Tromping through the mud of northern France, peering through the cold rain at 100-year old gravestones and arguing late into the night about the subtleties of the Battle of the Somme was not exactly on my “bucket list.”
“Before the world grew mad, the Somme was a placid stream of Picardy, flowing gently through a broad and winding valley northwards to the English Channel.” A.D. Gistwood, The Somme
It’s important to say from the outset that I have no personal connection to war. The Great War and the Second World War didn’t touch my immediate family. Growing up, I had no interest in these horrors, and, truth be told, little interest in history, period.
But aging has brought with it a fervent need to grapple with history. I’ve written two books that are set within the context of the Second World War. I’ve become fascinated at how people’s lives are altered irreparably by conflict.
However, until this summer, The Great War was still relegated into the mists of the distant past. Tromping through the mud of northern France, peering through the cold rain at 100-year old gravestones and arguing late into the night about the subtleties of the Battle of the Somme was not exactly on my “bucket list.”
Dave Griffths is a retired history teacher who has just finished an MA in history. He has a deep passion for the Great War as it played out in farmer’s fields in France. Dave is a close friend of our cousins Peta and Bryan and six years ago, he took Tim and I on a “Magical Mystery Tour,” giving us a view into some lesser-known aspects of Burgundian history. (See: https://a-lewis.net/2011/08/19/daves-magical-mystery-tour/)
To this day, no one can remember how his offer to take a group of family and friends on a tour of The Somme came about. I think we might have all agreed because we knew that it would mean several days of living together and drinking good wine. A bit of a lark, as the Brits say.
Dave takes his work seriously. And it must be stated off the top that any errors in my reportage are my own. Dave’s facts and figures are thoroughly researched. He assigned us homework and books to read before we arrived. He booked accommodations. He arranged meals. He planned a tour that focused, primarily, on the first day of the Battle of The Somme, July 1, 1916.
And so, as hot summer days plunged into a frigid autumn, we converged on Chavasse Farm, http://www.chavasseferme.com/in the French hamlet of Hardecourt-aux-Bois. Chavasse Farm specializes in catering to people who come to explore the battlefields of the Somme, sometimes to trace family history, to walk paths they’ve read about or heard in family lore. The walls are filled with artifacts, memorabilia and informative articles.
Ever the good student, I had read the assigned texts, and more. But looking around the walls of Chevasse Farm, I could see I was definitely out of my depth. That’s ok, I thought, there will be good company and good wine. The war is just a backdrop.
Our first night at the farm was a joyful coming together of family and friends. Large pots of Boeuf Bourguignon, fluffy potatoes, and bottles of Cremant. Only Dave was anxious, knowing as he did the impact that the next fours days were to have on us all.
Dynnargh dhe Logh. Welcome to Looe. I didn’t see this sign until our last evening. But I did feel very welcome.
Our last night in Looe was just about as perfect as it could be. The previous days had been stormy, but massive rains left everything feeling clean and fresh (and flooded – there were floods throughout the area).
The early evening tide was very high, the fishing boats were coming in laden with mackerel and accompanied by masses of seagulls.
We walked up the cliff for pre-dinner drinks at our “lounge” in Hannafore, overlooking the sea. A last talk with the friendly bar tender (who is writing a book called “My Life Behind Bars”) Then as the sun was setting, we went down to East Looe for a dinner at Papa Ninos – a little restaurant that has only 5 tables and makes everyone in the room feel connected to each other. As a starter, we had the best mussels we’ve ever eaten. They were fat and flavourful with a Marinière sauce of white wine, cream, garlic, onion and parsley that was sublime. I’ve had this dish in a number of restaurants in the area, and I would have to say it was the best at Papa Ninos. I’ve included my Moules Marinière recipe if you want to try and make them at home, although I can’t guarantee that they will be as wonderful. Fresh mussels have been a revelation.
I had red mullet that was grilled to perfection, and Tim had Turbot in a pernod sauce that was exquisite. In our 12 days in Looe we had, between us, 18 different varieties of fish and shellfish. This dinner was certainly the cap to an extraordinary seafood adventure.
The harbor was dark and misty as we crossed the bridge to go back to West Looe and finish the evening singing with the locals in The Jolly Sailor. We’d been there the week before and were welcomed as old friends. The songs poured out, accompanied by guitar, bodrun, accordion, harmonica, banjo, recorder, penny whistle and that wonderful bottle cap rhythm stick instrument that probably has a name that I don’t know.
(sung to a rolling beat)
“It’s all the young fellows have gone to the city.
All the young fellows have gone to the town.
And soon they’ll be earning there double the money
Than they ever earned on the harrow and plow”
(sung to a sad and mournful tone)
“I asked them who
I asked them how
They answered you
They answered now”
“For Cornish lads are fishermen
And Cornish men are miners too
But when the fish and tin are gone
What will the Cornish boys do?”
We drank local ales and Cloudy Cider and bid a fond farewell to Cornwall.
On our second to last night in France, Suzanne and Christian invited us over for dinner and I asked if I could make the dessert. I wanted to make a Tarte aux Mourres. Picking blackberries brings out an almost religious feeling in me. The deep purple, sun-warmed berries, bloated with juice, line all of the road verges. Such beauty. I love picking them with the sun at my back, hearing, just on the other side of the verge, the gentle snorting and snuffling of a large Charolaise cow.
However, there is a bit of treachery there. A bit of pain is part of the process. The thorns are sharp, and the roadsides are plagued with stinging nettles. These seem to thrive right beside the best berries. Tim says the experience is an important moral lesson –in order to receive this extraordinary gift, you will have to undergo a bit of pain. But it will be worth it in the end. And it is. We are just at the end of the blackberry season now, but Tim and I were still able to pick over a quart of blackberries.
To make the tarte, I approximated a recipe from memory that leaves most of the fruit uncooked – it is a great pie if you want your fruit to still taste really fresh. The recipe I have included works for any fresh fruit.
The meal at Suzanne & Christian’s was a true French feast – an extraordinary 5-course, 5-bottle meal. We began with some true Champagne, lovely tiny bubbles that whetted our appetites as we nibbled a local pastry and tiny tomatoes from Suzanne’s garden. Next was “Vin des Fossiles” from Saone-et-Loire. It is made from a grape I have never heard of – Auxerrois – and was crisp and light and lovely with our tomato tarte appetizer. The François Pinte Aloxe-Corton was a gorgeous and rich Pinot to go with our thin Entrecot steaks. We fried these on a griddle at the table, with some shallots. Suzanne made a beautiful dish of aubergines, potatoes, tomatoes and Parmesan cheese. The whole mixture brought out the pepper taste of the Pinot. For the cheese course, Bryan chose a special wine from his part of Christian’s wine cellar – a Givry Premiere Cru 2000. The way that this wine went with the cheese course is impossible for me to describe. The cheeses themselves were correctly eaten in an order – the soft Brie, followed by the dry chèvre and completed with the creamy St. Agur blue. My Tarte aux Mourres was about 3” high, solid with the blackberries that we had picked that morning. A great success, it went perfectly with the Cremant de Bourgogne, 2008, Veuve Ambal.
Christian admits that they don’t eat in this true French fashion very often! We felt very spoiled.
The next morning I had one final class with Suzanne. I am deeply grateful for the friendship that Suzanne and Christian have shown me. After the class they offered me an aperitif, a Vin Doux Naturel. It is a Vallée du Rhône Grenache that is 16% proof, a slightly sweet, thick wine, served chilled. Not sweet and viscous like an ice wine, but very smooth and very earthy. They gave me olives and dried pork from the same region as the wine to taste as well. Just a little nibble to share before I left. I don’t think I have advanced much with my French, but there are so many wonderful things I have learned!
It was a day of lasts. I walked up the hill past the chickens, past Claudette and Robert’s to a last lunch on the patio. Bryan’s special Frissé salad. It is a simple, filling country salad of Frissé lettuce, Lardons (bits of pork), Comte cheese, and topped with a fried egg. Bryan keeps a big jar of home made salad dressing in the cupboard to pour generously over the top of anything and everything. Of course you sop up all of the salad dressing with fresh baguette, and wash it all down with local Sauvignon Blanc. How can we possibly leave this heaven?
But we do, on an early morning TGV (Tran Grand Vitesse), from Le Cruesot to Lille, Lille to London. Our gorgeous Maddy is at St. Pancras station to meet us, to guide us and help heft suitcases to Surbiton, Bryan and Peta’s wonderful London home. With loving family around, we get down to the business of making the transition to a new phase of the adventure.
Starting, of course, with a large, welcoming, meal.
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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We arrived in Lyon on Tuesday August 3, a bit late, but calm after an uneventful flight. Peta, Bryan & Matt were there to greet us and whisk us away to a small park, where we started the day with Cremant (Champagne), Orange juice, croissants and pain chocolat. A repast that ensured that I drifted in and out of consciousness on the rest of the drive to Bel Air.
Bel Air sits atop a hill outside of the farming town of Digoin, in Burgundy. The original part of the house was built in 1776, and various additions were made over the centuries, all in keeping with the original style. Bryan and Peta bought it 20 years ago and Bryan has been working on it ever since, adding new sections, fixing up the old. As a result there are many nooks and crannies and they are able to house family and friends in abundance.
Tim and I are staying in the gite at the end of the building. It is a perfect cottage, furnished with a kitchen, bathroom, living room and bedroom. Private, but company is just next door. We’ll be in this section for a few days until a renter arrives, when we’ll move into the main section of the house.
Bryan says he built the pool before the house was even livable. The boys were little then, and he said it made sense to build the pool because they would be entertained for hours while he and Peta could get on with the renovations. Now, it is sheer heaven to cool off with the swallows skimming the surface of the water and the valley opening up beyond.
Gentle industry takes place all around us. Roosters crowing, cows lowing. A pace of life that has existed here for many centuries. It is hard to imagine the world beyond, except for the occasional boom of the Mirage jets in training, breaking the sound barrier. On my walks I see working farms, but also families who, like Peta and Bryan, have chosen this as an alternate to city life. I feel spoiled and indulged, but also can’t help but feel blissfully happy.