick of screaming children! It was fairly easy to maintain social distancing, even in the pools, when families weren’t involved. We did meet one nice family. The dad (Paul) was a lieutenant in the Dutch airforce, in charge of base security. He was a very interesting man and he and Michael had lots of chats and exchanged small gifts.

As well as walking on the beach and relaxing by the pool we did quite a few great bike rides. A couple of times we rode just 4.5km, then caught a little water taxi for a euro, to Valros-Plage to shop for food.

 

Our preferred ride was longer, through the vineyards to the Canal du Midi. We also rode all the way into Beziers, the birthplace of Paul Riquet who designed the famous Canal. We finally saw the Ecluses de Fontseranes, the nine locks one after another that help craft navigate the huge drop in the river level at this point. It’s unbelievable that this canal was designed and built in the 17th century!

After leaving the Med we travelled straight to Saint-Emilion, the famous wine region. We had visited this village before and did the wonderful underground tour exploring the history of the village. However, we only stayed three days and Michael was sick, so we didn’t get to do the whole wine experience very thoroughly. The last time we were here we’d only been in France for two months and didn’t have bicycles yet. This time we stayed a whole week and had a wonderful time cycling into town for wine tastings and through the vineyards to taste and lunch in the Chateaux. They have been making wine here since the 2nd century, with the first grapes planted by the Romans. Saint-Emilion is such a pretty place with gorgeous views over the valley. We needed to stop our bike ride just to drink in the beauty!

 

The first day we just wandered around town re-acquainting ourselves with the monuments and gorgeous architecture. There were thousands of tourists here so everyone had to wear a mask both inside and out., which has since become the norm in most of France. We found Michael’s favourite, escargots on one menu, so had to stop for a quick lunch!

We booked into a tour and tasting at Chateau Guadet. This chateau was established in the 1700s and was bought by the current family in 1964. It is a biodynamic winery, meaning both organic and with a focus on the health of every vine. Vincent the winemaker (3rd generation) was really passionate about being governed by things such as the moon, soil health etc.  They only had 5 hectares of grapes and made about 15,000 bottles a year, with everything done by hand except the pressing, so he could afford to pay a great deal of attention to each stage. They only made one wine. Saint-Emilion is famous as the home of Merlot and all Grand Crus wines must be 80% or more Merlot, with the other common varietals used to blend being Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Part of the tour involved climbing down rickety ladders to look at their fascinating cellars, parts of which were tunneled in the 15th century. The limestone carved out was used to build the chateaux itself. This was one of the better wine tours we have done in France and the wine tasting at the end was impressive. We bought a really good magnum of 2014 for 144 Euros and enjoyed drinking it with Thomas Hardy, Willie and Marcia when we returned to Jarnac.

On another day we cycled 20 minutes through the vineyards to the Chateau Barrail for a wonderful lunch. This is not a winery but rather a boutique hotel and spa in an old chateau, with an acclaimed restaurant. This was a big treat that we thoroughly enjoyed. We had glasses of champagne and a nice bottle of 2013 Saint-Emilion Chateau Cote de Baleaue to accompany our meal. 2013 is the best year of recent vintages. Michael had duck and sweet potato, while Sue had baby squid with prosciutto and salad, followed by mackerel with braised lettuce and beetroot. It was one of the top meals we have had while in France, in a superb setting and with great service.

From Saint-Emilion it was a short Sunday drive back to Jarnac and the blissful quiet of the beautiful camping ground, after all those large family campsites. We were looking forward to September when the kids go back to school and things quieten down.

As usual, Jarnac was beautiful and bucolic, with so many gorgeous views and quiet spots. The manic fishermen are even quiet!

We soon met up with Thomas Hardy who had been here in his Lockkeepers cottage for a few days and had tested negative for Covid. Michael was excited to receive his clothing package of WB&G T-shirts and Sue finally got her care package that had been posted by Lindy in Adelaide in April!

We hosted a lunch for Thomas, Willie and Marcia, cooking pork belly on the Webber bbq. A typical Jarnac summer’s day – very hot one minute and bucketing with a brief thunderstorm the next, then back to sunshine and steaming humidity.

 

Thomas, Willie and Michael went for a cognac tour and tasting with Monsieur Balluet (pronounced Balloway), renowned in this area for his well-priced and high quality cognac and pineau. His distillery is about 20 minutes drive from Jarnac, through tiny little villages. Willie (A Taste of Cognac blogger) organized the visit, which provided a great contrast to the sleek professionalism of Meukow. Balluet’s is a smaller operation and quite rustic. M. Balluet takes the tour himself and is very generous in his tasting pours, urging people to ‘help themselves’. He is very chatty, funny and personable and Michael et al had a really enjoyable afternoon, needing a sleep afterwards! Michael bought a pineau, a bottle of 20+ year old and 50+ year old cognac.

A few days later we had a wonderful dinner at Thomas’s house with our French friend Isobel who lives in nearby Bourg-Charente, as well as Marcia and Willie. Thomas is a really good cook and made the best moules a la crème we’ve had in quite some time, as well as his signature duck (magret de canard) and strawberries with pineau and ice-cream. It was a beautiful balmy evening sitting alongside the Charente. Nothing difficult about this life!

 

Or at least, nothing difficult except bureaucracy! Due to Covid-19 our usual April/May chores had been delayed until the end of August, so Sue spent a few days gathering, translating and printing the updated documentation required for our next residency permit (carte de sejour). We made a quick visit to the prefecture in Angouleme by bus. It’s always a bit stressful, worrying that we’ve left a vital document out and will have to go to the back of the queue, but this year it went remarkably smoothly, thanks to Covid. Entry was by appointment only, so there weren’t heaps of people milling around. We were both processed in record time (31 minutes for us both!) and no fingerprints were taken (“we’ll use last years”!!) Common sense has prevailed over bureaucracy!

On another day we went for our first Control Technique, a vehicle inspection similar to the British MOT. This is a 133-point check of roadworthiness. Unfortunately we found we were two weeks too early to make it legal (it has to be within 6 months of the vehicle’s 4th birthday) so we had to make another appointment and will go back at the end of September. It seems that everything we try to do in France always ends up being a two-step process. The sign in their reception about bribes amused us!

We had a lovely day out in Cognac with Willie and Marcia, taking the bus and having lunch at the Coq d’Or, a gorgeous art deco restaurant in the main square. A very traditional menu, so Michael had confit of duck while Sue had salmon. In typical French style both were served with, but not overwhelmed by a fabulous sauce – the French chefs certainly have mastered sauces. As an entrée both Sue and Willie had oysters that were served with small grilled sausages – apparently very traditional for this area. You are meant to eat an oyster followed by a bite of sausage, a bit like a ‘palate cleanser’. It didn’t work for Sue – why cleanse that gorgeous salty oyster taste? Marcia had the legendary ‘pain perdu’ for dessert– brioche in custard then pan fried (like a French toast) with salted caramel sauce and homemade vanilla ice-cream. One little taste confirmed that it was delicious!

Our friends in Australia often ask us about living in Europe with Covid and certainly the end of August has seen numbers of infections sky-rocketing in many European countries and it will get worse when everyone goes back to work and school in September. However, the numbers are deceptive in that the cases are mostly in the larger cities such as Paris, Nice, and Marseille etc. In the rural areas, such as the Cognac region and the Dordogne there are no cases at all. We use great websites for France and Spain that show how many cases by region, how many per 100,000 people etc.  And we’ve got used to wearing a mask both inside and out now.

By the end of August we decided we should cut back on all that eating and drinking and were ready to be tourists once more, so we headed to the Dordogne region. It is known as the region of 1000 castles and is renowned for its pretty villages and prehistoric cave paintings, so we were looking forward to three weeks exploring the area in depth. Stay tuned!