Between heaven and health in France

Aug 09, 2016

We’d packed up and were organised, even managing time to take pictures of our hosts, the effervescent Mary-Rose and the unflappable ex-eye doctor, George, in their pleasant garden.

Mary-Rose had lost her number one ranking on tripadvisor and was continually stressing out about that fact because her one low ranking was written by a New Yorker who’d never actually stayed there. Apparently the American had not been able to pay a deposit and Mary-Rose had booked someone else.

Mary-Rose was pleading with us to rank her highly even as we lurched out the gate with our suitcases to catch a cab to the airport to get our rental car.

We found our rental car place but no-one was there so I raced off to another location 15 minutes away but was told to go back, someone would be there. Imagine my shock when not only was there no attendant, but Rosemarie, Cheryl and the luggage were all in absentia.

Then I saw someone heading underground down a chute into a well lit space so I followed. Lo and behold, there was the desk, the girls and the luggage.

Only half an hour lost, not to worry, get the keys to the Citroen Picasso and we were on our way… except, that is, for the GPS. My Garmin, that I’d spent a reasonable sum on downloading European maps, wouldn’t work out of the Citroen’s cigarette lighter point.

So I went and had spit at the hire car counter and, after I calmed down, they very kindly offered me one for nothing. I was pleased until I tried to type in the address and found the lower row of keys didn’t work; well, not in the car anyway, because when I took it back to the counter it worked fine.

I returned to the car and it wouldn’t work again, despite everyone trying it so it was back to the counter once for the same result. Eventually, after wearing a path up and down the chute I got the girl to come and try it in the car. Amazingly, it didn’t work for her either. No-one has any idea why this should be but she kindly replaced it and, one and a half hours late, we finally started moving… well, that was after we got the handbrake off. You see, Citroen have found some weird way of making it electronic and putting a button on the dash and you have to have everything in the right order before it releases. That only took us five minutes.

Paris was surprisingly busy with traffic because it was Sunday and we wasted more time bypassing a minor accident and other traffic snarls before finally reaching the flat verdant countryside, interspersed here and there with sparkling yellow fields of canola.

The miles drifted by in smooth comfort and we managed a food stop with ease, sampling some local cooked ham, which was delicious, before stepping out again into the freezing cold of spring. Don’t believe me? Minutes later we had a flurry of snow on the windscreen.

I turned off the motorway, aiming for Flavigny, an historic village, but just 8 kilometres short we stumbled on something even better. A ruin of a town lay before us; across the river were two crumbling towers that would have been condemned in Australia. A frightening vertical crack had split the brickwork apart and the demise of the towers seemed imminent yet they stood, albeit with warning signs, attached.

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The rest of the buildings seemed in various states of decay as we braved the freezing conditions to see these ruins. I was in photography heaven except the light, what little there was of it, barely made it through the European haze.

It was about this time we lost Cheryl. Rosemarie was ill-attired for the conditions and required more clothing from the car, but as we turned around and recrossed the Pont Joly, Cheryl was nowhere to be seen. We walked back to the car and got the extra layers and then moved the car across to the main part of the town in an obscure car park. Still no Cheryl.

We made our way to the main square but Rosemarie was desperate for coffee – actually, anything warm would have done – while I went searching for Cheryl. In and out of alleys, stumbling over cobblestones, gazing across the river but Cheryl was nowhere to be found.

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I knew I’d have to return to where the car was parked and could almost see the exact spot from where I stood but she wasn’t there. Eventually I walked all the way back anyway, just to be sure and, lo and behold, there was Cheryl on the other side of the street, stressed out as she had never been before on a holiday; her only comfort was that she knew I always returned to where we’d last seen each other.

The relief on her face was palpable and she vowed never to stray with her camera again but, truth be known, both parties were at fault. But now it was all rejoicing as we enjoyed our repast in the cafe and recklessly attacked a lemon crepe.

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The town, Semur-en-Auxois, was actually on my list of things-to-see, so when I was offered a half hour free while the girls finished their chatting, I bolted out of the cafe and was away, the rugged architecture of this ancient town unfolding before me in a wondrous variety of angles, antique ironmongery, bas reliefs, half timbered shops, wonky tiles and unkempt cobbles.

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“The people of Semur take great pleasure in meeting strangers.” This wonderful sentiment, inscribed in 1552 on an archway leading to the oldest part of the village, purportedly emphasises the attitude of the residents of Semur-en-Auxois. The city itself was incorporated in the Duchy of Burgundy in 1050.

Narrow lanes curved here and there and well-worn staircases twisted in seemingly ridiculous directions until you saw the even more ridiculous situation of some of the houses. It was all centred around the river though, and charming brick bridges forded the stream but, in the distance, a towering viaduct type structure that spanned the river Armancon seemed at odds with their profile and drew my attention.

The icy wind hurried me along as I sought an optimum viewpoint but failed to take the warmth out of my enthusiasm for the task. Every ten metres another aspect emerged, colours flaunting themselves before my eyes, emerging from gardens or draped over walls until it was sadly time to return to the car. I marked this as a place to one day make another pilgrimage to when the weather afforded a kinder face than I was experiencing.

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