I think it was in southwest France where I first understood the phrase “go slow.”
Perhaps it was when my tutor winced at the mention of Paris, because “they only have one hour for lunch in that city.”
Perhaps it was because shops closed on Monday and the pink cobbled streets fell silent for much of the summer months.
Or perhaps it was the moment, while cycling along the canal, that I saw builders set up a table, complete with red-chequered cloth, baguettes and wine to celebrate nothing but their daily lunch break.
Go slow, in this part of France, doesn’t mean go to seed. It means, well, go slow.
Keep active and cycle but take the chance to rest. Take pleasure in good food, but not to morbid excess. Enjoy the arts and sciences, but enjoy the simple things too.
If regions could have philosophies, I think Tarn and Garonne’s would be this: life’s a heady mix of rest and recreation, not a puritanical nor pleasure seeking race to the bitter end.
And that cycle journey along the canal formed as much a part of daily life as it formed the basis of week long holidays here.
The whole area takes its name from the two slow flowing rivers, Tarn and Garonne, that curl through its vineyard and sunflowered land. Overlooked by plane trees and the fronds of weeping willows, they create cool green tunnels for a relaxing meander by bike or by boat (or, apparently, you can do both through booking through a company that lets you take bikes on board the boats.)
For the most part, the cycle routes are pea green, peppered by poppies and fields of sunflowers in the breezy heat of the summer months. Crooked stone houses and medieval bastides punctuate mark the green route, a throwback to the time when locals took refuge in clifftop bastides, chocolate box villages with flower spilling window boxes and lonely church bells.
Moissac, a town found at the confluence of the Tarn and Garonne, makes more of a mark on the terrain. Best known for its imposing Benedictine Abbey and its series of stone sculptures, weary travellers can find respite from the sun (or indeed the rain) beneath its cloister. (Handy, really, as it’s a rest point on one of France’s sections of the religious pilgrimage trail to Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain.)
In seven days, you can cycle from the coastal wine city of Bordeaux to the pink university town of Toulouse and while I never quite managed that, I did make the day trip from Toulouse to Carcasonne on two wheels. And that was no mean feat.
2015 sees the launch of a cycle path from the Atlantic Coast all the way through to the Mediterranean : the canal des deux mers. It’s a lofty goal. But, some things are best left for others I think.
Away from the rustic accommodation and smooth canal-side cycling, spikes burst out of the earth in chalky-white formation at the untouched Aveyron Gorge. Hiking paths, kayak trails and (yes) cycling routes swerve between the limestone but post-surgery I’m more interested in one or two of the newer things Tarn and Garonne have to offer.
The new teapot exhibition at the Museum of Table Art in the Cistercian Abbey of Belleperche, for example, may help me decipher a mystery or two. Like why no-one in France even owns a teapot or why anyone believes that Lipton in hot water and served in a glass mug even passes as tea at all.
And then there’s the village of Saint Antonin Noble Val, currently strutting on the international stage thanks to Helen Mirren and her feel good film 100 Foot Journey. An Indian family move to Saint Antonin and open a restaurant 100 feet from her classic French eatery. Rivalry and hilarity ensues in the aptly named comedy – and the village now offers tours behind the scenes.
From Saint Antonin you can once more take to two wheels and hit the open road. But while the cycling is important, so is the food. And to really enjoy life in this or perhaps any other part of the world, it’s important to appreciate both the activity and the relaxation part of the trip. Or, in other words, to go slow.