“Vigeois? Where is it?
“I am from Bordeaux, and I have never heard of it!”
“Oh… We are just going to attend a friend’s wedding”
“That’s good. There’s nothing to see in such a small place!”
That was the encouraging conversation I had with the visa officer when I went to get a Schengen visa, in preparation for my upcoming France trip. It was going to be for three days, and the five of us were staying somewhere in rural France. We just didn’t know how rural yet. Well, the first clue was in the visa officer’s cluelessness.
On 22nd April, a crisp Friday morning, we met at Dublin airport for our flight to Toulouse. The flight was three and a half hours long and there was a long-ish drive ahead of us, my first such in Europe, and I was looking forward to it. This was one trip, probably the first, where I hadn’t read up on any of the places we were going to. I had read the spare information that the groom-to-be had emailed to us and left it at that. For some reason, I thought that there wouldn’t be time for much else. I was wrong.
We set off from Toulouse airport without much delay. I sat looking out of the window listening to the GPS lady giving curt instructions to take exits and roundabouts. A little later we stopped at a petrol station with a Carrefour Express to grab a bite. There was a mini food court on the side of the station with a couple of stone benches and tables outside. I munched on some crisps and felt the warm breeze on my face. The skies were gloomy but the weather was mild, and I felt great shedding my Dublin layers and walking about with just a light jacket.
Refreshed, we continued on our journey. Our destination was Cahors, a small medieval town set in the lush Lot valley, known for its history and wine. We reached the place in about an hour and a half and parked the car by the side of the river Lot that runs through the medieval quarter of the town. The 14th century Pont Valentre rose majestically in front of us, surrounded by the river’s green, leafy banks. Interestingly, the Valentre Bridge is not only a UNESCO World Heritage site but also one of the famed Devil’s Bridges scattered across Europe. Most Devil’s Bridge stories are Faust-like in its theme, and Valentre was no less. The story goes that the builder of Valentre entered into a deal with the devil to finish building the bridge faster. In exchange for his soul, Satan would finish constructing the bridge. But the builder tried to be smart and outwit Satan, which the latter found out. In revenge, Satan removed a stone every night from the bridge, and it technically remained unfinished. Today, there is a small Satan sculpture in the corner of one of the towers in honour of the fable. It was installed there by Paul Gout, the architect who restored the bridge in the 19th century.
The bridge is impressive, and although now closed to vehicles it used to be a fort doubling up as a thoroughfare and a fort. It has six arches and three towers, one of which I climbed and was rewarded with a great view of the little park that surrounded the river.
After marvelling at the sights on, and from, the bridge for some time we went to a supermarket to shop for food for the next couple of days. Since we were staying in a house rented through AirBnB we had to rely on our own stock. Carrying two shopping bags bursting with bread, cheese, wine, and meat, we walked down the town’s nearly-deserted lanes in search of a restaurant. Most of them weren’t ready for dinner even though it was nearly 7.15 pm. Surprising. I thought that happened only in India.
We finally settled down in a restaurant run by an old couple who appeared to be the only staff around. The seating area was spread out in a big room attached to the kitchen, giving me the feeling that we were sitting in their living room. The wife was in the kitchen and made fleeting appearances while the husband went around taking orders and setting tables. Our exchanges with him mostly involved flailing our hands around interrupted by monosyllabic French – the little that we knew. There was only a set menu available comprising a soup, a starter, a main course, plate of cheese, a dessert, and wine. Bread was on the house. By the time I finished the soup, drank some of the wine, and ate some of the delicious home-made bread I was almost full. My vegetarian starter was a huge plate of salad and boiled eggs. Feeling like a python that had swallowed a whole cow I conveyed to the perpetually amused husband that I could not have the omelette that was to follow. Everyone else had their main course, which was a lot of meat as far as I could see. We tried saying no to dessert since everyone was stuffed by now. But the wife came out, a big smile lighting up her kind eyes, with a large tray laden with sugar-filled delights. She had made all of them herself, she said, and we should pick at least one of each. Protesting weakly and temptation taking over slowly, we chose two or three. Needless to say, it was amazing just like the rest of the food, and their hospitality. But the best part of the meal was yet to come. The bill. It came up to just 85 euros for the sumptuous, belly-breaking feast that we just had. We couldn’t believe it. That’s what we pay for two people in a decent restaurant in Dublin.
We walked away promising to visit again. Back in our car, we continued on our way. It was now dark and beginning to rain. We drove through endless stretches of highway, a couple of desolate villages with pretty houses and no lights, and encountered an owl, a deer, and a rabbit along the way. The headlights of our car sliced through the inky blackness of the night and I wondered how people lived in such places and what they did in the evenings.
After about two hours we finally arrived at Vigeois. It was cold by now and the rain hadn’t let up. We quickly scrambled out of the car and entered our AirBnB house situated next to a small river. Tastefully furnished and decorated with a countryside theme, the house had three bedrooms, a couple of decks from where we could see the river, a game room, a fireplace, and a boat outside in the garden. The hosts had left us a bottle of wine in the kitchen along with a helpful note that contained instructions on things we could use in the house.
I loved the place with its creaky wooden floors and vintage, clearly handpicked, knick-knacks. After we explored the house, we relaxed with a bottle of wine before turning in for the night. We had a long day ahead of us tomorrow.