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from … Friday April 16

One aspect of the journey to Belcastel, that we will experience many times, is a traffic hold-up — on this occasion in a town called Lavilledieu (I don’t think so !) — caused by roadworks: not only does it halt us and everyone else for a very long time indeed, but to our rage and that of all the drivers heading west, traffic is constantly being let through coming east ! It starts to rain around the middle of the day, and doesn’t stop.

Memory: Discussing, during one of these lengthy, roadwork-generated halts, the differing illuminated and very animated signs that chemists in France have outside their shops. Surely, some of them are so eye-catching that they must prove a distraction for passing drivers …?

But we drive though some fabulous high country, with our first sightings of snow, both on the high peaks around us and along the sides of the roads we travel, and we easily negotiate several cols.

Memory: sighting a sign outside a roadside restaurant that says “omelettes”; we practically skid to a halt, turn ‘round, and drive back at speed to reach it, as CS has been going ON about omelettes for days. They’re very pleasant; but also very … lasting …

Belcastel must be marvellous in good weather, for it’s absolutely stunning to look at. However, as it continues to rain, without cessation, throughout the brief time we’re here, our view of it is coloured — well, wet ...

For me, the best thing about it is the effigy, in the church, of Seigneur Alzias de Saunhac. This is a truly wonderful effigy, and shows that he must have been beloved; for it is of a real man, with real features, not just a trumped-up piece of stone hagiography. I linger beside him for a long time, touching his face and his hair, and reflecting on his part in Belcastle’s history: he restored its castle, at the start of the 15 th century, and built the bridge that spans the Aveyron (which is today used by cars, almost unbelievably); and he died in 1448. This makes him only a bit earlier than my favourite king, Richard III of England, the last of the Plantagenets — of which family, more later, regarding the first of them !

As to why I can’t be more enthusiastic about Belcastel, I’m afraid the reason shows me up in my true colours: the fact is that we arrive around 4 in the afternoon, pretty damned hungry. There is nowhere in the little town or its valley to buy any food whatsoever, and our dinner booking is for 8:30. So we have hours of unrelieved starvation, which doesn’t tend to make one (moi !) feel terribly fond of one’s surroundings.

Memory: Sitting on our bed in the hotel room watching muted daytime TV and praying for dinnertime. It’s some silly French soap, and we’re making ourselves sick laughing, by providing the dialogue, on the fly, for the silent and very stupid programme.

And the much-touted dinner ? — fine. Extremely expensive, and of the type where each item of your meal is arranged perfectly somewhere on your plate, according to a kind of chef’s roadmap, and linked by drizzles of jus. The cheese that I’ve chosen for 'afters' comes in a trolley; it's extensively described to me, in French, to the point where it’s quite impossible for me to remember anything at all; and, finally, I am allowed to choose three portions, all of which are very small. I never find this kind of cheese parsimony anywhere else in France, I am happy to say — and believe me, I eat it in very many places ! (Oh, how I love cheese …!)

But I don’t want to be too negative about our stay in Belcastel; it really is a beautiful village, with history and with fabulous semi-ruined castle, so it meets all my criteria. It’s just that it’s pissing with rain and virtually dark by the time we get down the little winding road and are ensconced in our room on the far side of the bridge, so that we’re not prepared to try to re-cross the tiny thing, get back up the mountain again and start looking for somewhere to buy something to eat — especially as we’ve passed nothing on our way in, and have zero idea of what exists on the way out. So we’re stuck with these 4+ really hungry hours, and it isn’t nice.

Avoid such a situation and you will certainly fall in love with Belcastel !

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  Our first view - thru misty rain - of the château that dominates the hamlet of Belcastel
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