It was the longest final approach I had ever done. We had just flown over the French-Spanish border, some 40 miles out from our destination, when Girona Tower cleared us for a direct approach — unheard of from a busy airport so far away. We thanked the controller for his kindness and flew for about 15 minutes with nary a word from another aircraft on the radio. It was a surreal experience: we had the airport for ourselves.
This was the 18th flying trip that I have had the pleasure of doing with my children, and this year it was Samira’s turn. We had started from our home base in Geneva a couple of days earlier with our first destination a private landing strip on a farm in the Dordogne — a more contrasted airfield to Girona it is difficult to imagine. This airfield had been on my bucket list for many years and I had heard many good things about it. Plus, landing on a runway that is only a walking distance from your accommodation has a definite cool factor that is hard to resist.
The owner was very friendly on the phone, and the paperwork was light. As a private site, there is no official documentation on the airfield and we rely completely on the owner. In this case he provided us with a low resolution scan of a drawing that must have served well for a fax back in the 80s. Still, the most important element was there, the GPS coordinates. This is important because the airfield is not on any aviation map. However, even armed with these coordinates, it is still a challenge to identify the runway from the air, 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.
Samira and I got a good look at the drawing to identify unique landmarks during our stopover at Rodez, a few miles from the farm. Rodez, a medium-sized airport, was a good place to stop, close our flight plan, refuel the plane and have a light lunch — as well as have that last look at the drawing. I was happy to share the task of identifying the farm with Samira, my copilot. She also helps me to set radio frequencies and transponder codes, allowing me to focus on flying our plane, a Piper Archer III with the registration HB-PPM, or “Papa Mike” for short.
We were at first disappointed not to have our “Mike Juliet”, the Piper Dakota (registration HB-PMJ) that has been our faithful companion in these trips all these years past (the plane was in unscheduled maintenance). Mike Juliet has become part of the family and you can find it in many of our family photo albums, with photographs of our children, as high as 3 apples, on its wings. As a result, we have forged an undeniable emotional connection with the plane.
Having said that, Samira and I learned to enjoy Papa Mike, and we grew quite fond of it at the end of our trip. Papa Mike is of a more recent construction than Mike Juliet and has a clean, unfettered, paint job, with a modern dashboard; overall it has a “new feel” to it. Although less powerful than Mike Juliet, it had ample power for two people and its more sophisticated autopilot (that holds both heading and altitude) makes for more relaxed flying on long legs. The night before our departure from Geneva, I had fully prepared the plane, having fueled it, oiled it and gave it a good wash, so it was all ready for us very early the next morning.
Our trip to Rodez was uneventful, with good weather along our route. As we later discovered to be characteristic during these Covid times, the airport was practically deserted. There was one flight departing to Paris and another arriving later in the afternoon, and that was it for that day. However, the bar/restaurant was open, with one other pair of customers, and the food was good. After lunch, we had a little trouble finding our way back to the apron, but finally found the turnstile with an attendant security agent. Before allowing us in he checked my license, albeit in a very lackadaisical manner. He didn’t bother to verify that I was the person on my license, for example. He basically looked at my license (that had no photo ID) and said, “ok”. Not exactly the highest level of security. But maybe they were just happy to see people using their airport.
It was a half hour hop from Rodez to our farm. Samira quickly found the lake that was our landmark, and it was then easy to identify the grass runway close to it. The runway (and therefore the landing) is “un peu particulier”, to borrow the term used by a French pilot we later met at the farm. This is an understatement worthy of any Englishman. The runway has a not insignificant upwards slope from its threshold, and it was akin to landing on a glacier, where you land practically flying upwards. What with the crosswind, it required an elaborate choreography of throttle, stick and rudder all the way to touchdown, and was clearly a landing that had to be earned. On the other hand, the reward was as big as the challenge.
On approach Samira had noticed a pretty house with a pool, and mistakenly thought that would be our accommodation. Unfortunately the latter, we later discovered, left much to be desired. The alluring photos on the web site did not quite correspond to what we saw. It reminded Samira of a summer camp type of boarding house, and it looked that it had not been fully prepared for the summer. The pool area had only two chairs, and the pool itself defied us to enter with its coating of insects and other unidentifiable matter. But this was all compensated by the kindness and flexibility of the owner, as well as the very reasonable cost per night, and so we couldn’t really complain. The next morning we had breakfast about a hundred metres from our plane, and there are not many places where you can do that. When we were ready to leave, we just got our stuff and walked over to the plane. No taxi to call, no security to go through, no handling agent, just walk from your room to your plane. Very cool.
Takeoff was on a northerly heading, as it’s downhill in that direction, and we were airborne before the downward slope of the runway. As we took off, another aircraft was circling to land, so it looked like a busy airfield. Upon reflection, the farm itself was nothing to write home about, but the private runway made it worthwhile to visit at least once. Our next destination was Alès, taking 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. It must be Fate. Alès is one of those General Aviation airfields that have no control tower, with one runway fit for only single-engine aircraft like ours, and easy access to planes. Some of these airfields have a restaurant on the grounds, where it is nice to watch the comings and goings of the local aeroclub. I call them “grassroots airfields”, with minimum hassle (eg no landing fees) and maximum pleasure. Samira had last been in Alès in 2002, with Mike Juliet, but she’s excused for not remembering. We landed and taxied to a large parking space that had no other aircraft, and we saw Elisabeth just a few metres ahead of us at the gate.
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. The different levels give it several themes, such as areas to read, areas to have a (long) siesta, areas to eat, and so on. The large terrace overlooks the wide vista of the countryside, and has a good view of the clock tower, as well as the one main street running through the centre of the village.
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 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. Sitting at the terrace, Samira and I enjoyed watching the pedestrian ebb and flow. Clearly Elisabeth is at home here, and everyone knows her and stops by for a quick chat. She regaled us with stories of locals and local dignitaries, as well as her bureaucratic struggles for approvals to get her flat renovated: it was only when one official passed away that everything went smoothly. You’ve got to love village life.
It was here that Samira and I were debating on where to go next. We were lucky with the weather forecast, so we had a wide choice. We thought we’d give Spain a try and quickly discovered how difficult it was to get permission to land there due to the new Covid regulations. Spain had just opened up to tourists after their tough lockdown and they introduced a new law requiring every incoming tourist to register in order to help with contact tracing. We started our search with Menorca, as this was a place Samira and I had been to some 14 years ago, and we thought it would be fun to revisit. Things have clearly changed since then, as the airport authorities oblige everyone to go through a handling agent. A handling agent is someone who takes care of all the airport admin (any fees, fuel, security, customs, etc), and is usually useful only for private jet passengers. This handling agent came at a very hefty price, one that was uplifted by 50% on the account of it being a Sunday. With a quick, “thanks but no thanks”, we moved on to Son Bonet, the General Aviation airport of Majorca. We have also been there on many occasions and it used to be very light on paperwork. This time they asked us to fill the Covid form online, the idea being that we would wait for a return approval with a QR code that we would show on arrival. We didn’t know whether we would receive the approval on time, but we were game and tried the online form. Everything went smoothly until the form insisted that we enter our flight and seat numbers. Clearly this process was hastily cobbled together, as they were only thinking of airline passengers. So we scratched the Balearic Islands off our list.
Our next attempt was Girona, where Samira and I have fond memories from our last visit in 2012. The handling agent responded quickly and efficiently by simply asking for scans of our IDs and flight details (in email). An hour later he wrote back with approval from Customs and a note thanking us for our trust in their services. We were impressed. Though truth be told, deep down I thought it was too good to be true. No forms to fill? No QR codes? Right. But I did have a written approval, so I figured we had nothing to lose.
The handling agent was true to his word, and he continued with an efficient and friendly service, including arranging for the fuel truck, handling all the paperwork and walking us through security all the way to the airport taxi. I felt guilty for having doubted him. In Girona we decided to stay two nights and have a flight-free day. Samira found us a modern stylish hotel, a walking distance from all the must-see places in the old town, places that we didn’t lose time exploring. 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. Apparently, it is a favourite destination to practice for the “Tour Giro” and other races. And in that vein, we discovered a quaint little bicycle-themed café, decorated with all sorts of bike paraphernalia. So hipster. And just our cup of tea. After a delicious breakfast, we ambled around the sights, after which Samira settled me in a different café, along with my Kindle, my notebook, my pen, and went off galavanting in a noble attempt to revive the Spanish economy ravaged by Covid. Samira was impressed with the number of small, local fashion shops with an original sense of design, which made for a change from multinational brands that have identical outfits all over the globe.
We were happy to see more tourists on our second day. Now here’s a sentence we never thought we’d say. For when we arrived on Sunday we found Girona to be a little deserted, a little depressing, with all the closed shops and hardly any life on the streets. It’s funny how we complain when there are too many tourists, and we complain when there aren’t many. We enjoyed Girona’s old town and its character. It had not changed that much since our last visit. We found elements of Pitigliano, Tuscany, with its stone buildings and cobblestones, but that characteristic river and its bridges definitely add charm. With the setting sun, it was an Instagram-ready moment, with no filters needed.
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 that we first went to 14 years ago. We have fond memories of the place. It is very close to Nîmes Courbessac Aerodrome where the friendly landlady had kindly come to fetch us. We had quickly hit it off with her. It turned out that hers is a family of aviators. Her husband was an Air France pilot and her son a commercial pilot who started learning at that very aerodrome. It was also in Nîmes in 2006 that Samira and I had our first encounter with the “fondant au chocolat” dessert, a love story that endures to this day. Samira had been too shy to ask the restaurant for the recipe (she was only 11). I insisted that she ask herself, but instead she called her mom on the phone hoping she would have more luck with her. When her mom told her the same thing, she plucked her courage and asked the server, who of course was only too happy to oblige… with a recipe for 12 people (it was a restaurant after all)! We inadvertently left the recipe behind at the B&B, but the landlady mailed it later to us — after first copying it of course.
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.
Onwards to Nîmes we flew. Our friendly Girona handling agent was there to meet us and true to form, he whizzed us through all the formalities. Again, there was so little traffic at the apron that we took off without much ado. Flying over the Mediterranean in beautiful weather is very relaxing, with the autopilot taking care of keeping us on the straight-and-narrow. In previous years, Samira and I would play hangman or noughts-and-crosses as we cruised over the sea. This year she decided to take a quick nap. I love it when my passengers feel comfortable enough to sleep. I feel this is so much better than white knuckles on the door handle. As we approached the coast, things got a little busier as the area is full of “controlled zones”, albeit most of them are quite quiet these days. Montpellier handed us over to Nîmes Garons, which is the military airfield in whose airspace lies Nîmes Courbessac, our destination. It’s good to see such good cohabitation between the military and civil airfields. In any other place, the civil airfield would have probably been closed down without a second thought. Courbessac is similar to Alès, and has two long grass runways. It seems to have an active flying life, having two (rival) aeroclubs on the grounds. We chatted with two pilots (from the older of the two clubs) who gave us interesting tidbits on the context and history, though of course they were not exactly neutral in their perspectives.
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. Just like London.
This was the last day of our trip and it was already time to head home. We decided to take the long way back. Our first stop the next morning was Aubenas for refueling, as there was no fuel available at Courbessac. Aubenas is starting to become familiar to us as we’ve used it on a number of occasions for its ease of fueling. Contrary to many small airfields in France, it has a self-service machine that accepts credit cards (the others all too often only accept Total proprietary cards). It has a long concrete runway, and its “pièce de resistance” is a restaurant on the grounds, one that has good ratings from pilots. We were keen to try lunch there, but as luck would have it, the restaurant was closed on the day we visited. We chatted with the friendly airport operator and when I asked for the nearest toilets (access to the restaurant being closed), he actually opened the (empty) control tower for us — well mainly for the benefit of Samira, as he first told me to go behind a tree! As we were going back to our plane, he also gave us bottles of mineral water as it was very warm. We were touched by his hospitality. Aubenas is only an hour and a half flight from Geneva, and we decided that we definitely needed to go back for another visit — and try that restaurant.
Taking off from Aubenas, we did a little detour and passed over the holiday home of friends of ours in the Ardèche. It was fun circling their house and seeing them waving to us. We waggled our wings, said goodbye, and embarked on the final leg of our 5-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 Papa Mike 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.