Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Bread, Bulls and Bathing Beauties!

Firstly apologies for no photos again - it is a very weak signal up here in the mountains! Five weeks into the holiday and this past week has been one of the busiest yet! There are some days when it feels more like an endurance test!! At the end of the last blog I promised a report on the Festival du Pain in Fayence, held on 3rd July. Sheer delight! So French! Does anyone remember the 1970s BBC drama Clochemerle with the grand mayoral opening of the new urinal in the middle of the village? True Provence style fun mixed with some religion! In the morning there was a full mass at the huge church with the bishop consecrating the bread that had been made by the bakers in the traditional way in really old bread ovens. The loaves were enormous and ornately decorated. The residents, and I suspect, many outsiders were dressed either in typical peasant/folk dress, or alternatively historical costumes reflecting life in the village over the decades. There were donkeys and folk bands, traditional dancers and market stalls selling coloured vegetables, wine, soaps, souvenirs and Limoges pottery (we bought a tiny lidded butter dish exquisitely painted with field poppies). There was a two hour gap for lunch (everything stops in France for lunch!) and then at 3pm they resumed with more dancing and a group of muskateers of all ages, in historical army costume who took great delight in firing their extremely loud rifles into the air at every opportunity during the frequent parades through the village. We had an opportunity that afternoon to explore the residential side of the village, right on the side of a hill with glorious views, did the usual tourist thing of dreaming about owning a house there, and then on finding the estate agents window, reviewing our position with small flats starting from half a million! That evening was a big communal meal (with bread I guess!) but we didn’t stop for that, preferring to return to camp and our own BBQ. A fun day with dozens of photos to remember it by.

We actually had rain on the Monday! Those dark heavy downpours that accompany really hot days in this part of the world. Very sad sitting under the awning trying to keep everything from getting soaking wet! And with no passenger side window (smashed by thieves for those who may have not read the previous blog), driving out to a town for amusement was not an option! So we sat it out, looking forward instead to the communal meal on camp that night. Our hosts Robert and Christiana cooked up a storm to go with the one raging outside, and we huddled together on long trestles with us on the outside edge dodging the raindrops! It was a good evening chattering to a Dutch couple and enjoying the bonhomie of the occasion. The following day we had the call we had been waiting for and at 9am set off to a Mercedes garage one hour’s drive away to have the window fixed. It took a further hour for them to fit the new window and clean out all the remaining broken glass. We were mobile again and moving on day was Wednesday. Just in time to avoid having to change our plans yet again.

So on Wednesday 6th July we said our farewells and headed south –west to the Camargue region and the seaside town of Sts Maries de la Mer. Not sure what to expect as this was new territory for both of us, we were pleasantly surprised by the vibrancy and prettiness of this little dot on the Med. We found a space in one of the town’s two Aires and paid for two nights at 9.5 euros a night. You don’t get much for your money, apart from access to water for your van and toilet disposal, but we were only five minutes walk from all the action of bars, restaurants, shops, seafront, harbour and yes, you guessed it, another little Tourist train! On the drive in we saw numerous ranch like buildings offering pony trekking holidays with a small herd of the ‘White horses of the Camargue ‘ tied up outside,. A long way sadly from the vision of the wild ponies cantering through the wind tossed waves! Also on the agenda were black bulls, especially bred for the bullring (although they do not kill their bulls in France) and the spectacle of hundreds of flamingos wading through the shallow waters of the inland lakes. On the first night we were treated to a fabulous romantic sunset from our parking space overlooking a tiny etang. The following day we took a tourist guided boat trip up Le Petit Rhone, which instantly reminded us of the wider sections of the River Yare, and some of the Norfolk Broads, with familiar birdlife and motorboats moored alongside in the reeds. The main difference was the black bulls stood on the riverside watching the world go by! Not so many of those around Norfolk! Back on terra ferma and we took a look at the atmospheric ancient church which dominates the town, and after lunch we took that little tourist train which drove a surprising distance out of town, showing us the old houses owned by the bull trainers, a horse ranch where we fed the horses with bread, and where to find the flamingos. It was geat fun and very different to the trips in Monaco and Grasse.

And that night was the grand finale – we had only noticed the advertising hoarding that morning, and immediately vowed to buy tickets (all of six euros) for an event in the bull ring that night at 10pm. So after a delicious seafood supper at a sea front restaurant, we bought the tickets and chose our spot on the white stone seats (well, tiers of steps really) inside the circular arena with its sand covered floor and rather strange looking large paddling pool bang in the centre! We were intrigued. The town was still quiet – the French schools break up next week – and there were very few of the 3,000 places taken up. But it was worth the effort of staying up late on an evening which continually threatened a storm, as the bulls were young and confused rather than raging, and although I did feel sorry for them at times, they were only teased and certainly not hurt in any way. In fact we were surprised to find the public being asked to enter the ring and ‘play with the bull’! Not at all what we expected. Four young men tried their luck and later even two ladies, and after much chasing and running, and light butting, they all ended up in the paddling pool, an area considered safe as bulls do not like water! Maybe someone should have told the last bull of the evening who took a liking to standing in the cool water! So much for the safe zone!
The following morning after a breakfast of crossants in town while taking advantage of the free wi-fi in the cafe, we left the Camargue for the hedonistic sun, sea and sand of the Cap d’Agde. Those b log followers from last year may remember that Agde has the largest naturist village in the world, with thousands of pitches for caravans, motor homes and tents along a stretch of fabulous white sand alongside the Med. It was busy with all nationalities scurrying about and enjoying the varied delights of this unique place. We indulged in two evenings out, people watching mainly, listening to live musicians and enjoying meals and drinks, and memorably witnessing a rather too boisterous waiter at a very cool bar, dropping an entire tray of cocktails over a table of punters, completely ruining one woman’s very expensive white lace two piece! The row with the manager was pretty spectacular too – all in French though so we missed the subtleties! During the days we enjoyed some relaxation on the beach under our parasol, which although has now burnt Victor to a crisp (he is very fair skinned!), was a chance to recharge our rather worn out internal batteries....

And now we have been at our new campsite for just one night, a place near the historic little town of Minerve just north east of Carcassone, where we have met up with another couple from Stratford Upon Avon whom we met last summer at a different campsite. It will be good to have some English company and conversation for the next ten days. High in the hills, the views are breath-taking, the camp seems friendly and well equipped, despite the continuous very loud chattering of the crickets! We hope to visit some of the fortress villages over the next few days so I will report on those in about a week. A tout a l’heure for now!

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