A dinner worth walking to.

THE SECOND in a short series based upon a  journey I made across France in 2004 and freely adapted from the original reports published in France Magazine that year

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IN MOST OF US, I SUSPECT, genetic hosts to the primaeval hunter-gatherer, a desire for pastures new lies at no great depth beneath any appearance of satisfied stability: under the sombre livery of the most conservative bencher of the Inns of Court beats the heart of the unreformed vagabond. This is why the lone traveller manifestly of an age when hearth and home alone ought sufficiently to contain him, yet kitted out as if for a long walk in the Hindu Kush, tends to arouse not only curiosity but empathetic concern. In a village bar, tired and thirsty after a long day, I chatted with a man who proved to be a routier. When I declined another beer on the grounds that I had to make a move or be too late for supper he asked where I was staying. When I told him he said oh la la: that was all of five kilometres, and uphill, and insisted that he should drive me there. Thus I reached my b & b that evening in a spanking new open Porsche.

Though never for a moment taken for granted, such gestures became commonplace on my journey across France, so that if a condition of my nominally pedestrian progress from the Channel to the Mediterranean had been that it should be ‘unsupported’ I would have been disqualified from Day One. Though everything that I had contracted for in this or that b & b had already been handsomely provided, last-minute suggestions for un petit casse-croûte for the road without thought of extra payment would often accompany my departure, as might a bottle of the wine that I had enjoyed at my table d’hôte dinner. The evident weight of my pack would prompt exclamations of solicitous disapproval and offers of a lift.

Calais-Fréthune, Bonningue-les-Ardres, St.Omer, Aire-sur-la-Lys, Thélus (Vimy Ridge), Miraumont and the killing grounds of the Somme, Fresne-Marincourt, Chauny, Monampteuil and so to the end of Picardy and the beginning of the Marne.  Starting with the conceit that I knew France rather well, it was humbling to be confronted with conspicuous examples of my ignorance. How could I not have known that Coucy-le-Château, near Soissons, was once one of the mightiest fortresses in Europe and that it remains a place of haunting beauty and fascination? How could I not have heard of the magnificent 18th-century buildings of the great Abbey of Prémontré, not three hours’ walk from Coucy in the great Forest of Saint Gobain?  At Fère-en-Tardenois, my pitifully belated discovery of the ruins of the Duke of Montmorency’s 16th century château, together with the superb Château de Fère hotel (one of the brightest jewels in the Michelin red guide), severely tempted me to throw well-laid plans and economy to the winds and stay the night.

A day or two later, just south of the Marne, blossom from a giant  horse chestnut tree drifted slowly over me where I sat on the lawn of the 400-years- old Château-farm of Connigis. Thanks to the cockerel, a fine proud bird of a breed which no one seemed able to identify, I had been awake since 5 a.m. The week before, finding a Mallard’s nest evidently deserted, Pierre Leclere, the farm’s proprietor, had put the clutch of eight eggs to a broody hen. Now, five wild ducks had come under the rooster’s authority and he was crowing about it.

From time to time I drifted back into sleep. The day before had been a long one.  Reaching my chambre d’hôte at the farm in the late afternoon, my sights were set on an engagement still some three or four miles away at the village of Reuilly-Sauvigny, where I had booked a table for dinner at 8 p.m. From the start, it had been a feature of my daydream of the whole journey that an ideal day would include either a leisurely lunchtime picnic with a memorable view or a dinner worth walking to; the latter’s value to be judged not simply by the quality of the food and wine, though they, of course, would be outstanding, but also for the accueil and the ambiance. Whether picnic or dinner, the attributes of the occasion would be such as at some moment or other to have me telling myself that this was what I had come for.

I had found the hotel restaurant Auberge le Relais in Michelin, which gave it a single rosette (“star”) for its table, listed menu and other attractions that were enticing, and quoted prices that were by no means outrageous. Nowhere else near Connigis was so distinguished. When I explained on the telephone that I would be arriving on foot and wondered if it might be possible for me to change out of my walking clothes before dinner a very nice-sounding woman said they were not at all a pretentious establishment but that, anyway, she was sure they would be able to arrange something. At about six o’clock in the evening, with a freshly-laundered shirt, a dark blue pullover, creaseless cotton trousers and lightweight city shoes in a daypack, I climbed up though Pierre Leclere’s vines into the Bois de Condé, through the forest and down towards the Marne again and the fulfilment of one of my ideals.

The “something” at Auberge le Relais proved to be the use of a well-equipped bathroom. Clean and tidy, fragrant with shower gel, I sat on the garden terrace with a glass of the ‘house’ champagne and the sun still illuminating the villages and vineyards on the far side of the Marne valley and with sentimental memories of such occasions overlooking the Rhine.  With a second glass I thought that in such circumstances even sausages and mash to follow would be acceptable. There was much, much better than that, served with rare and impeccable charm. It was dark when Pierre Leclere picked me up (not the first time he had done the same for guests in his chambres d’hôte) and a cool breeze was coming down the valley. On a warmer night I would have offered him a little something on the terrace; we had it back at the farm instead.

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NEXT WEEK: on south to Burgundy


Footloose in France

IT BEGAN IN SEPTEMBER on the Sussex Downs.  Gazing out over the Channel, I thought : one day I’ll load up my largest rucksack, and take my local ferry from Newhaven, and get off at Dieppe and just keep walking as long as my feet and resolve will carry me. Through the Pas-de-Calais and Picardy and down into Champagne, perhaps, and south into Burgundy. Possibly the Auvergne and the Cevennes in the steps of Robert Louis Stevenson, then down into Languedoc-Roussillon and so to the end of France where the eastern Pyrenees meet the sea.

That evening, with a glass of wine, I fetched out a map and measured distances with thumb and forefinger and wondered idly how long it might take the owner of a bus pass to cover more than a thousand miles on foot with his belongings on his back. A few days later, just for fun, I was jotting down place names for an imaginary itinerary and – merely for interest’s sake-  asking Stanfords of London to send me the IGN map of the long-distance footpaths of France: the Grandes Randonnées. By the time the November gales had come and the beech trees that love the chalk of the South Downs were bare, idle fancy had metamorphosed into a feasibility study. Asked what I would like for Christmas, I said a new backpack and walking poles and perhaps a pair of Meindl shoes if anyone was feeling especially generous, and two or three pairs of Bridgedale socks.

By the end of March I had a plan, and as April went out in almost mid-summer sunshine the ferry from Newhaven had become Eurostar from London to Calais. The Eurostar station is roughly five miles southwest from the centre of the Calais centre, so I had a fair start on my way to the Field of the Cloth of Gold, where in 1520 Henry VIII of England stayed for his meeting with the French king, Francois I. All the same, a three-hour uninspiring trudge to what is now a sadly unremarkable piece of ground between Guines and Ardres was enough to modify the grandiose notion of walking every mile of the way to Port-Bou. With five or more miles to go to my b & b at Bonnigues, the pack weighing cruelly  and night coming on, a ride in a tractor was heaven-sent. “It’ll go much faster when we get to the road”, boasted the proud owner as we bounced along the track where he had picked me up.  “You’ll be very comfortable there”, he said, when he dropped me at the gates of Le Manoir. Very comfortable I was, too, where the room was as charming as the proprietress and the table d’hôte dinner exquisite.

Though I had said at the outset that the intention was to walk from the Channel to the Mediterranean, I had made no gratuitous  promises either to myself or to anyone else, which  had been just as well. I don’t say that there is no good walking country in the Pas de Calais; I say only that a man needs to be significantly better informed than I was if he is to find it. Unless he has something peculiar to himself to prove I can see no virtue in toiling mile after mile through infinities of assorted legumes, cereals and sugar beet.  Vanity would have suffered a hard knock had I resorted to a deliberate thumbing of lifts; the face-saving compromise was a longer look over my shoulder at overtaking vehicles than pedestrian caution required, a ploy that was surprisingly effective. Half a dozen suburban miles from my hotel in central Saint Omer next evening, labouring faute de mieux on the D206, my body language must so have touched the heart of a weather-beaten paysan in a matching Peugot as to cause him to pull up and offer me a lift. It was with truly heart-felt gratitude that I accepted.

Of fifty or sixty miles during the next few days more than half were walked, the first twelve or so on the towpath of the Canal de Neufossé to Aire-sur-la-Lys. Here, an 80-metre barge was loading grain from a silo. How would I fancy a 6-day cruise to Holland, her master suggested: there was plenty of room on board. Wrong direction, I told him. Two days later I was at Miraumont, in Picardy, where the May blossom and the lilac and the lily of the valley were out, and in High Wood and Delville Wood and Mametz Wood of dreadful fame where the remains of thousands of those who died still lie unmarked beneath the bluebells and the brambles, and the trees were in new leaf. Everywhere, poignantly, heart-breaking, the Portland stone crosses and headstones of the Commonwealth military cemeteries of the 1914-1918 war were a brilliant white against the green and brown of the wide, rolling slopes where more than 50,000 men fell and almost 20,000 died between dawn and dusk on the first day of the appalling Battle of the Somme.

Spring and early summer are together by far the most desirable season for these parts. Roughly speaking, from the Somme southward the walking is good: untold miles of country lanes and tracks where a vehicle of any kind is a rarity. Sometimes one might imagine oneself to be walking through a vast, well kept but unsophisticated country park. After Miraumont it was south by way of Fresnes-Mazancourt and successive b & bs into the department of the Aisne to Chauny, on the Saint Quentin canal and Monampteuil, where the Canal de Loise à l’Aisne tunnels under the high ground that in the 1914—1918 war was the scene of a horror no less dreadful but infinitely less well known than that of the infamous Vimy Ridge: the battle of the Chemin des Dames.

The road was so called because of its habitual use in the 18th century by two daughters of Louis XV. Inconspicuously, if at all identified on most modern motoring maps, part of the almost straight D18 traversing a limestone plateau commanding the valley of the River Aisne, in 1917 it occupied a position of crucial strategic importance for the Germans, who had occupied and progressively fortified it since 1914. As both Caesar and Napoleon are said to have recognised, and as walkers today may themselves discover, to capture the position would involve foot soldiers in an almost precipitous uphill assault. In spring, 1917, the first few hours of such an attack, commanded by Nivelle, a French general no less hideously profligate with the lives of his men than Britain’s Haig, cost 30,000 dead. Subsequent reenactments of identical and obviously futile tactics resulted in so great a killing that there were mutinies among the surviving French soldiery, in response to which men were court martialled and shot.  In 1918 and the last great German offensive of the war, the ridge was again the scene of a slaughter so savage that almost the entire British IX Corps—recently moved there from the Aisne—was annihilated and of the total number of allied dead over half had no known graves

I walked there from Monampteuil.  At first the way was by bosky canal paths where nightingales sang and helmsmen on slow-moving barges raised hands in greeting, then it was steeply up through woods where —as on the Somme—thousands disappeared for ever and more than 80 years have not served to hide the shell craters and the trenches. From the high ground was so lovely a vista of country reaching southward to the Marne that to associate it with so great a carnage was to strain imagination and belief.  Compared with the battlefields of more densely populated and more easily accessible Flanders and Picardy, that of the Chemin des Dames seems forgotten and deserted.  Skylarks are noisier than any traffic. Where the air was fragrant with hawthorn and meadowsweet I sat on the remains of a German bunker, eating my bread and drinking  my wine and heard a cuckoo calling from a wood below the ridge.

 The above piece, and the two or three pieces that are intended to follow it, have been freely adapted from a series of half a dozen illustrated features originally published in 2004 by France Magazine.


AN EASTER ODDITY

I trust that it will neither shock nor disgust my readers when I report that on this memorable Easter Monday (it is cold enough for longjohns and hot toddy and has been raining for most of the morning) an unseasonable and slightly mephitic odour seems to pervade my normally fragrant garden cabin;  it came with the memory of another bank holiday weekend half a lifetime of  Easters ago

I had landed at Barcelona on the night ferry from Palma, Mallorca, intending to be in Toulouse before the sun went down; but there were unexpected delays with the car and with cashing a travellers cheque: it was six in the evening by the time I reached Bourg Madame (the Autoroute du Soleil was only a nice idea and several French administrations in the future) and I was very tired.  Numerous hotels in the little frontier town sincerely regretted that they had no room to offer and were not optimistic about my chances on the N20, the main road to Aix-les-Bains. Perhaps if I continued north by way of Mont-Louis and the lesser-known but very beautiful valley of the Aude I might have better luck.

Mont-Louis was equally regretful and no more encouraging; but an hour or two later, on a cement-faced wall in a village straggling above what in the dusk I dimly perceived to be a precipitous gorge, in letters so faded as to question their current relevance, was the word HOTEL. Crossing a short stone bridge, I drove beneath an arch that might have been the sally port of a mediaeval fortress into a courtyard overlooked by high shutterless windows. Images of Colditz and Oflag IV-C came fleetingly to mind. No-one was about, but the guardroom was dimly lit by a single desk lamp where a middle-aged woman in a high-necked black blouse, her hair tied back smoothly from her face, said yes: they had a room in the annexe. Her manner, though in no way disagreeable, might easily have been interpreted as surprise that anyone should have made such an enquiry. Her husband, she said, would show me the way.

Silently (resignedly?), my guide led me out onto a terrace, up a bare stone staircase into another stone building and up yet more stairs which appeared to be the flat sides of tree trunks cut in half lengthwise. In a room under the eaves were a bare table, a chair and a bed high off the stone-flagged floor with an immensely thick horsehair mattress, very white rough sheets and coarse blankets. Understated light came from a naked electric bulb. Yes, said my guide: something simple to eat would be possible downstairs in half an hour. Alone in an alcove off a cavernous kitchen (Madame and her husband apart, I had seen not another soul about the place) I had a thick pea soup, poached trout, cold chicken and a Roussillon red wine. All were very good. By now, Colditz had been superseded by memories of a monastery on Mount Athos. A little later, the fanciful murmur of distant male voices chanting compline lulled me to sleep.

I was woken up by pigeons on my windowsill at 6.30 a.m. One floor down were seven rooms with bare stone walls and stone-flagged floors, each with a massive tub in yellowing marble reminiscent of nothing so much as sarcophagi on the Alyscamps at Arles or the Appian Way. The air was warm and though not aggressively unpleasant was strangely suggestive of the chemistry lab at school. Confounding my gloomy expectations, a copious flow of hot water instantly rewarded the turning of a tap.

For breakfast they gave me good coffee in a large bowl, warm freshly baked bread, excellent home-made coarse-cut marmalade (a rarity in France) and delicious honey which they said was from their own hives. Afterwards I watched women laundering sheets and towels at a great stone basin and was shown where the steaming water flowed from the hill. Once again I thought of the chemistry lab at school.

I had seen no other guest at breakfast. When the time came to leave, the Renault still had the courtyard to itself, as evidently it had done all night, there was nobody in the guardroom and I had to  look for Madame in the kitchen. In fading print my bill was headed “Station Thermale. Clinique Jean-Jacques Berthauld”, with the sub-text  “Eaux Sulphreuses renommées. Rheumatism; Nez; Gorge; Oreilles”. In today’s money it came to about £15, including the wine.