Up on the roof

Not all who wander are lost – Part V

Is late always better than never?

What about the christmas cards that arrive after the big day? The guests who turn up at the party at the moment when people are beginning to leave?

There are times when – given the choice – you’d go for never!

So the fact that I’m posting about the last day of our drive through France and Spain to Majorca this summer, with November just round the corner, might feel a bit pointless to some. But one day I will read these posts back and remember what a great time we had. And if I don’t write about the last day I will be sorry. So I’m doing this with my fingers crossed that in this case late is the preferred option.

The last day of our trip is a Sunday. And we’re in Barcelona. Is there anywhere better to spend a Sunday? I really don’t think so.

We start with breakfast at the hotel. If you read my post about our stay at H1868 last year you will know that the breakfasts there are something of a thing.

Breakfast at H1898
Where to start???

Suffice to say they continue to be something of a thing. The only challenge is to keep it reasonable! Because it would be easy to go a bit mad. And we’ve got lunch booked at another of Colin (you remember Colin?)’s recommendations. And experience tells me to hold back in preparation for something special.

So I stay focussed and ignore the siren call of pancakes and muffins and eggs and bacon and waffles and ham and cheese and…. It takes a lot of restraint.

After breakfast we split with our friends who are off to the Sagrada Familia. We’ve been there before so we head for another Gaudi classic, La Pedrera.

What to say about La Pedrera? Except OMG. In very very big letters. It is sensational and extraordinary and completely bloomin’ fantastic. And you just absolutely have to go.

Here’s the thing for me about Gaudi. Before coming to Barcelona – and going to some of the sites of his most famous works, and visiting the museum next to the Cathedral that guides you through his life and work, and beginning to get really interested in him – what I knew about Gaudi was that he was a Spanish architect who had designed some rather weird and mad looking buildings that I wasn’t entirely sure that I liked, I knew that people talked about places being Gaudiesque, and I thought I knew what they were talking about. But I didn’t really get it.

Well, now I do. Now I’m thinking that Gaudi’s buildings might actually make more sense to me than any others. Because he takes his passion for the natural world as his inspiration and uses it to structure his work. So there’s an intriguing reason for everything being the way it is, and when you know that inside and out this particular building is a constant curve with no straight lines, and that the facade is self supporting which means that the floors inside don’t need load bearing walls, which means that the walls can go wherever the owners feel like putting them, and that everything functional on the roof has been turned into sculpture, well you get it and you fall in love.

So we spend a wonderful couple of hours at La Pedrera, and then we jump in a taxi and head off to meet our friends at the Picasso museum. But the queues are long and we have missed them, so we go nearby to the Fundacio Gaspar

And discover Anthony McCall.

Anthony McCall is an English artist who does stuff with light. Intrigued? No. Graham wasn’t either. In the first room we watch a video of a middle aged man in front of an audience pinning sheets of white paper to a wall. He takes a long time choosing each sheet, holds it up, turns it, considers it, pins it alongside the previous sheet. Then he attaches a piece of string coated with black paint/powder? across the entire width of the wall and pings it against the surface of the paper so that it leaves a dusty black line. Fascinated? Graham most definitely isn’t. And at this stage nor am I.

On to the next installation. Another black and white video of people in white boiler suits on a headland throwing flares into holes in the ground. The camera is hand held, the picture shaky, people in white, it’s getting dark. The woosh of the flares as they light is the only sound. Graham has given up and gone.

But  I stay. And as the holes light up I begin to see a pattern. And begin to watch for the next one. And as I watch I’m filling up with a rather pleasant sensation of calm. And I begin to enjoy myself. And find it rather hard to tear myself away.

The next installation is in a dark room. I push through a screen to go in. I’m the only person there. Two lines of light on the floor, an arc and a straight line. At first I think they are white tape stuck down. But as I watch, I realise that very very slowly the lines are moving – towards each other, away from each other, converging, crossing, changing all the time. It’s mesmerising. By now Graham has come back to find me and he gets hooked too. It takes other people pushing in through the door screen to make us move on.

Look out for Anthony McCall. This is a wonderful show. The last room is another blackout space with scrunched up newspapers filling the floor so that you shuffle through, kicking your feet like a child. It’s like walking through fallen leaves in autumn. Mirrors walls reflect dark images of yourself back to you. A screen in the middle shows another black and white film… of the installation in use. You watch people doing what you are doing. It’s absolutely fantastic.

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You have to be there!

There are other installations on our way to the last room but I won’t describe each one. As much as I would like to. I’ve probably lost you already. But when we leave I am filled with peace and calm and happiness. Which is rather wonderful, and the last thing I expected.

We walk down to the shore. Beautiful Barcelona with its seaside vibe and beach side promenades. We find our friends at Kaiku, (click on this link – it’s a really great website!!) a Colin recommendation and right up there with the others. Sitting looking out towards the water, surrounded by locals, eating terrific seafood, with the Barcelona Sunday crowd out in force, it’s hard to imagine that life could get any better.

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Sunday Barcelona beach

After lunch we wander along the promenade, drinking in the sights and sounds of people enjoying themselves in this unique place.

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Beach style Barcelona

Then it’s back to the hotel, and we pack up our stuff and load it into the car. Up to the roof terrace to chill, read a bit, sit a bit, consider a bit about how much fun we’ve had since we left England. Then we say goodbye to our friends (who have failed to get a cabin on the ferry so are flying to join us in the morning) and we drive to the port.

This year we’re more familiar with the bizarre procedure that goes with taking the ferry to Alcudia, of finding the queue for cars, separating to get on board, and reuniting once we’re there. It still feels a little strange to wave goodbye to Graham and head off on my own in the dark.

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The last leg

But it goes to plan, and we find each other, find our cabin. And we sleep a bit and the boat slides through the sea and we arrive. Our journey is over; our holiday in Majorca is beginning. It’s been the most fun we could have imagined. Nothing we would change about any of it. Would we do it again? You bet we would.

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Not all who wander are lost – Part IV

On the whole I like to have a plan. I feel happier when I know what I’m doing and where I’m going. But on our trip through France it’s been the things we haven’t planned that have provided some of the best moments. Like our lunch at Les Orangeries on our second day; like the wonderful evening we spent dancing in the village square at Paunat; like our visit to the amazing Chateau de Marqueyssac with its extraordinary gardens. And like our magical supper by the side of the Canal du Midi while the sun set over the water.

Now – on our fourth morning – we’re starting with breakfast in the charming courtyard at Camellas-Lloret.

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The courtyard at Camellas-Lloret

And here’s another thing we hadn’t planned – looks like our fourth day on the road is going to be conducted according to the itinerary provided for us by Colin, the owner of this latest of our B & B stopovers. So we have got a plan; but it’s not ours. And that is fine with us. Because after his recommendation for dinner last night, we’re excited to see what’s in store for us today.

Breakfast is delicious – all the places we’ve stayed in have served great breakfasts. So really good coffee, fresh fruit, pastries, breads, jams, all served with the easy elegance that characterises this particular stopover. And it’s another glorious day. We sit at a long table under an awning with the other guests, a delightful young couple who turn out, like Colin, to be Barcelona enthusiasts and offer us advice on where to stay and what to do when we get there. Because that’s where we’re heading for today.

Before we leave Camellas-Lloret Colin invites us to take a look at the apartment that he and Annie have created out of the building in the corner of the courtyard. It’s empty of tenants at the moment so we can have a sneaky peak. And I’m so glad we do, because it’s a miracle of style and ingenuity in a very tiny space.

We wave goodbye to Montreal and get back on the road. And now we’re driving across a wide open landscape with fields of golden sunflowers, their drooping heads heavy with seeds. In the far distance we can just make out the hazy blue silhouette of the Pyrenees. I’ve been going to the Highlands all my life, I’ve slept in a tent at Everest Base Camp surrounded by the highest mountains in the world, every year if I’m lucky I get to ski in the Alps. There is something about the sight of mountains on the horizon that always makes my heart beat a little faster.

But we’re going to have to put off our mountain adventure for a little while. We have had strict instructions from Colin to head for Mirepoix, where he has assured us we will ‘experience a moment’. So we do what we’re told, drive into what seems to be a pleasant if unexciting French town, park the car, wander for a while, uncertain of what and where and if this ‘moment’ of ours is going to happen. Until we turn a corner and find ourselves on the edge of the market square in the centre of town.

And Colin is absolutely right. We experience a moment to beat all moments. Because this place is a medieval miracle. We are open mouthed. And slightly shell-shocked. People are going about their daily business as if this was any old place. Rather than something completely extraordinarily wonderful. All I can say is go.

We leave Mirepoix and drive towards the Pyrenees, the scenery changing from gold to green on either side of us as we start the climb into the foothills. And now we’re stopping off at Les Cabannes, a village tucked against the feet of a mountain range that will see us through into Spain. Here is another place we would never have thought of to visit. But Colin has told us about a restaurant there run by local farmers, who serve meat reared on their farms. Where we can try the best steaks, the best burgers, the best… Well let’s just say the place is going to have to deliver to live up to the hype.

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Poster for La Maison Lacube – and these are the guys who serve us!

Which it does. We sit on the small terrace in front of La Maison Lacube on the edge of the village square. There isn’t a seat to be had and the waiters are busy. But they take our order with great charm and friendliness and we sit in the sun and watch the world come to this one little place. Because inside are a whole load more tables and they are all filled up with locals. And more are turning up and being turned away. And we’re really glad that Colin has booked us a table. And even more glad when the food arrives. Because the burgers really are the best we’ve ever eaten. And their version of shepherds pie is possibly the best shepherds pie we’ve ever tried. (Which for a woman who is ferociously loyal about her family shepherds pie recipe is saying a lot!)

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View from the restaurant

We’re pretty full by the time we leave and happy to sit in the car and enjoy the view as we drive up into the mountains. Another change in scenery –  we’ve seen so many different landscapes in the past few days. And this has got to be amongst the most spectacular: plunging ravines, densely wooded slopes, breathtaking blue skies. The road twists and winds its way upwards and we crane our necks from side to side to see as much as we can. Because Colin has told us that if we stick with the scenic route all the way into Spain we’re going to be on it for rather longer than we would like. So we’re going through the tunnel, which takes us under rather than through the mountains, misses out a big chunk of scenic, but delivers us into Spain in quick time.

The tunnel is super modern – all smooth road surface and twinkling lights – and driving through it we have the bizarre experience of being in a computer game, hard to describe, you kind of have to be there to know what I mean.  When we come out at the other end the countryside has changed again, and now there’s a whole different vibe – here there are Spanish place names replacing the French, the world is hotter, drier, browner. We pass the ridge of one of the most spectacular (and definitely the rudest) mountain ranges I think I’ve ever seen. (If you click on the link here you will see what I mean!) This is Montserrat, which literally means serrated, and it’s not difficult to see where the name came from. We indulge in some childish giggling as we wind our way towards the coast and the outer edges of one of my favourite cities in the world.

Barcelona makes me happy. It’s beautiful and energetic and colourful and wild and just bloomin’ wonderful.We’re staying at the same hotel we did on our way home last year, the H1868 just off La Rambla right in the centre of the city. It’s a whole different ballgame from the places we’ve stayed on our drive through France, very stylish but not so characterful, a little bit corporate, but oh so comfortable. The beds… Oh the beds… I feel I could sleep for a week if I am given the chance. But what a waste not to get out and about in this fantastic city. So we go up to the roof of the hotel for a drink in what must be one of the coolest bars in town, and then head out into the happening and heaving La Rambla to walk to the restaurant Colin has recommended.

Which is where, for the first time, the plan goes a bit tits up. Because a) – it takes us ages to find, and b) – the restaurant is full and doesn’t have any tables free. But they very kindly take us to their new sister restaurant round the corner – which has lots of tables (in fact we’re the only people in the place) but is slightly lacking in character. Still there is a delightful waiter and decent food. And we’re feeling rather weary. So we go with it. But we’re still full from stuffing our faces with burgers at lunchtime. So this meal is not all it could have been.

We finish off a long but wonderful day with a walk back to the hotel through Barcelona’s teeming streets, excited at the prospect of sleeping in comfort. And looking forward to seeing what tomorrow is going to deliver. It’s our last day before we get on the boat to our final destination. Can it live up to the rest of our trip? It’s a big ask.

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Not all who wander are lost – Part III

It’s been brought to my attention that the title of these posts is a little misleading. Because the reality is that we haven’t actually done that much wandering. And even though we’ve been following the satnav, we’ve quite often been lost!

In the old days, when we found ourselves in the middle of somewhere that wasn’t where we wanted to be, there was a lot of trying to make sense of road signs and rows about which way to turn. ‘Left or right…? What do you mean, you’re not sure? You’re the one with the map.’ It’s a very different experience these days. But the rows are still a possibility. Which is why having friends in the car with us is a very good thing. When it comes to keeping our marriage intact!

On this trip, thanks to a combination of the satnav and some good old fashioned map reading, we’ve managed to find our way to Paunat and Le Moulin Neuf – which is where you will find us on the third morning of our trip, eating breakfast on the terrace in the sunshine. And is most definitely where we want to be.

The terrace at Le Moulin Neuf
The terrace at Le Moulin Neuf

Fresh fruit, delicious croissant, good coffee – and as an added bonus we get to catch up on a bit of local gossip with the owner Robert, who entertains us with stories about the tensions and squabbles that go on behind the picture book facades of some of the villages in the area.

And the idyll goes on after we leave. Because if there was ever a day for breathtaking scenery, today is it. Everywhere we look there are chateaus perched on wooded hillsides, village houses built into rock faces, stone cottages looking out over meandering rivers. I have never seen so many lovely buildings crammed into one bit of staggeringly beautiful countryside.

Within a few miles of leaving Paunat – thinking that nowhere could be prettier – we drive through Limieul with our mouths open. On another perfect morning the houses of this lovely town are glowing in the sunshine. Built into the hillside, they face out across the sparkling blue waters of the Dordogne. It’s very tempting to stop and explore. But we’re on a mission and not to be distracted. We’re heading for the Chateau de Marqueyssac.

This famous chateau is built on the top of cliffs looking out across the Dordogne valley. It’s a stunning building in a stunning location with a stunning view. But most stunning of all are its gardens. Over 150,000 box bushes cut into fantastic shapes and structures. It’s a struggle to find words to describe it. All I can say is that, even if you aren’t interested in gardens, you have to go.

After we leave the gardens of Marqueyssac we head for Sarlat, a lovely town with a beautiful old centre. But by now it’s scorchingly hot, and the town centre is teeming with people, and the place we choose for lunch is ok but not great. So we don’t stay long. Back in the car and now we’re heading for our third stopover, in Montreal just south of Carcassonne in the Languedoc-Roussillon region.

We’re taking the motorway for a while and, as we leave the Dordogne and head south, it’s amazing how the mood and attitude of the drivers around us seems to change with the countryside. Is it because we’ve got a car with English number plates, could there be an extra amount of anti Brit feeling post Brexit? Whatever the reason, as we pass Toulouse there’s a definite feeling of aggression from other drivers, and we’re rather relieved to leave the motorway and drive between fields of sunflowers to the hillside town of Montreal.

Another night, another completely different stopover. From what we can see of Montreal it seems pretty without being a showstopper, although we’re learning on this journey not to judge a book by its cover. We park in a side square and roll our suitcases up a side street and into narrow alleyway where a wooden door in a high stone wall bears a sign that reads Camellas-Lloret. Knock on the door and it swings open and there stands the owner Colin, glass of rose in hand.

Colin is a larger than life South African, married to Annie, who is from America and is petite and lovely, and between them they run this lovely B & B with great flair and charm. Colin shows us in to a village house on several levels built around a lovely courtyard.

 

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Courtyard at Camellas-Lloret

This place is quirky and modern and super stylish. We feel like we’re walking into the pages of Elle Decor. There’s a room on the ground floor crammed with lovely things for sale for house and home, a winding staircase up to bedrooms on the first and second floor, an elegantly furnished salon. Our rooms are a good size with futon beds and decent bathrooms.

We leave our bags and head out to join Colin for a glass of rose on the terrace. Turns out Colin is an organiser par excellence. While we sip our wine he tells us to leave everything in his hands, that he’s booked us a place for dinner that we’re going to love, that he can help us with suggestions of where to go and what to do. When we tell him that we’re on our way to Barcelona the next day, we discover that he used to work there and knows the best way to get there, the best places to stop on our way, and the best places to go to when we arrive.

Now it’s quite possible that there are people out there who might feel a little overwhelmed by this degree of intervention in their travel plans. And we did get back into the car that evening to drive to Colin’s recommended restaurant feeling a little uncertain about having our lives stage-managed to quite such an extent. But all our doubts and fears were laid to rest the moment we arrived at La Rive-Belle. Because it was unique and extraordinary and wonderful. And we would never have found it without him.

On this warm summer’s evening we drove out of Montreal for about fifteen minutes, turned off the main road, and drove along a track between fields of mown hay into the middle of nowhere. Could this be right? Were we lost… again? We came to a stretch of quiet water. We had reached our destination. And a little shack of a restaurant with a terrace right on the edge of the Canal du Midi.

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La Rive-Belle

We had arrived at La Rive-Belle at Ecluse de Herminis. The tables and chairs were basic and a little unsteady, the menu was limited, there was only one person serving. But the tables were full of locals, the sun was setting over the water, and the food was excellent.

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So another great day, with more unforgettable experiences to add to the rapidly growing collection. And tomorrow we head through the Pyrenees into Spain.

 

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Not all who wander are lost – Part II

Sleep… It’s a wonderful thing. Sadly I’m not as familiar with it these days as I used to be. The knack of getting into bed, going straight to sleep, and waking up in the morning seems to have left me. Particularly when it’s hot. But nights pass and the sun rises and each morning is a new beginning. And at least the room at the Chateau where we stay for the first night of our road trip is lovely, and the bed is very comfortable.

The Second Day

We get up and go down to a really great breakfast in the beautiful dining room with its view of the sloping lawns, tapestries on the wall, round table and – joy of joys – a lazy susan spread with bowls of apricots, home-made jams, fruit, delicious bread and croissants, and really good coffee. We love this place and will definitely make the effort to come back. Although we might find somewhere different for dinner!

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View from our bedroom window

Another stunning day; blue skies, sunshine and the Dordogne is beckoning. Back into the car and the first excitement is that our route takes us past the buildings and paddocks of the Le Mans circuit. And before we know it we’re actually driving along a section of one of the most famous race tracks in the world.

No, we’re not lost. The Mulsanne Straight is the 3.7 mile section of the 24 hour circuit which is part of the national road system. I am not the biggest fan of car racing – why anyone would want to drive around and around the same bit of tarmac for 24 hours without stopping I simply can’t imagine. But even I get a buzz from driving along a stretch of road where cars in the race achieve a speed of over 250 mph.

The countryside we drive through during the morning is pleasant enough without taking our breath away. It’s great to be off the motorway, although one of the disadvantages of the smaller roads is that you do tend to get stuck behind slow lorries for long stretches without being able to overtake. But the fields stretch out on either side of us, the trees line the roads in that uniquely French way, and some of the villages we drive through are very pretty.

We talk amongst ourselves about the meal we ate the night before and how it is possible for food to cost so much and taste of so little. Breakfast at the Chateau went a long way to making up for it, but we’re still in need of food reassurance and lunch is beckoning. So we stop at the very promising looking Les Orangeries in Lussac les Chateau. Which turns out to deliver even more than it promises!

Fantastic lunch sitting on a shady terrace in a walled garden looking out across green lawns. Charming service, food delicious enough to banish the horrors of the previous night, and the shade provided by the tree over our heads sufficient to protect us from the intense heat. Definitely a place to return to; maybe for a night next time!

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Lunch on the Terrace

Back in the car, back on the road; and now the scenery around us is beginning to show its true colours. We are in the Dordogne with its rolling hills and wooded valleys. It’s impossible not to come over all bucolic and start waxing lyrical! The roads we wind our way along take us beside tree-lined fields of mown hay, past tumbling rivers and through the light-filtered glades of green forests. It feels like we’re being drawn into the heart of another France, where the villages nestle in the nooks and crannies of a landscape that hasn’t changed that much for the last few centuries. The busy motorways and tollroads feel a million miles away.

We’re heading for a night at the Moulin Neuf, which is just outside the ridiculously pretty little town of Paunat. A few struggles finding it; the satnav is sulking after its performance the night before and refuses to cooperate for the last few, crucial, miles. At one point it takes us down what it tells us is a road, but which turns out to be the drive to someone’s house; a house which looks a bit rundown as we approach it, with decidedly odd looking people standing around the front door, who watch us suspiciously as we pull up and start to move towards us in a way which makes us feel we definitely shouldn’t be there. We back away fast.

We get to where we are supposed to be in the end, and are met by Robert, the owner of the Moulin Neuf, who wheels our luggage from the car in a nifty little trailer, and shows us to our rooms in a separate building next to his lovely old mill.

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Our Second night

This B & B has the most stunning setting out of all the stunning settings in which we stay on our journey. It is tucked into the bottom of a little valley, with chairs and tables set out in the shade of the trees, the sound of water tumbling along a water course that runs under the house and through the garden, wisteria on the walls and blue painted shutters at the windows; completely different to the grander Chateau of our first night but completely lovely.

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Lovely Moulin Neuf

Our room on the ground floor is small but prettily furnished, with a good sized bathroom, although the room our friends end up in is definitely of the not enough space to swing a cat variety and is rather in need of a face lift. The owner has been in touch before we left to say that he has an extra booking needing more nights then the one we were staying, so wondered if one of us would be prepared to go into the room which turns out to be the one that, if it were a dog, would definitely be the runt of the litter. Our friends drew the short straw!

This is a very different experience to our first night. There the rooms were state of the art comfortable; here things feel a little bit tired. But the setting and the friendly welcome more than make up for it, and we wander around the lovely garden before getting back into the car and heading into the village. Because it turns out that, entirely without planning it, we’ve timed our stay in Paunat to perfection. Three nights every summer the village has an open evening where the local people gather in the square for food and wine and dancing. And this Thursday is the last one.

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Village house in Paunat

The village square setting is picture book perfect; there are stalls set up selling the food of the region, everything from foie gras to suckling pig to walnut tarts. The whole village is there, talking and eating and drinking and dancing. There are families sitting at tables spread with all kinds of delicious looking food, old ladies sitting comfortably on plastic chairs watching their grandchildren running around them, people queuing for the most popular stalls, men turning huge spits with meat sizzling over the flames. A man and a woman are doing a great job of singing to a recorded backing track, all kinds of songs old and new. I love watching the little children, the way they get swept up by the music so that they twirl and skip on the cobbles of the village square with complete abandon. And the teenage boys who cluster on the edge of the space that has been left clear for dancing, looking with yearning at the flocks of teenage girls who are happy to join in while the boys hold back.

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Living it up in Paunat

We soak up the atmosphere and can’t believe our luck. But it’s been a long day and we’ve covered a good few miles, so while the village keeps going we head back to the mill for a not entirely comfortable night. Tomorrow we are going to explore a bit before we get back on the road. And then it’s on to Pyrenees-Midi for night three.

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Not all who wander are lost – Part I

I used to be terrified of flying. Any time I was on a plane was absolute torture, even when it was on the ground. I’d spend entire flights with my head screwed round on my neck, scanning the faces of the cabin crew for signs that the plane was in trouble. I was convinced that it was only my vigilance that was keeping the plane in the air, and that the moment I stopped paying attention it would plummet to the ground. Not the most relaxing way to travel.

These days I’m much more chilled about it. Thanks to the great good fortune of having a house in Majorca for the last eleven years, I’ve flown backwards and forwards enough to recognise that the thumps, bumps and lumps are a completely normal part of a plane’s functioning and not an indication that it is about to crash. But given the choice I still prefer to drive.

So this new thing we do, the once a year at the end of the summer taking the ferry and driving to our house in Puerto Pollenca rather than flying thing, is right up my street. In 2015 we took the ferry from Portsmouth to Bilbao and then on through Spain (which you can read about in The San Sebastian Crawl and Taking the Long Way Round). This year we decide to be a bit more leisurely about things, to take our time and a couple of friends, and explore France on our way. Should be fun…

But when the alarm goes off at 4.30 in the morning, on a sticky night at the end of August, I’m wondering if this driving to Majorca idea is really such a good thing. We stagger out of bed, dress and get ready in the dark, climb sleepily into the prepacked car, and set off as the sun begins to rise. We call in to pick up the friends who are joining us on our trip, and head for Newhaven. As we drive across the Ashdown Forest the sky is beginning to glimmer with the promise of a stinking hot day to come. But for now it’s cool and clear, and at this hour of the morning the only word for the view across the rolling gorse and heath of the forest is… what is it, stunning, glorious, absolutely blinking sensational? We don’t know it at the time but this is how it’s going to be from here on in, until we get to our house in Puerto Pollenca. Wall to wall sunshine. Just bloomin’ gorgeous.

The sun is properly up by the time we drive into Newhaven. The ferry port at Newhaven is much smaller than Portsmouth; the harbour is smaller, the ferry is smaller; it’s all on a reduced scale compared to last year. Seats on the boat not as comfortable, cafe more basic, food less appetising. But it does what it says on the tin and we’re only on board for four and a half hours. And boy oh boy is the sun shining; the sun is shining as hard as it possibly can. There simply cannot be a better day for setting off across the Channel.

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Leaving the harbour at Newhaven

We arrive in Dieppe at 2pm; the ferry driver/captain/steering person performing an amazing feat of reversing and side-shifting a largish vessel into a smallish space in the harbour. By the time we dock the four of us are back in the car and ready for the off. This stage of the journey we’re not going scenic, we’re heading for our first stopover by the quickest route possible. We’ve been up for a long time and it’s H.O.T. Outside it’s 35 degrees. In this heat the only sightseeing we’re doing is from the inside of our air-conditioned car.

We’ve chosen our stopovers en route through France with the help of Alastair Sawday’s guide to French B & B’s. For our first night we’ve booked rooms at the Chateau de St Frambault in Roeze-sur-Sarthe near Le Mans. It’s looking very promising as we turn between wrought iron gates and head up the long drive towards a rather lovely lemon coloured chateau looking down at us across sloping lawns and ancient oak trees. The grounds aren’t grand, there’s little planting to speak of apart from topiary, grass and trees, and the grass isn’t mown to English standards, but the building and its setting have an easy elegance and charm which suggest that we’re in for a treat.

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Chateau de Saint Frambault

As we pull up at the back of the chateau it’s 6 pm, and the car reading shows the temperature at 37 degrees . It’s like getting out into an oven. We are met by the very delightful Madame de Goulaine who takes us inside to the mercifully cool interior of her very beautiful home. She tells us that they have only been doing bed and breakfast for a few months, but they seem like old hands at the job. The rooms are gorgeous, the bedrooms beautifully and individually furnished with good linen, very comfortable beds and excellent state of the art bathrooms. There is a very stylish salon and a beautiful double aspect dining room with tapestries on the walls. It’s not a big, grand chateau, more a characterful home with a real sense of the people who live there.

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View from our bedroom window

Madame offers us a dip in the pool but we’re too hot to go to the effort of changing in and out of swimming things, so we settle into our rooms and then head out for our first dinner on the road. This turns out to be the worst meal we will eat in the whole of our trip, also the most expensive – on the hottest evening we will encounter. But the setting is incredible. We sit on a terrace beside a river whose surface is turned to gold as the sun slides down behind the trees.

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Sun setting over the river at Malicorne-sur-Sarthe

We have a bit of a moment on our way back to the Chateau when the satnav seems to lose its head and take us into the middle of nowhere. Which is where the Chateau is located, but a different middle of nowhere to the one we find ourselves in. In the dark one remote french lane looks pretty much like another, and we have a panicky moment where we begin to think we might be spending the night in the car. But it turns out that the satnav isn’t quite as deranged as we think, and we are actually very nearly where we want to be. We turn between the iron gates to the Chateau with profound relief.

It’s a hot night. Our room is on the third floor, up in the eaves. It’s lovely, comfortable, beautifully done. But who can sleep when it feels as if you’re lying in a sauna with the temperature turned to maximum? (Well actually Graham can, but today he’s been doing all the driving and has been awake since 4.30!) Even with the fan going at full pelt I lie in a pool of sweat and try to conjure up icebergs and snow covered mountains. It’s not hugely successful.

But it’s been a great first day. And we’ve got tomorrow to look forward to. And more tomorrows to come. And our journey is only just beginning.

 

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Bay Watch

At 8.30 this morning, as I swim out across the millpond still surface of water that might actually be warmer than my bath, there’s a song rattling around my brain. It goes something along the lines of

‘It was thirty years ago today…

…dum di da…

That I first came to Pollenca Bay…’

Now I’ve got to be honest and admit that I can’t be precisely sure that it was thirty years ago to the day that I first came to this island. Thirty years is rather a long time. And some of us don’t have the memory they used to! But it must have been pretty close. Because the first time I came to Puerto Pollenca I was pregnant with my son. And it was September. And he’s going to be thirty in December! (How it manages to be possible that I’ve got a son who is going to be thirty is a whole other question? But we won’t go into that one here!)

So as I was saying… It was thirty years ago that I first came here. My mum and dad were renting a one bedroom apartment behind the Ila d’Or and I came and slept on the sofa-bed for a few days. We did pretty much the same sort of thing we still do today. Wandered into town along a Pine Walk that looked not hugely different to how it does now. Could it have been narrower? My memory says it was. I do know that the path was of beaten earth, with here and there the roots of the pine trees twisting up through the surface. There were certainly no sunbeds or umbrellas on the beach; the villas along the sea front were not so smartly dressed as they are now. Were all the apartment blocks there? Most of them I think.

I do remember that thirty years ago there were boats moored in much closer to the shore, so that when we swam we had to negotiate our way between them. Was the water quite so clear and sparkling in those days? I’m telling myself it’s cleaner now than it used to be. Not all change is unwelcome!

Sis Pins and Miramar – definitely both there; been there a lot longer then I have. Corb Mari was called the Bec Fi – in those days my dad’s favourite restaurant. We used to go to La Lonja for dinner, but the jetty was wooden and we sat at tables by the water’s edge and threw bread to the fish. On the way home after dinner we often stopped at Katy’s Bar (now a private house just after you get to Little Italy) for a late night lamumba. We ate lunch at the Ila d’Or – beaten earth under the pines, plastic chairs and tables, and the bar was built of wood with a straw roof rather like the swanky new beach umbrellas that have appeared on the beaches this year. The food in those days was simple: squid, sardines, tortilla. But the white painted hotel was as quietly elegant as ever and the view from the bar at sunset was – as it still is today – impossible to beat.

So there have been a few changes. Which in thirty years is inevitable. But the one thing that hasn’t changed is the way that the water of Pollenca Bay has stayed blue and beautiful and better than anywhere else in the world.

I wish I could show you some pictures of what it used to look like. Unfortunately back then I was more interested in taking pictures of my family than the view. But for those that are interested here are a selection of more recent pictures taken at various times of the day from various locations around the bay.

 

And if anyone has any old photos or memories from those far off days I’d love to hear about them.

 

 

 

 

Digging out the beds

Time for a Cunning Plan

You just never know what’s round the corner.

I come home at the end of September after a month away, feeling relaxed and rejuvenated, and full of creative energy. And wondering what to do with it. But before I’ve had time to put away the suitcases and pack up the summer clothes, a project lands in my lap. Completely out of the blue. And it’s a cracker!

The project is to design the garden for a house on the edge of the Ashdown Forest, a stunning 17th century cottage which is undergoing a transformation and needs a garden to go with it.

I couldn’t ask for a better job. But it’s a big deal for me. My first proper project for someone other than myself. Which feels pretty mega… And a little bit scary. But there’s no time to ask myself if I’m up to it. Because it has to be done immediately. Like right this very minute.

The situation is that my sister, (who owns the stunning 17th century cottage), has found herself in a bit of a fix. Along with writing cookery books and becoming a bit of a media superstar in the past couple of years, (which you can read all about at https://trufflehound.wordpress.com/) she has been up to her eyes with the planning and construction of an extension for her newly purchased home. She’s adding a kitchen, and a bedroom and bathroom linked by a glass walkway to the original house. The builders have been hard at work since June.

Work in progress
Work in progress

This project started a couple of years ago, when architects were called in to help turn a lovely but impractical house into a lovely but practical one. The lovely but practical house needed a lovely but practical garden to go with it. At the time I was still on my garden design course, and not in a position, time-wise or experience-wise to take on such a challenging job. So my sister briefed other garden designers, and they visited the site and drew up plans for her.

But now it comes to the crunch. Because, as tends to happen with these things, plans changed and the build cost went up. Which meant the original plans for the garden were no longer viable. The builders are at the stage where they are ready to start on the outside space. But the original plans can’t be achieved within the new budget. Time to call for the cavalry. In this instance the cavalry is me!

The back garden!
The back garden!

We’re talking about the perfect country cottage here: the oldest house in the village, tucked in between the church and the school. The garden folds itself around the cottage like a security blanket. There’s an orchard and a well and an old brick path leading into the churchyard. It’s very very lovely.

Or rather… it could be very very lovely.

But the cottage was a weekend retreat for the previous owners, and, both inside and out, shows the lack of attention that goes with people not spending much time in it.

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The front garden before it all started

The architect and builders are doing a great job of turning the building into something amazing. Now it’s time to do the same for the garden. But time is what we have very little of, so I take the site survey away with me, and I get going, and over the weekend I come up with a solution to the most pressing requirement, which is a plan for the courtyard garden in front of the new extension.

I turn up at the house on Monday morning, talk my idea through with my sister, who likes it (phew!), and passes it on to her builders. They begin marking out right there and then. At this stage it’s still on tracing paper. I haven’t even had time to put it on the computer.

Marking out the plan
Marking out the plan

So I’m hard at work. And loving it. This site isn’t easy – it drops away by several metres from top to bottom, there are gardens to be planned front and back, a request for different areas for sitting and eating and screening needed from nearby neighbours. My sister’s thing is food, so she wants to be able to cook outside, she wants a space to entertain, a separate seating area in front of the downstairs bedroom because she’s thinking about doing bed and breakfast; she wants places to sit and contemplate; and both she and the house demand a cottage style planting plan.

All this has to be achieved with respect and consideration for the spirit of this wonderful place. Because this cottage has been here a very long time. The architect and builders have done a superb job of adding an extension that fits perfectly with the old building. Now this stunning new old house needs a stunning new old garden to go with it.

It’s happening before I have time to draw breath. I do get a chance to tweak and make changes. After they’ve started! And I do manage to put the plan into the computer. But there’s been no time for any frilly bits – this is all about producing something that the builders can work from. ASAP!

The Cunning Plan
The Cunning Plan

And there’s no time to rest. Because there’s the front garden to consider. And again another plan to be produced at speed, because the builders have to lay a terrace and want to know how and what and where. And then there are the planting plans to be done for the courtyard and the front garden.

So no pressure then!!!

But it seems to be going ok. My sister is happy. The builders are happy. I’m happy. And on top of that I’ve got a garden to plan for sister number two.

Looks like I might be a garden designer after all!