Final thoughts from France

We arrived home late last night after an 8 hour crossing, spent mainly in our cabin. Since last week, Brittany Ferries has re-introduced mask wearing in public spaces. So much for COVID being done and dusted.

We hadn’t noticed much difference in times to get through customs, as a result of Brexit, until this trip. Getting in and out of France via Portsmouth and St Malo was very slow. It’s good to see more thorough checks being made of vehicles but….. bloody Brexit. It also can’t be much fun for Border Control to be spending a significant part of their day stamping passports in and out.

Talking of Brexit which, a bit like COVID, is allegedly done and dusted. If we’d have known being in France would trigger Boris resigning (sort of), we’d have been there sooner. We also have our fingers crossed against this being a ‘be careful what you wish for’ moment.

That’s enough of politics, now onto our best bits. Kim’s best moment? Sitting on a bench, overlooking a roundabout in an unprepossing French town eating a duck and goats cheese quiche. It was her best meal of the holiday. Kim’s best photo? Well, it had to involve a motorhome. This one is believed to be the only surviving example of travelling dentists van. The dentist, and his family, would move from town to town, living in the van. Probably the first example of a campervan!

Mobile Dentist van from 1910.

John’s best bits were more technical than food related. First was a very simple device fitted to windows and french doors in the apartment.

Simple but clever ventilation adjustment for windows and french doors

Next on the list is a boat discretely moored at one of the many Chateaus. It’s been adapted to cut river and pond weed, and we definitely need one.

Boat fitted with powered cutter for removing underwater weed

I need to stop soon, but did rather like this bike repair station on one of the cycle routes. It has a stand to suspend the bike on, together with a selection of tools and an airline, all free to use.

Cycle maintenance station

Finally, we lost our oldest and one of our longest serving readers a couple of weeks ago. Stan, John’s dad, passed away peacefully at the age of 97. Thursday was a bittersweet visit to Maurice Dufresne’s museum. Stan would have absolutely loved it, possibly known something about everything there and enjoyed discussing technical details and the finer points of the more innovative machines.

From rallying to renaissance….

….or, as John says, yet another bloody castle.

Having decided against Diane’s recommendations to visit Tours and Blois, and Gillian’s for Chenonceaux, as ‘too far’ we drove 1.5 hours to the Matra Museum at Romorantin-Lanthenay. Interestingly, Google said it would take 7.5 hours to cycle 125km. Clearly Google still doesn’t understand how slowly Kim cycles.

For those of you who know nothing about Matra, feel free to skip ahead and miss a whole paragraph about one of France’s most innovative car manufacturers. But before you do, the museum also hosts a small display of Beaulieu cine cameras. These cameras had a reputation for making very high quality cine films and were favoured by the rich and famous, including Grace Kelly. Like so many other manufacturers Beaulieu couldn’t compete with the digital revolution and ceased trading in 2002. However, should you be lucky enough to own one, you can still get it repaired and serviced at Beaulieu’s remaining site in Romorantin.

Kim was interested enough to choose her car of the day, one of five Matra 530s customised and sold at auction, in 1967, to raise funds for French medical research. This one was designed by Ukrainian-born French artist, Sonia Delaunay and Kim is thinking the Beetle would look good like this.

Matra is one of many French names known for its completion cars, as well as aerospace and missile defence and now forms part of the MBDA group based in Stevenage and Henlow. At one time Matra did produce road cars in association with other manufacturers such as Talbot and Simca including a range of quite pretty three seater sports cars. They also created the concept of the Sports Utility Vehicle (SUV) with the Rancho, its off-road look designed to build on a new trend created by the Range Rover and was eventually developed to become the Renault Espace.

We stopped briefly in a traditional French bar, the owner looked horrified when we asked for a menu! Our choices were very simple, coffee, cigarettes, wine or a Loto ticket. Lunch was therefore picked up in a nearby Patisserie, duck and goats cheese tart for Kim, not a combination you would expect, but it’s officially her favourite meal of the trip. We can’t the say the same for the snail petite bouchée which made it straight to the bin. We knew we were in trouble when the baker said it needed to be cooked and eaten hot. We didn’t think it would survive an afternoon left in a warm car.

Next stop, Villandry, an hours drive back towards Chinon. Temperatures had risen to over 30 degrees as we walked 500m from the wrong car park, and before starting our tour of chateau and gardens refreshed ourselves with ice creams. John chose lime and tarragon sorbet while Kim settled for verbena, mint and nettle ice cream. Quite frankly, it’s worth the trip just for the ice cream.

Well, the chateau and gardens are certainly impressive. The chateau is still owned by the Carvallo family, the current owner’s grandfather bought it in 1906 and set about renovating it using his wealthy wife’s money. It was clearly a labour of love and, despite its grand proportions and historic furnishing, you can also see how it could be a home.

Views over the gardens are truly stunning with everything tamed and manicured to within an inch of its life. Views across the knot gardens were at their best from the upper rooms of the chateau. Even John admitted the gardens were impressive.

We popped into the Office de Tourisme on our way back to the car and discovered Maurice Dufresne Museum of Technological History is at Azay le Rideau, far nearer than the Matra museum and would have entertained John just as well.

Culture versus Wine

A difficult one. We are more likely to be interested in wine than improving our local knowledge but 10am does seem a little early to start drinking.

Our day began with the Forteresse Royale Du Chinon or, as John described it, another bloody castle. Anyway, it’s perched on the hill and towers over Chinon and Kim was really only interested in views across the Vienne River.

The Chateau dates back to the 10th Century and has an important place in the history of England and France. Henry II of England took ownership of the castle in 1156 and stayed there until he died. King Phillip of France won it back in 1205 and it has remained in French hands ever since. In 1429, 17 year old Joan of Arc met the future King Charles VII there and was instrumental in ending England’s ownership of France. A brief reminder that teenagers are an awesome force of nature, to be treated with caution.

By mid 19th Century the fort had fallen into decay and was later recognised as a historic monument. A programme of repair was started and it became, once again, an imposing structure.

This afternoon was wine tasting, woohoo! A couple of Caves were recommended by a cafe owner, so we took a walk out to Cave Monplaisir. Consisting of many caverns carved out of the stone hillside, it sells wines produced by 3 local domaines, is full of barrels of drinkable wine with the oldest dating back 40 years. We were, however, concerned about the state of the empty bottles.

We followed this with a further tasting at La Dilettante Chinon before heading back to the apartment with a few of the best. We had limited the tasting and only have three bottles, the challenge is to decide which one we need to fill the car with.

One advantage of wine tasting by bike, or on foot, is of course you don’t need to worry about driving. Another is that you have no easy means of transporting any wine home and can therefore keep drinking all day without paying for a single drop.

At some point during our wanderings, John picked up a leaflet for a town walk and after dinner we followed a route around many roads we’ve already visited. It’s amazing how much of the medieval history has survived and the buildings are beautiful. But…if we read another tribute to Joan of Arc meeting Charles II in 1429 much of the town may not last much longer.

Tomorrow, we cycle the voie verte to Richelieu. 20km along a relatively flat disused railway line. If we’re lucky it’s going to be easy cycling.

The Tour de France started yesterday and…

… we are in France with our bikes. We leave you to draw your own conclusions.

Yesterday, our trip started with an exciting drive to Portsmouth for the overnight crossing to St Malo. We hadn’t even reached the M25 when our bikes suddenly disappeared from the rear view mirror. Luckily, the bike rack had simply folded away from the car and the only damage seems to be to one of Kim’s handlebar grips, most of which has been deposited on the surface of the outside lane of the M1. There was a minor altercation with a coach driver in Watford, regarding what constitutes a highway, when we pulled off the road to double check the bike rack. No blows were exchanged but there was a lot of gesticulating on both sides. Kim is considering whether or not one damaged handlebar grip makes her bike unusable.

Enough whining! We arrived safely in Portsmouth and, now, we’re in France. As always, John is completely enamoured with French roads and the 3.5 hour journey to Chinon passed effortlessly. Sadly we have to admit that we broke our journey at McDonalds. Our defence? They do make a reasonable tea and coffee. To compensate we enjoyed a typical french lunch in Chinon, recommended by a couple we met outside a cafe.

We are renting a small apartment in the 15th Century Quarter of Chinon, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s very old and quaint with a layout only the French could dream up and complete with a toilet in a cupboard. Saying that, we both love it and could live here. When have you not heard us say that?

The location is excellent, above a Creperie in a very narrow street with a bar at the junction. We are based in the rue du Carroi which was the original major crossroad in the town. Parking, as with any historic Town, is an issue. We think the bikes are in a cellar somewhere around the corner but not really sure, and the car is partly parked in a hotel garage at the other end of town. There is an old tyre holding the garage door closed as it’s only just big enough to hold a BMC Mini. We have assessed the risk and think the Mercedes will still be there when we need it.

Our plans include visiting Villandry, Saumur and the chateau at Azay-Le-Rideau, probably by bike which seemed a good idea a few weeks ago!

John is keen to cycle from St Malo to Nice and has brought his book in the hope we might be able to say we have made a start and completed one stage. Kim has looked at it very, very carefully and, at a push, might be persuaded to attempt half a stage and consider a round trip from Fontveraud to Saumur – watch this space. Kim has also considered losing this book in the recycling!