Busman’s short break?

We found a little note in the letter box last week; the commune is starting renovation work at various sites in the village and needs the help of any willing volunteers on a series of Saturday mornings, beginning last Saturday. 

It was a foul day, cold and wet; we wrapped up well in wellies and cagoules and headed to the Mairie for an 8 o’clock start. This being the Gers, that means breakfast; ventreche, fried eggs, cheese and bagueutte, prepared on a plancher by Patrick, the mayor, and washed down with coffee and red wine. Being mayor here is very different from in England; no fancy clothes and big chains to wear, the mayor is expected to muck in with everything that goes on in the village, including turning up on a wet Saturday morning, in wellies and combats, to man the chain saw.

Not many people turned up, but the French don’t tend to go out in bad weather; we split into two groups, our group cleaning up the porch of a little chapel before joining the rest of them at one of the lavoirs. A lavoir is a wash house, where the women used to go to wash clothes, a sort of miniscule swimming pool with a roof and sometimes walls; this one was in quite a bad way as several of the roof timbers had rotted, leaving the roof in serious danger of total collapse. 

We slipped and slid on the soaking wet mud and grass as we made human chains to pass down the roof tiles, most of which were reusable, so someone brushed off the worst of the moss before we stacked them around the lavoir. The broken ones were taken by a farmer to use as hard core as we removed most of the big beams, I think they’ll probably be turned into firewood. One of the men cleared enough of the mud around the lavoir basin to unearth the tap and allow it to drain.

We left before midday, having done as much as we could, and went back to the Mairie for aperos. On the fourth Saturday we get lunch too, as a thanks for helping.


At our party last year, people gave us money by way of a present, to be split between a donation to Craft Aid International and a holiday. Having been working hard on the house for the last five years, we’re both exhausted, so decided to take a break; Marrakech was to be our destination for a week, somewhere I’ve long wanted to visit.

We stayed in a riad, where the staff were lovely, coping with my diet, teaching me words in the local dialect, to add to the handful I’d learned from the phrasebook, and lending us money to pay off an unwanted, unofficial “guide”.

We visited the Majorelle Gardens, an oasis of calm in the middle of the city; el Badi palace, a vast ruin, known in its heyday as “the incomparable”, we could well see why;  the Saadian tombs with their amazing carved cedar wood; and the Jemaa el Fna, the central square. We got utterly lost in the souks, an absolute warren of tiny, narrow streets, where we were picked up by a very canny unofficial guide on our first day, who led us deeper and deeper into the labyrinth, until I, quite scared as we walked through alleys where there were dead rats lying around, few people and still fewer Europeans, managed to convince him that I was unwell and had to get back to the hotel. It’s the first time I’ve ever known Nick to get lost, but even he was totally disorientated.

We held mint to our noses as we visited the tanneries, which smell worse than anything I’ve encountered before; we provided a good deal of amusement when we asked what the green stuff was that was added to the coffee, ground for the woman before us in the queue and we got soaked to the skin when the heavens opened one afternoon, turning the alleys in the souks into a mudbath.

The high point of the week was a minibus trip to Ouarzazate, on the edge of the Sahara desert. We twisted our way over the Atlas mountains, stopping at the UNESCO protected, ancient, fortified village of Ksar Ait Ben-Haddou, which is frequently used as a film set, used for such films as Lawrence of Arabia and Gladiator. Our guide belonged to one of a handful of families still living in the old village, most people having moved to the new village across the river, with its electricity supply and other mod cons; we were given access to his house, built of earth and straw.

Then to Ouarzazate, home to two film studios and a beautiful old Kasbah, and finally back on the bus for the four hour journey back to Marrakech, a long day, but well worth it.

I suppose it’s par for the course to get some sort of tummy upset there, no matter how careful you are, and Nick was struck down one day. By the evening I was hungry; could I find my way to the restaurant we’d been to a couple of days before? Yes, and I even found my way back to the hotel! But I wasn’t sure about walking through the little alleyways that surrounded the riad on my own and had scenes from the film “the Sheltering Sky” running through my head; stupid, I know, but Nick said he thought the same!

For me, the major attraction was to be the souks, I’ve always wanted to try my hand at haggling prices; however, I had no idea just how aggressive the selling is, and found it quite intimidating to be harassed and almost dragged into  a shop for just glancing at a piece of fabric, a bag or a scarf. Nicked coped better than me and won the week’s haggling​ prize, paying a mere 110 dirrhams for a knife whose price started at 2500.

All in all, it was a good holiday, but hardly the relaxing trip we both needed, as we got home even more tired than before. Once the family has left after Easter, maybe we can go away in the camper for a restful break.