Monday, May 21, 2012

The journey home, a sawdust loo, and an excellent place to stay

I wanted to give a mention and a plug to, and show a few photos of the wonderful chambres d'hôtes where we stayed on the way home from the Pyrenees trip, then that'll be the last of it.

We reckoned we needed to stay somewhere in the vicinity of Fontenay-le-Comte (rather a cool town website this, with a good slideshow banner) on the way home, just going by the itinerary he had plotted from the atlas - we don't do GPS.  We marked the turn as we passed it on the way down, and thought it would be no sweat to reach it on the first leg of our journey back.

The drive from St Jean Pied-de-Port to there on the return trip was mostly horrendous.  We got sent scores of kilometres out of our way on unforeseen diversions for roadworks, the rain beat down in torrents in the slipstream of the lorries most of the way up through Les Landes, we took a wrong turn on the Bordeaux ring road so we were going into the city instead of out if it, then when we came off we couldn't get back on it again, and finished up driving round and round a lifeless suburb.  As I was the navigator and had misread the immaculately planned itinerary, it was All My Fault.  Finally we saw a supermarket in the distance, and drove towards it.  Opposite was a pharmacy, we went in and asked how to get back to the motorway heading out of town. The lady pharmacist stopped, thought hard, took a deep breath and a pencil and paper, and carefully drew us a perfect map, explaining as she did so, which took us effortlessly through a complex network of roads and roundabouts and back onto our route. So the moral of that is, if you want to know the way, ask a pharmacist.  Seriously, we've found this before, I suppose it's because they're trained and experienced in giving clear advice.

We'd barely averaged 30 mph thus far, so we broke with habit and took the toll-paying motorway, which was a breeze and a relief, and we got off, later than anticipated at Niort, but felt confident we were nearly there, since we knew Fontenay was the next reasonable sized town about 15 miles away down a large straight major road.

However, it may as well not have existed.  We saw no signposts to it, and found ourselves yet again driving fruitlessly around a town centre with no clue how to get out of it.  In the end we went most of the way back to where we came in, and on one roundabout sign, below the directions to the local exhibition centre, in very small letters, was the name Fontenay-le-Comte.

When we finally arrived at Dormir ben'aise, our billet for the night, after a more than 8 hour trip, without stopping for lunch but only a quick coffee and then bolting a couple of pains raisins in the car, Cécile, who owns it, confirmed my suspicions as to why the town of Niort fails to acknowledge the existence of its smaller neighbour: because it's in the next département.  Ho-hum. France.

But our disgruntlement evaporated in the delightful atmosphere of the place.

(This one is kind of ironic, I think that's a near-enough correct use of the word, as the small blue oblong thing hanging from the chair contains my reading glasses and is meant to be hanging around my neck. I took this as we were more or less going out of the door to leave that morning, then a mile or two down the road I looked for them to read the map, and couldn't find them.  I didn't know if I'd left them or if they'd been stowed in the boot, so we had to stop, rummage, phone Cécile and ask her to look... it half-crossed my mind to look on the photos, which would have revealed the facts much more quickly. We had to go back for them anyway.)

It was colourful but restful; the ethos was ever so organic, everything restored, repurposed, recuped, recycled. Including the loo.

This was a dry composting system using sawdust.  I've seen a few of these in open air public places, but this was the first time I'd seen one inside a private house.  The sawdust was kept in a container to the left of the loo, and it smelled so sweet, I asked if it was made from cedar wood or something, but apparently it was simply from very freshly cut ash wood.  Once it was sprinkled, that was the only smell there was.  Funnily enough what bothered me more than not flushing was not having a door on the bathroom space, though it was discreetly tucked away...

Much of the this part of the Vendée is vast and flat and agrarian, but then in the south-western corner one comes to the Marais Poitevin, an area of marsh, woodland, natural channels and man-made canals that's been dubbed 'Green Venice'.  Cécile is a former Parisian relocated to the country with her two teenage children, a beautiful warm person with lovely, quirky taste and quite a bit of the erstwhile hippy radical about her.  She and the children love it there, she says - her 18-year old daughter cycles miles out to see her friends in the surrounding area and works in the holidays on the boats which punt about the canals providing green tourism.  Living in the wetlands they are especially aware of taking care of water, not wasting it and keeping it clean; all the household water went onto the garden, where there were chickens and goats and a donkey.  I collected a flask of hot water for morning tea, and breakfast was good bread and jam and coffee, all organic. Cécile lit the old Godin wood stove for us for the evening, and glory be, after a week sleeping in a bottomless concavity of a mattress in the house in St Jean PdP, the bed was marvellously firm.  And there were nightingales which sang in the very early morning.

It's a lovely place to stay, and at a very good price indeed, a good 30% cheaper than any other bed-and-breakfast where we've stayed of recent years.  Cécile says she knows this, the tourist office are always telling her she should charge more, but she prefers to keep the price down, and more often than not people stay on longer and come back.

We were certainly tempted to stay longer, and would have, but Mol, who'd fortunately been OK the week before, was showing signs of discomfort and a flare-up of the infection symptoms  - which had further added to the stress of the journey there - so I was anxious to get her home and to the vet, (who decided against further antibiotics, and she now seems to be recovered and back to normal).  But we mean to go back there one day, and explore the byways and waterways, and if you're travelling that way, I recommend you do the same.

Dormir ben' aise
Les Oisillères
85420 Maillezais /


The next day, we decided to stick to motorways all the way back to Rennes, and thanks to the Duchess Anne of Brittany, who, in the Middle Ages, made a deal that Bretons never never never should  have to pay tolls to Paris, we didn't have to pay anything after we got to Nantes, and got home comfortably in about four hours. 


Zhoen said...

It looks so odd and homey and comfy.

marly said...

Love these quirky little visits...

Roderick Robinson said...

Oh, oh. LdP runs off at the mouth again. There is a further - often untrumpeted - benefit from having a satnav; it allows the navigator to look out of the window from time to time. Otherwise he or she tends to be buried in the Michelin, if not planning then verifying. Beyond that (but this would need explaining in detail) there is a way of using the satnav tactically as well as strategically. Yes, I know, it sounds as if the holiday is being turned into a military exercise but these are just words and refer to ad hoc solutions that would be far more speculative if the map-bound navigator had no means of envisaging the unseen.

Tales about being misguided by satnavs abound. And once down in the remote south-west my satnav did something I could not understand. Once! Compare that with the accidental peregrinations induced by human agency.

You will imagine, in your heart of hearts, this is merely technophile Barrett Bonden speaking from beyond the grave. But satnav does all the romantic things people like to talk about - driving along tiny roads with grass growing in the middle, but with faith in the future - as well as getting round nightmarish bypasses. It is a tool for dawdling and well as engineering a 500-mile blast in the shortest time possible when there's a ferry to catch. End of sermon.

I am delighted to read confirmation of my belief that the French are the best people in the world for giving driving instructions, although in your case you appear to have gone one stage better. Of course there is a requirement to speak French and thus this remains an undiscovered asset to many Brits. The instructions are nearly always concise (thus you are able to hold them in your head) and precise. It sounds perhaps an arid skill and yet for me it ties in with one of the reasons I am drawn to France. Which is... nah, this has already gone on far too long

Lucy said...

Thanks commenters three.

LdP - Satnav was always out of the question for Tom before his hearing was properly corrected. It might be better now, but I'm not sure. I can't imagine ever getting to the level of affectionate familiarity with it that you so beguilingly describe. We actually do like looking at maps, and for longer journeys Tom does make a thorough itinerary, which he enjoys, so I'm not navigating off the cuff, but of course that doesn't allow for diversions, road changes, bits where the map and the actual road just don't seem to have much in common, and there are places, like the Niort/Fontenay horror, where one assumes the roads will be marked clearly and they just aren't. Then there's my own occasional misinterpreting of the directions on the itninerary.

But I think there are just people such as yourself for whom making the acquaintance of new gadgets and gizmos is a pleasure and an interesting challenge, and those of us lazy bastards for whom it is a chore or worse, especially when it involves trying to communicate one's hard wrung knowledge to a recalcitrant partner... Anyway for the amount of car travel that we do I'm not sure it's worth it. But thanks for your imput!

Lucy said...

Oh yes, LdP, French as givers of directions, I remember you making this observation before, and it may be true, but I don't know. Cecile at the B&B tried to give us directions into Fontenay on the way out and wasn't very clear, too hedged about with extraneous detail and what we didn't ought to do, which is what bedevils many such instructions. The other problem with asking a French person the way is a) their penchant for nattering endlessly over things and b) their resistance to admitting they don't know something.

With the pharamcist lady, she was so clear and her diagram so good that in fact minimal French was required; Tom assimilated and remembered her instructions easily and he is easily lost with too much French verbage. I really believe pharmacists and insurance agents are the mainstays of French society.

Crafty Green Poet said...

that certainly looks a delightful place to stay!

Roderick Robinson said...

I'll try and keep this brief. The technology may have initially attracted me but what has mattered most was a determination to make it second nature. I've had three satnavs (one built into an expensive Lexus - that was terrible) over about ten years during which the price dropped from about £1200 to £650 to £120. France has been the great proving ground and I should have added I am also a great cartographile - it was never either/or, I use both: maps for long-range decisions, satnavs for the here and now. Last time, returning from the south we didn't bypass Paris but went straight through it. I sympathise with Tom's hearing problems but useful (vital) info can be read off the screen; such as the welcome: You need do nothing more for the next hour but drive the car straight. Nuff said.

Avus said...

I was going to ask if that delightful stove was more than a mere decoration, but I see that it is.
I prefer maps to satnavs, except in town situations. With a map I can see where I am in relation to everywhere else. Sat Navs do not allow for serendipitous changes of plan to see something on the map which was not in the "plan".

Anonymous said...

Love this post, and the previous ones as well which let me vicariously accompany you on your journey. Cecile's place is my favorite of all. I'm so intrigued by the sawdust toilet. I'd like to build something like that at my shack in Vermont - then I wouldn't have to fear the bears on my way to the outhouse. I shall google instructions. Thank you for all these lovely images and posts.
- alison

zephyr said...

i've loved these posts.
And, i'm with you re gps/satnavs. i've tested them (without purchasing) many times and they have all failed, miserably, where i would need them most--in out of the way places i love to go. i had decided that it might be nice for when we go to the city, assuming that's where they really shine, only to discover that all of them can lead you astray in Manhattan--which is really not a complicated place when it comes to streets. At least not when compared to so many other major cities. Those gadgets are just that--several generations from becoming what they are touted to be. i mean, really... If they can't get it right in NYC, where can one expect them to be accurate??

Unknown said...

A chef whom I used to know advised that the pharmacist in an unfamiliar town was the best source of information on where to eat.

Lucy said...

Thanks all. So the jury's still out on sat nav then.

I wish I'd taken more photos there, but it was all a bit fraught and hurried, and the weather wasn't good.

CGP - you would really love it there!

Alison - I think the sawdust loo is pretty easy to construct, my niece who lives on a boat in Australia uses something similar but more lightweight, ie a bucket! The composting Cecile said she does in three heaps and turns yearly, I think, anyway, I'm sure there's plenty of info on line. I imagine that in Vermont as in the Vendee, sawdust is not hard to come by! Good luck.

Plutarch - I guess they hear about where all the food poisoning happens!