Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Fechez le vache

It seems a lifetime ago now, but after scary-cool Droo on Saturday we jumped into the car with my parents and drove down to Portsmouth, in such good time we had to wait an hour to be allowed on the ferry.

There were lots of some flavour of classic car about, with smartish people driving. By the time we got aboard and up into the bar, these smart types had morphed into fat, smoking people in England tops. Such is the reliance these days on CGI.

D84 and his friend LeelaArrived at something ungodly in Caen next morning, woken to classical music which got ever more insistent. With time just to wolf a coffee, we found the car again and rode out on the D84 (also, I explained to my delighted fellow passengers, the name of a nifty robot in Old School Dr Who).

Took all day driving, with lots of chatter in the car, some expert navigating and spying along the roadside the yellow broom flowers that gave the Kings Plantagenet their name. Via the ring-roads of Nantes, Rennes, Noites and Bordeaux we made our way to the small town of Allemans-du-Dropt, where my great-auntie lives.

I’ve not been back since my early teens, so it was odd how much the town was in two-thirds scale of my memory. It was at once familiar and entirely foreign. Took the Dr into the church to see the frescoes, which include devils eating what look like children because they’d got funny ideas about perspective. After lashings of red wine we were dead asleep by ten.

Our first port of call early next morning was to a local winery where the Dr was brave before a wolf-like dog, and I got teased for having shivers whenever local cocks crew. Think I have an excuse what with being attacked by the ghastly things at the age of three.

Made up for this horror with a sampling of the booze – red going down a little heavy in that heat and so early. Offered to help carry the booze-cruise purchases back to the car, which really just gave me the excuse to see the cellars, the bottles of lovely stuff disappearing off into the dark, and to stroke fondly at the great oak barrels of the next batch.

Having dropped off this first instalment, we pootled up to the pretty 12th century church at Monteton, built incorporating the few bits of stone they found around the place that suggest much earlier Christians. The place seems mostly run (and kept going) by the local English community.

Then it was into Eymet for lunch, and a look round the rather lovely bastide (a fortified town in the middle ages, which served the French well during the 100 Years War). I suddenly had a flash of memory, being made to have icecream there in the street, so a picture could be taken. There were picturesque turrets and a cloistered market with places to eat in the shade. The Dr had nettle pasta.

Our next stop was the chateau at Duras (fab pictures at the site) which I remembered so fondly. It’s been much done up since my last visit, but the smoke-stack tower was just as commanding as ever. I don’t remember the staircase up to the 360° view being so steep, so narrow, or going on so long. But I remember scraping my knees to sit up on the ledge in the guard room, half of the way up. Which made me realise what a different size I must be these days.

We took photos of the long-pegged-together timber roof to impress a friend into that sort of thing, and marvelled at the sign which told of a 14th century owner who’d married the Marchioness of Goth. We spoke filth to each other in the whispering gallery, amid hordes of screaming schoolkids who’d rather missed the point.

The Dr was again appalled at the state of original objects on display, suffering in the sunlight, warped under the drawing pins that held them up. We moved swiftly on, and in the bar across the square had beer and gossip and Japan 1-nil up.

We were back in time for dinner with some of the great-aunt’s friends, and retired late. Pottered round to one of the friends next morning to use their pool while they did the gardening. Normally, we’d have gone swimming in the Castelgaillard lake near Duras, but run-off from the local farms has stopped the swimming on pain on nasty skin problems. Am rather bothered about that: having happy memories of failing to windsurf, and of meeting a bloke I’d later see in the background of Silver Nemesis, and of being told off for not looking after the baby brother.

Then to the Chateau at Biron, which was on an even grander, madder scale than Duras, and we struggled to imagine its grand, terraced garden which would have been raised at least 100 feet from the ground and stretched for miles, had the revolution not got in the way. The family’s coat of arms and the faces on the tombs had been chiselled off, suggesting what the locals thought. The gory torture chamber is not original, but leftover from the filming of Les Visiteurs. Or possibly, since I thought I would have remembered such grisly fun from last time, the more recent English-language remake.

The Dr liked the cheery skulls on one tomb in the chapel, which also boasted a very fine carving of Lazarus being raised from the dead. She also found a black and white cat to play with – although it promptly had a poo at us, and was then careering about the roof chasing lizards.

Then to Montpazier for ice creams, and to explore another bastide with shops under the market’s cloisters. I bought a hat which the Dr said was very hippy. Think this is a good thing.

Arrived back at Allemans to change, and to take the auntie out for authentic French nosh in Miramont. There was a lot of it; I couldn’t finish the fourth course. Learnt to eat soup the French way: grating a clump of garlic into roasted bread – which has a surface like sandpaper if cooked the right way. Then, drop the bread into the soup and cover in grated cheese. And eat.

Also had brie, and then a pruney coq au vin – to serve the scrawny, vicious buggers right. Had to go for a walk later to see off some of the corpulence.

This morning we bought more wine – and watched the local postman helping himself to a good glass in exchange for a letter. The first white we tried at the Domaine de Laulan was sharp and uninspiring – not a patch on the previous year’s vintage which my parents have been drinking since their last trip. The bloke selling it explained the bottle had come straight from the fridge and was too cold. And sure enough, a minute’s breathing later it tasted like nectar. Again I played mule and helped load up the car.

And that was it. A bit of lunch and long, hot journey into Bordeaux for our flight back (the Dr and my seats in the car will be taken up by the booze). A couple of tips for Bordeaux airport: there’s only one shop on the far side of the handbag scanners, and the coffee bar doesn’t sell wine.

Quick flight, quick train journey and home to the cat, and post, and work, and all the new stuff about Benny.

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