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La France Profonde or La France Vacante?

September 12, 2017


Enough of politics for a day or so. Time for a little meditation on rural France.

Where can you meet a German notary able to quote paragraphs of Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars in Latin? Or go to a concert of Russian folk music in a tiny country church set in a farm yard, performed by a virtuoso accordionist and a singer with an ear-splitting operatic bass voice? Or get the best croissants in the world?

How about a place where old people still regard the Saturday market as the highlight of their social week, where hardly a mobile phone is in sight? Or a place whose silence is only interrupted by one’s own tinnitus?

Where you go to the local square for a meal, and find a guy with a piano on wheels playing Bach? Where some of the villages are so old you can imagine the inhabitants of the top floor pouring their nightly slops over the timber-framed eves?

Or maybe a place where every summer an English theatre company performs Shakespeare plays in those medieval squares?

If the croissants are a bit of a giveaway, so perhaps are the vans in the market advertising the owner as a “cremier”, or a “fromagier”.


Yes, we’re in France. My wife and I have escaped across the channel for a couple of weeks while we are still considered fellow Europeans rather than traitorous secessionists.

By France I don’t mean the Pas de Calais, overrun at this time of year by golfers from the English home counties. Nor Paris, where the waiters pretend not to understand you if you don’t speak French, especially if you have an American accent. Nor Brittany, whose beautiful coastline is buffeted by Atlantic winds.

Not even the gorgeous vineyards of the Bordeaux region, or fragrant Provence, the playground of celebrities and mafiosi, and sometimes celebrity mafiosi. Nor Lyon, where the geese quake with fear at the imminent prospect of being turned into foie gras. And not Marseille, the ancient gateway to the French empire, whose people are as diverse as the empire was wide.

If you said the Dordogne, where the Volvo count is high, and where the Brits buy their stone cottages and spend the winter days dreaming of Marmite, you’d be close. But not close enough.

Just a little further south lies Lot et Garonne, full of character but less full of people. Where we stay is in an area just south of Bergerac. It’s famous for its fortified hilltop towns and villages, which are known as bastides.

The region was a battleground in the Hundred Years War, between one bunch of Frenchmen who came from France, and other Frenchmen who identified as English. Hence the fortifications.

Aquitaine, along with much of Western France, was once an English possession at a time when we English had our one and only stab at creating an empire. Unfortunately, we were considerably less successful as England than we were as Great Britain. Not only were we incapable of subjugating the Scots and the Irish, but by the mid-16th century, all our French territories had gone.

Nowadays, we seem to be the best of friends. You get the impression that our hosts have even forgiven us for Trafalgar and Waterloo. But you never know what feelings lurk in their hearts. But still, we’re good for business. We buy up and renovate their ruined farmhouses and barns, we guzzle their wine and we gorge on their magnificent cheeses. And we arrive in our droves at Bergerac Airport courtesy of Ryanair.

Our favourite stamping ground is around a small group of bastides to the north of the department – Monflanquin, Villareal, Castillonnès and Monpazier. If you also include the town of Issigeac, which is just over the county line in Dordogne, it would be hard to find a more delightful set of villages within a thirty square mile radius anywhere else in France.


A number of the bastides run producers’ evenings in addition to their regular daytime markets. The deal is that local food producers form around the side of the market square, and the municipality provides tables and chairs where you can enjoy the local produce – brochettes, snails, frites cooked in duck fat, cold plates and delicate apple pastries. You can buy wine, cheese, tins of foie gras and a whole bunch of other stuff you would be unlikely to find on Godalming High Street, or Peckham for that matter.

Villereal Night Market

It was at one of these events that we met our Latin-quoting German friend. He and his companions were about to move on to a boat that they planned to take up and down the River Lot. We Brits sometimes think we’re the only foreigners to visit the area. Not so. I’m not sure about the numbers, but in the summer you’re just as likely to hear nearby conversations in German and Dutch.

Villereal Night Market

The regular daytime markets are a joy. In my part of England we’re surrounded by hypermarkets, and our high streets are full of Caffe Neros and charity shops. Not a butcher or a greengrocer in sight. Nor even a bookseller, unless you count WH Smith. The last independent book shop in our town closed last year.

The French don’t do bookshops outside of the larger towns either, but just about every village has a brocante, where you can buy oddball antiques. In some markets, you can buy old books, maps and posters. But most of them are focused on the basics of life. Clothes, fruit and vegetables, fromages, charcuterie, fresh meat. Veganism has not yet caught on in rural France. At most markets, stallholders in vans do a roaring trade in spit-roasted chickens and freshly cooked slices of ham.

Weekly Market

There are cafes around the squares where you can meet and shoot the breeze, often with live music outside. Lots of old people shuffling around with small dogs doing their weekly shop. All generations gather, with, as I mentioned earlier, barely an Apple or Samsung in sight. And where in England, tell me, would one sub-teen, when meeting a couple of others of the same age, delicately shake hands with them?

For teens, itching to get out from under their parents’ grip, I wouldn’t describe the area as paradise. There are campsites, lakes for swimming and a couple of cinemas. It’s about as far from Magaluf and Newquay as you could possibly get, partly explained by the lack of coastline and the absence of large towns.

Millennials who want to walk on the wild side are not especially well catered for either. It’s a good place to make babies though. Plenty of time for that.

Whether by accident or design, Lot et Garonne, like the Dordogne, is set up for families, young couples, middle-aged couples. Preferably those with a bit of money. Outside the holiday season, it’s quiet. Very quiet. Drive through some of the villages at this time of the year, and half the houses are shuttered up. It’s not just the foreigners who have second homes here. The urban French do as well.

As in other parts of France, plenty of Brits live here all year round. Talk to them about Brexit (we have had several conversations), and most spit blood, not least because those who have been here for a while don’t get to vote in British elections. They deeply resent that they didn’t have the opportunity to have their say in the EU referendum despite the profound implications for them. It’s quite possible that if they and their fellow expatriates in Spain and other parts of Europe did have a vote, the outcome of the referendum would have been different. But enough of bloody Brexit.

For those who are looking for a bit of culture, you need to look fairly hard, or wait for the unexpected. There are little museums dotted about, mostly dealing with local history. A few very posh shops sell art way beyond my pocket, and Ryanair wouldn’t let me travel with six-foot picture anyway. If you’re into Shakespeare, there’s an English theatre company, Antic Disposition, that does the rounds of the area every year, performing in village squares. This year’s play was Richard III. Not quite as appropriate as their Henry V, which we saw in London last year, with the cast kitted out in First World War French and British uniforms. Richard was far too busy trying to deal with the House of Lancaster to worry about the French.

As for the unexpected, the guy with the piano entertained us one evening when we were at dinner in Manflanquin. It turned out that he’d been hired by the restaurant next door, so he set up in the corner of the square and effectively played for everyone, which included us, three kids on skateboards and a dog in the almost empty square. He’s a music teacher from the academy at Pau. This is what he does in his holiday time.

Look at the notices in the village squares, and you will find all kind of quirky events. One such was the concert we went to in a tiny church outside Villereal. This was where the Russians did their thing. Valery Orlov, the pianist/singer, dressed like a boyar from the time of Ivan the Terrible, went through a series of folk songs with a booming basso profundo you’d expect to hear from an Orthodox choir in Novgorod. His partner, Slava Kouprikov, is a virtuoso accordionist. He has a dazzling technique that deserves a wider audience than the hundred-or-so people who came to see him. It was good to be reminded that Russia is more than Putin, nukes and grasping oligarchs.

For the past twenty years we’ve been coming to France. For a while, when our kids were young, we went to Charente, where there were rivers in which they could swim, water parks, endless supplies of frites, funny old shops where you could find all kinds of oddities from the French colonies, and plenty of other kids with whom they could play.

Charente 1997

Now the kids are grown up, we suit ourselves. We avoid the high season, so most of the people we encounter are, like us, middle aged, or younger couples without children. I’ve lost count of the times we’ve looked in estate agent windows, and thought how nice it would be to own a holiday home. And every time we got home, we thought no, it’s hassle, and we want the flexibility to go where we please rather than being tied down to one location.

Will that change when (god willing) the grandkids start arriving? Maybe, but there’s always a concern that we might be contributing to the depopulation of the region.

It’s not that these towns and villages are empty. The farming industry seems robust enough, and tourism brings jobs. But as I see so many villages that used to have local shops, and especially boulangeries, and now have none, I keep thinking that they should not be like this, and that they should be more than ornaments for summer tourists to admire. That the old people should not need to be driven by their children to markets miles away. That the beautiful churches dating from the twelfth century should be open for worship more than once a month – the fact that there are so many suggests that the medieval population might have been considerably larger in some of the small villages.

It’s much the same in rural England. Pubs are closing, village grocery shops don’t have enough business to survive. Everyone goes to Tesco. In France, Intermarché, Leclerc and other big stores have had the same effect.

But there are few regions in England that boast so many well-preserved villages with squares bordered by buildings dating back to the middle ages. And not so many where food is treated with reverence, and consuming it is a lengthy pleasure.

For me, France is not about the cities, the grandiose monuments and the flashy resorts. It’s about what exists beyond the globalised culture of the cities. It’s what’s often referred to as La France Profonde – deep France. Indefinable, intensely individualistic. Not ostentatious, but quietly proud.

Yet it sometimes feels strangely empty. There are many small villages where you will often see more names on the war memorials than people in the streets at this time of year.

Sign of the times, I guess, but still sad. But what would you prefer? Starbucks, or the Shabby Chic Corner down a medieval backstreet in Issegeac, owned by Delphine, a charming Parisienne who serves a sponge cake topped with caramelised pears that nearly reduced this cake-lover to tears?

No contest.

From → France, Social, Travel, UK

  1. Oh, my! Added to my l-o-n-g list!

    • Yep. Sometimes I find it difficult to stick to 1000 words. Or too lazy to edit!

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