Thursday, 25 September 2014

Beautiful places but a collapsing economy and a bad smell, apparently

As we left the wide Garonne countryside where my lovely sister lives with her husband in an old Gers farmhouse, we headed into a complex hilly country where the layers of civilization are stacked one over another, and the place-names reflect the passing ages.  We pulled up into a bastide town called Puymirol which is pretty astonishing in appearance - it has a five-star hotel, arcaded place, swimming pool, and stunning views all around.  The steep road up to the top  reminded me of Winchelsea near Rye, if that helps to visualize it - but of course here things burn hotter and it's all less green.   

We strolled about, admired the stone buildings, and had a coffee. Monsieur told us the sad story.  He's pleased to have sold up - signed his restaurant away last week. The town's economy - like the whole of France he said - has collapsed. The nearby camping has closed. Whereas last year, the town's famous medieval pageant attracted 3,000 people in one day - with its Templars, knights, jousts, feasts, etc. - this year there was no pageant.  Every business has slumped.  The place is - for now - effectively dead.  He said, this is happening throughout the country. People have no money, so it is a vicious cycle.  He went to get his iPad - started reading out the exchange rate of the euro against the pound, against the dollar.  He was nearly crying.   We did not stay to see the town's necropolis, though perhaps we should have done.

Another astonishing thing about France - from an English point of view - is how unrelentingly uniform it is. That was very striking the moment we came through the tunnel from Spain, but on this journey we have been very aware of how each town, village, restaurant, hotel, crossroads, factory-zone - all of them, conform to their own sector's official way of doing things. You could be plumped down anywhere and find exactly the same thing: signage, schedules, menus, facial expressions, expectations…. This is quite remarkable, considering how huge it is and when you see how tremendously varied the landscape is, and the great variety of all the kinds of farming and industry which are going on. It implies a total obedience or acceptance.  Even local pride is manifest in a nationally equal way. 

We loved the drive up to la Rochelle yesterday - over those great marshes. In the south, there is an emphasis on the cultivation of oysters, with nice shambly shacks in the watery mess, but for a great part of the expanse it appears to be just rough grazing and wild birds.  The sky is huge. The light, bouncing in from the Atlantic, is scintillating, magic.  We doodled about on the coast for a while - exploring the clean, plush seas-side towns reminiscent of M Hulot, and at Rochefort we gawked at the marvellous transporter bridge high over the Charente (ceased working in 1967,  refurbished 1994 and now an historic monument open to foot passengers and bikes during the summer time. 160' high!).

When you get into la Rochelle itself - so historic and enchanting - you realise how well it has promoted itself for tourists.  The huge basin is - as I gasped at you last night - furnished with more restaurants than you can imagine. They push out onto the broad pavements at the back of the wide quays, and through the back streets too, with impressive awnings and sidescreens, and that is not unusual of course, but it's the fact that there are so many of them.  The menus are almost indistinguishable from each other. One had a live piano show going on.  One specialised in ice-cream. But otherwise, there must be more fish soup and moules-frites on offer per kilometre than most other places on earth.  Tiens!  Actually we had a very acceptable formule meal, with just a tinge of aggro underneath... were they waiting to close up? were they going to pounce on us and cook us for the next day's menu?

Today we zooped along northwards to this resting place in Normandy, ready for Calais and the ferry home tomorrow.  We are in Flers, which is not particularly distinguished as far as I can see, but we had a superb lunch right on the banks of one of the Loire River's mighty streams at Chalonne-sur-Loire, and have been enjoying the golden light on the rich farmlands - maize, some grapes, woodlands, more and more pasture, happy cows eating grass (ahhhh!).    Wikipedia says they are not sure what the name of the town means - possibly wetness, or grotty land, or bad smell.  Hmmmn.  The Ibis (cheapo, natch) has the address Grandes Champs, which implies agriculture and open space, but is in fact at the top of a wrinkly-tin-shed area: factories, retail outlets and the like. Luckily we are too tired to take much notice and will stroll down into the town for a light supper.  Meanwhile we commend to you the Bistrot des Quais at Chalonne if you are planning to cross the Loire. It has a fine position, a fine chef, and a fine view of the bridge which was rebuilt after being bombed to bits in 1944.

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