The entirety of my adult life, I’ve held onto an unwavering hope that I would get the chance to return to France and redeem my 16-year old self, who only spoke English during a 2 week visit in the summer of 1998 with my school French club. I swore that if I ever returned, I would build up the courage to speak the native language and not be afraid to say the wrong words the second time around. I would appreciate the country more.
For a while now, I’ve been begging Andrew to take me to his parents’ home in southwest France. During the first six years of our relationship, other vacations were planned, always followed by “we will do France next year.” With an extended visit to the UK as part of the adventure, it was inevitable that 2014 would finally be THE year. Salviac was added to the European itinerary, and nearly sixteen years after my first visit, I got my wish.
One early Saturday morning in January, Mr. & Mrs. D, Andrew and I piled into the vehicle destined for our train awaiting us at the entrance to the Channel Tunnel ((now called the Euro Tunnel)). You can travel to France from England by vehicle ferry, vehicle train, or passenger train. The ferry is obviously on the water, while both trains travel through tunnels built underwater. Since we were driving to the French village of Salviac, we took the vehicle train. The crossing is unbelievably quick, lasting just over a half an hour, which is just enough time to eat a quick nibble and joke about seeing fish from the tunnel ((which, of course, you cannot)). In no time at all, it is all Bienvenue à Français, and off you go ((on the right hand side of the road)) onto the French motorway.
To get to Salviac from the northern French border takes about nine hours. It is located in Le Lot Département, which is famous for foie gras and other duck delicacies. I didn’t care much about that detail – it was the croissants, fresh baguettes, wine, Orangina, eclairs and cheese that I was most interested in.
The four of us spent eight days exploring all the ancient towns and villages in Le Lot, including our home base in Salviac. It is rather difficult to fully comprehend that these towns have existed for so long, some over a thousand years. Many of the oldest towns were built on top of rocky cliffs or within a wall, in attempts to prevent intrusion.
During the daylight hours, we browsed a market in Cazals; strolled the streets of lively Sarlat; felt on top of the world in Domme; climbed the many steps to the top of Rocamadour; had lunch and a stroll along the River Lot and crossed over an 12th Century Roman bridge in Cahors; imagined the bright colors of booming summer markets in the centers of Monpazier and Belvès; marveled at an immense chateau in Montfort; and took many cafe breaks for a chocolat chaud. All the while, feeling as though we had this region of France to ourselves.
Apart from the year-round residents and workers performing off-season repairs to buildings and roadways, the smaller towns and villages felt mostly empty. There are certainly advantages and disadvantages to visiting someplace like southern France in the off-season. One of the advantages is avoiding crowds of tourists in the summer heat. I really believe I saw more than I would ever have, had we been there in the middle of July or August.
The biggest disadvantage, for me, is the weather. I get the winter blues right around this time every year, and it never gets easier to manage. I long to be basking in the heat and sunshine, preferably on a beach somewhere. To see this region of France in late January forced me to look past the closed window shutters, leafless trees and muddy fields and find beauty in the array of historic buildings and vibrant pops of colors at each place. And of course I easily found contentment in things like a perfectly buttery, flaky croissant from the local panier spread with BonnebMaman apricot jam, warm camembert with a Parisienne baguette, and a pistachio eclair from a patisserie. It’s no secret I do not have a difficult time finding beauty in delicious food.
During the eight days, I spoke as much French as I could recall from my teenage days of learning it. I am sure during high school I acted as though it was a drag, but I really enjoyed learning the language. It is remarkable how much of it I retained after not speaking it for so long. The basics, anyway. I still couldn’t put together a full-on conversation. A few times during this visit, I panicked and had to resort to “Parlez Anglais??” when I couldn’t grasp any familiar words in a quickly spoken French sentence. One guy in a supermarket tried asking me in French where something was within the store, but when I gave him my puzzled/deer in headlights look, he kindly asked if I spoke English. When I confirmed, he began telling me ((in French)) about how he played rugby for six years. Which can only mean I look like I am from the UK and I will gladly take it, especially since sometimes I like to think I’m English or European at heart.
One of my favorite parts of being in Salviac was a forced break from internet, television and the constant dialogue of outside world. This meant resorting to old school entertainment. I happily devoured two books ((one of them being the 500-page whopper The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, which I highly recommend)). In the evenings, after each delicious dinner prepared by Mrs. D, the four of us would chat, play cards, watch movies on dvd or vhs ((I said old school, didn’t I?!)). I particularly loved hearing Andrew and his parents recount previous family vacations to France with such joy in their memories. I also very much enjoyed the drawn out discussion regarding the differences of American pancakes, English pancakes and French crepes. For the record, all three are very different and not to be attempted anywhere but in their native countries.
The visit to France ended with a drive through rainy Paris, all the more poignant now that I have returned to the US. I long to see Paris and southern France in summertime, when much like me, it is brought to life. Until then, it’s back to “we will do France next year.”
My sincerest thanks to Mr. and Mrs. D for fulfilling my dream of returning to France. I hope this will be the first of many visits to Salviac with you!
And also a little shout out to my middle & high school French teachers, Madame Hallberg and Monsieur Christensen, for sparking my interest in this stunning country and for teaching me the language.
Many of these picturesque places visited will get their own upcoming posts. There are so many more extraordinary photos to share with you, so stay tuned!