The lockdown restrictions are relaxed somewhat in France, but restaurants and many tourist attractions remain closed. Today, we’ll pretend everything is normal and take a trip off the beaten tourist trail. We won’t see spectacular sights or famous historic monuments. Instead, we’ll meander through delightful villages just over the border from us in the Lot, and I’ll show you things you may not know about.
We’ll see examples of petit patrimoine (historic heritage) that have, happily, been preserved for posterity: witnesses to a way of life that has gone forever. And, of course, there’s lunch.
I’ve even included a map this time. What a triumph of ingenuity! You might need a microscope to read it, but never mind: it’s the thought that counts.
Blink, and you’d miss Vidaillac. It’s a place you drive through on the way elsewhere (notably to Limogne – see below). In that case, you miss these murals in a side street off the main drag, which depict the old way of life in rural France. Céline Cazes, the daughter of the farmer who owns the buildings, painted them. They are very cleverly done, both in the detail and in the way she has used features in the stone – even corrugated iron – as part of the paintings.
Next stop, not far away, is the small village of Promilhanes, where time seems to have stood still. Here, I’ve arranged guided visits to three heritage sites. These are normally open only during les Journées du Patrimoine
First, we’ll visit a rare working windmill, constructed in 1828 and restored in the 1970s-80s. Although originally driven by wind power, other forms of locomotion have powered this mill over the years, including a gas-driven motor. Another windmill not far away in Saillagol has also been restored recently.
Next up is a former walnut oil mill. Walnuts were once a staple crop on the causse: the shelled nuts were milled to provide oil that people used for various purposes. Quercy’s equivalent of olive oil. The owner explains the labour-intensive process. 10 kilos of unshelled nuts provided around 2 litres of oil.
I’ve saved my favourite for last. This building hides a secret within its walls.
It’s a rare example of a maison rucher, a hive house. The beehives were built into the walls, while people occupied the two floors. The commune has restored the building, although its origins remain shrouded in mystery. I love the idea of cohabitation between the human and animal worlds.
We’re in May, when the countryside is lush and verdant before the summer heatwaves grill it brown. The verges are a riot of wild flowers, and nightingales and cuckoos call in the thickets.
It’s Sunday and market day in Limogne. People and stalls throng the square outside the church and the surrounding streets. The café terrace is full of people sipping dark, strong coffee or an early apéritif. A jazz band has struck up.
This is one of my favourite markets: big enough to be interesting, small enough not to be overwhelming. We’ll buy asparagus, goat’s cheese, crusty bread and the locally grown gariguette strawberries, which are naturally sweet. We also find the first new potatoes and broad beans.
Limogne is host to a small truffle market during the winter. The main one in the region is held in Lalbenque on the other side of the causse.
Thousands of years of human habitation around Limogne are evidenced by the large number of dolmens in the area. These were probably graves and date back around 6,000 years. We take a short walk to one just outside the town, the dolmen du lac d’Aurié, with its gigantic capstone.
You can take a longer 8 km circuit that includes several of the commune’s dolmens.
The sight of all that market produce has made us hungry. So our next stop is Bach, where I’ve booked a table at Lou Bourdié. Monique Valette, with her fabulous crown of hair, presides benignly over her restaurant. Unruffled by the busy lunchtime crowd, she dispenses smiles, kisses and handshakes.
Sadly, I understand that Monique has retired, and her niece has taken over the restaurant. However, I believe she stays on as a consultant, so the cuisine should remain the same. Today, Monique has agreed to cook for us.
In the winter, you can snuggle by the vast inglenook fireplace. Today, we sit on the terrace and peruse the menu of Quercy specialities while sipping a kir à la violette. A salad of smoked duck breast follows vegetable soup. Then it’s chicken with morilles mushrooms and a potato gratin. Leave some room for dessert: the famous pastis, a local apple pastry, made with very fine pastry and flavoured with eau de vie.
After that, we need exercise. Les Phosphatières du Cloup d’Aural are situated between Bach and Varaire. This is a former phosphate mine. During the 1860s, phosphate deposits (used in fertiliser) were found to exist in this area and the industry boomed for around 20 years, until richer deposits were found elsewhere.
What’s so interesting about a hole in the ground? These former mines are unique depositories of a complete fossil record. In addition, flora not found elsewhere on the causse grow in them. They are a vertical slice of the Earth’s history as well as a historical curiosity.
We stop in Varaire, a village that has existed since at least Roman times. It also has the vestiges of a 13th-century château. I want to show you the splendid lavoir, where the village women once did their washing. This also has medieval origins and has been restored to its original splendour.
These lavoirs are a common feature on the dry causse, where few water courses existed. You often find them outside the villages, wherever they could find a source of water.
Bach also has a fine lavoir. Our route didn’t take us past this one.
We’ll take the road from Varaire to Beauregard. This is an example of a 13th-century bastide town (now effectively a small village), constructed on a grid pattern with a large central square with a well-restored 13th-century belfry and 14th-century market hall.
By virtue of the lack of light pollution in this area, Beauregard is a village étoilé (lit. starry village). It also holds a massive event every year for la fête de la musique. Sadly, not this year.
We head for home via Saint-Projet and Puylagarde, back in Tarn-et-Garonne now. We’ll dine on the provisions we picked up in Limogne. Good thing we have a cool box.
We’ve restricted our visit to a compact area today, but there is plenty to see if you know where to look.
Please do share below your experiences of these places. As ever, I have had to leave things out.
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