I recreated my childhood vacation in France in honor of my late father
Our next stop was Sologne, south of Orleans. With its strange ponds and marshes, its hunters and woodcutters, La Solonge has been, since reading Alain Fournier’s Grand Meulnes, a place of intense mystery for me. I insisted that my parents take me there and we stayed, to my father’s great joy because he revered Relais & Châteaux, at the Grand Hôtel Lion d’Or in Romorantin-Lanthenay. A few years later, while working on French Leave, I saw it was a favorite of Richard Binns, who raved about new young chef Didier Clément, who had married the owners’ daughter.
What a wonder, after a day spent drifting around the Solonge, to find Mr. Clément still quietly presiding over his starred cuisine, his wife Marie-Christine still in the dining room and their now closely associated daughter. When I produced French Leave, it was an emotional moment. “This book meant so much to us,” Marie-Christine told me. “We were very young and Richard’s friendship and support were invaluable.” In his memory, she and Didier invited us to eat his favorite dishes, always à la carte, plus one which was not there, but which he would have warmly approved: the caviar harvested from sturgeons now raised in the ponds of Sologne. Le Lion d’Or is an uncluttered oasis in the city center and the newly decorated restaurant, its pale walls subtly carved using a rare technique called carton pierre, evokes the mystery and magic of Sologne.
Leaving Romorantin-Lanthenay we headed west for Chinon and those dreamy stretches of the Loire and its tributaries along which lie the castles of Ussé, Azay-le-Rideau, Islette , Villandry and Le Rivau. We usually contented ourselves with contemplating them, and taking river trips on traditional Loire boats. From French Leave we stayed in a simple Logis, the Manoir de Giraudière, still in operation but old now. Nevertheless, our budget apartment with kitchenette suited us perfectly, allowing us to shop and cook ourselves, it’s all part of the fun.
The last trip with my father
While my father tried to frequent as many star restaurants and Relais & Châteaux hotels as he could, my more sensible and budget-conscious mother did her best to stop him. In the mid-80s he was gravely ill and we took him on his last trip to his beloved France; he was allowed to stay where he wanted. His choices included Le Moulin de l’Abbaye in Brantôme, the Negresco in Cannes, and our last stop on this trip, in Honfleur at the luxurious Relais & Châteaux Ferme St Siméon, famous for the early Impressionists, including Monet, who stayed there when he was born. t was a humble inn, drawn by the extraordinary light, the sea mists and the views of the Seine estuary.