France what a delight you are. Just when I think you can’t amaze me any more, you throw us a surprise that just endears you to my heart even more. How is it you get underneath my skin so well?
From our voyage through the Chartreuse, Vercors and Cevennes Natural Parks to the Haut-Garonne region, little treasures keep emerging that bowl me over and create just a little flutter in my stomach. After all, who cannot love the gorgeous Les Plus Beaux Villages that hide in your countryside with tales to tell those looking beyond the castle walls?
Of course I love the iconic French destinations; Avignon is to die for, Provence Lavender just so sensual and Annecy is beyond adjectives. And yet this week, France you have thrown up so many joyful routes, villages and compelling stories that I find myself reengaged with you and your diverse characterful landscape. You are a joy to behold.
In search for a place to rest our travel weary heads, we found ourselves in Soreze in the Midi-Pyrenees region of the south west, nestled within the Toulouse, Carcassonne and Castres triangle. Seemingly inconspicuous and just one of many towns embedded into your map and yet, like an unexpected Christmas gift, we opened up your present which had me melting like putty in your hands.
Soreze, famous for three things. Its 754AD Abbey School, the source of the UNESCO Canal du Midi and is a well-known resting point for the Saint-Jacques de Compestela pilgrimage path – what more could you ask from a name on a map?
With maisons à encorbellement – (buildings with upper storeys protruding over the lower portion) and their half-timbered frontage, we felt like you had transported us back into the Middle Ages. The atmosphere here was amazing and with all the plaques around the town that tell you about the famous people who lived here once upon a time, I felt like you were drawing us into an intricate tale that made us just pure bystanders. The view down the narrow streets was like something out of a Dicken’s novel and with the image of Saint Martin’s tower looming at the end of the vision, we were compelled to check out its dominant features. It was a bit of a shock when, impressed by its sovereignty, all that remains of this 15 century church is this bell-tower. No regal interiors, no crafted alters, no stain-glassed windows. Just a shadow of its former glory. How sad and yet perversely how amazing that you have salvaged this historical monument and continue to protect its legacy.
The narrow, paved streets hold the footprints of man and beast, and I was left wondering what their contribution to the historical tale might be. And somewhere in the whisper of the wind I am sure I could hear voices from a distant past; perhaps it was the Benedictine monks or the philosophical and military scholars who studied at this prestigious college. May be it was the sound of the horses who carried their loads or the chatter from the artists who made this sumptuous town home. Either way there was plenty to feel in the walls of this ancient yet modest and humble place.
Soreze’s neighbour, Revel that was no more than 5km away offered us a slightly different feel; one that had a modern edge to it on the outskirts of its Market Square. With fountains and murals, you have brought Revel into a contemporary world where history holds on tightly with a fingertip grasp on the past. Evidence of that space in time is still clear in the town’s centre, where one of your finest examples of a medieval market square can be seen here. And it is here, each Saturday that a traditional market is held which is reputedly over 600 years old. Surrounding the square are arched walkways with cafés and your traditional stores enticing us with smells and tastes of the local French cuisine. The chocolate box facades of your medieval buildings are part and parcel of the past that the modern world cannot erase and it feels as though it holds a mysterious legacy that only the walls can confess. Revel you were a delightful interlude that we were glad not to have missed.
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France you delight and surprise us around every corner. When we take your off-the-beaten track routes, we find our eyes filled with ancient splendour and our hearts bursting with a gentle respect for these out of the way places. May you always lead us to your quiet treasures and continue to remind us of your grace, simplicity and ubiquitous splendour and charm.
If you wish to camp in this amazing region, then there is a great spot, Camping Saint Martin (43.45473, 2.06960) or there is an Aire around the other side of the village close to the supermarket with service facilities, (43.4505, 2.06567)
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