My first introduction to France was in my twenties when I met a fellow traveller, Patrick in Sri Lanka where I was staying who said that he was returning to France to pick grapes – doing what he called “The Vindange” (the Grape Harvest). It sounded pretty amazing, so I asked if I could join him and we agreed to meet up in Mulhouse in France near the Swiss border where he lived and then go grape picking from there, hitch-hiking to the vineyards in the hope of picking up work.
Hitch hiking across the country worked well and we managed to find work too.
It proved to be hard work, but also a really great time and experience. We lived in worker’s quarters on the vineyards and the ‘Patron’ (Winery boss and wife) would provide us with food and of course wine to drink and then pay us too for the work we did once the harvest was finished.
The Daily Routine -
Early morning we would sit down for breakfast of coffee and milk boiled together on the stove and poured into everyone’s open bowl that you would hold with both hands (still to me the best coffee ever). There were also croissants and fresh baguette bread with cheeses, meats and Patés to eat. Maybe a simple breakfast, but also fantastic to sit around a table and enjoy the time.
Breakfast over, it was off to work sitting on the back of a trailer pulled behind a tractor, and with a panier on your back and secateurs in hand, you would work rows at a time, snip off the bunches of grapes and toss them over your shoulder into the panier. Your hands might be stiff with the morning cold, but about 20 minutes later, you would have your first ‘small quaff’ of wine to keep you motivated.
If you snipped your hand or the person on the other side of the row of grapes got you, then you took a grape leaf or grape to dress the wound. Nothing like a Band-Aid all provided by nature!
Lunch of course was the big meal of the day – a 2 hour affair with one course following the other. Most English, Australians and Americans having lunch or dinner will usually have a mix of food on the one plate, whereas in a traditional French home, each type of dish is served separately – just the meat, or just the vegetables, or such the salad, or dessert – and all of course with a little wine. Dinner was a much simpler affair – mostly eating whatever was left over from lunch.
Patrick and I did the ‘Vindange’ near Beaune (just south of Dijon) in Vosne-Romanee, picking the grapes that were used by to make their Red Pinot Noir. The grape bunches were really small but it was only much later that I found the wines marketed as ‘Nuits St.George’ and ‘Vosne-Romanee’ were such expensive and high class wines. We were just workers.
When the harvest finished after a week or so, the Patron and all the workers with flowers placed at the front of the tractor drove through the Village to the sound of horn and whoops of happiness from the workers in tow. It was a tradition to do this and end with a celebratory drink.
After the harvest, Patrick and I then hitch-hiked south from Vosne-Romanee to a place call Touzac (near Cognac) where we also found work too. Here the grape bunches were huge, so the paniers filled fast, and once again the food, the wine and a special sweet local ‘pineau’ after work became the order of the day.
Lunch was always special. One morning I remember a large rabbit ran across the field and that day lunch was you guessed it – rabbit! Another day we had freshly caught ‘moule’ (Mussels) and every lunchtime started with a kiss on both cheeks by the Patron’s daughter, who would do the whole circle of the table before the meal was served. Such a great French traditional greeting!
The workers, both male and female came mainly from Portugal, some from France, myself (Australian) and an English guy – so it was very much an international group – me speaking my quasi-French/English and just enjoying getting a real feel and understanding of French farm life and immersing myself in French culture.
After the Vindange, Patrick returned to Mulhouse and I hitch-hiked on to Brittany. Hitch hiking was a great way to travel and meet people, but sadly it has been killed off as a means of travel though all the bad stories of murders, assaults and robberies. It was very easy to catch a ride in France and one particular ride took me with a Local Vet around farms near St Malo. He pointed out the Tête Noir (Black Head) sheep that ate the seaweed when the tide went out. Their meat apparently was very salty. Yes, these were special times!
During my twenties I hitch hiked in Australia, New Zealand, Kenya, in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Canada, USA, Brazil, but the best hitch hike ever was in Spain heading south where just before reaching the straights of Gibraltar I was picked up by two French guys, Christian and Christian driving a packed multi coloured Deux Chevaux (Citroen 2CV) car. I thought the car would only make it a few kilometres, but we ended up making the crossing to Ceuta – part of Spain, but on the African Continent, where there is the border with Morocco and then onto a journey that lasted weeks.
This hitch-hike with the two French guys took me all around Morocco to Rabat, Casablanca, Marrakesh and the amazing Ouarzazate in the Atlas Mountains and then back into Spain, to Portugal and then back to their home city, Lyon in France where I met with their family, played Boule and had even more fun.
Since that time I have travelled to France and Paris many times, meeting with friends in different parts of the country and seeing so many places. The best and most memorable trip however was undoubtedly these times in my twenties Hitch-hiking and doing the Vindange.
The great thing about travel is meeting people and seeing amazing sights, and while a holiday may well be brief in terms of days or weeks, the memories will last a lifetime.
I hope you have a great time travelling in France as much as I have.