In the realm of quirks and quaintness few travel destinations displaying the winning ways of its whimsical population have come close to France’s Mediterranean region of Provence.
Yet now this storied Latin and Mediterranean region is ceding its position to another Latin and Mediterranean region, its neighbour Occitanie.
Until several years ago known as Languedoc-Roussillon the newly constituted Occitanie is the region now seizing the imagination of occidentals who were so captivated by the sentimental sagas swirling around Provence, and which can be dated back long before author Peter Mayle’s success in chronicling the yarns.
So what is putting the sentimental high octane into Occitanie?
It is its piece de resistance the Canal du Midi which passes through such enduring destinations as Carcassone.
The waterways revival in Britain swept across the Channel like a tidal wave gathering force on its way, and engulfed Europe’s major civil engineering feat since Roman times, the Canal du Midi.
Its builder Paul Riquet has similarly swept back into fashion, and the onetime tax farmer, revenue gathering commission agent, enjoys a new reputational life as an eponymous inspirational figure for just about everything.
Riquet, widely credited with solving the hydrological problem of topping up impounded water canals so that they did not run dry, is also credited with introducing women into the civil engineering workforce and under equal terms.
Not so widely publicised is that he was forced to do so by engineering imperatives.
To stop it leaking the Canal du Midi had to be sealed with something more reliable than limestone.
Riquet discovered that living in the Pyrenees were women who had retained through the centuries the Roman formula for concrete which everywhere else had been lost during the Dark Ages and thereafter.
So these women concrete technologist were put to work and on equal pay with their menfolk.
And yet….and yet….all this is not enough to enable Occitanie, the old Languedoc-Roussillon, to shoulder aside in the world of whimsy its much more well established neighbour to the East, Provence.
Occitanie’s big advantage is just that because the English-speaking tourist focus was for so long on Provence, that Occitanie was able to develop in the French villageois way instead of in the required Western tourist way.
As the new wave of boat people from the UK cascade through Occitanie and its Canal du Midi, so they come across fresh characters, and personalities, perfectly normal from the French point of view.
But intriguingly eccentric from the English-speaking perspective.
Take for example Didier Garcia who was born under the Canal du Midi in Capestang.
The port of Capestang is unusual in port terms in that it is under its port rather than over it, the usual configuration.
After a working life in telecommunications he decided to return to his home town and his parents’ large house under the canal, appropriately enough situated on the Impasse Paul Riquet.
Dead-end streets known in Britain as cul-de-sacs in France are called Impasses.
There, he taught himself to paint while accumulating around him what may be the world’s largest collection of enamel ochre cooking pots.
Nowadays and with his exclusive application of water colours depicting his port surroundings he has become a kind of one-man St Ives School.
He has the entire field pretty much to himself.
Always attired in denim and always wearing one of his 36 Breton fisherman caps, specs dangling absent-minded-professor-style on a lanyard from his neck, the grandfather is to the very much to the fore in the new wave Occitanie in which there is no exaggeration, just an uncontrived realism.
“English, the language? He mumbles. “Really, I learned mine from the Beatles.”
Paul Riquet died in 1680, just seven months before the completion of his masterpiece.
The last cargo barge traversed the Canal du Midi 20 years ago.
If The Sloop Inn is the historic headquarters of Britain’s Cornish St Ive
School then Café de la Grille is the nucleus of the burgeoning Capestang School where we portray at ease Monsieur Garcia.
Paul Riquet’s determination to quite literally move mountains in order to link the Atlantic and Mediterranean via the Canal du Midi and originally described as the canal of the “two seas,” is said to have been prompted by his desire to impress Louis XIV on the matter of the Riquet family’s claim to aristocratic status.
In the event the Sun King was moved to declare that such a claim should be regarded without any “ambiguity.”
It is hard to deny any claim now to the effect that the much longer term effect of the Riquet endeavour is currently shifting the Western interpretation of contemporary French folklore in an appropriately Westerly direction from Provence to Occitanie, and thus closer to Britain itself, the main source of its appreciation