Michael J Cale

France via the back roads

When we came up with the idea of exploring rural France, away from the usual tourist routes, it soon became apparent that we’d have to concentrate on a few regions. France has twice the land mass of New Zealand and, being one of the first countries in the world settled by human beings, has tiny hamlets and tracks everywhere. We decided to concentrate on the neighbouring regions of the Loire Valley and the Dordogne, in the geographical centre of the country, with the intention of living amongst the locals. ‘Home’ would be a couple of the remote country cottages known locally as gites.

It turned out to be a wise choice. This is a land where serendipity rules and aimless roaming can, at any time, bring you to a place that astonishes you. The towns offer charm by the bucketful, their narrow lanes full of shops and medieval houses, their hills topped with little castles - the famous chateaux - and grandiose churches. We passed our time sitting outside little cafes, sipping espresso and trying to shrug like the locals, and frequented local markets to buy our meat, groceries and the inexpensive local wines. We bought rather a lot of bottles of the vin, often paying less than 2 euros (4 dollars) and, on one occasion, trying a table wine that we’d found on offer for 49 cents a litre. Even the cheap plonk was surprisingly drinkable.

The region’s chateaux and fortifications go back as far as the eleventh century and are in various states of repair. They often have links to French royalty, like the chapel dedicated to a renowned Medieval beauty called Agnes Sorel, who was on unusually friendly terms with one of the Kings. The contemporary Pope seemed to quite approve of her but modern people aren’t necessarily as tolerant. A plaque beside her tomb describing her as the King’s ‘official mistress’ had been disfigured by some scandalised visitor, who’d scratched out the word ‘mistress’.

Agnes, the plaque told us, died at the age of 30, probably after being poisoned. Life was tough for official mistresses in the middle ages.


Our Loire Valley base was a converted walnut mill in a village called Barrou. Barrou’s 400 residents occupy a clutch of cottages crammed around a couple of streets and a square. Tiny as it is, the village still has a grocery, a bar, a garage, a petanque court and a tabac, which was similar to what we’d call a dairy. The village was casual to the point of scruffiness but, tucked away in the fields behind the square, a walled cemetery contained immaculate graves covered with small tokens--masonry ‘books’ and ‘flowers’--from relatives and friends of the deceased. One such token, dated 1944, was inscribed ‘to our fallen comrade’ by veterans of the Maquis. It was a reminder that the line between the Nazi-occupied France and the Vichy regime was hereabouts, until the Germans tired of the puppet regime in the south and took control of the whole country.

The region has many monuments to victims of the Nazis, none more poignant than that at Oradour-Sur-Glane, a village whose 600-odd inhabitants were murdered, one summer’s day in 1944, by the Waffen SS. The reasons behind the massacre remain a mystery. Oradour was sufficiently off the beaten track that, initially, a detachment of German soldiers would have been a novelty. The abandoned village now stands as a monument to the dead, its ruined streets and houses occupied by rusting cars and sewing machines, its cemetery displaying photos of the slain men, women and children. Set in the middle of peaceful countryside, it’s a moving record of the ugliness that sometimes overtakes our species.


No account of rural France is complete without mention of its public toilets. Sadly, the classic French pissoire has disappeared but the gents conveniences are still distinctly non-confidential. The urinals are next to the street and there are no doors. In the spirit of research, I tried one, sheltering my delicate Anglo-Saxon sensibilities by huddling in a corner. Just when it looked as though I’d got away with it, a woman took a wrong turn at the Ladies and walked in. If this was the sort of romantic French assignation promised by the Lonely Planet guide, it left a bit to be desired.

Inconvenient conveniences aside, it was fun meeting the locals, who belied the myth that the French don’t like other people and were invariably polite and friendly. Most were even happy to speak English once they’d heard my tentative French but, even when the locals were monolingual, we got along fine. Strolling along a solitary back road, I encountered an elderly man walking his dog. He gave me a hearty ‘bon jour’ and, full of the joys of the countryside, I returned his greeting and asked ‘comment allez vous?’. He shook my hand and his eyes narrowed as he considered my walking shoes, walking hat, walking shorts and aluminium walking pole. ‘Vous avez une promenade?’ I confirmed that I was, indeed, taking a walk and we proceeded to have a perfectly pleasant conversation while his dog contentedly sniffed my groin.


Another myth which needs exploding is that the French are bad drivers. They mostly drive well and there’s little speeding. Which should be of some interest to New Zealand’s traffic authorities, because we drove 3,500 kilometres before we saw our first speed camera.


After a few weeks in the Loire valley, we moved south, to a converted barn in the Dordogne. Our neighbour, a retired naturalist, accompanied us on walks through the countryside. We ate wild figs, waded through a wallow used by the local sangliers, or feral pigs, and chanced upon an elaborate hide used by pigeon hunters. The hide consisted of makeshift huts at ground level in the trees. Winch-and-pulley mechanisms in the surrounding branches were to raise cages containing tame pigeons into the tree tops so they could lure their wild cousins to their doom. It was all very ingenious but our friendly naturalist agreed that it would be more sporting if the wild pigeons were equipped with little under-wing machine guns so they could fight back.

The countryside is a patchwork of small fields. Napoleonic law dictated that when a farmer died, his lands had to be distributed evenly amongst his sons. What must have seemed like a good idea at the time has had unexpected consequences, producing myriad tiny parcels of land. Farmers frequently own a number of fields, connected only by narrow paths or sometimes not at all.


To the south, the region has many bastide towns, built on hilltops for defensive reasons and reached via roads so narrow that we sometimes had to fold our little Peugeot’s wing mirrors flat against its doors in order to squeeze through. Typical of these towns is Domme, which is centred round a traditional place where market stalls sell clothes and food and small bands really do play French accordion music.

The defensive heights of the bastide towns didn’t always save their inhabitants. In the thirteenth century, the towns were home to ascetic folk who regarded themselves as perfect Christians. In fact, they called themselves ‘The Perfects’. Understandably, this got up other people’s noses, especially the ones who thought they were pretty good Christians themselves, thanks very much, and one of the Popes got sufficiently peeved to nominate them as his choice for ‘Heretics Of The Year’.

The Pope’s loyal subjects responded enthusiastically to his calls for a crusade, partly because of the aforesaid we’re-so-perfect-and we-don’t-care-if-we’re-getting-up-your-noses attitude but also because the Perfects were hard-working and abstemious and consequently had lots of things that the loyal subjects wouldn’t have minded getting their loyal hands on. Foremost amongst the righteous upholders of the faith was the celebrated English baron Simon de Montfort. Simon led an army into southern France, starved the inhabitants of the bastide towns into submission and then massacred them in their thousands.

So, you might think the noble Simon wasn’t really much different from the butchers of the SS. He did, however, have the good luck to end up on the winning side…


The region is as famous for its caves as its hilltop splendours. Probably the best underground complex is Grotte de Pech Merle. The caverns are full of weird crystal formations and stalagmites and stalactites. Their big attractions, though, are their records of ancient humans. A patch of fossilised mud contains footprints left behind more than 10,000 years ago. Further along is an elaborate painting of two horses, ‘signed’ by its creators by way of six hand-prints and carbon-dated at 25,000 years old. The thought of these artists, homo sapiens just like us, forging their ancient culture is perhaps France’s most moving experience for those of us who come from a country that measures its human history in mere centuries.


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