Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Aveyron, Creuze, Dordogne....

Time flies when you are having fun.  And it does.  Can’t believe that I’ve been back from Portugal for nearly three weeks, I guess with a weekend in Toulouse and numerous projects going on at Nicholas’ plus friends visiting for a weekend and other helpers arriving the time gets swallowed up in no time.

I have been charged, as is now usual, with sorting out the garden produce before the frosts arrive and then ensuring that as much as possible is preserved for the winter.  All the winter squash are now drying inside, there are numerous jars of tomato paste, ratatouille, green tomato chutney and jam safely stored away in the cellar.  Onions that got a light frosting now transformed into a mean start to any chilli dish, just add to beans, mince or vegetables for a hearty meal on any winters night.

Nic has been collecting large bottles, amongst many other things, you should see his loft space, for several years but is always wary of using them as they tend to be rather fragile, especially as they no longer have their wicker protection.  Thanks to a couple of rainy days and my needle skills, they now have neat hessian bands around their middles, a quick and easy way to protect them.  Several have already been  decanted into and the rest wait for the next bulk purchase of wine or hazelnut oil, pressed from the nuts that we collected earlier in the autumn.

We had a great weekend with a couple of Nic’s mates from down south.  We planned to follow a mini ‘transhumanse’ (the process of moving livestock from high to low pasture in mountain areas) on Saturday morning, followed by a lunch with a local sheep farmer, in fact it took most of the day, with a good walk in glorious sunshine followed by a delicious slap up meal in a barn completely put together with local produce, plenty of lamb and local wine.  The meal was followed by a demonstration by the local folkloric association and a quiet evening in.  On Sunday we spent an afternoon in a thermal spa resort, soaking in jacuzzi’s, steaming in saunas, relaxing in hammams and hot pools.  All the more enjoyable after being in his rather chilly house during the first frosty spell of winter.  Much improved from recent years, but still in need of final insulation and a couple of doors to keep the last of the draughts at bay.  Returning from the spa was exceptional, the sky and sunset was one of the most spectacular that I have ever seen.  The blazing golden orb of the sun descending from view with a multicolour display of cloud formations, con trails and stunningly lit scenery,  It’ll have to remain a memory as no one had a camera.  The everchanging blend of purples, reds, oranges, greys, greens, blues mutated as the sun and clouds moved across the sky and we traveled through the autumn landscape.  The spectacle lasted long after sunset and finally came to an end once the stars has started to light up the night sky.  What beauty.

We have spent a fair amount of time working in another property in the village, one that he bought at the same time as the tower and is now being done up for sale.  The proceeds will go to fund the continuing restoration of the tower, professional help with roofing and the purchase of ten metre long beams do not come cheap and the small income he has is easily used up each month.  We’ve been replastering with lime mortar, installing electric lighting and power sockets in one of the main rooms, it’ll look smart once it’s finished.

All good things come to an end and I have headed north to catch up with Matty.  We are heading to a location that we visited earlier this summer and helped with the round house.  This time we are going back to learn the skills of willow weaving.  Not baskets but hurdles, fences and garden structures, things of a grand scale.  It was something that our host Matt promised us back in the summer and now is an ideal time to coppice, prepare and weave.  As ever he is slightly delayed, so I am giving Matty a helping hand with some work he is trying to get finished before we drive west.

the taste of a wall

I have spent the last couple of days repointing an old stone wall and my arms don’t want to move any more.  It’s not that difficult and I am really enjoying the work, unfortunately it is using muscles that are infrequently used, so they are protesting somewhat from over use.  Tomorrow we should be finished and we can travel at ease on Thursday, enjoying the changing colours of autumn and the french countryside as we head from the Creuze across to the Dordogne.

Matty and I have struggled somewhat with the aesthetic taste of his client.  Matty is a qualified stonemason of many years and we have a good idea of what a stone wall should look like when pointed.  Strangely, the owner of the wall we were working on had slightly different ideas, he wanted it flat.  After several demonstrations of possible finishes, adding more and more mortar, I decided to go overboard and smother a portion of the wall almost completely with the mix, as a joke.  Amazingly we got a positive response and so continued the same way, covering most of the beautiful stonework to get the desired result.  You can imagine the conversation that went on between Matty and I as the stones disappeared out of view.  The client is happy and there is no accounting for taste.  

We have been blessed with dry weather, a little cold and frosty to start with but comfortable and sunny thereafter.  Treated too to the a huge midday meal with the family every day, we settle round the kitchen table with the fire blazing and eat and chat at a gentle pace for a good couple of hours before heading back for the afternoon, I rather like the pace of life here.

Chez Gregoire

the repaired wall waiting to be repointed

the required finish

autumn colour in the garden

Matty finishing the neighbours side in his preferred pointing style

sheep herding

off to find the sheep

herd versus herd

shepherding modern style

checking out the view

feeding time

whirling dancers

Dolly taking a nap

Monday, November 05, 2012


Porto was beautiful

the landmark between the station and finding my hostel for the night

everyone loves the sunshine 

looking over the river to the port district

famous double decker bridge, top for trams and right down
at the bottom, cars.

reminded me of San Francisco

and of England

can never have too many tiles!

I think I need to spend more time in Porto next time I visit my brother, I only saw a tiny corner.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

quinta libelula

Back in the modern world.  I left from Nic’s, where I have stayed before, four weeks ago tomorrow.  I have had three very interesting weeks away followed, almost immediately by a social weekend, partying and supporting Nic’s rugby team in Toulouse (great fun) and a couple of days working here at the tower, catching up with emails and organising my next couple of months.  That done, I can now concentrate on writing some more.

Nic lives a stones throw from Rodez International Airport, it is tiny and has maybe a dozen destinations, one of which is a summer Ryanair flight to Porto, that is why I am here, I got a cheap return flight to see my bro and the opportunity to spend time with a great friend too.  

I arrived in Porto late in the evening and found a great little hostel to stay overnight.  The following morning I discovered that, not only was it a national public holiday, but there was a train strike and nothing was running.  Thankfully I managed to get an afternoon coach to our rendez vous in Coimbra and spent a bonus morning wondering the streets of Porto in the sunshine.  I didn’t take a map or have any idea of where I was going, but the city is beautiful and I shall enjoy exploring more next time I visit.

Quinta Libelula is a hidden oasis nestling in a tranquil wooded valley, high in the hills of central Portugal, away from the bright lights  and bustle of modern life, where even the sound of a distant car is an infrequent disturbance.  The property, abandoned for many years was once a flourishing farm, producing maize and vegetables for the local villages and an important employer in the immediate area.  Massive early investment in terracing, dams and a complex series of irrigation channels has left lasting marks on the landscape in the form of beautiful stone walls, cool ponds and a series of near flat, fertile gardens that rise up the valley floor, bordered on either side by steep wooded slopes that clothe its steep sides.  A stunning schist farmhouse can be found at the lower end of the property, roofed partly in the traditional stone manner, complete with wood fired bread oven and impressive views both up and down the valley.

I could go on, and it’s all true, but reality, for the moment is in need of encouragement.  The house is a shell, in need of re-roofing, insulation, doors and windows to keep out the draughts (yes, it’s freezing there in the winter) a new floor, a kitchen, bathroom and a few modern comforts.  Windy and Michael are, for the moment camping out on a forestry track, high above the property and walking in every day down a steep woodland track.  There is no vehicular access, this was started whilst I visited and should hopefully be completed by now.  Only then can renovations easily start on the house.  It would be possible to carry everything in, but hardly practical and a huge challenge, especially as a track was always on the cards.  Camping, I can imagine was great fun during the summer and continued to be for the first few days of my visit, but when the weather changed to torrential rain storms and a nighttime high of 8 degrees, my little tent became a haven against the elements.  The boys faired better in their caravan and awning with the four dogs but without decent heating once everything is damp and cold it stays damp and cold until the sun shines again.  Thankfully the weather remained changeable throughout my visit and I got to see a good deal of sun between the inclement days.

Whilst waiting for the track to be installed the boys have made huge progress in rediscovering their hidden oasis.  From impenetrable bramble, scrub and sapling thicket, often ten to twelve feet high or more, they have cleared extraordinary areas of land, finding no end of surprises along the way.  Beautiful stone walls, some with inbuilt steps, water channels and ponds filled to the brim with silt.  Vines, once well trained that now cover huge areas  strangling trees and blocking out the light, olive orchards that, due to a late frost or some other spring phenomenon have not set fruit this season.  I guess next spring will be the telling time to see if they are productive or not. They have gone so far with initial clearing and have enough space to keep them busy for the next couple of years.  At my estimation they have cleared about half the terraced land and have done nothing to maintain any of their hillside forest, a project that will take many years, if ever to complete.

One of the water reservoirs had already been cleared and was an excellent place to bathe, if a tad cold at times, the second, much larger one was being debrambled when I arrived and we spend probably two solid weeks digging silt and debris from its depths.  Measuring six metres by six, with a sloping depth from nothing down to a good two metres in the centre, this pond is high enough to provide the house with a huge volume of water once it is plumbed, providing that it fills through the winter.  It may need some remedial filling as the mortar has decayed somewhat and several trees had grown up from within.  It was a good project, especially on the cooler days but as time went on, decided that my skills were probably better put to use on more creative projects.

We visited a local nursery to pick up a few fruit trees.  It turned out to be a colossal establishment producing a huge range of plants and was billed as the biggest commercial camellia nursery en europe.  The black shade netting tents stretched up and down the valley for miles.  We got some great trees and the guys will head back in late November to benefit from the new season bare root stock once a bit more land has been prepared.  Thinking a trip back once I have found my land to stock an orchard as the prices were more than reasonable.

I spent a morning digging over a corner of one of the terraces and replanted some of the seedlings that Michael had put in earlier.  They were doing well but as the season progressed it was obvious that they weren’t getting much sun and the newly cleared area was a way better option for winter progress.  Advice at the local market had me planting cabbages and purple sprouting, leeks and chard for cropping this winter, overwintering onions and garlic for next summer.  By the time I left, they were all growing well and the cabbages had doubled in size.  One can only imagine how fast things will grow in the summer in the sunshine with all that water available.  I only hope that the whole irrigation system can be explained by someone before it is too late.

the temporary encampment

getting the veg planted

my brother's new abode

perched above an olive grove

rediscovering the old irrigation system, the back wall is over 7 metres high

errant grapevines now festoon the trees

evening inspection of the works.  the new track which will allow
vehicular access to the house

getting the fences in for the luxury chicken run 25m x 20m

solar hot water, my second construction this summer

My poor brother doesn’t do well in the cold, or being dirty for that matter and frequently moaned about the useless camping showers they were putting out in the sun in the hope of some warm water of an evening.  I got a thinking of previous projects and places that do so much better than that and in the final days before I left, created a sturdier, larger and hopefully more efficient solar hot water system.  Unfortunately it was mainly overcast on the day I got it running but I did manage to get a pre travel dip in a very cold pond followed by a less cold rinse from the newly installed system, I can’t have smelled too bad as I got an invite to stay from the passengers that I sat next to on the flight back to france.  Still waiting for news of how well it fares after a day of sunshine, I have my fingers crossed.