Saturday. We had just returned home to La Tour Desnos after a nice meal out at a friend’s restaurant up the street. The air was clean and cool, but not cold. A lovely Spring evening. So I walked into the séjour (living room) and opened one of the doors to the little balcony which looks out over the Parc du Nançon below. As I swung open the door, I was greeted by the sound of a strong, confident female voice accompanied by a jaunty accordion. There, below me in the park, was a clutch of perhaps fifty revelers gathered in front of a pair of musicians as the glowing light of dusk was slowly giving way to the night. Traditional French music filled the air as it soared in rich waves up to the top of our tower.
What a surprise! A small, informal concert in the park, virtually at the foot of our home. And the music was, at least to my American ears, that kind of arm-swinging, head-bobbing, sing-along, smoky cafe style that is so quintessentially French. To such a degree that I felt compelled to search the crowd for Hemingway sharing a drink (or two) with Picasso and Gertrude Stein at a little bistro table while puffing away at their cigars and Gauloises. I’m almost certain they weren’t there, but it was a nice image that I had concocted in my mind’s eye.
Both the chanteuse and accordion player were top-notch, really talented. So much so that I stood there, on our little balcony, for the next hour, transfixed, swooning with pleasure at the way the music had so taken me. I listened contentedly as the tunes rolled by, clapping my appreciation along with the crowd below as each one finished. The shadows slowly crept in, darkening the scene at my feet. And our resident host of small bats began to fly about the tower, indulging in a moving feast of insects as they careened through the air. The music played on with that particularly French combination of angst and verve.
But nothing lasts forever. Except perhaps Twinkies. At length, the singer closed her last song with a crescendo and the accordionist gave a final flourish to end the evening’s entertainment. The crowd of cheerful listeners began to disperse. And I, with bittersweet reluctance, watched them all go into the night. The park was once again quiet, apart from the excited but hushed voices of a few stragglers who, like me, were unwilling to let go of the musical high. But they were soon gone as well. Eventually, I left the balcony and closed the door, content to have such a special memory of life in France. How lucky I felt to be living here where such magical serendipity seems to happen with such astonishing regularity. My hope for you, dear reader, is that you, too, may someday chance upon your own special memory of a magical moment in France. I promise you that it’s not difficult. You just need to be here.
Until next time, here’s a little taste of the evening:
Le printemps (spring) is in full swing. Lashings of rain are broken by days of limpid blue skies and freshening sunshine. The first flowers have already come and gone and most of the trees are already robed in this year’s new line of greenery. So what better way is there than to celebrate this rejuvenating season than to crawl into a holein the french countryside. Bien sûr.
Cherie’s mother, Valerie, has come to visit us once again. We therefore put her right to work. As you do. In our defense, she asked for it. Seriously, she literally asked us what she could do to help out. Our work on fixing up an old apartment and turning it into a holiday rental continues. And that kind of work is right up Val’s alley. She loves it. Don’t ask me why. But we’re not ones to look a gift mother/mother-in-law in the mouth so we gratefully let her loose on the place. With her help, we’ve accomplished quite a bit. So much so that we are fast approaching completion. Thanks, Val!
Valerie has been laser-focused on renovating the apartment. But Cherie and I finally had to cry for mercy. We needed a break. So we have been taking a day off, here and there, to reenergize ourselves. And what better way to recharge than an afternoon tea? We returned to le Patis in Landivy [see our recent post here] for the full Monty: buckets of tea, sandwiches (without the crust, of course), scones with cream and jam, and scrumptious little cakes. It was so good, but so filling I swore off any more food for the rest of the day.
Our next break was more ambitious. Hoping for no rain, we travelled east to the beautiful lands of Mayenne and the town of St. Suzanne (about which I wrote in more detail in our post here). As you know, we love this little town. And it didn’t disappoint this time either. The weather was lovely and the ville was impossibly picturesque as we wandered its worn cobbled streets, explored the ruins of the Norman keep, and meandered the path encircling its ancient ramparts amidst wildflowers humming with bumblebees and tiny lizards sunbathing on the honey-colored stone walls. Sublime.
Moving on from Sainte-Suzanne, we made our way southward to a rocky gorge near the village of Saulges, about halfway between the large towns of Laval and Le Mans. There, in the cliff faces of the gorge, sit several caves (or, grottes, as they are known in French). A few of these grottes have been utilized by hominids (homo sapiens and, probably, homo neanderthalensis) for at least 29,000 years.
In this gorge on the river Erve is a ticket office and small museum which houses a nicely-displayed collection of prehistoric artifacts. It was interesting to have a close view of the various stone and bone tools used by the early humans who lived here, as well as their items of adornment (beads, pendants, etc) and other bits of evidence of habitation in this valley. It’s with recurring astonishment when I’m reminded that these people lived alongside rhinoceroses, leopards, and mammoths. How different the landscape must have been!
There is a restaurant next to the museum, so one can plan on having a meal here. We had already eaten lunch in Sainte-Suzanne so we didn’t try it. Lots of picnic tables throughout the valley as well – great places to enjoy a leisurely lunch or snack in a peaceful and beautiful setting. There are also a few hiking trails.
But the stars of the show are definitely the cave tours. Two caves (Margot and Rochefort) can be visited. These guided tours can be reserved online or at the ticket desk in the museum. Unfortunately, we only had time to visit one cave (Margot), but it was well worth it. With a small group our knowledgeable guide took us through the ancient, water-worn openings of the cave system, giving us an informative overview of the grotte’s geology and history of human habitation. She pointed out four gravures (figures scratched into the calcified layer covering the limestone) on the walls, rendered by the hands of humans who used these caverns many thousands of years ago. A wonderment to behold. Witnessing these representations forms such a profound visual connection between us and our ancestors – from their eyes to ours across the millennia. It really makes you think. Which is a good thing, in my opinion. There’s far too little of it these days. Thinking, that is.
Something you should know if you’re considering a visit to the Grottes de Saulges: the cave tours are not a walk in the park. If you are a practicing contortionist, then this is right up your alley. But for those of you who find bending and crouching difficult or painful, this might not be the way you want to spend an hour underground. Try the subway instead. Sturdy shoes are highly recommended and avoid wearing white – it’s wet and muddy. You are not allowed to touch any part of the cave surface in order to protect the gravures and rock formations as well as minimize the introduction of pathogens to the several species of bats which winter there.
The ceilings of the passages are sometimes low and irregular too. At one point we had to shuffle through a small opening with a muddy puddle directly underneath it while bending over nearly double. Kind of a reverse limbo, but without the tiki torches and Caribbean music. I’m happy to report that the three of us traversed all obstacles well, but there were a few in our group who struggled a bit. Consider yourself, intrepid adventurer, forewarned.
We emerged from Margot’s cave more thoughtful, enriched, and grateful to see the open sky above us. It had been an altogether good day. Lucky, lucky us. We try to be mindful that our ability to immerse ourselves in beautiful and historic towns, grand estates, mighty castles, dramatic countrysides, vibrant cities and, yes, even dank and dark prehistoric caves, is a true privilege. Something that far too few people ever get the chance to experience. We hope that, in sharing our journeys through our blog, we can spread the joy just that little bit further. Thanks for reading and stick with us for more humble little adventures in France. Take care!
Two things I wish there were more of in France: pubs and cream teas. Not necessarily in that order.
So, when we found out that there is a British tea room in a nearby town, we both raised our pinkies and said, “Yes, please!” A couple of weeks earlier, Cherie was at the market talking with a local farmer who suggested that we check out a little café in the town near his farm where they offer cakes and tea. He probably assumed we were English. Most people here do. I guess, to them, our accents are indistinguishable from the British. So, naturally, he thought we would be eager to try this place out. Even though he was slightly off the mark about our origins, our farmer friend was spot-on about our love of a good tea room. Plus, he raises excellent pigs resulting in very tasty porc and sausage. Clever man.
A bit of detective work revealed that the café was named Le Patis. We’re still not quite sure what it means in French. On reference suggests it means a type of fish sauce. But that seems … doubtful in this context. Another indicates that it can refer to pastries. More likely, I think. And yet another source I found indicated that it defines a region in eastern Bretagne/western Mayenne and Loire, known as Le Patis Haut – essentially the area which once roughly formed the marches between oft-independent Bretagne and the kingdom of France. The café is located within this area. Maybe the name is meant to be a double-entendre of these two latter meanings. That, too, would be clever.
With dreams of jammy scones and hot brown water* dancing through our heads, Cherie and I drove northeast about 25 minutes to the small town of Landivy. That day, we had to weave in and out of one of the many bicycle races that stretch along the country lanes. In France, you never know when you’re going to encounter one, no matter far out in the country you find yourself. Bicycle races seem to happen spontaneously here. Like rain, or caterpillar parades. This was on a Tuesday. Unfortunately for us (and our dreams of overdosing on clotted cream), we found the café closed. We read the sign in the window with long faces: Le Patis is only open Wednesday, Thursday and Friday afternoons. Of course it is. Occasionally, we revert to our old expectations that businesses are open all day, all of the week, forgetting that we’re in France. Silly us.
Sullen, we drove back home, made our own tea, and regrouped. We had deliveries to receive and work to do on our newest addition to the empire for the remainder of the week. So, on the following week, we scheduled out a Thursday and off we drove to Landivy again. There were no bicycles to dodge this time. A good sign. And, sure enough, we arrived to find Le Patis open and welcoming, full of customers jonesing for a proper tea.
A quick word about tea in France. The French drink it, though they, like Americans, generally prefer coffee. Although one can find black tea without too much trouble, they tend to drink tisane (herbal infusion) teas. Because of this, they seem to find the concept of putting milk in tea to be a bit odd. When we order it in restaurants, we have to repeatedly ask for milk with our tea. Even when they eventually bring the milk, it is in a thimble. Hardly enough for even one cup. So, it can be a little frustrating to order a cup of black tea in France. It’s always an interesting experience though.
Le Patis is a pleasant tea shop run by two partners originally from the U.K. Both were very nice and they both took time out to have a good chat with all of their customers. Customers who, as far as we could tell, were all British except for a pair who sounded as though they were either Canadian or American. Interesting. It must be a magnet for all English-speaking expats in the area. We had some fine tea and enjoyed some excellent scones and cake. In fact, they had several different scones (sweet and savory) and cakes to choose from. Not wanting to limit ourselves to just one type of cake, we selected a couple of slices of other cakes to take home with us. As you do. To top it off, Le Patis was selling a variety of commemorative items for the upcoming coronation of King Charles III. So, yeah, we scooped up a pair of mugs and matching coasters too. Long may he reign!
Our visit to the tea shop in Landivy was a pleasant afternoon’s diversion. No doubt, it will become a regular break for us. I suppose we’re pretty lucky in that respect. We get to enjoy the wonders of a life in France while having a bit of the U.K on our doorstep as well. Now, if I could just find a cozy pub …
*That’s for all of you smug, coffee-drinking Ted Lasso fans out there. A funny joke, but hardly fair. I mean, isn’t coffee also just hot brown water? [Please keep your angry responses to less than fifty words. Thank you.]