Bryan’s friend Dave is a history teacher and avid bird watcher. Dave likes nothing more than to be a tour guide for the area and when he offered to take us on a “Magical Mystery Tour” we readily accepted. We met up with Dave at his tiny holiday house in Crecoux. As far as I could tell there are only 3 houses that belong to Crecow – Dave’s, a farmer’s and a house belonging to the Mayor of Les Guerraux, a small village of approximately 300. Dave and his wife purchased their house at the end of this very secluded rural road in Burgundy 12 years ago. With a broad smile, he refused to tell us our itinerary for the day, insisting that it be a surprise even for Bryan. We piled into his car and were off.
Our first stop was “Signal du Mont”. A wooden observatory, built upon the ruins of a Gallic fort, at 472 metres high it affords an amazing panorama of Burgundy.
There is no way that my camera is able to do it justice. I know it sounds ridiculous, but I think that this was the first time that I realized just how vast France is. Beautifully kept fields, tiny villages, small towns as far as the eye can see. And in the far distance, the mountains of Massif Centrale. An auspicious start to the day.
Dave then takes us on to the town of Bourbon Lancy. Bourbon Lancy is known primarily as a spa town (les Thermes – as in the thermal waters), and there is a thriving tourism dedicated to taking the waters. However, we are there to walk through the Medieval Quarter, which is a stunningly well-preserved part of town.
There is a clock in the stone gateway in which a manikin pulls a chain to chime the hour. Immaculate gardens, cobbled streets and wooden beamed homes within the walled boundaries.
A vision of old France. The rest of the town is equally beautiful, with cafés and boulangeries that beg to be explored.
From Bourbon Lancy, Dave takes us to a small wilderness preserve on the Loire called La Fleurie. Here you can see how drastically the Loire has changed its course over the last 100 years. The river’s curves have lessoned and farmers must battle the changing flood plans.
A farm sits atop the last remaining cliff on the Loire, and the cliff edge comes closer every year. The changing flow has created a small island that is preserved as a nature habitat, although Dave admits he has never seen any wildlife other than birds on it.
We are getting hungry and decide to head to Cronat for lunch. Cronat (population approximately 600) is a town that people mostly go through to get to the highway. Pretty, very quiet, Dave says it is a “one horse town”, but I can’t figure out what the horse might be. We lunch sitting outside at a small restaurant, and although the meal is disappointing, the company and the circumstances are not. And everything tastes better after a glass of Kir and a carafe of wine.
From Cronat we go to Port Thareau, near St. Hilaire-Fontaine (population less than 200). This is a very out of the way section of the Loire that Dave tells us used to be the docking point for the Royal Court of the Bourbons. They came down the river (against the current) from Paris, and were met at the dock to proceed by carriage to their country chateau. It is a magical spot, with 4 houses that face the river and a verge that is a perfect picnic spot.
It also has a more recent history that I find mesmerizing. The side of the river that we stand on was, during the Second World War, in occupied France. The other side, literally a stone’s throw, was Vichy, so called “free France”. It would have been a fairly easy place to slip across, as many Jews did, hoping to escape the Nazis in occupied France. Although not the best solution, as Vichy also rounded up Jews to send to the camps, being in free France could buy a little time. Today, the river is so shallow, one could easily walk across. A possible gateway to freedom. Tim falls in love with a house that is a complete ruin. Trees shield the house almost completely from view. Vines grow through the windows.
It is a vision from Briar Rose and I am afraid that Tim will, any moment, try to make his way inside this magical story.
Bryan and Dave, both of a far more practical mind set, are confused by Tim’s passion and eloquence on the subject of a dilapidated house. We eventually pry him loose and head on to Decize. With 7000 inhabitants, we are seemingly thrust into a booming metropolis.
Dave navigates us toward the centre of town, which is accessed across a bridge. Where once there was water from the Loire, the bridge now crosses a field of wildflowers. The bridge and the town beyond are filled with a small town bustle of energy. It is becoming blisteringly hot, so we head to the city centre for a cooling drink. Dave suggests I try Perrier Menthe – Perrier with mint syrup. It is the perfect refreshing drink on such a day. We walk though Decize, through the fortress walls, and back along a canal toward the Loire. We come across a fabulous photographic exhibit “Des Forets et des Hommes” (check the link) set up outside amongst the tress of a small wood beside the river. The photographs are amazing and show everything from deforestation in the Amazon, to tree frogs in France. We slow down to take it all in and are moved by the beauty and the horror. One of the most startling pictures was a show down between a hummingbird and a viper. (check the link)
Sunburnt and weary, we head back to Bel-Air. Thankfully Bryan had made his famous Ratatouille the night before so although we settle into one of our fabulous 5 course meals, we do so with little effort. I throw in a few potatoes to roast and make crudités and a light salad. The Ratatouille is incredible (the inclusion of braised endives is an amazing innovation) and is complemented by quickly fried pork chops. Our cheese supply is in good stead and for dessert we have wild blackberries, picked the previous morning.
All in all, the day has been a wonderful window into this corner of the world. I am beginning to see life in a very different way. This is not like rural Canada, where all roads lead to a mid sized city and where everyone shops at chain stores. Although there are cars and conveniences like washing machines, computers and cell phones, people are leading quiet lives. Small villages still have several boulangeries and cafés. Small towns have grace and people who are open and friendly. I have yet to see anyone rushing.