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Smallville: A Tortuous Journey

Peter B Farrell need not have bothered to take a camera on his holiday travels. His vivid words are more than capable of fixing pictures in the mind. Accompany Peter, a most agreeable and good-humoured travelling companion, on another leg of his journey through La Belle France.

I turned over a page in the guidebook.

“Albi. Looks good, famous 13th Century cathedral, birthplace of Toulouse-Lautrec, an Irish pub Le Connemara and Patisserie J.P. Galy whose fine pastries sell like – wait for it – hot cakes.”

My contribution to the journey through France was minimal, that of seeking out the cultural itinerary for the day from the Michelin guidebook. My brother Kev and his wife Diana were burdened with the driving and navigation, which they performed with good humour. My wife Margaret’s main preoccupation – if she could avoid travel sickness – was paying the tolls on the Autoroutes, being handily placed in the front left-side position.

Ahead lay the town of Albi, the home of the Toulouse–Lautrec museum and of particular interest to my wife, a long time admirer of Henri and his work.

“Deux eau minérale et deux biere s’il vous plé” Later after parking the car we relaxed in the City centre. I had rehearsed the order for the waiter for the past two hours on the journey down from Cahors and was relieved when he brought out four glasses.

The massive proportions of the cathedral - completed in a century - looked almost modern, being built strikingly of red brick. It had weathered well, perhaps helped by the atmospheric conditions in this unspoiled landscape. It defied any hope of a photograph unless I retreated about a quarter of a mile across the river, so I added another postcard to our collection.

The Toulouse-Lautrec museum would be open in an hour and meanwhile we lunched in a crowded sandwich bar opposite.

The collection of the artist’s works was impressive and with the help of my brother – an artist by profession – we were able to appreciate the paintings on display and learn much about Lautrec’s short life. The obligatory postcards and books were for sale in a well-stocked gift shop and we added to our burgeoning collection.

A telephone call indicated that work was progressing well on the
house in Gignac our destination for the rest of the holiday. With a bit of luck the shower and toilet would be in operation within 24 hours and we therefore needed to make one more overnight stop. Kev calculated the town of Castres would be our destination for the day, less that 50 km away.

“Looks good, about seven hotels listed and has the largest gothic cathedral in France.” I confirmed from the guidebook a list of adequate accommodation and we set off on the leisurely drive to the old town.

“Are you sure you read it right?” Diana voiced her concern. Much later while tramping the streets of Castres we had found only one hotel, which was closed, and the town square was in the process of being dug up. We had a refreshing drink at a café in the town centre but the noise of pneumatic drills drowned out any attempt at normal conversation.

As we made our way back to the car a closer inspection of the guidebook indicated I had mistakenly been looking at the pages for Chartres, many miles away to the north.

“Adds to the fun.” My attempt to divert criticism fell on deaf ears but luckily only 15km further on we happened across the small town of Mazamet where we found a small hotel with restaurant, the Mets et Plaisirs.

“The best yet.” Margaret was pleased with our room and we looked forward to dinner in the restaurant.

There followed what was to be the culinary highlight of the whole holiday. We were in agreement that it was the finest meal we had ever had. My wife’s request for a glass of orange juice as a starter was dismissed (with derision?). Instead the chef created a speciality, the taste of which left her drooling. Every course was enthusiastically received and we ate royally, accompanied by the recommended local wine. We vowed to return one day to visit Jean-Pierre and Marie Blanchard.

The final stage of our journey would be accomplished by taking in a tour of the Cité of Carcassone, the largest fortress in Europe. I had got used to the superlatives over the past week, but on reflection they were true and an English-speaking guide took us around the restored ramparts. Tourists like ourselves dominated but we enjoyed the whole experience.

I was reminded that we were in the winegrowing region of Minervois when we stopped at the village of Mjnerve, which must have been inaccessible centuries ago. A gloomy building housed a tiny museum, which recorded the history of the Albigensian crusade of the 13th century, graphically illustrating the brutal torture and repression of the Cathar heretics that took place in Minerve. It needed a visit to a second-hand bookshop a few doors away, which also sold coffee and cakes to lift our spirits.

On arrival at our destination - the house in Gignac - we were introduced through a haze of dust to family friends who were busily engaged in a last minute clean up. Building work was still in progress but would be suspended for the next five days.

The good news was the toilet and shower were in working order.


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