10. August 2005 · Comments Off on At the Inn of the Golden Something-or-other · Categories: Domestic, General, Memoir

I have been flipping over the pages of my battered Hallwag Euro-Guide, attempting to reconstruct my hopscotch itinerary on little back roads across France, at the wheel of the VEV in the early autumn of 1985. I avoided the big cities, before and after Paris, and the major highways. For a foreign driver, Paris was a nerve-wracking, impenetrable urban jungle, a tangle of streets and roundabouts, and the major highways were toll-roads and expensive; much less fraught to follow the little-trafficked country roads from town to town to town. We ghosted along those two-lane country roads as much as a bright orange Volvo sedan can be said to ghost, the trunk and the back seat packed with mine and my daughter’s luggage, a basket of books, a large bottle of Metaxa brandy (a departing gift from Kyria Paniyioti, our Athens landlord) and two boxes of china and kitchen gadgets purchased from that holiest of holies of French kitchenware shops, Dehillerin in the Rue Coquilliere.

From Chartres, and the wondrous cathedral, I went more or less south towards the Loire; the most direct way would been a secondary road to Chateaudun, and an even more secondary road directly from there to Blois, through a green countryside lightly touched with autumn gold, where the fields of wheat and silage had been already mown down to stubble. The road wound through gentle ranges of hills, and stands of enormous trees. Here at a turn of the road was a dainty and Disney-perfect chateau, with a wall and a terrace and a steep-sloped blue-slate roof trimmed with pepper-pot turrets, an enchanting dollhouse of a chateau, set among its’ own shady green grove. There was no historic marker, no sign of habitation, nothing to welcome the sightseer, and then the road went around a bend and it was out of sight, as fleeting as a vision.

Blois Rooftops

(Rooftops in Blois, from the grounds of the Chateau, 1985)

Blois was set on hills, a charming small town of antique buildings, none more than two or three stories tall, and I seemed to come into it very abruptly late in the afternoon. Suddenly there were buildings replacing the fields on either side. At the first corner, I turned left, followed the signpost pointing to the town center; might as well find a place to spend the night. As soon as I turned the corner and thought this, I spotted the little hotel, fronting right on the narrow sidewalk. It had two Michelin stars, which was good enough for me (plain, clean, comfortable and cheap) and was called the Golden… well, the golden something or other. I didn’t recognise the French word; truth to tell, I didn’t recognize most of them, just the words for foods and cooking, mostly, and could pronounce rather fewer.
The lobby was tiny; floored in mellow rose tiles that had a gentle roll to them, like the sea on a calm day, from wear and subsidence. Blondie looked around with interest: inside it was quite obvious this was a very, very old building: ancient timbers broke the expanse of cream-colored plaster at odd intervals. The manager appeared from another room, an elderly lady in an overall and apron who cooed over Blondie, graciously ignored the hash I made of asking for a room for two for two nights, handed me a room key and said,
“Les auto?” and indicated I should drive around the side of the building. “Marie!” she called, and a teenage girl appeared out of the back, wiping her hands on a towel. The manager rattled off some instructions to Marie, and made some shooing motions to me. Obviously, there was some parking in back, which suited me. I was wary of parking the VEV on the street, always better to take advantage of a secure place on the premises. I reversed the VEV, and drove slowly back around the corner, looking for the turn-in to the hotel parking lot. Halfway down the block I spotted Marie, pulling open a heavy door on tracks, revealing a low arched opening— a short tunnel into a tiny interior courtyard, just big enough to park six cars, three abreast. We had best not want to leave before the last vehicle in tonight, which would suit me fine; I had planned to explore Blois on foot the next day. In medieval times, this would have been the inn-yard, horses would have been stabled here, carts and coaches would have come in through that arched doorway and travelers accommodated in the second storey rooms. Traveling theatrical companies would have performed here, while the audience watched from the windows and galleries above. Now it was just a pocket parking lot, roofed over with fiberglass, and the galleries walled in to make larger rooms.

Marie waited while I got our bags out of the car, and then bustled us down a rambling corridor to a small staircase. The second floor corridor rambled also, and occasionally went up or down a step or two. Clearly the Golden Something or Other was not only very old, but had been added on to frequently and with slapdash gusto on the part of the builders.
Our room was very tiny, framed with heavy, ancient beams and almost entirely filled up by the double bed. We had a window with not much of a view that I remember, and a shallow niche framed in more antique beams which contained an incongruously modern bathroom sink, but nothing else. The WC was away down the hall— I left Blondie with some of her comic books, and went looking for it. It was a good distance away. ( In the middle of the night, I would boost Blondie up so she could pee into the sink, rather than wander that dark and uneven corridor, looking for it again.)

At a jog in the corridor, two room doors were open, and the sound of English floated out: two English couples and a fifth of fine Scotch were circulating between them. It had been a good few weeks since I had run into any other native speakers of my mother tongue, so I said “hullo” and was welcomed rapturously with a dash of Scotch,
“Isn’t just the most marvelous little place?” The two couples were old friends, and doing the Loire Chateau-country motor tour together. “We didn’t have reservations; we got the last two rooms, wasn’t that the most astonishing piece of luck?”
“I didn’t have reservations, “ I said, “I almost never do. It’s not luck, it’s just that I start to look for a place in the early afternoon, when I get tired of driving.”
They marveled at my sense of adventure, and I finished my dash of Scotch, and wondered how it was that I had only met a bare handful of Americans in the course of this trip, wandering around on their own, driving their own car and setting their own itinerary, instead of being stuck thirty or fifty in a group on an immense tour bus, with a guide. It wasn’t like Europe was this immense howling wilderness, after all.

(To be continued)

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