We joked that we were scoping out alternatives in case next month’s election takes a wrong turn. That wasn’t true, of course. Our reason for going to Quebec was far more unusual. Or should I say, in deference to our destination, “far more outré”?
There were five of us intrepid trekkers and, a few weeks ago, we went in search of Three Pines. If you are a Louise Penny devotee, you will recognize just how zany such a quest might be. Three Pines is a figment of author Penny’s imagination. Even in the 13 books she has written that center on that idyllic village, it is not to be found on any map. Her characters either know where it is or arrive there accidentally. It was the happen-upon-it fantasy that prompted our Mystery Book Club adventure.
Unlike Brigadoon, of course, Three Pines is not there all of the time (or any of the time, if that is a better way to explain it). So it mattered little when we went. We decided fall might be a good time for a quest so we made plans for the third week in September — just about the time the leaves are beginning to turn in the hardwood forests of the northeast.
Our destination was the area of Canada known as the Eastern Townships and, though we began planning more than two months in advance, it was none too early. The “Leaf Peepers” (those who visit New England and Quebec in search of autumn foliage) were already gobbling up accommodations. But we managed.
As an extra serendipity, one of our group wrote to the author telling her of our plans and asking if she had any ‘advice’ for us. An immediate and thoroughly enchanting response came from her assistant which included a “Three Pines Inspiration Map.” On the map there were five locations indicated by small black pipes — the licorice pipes that Gamache is so fond of and that his fans would instantly ‘recognize.’
An accompanying list described 11 sites that could be found in proximity of those pipes. All of them were also familiar (at least in name): The Abbey, Bistro, Bookstore, Boulangerie, Church, General Store, Hadley House, Jane’s ‘Fair Day’ painting, Manoir Bellechasse, Mill, School House.
After each of these listings was an address and an excerpt from one of the books mentioning the site. For instance, after “Abbey” was the notation: Dead Cold – Chapter 30. A waitress took their plates and a cheese platter arrived. “These are all from the monastery at Saint Benoit du Lac,” said Olivier, waving a cheese knife over the platter. “Their vocation is making cheese and Gregorian chants. All their cheeses are named after saints. Here’s Saint Andre, and this one’s St-Albray.”
We flew into Montreal, rented a van to accommodate ourselves and luggage, and followed the map, staying in small hotels or bed-and-breakfasts along the way. We had found that in Quebec City there was an actual guided tour regarding Penny’s Bury Your Dead book but the timing didn’t work out for us — it wasn’t given on the only day we were to be there. So we arranged with the guide to meet with us privately and we had our own personal two-and-a-half-hour tour with professional (fabulous!) guide Marie Legroulx. Otherwise, we were on our own — clutching our maps, reveling in the countryside and the ‘recognizable’ places we came upon. Even some of the people looked familiar!
We did, indeed, visit ‘The Abbey’ (actually Abbaye St-Benoit-du-lac) — on a Sunday morning for Eucharist. We listened to the service in a mix of Latin and French with the lovely Gregorian chants interspersed throughout, resonating in the spacious sanctuary. Afterwards we bought cheeses and baguettes in the gift shop and had a picnic overlooking Lake Memphremagoge.
Our big splurge was to stay one night at the Manoir Hovey upon which Ms. Penny modeled her Manoir Bellechasse of The Murder Stone — a most elegant hotel, said to be one of Canada’s finest. And, of course, we talked with the proprietor of Brome Lake Books in Knowlton where the author often has her book launches and… and… and… As a matter of fact, we found every one of the author’s ‘inspirations’ and perhaps a few that weren’t on the list.
There is no doubt that our fantasy was enhanced by the friendliness of all the Quebecoise and by the ease with which they spoke both French and English, gliding fluidly from one to the other, all of it sounding so enlightened and cosmopolitan. We felt far removed from the speeches and headlines and (too often) harassing language we had left behind us in the United States.
All the while, of course, we were trying not to think about the news from home. There’s nothing like a journey to give a rest to your cares, especially when you are in the middle of someone else’s fantasy. I even conjured up one of my own… what if things don’t go well in November… Should we consider moving to the Eastern Townships?
It’s lovely there. Beautiful vistas. Small, inviting villages nestled here and there. Quiet and peaceful. Fabulous food. Lots of emphasis on local arts and crafts. Pride of history. Music and theater and festivals. Wonderful mix of past and present…
But wait! Aren’t those some of the very things we hear visitors say about our Peninsula? Perhaps staying right here, no-matter-what, would be the prudent thing to do. Besides… there are many possibilities for periodic get-aways to other fictional destinations… Perhaps St. Mary Mead located in the imaginary county of Downshire, England, where Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple solved so many village mysteries. Or nearer to home, maybe a jaunt to Santa Teresa of Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series. Endless possibilities!