Technicolour Dreams: a day at the France Show 2019

“I wonder if punters don’t just want to read about the romantic Peter Mayle/Place in the Sun fantasy?” remarked a literary agent to me when I was writing A House at the End of the Track. I’m happy to say I’m proving him wrong. Apparently the book is sparking people’s dreams to move to France as well as giving a new perspective on the dream’s reality.

That word ‘dream’ crops up all the time, not least in the property websites and the big shows that sell France. I’d talked to people in the Ariège who’d ‘discovered’ the region whilst talking to an estate agent at one of the France Shows at Olympia. With a free day in London that coincided with the France Show 2019, I went along to see how ‘the dream’ is presented vis à vis practical considerations.

From the magazine racks stacked with French Property News that proclaim Technicolour DREAMS, to the giant images of lavender among the stalls of French properties, food and wine, you step straight into an environment of the dream as pull factor for both holidaymakers and prospective migrants.

At least the FNP magazine balances the dream with reality, as this month’s practical articles deal with issues such as destructive termites and English cowboy builders. And plenty of assistance was on offer at the show, from English-speaking bank accounts in France to insurance and language learning, including an enjoyable session from Arnaud’s Language Kitchen.

So perhaps we should think less in terms of a dream, with its connotations of fantasy, and more about, well, an aspiration or ambition, perhaps. And what’s wrong with calling it a plan? When researching A House at the End of the Track I’d been surprised by those who’d bought a house in the Ariège on a whim. Sometimes they’d gone into an estate agents’ on holiday and come out with a house. Others simply wanted more space than they could afford in the UK and had looked to France, despite having never visited the country.

The whole idea of “moving to France for a better life” was a generic phenomenon that sometimes blurred the distinctiveness of place. To some incomers, Ariège could have been anywhere in France, as long as it had the right house. The country itself was sometimes an amorphous backdrop, affordable “France”, a commodity that people didn’t always examine beyond its ability to offer the right house at the right price. It seemed too easy to come to the Ariège inhabiting an idea rather than a place, and when the idea became the place, it was not always what people had imagined or intended.


A House at the End of the Track.

So it was good to see plenty of services to help people make a more informed decision, like the ‘hands-on orientation of life’ offered by re-nesting experts Renestance – you get yourself to somewhere like Montpellier or Beziers and they’ll show you the ropes as well as the properties. That word ‘dream’ is right there in their branding of a French Lifestyle Dream, but at least they’re looking beyond the house to the life that comes with it.

The demographic wandering around the France Show was surprisingly varied, and not a majority white, middle class, thinking-about-retirement slice of middle England that some have declared it to be. Plenty of people were approaching retirement though, perhaps looking for a challenge or wanting to avoid that ‘digging in to die’ feeling that one of my interviewees described to me.

I steered clear of the food and drink stalls, shocking one stallholder when I told her I’m not a foodie. “Why not?” she shrieked. I avoided the can-can dancers too, and instead listened to writer Anthony Peregrine contrasting Lancashire with the Languedoc. I don’t suppose anyone was surprised to hear about Montpellier’s lack of drunks on a Saturday night compared with Morecambe. The audience of dreamers would undoubtedly have found his humorous and affectionate view of life in France quite encouraging, although Peregrine has also written ambivalently about The English re-colonisation of south-west France for the Daily Telegraph .

A Saturday night in Montpellier…

Back into Dream territory and the audience sat up alert for Janine Marsh’s description of her life as an expat in rural northern France. Forget the lack of weekend drunks in Montpellier compared with Morecambe – we know that! – people want to hear about how easily they can make the dream come true. According to Janine, as long as you’re prepared to work hard and watch a lot of YouTube tutorials, you can transform a French wreck into a house. I guess that was what some people had come to hear, but I hope they realise that French Building Regulations are not the same as ours.

Like any dream, it’s vulnerable: to the economy, to exchange rates, to illness, to unexpected termite infestations, to lower-than-expected bookings for your gîte and to the uncertainty of political developments such as Brexit. But despite these factors, in that grim cavern of Olympia, in a city that’s trying to keep its doors open while all around they’re slamming shut, the dream to escape to sunflowers and lavender is very much alive. If the idea of rosé on the patio is your dream, then good luck, and I don’t blame you one bit.


48 hours in: Lviv

A guest post I wrote for travel blogger Yellobrickroad

yellobrickroad

With central European hotspots such as Krakow and Prague becoming overloaded with tourists, I recently visited Lviv, in Western Ukraine, for a short city break in December.

Formerly known as Lemberg, the city of Lviv was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the end of the First World War, when it became Polish Lwów during the interwar period.

The city endured a tug-of-war status between Germans and Soviets in WW2, before the Soviets took control and it became part of the USSR. This all ended in 1991 when Ukraine became independent, and since then Lviv has become accessible and welcoming to visitors – with more speaking English than ever before. This is only going to increase, now that Ryanair fly direct from London.

Where to stay

I stayed in the Aparthotel Horowitz,whichisveryclosetothemainsquare. This location was great as it’s within walking distance to most sites and tons of dining options.

View original post 614 more words

My favourite summit: Pic Rouge de Bassiès 2676m

I don’t know why the golden half-dome of this summit has taunted me ever since I spotted it on the horizon of Pyrenean peaks in the Ariège. Its distinctive profile seemed to pop up everywhere I went.  Rising up smoothly on one side, the dome breaks off abruptly where its eastern side has been chiselled away, no doubt by long-ago ice action.

DSCF3141

Walking through the woods in winter, I’d spotted it rearing up in white like a petrified breaking wave, the only hint that there was a mountain chain there at all.  At 2676m it was higher than anything else I’d reached apart from Mont Valier, but it isn’t a technical climb, just a rollercoaster of a long, long ridge that rises and falls as it switches through changing terrain.

 

 

I’ve wanted to stand on that summit for years, although I’d turned back twice; once because the jagged teeth of the approach ridge looked too scary, and the second time when a large bank of cloud suddenly engulfed the summit dome, just as I was at its foot.

This October, seeing a window of clear, cool days, I was going to do it.

Parking at Coumebière (1400m), the round walk is about 15-16 miles with a height gain of 1276m, so it’s a very long day, with some tiring scrambling across a boulder field of pink-tinged rocks that give the peak its name.

 

 

From Coumebière follow signs to the étang de Labant, then climb up through the beech woods behind it to gain a small col on the ridge. Take a moment to enjoy the stupendous view over the Garbet Valley and the glacial cirques to the south, before turning left onto the uppermost path. Follow this path above the Garbet and eventually it turns left to rise steeply up to the main ridge that overlooks the Bassiès lakes. The destination summit is now visible in the far distance.

Follow the ridge path as it takes you over Pic des Planes and Cot de Morech, and then as the ridge becomes spiky with towering rocks, the path turns to the left of that crest, keeping below it. After an hour of scrambling over boulders – keep an eye open for the cairns and yellow markers – you’re at the foot of the summit dome. The path zig zags up steeply until suddenly, there’s the tall summit cairn ahead, and you’re looking across the other side to the Montcalm massif. If you’ve ever walked to the etang du Garbet, you’ll recognise the craggy ridge of the surrounding cirque (with the distinctive notch of the couillade de Puntussan) down to the west, along with Puntussan itself and a glimpse of  étang Bleu.

IMG_3040
Looking down at the ridge behind etang du Garbet and Puntussan

It was 5 hours up and 4 down for me, but I’m slow. If you have the energy, some make it a round walk by diverting south beneath the ridge of Cabanatous with a stop at étang d’Alate.

For more details of the route and a map, try the Lone Peak Bagger‘s site.

And for further inspiration, I highly recommend this Youtube video of the route, set to Xavier Rudd’s fabulous Spirit Bird. It certainly inspired me to persevere (although I passed on doing a summit handstand…)

IMG_3001

Ivano-Frankivsk from the town hall viewing platform

Track changes, eastward bound: London to Western Ukraine by train

When I booked the eight trains spanning four days of travel from London to the formerly Polish ancestral village of my father (now lying within western Ukraine), I hadn’t realised that I’d be following the same route, more or less, that my father had driven us as a family in the late 1960s.

A wartime Polish exile, unable to visit his real homeland when it became part of the USSR, he would drive us to Poland as a second-best option. Back then it involved what my nervous mother referred to as ‘going behind the Iron Curtain’ that divided the West from the communist East. I remember hours standing next to the car at checkpoints as unsmiling DDR border guards pulled out the back seat and slid mirrors beneath the chassis. Long days were spent driving along the transit corridor through the forests of East Germany and Poland, where small crowds would gather whenever we stopped, and I had the job of handing out sweets and oranges to the wide-eyed children.

Some fifty years later I decided to travel east again, although this time it was possible to keep going into Ukraine, to the town closest to my dad’s village – the town of Ivano-Frankivsk, closed off by the Soviets until the early 1990s.

The lack of direct flights to western Ukraine gave a good excuse to do it by train.  Ryanair’s forthcoming route to Lviv will win for speed and price, but a couple of hours strapped into a budget aircraft will hardly convey the same sense of travelling through central Europe to the east.  And a train trip encourages some wonderfully atmospheric stopovers. Just don’t expect it to be restful.

Continue reading “Track changes, eastward bound: London to Western Ukraine by train”

Étang de Guzet (and Cascade d’Ars)

Escape the crowds and discover a secluded mountain lake

The triple waterfalls of Cascade d’Ars are deservedly well known, but it’s possible to make a longer round walk that takes in the étang de Guzet. Or, if you’ve already walked to the falls, a hike up to this beautiful hidden lake itself is well worth it, and it avoids the crowds that tend to stick to the falls.

Etang de Guzet
Etang de Guzet

I started from the car park in Aulus les Bains and walked a short way up the D8F towards the Col de Latrape.  Ignore the left turn to the Cascade and soon afterwards you take a path up to the left, heading steeply up through the forest and crossing the forest track at one point. 

Eventually you come out into the open Plateau de Souliou with a view of the cirque of Pic de Mont Rouge ahead (image 1 below). Look over to your right and you’ll see the lifts of the Guzet ski resort, as well as Pics de Cerda and Freychet (image 2).

Then continue to follow signs for the étang de Guzet, climbing up through the woods until you see a marked path down on the right to the lake shore.  It’s a tranquil spot.  Look out for the twin ‘claw’ summit of Pic de Crabe (image 3) reflected in the water.

Continue reading “Étang de Guzet (and Cascade d’Ars)”

Ascent of Tuc de la Coume

A long ridge with a stunning panorama

For years I’ve gazed at this summit (image 1), wondering how to get there as there’s no direct path marked on the maps. It’s a relatively easy summit on a long ridge that lies between the valley of the Garbet (the section running from Ercé to Aulus) and the Courtignou valley (the D18) from Massat up to the étang de Lers.

At 1745m it’s not especially high but you get a 360 degree panorama of both the summit chain and the surrounding valleys.  The final bit is steep and the tiny summit feels somewhat exposed, especially when peering down the scarp of the eastern flank.  The route I’ve given starts at the étang de Lers (between Le Port and Aulus).

Continue reading “Ascent of Tuc de la Coume”

Étang d’Areau from Col de Pause

The Col de Pause is a starting point for some wonderful walks, as well as an up-close view of Mont Valier.

This describes a walk up to the pastures known by various spellings: Areau, Arreau, Arréou and Areou, and its emerald green lake.

Some brave souls drive up to the parking area at the Col, but the road gets rougher and narrower beyond Laserre, so I park at Laserre and then walk along the GR10.  That takes me around 40 mins to get to the Col de Pause.  I never fail to be amazed by the view of Mont Valier up close:

Continue reading “Étang d’Areau from Col de Pause”

A 360˚ Panorama from Pic de Girantès / Mont Ceint, and an absent reminder of the French Résistance

At 2088m, Mont Ceint (also known as Pic de Girantès) gives a superb 360° panorama over the surrounding ridges and valleys. It’s also a fairly accessible and straightforward hike, although steep on the upper section.

The most straightforward route is from the parking at Coumebière.  The first stage follows the GR10 zig zags (les lacets) that bring you up to the Port de Saleix in around an hour and a half.

Spring gentian above Port de Saleix
Spring gentian above Port de Saleix

Continue reading “A 360˚ Panorama from Pic de Girantès / Mont Ceint, and an absent reminder of the French Résistance”

Slow travel to the Pyrenees

How to travel overland to the Pyrenees: some ideas

Ok, so it’s not on a par with travelling overland to Asia, but today many of us are conscious of our environmental footprint and looking for ways to travel without flying (there’s some academic discussion on the Flying Less Movement here)

I recently chatted with a guy who owns a holiday home in Carcassonne, and he was full of enthusiasm about the low cost of the flights he was able to take from Scotland.  Sometimes he paid as little as £10 – £20 each way, which meant he could afford to go on holiday every few weeks.  When I explained that I much preferred to go by train to the Pyrenees, he looked aghast – ‘What about the cost?’

Of course it’s more expensive to travel around Europe by train compared with the low-cost airlines, and it’s hard to imagine that many people will make the switch while the price difference is so huge.  Yet for me, travelling overland helps me to really feel that I’ve arrived somewhere, following the route from the ground rather than dropping down from the clouds. Being a digital nomad I can work from anywhere, and it’s much easier when sitting on a train compared with when I’m wedged into a budget airline cattle-truck.

Best of all is that travelling overland gives the option to break the journey with a stopover somewhere new each time.  And unlike the Ryanair frequent flyers, I don’t go every few weeks, but instead I have fewer trips with longer stays, so the cost evens up a bit.  Booking well in advance and outside the weekends can also make a huge difference to the price of the ticket.

In this first article I’ll talk about some of the travel options I’ve used.

It’s now possible to step from a damp and grey St Pancras onto the Eurostar and emerge less than six hours later into the heat and sun of Provence.   Eurostar runs a service that takes you straight from London to Lyon, Avignon and Marseille.  I’ve paid as little as £49 each way, which compares really favourably with the budget airlines.  From Avignon TGV station it’s just a few minutes on a local train into Avignon Centre, from where you have the option of connections or an evening’s stopover.

Le pont d'Avignon
Whiling away an hour in Avignon before the train back to London – it beats any airport!

From Avignon I usually take a local train going west via Nimes, Beziers, Sète, Montpellier and Narbonne to Carcassonne, the latter being my gateway to the Pyrenees, from where I hire a car to get me into the mountains.  All of these places offer scope for appealing stopovers, and I’ll be writing about some of them in the next articles.

It’s also easy to get to lots of destinations via Eurostar by changing in Paris.  Last year I did just that, taking a high speed TGV that shot me from the capital to Bordeaux in a few hours.  That allowed me a long evening to look around the city and a not-too-early start for the train that took me via Toulouse to Carcassonne.

Bordeaux
An evening stopover in Bordeaux

Planning and booking train travel in Europe is easy these days.  I find the Loco2 system very user-friendly and I’ve used it for train travel all over Europe.  The site connects to many national rail services and they don’t charge booking fees.  Some tickets can be printed at home, whereas others need to be picked up at the station machines.

If you’re not yet aware of the wonderfully comprehensive website The Man in Seat 61 then take a look at it and bookmark it for future reference. It covers everything from an overview of a country’s trains and services, to individual route suggestions between major cities.

DSCF0088

English in the Ariège landscape

Symbols of Englishness in the Ariège Pyrenees

I follow a few French Instagrammers as I love to see what others are doing in the Ariège mountains.  I’ve noticed how some of them post using English rather than French language.  I guess it’s to reach a wider audience, which is interesting because in Ariège I don’t think that English is that widely spoken there (people often tell me that Spanish is often learned in schools, before English).

You don’t see written English very often in the Ariège public sphere (what researchers call the linguistic landscape) but I can share some observations that I noted when doing my research on English migration.

Continue reading “English in the Ariège landscape”