Family holidays suck. Once you’re beyond the age of five, past the stage in life where singing along to your parents’ ABBA compilation CD is an appealing way to pass the time, squeezing yourself into the back seat of a “family-sized” Vauxhall Astra Estate with two equally-agitated sisters is no longer a fun way to go abroad.
Whenever we go to France, we sail. But this means driving from our home on the Isle of Mull, all the way down to Portsmouth. That is 542 miles. That is roughly 10 hours in the aforementioned Astra with nothing but that ABBA compilation for company. There are fights about leg room. There are fights about the odours emitting from our sandwiches of choice. There are fights about my head blocking the view out the window. I can’t help having a healthy head of curly hair, but as lustrous as I think it is, it is apparently nothing but a hindrance to my little sister’s view of Cumbria.
We go to the same place every year, a tiny hamlet called Champbertrand, a couple of miles from Nowhere, France. Bang in the middle of the country, its gentle rolling hills could be Fife, or Cumbria, or the moon. There is nothing particularly outstanding about the scenery, there are no chateaus of interest nearby, and there is no nightlife for anyone under 60. Well, that is if you exclude the one club in the area, innovatively called ‘Le Retro’. This eponymous hub of activity is a building shaped like an airplane, situated in the middle of a field, which has been closed for about a year due to an accidental fire that I suspect was actually arson. Yes, it is that dismal.
But that is the 16 year-old me talking. We have been going to this tiny village for almost 6 years now, initially drawn to the area because of friends who relocated in their retirement and, like all small villages, it is the location of some fine stories in my history of gossip. Our neighbour is called Quentin, which in French sounds like “content”, meaning “happy”. So when introducing himself, he said “Je suis Quentin”, and no one could determine whether he said his name was Quentin, or if he was actually just happy. On the other side of the house, just over the fence from our garden, is a bachelor farmer called Hubert, who will drive his tractor past the house at 8pm every night on his way back from the fields. On a summer evening, about three years ago, we went for a walk to these fields, not to find corn, or wheat, but sunflowers, in an expanse of yellow that stretched to the tip of the horizon and beyond. It was the stuff poetry is made of, or, if not poetry, insipid haiku at least. It was so beautiful, in fact, that I went back to the house and painted a horribly amateur mural of the scene on the fireplace. It is still there. My mum insists it is “lovely”, although it looks like a cat completed it with a dead mouse dipped in emulsion.
In the village next to this one, Coulonges-sur-l’Autize, is the home of the weekly farmers’ market, a day in which everyone in this region of France meets to buy cheese, from the man only known as The Cheese Man; you smell his lush camembert before you see him, and when the sight of him does finally meet your eyes, you’d think he was the last remaining member of the Norman dynasty. The medieval-style cap and tunic speak for themselves. The cheese is just the tip of the ice-berg. The hat stalls are the epitome of French chic; berets are a-plenty, in every colour you could wish for. Locals sell flaked paintings and collections of rusty wrenches and hammers from their car boots. My favourite stall, open for business every Tuesday at 9am without fail, sells a fine selection of floral aprons, maids’ uniforms, feather dusters and pinafores; affordable glamour for the house-proud ladies of today.
But the area is much more than a backwater, as I’ve come to realize, but it embarrassingly took a visit to a theme park to reach this realization. Puys-de-Fou (pronounced “Pwee duh Foo”, a hilarious collection of vowels) is a visitor attraction three hours from our tiny village that consists of outdoor stages where historical events are reenacted. The first “show” we saw was ambiguously called “The Secret of the Lance”, a tale of knights, a magic castle and the shepherdess who protects it with a magical lance. This sounds really dorky. I can assure you, it is most definitely not. The stage is a full-sized castle, and the battle scene is performed almost entirely on horseback. The commentary was entirely in French, but it didn’t matter; I was too much in awe of the beautiful French stallions (and their horses) to notice. The rest of the park is just as immersive in the history of the area, and you can visit the medieval village, where local craftspeople have workshops. The eighteenth-century village is reproduced faithfully to the same standard of authenticity, with minstrels entertaining al fresco diners. The Gallo Roman Stadium at the end of the park is its pièce de résistance, a gigantic structure home to the Circus Games of a cruel Roman governor. I saw Christian slaves thrown to a real lion. I don’t think I need to say more.
So, despite all my teenage complaints about the place, I am desperate to go back this time. It was the location of our last family holiday before I left for university, almost 4 years ago now. Being in a place miles from civilization sounds quite delicious, as delicious as fresh croissants on a March morning perhaps, and for the first time (in a long time), that 10 hour drive could be ok. As long as there’s no ABBA, it could be quite pleasant, actually.