PEROUGES, France — Eda was incredulous. "Perouges?" she asked. "Never heard of it."
Eda is a well-traveled American who moved to France more than 20 years ago, married Gilles, a French investment banker, and raised a family.
Eda knows everything and everybody. She works for a Paris-based journalist who writes for one of America's top newspapers. She didn't know of Perouges. We were apprehensive.
We had carefully planned our winter vacation in France, assiduously pouring over Michelin, Chateau & Relais, Relais de Silence guidebooks and road maps.
Gilles returned from the chasse about two hours later, after he and his friends had bagged about 60 ducks. He stood in front of the enormous, no-nonsense fireplace of their country house outside of Grandchamps, his arm on the mantle, a significant Huguenot in brown corduroy knickers and argyle knee socks.
"Perouges?" he posed, politely replacing our hard "g" with a soft "g." "Where is it?"
We had arrived in Paris two days earlier. Roland and Catherine, two well-traveled French friends, had asked the same question about Perouges. Apparently, in our tight little universe, whether in California or in France, we seemed to be the only two people who had ever heard of Perouges.
Our plan was to drive from Paris to Provence, taking our time, staying in country inns and chateaux, seeing France out of season, free of the tourist crush.
We sought a comfortable driving break from our visit at Grandchamps two hours south of Paris, with Eda and Gilles. And we wanted accommodations in the midst of the dining mecca of the world around Lyon.
But Vonnas was closed over Christmas. Pic was too far south. The red Michelin gave the Ostellerie de Vieux Perouges, 273 miles down the Rhone Valley from Paris, three red turrets for the hotel and one star for the restaurant. The great Michelin said that it was an old town reminiscent of Perugia in Italy, which we knew and loved. How bad could it be?
It was dark when we got to Perouges. The winter day was short, and the light was gone by 5:30. A small sign on the side of the road pointed to "Perouges--Ancienne Cite" and to a narrow country road.
A few hundred yards down the road a floodlit, medieval village loomed above us. Awesome, we thought, but only another national monument. There were no signs of a hotel or of any commerce. Nevertheless, we entered through the formidable gates with a massive watchtower on either side.
The dark streets that penetrated rows of tall, flat-faced, fieldstone buildings were narrow, cobbled and certainly not meant for automobiles. Wooden shutters were closed tight everywhere, as is the custom in France after dark, and a cold wind slapped the rain against the windshield of our small French car.
Our headlights picked up a sliver of an arrow painted with the word Ostellerie. We followed it to the central square whose dominant feature was an enormous (it had been growing since the year 1792) winter linden, under whose naked limbs were parked three cars.
Here was Perouges, indeed. We had made it. The uncertain adventure had ended and a wonderful experience was about to begin.
An inviting, soft light emanated from the old auberge , just as it must have for travelers on horseback in the 13th Century who sought an overnight stay and food.
Georges Thibaut, the proprietor, welcomed us to Perouges, using the hard "g" of ancient Perouges. (We wondered if we should call Eda and Gilles.) His sinewy hunting dog was toasting himself on polished hardwood in front of a roaring fire and didn't budge.
There was no check-in. Instead, Thibaut showed us his collection of old pewter and earthenware. A woman appeared to help us with our bags, but let us carry most of them ourselves, as she showed us to the Manoir. Guests are lodged apart from the main building of the Ostellerie, which was the original inn and is now taken up by the restaurant and its kitchen.
Around the corner, we entered a small courtyard through a wooden door set in formidable stone originally designed to protect the newer, 15th-Century manor house from feudal warlords. Inside the Manoir we maneuvered ourselves and suitcases up a narrow (everything in those defensive days was narrow) spiral stone staircase.
Our room on that cold winter night was as warm as Thibaut's welcome. Deep mahogany wood paneling commingled with richly patterned wall coverings and the fabric of the curtained four-poster bed. The ceiling still had the original wooden beams.
The piece de resistance was a 15th-Century Gothic pulpit that hid a white push-button telephone--our link to the outside world--behind an intricately carved wooden door.
Later we discovered that all the rooms had telephones hidden in equally unusual old pieces of furniture. One was slipped under the lid of a portable 17th-Century bidet, another inside a 15th-Century commode. There were no hidden TVs.
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