|The Ballards - France Dordogne|
We spent a very hot fortnight during the summer of 2003 in the company of our friends Andy and Tracey who bought gites just North of the Dronne Valley in the Dordogne near Nanteuil Auriac de Bourzac. They were faultless hosts and we really felt part of the family.
Like many parts of rural France, this is very picturesque
and undeveloped. The British have moved in in force, (thus it has become
known as Dordogneshire)
in search of the low-stress French rural existence that doesn't really
exist unless you are fortified by City bonuses and the UK/France property
Running gites is hard work and no mistake: it's not an
The French have a different attitude to danger than the
Brits and Americans: they accept that danger exists, they post warnings,
but they keep a perspective on it.
One hot night the neighbours, Ali
and Anna, originally from Perth and also now running gites, came over
and we had a great barbecue listening to Grandma Helen (82, blind, plays
golf all over the world, takes her Guide dog on the plane with her...
definitely not your average Granny) playing her accordion.
The French love their booze: the entire country is dedicated
to the growing and enjoyment of alcohol.
I especially enjoyed sitting in French cafés doing
a Paul McCartney, i.e. "Café
on the Left Bank, Ordinary wine, touching all the girls with your eyes...."
(from the London Town album - hear it once, hum it all day, you have
Driving through the French countryside we discovered
"Pastis-soaked radio": an FM station seemingly designed entirely
to be French café muzak.
Despite increasingly desperate campaigns by the Health Service, most French still smoke heavily, and Gauloise smoke still stains the ceilings of the public buildings.
It's interesting that the further from London and New York you go, the higher the likelihood that people will smoke. The exception here is California (but then isn't California always an exception?).
French wiring is, to put it bluntly, lethal. Inconsistent conductor and plug sizes, very little appliance earthing and large loads plugged in to very small sockets make for "interesting" wiring.
French plumbing is also a nightmare. They use 9 different pipe diameters at random, many of their pipes are unsupported over long distances, their boilers often use the pipes as supports. Ugh...
Having driven a lot in France, I have been giving considerable thought to exactly why their road accident statistics are worse than those of the UK (and they're only 20% worse, despite what the UK national newspapers "carnage on the French roads" campaigns would have you believe....).
The French, like the Americans, are not a mechanical nation and they take very little care of their cars. The equivalent of the MOT test ocurs only every 2 years, in order to gain insurance cover that is then displayed in the windscreen (good idea, that), thus the average French vehicle is in a worse mechanical condition than its counterpart in the UK.
The roads are inconsistently designed: a "sharp bend" sign may signify a 70mph bend or a 35mph bend; bends on a particular road will be of wildly inconsistent radii; no cats eyes are used making night driving a guessing game; road-centre markings are vague and inconsistent making overtaking decisions unnecessarily dangerous; the road surfaces are appalling: ruts, potholes, repairs, bad road edges, sunken manholes abound; and roundabouts are cambered outwards not inwards as in the UK, making a slide more likely. Most dangerously, bends on even major roads are very sharp, and back roads are very narrow, often to the point where a quick diversion on to the verge is necessary when a car approaches in the opposite direction.
The taxation system means that traditionally cars have been taxed by "Fiscal horsepower", making small or "large-but-underpowered" the order of the day. Thus a French overtaking manoeuvre can take an extended period and tiny cars are driven well beyond their safe limits.
The attitude to drink-driving approximates to that in England in the 1960s. Driving home from the café after 8 pastis is acceptable, truck drivers routinely drink a bottle of red wine with their lunch. Need I say more, other than "blow in 'ze bag, Monsieur"...
However, the average driver is good and well-disciplined: there is none of the lane-hogging that blights UK roads. Occasionally they do drive fast, but more usually they drive safely and responsibly.
So, to improve the French accident rate you need to make
the signage and bend radii consistent, improve the road surfaces and breathalyse
every truck driver at 2pm. Not rocket science.
Fixed speed cameras are but a blink... blink away.
We rented a FIAT Stilo, which was something of a mixed blessing. I don't normally do car reviews but.....
Reasons why you should buy a FIAT
Reasons why you should not buy a FIAT
So that about sums it up for the Stilo and the 10s of Lire spent developing it. I think we'll stick with our Volvo V70 T5, the most comfortable 150mph family car ever made...
During World War II, when the Germans occupied France
with the assistance of the Petain
administration (known as the Vichy Government), the English promoted a
very effective "thorn in the side" Resistance
movement in the sparsely populated French countryside, supplied by covert
The French Resistance infuriated the Germans, who were
forced to divert resources from, amongst other places, the Russian Front.
Visiting the village today you are left with an impression
of great sadness and emptiness, with some surprises.
The village is known to military historians the world
over, and is often quoted (especially in the "World at War"
series) as an example of the brutality of the Nazi occupation.
Oradour sur Glane is a powerful memorial not just to the inhumanities of the Nazis but to Man's inhumanity to Man, and is as relevant now as it was 50 years ago.
We went to France on the EuroStar.
It's a perfect reflection of the differing attitudes of France and the
UK to train travel.
The ticketing arrangements are 21st Century: turn up,
insert your electronically-stamped ticket, and Go.
The trains promise high speed and short journey times:
in practice they spend 10 minutes going in entirely the wrong direction
before spending a further hour trundling through the back yards of South
London like chained leopards forced to parade through the streets, yearning
for the Serengeti and some decent warm meat with that special red gravy
that spills all over your lips when you bite down.
Only once in to the Channel Tunnel (clunks and whirrs
from the pantograph release mechanisms) is 1st gear finally left behind,
and only when it has emerged from the tunnel in to the train-friendly
French rail system is the beast finally let off its lead.
The Internet refused to let us change at Lille, so we
changed at Paris instead, which meant a sweaty trip on the Metro, then
on to (by the very skin of our teeth) the TGV to Angouleme.
Having travelled the SNCF way, we returned to the Gare
du Nord, went through first French then English passport checks before
boarding the train.
The only possible conclusion is that the airlines must be paying the UK Government to screw up the EuroStar at every turn. If I was the MD of EuroStar I would have given up the unequal struggle a long time ago.
The scenery in and around the Dronne valley is beautiful, especially in the hot summer. We toured a lot and went canoeing from Brantome (known as the Venice of the Dronne Valley), which was fun as we had to go down the weirs on wooden ramps (cue screams from the children, whoops from the parents) but hard work on the arms as it was about 15Km.
It's a beautiful area of France, and if Andy and Tracey get a proper pool for next summer, we'll go back and explore more.