It had all started weeks before. With the establishment then of anticyclonic conditions from the Alps to the Atlantic and from the Pyrenees to the Scottish Highlands, day began to follow perfect summer’s day. But little by little, down there in the southern half of France, the air grew heavier, the once welcome heat became less supportable, and by the time we had left Toulouse and were driving northwards towards Paris the sky had darkened, lightning flickered and thunder rolled.
If the storm had broken a few minutes earlier or later that evening there would have been no story to tell. Sooner, and we would have prudently stopped short of the accursed railway bridge. Later, and we would have been beyond it, safely and comfortably on the way towards dinner and a quiet night on or about the banks of the Loire.
The deluge had begun as we entered Issoudun, but the water was no more than wheel-rim deep on the slope to the bridge at the exit of the town, we had already passed the turning to the only alternative route and there was traffic right behind us. . “Change right down and keep the engine revs up,” said the voice of all training and experience when a closer view in the gloom through the streaming windscreen revealed alarmingly worse conditions in the tunnel: “Keep going,” said the inner voice. The inundation here was over the axles of the vehicles ahead, “Whatever you do, keep going.”
Then the car immediately in front hesitated for a split second that felt like a dreadful eternity, and stalled.
Though the flood was visibly rising, the powerful engine of the Ford Executive – the engine that had pulled the well-laden caravan fast and faultlessly uphill and down dale for over 1,000 miles – kept bravely running. Then it, too, gave up the fight. Silence, then. Silence, or so it seemed until the stunned awareness of reality recovered to the sounds of the river that the road had by now become. Until another titanic thunderclap. Until the hellish clamour of a train passing over the steel bridge immediately above made it seem as if man as well as all nature was bent upon our destruction. Very soon, action became all-demanding.
I dare say there are rough rules about what to do if one’s car falls right way up into water deep enough to submerge it. There is none that I know of when some 34 linear feet of heavy car and caravan are immobilised beneath a railway bridge between Châteauroux and Bourges in central France, and a light brown torrent has already risen to the level of the gearbox, and the cylinders are already well charged with what has been sucked in through the stifled and then rapidly cooled exhaust and the rain is still falling as when Noah sailed in the Ark.
To keep calm is, of course, essential. To keep the door closed in order at least to delay the intrusion of the waters and any predatory aquatic life is advisable. To think fast about which of one’s possessions are most valuable and where they have been stowed is greatly to be recommended. If everything is adequately insured, be thankful. If not, resolve never again to be so improvident and so full of hubris as to suppose that misfortune falls only upon others. Then, if you have the gift of tongues, there can be little harm in putting your head out of window or sunshine roof and shouting: “Au secours! Au secours!”
At Issoudun that evening the appeal would have gone unheard. In the unnatural dark the rain still fell with tropical intensity and all the low-lying ground about the bridge was a turbulent lake. What the situation demanded was not a shout from the window, but an exit by way of it. It was a matter of self-help by wading thigh-deep, trying to make a cold (it was a very cold) calculation of priorities. What ought to be salvaged next after the cameras and type-writer? What ought to be done about sleeping bags and bedding? As for ultimate rescue : it would have been nice to have been equipped with distress rockets and a self-inflating raft.
Yet there was no more than half an hour between the last gasp of the car’s engine and the arrival of the Issoudun fire brigade, summoned – it transpired – by three unknown observers independently of each other. The pompiers hove out of the tempest in black oilskins and a new, shining, half-track breakdown vehicle. They shook hands ceremoniously, remarked that the weather was not good, unrolled a nylon tow-rope and winched the Ford and the caravan slowly on to higher ground and into a little square. Then they took brief particulars, shook hands again and were gone. There was nothing to pay.
Of the rest of that evening and of the following three days much might be written. It would be a sweet and sour tale. Sweet was the sleep that came at long last in the Hôtel de la Gare, whose restaurant, bar and cellar had been flooded but whose bedrooms were high and dry. Sweet was the sunlit, unclouded morning, the unstinted sympathy and help of the local people. Truly, there are men and women of goodwill in Issoudun. It being Monday, and the only garage with the Ford agency being closed, Pierre, a haulage contractor, and his driver set to work on the car, removed the sparking plugs, blew out the cylinders and so got the engine running perfectly again. And when we discovered that reverse gear would not work it was Pierre who searched out the garage proprietor and urged him into action.
The sour chapter of the story would be painful to tell, for it would have to embrace the wrecked interiors of the once-immaculate Executive and caravan and their contents: the almost pulped books and maps, the saturated bedding and clothing packed away for the homeward journey in the floor compartments of the caravan, the fine, alluvial mud in every crevice, the obscene mess of amalgamated biscuits, bread, breakfast cereal and soap powder burst from their containers. Above all, the stench of sodden, thick under-felt and carpet heated in the oven that the car quickly became in the temperatures of those long June days. Ah, what a fall there is from total mobility to hour after hour of kicking one’s heels while mechanics shake their heads slowly and sadly and shrug their shoulders and say they will try again, but…… ! At such moments, to be wheeling again along the broad highway seems all that one could ever desire.
Efforts were rewarded, prayers answered, wild hopes fulfilled. After the fourth change of oil in the automatic gearbox the Ford’s transmission once more worked. Gently, gently, we started. Slowly, slowly, with ears strained for alien noises and with eyes dropping again and again to the instrument panel (pressures, temperatures, revolutions) we went on our way. At Dover, the Customs man said: “Well, you seem to have had your share of troubles, so we won’t worry about the odd bottle over your duty-free entitlement.” It was an amiable gesture. His health has been drunk along with that of Pierre and all the rest.
THERE WERE FIVE OF US ON THE WALK: Philippe, the young president of the regional association des randonneurs; thirty-five-year-old Jean-Daniel and his wife Marie-Odile from Nantes (he a doctor, she a radiologist), their friend and neighbour Françoise, an engaging physiotherapist of about the same age, and I. Philippe and I had arranged to meet in Tiffauges, but half an hour after the appointed time he had telephoned in great embarrassment. The local tourist office, he said, offered the public a variety of organized walks as part of a weekend package; one of them was from Tiffauges to Clisson, which he and I had arranged to do. The local man who ought to have conducted it had suddenly become unwell, so that three people from Nantes, who had paid for a package and were already in Tiffauges, now found themselves without a guide. Would I mind very much if they came with us? We would have an interesting route along the valley of the Sèvre Nantaise, where I would be able to visit Bluebeard’s castle. ‘Bluebeard’ (aka Gils de Rais, he reminded me) had been a companion in arms of Joan of Arc during her reconquest of the kingdom of France from the English. ‘Mais pas du tout sympathique,’ remarked Françoise sotto voce.
At first, there was little talking as we walked. Speaking no English, the weekenders were to begin with extremely reserved and almost painfully apologetic for their ‘intrusion’ (as they put it) upon my plans. It took some time for me to discover that they had been intimidated by a briefing that had presented me not only as a vastly important person, but also eccentrically solitary by inclination. ‘We thought you looked very severe,” they said later on. All three were smartly dressed in well-cut shorts, tennis shirts and trainers, but to my concern, given that we planned to walk 12 miles or more, I saw that Françoise was wearing no socks.
All francophiles, I suppose, have their own images of quintessential France. Mine has always been of a supreme rurality, and in the valley of the Sèvre Nantaise were all the elements of my ideal. The river flowed slowly, bordered here by high, leafy banks, there by water-meadows; here by narrow woods where our path ran through welcome shade, there by steep slopes with very old farmhouses at the top and cattle swishing their tails in the summer heat. By ancient mills willows drooped, ducks paddled, and a line raised and recast by an angler constituted an exercise of such moment as to mark the very air.
At about one o’clock we lunched in the shade near an old mill. A common supply of bread had been bought in Tiffauges before setting out; otherwise, we offered one another whatever each of us happened to have brought by way of provisions, including wine. I had kept a bottle of good Muscadet cold by my customary means of wrapping it up in a goosedown ‘body warmer’, a refinement much admired by the others. ‘Ah, the English!’ remarked Françoise mockingly. ‘How fussy they are about their wine.’
After we had eaten, the sound of water over a distant weir and of the leaves rustling in the lightest of breezes stilled all chatter and we lay on our backs, gazing up at a blue sky where a solitary, very high-flying jet ejected four perfect vapour trails. I wondered where it had come from and where it was going to and thought that there was nowhere in the world that I would rather be than where I already was.
When we started walking again I was glad to leave the map-reading to Philippe and to have no cares for time and distance. I was also glad in the heat of the summer afternoon to enjoy more pauses than I might have taken on my own; pauses when Marie-Odile and Françoise flopped down with a ‘phew!’ and a ‘mon dieu, qu’il fait chaud!’ and drank deeply from their water-bottles. Occasionally forced to abandon the riverside, our path would climb steeply enough for me to envy the three from Nantes their skimpy shorts and shirts and their super-lightweight footwear. While I plodded, they seemed to step lightly as fawns. Françoise, it is true, was obliged at one point to confess that a sore place had developed where a shoe had chafed a heel, whereupon I had the undeniable satisfaction of supplying first aid.
We reached Clisson at half past five in the afternoon and a more agreeable end to a 12-mile walk it would be hard to devise. At the approaches to the town our path took us close beside the river through a tiny park shaped roughly like an amphitheatre with a steep tree-covered slope that long ago must have been the river bank and an open green sward; all shaded; all cool; all verdant. Ahead, high above the banks of the Sèvre Nantaise and its confluence with the Moine, rose a castle which, though at heart a ruin, looked as a medieval castle ought to: mighty, proud and forbidding; with the addition of a turret or two it could have been an illustration to a fairytale. ‘C’est très plaisant,’ remarked the undemonstrative Françoise.‘C’est fabuleux,’ said Marie-Odile. Hardly less pleasing in all our eyes, sitting under a parasol on a table outside the Café des Sports in the town square, were five tankards of cold draught beer. “It’s best to drink slowly when you’re hot,” advised Philippe sagely. “You’re right,” said the rest of us as we sank the glorious golden stuff in almost the same breath and looked eagerly round again for the waiter.
Clisson was enchanting. It had been arranged that a local doctor who is also a passionate historian should take me on a tour of the town, but we walkers had arrived later than we ought to have done and had sat too long at the Café des Sports, so that when at last I presented myself at his house he suggested that rather than attempt a hurried tour at the end of a tiring day I might like to relax for a while with a drink. Built on the edge of a cliff close to the Sèvre Nantaise, the house seemed almost to be lodged among the tops of tall trees growing in the riverside park below. The doctor’s wife was truly beautiful and impeccably dressed, so that in my far from elegant walking gear, and with my face grimy from the exertions of the very warm day, I was hardly at my ease to begin with. It was a mood that was soon dispelled.
“Here,” said my host, filling my glass with a deliciously cool Muscadet for the third time, “It’s only eleven and a half degrees.” While I had been drinking, he had been telling me something of the history of Clisson from its time as a colony in the Roman province of Aquitaine Secunda down to 1794 and the end of the Revolution, when the savagery of the republican Turreau and his infamous ‘colonnes infernales’ had left it a fire-blackened ruin, ‘abandoned to wolves and dogs’.
The doctor and I joined Jean-Claude, Marie-Odile, Françoise and Philippe for dinner at the Auberge de la Cascade. We ate little oysters cooked with herbs, followed by sea bass with a beurre blanc, duck, cheese and tarte aux pommes. With the oysters and the fish we drank a Muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine, a Chiroubles with the duck. Philippe left for Nantes, the doctor went home, and the rest of us walked up to the Café des Sports for un petit digestif before bed. The night air was warm and soft and scented with hay, or with lawn grass cut but left lying all day in the hot sun.
Next morning my companions of the day before were obliged to stick to plans that had been laid before we had all met in Tiffauges.The sun had gone, the sky was a uniform grey, the breeze was cold. Setting out alone on another 12-mile walk, I felt strangely bereft. After a while the rhythm of the exercise worked its usual therapy and the weather improved, so that my spirits rose. It was getting on for seven o’clock in the evening when I presented myself at the Abbaye de Villeneuve, on the outskirts of Nantes.‘Is that all the luggage you have?”, queried the receptionist, waringly eyeing my small and venerable day-pack.
“But hasn’t the rest of my luggage arrived?” I asked anxiously.
“Ah non!’.What were you expecting?”
“A much bigger rucksack, and a black holdall”.
In other words, everything except the essential walking gear that I was either wearing or had in my small day-pack: all the means of my making a more or less respectable showing in the dining room.”It will be waiting for you when you get there”,the patronne of Auberge de la Cascade at Clisson had assured me that morning. “Never fear.”
At about eight o’clock I sat swathed in a hotel bathrobe while the maître d’hôtel gave me his suggestions from the menu. Though I had been looking forward to eating in the hotel’s well-reputed restaurant, and dislike room service except for breakfast or a snack, in the absence of my luggage room service for dinner it would have to be. Earlier, as a little something to raise my morale, the head waiter had suggested a bottle of Muscadet Château de Cléray: “a superb wine”. He had not exaggerated, and I was on my second glass when the telephone rang and the now jubilant receptionist announced that my big rucksack and the holdall were on the way up. A lady had brought them and was waiting to see me. A lady! The patronne of the Auberge de la Cascade had been particularly helpful, and now, to my embarrassment, she had obviously felt obliged to bring my luggage in person. What a fuss I had unwittingly caused!
But it was Françoise, not the patronne of the Hotel Cascade, who sat opposite me in the dining room ten minutes later. “I’m really very sorry”, she said. “I was thinking about you in Clisson this morning. Then, when we were leaving, I saw your luggage by the reception desk at the Cascade. They said a taxi was going to collect it later on and bring it over here, so I volunteered to do it after getting back to Nantes and picking up my own car. I would have been earlier, but had to look in at the hospital.”
I was in that light-headed, feet-not-quite-on-the-ground state that can be one of the rewards of a day’s walk and a bath and a glass or two of wine, and for a few moments just looked at her happily. “Still”, she went on, filling the silence. “I did save you the cost of a taxi . And I hope you’re glad you weren’t obliged to have dinner on your own.” I said I was rather and asked for two glasses of champagne.
Adapted from Walking in Wine Country
The last few days had been very hot; all the same, I was surprised to hear that already there was so acute a shortage of bottled water in the shops. Only later did I discover that the queue had been not at the supermarket, but at the kiosk on the green below the old town of Saint-Galmier, where residents have the privilege of drawing 20 litres of water per household, per day, free of charge, from the Badoit springs.Whether it is a reflection of assiduous promotional campaigns, or the empirical judgements of opinion-forming consumers, or something of both, there is a certain snobbery attached to Badoit. My own first acquaintance with it was at luncheon with the late Madame Bollinger, then head of one of the leading and most esteemed “houses” in Champagne. No other sparkling mineral water was ever served at her table. Hard to believe that until 1954 Badoit was sold only in pharmacies, but explicable by the fact that, like Nestlé’s Perrier, its popularity had begun with the science of medical hydrology, itself a late 19th century development. The Romans are said to have bathed in it, and may have drunk it with beneficial consequences, but it was not until 1837 that a farmer, August Saturnin Badoit, in defiance of the theory that he was thereby diminishing its medicinal properties, began bottling it. Today it is sometimes claimed to be the best-selling naturally sparkling mineral water in the world.
Its journey from origins to bottle is a long one. Draining from the Massif Central and the Lyonnais Mountains to the north, percolating through granite to channels beneath the Forez plain, rain water is enriched by minerals and enlivened by naturally occurring carbon dioxide before being pumped from some 150 metres down in the same granite on which Saint-Galmier is built.
Other than dipping a bucket in a subterranean reservoir or stream, it would be hard to come closer to a specific source than the kiosk on the green, adjacent to the premises where more than 200 people work in conditions suggestive of a well-ordered medical institution. White coats and head coverings, protective glass barriers: a team of assorted analysts ceaselessly monitoring mineral content (calcium 190 mg per litre; sodium 150; magnesium 85; potassium………….) and microbiological purity. Tours of the installation are far from easy to arrange.
There is no great fuss about collecting the precious stuff at the kiosk. Needing only enough for the picnic that I hope to have in the course of a walk later in the day, ignorant of the need for a printed permit, I have come equipped with two empty, half litre bottles of diet coke and am embarrassed by a courteous request for proof of citizenship. When I apologise and explain my situation the attendant says that’s perfectly all right: an exception can be made for bona fide visitors. He hopes the weather stays fine and that I have a nice walk.
About half past four in the afternoon, the mother and father of a thunderstorm breaks over the hills behind Saint-Galmier and I am obliged to take refuge in a mercifully nearby cow shed. Watching the rain pouring from a broken gutter, I wonder how long it will be before it resurfaces as “The champagne of all mineral waters”. Meanwhile, I hope it stops very soon.
There was a moment near the beginning of the Robert Louis Stevenson trail when I filled my wine glass again from the pitcher on the table, sat back with my eyes closed and a very gentle breeze caressing my face and knew a passing happiness as great as I had ever known or would be likely to know short of heaven on earth.
Before the wine there had been the walking. Perfect walking. Glorious walking. An eight o’clock start from Le Puy in the cool of the early summer morning with my big pack sent on ahead to Le Bouchet-St.Nicolas, and the sky blue. Gently up and out of the suburbs onto quiet tracks and traffic-free lanes. Effortlessly across a plateau with great expanses of green lentils and alfalfa and far views of blue hills and the temperature of the plastic bottles of Volvic in the side-pouches of the daypack rising. Down again and up again, and with the clocks of Saint-Martin-de-Faugères getting on for half past noon another mile or two of putting one tired foot in front of the other and there, steeply below, with hopes of shade and a cool quaffable white wine ever more enticing, was the hamlet of Goudet with its ruined castle above the valley of the infant Loire.
Diffidently, Madame of the ferme auberge said that what I had ordered en pichet was just “un petit Côteaux de l’Ardèche” and I remembered again Hilaire Belloc and the wine near Belfort*: It was delicious…cool, strong, lifting the heart, satisfying, and full of all those things wine-merchants talk of, bouquet and body and flavour. The pale gold petit Côteaux de l’Ardèche was most certainly delicious, cool and lifting to the heart. Not robust (hearty and full of “body”, as I imagine Belloc’s red wine at Belfort to have been) but clean, fresh, floral; youthfully, if unassertively strong, its flavour and bouquet as authentic, complex and insusceptible to precise analysis as the beauty of the summer’s day itself. A wine of character. What grapes had gone to its making? Grenache Blanc, beyond a doubt. Marsanne, perhaps. Chardonnay? That its fragrance was thanks to Viognier I would have been willing to stake my life.
There had been many such moments in France during the years when I was working on Walking in Wine Country. There had already been a few since leaving Calais on the present journey. More were to come. There is no wine that is itself alone, for all wine, like all human character (of which wine is the reflection and the symbol) is conditioned by circumstances, said Belloc, enunciating one of the most profound and ineluctable truths about wine which is also one of the mysteries that set it far apart from any other fleshly indulgences. There is a difficulty, however. All wine? All sound, unadulterated, drinkable wine such as is now made in oceanic quantity by impeccable industrial processes? To answer ‘no’ is to invite the sort of debate that can set ‘expert’ against ‘expert’, father against son, Cavalier implacably against Roundhead: if not all sound, honestly made wine, what wine?
To attempt to qualify, specify, establish criteria for a notionally alternative sort of wine would be to contrive an exercise no less futile than attempting to calculate how many angels might dance together on the point of a pin. I only know that times without number in France I have found myself drinking wine — modest, inexpensive, not found on supermarket shelves — which all my instincts and reactions identify as wine of true ‘character’ the pleasure of which, in the circumstances of my walks, has been as intense as passing pleasure ever comes.
Passing? I sell such moments woefully short. The day in Alsace that I wrote about the other week was all of twenty years ago, yet while the rain lashes my window this Jubilee weekend in 2012, and I am tempted by hot chocolate, the recollection of that picnic with the pinot blanc from Rodern is like the sun breaking through. Lunch on the banks of the Sèvre Nantaise in Loire-Atlantique was even further in the past, yet I would give a high price now for a wine as enchanting as the Muscadet we drank there that day and which I had bought at the cellars of a little family grower in Tiffauges. The worth of wines which in bottle would die young thus in memory grows incalculably. Passing pleasures? I sometimes wonder if half the art of living is to be found in the making of such souvenirs as the memory I have of Goudet and that petit Côteaux de l’Ardèche.
When the half litre pichet was empty, and I had lingered over coffee, there was nothing for it but to brave the noonday sun and take the road for Le Bouchet-St-Nicolas, another 5 miles further on and 800 feet up on the highest volcanic plateau in Europe. Once I had climbed out of the valley of what Stevenson called “an amiable stripling of a river” I had a cooling breeze for company and the 3 hours to Le Bouchet were little more than a pastoral stroll. Still, I was glad that nothing in the village but a shower and table d’hôte commanded attention. Dining and wining very moderately (nothing was any temptation to do otherwise) I went early to bed.
Stevenson, too, had spent a night in Le Bouchet, but setting out again on the October morning had found the weather “bleak and bitter cold”. By contrast, for mile after mile I exalted in the sight of the far heights of Lozère blue-veiled in summer, and in blue sky and gentle airs and everywhere the sweet scent of new-mown hay. In Landos I was glad of a cold beer in the market square. In Pradelles no less glad of another. It was hardly 4 miles from there to Langogne, but when a farmer going to buy a part for a tractor offered me a lift I accepted without the least demur.
The author of Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes does not tell us where in Langogne, on the River Allier, he spent the night. Through the admirable R.L.S Trail Association I had arranged in advance for a chambre d’hôte, but on the ground the introduction to it was instantly dispiriting. For one thing, judging by the flaking façade and unpainted shutters, the house appeared to be bordering on derelict. For another, the name roughly painted over the door — “Modest Inn”— seemed to me so outrageous a pun (Stevenson’s donkey, you will remember, was called Modestine) that it inspired grave misgivings about the personality of the proprietor. As so often in France, outward appearances were nothing to go by. The house was indeed extremely old. The proprietor might be labelled a “character” but one whose welcome was what the French call chaleureux and whose hospitality proved to be all that any traveller might reasonably wish for, and more. Dinner included roast lamb in so generous a quantity that although the meat and fresh vegetables were delicious more than a score of hungry walkers failed to finish them. Nor was there any stinting of a red Costières de Nîmes.
In a way familiar to those who walk for walking’s sake on the designated trails of western Europe, it all made for the sort of occasion of which fond memories and noble illusions of international understanding are made. With the exception of myself, everyone at the long table was either French or German and belonged to one of two cohesive national parties. Diplomatically, I was seated between the two. My French was serviceable, my German lamentable. None of the French spoke German, but at least half the Germans spoke good English and some of them spoke passable French. Characteristically, the Germans (who were accompanied on the trail by three donkeys) were uninhibitedly sociable. Equally true to form, the French, though amiable enough, were markedly reserved. Thus disposed, exhilarated by exercise and sun and air, refreshed by a shower and emboldened by the Costières de Nîmes, some two dozen people, evenly divided between the sexes, conversed, joked, amicably argued, teased, flirted, laughed immoderately on every slight pretext (the ups and downs of donkey management a rich source of material) and told themselves and anyone who cared to listen that walking the Stevenson chemin was one of the best things they had ever done in their lives.
* 20th May. A Wine to Remember
Now see ‘On the Stevenson Trail’, posted 13th October 2011