Travel With Shoes

Travel With Shoes

I think my love affair with France- perhaps with travel – started with a pair of shoes. My family were of the what’s wrong with England persuasion; camping in the Lake District and boarding houses in Cornwall, neither a source of exotic footwear.

Then on a sortie to London I encountered a pair of wedge heeled red espadrilles tied with ribbons round the ankle and I fell in love.

The next summer on my first Inter-rail tour of Europe, our railway ramble eventually took us to France. I had one purpose in mind as I descended the train in Narbonne, and headed straight down the main street, rucksack no doubt welded firmly to my back and bought the first pair of espadrilles I saw. They were flat, they were cherry red, I added ankle ribbons for them myself when we got home and I wore them till they crumbled to dust.

The espadrille is the epitomy of the peasant classic; made from local materials, elegant, cheap and comfortable. Who doesn’t weaken over the selection of espadrilles in any French supermarket. Shall I go for blue and white stripes, basic black or splash out on two pairs, pink and lime green?
Actually a lot of them are now made in China, so in search of authenticity I made a 6 hour round trip into the Pyrenees to visit the espadrille museum in the tiny border village of St Laurent de Cerdans. Here were ancient worn espadrilles, hemp rope and canvas and antique machinery but the models in current production were a trifle too fashion conscious, requiring a Ralph Lauren to recapture their essential charm. Never mind I found another perfect pair in the nearby town of Prades. Classic espadrilles in form but made from black nu-buck so they don’t break down at the heel. (I now even have sheepskin espadrilles for slippers.)

As a travel writer it is my secret vice; I may skimp the museum sometimes but I could write a shoe shop by shoe shop guide to most places I have ever been to, always on the look-out for perfectly evolved vernacular footwear. In China I went native in quilted silk jacket and soft black Chinese slippers embroidered with golden dragons. I once lost all my luggage in Greece – the only consolation was the pair of brown suede Greek sandals I was forced to buy immediately, and moulded to my feet walking miles and miles of rough mountain tracks.

Years later in Corsica I lingered over buying a new pair of sandals to replace the Greek ones – same simple style with one strap over the instep and one round the big toe. I lingered too long so we missed the only bus home, and had to walk ten miles across the island in high summer heat. I led the way in my lovely new red sandals, my boyfriend trudging sulkily behind.

America too has classic footwear – most of it available, wouldn’t you know, on Eighth Street in Greenwich Village. Shops devoted to every manifestation of the glorious Indian moccasins, every breed of Yankee deck shoes, and of course cowboy boots. Though for cowboy boots the South West is the place – I’ll never forget the stalls in the market in Albuquerque piled high with the most exotic array of fetishistic footwear hewn from endangered animal skins I have ever seen. Then there are the woven leather Mexican huaraches with tyre tread soles, which need to be broken in by soaking in fresh water, and worn until they dry.

Recently in Barcelona I observed almost everyone, men and women, young and old, wearing delicious flat leather sandals with a simple wide strap over the front and a sling back. I craved them so desperately that had I spoken enough Spanish I would have rushed up and demanded to know where to buy them. Just the other day in London I spotted someone wearing a pair of chestnut brown suede wedge espadrilles with a sling back. “Madrid” she said when I asked, “Very cheap and everybody wears them.” So now another vital reason other than the Prado means I must go to Madrid.
Diana Vreeland, the legendary Vogue editor, understood the search. Visiting Pompeii in the thirties (by special permission of Mussolini, or so she says) she saw the frozen figures preserved for eternity by the great tide of volanic lava from Vesuvius. Among them were the figures of a woman making love to her slave. (Vreeland knew he was a slave because he was wearing slave bracelets exactly like the slave bracelets everybody had been wearing in the 1920s). He wore the simplest sandal in the world, with one thong between the big toe and the next, and one strap around the ankle attached to the heel. She had the design copied immediately in Capri, and then eventually by a shoemaker in New Jersey, whom she gleefully regaled with the story of its inspiration.