I’m in a quandary as to what to say about Castres – the nearest large town to where we live in France. I feel a strong compulsion to say that it is a dump, with no features of interest, and that the town, and in fact the whole region, should be avoided by tourists, especially British tourists. But that would be selfish. Not to mention untrue.
If everyone in Britain was to come to Castres (and there is no need for that; honestly, none at all; I can tell you about it myself and save you the expense), they would become instant converts to the idea of an elected mayor – which, personally, I think they should be anyway, but for some reason aren’t.
Castres was transformed by an elected mayor, some fifteen years ago, and is still being transformed today. What was once (so I am told: I never saw it then) a pretty, but unremarkable Languedocien town is now an elegant, chic place that has given new life to beautiful old buildings within a modern environment. If you can imagine the traditional French town centre place, a narrow road around its perimeter, plane trees and rutted mud in the centre, cars parked everywhere, all that has been swept away. What has replaced it is a fully-paved square that is more like an Italian piazza. There are fountains at both ends and, at one of them, a statue of the town’s native son, Jean Jaurès. There is light and space throughout the town centre, unexpected vistas, perfect formal gardens, beautiful restorations.
The old merchant houses on the river Agout feature on most of the postcards. The region around Castres once produced most of the woad in Europe, which was then the blue dye of choice. Bundles of pastel (the plant that produced the dye) were loaded on to barges via the basement steps that still reach down into the river. There the bundles would have travelled along the Agout, until it joined the Tarn, along the Tarn until it became the Garonne, and along the Garonne to Toulouse. The original prosperity of Castres, Toulouse and Albi was built on pastel. And then, in an early fit of globalisation, someone discovered indigo in the Orient, and that was the end of it.
The square in Castres hosts a market on most mornings, but the biggest is on Saturday. Every week, we make our pilgrimage there. (Honesty compels me to admit that we buy just as much of our food in the supermarket on the way home, but the tone is set by the earlier visit to the market. Does that sound like a complete load of middle-class bollocks? Yes. I fear it probably does.)
All the vegetables that fail a British supermarket’s tests of conformity may be found in Castres market. Fruit comes in all shapes and sizes. There are knobbly potatoes, two-pronged carrots and squonk peppers. In fact, if it looks normal, it’s probably not there. At a guess, there are about thirty fruit and veg stalls. In May, all of them are selling asparagus, and several of them are selling nothing but asparagus. In the autumn, for asparagus, substitute cèpes or chestnuts.
As General de Gaulle pertinently asked: ‘How can anyone govern a nation that has two hundred and forty-six different kinds of cheese?’ Surprisingly, there are only about three cheese stalls, but they must sell at least two hundred and forty-six cheeses between them, so there is no lack of choice. We buy ours from Dominique Jansou, partly because it’s so good, and partly because it was at his stall that we first met a couple of like-minded people who have now become good friends, and we’re always hoping to meet others. There is a drawback, in that Dominique insists on having long conversations with his customers, oblivious to the length of the queue, indifferent to the wind and the rain. This is why cheese is sometimes the only thing we manage to buy in Castres market.
The final stop is at Le Café Glacier, for a coffee. Normally, the bar sprawls over several square metres of the place, but not on market day: the space is required for the stalls. One day, I must find out what enables French cafés to colonise large areas of pavement, and whether they pay for the privilege, and why it doesn’t happen much in England.
One cannot write about Castres without mentioning rugby. The Castrais are nuts about rugby. A population of fewer than 50,000 supports one of the best teams in France, national champions in 2013. I am not a fan of the game but have, bizarrely, ended up living near two towns with world class rugby teams, in two different countries. Castres is the only place in the world that, when you are asked where (in England) you live and you answer ‘Northampton’, you are treated with something close to reverence.
One thing I learned from my first two attempts at property ownership in France is that it’s essential to have a really good town nearby, somewhere to hang out when you want a change from home. For some reason, I didn’t go to Castres until 2005. On my first visit, I only just made it to the town. I had excruciating back ache, spent one night there, rang my doctor in England the next day, was told to walk as much as I could but on no account to drive (helpful advice if you’re alone in France with a car). So I drove to Paris, walked the streets for a few days, and concocted most of the plot of The Breaking of Eggs. The next year I was back in Castres, staying at the wonderfully eccentric Hotel Europe, and I haven’t been able to leave it since.
It mightn’t be to everyone’s taste, though. I wouldn’t want you to be disappointed. Perhaps go to the Dordogne instead?