Limeuil is shaped like a bean, perched up on a hill looking down as the peat-colored Vézère river joins the bluish Dordogne. It used to be a busy port in centuries past as flat-bottomed boats called “gabarres” would bring down to Bordeaux oak barrels, livestock and other products from upriver.
Limeuil’s very distant past can be traced all the way back to the Magdalenian period some 12,000 years ago as evidenced by the engraved horses on stone slabs now at the St Germain-en-Laye Museum of Prehistory. Often when Marc clears and weeds what is yet to be a garden, he comes across broken flint tools and stone axes discarded by Paleolithic ancestors.
The village knew many masters in feudal times and had been torn between the English and the French in the Hundred Years’ War. Limeuil still has three arched gates, reminders of its defensive past. Our house is believed to be built on the village ramparts. A kilometer outside the once-walled village is a Romanesque chapel of St Martin, an expiatory chapel built by Richard the Lion-Hearted in 1179 in atonement for the sins of his father Henry II Plantagenet who ordered the murder of Thomas Becket.
Fast forward to the 20th century. Limeuil started to lose its importance when the railroad came to a village four kilometers away. It fell into deep slumber until 1973, when running water finally gushed into homes of the village! This was probably one of the reasons why Limeuil kept its medieval character and scared away real estate speculators.
We live on the main street that starts as the Grand’Rue guarded by the Reclusou gate. It changes its name as it passes a restaurant, then dips and curves down to the arch of rue du Port. On one side of this arch are lines and dates of when the rivers overflowed, one indicating a flood over two meters high! Our house has two levels of basement and we are safely perched high.
In the summer, tourists climb the fairly steep incline of rue du Port. Cars whose drivers put their faith in their GPS suddenly panic, oblivious of the narrowness of the street while “natives” like us shrug with indifference at their dilemma and pedestrian tourists shoot irritated glares at the drivers. In the winter, we are only a dozen quiet souls living on Grand’Rue and rue du Port as calm and solitude take over.
I have never lived in a rural village, and we bought property in Limeuil only as a summer retreat. The prospect of living there permanently threw me into some kind of panic. So I outlined five conditions to accept this exile. First, that I would have unlimited Internet access. This was the time that Internet service wasn’t easily available especially in remote rural areas and I needed to communicate with family and friends and the rest of the world. Second, that I would have a printmaking workshop to continue doing my etchings. Third, that I would have a greenhouse for my precious orchids. Fourth, that I have a subscription on the railroad to go to Paris as often as I wished. And fifth, that I would not learn to drive. I have always lived in big cities with efficient public transport systems, so for me there was no need to drive a car.
There are two houses on the property and when the small house was finally restored, my wizard of a husband with his magic wand produced the printmaking workshop, the greenhouse and Internet as well as telephone connections to the whole world! I still don’t drive and for me, this isn’t a handicap but an advantage. Shhh. I’m not telling why. Now that I have a senior card for the railroad, I can take the train and travel half-fare to anywhere in France. However, when I go to Paris where we have lived for over 30 years, I would go there to see my dentist, my doctors for the annual checkups, to attend an orchid society meeting or to see a not-to-be-missed temporary exhibition in some gallery or museum. But the treat for me would be the hugs and kisses of my grandchildren living in the Parisian suburbs.
I have come to love living in the Dordogne, our almost paradise. It wasn’t love at first sight – coup de foudre – the flash of lightning as the French would say. Limeuil, like an insidious but benign virus, grew slowly in my system. I learned to do many things for the first time in my life. Planting beans and tomatoes. Sterilizing jars of duck confit. Making foie gras pâtés. Living with the seasons.
Spring brings the swallows as well as the feverish days of making jams from the first harvest of the Gariguette strawberries. Flowers poke their heads out of the bulbs that I buried in the garden in autumn. We have learned to march with the seasons changing and enjoy nature’s bounty as each month rolls by. We love the slightly bitter aftertaste of the first asparagus shoots and the sweetness of fresh peas. Then comes summer’s cornucopia of fruits: green gages, prunes, peaches and as the apples ripen, we go on expeditions to the forest to hunt mushrooms. If we’re lucky, we will have omelette de cépes tonight. My favorites are those golden Caesar’s amanites, but their appearance also announce the end of the cépes season.
In the winter, fattened ducks are slaughtered for foie gras and confit de canard. From our neighbors, I have learned to make duck preserves – the confit. And pâté de foie gras, which my neighbor Gaby says is not Périgourdin if it doesn’t have a sliver of truffle. Oh yes, the truffles, black diamonds of the Périgord region. There are truffle markets that start only after inspectors have examined and classified those rough black nuggets. As the doors open, the enclosed trade room is filled with some strange and hypnotic perfume. In less than an hour, the kilos of truffles, costing over a thousand dollars a kilo, are gone! For all the raves truffles get, Marc still says it is an acquired taste. For him, like operas.
The fact that we live in a rural France doesn’t mean we are deprived of a big city’s cultural fare. In the summer, there are a multitude of concerts in the region’s chapels, abbeys, basilicas, all resonating with sounds of Palestrina or Oscar Peterson, Handel or Herbie Hancock, Gregorian chants or traditional gypsy music. There is in an important pottery fair held the last weekend in July in Limeuil that features creations of these artisans. One of them I swear, must be a reincarnation of a Sung dynasty potter with his pure, timeless forms and almost unctuous glazes. There are summer night markets where rows of tables are set by the rivers under the trees drawing locals and tourists to feast and enjoy the convivial evening. On their periphery are stands selling regional delicacies, wine from the vineyard in Limeuil, beer from the resident Dutch brewer and pan-seared foie gras served with braised nectarines. There is laughter, music and dancing in a festive ambiance right out of the last page of an Asterisk album.
Winter here is not for hibernation. The opera season opens in New York and our association presents direct transmissions from the Met in a casual and friendly atmosphere where champagne, wines and buffets are served at the entr’actes. With the tourists and visitors gone, we scurry to whip up dinners for friends. We treat each other to seasonal delights of a velouté of Jerusalem artichokes, roast wild ducks, and some “exotic” fare for the Chinese new year of pancit molo, crispy lechon Bocaue and avocado ice cream or kalamansi sherbet.
And the quiet moments are for my paintings. We brought all the contents of our old house, the treasures and the trash. A table with warped planks, chipped walnut oil jugs, cracked confit pots find their way into my still life paintings. Like the orchids whose blooms I paint with our Chinese ceramics, juxtaposing the ephemeral with the permanent. The acids, the zinc and copper plates, the hard and soft rollers, the etching inks are waiting for me in my printmaking workshop. I will make time for them in this lifetime.
Acclaimed artist Ofelia Gelvezon-Tequi happily lives and paints in Limeuil. She exhibits her works internationally, the latest show being in New York at the Philippine Center in October 2015.