I spend three days in the French countryside, exploring the vineyards, farms, and forests on foot. I have been invited by my friends Jen and Colin, who have rented for several months a gite (vacation house) near Chamelet in the Beaujolais region of Eastern France, near Lyon. Away from the bustling cities and vacation spots, I hope that Chamelet will give me a glimpse of ‘real’ French country life.
Jen has been documenting her time in France on her blog, Foot to Earth, which gives a charming account of her daily randonnée (walk) through the nearby villages and countryside.
Into the countryside
I take a high-speed TGV train from Nice to Lyon. I spend about half of the time in the dining car, watching France pass by through the large windows. A couple of businessmen lean against the bar, enjoying a beer (it’s noon). I order a coffee, which is served with a little square of Ghana chocolate. It is an awfully civilized way to travel.
The train arrives late, of course, and so I must dash across the station in Lyon to make my connection. I take the local train to Lozanne, and then switch to a bus that takes me up, down and around, beside creeks, through farmland, and finally to the little town of Chamelet. I alight at a small bus shelter at the side of the road, where Jen is waiting for me.
After the requisite reunion hug, I load my bag into the back of the toy-like truck she has borrowed for the day from her host, Alban. As she drives me through the town and towards the gite, Jen points out various features of the town.
‘That’s the Moroccan restaurant,’ she tells me, ‘and there is the church.
‘…and that’s about it.’
Suffice to say, Chamelet is a sleepy place.
As we wind our way up the hillside along a narrow road, I keep an eye out for something that resembles a vacation homestead. I see nothing but grass and sheep. Suddenly, Jen pulls into a hidden driveway and parks the truck on a grassy patch. We continue on food for a couple dozen more meters, and I find myself pleasantly surprised to see a little stone cottage perched on the edge of a hillside. A little sign by the road reads La Muzetière, the name of the gite. There is no address per sé. The post is simply addressed to La Muzetière, Chamelet. It’s quite charming.
Jen and Colin welcome me with a glass of wine and a board of local cheeses, a daily afternoon ritual they call “cheese time.” Cheeses that at home would cost twenty dollars cost only a couple of euros in Chamelet, and the wines are, in some cases, cheaper than mineral water. I’m encouraged to eat and drink my fill.
The case for a walking stick
Jen is an Olympic-class long distance walker. When home in Vancouver, she walks several kilometers to and from work each day. She walks in the rain, she walks in the wind, and she walks in sub-zero temperatures. City streets, country roads, swamps, fields—she loves it all. If the apocalypse was in progress and she was invited up to heaven, she would likely wave off the chariot and walk up instead. Which is to say, I have come to Chamelet prepared to do a lot of walking.
Our first randonnée (the French term for a purposeful walk) is back into the village of Chamelet for dinner at the little Moroccan restaurant. The route from the gite into town is several kilometers down a slope similar in pitch to a ski jump. The owner/operator/cook at the restaurant is pleased to see us (we vary well might be her only customers this evening) and gives us warm, welcoming service, even going so far as to insist on giving us free pots of tea while we linger for several hours, deep in conversation. As the sun sets, Jen and I scale the precipice leading back to La Muzetière. I collapse into bed, thoroughly worn out.
Over the next couple of days, Jen and I do lots of walking through the countryside. The region is very rural and pastoral, a perfect little slice of provincial France, almost to the point of caricature. Fields of tall grass and young wheat wave in the breeze; sheep and goats graze on the hillsides; rows of grape vines are planted in undulating lines up and down the slopes, the fresh spring growth only freshly emerged from the old gnarly stems that were pruned back the previous autumn; dozens of varieties of wild flowers are in bloom everywhere. In one field stands a lone llama, guarding her flock of sheep, and in another a tractor rumbles along, cutting the hay and piling it up into neat linear mounds. As we pass a small pond, dozens of frogs hop off of the logs and vegetation, plopping into the water with chirps and croaks.
And so France is revealed to me on foot, one step at a time. Jen steps lightly, wearing a cute sun dress and flats, her disposition reminiscent of a fairytale farm girl out seeking light-hearted adventure; I plod after her with difficulty, wearing outdoorsy apparel and thick-soled hiking boots, each step tearing at my leg and back muscles like railway spikes being driven into my bones. It’s incredibly rewarding, but certainly not easy. I should have brought a walking stick.
If you want to know more about the randonnées around Chamelet, or about vacationing in rural France in general, check out Jen’s blog, Foot to Earth. For her posts covering my visit specifically, see here and here.
Everything is closed in Beaujolais.
On my second day in Chamelet, Jen and I decide to visit Lac des Sapins, a sort of recreational lake nearby. There, I hope to try out a mode of transportation that I have so far never had the opportunity to try—the Segway!
You might remember the Segway as the goofy invention from the early 2000’s that was supposed to change how people moved themselves short distances. They sort of look like pogo sticks on wheels, and sophisticated gyroscopic sensors keep it upright while you roll about at slightly-faster-than-walking speed. Unfortunately they didn’t really catch on, and now they’re primarily used by tourists on goofy city tours, or by police to move about the airport. At Lac des Sapins, a knobby-tired off-road variety is available for use on the surrounding woodland trails. I’m incredibly excited.
But alas, it is not meant to be. The door of the rental hut is firmly shut, and there are no lights on. A sign posted on the door indicates that they are indeed supposed to be open, but nobody is in sight. When we ask a nearby park staff member, she simply shrugs. Why is it not open? Because France.
Defeated, we stroll along the lakeshore, looking for some other activity. We spot some paddleboats chained up to a dock, but find that they are all locked together, and there is nobody around. We stop at a little dockside café and restaurant to have a coffee, but the chairs have all been moved inside, and the lights are off. A sign is posted to the door that says, in French: “Due to illness, we are shut on Thursday.” Today is Wednesday.
Eventually we come across a second paddleboat rental (called pédalos in French), and this one is actually open. Overjoyed, I hand over six euros, and Jen and I peddle out into the lake. We go from one end to the other, basking in the afternoon sun reflected off of the water. It’s a fine substitute for a Segway.
Getting a hair cut in rural France
As you might imagine, goods and services are not easy to obtain in Chamelet. The village is too small to host a major shop, too isolated to make it easy to go elsewhere, and the shops that do exist keep strange hours. There is also no guarantee that the shopkeeper will actually honour the hours posted to the door. As an example of how this can impact a visit to the region, my visit to Chamelet is strangely devoid of croissants, since we find the bakery is closed inexplicably whenever we have try to visit. No croissants. In France. Er, excuse me?
To make up for the lack of a general store, several of the local restaurants double as convenience stores. In addition to mint tea and tagine, the Moroccan restaurant sells wine, toilet paper, and canned beans. The Vietnamese restaurant in another village sells, in addition to delicious hot soups and coffee, shampoo, eggs, and lamp wiring.
On my last day in town, we venture into Allières, where the local barbershop, Chez Chris, is reputed to be open from 14:00-16:00, two days a week. When we show up just before 14:00, there is already an older woman waiting outside, her grey hair teased up into a dry, voluminous pile. When she finds out that we too are here for a cut, she narrows her eyes at me in suspicion. “I was here first,” she says.
A moment later, I spot Chris himself sauntering towards us down the street. Both of his ears are pierced with little silver rings, and he is wearing a flowing silken robe over his patterned shirt. When he sees the ‘crowd’ waiting outside of his shop, he lowers his rose-coloured glasses to the end of his nose, lights up a cigarette, and says: “what is this, an inquisition?”
We allow the older lady to go first, and then I take a seat in the chair. Chris goes immediately to work, first covering me with a fuchsia gown first, using electric clippers rather than scissors, in much the same way that one might trim a dog. Half way through, his phone rings and he retires to the reception desk to chat with his friend. 20 minutes later, I hear him mutter “I have a customer, so I guess I should go.” He returns to me with irritation and finishes the cut as quickly as he can.
In the end, my hair is the same length all over, and does not possess a hint of style. But it scarcely seems to matter, because before long I’m back at the gite, sitting outside overlooking the French countryside, with Jen and Colin for company, and a good glass of wine in hand. Because France.