So that's why the French say, 'Mais oui'

John Wilcox discovers the joys of a French fête
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The Independent Travel

'Oh Maman. La vache fait pipi!" As the five-year-old jeune fille in her Sunday best looked on and giggled, Maman dodged smartly out of the way. But for me the warning came seconds too late. The ground was soon awash with cow's doings and my brand new trainers would never be the same again. A foot nearer and I'd have needed directions to the dry cleaners.

'Oh Maman. La vache fait pipi!" As the five-year-old jeune fille in her Sunday best looked on and giggled, Maman dodged smartly out of the way. But for me the warning came seconds too late. The ground was soon awash with cow's doings and my brand new trainers would never be the same again. A foot nearer and I'd have needed directions to the dry cleaners.

Nowhere is it possible to be closer to livestock in the raw than a French village fête on a summer Sunday. The Great Yorkshire Show this ain't. It's just me, a token rope barrier and the beasts. Now don't get me wrong. I love cows and I love beef. I just don't like to get too close to them when they're still breathing. But you couldn't miss these buxom bovines.

They were lined up along the very narrow path around the church in the hilltop village of Lauzerte in South-west France. I'd come to see the church because, like so many villages and towns in this area, it's picture-book pretty. I was also in search of history and heritage in the Lot valley. But on this particular Sunday I was about to experience a very different version of French culture. I had arrived unwittingly right in the middle of Lauzerte's summer homage to all things bovine and equine.

All French towns and villages seem to pull out the stops on any given Sunday in a long, hot summer to produce the cultural highlight of their year. It probably hasn't changed much since that medieval church was built. But part of the charm of France for stressed Brits is that things like that don't change. And you get the feeling that these small-scale Hi-de-Hi! events really do still matter. Each village and commune is trying to outdo their neighbours in very Gallic fashion. Park up and your windscreen will be blacked out within seconds by fliers of all colours and sizes tempting you with the prospect of all-night dancing and as many hot dogs as you can eat.

Travelling through the Lot valley's endless sequence of beautiful towns is one of the great pleasures of this part of the Englishman's France. Of course if you feel the need for a city fix, there's Cahors which is attractive in the way Market Harborough might be to the unsuspecting foreigner. There's a genuine city as well. Toulouse is only an hour along the motorway. So when you've had your fill of rural beauty the fleshpots are only a hop and a skip away. That's why Lauzerte is pulling in the travelling Britons in large numbers to rent or buy houses. And rumour has it that a whole street in the town has been swept up by an American investor. It really is that pretty.

I decide to stay for the rodeo riding - a sort of Wild West version of dressage - in the makeshift ring recently vacated by the prize bulls. Riders costumed in Wild Bill Hickock gear do their best to turn tiny circles without disturbing wooden poles placed strategically on the floor. Riveting stuff.

By now the shadows are lengthening and it's show time. The action moves to the town square and the conductor from Central Casting takes to the platform with his celebrated orchestre. By now I've forgotten the indignity of the cow's premature evacuation and my Nikes are nearly dry. I've made friends too. They don't even seem to mind that I'm English.

Half way through the night, the master of ceremonies stands up and introduces the camp comic. He is every inch a Butlins redcoat - sorry, habit rouge - and the audience is soon falling about. Then, for a moment, it all goes quiet. I think I heard him ask if there were any English people in the house. I tried to hide.

There was nowhere to run. My new friends pushed me to the front and before I knew it I was the main attraction in a game of tease the foreigner. The camp comic got me to say my name. Then he turned and ran off a string of incomprehensible gags for five minutes to gales of Gallic laughter.

Next he asked me if I was enjoying myself. With Dunkirk spirit I summoned an answer in GCSE French. More noisy monologue. Even more gales of laughter. Surely a stray Englishman wasn't that funny?

After what seemed like an hour, the ordeal ended. I was sent packing to riotous applause - but I couldn't help thinking, for the second time that day, that someone was taking the pipi.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

EasyJet (0905 821-0905; www.easyjet.com) and British Airways (0870-8509 850; www.ba.com) offer return flights from Gatwick to Toulouse from £55 and £70 respectively. Car hire starts from £140 a week with Argus Car Hire (00 353 1 490 6173; www.arguscarhire.ie).

Where to stay

The Domaine de Saint Gèry (00 33 5 65 31 82 51; www.chateauxhotels.com) offers double rooms from €176 (£125) per night.

Further information

Maison de la France (09068 244123, 60p per minute; www.franceguide.com).

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