Auty

280 – Frozen Swimming Pools, Spoon Making and Cornish Pasties

I received a text last week from the guy who manages the pool here at the chateau telling me he’d come over that morning to work on it, but I wasn’t in. I found this strange because I’m always in.

Anyway, not thinking too much of it, I wandered down to the pool to have a look at what he’d done. Which was nothing. Everything was exactly the same. Except the leaves…millions of them at the bottom of the pool.

When I arrived here in November there was a highly efficient pool robot that scooted around the bottom sucking them up. And then one morning it was gone. Mysteriously vanished as though it had packed up and left for Spain. ‘Too cold here mate,’ a message inscribed on the floor in dried leaves. ‘See you in Torremolinos!’

It could have been stolen. But by whom? Things don’t get nicked round here because most houses have dogs and most of the occupants have guns. So I phoned the pool guy and left a message asking him if he knew where the robot was. I never heard from him. That was in November.

This morning the swimming pool was frozen. Solid as a rock. Deep enough to skate on. Somebody had turned the filtration pumps off that keep the circulation going. Baffled I phoned the pool guy to ask why he’d turned the pumps off last week when he visited when it’s minus 8 outside. Plus where the fuck is the pool robot? And when is he going to collect all the leaves from the bottom of the pool. But unsurprisingly, he wasn’t in. I left a message. The saga continues…

frozen-pool3

Other news. My friend from my Falmouth days, Richard ‘Rich’ Barker, recently visited for 10 days. We drank beer and ate lots of meat and spuds and he taught me how to make spoons from the mass of wood we have at the chateau.

It’s funny, isn’t it? (or perhaps not) but I’ve been burning all this wood simply to keep warm. Never once occurring to me that all this walnut, oak, ash, cedar, apple, pear could be used to make something. Like a palace for example there’s so much of it. Talk about not being able to see the wood for the trees.

Now I use it to fashion implements to stir my porridge with in the morning, ladle my soup with at lunch, and eat my curry with in the evening.

So far I’ve made four spoons, three spatulas and a set of chopsticks. I’m a cautious man so the implements are chunky and crude. Richard on the other hand told me he doesn’t possess any spoons because he’s a perfectionist. He whittles them down to the limit. Then they break and he starts again.

It’s a good test to examine two people’s character. Give them some spoons to whittle down and see who has a full set by the end of the day. Those who don’t and who have a pile of broken moon shaped pieces of wood on the floor are the ones who seek perfection. Those who do, simply don’t have enough cutlery.

By the time I leave here in May, I’ll have so many spoons, slices, forks, bowls, and spatulas, I could probably set up a shop. A museum’s worth of curiosities that look like they date back to the stone age.

Talking of food. The other major thing this month is the discovery of the Cornish Pasty in the barren desolate wastelands of rural France in winter. One morning a few weeks ago, me and Rich were making spoons when we were called into the house by Elizabeth.

‘Lunch is ready,’ she cried, a large smile on her face.

‘Whoopee,’ we both cried out like children, wood chippings clinging to our hipster beards like shavings of parmesan. Our faces red and raw from the freezing fog like slabs of meat.

Hungry, we rushed in to witness this marvel before our eyes.

french-pasties

Our eyes nearly popping out of our heads as we stared at this gorgeous platter cooked up by Elizabeth from the steak and potatoes left over from the night before. Both me and Rich have lived in Cornwall and yet never have we tasted such Cornish heaven. With baked beans as well. And a can of Coke each! Life doesn’t get any better.

Afterwards, we trudged back out into the freezer to resume our spoon making, warmed inside by hot meaty pasties. A moment later, I saw a van pull up and for a minute thought it might be the pool guy making a shock appearance with the pool robot. But no such luck. Just a ghost. The wait goes on.

Seen this robot - contact Blogley below.

Seen this robot? – Contact Blogley below

For more anecdotes read A Man in France available @ https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B01D1H7D62

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Auty

278 – The Christmas Woodpile

chateau_dauty-1I’m the winter caretaker of this 17th century Chateau in South Western France. If you’ve seen or read The Shining this is as close as it gets. In summer the chateau is used as a hotel, in winter it’s closed. Cue me and Elizabeth who are here to make sure it doesn’t fall down, bills are paid, intruders shot. For five months of the year, I’m Jack Nicholson.

It’s good for a number of reasons. One, it’s free. Second, it’s pretty. Three, it’s big. Four, it’s quiet. Five, it’s in the middle of nowhere. Six, there’s shit loads of wood. The entire estate being surrounded by an endless supply of pear, larch, cedar, ash, oak, hazel and lime. A lot of which ends up on the woodpile below.

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Good, eh?

This is actually the New Woodpile and is located on the northern edge of the estate near the village church, whose bells chime at seven o’clock twice a day. Once in the morning, this doesn’t bother me as I’m asleep. And once in the evening, a useful signal to crack a beer and start cooking (if I ever needed one…).

For the record The New Woodpile superseded The Old Woodpile (below) as it simply wasn’t big enough.old-woodpileAs you can see it was also Christmas then. Although I can assure you the logs were real and not superimposed onto the photo like the trees in the background were. (I don’t know where the reindeer, stockings or candy canes came from.)

Last year I split the wood with an axe. As shown in the video below.

This year I’ve upgraded to an electric log splitter. It’s about as romantic as eating your evening meal in McDonalds, but I’m giving it a go due to back problems and the fact that I’ve got an incredible amount of logs to split.

Another guilty admission is that last year I transported the logs from one part of the estate to another in an old wheelbarrow.

wheelbarrow

This year I use this

car-logpile

It’s terrible I know. However, I can transport five times as much wood, which gives me more energy to carry it upstairs to the apartment where we live and add it to the Indoor Woodpile ready to burn. After that I sit in front of the fire with a glass of port and a whopping great plate of cheese.

happy-xmas

*Smile not included  ** Not all items may be real

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277 – Death of a Vintage Bicycle

Last Sunday I completed my 10th cycle with the crazy guys from the Caussade Cyclo-Club. My best so far, mainly because I was riding a new bike. Dispensing, rather regretfully I have to add, with my vintage Peugeot PK10 (below).

PK 10

For those of you who know nothing about cycling or bikes. The Peugeot P10 series (PK, PX, PU, PN, PL) was one of the standard racing bike models of the mid-to-late 20th century. Their heyday being in the 60/70s with cycling legends such as Eddie Merckx, Jacques Anquetil, Bernard Thevenet riding them.

Brought out in the 1930s the design remained almost unchanged up until the mid 1990s when the surge in cycling gave way to new ideas, materials and accessories. Cycling had become cool and the bikes (and of course their riders) had to look the part. The old classic racers became unfashionable, unused, and disliked. The grinding gears of the vintage models gave way to slick urban road bikes mounted by lycra clad, hi-vis wearing commuters who could be seen in every UK city sharing the miniscule piece of road left for them by a million angry motorists. The upside to this was that the old PK10s ended up on eBay or on Gumtree for enthusiasts to pick up for the price of a pint.

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Peugeot 1936 catalogue

So I slightly stunned myself last week when I bought a brand new slick urban road bike, the likes of which I used to hate. It was my first new bike since my father bought me a PUCH “Sprint” Racer for Christmas in 1986 and cost me ten times what my PK10 did.

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Triban 520

It’s not bad, is it? True, it looks like it was designed by a kid on his iPhone, and would have the greats of the past who used to cycle up the Col Du Tourmalet on their 10 speed PK10s, turn in their amphetamine soaked graves. But at least I can now keep up with my riding buddies on their 39 speed Shimano Ultegra, £3000 carbon frame Pinarello bikes.

On my previous rides out with the club – the other 9 – I could keep up for about 60 kms, then my legs would buckle, like my wheels, and I’d watch them disappear off into the distance leaving me searching for another gear on my ancient Simplex shifters.

Saying that however, the great advantage of this year long battle on my unreliable and (relativity) heavy PK10, is that it’s hardened my legs and expanded my lungs to almost professional level. Or so it felt like on Sunday. Breezing over the finish line wondering where everybody else was. True a few had got lost somewhere near Cahors due to a vintage French road intersection (ten roads meeting in the same place with no signs in sight). But the transformation from the week before when I’d limped home feeling like my legs had been shattered with a pickaxe was astonishing.

Technology wins. If not for style then efficiency.

Further proof of this was on Monday when me and Elizabeth went for a quick ride. Me on my PK10 for old time’s sake, Elizabeth on her even older ‘Tour De France’ vintage racer (below).

nuttys-bike

1970s custom made racer. Origin unknown. https://www.instagram.com/wildbeebeauty/

After the mandatory chain-falling-off episode, which always plagues old bikes, she seemed to get on fine. Gliding up and down the steep pie-shaped hills of the Tarn-et-Garonne like a female reincarnation of Jacques Anquetil. I, on the other hand – the so-called new Chris Froome as they called me on Sunday – felt like I was riding a tractor. Clugging away up the hill to the village as though I had mounted a pedalo by accident.

When I got back home I threw the PK10 in the garage, cleaned my new bike (again) and hugged it like the cat. I feel bad about letting the it go, but sometimes things no longer serve their purpose. They have to be retired. Put out to seed. Or simply left in the garage to rust.

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Me after Caussade Cyclo-Club Ride No. 1

*For more cycle stories plus other exciting anecdotes of my five years in France, take a look at A Man in France: a series of offbeat journal entries, short anecdotes, observational pieces and travel articles from the dark side of the wheel of camembert. Available in ebook or paperback format. Click photo to order.

brand-new-cover                                                    Paperback

cover image                                                       Ebook

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276 – Back in Auty

Auty, Tarn-et-Garonne, France

GPS coordinates: Middle of Nowhere
Altitude: 219 metres
Population: 80
Amenities: Café (open Wednesdays 15.30 – 18.30), Church (Sundays)

 

I’m back. Looking after a 17th century chateau over the winter plus a Tonkinese cat called Pookie. His real name is Ventura, but we call him Pookie. Although in truth you could call him Shitface and he wouldn’t kick up much of a fuss.

Like wall hangings, Pookie is just there. Like a sponge. Soaking up the bird noises and the odd car horn from the village, or me speaking to myself. Then reprocessing it into whatever nightmarish dreams cats have. Waking up to the discovery there’s no food in his bowl. Or that his balls have been cut off. (Sorry old chap, had to be done. Village isn’t big enough for more than two cats.)

Whatever he dreams of they generally last between 12 and 15 hours depending on how hungry he is. Or how wet it is outside. At the moment the entire village is shrouded in a thick fog accompanied by light drizzle, so he’s fast asleep in the spare room on a swirl of old duvet covers he uses for a bed.

It’s good to be back in the peace and quiet of Auty though, even if it hasn’t stopped raining since last Friday. And to think I left England to escape the weather. On Sunday I went cycling with the crazy guys from the Caussade Cyclo Club who I wrote about in Blogley 253 and 255 – The Caussade CycloClub and The Caussade Cycloclub’s Road to Hell.

I’m now officially a member the French Cycle Federation. I even got a card that gives me medical assistance and/or funeral arrangements (true) if I tumble off on one of their harebrained descents down into the Aveyron gorge. Being a member though doesn’t guarantee decent weather.

Last Sunday’s cycle was the worst weather I’ve ever cycled in. Slashing rain, hail, thunder, lightning, fog, zero visibility – weather fit for zombies and members of the Caussade Cycloclub. So awful that we cut the ride short by 50 kms. Managing only 55 out of the planned 105.

I was so wet and cold when I got back home that I thought about diving into the outdoor swimming pool just to warm up.  Instead I lit a fire using the wood from the violent storms that felled half the trees on the estate last year. A woodpile the size of a house, all neatly cut and polished by the tree surgeons who worked all summer to clear the debris.

I’m hoping for a very cold winter. A strange thing to wish for, but one that might save me, Elizabeth and Pookie from being roasted alive like slices of pork belly while trying to burn up all the wood by springtime.

Talking of pork belly. That’s what I ate last night (oh and the night before, and the night…). It’s one of the things I’ve been looking forward to. Fresh from the local butcher, slow cooked and served with braised red cabbage, Swiss chard soaked in pig fat, all washed down with a few litres of the bowel-clenching Ganape I wrote about in my last post. The perfect tonic to a dreary French night.

Talking of long nights. While I’m here I’m going to be working on another selection of short stories.

*Cue. Massive sigh*

My current one (The Sunbed of Malcolm Todd – TSOMT. *Currently available for 99p in November from Blogley Books*) has sold so well that I’m working on another one called The Seven Lives of Jed Geller.

*Cue. “The Seven What? Really????”*

This one will feature more in-depth detailed stories rather than the long-short, stop-start nature of TSOMT, which left the reader (or so I’m told) with the feeling that they’d wandered into a funfair where all the carriages on the rides felt like they were about to fly off into space at any moment. The reader never quite sure where the story was going or how it would end. Which I think is quite positive.

My new book will be more ordered. The stories longer and more boring. I’m writing one now about an anti-salesman. A man who rejects all known marketing theory by promoting his products like they were mere turds on the side of the road. Negative-Spin he calls it.

The new book will be very arduous and very difficult to read. Full of side issues, tangents and dense analyses of post-Brexit Britain and the collapse of civilisation. A real pageturner. An under-the-coffee-table borathon that a man in solitary confinement would pass over in favour of The Bible.

I’m joking. The Bible’s a real good read. But the The Seven Lives of Jed Geller (or TSLJG) will be better. A real rollercoaster. A fairground freak show featuring the whole gamut of morons, assholes, losers, drunks, failed musicians and writers I’ve ever met. If I’ve met you, you’re in it.

Watch this space.

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Serramonacesca

275 – EIBAB

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It’s November. So it’s time to start thinking about Christmas…

I’m in Auty again. Holed up deep in the French countryside and about as far away from Christmas shopping scrumdowns and sloshed-on-sherry carol singers, as Icarus was from reaching the Sun. If indeed that’s where he was going.

I’m not going anywhere. Here for the silence. A special upgrade on my platinum gold card supplied by Mothernature Corp, a reward for a million hours of driving noisy holidaymakers around the Dordogne all summer. Time to cool off. Wake up to the sound of nothing every morning. The closest to what you’d hear I guess if you were dead. No cars, planes, people, dogs, mopeds, toads, mosquitos, or flies. Just a big cat. And he doesn’t say much, except a low pitched meow when I burn his kippers.

Christmas is great here. Everything stops. There’s no harvesting going on because there’s nothing to harvest. There’s no ploughing because you can’t plough frozen fields. Time to sit back and celebrate the season. And what better way than going down to the Caussade Monday Market and getting drunk on brandy at half-ten in the morning while stocking up on cheese, pork bellies, cabbage, wildfowl, potatoes, and ham. Plus a couple of crates of gut rotting Domaine des Ganapes for a Euro a litre from up the road in Realville.

We make our tree from conifer fronds under which we put our presents. Five each. Five for me. Five for Elizabeth. Then we get on with the eating, watch MXC (Muppets Xmas Carol), eat again and then crack open the Ganape. Toilet roll on standby. The perfect Christmas.

It would be therefore discourteous if I didn’t offer my own Christmas gift in the form of EIBAB. Or The Annual Blogley Books November Sale – TABBNS for short. This year we have two choice offerings on sale. Offerings I’m sure the three kings would have enjoyed on their long trip east.

  1. cover imageA Man in France – My lively, philosophical insight into 21st century France through the eyes of a cheese loving, wine snorting Englishman. A journey through the lesser known parts of the Republique. The dour plains of Poitou-Charentes, desolate Queaux, featureless Arcachon, crumbling Souillac, fog shrouded Auty. As well as some sharp and witty observations on the more well known cities of Lyon and Bordeaux.

  2. cover image3The Sunbed of Malcolm Todd (Short Stories) – A bold leap into the plodding twilight world of the dead end job. The postal depot, the chain restaurant, the retail unit, the discount store, the office space, the factory floor. Those terrifying social landscapes inhabited by dreamers, do-gooders, yes-men, romantics and the deluded. The sort of people you’d rather shoot than speak to.

Both books are at a special EIBAB price of £0.99 for the ebook (compatible with all Kindles, tablets and smartphones). Or £3.99 (+p&p) for the paperback version (compatible with old fashioned eyes).

Get them while you can from BLOGLEY BOOKS: HERE.

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274 – Jehovah’s Witnesses in Serramonacesca

It’s 10.38 am and I’m lying in bed fast asleep after attending the Night of the Dead carnival in Serramonacesca where I’m currently staying. I’m asleep because of the oceans of red wine consumed at the party. The party consisting of the whole village turning off their lights, putting candles and pumpkins outside their doors and getting smashed on Vina Cotta, a kind of port tasting sherry.

This is why I’m asleep. Perfectly happy in my dreams, my head on a soft pillow, my body spread out on the Italian linen like a man who’s died in his sleep. Relaxed. Content. In Southern Italy. In the mountains. What could possibly go wrong?

Knock knock knock!

I’m ejected from my dreams like I’ve been thrown out of an aircraft, hitting the solid concrete on some abandoned wasteland in Essex with a huge splat.

‘Hello?’ I say opening the door, almost gagging into the prayer book a young man of about 17 is shoving in my face.

He smiles at me pleasantly like a young boy seeing his mother after the first day at school. Kind, caring, affectionate. I look to my right, straining my eyes against the sun which is boring into my head like a raygun. Another boy. Younger, 13 perhaps, smiling, standing smartly dressed in white shirt and black trousers as though waiting for a medal. To his right is another, older, a lot older, maybe 50, looking divinely at the two boys like a shepherd watching his sheep.

‘You’re a bit late for Trick-or-Treat,’ I want to say. ‘About 12 hours in fact, but I’ve got some half opened Montepulciano if you want a slug on that?’

But I don’t say it. Instead my mind is working. Who the hell are these people? And then I get it. Of course. How utterly stupid of me. I’m halfway up a mountain on an old pig farm that’s been converted into a campsite. Who else should I have expected? Campers? Climbers? Walkers? The obvious choice. But no. I should have guessed. The old JWs right there on my doorstep.

The older of the two boys smiles at me. ‘Were you sleeping?’ he says in perfect English.

‘No,’ I lie. ‘I was reading.’

‘Are you OK?’ he then asks looking concerned.

‘I’m fine,’ I say. ‘I was only drinking strong wine till three o’clock in the morning. Apart from that I’m fine.’

I look at him blankly and realise his prayer book isn’t a prayer book at all. It’s an iPad.

‘Can I show you a short video?’ he says arching towards me.

This is crazy. ‘Sure!’ I want to say. ‘Why don’t we get it on the big screen. What have you got? Trading Places. Airplane. Rocky. Rambo?’

But I don’t because it’s at this point that I decide to end it. I’m not a man for slamming doors in people’s face. I’ve had that myself trying to sell Scottish Gas door-to-door on a council estate in Plymouth in 2002.

I tell him I’m not well and touch my head. But he doesn’t seem to understand the concept of a hangover and forces the iPad in my face again.

‘I’m alright, mate,’ I say sounding like Don Logan from Sexy Beast and close the door in his face. Gently.

I then tell Elizabeth and we laugh loudly listening to them walk off up to the next house about four miles up the road. A family of devout Catholics. Talk about a wasted trip.

It’s funny because at about this time last year, I wrote about the Jehovah’s Witnesses at the Caussade Monday Market in South-Western France (Blogley Post 241) and how unusual it was to see them there. But here. Up a mountain. On a campsite in Southern Italy on 1st November, All Saints Day. You couldn’t have made it up.

Well actually you could. All of it.

In a thousand years people will be knocking on the door of my descendents reading out sections from Book II, Verse 34, Drinks Please, taken from The Sunbed of Malcolm Todd (my own collection of short stories). Although of course it won’t be called The Sunbed of Malcolm Todd anymore. It’ll be called The Bible.

You may laugh. But that’s how these things get started. Some buffoonish Englishman writes a book and years later people start believing it. Taking stories that were purely fictional, for the absolute truth. The word of God.

Waking people like me up at quarter to eleven in the morning to retell some ridiculous story written centuries ago. All because they need a few more good guys to help them fight Satan. When everybody knows if you want to fight the armies of darkness, you summon up Gandalf and Viggo Mortensen. It’s in the book by that buffoonish Englishmen, JRR Tolkien. Everybody knows that.

My advice to you people is this (and it applies to all religions/cults/sects):

GO HOME AND STOP WASTING MINE AND EVERYBODY ELSE’S TIME. I’M NOT INTERESTED. THANK YOU AND GOOD BYE!

*The Bible is available from Blogley Books now. Click here.

(In memory of my great friend Stan Mellema who hated all of this stuff as much as I do – See you in hell Stansislav!!)

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273 – Three Recent Books

hemming-book-cover

 Ernest Hemingway – A Moveable Feast

This is the book everybody told me I should read. Well I finally read it and immediately wanted to move to Paris. Why not? I thought. I already live in France, speak the language, have a bank account, so a move wouldn’t be that difficult – I could do it tomorrow.

I’ve been to Paris twice in my life. Once as a schoolboy and once as an adult two years ago (see Blogley in Paris). I really enjoyed it I have to say. Spending a few days wandering the streets doing nothing in particular. I didn’t even see the sights. I’d already seen them as a schoolboy and remembered the crowds. Queuing for hours and hours to walk up the Eiffel Tower even though I was terrified of heights.

But could I live there? That’s the question. The answer is yes. Of course, I could live there. Why not? I’ve lived in worse places. Bracknell for one. True, I probably couldn’t afford to live there and have money left over for sitting in cafes eating oysters and drinking white wine like Hemingway. (Montauban near Toulouse where I currently live is more my budget. Confit du canard + 50cl pitcher of red wine – 10 Euros.) But I could find a way.

I thought the book was great. Very simple, very direct, very real. By the end I knew Paris, but without an expanse of unnecessary detail that would have made the city complex and inaccessible. For much of the book I was there too, sitting in cafes, arguing with poets, conversing with writers, watching my money, drinking, walking the streets, while at the same time giving myself a chance at writing in this splendid city. Hemingway suggests that if you can’t write here, you’ll be hard pressed to write anywhere. It’s probably not true, but it might be.

The Road – Cormac McCarthy

The end of the world has always fascinated me. This stark and yet beautiful notion that you’re (finally) alone. No one to tell you what to do. No one to hurt you. No bills to pay. Free sweets.

Of course, it rarely turns out like that. There are always others out to steal your candy. Other humans, other animals, other aliens (depending on the genre). But the idea still holds huge fascination for readers and writers alike. I even tried it myself, once writing a story called The Final Memoirs of the Last Man on Earth. Rather Back-to-the-Futureish comic book fare I admit, full of clichés like ‘Finally he was able to drink as much beer as he wanted – if he could find it.’ But I enjoyed writing it all the same, and if I hadn’t introduced a cat into it, it might have gone somewhere. As it was, it fell away after the opening paragraphs and I scrapped it after 2000 words.

Point is I love this idea and when you add into this well-trodden narrative a writer as good as McCarthy, it’s going to be good. And it was. Too good almost and one of those books where you wonder why anyone else bothers to write. If you haven’t read it, I suggest reading it, even if you’ve watched the film. You might have Viggo Mortensen imprinted in your head all the way through, but he’s not a bad actor to have in the title role. Imagine if they’d cast Colin Farrell?

Ian McEwan – The Children’s Act

I read this immediately after The Road and while I really enjoyed it, McCarthy, in this instance, knocked him for six. It’s not that Children’s Act was bad, it’s a fine book about the decisions a High Court judge has to make and the consequences they have on her own life. It’s just that The Road was so good. So raw, so stripped, so full of emotion, so intimate. The simple story of father and son played out on the most terrifying stage of all. The end of the world.

I read these books one after the other just because they happened to be on the shelf of the place where I’m staying at the moment. I’ve just started reading Point Omega by Don Delillo. A book I’ve wanted to read for a long time. Tough competition though Donny boy. Good luck on that.

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Serramonacesca

272 – Blogley in Serramonacesca

I’ve been here three weeks now tucked under the remote Majella mountains in Southern Italy looking after a campsite for my friends. They told me not to expect too many visitors while they were away on holiday. ‘Highly unlikely you’ll see anyone at this time of year.’

Cue a carload of Germans the second they leave. Questioning me about routes up the mountain thinking I was an Italian sheepherder raised on mutton and goat’s milk who knew the valley better than anyone else alive.

I explained to them that I was from Leeds, and raised on dripping and iced-buns and the only exploring I’d done was cycling up to the 1400 metre ski station at Passo Lanciano on my third day here. They seemed pretty impressed and asked if there was a route up there on foot instead of by bike. I said I didn’t know, vaguely pointing up to the bleak, brooding mountains above the campsite. Had I a map they asked. No I replied.

That was three weeks ago and I’m still waiting for them to return. I’m kidding of course. One did make it back and then spent the next two weeks in the pouring rain trying to find his friends.

‘Good for business though,’ I joked with him at the end of his ‘holiday’ as I charged him a full two weeks camping. ‘I’m sure they’ll turn up. When the snow’s thawed,’ I added. ‘And you must come back next year,’ I finished, handing him a loyalty card.

He thanked me for my generosity and left, just as the sun exploded out from behind the thundery clouds, giving me and Elizabeth the perfect opportunity to finally explore the local sights.

The Pennapiedimonte valley being one. A fine example of the perfect rugged gorge if ever there was one. In fact, I must send a memo to a Mr. S. Spielberg of Hollywood Studios saying something like: Stevieboy, if you want to make a new Indiana Jones film combining all the great shots from the others into one spectacular panoramic swashbuckling masterpiece, you could do it here. Signed. Philip Blogley. Pennapiedimonte, Italy.

I say this because as we were walking along the track cut into the sheer face of the gorge, I said to Elizabeth, ‘Do you think this is where they filmed The Temple of Doom?’

She looked at me blankly. I knew what she was thinking. Everywhere we go, he thinks it looks like a scene from Indiana Jones. She cleared her throat. ‘Which one was that?’ she asked warily.

‘The one where all the bad guys fall into the gorge and get eaten by crocodiles in the river below.’

‘What like that!’ she said motioning me over towards the precipitous edge knowing I’ve got the head for heights of a mole.

I looked down into the nothingness below. ‘Yes, exactly the same,’ I croaked, edging towards the safety of the path wall, even though I knew at any minute I could get crushed by a boulder cascading down from the steep gorge walls above.

Earlier on in our walk we’d trekked up to 4000 feet and had our sandwiches at a mountain refuge. Later we found a series of giant caves along what was once – about 500 million years ago – an old river bed, but which were now stranded over 1000 feet above the present one. Enormous entrances and high ceilings that made modern cathedrals, even the really old ones, look like models.

Not so long ago shepherds used them for sheltering sheep and goats, bricking up the entrances with stones to form natural pens. The one we found actually seemed to be in use, the smell of dung floating across the clean mountain air and hitting us like we’d walked into a public toilet on the Champs Elysee. Although I have to admit nothing quite as stomach clenchingly foul as a French squat toilet on Bastille Day.

The other highlight of these past weeks – apart from just enjoying the mountains and cooking rich goulash and arborio rice puddings on open fires – is swimming in the pools down by the benedictine abbey a few kilometres outside Serramonacesca where the campsite is located.

Created by the river that runs down from the Majella range, the pools are deep, blue and extraordinarily cold. Both me and Elizabeth have swum in some cold rivers and lakes on our travels, but these take cold bathing to another level. So cold in fact that it only hits you once you get out. Then you feel your legs splinter and crack like they’ve been doused in liquid nitrogen. Your head feels like it’s been mummified in cold ice cream and your hands have no recollection of ever being attached to your arms.

I’ve realised that the only rational thing to do is to quickly get in again. And again. Three times is perfect to get the heart racing. And after that you’re so cold you can’t feel anything anyway so it doesn’t really matter. The only way to warm up is to pelt it back on foot to the campsite and get into the open fire. I’m not joking either. I actually was half inside the fire in the living room when Elizabeth charged in and tried to rescue me.

‘I’m okay,’ I cried out. ‘Just trying to defrost. I’ll be alright in about two hours!’

‘Well don’t be long, we need that for pizza later.’

And she’s right. The open fire in the living room has a pizza oven built into the back of it and got me thinking that when they built houses here there must have built them round the pizza oven like you build a church round an altar. How practical is that?

You build your fire, let it get up to temperature, slap in your pizza, uncork the 10 litre flagons of wine they sell round here, put on your favourite film, say just for example, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and you don’t even have to leave the room.

And if you get too hot, you just dash down to the pools, immerse yourself, run back up and do it all again. Three times in fact. Raiders of Lost Ark, Temple of Doom, Last Crusade. Love Italy.

The Majella

Blogley on the Pennapiedimonte Gorge

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Serramonacesca

271 – Blogley in Italy

pexels-photoWaking up at Kokopelli Camping this morning was like waking up in a dream I’d forgotten existed. A dream where there’s no falling off cliffs or into holes, or being mown down by out-of-control lorries. A dream that starts slowly, gently gathers pace, meanders a bit through soft clouds and chocolate eclairs, then without any sudden death or injury, quietly finishes. No horror, blood, or pain. A seamless shift between sleep and reality where the reality is better than the dream. What most people call a holiday.

I arrived last night after an evening spent with the locals in the town hall of Serramonacesca eating pasta and quaffing wine at an event organised in aid of the recent earthquake. I hadn’t expected it in the slightest, I’d expected to spend a quiet evening with my friends nibbling on water biscuits and pecorino cheese.

Instead I was thrust into the madness of mountain village life, sitting on long benches chatting with local farmers trying to remember the Italian I’d learnt from my phrasebook. On the stage a local diva sang some opera, then some karaoke, then someone else told a story in a dialect that sounded like a cross between Russian and Chinese. Soon after a DJ started banging out Italian techno as I struggled on with my Italian, while men I’d never seen or met before brought me more wine.

It was a great baptism into Italian rural life, but it was also nice to go to bed and even better to wake up to mountain views, olive groves, fresh coffee, an outdoor kitchen, plus a couple of very small kittens clawing at my foot.

I’m here with Elizabeth to look after a campsite for six weeks for some friends while they holiday in Sardinia. Tucked below the mountainous Majella National Park and a couple of kilometres from the village of Serramonacesca, Kokopelli offers carefree camping with magnificent views of the raw countryside where bears and wolves still roam. It sounds like I’m writing their holiday brochure. I’m not, I’m just writing what I see. As I mentioned in my last post – write what you know.

What I know is that apart from a day in Venice years ago, this is my first time in Italy. And after hauling bags filled with lead weights round the Dordogne all summer, it’s a very welcome change. No more driving round the Perigord with a van full of indestructible coffin-shaped Samsonite suitcases big enough for the owners to be buried in. No more violent arguments with irate hoteliers. No more pretending to be polite when really I’m fuming beneath a painted-on smile. As the photographer Justin P Brown said to me after he’d moved to Barcelona after twelve smog-filled years in London, ‘This is paradise.’

After being shown the ropes of how the campsite works by my friends and waving them off to Sardinia in their Landrover, I was left to my own devices.

‘Now what do I do?’ I thought. As normal a million things rushed into my head, not wanting to waste a single minute of my time here. I wanted to do everything all at once: cycle up the mountains, swim in the river, hike up to the hermitage, cook spaghetti, write a novel, eat wild boar, learn Italian.

Instead I did nothing except cook some eggs, drink coffee, look at some maps, have another coffee, stoke the fire, and gaze blankly out at the scenery remembering that I was actually on holiday. A working holiday true, but the holidays I like best. Work to be done, but at my own pace. Slow down. Breathe. Relax.

Later I thought about dragging the bike out to see what the hills were like, but the urge passed and I made another coffee. ‘I wonder how much coffee I can drink?’ I thought. Probably quite a lot.

Whenever I go to new places, they’re always totally different to what I imagined. I once went to County Kildare in Ireland for a week and had to give myself a real talking to after I returned. I thought Ireland would be like England: dreary suburbia interspersed with the odd pocket of beauty. It was nothing of the sort.

I remember going into a pub for the first time. Where are all the trinkets and bodhrans hanging from the ceiling? The Oscar Wilde quotes, the Guinness adverts, the wooden confession boxes? The thick curtains and low lit lighting? This wasn’t right. This was just a room with brightly painted yellow walls. The tables and chairs were chrome and the only trinkets were a fire poker and coal shovel next to the fireplace which was real and alight.

I wasn’t going to poke my finger through a wafer thin partition wall here to reveal the breeze brick walls of a shopping centre. Its foreignness was real, not contrived or made to feel like somewhere else, like a Red Lion pub on the Costa Del Sol, selling egg and chips and pints of Fosters under the gigantic sunlamp of the Spanish sun.

I ordered a pint of Guinness even though I hated the stuff – ‘tastes of soot’ I once told a friend. But what else was I going to drink on my first visit to Ireland. Budweiser? Probably, because that’s what everybody else was drinking. I was the only one drinking the fabled Black Stuff while the rest of the pub – full blooded Irishmen and women – sat around drinking American lager.

Last night in the town hall in Serramonacesca, I had another ‘Irish moment’, where once again everything I’d thought I knew about a country came crashing down on my thick English head. I didn’t imagine for a second that everybody would be prancing about in Gucci suits and Prada heels drinking campari and sodas, I’m not that stupid. However, I certainly didn’t imagine techno, opera and karaoke on the same night, served up with stodgy ragu on paper plates, all washed down with red wine sloshed out shakily from giant 10 litre flagons like it was floor cleaner.

Never second guess. That’s what I’ve learnt so far from my 42 years on this planet. Never think you know anything about anything until you’ve seen it, done it, got the T-shirt. Countries, cultures, traditions, customs, languages and food all need to be experienced at first hand before you can make any sort of judgement. Otherwise you end up making a tit of yourself. Like drinking a pint of Guinness in a pub in Ireland. Or asking for Spaghetti Bolognese in an Italian restaurant…

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