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Travel: A rendezvous with the French countryside

The country bearing the brunt of terrorism has a well-kept secret: its undulating countryside offers surprises even to the well-travelled

brunch Updated: Oct 08, 2016 19:28 IST
Gaze at the gorgeous view of the valley below Cordes-sur-Ciel
Gaze at the gorgeous view of the valley below Cordes-sur-Ciel

It is raining a welcome as we enter Toulouse. From Chamonix to the heart of the Midi Pyrenees region is a journey that happens in the mind as well as in space. Rain-washed Toulouse is quite a change from the tiny town ringed by snow-flecked mountains that we’ve left behind.

Three trains have carried us through the changing countryside. From Geneva to Lyon to Montpellier, we jump from the intercity to the TGV and back into an intercity. Though it looks like a provincial small town, Toulouse is one of France’s bigger cities, second only to Paris. For us, it is the takeoff point for a whirlwind tour of the Midi Pyrenees region.

Quaint lanes lined with coral-stoned houses are found in the old part of Toulouse.

The itinerary is packed with things to do, and see. By the time we come to the end of the sheet, we have driven through much of the region, and stopped to take in sights and experiences that are not just varied but amazingly so. Of these, we share a sampling.

The two churches of Toulouse

From outside, the perfect shape of the crucifix sets the building apart from the others we have seen. The walls of the Saint Sernin Basilica hold many whispers. The building in its earliest form was constructed in the 4th century. Since then, it has undergone many changes. After King Charlemagne donated some relics that still lie within the building, the Basilica became one of the most important in Europe, with thousands stopping to kneel on the cold floor. Pope Urban II dedicated the altar of the still largely incomplete building in 1096, and the crowds to the Basilica swelled in number. The high, vaulted ceilings, the columns and the sculptures make the building an architectural delight. We stop to marvel at the high altar, which we are informed is a rare Romanesque survival. Etched on it is the exact date it was consecrated, May 24, 1096, as well as the signature of Bernardus Gelduinus, its creator.

St Sernin Basilica is the largest Romanesque church in Europe; the tall palm tree-like pillars of the Toulouse Cathedral inspire awe in its visitors.

We leave the Basilica, a UNESCO-protected heritage site, and walk the pretty streets to find ourselves at another, very different church. Tall, palm tree-like pillars stretch upwards to hold a beautifully arched ceiling inside the Toulouse Cathedral. Each of the ‘palm trees’ has 22 ribs. As we strain and stretch our necks to count them, the geometric pattern created on the ceiling by the columns distracts us. Perhaps some kindly soul thought to spare our necks, for we soon discover a mirror cleverly placed around the bottom of one of the columns so we can look into it and admire the perfect symmetry of the radiating ‘branches’ above.

The church has a double nave, which has over the years been the cause of much debate thanks to the ingrained suggestion of discrimination it holds. The French revolutionaries used the place as barracks. Fortunately no evidence of that exists, though much of the once brilliant mosaic that decorated the walls has vanished. Yet we marvel at the light that streams in through the stained glass windows, and bow our heads in respect of the fact that the church holds the relics of St Thomas Aquinas.

A Michelin meal with love

A ride on the undulating motorway leads us to Albi, where we stop at L’Épicurien for lunch. A surprise awaits us. For the tiny restaurant in what seems a forgotten town is packed to the last table.

We start with an avocado, prawn, greens and citrus salad that gets us excited with its blend of flavours. The main course consists of cod with tomatoes, olive, cheese and sea urchin sauce, laced with olive oil and black pepper. The lemon curd tart crumble merengue adds the star to the meal, which blends the French with the Swedish so well. Chef Rikard Hult decided to live in France thanks to his Belgian wife. He started L’Épicurien ten years ago, and has not looked back. The only reason his enterprise has not won a Michelin star is because he prefers to change the menus to suit himself and his clientele than follow Michelin rules. Everyone, from the police chief to tourists, eats here.

Chef Rikard Hult adds his master touch to his well-crafted dishes at L’Épicurien, Albi; the avocado, prawn, greens and citrus salad makes for a delicious start to a meal at L’Épicurien; the lemon curd tart crumble merengue is the perfect balance of sweet and tangy.

In a ghost town

We drive through softly rolling hillsides to finally climb steeply to what is described as a bastide town. Built as part of a defence strategy against invasion in 1222, the village of Cordes-sur-Ciel still has great vantage points to check on approaching tourists.

We enter through one of the decorative gateways and walk the narrow streets, peering unashamedly into houses and shops. We are in a ghost town. Winter still lingers in the Midi Pyrenees, and the inhabitants of the village are away in their country homes. A week more and as the tourists come driving in, the inhabitants, shop owners mainly, will return to set up their counters for the season. For now, we make believe the village is all ours. An uninhabited house with open doors holds huge pictures of Indian guru Ma Anandamayi. We wander through, amazed.

Vintage time

We have driven a long way from Cordes to reach the Château de Mayragues. Owned by Alan Geddes, a Scotsman, the vineyard dates back to the Romans. When Geddes fell in love with the old stone building that stands along the vineyard, he decided to move. Twenty years have seen the ramshackle 13-16th century chateau with broken walls turn into a beautiful surviving example of fortified architecture, and a home with two bed-and-breakfast rooms for tourists. The Gaillac reds and whites as well as a sparkling wine are popular in restaurants in and around the region, and Geddes does brisk business at the fairs he visits regularly, where his produce has won medals. Clutching a bottle each to carry home in triumph, we set out again. It is time for a cosy bed and the end to an exciting day.

The writer is a senior journalist and former editor of Femina magazine.

From HT Brunch, August 28, 2016

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