Saturday, 23 April 2016

301...In search of Arcadia by motorhome.

On the face of it attempting to track-down latter day nymphs and shepherds by ageing Ford Transit may not seem too sensible a venture. However, by Arcadian I am not thinking of some ancient legendary land, but places today that retain a strong sense of locale, a food culture that is derived from what grows nearby, and a welcoming and convivial community. I am glad to say such places do still exist, and there is life beyond trolley trundling around Tesco, Carrefour or Mercadona.

So, herewith - our unexpectedly Arcadian moments:

I think it was the travel writer, Rebecca Solnit, who coined the phrase 'the nearby faraway'. It captures nicely the sense that interesting, intriguing places exist on your doorstep and you don't need to consult the Kuoni brochure to be a traveller. Our short bike ride on the roads around Hartington in Derbyshire, scarcely ten miles from home one sunny Spring day shows that you can be travellers in a nearby land as well as in distant, exotic destinations. 

I love the English landscape, the juxtaposition of the ancient and modern - pylon with megalith, tithe barn and distribution centre, M4 crossing the Ridgeway. However, in terms of Arcadian places, as defined above, there are ever fewer in England. In truth English rural culture has been under pressure from urbanisation for generations, but recent decades have suburbanised the countryside almost completely. Food distribution is dominated by national chains, high streets are a mix of charity shops, Fat Face outdoor chic, Betfred and Greggs; yet another the roadside pub becomes a Tandoori place... and only the well-to-do can afford to buy a house. Where there is political resistance to the process - the Countryside Alliance - et al, then it seems to be dominated by right wing xenophobic simpletons. It's a bit depressing really; no wonder we choose to wander.

I hope Gill and I can look forward to years of long term travel. There are no guarantees in this regard. When contemporaries keel over unexpectedly it does give you pause for thought. Victoria Wood, aged 62, comedy genius, gentle soul and all round credit to the human race - gone! No sense to it, just a bad throw of the genetic dice. Such things do make you ever more determined to make the most of the present. 

Will we ever recapture the sheer elation of that first long term trip after Gill retired? We can but try. This post recalls the first truly magical moment on that journey. The aire at Lugny is high above the rolling vineyards of Burgundy. Below us the Cave Cooperative worked into the night pressing the newly picked grapes. We woke early to find the sun slanting through mist, brightening the russet fringed vines. By 9.30am we were in the Cave buying a few bottles of their famous Chardonnay. The next village is called Chardonnay. It's one of those places Bacchus might recommend personally. You can't really get more Arcadian than that.

The French Mediterranean coast is book-ended by snowy mountains. Though the coastal plain which runs for 500 km between the Alps and the Pyrenees is a little broader, it too is backed by high land. One of our favourite landscapes in Europe are the rolling foothills and bucolic river valleys which stretch the length of France's southern coast. In Provence the villages may have become somewhat gentrified thanks to the efforts of Peter Mayle, and celebrities like Posh and Becks, however in the west, the Herault and l'Aude, are less frequented but just as lovely. The entire area is a wine-drinkers heaven. This post celebrates a few delightful days we spent here in the Autumn of 2015 on our way to Spain.

This village in the hills of Languedoc, a few kilometres north of Carcassone is famous for antiquarian bookshops, a bit like Hay on Wye. When we first arrived I was a bit snarky about its arty pretentions, however the place grew on me after a few days. It's not just about dusty tomes, the local alimentation sold great Toulouse sausages, and the local wine - Carbardès, which we had not come across before, was excellent. We spent a very pleasant evening sitting outside the Cafe du Commerce in the square alomg with of local families and most of the village football team who were in celebratory mood having won against their local rivals. France is impressive, for although their system has a strong centralising element, it does allow regional culture to flourish - Liberté Egalité Fraternité - as a national aspiration is admirable I think; We Brits have no equivalent sense of national purpose. 'Queen and Country' - it's all about the establishment and not about the citizenry. Arcady looks after its nymphs and shepherds and its social workers and plumbers.

The town, a few miles south of Mazarron is best known for its strange rock formations next to the beach. Our arrival accidentally coincided with the annual Romario de Bolneuvo. The event mixes the commemoration of a miracle, religious pageantry, a big communal feast on the beach, singing, dancing and the over-consumption of cheap sherry - as good an example of the latter-day Arcadian spirit as you might find.

In the UK most of our fishing ports have either declined into poverty and social deprivation - like Grimsby, or morphed into second home heaven for city dwellers, like Aldborough or Padstow. The BBC reported a couple of days ago that a beach hut in Abersoch without mains services had just been sold for £157,000 - bonkers! There is nothing bonkers about Isla Cristina, yes, it's a small resort, but mainly it is a fishing port where people still fish. Not a Jack Wills outlet in sight.

Again, it would be foolish to pretend that the villages of the Mani are some pristine, undiscovered rural backwater. The area does have a fair few hotels, and would seem to be home to a resident ex-pat population of ageing hippies mainly from the Bundersrepublik. Still, fish is caught to order for the local restaurants, and the surplus sold from a quayside stall by the fishermen's wives and daughters. It's this cash economy and local barter that so infuriates German bankers; long may it continue to do so! 

Like patches of daisies pushing through cracks in the concrete, fragments of Arcadia can occur in unexpected places. Ancient Corinth is a major attraction. The ruins of the mainly Roman city are extensive, and the Acropolis high above features as a tour for cruise passengers. The Camperstop, 'Aphrodite's Water' is tucked down some alarmingly narrow lanes squeezed between the tourist shops of the village and the main Corinth to Patras motorway. Its location is not quite as peaceful as its rather romantic name suggests. It's a quirky place, with ramshackle facilities and a row of plastic effigies from Snowhite and the Seven Dwarf's decorating the entrance. 

All that being said, the name is not all baloney, there is an ancient spring on the hill above which feeds the Camperstop, and it is not entirely fanciful to believe it may be a sacred well dedicated to Aphrodite. Furthermore, there is fresh produce on sale from the family's small-holding. When we were there we bought fresh olive oil that had been pressed the day before. Milky green, fresh and pungent, we will probably never taste better. The people who run it are warm and friendly, and though you are just a stones-throw from a motorway, this quirky little place had to count as a scrap of Arcadia.

It's true, that local food supply linked to a nearby vibrant farming sector is generally in decline and exists only patches, mostly under threat. However, if you want to make a case that a substantial population on a regional scale can sustain a local agrarian economy, then Sicily might give you hope. In Palermo market the vast majority of foodstuffs on sale was grown or caught within an easy drive of the city. The quality and freshness of the meat, fish and vegetables is astonishing. What is impressive about Sicily is that it is the size of a small country with an area roughly the size of Wales but more highly populated. Of course it's highly diverse landscapes and varied climatic conditions does help Sicily to be relatively self sustaining. As you might expect with a population of five million to feed, the island grows a lot of tomatoes! I chose to feature the post about our visit to Piazza Armerina, mainly to make the point, given the prevalence of the cult of Demeter in ancient times, Sicily has been practising at being a cornucopia, a paragon of plenitude, a model for Arcadia - for millennia..

Finally, back to last week. We have had three great eating experiences in the small Tuscan Hill village of San Baronto. The first, more than a decade ago, was when we were invited to a family BBQ and spaghetti party by the owner of a villa we rented. The womenfolk of the extended family had all contributed different dishes to the feast. The menfolk brought along bottles of Vino Santo they had made, and insisted I tried each one to see which I preferred. The later part of this event is very hazy; I think I must have liked them all. The second event, a coupleof years later, was a village wide supper, with everyone sitting on trestle tables under the stars and eating and drinking together to celebrate Fete l'Unita. Then just a couple of days ago, we had a great family meal at the Agritourismo, .Borgo La Casetta. The point is, everyone here cares about food, farmers, restaurateurs, the community, family. Of all of humanity's acomplishments perhaps the importance of cooking and eating is the most unappreciated, - make food, not war!

It's been interesting reflecting on our journey as a search for Arcadia. I noted my comment way back in October 2014 as we watched twilight gather on the banks of the Canal du Mid  - I repeated that most cliched of motorhoming aphorisms that 'we were living the dream'. Actually, I am not interested in living a dream, what long term motorhoming has done is made me ever more determined to engage with reality, with all its contradictions, frustrations, but occassional moments of enlightenment. Above all else, I think, it has brought us to a view that in some fundemental way we all share the same table, a thought articulted on a much more universal scale by the great Carl post - across the small blue dot by motorhome...(I'm joking, its back to Thetfors malfunctions and GPL frustrations from now on...)


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