My friends George and Teresa left yesterday after what started as a lovely brief stay but ended with a holiday makers’ little nightmare.
We had already had a lovely time wandering up the valley to buy trout and continuing up into the mountains, doing the circular tour via Mt Aigoual. The lovely weather continued and on Monday we drove up onto the Causse de Blandas, first stopping at the prehistoric circle of stones and then parking to get the first view of the amazing Cirque de Navacelles.
When we returned to the car about 30 minutes later we found the triangular window on the passenger’s side had been smashed in and Teresa’s bag, which she had left on the floor of the car, had been stolen. Teresa had lost passport, driving licence, senior railcard, Oxford University card, three bank cards, an M&S store card, endless entry cards for galleries and museums (yes, I know…. very useful in la France Profonde), money and two jumpers, one of them cashmere. Another tourist car parked nearby had also been broken into and their bags of camping and walking kit for the start of their walking holiday had been stolen.
I rang 17 (the national number for the police) and got the police in Montpellier. I explained which side of the Cirque de Navacelles we were and was told to ring the police in Nimes (we are in the département du Gard). They then told me to go to the police in the commune where we were. I pointed out politedly that there was no gendarmerie on le Causse and suggested that perhaps they meant I should go to the police in le Vigan. Yes, they agreed.
George’s main preoccupation was trying to get through to the bank to stop the cards, but there was virtually no signal. I suggested we tried again over lunch in my favourite restaurant in Bladas – which was full. So back we went to le Vigan and the Gendarmerie. But it was closed for lunch! Rural gendarmeries close between 12 and two.
So over a rather gloomy snack in le Vigan, George finally got through to the bank to stop the cards, and then we returned to the Gendarmerie. There we were told that there was nothing they could do today as their computer system was down. Not just theirs, added the young woman, the entire national system! (On a day when the French were having to police several Euro 2016 games!) Apparently they could not register any report by hand, and we were told to come back tomorrow.
George and Teresa then contacted the British Embassy in Paris and established they would need to go to the consulate in Marseille, armed with, amongst other things, passport photos and the ‘attestation’ from the police.
So back we went to the Gendarmerie yesterday and spent the whole morning there. Luckily the computer was working – sort of – and I had to go in first to give details for my car insurance. This took a loooong time. The guy was charming, as was the young woman at the next desk who had to help him from time to time with computer codes. There was a long, animated and sympathetic ongoing discussion about the referendum. At last Teresa was asked in. I remained as potential translater (though Teresa has good French). George and Poppy spent all this time sitting patiently in the waiting room. After more discussion about Brexit and a reminder that all tourist locations even in the remote countryside were now targets for thieves, so never to leave things in the car, we at last were able to say goodbye. And while Teresa went off to the supermarket to obtain their particular brand of gangster like passport photos, I rushed poor Poppy for her scheduled torture: a session at the toilettage to have a much needed radical haircut.
Certainly a trip George and Teresa will remember. But it was great seeing them again. We go back to the early sixties, when George was a fellow lodger and Teresa a frequent visitor. Then we were neighbours in Upper Fisher Row, and over the years we often stayed overnight with them in their lovely North Oxford home, on our way down to France.
Yesterday they set off for their unplanned stay in Marseille, while I went to Nimes to fetch my brother in law, Peter.
Yes, the Leave side won, and with a turnout of 72.2%. But the result was too close and the Leave vote represents only 37.8% of all registered voters. Can we really rely on a first past the post system to decide to make the most important political, economic and constitutional decision since the war?
of course if there was a second referendum I would not be able to vote. As of 1st July I can no longer vote in British elections or referendums (referenda?) and the only French elections I can vote in are for the local council.
I sort of knew that the Remain in EU side would lose, but I kept hoping I was wrong. Early on in last night’s vote counting I knew the worst; there followed a restless and increasingly depressed night, as I tried to sleep and reached for my ipad to see what had happened next. (Perhaps it was a bad thing that after two days without the Internet, I got my new router hours before the voting ended… …)
I feel very very angry, but even more, very very depressed. Almost on the verge of tears. So depressed it is difficult to concentrate on anything else. Maybe this is because I live in Europe – that is, mainland Europe, but soon to be the Europe that Britain no longer belongs to.
When people say “You have a little accent”, I have always explained “Yes, I was born in England, but now I am a European”. Now what am I? What’s more, from 1 July I will no longer have the right to vote in British parliamentary elections or referendums. My daughter, Jude, put on Facebook that she “Is still European but trapped in a little England”. Today I told all this to my friend, Jacky, who built and looks after my pool. His response was I have to tell people that now I am a “citizen of the world”. But we went on to agree that Britain – and Europe are now in a complete mess. Like me, he fears 20 years of chaos with Europe at best emerging impoverished and diminished. He mourned the return to egotisical individualism and a complete lost of civic purpose.
Nobody claims anything other than that the European Union is deeply flawed, but for the reasons I gave back in February I have been firmly on the side of trying to sort these out from within. Ultimately I voted emotionally and philosophically rather than for economic or constitutional reasons. I fear religion and nationalism as two of the most corrosive forces in human history. I did NOT want to be on the side of those waving national flags and closing doors.
Now what do we have? A country divided in two: with the old Labour heartlands of the north – and Wales – become fearful little Englanders. We have cosmopolitan London (and urban cities populated by above average numbers of graduates) increasingly distant from these old Labour areas, plus the predictable Tory shires – and the Essex population.
Country divided into two? No, three. Scotland wants a second referendum and this time I don’t blame them. And Northern Ireland is in a mess, having voted I suspect largely along old religious lines and the majority wanting to stay in Europe (but I doubt if the Republic of Ireland wants to take on this can of worms).
Now all one can do is what the British political system disintegrate into chaos (I try not to think of power in the hands of the likes of Johnson and Gove – described most eloquently by John Major of all people), other European populists eager to follow suit and the world’s financial markets in panic.
It is already ten days since I got back from my fun family holiday in Italy. We may have visited the Vatican, Coliseum, Pantheon, Siena, San Gimignano, Florence and Pisa….. but this little booklet by Ella gives a different perspective. The highlights were the daily ice creams, pizzas and jacuzzi baths.
So, without visitors, back to the normal routine, starting with the Bréau pensioners’ picnic. The local primary school children are always invited too, so the noise level was high. The musicians, sons of Lulu Vaquier, a local now in his eighties (far right of photo), who has entertained us for years at local parties, played well and were good humoured about the children joining in.
It was, as usual well organised, by a team of three (including Margaret) all in their seventies. I had a headache, however, and left before they started to get the local brews out and things got more lively. In my absence I won the tombola!
After a busy week and mainly indifferent weather, Daphne has gone home.
Her last day was interrupted by my going to a funeral: a very nice man who lives just across the bridge to Serres, to whom I have often chatted on my daily walk, died unexpectedly. I didn’t actually go to the funeral (in the Catholic church in Bréau) but instead joined the cortège to the cemetery. I am still struck by how people do not dress up for these events; they simply turn out to show their respects.
This time Daphne’s train journey was not affected by strikes and she had an uneventful train to Lille, Eurostar to London, and train to Yorkshire. We both agreed that we supported the unions’ move to try to protect peoples’ security of employment but hoped the strike would be on another day!
On Wednesday I collected Daphne Rose (who lived in the flat above us in India Street, Edinburgh) from Montpellier.
Already we have packed in a fair amount: a lovely day in Uzes (a lengthy journey there because a lorry packed with 300 sheep had overturned on the Pont d’Hérault, sadly killing over 50 sheep), a trip to the camp site (down memory lane for Daphne, who visited us there about 30 years ago), a morning in the market, entertaining various people who passed by here….
Today we went to Cirque de Navacelles. The weather was supposed to deteriorate but miraculously it held off. The trip reminded me how essential it is to go up on to the Causse in May and June, when the wild flowers are at their best on this beautiful, wild limestone plateau.
Here we are back on my (non!) favourite subject: health.
A month ago I said to Maelle (my GP) that although my right shoulder hurt and I knew it would have to be replaced one day, I wanted to postpone this as long as possible. Three major and one minor op in three years is enough, thank you. But Maelle wanted to get a second opinion as to whether this was wise.
So I have been cramming various medical rendezvous into the three days between returning from holiday and collecting my first summer visitor this evening.On Monday I went for an echographie (and fainted – a first for me and I don’t know why!). Yesterday I had the xrays done. And this morning I went to Montpellier to see the surgeon, Mme Bertrand (who did my hip replacement in 2015).
The hospital, or rather clinique (the term used for hospitals that are privately run but part of the national health service), has moved to a huge new building inconveniently the other side of Montpellier and is, well, horribly clinical. It has only been open for a few months, so let’s hope they will add a few more signposts and door labels to the miles of grey corridors.
My surgeon, on the other hand, is the first one I have felt completely at ease with. And after her surgery on the hip, involving bone graft, I have complete confidence in her technically. She’s a pretty formidable looking woman: in her fifties, clearly super fit, and today wearing a white summer dress with a hem well above her knees and matching stylish heeled sandals. Not what you would see from a senior surgeon in the NHS! (I wouldn’t normally comment on how a doctor looked other than here it gives an idea of how different the two countries are.)
She took one look at the xrays, whistled and said something like “vous pauvre”. Yes, she said, the shoulder was riddled with arthritis and yes it needed replacing and she would do this whenever I wanted. We discussed the complication of all the problems following surgery and radiotherapy last year, and she agreed it was best to wait at least a year after radiotherapy. So we were talking about autumn/winter. Heyho.
Then she asked me how my hip was doing and I told her about the increasing and new pain in my back/hip and in the foot. She did some wiggling around and asked questions and said, screwing up her face in sympathy, that there was always a chance that the problems I had immediately after surgery and/or the radiotherapy could have affected the replacement and bone graft. I am to get some more xrays of hip and back to check if there is a new problem. (If so, I imagine that takes priority over the shoulder!)
We then went on to talk about treatment of cancer in France. It is a pity, Mme Bertrand said, that they don’t prepare cancer patients for all the things that may and often will happen after surgery and treatment. The oncologists are concerned just with treating the cancer itself. She had an aunt who was ill for a year and treated in the same institute as me. We agreed that as oncologists this institute could not be faulted but that there was a lack of interest in treating all the resultant problems, leaving these for the GP to cope with (as poor Maelle has had to). She added she could never cope with operating on cancer and seeing a percentage of her patients die.
I wont decide yet what to do but the amazing thing about the system here is that Mme Bertrand and I can discuss when I would like the operation to happen.
As I unpacked my suitcase the sunny sky was replaced by menacing clouds and we had a thunderstorm. Out of the four jobs I had asked to be done in my absence, one had been done.
Switching location of dishwasher and cutlery/dish cupboard: done!
Identify problem and possibly repair the jacuzzi: not done.
I got an email from the friend who had said he would look at it after 25th May saying sorry, the excessive rain meant that they had had to work full out on their own garden.
Fill the bassin ready for Daphne’s visit (tomorrow): not done.
Jacky said there was no point because of the continuing dodgy weather.
Cut the grass – again: not done.
Poor Philippe has shoulder problems again plus his machine has broken down. So I have seven or eight terraces of jungle. Not so good for Poppy either, as the sticky grasses get stuck into her skin.
After a week in the Gillies’ household in Dulwich I joined the BPs (Jude, Ed and daughters Ella and Maddie for a week in Italy.
This is a garbled account, written on my return, in moments between various medical appointments which I am cramming in before my next visitor arrives on Wednesday.
I have put up my general photos (the ones of the family are elsewhere and password protected).
Rome (26-28 May)
Our first stop was three nights in Rome, in a splendid and spacious third floor apartment in the Piazza Santa Salvatore, in the heart of the old city.
We were welcomed by the owner, Matteo, who lives nearby. We reckoned the flat must have belonged to his father, perhaps an architect or historian, judging by the huge number of books. It is interesting that it was perhaps the books which made us feel at home and gave the flat a special character.
For the girls, however, the highlight was the giant jacuzzi bath! The sleeping arrangements were challenging. Ed and Jude had their own room, Ella slept up on a mezzanine in the second bedroom, with me on a pull-out sofa-bed and Maddie on some cushions on the floor.
Friday: Vatican day
This was a very full-on first day. It was hot and crowded. Indeed my first visit to Rome will be coloured by memories of these crowds. I have never been surrounded by so many tourists, even in Indian temples.
We joined a guided tour to avoid queues. Our guide was a German woman who had lived in Italy for 40 years. But still very Germanic.
The architecture was wonderful, the art spectacular and I was not disappointed by the climax, the Sistine Chapel. It was impossible to loiter at will. Oh, how wonderful it would have been to spend the time it deserved – alone.
There were security checks everywhere, but then this has no doubt become the norm worldwide. What was unnecessary was the officials who barked out ‘Silence! No photos!’ in Italian and English. (Something to do with wearing uniforms?)
In the evening we went to the Trevi Fountain. It was completely swarming in tourists (and impossible to take a decent photo), but well worth the trip.
Saturday: Coliseum and Forum
The children tolerated rather than actively enjoyed this second day of culture, although Ella was impressed by looking down on the area where the lions roamed and the stories of the Romans’ brutal taste in entertainment.
I was struck by the incredible engineering of the Coliseum: a structure which house over 50000 spectators and had a seating and entry system far superior to many modern football stadiums.
The Forum was perhaps even more moving, helped by having an excellent guide, James (a bit of a Prince Harry type) who gave just the right amount of historical context.
The Rome experience was somewhat marred for me by developing a cold as soon as I arrived. The usual – a chest cough, no doubt picked up in London, and periodically feeling pretty rotten. Worse still, this time I TOTALLY lost my voice. Probably the only time the family will know me virtually silent.
Sunday: leaving Rome
Getting three heavy cases plus sundry bags down three flights of stairs was not easy. Nor was the long trek to find a taxi to the statio to collect the car hired. Nor was the fact that Ed had to queue for over an hour to collect the car ordered some time ago.
Gardens of Bomarzo – Parco del Mostri
To entertain the children after these full-on days of culture, we visited a monster park, on the road from Rome to Tuscany. Jude had read about it in her guide book for kids in Italy, which turned out to be invaluable – better written than the adult guides and with an intelligent selction of things to see and do.
The park was commissioned in the 16th centure by Prince Pier Orsini in memory of his wife. It then lay neglected for centuries and even now the moss-covered woods add to the charm. It was right up Ella’s street: wandering from one huge monster or mythical character to another.
Radicondoli (29-31 May)
We stayed in a large gite (another Air BnB) set in the beautiful rolling countryside south of Siena, outside a charming village, Radicondoli.
Despite the large size of our apartment there were only two bedrooms, so I shared with the girls. I have become rather attached to this arrangement and amazingly they sleep through my coughing and restlessness. Maddie usually falls out of bed about 4am, but without fuss climbs back in again.
The other much appreciated feature of this gite was the pretty swimming pool. Ella is oblivious to cold weather but even the rest of the family spent some time in the water (not me!).
We used the gite as a base for visiting Siena and San Gimignano.
I am particularly fond of Siena; I have happy memories of a break in our camping holiday – drying out in a gite of character, after some spectacular rain in Florence.
I love the over-the-top liquorice allsort cathedral and in particular the images on the floor. Jude and Ed clearly prefer the more restrained Duomo in Florence.
After the cathedral we wandered round the medieval streets of Siena, leaving till last, the treat that is the piazza Il Campo. My very favourite town square – if you can call this delightful sloping polygon a square.
We indulged in a lunch overlooking the piazza (I’m afraid my favourite tipple has become Prosecco) and then while the others did something more child-oriented (I forget what) I had a quick visit to the Palazzo Publico and above all, my favourite pictures in Siena: Lorenzetti’s Good and Bad Government. This was commissioned by the town council in the 14th century and amazingly for this period is not about religion.
I would say that the highlight of the day for Ella and Maddie was our daily ice cream. Maddie’s invariably needs a lot of ‘hoovering’ (an old family tradition) as strawberry (always strawberry) ice cream trickles down the cone onto her hands – and feet.
The next day, another car journey, to San Gimignano. The girls are very good about these trips, helped by the modern travel aide for children: tablets packed with stories. Ella is involved in some complicated series, based in a school with scary teachers. Maddie is still in the world of Peppa Pig and Room on the Broom.
San Gimignano was loved by all the family. It really is a delightful medieval town and of course has these crazy towers everywhere, as all the big shots tried to outdo each other building higher and higher tower houses.
There are still 14 of the original 72 standing and the family (not me this time) climbed up the Torre Grossa of the Palazzo Comunale.
Then, while Ella and Ed visited a museum of torture, Jude, Maddie and I wandered round the delightful Duomo. Even here, eagle-eyed Maddie spotted a painting in which people were ‘not being nice to each other’. Some are dead, she said, matter of factly.
And of course, we could not leave without sampling the wares of one of the two gelaterias claiming to be world champion. I swear Maddie can now read ‘gelateria’ as one of her favourite games was calling out ‘ice cream’ when we passed one. Not to eat one necessarily, but as a sort of I-Spy exercise.
One our way to our last stay – Florence – we stopped off at another gem from Jude’s guide book for kids in Italy: an excellent forest adventure. Apparently these are becoming well known activities in Britain.
Maddie refused to dress up in the safety gear, but – after an initial briefing – Ella (accompanied by Ed) spent a happy and challenging two hours traversing ever higher lines between the trees and then flying down a zip wire. We three gazed in admiration from down on the ground; Jude shares my unease with heights.
Florence (1-2 June)
And finally what was meant to be – and was – the grand climax to the holiday: Florence.
Our hotel was amazing. With all my years of camping and going cheap I have rarely been in a real grown-up hotel with luxurious rooms, smiling attentive staff and prime location. Of course the decor was over the top, but I did rather enjoy luxuriating in my marble shower in my marble bathroom. And the view from my balcony was hard to beat: I was looking out at the beautiful Santa Maria Novella (if you ignore the obligatory scaffolding behid and covered monument in front – both good signs of restoration work).
Only fly in the ointment: the weather. Florence was wet. Not as wet as when Chris and I camped here nine years ago, but still, definitely umbrella weather.
Duomo and Baptistery
Sadly no photo of the exterior as it was raining too hard! A pity because Brenelleschi’s dome is a marvel (but I will still have my photos from 2004 when I finish current upgrading). Inside the duomo is a marvel. It is much more austere and gothic than I remember.
I find the Baptistery, across the square, even more appealing, and could spend hours gazing up at the frescoes in the dome (if only they provided appropriate seating!).
We didnt go up the Campanile this time, but well worth the climb.
I am conscious I have not done justice to two of the most wonderful buildings in Florence, but I’m wilting!
Other churches visited
Santa Maria Novella. Our local church is a gem – one of the best in Florence. I love the simple, almost Renaissance facade, and inside (older) there are some wonderful paintings.
Santi Apostoli. We came across this church strolling round the narrow medieval lanes. It is a lovely old Romanesque church and well worth the visit.
San Miniato. We walked up to this church primarily for the view: perched high on a hill on the other side of the river (near where Chris and I camped) the panorama is worth it. I found the church itself less appealing, but we were there both for the view and for a lovely few moments listening to the monks singing Gregorian chants.
We braved the Ponte Vecchio, despite the rain. I’m glad we did. But the best views were from the cafe where we retreated for food, drink and to dry out.
We also packed in quite a lot of strolling round the old, narrow streets, admiring the huge fortified houses, visiting the Palazzo Davanzati, taking a pony and cart ride (great fun), and of course, eating an ice cream.
And so on by train to Pisa, where Ed and Jude and family were to take an afternoon flight home, while I stayed overnight for a more complicated journey to Montpellier, involving two planes via Paris.
But first, we managed to pack in a whistle stop tour to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Then we found the time to take a second pony trip. It was both enjoyable and informative (a good guide) and we saw more of Pisa and realised there is much more than the well known Piazza.
A last ice cream and it was time for the family to sadly leave. I meanwhile walked from my dreary hotel near the station back to the Piazza whose glorious white marble I love very much. I paid lengthier visits to the Duomo, Baptistery and Camposanto (where sadly some of my favourite frescoes are away being restored and relocated).
A good holiday
It’s quite a challenge going to one of the most beautiful countries in the world, packed with churches, monuments, pictures… in the company of two small girls aged six and three – and a granny with serious mobility issues.
Well done to Ed and Jude. They showed it is possible balance sight seeing and playing to please all. Well done to Ella and Maddie for allowing us to look at things that didn’t usually turn them on – though Ella’s imagination was definitely captured by things like the Coliseum, and Maddie got skilled at spotting gory pictures and ice cream shops.