Monday, October 24, 2011

In Love, All Over Again ...

Well I have to admit it really was a lovely day for a trip: bright blue sky and a generous sun. As usual we planned on leaving relatively early, like around 17:00 - as always happens when we make plans like that it was more 17:30 which turned out to be a bit of a shame 'cos when we got to the rocade sud around Grenoble the traffic was moving like a blocked sewage pipe going into a swamp. Instead of the usual 10 minutes it took more like 45 to circumcise the dump.

Still we made it in the end, and I almost sighed in relief as we got onto the route Napoléon to get down to Serres, and thence, at Sisteron, onto the A51 for points south. And despite the constipation at Grenoble and a quick pit-stop at Serres, we still made the trip in about 4 hours, which I suppose means that I must have been speeding just a tiny bit on the nationale, where the straights allowed. (Have to admit it, the further south you go the more petty things like speed limits seem to be taken more as guidelines than anything else.)

Whatever, if you should ever take that road - and I would recommend it, by daylight, for the countryside is beautiful in a savage way, and the Vercors massif spectacular - you will at some point pass the little village of "Le Percy" (named, I assume, after Blackadder's sidekick) and, soon after that, an aire de chainage (which is not a roadside bondage stop, but somewhere convenient to put chains on your car - any place where the snow gets heavy enough to warrant such facilities is not for me).

Should you decide to stop at Serres, which is also worth a halt if only to get an eyeful of the Buësch river, I would advise you against either of the pizzerias close by the car park, for they are touristy and over-priced: head back up the road 100m or so and go into a little hole in the wall called "Pizza Lolo". The owner, cook and doubtless chief bottle-washer is about the same shape and size as a basketball (assuming the basketball in question to be about 1.5m in diameter), but his pizzas are excellent, made with fresh ingredients and cooked as they should be.

We had to wait for about 15 minutes whilst he got everything ready and cooked, and he talked incessantly, so we now know that he was originally from Lyon, came down south for a few days four years ago to see an old friend and stayed - the rest of the details seem to have evaporated from my mind. Probably just as well, there's only so much room in there.

And just before you get on to the autoroute, prepare yourself for the thrill of your life as you pass through Mison les Armands, which a sign proudly proclaims to be the home of the inventor of the speaking clock. (Oddly enough, this turns out to be true: one Ernest Esclangon, astronomer, apparently had nothing better to do with his time one weekend in 1934.)

We finally found ourselves at our destination, a little two-star hotel which, even if it is sandwiched in between a roundabout and the zone industrielle, is reasonably quiet and comfortable, in a kind of shabby provençal way. (That's not denigratory, by the way. It's just that like most things down here it's been burnt by the sun, the grass has more or less given up the effort and if there are little things that don't work there's no point getting worked up about it because it is the south.)

The place also seems to be completely abandoned: I should think it could easily hold 60 people or more, and there are three of us in it (four, if you count an elderly chap I met outside last night as I popped out for a cigar - he told me very confidentially that he'd found a secret door to get in and out, which I suppose was supposed to put me at my ease: if so, it failed) and the staff seem to wait until there's no-one around before doing whatever it is they do. If there are in fact staff: I must admit that I've no evidence for their existence other than that the bed was turned down when I got back here. And that could have been anyone who'd just wandered in off the street.

So as I write this, about 15:30, I'm sitting out in the garden under the trees and I would really like Wifi access but there is NO-ONE IN THE PLACE that I can ask. A sign on the door says that maybe someone will be around between 17:00 and 20:00, but I take that with a grain of salt. It's bloody abandoned, and nobody seems to worry.

Quite honestly, the narrative imperative is going in a direction I really do not like here: little phrases like "skeleton staff" come to mind. If worse comes to worse, I'll try to get a message out by carrier pigeon before the zombies come for us.

(Eventually, I did find someone behind the desk: don't know whether or not they really should have been there, but there was no harm in asking. The access code was written on a grubby scrap of paper somewhere, but that had apparently been filed ... I suppose I could have offered to hack into the router, but on reflection that might not have been such a good idea.)

Anyway, Margo had to set up shop this morning so we crawled from bed rather before my usual time and arrived in the centre of town just in time to see the sun rise behind the chateau. A beautiful spectacle, but my appreciation of it was somewhat tempered ten minutes later when I went to pay for our coffees to find that they'd marked us as tourists and charged three euros apiece for a long black.

So a word of advice: should ever you find yourself in la Tour d'Aigues at some point, in need of a coffee, do not go to the Café du Chateau because you too will be taken for a tourist - even worse, a foreign tourist - and will have to cash a few large-denomination travellers' cheques to pay for your breakfast.

Go instead to the café Zilia, where they will not rob you blind, and serve a pretty acceptable and very generous glass of white for the modest sum of 1€80 (the going non-tourist rate for a coffee, by the way), and which also happens to be just opposite l'Ange Gourmand - which I know I mentioned before, from our last trip down here in June, but which I have no hesitation in recommending again.

I got to have the salade au chevre roti au miel at last, and Margo ordered the roast (NZ) lamb with crême d'ail scented with rosemary, which almost made me regret my choice. Good, simple regional cooking: that can be very hard to find. The only criticism I would make is that their apple, peach and raspberry crumble is more a compôte: not enough streussel for my taste. So I'm picky, sue me.

The French, by the way, do not seem to go in for stag nights. They're definitely more into the morning pub crawl for what they call the enterrement de vie de garçon. I say this because as we watched the sun come up there were three young men and two women who'd obviously started even earlier than us going from bar to bar, and I met up with them again at the café as I got ready for the midday apéro: still semi-erect (that's vertical, capable of standing, not the other thing), at least approximatively. For a given value of "vertical", anyway.

So, we had to go out for dinner tonight: the hotel doesn't really do meals and there are no cooking facilities, so there you have it. As we also planned on getting slightly pissed we thought we'd better get a couple of bottles of wine (is it, by the way, polite to leave the empties in your hotel room? Or should we at least make an effort, and try to flush them down the loo?) so we headed off to Pertuis, which is the closest thing to a big town around these parts, and the proud possessor of a supermarket.

Being there, it seemed reasonable to look for somewhere to eat - at least, it seemed reasonable to me, despite it's being only 19:00, I thought, we can walk around a bit until it gets closer to dinner-time and there's bound to be all sorts of choice.

Like bloody hell. One restaurant that was offering what looked like reasonable, if a bit pricy food (but stuff that I can and do make myself, so that's ruled out), a couscous parlour, one or two proposing the standard steak/frites or magret de canard (boring! I am getting picky) and at least 18 pizzerias. Not interested, sorry. And on top of it, it was but 19:45, which is far too early to even think about eating, so we drove back and had dinner at l'Ange Gourmand.

Where, I'd like to point out, the guy recognised us: not from lunch (well, that too) but from June. I didn't think we did that much to mark us out, at least I cannot remember dancing naked on a table with an ostrich feather up my arse. Mind you, if I had done, I wouldn't, would I? He also, fairly rapidly, identified us as New Zealanders, and made a point of introducing us as such to everyone else. I suppose you can guess the main topic of conversation.

Sunday morning it was, exceptionally, free time for Margo, so we decided to go off and do touristy things: look at quaint Provençal villages, count chateaux, stuff like that. So after a quick breakfast at the bar, and an update on the score (5-0 at that time), we drove through to a place called Lourmarin to get our fill of kulcha.

Do not, by the way, make the mistake of thinking that Provence is pretty. It's not. It's savage, and harsh, and rugged and stark and all those other uncomfortable spiky adjectives (oh, and it rains more often than you might think, and the sky is not always blue, and there is a season for lavender): it also happens to be beautiful. Not the same thing.

Now not too far from us here in Savoie there's la cité de Conflans, a (heavily) fortified village up above Albertville. It's been well preserved, but it's pretty clear that it's more a doll's house than some place anyone actually lives.

Lourmarin, although it fairly evidently lives off the tourist trade (every second house is selling either antiques, crafty stuff or clothes, and I'd suggest you bring your own wine and a picnic lunch unless you really feel the urge for the authentic tourist experience of sitting out on the terrace of a bar somewhere, helping the owner to pay off a substantial proportion of his mortgage), is very evidently lived-in.

And despite what you might think, not everyone seems out to mulct you. By dint of wandering aimlessly we came across a little salon de thé which offered  what turned out to be an excellent lunch for 12€: quiche-style stuff with copious salad and a glass of wine, but well-executed and, for once, actually made on the premises as the punters came in. (Not that you could fit that many in at a time: 16 max, I'd say. Seated cosily.)

So I had a couple of slabs of wholemeal toast smeared with tapenade, on each of which a whole St. Marcellin had melted down. I am not a big fan of olives, I must admit, but it made a nice change from Vegemite.

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