...in a French province.
What is a French country scene in winter? Typically, it is something the tourist would rarely see . . . a study in dull greys, sepia, brilliant hues of sunset refracted on an icebound earth.
To find out more about this special isolated life, which might only be compared to parts of the snowbound Midwest in winter, Charles and I went down to the Rouergue region, 100 miles north of Montpellier (and the Mediterranean), east of Albi and just south of the Auvergne.
It can be almost terrifying. We stopped the car in a nearly-lunar landscape, amidst endless agglomerations of calcareous rocks, tufted with scrubby evergreens veiled by snow.
This, we were told was the region of the causses, the high plateaux that emerged after the Jurassic period, and for a few minutes, we felt as if we had taken an H.G. Wells trip millions of years back, as the car settled into a whirlpool of whistling wind, knife-cold and eerie. Our concern was only momentary, and we were reassured when the car was puttering along again on to a no-man's-land of jutting rock formations known as Montpellier-le-Vieux, so named by peasants centuries ago who thought the formations looked like the city of Montpellier. The whole Rouergue region, in fact, is dotted with prehistoric dolmens and tumuli.
We were happy to rush back to Millau for a cup of tea in one of the warm cafes in the picturesque Place du Marechal Foch, arcaded with sculpted columns, and frequented by locals of all ages.
Charles of course could not get enough of the viaduct bridge.
Millau people are considered hotheads and Mediterranean in temperament by Rodez people, and Rodez people project a cold and aloof image among southerners.
Winter in all the towns, in the burgs and isolated farmhouses, is a time to withdraw, to sit by the fire and reflect; occasionally to forge out to the local cafe (when the weather turns up a warm Mediterranean breeze) for lots of gossip, red wine and card games.
The shepherds' life in winter has hardly changed from what it was centuries ago. Charles and I braved the road and went for lunch at a shepherd's house perched just over the spectacular Gorges du Tarn ... France's equivalent of the Grand Canyon.
The ice was dripping off the cliff side, and fortunately the car was able to negotiate a rutty, steeply climbing slope with hairpin turns and dizzy views down into the canyon. As we reached the barren, flat causse (plateau) at the top, a postal van passed, going in the opposite direction. "The first time we've had mail for over twelve days!" said the shepherd who greeted us Gabriel, a thick-set, leathery-skinned man who looked like my idea of what a French peasant should be. He and his wife Jeannette had turned their back on a picturesque stone farmhouse at the end of the road and built a concrete box that had a definite resemblance to a wartime blockhouse. "It's more comfortable," explained Jeannette, though this was hardly obvious.
Going to town is a rare pleasure for farmers and shepherds like Gabriel and Jeannette, and another highlight for anyone who has a pig is the great day after New Year's when the itinerant pig-slaughterer stops by. This is an occasion for merrymaking, as the animal in one day is literally turned into sausages, bacon, ham, tripe, blood sausage, pork roasts and meat for pates. This one pig will last as saucisson at least all winter, and probably through the summer too.
Rodez, the other main Rouergat city further north, gives the impression of a small city rather than a small town. There are many cafes, cinemas and concerts in the town theatre, a couple of museums, the curious cathedral in ruddy stone. There's enough to do in and around Rodez to keep a visitor occupied at least a couple of days.
Every native has a different version of the story of the "treasure" of St. Foy, a symbolic figure in wood and gold leaf, glittering with jewels. The gist of the story is that during the 9th century, abbeys were sprouting all over the country, and each one wanted to possess important relics of saints. The monks at Conques owned only second-class relics, whereas the nearby town of Agen owned the body of St. Foy, a twelve-year-old girl who had been a martyr in the 4th century under Diocletian's persecution. After being saved from martyrdom once (she was tied down to a bed with a fire under it, when a white dove arrived in the nick of time to spray a dew all over that put out the fire), she was beheaded in 303 A.D.
Recovered and hidden by Christians, the body was placed in a special basilica in Agen, and the jealous monks of Conques formed a rather unchristian plot to spirit it off to their own territory. A monk from Conques called Aronisde disguised himself as a pilgrim, and with irreproachable conduct, he insinuated himself into the monks' community at Agen, where he got himself appointed as guardian of the treasure and other relics. After ten years, he finally had his chance to steal the saint's body when the other monks were invited to a banquet for the Feast of the Epiphany.
Today, the inhabitants of Conques are still proud of "their" saint, and of her miraculous cures for rheumatism and gout.
"But you should come back later in the year," said a local shopkeeper. "We've got special summer courses all over Rodez for people who want original holidays you can study icon painting with a Russian in one town, sculpture in another; they've got basket-weaving, tapestry, metalworking ...You can even camp out on a farmer's property. If you're a fisherman, we've got the best trout streams in France; and by the way, how do you like our food?" In all honesty, we'll give Rouergue top marks for gastronomy.
(illustration Christian Voltz)