Back in Belleme, a town of noble houses and winding streets, and many new antiques shops, I turned off the road and drove beneath the beamed porch of a Brocante that had opened up the year before. The large gravelled courtyard was framed by an imposing house and barns on three sides with views over pasture and hills on the other. Outside the house two men, a woman and a large Alsation dog sat around a table finishing lunch. Madame, tenacity and determination written all over her face, waved across at me and with a sweeping gesture said, feel at home to look around everywhere, we are here if you need help.
After I had browsed, she joined me and, standing together in the courtyard, we began an exchange of views and philosophies that seems to happen so easily in France, about “le fil invisible” – syncronicities seemingly out of the blue that connect people, of “la connection humaine” that keeps people going as they confront challenges and times of uncertainty. We found we also shared an interest in the life of Camille Claudel, the tragic sculptress and mistress of Auguste Rodin.
Then, in a corner of the vast courtyard I unloaded the contents of my van to better fit in a pair of grey shutters I’d just bought. Madame and I embraced each other as I left, glad to have met.
Against the backdrop of old premises with flaking rough plaster walls, broken terracotta tiles and dusty beams another dealer in Belleme was displaying wonderful pieces. He was young, energetic and also very enthusiastic about the canapé and armchairs upholstered in old white boutis quilts which stood in his window. “I just bought them at auction”, he told me, “and they come from a property of Isabelle Adjani.” Here I found a pair of ornate gilt wood chairs that would look good once recovered, and two tall cabinets with convex glazed doors. They had been cut from the panelling of a room and had great presence. They’d need a lot of cleaning and little curved Perspex shelves adding.
In the main square of Belleme, I found Laurent standing at the door of the new shop that he and Laurent had opened since we last met. “It is so long since we saw you,” he said, giving me two kisses. Their style was now towards les Annees ’50/Mid century. It was good to see Laurent settled in his new home. Belleme was tranquil, he said, and popular with Parisians. As I walked around the walls of the town Olivier, stopped his car and waved, Coucou Gilli, I thought it was you I saw yesterday in the Place.
With a day to myself between markets I drove over to La Perriere, a pretty village nearby. Down green, hollow lanes like tunnels I drove, and pulled over as a man in a white cap and white shirt, sleeves rolled above his elbows, led a white horse up the lane towards me. As they passed I noticed the horse was wearing a fringed black leather bandana hanging over its eyes, like enormous false eyelashes.
Just off the sleepy main square of La Perriere, I wandered into La Maison d’Horbe, a small brocante and café stood in a manicured courtyard behind gates, with a mossy stone fountain and masses of hydrangeas. Nice place for coffee.
“Madame, bonjour!” called the proprietor of the restaurant next door. He took my hand with a flourish and kissed it. I chose a table on the terrace looking out to the deep forests of Belleme. “Vous preferez jambon braisé ou boudin noir?” he asked in a gravelly voice. That was all he needed to know. The rest of lunch just appeared. Bread, wine and a plate overflowing with salami, cold sliced beef, cantaloupe, salad and olives.
“Je ne suis pas cinq etoiles donc je te laisse tes couverts!” he said. I am not a 5 star establishment so keep your cutlery for the next course. The jambon braisé arrived and the recipe was shared – onion, crème fraiche, ham, lightly caramelised. Pudding, cheese and coffee followed. Swallows screeched and swooped, woodpigeons and sparrows echoed from stone buildings. An altogether lovely spot.
Le Perche is an area of manoirs rather than chateaux, defensive medieval places with moats and hefty round towers. Just outside Belleme, down a narrow hog’s back gravel drive, I came to a pink walled manor house. Through open windows I could see the profiles of faces, as sounds of piano and soprano drifted out over the courtyard. I wandered in the garden, down allées of trees that led away from the manoir to terraces overlooking ripe crops and towards Belleme.
That evening, as I indulged in a bit of French televison, came the news that Omar Sharif had died. When travel restrictions were imposed following the Egyptian Revolution in 1952, Omar Sharif had spent considerable time in Europe and was well known in France. The evening’s programming was quickly shifted and Dr Zhivago was broadcast in tribute.