La Romieu - Perfect Peace

Time seems to slow down when you visit the charming village of La Romieu in the Gers. Amanda Hodgkinson takes it easy as she discovers the quirky side of this fairytale French community

Time seems to slow down when you visit the charming village of La Romieu in the Gers. Amanda Hodgkinson takes it easy as she discovers the quirky side of this fairytale French communityThe quart d’heure Gersois is an expression that perfectly sums up the pace of life in the Gers and the laid back Gersois people. It means quite simply that everything happens at least 15 minutes later than it was meant to. In La Romieu, an incredibly pretty, flower- bedecked medieval village in the north of the d�partement, you could push that 15 minute delay to a good half hour. This relaxed disregard for punctuality is just what Jill Lucas-Horvais, a Parisian actress with a hitherto love of all things urban, tells me she adores about her adopted village in southwest France.“I was completely seduced by the area,” she says, describing how she first arrived in 2001 after a trip to see friends nearby which quickly included a visit to a local estate agent and the life changing purchase of a ruined farmhouse complete with stone windmill. “La Romieu is so incredibly peaceful,” she says. “It’s as though time slows down when you arrive here. You can take all morning to stroll through the streets, buy a baguette, stop for a coffee in the bar, say hello to a few people... The village has everything a Parisian like me could dream of. It’s full of old stone houses covered in roses, tiny medieval alleys and meandering streets that haven’t changed in centuries. The village is on the Route de Saint-Jacques de Compostelle and I love seeing pilgrims making their way through the village just as they have done for a thousand years. It’s incredible. People from all over the world pass through here.”Jill, whose successful career as a French actress spans film, television, radio and theatre, had long dreamed of changing her busy city life. When her husband Patrick, a photographer working for Paris Match, decided he wanted to concentrate on his art photography, Jill suggested they move south. She didn’t know where exactly until the couple visited the Gers. “We wanted somewhere beautiful to live, somewhere unspoilt and La Romieu is certainly that. We were completely enchanted as we drove towards the village. We passed ch�teaux and old stone farmhouses and felt like we were driving into a film set. The sense of history is incredible.” La Romieu is indeed a village steeped in history. It began life in the 11th century as a stopping place for Benedictine monks on pilgrimage to Rome, (the original name of the village Larroumieu means pilgrim’ in old Gascon). A modest monastery was built and the village grew around it, defended on every side by a thick stone wall some eight to ten metres tall. There were three gates into the village and today you can still see one of them standing in its original form. The village grew in importance as a religious place and some time later a Collegiate church with two towers was built. While the village suffered at the hands of religious wars over the centuries, much of its original architecture still stands and since 1999, the Collegiate has been listed by Unesco as a World Heritage Site. A walk around its shady cloisters and a visit to its towers and church is much recommended and will imbue any tourist with a sense of calm. Afterwards stroll through the winding streets of La Romieu and everywhere you look, roses tumble over garden walls, flowering against colombage. It’s no surprise then, to find that the village hosts a rose festival in May each year. This green-fingered village is also surrounded by plum orchards and vineyards. The Jardins de Coursiana across the fields from the Collegiate, sells plums and offers you the chance to visit six hectares of stunning gardens. These include an arboretum of 700 trees and shrubs from five continents planted in the 1970s by Gilbert Cours-Darne, an eminent French botanist.“It’s a gentle life here,” says Jill. “But always interesting. When I first moved to La Romieu, I worried I would be bored by village life but I haven’t been at all. In fact, I’ve been amazed by the number of artists living here. La Romieu is blossoming with creativity, a vraie p�pini�re de talent!’” With only 532 inhabitants in La Romieu, news of an actress moving into the village travelled fast and the mayor asked Jill to give acting lessons to the locals. Now she runs a theatre group in the village for children and adults, and a unique group for native English speakers who want to improve their French through theatre and improvisation.  “I studied acting in English in Paris,” Jill explains. “So I thought I’d do acting in French for the English community here. It’s great fun and quite challenging for everybody…” La Romieu is full of historic buildings but it is also a playful village. Look closely at the houses in the main square and you will see small stone statues of cats prowling along roof lines and curled up asleep against alcoves. They were created by a sculptor in the 1960s who, as a child, had been told a story about an orphan called Angeline and the cats of La Romieu, by his grandmother. It’s a delightful story that could grace any fairytale book. Dating from the Middle Ages, the legend begins with a disastrous harvest and a subsequent famine in the village. People ate anything they could to survive, even cats. Angeline however, couldn’t bear the thought of eating the pets. Secretly, she hid a male and female cat in the attic of her adopted family’s home. By the time the villagers finally celebrated a plentiful harvest, there was not a cat left in the village. But then rats attacked the villagers’ corn stores and mice plagued their houses. Angeline’s two cats had, by this time, turned into many more. Angeline offered them to the villagers on the condition that they promised never to hurt a cat again. Her beloved cats killed the rodents and the villagers lived happily ever after. And Angeline, so the story goes, grew subtly more feline with each passing year... “We have a cat festival in the village every August,” says Jill with a smile, after she recounts Angeline’s story to me. “It’s �

la Mi-ao�t. Do you get the joke? It’s a typical French play on words. Mi-ao�t. Miaou!”The festival includes an international cat show with more than 250 breeds of cats exhibited and a noisy procession of local children dressed up as cats. Local artists make cat sculptures in wood, stone, glass and even wool. “There’s a lot going on in the village,” says Jill, “but all at a relaxed pace of course.” She shrugs her shoulders and grins at me. “It must be something in the air perhaps? You must feel it too. A definite sense of calmness here?”And I have to agree. Driving away from La Romieu along winding roads lined with sunflower fields and acres of leafy plum orchards, it seems only natural that I ease my foot off the accelerator a little. Even the ubiquitous farmer’s van full of chickens, going at a snail’s pace in front of me doesn’t bother me. I lean back in my seat and enjoy the view, suddenly sure I have all the time in the world.FRANCOFILEGETTING?THEREFor information on how to get to La Romieu, see the Holiday Planner on page 88.

Where to stayLa Ferme de FlaranRoute de Condom32310 Valence-sur-Baise Tel: (Fr) 5 62 28 58 22www.fermedeflaran.comCharming hotel and restaurant near the glorious Abbey de Flaran, a 12th-century cistercian abbey that houses a private art collection. The abbey is open to the public all year round.

Le Logis des Cordeliers2 Bis Rue de la Paix32100 Condom Tel: (Fr) 5 62 28 03 68www.logisdescordeliers.com

Where to eatLe CardinalPlace Bouet32480 La RomieuTel: (Fr) 5 62 68 42 75

Where to visitJardins de Coursiana 32480 La RomieuTel: (Fr) 5 62 68 22 80www.jardinsdecoursiana.com

The Mus�e d’Art Naif Ch�teau d’Ensoul�s 32100 B�raut Tel: (Fr) 5 62 68 49 87www.museeartnaif.comA vast private collection of na�ve art from around the world.

Additional informationFor more information about La Romieu visit www.la-romieu.com