There’s something different about the air on long summer evenings in France. It’s difficult to explain, but seems to combine a number of things to create a magical atmosphere which occasionally moves me to tears. Not the crying-my-eyes-out-tears – that would be embarrassing – more the sort of tears that prick my eyeballs and make a lump in my throat.
This special quality in the evening air is probably the result of unceasing warm weather, when all-pervading, comfortable heat radiates from walls and pavements, along with those inexplicable little pockets of warmth that you simply stumble into. Then there’s a certain quality of sound. Sitting on any city restaurant terrace, does the hum of contented diners’ voices sound more convivial? Do people talk more? Feel more relaxed? More inclined to linger into the night?
There are a few eye-pricking moments from our travels in France that come to mind. We were in Nyons, following the Olive Route while working on a magazine feature. We had been directed by the Office de Tourisme to a small hotel, modest looking from the street but when we entered the gate, we found ourselves in a corner of paradise. At nightfall, the garden at Une Autre Maison became a mysterious and intimate setting for guests enjoying a relaxed evening meal by candlelight. The buzz of conversation was softened by the lush vegetation, but we lay in bed that night listening to the late chatter floating up to our room, knowing that we’d shared a most special evening.
In the smouldering heat of Arles, we dined under the colourful parasols of the tourist restaurants in front of the remarkable Grand Hotel Nord Pinuswhere we were lucky enough to be staying and which is one of those hotels to try and visit at least once in a lifetime. The humidity was unbearable and sensing an approaching storm, we ate early and escaped to the air conditioned comfort of our hotel room. At about 11pm, we heard the first raindrops and a stiff breeze whipping through the tree canopy outside. We flung open the window to breathe in the fresh air and witnessed diners rushing for cover amid hoots of laughter and frantic waiters rescuing what they could from tables under the deluge.
On another evening, for another feature, Roger needed to quickly photograph the cathedral in Clermont Ferrand. He’d visited it before but Clermont had undergone some dramatic changes in the city centre and the exterior shots were now out of date. It was hot, early evening, and at the end of a working day, people were spilling out onto the square in front of the cathedral and filling up the bars in search of a cold beer. I sat on a bench to wait on one side of the square and soaked up the atmosphere. It was akin to being in a theatre before the curtain rises, the acoustics so perfect I could hear snatches of conversation and laughter from bars on the other side of the square. Yes, it was noisy but in the thick evening air, it was contained, and with that same expectant frisson of the theatre, people were eagerly anticipating another special summer evening in the city.
During the annual Circuit des Remparts in Angoulême , when classic racing cars tear around the city walls, the restaurant terraces and bars are packed with enthusiasts. We particularly like sitting in the Place Francis Louvel, where in summer several restaurants put tables out under the shade of the trees and next to a tinkling fountain. You’ll find that the hotel on the corner of the square is where Bugatti owners congregate after their race, parking their prized (and phenomenally expensive) possessions haphazardly on the side of the road or in the hotel garage, where you can peek in and marvel at them. As usual, the weather in this part of France in mid-September is kind, and sitting under the trees after an exciting weekend of races, listening to tales of fortune and misfortune, interrupted by occasional gutteral roars from more Bugattis pulling into the square is somewhere near perfect French air for me.