Author Jane Dunning remembers her first holiday in France which was to lead to an endearing love of the country and a book about one of her favourite places:
I’d travelled through France by train in 1969 on a school trip to Austria but hadn’t been abroad since; so when friends suggested we rent a ‘gîte’ ten years later, we jumped at the chance and a few months later, four couples in their mid-twenties set off for Limousin; a tiny village called Le Grand-Bourg to be exact.
On the long journey through France, we stopped in Caen for the night, choosing a 2* hotel without en suites but with basins and bidets in the rooms, conveniently curtained off. That evening we headed out for dinner, armed with the words ‘bien cuit’ written clearly in the back of our phrase book. We had been forewarned to ask for our steaks ‘well done’ to avoid the meat being too undercooked for our young palates. I think we all ordered steaks, and I remember very clearly the mountain of delicious sautéed, whole new potatoes that accompanied the steaks. The platter must have been two feet long by fifteen inches wide with the potatoes piled at least a foot high. Long after our steaks were finished, we sat at the table trying to eat as many of the potatoes as we could. We thought it would be impolite to leave too many.
The next morning, we went down for petit déjeuner and were served the typical breakfast of croissant, baguette and coffee but were given no plates. How strange, we thought. We decided to copy an older gentleman who seemed to know what he was doing. He turned out to be Irish!
We finally got back on the road and managed to find our way easily on the long, straight N roads. Navigating the confusing city streets was another matter as we became completely lost in the large city of Tours. We ended up on a housing estate, and asked a resident the way back to the main road. It looked as if he’d just popped out to his car to get something as he was only wearing slippers. Without hesitation, he jumped into his little Renault 4 and led us back to the main road and sent us on our way with a friendly wave. That was only one expression of kindness that we experienced on our holiday.
We finally arrived at Le Grand-Bourg and the cottage that would be our home for the next two weeks. The owner was there to greet us having just finished planting some marigolds ready for our arrival. It transpired that we were the first holiday-makers to rent his gîte and he proudly showed us around the four bedroomed property. I don’t recall much about the lay-out but do remember that we gave the only unmarried couple the best bedroom!
During the two weeks, we thoroughly explored the area, even getting into museums at a discount as we were classed as a group. One day, we decided to visit a nearby château, parked the cars outside the gates and walked up to the front door but there was no-one around. We’d walked all around the building, peered through windows and took some photos before we realised that it wasn’t the château we were looking for – it was a private residence. We beat a hasty retreat before we were discovered.
Food was high on our agenda but, apart from enjoying pizzas and pasta at our favourite Italian restaurant in Bournemouth, La Lupa, we were quite inexperienced with foreign dishes. Fixed price menus always seemed to be the best value but, not understanding all the culinary terminology, left us wrapping things in napkins and smuggling them out of the restaurant in handbags as we left. We were certain that the bœuf bourguignon was made from horsemeat and I’m still shocked that a couple of the party ate what appeared to be songbirds. One thing that I remember enjoying was pâté served in its terrine with crunchy cornichons served in a pottery jug. It’s a combination I still like to this day…
A second act of kindness took place back in Le Grand-Bourg when we went shopping in the small and only shop in the village. We put lots of things our basket and then realised that no-one had any money with them. We started putting everything back on the shelves when the owner said we could pay later. It turned out we were quite well known as ‘les Anglais’ and the whole village knew about us and, of course, where we were staying.
The two weeks eventually came to an end and it was time to pay the bill. The owner, a Monsieur Bonnet, invited us all to his house in the nearby larger town of Guéret so we could settle up – all of £80 for the two weeks. We confessed that we had broken a glass – he said not to worry it was lucky. We were served éclairs and German wine – something which seems as strange now as it did then, but such a lovely gesture.
When I hear anyone saying the French are not friendly, I remember this, my first holiday in France, and all the acts of kindness shown to us. I’ve been to France many, many times since and can only speak extremely highly of the way I’ve been treated by almost everyone I’ve come across. Vive la France!
I was lucky enough to spend four months in Provence in 2008. My time there was the inspiration for my novel ‘Thirty-five minutes from St Tropez’, the story of an extended family who live in Provence and Monaco.