Day 135-136: Le trois tours, Faugeres

After a full week of vendanging – including a cheeky few hours on Saturday afternoon in preparation for some predicted thunderstorms – we enjoyed a relaxing few days to help recharge our batteries.

Sunday proved to be the lazier of the two, as we enjoyed a lovely lie in before catching up on the blog, life admin, decided where to head after the red wine harvest has finished and planning our eventual return back home!! Whilst we’ve still got four weeks before we need to be back home it feels a little like la grande aventure is coming to an end 😦

We have two more weeks of exploring post-vendange before we need to get the ferry home, which will see us exploring Northern Spain and South West France, however we’re having to think about ferry times and the drive from Dover back home which means it’s becoming a little bit more of a reality! Still for now I’m distracting myself with guides on how to spend 36 hours in San Sebastian, which mostly seems to evolve around food! This was generally how we spent the rest of the day, every now-and-then ohing, ahing and running over to the window as flashes of lightening and rumbles of thunder appeared!

After a rather lazy Sunday we needed to get out and stretch our legs today and decided to go on a walk up to the three windmills at Faugeres. We’d done the walk before about five years ago, however having driven past the signpost everyday on our way to the grape picking – and even seeing them high on the hill from one vineyard – we decided it was time to revisit them.

Having parked up in the village the three intrepid explorers – me, Rob and GUB – set off up a rather steep path, which sadly seemed to keep going up and up. After a few stops to give the pensioner a rest, both GUB and I were delighted to see the windmills come into view knowing we’d made it to the top. Any moaning about the walk up was soon forgotten as we climbed to the top of one of the old mills and the view opened up in front of us.

From the top of the tower we could see as far as the Pyrenees and Mediterranean, as well as spotting the press where we take all the grapes after harvesting and some of the vineyards we’d worked in! After some more view admiring, leg resting and butterfly spotting we headed back down the hill in search of food for dinner, settling on some steak to help repair our muscles for the next round of vendanging!

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Day 130-134: Eat, sleep, vendange, repeat!

Having arrived back at GUB’s house ready for the red wine harvest, the next five days followed a pretty similar pattern – wake up at silly o’clock, pick lots of grapes, head home for food, (possibly) have a nap, eat more food, go to bed far too early for GUB’s liking, wake up and repeat!

We’ve enjoyed some amazing sunrises, a lovely lunch with our fellow vendangers after a rather long and tiring shift, finding a bird’s nest (complete with a single egg!) in the vines and finally starting to understand a few of the conversations going on around us!

Other (non-vendange) highlights included opening a French bank account to get our wages paid into (boy do the French need a lot of information!), educating GUB on the different grape varieties that go into our favourite wine, watching one of the weirdest films we’ve both seen in a long time (Lars von Trier’s ‘Melancholia’) and a rather drunken BBQ where a friend brought the most delicious homemade sausages with her.

We’re about halfway through the harvest now and, whilst it can be quite tough and leaves you feeling very achy, it’s been good fun so far! The early morning are always going to be a killer, but working in beautiful surroundings with a great bunch of people makes up for that! Oh and the coffee and croissants help too 🙂

Day 125-129: Taste testing in La Tania :)

It was great to be back in the mountains, however as with most things there are good and bad sides! The good here was seeing family again before we head west and eventually north and home; the bad side was that part of the deal was that we had to be guinea pigs for dessert tasting in preparation for the Snow Retreat winter season – being the kind people that we are we reluctantly accepted the challenge!!

Waking up in the chalet it felt a little like winter had already arrived, as rather than it being 35 degrees outside it was now 15 degrees and the clear sunny skies had been replaced by cloud and on-off drizzle! We had originally hoped to get out for some walks (and some bike riding for me!) but the weather was not too inviting, so most of our time was spent catching up and relaxing in preparation for the next round of dessert testing! This would be the general theme for the next three days with the exception of a couple of small clear(ish) spells that allowed us to get out and stretch our legs!

On one quick trip out we took a gentle stroll into the village, only to find that the tourists had now been replaced by a small army of builders getting the village and properties ready for winter! Another outing was a short but very pretty walk to a picnic spot up the hill that gave us great views of the surrounding peaks and the village below – it looked like it would be very busy in the summer, with plenty of benches and BBQ grills, so it was lovely to have the place all to ourselves! With snow starting to show on some of the mountain tops, it was clear that the winter was definitely on the way!

It seemed like after no time at all it was our last night in La Tania and the dessert testing tally for our three nights was: 2 x strudels, 2 x strawberry treats, 1 x cheesecake, 1 berry tart and lots of ice cream!! I think it’s pretty safe to say that any Snow Retreat guests are in for some cracking desserts over the winter – we look forward to hearing which ones made the shortlist!

Sadly it was time to head off and back to the vendange, but not before we had our final challenge of the trip – babysitting! Andrea and Phil had signed up for a big 10km run at Lake Annecy, but with the weather staying cold and wet it was decided that it would be best for Pandora to stay behind. Thinking purely of others we offered to stay in the cosy, warm chalet and babysit whilst Andrea and Phil went for a cold, wet run!! Fortunately the babysitting went smoothly, especially as we all had a similar level of French vocab!

With the intrepid athletes back and warming up by the fire, and our goodbyes said, the BFG was re-packed and we pointed it downhill back in the direction of Lamalou. Following a similar route back, we had an overnight stop near the Ardèche and then completed the rest of the drive the next morning, once again enjoying the empty French roads and changing scenery.

Day 122-124: The good, the bad and the ugly!!

After yet more indulgence yesterday both Rob and I felt the need for some exercise and whilst Rob decided to go for a steep and rocky 10km I went for a much easier 6.5km run along the (very flat) Voie Verte! Unfortunately even that left me feeling hot, sweaty and like I hadn’t done anything physical in weeks – despite our recent grape picking!!

After a bite to eat we set about packing up the van again ready to head off tomorrow to see Rob’s family in the alps, as we had a few days off between the white wine harvest finishing and the red starting. Van pretty much packed we decided to head out again to stretch our legs, however this time we decided on a leisurely stroll around Olargues. Now I know me and Rob go on about visiting pretty villages a lot, however we have some back up this time as Olargues has been official named as one of the most beautiful villages of France! I think it’s best to let the photos do the talking, but it’s fair to say it is a very charming village and the cafe does cracking ice creams!!

Back home it was time for an early night as tomorrow brought with it another 6am start and yet more picking!

Up early we headed down to the field and picked away, yet again finishing in record time! Heading back to GUB’s for a quick shower and food we were soon back on the road and eastward bound to see Andrea, Phil and Pandora in La Tania. As the journey would take us halfway across France, and with sat nav predicting over eight hours in the BFG, we decided to split the journey across two days and spent the night in a little campsite just east of the Ardèche.

Another day and it was beginning to feel like groundhog day as we were up early again (though thankfully not at 6am!) and back on the road heading east! A few hours driving on our ‘magical mystery tour’ through tiny villages and past acres of nut trees and we arrived on the outskirts of Grenoble, which I can only describe as one of the ugliest French cities I have seen. We’ve driven past it several times on la grande aventure now and it never gets any prettier – from the motorway all you can see is a stark, graffiti-ridden industrial city which doesn’t seem to have any hidden delights! I’m sure there are some gems once you get into the heart of the centre, however for us (or any holiday makers flying in for their annual ski trip) I think it’s best to get away from it and into the mountains as soon as possible!!

Luckily it didn’t take long for Grenoble to disappear out of view and the mountains to grow around us, before finally arriving back at La Tania! As I think we may have mentioned before life on the road is not always glamorous, so I’ve added a couple of photos of the view from the co-pilots seat complete with bug smears!

Day 121: Bon appétit!

Feeling very much like we’ve indulged way too much recently, I decided that I needed to start the day with some exercise before meeting friends for lunch. As the mountain bike was now back at the hire shop, it was onto the road bike for a quick ride to try to burn off some of the pizza from last night.

It wasn’t long before Charlotte and Phil arrived at GUB’s to collect Albi and then for us all to head off for lunch to celebrate the very successful opening of a new arts and culture centre – Château de Grézan – that Charlotte had been managing. We were returning to a restaurant, Les Marronniers, that we visited a number of years ago but had not been back to for some time. As it now had new owners we were looking forward to seeing how it had changed, especially as the old chef was (and still is) a favourite of ours.

The next few hours were spent chatting and catching up on the local gossip whilst also being educated by Bob and Phil (both massive football fans) on obscure football topics! However the start of each course was slightly delayed as it was Blaise’s turn to get pharty – that’s photo-arty! – before we could dig in!

With lunch over and the waitress making it very clear that it was time for us to go, we made our way back to the house of GUB and spent the remainder of the day blog writing, photo editing and waiting to hear about when we’d be needed for the next stage of the vendange.

Day 120: Loony Lunas!

After three super early mornings in a row we enjoyed a lovely lie in this morning and felt like ‘real people’ once more now we had weekends again! GUB had offered to help a friend by dog-sitting for the evening so just before lunchtime we were joined by Albi, the border collie, and decided to go out for a walk. We headed up the the Voie Vert, the old railway line that runs through Lamalou and connects lots of villages in the area, and soon Albi, Rob and GUB were trotting off into the distance to stretch their legs!

Having got just past Le Poujol we decided to head back, as yet again the temperatures were soaring past 30 degrees, and after a spot of lunch headed over to Lunas to check out their annual festival de fanfare.

We’d driven through Lunas on the way to Dad’s house just over a week ago and thought then it was a very pretty village, however it looked even more charming now it was decked out in bunting, lights and decorations. There were lots of different musicians, art installations and stalls (selling everything from crepes to wine) set against the backdrop of quaint buildings, a tranquil river and stunning chateau.

We have a wander around the streets, checking out a few of the bands and installations, before heading back to the main square for a cheeky drink and a catch up with one of GUB’s friends who lives in a village nearby.

With tummies rumbling we headed back in the direction on Lamalou and grabbed a pizza from the same little restaurant in Mons we’d visited the previous week, where Albi got to play his favourite game – hunt the leaf!! With Albi (and Rob!) exhausted from all that leaf throwing we headed back home, ready for another good night’s sleep.

Day 118-119: Work, rest and play!

The next few days of grape picking (or vendange to use its correct name) followed pretty much the same pattern – wake up far too early, grab a coffee, go to a field, pick some grapes, have more coffee and croissants, pick more grapes, help unload back at the press, head back home, have a shower, have a nap, eat some dinner, drink some wine, play competitive card games with your family (complete with prizes!)…

The picking itself was also interspersed with (short) conversations using a mixture of French, English and mime, lessons in different grape varieties, comedy stretching to ease our tired muscles and learning what happens to the grapes once our work is done.

I’m pleased to report that we must be getting quicker too as we finished earlier than expected on both days, with one field expected to take four hours to harvest and only taking us two!!

Day 117: Back to (semi) reality!!

After an amazing (if expensive!!) four months of not working it was time to bag ourselves a bit more spending money and with the help of GUB we’d secured some work grape picking at a local vineyard. However this wasn’t any old vineyard – this was the producer of our favourite wine, the red wine we had on our wedding day and have drunk to celebrate every anniversary since!

Having never picked before we didn’t really know what to expect, except that we would come back hot, sweaty and achy! Luckily we were starting with the smaller white wine harvest which meant half days to start with, however it still meant getting up and over to our rendezvous point for 7:20am – unheard of on la grande aventure! Bags packed with water and snacks the night before, the alarm went off at some ungodly hour and we dragged ourselves out of bed, into our scabbiest clothes and slathered ourselves in factor 50 suntan lotion.

Rocking up at the venue we met our work colleagues, a mixture of locals, family of the owners and a few Spaniards (who it turns out don’t really speak English or French – this could get interesting!!) and grabbed a quick cup of coffee before being taken to the first vineyard.

After a quick lesson on what to pick and what not too (make sure you don’t get any leaves mixed in with the grapes) we were given a bucket and secateurs and told to begin picking one of the rows. The first few rows were a bit trial and error – How quickly are we meant to pick? What is classed as a good and a bad bunch of grapes? How full should I let the bucket yet before swapping it for a new one? How come no-one else seems to be cutting themselves with the secateurs? – we soon got into a rhythm and whilst we couldn’t keep us with the pros we weren’t too far behind 🙂

After a few hours of picking and with the field done we were signaled to down tools and gather around the tractor, before vast thermos flasks of fresh coffee and croissants were produced and we gladly tucked it!

Fueled up it was onto field number two of the day, where yet again we were assigned a row and told to get picking! Despite the coffee and croissants I was definitely beginning to run out of energy – a combination of an early start, constant bending, rising temperatures and the end of a cold – so I was very relieved when we were told to stop at noon as the wine co-op was about to close and won’t except any more grapes.

Having helped upload the final batches of grapes back at the press, we headed back home for a bite to eat before collapsing on the sofas for the afternoon!

As none of us felt like cooking we headed out to Petite Abbeye to feast on pizza, duck and more dangerously good chocolate pudding before falling into bed ready for another early start.

Day 116: The calm before the…vendange!!

Today was a sad day for me – I had to give the bike back as we were due to start the vendange tomorrow. Before returning to the bike shop I had time for one more ride, so an early alarm was set and by 8am I was out enjoying the cool start of the day. This time I was retracing previous wheel tracks and planned to complete the ride that I got lost on earlier in the week, and fortunately this time I got it right!

The route had been graded as black or ‘tres difficile’ but having been mountain biking for over 20 years now, I was pretty confident that I’d be okay. Turns out that unlike the grading for the walking paths, the mtb trail grading really means it and ‘tres difficile’ truly is very difficult! Although the ride started with nice easy trails through vineyards, it soon became a combination of very very loose, narrow, steep and rocky tracks it was a real challenge (the local riders certainly have some talent) and quite a change from both the easier trails that I’d ridden before and the style of riding that I was used to back home. After about two and a half hours and 25km I rolled back into Lamalou feeling hot, tired but very happy and certainly ready for breakfast!

As Zoe was over breakfast today was a visit to the salon de thé, but not before a quick trip to the market first to marvel at the combination of absolute tat and amazing looking food. As you may know by now from previous entries, the salon is our favourite place for coffee and cake so it wasn’t too much of a hardship to spend a very nice couple of hours chatting and watching the world go by. Soon enough it was time to head home for an afternoon of relaxing and hiding from the heat which still refuses to die down enough to do anything after about 12pm!

With the afternoon soon heading towards evening I headed back to Le Poujol to drop the bike off and we got ready for the evening entertainment of moule night! It was another fun evening of eating our own weight in crustacean* and chips, but soon enough we needed to head back to make our lunches for work the next day and also get some sleep as the alarm was set for 6.15am!!

*okay so it might be a mollusc, but crustacean sounds better with chips!!

Day 115: Doing the tourist thing…

Another day in Lamalou meant just one thing for Rob, more riding (there seems to be a pattern forming here…)! So with Rob off exploring the hills again GUB, Zoe and I decided to head to Pezenas, a extremely charming town which is home to pavement cafes, pretty boutiques and stunning old buildings.

As is the Bickerton way, the first priority is always food so we stopped off at a cafe overlooking a rather impressive building to grab a few croques. With a combination of croque-monsieurs and croque-madames (a monsieur with an egg on top) consumed, we made a beeline for the main shopping area and began ducking into pretty shops selling everything from jams and chutneys to bags, pottery to posh biscuits, jewellery to incredible tasting chocolate spread!

With a few purchases made and a few more things added to the Christmas list (well Facebook does like to keep reminding me it’s only sixteen weeks to go!), it left just enough time for Dad to pop into the stationery shop to stock up on more pens for his little men before we headed back to Lamalou and Rob.

Another lazy evening followed of BBQ leftovers and relaxing, before an early night so Rob could get up early for yet another ride!!