We’ve exchanged the sophistication of Paris for rustic, rural France. We arrived into Bordeaux via the high speed train network and headed straight out again in our newly acquired campervan. On the way to St Emilion, in the heart of acres of green, luscious vineyards, we stopped at, what seemed to me to be, the world’s biggest super-market. I have never been in a grocery store so big. It was massive and the choice on everything incredible. Cheese counters that stretched forever, with at least 20 different types of goats cheese alone. For a girl from the miserly world of Coles, it was a complete revelation. But we didn’t come to France to admire the Carrefour, so eventually we were on our way again in our bus, to the constant refrain of keep right, keep right.
St Emilion is an absolutely stunning medieval town. Meticulously restored and clearly aimed at the more sophisticated tourist, its narrow cobbled streets, terracotta tiled roofs and ancient weathered ramparts were a delight to explore. It seems to sit in the heart of the vineyards, with a view across verdant countryside, where every possible space is given over to old vines. There is no wasted space. The vines themselves grow right up to the verge of the roads and to the numerous old chateaux which emerge from a sea of green like stone ships in every direction and around every corner. We bought wine. You have to. I’ve always been rather disdainful of French wine, thinking our new world alternatives equal to the task, but the smoothness and delicacy of a French wine (white or red) is quite outstanding. I am converted.
After a couple of days we head inland and make our way to the “Venice” of the Perigord. We are now deep in the heart of the Dordogne and around us are fields of sunflowers, corn and in a contrast to the endless green, wheat – brown and dry. Brantome is a beautiful little town, surrounded by a moat of clear water and brooded over by an imposing monastery. The moat itself was built by Benedictine monks in an effort to cut themselves off from the rest of France, a little island of piety and security in turbulent times. Unfortunately we have chosen a Monday to visit here and very little is open. However, we do manage to wander through the town, watch canoeists float gently alongside the dish of the day (duck, if only they knew it!) and find a café to have a drink in. We camp alongside a river and meet “locals”, retired English people who have moved to France and tour about on a regular basis. I also want to move to France. Who wouldn’t?
On Tuesday we head back south, into Perigord Noir where there are castles on every hill top and caves and cavemen paintings abound. This is an area geared up for the tourist and feels a bit more like Disneyland for grown ups. It is beautiful none-the-less, everything is so green and luscious and each and every town is quaint and rebuilt in keeping with old traditions. On route, we stop in a little town and eat at a very local restaurant – a highlight of the trip so far. We have the Plat de Jour, which consists of goose to start, rabbit in wine, the fomaige plate and a to-die-for Pannacotta. Mike was incredibly rapt by the food and the localness of it all. An excellent experience, all the better for being unplanned and unexpected.
We head to Sarlat, which feels like it makes its money from American tourists. Indeed, 45 films have been shot here, including Chocolat, but it is beautiful, once you head off the high street of mainstream stores and overpriced souvenirs. The church is magnificent and the back alleys of cobbled streets and narrow doorways incredibly quaint. This is the home of Foie Gras and I have never seen so many tins, bottles and pictures of over-fattened geese in one place. You can have pottery geese, geese on tea towels, geese on table clothes, geese in a painting, goose for dinner, goose liver by the truck load. We buy chocolate and nougat instead and head further south on our way to something less developed.
Although we were heading for Vezac, we end up instead at Castlenaud, at a wonderfully green campsite full of trees, alongside the river Dordogne. The castles of both Castlenaud and Beynac cast their shadows over us as we sleep, and glare at each other across the valley as they have done for hundreds of years.
From our campsite we are able to walk into the village for croissants and an explore, climbing winding rocky streets upwards, through the higgledy-piggledy village clinging to the side of a hill, in the shadow of the castle walls. The houses sit one on top of another, with green vines across patios and neat, orderly vegetable gardens on whatever flat land exists. The view across the valley is momentarily obscured by mist and rain, but when it clears we can see for miles down the valley, as the river snakes its way east. The castle is an homage to warfare, with massive medieval-styled trebuchets and the later weapons, like the cannons, which signified its demise. The history of France is as fascinating as that of England, and they are both so intertwined with each other. I find myself thinking about the havoc religion has wrought on this part of the world, but also how the grand relics we come to visit – the castles, the cathedrals – are only there because of religion, which I suppose was merely the nationalism of its day.
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