Tuesday 28 July 2015

Quintessential Provence

After sweltering heat, a cool breeze is playing and the days are rolling by. I will try to write something more interesting soon, I promise, but for now I have been pottering around the garden. This pot of very fragrant lavender from Roussillon is perfect on the table under the olive tree in the courtyard.

In years gone by, the glossy-leaved Diamantina, with its never-ending profusion of white bell flowers has always done well up sunny walls here, and so I have high hopes for this one. On evenings when we have guests for dinner, I'll light the lanterns in the courtyard. It makes a magical setting.

One day, I fantasize, I will have a garden beyond as luxuriant as this one at the Chateau La Verrerie at Puget-sur-Durance.

Sunday 12 July 2015

Two for the Road, driving through France

Driving south through France in summer. For a certain kind of British holidaymaker - Francophile, wine-drinking, book-sun-and-food-loving (I am all of these) - the popping of the car, like a cork, from the ferry or tunnel terminal onto the northern French autoroute is the start of another adventure.

And every year, as Rob and I barrel through Amiens, or Rouen and have the inevitable "Are we going to avoid Paris?" debate (we usually end up doing battle with one or other of the capital's gridlocked ring roads because he says the road to Chartres and Orleans is "too boring" and too far to the west to have any chance of finding a perfect hotel for the night in Burgundy) we recall other journeys, other years.

When was that first disastrous stay in Versailles? It was 1997; our daughter was one year old; and I don't know why, but I just don't like the atmosphere at Versailles, no matter how grand the hotel we stayed at. But wasn't there another time there? Yes, in 2005. We'd had a tyre blow-out, in the faithful old silver BMW convertible we kept for sentimental reasons, viz: 1991 (Dordogne, Aveyron and down into Spain), and 1994 (unforgettable stay at the Chateau Eza above Cap Ferrat, followed by a farmhouse in the Tarn). Which was the year we drove down with my old friend Chris, stayed in a weird old hotel in Tonnerre and spent rather longer than intended tasting wine at the Chateau de Pommard? (Answer: 1986, and a wine-themed relais is beginning to emerge.)

Remember that old film, Two for the Road (1967), in which the married couple drive from England to St Tropez, remembering other trips over the same ground, other stages in their marriage? Well, we're getting to be a regular Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn (in an ever so slightly less Hollywood great, elfin beauty way) bickering our way through the dull northern fields and industrial estates.

But it's actually quite useful, having the marital spats about, for example, which hotel it was where our friend Richard reduced us to tears of helpless laughter at breakfast with his observations about his sleepless night in a room next to two antique dealers. Several kilometres pass as I persuade Rob that it was the Hotel de la Gare near Macon, and I remember the name of the hotel because Richard began his account, with ominous pomposity, "I realise that, as this is the Hotel de la Gare, one should be prepared for a certain amount of noise, let us assume of shunting on the tracks..."

I should make it clear, just in case anyone wants to be over-sensitive, that the source of our hilarity was not so much Richard's ever more lurid tale but his Victorian Englishman abroad delivery of it, as he calmly spread jam on his croissant, having expressed disappointment at the lack of Oxford marmalade. We were all about 24 at the time. The good news is that Richard is one of the few people I know who has become less pompous with age.

Actually, I have an authentic memory of being driven the Dijon-Lyon-Montelimar-Avignon route more or less contemporaneously with the making of Two for the Road. The Sixties may have been swinging for Audrey and Albert on their drive south, but my family on the road from Brussels to the Costa Brava in Spain cut an altogether less fashionable picture.

We were Four for the Road: Mum, Dad, younger sister Helen and I, in a Ford Cortina with suitcases lashed to the roof-rack. It was May 1968, and while students were manning the barricades for the Paris revolution and strikers disrupted the rest of France, the imperturbable Lawrensons of the British Embassy were setting off for Spain come hell or high water. Dad had done some calculations and worked out how much fuel we'd need to get to Spain if no service stations were open in France. The jerry cans full of petrol were in the boot. As a concession, Dad took the hard decision to stop smoking his customary Rothmans while he was behind the wheel and we set forth at dawn smelling like an oil refinery. My sister and I were both sick before we crossed the border. No doubt, these days, our parents would have been arrested - on any of several counts - but we made it in one piece, though rather green around the gills.

What all this accumulated experience - Rob has his own decades of family trips in camper vans and back-up tales of horror - means is that we have quite of directory of tried and trusted hotels and stopping places for the first night of the journey.

Sometimes, the joy is in booking a treat for ourselves, like the Chateau de Vault de Lugny, in which case there will have been pleasurable discussions beforehand and a reservation made. But this time, we decided to take pot luck, like we always used to. It was getting fairly late, when we arrived at the town of Auxerre in Burgundy, one of those time-honoured halts for the British hurling themselves south from Calais. We weren't particularly hopeful - we've stayed in Auxerre before, and neither time was a great success. But we were later than normal, as we'd taken the four-hour Newhaven-Dieppe ferry due to all the disruption at Calais. It was past eight o'clock, and even the chain hotels on the outskirts had packed car parks.
The first hotel we saw close to the centre was the Hotel Normandie, a solid, ivy-clad hotel, of the kind you always hope to find. I went in. Not only was the welcome warm, but we were lucky: they had had a cancellation. Up the staircase, just like the staircases always used to be in French hotels, we were shown a spacious room overlooking a quiet garden.
There was no restaurant, so we walked out into the town for dinner. We could have gone into the main square, but - perhaps because of Two for the Road, and because we'd been playing Joe Stilgoe's New Songs for Old Souls jazz album in the car, featuring the gorgeous Gold On Silver about an old cinema and classic films - we noticed the Bistrot du Palais, in what was once a cinema.

It was our second piece of luck. Not only was the interior a cinema-lover's delight, with what looked like original movie posters all over the walls, but the food was fantastic: again very traditional French, the kind that makes you wonder whether you haven't just walked into a dream. (If you go, try the tarte poireaux et chevre - it's heavenly.)


After dinner, feeling replete and slightly tipsy - Auxerre is very close to Chablis - we wandered around the town for a while, lingering under the fifteenth-century clock tower, originally built on the Gallo-Roman town walls.

It hardly needs saying, given that this was one of those times when everything worked out beautifully, that we slept like logs, and woke relaxed for another day on the road, heading into the sun. Definitely an evening for the archive, to be recalled in the future - and to be revisited.
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