French adventure in memory of beloved Pat

Many of us have spent lockdown time dreaming of future travel and holidays, but for writer Sally Ann Voak a 10-destination journey has a different motive – to honour her late husband by completing trips they had planned to do together one day

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Friends have told me that when you lose a beloved partner, travelling back to the special places you visited together rekindles poignant memories and can ease the grieving process.

I’m sure that is true, but my own soulmate, my wonderful husband Pat, had a different idea. After his death, he wanted me to visit new places and build up a store of fresh memories.

Pat passed away last Christmas Day, so now I am going to fulfil his dream, equipped with bold, floral-patterned suitcase, camera, laptop and sensible walking boots. I will be joined by family and friends, old and new, on the way. It will be an odyssey of exploration, surprises and fun.

Pat’s “wish list” of destinations took shape in March 2014 during our 50th wedding anniversary celebrations. As we sipped champagne in a Paris café, we talked about our lives so far (hectic – two super kids, a gorgeous grandson, demanding careers: me a journalist, Pat an engineer).

He suggested that, over the next few years, we should slow down and explore more of our beloved France at a peaceful pace.

We had enjoyed frequent trips to Rouen and Paris, searched the Somme for my grandfather’s grave (we found it), and driven up and down the A6 and A43 to visit our family in the Grand Massif. Yet, reasoned Pat, there was so much more to be seen and savoured, and lovely, crazy French people to be embraced (his bear-hugs were legendary!).

Why, for instance, he inquired over another glass of bubbly, had we never been to Bordeaux? Great rugby (both our passions), wine, history, fun.
How could we have missed the rail journey along the Cote d’Azur coastline, and what about Toulouse and Brittany?

He cherished a desire to see more wonderful French bridges, dams, viaducts. I was okay with that, so long as galleries, fashion and concerts featured in the sub-text.

At the time, Pat was making good progress after a serious heart operation five years previously, so on that perfect spring evening we were optimistic that our journey would take place, together.

Near the end of that romantic trip, he asked me to promise that, if he died before me, I would visit the places on his list. I promised.

Then, last year, Pat suffered more cardiac and kidney problems. Last July, when we bought our flower-patterned suitcase, he was awaiting a knee replacement operation. The suitcase, prominently displayed in a spare room, became a symbol of his “wish list”. Once Pat had regained full health, we vowed, we would go. We were still having fun at the end of last year: his health was bound to improve…

It was not to be. On December 25, Pat’s wonderful, generous heart failed and he died peacefully in hospital. He was 82, but so young in spirit.

I know Pat will be with me on my journey, enjoying the sights, sounds, food, drink and, above all, the people.

Sally completed the first destination on the list before the lockdown

Destination 1: Grand Massif trek.

There’s an almost-secret 7km pathway through the lower slopes of the Grand Massif, near the stunning medieval village of Samoëns. Locals know it can be hazardous. It follows a deer trail down to the hamlet of L’Etteley and then disappears, hidden by trees and rocks, as it winds among the tall trees towards the ski resort village of Morillon.

You can grab a baguette in the village, then walk back to Samoëns following the Giffre Valley. The river is wide and lively; its rocky, swirling pools and sudden twists make challenging hazards for whitewater rafters.

After the last spring snows had fallen, I set off with our son Tom and his wife Ali. Tom warned me: “Get some proper boots, mum… those are for après-ski, not serious walking.” I promised to buy a pair that evening.

“In the hunting season, September 9 to January 20,” he added seriously, “I wear a bright jacket as there could be guns about. Get one!”

We spotted delicate snowshoe hare tracks in the snow. They resemble an inverted triangle, formed by the hare placing its front feet on the ground, then swinging its large back feet forward.

No deer appeared but their smooth oval-shaped footprints were in the crunchy drifts beside piles of spruce branch tips. Squirrels had eaten the buds, which are always tasty, even in winter.

The Giffre Valley has all five mountain vegetation levels, making it popular with wildlife – foxes, lynx, and even wolves. Magical!

A fair-weather skier and rookie at this new game (in the wrong foot-gear), I walked back up the hill along the road.

That evening, I bought my new boots and next day I finished the walk from Morillon, towards the Criou mountain behind Samoëns, with Ali and her mum Sue.

It was a challenging experience for this city girl. Thanks, Pat!

Soulmate’s travel wish-list – and his tips for me

1 Grand Massif trek
“You can ski but this is different … it’s slippery!”

2 Nice, Monaco and the Cote d’Azur
“Sing ‘La Mer’. Pretend you are Charles Trenet!”
3 Bordeaux: Wine, rugby and culture
“Sip the best vintages. Our rugby friends will guide you.”
4 Toulouse and the rugby chapel at Mont-de-Marsan
“Visit the Stade Toulousain, then take one of my precious team shirts to the famous chapel.”

5 Haute Savoie chateau
“Explore a mountain-top chateau. I can’t climb those granite steps, but you can.”

6 Brittany coast
“Forget spoiling your hair-do, Sal. Enjoy the wild wind and dramatic coastline.”

7 Nantes
“Remember when we flew over the city in a small Cessna with our pals? Explore!”

8 Armentières
“You wrote for The Connexion about World War Two and the Allied troops who helped rebuild the canal bridge. Now find it (and the real mademoiselle!)”

9 Avignon
“Soak up the views, explore the ramparts and bridge.”

10 Paris: Sunday guinguette
“We always wanted to visit an open-air ball. Dance for me, Sal.”

Sally has repacked the flowery suitcase after her first adventure.
We will catch up after the lockdown as she continues her journey through France.

When travel eventually restarts, are there parts of France you plan to visit?
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