Italian Adventure 2020 or Bagnoles de l’Orne in retrospect

It’s that time of year and we should be on our annual Motorhome adventure. Covid-19 put paid to that, and we started thinking about all the years we were fortunate to have an apartment in Bagnoles de l’Orne. We never kept a record of the memories so, in one post, we’ll attempt to capture some of those.

Living in France had always been an ambition for John and in 2006 we had the opportunity, to some extent, to realise that.

Despite a desire for a warmer climate, we set our sights on Bagnoles in Basse Normadie, we knew the town from previous trips to Le Mans and it felt good. Set overlooking a lake in the Andaine Forest, it is the only thermal spa town in North East France and has a history going back to medieval times. Bagnoles became prosperous as a result of its hot spring water, Thermes, and their associated magic powers which became fashionable during the late 19th early 20th century. It helped that the wealthy ‘curistes’ attracted a casino too.

In typical Brit style, initially, we were seduced by large properties with lots of land for a fraction of UK cost usually located in small remote villages. We decided we had enough of ‘rural’ at home and fell for an early 20th century first floor apartment. It was in the old Post Office building in Tesse la Madeleine, a small commune absorbed into Bagnoles de l’Orne in 2000 and walking distance to local shops and town centre.

It needed work but had lovely high ceilings, large light rooms with shuttered windows providing views over the town and distant hills beyond….and rooms far more useable than the cottage which was our home in Jacques Lane.

A new Post Office had been built in the 1970s and the old one had been converted into three apartments. We bought the apartment from the owner of the hotel we were staying in while house hunting and managed to find some old postcards showing the building in its former glory back in 1912. We even talked about reinstating the very grand balcony!

It was very French, we loved it, and set about the renovation with assistance from various friends and relatives. It’s a shame there are no photos of the pink flocked hallway and the waterlily wallpaper covering the bathroom ceiling.

Our neighbours seemed to watch for the shutters to open indicating occupation. There were many ‘conversations’ with elderly ladies in the Villa Desiree opposite, renowned for its wonky chimney, or Madame in the apartment below us. They mainly consisted of smiling, nodding and gesticulating with the odd french sentence thrown in. We were never sure what we’d talked about but everyone enjoyed the chats and we always felt very welcome!

Tesse was a small, thriving community built around a church square, with a selection of local shops and restaurants within a couple of minutes walk, the car wasn’t needed and life slowed down. It was a joy to head out each morning, to pick up fresh bread and pastries for the day. Even Matt could be persuaded, probably because he always came back with added sweets.

The Canasta bar and La Chandeleur creperie were amongst our favourite haunts, less than a minutes walk and owned by such friendly people. There numerous games of England versus France bar-football, Matthew became quite proficient but no one could beat Sandi, the landlady at Le Canasta. And David, at La Chandeleur, never tired of trying to improve our French.

As you would expect in France, there was a weekly market but the town really came to life during July and August with Bric a Brac Brocante market stalls lining the streets for miles. Weekends saw auctions and entertainment in the grounds of the Chateau – where most of the town would wander up to watch followed by a firework display set on the lake.

The town received significant income from both the Casino and Thermes, invested back into the community, and clearly visible in how the town was literally washed and hoovered early each morning and an abundance of manicured container planting in public spaces. Classical music was played through speakers discretely placed on lamposts which turned off at 10pm. For those of you that can remember ‘The Prisoner’, it gave the town a very similar feeling……

Matthew would often disappear for a couple of hours at a time. He’d head up to the Chateau and usually find someone to play football with. In later years he’d disappear for a run, exploring various forest trails and coming back with ideas for walks. One memorable afternoon he was invited to join a group of locals playing pétanque!

Dot and Stan had introduced us to Bagnoles when Matt was only two years old and made several trips out to stay, making the most of their ballroom dancing skills at Tea Dances held in the Casino and Thermes. There was a price to pay, they had to work and spent hours emptying the cellar of rubbish left by previous owners and cleaning windows and shutters.

Over the years, family and friends made use of the Apartment. Ken Moles made a trip out to ‘help’ with decorating, while Diane made a trip with Kim to tidy the garden. There are no photos, but they were there on Bastille Day and the afternoon was spent betting on horses at the local Hippodrome track, drinking beer, eating ice cream and staying up late to watch fireworks over the lake.

Ken and Jacky made quite a few trips, so many in fact that most of the locals thought it was their apartment rather than ours. They were even invited to barbecues at Le Grand Chalet although the owners eventually realised their error and we became good friends. Mike and Lynn the owners didn’t miss much about having left the UK apart from…….Warburtons bread! Each visit we would take them a fresh supply so they could demonstrate to their guests how to make a proper bacon sandwich.

Over the years we tried various ways and routes of travelling to Bagnoles and learned our best option was the overnight ferry from Portsmouth to Ouistreham (Caen) followed by an early breakfast and leisurely drive through picturesque French countryside and sleepy villages to Bagnoles in the morning.

At some point, John decided it would be a good idea to have a boys adventure and cycle from the ferry port to the apartment. According to the map it was only 100 km’s and about 5 hours. What could go wrong? They’d trained hard (two return cycle rides to Ampthill) and had a picnic (a cereal bar each). As the ferry docked at 06:00, in August 2009, they set off in early morning mist making good time alongside the Orne canal past the famous Pegasus Bridge and through the town of Caen at a pace that would see them in Bagnoles by 10:00.

We are not sure quite what went wrong. Mountain bikes were not probably not the best choice and navigation wasn’t as sharp as it should have been. John thought he knew the route but clearly didn’t as they zig-zagged across the French countryside. After 7 hours cycling, while in the middle of nowhere, they came across an English Pub (the Rugby Tavern in Le Bourg). Refreshed, but still some distance away, it was decision time. Should the team car be called to rescue them? Failure wasn’t an option so they pressed on and eventually as they found themselves on more familiar roads, the journey became easier. 10- hours after setting off they finally arrived in Bagnoles.

Finally a selection of family photos from Bagnoles-de-L’Orne, thank you Katie and Emma!

Writing this, we wonder why we ever sold, so have to mention several floods orginating from the apartment above – Pauline and Benjamin were both school teachers and lovely people but should never have been allowed access to water! After one flood they negotiated use of our bathroom in exchange for what turned out to be very nice case of wine. Two more floods finally wrecked our kitchen and dining room.

As their children grew older, and we stopped visiting in school holidays, when they were usually away in Paris, the noise from above became a challenge. Small children on wooden floorboards can be a bit much especially when playing football, piano and trumpet practice…..

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