La Joie du Vin

From the window of the train that carried us from Barcelona to Toulouse, France, we watched as the countryside changed from dusty plains to lush forests and sprawling hills. Small villages were nestled here and there along the way, many medieval in appearance, which made for quite the scenic journey. After a quick jaunt through Toulouse, we were picked up in Cahors by the hosts of our next Workaway on an organic vineyard. Remotely located between two very quaint towns by the name of Prayssac and Puy L’Éveque, Domaine des Sangliers is a small family-run winery dedicated to making 100% organic and hand-picked wines which are completely free of any additives including sulfates, preservatives, and yeast. The family was a lively crew – six wonderful kids spearheaded by multi-capable and self-made connoisseur Lisa, originally British, and all-around handyman and charismatic Kiwi BMXer Kim – and their “big family” way of life felt immediately familiar to me.
Tyson and I were welcomed with such a warmth and generosity that we were quickly at ease in their midst. After our first day of work in the vines, the family took us boating on the Lot River to have a go at wakeboarding and water skiing, a pastime in which they were all very skilled. Tyson’s attempts were an instant success. As with most sport-type activities, he made it look easy – and while I did manage to get up out of the water on the wakeboard after three attempts, my victory was rather short-lived as I took an unladylike nosedive directly beside two highly entertained spectators in a canoe. (At least I’m good for a laugh!) We then went out for chips and beer at a local bar in the nearest French village and spent the rest of the evening conversing with the family and a good number of their friends well into the night.
Each day at Domaine des Sangliers, Tyson and I would tackle what quickly became our main task: weeding the vines. This sounds easy, but believe me, it was tough work. Since Lisa and Kim do not use pesticides or herbicides on their crops, those pesky weeds needed to be removed by hand. The bramble was by far the worst of it. As we worked our way down row upon row, large piles of weed and bramble slowly accumulated behind us, where it would eventually be tilled back into the earth as natural compost, befitting of the winery’s organic status. Despite the laborious work, Tyson and I listened to music, sampled the delicious Malbec grapes here and there, talked together, even danced (well, I danced – badly – while Tyson laughed at me), and generally enjoyed being out in Southern France’s radiant summer sunshine. By the end of our two-week stay, we had cleared countless rows; but there were a few odds-and-ends jobs as well, such as hand-labeling boxes of bottled wines, giving the wine-tasting barroom a thorough cleaning, and on one joyous occasion, putting a borrowed strimmer to use for a day while weeding.
On a few sunny afternoons, once our work was done, we would hop on a pair of bicycles and pedal through the beautiful countryside, passing vineyards and quaint cottages along the open fields and gently forested hills. We visited the village of Puy L’Éveque along the Lot River – the same on which we’d previously wakeboarded – and sampled a few scrumptious pastries from a small local patisserie. I must say, French baking holds top rank in my books! One day the Stantons dropped us off to see Fumel, too, a medieval town complete with castle and gardens that overlook the Lot valley. The terraced views, luscious grounds and treed walking paths were a highlight. And once again, a few delicious baked treats were purchased. How very thankful I am for a husband who indulges my extreme sweet tooth!
In the evenings, we ate our dinners with the Stantons. These meals were loud with chatter from the whole table, delicious in the way that only homemade meals can be, and so endearingly familiar in that chaotic yet harmonious “big family” way of eating to which I’m quite happily accustomed. Afterward, Tyson and I often found ourselves enjoying the fresh air out on the deck of our trailer, with cats and kids alike coming and going through the backyard to visit us. As a few grapevines had gone wild right at our doorstep, on one occasion Tyson treated me to a homemade glass of freshly squeezed grape juice. Mmmm… I can’t tell you how tasty that was!  At night, the stars came out in full force. We were told that the area was reputed to have some of the lowest light pollution in Europe, which was easy to believe when we looked up at such a luminous night sky. Inside our camper, Tyson valiantly squashed many a spider for me – one particular giant decided to surprise me in the shower, but I’m sure I surprised him more with my subsequent shriek!
Having discovered BlaBla Car, we decided to hitch a ride with a lovely woman and her dog to Carcassonne for the weekend. Having arrived to a cozy AirBnB late that same evening, we took the next day to explore the old city – a walled castle straight from the Middle Ages, complete with parapets, towers, cathedrals, and cobblestone streets. After we indulged in a freshly made crepe from a street vendor, we walked the length of the high walls overlooking the sprawl of town and countryside.

The picturesque scenery combined with the living, breathing fantasy of the castle’s architecture was one of the most enjoyable experiences, and from our point of view Carcassonne comes highly recommended. However, the city’s staple dish of bean pie, called “cassoulet”, verged on underwhelming; the rather tasteless texture did not earn the same recommendation from our palates, at least. Still, as we had arranged to meet up for supper with a group of Canadian friends we’d originally chanced upon at the train station in Barcelona, the meal was shared in good company and the warm French evening was thoroughly enjoyed by all.

The next day, we sampled items from a few different cafés in the city and went for a slow stroll along the river, stopping along its banks to take our time to admire the castle from yet another breathtaking vantage point. However, despite a leisurely morning we discovered that our travel arrangements would not get us back to Puy L’Éveque in time as we’d previously thought. This began a mad scramble of decision-making and last minute plans were made to catch a late train to Bordeaux instead. Why not, right?
Despite the stress of the situation, we were glad for the hiccup by the next day, as Bordeaux was everything one would imagine it to be. The river walk was stunning (immaculately landscaped, fountains abounding), the buildings quaint, interesting and impressive in turn, and the wine – oh, the wine! Of course, we simply had to do a tasting, and so we nibbled at delicious artisan cheeses and sipped at a scrumptious selection of wines to our hearts’ content at a modern tasting bar downtown.
Having explored the city on foot, climbing the 231 stairs of the Pey Berland tower while toting our backpacks was another adventure in and of itself – squeezing through the narrow single-file staircase past other tourists, having our backpacks get stuck in tiny doorways, and nearly collapsing with exertion by the end – but once we reached the top, the viewpoint we had easily satisfied our efforts. Looking out over a beautiful city stretching below gives one such a wholesome perspective and appreciation for it, that if I could now give advice to any backpackers out there, it would be to always climb the towers: you’ll love what you see from their height.
All in all, our time in southern France was entirely exquisite, and we can’t wait to return one day to once again experience “la joie de vie” in this beautiful country… and maybe a little more “joie du vin” too!
From my wandering heart to yours,

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