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
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.
Remembering Alaska, when dinner in the gorse on the Sussex Downs was over, instead of burning the empty foil packets (‘pouches’, as the makers call them) in which it had been cooked and from which it had been eaten, I sealed them carefully in a plastic bag (Alaska grizzlies have an ultra-keen sense of smell), poured myself another wee dram of Laphroaig single malt whisky and read Peter Fleming’s News from Tartary until my eyes got too tired.
It was not the first time I had dined by candlelight in a gorse thicket. When Robert Louis Stevenson’s Vagabond stated a preference for ‘bed in the bush’ he had a point. For the timorous traveller, the chief advantage of gorse over any other kind of boscage is its obvious (though I would contend superficial) inhospitability. Potential predators are discouraged. Anyway, for the ridgeway walker at the eastern end of the South Downs scarcely any choice of cover for a bivouac presents itself: it is gorse or nothing.
I had come no more than 6 or 7 miles from Eastbourne, but my pack was heavy, the climb up out of Jevington had seemed especially demanding and by 4 pm I had had enough. With the sun already low in the sky and my reserves of energy swiftly following it, I scanned the ground ahead for a likely patch. What I sought was a configuration of prickly vegetation in which a deceptively impenetrable margin yields to an inner clearing spacious enough for the erection of a one-man tent. Fortunately, an almost ideal situation awaited me and by the time it was necessary for my 24-hour camper’s candle to be brought into service my establishment was more or less ship-shape and Bristol fashion. It seemed the moment for a dram or two of something to set against the very rapid and potentially insalubrious fall in temperature up there on the Sussex chalk. It was now that I first brought out the flask of Laphroaig
And so to dinner. To confess to having brought little to eat but what was contained in two 3.3 oz packets of freeze-dried food may well invite the scorn of outdoor romantics, but it was not just any old freeze dried food. The year before, following a camping expedition in the remote northern wilderness of Alaska, a packet of Mountain House Beef Almandine and another of Chicken Chop Suey, made in Oregon and purchased in the Four Winds supermarket, Fairbanks, had travelled back to England with me. Moreover, this was not just common or garden Mountain House, which itself is excellent, but a particular product range with the endearing brand name of Woodsy Owl. A couple of centuries ago it was observed that, within reason, the longer the voyage of a cargo of Madeira, the better the wine. I am now able to testify that there is a je ne sais quoi about Woodsy Owl Beef Almandine and Chicken Chop Suey that have travelled to northern Alaska, thence half the world to England and have ‘rested’ (as they say in the wine business) among miscellaneous camping gear in a basement in London SW4 before being consumed on a winter evening on the South Downs.
‘Serving suggestions for main course entrées and meats’, said the solemn legend on the packets. ‘Add boiling water and eat directly from the pouch – no dishes to wash, no cooking required, wait 5 to 10 minutes and enjoy’. It may not sound the sort of thing that the Michelin Red Guide to France would distinguish as being “vaut le détour”; but that evening. both beef and chicken seemed to me not far short of epicurean. Ask which was better and, risking some Mountain House chef’s feelings, I am bound to say the Chicken Chop Suey; but then, I long since came to the conclusion that Chinese cuisine may be the best in the world.
It was after eight when I blew out the candle. Though I started with my shoulders out of the sleeping bag I awoke about midnight, snuggled right down, secured the drawstring of the hood until scarcely even my face was exposed. and was blissfully warm and comfortable. Yet while I slept the Downs were turning white in a heavy frost. So far as I knew, not a woodsy owl had hooted or a grizzly had stirred.
Winter in Champagne. The intention was this: starting from Vertus, I would follow the Côte des Blancs from one end to the other by way of le Mesnil-sur-Oger, Avize, and Cramant, cross to the southern slopes of the Montagne de Reims by the bridge over the Marne down at Mareuil-sur-Ay, and so on up to Champillon, north of Épernay. It was an itinerary amounting to perhaps 17 or 18 miles; not a formidable distance, but the sky was threatening and the wind unfriendly. I therefore made a precautionary contract with myself and attached a penalty clause: I would complete the course on my own two feet or else would be obliged renounce wine for a month. You may be sure that socks and boots were checked with special care.
Every season in the vineyards has its pros and cons. In winter and early spring Champagne seems to me more beautiful than at any other time of the year. Later, the essential shape of the land will be half lost in a monochrome of green luxuriance; now, it is revealed in stylish austerity. The vines, generally trained low and almost parallel to the earth, have been rigorously pruned. In their disciplined rows, plot by plot, running now in one direction, now in another, they present a great undulating patchwork of browns and sepias and dark greys.
The church clock struck noon as I left Cramant on the way towards Chouilly and a heavy lorry sprayed me liberally with water that was streaming down beside the raised verge. The view out over the vines was far and wide and I thought how good it would be to sit up there on the hillside with a picnic on a fine day. As it was, I envied four men who were taking off muddy wellies before installing themselves for lunch in a camionette. Shelter from the rain was my concern as well. First, I needed to delve into my pack for waterproof over-trousers. More, I wanted the little flask of Courvoisier VSOP which was wrapped inside them.
But where to find refuge? To my right and ahead were only the vines, sloping down to the plain. To my left was the côte that forms the eastern edge of the Butte de Saran; very steep, but with woods at the top. In the edge of the trees I found a hollow made long ago by the uprooting of a tree in a gale, perhaps, but just as likely by a vigneron excavating for earth to replace eroded topsoil. Here, sheltered from the hostile little breeze, above a thick carpet of fallen leaves, I contrived a roof by means of the ground sheet that is never absent from my winter walking gear, for greater warmth pulled on the windproof trousers, zipped my Gore-tex overjacket up to the neck and unscrewed the flask.
My satisfaction with that modest cognac in the winter woods above the Côte des Blancs was as great as I have had from any brandy in the world, though in my time I have tasted some of the finest that ever came out of Acquitaine. First, I had a good dram slowly and neat. Next, I drank cognac and ice-cold water, half and half. Then, with the recent example of the men in the camionette in mind, and considering that there were still 10 miles to go to dinner in Champillon, I thought that un petit casse-crôute might be sensible. The Courvoisier-à-l’eau went very well with that too.
It was barely 7 miles as the crow flies from Henri Pellés cellars in Morogues to Henrichemont, where there would be hotels, but by the time the tasting was over it was later than I had bargained for and I knew that if I hoped to be in time for dinner I would need to set myself a brisk pace.
Shunning the obvious but hardtop road, I took tracks to the east of it, but only an hour after setting out, with a leaden sky and my pack seeming especially burdensome, it became obvious that before I could reach the macadam on the far side of the forest that I had so boldly chosen to traverse, I should be benighted.
In retrospect, I suspect that I may unconsciously have welcomed the excuse to experiment with a piece of equipment that I often carried in case of emergency, but had never yet used — a Gore-Tex bivvy bag. Substituting for a tent, and significantly lighter; needing neither poles nor guy ropes and pegs, a bivvy bag is a sort of sack which can accommodate the user in a normal sleeping bag. Here, in the swiftly darkening Bois d’Henrichemont, its moment had arrived.
In a thicket of saplings that gave an illusion of security (I have always been afraid of the dark) I found a level space just large enough for my needs; and for extra shelter, and to enhance the illusion, rigged my lightweight groundsheet as a sort of porch. I was not badly provided for. I had water. Odds and ends remained from my lunchtime picnic. Not least, I carried a small flask of whisky. By 8 pm I was snugly cocooned.
Few people can honestly claim unbroken sleep in a bivouac. I slept and woke, slept and woke again. Within arm’s reach outside the bivvy bag, the water in its plastic bottle was almost ice-cold and I laced it with whisky. While I hid there, winter tightened its grip. It was not simply a matter of temperature, but of impalpable, primordial mood. The silence of the woods was not merely that of repose, but of all nature cowering from the dread tyrant, not daring to stir, hoping to be overlooked.
But in the morning there was a heavy frost and a million leaves had fallen.
By Tradition, the 3rd Thursday in November sees the release of Beaujolais nouveau. The following is adapted from ‘Morgon by Moonlight’, posted here on 13th October
It was the last day of the vendages. The family property was typical of the Beaujolais: a farmhouse of terracotta-coloured stone and indeterminate age and a farmyard no tidier or more elegant than working farmyards normally are. Madame D was a good-looking, cheerful woman in her fifties who apologised for not shaking hands, since they were covered in flour. Monsieur D, she said, was not yet back from calling on the wine-maker to whom he sold his grapes. Her husband, Madame said, was a grower only.
Madame’s notably attractive daughters, Gabrielle and Véronique, had not come for a lazy weekend, but to help their mother feed the grape-pickers. Now, they put on aprons and started laying a long trestle table at one side of the large kitchen. Lucien, a friend of the sisters, and I helped. When Monsieur D at last appeared he looked as though he had just had a good scrub. He had slightly greying hair and was wearing a bottle-green corduroy shirt with blue denim trousers. (‘Très gai!’ remarked Gabrielle). Though welcoming enough, he was sparing with words. It had been a very good harvest so far, he said: quantity good, quality excellent. ‘Pas mal du tout.’
Grape-harvest suppers are generally jolly, joyful occasions: the work is hard, the hours necessarily long, the pleasure of stopping work particularly great and the camaraderie usually self-sustaining. Grape-growers have a tradition of feeding their workers well and wine flows freely.
At first, Gabrielle and Véronique were kept busy putting food on the table for the dozen or so hungry and thirsty young men and women pickers, all of whom were French. When everyone had finished the charcuterie and was busy with a hearty beef ragoût , the sisters joined their father and me at one end of the table and started on their own supper. Glasses were filled with what Monsieur D described as ‘un bon petit Gamay de la commune’, and then filled again.
I encouraged my host to talk about wine and he was scathing about what he called fashions in Beaujolais: one year Fleurie was all the rage, the next year Brouilly, the year after that, something else. He was glad he was only a grower, not a wine-maker. His father and grandfather had been growers too. A cobbler ought to stick to his last.
‘Not a wine-maker!’ exclaimed Véronique. ‘What a story!’ (‘Quelle histoire!’).
With mock solemnity Monsieur D said that his ‘quelques bouteilles’ were just his little hobby: he was no Georges Dubœuf! At the end of dinner he announced that since the picking was going so well he would like to propose a little celebration: the four of us would go and drink a bottle of ‘the 83’.
Now, the significance of Véronique’s ironic remark about her father not being a wine maker became apparent. In an open barn at one side of the farmyard was a neat, high stack of old, dry vine roots. Behind the stack, a door in a stone wall and some steps led down into a cellar lit by a single bare electric bulb. A wooden vat, an old-fashioned vertical, slatted grape press, several far-from-new casks and a row of large stainless-steel jugs constituted the image of a traditional wine-making cave. Through a low arch another short flight of stone steps gave access to a storage cellar.
While Monsieur D left us briefly for the lower level, his daughters lit the six half-burned candles in a pyramid-shaped wrought-iron holder —‘Il est très ritualiste,’explained Véronique— before switching off the electric bulb.
Her father returned with a basket containing several unlabelled bottles from which he proceeded to draw the corks. First, we tasted a two-year-old wine, which was tannic and without any Beaujolais charm. Next, we sampled ‘the 83’, which was very drinkable indeed.
‘Promising! ’, said Monsiur D
At five years old it was the one of oldest Beaujolais I had ever tasted, a revelation in flavours and appearance. Held up to the candle-flames, it was still a lovely garnet colour. Though it was as cool as the lower cellar, its ‘nose’ was seductive and the taste so complex as to challenge the imagination and descriptive powers of the taster.
It was not very sensible at that hour, but we drank that bottle, then another. When the subject of going to bed was raised at last it was unanimously agreed that no responsible person could possibly take the wheel of a car, so I would have to stay more or less where I was.
My host went off to his own bed. The remaining four of us took our glasses and went outside to decide whether the moon was full.
FOOTPATHS OF FRANCE: The loves of a lifetime.
The wine label is one of my most treasured mementoes of half a century of travels in France. Souvenir of a 14-kilometre walk from Séguret to Beaume-de-Venise in the Southern Rhône, it came from a bottle which I drank with terrine de canard and an old Cantal cheese sitting with my back against an evergreen oak, high in the Dentelles de Montmirail looking south-eastwards to the pre-Alps of Haut Provence and the Alpes-Maritimes. At the time, that Gigondas seemed one of the best wines I had ever drunk in my life.
I have walked more in France than anywhere else in the world. First, were the paths along the coasts of Brittany; in winter wildly elemental (but oh, the pleasure of taking refuge from an Atlantic storm in the Moulin de Rosmadec at Pont Aven); in summer resplendent with the yellow of the gorse and the blue of the sea and the radiance that has captivated generations of painters. Next, were pilgrimages to the haunted battlefields of Flanders and Picardy and the Marne and the forests of the Vosges. Later came five joyful years and countless kilometres that gave birth to Walking In Wine Country, a vinously literary progress that took me from the chalk of Champagne to the volcanic rock of the low Pyrenees; from the banks of the Loire to the foothills of the Alps through the vineyards of what remains the greatest viticultural nation in the world.
What a land for the walker! While the past half century has seen not only massive, but often catastrophic changes in urban France, the country’s essential rurality endures. That is does so is due partly to the tenacity with which the French peasant has traditionally kept possession of his land and partly to the fact that with a population still roughly the same as that of the United Kingdom France is geographically twice as large. Ever since Robert Louis Stevenson and his donkey in the Cévennes the British have had a reputation for being keen walkers. Very rare in France is the municipality, large or small, which does not freely provide information, including printed directions, about walking in the area. Seldom is a country hotel or guest house unable to offer detailed information and advice on the subject. Large are the assemblies of walking sticks in the local shops.
Everyone knows that the best way to see a country is to walk in it. With France, it is also eminently the best way to savour it. Of all the simple pleasures of life, I know of few greater than those that have been provided in my experience of France by a juxtaposition of walking, food and wine. I think of an occasion in Périgord when, tired, hungry and very thirsty after an uphill slog in late October, I arrived at an isolated, unpromising looking ferme auberge to be told by the weather-beaten individual who appeared to be the sole resident that he was closed, but could provide me with bed if I had my own sleeping bag and with supper if I could “make do” with a rabbit en daube. The delectable dish had been slowly cooking in the oven attached to a wood-burning range which scented the kitchen together with the herbs with which the rabbit had been marinaded. The wine, unstintingly poured from an earthenware jug, was a dark, robust Cahors. The bread with which we both mopped our plates was a rough wholemeal made by my host himself.
I think of the Abbaye de Sainte Croix in Provence, a Relais & Châteaux hotel with a a star for its table in the Michelin Red guide, where I celebrated a 30-kilometre progress that had begun before work had started in the vineyards and ended at dusk. There was the bliss of a long bath. There was champagne on the terrace. It was summer, and since dress for the elegant restaurant was no more demanding than respectable-casual my walker’s wardrobe managed to cope. “Bed in the bush with stars to see, bread I dip in the river—”, declared Stevenson’s vagabond; but after the twenty-odd kilometres that I had walked since breakfast the lamb aux herbes de Provence and a bottle of Domaine Ott’s red Château Romassanseemed incontestably the better, if less poetic option. Inappropriately, my bed was in what once had been a 12th century monk’s cell.
France on foot has been a treasury of a thousand delights. I think of walking among the vast vineyards of Languedoc and discovering years before Michelin did the exquisite little restaurant Mimosa at St. Guiraud, where the Welsh proprietor is a sometime leader of a symphony orchestra and his former ballerina wife is so good and original a cook that I suspect her of sorcery. I remember the great open hearth of the old bergerie near the GR 36, south of Carcassonne, and after a hard, hot climb to the heights of Péyrepertuse the sound of water flowing from the mountainside into the old mill race as an accompaniment to supper at the Vieux Moulin at nearby Duilhac With painful nostalgia (Will one ever go back? Could it ever be the same?) I recall a descent in flaming June from those same wild hills of the Corbières to the cold, clear, oleander-fringed pools of the River Agly in the Gorge de Galamus. Nothing in my experience of the Rockies has ever surpassed it. Nothing in the Himalayas would offer fair exchange.
What a way to discover not only la France profonde, but La France authenthique. Today, the clay of southern England nourishes an oak grown from an acorn I gathered in the great Forest of Tronçais in the Berry country on my way to the famous rose garden of the Château of Ainay-le-Veil. In my small cellar are wines from vineyards where I have eaten my picnic bread and cheese. In the cupboard where I keep my walking gear are seasoned staffs of hazel and ash cut from coppices in Burgundy and Bordeaux and from woods high above the Rhône. La Belle France. Gloriously, incomparably beautiful France. Counting the weeks until I set off from Dunkirk, chastened at times by the temerity of my ambitions, I recall a testing march that one evening found me kneeling, grateful, awed and reverent, in the magnificent Cathedral of Laon and I remind myself of the Chinese proverb which says that a journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.
Or as the sardonic Marquise du Deffand is said to have remarked concerning the legend that the martyred St. Denis walked six miles, carrying his head in his hands, “La distance n’y fait rien; il n’y a que le premier pas qui côute.”