Bastille Day

19 Aug

Despite the Ibis promise of new super comfy beds, ours had ‘body holes’ in them. We don’t like body holes. They mean that there’s little support in the mattress. Still, we decided that we could catch up on sleep once we’d reached Esperaza.

We were however very impressed by the free breakfast. I was expecting to have to nip to the supermarket to forage for something gluten free. Instead I was able to fill up on ham, cheese, yoghurt, fresh apricots and plenty of proper black tea. Rich tried the mini pain au chocolat but found them too dry, even with mugfuls of cafe au lait. Fellow guests piled their plates high again and again however. I’m always amazed at how much some people can eat. We love our food, but no matter how hard we try we can never keep up with continental appetites.

Once suitably full, we nipped round the corner to the nearest ‘Carrefour City’ supermarket for our first food shopping experience in this part of France. Buying groceries here really does feel very different to the UK. Even at the corner shops. So I’ll forgive them for selling Walkers shortbread and Heinz baked beans. Food plays a much bigger part in people’s lives here. What they eat really is a big issue, and quite rightly so. Especially when having access to so much food is a luxury that we tend to take for granted.

After turfing someone out of our reserved seats on the crowded inter-city train, we settled down to enjoy the scenery. French trains are definitely more polished than British ones, although their toilets have a stronger wee smell than ours.

Forty minutes later we arrived at Carcassone, where I made the mistake of asking the woman sitting at the information desk where to catch the replacement bus to Esperaza from. As it was Bastille Day – pretty much the most important festival day in the French calendar, they were only running trains on the main lines. Said lady gave me a map, told me we had to walk 10 minutes through town to a car park, and wait there. So we did, despite her instructions sounding a tad strange, and no one else following. By this point I was already cursing the trolley dolly suitcase Rich had managed to persuade me to bring instead of a rucksack. Its wheels kept jamming so I ended up carrying it anyway, kind of defeating the object.

At the car park, with no obvious signs as to where this bus would magically appear from, and with the clock ticking, I left Rich with the bags and walked quickly back to the station to ask the information lady if she was sure that the bus would be leaving from across town. When she said that actually we’d best wait at the train station because she wasn’t sure where the bus would be leaving from, I wanted to strangle her. Instead I rushed back to fetch Rich. When I approached the information lady for a third time, and she announced that the official replacement bus stop was behind the train station, and that we should go there, I managed to restrain myself and mutter a thank-you, even though I was thinking very dark thoughts. Sure enough, there was a queue of people waiting for the replacement bus. Sometimes I’m glad that I can be very persistent.

The bus driver obviously knew the roads well, and seemed not to mind sitting on the bumpers of cars in front, no doubt terrifying the passengers within. At just over an hour, the journey took us through all of the villages along the Aude Valley, and into the foothills of the Pyrenees. We were the only tourists to get out at Esperaza, but we already knew that we’d chosen somewhere off the beaten track.  After a 5 minute walk through town we were met at the house where we’d be spending the next 8 nights. It was rustic, old and very French. In short, it was perfect. With 2 double bedrooms, a small kitchen and dining room, a downstairs toilet, family bathroom, and separate shower room on the top floor, it was certainly spacious.

By 6pm the music for the Bastille Day celebrations was so loud that the house started to vibrate . After a basic dinner concocted from the emergency rations we’d bought earlier in Toulouse, we ventured into the town square to watch the dancing, listen to the music, and browse the Monday night artisan market. Esperaza is an extremely friendly place, and at no stage were we made to feel like outsiders. As promised, the 11pm fireworks display from the road bridge was very impressive, and whilst the locals returned to the square to dance, we headed back to the house to rest up after the journey.

Creme brulee

15 Aug

I’m not sure why, but I’ve never visited the Pyrenees, despite them being so close. With recent health issues meaning that we didn’t want to go too far afield for a summer holiday, or stay in too remote an area, we decided to pay the foothills a long overdue visit in July.

It was certainly worth traveling from Birmingham Airport. It’s easier to get to than Heathrow, simpler to navigate once you’re there, and on this occasion at least, the whole check-in process seemed that much smoother. It helped that we packed our own lunch. I’ve given up trying to find decent gluten free food in airports. Birmingham did seem to have more than it’s fair share of passengers who’d already been on the wine by noon though, making it brilliant for people watching!

Our baggage was ejected with lightning efficiency at Toulouse airport, where we’d decided to stay for one night before making our way into the hills. The airport shuttle bus leaves for the city centre every twenty minutes, and at 5 euros each is a bargain. It stops at the bus and train station, where we only had to walk across the road to the Ibis hotel.

The hotel is divided into three – posh, middling, and budget, and after accidentally walking into the posh section, we eventually got to our room in middling – aka Ibis Styles. The room was large, cool, had a separate shower room and toilet, and looked out onto a little courtyard. The previous guests had even thoughtfully left behind a half full box of condoms.

We ventured across the road for supper at ‘The Bristol Hotel’. Not very French sounding I know. Whilst Rich enjoyed hamburger and chips, I had a ham and cheese omelette, followed by creme brulee for pudding. You have to eat creme brulee when in France. It’s the law.

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After dinner, we inspected the Gare Mantabiu ready for our onward journey to Esperaza tomorrow, and bought the train tickets in advance, anticipating long queues on Bastille Day. The salesman was very friendly, explaining exactly what we’d have to do with the ticket and where we’d have to change. Not a level of service that you’d find in say London, or even in Paris. Toulouse seems that much more laid back. And cheaper. But just as pretty.

After a quick stroll along the Canal du Midi, we headed back to the hotel for a complimentary cup of chamomile tea in the hospitality area. This was my first time staying in an Ibis, but I’d definitely do so again. Whilst this one wasn’t in the centre, and some of the streets near the train station are a little run down, it’s certainly an area that has a lot of character (if you ignore the strip clubs). Bienvenue en France.

Wookey Hole

11 Aug

Talk about a breakfast fit for a queen. French toast, aka eggy bread if you’re from oop north, made with gluten free bread and served with bacon and maple syrup. It smelled and tasted so good that other guests then insisted on Jacqui cooking them the same, and I’ve since recreated the deliciousness back home. Rich’s croissants didn’t stand a chance by comparison.

After saying our goodbyes, and forgetting that we’d left our chocolate supply in the bedroom cupboard – it might even still be there, we decided to head North West to Wookey Hole. Dervla demonstrated that her sense of humour is still very much intact by taking us down miniscule country roads, despite Skyra having developed a clutch problem. We had to pull over several times because we couldn’t get the car in gear. Not an ideal situation in a manual.

By 11am, the main Wookey Hole car park was already almost full. We parked and walked up the road to Ebbor Gorge. Avoid the crowds and save your money on the Wookey Hole entrance fee by bringing the family up here instead. The gorge is stunning, and the walk through the centre and up over the top of it exciting and interesting enough to make everyone feel like they’re having a proper adventure rather than one that’s been stage managed. I’m sure that Wookey Hole is lovely inside, but the hotel is a monstrosity, and the public toilets confusing – women are expected to use those labelled ‘Witch’, whilst men are ‘Wizards’. If like me, you consider yourself to be a Witch only some of the time, then this can be off putting.

Unfortunately, I’d chosen this weekend to forget my camera charger and so there aren’t any pics from today’s adventure. Normally, I’d use this as an excuse to go back and re-visit a place, but as the traffic was bloody awful coming home and again it took us 3 hours to travel 65 miles, then not on your nelly.

Llama kisses

8 Aug

Power showers are brilliant at waking you up when hubby snores so loudly that sleep doesn’t come easily. Snoring is probably the wrong word. Thanks to surgery on his throat, it’s more like a bellow. The shower at Flint House was one of those lovely rainforest style ones, not that getting rained on in the rainforest would be anything like this as there aren’t any bugs or large carnivores in this B&B, but I’m sure the concept designers meant well.

I can’t remember the last time I ate boiled egg and soldiers for breakfast, on a verandah, with this view:

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My soldiers were even gluten free, and with two perfectly cooked eggs, Jacqui certainly knows how to treat her guests. Mac the rescue dog does too, and sensed instantly that we liked doggy cuddles, so he settled down close to the breakfast table for his morning nap.

For my birthday pressie last year, Rich had adopted me a llama called Jim, and as Jim lives in this neck of the woods, we though we’d combine a visit with our wedding anniversary celebrations. So at 9.25am we jumped in Skyra, and instructed Dervla to direct us the 4 miles to Oakhill, where Jim’s human mum Caroline lives.

Like us, Caroline – a part time chiropodist, is slightly obsessed with llamas and has been working with them for around 15 years. She’s recognised as on of the UK’s llama experts, so much so that she recently got called out by the police when two llamas were found wandering alone in the Mendips, and were endangering their lives and others by straying onto the road. Sadly their owners had moved, and couldn’t be bothered to find them a forever home, so they’d been left in the ‘care’ of a friend, who it seemed had forgotten to feed them. They’d escaped because they were literally starting to starve to death. Unfortunately the story didn’t end well, and they ended up being put down. Don’t buy pets people, unless you’re prepared to love and care for them forever.

After a quick cuppa at Caroline’s, we jumped in her car for the short drive to the llama fields where whilst helping to dish out their breakfast we were introduced in turn to each bundle of fluff, including an alpaca who thinks he’s a llama. So much so that he’s willed himself to grow to llama size! Jim, my adopted llama, immediately leant in for cuddles, but as he has arthritis he’s no longer able to go for long walks, and so today we’d be trekking with Hattie and Ollie instead – two of the younger llamas.

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Hattie is very well behaved and so got paired with Rich. Ollie is a teenage male who’s still in trekking training, and after getting a whiff of female pheromones (from me and Caroline) wanted to do nothing other than play, give us llama kisses, and nip our ankles to try and get us on the floor…

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My walk was literally spent walking round in circles whilst Ollie nipped away and tried to see how naughty he could be before Caroline reigned him in. Llamas will always pretend like they’re poor starving creatures when they pass a hedgerow, and insist on stopping to eat as much as possible. It’s not easy trying to persuade them to walk on, especially when one’s a teenager who can’t even be bothered to make the usual llama clicking noise to indicate that he’s getting cross. Instead he just gives this look and makes a sort of sighing noise, the teenage llama equivalent of saying “whatever”.

Once the llamas were safely back in their paddock and we’d said our goodbyes, it was time for a llama free stroll up to St. Andrew’s Church in Holcombe, to look at Captain Scott of the Antarctic’s family memorial. Neither of us previously had any idea that he was from this part of the world. We wound our way back through the fields and despite it being a gloriously sunny day didn’t seen any other walkers. A bit sad really, that people seem to prefer keeping fit by visiting a soul-less air-conditioned gym, when we have all of this space on our doorstep.

The Holcombe Inn was much quieter than last night, but at least that meant that we got served our fish and chips quickly. After last night’s huge dinner and this morning’s big breakfast, we couldn’t face more than one course, and instead opted to make the most of everyone having gone out back at the house to sit outside in the fading light, and enjoy the peace and quiet.

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Going to the toilet in someone’s garden

7 Aug

The joys of traveling south on a sunny Friday afternoon. It took us 3 hours to drive just over 60 miles, meaning that by the time we arrived at the B&B we were both desperate to use the toilet. But no one was in, so we had to sneak into the garden and go behind a bush. Fortunately the garden is huge and not overlooked so we didn’t alarm the neighbours. Although I did have to pretend that Rich was off admiring the flowers when Jacqui, our host for the weekend, came home just as he’d disappeared to find a suitable spot.

Jacqui, her husband, and their rescue dog Mac, run Flint House – a very majestic grade 2 listed stone house in Somerset, just south of Bath. We don’t usually stay in boutique lodgings, but liked the quirkiness of the house and owners, and so decided to push the boat out a little, not least because we were there to celebrate our 2nd wedding anniversary. Awwwww. Previous guests include Agatha Christie and Princess Margaret. Not surprisingly, they’ve never had anyone staying here to go llama trekking before…

Jacqui is definitely a hostess with the mostest, and after tea and cake showed us to the ‘blue room’ with its wonderful 6ft wide bed. The room was about the size of some flats I’ve lived in. Peaceful, and cool on a hot day thanks to the wooden shutters on the windows. I’d describe the decor as faded grandeur. And we liked faded grandeur. It’s much more accessible than full on 5* luxury, and makes you feel like less of an eejit for spending silly money on things that look nice, when what really matters is the less superficial stuff.

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If you do like luxury though this B&B will still do it for you I’m sure. The gardens are huge, there’s even a tennis court, and Jacqui’s meals and snacks could rival any upmarket tea shop. She can prepare dinner if she’s given plenty of advance notice, but we like to explore and so walked 10 minutes up quiet country lanes to the Holcombe Inn for dinner.

It’s a gastro pub but not a pompous one, and the prices are very reasonable. They managed to squeeze us in despite not having a reservation, but do book if you go on weekends, as the place filled up shortly after we arrived. We thoroughly enjoyed our meals of ham, egg and chips (me), and lamb and mint pie (Rich). They even served a gluten free chocolate brownie for pudding, and since it would have been rude not to, I did. Rich couldn’t decide between the array of local ice creams on offer, and so got given a helping of all 4. At least we could roll home downhill.

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Caersws

4 Aug

Bacon sarnies were the one thing I missed when I was a veggie, for 14 years. And they always taste that much better on holiday, especially after a week of walking when you’re a wee bit tired.

Leaving Rich to snooze off his breakfast and keep a close watch on the tortoises, I ambled over to Vicky’s pottery to buy a few bits and pieces to remind us of our trip, including some star shaped tiles that have already inspired a mosaic of their own – one based on my wedding dress fabric. It wasn’t white, that’s all I’ll say for now.

Later that morning we drove the 7 miles to Caersws – a former Roman fortress town, and walked a few miles along the Severn Way, picknicking on the hill just above Llandinam.

After the solitude of the last few days, Caersws felt like a thriving metropolis, despite being pretty much a village, and it hit our senses hard! We both crave time away from crowds and noise, and find coming back to urban life a bit of an anti-climax, especially on a holiday day when the streets are busier that they would be otherwise.

Caersws didn’t have the same feel as Llawr-y-glyn, possibly because it’s that much closer to the border with England, and on the main A-road. Llawr-y-glyn just felt that little bit special, welcoming and quirky. Caersws less so. But perhaps we were just letting fatigue dampen our spirits.

Back at the cottage for 3pm, in time for cuddles with all of the creatures. It didn’t take us long to pack up ready for the journey home the next day, but we knew we’d really miss this place. Our hearts really do belong in the wild places.

Quirky things happen in this part of the world

Quirky things happen in this part of the world

Mynydd Bach

29 Jul

On waking to bright sunshine we couldn’t resist taking our first morning cuppa outside, and watching the sheep being herded on the opposite side of the Trannon Valley. Who needs breakfast telly with views like this? In fact who needs breakfast telly full stop. Turn it off and read a book or sit in your garden for a few minutes instead. Although if they bought back Fiona Phillips on GMTV, I might consider watching that. Nothing to do with the fact that she’s from the same part of the world as me, and is a little bit ditzy.

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After sneaking back inside to try and catch the tortoises out (Rich is convinced that they only move when he’s not watching them), we cooked up our perfect breakfast – Black Farmer sausages, bacon and scrambled eggs, and planned our outing for the day.

Heading out towards Machynlleth, or Mac-lilly-leaf as Rich calls it because I’m a bit pants at lip speaking sometimes, we left Skyra and Dervla on a forest track just south of Forge and climbed up to Bryn Coch Bach. After walking along our beloved Glyndwr’s Way for a wee while and stopping for lunch just below Mynydd Bach, we descended the minor road just past Rhiw Goch and walked back along it to the start.

As seems to be the norm in this part of Wales, and despite it being Good Friday, we only saw two other walkers all day, and even they were locals out for a stroll. We like having the paths, sheep, birds of prey and wild flowers to ourselves though. It makes us feel hardcore.

The traffic had picked up by the time we left, and we ended up with an aggressive driver right on our tail. Neither of us are slow drivers, but we refuse to be forced to speed on country roads where you risk hurting humans or animals, so eventually this particular eejit overtook and raced off. Why take such risks? I will never understand this need for speed. Never. Fair enough on a race track, but on a public road – well there are too things that could go wrong. Can you tell that I’m a sensitive soul yet?

Back at the cottage we finally got to meet the lovely Tim – owner of this rural Welsh idyll, and he gave me permission to look around Vicky’s pottery whilst she was away. It’s my sort of workshop – well lit, with a wood burning stove, and plenty of room. I’d love this sort of space to create mosaics and tiles in. One day.

Arkle, the miniature Shetland pony, still seemed a little bit miserable about being on a diet but I managed to get a few cuddles out of him, and then out of Peaches the cat and Max the black labrador. This is certainly the perfect place to stay if you like furry creatures. Peaches in particular takes her sentry duty on the picnic table very seriously if there’s meat in the oven, in this case our lamb dinner – New Zealand rather than Welsh I’m afraid. I must remind Rich that he’s promised me a rescue cat when we’ve moved. A daft one, that likes cuddles. Rich wants one that will learn to stay out of the bedroom. As if. Cats love sleepy snuggles.

Arkle the miniature Shetland pony

Arkle the miniature Shetland pony

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