Evaux-les-Bains is a pretty spa village in the Limousin region, almost slap bang in the centre of France, where the generous French health system sends patients suffering from rheumatism and disorders of their veins to enjoy the curative effects of the natural hot springs feeding Evaux’s thermal baths.
Having arrived there in a very bad temper after long day of hiking and an exhausting climb, I was initially immune to the charms of the village. After erecting my tent and having a hot shower, I went in search of a meal. Evaux-les-Bains didn’t appear to have much to offer, and rejecting the pizza van in the village square I headed for the remaining option, an ancient and gloomy hotel.
I ventured into a dim lobby, where an old man transparent with age was slumped over a newspaper, and grim-faced Madame la Patronne sat behind a high counter. There was only a set menu, and I asked cautiously whether there was a possibility of substituting the meat with something I could eat. Vegetarians are still regarded in many French restaurants as alien lifeforms to be feared if not hated. However, Madame was most accommodating. Would a nice omelette be acceptable? She would tell the chef.
The restaurant was a nightmare. It was full of decrepit old people talking in whispers, and dipping into assorted containers of pills which occupied so much room that there was little space on their tables for plates. Remembering my manners, I said “Bonsoir,” as I walked in, and they all momentarily stopped whispering and stared at me suspiciously. None spoke. They resumed their whispering. The walls were smothered in grubby cream paint and a violent flock wallpaper of that furry texture which makes you want to scrape if off. Dusty chandeliers dangled from the ceiling, but each table was decorated with a small vase of fresh flowers, and the cutlery and glasses gleamed on crisp white cloths.
Service was not swift. The sole waitress smiled patiently as her decaying clients debated whether to have red or white wine, still or gassy water, dessert or cheese, coffee or not, and whether they would partake of a digestif. It seemed to take forever before they finally made a decision. I wondered how I could escape from this frightful place, but the narrow doorway was right in the centre of the room, which meant passing all the staring whisperers, Madame had been most kind, and I was awfully hungry, so I stayed grumpily put.
A salad of tomatoes, egg and tuna arrived in the fullness of time, without the tuna. By the time I had managed to re-attract the attention of the waitress, I had eaten the rest, but asked what had become of the tuna.
“Ah, ” she explained, “that was the lunch menu.”
“But,” I said, “it was the same menu you showed me for dinner. It said ‘tomato, egg and tuna salad.'”
She shrugged. “OK.”
Off she went, and returned shortly with a heaped plate of tuna.
“I opened a whole tin for you,” she said.
The omelette, with green beans, was excellent, and so was the raspberry ice cream, and as I worked my way through it, one by one the slow old people tottered out of the dining room. When the bill arrived, it included a reduction, in homage to the omelette. This was unusual. It was the first time I had ever been charged less. Madame came over and enquired whether I had enjoyed the meal, whether it was sufficient, was the omelette good? Despite her grim expression, she was quite charming and hoped I would enjoy staying in Evaux-les-Bains.
The transparent gentleman nodded and raised a frail old hand as I left.
“Bonsoir, Madame,” he croaked.
Revived by the meal I felt less irritable, and rather ashamed of my earlier bad temper. The path back to the campsite led through the lovely gardens of the Abbey of St Peter and St Paul, which dates back to the 11th century. A whole choir of blackbirds sang, and white acacia blossoms scented the air.
A three-inch long black beetle with exaggerated antennae and sturdy legs was trying to block the road to traffic. I dragged it off, its limbs waving furiously at this indignity.
By the time the church bells tolled 9.00 pm, I was entombed in the sleeping bag. As the blackbirds’ song faded into the night, the cricket chorus took over, and shortly the nightingales joined in. Today was the first day since leaving La Rochelle, twenty days previously, that I had not heard a cuckoo.
From “Best Foot Forward – a 500-mile walk across hidden France”