The Perfect Balance
Between Independent Travel and a Package Tour
Like many ex-nomads of the boomer generation, my travel choices have changed considerably. Where once I was thrilled at the challenge of venturing into the unknown with only an airline ticket and plenty of time to weave my way across a continent or two, today family and mortgages nip at my wanderlust. Now I’m forced to carefully select destinations and plan trips well in advance. But I still crave freedom in my itinerary.
Satisfying the hunger to explore without wasting precious time with travel planning has been difficult. Recently, however, I found the perfect balance at the Centre Estival des Arts de Montaigut-le-Blanc in the Auvergne region of France. Students have journeyed here for more than two decades to take summer workshops in painting, drawing, French, writing, and photography.
Vancouver artist Paul Deggan and his French-born wife Babette created the center in 1980. Their plan was to find a home in France large enough to lodge a few students on painter’s holidays as a way to help subsidize their annual pilgrimages back to France. During a 5-day visit, they fell in love with the Auvergne region’s serenity and bought a piece of a drowsy medieval village perched on a craggy foothill of the Massif Central. Renovations on the school now complete, the Deggans host up to 25 students per session. The workshops are attached to Vancouver’s Capilano College summer program.
Looking casual and relaxed, Paul Deggan greeted his new class at the Clermont-Ferrand station. An awaiting bus began the 45-minute drive to Montaigut-le-Blanc, through field after field of ripening sunflowers glowing in the late afternoon light. Conversation flowed easily, and it was soon clear that our ages and backgrounds were as eclectic as our reasons for choosing this destination.
Stepping through the gates of the school, christened Sous L’Eglise (below the church), Babette greeted us with the first glasses of what soon became a free-flowing stream of wine. From the lavender-lined terrace we took in the vast sweep of quilted crops draped below. Then Babette showed us our rooms, with the same spectacular views.
A cluster of crumbling limestone blocks, the school resembles a rambling French farmhouse. A wood-burning fireplace off the kitchen crackled on cool mornings, stripping the chill from terracotta tile floors. Thick stone walls shielded us from the searing mid-day heat.
French classes, intermediate and advanced, began at 8 a.m., when the mind is allegedly more alert. Students can take both French and art courses--at no extra cost—but Paul advises, “Choose one to focus on and dabble in the other.”
Language instructor Francoise Anglesio, a high school English teacher from the nearby town of Champeix, teaches French the way it should be: steeped in the culture with the focus on conversation. She understands most adult students are not motivated to spend sunny summer days marooned in a classroom conjugating irregular verbs. So on some mornings our class walked the four kilometers into Champeix, chatting in French along the way. Fleshing out our culinary vocabulary at the local market, we sought covert assistance from stall keepers like M. Boufaleut (the aptly-named charcutier) to complete our scavenger list of ingredients for his coveted pate de canard recipe.
Each day offered a new linguistic challenge and plenty of local interaction, be it scrutinizing the nuances of casual conversation in the film Amelie after a trip to the cinema in Clermont-Ferrand, cake-baking in Babette’s kitchen, or a wine degustation offered by Mme. Anglesio’s father, a connoisseur from the Burgundy region.
By week’s end, our 1-word utterances and flailing gesticulations in the local bar were supplanted by the more confident, “Je voudrais un autre pastis s’il vous plais.”
Much of our off-hour activity centered around an old-world kitchen where Babette concocted tantalizing buffet lunches from fresh garden produce and traditional recipes—French cooking at its finest.
The Deggans pay unobtrusive attention to every detail of the school experience. They’re available when you need them, but “we definitely don’t schedule every minute of time; we want it to remain essentially a vacation,” stresses Paul. “The instruction is always here, but if our guests want to toss a game of boules or just collapse on the garden patio with a cold, frothy beer, that’s okay too.”
Most afternoons, art students join Deggan in his atelier for a demonstration. In late afternoon, there’s a brisk hike downhill to the village restaurant, alongside fields of sunflowers and wheat, past the musty hillside caves of Saint Julien, where racks of oozing St Nectaire and Le Pavin cheese line the inside walls.
Appetites piqued, we arrive in Champeix at Hotel de la Promenade, a frequent aunt of former French President Valerie Giscard d’Estaing. On a typical day, Chef Denis, a veritable brioche of a man, was preparing Truffade, an Auvergne specialty. Paul describes it as “comfort food with a direct pathway from your lips to your hips." A robust Boudes wine washes it down while proprietor Marie-Francoise serenades the dinner crowd with "La Vie En Rose."
“There’s something very magical about stepping into a whole different rhythm of life," confides Hugh, a Vancouver film producer and a school regular. "I don’t know whether it’s the opportunity to be still for more than a few minutes (so rare in our North American culture), or if it’s living in this ancient village and sensing our brief tenure in the infinity of time that tends to wake people up. But it does."