Monday, 25 September 2017

The Manche to the Med - Day 6: Poitiers to Confolens

It's another drizzly, damp start today. So far we've had a pretty mixed bag of weathers. You can cut the world across many different lines; between haves and nots, first and third, buyers and sellers, blondes and brunettes, tits or legs. But sometimes the most fundamental division is between sun and shade, hot and cold. If you come from the cold, damp north then the sun is a joyous treat. Those who live in the hot and bright all their lives never really understand or experience the joy of meeting a favourite pair of shorts once again after a year apart. The grains of last summer's sand in the pocket. Or the liberation and freedom that a pair of sandals bring to sweaty, incarcerated toes  All-in-all it's a few degrees warmer here than at home, that'll do for me.

We cycle through the city centre looking for a shop where we might buy something suitable for lunch - it being Tuesday though, everything is closed.

Today's ride is a good one - after the descent and subsequent climb from the city we're on smooth tarmac all day. We tell each other again, the roads over here (paved ones) are much better than those at home. Gary says he'd like to bring his carbon bike over - he reckons these roads are fast.

We stop at a roadside cafe, not for food, eating would be too easy - we're in suffering mode now - more to just soak up the atmosphere, the je ne sais quoi. It's a bright room with a high bar and a couple of beer pumps, there are posters and notices and the day's menu on the wall. There's a short narrow corridor leading into a second room, we crane our necks to see, looks like that's the restaurant bit and it hums with activity - we're sitting in the bar area. The place is busy and there are new arrivals all the time. Everyone seems to know each other - there are three or four men sitting on high stools at the bar, working men dressed for the fields or workshop - one sipping beer, one has a bottle of pastis and repeatedly tops up his glass adding a splash of water. The other two are drinking small thimble sized cups of strong coffee. Everyone who comes in shakes hands with the men at the bar - it's like a scene from The Sopranos.

As we leave and are tending our bicycles there is an oldish couple arriving - the man stops and fishes out a photograph of someone on a recumbant bike - there is an exchange of smiles and words that neither party can understand - the bicycles are the common language.

Getting Gaz's bike fixed
Gary's bike though has developed a problem - both our steeds are fitted with kick-stands - invaluable when we need to stop somewhere. Gary's stand has worked itself loose over the past few days, and we don't have a spanner large enough to fit the nut that will enable it to be tightened. Chances of finding a bike shop out here are remote - but we pass a small Peugeot car dealership and notice there is a service area round the back. We pull in and approach the open workshop door - a young mechanic comes out to us and we are able to point at the loose nut and gesticulate appropriately enough for him to see the problem. He disappears into the gloomy workshop and returns with a tool that solves the problem - with the help of google translate we are able to explain where we're heading for "Bravo" is his response with a smile. A little later, back on the road, we spot an InterMarche supermarket - we stop and I go in for cakes - Whilst I'm in there Gary is approached by another interested Frenchman who has good English - they chat eagerly about our journey until I come out armed with a couple of Paris Brests.

There is a pleasant and easy descent into the medieval town of Confolens, situated on the River Vienne. The sun is shining now and the river sparkles in harmony with the glorious old buildings lining both sides. This is picture postcard France, the old bridge, cobbled lanes and alleyways, plane trees and fountains. The GPS guides us through the centre to our B&B accommodation. I knock on the door and after a few minutes we are greeted by a man who might well have been the inspiration for The Hobbit. His French sounds shaky and after a few garbled sentences I ask him if he's English? He is - he and his wife have been here 20 years.

Where we're staying has all the idiosyncratic peculiarities one might expect of a Hobbit. A room decorated entirely with artifacts from a Morrocan bazzaar. All wall space throughout the house is taken up with paintings by the Hobbitman himself. He locks himself away in an upper room and paints away with music blaring. There's a most wonderful and ancient oak staircase. A mosaic tiled floor, sun-bleached blue shutters, faded fabrics and dust. The place is at once a museum and a testimony to eccentricity. I love it. Our room on the second floor is basic but comfortable. The bathroom is like no other I've ever seen. The toilet facility involving a strange and ancient pumping system to facilitate a flush. The iron roll-top bath is shrouded in a hessian curtain and the floor covered in ruckled linoleum.

After unpacking and showering we take to the streets - there is bright yellow, blue and red bunting everywhere, from a recent festival. Along the street is a cobbled causeway to the river - there is a woman set up with her sketch pad painting a river scene. A bit further is the old bridge, dating back to the fourteenth century. We find a bar and settle in for a couple of beers. I hear an English voice and get chatting to a man enjoying a drink with his family. He is a builder, probably mid-thirties and has just moved his family here to live. After a walk around to the market square and another couple of beers we come back to the first bar to order some food. There is a sizeable restaurant at the rear overlooking the river. I order snails as a starter - no fast food here. For his main course Gary orders a local speciality.

France - the cradle of gastronomy, the great stockpot from which every restaurant from every other nation has taken the measure of flavour. France, that invented all the stations of the kitchen, its epicurean techniques and skills, of sauce and the application of heat. And here we are - Gary has ordered the five year old sausage. We knew it was on its way five minutes before it reached the table - the smell was of sewers and sweat, rank and achrid. Who knows what dark techniques have been used to create this? Possibly all the nasty bits of pig buried in a sack at the bottom of the garden for five years and then dug up, forced into the remnants of a mouldy leather caseball and served by a waiter holding his breath. I can still smell it now - quite the most foul pugnacious dish I've ever encountered. Gary said it was the Epoisses of sausage - but apparently it tasted good.

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