All this talk of the Tour de France bicycle race has reminded me that I think I love France more than any country I have ever been in.
That comes about, probably, because my first trip to France was taken in 1952 on a wornout old tandem bicycle with my wife Shirley in an August that was beautifully sunny and hot from beginning to end, to such a point that I finished with the impression that it never rains in France in the summer.
Quite erroneous, of course, as we found some years later when we were camping, with our car, in Brittany, and it rained ferociously almost every day. Such was my confidence in the French weather that I remember one day we decided to decamp from Brittany and make for the Loire valley, where assuredly there would be wonderful sunshine. So we packed up our sopping tent and drove all day with our car full of querulous kids until we arrived at Amboise, where --- wouldn’t you know? --- it was raining as hard as it had been doing all day.
On this first holiday, of course, we had no kids, and were able to please ourselves where we went, and when. We traveled every day for a month, covered some 1300 miles, and had the time of our life. On a normal day we would rise at 6 a.m and take off along one of France’s beautiful country roads until we would hit one of France’s beautiful little villages where they would already be busy baking the day’s bread. We would buy a baguette --- is there anything better in life than a fresh French baguette? --- and a chunk of Brie or Camembert, cycle out into the countryside, and --- probably somewhere within smelling distance of a magnificent pasture of blooming clover --- sit by the roadside and have our breakfast. Does life hold any finer experience than that?
We started and finished in Dieppe, the port of Normandy that had so central a place role during the World War. We took off along country roads deep into the hills of Normandy, plodding uphill on foot with our heavily laden bicycle, and speeding down the other side, hour after hour.
Not far from Dieppe, a set of panier bags that we had had especially made in England split right across the top --- rubbishy English workmanship and material --- but it happened that on that first night we asked if we could stay in the yard of a peasant farmer. Graciously granted permission, as soon as the farmer’s wife saw our dilemma, she appeared with a needle and strong thread to repair our bags, so that we could continue with our journey. This was the first of many acts of kindness bestowed on us by the French country people.
We came from an England that was still under wartime rationing, but as soon as we got into the countryside of France we were astounded by te magnificent food in the many charcuteries and patisseries, even in small villages. We didn’t have much money, but by being careful we were able to eat like kings.
Cycling all day in the hot French sun, wearing only a pair of shorts and a t-shirt, we soon were as brown as berries, and within four or five days we felt as fit as a couple of fiddles. I can still remember the early evening of about our fifth day out, when the countryside began to slope ever so slightly downhill, and we felt like we were flying. That day ended with our asking again of a peasant family if we could pitch our little tent in their yard: of course, they gave us permission, but not only that. The housewife had been baking one of those magnificent apple pies that French peasant families seem to have on hand at almost any time, and we began to get a soupcon of why French cooking was the most famous and highly regarded in the Western world.
We headed south towards and through Bordeaux, and then further south along a very lonely country road through a forest. A newspaper we picked up while taking a drink at a roadside café revealed to us that an English family called the Drummonds had been murdered just the previous day in an area that we mistakenly thought was somewhere close to where we were, inducing a minor nervousness in us for a day or two.
In fact the murders had taken place many miles away to the east, but they have turned out to be one of the most celebrated crimes of the last century that still elicit books ---- more than a dozen books and thousands of articles have been printed --- 60 years later. Sir Jack Drummond was a celebrated British scientist. The man imprisoned for his murder Gaston Dominici, was a 75-year-old peasant farmer, whose lack of motive has given rise to recent speculation that Drummond could have been a spy, killed for political, Cold War motives.
We reached a beautiful town called Mont de Marsan in the early evening, too late to prepare our own food, so decided to have our first meal ever in a French restaurant. We chose a posh-looking hotel, The Richelieu --- which still, according to Google, is an extremely handsome, well preserved building --- and although we looked like a couple of tramps after our six or seven days on the tandem in the sun, we were welcomed at the door by the restaurant staff almost as if we were royalty, another example of the politesse and suavity of the French. We had a superb meal, which perhaps irrevocably biased us in favour of French food for the rest of our lives.
A few days later, in the Pyreneean village of Bagneres-de-Bigorre our mended English panier bag finally gave up the ghost and we had to put some of our limited money into buying a set of French bags. It was worth whatever we paid for them, because they lasted us for many years, far longer than did the old tandem. In this way we learned about the superiority of French bicycle equipment.
By the time we had emerged from the lower Pyrenees and were heading towards the Mediterranean we had settled into a pattern of rising at 5 or 6 a.m., cycling all morning, and resetting our tent in a new location by 1 o’clock, giving us the rest of the day to investigate whatever town or village we ended up in.
Our bias in favour of the French and their attitude towards food was reinforced when our bicycle got a puncture at Beziers, a small city in a wine-growing area, just short of the Mediterranean. While waiting for the puncture to be mended we wandered into a small café at about 3.30 in the afternoon --- an hour when, in England, every restaurant would have been closed --- and asked if they could give us something to eat. A man and woman who were having their own meal at a table in the back got up, said, “Well, maybe we could find something for you,” and emerged a few minutes later bearing a vast flagon of steaming hot and utterly delicious soup. Ah, the French and their food! That night we slept on top of a cliff overlooking the Med, at Cap d’Agde. And he next day we passed through the fishing village of Sete, pausing to watch the fishermen sitting on the wharf as they mended their nets.
Not only did we make it to the Pyrennes and Med, but also to Paris on our way back to Dieppe, and in Paris we cycled around the Arc de Triomphe and the Place de la Concorde on our old bike, and also went to a number of shows that were cheap enough, and totally delightful.
All this was enough to blow the minds of a couple of kids fresh out of New Zealand, but the whole experience was topped when we arrived at Dieppe with some time to fill before the ferry left, and on one of many wharfside restaurants we had our first experience of Moule Marinieres, a dish that I have since tried in many countries, although none that I have ever tasted could compare with that Dieppe version.
Years later, in the 1960s, when I was in England again for represent a Montreal newspaper, I always took off a month of every summer so that I could take my small family camping in France. We camped in almost every region of the country, and I have never had any reason to change my initial belief that France is one of the world’s greatest countries, among the most beautiful on Earth, and the French are certainly among the greatest peoples who exist anywhere.