Canhac—There’s a secluded valley in an unknown corner of southwestern France, where two narrow brooks, the Lupte and the Lembous, meander across a country that is by turns green and peaceful, harsh and dry. This region, known as the Bas-Quercy, forms a natural barrier between the fertile plain of the Midi Toulousain and the arid upland foothills of the Massif Central. It is a blend of grassy and stony ground, of softness and harshness, of the sum and substance of life itself.
Nestled in the lap of this secluded valley is the hamlet of Canhac, consisting of three houses, a school, and a small church. The best days of my childhood were spent in this place. The village is encircled by a nearly empty landscape of powdery tracks, broad green meadows, and fields of sunflowers running up to low cliffs. There are also marshes, copses, and low dome-like hills. As a boy I used to walk these hills hoping to find a hare in a trap set the day before amid the scrub and bracken. Out there in the morning, I heard the chirping of the birds and felt the cool dew underfoot.
We lived an hour and a half away in Montauban, the chef lieu, or capital, of the Tarn-et-Garonne department, and my parents regularly sent me to Canhac for my school vacations. For me it was a paradise, utterly concealed and protected, where I was free to make my own discoveries of nature, harvests, animals, and the infinite, starlit sky. My father’s best friend, Jacques Soubrier, lived in the village with his family. Jacques was a stocky, thickset man with fine-chiseled features and a shock of white hair on his noble, benevolent head; he was a sage, but a sage quite open to bawdiness, laughter, and irony. I can see him still, his eyes rapt, sitting under an oak tree that must have been centuries old. My brothers and I would often fish for gudgeon with the Soubrier grandchildren, using poles we made for ourselves from wild canes on the pond bank at the foot of the hill.
Ours were simple pleasures, with long afternoons spent doing silly things like riding and racing the neighbor’s pigs, or smoking forbidden homemade cigarettes with corn beards for tobacco. I remember the grape harvest, when we climbed barefoot and bare-legged into vats to trample the fruit we had picked in the morning. In those days the vast silence of the sky was troubled only by the sporadic forays of partridges, thrushes, and crows. Sometimes, as a boy in Canhac, I felt that we were the only living people on earth.
Whenever I can, I return there. The place is still steeped in innocence. Like any true shrine of childhood, its scents, colors, and food (foie gras, confit de canard, chicken bouillon with vermicelli) transport me with delicious violence to that far-off happy time when my world was devoid of pretension, sham, and stress. The very name “Canhac” is so intensely evocative for me that I bestowed it on one of the heroes of my latest novel. Each time I go back to this home of my past, passing through neighboring villages with their singsong, lilting names—Lafrançaise, Vazerac—I witness a small but mighty miracle: At the heart of it, practically nothing in Canhac has changed at all.
I have brought my own children to Canhac. City kids from Paris though they are, they immediately fell under its spell. Which didn’t surprise me in the least.
A House in the Country
Sixty miles from Canhac, deep in the Tarn countryside, is Le Manoir de Raynaudes, a 19th-century estate that has been strikingly restored as a hotel. Set on 13 acres, the property includes the four-bedroom manoir and a barn that houses four double-height apartments with kitchens. The cream-colored walls, claw-foot tubs, and exposed beams put a sophisticated, minimalist spin on French country style. And from the pool there are stunning views of the Pyrénées. The owners, expats from London, are culinary enthusiasts (one is an esteemed cookbook author) and serve excellent meals on request. $ From $135 to $380; 33-5/63-36-91-90; raynaudes.com.
$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than the American Express Card.