For quite a few of the last twenty years, we have had the incredible good fortune to be invited to my brother’s house in a village in the Charente region. While it’s been a long and happy time for us, those years are a mere blip in the life of the house that has been there long enough to sell potatoes out of what is now the living room window to pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela, if the cockleshells on the wall of the neighbouring Prevote are to be believed. That part is at least 400 years old, and welcomes us, hot and weary, into its cool interior, courtesy of foot-thick walls, with air-conditioning provided by local stone and an understanding of the climate.
The “new” part, was added in about 1906, and the result is a rambling collection of rooms and spaces, each with shuttered windows that look out on to tranquil green vistas that feel completely undisturbed by anything remotely modern.
The room I like best looks out to an old well, the roof of a small chateau, and a grassy area where I have no trouble imagining Emma Bovary pacing back and forth waiting for her lover.
Over the years it has accommodated any number of people, and holds many memories of family holidays, with all the cousins packed into the large room overlooking the wisteria-shaded terrace. This is the heart of the place, a large table around which everyone gathers for the morning croissants, the lunchtime cheeses and pates and tomato and basil vinaigrette, and dinners involving much scrubbing of moules and drinking of rose.
Lolling about in deckchairs, chatting and napping and reading, is also pretty much obligatory. And there’s always added pleasure to be had from reading a book about the place you’re in, (if you ever find yourself chugging up the Yangtze, you really need a copy of Simon Winchester’s River at the Centre of the World for the full experience.*) But life came perilously close to being art for us this summer as, between the duck pate, the locally sourced nettle soup and the quails’ eggs,
we all voraciously consumed Martin Walker’s brilliant books about Bruno, Chief of Police whose “hood” is the small town of St Denis in the Perigord region, so alluringly recreated for the reader. Bruno uses his local knowledge, his deep love of the region and its people, and his all round gorgeous Frenchness to solve all manner of crimes, and we got so carried away with it all, we liked to imagine we were following in Bruno’s footsteps.
So we were all trying to emulate Bruno and tap into the timeless rhythms of French village life. The morning walk for the baguette and croissants took us past the high – walled chateau inherited and shared by eighteen cousins whose presence is indicated only by the pock of tennis balls and the odd glimpse of wide green lawns that made us long to be invited in.
Then we pass the church – Romanesque tinkered about by some nineteenth century renovations, but still the place of weddings and funerals and remembrance plaques for the boys from the village who died in two wars.
We stay close to the narrow verge as cars go past the large, beautifully kept cemetery,
the organic garden co-op, the small shop that opens when it feels like it, Bettina the hairdresser, and the bistro on the corner. Then we turn down a narrow lane, to where the slow river opens out for swimming and boating, and in the surrounding fields bright yellow sunflowers turn with the daily movement of the sun.
Just as for Bruno in his beloved St Denis, the cycles of landscape, history, family, religion, and of course, food, thread their way through the life of this village, where people are deeply embedded from birth to death. And it is this sense of permanence that the orphan Bruno has embraced in Martin Walker’s novels. As well as solving crimes, Bruno shows us how to make a home, and become part of a community. And we’d like to do the same. All right, we weren’t decorated for conspicuous gallantry in Bosnia, but we do help old people across the road (does that count if it’s each other?) We don’t have post-traumatic flashbacks, only post-indulgence indigestion, but in a Bruno-esque rejection of the new-fangled we don’t have a telly either. We too scour the pages of Soud–Ouest for a reliable commentary on all things Charentaise, and I like to think our French is about as good as his English.
And surely we’re on the same page (pun…sorry) as Bruno in lots of other ways. His Vezere river winds through to the Dordogne past chateaux, under bridges and out into wild countryside, ours slowly wends though the Charente Maritime from Angouleme past dignified Saintes, with its imperial Roman arch, and functioning amphitheatre,
on its way to the Atlantic at Rochefort. Like St Denis, our town has the requisite overstaffed Mairie, Gauloises-tolerant cafes and misshapen, but delicious asparagus at the weekly market.
They have their caves, we have our remarkable Lapidiales sculpture park, sponsored by the commune that esteems art and culture just as they do in St Denis. We can almost match him chateau for chateau and we too have a charming Scottish neighbour whose dinner invitations are much prized. Our croissants are as curly, our baguettes as crisp, and while we’re not blessed with truffles, our small sweet moules brought in daily from the mouth of the river and bought by the shovelful, take some beating. He has his unique vineyards, we have the Charente Pineau and a little way up river, a town called Cognac is known to produce a rather quaffable drop. He has his local history, we have the life-size dummy in the foyer of the Mairie dressed in mediaeval clothes to commemorate the battle of Taillebourg. In 1242 it was a pivotal strategic triumph for Louis 1X, and now the lovely town just over the river from us is home to the Auberge des Glycines, whose current strategic triumph is individual soufflés drizzled with Grand Marnier, enacted on the terrace overlooking the Charente.
Bruno would approve!
And our gendarmes are just as handsome, and their uniforms so chic they put Les Plods to shame.
But sadly when it came to our brush with the criminal underworld, we let you down Bruno. We were so befuddled to find the house had been burgled that we forgot all your sound advice and picked up the glove dropped by the gate! We contaminated the crime scene! No wonder the dashing Sergeant Barre sighed deeply, peeled off his gloves, and gazed at us with Gallic disdain. “ ‘Ave you not been reading your Bruno books?” he exclaimed. Well, I made that up, but I’m sure that’s what he was thinking.
Pardonne-nous Bruno. Nous sommes desole!
*The River at the Centre of the World: A journey up the Yangtze by Simon Winchester
**Bruno, Chief of Police First in the series of the Bruno Courreges books by Martin Walker. (Beware, they’re addictive)
Apologies for lack of accents for the French words. I haven’t figured out how to do them.
We can never go to the house without feeling the loss of our sister-in-law Moyra and niece Hannah, sadly no longer with us. May they rest in peace.