In which the cast is introduced and the scene is set.
These are some reminiscences of days on the river in the Lot region of France. I shall be mixing up stories from my first trip, eight years ago, to the trips we did last summer, about thirty trips in all. This entry is about the first day of the Célé trip, where we arrive on the train from Paris (or at a regional airport) at Brive. A short drive to the Célé valley at Marcilhac for a picnic lunch and then continuing onto our B&B on the Causse above the valley.
Standing on the railway platform at Brive we wait for the train from Paris to pull in. It’s 1pm and we’re hoping that our guests have managed to catch the 9am departure from Paris Austerlitz and have made it all the way here without having been shuffled down the branch line to Perigeaux – sometimes the train divides at Limoges and on one occasion we have had a guest on the wrong half! If our guests have not made the 9am departure then we will have to wait until the 2pm to see if they made the 10am departure. Standing on the platform can be a nervous experience. We are wearing our team T-shirts and I’ve got my ‘outfitters’ hat on. If I’m in the mood I might also be carrying a canoe paddle. This is just so to make us look like we are your guides for the trip.
If all goes well we will meet safely on the platform, introduce each other and get all the luggage and paraphernalia loaded into the back of our minibus ready for the journey south to the Célé Valley. It should take us about 90 minutes.
At first we will snake out of the city of Brive, passing numerous and wildly decorated roundabouts before descending to the motorway that heads south. The first part of the journey will be a dull motorway drive. But let’s try to get it over with. Soon we will leave the motorway and ease ourselves onto the slower, winding roads that cross the Causses. The drive will take us along some obscure byways across the plateau until eventually we will drop in to the deep valley.
There is not much to see along these roads. Drystone walls and overgrown sheep fields, small villages with large churches. The occasional pond. When the road does eventually start to drop down into Marcilhac we can see the limestone cliffs on the other side and the small tree-lined river meandering along the valley floor. In the past we used to stay in Marcilhac and that was handy for our travels by canoe. For some reason though we no longer use the place. At one time the Chambre d’hôte we did use was being run by an old person. I remember she was famous for her extensive home-made jams which were available at breakfast. All sorts of flavours. But then she retired and was replaced by a younger woman who soon let the place deteriorate. Eventually we could use it no more.
Anyway we take a break here at the village and park under the sycamores in the square and walk down to the lawned river bank to find a picnic table. We set up the picnic by spreading a table cloth and laying out the breads and cheese and pates and meats. We slice some vegetables and make a quick salad and make sure we have some fresh fruit on the table too. Normally we open a bottle (or a box – as it travels better in a canoe!) of wine and everyone can sit down together and enjoy a glass of wine and a simple lunch. It’s warm and sunny and we can relax to the point of sleepiness. Before we drop off though and before everyone wanders off to look around the old church and the ruined abbey in the village I get the maps out and go over what we shall be doing in the next few days. It’s not difficult. We shall canoe down the Célé!
Depending on how much time we have left of the afternoon, and remembering we shall be back in the village tomorrow I’ll suggest that we only have so much time to wander around before we should hop back into the van and get on our way. It’s only a short drive of about 20 minutes or so.
We have to drive further down the valley to the next village of Sauliac, across the bridge and up the steep road the other side to a little hamlet and beyond that a small farmhouse all on its own.
This is Richard and Helen’s place. They’ve spent ten years running a B&B here and first spending many years re-building the farm which had become a ruin. We are welcomed into the house and shown our rooms. The guests can repair straight to the small swimming pool. A tiny affair built into one of the old barns. We relax here for an hour or so having a couple of beers, before going back to change and dress for dinner.
Richard does the cooking. Well, the main course anyway. Helen does the starter and desert. First however Richard invites us to taste one of his home made aperitifs. How about a Fenelon? This is a potent mixture of Red Wine, Cassis and Walnut Liqueur. How about Vin Noix or Vin Chataigne. After chatting a little while with our drinks we are invited to table. It’ll be an interesting evening as the food is good and the wine is free and Richard will take over the role of host. The conversation flows back and forth, the subjects touched are not divisive, and everyone seems happy in the warm atmosphere. Even if the subject area does slip into religion or politics nobody seems to be taking the points made in a personal way. This is good because from time to time things can get a bit hot and sometimes in the past the subjects have got a bit hairy. Richard seems to be good at steering the conversation away from any dangerous places and is quite self-effacing if it appears to him that he become too insistent in his opinions. It’s a real pleasure when the evenings can be like this. It can be a nightmare when you have guests who take offence at everything. It can be worse if we have guests who have no conversation at all. Fortunately that doesn’t happen often. At the end of the meal Richard treats those that want it to a fiery digestif of Eau de Vie. Probably something that’s been distilled in the back yard. But that’s another story.