PUY de DOME
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There's something of a social life every now and again in the village and one evening in July 2010 we were offered a walk around the village. Nada had come to visit me for the afternoon so I invited her to accompany me.
This apparently is the oldest house in the village and at one time was the local tobacconist's. It still bears the red emblem fastened to one of the exterior walls. It's difficult to imagine that maybe 100 years ago these derelict and decaying villages were thriving hubs of commercial activity with all kinds of shops, commerces and estaminets. But World War I in which the peasants from these areas were used as cannon fodder and massacred in their countless thousands in the trenches, followed by the flight to the towns in the 1950s and 60s, did for them all.
One old guy recounted the most fanciful stories about this house - that it was used as a kind of foster home for one of the future Bourbon Kings (the Bourbonnais from whence they came not being too far away from here) and all that kind of thing - but it was very difficult for me to say whether or not he was merely making pleasantries.
The weather was not on our side. There were continual outbreaks of the most heavy rainstorms and after visiting the cemetery it was decided to curtail the walk. The interesting tracks through the forest, relics of the old Pilgrims' Way to Santiago de la Compostela that passes close to my home, would be most uncomfortable in this weather and so must wait for another day.
The cemetery is to the left of this photo - the road leaving the village and leading off towards the right eventually leads to the border of the Département, crosses into the Allier and ends at Marcillat-en-Combraille.
So adjourning for the evening we went to the village hall, or Salle de Fêtes as they are called, where we were offered a vin d'honneur by the mayor and the village council. It's a shame that we didn't go for the tramp in the woods, but in this kind of weather he probably wouldn't have been there anyway so we would never have caught him.
It's a very pleasant way of passing an evening and I ought to make more of an effort to participate in local village life. A great many activities organised by the village are of little interest to me but I should certainly do my best to participate in all of those that do attract my interest.
Someone who makes much more effort than I do in taking part in local affairs is the legendary, world-famous Strawberry Moose. Wherever there is a possibility of making new and devoted admirers or the likelihood of a photo opportunity, he will never be far away.
A couple of kids accompanied us on the walk and as the grown-ups settled down to chat about whatever it is that grown-ups chat about these kids became more and more bored as the evening wore on. This was the cue for His Nibs to make his entrance and liven up the proceedings.
Round about 22:00 the weather cleared up slightly and so we all took our vins d'honneur outside round the back of the church where there was a huge pile of wood, old pallets and the like.
The adjoint of the mayor produced a match and in a matter or minutes we had a raging conflagration going. Now how on earth do people do that? Normally, I can try as hard as I like and I can never ever get anything like a fire burning when I really need to.
Of course, getting a fire going when I really don't want to, like when I am welding up the floor of an old car, is quite another thing but the less said about that the better.
It was all really quite convivial and what with the vin d'honneur that was flowing throughout the night (mostly in just two directions but we won't talk about that too much) and the pleasant company, not to mention this rip-roaring blaze, a good time was had by all.
Mme Megemont was there and I did ask her whether she fancied playing the rôle of Joan of Arc (the wife of Noah, of course) but she graciously declined, to the disappointment of many of the attendees. And at midnight, with dogs and children all long-since asleep we all called it a night.
The last Sunday in August is the Virlet brocante and it always attracts quite a crowd. Unfotunately brocantes aren't what they once were, and these days some of the most astonishing prices are being asked for some of the most banal items. People seem to prefer making a killing on one article rather than a pittance on each of a thousand, something I don't understand. After all, you have to take your unsold articles home with you in the evening, which is hardly the point if you have come here to vider your grenier.
Mind you, a couple of people reckoned that they found themselves a bargain.
The focal point of the brocante is the village square, such as it is. It isn't much of a village square compared to some places, I agree, but with a population of just 271 people, you only have a limited budget to play with and there are all kinds of things that have a much higher priority than doing a few cosmetic improvements.
Just like every French village that I have ever seen, Virlet has a war memorial to its deceased soldiers. And while the number of deceased in World War II is not significant (Virlet came under what was known as "Vichy France" and it was the American invasion of French possessions in North Africa during Operation Torch that brought the Germans here in 1943, something that rankles with the locals even today and something that many Brits and Americans don't seem to understand), the number of dead from World War I is astonishing.
I counted 37 names on the memorial here, which for a village of 950 inhabitants in 1911, is a frightening proportion. And all the villages around here suffered in similar proportions. Generally-speaking, the peasants from rural areas such as this and who were conscripted into the Army in 1914 were considered to be unsuitable for technical work and so made up the greatest proportion of cannon fodder as infantry in the trenches.
With the huge mincing machine that was Verdun and many similar places besides where the casualties were enormous it was these poor blighters who were in the first waves of attack, charging the barbed wire and machine guns of the entrenched German forces and they were mown down by the tens of thousands.
The census of 2005 revealed that the village has a population of 271, which shows just how steeply has been the rural decline over the last century as the flight to the town gathered pace. But that represents an increase from the 1999 figure of 245 inhabitants. And I tell you what - I bet that most of the increase is accounted for by foreigners looking for some of the greenery and wide open space that there is here in rural France where the quality of life is just so much better than in the cramped and stressed-out urban environments of the UK and the Netherlands.
It's not as if there is any shortage of wide open space either. These 271 people live in just over 17 square kilometers, the surface area of the commune - that's about 16 people per square kilometer. And there are plenty of places to live, too. Ruined houses abound here, long-since abandoned by the heirs of those who fled to the towns. They make ideal DiY projects for ambitious foreigners and many an impoverished farmer, not to mention the local baker, grocer, butcher, DiY shop proprietor (the list in endless) has cause to be grateful to the substantial influx of foreign cash that has kept this area afloat.
To put it into perspective, there are approximately 2,000 "foreign" households in the Combrailles, almost all of them North-European in origin. Now if each household has invested, say €80,000 in their house, purchasing and renovating it, and in what they have spent in local shops, services and taxes, that represents €160,000,000 that has come into this area, and not from the national coffers either but from abroad - totally new money to the area and totally new to the French government too. How many people have cause to be grateful for this? And what would happen if all of the nouveaux arrivants became fed up and left, taking their money with them?
Meanwhile, back at the village brocante, the 2008 edition in fact, the stalls have been set up in this litle square right next to the Maison des Associations, which is the building in white on the left of the image, and behind the church in the distance.
As I have said, the brocante is extremely popular for both buyers and sellers, although I susoect that if the price inflation that I have been noticing at brocantes just recently continues to spiral out of control, then things might just change for the worse.
This particular Sunday isn't just reserved for the brocante and there is more on offer than just a simple collection of junk stalls for the enthusiastic gaberlunzie. The event also coincides with the village fête, which in some villages might constitute a fête worse than death, but here it isn't quite so bad if you like that sort of thing.
As well as the buvette, and who ever heard of a village fête without a buvette?, there are also stalls selling local delicacies such as cheese-and-potato tart, entertainment for the kids and also in 2008 an exhibition of traditional crafts.
And yet again back at the brocante, the enthusiasm is mounting to fever pitch as the afternoon draws on.
If you are a keen brocanteur by the way, the best time to visit is just as the stallholders are setting up. This is when the choice is the greatest and you will notice all of the local (and in some cases, international) antiques dealers lined up at the side of the road eagerly awaiting the stallholders to disgorge their artefacts.
For cheapskates like me however, the best time is just as the brocante is closing down. At this time, many vendors can quite often be persuaded to part with items for any kind of price, simply to avoid having to take them home again. I've actually pulled unwanted but useful articles out of hedgerows and the like once a brocante has terminated
The brocante in August 2010 was a different kind of animal. The weather was so much better for a start and the sun was quite bright.
And so with glorious late summer weather, loads of stalls, loads of visitors and all the rest of it, even a few people I knew from the Pionsat football club with whom I had a nice long chat, it all made for a nice day out.
The brocante ia however only a part of the festivities that take place in the village today. The additional entertainment this year was provided by an ooompah band and so with that and a glass of local beer or wine from the buvette, what more do you want?
It has to be said that you can't pick and choose your entertainment in this part of the world. You have to come open-minded and make the best of what is on offer. It might not be much but it is all that there is.
This is the brass band from the village of Montaigut-en-Combraille about 10kms down the road from here. Now it's true to say that I had a better band around my hat but that's no reason to be disrespectful. You can't pick and choose your team either - there's a huge shortage of people in these depopulated rural areas and I'm sure that they were doing their best.
At least the assembled multitudes were enjoying themselves - and why not? The weather was certainly beautiful enough for a nice day out and it's not as if there was very much else happening in the region.
Now the best bit is always around the back, as Roman Polanski once famously said to Samantha Gailey, and so as I always do, I went for a prowl around behind the church, off the beaten track for the brocanteurs.
There's a meal taking place here tonight and a handful of men were busy around here threading huge skewers through a pile of animal carcasses. I'm a vegan as you know and the thought sickened me but in the interests of responsible jornalism I loitered around and watched as they did it, even though it put me off my tea.
There was a huge fire burning on the grass (this is the old graveyard, so I believe) and the men had erected some kind of giant spit over the top of it. There was already another giant skewer suspended over here and slowly turning, with another load of carcasses, half-cooked this time, attached thereto.
And as I watched, these guys hung their giant skewer up over the fire and connected it to some kind of machine, and then that commenced to slowly turn. How many people are they expecting for this meal?
Once the guys had departed, then in the interests of science I wandered over to this machine to give it the once-over.
As you might expect for round here, it's nothing sophisticated at all. Basically it's what looks like an electric motor from an old washing machine turning at about 500rpm and running to a belt drive to another contraption. This is some kind of mega-reduction gear that's turning ound at not even 1rpm and which is slowly rotating the spit. No question of St. Lorenzo and his
"Assum est; versa et manduca"