I did stop at Vic le Compte the next day. Of the ten antiquaires Teddy had mentioned only two remained, and both these were closed. The phone number of one them was painted on the door of his shop but he was away for the day his wife said. She suggested I phone the other antiquaire who had a key to her husband’s shop. Persistence bore no fruit on this occasion however, the second shop owner he said he was desolé but he was actuellement on his way to Paris. A la prochaine fois peut etre.
By the time I reached Brioude I felt I’d travelled deep into France. Ancient volcanoes stood on the horizon, and now more evident were rural mountain chalets of great stone blocks, solid, square. Roofs were of gently sloping terracotta tiles and in towns the 19th century houses were painted in a palette of pale ochres and creamy pale pinks, with shutters at their windows. The owner of an antiques shop near the church in Brioude came to unlock his shop for me as the heavens opened once again. I didn’t buy much and didn’t linger.
As I was nearing Le Puy I saw a sign for a Brocante and, despite wanting to get to Francoise’s, with a spontaneous reflex I turned off up a narrow lane into a tiny hamlet. Outside a barn built of massive stones a little sign said “Sonnez SVP.” Pierre arrived with a nod of his head to unpadlock the door. I peered into the gloomy cow barn with massive wood beamed ceiling. It was full! Pierre said, “But this is just ten percent of what we have.” In one corner two wooden box beds stood against a wall, still draped with their very old curtains – it had been warmer to sleep near the cattle in days gone by. I made a pile of jam jars, bassines, a marvellous set of weighty absinthe glasses, lengths of mattress ticking, bedside tables, jugs and so on. Pierre was not going to negotiate however. “Ah, non, I don’t get involved in prices, it is my wife who will discuss with you.” Madame arrived, sharp eyed, unsmiling. We reached an agreement on most things, but some items had to be left behind where there was no compromise to be reached.
At last I arrived at the chateau in a hamlet just outside Le Puy. Up a track and in a pretty park of trees and surrounded by a stone wall. Around it stood dependences and barns. A 15th century fortified chateau built to survive heavy snows, with a thick-walled staircase turret. Francoise, ever delightful and full of energy, made me extremely welcome and it was so good to be there again. My room was off the stone spiral staircase, with wobbly ancient tiled floor, beamed ceiling, with a bed one had to clamber into. Jean-Nicolas, her husband, joined us for an aperitif on the terrace. I admired the weathered green paint of the tall shutters and we wondered how we could we replicate that colour. The children joined us for dinner in the high ceilinged salle a manger, with a glass bucket of sumptuous red roses on the table.
Francoise was as enthusiastic as I was at the prospect of seeking out antiques and brocante. She sat with her bowl of coffee at the breakfast table (all baguette crumbs and jam after the kids had gone off to school) intent on the listings of Brocanteurs in the local phone book.
She spoke to one brocanteur who said he had retired and, despite his still having a large warehouse, declined to open it as everything was too stacked up and it was “Impossible” to get at anything. But we did make a rendezvous in a neighbouring town with a charming dealer, Eric, who guided us back to his house, set between vegetable patches and barns. He had some solid rustic wardrobes and buffets, a great pile of paintings, as well as linens and rush seated chairs.
“I have just returned from the market in Avignon,” he said as I stepped over the large cream market umbrellas in the back of his van. We pulled out a box of linens, a box of glasses and plates, and a little table.
Eric knew Monsieur Michon who had not wanted to open up for us. “I’ll telephone him and tell him to let you go over!” he said. So later that afternoon Monsieur Michon greeted us in his blue work overall and shook hands dryly. The warehouse was impeccably organised with furniture stacked three high, creating narrow alleys that loomed above one’s head. There were many dark pieces of furniture, mirrors and gold theatrical statues bearing candles in abundance. Perched on the upper most row I spotted a gem of a pale green painted buffet. Much head shaking and deep intakes of breath followed. Non, non, it was not possible to get it down. However Monsieur Michon did eventually climb up and managed with many huffs and puffs to get the buffet down to us. He was definitely the most reluctant dealer I had ever come across.