Over the years we’ve opted for the two-day drive from London to the Alps for our annual ski holiday. It’s probably easier to fly or take the ski train, but with young children and the amount of stuff we like to take, it feels easier and cheaper to drive. Driving necessitates an overnight stay and in the past we stopped in Reims where there’s a surprisingly stylish Best Western with family rooms, excellent champagne to be sampled, and, should you fancy a bit of sightseeing, a magnificent cathedral.
This year we took a new route, staying overnight at Les Iris. This raised a few questions. Driving from Normandy to the Alps was a new route; would it take much longer? And with snow and record-breaking low temperatures in France, would our village, in the Seine Valley, be accessible?
Last year, in the heavy snow around Christmas, the villagers were snowed in for five days. The owner of the one 4×4 that made it up the hill out of the village found himself buying in bulk from the bakery and delivering bread each day to the village’s 60 or so residents. This year, in the event, the local famers had cleared the roads of snow and ice, and the driving was straightforward. Despite -15 degree temperatures outside, the cottage was warm: thatch is a natural insulator, and does a wonderful job of keeping the cottage cosy inside. The drive to the Alps was marginally longer overall, but it was worth the extra miles to avoid staying in a hotel. The drive from Normandy to the Alps took 9 hours, including a long lunch break and several service station stops.
We skied this year in Vaujany, a lovely village with excellent access to the Alpe d’Huez ski area. While there, we had a chance to explore some beautiful French properties. We stayed in Chez Nous, a self-catering mini-chalet, that’s part of Chalet La Maitreya. From our floor to ceiling windows there were fantastic views along the valley.
And we enjoyed many entertaining evenings with friends at their beautiful home in Vaujany, La Boite Qui Brille. I just love how they have decorated this modern chalet, proving that you can use contemporary colours and materials to build a cosy and welcoming space.
A chaumiere is a thatched cottage, built from a skeleton of wood beams, infill of clay or lime and sometimes reinforced with horse or cow hair, and a roof of reeds.
Les Iris is on the Thatched Cottage Road, a 53-km route that runs through the Boucles de la Seine national park connecting Notre-Dame-de-Bliquietuit to Vatteville, Azier and Vieux-Port and winding along the Seine to the Vernier marshlands.
“The thatched roofs of our buildings, from whose tops grow irises with their sabre like leaves, appear to steam as though the humidity of the stable or the barn rises up through the straw”
The Seine flows at the end of the garden, between limestone cliffs and occasional villages. At certain times of day, large boats glide silently past, heavy on their way to Rouen, or, lighter, back out to Le Havre and the sea beyond.
This being Normandy, there is the requisite apple tree in the garden. Ours is large and old and the unripe apples taste sour and floury. The garden is full of herbs, and along the footpaths from the village up into the ancient forest there are plentiful mushrooms. The abundance this season has been a general topic of village conversation, and we ate the wild mushrooms cooked with butter and herbs by a neighbour. You can take the mushrooms you have picked to the pharmacy in the next village, and they will tell you which ones you can eat. We haven’t tried this yet.
The small village church from our window. There are said to be graves in the cemetery from the hundred years’ war. During the day the bell tolls every half hour and with particular vigour at 7 am and 7 pm.
Meals are outside in the sunshine overlooking the Seine, or in the salle a manger at the petrin (dough-making table). The top lifts to reveal a trough, which provided a warm, draft-free place to knead dough and leave it to rise.
No space for bathtubs under the thatched roof, but there are two lovely bathrooms, one on the ground floor, with strong showers. The country kitchen has windows overlooking the garden and a Belfast sink.
The floors downstairs are traditional Pont Audemer tiles, and upstairs, hardwood throughout.