Simple Beauty in Lot-et-Garonne

Midi-Pyrenees—Last year I published a novel, Beginner’s Greek, which concerned the financial and romantic entanglements of some well-to-do New Yorkers. I needed to set a few chapters outside Manhattan. So, because it seemed to suit them, I gave one couple a house in the Lot-et-Garonne département, in southwestern France. Throughout that section I detailed its food, weather, architecture, and topography—“Julia and Charlotte could see melon fields, now all astubble, and the vein of silver that was the river”—and I received particular compliments on these passages, which made me enormously proud. Why? Because I had never in my life been near the Lot, and my descriptions of it were entirely made up. To a writer, it may be gratifying to capture reality with uncanny accuracy, but it is even more gratifying to successfully fake it.

Then, after my book came out, something funny happened: I learned that a French friend owned a house in the Lot, near the town of Salviac. I decided to rent it for part of the summer and ended up having the strange experience of visiting an area I had written about but had never seen before. It took a couple of days for the reality to come through the scrim of my preconceptions, but as I settled in I saw that my imagination had not come close to doing the place justice. I had missed the wildflowers and the scrubby oaks, beautiful in their rough way. I had missed the foie gras—we bought about two pounds at the first market we visited and ate it daily, spread on a fresh baguette. I had missed the profoundly solemn simplicity of the medieval churches, like Salviac’s Saint-Jacques-le-Majeur, built in about 1280. And I had missed the warm summer evenings spent sitting out at La Récréation, the restaurant in the tiny town of Les Arques that was the subject of Michael S. Sanders’s book From Here, You Can’t See Paris.

Reality is usually so disappointing! But in this case, the opposite was true. I took a long bike ride one day, very long, since I got lost: A valley appeared and disappeared behind the hills; I passed through tiny hamlets—Boulegan, Florimont-Gaumier; I saw a vineyard, a couple of tumbledown farms, and a house with blue shutters and a walled garden. When I finally reached home I first thanked God for that and then thought to myself, I have been riding for hours, and I have seen nothing ugly. Then it occurred to me that the same was true with driving in the Lot, and how extraordinary it was, for an American, to not experience anything offensive—no strip, no development. I could be out all day and see only unspoiled countryside, then an unspoiled town with a Romanesque church, then more countryside, all the while with the crunch of pig’s feet and the earthy scent of the local Malbec lingering in my senses.

Villas in the Lot

The guesthouse the author rented is Les Charrettes ($2,400 a week; 540-406-0446), a converted 19th-century barn with four bedrooms, a fully equipped kitchen, and a pool. Farther south, near the village of Beauville, the 800-year-old Château Marcoux (from $4,680 a week; is comprised of a main house, an annex built from former stables, and a stand-alone pigeonnier, with space enough for 12 people. Nearby, the House at Hautefage ($14,120 a week; is a smartly updated five-bedroom farmhouse that hosts five-day cooking classes with a local chef.