Sunday 17 May 2020

1994 France

22.6.94 Vence

Not Saint Paul de Vence – that's just down the road.  A man opposite reads Nice Matin in the dappled shade.  Fine place for lunch, at La Régence Café.  Good journey to Genova, Ventimiglia, Nice, now here.  Telephoned through to a bed and breakfast (sic) near Avignon.  In front of us, a house with curiously mottled plaster…  The light here, of course, is stunning, and the surrounding countryside appropriately scorched and blinding.  Driving along the coast road: amazing series of tunnels with very short flashes of blinding light – almost like some abstract demonstration of something.  Quite an engineering feat.  Not too much traffic – it must be hell in the high season.  First time I have driven the length of France.  The sense of possibility…

Having found this place – Mas de Castellan in Verquières – by the usual serendipity (recommended by someone recommended in a book), it turns out to be a gem.  Cicadas saw hugely in the chestnut trees.  House is ivy-covered, and fresh like a slap in the face as we enter from the oven outside.  A generous lawn at the back leads to the swimming pool, where we now sit. Inside the house an attic of old furniture, very organic.  Interesting images around the place – van der Weyden, collages, original, indeterminate oils.  Our room very simple, pastel shades on plaster, uneven.  

After a swim, shower and rest, to Saint Remy – charming, not too touristy.  To L'Olivier – with a maître d' of incomprehensible accent.  One-way system makes for nice tour of town.  Still very light (22 June) and very warm.  Alas, I cannot touch alcohol, and so I am reduced to aiding the cola empire.  As we come here, we glimpse some wonderful limestone (?) outcrops.  Having decided to stay here another night (I've always wanted to see the Camargue), perhaps we'll find out what.  But really this is a cliché of an idyll: the skies, the landscape, the setting of the house.  Excellent food – mousseline du saumon exquisite.  Fine red sun and near (99%) full moon low in the sky above the field. We return to our room to find contrapuntal frogs outside.

23.6.94  Verquières

Breakfast on the terrace under a huge plane tree, near the pool, looking back to the house.  The sun quite high already, dappling the table cloth.  Behind us, water pours from a gorgeous fish head.  The trees rustle with the refreshing breeze.  Our rooms completely covered in ivy, brownish-red, almost matching the pantiles above.  Long, peaceful night.

To Les Baux (of Bauxite fame).  Passing through Saint Remy again – full of life, the trees shading the street remarkably effectively.  The road to Baux running through the hills – very fine.  Roman ruins outside Remy.  Inside Baux, slightly prettified, but good harmony, great position.  From the top (cf. Sigiriya) hazy view towards Camargue (but no sea…?)  Now sitting by ruins to the east. Very strange, half carved out of the rocks, so half organic, half artificial.

Ici, Arles: sitting in Le Grillon, right by the side of Les Arènes – which are pretty impressive.  Interesting to note that they lie a good 4 metres below the present road level – à la Egypt, I presume.  Utterly clear sky, pretty damn hot.  Useful parking system here: free from 12 to 2, so relatively good time to come.  Place is quiet, provincial, peaceful.  Swifts swoop and soar.  Excellent food: toasted goat's cheese, loup (fish) – excellently presented – fromage frais, all for 79FF – nowhere in England do you find this.

Down to Saint Trophime – very beautiful facade (half covered).  Inside, high and spare – and above all cool in the thunderous heat outside.  Lovely main square (with Musée Lapidaire in Sainte-Anne church), very French.  In the car, moving it, I burnt my finger on the steering wheel, so hot is it…  Back in the Place de la République.  Behind me, a man opens up the Musée Lapidaire: gouts of dark cold air gush out.  To the seaside, Saintes Maries de la Mer. Surprisingly busy – rather disappointing – sea polluted, lots of people.  But fresh breeze.

Now in Restaurant Xa, Saint Remy, rather classy.  We are the only ones [Keith Jarrett playing?]  Xa from Xavier, we learn, who speaks Italian, having spent ten years in Italy.  The foie de canailles excellently balanced by the mostarda.  The wine cool and crisp.  Strange this place – cinematic props, 20s furniture, old crinkled mirrors, tippy tables, good wooden hall-type chairs, candles on all the (otherwise) empty tables.  Darkened-gilt chandelier, 30s clock on the mantelpiece.  Very civilised, to summarise.

24.6.94 Asprières

Valley of the Lot.  Long drive today – though not so much distance as time.  Up to Florac – pleasant winding road, little traffic, lunch there.  Then a little after, too tempting to pass by Gorges du Tarn – a long-desired itinerary.  Now waiting for dinner herein Asprières – served in a spacious hall/dining room as part of inclusive price: 440FF for two, bed and board.  Pity bathroom separate – and no key on the bedroom door…

25.6.94 Blois

Amazingly, it is cloudy – good for travelling – and raining, less good.  I over-indulged in the cheap local wine last night, but try to console myself that it was worse for Sri Lanka's Giardia than for me…

Going back to yesterday's drive, the Gorges du Tarn begins as a fine stream between high cliffs – very Lake District – but soon deepens and broadens into a wider meandering stream in a huge canyon.  Reminds me of the river gorge into Kashmir – only smaller.  Weather was stunning – and almost no traffic, which I think is probably totally extraordinary.  In fact, there was only one time where we were stuck behind a bloody camper van.  Fine place just after the optional ascent into the hills – bridge and small village to the left – looked idyllic with its church.  People canoeing everywhere.  

One thing in Provence: saw an ad in Provencal: "Dieu soup com el es buon" or something…  Elsewhere, lots of shops in Provencal – not to mention all the "mas" – "farmstead".  

Blois – 19 ans plus tard.  In the Villa Médicis, Saint-Denis-sur-Loire.  A real château, though a kind of youth hostel atmosphere prevails – no locks on the doors.  Aperitifs before dinner: three yanks, two French as fellow guests.  Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" in the background.  The place is full of charming touches plus evidence of on-the-line compromises – the peeling paint, the bubbling wallpaper.  But prints, pix, porcelain around the place.  And yet nearby, rather tacky semi-suburbia.  

French motorways – well made, but so full of curves – at this time of year, well-nigh empty – one car per kilometre.  About 500km today, starting in the luscious, rolling Valley of the Lot, passing through the Auvergne (ditto), then up to the rather dull Massif Central.  But definitely a place to return to in the south.

26.6.94 Honfleur

Cool but not unpleasant.  The thing about driving up from the south: you notice how the average car number plate increases – like an index of where you are.  

Honfleur (hi, Erik), eating chocolate waffle (impossible).  Very busy, but picturesque.  Long time since I was last here (six, seven years?) and then only passing through…

27.6.94 Cabourg

Yesterday was a day to forget: all the way up here for rather unsatisfactory gîtes, then lousy food (and sad, too: the young waitress trying so hard…)  We have to drive to breakfast...slept nearly ten hours – this driving takes it out of you.  

Street talk: the French plaster their streets with signs – in red, blue, green, yellow, white, plus a profusion of standing signs – many warning you that there exist other signs to come. French rationalism I suppose.  On Saturday, French cops everywhere with radar guns, or just standing, menacingly, by the side of the road… Only 50 km/h in the towns.  Normandy quite English-looking – the half-timbered (brown and white) houses.  Villages dead yesterday, very weird.  To get here, just outside Honfleur, we followed this crazy woman from the main house, through tiny lanes, past a bloody caravan camp, to this place in the middle of nowhere.

Cabourgciao.  Room 217 in Proust's hotel – fine view from the balcony onto the grey, cold sea.  Ah, well.  Good to be back – even at 700FF a night.  Eating now on the promenade Marcel Proust – for 40FF, bun and coffee.  Passing along the coast, all the 'villes, I think of the little train.  Cabourg itself rather tackier than I remember.  And I can't find "Actuel" anywhere…

To Dives, and the church of Notre-Dame.  Plenty of Gilberts in the list of knights with William – but no sign of Proust's Persian church – was this it?  Or was it fabrication/elsewhere?  Dives rather strange: old/new, without a real centre – between Cabourg and Houlgate.  Re-looking at the west door of the church, it could be the one…  Interesting: the names of the knights – about 40 Rogers (Hrothgar), and 50 Raoul (Hralfr), good Viking names.  And the strange name Wadard, and Tovstain = Tofstein.  To think that England's history took a huge turn from here...and now look at the place.

Exquisite meal as ever in the hotel's dining room, (though the Proust-like maître d' seems to have gone).  Now slightly drunk on our balcony facing the sea: sun (at 9.30pm) low and golden, approaching a distant sea (the sands at low tide so broad).  Rivulets silver on the sands as they run down.  Grey ghosts of ships on the horizon (where we will be tomorrow).  Strange – and also perfect really…  I wonder what will happen when the money runs out?  Cabourg, a name to conjure with.  The sun setting in fine Ra-style, sets fire to something far out to the east…

10.15pm – the fire goes out…

28.6.94  Cabourg

In Proust's dining room along the beach (though since modified).  Stunning morning.  Eating our madeleine and figs...

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