Exploring Depths of Experience in Arts, Letters, Science and Ideas
Traveling South By Laurence L. Murphy, Illustrations by Deirdre SheeanGo Back to the Table of Contents
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I got a ride from an American couple who had rented the car for a day in the countryside. I told them they would have been better off heading for the Yonne and Vezelay than in the direction of Orleans. It’s flat land between Paris and Orleans, a kind of small Nebraska called the Beauce, and there is no wood of real size or character until the Sologne, the hunting area south of Orleans that begins in a flash on the southern edge of the city. It is a change in landscape as dramatic as coming out of alkali desserts in eastern Oregon into the Cascades, or the way the weather changes in winter if you cross the Apennines to the Italian Riviera and the snow just stops and green begins on the southern face of the mountains to roll down by the sea. The Americans giving me the ride decided they would change direction toward the Yonne valley. On their map I showed them where I was headed: directly south, passing the wooded Sologne to skirt the mountainous areas of Auvergne, then high over the Pyrenees past Andorra to Spain and Barcelona. I would then sail south to the island of Ibiza off the wash of the African coast. They let me out about half way to Orleans and drove off on a small road to find a restaurant.

The land in the Beauce was like Kansas, fertile, tan and honey wheated in a weathered abundance. The sun was hard and bright, light split and refracted as if reflected off a coin. A man stopped and gave me a ride out of the harsh light. The strata of light compressed time to a squint and one looked hard into the sun with the same effort one makes when looking into darkness. The man told me he had moved to Paris from a small town in the country and that he now had a business in Paris.

He was going home to pickup his family and bring them north. He would be glad to live in Paris, he said, for his region was poor and there was nothing to do there. When we passed through Orleans on the southern border of the Beauce, the city was suddenly dramatic in the contrast of ancient and new buildings-still modernizing, in the center of the city construction was going on. The new architecture spliced the old into a surrealism of history and a splendor of contrasting architectural styles.

Once into the Sologne, the country softened and there were hunting Chateaus, restaurants with the leg of a Boar hung by the hoof at the door to advertise fresh game. Passing out of the Sologne, however, the land began to look impoverished-the towns appeared desolate, lost, and forgotten on the land. This feeling of land neglected and earth forgotten contrasted with the ambiance of the wealthier regions I knew in the north.

I had worked north, in Alsace, during the grape harvest and there, despite its anguished history, the towns were now happy, rich and proud with the queen cities of Strasbourg and Mulhouse prosperous and growing. The wine route was a marvel, the tradition of place strengthened by a prosperous economy. The wines of this small region supplied the world with exports. Alsace was an agricultural reserve and had been officially made a national park in France to keep industry out. In the fresh thrill of autumn, we had picked grapes by hand and carried them on our backs. At twilight there was singing in the valley as the horse carts carried the day’s harvest to town, and then in the morning, when you began again, young girls would throw flowers from the village windows as you rode past the cemetery toward the vineyards. Later we would watch the grapes pressed into wine in the evening. There was the smell of hay and the evening was filled with autumn stars and we were happy with the feeling of joy and fatigue earned by labor. In the lands we were driving through in the south, however, there was no such joy. Here, they needed industry, and people and prosperity, but much of this land was desolate. I have always seen the lands forgotten traveling south.

The cars came through in a pack heading home to Paris from August vacations, and the towns along the routes looked weary and burdened under the sun. Where I got out, in a small town, some old women were dressed in black and toiling under a monotonously hot sun, washing clothes in a public fountain and carrying sacks of clothing laboriously up a hill on their backs. The mood of the day had changed to dust under a tedious sun and the air was thick with the smell of exhaust. Then a man in a truck carrying a cargo of bottles, a chorus of glass chimes tinkling down the road beneath the tainted sky, stopped. I left the ensemble of dreary laundresses, anxious to be further south.

“I have a daughter who is on vacation in Germany,” he said. “When I was young we knew the Germans only as an enemy. Now she wants to live there.” The gearshift of the old truck did not work well, and he would swear and bang it with his fist, then shake his fist and swear at the pain this caused. We were on the new road that went straight into Limoges and we could see the path of the old road above us in the hills. The man said he had spent most of his life taking the old road and that it had been a pleasant ride, but slow. I, myself, was happy to moving south at a good pace in the evening and planned on spending the evening in Limoges. We stopped where the man was to tack onto a dirt road which trailed off toward the bottle depot. We had a drink in a cafe, and parted.

There was field to the left and a great tree then in the dark and the cars were only headlights which spliced time and speed until they passed in a rush that felt insulting. Limoges was below in the valley. Then one car past swiftly, but halted. The driver was a young fellow who lived outside of Limoges and we drove to the outskirts of the city where the road descended down into a valley.

I walked to lights of the city in the valley, once looking up to see where I had been while walking towards the light of where I would be-I blinked, for a second, almost seeing myself in time - looking forward, looking back - seemed to redefine my memory into dimensions, almost as if one might remember the future as well as the past. But then I was lost in a confusion of lights at the center of the city and the sense of deja vu departed.

He was delivering the bottles to a place outside Limoges, Renoir’s home city, and, sounding like a truckload of wind chimes, we mounted a sierra to where we now saw down into a valley. Horses were grazing and the tarnished sun was finally setting.

People were out eating dinner on the terraces of the cafes and restaurants in the evening. There was a fountain lit by a lamp into a refraction of rainbows and the train station, austere as a landmark, had a clock, white faced and outlined in numerals: time loomed in light above the square like a ghost. Then there was a stretch of road with movie theatres and penny arcades, the railroad parallel and below this route which faded walking south from town to just a through street. The faces of the buildings were blank, eyes closed for evening, and the life of place, like roadside America, was gradually controlled by the pace of the automobile.

I had thought of spending the night in Limoges, but decided to continue south to see the paintings. I stopped in a small store, bought bread and cheese, and eating while walking, I wandered off down a smaller road until I saw a light from an alley illumine what looked like ruins. I walked down the alley, and there was suddenly lights sculpting dark stone into a Cathedral, which was, for a moment, a Gothic mirage.

Then my eyes grew used to the light, and the mirage became substance, and I stared at the Cathedral as if it were a mountain or a valley or seascape. New buildings often look as if they can be destroyed by the same process that built them, but the Cathedral in the darkness seemed something only the elements could destroy. Its dissolution would be like ocean wearing at cliff, or river on rocks. The trail of light led up to an old rocky wall running down to the river. The river too was lit up in the evening, but this time by the moon which was bright enough so that you could see the gray black edged clouds which crossed it. Up from the river bank there was a trace of the old craftsman’s shops for which Limoges is famous. Craftsmen from the city had mined kaolin and studied, and attempted to master, the secrets of creating fine porcelain discovered by the Europeans in ancient Cathay. Now, at least in France, they believed the best porcelain in the world came from Limoges. As a young man, Renoir had apprenticed painting delicate design and tableau on this porcelain, and in Paris all porcelain that was not from Limoges was considered a copy; although Limoges herself had earned her reputation by copying the crafts of China.

I walked back up to the through street and stood by the road and a man in a large car, who was going south to find his daughter, pulled over. His daughter had run away three weeks before with her boyfriend. Tired of running, and having seen the other side of life, she had ended up in a town in central France, seeking solace from her grandmother. The man was traveling south to bring her home.

We could see the outline of the hills in the night and he said it was a shame that it was not light enough to see all the countryside, and the way in which the sun shadows and profiles the valleys. It is a graceful part of France that skirts the Auvergne, the mountains high and worn by time. Each town now doubles as a resort and the restaurants are very fine, the towns often picturesque. We went several hamlets down the road, stopping in a village to go into a cafe and drink an expresso. Then it was raining and late at night, and the man sang to keep himself awake while driving. In the next town, he decided to find a hotel. I said goodbye, walked out into the wet night through the town square and restaurants, and then over a bridge across a wide river. I walked down an embankment to beneath a weeping willow which sheltered from the rain. I rolled out my sleeping bag and slept by the river in the rain. I could hear the rain touch the leaves, and then fall outside the willow’s awning.

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