Thursday, 5 June 2008

Memorable hosts #2

The three short weeks since we came back to France have been varied like they were two months. And once again it is the people we’ve spent time with and the places we’ve stayed that make up the kaleidoscope. Shake the tube and here’s what we see:

-  Madame Marie-Marthe Maitre’s garden is the love of her life, or has been since her husband died. She warned us she might not answer the door when we arrived. “But don’t worry; just go through the gate at the side. I’ll be in the garden.” After an evening meal and a breakfast where like a grandmother she sat at the side of the shadowy room making sure we ate, she led us outside. We had made the grade. The garden was dripping, as much with climbing roses and clematis as with exhausted raindrops. There were fuchsias and lilies, hydrangeas and peonies. A few years ago Mme Maitre bought the garden of her elderly neighbour, doubling her own plot. But already it was full and she ought to stop buying new plants. “But there are just so many I fall in love with!” It is good she has the garden, as she’s thinking of retiring. Not so much from offering bed and breakfast (to the relief of walkers in this sparse area) but from the restaurant and bar she also runs in her old, stone-built Burgundy house. The house too felt like we were visiting our grandmother – full of the collected fancies of a lifetime. Glass bottles, china cups on a china cup stand old farm implements, embroidered pictures that she did herself, back when she had time. The food was robust and her assessment of the way village life was going, candid. “The factories have closed and when the only customers in the bar are two old grandpappies nursing a glass of wine all day, forget it. I could be working in my garden!”

-  Monsieur and Madame Prevot of La Renouillère are relaxed but their rooms are new and comfortable, and their long dining table is at the heart of matters. Monsieur’s deadpan delivery is underpinned by an inherent consideration for his guests. When he said we should telephone if we couldn’t get back from Bar-sur-Seine under our own steam we believed him, though thankfully didn’t need to exploit his kindness. Mme Prevot, who has the delightful name of Edwige, speaks decent English and like her husband is alert to people’s needs: the elderly and hesitant couple forced home early through illness had no sooner considered calling a hotel in Arras than Edwige had, unasked, sought and printed off details from the internet ready. The thoughtfulness was not oppressive because it came with humour and self-mocking. M Prevot claimed they cast spells on their guests to make them return – and a young French couple, there for the second or third time, confirmed it was true. If comfort, good food with local and home-made ingredients, interesting conversation and the offer of bike hire or escorted mushroom forages in the Forêt d’Orient are a spell, then bring on the magic.

-  Gilles and Catherine Fonteniaud bought Le Cloître three years ago in the little village of Diou on the banks of the Loire, south of the medieval-cum-spa town of Bourbon-Lancy. Diou is strung-out and ambivalent, a place which the busy road batters and whose large but boarded-up hotel speaks, for once, of marital breakdown and a descent into gambling more than a loss of local industry – which in fact seems to be thriving in the form of a concrete staircase maker. But enough of the barman’s gossip. There’s also a craft pottery, a pretty church and walks and fishing by the river. And a marina over on the canal beside the town.

The Fonteniauds call it the Cloisters but it isn’t really. It’s an eighteenth-century landowner’s house with an inner courtyard and wide verandas outside. You step through the grinding iron portal from the street and find you’re surrounded by as much peace and greenery as any traditional cloister could offer. A shaggy garden full of colour and running out into the trees of ‘le parc’. It’s Alhambra-like in the warm rain, dripping and scented.

The rooms of the house are mainly accessed from outside, from the wide, tile-floored veranda with its old metal tables and chairs, its box of galoshes for the guests to borrow, its pile of tennis racquets and glimpse of the swimming pool. The young Labrador sits and whines a few doors down but is happy to investigate us and David’s stick-wrestling skills. Outside our window is a rich kitchen garden fringed with wild strawberries. Less wild but nearly as scented garden strawberries appear for dessert on the table later. It’s around the table under the wood-beamed ceiling that we and our hosts pass a long, chatty meal while the dog brings each of us a tea towel from the kitchen to play with.

Although Gilles and Catherine bought their dream house only recently, they are local people from Dompierre-sur-Besbre with a love for the history and traditions of the region, traditions that include good gardening and good eating. Peasants here used to eat their fromage frais with salt and pepper not with sugar. That’s how Gilles eats it, and now so do I. This area gave the French it’s Bourbon royal dynasty and received in return a wealth of small chateaux, courts and fortified farms in the hills all round.

When they acquired the house it was run down and Catherine wouldn’t move in until their own living space was done. Since then, it has been a continual job of converting and renovating room by room, learning how as they go. Gilles was still up a ladder painting in the hall when we arrived for dinner, but hid his physical weariness well. Our bedroom was peacefully spacious and the bathroom palatial. Palatial too the two dining rooms that open into each other and that can seat twenty-one for meals, if they have that many staying. But it felt just as natural with four. Meanwhile, in the spirit of their parents, perhaps, the Fonteniaud’s two sons take time out from more serious jobs to put on juggling and acrobatic festivals.

- The Chateau de Montpeyroux near St Léon is one of the small chateaux built in the region by the followers of the Bourbon court that Gilles had spoken about. Dating to the eighteenth century times its farmhouse, land, school house and ancient chapel and presbytery were the heart of the little Montpeyroux village long before St Léon was thought of. It remained in one family long into the twentieth century, eventually passing to a niece who had an excess of castles already. Now the Fizzarottis own it, calm and laid-back chatelains thoroughly enjoying their retirement from international business. And they’re bringing the castle back to what it was: a mostly self-sufficient unit embedded in the local community. As we arrived, wild laughter leaked out of a barn. We peered inside to see a group of middle-aged women busily restoring and reupholstering furniture amid avid gossip and giggles. A cottage industry, we assumed. A ladies’ club we later found out – for fun, but useful too.

We had asked about a meal when we booked the room but were told they would be too busy, so we asked if sandwiches were possible. Sustenance rather than entertainment was what we needed, which was how we came to be eating around the Fizzarottis' kitchen table, sharing potluck and leftovers while our clothes dried in the machine. The tasty food was almost wholly home grown – even the duck terrine that they had taught themselves to make and the bread that was came from their wheat, milled at a neighbour’s watermill. It was the most relaxed, homely meal yet, maybe because our frames of reference, underneath, were similar and Emmanuel and his wife were such good company. They laughed over their mishaps in learning to be farmers and refused to get worried by anything. A grand hobby I suppose, rather than a living.

Then we had a tour around the chateau, which was like the set for Gosford Park, all hidden doors for the servants and ballrooms, a boudoir in a tower and walls half-a-metre thick. The kitchen table where we ate was in the butler’s pantry, but there was a grand room for more formal tables d’hôte. Upstairs, the rooms have been lovingly decorated by Mme Fizzarotti in period style with furniture hunted down in sales. All except the ‘historic room’ whose four-poster bed, heavily-carved furniture, silk walls and velvet drapes were all original, made to measure for the Lord’s bedchamber. You can book to stay there too. But we thought it might have ghosts and anyway, David was so in love with a beautifully-carved medieval blanket chest in the hall that I think he would have slept there if he could, vampire-style.

-   Le Relais du Lac might not be an obvious place to recommend, but the owners made it memorable. A sizable hotel by the lake just south of Le Mayet de Montagne, we were nevertheless the only people staying there. We had an idea we had been the only guests for a good while. I suppose we chose it for the Logis de France label, a symbol of reassurance. And yet the Cazals seemed so dazzled by idea of having guests that they couldn’t have put themselves out more. Did we want a shower or a bath? We had booked a shower, but it had been a hard day and we fell on the suggestion of a bath. Could we ask him to put the heating on to get our clothes dry? Of course! And Mme Cazals took all our clothes to hang up in the huge basement boiler room where she dried all of her laundry, kicking the almost as huge guard dog out as a precaution. Later, as the only diners in the long rustic-style restaurant, we heartily welcomed the full plate of mixed salad and the steak with onions and potatoes – fortifying food, and tasty. And we appreciated, almost despite ourselves, the USP of the place: Mr Cazals playing his accordion through a synthesiser at the far end of the restaurant, just for us. He was a surprisingly good musician, and the sounds coming out felt like a whole band not just one player. It was our wedding anniversary and the only thing missing was The Girl from Ipanema. Afterwards, Mr Cazals leaned by the table and talked music with us as one disciple to another and his references ranged far beyond the horizons of a little town in the Auvergne. It was easy to giggle, but there was something majestic about his belief in music. Even if the only civilised countries in the world, according to him, were France, Britain, America and Germany.

-   Half an hour from Chabreloche the day’s rain finally caught up with us. We pulled into a tree-shadow to shroud our rucksacks in orange and to pull on jackets and hoods. And there we stood, oddly contented as the tree was providing more thorough protection than usual. Still, when a white shape in the doorway further down beckoned, I grabbed the poles and ran. It would have been rude not to. We hoped only for the deeper shade of their open garage, but “Voulez-vous du café, un boisson chaud?” A hot drink – that would have alerted me, even if the whiff of Merseyside didn’t. We were in an English household, unsure of their French but determined to rescue the drowned rats. So for the length of the downpour we settled to mugs of coffee and biscuits around their kitchen table. We’d been speaking English with Dutch and Belgian fellow walkers, but this was English with English people, and we all knew what we meant, down to the hinterland of TV programmes and village fêtes. Nigel and his wife buck all those horror programmes of moving abroad, I’m delighted to report. Their purchase went well, as have the renovations and repairs. They are surrounded by friendly and chatty neighbours and a welcoming local church, and they are loving every minute. So no documentary-makers needed there, thank you.

2nd June 2008

1 comment:

Steve and Reena said...

Two questions:

1. Has David shaved all of his hair off? It looks a bit like it in the last photo of this post

2. Have you listened to the parakeets story yet?

Hope you guys are good.