The Dordogne, France – Road Trip

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.

Long weekend in Paris

We have been in Paris for four days and today we make our way south to the wine capital of Bordeaux.  Paris is absolutely gorgeous.  And the Parisians are wonderful.  People often say Parisians are rude and obnoxious, but we have only found them to be courteous, helpful and very relaxed.  Compared to Londeners, their consideration of fellow travellers on the Metro is first class, with people always getting up and offering seats to those in need (which apparently includes my two children).

We arrived on Wednesday, via the Eurostar from London, which was an immensely easy trip.  I must have fallen asleep while we were under the channel, because I missed it.  TMOTH (the man of the house) headed off to his bucks day and night (boys!) and the kids and grandparents and I traipsed around Paris.  In truth, the kids are too young for city site-seeing, but they have been troopers (literally) and have walked this city flat.  We had a lovely boat trip on the Seine, counting all the bridges we went under (Matt in Spanish – too much Diego), Arabella in Italian (from school) and me practicing my French.

We went to the Eiffel Tower, which is less impressive from a distance, and much more striking when you are standing right under it.  The queues for the lifts went on and on snaking under the vast iron underbelly of this amazing tower.  However, since we are unlikely to be here again in the near future, I decided to walk up the 760 steps to at least get up the tower.  Actually, I decided to walk up the first 300 steps to the first floor, but once there, I figured I may as well just go for it.  The kids had ice-lollies and a play on the vibrant green grass of the Parc du Champ de Mars with granny, granddad had a sleep on the very same, in the shadow of the tower and I walked and walked and stepped my way to a fabulous view of Paris.  The sun shone, the hours in the gym paid off and a blissful hour was had by all.

On Wednesday night I spent some time in the nightlife of the Champs Elysees, where everything was still open and doing a roaring trade at 2 in the morning.  On a Wednesday!  The Arc de Triomphe was lit up and it was beautiful. Romantic, historic, exciting.

Thursday was our day for serious site seeing and we started with a trip to Sacre Coure and Montematre for breakfast.  A beautiful stark church set against blue sky and a view of all of Paris greeted us at the top of yet another steep hill.  We meandered around the back to the artists square and ate a breakfast of croissants and oeffs (eggs) and watched the portrait trade set up for breakfast.  Afterwards, I got to spend the whole day on my own while Mike took the kids to a more appropriate kid site (an amazing science museum) and I visited the Louvre.  It is exactly as they say – you cannot see even a tenth of what they Louvre has to offer in a day.  And I would add it is best to come with a plan.  Braving the gazillions of tourists I decided (having done no research at all) to see the Mona Lisa.  I was mostly blown away by the building itself – truly awe-inspiring, with vast marble halls and ceilings that reach half way to heaven.  I traipsed up and down the cavernous halls in search of, what is supposed to be the worlds most perfect painting.  Past reams and reams of stark Italian renaissance art – with its religious themes and sexual undertones – following the crowd until I came to the Mona Lisa and a gaggle of tourists pressing forward for a photo (I annoyed a whole bunch of people by meandering my way to the front and literally standing and staring at the piece of art, rather than just taking a happy snap and moving on.)  I did however get the picture, as well.

By some sort of miraculous intervention, on my way out, I ran into my mom and dad and so together we took a bus back up to the Hotel de Ville, and Dad went home while Mum and I shopped for shoes.  We shopped for shoes together in Paris!  Awesome! That night, Mike and I had date night, at a gorgeous little restaurant around the corner where the ambience was understated and the food was sublime.  They can cook, these French people!

On Friday, yesterday, it was the day of the wedding, the whole reason for coming to France.  We began the morning with breakfast at a French café, eating croissants and drinking café au lait.  Then we took the train out into the suburbs (past the ugly parts of working france) to a little village called Villenes sur Seine.  Absolutely quaint and gorgeous and green with cobbled streets and old houses and only 20 minutes from Paris on the train.  Why wouldn’t you live there?  The wedding was lovely.  Very unique and special.  It was set in the green garden of a friend of Matt and Lisa’s, under the heavy boughs of an old fruit tree.  The tears were thick and heavy from everyone as emotions ran high, the wine was unbelievable, the cheese was exquisite, the company great.  All in all, a very successful event we feel blessed to have been a part of.

And so onto the Dordogne via high speed train!