For all the recent bitching & moaning about Ryanair, I flew down the other day with my two sons &, despite the feeling of being herded like cattle, the experience was not bad. It seems to me that if one is careful to read all the small print & travel fairly lightly, it all works fairly well.
Having been persuaded to go on my first holiday abroad for several years, I had done little to prepare myself or learn anything about the area in which we would be staying. What little boy does not know the legends of the three musketeers? Whether by written word, by film or by cartoon, the stories come back to life as soon as your hear the mention of Gascony. It was from here that it all started. D’Artagnan left his home near here around 1630, heading for Paris to find fame, fortune & immortality.
Walk through any of the woods here, and you could so easily be back in those times, even driving around, if you ignore the proliferation of electric fencing and concrete fence posts, very little appears to have changed. France’s least populated rural area has a mediaeval quality to it, especially closer to the Pyrenees which we can see on a clear day and are calling for us to visit in the next few days.
Foie Gras, Armagnac & Prunes are this quiet world’s most famous products. Foie Gras from ducks & geese is available ‘en vente directe’ almost everywhere you look. Some of these farms have not a bird to be seen outside and conjure up the image of the funnel, force-fed birds’ short, dark lives. Others have flocks, large & small scrabbling around outside, ranging freely to different degrees. Similarly, Armagnac is everywhere & equally varying in quality. As soon as you leave Carcassonne there are vinyards to be seen in every direction, but as you reach further south they become more & more scarce until they pretty much disappear altogether. Apparently, Brussels, in its wisdom, some years ago paid the farmers ‘du coin’ to grub out their ancient vines & plough up the land with the result that the price of the wonderful, but variable spirit doubled or more and to some degree another way of life was lost.
I have discovered that combining two of these, Armagnac & Prunes as a dessert makes a near magical dish, especially when served with ice cream. There is even the slightest implication of it being a health food because of the inclusion of the prunes which have never tasted so good in any other company.
You can buy these very Agen prunes from Alex in Borough Market together with the amazing block butter which is produced & eaten here and creamy yoghurts.
The countryside is at once wild & gentle. Above all it is empty at any time of day. All roads seem to lead to the town of Mirande, which we have yet to visit, and the many of the farms have small herd of white cattle known locally as Mirandaise. There are still vast unharvested fields of corn, their stalks long passed from green through yellow to a sad head hangng rusty brown. Some of the farms still have tall clamps made from wire in which the corn cobs are gathered and dried as they are let down into the troughs below as winter feed for the cattle. There are also fields of pink & black pigs, roaming, digging and scratching with the gusto that only pigs can muster. Deer abound and indulge us in brief staring matches before breaking and running away, zigging and zagging to disappear in the woods.
A medium sized eagle perched, dark & brooding on the white concrete entrance post to the memorial to the Maquis not far from where we are staying. As we started the short steep climb up to the memorial itself, the bird, never taking its eye off us, rose from its perch & quickly rose in a series of circles ’til we could barely see it high up in the sky.
Black marble plaques list the names of those who died here & close by. Whole families destroyed in one short three hour battle which was followed by the torture and disfiguring of so many others. The small graveyard of white painted crosses neatly arranged show the names of those who could be identified, others simply show ‘nom inconnu’ and a few, most poignant of all, randomly placed among the others have their Jewishness simply identified by a cross of David. There were many crosses sporting bright fresh flowers, others extra tributes from Maquis remembrance societies from elsewhere. The Jewish marked monuments each had a small stone, barely larger than a pebble placed on its top.