Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The wrong day

Papa Noel handing out gifts

an expectant crowd gathers

L to R   Lisa, Clare, Liis, Marcos, Hawys and Nessa

busy in the kitchen

Christmas Dinner on the wrong day!!

Christmas caught me by surprise this year.  I was quite happily going about my day until just before lunchtime on Christmas eve when I realised that all the preparations were being made for a huge dinner that night.  The French celebrate early, with a large, Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve and give all their presents then too.

The kitchen was already well under way with preparations, but I hadn’t really noticed because all my duties revolve around serving dinner at the moment.  Instead of the usual place settings, the tables were decorated in appropriately for the occasion.  Red cloth, serviettes, a sprinkling of snow and sparkly stars, extra glasses, it all looked very festive.  

The children were fed early, to allow their parents time to enjoy their meal in peace.  Just as they were finishing their meal there was a knock at the window and Papa Noel was there in his red and white outfit with a big fluffy white beard.  He came in and found a comfy chair in front of the fire and began to hand out presents.  Every one gathered round, the children, already over excited by an afternoon in the snow and family present opening before dinner, didn’t really know what to do, they were jumping about shouting ‘Papa Noel’, ‘Papa Noel’, looking at their parents then checking that he was still there.  He produced present after present from a large sack, calling out every name in the room, all the guests, children, helpers and staff got one.  He wished everyone a Happy Christmas, the french simultaneously burst into song as he left, singing a great festive song, he had a small glass of wine and was gone.

Several minutes later, Joe, one of the helpers returned to the room, still wearing his santa hat and continued helping with the evenings entertainments, mission accomplished.

Canapes of pate, salmon, cheese and celery and sausage rolls were served along with a kir, to get the evening started.  Everyone was then seated at the long table for the Christmas meal.  It was delicious.  Cauliflower soup followed by prawn cocktail, roast turkey with all the trimmings, roast parsnips and potatoes, mashed sweet potato, carrots with garlic, savoy cabbage in a white sauce and lardons, bread and cranberry sauce and lashings of gravy.  

Traditionally english fare, we had to explain several of the dishes and show the way with the gravy.  It started at the far end of the table with several french people taking a spoonful and carefully tipping it over their meat.  It soon passed through an english group who poured from the jug until their plates were awash, by the time it reached the other end of the table the original recipients were asking for more.  Bread sauce is a wierd one, why would anyone take perfectly good bread and turn it into a white mush and serve it with roast meat? very strange, and jam? jam with a roast?  I am sure that they do similar things in french cuisine but cranberry sauce was approached with a certain amount of caution.  

A gin and tonic sorbet was then served in wine glasses and I am sure that most people thought that was the end of the meal.  Delightfully refreshing, cool and a great break within the whole christmas dinner meal.  No sooner than it was finished than the Christmas puddings appeared, unfortunately not flaming, but impressive none the less, supported by brandy sauce and custard all in proper British quantities.

Cheese and coffees were served but I saw none of that, with 30 plus place settings to wash up, along with all the kitchen tidying, Liis and I had more than enough to contend with.  Joe, Marcos and Hawys also chipped in, even though they had been working hard through their shifts during the rest of the day.

We got done soon after the guests had retired for the night and relaxed in front of the fire with a well earned drink and a sneaky smoke up the chimney.  It had begun to snow outside, a stillness enveloped the valley and slowly, through the night, everything was covered with a clean white blanket of snow ready for Christmas morning.

Monday, December 28, 2009

There is skiing to be done

A belated Merry Christmas to you all
may you be eating, drinking and being merry
through the Holidays

A whole hillside to play on
Clare admiring the view
I look totally wooden here, but the skiing is energetic
That is your actual French!!
Another light snow fall outside Chalet Lou Rider.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

officially open

It looks like a field, but is in fact the carpark, freshly cleared of snow.  
Chalet Lou Rider is on the far left of the picture.

Empty pistes and a glorious view

Hello everyone, I've got my skis and I'm going to use them.

A snow canon doing its job

Sunset from the chalet

The day we have been waiting for since we arrived is now here.  The ski resort of Saint Lary Soulan is now officially open.

Alarms were set last night and those of us who wanted to ski, or snowboard, were up at 7.30 this morning.  Sunny skies and another light fall of snow overnight set the scene.  Marcos mopped the floors, Jo sorted the fire and washed up breakfast things, I cleared the terrace of snow and at 9.00am we went to get our ski equipment.  Some great Salomon carver skis for me and boards and boots for the other two.

I was excited to be heading up to the slopes, but nothing compared to the other two, Marcos is from Brazil and has never experienced snow before, let alone snowboarding,  it is Joe’s first time too, he is a proficient longboarder, similar to skateboarding but on a longer board with wheels.  Their excitement was intoxicating, just the ride up the mountain in the bubble lift, looking out over the snow covered mountains would probably have been enough, but they wanted more.  After six weeks talking about it, watching videos and being in the mountains with all the snow around, all they needed to do was get on their boards and go.

And they did.  After a few failed attempts to master a button lift, the operator suggested that we used a chair lift and that they practice balance and control on their boards before trying a button lift again.  I talked them through getting on the lift and lowering the safety bar so that none of us plummeted from the swinging chair into the snow below, we studied the form of skiers and boarders on our ride up, enjoyed the view across the resort to the snowcapped mountains in the distance, cursed at the bitter snow from the everblasting snow canons and checked out some of the other routes down the mountain, there seems to be plenty here to explore and that is before we even got to the top.  Getting off a lift is a tricky affair so I prepared them the best I could to avoid a mass pileup at the top.  The beginners managed the dismount in style, without tumbling or mucking up at all, hopped aross to the top of the piste like only snowboarders do, buckled their feet firmly to their boards and were off.  Momentarily.  By the time I had my camera ready they were both flat on the snow.  It didn’t put them off at all.  Again and again and again they managed to stand, balance and topple to the floor again.  Like watching born foals trying to stand for the first time.  

I left them to it for a while and went off to find my ski legs again.  They hadn’t gone far and returned very fast.  Off down the easy blue run, a little cautiously to start with and then with a bit more speed.  What a feeling to be gliding over the snow with the breeze whistling and the sound of skis on the piste.  The surface was wonderful, newly groomed and constantly topped up by the snow canons, they do an excellent job providing extra snow, but ski through their vapour cloud and you know it, bitter cold sticking snow that gets in through the smallest chink in your clothing and lets you know who is in charge on the mountain.  After the first couple, I avoided their drift wherever I possibly could.  To the bottom and back up again.

I did the same route again, mainly to check up on the newbies but also because the second time down a run is often better than the first,  knowing where the bumps and turns are, getting a feel for the snow and just because it is.  I was surprised how far I had to go to find Marcos, he was nearly half way down, sat on his arse when I spotted him, but obviously getting the hang of his board.  Joe was already at the bottom when I got there the second time.  Loving every moment and like a duck to water, he was grinning from ear to ear, covered in snow, cold and having the best time ever.  We went round again before I headed off to enjoy some more of the mountain.

To be continued....

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

and it snowed

Looking past the ski station to Chalet Lou Rider, the small building in the distance

The view from the chalet across the valley

Chester dog waiting to play tennis

Marco and Joe with their homemade snow board

Hurrah for snow cannons

Monday, December 14, 2009

I’ve been here a few days and feel quite settled. There still isn’t enough snow for the resort to be open yet, although it has been snowing off and on for the last 2 hours or so, just light fine snow, and the cannons have been running non stop, creating huge piles of snow that are then spread out by huge machines that grunt up and down the slopes getting things ready.

At the chalet everyone is working towards the arrival of the first guests. Most things have been done, everything is clean and smart, we painted the bar, decorated Christmas trees, tidied unnecessary things away and are now familiarising ourselves with how everything works. Claire, the owner is relaxed about the whole affair and is happy for us not to be doing a huge amount of work as she knows that we will be doing more than enough when the season kicks off. Hawys is here to do the cooking and is very good at it. Marco, Joe, Liis and I are all help exchange and are here to do everything else, cleaning, room changes, clearing snow, working the bar, washing dishes, helping in the kitchen lighting the fire, walking Chester the dog and generally making sure that everything gets done.

There are 11 polish workmen staying at the moment, they are out working on some apartments down the road all day and return for dinner in the evenings. They keep themselves to themselves and are very little trouble. Good for us for a bit of housekeeping practice in preparation for next weekend and beyond.

Have been out exploring a couple of times and the place looks amazing, especially now that it has had a good dusting of snow. The chalet is almost on its own with a couple of small bars just up the road by the lift, along with a ski rental shop and a huge carpark. It sits on its own looking out over the valley, left goes down with an amazing view of the peaks in the distance and right, 100 meters to the lifts then up into the ski area and beyond. I can’t wait to get up there and explore.

There is small village about three kilometers away, Pla d’adet where the cable cars arrive from the main resort, St Lary, down in the valley. It is mainly closed at the moment, though poised for action the minute there is enough snow for the lifts to open. We walked there along a small track through the trees and had a good nose round. Plenty of bars, a couple of small expensive supermarkets, a collection of apartment blocks, chalets a small hotel and loads of slopes for ski action. The views out into the mountains are breathtaking. The three areas are easily accessible by car and are all interconnected by lifts and pistes when skiing, so plenty of places to get to know in the coming months.

Friday, December 11, 2009

on the road again

The helpX ski combo is here and real. I arrived at Chalet Lou Rider this afternoon and it feels good so far. Flew Ryanair back to Pau again and caught the train on the same route as I did six months ago, although got off earlier than Toulouse and headed into the mountains on a local bus. Up onto the foothills through little villages more than slightly reminiscent of my trip earlier in the year, reminding me of heading to Justins and also to Jeremys, both in the same mountains. The most striking difference is that the mountains are covered in snow and the countryside has a grey winter sheen across the fields and forests. A surprisingly large number of inflatable plastic Santas climbing ladders and wobbily balancing on rooftops bring the reminder that Christmas is just around the corner, they add a bit of colour to the grey outlook. 16 days and it will all be over, what a frightening thought, I have hardly realised that is autumn yet, even though the weather has been cool and grey back home, though none of that winter cold just yet. Reminders of the summer were still evident in the lower areas, pumpkins glowing orange in their fields, geraniums, clinging onto the last vestiges of warmth in sheltered corners, the waving leaves of a banana plant in a protected garden. I have left all that behind and for tonight, and probably the next few days will be living just below the snowline, high up in the mountains. There is a little snow at chalet level, just a dusting here and there and the odd pile where it must have collected and slid down off a roof or gulley. Plenty further up the mountain which is looking great. More is on the way I am promised.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Back in England

I am back in the UK for a while, catching up with family and friends and deciding what to do whilst waiting for my visa appeal to be processed.

I read on line a while ago that it could take 16months, which is a bit of a drag.

Considering getting a job, but helpexchange keeps on tugging. Have just found a ski chalet that needs help in the New Year, so may well be back off to france for a while. Unless, of course, something else turns up to tickle my fancy. It is strange planning my life in such small chunks. I am enjoying the journey and having great fun.

It is amazing what can be packed into a year, or a rucksack for that matter. Have a scroll down the posts and see what I have been up to. If you want to know more, leave a comment and I'll get back to you, or if you know me you could even give me a call.

Thanks for visiting and reading, whether it be avidly or occasionally, you may even just check out the photos. I don't mind, it's just nice to see you here sometime. enjoy what you do, look after yourselves and travel safely.



Thursday, October 22, 2009

the floor in the forge

clearing the way to put a new floor in.

levelled floor with all the water and electricity cables carefully laid underneath

Layers of insulation, panels of compressed cork waste.

Underfloor heating pipes being laid. To be fuelled by heat exchange from water in the well.

finished slab of a chalk, sand and gravel mix drying for three weeks before the tile floor goes down.

I won't be there for that ...... good luck Nicholas.

villefranche market

Nun jam

Multicoloured market in a medieval square

Fresh Farm produce

Streets of Najac and distant tower

Najac houses almost balanced on their hill

A Wednesday outing to celebrate the tower roof being finished. Well, not really finished, but watertight for the first time in about 30 years. All the old slate tiles have to be regraded, shaped and replaced, but that is a job for the lucky helpers next year.

Our day out started with a drive to Villefranche, a historical old town that was constructed by a french king in order to close down another local town that was not towing the line. Instead of a battle, he simply set up a town and let it be known that there were no rents to be paid for houses, and minimal taxes on goods produced. The merchants of the day soon moved the twenty kilometers or so to their new quarters and the town of Najac fell into a quick demise. It was not the only time that the townsfolk made the wrong decision, they chose the Cathar religion rather than catholicism when sides had to be taken and later backed the king during the run up to the revolution.

We bought croissants and pastries from one street market and went to a bar for breakfast. They were quite happy to serve us tea and coffee whilst we ate our own food and watched the world go by.

The main fruit and veg area is held in the old square in front of the cathedral. Big farms, little farms, nuns selling jam and cakes, old guys with cages of birds, farmers with saussicon, cheeses, nuts, all in glorious technicolour, techni-taste and techni-smell, wonderful. Nicholas and Heath took a break whilst I did my tourist photo thing and picked up a few heirloom tomatoes to increase the seed stock for next year.

On to Najac for a wander round the old town, it probably hasn’t been much developed since Villefranche was invented, so rather picturesque and restored now that it is on the tourist trail. Not particularly fortified but well protected on its narrow ledge bounded by the river. Small cobbled streets and tall buildings, a grand cathedral and even grander tower all almost piled on top of each other to escape falling down the steep sides of the valley. We had a good look round, got thrown out of the cathedral because the priest wanted to go for lunch, 12 to 2.30 just like everywhere else. Eyed up a few old ruins in need of a few thousand euros and a bit of tlc before finding a restaurant to have lunch ourselves. A good soup, toulouse sausage and saute potatoes and a superb creme brulee all washed down with a local drop of rose.


The walnuts keep falling and we keep picking them up. It started with a few every morning about a month ago, now there are hundreds of them, crates and crates. We put them all out in the sun in the morning and carry them into the bottom of the tower to keep dry at night. If it rains they stay inside all day.

They are an important crop, I have tasted the ‘Vin de Noix’, a fortified wine aperitif, flavoured with walnuts, and know why they are prized. Not to mention the walnut oil, two kilos of shelled nuts gives one litre of the most wonderful tasting oil, beautiful on salads and just nuts. Walnuts on their own, with cheese, before a meal, after a meal. The village elders have a few each morning and swear that they are good for keeping an active memory. They look a little like a brain, so that is good enough for me.

The chickens love them and chase anyone who helps pick them up in case they find a broken one or inadvertently step and break a shell. If they see one being broken, they are there, ready to snatch whatever you have in your hand, discarding the shell and taking every last morsel.

Sunday, October 18, 2009


there is a glitch in the system somewhere. I have written a post three times and when I try and upload the photos, the whole thing disappears. So I give up for today.

Will give it another go in a day or two, until then I shall enjoy the remains of my Birthday and put some photos on Facebook instead.

Returning to the UK on Wednesday 21st October, hope its warmer there than it is here....

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Cistercian Towers

Aveyron River Gorge

The Belgians Tower

The Tower at Bonnecombe

Bonnecombe Abbey

NIcholas spends much of his free time researching the history of his tower to find out what its role was and how it fits into the history of the area.

We spent most of Saturday visiting the Abbey central to region, at Bonnecombe, and another restored tower, owned by a lovely Belgian couple, overlooking the river Tarn.

It as amazing to consider how far the monks travelled on foot and by mule cart to take care of their lands. The Abbey was a good hour away by car and the other tower, another forty five minutes or so further on. We wound our way up and down steep valley sides and through quaint old villages with narrow streets, ancient stone buildings and little hump backed bridges constructed centuries before the car was even invented. Through wooded areas, farmland and not much more, rural France is vast and seemingly unending, although the terrain does alter from time to time.

The towers were outposts for the Abbey, homes to the monks that oversaw the local tenant farms. Often incorporated into local farms and usually with large storage barns. They collected rents, rendered justice and controlled the local population. During times of unrest, they were fortified and well defended, many towers being extended upwards to provide better vantage points and with additional walls added for courtyards and security when required. I have spent many hours unearthing their foundations and learning how to spot differences in stonework through the ages, the latter being useful during our expedition, although the tower we visited has been almost completely rebuilt as it was in such a state of disrepair. The Abbey is nestled in a wonderfully tranquil valley, close to a river and seemingly miles from anywhere. It to had fallen into disrepair and was partially rebuilt quite a while ago and has had a variety of uses since then. Much of the decent stone was ‘liberated’ by locals for their own building projects, as happened everywhere, but the current buildings are impressive and great plans are afoot to improve the number of people visiting and enjoying the space.

The Belgians were excellent hosts, providing a wonderful lunch and giving us a comprehensive tour of their property. Restored from a couple of crumbling walls, with the guidance of some old photographs and the efforts of a local builder, they now have a wonderful home. We went for a stroll round the village to walk off lunch and chatted with the locals, a really welcoming little village, steeped in history and with fabulous views. The tower had been associated with the requisition of wine for the Abbey and the tradition continues. A local family was preparing to harvest and had gathered everyone from every generation to come and help, from great grandparents to teenagers, they were all their to help, and in the middle of their celebratory lunch, but we were invited to join them and sample some of last years harvest, Nicholas and the Belgian got all the local gossip whilst I sat, listened, absorbed the atmosphere and enjoyed a spot their latest vintage. The local accent is something to be heard, almost incomprehensible to my novice ears and with a good twenty people chatting, impossible to follow. It was mid afternoon before we started to head back to the tower via the amazing sight of the Millau Viaduct........

Millau Viaduc

A slight change form all the historic things that we have been looking at ad working on for the last few weeks.

A brand new structure, designed by Sir Norman Foster and at present the viaduct with the tallest pillars in the world. There is even a visitor centre that shows films of the construction which is fascinating, (I hear you yawn) and sells souvenirs including bags of construction sand, just in case anyone wanted some.

It doesn’t really need much of an explanation, but if you need more.....

Sunday, October 04, 2009

a VISA update

Still no news so I have been doing a bit of research on the internet.

According to a recently published document from US Homeland Security, the department that processes visas, the processing time for an appeal for my type of visa is up to 16 months.

I know, its a bit crazy, and may not be completely accurate, but what can one do apart from wait?

So, I am coming back to England in the next couple of weeks to catch up with my nearest and dearest, family and friends and brainstorm what the best plan of action is from here.

No stress, no bother, just a situation different to the one that I have been expecting for the last six months. I still want to go to Love Apple Farm to work, though it may be a while before I leave.

Looking forward to seeing you all (UK folk) quite soon.

the river

stone skimming
a quick dip
Nicholas and Agnes preparing lunch
full 'house' for a huge Sunday lunch

The river is not as warm as it was, the rain from a couple of weeks ago has forced colder water up from underground and cooled our local swimming hole. It is still a very pleasant way to wash away the grime and sweat of a days work and float along in the current of the river.

There was another gathering here yesterday, Nicholas parents are here for the weekend and there is also a friend staying from the UK who is helping out and great fun. Anges brought her crowd of helpers over, and a few neighbours joined us for lunch. Aligot and Toulouse sausage again on the bbq, tomato salad from the garden, wonderful desserts arrived with the guests along with plenty of wine and pastis. Music wafted from the open windows, blending with laughter from the great table and the chickens wandered around our legs waiting for scraps to fall to the floor.

A true, rural, al fresco dining experience. We ate until there was room for no more, chatted and laughed into the afternoon and before the heat of the day had subsided, took those that were eager, and some that were less eager for the swimming experience. Some made it to the river and enjoyed a coffee at the bar, others ventured a bit further and paddled and a brave few took the plunge and had a wonderfully refreshing afternoon swim in the cool waters of the Aveyron River.

We reheated ourselves round the freshly stoked bbq fire when we got back to the tower, marvelling on the simple pleasures of life and the fact that so much enjoyment can be had from so little. May be we should hunger for things like that in life and less for other, more materialistic pleasures. It’s just a thought.

Monday, September 28, 2009

albi revisited

Nicholas had to go to Albi, a local town, to do some research on barns for the renovation, so I went along for the ride and to see somewhere new. I had passed through on my way here but I was hitch hiking, carrying my big pack and it was over 30 degrees so I didn’t explore very far. This time I was better prepared and didn’t have the challenge of finding transport to get home.

A well preserved old town, stunning brick built cathedral, the only one in europe, with completely painted interior, amazing gardens, indoor market and plenty to keep me occupied for most of the day. Check out the photos.........