‘If the weatherman says its raining, you’ll never find me complaining’ goes the Louis Armstrong classic ‘Jeepers Creepers’. Which some days, in fact some summers – this we are told is the worst for 100 years for sunshine and the worst since 1977 for rainfall, is just as well.
You might recall that we had started out for Paris at midnight or thereabouts and arrived just before 6 a.m. By 11 O’Clock I was clear of the Embassy and we walked a little before heading back to the car and out of the city for the long drive home. And it is still a long drive – that 500 km to get to Paris is exactly the same on the way back. We decided to stop for lunch in Orleans, capital of le Loiret in the region known as Centre because that’s just exactly where it is. In the centre. And in the centre we found a lovely restaurant which filled us full of fish (me) and pork (him). The waiter had clearly stepped straight out of Le Cage aux Folles sporting the skinniest of skinny jeans, a very chic loose white shirt with a smattering of flowers, Converse low-tops which matched my own and hair tied back in a tiny tight bun. He spun and pranced with zesty aplomb and I could happily have taken him home and put him in my wardrobe to pull him out when I need a breath of fresh air in my life. The rain had persisted down on Two Brains and The Bean whilst they waited for me in the park opposite l’ambassade and it increased as we drove south. We were cold and wet when we arrived at the restaurant but a replete belly does much to improve damp spirits and after a quick flick round the city in the car and a decision to visit in the dry some day we set off again through the rain towards our ultimate goal.
Some time ago, I expressed a desire to see Bourges (capital of the Cher also in Centre). I pass by the signs whenever I do the long drive to Calais or back (or, indeed the slightly shorter trip to Paris). Where Orleans is a pretty plateful – half timbered buildings, a cathedral that ranks with the finest in France and the river running stately through the middle, Bourges is frankly gluttonous. Everywhere you turn are cobbled streets lined with those beauteous half timbered houses reminiscent of Stratford (upon Avon not Olympic Central). The Cathedral is enormous, monstrous even.
Overall and oddly Bourges didn’t do it for us. It stuffed us full but left us feeling empty. It confused us and that was the problem – Bourges doesn’t quite know what it is. But the fact is that it is so much easier to have a strategy when you are one thing. If you are a small and perfectly formed medaeval or whatever epoque village or even a middle sized or large one you have an identity and your planning can and should encapsulate that. If on the other hand you have been an important place since Roman times, have a plethora of half timbered Shakesperian houses, a volume of 17th and 18th Century masters dwellings and a cathedral which mushroomed in a mere 60 years to be a soaring gothic monster you have an identity crisis in your melting pot. Of course a melting pot can work, but the real problem comes when the place has been ripped to bits by allowing nondescript modern buildings in the centre and no thought has been given to the way they harmonise with the old. Of course the heavy hitters all over the world, the big iconic cities, can cope because they have huge budgets born of investment and commerce but for a place like Bourges with an embarrassment of historic gems but a total reliance on their tourist income it must be beyond challenging to manage. If someone comes along with an idea and a desire to be in the city then taxes and the prospect of employment force the good folks of the town to say yes, eager to enhance the towns coffers – those same coffers that must be stretched to breaking by the voracious needs of so many historic treasures. We have since discovered that the town has quite the problem with vandalism and youth crime – this, it seems is the fate of such places the world over and I wish I was smart enough not just to question but to dish out the answers. The people, though, were thronging and despite the looming skies and damp underfoot it still looked the fine historic town that it is.
We made our way to a cafe and as we sat down the sky unzipped and a deluge of biblical proportions (not the first and not the last of this journey) flashed down. We sat outside, The Bean sensibly hiding under the table which, though protected by an awning began to puddle nicely. The place was staffed by three men – the oldest, clearly the boss and a younger man who swiftly took our order, coffee and creme brulee for me and chocolat chaud and a mousse au choc/vanille for Two Brains. Picked up off the table and cradled like a baby in our arms, it remained dry enough to eat swiftly. We watched a young woman with a baby in a buggy all enveloped in a rainhood with the older child wearing her coat to protect him. Sleeves down to the floor and dragging feet he clearly felt it unfair that the baby had the luxury of cover whilst his mop of hair was stuck to his head with cold water that then ran down his cheeks in pesky rivulets. She smiled and smiled and the little boy will look back one day and realise what a good mummy he has. We attracted the attention of the youngest of the trio of staff and asked for more drinks. He looked at our now sodden bill, loped inside and 15 minutes later was still affecting to clean behind the bar. Older man passed. We said we had asked for coffee and he leapt indoors shooting the boy a look and saying a very few words that proved suffficient to galvanize, nay ignite the youngster. Smiling to himself the boss retreated. One day the boy will look back and remember what a good boss he had ….
PS: Like many I’m a sucker for a gargoyle and amongst all the amazing carvings surrounding the cathedral was this absolute gem who looks for all the world like Voldemort in J K Rowlings Harry Potter series.