A Trip Around the South of France or a Holiday from Hell?

Marcillac-Vallon Wine

Me with a bottle of Marcillac. One of the few pleasant moments on the trip

A couple of weeks ago we took the first opportunity we have had for over 8 years to get away from Le Clos des Guyons for a week’s holiday.  We decided that we would have a change of scenery and drive around the South of France.  It turned out to be a decision we came to regret.

First of all we have  to say we have always been vaguely dispappointed when we have stayed there in the past, finding that it never quite lived up to expectations; it seems to be expensive and pretentious or scruffy and tacky.  However, we thought we should perhaps give it another go given that the whole world and his dog seems to be continually banging on about it although not many French people that we know – which much say something.

So, we set off, first of all, for the Aveyron, one of France’s lesser know departements and wine regions … a few steps off the beaten track. But that’s a big part of its allure. Tucked away it’s a region ripe for discovery- allegedly. But we have never visited it and as it has more of the “Plus Beaux Villages de France” than anywhere else it must be worth a visit we thought.  Initially we  tried to book a hotel in Conques, one of the plus beaux villages, but sadly the one hotel was full so we elected for another place called Le Fel  which was about 26kms from our first choice according to the Viamichelin route planning site.

Lord Wellington once said that he designed his campaigns like rope harnesses not like more expensive and less flexible leather so that, if something went wrong, he could simply tie a knot and continue.  We tied an awful lot of knots over the next few days!

Our journey to the Aveyron took about 8 hours, primarily because it involves going east a lot.  (Apparently the last people to build a major West-East road in France were the Romans).   Anyway, the plan was to stop half way and have a ‘picnic’ overlooking some inspiring view and to commune with the spirits of nature.  Good plan that but what actually happened was that we were so hungry we couldn’t wait and so we stopped in an ordinary lay-by where Sheila went to the boot of the car to get the specially purchased organic ham baguettes made earlier in the morning, accompanied by delicious artisan saussison and chicken salad with a half-bottle of Saumur-Puy Notre Dame.   What we  actually ended up doing was sharing two broken biscuits, a mandarin orange and a warm bottle of Vittel because she had forgotten to put the gourmet picnic in the car – it was still in the fridge at chez nous!  C’est la vie but we should have taken note and realised that this was just a harbringer of the tribulations to come.

le Fel

The road to Le Fel. Note the vineyards it has its own wine appellation.

On arriving in the Aveyron we still went to have a look at Conques despite the fact we couldn’t get a room and we found it was a village perched high on its hill looking delightfully pretty.  I say looking because it was bursting with tourists, (it was a bank holiday) and as a result we couldn’t stop anywhere within a kilometre of the town!   So, it was a lightning tour and we drove on to our hotel in Le Fel.   Now, I have already mentioned that, according to the Viamichelin travel site, Le Fel is 26kms from Conques, which it is.  What, however, Via.michelin failed to mention is that the 26kms is almost entirely in a vertical direction with hairpin bends and precipitous drops.  And, in what was to prove the first of many problems our car started to sulk.  Being automatic she hated the steep slopes and proceeded to throw herself out of gear every few minutes which necessitated us stopping the car, switching off and restarting.  As we got near to the journey’s end Sheila then said that she could smell exhaust fumes.  Now you must understand that Sheila always thinks the worst.  She had already said that the windscreen was cracked after something hit the window (thankfully it was, in fact, merely the remains of an unfortunate insect) and so I chose to ignore her.  Events later proved that I was wrong.  When we finally arrived in Le Fel it was clear that there was no way we could risk descending the mountain again  in search of a restaurant as the mist and low cloud was already closing in and so we had to eat in the hotel.  Now, apparently the place is highly regarded for its food but, true to form, the kitchen was closed, it being a bank holiday – just when there are lots of visitors around.  So we had no choice but to have the hotel’s cold buffet which wasn’t bad, however, after the starters a slab of warm, green stuff arrived at our table which we were proudly told was compressed garden herbs, spinach and chard with some suspicious round bits in it mixed together with egg,  or, as I preferred to call it, a slab of warm, green stuff.

The next day, after a good night’s rest, we jumped into the car and after switching on the engine we almost immediately jumped out again in a state of shock because the peace shattering roar meant she had suddenly converted herself into a Ferrari.  I suspected the exhaust, as Sheila had said, but refused to look.  I have found that most problems go away if you ignore them long enough.  Sadly this one didn’t.  Anyway, off we set, stopping every few minutes to switch off and restart  the engine as the gears continued to  jump out.   We had entered Marcillac into the GPS as our next port of call and I can remember wondering vaguely why it was showing a drive time of 9 hrs. to get to somewhere which was about 30 kms. away, (it was because Marcillac is in Bordeaux whilst the Aveyron version is Marcillac-Vallon).  However we never got the chance to see Bordeaux  as a few grimace inducing clatters from beneath the car showed that we really needed to find a garage ‘toute suite’.  Luckily it wasn’t a bank holiday when every garage closes, it was a Monday – when every garage closes.   However, passing through one village we saw signs of life in a  garage.  We stopped and found a little old lady tidying the office.  Now, had this been a Hollywood film starring Hugh Grant she would have turned out to have been an expert mechanic from a long line of expert mechanics who would fix the car in a jiffy, take us home, give us a gargantuan french meal and offer me her daughter.  Instead she gave me a piece of wire and a pair of pliars.  Even this was useful as the exhaust was now banging on the road.  Most importantly she gave us the address of a garage in a nearby village which was open.  It was almost worth the €10 she grabbed with almost indecent haste.  No, to be fair, it was well worth the €10 which she grabbed with almost indecent haste!

We found the garage easily enough, in the catchily named village of Lafeuillade en Vezie.   Up went the car on the ramp and standing underneath, we could see the gruesome evidence.  “No problem” said the young mechanic.  “We can do it”  but because of the problems caused by several bank holidays, (and no doubt several non-bank holidays and bridging days whereby people add on extra days to the bank holidays) he couldn’t get the parts until Friday.  “No good” I said “I’ve got a wine tour to do on Friday afternoon back in the Loire”.  At this point I should thank the young girl in the office who spent at least twenty minutes ringing suppliers until proudly she announced that the parts would arrive today, just after lunch.  but the bad news was we would have to hire a car for the rest of the day whilst delivery and fitting took place, hence the cost had now escalated, all in all to just under €’400.  With no choice we continued our day enjoying the plus beaux villages which were delightful but those roads again, up and twist, down and round.  I took it steady but it was very challenging and with strong sunlight shining directly into the eyes it was becoming impossible to see. On the up side, being manual, the gears didn’t keep jumping out but, because I hadn’t driven a manual for many years, I kept forgetting to change gear so the car stalled anyway!

Marcillac Vallon

The “red” wine village of AOC Marcillac-Vallon

On a brighter side, Marcillac-Vallon was a pretty and interesting wine village, beautiful hills steeped in vignes though you would need a peg leg to get up and around the rows, we did a few wine tastings, finding the Marcillac Vallon reds to have a slight iron taste as the terroir is red, oxidised soil (in fact all the houses in Marcillac Vallon are made of red sandstone) and after finding a good restaurant, we started to relax and continued to enjoy our day.  But then … on our return drive to the garage,  on a good straight road for once, Sheila suddenly shouted ‘Gendarmes watch out’!  And before I could blink an eye, the guy sprung out from behind a bush with a radar gun pointing at me.  I had slammed on the brakes on Sheila’s warning (reacting quickly this time as she is never wrong on radars), so not sure if I was okay or not, but to date have heard nothing so perhaps she saved my bacon!  Anyway, all was well at the garage with the car back on track but with us feeling very weary after a long problematical day.  We left Lafeuillade en Vezie and were soon climbing the perilous mountain road back to Le Fel in the early evening.  A coach load of walkers had arrived that afternoon, (bet that had fun negotiating some of the hairpin bends),  and were swarming  into the restaurant (probably for the green, warm,  slabby thing). They looked the sort of people who would enjoy that, with a side serving of organic grass and so, with nothing at all to do on the top of the mountain except revel in the glorious scenery and enjoy watching the odd roaming sheep and goat we decided to have an early night and prepare for our departure after breakfast.  We decided that Le Fel was indeed a beautiful location but too seriously dramatic for any kind of  life as we know it Jim!!  To be fair we were entertained at this point by a resident trying to catch two sheep which were re-landscaping his garden so they clearly knew how to entertain their tourists.  It was at this point that Sheila decided that life had now become boring and therefore chose to have an illness about which delicacy prevents me from going into too great a detail but, suffice it to say, that it concerned the digestive system and entailed frequent stops.  Surprisingly these stops weren’t actually a great problem as the automatic gear problems on the car meant that were stopping  every few minutes anyway.  Two birds with one stone as it were.  At least Sheila was no longer complaining about the frequent delays.

Anyway, I think I’d better stop now as I’m well aware that the post is in danger of turning into a book and I’ll continue when I get around to it – It gets worse!!


Holidays in the Loire