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.

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