16 September 2009

Au chalet

We had talked about it for years. No, really! From the time I first stayed with them in Montréal back in 2003, my friend Valérie and her parents kept inviting me to their country house out in the cantons de l'est, the pittoresque area southeast of Montréal with its abundance of lakes, rolling hills, open countryside and relaxed little towns. After all this time, I finally managed to accept the invitation last weekend, and when I picked up Valérie and her friend of the same name on Saturday morning, the feeling of anticipation was almost palpable. Under deep blue skies, we drove across the Pont Champlain and into the region which, over the course of its rich history, had variously been known as l'Estrie and The Eastern Townships. The latter name recalls the considerable influx of English loyalists fleeing across the border when those unruly people down south decided to break their links with the British crown. Their influence remains visible in the distinctively New England-looking villages, and the division of the lands, which follows the English township model rather than the French seigneuries in the rest of Québec.

Today, the cantons de l'est are dotted with Montrealers' country houses, or chalets, to one of which we pulled up after a ninety minute drive. My friends' chalet turned out to be a beautiful, airy two-storey house on a large and secluded plot of land, with a big garden and its own little pier on the shore of a lake. It was easily able to accomodate the five of us, and over the two days our hosts seemed to produce a never-ending stream of gourmet meals in its kitchen while the Valéries and I indulged in the dolce far' niente pleasures of boating on the lake, walking in the forrest and playing competitive Scrabble (in French, since you asked. And yes, I won the final round... ;-)

No less enjoyable were the little excursions to the neighboring towns of Knowlton, Magog, and North Hatley, which were linked by splendid and uncongested country roads, over which I piloted my oversized rental car with great pleasure. Occasional drives like these offer so much more Freude am Fahren than the daily commutes in rush-hour traffic I was subjected to in Switzerland, even if GM's gas-guzzling monstrosity was not as sporty as a neat little German roadster could have been.

One highlight no European visitor to the Eastern Townships should miss is the Abbaye St. Benoît, an abbey which was only built last century, and with its sixties' style pseudo-antique architecture easily supports all European preconceptions about these culture-less peoples overseas. The abbey's horrible website will give a good impression of what to expect. It is noteworthy though that the monks have also embraced America's entrepreneurial spirit: The abbey's large shop was teeming with people bringing out the credit cards to buy an abundance of St. Benoît-branded food items, from cheeses to maple tartlets and candy. All the little devotionals which were equally available, however, were blissfully ignored by the masses.

All in all, the weekend in the countryside was fabulous and will hopefully be repeated soon. Maybe even with some more hiking and some less feasting... ;-)

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