La Hune, our family house in south-west France, looks out proud and far across the Arratz valley, having achieved five-star ratings in all reviews in its first few months as a rental house on Airbnb. This makes my daughter Jessie a “super-host”, along with our neighbour Marlene, who looks after the house and receives repeated thanks from guests in their reviews.
The house was built with the local white limestone at latest in the seventeenth century, although one corner has embrasures, or arrow slits, suggesting an even earlier origin since these were defensive features of large stone buildings (notably castles) in French bastide villages from the twelfth century onwards. It was never likely to have been a private residential building, but in the known past it has been a stable, a hunting lodge, a nunnery, an occupying army’s administrative centre, a refugee centre, and a decrepitating ruin. I bought it from a local farmer who had no interest in ruins; he bought a combine harvester with the money. It was renovated to a basic standard and the original structure by an Italian builder who disappeared shortly afterwards, wanted by the Luxembourg tax authorities. Most people are struck when they arrive by its size and grandeur and its unusual sense of space in depth and time.
I drove down with friends Ramon and his wife Colleen, who were on an extended holiday in Europe from New Zealand. En route, we stayed in a cave in the cliff of Tours the first night, where we had an epic French meal, and in a chic apartment a la chinoise in Bergerac the second. Our geo-positional incompetence had made each place ridiculously difficult to find despite our access to hi-tech location software. Alli also came for a week that included the celebration of her birthday and the arrival of her brother Anthony, his son Ollie, and assorted old schoolfriends and rugby enthusiasts. Alli’s visit was made possible thanks to Jessie and Ella’s willingness to look after our dogs, leaving her free for a first genuine holiday for over three years. That didn’t stop her cooking a stupendous spaghetti bolognaise for ten people, showing everyone repeatedly how to work the washing machine, and discussing ideas with Marlene on how to improve the kitchen. The rugger-buggers came to see the World Cup rugby matches in Toulouse and elsewhere and to drink beer and wine, much of which they brought themselves. Ramon wanted to introduce Colleen to the house and refresh his memories of visits there with us and his family over twenty years ago.
For Alli’s birthday we went to a restaurant in neighbouring Bardigues. The Café Iris is superbly located, offers locally sourced food, but has a limited menu and staff. The meal was good, but the magret de canard was overcooked, and my vegan meal relied rather too heavily on pearl barley. We went into Valence to watch the opening World Cup match in the Bar des Bieres, and to St Antoine, where we had a good dinner at La Coquille with Rene and Marlene. We enjoyed the colourful local markets but the previous week’s national return to school had taken the wind from their sales.
Our days consisted of swimming, sunbathing, reading, eating and drinking, and local sight-seeing, activities, de rigueur for La Hune visitors. We also spent a boisterous evening playing a stupid but hilarious game called Hedbanz as a huge electrical storm raged over our heads, lasting all night. We went to the Bardigues village fete dinner, where a brash brass band played French rugby-crowd anthems to the wild delight of the locals. Other traditional brass-band favourites featured, such as that old oom-pah-pah classic, Creep by Radiohead. Neither the food nor the drink seemed a priority.
We visited several local villages: the faux rococo church interior at Lachapelle; the medieval port and Sunday market of Auvillar; the ancient wooden beam-covered market square of Beaumont de Lomagne; the classical and surrealist bastide square of Lauzerte; the sad memorials of Nazi war crimes at St Sixte and Dunes; the market auras of garlic, olive oil, lavender, and chilli peppers at St Antonin Noble du Val; and the unique and original 13th century Albigensian and Gothic bastide of Cordes sur Ciel. The last two places were with Ramon’s ex-brother-in-law, Simon and his wife Jane, who kindly showed us around the village and their amazing five-storey house on top of the sky.
The common green shield bug (Palomena prasine), known in France as la punaise verte, was ubiquitous this year. One suddenly flew up from my laundry pile and crash-landed on my elbow as I typed these words. A long way from its normal habitat, it buzzed furiously like a hornet behind my desk in exasperation at the Sussex weather. I, Ramon, Colleen, and the stowaway punaise had returned to the UK through cool mornings, heavy clouds, driving rain, and highland mists, stopping at Payrac for lunch and Chateauroux overnight, as well as morrow stops in Blois and Vendome, and dinner in Dieppe. A few days later, with Jurrat and Jessie, Alli and I had an enjoyable dinner with the Vitorias at the India Garden in Burgess Hill, and before their departure, I joined them to see the impressive but economical Junodream playing in Shepherd Bush.
Like spires and spirals, ever skywards,