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 NEW!
French Impressions:

The Dordogne River 
from source to sea   

( George East )

 

Out now in paperback  9.99


The latest unique mix of information, anecdote, opinion and recipes in the French Impressions series follows the course and history of the River Dordogne.  It takes us on an affectionate voyage along the banks of one of the country뭩 most iconic rivers, starting half-way up a dead volcano in the Auvergne region and ending three hundred miles later in the Gironde estuary. On the journey through five regions and six departments, George examines the diverse cultures and communities, their sometimes turbulent history, and how the past informs the present in this deeply fascinating part of a great country.  He also tries to solve that age-old mystery of what makes the French so French.

If you want to know where there be underground dragons, saints with a golden touch and how the good burghers of Sarlat make cat litter from walnut shells, French Impressions: The Dordogne River is the book for you. If you like armchair travelling or just love France, it뭩 your sort of book.

Extract

 

French Impressions:
The Dordogne River

 

 

La Bourboule

If there is a place where old hotels go to die, La Bourboule must be strongly in the running. Going by the average age of the residents, not a few people must also choose to end their days here.

Once upon a time, La Bourboule was a very swish place, but times and tastes change. The population of the town has halved since 1930, which gives an indication of when things began to go downhill. Or rather, not downhill.

Nowadays and in an apparent effort to re-invent itself for modern tastes, it bills itself as a ski resort. This is a bit of a liberty as there are no ski-slopes at La Bourboule. There is, though, a telecabine (cable car) which goes up to the Plateau de Charlannes 1300 feet above the town. A half mile to the west, a small dam across the Dordogne has created a picturesque lake. All in all, this is a pleasant part of the river뭩 progress westward.

There is not a jogger in sight when we bowl into town, but a few elderly people are taking a promenade, or at least putting one foot in front of the other. Earlier, I noticed a prominent notice by the town boundary sign which read STATION OXYGENE. If it marks a supply site, this probably gives a further clue about the age and condition of many of the residents.

We roll along the main street and it soon becomes clear that the town is almost a stereotype. It is obviously a place of faded splendour where wealthy French and English people of a certain age would come to take the air and the waters, eat very well and have a punt at the Casino. The anglicised names of many of the former hotels lining the main street are still vaguely visible on the upper storeys, and Grands and Supremes abound. Eerily, most of the soaring frontages house shops, cafes and bars at street level, but have been abandoned to time and nature from the first floor up. It is disconcerting to see a smart boulangerie at eye level, and above it a gaunt, peeling frontage with empty eye-sockets instead of windows. It makes the names in faded lettering a poignant reminder of the good old days. It is also a reminder of how all things die, and how great empires, dynasties and even the grandest of hotels come to the end of their days.

*

There is something decidedly English about the park at la Bourboule. It is all very neat and symmetrical, with exceptionally well-tended lawns. There are winding paths, a boating lake and even a miniature train which leads to the telecabine station. The parc Fenstre also boasts a vegetable garden, and it is growing the first runner beans I have seen in France. Being in a posh health spa, the rods up which the tendrils crawl are of ornately-fashioned silver metal rather than common bamboo.

We walk through the gardens to the cable car station and - much to my wife뭩 relief - find that it is out of action. A very nice man in overalls takes the trouble to climb down from the top of the gondola and apologise for our wasted journey; he even offers us a free ride if we return when the season begins.

After meeting the affable man we encounter a very rude woman. The difference and perhaps the reason for her hostility is that she works in the tourist office.

The bureau de tourisme is housed in the town hall. The gingerbread and gilt building is almost as grandly over-the-top as the casino and spa baths, but there is certainly no welcome mat at the entrance. As we enter, the immaculately coiffed and made-up but severe looking young woman looks up from her computer, scowls, then returns to her work. Frozen out, we look through the hundreds of brochures and pamphlets but can find none in English.

Eventually I stand at the desk and clear my throat with increasing volume until the young woman looks up. Having established that she cannot or will not speak my language, I say we cannot find any brochures in English. Her lip curls and she says that they are in French as we are in France. I accept this as a reasonable point, but mention that several million foreigners who cannot speak the language of God do visit her country every year. In fact, I say, I have heard that La Bourboule has long been known as the English Town.

The woman뭩 eyes flash, then she gives a silky smile, parts her blood-red lips and says with deep satisfaction, 멠as encore, monsieur, pas encore뀙

*

I think it worth mentioning at this point that it is still not unusual to find a French tourist office where the only language spoken is French. This is not so much because of xenophobia but just because that뭩 how it뭩 always been. It is a tradition many French tourist and holiday venues like to maintain.

Although France is the most visited country on earth, all tourist notices and information and services seemed aimed very primarily at the natives. This is because ninety percent of French people holiday at home. It is also because the French know just what a beautiful and attractive country they have, and believe we should all be grateful for being allowed to visit and spend lots of money there.

Things are changing and my initial observations and conclusions were made a generation ago, but I still reckon the interview for the manager of the tourist office at La Bourboule went something like this:

Interviewer: 멗 see you have all the qualifications and certification, so now for a couple of questions to test your aptitude and potential suitability.

Interviewee: 멟f course.

Interviewer: 멫ery good. Do you like meeting people, especially foreigners?

Interviewee: 멞o and no, and especially foreigners.

Interviewer: 멒ood, good. And can you speak any foreign languages?

Interviewee (hesitantly as if admitting to a guilty secret): 멒erman, Dutch and Spanish fluently, and a little Japanese.

Interviewer (sadly): 멇h. I see. And what about English?

Interviewee (even more guiltily): 멮es.

Interviewer (hopefully): 멊ut could you pretend to speak nothing but French when on desk duty and be really rude to any foreigners, especially the English?

Interviewee (brightening up): 멟f course. It is in my nature.

Interviewer (happily): 멬onderful. The job is yours.

 

*

 

Early morning, and we are heading for the nearest town to find a hotel room in which to dry out and sleep for more than twenty consecutive minutes. The rain started as I pushed the last tent peg in, and persevered until I pulled it out again. In between, we had a spectacularly sleepless night caused by leaks from above and below.

Our ancient tent was no match for the downpour, and worse, the inflatable mattress sprang a leak. It took around an hour for us to reach ground level, and those who know will agree that a partially inflated airbed is more uncomfortable than a totally deflated one. After see-sawing about while trying to trim our prone positions by re-positioning our bodies and adding and subtracting rucksacks and other weights, I gave up and reached for the foot pump.

It is one of those all-rubber affairs with a dome-shaped bit on which to jump up and down. From it a length of tubing leads, with a selection of adaptors to suit the size of the inlet valve on the mattress. We long ago lost the correct adaptor, and the only one which fits is too small. This means that for every stamp of the foot, half the air which should have gone into the mattress escapes through the gap around the adaptor. Because of this shortcoming, the pumper also needs to adopt a crouched position during the operation. Being cocooned in a sodden sleeping bag in the middle of the night did not make the operation any easier, and there was another problem.

The necessarily jerky action makes the pump squeak like a tortured mouse, and the escaping air wheezes like a 40 fags-a-day man coming to the final stages of the London Marathon. What my silhouette looked like through the thin canvas wall of the tent as I rose up and down over the mattress with my own gasping matching that of the air pump is anybody뭩 guess.

When we checked out in the morning, the campsite manager observed dryly that I must be tired, as the owner of the German camper had complained about the grunts and squeaks and gasps coming from our tent throughout the night. When I asked about the French couple on the other side, the manager said the male half had mentioned the noise in an admiring way, and said it had changed his mind completely about the English and their attitude to sex.

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