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Please enjoy this excerpt from my forthcoming new French Travel Book – published Spring 2022
As you make your way south from Burgundy there is a very definite change to the climate and to the countryside. It becomes warmer, drier, and more fragrant. If you can stop the car for a while away from the autoroute the ubiquitous sound of the cicadas will fill your head. It is a love it or hate it sound, loud and persistent enough to irritate but can also be strangely soothing. It will most certainly announce your arrival in the glorious south.
This is a first time in Pezanas for us, in fact, we had previously only passed by or through the Languedoc region on our way down to Perpignan and French Catalonia. It was an opportunity to become more familiar with this area. Pezanas is an old town that draws on a glorious past with some stunning architecture. One thing you notice is that the town has many fine private mansions sitting happily alongside the characterful buildings of the old town. It is to one of these that we have booked a three-night stay on our way to the Lot region. The Hotel de Vigniamont is a luxury bed and breakfast 17th century Hotel particulier located in the heart of town. It is a fine and quite extraordinary building and Pezanas is blessed with many such examples of period French charm. One thing that you cannot avoid being impressed with is in front of you soon after entering through the heavy carved original door. In the centre of this multi storied building is a beautiful open courtyard, perhaps something you are more likely to encounter in Morocco. It takes your breath away and can make you quite dizzy trying to crane your neck to look up towards the sky. Later in the stay it displayed itself in pure dramatic theatre when a sudden thunderstorm sent water cascading down inside the property. Exceptionally clever drainage took the water away from the living quarters.
In sympathy with the grandeur of the building the rooms are furnished in period style. Our room was exquisite, with the focus of the room centred on a beautiful carved Parisian oak bed. We would sleep well. I am sure you can do your own research on Trip Advisor to check my happiness at being in such a place, especially after a long journey.
Our intention was to explore Pezanas in the evening and find a local restaurant. Before heading out into the night we had been invited by our lovely hosts to join them in the grand salon for an aperitif with a couple of other guests. It is certainly a grand salon and would have seen some fine dinners stretching into the night over the decades. It was not difficult to imagine the scene in this room a couple of centuries ago with the ladies’ beautiful hair and makeup complimenting silk finery. Tonight, we are all feeling just a little casually dressed but our hosts, although having made a little more of a sartorial effort, put us at ease. The main reason for them entertaining us was to acquaint us with the dish that Pezanas is famous for – the small bobbin shaped petit pâté de Pézenas. Legend has it that this tasty little treat was first brought to the region by the English Lord Clive of India. It is made of thin raised pastry containing minced lamb or mutton, delicately spiced and slightly fruity. They are delicious and morish but also an appetite suppressant, so we did not eat too many before dining out. Accompanied by the local Picpoul de Pinet white wine it was an excellent start to the evening. You may not be at all surprised to learn that there is a festival to this tiny pie here in Pezanas. It seems that all regional food has its own local celebration and often its own appellation to prevent any devious foreigner stealing it. However, it does appear that this one is English anyway, so I have no qualms about baking this back home. Why the National Trust at the home associated with Clive, Powis Castle, do not make a feature of serving this in the tearoom I am at a loss to understand. I would prefer it to a cream tea.
Pezanas town has a different persona when you view it from street level on foot. It is quite multi-layered. Grand buildings as we have seen but also a faded charm in other areas all culminating on a lovely central square with cafés spilling their tables out onto the cobbles. The architecture heads skywards with many streets being narrow with a medieval ambiance. It does not take much of a leap of imagination to visualize the locals emptying their refuse and worse from high windows into the streets. Fortunately, that practice has long died out and the old streets are mainly filled with artist studios and cafés. Of course, you will also always pass a baker making the famous pies. We chanced upon an interesting restaurant that specialised in serving fish and seafood cooked a la plancha. It seemed to suit our mood and so it proved. The interest though was not just food related but in the layout of the interior. The walls appeared to me more of exterior style than the usual charmingly decorated interior you might expect. If you manage to turn your gaze upwards that soon became noticeably clear as to why this was. Above us was only sky to quote a famous Liverpudlian. Exterior was the new interior in Pezanas. Fortunately, the sky was clear tonight, the atmosphere was warm but being slightly cooled by all this exposure to the elements. We enjoyed a tasty well-cooked meal that was served by a charming girl of the south. A memorable travel experience, nothing fancy it is true, but quite preferable to a fancy Michelin star restaurant tonight.
Of course, we slept well. Morning brought another interesting encounter. Sometimes you are just in the right place at the right time, and as so often in France, this early morning was one of them. Breakfast is taken at the Hotel on the sun terrace at the very top of this building. As is common in France we are offered a seat at a large, shared table. I am a little taken aback as I make my first impression of our breakfast companion. The only way I can help you to visualize this scene, and in absolutely no way do I means any disrespect, is to say that this tall elderly man looked for all the world like Jed Clampett from the Beverly Hillbillies. Large red braces contributed to this first impression. He was a man from the mid-west of America and had been a farmer. One had to admire this man and his wife to be travelling so far from home at an age where most have given up on such adventure. They were a charming couple, but it was his past that intrigued. Yes, they had come south to enjoy the climate and see some history, but it was to Normandy that they were heading and that was the main feature of their visit. He was a D-Day veteran and I do have a fascination with that time period, often visiting the region ourselves. I cannot say what we had for breakfast or how good it was because this man had me spellbound. What a privilege to meet someone who had shared and survived such history, a pivotal moment of the 20th Century. They had to press on unfortunately as they were headed to Montpellier for a flight to Paris. I could have talked to him all day long. The joy of travelling and making the effort to engage with people can throw up some special moments. This was one of them.