France June & July 2022

It was wonderful to return to Nice and experience the warm summer weather, before it got too busy with tourists. We took advantage of the situation by spending a few days in the beach clubs. It’s so luxurious to lie on a comfy lounge and be served drinks and snacks between swims. Our favourite was Cocoon, which had really fun, attentive staff. They were very busy with Hens’ parties and made a fuss, dressing up as giant penises and dancing to loud music.

Of course, we also visited the Marina, Old Town, the Promenade, the markets and Le Frog restaurant as well as doing a little shopping. Sue was escorted home by the military from one shopping visit! We love Nice, where even the dog beaches have their own statues.

During June and July we visited Bordeaux several times, staying two weeks in total. The first time was on our way by train from Nice to Jarnac. Five years previously, when we were not long arrived in France, we had stayed in our camping car on the outskirts of Bordeaux and caught the bus then tram into the city to explore the left bank promenade, the Cite du Vin, the market du Capuchin and the main shopping district. This time, while we briefly visited all those places again, we stayed for a week in the Old Town itself (Vieille Ville Bordeaux) in the Saint-Pierre district and immersed ourselves in the wonderful squares, ancient buildings and monuments, and quirky modern shops and cafes.

We stayed in a lovely apartment which was unfortunately on the second floor of an ancient building, up two flights of a spiral staircase barely wider than our bags and without a balustrade. Dragging 20kgs of luggage each up to the apartment was bad enough, but getting it down was positively dangerous! Everything in this area was so tiny and narrow that the removalist companies use bikes with little trailers. However, once we settled in, we really enjoyed the location, walking everywhere.

While we were in Bordeaux it was the annual Gay Pride Parade, so we went to watch. It was quite different from the Australian Gay Mardi Gras with its dressing up, dancers and floats. This was more low-key and all about participation, politics and the rights of young people to determine their sexuality.

On this first trip to Bordeaux we met again with Michael’s dear friend Marc Legrand. We met at a place of his choice, near the hospital where he was having treatment. At first sight we thought we had the wrong place because it was in a grungy area and looked so dodgy. But once we went inside, oh-la-la! Fine dining indeed! Marc was looking better than he had for quite a while and was as witty as ever.

We love the stately architecture of Bordeaux and the well-preserved medieval structures. Once we got our bearings in Bordeaux, we took the opportunity to have some ‘time off’ from each other and do our own thing. Michael again visited the Cite du Vin, this time just for a tasting.

Sue explored a different area of the Vieille Ville, with more stately homes, the cathedral Saint-Andre and the Hotel de Ville. She also went to the Musee des Beaux Artes, just for a change! There was a terrific exhibition of paintings by Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899) who was quite an amazing female painter, a gay woman who stayed unmarried, yet managed her own money and career - which was very unusual in those days. She was the foremost animal painter of her time.

On our second trip to Bordeaux, for a week before we flew to the Caribbean for August, we stayed in the Bastide area. This is on the right bank of the Garonne and is a mix of the old homes of the bourgeoisie and new office and apartment complexes built on the old industrial quartier. La Bastide is now quite trendy and bohemian, with a strong emphasis on ecology and is a perfect location, just across the Pont de Pierre. It has wonderful views across the river to the neoclassical buildings, such as the Place de Bourse. Surprisingly, La Bastide is very quiet, considering all the people and businesses it houses. The area also has the Botanic gardens, the old Gare d’Orleans established in 1852, that is now cinemas and restaurants and the trendy Darwin Centre that houses ecologically sustainable businesses.

We stayed in a beautiful boutique hotel, La Maison Bastide, actually classed as a B&B. It had five rooms, air-conditioning, a pool and provided a generous, elegant breakfast. Beautifully decorated and with Patricia and Christophe as charming and attentive hosts, we had a wonderful time. It also had an incredibly active 6-year-old Mediterranean tortoise which was very entertaining – it used to chase the cat!

Staying in a B&Bs is a good way to meet people and we talked to some lovely Belgians as well as meeting a very interesting young British couple from London. They both worked in Westminster, she for a Liberal Democrat politician and he for the Civil Service in the energy field, that is very topical in Europe at the moment. They described themselves derisively as ‘London Lefties’ and were fascinating to talk to about the actual workings of Parliament and the Civil Service, the impact of Brexit and what had changed as a result of Covid.

We had some wonderful meals in Bordeaux. Twice we had wonderfully fresh, flavoursome natural oysters. And just around the corner from our BnB was a fabulous tapas restaurant called Cote Zinc, so good that we went back twice. They made a magnificent warm, runny St Marceline cheese with tapenade and hazelnuts; a tuna ceviche; and a langoustine mushroom ravioli in langoustine broth. Delicious!

During July we hired a small car for three weeks from the local supermarket in Jarnac, allowing us to travel quite differently. Between our trips to Bordeaux, just for something a little different, we decided to spend a week ‘glamping’ at the Chateau Guitton, in the midst of the vineyards about 20km from Saint-Emilion. It was very stylish in the chateau and gites but the ‘glamping’ was a little bit too basic for us, with no running water and limited cooking facilities.

 While it was incredibly pretty to drive through the vineyards to picturesque little villages, we were confused that we seemed to take a different route on tiny roads every single time. Michael finally said ‘Why does this bloody GPS take us down all these little backroads?’ So, Sue got out the map. The answer: there were no main roads! There was not a marked carriageway for 30kms – just lanes of bitumen through the vineyards.

As well as visiting the little villages and lazing by the pool, we spent a day in Saint-Emilion. This is probably Michael’s favourite wine region; he just loves their merlot. We wandered around the town admiring the buildings and views, enjoyed a leisurely lunch, did two tastings and purchased enough merlot to keep Michael going for a couple of weeks. It was our third visit to Saint-Emilion and we always enjoy ourselves.

A third trip to Bordeaux was not quite so happy. The evening before we were due to leave our ‘glamping’ near Saint-Emilion, Sue wasn’t looking where she was going, tripped over and landed on a glass she was carrying. A deep, jagged cut to her right palm was the result. Fortunately, there was a doctor on site who made sure that no major veins had been cut and wrapped it up enough for us to drive the 30 minutes of tiny little back roads to the Emergency at the Libourne Hospital. There, they decided that the cut was too deep to repair and she must go to the ‘Hand Hospital’ in Bordeaux the next day. So back we drove to Chateau Guitton on different little back roads, finally arriving home at 1:45am.

The next day we packed up and drove to Bordeaux to the hand hospital, luckily not right in central Bordeaux and not too far off the Peripherique. Yes, there really is a ‘hand hospital’ with its own Emergency department! On the Sunday afternoon we were there they saw 25 patients and did 20 operations, of which Sue was one. Interestingly, all but 4 of the patients were male and most were work injuries. Luckily Sue had no tendon damage, just a little nerve damage, which was repaired through microsurgery.

After spending 7 hours at the emergency hand hospital, we drove on to one of our favourite campsites at Les Mathes, where we stayed in an on-site cabin. It was very comfortable and we love the pool there. Sue wrapped her hand in a plastic bag, put her right hand in the air and enjoyed the bliss of the pool. The weather had been so hot! It was regularly over 300 and a couple of days when we were in Les Mathes it was over 400!  That is really unpleasant when hardly any places have air-conditioning.

We saw many people we had met on our previous visits and had aperitifs nearly every night, to catch up with what everyone had been doing. Some we hadn’t seen since Covid hit.

We always love visiting our home base of Jarnac. During June and July we visited several times, each for a few days at a time. It’s such a gorgeous village and was looking particularly pretty, with all the flower boxes and beds in full bloom. We stayed in a bungalow in the camping ground, which was quite comfortable. It was really hot both times we were there, days and days over 300 and one day it was over 410! We cooled off by swimming in the Charente, which was a perfect temperature. Michael joined the local teenagers doing an illegal jump off the bridge. The teenagers were very polite, helping Michael over the fence and showing him where to jump in safely and where to get out easily. We were probably older than their grandparents and we heard them saying repeatedly in amazement “Soixante-cinq (65)!!”

We aways feel welcomed and at home in Jarnac, after so many visits. We’re very well looked after. Steve and Mo had lent us linen for our four weeks of camping ground bungalows and Fred gave us his classic Kombi van so we could tootle around the local area. Thomas Hardy was at his Lock Keeper’s Cottage for the summer, so we shared many an aperitif or BBQ with him, with Liam often joining us.

Thomas also had a visit from Norm and Serena Harrison from Adelaide and we all went to the wonderful La Ribaudiere at Bourg-Charente. The food was as spectacular as always, but the service wasn’t as impeccable as previously, as they were mostly new staff being trained up – a world-wide problem, it seems. The gastronomic highlight was the warm goat cheese with beetroot. It probably had a hundred other ingredients as well and was sublime. We also had frozen cognac, which we hadn’t tried before and we think this will become a new vice.

Of course, a main reason for us being in SW France at this time every year is to conduct our ‘business’ for the year. The first order of business is always the Carte de Sejour, or residency permit that will allow us to stay in the European Schengen Zone and not have to do the ‘Schengen Shuffle’ of three months in and then three months out. Because we have already had the maximum of 5 years of annual visitor permits, this year we were able to apply for a 10 year residency permit. This is incredibly important for us because we will no longer need to drive back to Jarnac twice a year, and will be able to stay further afield. Our plans include southern Italy, Greece, Turkey, Croatia, Slovenia and Poland. This year Sue was more nervous than normal because the process was a little different, but it seemed to go smoothly and we were given a temporary paper permit, with the proper plastic card being provided (we hope) in September. This year we faced further checks – they even contacted the Mayor of Jarnac to give an opinion on our suitability!

This year we conducted more business than usual. We got a French Gold Credit Card, making it easier to book and buy online and it also included some insurance. Credit cards work quite differently in France than Australia, so it took us three trips to the bank to get it sorted and fully understood. Our bank manager, Benoit was thankfully very patient with us.

We drove north of Angouleme to meet our insurance broker and talk through insuring our new camper van. That was also very worthwhile to really understand the system. We got insurance for our trip to the Caribbean, that wasn’t covered by our Australian travel insurance.

Perhaps the most challenging piece of business was Michael applying for a French Drivers License. The application has been completed – online and in French! - and acknowledged, but we won’t know for a few months if it will actually be successful.

Finally, we were off to visit our friend Rod McDowall in Grand Cayman in the Caribbean. The flight was from Bordeaux to Amsterdam to Atlanta (overnight) to Cayman. A long trip but well worth it when we saw an island and ocean like this.

Watch out for our Caribbean August vagablog.