DH wanted to visit Noirmoutier in the Vendee to look for bluethroats. This is the causeway which links the long island to the mainland. At high tide it's submerged, but at low tide, just look what happens!
The whole world, his wife, and his grandmother too, head out to dig for palourdes (cockles in the Old World, mini-clams in the New). It was fascinating to watch them carrying on this age-old harvesting.
The medieval city of Guerande where we stayed had this marvellous gargoyle (among hundreds of others, they're not short on gargoyles in France as a general rule).
Do you think it's a nun or a cat? Or a blend of both? Strange, I thought.
One of the most unusual experiences was stopping at a petrol station on the way down the autoroute. These aires or rest stops are pretty busy, crowded places, the last location for anything charming or gentle or indeed unexpected. But what would you call this?
A whole meadow of sweet peas, right between the petrol pumps and the exit road. No, really. I couldn't believe the incredible scent and just had to get down and lie among them. For heaven's sake, I didn't know sweet peas could hold their own out there in the real world! Where I live they have to be cosseted and coaxed into blossom and then revered and sheltered. Here they were fighting cheerfully and giving tough remarks to the few invading poppies. Must be the sunshine which was growing stronger the further south we headed.
Nipped past the medieval city of Carcassonne, famed in many a blockbuster novel. We know its traffic jams of old, so contented ourselves with taking a quick view or two as we kept going.
Because I couldn't wait to get to the Pyrenees. I'd been thinking of them for months, dreaming of the wonderful moment when you stare at the clouds floating far ahead on the horizon and then slowly realise that they're not clouds, they're the snow-capped peaks of that great barrier between France and Spain. Once you're past the congested city of Lourdes, the road gets quieter (not surprisingly, since it also gets extremely narrow and exceptionally twisting). But it's balm to the soul and to the heart to be back there among the wild ravines and crags. You breathe easier in that amazing mountain air.
This of course is the awe-inspiring Cirque de Gavarnie, a sheer cliff face rising into the sky as the most formidable barrier imaginable. (One generally avoids the over-used term 'awe-inspiring', but this is one example of where it is justified.) Can you imagine a weary pilgrim on the way to Santiago de Compostela from Paris or London or anywhere else in northern Europe, taking a wrong path at the last minute and ending up facing that? Because of course there are narrow and dangerous paths some way on either side of the impassable Cirque which will take you over the peaks into Spain. And a road for cars too, nearer to Biarritz. But I still like to think of those who sought safety and refuge by crossing the mountains from one country to another in harsher, more uncertain times. The same thought occurred when flying across America some years ago, and looking down on the appalling tumbled mass of rocks and peaks that faced the early pioneers heading for California. What did the women feel when they looked at the way they would have to go, and then looked at their children, their own aching, weary feet, their remaining baggage? By that time of course to return would have been impossible, so going on was the only option.
Oh I have to show you this one. If you're thinking of trading up on your house, wait until you've explored this opportunity. I'm being fairly generous sharing it with you, because I saw it first and I want it, I want it, I WANT IT!
This desirable residence is way up in the Pyrenees, in the Vallee d'Ossue, not far from Gavarnie. No, I actually didn't notice any electricity cables or indeed water pumps, but I'm sure it has all the conveniences the true romantic would need. Wouldn't you agree? And of course happy wildlife all around to keep you from being lonely.
I loved the way Mama Marmot was placidly gazing at the view here while her children murdered each other in the background. It's the same in every family, isn't it?
What was more unexpected in the wildlife line came as we were traversing an extremely streep and narrow road down from the heights, finding extreme difficulty in navigating through heavy cloud which had descended and masked everything more than a few inches in front of the car. At times you literally couldn't see the road - and since there was a rock wall on one side and a vertical drop of a few hundred feet on the other, that was kind of worrying. There was even snow banked up in some places. And then, quite suddenly -
these appeared out of the mist, crossed the road in front of us, and then paused politely on the hillside to allow DH to let go of the steering wheel and grab his camera (I, meanwhile, grabbed the handbrake and pulled it. Hard.) Now what are the odds of finding three llamas crossing your path? Is it good luck or what? A sign?
A few kilometres further down, the mist lifted and we were back in brilliant sunshine. With gentians. Now Celtic Memory's favourite colour is undoubtedly bright blue and gentians hit the spot precisely.
This is the sock I was working on during the trip. An Austrian twisted-stitch design which isn't quite finished yet. (Have you ever tried working twisted stitches on switchback roads?) When I do finish and wear these, I will always remember the gentians.
Down from the heights, a sharp turn right, and eventually you hit the South of France. But not, alas the glamour of St Tropez. DH had his eye and his heart set on the Camargue and a particularly hot and dusty plain known as La Crau.
La Crau is where you send cars for punishment. If yours is acting up, give it a week on this and it will come home begging for mercy. Small vicious rocks cover the ground almost entirely, with dry red dust trying to make a living between. Occasionally huge flocks of sheep, their fleeces stained red by the dust, wander past, ensuring nothing else can grow very fast or for very long. On colder winter nights the sheep stay in tiled barns like the one shown here. Which also play host to lesser kestrels in the roof space. Which is why DH spent an entire very hot day there.
But I didn't mind. The south of France meant we were within easy striking distance of historic Orange.
Stunning place with all its ancient remains, and quite a charming place to spend an evening too. Quite close to Avignon and all its sights, but out of the really huge crowds of tourists. And at dawn next morning I was waiting impatiently at the gates of a very old mill a few miles north.
I'd been determined to get here, ever since the French trip was mooted, but DH had thought it was too much out of our way. Ha! I knew once I tempted him with the Camargue I was home and dry!
Pierre Loye et Cie has been on this site for about two hundred years, spinning those wonderful yarns for Anny Blatt and Bouton d'Or. And they have a factory shop...
Although it wasn't supposed to open until 11, the staff took pity on me knitting so very obviously outside their gate, and let me in early, through the back door. Yes, I had a lot of fun. No, I have no intention of telling you how much I spent. Some things are better not recorded.
We came back up through the Cevennes (remember Robert Louis Stevenson's Travels With A Donkey?), another place I love a lot. It has deep gorges and tiny villages clinging to hillsides as they have done for hundreds of years. If you enlarge this picture (I think you can by clicking on it) you will see what appears to be a strange huge figure standing up there on the crags above the village. It gave me quite a shock when I glimpsed it. Didn't know Bigfoot holidayed in Europe!
Even found time to drive through the magical forest of Broceliande, where Merlin lies buried and a thousand legends waft around the sacred fountain. This is another powerful place, although the little villages are starting to build on its reputation a little too much with a lot of pseudo-magical mystery stuff and souvenir shops. Can't blame them, though, really.
And so back home, coming into Cork in the early morning where the weather was cool and damp after France but the Continental visitors crowded the deck to look at Cobh and its cathedral, and all the brightly-painted houses spilling down the steep streets to the shore. Cobh was, of course, the last port of call for the Titanic, but you knew that.
And home to a wonderful surprise. De New Book had arrived! A special advance copy was waiting in the letterbox. You can see what it looks like up there at the top of the page. It was a long, hard slog (as is every book for every writer) but holding the finished product in your hands for the first time is always incredible. And, despite all our fears, the sepia tints and black and white pictures did work most effectively.
Don't you think? Oh I can't disguise it, I'm as proud as Punch! What started out to be a fairly simple and easy overview of fairy tales and legends took its own path and insisted I explore the old ways and old beliefs of Ireland, showing how they are still there, still practised, still to be found. And that's what it became.
Oh look, why not show you this? I got DH to take it in St Malo. The sign is pointing the way to the ancient House of Poets and Writers. And I thought well if not now, when?