Under low cloud we climbed high over the Massif Central, a smooth and exhilarating drive along the autoroute with views of pine forests and ruined chateaux perched above craggy valleys, and over the fabulously daring Millau viaduct. Much easier than a thousand hairpin bends through the gorges.
I wanted to visit two dealers in Vic le Compte, not far off the autoroute south of Clermont Ferrand. The modern town was shuttered up against a wet Sunday afternoon. One café, terrace chairs stacked in a corner, remained open. It was empty except for the woman behind the bar watching a badly dubbed crime thriller. We warmed up with a chocolat chaud then I went, with my umbrella, up steep streets to the vieille ville where the dealers had their shops side by side, next to the chestnut tree on the Place de la Liberté.
Graham wound his way up in Sylvie later – my knight and metallic steed. Monsieur Vimal opened his cavernous shop at 14h 30. Beneath vaulted ceilings, Moroccan window grilles and carved stone capitals sat bathed in pools of electric light. A table de milieu stood exquisitely on fine cabriole legs. He made coffee – would I like a cup? – and then sat with an elegant woman of a certain age in fuschia cashmere, slim black skirt, black stockings and black patent heels, perched on tall stools at a small metal bar, while I looked round. I earmarked an oil painting of a village square that glowed light. Monsieur agreed that it was one of those canvases that would never diminish in one’s appreciation the more one looked at it. I asked what this building had originally been. It had been the caserne des pompiers, the fire station. “Upstairs I have been creating a new space for artists and workshops. Venez voir.” He led us both up a stone staircase with metal handrail to an enormous room with large whitewashed beams spanning the sloping ceiling. Through the row of industrial windows I could see Roman tiled rooves.
The shop next door offered plenty of dusty rummaging. Monsieur was unpacking a box of purchases from an auction. He held up a black 19th century frame with scrolls of human hair fashioned into an intricate design. “Ca vous interesse?” he asked. Highly collectable perhaps, but not my thing. A dealer for many years and always on the look out for interesting items, he said “Vous voyez, je chine en voyageant et je voyage en chinant.” I look for antiques while I am travelling, and also I travel to look for antiques. A bunch of very large keys, a small gilt round top mirror, an armful of picture frames and a soupiere had found their way into the van as we set off again in the late afternoon.
We wouldn’t arrive at our gite in the Camargue until after dark but the luminous sunset on the scrubby Provencal hills was full of promise. Graham found the music from “Jean de Florette” and we whistled along, remembering Marcel Pagnol’s stories of goings on in village squares beside fountains and beneath gnarled plane trees, and out in the garrigue.