My dad has come up with a pretty winning formula for family holidays over the years, involving a holiday cottage in the middle of nowhere, day trips to towns hosting note-worthy churches, and the promise of one ice cream a day. The daily ice creams were a tactic employed by Mum and Dad to placate us three when we were younger, but I for one am happy to continue that particular family tradition. And it's always good to know the thousands of pounds I spent on my French degree were worth it - putting eleven years of study into practice by translating the ice-cream menus:
Miel et pignons, anyone?
I would love to be able to find a correlation between that daily boule de pistache and some satisfying personal bests. But I think sadly it was more to do with the stunning scenery, lack of other time pressures, and the gorgeous swims I was getting on my rest days. On holiday I was running for the absolute love of it - setting off and not knowing how far I would go or where I would end up. Our house was at the bottom of a valley so whichever direction I set off in, my runs were going to have to be uphill at least half of the way. I can't describe the feeling of starting at the bottom of a mountain and making the summit come closer under your own steam. Even uphill miles fly by when you're being treated to views like this:
I took this on my first run. I set off before dinner and the sun was setting. It was that kind of late summer light that chops and slices and gilds - retouching the landscape in lurid 2D, everything drained flat and the details swimming on the surface. I love the way that mountains look at sunset, as if they're just cardboard cut-outs being held against the horizon. I ran four kilometres uphill to reach the next hamlet and when I turned round to run back down, I honestly felt as if I was running in heaven. Not enough blood getting to my brain, maybe. But it was seriously beautiful.
I'm really not sure how good doing all that up- and down-hill running would be for my knees in the long term, but in the short-term, I do love that sensation of being able to feel your knees and your thighs and your lungs. I used to hate exercise because I felt it took my body out of my control; now I love it because when I'm on a really long run I have this feeling that I'm taking possession of my own lungs, my own muscles. They may be protesting but they're doing what I'm asking them to do. My body doesn't feel as if it's in the way any more.
I ran to say hello to the mountains and I ran to say goodbye to them too. On our last night in Languedoc we ate a wonderful dinner under the spreading trees in the tiny square of our little village; when we got home I still had those itchy holiday feet that I developed on my early summer holiday in Cornwall, and decided to go for one last run. It was already getting dark and I was just running by the side of the road, so I knew I couldn't be out for long. Steadily climbing the hillside, I've never known such quiet. It was just me and occasional bats, the light draining out of the hot sky and the first stars appearing.
Just so Dad doesn't get all the credit, it was my mum who actually came up with the idea for the next leg of our holiday, two nights in Blois. It has its own chateau, an abbey with positively Disney-esque turrets, dozens of places to eat and drink, and the Loire cuts right through it, wide and slow and lovely. Driving through the Loire feels like wandering endlessly through the same painting; the river to your left or right (or sometimes both), chateau after chateau, and everything so lush and green. We had a lovely day out visiting Chambord and driving to a few little towns (to get our ice-cream fix.) This is what you can expect if you visit the Loire:
Ludicrously beautiful, extravagant, wedding cake architecture. All that white stone coupled with the sunshine meant it was actually too bright to look at - Greg and I really struggled to see, and had to borrow Mum's sunglasses to even be able to look at it directly. A literally dazzling sight! And under-25's from the EU get in free (France, I love you.)
On our first evening in Blois we wandered round the town scoping out places to eat and things to visit. I was secretly also scoping out potential running routes. I got my way the next morning with a satisfyingly speedy (for me) 10k, sneaking in just over 1:04. No hills this time, just little cobbled streets and steps and then swinging out alongside the enormous river as the sun was rising. I'll let the pictures speak for themselves this time. I suppose I could run more quickly if I didn't keep stopping to take photos but scenes like this are too good to miss!
I didn't see another soul until about half-way through my run; French people really don't like Sunday mornings. Just me and the church bells until I hit the 5k mark down some little residential side-street south of the river. I really wanted to finish my 10k in under 1:05 so the final kilometre was a mad dash parallel to the river, and with a few hundred metres to go a huge flock of swifts or swallows suddenly appeared next to me and rushed over my head, so close I could almost have touched them. Every time I visit, I fall deeper in love with France - I can't wait to go back. À la prochaine ...