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Smallville: Vive La France

"My wife, a poor traveller, had been seasick for most of the voyage, despite sitting on a newspaper...'' The inimitable Peter B Farrell goes travelling in La Belle France, taking with him his humorous outlook on the world.

Read, enjoy - and look forwards to another episode of Peter's travels next Sunday in Open Writing.

On our first day in France I reflected on the fact that our planned visit had got off to a bad start. My wife, a poor traveller, had been seasick for most of the voyage, despite sitting on a newspaper. That hadn’t worked. Nevertheless we were to continue following advice of this questionable old wives tale for the next fortnight.

My brother Kev and his wife Diana, francophiles both, had organised the trip. We would all be staying with their son who lives and works in the south of France. We intended to see as much of the history and culture of the country as we could. In true adventurous fashion nothing had been booked in advance. As a precaution, room in the car was made for the obligatory kettle and portable gas stove, with tea bags of course.

Travelling on almost empty open roads through Normandy we reached our destination for the day, the medieval city of Angers. We eventually found a small hotel in a seedy back street and I was minded of the film The French Connection 2. Our rooms were clean enough, although dimly lit, but being on the second floor we had only about ten seconds before the lights on the corridor dimmed. In the gloom I nearly bumped into a tall gentleman in a flowing robe, a tribesman perhaps from French Equatorial Africa, if such a place exists anymore.

“Better stick to the shower.” Sensible as always, my wife had noticed my first confrontation with the bidet.

Late in the evening we found a restaurant close by and explored the menu; determined to make the most of it we ordered the plat de jour and sampled the recommended wines.

“Pardon monsieur.” The waiter had noticed I had used the wrong glass; large was for water.

The apparent habit of French families to eat out together was something we were to become used to and a good thing too if it promoted a more civilised behaviour.

The following morning we breakfasted on croissants, bread and black coffee outside on the pavement. The lack of plates was a surprise but we soon became accustomed to it.

“This is the life.” I shouted to my wife above the roar of the traffic just a few feet away. Being opposite a set of traffic lights I noticed and warmed to the cavalier attitude of many of the drivers who were gesticulating and honking horns, all in apparent good humour.

Popeye Doyle, as we had named the concierge, plied us with more croissants before we left to visit the famed medieval tapestries. These amazing treasures are displayed in a spectacular setting in the Chateau d’Angers., the first of many cultural highlights on our journey. The Apocalypse Tapestry is the oldest of them.

“Perhaps we had better go round again.” Lost in the suburbs of Angers we searched for a way out of the City and I became well acquainted with the sign ‘Autres Directions’.

“No I feel fine.” My wife had no signs of travel sickness;. I was puzzling over what effect sitting on the newspaper could have, but she resolutely persevered. Later my faith in technology received a blow when attempting to pay for petrol.

“Rejetez, refusez.”

I gathered from the gesticulating attendant that my credit card had not only failed me but also had paralysed his machine.

“Sometimes happens, it’ll probably work somewhere else.” Comforting words from my brother who footed the bill.

Eventually we found ourselves on the Autoroute heading for Saumur to see the historic chateau perched high above the town. After parking we made our way uphill on foot. It was very peaceful and quiet as we crossed the drawbridge with a notable lack of people.

“Closed, it’s Tuesday.” I was pleased with myself for translating the opening hours. We should have come yesterday (Lundi) unless of course we stayed over until tomorrow (demain).

The female elements of the party showed no desire to visit an alternative site, a tank museum, so we decided to head southwest, following the course of the stunning Loire river.

I was struck by the emptiness of the roads. Apparently this was the time for most people and shops to close down for a couple of hours and have a rest, a novelty which should be made compulsory back home in Britain. Of course the sheer size of France in comparison to the UK made quite a difference and I became aware of other differences too. Up to now I hadn’t seen a burnt-out car, a truck on fire, a police car or a multiple pile up,and neither had I seen much graffiti.

We eventually stopped for a picnic in the sweltering heat of the afternoon under some olive trees. The portable gas stove and kettle soon provided us with a welcome drink and I recorded that this was the first and last time we used it. Wine proved to be the staple beverage from then on.


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