Le Puy en Velay.
Pilgrimage. To me it sounds like something from a different age. Yet here in Le Puy en Velay there’s a blessing every morning for those setting off on the 1000 mile walk to Santiago de Compostello.
If it’s mostly off road I truly fancy the idea of the walk, although it wouldn’t have the religious connotations for me.
After everything being free or ridiculously cheap in Greece it’s a surprise how much it costs to go and see some of the sights up close here. So we looked from a distance and lavished our time on the fabulous cathedral where the play of light through its stained glass windows was so beautiful.
Hopefully you’re reading this on a big screen and you can see this strange black Madonna with the creepy head poking from her chest.
Down in the town Saturday is market day and the many squares each had their own related stalls – brocante here, cheese here, meats over here, and fruit and veg down there.
Market day seems an excuse to start drinking at about 10.00am, and to pic nic from 11.00.
The French do Le pic nic so well.
It could be a huge affair involving dragging tables to a beauty spot, many courses and many wines.
Or simply gathering on a good bit of pavement and breaking open a baguette, some cheese and a saucisson. And wine of course.
We like Le Puy en V. It feels a little more hippy, arty, more St Just than many of the places of late.
Onwards to Job.
Perhaps most of France got drunk at the morning markets.
The roads were empty today as we cruised gently through the hills to Job, probably 30 kms south of Thiers and still on the D906.
The ghost village is deep in countryside. How perfect to be here on the best day of the year so far.
Sunset? Oh yea baby!
The uplifting glass of Nevers Cathedral.
We’ve both been in more churches in the last year than for the rest of our lives put together.
They’ve come in all shapes and sizes, from simple hand painted wooden sheds in Scotland and Norway through to opulent feats of engineering in Italy and here in France.
Every one has been impressive in its way, some have moved me to considering the hopes and prayers of those who have struggled to get there, or who came on behalf of loved ones.
Yesterday’s visit to Nevers cathedral added a new dimension.
The cathedral was listed as an historic monument way back in 1862 – most of the life we know hadn’t even been built by then. It seems that the building was started in the 5thor 6thcentury and the cathedral was built in the 11thcentury. There’s still a rather special fresco there from then.
In 1944 Saint-Cry-et-Sainte-Julitte was bombed (shamefully in error by the RAF) and largely destroyed.
When it was rebuilt the designs for its stained glass were commissioned from five artists working with master glassmakers.
The installation of the windows was only completed in 2011.
What are they like?
They’re fresh and exciting, challenging (most online comments seem to hate them) and utterly beautiful.
We knew none of this as we wandered around town.
We could so easily have walked on by. Fortunately we ducked inside and our vision was filled with colour, and my mind was filled with a thousand new ways of using glass.
Even the sides of the cathedral with no sunlight seemed to glow (with the holy ghost).
This is a tremendous achievement that’s impossible to capture on a phone camera. There are some Getty Images of the windows that you can look up, but better still, come here yourselves on a sunny day and make up your own mind.
I have long been interested in housing. Its quality, design, size and price fascinates me. It’s where most people spend the highest proportion of their money (and indeed time), and it varies dramatically according to place.
You’ll often find me staring into estate agents’ windows, absorbing the local scene.
In the Scandinavian countries I commented on how huge houses are. In Poland and Greece too. The biggest waste is in Greece where such a high percentage of the housing only gets use for a few weeks a year and (almost) nothing is built with environmental sustainability in mind.
Here in France I’m impressed for a new reason.
Nevers is a grand impressive city on the banks of the Loire. It’s probably a great place to live with good prospects for those keen to work. It has all you need in the town, and great countryside to explore all around (even the Magny Cours race track is down the road if you need to let off steam). Yet here you can buy a place to live for a small sum of money.
Last night we spotted a flat for sale in the centre for just €19,000, it was in an OK state of repair, but small. At 25 metres square it’s the size of our studio in St Just. Ample for one person, and OK for two if you’re super tidy. Being small means your running costs are low too.
Thinking back I was so excited with my first digs in London and it was certainly smaller than this place.
Truly I’m excited by all space, big and small. Give me a factory (or an old garage?) to create a dwelling from and I’ll be in clover for months. Yet still the question remains – do we really need massive spaces to demonstrate our status when the alternative is so kind to our wallets?
Eglise Sainte Bernadette du Banlay.
The traditionalists may not like the modern cathedral windows despite the light they create. I wonder what they have to say about this church a few kms up the road by Brutalist Paul Virilio.
Unfortunately it was locked when we visited.
The church is a strong visual statement on war juxtaposing the evil of destruction and the shelter offered by the bunker.
It’s rather clever.
Even as a dedicated fan of concrete I’m not sure that I could ever love it. Nonetheless I’m grateful that it is there, challenging us to think.
A long boring drive, the first in a very long time.
A country as vast as France has so much to offer, the scenery is varied, the town style gradually evolves and even the least inspiring place will have something good to eat.
Occasionally you have to drive across the plains.
We were lucky to choose yesterday, our first wet day in ages, for such a drive, the flat and boring 150 miles between Nevers and Chartres (with great rewards at either end).
Early in the drive came the good bit, Sancerre. From the town’s vantage point high on its hill the vine covered land sweeps out in every direction. And what wines they produce. Pouilly and Sancerre are names that immediately set the price high and the expectation higher. What a shame the vignerons were all closed on a winter Monday.
As the road took us north so the architecture changed, now all around are the red brick long low houses of Northern France. They welcome us as a familiar sight on the otherwise less interesting journey.
Then out of the distance poke the spires of Chartres’ vast gothic cathedral.
Few cathedrals warrant the term small, but among so many big cathedrals this one stands head and shoulders over most. For its feeling of peace and joy Nevers had a greater impact on me, but for sheer magnificence and architectural valour Chartres may never be surpassed.
Our roadside parking was a bit noisy, but a site alongside wetlands and a park, within a few minutes of town can’t be sniffed at. The overnight freeze was our first in a while and made emerging from our pit a little harder. We’re up and breakfasted now, we’ll explore the town again in sunshine, then on towards the port.
Rouen seems to prepare us for getting back to England.
There are beggars with their dogs on many street corners, skunk on the air, and so many kids smoking. It’s the first time we’ve noticed a lot of vaping for ages too.
I guess the city is a bit more real than somewhere as manicured as Chartres.
Both the town and its people lack the elegance of the south. That said, the old town is large with many lovely shops, in fact hardly a vacant space. Retail is clearly alive and well in France despite the out of town shopping centres. Perhaps folk don’t buy online here as much. There aren’t anywhere near as many couriers on the road as in the UK.
The cathedral (yes, another church) is the tallest in France, and was, for a short while, the tallest building in the world when its cast iron Lantern spire was completed.
We’re parked on an island in the Seine only 15 minutes from town. Yet again we’re amazed at how easy it is in so many cities to find good (often free) parking really close to the centre.
Today a Frenchman lectured me for 15 minutes on why we are crazy to be trying to get out of Europe. I couldn’t quite mange “You’re preaching to the converted” in French.
He did concede that Teresa May has the least enviable leadership role in politics just now, and seemed a decent fellow once he’d calmed down. For my part I was delighted to keep up with most of the dialogue.
We don’t drink it at home.
It has a gently bitter gentian flavour, a little cloying on its own.
But we’ve just hit upon Suze and tonic.
Oh yes. Great flavour, light. It’s a winner. I think there’ll always be a bottle in the sideboard from now on. There are two bottles in the van just in case.
Years ago all foreign driving seemed scary.
In France there was always priority to the right, no matter what.
In many countries cars entering roundabouts had priority.
Germany always seemed so fast.
Italy so reckless.
But after a year on the road we’re less phased by crazy driving. Cars coming at you on the wrong side in Greece, the speed at all costs attitude of the Italians, the utter random approach of much of Eastern Europe.
Things are changing though.
French driving seems dramatically different.
Even in the cities there seems good order.
Speed limits are often very low in built up areas – 30kph, which is less than 20mph, and they are abided by. On main roads the limit is 80kph, and generally that’s abided by too.
Amusingly speed cameras seem to be where the village brings all its rubbish for burning. We saw many instances of such, and others completely wrapped in black plastic.
Thinking back. The worse roads, and by far the worse driving we’ve experienced was in Poland. Poor old Poland isn’t going to do well at The Cornish Wanderer country awards. At least its restored cities are among the best we’ve visited.
Grim start time.
After a good lunch then early to bed in Dieppe the alarm went off at 4.15am.
We were at the port by 5.00am, but delayed for 3 hours as the tides were apparently too low to sail.
Feeling as groggy as the weather we pulled into the grey and dirty port of Newhaven with our only deadline in ages looking like it might be missed.
We had an appointment at Propex in Ringwood, Dorset at 2.00pm for them to look at our malfunctioning water pump.
The 100 mile drive wasn’t England’s finest hour. It’s almost all sub-urban, slow, and very busy. On that stretch yesterday we saw more cars than for the previous week combined, and possibly more than we saw in our whole stay in Greece.
It was worth it though. Propex were truly excellent.
The small business specialises in van heating systems and supplied, but didn’t fit, the water pump that has been wasting water and gas for much of our trip.
We sat in their waiting room drinking tea and trying to stay awake for an hour, while their team laboured away. And that was it. They fitted a new pressure valve, tested it, and sent us happily on our way – thank you all, and in particular thank you Kim for being everything you want a good supplier to be. Enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and returning calls when you said you would.
First night on English soil.
We drove another dozen or so miles and the best of comfortable England was unveiled. The urban sprawl fell away. Rolling countryside, huge trees, fields with animals in them. Dorset villages with picture postcard thatched houses, village greens with ducks. Pubs that I long to visit.
I have missed the huge variety and joy of a good English pub. And I specifically mean English. Scotland and Wales can’t hold a candle to England’s best.
Bring on The Star in St Just (not the most friendly, but bloody good). I hope to be there for band night on Thursday.
The tranquillity of dawn was murdered by the caw of 60 or so crows.
Polly and I staggered down the road.
A club run of 50 or more cyclists rode by, each calling a “hello” or “good morning”.
There’s a light mist adding mystery to the view across the fields.
And despite both of us being anxious about crossing the Channel, it feels good to be here.
This certainly isn’t the end of the journey.
The next month will be a hectic blast around, seeing family and friends, getting work done to ArchieVan, and having the van MoT tested.
After that the focus will shift back to Polly. She’ll have her next knee operation in Poprad, Slovakia in early May, then we’ll have to take it slowly to give her the time she needs to recover.
Thank you all for following us this far.