PC 18 Memories of ……. Quercy!

Well, it could have been “A year in Provence” but then my name is not Peter Mayne and it was only 4 days! Still, I thought you might like to hear of our latest trip in the middle of nowhere, some 60kms north north east of Toulouse. The city of Toulouse is the home of French rugby, of Airbus Industries, famous for its sausages and the surrounding region lives on Foie Gras!! I liked Foie Gras until I learned more about how it is produced and the idea of eating it got rather ‘stuck in my throat’!

The historic village of Brunequel stands on a rocky outcrop overlooking the confluence of the Averyon and Vere rivers, in the southern part of the Quercy region. Occupied for its geographical importance since the early C9th, two castles were eventually built on the top, one by a Protestant family and one by a Catholic family.

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The crusade against the Cathars in the early C13th was focused further south around Carcassonne and bypassed Brunequel, but the village was not immune to the various religious wars that washed through this nation and these castles, being only about 20 metres apart, were often in conflict! The guidebook says that the village ‘went to sleep’ in the C17th and it’s only today that the village is being restored, with tourists flocking to see Les Châteaux de Brunequel.

The English love France and many buy property here, so much so that some parts of southern France, the Dordogne for instance, are very ‘English’. The French are happy to leave rundown country properties and head for the towns; the English like nothing more that renovating some centuries old ‘ruin’ for their holiday home. David, our host with experience of renovations in England, bought La Verrouille near Brunequel some nine years ago. A part of the place was so run down that someone christened it ‘Beirut’ – reflecting on the similarity with that Lebanese city during its civil war! Today it is a glorious country mansion, with a huge guest wing, swimming pool, deconsecrated chapel, boule pitch and lake where, in the warm sunshine, bright blue and scarlet dragonflies flit across the surface. The house encourages David to have guests; two other couples, the men old Army chums of David, joined us.

The main thread running through the couples was that all the men had served in the British Army, some for more years than they cared to remember, or could actually remember! Ah! Not the only thread – we are/were all sailors of some sort. These factors alone ensured that everyone mucked in, helped prepare food, uncorked the wine, cleared the table, and generally made our stay run smoothly, with David overseeing everything.

We need some chopped chives to put on the freshly-picked Girolle mushrooms that Henri the gardener had suddenly produced from his wanderings in the nearby woods, and Dominique had taken charge of cooking. “Oh! It’s so much easier to cut them with scissors” says Isabella, watching Dominique start to cut them with a knife. Dominique, a native of Provence, looked over her glasses: “But surely” she says with her wonderful French-accented English “a knife is better, non?”, rather surprised that someone had challenged a Frenchwoman in the kitchen! A discussion ensued about how a really sharp knife is the absolute must in a kitchen, either in France or indeed in Northern Ireland!

If you live in a part of the country where a certain fruit or vegetable is in abundance, someone invents a device to aid its preparation for eating or cooking – think mandolin or mezzaluna for instance. Well, I thought I had seen most gadgets but David’s apple skin remover/corer/slicer was something else. Perfectly uniform sliced apples are needed for the French Apple Tart, so someone invented the right device. Looking rather like a design by William Heath Robinson (Google him if you’ve never heard of him!), it is so ingenious. You simply place the apple on a three-pronged fork on a spindle, and turn a handle. The apple meets a skin-removing blade, is cored and then sliced by another blade. All you have to do is cut it in half – with a sharp knife!

And no home is complete without a dog and/or a cat. Magic, a 6 year old Labrador, would immediately fall in love with you, provided you gave her a tasty morsel or threw her ball, or stick, ……. or flowerpot! Don’t you just love that trait in a dog? On the other hand, the cats, three in all and rather outdoor than indoor cats, loved playing with each other but with us mere humans would remain rather aloof.

The C21st has arrived in France like everywhere, but country internet speeds and coverage are not wonderful in La Verrouille. There was an amusing sight in the morning, outside David’s office where his router was sited. Three of us would arrive, brandishing our iPads, and, having got connected, would sit on the floor and check our emails or download our digital copy of The Times. It was a little like a doctor’s waiting room! I half expected David to open the door and shout: “Next!”

David is the most wonderful raconteur. He possesses that gift of making any story amusing, holding your attention even if, occasionally, the subject is very mundane. He told how a local priest and his young boy came to collect some bees that had nested in the attic of the main house. The removal of the nest and its queen bee, and her accompanying workers, was a delicate affair, although it eventually involved a winch, a length of rope and some luck ……. before the nest and its bees were in the back of the priest’s car. “How many bees are we talking about, David?” asked Bill. “The priest reckoned about 14,000. There’s another one up there. Do you want to take a look?” So we all climbed up into the attic expecting at any moment to hear the buzzing of some bees. Actually they nest in between the windows and the shutters, so you could see them easily but safely – maybe another few thousand! Up close, what an amazing sight!

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Dinner in the evening was on a terrace of the old chapel. A round dining table encourages all sorts of chat and yes, as the evening wore on and the sun set, the stories got longer and more elaborate: “Do you remember Caruthers? God! Haven’t heard from him for thirty years; pinched my drill boots at Sandhurst. Well, let me tell you ……….” I don’t think anyone else knew Caruthers, but it didn’t really matter as the story unfolded and the wine flowed! Magic put his head on the lap of someone whom she knew would be seduced by the doleful eyes, and a cat rummaged amongst the cooling coals of the BBQ. The sound of a tree frog competed with David’s mellifluous tones ….. “Ah! Yes, that reminds me ……..”.

Life can be so so good!

Just some scribbles …….

Richard Yates – richardyates24@gmail.com

P.S. La Verrouille is up for sale, as David looks to return to the west country in England. If you want to see the beautiful mansion we stayed in …….  and/or would like to buy it, go to www.french-property.com/vp/nv/id/12767 or go onto the internet and search for La Verrouille, Brunequel.

PC 17 (Pre Card!) The Pantanal

My dictionary tells me that the word ‘postcard’ was originally used to describe a regulation size of card that could be sent by post. I had thought it was connected with the prefix ‘post’ meaning after or behind ie something you sent having been somewhere!! It’s a pity because I wanted to call PC 17 a ‘pre’ card; something you sent before going somewhere!

In 1996 I read the latest John Grisham novel called The Testament. I always enjoy his stories, for they are good stories, not heavy and ponderous ….. and a very satisfying  read. This particular book centres around the last ‘will and testament’ of an extremely rich American, who leaves all his money to an illegitimate daughter ….. whom no one in his large family of ex-wives and squabbling children has ever heard of. “Rachel Lane” works for the World Tribes Missionary and is somewhere on the Brazilian/Bolivian border in a region known as The Pantanal.

The what? I had never heard of it! As the story progresses, my knowledge of The Pantanal increased. There was no reason for Grisham to invent things about it to fit his story, as the place naturally exudes superlatives. The memory of that book and the pivotal part The Pantanal plays in the story have stayed with me. What I didn’t imagine was that fifteen years later I would have the opportunity to visit this vast and extraordinary place. I’m no latent naturalist but the idea of maybe seeing jaguar, caiman or an eagle in the wild is appealing.

The statistics are somewhat amazing! With a total area of almost 75,000 square miles (compared with the overall size of the United Kingdom at 94,000 square miles), The Pantanal is the largest wetland in the world. The vast majority of it is in Brazil but it also extends into Paraguay and Bolivia. As such an enormous tropical wetland, The Pantanal is a very precious resource for Brazil, and home to an array of plant and animal species. It is estimated to contain some 1000 bird species, 300 mammals and 9000 invertebrates. Because about 80% of The Pantanal is submerged during the wet season, the species here include aquatic ones, making it an even more diverse and fascinating destination.

As Grisham describes it:

At 4000ft the majesty of the Pantanal suddenly appeared as they passed through a large ominous cloud. To the east and north, a dozen small rivers spun circles around and through themselves, going nowhere, linking each marsh to a hundred others. Because of the floods the rivers were full and in many places ran together. The water had differing shades. The stagnant marshes were dark blue, almost black in some places where the weeds were thick. The deeper ponds were green. The smaller tributaries carried a reddish dirt and the great Paraguay river was full and as brown as malted chocolate. On the horizon, as far as the eye could see, all the water was blue and the earth green.”

Being an electronic card, I thought I could add this wonderful photograph from space showing where The Pantanal is, and its size in relation to Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay.

Earlier this year we were sitting in Rio, contemplating coming back in September and what we might do during a 5 week trip. We had thought Celina’s parents would have come to England to escape the football World Cup but the flights proved just ridiculously expensive, so that idea was canned. Then we thought we could all go on a trip to The Pantanal! There was a ‘coffee table’ book showing the most amazing photographs of The Pantanal and one evening we looked through it, rather spellbound! In the end we couldn’t persuade Celina’s parents to join us, put off possibly by the difficulties to actually getting there.

Grisham: “Hundreds of rivers and streams like veins through the swampland. No towns or cities in The Pantanal. No roads. A hundred thousand square miles of swamp.”

In addition to the enormous variety of wildlife, The Pantanal is home to large herds of domestic cattle. First developed 200 years ago, they are raised on farmsteads called fazendas by pantaneiros (not the same ones of course!). Some of the owners of the fazendas have realised there is money to be made from ecotourism and now there are many centres for excursions into the wetlands. Some are only accessible by boat, all by light aircraft.

One particular one was recommended by a chum, and we leave Rio on 18th September 2014 for a few days on the Barranco Alto fazenda……. and no doubt there will be a real postcard for those of you interested!

Richard Yates – richardyates24@gmail.com

P.S. “Rachel Lane” was eventually found deep in The Pantanal, administering to a tribe. For those of you who haven’t read this particular John Grisham novel, it’s the only way you’ll find out what transpires in the end!!