January, 1977 and the northern winter was harsh, compared to the experience of that season back on my home island where snow usually only caressed the mountain tops. For days I’d experienced cold like I’d never known. That night, my train pulling into a darkened station, I wondered what on earth I was doing on the other side of the globe at that time of year! Sleet was in the air as I decamped my carriage, making me think about and miss my loved ones back in sunny southern climes. In those days instant communication to anywhere in the world was only a small flicker in the eyes of the future-seers. It was my first time out of Oz and to date the European sojourn had been an eye-opener and for the most part, enjoyable – the great art galleries of London and Paris, the amazing tucker, the wine – all good. It was all up to expectation, but short days and unremitting dun skies were getting to me. It was the dead of night, after a day of travelling to get to my destination, the last part on a SNCF branch line seemingly to nowhere – in fact, to an obscure town slap in the centre of the Central Massif. I was well and truly off the beaten track. A friend had recommended this place, stating it was not to be missed. He insisted it was added to my itinerary. On that freezing, deserted platform in the middle of France, I thought very possibly he may be crazy. I could see only one lighted building across the street from the station and I made my way towards it. As it turned out, I do not recall too many other hostelries from that, or my later ’81/’82 Continental/Old Blighty excursion, but for a reason that will soon become clear, I recall Le Hotel de la Gare, Le Puy – its cafe the source of the illumination.
I was too tired to look for anywhere else, despite the hotel’s not too promising looks. The bar was full of yokel types, with the barman taciturn when I asked, in stilted French, if a room was available. He took my particulars and handed me a key. I lugged my backpack up a narrow staircase and along a worn carpet to my allotted vestibule. On opening the door I was confronted by a barely furnished gimcrack room as chilly as a Siberian steppe. Fully clothed, I took refuge under the covers of a lumpen bed, complete with greasy bolster, rather than the wished for downy pillows, to rest my weary head. Thankfully sleep took me quickly.
I awoke much later than at my usual time and initially I thought I must still be in the land of nod dreaming – the room was transformed. Shafts of sunlight were streaming in through the only half closed shutters and the spare room appeared almost cosy. Raising the blinds to the full force of the soleil I espied perfectly blue skies over the red terracotta roofs of the surrounding buildings. Maybe the place wouldn’t be so bad after all. The ablutions were down the corridor, so already fully dressed, I headed for them with a change of clothing and the threadbare provided towel. I didn’t make it to my destination for a while. At the end of the corridor was a glass-panelled door leading out to a second floor terrace. The door was unlocked so I took the opportunity to have a sunny squiz at the town from a different angle. What I saw stopped me in my tracks, leaving me open mouthed in wonder – gobsmacked. From this veranda there were more pottery-roofed buildings descending gently down towards a ravine. But what caused my reaction was what protruded above this fairly nondescript sight. Astoundingly, there were two mighty, natural pinnacles arising from the earth, reaching for the heavens, dwarfing their surrounds. These were the puys, hence the town’s appellation. I later deduced, they were volcanic plugs. Atop of one was perched an ancient looking church. On the other, even more strikingly, was a maroon hued statue of the Virgin, arms holding the infant Jesus. I forgot all about my bursting bladder and my cloying skin. I couldn’t drag my eyes away from the scene that befell me.
Turns out, although not well known outside France, Le Puy, the place was a significant spot on a pilgrimage trail and as I came to know it better, was quite delightful. One the best meals in my memory was scoffed down in a seen-better-days restaurant on the main avenue leading down to the chasm. I was also proud of myself for successfully making the hard climb up to more closely examine the church – or was it the statue? It was so long ago now – my brain fails me yet again. After a few days there I headed south to the Riviera and the winter sun remained glorious for my time by the plages there as well. It all didn’t seem so bad after Le Hotel de la Gare, Le Puy.
Back around century’s change I was lucky enough to win a luxury trip to Bali. That remains my only experience of five-star accommodation in all its extravagance. The room I shared with my darling, loving partner was as plush as plush can be, but in truth I never felt truly comfortable in staying there at the Sanur Hyatt – far too patrician for a pleb like me. I like hotels with character perhaps somewhat more salubrious than that one in Le Puy – perhaps just with a little more in the way of amenities than it. My hotels of choice have probably seen better days, perhaps just like me, but there’s something about them. There were some Victorian/Edwardian piles I stayed at in places like York and Edinburgh in the UK. I remember a breakfast of kippers in a B&B in the Lake District and a room I shared chastely with a woman I barely knew in a hostel run by nuns overlooking Lake Lausanne. There was an establishment of nursery rhyme décor that I slumbered in for an overnighter in London. Back in Oz there was a room with a view in Brisbane that stands out, but the purest example of what I like is the Crossley, China Town in Yarra City – faded, faded charm.
And that is as good a segue as any to the most recent movie I’ve viewed back home in the little city on the Derwent – Wes Anderson’s ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’.
Featuring a veritable who’s who of tinsel town luminaries – blink and you’d miss some of them – this watchable tip-of-the-hat to to those imposing iconic hotels of between the wars travel has a marvellous verve and features vibrant palette of colour, in all senses of that word. It was a movie where the look of the thing was the attraction, rather than what I felt was the rather hackneyed heist-centred narrative. It was a visual feast of sublime cinematography, featuring some animation to enhance the feel. The transformation of some of Hollywood’s elite to fit into the skin of their roles was another plus – none more so than that of Tilda Swinton to play the dowager Madame D, whose demise is pivotal to the plot, such as it was. Ralph Fienes, in the lead, rightly steals the show as the concierge, never disinclined to become the lover of the wealthy old dears who flock to his carnal ministrations when the Budapest was in its pomp. When we initially meet the hotel, in more recent times, it is a mere shadow of past glories, but soon we are back in a golden age. Newcomer Tony Revolori, as Lobby Boy, is also impressive, with the characters inhabited by Harvey Keitel and Willem Dafoe having the most eye-catching of the minor roles. The candy pink hotel, with its twin funiculars, was probably the real star of the piece. Overshadowing proceedings, revolving around a famous picture bestowed to the concierge by the dowager, is the shadow of the forthcoming war and all the dire consequences for Mitteleuropa it portends. The post-war impost of mass tourism meant the grand hotels had to reinvent themselves or be consigned to history’s dustbins, as we see has happened to the fictional Budapest.
This was my first real viewing of an Anderson offering and although my praise is somewhat more muted than that of many critics, it was nonetheless a treat for the senses, if not the intellect. It didn’t raise a laugh from me, although other members of the audience I shared it with obviously found more enjoyment in its humour. Despite my reservations, though, there would be worse ways to spend one hundred minutes of your leisure time.
The movie’s website = http://www.grandbudapesthotel.com/