Friday, March 29, 2013

End of the Week in Auvillar: More Chateaus and a Cat

 On our last full day staying in Auvillar we spent the morning in town. We took a short walk through the center again, where we met another friendly cat and got a good view down to the Garonne River, since the sun was out. Although we viewed the medieval church in Auvillar several times a day, I never tired of the amazing view of the church as seen from just outside our gite.

   In the afternoon we planned to drive to the larger towns of Fleurance and Lectoure, which we had driven through last year and thought were worth a further visit. During our drive we also stopped or passed by several more chateaus.
Chateau de Gramont

Chateau de Plieux

Chateau de Flamarens

  Fleurance is a bustling old bastide town with a beautiful arcaded square surrounding an arcaded medieval building that used to house the old market hall and is now the town hall.

   Lectoure is a somewhat larger town high on a hill, with a narrow main street that runs straight through the center. The imposing, somewhat austere church at the entrance to the center was quite impressive; as we had approached Lectoure from a distance we thought that it was another donjon like the one in Montcuq.

A Few More Villages and One More Cat

      After a rainy Thursday morning which we spent at our gite, we left Auvillar after lunch to head northeast in the direction of Cahors to visit a couple of hilltop villages. Our first stop was Lauzerte, a village founded over 1,000 years ago which is another of the Plus Beaux Villages. It has a beautiful arcaded square, lots of well-preserved interesting old buildings, and a great view of the surrounding countryside.

     After leaving Lauzerte we drove the short distance to Montcuq, another ancient village which is more of a commercial town than Lauzerte. There are several attractive church towers in Montcuq, but the dominating feature is the massive 12th century donjon that towers above the surrounding countryside.

     On our way back from Montcuq we passed a number of chateaus, but in most cases the views were obstructed by trees or fences. However, one chateau high up a hillside was visible from the road, and we managed to get some good photos.

      Before returning to Auvillar we stopped at the tiny village of Montjoi, which had been recommended to us by the woman at the Auvillar tourist bureau the other day. We probably would never have gone there otherwise, and we were definitely glad we stopped. We entered the village through an old stone gate, and saw that the buildings stretched out along the road that ran through the center. The village was perched high above the valley and there were great views from several spots, although the hazy conditions made it difficult to get any good photos of the countryside below. There also was a friendly cat in a flower pot.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Vianne and Nérac

    On Wednesday morning we decided to take one of the marked walks out from the village. It was a 3.5 mile walk down towards the Garonne River, over the small “Roman” bridge (old, but apparently not quite that old), up into the hills and past farms, and back into Auvillar on the opposite side from which we left. Just enough to get an appetite for lunch.

    After lunch we drove to a couple of towns we had visited last year and planned to return to – Vianne and Nérac. Vianne is a small bastide town with an arched gate at each of the 4 entrances to the village. We had returned principally to stop at the Faience de Remparts shop, a small store selling beautiful pottery that is made and hand painted in the back of the shop. We had bought a couple of small dishes last year, and this time we bought several more. As a bonus, the owner gave us a bottle of wine from the nearby Buzet AOC, an appellation that I hadn't planned on having on this trip (Buzet is a fairly small appellation that makes wines from the same principal red and white grapes as Bordeaux).  On our walk through the village we also made friends with a black cat who showed us to the river outside one of the town gates.

       After Vianne we drove to nearby Nérac on the Baise River, one of the larger towns in the area with a population of around 7,000. We had spent some time there last year, walking through the old part of town and through the park that runs along the river out from the center of town. That walk was so beautiful that we decided to take it again. Although Nérac is a good-sized town, there are farms right outside the center along the river. Unlike many US towns, Nérac obviously doesn't have a prohibition on raising livestock in the center of town, as we passed several fields with sheep and chickens. We also passed a black cat that was quite afraid of us, but who was just too curious to disappear altogether.

Bridges Over Baise River

Cathedral in Nérac

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

More Villages in the Auvillar Area

   On Monday morning we headed towards Moissac, another one of the stops on the Chemin de Saint Jacques de Compostelle. On the way we made a brief stop in Castelsarrasin, which has a large church at the entrance to the town. Unfortunately, a big renovation project was taking place all around the church, which made it difficult to get a good unobstructed view. The town itself was also a bit down on its heels, so after a short stroll we left and drove to Moissac.

Hotel de Ville and Cathedral in Castelsarrasin

    Moissac, which is on a canal and also on the Tarn River, is a lively town, although Monday was closing day for most shops. But the abbaye that the town is known for was open to visitors, and we spent some time there. The Abbaye Saint Pierre is almost 1,000 years old, and includes a massive cathedral and an incredibly well preserved cloister. The cloister has 76 columns surrounding a courtyard, with different carved figures on each column.

   On the way back from Moissac we made a short detour to the tiny village of Le Pin, where there is a magnificent chateau, Chateau Saint Roch. The chateau isn't open to the public, and is surrounded by hedges and trees, but since there were no leaves on the trees yet, we could at least get a decent view of the chateau.

The next day was market day in the nearby town of Valence d'Agen. Although Valence is only a modest-sized town, the market was enormous, spilling out from the center and sprawling all over the town. There were vendors of every kind of food product imaginable, as well as the usual cloth, clothing and housewares stalls. We bought goat cheese from a couple of local producers, a whole duck from a farm for roasting, foie gras, vegetables, and the local AOC prunes – Pruneaux d'Agen – to have with the duck. We also picked up some pastries from a patisserie in town, and a bottle of Cotes de Brulhois wine. There is not a great deal of wine produced in the immediate area, and no AOC's; Cotes de Brulhois is a small VDQS appellation with just a few producers. The principal grapes of the Brulhois wines are Tannat, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet France and Merlot; no white wine is made in the appellation. After leaving Valence we went back to Auvillar, where we had lunch, including a platter of cheeses that we had just picked up, on our patio.

In the afternoon we explored a few nearby villages, including Goudourville, which has a magnificent chateau above the town, and Dunes, which has some beautiful arcaded buildings in the center.
Chateau de Goudourville

Place des Martyrs in Dunes

Monday, March 25, 2013

Auvillar and Agen

On Sunday morning we went to the small weekly outdoor market in Auvillar, which takes place in the old grain hall.  There were several vendors of local products, as well as a butcher truck, a cheesemonger and several vegetable stands.  One woman had brought ducks and poultry from her farm, and we picked up a whole pintade (guinea hen), which we roasted for dinner that night.  There was also a woman selling croustades, a type of apple tart which we first had last year in the Gers, and we bought several slices.  We also picked up a number of raw milk goat cheeses from a nearby farm.

The weather had turned warmer and sunnier, and we were able to sit outside on our patio for lunch, which was the first time we were able to have an outdoor meal at one of our gites on this trip.  To celebrate the warm weather we had our first bottle of 2012 rose, a Cote de Provence that we had picked up in Saint Jean Pied de Port.

That afternoon we took a drive to Agen, a good-sized city on the Tarn River.  The fact that it was Sunday and everything was closed made it easy to navigate the city and park in the center.  There was a magnificent church in the center of town, another across the river, and a number of beautiful old half-timbered and stone buildings.

In the late afternoon we visited the faience museum in Auvillar and then took a walk to the bottom of the town towards the Garonne River.  Auvillar was a center of hand-made faience pottery from the 1700's until mass produced porcelain from cities like Limoges killed off the industry; the last faience producer in Auvillar closed up shop in 1905.
Heading downhill in Auvillar towards the Garonne

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Appellation Spring Continued; On to the Tarn et Garonne

 The two principal wine appellations in the area we stayed the first full week of our trip are Irouleguy and Jurancon. As I mentioned before, Irouleguy is one of the smallest AOC's in France, and there are only 9 producers. By the end of our week here we had bought wine from 7 of the 9 producers, either by visiting the producer or buying the wines at shops. The majority of Irouleguy wines are red, but most, if not all producers make some white and rose.

    Jurancon, on the other hand, while also a fairly small appellation, has around 60 producers, and only white wine is made. On our last full day in the Pays-Basque, we took a drive to the Jurancon area, stopping at a couple of small villages on the way, including the Bastide town of Navarrenx.

We visited 2 Jurancon producers in the afternoon – Domaine Bordnave in Monein, and Chemin Larredya in Chapelle de Rousse. Like all of the Jurancon producers, both are small operations making dry and sweet Jurncon wines from Gros Manseng, Petit Manseng, and sometimes Petit Corbu grapes grown on small parcels on the property. We first stopped at Domaine Bordnave, and bought several bottles of 3 different sweet Jurancons.

  We then drove to Chemin Larredya to meet Jean-Marc Grussaute, the proprietor, who I had contacted at the recommendation of the New England representative of their US importer, Wine Traditions. Monsieur Grussaute drove up in his tractor when we arrived, and said that his mother would give us a tour and tasting as he was in the middle of doing work in the vineyard. His mother, together with their dog, led us to the tasting room, where she poured their 2 dry and 2 sweet Jurancons, plus a bonus of a 2006 late harvest Jurancon that was made in miniscule quantities and was no longer available for sale. She then gave us a tour of the cellars and bottling area, after which we returned to the tasting room where she poured us a little more of the late harvest wine. We bought the 2 sweet wines that were available, and she also gave us a bottle of one of the dry Jurancons that was no longer available for sale.

Tasting room and vineyard of Chemin Larredya

The next day we left our gite in Saint Jean Pied de Port and drove towards Auvillar in the Tarn ey Garonne department, where we will be spending the next week. Auvillar is another of the Plus Beaux Villages, and when we arrived, it was clear that it merited that designation.
Church in Auvillar from outside our gite

Market hall and arcades