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On the Road Again

by Jane Shortall

"Great news. We're coming to France again this summer, hiring a huge camper van and we've just got to meet up…"

"How are you fixed for lunch in Carcassonne in July? We're flying in to look at property around the Perpignan area; we hope to buy something small... “

"Hi Jane. We’ll be near Bordeaux for a couple of weeks again this August — another wine buying expedition! Any chance you'll come up?”

"It’s us… Nice is booked, early September. Come and see us, maybe stay a few days?“

"Hi Jane & Larry, I'm thinking of cycling around some of the Tour de France countryside for the first time. It will be late in the year, when it‘s not too hot. Is there any chance I can stop over — aren‘t you somewhere near the high mountains?"

"A bunch of us are taking a chalet in the Black Mountains, two hours north of Carcassone, late August. Hope you can join us at some point.”

So, once again it begins. The 2007 French holidays have been booked. The phone calls, e-mails and even two snail mails find us here in our tiny hamlet, in the foothills of the Pyrénées, informing us that various chums, family members and in one case, people we have never heard of, will be travelling from Ireland to France this year and all are looking forward to meeting up with us. We two Irish, now living a much simpler life here in the French hills, are still it seems, considered slightly mad, four years after we had done the unthinkable.

We left Ireland at the height of the boom having fallen in love with the Ariège Pyrénées, one of the most beautiful, unspoiled and unknown parts of the French countryside, during a holiday in October 2002. We went back to Ireland and, in a startling move, still not completely understood by some, we sold everything and came to live in this remote part of the country just six months later, in April 2003.

Following our daft and sudden decision to jump off the lucrative Celtic Tiger treadmill and come here, people were, and it appears still are, absolutely intrigued. They love meeting us and hearing about our ‘quiet’ lifestyle. Some even urge their friends to contact us, and they do. People staying all over this vast country get in touch, suggesting we meet up. And we, more than willingly, jump into our trusty Citroen and go.

Soon we will start travelling significant distances across this beautiful countryside to meet with well-travelled people from Ireland, who appear to have absolutely no concept of the size of France. The friends and acquaintances, some of whom have gazed into the Grand Canyon, scuba-dived in Cuba and Israel, been to the Opera in Sydney and who hop over to New York for Christmas shopping, still cannot grasp the fact that it can be anything from a four to a nine hour drive for us to 'nip up and meet'.

But we are not complaining. How could we, as we cruise along traffic free roads, dazzling yellow sunflower fields on either side, heading east to magical Carcassonne or north west to Bordeaux — possibly the most famous wine growing name in the world — to meet good friends, here in mid summer and autumn when the scenery is pure picture postcard?

On the longer drives, over towards Monaco for instance, we, now living a life without time constraints, can stop half way, as we did recently and enjoyed oysters in the Basin de Thau, decided to stay overnight, had another long lunch next day, turning the trip into something of a serious foodie affair.

No matter where our journey takes us, we can always be sure of finding small, affordable hotels, enjoying the superb food and excellent wines of other areas, and best of all, when we say our goodbyes, we head back to our idyll here in the hills, while our dear friends go back to work, the Irish weather and the now famous Irish traffic. (Recently it has been admitted only Calcutta is worse!)

For two people who had allegedly stopped living in the fast lane, last year we began in March with spring visitors here for rugby in Toulouse, we continued through most of the summer meeting up with seven different sets of people, and bizarrely found ourselves still travelling in December, spending the last days of 2006 on the Cote d'Azur with friends, as we welcomed in the New Year.

Judging by this year’s calendar, summer and autumn will be even more hectic. We are going to be away for so much of August, that I am seriously thinking of renting out our house, just like our neighbours do when they go to the sea for the traditional French four-week holiday. I will be over at the sea myself for part of August, meeting a very important young lady, not yet a teenager, who is having her first holiday in France — my niece Fiona.

I adore coming back to the peace of this wild place after travelling around France and normally I am loath to move for a time, especially after a particularly busy period, but two places are so special that there is no thinking involved. You see there are invitations, and then there are invitations. The message that goes:

"We will be in Ville Franche-sur-Mer next month. If you feel like coming over, you have a room” is one that sets the senses tingling. If our relatives in Aups, Provence are in residence at the same time, then joy, as the saying goes, is un-confined.

Because this is a trip that has everything. A nineteen-thirties villa overlooking the dazzling horseshoe shaped bay of Ville Franche, one of the most beautiful of the glamorous Cote d’Azur towns, perched on its hill, yellow, pink, terracotta, blue and green painted buildings basking in the sun. The sparkling Mediterranean, full of yachts and fringed with palm trees. That very special walk between Ville Franche and Beaulieu, peeking through the gates of the fabulous mansions, including one that was once lived in by everyone's favourite rocker. Yes, he who has defied, and some would argue has looked like death, for decades, famously whooped it up here, and still twangs merry hell out of his guitars as the Rolling Stones, senior men all of them, continue to travel the globe.

Leaving Ville Franche, on our way back west to our hamlet in the hills, there is still more to come; a dream stay-over in the village of Aups, a fabulous treasure nestling in the scented land of lavender and olives. A guest of a style guru, designer living of the highest order, classic chic in every corner, and our peaceful room downstairs, which houses surely the world's most comfortable bed. Who could resist? No need to think this one over. The engine is already running.



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