Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Old France, new France and how I miss Miss Baxter

In the 1970s I used to stay at a hotel in Paris called the Britanique, near Chatelet. It was owned and run by the slightly terrifying Miss Baxter, who had inherited it from her Scottish father. She spoke little English but demanded her British title and was fiercely proud of the whole establishment. It had been commandeered by the Germans during the war, and when they left, they tried to burn all their paperwork in the beautiful stone fireplaces - which cracked under the heat.   On our first visit, the toilets etc were down the corridor. Then she installed basins and bidets in each room, behind a little screen. Later, she cornered off small sections to make bathrooms inside each of the rooms....   Now, the whole thing is owned and managed by a large company and way out of our price range and I see that on their website they are not sure if the name has one 'n' or two.  But this story is all about how individual ownership and pride is slipping away, to the great loss and detriment of France's spirit.

In Lyon, on Tuesday night/two nights ago, we were staying in a 19th century chateau now closely surrounded by apartment blocks and suburbia. Its balconies and cellar-fronts were held up with acrow-props and scaffolding. The door was shy and hidden.  The owner was charming and determined. The decor was quirky (selling point). The woodwork had all been tanked so there was a strong smell of recently-stripped pine.    To get in and out you had to unlock and then relock three doors.  To get from the bed to the toilet was quite a long walk, despite being en suite.  The bathroom washbasin was set on top of an old cupboard and was about 18" too high, and too far back to lean over. At breakfast,  everything was set up in readiness for us, long, long before we got to the table. The croissants had been heated under the grill and were burned on top.  But - it was shining with pride and individuality. Someone, madame, cared.

Coming north - of course, I will report that it gets more 'English' the further we come along, that is to say, we now see oak trees and beech trees, in the tracts where vines and sunflowers give way.  We have come up past such veritable names - Cremant de Bourgogne (which marries the expertise of Champagne to the wines of Burgundy), Nuits St Georges, Gevrey-Chambertin, and so on, and sped past. This is not a wine-tasting trip. Here we are, after hurtling a long way, in Troyes.

I had no idea, not an inkling, what an amazing place this is. Blissfully untouched by either of the World Wars its historic centre is an astonishing collection of 15th and 16th century houses made of wood and three or four stories high, laid out on a medieval pattern and still served by churches of such flamboyance and staggering beauty that it takes your breath away. Money has poured in for restoration and modernisation, so there are squares and flowery plantings and fountains.

They call it France's hidden secret treasure, and apparently very few people come here. We have ourselves driven past it on numerous occasions and never known what we were missing. For anyone who likes history, or architecture, this has to be on your list.

The story-board by the cathedral is simmering with rage that in 1420, France's shameful treaty signing the whole country over to Henry V, was carried out in the building. (I say, well, just roll back 5 years, mateys.....).

A highlight was wandering into a litle tabac for a pre-dinner drink. There the owner was smoking like the old days, and had a remarkable display of forms of tobacco behind the bar.  At least eight shelves with at least 32 different brands of ciggies on each, and then further rows of pipe tobacco and loose packs for roll-ups. The Alsatian wine he poured for me into a small elegant green-stemmed glass was utterly delicious, and that plus a glass of eau gazeuze for Andrew came to €3.80.  A drunk was propped up by the bar. One or two older but very pretty ladies came in, kissed everyone though not us. Lights flashed. It was lovely.

And when we sat to eat last night, we got into conversation with a young couple on the adjoining table, and within less than a minute I happened to mention the whale-watching we'd enjoyed on the ferry from Portsmouth to Bilbao, and they said they OWN a whale-watching company in Canada! It's called   So we had a very jolly conversation and once again we agreed that it's these little meetings and interludes which make travelling so interesting. I do so very much like North Americans who venture out of their huge continent.

Anyway, back to my theme.  Troyes is magic, but you know, for some reason, the cafe district is just a bit less than...... There are masses of choices for where to go, but something horribly samey about them all.  We chose one because...?  The service was skimpy and very very slow. They brought the wrong order - that is to say, andouilettes for both of us, which was not ok. My pork, when it finally arrived, had a very nice winey sauce but the meat was dry and really not worth the death of the poor piggie. The chips were inedible though I know that's standard now in France, as it is in English cafes and restaurants. I thought longingly of the outstanding chips cooked in goose-fat which we ate at lunch with my sister overlooking the River Tarn, down in the south, just a week or so ago, the best part of that meal.  The staff were young and looked overworked to me. We had to go and find someone to give our money to when we wanted to leave and then found ourselves pursued because someone else thought we hadn't paid. Just, bleh.  No-one really in charge, no-one really cares.

And here we are in an hotel called Brit Comte de Champagne (and that word 'Brit' seems to attract English-speakers), inside a little run of those astonishing jettied wooden  buildings, and how I wish we had been here ten or twenty years ago.  It's been 'done up' and the prices raised accordingly. The ancient wooden beams have all been painted, there's something corporate about the common parts, grand glass doors, shiny stuff.  It's true that up here in the bedroom the 'bathroom' has been squeezed into the corner just like Miss Baxter did in her rooms in Paris forty years ago, with flimsy walls and the floor sloping to accommodate the shower waste-pipe. And the bathroom is TINY. You have to move the little rubbish bin outside if you want to sit on the loo.  There's only room for one bedside table. The wardrobe is grandly described as un placard but is really just a tiny space with a sliding door, which is itself rather grandly panelled and wallpapered and has two handles though you can only reach one of them. The very few electric sockets in the room are arranged in various inaccessible places - near the ceiling in the bathroom, behind the headboard of the bed (which is luckily loose so you can reach it by rearranging the whole bed).... The wifi is intermittent.  The floorboards in the corridors squeak, which used to be the sign of a good hotel.  So, it has all the wondrous trappings of old France, but I fear it's now owned and managed as part of new France.  What we like about this hotel is all the quaintness.... Somehow, the awkwardness of the old ways is ok, while the slapdash money-grabbing of the new ways is not.  (Though I have to concede it's great having the car tucked into the garage downstairs, included in the price).

Still I will leave you with this pretty picture which I snapped while we wandered around... There are three huge fountains in what must once have been a barge basin down by the river and canals. Just look how pretty it is.....

No comments:

Post a Comment