On a cold night winter’s night nine years ago, I made my way along icy cobblestone streets, a howling wind at my back, into the medieval town of Sarlat-la-Canéda in the Dordogne region of south-west France. This area is famous for its prehistoric caves, medieval castles and truffles – but I was here for another reason altogether. This was to be my first session of Café Oc, a monthly conversation circle at the Café La Lune Poivre, where locals gather to practice the regional Occitan language.
Although many people have not heard of Occitan, also known as Langue d’Oc, it’s one of several Romance languages that evolved from vernacular Latin, and is still spoken in six major dialects across southern France as well as parts of north-western Italy and northern Spain. Anxious about being accepted as an outsider – but fascinated by the language and culture and hoping to learn more – I pushed open the door and prepared to make my case. Warm air scented with spicy mulled wine rushed at me, as did a collective greeting.
“Benvenguda a Café Oc,”exclaimed 10 people, all age 60 or older, in Occitan. I introduced myself in French, and they assured me that I was welcome. One woman made a point to sit to my left and in soft whispers translated the conversation into French for me. Their warmth, her kindness, and the conversation that night deepened my affection for this ancient land of the Périgord, the older name of the Dordogne, which also included a section of the Lot-et-Garonne region to the Dordogne’s south. It is a region that has drawn humans to it for some 400,000 years.
That night at Café Oc, participants spoke of many things, all wedded to the land and traditions. They described growing up cultivating and producing all that their family needed to eat; how to hunt for cepes (porcini); the medieval pilgrimage route that passes through their region toward Santiago de Compostela; gathering and selling truffles at Christmas; and colourful folkloric characters, the most memorable being the lébérou, Périgord’s version of a werewolf-like creature.
I learned that Occitan was once the lingua franca of the south of France, and is best known as the language in which the troubadours sang. But in 1539, King François I signed into law an edict, the Ordonnance de Villers-Cotterêts, which made Francien, the northern French dialect of Paris and the Île-de-France, the entire county’s official language.
However, outside of official business and written documents (such as marriage, death and birth certificates), much of daily life continued to be conducted far away from officialdom, and Occitan remained the language of the home, field and family. Graham Robb, in his historical geography, The Discovery of France, noted that despite three centuries of efforts to make standardised French the language of all of France, in 1863 in the south of the country more than half the population remained non-French speaking. In the Dordogne the numbers were even higher, where more than 90% of the population was still largely Occitan speaking.
Read more: BBC Travel