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Three moves equals a fire.

St. Martin des Collines

We come through a narrow mountain pass on our big Harley, arriving in a village entirely surrounded by cliffs, and we see it is traversed by at least two rivers. Green fields stretch up toward the afternoon sun, dotted with cows whose bells we hear as they crop the grass.

The whole village is decked out in a riot of flowers. The sound of running water is everywhere. We are too late to eat lunch, but the proprietress of the hotel makes us sandwiches of baguettes with local Comte’ cheese and jambon accompanied by some moldy tasting wine made from a local grape called “savagnin.”

We take a corner room several flights up which overlook the farm next door. Her husband, Gilles, finds a safe spot to store the machine underneath the hotel, and we settle in for a three-night stay which turns into twenty-five years.

That evening, after feasting in the hotel restaurant like starving beasts on impossibly delicious truite au vin jaune made with the same exotic grape, we sleep like big cats with full bellies.

The moon rises in the easterly window through mists and clouds, then settles behind cliffs we dimly perceive through the other corner window. The river that runs close to the hotel wraps us in a soothing lullaby; we hear the farm animals lowing and clucking below the window.

The June air is almost cold, our sleep is restorative and deep. The church bell rings the hours softly through the night.

Early next morning there are strange noises outside: grunts and rhythmic footsteps. We go to the window to see a herd of thirty cows in full procession passing below the window and pouring into the main street, crossing the stone bridge that leads to their pasture, leaving several steaming cow pies for cars to navigate around.

Cars are stopped at both ends of the lumbering parade. The cows know the way, or at least the lead cow does. The herd is followed by a young woman wearing wellies, carrying a long wooden stick. She, along with a powerful-looking black dog, keeps the laggards from wandering. The prized comte’ cheese is made from the milk of these animals, we learn later.

After breakfast, we walk the village, which at this time of year is overflowing with geraniums and roses. We peer into windows and doorways like orphans, plagued by feelings of longing and exclusion. Could this be home? Later that evening, we pass by the house of someone pulling pizzas out of an ancient bread oven, serving them to friends gathered around a table amidst laughter, music, and smells of food and wood fires.

This high village of a hundred souls is almost inaccessible, unknown.

It’s surrounded by high cliffs and heavily treed forests, dressed in drifting fog and frequent rains. With all the streams and rivulets, the sound of running water is constant. At night the starry heavens are close; shooting stars are frequent.

There’s a rooster under our window that sings off-key, a plaintive donkey with a pitiful lament, a lot of old and quiet French people and an unusual collection of foreigners. Few cars pass through the village on a narrow road. It looks like a soulful place, perfect for reading and art making–a refuge, if we can just find a nest.

Gilles, the manager of the hotel, drives us around in his beat-up wreck of citroyan and shows us several falling-down “habitations” in the village. Then India spots an abandoned stone house with a collapsed sign lying in its nettle-infested back garden. Inquiries lead to an offer which leads to a purchase.

The mayor of the village tells us we paid too much, but it seems cheap compared to the prices we’re used to back in Austin.

We now have our bolthole away from the world. We call it our Shangri-La.

Written by

I occasionally write fiction and also about creativity, loving, language learning and travel. I’m a longtime painter and reader.

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