autumn's end

THIS IS THE ROAD TO ARLEMPDES, well one of them, and the one we took. Those of my readership who have already committed to memory the return route presented in a previous posting (the third return) will look in vain to find the road pictured above there-upon, because, here we go again, 'off piste' to see what lies over yonder. This time we are assisted by the son-and-heir who identifies this diversion from our planned progression with the tempting suggestion that down this road we may find what some call the first château on the Loire, no less. Up here? In the heart of the Central Massif? Mrs M rapidly assesses the feasibility using the trusted Michelin, the car is turned, and off we go (the map extract was recorded at the time, hence the blue tint!). We were on that red road (piste), the N88 –  and turned off it round Mt Burel (off piste).

Sure enough, we find the youthful Loire in its upper reaches; and sitting proudly above it -- the said château. Very picturesque,  – (feel free to research the place, I am not about to provide a guide book extract, sorry). Not quite what one might expect a Loire château to look like but it scores as one of the Mes 500 Petits Coins de Paradis en France  and we can now confirm it is indeed a rather striking place. Worth the detour in fact. Pity that once we return to our route, the clock suggesting that we might wish to secure a lunch venue, we manage to find the only roadside place for miles, good food as far as what we are in receipt of, but inattentive table service, resulting in us giving up at last in disgust, foregoing our île flottante, to get back on the road before dark! So much for the roadside restaurant.

You'll note the residual snow in the intro picture, up there on the heights of the Central Massif. All the way up we encounter evidence of recent heavy falls but fortunately, a thaw following: so that the roads are wet but clear. Best of all, the sun is out, the sky is blue and we are on the road again. Nice! We overnight at St Pourçain-sur-Sioule, near Vichy – not risking the town's restaurant (this town has few; the one we gave our custom to twice before is the one I walked out of, the second visit, a year or two ago, I shudder to recall it). No Sir! We eat our own supplies, brought with us, mindful of the paucity of provision hereabouts… beer, sausages, hb eggs, crisps, fruit, etc. A jolly repast … Once bitten twice shy…

THE SECOND DAY on the road starts before daybreak at this time of the year. No lazing abed for us, we are off betimes and don't pull over until we reach La Machine where we break our fast with class A grande-crèmes to wash down bespoke croissants while we watch the street market getting up and running. From the interior of the cafe, mind – it is a little nippy in the street.

As we proceed thereafter, a fingerpost is passed which points us to a sixteen lock flight on a nearby canal, and when son-and-heir checks it out (he carries a reference section) and points out that the waterway cuts through a major watershed (between the Seine and Loire basins) we about-turn and by narrow country roads bring ourselves through the morning mists to inspect this feat of canal engineering. We visit the first six locks or so in the deep wooded valley it occupies and then pop round to the other end of the staircase at lock 16. All is quiet as one lock basin is drained, presumably awaiting some form of maintenance, but clearly a popular and fully working canal route in the season.

Our next stop is to visit the grave of the singular,  prolific military engineer Sebastien Vauban, supremo of 17th century fortress building/engineering and shaper of many of France's finest towns and cities. Mrs Melling and self passed by a year or two ago but the offspring has not had the pleasure so here we are in his village church. His heart was removed in a somewhat awkward set of circumstances to be placed in Les Invalides, by order of the Corsican, when he was the Emperor. I hope he got the bit he wanted as Vauban had been dead and buried for many a year by the time Napoleon had this idea… I gather the rest of Vauban is still in the sepulchre of this church at Bazoches, which needless to say is on his family estate, below 'the big house'. Not far from Vézelay…

After rather a lot of kilometres more, most of which are in autumnal sunshine across the vast undulating farmlands of central France, we reach the foot of Mont Aimé on the edge of the Champagne region and we go up there as we know, from a previous visit, that this is a site historique and the views are big and beautifully colourful. Adam discovers that the site also features in his Mes 500 Petits Coins de Paradis en France, but it didn't have those stands of wind turbines when it made history, nor the last time we climbed up here to look over the vines to the croplands beyond.

All these diversions, plus the distances inbetween, mean that we only reach our hotel (Maubeuge) after dark, romantically located behind a filling station, a hotel all right in its way but not remotely near any source of sustenance. We make do.  But too far really, now that the clocks have gone back… well over our normal 300 miles a day limit.

ON THE THIRD DAY, we scrape the frost off the car before daybreak (for the first time this autumn) and find our way through the red brick villages to Ors and the reason for coming this way at this time. Only this day will do. Because it is 4th November 2018 and one hundred years to the day since Hugh Melling was killed hereabouts, taking part in an attempt to cross this canal to capture a German occupied farm house that still stands today. We are here to lay a wreath on his grave on behalf of us and other Mellings various.

There are others already in the cemetery this morning: Wilfred Owen died in that same action that took Hugh's life and his grave, two head stones down from Hugh's, attracts attention all the year round (we have been here before you see, so we know) but this centenary is bringing in coach loads of folk later on so we know to be early. So we are, and those already amongst the headstones politely give way to us as we are visiting a family member's grave.

Recipients of this year's marmalade production will understand the significance of this visit to Ors. I reproduce the label at the end of this posting.

After this sombre task we go back into Ors to stare down the canal that proved such a fatal obstacle to all those men, and then on to The Forester's House, just to show Adam the place where Owen spent his last night with his men (now transformed into a pilgrimage site, in white) We have been there too before –sans Adam– but today is not the day for visiting as it is about to  receive the coach parties of Owen enthusiasts so we pass by to a nearby town for our last breakfast on french soil this year. Top flight croissants I have to say.

That town is Le Cateau, where Matisse was born. There is a museum seemingly full of his work; but we haven't got the time to view it and anyway it isn't open yet and we have to get ourselves west by auto-routes various in time to get a proper meal somewhere or other, visit the two target lighthouses and eventually to take ship unto Portsmouth, from Ouistreham, overnight.

We make good time, as one does when one uses the auto-routes, undistracted by side roads and beckoning attractions off, so that we can have some time on the sea front of Le Havre after bagging the light on the Cap d'Antifer (see below!). It is warm enough to sit out and drink expensive coffee in Le Havre as well as take the odd snap and stroll amongst the Sunday afternoon crowds.

There is some disagreement as to whether we have driven over Le Pont de Normandie before (I think we may have, but now I'm not so sure) but we have certainly visited the south side of the Seine, underneath the bridge, at least twice. It is a towering achievement: worth the toll to cross it. Given the need for shipping to pass under the structure, the bridge sports considerable inclines. It is a favourite. Glad we are going south though*, just look at the traffic coming north! (pictures from Mrs Melling's in-car snappings. *Mrs Melling opines we are going west, actually – but the bridge is aligned north-south, so there. True, our general tendency has been westerly today).

And so unto Ouistreham our port of departure and the second target phare, passed by many times before but not photographed for some reason. The truth is, we haven't used this crossing back to Blighty for many years, before I was smitten with the lighthouse bug, that is. Finally we get a proper meal before embarking, at a price that makes my eyes water a little, I have to own. We sail a bit late, an overnight crossing it is, arrive in Portsmouth on time where, once released by UK Border Control,  it is… almost raining

Thereafter, its heavy Monday morning traffic, a full English breakfast in a welcoming café in Bridport and an arrival back at Bullsmead at midday precisely. The garden is buried in leaves, the lawn calls for scything and it has been very very wet. Notwithstanding, we put this transit down as a goody, even with the trudge from Portsmouth to Devon taken into account…


the third return…as it was…

WELL ALL IN ALL, it panned out pretty damned fine.

Not in weather terms of course, that would have been asking too much. For sure as eggs are oeufs, the moment we disembarked down the ramp of the Amorique in early morning Roscoff, the patter of raindrops besmirched our windscreen and the wipers began their two day stint.

To be fair, it wasn't powering down; rather, a more-or-less steady drizzle was our main course accompanied by low light levels, mist and mirk. However, I am pleased to be able to report that we were not admonished by our passenger, no, not once. She took it as being as it should be, whatever, and as I know her to be unafraid of inclemency, joined with us to accept the thrill as life's rich tapestry, warts and all. We had crossed the channel in comfort, our guest had gleaned the freebies associated with our travel advantages (breakfast, free water etc, even though we promised a breakfast in Roscoff which we never-the-less partook of), and was content to don waterproofing as and when to get the chance to stroll across the littoral here, the armoured lock there, and the fishing port and sluices thereafter . . .

We opined that the weather certainly strengthened the atmosphere of the granite beach we sampled a few miles west from our point of arrival; was more in keeping with the long muddy inlets of the Port du Bec and certainly harmonised with my fond recollections of moules-frites enjoyed in rain swept bar-restaurants with steamed up windows. Mrs Melling and self had not hitherto experienced a crossing of the Loire at St Nazaire without being able to see the bridge towers, or the truncated view back across the river from St Brevin which we anticipated showing Beryl with some relish. There certainly was no relish, or croissants either, at the bar at St B, and we had to wait until the place opened as it was Sunday morning. But the coffee was good and strong so we got going thereafter with hardly a backward glance, the view anyway being obscured by mist and rain-freckle.

Meticulous followers of these postings will have studied carefully the nuances of the route south published earlier and still may be puzzled by the absence of some of the places seemingly passed through in that schedule. But that is the point y'see! Worked out in detail it may be, but a straight jacket it is not. Beryl was able to witness first hand the way Mrs Melling adjusted our forward progress to take in muddy backwaters, old saltings and tidal crossings to nearby islands (Passage de Gois, for example). Not to mention (which I already have) the moules-frites which we cunningly engineered to be close to in time to reserve a table for the mid day repast [Le Mord'eau at Bouin]. And I think (I know) Dr Gummow liked it!

Anyway to cut a long story short, it rained to La Rochelle where it sort of cleared up, and then, thereafter it improved to Cahors. The Viaduc de Millau showed itself off under patchy skies and Marseillan was cloudless blue, warm, welcoming,  as it always is, for our excellent and reliable fish lunch on the waterfront at La Pacholine (Mrs M gets a clean head start with the soup, see left!).

We ran to schedule and delivered ourselves thereafter unto Orange (for the shop) and then unto Sablet. Another jolly jaunt! And with due thanks to Beryl for her support and her generous sponsorship of this endeavour. I hope we may do it again, but, of course, via another variation . . .


the third return

IT IS QUITE WITHIN THE BOUNDS of possibility that we will be sitting ourselves down at this waterside's edge in La Rochelle again this autumn, just like we did in the summer.

That's because we are booked in to an hotel there for our second overnighter this September, whereas we could usually have been expected to transfer here, from Roscoff, in one hop: it is most readily doable, and without straining the tachometer beyond our preferred ration of daily miles when pottering down to the Vaucluse. But this time, y'see, we are conveying a passenger, guest, friend, and risk taker with us, so compelling and persuasive have been our descriptions of our voyages. It's a first, if we don't count the son-and-heir, which we don't as he is cabin crew when he is with us, which he will be on our way back in November.

I flatter myself that our eloquence in these matters of blogging and our clearly expressed enthusiasm for our experiences thus far has proved the tipping point to our third party. So it came to pass that we received an application from this friend, to not only sample the renowned levels of distinctive hospitality at our Sablet residence again, but also to mop up a bit of La France by travelling through it with ourselves, instead of flitting over it in an aeroplane.

Inevitably, this has caused us to solemnly reflect upon our route this autumn, slow it down a bit, add in possibilities of the odd diversion or two, and book stop overs accordingly.

So here's the plan. Subject to variation, adjustment, deviation and correction, as ever.  I will report no doubt on how well it panned out; I can confirm that our travel companion has wisely invested in The Michelin  (2018 edition, whose pages luckily conform with our older, 2014 edition) so that she can preview our proposal shown here on the left . . . but almost inevitably, for someone who can assimilate what an atlas can portray, there is some reluctance to miss out that area of gorges or this stretch of coast, let alone that magnificent cathedral or those singular lighthouses,  that study of an atlas, in association with appropriate Green Guides, what-have-you, will reveal.

So it has ben stressed, as gently as possible, that this plan is weighted in favour of the more north-western portions of France, whilst still addressing our companion's desire to pass over the Viaduc de Millau, and tick off a visit to the Med at Marseillan. We can't do everything, after all, this is but a taster…. and anyway the hotels are booked and paid for … so think on.

An unusual view of an iconic object, revealed by deviating from the straight and narrow . . .

The return, which is likely in due course to attract a descriptive post of its own, is now planned to take us back to Ouistreham*, after many years of neglect of this crossing (to Portsmouth) in favour of more westerly transits. We shall have with us the son -and-heir, as this last journey of the year is planned specifically to coincide with the centenary of Hugh Melling's death in WW1. We will visit Ors Cemetery where Hugh is buried, – one hundred years to the day since he and others were killed nearby, just one week before the Armistice… to pay our respects and keep his family memory alive.

Maybe there will be other Mellings there: we know for sure there are organised visits to pay tribute to the poet Wilfred Owen who died at the same time and place, and lies close to Hugh. So we want to be there early. I refer you to this year's edition of my marmalade, marking this centennary.

*And I get to scoop two more phares that we've seen before but not managed to snap hitherto…

Ouistreham and Cap d'Antifer captured here by Jean Benoit Héron, the master.


the broad and the narrow

I ALWAYS PROMOTE MAPPING OVER SATNAV. Our journey back from Sablet to our estates in Devonshire this summer provided once more, appropriate illustration of why our policy of using a road atlas to determine our passage across the french road network, so easily provides the support for variation and deviation, faciiltating discovery and extending our cognisance of the landscape we are passing through. 

We had expected to be making a rather later-than-usual departure from 1-Rue FB this time as we thought we would be waiting in to hand over the keys of the house, plus a presentation of the house’s foibles, to our friends taking the place over for a week or three. But they made good time and appeared the day before so having dotted ’I’s’ and crossed ’T’s’ before the change of occupation, Mrs Melling and I were able to set out to our conveniently not-too-distant hotel, but now with a spare half day in hand.

We proceeded along our carefully researched route until, having skirted Montpelier and got ourselves on to the A750 autoroute, Mrs Melling opined that a stop for coffee at Gignac would provide us with a break from autoroute pressures, so no sooner suggested than we were swinging off to the aformentioned settlement where we parked up and bought in croissants to accompany our grand crémes, there under the shade of the plain trees, relieving the air temperature of over 30°C. 

Rather than doubling back, to carry on where we left off, Mrs M constructed a variation she had spotted as a possibility for further progress toward our hotel without returning to the A750 at all, and possibly taking in some previously unexplored hills and by-ways. There were one or two Route Barrées to sort but with her eye for the smallest of marked roads, Mrs M was able to direct me to point the motor along a feasible if somewhat narrow alternative to the planned route. We navigated through a number of delightful and distinctive sleepy villages into ever wilder and hillier country within which we eventually took a further ‘there-and-back’ diversion to the summit of the highest hill, complete with telecommunications mast and station, to overlook the hot and hazy landscape, mile upon mile in all directions, in a wild garrigue style countryside, frequented by varied lepidoptera and scorched by the mid-day sun. A wonderful find, there on the map and now under our feet and before our shaded gaze.

After this intriguing variation I asked my navigator if she could now extract from The Michelin a further extension of this adventure, avoiding entirely any neccesity to resort to the A75 (and the usual crossing of the Viaduc du Millau). This proved straightforward; we were soon winding our way down and then out of Millau on quiet roads, familiar from the days when the bridge was not built and we wouldn’t set wheel on an autoroute to save our lives.We picnicked in a small village with a swan for company; we motored on, to and through Severac-le-Chateau, from where we regained our projected progression to our hotel in Rodez.

The extra miles incurred over and above what we expected to cover? About twenty miles more, or less; worth every extra yard, for that distinctive experience and variation that is the spice of our travels, teased out of the mapping to hand. No SatNav is going to point out these things. Those who exclusively rely on ‘Tom-Tom’ or similar close off these opportunities, generally arriving at their destinations without having ventured beyond the linear perspective these satellite-cum-GPS systems proscribe.They arrive, predictably. Mostly. 
NB I admit that Aguessac is mis-spelt, in the route descriptor illustrated here…

Yes, this summer’s transfer from Sablet to Devon was expected to be a somewhat less adventurous affair than usual as it ran to only two overnights; nevertheless, on each stage on the road we found something new. OK, the on-the-road diversion to the Saumur Coop was not entirely new territory, but then, on the last leg of our journey, the choice of Corps-Nuds for our breakfast stop provided us with another new find: a Russian style Basilican church, completely unforeseen, and seemingly misplaced, there in the French countryside; and all because we were taken with the name of the place, spotted on road signage, and in The Michelin, and deciding we would go see if it was indeed a village populated by people ill-disposed to the wearing of rayment (which it wasn’t, but where the coffee was top flight and croissants commendable). 

I say again: if you haven't already, get yourself an atlas, and study it. Immerse yourself. You’ll never run out of places to enquire of and tempting you thither (some may be dogs it’s true, but one has to take a bit of rough with the smooth); that’s life on the road, of course:– that and the Route Barrée that pepper parts of the highway at all or any time of the season – yet always by-passable by the map-savvy Mrs Melling, Michelin Maitresse.

We don’t have SatNav, by the way. Just in case you were wondering . . .

Some other pictures from this trip can be found in summer synopsis 18 via this link.


old faithful, betrayed

IT SEEMS STRANGE TO POST ABOUT A MOTOR, but parting with our Citroën Berlingo was quite a wrench at the beginning of this year; why – Mrs Melling shed a tear even… so I trust my public will excuse this brief requiem for what is (or rather was) after all, an assembly of steel, aluminium and plastic. Don't bother with reading this then – move on to more exciting topics, if I have any to offer, which I doubt.

You see, we found our, hem hem  Berlingo Multispace 1.4HD Desire (I wince at that 'Desire' tag) almost the perfect set of wheels for our driving on the right exploits. OK– it was a van, with windows. But what a van! It pains us now to see older Berlingo models, often considerably worse for wear, still going about their business, with every indication that they will be continuing to do so for a good while yet . . . whilst our trusty steed will have been torn apart for spares, recycled and made into razor blades, battleships and park railings by now. It was running generally very well when we traded it in… I mean, just look at it … The picture above was what the 'van' looked like on the eve of its meeting with the crusher. A picture of health! We took care of it…

The reason for selling out on our loyal servant was mostly to do with the expectation of increasing bills to keep the motor on the road; the almost annual MOT failure – because of emissions, righted by administering a can of decongestant, but which one day would become much more expensive to sort out, the slight oil leak, wearing suspension linkage and an intermittent horn (which we rarely used so hardly were aware that it might add another cost to getting the old girl through her annual check-up). Diesel no longer being the flavour of the month in Blightey, we also found that the bus was worth a bit more than its list price of £675… thus it was we accepted a bribe of no less than £4500 to hand the motor over for breaking, in exchange for a newer, cleaner, cooler and, we hope, as reliable, estate car— this time petrol fuelled.  So far we are well pleased with the replacement.

But there is a sort of hankering back to a car you could get out of without needing a winch, a car with higher views, a car that can carry a baby grand… (I made that up, but it could I guess if you mashed the piano up a bit: it certainly coped with a sofa and maybe a water trough or was that the XM?). Anyway,  you could easily whip the seats out and load up Belgium with a bit of pushing and shoving.

And now, whenever we park up in this spot or that, when driving on the right, we oft recall being there in WG57 YZX; and, well – we feel a presence, we detect a bitter sweet taste of a betrayal in the ether…

We got through three Berlingos, all diesels (here above are the other two). The third one (which had loads of bells and whistles, some of which not even the new motor runs to) lasted ten years and took us to France etc many many  times. A life expired battery was the only road side whoopsy (in France naturally) plus an overnight brake adjustment that delayed us a day until it was put right for free. The 'van'  only slightly dropped us in it twice, both times easily sorted by my road manager: I'd have been stuffed, not knowing the language (I blame my school) so thanks to Mrs M for her garage forecourt directive skills.

Little did we know when we parked the wheels outside our hotel in Roscoff last november (left), that the dear thing was spending its last night on French soil …
I am welling up …

So farewell diesels, farewell Citroëns and in particular farewell our trusty final Berlingo,
you done good!


plat du jour the sequel

FAR BE IT FROM ME to imply any criticism to associates, friends and pals in the following report associated with a restaurant that the aforementioned may have persuaded Mrs Melling and Mr Smiff to try out. Fair dos, we wanted to see if the restaurant in the square of this village was now up to providing a quality eating experience, after years of indifference, uncertain ownership and the poor patronage that inevitably attends the rumour of under-performance on the eating out front.

Pictured above, courtesy of Gerard, is a menu du jour jolly we had in Sablet back in the summer of 2016, at The Magali together with the Roberts (not here this summer) and the Kaisers. The Magali actually features this distinguished group of gourmands upon it's roadside signage – so that should help to bring the punters in … big time.

Now, I need to make it clear: what follows is strictly my observations and perspective. It is not anything to do with composing a critique either fairly or unfairly for "Trip Advisor" or similar. In no way would I want to discourage anyone from finding out themselves what is or is not a fine dining experience, for them. Names are omitted as a precaution in that respect, well mostly they are. I take it on trust, dear reader, that you will not post this elsewhere as it is hereby declared my copyright, OK?

The restaurant in question [NB not The Magali but one in the centre of Sablet] has this year been receiving a considerable face lift,  taken over by the adjacent Bar de Sports, to be run, we were given to understand, to provide a more refined class of dining experience than that which appertains in the Bar, which simply provides a satisfactory three courser every weekday lunch and pizzas in the evenings. We believed this to be the aspiration of the owner (and we still do). He has worked hard to make the establishment attractive, at no small cost we are sure.

At an apéro Mrs Melling and myself put on for those of our friends currently in town, it was agreed we would all give the revamped restaurant a trial, in the spirit of supporting the initiative of our friendly and chirpy bar owner, hopefully to help in some small way by contributing to the patronage all new ventures must necessarily seek. A booking was made, a fixture was secured.

I have to tell you now, dear reader, that the experience was not a happy one. On the plus side, our table was almost ready upon our arrival (some cutlery was missing, never to arrive without prompting or raiding adjacent tables) and looked very presentable and comfortable. We were even able to watch from the terrace upon which we were seated, the former President of the Republic, François Hollande with his attractive partner (her name escapes me) taking refreshment at the bar with local 'names' after Mr Hollande had done a good few hours book signing at the 31st Sablet Book Fair, now concluding as the evening encroached.

The menu was as displayed in a case on the street level but copies of this were not available to us at table: we were eventually invited to peruse a chalk board menu, which as a piece of communication rather fell short. Only those immediately adjacent could read it, I am told it was mis-spelt (I wouldn't know that of course, as my written french is as bad as my spoken, and as you may have gathered prior to this account, I blame my school), and so amateurly rendered in minuscules of chalk that the waiter had to be enlisted to interpret.

As is common practice in most dining venues, we were initially invited to partake of an aperitif of our choice, and indeed, one of our number (there were eight of us) did almost achieve the rosé she requested: a bottle was duly delivered to our table --  but at the opposite end to her good self and without benefit of the removal of the cork.The bottle remained stubbornly unopened until all our order for starters, main courses, and for some reason, our desserts had been established. I looked forward to my aperitif which for me would be a pastis -- but the waiter had now disappeared. In fact no one got an aperitif except for the full, unopened bottle of Rosé. No water on the table I noted.

Eventually our waiter (or the waiter more accurately, there being but one) came to see what wine we might take with the meal. Still no water, so it was requested. Eventually a single bottle of unchilled tap did appear (one for eight people, all of whom had decided by now that the aperitif idea was best abandoned and that we would go with the wine of the evening). A member of our group pointed out to the waiter the need to open the bottle of Rosé and so he, good naturedly and I think with a degree of entrepreneurial zeal, went away again to try and find a corkscrew or similar to render the contents of the bottle accessible to those who like that sort of thing (I sit Rosé out mostly as it is thin fare, neither one thing or another, a ladies' drink, etc etc).

At last Mrs Melling took it upon herself (on behalf of those of us not Rosé inclined) to order a bottle of Rouge at a mere €17.In due course it arrived and we fell upon it, distributing to all those not sucking up the recently liberated Rosé, so the bottle was cleared in rather quick time. We ordered a second.

Alas, this restaurant keeps but a limited cellar it would seem: there was only one bottle of that particular wine -- and we had just quaffed it. Perhaps we would like to choose another, of similar provenance? Trouble was, the next 'one up' on the wine list was seven euros more expensive. You will be relieved to know that despite our eyes lighting up with joy at the sight of a Côte Rôtie on the list, they clouded over somewhat when we noted the reckoning, a mere €68 a pop. Sensible or what? And 'pop' it is not!

Nevertheless, with the agreement of most of those at our table, we did plump for 'the next one up'. One of our number (he knows who he is!) made it clear to the young manager when he appeared with said superiorly priced wine in hand, that we were rather unprepared to pay the list price as the establishment had so clearly fallen down on not stocking enough of the somewhat euphemistically called 'cheaper' wine. Rather ungraciously the young manager reluctantly agreed and furthermore took away the ridiculous glasses he had brought to our table with which to drink this new vintage when we made it clear that we didn't like them and were quite content with the glassware already provided, including I might add, tumblers for water. The wine was good, even very good, and we drank another bottle of it in fairly quick succession (hang the price!) but not before the young manager was for having a few sharp words with Mrs Melling about the tone of the complainant on our table, as if it was anything to do with her, already! Notwithstanding, we were indeed charged the reduced price, as it should be when the wine you have started out with is suddenly a non runner.

De l'eau,  s'il vous plaît? Of course . . . but nothing came . . . yet awhile.

Subsequently we have wondered why there was no pichet wine on offer for groups such as ours: even elevated eateries offer such things here in France. . . neither was there a wine 'by the glass' option, and while we are at it,  no cheese alternative to the sweet… but I am getting ahead of myself…

The first course arrived and everybody got what they ordered even though our waiter had not the slightest idea as to whom had ordered what. I didn't take a note of how long it took to arrive: not snappy but I have known much worse. What came to mystify me was the interval between this course and the next. I think a second bottle of water, this time cold, did arrive during this epoch. Thankfully the assembled chums were now fully into the spirit of the occasion if slightly bemused by the bland oddities that had been presented unto us as the first course. I found mine particularly unappertising, and at the subsequent post mortem none of the brethren could award theirs more than a C minus either, although I noted that most had managed to clear the square black plates these delicacies had been delivered upon, well more or less, because there was at least plentiful supplies of bread to mop up with.

Now, at last, the main course arrived. Once more the waiter was unaware as to which plate should go where but with some of the powers of recall left to us we were able to roughly apportion dishes to the expectant customer. A number of the steak orientated option had been requested with varying degrees of cooking, saignant to à point. Sadly, there was no possible identification of which was which and nobody 'on the beef' got what they ordered, quite. The fish, we think possibly bass in another life, Mrs Melling records as 'terrible' in that it had the wrong texture, was overcooked and was stone cold. I had the pork. It too was slightly on the cool-continental side of things, four cubes in a sauce of some sort or other, chaperoned by a hummock of luke warm vegetables, luckily quite low in profile. Flavour-wise the composition was quite acceptable even though the pork was somewhat stringey and less than lean.

I made enquiry of my fellow diners as to their views and I have to report that all found their plates quite unsatisfactory. The steaks had been miscooked, the meat was universally tough and unyielding, while all opined that the plated up dishes must have been sitting around at the pass awaiting the arrival of the steaks, calmly cooling whilst hoping for distribution. A third and final bottle of water finally appeared but sadly not chilled . . . demand for its contents was by now falling off somewhat.

I quite liked the sweet I had ordered but for the life of me I cannot recall what it was. We are pretty sure that all three variants were 'bought in', Brake Brothers or something of the sort: good in their way but not home made as one might expect for the cover price. We declined coffee as the hour was late but there was clearly some traces of dissatisfaction in the air so that the owner, being a man of prescience, offered us all a rather refreshing digestif,  offsetting some of the feelings of disappointment and allowing us to disperse with the good natured boisterousness that we occasionally slip into after such an occasion.

The shortcomings of this experience have coloured the following week. More than once we have discussed the episode with our fellow diners and long is the list of transgressions identified as shortcomings that has now been aired. I am not trotting them all out again beyond what I report above; I will leave the episode here . . .
. . . except to report that the following day, as the cool of the evening began to allow free movement once more and the urge for sustenance to reappear, we went to the Bar primarily for a drink but then elected to order pizzas. They came to us within a few minutes; generous, tasty, well presented, properly segmented and hot. We enjoyed them much more than the previous night's production: the pizzas for two plus our drinks attendant cost about the same as one bottle of the previous night's 'next one up' wine. Rocky table notwithstanding and with cooling mists supplied to combat the heat of the dying day.

The thing is, we so want the restaurant venture to succeed, Sabbers needs a quality place. And who knows, some day it might just get it, but for the foreseeable . . . well, they needs find some other sucker! Oh, – and if you are of the vegan or vegetarian persuasion, you might as well stay home and mix it with the tofu, there's nothing for you here!

If you have been, thanks for reading this to the bitter end. Off you go and make yourself a sandwich, you deserve it …


routes in 2018

that our routes are not straight jackets that we feel obliged to stick to (see below!),
but aspirational suggestions for our journeys across France.
We employ the redoubtable Michelin Road Atlas of France to plan these progresses; this year
that's the A4 wiro-bound 2014 edition again. It is probable that we will get a new edition in 2019.
This post is mostly for my benefit, but if you, my dear public, are interested,
here are our routes so far this year . . .

The second outward journey of 2018, just completed as I tap this out, is a classic example of our flexibility in matters of the route. We don't subscribe to dogma: that once a plan has been contrived then one has to stick to it because what's the use of a plan if you don't stick to it? No Sir! We set out with an open mind! We changed our progression from Pèrigueux to enjoy a new way to Brive; scrapped the idea of going down to the Med from Brive, instead reversing the return journey of the spring (see above right, Sunday 6 May) over the hills to Florac and Alès etc. We came slightly 'off the rails' when we found the Caderousse Barrage across the Rhône closed so had to detour south to cross the river at Roquemaure . . . so I have annotated the variant plan accordingly, post-event, to present you with how we transited, rather than the original scheme of progress. It is shown below the riverside snap that comes after the next paragraph. I trust you are following this.

As a result of our deviation, mentioned above, we were able to take our lunchtime sandwiches 'riverside' under the great planes in the tiny village of Cubjac, a typical find of the type that gives us a boost, en route.

Watch this space for more routes as the year rolls on. But, dear reader, do get a life, you really should not be soaking up this pedantic hogwash, and certainly NOT watching this space!  I mean to say, I am (I am reliably informed) past help, but you surely, have far higher aspirations than what is represented here . . .

In case you were wondering about the coloured bullets against the road numbers: these indicate the colouration of the roads as shown in the aforementioned Michelin Road Atlas of France with the variation that minor non-coloured roads employ a black bullet prefix, and Autoroutes are in bold blue, not the double line red used in the Atlas. So you see, these routes are designed to be used specifically with the Michelin, and nothing else.

Our anticipated return [displayed left] was not quite  the dash I anticipated and we were in Roscoff in time to secure a table at Le Surcouf for our departure lunch.

I foretold: Thus it is that we will be gritting the dentures and using some autoroutes. It may seem counter-productive to set out back to Blightey in a southerly direction, but experience has shown that the A9/A75 Millau Viaduct route is the swifter if longer way to our first overnight at Rodez . . . Thereafter we shall have to resort to the A20 to make Angers comfortably. And then we repeat our spring return to Roscoff [but excluding the third hotel enjoyed then].

 In fact, the above prediction, and the route shown left, proved flexible and variable as described in the broad and the narrow posting, so why not open that up and find out what we actually did? You know you want to.

The third foray in 2018 is described as a projection in the posting the third return so if you want to get the whole story of the 2018 transits you will have to steal yourself and visit that posting and, who knows further extensions to be attached to that one. Complicated.

You are not still reading this, are you?
 Surely not!

Get on with you now, there's all sorts of matters to attend to…

footnote: Don't complain to me that you can't read the route descriptors illustrated here: they can be selected and thus enlarged, just as pictures can. If you will attempt to read this on a 'smart phone', is it really surprising that it come out in pixie sized images?


roses, that's why

SO, IF IT IS SO GOOD out there, down in Vaucluse, shacked up at number 1 Rue de F-B, what's with coming all the way back to Blightey in early May, only to turn round again and go back to Sablet in the latter third of June?

I have to admit this year I was wondering that myself. But as it happens, it was also this spring that the reason for our return became even more apparent. Bullsmead Court is not an estate that takes too kindly to being left to fend for itself. Over the years we have lived here we have done our best to tame the wilderness that some call a garden. We have not altogether succeeded in this respect; more dedicated types we know (and in one or two cases, love) must have wrung their hands at the sight of our unkempt borders and defeated vegetable patch, sucked their teeth at the tramp tramp tramp of the legions of ground elder that swamp even our most valiant attempts to be in charge, shaken their heads at the disgracefully moss impregnated 'lawn' which has to be tamed anew each time we return to the homestead . . . (I still recall two years ago being hospitalised after my fight with the greensward, with severe thorassic  cramps no less).  But what these superior green fingered associates cannot contest, is the gobsmacking display of roses that rolls up just in the spring-cum-summer interface. Bullsmead Court looks a total picture, our rose display is absolutely top drawer! This one (right) is Buff Beauty, Mrs Melling's scented favourite, often first out and also last out, flowers in swathes and multitudes!

You see, Mrs Melling is a rose woman. She knows her roses and is prepared to tend them with a mixture of brutality and love. It is she who has carefully added to the few oddball roses we found here when we took on the place, and now they are all well established and doing their stuff in droves. Most of them are old varieties of shrub roses, hardened individuals who can take the rough with the rough and look good on it. They have also been carefully selected for their scent. And the most prolific is a bit of a mystery as we were after a yellow trailer but the rose we acquired turned out white with a pink blush. Mrs Melling opines it is probably Paul's Himalayan Musk. No matter, it has become a firm favourite except when we have to try and prune the thing.

But what about black spot, aphid attack, rust etc? Well what about them? We care not a jot. The birds love the aphids and clear most of them up most of the time. Black spot is occasional and ignored. From time to time it is true we have said enough is enough already, to this rose or that, but usually after having cropped it back to zero, it shows up again and comes back with renewed vigour. Mrs Melling is also forever sticking bits of stem in that patch or this where in time another rose soon springs up if I don't accidentally chuck it out with the weeds: it is a long time since we took delivery of anything from a nurseryman.

2018 is the best year yet I think. Warm dry weather has allowed blooms to blossom freely. No rotting in the bud this year! Ad no dashing down by heavy rain (although there is still time). Numerous different shrubs, hundreds of blooms and hardly a hybrid-tea in sight. Mrs Melling knows their names, origins, the lot, of course she does. Once more I am reminded that I am a simple pleasure loving dolt . . .  It is a feast of colour and scent and at the time of writing this, it is at maximum revs. The garden is wonderful, the place to be!  And its not just the roses actually, there are the geraniums, the cistus, the flowering bushes and trees, the gooseberries even – and the set of the apple crop . . . in fact it is the space, intimate, airy, densely green and private, full of birds.

Sadly of course we have no such green patch in Sablet . . . the one thing we thought we wouldn't need and the one thing we miss the most. The envy we display at our good friends the Kaisers' shady jardinette with olive tree and good ground cover, is heart felt. We will be a bit sorry then, to leave the garden here in North Devon – as we are indeed going to risk the summer sun this year in Sablet (we held back last summer and boy, were we glad we did as it was une scorcher and far too hot for my cool temperate liking, according to the reports of those who sat out the 2017 roast . . .). We trust we may once more sip a suitable libation in the Kaiser garden even before June is out and hot July makes shade imperative. Other friends and accomplices of course may also ply us with refreshment, we won't hold it against them if they are sans jardin.

But right now?  Well we are getting the itch. The route is sorted, the hotels booked, the packing is in the offing, or soon will be. Hey ho for the open road and a return to Sablet, lightweight apparel and The Tour on Telly!

One or two of our roses will repeat and one or two might do so even after our third return,  the autumn trip. They are good friends . . .  if somewhat prickly at times . . .


plat du jour

THE INCLEMENT WEATHER to which the Vaucluse is such a stranger returned to mark both the end of the month (April) and the beginning of the next (May). The French were perplexed. the Dutch arriving in droves, and we, for our part had fixtures to honour.

First up, and it was up in a most literal sense, our third and final visit this time out, to the ever magnetic Ventoux. Never mind the dark grey cloud cap Le Géant was sporting when we hove into Bedoin,  — a fixture is a fixture. The occasional flurry of rain was flecking the windscreen as we commenced  the 21 kilometre ascent. The interminable string of misery laden cyclists in entirely inappropriate dress for the most part,  trundling their way to and through the encircling woods confirmed that since our last visit, when we abandoned the motor at the barrier and walked all the way in glorious sunshine, to the Tom Simpson memorial (see above), the road had indeed been opened up to the Ventoux summit. No way down the other side mind, the northern approach from Malaucene still firmly closed until May 16 at the earliest.

(INTERJECTION! This is what the view from Ventoux summit – family seat in foreground – is expected to look something like by late spring, and what it actually did look like, up there on the 4th of July … blue sky, long views etc; a bit of snow maybe, nippy certainly, but essentially summer on the way…)

And thus it was that we arrived at last at the dense cloud of the final 500 meters, frozen rain rattling on the windscreen as we peered through the gloom to detect the next darkling figure on a bike (d'you know, not one of the bounders had lights on!), and finally topping out, doing a three point turn on black ice to pass over the summit and down again a touch, to the bit of levelled mountain that passes for the car park of the restaurant. Mrs Melling was vexed to find this favoured emporium closed barred and shuttered, what tables there were blown over and snowed in; so Mrs M's aspiration for a plate du jour or plat de frites was dashed and after a perilous visit to the sacred family seat, pictured top, we contented ourselves with the remembrance of former excellent repasts hereat, and slipped back down the road to visibility light and promise, along with a trickle of severely chastened and chilled cyclo-summitists, mad fools.

We made do with a pizza in Malaucene, and thought ourselves lucky; the French clammer for their menu du jour at mid day sharp, and woe-betide the luckless novice who strolls into a rank-and-file restaurant requiring sustenance any time after 1300 hours because by that time most chefs have already got their coats and hats on and are itching to slip out of the back and get off home to lunch. This place served all day, or so the legend across the menu suggested.

So on May Day we were brought up short somewhat when we convened at St Roman de Malegarde to finally sample at the 'chez claudette' restaurant that has been recommended by all the longer standing members of the Sablet fan club. We took Jenny Kaiser (husband Gerard, who had made the booking by telephone was subsequently laid low with a lung infection so was back home feasting on an egg), and we were to meet Dieter and Gudrun at the aformentioned restaurant.

We were told upon arrival, that there had been a mistake, for which our informant made no apology or restitution in any way, and we had been booked in for 13.30, not the 12.30 slot so carefully requested.. But here we were at 12:15.  Surely we could not have been served as late as 13:30, the chef would have been at home in his slippers! I did not actually see the gallic shrug but it was implicit. No problem —we could eat on the terrasse if we so wished, there was a table covered by a paper table cloth, sans settings, just waiting for the likes of us. The weather, dear reader was of a sort in which waifs and strays succumb in more northerly climes. The temperature was in double figures (11°C) but there was the wind chill factor to consider as well as imminent rainfall. By now the Vaters had arrived. I'd expected them to turn on their heel and I think they almost did, but suddenly they were up for it: we would stick it out and eat on the terrasse. A motley collection of shawls were produced by the establishment, cushions fetched from the Vater's car; the men eschewed the rugs and blankets – I donned my waterproofs and Dieter put on his cap.

Throughout the meal we ate out there (and the rain set in as expected) the table we could have occupied inside remained unoccupied, the booking for which we were sacrificed to the elements not materialising until we were clutching our coffee cups in vain attempts to restore our numbing fingers.

And what of the meal? Was it worthy of the reputation so regularly lavished upon this famous place? Well the entrée was get-it-yourself – acceptable but hardly memorable, the main course was most unappetising in appearance but tasted quite good if somewhat fatty, and the sweets rather good looking and the only aspect of the feast that was well presented. In short, not more than B minus and only graded thus because we found it all rather amusing. Needless to say the sun peeped through the cloud just after we left St Roman. And would we go there again (hundreds of satisfied customers cannot be wrong, surely)? Er. . . probably not . . . or so Mrs Melling and I concluded.

May second and the weather showed slightly more promise after a stuttering start. We were keen to be out in the refreshing air. We noted the numerous nightingales, poppies and other aspects of the Etang Salé-de-Courthézon that delight, not to mention the large amounts of fresh snow gracing the top of Mt Ventoux in the distance.

Then up to the hilltop (where we once found an elephant hawk moth caterpillar) with its weird derelict tower and the best coloured galets around, some of which were once used to hold open the doors in no1 RueFB . . . So naturally, thereafter we made a bee line to nearby Chateauneuf for a lunch time plat du jour, just getting in under the wire at 12:50. Within ten minutes we had placed our order, just the plat-du-jour please (steak and chips) and sat back with a glass of the rather pricey but good local red stuff  to wait for the appearance of our meal at our table . . . Mrs Melling remarked that there must be a boat in as the restaurant was awash in Americans: I was sure she opined that they were all 'just off the boat' but she has since corrected this 'mis-hear' on my part; the boat in question would be one of the tourist cruisers that ply the nearby Rhône and set down their passengers hereabouts to sample the exclusive wines and food of the locale.

When fifty minutes had elapsed Mrs Melling ascertained from one of the waitresses who seemed to be serving our cousins from across the pond without difficulty, that our repast had been delayed because the gas bottle had run out on the gas fired griddle.

As excuses go for the non delivery of one's meal this must be one of the most convincing I ever heard. I am sure the demand for food in the centre of Chateauneuf-Du-Pape must result in butane gas cylinders being in a state of constant shortage, and even for those outlets with the foresight  and experience to have secured a spare bottle as backup, there is always the taxing business of changing the bottle. It is not a task to be undertaken lightly or indeed with reckless haste, as our experience at this restaurant demonstrated so clearly to us.

Anyway the steak and chips did arrive just one hour after the order was placed, perfectly cooked steak but almost cold. The chips on the other hand were piping hot. Fair's fair! It was in Chateau-N-de-P after all! I also noticed a customer who was presented with first one pump action dressing distributor for his salad, then another, both devices seemingly malfunctioning; and finally, after fifteen minutes of stolid refusal to tuck in sans dressing, a small white jug of the appropriate anointing oil was brought so that he could dress his salad and begin the meal his fellow guest had already finished.

Had steak and chips at Puyméras last week. My, it was good. Very very good. Ten minutes, cooked to perfection. Mark it down Mrs M, mark it down (pictured left).

One has to be ever prepared to take the rough with the smooth when eating out in France. My advice is never to expect too much. Sometimes you will be knocked off your feet by the appetising elegance of a simple meal and at others rendered speechless by the cheek of what one is expected to pay for. I would further advise not to eat anywhere not frequented by locals, preferably in paint spattered fatigues and/or high vis jackets, nor anywhere which is famous as a venue or is situated where yer tourists gather. Try to make it for just-after-mid-day even if you are a late riser and are still dusting off the croissant crumbs from your cardigan. Expect at least a 20% hike if you order almost the same dish in the eventide; eat at lunchtime, mostly. Beware the smear on the absurdly shaped plate, the flourishing plate covers et al . . . you've been had mate, and you will want to cry when l'addition finally arrives . . .

And never ever order andouillette. It is not for the likes of you or me. It is a dish the French can have to themselves,  they are truly welcome to it. Ugh. (The Germans are with us on this, they too are at a loss why this "thing' is even considered to be a foodstuff . . .). Best not to ask what andouillette is made of . . .  for heaven's sake don't be fooled into thinking it is a sausage, like friend Dieter once was. He stills goes pale at the recollection . . .

The picture below is of grey St Roman de Malegarde apres 'the lunch' and a few more pictures from these few days can be found on the flickr album april into may