House Exchange In France

In March 2016 Pauline and I began a French house exchange through SERVAS. Jean-Claude from Moulins swapped with us and we included our cars in the exchange. We chose Moulins because it is roughly in the centre. The population is around 20,000. We had four major excursions during the two months.
Jean-Claude’s house is 15 minutes’ walk from the centre of Moulins. One Sunday we went to the bread shop in the centre of town, only to find that a local Carnival parade was on.  There were over a dozen floats and three bands, and the majority of the kids in the procession and in the crowd watching were dressed up (lots of adults too).  I asked what was being commemorated – the answer is nothing- it is just an occasion to dress up and have some fun and throw confetti at everyone.  The roads were covered in the stuff.    It was serendipitous and completely lucky for us to discover.

For our first trip we went to Lyon for 4 days, staying with two SERVAS families.  The first, Gerard and Monique, invited us to the birthday party for Gerard’s 86 year old mother, and the next day showed us around the old inner city of Lyon.   We also visited the art musee and the zoo.  After Lyon we went to Brive to see the nearby Lascaux caves (18,000 years old).  Our SERVAS hosts (Nicole and Yvon) invited us to stay an extra night.  Their first dinner was the local speciality of duck – smoked duck with olives, duck pate, duck soup, duck breasts as a main, followed by walnut cake (walnuts grow by our hosts) and cheese.  Wine of course.  The next day we had rabbit.  We did a visit to Rocamadour with its incredible ancient buildings on, coming out of, or right up close to the cliff.

Before driving through to Dijon, our second excursion, we had two days in a cottage built in 1588 but restored recently from a ruin.  Forty minutes south of Moulins, and owned by a local friend of Jean Claude’s, Marion, who is originally from Ireland and has been a great help.  Her husband collects old cars and bought the barn next to the original cottage ruin to store his cars.  She showed us the cars in the barn including a Rolls Royce (one of three that he has). She was available throughout the two months to advise and problem-solve when we got into difficulties.

In Dijon we stayed one night with a SERVAS host – Jerome was a judge and Cecilia a psychologist with 2 young children.  We explored the Art Musee and walked around the old inner city.  Then went to McDonalds to use their free Wi-Fi. Before going to a private B&B for the second night we had a two games of 10 pin bowling (Pauline won both times). 

Then on to Belfort via Besancon and via the Le Corbusier Church at Ronchamp.  Belfort had an amazing fort on the top of its hill.  Then Strasbourg for two nights, Nancy, and followed by Essoyes with Monique Ruppert.   Renoir lived for the later part of his life in Essoyes and the local Musee had a great display of his work and background.   Monique’s daughter and husband are now in charge of the wine operations.  They make champagne and we tasted their best: Ruppert-Leroy, Fosse Grely 2011 Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. They only produce 15000 bottles and it goes to top restaurants.

Our third excursion was to Tours, and visits to the three world class chateaus of the Loire Valley – Chambord, Chenonceau, and d’Azay le Rideau – plus the Abbaye de Fontevraud with the tombs of Eleanor and Henry II of England.  We tasted more wine, and viewed Tours with our SERVAS host, Marie.
We had day trips around and out of Moulins. The Cathedral has the best triptych (painted around 1500) in France, showing the Duchess and Duke of Bourbon with Mary and Child. The Maison Montin is a restored house showing life over 100 years ago and rich silk covered furniture and walls. Moulins has the national centre for opera and ballet costumes, plus the Nureyev Collection, and both are very impressive. We saw the Museum for lllustration of Children’s Books. 

We went to a cello concert at Bourbon L’Archambault (home of the Bourbons) about 25 minutes east from Moulins. A full day trip involved 2 hours southwest to Puy de Dome, part of a 30 kilometre string of volcanoes.  There is a train that takes one to the top from the car park in the valley.   At the top there are great views all around.  There was a bit of snow and a cold wind, but not unpleasant if one covered up . At the top with the TV towers and restaurant was the remains of a Gallo-Roman temple to Mercury. Almost everywhere one goes in France there are reminders of the ancient history of peoples who lived here long ago.

Our fourth excursion was when we left Moulins to wend our way south (by rental car and bus) to Spain and then onto the USA and Canada. We had light snow in Le Puy-en-Velay, before dropping down from the central plateau. We stayed in St Lager-Bressac with Rene and Lydie, and visited the Chauvet caves (36,000 years old). Then to Montpellier via the Roman bridge, Pont du Gard, and Perpignan with its Moorish character.

We had the use of Jean-Claude’s car and his GPS was a boon for getting around (although one time it sent us in the wrong direction).  While the road signs between built up areas was very good, getting out of cities and towns was not easy. We got lost from time to time and at the beginning would go around roundabouts 2 or 3 times.  The number of trucks on the roads is overwhelming and I do not know how France is going to adjust to climate warming without a major upheaval of its transport system. Our SERVAS hosts proved wonderful and the majority spoke enough English to get by (despite the occasional misunderstanding). Sometimes I used my laptop and Google Translate.

Our highlights included the French countryside dotted with hamlets and villages with very old architecture and narrow streets and surrounded by green fields and trees, and in the central plateau, at times yellow, because of the canola oil plants.  Also the Le Corbusier’s Notre-Dame-Du-Haut; Essoyes with Renoir and champagne; Chateau de Chenonceau; Eleanor and Henry II of England at Abbaye de Fontevraud; and the National Centre for Stage Costumes and Nureyev Collection at Moulins, were some of the many highlights. The ancient caves with their rock art, and the Roman presence at Puy de Dome, and Pont du Gard, were fascinating. The Romans had a major presence in France and their sophisticated water engineering was impressive. We loved all the art. And the wine, cheese and bread (that goes really without saying). We are very grateful to Jean-Claude for the opportunity to explore parts of his country.

Robert Howell