Thursday, 10 April, 2014
There’s much to commend travel by coach, and the benefits outweigh the small disadvantage of an early start. At 7am on the 10th April, the Society of friends of Montargis, Crowborough’s Twinning Association, departed from the Croft Road car park. With bags stowed under the coach, a chauffeur to take care of all the arrangements, and air-conditioning to ensure a comfortable journey (whatever the weather), all the passengers settled into their seats for the 700km journey.
By the time the coach departed, the sun had already risen, and the pastoral vistas across the Sussex and Kent countryside were spectacular. Another benefit of travel by coach; the seats are higher than the tops of most hedges, so little is hidden from view.
And yet another benefit of travel by coach – the sinkhole-sized pot holes that plague almost all British roads are barely perceptible when cushioned by a 30 tonne box riding on air suspension.
After an hour and a half (or thereabouts) of floating, the coach arrived at the Euro Shuttle terminal, and boarded the train. We shared a compartment with two cars, one of which was occupied by a family suffering from acute technophilia; each of the five members passed the journey by engaging with both a laptop or tablet, and a smartphone. Interaction with the physical world appeared to be limited to “comfort breaks”.
In France, the air-conditioning proved vital. Temperatures outside had already reached 20°C, and the sun was intense. After an hour or two, we stopped at a service station for lunch. There was no shortage of food and drink, and most of it was very good. And the service station shops sold most of the things you’re likely to need on a road journey, and quite a few other things that you aren’t.
There were loos, too, but this is France, and public toilets should be visited only in the event of very great need. Good luck if you need to sit down….
Clear roads ensured a quick journey, so we arrived in Montargis before our hosts, although loitering in the French sunshine was no hardship. After the hosts turned up and we were able to enter the reception hall, the eating and drinking began. Cake, savouries, wine, cider; all provided as a gentle preamble to dinner with host families.
Friday, 11 April, 2014
Another early start was necessary on the Friday, for a trip out to the medieval city of Noyers. “City” is a term appropriate only for the period in which Noyers was originally designated as such. By modern standards it would barely class as a hamlet.
Viewing the ancient buildings proved surprisingly hazardous. Despite being a tourist attraction, and having narrow streets, no bypass has been built, so there is a substantial flow of traffic. Fortunately, most of the motorists are familiar with the routine, and are reasonably accommodating of tourists standing in the middle of the road to gawp or take photos.
Many of the buildings are centuries old, although more recent construction is also widespread. On the older buildings the original timbers look so decayed it’s hard to imagine they still perform any useful structural purpose. Maybe they don’t.
Our guide explained to us that there was a tax exempt zone in the town. This was created to relieve the pressure on over-burdened taxpayers, although it sounded suspiciously like an attempt by the lord of the castle to create a property bubble on his doorstep. The tax exempt zone was determined by bowling a ball from the entrance to the castle. Where it stopped determined the extent of the zone and therefore, presumably, the zone in which property prices became extortionate. Our guide didn’t tell us how much money had been raised by the property owners at the peak of the bubble.
Lunch was a short distance away at Auberge La Beursaudiere. As usual, the food was plentiful and very good.
To ensure everyone had the maximum opportunity to get sozzled, lunch was followed by wine tasting at a local cave. It’s probably best not to mention the name of the cave, because most of the wine was truly dire. Tasting began with a Chablis, a white Chardonnay grape wine. To misquote the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’s Marvin, the first wine was the worst, and it went downhill from there.
We had hoped that the red Pinot Noir, beckoning from the farthest table might be worth drinking, but it proved to be the greatest disappointment of all. It was so acidic, it was a wonder that normal glass was sufficient to contain it.
By the end we had identified two tipples that were palatable, one white and one rosé, but they were very much the exception. And not exceptional enough to tempt us to take home more than one bottle of each.
Saturday, 12 April, 2014
Travelling with the twinning society this year was a contingent of chess players. At the official town reception in the morning they presented a spectacular chess board cake, to commemorate their decisive victory over Montargis the previous day.
There were no official engagements in the afternoon on the Saturday, and we travelled with our hosts to Chateau Sully-sur-Loire.
Most of France’s chateaux are extremely well preserved, and this was no exception. In addition to the beautifully appointed rooms, there is a spectacular roof space, in which the roof’s timber structure is visible. Given its age, it’s an accomplished feat of construction. By creating a very high, vaulted roof space with a steep pitch, the need for cross bracing was eliminated. The result is an enormous space that was used historically as a barracks.
When in France, don’t assume all French will make the effort to try and understand your attempts to speak their language. In the town of Sully we attempted to buy some stamps, requesting them from the shopkeeper in, supposedly, his own tongue. His expression suggested we were trying to communicate in ancient Babylonian, so we gave up and asked for the stamps in English. The shopkeeper’s expression didn’t change much, but we did get the stamps.
It has often been said that “the French live to eat, while the English eat to live.” That may overstate things a little, but there’s no doubt the French know their food, and French households often own numerous food-producing gadgets. One of which might be a Raclette. Marvellously simple, but capable of producing wickedly delicious, and exceedingly sociable, meals. Our hosts introduced us to the delights of the Raclette on one of our previous visits, and we enjoyed another on the Saturday evening.
A Raclette is simply a small grill, placed on the table, under which is a space into which several small trays are placed. Each tray is loaded with cheese, of any type the gastronome chooses, and which may include “Raclette”, a cheese specially optimised for use in the Raclette. Cheese in the trays is then melted to perfection. Your waiting plate of cured meats, steak, vegetables, etc. is smothered in the melted cheese, and you proceed to eat. Repeat until replete. Follow up with more cheese and dessert, and accompany with wine and beer.
Sunday, 13 April, 2014
Traditionally, twinning society visits include an enormous meal comprising numerous courses. That is, in addition to the enormous meals comprising numerous courses that are provided by the host families. Sunday’s big meal was scheduled for midday, leaving the morning free to walk off some of the calories in advance.
We took a walk through the town of Montargis, which is appropriately known as the Venis du Gatinais (the Venice of the Gatinais region). Fortunately, most shops are shut on Sunday, preventing the unwary visitor from spending a fortune on patisseries and chocolates. Yes, the food in the shops is so enticing that, even after three days of eating and drinking, it is almost impossible to resist.
Lunch was held in a hall a few minutes from the home of our hosts. We were able to walk there in more of the glorious sunshine, and to return home at the end of the meal in equally good weather. Experience in recent years suggests that Montargis is well located for sunshine.
Monday, 14 April, 2014
Travelling by coach on the return journey back to Crowborough proved as comfortable and convenient as the journey to Montargis. The UK Border Agency provided the only delay, holding us up for about an hour. Aside from wilful inefficiency, the only reason we could think of for the delay was to deprive the shops at the terminal of our custom (by the time we passed through the passport checks, there was no time for shopping). Presumably, all the revenue the shops earn stays in France.
After having just enough time to pop to the loo, we boarded the train for the return journey under the Channel. Half an hour later, we disembarked in Dover, and the chauffeur drove the society back to Crowborough in air-conditioned comfort.