Le Journal Chapter 3
Sunday 3rd August 1947
…and so did the first part of the morning. Snoozing lightly, we awoke at every stop to rearrange the cricks in our necks. From time to time we drank soda water, with no relish at all and I have had a marked aversion to it ever since.
Came the dawn! The mountains of southern France began to enter the scene. I queued up for my morning wash with the sun rising over the tree clad hills. The whole party was rousing in various compartments and faces horribly bleared and washed out wanly greeted the morning. By the time we had reached Toulouse, however, the world had assumed a more roseate hue and we felt we could face the rigours of another day with equanimity.
Descending from the train in Toulouse, Peter led us madly, though not so madly as in Paris, on to the train to Aix les Thermes. Here we deposited our packs once more and headed off in search of a meal. Peter volunteered to stay behind and look after the bags and deputised Scotty as leader. Assuming his responsibilities with a touching air of modesty, he cried “allons mes enfants” with what can only be described as gusto and led off briskly into town.
Along a maze of subways, past gesticulating French officials, until we reached the street and received our first glimpse of Toulouse. My first impression was not good. The general appearance of dirt and slatternliness was far from pleasant, especially feeling, as I did, somewhat under the weather.
Scotty, growing more important with every step, expanded with the vigour of his own conceit until I was afraid that he would burst. Strutting across the road, he consulted furtively with a native and finally led us to the Cafe Perpignais, where he gathered us together and ordered coffee. The proprietor, no doubt thinking that anyone desiring coffee at this unearthly hour, and from a cafe, no less, was insane and he declined to serve us. Scotty found someone less particular next door and we eventually sat down to coffee from bowls as big as porringers. A small plate of horribly crozzled pastry was produced and we toyed pleasantly with this confection until we decided to go back and relieve Peter.
The coffee, whilst very acceptable, was inadequate as a thirst quencher and so we looked around for some alternative. “Limonade” was forthcoming and, having conveyed my meaning to the bar tender with the aid of several of the French speaking ladies I managed to acquire three bottles. There was some difficulty in getting them away though as there seemed to be a bottle shortage. The obliging bartender came to the rescue, however, when he realised my predicament in disposing of three bottles in one sitting and produced an empty wine bottle into which all three were poured.
It was at about this time that I adopted a woollen stocking cap as an essential adjunct to the travelling gent’s attire and this, with a two day growth of beard and an open wine bottle in my pocket, must have presented the appearance of a particularly disreputable pirate.
Pirate or not, I was now facing the morning’s journey in a more human frame of mind and i returned to the station in high good humour. En route once more, we exchanged yarns about our respective rambling trips and gorged ourselves on odds and ends we had found in the shops of the fast disappearing Toulouse. The journey continued until we reached L’Hospitalet. Actually, we had planned to leave the train at Aix les Thermes but the train failed to slow sufficiently for us to disembark so we carried on to the next stop. Here we experienced a setback. The bread shortage was so acute that we were unable to purchase food. We drank beer and lemonade and then pushed on to the Col de Puyromens, where we had booked our fist night’s bed.
We set off on foot and the climb was not too strenuous by Derbyshire standards but, with the sun high in the heavens and our lack of sleep as a contributory drawback, we found the going pretty tough. Recourse to the map became a necessity at frequent intervals, for which we were all truly grateful, as we could rest every time it was produced.
Striking the road on our climb upwards, we met a party of natives resting at the roadside. Two of the girls were beauties, which may have accounted for Scotty’s sudden desire for conversation. Anyway, when the party caught up, our tame scot was putting his French to good use and was clearly prepared to stay for some time. Peter helped him to extract information about our route, which we didn’t really need but he obviously took great pleasure in getting it. Eventually, we managed to re-start and Keith signified his disapproval by starting out on his own at a spanking pace. We all followed. He was an energetic walker and kept in the lead but I managed to keep close behind him, although the others straggled behind somewhat. We stopped at the summit, where the road made its third loop and drank from a roadside spring. Then, sitting down, we awaited the arrival of the party.
Once more together, we followed the road for about a mile until we came in sight of a red roof, which we assumed to be the Col de Puyromens. Sturdy little cattle and sheep, each with a wooden collar and bell on its neck, grazed in the grass on either side of the road and grasshoppers seemed to throng the sparsely vegetated moors for miles. Barren though it was in places, we found it beautiful to behold and stood for a short while, just taking it in.
We arrived to find the hotel to be quite a palatial spot and not at all the simple country pub I had been led to expect. Our boots rang somewhat loud on the marble floor as we walked the seven or eight miles across to the reception desk. I had followed Scotty in and stood behind him as he began, in his uncertain French, to explain our presence to the landlord, a tubby individual, who evidently regarded us with suspicion. Trying to follow the conversation was far from easy but, apparently, Scotty worked the oracle at last. I turned, smiling proudly, to the rest of the gang, only to find them absent.
At this point, we noticed that Peter had gone, with the rest of the party, into the building next door and I was despatched by Scotty to fetch him back. As I crossed the intervening stretch of ground, I noticed that the name of the place I had just left was the “Hotel du Col”, while the place before me was called “Hotel 2000”. With horror I realised that Scotty had gone to much trouble to get us safely into that midget palaces, while Peter had already booked beforehand at the rather dismal shack before me. I made haste to inform Peter of the course of events and, arriving in the gloomy entrance, a far cry from the marble halls I had just quit, I discovered him being badly harangued by a French lady. As soon as I could insert a word, I told him of the position. Smoothing the French lady down as much as possible, we left, although how successful the smoothing had been was difficult. I personally felt that the temperature was still a trifle chill.
Peter told me that the previous landlord of the Hotel 2000 had irresponsibly allowed the hotel to go to ruin and she, the owner, had been forced to dismiss him. At the moment of our arrival, she had not been able to return the place to its former habitable state and was having to send customers round to the Hotel du Col. I received this information with some relief, partly because of the trouble I knew Scotty was taking to get us in there and partly because of the uninviting appearance of the Hotel 2000. I heaved a sigh.
As we entered the Hotel du Col, the landlord was in the process of shooing the rest of the party upstairs into a series of pleasant little dormitories. It may have been marble halls on the ground floor, but it was more like a Youth Hostel upstairs. I felt strangely at home. With our own wash bowls and clean sheets on the bed, we felt that God was indeed in his Heaven and all was right with the world.
Having indulged in a wash and a shave, I went downstairs to find Maureen, Pat and one of the Welsh ladies, (Footnote – must get to know all their names.) sitting on the steps and bewailing a monstrous thirst. Selflessly, I immediately dragged them inside to test Pat’s French on the bar attendant. First of all, I asked for beer, whereat a glass of some dark syrupy liquid was served. It tasted glorious, if a little strong and the Welsh lady and I indulged together. Maureen and Pat drank Poupie. I later discovered that I had been drinking, not beer (I had guessed that) but Byrhh. This, it appeared was a wine of quite good quality.
As we sat, feeling suitably cosmopolitan, a French boy with some knowledge of American, not English, please note, asked if he might converse with us, in order to polish up his English. We felt it churlish to point out to him that improvement might not be the thing, since he was learning from a Yorkshireman, three Welsh ladies and a Scot. What effect this might have on his accent, I shudder to imagine. With some difficulty, we managed to elicit some information from him and discovered that he had spent some time with an American Red Cross Unit and was very fond of displaying his meagre linguistic abilities. We were soon nearing mental exhaustion, when Peter came in to shoo us off to dinner, so with some little relief, we politely shook hands and parted.
Dinner was strange but satisfying. First came soup, of a tasty but unidentifiable flavour, followed by a plate of carrots, just carrots and only carrots, well flavoured with garlic. The next course consisted of red meat with potatoes and this was followed by fresh peaches, true luxury. Throughout the meal, brown bread accompanied each course. Not Lyons’ Corner House but, as I said, satisfying.
For some peculiar reason, Death was the subject of our conversation during dinner and Burial and Cremation followed on as by general consent. It was by no means a mawkish discussion and we explored all manner of ideas and opinions. We had exhausted the possibilities and the dining room was empty by the time we adjourned. To help settle my dinner, I enjoyed a pleasant little walk and then returned for a glass of Poupie before bed.
Le Journal Chapter 3