Travelling with the Band

The whole purpose of going to Switzerland was to see Josh, aka The JW Jones Band, play at the Sierre Blues Festival. The band was on tour and had already played at a festival in Tenero, Switzerland and La Cheze, France. We were catching up with them for their last gig of the tour.

Josh’s tour manager booked the band into a B & B hotel outside of Sierre for their day off. We arranged to stay in the same place and meet up at some point in the late afternoon or evening – depending on all of our travel arrangements.

Tim & I arrived in Sierre knowing that we would have to take a bus or a Funicular to the hotel, but not really understanding that the hotel was in an entirely different town halfway up the mountain. In fact, we were staying in Crans Montana, a resort community dedicated to golf in the summer, skiing in the winter. The bus ride to Crans Montana was a harrowing experience to say the least – barreling along narrow switch back roads with a bus driver that clearly knew no fear. We zipped up the mountain, to 1500 meters above the Rhône River valley.

But once we got there we were rewarded with an amazing mountain experience.

The view from our window to the Alps beyond

Our room at the B & B overlooked the Alps, the silhouette of the Matterhorn in the distance, the air mountain fresh. The town itself is predictably oriented toward luxury. Stores that specialize in anti-aging products. A caviar bar. A cigar store. Again, we are out of our financial league.

Josh and the band arrived, and we got to meet Ella, Josh’s new lady love who is bravely travelling with the boys through France and Switzerland.

Josh & Ella in the van

Josh, Jeff & Jessie make up the JW Jones Band and they had a tour manager and driver, Dina, from Germany who looked after everything. But even Dina couldn’t find us a cheap place to eat dinner in this town. We settled on a Thai restaurant, of all things, but the food was surprisingly good, especially after we’ve had long days on the road.

Breakfast at the B & B was like nothing I have ever encountered. The menu is clearly focused on healthy life styles, but that doesn’t take into account the outrageous over eating that one does at a B & B. Here is what we encountered:

  • At least a dozen bowls with different nuts, seeds, dried fruits
  • 6 different home made jams
  • A selection of honeys and molasses
  • Bowls of grains. This was mystifying at first. Dried wheat, barley, rye, oats and many others that I couldn’t identify nor translate. Next to the grains was a small hand grinder. After watching someone else, I saw that you put a spoonful of your selection into the grinder and grind it into a bowl. Low and behold you’ve made your own cereal for breakfast.
  • 6 different fresh breads, fresh croissants
  • fresh fruit as well as fresh oranges and grapefruits and a juicer to make your own juice
  • a plate of cheeses and dried meats, salamis, prosciutto etc.
  • several types of yogurts
  • juices, health drinks and many things I couldn’t identify
  • at least a dozen different loose teas, all in small boxes, perfectly labeled
  • bacon, scrambled egg, and a lovely hot bowl that held what looked like sand in which sat perfect boiled eggs.

This is what I can remember. There was much more. Plus a archetypical lovely “Swiss Lass” who brought us coffee and hot water in a beautiful silver service. Needless to say we took our time. We also took the advice of the band and surreptitiously made sandwiches for later.

The band & Tim outside Château Mercier

After breakfast, the band checked out to move to their Sierre location. The Festival organizers had put them up in the plush Château Mercier. It is very posh, set amongst vineyards yet only a 5-minute walk from downtown Sierre. The band settled into their new digs while Tim & I went off to explore town. It is charming, with everyone full of smiles and good humour. There are 3 official languages in Switzerland: French, Swiss-German, and Italian. We muddled along in our ghastly French and were embarrassed to hear the ease with which people switched in and out of all of the languages.

We met up with the band again at their sound check.

The view from the stage, during sound check

Josh was really impressed with the professionalism of the Sierre team. He was happy with the equipment that they’d brought in and everything went quickly and efficiently. It was blazingly hot, so we made a plan to go to explore the lake. However, we ended up getting separated and Tim & I decided that we couldn’t walk to the lake in the heat. The band was in their car, somewhere, but we took a different route and ended up at the Reiner Marie Rilke museum. This would have been more exciting if some of the information at the museum had been in English. We deciphered what we could, absorbed the photos and moved on.

Josh’s band was scheduled to start at 11:30 p.m. and our special bus back up the mountain to Crans Montana was to leave Sierre at 2:00 a.m. Tim needed to get a bit of a break from the heat, from the walking, so he headed back to the B & B, taking the Funicular (which was a whole other kind of terror, he tells me later) while I kicked around town a bit.

One of the other bands that we met at the Château Mercier was “Davina and the Vagabonds”, from Minneapolis. They were playing a gig at 5:00 at the Château de Villa, on the outskirts of town but still only a 10 minute walk.

At Château de Villa, Davina and the Vagabonds are under the tent

Built in the 16th century, the Château houses a “cave”, L’Oenothèque de Villa, with a selection of wines from over 100 local vintners. There is also a museum dedicated to wine and the wine growers of the region. I looked wistfully at the walking map that would take me on a wine tour, walking from Sierre to the nearby town of Salgesch. But it was blazingly hot and it was going to be a very long night. So I settled for a lovely local Rosé on the terrace, to listen to Davina and her band bounce into some very good Dixieland sound.

At 7:30 Tim and I met up with the band, backstage. We had our own backstage passes!

Josh, Ella & Tim backstage

We got to eat and hang out with all of the musicians. The organizers put together a good feast that included gazpacho, chicken with wild mushrooms, rice, salad, fresh peach tart and an open bar of Swiss wines and beers. There was even some raclette on offer later in the evening.

We watched the bands, waiting for the main event. The organizers had also put together an exhibition of paintings of all of the musicians and we were all really excited to see a huge painting of Josh in the VIP tent.

JW and JW

As it turns out, JW didn’t actually start his set until midnight. But what a set! We’ve seen JW in Ottawa at the Rainbow many times. But this was entirely different. The huge stage with the Alps as a backdrop. The fabulous light show. The screaming groupies (not just us – there were lots of others who have travelled from long distances to see this band). JW and Jeff and Jessie are a hot live band and they delivered. You can watch it on You Tube.

We danced, we clapped, we screamed. He conquered. It was a great night.

JW Jones Band

Just before 2:00 we hobbled over to the bus. Turns out we were the only ones who needed the drive up the mountain (the organizers had planned for everything, except for the low turn out). The twists and turns didn’t seem as bad this time around and we were soon tucked safely into our room, already dreaming of tomorrow’s breakfast.

More than cheese, chocolate and clocks

Tim’s friend Sandra picked us up in Geneva to bring us to her house outside the town of Chexbres. Leaving Geneva we made a quick stop to Cologny to see the Villa Diodati, where Mary Shelley first began to write Frankenstein.

Villa Diodati

It’s hard to imagine such a dark book coming out of a villa set in such a sunny, well-manicured garden.

Born in the U.S., Sandra now lives with her husband and daughter in the Lavaux region of Switzerland. Designated as a World Heritage Site in 2007, the Lavaux Vineyard Terraces stretch for approximately 30 kilometers along the north shore of Lake Geneva.

The Lavaux Terraces

A unique microclimate, the area has been under cultivation as a wine-making region since at least the 11th century, when Benedictine and Cistercian monks created the stone terraces that hold the grape vines to this day. The grapes continue to produce exquisite wines. Why have I never heard of them? “Unfortunately, they do not travel well”, says Sandra’s husband with a glint in his eye. Switzerland is proving to be a country of many surprises.

Sandra’s house is a calm oasis amongst the terraced grape vines, directly overlooking Lake Geneva. Designed as a retirement project by a successful engineer, it is a house whose deep windows open to the extraordinary scenery; a house of “noble” products: wood, stone, and polished granite floors.

View from the house, across Lake Geneva to the French Alps

We sip a Dezaley white wine, the appellation of the region. We watch the mountain range on the other side of the lake slide into the purple of the night sky. The French Alps with the famous city of Evian twinkling on the shore. It is an evening of astonishing beauty and invigorating talk under the scent of pine trees.

Dinner in the "magic spot" with Sandra & Andreas. Photo by Olivia

In the morning, we are given a tour of the area, with a brief glimpse of Saint Saphorin, a tiny town that sits atop an ancient Roman villa and produces some of the best wine in the region. We drive along the lake down to Montreux, known to me primarily for the famous jazz festival.

The Grand Hotel in Montreux

In days gone by it was one of the essential stops for Europeans on a “grand tour”. Sandra also takes us to the Hôtel des Trois Couronnes in Vevey, the smaller of the “grand tour” hotels and the setting for Henry James’ novella, “Daisy Miller”.

Hôtel des Trois Couronnes

We wander into the fin-de-siècle lobby and out onto the gorgeous terrace looking out over the topiary to the sun-drenched lake.

We lunch in Lutry, at the Café de la Poste, right beside Lake Geneva. The specialty is tiny Perch fingerlings, fresh from the Lake. Tim, who knows a thing or two about filleting, can’t imagine the difficulty of filleting these tiny fish, but the taste is well worth any effort. The chef comes to our table to explain the cooking process in which the fillets are soaked in milk for half a day, patted dry and lightly floured on the flesh side only. Butter is melted with a little oil and permitted to slightly brown. The fillets are gently fried, always starting with the flesh side first. A delicious sauce, made from a lemon reduction, melted butter, cream and shallots is ladled over the perfect morsels.

The chef in Lutry sits with us to explain how the Perch fingerlings are made

Sandra surprises us by ordering another specialty of the Lavaux region for dessert: Raisins à la Lie et Glace. La Lie is a distilled alcohol, (“sort of like Grappa”) made from the second pressing of the grapes. White Sultana raisins are soaked in the Lie (pronounced Lee), which is slightly diluted with a simple sugar syrup and some lemon zest. Our spoons dip through the creamy ice cream to the sweet alcoholic prize below.

Our experience of Switzerland is full of surprises. Clearly this is a country of much more than cheese, chocolate and cuckoo clocks!

Tim and Sandra in the tropical climate of Montreux

Touching down in Geneva

We decide to go to Switzerland to see Tim’s nephew, Josh. His band, The JW Jones Band, is on tour in Switzerland and his last gig is in Sierre, about 400 km from where we are staying. Since we’ll have to go through Geneva, we decide to spend a night there, followed by a night in the countryside with a student of Tim’s, and then go onto Sierre. We travel by train from Digoin to Lyon to Geneva.

The Rough Guide tells me that Geneva is the most expensive city in Europe, which is confirmed the minute I try and find a B & B. I book us into a hostel that is close to the train station.

We arrive to find Geneva beautiful, clean and safe. We dump our packs at the hostel and head immediately to the harbor to enjoy a local beer and glass of Rosé.

The Geneva Harbour

The focal point of the harbor is a fountain that jets water 200 meters into the air. It’s blazingly hot, so we walk out on the jetty just to feel the spray.

The Harbour fountain jutting from Tim's head
Lavish apartments around the harbour

There are beautiful apartment buildings surrounding the harbor, all with huge signs advertising the most expensive brand names: Rolex, Cartier, Cardin. The love of money seems to ooze from the stores – I see a stack of gold attaché cases that is the perfect representation for the conspicuous wealth that surrounds us. But the architecture is beautiful and the old city is a dramatic warren of angles and irregular roof lines.

Roof lines in the old village. Note the jet spray in the background.

However, it is clearly not a place for mere mortals to shop. When we try to find a place for dinner, we are floored by the prices – 26 Euros for a piece of lasagna (about $32 CAD). Not that we want lasagna, but it sticks in my mind as one of the least expensive dishes on the menu.

After great argument, we resort to a place recommended by the hostel, clearly for the student tourist crowd. It specializes in chicken dishes. We have walked too much, are too tired, and without thinking order half roast chickens with “country” fried potatoes and “special sauce”. Sound familiar? We realize we have just ordered Swiss Chalet in Switzerland.

St. Peter’s Cathedral, ( best known for being where John Calvin preached, offers a stunning view of the city, and also a unique perspective on the history of the area.

A view of the harbour from the North Tower of St. Peter's Cathedral

We climb the steep stairs to the top of the north tower as the bells chime alongside us.

The Bell Tower of St. Peter's Cathedral

A working archeological site under the cathedral ( takes us through 2000 years of worship and habitation, beginning with the burial mound of a Allobrogian chieftain in 40 BC. The site has uncovered his remains, but left them in situ. He is observed, but undisturbed. Roman, Celtic, Christian constructions are all exposed under the cathedral. It is the highlight of our brief stay, and helps us to better ground ourselves after the unsettling, ostentatious, contemporary city.

Gondebaud. Roi des Burgondies. 480 - 516 AD

Une opération bilingue

King Charles VIII of France died in April 1498 at the lavish Château d’Amboise, after hitting his head on a low beam.  We learn this little bit of history on the day that Tim is to have his stitches removed, from the wound incurred from banging his head on a low beam in France.

Karine arrived at Bel-Air in the late morning, with a bag of supplies in hand. When we were at the hospital last week, Tim was told to make an appointment with a nurse (l’infirmier) to have the stitches removed. But we weren’t told how or where to make this appointment. Fortunately neighbor Suzanne’s daughter Karine is a nurse and she volunteered to come to the house to do the deed.

I make a pot of coffee, and we sit out on the patio, sheltering ourselves from the heat with a large blue umbrella. Karine speaks some English, and the visit is conducted in a mixture of languages. She is barely given a chance to sip her coffee because Bryan is very excited. Camera in hand he wants to record the “operation”, and has spent the previous night thinking through an appropriate script and commentary. Tim is positioned in the chair at the head of the table and we are ready to go.

Karine washes her hands and then lays her tools out on the table — 2 vials of antiseptic, 1 vial of antibiotic (just in case), plastic tweezers, scissors, scalpel, sterile gauze and wads of cotton — all carefully packaged in sterile plastic sleeves. She cleanses the wound (la blessure) and deftly slices through the blue thread de chaque point. Each one is quickly removed, held aloft and applauded. The operation is a success. Tim’s head is in tact.

“Karine, Je fait des “brownies” pour ta famille”. I send her home with a large plate, freshly made and still warm. We ask if we should be paying for the supplies, to which she replies, “Sarkozy va payer”. Thank you, again, French health care!

Working on my French is an uphill battle. There are a surprising number of words in my memory banks, but the verbs are a nightmare. Other than in high school, my French studies have been half-hearted attempts at self improvement: a series of classes with my dear neighbor Pauline, a dreadful evening college class, and forays into ancient French school text books. Suzanne has agreed to take me on for a few conversational classes, and I have met her down at her house several times. Elle est très gentille and accepts payment in Crémant (the local sparkling wine). After an hour I have managed to tell her I love her (instead of that I love my son). And I leave telling her that I am bad feet. It seems my default is always Je suis, which gives me a frustratingly arrogant air.

But Suzanne and her husband Christian are patient. I am given homework to gently steer me toward a past tense.  I pour through the back of the Robert Collins Super Senior français/anglais dictionnaire, scratching around the edges of comprehension.

Dave’s Magical Mystery Tour

Bryan’s friend Dave is a history teacher and avid bird watcher. Dave likes nothing more than to be a tour guide for the area and when he offered to take us on a “Magical Mystery Tour” we readily accepted. We met up with Dave at his tiny holiday house in Crecoux. As far as I could tell there are only 3 houses that belong to Crecow – Dave’s, a farmer’s and a house belonging to the Mayor of Les Guerraux, a small village of approximately 300. Dave and his wife purchased their house at the end of this very secluded rural road in Burgundy 12 years ago. With a broad smile, he refused to tell us our itinerary for the day, insisting that it be a surprise even for Bryan. We piled into his car and were off.

Our first stop was “Signal du Mont”. A wooden observatory, built upon the ruins of a Gallic fort, at 472 metres high it affords an amazing panorama of Burgundy.

View of Burgundy from Signal du Mont

There is no way that my camera is able to do it justice. I know it sounds ridiculous, but I think that this was the first time that I realized just how vast France is. Beautifully kept fields, tiny villages, small towns as far as the eye can see. And in the far distance, the mountains of Massif Centrale.  An auspicious start to the day.

Tim & Dave on Signal du Mont

Dave then takes us on to the town of Bourbon Lancy. Bourbon Lancy is known primarily as a spa town (les Thermes – as in the thermal waters), and there is a thriving tourism dedicated to taking the waters. However, we are there to walk through the Medieval Quarter, which is a stunningly well-preserved part of town.

Houses of Bourbon Lancy

There is a clock in the stone gateway in which a manikin pulls a chain to chime the hour.  Immaculate gardens, cobbled streets and wooden beamed homes within the walled boundaries.

Detail on House in Bourbon Lancy
The Medieval Quarter

A vision of old France. The rest of the town is equally beautiful, with cafés and boulangeries that beg to be explored.

From Bourbon Lancy, Dave takes us to a small wilderness preserve on the Loire called La Fleurie. Here you can see how drastically the Loire has changed its course over the last 100 years. The river’s curves have lessoned and farmers must battle the changing flood plans.

Farm on the cliffs of the Loire

A farm sits atop the last remaining cliff on the Loire, and the cliff edge comes closer every year. The changing flow has created a small island that is preserved as a nature habitat, although Dave admits he has never seen any wildlife other than birds on it.

We are getting hungry and decide to head to Cronat for lunch. Cronat (population approximately 600) is a town that people mostly go through to get to the highway. Pretty, very quiet, Dave says it is a “one horse town”, but I can’t figure out what the horse might be. We lunch sitting outside at a small restaurant, and although the meal is disappointing, the company and the circumstances are not. And everything tastes better after a glass of Kir and a carafe of wine.

From Cronat we go to Port Thareau, near St. Hilaire-Fontaine (population less than 200). This is a very out of the way section of the Loire that Dave tells us used to be the docking point for the Royal Court of the Bourbons. They came down the river (against the current) from Paris, and were met at the dock to proceed by carriage to their country chateau. It is a magical spot, with 4 houses that face the river and a verge that is a perfect picnic spot.

Across the Loire at Port Thareau

It also has a more recent history that I find mesmerizing. The side of the river that we stand on was, during the Second World War, in occupied France. The other side, literally a stone’s throw, was Vichy, so called “free France”. It would have been a fairly easy place to slip across, as many Jews did, hoping to escape the Nazis in occupied France. Although not the best solution, as Vichy also rounded up Jews to send to the camps, being in free France could buy a little time. Today, the river is so shallow, one could easily walk across. A possible gateway to freedom. Tim falls in love with a house that is a complete ruin. Trees shield the house almost completely from view. Vines grow through the windows.

Briar Rose's House?

It is a vision from Briar Rose and I am afraid that Tim will, any moment, try to make his way inside this magical story.

What lies beyond the wall?

Bryan and Dave, both of a far more practical mind set, are confused by Tim’s passion and eloquence on the subject of a dilapidated house. We eventually pry him loose and head on to Decize. With 7000 inhabitants, we are seemingly thrust into a booming metropolis.

Across the Bridge to Decize

Dave navigates us toward the centre of town, which is accessed across a bridge. Where once there was water from the Loire, the bridge now crosses a field of wildflowers. The bridge and the town beyond are filled with a small town bustle of energy. It is becoming blisteringly hot, so we head to the city centre for a cooling drink. Dave suggests I try Perrier Menthe – Perrier with mint syrup. It is the perfect refreshing drink on such a day. We walk though Decize, through the fortress walls, and back along a canal toward the Loire. We come across a fabulous photographic exhibit “Des Forets et des Hommes” (check the link) set up outside amongst the tress of a small wood beside the river. The photographs are amazing and show everything from deforestation in the Amazon, to tree frogs in France. We slow down to take it all in and are moved by the beauty and the horror. One of the most startling pictures was a show down between a hummingbird and a viper. (check the link)

Sunburnt and weary, we head back to Bel-Air. Thankfully Bryan had made his famous Ratatouille the night before so although we settle into one of our fabulous 5 course meals, we do so with little effort. I throw in a few potatoes to roast and make crudités and a light salad. The Ratatouille is incredible (the inclusion of braised endives is an amazing innovation) and is complemented by quickly fried pork chops. Our cheese supply is in good stead and for dessert we have wild blackberries, picked the previous morning.

All in all, the day has been a wonderful window into this corner of the world. I am beginning to see life in a very different way. This is not like rural Canada, where all roads lead to a mid sized city and where everyone shops at chain stores. Although there are cars and conveniences like washing machines, computers and cell phones, people are leading quiet lives. Small villages still have several boulangeries and cafés. Small towns have grace and people who are open and friendly. I have yet to see anyone rushing.

Nursing a Perrier Menthe with the guys in Decize

In Which We Test the French Health Care System

After our day canoeing on the Loire, we are all exhausted and sunburnt. We get back to Bel Air at 6:00, and are supposed to be at Louis’ house at 7:00 for aperitifs, followed by a massive dinner with all of the canoeists and their families. It is a tradition that everyone has this dinner after the canoeing expedition, a dinner that goes on late into the night.

But we need a brief rest before we go anywhere, and everyone lies down. Within seconds I am in a deep sleep, dreaming disjointed dreams, vaguely aware of Tim snoring beside me. I allow myself about 15 minutes, then surface to head out to the pool to refresh myself.

Tim wakes and stumbles toward the stairs to head for the pool. But he is only half awake and smashes his head into the wooden beam at the top of the doorframe out of the bedroom. He swears loudly, and I shush him afraid he will wake Bryan and Peta. He staggers out of the bedroom holding his head, and goes briefly into the pool. But when he touches his head again and pulls his hand away, there is a fair quantity of blood.

I look at the injury. It does not look good. I go to get my first aid kit that my wonderful mother packed for me (It has all of the essentials, including, most importantly, a corkscrew. Most first aid can begin with the opening of a bottle of wine.) I daub at the blood with alcohol and see a large gash right on the crown of his head.  Matt, who is in training to be a doctor, takes a look at it and pronounces it “quite nasty and icky”. I get an ice pack, and make some tea, alerting Bryan and Peta that we may need to go to the hospital for stitches.

Tim sits and waits, ice melting on this head, as I make a call to our Blue Cross insurance in Canada. They open a file and approve our plan to go to the hospital in Paray-le-Monial.

Bryan drives like he is in the grand prix, even though Tim assures him he is in no pain. There is only a brief wait before Tim is admitted. They examine him, make sure that he is not concussed, check his blood for the antigen for Tetanus and determine they will give him a shot. They wash his head vigorously but carefully and decide that he requires two stitches (“deux points”). The whole thing takes about 15 minutes, is painless and thorough. He is given a card to direct him to get a follow up Tetanus shot in a month, and told to make an appointment with a nurse in Digoin to have the stitches out in a week.

We drive home, deciding it is far too late to go to the dinner at Louis’. We create a quick and comforting dinner of pasta with Harlot Sauce.

Canoeing on the Loire

On Saturday, we got up early to put the finishing touches on a picnic (little sausages, a cooked chicken, breads, melons, tomatoes, wine, coffee and left over birthday torte) and went to rendezvous with 15 of Peta and Bryan’s friends  near Marcigny beside the Loire river. A canoe rental business is housed in an old stone house, with immaculate patio, beside a huge old barn. The barn is filled with life jackets, bidot (plastic bins to put our belongings in) and all manner of plastic canoes, kayaks and paddles. We all climb into a small bus, pulling a stack of canoes & kayaks, and are driven 10 kilometers up river where we re-grouped, only to find that we were 1 canoe short.

Somehow, this became a problem of les Anglais et les Canadiens who were clearly being difficult. Everyone else had what they wanted, what they had ordered. The fact that they were just quicker getting to them didn’t seem to be understood. Various options were proposed, most of which would have meant that we were paired with other couples or going individually in kayaks (we had 1 extra kayak). After 20 minutes of wild gesticulations, we persuaded the group to go on without us.

Looking downstream from our starting point

Peta, Bryan, Matt, Tim & I waited for a canoe to be brought to us, while les Françaises headed out into the river.

About 30 minutes later, the bus showed up, with a new load of canoeists. We grabbed a canoe and the 5 of us headed out onto the river.

The Loire is stunningly gorgeous and surprisingly unspoiled and undeveloped.  There are no motor boats, no docks, no yahoos on jet skis. This is picture perfect farming landscape. Cows come right down to the river to drink, and urinate. Egrets parade on the banks. Storks nest high in the trees. Fish almost jump into the canoe while distant church bells toll.

We are paddling downstream, with help from the current that occasionally rouses itself to move briskly. The river is mostly very shallow, and we must watch for shoals that cause us to run aground. But that is about as hard as the paddling gets.  Tim & I put on our best Canadian form. We have a reputation to live up to.  We are representing all of Canada! But somehow using plastic paddles in a plastic moulded canoe doesn’t evoke the same elegance of a cedar strip and we slow our pace and ignore our style, laughing at the wonder of floating down the Loire.

Matt in his Kayak
Tim & Amanda. Note the yellow moulded plastic canoe.

After 1 ½ hours of gentle paddling, we arrive at the picnic place. The rest of the party have only just arrived and are amazed that we caught up so quickly. We beam as we unpack. Suzanne and a couple of the other wives arrive with the lunches. They don’t join us on the river, preferring instead to be responsible for the food preparation and clean up. We spread our blanket under the shade of the trees and begin the feast.

The picnic begins

All food and drink is shared. But the way it is shared is that you put some of what you have brought on your own plate and then carry the rest of it around to each cluster of people, offering them little bits. The same is done with the wine, beginning with the white, moving to the rose, and finishing with the red. Different reds for different parts of the meal. Christian brings us some exquisite chèvre, but is dismayed that we only have Bourgogne to drink with it. He returns with a half bottle of Cote du Rhône, insisting that we keep it for the chèvre.

Bryan and Matt rest after lunch
Tim has a rest after lunch

We are replete.  We doze.  Eventually we gather up our things and head out for the second leg of the journey. It is bright and hot and still, but it is good to be moving again. We are among the last of the group to head out, and we weave in and out of the other canoes until we eventually find ourselves in the lead, skirting the occasional rapid with humour, if not grace.

I was asked at lunch if I found the river wild. “Sauvages”. I almost cause an international incident when I reply “non”. I am told indignantly that the Loire is the last wild river in France. Bryan intervenes and explains that Canada is “très sauvages”, and everyone laughs and nods in agreement. We are asked if we have a lot of caribou where we live. We try to talk about the deer and for some reason I bring up the word moose — wherein follows a long discussion about what a moose is. If there is a French word for moose neither Peta nor Bryan know it, and we leave the French increasingly bewildered. It is hard enough for them to believe that we are from Canada and not from Quebec, but now we are talking about some kind of mythical beast. Clearly, we are lost causes.

Not particularly wild. Could it be more bucolic?

Happy Birthday Tim

Friday was Tim’s birthday. We have spent 37 of his birthdays together, and although I can’t remember each one, this one was pretty special.

The main event was a huge lunch at L’Escale, a restaurant in Digoin. Happy birthday was combined with farewell toasts to Richard & Johanna, who were leaving to go back to London. The restaurant was a simple affair, filled with local folks enjoying, as we were, a large mid-day meal.

Tim with Johanna & Richard Godwin

First course was a choice of charcuterie, poisson or crudité. Second course was a choice between 3 different cuts of steak or tripe, served with fried potatoes. (They were kind enough to make an omelet for Johanna) Third course was either fromage blanc or a cheese platter. This was followed by dessert of either ice cream, flan or fruit plate and finished off with coffee. Wine throughout – white, red and rose. The price worked out to about 16 euros each, which included a large tip. Eating to excess at a minimum of expense!

There were many new things for me to learn. The different words for the rareness of your steak (bleu, saignant, en pointe). The fact that crudité does not mean raw vegetables — in this case it was rice and tuna salad and a couscous salad (when I was dying for a bit of lettuce). And then there is the peculiarity of fromage blanc. I don’t really get fromage blanc. It doesn’t have much taste on its own, so you are supposed to do something to it to make it exciting. Matt on one side of me covered his in sugar, the most typical treatment. Bryan on the other side asked the waitress if there was any garlic, and she brought him a bowl of 5 large buds. He ground fresh black pepper onto the fromage blanc, then proceeded to carve off thin slices of one of the buds of garlic and blend them into the cheese. An acquired taste, perhaps, but an equally acceptable treatment.

We rolled out of the restaurant several hours later. Tim & I walked back from Digoin, while Bryan & Peta drove Richard and Johanna to Le Creusot to catch a train to take them to London via Paris. Our afternoon was spent cleaning – there is a family coming to rent the gite that we have been staying in, so we moved out and into the main part of the house.

A Happy Birthday toast before dinner

There were many toasts to Tim later in the day, in the sunshine, in the sunset, by the moon rise.

Watching the rise of the moon

Peta got him a lovely local Pinot Noir that was exquisite to drink under the stars. I made a Chocolate Almond Torte to sing Happy Birthday over.

Happy Birthday, dear Tim. You get more wonderful with each passing year.

Cooking (and eating) to excess

With the immanent arrival of Seb, Charlie, Pete and Fia we will be 12 to dinner. Richard, Johanna, Tim & I decide that we will become the kitchen staff, meal planning and shopping amongst ourselves. The four of us imagine and re-imagine different menu scenarios. Bryan and Peta need to take Annie to catch a train that will take her back to England, so they are happy to relinquish cooking responsibilities.

Tim & I decide to do a Greek meal. Lemon roast potatoes, lemon grilled chicken kabobs, breaded and fried courgettes, and salad. I’s like to do a bit of something special at the end of the meal, after the cheese course. I have been told that a Frenchman does not consider he has had dinner unless there is a cheese course.  After cheese we usually have a demitasse of coffee. I investigate kitchen supplies and decide to make biscotti.  I find some wonderfully fresh cardamom seeds and know that this will be the perfect taste, with lemon and almond, to compete the meal.

Richard, Johanna and I wend our way down the hill to Digoin. The route is becoming familiar, although when we work our way back the packs are alarmingly heavy and full. Tim meets us after he finishes work and I am happy to share my load. We arrive back at Bel Air at almost 4:00, looking forward to a lunch of left over tagine and couscous.  We wolf down our late lunch and kick into high gear to make supper.

Seb and Pete just before aperitifs

Potatoes in to roast, chicken on to marinade, biscotti cooked once, cooked twice. A massive salad – neighbour Suzanne has given us tomatoes from her garden that I mix with chunks of cucumber, red and green pepper, and red onion. I toss in some garlic, a bit of vinegar, some oregano and a bit of olive oil and let it all marinate for a bit. It is clearly too much salad for the new prized platter, so we line a huge salad bowl with lettuce, pour the vegetables in and sprinkle a massive amount of feta and black olives over top.

In the kitchen getting dinner & aperitifs

Bryan and Peta return with fresh supplies of Cremant, gin and tonics and various other libations.  Richard introduces us to Negronis – a wonderful aperitif of equal parts Campari, Red Vermouth and Gin. Fia is Swedish and has brought 3 different kinds of pickled herring to have with Schnapps. Each mouthful is a different blend of salt, vinegar and alcohol. Startlingly good.

The Schnapps and Herring Course

Somehow we manage to get dinner out at around 9:00, early by some evening standards. The sun sets, the moon rises, the conversation and laughter flows.

we sit well into the night

Marché des Puces

Once a year, on the Monday of the Esgargot Festival, there is a Marché des Puces (Flea Market) on the streets of Digoin. The main streets are closed to traffic and give way to sellers from throughout the region and beyond. It is a blend of yard sale and antiques market, with treasures and junk all awaiting bargain hunters.

Stalls along the canal

Peta and Bryan are in search of very specific items for Digoin. Light fixtures, cupboards, furnishings that might work with the farm/cottage décor of Bel Air. I have only one mission – to find a nice serving platter. This will be one of our contributions to the furnishings at Bel Air. Tim has to spend the day working on his students from Vermont College, so I am charged with the task of hunting for an appropriate platter – something that a Greek salad might be served on in a day or so.

Annie, Richard, Johanna and Matt are not as interested in des Puces, and instead head to the grocery for ingredients for our dinner. Between Richard and Tim there is a slight food competition emerging and Richard is definitely upping the ante this evening with the promise of a lamb tagine.

The canal in Digoin

The stalls line the canal, as well as the streets of the town. There are boxes of old records, postcards, books and glasses. There are wonderful sideboards and corner tables topped in marble, and an odd cupboard of tiny drawers perfect for a workshop. I look at it longingly, thinking of how perfectly it would go in my studio, filled with pens, nibs and paints.

Bryan finds a pair of hip waders, almost in his size. “For cleaning up the pond”, he announces triumphantly. The vendor asks 2 euros for the pair, and not even Bryan can barter that price.

Bryan's waders

Platters, as it turns out, are not in abundant supply. There are fancy wall plates and a few sets of jugs and platters, but I have a hard time finding one that is both the right size and style. I finally find one, but at 12 euros (originally 15), it seems a bit dear. So we walk on, mulling it over, still looking. We see another of the right size, thinner and less substantial, plain white, but close. The owner of that stall is not around, and the friends who are stationed there cannot tell us the price, so we keep on walking.

Annie, Johanna, Richard and Matt come to meet us, stationing themselves with coffee at tables outside one of the cafes. I head back to buy the platter, now fully prepared to pay the 12 euros, sure that it has already sold. But I am in luck. The platter is mine, and for good measure, Peta and I go back to purchase the plain white one as well.

We drive back to Bel Air with a car full of platters, hip waders, light fixtures, even a bathroom sink, amidst the groceries for the tagine.

In the evening we are rewarded for our Marché des Puces labours with Richard’s Lamb and Apricot Tagine — one of the most succulent lamb tangines I have ever eaten.

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