March 2016


Looking for a holiday that ticks everyone’s boxes? Here are five top reasons to stay in a yurt in écovallée (in the Dordogne, in southwest France), from someone who lives there all year round.

 

yurt camp

écovallée on a cloudy day, with the Play Yurt, Mustardseed, the outdoor kitchen and solar shower visible.

Lots of space

How would you like to swap your four walls for a 12.5-acre park, with a huge field surrounded by woods, overlooked by no one, a trampoline, Play Yurt, sand pit and more to entertain the kids? 

City-dwelling parents often realise they’ve never been more than a few feet from their children since the day they were born. In écovallée, they can be 100 yards (metres) away, with no worries at all. Toddlers can learn to walk on grassy slopes and up steps cut through the woods – it might be the first time they’ve experienced their natural habitat. 

If you are travelling without children, come during term time and enjoy the peace. Cars are not allowed in écovallée, and only a few planes fly over each day on their way to land at Bergerac, 20 minutes west. The rest of the time, it’s just you in a hammock made for two, buzzards circling in the midday heat, deer in the cool of the evening, and bats at dusk.

Letting your eyes rest on the trees in the breeze on the far side of the valley is as relaxing as watching the ocean. And the best news is, you’re already home for the night. If you’ve made the short trip down the hill to the medieval market town of Lalinde for supplies, you can relax and look forward to the evening show in the actual-sized planetarium.

rouffignac01

A few of the drawings you’ll see at nearby Rouffignac.

Human prehistory

You’ll be at home in the Dordogne in a way you’ve never been before – because the Dordogne and Vézère valleys are where we modern humans established ourselves as a species, about 40,000 years ago. Our ancestors sheltered in the limestone caves carved out by the retreating ocean that covered Aquitaine about 4,000,000 years before that. Some of these are decorated with images of the wildlife of the time. It’s incredible to stand a few inches from a painting that was created thousands of years ago, by the Michelangelo, Tony Hart or Banksy of the day.

The Vézére valley has 147 prehistoric sites and 25 decorated caves dating from the Paleolithic era. In 1979, UNESCO designated these a World Heritage Site, including the caves in Lascaux. (Lascaux II is a millimetre-accurate replica, which is well worth a visit.) Les Eyzies, with its cliffs overhanging the road, is an incredible place – and home to the national museum of prehistory. It’s not all primitive art, though. Other caves have magnificent rock formations and are naturally air conditioned – so great places to visit on a hot day.

There are too many caves to see in one trip, so you should plan ahead. Here’s a site that might help.

golden oriole

The golden oriole has the most exotic song you’ve ever heard. A real bird of paradise.

Rare birds

Nothing beats turning into the road towards écovallée and following a swooping green woodpecker down the hill. Or spotting a buzzard as it glides out of a tree, hoping the sound of your car will scare its next meal out of hiding. Every few weeks sees a rare or stunning bird come back to écovallée, like the hoopoe or golden oriole. At certain times, woodpeckers and cuckoos abound. At others, you drift off to sleep with owls hooting their presence to each other. Crossing the river on the way into Lalinde, you will see storks, ducks and swans. Hire a canoe for a microadventure upriver and you may even spot a kingfisher. 

solar shower

The big solar shower tank was new in 2015. Now everyone gets a hot shower whenever they want.

Low-impact living

Everything about écovallée has been created to minimise its environmental impact. The yurt frames are carbon positive (having re-grown since). The two outdoor kitchens are made using wood, rocks and pounded earth from écovallée, recycled fittings and furnishings, and are lit by solar fairy lights. The 160-litre solar shower drains into a reed bed and willow trench. The compost toilet and baby-changing area – a tree bog – will never need emptying. The fridge-freezer at reception runs on 100% renewable electricity. And the eggs and vegetables (when in season) are grown a few hundred metres down the field. 

Come and see how écovallée was made, pick up some ideas, and offer a few of your own. You may meet new friends who are on a similar path to yours. If you have enough friends already, why not bring some of them instead?

How to repair our pizza oven

Playing with mud – the pizza oven at reception during construction.

Try before you buy

Maybe you are thinking about getting off the hamster wheel of 21st-Century living. Perhaps you want to do something similar to écovallée. Or you’re considering buying a yurt as a studio, spare room, or home. Come and talk to Alex about the good and the bad. Find out what he would have done differently, knowing what he knows now, nine years after moving to rural France, and seven years after living in a yurt full time.

Yes, it’s beautiful. And peaceful. And warm. And it doesn’t rain all the time. And you stay fit. And healthy. And you get to live fully as a human being, in the environment we evolved to live in, with all your needs easily met. It’s perfect for a holiday, where you can unplug from the grid, and still hook up to WiFi if you must.

But could you live somewhere like écovallée 52 weeks of the year? Growing as much of your own food as you can? Cutting your own wood? Generating income to pay for life’s mandatories, like petrol, gloves and insurance? Right now, you can only guess that this lifestyle would suit you. The next step is to try it on for size.

For further details, visit ecovallee.com – there is still availability in all three yurts (two 18-foot yurts sleeping up to five and one 12-foot for a couple) for 2016. Book early to avoid having to stay somewhere else.

After a spell of being ill (useful to get this out of the way before the weather turns beautiful), the weather turned beautiful.

I cut the field of écovallée for the first time yesterday – I’ll try and remember to take a picture. Today, I have some hardcore gardening to do for someone with an inconceivably steep, nettle-covered bank. Then an easy cut somewhere else tomorrow. Then the rain’s due to return and I’ll get back to music and websites. This is my annual dance with the weather – work when it’s dry, do other work when it’s wet. Hopefully, it all gets done. There’s certainly a lot of it to do.

Soon, a blog post offering reasons to come to écovallée this year…

I try and do as little work as possible. In the kitchen, this means using the fewest number of pans to generate the least amount of washing up. Here’s something that’s recently become a weekly ritual that provides five meals from a few vegetables.

Last time I cooked the quiche stage of the process, my mate Philippe – a great chef and all-round excellent person (“un bon mec” in French) – had a taste and recommended a couple of spices to add interest, which you’ll see in a minute.

Meal 1 – roasted veggies

veggie preparation

Use whatever veggies you fancy at the time. Probably best to pick these up on the same day as cooking. I went for a couple of potatoes (boiled from cold for a couple of minutes, then fried in a little oil to start giving it some colour), a sweet potato, a couple of courgettes, an onion, some celeriac, a red pepper (out of season, I know, but so good), a couple of large cloves of garlic, and a couple of parsnips. Looks like I forgot the carrots this time. Pour some olive oil over them and some honey, then mix by hand (I added the potatoes after this, to save burning myself unnecessarily).

Bang them in a high(ish) oven until they look like this (it might have been about 1.5 hours).

roasted veggies

Eat as much as you like (including all the potato – it’s a bit weird in a quiche) and leave the rest for…

Meals 2-5 – veggie quiche

Dig out a couple of spices. On the chopping board, below, are some coriander seeds crushed under a sturdy glass and chopped a bit (I don’t have a pestle and mortar at the moment), some paprika and massala.

spices

Chop your leftover (cold) veggies.

chopped roasted veggies

Stick some pastry in a tray that looks like it will do the job (I leave the pastry – flaky or not – for five minutes in a warm room before opening the packet, to make it more user-friendly, and also leave the grease-proof paper under it during cooking). Grate some cheese onto the pastry, then add the veggies (I added the rest after this photo).

quiche preparation

Beat five or six eggs with a fork (I do have a whisk, but this recipe is destined for a new site where we’ll use the minimum amount of equipment as possible). Add some milk (this bottle was full before – so, not too much) and the spices, and some salt and pepper.

quiche mix

Add this mix to the pan.

quiche before

And put into a high(ish) oven for about 35 minutes, until it looks like this. (I take the grease-proof paper off for a few minutes at the end, to crisp up the pastry).

quiche cooked

Eat one portion hot, then have some cold for lunch on three days. Or an easy dinner. Or a breakfast. (There are no rules.)

I’m currently working on a new website with Philippe, where he will demonstrate, though recipes, how to use spices to make restaurant-quality food you can prepare easily at home. When we have a few recipes up, I will give you the name. This summer’s guests at the écovallée yurt camp will also have the chance to cook with Philippe using veggies from just down the field – and eggs, if needed, from the chicken run.