Friday, 30 May 2014

Bienvenue! Welcome to French country life.

Hi, everyone! Welcome to the first in this series of posts from the Charente region of southwest France. Over the next months, I look forward to sharing with you my experience of life in a small French village, at the heart of this beautiful region. As you can see from the map to the right, the Poitou-Charentes area is divided into four separate departments. In the south of the region you have Charente-Maritime - the coastal area to the west and further inland La Charente - the gently undulating hilly area where we made our home. If you look closely at the map, to the left of the word Charente, you can just make out the name of Angouleme, the large fortress town, which is the capital of this department. The old presbytery where our story is set, is situated in a little village 30 minutes to the south of here.

Me & Murphy my dog
One of the reasons we chose this part of France was the climate. It boasts some of the mildest and sunniest weather in the country, after the Mediterranean coastal area of the south. Around our village the countryside is vast, the Poitou-Charentes region itself covering some 10,000 square miles. The main crops in the rolling fields are sunflowers and maize, with some vineyards mostly growing grapes for the famous Pineau des Charentes. This is an aperitif created almost exclusively in the Charentes. It is a fortified wine made from a blend of lightly fermented grape must and Cognac  eau-de-vie; a rich golden aperitif with quite a kick. It didn't take us long to acquire a taste for it!

Surrounded by such beautiful countryside, it is not surprising that the 'Randonnée' is the most popular form of recreation, with Petanque or Boules a close second. It is basically a cross-country hike, often organised by the village walking club or just a group of friends. We had only moved in to the presbytery about a month, when the door bell rang and I was greeted by a group of French ladies of a certain age, dressed in sturdy walking shoes and brandishing long hiking sticks. They had kindly called to ask me to join them on the weekly Randonnée, which met each Wednesday in the village square. Through their kindness, I soon got to know my neighbours and improve my French, (although I have to say, at first, walking and talking French was a tall order and I often returned exhausted). It was, however, the most wonderful way to discover the countryside.  For the first time in my life, I walked alongside sunflowers well over six feet tall, with heads the size of huge dinner plates and marvelled how they all turned towards the sun, as it journeyed across the clear blue sky.

Coming from a small country like Ireland, I soon discovered the size of France and the vast openness of the countryside would be a wonderfully liberating part of my new adventure, which was to blossom into a life long love affair with this beautiful place. In the months ahead I look forward to sharing it with you.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Life in the south of France, in tune with the Church bells!

Welcome back everyone! After a little Tuscan dreaming, I think it's time to come back down to earth. Recently I found myself with some time on my hands. The book is finished and while I endeavour to search for a publisher, I had the idea that it would be fun to introduce you to the house at the heart of my memoir, 'The Old Presbytery'. 

We spent three wonderful years here, in the centre of a tiny village in the Charente region of south west France. In my next blogposts, I hope to share with you some of our experiences;  renovating an old French house, discovering this beautiful area of France and discussing the food of the region. Of course our story will be in the book, but what a wonderful opportunity this is, to set the scene for you. I can introduce you to the amazing house which remained at the centre of our French adventure, until family circumstances dictated our return to Ireland. Not before our renovation was complete, however, and the old presbytery was up and running, as a beautiful 'Chambre D'Hote'.

The picture below shows the house shortly after we bought it.  As to how we found it, well, it was a case of love at first sight for me. Not in an estate agents window, but on the Internet hundreds of miles away in Ireland. We did, of course, eventually view the property, but only after exploring many other regions. What we didn't fully appreciate when we moved in, however, was that the position of the house at the heart of the village and next door to the Mayor, was to make our French adventure a complete integration into village life. It meant our lives would be bound up entirely with our French neighbours, often proving both challenging and hilarious, but ultimately never boring!

The Old Presbytery
The house was built in 1852 as the presbytery for the village Church, which stands nearby. Our neighbours had many happy memories of the place.  They enjoyed telling us of times, as children, when they would attend confirmation classes in the front room and of summer Fetes in the grounds, when the whole village gathered to enjoy a family day out. They explained that our old barn in the garden, housed the 'corbillard' or hearse. This was a beautiful old horse drawn affair, brought out when any one in the village passed away.

And so it was that as we renovated this lovely old place, we lived our lives by the bells of the Church. Rising in the morning early, before the mid day heat, to the sound of the 'Angelus' and downing tools at seven in the evening, to enjoy an aperitif at the end of the working day.

Join me next time and I'll share more of this lovely region of France and village life in the Charente.