December 10 2011
“Being a somewhat singular person, my ideal weekend is simple – mainly because I want it to be the antidote to my champagne life of luxury, travel and sophistication. Also, I want to reconnect with my wife, Claire, who I don’t see enough of during the week.
At this time of year, we escape to our small house in the Ardennes between Champagne and Belgium. The house is in the secret, magical village of Elan, with barely 100 inhabitants. Although it is only 45 minutes from Reims, it’s a different world. The property is very old and charming with few modern facilities, which suits me perfectly. Right opposite is the beautiful, turreted Manoir Abbatial, a former Cistercian Abbey that is now a private house. Also on our doorstep is a 1,000 hectare forest. This really is La France profonde.
On Saturday, Claire and I will wake up naturally around 8.30am. Because I have so many big lunches and dinners during the week, I don’t really bother with breakfast, but I will have a cup of tea or coffee, and always some carrot juice, which I am addicted to. Then we put on boots and thick coats, and head out for a good, long walk – rain or shine.
I have my favourite local places to visit. One is the fountain and chapel of St Roger, an Englishman who led the abbey in the 12th century. There’s an arboretum [pictured], too, and the water is said to have miraculous powers. Another place I go to is the Church of Our Lady of Elan. Near the entrance is the grave of a Canadian pilot, who I pray for. One day, I would like to provide some new stained glass for the church, as we’ve done at Reims cathedral.
Then we head for the trails deep in the woods to walk for hours and hours. But you have to keep your wits about you because of the wild boars, which can occasionally attack you. Lunch will be at home or Aux Plaisirs Gourmands – it’s the only restaurant in Elan and, fortunately, is very good. If we are very lucky, we’ll bump into someone from the village who might invite us to their home to share some wild boar.
In the afternoon, I might go to one of the many ponds and fish for trout. For me, fishing is a form of penitence. I’ve always believed that the best fishermen are closest to God. Perhaps that’s why I rarely catch anything. However, it does help me think and dream.
I love the cold, black, winter nights in the Ardennes at this time of year. It’s darker than Scotland. In the early evening, I pour myself a whisky or make a Mauresque with a good Pastis, orgeat syrup and some ice. We might have champagne with dinner, or old-fashioned claret such as Château Poujeaux. I don’t like the new-style bordeaux – the wines are too ripe and lack a sense of place. I prefer subtle wines that speak of terroir.
After dinner, we both sit and read by the wood-burner, while listening to Radio Classique. My current favourite is Mémoires de Guerre by Charles de Gaulle. He was a phenomenal writer and deserves wider recognition. More often than not, I fall asleep, book in my lap.
Sunday morning begins with more carrot juice and coffee; I might also permit myself some toast with camembert and redcurrant jelly. Before mass in the village, I look at the graves. I recently discovered that Philippe de Bourgogne, who fought and died at Agincourt in 1415, is buried here, and I like to think about his remarkable life.
After church, I play golf at Le Golf des Ardennes in Poursaudes, where we’ll also have lunch. I’m not a good player but I am too old to care. We come back to the house in the afternoon before returning to Reims. Invariably, I feel a bit depressed at the prospect. But to me, this is both healthy and good. It tells me I have completely forgotten about business, and that my brain and spirit is completely refreshed for the working week ahead.”