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.

The view from our bedroom window

The tiles are held on only by their own weight

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 price differential...
The high proportion of Brits can be the only possible explanation for why a British-run, seemingly exclusively-Brit-frequented and particularly fine restaurant near Nanteuil Auriac de Bourzac manages to thrive in rural France.
Or it could be the chef, Simon, who manages to cook amazing food in blast-furnace conditions. What he drinks, he sweats.

View from Petit Vos garden

Irrigation from local reservoirs

Running gites is hard work and no mistake: it's not an easy option.
All have pools and most are owned by Brits who have downshifted and are disappearing in to the trans-European culture that pervades all of Europe except, er... Britain, actually.
I prophesise 2nd generation ex-Brits becoming true Europeans, with relaxed, classless attitudes and complex facial hair.

Petit Vos window

Down the street in Aubeterre

Aubeterre garden

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.
For example, I saw some boys playing on a weir in the Dronne. There were signs saying it was dangerous, and no one would argue it wasn't, but the water levels were low and within reason the worst that could happen was one of them would fall, bump his head and be rescued by his mates.
In Britain, the Police would have stopped them in a heartbeat. Such a shame, no wonder our kids are growing up with a skewed perception of danger.

Now, who's going to run across next?

Looking across the river Dronne to Aubeterre

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.
It felt bizarre, to be sitting there in the dark looking up at the stars and listening to accordion music from the 19th Century and earlier whilst packets of 21st Century Internet data passed over our heads through the telephone line.
It gave a real sense of historical perspective.

La Clematite Maison

Petit Vos

The French love their booze: the entire country is dedicated to the growing and enjoyment of alcohol.
Children are encouraged to drink in moderation from an early age - what a pleasant change from the Draconian American laws preventing social drinking under the age of 21. No wonder America has an alcohol problem.
France has over-imbibers as all countries do, but you don't see the alcohol-fuelled violence you see in the UK and America brought on by binge drinking, an inevitable result of over-tight alcohol laws.

The Dronne from Bourdeilles

The chateau at Bourdeilles

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 been warned...).
It's a more relaxed way of life, but then they have the weather for it and we don't.
Imagine sitting outside a café in the rain on a Tuesday morning in Portsmouth, watching the Fat Slags waddle by... (I'm qualified to make this statement; I went to college in Portsmouth. "Ladies what lunch" would describe them well).

Chateau near Bourdeilles

Rooftops at Bourdeilles

Mill house at Bourdeilles

Overgrown window, Bourdeilles

Driving through the French countryside we discovered "Pastis-soaked radio": an FM station seemingly designed entirely to be French café muzak.
All accordion music and Edith Piaf-style vocals, every few tracks a drunken DJ would drone in a monotone something about "la plume de ma tante" for a few seconds before the Pastis took effect once more and the accordions took over, his voice disappearing, like the Titanic, in to the noise floor.

Overhead decoration in the street for summer festival, Mareuil

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.

It's an electrical shop, not a junk heap. This typifies the French attitude towards elctrical installations

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.

Loop near Vendoire

Road and corn fields, Vendoire

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.

Red pergola and terrace, Aubeterre

Isolated trees near  Vendoire

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.
Under pressure from, I suspect, English do-gooders and the (unbelievably effective) Gatso sales team, the Gendarmerie has been ordered to start random speed checks. And so they are out there being an absolute pain in the neck, winding up the French drivers in exactly the same way the English cops do here. They are even stopping the occasional French driver, not just the English and Germans like they used to.

Fixed speed cameras are but a blink... blink away.
Of course it will have the same effect on the accident rate as it has here:

Monolithic church, Aubeterre. Like something out of Tomb raider...

Monolithic church altar, Aubeterre

La Galerie, Aubeterre

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 Stilo:
- It is roomy
- It has a clutch foot rest
- Very economical, even with me driving!
- The dedicated pocket for the owners manuals is a good idea

Reasons why you should not buy a FIAT Stilo:
- It's as ugly as sin. Not quite as bad as a Multipla, but close
- It's a van, so has a horribly high CofG and thus lurches in to and out of corners. The roll reversals inherent in S-bends make them scary, and both the girls felt sick in the back
- Appalling build quality: on our example we had troubles with the boot latch and rear seatbelt interlock
- The gear change is like stirring a meat pudding. Both Ness and I consistently mis-slotted
- The engine is weak in lug due to being too small off the turbo. Once on the turbo at 1500rpm it is adequately powerful but red-lines at 4600rpm. Too narrow a power-band
- Front wheel drive, so the inevitable squeals coming out of roundabouts
- The front seats gave both of us terrible backache
The drivers seat has a bizarre arrangement whereby the height adjustment only alters the height of the squab not the backrest, so if you're tall the lumbar support is half way up your back. Huh?
- The steering wheel boss and horn buttons are too prominent, we both kept sounding the horn whilst manouvering
- The steering lock is appalling
- Main beam is like sidelights
- Lots of transmission whine in the back. Strangely, this is a problem in many front wheel drive cars. Why? There's nothing back there but a couple of wheel bearings...
- Zero feedback from the power steering. Had the engineers been working on American cars brefore this?
- The auto-seek on the radio performed bizarrely, picking stations at random

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 Lysander and Hudson flights.
This was a dirty guerilla war; of wires strung across backroads in the midle of the night to kill unwary German motorcycle despatch riders; of bridges and railway signal boxes and points being dynamited; of French men and women kidnapped and tortured by the Nazis.
It was not the happy-clappy war of "Allo, 'allo"...

The French Resistance infuriated the Germans, who were forced to divert resources from, amongst other places, the Russian Front.
On 10th June 1944 their patience snapped at Oradour, and they rounded up and massacred the entire population of the village: 642 men, women and children. It later turned out that the village had not been hiding Resistance personnel, as the German Forces had been convinced.
The village has been left almost exactly as it was before the war: a new Oradour has been built next door and the old one turned in to a shrine.
The people responsible for the massacre were systematically hunted down and prosecuted after the war, the last one in 1983, as a loud signal to the world that this form of behaviour could not be tolerated in a civilised society.

Burned out car

Tram track points

Visiting the village today you are left with an impression of great sadness and emptiness, with some surprises.
For my generation, who are tempted to believe industrial life started in 1960, it's hard to believe that in the 1930s electrically powered trams ran the 80Km from Limoges to, and obviously beyond, Oradour sur Glane.
The tram wires have survived 50 years with no maintenance, which says something for the standards of construction of pre-war French electrical distribution systems. These may be the last remaining pre-war tram wires, inadvertently a museum piece.

Rue Emile Désourteaux

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.
But how many villages in Bosnia and Uganda, Vietnam and Zimbabwe have, unremarked, suffered the same fate but with no memorials, no tourist centre, no implorations to "Remenber", and no retribution upon the perpetrators? Like Hurricane Isabel, we only choose to care about 1st World problems...

Plaque, Oradour sur Glane

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.

Sunshade, Royan Beach

Hat and suntan, Royan Beach

The French Army on exercise, Royan beach


Man on Royan beach. he never swam, he just sat there all day...

The local Royan radio station's roadshow flag

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 EuroStar trains, sleek and purposeful, start from a cramped section of Waterloo station, their only UK terminus.
No thoughts of non-London terminii, no M25 station out near Watford, no services to Birmingham or Manchester, no Scots connection from Edinburgh: no, you have to go to Waterloo, from where the tracks go to those well-known Kent towns of Southampton, Portsmouth and Exeter. Forgive me if my geography is wrong here, but with the possible exception of Marylebone, isn't Waterloo the least obvious station to depart from to get to the Channel Tunnel?

The ticketing arrangements are 21st Century: turn up, insert your electronically-stamped ticket, and Go.
Or so you think.
In practice, you spend 30 minutes standing in a queue caused by the airline-type X-ray security system, then a woman checks your tickets anyway, entirely negating the timesaving effect of the technology.
It's pathetic.

Chateau, Champagne

Champagne. Don't drive here late at night, they're all pissed !!

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.
Kent is no better: joining the main line allows the dizzy Dionysius Lardner-friendly velocity of 60 mph to be reached. The new and much-trumpeted Channel Tunnel Rail Link now allows high speeds nearly to Northfleet (ooh, gosh, only 10 years late....), whereas the final section to St Pancras won't be ready until 2007, 20 years after the tunnel was built.
Like the Millenium Dome, another National Disgrace.

Champagne, light and textures

Brantome houses

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.
A subdued growl emerges from the bogies and the countryside picks up it's heels and moves backwards - surely it can't be the carriages that are moving? Only when manoeuvring along the corridors does any sensation of speed become apparent: random adjustments in the direction of the Permanent Way are amplified by inertia into embarrassing and often painful staggerings in the narrow companionways.
Even then, the French will not let the EuroStars on to parts of the TGV system around Lyon as they are insufficiently powerful to keep up with the TGV trains.

Brantome pedestrian bridge

Street scene, Brantome

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.
It went very fast and very smoothly, it left on time, it arrived on time. Connex, look no further than here for your direction.

Brantome road bridge

Brantome Abbey from over the river

Having travelled the SNCF way, we returned to the Gare du Nord, went through first French then English passport checks before boarding the train.
So we're in England now, passport-wise, you'd think. But no, having returned to Waterloo via every back garden in South London the final turn of the screw was the extra passport check at Waterloo, staffed by 2 very harrassed officers and causing another queue. Huh?

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 Abbey Mill Restuarant, Brantome

Late afternoon sun, Brantome

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.

Door, Riberac

Bicycle bought to get fit, not often used......

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.