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2 Week Trip to Southwest France

Author: llindac
Date of Trip: May 2010

This was my third trip to France. It was our desire to discover the many joys of southern France at a quiet and unhurried pace as we left on our 9th anniversary, 5/27/10. I have had French classes many, many years ago in high school and college and as a summer student in France. Before this trip, I studied for 9 months at the Alliance Francaise in Louisville. I was glad I knew some French at times. Not only was it needed on occasions, but people seemed happy that I was attempting to speak their native tongue.

You can find our pictures at this link

The flight started from SDF via Montreal to CDG via Delta/Air France. When we arrived in Paris, my luggage was not there. It arrived some 3 hours later. We had lunch at the cafe at Austerlitz, which was quite good. We took a train to Brive, where we had rented a car through Alamo. Their email said that our car was at the airport. It was not there, neither was there an Alamo counter. A kind Scottish man gave us a ride to the city and we finally found our car at National. However, they gave our automatic car away due to our late arrival. We spent 2 weeks driving a manual Citroen with great difficulty. The woman at National also spoke no English.

We arrived at our lovely Domaine de Rochebois in Vitrac, outside the city of Sarlat. We had a gorgeous room with a sprawling terrace overlooking a golf course, meadows, the river and the city of Domme in the distance. No traffic could be heard, only the chirping of birds and the croaking of frogs. Rick accidentally peed in the bidet. I heard him say “this toilet looks like a sink” and I thought…uh oh. He did that in Austria as well. We were rather late arriving, but they booked us a table at Les Pres Gaillardou where we enjoyed a very good meal.

Next day is Saturday, the big market day in Sarlat! We REALLY enjoyed the sprawling market and enjoying the people, sights and smells. I wish my teens were there, the clothes were cheap. The local wine was cheap as well, and if we had chosen a rental house, we could have stocked up on great produce! We walked all over Sarlat and enjoyed the city sights. We chose a pretty cafe, Chez Vicky, for our lunch. It was a glorious sunny day and the courtyard was pretty and lunch was great! We had dinner in Vitrac that night at La Treille. It was disappointing. I had a soup which was inedible (gravy without flavor) and dry filets of fish. Most of the menu was duck and geese, which was the case for nearly all restaurants in this region. It was nearly impossible to find a vegetarian meal anywhere. I managed on a bit of seafood, cheese and salads.

We were in awe of the beauty of the area; medieval villages with ochre stone buildings, musty cold churches, cornflower blue shutters, wildflowers, narrow undulating roads with red poppies painting the meadows. We started in Domme, a beautiful 12th century bastide village which is full of tourists even at the shoulder season. I can’t imagine how bad it would be in late June! We didn’t have time to see the grotto under the town. If you are going, do check the opening times. Domme had a beautiful cathedral and there was a gorgeous walking trail around the town which we enjoyed. Views into the valley were amazing.

Driving east along the Dordogne, we visited the imposing Chateau de Castlenaud next. What an incredible castle! They have huge reproductions of medieval war machines and collections of armor, period furniture and historical information. The views are spectacular. Castlenaud and Beynac share an important role in the history of the area and the wars between the French and English. The castle has some interactive displays that would thrill children. In fact, if you visit no other castle in France, this would be the most fascinating to young people. Down the road, we visited Chateau des Milandes next. This is the chateau that Josephine Baker owned and renovated. Her wardrobe, pictures and memorabilia are on display here, and it is very interesting. We lunched at the cafe and had excellent salads. Had it not been sprinkling, the outside area was inviting. The have a falconry exhibit in the back and some nice gardens to stroll.

We crossed over the river and visited Le Roque-Gagneac by hiking from the car park and then hiking the trail behind the city. It’s a beautiful village carved right into the rock, it seems. It’s also very narrow and a bit dangerous at the street level! A boulder once destroyed some places and killed four people. Oddly enough, 5 days after we visited, the town was shut off due to a looming boulder! The best way to see this village is from the gardens at Marqueyssac across the river. It was also difficult to park here, even off season. Perhaps the best way to visit is by canoe.

Chateau de Beynac was the next stop. Part of the movie “Chocolat” was filmed here and the village has retained the medieval charm. In fact, most of the villages have retained their charm excusing the ubiquitous souvenir shops and the like. In order to receive the commendation of “la plus belle ville en France” the villages must maintain a strict standard. The castle is somewhat austere, yet the historical part the castle played in the Hundred Years War and the incredible views of the valley make this visit a must.

The next day, we had a reservation at Pech Merle at 2, yet I really wanted to see the area, so we hurried down for a stab at the first tour and got in! We were speechless. Not only are the ancient paintings remarkable, but the cave was gorgeous with the various formations and colors. The museum beside it is free with admission and is worth the trip. The guide spoke French slowly and was easy to understand, but we had guides in English which were essential. We hiked the trail to the village and back and enjoyed the scenery. Next, we drove to the gorgeous village of St Cirq-Lapopie. We had lunch at the acclaimed La Tonelle on the terrace. It was fantastic! I urged my husband to order his first ever Coq au Vin and he was in heaven. This is a popular tourist village, but thankfully the crowds were few and we enjoyed walking the narrow streets. Later, we drove to Cahors and enjoyed a few visits to the wineries. There were several offering tastes of the delicious and very reasonable Merlot varieties famous in this area and we took a few bottles back with us.

A cold front with a few drizzles greeted us the next day. We drove to Rocamadour and parked at L’Hospitalier where Rick bought a jacket at a very nice boutique. I also found a pretty blouse in that lovely shade of French shutter blue. This pretty place is the site of an ancient hospital where pilgrims would receive care on their journeys. We walked down the trail past the grotto and St. Amadour’s crypt to the stunning cliffs where buildings perched as if carved into the stone. It was one of the most amazing villages I’ve ever seen. It’s also France’s 2nd most visited site and there were plenty of tourists! The huge causse created an eerie sense of being in another world at another time when pilgrims limped up the rugged paths in search of supplies and care. We visited the stunning Chapelle Notre Dame and saw the famous “Black Madonna”. Smoke from candles has turned the statue that color over the years. She is supposed to have special powers and supposedly has granted miracles to those who sought her help. A bell hangs from the middle of church and is said to ring when miracles occur. This place literally gave us chills. An underground silent chapel is also very beautiful. The 13th century Porte du Figuier on the pilgrim’s route leads to the street level where many shops and restaurants are located. During medieval times, these ancient buildings were used for the same purposes. We hiked out to the edge of town and found the Moulin de Roquefraiche- a restaurant in an old 12th century mill. The food was wonderful and the climb up was steep and narrow. I really felt sorry for the server who had to do that trek every day!

The next day, we visited the Vezere valley. We traveled north to St. Genies where we lunched at the Vielle Auberge in a garden among roses, lavender and poppies with a view of the ancient XII century village. Later, we travelled to the Chateau de Fosse where we enjoyed a tour. We also saw St. Leon sur Vezere- a gorgeous village with the beautiful Chateau de Chabans perched on the river. We saw women hollering at 2 men in canoes from the porch of the chateau and we asked them if it was open. They said no- but she owns it! “She” was a lovely British lady who had guests in, apparently, and who was mocking her husband with his pal in the canoe. The guest also informed us that “the house is lovely!”. The last stop in the Vezere was La Roque St-Christophe, a giant honeycomb of over 100 caves hollowed out of the rocks on five levels. Man has lived here for 50,000 years! In the 10th century, people used the fortress to fight the Vikings and in later centuries, people fought the invaders during the Hundred Years war. Models are set up to demonstrate how the homes were used and there are replicas of an ancient kitchen and a forge. You can see the passages, fireplaces, and water tanks that man used over many, many years.

On a beautiful sunny day we visited les Jardins de Manoir D’Eyrignac and Marqueyssac; neither should be missed! The former are perfectly maintained gardens, sculptures and fountains around a lovely chateau with walking paths, gazebos covered in roses and interesting topiary. The latter has manicured gardens, but also encompasses 54 acres of walking paths, stunning views of the Dordogne Valley, forest, sculptures and a waterfall. After the visit (and several miles of walking) we enjoyed a drink and cheese tart and enjoyed the views. Later, we traveled to Limeuil and dined at a pleasant cafe on the square.

I can’t exactly remember why we wanted to see Bergerac, but it was okay. I don’t really enjoy cities and usually try to escape traffic. South of Bergerac, we stopped into the very charming village of Eymet where we had one of the best meals yet at the Restaurant Italien des Arcades. Finally, I got to eat some pasta! (We found a very nice little pizza place in Carsac near our hotel, but it was closed that night) I had a great meal of seafood over squid ink pasta and Rick had some much craved Spaghetti Bolognaise. I was really getting tired of all the canard (duck) and foie gras on menus. Even salads had lardons and gizzards in them! There were miles and miles of foie gras farms and duck and geese everywhere. One of our best laughs was watching a woman chasing down a squawking goose as it tried to flee the farm. We were yelling “RUN!” This is not a good area to be a fowl.

I was sad to leave Domaine de Rochebois. It was luxurious, and the people who worked there were charming. Rick did manage to get a round of golf there and he enjoyed it, despite not having a driver! I never got to use the pool at any of our stays- the nights were just too cool. Oh well, it beats having very hot weather. Rochebois has closed their restaurant and lower part of the property and now is run as a B&B in the main chateau.

We left the next day for our 3 night stay at Chateau de Pitray, a breathtaking B&B with its own winery and hundreds of acres of meadows, vineyards and trees. It had a large pool and many places to hike. The owners, Alix and Pierre, were the most charming hosts ever. The chateau has been in Alix’s family for over 500 years! They have portraits and a family tree of her many relatives. Our stay was extra special due to one truly crazy man from Australia and his lovely wife and cousin. Another young couple enjoyed the chateau as well. We had afternoon happy hour together, toured the winery, sipped their wonderful “Madame” wine and had laughs over breakfast. One night, I entertained for a two hour sing-along on their piano. “Gone to Rio” with an Australian accent sounds exactly like “gonorrhea” and I laughed so hard, I leaned back and fell off the piano stool. Maybe a little wine was involved. After the singing, Pierre brought out champagne for all and we toasted life and new friends. Our room was large and airy with stunning views of the meadows where deer scampered in the morning.

We just loved St Emilion, tourists and all. Yes, there were many tourists, but the town had such charm. There were many, many wine stores and tasting opportunities. However, what I enjoyed most was the Eglise-Monolithe, a church dug out of limestone between the 9th and 13th centuries. It is entirely underground and has a 39 ft ceiling! They have frequent concerts there. We also enjoyed visiting the caves underneath the cloisters where ancient bottles of wine are stored. St Emilion has a very good tourist map with info about the area wineries including opening times, tasting fees, etc. Many are closed on weekends, but some were not. Some require an appointment, some don’t. We found some that were open and not on the map.

Map in hand, we set out the next day to do some tasting and touring. Most of the places we visited were small family run wineries. Wine here is primarily Merlot/Cab Franc/Cab Sauvignon blends. It is cheap and tasty at the small places. These are wines meant to be enjoyed early and not stored. The drive is beautiful with each turn revealing a gorgeous chateau or a quaint village. We got turned around quite a bit, but that was part of the adventure. One crazy turn brought us to the gorgeous church in the tiny village of Ste-Etienne de Lisse. Down the road, we happened on La Rose Mouteron winery run by a young family on a small plot of land. They lived and worked there, plus he was a winemaker at several large wineries so he knew his stuff! Their daughter was celebrating a birthday and they all came in to greet us. This is how we learn so much about wine- we meet the owners and they love to share their passion for the work. My advice to visitors is to check out St Emilion’s website for info on the specific wineries they want to visit. We didn’t really have a plan, but would have done better perhaps. There’s always next time. As opposed to tasting rooms in California, most wineries here want to offer a tour (short) a visit to the grapes and then a taste. It’s quite fun to do that, as we noticed that every one was different. Some picked by hand, some used machines. Some crushed grapes, some used entire grapes. Some were produced only in steel, others are aged in wood. I could do pages on this, but seeing and tasting and asking questions is the best way to understand wines from any region.

One side trip was a visit to the town of Libourne. It was bustling with activity on a Saturday with a street festival and music fest going on. They have reasonable shops for clothing and a good variety of stores. We had a very good lunch (moules frites) at the L’Orient Brasserie and enjoyed the street festivities. Oh those French do love their frites!

We heard a forecast of iffy weather for the week, so rather than drive to our next Chateau , we got an early start and drove to the coast to the town of Arcachon. We arrived on a Monday and it was not overly crowded. We found a spot near the beach to park and walked to our restaurant, Diego Plage, where we sat right on the beach under sprawling trees. It was a lunch for the senses watching people stroll by, smelling the food, sipping wine, watching palms sway and catching glimpses of topless women. Okay, that was Rick’s moment. Our total was 118 euro! That was 2 huge platters of shrimp, 2 kinds of fish, a half lobster tail, scallops, two half bottles of expensive wine and a chocolate cake for Rick. How he ate that, I have no idea. We ate nothing the rest of the day! We enjoyed beach walking, shopping in the pretty town and walking by the sprawling mansions built in the late 1800’s where the rich and famous lived and played. The oysters gathered here are as large as my hand and they are popular!

Later we drove to Bordeaux and arrived at Chateau Grattequina, a gorgeous place quietly set on the banks of the Dordogne away from noise and city bustle. Our room was beautiful with views of the gardens in the back and the river a few feet away. The property had a nice swimming pool as well.

Our first day was spent enjoying the city of Bordeaux, though parking was very difficult. Once we found a place and paid our 2 hour minimum price, we went exploring. I never saw a meter maid, so after the two hours we trusted fate that we wouldn’t be towed. For a large city, I really loved Bordeaux! The Cathedrale Saint-Andre is on my top 4 list. It’s huge and has so much history in it. I am a church nerd, I visit every one I see. Bordeaux has at least seven in walking distance of each other. The many little “places”, or tiny squares, each have individual charm and a plethora of cafes. We made a stop at the Bar du Vin for an interesting and reasonable tasting. They also had some good reading material on Bordeaux wines.

The next day was overcast, so we planned for a long day at La Winery, a new concept for this part of France! The facility was built by a wine marketer to promote wine and all aspects of the elixir. It’s large and modern with interesting art and sculpture. They are teamed with a local chateau should you want to visit a winery and the vineyards. They sell wines from all over the world, but mainly focus on French wines. There is a tasting bar and they also feature single wineries at specific dates. You can buy a bottle and take it to lunch at their LeWy restaurant on site (a very good bargain- no mark up!) We had a delicious lunch there and trusted our server to help us pair wines. I suggest that you make reservations both for your selection of “class” and for the meal. It was rather busy on a slow day. We wanted to do the terroir tasting, but it was full. Instead, we did the “wine type” where you are given a wine profile. It was a blind tasting of 6 kinds of wine. A hand held calculator registered your likes and opinions. Some questions concerned food and smells. Very interesting! My profile was slightly different than my husband’s, but that was expected. We then shopped for some bottles to bring back and they were very helpful. I thought this place might smack of “’tourist” or “wine snobbery” but was not at all. The range in prices was a few dollars to over a thousand and they never pressured you to spend. There are 8 people who taste and run the tastings and such and they are well trained, friendly and lots of fun. It was a great day!

We tried to book Chateau Margaux a month early, but couldn’t get in. Chateau Haut-Brion was closed, but they offered us a tour of the sister winery across the street, Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion. We arrived on a windy day under blistering blue skies to this amazing Chateau which was once run by monks. To our surprise, the lovely Laetitia Dubos gave us a private tour complete with an English intro in the ancient chapel. The winery is gorgeous and the tour was unique. At the end, we entered a palatial tasting room and enjoyed tasting 1994 vintages of The Mission’s and Haut-Brion’s wine. What a treat! They don’t sell at the winery, but are planning to open a shop in the future. After all that, our tour was free! Our hotel arranged a tour of the Chateau Pape St Clement close by. We arrived to find a group of 4 Americans touring with us. The chateau dates back to 1250 when it was owned by the Got family. Their son Bertrand was Archbishop of Bordeaux from 1299-1305 when he was appointed Pope and became Clement V. He then was given the estate which he named Pape Clement. The tour is another great one with many religious relics and vestments scattered through the rooms. We had an informative, if slow, tasting. They were really busy with locals coming in to get cases. That’s a good sign. We splurged (I mean it) on a bottle of 2007 Clementin which we will cellar for a few years. With no plans for dinner, we followed some signs to Port LaGrange, a little seafood restaurant on the river. We were the first guests, but a party of 25 soon followed. They were in their 60’s and they were having a blast. They sent their best English speaker to talk to us (funny) and I used my best French on them. The food was great, even though the communication wasn’t perfect. I ordered an appetizer without knowing it, but it was good!! We had many laughs with our new friends and we serenaded them with “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” before leaving. We ended up there the next night and it was just as good, but quieter. The owner was already our buddy and we had fun with the staff. We had spent most of the day touring the beautiful countryside with the magnificent Chateaux. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Accept a word of caution, however. The French take two hour lunches but drive like madmen on the tiny roads. They tailgate like crazy.

We turned our car in at Bordeaux and took a flight connecting at CDG. Flying from CDG, the plane was quite late for no explanation. We arrived in Montreal with about an hour, but at the kiosk Rick checked in, but mine was over the 45 min. mark by a few seconds. We had to deal strictly with Delta to get us home, they weren’t too helpful. We arranged a flight to Atlanta which put us home 5 hours later than expected. Going through customs and security in Montreal was a joke. It took 50 minutes to move about 50 people. Everyone was complaining. I won’t fly through Canada again, even though it did save us about 800 dollars.

The French people are warm, gracious and fun loving. After all, they coined the term joie de vivre! We never met a stranger. We were treated so well and helped whenever we faced adversity. Southwest France is a playground with so many wonderful things to see and do. It’s a great place for visitors of any age. Merci et au revoir , la France!

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