Travel Writer’s View

Guide to France: a perfect base

Villages are too sleepy and cities too snooty, says Anthony Peregrine, but a small town – his favourite is Figeac in the Lot – makes a perfect base for a French holiday.

So that’s decided, then. I have dodged through the medieval streets, bobbed from baker’s to bookshop – and bumped into both a Hollywood star and the world’s first Egyptologist. Traces of them, anyway.

I have slept in a four-poster, been swept along by ladies bustling to market and talked counter-Reformation church décor. I would have canoed the river, but a lengthy bar session with a bloke called Bernard ruled that out. France, we concluded, would win the next Six Nations Championship. Or conceivably Wales.

Now I’m the right side of a pan-fried foie gras, cradling an armagnac, and gratified.

After a couple of days in the place, I have confirmed beyond reasonable doubt that Figeac, in the Lot, is the finest small town in France. I have long suspected it, and now I am certain.

So far, so clear, but so what? Well, I am increasingly convinced that small towns – say, under 12,000 population – are the best way to experience France. (Possibly anywhere, for that matter.) The much-acclaimed French villages may, of course, be lovely, but they are shut by 7.30pm, subject to curtain-twitching and a certain sullen frostiness in the café (especially, I’ve noted, if it’s called Le Bar des Amis).

Big cities are exciting and packed but also restless, edgy and wary of eye contact: invigorating to visit and a relief to leave.

A good small town, by contrast, may be a thumbnail sketch of rural France, but still able to offer you a drink at midnight. And that’s perfect. Certainly it is if it’s Figeac. Here’s a spot small enough to retain a millennial sense of community, big enough to balance it out with diversity and vitality. Folk do not stare at visitors. They have a life, and generally smile about it.

There’s an aerospace employer up the road (vital, that), a summer theatre festival and lots of stopping in the sinuous thoroughfares to chat. Lawyer speaks unto butcher, housewife unto four-square old chap just in from lifting his onions.

If the ancient stone streets press in tightly, it is the better to concentrate this contemporary life coursing through them. The town’s rhythms have been evolving since the ninth century and aren’t short of juice yet. It’s devilishly easy to fall in step.

They lead naturally out to the splendid landscape beyond (hiking? riding? climbing?), then back to Figeac for as many decent restaurants as you can shake a credit card at. This, in short, is my kind of France.

First things first.

We’re in the bit of the French South-West where the Quercy bumps into the start of the Massif Central, a mixture of limestone plateaux and substantial slopes studded with substantial farms. So, from any main approach, there’s a tidy drop down to the Célé river and Figeac.

People – monks and merchants, peasants and nobles – have been arriving for centuries and the splendid thing is that, if they all returned today, they would not be disorientated. Granted, the Mysticafé (“Ce soir: electro techno house, 21h”) might have them foxed – but not the arch and ginnel leading there.

Or the town lay out, largely unchanged since the Middle Ages. Or the stone-arched shop frontages, the outsized façades with their feverish window decoration, the half-timbering, the alleys, the cat-concealing crannies. I’ll not go on – architectural description leaves me in a light coma, too. But walking Figeac really is like ambling through the historic structures of French living, from the great medieval trading days through Reformation and Renaissance to 18th-century townhouses.

Stroll around, lift the eyes and there’s always something to look at – the magnificent 13th-century Maison-de-la-Monnaie (now the tourist office) or the soleilhos, open-fronted, wood-framed attics for drying skins, food and washing. Every home needs one.

It has all developed organically, therefore is coherent. It is also – and this is the key – alive. Respect for the place is expressed in its abundant use (though I could have done without the serial-killer skateboarders). It has, though, been a close-run thing.

Fifty years ago, no one cared much about Figeac (or, indeed, most other old French towns). Locals had left their crumbling medieval homes for smart, standard houses on new developments outside. So the homes crumbled some more. By 1955, government inspectors decided that there was “nothing of interest” in central Figeac. The plans were to clear away the ancient stuff to make room for the motorcar and the modern age.

That it didn’t happen was the result of sloth, and the surprise realisation, in the 1960s and ’70s, that French heritage might extend further than the château of Versailles. Subsequent restoration has been superbly thorough, buffing up not only façades but whole buildings and quartiers – thus bringing folk back into Figeac centre.

So the streets ring with the cries of children in the primary school playground and the sound of uncertain flute practice from open windows. The Saturday morning market under its iron canopy on place Carnot is a raucous, retail-driven social event. Such is the jostle of jolly acquaintance that it takes a couple of hours to buy a kilo of tomatoes.

And the shops slotted into the venerable surroundings are shops that people need – butchers, bakers (eight of them), chemists, fromageries, fashions – rather than the outlets for potters, sculptors and ceramicists that overwhelm other French historico-spots. Admirable people, these artists, but if there are more of them than there are grocers, then a town is clinically dead.

Which Figeac distinctly is not. Early morning, as shopkeepers sweep diligently in front of their doors, you’ll see old boys nipping to bakery, newsagent’s and pharmacy – before a sharpener in the bar. Youngsters will be scuffing across town to school and women in tight skirts tottering to the office.

Later, make for place Barthal, where Les Cordeliers has a raft of regional produce – foie gras, wines, cheeses – whose very existence lends weight to a paunch. Nearby, at P Berzieu’s grocery, a lady will pop a dried strawberry in your mouth before pointing you at the figs, fish and Tunisian sweetmeats. Between the two is a lingerie shop, which enlivens the short trip no end. Figeac has, in fact, a bracing number of lingerie shops, though you might find, as I did, that it’s Cache-Coeur on rue Gambetta that truly catches the eye.

Let me now direct you for a walk under the plane trees along the river, then up the hill to the rue Malleville, which meanders quirkily back down through the town’s residential history. At the bottom, the hunting and fishing shop may have another sale of maggots and shotguns.

And so to the St Sauveur church – all that’s left of the abbey that founded Figeac. After a good kicking from the Protestants in the religious wars, the abbey was finished off by 1789 revolutionaries. They replaced it with place-de-la-Raison (“Rationality Square”), which tells you most of what you need to know about the French Revolution.

Later still, repair to the Bar Champollion on the bijou little place Champollion, where there’ll be a chap with a scarf reading Le Monde, several people on the terrace hailing passers-by and two lads at the bar wondering, I’d guess, exactly what the barmaid last bought at Cache-Coeur. Figeac’s vibrancy is comforting and hereditary. It’s France with all its best sides out.

You’ll not be long in Figeac before learning that it has a Very Celebrated Man (VCM) on its books. You could, on the other hand, be there for ages before discovering that it also boasts a second VCM – one who, for English speakers, may be rather more famous than the first.

VCM one is Jean-François Champollion who, with the help of the Rosetta stone, cracked Egyptian hieroglyphics in 1822. Thus, as pop biographies say, he founded Egyptology.

Old Jean-François is a national hero, as a similar figure perhaps wouldn’t be in Britain, and Figeac treats him with reverence. He has his bar and square, of course, but also, just off the square, a vast, black granite reproduction of the Rosetta stone forming the floor of a courtyard.

It’s one of the more sober and fitting monuments in southern France – or it is until town youth gathers there of an evening. (“Going down the Rosetta ” is the local phrase.) Then it’s as lively and furtive as you like.

Champollion’s old family home is in an alley leading to the courtyard and was, until last year, a museum dedicated to the chap. It will be again from 2007, when it re opens on a much grander scale.

For the time being, though, it’s shut – which releases you to seek out Figeac’s second VCM. This is Charles Boyer, billed “the screen’s greatest lover” as he slipped through movies such as Mayerling, Algiers and, later, Barefoot in the Park.

Before fleeing for Hollywood, chain-smoking Charles spent his youth above the family agricultural supplies emporium on boulevard Juskiewenski. It’s now an electrical shop, with a little plaque, about eight feet up, noting the lad’s birth in 1899. The local cinema is also named after him. But that’s very much it, as far as recognition of the screen’s greatest lover goes in Figeac.

He crops up nowhere in the several tons of tourism literature – or in either of the town’s historical museums (which, incidentally, you may skip without great loss if you’re pushed for time). Had Charles done something to upset townsfolk, then? “Oh no,” said Christelle Damotte at the tourist office. If Figeac were in the US, I mentioned, it would have changed its name to “Boyerville” years ago. “We’ll bear that in mind,” she smiled. As I said, France with its best sides out.

The landscape around Figeac is a distillation of the greatest hits of the French South-West. This means it rolls, it rises – often in alarming and rocky manner – before settling you back to a river and ruffled farmland. A few miles from town in any direction, you feel the writ of contemporary concerns running out, and timelessness taking hold. It’s not quite true, of course. Newsagents’ hoardings in the remotest village indicate that there is interest, even here, in Dépardieu’s latest head-butting.

But you can forget that as you follow the Célé, and then the grander Lot, valleys (a rewarding round trip). Both rivers cut through the limestone Quercy plateau, creating soft-edged canyons. Cliffs push in, then pull back for pastures, farms and abbeys. Villages cluster below or, like the unmissable St-Cirq-Lapopie, perch up top. Most offer opportunities for canoeing, walking, climbing and otherwise knocking yourself out.

The Pech-Merle cave, above Cabrerets, has the finest wall paintings in France still accessible to the public and Cajarc has the Georges Pompidou Modern Art Gallery. The ex-president was also the local MP. His gallery here is a sight more inspiring than the elephant tusks he unloaded on the museum in Figeac.

Slightly farther afield are Rocamadour, the abbey, church complex and village, all clamped to a rock face, and medieval Conques, hanging from a hillside and possessive of its very strange church treasures.

And you must make time for Cardaillac, up in the agricultural hills where people used to live on chestnuts. This is a splendid village, roaming across the hilltop – but you’re there for the Musée Eclaté (“Scattered Museum”). Effectively, it’s a tour round real village houses, workshops and the old school, all sparely restored to the way they were when the last occupants left them. The buildings and objects, hundreds of them, serve as base for volunteer village guides to tell their story and, through it, the story of an entire slice of French country history… which, as you’ll learn, attains a sort of universality. Unfortunately, it’s French language-only (except for Monday afternoons in summer). But it’s also the most engrossing small museum I know, so perhaps worth learning French for.

Back in town, there’s ample scope for an aperitif crawl, starting on the market square, where there are tables under the market canopy. Round the corner (nip through the arch, past the contraceptive machine), the Mysti’café is lounge trendy but also terribly polite to middle-aged people who can barely tell their hip from their hop. There are many other bars, equally friendly.

The evening wandering is, at any event, lovely, the low-lit old streets lively with locals at leisure. On certain summer nights, food producers set up stalls that you may tour, buying elements of your dinner hither and yon before eating them on nearby tables with everyone else.

On other occasions – well, you’re in the Quercy, so you’ll be looking for duck, foie gras, freshwater fish, wild mushrooms, that sort of thing. And you’ll find them all over the tight town centre, but best of all at La Cuisine du Marché on rue Clermont (05 65 50 18 55). Go for the £20 menu.

Then wander some more. The bar in Le Pont d’Or hotel (cross the medieval bridge, right by the river) is a good destination. Or there may be a show on somewhere. I was particularly peeved to miss Gérard Gouny and his accordion band, due in town just after my departure. I’ve never heard of Gérard, but he looked very promising on the posters – podgy, proud, grinning – and no music better furnishes a country town fête. Perhaps you will be luckier.