FOOTPATHS OF FRANCE: The love of a lifetime.

FOOTPATHS OF FRANCE:  The loves of a lifetime.

The wine label is one of my most treasured mementoes of half a century of travels in France. Souvenir of a 14-kilometre walk from Séguret to Beaume-de-Venise in the Southern Rhône, it came from a bottle  which I drank with terrine de canard and an old Cantal cheese sitting with my back against an evergreen oak, high in the Dentelles de Montmirail looking south-eastwards to the pre-Alps of  Haut Provence and the Alpes-Maritimes. At the time, that Gigondas seemed one of the best wines I had ever drunk in my life.

I have walked more in France than anywhere else in the world. First, were the paths along the coasts of Brittany; in winter wildly elemental (but oh, the pleasure of taking refuge from an Atlantic storm in the Moulin de Rosmadec at Pont Aven);  in summer resplendent with the yellow of the gorse and the blue of the sea and the radiance that has captivated generations of painters. Next, were  pilgrimages to the haunted battlefields of Flanders and Picardy and the Marne and the forests of the Vosges. Later came five joyful years and countless kilometres that gave birth to Walking In Wine Country,  a vinously literary progress that took me from the chalk of Champagne to the volcanic rock of the low Pyrenees; from the banks of the Loire to the foothills of the Alps through the vineyards of what  remains the greatest viticultural nation in the world.

What a land for the walker!  While the past half century has seen not only massive, but often catastrophic changes in urban France, the country’s essential rurality endures. That is does so is due partly to the tenacity with which the French peasant has traditionally kept possession of his land and partly to the fact that with a population still roughly the same as that of the United Kingdom France is geographically twice as large.  Ever since Robert Louis Stevenson and his donkey in the Cévennes the British have had a reputation for being keen walkers. Very rare in France is the municipality, large or  small, which does not freely provide information, including printed directions, about walking in the  area.  Seldom is a country hotel or guest house unable to offer detailed information and advice on the subject. Large  are the assemblies of walking sticks in the local  shops.

Everyone knows that the best way to see a country is to walk in it. With France, it is also eminently the best way to savour it. Of all the simple pleasures of life,  I know of few greater than those that have been provided in my experience of France by a  juxtaposition of walking, food and wine.   I think of an occasion in Périgord when, tired, hungry and very thirsty after an uphill slog in late October, I arrived at an isolated, unpromising looking ferme auberge  to be told by the weather-beaten individual who appeared to be the sole resident that he was closed, but could provide me with  bed if I had my own sleeping bag and with supper if I could “make do” with a rabbit en daube.  The delectable dish had been slowly cooking in the oven attached to a wood-burning range which scented the kitchen together with the herbs with which the rabbit had been marinaded. The wine, unstintingly poured  from an earthenware jug, was a dark, robust Cahors. The bread with which we both mopped our plates was a rough wholemeal made by my host himself.

I think of  the Abbaye de Sainte Croix in Provence, a Relais & Châteaux  hotel with a  a star for its table in the Michelin Red guide, where I celebrated a 30-kilometre progress  that had begun before work had started in the vineyards and ended at dusk. There was the bliss of a long bath. There was champagne on the terrace.  It was summer, and since dress for the elegant restaurant was no more demanding than respectable-casual my walker’s wardrobe managed to cope. “Bed in the bush with stars to see, bread I dip in the river—”, declared Stevenson’s vagabond; but after the twenty-odd kilometres that I had walked since breakfast  the lamb aux herbes de Provence  and a bottle of  Domaine Ott’s red Château Romassanseemed incontestably the better, if less poetic option.  Inappropriately, my bed was in what once had been a 12th century monk’s cell.

France on foot has been a treasury of a thousand delights. I think of walking  among the vast vineyards of Languedoc and discovering years before Michelin did the exquisite little restaurant Mimosa at St. Guiraud, where the Welsh proprietor is a sometime leader of a symphony orchestra and his former ballerina wife is so good and original a cook that I suspect her of sorcery. I remember  the great open hearth of the old bergerie  near the GR 36, south of Carcassonne, and after  a hard, hot climb to the heights of Péyrepertuse the sound of water flowing from the mountainside into the old mill race as an accompaniment to supper at the Vieux Moulin  at nearby Duilhac  With painful nostalgia (Will one ever go back? Could it ever be the same?) I recall a descent in flaming June from those same wild hills of the Corbières to the cold, clear, oleander-fringed pools of the River Agly in the Gorge de Galamus. Nothing in my experience of the Rockies has ever surpassed it.  Nothing in the Himalayas would offer fair exchange.

What a way to discover not only la France profonde, but La France authenthique.  Today, the clay of southern England nourishes an oak grown from an acorn I gathered in the great Forest of Tronçais in the Berry country on my way to the famous rose garden of the  Château of Ainay-le-Veil.  In my small cellar are wines from vineyards where I have eaten my picnic bread and cheese. In the cupboard where I keep my walking gear are seasoned staffs of hazel and ash cut from coppices in Burgundy and Bordeaux and from woods high above the Rhône. La Belle France. Gloriously, incomparably beautiful France. Counting the weeks until I set off from Dunkirk, chastened at times by  the temerity of my ambitions,  I recall  a testing march that one evening found me kneeling, grateful, awed and reverent,  in the magnificent  Cathedral of Laon and I remind myself of the Chinese proverb which says that a journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.

Or as the sardonic Marquise du Deffand is said to have remarked concerning the legend that the martyred St. Denis walked six miles, carrying his head in his hands, “La distance n’y fait rien; il n’y a que le premier pas qui côute.”

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