France 2012 – Part One: Sancerre

I’m back!
Back from a good holiday away in France. I did not have any kind of WiFi where I was staying so I kept a record of each day on my laptop so I could publish it here when I got home! Without further ado, here is what I’ve been up to for the last week and a bit.

This is a pretty lengthy post, but I have segmented it via diary-like entries.
Still, heads up! It might take some time to read!

France 2012 – 19th to the 30th of August
I hadn’t gone away since Italy last year and since I am about to spend most of the next three years at University I could not decline a free holiday despite it being France. I don’t have any enmity towards the French or even their way of life for that matter, any ‘beef’ I have stems from spending far too much time there when I felt I could have been exploring other countries, call it “Too much of a good thing”. Going on holiday to France always brings memories of countless holidays spent in “Euro Camps” dotted around the country so I had become weary of visiting the place.
Still, since this was the last time I’d be with my parents on holiday for quite some time I figured I’d make the best of it before I left for University, I might even come away with a few stories to share with my current and new niches.
The first stop would be Sancerre (Pronounced: San-Sair), a rural town located to the south of Paris. Sancerre itself is perhaps the model town of rural France: scenic, historic, and certain to make a lasting impression. It is famous for its vineyards and for its geography; the town centre was built ascending up a considerably steep hill that overlooks much of the surrounding area. Because of the landscape the town in medieval times was incredibly hard to lay siege to as any advancing army would be spotted well before they got within a stone’s throw of the settlement. The last time I was here I was 17 years old and bore little resemblance to the person now writing this account. Back then I was furious I was spending yet another birthday in France but now I come here with an entire new outlook on life, so much so that I find myself looking back at the short tempered adolescent with disdain as I retrace my steps. We would be staying at a small camping site next to the river Loire for a few days, rendezvous with some close family friends before heading further east towards the Alpine town of Morzine. Being able to visit the Alps, despite it being the height of summer, was the selling point for me coming along because I’m always keen to experience new places.

After making the necessary preparations we secured the house and headed out the door in the early morning of the 19th of August.

August 19th
I have never been good company in cars, especially during long distance journeys. I either constantly fall asleep for hours at a time or become violently ill if I do not, therefore the prospect of an 8 hour trip from Southern England to Central France was not appealing in the slightest. The weather forecast predicted searing temperatures and oppressive sun with little cloud cover all day that did little to lighten my mood. Long car journeys themselves are unpleasant but add overbearing heat and you’re in for a trip you’ll end up wanting to forget.

It would take us around an hour to reach the channel tunnel that connects England to France and from there another 6-7 hours to get to Sancerre. I was having trouble falling into my usual routine of sleeping through journeys instead casting my eyes upward to see the spectacular sight of a night’s sky untarnished by light pollution. I have been a stargazer on-and-off over the years, I was really into it whenever I found myself in New Zealand but over here in the UK you cannot really see much up there at night because of the light pollution. I’m not sure why I started this little hobby but I feel I do it these days when I need some inspiration. This window of stargazing aside the trip to the tunnel was uneventful, I did encounter a number of fellow Chelsea FC fans (Yes, I’m a Blues fan!) nearby the terminal who upon spotting the shirt I was current sporting thumped the badges on their own shirts – Sport really is a tribal thing isn’t it?

I fell asleep yet again during the channel crossing and awoke to find the car rolling through French countryside as the sun was starting the creep over the horizon. A few hours down the line we were approaching Paris with the sun’s rays chasing us like some galactic death ray. We decided to avoid Paris for fear of being stuck in traffic with the rapidly climbing temperature instead keeping off the toll roads and taking a scenic route that would keep the breeze rolling in through the open windows (All four of them). Unable to sleep I desperately started looking for things to occupy my mind to avoid feeling ill, a fruitless endeavour because all I could see was barren parched countryside as far as the eye could see. It really looked like something out of Fallout, barren towns and countryside devoid of absolutely any life.

Sancerre

Sleep eventually took me and when I awoke I found myself on the outskirts of Sancerre. I watched the familiar landmarks roll past me and soon enough we reached our campsite. As I expected it was terribly small, far too small actually, and offered little in the way of personal space. A huge heat wave near-floored us when we opened the door to the tiny caravan that would be our temporary home. After unloading my kit from the car I lounged outside, unable to tolerate the sweltering heat of the ‘oven’ behind me. We set off for a short walk along the river Loire whilst we still had some sunlight left in the day, about ten minutes down the line we found people swimming in the river itself underneath a bridge that stretched over the width of the Loire. Over-heated and potentially sunburned I stripped down to my swimming shorts and waded into the cold water. A strong current was flowing downstream, so strong that people could be swept away entirely if they did not keep their wits about them. While I didn’t get washed away my beloved Mp3 player did: So keen was I to cool down after such a hot and humid day I neglected to take my musical crutch out of my pocket!
I remember leaving the bass on high, the fish won’t get much sleep tonight…

When the sun crept behind the treeline we figured it was time to head back to the caravan and get some sleep. Rose and Mark, our family friends, would be arriving tomorrow and by the looks of things we had some negotiating to do with the camp office…

August 20th
Last night had to be one of the most disturbed sleeps I’d ever had, I was in bed at 10:00 P.M and did not get to sleep until 4:00 A.M thanks to the unbearable heat and raucous neighbours. I woke up around 11:00 A.M, thankful to have miraculously slipped in at least 4-5 hours of shut-eye. I found a typical French breakfast left on the table for me: Baguette, Canard (Duck) Pate, Orange Juice, and a small selection of Croissants. It turned out that I was on my own in the caravan: My folks had gone out to try negotiate a bigger caravan for us. We figured that if three people had problems in this caravan then fitting six in here would be completely implausible and frankly hellish. Fortunately we managed to upgrade to a larger caravan for a mere 10.00 euros but had to spend an hour moving everything we had spent yesterday unloading into another residence.

I took a trip to the local ‘Super Marché’ Carrefour to get a cheap replacement for my lost Mp3 player, which I felt was partially to blame for my lack of sleep last night. If ever I have a lot on my mind or if the elements are preventing me from nodding off then I find listening to a few tracks on my Mp3 player usually speeds me along falling to sleep. The replacement cost about 30.00 euros (I cannot find the appropriate monetary symbol on this keyboard…), cheap and cheerful. Despite having a flimsy grasp of the French language I managed to discern how to get the replacement gadget working properly. Learning a new language is always a challenge but after spending time living in Europe one will notice that words in French, Italian or German sound very similar to their English counterparts. This similarity can be explained by all three languages stemming from Latin acquired from ancient times when the Roman Empire conquered most of Europe.
Supermarket – Super Marché’
Chocolate – Chocolat’
Beer – Beir
This is only a handful of English to French examples, if you can get over the difference in dialect and pronunciation then understanding people is not much of a problem.

Rosemary & Mark Gallagher, very close family friends.

Because of yesterday’s strenuous journey all three of us had little motivation to do much else today: We were content to just make sure our incoming friends had an easier time settling in than we did. Rose, Mark, and Ruardhri (Pronounced: Rur-Are-E) Gallagher arrived around 6’ish and like us still had little motivation to anything except barbeque some steak and knock back the drinks. My family has known the Gallagher’s’ since we were both living in Cyprus. Back then both my dad Mark James and Mark Gallagher (Yeah, they even share the same first name!) were serving in the Royal Air Force (RAF) and had been posted to RAF Acrotiri and met each other when Mark almost drove off with my dad’s car by mistake. Odd way to start a long friendship but that’s how it goes sometimes! Ever since that first encounter we came to realize that our families have several similarities: Both families had three children, both sets of fathers have served in the RAF, both mothers still work for the National Health Service (NHS), and despite both families travelling extensively we have always kept in regular contact with each other. Personally I feel that the bond between us has reached such a state that I really consider them my family, which is epitomized by them coming out to New Zealand to visit us all those years ago when none of my immediate family could be bothered – Enough said. I feel I have a rare view on what ‘Family’ really means that I’ll probably go into in more detail sometime in the future.

We caught up with each other as the drinks flowed and decided to rent a few canoes and paddles and canoe down the river Loire the next day. Sleeping arrangements were much easier to divvy up, certainly much easier than it would have been if we had been mad enough to stay in our previous caravan. I opted to crash on the couch and thanks to my new Mp3 player and much better air circulation all around I felt sleep take me much easier.

August 21st
I woke up surprisingly early, around 8:00 A.M, which for me is something special. Still, I knew that I had to rise early today because a few things had to be done before we picked up our rowing equipment and headed to the appropriate river bank of the Loire. We had to get some various bits and pieces for today’s lunch and dinner so off to Carrefour we went. French supermarkets are interesting because you get much more variety than what you’re already familiar with – That’s the whole point of going overseas on Holiday isn’t it? If you were to ask me what I think the pinnacle of the ‘French Market’ is then I would happily say Victor Hugo of Toulouse. Victor Hugo is a famous market that hosts a livestock market on its lower floor and has an array of restaurants on the above floor that use ingredients straight from the market. The memorable sights and scents of the famous Victor Hugo strike me whenever I visit either open markets or supermarkets in France now, it really made that much of an impression. I daresay comparing the likes of Victor Hugo to a supermarket must be nothing short of heresy to Frenchmen but I digress. Still, supermarket chains like Carrefour or Intermarche are far superior to the English chains of Tesco and Sainsbury’s.

Ruaidhri (Left) and myself (Right) collecting our gear for canoeing.

After we had gotten what we would need for the day it was time to pick up our kit from the rental store up the road from our campsite. We rented three canoes for the six of us, two in each canoe with a set of double-sided paddles. Rose and Mark took one canoe, my parents another, leaving Ruaidhri and I to take the third. I would consider myself a good rower because, without sounding too proud, I have the upper body strength and stamina for the task. Ruaidhri, aged 18, is training to join the Royal Marines so he would easily be up for the challenge. We were dropped off about 20km east of Sancerre with all of our kit, topped up with sun screen and double checked our provisions. With all the precautions taken and the tyrannical sun still blazing away overhead we embarked out onto the Loire. If you have not been canoeing before I highly recommend it, it can be done solo or with one or two other people. As it turns out Ruaidhri and I did not have to do a whole lot of work, the current was working with us rather than against us so we reached pretty decent speeds. At times we didn’t even have to do anything, we could just dangle our legs over the side of our canoe and watch the fish follow our feet. Emerald-colored dragonflies perched on the bow of our boat like mascots, grateful for a free ride.

Pouilly, one of the towns we passed during our voyage.

We stopped a few times along the route to gather our stamina, go for a swim, and have our packed lunch. The sand near the shores was treacherous, it felt eerily similar to quicksand so we had to be out of the water quickly and onto dry land before it took hold. It took us a good 3 hours to get from our departure point back to Sancerre but the time just flew by, time really does fly when you’re having a good time doesn’t it? Our route ended conveniently close to our campsite so returning our gear would thankfully not be an issue, my arms were feeling rather tired from all that rowing after all! After we had returned our canoeing equipment we headed back to our caravan to freshen up before heading out yet again to try find a decent ice cream parlor. What followed was an hour of constant dead ends, U-Turns, closed cafes, and many compromises. We finally conceded defeat and retired to our residence for the night, we have another lengthy journey tomorrow and need to be rested for it.

Tomorrow we’re going south east to the alpine town of Morzine and hopefully it’s a darn-sight cooler, I’ve had enough of this heat…

To be continued…

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