France: A Week of Magical Living

A Good Year’ is a 2006 movie about an expat living in Provence, which shares many parallels with our recent week in northern France.  It’s set in a rambling farmhouse, and features lush, green countryside, a pretty village, entertaining locals, lots of wine and great food, and of course, a few Australians (Russell Crowe and Abby Cornish to be precise).

And when I recall our week in France, it plays out like a movie montage of one perfect moment after another.

First there is the rustic farmhouse where we stay in individual apartments with loft bedrooms. We sleep with our roof top window open to the stars and a view of the village church steeple.  The bells toll on the hour.

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Every morning Jean Claude, our (only) French speaking host arrives at our door with a cheeky ‘ca va!’ and a cheesy omelette, still in the pan and ready to serve. He’s followed by Isabelle, his charming bilingual wife bearing baguettes and freshly brewed coffee.

IMG_2880    JC Omelette

During the day, we explore up to two hours away. One day is to the champagne region, where we tour the honey coloured underground tunnels of Mumm, Tattinger and Mercier before we make our way to expanses of vineyards across gently rolling fields. Lunch is on a terrace bathed in glorious sunshine overlooking the town square of Reims. We dine on terrine de canard, salmon, duck and pork with baskets of bread and glasses of Pommery.

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On our return journey, we pop two bottles to enjoy in our just-purchased Mumm flutes which we will later leave as a parting gift for our hosts.

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On another day we venture to Honfleur, often referred to as the Nice of the North.

The day starts with freshly baked pastries from the boulangerie and bad coffee (they can’t be good at everything). We learn to trust the GPS (despite instructions in French), rather than the blonde in the back seat who suggests the route to Calais is the right direction. A minor detour and were back on track.  Our driving entertainment is impersonations of the Seinfeld cast, thanks to Bert.

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Darkly hued five storey buildings line three sides of a harbour bursting with sailing boats. The cobblestone pathways are crammed with chairs, tables and restaurants. We wander the harbour and side streets, tempted by the local Normandy liqueur, Calvados and other delicacies.

IMG_2806    IMG_2840    Rob and Bert Honfleur

Lunch is a set menu overlooking the harbour. We dine on chicken with mushroom cream sauce, steak, goat cheese salad, king prawns and the local special, seafood soup. It’s a Kir Royale kind of day.

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On our third day, we explore the Australian and British war memorials, discovering small but meticulously cared for cemeteries for fallen WW1 soldiers all along the way. The countryside is incredibly lush and green and almost like everyone mowed their lawns just before we arrived.

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Lunch is in the town of Albert, after a tour of the war museum and tunnels. Today is a sparkling rose type of day; the sun is shining and we’re in t-shirts. The boys, with the help of a local, manage to put a bet on a horse race and win.

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Nights are spent around an old timber table under a canopy of trees in the back yard of the farmhouse. The table is laden with cheeses, olives, bread, pates and terrine. The breeze is soft and we all agree the giant tree in the distance is indeed the tree of life. Our hosts join us and are able to immediately identify which pate and cheeses we have on offer by one small bite. A gentle reminder that the French have great….well…..taste.

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Isabelle demonstrates how champagne must be poured and translates Jean Claude’s instructions, ‘put your thumb in the bum’. Oh, we laugh.

IMG_2763    IMG_2773   champagne toast

The Anzac ceremony, the reason we’re here, has also bought thousands of other Australians to the region. There are daily catch ups at the local pub on the corner, Le Melbourne which overlooks a street lined with cherry blossoms. On the opposite corner is the town hall, decorated with colourful kangaroos and koalas and ablaze with tulips. Shop windows and homes adorn the Australian flag. Locals welcome us with big smiles and a hint of amusement. It’s festive, respectful and ultimately, very special. Everyone here knows they’ve come to experience something unique.

IMG_2468    IMG_2864    IMG_2865    Rob and Bert Le Melbourne    IMG_2873   IMG_2875

We shop daily, gathering our supplies from the local boulangerie, charcuterie and supermarche. Only in France, would you find the biggest sections are reserved for cheese and wine.

There are no arguments, no annoyances or frustrations, just four life-long friends living and loving each moment.

When people ask why it is that we love France so much, this week sums it up for me. The people, the simple, honest food, daily markets and shopping, the countryside, architecture, the history and quaint villages. Above all, it’s the French way of life; the slower pace, taking time to just ‘be’, appreciate and connect. Their love of an afternoon siesta doesn’t hurt either.

I think I can speak for all of us when I say this was indeed a week of magical living.

Footnote: This was written tongue-in-cheek, but I’m sure you appreciate the sentiment :).

Thank you’s:

We cannot thank Graeme (Bert) and Tess enough for sharing this week with us.  You were magnificent travel companions and we had an absolute ball.  Same time next year?

And finally, to our hosts, Isabelle and Jean-Claude, thank you for being such warm, fun and generous hosts.  We look forward to seeing you again soon.

We recommend:

If you are planning on attending the Anzac Day ceremony in the future or just want to explore the magnificent Le Somme region, we cannot recommend A la Ferme more highly.  Beautiful apartment accommodation in a restored farmhouse,, only 10kms from the Villers Bretonneux village centre, with amazing hosts.

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