Saturday, 23 August 2014

Saint-Emilion, at the heart of French country life!

Welcome back, readers! So glad you dropped by for another taste of French country life. Today, I invite you to join me on a short trip, just 50 minutes from our village, to the beautiful medieval town of Saint-Emilion. Before we arrive, I thought it might be helpful to give you a quick potted history of this amazing place, at the heart of one of the most famous wine producing regions in the world.

Entrance to L'Eglise Monolithe
As the guide books tell us, the first human settlements around Saint-Emilion can be traced back to between 35,000 and 10,000 BC. It wasn't until the Roman occupation began in 27 BC, however, that the first vines were planted around the town. Christian monasteries and churches began to appear at the beginning of the 7th century, as the region was on the pilgrims' route to Santiago de Compostela and from the 11th century onwards the region experienced great prosperity. During the course of the Hundred Years War, Saint-Emilion changed hands many times between the English and French, finally becoming permanently French in 1453. The town remained fortified until the end of the 18th century when the fortifications were dismantled, all of which had an adverse effect on the vineyards. It was not until 1853 that Saint-Emilion started to recover due to the success of the vineyards, which now produced wine recognised across the world as exceptional.

Driving through the valley towards Saint-Emilion, we get our first glimpse of the town clinging to the hillside overlooking the vineyards. One writer describes it, as being built with solid ochre limestone extracted from the kilometres of local underground galleries, the result being a medieval village whose subtle harmony of warm colours, varies in shade with the intensity of light as the day progresses. It is interesting to note at this point that Saint-Emilion is a 'World Heritage Site', famous for its catacombs under the town and resplendent in its position high above the Dordogne Valley.

Steep cobbled streets of St Emilion
As visitors we can discover the amazing 'Eglise Monolithe', whose impressive belfry peaks 133 metres above the roofs of Saint-Emilion. Below, hewn into the rock, this troglodyte chapel is the oldest building in the village, housing the burial place of Saint Emilion himself, the monk after whom the town is named, whose followers began producing wine here commercially in the 8th century. Exploring the steep winding, cobbled streets, known locally as tertres, we will discover fascinating houses, Romanesque remains and amongst the many wine outlets offering tastings, there are art galleries and craft shops galore.

Our trip to Saint-Emilion would not be complete, however, without mentioning the wine industry. Much of the local wine is produced at the many Chateaux surrounding the town. The majority of these will offer wine tasting and guided tours of the vineyards providing the visitor with a fascinating glimpse into the world of viticulture. You will discover the main grape varieties of the region to be Merlot, Cabernet Franc and a sprinkling of Cabernet Sauvignon. I won't go any further into the actual wines produced, in this post, but for those with an interest in wine who wish to know more, I recommend checking out ;

Chateau Canon St Emilion
As we take our leave of this magical place, I would add for those wishing to discover Saint-Emilion for themselves, the town boasts a wide selection of restaurants and hotels offering wonderful hospitality to the traveller.

Well, readers, I hope I have whetted your appetite for this beautiful historical town, that has a very special place in my heart. Someday soon, you too may watch the sunset over the Dordogne Valley and from within the ramparts of  Saint-Emilion, raise a toast to some of the best wine in the world!

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

The importance of the TGV to French country life!

Welcome to the third post, in this series based around village life in south west France. Today, I want to set aside a little time to share with you my thoughts on the TGV (Train `a Grande Vitesse), or in English, the high speed train. Discussing what a life line it can be for those choosing to relocate to the French countryside. 

When we found and fell in love with the 'old presbytery', I must admit the proximity of our village to a train station on the TGV line was something to which we hadn't given a lot of thought. It was only after signing on the dotted line, as we began to plan our move to France, we realised the TGV station at Angouleme was only 30 minutes away. Simply, a stroke of luck!

And so it transpired, from the start of our French adventure, that the station at Angouleme would play a major role in our new life. It began one dark rainy night in November, when at 9pm precisely (as the TGV is almost always on time), we stumbled onto the platform, blinking through the station lights to a whole new world that awaited us. Little did we know that evening, this same platform would set the scene for so many happy encounters through the coming years. There would be hugs and kisses as a steady stream of loved ones emerged through the crowds to greet us on their regular visits, not to mention our own occasional trips to Paris. On these rare, but none the less exciting trips, my husband and I would exchange our country life for the bright lights of Paris. You can read about one of these trips, if you would be interested, in my post entitled,  'Stepping Out Of My Empty Nest, Into The Lights Of Paris', written back in September 2012.

The train station also holds another happy memory for me, as it was the destination for my first solo car trip in France. Driving  into the city to collect my daughter from the train, I remember the feeling of achievement as I set out from our village. Here I was in a foreign land, driving on the opposite side of the road, in a car with a gear stick on the right, while negotiating round-a-bouts and underground tunnels. Arriving at the station, as I chatted to the car park attendant in French, I got such a buzz; here I was at last living in a foreign land and feeling at home. Picking my daughter up from the train, we sped home through the French countryside and I could tell, she too, was proud of her mum!

The TGV is 30 years old now and provides France with a fast, clean and efficient service, cutting down travel time between major cities dramatically, as it reaches speeds of up 200 miles an hour, with an excellent safety record. French citizens and expats alike can enjoy connections all over France and across Europe with journeys like Paris to Marseille only taking 3 hours and 5 minutes. I have included a map here showing current lines and both new and imminent ones. You will note that LGV refers to 'ligne `a grande vitesse' or high speed lines. Perhaps food for thought when you are planning your next trip to France or looking to relocate to the French countryside.

To conclude this post, I would suggest to any of you out there thinking about choosing a place to live in the France, bear in mind the importance of being near a branch of the TGV.  There are still areas of central France where the TGV doesn't operate and it can add to a feeling of isolation, but then again, perhaps that's just what you're looking for!

Sunday, 3 August 2014

My Love Affair with France!

Bienvenus, mes amis! Welcome back, everyone. Apologies for a longer than normal interval between posts, but sometimes life just gets in the way. This particular upheaval, involved moving all my books to a new venue and it was during this mammoth task, I found myself sitting on the floor in the middle of a pile of packing cases, holding the book that initially sparked my love affair with France.

Carol Drinkwater is the author of a trilogy of books, The Olive Farm, The Olive Season, The Olive harvest and later, Return to the Olive Farm. All of which I consumed voraciously, but the crowning glory of my enjoyment of Carol's works, is the treasured book I hold in my hands today. The Illustrated Olive Farm, a companion to her best selling series. What a joy, after reading of this beautiful life changing place, that the author should be so generous as to share with her readers this collection of newly written prose and pictures, putting flesh to the bones of what we, the reader, can only have imagined.

Inspired by Carol's writing of her love affair with the handsome French film and television  producer, Michel and their discovery together, of an old villa, high in the hills above the bay of Cannes, I was later to follow in her footsteps and purchase the old presbytery, of which you are perhaps now familiar, from my recent blogposts.

If you dream of a life in the South of France, I highly recommend that you get hold of Carol's books. She writes beautifully, with a great love of nature that flows effortlessly from her pen. Originally an actor, you may remember her from her role as Helen Herriot in the television series, 'All Creatures Great and Small'. It was after she met her husband, Michel,who proposed over dinner on their first date that her life was to drift further away from acting.

Michel invited her to join him in the south of France, where he was attending the Cannes film festival. While he was caught up in the hurly burly of the festival, Carol passed her time swimming, sauntering the streets of the old town, daydreaming and gazing in local estate agents' windows. It had always been her dream to live by the sea.  Little did she know, she was about to discover the house of her dreams, that would change her life forever.

The villa, built by Italians at the turn of the century was named 'Appassionata', a musical term meaning, 'with passion'. Sitting high above the bay of Cannes, its terraced slopes fell steeply towards the Mediterranean. An old olive farm, well off the beaten track, it was completely overgrown and lay derelict, but Carol and Michel fell in love with its faded grandeur. Leaving England and setting up life with the man she loved, her story is filled with passion, for the handsome Frenchman, a beautiful old olive farm and the Provencal life in all its splendour. We follow her through an evolution that sees her become a best selling author, film maker and a successful olive producer.

Readers, I urge you to dive into this trilogy and surface in the glittering sun of the Mediterranean. It could change your life forever, the way it changed mine!
The old presbytery