It’s summer holiday time! For the past 11 years I have been spending a week with my lovely friend Shirley and her family in their holiday home near Limoges, in the Limousin region of France. This week is always a chance to really escape from the craziness of work and city life, an idyllic place where we spend most of our time in and around the the house. My daily routine consists of either running or cycling to a nearby lake where I go for a swim, and then relaxing over a lunch which can take up to 4 hours...and suddenly it is almost aperitif time and onto the next round of wonderful French food. So, how best can I incorporate a Secret Life adventure into this well honed escape? Well the tiny hamlet their house is in is called ‘La Vie’, so we are halfway there already, now to add ‘La secrète’. Shirley suggested the answer, how about taking a random train to another city? My first question was, do trains actually run in this sleepy backwater? I have seen a train station in the tiny nearby town of La Porcherie, fully equipped with scary level crossing which I have often cycled over. But has anyone actually seen a train? The answer was a resounding 'no' from everyone. Ah, but cycling past the station there is a timetable, trains apparently do stop there 3 times a day, well on certain days anyway.
And so the challenge was set - that Friday I went to the tiny station and wait for the mysterious train. First signs were encouraging, there were even 3 people with cases waiting at the station. No sign of how to buy a ticket however, which makes a London citizen immediately edgy and anticipating an impending fine. The three ladies at the station started speaking to me in very fast French, albeit looking very friendly. I had to trawl out the old "Je suis desolee, je parle jusque un petit Francais", however they seemed very happy at this small attempt/apology, and wished me a bonne journee. Bang on time, the smallest train I have ever seen arrived and I excitedly boarded.
The train was bound for Brive (or Brive-La-Gaillarde to give it it's full title), and so that was where I was heading. I would like to have relished in the whole experience, but I couldn't quite relax for wondering who I would pay for a ticket or when I would be arrested for not doing so. I still have flashbacks to an experience on a tram in Amsterdam where I failed to explain to the frightening Inspectors that I couldn't find the 'machine that goes ping!?' and was unceremoniously frog marched off the tram expecting to end up in prison. Ah, but here was a woman who looked quite official waking past me, so I chased after her asking "ou est-ce qu'on peut acheter un billet pour Brive sil vous plait?" I was fairly pleased with that little attempt at French, and remarkably she seemed to understand/not patronise me and spoke back in French...too fast...and patted me in a friendly fashion on the shoulder as she noticed my puzzled face. I picked up the word 'gare' and reckoned I could leave it until I got to the station without fear of arrest. The next stage to that was the utter confusion at the ticket office where I tried in a very honest fashion to buy a return ticket when I had already done one leg of the journey. A very confusing French conversation followed and so I bought the return part of the ticket only and ran away...
And so the adventure really began. I knew nothing about this town, but followed signs to the historic centre and the to the tourist office. Of course in true rural French style, this facility is only open for about 20 minutes per week, and not when I was there. No wifi, so no Google maps...hmmm, time for a beer! Well the cafe had a free map so time to mull over the top sights to see and the fully refreshed to set off again. Brive is a typically charming French town, which is centred around the 12th Century Saint Martin l'Espagnol church. During World War II, Brive-la-Gaillarde was a regional capital of the Resistance, acting as a seat of several clandestine information networks and several of the principal resistance movements, including the Armée secrète (or “Secret Army”) - Ah, it is good to see those recurring 'Secret' references cropping up.
I then walked around the surprisingly stylish shops and found myself at the Musee Labenche which is currently hosting an exhibition around the excavations of the Collegiale St Martin. Inside the museum was an array of artefacts charting the history of Brive including the tapestries of Mortlake, paintings by Renoux and a great collection of accordions. And most of all, fantastic air conditioning whilst it was 38deg outside. After this I headed down to look at the river, harbouring thoughts about a possible paddle boarding adventure. However, the aforementioned heatwave in France meant the river was too low to indulge my new favourite pastime. After a further walk around this charming town I headed back to the train station for a drama free trip back to La Porcherie.
Ah but the fun didn't stop there, as keeping with the spirit of new experiences, my friends had bought tickets to see a French jazz band who were playing in a small town 10miles away. They played for 2 hours in a small church and were fantastic, now that is what I call value for 10 Euros!
Denise Yeats is an events director, communications consultant, endurance athlete and avid adventurer.