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Archive for the ‘Vendee’ Category

Whenever I see a sunflower, I think of Vincent Van Gogh, that mad (not in a good way) Dutch painter whose dauby impressionist works depicting vases of these yellow flowers have a habit of giving the auction world a nervous twitch whenever one comes up for sale. Van Gogh painted the sunflower series when he was living in The Yellow House in Arles, a place he shared for a while with Gauguin, until his obsession with the fellow painter led him to cut off part of his ear and give it to a prostitute for safe-keeping.

The French word for sunflower is ‘tournesol’, which, if you break it down into parts means ‘turn’ (tourne) and ‘sun’ (sol, abbreviated from le soleil). Suddenly I have an image of a field full of sunflowers leaning towards the sun as it moves through the sky.

Until recently, I’ve never had the luck to be in France when the sunflowers are at their best, swaying seas of gold blanketing the French countryside. When Monsieur and I visited the Vendée region recently, there they were: field upon field of sunflowers, in the flesh. Not on a postcard, not in a coffee table book. In. The. Flesh.

Being the odd one in this relationship, I asked Monsieur to drive me to a field of sunflowers so I could take some photos. Being the patient one in the relationship, he obliged. There I was, jumping around in the midst of flowers taller than me, trying to get a picture postcard shot. I didn’t think Monsieur was paying much attention, accustomed as he is to my Unusual Photo Opportunities, but how wrong I was.

When I’d shot my fill of yellow tournesols, Monsieur showed my a photo he’d taken of me in the field. There is my face, sure enough, surrounded by the sunflowers, but the plants shield my body so in fact it looks like I AM a sunflower! That picture is definitely being printed off and sent around, once Monsieur gives me access to it. In the meantime, here is some sunshine to brighten up what is otherwise a grey summer’s day in Londinium.

It was grey and drizzly that day in Vendée, too, but the flowers bravely weathered the weather.

They certainly keep the bees busy. This little drone is nibbling away at that tasty pollen at the centre of the flower. Yumalicious. Let’s make some honey, Honey!

Some of the fleurs look a bit tatty, but their colour glows on.

DID YOU KNOW….

That in Tintin, le Professeur Tournesol in the French language editions is our much loved eccentric Professor Calculus in English? I think we don’t need to be told why they changed the name. Just imagine being called ‘Professor Sunflower’. No one would take your theories seriously.

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Monsieur and I jetted off to La Rochelle recently for a long weekend in the Vendée region of France. The first couple of days were so suffocatingly hot that breathing felt like inhaling air directly from a fan heater, but then on the third day we awoke to grey skies, persistent rain and a drop in temperature of around ten degrees. Incroyable. It certainly wasn’t going to be a day for the beach.

After lunch, the skies cleared a bit, so we drove to Maillezais to visit the Marais Poitevin, or Poitevin marshland. Maillezais is a nice little town with an impressive ruined Abbey and a restaurant called Au Chant des Grenouilles, or ‘Frog-Song’, but we weren’t here to visit either; we were here to have another French boating experience, hopefully without anyone being thrown overboard.

Down at the Grand Port, which sounds like a big deal but is really just a little jetty for boats, we rented a ‘barque’ for two hours. This time, Monsieur and I were sitting side by side, each with a paddle in hand. Following a laminated map of the canals known as Venise Verte or ‘Green Venice’ for the green weed that obscures the water’s surface, off we paddled, in perfect tandem, for now, at least…

We turned into a broad canal with the Abbey looming above. The scene was incredibly picturesque, in spite of the missing walls, and we saw sky through the glassless windows. I imagine that the Abbey must have been an imposing cultural centre in its hey-day and in my mind images grew of abbots gathering honey from hives, illuminating manuscripts by candlelight and singing mournful chants as part of their daily routine. Apparently the Dukes of Aquitaine worshipped here. Sacré bleu! (Note: Monsieur informs me that this expression isn’t in popular French usage any more. Strike 78 against the Anglo-Saxone for getting it wrong yet again!)

Rowing on, we marvelled at the fact that we hadn’t yet disagreed on direction. For once, we were enjoying a boat trip without argument or vengeful splashing. Following little green arrows indicating our route, we crossed a wide canal to reach a narrower one. Here the trees formed an arcade above us as we floated past fields until, through all the green, a giant creamy face poked out at us. “Moo” it said. “Moo moo” I replied. “Darling, stop being so silly,” moaned Monsieur.

There in the field above us, we saw quite a few of our dairy friends. They were all the beautiful Charolais breed, with honey-cream skins and huge chestnut eyes. Looking further along the canal, a boat was heading our way. The canal was too narrow for us to pass so Monsieur and I manoevred the boat backwards into an inlet until the boaters went by. This was quite the success story for us in boating terms. No splashing, no shouting, no killing. Could such teamwork possibly last?

We passed under bridges so low that we had to duck, got stuck at a ninety degree turn from one canal into the next but with some highly-skilled bottom bouncing, managed to bump free without taking to paddle pummelling each other, spotted crows and a stork enjoying the peace of an entire field to themselves and observed a group of men with fishing rods preparing their lines. Apart from the cows and the birds we didn’t see much wildlife, apart from a mother duck and her fluffy young. I’d hoped to see a beaver or two, but no luck.

“You know, wouldn’t it be funny if we put a cow in a boat and took him somewhere?”

I told Monsieur. He looked at me strangely with that “you do know you’re talking rubbish, don’t you?” look he reserves for such moments, but later on, in a souvenir shop, I saw postcards showing this exact thing. Here’s a picture I found of horses being transported in this fashion. Apparently it’s the easiest way to get the large animals from one side of the canal to the other.

All too soon, we were turning up the canal towards the jetty, getting ready to jump out of the boat. It had been a lovely way to spend the afternoon and surprisingly peaceful. It just may be that Monsieur and I have now found a way to cooperate on the water, but he still thinks I can’t paddle for peanuts. Hrmph. The feeling’s mutual.

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