Archive | Travelling RSS feed for this section

Life in Montolieu

30 Jan

We’re just beginning our ninth year in Montolieu. It feels like we’ve always lived here and yet it doesn’t seem possible that eight years have passed since we left the UK. Life here has been and continues to be interesting although now it’s a little quiet with COVID and not so much happening except through the internet. Let me introduce you to our village.

It’s a small rural village on the tourist trail. Consequently it’s very quiet in winter but very busy in the summer. It’s in the department of the Aude and boasts many attractions. We have thousands of visitors from across the world and many nationalities have settled here. The village dates back to the twelfth century and is included in the history of the Cathars. In fact the region now focuses its tourism on Cathar country. The earliest evidence of its age that I’ve seen in the village are the dates which are etched on some of the houses, 1700 is the oldest. It was a walled village and some of the walls still exist but I don’t know how far back it dates. The houses on les Ramparts have very interesting gardens which are built on several levels from the river Alzeau up to where the old wall used to be. On the other side of the village the houses rise up from the river Dure with terraces for their gardens.

We live in the Old Tannery which is situated just outside the wall next to the river Dure. Ours was one of five mills around this village and was used for preparing the leather for making leather goods. Other mills, as I understand from locals who used to work here, were for making the clothes. The village was surrounded by not only a wall but two rivers either side of the hill, the Dure and the Alzeau. This made it a secure village in medieval times. There is still a paper mill further up the Black Mountain which still produces paper 📝 and is open to the public.

Today it is called the village of books. There are 18 bookshops and 29 art galleries and artist workshops including a large old mill which has been converted into an exhibition centre and currently houses a collection called the Cerés Franco Museum and there is a museum with exhibits of printing machines and other items which relate to the area. Our church is a National Monument in the centre of the village. There are around 850 inhabitants of 28 different nationalities who live here all year round and we have gîtes, hôtels and B&Bs and five restaurants and cafes.

Alas we have lost one our restaurants, les Ange au Plafond during the COVID-19 crisis. We also have two food shops now. Our well established mini supermarket which is run by Nelly and was run by her mother and father before her and a small shop of local products which opened last year during the crisis called l’Abeille noire.

We are so lucky to have two automatic food dispensers in the village also. One selling organic vegetables from a local farm and the second local goods. This one is sited with our farm shop which opens every Monday and Thursday evening. Unfortunately all the shops have had to change their hours at the moment due to the curfew which means we have be be in our homes by six o’clock until six in the morning. However most French people buy their vegetables at the local markets and there are markets on different days in all the surrounding villages. Our wine merchant Adrian is open almost everyday and is well known and respected by the French for his knowledge and choice of wines from the region. The post office is run by our town hall and is open every weekday morning. Unfortunately there’s still two things missing from our village, a cash dispenser, which means we have to drive up to Saissac up the mountain or down to Carcassonne and a boulangerie as ours closed down a few years ago and we haven’t found a new baker yet to take it on.

The walled city of Carcassonne

Our health care needs are well provided for with a pharmacy, two doctors (a third one starting in June), two physiotherapists, one podologue, one speech therapist, two osteopaths, one naturopath and other therapists. We also have two schools and a care home which is a convent for retired nuns and is now open to members of the village. Before Covid-19 the children at our schools used to be able to have their lunch in the convent in their refectory. But the convent has been closed to visitors during the crisis. So the children now have their lunch in the village hall where the cooked meals are brought in for them. We are also well catered for with hospitals with two in Carcassonne, three in Toulouse, one in Narbonne and one in Perpignan.

Whichever direction we look there are places of interest for everyone. Up the Black mountain there are lakes and rivers and forests and the incredible Rigole which feeds water from the reservoirs into the Canal du Midi which winds across the plain between the Black mountain and the Pyrenees and stretches from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean.

Or we can go south to the Pyrenees and across to Spain or Andorra. If we go west there are the cities of Toulouse or slightly further north are Castres and Albi or the Atlantic coast. Going east we can visit the Mediterranean or the Camargue and a little further on to Narbonne, Montpellier and Marseille and onto Cannes and eventually into Italy.

Whatever your interests we can provide for most of your wishes from mountain climbing and skiing to sailing, swimming and parasailing 🪂 in the Mediterranean or hill walking in the National forests or visiting the huge caves with stalagmites and stalactites. There is a flying school at Carcassonne airport and a go kart circuit. From pony trekking to walking with llamas or water skiing on a lake. Many cyclists love the challenge of the routes which were taken a few years ago by the Tour de France up through St Denis. A route which is also favoured by motorcyclists along its winding roads up through the forests and down into the valleys.

Not forgetting the castles and chateaux of which there are numerous which you cannot get to without passing vineyards and olive groves or during July and August huge fields of sunflowers 🌻. A feast to the senses as well as great food. I almost forgot to mention that as in most villages we have a group of regular pétanque players who welcome visitors to join in. Who wouldn’t want to live here?!

Marseille in April

7 Apr

I’m not sure how I imagined Marseille was going to be like. Many French people told us of all the different places to visit so we went off in the car with a long list of interesting places to see. We picked up a young man as a BlaBlaCar passenger in Narbonne and he travelled to Marseille with Richard, myself and Nettles. I discovered he moved to France from the UK when he was 15 months old. He now works as a scientist on research into immunity. After dropping him off near a Metro we drove to our holiday apartment. Once we found somewhere to park, we settled into a comfortable apartment on the ground floor with a double-bed, shower room and open plan kitchen, dining room and lounge. It had all the amenities we needed for a short stay. It was located in a residential area but unfortunately we weren’t able to walk to any attractions as it appears that Marseille is built on hillsides. Many of the streets in that area are very narrow one-way with cars parked in every available space including the footpaths. I found a boulangerie, a boucherie and a small corner shop just down the road. There were roadworks everywhere as well as graffiti and dog poo, except the tourist area in central Marseille. Due to our physical disabilities we were not able to walk far and Nettles was reluctant to go to the toilet as she couldn’t find any grass!

Tuesday evening. We drove to the harbour and walked around the pedestrian area which was very extensive and clean. Many people were using electric scooters which they could pick up anywhere they found one and pay online for its use and leave it wherever they wished. Apparently at the end of the day trucks would go around picking up them up and returning them to their pick up points. On returning to our apartment Richard managed to find a place to park not too far away. That evening we walked to a little Italian restaurant. But we decided to take a Uber taxi back because we found it a little bit too far to walk back as well.

Wednesday. We decided to take a tour on an open top bus (yes a London bus) with Nettles. We stopped off for lunch and a large square full of restaurants. Nettles not only is invited into the restaurants but she’s also offered a bowl of water. After lunch we walked back to the bus stop to wait for the next tour bus to complete the tour. Unfortunately before the bus arrived the thunder and rain started so with Nettles shaking like a leaf with fear we got onto the bus and sat at the front downstairs. After a while the rain came down very heavily and I realised Nettles were sitting in a pool of water. When we looked around we saw the rain coming down the stairs like a waterfall so we moved to the back of the bus where it was dryer. After leaving the bus we rushed over to the café to get warm and it was filled with men smoking hookahs. A few ladies came in later and started smoking too. It was time to get a Uber taxi to take us back to the apartment. The first Uber taxi we took from the Italian restaurant was very nice and allowed Nettles to travel in the back seat with us. The second one we used to take us to the city centre accepted Nettles reluctantly if she travelled in the boot. Naturally she was as good as gold on both journeys. However the third Uber taxi driver refused to take Nettles at all which meant Richard had to go in the taxi to go and collect our car and come back into the city centre for me and Nettles who were getting and wetter and colder by the minute. It would have taken almost an hour for the return trip so I took Nettles into another café and ordered a hot chocolate. But before the chocolate came, I had a call from Richard saying he had persuaded the taxi driver to take us as well! We decided we didn’t want to go out again and Richard didn’t want to cook so we ordered an Indian takeaway to be delivered by Uber food. It arrived on time and was delicious.

Thursday. We’d been told that Aix en Provence is very beautiful and that it was only a half hour drive from Marseille so we decided to go there for the day. It is a beautiful city and it was a sunny day but with a cold wind. Again we decided to take a tour on a little six seater electric bus. The people were very friendly and helpful too so again we stopped off for lunch with Nettles and a super little restaurant with excellent food and service. With the electric minibuses there were three routes to choose from so we chose a second route after lunch and the third later. Each one only cost €1.60 for the three of us! That evening we ate in with a pre-prepared meal Richard had made and brought with us. Then we watched a film on TV.

Friday. After packing up we drove to the port again and found another little restaurant where we had swordfish to eat, before setting off to pick up our return BlaBlaCar passenger in Marseille to go to Narbonne. I should state that Richard did all the driving around Marseille as I didn’t feel confident in his car in so much traffic so many roadworks and so many parked cars everywhere.

My first impressions of Marseille. It’s a big city! It has a multinational community. It has a lot of history, good restaurants and many tourist attractions. Apart from the tourist area it is dirty and overcrowded with traffic and roadworks. There was too much graffiti and dog poo for my liking. The people in the restaurants and shops were friendly but like in any big city people did not speak to you in the streets, unlike the small villages like Montolieu and in Aix en Provence.

Successful Entertaining in France

29 Mar

It is a truism to say that food is important to the French and that business entertaining should be considered a matter of great importance. Business lunches are the most common form of entertaining business contacts with breakfast or evening events being much rarer.

Lunch is usually quite a grand affair and will usually comprise of starter, main course and dessert followed by coffee. Wine will also often be served.

The quality of French food is a matter of great national pride and therefore talking about food is a national obsession. On the whole, you are much better advised talking about the food or other social issues during a business lunch than talking about business. The meal is a time for cementing relationships and learning more about each other. Business matters should only be raised during the coffee.

If inviting French contacts out to lunch, make sure you take them to a good quality restaurant and, unless you are an expert, let them chose the wine.

Restaurants usually include a 15% service charge but it is still customary to leave a small tip as well. Tipping is not compulsory in France but is recommended. (10% would be adequate.)

Visit to the Auvergne 

16 Dec

Returning home from Paris recently, I decided to break the journey half way and stay the night at Clermont-Ferrand. This medium-sized city is located in the Massif Central region. The Massif Central is an elevated region in the middle of southern France, consisting of mountains and plateaus. It covers approximately 15 percent of the country.

This is a volcanic area of which the Puy de Dôme is the highest volcano in the range known as the Chaîne des Puys. 

And it is possible to visit the summit of this impressive (and happily defunct) volcano. 

Puy de Dôme volcano

At the foot there is a visitor centre where one has a choice of methods for gaining the summit – a two and a half hour walk or a ride on a rack & pinion railway. Guess which I chose!

Brand new trains

The views on the way up are superb


Some of my fellow passengers where carrying massive backpacks which turned out to be hang gliders. This is one of the most popular places in France for hang gliding. One reason is that jumps can be made irrespective of the wind direction as the summit is perfectly circular. 

I had a thoroughly excellent day out at a very modest cost (the visit being heavily subsidised by the authorities – I believe building the brand new railway cost over €76 million).

Getting to know the locals better

28 Oct

We have lived in Montolieu 33 months now and we have made some connections with local people. Of course the shopkeepers know us quite well now – Adrian in the wine shop, Nellie at the grocer, Saskia at the baker, Terry and Bernard at the restaurant; and the pharmacist sees Richard quite frequently! We love talking to Monsieur Escarré, who is in his 80s and walks down our track most days with the aid of his walking sticks. Talking to him is a bit of a challenge as he has a strong local accent, giggles a lot and his teeth seem to be quite mobile!

We have joined the retired peoples’ club where we have made some more friends. This month we went to the club lunch where 64 of us enjoyed a four course meal with wine and coffee (great value at €15 a head).

M Borillo, aged 92

M Borillo, aged 92

We sat next to Monsieur Borillo, aged 92, and his wife who together with their daughter had worked at the tannery where we now live. He told us a little about his working life. Before he went to the tannery he had worked on the land at Saissac, an outdoor man. Before he retired (30 years ago!) he had worked on the first floor of the tannery (where we now live), operating a machine that cleaned the skins before they were processed into leather.

When he worked here, there were about 50 people employed. The owner and the manager lived in the Old House. The buyer and transport manager lived in what is now the Little House.

The tannery business was contracting fast and just before its demise, it employed just five people. Looking at some of the old records, it seemed that the French state tried to support it, by paying the salaries of the employees for the last two years, but to no avail.

By chance I met a friend of a friend on one of our sailing trips who ran a leather trading business. He used to make visits around the world buying leather and he had purchased from the Tannery de la Dure many times! What a coincidence!

Anyway, back to the lunch. After consuming a tart and salad for starter, followed by coq-au-vin with dauphenoise potatoes, then cheese and finally a desert followed by coffee and all sustained by copious bottles of white, rosé and red wine, we got discussing our life and background with Daniele, the president of the Club de Retraite. She explained that on Tuesdays they had a course learning English. About seven people turned up but the tutor had returned to England for several weeks and they wanted to continue practising. So Trish agreed to go along! I will let her tell you the story but I am pleased to report that she has made at least three new friends and is talking about inviting some of the group to come and eat a meal with us or perhaps have a drink with us!

Meanwhile I flew off to England for five days for business meetings. Thanks to Graham and Sue Whibley for putting me up yet again!

Interesting sky at Carcassonne

Interesting sky at Carcassonne

I flew from Carcassonne and this time bought a Business Plus ticket – more expensive than cattle class but you get 20kgs into the hold, a reserved seat, priority boarding and most importantly for me, as I have problems standing in queues, fast tracking through security at Stansted.

Anyway, that’s all for now. Got to hit the sack ready for a Skype call tomorrow with my French friend, Jean-Pierre, who lives in Beavais.

Our holiday in the UK

4 Oct

We took three weeks away from our new home in France, to have a much needed holiday in the UK (much to the amazement of our French friends – “who would go to the UK for a holiday when you live in the south of France?”).

Anyway, we set off one morning with car loaded (including Nettles) and collected a paying passenger. We had posted our journey on BlaBlaCar which is a car sharing website. The young nurse had worked a night shift delivering babies. We took her from Montolieu to Tours where we then picked up a young man wanting to travel to Caen. We then drove the last 10 kilometres to our destination – Ouistreham – without a passenger. The lift sharing earned us €50 which covered the cost of the diesel.

We then boarded the 2300 ferry to Portsmouth. Poor Nettles had to stay in the car for the journey which lasted seven hours. We quickly got to our cabin and soon fell asleep, waking the next morning in time for an excellently cooked English breakfast. Not bad for a French ferry company?

We then drove to Kent where we stayed with Graham and Sue. Richard had meetings in London and the next day in West Malling. Then on Saturday we set off in separate cars to Sowerby Bridge in Yorkshire to board our narrow boat.

Our home for the week

The week on the canals was the best we’d had for a long time. The boat was new, the company was excellent and the locks were challenging.

  
  
  
Graham and Sue left to go to a wedding in Suffolk and we drove to Manchester to stay with Trish’s brother George and his wife Heather. I left them on the Sunday to drive down to Gosport, collecting my elder sister, Sally, on the way in Northampton. We then boarded the good ship Lady Emma.

There were five us on board and we had a good time sailing around the Solent, even managing to explore Chichester Harbour. Sadly, all too soon the week was up. It is the last time I’ll sail Lady Emma as she is now up for sale. An end of a 30 year relationship with the yacht. She’s served us well!

  
Trish took the train down to Southamton with suitcase and dog! I collected her from the station and we spent the next two days in the New Forest. The weather had been great all the time we’d been in England apart from a day of drizzle on the canals. The Indian Summer treated us well.

One day, we decided to walk along the coast at New Milton. There is a 40 ft drop from the coastal path to the beach. And Nettles managed to run off the edge of the cliff! We both peered over the top, expecting to find a dead dog but no, she appeared from under a ledge, shook herself and then scrambled up the scree slope, finding her way and hauling herself back over the top, none the worse for wear apart from marks of sandstone on her chest. Talk about lucky!

This is where Nettles ran off the cliff

it’s a lot steeper than this shot shows

We also popped over to Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight, using the new fast ferry service. We had lunch there and then returned to Lymington. We met up with Keith & Jackie for an Italian meal in Ringwood.

Next day we drove slowly through the New Forest, eventually arriving in Portsmouth to catch the overnight ferry to Caen.

On the journey back home, we took two people to Bordeaux, and one from there to Toulouse. Another €88 in the bank. If you are interested, BlaBlaCar has now launched in the UK – see their website.

We have had a lovely summer

4 Sep

The swimming pool at Montolieu

The swimming pool at Montolieu

Well the summers is nearly over but we have had a lovely time over here. The weather was very good this year, although May was a bit rainy. However June and July were splendid – hot, long sunny days with temperatures averaging 30°C. Then it dropped a tad in August, making life that much more bearable. We have been wearing shorts and tee shirts all summer!

The local open-air swimming pool has been much in demand. It’s only open in July and August but when things got too hot, we took to having meetings in the middle of the pool!

The chickens got a new home

The new hen house

The new hen house

Finally we decided that the chicken house built by volunteers two years ago was not fit for purpose. It leaked and was beginning to fall apart, and rats and mice were trying to muscle in as well! So we went on-line and found a French company that supplied wooden, ecological chicken houses that were delivered flat for us to assemble. Here is the result!

They appear to be quite happy with the new arrangement, although for a few days they tried to return to the old one at the end of the day. That stopped when we demolished the old one! It must be working as we started to collect three eggs a day again.

Nettles

Nettles and yet another bone

Nettles and yet another bone

For Nettles it’s been a lovely time. She has had literally hundreds of people to play with her. She’s been out for long walks and runs. Here she is enjoying a bone.

As we are about to travel back to the UK for a holiday, she has an appointment with the vet who will give her a health check, an injection against worms and he will sign her off as fit to travel. This jas to be done between five days and24 hours before the channel crossing. This year we have decided to go on the overnight ferry from Caen/Ouistreham to Portsmouth thus avoiding any possible delays at Calais due to the refugee crisis unfolding there.

New volunteer website

We have produced a new website for people interested in volunteering here. Please do have a look.

Day out in Toulouse

1 Jan

We had a lovely day out in Toulouse yesterday. We took a friend of Louise’s to the airport then we drove into the centre of Toulouse.

We found a bar selling ‘chocolat á l’ancienne’ which was basically hot liquid chocolate!

20140101-213543.jpgWe went round an exhibition of Romain artefacts that had been excavated in Toulouse over the last 100 years. Very interesting and extremely well displayed.

Then we had a look around Toulouse Cathedral.

20140101-213928.jpg

20140101-213940.jpgThen we had lunch in a tiny Vietnamese restaurant.

20140101-213701.jpgOh, I forgot to mention we went to Midica, one of the best department stores I have ever been in, and bought a set of saucepans and lids!

Not much to report about The Peace Factory

16 Dec

As we have been in the UK for the past two weeks, we have little to report about The Peace Factory. This is mainly due to the fact that nobody over there is telling us anything! Hopefully silence is golden.

So, here’s a photo of Richard, in case you’ve forgotten what he looks like!

20131216-065658.jpg

Organic manure – easy to find – hard to collect

3 Sep

We need organic manure otherwise the size and quantity of the vegetables from the garden won’t support our growing community.

Sylvain researched two farms who had organic herds and both agreed to let us have some organic manure. So off we set on the Fiat, towing the trailer. Trish, Richard, Nadege & Alex made up the team.

After over an hour’s drive we arrived in a tiny village where we were directed up a steep hill to a field containing several large piles of extremely good looking manure. The pile furthest from the gate was the oldest.

But how to get it to the trailer? The road was too rutted to reverse down, so we borrowed a wheelbarrow and filled the trailer.

20130903-224128.jpg. Everyone did their bit. 20130903-224205.jpgThis is Alex20130903-224221.jpgThis is Nadege

After filling the trailer, we gingerly drove back to Montolieu! Then we had great fun chucking the manure over the wall!

20130903-224536.jpgThe next step is to get more manure from the other farmer. Then it will be spread over the new vegetable beds, which will then be ready for planting.