At times though, trying to decide the where, when & how is
a headscratcher -- such a staggering range of eye-popping destinations.
Narrowing down the choices is like trying to
decide which shoes to pack on a three-week trip.
A girl needs options -- insert scream here...
Toulouse was our home base; as we had previously visited a handful
of nearby favorites such as Albi and Carcassonne, I suspected
finding new inspiration would be a bit more challenging.
This time, I was married to the idea of going completely off the tourist map.
Looking for an obscure village was easy; the area is loaded with possibilities
but the key was finding one reachable by train from Toulouse -- preferably
no more than a journey of only 20 minutes or so -- and one that
would hopefully encompass the heart of rural Occitanie.
In the end, the decision was a no-brainer.
There was only one village that not only met the requirements but offered
an unexpected enticement -- a CHOCOLATE MUSEUM & TASTING.
Talk about "sweetening the pot";
Lisle-sur-Tarn was a shoo-in.
"All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then never hurts."
Charles M. Schulz
A bastide village is a type of town built on a well-defined geometric plan.
Typically built in the 13th or 14th century, these villages -- very popular
in France's southwest quadrant -- are usually made up
of a central square surrounded by arcades.
As you can see, Lisle-sur-Tarn fits the bastide mold perfectly.
Storefronts, restaurants and houses still line the well kept streets.
The village, laid out in a well-planned composition, provided the ideal
formula for life in the Middle Ages, based on an open square
design that was used for markets and social gatherings.
City Hall was built front and center, making the village square
made-to-order for political gatherings as well.
Many bastide villages disappeared in the 19th and 20th centuries as residents
fled the countryside in favor of a more prosperous life promised by
cities willing and able to provide a better means to earn a living.
It's a pleasure to wander these well planned streets.
The flawlessly harmonious corridors offer a distinct historical perspective.
Perfectly preserved, Lisle-sur-Tarn quietly shines
in spite of its relatively little discovered status.
Informative and delicious, Le Musée Art du Chocolat
is a traveler's oasis in the desert.
Chocolate has always been an open and shut case in the seduction department,
a can't-say-no to its dizzying charms.
The museum will stimulate your senses with its in-depth one-on-one
"education du gout" in all things born of one of the world's
most precious resources -- the cacao bean.
After a short educational film, we were treated to several rooms
filled with original chocolate sculptures created by a master chocolatier.
Rodin may have met his match -- at least in the olfactory department...
The exhibit features a wide variety of subjects including famous French
landmarks, African elephants, creatures of the sea and an elegant
bride and groom lusciously decked out in white chocolate.
From jazz quartets to a pilgrim making his way to St James de Compostela,
you're sure to get a kick out of this chocolate-covered path.
Our yearning for a taste of the sweet bean grew with each step.
Made comfortable in a private seating area, we were treated to a lovely tasting.
Our chocolate expert was like a dream-come-true genie; she took great pains
to carefully characterize what we were tasting and the process it took
to get from bean to mouth.
Our biggest surprise was the white chocolate -- which I've never
loved -- too sweet, pale and wimpy.
She spun the now famous story of French chocolatier Valrhona
as we sampled a taste of their bar labeled Blond Dulcey.
Beginning its life as white* chocolate, the cook accidentally left it
in the double-boiler for too long.
Intrigued by this boo-boo, he saw possibilities in its distinct
caramel-like cookie aroma and enriched color.
It took Valrhona eight years to perfect the cook's faux-pas
but much to our delighted surprise, it was delicious.
Creamy, toasty, weirdly satisfying -- especially for someone
who prefers her chocolate on the bitter side (72% plus).
*I guess you would still call it white chocolate at only 32% beurre de cacao
though the color is sort of pale butterscotch.
It was a true education.
Afterwards, we stopped at the boutique and filled every pocket with our favorites. Did I mention it was still morning?
"After eating chocolate you feel godlike, as though you can
conquer enemies, lead armies, entice lovers."
Emily Luchetti, American pastry chef & chocolate-lover
Well, I haven't done any of that -- but still, after that tasting I'm certain I could have.
surrounding Place Central are magnificent.
Its central square is the largest of Southwestern France's bastide towns.
What a pleasure it would be to wander here on market day.
Notice the unique stone fountain in the center.
There are detailed symbols all around
as well as a French fleur-de-lis and the Occitan cross.
As our visit was in October, the city was promoting breast cancer
awareness month with an engaging display of pink umbrellas.
There are several local boutiques on the square if you're searching
for something pretty or uniquely fun to take home.
Lisle-sur-Tarn doesn't have deep pockets or a fabled list of culture and attractions. But it delivers the gift of witnessing small-town life in
a French village, for us the holy grail of an authentic experience.
there's no choice but to go along with the crowd.
Everything stops cold -- and that is a good thing.
Here, chasing happiness is no reason for guilt,
particularly when it comes to pleasures of the table.
No matter we were well sated from our chocolate tasting; this is
France, where there is zero chance of saying no to lunch.
There were several choices but we decided on Le Romuald, a cozy looking
family operation with reviews that promised excellent service and food.
The chef grilled my beef brochette over the open hearth right in front of us.
It was sublime.
Even our dessert met a fiery finish over the hearth.
Our server heated a branding iron to scalding in the blazing fire
and tattooed our crème brulée to a smoky and sweet finish.
More proof that even in a little village in the middle of the "sticks",
it's safe to expect a memorable lunch.
After all, this is France.
"Desserts are like mistresses. They are bad for you.
So if you are having one, you might as well have two."
Alain Ducasse, french chef extraordinaire
Let us literally live from moment to moment."
We enjoyed our leisurely lunch in Lisle-sur-Tarn so much, we missed the train to
our next nearby destination, Gaillac, a small town specializing in wine of the region*.
*Who wouldn't want to pair a wine & chocolate tasting in a single day?
At first upset, I soon concluded this was meant to be.
It invites a new trip to the region, one that we'll look forward to eagerly.
After all, we had just spent a few perfect hours living moment to moment, unplugging from "real" life, rejuvenating our souls and and savoring
each step in our journey to experience the real France.
Happy travels and bon appetit!