After a great four days in San Francisco, I flew nonstop to Paris and then on to Toulouse to visit a friend of mine who has a house in the village of Monflanquin, a small bastide town in Southwestern France. I expected the flight to be cramped and uncomfortable, but traveling on Air France was actually not bad. The food was terrible, but the Heidsieck Monopole Blue Top champagne they served before the meal and Cognac they poured after helped a lot - as did the salami, butter and cornichon sandwich I brought from Acme Bakery. If you don't like the meal - a choice of Salmon Parmentier or Coq au Vin (it sounds so much better in French!) - they also put out little sandwiches, cookies and crackers and self-service non-alcoholic beverages, and on the way back from Paris there were Haagen Dazs ice cream bars.
When I arrived in Toulouse, my friend Vince met me at the airport and we headed into town for a bite to eat at a cafe on the square in town. It was mid-afternoon by that time, and I was doing pretty well with the jet lag so my goal was just to get a little sunshine and stay up until after dark. I indulged in a "Salade Soud Ouest" - topped with foie gras, since it's a local delicacy in the Southwest of France. It was interesting to see how commonplace foie is there - in contrast with the ban going into effect here in just a few weeks. It's available everywhere for sale, and on almost every menu in the region, and the countryside is dotted with farms. (I generally saw it served and packaged as a torchon - never seared.)
After lunch and a brief peek into the spectacular Toulouse Cathedral just a few blocks away, Vince drove me to back to Monflanquin to settle in. I quickly realized that I was incredibly lucky - not just because the house and village were lovely but because Vince was a fantastic host and tour guide - pointing out the local landmarks and telling funny stories about his own travels in France.
I had this bedroom complete with wrought iron balcony and a separate bathroom all to myself for four nights. The rest of this floor of the house consists of a living room and a farmhouse style eat-in kitchen. Upstairs is the master bedroom and bath and another bedroom with two twin beds. Another flight up on the spiral wooden staircase is a roof deck with a spectacular view.
As a matter of fact, just about everywhere in Monflanquin offers a spectacular view since the town sits on a hill, sloping down down from a high point where the main square and cathedral are located. This was the view out the window in front.
And this is what you see when you turn around and look up the street toward the square which is directly to the left, just around the corner.
On Thursdays, the town comes alive when the Market arrives in the square. There are vendors offering everything from produce and prepared foods to plants, local honey, clothes and jewelry.My personal favorite vendor was the cheese truck. You always hear about cheese in France, and it's absolutely true - the variety and quantities available are dazzling. Same for the bread and wine, incidentally - they are almost always good and inexpensive. (Sadly, the same cannot be said of the croissants.)
Speaking of croissants, on my first day in Monflanquin, we started off a little road trip with a stop at the boulangerie just down the hill - outside the old walled portion of the town. It's the best one around according to Vince, and the canneles did not disappoint. They are a bit of a regional specialty - from Bordeaux which is about 2 hours away. (The croissants were just ok.)
Our first stop was the village of Cadouin - reached after a winding drive through the beautiful green countryside and a short detour through the village of Monpazier. Cadouin is a commune (village) in the Dordogne famous for its 10th century Abbey, seen at the right in this picture.It's a picturesque spot and we walked around a bit looking at the traditional architecture, poked around the Abbey and bought some things at a small market they had set up in the square.
The owner of the stand pictured below had a small shop selling foie gras, truffles and other local delicacies including aged goat cheese "buttons" that are delicious on levain toast. The truffles and foie gras weren't cheap but they are less than you would pay here, and much less than prices in Paris. You may have heard of truffles from Perigord - Perigord is the name of the former province that lay roughly where the Dordogne is now, so we were in prime truffle country. I had hoped to bring some home, but I wasn't sure about the customs rules (though supposedly they are allowed.)
Next we headed to Chateau Marqueyssac for lunch. This hilltop property was originally developed in the 17th century by a counselor to Louis the XIV and is most notable for the gardens which stretch out behind the house in an oblong shape with a looping path for exploring. The boxwood gardens were planted in the 1800s and had fallen into disrepair when the new owner bought the property and restored them in 1996.
The chateau itself is tiny - you walk through and up some stairs to come out on the back side where there is a nice restaurant overlooking the valley and a beautiful pergola covering outdoor tables sitting along the edge overlooking the view. It was a gloomy day so we sat inside, but on a warm day I am sure it's a beautiful spot. I made the mistake of ordering a croque monsieur. Though it looks good, the bread was soggy from the bechamel sauce and it was just a little bland.
Vince wisely ordered the menu du jour, which included Rilette de Lapin (potted bunny) with a salad, and a dessert course of one of those aged goat cheese buttons on levain with a bit of salad and a walnut. It also included a "verre de vin" as do most menus - and we shared a small carafe of rose. (I drank rose like it was iced tea in France.)
After lunch we strolled the gardens which are notable for their geometric precision, the fact that they are uniformly green (no flowers, at least not at this time of year) and the waterfall that flows through the property from the back to front in a tiny carved out channel. This map really shows the scale and layout.
The most famous and arguably most beautiful part of the garden is the grouping of boxwoods below called the "Bastion" - designed to resemble sheep in a flock.
After exploring the gardens we headed to nearby Chateau des Milandes - owned by Josephine Baker from the 40's to the 60's. It is privately owned but open for tours and there are a number of exhibits set up inside as well as gardens and a cafe. They also do a "Birds of Prey" show several times a day, much like the one at the Wild Animal Park - we didn't sit through it, but it was going on while we were there.
Several of Josephine's dresses were on display inside as well as posters and other ephemera from her life and career.
The best piece though, has to be the banana belt from her most famous costume. Josephine herself was pretty amazing. You can read about her history here. She was a civil rights activist and spy as well as a famous cabaret and burlesque performer - and raised 12 adopted children at the Chateau.
Apparently in its heydey the Chateau included a mini golf course and swimming pool - neither of which are in evidence now, but the gardens are still quite lovely.
After all that, we're only through day one! Don't worry, I won't write a separate post for each day of the trip - though I probably could. All of my photos are here if you want to check them out. I'll be back in a few days with more on Monflanquin and the surrounding area including Villeneuve Sur Lot, Bordeaux and of course, Paris!
P.S. - if this looks like fun to you - the house I stayed in is a vacation rental and is available about ten months out of the year - check it out here! )