Fields of sunflowers, flocks of squawking geese, fragrant pine woods backed by the jagged white peaks of the Pyrenees, the melting goodness of a long-simmered cassoulet and the mellowness of a vintage Madiran—Martin Calder’s memories of a summer spent in Gascony are enough to make any Francophile eager to explore what the author calls “the other south of France”.

One of the country’s most remote and rural regions, Gascony spent three centuries as an English rather than French province, thanks to Eleanor of Aquitaine’s 12th-century marriage to Henry II of England. Only belatedly, and with reluctance, did the independent Gascons accept French nationality.

Englishman Martin Calder discovered the region when, as a 22-year-old university student, he worked as a summer stagiaire at a farm and auberge in the isolated village of Péguilhan. Now, years later, he describes with gentle humor his “abrupt culture shock” when, straight from studies of civil engineering and French, he found himself feeding cattle, watering crops, picking plums and herding sheep with bilingual (French and Gascon) sheepdogs. And then there was the moonlit night when four wolves loped up to the inn’s back door…

Much of the book’s charm comes from Calder’s acceptance into a hospitable French family: the genial farmer (“In Jacques-Henri Cazagnac I’d found … a descendant of those stubborn, unruly, fun-loving Gascons of old”); his kindly wife Marie-Jeanne, whose skill in the kitchen was bringing the auberge renown; and their three sons who worked alongside Calder. Villagers such as the chattering bar owner “Madame Parle-Beaucoup” enliven the pages, as does a summer romance and the highlights of rural life—market day, a weeklong religious festival, Bastille Day festivities, the passage of the Tour de France.

Calder, who went on to get a PhD in 18th-century French literature and now teaches at the University of Bristol, gives readers much more than a memoir. Skillfully weaving centuries of history and culture, including anecdotes of famous Gascons such as the real-life D’Artagnan, into his tale, he transforms “what I did on my summer vacation” into a fascinating glimpse into a relatively unknown and happily unspoiled corner of France.

A Summer in Gascony: Discovering the Other South of France by Martin Calder (Nicholas Brearley Publishing)

Originally published in the June 2008 issue of France Today

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