“Chambéry which is called in Latin Camberinum, is the capitall City of Savoy, wherein they keep their Parliament. It is seated in a plaine, and is but little, yet walled, and having certaine convenient gates. Many of their houses are built with faire free stone. Therein is a strong Castle which seemeth to be of great antiquity. Here was wont to be kept a very auncient and religious relique, the shroud wherein our Saviours blessed body was wrapped (as they report) when it was put in the Sepulchre; but within these few years it was removed to Turin in Piemont, where upon speciall days it is shewed with great ceremonies…One thing I observed in this towne that I never saw before, much of their tile wherewith they cover their Churches and houses is made of wooded. Here is a Jesuitical Colledge as in Lyons: the Windows are made of paper in many places of the City as in Lyons. Here came Nunnes to our chamber to begge money of us as in Lyons.
The people of this Country which are now called Sabaudi, were heretofore called Allobroges, from a certain King who name was Allobrox. The Metropolitan City that they inhabited was Vienna, which is situate by the River Rhodanus.
“…There was another Duke also of that name of the Amadei, which was the Nephew of this first Amadeus, of whom Munster writeth a most memorable history, that being once demanded of certaine Orators that came unto him, whether he had any hounds to hunt withal, he desired them to come to him the next day, and when they came he shewed them out of his gallery a great multitude of beggars in one side of his house sitting together at meat, & said loe, these are my hounds that I feede every day, with whom I hope to hunt for the glory and joys of heaven…”
They are from the Horticulture school on the edge of the town, out on a Saturday night: Etienne, Maurice and Ann. Etienne is worried about a new project, “almost a new town” that’s going to be built nearby. “A new community for the rich, it will be the village that isn’t there, won’t give anything back to the region. There will be problems,” he says. He’s a soil scientist, wants to work in the environmental sector. “Tourism is good for the economy, bad for the ecology. Obviously. Here they think about these things a lot more than many places, but it’s not enough. The skiers, the hikers, everything is leading to more problems.”
A few kilometers away there is an industrial park for start-up companies looking at these issues: there are many “sustainable” architecture projects, one even has “self-washing” concrete – the first in France. It’s obvious from walking the city that young people stay here, this isn’t a town to escape from on the TGV as soon as possible.
The three are fit, they walk, yes they ski, fitness is important. I’m reminded of the good novel (a French, existential policier thriller) and so-so film known in English as “The Blood Red Rivers”. I’m not sure where it is set, but it fits in here perfectly. The plot revolves around a tough Parisian cop coming south to solve a series of murders; in time it appears there is a serial killer. Underlying the murders is an academic institution with phenomenally high over-achieving students: academically and sportingly. What is revealed is a story of bloodlines, baby-swapping, racial purity, and closed-knit ties. It’s good. I’m wondering, surrounded by healthy Chambéry and its youthful peoples, if that is the silent backdrop here.
It doesn’t feel so, though this is a “white” town; only in a side-street cyber café do I find Turks and Tunisian men phoning home via the internet. On the main pedestrian street I’m stopped by a local woman. “Are you a tourist? We don’t get many of them. London? Oh they are bad boys.” She says. “Most people come here, get into a car or a coach, and go off to expensive hotels in the mountains. They miss so much. Thank you.”
Was Tom hating all this? The mountains, the health, the fine air? Or was he stuck with his Duke’s palaces?
“Breton is mystical, Chambéry is spiritual,” Davide says. I’ve seen him first (and will do last) at prayer in the Cathedral, now it is late and we are in his handy local (precisely 50 metres from the Cathedral). “I lived in Breton a long time, learned my music there – I was in Rennes for three years [hi AnneMarie], now I was drawn down here, because everything is about the spirit.”
“God, or some idea, like Buddhism, or nature?”
“Oh, God; God though nature. It is everywhere.”
Davide is a folk musician. In a way he is the heir of the troubadours who have traveled Europe for at least 600 years, earning their way with their art. He lives in his car at the moment, “until my music makes me some money here; at the moment my best audience are the cows. They adore my music.”
With his car he can be outside the town and in steep Alpine valleys in a few minutes. It changes things, he says. His life is about a journey, an inward one perhaps, but who can criticize? “I hate noise, electronic music, the boom-boom-boom of life. Here I find the silence and the space to play my music. It has very old traditions, it keeps me connected with the world.”
At Jean Jacques Rousseau’s house, Les Charmettes [I’ll write separately…] Catherine is taking a rest. She is 31, a sort of Lara Croft in Red and White, she looks as if she could kill Lyonaise Cops with her little finger. She carries a spiked baton. “For the smaller mountains, I’ve just walked 25k.” She talks to an older French woman, the tour guide/teacher to a large group of American students, here to learn “French”. She’s very like the mysterious heroine of “Blood Red Rivers”.
“How old do you think I am,” the older woman asks. “I’m 62 [looks 40]. Why? Because I walk every day, I exercise, I make love.” She must weigh at least 70lbs. Think Birkin-body with Moreau-face. Catherine laughs: “A good recipe,” she says, and she’s off for the next leg. Is this really how Tom travelled, baton in hand? If so, he was one of the greatest walkers of all time. And he had time for to take notes.
Spiritual, environmentally engaged, fit, sex: it sounds almost utopian. At the café, named O’Cardinals (which makes me want to write a novel with a character in it named Chambéry O’Cardinal: some kind of female Private Detective. The novel would be called “O’Cardinal’s Sin”, of course.) the noise is livening. Clermont play Paris in the final of the domestic Rugby cup. Paris doesn’t have many fans down here, but they win in the last minute. The silence is deafening. Outside a crowd of women of all ages, and in white t-shirts, arrive, each with something written on in pen. They take a large table, from all around there is a little booing from the muted late-night college crowd. There is a collection pot. Songs are sung. “What is this?” I ask.
“I get married on the 23rd, this is a celebration. Some songs, perhaps some donations.”
Then it all gets a little louder and very unspiritual.
It’s a hen-night. An Easy-Walk Weekend Crew in from the suburbs. In a way I am relieved: Chambéry was feeling a little too much like a yoghurt advert.