Bienvenue à Nontron! Capital city of the Périgord vert – green because of its abundant oak and chestnut trees and due to its location within the Parc Naturel Régional Périgord-Limousin and Massif Central. It is home to one of the most famous knife forgery in France, but more importantly, it is home to some of the sweetest students in the whole of the Académie de Bordeaux. And that’s why I was there, invited to teach English with TAPIF. I gave an enthusiastic oui and tried in vain to get a glimpse at what life in this secluded community would be like. Today of course, Google Maps allows any Monsieur or Madame Tout-le-monde to tour Nontron’s streets remotely, but in October 2012, my arrival was more akin to an alien landing (moi, l’extraterrestre et l’étrangère en même temps).
What odd cathedral-like pointy spires! What flat, paved areas, perfect for driving! And what a peculiar balance of sky to land! How foreign it all was…
Happily situated in the Dordogne, I often found myself with periods of free time between classes, long enough for me to walk down into town for a sablé aux noix or a brioche suisse (or both), and a cup of coffee. It is a sleepy little town, but sure enough people live here and work here and study here and grow here.
Nontron’s streets are narrow, its roads quiet, and I may never have had the chance to get to know it had it not been for a bit of luck and a pair of restless legs. And I’ll reiterate: I regularly had four hours to kill in the middle of the day. Good thing I like walking.
The first view of town arriving from the south via the D675 is of the Pont du Général Leclerc; make a sharp turn to take it into “downtown” Nontron, but take a moment to appreciate a few (or all?) of the sites:
Monument dédié aux morts de Nontron;
Monument à Camille Chabaneau – a Nontron-born, Occitan-speaking philologist and member of the Académie Française;
La Coutellerie Nontronnaise – a 15th century knife forgery, said to be home of the folding pocket knife. I hear that the annual Fête du Couteau is an absolute gash – I mean bash!
The bridge steers you onto the Rue de Verdun, Nontron’s veritable “Main Street USA,” where you’ll cruise at a speedy 20km/h by the cinema, the post office, the office of tourism, la Maison des Beaux-Arts et sa jardin, and le Château de Nontron – my favorite spot to take lunch, catch my breath, and laugh at student graffiti making bold and false proclamations like “smoke weed every day” (yeah, yeah sure).
Continue along and you’ll reach Place Alfred-Agard, lined with cafés, a bakery, town hall, a pharmacy, a knife store (Couteaux à gogo?), a tabac or two – vous voyez le tableau, hein? A perfectly normal French town. Plus knives!
Winding roads spur off from the main square but soon enough the houses and pavement disappears and a national park swallows you up. That’s when you check your watch and realize that fifteen lycéens will be waiting for you in as many minutes. En voiture, Simone!!
It would be amiss of me to not mention the oddest of the town’s traditions: La mascarade des Soufflaculs de Nontron. That translates roughly to a festival of “ass-blowers” who are traditionally male, and mischievously run through town with bellows, trying to blow air under the bloomers of jolies dames, said to signifie the beginning of springtime. Today, Nontronnais of all ages and genders participate, some sardines appear to be paraded around, and a pointy-nosed totem is set ablaze, Burning Man-style. For a more nuanced description of the event, see le Ministère de la culture.
For a final glimpse before heading out, make the walk to the pedestrian bridge at the southern side of town for sweeping views of Nontron, whose streets and valley I now know by heart. Its name may not grace the pages of travel books, but I will proudly try to pronounce it and its many alveolar nasals pour toujours et à jamais!