I have allways felt that it is both stupid and dangerous to drive from Holland, Belgium or Calais in one day to your holiday destination in the South of France, and most of all, I've allways felt that by doing this you miss out on one of the nicest regions of France: the Auvergne.
And where most tourists consider Clermont-Ferrand only as a city name you see for a while during your trip on the motorway direction signs, it is actually a beautiful town, situated on a hilltop with medieval streets and squares, two beautiful cathedrals, one gothic and one roman, and many good restaurants and shops.
Spending some time there in july, on our way to the Roussillon, I wanted to eat in a place that would satisfy both us and the kids. Would pizza do ? Yes, said the kids. Would natural wine do ? Yes, said the parents. And so we went to the Pizzarium...
This pizzeria is situated in the Rue de l'Ange, a small street in the environment of the Place de Jaude, the big townsquare of Clermont-Ferrand, a bit away of the streets on the hill, but something to see. It serves pizza's made with vegetables from a local bio-shop and non-pasteurized "lait cru" cheeses. They also serve some really good biodynamic or natural wines, and a few fabulous bio drinks for the kids (mine loved it!). You can pick your style of pizza, Roman, Gallic, Greek of Barbarian. I went for the Toutatis, with four local cheeses, but was sorely tempted by one with black pudding (I did not dare). Great pizza's !
We had a very nice rosé wine with this, the Corent, Côtes d'Auvergne, J-P Pradier, 2012, a local one, with fresh fruit in the nose and a nice zip including structure, excellent for the hot temperatures then. Afterwards I started talking to the owner and he gave me a list of all winemakers in the region that work bio and/or natural.
Absolutely a good adress when travelling with kids (or just loving pizza or vin naturel). A few streets away is La Régalade, in the Rue Nestor-Perret, with a very good reputation for its food and winelist, but without pizza...so maybe without kids...
I'll be back, Clermont-Ferrand, for pizza and for more !
Sometimes books have uncanny ways of linking up, almost as if they talk to each other, and during my last holiday this happened twice. In this book, that basically talks about walking, and that I bought because I liked the old fashioned cover and the topic, it happened through a story about the Orkneys. The book mainly talks about paths, walking them and the need to keep them open. In a chapter about the sea roads that linked northern Europe with its long coasts and many islands he talks about the hwael-weg, the whale-way in Old English, or the roads of the sea, where winds, currents and danger make paths that are invisible to us as its traffic leaves no trace. They were memorised by songs and tradition, by texts and maps, and they are to the experienced seafarer as visible as a road to us.
When me and some friends visited the Orkneys recently and stood before the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness we asked ourselves the same questions as thousands of visitors before us: why here ? Why at the end of the world ? And why was this once an immense holy place far bigger and probably more important than we can imagine today. MacFarlane asks us to imagine us a map of Europe and the Atlantic Ocean. Now turn the picture into itself, make all land black and eradicate the places and the roads. Do the reverse with the water and indicate the searoads that lead from Norway, Shetland and Iceland to Europe. What's in the middle ? Right, the Orkneys. According to MacFarlane the Old World, with the north as a centre (we are talking about 5000 BC), developed centrifugal forces as it grew, with matter and culture spinning to the edges (America, France, Spain...). And suddenly it all made sense.
It was absolutely strange to sit in a mediterranean garden and read about this. It seemed as if this book was explaining to me about the previous one, filling in gaps I missed, and in my imagination they talked to each other. I was just a listener.
The book itself is fascinating with many beautiful stories. Sometimes it gets a bit pedantic, as if only a certain kind of people really count, but it had a profound effect on me. Back in Belgium I started walking again, in my own neighbourhood, and looking for paths, and sometimes it was to me as if I discovered a new world (having lived here for 14 years now), once literally within half a mile of my home. I will be forever grateful for this gift.
I bought the book on purpose.
In the bookshop in Kirkwall it suddenly struck me that it would be special to read about the Orkneys when on holiday in the South of France, and Magnus, by George Mackay Brown, the most important writer and poet of the islands, seemed to me a good choice.
It was almost uncanny how the book seemed to radiate northern light and cold air when I was reading it, seated on the terrace of my caravan in Argeles-sur-mer, surrounded by palm trees, a glass of rosé in my hand and not even wearing a t-shirt (35°C in the shadow). It was almost a Harry Potter like experience and I swear that the whole time it actually felt cold and fresh to the touch.
Nobody but a man from the north could write a book like this. George Mackay Brown was born in Stromness, in Orkney, one of the islands to the north of Scotland, and died in 1996 He suffered from tuberculosis and this led to an increasingly reclusive life in his town of birth. He was a great writer and poet and they say this is his masterpiece (though I actually liked his Booker Prize shortlisted Beside the Ocean of Time more). It is a special book, as special as the islands of the orkneys themselves, but it is a powerful piece of literature, without a smile but with the harsh blue eyes of the Northman.
Since I spent two days on Orkney last june I am captivated by its atmosfere. It was a strange experience to walk in the white and cold sunlight of the North in june and experience the same sun, but yellow and hot and exuberant in the South. I still don't know what I liked most, but if I follow my feelings I don't think I am a man of sunshine and olive trees. I had a nice time under the shadow of the Pyrenees, but my heart longs for the wide open skies and chasing clouds of the North...