I don’t do New Year’s resolutions: they only get broken. The loftier the aspirations, the more disappointing it is when you fail to achieve them. I did manage to stay teetotal for the whole of January one year, but it was so miserable that I resolved never to do it again.
Nonetheless, I have some intentions for next year. They involve doing some of the things that we have so far failed to do in this region in 13 years. I have often observed that, when you live in a place, you don’t do the tourist activities except when you have house guests. So here are 10 things to do in southwest France, in alphabetical order, plus web links where available. Since we’re in France, it is inevitable that many of them are food-related.
The beret is a quintessential French icon, although it did not originate in France. I have been doing some research on it, since I have been commissioned to write a feature about it for France Magazine. The only beret museum in the world is at Nay, between Pau and Lourdes, the site of one of two remaining beret factories in France. A visit is therefore on the cards.
This 3 Michelin-starred restaurant near Laguiole in the Aubrac was recently listed as one of the top 10 in the world. It is almost impossible to get a table. They have a waiting list and you might be lucky enough to get in if they have a cancellation. The restaurant (they also have rooms) is set in a modernistic glass and stone structure on a hill. They focus on local produce and regional recipes with a gourmet twist, like aligot (potato mixed with young Laguiole cheese, known as tome fraîche, and garlic).
Like all such places, they might be getting a bit above themselves. Our friend Claude found a caterpillar in his salad while eating there, but received little in the way of an apology. Probably the waiter said, “Don’t tell everyone, sir, they’ll all want one.”
This is reputed to be one of the best in the region, although we have never been. The really big one is held on a Saturday morning in the shadow of the Cathédrale Saint-Etienne. There is also a covered market in the square there. A smaller market takes place every Wednesday. Click here for my post about Cahors and here for the Cahors tourist office website.
Chestnut Fair at Laguépie
Chestnut trees grow in the area around Laguépie, about 20km from us, once the centre of a thriving chestnut industry. The people used chestnuts for making flour, a liqueur (naturally) and as the basis for many other products. Every October, a fair takes place to honour this versatile nut. As well as chestnut products, you can see exhibitions of chestnut production and enjoy a meal that includes chestnuts in every course.
Where we live is not a wine-producing district. Apparently, 50 years ago, it was under vines, but the wine was for the locals’ own consumption, it was of low quality and all the vines have been grubbed up and replaced by pasture.
We are situated between the vignobles of Cahors and Gaillac. Not great wines, but perfectly drinkable, Gaillac counts some pleasant, slightly sparkling whites and some fruity reds among its wines. We have never done the wine tour around the vineyards but a friend, Michel, is a great aficionado and knows exactly where to go. We’ll take him with us.
This viaduct, a marvel of modern architecture and engineering, was built to relieve the congested town of Millau of its horrendous summer traffic jams. It is an example of the entente cordiale in operation, since a British architect designed it (Lord (Norman) Foster) while a mainly French team built it. Completed in 2004, the bridge cost €400m to build and is 343 metres high. There are well-positioned viewpoints giving a breathtaking view of it; they avoid having to pay to drive across the bridge on the motorway, where you don’t see anything of its majesty.
Le Pic du Midi
Le Pic du Midi is one of the highest mountains in the Pyrénées, at 2,877m (c. 9,500 ft). It is accessible by cable car and has an observatory, a museum and a restaurant at the top. The panoramic view extends some 300 km. They organise piano concerts up there in the summer and winter soirées, when you can have a gourmet meal and a view of the stars uninterrupted by light and atmospheric pollution. You can even stay up there on certain nights of the year.
Toulouse Lautrec museum, Albi
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was born in Albi, the son of minor nobles. He became one of the most influential post-impressionist painters of fin-de-siècle Paris. Congenital illnesses plagued him throughout his life, compounded by alcoholism. He broke both his legs as a boy, which then failed to grow, although his torso did. After his premature death, his mother funded a museum at Albi to house his works.
We did visit, some years ago, but the museum has been renovated since then. The medieval town centre of Albi, including the largest pink brick cathedral in the world, was awarded World Heritage status this year and is well worth a visit.
The ancient Quercy region is the land of the truffle, that mysterious fungus known as the black diamond, which costs as much as a white one. No one has ever found a reliable way of cultivating them and their rarity has pushed the prices sky high. The best-known truffle market in the region is at Lalbenque, but there are others at Limogne, Cordes and Caussade. They operate only in the winter, when the truffles are harvested. There is even a patron saint of trufficulteurs, Saint Antoine.
Vieille prune distillation
Plum trees grow in abundance in the region. In good French style, the natives use them to make alcohol, called vieille prune. It’s lethal stuff and probably at least 40º proof. We give our neighbours the kilos of plums that drop on our lawn every year. They have them distilled at a travelling still every year and then give us a litre bottle. I have never seen this operation and they have promised to tell us next time the man is in the area. Since I don’t drink the stuff and even the Statistics Freak can only manage a small amount, we have litres of it secreted in cupboards around the house. Can anyone suggest a (polite) use for it?
A happy and healthy New Year to all my readers.
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