France will tell you that it is the hero of western culture, the birthplace, the epicenter, l’in-di-spen-saaable de l’Occident. And in a way, it must kind of be true, my own commentaries and travelogues testament to its je-ne-sais-quoi. Except I do know quoi!
Museums, music, gastronomy, poetry, literature, fashion, cafés, boulangeries – the allure of France extends far beyond the arrondissements of Paris, bien qu’eux les Parisiens pètent bien dans la soie là-bas (a wonderful idiom I’ve just learned, though perhaps a bit vulgar). I feel lucky to have gotten to know some of the quieter, less tromped-upon corners of the country. First at age fifteen, in Albi, a town whose historic center and domineering Cathédral Sainte-Cécile (where I’d often stop for an ice cream cone) have recently become UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Then, while a university student in Nantes, a mini-métropole with little international name recognition, but with an easy, comfortable way of living, charming streets, and a giant mechanical elephant! Most recently, I taught English in the Dordogne, a foie-gras and truffle capital, where the hills roll with gentle curves and the market vendors make jokes with you as the punchline (but you don’t care and pack your bags with another kilo of apples).
And in every department, every city, every bourg, claims are made – here is where you’ll find France’s most scenic landscapes; its rarest art, greenest grass, happiest cows, and most talented mimes; the best Marché de Noël, the crustiest baguette, the oldest knife forgery, the wine with the highest viscosity and tannic mouth-feel, with undertones of tobacco and pur beurre that blossoms on the nose upon aeration (hmm, why yes, I am a wine expert, swirl swirl)…Uh.
So when I arrived in the Dordogne, I was not surprised by the superlatives. None of the allegations however, mentioned Périgueux’s lovely museum, the Musée d’art et d’archéologie du Périgord. Phillip and I spent a cold autumn afternoon making faces at the strange taxidermied animal bit of the collection before heading into a series of tiny salons, filled to the brim with art from around the world and from around the corner. It was a surprise to recognize the locations of many of the scenes which seemed to have been painted from our doorstep, if not of our doorstep itself.
The Dordogne also boasts over 1,500 châteaux, but in not quite so boastful a way as the Loire Valley. Among its quiet claims to fame is the Château de Puyguilhem, which Phillip and I toured privately with a guide eager to share its history. Situated just outside of Villars, this sixteenth century castle was built for Mondot de la Marthonie’s, Paris’ first Parliamentary President, but its feel is à cent pour cent périgordin – cozy, quiet and in the middle of the countryside.
But when I really think hard on it, maybe the real reason why I love France so much has less to do with it’s cultural richness and more to do with its pastries…like this tiny place, Chez Milou, just down the road from Puyguilhem. In fact, I think that everything that I have ever done in France has been paired with something buttery and baked. Perhaps je ne sais quoi after all!