Welcome to my place . . . Le Frêche, Gascony, France
Lunch is a big event five days a week and for €10-€12 everybody gets well fed in any restaurant
Bill Nelson on a terrace of the Mont de Marsan plage, a man-made lake 26km from Le Frêche.
Bill Nelson was born in Dublin in 1953. He worked as a physics lab technician, then studied aviation and worked in Dublin as an aeronautics engineer. In 2000 he moved to France to work on Airbus, then worked with Air France. He spends his time between Le Frêche in southwest France, and Dublin.
Where’s the first place you always bring people to when they visit?
Without doubt, the most pleasant aspect of Le Frêche and its environs are the many walks through the vineyards of the area. It is in the heart of the Armagnac region and the village of Le Frêche is surrounded by lush vines. It’s rare that you get the opportunity to enjoy a very pleasant walk while at the same time being so close to active yet seemingly sleepy vines. Even in the depths of winter, the naked, gnarled and ancient vines tell a story that is as old and interesting as southwest France itself.
The place is a perfect antidote for otherwise hectic and busy working lives. Sleep just falls “like a blessed thing” once we arrive and fall back into step with village life. As I have now retired from my job in Paris, these days we often commute from Ireland to spend longer periods there . . . just because we can.
The top three things to do that don’t cost money are...
First, would be the flamenco festival in Mont de Marsan. Each July, this festival of music and dance takes over the streets and squares of this medium-sized market town. You can simply wander from open-air dances to concerts and marvel at the wonderful guitar musicians who seem to have inherited genetically similar talent to Andréas Segovia. No surprise really as the Spanish frontier is only an hour’s drive or so on the other side of the majestic Pyrénées.
Next not to be missed is the Transhumance. A festival that lasts several weeks each September and involves taking some 300 sheep and goats from their summer pasture in the Pyrénées and herding them back to their winter housing at sea level. The herd, their shepherds, sheep dogs and donkeys meander at a leisurely pace stopping at many villages en route. It is quite a spectacle.
Le Frêche is always a stop-off for the troupe as it has ample commonage for rest and grazing. The Foyer Rurale, or country committee, organise a barbecue in the village every year to coincide with the Transhumance. The shepherds sell sheep and goats cheese along the way as they have a ready supply of raw material.
The high peaks of the Pyrénées is a handy drive from Le Frêche, so skiing is possible. But we prefer the summer activities, such as the Tour de France, which always takes in many savage climbs in the Pyrénées. Our favourite is the Tourmalet, over 2,000 metres above sea level, and no matter if the stage starts in Pau or Lourdes, there’s only one road over the top so our pitch is in a tiny village called St Marie de Campan several kilometres from the summit. (One bar, one cafe, one church and a cemetery behind it that is so steep the inhabitants must be buried almost standing up.)
By St Marie de Campan, the peloton is well stretched out and we get to see the individual riders very close as they battle against the “hors catagorie” climb. We even got a thumbs up from Nicholas Roche once when he spotted us waving our tricolour.
Where do you recommend for a great meal that gives a flavour of Le Frêche?
The Landes is famous for the production of duck and foie gras. To taste it at its best, it is essential to have it cooked in a Landes restaurant. In a village 6km from us, called Saint Justin, there’s a brilliant restaurant, Le Cadet de Gascoigne, and the ambience, staff, food and wine are all great. However, lunch is a big event five days a week for working people in southwest France, and for €10-€12 everybody gets well fed in any restaurant. And vin is compris!
Where is the best place to get a sense of Le Frêche’s place in history
That’s an easy one. In the village all that remains of the church is the bell tower. The bell rings from 7am to 10pm every day, with the angelus bell peeling three times a day. A church that stood in its place saw the marriage of King Francois 1st (Of Valois, 1515 - 1547) to Éléonore de Hapsbourg. During his reign, French became the official language in place of Latin, and there was an extraordinary explosion of Renaissance art. Poignantly, in the porch of the church tower stands a marble plaque with 29 names engraved on it. All of whom, young men, departed from the village train station with the sound of the bells ringing in their ears, over 100 years ago, on the 1,000km journey north, never to hear them again.
What should visitors save room for in their suit case after a visit to Le Frêche?
Into the case must go a well-wrapped bottle of Armagnac. There are several local distilleries that make top class Armagnac and offer free guided tours of their vineyards with tastings. Armagnac is big business around this area and exports go worldwide. The vignerons are delighted to send their visitors away happy in the knowledge they are taking with them a bit of local history and culture of Le Frêche.
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