I first visited Domaine des Garennes (DdG) in 1999. Since then much has changed and little has changed. During my first visit I unexpectedly landed in the middle of the annual riding vacation of a half-dozen German fellows who had been riding and vacationing together for many years. This trip, officially the Tour de Quercy, was earlier in the year, before the tourist season and the broiling sun had ramped up. We rode all day, stopping in small villages for lunch, letting the horses graze in a nearby pasture while we dined on smoked trout and emptied carafes of wine, then wobbled back to our mounts and mercilessly kidded one another as we tried to haul our tipsy asses back into the saddle.
A few more hours of riding in the afternoon took us past the sights of the Quercy region: Rocamadour, Chateau La Treyne, Belcastle, Gouffre de Padirac, St. Sozy, and many more. Each night found us in different lodging; the first was a rather primitive pension that catered to the cycling crowd. It was memorable for the paper-thin walls and two extremely primitive unisex toilet facilities. We spent the final night in Hotel de la Terrasse, a beautifully refurbished castle with rooms in the turret, a swimming pool, fine-linen dining, and located high on the banks of the River Dordogne.
Since I speak a smattering of really bad German and absolutely no French, my unexpected, six German escorts made this trip for me. I knew I would miss them this time around. This year I found that guests are still warmly greeted by Annabella and staff. Hearty meals are still served on a long, farm table, either outside or in, depending upon the weather. Four- and five-course lunches are simple, but artfully plated, nutritious and delicious, served family style, and accompanied by bottomless flasks of red table wine. The horses are as I remember them. But this year, loss hangs heavy in the air. Annabella’s husband, Jean Paul, died about 15 months ago after a difficult, year-long illness.
Jean Paul was a shy, gentle man who spoke only French and enough Dutch to communicate with Annabella. His family has owned the farm for a long time. Together Jean Paul and Annabella were a team. Jean Paul was the behind-the-scenes organizer who handled the maintenance minutia that accompanies farm life. In addition to the horse operation, DdG offers bed and breakfast hotel services and camping, a family guest house, a small bungalow, a swimming pool, tennis and handball court, and a large event room. During inn-to-inn trips, Jean Paul shuttled luggage and made sure the horses were properly cared for in their temporary quarters, while Annabella helped the riders settle into their quarters. John Paul offered stability and support for their sometimes lofty plans for the property. I suspect he also gently reined in Annabella’s compulsion to rescue all distressed critters, from mice to men. His mother, Paulette, ran the small kitchen into her 80s, a skill that has been passed down to Annabella’s Dutch friend, Isabelle, who not only cooks for people, but also does the shopping, and feeds and wrangles the horses.
Without Jean Paul, Annabella seems slightly adrift. DdG has many underutilized features, all screaming for attention. There are too many details for one person to juggle. Annabella greets her guests for breakfast, guides the rides and shares lunch with guests. She entertains and interacts with guests at dinner, which begins around 8 pm and continues until near midnight. Somewhere within that busy schedule, she must also handle advertising, business communication, billing, and troubleshoot an endless list of maintenance concerns. Her job exceeds 24/7. The French economy, like much of the EU is still rickety from the recession. Bookings are down, taxes are up. Reality is biting at Annabella’s heels. She is a woman whose huge heart wants only to save everyone from pain and discomfort, yet she is still in the grip of her own grief and worry.
Another Isabelle, from the neighboring village of Souzet, comes and goes at odd times of day to clean pots and pans, straighten the kitchen, and perhaps do some housekeeping in the hotel. I remember seeing her 16 years ago and I suspect she is paid a small fee for her part time services. In addition to the Isabelles, a very competent and mature young girl of about 18 spends part of the summer helping out in the kitchen and wrangling horses. When she returns to the Netherlands, I’m not sure who will absorb her wide variety of chores. Aside from these 3 people, Annabella appears to be on her own with this huge responsibility. Jean Paul’s children from a former marriage are uninterested with the place. During the winter, Annabella is there alone—a cold and lonely life for a gregarious and fun-loving person.