Finally! I’ve managed to find time to set up this blog as a self-hosted WordPress site; a task that’s been on my to-do list more or less since I started it up on the free platform. You can find it here: https://www.aleapintothevoid.com
I’ve been playing with the layout and the template and there will be more changes to come. That means I’m no longer updating this one.
Here’s a link to my latest post, about DS starting at maternelle.
Click on the image to see the full article – and the new blog! Do you like it?
If you’re living in France and have been here more than six months, you’re legally obliged to swap your UK license for a French one. I’d say that’s a little known fact. Most people don’t bother and while I’ve heard that that’s not usually a problem (and not something the gendarmes pulled me up on when I was stopped a few months back) it is a requirement, so could cause problems. So how to go about it?
The process of transferring your non-French license to a French one is actually pretty straight forward. The only complication, as with all things French, is collating all the paperwork involved and filling out the forms.
Along with the two completed forms you also need the following paperwork.
A double-sided colour copy of your current driving licence
Proof of identity, such as a copy of your passport or other ID card.
Proof of residence, such as an Attestation de Domicile, which you can get from your local mairie, or a carte de sejour.
If you are European, Swiss or Monegasque you must also provide proof that you have been resident in France for at least 6 months. Examples of this include a rental contract, employment contract, avis d’impôt, etc.
If you are not a European citizen, you must provide your residence permit or the Ofii sticker affixed to your passport.
You need three photos, two of which you are required to attach to the Cerfa forms.
If you live in the departments of Corse du Sud, Haute-Corse, Réunion, Guyane, Martinique, Mayotte, a cheque for the amount of the regional tax payable; otherwise no payment is needed.
In order to receive your license you must include one of the pink pre-stamped 50g prêt à poster lettre suivie envelopes (available from your local La Poste) labelled with your name and address.
So, what about these forms.
Completing the Paperwork
As with so many French forms, there are a lot of boxes and it looks intimidating, but it’s actually fairly straight forward and standard stuff of an official document.
Give your surname (nom) and first name (prenom), address, etc.
Then there are the two extra fields common to all French administrative document:
Fait à is for the name of the town you are when signing; and,
le is the date.
For example, if you’re in Carccasone on 18th August 2018 you’d write:
Fait à Carcassone, le 18/08/2018
The lower part of the form is only necessary if a legal guardian or representative is completing the form on your behalf. In which case the information required is almost identical to that required in the first part of the form but with the other person’s details.
Attach your photograph to the space provided, and it’s ready.
Next, Cerfa 14879*01.
This it the one where you need to provide details from your current non-French license.
First select from one of the following:
Échange d’un permis délivré par un État appartenant à l’UE ou l’EEE Select this if you are a resident of an EU country.
Échange d’un permis délivré par une collectivité d’Outre-mer ou par la Nouvelle-Calédonie Select this if you are a resident of French overseas territory or New Caledonia
Échange d’un permis délivré par un État n’appartenant ni à l’UE, ni à l’EEE, ni à une collectivité d’Outre-mer ni à la Nouvelle-Calédonie
Select this option if you are none of the above.
Nationalié(s) au moment de lóbtention du permis is your nationality at the time your current license was issued. For me that means English (anglaise).
Nationalité(s) atuelle(s) is your current nationality. That’s English (anglaise) again for me as this hasn’t changed since my license was issued.
État de délivrance du titre à échanger means the country that issued your license.
Date dóbtention ou de deliverance means the date your current license expires.
No du permis de conduire is your current driving license’s number. On the UK license this is a long number starting with alphanumeric characters taken from your surname. It can be found on your driving license. On the UK card license it’s the field numbered 5.
The rest of the form involves completing the vehicle categories. When I first looked at this and compared it to my paper license my heart sank because there was no correlation. Then I flipped the card license over and, hey presto! There is a very similar looking table with matching categories. Copy them over one by one. The first columns are for the start dates and the second column for the end dates, with jour, mois, and année the day (e.g., 01), month (e.g., 02) and year.
This is annual event put on by the MJC in Puivert – a celebration of the Winter solstice and the return of the light. This year it took place on the 19th December – a while ago now, which is why it’s beyond time to publish this post. I love that the French (at least, locally) celebrate these pagan festivals. It says much of their connection with nature, which there is so much of compared the UK, and may also be something to do with the fact that they are (apparently) known as a nation of farmers – vs. Brits, which are said to be (by the French) a nation of shopkeepers!
The event itself is usually preceded by two or three afternoons of lantern making. Despite our best intentions these sesssions, just like last year, so once again we ended up hastily DIY-ing some lanterns at home on the weekend before the festival. Wanting to improve on our efforts of the previous year we tried doing it properly, which meant sticks and tape, PVA glue and tissue paper, except we used crepe paper, which really didn’t work as well. That aside, we ended up with passable lanterns and also had last year’s at hand as backup.
On the night of the fête, the event starts in the halle opposite the post office where everyone gathers to light their lanterns. Usually there is some sort of introduction with traditional songs, music, and then a procession from the village to the lakes. This is the highlight for me, but this year we missed it, unfortunately – so no photos other than those of us making our solitary walk along the same route a short while later. There some nice photographs on the MJC’s website which are worth a look.
After the short walk everyone gathers at the lake, where there is a buvette selling refreshments (vin chaud, chocolat chaud, and cakes) and a fire pit. Usually the organisers hand out Chinese lanterns that are lit altogether and sent off into the sky — a beautiful sight, if not a little concerning on the environmental front, but no forest fires were started, as far as I know.
This year, after the procession and the lantern-lighting – there was a spectacle centred around the lake, with an illuminated unicorn boat approaching the beach, with the dame blanche waving a torch bearer as he waded through the water to the short, delivering the light for the coming year (I presume that was the symbolism of it.) The dame blanche is a European and American legend (more about this on Wikipedia) as well as local one, as it is said that she haunts the ruined castle in Puivert, as she also does many other ruins across Europe. Despite being dead, she’s a busy woman!
Alongside the spectacle (which was hard to follow because DD kept trying to run off with her friends – a nightmare to keep up with in the dark!) there was music, a large open fire pit, and – later – some fire dancing and drumming. Both times we’ve been we missed the later goings on as it ends up being too late for the little ones, and often too cold too. We were lucky this year that it was a relatively mild night but still by 7pm they were ready to go home. So home we went.
Next year we will have to make sure we make it in time to the procession and the Chinese lantern lighting, since I think (with children in tow) that’s the nicest part of the event. We just need to be more organised – and also to say no to waiting for friends. (James’s idea. I’m over it.) One day we’ll be able to go with children capable of not getting lost, falling into the cold water, or being abducted by strangers, and then I hope to enjoy the evening a little more. For any parents of older children (or generally of a more relaxed disposition) or sans enfants, it’s a lovely evening, I’m sure!
As an aside, I’m always struck by the magnificent flyers for these local events, and this one is no exception. If you like them too, head over to www.angela-design.fr to see more of her work.
It’s December. It’s definitely colder than summer, but compared to our two previous years here so far winter is shaping up to be a much milder – and therefore, more enjoyable, winter. We’ve got sunshine most days, which is great and means we’re burning our way through the wood pile at a much slower pace.
One of the most amazing things – to me at least – about this time of year in France, is the way that things keep on growing, which I suppose, if you think that winter temperatures here are more like Spring temperatures in the UK, makes sense. So what’s growing?
Well, we have onions making light work of it in the veggie patch. We’re planning to extend the patch onto another piece of land next year so I decided to plant up the neighbour’s garden with easy to grow stuff that will overwinter. I’ve also set aside an area for hardwood cuttings, so have a row of redcurrants and blackcurrants, and another of hazel.
Talking to a neighbour and reading in the Gardening with the Moon calendar (I have the diary version, called Jardiner avec la Lune), it seemed that November was a good month to sew peas and broad beans, so that’s what I did. My neighbour is very keen on permaculture, as am I, but I think it means slightly different things to each of us. She’s a bit obsessed with hummus at the moment. So after I cleared an area of the veggie patch and created a fleece tunnel, ready for planting the broad beans and peas, and showed it to her, she turned her nose up and suggested something a little less organised. So now I have broad beans in the tunnel and others stuck into the ground and marked with sticks. It’s game on. We’ll see which ones come up first and do best. While I think it’s a lovely idea to have a wild vegetable garden, there are advantages to having a dedicated patch. One being aerated soil. I’ll make sure to mulch the area designated to the wild bean patch, because without that those plants are going to struggle, for sure.
What else? Oh yes – flowers. It’s December now, remember. Two days after the shortest day, no less, and yes, there are still flowers.
The bed outside the front of the house, which gets hardly any direct sunlight at this time of year, has a nasturtium there going great guns. I planted some seeds in Spring and they’ve self-seeded three times since then.
Then there are the marigolds. At the front of the house they’re up against the wall, so as good as in deep shade. They barely get any light at all except for first thing in the morning for an hour, max, but still they grow and flower. It’s remarkable!
Roses are still growing too. I was never a fan of roses in the UK. There was always something stuffy about Rose Gardens, not least all the space waster around them! but here the roses are something else. The varieties I’ve seen – and smelled – locally are so vigorous, with stunning colours and strong scents. Quite different from many of the more ornamental varieties that I think dominate the UK. I like them so much I’ll be adding them to my garden, when I finally get one.
Other plants on my cuttings list include buddleja (there’s one on the way to the village), rosemary, lavender, and kiwi. The last three of those are best done in the spring. For the buddleja I just need to remember my secateurs when I’m walking past next time!
Food wise, we are still overflowing with the chard that came up all over the garden, a remnant from the previous green-fingered tenant. It’s very welcome at this time of year, so handy to be able to nip around the corner and come back with an armful of fresh greens. Another one for the permanent patch, when we get to it.
A few months ago I attended a networking meeting and met someone who works for DeVere, a financial services company that provides pensions and insurance products to expats around the world. He talked to me about a scheme called QROPS, which I hadn’t heard about before. I invited him around to talk me through it. I wanted to find out as much as I could and, to be fair to him, I was already a “cold lead” in that I had virtually no intention of signing up, just a curiosity to find out as much as I could about QROPS as a jumping off point for more research. I’m not an idiot and wasn’t about to sign my entire pension over to someone I had just met, however friendly and obliging they seemed.
After that meeting, in which the rep (sorry, “employee”) was very helpful I contacted my UK IFA to ask for his take. Unfortunately, because he’s not qualified or licensed on non-UK products, he had no advice and couldn’t help. Nor could he suggest anyone else would could help. Bummer.
In the meantime I managed to find out a bit about QROPS. I learned that is a real thing and it, as I was told, an HMRC scheme. So far so good. But after that it gets complicated. The more time I spent trying to find out about QROPS and the more nervous I became. I decided the only way forward was to find someone else who could give me some advice and for this I took to the internet.
There are many expat forums so I posted on a couple of those asking for the recommendations of an independent financial adviser, by which I meant an IFA as we know them in the UK. All through this what was bugging me was that the independent moniker was being bandied around with no obvious independence. I got lots of recommendations for people representing DeVere (there are about three names that tend to come up) and also Spectrum. I had a look at Spectrum and while they do look a bit more independent than I would say DeVere is, I found an article by an ex-UK IFA criticising their narrow portfolio and arguing that in his opinion this meant they weren’t truly independent. The other concern was that if they’re not properly registered, then they don’t have the proper insurance and aren’t strictly liable for giving bad advice. There are some real horror stories out there. Google anything to do with expat pensions (DeVere in particular) and the results aren’t not pretty!
Getting nowhere, I checked in with a friend who does admin about how I might find someone who is qualified, regulated, and insured and she recommended I find someone registered as a Conseiller en investissement financier (CIF), of which there are three sub-groups:
Association Nationale des Conseils Financiers (ANACOFI-CIF)
Chambre Nationale des Conseils en Gestion de Patrimoine (CNCGP)
La Chambre Nationale des Conseillers en Investissements Financiers (CNCIF)
She also recommended a website, Orias, which has a list of each of the advisers registered under each of those regimes – and she advised that CNCIF was the one to go for.
I searched for the name of the guy I’d spoken to and nothing came up.
Then I found the regulatory blurb on the DeVere site, which gave the company SIREN number and stated that they are ANACOFI-CIF registered. So I looked that up and it looks like the manager of the France branch is registered. The info for that is here. I’m not sure how it works if a company is registered and whether that means the people who work for it are also qualified? My understanding is than an IFA is someone who is not recommending specific products from a specific company. My concern with this being if I took advice from someone saying they’re an IFA and that advice turns out to be bad, who is liable if my investment advice was bad and I ended up losing all my money. Or even just half of it!?
Still no further on I enquired again online and was recommended a couple of other firms – Spectrum IFA being one that came up again – but these looked no different to DeVere. I wasn’t getting anywhere.
I posted again on a different forum and was again contacted by someone employed by DeVere. This time a she who said had been an IFA in the UK. So I looked her up and couldn’t find her registered in the UK but did see (she was easy enough to find on LinkedIn) was that she had been employed as a financial adviser for two insurance companies in the UK. So a financial adviser, yes, but is that the same as a an independent financial adviser? I’m not entirely sure.
I quizzed her about it about her credentials and she said that anyone qualified to practise would be qualified as an European Financial Adviser (EFA), which means they have a diploma awarded by the The Personal Financial Society (PFS) in the UK. Apparently an EFA is accredited by the European Financial Planning Association (EFPA). I searched the list of certified practitioners on both sites and didn’t find the names of either of the people I’d spoken to. Was this diploma issued by DeVere then? From past experience I know anyone can set up an organisation and start chucking diplomas about so this was really just more new info that didn’t tell me anything.
So I asked this same person how I would check who is registered and who isn’t. This was a bit cheeky really because I already knew that the person I was talking to wasn’t registered, at least not individually, because I’d searched the Orias database as well as the PFS and EFPA lists for them both. So while the manager of the France office was registered (or at least, the company set up with him in charge was registered) these individuals were not, and I would have expected that as real IFAs they would be.
I’m still not clear on it, to be honest. I really have tried to work it out but I’m not convinced or reassured and that’s all the info I need to convince me that I haven’t met anyone whose advice I trusted enough to make an enormous financial decision like moving my UK-based pension to a QROPS scheme. So that was the end of that. For me. Maybe there’s nothing dodgy about it, maybe it’s all a house of cards about to collapse, but I’m about 20 years away from drawing a pension and that’s a lot of time in which things might change. It’s a decision not to be taken lightly on the back of a couple of meetings an 8-page printout!
For now the pension will just have to stay put.
If you are approached by anyone about financial advice the best thing to do is to check that the person you are talking to is qualified to give that advice. Being qualified is important because then they are also insured – which means if the advice they give is BS you can sue them for damages in future!
Well, maybe it wasn’t that good, but for me, getting out on my bike to ride an event I’ve had my eye on since we came on holiday here 4 years ago, it was great!
The event was the VTT Ronde 3 Quilles, an annual event with three routes of 15km, 30k, or 45km, in the hills and fields around the town of Quillan in the Aude region of France. This place really is a haven for anyone who loves cross-country mountain biking and also benefits from being only a stones-throw from some world-class downhill trails too, such as those at Axe-les-Thermes and others at Font Romeu.
Since leaving the UK my mountain bike hasn’t had much trail love. Actually, that’s been true for the best part of 5 years, pretty much since DD arrived. I’ve had a few rides here and there and, if I was still in the UK I’d like to think I was back out hanging with my bike buddies again, at least for the odd ride, but those friends were built up over time and at a time when I had nothing else to do but ride. In a new country making new friends takes time of course, so mostly it’s just me.
Anyway, on the day of the ride DS woke at 6am, his new regular wake-up time, after a busy day and a late night the day before (we’d been to visit friends on the coast so were out all day and only got in at 9.30) I was tired and feeling rough. I’d been planning this ride for a while though (4 years, I suppose) and as I was sitting there with DS, trying to keep him entertained and quiet, I decided just to look up the registration time and see how feasible it was for everyone to come along, as planned. The whole idea was that we’d all go to the lake then I’d go off on the ride for as long as it took while James hung about in the park with DS and DD. That way there was no rushing around.
I checked the schedule online. This being a French event it took me nearly half an hour to find these useful details, which meant that if I was going to get there when registration opened I only had another 30 minutes. Was I, wasn’t I? Fuck it – yes, I was.
I called up the stairs to announce that I needed to leave in 20 minutes for the ride and that I assumed everyone would be staying put. Yes, James confirmed (still in bed, you see) , they wouldn’t be coming along. After a mad dash to get ready, ignoring James’s passive-aggressive appeals to make me stay (he had a cold), my bike was loaded into the car and I was off. Brilliant! I probably could have stayed a while longer and left in less of a rush but this was the first event I’d ridden in France and I wasn’t sure how it worked, with registration, start times, etc and I didn’t want to be late!
Arriving at the park it was very exciting to see that the car park was already full. Obviously lots of people had already set off! I headed to the registration tent clutching my fee (11 euros), excited about the whole thing. Registration was easy enough – just my name, address, age, etc. – then I was handed the laminated event card (it wasn’t a race, so no numbers) and some cable ties for my bike and two tokens: one for my free beaker and another for food. I wasn’t really sure what to do with that so just put it safely away.
The start times were staggered so that those riding the longest distances set off first. The ride I was on, 15km, was the shortest and therefore the last lot to set off before the route was signed over to the walkers. There were lots of people, mostly blokes, riding big full sussers with body armour on. What was I letting myself in for? Apparently nothing because as it turned out the average age for the riders on the 15km loop was about 15.
I waited a while, helped myself to a couple of free coffees (very civilised), smiled at a few of the women who were also hanging around, so I assumed were also waiting for the 15km start time, then, after seeing a group riders set off in the direction of the short route, decided to set off too.
Uphill, of course. After a while I caught up with a group of what looked to be club riders; two adults with a group of young kids, mostly boys. I think there was one girl amongst them. They were regrouping at the top of a climb so I “bonjoured” them and then carried on past. Next I caught up with another group: two women riding with three boys, I presume their sons. One was at the top of a descent, looking down it, and said, I think, “attention” to the other woman, which was cue for me to let go of the brakes and fly down as fast as I could. Pure fun.
On the other side the two older boys caught me up and overtook. And that’s pretty much how the rest of the ride went. It was one long dosie-do between me and these two kids. The only people to overtake me for the rest of the ride were two adults on ebikes, which really pissed me off. I get it, but they’d better not be on Strava because I overtook them on a descent (they were mincing down on foot while I bombed down by the seat of my pants) then they came gliding by on a climb shortly after. Fuck that.
The route itself was nice but definitely mostly uphill. It used some waymarked VTT trails as well as some tracks through private land, which is why I can’t share the GPS trace, unfortunately. There were a few nice decents (3?) and one quite hairy one that will be rideable now I’ve had chance to get a good look at it. The nice thing was it ended with a long, swooping descent on some single track all the way from the hill overlooking the lake to the bottom, with a couple of drop offs. It’s shame that that section is one of the ones on private land though, so unlikely rideable outside of this event.
After the ride, well, the registration tent had been transformed into a buffet station. Awesome. I tried to hand in my token, thinking that was needed for the food but no, that was for the sausages sarnies and beer, that they were just getting ready. I tucked into fruit, cheese, bread, pate (all the usual French nibbles!) had a good guzzle of some squash and another coffee then headed back. I had been gone nearly three hours so my time was up.
Unfortunately, because it was a head down and ride type of ride and I was on my own I didn’t stop for pictures, so there’s only the one from the start.
Next year I’ll be riding the 30km and making sure that James and Co. meet me afterwards so I don’t have to squander my beer & food token. It was a really well-organised event!
After a busy return to real life after the holidays (September), we launched ourselves into a new phase in October and it has flown by with not a minute to spare to update the blog. So what have we been doing in all this time? Well…
We went to the park.
We walked. Some shorter walks together as a four and a longer one with friends.
We enjoyed the autumn sun and went to the free theatre festival, un pave dans la malle, which is just up the road. This year DD was old enough to enjoy a show and we saw a really funny one about a miniature circus with a terrible safety record (all the miniature circus creatures were killed off one by one!) Apart from the climbing inside a horse routine, which I think was a bit too much, it was excellent. A really good choice for the five year olds – and lots of adult jokes to keep us entertained. Or so I’m told. My French as it is I think a lot of the nuance was lost on me though so I probably enjoyed it on the same level as the kids.
We had visitors (my parents).
We had a lot of problems with the car. It needed new suspension (or something), new tyres, and new brakes. It was VERY expensive, although we saved about 300% on the cost of parts thanks to Magic Mark (as I call him) and his generosity in buying and shipping parts to us from the UK for only a small markup. If you’re anywhere near to Huddersfield and drive a VW, Skoda, Seat, or Audi then look up IVS Huddersfield because their service brilliant.
I managed to get out on my mountain bike and ride a local event. I got a free beaker for the trouble but had to pass on the buffet after so I could get back and rescue James (he was ill and would have preferred me to stay home, I think
We had a lot of fun in the new bike park at Quillan, which thankfully wasn’t washed away in the terrible floods that were experienced in our area during this time.
The tragedy of the month of course being the floods, which washed away many roads and bridges, devastated communities and also took many lives. It reminded me of floods we had in the UK many years ago and also to be grateful that we live on a hill – and to add “make sure you’re not next to the river” to the land or house buying checklist! Floods can and do happen and living so close to the mountains colossal quantities of rain can fall at any time.
DD rounded off October with her first proper (as in, the first year she’s known about and been interested in) Halloween, complete with trick or treating. Boy do the old ladies of Fa know how to load kids with sugar. We’d heard that in years past they collected about 12kg of sweets and I’m sure that if the total was totted up this year would be on a par with that. She ate her own body-weight in sweets on the night itself and brought as many back. They’re in a cupboard, out of reach, and despite the best efforts of James and me to have one now and again, as well as of course letting the two smalls have some, we still have a full Tupperware of them. Still, she had a lot of fun and the makeup job James did on them both was excellent. Picture to follow! (once I can get it from James’s camera.)
And now it’s November.
Temperatures have fallen a bit and there’s been some rain but in between, so far, we have sunny days. It’s warm in the sun, so it’s a shame that we are living in this East-West facing house as we don’t get much benefit from it and it will stay that way now until next Spring. Needless to say the wood burner is on. We intended to wait until November 1st to light it but had to concede defeat on October 29th on a day when there was no sun and the temperature was in single figures. Chilly – and the house was starting to feel damp.
We have a lot on in November too – and are busy working away on house plans. At the end of next year the thermal study parameters for new builds change, meaning it will be more expensive to insulate a house. We need to find land before then and get a permit. Having our plans at the ready will make that easier. Aside from work, life, kids, etc. that’s our focus for now.
Un Pave dans la Malle
An annual theatrical festival in Lieurac, Ariege. Over two days (the weekend) and everything free (except food and drink!)
IVS Huddersfield for Magic Mark (he can keep any VW going way past it’s recommended shelf life, even if the customer moves to another country!)
VTT Ronde 3 Quilles
A regular mountain biking event in Quillan. Routes are usually 15km, 30km, and 45km. There’s a very impressive buffet at the end. Entry gets you a beer and hotdog token too. And there’s the free beaker.
When a friend suggested joining them for a walk naturally I agreed. We don’t get out on “proper walks” as often as I’d like and making a date with someone else is always good motivation. Said friend suggested tackling the Pic du Bugarach. Okay, I said. I checked the route she was thinking of, plotted it in GPSies to verify the ascent and distance info – 7km there and back with 500 metres of ascent. On paper? Fine.
The idea didn’t sit so comfortably though. We really haven’t done much walking as a four which meant that we didn’t know our own or each others limits. Was this mountain walk the best way to find out? If we were still in the UK the first mountain walks with the children would be to somewhere we already know and had walked without children in the past. I wasn’t comfortable that our first big walk would involve taking our two small children onto a mountain I did not know.
I Googled for pictures, hoping to find some reassuring pics of a the paths up to the top. Nope. The one walk write up I did find was from the route we’d decided not to take as was longer with 200 metres more ascent and also looked to involve a rocky scramble towards the end. Given we’d most likely be carrying the two youngest by that point, we all agreed that route was a definite No. I found lots of pictures of the peak. And I also found this video. Look, I love a good ride the mountain video. They give me the chills and make we want dust off my body armour and hit the trails. But this wasn’t about me or my bike. This was about my family tackling a mountain walk for the first time.
By now my perspective had shifted from being 80% sure it was do-able to about 80% sure it was a Very Bad Idea. I had an alternative route – en Pays Cathare from the excellent Les Sentiers d’Emilie walking book series – and we’d discussed doing that instead of the peak if the weather wasn’t ideal. It was a great relief to see that storms were forecast because it meant everyone was amenable to a change of plan and walking the lower level route.
The route we took, described in the book and signed locally as Sentier du Pont Romain, is clearly waymarked by a horizontal yellow line. It leave the village, past the school and the small bouladrome, onto a wide open track through fields with just cows, butterflies, crickets and the odd (lost) hunters dog for company.
As adults I think we would have marched along the track keeping an easy pace but for four children there were so many things to stop and see it took us about an hour! About 10 minutes into the walk we rounded the bend to find the three girls sitting on the side of the track with their backpacks open. Snack time, apparently. The book said it would take 2 hours 20 minutes but I had a feeling that estimate was a little on the low side.
After much stopping and starting we arrived back at the road, which we then followed up to the vulture observation point. Our friends had already been there that day, we were late to they’d popped up to kill some time, but no-one minded arriving there again. It was a great spot to stop, with picnic benches, and safely away from the road. Since everyone was hungry we decided to stop there and eat.
The vulture observatory is well worth a visit. There are boards giving information about the different types of vulture that have been seen locally (there are four species) as well as other birds of prey. For the children it’s a really nice to play and there’s an oak tree that’s perfect for climbing. Of itself it doesn’t justify a day out but by including it within all or part of this walk, you can easily fill a few hours. The birds are easy to see – you can use the fixed binoculars that are there or free to use. If you have some of your own, take them. I had the foresight to take mine, not even knowing about the vultures, and was glad I did. With clear optics you get a really good view: just scan along the tops of the rocks and trees of the ridge opposite the viewing spot and you’ll see them. When we arrived there were two sitting on the ridge and by the time we left about six were circling the rocks, possibly in anticipation of our sandwich remains.
Continuing on, we passed some sociable donkeys who came plodding across the field to say hello, before reaching the main feature of the walk: an Roman bridge. It’s not the original (it was rebuilt a few years ago) but it’s a replica. And the photo in the image doesn’t do it justice because it’s quite a feature. Take a look at the pictures below and you’ll see what I mean.
The first picture is from the book.
The second is one I took. And the third one, from the same spot as the second but with someone walking over it, shows the scale. Dramatic, eh?
How high is that bridge?
Uh, okay. That’s pretty high!
Actually, marginally more dramatic than it appears because what the photo doesn’t show very well is that there’s a a drop the height of the bridge the other side of it. We were going to walk over there with our children. Hahahahaa. Not worried about that at all. Okay, maybe worried.
We’d promised the children another snack (DD knew I had biscuits) when we got to the bridge and also a paddle. At first glance it looked like the last place you’d want your kids to be but just around the corner, before the rapid descent under the bridge, the river was quite wide and shallow. It was a really beautiful spot, perfect for a future wildcamp and perfect for the pit stop we’d promised.
We sat for a while, cooling our feet in the river. The two older girls were busy trying to hatch their vulture eggs (we’d got eggs in our picnic and they’d decided they were vulture eggs) and the little ones were sitting and exploring the rocks. The water, being in quite a shady spot, was unfortunately a bit too slipping to paddle in safely, so we didn’t stay long. Plus we were still only half way on our walk and with all the stopping and starting it was nearly 3pm! Four hours since we left the cars.
Then it was time to pull ourselves together and cross the scary bridge. At least we knew there wasn’t anything hiding underneath it!
Crossing the bridge wasn’t nearly as heartstopping as we thought but it’s much more of a challenge than we were expecting. James walked over the DD and I was with DS, who was on foot. The approach was too steep for his little legs and since I wasn’t too keen on him scrambling up I carried him. I’d say that James hid his nerves well as he watched while I carried DS on my hip with one hand and the cuddly toy, a child’s rucksack and my walking book in the other, but he really didn’t. Our friend’s little girl, a natural climber, particulary enjoyed it – fearlessly looking over the edge and smiling away. (I spotted a few big fish down there as I walked over but for some reason no-one was interested in going back onto the bridge and taking a better look!)
From this point on it was a little tough as the path winds up the hill. There’s a clear path but it’s quite badly eroded by heavy rain. The older ones managed it – sometimes needing a hand to hold – but it was too difficult for the little ones who soon ended up on our backs.
Once at the top, the path bears left and leads back towards the village. For the most part this was an easy walk. I’ve noticed that children really lose themselves in the woods and the walks where you can’t see too far ahead go smoothest. The journey back was broken up nicely by finding some “dinosaur bones”. To you and me that’s the remains of a cow who met an unfortunate end at some point in the not so distant past. We couldn’t find the skull, unfortunately, but having picked over the rest we were soon loaded up with our treasures.
From here, after another short climb and another post-climb rest stop, it was a fairly short and easy walk back to the village, which was lucky because we’d just about run out of water by that point.
Just before arriving back at the car we found figs and blackberries, so we stopped one last time for a quick forage before finally making it back.
Despite the whole day being a significant deviation from our original plan, we definitely made the right call. The walk was just enough time and distance-wise with enough interest along the way and places to stop.
Since this was the longest walk we’ve done as a family it was a useful test in terms of kit and supplies. Taking advice from the Adventure Queens Mums Group on Facebook, I’d made sure to pack some sugary treats for when the going got tough. That worked out well. My friend had done the same (Pain au Lait, yum) so between us we had plenty of “bribe food” as well as proper food and healthy snacks. By the time we got to the end our picnic had all gone and not far from the end we were almost out of water. I wasn’t too worried because I knew we had some more in the car but James wasn’t happy about it so he went ahead.
Although I’ve had it a while (I bought it back in the UK when we were planning to do some “proper walks” with DD) it was the first outing for my shiny blue Vango Traverse 40L Rucksack, and it was brilliant! I’ve not carried a rucksack that size in a while but since I often have a small child on my back. It looks like they’re now only 50 quid in Amazon – a bargain! The best feature was “AirVent back system” which keeps the back of the pack away from your body, keeping you cool and dry, which was perfect in the heat (it was about 25 degrees for the sunny bits.)
The two-year anniversary of our arrival in France came earlier this month and passed without the slightest hint of a bang. A day I’d hoped we’d mark with some kind of celebration – or at least acknowledge – became a day of stress with us viewing two more unsuitable pieces of land (north facing, etc., – the usual) and having heated discussions about a plot we saw a while ago. It’s a plot that I like and think a few compromises are worth it but James is struggling with compromise, period. Maybe he’s right to stand firm. I’ll say no more lest the argument begins again!
Anyway, the fact that it’s been two years is remarkable. Time seems to march on irrespective of what we do. The children grow but so slowly we hardly notice in the day-to-day. Then one day we see the changes. Their bodies are longer and more robust, their language has changed, their expressions, and all the while their personalities stay the same. The evolution is so natural, so inevitable. Their eyes, their energies are the same as the days they were born. It’s a magical thing to facilitate and to witness. They have both adapted so well. DD is as good as bilingual and DS, who is just starting to master English understands pretty much everything that is said to him in French. When he’s ready to start speaking the language, I’m sure he’ll blow us away. By the end of our first year he’d spent more of his little life in this country than his country of birth but it’s been in this second year that he’s been exposed to the language. This time last year I was trying to settle him into creche. A year on he now asks to go. He’s happy there, as DD is happy at her school.
Home-wise we’re a long way from where we wanted to be. And that’s fine. I’m happy with what we have and what we don’t. It’s been a big learning curve for us and we’ve made some sensible decisions and had some lucky escapes from some stupid ones! I know some people just turn up for two weeks and find a house, but that’s not the way it’s working out for us and so be it. Part of me wishes we’d bought 10 years ago, when it was just me and James and we had a full salary to cover repairs. But then I suspect now we’d be stuck up in the mountains with two children, wishing we could be somewhere busier, more accessible, and also wishing we had the money for the new roof we need.
So why haven’t we found anything? Honestly, the state of some of these houses is just depressing. They’re fine if you want something for a few weeks in the summer. No-one cares about an old uninsulated roof when it’s 35 degrees C outside. Likewise, the house’s aspect. A stone East-West or North facing house provides a welcome respite from the sun in July. Not so in winter, where temperatures can fall below freezing and stay that way for weeks. Last winter we had no sun so even the well-position houses felt the cold (and damp) but the first year, while it was cold the sun shone almost every day. With this, one side of the valley stays buried deep in frost while the other basks in the winter sun, where clothes can still be dried, children play, life goes on much as before – but in jumpers and woolly socks.
Any house that ticks our boxes (that’s 8/10 for me and 10/10 for James) comes at a price we can’t afford. Anything we can like is on the market at cost + however much was spent on repairs + imaginary profit. Anything we can afford requires money spending on it to get it how we want it – and by that I’m not trying to win any Home & Garden awards, just to have a liveable house that we can is warm and dry in winter. By the time that money’s factored in we’re back in the range of houses we can’t afford! So there’s that.
Add onto this the shoddy workmanship that goes on. There are so many builders, carpenters, handymen (it’s usually men) here. But trained where? With what qualifications? From what I’ve seen, all self-taught, either learned on the job from someone equally as unskilled, or by doing their own build or renovation project. It’s mind boggling how lacking in common sense some of these apparently registered artisans have when it comes to construction. There’s a renovation in a hameau close to us being carried out by an apparently reputable builder (registered, advertising with a large billboard on the side of the road) and wow, the workmanship is downright dangerous! The roof looks good, admittedly – all new timbers – so once it’s all finished (as in rendered and plastered) you could walk in and no doubt it’ll look great, but what’s hidden behind there is an archway without a supporting lintel, just breeze blocks at the top of the gap. That’s one of the worst things we’ve seen but it’s not an isolated find. I have other examples like this and a blog post about it in draft. I send the pictures to my dad from time to time (he’s an old-style 5-year apprenticeship on site type of actual carpenter who’s seen it all) and he can’t quite believe it either. The idea that we might spend our actual money on a house that’s been repaired/renovated/built by someone who was in all likelihood winging it. Not exactly reassuring.
Which is why we’re looking for land. And the search continues. And it will go on. We’ve decided to focus less on the house (we’re renting a “good house” at the moment, as in plenty of space and warm in winter) and more on the life side of things. That’s why I’ve been trying to get my business going and also we’ve been enjoying spending this time, while we can still afford to be very part time, with the smalls. This phase won’t last for much longer, I know. With DS approaching his third birthday, he’ll soon be at maternelle along with DS and then it won’t be long after that before they are out all day every day for most of the week. I’ll be ready for it but I know it will be bittersweet and that I’ll look back on these slow-progress no -progress years (by adult standards) as some of the best.
Language-wise, I doubt I’ll ever reach a standard I’m totally happy with. I like to talk so it can be incredibly frustrating not to be able to talk to anyone and everyone. Chit chat is something I miss, in the shop, in the post office, in the street. Without that there’s always a barrier. Our neighbours here are lovely, they know we want to chat. A few times I’ve become upset when not being able to say what I want. It does get me down. And that’s why I have to keep trying. It’s paying off little by little. Today I spent 30 minutes at the French equivalent of the local council office sorting out an ongoing admin issue (the system for paying the bins is exceptionally complicated, it seems) All In French. Yes, check me out. That is one hell of a change from two years ago. It’s exciting, actually. Having the time to work on this some more is one of the reasons I probably won’t notice my kids are in school full time once that happens. I have so much to do. Like them, I like to learn and I like to be busy. Which is lucky!
Am I glad we came? Hell, yes! Would I go back? Actually, no. I really don’t want to go back and can’t see myself going back, ever. There are many ways that life is better here, not least the weather!
So what’s in store for year 3? For one I hope I’ll start to be able to understand what the locals are saying to me. That would make life drastically easier! I’d like to get my business going and making enough to cover rent and bills as that enables us to relax a bit more about the fact that we haven’t found what we’re after. I also have a new venture to work on with James, but that requires extra time that we just don’t have but will have one both children are at maternelle, so all eyes on that bit change. Finally, I got an e-mail this morning about arranging a cycle tour. Since cycling is my passion this is a really big deal for me and gives me a reason to be very excited indeed about 2019. This activity is very time consuming and being able to do that full time dependent on quite a few other things, so this next year is the perfect time to dip my toe into the water and see where it leads. It’s all go and I love it.
Camping. We all had a lovely time on our first camping trip so promised the smalls another couple of camping adventures before the end of the summer and rentrée.
A friend had spoken highly of Orlu, just south of Ax-les-Thermes, where there’s a beautiful nature reserve. I’d read a blog post of hers describing it and chatted with her afterwards and based on that wanted to visit. It wasn’t too far away so just right for a short two-night trip again) so we decided we’d give it a go.
The campsite I chose was the municipal site in Orlu: Camping d’Orlu. It was fairly easy to narrow it down because it’s the only site in that valley – unless you have a mobile home or campervan. Checking the website over and also reading various reviews, it sounded like it would work for us: the valley itself looked stunning and facilities-wise it had a playground, a pool, plus access to the river. Everyone looked happy in the photos. It seemed to fit the bill better than others and it was right in the place we wanted to be. What could go wrong?
Our First (and maybe last) Municipal Campsite
Actually, nothing really did go wrong. We just discovered that this kind of campsite, the busy kind where the world and his wife arrive to pack out their permanently-sited and privately-owned static caravans (complete with satellite TV), are not for us. Actually, I think we already knew that but our experience at the first site lulled us into a false sense of security where camping-with-the-masses was concerned. This site, while in a quiet and beautiful place, was busy. Too busy.
Two big things got on our nerves there. First, dog shit. What the fuck is wrong with dog owners!? We all love our pets. Just like we love our kids. But what we don’t do is let our cats or our kids shit on the footpaths everywhere. So what is it with dogs that makes this okay? There were a fair number of dogs on the site. To be fair there weren’t that many shits on the campsite itself, but a footpath leading into and out of the valley alongside the valley ran through the campsite and this was evidently where all the TV watching weekenders were taking their dogs for their shits. Ugh. It’s grim as an adult but when you have two small and inquisitive children who want to pick everything up, sometimes put things in their mouths (if not the things they just picked up then certainly their hands end up there), and also tend not to look where they’re going – jeez, the stress of even a short walk! No fun for us, no fun for them.
The second thing about this site: the cars. People were driving it felt like all the time. It was a small and densely packed site with a one-way system. Fine, but with two kids who want to play on the road in front of the pitch, that was another stress. I was a bit more relaxed about that than James (not that I want them to get run over, of course!) but to be fair to him there was a regular flow of cars past our tent.
Then there a few niggles, like the pool, which had been on the list of site essentials when making the choice. It was a nice spot and well-maintained, plus it had a paddling pool, but that’s no use if it’s closed. We arrived on Friday and fancied a dip but it was closed. It opened on Saturday at 1pm but the water was cold (24 degrees). The pool guy wasn’t happy about that either but there was nothing he could do. Later it was so busy it was impossible to swim and increasingly difficult to manage the two smalls, who just wanted to bob about in the armbands. Because the main pool was first too cold and then too busy, we splashed around in the paddling pool before that also started getting a bit too chaotic.
Some things we did like about the site were the playground, which was perfect for DD and DS. It had a baby swing – one of the first we’ve seen in France – a fab slide, a see-saw (which DD made alot of friends on) and plenty of shade. The other children seemed nice and DD had a great time with a few other children, mostly other girls, of the same sort of age. She protested every time she was told time was up and constantly wanted to go back and play, which is great – one of the reasons camping is a great holiday choice with children. (In a gite after a day spent trapsing around as a four it would be back to the house or apartment then TV, dinner and bed, most likely! Just like home.)
There were a few standard things you expect on a French site, like fresh bread or croissants in the morning (order the day before). The facilities were varying degrees of clean, depending on where you were on the site. The block opposite us was very clean and cleaned regularly, and there was plenty of hot water.
But it wasn’t just about the site. What about the area?
Orlu Nature Reserve
Although the campsite didn’t tick our boxes, the location was excellent. The village, Orlu, is in an area just outside Ax-les-Thermes called the Vallée d’Orlu and is a national nature reserve covering 4250 hectares. Access is restricted to those on foot: there are no roads through the reserve and no dogs allowed in order to protect wildlife. It’s soooo peaceful. To get there you drive down the valley passing through the villages of Orlu and Orgeix, until you come to the end.
Driving down the valley, it felt just like being back at Wales! Spooky but wonderfully familiar. At one point it’s eerily similar: there’s a bend in the road and a little stone bridge over the river that feels just one of the villages en route to Betws-Y-Coed from Llandudno. What a shame there wasn’t an equally Welsh-feeling campsite! What it is with all these sanitised sites?
Anyway, back to Orlu. When you get to the end of the valley road your choices are park up and walk or turn around and go back. If you’re lucky enough to have a motorhome you can park up and spend the night there.
From the car park onwards is a visitor centre (for next time) and some other activities and workshops, including an awesome looking AcroBranch (like GoApe in the UK but way better), some cafes.
Because we were only there for a couple of nights, we only popped up, essentially our reccie visit, and made a to-do list for another time. Things on my lists include the Le Maison des Loups (The House of Wolves) and a proper walk into the reserve beyond the forge, of which there are many. In the reserve proper (which is closed off to dogs) there’s plenty of wildlife, including marmottes. I’ve never seen one yet so that’s a definite Must Do. There’s also Le Sentier d’Arazet, a walk through a woodland path and musical installations. Of course you have to pay (details on their website) but it’s another on the to-do list as it looks fab.
In future-future (because it’s not advised with kids younger than five) I want us to walk to and spend the night at Refuge D’En Beys, which is 1970 metres up, in the heart of the reserve and high on the mountain. Maybe we’ll try it next year (well, one of them will be five.) I can’t wait!! Aside from those two things, there are tonnes of things to do around there. Tonnes of walks and plenty of cycling opportunities, once the two small are up to that (if they’re into that.)
So that was Orlu. Stunning.
Will we go back?
Despite the positives, I don’t think we’ll be going back to that particular campsite, which is a shame because the staff at the main office were really friendly and helpful and the kids had a great time. Perhaps if we visit again our of season – so not August – we’ll have a different experience?
We definitely want to go back to explore the nature reserve and surrounding area, so perhaps I can persuade James to give the campsite another go if we see it’s less busy another time. Most likely we’ll opt for another one. In such a wild place there must be a wild campsite for people like us!?
What’s weird about this whole trip though is that I don’t think I took a single photograph. Not one! In order to pep up this post I’ve use pics from original website and also some stock pics from Unsplash. Sorry folks – I’ll get my camera charged up for the next one!
What happened next?
Based on our experiences this time my new Find A Campsite criteria were dutifully extended to now include:
in the mountains
plenty of shade
no static caravans
Is that even possible in France? You’ll have to wait until my next post to find out whether I managed it or not.