Plum Village Lower Hamlet near Bergerac

Lower Hamlet Plum Village 14 – 21 June 2019

I am doing this so you won’t have to ……

A place to retreat for mindfulness and meditation, to abstain, to eat healthily and to relax, so I’m not sure why I am writing this at 5.30 am in the morning. The big bell has sounded and we are all up getting ready for a sitting meditation at 6 am.

Squirrel room is my home for the week and I share with Sylvie a scientist from Paris who has forgotten her toothpaste. I brought all the stuff on the list much of which is unnecessary but forgot soap.  So my ablutions for the week will be somewhat rudimentary.  This is a twin bedded room, with all the luxury of home, floorboards, a lamp a window and some shelves. 

Friday 14th afternoon check in with a short tour to find ones bearings was followed by an hour of stretching and yoga which was a little calmer than my sessions with Dolph but still quite demanding as I wrapped myself into a pretzel and held poses which were definitely challenging.  Despite being in France the food will not be something to write home about. There is a glut of lettuce in the village and it will be served at every meal.  It was last night along with cold pasta with tomatoes and onions plus fresh cherries.  Vegan and no alcohol of course. 

Part of this week involved a trip (in fact 2 trips) to Upper Hamlet (for single men, couples and families) another of the 3 villages which make up Plum Village France. Upper Hamlet is more male orientated so lots of Monks. A Neuroscience retreat is happening there with qualified scientists, professors therapists and the like, all having an interest in mindfulness and its use in depression, pain management and general cheeriness. We all went up there to hear a Dharma talk given by one of the senior sisters from our place. She sounds more like a teacher than a run of the mill nun. And spent an hour explaining mind and conscience which was illuminating, she missed out the last stage though when we all reach enlightenment, I’m guessing that’s because not many of us will get there. 

Despite the early start, still finding too much time on my hands I volunteered to teach English. The Nuns many of them are Vietnamese, but they also hail from Sweden and Canada, want to learn languages. The retreat-ants are a varied bunch from all over Europe, Canada, USA, and a bunch of university students from Hong Kong, so if the nuns have some language skills it makes life easier.  I may have found my calling. I’ve now got a delightful 22 year old Vietnamese Nun hanging on my every word. We sorted out the tool shed. The French man in charge wanted all his tools named in English and Vietnamese. So if any maintenance is required Sister Tien An will be right on top of things. After a couple of days I gave her some homework and tasked her with asking the fellow inmates what they did for a living, where they came from, and so on.  I thought it a good way of her having a lot of extra English chats gratis as it were. And I was beginning to realise that teaching English was becoming hard work!  

Part way through the week there is a “lazy day,” every one gets a lie in, no meditation in the dark; and breakfast at 8 am. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with myself, and that is the point to do nothing.  I’m thinking of mindfully walking to find lunch and then mindfully cabbing back. In the event I was able to borrow a bicycle and ride and walk, up a humongous hill to Loubes Bernac a small village with a shop for coffee and a Perrier and I was able to pick up a supply of my favourite coffee. Followed by lunch next door at En Tout Simplicité. Salad, steak frites, fromage, crème brûlée, 25 cl vin plus coffee 14.50 euros. Go if your in the area, a mom and pop outfit and actually very good. There were a few other escapees too, who were amazed at my mode of transport as they faced a hot walk back in the sun.  I was fortunate to freewheel back. 

I have a book with me for the down time here, Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road”. A tale of dashing across America from coast to coast, along with general debauchery, drugs alcohol and a little theft. I should have chosen better. The irony isn’t lost on me.

Meditation in various guises happens throughout the day, sitting, walking, walking very slowly and a new one was conjured up which is just delightful. Service meditation! So far prefaced by a cheery song or two, and once completed we are thanked by the Sisters who then lead us in another cheery ditty.  What is this service meditation I here you say, well any jobs the sisters need help with and stuff that makes our lives better; so far, for me weeding the garden, that didn’t last long. I didn’t realise how back breaking and knee tormenting weeding is. I had a turn round Happy Farm, where a lot of our food is grown, and had a rummage to see what was growing. Next a group of us “cleaned” the forest, that was a little easier, raking, clearing paths, picking up forest debris and moving it. The idea to make a path for walking meditation, and we did indeed walk along our clean path the next day. The hopefully final service was preparing vegetables. I have managed to escape all the more serious cleaning stuff, loos, showers floors etc and a lot is required here. 

The bell can be rung at odd times and to indicate meal times or time for the next activity. When it is rung one has to stop whatever one is doing and stand still. The idea being to bring us back to the present and to check in with ones feelings and body, re-centre as it were. Noble silences also prevail during mealtimes and then after the final bell at 9pm until after breakfast and that is even harder to remember. So the normal pleasantries good night etc are out of the window. Being a Brit this is quite hard as this sort of thing is automatic, especially as the first morning I woke up and banged my head on the ceiling letting out an expletive. 

The Dordogne in all its greenness is stretching around here with serried rows of vines just ready for the tasting. A wonderful place that Thich Nhat Hanh found for his French home. Plum Village has now expanded so there are three villages but the man himself used to live where I find myself until his recent stroke and now he confines himself to Vietnam. 

The second Dharma talk found me entrusted with the keys to one of the vans used for shuffling stuff around, and so I drove those not fancying the walk up to Upper Hamlet for our second talk. The speaker was a most handsome and engaging monk who looked well on his way to enlightenment. 

The final night found us having a tea-party outside in the sunshine with a proper Vietnamese tea set with tiny cups and some music via a portable speaker. The grounds are full of plums tree so there has been home-made plum jam every morning, There is also a huge lotus lily pond complete with noisy bullfrogs and lots of mulberry trees with ripe fruit. I hadn’t seen a mulberry tree before nor one laden with fruit ripe for the picking. The nuns who are essentially sugar deprived what with no alcohol and no puddings, brought out to the tea party

a special jar of mulberry syrup they had made from mulberries and sugar, delicious, evidently the have to dispose once it ferments!  One day coming back from a walk some of the nuns spotted some cherries that were rip on a tree and there was a frenzy to see how fast they could be consumed. They were kind enough to give me one as I was passing but I left them to it. Small pleasures.



Typical accommodation, the refectory and the morning bell with mulberry trees

Lotus pond

We really did clean up the forest!

France to Sicily

First came St Tropez then the Classic Grand Prix in Monaco. Old cars, not so old, and I’d positively like to be 19 again.

This was nothing but a drinkathon so I won’t detain you further. Our ever-smiling waiter with one of many magnums kept us topped up all day.

The trip continued from Nice, with a drive to Genoa just to overnight before flying to Palermo. We counted over 120 tunnels on the way! One bit of travel advice comes to mind as I think about Genoa. Never ever book a hotel that doesn’t have a front door you can drive up to. Unless of course you only have a handbag or a small backpack. This is what we tried to do with a car full of luggage in Genoa rush hour.

The arrival instructions that we should have looked at before arrival amounted to; put car in car park. Hotel sends a taxi to take us most of the way, they come and help carry the luggage the rest of the way. After driving around fruitlessly trying to gain access to what we discovered was a pedestrian area with an estate car I was all for chucking it all in the river and just buying a new hotel. But we persevered, eventually arriving at the charming Le Nuvole Hotel “tastefully decorated in a strategic position in the heart of the city”. The website completely omitting to mention that the hotel is set in the middle of a pedestrianised area.

After the fun and games we explored the old medieval part of Genoa with its high ceilings and still just visible in places frescos.  Giving a great suggestion of how splendid this place was back in the day. Same as the rest of Italy I guess, all a bit broken in places.

Another drawback to being in a pedestrian area is that the locals have nowhere to walk their dogs. And they aren’t as fastidious with their plastic bags as they should be. So as you’re trying to look up at the marvellous architecture you have to look down to avoid the inevitable. Unfortunately I was caught out once.

Genoa to Palermo the next day.

Sicily. Well this is a place that is edgy, broken; fly tipping abounds to avoid paying for garbage removal. Locals we spoke to talked about Sicily being forgotten by central government and thus receiving less funding. Certainly it feels poor in many ways. But the richness of the cuisine and the culture make up for the rickety footpaths and an air of slightly brokenness that is found in many places.

Palermo conjures up wonderful “street food”. Pane con la Milza (stewed veal spleen with cheese in a bun) wasn’t a great hit, not unlike gristly liver. Assorted arancini (rice balls stuffed with meat or spinach and cheese) on the other hand are fabulous. Ice cream is everywhere and of course excellent. Breakfast includes lots of assorted cakes, sweet things are in here. An Ice cream sandwiched in a brioche bun for example, is not unusual for breakfast. Bread is good and varied but even croissants get a dusting of sugar just in case you’re not getting a good enough energy hit already.

The typical Sicilian food is excellent lots of vegetables, caponata (similar to ratatouille but sweet and sour with the addition of sugar & vinegar). Pastas, “Norma” after the opera, aubergine and tomato, and “Sade” with sardines raisins and pine nuts, and of course lots of fish. Not surprising they live a long time here.

We have been on a road trip. Seeing the Greek and Roman antiquity stuff. Agrigento with the temples. Piazza Amerino for the amazing mosaics, best in the world says the blurb and they are expansive covering a dozen or two rooms. Taormina followed. On the way to Taormina we took a helicopter to fly over Mt Etna still with some snow in May, the “recent” lava flows still visible dating from the 1920’s to more recent times. We also flew over Taormina to see the Greek Theatre, still used today for concerts. Sting and Pink Floyd were to come later and workmen were busy putting together the stage.

Fortuitously we arrived in time for the Taormina Food festival. 300 or so chefs showcasing the 20 food regions of Italy plus oodles of Sicilian wineries with samples galore. We went, and grazed up and down the Main Street sampling as we went till full. 40 Euros for a wristband, gets you as much food as you want, and the money raised goes to charity. Wine glasses were for sale together with a pouch on a string, to wear conveniently round one’s neck. I now have two as one came with the earlier Marsala tasting, so I’m now fully kitted out for any summer concerts! Have glass’s will travel!

Syracuse followed Taormina then Ragusa when the biking starts. In Syracuse the Antico Hotel Roma 1880 another hotel in a pedestrian area but one that allows visitors to drive to it has some bikes outside. It is also very central and a great jumping off point for visitors to Syracuse and Ortigia on the northwest bit of Sicily. So I thought I’ll take one just to experience a real bike on a road. The one in my living room has been good. But it doesn’t wobble like a real one!

Only in Sicily have I seen so many depictions of the Ark. Here building it.

Ark – now being filled with all the animals of the world that turned up especially for the occasion.

Ark – gently bobbing along looking for dry land. Which does I assure you turn up, and there are other Arks landing and disgorging their cargo.

St Tropez a precursor to a bike trip

I am in St Tropez, hurrah.  Always until now visited by boat.  Never driven here before but we have come in from Nice airport.  We are in the most lovely 3 bed en suite house with a garden in the centre of St Tropez with parking. I have died and gone to heaven. (François Fred Sandra, we need to come you will love it), and anyone else who hasn’t been St Tropez it is a lovely village to visit. Gets a bit mad in July and August.

Today’s market in the Place des Lice  (every Tues and Sat) was fabulous we unloaded oh I don’t know a truckload of cash ……. Not really, lovely bowls, wraps, I’m sitting in a lovely 10 euro one that will be a sarong but we saw lots of people using them to lie on, on the beach. Weaved baskets, bowls, and clothes, but I really didn’t fancy stripping off in the open air to see if anything would fit. (No fitting rooms).

We bought olives, some tart, we really wanted pissaladiere, we decided to come back for it later but it was finished, “you snooze you lose” said Lucas, Pissaladiere is a lovely onion tart. Would have been good with aperitifs later, but we will manage.

Shopping turned out to be very significant and Lucas who clearly understands what men are supposed to do, continued to load himself up taking everyone’s shopping and eventually carrying it home.  Secretly I’ve always thought that’s what men were put on this earth for, ” carrying shopping.” Anyway Lucas surpassed himself on that front.

Lunch followed at the Plage des Graniers.  A lovely restaurant on the nearest walkable beach, albeit up and down a heart-stopping hill. Didn’t think to book. It seems the kids are on holiday here, very sunny and so, we had a massive one hour plus wait, we got to know the barmen well and he was charming and delivered drinks and it turned out all 12 beers were gratis, plus, the finale a cocktail of the day with two straws for Dawn and I.  He got a massive tip!

Much much later, we walked out up the hill to the Hermitage hotel, another undiscovered place, to find a pétanque square, within the hotel garden, we played, and Lucas won. He had an advantage no one else had played before. Bonus, a new DJ, playing stuff, Steely Dan and other ancient great music, plus more pink wine.  A lovely interlude before the descent into, town to the hotel Sube for drinks overlooking the boats in the marina.

At lunch Dawn had suggested I needed a summer handbag, so on the walk back to the village on the way to the Sube, Lucas steered me into the LV shop. Hurrah I have a new handbag!


We took a ride this morning to the Auberge de la Mole 30 minutes from town, for a 30-euro lunch. One of Joan Collins’ favourites and we were amazed. Packed, fortunately I had booked a few weeks ago, unlike yesterday. Who thought winging it was a good idea. This place was easy as only one thing to choose, the main course.  The rest is sorted for you. Cash only. Two menus 30 or 50 Euros. Wine list very unassuming. We had a magnum of their suggested pink. The menu started with 4 different terrines with bread, choose a main, steak, lamb chops, duck confit or magret, an omelette for the veggies, really, (with pate to start)? Then a cheese board, then 3 deserts to help yourself from, chocolate mouse, prunes in wine and crème caramel, they threw in coffees and were charming in this once petrol station. The pumps still in place at the edge of the restaurant.  Without Ms Collins help I wouldn’t have found this place.  No turning tables here.  Eating family style, very refreshing.  They also found us a taxi to get us back into the land of hedonism and general mayhem and madness that is this very unique corner of France.

A revisit to the Hermitage for more Pétanque. I lose the Steadman challenge Lucas is the clear victor.  The evening shopping is way less damaging.

Until we head out later to L’Opera, dancing boys and topless dancing girls every 30 minutes.  We arrived just as the half hour turned and there seemed to be a big queue outside so we watched from afar, until I realised there was No queue but just a bunch of 10 year olds watching the view!  So we were ushered in and given a fabulous table.

Club 55 the next day, which I kept for the finale as if we had ventured their first we may not have tried anywhere else. But the service turns out to be a bit off, They are not as cheery as the other places we have been, but I buy a new Club 55 Ice bucket for old times sake.