For our next trip, I took Jennifer to visit the huge fortified abbey at Nouaillé-Maupertuis.

Image: Wikipedia

Just down the road is the site of the second battle of Poitiers that took place in 1356, when The Black Prince defeated and captured the French king Jean le Bon.

The Battle of Poitiers

The Battle of Poitiers

Jennifer treated me to lunch at the not-too-far-away Moulin de Trancart. It’s a restaurant where we eat occasionally, the food is refined, and the service beyond compare. You get lots of interesting little thingies with your meal – confit of garlic, tapenades, little glasses of ginger sorbet, that kind of thing, which always make for an interesting culinary experience. After a starter of marinaded salmon, which was delicious but served in a far-too-big portion, and unlike gravad lax it was in a thick cutlet which I found a little on the difficult-to-chew side, I had a plate of grilled gambas, which were excellent. The food at the mill has a distinctly Mediterranean influence, as the couple who run it originate from the Camargue. Taureau figures prominently on the menus, and I do make a point of not looking at all the bull-fighting posters on the walls.

From there we went to one of the more unusual places I sometimes take guests – the Benedictine monastery at Ligugé. It’s a strange choice for a pagan such as I, but there’s something about it that I find rather enchanting. Unlike the ancient next door abbey, the monastery church is relatively modern. The interior is built in a luscious creamy stone, and there is no decoration other than a simple cross and a small floral arrangement at the plain altar.

What makes it so special are the stained glass windows all around the upper wall. They’re a contemporary design, just random shapes in vibrant colours. When the sun catches them, puddles of colours fall onto the floor, gradually moving up the walls as the sun starts to sink, so you see a moving kaleidoscope of pretty pastel colours. The effect is really quite magical. Couple that with the monks singing the service in the Gregorian chant, it makes for a memorable experience. The monks aren’t at all what you might call jolly, in fact they are actually look quite miserable, but they have lovely voices. It was quite moving watching a couple of the older members of the community, who could barely walk, shuffling painfully to their places.

It should be a very peaceful experience, but on a previous trip our friend’s mobile phone kept going off, and he couldn’t find the button to switch it off, earning us all disapproving glances from the congregation.  This time I made certain that we would not disgrace ourselves by checking that the phones were switched off. But an evil spirit had spotted me, and once again I was the centre of unwanted attention, because we’d managed to select the only squeaky pew. There’s a great deal of standing up/sitting down during the service, and every movement from us set off the pew into a frightful groaning noise. I tried moving to a different part, to no avail.  Beneath the withering glares of those around us, I surely felt like a sinner. 🙂

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Our next outing was to the pretty medieval town of Confolens, about 16 miles south-west of our home. We strolled slowly through the quiet Sunday afternoon streets, making a circuit over the two bridges. The river Vienne was very still, and perfect for photographing reflections. Jennifer was in a pensive mood as she gazed down into the water.

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As evening approached, we decided to head off to Isle Jourdain for a meal at the restaurant on the river, which gives a splendid view of the viaduct there. The restaurant was closed. So was every other restaurant in the town. However, on the way home we found a small and unassuming brasserie/bar, where we enjoyed one of the best pizzas we’ve ever had. Very thin, crispy base, made on the premises and cooked to order. Jennifer had one with lardons, while TOH and I ordered the 3-cheese and apple ones. Crikey – they were enormous! Like cartwheels. None of us managed to finish, so we brought the rest home in boxes, and had them for breakfast next day. 🙂

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A Narrow Escape for a fat sociopath

Heaving half a ton of luggage on and off planes, buses and trains had left Jennifer fairly knackered by the time she arrived. We took it easy for the first couple of days, sitting round in the house and garden – both much changed since her last stay. There were new neighbours and new animals to meet, a modern bathroom, and the wobbly ladder leading to the loft space where she previously slept had been replaced with a staircase and fully-functioning bedroom. I think she was pleased about that.

Where the weather had been bitterly cold and miserably wet last time, now the skies were cloudless and the temperature in the high 20s.

We took a trip down memory lane to Charroux, there to sit in the shadow of Charlemagne‘s version of the leaning tower of Pisa, (see some nice pics of it here) and partake of a surprisingly good snack at the bar/café.

Next was a picnic with old friends Carole and Norrie, in the grounds of the château de Javarzay on the outskirts of Chef Boutonne. Only the gatehouse remains, but it’s still a pretty sight, and the cobbles beneath the entrance are gouged into deep ruts from the passing of coach wheels. I was particularly interested to learn that the château once belonged to brave M. Malesherbes, who volunteered his services as defence counsel for the doomed Louis XVI. He would pay the ultimate price for doing so, losing his 73-year-old head on the guillotine, but not before he had seen his daughter, son-in-law and young grandchildren beheaded for the crime of being related to him.

Image copyright Joel Berthonneau

We lugged folding chairs and picnic hampers to near the lake, and spent several animated minutes decided where to sit. TOH always favours full sun. Jennifer and I always favour shade, as we both burn easily. Carole and Norrie were content to sit anywhere, as long as we did so sooner rather than later.

Carole served Buck’s Fizz in champagne flutes, then we attacked the food, which would probably have served a couple of dozen people adequately. We were sitting around dozily and relaxed beneath the trees, until the grass-cutter arrived.

With several mostly uninhabited hectares of grass to mow, a rotund person in a vest, with ear defenders clamped to his head, decided to start a few metres away from us, where a couple of kids were playing badminton. He drove around noisily, forcing the kids to dismantle their net. Having disrupted their fun, he meandered about aimlessly for a few minutes, then began encircling us. Backwards and forwards, up and down, round and round, spewing out clouds of dust.  After a couple of hours we debated whether to drag him from his seat and ram him beneath the cutting blades.  Luckily for him we were feeling very mellow, otherwise he could have come to a sticky end. 🙂

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Special friend returns

We’ve just enjoyed a great fortnight with a special old friend to whom I owe a great deal. In 1999 I posted a message on an AOL board, saying that I was looking for somebody to pet-sit for me so that I could trudge across France. Quite a few crackpots replied, and a teenager who wanted to know where the nearest disco was. Then I had an email from a lady from Texas who had bred horses and dogs, was packing her bags and would arrive in a couple of weeks.

And so she did. Which meant that I could set off with my backpack, hike 500 miles from La Rochelle to Geneva, and write the book of my journey. Which was picked up and published by Transworld Publishers, followed by another two books. Without Jennifer, I don’t think it would have ever happened.

For the last 12 years, she has been planning to come back to see more of France – she didn’t have much chance during her previous visit, because she spent most of her time tracking down and rounding up escaping animals or servicing the boiler. But she has been plagued with ill-health – I think she’s had more operations than I have toes and fingers.

Nevertheless, she’s a tough old bird, and managed to get herself over here at long last. I was so excited about seeing her again that I was at the station a day early.

Because walking any distance was so painful for her, I had to revise our planned outings, but we still managed to fit in several fun days out, and she also had an opportunity to see how French customer service compares with its American equivalent.

I’ll be blogging about Jennifer’s visit over the next few days.

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I am only mildly interested in the royal wedding, and will probably watch just long enough to see what the bride is wearing, crossing my fingers that it won’t be a horror like the squashed meringue that engulfed Princess Di. Kate Middleton seems to be a well-balanced young woman, she must have to be with all the venom thrown at her family because they are not out of the top drawer. I suspect she’s quite good at getting her own way, and will be wearing exactly what she has decided is right for her.

What has prompted me to write this is the indignation sounding in certain quarters that whilst the bride’s disreputable uncle has an invite, two of our ex-PMs don’t. Mr Bliar, and Mr McBroon have been left off the guest list. Now, I don’t know exactly what the uncle has been guilty of in the past, but it’s probably not war crimes and grand theft, and at least nobody is pretending the man is whiter than white. Why on earth would those other two repugnant individuals feel they have any right to be invited to the wedding? Haven’t they had enough free meals yet?

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