In 1998, Phil and I bought sabots (clogs) at a rest stop on the péage (toll road). That was fourteen years ago. We’ve been wearing them ever since. For me, they are the shoes I resort to when my feet are bothering me, which as I mature, is more and more often. After arriving in France, I realized that the needed to be re-soled and I went off in search of un cordonnerie (cobbler). The ugly truth was that the cobbler wanted more money than I was willing to pay for fourteen-year-old clogs that the dog had chewed on when he was a little younger and a little smaller. I did an internet search for a replacement pair and found Isa.
Isa has an atelier in St. Bertrand de Comminges where she makes clogs in the same way her father-in-law made clogs and his father and probably his father’s father. In business since 1880, the family has been making sabots (clogs)—for much of that time the kinds of sabots that would be used by farmers and other rural workers. Now, of course, Isa has transformed the sabots into something more fashionable.
St. Bertrand de Comminges is located east of Pau and west of St. Gaudens and about half way between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. We left Moliets with heavy fog threatening the two and a half hour drive. Crawling along behind whatever vehicle moved at a comfortable speed, we finally emerged from the fog to find ourselves surrounded by green touched with fall colors. Fields stretched away into hills to the north and to the south into the Pyrenées. They beckoned us from the péage, but we had too far to go to distract ourselves with the mere beauty of the place. So we drove on.
We stopped for lunch in St. Gaudens and arrived at the atelier just after two. We found it locked and were ready to drive away to explore the town when a car pulled up. It was Isa, who hurried from her car and went through the gate to enter the atelier and open the main door. Just before getting out of the car, Phil reminded me that he didn’t want to be pressured into buying anything unless he happened to see something he liked so I should make it clear that we’re there only for me.
Isa is a one-woman show—but an energetic one-woman show. She handles the atelier and sales space, the internet sales, designs and the footwear all by herself. The inventory, then, is not always big, but it’s a made-to-order kind of operation. All the shoes are made with materials made in France. Most of the wood comes from the walnut trees of the Perigord and the leather is either local or comes from the north of France.
The workshop is to the left of the door and spills into the small showroom to the right with leather, wood and other clutter strewn here and there. Along the wall are clogs of many colors and styles—some with high heels, some with the normal low clog heel, some sandals and some boots. I liked several, and tried on closed clogs made of hard leather in a beautiful cordovan. I had a hard time deciding whether to purchase the clogs that fit the best or have her make clogs and send them to me. In the meantime—and in the background, Phil quickly found something to his liking. This from a man who agonizes over clothing purchases, each choice somehow just missing the mark usually resulting in no purchase at all. The hitch? Only one of the pair was finished. The other was a piece of leather attached at both sides of the instep to a wooden sole and at the toe, one nail driven into the front of the leather.
Pas de problème, said Isa. She’d finish it up now if that was his pleasure. And finish it up she did. She put on her heavy apron, sat down at her work bench, draped a leather sheet over her lap, wedged a wooden form into the instep and drove a huge nail through the form and the shoe. She shaped and tapped and cut and suddenly, the clog was a finished product. She removed the nail and the form, filled the nail hole and covered it with a label. Phil was over the moon.
I decided to purchase the one pair of clogs that fit me perfectly rather than ask her to make me another pair and we left several Euros lighter and satisfied to have learned a little about her history and her craft. Next time you’re in France and in need of a pair of clogs, I recommend a trip to St. Bertrand de Comminges and a visit with Isa—the real deal.