Precious days and a wonderful start to the New Year
When we bought an apartment in South East France in 2004, we spent all our holidays for over a year renovating it. The first Christmas we rented a place nearby so we could work on it every day. That’s when we discovered that New Year’s Eve was a special occasion there, with firework displays all along the coast and mulled wine, music and food stalls on the beach in Collioure, the closest town, with the fishing boats decked in lights. Ever since then we tried to be there at New Year whenever we could. However, our daughter Kiran left school, then home and we lived abroad for two years, so the chance to visit together stopped.
Several years later we were able to visit again. Kiran’s job as a social worker in local government allowed her enough days leave so she could come to us at Christmas, go to her partner’s family and still have time to come to France for New Year. Better still, they could both come. This would involve some coordination and defying Christmas rail work closures. The plan was to rendezvous at the ferry port, cross the English Channel and drive for two days, with two overnight stops. The first night we would stay in a champagne chateau in the heart of the region, where the great wines of Bollinger and Moët et Chandon were produced. We had stayed twice at this place, where Martine Giraud kept the family tradition going by taking bed and breakfast guests in three rooms of her home, and where you can also buy her family’s own excellent value champagne, meant to be a best kept secret. The second night we would stay in a chain hotel in the outskirts of a town near the motorway just past the Massif Central, and hopefully arrive at the house in time to cook and eat supper before the firework shows began.
Brian and I spent a couple of nights with his sister on the English South Coast and then drove to the ferry in Dover. The young people got lucky – three unexpected last-minute train changes and a replacement coach service awaited them on the day they travelled, but they still arrived on time. We were lucky too, as the ferries to other ports in France were cancelled that day (for operational reasons which usually means lack of drivers and crew), but the one we had booked was running. The two-hour ferry crossing was pleasant and uneventful, as was the three and a half hour drive south to the Champagne region.
We were a little worried about how we would pass the long car journeys together but needn’t have. Daughter and partner planned their next holiday, we listened to music and chatted about politics, family members and friends, travel and the year ahead.
La Marotiere in Mareuil-sur-Ay was as comfortable as we remembered it, with palatial suites to stay in. The one disappointment was that the best brasserie I had ever eaten in was closed. They had decided to have a holiday at short notice. So we had to go further afield to eat an adequate but not special meal. However, we did share a bottle of delicious champagne, which helped ease the disappointment.
Breakfasts are always good, with the usual croissants, French bread and jam, but also eggs, cooked meat, cheese, cereals, juice and yogurt, plus the proprietor’s own lime blossom honey. We had a seven hour drive ahead, so could not hang about, much as we loved playing with the owner’s black highland terrier and wandering in the pretty garden.
The second day’s drive was on a mixture of national roads that passed through small towns and bypassed big ones, local roads through archetypal French villages and ending in a motorway drive to the next hotel. We made good time as the roads were not crowded, and were able to stop for well over an hour in the Burgundy city of Auxerre. We bought a picnic to eat by the river opposite the grand cathedral, abbey, church and other majestic buildings that flank the bank. Our picnic was lovely with speciality pizza loaded with chunks of goat cheese and roasted vegetables, a smoked salmon and salad baguette and macaroons. We bought gougères to eat for dinner, a regional speciality- large balls of cheese choux pastry that can be stuffed with vegetables or other things.
We ate a picnic dinner in the hotel rooms with a bottle of champagne we had bought at La Marotiere. Brian found champagne flutes in the supermarket at throw away prices and we had another good meal.
New Year’s Eve found us with just a four hour motorway drive to our house. Unfortunately, three of them were in heavy rain and poor visibility so we could not see the beautiful mountains we drove through, and had to eat lunch in the car. Luckily, Port Vendres was dry and mild and we arrived in time to shop for dinner and walk down into Collioure to see the light show on the sea front and catch the atmosphere. The theme for the night was 1960s and 1970s dress, so there were dozens of hippies milling about. It was interesting to observe what people there found to be the essence of dress in those years, given that Brian and I had lived through them. There were no Mods and Rockers in Collioure, no Op Art, just flower power.
Our New Year’s Eve dinner was memorable. It was just about warm enough to sit out on the terrace for canapes and champagne, before our dinner of onion and emmental cheese crêpes, spinach and goat cheese crepes and salad, followed by a dessert platter of home-made mince pies, Christmas cake, panforte de Siena and fruit…and more champagne.
After dinner we started a game of Monopoly, which we broke to watch the fireworks, but otherwise went on until the first of us gave up and pleaded to end it all. Despite having no skill, no enthusiasm and no strategy I ended up with the most money. I can’t see anything to be learned from that.
The firework display at midnight was spectacular and we had a prime site view from our terrace of the local event, plus four or five others along the coast. The celebration was tinged with sadness as we would have telephoned my mother to greet her in previous years, but she was dead. But it has made us appreciate and value the time we spend with Kiran, with no time for petty squabbles, bad moods or cross words. Best to make every moment count.
We don’t have a New Year tradition as such, but we do like to get outside and walk if we can. Being in the house in France is the perfect place to go walking, and we were spoiled for choice. The weather was even warm and sunny! We are not early risers and by the time we had eaten breakfast it was lunchtime, so we decided on a three hour walk with a stop for a light packed lunch. The walk followed the rocky and steep coastal footpath for several kilometres to the site of a former gunpowder factory, now a heritage site and cultural centre. The site is owned by the local authority so was closed for the bank holiday, but we ate our food on the beach and then took a shorter route back, to make sure we were not walking in the dark. The mild weather and sunshine was uplifting and a great start to the year.
The UK cookery series Masterchef has an ‘Invention test’ where contestants are presented with an array of foods and asked to come up with a stunning dish. We had leftovers and foods donated by home exchangers and no plans, so Kiran, Ed and Brian set to preparing the main course, while I agreed to assemble a dessert platter (the easiest task). The outcome was a cheesy cauliflower and spinach pasta bake, glazed carrots and parsnips, and pan-fried shaved Brussels sprouts with chilli and garlic. Delicious.
Instead of more Monopoly or other board games we opted for some TV watching. Kiran and Ed do not have live television in London, so watch back series of programmes that catch their attention. The latest was a 1990s set of programmes of a TV chef (still alive and cooking) setting up and running a smallholding in the southern English county of Dorset. It’s great entertainment and we watched a few episodes before retiring for the night.
The end of the stay came all too soon, and the young ones had to leave for their flights back to the UK, and to be at work. Brian and I drove them to a regional airport a couple of hours away, where we had booked flights at a reasonable price. It was also very close to a gite (French holiday cottage) where Brian and I had stayed for a week in 1981 on our first car holiday in France. We found a bed and breakfast for the night in almost the same spot and booked it as a pleasant end to our few days with the family. The next day we walked and found the gite where we had stayed, no longer taking guests but looking as we remembered it. The family who owned it still live on the premises and still own the vineyards around. It was another sunny day so we walked a bit before going back to the car and returning to Port Vendres.
One antidote to any gloom that sets in after leaving family, is to research and book more travel. So we started to plan our forthcoming trips to Naples, North Carolina and Australia. That should keep us upbeat for a while, and we feel fortunate that we have the resources to keep travelling. A bonus is that the Young Ones will be able to join us for two weeks in North Carolina, and hopefully fulfil a very small part of their dream to drive across the