Archive for the ‘What’s New?’ Category

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.

Bikes without tears

May 8, 2016

Markus with the cows

Back in February Markus had one of those big birthdays and his sisters had the bright idea of clubbing together to help him buy an e bike.  He’s been talking about getting one for ages, but they are pretty pricey, so the sisterly initiative is great for getting things moving on the bike front.

an idyllic valley

Markus is no slouch on an ordinary bike but you need to be really motivated to cycle in our area without a bit of assistance.  The roads and lanes are beautiful and virtually traffic free but the gradients are brutal.  Added to which, I personally have always fancied the option of being able to put on a spurt and escape the attentions of the farm dogs which tend to leap out with murderous intent as you are passing their property.

the bikes

So the first step was obviously to hire e bikes from St Félicien, capital of all things cycling in these parts.  http://en.ardeche-guide.com/search/node/ardechoise.  They have a range of around 100km depending on the terrain and temperature and the battery takes three to four hours to recharge.  Their top speed (with assistance) is limited to 25 km per hour.  In France, if the battery power allows the machine to exceed this speed the bike is classed as a moped and requires a license plate and insurance.  In addition they are not allowed to use bicycle lanes.

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We took advantage of a lovely sunny afternoon (unfortunately all too rare this Spring) to take them for a spin and we had a wonderful time.  In 2 ½ hours we covered 32 km and effortlessly climbed up to the Col  de Fontfreyde, nearly 2000ft above our starting point (it sounds more spectacular in feet than a mere 600 metres).  The countryside was looking gorgeous and it was fantastic to cover so much ground, compared with walking, but out in the midst of it all and not shut up in a car.

under the cherry trees

We were interested to realise that these machines operate more like normal bikes and less like motorised ones than we had expected.  In French they are known as vélos à assistance éléctrique which perfectly describes the experience.  You are the master of your bike.  If you do not pedal nothing much happens except for a spurt to get you started.  After that, the more you pedal the more assistance you get.  It takes a little getting used to because the bikes themselves are fairly heavy and there is always a certain amount of resistance from the dynamo, which means that free-wheeling requires a pretty steep gradient.  But the super plus is that if, as I did, you cross a little bridge at the bottom of a valley and don’t notice that the lane has suddenly become as steep as the side of a house … you stall and get off… but … put your bike into third gear and max assistance, stand on the pedal you’re off again like a bird on the wing!

on the open road

Altogether a great experience and something that we shall certainly be suggesting to Walksweekers who might want to get a different perspective on the varied and spectacular routes criss-crossing our corner of the Ardèche.

snow chains required!

Vélorail News

February 8, 2015

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We are delighted to learn that the ever popular vélorail is expanding its service for the 2015 season.  The section of line which runs through the Doux Gorge is already somewhat over-subscribed, with up to five velorail and three steam train runs a day in the high season, all competing for the same stretch of track.  We have always felt that the continuation from Boucieu to Lamastre is as yet under exploited, since it is only used by the Tuesday market train and for a few extra runs from Tournon to Lamastre in July and August.

The re-opening of the line has been a great success; but this summer there was inevitably a bit less of a buzz after the triumphant first season in 2013.  Le chef, invaluable as he undoubtedly was to the smooth running of the operation in those first hair raising months, seems to have proved to be a little too independent-minded for management and there was a parting of the ways at the end of that year.  We were also a bit anxious that one of the operators, Kleber Rossillon, might have been a bit distracted having been awarded the prestigious contract to operate the Grotte Chauvet in the south of the Ardèche, which is set to open in April this year, but it seems that our fears were unfounded.  A second steam locomotive has been rebuilt and will be ready for service at the start of the season and 25 new pedal cars have been ordered for the vélorail service.  These cars are manufactured by a small local company just 30 miles to the south of us, which is particularly satisfying.

Ready for the off

So the new pedal car experience will start at Boucieu, where passengers will take the vintage Billard diesel train up to the 45th parallel of lattitude marker (a source of great local pride) from where they will pedal back down to Boucieu on a route crossing four viaducts, two notable bridges and a level crossing.  To get an idea, click here and then on the green arrow.  Then, to get a feel for the route as seen from the market train, click here (Markus loves his little film . . . so we hope you like it!)

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Jazz and Gelato

September 15, 2014

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So we said goodbye to our hosts and to the last guests, who were lingering over their coffee in the shade of a cherry tree and set off for Alboussière where an annual event, repeated in all the towns and villages at this season, was in progress.  IMG_6634 (2) (600x800)La Rentrée, rather than  New Year is the is the national moment for good resolutions, when the whole of France is back from its holidays and returning to school or work.  This is the time to decide that you will really get to grips with learning English, take up the piano or Tai Chi, join the basket ball team or a woodworking class.  Consequently each locality holds an open day one Saturday in early September where all the different clubs, associations and good causes set up an information stand and encourage inscriptions.  François and his trio were to provide music for part of the afternoon, but before they started they had an important call to make.

We found the three of them fortifying themselves with gelato and espresso at Cuto. The place is tiny and unpreposessing from outside but as soon as we stepped into the cool interior we knew that we were back in Italy: gelato to die for and proper coffee!  IMG_6628 (600x800)What’s more they sell wonderful peccorino cheese, sheeps’ milk yoghurt and the best ricotta this side of Umbria.  IMG_6633 (800x600)Cuto is just one part of an ambitious project being undertaken by an incredibly dynamic young woman who arrived in the Ardèche four years ago from her native Assisi.  She bought a ruined farm, which she is renovating with a view to creating a venue for a wide range of cultural events and exchanges. Music is obviously going to be part of the story and she has been in discussions with Paolo Fressu and Carla Bley, two of our all time musical heroes.  François says “pourquoi pas?” and indeed, given the vibrant music scene around here, why not?  The building work is dragging, but Roberta has no time to waste and all through October she will be hosting an event for illustrators and photographers with an exhibition, workshops and master classses.  Definitely one to watch!

We had a bit of time to kill before our next jazz engagement so we went to look for Roberta’s farm. It is tucked away in the hills down an endless winding track through a scrubby landscape which could indeed be Umbria.  We passed the sheep which provide milk for the cheese and yoghurt, doing their bit to keep the rough grass down, and and encountered a few of her Pastori degli Abruzzi – those vast and deceptively cuddly looking Italian sheepdogs which guard their flocks against wolf or human attack with equally instinctive ferocity.  Roberta breeds them and also rears Cardigan Welsh Corgis although we saw no sign of them.  There’s still a lot of work to do on the farm buildings, but with energy like hers we are sure that she will be ready for the October festival.

Then it was time to head off to François’s farm for a party to celebrate the completion of his new music room . . . .

Le Train du Marché update

August 20, 2013

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Compare this picture with the scene on July 9th, the first day of the traditional Autorail service to Lamastre market, and it is obvious that things have changed!  In fact, on the second Tuesday we waited and waited for the train to show up, together with a young couple from the campsite, who told us they would have given up if they had been the only hopefuls at Arlebosc station.  Eventually, to our immense surprise, this is what hove into view!

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It transpired that when the staff came to open the station at Tournon, there were already 220 people ready to board the train and emergency measures had to be deployed.  Le chef instantly decided that there was only one solution and hitched the new panoramic cars to the BB404 diesel locomotive and set up off the valley.  By the time they reached Arlebosc they had 250 passengers on board.

The following week we were 350 and for the last two Tuesdays the train has been at full capacity with over 500 passengers in eight cars.  Within a week a new platform and temporary toilets had been built at Lamastre station to cope with the unexpected influx of visitors and overhanging branches along the line had been trimmed back to protect the passengers in the open sided carriages from nasty scratches or worse.  Lamastre hardly knows what has hit it as the crowd streams over the bridge into the market and, just before twelve o’clock streams back again to the station, carrying bags of melons, baskets of saucisson, local cheeses and peaches, along with inflatable boats and fishing nets for the children to play with in the river once they get home.  We have made new friends on these Tuesday excursions and frequently meet old friends who have come up the valley from Tournon, or even from further afield.  There is no doubt that everyone is thrilled to have trains back on the line again.

Have a look at the great little film that Markus took of the journey from Arlebosc to Lamastre to get an idea of this fabulous experience.  (Markus is concerned that you won’t click on the red text, so if you didn’t:  CLICK ON THIS! )

PS.  Assiduous readers of this blog will remember our initial encounter with le chef and his dalmation at the start of our adventure with the sleepers for our garden project.  We have now got a measure of the gigantic engineering undertaking which he has been supervising for the past eighteen months and our admiration for him knows no bounds.  He seems to be everywhere at once:  driving the train, answering questions from interested passengers, topping up and turning the locomotive or giving a saucepan of water to the geraniums outside the station in Lamastre.  And we are delighted to discover that his faithful (though somewhat smutty) companion is always at his side.

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Jazz aux Sarziers

August 7, 2013

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It is 25 years since we bought les Sarziers and we had decided to mark the milestone in style.  Last Sunday we welcomed sixty plus guests to an amazing concert.   It was a beautiful summer evening and, as they arrived our friends were able to mingle whilst they sipped an aperitif and enjoyed the glorious location and views which we love so much.  Then Jazz aux Sarziers kicked off, as the sun  started to go down, with  the fabulous sounds of the Magnetic Orchestra, led by genius bass player Francois Gallix.  The musicians loved the mood and the accoustics and played a fantastic set.

After the break, the trio were joined by Markus on trumpet and his friend Hans on trombone for a second set, which ended with a surprise change of drummer, when Pierre took over, and the addition of a second trumpet played by Julien.  Markus has been working up to this event for months and is totally thrilled to have had the opportunity of playing with Francois, Benoit and Nicolas who are just a great band.

We then moved under the chestnut tree for a buffet campagnard – a relaxed dinner during which the sky changed from golden to peach and then deepening blue as the first stars appeared.  Some of our guests had not actually been to les Sarziers before and even those who had were struck by the extraordinary magic of the evening and  the enchanting setting.  Many friends had their children with them, who enjoyed playing in the garden, lounging in the hammock and running around in Roger’s field picking bunches of flowers for maman.

Markus and I were by then floating on a little cloud of happiness.  We were so touched by the generosity of the musicians and the openness and good feeling of everyone involved.  And then came another surprise, which we had hoped for but which surpassed even our expectations.

Our friend Vincent Magrini and the group Kalynda set up after supper and gave us the most wonderful hour and a half of Balkan music.  The group is led by Maria from Rumania, who works as a classical violinist in Paris but often comes in the summer to stay with Vincent and his family and make music together.  She is joined by Eric on accordeon and Jerome on second violin, with Vincent on percussion and guitar.  Their music is quite simply spectacular.  Maria’s enthusiasm and the passion of all the players had us spellbound, and some of us dancing, led by Markus’s sister and brother in law who have travelled to Rumania and learned the traditional folk dances.  With the graceful insouciance of true musicians Julien then stepped in for a few numbers.  He too is a professional trumpet player in Paris and plays, amongst other groups, with the Ziveli Orkestar.  The audience went wild, as they say.

After the applause finally died down people began to trickle away, unwilling to break the spell, but we stayed out in the courtyard, and Vincent and Jerome played for us under the stars until 4am.

Don’t forget to click on a photo to be able to see them in all their glory in a slide show.

In 1988, when we fell in love with a ruin, how could we ever have imagined such an evening?   On August 4th we celebrated the realisation of our dream – that les Sarziers should have a new life – but more than that we celebrated the friends we have made here and the exceptional creative energy, originality and generosity which surrounds us and which makes our part of the Ardèche truly unique.

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Thanks to Brice and to Kiki for the brilliant photos!

Welcome to the Free Zone published!

July 27, 2013

Kate and Markus raise a glass with Claire Meljac, daughter of the authors, and her husband Sasha at their summer home in the Ardèche, to celebrate the publication of Welcome to the Free Zone.  It has been a privilege and a pleasure to get to know Claire over the long period of preparation and research which has culminated in our friend Bill Reed’s magnificent translation.

Claire’s insights and comments on her experiences whilst in hiding, together with her parents, in the Lamastre area throughout the most dangerous phases of the German Occupation of France have been fascinating, moving and inspiring.


Looking out over the beautiful Ardéchois landscape from the terrace in front of her home, you can see the village of St Basile, a location which features prominently in the book.

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Welcome to the Free Zone, by Ladislas and Natalie Gara, translated by Bill Reed,  is published by Hesperus Press

St Boniface et ses Juifs

July 14, 2013

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Some years ago Markus was looking for a birthday present for his mother.  Knowing that she loved our part of the Ardèche and enjoyed reading in French he was delighted to come across a novel in the local bookshop which seemed to fit the bill perfectly.  St Boniface et ses Juifs was written by an émigré Hungarian-Polish couple, Ladislas and Natalie Gara, who had abandoned their life in literary Paris after the French armistice with Germany in 1940 and sought refuge, with their little daughter, in the folded hills and isolated farmsteads of the Ardèche.  They wrote a lightly fictionalised account of their experiences in the Free Zone, which was part of Vichy France until Germany’s complete occupation of the country in 1942.  Their book was published to critical acclaim in 1946 and re issued in 1999.

Having read and enjoyed the book Markus’s mother returned it to us, saying not only that we should read it, but that it should be kept at our house, so closely does it evoke the landscape and way of life in the towns hamlets and villages which surround us.

We immediately fell under the spell of St Boniface.  The depiction of characters and situations, locations and terrain, the keen observation, insights and allusions which the authors deploy in their witty and engaging account of life in the fragile Free Zone charmed us at once.  Add in a few really weird coincidences, such as a couple of characters who lived in our street in pre-war Paris and then moved to the street where Kate previously had a flat, and the fact that we could easily identify the Ardèche action as taking place in our immediate surroundings – a key character is named Sarzier – and we were totally hooked.

This was the year when Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française was taking the English speaking world by storm.  Everyone’s interest was focussed on this troubled and un-talked-off moment in recent French history and the amazing emergence of an authentic voice, speaking directly to us from the chaos of that period.  We were convinced that St Boniface, written contemporaneously with Suite Française but in this case a story of survival, written by survivors, would find a ready audience among English readers.

Enter our friend Bill Reed, who agreed to undertake the translation of St Boniface, completely on spec and, what is more, agreed to our involvement in the translation.  The past six years have been for us, the most wonderful adventure in collaboration and discovery which will culminate on July 26th with the publication by Hesperus Press of Bill’s translation of St Boniface et ses Juifs under the title  Welcome to the Free Zone.  We are tremendously excited to know that this great book is set to reach a whole new readership and are looking forward to the next episode of the adventure.

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L’Autorail du Marché

July 9, 2013

On July 2nd, as promised, the Mastrou made its inaugural run from the new station at Tournon – St Jean de Muzols to Lamastre.  Packed with dignitaries and elected local and regional politicians (collectively refered to in French as les huiles) and drawn by the restored Mallet 403 steam locomotive it puffed and whistled its way through the gorge and then along the gentle valley of the Doux, proudly flying tricolour flags.  We were there to cheer it on from Arlebosc station, with a trumpet fanfare from Markus as it sped past.

But what really excited us was the promised return of the autorail diesel train which used to run on market days.  We remember this as a real institution.  It  would stop on request at any station, halt or wayside cherry tree to pick up country couples with baskets, as well as summer visitors from the campsites along the route.  The return journey was always animated, the baskets now full of provisions for the week and everyone swapping the news and gossip they had picked up at the market.   The husbands, who had been brought along to help carry a heavy gas bottle or a crate of live chickens, had had time to catch up with their friends over a glass or two and everyone was looking forward to lunch.  The train gradually emptied out, depositing its passengers as close as possible to their homes before chugging off down to Tournon.

For the moment the steam trains are not coming up as far as Lamastre, so no one was sure whether the market train would really run, and no one seemed to believe us when we said we proposed to flag it down at Arlebosc station (which Markus insists on referring to as Arlebosc Central even though it is no such thing!)  We arrived at what we had calculated to be an appropriate time and reflected whilst we waited that the station could do with a sweep out, a bit of weeding and a lick of paint – maybe a project.  Then two chaps turned up and, obviously taking us for a couple of townee lunatics (one dresses up for market day in Lamastre), assured us that there would be no train.  We held our ground however and they regaled us with great stories from the past, including a rather improbable account of an encounter between the autorail and a cow on the line in which the former came off worst.

Here she comes!)

And then . . . . toot toot toot . . . . we heard it approaching round the curve over the viaduct!  Markus took photos whilst Kate confidently held out her arm, basket much in evidence.  The train slowed, stopped and, to everyone’s vast surprise the conductor got down, sold us our tickets (4€ return each) and we piled on board.  It was standing room only by this time.  She told us that she had 114 passengers in the two cars, which is the maximum she is allowed to carry.

 Hold tight please!

The ride takes twenty minutes and is truly enchanting.  The landscape is still completely unspoiled and the track winds along the course of the river, past farmsteads and through orchards and meadows just as it always did.  It was this journey that started off our love affair with the Doux valley one magical May day twenty five years ago and nothing has changed.

Arrival at LamastreWe pulled into Lamastre on time at 10 am and walked from the station over the flower decked bridge into the bustling market.  We had the perfect amount of time to get everything done before leaving again at 12 noon.  As we approached our stop the conductor called out “la gare d’Arlebosc, une minute d’arrêt!”  We wished everyone bon voyage and bon apétit and made our way home, vastly pleased with our morning.

It is wonderful to have our train back and, although the service is still a bit limited we feel very positive about the future of the line.  At all events, we shall certainly be at the station with our basket next Tuesday to take the train in to market.

LeTrain de l’Ardèche – J-42, the countdown

May 22, 2013

The Mallet 403 locomotive

Hooray! “Le Petit Train”, or “Le Mastrou” as it was affectionately known, is back! After five years of silence along the line, we will once more be able to hear it cheerfully toot-tooting as it chugs up and down the valley. We are told that it is destined to become the most successful tourist train in France and in order to live up to this ambition it has been renamed Le Train de l’Ardèche. www.trainardeche.fr

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The autorail

In 2008 a group of our “Walksweekers” travelled on the last train from Boucieu to the Rhone Valley passing through the spectacular Doux gorge. As they approached Tournon station, with the locomotive flying black flags, they were alarmed by what they took to be the sound of machine gun fire, but which turned out to be firecrackers that had been placed on the track and were detonated by the weight of the engine. This we were told, was the traditional way of marking a sad episode on a railway line.

On the 2nd July 2013, after two years of work and 13 million Euros of investment, the train will be running again. Most of the track has been replaced and new ones laid in the stations, overhanging rock faces have been secured, the line has been fenced in, engine sheds and an entirely new station have been built from scratch. The disintegrating locomotives are being restored, carriages modified, new carriages imported and lovingly refitted. Work has continued at a steady pace  during the last few years regardless of snow, falling trees and floods.

It is D Day minus 42, or as the French say, 42 days to le Jour J. Will everything be ready in time?

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Still a few metres to go . . .

Here are some pictures we took in the last few days. Judge for yourself!

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