Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Hitching and where people take you

St Raymond with Pexiora church in the background
This year at French House Party, we ran two writing weeks back to back - a workshop week followed by a retreat week. I was a little anxious as to how my energy levels would extend to match the ambition, but I hadn't appreciated this also gave me proper days off. This year was the first I managed to explore the area further afield than the Canal du Midi.

Because I had no vehicle (the bikes at St Raymond are fine for cycling the canal but not hills) I would have to hitch. Those of you who have seen Sealegs will know I used to hitch all over the place and love that sense of throwing myself into the arms of the world and finding for the most part it catches me.

I'd been recommended  Mirepoix market on Monday mornings - to see the medieval town alive with traders. It is 30km from St Raymond on a straightforward route. Sunday evening I inked up my sign for the outward and return journeys and then settled into a novel from that week's suggested reading list compiled by the group - Under the Skin (spoiler alert). Thanks Moira...

However not being a hunky young man in Scotland I felt safe enough... And I was. I walked over a bridge to a small layby on the road to Mirepoix to be immediately picked up by the second car that passed: a young couple also going to the market. We established pretty quickly my French wasn't up to much chat beyond the basics and settled into the ride.

Mirepoix is a beautifully preserved medieval market town, with astonishing gargoyles in the house beams, gorgeous wrought iron merchant signs and an embracing church in the middle of a market selling the fattest asparagus and beefiest tomatoes I had seen in a long while. It was full of lifestylers who followed the summer fetes with their craftwork of pottery, goats wool, instruments, crochet etc etc. I spent a happy few hours wandering round and round not worrying where I was, just drinking in the energy and life of a place so removed from the quiet of St Raymond.

When ready, I walked in what I thought was the direction we'd entered the town - to the river, past more workshops and studios, found a sign to Bram, where I needed to go, and headed across the bridge to where looked like a good spot. I didn't get that far. A shout from the other side of the road. It was the same couple who had brought me here. Did I want a lift back?

Of course I did. And this is one job of travelling - that sense of fellowship that comes from such coincidences, of being on the road together (if only for 30km). We stumbled through franglais for most of the journey back - what I was doing here, where I worked, what they lived: which was a book town, full of artist studios, bookshops, only a few km from where I worked. They couldn't believe I hadn't been there. Patrick Suskin had a house there... They ran the bakery. I should come.

So for my second day off I persuaded Moira to scout out Montolieu as a potential trip for one of the writing weeks next year. It sits on the side of a huge gorge and is populated with artist studios, bookshops, well-tended window boxes, vertiginous views, sculptures on street corners and a most deliciously stocked bakery. We stopped into say hello to my 'friends', who asked if we'd been to Apostrophe yet. We hadn't and were told it was at the bottom of the village: a hotel with artist studios we ought to see.

The sign took us through a tumbled down wall, under a crumbling arch, with hanging electric cables, down some broken and plaster-ridden steps. It felt wrong. It felt dilapidated. "But the sign," whispered Moira... It was true, I agreed, but hissed, "Be quick. Be careful. Be quiet."

At the bottom of the steps was an overgrown open courtyard with four walls, one was just a wall, with windows (all broken) that looked into more scrubland and tall grasses. Opposite that wall was the hotel, with walls that had rooms the other side of them, things in the window sills. Though some of its upstairs windows were broken. There was no one about. We tiptoed inside, to find a lavish, if seemingly unfinished hallway, with empty display cabinets - again some without glass - and a row of dark tall oiled art deco wooden doors, with armchairs either side of them, and a wide sweeping stairway with wrought iron banister curving upstairs and out of sight. The smell of food wafted down a corridor filled with sculptures and chess boards set up to play, wing-backed chairs and nobody. Through the far double doors, a bar was well stocked, and bread lay sliced on the the counter. Nobody. Large photos of people sporting Daliesque moustaches, ropes and tight leather straps hung about the walls. Blue and pink optics glowed in one corner. Next to that was a large lounge with parquet floor, ceiling-high windows, more photos and low leather settees all slightly worn. We felt like trespassers, as if the building was still being renovated, as if someone loved it, as if...

We were running out of time. We had people to pick up from Bram train station.For out final five minutes we headed to one of the studios across the grassy courtyard. More beautiful wood and metal sculptures, half animal, half brutal spikes and soft curves. And more. Paintings, prints, some figurative, some abstract. All hung in a labyrinth around this enormous room that looked out onto the courtyard one side and the scrubland the other. The artist said he'd been there two years, the hotel for six. Which shed new light on what we'd seen. I'd taken photos, but as often with these places they've come out perfectly normal, representing an almost plush looking, expensive hotel, no sign of the questioning air, the tickling weight of still settling plaster, the distant sense of inhabitants.

At least one thing is certain: we will be taking one of the groups there next year for an afternoon out...

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