John Birdsall scored a copy of the “Auberge of the Flowering Hearth” by Roy Andries de Groot at a thrift store. Posted it to Instagram.
Here I am.
It’s one of the books I’m scouring your shelves for—if you have it, I trust you more. Weird, huh?!
The book inspired a trip for me into the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes. The inn was my first stop, but the monastery at Chartreuse and visiting Annecy were right behind it.
I drove a car out of Lyon, and because it’s a bit nerve-wracking at first—doing it in another country—I was on alert. I tuned into a classical channel. It was early on a near fall day. The sky was matte grey, and a light rain fell.
The station was playing the Brandenburg concertos and the weather, the forests at the base of the French Alps, and the music felt coordinated. The roads were secondary, and only a few people tailed me.
Colours were vivid—green fir trees, glistening black bark, wet terra cotta earth, and fallen wood in streams decaying to charcoal, rust, and yellow splinters.
I overshot the road to the inn twice. Third time got lucky.
It was a single lane and modestly steep. Dairy cattle grazing in the field to my right. They wore bells. I turned the radio off because the clanging was gorgeous.
They chewed and observed me. I knocked at the door.
Here it was mid-September—summer tourists gone and a window of reprieve before ski season. Maybe the Tour de France had gone through that summer. My years of seasonal employment made me feel sympathy for the owner. I was quiet and thoughtful. He gestured me into the foyer. I did not expect it.
Took a picture of the side of the building before I left. A lovely day in photos gone to the great unknown. Maybe it’s why I can recall it in detail.
De Groot wrote the book on visits between 1962 to 1967. Here is his opening sentence in the 1982 preface:
“It is now fifteen years since I first approached the forbidden granite wall of rock, found the jagged cleft cut by the rushing torrent of the river, negotiated the narrow road on the ledge above the ravine, swung around the hairpin bends and plunged through one rock tunnel after another, until I found myself in the sun-splashed forest, surrounded it seemed, by an orchestra of a thousand birds singing in harmony a hundred songs.”
Who would not want to go there?
The rain stopped. I found a small hut serving food—eating an escarole salad with goat cheese and bread and butter on a two-table patio—sheep grazing in the pasture on the other side of the driveway. Lone tourist mainly owing to the weather.
The sun broke. Paragliders hung high overhead in warm winds. Sails in primary colours. Why is a sight like that so good?
In chapter two, de Groot gives a brief history of how the carthusian monks at le grande chartreuse came to settle there. It was easy to see the landscape through his eyes. Its character is essential.
I’ve cooked a few things like le gratin Savoyard and la salade de pissenlit aux lardons from it. I like the stories.
I’ve come this far without saying a word about the hosts—mademoiselle Ray and mademoiselle Vivette. A gracious couple with complementary skills in the kitchen and dining room. It was a place where de Groot felt comfortable, alive even. Because of its size, a stay required some level of intimacy with the daily rhythms.
I’m cutting myself off there. Read it if you like.
I ended the day in Annecy. Sunday lunch was tartiflette at Le Freti alongside local families and tourists. I had no appetite left for it but wanted to taste the fondue and raclette too.
Then there was a one-of-a-kind lesson in humility in an underground parking lot. I believe a few more people than me have found themselves in a similar predicament. Sheepishly telling strangers, I’d blocked the automated exit. Kind people helped me sort it.
Travelling to places accompanied is good. But sometimes it's perfect going alone to places important to me.