Thursday, July 23, 2020

Book review of Starting Over at the Vineyard in Alsace by Julie Stock

French Village Diaries book review Starting Over at the Vineyard in Alsace Julie Stock
Starting Over at the Vineyard in Alsace by Julie Stock

Starting Over at the Vineyard in Alsace by Julie Stock

It’s springtime at The Vineyard in Alsace, a new season and a new beginning

After being abandoned by her partner when she falls pregnant, Lottie Schell goes home to live on The Vineyard in Alsace, where she has started a new relationship with the estate’s winemaker, Thierry. Now about to give birth, Lottie’s determined to raise her child and to provide for them both on her own without having to depend on anyone else.

Thierry Bernard is still dealing with his grief and guilt following the death of his wife two years earlier, for which he blames himself. When he meets Lottie, the instant attraction he feels towards her gives him hope that he can move on from the tragedy of his past, as long as he can tell Lottie the truth of what happened.

When circumstances force Lottie and Thierry closer together, they both find it hard to compromise – she’s proudly independent and he’s fiercely protective – and they’re both wary about trusting someone new with their heart. 

Can Lottie and Thierry take a chance on each other, move on from their pasts and start over?

Escape to The Vineyard in Alsace once again with this romantic read set in the heart of Alsace’s wine country.

French Village Diaries book review Starting Over at the Vineyard in Alsace Julie Stock
Tour banner Starting Over at the Vineyard in Alsace by Julie Stock

My review

This is the second book in the Vineyard in Alsace series by Julie Stock and I was over the moon to be back at the Domaine des Montagnes where, in book one, we had left Didier and Fran rekindling their relationship. Fran is still working on the new visitors centre at Didier’s family vineyard, alongside the winemaking and restoring the Chateau. This book focusses on Fran’s sister Lottie, who is just about to have her first baby and is learning how to adjust to a lot of change in her life.

Thrown into single motherhood whilst still mending her broken heart, Lottie is determined not to be reliant on any man, ever again, despite tentatively starting a relationship with vineyard winemaker Thierry. Things are moving at quite a pace for Thierry too. He is still grieving, and blaming himself, for his wife’s death two years ago but doesn’t want to repeat his previous mistakes and lose a chance of happiness with Lottie. This book is a rollercoaster of female hormones and emotions as Lottie, and those around her, get to grips with pregnancy, a new baby, new relationships and trust issues.

There were times when I wanted to knock some sense into Lottie, but I loved following their emotional journey, all the time keeping my fingers crossed they’d find a way forward, and together. Fran is always on hand to support her sister, even while going through a tough, emotional time herself as she and Didier plan their vineyard wedding. This book does cover some difficult and sensitive issues in places, handled in a thoughtful and compassionate way.

The vineyard itself provides a constant, grounding backdrop to the drama. The daily inspections of the vines, the changing of the seasons, the issues of weather and disease, all help to keep a focus and calm a troubled mind. It was a great reminder that taking a walk outdoors can be a real benefit to the mind and body when things around you get tough.

I really enjoyed being back at the vineyard in Alsace, and this book has left me wanting more. I do hope there will be a third book in this series in the future. 

French Village Diaries book review Starting Over at the Vineyard in Alsace Julie Stock
Julie Stock

Author Bio  

Julie Stock writes contemporary feel-good romance from around the world: novels, novellas and short stories. She published her debut novel, From Here to Nashville, in 2015, after starting to write as an escape from the demands of her day job as a teacher. Starting Over at the Vineyard in Alsace is her ninth book, and the second in the Domaine des Montagnes series set on a vineyard.

Julie is now a full-time author, and loves every minute of her writing life. When not writing, she can be found reading, her favourite past-time, running, a new hobby, or cooking up a storm in the kitchen, glass of wine in hand.

Julie is a member of the Romantic Novelists' Association and The Society of Authors. She is married and lives with her family in Bedfordshire in the UK.


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French Village Diaries book review Starting Over at the Vineyard in Alsace Julie Stock
Starting Over at the Vineyard in Alsace by Julie Stock

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Monday, July 20, 2020

Cycling the Gorges de la Nesque, Provence

French Village Diaries cycling les Gorges de la Nesque lavender Provence
The lavender fields of Provence

Today I am looking back on our trip to Provence, unable to believe that a month has already passed since we were cycling through lavender fields and enjoying the fantastic scenery around Mont Ventoux. 


How do you top climbing Mont Ventoux for a day out on the bikes, especially when our total distance cycled that day came in at 93km? Pretty impressive for a 28km climb, but having descended to Sault, elated and hungry, heading back to Montbrun-les-Bains for a quiet afternoon seemed rather flat. Adrian suggested a 15km loop through the lavender fields that he promised was nice and flat, although I should know by now, his idea of flat and mine are a little off alignment. It was however a stunning ride through beautiful countryside with gorse, lavender and mountain views, and I’m so glad we did it. I also felt totally justified at scoffing an entire pizza to myself that night.


French Village Diaries cycling les Gorges de la Nesque Provence
Tired but elated after conquering Mont Ventoux

Climbing Mont Ventoux changed something inside my head. The fear of the ‘what ifs’ that often rules has been replaced with an attitude, 'if I can do that, slowly and steadily at my pace, I can do anything'. Adrian’s plan for our second day in the area was cycling the Gorges de la Nesque, thanks again to Julie from Vaucluse Dreamer for the blog post that gave him the idea. It would mean a second, consecutive day at over 90km, but I was looking forward to it, right up until about 3.00am. The pizza, delicious at the time, now felt like concrete in my belly and I wished I’ve given Adrian the last slice, or two. Somewhere in the village a dog barked, on and off, all night, timing it perfectly to coincide with every time I began to drop off to sleep. To say I wasn’t feeling refreshed as I set off on the 12km uphill ride back to Sault that morning would be pretty accurate.

French Village Diaries cycling les Gorges de la Nesque Provence Mont Ventoux
On the D6 with views towards les gorges de la Nesque and Mont Ventoux

The Gorges de la Nesque is a deep ravine, with a narrow road cut into the rock side and best viewed from the direction of Villes-sur-Auzon, even if this does mean cycling it uphill. From Sault we took the D943 to Monieux, where we joined the D46, which then becomes the D6 for a gradual climb up to St Hubert. The road was quiet, the only other traffic were other cyclists and Mont Ventoux was watching down on us, a little reminder to my tired head that I could do it. It wasn’t just my head that was tired, my legs that had powered me to great heights yesterday, were alarmingly stiff this morning. It was deflating. They had been fine yesterday afternoon, so why was every pedal stroke today an effort for me, but not for Adrian? 


It actually took a few days to recover fully and looking back I think that it was the descent from Mont Ventoux that was to blame, not the climb. Despite our weather being almost perfect; dry, not too hot and not too much of the wind the mountain is famed for, it was still a bitterly cold descent. I had added two long-sleeved layers, but my teeth were still chattering as we reached the sunnier plains at the bottom. My fingers were so cold they hurt, and I began to worry I wouldn’t be able to squeeze the brakes. My legs didn’t have to put in any effort, but I think my rigid, frozen position on the bike meant the muscles in my thighs stiffened nicely in the cold air, although they had been fine for the warm afternoon ride we then completed. A night of not much sleep hindered their recovery and although we did drink plenty, it probably wasn’t quite enough for the effort the muscles had put in.


French Village Diaries cycling les Gorges de la Nesque Provence Mont Ventoux
Mont Ventoux and the vineyards between Méthamis and Villes-sur-Auzon

I was determined not to give up on today’s ride, especially as it was truly beautiful. As we descended towards Méthamis we cycled through cherry orchards, vineyards and more lavender fields. The sun was warm and the scents in the air were delicious. A patisserie stop in Villes-sur-Auzon, where we had our picnic lunch, would have made all the difference, but sadly, the only boulangerie we found had just closed for lunch.


French Village Diaries cycling les Gorges de la Nesque Provence
Les Gorges de la Nesque, Provence

The sense of anticipation as we began to climb on the D942 built with every corner in the road as a new vista opened out in front. The soft green foliage that covers the hard rock, tumbles away to an invisible bottom, the only protection a small, stone wall at the side of the road. There are many times that the phrase ‘breathtakingly beautiful’ is used, but what was all around us on the bikes today truly took my breath away. 

French Village Diaries cycling les Gorges de la Nesque Provence
A tunnel cut into the D942 les gorges de la Nesque

There were times when we caught a view of the road snaking into the distance, other times we cycled through tunnels cut into the rock as we slowly meandered along trying to take in the views that rose high above to our left and disappeared away to our right. One of the (many) benefits of cycling on a road like this as opposed to being in a car, is that you are at one with the landscape, there is no roof, doors or windows to get in the way and no one worries how slowly you crawl along. 

French Village Diaries cycling les Gorges de la Nesque Provence
Les Gorges de la Nesques, Provence

We stopped a lot. For photos, for water and for food to keep our energy levels up, but also just to look around and watch the eagles soaring above us.


French Village Diaries cycling les Gorges de la Nesque Provence Montbrun-les-Bains Drome
Cycling back to Montbrun-let-Bains

It was a long, hot day and despite the sun cream, my arms turned a little pink and I have to admit it wasn’t my most comfortable day on the bike. However, I made it back to Montbrun-les-Bains having ridden another 92kms and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

La Fête Nationale, 14 juillet

French Village Diaries fête nationale 14th July
14th July fireworks, Parc de Blossac, Poitiers 2019

Last year our 14th July celebrations for the Fête Nationale seemed to go on for days, a stark contrast to this Covid-constricted year where nothing is as normal. 

French Village Diaries fête nationale 14th July
Ed in Melle

Ed had been playing the guitar at a live gig in Melle on 12th July, the street outside the kebab shop closed to traffic, a ‘stage’ at one end and tables and chairs filling the space at the other, where homemade burgers and chips were served all night to an appreciative crowd.


French Village Diaries fête nationale 14th July
Our village celebrates fête nationale, 2019

Our village has always held its buffet and disco on the evening of 13th, allowing plenty of opportunity for everyone to head off to neighbouring towns or villages to continue celebrating on the 14th. Having eaten well, laughed with friends and then danced the night away, I was particularly looking forward to the 14th.


French Village Diaries fête nationale 14th July
Filling the bin with the patriotic paper tablecloths

First was a bit of clearing up, followed by an apéro with other community-spirited friends, timed to perfection just as the village bell struck midday. Then it was off to the bar over the road to help them celebrate their second anniversary of opening, with more food and music. Although it promised to be a good afternoon, I had to leave early to collect Adrian from Poitiers airport. He’d missed out so far, but with Ed’s flat empty, this gave us the perfect opportunity to enjoy a bit of big town celebrations for the first time. 


French Village Diaries fête nationale 14th July
Parc de Blossac, Poitiers

As dusk began to fall, we headed to Poitiers Parc de Blossac where there was a free live music concert, followed by fireworks. Security was tight, with all bags being searched at the gates and a no alcohol policy strictly implemented. The refreshment tent sold only 0% beer or soft drinks, but it meant there was a friendly and family-focussed atmosphere in the crowd. We found ourselves a space and sat happily people-watching as we waited for the fireworks to begin, and boy were there plenty of people to watch. It didn’t take long before every bit of grass was occupied, and those trying to pick a route through the bodies had to watch for fingers, feet and children, as they found somewhere to squeeze into. For someone used to village life and events of around eighty people, suddenly being one of thousands was rather daunting. The fireworks were fantastic, set off in time to music played so loud the ground vibrated as well as the air from the explosions and light show overhead. It was an amazing experience, but we both agreed, not one we would be in a hurry to repeat as it was a bit of a sensory overload.


French Village Diaries fête nationale 14th July
Breakfast in Poitiers

The morning of the 15th saw us at an outdoor café in Poitiers town centre enjoying a coffee and croissant, before we headed off for a bike ride and then enjoyed lunch at the most beautifully decorated Moroccan restaurant situated on the cobbled street of Grand’Rue. The interior is a riot of colours, mosaics and lights, a feast for the eyes as much as their tagine plat du jour is for the stomach.


French Village Diaries fête nationale 14th July
#KTTinyTourer carries flowers for picnic

We were back home to enjoy an afternoon bike ride on the 16th, for Adrian to catch up with the sunflower fields, followed by an evening of free live music in the local village of Pouissay. We met up with friends, folded our bikes, unfolded our tables, opened our picnic hampers and wine bottles and had a fab time. I’d even managed to carry a vase of flowers on the bike to decorate the table, and at the end of the evening we cycled home as the full moon was rising. These five days proved that whether in a big town like Poitiers, or just a small rural village, France certainly knows how to put on a show. It was community events like these, and the joie de vivre they give, that I feared we would miss out on in this extraordinary year.


French Village Diaries fête nationale 14th July
14th July bike ride

This year Ed is with Pearl and her family, experiencing his first French family fête nationale celebrations and having a great time. With no village ‘do’ on the 13th in our calendar, we almost forgot about celebrating the 14th completely. We took the bikes out for a 43km ride in the afternoon, a warm and sunny ride that took us through fields of sunflowers, shady tunnels through woods, past an old cart reclining under a tree and stopping for a rest in a waist-high meadow, where I celebrated 2000km cycled so far this year. The evening ended perfectly with friends coming over for apéros in the garden, where the conversation and camaraderie certainly made up for partying we had missed out on. 


French Village Diaries fête nationale 14th July
Back at the village bar for music night

Last night we ventured back to the village bar for our first music night post lockdown. The weather meant we could all safely distance in the garden and all the usual friendly faces were there, just the hugs and kisses that were missing. The music was lifting, we laughed, chatted and sang along, and it felt good, a small return to normal.


With many holiday makers from France and elsewhere hitting the west coast for their holidays, virus numbers are on the increase, even for us a little way inland. We still need to be cautious and although masks won’t be obligatory until 1st August, we don’t leave home without ours.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Book review of The Ringmaster's Daughter by Carly Schabowski

French Village Diaries book review The Ringmaster's Daughter by Carly Schabowski
The Ringmaster's Daughter by Carly Schabowski

The Ringmaster's Daughter by Carly Schabowski

Book Description


Circus people don't ask who you were before, or what god you believe in… when you join the circus, you are family, whatever your past.

Paris, 1940. Twenty-year-old Michel Bonnet lives on the edge of the law, finding work where he can breaking in horses on the outskirts of the city. But when the Nazis invade, Michel takes refuge as a stowaway on a rickety train bound for the rural south. It’s a journey that will change his life forever.

The train is property of Le Cirque Neumann – a travelling circus owned by the troubled and irritable showman Werner Neumann. Neumann offers Michel a job caring for the company’s horses – a lucky break, but with an unusual condition attached. Michel must keep to himself and never speak of what he sees behind the glittering curtain of the big top.

But as Michel finds himself pulled into the strange and wondrous world of the great spectacular it becomes more difficult to keep his promise. Why does the man with the performing monkey never speak, and the sword swallower turn his face away? Who are the silent, shadowy figures who flit like moths between the wagons when the sun is down? It’s clear that Neumann is keeping his performers hidden away… but why?

And how can Michel win the love of the beautiful and exotic trapeze artist Freida – the graceful, green-eyed star of Neuman’s spectacular – when he’s been forbidden to even meet her gaze?

A heartbreaking and uplifting wartime novel – perfect for fans of Water for ElephantsThe Nightingale and The Tattooist of Auschwitz.  


French Village Diaries book review The Ringmaster's Daughter by Carly Schabowski
The Ringmaster's Daughter blog tour

My review

It was the rich descriptions that stood out for me from the beginning of this book, drawing me in and never loosening their grip. 


We meet Michel in Paris, just as the Germans are closing in on the city. Young, vulnerable and alone, he hadn’t seemed to grasp the severity of the situation and it is his neighbour, Bertrand, who insists he leave. They join the throngs of Parisians heading for crowded stations, full of people and possessions, empty of trains. A tip off from a friend of Bertrand sees the men walking the track and waiting for a slow train to jump onto. The train is owned by a circus troupe, run by Werner Neumann, who reluctantly agrees to let Michel stay and work with the horses. 


This curious group of circus performers travel around France, moving from village to village, sometimes receiving a warm welcome, they burst into life and put on a show to entertain and distract the locals from the difficult times. Sometimes they find German soldiers, their camp is searched, papers are demanded, some of them disappear, they move on quickly. It is a lonely life for Michel, Werner is hard on him, and his friendly conversations, an attempt to get to know his new companions, are met with silence and stony stares. He fears he will never fit in, but he has food, somewhere to sleep and nowhere else to go. He is also drawn to trapeze artist, Freida, fiercely protected by Werner, but just watching her from a distance is enough to keep him from leaving.


Who are these misfits who together have found themselves a family? It was a dangerous time to be different and many of them had emotional and heart-breaking stories from their pasts, but together they had found friendship, loyalty and trust. As Michel earns their trust, we learn their stories.


This is a beautifully written novel with shadowy characters and hidden pasts, contrasted with the sparkle of the circus and intense love, all set against the backdrop of The Occupation. If you enjoy historical fiction that transports you to a different time, add this one to your summer reading pile.


French Village Diaries book review The Ringmaster's Daughter by Carly Schabowski
Carly Schabowski 

Author Bio


Carly Schabowski worked as a journalist in both North Cyprus and Australia before returning to Oxford, where she studied for an MA and then a PhD in creative writing at Oxford Brookes University. Carly now teaches at Oxford Brookes University as an associate lecturer in Creative Writing for first and second-year English literature students. 




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Thursday, July 2, 2020

Conquering Mont Ventoux

French Village Diaries cycling up Mont Ventoux
Mont Ventoux by Brompton #KTTinyTourer

Two weeks ago, I achieved something epic, something that put me way out of my comfort zone and something that six years ago I would not even have considered attempting. I cycled up Mont Ventoux, the Beast of Provence; a barren, rocky mountain summit, almost 2000m above sea level where little grows. A cyclist’s dream ascent (or nightmare), home to many Tour de France winning highs, but also lows, notably the death of Tom Simpson, one kilometre from the top, in July 1967.


We had arrived in Montbrun-les-Bains on Wednesday afternoon, for the second part of our South of France, post-confinement getaway, and a quick check on the weather forecast told us that Thursday morning would be our best chance of kind weather to attempt Mont Ventoux.


This had been Adrian’s dream since early 2014, when the plan had been to spend some time in the area on our Mini Cooper road trip, with Adrian hiring a road bike from Sault and cycling to the top of the mountain. I would provide the back-up, food stops and water refills from the comfort of Gizmo, the Mini. It never even entered our heads to think of parking up Gizmo for the day, hiring two bikes and cycling up together. My fitness at that time would have made it impossible. Gizmo breaking down on day two of our road trip, meant it was impossible for Adrian that year too.


In 2017 he planned once more to give it a go. There is something about Mont Ventoux that when it takes hold, its grip is difficult to shake off. Once again, he never even made it to the start point, having crashed off his bike in the Ardeche, damaging his shoulder. There was a small part of my head that felt someone was trying to warn us away from this particular cycling challenge and the best thing to do would be to forget all about it. Then earlier this year I found myself thinking, what if we give it one more go, to celebrate his 50th birthday and this time do it together? Everything seemed to be in alignment this time. Cycling has become a regular part of our lives, winter and summer, meaning we are both much fitter now than either of us were six years ago. His Mum gave me her blessing, even agreeing to come over and dog sit while we were away and the cherry on the top was discovering that due to road works at the summit, the road would be closed to motor traffic all this year. Then Covid-19 burst into our lives and all plans were on hold.


Adrian celebrated his 50th during lockdown with a virtual ascent of Mont Ventoux on his turbo trainer in the garden, but it didn’t quite quench his thirst. A quick look on the map of France when planning our route to and from Lou Messugo on the Côte d’Azur, showed us that Mont Ventoux was once more a possibility. Something even more poignant was that our last conversation with our nephew Ben before he died, was about cycling up Mont Ventoux. This time it seemed the mountain was ready for us.

French Village Diaries cycling up Mont Ventoux from Montbrun-les-Bains
Mont Ventoux in the distance from Montbrun-les-Bains

The closer we got to Mont Ventoux on the drive in, the bigger and more intimidating the landscape looked, despite a pleasing, softening blush of lavender in its first days of flower all around us. The enormity of Mont Ventoux and our plans to attempt to climb it really hit home, right in the pit of my stomach. I could taste and feel my fear. A quick text to fellow blogger Julie, from Vauclause Dreamer, who has conquered Ventoux on her bike many times, helped to calm my nerves. Her advice was to take it slowly, don’t rush it, stop when I wanted to and enjoy the ride. I’m not sure I’d ever considered the possibility of enjoying it until I read her text, but it worked.


The climb from Sault is twenty-eight kilometres, but we were staying twelve kilometres from Sault and not wanting to use the car unnecessarily, at 8.30am I found myself cycling (uphill) towards a morning coffee stop in Sault where the top of Mont Ventoux looked a long way away. 


By the time we set off a steely determination had taken the place of the fear, especially as we were doing this For Ben, clocking up the kilometres on our virtual cycling challenge to get our teams the 7500kms from Loughborough to Istanbul and back. Our Mont Ventoux kilometres would be special ones as today would also be the day that the fundraiser hit its £30,000 target.


French Village Diaries cycling up Mont Ventoux Sault lavender
Lavender fields leaving Sault

I don’t remember every twist and turn in the road, but I do remember cycling through fields of lavender, the sun warming us as we slowly began the climb. The fields were then replaced with pine forest and steeper corners where cyclists who had already been up were sweeping down towards the sunnier planes. There were other cyclists with us, some who overtook us, some who we overtook. Some were friendly, some ignored us with our odd looking small wheeled bikes. Those who did speak, wanted confirmation that they were electric assist, which they are not – if only we had a euro for every time that was asked.

French Village Diaries cycling up Mont Ventoux Tom Simpson memorial
Tom Simpson memorial Mont Ventoux

At Chalet Reynard we feasted on coffee and snacks, the stark rocky mountain looking fierce from the bend in the road where the café is safely situated. The final six kilometres are the hardest, but I was ready. Slow and steady I plodded on, turning the pedals rhythmically and steadily. Some were out of their saddles, rocking from side to side with the effort, not me, I just sat and concentrated on safely getting to the top. I even managed to smile for some of the professional photographers who sit in wait to snap you at your lowest point, and although many overtook me, surprisingly there were some who I overtook too. We stopped, as is the custom, at the Tom Simpson memorial, my legs shaking with the effort to stand, the last kilometre looking to be the longest yet. The view is harsh here, with no contrast from left to right, just stark rock all around, and the only thing to do is keep looking forward and turning the pedals, each turn a little closer to the top.

French Village Diaries cycling up Mont Ventoux
Top of Mont Ventoux

Rounding the last bend and joining the throng of weary cyclists at the top was quite a strange feeling. I’d done it. I hadn’t had to get off and walk and my legs no longer felt like jelly as they had only a kilometre ago. My breathing wasn’t dry and ragged like I’d thought, I didn’t even need to sit down. I was smiling and elated as I stood proudly at the sign for my victory photo. Mont Ventoux was conquerable and we’d done it, in Adrian’s 50th year and #ForBen.

French Village Diaries cycling up Mont Ventoux
Together and smiling as we cycle up Mont Ventoux