Sometimes it’s not about planning but just being in the right place at the right time. Like the day we saw the sheep in Luzech. This is our local town when we are staying in France and we visit most days to buy bread or sit in a cafe overlooking the river. On market days the central street is closed to traffic and is filled with market stalls, but this wasn’t a market day, and the road closure was only temporary.
Every year in the spring, some of the local farmers move their sheep up on to the high ground in a process called transhumance. This is carried out in the same way as it has always been done. No trailers, just a shepherd and dogs moving the sheep along the road and up into the hills. These days it has become an event to celebrate and walkers follow the sheep on the pilgrimage.
In the past, the purpose was simply to provide grazing for the sheep, but in modern times, it provides an additional benefit: the sheep keep the grass short reducing the possibility of grass fires.
When we arrived in town on transhumance day, we expected to see a slow procession of sheep, plenty of time for photos as they ambled past. So much for assumptions, an off-white stream of fleece rushed through the centre of town, over the bridge and into the countryside. All over in minutes, but very entertaining.
This year the shepherd, his dogs and the sheep will travel alone, but the custom continues and maybe when they return in the autumn, they will be allowed their followers again.
Verschlimbesserung, a German word that means trying to improve something, but actually making it worse.
This is my travel landscape at the moment. I start to think about travelling to France later in the year, and they go into a third lockdown. I take a little trip to visit a restaurant that does beautiful take-away ice creams and my husband trips and bashes his knee, so for several days we don’t leave the house. I want to start thinking about a UK holiday to give me something positive to look forward to, but I’m scared that as soon as I book something interesting, there will be some new set of restrictions. If I go away, I want a proper holiday, with the chance to eat out and perhaps even stay in a hotel, not swap one house for another.
I am looking forward to the planned re-opening of outdoor spaces for restaurants, the pleasure of eating out in pleasant surroundings. Chips on the sea front or takeaway coffee on a park bench is always nice, but I need a change and a little luxury, which even the simplest cafe offers.
I’m already compiling my list of places to visit, while stifling a fear that opening up the world could lead to more lockdowns. Let’s hope that this time things can improve without getting worse because next we go out for a treat, we’re going to be sitting in the outside dining area, come rain or shine, with our coffees and homemade ice cream.
One of the unexpected benefits of booking a holiday home and spending a week or more in a different place is seeing the different animals that live in the area. We have been lucky in our holidays as we have seen the same animals returning each day or night and it felt a little as if we had holiday pets.
Staying in the countryside, we have spent night after night sitting out on the terrace, watching the sun set on the other side of the valley and waiting for the deer to visit. Each night the same young male would softly step into the garden and make his way across the lawn. Only once was he startled and that was by the loud bark of another deer hidden in the woods somewhere. Early morning or twilight was our the time for watching the hare, he was much more timid and tentatively nibbled the grass then looked up every few minutes to check around him.
The most surprising visitor was a ginger cat, who visited our holiday home in a small French village. We drove up the narrow and steep streets, parked the car outside the house and started unpacking. As we carried bags up the stone stairs into the house, an orange blur shot past and into the kitchen. We noticed a bowl on the stairs which held water, but the cat obviously thought that indoors was better.
He was completely adorable and charming, but we were sure he must have an owner, so we tried to keep the door shut with him outside. It was impossible not to stroke him and offer him treats, so we made it hard for ourselves that week, every time we opened the door to go out we saw him sitting there waiting expectantly.
I imagine the unused holiday homes over the last year have been visited by animals surprised by the lack of people. Perhaps it has been their turn to have a holiday.
Spring is officially here, although today is cold and grey, the flower beds are full of daffodils, tulips, violets, and hyacinths to brighten my walks. Despite this abundance of colour, I don’t feel any excitement in my daily walks as the never-ending lockdown starts a second year and the months spent at home which were at least novel last year, now start repeating.
This week I ventured out for my vaccine at the Pentagon Centre in Chatham. I don’t think I have been there for decades, it’s not really a destination experience, but when I visited late in the afternoon, the whole shopping space seemed empty apart from the queue of people waiting to be processed in the large NHS space. It wasn’t the spooky emptiness of after hours, when dark shadows conceal fears from your own imagination, it was the emptiness of a ghost town, completely abandoned and forgotten.
Part of my slow travel challenge to myself is to find the interesting aspects of a place, but at that time my only option was to move from car to vaccination station to car. No time to explore, but I wonder how different it will be when I return for my second shot. I am hoping I can see some light at the end of the tunnel; when I return for the booster, the shops should be open, I might be able to get a coffee and sit and drink it in a coffee shop. I suspect the novelty of this simple act will take a while to wear off and I plan to appreciate these little every day treats when they return to my life in the future.
Pictures tell a story and when we used to travel to new places, I would explore the surroundings, streets, countryside or hotel grounds. When I returned to the hotel room I could share the story of where I had been and what I had seen. This is the Hotel Ferme de la Ratterie, a secluded getaway in the Opal Coast area, about 30 minutes from Calais. The pictures remind me that it was spring when we visited and bring back memories of that short break.
The hotel is a long low rectangular farmhouse, known as a longere in France, with the restaurant and reception in the main building and the comfortable rooms in former outbuildings looking out across the farm. Wrapped around this are gardens to explore and beyond the gardens, there are meadows where we saw deer in the evening calmly nibbling at the grass, a safe distance from the hotel.
My favourite memory from this visit is their breakfast room with windows running the length of one long wall, where guests enjoy a view of the garden of the garden with their meal. Nearly as long as the room was the breakfast table filled with all the usual breakfast items for a French hotel but also a seriously impressive selection of jams and spreads. Luckily we were staying for two days, so I could try small samples of everything, fruit jams, speculoos and other types of spread, different types of honey.
I can’t wait until the time when I can book a hotel again and have someone else take care of everything, while I go exploring, gathering stories, pictures and memories.
A year ago I started my slow travel blog, thinking I might be not be travelling for a few months, so it would be a good time to start work with the existing travel stories I had and to think about my concept of slow travel. 12 months and 52 posts later, I have become hyper local in my travel experiences, while remaining hopeful that the future will bring new travel experiences and allow me to return to well loved but more distant places.
So rather than words, today I want to share to views from some of my favourite hotels.
We only had a short stay in Toulouse in Le Grand Balcon Hotel just next to the Place Capitole, but I am looking forward to visiting again and spending some more time here.
A beautiful hotel, literally on the river Seine, a wonderful getaway or for us overnight stop in Normandy on our way to the Lot.
Louis Blanc Hotel in the 10th arrondissement, our favourite part of Paris.
Staying at the appropriately named Hotel Bellevue in Puy-l’Évêque, this beautiful view is shared by its restaurant Cote Lot.
A year ago if you told me I wouldn’t have travelled more than 30 miles in the next twelve months and that even a short journey within my own county would feel like a major expedition, I would have laughed at you. Normally I hoard my annual leave allowance to spend on travel and the challenge is deciding how to fit in visits to well-loved places and still find time to explore new ones, is never satisfied; the list of places to visit just gets longer.
For the last twelve months, I have spent no more than two weeks in my office building and all my holiday time has been spent at home. I believe in the concept of a holiday being more than not working, there should be a change of scenery to allow the mind to refresh itself and put aside the normal worries and problems of everyday life.
Last week, I took some annual leave and to try and relax I avoided using my computer as much as possible, as all my work time is spent staring a computer screen. Unfortunately so much of life at present relies on the internet and this has become my way to escape the four walls and the limited scenery in walking distance of my house.
Over the last few months I have taken a Tai Chi course on Youtube, following a teacher who practices in Wellington, New Zealand. Watching a background of hills, grass and sea is as relaxing as the exercise itself. I am also studying French and internet television and radio programmes allow me practise listening skills with real speakers and spend some time in a different place.
I have been working on my cooking repertoire as for me, travel is closely linked to food, trying new things, eating specialities that are never the same when exported. So far I have managed to produce a reasonable cinnamon bun. I am very happy with this, as we are quite picky and getting a good version has always required a trip to London, if not Finland for the real thing.
I have yet to attempt croissants, and my beloved Cafe St Pierre in Canterbury doesn’t provide a takeaway service, so I am still waiting for them to re-open. Supermarket croissants are very disappointing and the frozen bake at home versions are barely passable, so I have to set aside a day to work on this. Less challenging, but still unmastered is the delicious southwest France delicacy of aligot. This is available in every supermarket in France in the winter months, a simple but wonderful mixture of mashed potato and cheese, so previously I had waited for a shopping trip and picked up a few portions. Now I need to find a way to make my own version.
After a year of lockdown, my ambitions for travel have been reduced to waiting to visit my favourite cafes and restaurants in Kent. I can’t even think about going any further, such as visiting my favourite markets in France and the bakeries, butchers and cheese shops that are such an important part of our holidays.
Spring is coming and my thoughts turn to possible holidays and short breaks. I would like to walk a labyrinth, this is not to be confused with a maze, although the words are often used interchangeably. A labyrinth is a spiral like shape which you can walk from start to finish, following the line to the centre of the pattern, often focussing thoughts in a meditative or spiritual way. In some ways it is the opposite of a maze which seeks to trick and confuse with dead-ends and false paths before you can finally escape.
I have two labyrinths in mind. The Kerdroya in Cornwall is currently being built on Bodmin moor, as a celebration of Cornish hedges and will include 12 different types. I remember the Cornish hedges as somewhat intimidating when we first visited Cornwall and drove down the narrow lanes hoping not to meet a tractor coming the other way. Kerdroya will be travelled on foot and is suitable for wheelchairs, and open to all, so much less challenging.
The second is in Chartres Cathedral and is only available between spring and autumn, and only on Fridays. At other times this magnificent feature is covered by chairs, and is only partly visible. But Chartres is a place we have passed many times as we head to the Lot in France, so we must stop one day and explore the city and cathedral properly.
I would also like to revisit several water mazes. Unlike hedges they allow you to see the path, but set traps with little fountains which turn on and off unexpectedly, so you must look ahead to plan your route or get soaked.
Hever Castle is a lovely place to visit in its own right, the water maze is just an added treat. It’s close enough for us to visit in a day, so this might happen sooner rather than later.
When we return to France and stay in our usual area in the Lot, I hope to go back to the Jardins d’eau or Water Garden near Sarlat. The water maze takes a stroll through some of their lovely water plants, while the giant water lilies are are something I have only seen before in greenhouses.
All these visits are to places that have a sense of permanence, so I know whether we visit this year or next year, they will still be there.
It’s Valentine’s Day today and while not a big deal in our house, it has got me thinking about the places I love. I have been looking through photos which remind me of the all the places to revisit, and each photo captures a time of year, a particular holiday. Snowdrops in Montreuil, mimosa everywhere around Toulouse, summer parks in Helsinki.
After a week of snow, I am feeling the lockdown more than normal. My regular walks are on hold as I don’t fancy sliding along the pavements gleaming with ice. It’s particularly frustrating as my cliff top and country walks were already impossible because of the mud and now I am restricted to watching television programmes of places I want to visit.
Some places we return to year after year and we have visited Cahors in the Lot, in every season, probably every month. I miss visiting this home from home very much and so I have started reading the local news online through the Medialot blog. Normally I would pick up a local newspaper and a mountain of brochures from the tourist information office only to find half the things I want to do happen after my holiday ends. This year, lockdown has had one advantage, I get to see a short concert at the Docks in Cahors, presented by very talented students from the local school.
Now on my list of things to look out for on future visits is Elyum, a local band who I want to see play live. I watched the recording of their gig from last week, and imagined myself virtual shoulder to virtual shoulder with cadurciens (inhabitants of Cahors) and visitors alike, not able to go to a gig but still valuing their performance.
At some point in the future when we can travel again, I plan to visit Australia. I have never been to anywhere in the southern hemisphere and one of the things I look forward to as part of that trip is seeing different stars in the sky. I have been stargazing this week, at least on the clear nights and thinking about other night skies.
We are lucky we live in an area where the ambient light from London has started to fade a little and we have enough darkness to let us look up at the stars. It’s by no means perfect but apart from a fuzzy patch where a large tree hides a chunk of the sky, it’s not bad. In order to provide a little variety in our life, I decided that we should do this properly, so the other night we wrapped up warm and sat outside on a clear night in February looking up at the Plough and Orion and all the other stars and constellations which I can’t name.
Heads tipped back, gazing into the sky, and ignoring everything else we could have been anywhere. Only the rumble of passing traffic reminds me we are still at home. When we stay in France, we go and look at the stars every night before going to bed, unless it is raining. In the summer we have even taken duvets outside and stretched out on the first floor terrace, watching shooting stars. It makes me feel dizzy, lying on my back staring up into the sky, an upside down vertigo looking into the black expanse threaded with thousands upon thousands of lights.
Occasionally the red flashing light of a plane weaves its way amongst the static stars and we have even seen the meandering path of satellites which appear to me like wayward stars searching for their position in the sky.
I don’t think this is my year to visit Australia, but I am hoping when summer comes we will spend some of our evenings under different skies watching the same stars.