Emerveillé par l’Ardèche

June 22, 2017

Our départment changes its slogan almost as frequently as you or I change our socks, and “Emerveillé par l’Ardèche”  is its latest version.  Overwrought and almost unpronounceable as it seems to us, we had to think again yesterday when we encountered a couple of Belgian tourists who were, literally, amazed by the secrets that the Ardèche has up its sleeve.

It is boiling hot at les Sarziers and we had planned a day out in the mountains to cool off.   So we headed to le Cheylard and from there into the region of the Boutières, a dramatic landscape of sucs – the local term for long-extinct volcanic domes – plunging gorges and wide sweeping vistas.  At around 1,300 m altitude the air was pleasantly cool, the fields still full of late spring flowers, and in the hedges the elder was in full bloom.

We headed towards the little village of Borée because we wanted to take another look at an unusual work of land art which we had first seen soon after its inauguration in 2008.

Nine years later, the work has settled into its site, the rocks have weathered on their more exposed sides, tiny bilberry bushes have taken root in some of the crevices and the sheep, who crop the hillside, have scooped out comfy places for themselves to shelter from bad weather in the lee of the taller stones.

The work,  known as the Tchier de Borée, consists of 70 irregular shaped stones, set upright in a circular pattern around a roughly paved area, with an omphalos at its centre.  Many of the stones are carved with inscriptions, symbols, runes and sculpted figures and the whole thing has a fantastically complex and symbolic meaning for its creators, Serge Boyer and Fabienne Versé.  If you are interested you can find out more here (bi-lingual text).

Whether or not you subscribe to their mystical view, this is a stunning artwork which communicates on many levels.  It is perfectly set in the landscape, on a fairly steep slope opposite the little granite village.

The stones themselves are of irregular shape, and as you walk around the geometry constantly shifts as you see them from different perspectives and in different alignments.  The stunning backdrop of the mountains frames the work dramatically and in some cases the stones have been chosen to echo the natural shape of the sucs, blending the artistic with the natural rock formations.

For a long time we were the sole visitors, the silence only broken by birdsong, crickets, the humming of insects and the sound of cowbells carrying from across the valley.  The stones had been warmed to body heat by the sun and leaning against them gave you a comfortable feeling, as if you were resting against the flank of a docile animal.

As we watched, a magnificent thunderstorm approached from the south, with spectacular lightning flashes and rumbles of thunder.

And it was at this point that we noticed the couple, wandering amongst the stones, visibly impressed and also puzzled.  They asked us what we could tell them about the work and we got into conversation.

They were staying further south, near Privas and, like us, had come up to the Boutières to escape the heat.  The day before, they had stumbled upon the abandoned abbey at Mazan – perched improbably in the middle of nowhere at an altitude of 1,446 metres, and told us that they thought it was amazing.  Today, they had been looking for a hamlet where the houses still have the traditional roofs thatched with broom.  But as the storm approached and they headed away from it towards Borée they caught sight of the unusual pattern of rocks and came to investigate.

There is absolutely no information sign, nothing but this little hand painted notice asking visitors to keep the gate shut so that the sheep can’t get out.

No leaflets, no entrance fee, no interactive screens – it is left up to the visitor to stumble upon this enigmatic work of art and ….. to be amazed.

 

Les Bœufs

April 9, 2017

It’s high time to get busy in the veg patch.  We borrow a machine rather like this one to turn ours over (though we don’t usually bother with the fancy get-up) and already the onions, shallots and radishes are up and running.

Man (and woman) have been tilling the soil since time immemorial of course, and very soon cottoned on to the idea of getting some four-footed assistance.

However, inspiring obedience and co-operation from the workforce is clearly not always plain sailing, as these Roman mosaics from Sicily illustrate.  So we were interested to see how Michel, one of the last farmers in France who still works with teams of oxen, manages his beasts.  The comité des fêtes organised a showing of “le Dernier Paysan” last Saturday.  It was a wet and windy afternoon, not conducive to gardening, so we went along.

The hall was packed and the documentary was highly appreciated by a well-informed rural audience who kept up a running commentary on the action.  Markus said it was like being at a football match!  We learned a great deal: for example that he shoes his oxen himself, with nifty little half-hoof slippers which are nailed, cold, onto the outside of the hoofs of the forelegs only.  It was fascinating to see how a pair of animals were yoked together, in strict order of seniority, using a prescribed number of turns of the leather strap – three times round the right horn, once round the head to hold the fronton and three times round the left horn.  It’s a laborious job and one can imagine the success that this invention for speeding things up probably must have had.  On the other hand it looks less comfortable for the animals.

Then leather fringes were buckled on to protect them from the flies and wire mesh muzzles to prevent them from snacking whilst on the job.  All this before harnessing up the two pairs and attaching them to the cart or plough or reaper-binder, depending on the task in hand.  Michel invariably talked to his animals in Auvergnat patois, and always had a pat or a friendly slap on the flank for them.  It was clear that they were content with their lot, well cared for and highly valued.

The next day we asked Roger whether his family had used oxen for field work in the past.  Oh no he said, very few in Arlebosc could afford beasts like that.  They were the equivalent of a BMW – expensive to purchase and expensive to keep, on account of the amount that such massive and powerful animals need to eat.  He could only recall two establishments (known locally as châteaux) which kept oxen.  The rest – his family included – used teams of cows, the disadvantage being that they would tire easily and could only be used for two hours in the morning and again for two hours in the late afternoon.  He said his father bought their fist tractor in 1970 and from then on no longer used la traction animale. 

He does love cows though and it’s so good to see that his cousin appreciates their therapeutic qualities at this time.

One of the pair that arrived ten days ago has had her calf and I met her on her way back to La Mouna where she lives.  Meanwhile another four have been turned out into the field below Roger’s kitchen window and are happily chomping away at the spring grass and dandelions – comparatively speaking, enjoying a life of idle luxury.

 

 

 

Adieu Mémé

March 27, 2017

Many of you will have met out neighbour Roger and will remember that his mother has been in residential care in St Félicien for the past two years.  In all that time Roger has visited her without fail every afternoon, sitting with her and holding on for as long as possible to the special bond which united them.

Two weeks ago her condition deteriorated such that she needed to be moved to the hospital wing and it was obvious that she was nearing the end of her long life.  Roger continued his visits, the family was there to celebrate her 97th birthday on March 17th and her son stayed by her as she slipped away, finally leaving us four days later.

We were at the funeral on Saturday and are doing our best to help Roger come to terms with his loss, together with his cousins and the many concerned neighbours who drop in to sit with him.  We all hope that, in a little while, he will be able to contemplate the much needed hip operation which would enable him to dispense with crutches and get out into the fields once again.  His cousin Marc has brought a couple of cows up to the farm so that, along with Tango the dog and six assorted cats, there is some life and movement around him and Roger doggedly works away at small routine jobs: cutting back the broom, repairing fences and looking after his hens but he is severely restricted and it is a struggle for him.

For Roger and his mother, their life was the farm and to be outside on the land gives meaning to it.  These pictures were taken about four years ago – la Mémé was already well over 90, but she insisted on helping by gleaning the last wisps of hay from the fields, tucking her walking stick – which she hardly needed – into the gnarled old hands holding the rake.  A real picture of a countrywoman.

Happily, Spring is coming and we hope that as the countryside wakes up and bursts into leaf and flower, Roger will find the strength to continue the life he has always known and to take courage from the changing seasons and the rhythm of the land.

La Plume de ma Tante . . .

February 10, 2017

. . . est sur le bureau de mon oncle.  This famous, grammatically interesting but practically useless phrase started many of us off on our journey into learning French.  The reverse equivalent is “my tailor is rich” which is supposed to reassure French learners that they already understand more than they think of the impenetrable English language, (tailor/tailleur and rich/riche).  Once again it is an improbable phrase of extremely limited use, but the biscuit has to be taken by the opening sentence for study in my German book:  “Mein Bruder hat die gleiche Harpune wie du”  My brother has the same harpoon as you!  Oh yes?

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We both remember our school French teachers.  Mine was Miss Downer, a dedicated middle aged lady who drove herself to school sitting very upright in her duck egg blue Morris Oxford.  She was a grammarian and a stickler for correct pronunciation, but also guided us through the intricacies of the poetry of Rimbaud and the overwrought alexandrines of Racine’s Phèdre.  Markus cannot recall the name of his French master but describes him as an “extraordinary vehicle” with a fondness for the films of Jacques Tati, which is honour enough in itself!

At all events these two must be considered as having had a major influence on our life choices – from where we live to the fact that we ever met at all.  So thank you to both!

So it was with school-time memories and trusting to our earlier grounding that we decided to try our hands at the Dictée à l’Ancienne held in Arlebosc last Saturday.

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Dictation tests are still used in French primary schools and, predictably enough, there was an article in the paper recently bemoaning a decline in standards.  For the same short text, 10 year olds scored 10.6 errors in 1987, 14.3 in 2007 and 17.8 in 2015, most of the mistakes being grammatical faults.

The chief difficulty in a French Dictée is not so much the spelling, as it would be in English, but more the agreements, plurals and grammatical traps, many of which cannot be heard but need to be applied according to the rules.  For example, qu’il soit poli and qu’elles soient polies.

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However the linguistics professor writing the article did make the point that children nowadays are confronted with so many new subjects that there is not sufficient time available to drum grammatical rules into their heads.  She went on to raise the question, do we want to produce proficient little grammarians or children who can function effectively in society?

Anyway back to our Dictée.  This was an altogether less stressful affair and around 45 of us, all adults, gathered at the Mairie to be issued with a blotter, a dip pen, an ink bottle and a page of that infuriating squared writing paper that the French (and Swiss) know how to use and I don’t!

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The atmosphere was good humoured with us all trying out our nibs and remembering blots, scratches and ink monitors from our primary school days.  There were to be prizes for anyone scoring fewer than ten mistakes and hot drinks and crêpes (we’re just past la Chandeleur) to cheer us up whilst marking was in progress.

In fact outside the schoolroom la Dictée has been a favourite French pastime since the 19th century.  The most famous is the fiendish text dreamed up by Prosper Mérimée in 1857 at the request of Empress Eugénie to amuse the court of Napoleon III.  Results:  the Emperor 75 errors, Eugénie 62 and ….. the punctilious Austrian Ambassador, Metternich junior, THREE!

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More recently the cultural TV host, Bernard Pivot, organised regular televised dictation tests up to 2005 and it is still possible to take part in the annual Dictée organsied by the Rotary Club.

We all settled down and listened attentively.  It must be said that there were frequent calls to repeat certain tricky phrases and a great deal more chattering and comparing of notes than I remember from my school days.  A collective drawing in of breath and exclamations of Aïe aïe aïe! helpfully signalled the more fiendish traps to the otherwise unwary.  When it came to the results, the well deserving winner had made only 4 errors and a further three or four people came in under 10.  The rest of us lagged way behind but, as the only non native speakers there, we felt we had acquitted ourselves fairly well with 19 and 22 ¼ mistakes, which was far from being the worst score.

Even in these dreary dark days of winter there is always something going on in the village.  It could be a fête du boudin (black pudding) boiled up on the village square, competitions of the card game belotte or a matinée dansante – a sort of tea dance.  Spring won’t be here for a while but there’s enough to keep us all busy.

 

Life at 140 Chemin des Granges

January 13, 2017

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About eight months ago a very heavy envelope was posted through our letterbox.  It contained an enamelled metal plaque with the number 140 on it and a letter informing us that from now on we were living at 140 Chemin des Granges and that our postal address would be officially 140 Chemin des Granges 07410 Arlebosc France … et vlan!

We had noticed that gradually the villages around Arlebosc had put up signs next to signs informing us that, for example, the hamlet of Trafourine was now on the Chemin de Trafourine which means that if you want to go to Trafourine (which is unlikely) you simply have to follow the Chemin de Trafourine to get to Trafourine.

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At the beginning of 2016 the Maire of Arlebosc succumbed to pressure from on high and in April members of the Conseil Municipal were to be found drilling holes with Hervé’s vine planting machine and decorating the countryside with street signs.

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So what’s the system?  The names are chosen by using the last house or hamlet on that particular road.  As for the numbers, they correspond to the distance in metres to the crossroads.  We are thus 140 metres from the D578, and the further into the middle of nowhere you are, the more impressive your number.

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In the bad old days if you wanted to come to see us for the first time, there were (and indeed still are) several methods available.  You could have used a Michelin map and looked for Les Sarziers, or asked a local in the village or simply googled Walksweeks – the first thing that comes up is a Google map of our surroundings and precise location.

With the arrival of Satnav you would probably have used the car’s GPS and it would have guided you along the D578 to the “Rue de Sarzier”, told you to turn into said “rue” and we are the first house on the right.  This system has the considerable disadvantage that the rue de Sarzier does not exist and that there is another hamlet in Arlebosc called Sarzier without an s at the end, which is also not on the rue de Sarzier- a fact that has caused regular entertainment for confused van drivers.

So why all these new signs?  The mass production of metal plaques and the ensuing littering of signs in the open countryside is apparently designed to make it easier for the emergency services to find your hovel.  According to the Mairie it is a requirement of Articles L2212-1, L2212-2 et L2121-29 du code général des collectivités territoriales (I hope you’re impressed).

Hurrumph!  Rumours soon began to circulate.  It is to stimulate the French metal industry (there might be somebody in the steel industry whose cousin is the uncle of the brother in law of the minister of transport’s wife’s dog) or the French government is selling the new street names to Google and will make millions and millions of Euros (sweet revenge for all those taxes they’ve avoided paying) …

Whatever the reason, we are now left with a lot of street signs that were never necessary in the first place.

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Of course in Arlebosc we all try to ignore the new addresses.  Everybody here including the post lady, the firemen, the electricity technician, the artisans, the builders and the rest of the village knows where Les Sarziers is, but nobody would be able to tell you the location of the Chemin de Granges – especially as granges means barns, and there more barns in Arlebosc than kangaroos in Australia.

We feel especially sorry for the local Count, Monsieur de Chazotte, whose family has been living in the Château de Chazotte for several hundred years.  The de Chazottes survived the Revolution and his Château is still the pride of Arlebosc.  But finally in 2016 the revolutionary call for Egalité has been implemented.  His address will be from now on 320 Chemin de Chazotte. Très banal. I suppose Louis XIV would now live at 560 Chemin du Parking, Versailles.

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Back to plebeian Les Sarziers.  Thinking that we should make a gesture towards the State and at least inform the Tax Office that our official address is now 140 Chemin des Granges we went on line.  When we attempted to type in our impressive new address we were informed that the Chemin des Granges does not exist, but that they do have on record some people with our names who live at Les Sarziers.  So please don’t bother to update your address books!

I just hope that the French Government will make tons of money by selling the names to Google maps and then we can take the signs down again and make better use of them! Vive la République.

Looking forward to 2017

January 1, 2017

Les Sarziers in the snow

We wish everyone a very  Happy New Year and hope to welcome many of you to les Sarziers in 2017.

Look out for exciting new adventures coming soon on the Walksweeks website!

Kate and Markus

Swingin’ on la Dolce Via

December 13, 2016

Faithful readers may recall that in August 2014 after our walk along the Ballastine we were all set to test out the stretch of disused railway line between Le Cheylard and the Eyrieux valley on bikes.  The entire line has now been revamped for use by wheelers and walkers and has been re named La Dolce Via.

La Dolce Via

Well time flies by and we were simply not getting round to it until  our friend JP took matters into his own hands and organised the whole excursion for us.  We drove, on brilliant little twisty roads, as far as les Ollières sur Eyrieux, where we had arranged to hire bikes.  There was time for a quick coffee before the local bus rolled up and we hitched them to the back for the ride up to le Cheylard – another super scenic 30 km trip, along the river valley and an absolute snip at 3 euros.  Then it was saddle up and away!  A short stretch of open road brought us to the track and we had a beautiful ride down on a gorgeous day passing through tunnels and over viaducts as we followed the course of the river.

The views are varied but always breath-taking and quite different from those you get from the road, the surface also varies but is mostly excellent and at lunch time JP knew the perfect place to stop.

La gare

The station at Chalencon at le Pont de Chervil has been closed for years along with the hotel, but this summer a brand new food truck appeared.  Having been made redundant from the local jewellery factory, which is in difficulties, Raphaelle decided on a career change and persuaded her husband to graft a holiday chalet onto a trailer base to create a bespoke and very nifty kitchen.

Raphaelle's food truckShe’s an excellent cook and we parked the bikes in the shade to enjoy a delicious lunch and a pleasant break.  Altogether a fabulous day!

And that might have been that but for this intriguing poster which caught our eye some months later.

l'Autre Nous

It was the day after Jazz n Cakes, but we couldn’t miss it and we rolled up, somewhat groggily, mid morning to find the station buzzing in a delightful and peculiarly French way.

There was bunting up, couples dancing on the goods platform, pétanque players on the track, children everywhere.  Raphaelle was busy cooking up a giant paella whilst her husband and daughter served jugs of cool white wine to people sitting at tables in the shade and bemused cyclists rode by.  Emilie and Jean Phi led the lindy hoppers and a jazz trio provided the music.

It was just a great scene.  We had met Emilie before when Markus played for her at Kaopa, but now it transpired that Manu, the trumpet player was moving to Bordeaux ……

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No doubt you can guess the rest!  Markus has been rehearsing regularly with the Emilie and the band and they had their first gig at the end of November.  Watch this space!

 

 

A quick update

November 7, 2016

A few photos of the transformation in the stables.  We’re already daydreaming about possible concerts, dining opportunities …. who knows!!

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Armageddon at les Sarziers

October 26, 2016
Peaceful les Sarziers

Peaceful les Sarziers

We were expecting a hectic October and my goodness we have not been disappointed!

The month kicked off with a great Walksweek.  We hosted a lovely couple from Canada who were lucky with wonderful autumn weather and  enjoyed glorious walking, a trip on the vélorail, picnicking by the Doux and a special peep into the wine making in progress in the Morlanche cellars.

They could hardly have imagined what was about to unfold as soon as they had left!

The peaceful courtyard

The peaceful courtyard

We had carefully scheduled three successive professional renovation jobs, on the kitchen and the stable, but first we needed to take care of all the preparation.

We started by getting stuck in to clearing centuries of junk, beams, stones, straw and unmentionables out of the stable prior to the laying of a concrete floor.

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By which time the courtyard looked like this:

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Next we attacked the kitchen.

The kitchen as you may know it

The kitchen as you may know it

We have decided that we are tired of living in a museum: the soot of ages has to go from the ceiling and the fireplace needs to be plastered.  Inspired by the results in Patricia’s amazing renovation project at her chateau of Hautségur, we decided to go for Aérogommage, a less aggressive technique than sand blasting.  It uses much finer particles and much more air, at lower pressure, so the result is spectacular, as you can see from Patricia’s blog.  But of course there is also a fantastic amount of fine dust, so everything had to be cleared out or protected.

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Then everything started to happen at once.  It began to rain – just what the construction team had been waiting for – and they went into action in the stable …..

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whilst Emmanuelle and Philippe got to work on the beams.

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By the end of the day the courtyard looked like this,

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but the ceiling was starting to look good!

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The next day . . . wow!

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Interlude ….

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The builders disappeared, as builders do (the sun had come out again) and it was time for Daniel to plaster the fireplace.  Unfortunately we have no pictures of him at work, but once again he did a fabulous job.  We chose this family firm from Lamastre to plaster the inside of the house 25 years ago because, given their Italian family name, Avandetto, we were sure they would do a good job!  The business was begun by Daniel’s grandfather, who came to the Ardèche in the 1920’s, to get away from the ascendency of Mussolini’s fascists in his native Turin, where the family had been bronze workers, specialised in creating equestrian statues of the Savoy monarchs to adorn the city’s squares.

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What a difference!

Then the heavens opened and the heavies were back!

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After days of rock breaking and jack hammering, finally everything was ready for La Toupie ….

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which arrived at 7 sharp this morning.

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It took until around 10.30 to get the floor laid and the guys are coming back intermittently throughout the day to “passer l’helicoptère” or surfacing machine.

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We still have a way to go, but we’re getting there!  And meanwhile the trees are into full autumn swing and the countryside is beautiful.

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Le Morlanche Nouveau

October 13, 2016

Day one

Things have been pretty hectic around here recently and the news is stacking up, but it’s time to backtrack a little and tell you about the exciting new developments at Morlanche.

We are so thrilled to have Brice and Lisa as our neighbours.  Since Brice’s grandparents moved to sheltered accommodation eight years ago their house has been empty and things haven’t felt the same.  We bought our house from them and we have developed a close attachment to the family, so when, after the old couple had passed away, Brice decided to move to Morlanche and to revive the vineyard and traditional wine making activity we could not have been more delighted.

the vineyard

They have been here for just over a year and in that time so much has been achieved.  Brice has completed a course in winemaking and vineyard management and Lisa has done an incredible job renovating the house and getting an amazing vegetable garden going.  Together they have been systematically rejuvenating and encouraging the vineyard, using natural methods and a minimum of chemicals and their efforts were rewarded with a bumper crop of excellent quality Gamay when the time came round for the vendange.

The weather had been warm and sunny, the grapes were testing well for a projected alcohol content of 13% when Brice made a snap decision and called the vendange for Saturday 24th.  A small band of family, friends and neighbours spent a hot but very cheerful day harvesting what turned out to be just under 500 kg of grapes.

However, what made this vendange really special is that, for the first time in 40 years, the grapes weren’t sold on to a local wine maker, but taken to the vast cellars under the house to be trodden, before being poured into the vat to start their journey towards becoming the cuvée Morlanche 2016.

The pictures tell their own story:

the vendange arrives in the cellar

the vendange arrives in the cellar

and is carefully weighed

and is carefully weighed.

Treading the grapes

Treading is next – a messy business!

Into the vat

Into the vat . . .

and the adventure begins!

and the adventure begins!

There’s still a long way to go and constant monitoring, testing … and tasting are required.

Measuring the alcohol level

Measuring the alcohol level

checking the vat

checking the vat

Tasting

tasting . . .

But the old cellars are once again filled with the wonderful aroma of fermenting grapes – Brice says that you can even smell it in the kitchen – and the centuries’ old tradition of wine making at Morlanche lives again!

la cave


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