Navyo drives through rural France. Nothing happens like in a French movie. It’s all about the mood…
I’ve arrived from the grandeur of Rome to it’s complete opposite – a farm here in rural France, in the Gers of Gascogne. I’m in need of an introduction to the area and Irene, a friendly Dutchwoman who picked me up from Toulouse airport, has offered to show me around.
Fortunately, it’s a beautiful day. The perfect day for a road trip. Check email, get ready, wallet, cash, shades. Pippi alarm-barks to let me know someone’s coming down the drive. Good dog. Irene pulls up in her old Mercedes 280 coupé. Nice. I hop in and we’re off.
I can tell this car is heavy and Irene drives it like we’re on 18 wheels. I feel very safe with her at the wheel and if we get in a crash, the other party will be much worse off. These cars were built to last and it shows. With the windows down we cruise along the backroads of France and I’m back in a movie. But this one’s not Italian, it’s one of those French movies that’s all about the mood. There’s a long tracking shot of the car driving into an old town called Montréal. They park in the town square. Pigeons fly from the church tower as nothing happens. The camera pans towards a side street. Irene finds the boulangerie and they leave with fresh croissants. Cut to a café. Under the shade of the arches, they sit at a table and drink coffee, short, black and sweet. Voices raise and laughter ensues, the only thing heard in the hushed quiet of the town square, as more birds fly while nothing happens.
Like I said, it’s a French movie. Finally, we decide to move on in search of another town, maybe with people this time. We arrive in a small, picturesque village that is built in the round. I say village, but it’s more of a hamlet. Or is that hamlette? I’m not quite sure, but it’s very pretty. Fourcès has a town square, except it’s not square, it’s round, so that makes it a town round? A round hamlette? Whatever. There are trees in the round square and around the round is a covered walkway with more arches, shops, houses, and a restaurant or two. It’s quiet. Not much is happening, which is a lot more than nothing. There are people sitting having lunch at the restaurant as we walk by. Someone walks out of the post office. I have the urge to yell, “Cut!”
This is so typically French, with a short stone bridge spanning a river, a bell tower, and a château which visually commands the town. In all of it’s quaintness, I get the feeling that there is absolutely no privacy in this place. Everyone knows everyone else, and you are being watched and your movements noted. Why bother with surveillance cameras?
Getting back in the car, we head out in search of more action. Realizing that this is most likely a dream, I surrender to the flow of a drive through rural France as the coffee winds down. We arrive at more of nothing, and that’s OK. This time it’s a ruined church in some fields. I feel like I’m now scouting a location. It’s beautiful and, well, ruined. I climb up a cramped and dark spiral staircase to the parapets. There’s some scaffolding where the ruin is being repaired, and I get to look down into the old church. It could be the set of a wedding, or a gritty WWII drama where an allied soldier has a tryst with a local girl, or a dark, damp costumed vampire diary.
I consider jumping, but as there are no cameras rolling, I decide that would be a waste of my talent. Making my way down the narrow staircase, I stop and shoot through a hole in the wall. I would say window, but that presumes glass is involved. There was no glass in these times, so hole it is. It’s a very photogenic location and I keep it in mind for future cinematography.
Irene is being a great tour guide and lets me know the inside scoop on what’s what as we make our way around the Gers, the name for this region. We stop at a washing pool, of which there are many in the area. These are communal covered pools where women would come with laundry and wash clothes together. This was the laundromat! She’s shown me one already, and here we have another. A third is offered, but there’s only so many communal washing pools a man can take.
So she takes me to a more manly place. A fortress. Larressingle has a theme park with catapults and other machines of war, but it’s closed so we head towards the moat. This is not a laundromat. Or a laundromoat, for that matter. We head across the bridge and under the stone arch into the serenity of a very protected place. It’s too small to be a village or hamlet, but there’s a tourist office, a bar, a restaurant and some homes. Who on earth would want to live here? All judgements aside, it’s a great slice of history. Irene tells me you can spot the medieval toilets because there’s a long stain beneath the window hole down to the ground. Say no more.
We stop for crèpes. My first time in France. I can’t believe it. They’re good, and we enjoy the sun inside the protection of 20 feet thick stone walls. Some more tourists start to arrive, and we decide to go to our next port of call, wherever that is. Irene’s keeping it a secret, and even if she did tell me, it would only register as another placename en français. I’m happy to be taken around this wonderful scenery in our very own French movie.
This time it’s a bridge. A heritage site of a Roman bridge. It’s small and underwhelming and we both expected more from the Romans. Really, after being in Rome with all it’s hugeness, and now this? What were they thinking? Oh, well, it’s in a tiny little part of France hidden away, no-one will notice?
We stop in Mouchan to ask for directions. As nothing is happening here either, I take some photos to capture this je ne sais quoi for posterity. I can understand now how the French like to linger on their shots. Everything is so beautiful, why disturb it with action?
Directions found, we make our way onward to a sanctuary at Gondrin. Unlike the ruins from earlier, this is very much alive and very different. In the grounds of this sanctuary is a church, but there are no walls, no roof, no steeple. The altar is there, with proud Mary bearing her son, but it looks onto a row of pews inside a grove of trees. This is worship in nature and about as close to pagan as Christianity can get. It’s beautiful and I ponder on what it would be if all the churches of the world were built in natural shaded groves, birds singing, sunlight playing on leaves, shafting through trees.
There is an actual church here, and we take a look inside. In stark contrast, this has to be the most kitschy Kirche I’ve ever seen. It’s almost day-glo, with excessive blue and gold and electric candles. No thanks. Maybe it’s like that to make people go outside.
We head through town and stop for a moment. Another French idyll of arches and shutters and autumn leaves presents itself for photography.
Courrensan is supposed to have a large château that we can visit. I’ve never seen a château inside, and Irene hopes this will be the day. The sun is starting it’s downward trend and I’m starting to get tired. The coffee has worn off and I’m in need of a nap. The château is closed. Merde. We wonder at who actually lives there and start to walk back to the car. Here’s some locals. Now this is an interesting lot. There’s the grand-mère, the matriarch, the mother, husband, son and daughter. They’ve just been shopping and they all look the same. I’m not kidding. The genetic resemblance is uncanny. I don’t want to make any inference of inbreeding here, as that would be unkind. But I’m just standing back staring as Irene goes up to them and asks in perfect French, “Who lives in the château?”
Apparently, it used to be some rich, shady Russian who ended up selling it to the mayor of the town, who is hardly ever there, and no, there’s no public tour. I wonder if the mayor resembles the family I’m looking at, but stop and resume kindness.
Our final destination is Bascous, where there is a wonderful church with a special belltower of three exposed bells. Sounds like another location for my shot list. Maybe a remake of a Sergio Leone film, French style. It’s the magic hour and the light is perfect. We arrive and there it is, as advertised. I’m definitely in need of either a nap or more coffee, but I think I can take in one more place of French beauty with absolutely nothing happening. A dog is barking. I wish I had a beret and a cigarette, but then I’d really need that coffee. We walk around ‘town’ and admire the light. The dog is still barking.
I’m in such appreciation for Irene for showing me around, providing the locations for my French movie. It’s all about the mood.
Navyo grew up to 6 foot 5 in England, studied music in London before traveling to Pune to meet Osho in 1979. He has been the co-ordinator of the music department in Pune Two for several years and has participated in a number of CDs of Music from the World of Osho. After a decade or so in California, he now travels the world housesitting in wonderful locations, working as a graphic designer by day and writer by night. facebook.com/navyoericsen – conscioushousesitting.com