A little while ago I enjoyed working for a couple of weeks as a volunteer on a project in Brossac, near Bordeaux in SW France. Visit http://www.visitbrossac.com for more information on this lovely quiet corner of France.
The project is to restore a seventeenth century farm house and to convert it into a training centre for young entrepreneurs from all over the world, and to encourage young French people, in particular, to return to and to support rural France. See www.lagiraudiere.com for details. Paul, the owner of the property and director of the program, is a delightful, slightly eccentric Englishman, and one who is full of passion for the project and who is a most convivial host.
For non-francophones working on the project (trimming hedges, painting and plastering, gardening, web management etc) there is a weekly formal French lesson of two hours, but also many opportunities for the volunteers to join Paul in excursions to nearby villages and towns to speak with “the locals”, to help erect giant marquees for a sports day, to join him in games of pétanque against the local farmers, to go to local pubs and restaurants so everyone can gain as much exposure as possible to native French speakers and to try out basic – or even advanced – communication skills.
On two weekends, Paul and I and two or three of the other volunteers joined guided rambles or walks – Randonnées – through the nearby countryside – and more on them in a moment.
An International Incident Avoided
One of the more interesting evenings where we were able to meet and chat with locals was the evening the local gendarmerie came for dinner.
I had noticed a stunningly beautiful woman police officer – with a very rugged looking male companion – talking to Paul one day, and as one of the other volunteers commented
- She could put the handcuffs on me and lead me away any time at all!
The man was strongly built, had one of his front teeth knocked out, had his pistol and handcuffs and all the other stuff police officers all over the world seem to have strapped to this waist, and I felt that while a chat to the blond might have been fun, there did not seem to be much fun to be had with the bloke.
However, a few days later the La Giraudière group was just starting dinner in the farmhouse courtyard, when a woman – quite an eccentric as it turned out – arrived for dinner and her “guest” turned out to be the attractive blonde gendarme. Shortly after their arrival the male officer (and his very pregnant wife) arrived to share the meal with us.
As Paul later explained – the police in the small village of Brossac could not easily socialise or drink with the other French locals as there could have been a conflict of interests, but they felt they could relax and have a glass of wine or two with Paul and his oddly assorted bunch of foreigners.
In a mixture of bad French and even worse English, we had a great night, found out that Will (the burly cop) had no love for Australia having been strip-searched at Sydney Airport by a female customs officer, suspecting that he was carrying a weapon, drank far too much local wine … and I had to jump in at one stage to drag the volunteer who had earlier offered to be arrested by the blonde away from the table as, in his cups, it seemed all too likely that he was about to make an ill-advised pass at the blonde …
No such hijinks on the two walks, though.
Tournesols, Windmills and Rosé
Each ramble was about ten to twelve kilometres long, and started from one of the villages close to Brossac. The Condeon walk left from the village square and there were perhaps two hundred ramblers, twenty or thirty bicyclists (who followed a slightly modified route) and a dozen or so mounted on horses or in horse and carts, all of whom traipsed down the road, turning left or right at colour-coded arrows and into huge fields of wheat, grapes and sunflowers. Unfortunately we were too early to enjoy the magnificent “tournesols” or “sun turners” – so much more poetic a name than the pedestrian “sunflower” – as they were just starting to bloom two weeks later.
Although my travels were later to take me to the Netherlands, where I ended up suffering from a surfeit of windmills, I did not expect to find one in this part of France – but there it was, proudly sitting on the top of a hill overlooking acres of vineyards. Again – the season was early and the grapes were just wannabes at that stage, although by now they are probably pretty luscious. In French these fabled Quixotic erections are moulins à vent or in Dutch windmoelen – unfortunately neither is as nice as tourne vents if I can, as did Shakespeare, invent a new word.
I was walking with Jordan – another of the La Giraudière volunteers, a delightful young American woman and a very keen photographer. Kittens? Snap snap snap! Interesting purple flower or scarlet poppy? Snap snap snap! A butterfly hovering over an ear of wheat? Yes – snap. We were probably about forty minutes behind the rest of the gang but it was for the most part an easy walk on small country roads, or on rough freshly mown tractor trails carved between paddocks, gentle streams and silver birch forests.
Halfway along the route there was a water stop – we were carrying our own supplies as we had registered too late to be included in the catering – but as we were the last to arrive (the others from La Giraudière had been waiting … waiting … for us) we were offered fruit and drinks and sandwiches by the warm and welcoming French farmers and others who had organised the stroll.
Five or six kilometres we arrived back at the village – fought our way past chubby panting ponies and red-faced panting walkers – for cold drinks including something that looked like cloudy ginger beer but was very citrus flavoured and about 50:50 fruit juice and cognac: just the thing to revived tired legs – and to knock you out for good – but we drank it in a valiant effort to support the local viticulture industry which supplies many of the grapes for the nearby production of cognac.
The following weekend we were better prepared and registered in time to be part of a rather enticingly named Randonnée Gourmande. The idea was the same as the previous excursion – start in one village, walk through fields and across streams, and end up a dozen or so kilometres and several hours later back in the same village. The maps we were issued with showed the Départ and the Arrivée but scattered along the route were stops for un apératif, for the entrée, then the grillades, the fromages … and finally back in the village school hall, les desserts.
I don’t think it was particularly gourmande in either sense of the word – some French translations render it as “gourmet” and in English it also can mean “glutton”, but it was great fun again, with a starter of crisps and nibbles and a shot or two of local rosé wine, an entrée of couscous and something else and a shot or two of local rosé wine, then a long hike for the grillades et les fromages – slightly spicy sausages and beans and crusty bread and huge slabs of brie and camembert and a shot or two of local rosé wine … and a stagger up hill, past bemused cows long past their milking time and bed time for lovely sticky tarte tatin … and so to bed, blisters bleeding , livers fermenting, and calf muscles discovered for the first time since I was in the army.
Une Ballade à Pied
These randonnées (about 10.00 or 12.00 Euros each) are a common part of summer in Charente Département– and details of all those on offer can be found at
www.en-charente-maritime.com/tourisme/activites/balades-randonnees which gives more information on “walks” you can do on foot, on horseback, by bicycle or skateboard.
The La Giraudière gang frequently joins in for the fun of it, and also to gain experience of rural French life: there were no other foreigners on either walk – and while some people spoke English to us, for the most part it was a chance for us to practise our French on them, although I did overhear one mature French woman (OK – old biddy) say of one of our party
- Il parle français comme une vache espagnole
- He speaks French like a Spanish cow
I did not meet too many bilingual cows when I was in Spain … but I suspect that the woman was being, at worst, politely mocking, as I found – again – that wherever I went in my time in France, people were extraordinarily willing to listen to my appalling French, to pay me extravagant compliments –
- Oh Monsieur – vous parlez très bien français
far more so than most English-speaking country would welcome non-English speaking people. Can you imagine going to Donald Trump’s USA, and trying to order a Pernod in French in a Wisconsin bar?
But to be fair, there was the hotelier in Angouleme, a very pretty small town near Brossac that I visited for a weekend. Monsieur was un mec who would have made Basil Fawlty look good, calm, welcoming and diplomatic.
He (French hotelier) was without a doubt the rudest person in a service industry I have ever met any where in the world – but that is another story and a long walk away. I am looking forward to returning to La Giraudière in a year or two to see how the project has developed, and will certainly join another randnonnée … but will avoid Hotel Terminus (Two stars – if feeling generous) like a French-speaking Spanish cow.
Journey: June 2017
Text and photographs © Christopher Hall 2017
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If a man ascended into heaven and gazed upon the whole workings of the universe and the beauty of the stars, the marvellous sight would give him no joy if he had to keep it to himself. And yet, if only there had been someone to describe the spectacle to, it would have filled him with delight.
Attributed to Marcus Tullius Cicero – On Friendship