Celles sur Belle

Ghost City

By lunchtime we are south of Niort and north of Angouleme, and don’t recognize anything in between, so  we stop for lunch at a little town just off the main road called Celles sur Belle.  Clean, light colored stone buildings line cobbled streets, and a few trees stand behind walls brightened  with the occasional red rose bush.  But nobody is  on the streets.  Nothing stirs. The shops are closed. There aren’t even any dogs or cats.   The only restaurant we see is closed today “exceptionnelment”. In France that could mean somebody died or got married or the cook was drunk, but it adds to our sense that disaster has struck and all the humans have disappeared. The doors of a tall, narrow abbey church stand open, however, so we walk in. And gasp. It is light and airy inside, the ceiling 3 or 4 stories above the stone floor. Carved stone gothic arches meet high above  in simple rosettes. Even the altar is plain, except for four candelabra placed upon it.  This alone is worth the stop. Still, though, no people, no signs of life.

We need more than spiritual sustenance by now. We start to walk back to the car and look elsewhere,(assuming there is an elsewhere),  when on a whim Bernard walks up to the next deserted street. He beckons to me, and voila, here is The Restaurant-Hotel National. We open the doors to the buzz of lively conversation and a room full of people eating, drinking, talking, at long tables with benches.  We suddenly realized why the streets were deserted. It  is the sacred lunch time.

We are led to a room at the back which has tables and chairs. Most are full, but fortunately for us a table for two is available.

The room is decorated French provincial  style,which is not what you might think. The  walls are papered with large pink and red peonies next to a gold textured wallpaper, while apricot table cloths are topped with spring green squares of paper to be changed after each customer. Most of the diners are men. We were seated next to two of them, youngish, silently eating their starters (entrees) from a small buffet of cold meats and salad.

The set menu is your choice of one of 3 entrees, including the buffet, one of 2 mains, veal scallop or cod, plus dessert, all for the equivalent of about $20.00. While we are still waiting a party of four enters. Sudden buzz of excitement.  Smiles, nods, handshakes all around, as the party is immediately ushered to a prepared table. Food appears instantly. Obviously, this is the town mayor, who in France commands much respect,  as he wields much power in his fiefdom . He is lunching with his lieutenants from the mairie, which includes a black-suited young woman with no make-up,and three neatly trimmed young menwith neatly pressed shirts open at the color.  They are very serious.

We are served a beautifully sauced salad with very fresh ingredients, delicious dried duck breast and preserved duck gizzards, as well as the ubiquitous basket of French bread. Honestly, preserved gizzards  really are yummy. We ask for l’addition without ordering dessert, or even coffee, which clearly astonishes the waitress, who no doubt chalks it up to our foreign origins.

The w.c. is unisex, and still has a telephone in the “waiting room” of the single toilet, a carryover from the days when not everyone in France had telephones in their homes, let alone their pockets. I have an eerie sense of disjointed time for a minute. Wait, where am I?  is it 1958 again?

By 1:30 the restaurant is empty, and when we leave the shops are open and the village has returned to life.  Bernard and I wonder, as we leave, what all those people in the restaurant will be having for dinner.