Tomorrow I’m off to Istanbul. I’ve said goodbye to Poppy, delighted to be in her holiday home with Hans and Margaret, I have (vaguely) tidied the house, dashed off a few pages on my blog here, downloaded some pages about transport and things to visit in Istanbul, found my missing Turkish visa – and now I cannot avoid packing any longer.
I fly from Marseilles, so I suppose one last piece of procrastination before getting down the suitcase is to check out long-term carparks at the airport there.
I will be spending a couple of nights in a cheap hotel in the Fatih district of Istanbul, then across the river for four classier nights with my daughter Jude and family in the Beyoglu district and then when they leave, back to Fatih for the last three nights, in another cheap but interesting looking hotel.
Yesterday I took Sara to Montpellier on the first stage of her trip back to Edinburgh (eventful as her train was cancelled, the connection to the flight from Nice missed, so a tortuous alternative trip via Lyon).
I do realise that Sara has a life back in Fife and a queue of other friends wanting to visit or be visited by her, but I wish I could grab a larger chunk of her time each year.
Sara, Bob and their children, Lucie and James, became our next door neighbours in 1972 when we moved into India Street in Edinburgh. The temporary hole in our party wall, made so we could wheelbarrow out the contents of the hole which became our extension, turned into a permanent gate. The children moved back and forth between the two houses, invariably choosing to eat where the menu was more promising. Kate in particular was also drawn by their extensive basket of dressing up clothes.
Sara went on to become a talented primary school teacher, working later with incredibly handicapped children. My picture of her at this time is of someone sitting happily at the kitchen table, surrounded by children, deep into making interesting things with lavatory rolls and bits of wool.
Nearly 50 years on she is still my pal.
We talk and talk, invariably at the same time and interrupting each other. (She would claim that this is my forté but I would claim that we are equally gifted.) And we laugh and laugh – and eat and eat.
Apart from mending some clothes (Sara is very gifted at all arts and crafts including sewing) she once again found time to stock up my freezer with boxes of delicious soups.
This was a particular pleasure this year as we were using the new induction hob and oven and even newer set of kitchen pots (bought with advice from my son in law, Ed, and arriving the same day as Sara). I say ‘we’ because for once I pulled my weight – a little – in the kitchen. But it was Sara who christened the big pots with her soups. I’m pleased that my old pots are winging their way to Sara’s son, James, another talented cook.
Maybe next year I might make it to Sara’s new(ish) home, which has stunning views over the estuary of the River Tay in Scotland.
I have to confess to loving driving. But then, so did my mother, and my grandmother. And curiously I have just realised that all three of us were married to men who did not drive.
While Sara was here I took the opportunity to get her to take a photo of me in my cabriolet car (we didn’t have time to read the manual to take off the upper bar – to perfect the cabriolet look).
So here we are three generations and our wheels. The first is my grandmother – in her convertible – in the thirties. Then there is my mother (the best driver of us three) and grandmother in a borrowed car, driving through France as war was declared – just getting across the Channel in time. And then me, with a less glamorous vehicle, but just as much fun.
Oh, and Poppy loves the car too, though normally she remains obediently on the passenger side.
My friend Dessa lives in a magnificent old stone house with stunning views, looking over the Hérault valley and le Vigan-Ganges road far below to the hills to the south.
On Sunday Sara and I took the scenic route, winding through Mandagout and then towards St André de Majencoules – with frequent contretemps on narrow hill roads with hunters returning home, high with the adrenalin of a day out with the lads and their guns and their dogs.
Dessa’s house is in a solitary hamlet strung along the side of a grand randonnée – one of France’s splendid walking routes. She has a lovely internal courtyard – currently sticky with the leaves of the old lime tree – and her little lemon trees tempt me to get some too.
The colours are now distinctly autumnal and the worrying brown landscape, with trees which look as if they may not survive this drought, is somewhat masked by the reassuring rusts, yellows and reds.
In our valley too there has been a sudden change in colours. Here is one of my favourite views, of le Bruel, the hamlet opposite the village of Bréau.
The weather has been perfect all Sara’s visit. Dressed in little more than tee shirts or blouses we have usually had breakfast outside and basked in the sun during the day – knowing this was great for us but not so great for nature.
It is extraordinary how many overheard conversations have been about the weather and now, with mounting anticipation, the news that we might have two days rain this week. The first proper rain for four and a half months.
Somehow Sara had never visited the La Couvertoirade, the knights templar village, high up and remote on the Causses du Larzac.
Wednesday was (yet another) glorious day and the fortifications of this wonderfully intact medieval village looked particularly splendid. We were almost the only people to be strolling around; the tourist season clearly ended at the start of October and almost all the shops and cafes were closed.
We then did a rather mad, circuitous drive across the Causses towards Montpeyroux. I had forgotten to pack my map, but we were not in a hurry, and so meandered around, discovering that there are some pretty bleak isolate parts of this huge plateau. The box bushes which are a feature of the Causses were all looking distinctly brown – dead from the drought – rather than autumnal, adding to a rather sombre aspect.
Then down the winding road off the plateau towards the vineyards which stretch to the south. By now we were peckish and disappointed to find the Montpeyroux restaurant closed. On to St Saturnin, where there is another restaurant frequented by the wine trade as well as tourists. This being France and after two o’clock, I was not optimistic. But no, we were offered a splendid, huge plate of charcuterie and impressive range of cheeses. Just what we wanted, and all for 15 euros for the two of us.
The aim of the day had been to visit our very good friends, Graeme and Alice in Octon and arrived, as planned, for tea (I had brought a delicious cake from le Vigan!).
Alice is a childhood friend of Sara’s niece, Amelia, and I had the good luck to meet her on another trip with Sara years ago. She is full of warm, enthusiasm, intelligence and compassion. And Graeme is the same, though somewhat less effervescent!
We talked about their life choice, compared with that of so many of the friends. Graeme left his life as an up and coming doctor in a London hospital 17 years ago to learn winemaking. He then bought little vineyards scattered around their home in Octon and now has an established domaine, Trois Terres.
Alice, who had been a consultant in developing countries, joined him in this adventure. I asked her if she had any regrets about leaving her old job, which had involved much travelling round the world. No, she said, she was completely happy with sharing the work with the vines and in the cave (selling wine) as well as bringing up the two children in a happy, safe rural environment.
Life is financially more limited and precarious than their previous one in London, but they have no regrets leaving this stress behind and living in a peaceful village.
Graeme, who has been dividing his week between winemaking and being a GP in the village, had been going to give up being a doctor all together this year and concentrate on the vines. Luckily he did not carry this out as this year’s catastrophic nearly five-month drought has had a serious effect on wine production. Indeed, Graham said, the obvious signs of climate change are making him think he may have to abandon one of his vineyards because of lack of water and get land near Lac de Salagou, a man-made reservoir beside their village, where the soil is not so good for wine but the water is available.
Then we had to leave, as two separate parties of Dutch arrived to buy wine. Our last sight was of Graham filling one of the car boots to the brim with cases of his wine.
On Monday we had to go to Montpellier for my annual visit to the oncologue, Dr Kerr.
But first we treated ourselves to a stroll round Montpellier and a yummy lunch at Alain’s restaurant. (Somehow we managed to try out three desserts … …)
Then rather overcome by good things, we attempted to find the vast Montpellier Cancer Institute, Val d’Aurelle. I had to abandon my trusted TomTom GPS as it refused to recognise any of the streets near the centre. I think Sara was suitably impressed by the vastness of the complex (one of the 20 regional centres in France) and by the very impersonal way patients have to negotiate reception and pass from one waiting room to another.
Until now, I have found Dr Kerr efficient (reputed as one of THE oncologues of Montpellier) but somewhat distant. All that changed on Monday. She came into the room asking anxiously if I was all right. My appointment was apparently an hour previously and she said it was out of character for me not to turn up. She was showing genuine concern for me and somehow it was much easier to talk with her this time.
The checkup showed no problems. However, she stressed that next time I really should come with all the reports and scans for other parts of my body, in particular my ongoing sciatic nerve problems, as she believed in looking at problems globally. If she could see the size of just this year’s file of medical documents and scans!
Anyhow, I now feel that in the hopefully unlikely event that I have a recurrence of problems that I am in the hands of an oncologue I like as well as respect.
Anne and her husband Philippe, who have restored and expanded a house beautifully further up the valley, invited us to the opening of Anne’s atelier.
They have now both (semi) retired and will be spending more of their time here rather than in Brussels, now that their daughter Charlotte lives here – and baby Manon has been born.
Anne was a primary school teacher but is now a painter and Philippe, with help from Jacky, has built her a beautiful atelier below the house. About 40 of us celebrated its opening – and Sara bought a painting.
Last Wednesday I drove to Nice Airport-400 km away. This was to collect my friend Sara from the airport, but also a test of whether my little car – and I – were up to busy motorways.
Given my recent disgraceful fine for 110 km in a 90 km zone I should not have worried. Over breakfast in Nîmes I finally read the manual on how to set the speed limiter on my car. Let’s hope that first stretch, from home to Nîmes does not result in more fines. It is littered with irritating changes between 90, 70 and 50 kph signs – and frequent hidden speed cameras.
The drive turned out to be simple, although given my leisurely stops, I took six hours rather than the gps system’s estimated four hours. But it does show I could still drive to England, albeit with perhaps two overnight stops rather than my previous one night.
At Levens I collected Sara and we drove out of Nice, up towards the hills behind and the village of Levens, where her son James has just bought his first house. We drove along the heavily industrialised Var valley and then up and up a windy road towards Levens. I was disappointed by the tasteless growth of new houses over this splendid hinterland, but James’ house was a delightful, older little gem.
James showed us with delight round his first real home. He and his partner, Celine, have been renting for years in Cagnes sur Mer before buying this little house.
Up some steep steps from the road, the ground floor consists of an open plan kitchen and living room, and upstairs, two bedrooms and a bathroom. The garden is a real delight with almond, plum and olive trees, and plenty of places to sit on their old terraces. Their daughter, Lois, has her own large hut at the top.
A new addition to the family since I last saw them is their dog, Laika, who – apart from Poppy of course – is the nicest dog I have met for a long time, and very obedient. Impossible to take photos of a large black dog permanently on the move, but here she is, followed by a clip showing her extraordinary skill catching a frisbee.
Laika’s companion on the stairs is an ancient cat called Tiggy.
Lois was then collected from school. She is now an enchanting ten year old, bilingual, full of life and enthusiasm but polite and obedient, and as an only child (half brother now grown up) very good at wandering off and amusing herself.
Then Celine got home. The couple manage, without complaining, living on a very modest income, with Celine working normal hours but in a challenging job supporting disabled workers, while James has a long nighttime commute to Nice Airport, where he works in security (checking your bags).
We sat outside, chatting, drinking rosé and munching almonds from the tree overhead. Very pleasant.
Next day, while Celine worked and Lois was at school, Sara James and I luxuriated in footling around. We visited the old village of Levens, a delightful hilltop village, almost entirely free of cars. We sat in the sun, drinking in the pleasure of a village which has not given in to tourism and second homes as so much of Provence. People seem to live there all the year round and the local butcher, cafes and grocers seemed to be thriving.
Then back to the Cévennes, buffeted by a dramatic wind on the autoroute in the Rhones valley.
Today Jacky, who built the pool, has finished the carport for my little car.
Given it has a soft top, I decided it needed protection not just against winter weather but the summer sun. At present the raw wood stands out a bit, but it is Douglas fir, and will weather to the same colour as the decking round the neighbouring pool.
The parking area in front of it is once again a raked over mixture of sand and pebbly earth. The grass sewn on the driveway in the spring also completely disappeared in the heatwave. Once it rains again (!) Jacky is going to resew the grass seed.
Here is a story which could have come out of Manon des Sources. Only in the country could there be such a drama centred on rabbits.
Last winter, Alain Bourrié, a well established character in the life of Serres (our local village- smaller than Bréau) died. His carefully cultivated rabbits have unfortunately gone wild. They have discovered there is wonderful juicy food to be had in the middle of the village: flowers, in particular the ones planted by our friend, Margaret, along the path in front of their house. Last week she planted pansies everywhere, by the morning they were all gone. Other neighbours are equally incensed – apart from the couple who feed the rabbits.
Poppy simply loves chasing the rabbits they run faster than the village cats and don’t turn round and attack her. She nearly came to a sticky end last week when I was away in London. She chased a rabbit into the drain beside Hans and Margaret’s entrance and with head and front legs stuck into the hole had to be forcibly pulled out by Hans before she disappeared forever. To stop Poppy returning into this hole Hans stuck a big rock into the entrance.
This is where the story becomes more convoluted. A couple of decades ago the house further up the path belonged to a couple – old village inhabitants – who were good friends with Hans and Margaret. So when they said they suffered from flooding in their cave after heavy rain, Hans suggested they build a drain which would come out down beside his front door, and the neighbours amicably built this drain together.
Fast forward, the house was sold to a couple from Marseille who use it as a second home. For some reason they have never been friendly with Hans and Margaret and the wife even walks past Margaret without even saying ‘Bonjour’.
So we giggled when we realised that a rabbit was trapped behind the rock, in the drain leading up to the Marseilles couple’s cave, where we think they store their apples and onions. Poppy realised this too and now alternates between sniffing at the rock and sniffing at the neighbours’ cave door, or sitting guard outside it.
Yesterday the Marseilles couple arrived. We waited hoping to hear cries of horror. Sadly none of those, but later Margaret saw them talking animatedly with their friend, Serge, who lives further up the path, clearly discussing the cave. Since Serge, who is on the council, was approached by others in the village about the rabbit problem, his response was simply that his plants (behind a wall) had not been eaten. Maybe now he will have to act.