Sometimes it’s not the landmarks you visit, it’s the journey itself that’s a landmark. 30 years ago, I travelled to France with my younger brother, Julian, in my car. I left behind my then wife and young daughter to take a trip I’d wanted to do since I was a history student, seeing something of the medieval splendour of France.
We took the ferry from Portsmouth to Caen and then drove down as far as we could go and still get back for our return ferry in a week. With overnight stops in Anjou, Tours and Angoulême, we called in to see sights I’d only ever dreamed of, like Fontevraud Abbey, where three English kings and two queens have their tombs; the ancient baptistry at Poitiers; and Perigueux’s extraordinary cathedral.
Somewhere between Tours and Poitiers, the roofs turned from slate grey to tile red, the sun came out, and it really started to feel as if we were in the South. That seemed impossibly exotic to me as I wasn’t one of those British kids who was used to holidays in Spain – I’d never seen the Mediterranean. Nor was I to find it on that trip. The furthest south we reached was the small village of Calès, near the beautiful shrine of Rocamadour. But on a balmy evening walk there, I felt as far from cold, rainy Britain as I’d ever felt before.The following day, as we set out on our return journey northwards, we came to a fork in the road. To the south, it pointed to “Barcelone”. The Catalan capital seemed far away; unattainable.
I had no idea, of course, that within six years, I’d have moved there and begun learning two new languages to add to the French I could remember from A-level that had stood me in reasonably good stead on that trip with my brother.
Fast-forward 30 years and I’m setting out on another trip, this time driving north from my home of the last quarter century near Barcelona with my partner, Ana, and my son, Pol. And it suddenly occurs to me that, to a large extent, I’m going to be undoing that original trip of half a lifetime ago.
I know a lot more now about culture, history and language – and not just the Spanish and Catalan I work with every day. I’ve learned a lot more about French too. After many visits and holidays to various parts of the south, I can recognise the chocolatey accent, so different from the way the people sound in the north: I know about Occitan – the language of the south, which, although it’s barely spoken can be seen in virtually every street name. And I actually know my way around Carcassonne – a distant medieval dream city back in 1993 where we now spend an afternoon. Soon, though, I am rolling back the route of 30 years ago. Here we are in beautiful Perigueux, with its extraordinary domed cathedral, where on the previous trip, in the market, I bought what my memory tells me is the most wonderful cheese I’ve ever tasted. Sadly, I forgot its name almost instantly.
And there we are in Tours, a city I stayed in travelling in both directions on the original trip with my brother, but can remember virtually nothing of. It’s raining, but the cathedral is a glorious vision of radiant stained glass. In the Loire valley, we choose different castles to visit from the ones I went to with my brother. Villandry is stunning, particularly the gardens. Angers, with its distinctively striped castle containing a remarkable series of medieval tapestries, holds memories of the strange meal with Julian in a restaurant almost opposite, when a group of young French people came over to us and politely asked us if they minded if they sang, before bursting into a rendition of some sort of college anthem. And then we’re in Normandy, so close physically and even culturally to my original home in the UK.
The way back to Barcelona after our two-week stay – Caen, Bayeux, battleground beaches – follows part of the route of that original journey with my brother, with a night in Poitiers to see properly what had been impossible to fit into a rushed morning on the first trip. Then past Angoulême and down to Cahors. We’ve passed my imaginary north-south roof line and still not all of them are tiled red. Sometimes memory over-simplifies.
Somewhere here, I realise we’re not so far from Calès, the village embedded in my memory as that southern limit to the reachable world. I think for a time about then and now, about the twists and turns that are now leading me towards another new language; another reinvention. And then I turn the car towards Barcelona and head for home.