Ten months between visits is a longer gap than we’d have liked. I know, many people have been suffering in various ways at this time so I shouldn’t moan about it.

The downside of having a holiday home is that you might arrive to find a leaking roof or a wasps’ nest; well, you try to factor in the occasional problem. But after a five-hour drive from Normandy – it rained continuously – we found the house in the same condition in which we had left it last September. Rather better, in fact, since we’d had the interior cleaned and our neighbours had just mowed the great expanse of weeds we like to call a lawn.

On the front terrace at La Bréchoire

So thanks to them, and to all our friends in the Charente, both British and French.

***

On the off-chance that it of any use/interest to anyone, these are the bureaucratic hoops we had to jump through:

  • Frequent postponements of travel plans. After no fewer than 12 changes to our original booking with Brittany Ferries, we arrived in the last week of June – having first planned to come out at New Year. (Either Macron wouldn’t let us in or Johnson wouldn’t let us out, or both – or the ferry was cancelled for lack of custom.)
  • A negative Covid-19 antigen test taken no earlier than two days before departure (or else we would have been denied boarding, and proof of same.
  • Copy of our NHS vaccination records (having both had a double dose of a vaccine).
  • Signed statement (attestation) to the French government to “abide by the rules”.
  • Travel and medical insurance, green card and GB sticker.
  • Passports – which may or may not have been invalid owing to a clandestine Brexit-related change, namely that that you could have 15 months left on your passport and still be refused entry to Schengen Area countries (but is that true?)

It does all make you feel a bit guilty, if not quite a criminal. Despite having been told to check in 90 minutes before departure, nothing happened for a long long time. We waited in the car park at Portsmouth for over an hour. Unsurprisingly there were not many of us in the queue. When we eventually boarded there were just four customers in the bar, at a time when the TV was showing Wales v Denmark in the Euros.

But all went well after that, and there were no problems on the French side as we had taken the time to compile a ring-bound dossier (good French word) with all the necessary documentation. Even a French bureaucrat could not have found fault with it. And then, something I had not seen for decades:

A French entry stamp on my passport!

Was it worth the effort and expense (£250 each for 4x tests)? Yes indeed, because we were away for a month. But I am not sure that it would have been justified for two weeks. It depends on how desperate you are to get away.

The weather was capricious, often too wet or too hot, but did I care? It was such a pleasure to see friends: Jane and Mike, Andy, Jenny, Bob and Dot, Jean, Sylvette and Stephanie, Monique and Francis, Jean-Marie and Pascale, Matthias and Magłozrata, Arlette, Christine, Phil and Diana, Annabelle and Blair, and Jo from Toulouse. The pleasure of cooking and eating outdoors amidst the birdsong and the humming of bees; walks and bike rides through the woods; catching up on reading; attending major events such as the truffle hound championships at Auge.

Chiens truffiers at Auge

We ate out on nine or ten occasions – something we have rarely done since the first lockdown. Despite the start of the grain harvest, the countryside was green and beautiful, with huge fields of sunflowers in bloom. We had close encounters with hares and rabbits, red squirrels, bats, voles, beetles, bees (and the occasional hornet), butterflies and moths, and many species of birds. Much of the rest of the time was spent watching the football, I have to confess, as far as our poor reception of TF1 and our fast-shrinking internet data allowance would allow.

A field of sunflowers on the edge of La Bréchoire

***

It was obvious that governmental bureaucracy (partly as a result of Brexit) as much as the pandemic itself, had put British people off travelling.

We spent a wet week camping at Sarlat in the Dordogne valley, normally a British stronghold, but saw only one or two cars from the UK. On the other hand there were lots of visitors from Belgium, Netherlands and Germany.

Sarlat: a famously well-preserved medieval town

How many restaurants are there in Sarlat? It struggles, if that is the right word, to cater for vegetarians – or anyone who is not a fan of the dead duck – but we did find a decent Indian where Jo could eat something other than a pizza or a salad. I was impressed by the friendly and efficient service everywhere. They must have been delighted to see the Brits finally showing up.

Though world-famous for its châteaux and prehistoric cave art, there was one attraction I particularly enjoyed. The gardens at Marqueyssac comprise 6km of pathways surrounded by over 150,000 hand-pruned box hedges. Snip, snip, snip… you hear it everywhere. What a boring job. As you wander along you get wonderful views far below of the Dordogne river, villages and châteaux – and especially of La Roque-Gageac (below right).

On the day the sun finally put in an appearance we had to return to La Bréchoire so that Anne could get back to work. Four weeks sounds like a long time to be away from home, but the end always comes too soon. We packed and closed up the house, breaking our return journey with a couple of nights on the Ile de Ré. It is one of the most popular holiday destinations for the French and other northern Europeans – although noticeably less so this year, even in high season.

Ile de Ré possesses an attractive combination of genuine rusticity and low-key sophistication. Maybe Saint-Tropez was like that in the 60s. Famous Parisians prefer to go there and be anonymous, whilst the oligarchs with their flash yachts descend on the Côte d’Azur.

There is an extensive network of cycle paths and public buses, and the towns are little more than villages. If you’ve not been, you really should.

***

Before departure, yet another Covid test – in a drive-in centre in La Rochelle – followed by a nerve-wracking wait for the results by email. More stuff to add to the dossier, this time for the UK authorities:

  • Proof of a negative Covid-19 antigen test.
  • Passenger location forms so we could be tracked down on our return.

Otherwise, it was a straightforward return to Blighty by ferry, arriving in Portsmouth late enough to avoid the flooding on the A3. As soon as we were through customs I received this charming text from UK Gov:

Welcome to the UK. You are now required to quarantine for a minimum of 10 days and take 2 further coronavirus tests. Otherwise you may be fined… We will contact you during your quarantine period to ensure that you are complying with these regulations…

This septic isle

It is, as my friend Stewart used to say, no word of a lie. We have now been back for four days and I am receiving daily phone calls to remind me of my obligations. A different voice with a different accent on each occasion; but it’s good to know that there are job opportunities out there. But why call me on my mobile and not the landline if they want to ascertain that I have not left the house? But maybe they know exactly where all mobile phone users are?

Sending off for our first Covid test results turned out to be problematic. The mailing cartons provided by Dante (two for £75) were too big for either of the two priority post boxes we tried so I was obliged to take them to the local pharmacy-cum-post office. It got me out of the house for five minutes. That, and going into the garden to hang out the tons of washing we brought back with us.

In between calls from the Gestapo at Track and Trace, I’ve also been receiving texts from the Lambeth GP Hub urging me to have my second jab – which I had in April. Surprise surprise, someone had not entered the information on the database correctly. Now I’ve emailed them with a photo of my vaccination card I’m hoping that the pestering from that quarter will stop and they can employ their efforts to better effect.

Now what do I hear?

Our chaotic government has dropped the requirement to quarantine for fully-vaccinated arrivals from US and Europe. But for travellers from France, currently “Amber-Plus”, the situation has not changed… Who knows what the rules will be next week? Those with school-age children will be hoping that they will be able to get away on holiday soon. We consider ourselves fortunate.

Another couple of negative antigen tests and I’ll be a free man on Saturday night.

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