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Le scoop? Un cafe luxe

Turning up 20 minutes late, the cleaner who can't clean obviously hoped to turn my attention from the clock with her breathless, dramatic announcement.

"Le scoop!" she proclaimed, pulling out a chair and leaning in two inches from my face.

Riled by her sacking as my roving reporter in La Lomagne for her failure to ask the follow-up questions in her gossip, she had determined to discover who'd bought the long-closed bar/restaurant.

"It's the mayor," she said. "And it's going to be a cafe luxe."

By R's definition, a cafe luxe will serve speciality teas - the French love them - coffee, chocolate, sumptuous cakes and, of course, wine.

Most towns and tourist villages have at least one, but for Lavit - to which nobody really comes - I'd suggest it truly is a triumph of madness over reality.

I drift off thinking of the farmers sipping a herbal tea with a dainty fruit and sponge concoction; of twee little tables negotiable by the truculent pensioners from the retirement home who took perverse delight in ramming their wheelchairs into chairs when it was a spit-and-sawdust bar.

"That's just daft," I tell her. The clock ticks on and not a book dusted but she knows she's got me and pulls a fag from my packet. (She's been trying to give up for months now, so doesn't buy any.)

"But he might do it like the one in Moissac," she says dreamily. "A little fire in the winter; alcoves, book-lined walls, little snacks and then the terrace in the summer."

"Well, would you go?" I ask. She doesn't hesitate, reaching for another little smoke. "No, I'd go to Moissac."

I slap her hand before it slides from the packet. Get thee to a feather duster.

Actually it is the commune who has bought the place in the name of the mayor. This is not unusual in La France Profonde. Mayors, on behalf of their subjects, can buy all sorts of property for the common good. They can even halt sales of private houses if they feel the new owners will not enhance the village. For example, if a house is being sold as a holiday home and the mayor does not wish to see any more barely used houses, he can stop the sale and buy at the market price instead.

Now, the Lavit mayor is an astute, well-connected, local politician - canny, apart from when he asked an artist friend to paint the First World War statue - and he'll have done his sums. Hopefully.

Ten minutes up the road, close to Auvillar, is the village of Bardiques. The pretty butterscotch stone houses tumble down a gentle slope where cats sprawl in the heat and lace curtains billow through open windows.

It's surrounded by fall-away valleys and oak-filled hills usually misted in winter fog or summer heat haze.

An avenue of plane trees lit by antique lamp holders takes one to the Auberge de Bardigues, a restaurant of the refinement normally found in Provence.

In summer its terraces buzz with several languages. In winter the French hold sway. Always it is full, yet there is no other reason to go to Bardigues. There never was.

It was bought and conceived by the mayor. He held numerous interviews until he chose two brothers and their wives to lease it, along with a house.

A year or so ago he allowed them to buy the lot outright. The commune benefited as it had yearly; the locals, who owned gites, and farmers, who sell produce to the restaurant, benefited; the nearby vineyard has had its name spread wide. And the mayor as a visionary has ensured his almost automatic re-election for as long as he wishes.

Across the river, in another exquisite but empty village, Montjoi, the mayor there looked at Bardigues and last year did the same.

A restaurant has emerged from a townhouse, pitching the local produce to both tourists and well-heeled locals. Like Bardigues, it is a place found only by those who study maps and are willing to go off the road most taken.

It doesn't always work. I know of another pretty village whose restaurant opens and shuts with dreadful regularity.

The mayor does his best but chooses all the wrong people. It could be the star of its own sit-com with drunks, publicly denounced adulterers, wife bashers and always bad, bad chefs.

And yet, its positioning is perfect. Again on a hill, facing the square and the church and its pealing bells; the terrace in both shade and light - all we ask for.

So, back to Lavit. It was always a market town where once farmers drove their sheep and cattle to sell in the penned squares. That shows in the no-nonsense housing, where stone has often been rendered and prettiness is considered rather effete. Its positioning is far from perfect. Yet, around the halle and the old bar there is great potential. Before all closed, I often sat in sunshine, dog at my feet in the last restaurant and found a quiet joy and hope at the start of my days here.

How marvellous to find it all again.

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