WELL MET IN MUSCADETPosted: June 16, 2012
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