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This excerpt is from my French travel book – OFF THE AUTOROUTE, the fifth in my Series of French travel memoirs. Please enjoy on Amazon including Kindle Unlimited.
It will take you on a tour of France from Calais to the South and back through Brittany and Normandy.
It is time to move on, and this time to a new region for us – Lot et Garonne.
Our destination was the town of Cordes Cur Ciel, and our visit coincided with the nearing completion of the astonishing bridge, the Millau Viaduct. The earthworks and operational area for the bridge extended for miles around the site. It forced a slight detour as we came down from the height we had travelled on to wind our way carefully down into the valley below. This incredible feat of engineering, one of the most astonishing in the world, spans nearly 2500 metres above the valley below. As we travelled around the construction area, we felt exceedingly small indeed, sharing the area with some enormous construction vehicles. The road deck is suspended around 250 metres above the ground. I recall watching a documentary on the construction process, marvelling at how they actually pushed the road deck out from the end of the bridge into the void to traverse the viaduct piers. It is amazing engineering and a shared design of the English architect Norman Foster. It would be a few years before we had the opportunity to travel over the viaduct, which we did heading north up to the Loire valley. Niamh does not recall it at all – she had her eyes firmly closed as I drove across. I also barely recall the view as I just kept my eyes on the road, it is a long way down if you manage to crash over the side, but on reflection I think the safety features would have prevented that.
We eventually made our way to Rodez and on to Cordes as the rain started to pour down. Little did we know that it would not stop for the entire length of our three days stay. I was attracted to a beautiful property called Aurifat situated just outside the ancient walls, with a view overlooking the valley below. Standing at a viewpoint below the property you get a real understanding of the multi floored medieval property. It sits well with the old town architecture framing the backdrop behind the house. Cordes, with its ancient narrow streets, is a special challenge for a car driver. Eventually I threaded our way through to Aurifat and carefully took the car down to a parking space. The property has changed hands since our visit and now has Dutch owners who have maintained its fine reputation. Ian Wanklyn and his wife Penelope were the charming owners at the time we visited. They greeted us hospitably and urged us to get out from the driving rain and into our cosy room for the stay.
Ian and Penelope are comfortable hosts, not intrusive, but always available to ease your way into a new area of France. They show us the kitchen that is available for the use of guests. Hopefully we can use this later but just now the torrential rain is intruding into this summer kitchen and a stout pair of wellingtons may be needed to cook my fish supper. At least I can keep the wine above water.
Sadly, the rain will not stop at all for the three days we spend at Aurifat. Our visit to Albi, that beautiful, colourful cathedral town is curtailed by our being soaked, even under a substantial umbrella. Exploring Cordes is done by dashing from shop or restaurant doorways, but you could argue the rain adds to the atmosphere of this ancient town. We manage a couple of visits to wine makers, producers who are getting increasingly concerned with the potential damage being inflicted by this extraordinary, extended downpour. We find one activity that will give pleasure when we get back home. At the end of the drive to Aurifat there is a large, mature walnut tree. Under its spreading bows we can shelter, taking the opportunity to gather as many walnuts as we can. A large boxful is filled and as long as we can dry these, and keep them dry, they will be much appreciated back home in England.
As we peer through our steamed-up car windows the region does seem to be a very interesting area, one that is crying out to be explored. We do have accept defeat on this trip however, one day we will return, and explore this region when it is no longer under water.
On our final rain-soaked day we endeavour to make a final attempt to take in the fascinating architecture and character of Cordes. As the rain penetrates every part of our skin, through completely sodden clothes, it is obvious we must get inside. At least the rain is warm, hot almost and there is the possibility it will steam dry when indoors. Being after twelve noon it seems the sensible thing to find a place to eat and enjoy a fine bottle of local wine. There must be a final compensation to this somewhat ruined visit to this historical area. We shall not be beaten. Cordes sur Ciel is home to a fine gastronomic restaurant – Le Grand Ecuyer. This is the flagship restaurant of Yves Thuriès, a giant of French cuisine. This restaurant leads the way in the region and regularly entertains celebrities, prime ministers, and even English royalty. Sadly, I do not feel it will be serving us today. I am inclined not to make an inevitably large puddle in such an eminent establishment. Fortunately, Yves Thuriès also owns a bistro in Cordes. Hostellerie du Vieux Cordes – I do feel they may allow us to dry by the fire. The narrow streets, running freely with streams of water, eventually lead to this bistro. We crash through the door seeking shelter and feel very intrusive and inappropriately attired for what is, although a bistro, undoubtedly an upmarket one. Our cagoules do indeed with remarkable rapidity leave a shining expanse of water in the foyer.
‘Do you have a table for two?’ I ask, expecting to be shown the door rather than get an answer in the affirmative.
‘Of course, Monsieur’. Follow me.
For a bistro the establishment is very well presented. If this is his bistro, how fine is the main restaurant? Glad we did not risk desecrating that one. The maître d’ shows us to a large, very large, round table, sort of King Arthur style and size. Niamh I can see in the distance, opposite me on the other side of this vast structure. I cannot imagine what we look like, tiny dots at the vast table, still dripping water onto a beautiful carpet and now to cap it all a gathering cloud of steam above our heads. Oh, and my glasses are steamed up – where is the menu?
But, we are slowly starting to dry off. The food of course is cooked to order, giving us more time to disperse the water from our bodies. By the time it arrives we are almost comfortable. The food as you would expect is extraordinary, fine local produce cooked to perfection and presented with immaculate aplomb. At last, it has been worth the long journey and the endurance we have shown in the face if this almost Biblical storm of the last three days. The best though is yet to come – the dessert. Our charming waiter explains that the chocolate fondant with crème anglaise will take around thirty minutes to prepare and cook to a state of complete perfection. Although he didn’t add the last part it does apply to the dish presented to me half an hour later. We have eaten often and well of the produce found all around this wonderful country. Memorable as many dishes have been there is occasionally something that forces its way to the top of the charts as regards the best dishes you have ever eaten. This was one of those and so extraordinary fine was it that I feel on reflection it has never lost the top spot. As we all know chocolate fondant is the easiest way to crash and burn in the kitchen. It takes a special talent to get it to perfection. Now that I was almost dry, I was able to fully appreciate this moment. Cordes – we will come again even if you send another downpour on me.
During our meal the dining room had filled up with a large party of elderly diners. The ‘facilities’ here were down some steep winding stairs that we could see from our vast circular vantage point. They were well used. Still to this day Niamh and I are convinced and still smile about being convinced that we counted one less back up than went down. Will we ever stop people watching? Probably not.
There is a perverse curtain call to our stay in Cordes. As we left the town to journey on, there was an amazing sky stretching out in front of us. From the dry enclosure looking out at the torrential rain crashing onto our windscreen you could see the end of the pitch-black clouds. Beyond the cloud line was a bright blue ribbon of sky on the horizon. We reached the edge of the region and as we crossed into the Langudeoc before heading North the rain stopped. A few miles farther on and the straight edge of the cloud canopy was passed, the sun burst through, and we never saw another cloud for over a week. This bizarre few days display of natural forces gave way as if by magic to the most wonderful summer weather. Just what we expected in the Lot as well, but the visit was still memorable.
It always seems a shame to just head home, that mad dash to Calais and the ferry that so many English tourists seem to take to end their stay in France. Rather let us take our time as travel through Brittany and along the Normandy coast, reaching Calais refreshed and well satisfied with our grand tour of France. The drive up through France to Brittany is a pleasant one, taking in some high-level pasture and occasional signs of past volcanic activity. In fact, there is a grand stopping point on the Autoroute where you can have a panoramic view of the Auvergne volcanoes. You find this by pulling into the Aire des Volcans d’Auvergne on the A71 just noreth of Clemont-Ferrand. Beats Newport Pagnall anyday. It is an expansive landscape and one to put in the memory bank for a future visit. Driving north on the western side of France the roads are relatively quiet and delays virtually unheard of.
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