Sancerre, before the summer hordes
Anthony Gardner recommends visiting the ‘extraordinarily unspoilt and beautiful’ town of Sancerre while it remains the definition of sleepiness and tranquillity.
The situation was dire. It was 7.30 on a Thursday evening and we needed something to drink with our dinner. As we were staying in one of France’s most famous wine-producing towns, this shouldn’t have been a problem; but as I searched the narrow cobbled streets, my anxiety grew.
From the rue St Jean, with its old artisans’ workshops, down to the medieval ramparts, not a single shop was open. I felt like Diogenes in his search for an honest man. If I hadn’t bumped into a friendly Australian with a bottle of bordeaux to spare, we would have gone thirsty to bed.
Sancerre is in effect two towns. In summer it seethes with visitors and second-home owners; for the rest of the year it is the definition of sleepiness and tranquillity, and you can wander through it – as I did on that May evening – seeing barely a soul. But at all times it is extraordinarily unspoilt and beautiful: a symphony of ancient doors, pale lilac shutters, wrought-iron balconies and steeply pitched roofs.
Situated in the very heart of France, Sancerre stands on a hilltop 1,000ft above the surrounding countryside. This landscape was depicted 600 years ago in the exquisite paintings of Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry and little has changed since.
From the top of the Tour des Fiefs – the only one of Sancerre’s six towers to escape demolition after the Wars of Religion – you look down on a panorama of undulating vineyards, with the River Loire following its meandering course just two miles away.
The violent history that this picturesque charm masks is brought to life by a short walk around the town centre. The house of Jacques Coeur commemorates a key figure in the Hundred Years War, when the English were repulsed from Sancerre. Nearby, a Romanesque doorway is all that remains of a priory destroyed by the Huguenots, who endured an eight-month siege in 1573: before finally surrendering they resorted to eating rats, books and, in a few instances, each other.
Down the road a plaque commemorates royalist soldiers killed in the Revolution; rue MacDonald is named after a Scottish exile who became one of Napoleon’s marshals.
We first came to Sancerre to spend a week at a small, family-friendly language school called Coeur de France. It proved such a success that we returned this year for the fourth time. As the owners also have a modest vineyard, it is a good starting point for those keen to familiarise themselves with winemaking. The French for “hangover”, in case you’re wondering, is gueule de bois: “mouth of wood”.
The Duc de Berry – who, being très riche, could afford whatever he liked – declared that “the wine of Sancerre is the best in the kingdom”. I tend to agree. Clues to its superiority can be found at the Maison des Sancerre, an impressive hi-tech museum with holograms of grape-pickers and recordings of jolly drinking songs. Visits to dusty caves(cellars) can be arranged through L’Aronde Sancerroise, just off the main square, which represents 20 vignerons.
The townspeople are doubly spoiled, because one of France’s most delicious goats’ cheeses is produced a few miles away in the village of Chavignol. However, one local speciality I cannot recommend isandouillette, a kind of Stone Age sausage for fearless offal-eaters.
There are plenty of activities nearby to help work up an appetite. Our favourite was cyclo-railing – whizzing along five miles of disused railway track on a steel chariot powered by two bicycles. We also explored one of the Loire’s small islands by canoe and spent a memorable afternoon cycling along the river to Pouilly, returning with the early evening sun filtering through lines of tall poplars.
At Guédelon, an hour’s drive away, we visited a fascinating building project – the construction of a chateau (halfway to completion after 13 years) using medieval building techniques.
The greatest cultural monument in the area is the Gothic cathedral at Bourges, with its massive flying buttresses and ethereal curving aisles. It is worth making a detour through the delightful woods that surround the village of La Bourne, a pottery-making centre for almost 1,000 years.
But wherever you decide to explore, it is a pleasure to take the winding road back up to Sancerre – provided you have stopped to buy a bottle of wine en route.
Coeur de France (4879 3408; www.coeurdefrance.com) offers one-week language courses from €395. Book cycling, riding and canoeing with Loire Nature Découverte (4878 0034;wwwloirenaturedecouverte.com). Cyclo-railing from Port Aubry from €24 for two hours (6 8522 8872; www.cyclorail.com).
Mon dieu! We speak French
Louise Roddon and her family learn French in the Loire.
I am trying out my favourite conversational nugget, used on countless French trips ever since my son was born. “J’ai un petit fils qui s’appelle Felix.”
It’s only 10 minutes into our family course at the Coeur de France Ecole de Langues, but already I have made “un erreur”. Marianne, our teacher, corrects me. Petit fils, she explains, means grandson.
Right. I scroll back through the years. All those polite nods and smiles. Not one astonished look. Not one response of “C’est impossible!” It’s not just my schoolgirl French that’s feeling dented.
But Marianne is proving a gentle teacher. We are sitting in a classroom in the middle of Sancerre – a lovely Loire hilltop town, full of higgledy-piggledy lanes, gorgeous patisseries, and more wine shops than is strictly decent.
There are ancient manoirs, like this 16th-century schoolhouse with its steep slate roof, witches’ hat turrets and gargoyles. Our apartment, on top of the school, is a mere stone spiral staircase away from the classroom, which, as any parent will appreciate, means no hurried school run in the morning.
If this seems a funny way to spend a half term – a week off school in, er, school – our 10-year-old son has thankfully yet to catch on. He is still amused at the sight of his parents playing the role of pupils.
The Coeur de France school insists on total cultural immersion. The theory goes that this method – with a course at a French school and teachers refusing to speak anything but their native tongue – is probably the most effective way to master the language.
Here’s how it translates in Sancerre. An individual tutor to coach each family for four hours every morning. Two hours spent in the classroom, with the remaining two on “practical” work. This is the bit I am looking forward to – the moment when we hit town, and try out our newly honed French phrases on the unsuspecting shopkeepers.
There will be homework, too – and optional afternoons, focusing on the “cultural” side of total immersion. That means anything from wine dégustation, in this a stronghold of viticulture, to visiting a goat farm where the children milk the goats and the grown-ups taste the cheese.
But how will the classroom dynamics work? So far, our skills at French seem in accord with our personalities. There’s my husband, David, a perfectionist, yet keen to crack jokes in French, as long as they are grammatically correct. He can’t, however, quite shake off his loyalty to the Ted Heath method of pronunciation (if you can’t remember, think the Franglified equivalent of “thenks orfully”).
I’m a sloppy, but fairly fast French speaker, having got by on a conversational diet of present, past and future, with none of the added complications of future perfect or subjunctive. But as a natural mimic, I have a passable accent. And Felix can already do those wonderful rolling r’s that sound as though they are about to spit in your face, but has yet to acquire any real enthusiasm for the subject.
But things begin to go swimmingly when Marianne takes Felix off into a corner, and with the aid of coloured alphabet pieces, gets him spelling words and pronouncing correctly. He basks under her praise and encouragement.
“Oui! D’accord – très bien, Felix!” Classes each day continue in this vein – with time spent individually on each family member, before we work en famille – playing either “restaurants” with dolly-sized cups and plates (“Qu’est-ce que tu aimes, Papa?”) or rounds of French Hangman.
We all enjoy our forays into Sancerre, particularly since the whole town appears like an extended schoolroom, with each shopkeeper in on the act. There are no Gallic shoulder shrugs from the smiley lady at the post office when, yet again, she is confronted by an Englishman haltingly inquiring about the cost of sending a parcel weighing 250g by registered post. And the creamy-bosomed girl in the cake shop charmingly responds to our questions about the almond biscuit specialties known as “croquets”.
Even the cheese-seller turns professor for our benefit. I buy six eggs from her, correctly pronouncing them “seeze eugh” and she asks me, “Comment disez-vous pour un?” “Un oeuf,” I reply, correctly emphasising the “f”.
All attempts are met with smiling encouragement, and the enthusiasm is mirrored palpably by our son, who is soon venturing out alone each morning to buy our baguettes and croissants.
One afternoon, armed with our market-bought produce, we don chefs’ hats and pinnies, and cook up a French feast. It’s a clever and fun way to pick up the lingo, and we are joined by four little girls – three of them American – and two mothers. While the girls follow French instructions for making quiche Lorraine, Felix rustles up an apple tart. I am as impressed by his pastry skills as by his ability to guess that “plus de farine” means more flour.
The highlight for him, however, is the visit to the goat farm. We swap the stone buildings of Sancerre for soft green hills and terraced vineyards, driving along quintessentially French avenues of plane trees, towards the village of Veaugue.
Here is the powerhouse of the celebrated “Crottins de Chavignol” – the specialty nutty-hard goats’ cheese of Sancerre. For the children, it is a delightful experience, as they tug free their T-shirts from dozens of hungry mouths and attempt to squirt milk from warm distended udders. The farm cat has taken up position, and is sucking away at a teat. “Zut alors!” says Felix.
It is this breaking into French without prompting that shows us how much our son’s grasp of the language has improved, and how he has begun to see the sense in learning. In fact, we have all made huge personal strides, particularly in our weak areas. Some things don’t change, however. When I moan at the amount of homework I am given, Felix responds: “That’s because you’re a girl and girls do what they’re told.”
Talk the talk
Coeur de France has one-week packages from €1,915 (£1,340) for a family of four, to include tuition, books and self-catering accommodation. For more information or bookings, call 0033 248 793408 or e-mail: email@example.com. Return fares on Eurostar to Paris cost from £59 return. Paris-Cosne-sur-Loire (the nearest station), £36 return. To book, see www.raileurope.co.uk or call 08705 848848. Hertz car hire (08708 448844) is located at Cosne-sur-Loire with car hire rental from £156 per week.
Learning French in the Loire
Simon Spilsbury went back to school to improve his dreadful French, and he took the whole family with him.
This is a holiday? Kiah, centre, and Imogen, right, in class (SIMON SPILSBURY)
It is a well-established fact that most of us Brits are dreadful at foreign languages. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to spend this summer’s holiday in France not just pointing and shouting pidgin French, but actually conversing with our fellow Europeans? To be able to ask for a coffee/baguette/train ticket without blank looks all round?
I’ve dreamt of that for years, but my schoolboy French has got rustier and rustier. And so, this year, the plan was to put it right, set a good example for my kids and equip them with the necessary tools so that they didn’t have to stumble into language barriers their whole life.
Potential help was at hand: total immersion. The theory goes as follows: going to a French school, in France, where French teachers refuse to speak anything other than French is an effective way of, you guessed it, learning French. This is not a new concept — but doing it with the whole family is.
The one-week family course at the Coeur de France Ecole de Langues offers tuition for you and your children in one classroom. It sounded unlikely. I haven’t dusted off my dubious vocab since I was 16. My wife, Wendy, got a degree in languages 20 years ago, but the girls — Kiah, aged 8, and Imogen, 6 — are complete beginners. Four people of differing age and ability in the same room. With only one week in hand. But anything was better than nothing.
Convincing the girls that it was a good idea was tricky. We smoothed over the “Girls, what we’re doing this school holiday is going to school” confession with promises about horse-riding and goat-petting — just a couple of the family-friendly excursions on offer at Coeur de France.
After that, we were off, and things started well. The school is not in some prefab classroom on the outskirts of a monotonous town, like my old school. Two hours south of Paris, it’s based in a 16th-century mansion in the medieval hilltop town of Sancerre, in the Loire. Sancerre is a town of witch’s-hat turrets and lute-playing gargoyles, and a great place to get lost in.
We were shown to one of the mansion’s three apartments, elegantly decked out with oak floors and lacy curtains, velvety wallpaper and chandeliers.
Living on the grounds had an obvious advantage — no school run — so getting ready in the morning was a breeze (families know the importance of this). On the other hand, we had no excuse for being late for class.
“Remember to speak French at all times. This is cultural immersion.” That’s what it said at the very top of our programme, in big, bold letters. Seventy-five per cent of us couldn’t speak French at all.
MONDAY MORNING was all-round excitement, as we ran down the stone spiral staircase from the apartment to the classroom. The girls were giggly with anticipation at seeing mummy and daddy in school. This was their domain, and we were the new kids in class.
Bonjours and oui, ouis flew around at an alarming rate (I wanted to show confidence, as an example to the girls). And then: “Bonjour Seemon, est-ce-que vous avez bien dormi?” Marianne, our host and tutor, looked at me expectantly. I just knew I’d be picked first, but my mouth stopped working. We’ve all been there, scrabbling around in every cranial compartment, desperately seeking pre-viously held knowledge. I could only sit there looking blank, sweating profusely.
Wendy bailed me out, but Kiah and Immie had taken note. I’d have to endure their “Oh, poor daddy, couldn’t do it” jibes for the rest of the week. They had nothing to lose: elbows on table and perky little heads in hands, they were into je m’appelle and un, deux, trois in as many seconds, and the pile of exercise books and pens they were given drew big grins. At least part of the family was having a great time.
After that linguistic baptism of fire, we headed straight to the Café des Arts, on the square. French daily life was buzzing, and despite being compromised in class, I was determined to be a part of it. I downed an early pastis (French courage) and took Wendy’s special brand of mocking humour on the chin.
The girls ran to class again next day. I walked. By the time I got there, Kiah and Immie were writing yesterday’s words on the whiteboard before getting stuck in to their “Alex et Zoé” exercises.
“Bonjour Seemon, est-ce-que vous avez bien dormi?” Oh, no, not again.
“Seemon, en français.”
“Oui, oui. Pardon.”
Marianne was brutal with the “no English” rule. Today, it was domestic stuff. La maison and les vêtements. Great, I could remember this. With a pile of dolls’ clothes and a till, we had a session of pretend retail therapy. A touch embarrassing selling a pair of pantalon rouge to your wife, but necessary for the children.
“Papa, avez-vous une chemise?”
“Maman, avez-vous une jupe?”
There were plenty of très biens for Kiah and Immie. We felt proud of their speedy progress. I managed to buy a fetching plastic cowboy hat from Wendy.
Après l’école, Wendy and the girls had a kip while I squeezed in an hour’s wine-tasting with Gérard, our other host, at one of the many vineyards. All work and no play…
By day three, the in-at-the-deep-end tuition was beginning to work. “Oui, j’ai bien dormi. Le lit est très confortable,” I answered this morning.
“Salut, Marianne, ça va?” chirped the girls. But there was an air of distraction about Kiah and Immie today. Not through lesson fatigue — today was goat day.
Not only is the Sancerrois famous for its wines, it enjoys global recognition for Crottins de Chavignol: small, lozenge-shaped goat cheeses, varying in colour from white to black, depending on how long they’ve been rotting. As a cheese-loather, the goat-farm excursion held little excitement for me; but as serial animal-cuddlers, the girls couldn’t wait.
The graft they’d been putting in in the classroom was more than repaid by being allowed to pick up one-day-old goats. They also saw, for the first time in their lives, baby animals being born.
“Ergh, daddy, what’s that hanging out of its bottom?”
“The afterbirth, Kiah.”
Thankfully, we’d eaten.
We were obliged to continue the tour to the storeroom. I managed to wriggle out of the tasting, but the smell was invasive and, by the time we’d left, my stomach was churning enough to make my own cheese.
FINAL DAY, final lesson.
My determination not to be compromised in the last session prompted Wendy to call me a goody-goody for doing a bit of homework. By the time we got to class, the girls were tucking in to their Alex et Zoé exer- cise books.
We completed our tasks more confidently today, and Marianne decided we were ready for the real world. She took us shopping. Kiah ordered croissants and a baguette at the boulangerie, Immie bought stamps at the post office and I bought six eggs, pronounced “seezeuh” not “seezoof”, at the épicerie. Later, some of the shopping went into our last activity — learning to cook French. We shared our quiche meal and a drop of the local with Marianne and Gérard, all with chefs’ hats on. Our kids played with their kids, unselfconsciously using both languages, and we discussed our personal achievements, mostly in French.
The big positive about this crash-style of learning was the amount of one-on-one tuition. It gives you the confidence to ask the things you sometimes struggle to ask in a full classroom, so you learn more quickly. Without all their mates to distract them, the girls found it easier to focus, and bottom- shuffling and daydreaming were kept to a minimum. They lapped up all the vocabulary, and thought it was great having two words for everything instead of one. I think this early introduction to another world of communication will mean that they’ll never see language barriers as a negative.
So, how did it all end? And would those locals still be bewildered? Well, Wendy had a comprehensive refresher course and is back to her old fluency. Me, “Je suis capable de dire des phrases faciles”, and the girls will be able to order all the best treats at their local French deli. Not bad for a week’s holiday.
The Spilsbury family travelled as guests of British Airways and Europcar
French immersion: More than just language
By Kim Gamel, Associated Press
SANCERRE, France (AP) — En route to France for a language immersion course, I decided to get started by watching a French movie on the plane. “Manon des Sources” was about a girl who avenges her father’s death by cutting off the town’s source of water _ at least that’s what I figured out from reading the subtitles.
After two years of sporadic study, I tested at intermediate level, but understanding French spoken at a normal pace by somebody other than my Berlitz instructors was another matter. I was in for a long two weeks, but the program was paid for and there was no turning back.
Sancerre, a medieval town of 2,000 people, traces its history to a 12th-century castle overlooking the Loire Valley. It’s in a region best known for dry, white wines and sharp goat cheese. But the husband-and-wife team of Gerard and Marianne Chartrand have made it a destination for foreigners seeking to learn or improve their French.
I was drawn to their Coeur de France (Heart of France) language school by its user-friendly Web site, which opens with a beautiful panoramic view of the hilltop town surrounded by vineyards. The reality doesn’t disappoint.
To get there, I flew to Paris, then took the train about two hours south to the town of Cosne-sur-Loire, where the always-cheerful Marianne was waiting to drive me and two other new students – also American women – to the school, 15 minutes away.
Coeur de France, set in an elegant 16th century mansion, has a rolling enrollment and flexible programming to fit the needs of single tourists, business people and families alike. Among the other students were a pharmaceutical marketing researcher from Chicago who had minored in French and an English couple who had bought a villa in the area.
The French-only rule began immediately with Marianne pointing out sites along the way, including the best place to buy a croissant and the few stores that would be open on Sundays.
She spoke slowly and I understood much of what she said, but I kept my responses simple, noting often that the scenery was indeed “tres jolie” – very pretty.
English was limited to a single piece of paper explaining local business hours and pleading with students to only speak French, even outside of class.
After a quick tour of Sancerre, I found myself dropped off at a supermarket at the foot of the hill, where I understood I was to buy groceries for the cottage where I would be staying a few miles from Sancerre. The other two students were taken to their housing closer to the school.
I was suddenly nervous about being the only one who needed to stock up on supplies. I was staying in the Maison de Vinon, a two-story cottage near the Chartrand’s house in the tiny hamlet of Vinon. Lodging options for the program – usually part of a package deal with language lessons – ranged from houses like mine in nearby villages to three apartments above the classrooms, each named after Marianne and Gerard’s adorable children, Louis, Margaux and Gabriel.
The village where I was didn’t offer much more than houses and an ancient church with a bell that tolled every 15 minutes. I managed a half-hour walk on Sunday afternoon without seeing another soul.
I realized belatedly that staying in the village might be a better option in the summer, with a rental car, than in the fall, when I was there. Marianne kindly offered to drive me to the school that week and so I piled into her minivan at 8 a.m. with her two older children, who greeted me every day in unison with a friendly “Bonjour, Kim.”
I often stayed in Sancerre for dinner with the other students and relied heavily on the taxi services of Madame Annie Frottier. The program’s accommodations lack telephones, so I made my cab reservations by ringing the doorbell and negotiating pickup times with Madame Frottier and her husband as they leaned out their upstairs window.
Since it was a slow off-season, I was upgraded and spent my second week in the one-bedroom Margaux apartment at the school.
Classes are held in group or private sessions. Marianne, a native of Sancerre who taught French for several years in San Diego, leads a team of four other instructors.
I chose a two-week combination program, which usually includes 40 hours of group class and six hours of private instruction. I ended up with fewer hours because the minimum of three students weren’t available for the group.
Instead, I was paired with Joanne Campbell, a 39-year-old Australian doctor living in London who has a passion for France but never had formal language instruction. We talked about ourselves and acted out scenarios like shopping and traveling, using playclothes and other props. Marianne asked us questions, corrected our mistakes and used them to decide what grammar to explain.
She also taught us mnemonic devices like the unforgettable “Mrs. Vandertramp,” in which each letter starts a verb that takes “etre” in the past tense instead of “avoir” – V for venir, A for aller and so on.
Group classes were about four hours a day, with a break in which students and instructors mingled over coffee. One day, as a special treat, we had wine to mark the debut of the 2004 Beaujolais Nouveau, an event much anticipated by wine-lovers worldwide.
Twice a week I had private 90-minute lessons, which I used to focus on reading and discussing newspaper articles.
Homework was intense but not overwhelming. Marianne’s main method is to keep you talking.
In Paris, so many people speak English that it can be difficult for an American to get a French word in edgewise. But in Sancerre, Gerard and Marianne have drawn many of the locals into their enterprise, and a day of shopping will yield wonderful conversations in French, especially if you mention that you’re one of their students.
I was pleasantly surprised when Catherine Pierre, who makes beautiful hand-painted silk clothing that she sells in a shop on the main square, politely corrected my grammar before I shelled out $60 for a scarf. Madame Frottier also quizzed me on my day and dining experiences during our rides.
The school also offers cultural excursions for an extra fee that range from wine tastings to a tour of the region’s chateaux.
Most of the tours were led by Gerard, an American of French Canadian ancestry who grew up in California and handles the school’s business. He also dabbles in photography and keeps the Web site updated, including a photo of the day.
A weekly cooking lesson by Marianne for $30 was another highlight. We memorized the vocabulary of the ingredients and cooking utensils, donned paper chef’s hats and somehow produced tasty dishes like onion soup, profiteroles (cream puffs), quiche Lorraine and crepes.
Coeur de France doesn’t promise fluency, only that students who work hard will be able to hold their own with a French speaker. I felt my confidence growing daily and went home feeling able to do just that.
School’s in for the summer
How would your children react if you told them they were going on a French course in the holidays? John Clare’s weren’t keen, until they arrived in class.
A vacation with homework. To the average middle-school student it might sound like a nightmare. But for lifelong learners who wish they’d paid more attention in “Spanish for Beginners”—or for anyone looking for extra insight and access to the country they’re visiting—a foreign-language holiday can add les mots justes that separate a mere trip from a truly meaningful overseas experience.
These days, learning a foreign tongue often involves much more than vocab quizzes and verb conjugations. Jay Jamieson, accreditation services manager for the Canada Language Council (CLC), says language instruction used to adhere more strictly to the “here’s your text and we’re gonna go through it” model. Now, he says, many schools are “starting to carve out more of a niche … for travelers wanting experiences that are unique and different.”
That new niche includes experiential learning—several of the French schools on the CLC’s accredited list, for example, offer skiing or golf as part of the curriculum….
In Montezuma, Costa Rica, La Escuela del Sol has taken experiential language learning to new extremes: This seaside center offers surfing, yoga, and fire dancing instruction to complement its Spanish language classes.
Still other international language schools cater to a slightly slower-paced lifestyle. Gérard Chartrand, who, along with his wife Marianne, founded the Coeur de France École de Langues in the fabled winemaking region of Sancerre, said the school and the area are places for people to sample some of the finer things in life. We’re used to visitors who are interested in wine, gourmet food, etc. For accommodations, students can choose from Coeur de France’s three luxury apartments in a restored 17th-century mansion (which also houses the school).
Alex Anderson, a retired American investment banker, has been visiting Coeur de France annually for about eight years with his wife, Rebecca. They typically stay for two or three weeks at a time, rent a house near the school, and walk to their private French lessons at the chateau each morning, picking up croissants and French newspapers on the way. Alex says he likes to play golf in Sancerre the afternoon. “It’s a great way to meet French people. And it’s easier to have meaningful conversations than if you’re meeting in a store. You can talk about your families, and what you do.”
Chartrand says those kinds of real, personal interactions are part of the reason he and his wife chose the smaller, village setting of Sancerre for their school. Often, in a major metro area like Paris, says Chartrand, students “try so hard to learn French, and then they go to a café and try it out on a waiter—who answers in perfect English.”
By contrast, says Chartrand, most of the waiters in the Sancerre cafes will actually help correct visitors’ grammar and pronunciation. The local bistros, wineries, and goat-cheese farms thus become a kind of living language lab for eager Francophones-in-training.
School’s in for the summer
How would your children react if you told them they were going on a French course in the holidays? John Clare’s weren’t keen, until they arrived in class.
I can’t believe my ears. My nine-year-old son, completely unprompted, is standing in a chateau in France, doing his best to strike up a conversation in French with an adult. Just a week ago we had to fight to keep our frustration in check as the present tense of regular -er verbs refused to stick in his brain. Around our own kitchen table our efforts at elementary French conversation elicited no more than a grunted, embarrassed “Bonjour”.
What’s changed is that we’re spending half-term week on a French course in Sancerre. No English is spoken during classes or breaks, even with other English speakers. That’s how I find myself discussing French wines in French with an accountant from Manchester, and my eight-year-old daughter attempts (in French) to quiz an elderly American woman about life in Hawaii. A very different kind of French leave.
In this region, a week of total immersion in all things French means great wine, cheese and food – but all topics are encouraged, as long as you discuss them in the right language. During the week the four of us got through a huge range, from Harry Potter and the Roman armies (Julius Caesar pitched the first camp in Sancerre 2,000 years ago), to the debate over GM crops and the British fascination with hospital dramas.
Oliver’s attempts at l’entente cordiale are in stark contrast to the family’s response when I first suggested the idea. Even my wife was hardly encouraging. “If you think you can sell that to the children, good luck,” was her helpful response. Oliver and India were united in their initial opposition. “That doesn’t sound like much of a holiday for us,” they said.
In reality, it worked even better than we’d hoped. The courses are run by Coeur de France, a business run by husband and wife team Gerard and Marianne Chartrand (He’s American, she’s French). The setting is the first surprise – Sancerre, which for me was previously only a name on wine labels, is a beautiful town perched atop a hillside by the banks of the Loire. The town has hardly changed for hundreds of years, and the most impressive building is La Thaumassière, right in the centre of town. Built in the 16th century for the physician of a prince of the region, it’s an imposing sight complete with a fairytale-style turret and gargoyles around the eaves. This would be our home for the week.
We in one of the building’s family apartments – self-catering, so if you don’t go shopping in French, you don’t eat. Although it was well-furnished and very comfortable, those thoughts were far from our minds as we arrived, nervously, for our first class at 8.45 on Monday morning.
None of us knew what to expect in the four hours of French that lay ahead. On the way into class we met fellow students, all adults who were taking individual tuition in separate classrooms. We introduced ourselves in English and were gently encouraged to speak French by Marianne, our teacher for the week.
The four of us filed into the brightly-decorated “family classroom” where we would receive our 20 hours of tuition over the five days. Marianne overcame the initial awkwardness by speaking to the children, very slowly, asking their names, ages and inquiring about family pets. She quickly adapted to the very different standards of French in the family, and the children relaxed.
We chose Coeur de France because among their wide range of courses they specialise in teaching families. It soon became clear that this had been a good idea because the lessons were structured to accommodate our different standards and flexible enough to “go with the flow” when the children began to lose concentration. Very quickly the children got into the swing of things, and joined in the French songs and games Marianne introduced. We adults were encouraged to read French newspapers and magazines, and bring articles to class as discussion subjects. I wanted to gain confidence in spoken French, and improve my business vocabulary. I achieved both to the extent that on the fourth day I made a PowerPoint presentation in French for the first time in my life.
But cultural immersion means far more than sitting in a classroom, so once the lessons were over we took ourselves off around the area to try out our new skills. Unlike Paris, many local people don’t speak English, so we avoided the frustration of speaking to someone in French, only for them to recognise your accent and reply in English. The only exception was Didier Turpin, who delighted in telling us how, when he was a trainee chef in England, he shared a flat with Marco Pierre White. With that pedigree, we had to try out his restaurant, The Pomme D’Or. We weren’t disappointed.
Sancerre is worth a visit, because of its rich history – in the 16th century the town was a walled city and a renowned Protestant stronghold. After a long siege the walls and towers were destroyed, but one still remains, mysteriously preserved.
The town’s position on a hilltop means that you get fabulous views of the Loire Valley and can see the patchwork quilt of vineyards – 400 in all. Then there’s the Crottin de Chavignol, the goat’s cheese which, like the wine, comes with an appellation contrôle certification. Ironically, there are no goats left in Chavignol itself, despite the name. “The goats need feeding and milking twice a day, every day. But vines need harvesting once or twice a year – so the farmers have turned into vintners,” explained Valerie, our guide and another teacher at the school.
Then of course there’s the food. As with so many places in France, the local restaurants are independent, often family run, and conjure up tremendously high-class cuisine. Immersion here for the children meant that Oliver was determined to try snails (such a big success he had them twice), while India was keen to try her new words and phrases.
So what’s the end of term report on the école des langues? Full marks from the adults.
“My friends at school all said how unlucky I was to be going on the trip, but in the end I really enjoyed it. It was great fun, and everybody was great. I was nervous but once I started joining in it was OK. I didn’t expect French lessons to be fun.”
“I was scared that it would be a bit complicated but actually it turned out well. Everyone was very nice to me, especially Marianne, and we made friends very quickly. I want to go back next year.”
Immersing themselves in village life, three generations of American women study more than language
By Becca Hensley
SANCERRE, France — We arrive in Sancerre, a renowned wine village two hours south of Paris, with wolves in our bellies. While hunger can be a good thing in a town known for its food and wine, on this Sunday afternoon in early June, there is not a baguette in sight.
All the shops and cafes are closed, and all the villagers are home with their families. It’s so quiet we can hear our stomachs grumble.
But we’re not discouraged. This is why we’ve come — my daughter and I from Austin and my mother from Boulder, Colo. We’ve come for immersion, even when it’s a bit inconvenient. We’ve come to inhale the essence of this tiny medieval town that sits atop a hill in the heart of France.
Though we hope to learn French, we’re happy just to behold the colors of the buildings that surround the Nouvelle Place. Like earthy Fauvist brushstrokes, they line the town square in tones of apricot, blue-gray, ivory and taupe. In particular, the turreted roofs in grays and copper (much like burnished pennies) divert me.
And just steps away, at Sancerre’s highest point, we gaze upon at least 10 fabulous miles of the Loire River valley in all its verdant hues. I have read that Caesar stood here to track his enemies, and I can see why — the vista seems to roll on forever.
At last, my daughter leads me down a winding street to her discovery, a fromagerie that has reopened for the afternoon. Thrilled, we buy crottin de chavignol, the creamy goat cheese native to the region; sweet, nutty homemade crackers; and a bottle of Sancerre white wine. It’s the feast of our dreams, and we hurry down narrow streets, past half-timbered houses, to our new home.
We’ve rented a two-bedroom apartment above the Coeur de France Ecole de Langues, an immersion school where we will take our French lessons each morning. Located in a restored 16th-century Renaissance mansion known as La Thaumassière, the school holds classes all year. Students come from all over the world and range in age from pre-schoolers to octogenarians.
Our trio — three generations, three experience levels, all eager to pursue French in its own environment — will be accommodated in a family program where we will study together, led by our instructor, Valérie. Walking to class will be as simple as descending a stone spiral staircase.
For now, we’ve pulled chairs up to the apartment’s picture windows overlooking Sancerre’s famous tower (Tour des Fifes) to eat our snack and watch a thunderstorm rumble over the village. The Sancerre white wine, made from sauvignon blanc grapes, is crisp and dry, a lovely complement to the buttery crottin smeared on our crackers.
Sated, we look around, noting the polished oak floors, period furniture, marble bathroom, hand-painted and embossed walls, laundry room and completely equipped kitchen. We have plenty of space in our elegant suite on the mansion’s top floor; we could stay here for months. Too bad we’ll only be here for a couple of weeks.
Our lofty view puts us eye-to-eye with La Thaumassière’s whimsical gargoyles. There’s a winemaker, holding a cask and a basket of grapes; a drinker clutching a pitcher of wine; a musician playing Renaissance-era bagpipes (the Scots once settled in Sancerre to fight against the English); and a cherub displaying a parchment that depicts La Thaumassière’s coat of arms.
From one window, I spy vineyards — green and purple splotches, a patchwork that cascades downward, outside the town’s ramparts. Nearly 400 vineyards surround Sancerre, many with intriguing names like Blanche De Castille, the White Queen. The wines, made mostly by families, vary in taste due to many factors, including which of the area’s three grape-loving soils (clay, pebbly limestone or siliceous clay) begat them.
Most aficionados know Sancerre for its white wine, though the red and a rosé are also highly regarded. Looking ahead to my first lessons tomorrow, I wonder whether we will be taught tasting words and phrases. I imagine myself sipping and using erudite French wine words.
On our first day of classes, my 12-year-old, enamored with all things French, can’t wait to leap into the language. She expects to be fluent in short order. My 75-year-old mother, a former Spanish teacher, worries that her “language ear” won’t help her replicate sounds like it once did. And me, well, I’m just willing to make a fool of myself, as I do again and again in that first hour by speaking Italian and Spanish back to Valérie without even realizing it.
Ensconced in a private classroom, we torture Valérie with our accents. For more than two hours, we grunt, bawl and whinny, a cacophonous attempt to emulate the sounds that come so elegantly from our teacher’s mouth.
We take a break, standing around the coffee machine with teachers and students from other classrooms. Because it’s immersion we’re all after, no English is allowed. So introductions are bravely uttered in various levels of French.
We try to discuss the weather with some college students from Kansas. We discover that Valérie’s husband is a farmer. We meet Gérard and Marianne Chartrand, the school’s owners, who ask about our apartment. Before returning, we take a quick walk around the building to sip fresh air. We try not to speak English, but we give in, guiltily.
“This is a lot of work,” says my mother, and I can tell she’s considering walking straight to the Place Nouvelle for a glass of mineral water at the Cafe des Arte. I grab her arm and lead her back to school.
Doggedly, for three more arduous but surprisingly entertaining hours, we repeat after Valérie, conjugate verbs, act out dialogues and study new words.
When we break for the day, it’s lunchtime, and our heads are as full as our stomachs are empty. The only thing to do is to set forth into Sancerre and find food. Quickly, we learn that everything we do here requires French because, happily, nobody speaks English. This forces us to do our homework. It surprises us all when we succeed in ordering lunch. When we tell our waitperson that we are students, he smiles. Later, as we talk, he gently corrects our pronunciation, sometimes making us repeat words several times. His kindness liberates us, and our language inhibitions are cast away.
And so it goes. Each morning, we meet Valérie for class, and each afternoon we wander about Sancerre practicing our French on the folks we encounter.
One day, my mother, unhappy with the state of her hair, makes an appointment at a local beauty shop. Dictionary in hand, she tells the stylist she does not want a cut or color, just a hairdo. “A coupe? A coupe?” they say, and she frowns, shaking her head. “A coiffure,” she corrects, nervously.
My daughter and I leave her to her experiment and take a hike around Sancerre’s walled ramparts. We don’t know what to expect when we return, but we find Mother, beautifully coiffeured, surrounded by village ladies who all seem to be talking to her at once.
“I love your hair,” one says. “You look like a Parisienne.”
Feeling pretty triumphant, we celebrate with a glass of wine — Evian for my daughter — and watch Sancerre’s children play in the square on their way home from school.
Another day, we visit a winery a few miles away. Escorted by Gerard, we taste old wines, new wines, red ones and white. Later we drive through the green countryside to visit chateaus, the magnificent mansions for which the Loire Valley is known.
Perhaps most moving is a stop in Marianne’s childhood village. Here, Gerard tells of the Nazi occupation. He points out a wall where resistance fighters were executed and shows us the place where nervous German soldiers killed a little boy chasing a ball.
Most afternoons, we simply fool around and make friends. I become especially close to one little old lady, less than 5 feet tall. She likes my lace socks, and I love her red shoes. She warns me when rain is imminent and tries to teach me about cheese.
My daughter has become fond of the bakery lady. She loves to stand in the boulangerie in the morning before class, even after buying her croissants, to greet each villager as they come for their morning baguette. Her “bonjour, madame” has become flawless.
When our language course ends, we receive a certificate, congratulatory kisses and — what else? — bottles of Sancerre wine. We’ve done more than just learn French here, we’ve become one with the village, if only for a short time. We’re still hungry when we leave, but not for food. This time, it is more immersion in Sancerre that we crave.
If you go:
Getting there: We flew into Paris and took a rental car to Sancerre. Gerard Chartrand, founder of the Coeur de France Ecole de Langues, suggests spending a few days in Paris before making the two-hour drive. “This way,” he says, “students can get the urban out of their system before experiencing the charm and inconveniences of our French countryside.”
Lodging: A luxury, two-bedroom apartment atop the school cost about $900 for a one-week rental. Coeur de France also offers lodging in hotels and in various houses and apartments in the Sancerre area.
What to bring: Good walking shoes, an umbrella, an ATM card and an extra suitcase for your souvenirs.