The other south of France
THINGS MOVE SLOWLY IN THE SOUTH WEST OF FRANCE, AND THIS IS NO BAD THING. THERE CAN BE FEW BETTER PLACES IN THE WORLD FOR RELAXED, WHOLESOME LIVING
rolling hills juxtapose themselves against the brightest of blue skies. Winding roads reveal glimpses of centuries-old towns and villages, while ancient chateaus peak out atop their hillsides, speaking to the region’s agricultural heritage. Things move slowly in the South West, and this is no bad thing— there can be few better places in the world for relaxed, wholesome living.
This doesn’t mean, however, that the South West is without its excitement. Throughout the summer months, the region is awash with festivals, celebrating everything from wine and music to rugby and pottery.
Any tour of the South West must include Marciac, a quaint and charming little town that’s famous the world over for its annual jazz festival, which runs for a fortnight every summer. Indeed, great emphasis is placed on jazz in the town, with the subject being taught as a regular subject in local schools. And for the annual ‘Jazz in Marciac’ festival, a marquee (“le chapiteau”) capable of seating 6,000 is erected on the town’s rugby field, with concerts hosted every night for the duration of the festival, and free music from 11:00 till 20:00 every day. Stalls selling a variety of related and non-related merchandise are erected in and around the centre of the village square, where free concerts are given during the day.
Around the same time runs the Madiran Wine Festival. The village of Madiran is tiny—again, a quaint collection of streets taken straight from the pages of history— but it’s well known for its surrounding vineyards and wine chateaus. The main grape variety in Madiran is Tannat, which must make up 40 to 60 per cent of every vineyard in the region, though plenty of the area’s fabulous wines are 100-per cent Tannat.
The wine is typically very concentrated, high in tannin and traditionally requires several years aging to be at its best. The style of really good Madiran is not unlike that of high-end Cabernet Sauvignondominated Bordeaux wines. However, recently some of the younger generation of winemakers have been experimenting with, and producing, wines which are softer and more approachable in their youth, mirroring a similar tendency in Bordeaux and elsewhere. Madiran is also known as the healthiest of red wines due to the high levels of procyanidins it contains. This is said to be good for reducing blood pressure, lowering cholesterol and encouraging healthy blood clotting.
Within driving distance of both of these towns is the stunning mountain range of the Pyrenees, which straddles France, northern Spain and Angola. A drive down the single-lane, twisty roads is worth the views alone, but along the way there are dozens of small towns and villages each with their own quirks and charms.
In the other direction, France’s Atlantic coast is a two-hour drive away from the vineyards of Madiran. Popular with surfers, the waves surge and break with a force that only such a large ocean could produce. Again, charming seaside hamlets provide plenty of fodder for daytime exploration, while designated campsites allow more adventurous types to lie under a kaleidoscope of glistening stars at night.