There is something about arriving in a country where they speak a different language that sends a frisson of excitement through me.
Stretching up to Belgium and Germany in the north, across to Switzerland and Italy in the east, and down to Spain and the wonderfully warm Mediterranean in the south, France covers over 643,000 square kilometres and offers a plethora of different regions and climates for the traveller to sample. The northern regions like Normandy mirror the temperate climate of Britain; the eastern alps, often still impassable in April and May offer excellent ski opportunities in winter; St Tropez and Cannes on the French Riveria (and the Principality of Monaco – one of my personal faves) offer wonderfully warm French chic and excellent sailing opportunities; while Marseille straddles the Med. at the bottom, almost guaranteeing succulent summer sunshine. And this is only the tip of the iceberg with many wonderful regions within.
This year we set our sights on the Dordogne in the south west, flying into its capital of Bordeaux. Not generally a lover of resorts, I find a car gives us the freedom to avoid the tourist traps, explore the surrounding area at our leisure, eat at French cafes, visit markets and soak up the local culture.
Nestled in rolling countryside, equidistant between two ancient bastides, and offering panoramic views of surrounding fields of sunflowers, maize, Cyprus trees and olive groves the gite named ‘Josse’ was our home for the week. Josse is a beautiful 18th century construction with a large swimming pool, table tennis, badminton, bbq… In short, everything you need to occupy an eleven year old, not to mention two forty somethings;)
Although we did visit the usual family haunts of the aquarium and reptile park, played crazy golf, hired a canoe and spelt endless hours back in the pool (well, hubby and daughter spent endless hours racing and throwing each other around, I had a quick dip and moved to the loungers to catch up with some reading) – we also found time to explore the local area. Here are my highlights:
La Roque Gageac
An ancient stone construction, set into the steep banks of the Dordogne River, the best way to view La Roque Gageac is by canoe.
There is something special about walking across cobbles that are over seven hundred years old, wondering whose footsteps I am following. While the guide books will direct you to Monpazier and Sarlat (which are both amazing), the 13th and 14th century bastides of Monflanquin and Issigeac offer a perfect alternative to lazily sample the region’s history without the tourist rush.
Apart from the usual crafts and clothes, French markets are full of friendly people and stalls of food (not surprisingly). There are an abundance of stalls offering cheeses, fine wines, local produce, pastries – we even saw one totally dedicated to garlic – all well worth a visit.
Night markets offer an alternative method of trying local food – go along and pick out starters, main courses, puddings and sit and enjoy them on long trestle tables with locals doing the same.
Gouffre de Padirac
Enjoy a stunning boat ride through amazing limestone caverns with stalactites and stalagmites aplenty. Although very busy in peak season, the views are breathtaking although it should come with a health warning: there are hundreds of steps to navigate and those calf muscles are very sore the next day!
We ate at the pretty nearby village of Carennac where a local family opened up their sun terrace as a cafe – a very intimate French experience.
Built into the cliff face, the medieval village of Rocamadour offers beautiful examples of turrets and spires and is best viewed from nearby mountain top of l’Hospitalet: staring into the vast canyon below here, feels like you are standing on top of the world.
It’s difficult to visit this region without stopping at a chateau. Chateau Biron is a wonderful 11th century gothic construction, beautifully preserved.
I had problems loading photos for this blog and probably haven’t shown the area at its best, however maybe it gives you a flavour. I’m sure anyone who has visited the Dordogne will wish to add more to this list. There are certainly many more places to explore. So many, I can feel another visit coming on…