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A welcome return to the Yorkshire Dales

Friday 30 September 2005

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, one-time Francophile, took a week's "luxury" break in France and was ignored, insulted and charged through the nose

IT WAS my own fault. I have always hoped that hypocrites eventually pay for their folly. I didn't realise that this would include me, having indulged in a little self-delusion to find an excuse for taking a holiday in Catalonia.

As a disillusioned former lover of France, I have campaigned for more than a decade against the way the French pick the pockets of fellow members of the European Union and stuff themselves fat on our cash. I should never have gone back.

Catalonia – swarming with Brits

But I had a reason: rugby union football. The next rugby world cup is due to be staged in France in exactly two years time and, having been to Oz for the last one, thought it would be nice to see parts of the next one where the action will be.

There was a problem, however. I have been insulted, ignored or ripped off in France so often - and virtually every time I have visited Paris - that I had vowed never to return. What to do?

Now it so happens that some of the most enthusiastic rugby supporters across the channel don't believe they are French at all. The live in the extreme south east of the country, sandwiched between the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean, in what used to be Catalonia, an independent kingdom ruled from Barcelona and more Spanish than French.

Like the Welsh, some Scottish Highlanders, and even a few Cornish folk, they speak their own language and, if anything, they despise Parisians even more than I do. So if I went to Catalonia, I mused, I wouldn't be going to France at all - and Perpignan, the regional capital, is as rugby mad as any of the Welsh valleys.

I was wrong. The Catalans are, indeed, a great people, funny, kind and welcoming. Trouble is, most of the businesses are run by Parisian French and, as always, they have their snouts, feet, knees and ears well into every profitable trough.

We paid £75 a night for a bed in our hotel - and that was all we got. The shower did not work, the bath took a month to fill, the cheapest dinner in restaurant was £35 a head without wine (the "gourmet" menu was £75 a head) and if we wanted to tune into any of the entertainment channels on the TV it was almost £5 nightly. Even breakfast was £7 a head.

The staff were surly in the extreme. When my wife asked for change for a fifty Euro note, she was told: "Go to a bank - this is an hotel." And for three days they watched and no doubt sniggered as I tried to pick up my emails (at another fiver or so an hour) on their lobby computer because - believe it or not - the French have changed the world-standard QWERTY keyboard.

Q is now an A and I was unable to connect because the @ symbol - which, as far as I know, is part of everyone's email address worldwide - has been changed to an "á" (French, of course, for "at") so I couldn't log on.

I have used email everywhere from America to Australia, with some wild bits of South East Asia thrown in, and only the French in their arrogance could do this. It was only on the fourth day of struggle that a kindly, elderly porter (no doubt a Catalan) pointed out that the machine had a second Alt. key tucked away to one side which converted the stroke into the required @.

There was even worse to come. In the lovely coastal towns near Perpignan - where painters like Matisse created the Impressionists movement- the bulldozers and the giant cranes work from dawn till dust throwing up apartment blocks of holiday homes.

And guess who's buying them? The Brits, of course, thousands of 'em, packing the bars and restaurants to spend their days talking about property prices in Essex accents and boasting how they have ripped off some stupid Catalan peasants to get his cottages for a song.

The final blow: the food was terrible. In eight days, we had one excellent meal (in a Catalan fish restaurant tucked away in a back alley), two which were quite good, and all the rest were truly appalling. I could eat better (and a lot cheaper) in the Yorkshire Dales. And that's where I intend to stay next time the holiday bug bites!

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