Some very good friends came to visit us recently from Florida with their ten year-old son, and as for two of them it was a first time visit to Europe, I wanted the trip to be perfect. Excitement built on both sides of the pond and I planned all the things we should do and all the places we should take them. I checked the long-range forecast on Meteo France more often than I checked Facebook the preceding weeks and everything looked perfect, even the weather. We met them in some brilliant early evening sunshine at the architecturally stunning train station in La Rochelle, almost 24 hours after they’d started traveling, but the next morning it all changed. The perfect round sun over the Charente Maritime slowly turned to grey and a slight sprinkling of rain began to fall – and then, horror of horrors, it started to pour, with some thunder and a few bolts of lightning thrown in for good measure. So what did we do? Well, with true British stiff upper lip, or in this case American and British stiff upper lips, we donned raincoats, grabbed umbrellas and did pretty much everything just as we had planned, and it didn’t deter our spirits one little bit!
One small hitch arose on day one when we decided kayaking in the rain was a little too much to bear, even for our cavalier spirits. Instead we all bundled into a fabulous small crêperie, typically French (perfect for their first day) and ate far too much! We returned home, lit the fire for the first time since last winter, made a big chocolate cake and ate some more! it was a good excuse to hunker down and catch up on a year’s news.
Day Two was a Monday, and it dawned with leaden grey skies and steady rain, again. We headed out to the Château de la Roche Courbon and unsurprisingly we were the only people there; thus proving that rain does have some plus points because it felt as if we really were the owners of this magnificent property and we had the place to ourselves. We explored the acres of grounds which included rivers and waterfalls, an apple and pear orchard and gardens that were utter perfection, even in the drizzle. I am surprised I didn’t suffer from neck-ache after the number of times I looked to the sky to watch the clouds as they scurried past. Then, just before lunch I spied the first break in the weather, a glimpse of blue which grew and grew into a beautiful autumn sky, and as we left the Château and drove into Rochefort for lunch, it developed into a miraculously warmer day and we were able to eat outside at our favourite restaurant in the Place Colbert.
A visit to the stone sculptures just outside Crazannes (which I wrote about recently) then followed before we hurried home to put a blanket on the bed in the downstairs guest room as another friend was spending the night with us on her way south – we really were a full house that night!
We woke on Tuesday to more autumnal skies and a steady downpour as we made breakfast. We sat around the kitchen-table, our American friends loving the choice of croissants and pain au chocolat from our bakery in the village. They had bravely confronted the rain to pick up our fresh supplies for breakfast, and our friend heading south was in no hurry to leave in such weather. Huddled under umbrellas we picked some of our last figs to enjoy with the patisserie; hardly sun-warmed but fresh and sweet none the less, and we drank coffee, told tall tales, laughed a lot and put the world to rights from all three of our perspectives. However, our happy mind-fest was rudely interrupted mid-morning by a text from Millie which pinged onto my phone during her break at school; “Is it true WW3 has been declared ?”. I unintentionally read it out loud and within a nanosecond a small army of iPads and iphones feverishly sprang to life as five adults checked their various favourite news sources; BBC for the British and CNN for the American contingent. Two minutes later our international collective drew a sigh of relief and I am very happy to report that it seemed there was something of a misunderstanding at school.
The rain let up temporarily just before lunch and we were able to take the dogs out for a walk and blow away the cobwebs for an hour before we sat down to another meal that Roddy conjured up out of a fridge full of leftovers, he is an absolute master at this and as normal we ate, if not likes kings, then certainly like princes. A huge frittata seemed to fit the bill for most. In the afternoon we visited the Hermione on her dock in Rochfort, and then the fascinating citadelle de Brouage, a Catholic town that was fortified between 1630 and 1640 to counter the protestant stronghold of La Rochelle. A break in the ominous big black clouds gave the light a surreal dramatism at one stage, and as flights of dark crows circled the battlements, they contrasted vividly with the flecks of white that the egrets showed off as they settled down into the reeds for the night.
Wednesday morning and it was still raining. Somewhat downhearted I resumed my staring at the sky in despair or clicking onto Meteofrance, just in case something had changed in the last ten minutes, or that someone had made a mistake and everything would be suddenly sunny. We really wanted to head to the Île de Ré and spend the afternoon cycling around the Island. Much muttering ensued and a decision was made – an Anglo-Amercian collective decision, I hasten to add. As I collected the children from school (half-day school on Wednesdays) the wipers were still going firmly back and forth and so they all looked somewhat surprised when I told them we were still going to the Island. “The meteo says it is going to be a lovely afternoon.” I told them, “and we simply have to believe them.”.
Rather dubiously we bundled up the two families into two cars, complete with Roddy’s beloved Brompton, and we firmly headed north. As we crossed the bridge from La Rochelle, the first hint of blue appeared, and by the time we had driven further onto the Island, parked and then rented bikes, the sun was actually shining. Of course now I am totally beholden to MeteoFrance; they have become my new weather gods – they were 100% accurate, how could we ever have had any doubt!!!
We cycled for four hours, travelling about 20kms, and our friends fell totally in love with the beautiful Île de Ré. Almost all the summer visitors had long since gone home and the pace of life had returned to that slower, more gentle speed that island-life is so well known for. Of course we got lost a few times; we always get lost cycling on the Island, but in turn it meant we found some new tiny narrow cobbled streets winding their way in between white-washed houses, all with the obligatory green shutters. As always, I fell into my favourite daydream of owning the cutest of them, living island life with ease, surrounded by sunshine and tables of freshly grilled fish and platters of ripe melons. In the Island capital of St Martin en Ré we stopped for a break, and leaving our bikes by the quay, headed to my favourite bakery where we bought gôuter; we ate our goodies sitting outside on benches overlooking the boats, the warmth of the sun reminiscent of summer. Rows of boats still lined the pontoons and there was just enough traffic and people to keep us amused. It’s one of my favourite places in the region.
Time slipped by and we lingered a little too long enjoying the views which meant we faced a furious 40 minute mad cycle back to the bike-shop to return the bikes before we incurred wrath and financial retribution. Legs burnt as the tiny road signs told us we still had another four kilometers to go, and we pedalled on, harder and faster. We arrived breathless and redfaced 15 minutes late, but as is the way with so many people in this area the owner of the shop was not at all perturbed, and waved off our gushing apologies. He told us he had visited Florida before and had many English clients in the summer months; he wanted to talk for hours and couldn’t have been friendlier.
Once we had de-biked and got back in the cars, we headed back into St Martin en Ré for some much needed supper and as darkness drew a veil over the westerly sunset we stumbled surreptitiously over the harbour’s cobbled quayside onto some of the best pizzas we have ever eaten. By the time we had finished and left, night had turned stoney black and the harbour no longer bustled with activity; instead it lay gently dozing in a subtle seascape of soft lights and salty shadows where crabs scurried and scraped. We headed home across the bridge in our respective mechanised chariots, small people’s small-talk slowly slipping away into silence as our headlights burnt a route home.
As is always the way the weather finally turned the morning our friends left for a few days in Paris before they headed back over the Pond. The beautiful train-station at La Rochelle was once again bathed in sunshine as we said our very sad goodbyes, but no one can say we had not made the most of everything despite the rain. We are already planning all the things to do on their return visit next summer!