Going Around Again

We’d just huffed and puffed our way to the top of the highest sand dune in Europe, the brisk breeze negated the heat of the sun making the task pleasurable. From the sea below to this point it’s 110m (361ft) and the view of Arcachon Bay spectacular. The wall of sand was decorated with streaks of bright red, blue and yellow as kites soared high and paragliders searched for the currents to join them.

Our tent was pitched in the campsite on the other side of the dune, a pitch that we shared along-side Kate and Dave’s slightly more luxurious motorhome that had transported us here just east of Bordeaux, France. As well as the traditional camping spaces like ours, number 78 with its hedging and electricity supply, there were huts with log-burning stoves and big tents on platforms that had clever canvas walls that could be rearranged to provide shade or sunlight where you want it.

View from the top of Dune du Pilat.


Our campsite.


Spring in Bourniquel.

We’d been back in France since the start of February house sitting in Bourniquel where we’d spent a fair amount of time last summer doing a workaway. The weather through to March had been mixed. Yes, there had been heavy downpours and some of the winds horrendous but this typical wintriness had been punctuated with afternoons of warm sunshine sufficient for tea on the veranda and the odd picnic. Our lodgings were the small and cosy cottage with its powerful stove that we fed logs every afternoon and night. As we sat in the warmth of the fire Carole would knit different patterned squares for a quilt and I’d draw and paint greetings cards. Before bed the stove would be replenished to see it through to morning and we’d fall asleep with the light of the flames dancing on the high, pitched ceiling.

Robin comes to visit.

Every Thursday is market day in Lalinde, the nearest town. We take our weekly stroll around the stalls and purchase fresh fruit, veg, meat and bread – occasionally, a cake – then, exhausted, we fall into the bar and savour the restorative powers of a hot chocolate.

The Dordogne is a beautiful place and is blessed with many chateaux. Today we visited Castelnaud, it sits high on top of the hill overlooking the valley facing both the equally impressive Beynac and Marqueyssac that we explored last summer. While Beynac has been the backdrop to several films and Marqueyssac has beautiful gardens Castelnaud trumps both with its siege engines that really bring to life medieval warfare. I’d recommend it for kids too as they can learn how to fight with a broadsword.

Chateau Castelnaud.

We’ve also returned to another of last year’s haunts, Saint Marcet, to help Caroline and Brian in their garden. On the to-do list were raised beds and a new pergola. It seems one man’s pergola is another man’s gazebo and another’s arbour so to clarify a pergola is a shady walkway or sitting area constructed of vertical posts and crossbeams upon which woody vines can be trained. Being sited next to a large building something substantial was required and a trunk of oak was purchased from the local timber yard and supplied in great lengths of either 75mm (2.95in) or 100mm (3.94in) thickness. The structure was carefully designed and planned to measure 4.3m (14.1ft) by 5.7m (18.7ft) and cover the patio area. Of course, to work with big sizes you need big toys and various machines were borrowed from a neighbour to make light of the heavy work. Constructed using traditional tenon and mortise joints and much blood, sweat and tears I have to say the end result was very pleasing combining both form and function.

Beautifully constructed pergola.

Glowing with the satisfaction of a good job well done we headed to the village hall for a cultural evening of traditional Occitan dancing to the lively music of duo Le Bal Brotto Lopez. We arrived in time to occupy front row seats and waited with excited anticipation for the entertainment to commence. With the very first note the audience took to their feet and began to whirl and spin across the floor. The next tune brought a new combination of steps that everyone – except our small party of Brits – seemed to know. The levels of complexity would increase with each song then return to the easiest to encourage the less able back into the action. Eventually, we gained the confidence to give it a go lasting one or two songs before making way for the strictly serious locals. One particular routine reminded me of Saturday nights at the local disco back in the eighties, during most evenings at some point lines would form to dance along to Santana’s ‘Jingo’, in simple terms you walk to the left, turn, walk to the right and repeat for 9 minutes 38 seconds (if listening to the Spotify live version which you wouldn’t have been back then but we do during irregular dancercise sessions). Emboldened by my distant memories I dragged Carole to her feet and began to move while studying the more experienced shoes around me. I strut my stuff left following behind her, turn, strut my stuff right, turn. What? Where is she? There she is scuttling back to her chair. I’m deserted, alone, I strut on regardless.

Having represented my country to the best of my ability I returned to my seat to watch the pros perform. A young woman, in a close-fitting brown vest top with thin straps that went over her shoulders, caught my eye. She was spinning and skipping about with her older brother and their parents in a routine that involved rapidly weaving in and out, if I’d been her partner there would have rapidly been chipped teeth, broken noses and blood on the dance floor. And I wasn’t the only man attracted to this woman’s talents. I’d previously noticed this tall – about 192cm (6ft 4in) – elderly gentleman with a wiry frame dancing with his miniscule partner in her size 3 (35) dancing pumps, one pompom missing. They moved so gracefully as one that it was difficult to decide if she was impaled on the barb of his manhood or her bra strap was caught on the belt buckle holding up his grey jeans. His posture seemed perfect to my untrained eye if a little distorted, even menacing, due to the great difference in their heights. If a regular on the Occitan scene, as he, I’d probably nickname him ‘El Mantis’.

The song finished and the audience tried to regain its breath, chests rising and falling in time with each other and the beating heart of the dance floor. Brotto and Lopez had them captivated, powerless, unable to resist the hypnotic combination of accordion and flute. They’d brought them to the edge of frenzy and now they dropped the tempo in an attempt to avoid things getting out of control. El Mantis grasped the opportunity and pounced, devouring the young woman. Helpless, she understood it would have been inappropriate, even disrespectful, to reject his request to dance.

Expertly guiding her around the hall, there was no doubt she would follow where he led. His elbows were high and his strong forearms appeared unusually large as they encircled her. She maintained continuous eye contact and her back was arched to keep contact to a minimum while her feet rapidly swept across the polished floor. Her body rigid in an attempt to avoid him enveloping her in his hold, only her feet moved. After the aerobic challenge of the previous dance this test of strength was all too much and her body began to ache. Mercifully, the dance came to an end and she could breathe once more. Her tormentor relaxed his grip then reunited her with the family. She slumped in a chair like a dirty towel thrown in the washing basket, the disturbing look on the daughter’s face dredged up a distant memory for her mother who offered a bottle of water as El Mantis vanished into the shadows where the woman with a pompom on one shoe unclenched her fists allowing a shiver to tip-toe up her spine.

Poppy is the mum, Basil the son and Daisy and Rosie are his half-sisters. Their role was to keep the grass down which, unfortunately, they dismally failed to do. Caroline didn’t mind though and every time they saw her the four would come running and noisily start bleating. Goats don’t require much attention but what they do require is a regular manicure so it was into the matrix for a knowledge download. Fully educated we hatch a plan; Carole will keep them occupied with food, I’m going to hold the horny end while Caroline works the scissors. The first two were no problem as they wear collars, the second pair needed to be trapped in the shed then lassoed and held with a firm grip but we got the job done without any injury to man nor beast. In the end we decided against the nail varnish that was a shame as a French polish would have been quite fetching.

Caroline’s goat shed.

Next on the ‘goat’ list was a new shed. To date they’d been sharing with the chickens but this allowed the hen’s access to the big field and their new broadened horizon meant collecting their eggs was similar to finding a needle in a haystack. With just odds ’n’ ends lying around the garden for materials I’d need to get the old creative juices flowing before giving Dick Strawbridge a bell. A smashed up greenhouse would provide a roof and the old decking the walls combined with a couple of pallets as flooring to keep the little chaps off the damp ground if it rained. The addition of some fencing to discourage their destructive tendencies finished the job. A note of caution here; if you wish to screw your finger to a lump of wood while awkwardly kneeling down in a corner of a goat shed I’d recommend a Rocket self-tapping 4 x 50mm screw but make sure you use a fully charged Makita cordless impact drill then you’ll get a nice clean entry and not realise until it is almost out the other side of your finger. “Carole… Carole… .”

Gardens in Thermes Magnoac.

A stroll around the beautiful gardens of La Poterie de Hillen in Thermes Magnoac, a visit to the fair at Abbaye de Bonnefort and an evening at the Pistouflerie – locally known as the Pissed Off Fairy – listening to live music were other highlights of our return to Saint Marcet.

One final note: Happy Nomad New Year everybody!