By Alex Finer
As the sun climbs into a blue September sky, I wheel the sun loungers into position and inspect the swimming pool. Something's struggling in the water at the far end.
It seems auspicious to start a ten-day French villa holiday by rescuing a frog with a long-handled leaf net - and watch it hop off into the undergrowth. I pick a walnut off a nearby tree to celebrate.
We had arrived the previous evening, following clear instructions from the villa company, in a spacious Peugeot 508 estate collected at Toulouse airport. As dusk fell, the waiting English rep showed us around the high-ceilinged, late 19th-century "maison de maitre", explaining the water, gas stove, shutters, wi-fi and such like. There's a much-appreciated 'welcome pack' for an evening meal and breakfast. And a phone number in case of problems. Then she's away.
By the pool, flushed with success at rescuing the frog, I'm puzzled to hear a car approaching up the long driveway. I prepare to exercise my rusty French. Two young women in sun dresses approach. Who can they be? Are they lost? "I'm Sabrina," says one, extending a hand to shake.
All is revealed when Sabrina pulls from an unzipped bag a copy of Watchtower. They're Jehovah's Witnesses cold-calling in the remote Lot and Garonne countryside. It's Catholic countryside here. To the south lies the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. I make my excuses and they leave.
What other surprises await us? It's time to rouse the others—wife, daughter and teenage friend—from their comfortable beds.
Outside lie three hectares of garden and walnut orchard and a view across a field of ripe maize that stretches towards the nearby hamlet of Moncaut. In the outbuildings is a table-tennis table with bats and balls. Behind another is a fig tree with ripening fruit.
From the folder of notes helpfully provided in the house, we recce our surroundings by car. The nearest baker is 8km away in Roquefort along with a tabac, a chemist and a large supermarket.
We press on a further 6km to Agen on the Garonne River. It's a sizeable town in the centre of which are medieval alleyways, a part-pedestrianised mini-version of Oxford Street and a trio of pavement cafes around the Place des Laitiers. Our order includes coffee, vin blanc, Diet Cokes, ice creams and a crêpe before the girls disappear excitedly into the headily-perfumed branch of Sephora.
Days thereafter take on a laid-back routine. While others catch up on beauty sleep, I take our rubbish to the dump in Moncaut and make the daily bread-run for croissants and a sesame baguette still warm from the baker's oven.
Returning by back roads past fields peppered with yellow wildflowers, I chance one day upon St Colombe-en-Bruilhois, just big enough to have its own school. In the tiny bar attached to the village shop, I shake hands with the patron and Jacques, his solitary customer, before ordering an espresso.
They want to know where I'm staying, which is in one of about 150 villas offered by the 25-year-old France specialist, Dominique's Villas. What draws my attention is that Jacques has a rifle and is leaning on the counter drinking something stronger than coffee. He tells me he hunts for three hours each morning and two hours each evening for pheasant, quail, partridge and some bird with the temerity to fly into France from Spain over the Pyrenees.
By mid-morning, my wife and I are strolling a kilometre from the house to the ruined church at Fontarède, built on the ruins of a Roman temple. A notice at the entrance to the cemetery declares that the municipality has reclaimed the land and plans to relocate the well-tended graves.
We head back to the sun loungers, sharing purple figs as we go, past fields of sunflowers, down farm tracks and along the uneven edge of fields of orange bell-shaped, hard-skinned gourds.
How much exploring should we do—and how far should we go? That's a question we ponder in the unseasonably hot, 30oC weather. We are comfortable in a cool, well-equipped house with an outdoor barbecue and terraces shaded by chestnut trees. I am reading Stig Larsson's crime trilogy, downloading the e-books one after the other on to an iPad as I tan by the pool. The teenage girls have found a month's worth of DVDs to watch in one of the sitting rooms.
Had it rained, we could have headed for the prune museum in Granges sur Lot; or, to the foie gras museum (though hardly appropriate for vegetarians or the squeamish) in Souleilles. There are five Goyas, including a self-portrait from 1783, just down the road from us in Agen's Fine Arts museum.
If it had been cooler, we could have driven further afield to enjoy the 200 varieties of water-lily in the nursery at Latour-Marliac, or the marble columns and mosaic floors at the Roman villa at Séviac, or even dared to attend the wallet-stretching, three Michelin-starred gourmet shrine of Michel Trama at Puymirol.
It was the lure of restaurants, despite a magnificent mushroom risotto cooked by the girls, that got us exploring. We sampled the neighbourhood one-star Michelin, the Mariottat in Agen: artistic cuisine in elegant surroundings with playful, colour-coordinated desserts.
I preferred the simplicity of an open-air, €12 workaday lunch in the old fortified bastide village of Francescas—a herring and potato starter, pork chop and green haricots, followed by fromage blanc sprinkled with sugar.
Our best meal was in Buzet-sur-Baise at L'Auberge du Goujon. But it was surprisingly difficult to satisfy non meat-eaters elsewhere. Even at the otherwise inventive Le Cristallin in Vianne, the suggested ten-item mixed salad main course depended unduly on tins and jars.
All the more surprising given the wonderful produce available at the Saturday market at Nérac, where local farmers sell magnificent tomatoes, huge cèpes, live chickens and local cheeses. Open-sided market vans add to the aroma with cooked paellas in 100-portion pans. Elsewhere in the market you can get chairs re-caned or buy wrought-iron gates as well as cheap clothes, toys and leather goods.
We return to explore this jewel of a town following a walking route supplied by the local tourist office. We wander, as if in another century, past historic town houses and half-timbered tanneries across a fairytale 16th century bridge over the river Baise. It is, understandably, a popular mooring spot for the boats that cruise gently south through 40km of locks to Valence. Sadly, my plan to visit Henri of Navarre's castle is thwarted by late opening one day and early closing on another.
But there are pleasant, unplanned surprises. Meandering past vineyards, we come across a jumble sale in the ancient hill village of Mongaillard—just a dozen stalls selling car wing mirrors and taillights, old Pokemon cards and chipped china. We find a perfect, yellow Ricard water jug for €1.
At Xantrailles a few kilometres further on, we find ourselves outside a private 15th century château on, by extraordinary fortune, the one day a year that it is open to public view. We join curious French locals and are shown round by the family who live there.
It was built as home to one of Joan of Arc's chief lieutenants. We learn that George Sand slept in the castle dungeon when visiting the Pyrénées. And from the tower there are commanding views, over the Albret countryside and the forest of Landes, towards the Pyrénées that have defied the centuries.
Thinking back to the first morning and the frog in the pool, I'm mindful that frogs were a symbol of the devil in medieval Europe. After this holiday, I prefer the Scottish myth that they are a symbol of good luck.
Featured in the Manchester Evening News and the Liverpool Echo.