Visit an Unknown Region of France Welcome to the Midi-Pyrenes

It wasn't until the third day of our trip that it finally sunk in, we were in France! Not the France you think of when you think of France. Not the Paris by night France or the French Riveria France, but an area of France you do not hear about so often. 

The area is called Midi-Pyrenes, a lush, green part of the country complete with stone walls, rolling pastures dotted with cows, horses and sheep, and full of small villages, charming little bed and breakfast inns and a heritage all its own. If you let your imagination run free you can see a very close-up view of what life in the middle ages might have been like for these villages stand virtually intact as they did then.

On a recent visit we discovered that these fortified villages, which were built in the 13th and 14th centuries, constitute one of the most obvious features of the Midi-Pyrenes region.  There are more than 300 villages that date from 1144 to 1342. There are castles built during the 100 years war with England and an abundance of watchtowers, ramparts, abbeys, churches, Roman baths, narrow streets, bread, goose liver, fountains, cobbled bridges and wine.

The fortified village of Cordes-Sur-Ciel could quite possible be the incarnation of heaven on Earth. The surname Cordes-Sur-Ciel means Cordes "over the sky." It is a beautiful, 13th century village perched on a mountain. Behind its imposing walls are an attractive assembly of gothic houses decorated with elegant windows built of sandstone in shades of ochre, reddish purple and gray. Strange figures decorate the buildings. Surrounding the village is a formidable system of fortifications built during the 100 years war as a defense against the English invaders. Cordes is a prime example of a 'bastide' or fortified village because it has a checkerboard layout around a central square.  There are many similar villages in the Midi-Pyrenes such as Albi, St. Cirq la Popie and Cahors, but none match the majesty and beauty of Cordes.

A most impressive site to behold is the 420-foot castle tower high above the Alzou River, which dominates the village of Rocamadour, a medley of old houses, steep streets, accent churches and tiny chapels built on the side of a cliff. During the 12th and 13th centuries pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compastelle would stop at Rocamadour to climb the 216 steps that lead to the seven sanctuaries surrounding the relics of St. Amodour. The relics are kept in a cathedral, which is unlike any cathedral on Earth. The cathedral is built on the side of the cliff high above the village and it gives new meaning to the term 'where eagles dare.' Aside from its dizzying heights the cathedral of Rocamadour is home to the 'Black Virgin' and no less than seven miracles have been attributed to her.

A visit to France would be incomplete without mentioning the food and the wine. Let's start with an aperitif drink that is exclusive to the Midi-Pyrenes. Pousse-rapiere or rapier 'thrust' is a lively, cheery cocktail combining an armagnac liqueur with a bright lively Champaign.  Legend says that pousse-rapiere was first served at the Chateau de Monluc. That cannot be verified however we do know that the Romans planted the vineyards covering these hills and have been cultivated ever since. The soil is excellent for grape growing and when harvested produces a top-quality wine. The tiny village of Saint-Puy is famous for this wine and the Chateau de Monluc, built in the 10th century, still produces to this day.

Without a doubt the passion of Gascony is armagnac. Sometime in the 14th century Dutch traders arrived in this region. They needed a way to preserve wine because the journey home was very long and most wines spoiled. They came up with the idea to distill some of the wine into a liqueur. This distilled wine is now called armagnac and is considered the oldest brandy in France. It differs from cognac because armagnac is distilled twice. Originally it was thought of as medicine today it is a way of life. In France it is served after a fine meal, as a cordial, as an aperitif or just to be sociable. The key to a fine armagnac is aging in oak barrels long enough to absorb the essence of the oak. Over time the alcohol losses it harshness and gains a more subtle taste. It also undergoes a change in color. A very young armagnac is under five years of age. A good armagnac is between five and 20 and a perfectly aged armagnac is over 40 years old. It is served in a brandy snifter, it is gently swirled releasing the scent of prunes, peaches, hazelnuts or violets which is its essence. Finally, it is sipped slowly. 

Now lets talk about food. For starters there is no avoiding foie gras.  In this region of France it is a must. You will not be able to avoid it so when in France do as the French and eat it. Foie Gras is either goose or duck liver and the French are constantly inventing new ways of producing it and serving it. Foie Gras is the epitome of the French paradox. We were literally served foie gras twice a day, sometimes three.  We ate so much foie gras we all thought we were going to turn into ducks. When we got back home we weighed ourselves and had not gained an ounce. You explain it!

If French onion soup is a traditional meal in brassieres in Paris then cassoulet is the king of meals in Gascony. It is made from small white pinto beans melted into goose fat, knuckles of pork and ham rind sausage, seasoned with herbs, garlic and nutmeg. A good cassoulet takes days to prepare. The best cassoulets are left to slow cook in brick ovens for as long as a week. On a cold wintry night a hot cassoulet will warm you right up. It is served with some cheese, good bread and a fine wine.  The wine might perhaps come from the Domaine De LaGrezette in Cahors. Since Roman times, Cahors has been known to produce great wines. This makes the vineyards in Cahors among the oldest in France. The vineyards at the Domaine De LaGrezette date to the 15th century and the LePigeonnier is recommended.

Although there are many fine restaurants in the Midi-Pyrenes, Thuries, located inside the Hotel Le Grand Ecuyer in Cordes or Auberge du Sombrac in St. Cirq la Popie come to mind.  The finest restaurant in all of Gascony has to be Pont de L'ouysse in the little village of Lacarve. However, to call Lacarve a village is being kind. It is really three buildings and a house.

The Gascony region in France is indeed like none other you will experience, so as your friends brag about Paris, you can say you have your own little secret part of France and mean it.

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