Since the caravan brakes didn’t fail and we’ve already used up the stress-making options of a Kamikaze Lorry and towing a caravan through the Mistral, Mark tried to add a different layer of excitement to our departure. As he loaded the bikes on to the van, he tried to amputate the end of his finger on my spokes.
Stemming the flow of husbandly blood is always a fine prelude to a road trip.
Our route north to Bourgogne (Burgundy) demonstrated how many delights there are on the doorstep of Provence, which had captured our hearts, but was too hot!
In quick succession, we passed signs for the Cévennes, Drôme and Ardèche.
“We’re not far from the Puy-de-Dôme and the Auvergne, either” Mark told me – more of our must-see-again regions. Our sudden change of plan would deny me the wild, white horses of the Camargue, another fantastic region on the fringes of Provence. However, I was delighted to discover that although our destination, Cluny, is world famous for its medieval abbey, it is also an equestrian city.
Cluny is home to Equivallée Haras – The French National Stud, founded by Napoleon. For two-hundred years, Cluny has remained a horsey hub, with the stud, a club and its own hippodrome to host various types of race.
Cluny’s lovely, municipal campsite is just a short walk from the town. The facilities were immaculate and the staff very friendly. As I checked in, Annette on reception asked if I was English.
“It’s really nice that you speak in French. Most English don’t bother!” she told me.
When I went back later to ask if there was a doggie walk nearby, Annette’s partner, Chris, couldn’t understand me.
“Are you English?” he asked in a London accent.
“I’m English too, but I’ve been in France for ages. Your accent put me off.”
A friend of mine once asked if I spoke foreign languages with a Lancashire accent. I replied diplomatically that I didn’t know, although secretly, I was convinced that I spoke like a native. Although I have never heard myself speak French, a video of me addressing our little canine friend Lampo in Italian soon disabused me of that! Even speaking Italian, Coronation Street would have been proud to welcome me into the cast.
If you remember, Mark was complimented by a Frenchman on his grasp of the language simply because he pronounced ‘Orange’ correctly – and Mark doesn’t speak a word of French!
Naturally, Mark chose this moment to remind me of this.
ME! Who has been forced through conversations with two Gallic mechanics about a caravan brake problem; conducted a visit to the vet for four pet passports, vaccinations and a discussion about leishmania; and had my tooth filled without anaesthetic – all in Française. I was furious!
We had no food. I had gone all Provençale the previous evening and used up everything by dumping it into a loose interpretation of a Jamie Oliver ratatouille. After a long drive, we couldn’t face getting back in the van to go shopping, so we wandered into Cluny.
The medieval high street was stunning and had a nice, relaxed buzz about it. The Tourist Office was closed, but we ambled into the vast precincts of the Abbaye. There, we found the weekly market and a group doing something like T’ai Chi, but with swords, which really appealed to the martial artist in me.
A street café, Le National, boasted a daily special of bavette (skirt of beef) with bernéase sauce and haricots verts, so there was no argument about dinner. I always buy bavette if I see it; it’s rare in the U.K but a favourite for both of us. It is a well-flavoured cut which I usually use for stew, but the French fry it like steak. The service was wonderfully friendly and everyone cooed over the dogs. Kai attracted loads of attention when he lay back in Mark’s arms like a baby – the boy really knows how to do cute! Dinner was delicious and the aftermath of the garlic in the haricots verts was sufficient to repel vampires in Transylvania.
I am always so proud of The Fab Four, who are so well behaved, even when other dogs passed the restaurant.
Just before we paid the bill, I nipped off to buy some beers before the nearby minimarket closed. The only cold ones contained an anaesthetic dose of 8% alcohol, so I opted for a chilled bottle of local white instead.
After so long in lockdown, Mark and I both shared concerns that we’d lost the touring bug. Although we enjoyed Provence, our last campsite was run down, gloomy and adjacent to a main road. It was not a place to sit outdoors, but we reassured ourselves that it was cheap and convenient for the jobs we had to do. Sipping a glass of chilled white Burgundy on a beautiful, balmy evening, overlooking Cluny Abbey was the jolt we needed. It was a clear reminder of what our lifestyle is all about.
Although we had moved almost two-hundred miles directly north, the temperature was 36°C when we arrived. The following morning, we visited the Tourist Office to ask where we might find a cool, river walk for the dogs. Madame informed me that the Voie Verte behind the campsite joined the river just off the map, which seemed far preferable to driving anywhere. Then, I asked if dogs were allowed to visit the National Stud; she looked at me as though I had asked if they bred purple horses and replied,
“Chevaux et Chiens?! Non!”
I felt like saying “Horses and dogs? Well it was fine in Lipica!” (Lipica is the famous stud in Slovenia, which breeds the magnificent Lipizzaner dressage horses for the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. It comes highly recommended. To read about our dog-friendly visit there, click here.)
It didn’t take long before I was furious with her. The only saving grace of her river walk was that the Voie Verte was mostly shady, which made it just about bearable for the dogs. We walked for over an hour, but the path never came close to the river. When we ran out of drinking water, we asked a couple of German cyclists, who gave us a look not unlike the one delivered in the Tourist Office when I’d asked about dogs and the National Stud,
“We passed the river about 20km back, but it is schwartz – black. Not even dogs would want to swim.”
The following day, she achieved a 100% record. I visited the National Stud alone. At the entrance, a sign revealed that dogs on leads were welcome. A polite enquiry at reception confirmed it.
Incroyable – Unbelievable!
On certain days, there are guided tours and spectacles at the stud, but I went on a €3, self-guided tour day. I got to see the forge, the saddlery, a carriage museum and a stable. There were very few horses, which was disappointing. Around half a dozen Pur-sang – Pure-bloods (a breed based on the English Thoroughbred, which has Arabian roots), and a couple of powerful Percheron and Comtois work horses languished behind full-length bars. Touching was forbidden.
I was sorry not to see the Belgian Ardennes heavy horse that they have splashed all over the literature – I have only ever seen one Ardennes in my life; in an Amish community in America.
The Comtois is a new breed for me – a draught horse originally from the Franche-Compté region, which includes the Jura. The Comtois was a popular carriage horse, war horse and farm horse. As a result of a single stallion, Questeur, dark chestnut with a flaxen mane is now the predominant colour. Bay (brown with black mane, tail and legs) was the original colour and is still accepted within the breed standard, although a white blaze on the face which is more than half the width of the muzzle is not!
Apparently, the Comtois has a sweet temperament and is the most popular draught horse in France. En route to our next destination, we passed a restaurant called The Convivial Comtois – the perfect description!
I missed Mark and the pups, but they didn’t miss much!
“How was it?” Mark asked,
“It’s not Lipica,” I replied; a response that was to become the start of a worrying trend of comparisons.
I had picked up an excellent booklet in the Tourist Office. Right at the beginning were four Discovery Driving Tours; Tour No. 3 was billed as ‘Around Water – Rivers Guye and Gande.’
Later, in the ‘Ramblings’ section, it boasted of the Balades Vertes – “We can suggest over 40 different walks in the area…leaflets on sale at the Tourist Office”, along with a further thirteen walks on the Massif Sud Bourgogne and three long-distance footpaths, including the Pilgrim’s Way to Santiago de Compostela.
However, during our two-day stay in Cluny, mis-direction from the Tourist Office had nearly killed our pups from heat exhaustion on Day 1, as we followed directions to a non-existent river walk. Then, on Day 2, prevented Mark and I from enjoying the City of the Horse together.
I would thus like to invest a title upon the Tourist Office; ‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Cluny’.
It is well deserved.