Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Local land and buildings

The typical Gers farmhouse is quite modest in appearance outside, but spacious and generous in their inner capacity - Tardis-like, in fact. The walls are made of mud bricks, which are sturdy enough as long as they remain dry. Under their Roman-style roofs made of undulating and alternating tiles, cased in a tough waterproof coating called crépis, and with their doors and window openings made of expensive and beautiful local whitish limestone, these walls are secure enough, but should water get in anywhere, or if the mud-bricks are exposed to rain or damp - then they rapidly crumble into dust.
The layout of the houses, which are low and organic-looking, with wide barns or sheds pulled in under the same roof, often centres around a long, wide, central hall running the length of the building. With a modernising eye, this central space can become a stunning gallery-like walkway. In the old days, once the harvest was in, the hall served as a festive dining area, with a long trestle table set down the middle, and all the workers and hangers-on allowed into the master's house, to celebrate the end of the season's work and fruitfulness.  The wide, light rooms of roughly square proportion, all open off the hallway, giving a symmetry and classical feel to the building, despite its modest and quiet use.
In fact, one could trace a lineage for the design of these houses back to some of the early chateaux up in the Loire, and I am thinking of Chenonçeau in particular, with its Italian origins and stylised layout.  But these houses are not in the least aristocratic.  Just practical, made of local stone, very beautiful and unassuming.
The farms are quite numerous in any landscape here, presumably because the land was rich enough to support a family in a smallish acreage.  They are set among marvellous undulating hills and valleys, with groves of oaks or other firewood, and small streams, and bulbous swellings of land, and views of no more than say a mile or two of distance, but lovely and contemplative.  None of the houses looks to be older than the early 19th century - so God knows where the peasants round hear lived before the Revolution. In shacks and hovels, presumably. I must find out.
We went for lunch to a  cafe in a little bastide town called St Clar: three courses for 11€, and totally delicious. We looked at the lovely, wonky, typical arcades around the two town squares, bemoaned the effect of the recent opening of an Intermarché supermarket on the all the little local shops, admired a useful 24/7 automatic laundry machine with drier, set into the supermarket carpark.
We called in on Tom and Kate Absolom, who've lived here for about 4 years and have made their own Gers farmhouse into something so radiantly beautiful that it could be a New York loft, set down in this medieval and empty landscape. Stunning.
We came home again. The men set to getting the new hover-mower to work, and started transforming whole swathes of rough grass and weeds into smooth velveteen.  I cooked supper, opened wine, made salad, listened to the crickets, picked nettle tips to make anti-hay-fever tisanes, and now - at quite an early hour - have fallen into bed to try to do nothing, and catch up on rest and sleep.
Downstairs, my sister has lit her new magic patent double-burning hearth called a Polyflam.  It's supposed to pump hot air round the house.  Not sure if it's working.
Tomorrow we are going to hear an elderly Jewish lady talk about how she survived the war and Vichy government in France, and then we are having a curry lunch.  Very Aryan, I guess. This was booked for us before we left England, as someone thought it would be suitable entertainment. I am not sure if I am looking forward to it or not.

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