At the end of last week, my friend Tim the photographer and I went off on the road to ‘do a piece’ (as they say in the trade) for France Magazine on Najac in the Aveyron. It’s one of 10 villages in the department classified as plus beaux villages de France. The Aveyron itself is still referred to as one of France’s ‘best kept secrets’ and should be designated as l’un des plus beaux départements de France.
It’s only roughly two hours due south of here by deserted roads. Two hours nearer the Midi, two hours nearer the true south. It’s a different country down there. The scenery is not dissimilar, but in other respects it’s not at all like good old insular and inward-looking France Profonde where we live.
It’s only two hours and yet I hadn’t set foot in the Aveyron for about 12 years. We were living in our old stone farmhouse and I was in the middle of painting a spare room on the first floor a fetching shade of orange, so my wife could have a place to ply her trade as an aromatherapist for the first time since our move from the U.K.
For my 40-something birthday, Debs presented me with a card on which she’d drawn a map to a house in the middle of nowhere. It was run by an English couple by the name of Wolf. Our daughter, who was about three or four at the time, referred to Mrs. Wolf – who cooked us a fine vegetarian meal on our first evening, which was memorable for being something other than an omelette – as Mrs. She-Wolf. Clearly, we’d been reading her far too many bedtime stories. We used their house as a base to explore the gorges of the river Aveyron and such wonderful places as Najac, St. Antonin de Noble Val and the stunning Cordes-sur-Ciel. It was a brief but re-vitalising break and yet we’ve contrived never to return. I guess France is such a big country and there are so many glories to behold.
Tim and I arrived soon after midday, so naturally enough the place was shut up and deserted. We found a pizzeria that was open and I realised with a start of recognition that I’d eaten there before. Just as the Madeleine triggered Proust’s remembrance of things past, so that pizzeria brought everything back for me. Strange, how memory works. The village had seemed reasonably familiar when we arrived. I knew that I’d been there before. But sitting down to eat in the pizzeria, suddenly weather, conversations, sights and sounds came pouring back in, as if a valve had been opened. We’d had an excellent pizza then and I had a damn fine pizza on Thursday. Cooked in a wood-burning oven, it was as cheap as chips and featured enough mozzarella to re-sole a workman’s boot.
After lunch, I’d arranged to meet someone outside the fortress that dominates every picture-postcard view of the village, which spreads along the spine of a promontory high above an incised meander of the Aveyron. Our guide was late and I started to fret immediately. No doubt I had got my wires crossed and noted down the rendezvous for the wrong day. We phoned our contact in the Tourist Office to ask for help. 12 years or so ago, we didn’t have a single mobile telephone in our family. Now all three of us have one. Sometimes they can be very useful.
The guide arrived and – this is where things started to become exceptional – she admitted that she had forgotten our date. She apologised profusely. But… but… that doesn’t happen in France. Well, it did and she gave us a fascinating tour of the ruined but impregnable fortress with its two-and-a-half-metre-thick walls and its elaborate network of defence mechanisms. Najac was right at the point where the King of France’s territories abutted those of the Duke of Aquitaine on one side and the Count of Toulouse on the other. Medieval France was certainly not designed for early retirement and coach trips.
We met our contact from the local Tourist Office just outside the main gates after the tour. She was about half the age I had imagined from my telephone conversations with her: a complexion that suggested 25 and a demeanour, a dedication to duty and a body of knowledge that added up to 50. A quite delightful character, she guided us all around the nooks and crannies of the village, introducing us to a host of warm and welcoming individuals in whom she thought I’d be interested. In the boulangerie, for example, a woman who reminded me slightly of the American actress Lee Remick (circa The Omen, perhaps) told us all about the local tradition of baking giant fouaces (a kind of brioche) on some Saint’s Day, before heaping offerings from the shop upon us to take home to our families for Easter.
By the end of the afternoon, both Tim and I were exhausted from the effort (even now, after 16 years) of concentrating hard on a foreign language. We stayed at a local hotel, courtesy this time of the Regional Tourist Board, where everyone was equally friendly and equally welcoming. Dinner was fine, but surely it’s time that French hostelries grew out of this tiresome obsession with nouvelle cuisine. I had some fillets of river trout, which were lovely, but they came with one potato, one spoonful of frustratingly good ratatouille and a langoustine climbing out of a miniature glass Le Parfait jar. On closer inspection, I discovered that it had just emerged from a bed of rice.
That evening we watched the first of three documentary films that Paul-Henri Meurnier has made about Najac, its characters and its deliciously slow pace of life. Ici Najac: à vous la terre featured a slothful stationmaster – who would be sent packing further down the line to Cordes by his SNCF overlords, un-amused to witness such lack of industry – and a fire-breathing socialist woman of 104, who did that thing with her toothless mouth that Les Dawson used to do.
The following morning, I did my final interview of the trip with a delightful man by the name of Najac – who makes hand-carved knives, including the best-selling Le Najac. I would like to own a Najac by Najac from Najac, but didn’t want one enough to pay €100 or so for it. Hand-crafted to last, though, and not (as he proclaims on his poster) ‘made in Asia by children’.I got back home by early afternoon, elated and rejuvenated by my trip. The village is beautiful, but so are countless others here. It was more the people and the welcome we were given. Is there more Latin blood in the national corps down there, that much nearer the Midi? We were treated like VIPs, which is great for the ego of course. More importantly, though, I found an entire convivial community where everyone appeared content with their lot. It was enough to restore my faith in humanity. It was, too, a timely reminder to get out more and do more road trips and meet more nice people. I don’t want to turn into an irascible misanthrope. Someone with no teeth, perhaps, who does that thing with his mouth that Les Dawson used to.