My late husband always turned his nose up when I mentioned Paris, refusing to take me on the romantic holiday I had always dreamed about. He described Paris as too busy and over-rated. I, however, had visions of artists aimlessly lost in colour and thought, intoxicated by creativity and inspiring you to peek at their work. I visualised street cafes loaded with lost writers harbouring hangovers as they continued with their second bottle of vin de rouge. Feeling eager to experience the lights along the banks of the river Seine, walking arm in arm to see Notre Dam. I wanted to see the view of Paris from the top of the Eiffel Tower, visit Versaille to see the hall of mirrors and imagine the royal decadence of Marie Antoinette and her court, I wanted to eat oysters in a french restaurant of white tablecloths with red checkered serviettes and practice my schoolgirl french to the waiters and then finish, lost in the timeless music of an accordion player who would be wearing a beret and have a drooping black moustache, we would drink a cafe creme and sip a small cognac at three in the morning. How could he deny me all of this? My husband associated Paris with laborious work meetings he regularly had to fly to showing his reluctance for dealing with the so-called arrogance of some of the French businessmen he came in contact with. Fortunately, he never put me off the Paris dream and I rushed to join some fellow students on an interior course that I had joined, to go on an arranged college trip. This happened shortly after he died unexpectedly following a short illness. He would have approved my desire to go to France, he understood it was my dream to go there.
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The following year when I was able to take some extended holiday it came as no surprise that France should be my first choice. I had developed a taste for it. My school friends had talked about french camping holidays when they returned to school after a long summer break, whilst my parents took my sister and I to a bed and breakfast in Dawlish. Occasionally we would be treated to a week at Butlins, which was fun. France was a destination mystery. So near yet so far. Living on an island can be so restrictive and I wanted to get off it. Please don’t get me wrong. England is a huge draw for tourists but you have to be foreign to get excited about going there. When our teacher would announce in class that she wanted us to talk about what we did on our holidays, I used to cringe. My fingers would be crossed under the desk hoping she would not ask me. Could I pretend that my parents had taken me to somewhere exotic, but what if she asked me about the food, I knew nothing about what they ate in France? only that they ate snails. The food they served us at Butlins was indescribable but they did not serve us anything in a shell.
My decision was made and it was time for me to venture alone as a single parent and cross the water, well, actually the English Channel. Honestly, it is only 22 miles. A couple of my friends had already decided to move and embrace French style living and they recommended that I should book a little house which was attached to a small Chateaux. The picture looked delightful. The village of Montmoreau Saint-Cybard is in the Charente region of France and the Chateaux was on the outskirts of the small village nestled amongst vineyards. Nervous as hell about the journey, because I had never driven in France before, my husband used to do all the driving on holidays. In France, they drive on the right-hand side and I was used to the left. A few deep breaths and a reminder to myself that I could do this as silly as it sounds. I was aware my trip was going to take 8 hours from Calais in Northern France. Remember back then, there were no sat navs, only scribbled directions and a crumpled up map that Joe had spilled orange juice all over. My six-year-old Son Joe was excited as I strapped him in for the long journey, We had drinks and sandwiches and were prepared for numerous toilet stops. After fifteen minutes of driving and one roundabout, I realised that driving on the other side was not so difficult and so stopped worrying about it and started to enjoy the beautiful French countryside.
We had planned to be away for two months, the longest holiday I had ever allowed myself to take. Wondering if I would cope with being away from home for so long had me feeling a tad anxious, leaving my house in Minehead empty for such a long period. It is strange to me now when I think back. My trips now are mostly anything from six to twelve months. I have learned to safely pack away my valuables, and detach myself from any worries. Solo travel should not be compared to a holiday if you stay anywhere for longer than a month. Long periods give you the time to become part of the environment. There is no rush to see everything when you arrive and it enables you to enjoy more time to soak up the culture.
When Joe and I arrived at La Faure, a small vineyard, we were already in awe of our surroundings, we had driven through scenery so incredibly beautiful – colours of Van Gogh brimmed alive with light, fields and fields of sunflowers, nodding their heads as Joe waved at them from the back window. My little car followed the trafficless winding roads and I felt free at last. The past couple of years had been traumatic for me after the death of my husband. I needed a different place to be, somewhere that would take my mind forward instead of revisiting my past. France had that effect on me and was successful in achieving a kind of tranquillity. England had been very grey, I needed light and colour. but I also needed a place to breathe
This place was a fairytale, we drove into La Faure with glowing smiles of excitement. The small Chateaux was built about a hundred years ago and was surrounded by a vineyard growing grapes for Hennesy. The owner and her elderly mother greeted us with such charm as they pushed open the huge metal gates at the entrance. I just knew we were going to love it here. After showing us our accommodation, a two-bedroom cottage attached to the main house, we were given bikes and told to explore. Beyond the vineyard and orchard where the owners grew apples and plums there was a forest and a lake, In the middle was a raft which you could swim to. My six-year-old son had a great imagination and would play at being Robin Hood as we walked through the trees. I would often walk through the vineyards early in the evening in my pyjamas, courteously holding a glass of cognac and giving thanks to the vines. Surrounded by sunflowers, green rolling hills, out came our paintbrushes and Joe and I would paint until sundown. On our first trip to the village of Montmoreau, I experienced the realisation of how the local food tasted. Flavours reminiscent of childhood meals came flooding back and I had stepped back in time, yet embracing a new future to help me move forward.
The Charente region of France has a lot to offer. Located in the South West, the Charente is part of the Aquitaine Basin and was created during the French Revolution on 4th March 1790 Named after the Charente river which runs through it. It is a region well worth a visit.
The city of Angouleme, only a 20-minute drive, from where we were staying is a beautiful fortified town overlooking the Charente River. The town towers on a hill and you approach by driving up a winding stone rampart. At the top be sure to visit Saint Pierre Cathedral which dates from 12th century and is built in the Poitevin Romanesque style.
I was fascinated to learn that Isabella of Angouleme was the second wife of King John from 1200 until his death in 1216. Isabella, it is thought was only about twelve years old when they married. Thirteenth-century writers were not kind to the second wife of John and rumours were started that she affected King Johns long term interests on the continent, in fact, she was accused by Monks from St Albans to have certain skills in sorcery and witchcraft and was described as more of a Jezebel than an Isabel. King John was infatuated by her and she gave him two sons, one which was to become the future king of England Henry 111
Angouleme has a good shopping district and department store. We spent ages exploring the side streets and little shops and restaurants. As some of my readers will know, I am passionate about street art and in Angouleme you will see some amazing examples of Trompe L’oeil. Comic artist flock here every year around the end of January for The international Comics Festival. The statue of Herge of Tin Tin fame stands proudly in the town centre.
Le Nil Paper Museum
We were delighted to take a trip down the Charente river to see the Le Nil paper Museum. My father was a paper maker for most of his life so I was eager to share with him what I had seen there. The river was beautiful, willow trees dipped their branches into the water as we sailed past other barges and rented boats. The museum was small but I was able to purchase some hand made paper that we wrote letters on to send home.
One village you must really go and see is Aubeterre, Listed as one of the most beautiful villages in France it also welcomes pilgrims walking the way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. There is a little square in the middle of the village where a local cafe will serve you chocolate crepes. A favourite place for me to take Joe. There is also a river beach there popular with visitors wanting to take a dip on a hot day.
Apart from the many little french villages of stone Charentais houses with pale blue shutters, driving around the Charente was a favourite past time. I loved the market in Chalais where we bought cheese and fresh produce and watched the local french women gossipping with old men carrying bags of baguettes. In the car park, we would say hello to all the live fluffy chicks, hens and ducks, cooped in cages and waiting for someone to come and buy them. Chalais also has an awesome castle with a classy restaurant where you can sit and enjoy a glass of something as you look out over the countryside. We took a couple of trips to the small town of Cognac, to taste the different varieties of world-famous cognacs, Hennesy, Remy Martin and Camu all have their origins here. When we felt like a city tour we headed for Bordeaux. After Paris Bordeaux became my favourite city. Especially exploring the spectacular architecture from Roman to modern-day, I could lose myself exploring the shops and side streets.
At the end of our long sabbatical, I was sorry to leave, but little was I to know that my french experience was only just beginning. I returned the following year and started to look for a house to buy. I had made up my mind, I wanted to embrace the opportunity of bringing my kids up as Europeans, this was to be our way forward as I wanted them to learn about different cultures and have proficiency in more than one language. The next year I purchased La Chataignery (The Chestnuts) a french farmhouse with a couple of cottages to renovate. However this story I think I shall save for another article as it could be a long one.
Thanks for dropping in. If you have enjoyed this article or have some good memories of France you would love to share, please leave them in the comments below. I would love to hear your feedback.