On the way back to the UK from Gascony, we stop off at my parents’ place in the Dordogne for a couple of nights. My parents have lived in France for over eight years now, and have – according to an English acquaintance – gone ‘completely native’. We’re still all trying to work out if that meant as a compliment or not.
It’s freezing cold when we lock up the house in Gascony, and there are already two inches of snow on the ground, with more falling heavily. At -7 degrees, the huge fluffy flakes are freezing straight onto the windscreen, making visibility difficult. As we pull into the péage, the motorway ahead looks like a scene from Frozen Planet. Unable to see, drivers have just stopped randomly across the carriageways to clear frozen windscreens. We edge past them cautiously, whilst keeping a sharp eye out for David Attenborough and the polar bears.
As we get past Toulouse, however, the snow gradually eases until the roads are completely clear, and we make good time.
At my parents’ house, my father has just had four stères* of wood delivered for the winter. It’s payback time for last autumn, when dad helped us stack our own wood during a rainstorm. By the time I’ve finished stacking wood, I’m fully warmed up and grateful that this is a once-a-year task.
The following morning, it’s clear, crisp and extremely cold. Monty pokes his nose outside the door, and pulls his head back in sharply, before going back to bed in a pointed manner.
We’re planning a circular walk this morning of around 12km, passing through the pretty village of Auriac. Monty is finally coaxed out of bed, and we layer on coats, hats and scarves, our breath shooting plumes into the clear air. It’s so cold that my eyes are stinging, and each leaf underfoot seems individually frozen, so that it feels like walking through cornflakes.
We start off down a long wooded track, walking through one of the forests that this area’s well-known for. After a short climb up to a ridge, we emerge into the sunlight, and the temperature finally starts to rise.
Dotted between the houses, which are built from the golden-coloured local stone, we pass orchards of walnut trees. The trees flourish here in the Dordogne, and local cuisine is heavily influenced by the nuts and their oil. My parents have a particularly prolific tree in their garden, and usually resort to giving most of the crop away.
A short stretch along a quiet back road brings into the village of Auriac, where there’s a nice, low-key restaurant. The auberge is sensibly shuttered up today though, and we camp in the main square and warm ourselves up with flasks of coffee.
After coffee, we start the homeward leg of the walk, following the poteaux, or posts, with their yellow arrows. A few years ago, all the paths in the area were overhauled and marked with smart new signposts and way markers, making navigation much easier. It’s a far cry from our local paths in Gascony, where you’re never quite sure whether you’re walking down a footpath, a permissive road or someone’s drive.
The whole circuit takes just under three hours, and takes us back to the house in time for lunch. Monty collapses gratefully in front of a blazing fire, and arranges himself to toast his tummy to the best advantage.
“Hey!” I exclaim in horror. “You’re not burning that wood, are you?”
* a stère is a cubic metre, and is the measurement by which cut wood is sold in France.