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Timshel Arts

Three Women on a French Canal by Heide Atkins

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The following are selected days of a month-long trip through the Southwest of France at a total cost of under $2,000.00 per person. This included airfare, accommodations, a car, gas, food, and wine.

22nd September

Since we had the rented car until afternoon, we decided to check on the boatyard and on our delayed luggage. Ingrid and Inez saw theirs outside the office, but mine was to come on an afternoon flight. Frankly, I think my suitcase was also in Toulouse, but that all three suitcases couldn’t fit into the miniature van the airline had sent. My trunk alone would have filled the whole space. I had packed too much, as usual, to be prepared for freezing nights and sweltering days. Before my next trip, I will study the average weather of the country I’m about to visit and scientifically calculate what I will need and not just stuff “in case clothes” into my suitcase willy-nilly. Ah, but then I always say that, though it’s good advice to pack and travel light, especially when considering going by boat. As I found out to my chagrin, there is no place to store a large, inflexible Pullman suitcase on a 40-foot cruiser, unless you find yourself with an extra cabin.


Thames Street Books

Spring Bull Gallery

Newport Yaching Center

Our boat had not arrived yet, and since it was almost lunchtime, we walked up the steep road into the village of Mas d’Agenais. It was an amazing place — a medieval village with a fountain whose catch-basin looked large and deep enough to be a wading pool. Since medieval villagers did not have such luxuries, I assumed that it was used to do laundry, and I was proved right when I later asked about it. In the village center, we came upon a covered marketplace. Huge beams, blackened by time, supported a steep wooden roof that had become the home for multitudes of chirping birds.

The square was deserted, but for a big orange cat who, in typical cat fashion, pretended not to be interested in the birds. The shops that lined the market square on all four sides were closed for the long lunch break. That was something we had to get used to: France shuts down from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m., give or take half an hour. It makes you wonder how Napoleon was able to conquer most of Europe.

When we walked out from under the big, wooden roof, we became aware that it had hidden the facade of a Romanesque church. The fact that we had to step down several steps to open the thick, wooden doors to the interior made the building’s great age apparent. We were even more impressed when we found a painting of the Crucifixion by Rembrandt on one of the massive stone walls. Incredible: a small town, mentioned in none of our guidebooks, with an almost 2,000-year-old church and an original Rembrandt painting! But if we learned one thing on our trip, it was not to be surprised at anything France had to offer, but to enjoy the unexpected.

The only restaurant we found, after walking one deserted street after another, was nothing to look at from the outside. We took a peek into the bar and were reminded of an old-time waiting room at a train station. The television was blaring, and a few local characters sat watching it. We didn’t expect much from the bare wooden tables and benches and were pleasantly surprised when we were led into a dining room of almost baronial size. The high ceiling dwarfed several carved wardrobes and about twenty tables. Someone had made an effort to reduce the huge blank wall-spaces by hanging several “antiques” here and there. This only emphasized the vastness, but it also gave the room an odd, cared-for charm. Totally empty at first, the rows of tables filled up quickly, and we were served a wonderful three-course meal for 9 euros. (A euro now equals a dollar.) We splurged on a bottle of top local white wine (EU 7.33) to celebrate the beginning of our adventure.

After our substantial lunch, we walked around the small town and saw many houses boarded up and for sale. But we also saw many houses that either had been or were in the process of being restored. We each chose a favorite to buy and daydreamed of fixing it up. Imagine a three-storied medieval stone house with large windows and flower boxes filled with geraniums. Carved oak doors with charming doorknockers or hand bells. We were to dream the daydream many times during our trip.

Before we returned the car to Marmande, we drove to a grocery store to stock up on food for the boat. We found a “Super Marché” on the outskirts of town. (The supermarkets are usually on the way in or out of town and are well advertised miles before you get there.) In order to release a grocery cart, we had to put one euro coin in a designated slot on the chain that held all the carts outside the store, and we hoped that this was not the rental for the cart. It wasn’t; we got our euro back when we returned the cart to the chain. It is a clever way to prevent the carts from being left all over the large parking area.

French grocery stores are like giant delis. All the food one can usually only obtain in gourmet shops in the U.S. is spread out here as everyday fare. We went wild. We bought food enough for a whole week, as well as six bottles of wine and chocolates, and the whole bill came to EU 93.00.

At the Hertz office, we returned the car and transferred the groceries to a taxi. The trip from Marmande to the boatyard was on the expensive side, around EU 20, but it saved the three of us a lot of bother, and the taxi driver was very jolly. He loved to talk, at us or on his cell phone, and it somehow didn’t matter that we understood only very little he said. We did laugh a lot and nodded “oui, oui.”

We took possession of our boat a little after 3:00 p.m. and voted Ingrid captain, which meant that she had to take the boat-test on the canal. Ingrid was a natural choice since she can “drive” anything, from an airplane to a motorcycle. It helps to have someone like her along, but later, I also “drove” the boat, and once I realized that a boat reacts more slowly than a car, I was fine. And if I can do it, anyone can. All canal boat rental agencies will provide hands-on instructions on the canal in English, and when we asked how long it would last, we were told “as long as it takes.”

The JAMAICA ‘S’ was a blue-and-white 40-foot cruiser with a sliding roof over the saloon, two single and two double cabins, with two showers and three toilets. The well-equipped kitchen was several steps down from the saloon.

Bruno, the instructor, whom we were to get to know a lot better later on, showed us how to start the engine and asked me to untie the boat, which became my task for the trip. Then we felt ourselves afloat on the deep green canal water. The adventure had begun.

After Ingrid had gotten the feel of the boat and how it responded forward and back, Bruno showed her how to enter and leave a lock. I was designated the lock operator. Locks in France, unlike the ones in England, are automatic, we were told. And when you know the trick, they are. “Well, nothing to it,” I said to myself, when I observed Bruno pull on a plastic stick hanging on a wire strung across the canal and the heavy lock-doors open. We went into a deep canyon of wet, algae-covered stones until the bow of the boat almost touched the opposite closed doors. Bruno asked me to climb out, find a little construction like an ATM machine, insert a plastic card into a slot there, pull a handle, and come back. I did as I was told and returned. The double doors behind us closed, and water filled the stony space until we were even with the next level. The front doors opened, and we moved out.

“Questions?” No! Everything seemed straightforward. We returned to the boatyard the same way, and I was officially entrusted with the white, plastic lock-card. Bruno handed us a thick instruction book and a navigational chart for the canal and river and left us, grinning to himself. The way he wished us a bon voyage made me wonder what he was really thinking.

My suitcase had arrived in the meantime, and I hauled it aboard and was at a loss as to where to store the monster. Fortunately, one of the cabins appeared only fit for a non-claustrophobic dwarf and was declared by all of us as a luggage room. The other cabins were comfortable, each with their own bathrooms. Mine turned out to be the “master bedroom” in the bow, which made me feel uncomfortable for a minute or so. I did enjoy the spacious double bed. Inez took the middle cabin with the single bed, and Ingrid settled in the stern with another double bed and a door to what we came to call the back porch, a space for the storage of bicycles. Sheets and towels were all provided.

We didn’t go far that first day. Several miles, perhaps, until we found a place that overlooked a valley with the Garonne River bathed in evening sunlight below us. It took a while to hammer two large iron stakes into the embankment to tie the ropes for mooring. It had rained during the previous night, and the dirt was wet and loose, but we managed to hammer deep and tie up the boat in what looked to us a professional manner. Anyway, it held until the next morning and withstood the gentle wash of passing boats, but the iron stakes were a chore to remove.

Le Canal du Midi by Ingrid Mathews

That evening, we dined on real French bread, assorted cheeses, cold cuts, and fruit and drank a bottle of Gewuerztraminer. Around 7:00 p.m., the heavenly peace of the canal-side was rudely broken by the loud sounds of the tinniest bell you ever hope to hear. Unbeknownst to us, we had moored right under another old church hidden amongst dense trees. Seven knells and a few minutes of uninterrupted ringing made us sit up and vow to move on if this same thing happened again at 8:00 p.m. Thankfully, it did not, and we spent a most peaceful night, interrupted only occasionally by the sound of a nocturnal bird.


23rd September

The smell of freshly brewed coffee sneaked into my cabin as I lay there feeling utterly happy. Through the uncurtained window above my bed, I saw the sunlight dance on the leaves, and our boat began to rock gently from the wake of a passing boat. The friendly calls of “bonjour” back and forth told me that Inez and Ingrid were both up and probably hungry for the croissants we had bought the day before. Why is it that even day-old croissants taste so much better in France than anywhere else? And French coffee is delicious and rich. Is it the atmosphere or the water?

Ingrid had risen early and discovered a “magic forest” to which she invited us right after breakfast. Early morning sunshine between geometric rows and rows of tall young trees made the delicate rising mist visible and did turn the whole forest into a fairytale.

Back at the boat, we were rudely shaken out of our mystical mood when one of our toilets toppled off its perch, and we decided to return to the boatyard, since we were still in close proximity. That we were always in close proximity was brought home to us when we realized a day later that the newly installed toilet lacked a seat and Bruno arrived within an hour of our phone call, placed from a grocery store, to take care of the problem. The funny thing was that we did not even have to arrange a meeting point; Bruno could find us anywhere on the canal. He also found us on the river Baise when I remembered that I had left part of my battery recharger in the boatyard office.

By now, I had the sneaking feeling that Bruno thought one or all of us had a crush on him. He was rather cute. What is there about French men, no matter the age, that makes them so charming to women? The gift to flirt must be given a French boy at birth. By flirting, I am speaking about the very special, almost innocent, way in which compliments and looks are exchanged to make the recipient feel great and ageless. In the U.S., flirting has unfortunately been degraded to mean an insincere, if not slightly immoral, come-hither-ness. In my household, we have had several French exchange students, and they knew how to charm the cookies out of the jar with irresistible smiles. Bruno was no exception. He smiled at us and made us feel special.

With our new toilet, we wound our way down the canal at a roaring ten kilometers (about six miles) per hour. The low speed was necessary to prevent the backwash of the boat from eroding the sides of the canal.

It had turned very warm, and we tied up in a shady spot and had our lunch. We decided to eat our main meal at noon and feasted on large filo-dough rolls filled with Camembert, which we had bought at the Marmande supermarket. This was accompanied by a large, fresh salad of greens with which we were not familiar, but were willing to experience for the first time. It was delicious, and later research revealed that we had eaten the Rapunzel of fairytale fame. Remember “Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair”? The girl had been named after the greens her mother could not resist, although the old witch had warned her.

While thus feasting, I could not help being slightly apprehensive about facing and overcoming the challenge of the first lock, which was looming beyond the next bend. I had read and reread the part in the book that talks about passing through a lock, and so I was prepared when I saw the wire with the foam-rubber stick dangling above the water. I gave the stick a good jerk and expected the doors of the lock to open. Nothing. What’s more, the “traffic light” to the right of the lock did not turn from red to green as I had been promised. We moored over on the right, thinking that a boat was already in the lock and would emerge any minute. Well, we waited many minutes, and nothing happened. Ingrid turned the 40-foot boat in the 50-foot-wide canal like a pro, and we approached the “schtick” again, and again I pulled with all my might. Again, the light stayed red, and the doors to the lock remained closed.

This might have gone on and on and on, had not a boat from the opposite direction come through the lock and guessed our plight. We were unable to understand the French instructions they hollered at us, but I did understand the sign language: a quick turn of the wrist. After much laughter and “mercies,” I reached for the dangling stick and gave it a good twist. And you know what? The light turned green and — “Open Sesame” — we were able to glide right into the lock.

Now I worried that the lock-card wouldn’t fit into the slot of the “ATM.” As Ingrid guided the boat into the lock, I grabbed the rungs of an iron ladder attached to the slippery black stone wall and climbed up to the concrete quay above. I loosely tied the ropes that Ingrid threw up to me fore and aft to the iron bollards, ran to the little machine, located the appropriate slot, put the card in, turned the handle, and crossed my fingers. At first nothing happened, and I had dire premonitions. But then an orange light near the slot came on, very much like the light on a tow truck, and I heard and saw the heavy doors of the lock close behind our boat. Soon, we saw white water beginning to swirl and foam at the front doors, and the boat lifted more or less gently up in its stony prison. I had lowered the end of the front rope down to Ingrid and held the back one, and we both constantly shortened the lengths. (The opposite is, of course, necessary if you descend in the lock.) When we were even with the new water level, I jumped back into the boat and, as instructed by the charming Bruno, rolled the rope in a circle so that it could not get tangled. The doors before us opened, and we were on our way, having more or less successfully maneuvered through our first lock. We felt proud and professional.

Ines Holding the Line by Ingrid Mathews

At Damazan, we found a mooring along the embankment under a willow tree, rather than join the other boats, which were packed in like sardines at the concrete quay several yards away. Across the canal, the steep hill had been turned into a park, still filled with late-summer flowers and blooming bushes, and above all towered the old town with its church, which, incidentally, had a very melodious bell.

The town reminded us very much of Mas d’Agenais, with its covered marketplace and central church. The stores were closed, but we found a patisserie and bought delicious fresh pastries to have with our coffee on the boat.

We found plenty of evidence that the French love animals, cats and dogs, which they even bring along on their boats. We were almost adopted by a dog, but at the last moment before we enticed him onto our boat, he changed his mind and left us for his old home. Since the sky was clear and the air balmy, we opened the sliding roof and lounged about, smelling the flowers and listening to the periodic ringing of the bells. It was a true pleasure doing nothing but enjoying the day.


24th September

According to the map of the canal, we were to go through a double lock that would lead us down onto the river Baise. After Ingrid’s practice at turning to go through the first lock, we were not daunted by the right-angle turn we saw on the map. In reality, it was even easier, since we had plenty of room and a wooden dock to wait. There was already another boat tied up, and we were invited to go through the locks with it.

As earlier I’d wondered about the French male charm, here I had to marvel at the French female gift to look chic in any situation. The lock-keeper was a very attractive young woman in her twenties who would have been perfectly acceptable in a Paris sidewalk café as she was: smooth, sleek, and clean. I looked down to my once-white shorts and sneakers and tried to hide my grubby hands in my pockets. I comforted myself with the thought that I would manage to stay clean once I had mastered the locks. After all, she must have had years of experience, and I had only managed three.

A very different atmosphere engulfed us immediately on leaving this lock. The sides of the canal had been framed by a well-kept towpath and regular, stately plane trees; the Baise, by comparison, seemed wild and primeval. The water was much clearer than in the canal, and the jade-green color must have had something to do with the makeup of the riverbed. Steep embankments covered with trees and bushes hid civilization from us, and only occasionally did we see the roof of a large farmhouse, church, or castle.

That the river could be quite busy at times was evidenced by the many small platforms and seats for anglers. We did come across several manned stations, exchanged cheery bonjours, and asked about the catch of the day. Apparently, the fish were too clever to be caught. But they were there, all right, because we saw them jumping in spots.

We were moving upstream, and the resistance was noticeable, but Ingrid made up for it by opening the throttle a little further. The dense green foliage, the sound of piping birds, and the slight lapping of the wake made us feel at times that we were in a jungle. Soon, we gave in to the new rhythm, and the low hum of the engines lulled us into a blissful state. We dozed in the sun. Not Ingrid, of course. But we did give her a chance to experience the same blissful weightlessness later on, by alternating and letting her doze in the sun.

Inez offered to make coffee, and since we did not see anyplace to dock, we took turns steering the boat while partaking in the continental custom of drinking coffee and eating pastries at 4:00 p.m. Afterwards, we found that it would have been perfectly all right to tie up at any tree.

We arrived at Vianne and our first river lock around 4:30 p.m. Locks cease to operate at 7:00 p.m., and one should calculate that into the plan for the day. The first thing we saw and heard was the white rushing water of a weir, which seemed to immediately cool the warm afternoon air. The lock huddled unobtrusively on the left side of the river, and since the water level was low, the doors opened immediately. The canal locks had been six feet deep, on average, so that we were quite daunted when we saw the huge, black, wet 12-foot walls of this river lock. The force of the rushing water was noticeably stronger, but otherwise, we found that a lock is a lock is a lock, but that some locks take longer to traverse.

Once up above, we saw the most perfect docking area we were to come across. It looked golden. Golden blocks of stone formed the dock and the wall of the embankment, above which stood houses covered with flowers. And there were, of course, the wonderful plane trees everywhere, with their multicolored bark. We were the only boat there and chose a prime spot just meters away from a tall old mill-building, which had been turned into a restaurant.

Since it was Sunday, we expected the town to be closed down and quiet, but to our surprise, the large village square teemed with life. Children ran around, mothers with strollers stood together and exchanged whatever mothers exchange, and old men were playing a game of boccie. A corner store was open and offered everything from candies and ashtrays to German-language newspapers.

Vianne is amazing in that it is completely surrounded by an intact stone wall with four gates. When you stand at one point in the middle of town, you are able to see all four gates by turning in the directions of the compass points. Yet, despite its walls, Vianne is an open and airy town, with flowers and many art studios. But the jewel, to my mind, is the 12th-century Romanesque church near the north gate.

Ringed by trim cypress trees, the stone walls rise many stories high, looking all the mightier for the lack of windows. The Gothic cathedrals with their stone lacework and their soaring windows are magnificent to behold, but to me, the Romanesque churches, with their dark interiors, remind me of the proverbial “rock of ages,” so solid and eternal. This particular church had escaped the “modernizations” of later centuries and had held on to its small windows and flat tower. The way it stood there next to the gate, it could have been a fortified castle — God’s fortified castle. And considering the times, it must have offered welcome shelter to the town’s people again and again during raids and in times of war.

Church in Vianne by Ingrid Mathews

By the time we’d returned to the boat, the sun had set, and to our delight, the old mill was lit from within and reflected in the calm waters of the river. Only late birdsong was heard over the ever-present sound of the weir when we had a light dinner of assorted cheeses, cold-cuts, salad, and, of course, local wine and fruit.

After one week on the canal, we rented a car in Agen and drove to Caunes Minervois, a small town in Aude, which is roughly northeast of Toulouse. We had a one-week reservation for a three-bedroom apartment in an 18th-century townhouse with a cherry orchard and a swimming pool.


5th October

The day was cloudy and windy, but not cold. We took Inez to a hairdresser in a small town and explained to the young woman, who spoke no English, that Inez wanted a light permanent. At least that was what I thought I had communicated with my limited language ability and the help of a dictionary, but mostly through sign language. Ingrid and I left, thinking Inez very brave, but then, even the small beauty shop in this little town looked very elegant, and the young woman’s own hair looked very, very stylish. The only things that made us slightly uneasy were the posters and advertisements that showed youngsters in maroon and green spiked hair glowering at us from the walls. Ingrid and I looked at each other and both broke into a heartfelt, “Nooo, she wouldn’t dare.”

While Inez awaited her fate, Ingrid and I drove to Lastours, one of the numerous Cathar ruins in this region of France. Had we more time, we would have liked to have visited all the “chateaux du Pays Cathare,” which are well marked and documented on the maps that can be obtained for free in any community in the Southwest. These ruins are spectacularly placed on mountaintops — in the case of the town of Minerve, completely surrounded by a precipice — and are worthwhile seeing.

The story of the Cathars, or Catharists (from the Greek for “pure”), is a sad one. They lived in the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries, and very little is known about their religious practices. That which we do know was extracted through torture, and it is often said that the Cathars took their secrets with them when they were burned. Even their origin is unclear, but Catharism most probably had its beginning in the Balkans and was based on the Bible and, more specifically, on the Gospel of St. John. The Cathars were Christians who believed in dualism: God was the creator of eternity and spirit, but the devil created time and matter, and the latter were therefore considered to be evil. The body was thought to be the prison of the soul, which led the Cathars to live simply and to disregard bodily pleasures.

At that time in history, the aristocracy and the lords of the Church were forbidden to work with their hands, at the risk of being stripped of their titles; they lived a life of excesses at the expense of their subjects. Even monasteries exerted more and more demands in the form of taxation of gifts, while at the same time neglecting religious instructions and prayers. The monastic way of life had become so worldly and oppressive that the common people were drawn in great numbers to the Cathars. And not only the common people, but also educated aristocrats. Women as well as men were attracted to the simple and just way of life and the equal treatment of rich and poor, men and women.

The ever-increasing defections from the Catholic Church, especially in the Languedoc region of France, alarmed Rome and led to the call of a crusade against the “heretics.” So, under the leadership of Simon de Montfort, considered a clever opportunist and butcher by some and a saint by other historical sources, the Cathars were relentlessly pursued and put to death, mostly by fire. After the taking of Minerve, for instance, 140 Cathars died on the pyre together. A simple stone with the symbol of a dove marks the place now.

There are no more Cathars today, but one can see their towns and spectacular castle ruins often by climbing steep paths. Some walks are more strenuous than others, but all reward with a fantastic view of the surrounding countryside.

Unfortunately, castle ruins also close for the French lunchtime, and when we got to the Cathar ruins of Lastours, we were too late for the morning hours. The sight of the ruins and the dramatic cypress trees growing up the steep mountainside made us vow to come back, no matter what.

Hiking to the Castle Ruins of Lastours by Ingrid Mathews

Back in the little town of Rieux, Inez had still half an hour to go (and to our relief, the color of her hair looked quite normal). It was a market day, and we walked past stands full of cheeses, clothes, and farm-fresh vegetables. The only café in town was full of local people and their dogs. It always amazed us how well behaved the French dogs were. Not once did we see a dog fight, nor did we even hear a dog growl. Often, I imagined my two labs at my feet, and I shuddered at what might have happened to the lovely food that was served on all the tables.

Inez looked great when she appeared, and we heaved a sigh of relief and headed “home” for lunch. Then forgoing our customary nap, we returned to the castle we had seen that morning.

Lastours is actually four different castles, in ruins now, but still bearing witness to the power of the Cabaret family who offered the Cathars sanctuary during the 13th century. For this act, the castles were beleaguered, but it took four different assaults before they fell to Simon de Montfort and then to the French king as overlord. The great walls and donjons still show the mighty defenses today. Cisterns at the foot of one wall remind how important sources of water were. The difference between survival and capture hinged on the water supply.

The path from the town was well kept, but steep and without rails. It led, at one point, through a natural cave and alongside a deep gorge, and the view from above was magnificent and worth all our huffing and puffing. The two buses that we had seen in the parking lot passed us going down, so we had the castles to ourselves, except for one lonely Irishman who told us not to miss the town of Minerve. Good advice, since we had planned to do just that and so would have foregone one of the greatest treasures of the Pays Cathare.

We had difficulty finding Minerve because we had opted for the more picturesque back roads instead of the Autoroute. However, there were still many cars in the parking lot that late in the afternoon, parked because you cannot drive your car across the old bridge into town. When you see the narrow, charming streets of the town, it becomes obvious why only residents can use automobiles. The town was built on a promontory overlooking the Cesse and Brian Gorges and still looks unconquerable today. Nonetheless, this town also fell to Simon de Montfort, after he cut off its water supply.

Not being French, we got hungry at 6:00 p.m. but were unable to find a restaurant that seated guests before 7:30 p.m. We finally returned to Caunes Minervois and found even the pizza place still closed. So we tried our brand new phone cards from the post office to call our families in the United States. We each pushed the card into the slot, but the error message kept on flashing. We dialed information, but in France, also, live operators are apparently a thing of the past. The annoying recorded voice kept telling us that our card was in error.

It was getting dark around the booth on the old bridge, and we were getting hungrier and hungrier, finally making us give up, frustrated and in disgust. But the pizza place was now open and turned out to be more than just a pizza place, serving delicious pasta dishes, as well. Inez had beef; I had smoked salmon; and Ingrid chose a calzone. All this with 1.5 liters of wine and coffee came to a total of EU 33.00.

The couple behind us had been conversing in English, so I asked them if they could explain the phone card to us. After first offering their cell phone, they told us that we did not need to insert the card, but to dial 3003 to activate it and then punch in the long number on the card itself. It worked the first time we tried, and we were all able to check in at home. The familiar voices from our everyday lives sounded anachronistic to us. Here we were standing near a centuries-old bridge in a medieval town listening to news of sons and daughters, dogs and cats. Nothing had changed at home, but we three were experiencing history.


7th October

The sky had cleared, and we expected a great day for travelling north to the Dordogne region. We left our townhouse in Caune Minervois shortly after 9:00 a.m. in the direction of Toulouse and Montauban. The countryside changed drastically, from arid browns and yellows to lush greens in valley after valley.

At Soulliac, just short of Turenne, we needed gas and saw a restaurant nearby. Although quite well decorated, the coq au vin we ate was forgettable. So forgettable that I only remember the large convention in the rest of the restaurant-hotel. A hundred or so geese growers were meeting, judging by the flags on their tables. Again we regretted not being able to understand French better. Hearing their laughter, we thought that geese raising must be a lot funnier than we imagined. They also seemed to know more about the menu than we, because we didn’t see a single coq au vin on their tables.

We followed the signs to Turenne on what happened to be a tertiary road. Scenic, like most of the backcountry roads we had traveled on, it wound around hills and up and down valleys. Just when we thought we had somehow missed the mountain with the castle, we saw it at the end of a valley. Dramatic, high, and haughty, but unfortunately out of reach. It took another twenty minutes to reach a secondary road and the little town of Turenne at the foot of the mountain. The street, more like a one-car alleyway, wound upwards in hairpin curves, past lovely old houses and churches and intriguing entrances, maybe to caves in the mountain. Beneath the castle tower, we found our “castle.” (We later learned that this historic building had been used by the counts of Turenne as a mint. They were the only noble family who had been allowed by the king of France to coin their own money.)

The Hilltop Village of Turenne

The landlord and his wife were delightful people. Michel was a retired teacher who had rebuilt the old family home, and Virginnie was a Cordon Bleu chef. They had stocked the fridge and kitchen in our quarters with butter, milk, cheeses, eggs, bread, jam, fruit, and, of course, wine. They also served us a “memorable” dinner of chicken, mushroom sauce, bread, salad, and more wine. This chicken meal compared to the one we had had for lunch like a meal prepared by Julia Child to one from McDonald’s. Michel also delivered wood for the fireplace in the huge baronial living room.

The house itself was charming. The huge living/dining room had three-foot walls and beamed ceilings. The French window at the far end gave a view over the whole countryside, which I can only describe with an expression my daughter used a lot when young: WOW! It was spectacular when the setting sun dipped the trees, meadows, and hills in gold and even better early in the morning when the mists rose from the valley below and left the surrounding mountaintops as floating islands in the swirling white sea. We never tired of watching the world slowly be revealed to us again and again.

Upstairs, on the second floor were two bedrooms, a bathroom, and a separate toilet, and on the third floor were two additional bedrooms. The windowless kitchen, off the dining area, was vaulted like a wine cellar and included everything one needs to cook. On the outside, on either side of the house, were flagged terraces with garden furniture and even a small swimming pool. Unfortunately, it was already too nippy for us to take advantage of swimming with such a dream view before us.

Ingrid and I went immediately to scout around in the little town for a grocery store and post office. All were there, as well as two very nice-looking restaurants. The narrow streets, with their historic houses and the incredible views glimpsed here and there, made us dream about living among them. We actually found two houses for sale by Century 21 that we would have bought on the spot, had we the money. Michel told us later that the town had been in sad shape for a while until buyers from the larger cities and even England, Scotland, and the U.S. discovered the charm of Turenne and began fixing up houses for summer residences. We hear that it is quite common in France to own two houses, one in town and one in the country. What a way to live.


God Bless America© 2003 Timshel Literature