When we moved to France many moons ago, we had this idea of using our new continental base as a launch pad for visits to the various neighbouring countries of Europe. No Channel to cross, easy-peasy.
In fact, we’ve visited Italy once and Spain twice in 16 years. Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the Nordic low lands and whatever Czechoslovakia is called these days have yet to be graced by our stately presence.
The last time we went to Spain, two years ago this April, we rented a cottage in the Alpujarras, an uncommonly verdant region way down south in Andalucia, not far from Granada. It was lovely, but the drive down the Mediterranean coast put me off for life. The Costa del Sol was like a vision of some dystopian hell, where nature has been stripped bare and replaced by a sea of plastic, glistening in the fierce glare of the sun and billowing in the hair-dryer wind, under which tasteless fruit and vegetables are force-grown with fertilisers and pesticides for the voracious European market. Never again, we decided.
And so it came to pass that we have spent virtually all our holidays in France. After all, isn’t it the most visited country in the world? When you live here and you can explore the place at a rather more leisurely pace than that of the annual frenetic fortnight’s break, you realise why. I often wonder what it was the French people did to deserve such a beautiful country. It’s like the old advert for Topics: a chocolate bar that has gone the way of Tiffin bars and Five Boys chocolate. ‘A hazelnut in every bite,’ proclaimed Toby the squirrel. Well, here in France, there’s a treasure at every turn of the road. Increasingly we ask ourselves the question: ‘Why bother going anywhere else?’
I remember the excitement of seeing the Pyrenees for the first time. My spirit soared into the stratosphere. I came to the conclusion that the Béarne – with its green, green valleys under a dramatic backdrop of jagged mountain peaks – couldn’t possibly be beaten. (Now there’s a good slogan! How much could I charge the local tourist officials for that one? ‘The Béarne – it can’t be beaten…’)
Well, the thing is, it can. We’ve just got back from a few days away in Savoie, a truly stunning area that belonged to Italy until 1860. I’m not sure how it came to be French: a straight territorial swap perhaps, or the result of some financial chicanery along the lines of the Louisiana Purchase. Anyway, it’s French and I’m as delighted as Queen Victoria reputedly was when she travelled to Aix les Bains under a pseudonym to avoid the paparazzi of the time. (‘Who’s that dumpy little character?’ ‘Oh, Countess Balmoral or some such minor dignitary.’ ‘Not worth the film then?’ ‘Na.’)
If there’s one sight that thrills Monsieur Sampson, the holidaymaker, every bit as much as the sight of the sea, it’s that of a fresh water lake set among the mountains. Aix les Bains is at the southern end of the Lac de Bourget, apparently the biggest natural lake in France. It extends 20km or so north to the point where the mighty Rhone heads off across country towards Lyon and all points south on its epic journey down from Lake Geneva. The lake is limpid and inconceivably blue and surrounded by precipitous slabs of Alpine mountains. It’s a setting to induce a Victorian monarch to throw off her corset, unroll her stockings, hitch up her skirts and wade in the water with a song in her heart.
We were staying, the Missus, the Hound and I, up river from the lake in an old wine-grower’s cottage on the steep eastern slope above the canal that links a diversion of the Rhone for the purpose of hydro-electricity. The cottage used to belong to my friend Claude’s grandmother. She spent the entire war there, hiding away in one room with a metal sink and a small wood-burning stove. She gave it to Claude and his conversion of her cellier into a modest but comfortable cottage for four would, I am sure, have garnered the old woman’s compliments.
Inside were all kinds of artefacts and curios of a bygone age, including two pristine rolls of the most destructive-looking toilet paper ever conceived by a sadistic manufacturer of bathroom accessories. My God, they made ‘em tough in those days – the people and the toilet rolls.
The great thing about Savoie is its timeless beauty. Things have changed, of course, since Claude’s grandmother’s frugal days, but not irredeemably so. People still work the land and even in mid August the area is not overrun with cars and tourists. You can look out over all that mountain greenery and imagine that all is still well with the world.
Monsieur Sampson, his wife and dog – even his daughter, should she ever wish to holiday with her parents again – will be returning to this little piece of potted Shangri La again on future occasions. Meanwhile, he shall continue to explore this beautiful land, which has not yet been overrun by human beings nor denuded of all its natural resources.
Aren’t we lucky to live in such a country? I do hope the natives truly appreciate that which some mysterious deity has bestowed upon them. Here’s another slogan for you. It should earn me at least a million euros. ‘France – why holiday elsewhere?’