THE REWARDS OF THE DAYPosted: January 8, 2012
Dusk had come by the time I had climbed the last hill and left the last wood and saw the village of Avize lying immediately below me. Suddenly, the 12 miles back to Épernay seemed impossibly long and to walk even one more seemed a task beyond the strength of body or will. Pausing, I felt the chill of damp clothes. As I was signing in at the Hotel St. Nicolas the rubicund patronne appeared in a blue woollen dressing gown and said: ‘You look as if you need a bath.’
Great, now, were the rewards of the day’s exertions. Safe from the rain, shoulders free of the pack, sitting upon the edge of the bed taking boots from aching feet, I savoured a delicious awareness of comfort and well-being. Part was mere animal pleasure at shelter from the elements. Part was satisfaction at having achieved what had been intended. From the pack came a complete change of clothes. I was half stripped when the ample patronne came in after no more than a perfunctory knock at the door. She had brought towels and a large tablet of soap and led the way down a spiral iron staircase that seemed to have been built as an afterthought. At the bottom was a courtyard where rain danced on the cobbles as I followed the blue dressing gown through what proved to be the kitchen door.
‘Now,’ the patronne, said, lighting all the burners of the two gas ranges and turning the flames as high as they would go. ‘A little heat so that you do not catch cold. And now, voilà le système.’ Over the sink was a gas heater. An adjustable cold water supply had been plumbed into the outlet pipe to which she fitted a hand shower on a length of rubber tube. ‘Nous sommes à la campagne, mais nous ne sommes pas primitifs.’
‘Don’t worry about the waste water,’ she added. The floor slopes. It finds its own way out’. Standing by the sink, I let hot water run luxuriously over me until I feared that the kitchen was in danger of flooding and the bunches of herbs hanging from the ceiling might suffer from the steam.
Before dinner came bed. I had been awake since 5 a.m. The room was warm. The bed itself was large and very comfortable. Outside were the dark and the rain and the wind. Inside, I listened to them, drew the quilt higher over my shoulders, stretched my limbs in the warm sheets, heard a murmur of voices from the bar below, and slept.
There was no restaurant at the Hotel St.Nicolas: cosily, a table was laid in a sort of alcove at one corner of the bar. Dinner began with soup, then charcuterie and a pâté that was served with a certain suggestion of conspiracy. The patronne came over when it had gone and asked if I had enjoyed it. Delicious. And did I know what it was? No idea. ‘Cod’s liver!’ she said triumphantly. ‘If I’d told you before, you would never have eaten it’. Rabbit cooked in a mushroom sauce with the slightest touch of curry came next, then pigeon. It is easy for a pigeon to become dry when it is roasted but this one was succulent, served on thin rounds of fried bread.
I had finished a half bottle of the local champagne ( a blanc de blanc) with the soup and the second course. With the rabbit and the pigeon I had a Beaujolais Villages. As a meal it had already all been more than enough, but now the patronne’s daughter brought in an apple flan whose pastry, she said, had been made with fresh cream. I declined the cheese.
Coffee followed, and with it, Armagnac. At the bar I sat on a high stool and was introduced to Victor and Paul and Jean Claud; like most of those there, men who lived by the vines. Midnight sounded from the clocks in the village and we were still talking. ‘Patronne; another glass for Monsieur. Ah, but I insist; you must fortify yourself for tomorrow. It keeps out the rain.’
My going to bed an hour later was defended by Madame: so many kilometres walked yesterday, so many to be walked today. What would Monsieur like for breakfast? Monique, see that Monsieur gets his coffee at 8 a.m. Monsieur is certain he wants no bacon and eggs?
In my room walking clothes were drying on an old-fashioned radiator, the rain-soaked map hung over the back of a chair. I lay in bed and heard bursts of laughter from below. The wind was making a shutter bang somewhere down the street. Again I slept.
Adapted from my book,Walking in Wine Country. Sadly, there is no longer a Hotel St.Nicolas in Avize, and almost certainly few like it still to be found in France. But I like to think that much that was essentially French and part of its charm lives on.