It seemed only a few weeks ago that we were welcoming our French friends to Elham for the first time, and yet there we were on Friday 6 October heading back to France for a return visit to Beaujolais.
We left Ashford on Friday morning by Eurostar to Lille and then on to Lyon by TGV. Guy Monnet (the French chairman) and his colleagues meet us by coach, and took us on a tour of Lyon, enjoying a dry and sunny late afternoon, some very French café scenes and the famous "traboules" or alleyways giving access between street fronted buildings to others built behind. A short ride on Lyon's funicular railway took us to the Fourvière basilica high above the city, giving us some splendid views over Lyon and its Roman amphitheatre.
The coach drove us back to Montmelas Château for a reception hosted by the owner Delphine D'Harcourt. We were entertained by local primary school children singing some delightful songs in French and English! The local MP Bernard Perrou said a few words of welcome and outlined that he was giving €1,000 to our twinning partners to support future activities (if only our MPs were as generous!). Finally we met our host families over a glass of wine and later returned to their homes for dinner.
On Saturday morning we split in two groups, one opting to visit a nearby geological museumand botanical gardens, the other the medieval hilltop village of Oingt.
Those who opted for the "Pierres Folles" trip were whisked through the villages of Limas and Lachassagne via the old telegraph at Marcy sur Anse. A stubby square tower built from the local golden stone, situated on a hill at the edge of the village, this telegraph had been number 55 in a chain of 58 linking Paris with Lyon, brought into operation in 1807.
After the Napoleonic technology, lunch was taken at "Clos St. Pierre" in the tiny village of St. Pierre, before travelling on to the geological museum and botanical garden at St. Jean des Vignes. The sedimentary rock strata in the former limestone quarry had revealed such interesting patterns of folds and faults that it became a tourist attraction, museum and botanical walk showing the rich variety of plants indigenous to the area. One of the most curious was known locally as "donkey's surprise" - we could see why when the guide gingerly used a stick to poke one of the seed pods which exploded spectacularly, scattering the seeds in all directions. The museum contained a wide variety of local rocks and fossils. The trip concluded with a brief visit to the château at Bagnols, rather in need of urgent repair.
The second group visited the beautiful medieval village of Oingt. Our guide helped bring the village to life when we were reminded of places such as "slippery bottom" street, aptly named because of how the locals experienced its incline and tendency to freeze in winter. We also took in the dungeons (no longer used!) and art and craft shops. Lunch at the "Crêperie des Pierres Dorées", with its super panoramic views, included multiple flavoured crêpes with wine, local cider and cognac. The route home home took in more picturesque villages and a stop at Theizé to stretch the legs and visit the châteaux de Bagnols and Jarnioux.
Early in the evening we returned to Cogny for the long anticipated "surprise": a tasting of "Le Paradis" at the vineyard of Marie-Agnès and Gilles Carreau. This is the liquor from the first pressing of the grapes, which since fermentation has yet to take place is naturally very sweet but also, to our surprise, quite alcoholic.
Saturday evening was a "soirée Guinguette" at the salle des fêtes in Rivolet. Guy Monnet, their chairman, made us very welcome, wishing us a good weekend and presenting Anne and the EVTA with a red rose to mark the occasion. Anne responded on our behalf and thanked our hosts for their hospitality. We presented our gift of a crafted plate depicting Kentish life (an oast house and hops). The hall was packed and the conversation flowed as we tucked into an extensive buffet of French produce, followed by ham baked long and slow by Bernard, the local blacksmith, in his bread oven. Magnifique! Excellent home made desserts and a glass or two of wine of course, and it was onto the dance floor with French songs played by two musicians on an accordion. Sunday morning was free time with hosts, when some of us took in the local countryside walking, or lost a few more calories on the tennis court, only to then maintain the balance by lunching again with our hosts.
A final farewell at Lyon railway station saw the end of what was a thoroughly enjoyable weekend, the first of many we plan to make to the region over the coming years. We are hoping our French partners will return to the Elham Valley in early July 2007. [weekend of July 7-8, to be confirmed - Ed]