This morning we were eating breakfast by the turquoise waters of Lake Annecy in the French Alps, watching the bright arcs of hang gliders swooping overhead. Bidding farewell to an international group of neighbours, we paid our bill at Camping du Lac Bleu, and set off south for Provence.
Driving through the French Alps on the péage for the first fifty miles or so, we were both appreciating the snow-capped mountains and verdant valleys. Then came my turn to drive – and suddenly we were on national roads with hairpin bends and gradients to set my nerves twitching. Not to mention the old motorhome groaning. But by the time we crossed into Haute Provence with its stunning lavender fields, Captain Peter was again at the wheel and I could gaze around to my heart’s content.
Our destination for a couple of nights – Moustieres Ste Marie – is a tiny village set in a deep, narrow gorge between two cliffs at the head of the Gorges du Verdon. That’s all I’d discovered previously, so we planned to eat out and see the place for ourselves. A quick settle in at the little camp-site – kettle on, chairs and awning out – and after that a much needed shower. Annecy had been sunny, with winds sweeping down from the mountains, but here in Provence it’s HOT.
At 8 pm, climbing an incredibly steep road to the village, we were soon stopping for breath. ‘Oh, boy,’ I gasped, ‘this place sure makes you work hard for your dinner and a drink!’
Almost there, we could hear music – a strong beat and a powerful male voice. Reaching this tight-packed little village, we saw a duo of guitarist and vocalist playing to a small audience outside the first restaurant – basically a pizza parlour. I’d been thinking of something a little more Provencal, but what the hell, the music was a magnet we couldn’t resist. If the anchovies on my pizza napolitain were strong and salty, the rosé wine was going down well, and the atmosphere was great.
Jazz and then blues, and soon the singer was into an expressive rendition of ‘The Ballad of Billie Jo,’ which sounded a darn sight better sung by a Frenchman. I kept listening out for a mention of the Tallahachie Bridge, but the closest we could translate was ‘bridge of sadness.’ More fitting, somehow.
And then a couple of about our age sat at the next table. They were French, but thanks to the music, she and I struck up an immediate accord. We were introducing ourselves when the singer launched into another French song – unfamiliar to me, but at once Brigitte was convinced the duo were from Quebec, where she’d lived for several years. And thanks to his years on the Quebec coast, that drew Captain Peter into the chat.
The next song was ‘Hey – What’s Going On?’ Tremendous, and Peter and I were suddenly overwhelmed, transported back twenty years to Abu Dhabi, where it was all the rage amongst the marine pilots and nurses at Ruwais. The little port and settlement was an oasis of green palms and well-watered lawns between the desert road and the Gulf…
For Brigitte it was San Franscisco around the same time. So we were singing along, waving our arms amongst an enthusiastic, growing crowd. More wine was poured – folks from 9 to 90 were clapping & cheering. Audience participation was even greater for Leonard Cohen’s ‘Alleluia’ – found myself thinking the last time I sang alleluia was Sunday a week ago, in Hamble church. Not quite the same tune, though…
We had ‘Take a Walk on the Wild Side,’ and even an ironic rendering of ‘I Did It My Way’ – but what really did it for us was ‘Dirty Old Town,’ – and suddenly Peter and I were back in West Yorkshire, half a century ago, amongst Yeadon’s mill chimneys, and sneaking a kiss behind the factory wall as we walked home from the pictures after our very first date.
The atmosphere of shared delight and emotion was almost tangible – hours had passed in what seemed like moments. French songs, American, English – bringing memories alive for everyone.
All too soon the meal was over, bottle of rosé empty, and time pay the bill. We swapped email addresses with Brigitte, and finally said goodnight. Buying a CD from the singer, we shook his hand, exchanged a few words and stood nearby to hear him sing ‘Hey – what’s going on?’ one more time. Across the crowd Brigitte was swinging her arms, I was singing and swaying to the music, until with a final wave, we floated away.
In the narrow streets of the town, we could hear more music. There were bands playing on every tiny square and terrace, musicians of every age and calibre, playing and singing every thing from French pop to rap music. And above it all – above the narrow streets with old fashioned street lights – was the rock beneath which Moustaires shelters. And cutting the great rock face in two is the stream, cascading in waterfalls to its own powerful music.
It’s past midnight now as I write this – outside, with just the light of the computer scre en to show me the keys – and the music seems to have stopped. Instead I can hear the water bubbling past our camper-van – and I know I’ll sleep like a top tonight, to dream of music and the memories each one evoked.
Bon soir, mes amis…