A little over 4 hours of travelling, 2 trains, 1 book – that’s all it takes for an escape. And 1 battered, easy-to-carry bag. That old bag is actually a vital requisite in my personal fiction of a casual traveler: saunter out of a station into the white glare of a burning midday sun, briefly pause for orientation in front of a city-map, then pick up again your bag in one nonchalant sweep and walk gaily off.
Well, we’re all entitled to our own cherished fictions – even if they would crumble under any scrutiny. Because obviously, a contemporary sophisticated traveler does not carry bags but elegantly pulls a sleek suitcase-on-wheels behind her. And neither would any truly blasé traveler set off for a 30-minutes march in the heat to her hotel, she would take a taxi.
But hey, that sophisticated traveler would then miss out on the sheer essence of a French provincial town post 14th of July (1) – it’s just lovely to walk down these hushed, sun-flooded streets, past lazy roadside cafés (with but a few lost tourists passing through on their way South), lovely to chuckle at street names which, so utterly without irony, evoke France’s past military prowess (Avenue de la Première Armée, Place de la Légion d’Honneur). And one just has to veer off one’s route, to stroll into one of these quiet parks with fountains and monuments, pompously commemorating more past French glories.
The hotel lay in a modest, residential part of town. Streets with mom&pop shops (mostly closed), local cafés, artisanal looking warehouses or garages, and a varied set of houses ranging from turn-of-the century bourgeois town-houses to unassuming workmen’ s houses. There was nothing flashy or pretentious about the hotel – but, being located in the “Rue des Fleurs” (street of flowers), the owners had clearly decided to live up to their street’s name. The façade was painted in a soft earthly ochre and the window-sills were all overflowing with red flowers (2).
Entering from the glare outside, the hotel-lobby, slumbering in a semi-darkness, felt pleasantly cool. And it looked all so endearingly neat and sober. The bare furniture and the sparse decorations showing years & years of use and of meticulous care. Red tiles on the floor. An old clock ticking. And a hotel-clerk in keeping with his environment: meticulous and genuinely friendly.
Ah, and those stairs – with that copper-colored iron hand-rail not even attempting at kitsch glamour! Those corridors, with the worn but carefully groomed carpet, with those few pieces of unassorted furniture gathered over many decades. And the room – the room was perfect. Minimalist in the most engaging way - without any trace of trendiness, without gaudy decorations, without any pretentions. A simple room scrupulously furnished with what a guest needs: space, white walls, a bed, a chair, a table, a no-frills bathroom.
Also … a room with a window. A window with white wooden shutters, slightly ajar - dazzling light pouring in through the creaks - and with a transparent white muslin curtain rippling softly in the breeze.
One stretches out on the bed – soothed by so much sober soft whiteness. Soothed too by the peaceful murmurs seeping in – far-off laughter, twittering birds, some muffled city-noises (3).
Yes – this is a good place to stay. This is where I want to be.
3 peaceful footnotes
(1) “French provincial town” means here: any town that is not Paris, not located in the south and neither sea- nor mountain resort. Post 14th of July (France’s national holiday and kick-off date for massive summer-holiday migrations) these towns go into a slumber until their sun-tanned inhabitants return from holidays. One may of course wonder what the hell any sophisticated traveler would be looking for in such a town. One may even question the predicate “traveler” for anyone going to so unadventurous a destination.
(2) Don’t expect any more suggestive detail from me when it comes to describing flora-specimens. “Red flowers” will just have to do.
(3) « Mon dieu Mon dieu. La vie est là. Simple et tranquille, cette paisible rumeur-là vient de la ville. » (Paul Verlaine) / “my god my god – life’s out there – so simple & calm – that peaceful murmur comes from town”