In Thomas Mann’s astonishing novel The Magic Mountain the indolent young Hans Castorp visits his brave, terminally ill soldier cousin at a sanatorium at Davos, high in the Swiss Alps. Intending to stay three weeks, he remains seven years. A dubious diagnosis of light tuberculosis is all the excuse he needs to dismiss ‘the flatlands’ and discover, with increasing wonder, that in the midst of death he is in life.
We could have done with more than one night at Le Grand Hôtel Plombières-les-Bains in Eastern France in order to penetrate the Thermes Napoleon to which it is attached. ‘Accèss strictement réservé aux curistes’ warned a blu-tacked sign on a locked glass door from the lobby, revealing two neatly parked wheelchairs, a neo–classical statue, towels, columns and a blinding enfilade of spotless marble.
Gunning our motorbikes through sun and mist across the Route des Crêtes in the Vosges mountains had taken its toll. My riding pal, a GP, could barely clamber from his Triumph to get at the fags in his panniers.
We were too late for dinner and made do with heavy dark beer up the road. Next morning, in the Grand Salon, we saw ourselves endlessly caught in the Belle Époque mirrors stuffing bread, ham and cheese, shamed by the prettier choices continentals always seem to assemble at the buffet.
Joséphine, doubtless encouraged by the future Emperor, visited the place in the early 1800s to sample waters efficacious for ‘maladies des femmes’. Napoleon II, properly grown up, was able to repay his mum’s favour in 1867 and lay the first brick of the spa, now specialising in problems including rheumatism and ‘troubles du métabolisme’. A six-day ‘mini cure’ would appear to sort everything. Our ride from the Ardennes had taken us through countryside emptied of people. Shuttered streets, lonely fairs, an incurious lock-keeper in a concrete hut strewn about with fallen apples, mournful ski-lifts, pristine war cemeteries and too many speed cameras scrolled past.
Going home from the German border-lands, we headed north-west, choosing the small and sinuous yellow roads on my proper map. The best took us to a village bridge over the Meuse, where we kicked down sidestands to marvel at the clarity of the water, silvered with fish. Domrémy-la-Pucelle turned out to be the birthplace of Joan of Arc, modest and unspoilt.
My dad gave up on motorbikes as a young man. He crashed an Ariel 500 and collapsed all his fingers back one knuckle. When I was growing up and he was commuting by train, he read all the big novels, The Magic Mountain among them. He can’t remember it now. But ever since he encouraged me to pick it up, I try to complete it every few years.
Maybe next time we’ll ride further east to the sanatorium, now the Waldhotel, which inspired Thomas Mann, visiting his wife, just before the first world war. Meanwhile, I challenge anyone who reads to the final page of the mad, beautiful, revelatory thing to lay it down it without crying.