My travels have started and although I didn’t go far, a short 283 miles as the crow flies to the Chateau de Jalesnes just outside the village of Vernantes and the town of Saumur. I have had the best first 2 weeks! I came with no expectations and I’m more willing to go with the flow than most but oh yes, the Chateau life is one I could get used to. Impressive place and so lucky with my HelpX companions.
It has finally dawned on me that my blogging is like my shaggy dog story telling. “The background is essential.” I used to write regularly to my old school friend Kathryn when I was at Glamorgan Uni and her in Liverpool. Not forgetting many letters back and forth with my old uni partner in crime Karen when she and I had moved away from deepest darkest Treforest My chatty writing style hasn’t changed, basically, this is me if I was talking to you with a cuppa or glass of wine. This is a long one so more like a chat with a bottle or 2.
Monday 5th June 2017 – my backpack and me!
Headed to Stansted Airport via Peckham Rye train and bus from Victoria Coach stations. Within this two hour journey, just to get to the airport, I’d already cursed the amount of clothing I’d packed. I’d hoped for a cooler day in the UK so I could wear some of the warmer clothing, however, this logic is completely flawed when you’re travelling in 25-degree heat at your destination. Actually, it was flawed in London – Monday 5th was a humid day, I’m 3 stone too heavy to be carrying an extra 13kg. I was wearing jeans…. mistake! I need to seriously rethink the clothing, toiletries and shoe situation. All the heavy items need culling.
I have also never backpacked or holidayed with my laptop – essential to my work and blogging Not been too successful with the latter in my first 2 weeks, however, this will get better. Yet, you’ll be pleased to hear the Rowan VPA Services work is coming in!
If some of you are wondering how I can be affording this indefinite travelling trip of mine then please check out my website www.rowanvpaservices.wordpress.com Refer me to your colleagues, family, friends and bosses! Imagine me as a ‘marketing tech girl Friday’. I’ll come back to this another day – basically, my hope is to continue to volunteer, travel and work remotely as long as feels right; living in cities or towns I’d normally just take a long weekend to enjoy.
The London Victoria to Stansted airport journey via coach was productive because I had to finish an on-line work project before I got to foreign shores as I couldn’t guarantee the wifi ease and availability. The initial journey was fantastic because the coach drove over Lambeth Bridge and Southwark Bridge past a good number of sights and sounds I could say a fond farewell to. As soon as we’re in the outskirts of the city and on dual carriageway then I jump on my mobile wifi hotspot and complete my work before the airport. One simple example of the technology I love and have available to me.
Stansted Airport is not in my top ‘anything’ of airports, as the security can be quick and smooth unless the bag detector takes your hand luggage down the manual checks conveyor belt….nooooooooo I appreciate the security measures are for my benefit and for the safety of others. However, the time it takes is painful. A couple of years ago my friend Debbie and I nearly missed a flight to Salzberg because her bag contained an uneaten banana. Forever to be known as ‘banana-gate’. Thankfully, we got on the plane in fits of laughter but it was a close call. We were not the only ones delayed by crazy slow manual checks of the baggage and the plane took off a little later than planned. Lucky ladies!
My error was 2 nail varnish not in the plastic bag and 2 lighters…. ooooOOO only permitted 1 per person. The lighters, not the nail varnish. Additionally, it was a training day. Wrist slapped by the over zealous security woman. I waited at least 35 minutes for the bag to be checked and I was practising my Zen for the rest of my time abroad. I bet there will be other days when I have to wait patiently for trains and buses so I wasn’t going to let this first hurdle shorten my fuse. But seriously, please Stansted, do something about the manual checking process – it’s just so inefficient!
I’d planned to complete some last-minute emails which went out the window, call the folks – check, a very quick hello and cheerio to mum, eat a fish-finger sandwich as I was no way paying Ryanair for tasteless in-flight food when it costs so much! And a bevvy, because, well, it’s an airport tradition! Check – a pint of Guinness with my sarnie and wedges. Priorities.
Obligatory plane pics have to be done!
Flying Stansted to Tours is basically up, coffee and down! Popular because of the close proximity to Le Mans and the increasing number of Loire Valley holiday homes for the Brits and Irish. Tours airport is tiny, not what I expected at all. My plane arrived from London, as always the passengers jump up as if they’ll get off quicker but no chance; the awful recent terror incidents have rightly heightened immigration and passport control, however, this did not include increasing the number of immigration officers at the airport. Imagine a small shed with 2 windows and 2 unsmiling French men.
Bus shuttle or taxi to Tours train station is simple even if I did forget that I have to try my French – bad Rowan! At least ‘to the train station’… a habit I need to break. Google translate app is to be my best friend especially now they have audio I can attempt to repeat with perfect accent.
I am still in a little shock that I’m actually in France and trying to remember the last time I was in the country. I was put off working for a French company in my early 20’s Even my French colleagues were not that complimentary about the French.
I visited France for family camping holidays in the 80’s and definitely a school trip potentially 1992 – I remember Joan of Arc church and Gros Horlorge of Rouen, the Bayeux Tapestry and WWII beaches and memorial. I am sure this was the last time I was properly ‘in’ France. You can’t count being on a Eurostar train zooming through the countryside heading for a fantastic long weekend in Bruges. School friends may be able to help if I went skiing in France….my memory is atrocious and I just can’t recall.
I’m heading back to Tours after my HelpXing fortnight so I’m not in any rush to see the town centre whilst laden down with my backpack. Tours to Saumur is by local regional train with the best/worst air conditioning I’ve ever experienced on public transport. I have been in warmer walk-in fridges. I got my ticket and train without hitch and a fair bit of international sign language. I am on my way to meet my host Jenny, an Australian ex-pat living in Malaysia for half the year and co-owner (with 3 others) of the Chateau. Not a bad way to enjoy a retirement.
We’d already had a flurry of messages back and forth about the Chateau and how it all works for HelpXers in the previous couple of weeks however the challenge with this for me is always trust. It irks the planner in me but when someone says they’ll pick you up then you have to have faith they’ll come when they say. Of course, she did!
Why did I pick the Chateau? The reviews of past HelpXers were all very good. I wanted to visit Paris yet start my volunteer voyages as I mean to continue. Not by holidaying but a different style of trip. I hadn’t expected that we’d eat like Kings and be treated to wine and dips in the pool. A very welcome cooling off when the body is overheating. As my article explains, HelpX is an online tool where hosts can find helpers in exchange for food and board. The ‘help’ they need can be anything from admin to fruit picking to animal care to hospitality. The Chateau looked stunning
in their website – 5* accommodation with high-end fully furnished suites and studios with integrated kitchen facilities. Whilst I offered my hospitality marketing services, I hoped for outdoor opportunities to start the tanning! I can confidently confirm 2 weeks on, I am a very dirty brown with extremely blond hair. The sun and the outdoor jobs did not disappoint.
After 13 hours since leaving my old home, I was now in ‘The Hi De Hi’. The nickname given to the volunteers’ accommodation. A converted stable for goats and sheep (I think…) back in the day, this is where the owners lived during conversion of the Chateau and now for us helpers. 3 twin bedrooms with a communal lounge and kitchen. Two owners of the Chateau are British and yes the accommodation block looks like it belongs in the sitcom anytime between ’80-’88. Note, we definitely didn’t get suits like these 2!
The lovely current HelpXers had waited for me to arrive before they had dinner. Jenny did the quick towels, linens, duvet, bedroom and bathroom tour then left me to it.
My fellow volunteers are Toms from Riga, Latvia and Clara and Nahuel from Buenos Aires, Argentina. Clara had made a fantastic creamy cheesy aubergine pie with an array of salads. This was just the start of feasting every day. That night we drank good red wine and thankfully the guys didn’t mind speaking English! I’m so lucky that it’s one of the universal languages. I can piece together some Spanish if I understand the context but I wouldn’t know where to start speaking either Latvian or South American Spanish. I was definitely on a high and was blathering to them ever so quickly I am sure they probably didn’t understand half of my chatter.
I slept very well that Monday night, spark out; a very deep satisfying 8 hours.
Tuesday 6th June 2017 – I love cheese
Volunteering starts are 8.30am invariably, however, the hosts are not at all strict about when you work. The deal is 4 hours ‘work’ a day in exchange for free food and board. This is a great partnership for all. The Chateau needs to keep the grounds and building looking fabulous and the rotation of HelpXers means they get experienced tradesman like carpenters to people like me with very general skills in the garden but I can do housekeeping tasks with my eyes closed. Funnily, all of us volunteers were not big morning people but Jenny was. Thankfully not in an annoying smug way; in a let’s get to it way. The owners like to allocate tasks to HelpXers that they would do themselves but just don’t have the time for one reason or another. Mainly ‘cos they’re crazy busy already and each little job is not that little!
First thing on the list – wedding the veg patch. This was hilarious. The seeds were not long sprouting so I have absolutely no idea what I was pulling out. After about 4 weeks growth then a plant actually looks like a mini version of itself but when I was tackling this hmmm weed and vegetable was a little too similar. Thankfully I had Jenny giving me the odd direction and advice but it was extremely relaxed. The pain part was my body’s lack of muscle or being used to any kind of gardening. At one point it was easier to lie down and rip out the weeds whilst prone of the grass. After 2 hours my hands were in pain, after 3 hours my hamstrings and just nearing lunch, dear god my lower back didn’t know what the hell I was doing. Tomorrow was going to be painful! That said, I was still pleased to be prone of the garden lawn and look up at the Chateau and very blue skies and this glowing yellow ball….two weeks ago I’d not see it properly this year, I vaguely remember its called ‘sun’.
Lunch was A-MAZ-ING each day – all the good foods from France. Baguette, ham, cheese, cheese, cheese and oh, more cheese! Can I just say I love cheese! I wish I’d taken a photo but I became a Pavlov dog – 12.30 ding ding, lunch time. My stomach was always growling around quarter past. HelpXers and the Chateau housekeepers – Satiana and Marie-Noelle – all enjoy lunch together in the Hi De Hi, poor ladies have to put up with our English conversation but thankfully we had more people coming… with French skills!
Over the course of my time at the Chateau we were also joined by; Vivienne from Beijing, China plus Diego from Toronto, Canada, Daniel from Christchurch, New Zealand and Fritz from Dingolfing (what a great town name!), Germany. A fantastic mix of people and that was just 2 weeks!! I was edging the average age up but not by much and no-one really cares about age in this scenario anyways.
4 hours goes by in a flash when the brain switches into autopilot and daydream mode. The best ideas come when you’re not really thinking. Clears the mind. Plus a bit of banter with the team and back to that thing called ‘sun’… always makes me feel great.
Afternoons and evenings are our own to do with as we wish. Chatting, cooking, relaxing with a bottle of red, baking, sleeping, walking, food shopping, NetFlix and chill (in the actual sense, not the naughty option) were activities we successfully achieved between us. The hotter it got, the more sleeping was preferred. It wasn’t like we had super late nights but this manual labouring lark is hard work in the 30-degree heat.
Jenny hosted dinner for us HelpXers and some of the investors in the Chateau – you can own shares in one of the apartments/studios and benefit from 8 weeks use per year plus profits from each sale throughout the rest of the year. More info here for anyone who’s interested. The owners have won awards for the investment set-up.
We gorged on a pudding of strawberry Eton mess made with strawberries from the garden, the third portion took me over the edge and I had to lie down! Everyone is ever so friendly and welcoming, the owners have always used HelpX since buying the Chateau 4 years ago and restoring over a 2 year period. It had stood 90% empty for 14 years before they purchased it. The actual building was constructed in the 17th century and I’m sure once connected to Royalty or at least the Ackerman family – a very very important name in the region and the sparkling wine world.
Wednesday 7th June 2017 – Weeding = pain
Ha, rolling out of bed was the only option, there was no way I could bend or squat. Thankfully I don’t have the inclination to do either. My hamstrings had taken a beating. I’m sure my weeding action shouldn’t be bent over at the waist, not matter how short I am. My body hasn’t done a proper day’s manual work ever… and now I’m feeling it! Today’s task was completely different… cleaning windows! Insert own version of George Formby’s song. The management had been let down by a contractor to clean the Chateau windows however they had an exclusive use wedding from Friday to Sunday in all apartments and so this job was crazy…. how many windows cleaned by Vivienne and me over 2 and 1/2 days…. hard to be exact as they’re different sizes but I’d say 50 and that’s just each room window, not counting the individual panes of glass. Another task that can switch any over thinking off and naturally spend a lot of time looking up at glorious clear blue skies. It was funny that Vivienne and I were the shortest people in the HelpXers and yet got to clean these extremely tall classic chateau windows.
We take it in turns to cook tea/dinner and I can’t stress enough how generous the Chateau was… we ate like kings and queens. Benefiting also from croissant and wine that would be thrown out otherwise. The Chateau allocates 7 Euro per person, per day to the food bill. We’d head off to the local Super U for food and the delicious 2 Euro bottle of red I’ve already been raving about. Granted…cringe…. this red was not local. An easy to drink Cotes du Rhone and I’m trying to find a photo of the label to share with you all.
The Middle Loire Valley region is dominated by Chenin blanc and Cabernet franc wines found in the regions around Touraine, Saumur, Chinon and Vouvray. Most famous in the local area is the art of fine sparkling wines. As I mentioned the Ackerman family were key to the creation of a sparkling wine comparable to Champagne. It is delicious, not too dry, sweeter than Champagne and smooth. We tried some bubbles at a different winery on Saturday but the 4 of us were not so keen.
Did I mention, this location is so calm and quiet. The only sound I connect with is the mass of birdsong at sunrise and over breakfast then later in the day… the neighbouring farmer’s automatic sprinklers kick in. This is hemp growing in the farmer’s fields and also a pleasant walking shortcut to Vernantes. They also had an entertaining menagerie of animals at their farm…. peacock, goose, goat, donkey, bunnies, ‘3 French hens’ (I bet you sing it!), horse, ram and a deer!! Never found out why and felt sorry for the deer and sheep when they look out of their enclosure to a lush green forest. Plus the peacock sounded like a cat meowing, very confusing for 5 cat lovers in the Hi De Hi.
Vernantes has 2 churches – of course, 3 bars, boulangerie, Super U (supermarket), Boucherie and banks that always seemed closed. Typical French village. A lot of Tuffeau stone — which is the local limestone of the Loire Valley of France. Many buildings are pale soft cream in colour as they are made from the stone which is easy to excavate from just metres from the surface. Many buildings have cellars and caverns simply because the stone was used to build a house, barn and even Chateau de Jalesnes. That’s why it has a moat! A moat that has never had water in it.
Thursday 8th June 2017 – just call me George Formby
More window cleaning, many many windows, more cheese, more heat, more sleep, more Cotes du Rhone vino and new for today…photo taking. I’m trying not to snap and go but its easier to edit and secretly use a little filter later on. I have decided from now on that I’ll try to look for the unusual photo op or angle. I’d got a really good look around the Chateau during my window cleaning so naturally, time to take some photos too. The chapel is stunning and the restoration the team have achieved is so well finished. Plus I couldn’t possibly forget playful puppy Lulu – so cute, especially when being naughty.
This day seems to be a blur so, clearly, I was extra chilled out on this day. It’s at this point I find my ITV Player and BBC iPlayer don’t work outside of the UK. How will I get my fix of Midsummer Murders and Death in Paradise? How do I get round this? Without charges!
Friday 9th June 2017 – Instagram stalking
Found out the wedding couple and party were quite active on the old Instagram The groom is an Australian rugby player currently playing for Stade Francais – a tall fella at 6’7 – called Hugh Pyle. They have a great Instagram hashtag its hard to be original but #celiasaysihugh did make me smile. With guests a mix of antipodeans, Brits and a.n.other … they sounded like they were having an absolute blast over the next 4 days. Funnily, one of the guests was travelling in France and decided to stay volunteer after the wedding. That’s a first for the Chateau; Daniel, our New Zealand arrival moved from the Chateau to the welcoming Hi De Hi.
Daniel did bring a great question to the table with him – how do you bark like a dog in your language? The results were in and I’ll update you further as I travel 😉
British and the Kiwis – woof woof
Argentinian Spanish – wow wow
Chinese – wo wo
German – vow vow
The days are started to blend together so easily. Whilst I am working remotely and intermittently as ‘Rowan VPA Services’, the beauty of the work is its dedicated online project work so I have clear understanding of my client’s need and it’s not a long prolonged conversation among many colleagues and lots of opinions. Two factors I definitely don’t miss from working permanently! The only decisions and opinion we have to discuss these days are what is for dinner and what foods are called in each other’s languages. There is a mutual appreciation for travelling and food for all 6 of us. Toms has returned back to Latvia and Fritz is yet to arrive.
One question for any medical professionals…. due to my body being completely unaware of physical activity and I’ve had to use my hands a lot. I’m now suffering from numb or tingling fingers… I say suffering, it just feels weird. My left-hand little finger and the ring finger. It must be a trapped nerve somewhere in my arm causing the symptom of numbness. I’m just not exactly sure how to resolve it. Any ideas?
Saturday 10th and Sunday 11th June 2017 – driving a car is like riding a bike
2 days of rest to explore the region, the Chateau generously allow HelpXers drive their Chateau car/van. Used to get the shopping, take the recycling to the dump and escape to the sights and sounds of the region. We opted for Saumur and Nantes. Clara was ready to go as driver extraordinaire, used to driving on the right-hand side of the road but not used to a manual since passing her test. After a couple of false starts, she turned to me, a questioning look on her face…. we’d already joked about me knowing how to drive a manual but I drive on the left-hand side of the road. I’d not shared my non-driving spell of 7 years because what was the point of having a car in London. My lovely Fiat Punto Grande sat idle for a large proportion of 2 years and so I sold the car and solely relied on the amazing public transport network of London. It may be expensive but a bus or tube every 2-3 minutes cannot be grumbled about. I am looking forward to riding the Cross Rail when it opens.
Clara and I swapped seats and I am gobsmacked by how I didn’t even take a second to remember what to do. However, more importantly, I had Diego tapping my right shoulder to remind me which lane I should be heading for, Clara telling me when I was way too right and heading for a kerb and lastly whacking my left hand on the driver’s door about 10 times reminded me I needed to change gear on the other side.
We successfully filled up the car with diesel and headed to Saumur. A very cute little town on the Loire River with a dramatic bridge. A huge Chateau with a great panorama of the flat lands of the Valley. As well as the wine, the Saumur area is famous for the ‘dancing horses’, Well, that’s my name for them. The river is dirty but reminds me of the Thames in a way.
We pottered about, taking in the cafes and markets, ate a picnic lunch in the garden and then headed to Bouvet Ladubay for wine tasting.
I’m not a massive fan of Champagne and Sparkling Wine but my taste buds have changed, I like some especially Nyetimber English Sparkling Wine. For only 4 Euros we had a 30-minute tour around the cellars and 4 different sparkling wines to taste. One of the four tastings was ok but not as nice as the Ackerman we’d enjoyed at Jenny’s on Tuesday. There are many wine cellars to choose from in and around Saumur, and I couldn’t even guess how many throughout the Loire Valley.
Old habits, I’d tasted all 4 and then remembered I was driving. The weather was hot and bubbles usually go straight to my head. Oops! At least home at the Chateau was all of 20 minutes drive.
Sunday was an adventure onto the dual carriageway. In hindsight, we should have taken a longer route and enjoyed driving through the smaller towns and villages to reach Nantes. It was 2 hrs by the highway as we’d not taken into account the toll stops and more diesel needed. The town route certainly would have been cheaper, tolls totalled 26.50 Euro for there and back. I think that’s a lot, don’t you?
After the long journey there (its not that far but remember this is day 2 of driving and the French don’t use indicators and they drive really close to your arse) Nantes was a little anticlimactic.
They had these fantastic steampunk animals that you can ride in however only the elephant was free to view and I’m happy we stuck around long enough to see it walking. Reminds me of the film Moulin Rouge… sing with me “come what may….” (ignore the reference if you’re not a Ewan McGregor/Moulin Rouge fan – I am both). I have a video to share of the elephant in motion, when my internet is a little more reliable.
France closes down on a Sunday! Yes, you can visit churches, cathedral, some museums, gardens, restaurants but where were the people? There wasn’t the French atmosphere I was expecting, however, don’t get me wrong it’s not completely bad. I really liked the architecture of Passage Pommeraye and the fountain at Place Royale I think if you were staying in Nantes the town would liven up but I also think there are better towns to visit in the region.
The funniest part of the day was all 4 of us forgetting where the car was parked. We’d had issues finding a space, there may not be many people in town but there are cars parked everywhere! It took 4 of us to piece together where it was because each street looks so similar. It took us about 20 minutes of tracking back from where we’d had a coffee/loo stop on arrival. So funny as us 2 girls turned one corner and the 2 boys turned into the other end of the street and we all did a mini cheer as we walked to the abandoned van (my parallel parking had been dire).
It was nice to get back behind the wheel, however, I’m an advocate of train travel all the way! Why drive when someone else can do it for you.
Week 2 coming soon….