The café is as essential to the French way of life as the pub in England and both are under threat. In Lamastre there are still seven, but local people tell us that in the days before motor traffic the town boasted something like thirty watering holes. Of course we are not talking here about the glamorous café terraces of Montparnasse or Aix-en-Provence but simple establishments, which often doubled up as the boulangerie or épicerie. In fact when we first came to Arlebosc there were four such places in the village, only one of which functioned solely as a café.
Tougher controls on drink driving together with the ban on smoking in public places have been the death of so many of these little joints. In Arlebosc, the clocheron used to ring the church bell at mid day and then cross the road to join the farmers and local labourers for a glass of something before heading home for lunch. Now the bell is an electric contraption which rings itself and the locals are more likely to get together round a tractor in the farmyard to drink a canon after a hard morning’s work. No doubt we are all healthier and safer on the roads than we once were, but it is also true that a convivial village link has been lost.
The more makeshift cafés in Lamastre were on the roads leading in to the centre of town, often just a front room with a few chairs round a table for the customers but always with space somewhere at the back to stable the animals which had drawn the cart in to market. After a couple of nips to warm up on a wintry day, the farmers would take their produce to sell, returning at the end of the morning for another glass or two before hitching up the beasts and setting off on the journey back to their farms in the hills.
These trips were often long and hard going for the animals, which might be oxen, mules, horses or sometimes even cows, and refreshment was provided for them too along the way. Flashing past in a car it is easy to miss the drinking troughs which were placed strategically along the uphill stretches, sometimes adorned with a carved figure, or beautifully covered with a stone arch to keep the water cool and fresh.
With the arrival of motorised vehicles many roads had to be re routed to avoid gradients which were possible for animals but too steep for the earliest internal combustion engines. We are always amused by the old road to the village of St Prix. A little chapel stands on the steep stretch before the village, which was apparently built to discourage, or perhaps defuse, the continuous cursing of the carters as their animals laboured their way up the hill!
Like the wayside crosses which still mark some intersections, these relics of a slower pace of life and transport are mostly ignored today, but in the attractive village of les Nonnières our friend Isabelle has had a lovely idea. She is a mosaicist and recently got the villagers together to create a special mosaic treatment of this trough, which used to be the communal water supply. The result is a cheerful tribute to these once essential features of country life.