French Poodle (part 4) Le Fin

So the long journey north, away from sunny Languedoc and the flat vineyard country, began.  Its a beautiful part of France and definitely one in which to spend a long summer break, but the hill country holds some attractions too.

The 'long and not winding road'

These long straight roads, lined with plane trees are what France and the 'Grand Touring' tradition are all about.

From the main valley I headed north-west towards Albi and the foothills of the Massive Central.  Within an hour of leaving Capestang I was climbing out of the haze and heat into a more lush and green landscape.  Vineyards dwindled away to be replaced by fields of sunflowers and sheep !  Yes, animals became more and more common as did the fieldscape  of small pastures and wooded valleys.  The roads are still amazing, and even though they are windy there is no need to worry about every bend as the carriageway is plenty wide enough.

A perfect 'Norman'arch except its not, its in Languedoc

Arches into history

After Albi I headed directly north to the town of Villefranche de Rouergue which lies in the steep valleys of the western mountain region.  On route, and ready for a little respite, a sign indicating a ‘Cite Medieval’ was spied and the little hilltop town of Cordes was happened upon.  Well, it was an absolute gem of a place, so much so that my photographic mission was forgotten so I don’t have much to show you !  It was a place so unexpected and yet so very special.  Narrow streets encircle the hill almost like a helter-skelter and secret stairways of stone-steps and narrow passageways beneath houses lead in all directions.  Of course there are the usual touristic shops but here they were rather more tasteful than Carcassonne.  The stone-work bemused me, some of the gradients that had to be dealt with, and some of the inclines up which stone had to be hauled… oh my !

The road to Villefranche (I would love to know how many villefranche there are in France, that and Avenue Jean d’Arc, ) was windy, up and down, but the scenery was spectacular and, as long as you are in no rush, the 80 Kms from Albi are some of the best to be had.  Lakes, ravines, woods and villages straight out of  those 1980s TV programmes raving about moving to live in France.  Unfortunately many Brits did and my destination that first night was a village almost taken over by ex-pats !!

Aubazine is just east of Brive and the site of a Cistercian Abbey of some note.  The only camping was at one of the commercial sites, and although very nice and popular, it was also expensive – I suppose if I had wanted to avail myself of the swimming, sailing, table tennis (I just love the concrete table-tennis tables that all these sites have, outdoor table tennis is a hoot – especially if its windy !! but it involves a lot of walking unless you have a team of ball-boys and girls to match Wimbledon!) and a number of other on-site attractions – not the showers etc which were not a patch on the Camping Municipale sites I used elsewhere – its good value.

The Dordogne is of course a well documented holiday area but even so it is by no means overcrowded, even in mid August.  The road north to Tulle was the route out of the hills and onto the large plain of the Limousin region.  Again I avoided the RN’s and took a wonderful ride through flat open countryside where I encountered the D1 (D roads are like our B roads but better).  For 22 miles I didn’t turn the wheel and when I did it was a slight adjustment left or right and then, another 20 miles of straight open road.  On the long stretch from La Souterraine to Le Blanc, about half way along, there was a chap on a bike, now cycling in France is a National activity and you see hundreds of cyclists all dressed like court jesters in bright colours, but this guy, oh boy, he had my admiration, the horizon was 10 miles straight ahead with nothing in between, it was hot, he must have been into S & M, unquestionably.

French Farm Cart

Bygone Farming in France always attracts my attention. In particular I am drawn to their old carts which are lovingly displayed.

All along the route my eyes were well trained to spot interesting farms and farm equipment.  Because of the weather wooden carts fair much better than here and are to be seen in many places.  There is a close resemblance between their tub carts and our ‘Tumbrils – a standard tipping cart – and between their narrow vine-yard cart and our Gambo, indeed I think it is most likely that the Welsh Gambo derives directly from the French long-cart and as such, probably arrived with the Normans.  Its as well I was in ‘baby car’ or else I may have been tempted ….

From Le Blanc I headed to the main Tours / Chateauroux road (N143) and once again came face to face with the eccentric signing.  Now, the main route north from Tours would naturally take you to Le Mans, a pretty big, significant and well known mid plains town and focus of routes.  You would think, therefore, would you not, that Le Mans would feature often and significantly on signs approaching Tours from the south….. it doesn’t.  They are building a new by-pass/ ring road / peripherique or whatever but it isn’t quite finished – you may recall in part 1 how a similar problem occurred coming into Tours from the north – and so you shoot merrily along the new by -pass, following ‘Autres Routes’ but then it just ends and there are no signs – no not even for Le Mans.

However, as luck would have it, I made an un-educated guess and eventually happened on a little town called Chateau la Valiere which was on the route I wanted, towards La Fleche – my gateway out of the Loire into Normandy.  Of course the Loire is the famous Chateau country and la Valiere was up to scratch.  The municipal camping site was to die for, lakeside, fine spacious pitches, great outdoor table tennis !! and cheap – 6 Euros !  I have already decided it will host me for a week next year, it makes a great base for Loire touring and, for me, the area holds some fascinating farm history and wartime history to explore.

Lakeside camping at its best

Lakeside camping, normally blood sucking insects would deter me but here it was blissfull

This was without doubt a real find and the roads the following morning heading north-west into Normandy were some of the best of the trip.  I stopped briefly at Domfront, another old medieval city well worth the visit and then headed up into familiar ‘battle of Normandy’ towns like Vire. St. Lo and finally hit the Caen – Cherbourg road at Carentan.

[Now all of these towns are so evocative of that dreadful summer of 1944 when Normandy was sacrificed to save France and the rest of Europe.  A journey that takes two hours took the allied advance – my route was pretty much the dividing line between the British/Canadian sector and the American sector – three months and tens of thousands of casualties, but the French civilian population and their towns, villages and countryside suffered the most (German losses were immense too and the encirlement of the Falaise pocket saw scenes comparable to the Basra road in the first Gulf war, utter carnage and death).  I have studied the Normandy campaign too much in a way, it makes travelling through it difficult.  To look at the scenery, to wonder at the churches and the farmsteads, the apple orchards and the brown and white spotted cows,  so typical of the region, is always overlain with what happened at that particular spot.

Of course in recent years with films like ‘Saving Private Ryan’ and TV series such as Band of Brothers’ younger generations, and those of my generation who were not at all familiar with the battle, have been ‘educated’ to the cost, the price of Freedom.  One place that lives forever in my pysche, burned into it many years ago with the first ‘epic’ film of the Normandy landings, ‘The Longest Day’, which had every star of the day and some yet to become stars – John Wayne, Mitchum, Fonda, Sean Connery et al – and which was based on the first researched account of all sides, Allied, French and German, written by Cornelius Ryan, is St. Mere Eglise.

The night-time drop by American paratroopers was something of a mess.  Untried pilots flying the transports became panicked by anti-aircraft fire over the Cherbourg peninsula and took evasive action, that is they ‘swerved’ about.  Now a few seconds of side-slip in the air means when you jump and float down you land nowhere near where you’re supposed to. (The British paratroops fared better by virtue of their route into the area and by having experienced ex-bomber pilots who were well used to being shot at from anti-aicraft fire and did not weave around ).  The drops had been preceded by heavy bombing of the area and in the little town of St. Mere Eglise the manor at the centre of the town had been set ablaze.  As a consequence the whole town was up and passing water by hand to try to deal with the fire.  They, in turn, were guarded by the local German garrison, so the whole town was alert and lit-up. The air-drop scattered paratroops found themselves falling into this melee and their chutes were drawn into the area by the draft of air being drawn to the raging fire.  Many just disappeared into the flames.  Others fell into the square and were immediatley shot, some got hung up in the trees around the square.  One man, Private John Steele, found himself hung-up on the church steeple.  He attempted to free himself only to be spotted by a German who shot at him hitting him in the foot.  He feigned dead for some hours, hanging from his harness, dangling helplessly watching the carnage around him.  He was eventually hauled in and captured by the Germans.  Later, in the morning, the church was taken by American paratroopers – I actually met the man who rescued Steele at a commemoration event in 1984 – as the last pockets of German resistance was mopped up.  St. Mere Eglise became the first French town liberated and to this day they commemorate the event by hanging a parachute and dummy trooper off the steeple.

St. Mere Eglise - parachute on church steeple

The parachute which commemorates the landing of American Paratroopers hangs on the steeple of the church in St. Mere Eglise. A sombre reminder of events all those years ago.

I camped at the municipal site in St. Mere Eglise.  It is about 200 metres from the square, behind the site of the Manor that was razed (and where the Airborne museum now stands).  Its hard to sit out eating and enjoying a beer, or sleeping easy as the bell tolls, knowing you are doing so, most likely, on the very spot where an American paratrooper landed and died at 12.45am on June 6th 1944.

If anyone is interested in the Battle of Normandy I highly recommend a book published by Penguin in 2009 called “D-Day” by the noted author Antony Beevor.  It is well researched, benefitting as it does from recently made-available documents not released when Cornelius Ryan wrote his epic.]

So my French Poodle comes to an end. A long way down and a long way back (1800+ miles) but oh so very very enjoyable and well worth it.  It did what a holiday is supposed to do, it entertained, amused, enchanted, beguiled and educated me.  It relaxed, re-invigorated and enthused me for a long hard ‘fall’ and winter.  Most of all it made the graft of the long winter and even longer spring just endured, seem justified.  For once I had no guilt, had ample resources and had a bloody good time.  I hope yo enjoyed sharing it with me,

And now for something completely different……. back to Walling in Wales !!

For those of you interested,  below is my route in the form of the main towns and, in some cases, villages which should help you track it.  Its a great ’roundabout’ way to the Sun !

Down: Caen.  Falaise.  Argentan.  Alencon.  Le Mans.  Tours.  Chateauroux.  La Chatre.  Boussac.  Gouzon.  Aubussan.  Ussel.  Neuvic.  Mauriac.  Aurillac.  Rodez.  Millau.  Motorway to Bezier.

Up: St. Pons.  Mazamet.  Castres.  Albi.  Cordes.  Villefranche de Rouergue.  Figeac.  Beaulieu de Dordogne.  Tulle.  Eymoutiers.  Peyat le Chateau.  Bourganeuf.  Le Grand-Bourg.  La Souterraine.  Le Blanc.  Chatillon sur Inde.  Loches.  Tours.  Chateau la Valiere.  La Fleche.  Sable sur Sarthe.  S la Guillame.  Courcite.  Javron.  Domfront.  Tarchebray.  Vire.  St. Lo.  Carentan.  St. Mere Eglise.  Cherbourg.

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