A model village

Lavardens in the Gers may be small but it hosts an action-packed calendar of events, including a cricket-catching contest. Amanda Hodgkinson discovers its charms

Lavardens in the Gers may be small but it hosts an action-packed calendar of events, including a cricket-catching contest. Amanda Hodgkinson discovers its charmsA grillon is a small black cricket found widely in France and loved for its charming, chirrupy song. These busy little insects get everywhere in the summer months, even delighting Parisians by setting up home and singing in the Paris m�tro. But nowhere are they more sought after than in the village of Lavardens in the Gers, deep in southwest France. Serge Brunet, a grillon enthusiast and Lavardens resident, can’t keep the smile off his face as he explains how the World Cricket Catching Championships are held in the meadows that flank the historic Lavardens ch�teau. “The crickets live in small holes in the earth. We hold two competitions, one for the under-12s and one for those over 12! It’s harder than you think to catch a grillon. You need a thin piece of straw. When you find a tiny hole in the ground, poke the straw very gently inside it. If you do it just right, you can withdraw the straw and you’ll find a cricket hanging on to the end of it. The first person to catch three grillons is the winner.” Serge pats my arm reassuringly. “Don’t worry,” he says. “The crickets are treated very well and we don’t eat them! We let them all go back to the meadow.”If this isn’t quirky enough, Lavardens also holds an international scarecrow competition each year as well. In fact, as Serge is keen to point out to me, for a village of only 375 inhabitants, there is an awful lot going on. “We may be deep in the countryside but we are not far from Toulouse. We have high speed internet, the ch�teau has all-year-round art exhibitions and there are music festivals and night markets throughout the summer.” Lavardens is also one of those rare French villages that has thriving amenities.  In its narrow streets you will find a post office, a grocers, a caf� that is the hub of village life, a restaurant, a library, a bank, a school with 60 children, artists’ workshops, a furniture maker, a plumber, electrician, even a garagiste. Everything, in fact, a village could need to make daily life comfortable for its inhabitants. Serge, who has lived in Lavardens for seven years, worked for many years in the busy 18th arrondissement for the Paris Mairie and it was when his partner, Ga�le, was pregnant with their first child, that they decided to leave Paris and head for the country.

A quieter life“We wanted our children to profit from a quieter life,” he explains. “I was born in Provence so I thought about moving back there but Ga�le had an uncle who lived in the Gers and we visited him. We fell in love with the d�partement and particularly with the village of Lavardens. It resembled for me, the Proven�al village of my youth. It’s one of those places you find and then never want to leave. Our children can play in the streets here all day and late into the night in the summer and everybody watches out for them.”These days, Serge is the director of the Gers branch of Europe Direct, an information centre focused on educating and informing the public about the institutions, legislation, politics and financing of the European Union. “There are 400 organisations like mine in 27 countries,” says Serge. “And while each country has its own identity, we are all European. I’m trying to make the link between the global idea of a European Union and the individual.”Serge believes that it is the next generation which will have a clearer idea of what Europe represents for its citizens but in the meantime his own children, L�o and Alm�e don’t seem too bothered by the ongoing evolution of European identity. Aged ten and seven years, they love nothing better than to play in the grounds of Lavarden’s crowning glory, its stone ch�teau which perches like a fairytale castle high on a rocky promontory overlooking the countryside. The ch�teau was built on the site of a 12th-century feudal fortress, the stronghold of the counts of Armagnac. Destroyed by Charles VIII at the seige of Lavardens, it wasn’t until the 16th century that the present ch�teau was built on its ruins by a French nobleman, Antoine de Roquelaire, for his much younger bride, Suzanne De Bassabat. Unfortunately Roquelaire died and the building work was never finished. In 1752 work began again but this time history stepped in to hamper the building work and the French Revolution saw its owners fleeing the country. Luckily, the ch�teau escaped demolition and began a new life as a home shared by 12 families. Then, centuries later in 1979, an association was created to protect and restore it. Today the fine stone building is open to the public and very much worth a visit, as is the little village that huddles at its feet, full of tiny winding streets and rose-covered cottages.

European village“There’s a great mix of people here,” explains Serge as we walk along the peaceful narrow lanes. “The village has families who have lived here for generations. And then there are the newcomers; we have Italians here, Poles, English, Spanish. There’s even a Welshman who was an opera singer. He has settled here and become an organic farmer. He sings arias for us all sometimes. What I like most is that we all blend together. It’s a very real community. The whole village is a playground for the children. And if they make a bit of noise, nobody minds. It’s far better to see kids having fun than have them spend their days stuck in front of computer screens or the television. Above all, for me, this is a really European village.” European or quintessentially French, Lavardens is a delightful place to explore. And even if you do nothing else, it’s worth a visit just to sit in the grassy shade of the historic ch�teau and listen to the crickets singing.

FRANCOFILEWhere to eatRestaurant du Ch�teau32360 LavardensTel: (Fr) 5 62 64 58 90A delightful restaurant sheltering under the ancient walls of the ch�teau.

Where to stayWhile there are no hotels in the village, www.gasconyexperience.com offers g�tes, B&Bs and charming holiday home rentals in Lavardens.

Places to visitCh�teau de Lavardens  Tel: (Fr) 5 62 58 10 61www.chateaulavardens.comThis was once a stronghold of the counts of Armagnac and is well worth a visit. Numerous art exhibitions run throughout the year.

Additional informationFor details of events in Lavardens (including the World Cricket Championship) visit www.coeurdegascogne.com

The historic town of Auch, the departmental capital of the Gers, is nearby and offers good restaurants, hotels, museums and a Thursday and Saturday market. www.auch-tourisme.com