(Feature image is on the canal bank at Mennetou sur Cher)
Our meandering through France took us to Vichy, a beautiful spa town on the banks of the Allier river. It is a town with a complicated history as it was the seat of government during WW2 when the official French line was to collaborate with the Nazi regime. Having visited the museum of the Resistance in Cahors we were now in another beautiful French town with a darker story behind its elegant buildings and beautiful sweeps of parkland along the river bank.
We opted to use a small, traditional campsite for two nights for a quick visit. La Croix St Martin is a simple site on the banks of the river, about a two-mile walk or cycle into the city of Vichy. We loved it. Ok, the site facilities were old-fashioned but the welcome we received was warm, the pitch flat and large, the walks on the river bank enough to keep everyone happy, especially the dogs who didn’t need to be on the lead at all once we’d gone out of the gate. There was a covered heated swimming pool too, although we didn’t try it. On the only full day we were on site we walked into Vichy, took a look round, decided it was like a bigger version of Harrogate where I was born, had a coffee and croissant in a pavement café and walked back. On the way, we struck up a conversation with an elderly gentleman sitting on a bench in one of the elegant riverside parks. We found that our willingness to try speaking French had improved a lot since we started practising with Duolingo. The two things that made the conversation more of a challenge was that our elderly friend had no teeth and therefore was difficult to understand and he also seemed to be a bit hard of hearing so neither side of the conversation was particularly clear. On the way back, our old friend was still there so we cheerfully waved and called “Bonjour encore!” and he looked puzzled and waved back uncertainly. We’re still wondering if it was the same old man. Vichy has been added to our list of “Must go back when we have time to explore it properly”. Incidentally, there is a motorhome aire in Vichy but we opted for the campsite as the difference in price was only 3€ and we could spread out on our pitch and consume electricity at will on the campsite. The aire is nearer the city but we’re rufty tufty dog walkers so the four-mile round trip wasn’t a problem for us.
We were now in our last two weeks of time in Europe and the desire to visit some of our old haunts was mixed with a strange sadness. Life is full of dilemmas and this is one of ours. We miss our family and friends a lot when we’re away but the travelling life has us in the grip of its charms. The conversation about how to mix the two sides of our life continues …
Motoring further northeast in the direction of Burgundy we stopped off for the night in Digoin. This is a place we’ve visited several times before and is the scene of an embarrassing incident trying to find the Aire de Camping Cars on a previous visit. We like it because you can park overlooking the Loire river, walk along the river bank, visit the small but pretty town and it’s free. On this occasion, we decided to repay the town’s hospitality by eating out in Chez Lily’s, an American style diner just across the road from the aire. The decor is American style, the food is a choice of burgers and chips or real French cuisine. It’s a no-brainer. We opted for the Menu du Jour and only discovered after we began ordering that it was a four-course menu. Washed down with a pichet (pitcher) of wine we somehow managed to consume about three times the quantity of our normal evening meal. The food was lovely, the waitress delightful, offering to speak English to us after we stumbled our way through the order. The rather odd ambience became all the more appealing as the wine went down and the place filled up with hungry workmen. The appeal to them was obvious with portion sizes designed to fill someone who has worked in the open air all day. We, on the other hand, had driven up the road and taken two sedate walks with the dogs. It was a lovely evening and we fell into bed happy. The next morning, the first thing I heard was Shirley muttering, “I’ve still got a food baby.” Good thing we don’t eat like that every day.
Taizé, our annual choice for some spiritual sustenance, was next on the list. This is an extraordinary place where people, mostly young, gather by the thousand week on week during the year. I’ve written about it before and can only add that despite many years of regular visits, it is still one of our most special places on earth. The main difference in our visits now is that we drop by in the vicinity and pop in to sit in on the meditative services and breathe in the atmosphere. In the past we have stayed for a whole week at a time and entered fully into the rhythm of the place. Pets, for obvious reasons, can’t be brought into the community so we now do our version of “Taizé light” which consists of a few dips into the peace and welcome before slipping quietly out again and back to the van. It wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea but if you like quiet space to contemplate and especially if you enjoy singing we can recommend a visit.
We stayed at Camping le Hameau des Champs in Cormatin, about two miles from Taizé and were in a little bubble of quiet contentment. Right on the Voie Verte, we could walk and cycle along the smooth pathways, pop into the village to get what we needed and enjoy the short hop up the hill to Taizé once each day. We used our bikes to get there which means travelling three-quarters of the way on the Voie Verte in ease and comfort before facing the very steep push up the hill to the village. Some braver souls than us could probably cycle up it. We found it hard to push the bikes up but the reward was in the ride back down the hill.
An alternative use for cycle pants
Padded cycle shorts are a must for a long bike ride. They do a wonderful job of cushioning your tender bits and relieving the pain in your nethers when in the saddle. The seats at Taizé range from hard to non-existent. You can either sit on the floor or you can arrive early and sit on a hard wooden bench. The first few times we went to Taizé I was young and nimble enough to sit on the floor for an hour and still walk at the end of it. These days are over, so now we opt for the hard wooden benches. When we cycled there on this visit we made a wonderful discovery… I’m guessing you’ve worked it out by now. The cycle shorts not only cushioned us on the bike ride but they made the seat more comfortable too. We may well have looked like we were wearing nappies but we didn’t give a jot. We could sit for an hour and still have feeling in our bahookies. No numb bums for us. Hooray!
Memories are made of this
It was foggy when we left Burgundy on Sunday morning and headed in the direction of the Centre region and the town of Moulins, carrying on the theme of visiting old favourites. Here you can park up for 10c an hour for as long as you like – doing the maths that means you could, if you so desired, stay here for 75€ a month beside the river, just across the bridge from the lovely old town and have everything you need right on your doorstep.
Despite its many charms we opted instead to continue on our merry way the next morning to Mennetou sur Cher. This is a tiny mediaeval town with a nice motorhome parking on the banks of the Cher river.
This was where, on our last visit, we were embarrassed in a restaurant by the behaviour of some upper-class Brits who had no manners at all. Here’s a recap of our embarrassing little encounter,
We could choose between a table in the lovely quaint courtyard or one in the bar. We chose the bar and were given a table next to two men and a woman, all of mature years – to put it politely. Once we’d settled in we realised that they were British and extremely plummy. So plummy in fact that I did a double take to make sure we weren’t dining next to Prince Charles. The two men had comb-overs coming from somewhere south of their earlobes and the woman had hair dyed to the shade orange you would normally associate with a struck match. We had a lovely meal, enjoying attempting to speak French with the waitress and the lovely traditional French food. Halfway through the meal, three young women came in with three boys aged about ten to twelve. They were a happy bunch, obviously enjoying the treat of a meal out together. At the end of the meal, just after we had asked for the bill we suddenly overheard the British trio discussing the fact that there were three women, three children and no men around. “They’re probably the Nannies”, pronounced Struck Match, “Or lesbians,” loudly declared Comb Over Number One. If they had looked up they would have seen our jaws drop. Jings, sometimes it’s embarrassing to be British.
On this occasion, we stayed in the van to eat and the only conversation we had was with a little girl of about four. When we talk to little children we find that our ability to speak French is just fine.
Rumbling and Grumbling
The van has developed a rumble from the back end. It is the van honestly, I’m sure of this because it’s definitely not the kind of rumble Shirley’s backend emits. The rumble was getting louder and we started to worry that the wheel bearings had gone. Every day, as we drove along, we got more and more worried until eventually in desperation we pulled into a Renault truck garage. Shirley kindly suggested that I be the one who explained the problem and so I went in, asking hopefully if the lady on reception spoke English. Her jaw dropped and I could see that it was hopeless. I would have to try and explain in French. I told her that we had a noise at the back – to her credit she didn’t laugh, choosing instead to rush through to the garage and call for help. The mechanic came out and I said my line again. “What noise?” he asked and the only thing I could do was to imitate it, given that my French vocabulary doesn’t run to sophisticated explanations like that. Once again, to his credit, a straight face was kept – but only just. Out he came, jumped in the driver’s seat, did a double take because it’s Right-Hand drive and then took off up the road, just giving me chance to get in beside him and Shirley to dive into the back. After a few minutes, he turned back to the garage and got out, felt the back tyres and told us that they were deformed. I asked if it was dangerous and he did that French “Pffff” sound and a shrug and said “Un peu”. He then told us which company to go to for replacements, wished us a safe and happy trip and went back inside. To be absolutely honest, as is my unfortunate habit, we knew they had worn unevenly and that we needed to change them. We just didn’t expect such a racket from them as they wore a bit more.
So, here we are in Saumur, waiting to hear from a tyre company about an appointment on Thursday to replace them. It could have been a whole lot worse and a lot, lot more expensive.
Until the next time when we’ll probably be in the UK…
We’re going to miss this so much.