Lessons in Living a French Life

Bringing a touch of French culture to everyday life

Your Weekly Voilà: Searching for Home in Southwestern France 😊💗🇫🇷
I met Rick Steves in Italy. We happened to be sitting next to each other on a seawall in Vernazzo enjoying a glass of wine with several dozen other people. What are the odds? (Let me just add that it was not the height of season. You do not want to go to any of the villages that make up Cinque Terra in the summer. You can hardly see the seawall through the crowds let alone sit on it.) With my mother's constant urging, I built up the nerve to speak to him. I leaned in and asked in a sultry whisper, "So. . . what's your favorite town in France that you wouldn't want your readers to know about?" He looked down at his glass, smiled, and replied in an equally quiet but not so sultry of a voice, "I have no idea what you mean." Best kept secrets. I was hoping it was glass #2 of wine and he might have just forgotten himself and let something wonderful slip.

Sarlat, Beaune, Amboise, anywhere in Provence . . . they have all been discovered and promoted by more than Rick Steves' travel books. It is hard to escape the tourists and find a slower, more authentic experience in France. More than 89 million people a year visit the country. But they do have their favorite spots starting with Paris and they tend to stay focused on a predicable destination plan. What I want to discover is where is 
France's next best kept secret?
They say that Saint Cirq Lapopie is a heart-stopping village. Well, you might agree after you hike up from the parking area to the top at what feels like a 45 degree angle. But it is so worth it. The views down to the Lot River are spectacular. I love this village. It is a tourist destination to be sure. But catch it early or late in the day after the buses have gone, or better yet, any time off season. You will thoroughly enjoy walking its steep winding streets that are free from cars, the picturesque outdoor cafés, and the wonderful local pottery ateliers.
I have been very fortunate to have travelled much of France over the last 4 decades. I have my favorite spots for different foods, brocantes, sights, history, outdoor activities. However, when it came time to pick a region to call home, I found myself with a challenging decision. Well - challenging at first. Once I considered the budget, options fell away quickly. And the thought of living in a place overrun by tourists in the summer was also something I wanted to avoid. Yet, I didn't want to be too isolated that no guests would think to come. Ariege is beautiful in the foothills of the Pyrennes but it can feel remote and it rains - a lot. (I left the side of a volcano in Hawaii and I have PTSD when I think about too much rain.) The Ardennes is tucked up near Belgium and is not far from the Champagne capital of the world. But it sits right in the heart of the deadliest battles of World War I. There are still some areas marked as "Red Zones" that are considered uninhabitable given the number of explosives that "sleep" in the region. This would be a great location given price and proximity to Paris but I would have to shake the war vibe. It hasn't happened yet.

Burgundy is a top pick region for me. The culture, the landscape, the easy train access to Paris. But the allure is with a few select villages and being near the Burgundy canal or the two wine routes - south of Beaune or near Chablis. Properties in these prime spots are expensive. Bien sûr. If you consider more remote areas with affordable housing prices, you often land in a "dead" town with few amenities and little to make you feel like you are living in France. It doesn't help that I have the fabulous village of Vézelay in northwestern Burgundy as my benchmark. It's hard for anything to stack up against it and my search for home in the region for the past three years has not provided the right spot to lay my head. Time to reevaluate my options.
I am definitely a "rolling hills" kind of girl. I enjoy the rugged limestone cliffs to the north in the department of Lot but I love the vistas that open up over valleys as you drive toward Tarn and Garonne. 
I'm looking for a region that still has an authentic French vibe. I prefer not to be a part of an expat community because I want to immerse myself into French culture. So in terms of property price and a large English-speaking community, the Dordogne is out. You are hard pressed to find individuals other than the vendors who speak French on Sarlat's market day. The Loire Valley has way too many tourists for me and while I love a good château, they don't hold my attention year round. Plus, I miss rolling hills. Provence? Please. Note volume of tourists and challenging budget again. That being said . . . had my father bought property in Provence 50 years ago, we wouldn't be having this conversation.

Where is there a place in France that many folks have not heard of but contains some of the country's most beautiful landscapes, rich history, love of food and wine, and friendly people? I'm about 10 years too late to say that it is "forgotten" France. But if Rick Steves was on glass #3 five years ago, he would have whispered back to me, "Look to the region of Quercy."

It's not a hidden gem. It's right there in plain sight. Wedged east of the Dordogne but before you get to the Auvergne. Far to the north of Toulouse and circling the city of Cahors. Tucked into the upland limestone plateaus or causse in the north and 
following along the Lot River. Here you find the ancient region of Quercy. Technically, it includes the department of Lot, and the northern part of Lot et Garonne, and Tarn et Garonne. Yes, it has been discovered but it still holds its French sensibilities. You'll find more French people who vacation here compared to international travelers. I was in a lovely little village with a sweet market and boulangerie called Cajarc. No one spoke English - or at least they allowed me to speak French and did not attempt to switch the conversation. Real folks going about their daily tasks and you feel welcomed into the fold. A very different feeling compared to Provence today. 

You'll find medieval villages perched atop rocky outcrops. There are places that afford a wilderness experience and outdoor activities. It has limestone cliffs that fall away to the river but also gentle rolling hills as you travel south. 40,000 years of human habitation means that there is definitely something worthwhile here. (By the by, the prehistoric sites are not to be missed. A future Weekly Voilà.) And cut through Le Quercy is the Camino that has led pilgrims and travelers for more than a millennium to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. This route is a siren for me. (Hopefully just a romantic lure and not a call for my destruction ;)
J'adore the simplicity and beauty of an 18th-century Quercy stone cottage. The white limestone walls reflect the light and just drink in the sunsets. The combination with its gently sloping red tiled roofs are typical in this region. Almost always you find a dovecote attached. Here it is on the far left of the cottage. Small barns, outbuildings used for animals or tools, bread ovens, and stone walls are all part of a Quercy country setting. It is this type of property I hope to find.
Quercy is not the least expensive region in France in terms of property prices. You have to get more remote and head toward the center of the country. But there you have harsher climate issues. Longer winters. Drier and hotter summers. Access to electricity and reliable water sources are a concern. I did a sustainable lifestyle already and I want a flushable toilet and water that doesn't just come to me from the sky.

There are key tourist spots in the Quercy. Rocamadour in Lot attracts almost a million visitors each year, 98% of them coming in July and August. Avoid it like the plague in summer. January to April, you'll have the place to yourself. Explore the less known towns and their markets, le marché de Luzech or de Catus. You'll discover regional products - lots of things made from duck - and fabulous local produce. Plus, this is where you'll find the original Malbec wine. There are plenty of small family vineyards in the region where you can come to taste the fruits of their labor free of charge. I guarantee, you'll want a bottle or two to take with you.
Southwestern France has a high concentration of "the most beautiful villages." You can't help but stumble upon an old château, medieval streets that meander, markets bustling with local products. You travel through beautiful countryside and then in the distance you see a church or an ancient ruin sitting on top of a rocky hill. Go explore. You will be charmed with all the region has to offer.
The word Quercy comes from the Gallic people known as the Cadurques and means "what belongs to the Cadurques." Pretty straightforward. And we can see why they were protective of their lands. This is France profonde - limestone cliffs, rolling hills, green valleys, old oak groves, fields of sunflowers, distinctive stone cottages with barns and dovecotes, orchards of plums and walnuts, truffles and foie gras, quiet medieval villages filled with charm, and prehistoric art and geological wonders. Rick Steves promotes the region just to the east of the Dordogne around Rocamadour but he's keeping much of the Quercy to himself.

My recommendation, mon amie, is to fly into Toulouse, enjoy the city, and then travel by car north. Explore. Forget an agenda. (Perhaps, plan for a glass of wine with Tim and I.) I think you'll discover a part of France that you have been missing. It's not a forgotten place. But it is a region well preserved and worthy to call home if only for a week's visit.

À bientôt,

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