Beach holidays? Not for me. Vying for a patch of abrasive sand amid thousands of oiled, semi-naked strangers in the vain hope of a path to the open sewer of the sea – that’s not a holiday, it’s a concentrated, distilled hell. The journey north from Toulouse is something, instead, like a gentle ascension to heaven. Each village is more beautiful than the last, until our final tranquil resting place in Marsolan.
Arrive at sunset if you can. You see, when you stay at Hôtel Lous Grits you don’t just get a room, you get your own mediaeval hilltop village, as close as I’ve seen to Tuscany outside of Tuscany. It gives the impression of being abandoned, but not in any sinister, Scooby-Doo sense – more in a way that whispers – in a sultry French accent – ‘And now, you may relax’.
We must have seen four people outside of the hotel during our stay and they were all seasoned hikers passing through. I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered a bosky dell before but I’m pretty sure there is one just down the hill from here, replete with freshwater spring grotto – presumably what attracted those few settlers here hundreds of years ago and persuaded them never to tell anyone else where they had dropped anchor.
Martine and Marie, the mother/daughter team who run Lous Grits, originally from Breton, used to have a holiday home down here. They loved it so much that they not only wanted to be here full time, but also to share the secret of Marsolan. But not with too many of us. With only five rooms decorated in a way that’s fluent in their individual refined chic but peppered with the lexicon of the local, pastoral style, the Pitrons unobtrusively attend to their guests with a classy, personal touch. A neat little stereo gently fills our beamed room with Chopin for our arrival. This is as hi-tech as the luxury gets. With little shutters opening onto vistas like this, you don’t need a television. Sybarites fear not – you can get in-room massage and facials, and there’s a spa opening soon.
It’s worth mentioning that Mrs Smith and I are attempting our first ‘relaxing break’ with an 18-month-old Smithette in tow. Will the pram in the hallway play nemesis to a romantic escape? Lous Grits is not an obvious family resort. There is, beautifully, nothing to do here. Luckily Miss Smith is at the stage where she finds the gravel outside the village church as entertaining as a Nintendo go-karting experience.
We pause roadside for madamoiselle to greet some cows, and we notice an octogenarian farmer moving among his herd with two supporting sticks. He seems wonderfully in tune with his surroundings – it is us who are moving at the wrong pace. The fastest things you’ll see here in this southwestern Gallic countryside are the evening swifts darting across the sky, momentarily distracting you from the sweeping views of the rolling green and golden Gers landscape.
We eat in the hotel on our first evening, something that is easily pre-arranged by email. Before we leave home, Martine’s reply comes with the – presumably rhetorical – question: ‘Do you like foie gras and duck?’ This has me searching for the words ‘bear’ and ‘woods’ in my dust-gathering French-English dictionary. The region of Gers, as well as being the land of Dumas’ ‘The Three Musketeers’, appears to be France’s canard central: every route will at some stage point towards a farm selling some poor feathered friend’s fat liver.
Dinner is all prepared to perfection by Marie herself: foie gras to start, followed by duck confit, then cheese and finally a generous strawberry tart; not for the health-conscious maybe, but a gastronome’s delight. The only other guest during our stay is a young American wine importer, who has ventured off the beaten path for a night on his tour of the local terroirs. The informality engendered by Lous Grits means that he not only proves an excellent dining companion from across the room but he even shares his bottle of wine with us, as we share ours with him. What’s more, we are reliably informed that they stock an excellent local cellar…
After supper, sated and amazed, we withdraw to the bar to discover that we are also in the heart of Armagnac country. Martine suggests a little dégustation and presents us with a snifter of four very fine vintages – the 1953 is a particular hit, especially when served in some particularly sexy brandy glasses.
On our second evening, we decide to attempt an evening à deux in the beautiful neighbouring town of Lectoure. Martine personally babysits and Marie drives us there. It’s almost as if they are the relatives of friends of ours. After a day trip to the nearby town of Condom (which elicits an ironic discussion of a possible deuxième Smith Junior), we are in the mood for more amusing names. We opt for the much-vaunted Hôtel de Bastard. While the menu there is excellent, the service is under par and it’s all a little pompous; overblown and overlit. We really should have stayed in the subtle sanctuary of Lous Grits, where honestly, Marie’s cooking is better.
Now, I struggle to acknowledge anything that doesn’t involve black pudding (or at the very least some sausage), as breakfast, the in-house take on the ‘continental’ form proves refreshing. The second morning something very like sticky toffee pudding appears and Mrs Smith nearly weeps with joy. The tray laid out before us strikes me as a kind of signature of the place: somewhere that recognises that you might like a little Gascon crockery to eat off, but might also enjoy your egg in a fun Alessi ‘egg man’: elegantly unpretentious, relaxed and cool. That is Lous Grits through and through.