It is mid winter here at Blackheath in the Blue Mountains, cold and very wet. I have been watching Monty Don’s TV series on French gardens. Oh dear, the longing it evokes is almost physically painful. How long will it be before we can enjoy that beautiful country again? In particular I have been remembering a holiday my husband Rob and I spent in The Lot, a departement in the south west of France . Like Monty, we were visiting gardens and enjoying all the great wine and food on offer. Mind you, even the most simple fare is a delight in the right surroundings….. and with the right companion!
The motto of The Lot translates as, ‘We are under the charm’. And nowhere is that charm more pronounced than in the area’s gardens. They are often tiny, jewel-like creations which, in typical French style, appeal to all the senses.
In the heart of a village called Castelfranc on the northern bank of the river Lot is a garden actually called Le Jardin de Sens (garden of the senses). All the elements are here, including the sound of rushing water from a bordering stream, and a bubbling fountain. Fragrance is provided by an avenue of roses and beds of old-fashioned, scented flowers.
The area was once allotments, and fittingly there are beds of vegetables enclosed by box hedging. The medieval history of the village is reflected in a collection of culinary, textile, and medicinal herbs. Against the stone walls are espaliered fruit trees; apples, pears, figs and plums. This beautiful garden is tended by local people. The gate is always open and entry is free. But a word of warning; succumb to the lure of rustic wooden seats under the grape arbour and you may never leave.
Rob and I visited Castelfranc enroute to a quaint holiday apartment by the river at Douelle. Now a quiet village, Douelle was once a busy river port from where barges departed piled high with produce, especially wine. In fact the word douelle means barrel stave. Today, holiday makers hire cruise-boats from the village marina and spend a week or two exploring the river.
Our apartment was attached to the home of Claudine and Louis-Jean Arnaudet, who could fill a weekly barge from their own garden. Instead, this generous couple kept our kitchen supplied with superb, home-made produce. Louis-Jean brought us vegetables (including broad beans and superb, citrus flavoured lettuces), cherries, fresh herbs and bottles of Ratafia, his home-made aperitif. Ratafia is a dangerously addictive, potent brew of jus de raisin and brandy.
Claudine arrived almost daily with steamed fresh asparagus, and tins of her own pâté (wild boar, and confit of duck with pork). In return we invited them for drinks and I gave them some of the chocolate slice I’d made back in England. Oh dear, they certainly got the worst of the bargain.
Thanks to such bounty, dining out was not a priority, but we were glad we wandered down to the village’s highly regarded but reasonably priced restaurant, La Marine, for Sunday lunch. As the name suggests, seafood was the specialty here. However, it is the memory of my dessert that lingers, or rather desserts; an array of delectable works of art. In my opinion it should be mandatory for French restaurants to offer a dégustation de desserts, thereby overcoming the agony of decision making. The restaurant is now called Les Mariniers.
With the ever increasing pace of modern society we found ourselves envying the lifestyle of the Arnaudets, particularly the continuity of village life. Louis-Jean retired after a forty year career with the French Railways. Claudine was christened in the village church and has lived within the sound of its bells all her life. Neither she nor Louis-Jean spoke a word of English, but such was the charm of the Lot and our rapport with our hosts that my hesitant French became miraculously fluent..ish.
Just across the river we were taken to see the old farmhouse which belonged to Claudine’s parents. Her late father grew tobacco, cured in the purpose built top storey of the house. Dating from 1890, the farmhouse was furnished with its original, custom built furniture and the old barns and stables were full of antique farming equipment. The property was unoccupied, but will never be sold. Instead, it will pass to Claudine and Louis-Jean’s son, who currently works in Brazil. His parents hope he will return one day to claim his inheritance.
I wrote a story about Louis-Jean and Claudine for an Australian magazine later, and they were thrilled when it was published. Unfortunately my copy (and the photos I took) are in storage, a bit like me for the forseeable future!
The neighbouring town of Cahors, prefecture of the Lot department, is located on a deep curve of the river. It is justly famous for its 14th century, triple towered Pont de Valentre (said to have been built with the help of the devil), but also for its Secret Garden Trail.
Twenty nine separate gardens were designed to help interpret the city’s history . At the ancient entrance to the city below Place Layfayette is Le Jardin de Passeur. A series of landscaped terraces lead down to the river.
The enclosed cloister garden at the cathedral of St Etienne was inspired by The Song of Songs. And beside the cathedral is the heavenly Jardin bouquetier. Here, a gardener fashioned from wicker ‘clips’ the box hedging around colour themed gardens.
Blooms of white and blue pay homage to the Virgin Mary. Orange and red signify the suffering of Christ, while yellow and gold represent the mystery of the resurrection.
Elsewhere, the Hortus déliciarium (garden of delights) was created in honour of the ladies of Cahors. The gentle fragrance of pansies and wallflowers in Le Close de Pelerins evokes the peace and serenity, sought by pilgrims on their way through France to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
Roses feature in many of the secret gardens and also in the city’s public parks. Appropriately, the deep crimson rose de Cahors takes a starring role.
Figeac is 8km north of the river Lot. The town’s most celebrated son is Jean-François Champollion, who in 1822 managed to decipher a far more famous puzzle; the triple hieroglyphic texts of the Rosetta Stone. A large-scale reproduction of the stone forms the floor of Place de Écritures, near Champollion’s birthplace (now a museum).
High above is a terrace garden which was designed at the same time and features Egyptian papyrus.
There are dozens of historic villages around Figeac and Cahors, including Montcuq, located about 25km south east of Cahors.
Montcuq is celebrated not only for its meringues and special waffles, but for a joke about its name. Louis-Jean warned us, amid much laughter and sign language, to be sure to pronounce the ‘q’ or we would be going to ‘my arse’ via (more laughter) the village of St Pantaléon. We were actually heading further south to another stop on the pilgrims’ trail; the hilltop village of Lauzerte, with its arcaded village square. A public garden overlooking the magnificent countryside interprets the story of the pilgrims’ epic journey .
We were intrigued to note that Australian natives such as grevilleas and callistemons have been planted to symbolize the exotic flora the travellers encountered. When we arrived a class of primary school children were in the middle of a working bee, cheerfully weeding the paths as their teacher delivered a history lesson. Noticing our arrival there was a shyly polite chorus of, ‘Bonjour Madame, Bonjour Monsieur’.
At intervals along the garden paths there are plaques printed with inspiration quotations and verses. The lines on the final plaque are by French writer Alem Surre-Garcia;
Here I am back at last,
And on my lips,
Here I am back at last,
To my own self a stranger,
At peace with myself.
Such was the spell cast by the Lot that after our time in the area we felt Surre-Garcia’s words applied equally to us.
Cahors is one hour’s drive from Toulouse. The nearest airports with links to Paris are Toulouse, Bergerac and Agen. By rail, Cahors is five hours from Paris. My partner and I chose to drive from Paris via the A20, breaking our 550km trip at Limoges.
Boating enthusiasts can hire a cruise boat at Le Moulinat, Douelle and spend a week travelling east via Cahors to Larnagol. Among many delights, the journey (34 locks and 148km return ) provides a spectacular view of the 7th century cliff top village of St Circ-Lapopie. For details, follow the prompts from www.worldwide-river-cruise.com
There is no entry charge for any of Cahors’ ‘secret gardens’. A walking map of the trail can be obtained from the city’s tourist information centre; www.mairie-cahors.fr
The Museum in Figeac dedicated to the life and work of Jean-François Champollion is located at 4 Impasse Champollion. There is a small entry fee. Opening hours vary. For more information on the museum and the Figeac area generally, contact www.quercy-tourisme.com/figeac.
Market Days – The produce market at Cahors is held on Wednesdays and Saturdays, in the square in front of the Cathedral. During the high season of July and August there are extensive night markets. There is also a very good covered market. Figeac holds a large market on Saturdays. Even in tiny Douelle a few local people set up stalls on Sunday mornings. Specialities of the Lot include Ratafia aperitif and many other notable Cahors wines, walnuts, prunes, truffles and foie gras.
Given this wretched pandemic I think it may be quite a while before we can revisit The Lot and renew our friendship with the delightful Arnaudets.