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

Virtuozity - - Travel -

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.

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