Stairway to Heaven

Maison Lamothe sits in a hollow surrounded by rolling hills.  Look one way and you see up towards the village topped with its Sleeping Beauty Castle, look another and you can see in the distance Lachapelle, another tiny Lomagne village of 120 or so inhabitants, a cluster of houses and a church.  It looks like several other villages you can see from up on the ridge, but as they say ‘Never judge a book by its cover,’ and so it is with Lachapelle which has treasure its midst.

The Lomagne region of Gascony which encompasses the towns and villages in the north east of the Gers and south west of Tarn et Garonne was once a frontier which needed to be heavily defended against invaders – the French, the English, as well as power grabbing neighbours.  Reminders of these times and the squirmishes that ensued are everywhere in the numerous fortified castles and bastides.

Lachapelle, like Flamarens, sits on top of a hillock, its houses adjoining the castle where the old fortifications are visible.  The village then known as Sant-Alari was destroyed during the Hundred Years War and rebuilt around the castle ruins.  The castle chapel became the parish church of St Peter.  Peace restored, Lachapelle prospered and St Peter’s church congregation grew.

This sombre 15th century church with its bell turret looks just like lots of others hereabouts, but step into the covered porch and through the simple battered wooden door and you’ll find yourself somewhere very unique.

When Jean-Baptiste Goulard arrived as priest in 1746, he was somewhat dismayed to find that the tiny church could hardly accommodate his flock and that life in this simple village was so very different from the glories of Rome where he had studied theology and been ordained as a priest.  But he was Lomagne born and bred and it was in the Lomagne that he would see out his days.  Ten years or so after his arrival his younger brother Jean joined him as vicar.

How did their conversations go regarding the cramped and tired conditions of their church?  What fantasies did they harbour when they visited the great cathedrals of Moissac, Lectoure and Condom? How many times did Jean listen to his older brother’s recounting tales of the magnificence of the Vatican and Rome?

But the Goulard brothers were not any old parish priests, they were from a very distinguished family and when their father died, their substantial inheritance gave them the financial means to realise their dreams and to secure their place in Heaven.  They would redecorate the interior of their dreary church.

But how could they make it less cramped and pack in as many of their flock as possible?  They enlisted the assistance of local craftsmen including Maraignon dit Champaigne, a master carpenter cabinetmaker from Lectoure.

Starting with the High Altar in 1761, the work began and an interior of the highest Baroque order began to be fashioned with moulded woodwork adorned with Corinthian columns topped with pots of fire.  Gold, gold and more gold everywhere, crystal chandeliers and huge religious masterpieces befitting of their beautifully sculptured Roccoco frames.

The effect was breath-taking, the brother and their artisans had created in their little village church an interior worthy of the great cathedrals.  But it was the solution to the accommodation of the congregation, that makes Lachapelle truly unique.

After having gasped at the splendour of the altar, turn around.  And there is the breathtaking and surprising answer to the problem of how to cram the village’s then population of 500 or so souls into a tiny space.

Three rows of concave and convex stands, like the alcoves of a Venetian theatre and just as opulent covered in carved wooden cartouches decorated in plants and shells.  When Father Goulard climbed into his ornate pulpit, he really could play to the galleries.

It took 15 years to complete the work which was finished in 1776.  Jean-Baptiste Goulard remained priest at Lachapelle for a further 11 years relishing his endowment and patiently awaiting his transition to Heaven in which, no doubt, he believed he had surely guaranteed his place.

Michelle Martinez – April 2021

 

Lachapelle is a leisurely hour or so 5 kms walk from Maison Lamothe (you can drive there in a few minutes) and the church is open every day between 14.00h and 18.00h, as well as 10.00h-12.30h in August and July.  If you can’t wait until then, take a quick look

Thank you to Antony Lancashire for use of his beautiful pictures of the interior of the church

www.antonylancashire.com

Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Whilst I have always been a bit sceptical of those rambling acceptance speeches at Award shows like the Baftas, Oscars and Césars, I’m sure I’m not the only one who has been known to mentally write my theoretical Oscar acceptance speech as I walk the dog, or tackle a pile of ironing.

It should therefore be easy to write this Blog and tell you all how very excited and honoured I am to receive our first Award at Maison Lamothe – an amazing 9.7 out of 10 for service in the 2021 Booking.com Travel Awards, as rated by and reviewed by our guests.  Of course, just like every Hollywood A-Lister, I now find myself tongue-tied with nothing coherent to say.

Spring of 2020– with lock-downs, quarantines and closed borders – was not an ideal time to launch a new venture.  It would have been easy to put everything off until 2021, but whilst we love our solitude at Maison Lamothe, we also love seeing people.

So with no time like the present, at the beginning of last July we listed on Booking.com, crossed our fingers and waited.  Within a few hours we had received our first reservation and others quickly followed.  We were in business.

The World may not have been able to travel to France, its favourite holiday destination, but everyone in France was desperate to get away and holiday somewhere quiet and peaceful away from the busy cities and coastal resorts.  And there’s nowhere that fits that bill better than this little corner of the golden Gers countryside.

Our guests have been amazing and it’s been wonderful to get to know so many interesting people – if only for a short time – and hopefully they have taken away some lovely memories that they will look back on fondly.

It’s certainly been lovely to see the house come alive and for the ever-changing energy as people have come and gone.  As well as the family groups who have stayed for a week or more over the Summer months, we have had a real assortment of other guests.

 

We are lucky to find our home on one of the pilgrimage routes that leads to the Cathedral at Santiago de Compostela in Northern Spain, where it is reputed that the remains of the apostle Saint James are buried.

One of the most important Christian pilgrim routes since Medieval Times, its popularity has been growing in recent years and as well as religious pilgrims, there are also lots of hikers who see the 1,500 kms journey as a great challenge to undertake with friends.

It’s lovely to welcome the footsore as they arrive after another daily 20 – 25 kms stretch and to see them enjoying a hearty supper and a relaxing swim before they tackle the next stage.

We’ve also found ourselves to be a perfect weekend retreat for the inhabitants of Toulouse and Bordeaux, as well as those driving between the West and South Coasts of France, who have wanted to break up their journey for a few days.

Everyone remarks on the calmness and serenity of this environment and it really has felt like the troubles of the Pandemic were a world away from us.

And although there were not many big weddings last year, we did share the joy of such happy occasions with quite a few guests who were attending weddings, scouting for venues for their upcoming marriages or staying with us post-wedding.  Everyone loves a wedding and I am so looking forward to there being so many more this year.

 

Obviously many of our annual attractions had to be cancelled including the much celebrated Ronde-des-Creches which draws 30,000 people to Flamarens and our neighbouring villages during December and January, but this Summer we were lucky enough to have a series of classical music concerts in the partially restored ruins of our church in the village.

These concerts were a real tonic and a reminder of what Summers will be like again when we are free to mix more freely.

But life has carried on this Winter and whilst there have been no holiday-makers, there have been a steady stream of guests who have been here to buy or sell homes, to work or simply needing to break their journeys because of the 6.00 pm curfew.  One couple drove here from Switzerland to collect their 8- week-old puppy.

These lovely people have kept us entertained and nourished during the quiet winter months and I hear their laughter long after they’ve left.

And as I reflect on the ratings our guests have given us for their stay at Maison Lamothe, I award them a perfect 10, especially for the energy and magic they have spun around the place and for making everything we do here worthwhile.

I’ve loved meeting every single person and do hope that many will return, as well as lots of others who despite having already decided to come here, couldn’t travel over this last year.

So as the early Spring sun starts to give out some warmth and the trees are bursting into full blossom, one cannot help but be optimistic about what lies ahead.  Awards are nice but carrying on giving a great welcome is more important.

There’s lots to do to make sure that Maison Lamothe this year is even better than it was last year.  And although you’ve set the bar pretty high with the wonderful scores you’ve given us, we love a challenge and want if anything to rate even higher this year.

Thanks again and see you soon.

Michelle Martinez – March 2021

 

Putting down roots

Today is Saint Catherine’s Day.

In England Saint Catherine is probably best remembered as giving her name to the firework that immediately conjures up memories of Guy Fawkes night incidents, where the Catherine Wheel is nailed to the garden fence post and invariably fails to spin because it’s been nailed too tightly; flies off to fizz dangerously somewhere else because it’s not been nailed tightly enough, or ends up setting fire to the fence.

The spiked wheel on which Catherine was condemned to die after refusing the advances of the Emperor Maxentius behaved just as unpredictably.  Instead of the spikes tearing her flesh to shreds as it revolved, the wheel broke and the spikes ended up flying into the crowd and killing some of them.  Alas a reprieve for poor Catherine was short-lived and she was beheaded with a sword.

Saint Catherine quite fittingly became the patron saint of virgins and here in France the day was traditionally marked as the day for young, unmarried women to pray to her for a husband.

‘Saint Catherine…… For pity’s sake, give us a husband for we’re burning with love…..’

If the girls’ prayers went unanswered and they reached the age of 25 without having found a suitor, they were known as Catherinettes.

In the 19th and early 20th Century girls, many of whom worked as milliners and dressmakers, would make outlandish bonnets in green (signifying hope) and yellow (signifying faith) for their unmarried friends to wear advertising their need to find husbands.

The Fashion Houses of Paris adopted this tradition and the annual Saint Catherine’s Day Parade along the Champs Elysée was an opportunity to show off their millinery skills, have a day off work and party.

 

Although on a much smaller scale the hat making tradition continues today.

Creative as I sometimes can be, I have not made a hat.  Instead I have observed another French Saint Catherine’s day tradition and planted the beautiful Olive Tree that was a birthday gift given to me by some of my wonderful neighbours this Summer.

Having dutifully tended it for the last few months, giving it lots of water I have watched the olives turn from a bright citrus green to purplish black and harvested them ready for salting.  And I have patiently waited for Saint Catherine’s Day when it is said that ‘all trees take root.’  I’ve carefully chosen my spot in consultation with the experts, Thierry who looks after the Maison Lamothe gardens and my neighbour Pascale who has farmed in Flamarens for most of her life.  The weather was beautiful but it was back- breaking work.

I just hope that I’ve got everything right and that it, like me, will take root here and be happy in this place I think of as my forever home.

Michelle Martinez 25th November 2020

The buffet

As William Morris once famously said,’ Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.’ Not a bad maxim, but my own would be, ‘Make your home a haven for treasure with a past and a story to tell.’

Furnishing Maison Lamothe began well before we moved here.  Having spent three years living in rented furnished houses as we road-tested life in France, acquiring more stuff often caused problems. Not that this stopped me.  ‘But it’s so beautiful,’ I would wail to my long-suffering husband, ‘It’s only little. It’ll take up no room at all.’

Small was not an adjective I could have used to justify my purchase in early Spring 2019.    An English couple who were friends of friends were going back to the UK after many years of living in France and were selling off most of their belongings.  ‘I’m just looking,’ I shouted over my shoulder as I left home, ‘just being nosey.’

The couple lived in a large 1930s Art Deco house – not the standard Gascon farmhouse that we Brits all seem drawn towards and I have to admit I was more intrigued to see the house than the stuff for sale.

As ever I got talking and the lady told me about the house’s history.  During WW2 a vet and his family had lived there.  In the town there was a camp known as an ‘Accommodation Centre’ which housed many Jewish refugees who had been expelled or rounded up: many of whom would ultimately end up being deported to the infamous concentration camp at Auschwitz.

According to her, the vet had to care for the Alsatian dogs that guarded the camp.  Throughout the War he managed to smuggle out internees and hide them within the house until they could be found homes.  After the War he was awarded the Legion d’honneur.

I loved the story and found it sad that the people who had bought the house had plans to extend it and modernize it.  There was still an air of the past swirling about the place which had changed little since the 1930s and this was all about to be lost.

Other anecdotes about the house’s other previous occupants followed as we walked through the rooms on the three floors examining furniture that I really did not need or have room for.  I felt almost as if I should buy something, anything, as I had taken up so much of her time.  At which point we entered the downstairs Salon and I was confronted by a huge buffet/sideboard.

It was love at first sight.  Over two metres long and almost as high, this dark stained oak dresser with its marble top was as Art Deco as the house itself.  Best of all was the huge circular relief wooden plaque on the back depicting two men playing Pelote – the national game of the Basque country.   I was immediately transported back to school and being taught about the fiercely independent Pays Basque.

‘No-one wants it,’she said, ‘the new owners want it gone.  It doesn’t fit in with their plans.  And it’s too big for anyone else.  I’ve had plenty of offers for the marble.  For a work top.  But the rest of it’ll have to be smashed up. Such a shame.  It’s been here forever.’

‘It’s got to be rescued.’ I said horrified about what was about to happen.

‘You can have it for 300 euros’ she said.

‘A bargain,’ I told my husband, who agreed that he liked it.  ‘There’s just the problem of moving it and storing it,’ he said.  But I was not going to be fazed by that.  I was safe-guarding History.  What had this buffet witnessed during its 90 odd years of living?

Marco, who fancied himself as a bit of an Antiques expert, having spent years watching the millions of Antique programmes that litter afternoon TV schedules and which obsess the UK, tried to research where the piece may have come from but he drew a blank, even though there were some words written on the backboard and the plaque was signed.

I had more pressing problems as I tried to find someone to move it.  The two expats who did that kind of thing locally agreed to move it into a storage unit, but then when they went to look at it backed out. ‘Why have you bought this heap of junk?’ demanded one, ‘I ain’t gonna break my back trying to shift that.’    Another expat was going to take it to pieces so that it could be moved, but then declared that it was impossible.

In the end, through sheer determination, I employed a proper removal shipping company, who had no problem dissembling the thing, lifting into their van, keeping it in storage and then delivering it here some months later and reassembling it. It cost a small fortune.  I never let anyone know just how much.  The original bill turned out to be just for collection, then there was monthly storage, delivery when we finally found our forever home and reassembly.  But you can’t put a price on love and I loved my Basque buffet.

In the meantime Marco’s research and mine had led us nowhere although we had decided that the bottom was older than the top which was clearly very Art Deco.  We were led by a little hand written Menu card dating back to 1908 which the previous owner had given me and which had been in one of the drawers when she took ownership of it.  And although the two pieces match perfectly colour-wise, we decided that perhaps the top had been built specifically to go with the bottom.

Then a few months ago – on the eve of Lockdown, I made an amazing discovery.  Browsing through a magazine I’d left on top of the buffet, I was distracted by the plaque and the backboard which has the words EZLAN EZYAN engraved on it. I googled the words again and to my surprise I found a picture of a Buffet almost identical to mine.  It had sold at Auction in St Jean de Luz, near Biarritz last April for considerably more than even my extortionate removal bills.

What was more exciting than the value was that it was designed by Benjamin Gomez, who turns out to be one of Bayonne’s most revered sons, an architect, who with his brother Louis is responsible for many of the buildings in Bayonne, Biarritz and the surrounding Department of the Landes.  In 2009 the Basque Museum in Bayonne had a major exhibition of the brothers work, including much of their furniture which was designed specifically for the houses they built.

Indeed, a couple of architectural sketches by Benjamin of a dining room setting which were used as authentication for the buffet that sold were not of that buffet but mine.  And so as the nights draw in and life at Maison Lamothe begins to slow down, I am turning to the project I had hoped to begin in the Spring – discovering the buffet’s story.  And as they always say on Antiques Roadshow when they discover they are the owners of a missing masterpiece, ‘It’s definitely not for sale.’

Michelle Martinez –  October 2020

The heart of Flamarens

It seems that I am not alone in dreaming of one day rescuing a derelict but beautiful old castle and bringing it back to life.  If the popularity of Dick and Angel Strawbridge’s Escape to the Chateau TV programmes are anything to go by, it would seem that half the UK have the same fantasy, whilst hundreds of others have taken the plunge and bought their own tumble-down chateaux in France and are discovering the pain and expense of falling in love with such a demanding mistress.

But such passion, or folly depending on how you look at it, is not a new phenomenon.  Here in Flamarens, the tiny village high on the hill is dominated by a fairy tale 13th century chateau. Abandoned in the 1930s, it caught fire when struck by lightening in 1943 and lost its beautiful pointed turret roofs.  It suffered further indignities in the 1960s when anything that could be sold – marble fire places, tiles, floors, beams – was sold.

In 1983, when at the point in the fairy story where the brambles begin to grow and cover the ruins of the castle so that it falls from view forever, along came a Parisian Advertising Executive.  Jacques Gadel bought the ruins and spent the last 27 years of his life restoring the fabric of the building, helped by his children whenever they could take holidays from their work.  For the last 10 years the reins have passed to Jacques son, Arthur who with his wife Marie-Hélène continues the restoration project.  The work is never ending. But as the years pass and more ceilings are reconstructed, more floors are re-laid and tiled and more hidden architectural treasures are uncovered, echoes of the chateau’s glorious past are slowly being bought back to life.

Much has happened during the 700-year history of the Château de Flamarens which was part of the wedding dowry of the niece of Pope Clement V.  Used as a fortress during the 100 years war between England and France, it became in 1466 the home of the aristocratic Grossoles family, who extended the chateau with the addition of a main building 3 floors high, a dungeon and the huge tower.

The brilliant and famous lineage was a succession of larger than life characters, one was sent in to exile in Spain after taking part in a duel, another a Bishop who was also a Master Builder responsible for much of the building of the Cathedral at Condom and another was a Knight.  But it was marriage to a cousin of Henri IV that saw the family become part of the lineage of the Bourbon Kings of France.

Its heyday was probably the 18th Century when it was the favoured residence of Marquise Marie-Françoise de Flamarens, a relative of Madame de Sévigné, the famous chronicler of life at the court of the Sun King, Louis XIV.  The chateau was then reputed to ‘beautiful inside and out’ and one can only begin to imagine the parties, and entertainments within the castle walls and the carriages arriving along the narrow main street turning into the place in front of the chateau gates  where one now finds the restored ruins of the beautiful church of Saint Saturnin.  Or the fear at the time of the French Revolution, when the family fled to Germany to save their heads.

Sadly the chateau fell out of favour and was sold in 1882 when the house of Grassoles died out after providing 15 generations of highly distinguished lords, the Marquis de Flamarens.  The new owners, the Galard-Magnas  family, could not afford to maintain it and with the roof in a poor state of repair and no finances to address it, they had no option but to abandon the chateau in the 1930s having previously tried to sell it.  They even considered giving it to the State in 1939 but the fire destroyed all hope of repair and the castle was a forlorn sight.

It would be over 50 years before the chateau was to be inhabited again.

Now, as in times gone by, the chateau remains the focus of the village and provides the backdrop to many events from outdoor concerts, to historical re-enactments, weddings and festivals.  It also provides a thrilling place for pilgrims walking to Santiago de Compostela to spend the night.

And this Summer is no exception.  Beginning on Thursday 23rd July are a series of musical events for everyone to enjoy, with guided tour of the chateau taking place beforehand.  What could be a more convivial way to spend a Summer evening than enjoying music and food with friends, and daydreaming about the past?

Michelle Martinez – July 2020

with special thanks to Arthur and Marie-Hélène Gadel  for  their help and patience.

https://gascogne-lomagne.fr/musique-halles-flamarens/

http://chateaudeflamarens.org/

This very special Summer

Last Thursday, I took my first coffee at a café since March.  It was a special ceremony, akin to arriving in a new place for a holiday.  I chose with care my pavement table to afford me the best view of the town coming to life in these early days of deconfinement (as the French call the easing of Lockdown).  And even though I have sat in this spot many, many times it was strange and yet familiar.  Life carrying on as normal, visits to the dry cleaners, the charcuterie, the newsagents, chance encounters in the street, a child having a tantrum because his mother would not give in to his wishes, a man loading boxes into the back of his van.   Yes, everyone wore masks, but they have become such a normal sight that they are now almost invisible, like someone wearing glasses or a hat.

The Lockdown in France has been strict and rigorously imposed.  For 8 weeks it was necessary to remain at home and only to venture out to get food or other essentials, go to work, or see a doctor.  Exercise was limited to a maximum of one hour per day within 1km of home.  And every time one did venture out, it was necessary to complete and sign a dated Attestation Form stating the purpose of your journey and the time you left your home. The Gendarmes have been everywhere, even here in the depths of the countryside checking forms and fining people 135 euros for infringements.

During this period apart from my daily dog walk up to our tiny village and back, the only other time I left Maison Lamothe was to do my twice weekly shifts in the local co-operative Épicerie in our neighbouring village of Miradoux, which is run by volunteers.  The Épicerie which was established when the local supermarket closed down, celebrated its first anniversary in April and rather than the celebrations and party that had been planned, it was a case of all hands to the pump as it became the primary source of food supplies for Miradoux and Flamarens and the surrounding villages.

Keeping the shop fully stocked and increasing the products available was intensive, but despite unprecedented demand stocks of flour, pasta and toilet paper never ran out.  Some people discovered the wonderful and extensive local product selection for the first time, whilst others knew that they did not need to venture further afield to get amazing foods, wines and beers.

So many things have been put on hold this Spring, but Mother Nature did not stop and so the shop was filled with the scent of strawberries from the nearby village of Sainte Chapelle, bundles of asparagus from Sempessare and in this last week or two cherries and apricots from Dunes.  And of course here in the Gers, we really do live in the land of the grape and the duck.

Of most importance was the community service that the shop was available to provide, ensuring that everyone could have the supplies with deliveries for those who needed to isolate.  In addition there were the order forms for plants – so many keen to get the vegetable plants and annuals that needed to be planted at the time of year when we were in Lockdown.  And also it was a place to learn the latest local news and to have just a little social human contact which was so necessary especially for those that live alone.

Then on 11th May the first steps of ‘deconfinement’ were taken.  Non-essential shops opened and it was no longer necessary to complete an Attestation provided we remained within 100 kms (as the crow flies) of home.  For me it was exciting.  I could vary my dog walk and take Bertie for long walks along the Canal Entre Deux Mers at Valence D’Agen, a particular favourite of ours.  I could also visit towns once more and wander around shops just to browse.  Best of all I could see people again.  Gatherings of up to 10 people were allowed. Sales of cheese and the wonderful charcuterie products from the village of Sempessare went through the roof, as did crisps and olives and nuts.  The sacred ritual of inviting friends and neighbours around for Apéro had been restored.  The lovely people of Flamarens could meet up and chat again.

For many it was still tough, lots of my friends and neighbours have children and grand-children living further afield and had been hoping that this was the time they could be reunited.  And of course for those of us with family in other countries, the borders have remained closed to all but essential travel.  Focussing on the positives I rejoiced that I could now make a hair appointment, and immediately made a list of all the places I had never visited within the 100 kms of Maison Lamothe, as well as wanting to return to the towns I had missed so much.

My first trip further afield was to the wonderful town of Montauban.  I love parking near the railway station and crossing the old bridge high up over the River Tarn, the majestic buildings of the old town rising up even higher ahead of me.  It was sad to see the main colonnaded square which normally buzzes with café life empty, except for piles of stacked tables and chairs, but the shops were open, and it was amazing to be able to wander around an empty cathedral again.

And as the days have worn on, the towns have become more lively, as more people are venturing out again.  Lectoure on market day felt strange with all the stalls widely separated to ensure safe distancing. A trip to Auch felt almost normal – the lady at the Cave Gourmande on the Rue Dessoles was pleased to see me again and we chatted for an age about all manner of things including how much we have missed our hairdresser, Erik.  As for a trip to Erik’s, I was as pleased as ever with my hair, but sad that I can no longer browse through countless copies of Paris Match to catch up on celebrity gossip or drink the excellent bitter black coffee.

A first-time trip to Cahors, was a revelation, so close to home yet a totally different landscape of limestone cliffs and the wide and fast flowing river Lot, topped with a turreted bridge straight out of Grimm’s Fairytales.  Even with no restaurants open for lunch, there was plenty on offer in the indoor Market to take to eat in the little garden squares or on the grassy river banks. And of course Cahors produces wonderful wine – the black wine that is reputed to be the darkest in the world.

This week France has moved on to the next stage of deconfinement, with the opening of restaurants and bars and hotels.  Everyone is frantically preparing for the opening of the European borders in the next couple of weeks, ready to welcome back visitors and to make sure that everything is as COVID safe as possible.  With very low rates of COVID infection here in the Gers (23 deaths as at 9th June) and Flamarens’ neighbouring departments of Lot et Garonne (9 deaths as at 9th June) and Tarn et Garonne (6 deaths as at 9th June), we are all very keen to keep the area safe for our visitors and ourselves.

At Maison Lamothe, we’ve been very busy making our rooms even nicer than before and the garden is looking wonderful and is bordered by fields of golden corn and Lectoure’s famous melons.  Up on the hill the village is a blaze of roses and geraniums and lavender and a huge flag blows proudly in the wind above the tower of the chateau which will be open for visitors in July and August, by which time other fields will be full of sunflowers.

This has been the darkest of starts to any year, but it can still be a very special Summer.

Michelle Martinez – June 2020

Where is Lansquenet-sous-Tannes?

Shortly after moving to the Gers, someone mentioned that this is where Joanne Harris set her best- selling series of Chocolat books, which I like million of other readers had devoured on their release.  I had my own vision of the fictional village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes which of course differed from the film version of the first book, but also differed from the landscape that I came to know and love in the Southern Gers where we lived before we bought Maison Lamothe.  Indeed my searches on the Internet told me that Lansquenet was actually based on the town of Nerac, which is situated to the north of the Gers in the neighbouring Department of Lot-et-Garonne.

Then last Summer as we walked along the banks of the Canal Entre-deux-Mers in the little town of Valence D’Agen, I could suddenly see Roux’s boat amongst the clutter of boats moored up in the tiny port and walking on a little further I found a little alley called ‘Impasse des Tanneries’.  Didn’t old Mahjoubi build his Mosque down by the tanneries?  As we sat amongst groups of men drinking coffee and aperitif at the busy corner café, I found myself looking for Joséphine Muscat.  I’d found my Lansquenet-sous-Tannes and it was in neither the Gers, or Lot-et-Garonne but in the neighbouring Department of Tarn-et-Garonne.

With the Strawberry Thief, Joanne Harris’s latest release about the inhabitants of Lansquenet still on my ‘to read pile’, I decided to go back to the beginning and re-read the series starting with Chocolat, which I had first read soon after its publication in 1999.  I also vowed to make a visit to Nerac to discover the chocolate shop which Joanne Harris visited often as a child and which proclaims itself to be the inspiration for the books.

Nerac is a beautiful town set on the banks of the river Baïse, the old town is situated on the right bank and the new town which is also known as Petit Nerac on the left bank.  It has a Tanneries Quarter where although now home to art galleries and artisans, one could easily place Les Marauds, the slum quarter of Lansquenet with its ‘close half-timbered houses staggering down the uneven cobbles towards the Tannes.’  But with a population of almost 7,000 and a long proud history that still boasts a beautiful medieval city and a castle that was the home of Henri IV of France, it differs greatly from Lansquenet with its population of ‘two hundred souls at most, no more than a blip on the fast road between Toulouse and Bordeaux’.

And what of La Cigale, the chocolaterie which is now very much on the tourist trail of those on a Chocolat pilgrimage?  Situated not within the medieval city itself but in a utilitarian building in a residential street on the outskirts of town.  And with no window display to speak of, one immediately feels a sense of disappointment.   Surely this cannot be the basis for the magical world of Vianne Rocher?

However step inside and you are immediately confronted with the overwhelming and heady smell of chocolate ‘Try me. Test me. Taste me.’  To the right behind glass windows for all to see are artisans engaged in the art of confecting pralines, truffles, mendicants, hazelnut clusters, candied rose-petals, sugared violets…..And to the left stands an assistant offering a tray of tiny slivers of delicate dainties.  ‘Try me. Test me. Taste me.’  The shop is full of praline bouchées, bars studded with nuts and candied fruit, jars and boxes tied with ribbon and nestling out of sight under layers of tissue paper are 80 different types of chocolate bon-bon.

So where is Lansquenet-sous-Tannes?  It’s in the Gers, and in it’s in Tarn-et-Garonne and Lot-et-Garonne too.  It’s in this little corner of South West France where all three Departments meet and where Maison Lamothe is situated.  Just like the confectioners at La Cigale, Joanne Harris has taken a little bit of this town, a soupçon of that village, a morceau of that hamlet, a sprinkle of another and created a mélange of so many of the beautiful little places around here to make the magical Lansquenet which has so enchanted readers for more than twenty years.

Now I have started looking, I can see bits of Lansquenet everywhere around me.  And if La Cigale gives you the tastes but not the look of Vianne Rocher’s chocolaterie, maybe try Maison Baudequin in Lectoure.

Michelle Martinez – February 2020

Looking forward to Spring

It’s only two weeks into January, but already the first tang of Spring is in the air on some mornings as Bertie and I walk across the fields up to the village.  There’s lots of buds on the trees too.  But as we walk up the hill under the ruins of the ancient church of Saint Saturnin you can still hear the dulcet tones of Michel Berger singing Le Paradis Blanc.  Although the crowds arriving in coaches have gone, people are still turning up to visit Flamarens’ contribution to the Rondes des Creches.

The Rondes des Creches which starts at the beginning of December is a spectacle that brings over 20,000 visitors to our little village and seven other villages in the locality that every year create tableaux which include a Nativity around an agreed theme.  Now in its 25th year, this year’s theme was Habitats from around the World which included Norwegian fishermen’s houses, Indonesian bamboo huts, Mongolian yurts, Eskimo igloos and a Berber village in the Sahara. It’s a fun activity for the whole family, a cross between a treasure hunt and the ‘It’s a Small World’ ride at Disney and particularly magical after dark, with villagers providing stalls selling local produce and serving hot crepes and mulled wine.

Christmas starts slowly in France, much more understated than in the UK where everyone seems to have their trees up before the end of November.  Consequently, whereas in the UK all decorations are taken down by 12th night, or in the case of many Boxing Day, here everything is much more laid back and most shops are still decorated with the lights and tinsel and full of Christmas treats.   When buying notepaper today in my local Presse, I noticed that although they were selling beautiful Greetings Cards at reduced prices, Christmas Cards were still available and full price.

In January the French celebrate the arrival of the Three Kings with Galettes des Roi, a flaky pastry confection filled with gooey almond frangipane.  The whole family and friends gather round for a Sunday tea and the large cake is cut into slices. A neighbour who invited me round to partake in the tradition told me that a child sits under the table and shouts out the name of the person who will receive the first slice of the special cake, and then the second and the third and so on until everyone has their cake.  Hidden somewhere in one of the slices is a small china ornament or a bean, a bit like a sixpence in a Plum Pudding and whoever has the charm is crowned King or Queen for the day.

Eating Galettes des Roi carries on right the way through January and makes starting a New Year diet very difficult, especially as they are also sold by the slice at Boulangeries, so have to be studiously ignored when buying your bread.  I gave way today (again) and bought another slice – it is after all, almost the weekend and maybe the beginning of February with nights beginning to lighten is a better time to start to diet.

It will also be time to start getting things moving up a gear and get things ready for Spring and Summer.  I can’t believe that today I was discussing with Thierry when we shall re-open the pool – it has to be March – a hardy soul like me sees it as a matter of honour to have at least one swim in March and another one in November whether or not Summer arrives early or stays late.  But before then, there’s plenty to sort in the garden to make everything perfect for our 2020 guests.

Michelle Martinez – January 2020

Getting Ready

This was not what we were intending, when we decided to buy Maison Lamothe. We thought it was time to put our feet up and call it a day. I would write and Marco would keep bees. But as often happens things don’t work out quite as you’d planned.

After we’d signed our ‘Compromis de Vente’ (legally binding agreement to buy) with our notaire (solicitor), we both started thinking. If we’d fallen in love with the place, why wouldn’t others? Soon our creative juices were flowing and the opportunities were boundless. And I think we’d drive each other mad if we didn’t have something to focus our minds on!

The previous owners invited us to lunch and shared their experience of living in the house. As did another English couple who still live locally and who had owned the house about 25 years ago. And after we moved in, we soon met lots of our lovely friendly neighbours. Everybody told us how lucky we were to caretake this magical place and how important it is to share our good fortune with others.

And although to begin with we were somewhat abashed about announcing our plans given our change in direction, the first responses have been amazing. Rather than thinking we are mad, everyone has been full of ideas and we can’t wait to try some out. With lots of rooms for people to stay, and room to extend to create workshops or entertainment spaces, and woods and private little garden rooms where we can create secret places to hide away or seek creative inspiration, anything and everything is possible.

We’ve hurried to get up and running, so that we can start receiving guests. No time like the present to hone our hospitality skills. We’ve already had several ‘guinea pig’ sets of guests; family and friends. No-one gives you better feedback than family – never backward at coming forward with advice on things we’ve missed so that we think we are now ready to give a great guest experience.

But there’s so much we want to do, to get things even better before what will hopefully be our first successful summer season. And then there’s the longer-term projects that will be on-going, so I’m not sure when I’ll ever get time to write and Marco certainly won’t be keeping bees any time soon, which I think might be a good thing.

Of course, we can’t do this on our own. Thierry, our gardener, and all-round good egg who seems to know everyone and about everything, has been a complete godsend. Good humoured he politely rolls his eyes at some of our more mad cap schemes and keeps Marco’s current enthusiasm for a potagerie under control. With Thiery’s garden already under the constant threat of moles and wild boars, Marco’s endeavours provide a threat on a third front.

We’re also getting to know our neighbours too. It’s amazing how much happens in these sleepy little French villages once you start scratching the surface. I am now working one afternoon a week in our local co-operative Épicerie (grocery store) which is run entirely by volunteers and sells great local produce. Marco has joined the choir.

So much to do. But we are loving it. Hopefully, some of you reading this will join us soon and share the place we are so lucky to live in. As well as a fabulous place to step off the World and take a relaxing break, you’ll also be able to track the progress (or otherwise) of Marco’s vegetable growing.

Michelle Martinez – November 2019

Making a move

When friends ask me for advice on moving abroad – especially regarding France – I tell them never buy immediately; RENT first! And that is what we did. At first for a year in beautiful Normandy, where we discovered it doesn’t rain all the time, but did not provide the quick and direct access back to London and the UK we required from time to time. When the lease was up on our Norman house we started to look elsewhere.

And so to Gascony. With fast and frequent flights to London and the UK, bright and warm, sunny weather for most of the year, great food and wine, and stunningly verdant, rolling countryside, it seemed to have everything. But again, we rented – for two years in the South of Le Gers. That gave us the opportunity to explore, find out more, and decide if we might find our forever home.

We knew, the first time we visited Lectoure and the surrounding area, that we were both smitten. Similarly, after taking many months to view properties in the area, Maison Lamothe was an instant falling in love moment. And we could also see that if we loved the house and area, other people would do too. This was very important to us, as we had set our hearts on creating a unique accommodation and events service. And so we bought it.

The house is situated in Northern Gers, but is also within a few kilometres of neighbouring départments Lot-et-Garonne and Tarn-et Garonne, which we believe gives people the maximum exposure to all aspects of Gascon life. But all 3 départements are very different and fiercely proud of their differences too!

The Gascon accent can take a bit of getting used to. You’ll hear ‘peng’ rather than ‘pain’ and ‘demeng’ rather than ‘demain’. And they’re also fond of pronouncing words differently from what you might expect too (some of which is down to the strong English connection established in the Middle Ages and the historical Basque influence). So for example, words ending in ‘et’ often have the ‘t’ pronounced, unlike in the rest of France.

Winters are very short – typically mid-November to mid-February – but there is still plenty to do. Skiing obviously, but some wonderful Christmas markets, especially in Toulouse which is easily accessible from the house. And Gascony absolutely shines and glistens on clear winter nights.

We hope our clients will love sharing the unique experiences that Maison Lamothe and the area provide – from excellent restaurants to amazing bastides and countryside; from art galleries and museums to theatre and music; magical French cities to towns bustling with culture and history. But most of all, we hope our clients love sharing Maison Lamothe with us, whatever brings you to our special piece of Gascony.

Marco Martinez – November 2019

Réserver votre séjour à la Maison Lamothe

Tous les prix indiqués sont pour deux personnes partageant une chambre.
Pour une occupation simple, déduisez 10 €.
Pour la mise à disposition d'un lit supplémentaire dans une chambre, ajoutez 20 €.

La taxe de séjour est de 0,80 € par personne et par nuit.

Nos chambres sont disponibles à partir de 16h00
Nous demandons à nos clients de quitter la chambre avant 11h00

Des dîners en mode table d’hôtes sont disponibles sur demande.
4 plats avec vin et café à 25 € par personne.

Notre maison est non-fumeur.

Les animaux domestiques peuvent être acceptés sur demande. Des frais peuvent être applicables.

Nous acceptons les paiements par carte de crédit / débit (sauf American Express) ou par virement bancaire.
Un acompte de 25% est payable au moment de la réservation, le solde étant payable le jour de l'arrivée ou avant.
Des conditions différentes s'appliqueront à la location de toute la maison et un dépôt de garantie sera nécessaire.

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Book your stay in Maison Lamothe

All prices quoted are based on two people sharing a room.
For single occupancy deduct 10€.
Provision of an additional single bed in a room add 20€.

Local taxe is 0,80€ per person and per night.

Our rooms are available from 16:00
We ask our guests to vacate by 11:00

Table d’hote dinners are available on request.
4 courses with wine and coffee at 25€ per person.

Our home is non-Smoking.

Pets may be allowed on request.
Charges may be applicable.

We accept payments by credit/debit card (not American Express) or bank transfer.
A deposit of 25% is payable at the time of reservation, the balance being payable on or before arrival.
Different terms will apply for rental of the whole house and a security deposit will be held.

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