If God wanted me to be thin, He’d never have invented the French. It’s not just the cheeses – allegedly one for every day of the year, as Charles de Gaulle once pointed out. It’s the croissants, the butter, the jam, the sauces, the bread, the glazed fruit tarts which I swear wink at me as they sparkle behind the patisserie windows. Oh and yes, the wine. I forgot the wine. How could I forget the wine?
So a few pounds painstakingly lost over a period of months have been restored in two short weeks. But worth it all, to have discovered the Auvergne, its volcanic landscape now heavily wooded, alive with flocks of fieldfares and the sound of redstarts, as buzzard families soar and circle on the thermals above.
Even in September, the meadows are alive with colour. The banks of the tiny roads which run through the forest are also a treasure trove of unknown wildflowers. Perfect for finding your inner botanist as well as your inner glutton.
Freewheeling down a deserted road, scattering birds you’ve never seen before, or pedalling through the heart of conifer forests, with butterflies dancing round the bikes – it’s magical, fun and free.
There are deer in the forests too, and the local squirrels are red. We spotted both, but not the wild boar (sanglier) which continue to elude us. We went stalking deer and boar at dusk, but saw only a thin fox sniffing its way across a field of stubble… and a shooting star. We stood by a hillside cemetery as the stars came out one by one.
Back at the restored farmhouse, surrounded by its wildflower meadow, you could recover from all this activity with some home-based birding. Treecreepers, redstarts, flycatchers, tits, woodpeckers, all performed close to the patio. This is the future of birding: beer in one hand, binoculars in the other.
But the butterflies were the real joy. Every size, shade, colour: the rare Apollo, endless fritillaries in their handsome orange liveries, bright yellow ones, tiny blue ones. Stalking the meadow like a child with a butterfly net, I captured some but not all of them on camera.
A second week discovering the Massif des Bauges near Annecy was no less of a natural paradise. Here it was black redstarts feeding just yards away, with other species, more butterflies, more unknown flowers, at every turn. Here the scenery is more of fairytale mountains and rich green glacial valleys dotted with picturesque tiny barns. More on this another time though, as this particular earthly paradise still carries echoes of wartime hell.
Off now for a low-calorie healthy breakfast to undo some of the work of that deadly, artery-clogging French food. Mais enfin, je ne regrette rien.