Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Between Two Seas

We are Entre Deux Mers. The "seas" in question are in fact mighty rivers: the stately Dordogne which rises 500 km to the east in the Auvergne, and her sleek southern sister the Garonne which flows even further, down from the Pyrenees. They merge to form the vast Gironde estuary by which both torrents meet the Atlantic above Bordeaux. The land upstream of their confluence is green, fertile country; undramatic and undemanding. Were it not for the hectare after endless serried hectare of it laid to vines, you could be in any of half a dozen lowland English counties. Perhaps, subconsciously, that's half the reason the English clung on to this region of Aquitaine for 300 years. That, and the wine.

Just over the ridge from here is the terre sainte of Saint Emilion, the town named for the peripatetic confessor and hermit who settled here in the 8th century and whose successors started the production of wine which has been described as "the Belgravia of clarets". Its hallowed and fiercely regimented vineyards, Romanesque churches and expensive-looking shops are now a UNESCO world heritage site. But the area boasts wine of all colours and qualities, including the light, garnet-coloured clairet (from which is derived the English name for all Bordeaux reds) made from skimming red wine to reduce its alcohol content. Deliciously refreshing chilled; and even - with a lack of snobbery all the more welcome for being unexpected - with ice. 

It's odd how la France profonde can remind you of l’Angleterre ancienne of your imagination. Sloping down from the front elevation of our chateau, a lawn gives way to a tree-shaded wildflower margin and then to a wheatfield: the ripening yellow ears dancing at your knees and the farther green fields and copses undulating to the horizon. Your step through the mown allees crushes carpets of wild thyme, its scent ascending from your feet as from the aisle of St Mary's Bourne Street during the procession on a high feast-day. Around you in the grass are sky-blue chicory, scabious and viper's bugloss. From the green depths of the elms and poplars in the middle distance comes the brief but repeated, low, liquid call of a golden oriole. High above, a black kite wheels noiselessly on a warm updraft.

The nearest neighbours are at least half a kilometer away as the crow flies. Every morning we are visited by their dog: an old, butter-soft, rheumy-eyed retriever, his blond fur wet from the dewy fields and vineyards he has crossed to reach us. He waits patiently on the threshold for a biscuit - and as much of a tummy-rub as you care to provide. He is utterly without fear or suspicion of these strangers; and is apparently bilingual. We speculate on his name: entirely inappropriately, I want to call him Talbot, after the fearless English general who finally lost Aquitaine to the French in 1453 at the battle of nearby Castillon, effectively ending the Hundred Years War. So revered was "Old" Talbot by the victorious French that they raised a monument to him on the battlefield - to which the modern visitor is directed by tasteful brown tourist signs. 

Our ancestors fought hard to retain this province; and now we seem to be occupying it again. Anglophone people of all conditions have made their home here. British voices are routinely heard in the markets, and the indigenous French are more than tolerant of their presence. The roads are still empty enough to accommodate the influx of Landcruisers with their big, tell-tale UK number-plates, each of them a promising sign of potential investment and spending-power in this depopulated corner of Europe. President Hollande is threatening a tax on second homes to help finance his counter-intuitive, non Anglo-Saxon economic recovery; but even the leader of this proudly commerce-averse nation will not want to risk discouraging this generally well-heeled British diaspora, with its helpfully endless demand for builders, gardeners, pisciniers - and all the sea-lampreys the brown, tidal Dordogne can yield.

Ironically, under the jeu sans frontieres that is the EU, if the French continue to move out while the English continue to move in, the latter may end up effectively getting Aquitaine back. I can't decide what Old Talbot would make of their bloodless revenge.

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