There’s nothing quite like taking a day off just for the pleasure of it. It’s not like a Saturday, filled with chores and the weekly shopping, or Sunday, which is a lazy day because all the shops are closed. And anyway, most other people have those days off too.
On a Friday it’s more savory, more like cutting class. What’s the fun in a day if idleness is enforced ?
I sleep deliciously late. Later even than I’d wanted to. When I see 8 :40 on my clock I think- no ! my day is running away from me and I’m not even up to enjoy it. Then a leisurely breakfast of thick coffee with cream and french pastry at my favorite bakery and it’s off to see what trains are leaving for Saint Germain des Fossés.
The train to Paris is at the quay, leaving in five minutes. Will I be able to get my ticket before it leaves ? I fight the machine – the line at the ticket window is six people deep - and get a reservation. But there are endless questions and pauses and it takes its sweet time considering my ATM card and printing the tickets. Finally it spits everything out and I rush to leap onto the train as the stationmaster is readying to blow his whistle.
We head out over the Plaine de Limagne towards Vichy. The sky is mostly cloudy, but not dark or terribly serious. It’s a jumble of heavy clouds and smaller white ones and slanting rain in patches, sun in others. Crows hop and pick in the empty fields. Stands of january trees show their nests and their balls of mistletoe.
The train pauses in Vichy to take on passengers and let some go. Just as we’re pulling out of the station, at less than walking speed still, a young man bursts out of the station and looks at the train in bewilderment. He has missed it. His knee-length coat flaps as he raises his arms and lets them fall, not yet thinking of what to do, just of seeing his ride leave, sliding along its smooth rails without any thought for him.
And here we are, forty minutes from Clermont, at St. Germain. It’s a small town on the Allier river, which has been partially diverted to a sinuous canal that wends its way through the older part of town. The canal skirts a small hill, dominated by a large, plain church that surveys the small shops and rows of houses like a master.
If there’s a focal point to St Germain, it’s the church, though I’ve been attracted here mostly by the sight of the canal cut through the medieval construction. The church has been completely redone in the mid-20th century, and as I come up to it I can see the horror of the shell-pink scallop of the main entrance. Oh my. Not only is it a poor choice of paint, but it’s badly applied as well. The façade is austere, with none of the saintly statuary typical of older churches. It’s quite ugly.
Inside, I am very pleasantly surprised. The windows are a true work of art. Done in a style reminiscent of Art Deco, they are mostly in blues and greens, with red and yellow for effective emphasis. Each three-part window has a central story full of characters, flanked by colorful geometric panels.
Road noise filters in from outside, joining the intermittent sounds of a saw and a drill, and occassional hammering. One of the secret rooms behind the chapel of the Virgin is being worked on. Another room is bare but for a chair piled with tools and materials. From the sounds, I take it there is but a single carpenter.
Outside again I wander down the road a bit and discover that I’m just in time to see the market pack up. It isn’t yet noon, but I guess in a small town when people have done their shopping for the day, they’ve done it. So the handful of vendors are occupied with loading up their trucks and vans with unsold lettuce and beets and onions and going home. Empty cartons and flats are strewn about, and random greenery – outside leaves of cabbages and lettuce, carrot tops, stuff they cut off for you.
Pretty soon the road I’ve chosen comes to a dead end at a sort of factory building. Lampshades a Specialty. It’s unclear if the place is still in use. There doesn’t seem to be anyone much around, but there’s a light visible through the frosted glass panels of the fancy doors, and lots of fresh tire tracks make their way around to the back. There’s a sense of near-abandonment about the place, though, in the peeling paint and chipped plaster, the empty car-park, the dark windows of the wings. Curious.
I backtrack and take a road that quickly leaves the town and goes through just a few short suburb streets where the houses are larger and the yards taken up with lawns in front and gardens and children’s toys around the sides. Soon there are fields of corn stubble or sheep.
The field of sheep seems to have two. It’s a good-sized field, maybe five acres of grass going down the slope to be lost among the brambles along the Allier. It has barbed wire here along the road and separating it from the old corn, and a shed and a water trough in a downhill corner. The shed, an affair about twenty feet long with a corrugated tin roof and three weathered plank sides, is filled with stuff. Actually, it’s filled with sheep. It’s crammed with sheep. Sheep look piled up on each other ; they’re spilling out onto the ground around the water trough.
So. The two sheep in the field are splitters ? What are they doing off on their own ? They’ve seen me now, and they’re coming over. This one wants a headscratch. I scratch its hairy white head, and now the other wants some too.
I take their picture. Strange sheep.
Bells are ringing in the distance, compelling me to think of lunch. Those people at the market this morning bought all they needed to make lunch at home. I think back on the town and can’t remember a single restaurant. There was one advertised near the train station, but I didn’t actually see it. Hmm. It seems short-sighted of me now to not have tucked an orange and a bar of chocolate into my bag before leaving. Or I could have bought a snack at one of the small groceries that will all be closed now. I hadn’t thought that St Germain was so small as to not have a restaurant. There was a bar. There might be sandwiches there.
Looping back toward the center of town by a different route I have no better luck at spotting lunch, but then it occurs to me that I didn’t see the entire high street on my first pass. I detoured to see the canal. Perhaps on those two skipped blocks there is some small brassierie, a pizzeria.
There are two eateries on the main street. One appears to be a bar that serves a one-item menu for lunch and dinner. Today they’ve got blanquette de lotte, take it or leave it. This is a species of white fish served up in chunks under a thick, bland white sauce. Bleh. With a side of cauliflower gratiné (echh !) and a green salad.
The other place is a bar as well, and I hope there is a dining room in the back because the front is small and filled with smoke from a dozen cigarettes. At least there are people here. I consider - better to eat with smoke, or not at all ?
The menu is unusual, including alongside the usual pizzas, salads and cuts of steak, the choice of bangers and mash, or oriental chicken, and a steak might be served with cajun sauce. Inside there is indeed a dining room, around the back, reserved for non smokers. I am the only one there, for the moment. It’s nice. The sounds from the bar filter their way back, but not the smoke. A large window gives onto the front yard of a house and a garage.
My hostess is English. She’s happy to speak her native language for a change, but, like me, keeps lapsing into french for typical phrases. Her husband runs the kitchen and his name is Dean. Product of the 60’s she says – James Dean, Dean Martin.
She’s sad when I ask if they have any dark beer. Alas, no. The french won’t drink it. She’d like to stock something but there’s really not enough of a market here in a 11/2- restaurant town. So I have ordinary french beer and an excellent salad and a plate of fries and chocolate pastry dessert.
When I take my leave of Frederique and Dean it’s not quite raining out. It’s wet air, but not real rain. I’d like to get around to a good view of the north side of the church, where there seem to be some ruins along the steep part of the ridge. Shops around here are named Bar of the Ramparts and such, so there is hope for a hidden medieval secret St Germain. I do find a tower that’s been incorporated into a house, and the air has got a bit drier, but aside from a crumbling pile of stones in the churchyard, there’s not much visible of ancient St Germain. You’d have to go into the houses and the cellars to find it.
In the plain to the north of the town there are farms toward the river and suburban-like residences closer to the railway. The few orchards look too old and untended to still be active, but that might just be the effect of winter.
In one grove of apples, with a dozen or so trees, the largest tree, the one centered in front as if representing his orchard, marshalling his minions behind, is still covered in apples. Well, not really covered, but not more than half-picked. All the other trees are bare.
The apples on this tree are small and red, and a few look inviting enough to pick and eat. Most have seen better days and have rot splotches. Some are just limp skins, their flesh eaten by birds, or wrinkled balloons eaten out by insects. The ground around the tree is littered with windfalls – they look bright and shiny among the wet grass and accumulated leaves. Some are firm underfoot, others squish like mud.
I come to where the Allier has been released from its concrete channel. Here it’s just a ditch lined with half-dead trees and garbage. Farther down where the stream joins the main river there will be wide sandy banks and pebbly shoals and willow thickets full of birds, but that’s too far to walk today.
Turning upstream I follow the canal through town. None of the mills that were the raison d’être for the canal still exist, but it does make for a nice, different, path to follow. Halfway along it leaves the road and becomes the boundary for two rows of backyards. It’s surprisingly short. In fact, you can see all of it from the train.
Swinging back toward the station I come upon an SNCF (train company) training ground. They’ve got engines and cars of various types parked, and a freight engine is going pointlessly back and forth, but that’s all usual for a train yard. The extra is a yard full of bits of track, switching mechanisms, wire-strewn towers and level-crossing signals. Just bits that don’t go anywhere. I mess around there for a while but there’s also a series of official SNCF buildings with their lights on, and train guys messing around on the real tracks, and I don’t want to get yelled at.
It’s three-twenty and I’ve seen about everything. I’d like to pick up a postcard or two if I can, so I head back to the main street. At the newsagents, among the many that postcards that deal in puppies, or flowers, or puppies and flowers there are three that are actually of St Germain. Two aerial views and a poorly-chosen picture of the smaller church. I take the less ugly of the landscapes (who is their photographer – get a new one !) and sit in a bar with a miniscule glass of kir to write to friends. It’s raining in earnest now, so I decide to take an early train home.
The lightness of the sky has gone. A somber grey blanket has moved in, as predicted, to give us rain, and later snow in the lower mountains. That might mean tomorrow I can hike up the hill a ways and play in the snow. Today it means that the time for exploring is over.
How shall we manage?
5 hours ago