Backpack strapped on and ready to move, I marched onward and outward of the Youth Hostel, away from comfort; a comfort, to be fair, that had held me back, that had repressed my inner flame for too long. Yes I was over it, over these post-University blues, over this lack of motivation I constantly felt. I mean for God’s sake, I was travelling! And ten months had gone by. Now don’t get me wrong, I had done some awesome stuff and lived ten months of high adventure. But it was all under the veil of a slight depression, what you may call post-Armageddon state after four roaring years of University.
And so with that in mind, I hopped the tram to the outskirts of Bordeaux. I was effectively doing a loop, an in-depth adventure through the bowels of France. And I’d rekindle that inner flame through sheer physical exertion. I’d see the spires of Bordeaux once again in a month or so. Seen on a map, this presented something quite symbolical. I had been tearing my way through Europe, from England to Morocco. I preferred the developing world but I didn’t want to see it again until I sorted myself out. And hence the adventure, leaving the main tourist drag and taking some time out before I got stuck back into the backpacker life.
And my adopted new mode for the month? Walking my tits off. Camping every night, living amongst the stars and doing it rough. I’d hitchhike the stretches between the best parts of the area, along rural back roads and amongst the locals.
I had been brought to this corner of the world for God knows what reason. The book that I’d found in an English second-hand bookshop had something to do with it: ‘Three Rivers of France’ by Freda White. It was a travel classic written 60 years ago, in fact so classic, the copy I had was a reissue of the original text with all of the original information on hotels and the like. And besides, she wrote with a pretty witty hand. Described by Listener Magazine as intelligent, observant and never dull, she could write a plane down from the sky. I mean how can you not visit this area when she explains things as such?
In fact, the town is so serene that the doorway is apt to be occupied by a hen educating a brood of ducklings.
Well enough on Freda for the time being. Now France. Yes, France. I never thought I’d stay in this country for long but here I was. And I felt something good about it too. After all, the French are at the heart of that very European pursuit, the pursuit for ‘Le Joie de Vivre’. For a life lived neither for material gain nor for some sort of nihilistic booze-influenced farce. Ney, for a life lived with passion, where the simple joys and in equal parts those more intellectual can be pursued in good health, where the richness and pure vividness of experience can be enjoyed to its fullest extent. And as it so happened, so was I now.
So there I was, on the outskirts of Bordeaux, awaiting a bus in the afternoon heat. It took me out over the first hills of the river region, amongst ghastly industrial estate interspersed with some Bordeaux vintages. Landed in Libourne town, I trekked my way out, waving off the last signs of that horrific industrial brutalism. Now I was in wine district proper!
It was a good slog to my first port of call, the village of St Emilion, now racing the afternoon sun as it sank to the depths below. Across fields lay fairytale manor houses, their conical slate turrets glaring in splendour. I found a pumpkin and nicked it for supper. What’s more, on the way up the hill to town, I came across some chestnuts by the roadside.
Amongst scents of roses, smoke and sandstone, the area was awash with the buzz of harvest time, with the aroma of crushed grape and of brewing wine. It was the start of October and through all the country I’d see in the next month, I would encounter the 101 harvests of autumn. And along with the bounty of Mother Earth, ripe for the picking, would come the 101 colours of autumn; colours in deciduous brilliance, not only in transition from greens to browns but in yellows, reds, oranges and pinks so vividly unreal you’d think they’d been painted. Yes autumn, what a smashing time to be in Europe! I romanticised all this as harvest tourism, with gourmet meals and endless variety so long as my fingers were kept stealthy and my eyes alert.
With some thrifty fodder gathered for the night’s meal, I strolled upward into St Emilion a happy man. And so, upon coming eye to eye with the picturesque village, my sense of happiness was met with a sense of wonder. It was a medieval gem, sweeping up and down the valley, carpeting its hillsides. Overlooking it here was the keep of an old castle; overlooking it there the towering belfry of the village church. And where most ancient builds served to house the village’s population, others stood in proud ruin.
At a little supermarket I rounded off my kit with a knife, olive oil, newspaper, lighter etc. Inside it a stoned hippy was wandering about, staring at people and generally causing the sort of havoc that only stoners can. Ridiculously, with the polite formalities that so make a Frenchman French, the shopkeeper inside referred to him as ‘Monsieur’ as he told him to get out.
I approached the shopkeeper, talking to him in Spanish by way of accident, for I’d only been in France not two weeks by that stage and switching tongues was a big deal. Every time I did it, I seemed to rouse the shopkeeper into higher and higher states of excitement until finally he started to refer to the other patrons as Spaniards, excitedly talking to the German and French tourists in broken Spanish. The French are a funny lot. And as for that hippy, how was I not the only bum around here? I thought I’d find only proud locals and rich tourists in St Emilion.
The sun went down over the sandstone village, casting molten reds and oranges over a sky tiered with cloud. But with such glory came a sense of urgency. Where was I staying for the night? I hotfooted two kilometres into the hills out of town and into a little wood I’d spotted on the map. I was visible from hills of wine fields on all sides and I hoped I’d stay under the radar. The tent went up with not a minute to spare as night rolled in.
I nicked a bunch of grapes and with their help, found the energy to start dinner. First a fire: as mine went up, I spotted another in the distance. At that point it occurred to me: all these other traveller types, they were workers for the harvest. With the pan I borrowed from the hostel, I got to cooking my pumpkin on the coals. And so you may wonder what dinner was after all that:
Pumpkin Fried a la Rosemary and Garlic
Mmm yum, but sadly I was exhausted, too exhausted to really appreciate it.