Sunday, December 24, 2023

Advent day twenty-four, Happy Christmas to you all

French Village Diaries Happy Christmas Advent day twenty-four
Happy Christmas

Advent day twenty-four

Happy Christmas Eve and thank you for being a part of our French village life for another year. 


I just love this silly selfie we took on yesterday’s bike ride. It just about sums up our cycling year, smiles, blue skies, sunshine and rain. All being well, tomorrow will see me going over the 6000km mark on my Brompton (since 1st January 2023) and it's been a blast.


Our Christmas Eve began with a bike ride – how I wish I could say that about every day of the year. It was just a short 16km round trip into Chef-Boutonne to ensure we had a lovely, seeded baguette for our picnic lunch tomorrow, and wouldn’t run out of dog food. For a Sunday morning, the small town of Chef-Boutonne was buzzing! There were queues at the butchers, the oyster stall was busy and by the time I came out of the boulangerie, the queue had spread across the pavement. I’d got chatting to a British couple in the queue, his opening comment being “you look so happy and excited”. Now, I’m not the most Christmassy of people, our decorations and celebrations are rather low key when compared to many households, and I had no idea how much happiness was radiating from me, but I’m glad it was. I think the lesson here is to never underestimate the power of a bike ride, however short or routine, to put you in a good mood. 


I hope you have enjoyed my Advent postcards, highlighting some of the interesting, remarkable, arty, or historical loveliness we’ve discovered in 2023 on our cycling adventures. I’ve certainly loved revisiting them when writing the posts. Some of these places are local to the Deux-Sèvres, some a long way from home. Some are places we’ve stumbled on as part of day trips, others on our cycle touring adventures to celebrate our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary year. Despite staying away in twelve different towns or cities (ten of which were in France), I purposely only included the villages or small towns we’ve visited in my postcards. It seemed more fitting for a blog called French Village Diaries. I think they have proven that slow travel on the lesser pedalled roads is incredibly rewarding. I do hope some of them have sparked an interest and inspire you to stop and explore next time you are on the road in France.


Happy Christmas to you all. 

Saturday, December 23, 2023

Advent Postcards, Tusson Charente


French Village Diaries cycling adventure Advent postcards Tusson Charente
Advent postcards, Tusson, Charente

Advent day twenty-three

Today’s cycling advent-ures postcard is from Tusson in the Charente, an easy twenty-kilometre bike ride from home. This means it’s not only a popular cycling destination for us, but also our morning coffee stop if we are cycling the sixty kilometres to Angoulême. It is also somewhere that holds some significant memories.


Way back in 2019, when Covid-19 was just a whisper in the newspapers, we created our Christmas Day bike ride and picnic tradition, and Tusson was the location we picked to pop open the Champagne and tuck into our feast. It was also Tusson that was the destination for our first post lockdown adventure in May 2020. Safely spaced, but cycling together with Ed, Pearl and our friends, we took it in turns to choose our takeaway cakes from Gâteaux, a popular tea shop in Tusson, before heading back to our Christmas Day picnic tables to enjoy an outdoor freedom treat.


French Village Diaries cycling adventure Advent postcards Tusson Charente
The delights of Gateaux salon de thé

There is a lot more to Tusson than just our memories though as it is also a significant stage on the Chemins de Saint-Jacques pilgrimage route. The 15th century church is dedicated to Saint-Jacques, so it’s not surprising that the entrance is home to a carved statue of him as well as a contemporary sculpture of a pilgrim, and the inside also has some striking wall paintings. As you take your time to explore the narrow lanes of Tusson, many with stunning flower borders, you will also find statutes, stained-glass and pottery workshops, and many noble medieval buildings.


The other side of the main road there is a 19th century lavoir (wash house) that hides an unusual secret, something we only discovered this summer. To the left of the lavoir, and up some stone steps, it is possible to see part of an ancient underground aqueduct that used to bring water to the old priory. Running behind (and completely hidden from) the main road are the remains of two priories (a men’s and a women’s), a medieval monastic garden and the biggest surprise for us, an adapted sensory garden for people with autism. It is definitely a village that deserves the time to explore its many treasures and if this isn’t enough, just outside of the village there are megaliths and tumuli dating back to the 5th millennium BC.

Friday, December 22, 2023

Advent postcards, Jouhé Deux-Sèvres


French Village Diaries cycling adventure Advent postcards Jouhé Deux-Sèvres
Advent postcard, Jouhé, Deux-Sèvres

Advent day twenty-two

Today’s cycling advent-ures postcard is from Jouhé, now part of the commune of Valdelaume in the Deux-Sèvres, and only around ten kilometres from home. This means it is often on one of our twenty or thirty-kilometre bike ride loops and it’s always exciting to see the tower of the château come into view on the skyline.


The château at Jouhé is privately owned I had the pleasure of meeting the new owners recently and offering them a guided visit of the Château de Javarzay. Both châteaux have undergone losses over the years, a major fire being the cause of extensive rebuilding at Jouhé in the 1600’s, leaving a logis and the impressive four storey square donjon, built around a courtyard. 


Once the madness of the festive period is over, they have promised us a reciprocal visit and I can’t wait, especially as they too have the mysterious circular markings on some of their ancient stones that we have at Javarzay. It is great news that the new owners have plans to bring Jouhé back to life and hold events there in the future and it would be fantastic if we can work together, sharing our remarkable buildings.


Jouhé is not only home to a château, but it also has a Tilleul tree that is classified as “remarkable”. I have a soft spot for trees and especially classified ones, but I think anyone would agree this tree is impressive, even in winter. It’s perfect positioning next to the château just adds to its charm.

Thursday, December 21, 2023

Advent postcards, Matha, Charente-Maritime


French Village Diaries cycling adventures advent postcard Matha Charente-Maritime
Advent postcard, Matha, Charente-Maritime

Advent day twenty-one

Today’s cycling advent-ures postcard is from Matha in the Charente-Maritime, where we spent an interesting few hours on the return from our cycle tour to Saintes in July.


Matha isn’t too far from home, so is somewhere we have driven through many times over the years, and also passed through with the bikes but had never had the opportunity to discover it properly.  Thanks must again go to the Terra Aventura treasure hunt that had us exploring all manner of hidden gems. Our first discovery was the artworks and sculptures in the international peace garden. Enclosed within a walled park, the Peace Garden is home to works of art donated to Matha from all over the world, on a theme of peace and human rights. It was thought provoking, calming and inspiring, and somewhere I will return to.


We then discovered the church of St Barthelemy de St Herie with its mismatch of architectural styles. Having just been on an historical architecture training day for work, it was so cool (for me at least) to see both the Romanesque and Gothic styles living side by side in harmony for centuries, and now with the addition of contemporary stained-glass windows dating from 2002.


The icing on the cake for me however was stumbling upon the park with the Renaissance towers, that are the only remains of the Château de Matha. Much like at Javarzay, only a small part of the original château remains, but what a Renaissance beauty it is. Imagine my delight when I discovered it is linked to the fabulous Jacquette de Montbron, heroine from yesterday’s postcard from Bourdeilles. She was heir to the château, but history is unclear as to whether she also had a hand in the design as she had at Bourdeilles. She is definitely a woman whose story I want to learn more about.



Wednesday, December 20, 2023

Advent postcards, Bourdeilles, Dordogne

French Village Diaries cycling adventures advent postcard Bourdeilles Dordogne
Advent postcard, Bourdeilles, Dordogne

Advent day twenty

Today’s cycling advent-ures postcard is from Bourdeilles in the Dordogne, an afternoon stopover on our October cycling tour to Perigueux.


Situated on the Dronne River, a short cycle ride from Brântome, we were there to tackle a Terra Aventura challenge that took us to all the best viewpoints of the magnificent château. The medieval fortified château dates from the 13th and 14th centuries, but neatly tucked away inside the courtyard is an equally impressive Renaissance château dating from the 16th century. Whether we were looking towards it from the gardens behind the church, marvelling at the fortified château entrance or looking down from the narrow lanes of the village, the views were stunning. However, the most impressive view had to be from river level, craning our necks and looking up at the Renaissance walls towering above the rocks and caves they were built on. That was some engineering feat. My Michelin Green Guide tells me that the planning for the Renaissance château was the work of Jacquette de Montbrun, wife of André de Bourdeilles, who had an “active and informed interest in geometry and architecture” – I do love the tale of a remarkable women from the past who left her mark on the world.


Bourdeilles is a real gem of a village that I would happily detour to again, especially as we didn’t have time to visit the château on this trip.


Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Advent postcards, Tumulus de Bougon, Deux-Sèvres


French Village Diaries cycling adventures advent postcard Tumulus de Bougon Deux-Sèvres
Advent postcard, Tumulus de Bougon, Deux-Sèvres

Advent day nineteen

Today’s cycling advent-ures postcard comes from the Tumulus de Bougon museum in the Deux-Sevres where we spent a hot Sunday at the beginning of July.


Our visit had been timed to take full advantage of the FREE museum entry on the 1st Sunday of each month, saving 6€ each, and was part of my 2023 plan to visit as many local museums as I could fit in around work. The only tourist information point in Chef-Boutonne is us at the Château and rather than just hand out leaflets, I wanted to be better able to recommend other places for our visitors. I quickly developed museum envy. Rather than our tiny museum in Javarzay, that is run by the local council, Tumulus de Bougon is on a huge site with a restaurant, indoor exhibits and exhibition space, plus the numerous burial mounds in the outdoor park, all run by the Deux-Sèvres Department. 


After a coffee we picked up the audio guides, that we could use in English, and started our visit indoors, learning about seven million years of history and the evolution of man. It was fascinating, but too much for my brain to take in on one visit, which gives us a great opportunity to return. This area in France has a number of standing stones, dolmens and megaliths, often found in woods or fields, but also including one in a residential street in Poitiers. There are many legends that tell tales of giants and fairies moving these huge stones around, but we now know a lot more about them than fairy tales. The first thing I learned was that these tabletop stones or pierre levée are actually the three entrance stones to a long-eroded burial mound – which seemed so obvious when it was pointed out, but not something I’d ever considered before. The museum is home to round and long burial mounds, many of which you can access some of the inner chambers, which is properly exciting for children of all ages. We had a blast exploring and admiring the amazing construction work that predates Stonehenge. 

French Village Diaries cycling adventures advent postcard Tumulus de Bougon Deux-Sèvres Pierre Levée Poitiers
Pierre Levée, Poitiers

Our day continued with a picnic in the neighbouring village of Pamproux where we then set off on a Terra Aventura bike ride treasure hunt, that gave us even more local history to discover. I can 100% recommend a visit here. 

Monday, December 18, 2023

Advent postcards, Javarzay, Chef-Boutonne, Deux-Sèvres


French Village Diaries cycling adventures advent postcard Javarzay Chef-Boutonne Deux-Sèvres
Advent postcard, Javarzay, Deux-Sèvres

Advent day eighteen

It wasn’t just the under tens in our village who got an early Christmas gift from Père Noël yesterday, we had our own reason to celebrate as Adrian’s mum was visiting for a long weekend. This is her first trip to France since 2019 and as we won’t be travelling to the UK this Christmas, we made the most of being able to have an early family celebration.


It was a busy weekend, taking in the Christmas market and lights in Poitiers on Saturday and taking her on a guided visit of Chef-Boutonne and Javarzay on Sunday afternoon. The Château de Javarzay may not be open, but we peered in the windows and had a good wander of the grounds, the lavoirs (wash houses), churches and the Boutonne river – which I’ve never seen so flooded. The sluice gates were all open and the power and speed of the water cascading through was mesmerising, and so very different from the gentle stream I’m used to seeing at work all summer. There is a mark on the wall of one lavoir showing the height of the flooding in 1982 and the water levels are currently only a few centimetres lower, with most of the features of the lavoir under water. 


Wanting to remember the heat of the summer, I’ve picked some sunny photos for my advent postcard today, with blue skies, pretty flowers and the golden hew of the stonework. 

We returned home with fresh faces for hot chocolate and homemade mincepies and later tucked into our version of a Christmas Day dinner. There was turkey, braised red cabbage, sprouts and other seasonal vegetables, but served as a risotto with side dishes. I’m not one to do things by the rules and as you can see, all plates were empty, so it went down well and was so much less hassle than a roast dinner.

French Village Diaries cycling adventures advent postcard Javarzay Chef-Boutonne Deux-Sèvres
An early family Christmas meal - the posed selfie

French Village Diaries cycling adventures advent postcard Javarzay Chef-Boutonne Deux-Sèvres
An early family Christmas meal - the empty plates


Sunday, December 17, 2023

Advent postcards, Père Noël visits our village

French Village Diaries advent postcards Père Noël
Advent postcard, Père Noël visits our village

Advent day seventeen

Today’s cycling advent-ures postcard is from our village. Today is one of my favourite volunteering days of the year – the day Père Noël visits every child aged ten and under.


A few weeks ago, a small team of us visited a local toy shop to buy the thirty-seven gifts, which were wrapped and delivered to the village by their staff. 


Two days ago, we all met up to decorate the commune’s white van and convert it into a mobile grotto for Père and Mère Noël.


This afternoon, our little convoy of me and my decorated Brompton, a car with a sound system blaring out Christmas tunes, and the mobile grotto made our way slowly around the village spreading smiles. So many happy small people, faces alight when they heard us arrive and parents wishing us a happy Christmas and thanking us. It was a great way to spend a few hours. 

Saturday, December 16, 2023

Advent postcards, Villemain Deux-Sèvres

French Village Diaries cycling adventures Advent postcard Villemain Deux-Sèvres Ferme Georgelet
Advent postcard, Villemain, Deux-Sèvres

Advent day sixteen

Today’s cycling advent-ures postcard is from the tiny village of Villemain, a mere three kilometres from our home. It is neatly tucked into the French countryside, so it’s not even somewhere you would drive through on your way to somewhere else. 


We will often set off on one of our quick ten-kilometre bike ride loops that take us through Villemain. Sometimes the route finishes with Villemain and then a whizzing downhill back home. Other times it starts with a gentle incline past goat and cow farms before a real leg and lung stretcher as we climb into the woods on the ridge.


If you do find yourself there, I think there are a few reasons to stop and take a moment. The first is the village war memorial. Rather than a sculptured rectangular memorial depicting the names of those lost, Villemain's is a statue of a French soldier painted in the palest blue uniform. Set on a plinth behind iron railings, it is always bedecked with flags for Victory in Europe Day on 8th May and for Remembrance Day on 11th November.


The second reason to stop is the Georgelet goat cheese farm. Any award-winning cheese farm whose cheeses are shipped all over France is worth a detour in my book, and they win gold medals most years at the national agricultural shows. They make a variety of the local speciality goat cheeses including Le Mothais sur Feuille which comes wrapped in a chestnut leaf and the pyramid shaped Chabichou de Poitou. Twice a week the farm shop is open, selling local produce as well as their cheese, but we can also stock up at the Saturday morning market in Chef-Boutonne, which is exactly what we did today, so that’s one bit of my Christmas shopping finished.


Friday, December 15, 2023

Advent postcards, La Faye, Charente


French Village Diaries cycling adventures advent postcard La Faye Charente
Advent postcard, La Faye, Charente

Advent day 15

We are not travelling too far from home for today’s cycling advent-ures postcard, but it’s still a village with a story to tell.


La Faye, situated just under five kilometres from Ruffec is somewhere that holds special memories for us as it has become our tradition to spend Christmas Day lunch there. We wrap up warmly, pack our posh picnic and cycle to La Faye, where there is the most perfect of picnic spots. The sturdy table is not just under cover but is also protected on two sides by the renovated village bread oven. The spire of the church surveys the scene and there is even a toilet in the car park and a baguette vending machine for our fresh bread. We couldn’t really ask for more, but this year the commune have dug a pond next to the bread oven, so we might even get ducks to feed this Christmas.


This September we made another visit to La Faye, in the footsteps once again of my favourite French industrialist Jean-François Cail. It seemed rather bizarre that we had travelled hundreds of kilometres to visit his iron railway bridge in Moulins, but we’d never seen the agricultural domaine he set up near Ruffec in 1853. Despite having left the area as a teenager and made his fortune in Paris and the north of France, he retired to La Faye and its impressive manor house, situated only twenty kilometres from where he was born in Chef-Boutonne (in 1804).


He chose the land as he could easily make the journey by train from Paris to Ruffec and although the soil and the buildings were in a poor state when he bought them, he expanded the farm from 160 ha to 308 ha. He radically moved away from traditional cereals and the crops to feed cattle, planting beets and installing a distillery to turn them into alcohol, something that would have been a risky decision in an area so close to Cognac. He died at La Faye in 1871. 

The farm might have changed radically in the last hundred and fifty-two years, but some of the farm buildings and the manor house are still there. It seemed fitting to pause for a moment before continuing on 112km birthday bike ride.

Thursday, December 14, 2023

Advent postcards, Saint-Sauvant, Charente-Maritime

French Village Diaries cycling adventures Advent postcard Saint-Sauvant Charente-Maritime
Advent postcard, Saint-Sauvant, Charente-Maritime

Advent day fourteen

Today’s cycling advent-ures postcard is from another characterful village we crossed paths with while looking for a pretty spot to rest and refuel. We had left Saintes, an impressive town on the banks of the Charente River, where vestiges of Roman life were all around, and were returning home on what would be an 86km cycle ride. 


It already felt like an adventure as we’d found a chain ferry to cross the Charente at Chaniers, which is so much more exciting than a bridge. A few kilometres later we arrived in Saint-Sauvant, a “Petite Cité de Caractère” in the Charente Maritime. This label is a way for small towns and villages to get recognition for their work to not only preserve the buildings that are part of their heritage, but also for their cultural events throughout the year that engage the local community and bring in the tourists.


Saint-Sauvant might be small, but its steep cobbled streets rising from the rivers Coran and Pidou, were begging to be explored, even if I did end up pushing the bike in places. The first thing to catch my eye was the medieval square tower that looked a little sorry for itself with a fig tree growing out of the crenelations at the top. My Petites Cités de Caractère guidebook tells me that it dates from the 14th and 15th centuries and was a prison until 1870. We had to demonstrate the folds of our bikes here for some French camping car tourists who had been eyeing us up since the lavoir at the bottom of the village. This is something we find ourselves doing at least once on a long-distance ride as most people can’t understand how something with such little wheels (and no electric assist), can carry us and our luggage all day, and fold so neatly.


Our next stop was the church of Saint-Sylvain, a lovely example of the 12th century Romanesque architecture that you see a lot of in this area, but with its square tower dominating the skyline, this one was particularly impressive. We found our bench and tucked into a snack before following the Coran Valley cycle route towards Saint-Césaire. It wasn’t until we’d arrived home that I realised Saint-Sauvant has a Terra Aventura treasure hunt we’d missed – but at least that gives me a good excuse to return.


Wednesday, December 13, 2023

Advent postcards, Souvigny Allier

French Village Diaries cycling adventures advent postcard Souvigny Allier
Advent postcard, Souvigny, Allier

Advent day thirteen

Today’s cycling advent-ures postcard is from Souvigny in the Allier department, a lunchtime rest stop for us as we cycled from Moulins back to Noyant-d’Allier. I can’t tell you much about Souvigny, but I couldn’t miss it out from my advent postcards as it truly was picture postcard perfect.


The sun was shining, we wandered deserted cobbled streets with creamy stone buildings and took in what is left of the château, before finding a shady bench to have our picnic lunch. Luckily for us, this gave us views of the impressive façade of the church as well as the shops with their ancient painted fronts, all under a blue sky. Souvigny was central to the Bourbon family and is also an important religious town thanks to the discovery of not one but two saints tombs. Saint Mayeul and Saint Odilon were both abbots at the monastery at Cluny over a thousand years ago. It isn’t quite on the direct Vézelay pilgrimage route, but many pilgrims make a detour here and I have to say, I’m in agreement with them. Souvigny is 100% worth a detour. 

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Advent postcards, Cenon-sur-Vienne


French Village Diaries cycling adventures Advent postcard Cenon-sur-Vienne
Advent postcard, Cenon-sur-Vienne

Advent day twelve

Today’s cycling advent-ures postcard is from just outside the village of Cenon-sur-Vienne, at the confluence of the mighty Vienne and the river Clain, whose valley we had been cycling through north of Poitiers last weekend


It is hardly surprising I’ve found a watery theme to today’s post, as the rain continues to pour down there is little else on my mind. In the space of two months, we’ve gone from a worryingly low water table that necessitated water restrictions coming into place on 13th October, to most of the west of France now a soggy mess. Drainage ditches at the edge of roads are flowing like rivers, fields have become lakes as the water tries in vain to drain into the ditches, and the rainwater drains in the village are gurgling and bubbling high like a water feature fountain. 28% of French departments now have water tables full to a very high level and only 11% are showing as very low. How can a situation swing so drastically, in such a short space of time? The Jet Stream. It seems to have shifted and got itself stuck further south than usual, and the resulting low pressure over the Atlantic is the cause for our seemingly endless rain.


We struck lucky three times on Sunday morning. Firstly, the rain didn’t start until we were back at the car after a 36km bike ride and a picnic lunch with views of the Château de Dissay, plus we had two lucky discoveries on the bike ride, both just outside the small Vienne town of Cenon-sur-Vienne.


The first thing we stumbled upon that put a smile on my face was the archaeological site of Vieux-Poitiers (Old Poitiers), on the road between Naintré and Cenon. Here, where the Roman town of Briva once stood, a ruined tower is all that remains from an amphitheatre that once held ten thousand people. The fact that it is also on the Chemins de Saint-Jacques pilgrimage route, just made me fall in love even more. Situated on a triangle of land that is protected on two sides by the two rivers, that also offered fishing and trade routes, you can see why this was an important position two thousand years ago.


Our route continued up the triangle to stand at the confluence of the Clain and the Vienne rivers. It was rather appropriate to find ourselves here as we finished our twelve months of mini-cycling adventures to celebrate our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. In 1998, our main criteria for our wedding venue was that it had to be on the river Thames. We were both born by the Thames, worked in London, and often met for lunchtime walks along the river and decided upon Henley-on Thames for our wedding. It was a special feeling at having achieved our 25th anniversary challenge, where we have managed twenty-three nights away this year and cycled 1864 kilometres, and standing by these rivers, inspiration struck for another cycling adventure for 2024.

Monday, December 11, 2023

Advent postcards, Bellevue, Pays Mellois, Deux-Sèvres

French Village Diaries cycling adventures Advent postcard Prailles Bellevue Pays Mellois Deux-Sèvres
Advent postcard, Bellevue, Deux-Sèvres


Advent day eleven

Today’s cycling advent-ures postcard is from the abandoned village of Bellevue, a surprise find in the middle of some woods in the Lambon valley. 


We were out for the day, on our bikes, ticking off the Terra Aventura circuits in Celle-sur-Belle and Prailles, near Lac du Lambon in the Deux-Sèvres. The theme of the Prailles course was Resistance but it had nothing to do with The Occupation during World War Two. This area of the Pays Mellois was an important stronghold for the Protestants during the religious wars in France five hundred years ago. Forced to meet in secret, they were adept at hiding their faith from the authorities and there are many signs still visible today that show how they resisted against the Catholics. There is also a local museum dedicated to their story, that is on my list of places to visit next year.


What began as a cycle ride along quiet rural lanes lined with fields and vineyards, changed abruptly as we turned onto a narrow track at the edge of a field, and descended into a wood. We followed the map and clues, and soon ended up deep in a forested valley with no other signs of life aside from the birdsong. It was a real adventure, although rather tricky manoeuvring the bikes over the stones, roots and logs in the pathway. As we reached the river Lambon, it was one surprise after another. First the ruined stone walls of houses from the abandoned village of Bellevue came into view, now mostly consumed by the foliage of the forest, and then a medieval stone bridge appeared (and I do love an ancient cobbled bridge). If it hadn’t been for the handy information panels explaining the plight of the Protestants and illustrating rural life over the ages, it would have felt like we’d become lost in a forgotten world.


You can find more information on this 5.5km walk on the tourist office website here. I’d definitely recommend it, but it’s probably better to do it on foot, in dry weather, rather than attempt it on bikes.


Book review This Christmas in Paris by Sophie Claire

French Village Diaries book review This Christmas in Paris Sophie Claire
This Christmas in Paris by Sophie Claire

This Christmas in Paris by Sophie Claire

What could be more magical than Christmas in Paris? 


When Carys is offered the chance to run a little French café, she leaps at the chance to discover an exciting city where she can dream big. Meanwhile, struggling journalist Mat is living in the City of Love - but he's never found romance himself. Then, a chance encounter changes everything, and it feels like the start of something wonderful. But Carys and Mat are both keeping secrets . . . Can they open their hearts to one another - and maybe even find love, just in time for Christmas?


This Christmas in Paris is the perfect festive read for fans of Cathy Bramley, Jo Thomas and Heidi Swain.

French Village Diaries book review This Christmas in Paris Sophie Claire
This Christmas in Paris by Sophie Claire


My Review

I always look forward to a Christmas romance from Sophie Claire and in This Christmas in Paris, we follow Carys, who made a brief appearance in A Winter’s Dream.


Carys is escaping. Much as she loves the village of Willowbrook, following a serious car accident, she feels the only way to escape people treating her differently is to make a new start in a new place. The opportunity to run a quirky café in Paris is too good not to jump at with enthusiasm, even if she has more of that than experience. As she faces the challenges of staffing issues, customer numbers and rolling out her fresh ideas at the café, what she hadn’t expected to feel in the city, was loneliness. A chance meeting in a park, that leads to a friendship with Mat, is the perfect antidote to the stresses of work.


Journalist Mat is not happy. His job is thankless and getting him nowhere, but he too has a plan B, a secret persona whose reputation around Paris is growing rapidly and could be the start of a bright new future – a future he would love to share with Carys.


Mat and Carys decide to keep their work lives out of their weekly Sunday meetings, which was both cautious and romantic, until it had huge consequences. As a fan of the Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan film “You’ve Got Mail” I was thoroughly entertained by the similarities and references made to it during this book. The ups and downs in both their work and social life kept me turning the pages as I tried to guess how things would pan out for them both and if they could ever find a happy ever after.


Written with a lot of humour and some heart-tugging emotions, it was great to be back in a Sophie Claire book, set in Paris, with a festive feel. Pour yourself a hot chocolate and enjoy this book, served with the French patisserie of your choice.


You can read my reviews of Sophie’s other novels here:

A Winter’s Dream

The Christmas Holiday

An Escape to Provence

Summer at the French Olive Grove

A Forget-me-not Summer


Purchase Links 


Author Bio 


Sophie Claire, born to a French mother and Scottish father, grew up in Manchester where she still lives with her husband and two sons.


She writes stories centred around France, where she spent her summers as a child.


Social Media Links





Sunday, December 10, 2023

Advent postcards, Noyant-d'Allier


French Village Diaries cycling adventures Advent postcard Noyant-d'Allier
Advent postcards, Noyant-d'Allier

Advent day ten

Today’s cycling advent-ures postcard is from a small village in the Allier department we stumbled across on our two-centre cycling trip at the end of August. We spent two nights in Clermont-Ferrand and exploring the Puy de Dôme, before moving on for one night in Moulins, in the Allier department. Adrian found the village of Noyant-d’Allier, a handy thirty kilometres from Moulins, that looked a perfect spot to park the car overnight, as we unfolded the bikes and let them lead us on our adventure. 


Moulins was all I’d hoped it would be, and more, as it is home to the only surviving metal railway bridge built by Jean-François Cail. Regular readers will remember he was born in Chef-Boutonne and part of the museum at the Château de Javarzay is dedicated to his remarkable life – but more about our Moulins visit in another blog. Noyant-d’Allier is the star of today’s post. 


What seemed to be a standard, sleepy French village, which we’d found to be rather lacking in picnic tables, was actually hiding a huge secret that we discovered when we returned to the car, thinking our August adventure was over. We had already learned that coal mining had been important in the area, and noticed they had a small mining museum with some impressive steam trains, but it was following signs to the “Pagode” that left a lasting memory. Tucked away at the end of a residential road is a Buddhist temple, and the first thing that caught my eye was the nine-metre-high golden meditating Buddha, followed by the nine-metre-long white reclining Buddha. It felt like we had been transported a long way away from a rural mining village in France. Luckily there was an information panel explaining all (Adrian will tell you that I do love an information panel).


The coal mine had been a major employer from the middle of the 19th century until the end of World War Two, when it was fully closed in 1943. Many people left the area, so from the mid 1950’s the empty housing was used to home the refuges displaced from the French war in Indochina (Vietnam). They remained and have become an integral part in the local area, so in 1983 work began on building them a Buddhist temple, set in a park where statues illustrate the different stages of the life of Buddha, as well as a mausoleum and a garden of remembrance. I felt so lucky to have stumbled upon such a peaceful and beautiful place and was honoured to have spent a few moments wandering around.


If you are ever in the Allier department, do go and visit.


Saturday, December 9, 2023

Advent postcards, Dissay and the Clain, Vienne

French Village Diaries cycling adventures Advent postcard Dissay Vienne
Advent postcards, Dissay, Vienne

Advent day nine 

Today’s cycling advent-ures postcard is from our cycling themed few days in the Vienne, and with a special mention to the river Clain and the small town of Dissay.


We were in the area to spend the day with the Vienne based UCI Women’s world professional cycling team, FDJ-Suez, who were putting on a bit of a show to launch their 2024 season. As well as a meet and greet the athletes, we had the chance to cycle alongside them and enjoy the Grand Départ spectacle in the evening. A good time was had by all, even if the weather wasn’t exactly joining in the celebratory mood.  

You have no idea how excited I was to realise our accommodation was just a few kilometres from Dissay that is home to one of the most beautiful Renaissance châteaux I’ve seen. We made good use of the sunshine on the Friday to get the bikes out and explore, enjoying the autumn colours that had clung on into December. Our first stop, naturally, was Dissay to take in the magnificence of these towers, turrets, crenelations and more. It even has a real moat with a little arched bridge crossing it and a formal parterre garden at the rear. This château dates back to the 15th century and was built by Pierre d’Amboise, the Bishop of Poitiers. It was used as a residence for bishops up until the Revolution and is now a spa hotel and restaurant, although sadly a little above our budget. I have to admit I had a little bit of château envy. 

French Village Diaries cycling adventures Advent postcard Dissay Vienne FDJ-Suez le Grand Départ 2024
FDJ-Suez women's pro world tour team for 2024

Friday, December 8, 2023

Advent postcards, Aulnay Charente-Maritime


French Village Diaries cycling adventures Advent postcard Aulnay Charente-Maritime
Advent postcards, Aulnay, Charente-Maritime

Advent day eight

The jet stream has once again turned on us, bringing wild, wet and windy weather this weekend. We did have exciting cycling plans, but for the moment, it looks like we’ll have to take a rain check in the morning – keep your fingers crossed please. At least I can look back on our summer fun and remember that wonderful feeling of the heat of the sun on my skin.


Aulnay, in the Charente-Maritime has been an important stop for pilgrims on the Chemins de Saint Jacques de Compostelle for hundreds of years and a special place for us since our first St Jean d’Angeley 100km-day cycle route in 2017. There is something quite magical about reaching Aulnay and the last twenty kilometres of the day.


This year Aulnay has featured twice on our cycling calendar. As well as being our last cake-break and offering cool shady grass to lay down on, with a view of the impressive church spire, on our 100km a day, it was also a cycle ride destination to explore it more on a Terra Aventura adventure. This, once again, took us to hidden places we’ve missed, and pointed out so much more details than we’d noticed despite many years of cycling here.


The church of St Pierre dates from the 12th Century and is a beauty. The spire draws you in from many kilometres out, and once you stand underneath the enormous carvings on the arched doorways, there is so much to see, one visit isn’t enough to appreciate it all.


I can’t wait to return to Aulnay next year, celebrating not only turning 53 but ten years of birthday 100kms-in-a day-bike rides.  

Thursday, December 7, 2023

Advent postcards, Rom Deux-Sèvres

French Village Diaries cycling adventures Advent postcard Rom Deux-Sèvres
Advent postcards, Rom, Deux-Sèvres

Advent day seven

Today for our cycling advent-ures postcard we are staying in our home department of the Deux-Sèvres and visiting the village of Rom. This is one of the most interesting villages we have revisited this year, as there was so much more to discover than we’d imagined. We had previously visited the cemetery where there are thirty Commonwealth War graves, mostly RAF Special Air Servicemen who lost their lives on 7th July 1944 during Operation Bulbasket. It is a sobering and moving place to visit and the RAF lay blue wreaths in September every year in remembrance.


Working in a museum, I decided that this year I needed to visit some of the other tourist sites locally, so when our visitors ask for information on things to see, I can do more than hand out a leaflet. We started our visit at the church, with its interesting stone tombs and painted chapels, but it was the Rauranum museum next door that we had really come to see, and it turned out to be the star of the visit.


Rom might be just a small rural village now, but two thousand years ago it was a major stage post along the Roman road that ran from Poitiers to Saintes. Rauranum was a vibrant place, home to around four thousand people and with visitors from all over Europe and north Africa. It was equipped with all the facilities you’d expect from an important Roman town and the remains of the stables and baths can be seen as you wander around the village. We visited the museum on a Sunday afternoon and were lucky enough to have it to ourselves. It might not be the biggest museum in France, but there a vast display of the artifacts found locally, and we also learned so much about the Roman history in the area. It is certainly somewhere I can now enthusiastically recommend to local tourists.