It was thanks to the combination of our rebellious teenage daughter and the late lamented Richard Binns, self-publisher of the very best French guide books ever written, now sadly hard to find, that we enjoyed a memorable and surreal evening high in the Aveyron department of the Midi-Pyrenees.
Our angelic child had morphed overnight into an unmanageable monster. Willing compliance became steely-eyed defiance. As an example of sheer awkwardness I’ve never encountered anything on the same scale. Under the spell of a spliff-smoking boy called Aubrey, who played the guitar and lived in a squat above an undertaker’s with a group of other feckless young people, the daughter decided she was old enough – at 14 – to make her own way in life and join them. There were tantrums, there were tears, there were threats, and then there was kidnap.
Yes, that’s right, we packed our bags, and one for our darling daughter, forced her into the car, and headed for France, with no plan except to get as far away from Aubrey as we could, for as long as it took to return our little blossom to her former lovely self. Our itinerary was vague, but guided by Richard’s “French Leave 3,” we found delightful small towns and excellent eateries over the following fortnight as we made our leisurely way to the Mediterranean.
We gave the darling daughter some spending money, which she initially earmarked for a bottle of champagne to take back for Aubrey. But by week two she had changed her mind and bought herself a CD of Simon and Garfunkel, and a fuschia coloured lipstick. By the time we arrived at the Mediterranean it was the first week of August, when the whole of France descends on the Midi, something we had not taken into account, and there was no room at the inn or anywhere else, so we ended up spending a week at a nudist camp at Agde.
By the end of week three, confident that Aubrey was no longer a threat to our domestic harmony, we were homeward bound on a scorching day in a car that had no air-conditioning. Hot, tired, sticky, sick to death of Simon and Garfunkel playing endlessly, hungry, in crumpled shorts and flip-flops, we followed a contorted lane up the side of a steep gorge surrounded by wooded mountains, and pulled up outside one of Richard’s recommendations, the Hotel Ste-Foy in the quaint village of Conques.
The hotel foyer was thickly carpeted, the elegant staircase glowing white stone. Through French windows I could see tables set for dinner in a flowery courtyard. Trying to look as clean as possible I hesitantly approached the desk. Dared we presume to sully this lovely little hotel with our grubby selves?
With a graciousness that would have impressed royalty, Madame led us up to a charming low-beamed and spacious room in the attic, overlooking the Abbey of Sainte Foy. No weary travellers were ever more grateful for a cool room, and a warm shower, followed by a perfect meal in the shaded courtyard.
Clean and replete, we wandered around the narrow cobbled streets, lined by ancient half-timbered houses with steeply-pitched slate and tiled roofs, glowing apricot in the last rays of the boiling sun. In this unspoiled medieval village, our 20th century clothing seemed out of place.
The sacred abbey of Sainte Foy which dominates the village is a place of pilgrimage, named after and containing the relics of an unfortunate young girl martyred in the 4th century for her Christian beliefs.
While we are not religious, we appreciated its grandeur, the work and dedication it had taken to construct this great building in such a remote and inaccessible place, and the coolness offered by its stones in contrast to the hot evening air. Later we were sitting on a low wall enjoying the beauty and peace of our surroundings. Suddenly a voice rang out, the voice of a young English boy.
“Oh woe is me, unhappy mortal! Tragic victim of a thousand million ills! Listen to me!”
There was a small figure standing at an open 2nd floor window, its arms flung wide.
“Wilt thou take pity upon this miserable wretch? Tormented by fever, debilitated by disease, this festering flesh calls for release.”
A group of people passing by stopped beside us, as the unhappy mortal listed his ailments.
“Diphtheria, malaria, scarlatina, polio, gangrene, asthma, peritonitis, abscesses and fractures, intestinal parasites and fungal infections …I implore you to release me from my agony.”
The little orator enumerated an encyclopedic list of the problems that could beset the human body, while we listened with growing amusement.
“And so I now take my leave, good people, bidding farewell to earthly toil as I shed this useless body and take flight to the heavens.” Then he lowered his arms to his sides, and gave a small bow.
After a moment of stunned silence his audience clapped and cheered, and the young misery took a bow before closing the window and disappearing. I’ve always wondered what became of him – is he now a stellar thespian?
From our bedroom we could almost touch the bell tower of the abbey, and when the bells struck the hour the sound hung on the air long afterwards, until it faded away to a hiss, and a final gentle whisper.
Although it was long ago, the memory is still clear in my mind. And for that I thank our beautiful daughter, now the mother of an equally beautiful daughter of her own, and Richard Binns, traveller and writer extraordinaire, who has moved to the great beyond to continue his work. Without them, we would never have had that enchanting evening.
Please check out the link below – the photographs of Conques are superb