We are in Belgium in the Ardenne, a hilly region in the French-speaking area. I chose La Roche-en-Ardenne as our overnight stop because it was proclaimed by several people on travel advice sites as one of the loveliest villages in the area.
The river Ourthe bends through a narrow flat-bottomed valley and the village nestles along its banks. Above, a medieval castle rises from a crag as though hewn from it.
At first glance, the river appears brown but I see from the 100-200m elevation of our hotel that it is crystal clear; it is the rocks beneath the water that are brown with the silt of ages.
The banks are lushly wooded with dark deciduous trees, pines, a pale willow and smudges of burgundy, greys and browns. They are studded with the sun-bright whites of houses.
In the park ponds beside the river, six fountains spurt in changing heights like synchronized swimmers.
A youth with bare torso stands knee-deep in the middle of the river. In his hand is a long, thin stick. He is poking around beneath stones, as though concerned about lifting them. I wait for him to find something, to expertly stab a fish or pick something thrashing from the water but he does not. Quietly he walks back to the shore, past the bikinied girl lying with her dog on a blanket, up to the houses. Downstream, a younger boy wades with his fishing rod. The water skims past his thighs. Eventually, he too leaves empty-handed.
I am sitting next to a large, wooden-framed window swung open horizontally along its centre. The summer town rises through it to me. Voices carry over the water. Away to my left, Edith Piaf has replaced someone reminiscent of Dolly. Aeroplanes fly overhead. (The window as sound system.)
I think I must rush off and explore. That is the temptation. I am travelling so I must travel! I must walk. I must view. I must photograph and record.
But what if?
The waiter replies to my order by saying, “A glass of rosé for Madam,” in a most delightful and film-worthy accent. I feel as if I am here to write a novel. I feel as if I might saunter down to the promenade alongside the river. I might wander into town. And, if I did, I might encounter English guests with parasols ‘taking the air’.
I am offered first a small dish of peanuts and savoury rice tidbits. This is followed by an angel on horseback that is somehow the most delicious of the stuffed-prune genre I have ever tasted. (The word ‘Michelin’ on the front door is starting to make sense.) Next, a portion of quiche with feather-light pastry arrives. It is as though the chef is playing before dinner and sharing with whoever happens to be around. I have a lovely sense of inclusion and intimacy.
I save this post in my blogging folder under “Europe 2014” and feel profound gratitude that a) I am here and b) I have to differentiate between the years. The blessing of so much travelling brings with it the possibility of familiarity, not breeding contempt but bringing with it a dulling – of senses, of gratitude, of anticipation, of delight, of recollection of times when this was all a seemingly-impossible aspiration.
The velvety voice of a waiter in a foreign country is enough, however, to bring all these welling up. It is a rich and profound moment when even my physical body fills.
These moments are perfect; utter perfection.
Our hotel was Les Genets.