Did you ever notice that if you follow a river through hilly countryside, the villages always seem to be balanced on top of a hill.
Of course this makes good sense if you are a villager.
You can quite easily, from your height, keep enemies at bay and you don’t have to worry if the rains are overly heavy. Your house will never fall victim to flooding.
But for me and my leg it meant getting off the yellow bicycle and pushing up a winding road every time I needed to buy the makings of lunch..
‘A tough climb will often lead to treasures’ I think it was the Buddha who said that.
So I kept this in mind each time I toiled the steep hill.
And I was always rewarded, For every village I arrived at, the market was already there and in full swing.
It did occur to me that luckily I was travelling in the same direction as these markets.
Had I chosen to cycle from east to west, I would have missed them (we would have been moving further apart from each other each day).
My choice was not intentional. (I say this for fear you might think me greedy) No! Just once again, as happened many times on my cycle across France, I was favored by the Gods.
Now most of these villages had a covered Market area. A simple open sided building in the square, where ancient wooden trusts with strong thick beams held up a tiled roof.
One got the feeling therefore that markets here were a thing of tradition and welcomed (judging by the good condition of the old building)
And in each market building there was a list of towns pinned to a notice board with the days the markets would appear at them.
They became part of my routine, and as the days pedaled by, I began to look forward to the climb and the resulting treasures.
I would cycle along the river for an hour or so, then walk up the hill pushing my bike and arrive breathless and red faced.
Leaning the yellow bike against a wall, I would sit where the cafe chairs edged as near to the stalls as the cafe owner could place them.
I would then order my morning coffee, settle back and watch the show.
The market contained bits of everything, from fungi, fruit and vegetables to fish and meats, breads and confectionery, clothing and household goods.
The markets sellers themselves were an assorted bunch. Men and women. Some rough looking tanned , sporting tattoo’s. Some more genteel and refined.
My favorites were the the two women whom I named the ‘Ooh la la ladies’.
They always set up stall beside each other and appeared to be great friends.
One ran the underwear stall and the other the cheese stall,and I always sat as near to them as possible.(Hoping to understand their speedy french but alas never could)
They were total opposites.
The underwear lady was tall and slim, with a smokey voice and a raucous laugh.
Her tanned face was lined by the sun. Her hair, dark and curly was pinned in a haphazard manner on top of her head. A constant cigarette danced between her lips and her fingers and the apron she wore around her waist did nothing to hide her bare taut midriff every time she stretched up to adjust her wares.
The cheese lady in comparison was short and plump with rosy cheeks and blond straight hair which she wore coiled into neat knot at the back of her head ( a ‘chignon’ I think it is referred to in france).
She hummed as she arranged her cheeses and nodded and answered the underwear ladies questions in a soft sing song voice.
Both ladies laughed a lot, the skinny one throwing back her head in danger of losing her hairdo (and her cigarette) and emitting loud guffaws. The plump one laughing more shyly, tucking her her chin into her shoulder, her body shaking with glee. They were obviously the happiest of all the stallholders.(another reason I chose to sit near them)
Their stalls were also very different (obviously)
The cheese ladies stall was demure with her pungent goat and sheep cheeses laid in straight row’s. Between the rows she had inserted ripe figs as though to remind customers how well the two go together. She also placed small bundles of herbs tied with raffia here and there and pots of local honey.
The whole effect was very artisan and organic and well organized.
There was nothing organic or organized about the underwear ladies Stall however.
All around her lay an untidy heap of nylon and lace. A cacophony of lurid pinks and reds and blacks or sometimes a mixture of all three. Some items were wrapped in plastic, but most were not and these she speedily worked her way through, folding and sorting. some as large as the sails of a small boat others tiny wisps of gossamer lace smaller than a spider’s web.
As she worked she continued to hold a conversation with the cheese lady, her cigarette constantly in danger of falling and sending the whole place up in a sea of colorful toxic flames.
When she wasn’t laying out the knickers, she was busy hooking undergarments of a more structured nature by means of a long pole with a hook on top onto a rail above her head.
Every time she hung up a large bra, the cups would fill and billow out in the breeze and wave about in the air like giant colored balloons, their escape foiled only by a thin cord tying them to the hanger
It was mostly women who attended her stall. Chatting to each other,they ran their hands lovingly and caressingly across the silky texture and scrutinized the quality of material and admired the color and the delicate touches of lace.
But at one point a tall elderly man approached and his head was soon enveloped in fluttering nylon and lace. I watched his legs zigzag around until at last he emerged looking rather dazed and pulling a scrap of paper from his pocket, showed it to ‘herself’.
She nodded emphatically and laying her cigarette precariously close to the rows of nylon knickers (I got ready to make a mad jump to the rescue) she reached for her stick, stretched up and unhooked a bright red bra of enormous size. But the man shook his head and pointed to a skin colored one still wrapped in plastic. They argued for a while but he won in the end and for the first time her face lost its smile as she grumpily wrapped his purchase in a brown paper bag and slapped it down in front of him.
The cheese lady caught my eye and laughed behind her hand.
As the old man walked away, the underwear Lady turned and throwing up her hands uttered something which must have been funny because the cheese women for once threw back her head and the two of them fell around the place holding their sides and laughing so loud even the waiter came out to see what all the fun was about.
But alas it was time for me to drain my coffee cup and go.
Time for me to leave the laughing ladies at Le Mas d’Agenais and head once more with the yellow bicycle along the Garonne river.
I had only another 80 kms until I reached Toulouse.
After Toulouse I would pick up the canal du Midi. No more hills and the towns would be back to their normal position along the waterside.
As I freewheeled back down to the river with my basket filled with its usual goodies of bread and cheese and figs and wine, the sound of their raucous laughter followed me.