Mayenne and Calvados

Monday 8th October 2007, Near Craon, Mayenne
Once again we are camping, almost alone. Tonight we are on a site beside a pretty lake where migrating birds are gathering for their onward flight for the winter. How do they know where to meet? We watched them flying in to land on the water. Their every move was synchronised. They all stopped flying at the same moment and glided in to land at a specific point on the water where their arrival was awaited by others of the same species. Is there a bird language that says "Okay, same place, time and date next year. See you there."?

Almost all the campsites are now closed for the season. This one was listed in our book as open all year but we have been told that demand is so limited they have decided to close at the end of the month. It certainly makes winter travelling difficult if it is impossible to find electricity, water and security.

This morning we left the Ile de Ré with regret. There is still so much to explore and so many routes we would still love to cycle. The maximum height on the island is eleven metres so it is perfect for lazy cyclists like us. We had hoped for a photo of the really impressive bridge but the morning was too hazy to see more than a dark line disappearing into the mist towards the mainland, completely hidden in the distance.

Just visible from the Ile de Ré, the bridge linking it to the mainland

Once on the mainland we headed towards Luçon, a route we had never travelled before. We hoped to follow some of the side roads as they twisted between the drainage ditches and canals that intersect the fields of this area. Unfortunately we missed the area we were seeking, where flat bottom boats force their way between the reed beds which are harvested for thatching. All we found today were endless flat fields of maize or bleached grass interspersed by canals, stretching to the horizon. There were herds of the white cattle, typical of the Charente and the Vendée, with their young calves. There has been so little rain in the area that the dead grass of the fields was almost the same pale colour as the cattle.

Luçon was deserted when we arrived. It was lunchtime and absolutely nothing happens in France between noon and 2pm. The town seemed pleasant but it was the cathedral that intrigued us. Outside it looked rather a jumble of different architectural styles. The heavy square tower was topped by a delicate white spire that was not at all in keeping with the rest of the mainly 16th century building. Inside though, it was far more harmonious, light and airy. We found a statue of Richelieu prominently displayed and quickly discovered that he had been bishop of Luçon from 1608 to 1623 when he was made a cardinal and later became chief minister to Louis XIII.

Cathedral, Luçon

Fete d'humor in a small town near Luçon

Things cultural and historical took second place to our hunger however. At the supermarket we discovered the menu of the day was a generous helping of sautéed venison with juniper berries in a rich wine sauce served with mixed vegetables, courgettes in cream and French fried potatoes. At 5.70 euros (£4) each it was amazing value even if the surroundings were not very exciting. Other diners were tucking into paella, lobster, mussels and asparagus in a cheese sauce, served with carafes of wine. We cannot imagine British supermarkets thinking so imaginatively, and certainly not at French prices!

Much of the rest of today has been spent driving north, stopping to explore anything of interest on the way. The landscape this evening is very different from further south. Gone are the olives, almonds and cactuses of the Midi, the vines, figs and quinces of the valley of the Lot, the endless vistas of mudflats and salt marshes of the Ile de Ré and the network of waterways in the countryside of the Charente. Instead the fields of the Mayenne are bright green and there are huge orchards of shining red apples. There is flowering gorse, brambles and bracken in the hedgerows, and the leaves are tumbling from the trees in a confetti of red and gold. The state of the roads too is infinitely better away from the south of France and while the towns may not be quite as picturesque, everywhere is far cleaner, more hygienic and the streets are generally in a better state of repair.

We have just phoned Geneviève to warn her of our return tomorrow. Is it really only five weeks since we were last with her? She sounded as warm and welcoming as always. We are so very lucky to have such amazing and tolerant friends around Europe. It is also a comfort to know we are never very far from help if we should really need it as we travel from country to country.

Monday 15th October 2007, On board the Mont St. Michel sailing from Ouistreham to Portsmouth
Over the past week there has been little opportunity to maintain this account as we have been living closely with our French friends from Caen and getting to bed around midnight most nights. The main difficulty though, has been our computer. For reasons of safety against theft we have it well hidden in Modestine. Unfortunately, due almost certainly to the disgusting state of the departmental roads in the south of France, it has suffered an internal injury that has destroyed the DVD drive, resulting in it being impossible to boot up. At the computer shop we learned several new technical terms and ascertained that we were in for a rather expensive repair job once we reached England. They have diagnosed the fault, removed the DVD drive and got it working again so we can at least access our files and continue this blog. We are also worried about Modestine's suspension which received a violent jolt and is now grumbling from time to time from just beneath where we had hidden the computer. Perhaps it is as well we are returning home so we can get everything checked over.

But worse things happen at sea. Perhaps that is not a good expression to use considering that's exactly where we are at the moment! Generally the past week has been very enjoyable indeed.

Last Tuesday we left our lakeside campsite and travelled north, stopping to investigate the towns of Laval and Mayenne. These lie in a peaceful, pretty area wedged between Brittany and Normandy where the influences of both regions are apparent. Buildings are in granite – from Brittany, and white stone – from Normandy. There is considerable use of wooden timbering, particularly in Laval. Tiles have given way to slates, typical of Brittany and the north of France. Laval in particular is a very pleasant town built either side of the river Mayenne with the narrow, steep streets of the old town slithering picturesquely down to the river. Mayenne also lies on the river of the same name and has a château and some very pleasant public gardens above the streets of the main town. Around here, and on into Normandy, the green fields are filled with healthy cattle and it is easy to realise why some of the best soft cheeses in France come from Normandy and the Mayenne, where there is plenty of rain and rich pastures. (The rich Alpine meadows of the Jura and the Haute Savoie also produce superb cheeses but these are generally hard ones.) As a sweeping generalisation, in other parts of the country where the landscape may be more dry and arid the cheeses tend to be produced from the milk of goats and sheep rather than cows.

Old town at Laval

Market, Laval

Castle walls, Laval

Roofscape of slates, Laval

Ambrose Paré, a 16th century man of medicine, Laval

River Mayenne, Laval

Castle, Mayenne

Impressive flying buttresses of the Eglise Notre Dame, Mayenne

As we reached Normandy and the landscape gradually became familiar, the sky darkened and soon we were driving through torrents of rain that continued unabated all night and much of the next day. Modestine is now nearly as clean as when we set out at the start of September. We reached Caen around 6pm and it really felt as if we were arriving home! We received our usual warm welcome from Geneviève and were soon exchanging news over supper as the rain beat against the windows.

Over the next couple of days Ian worked on Alain's manuscripts. On Thursday researchers of the 18th century book trade at the Institut d'Histoire Moderne et Contemporaine in Paris arrived for lunch and to spend the afternoon discussing how best to proceed with preparing the material for publication and how it could best be integrated into the series of regional biographical dictionaries being compiled by the pompously named Proposopographie des Gens du Livre en France. It turned out to be a very agreeable afternoon for everyone with quite as much interest expressed in Geneviève's poule au pot and mousse au chocolat as in Alain's detailed and precise work on the book trades of Basse-Normandie in the century leading up to the French Revolution! It was also a relief and a pleasure to Geneviève that Alain's research was finally being given recognition, years after his death.

During the rest of the past week we have seen several friends and family members, including Claire for tea one afternoon, Yves for supper on Tuesday and Germaine for an aperitif and Sunday lunch. We have also spent time with Nisha and her baby Ayden, now returned from an extended visit to see her parents Shirley and Nazir in Trinidad. As her husband, Lucas, was working all week in India, Nisha decided to come down to Caen from Paris for a few days so Yves could play with his grandson, Ayden.

On Saturday we drove Nisha and Ayden back to Paris in Geneviève's car. It was a long and tiring day but enabled us to see a rather jet-lagged Lucas and to visit their new home, a flat high above the banks of the river Seine, bordered on either side by house boats where people live permanently, surrounded by cats, potted plants and washing. It is a very colourful area with every race under the sun squashed close together in apartments on the Ile St. Denis, just to the north of Paris. It is also within walking distance of the imposing rugby stadium where the semi-finals of the World Cup were due to be played that evening. The Stade de France was ringed by police and fans were beginning to gather outside. Traffic was at a chaotic halt due to a minor accident and we spent a frustrating time waiting for it to clear as Ayden began to feel more and more fractious and hungry, squashed together with us, his pram and equipment in the back of the car. It was not the most relaxed way of spending a day and frustrating that almost all we saw of Paris were distant views of the Eiffel tower and the Sacré Coeur as we alternately sat in queues or sped through countless long noisy underpasses. (Easy to see how a slight swerve in these tunnels could result in a serious collision with the columns at the side as happened to Princess Diana!)

Rugby flower sculpture near the stadium, Paris

Once we arrived Nisha disappeared to cook quiche for everyone while Ian balanced precariously on the terrifying, tiny balcony above the river, taking photographs of the Paris skyline. Anxious to get back to Caen before dark we left shortly after lunch and reached home in time for supper before settling with mugs of tea in front of the TV to watch the rugby match between England and France. The commentary was, not surprisingly, very much in favour of the French who were playing on their own ground in Paris. In the end England won and no doubt we will now watch the final. It looks a horrifyingly dangerous game! Watching together with French friends did cause amusement and mock rivalry so it was quite a good fun thing to do even if we are not normally sports fans.

Seine from the apartment window, Paris

Lucas, Nisha and Ayden in their flat

Yesterday was Sunday and the day started cold with a thick fog that made us apprehensive for our early start to catch the ferry this morning. (Fortunately today was clear.) We walked down to the huge market held along the banks of the Orne where we browsed the second-hand books at the bouquinists and strolled along the countless stalls of fruit and vegetables, intrigued by such unusual produce as black tomatoes and purple cauliflowers and potatoes. In the oriental and Moroccan corner we bought couscous to carry home for lunch. This is prepared on the market in large vats. A typical portion includes carrots, turnips, onions and swede cooked in a spicy orange sauce served with a portion each of mutton, chicken and spicy merguez sausage. The couscous that accompanies it is made from crushed bulgar wheat and frequently has raisins mixed in along with aromatic spices such as cinnamon. A small pot of very powerful spices is provided to be mixed into the vegetable sauce at the last minute. This can be an acquired taste. If used, water is a better drink than wine which is a complete waste as it is rendered tasteless.

By lunch-time the fog lifted and the temperature soared. Time for coffee on a terrace as we watched the families of Caen doing their market shopping. Back home we set lunch in the garden as the couscous reheated. It seemed a last taste of summer. Germaine, Geneviève's mother, joined us later to show us her collection of French cheese labels. As Jill is also an enthusiastic collector we've promised to bring ours next time so we can exchange possible duplicates. Jill's collection covers forty years whereas Germaine's covers less than thirty, but whereas Jill has collected from all over France, Germaine has specialised in Normandy. She has some lovely old-fashioned examples from the days before the pleasure was taken out of it all by bar-codes printed across the images.

In the afternoon we took bunches of flowers round to the cemetery for Alain and walked up to the Colline des Oiseaux. Because of the sunshine the gardens were crowded with families. Even in October the flower beds were full of bright colours and pumpkins and gourds added to the delights of the vegetable gardens. The maze of rose bushes still had many pretty blooms and the children's zoo on the summit of the huge mound contained tiny goats, ponies, geese and chickens. It's amazing how beautiful it is possible to make a city's former refuse tip! There is even a Devon Garden complete with cob walls, a thatched roof and a kissing-gate, looking for all the world like the gardens at Killerton!

This morning we were up and on our way to Ouistreham for the ferry before daylight. Although we have only been away six weeks it has blended with our visit earlier this year and seems much longer. We were, after all, only back in England for less than four weeks between them!

Now though, we intend being home for longer. Neil and Jeev will become parents in early November and we are not eager to rush away too soon. It will be a new departure for us learning to be grandparents and an experience to which we are greatly looking forward. Thank you everyone for travelling with us and if there is anyone out there who has stuck with us throughout, you deserve a medal! We hope it has been worth the time.