Randonnée avec moutons – Hike with sheep

Transhumance is the moving of domestic animals from winter pastures to summer pastures and back again. In France it happens mostly in mountainous areas however the name has been appropriated for an annual movement of sheep from the grand agricultural market site at La Latiere to the communal land below the bastide walls in Saint-Aulaye-Puymangou.

It is a pleasant and slow hike for anyone who wishes to walk with the sheep as they wend their way through the byways of the forest and through the centre of Saint-Aulaye. Talking to the shepherd the sheep are quite happy to act as commune lawnmowers and calmly chomp their way across the common.

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Its 2020 at Bon Abri in the Dordogne and Christmas and the New Year festivities have come and gone.

It has been a long time since I seriously published a post and so it is well past time to make another. This was our first Christmas at home in Bon Abri for 5-years.

Those terrible days of late November, early and mid-December with flooding along the rivers suddenly vanished to make way for beautiful sunny days in and around the festive few period. It was such a beautiful day on Christmas Day that we had pre-breakfast coffee sitting outside the barns.

Coffee in the sun on Christmas day
Waiting for the mist to burn off

These balmy days with very cold, picturesque, frosty nights may have pushed the rain aside but it is taking a long time for the high rivers to recede.

The fields have started to dry out but the cattle egrets, still paddling around in the mud, are making the most of what food they can find.

Just before Christmas we made a short journey to Saint Aigulin where we watched the very energetic Carl Grainger playing the superb, and much travelled, organ in a wonderful recital of mostly Christmas orientated music from Bach to Rowley. The nave of Saint-Fort was packed with a very appreciative audience.

In Puymangou Céline Marly and Carine Rouzeau built the creche (nativity) in the village church, creating a very dynamic, delicately lit, stable that was alive with animals, visiting magi and shepherds.

So now, as the days get longer, it is time to work towards the delights of a summer full of visitors.

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Elisabeth Hoffmann – Artist/Artiste

Images de l’artiste Elisabeth Hoffmann, avec deux de ses tableaux grand format, exposés jusqu’à fin janvier à la galerie de l’Union des Producteurs de Saint-Emilion.

Images of the artist Elisabeth Hoffmann, with two of her large format paintings, exhibiting at the Union des Producteurs de Saint-Emilion gallery until the end of January.

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Another visit to the Union de Producteurs de Saint Emilion

Saint Emilion-Gironde-France-Union de Producteurs de Saint Emilion 170510 0001We were invited, once again, to visit the Saint Emilion wine Co-operative, the Union de producteurs de Saint Emilion(UDP), for a tour of the production area and to renew our relationship with the Cooperative.

The drive down through rain drenched lanes flanked by rolling fields of immaculately manicured vines was a slow but delightful journey.  Strange machines ran up and down the vines, heads bobbed as the workers tied up the rapidly growing branches and at one point a horse and ploughman were working the narrow lanes between the vines.

Saint Emilion rose slowly from the fields, the massive stonework dulled by the rain.  The UDP plant is south of the city below the vine covered slopes on which the city rests.  Inside we were taken through the newly refurbished sales area with bottles and cases reflected in the black mirrored ceiling.  Once in the exhibition hall/conference room we were invited to have a light breakfast while the rest of the guests arrived.  The walls displayed the works of artist Nane (Christiane Relave) and showed a progression of her works through 4 periods.

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I will not go into the details of the tour as it followed the same route from sorting to bottling as described in my previous post on the UDP.  However, the highlight for me, once more, was the visit to the row upon row of thousands of golden oak barrels full of wine maturing in the semi darkness.  The aroma as you enter the cellar fills your nose with a warm glow and awakens the taste buds.

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Saint Emilion-Gironde-France-Union de Producteurs de Saint Emilion 170510 0012a

Returning to the exhibition area there was a short talk about the discounts available to any of our guests who choose to come for a visit and wish to buy wines from the UDP shop. Then we took part in a tasting session of three of their superb reds ending in a delightful, flavoursome Grand Cru.

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Sometimes it is a hard life running Gites; but not today .


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A Saint-Emilion wine tour – and more.

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Every now and again, as people in the ‘Hospitality’ business, we get invitations to interesting events organised by the Office de Tourisme or one of the notable or more pro-active tourist venues. In this case we were invited (along with a lot of others over a two-day period) to visit the ‘Union de Producteurs de Saint-Emilion’. The UDP de Saint-Emilion is a large wine Co-Operative that produces a wide range of excellent, quality, wine from hand-picked Speciality Grand Crus to easy drinking AOC. This co-operative was founded, along with many others, in the 1930’s as a direct effort to counter the effects of the impending economic depression.

Nowadays this UDP provides a full range of wine making skills for whoever wants to make use of it within the Saint-Emilion area. In addition the scale of their operation means that they are able to offer their growers not only their expertise, knowledge and superb processing facilities but also marketing and sales assistance on a scale that individual producers could not afford. This of course (apart from us being consumers) is where we, with this invitation, come in.

We chose the second of the proposed days for our visit and took the scenic route down through rambling villages and open countryside into the mono-culture area of the greater Bordeaux vineyards. Despite the additional scenic element that a wrong turn gave us (we will not dwell on it here) we made it, door to door in well under an hour.

We were met in the UDP reception by the excited and fired-up marketing team. We were taken straight to the basement exhibition space where we had coffee and pain au chocolat. The marketing team made us welcome and while our colleagues gathered the team were able to give us a quick briefing and identify the 6 or 7 Anglophone people in the party. Slowly our companions for the morning assembled, drank coffee, dropped crumbs of pain au chocolat and properly curved croissant (certainly not Tesco value) and chatted while gazing at the exhibition of paintings.

With most of the 20+ of us assembled and fortified for the tour we set off into the shop for a very interesting talk on the geology and landscape of the Saint Emilion AOC. From a foundation group of six wine-growers there are now 150 producers within the UDP. They harvest about 36,000 hectolitres from 700 hectares in the prestigious Saint-Emilion and Saint-Emilion Grand Cru. The singularity of the varied geology is what makes this area what it is.

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The tour started as we were led into the great hall of concrete vats on a walkway above the impressive wine presses. Beyond this hall was clinical and shining; stainless steel glinting in the light. Here the grapes arrived by trailer to start their conversion. Four conveyors for ‘other’ grapes and one for the specialised ‘hand-picked’ grapes that are sifted, sorted de-stalked and optically quality/size checked in a completely different way to the bulk of the grapes.

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The scheduling of arrivals and the record-keeping involved in ensuring that the right grapes go to the right place (specific château grapes must take their pre-ordained processing route to maintain their integrity) for such a range of producers is mind-numbing. Because the UDP processes for so many and so varied a group of producers they must cater for everything from Grand Cru and Château bottling to the standard AOC. This I think is one of the great benefits of a visit to the UDP; while it is not a famous single Château with a single process to demonstrate it is far more than this and can show a range of different processes under one roof.

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We were shown the fermenting chambers where the wild yeasts are killed off and specific yeasts administered before the juice is cooled in summer and warmed in winter to provide the perfect environment for that wonderful magic that turns juice to wine.

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Enough of the boring details because you can go and find these out for yourself.

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I will, however, dwell on one other aspect of the tour and that is my second favourite segment (the wine tasting at the end came first place), and that was the beautiful warehouse where the wines (the ‘better’ wines at least) are stored in rank after rank of golden oak barrels.

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The oak comes from a single forest in the centre of France and four or five workshops provide the cooperage. There is an amazing glow that fills this dimly lit cathedral of a room.

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I will gloss over the final part of our tour where theory met practice as we sampled three delightful wines all of great quality but each better than the previous. This we ‘washed’ down with an excellent buffet.

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Throughout the visit our guide, Christine, gave a full commentary in French. After each stop she took the small group of Anglophone visitors to one side and gave us explanations of the technicalities in English. She was never hurried, no question went unanswered and the range of her knowledge was superb.  There was though one question that I forgot to ask and that concerned the escape of alcohol from the barrels and the change in strength of the wine stored in those barrels over their four years of gentle slumber.

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So, if you want to visit what does it cost? Not a lot – once you are in the area and staying with us a tour and sampling can be arranged for free every day of the year (well almost, exclude Christmas day and New Years day). The marketing people are passionate and incredibly knowledgeable and really want you to enjoy your visit. Go on, spoil yourself, stay at Bon Abri in Puymangou and spend a really pleasant morning with the UDP in Saint Emilion.

For more on Saint-Emilion itself have a look at this earlier post.

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Perhaps my French is improving after-all

Just re-posted now I have worked out why the images did not previously show up. –  We drove through the quiet village of Monze, deep in the land of Corbiere wines (in Languedoc-Rousillon and south-east of Carcassonne). Wide, flat valleys dozed cosily in the shelter of the …

Source: Perhaps my French is improving after-all

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Perhaps my French is improving after-all


La Cite-Carcassonne-Aude-Languedoc Rousillon-France 160221 022

We drove through the quiet village of Monze, deep in the land of Corbiere wines (in Languedoc-Rousillon and south-east of Carcassonne). Wide, flat valleys dozed cosily in the shelter of the cracked and shattered folds of the often bare limestone ridges and peaks. Carefully tended vines stretched in serried ranks across the valleys. Occasionally a lone worker could be seen tending each vine with the care of a nurse working between row after row of hospital beds. Each vine was checked and cosseted, then given its required treatment.

Corbieres - Clear water through the limestone valley.

The village of Monze, unlike the surrounding landscape, is unremarkable with its restaurant and small vehicle repair workshop; however the signboards for each of these premises read “M’11 restaurant” and “M’11 autos”. It took the few seconds until we drove out of the village for the penny (or centime or cent) to drop and I suddenly understood the signs. Perhaps my French is improving after-all.

Lagrassse - Abbey through the medieval bridge

Our destination for this short trip was the town of Lagrasse. This is one of the “Plus Beaux Villages”. This is the official designation for one of the most beautiful villages in France. From Monze you enter the town across the new bridge. This is parallel to the high-arched medieval bridge framing the great Abbey behind it. The old bridge is narrow and steep, soaring above the seemingly tranquil waters far below. On foot the bridge leads into a beautiful Bastide town with narrow canyon like streets of tightly packed houses sheltering within the remains of the old walls.

With the sun ‘winter low’ and casting deep shadows in the streets it was a fine place to wander. The church is well worth a visit but hard to find. From a distance the low tower hovers over the rooftops. As you close in the houses crowd in so closely on all sides that you are unaware of the church itself until you step through the great doors at the end of a short dead-end street and down into the very wide space of the nave.

Lagrasse - the gap between church (on the right and houses on the left)

Lagrasse – the gap between church (on the right and houses on the left)

Walking back to the car along the path below the Abbey walls I thought about other Abbeys in the region; the Abbey of Saint Hilaire in Limoux is where Blanquette de Limoux comes from. They use the Méthode champenoise to put the sparkle in the bottle and claim to have invented the method before Champagne did. Don’t join the debate, just drink a Champagne quality wine at a better price. On a different tack the Cistertian Abbey of Fontfroide opens its 200 bush rose garden to the public in the spring. This one is on my ‘to-do’ list for the next Spring trip south from Bon Abri Gites.

Lagrasse - the north door into the nave

Lagrasse – the north door into the nave





If you are planning a holiday down this way later in the year (and apartment St Vincent is a great place to base yourself) it might be worth thinking about the 16th July to the 4th August which is the Festival des Abbayes. There are events at many of the Regions Abbeys including Caune Minervois (if you are of a geological bent the quarries at Caune produce a beautiful pink marble that turns up everywhere from fountains to fireplaces).

While thinking about festivals there is one that comes to mind, Les Médiévales de Peyrepertuse, with medieval entertainment and an amazing backdrop of the château of Peyrepertuse. Several of the local castles are classified as “citadelles du vertige”, for instance Quéribus and Puilaurens. Their clifftop locations (and the often hard slog to get to them) justify the name.

A week after that trip, back in the Dordogne, the crane migrations are in full flow. Bigger flocks than I have seen before assemble and disassemble overhead as the birds chatter and jostle spiraling up into the thin, wispy clouds before peeling off into ‘V’ shaped squadrons that move off in noisy lines towards the Paris Basin and beyond.

Almonds in Lagrasse - last years nuts with this years blossom

Where the Languedoc is already pink and white with almond and plum blossom up here in the Dordogne the blossom is only slowly showing that Spring is not far away. Its arrival is very much anticipated this year as we face up to the squelching ground, mist and showers. In the mean-time the sweeping paths of daffodils planted when we first arrived in Bon Abri in Puymangou add a shimmer of constantly moving yellow.

Narcissus - Bon Abri, Puymangou, Dordogne, France

I can reveal, for those less adept at French than even I am, the number 11 would be pronounced onze. So M’11 becomes Monze and the village was……Monze. As Alexander the Meerkat would say “simples”; well it is when you know.

Daffodil - Bon Abri, Puymangou, Dordogne, France

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Les cagettes de l’ouest and a good night out

A few nights ago there was another of the ‘open mic’ nights in the village hall “George Brasssens” in Chenaud, Dordogne, France; where the ‘open’ section is followed by a main band. As Chenaud is only, and quite literally, ‘just down the road’ from Bon Abri in Puymangou – although its a steeps, tree-lined and very winding road through the forest down to the valley of the river Dronne – we set off through the darkness for a drink and to enjoy some music.

We were running late and missed most of the ‘open mic’ performers but were able to catch a couple (guitar and flute/vocals) singing in English followed by an entertaining trio that performed chansons francaise which had most of the audience, young and old, singing along with them. This chansons has an apparent simplicity that makes you think you have a grasp of a very simple song. However these songs, I am led to believe, have a depth of meaning and subtlety of undertone that is completely missed by all but the most fluent French speaking non-French person.

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With this in mind the final performers took the stage (les cagettes de l’ouest). Starting as a solo act the singer/guitarist was later joined by a percussionist and an amazingly agile and eccentric fiddle player.

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Les cagettes de l'ouest-Salle George Bressens-Chenaud-Dordogne-France-band 150815 0078

Later their numbers were bulked out with a couple of girls adding their voices. They performed their own material in the chansons francaise style. The audience were very receptive and their performance was really entertaining.

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Despite what I said earlier about chanson francaise when they gave us ‘jamais, non jamais’ even I, after a few cups of red wine, could add my voice to the chorus (jamais, jamais, jamais……). As my French tutor (and more of her in another blog) said when we discussed this night out, “there you are, another word memorised”.

I am already looking forward to another night in the salle de George Brassens in Chenaud and will keep my eyes open for another performance by ‘les cagettes de l’ouest’.

I will keep you informed – sante.

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A concert on the beach in Royan

The summer in Aquitaine is a cultural melting pot, full of lively, bubbling, spicy activity providing a glut for any sized cultural appetite. The greatest difficulty is deciding what to see and above all what has to be left out. One thing at least, sadly, has been made easier and that is that there will be no St Aulaye pastel exhibition this year. It seems that ‘they’ have decided to make it a biennial exhibition.

A series of events that had caught our imagination were the concerts on the beach at Royan, Charente-Maritime. Held at the end of July, taking place late in the evening on a wide stretch of the beautiful, fine sand of the town beach in Royan, set at the head of the Garronne estuary they sounded perfect. We opted for a fairly ‘straight’ classical set. Making sure that our gite guests could cope without us for a couple of days we left Bon Abri in Puymangou on a scorching hot morning and headed in to the Charente. We stopped briefly in the bee buzzing, summer dozing town of Condéon with its large Romanesque church of St Marien.

Door of eglise st Marien Condeon

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The carved main doorway arch is highly weathered and the images of knights on their horses are hard to decipher. Some of the mythical beasts are almost recognisable but what I thought looked like Christ throwing the merchants out of the temple was, we were led to believe, more of the bestiary. I suppose that if I had stood outside for 13 centuries I might be a bit weathered. Inside the long, tall nave was cool and dark with some interesting, small box pews.

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Under an hour later we drove into the equally sleepy, but far bigger, town of Pons.

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The fish filled river flowed gently through the town along the edge of the cliffs that are topped by the remains of the Norman keep and ornate chateau that now houses the Mairie.

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Pretty, neat and napping in its dotage I only hope that pilgrims heading to and from Santiago de Compostela found a livelier town in the Middle Ages.

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In stark contrast to the restful air of Pons the fortified coastal town of Talmont was thronging. We parked in the huge municipal carpark outside town, sat and had a reviving lunch and then fell in with the other visitors to this quaint little town that squats behind it medieval walls and keeps its back to the gales that the winter throws at it from the Atlantic.

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From the fishermen’s huts perched on their stilts out in the estuary to the blue painted shutters of the customs house and the solid, storm defying walls of l’eglise St Radegonde the town shouts quaint and picturesque; but it is still well worth a visit for all that.

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The next stop was Royan; what a culture shock that was for us; there were cars, people, cars, shops and more people. For us country-folk, fresh from our village in the forest with a population of less than 90 this was a real shock to our systems. The small, bijou hotel was easy to find on a street that runs from the beach to the market. Parking was almost as easy with a choice of on or off street spaces a short walk from the hotel. By now our searing hot day had turned to drizzle and the drizzle looked as if it might turn to rain as the time for the beach concert got gradually closer. We left it to the last minute to head for the beach and a couple of minutes later we were standing on a deserted stretch of wet sand with the flickering lights of the harbour and promenade reflected from the rippled surface.

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There was no one in sight and the few signs declared that the concert had been postponed until tomorrow. We went back to the hotel after walking the several hundred yards out across the sand to the low-water mark. Our picnic was eaten on our hotel bed and the excellent wine went down really well in the dry and cosy room.

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Next day was dull as we went up to the market and wandered around. The market was very impressive, as most French markets are, with a wide range of produce beautifully arranged. The stall that really took our attention was outside the covered area and was very busy.

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The lady was selling a huge range of strange tomatoes and other vegetables including physalis and a wide range of wild herbs. We tried to talk to her about the herbs but she was so busy we were barely able to fit in a request to take pictures and were unable to say ‘thank-you’ afterwards.

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The church of Notre-dame soars high above the town and dominates it from most view-points. It is a strange, stark concrete edifice that becomes more and more enticing as you approach it.

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It was bombed to total oblivion at the end of the war and this object was constructed in 3-years.  It looks truly amazing until you see where the speed of construction has been its downfall, the re-enforcing has badly rusted and the concrete is falling away. The structure is dangerous and is undergoing a major structural re-fit. The cost is staggering.

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Personally re-energised with pain au raison we drove out across the flat farm-land to Isle d’Oleron. We had hoped to reach the small fort of Louvois with its low-tide causeway in time to walk across but missed out.

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The island of Oleron was a huge disappointment. Flat and heavily wooded with every available space made over to the cultivation of snot in a shell, errr, sorry, I mean oysters. Huge expanses of clear white sand and everything that was worst about childhood holidays to the beach, slow moving lines of cars, boring long expanses of sand and the ever present feeling of compulsory ‘having a good-time’.

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The shore-side villages are packed and thronged with people walking one way and then the other. ‘Snot’ restaurants abound and there are, it seems, no quaint little villages left here. On the positive side the land is farmed and the waters fished; the ports and harbours work for a living dragged from the cold, heartless sea.

As we drove to get off the island across the long and delicate bridge the sun shone down and promised a fine evening. Once back in Royan and with no hotel to worry about we bought another picnic, sans vin, and joined the crowds of elderly (mostly) people heading onto the strand. We staked our claim to a small section of sand and settled in for a 2-hour picnic before the concert began.

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The sun set, the temperature plummeted and the moon rose. Then, suddenly, the concert was under-way. A lovely selection of music presented in some really unusual ways, Vivaldi from an acapella group of women, some modern Spanish music from Wan Ferera, the most unbelievably delicate, sensitive music from a duet of Alpine horns (sounds impossible but its true), a girl from the Paris Ballet performing an extract from ‘Carnival of the animals’ and it went on.

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The finale emphasised by a brief but impressive firework display set us up nicely for a long and very tiring drive back to Bon Abri and bed (at 4:30 am).

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A musical round trip through Bergerac from Bon Abri gites

The beautiful and compact city of Bergerac is less than an hour from Puymangou and the gites at Bon Abri. The lovely city of Bergerac was not our primary destination but it proved to be a very entertaining one.

Fresh strawberries from the garden in bon Abri

It was a delightful, warm day preceded by a cloudless blue sky even before the sun rose. Taking our cue from the calm dawn we made a very slow start to the morning. Lounging, as we did, at a table on the lawn with fresh strawberries picked before the sun could warm them was a delight. These were the first of the year and we savoured them. I have nurtured and netted them, watched and watered them and anticipated that first bite, My delight in finding that the rabbits seem to avoid them just added to the juicy full flavour as we sank our teeth into them.

By the time that we were heading south down through the deep green and speckled forest clouds had drawn a thin veil over the sky. We passed through the busy market in Mussidan, a business-like town pressed up against the Isle river, and then along the fertile and rolling valley of the Crempse river. In contrast to the steep, dense and dark Forêt de la Double this was open, manicured and neat.

Field with Pyramidal Orchids

Our destination was the tiny village of Campsegret that appears to sit on a hillside like a jumble of badly stacked books on a rickety bookcase. This is where the animal charity, Phoenix, runs its book sale twice per year. I will not dwell on the good work that Phoenix do but it is sad that they are needed to help the domestic animals that are treated as accessories and disposable items here. The book sale is an impressively organised operation with marshals directing cars full of books in and empty cars out. All the while streams of people pour in with or without books they want to pass on and everyone seems to leave staggering under the staggering piles of books. All of the books are in good condition and most cost a single Euro each. Briskly passing the long counter of sweet and savoury food, cakes, tarts, sandwiches, pies and on and on with a large brigade of very busy helpers bringing you that oh so tempting sweet thing (or is that just me – no it seems to be almost everyone), you can browse through the books. To stay is to drown. The longer you are there the more books keep appearing and the longer you will stay.

Throughout the year books are collected and cleaned, sifted and sorted, stacked and stored ready for the next sale. It is an operation that brings delight to many who voraciously read their way through lazy, insect droning, hot summer days or chilly, wind-swept winter evenings huddles around the wood-burner.

Pyramidal orchid

We left with a smaller pile of books than we came with so we stuck to our game-plan. We headed back into the rolling hills past meadows carpeted with orchids. Most were the purple pyramidal orchid but some, less obtrusive orchids bobbed in the breeze and waved their sinuous tongues (Lizard orchid) to attract passing insects.Lizard Orchid

On into Bergerac and we parked close to Place Gambetta and the historic centre.

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As we made our way through the square we realised that the jazz festival was in full swing. We checked the performance list for the afternoon and then strolled down through the old town and its cobbled, narrow streets like ancient cliffs of medieval brick and plaster, mostly beautifully restored.

A lot of restoration work has been done and a huge amount is still under-way. It is pleasing to note however that visual intrusion and the blight that construction work necessarily involves has been kept to a minimum and well disguised.

Purple Blues

Purple Blues

Back in place Gambetta we sat with glasses of wine and enjoyed a couple of hours of excellent music from Purple Blues and from Serge Molinier Trio.

Serge Moulinier Trio

Topped off with a pan au raisin from a baker who had the biggest selection of artisan breads I have ever seen our day was completed by the final leg of our round-trip to Bon Abri gites in Puymangou.

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