Wine lovers take to the streets in stereo

Renata Rubnikowicz finds cups running over in Nerac in the heart of Gascony

Who would have thought that "I Will Survive" would make such a great tune for a brass band? Barely recognisable, but it seems to be as enjoyable for the trumpets, trombones and saxes of Jimbalaya, Nerac's finest, as for any karaoke fan.

We've taken our places at the long trestle tables that are blocking the streets of Nerac, a small town on the Baise river in south-west France. Nerac's best traiteur (delicatessen) has laid on a special meal for this weekend's festival to celebrate this year's vintage of the local wine, Buzet, as has every restaurant and food shop in town. Those without the foresight to book ahead can taste the wine at impromptu bars set up on almost every street corner.

Our table is at a little crossroads. Jimbalaya are to our right, ahead are a band from nearby Montesquiou, playing a different song, behind us a jazz ensemble entertains the patrons of a bar. The jazz combo gives up the unequal fight with Jimbalaya and begins to improvise around the same tune. We experience a deafening stereo: brass in one ear, Hammond organ in the other.

There's been a scramble to pay. It's a fraught, joyful mess and the chef is already threatening a crise but eventually our money (less than pound;10 a head) is sorted out and the waitress hands round our initial kir, swiftly followed by a clear chicken consomme in which lurk pearls of tapioca. The first bottle of Buzet - a fruity, light red, usually served chilled - has been opened.

It's all a bit different to the quiet luxury of the menu de degustation we treated ourselves to earlier in the week at the 15th-century Chateau de Fourc s. Afterwards, we had strolled through the sleepy centre of Fourc s, one of the many bastides, or walled towns, in the area but the only one not built to a rectangular pattern.

The assiette du terroir arrives. As Nerac is on the borders of the Gers and Lot-et-Garonne, this plate of local produce consists of slices of melon, foie gras and a coarse duck pate. We taste more wine. Behind us some toddlers begin to dance - rather stylishly - to the jazz band.

Jimbalaya's fans are now standing on their chairs, doing a Mexican wave. We taste more wine. The main course, magret de canard with chips, or local chicken, arrives. The children in our party pronounce it delicious. They have to resort to sign language because the jazz band has turned up the volume again.

It's getting dark, so we leave the children and their parents to the ice creams and set out (taking our glasses) to see what's happening in the rest of town. The half-timbered houses look down on streets jammed with tables, people waving their bread in time to the music, bands blaring and harassed waitresses ferrying plates.

The evening before, we had driven past the sunflowers that make every other field in this part of France golden to the regular Friday night market in Vianne, a bastide co-founded by Edward I. Enclosed within its 14th-century ramparts, we ate mussels and chips in the square and watched small children try to grab the prize on a merry-go-round.

As we turn towards the chateau, the floodlit barley-sugar columns of which rise on a cliff over the river, a bunch of stiltwalkers in medieval dress almost knocks us over. We make for our favourite bar, L'Escadron Volant, hard by the chateau and named after the courtiers of Catherine de Medici who came to Nerac to sue Henri for peace in the French Wars of Religion. A medievalist with a flute encourages us to buy more wine. Just another glass then - oh, and a few bottles as a souvenir. Six are beautifully packed for us to take home, all for about pound;9.

The next morning we wake to the news that a 14-year-old from Paris has won the barrel race on the Baise, beating the local hero. The festival continues tonight, but we fancy a quiet evening writing the rude postcards we bought in Condom earlier in the week. There's a distant thump in our skulls. What is the French for oompah?

Additional research by Kay Church and David Reeves.Rail Europe:; 08705 848 848 will organise trains from Britain to Agen (the nearest TGV station) and car rental. To book a gite with Brittany Ferries, visit or call reservations on 08705 360360; VFB will tailor-make a holiday in the area:, 01242 240 330; or try The Individual Traveller Company: 08700 771771,, or Dominique's Villas:, 020 7738 8772. For more information about the area see:

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