I open my eyes. Like every morning, it takes me a few moments to realize where I am. Which room is this? How many I’ve slept in along this journey? And barely one night in each. Maybe one hundred rooms and that many different beds, night stands, ceilings, doors, bathrooms, views… All of them foreign, unfamiliar places. I don’t know how but I’m sure it weighs on one’s spirit, on one’s mind and also on one’s heart.
This time is a hotel in Munster, High-Rhine region, Alsace. Was it yesterday when I fell from the bike? Not even one day has elapsed, yet it seems a week. I grope my right hand: it doesn’t hurt much; only when pressing the base of the thumb. Excelent! I can continue my journey.
I pack my cases in a flash. I could do it with my eyes closed: the routine, repeated over and over, almost daily, has become really mechanised and improved along the last four months. I leave the room – just another room; load Rosaura with the cases and ride away… barely one hundred metres, just to stop by the Hotel bar des Vosgues for carrying out my morning ritual when I travel through France: a coffee and a croissant, nowhere else to be found as good as here. And these rural bars! Usually full of old men, I like them better every time. I’ve counted eight people here, nine with me; mostly retired and some unemployed. Only the waiter is a woman. The morning atmosphere is pleasant, quiet, leasure-like. This is maybe why I value the company of the elderly: because they take their time for everything and don’t rush. Some talk, others read the newspaper, all know one another… It’s an endearing country life, and I envy a bit those who have a place in it; specially since I don’t belong anywhere.
It’s been raining for the past two days and the Vosgues hills are ahead of me, so let’s hope I don’t get soaked. I saddle the mount and set out for today’s route. This High Rhine region is beautiful, twin of the German Black Forest: same geological formation, similar in orography and vegetation, only west of the valley. The rain, though cumbersome for bike riding, helps get the best of fall and enjoy the full glory of its colourful palette: from light to dark green, several yellows and ochres, chestnut, auburn, sienna, brown… Not a tone is missing, not a shade, and it’s invigorating wherever I look at. I hadn’t seen so many landscapes worth being photographed since I left Norway behind. But this region is not too large and, soon afterwards, I enter High Saxony, which isn’t Alsace any more, but part of the Frank-County.
I stop in Mélisey, a tiny village, and pop into a restaurant-bar where I find a curious local scene: it’s lunch time and the local is full of men chowing down; probably workers and regular customers, because there’s a familiarity among them and also with the staff. I order a kir, typical French aperitif, and I get a free appetiser with it, which is rare in this country. Perhaps this region is different. I look through the window: outside it’s still raining. I was hoping for a break, but no game. So I’d rather carry on.
A while later I arrive to Marnay, where I think it’s better to stay overnight because the clouds are getting darker. But the first hotel I check does not offer accommodation; the second one, in the town centre, opens in one hour; and a third one in the outskirts opens even later. It’s quite common for small hotels in France to close a few hours in the afternoon. Shall I wait? But there is no place where to, so I decide to keep going. And now is when a downpour cuts me through to the bone; between Marnay and Pesmes. Thanks God water is -after all- harmless. It’s annoying to drive on drenched clothes, but that’s that: once settled in, you just take a nice shower, dress on dry clothes and put the soaked ones on the heater. Next morning they’ll be ready.
This time I don’t go around checking the several lodgings, but just pick the first one I come across in Pesmes: Hotel de France, a bit off the road, quiet and – since I’m the only guest tonight – also silent. Lovely. The landlady is very kind and the room, though basic, does its job, shower and heating working perfectly.
I can’t get tired of praising the temperament of the French: generally they’re polite, fond of saying hello to foreigners and of using courteous manners, kind and serviceable when treating with customers, smiling and friendly. Besides, France takes the greatest care of its towns: vintage looks, old constructions and things, antiques, are respected as much as possible, preserving whatever is not necessary to refurbish; and when there’s no option, they maintain the tratitional style without giving way to bad taste; same indoors and outdoors: streets, buildings, woodwork, furniture, etc. That’s maybe why France is such a charming country, either the countryside or the urban environment.
Beside the french, how uncultured, how ignorant the Spaniards are! With our hick and boorish tastes and our thirst for renovation, we replace the warm woodwork for cold aluminum, the noble clay tiles for tacky terrazzo, the durable wooden furniture for fiberboard and plastic, the traditional whitewashed mortar façades for tiled ones… How vulgar we are!
Taking a stroll around Pesmes, I pop into a bar called Du Centre. When asking for a local wine (vin du pays), white and dry, the tender serves me a delicious chardonnais, one of the best wines I’ve tasted; and soon we’re engaged in a nice chat with the other guests about wines and countries, about France and Spain, the Basque problem and so on, trying to find agreements. These people know how to befriend a foreigner and make him feel welcomed. When I get out, my nostrils sense strongly that unmistakable village smell; the characteristic mix of aromas like burnt wood, wet soil, vegetation and cattle. Temperature feels good, despite the drizzle.
I’ve seen nicer villages, but there is something special about this one, something indefinable, like if was taken out of a very old black and white movie, the warmth of the old-fashioned, that unperturbed peace one might even breath as if it was oxigen… Ay, I know what it is! It’s the fascination for the subconscious feeling of having travelled back in time.
Dinner at the hotel restaurant turns out to be one of the most folkloric experiences ever, not fit for the fainthearted. It’s a family business in a very rural dining room, with solid wood tables dressed with square tablecloths, over which annoying flies flutter. An older woman serves the food and an elderly man goes around offering more bread to the guests (of course no surcharge; not like Spaniards do) and removing the empty dishes. Crockery and earthenware are genuinely rural: chipped old porcelain, ceramic, wood… There are four tables busy, a couple at each, all seniors: the only citizens who live in the villages or who can afford touring off-season.
As a first course, I’m served home-made foie gras, coarse looking and strong tasted, perhaps not much to my liking but interesting anyway, presented on a small tray with pickles, whereof you take at will. Helping yourself must be, I guess, the local custom, since at a neighbouring table they’re also serving themselves from a cheese platter, the most lavish I’v ever seen. The house wine, rather good, comes in a small glass pitcher. For the main course I blind-order something that, in the menu, sounds to me like tripe but turns out to be some bird, maybe pigeon or quail, absolutely delicious, garnished by two tasty slices of bread with olive oil and, in a separate tray, two casseroles: one with sautéed mushrhooms and the other with lentils. To my greater pleasure, the plate I’m eating at has been pre-heated, so that the food doesn’t get cold when served; which is something I personally value a lot. Unfortunately, most restaurants never do it that way. As a dessert, home made white cheese with sugar and jam. All in all, a great and original dinner, the like of which I rarely find. And the price? Fifteen Euros. Not bad, as for France.
It’s dark outside, 9:30 pm, unusually late as for French meal times; but this wasn’t a ‘normal’ restaurant, in the sense that there’s a precise dinner time and if you want to be served you’d rather not be too late or too early. And the same goes for the menu: there are only a few dishes to choose from, that change daily.
To help digest my meal I stroll around for a while. It’s not raining now. When going past the square, the bar Du Centre is closing down: an old woman locks the vintage wooden glazed doors and lowers the old-fashioned shutters. She’ll now go home and will call it a day; another day in her routine. The streets are solitary and totally calm. Barely a sound can be heard. A dog barks in some distant farmyard and a tower clock, very gently, bells the quarters. What a peace! I feel caressed, wrapped up by this soothing silence. Behind the house window panes the homes glow with the last, warm lights. The High Saxony gets ready to sleep. And me… shall I know tomorrow in which room I am..?