Wednesday, 27 September 2017

The Manche to the Med - Day 8: Rochechouart to Thiviers

We're on the Voie Verte again - but it's a lovely smooth surface for mile after mile. And we share it with no-one. We're cycling through the 'Parc Naturel Regional Perigord Limousin' 1800 square kilometres of moors, meadows, forests and a few lakes.

On the Voie Verte
It's good cycling country, beautiful. Cathedrals of trees displaying every imaginable shade of green line the path on both sides, rising up the steep banks and poking into the bright azure sky. Through gaps the fields are gilded with buttercups. The path meanders past farms and homesteads, barns and a cluster of golden hayricks. There's the occasional grey steeple looking out from a pretty confusion of trees and the light falling in sheets. Like Laurie Lee we wanted to stagger into a village and be revived by a flagon of wine and by late morning we reach such an outpost.
Chalus sits on the edge of the Voie Verte in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region. We didn't realise it but this is the place where Richard the Lionheart was besieged in 1199, he was wounded by a crossbow arrow and died here of the wound. His entrails are preserved in the chapel. Not only that, Lawrence of Arabia celebrated his 20th birthday here on August 16th, 1908 - he too was on a cycling tour, tracing the route of Richard 1st in preparation for his thesis 'The Influence of the Crusades on European Military Architecture at the end of the 12th century'.

The bar at Chalus
We cycle through the village, there's roadworks and general improvements going on. We look for a shop to maybe pick up a baguette - but being a Thursday, everywhere is closed. We manage to spot a bar that's open and take up a seat outside. The patron could possibly gain employment as a stuntman for Johnny Depp, he brings us a couple of Grand Cafes au Lait and we sit in the sun watching while nothing happens. An old lady hobbles across the road with her walking stick and takes up a seat in the opposite corner. We quickly establish that she's English, from Nantwich. She came here with her man 15 years ago - they split up but they're both still here. She points us to the castle where Richard died, it's just at the end of the street.
Plaque commemorating the visit of Lawrence
We set off again, and search for the road to Thiviers our destination for tonight. We pause at a junction to check maps and are joined by two other cyclists, man and wife, he riding a vintage style Pashley Guvnor and wearing retro clothes. They're from Yorkshire, here on holiday, and enjoy a 15 mile cycle ride each day. "We try to avoid the hills though" he tells us. 

We carry on along a smooth, busy road towards Thiviers, passing through another small village where we spy a cafe/restaurant - we stop hoping for something to eat - no luck, lunch has finished. Instead we sit outside with a couple of beers. I walk back to a small Boulangerie/Patisserie I'd spotted in a row of shops a few hundred metres away. It looks closed but it isn't - I wander in and madam drifts through a floral curtain dividing the shop area presumably from her living space. I order a couple of small delicious quiches, and some other bits and pieces - a simple point of the finger and "deux, s'il vous plait" suffices. I wait an age while madam wraps them as if they are presents for an aged aunt, but they're tasty treats and we sit in the sun greedily munching and sipping cool beer.
On the Lionheart trail

At Thiviers we receive a good welcome - Adrian and Sharon, bought the hotel a couple of years ago and moved here from Norwich. We get a complementary upgrade, our twin room now has two double beds! Unfortunately the hotel restaurant is closed on a Thursday - and the other restaurant in town is closed too - the owners there have gone on holiday. There's a kebab shop or a small pizza parlour Adrian tells us - but nothing opens until 7.00pm.

We have a walk round the small town - We're in the Dordogne now and Thiviers is the 'Capital of  foie gras in Green Perigord' it also specialises in local produce such as walnuts and truffles. The 12th century church dominates the small market place, there's a small Chateau behind the church and a scattering of shops and bars. Jean-Paul Sartre lived here for a while. We sit out in the warm sun and enjoy a couple of beers before wandering around looking for somewhere to get food - we are amazed that there is nowhere. We spot the small pizza shop - the owner is in there and we place an order - but he won't be open until 7.00 - okay we'll call back then. Next door is another bar, appropriately, The Bar Des Amis. We go in. It's small and basic, a high bar with a few stools and half a dozen tables and chairs. We grab a seat in the far corner and take a couple of beers and a pastis each. Back at the hotel later we would find out that this place is known as the 'Alchi's Bar' - It has an edgy feel, although everyone in there seems happy enough - probably because they were all pissed. Gary thinks we're in the heart of the French Resistance here - but they can't resist the temptation of another glass.
The Bar des Amis

After a couple of drinks we're back at the pizza place - it's essentially a small takeaway - although there is just space for two small bistro style tables next to the counter. One of those is taken by a young man eating pizza - turns out he's the chef from the hotel we're staying at - he eats here on his night off. We take the other table. The owner asks if we'd like a drink while we wait for our order. We ask what's available - "Everything" he says. We decide we'll try a bottle of local Perigord wine - it's very good. We get chatting to the pizza man - he speaks good English. He was a Michelin starred chef but gave it all up to open this pizza shop - work/life balance and all that. He also does B&B and rents out a gite for holidaymakers. The thing with pizza is that it is essentially a simple, peasant food. It is bread with a smear of tomato sauce and some flavourings plucked from the surrounding land. If it is made, with care and understanding and the toppings are simple and fresh and the oven is blast-furnace hot and the base is rolled to paper thinness - pizza can be the best, most satisying meal in the world. And so it was in Thiviers tonight.

In the pizza shop
Admittedly we were hungry - another lunch-free day today, but the taste and crispy freshness of these pizzas was a joy. We ordered another to share. By now the chef from our hotel had gone and his table was taken by a French couple - we decided to show that, despite Brexit, the English can still be relied on to demonstrate hospitality - we offered them a glass of wine. She took us up on the offer - he declined, I think he was driving. We ordered more wine - then a family came in for a takeaway - Dad, Mom and two kids - English - we made them drink a glass of wine too. And so it was for everyone who came into the pizza shop for the next hour - as we gradually got more pissed, so we cajoled and bullied the customers into taking wine with us - a sort of post-Brexit communion. Soon the pizzaman had run out of glasses and we'd ordered four or five bottles of wine - most of it given away. The word must have gotten round - next we had a couple of Resistance guys from the bar next door - one of them spoke in a mixture of hand signals and whistles - strangely we seemed to understand him. He ordered two pizzas - one for him and one for us. He took a glass of wine from us - and then bought us another bottle - it would be fair to say he joined the game. There was some conversation in French and the couple at the other table were laughing - we asked the pizzaman what was being said - " Ah - he says the Englishmen are gay!"
Our friend from The Resistance

It was getting late and we were finding it difficult to speak. We staggered out into the night with promises of gifts being sent to the pizzaman and with the Resistance man still hanging around my neck whistling something or other. We couldn't manage to eat the pizza he bought us but we took it with us so not to offend him. I gave it away to someone just around the corner.

Tonight was another one of those unplanned, unforeseeable events that will remain one of the highlights of the entire trip. Vive La France.
Foie Gras country

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