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It was during one of our flying trips that our love story with fondant au chocolat started. Samira was 11 years old in 2006 and we were having dinner in a restaurant in Nimes. The way the chocolate oozed out of its shell and spread across the plate, in a lava-like manner, made a deep impression in our minds — not to mention our taste buds. We were hooked. Samira was too shy to ask for the recipe at first, but the waiter was only too happy to oblige — with a recipe for 12 (it was a restaurant after all), and thus began a story that continues to unfold today. Samira has become an excellent baker in the meantime but that moment remains indelible in our memories. In the summer of 2020, we found ourselves back in Nimes, reminiscing and going down memory lane.
I enjoy flying single-engine airplanes from my home base in Geneva, and my flying highlight of each year is without question the trip I do with my 2 children, Nabil and Samira (one at a time). This year was the 18th in the tradition, and it was Samira’s turn. We had started our adventure a couple of days earlier with our first destination a private landing strip on a farm in the Dordogne. Landing on a private strip that is only a walking distance from our accommodation has definitely a coolness factor to it that is hard to resist. This particular farm in the Dordogne also works as a “table d’hôte” which added some extra zest to our endeavour. The owner was very friendly on the phone, and explained to us how to identify the airfield from the air. It was still a challenge, though, as one farm looks very much like another from a height of 1000 ft, and everything is 50 shades of green, including the grass runway. But Samira quickly found the lake that was our landmark, and it was then easy to identify the grass runway close to it.
The accommodation itself was a little disappointing, as it did not quite correspond to the photos on the web site. But this was more than compensated by the kindness and flexibility of the owners, as well as the home-cooked food at their restaurant. Their pre-set menus ran the gamut of variations of duck, from pâté de canard, to confit and roti de magrets, including rillettes au foie gras. We were well served. It was a hearty meal, well in the spirit of the Dordogne, and very good value for money.
Our next destination, Alès, in Provence, took us back eastwards. Our friend Elisabeth has a holiday home in Vézénobres, where she kindly invited us, and we were eager to discover it. It turned out that her home is practically on the flight path of Alès and only a 10 minute drive from the airport. Elisabeth spoiled us with her hospitality. She has a very cosy little flat on several levels in an old building in the middle of the village’s more-or-less-pedestrian centre. She renovated it a few years ago, and decorated it with a lot of charm. Vézénobres is a beautiful village; it is clean and well taken care of, and though small, quite lively. There is a baker (always a good sign in France) and several cafés and restaurants within a few metres of each other. I was pleasantly surprised to discover there is enough business for all of them. I asked Elisabeth, who is considered a local now, whether she felt obligated to visit each establishment or risk the dismay and disappointment of its owners. There is apparently a delicate ballet that she perfected to ensure that everyone is satisfied, something to do with a morning coffee at one place, and an afternoon apéro at the other. Or some such intricate, devilish plan that required drinking and eating. Clearly Elisabeth is at home here, and everyone knows her and stops by for a quick chat. After our stroll in the village, Elisabeth prepared us a sumptuous dinner of lentilles du Puy au caviar d’aubergine, tomates et yaourt, accompanied by grilled filet de boeuf, and grilled pepper. With French baguette, it was just the perfect fare for a stay in Provence.
It was here that Samira and I debated on where to go next, and ended up choosing Girona. Samira found us a modern stylish hotel, a walking distance from all the must-see places in the old town. Girona has a vibrant, beautiful old town. It seems to be a hotspot for cyclists if the abundant number of Lycra-clad riders that we saw is anything to go by. And in that vein, we discovered a quaint little bicycle-themed café, La Fabrica, decorated with all sorts of bike paraphernalia. So hipster. And just our cup of tea. After a delicious breakfast of avocado toast (for me) and coconut chia pudding with fruit compote and cranberry granola (for Samira), we ambled around the sights. Samira then settled me in a different café, along with my Kindle, my notebook, my pen, a cappuccino, and went off galavanting in a noble attempt to revive the Spanish economy ravaged by Covid.
The day passed quickly and it was time to decide on our next destination. After much deliberation, we elected Nîmes. I tried to reserve a room at the B&B where we first went to 14 years ago. We have fond memories of the place where we had befriended the landlady.
The B&B is still running today, though the landlady is now retired. She handed over management to her daughter, who told me that the place was unfortunately fully booked. I explained who we were, and asked to give our warm regards to her mother, thinking she would probably not remember us. So it was heartwarming to learn that her mom did remember us and sent us back her greetings. I suspect it must have been the fondant au chocolat recipe that she remembered. We had forgotten it at her place and she had kindly mailed it (after copying it first, she had said).
Nîmes also has a beautiful old town, but since it was 14th July, the French national holiday, the majority of shops were closed. That didn’t seem to apply to restaurants, and we found a narrow pedestrian street full of bistros fronted by outside tables. We had the “embarras du choix” of where, as well as what, to eat. Both Samira and I had an inexplicable, if not a little embarrassing, craving for Indian food, not exactly the local delicacy. But we threw etiquette and protocol to the wind, and armed with a devil-may-care attitude, found ourselves in front of chicken tikka masala at a local restaurant — and forwent the fondant au chocolat.
This was the last day of our trip and it was already time to head home. We decided to take the long way back and stopped at Aubenas airfield for refueling. Aubenas has a well rated restaurant on its grounds and we were keen to try lunch there. But as luck would have it, the restaurant was closed on the day we visited. However, Aubenas is only an hour and a half flight from Geneva, and we decided that we definitely needed to go back for another visit!
Taking off from Aubenas, we embarked on the final leg of our five-day flying trip, heading home to Geneva. It was five days of adventure, discovery and unforgettable encounters. It was five days of complicity and fun with my daughter. From the farm airstrip in the west of France, to the major airport of Girona, and everywhere in between, over land and over sea, we had an eclectic mix of scenery, culture and food, all punctuated with warm hospitality and friendliness of everyone we met. In this endeavour, our plane was our faithful companion, shrinking distances, allowing us to view our planet from a very different perspective.
Over the years, as I go on these trips with my children, I realise that we leave a trail of shared memories behind us, a little bit of ourselves in every journey. It makes it all the more poignant to come back and revisit. For it behooves us then to slow down, step back, and examine the journey travelled-and not just by plane. It is a moment of privilege, gratitude and humility.