Saturday, December 24, 2022

Advent Day Twenty-four, it's a wrap

French Village Diaries advent day twenty-four making memories
Advent Day Twenty-four, it's a wrap

Advent Day Twenty-four

It’s a wrap

Writing is my way of coping when things get a little frantic and out of control, so these daily advent posts have helped me remain calm and focussed in the run up to Christmas, and I hope you have enjoyed them. 


Making memories

There were two main reasons I started writing this blog over fifteen years ago. One was to keep family and friends in the UK up to date with our new life in France and the other was to ensure I didn’t forget the adventures we were having. During the pandemic, it felt even more important to record what we did each day during lockdown, and how we were coping. As the months moved on, it was easy to forget those extraordinary early days.


Ed has always been relaxed about having his life, since he was about five years old, shared, which I’m really grateful about, and he’s inspired another story. A few weeks ago, he called on a Monday night to say he’d just tested positive for Covid-19, but not to panic as he was feeling fine and better than he had over the weekend when his mild cold-like symptoms began. Luckily it was a video call, and it was reassuring to see that he didn’t look or sound poorly. 


A few days later he messaged again, to say he was reading through some of my old blog posts – I suppose you have to find something to fill your days when you are isolating. When I asked him which ones, he replied he'd searched for his name on the blog and was happily reading through some of the posts this had offered, many going back ten years or so. When I asked why, he simply said, “because they are my memories too and I've already forgotten some of the things, like a big storm the day I started boarding at lycée”. 


You have no idea how happy this made me, and it reinforced the importance of keeping some form of diary, especially to record the everyday events that are easy to forget. 


All that is left for me to say now is that I hope you have a lovely Christmas, wherever in the world you are, and you get to make lots of memories with those you love. For my friends over in the US hit by the extreme weather, I’m sending you warm thoughts and lots of love. Stay safe.

Happy Christmas 

French Village Diaries advent day twenty-four making memories
Happy Christmas

Friday, December 23, 2022

Advent Day Twenty-three, seeing the light

French Village Diaries advent day twenty-three seeing the light Christmas lights
Christmas lights

Advent Day Twenty-three

Seeing the light

Light is important at this time of year, and with the solstice this week, we (in the northern hemisphere) can celebrate those precious extra minutes of daylight each day. In the nativity, it was a bright light that announced the birth of Jesus to the shepherds and even with the energy crisis, Christmas lights are popping up everywhere. These can be anything from a simple advent candle to a house and garden flashing away and visible from space. In the last few weeks, my Mum has attended a couple of Light up a Life services where candles have been lit to remember loved ones who have died this year.


French Village Diaries advent day twenty-three seeing the light a December rainbow
A December rainbow

Our region of France has a small number of unusual historical features called lanternes des morts. These lanterns are tall, thin needles of stone with a cross and an opening at the top, that date from the 11th to 13th centuries. Traditionally found in cemeteries, they were lit when someone died and are thought to have helped guide the soul to its final place of rest. Many were destroyed during the Revolution and others were lost when the original cemeteries they were constructed in were moved to larger plots further out of town, meaning those still in existence are quite rare. There is one in a cemetery in Poitiers that when we drove past it this week, I noticed was lit. As there is still quite a lot unknown about them, I find them fascinating and will always try to detour a bike ride to visit one.


French Village Diaries advent day twenty-three seeing the light La Souterraine lantern des morts
La Souterraine Lanterne des Morts

This year we have also seen the one in La Souterraine, in the Creuse and Sarlat, in the Dordogne. In La Souterraine, the lantern is fairly typical, with a hexagonal column, topped by a pyramid and a cross and set in the centre of the cemetery, although it’s only been in this location since 1850.

French Village Diaries advent day twenty-three seeing the light Sarlat lantern des morts
Sarlat Lanterne des Morts


The one in Sarlat differs to most of the others we have come across as it has a domed roof, typical of the Perigordian church turrets, and is much larger and more rounded. It is said to have been built to commemorate the miracle of Saint Bernard de Clairvaux and the healing loaves. Returning from the crusades, according to the legend, St Bernard passed through Sarlat and blessed bread that went on to cure the sick or injured who ate it. It is certainly worth a visit if you are in Sarlat.


I’ve had a lightbulb moment this week and am now convinced that not only do I feel better and sleep better if I’ve been out on the bike, but that there is also a direct correlation between pedalling and my brain’s ability to remember things. Basically, for every day without a bike ride, my brain cells are dying off - eek!


On this day in 1888 Vincent Van Gogh cut off his left ear. Was it madness or because of an argument with Paul Gauguin? Or maybe it was the stress of Christmas that drove him to it, or simply the fact that he hadn’t been out on his bike. 

Thursday, December 22, 2022

Advent Day Twenty-two, silver sparkles

French Village Diaries advent day twenty-two blog planning and silver sparkles
Silver sparkles

Advent Day Twenty-two

Blog post planning

It would be fair to say that my blog postings have been a little haphazard to say the least this year, so one of my New Year resolutions is to be more organised. I’m already thinking of ideas for 2023 as well as planning some challenges to keep up my kilometres on the bike. 


Next year is a special year for us as we will celebrate our silver wedding anniversary in April. Twenty-five years of marriage is certainly worth celebrating and I’m thinking of adding lots of glittery, silvery bling to my life, our bike rides, and the blog.


The French for silver is argent and it just so happens there is an ancient royal silver mine museumLes Mines d’Argent des Rois Francs, in our local town of Melle. It has been too many years since I was last there, so I’m planning to combine a bike ride with a visit once the tourist season opens again. Then I thought, why stop there? France has many places with argent (or similar) in their names, so it seems appropriate to try to visit as many as possible (twenty-five would be nice), with our bikes this year. Within a thirty-kilometre radius from home, as well as the silver mines, we have the village of Couture d’Argenson and the river Argentor that flows through the pretty village of Nanteuil-en-Vallée, before joining the river Charente near to Verteuil-sur-Charente. The possibilities are endless, and I’ve even found the Hotel d’Argenson, on Rue d’Argenson - in Paris no less.


French Village Diaries advent day twenty-two blog planning and silver sparkles
Méli, the mascot of the Pays Mellois tourist office

The market town of Melle is also the home to the local tourist office where I recently spent an afternoon brainstorming ideas for their 2023 blog posts. This was equally terrifying and exciting. I was delighted to have been invited and it was great fun, but also rather daunting being the only Anglophone in a group of nine, five of whom worked for the tourist office. We began with introductions about our backgrounds and then set off on an adventure where fantasy mixed with legends, and no idea was deemed too weird or off-topic. I even found myself crossing an imaginary crocodile pit by rolling across it on a cushion. 

French Village Diaries advent day twenty-two blog planning and silver sparkles
How to plan a blog post - photo courtesy of Office de Tourisme du Pays Mellois


Generally, the ideas for my blog just seem to plop randomly into my head, often while out on the bike. Now that I’ve experienced a real-life brainstorming session, I’ve no idea what new ideas might have been unlocked in my head, but I’m already looking forward to ‘pushing my envelope’ or ‘picking some low-hanging fruit’ and sharing something with you.


If you’d like to check out some of the previous blogs from the Pays Mellois tourist office, you’ll find them here.



Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Advent Day Twenty-one, Christmas at the Château

French Village Diaries advent day twenty-one Christmas at the château de Dampierre sur Boutonne
Christmas at the Château de Dampierre-sur-Boutonne

Advent Day Twenty-one 

Christmas at the Château

The Château de Javarzay might well be silently hibernating, but just a bit further along the Boutonne river there is another beautiful Renaissance château that is opening its doors with a festive twist in the run up to Christmas and New Year. A few weekends ago, we treated ourselves to a lovely Sunday afternoon outing, looking around the Château de Dampierre-sur-Boutonne


The main difference between the two châteaux is that whereas Javarzay is owned by the local council and houses a fully up to date multi-media museum experience, Dampierre is owned by a couple who live onsite and is furnished as you would expect for a period property. Even before we’d stepped inside, there was a certain magic to the place, and I was keen to compare and contrast the visitor experience, as I am ashamed to admit that even after eighteen years in this area, this was my first visit inside this château.

French Village Diaries advent day twenty-one Christmas at the château de Dampierre sur Boutonne
Château de Dampierre-sur-Boutonne


We are no strangers to the village of Dampierre-sur-Boutonne, as it is a handy morning coffee stop for our annual one-hundred kilometres in a day bike ride that follows the Rives de Boutonne cycle route to Saint Jean d’Angély. It did seem a bit weird driving there rather than arriving by bike, but with the shorter days and colder temperatures, a sixty-kilometre day on the bikes and a château visit, was probably pushing it a bit. On the back-road drive, the copper-leaved forests gave way to villages, where starlings lining the telephone wires looked like strings of sparkly fairy lights in the sunshine, but the smoke rising from chimneys gave a more accurate picture of the weather that was a fresh 6º outside. Adrian suddenly brought the car to a halt, explaining “woah, look at that!”. Hurtling past in a field to our left was an enormous wild boar. Sundays are hunt days here and bit further on we saw some hunter’s vans parked up in the woods. Chances are he had been flushed out, but he seemed to have put quite a bit of distance between himself and the madmen, so fingers crossed this time it was Piggy 1 Hunters 0.


The festive touches at the château included a small Christmas market set up in the Orangery, that gave us a covid-safe shopping opportunity, and the château was decorated in a certain style that made us smile. As well as grand salons with antique furniture and impressive Christmas trees whose scent filled the space, and were decorated with just enough sparkle, there were hilarious touches too.

French Village Diaries advent day twenty-one Christmas at the château de Dampierre sur Boutonne
Christmas Gingerbread at Dampierre-sur-Boutonne

My favourite had to be the cardboard gingerbread man popping out of an antique vase, but it was the suit of armour wearing his Santa hat at a jaunty angle and a dangling bauble that made my friend cry with laughter. 


French Village Diaries advent day twenty-one Christmas at the château de Dampierre sur Boutonne
Chevalier de Noel at Dampierre-sur-Boutonne

There has been a château in Dampierre since the year 995, but the Hundred Years’ war (1337-1453) left the medieval château badly damaged. It was rebuilt in the Renaissance style, on the banks of the Boutonne river, by François de Clermont after he fell in love with the Italian Renaissance châteaux on a visit to Italy with the King of France. 


French Village Diaries advent day twenty-one Christmas at the château de Dampierre sur Boutonne
The upper gallery at Dampierre-sun-Boutonne

It was the decoratively carved stone ceiling of the upper gallery, that dates from the mid 1500’s, that really caught my eye. One visit wasn’t enough to take in all the emblems, mottos and symbols that would have proved to all visitors that this family had style and money. The recurring H & C entwinned letters also prove the Clermont family were loyal to Henri II and Catherine Medici and under their Royal protection. There was so much history, I was in my element and will have to return for another visit. 

French Village Diaries advent day twenty-one Christmas at the château de Dampierre sur Boutonne
The château grounds at Dampierre


The grounds at Dampierre are also worth taking your time to explore. There is a moat, a labyrinth, and formal gardens set on islands. Everywhere I looked there were hidden treasures like dragons, swords and a giant chess set. 


It is difficult to compare to the museum housed in the Château de Javarzay, as in my opinion, both warrant a visit. How about combining the two with a weekend discovering some of the treasures of the Boutonne?


You can read more about the Château on their website here and if you are local, the château is open from 14h to 17h30 on 21st, 22nd, 27th, 28th and 29th December.



French Village Diaries advent day twenty-one Christmas at the château de Dampierre sur Boutonne
Christmas at the Château de Dampierre



Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Advent Day Twenty, The Chateau by Catherine Cooper

French Village Diaries book review The Chateau Catherine Cooper
Winter at the Chateau de Javarzay

Advent Day Twenty

Yesterday afternoon we took a walk around the grounds of the Château de Javarzay, just checking all was well. It seems funny not being there, now it is all quiet and closed for winter, although in the grounds there was still a bit of autumn colour clinging to some of the trees.

I had a plan earlier in the year to read and review as many books on a French château theme as I could this year, however, working at the château took up more time than I was expecting, and I didn’t get very far. Today, I’m going to share my review of Catherine Cooper’s second novel, The Chateau.


French Village Diaries book review The Chateau Catherine Cooper
The Chateau by Catherine Cooper

The Chateau by Catherine Cooper


A couple on the brink. A body on the lawn. Welcome to the Chateau.


This is the second thriller from southwest France based author Catherine Cooper, and having enjoyed The Chalet, I was looking forward to reading The Chateau – and it was immediately one of those books that I knew I was going to love.


The story follows Aura and Nick as their family make a fresh start in France. Nick needs an escape from events that happened before they left the UK, Aura has found her dream, and she is positive that turning a run-down chateau in France into a B&B is the answer to all their problems. But the thing about problems is that they have a habit of following you, no matter how much you try to distance yourself from the past.


As Nick and Aura’s uncomfortable relationship is tested to its limits by a huge renovation project, adjusting to life in a foreign country and their every move and cross word caught on camera by a TV film crew, I was hooked. In this book, Catherine has created an absolute gem of a read. There is no shortage of bodies and mysterious events to piece together, and a great cast of characters too. From Aura, who I instantly loved-to-hate, with her wishy-washy ways of organic parenting, to the hilarious expat misfits they find themselves living amongst, I wasn’t expecting to laugh so much in a thriller. 


I loved the mystery in this book and slowly discovering who had done what, and why. I’m sure that anyone who has spent any time living in France and joining in the murky world of the online forum, will love it too.


I’m also delighted to have recently added Catherine’s third novel The Cruise to my kindle – happy Christmas to me. If you are looking for something to treat yourself with, why not add these three books to your wish list.



Monday, December 19, 2022

Advent Day Nineteen, Troussepinète

French Village Diaries advent day nineteen troussepinète château de Javarzay
White Troussepinète Château de Javarzay

Advent Day Nineteen

We had a panicked moment this morning that saw us scuttling off to the shops, worried we hadn’t done enough Christmas shopping. It isn’t unusual for me to find myself in a December funk where the whole prospect of Christmas feels overwhelming, however getting out on the bike and keeping preparations low-key normally helps. Yesterday, I admitted to feeling better for having cycled twenty-six kilometres, following a week of no cycling that had left me angsty. Well, guess what – I also slept much better last night too, in fact I almost didn’t wake up early enough to get the head start on the chores like I’d planned.


I know they say you should never judge a book by its cover, or choose a bottle of wine for its label, but in the run-up to Christmas, I’m a sucker for a marketing gimmick. As soon as I saw this local aperitif, in a bottle with my the Château de Javarzay on the label, I knew I had to buy it, but what is Troussepinète?



Thought to date from the 19th century, troussepinète it is a wine-based aperitif drink that was commonly made in the Poitou region of France, although how exactly it came about remains a mystery. It is made by macerating young shoots from the blackthorn (épines noires), picked by hand in springtime, with sugar and white or red wine, and sometimes Cognac or eau-de-vie, but this very much depends on which area you buy it from. The blackthorn is a type of wild plum, and the drink has a fruity/almondy aroma to it. At 14% it has slightly less alcohol than the Pineau des Charentes (17.5%) which is usually our local aperitif of choice. Pineau is made by combining unfermented grape juice, or must, with Cognac that is then aged in oak barrels for around eighteen months to give a rich and flavoursome drink. It too can be made with red or white grapes.

French Village Diaries advent day nineteen troussepinète château de Javarzay
Red Troussepinète Château de Javarzay


As well as every method and recipe being slightly different, I’ve also discovered there are many ways to spell troussepinète too. I’ve seen troussepinète, trouspinètte, troussepinètte and any other combination of single and/or double s’s or t’s. I’m sticking to two s’s and one t, as that is what is on my Château de Javarzay label. I won’t be opening my bottle tonight, but I will look forward to enjoying it over Christmas. 


Sunday, December 18, 2022

Advent Day Eighteen, Christmas in the village

French Village Diaries advent day eighteen Christmas in the village Père Noel
Ready to help Père Noel

Advent Day Eighteen

Christmas in the village

Today was an exciting day in our village, and that was before the kick-off for the World Cup Final, France v Argentina. 


It was the day Père Noel, and his helpers made their annual visit, driving around the village delivering presents to all under elevens.

French Village Diaries advent day eighteen Christmas in the village Père Noel
Delivering presents with Père Noel


Some of the children were smiley and excited, some were sleepy as we’d disturbed their afternoon naps, and some just weren’t quite sure what to make of the noisy, colourful convoy that pulled up outside their house.


We were lucky, for the third year running, with the weather – it was cold, but the rain stayed away. There is nothing quite as miserable as a soggy, wet, elf on a bicycle.

French Village Diaries advent day eighteen Christmas in the village Père Noel
A sunset ride


As we near the solstice, and sunset bike rides this week have been non-existent, we decided to make good use of the fact that the roads were deserted as the TV became the focus for most, rather than the setting sun. It might not have been quite as dramatic as yesterday’s that we enjoyed whilst driving home, but it was a warmer evening to be out on the bike. 

French Village Diaries advent day eighteen Christmas in the village Père Noel
Chef-Boutonne market place


It did seem rather strange being the only ones outdoors as the lights came on in the market place, but every now and then we could hear shouts of life coming from one of the bars. Whether they were in triumph or despair, we really couldn’t make out.


I certainly feel much better for having been out on the bike today, especially as I’m now only seventeen kilometres away from my five-thousand-kilometre target for this year.


Merci Père Noel, it is always a pleasure helping you out, see you next year. 

French Village Diaries advent day eighteen Christmas in the village Père Noel
Père Noel in the village

Saturday, December 17, 2022

Advent Day Seventeen, family fun

French Village Diaries advent day seventeen family fun Poitiers Memphis mountain burger
A family meal at Memphis, Poitiers

Advent Day Seventeen, Family Fun 

We awoke to another -3º morning and a frozen car in need of de-icing, before a careful drive through a beautiful winter landscape, as we made our way to Poitiers. The unused edges of the road were heavy with ice patches, the fields glinting as the sun sparkled on the frost and there was a white dusting visible on the terracotta roof tiles. Herons and egrets, huddled together, necks disappearing into hunched wings, feathers fluffed out, all in an attempt to keep warm. 


We were wrapped up well, with many layers, thermal boots, scarves and hats that covered our ears. The wind turbines that had been eerily lost in the fog and darkness of my drive home on Tuesday, revealed a stiff breeze from the east to be the cause of the chill.


This week has been a failure in terms of our active travel ambitions. I’ve used the car four days in a row and Adrian was behind the wheel once more, as I scribbled away in my notebook. My bike hasn’t been touched since Monday, which is probably why I’d felt out of sorts and angsty yesterday. At the time I’d put it down to fatigue at the end of a busy week and opted for a book, a blanket and the sofa. Maybe I should have hopped on my bike and reinvigorated my senses with fresh air and blue sky scenery.

French Village Diaries advent day seventeen family fun Poitiers Memphis mountain burger
My Memphis mountain burger


Today was a day for family, fun and celebrations. Ed and I might have spent time together on Tuesday afternoon, but Adrian and Pearl were working. Now the weekend and the holidays have arrived, and we had a voucher to use at what has become our favourite American diner – we didn’t need any more excuses to indulge in a family meal and time together. It was an easy choice from the menu for me, the mountain burger, oozing with delicious melted raclette cheese, making it so much more than a cheeseburger, followed by a café gourmand, three tiny, sweet treats served with ice cream and an espresso coffee. 

French Village Diaries advent day seventeen family fun l'hypogée des Dunes Poitiers
L'Hypogée des Dunes, Poitiers


Our after-lunch exercise was a walk to an ancient burial ground dating back to the 6th to 8th centuries, that would make a fabulous, if rather eerie backdrop to a Halloween evening. The low afternoon sun cast long shadows from the trees, that fell upon the stone caskets, that lay open and empty. Poitiers is certainly a town with many surprises hidden away, but now I’m the proud owner of a new guidebook Je Découvre Poitiers, 7 Balades (I discover Poitiers in seven walks), I’m finding new things with every visit.


Our drive home was no less dramatic with a glorious sunset that accompanied the hour-long journey, giving wide open vistas of apricot fire. At times it was only the silhouettes of trees, wind turbines and water towers that broke up the horizon. 


French Village Diaries advent day seventeen family fun Poitiers
Christmas fun, Poitiers

It was a wonderful day spent with special people and I returned home with my belly and my heart full, but can you believe it, Ed and Pearl refused to pose for a family selfie in front of this fine Reindeer. 

Friday, December 16, 2022

Advent Day Sixteen, Coffee Break French

French Village Diaries advent day sixteen Coffee Break French
Christmas jumper day

Advent Day Sixteen

Yippee – it’s Friday

It has been a busy week for both of us, but Adrian has now finished work for 2022 and I can dig out his Santa hat and festive jumper. Actually, scrap the jumper. Today might be the day to celebrate your ugly Christmas jumper or pull moche de Noel, but the closest he’s ever got to one is posing for this photo. In fact, we are so un-ho ho ho, that this is the first year I’ve owned anything close to a Christmas jumper, and that’s only because Pearl’s sister had a wardrobe clear out and no one else in the family wanted this one.

French Village Diaries advent day sixteen Coffee Break French
Ho Ho Ho


I needed a distraction today. I’d already battled through deleting the seemingly hundreds of spam emails that ping into my inbox each day and resorted to unplugging the phone, as the unwanted cold calls began to drive me insane. Why is it that some days these things seem far more annoying than other days?

Coffee Break French 

My distraction came in the form of a Coffee Break French podcast. My French is pretty good, but far from perfect, especially in terms of conjugating verbs. Helping our friends to make medical appointments and volunteering with the Alzheimer’s support group, has brought it home to us just how much more difficult these things can be when you can’t fully understand what is going on, or what help is available to you. Adrian especially remembers the feeling of helplessness when in hospital last year and not fully grasping what was going on around him. We decided to make a concerted effort this December and get back into the Coffee Break French podcasts we first started using over ten years ago.


Their principle is brilliant, with each episode lasting just long enough to enjoy with your morning coffee. You can choose from lessons, magazine style episodes or travel bites and either just listen to the free podcast, or buy the extra material and transcript to go with it. We started out well at the beginning of the month, using them a bit like an advent calendar treat each morning, then life and work got in the way. Today, I’ve been catching up with the Travel Diaries Series One, following Lara and Noah as they visit various cities in France by train. We treated ourselves to the extra material and as I know a dictée or dictation helps me to absorb the sentence structures and spelling, having worked through each episode, I’ve been listening again and making it into a dictée. I can really recommend these if you are looking for a fun way to improve your French, whatever your level.


You can find out more at Coffee Break Languages here.


This is not a sponsored blog post. 

Thursday, December 15, 2022

Advent Day Fifteen, Little Donkey

French Village Diaries Advent day fifteen Little Donkey equitherapy
My new friend

Advent Day Fifteen, Little Donkey

“Little donkey, little donkey,

On the dusty road

Got to keep on plodding onwards

With your precious load”


Little Donkey was one of my favourite Christmas carols when I was growing up, and I had riding lessons, many moons ago, on Shetland ponies – yes, I was the short, chubby kid on the short, chubby pony. Sadly, after falling off one too many times, I lost my confidence and that is where my love for horses ended.

French Village Diaries Advent day fifteen Little Donkey equitherapy
8-year-old me, with a Shetland pony in 1979


My bicycle is my pony, taking me off on wild adventures to pastures new, and since falling in love with cycling, I have never felt the need to swap it for a horse. I watch way too many Ambulance, A&E and Helicopter Medics programmes to feel happy around horses. I know you can fall off your bike and suffer injuries, but it is rarely the bike’s fault, unlike horses, who seem to enjoy throwing off their riders and then kicking or stamping on them for good measure. I’d go so far as to admit to having thought them a little bit evil, until I was introduced to equitherapie or equitherapy - the broad term for a range of equine-assisted activities for people who have physical, emotional, cognitive, or social difficulties.


The local Mellois branch of the France Alzheimer association, run by two French ladies, reached out a few weeks ago, in desperate need for some bilingual volunteers. Set up in 2017, with one volunteer supporting four families, it has now grown to two volunteers helping sixteen families, two of whom are British. Each month they run a number of different sessions for both patients and carers, including games therapy afternoons, walks, talking therapy sessions and an equitherapy afternoon at the local riding stables.

French Village Diaries Advent day fifteen Little Donkey equitherapy
The Alzheimer's support group equitherapie session


Today was my first volunteer session where I met T and his wife and helped with the translation as he got to grips with grooming his horse Narciss, checking her hooves and walking her around the paddock. Despite this being the first time in many years he had been near a horse, he bravely agreed to mount and enjoyed walking around the arena with the others, although I think he was more taken with the grooming than the riding. There were certainly lots of smiles from everyone as they bonded with the (thankfully) docile beasts.


Afterwards, there was time for chatting, coffee drinking and cake eating before we wished each other a bonnes fêtes. I will definitely be back to help out again next year.