Back for another edition of The Longing, Laurent Dimanche’s critically acclaimed show of picturesque country walks, I set off on a majestic 86-mile journey into the heart of Europe from Paris.
This time, however, I chose a 200km coastal route that took me through the stunning and rugged region of Brittany and towards the Atlantic coast, an area of much potential travel.
My first experience of France was as a child in the small port of Reims, so it was fitting that for this journey my mother had chosen a short stay in a chic hotel overlooking the Grand Seine. The Rivernite Maral, a chain of huts on the river bank near the city of Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, had been built in 1896 by Count Caille Albin of Reims as a hotel for the Russian elite but as I arrived I discovered that it was more popular with locals than a visiting dignitary.
True, it would be impossible to go to Reims on your own without a driver, but from my hotel rooftop it looked idyllic. A century’s worth of history, breathtaking views and the great, slow river levelling the parkland below gave it a classy charm. Back in the hotel’s sun-lit lobby, I realised that what most impressed me was the hard-to-reach location – just an hour from the centre of town. As for the food, well I wouldn’t have time to explore the narrow streets of the old quarter.
I walked on, keeping one eye on the river for barges working in the locks and saloons to “window shop”, but mostly taking in the views.
A few kilometres later, I arrived in St-Quentin. Since its opening in 1913 the Marlborough Arms has become a wonderful hangout for locals and local artists in search of inspiration. From its top floor, you are truly engulfed by views of the river and the mountains to the south.
My favorite thing about the Marlborough Arms is its unremarkableness. It’s a hotel within a hotel, but no differently from any other. On my second night, I set off after dinner for the nearest pub to the hotel – a traditional establishment with a huge garden outside, its walls lined with old bard posters from eastern Europe. It is a place to “meet and greet” with friends, making for a relaxed atmosphere.
Each morning I swam in the river and from the afternoon I took a “short break” at another café to read the morning paper before continuing on for another two or three hours. After a journey time of under two hours, I finally arrived at the Hotel de Reims, knowing that from my hotel corner, I was only three miles from a breathtaking outdoor hot springs.
My hotel room had a fully-equipped swimming pool and a private hot tub, and the morning felt like a grand finale. I set off by car for the shores of the River Dargue. It was a warm and sunny day, the water crystal clear and perfectly brimming with nutrients. I brought some fresh fennel chutney with me, intending to prepare it for lunch.
For those who like nothing better than journeying to dreamy hot-springs, I suggest putting aside three weeks and spending as much time as possible hiking around in the area, particularly the surrounding mountains. On my second day I decided to spend the rest of the day exploring the countryside, but I also had a couple of stops along the way to catch a few waves and then back to the hotel for lunch. There I enjoyed a mussel soup, a delicious juice in a quenelle, a little cheese made from quails’ eggs and the best chocolate I’ve ever tasted.