Wednesday, 18 January 2012
Hopeland (Notes from Corsica) 10. Don and Marie (part one)
Two days later, we headed inland towards Calanzana. After a quarter of a mile we looked for a signpost that Pat told us had been used for target practice by the local hunters, a common practice apparently. We found the peppered sign whose death rattle proclaimed ‘Monte Grosso 9’ and, turning left onto a rough tarmac road, we started our gradual ascent. Montemaggiore lay before us, draped over a modest summit but dwarfed by a massive mount that rose up behind the village like a pantomime villain. As we ascended the white lines in the centre of the road disappeared and the route steepened suddenly into a series of sharp hairpin bends that challenged our budget Renault’s first gear. The clutch burned as the village beckoned. Its most striking feature, the church, seemed to perch like a sleepy owl atop the haphazard dwellings, rugged blocks of grey and white. One last bend, the most challenging, and we entered the village pulling up directly outside the church. It was here that we had agreed to rendezvous with the vendors, Don and Marie Adams. Stepping out of the car the clouds parted to reveal a breathtaking view of Calvi and the bay, sun kissed and glorious. Our spirits lifted.
“Not bad eh?” came a voice from behind us, “a sight for sore eyes eh?” We turned towards a tall sinewy man in his late sixties, dressed in jeans and a ‘Tetley’s’ t-shirt.
“Now then, I’m Don, Don Adams. You must be Trevor and Di” he beamed, squeezing our hands a little too firmly. “Marie’s waiting for us in the house. She gets a bit knackered with all the upping and downing.”
He led us up past the church into a modest square.
“This is ‘La Place’” he continued in his broad Lancashire accent “the heart of ‘Monty’ where the village holds its celebrations, fetes, a fire a Christmas, the nerve centre if you like.” The nerve centre currently comprised of a nervous one eared tabby and a shitting dog arching its trembling back and offering an embarrassed stare that begged us to look away. I waited for some tumbleweed to roll through the mordent scene; that would have brightened things up a bit.
‘It’s like ‘Angela’s Ashes’’ whispered Di.
As we continued our climb the village revealed itself in a series of narrow streets and grim fronted houses with no apparent character or style; function was everything. Climbing ancient steps we approached an archway beyond which we glimpsed a sunlit view of the hills behind the village. I felt a little shudder on the back of my neck. Don paused as we walked under the archway, “This is the old entrance to what was the fort, what the locals call ‘A Cima’,” he pointed at a date etched into the brickwork: 1593. “There used to be a bloody big door here that they’d slam shut on all the Romans and Vikings and such when them came up to rape and pillage.” Don’s history was as bad as my golf. “All the villagers would leg it up here until the invaders got bored and buggered off.”
Rounding a corner we climbed some steep stone stairs to a wooden door that Don opened with a flourish and entered a small living room, pink predominated. We were ushered up a rickety wooden staircase, through a small dining room and up another set of wooden stairs.
“Watch your step but whatever you do don’t bloody count ‘em.” said Don. As we stepped out onto a roof terrace the hairs on my neck twitched again. Never before or since have I been so immediately smitten with a view. Over the rooftops we looked towards the now familiar scoop of the bay where the Citadel was perfectly framed against the luxuriant azure of the Lagurian Sea, currently calm as a duck pond. Above and beyond Calvi was the Gulf of Revellata with its lighthouse just visible. My eye worked its way back up the valley following the road that had brought us here and came to rest on the back of the church. Behind its owl like facade a circular red tiled roof rose to a windowed turret. Alongside, twittering swifts frantically circled an elegant bell tower. I turned my back to the now cobalt sea. Three small villages nestled into the hillside. To our right the mountain rose above us, miles away but seemingly close enough to touch. Dominant yet somehow protective, the pantomime villain was in fact a benevolent presence. Beyond were the silhouettes of other distant peaks. I looked back across the valley towards the three villages.
“They form the rest of our commune which is known as ‘Monte Grosso’, named after that mountain”, said Don following my gaze.
“The villages are Lunghignano, Cassano and the biggest there is Zilia. See that long green shed there, just below and to the right, that’s where all the local bottled water comes from. And if you don’t like the taste of the water, just beyond is the vineyard of Alzipratu.”
I could just make out the blue, uniform shadow of vines.
“Good drinking that is, especially the red. Speaking of which, how about a Gin and Tonic?”
Don shuffled back down the stairs whilst Di and I sat at a bench avoiding eye contact; breathing deeply.
“You haven’t seen it all yet”
“OK, let’s go gently”
There was the clink of ice on glass and Don reappeared balancing a tray, a lemon under each armpit and a small ivory handled knife clenched, pirate like, between his teeth.
“It’s the Vikings, leg it!” I laughed. Di kicked me under the table. An elegant lady caressing a bottle of Gordon’s gin followed Don out onto the terrace.
“This is my better half, Marie”, said Don putting a heavy arm around her delicate shoulder. “Actually, as she’s half Lancs and half French I’m not sure which is indeed the better half.”
Marie was half his size. She disentangled herself to slice lemons and mix drinks.
“Welcome to our little house, ” she smiled. “Strong, weak or medium?”
We learnt that she and Don had owned the house for fourteen years and stayed every summer for three months during which time their extended family visited at will.
“We’ve had as many as twelve folk sleeping at any one time. We do love it here but the steep stairs are getting too much for us. Don’s nearly seventy and not as fit as he’d have you believe. He gets easily knackered with all the upping and downing.”
Don bristled “I could stay here forever me, it just seems like time for something else. As the wise man said ‘change is good, even if it is from bad to worse,”
Marie chuckled at her husband “Don won’t mind me telling you that he had major heart surgery last year. We need to slow down and simplify.”
“Slow down and simplify! Slow down and simplify!” bellowed Don “you’re a long time bloody dead I say. Slow down and simplify, phfuf!”
As the late afternoon drifted towards early evening, the gun metal sea became an impossible silver. A thin strip of grey suggested the horizon towards which the sun descended for what would surely be a memorable sunset. I found myself entranced by the less obvious view out back. The snow peaked Monte Grosso rose above us, miles away but seemingly close enough to touch. Flowing down from the icy cone of the summit were tiny slivers of light, rivers fed by the snow, which reminded me of one of those lace doilies that my Granny would drape over the sugar bowl, to ward off flies and sticky fingers.
The light was ever changing; liquid hills swelled, shuddered and shifted in texture and hue; bleached orange to bronze, burnt ochre to broccoli green. Rusty reds and woozy purples briefly predominated before somehow, magically, all was golden again. There was no palette could do justice to this delicate cacophony.
“Look how the floor of heaven is thick inlaid with patterns of bright gold.” I knew that my ‘O’ level Shakespeare would one day resonate but was unaware that I’d spoken out loud. Don gave me a sideways glance.
‘Ay lad, not too shabby,’
Shapes and shadows revealed themselves in fine detail and would just as suddenly melt back into the balmy canvas. There were sure signs of the years of pastoral endevour: lazy lines of terracing and stonewalling, the occasional suggestion of old foundations. High on the hill a cemetery beckoned. Beneath shimmering olive trees orange nets blanketed the ground, ready to receive a harvest that would be six months in the coming. A donkey brayed. I could hear the whistling of shepherds as they guided their herds along ancient routes that criss-crossed the hills, down past neglected bergeries, down towards pastures new. The smell was intoxicating; the peppery pungency of the maquis mixed with the earthy odour of the goats and sheep made for a heady combination. Nearby a neighbour was frying onions. I looked across at Di, glowing in the pale pink of a bourbon sky, and I knew. We hadn’t even seen the house properly yet.
We shared the sunset. As that molten orb kissed the horizon a divine half-light descended and the landscape fell into a deep, sonorous silence. We sat blissfully suspended until a dog’s bark broke the spell.
“Like a ref’s whistle,” chortled Don refreshing our glasses, “that dog’s as reliable as the sunset”.
We talked long into the night before agreeing that, as it was too dark, too late and we were too pickled to see straight, we should meet again for breakfast the next day ‘for a right proper viewing’.
As we wobbled down cobbled stones towards the church, tentative and tipsy in the inky black, Di was strangely silent.