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Seven Travellers in the Dordogne, the Loire Valley and La Rochelle, Fall 2010

Doug Phillips

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By Doug Phillips from Canada, Fall 2010
September 2-22, 2010, Montreal-Bordeaux and return. Seven people, one vehicle, two weeks in the Dordogne, three days in the Loire Valley and a final day in the seaport of La Rochelle.

This trip report was originally posted on SlowTrav.

Introduction and Planning

BW and I have been visiting France annually since 2005, mostly in the Luberon, but also including the Drôme and several stops in Paris. The first few times we traveled on our own, with four of us in the Drôme (TR 1532 "A Traveller in the Drôme") in 2008 and six of us (TR 1685 “Cinq femmes et moi”) in the Luberon in 2009. We decided to make the Dordogne the focus of our 2010 sojourn. There were a number of initial decisions we had to make:

Time of Year

We decided on early September. In 2008 and 2009 we had traveled in June and found it a bit rushed getting away from our home in Eastern Ontario, just outside the town of Smiths Falls. Perhaps September would be a bit more convenient. Plus it had been very hot in the south of France in the previous two holidays. And the September scenery, while perhaps not quite as spectacular as June, offers its own rewards.

Numbers

While many people find it hard to believe, our group of five women and myself functioned very well in 2009 and we would have been quite willing to do it again. However, only one of the 2009 group could join us this year. Fortunately, two other couples decided to join us which created a nice even (?) number of seven travelers. In our group of seven were four retired teachers, one of whom had just retired in June.

Port of Entry

Paris has been the no-brainer for the past few years – fly into CDG, catch the TGV to Avignon, pick up the rental car and head off. But, depending on flight arrival and departure times, we usually had to spend some time in Paris – not that there’s anything wrong with that. Paris is my favourite city in the world, but it did add to the cost of the trip. Plus I had to pay attention to the SNCF train site to try to book PREM fares as soon as they became available. A guy I met while swimming at the pool over in Perth, mentioned that he flies into Bordeaux when he goes to the south of France or northern Spain. And guess what? Air Transat has a non-stop slight between Montreal and Bordeaux’s Merignac Airport. The only issue is that the schedule doesn’t mesh perfectly with the Saturday-to-Saturday rental period in France. So we had to add one day at the beginning and four days at the end – which of course negated any savings by not staying in Paris and buying TGV tickets, but did give us the opportunity to add a couple of additional areas to our visit.

Vehicle

Previously the largest rental vehicle was a mini-van, but this year I had to move up one size class, which turned out to be an eight-passenger Mercedes Vito mini-bus.

Navigation

We got around with the help of a three Michelin Departmentes maps - # 317 Indre et Loire, Maine et Loire, #329 Correze, Dordogne, #337 Lot, Tarn-et-Garonne; two National maps - # 722 France, #725 France Sud; and a Garmin 775 GPS. The GPS was helpful at times, but frustrating at others. It tended to be reliable on larger roads and in larger centers. For example it gave perfect directions from the hotel in La Rochelle to the Europcar rental lot at the Merignac Airport on our final day, but it took us in several directions on some of the smaller roads in the hilly areas of the Dordogne and Lot on some of our early day trips.

Rental Property

This turned out to be very easy. I found a review on Slow Travel for a property that looked great for our group. I looked around a bit more, but couldn’t find anything that came close. And that’s how we came to stay at Moulin de Poulican, aka Poulicant, a four-bedroom property a short walk from the crossroads village of Thonac and about 7.5 kms from Montignac.

Extra Days

I had to cover five other days. The first day was pretty easy – travel into the Dordogne, stay somewhere pretty central and head up to the Moulin late the next afternoon. So Beynac it was, and the Hotel du Chateau became the location for our first night in France. For three of the other four days, I decided to drive a few hours north and spend some time in the Loire Valley. On Trip Advisor I located a rural gîte very near Amboise that appeared to meet our needs and budget. I was able to book Auberge forestière de Marcheroux a few months ahead of our time in the area. However, we were over four hours from Merignac Airport, so I decided to spend the last evening closer to Bordeaux. The obvious answer would have been to drive into Bordeaux, stay the night and have a short drive out to the airport in the late morning for our 2:15pm flight back home to Canada. But for a couple of reasons, at least one of which will I am sure strike many as somewhat peculiar and which I will explain later, I decided to spend our last day and evening in the seaport of La Rochelle. After looking over some options on Trip Advisor, I booked rooms on Booking.com at Les Gens de Mer, on the street running between the gare and the Vieux Port. The 48-room hotel is one of a small chain located in coastal cities of France, mainly in the north, but also including one in Marseilles.

Communications

I purchased a Nokia 2220 slide phone at the E.Leclerc store in Sarlat. The price was €49.90, plus the SIM card and time. It was an essential purchase for us, especially this trip. We had an unexpected family medical emergency situation back home while we were away. While we had a few stressful days, the phone allowed us to keep up-to-date on the situation. A phone also came in handy for communications within France. Both the hotel in La Rochelle and the auberge near Amboise wanted confirmation that we would be arriving within a few days of our reservations. And of course it came in handy for making restaurant reservations and a vineyard tour down in the Lot.

This was the second time I have purchased a mobile phone in Europe. Prices are much lower than in Canada, the phones are unlocked (difficult to get an unlocked phone at home), and there are no issues about whether or not it will work in France or how to charge the phone. I had planned to use the phone back home in Canada, as I did with the first phone I purchased, but discovered that it was not compatible with any of the networks here – a bit frustrating. But I still have an inexpensive phone that I can take with me on future trips to Europe.

So off we went, flying out of Montreal’s Pierre E. Trudeau airport on Thursday September 2 and returning on Wednesday September 22.

Here's what happened:

Next: Beynac

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Moulin de Poulican
 

Doug Phillips

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Beynac

Friday September 3
Our Air Transat flight arrived on time shortly before 7:00am. We managed to get away from Merignac airport around 8:00, after reporting a large dent on the driver’s door of our Mercedes Vito eight-passenger vehicle. Our Garmin GPS negotiated us around and away from Bordeaux on the A10, then the A89 up to Perigueux, before directing us south along the N221 and D 710. We made our first stop at the small village of La Douze for our petit déjeuner. While the village is quite small, basically a couple of streets deep along a busy two-lane highway, our companions were very impressed to note the number of services available, including three restaurants. Welcome to France.

On to Beynac (part of Beynac-et-Cazenac), a busy tourist village along the Dordogne River, dominated by the medieval Beynac Castle situated on top of the cliff beside the river. Beynac Castle and the nearby Castlenaud on the opposite side of the Dordogne represented the frontier of the Hundred Years’ War in the 14th and 15th centuries. Beynac was a stronghold of the French kings while Castlenaud was controlled by the English Plantagenet rulers. Both are remarkable well-preserved and deserving of a visit, but not today.

We were able to check into our rooms at the Hotel du Chateau at the base of the hill along the busy D703 early in the afternoon. We spent the rest of the day resting, walking through the village and pausing for the first of many pressions (draft beer) or Monacos (beer, lemonade, grenadine). We had dinner at the restaurant at the hotel, sitting at an outside table.

While we were there slightly after the peak of the tourist season, Beynac was still very busy with all kinds of activities. Parking (payant during the day) was at a premium; rental canoes and kayaks were a constant sight in the river; large flat-bottomed boats called gabares offered tours along the river; a small office opposite the hotel advertised Montgolfier (balloon) flights at €190 a person (yikes!). We saw many balloon flights in the area over the next two weeks, as well as groups marshaling in parking lots in a couple of places in the morning or early evening. It is obviously a popular activity, but too rich for our budget.

Next: Sarlat, Moulin de Poulican

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Beynac Castle
 

Doug Phillips

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Saturday Market in Sarlat; Moulin de Poulican

Saturday September 4

After an early breakfast at the hotel we headed over to the highly-regarded Saturday market in Sarlat, the commercial centre of activity in this part of the Dordogne. We arrived shortly after 9:00am and spent the next few hours exploring the market and buying some food supplies for the next few days.

Then we headed north along the D704 to Montignac, only a few kilometers from our rental. We were intrigued by the colourful decorations strung from wires along and across much of the central core. We learned that the decorations had been left in place after the Félibrée de Montignac in early July. The Félibrée is a celebration of the Oc language, which I usually associate with the nearby Département of Languedoc.

Montignac is a bustling village on either side of the Vezère River. Apparently it owes much of its recent vitality to the nearby Lascaux caves. Tickets for Lascaux II have to be purchased at the tourist office in the centre of the village, and there are several stores on the main street selling postcards, maps, scenes of the area and regional produce. In addition to being a tourist centre Montignac also has the appearance of a genuine community, unlike Beynac for example.

Just outside the village in the direction of Thonac is a large, newer Intermarché – a supermarket and gas bar – with which we became very familiar over the next two weeks. Whenever it was open, there were lots of cars in the parking lot.

After lunch and some time walking around Montignac we drove over to Thonac, turned right and soon came upon the Moulin de Poulican. Too early. Our check in time was 5:00pm and our patrons were busy preparing for our arrival – so we retreated into Thonac, a very small village, not much more than a crossroads, but which includes a school, a Vival mini-market, which kept very irregular hours, two restaurants and a hotel/restaurant.

We returned to Poulicant at the appointed hour and were given a tour of the property. La famille Noelle is very proud of the Moulin de Poulican. It has been in their family for well over 200 years, for much of that time serving as the mill (moulin in French) for the surrounding area. After the last generation had moved away it began to fall into some disrepair before the family decided to restore to property. Since 2003 it has been a rental property, with the nearest family members living about an hour away near Bergerac. As she showed us around, explaining the intricacies of the plumbing and electrical systems, Mme. Noelle recounted her memories of growing up on the property. It is a large four-bedroom house with the kitchen occupying much of the former mill area. The kitchen table is adjacent to a large bake oven. The four bedrooms are located in the 2nd floor of the new – as in 1838 – addition. The outside area is a major asset to the rental, with a few acres of grounds, including a stream running through the property. Our nearest neighbours are a herd of Limousin cattle, grazing under the watchful eye of the bull.

Before departing, Mme Noelle provided us with the names of three nearby restaurant recommendations as well as a farm where we could buy beef directly from the producer.

Dinner and wine chez Poulicant.

Next: St. Cyprien, La Roque-Gageac, Castelnaud

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Sarlat market
 

Doug Phillips

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St. Cyprien, La Roque-Gageac, Castelnaud

Sunday September 5

Early Sunday morning we headed down to Beynac and over to St. Cyprien for the weekly market on the prior advice of the proprietor of a wine store in Beynac. We were actually familiar with St. Cyprien since we had paid a brief visit on our way to Beynac two days previously. Whereas it was quiet on our initial visit, this time it was packed with people attending the market which stretched all along the main street. The market was OK, but nothing really special – no plans to return.

For lunch we drove back through Beynac and over to La Roque-Gageac, a well-known and very picturesque village huddled at the base of a cliff beside the Dordogne River. Tourism is obviously the main activity, but it was a pleasant place to have lunch and visit some of the shops before heading over to the Chateau de Castelnaud, the English stronghold in the Hundred Years’ War on the opposite side of the Dordogne River from Beynac Castle. Castelnaud was high on my list of “must-sees” since I had read “A Castle in the Backyard”, and it did not disappoint. The chateau, dating back to the 13th century has been extensively restored over the past 40 years. A self-guided walking tour took us through all parts of Castelnaud and afforded great views from the higher levels, with Beynac across the Dordogne on the left, La Roque-Gageac on the right, and dozens of canoes and kayaks navigating the river below.

View: https://www.youtube.com/embed/rsOZ4Tkp81k

Dinner and wine chez Poulicant.

Next: Lascaux II

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Castelnaud
 

Doug Phillips

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Lascaux II

Monday September 6

Mme. Noelle had recommended La Ferme du Beuilh - a nearby farm up a winding road where we could buy beef products directly from the producer, so that’s where we headed first. We bought some steaks for this evening’s dinner, but were mildly disappointed that there wasn’t anything else from which to choose. The most interesting part of the transaction was how the quality of the steaks presented to us improved when we mentioned that we were staying at Poulicant. After dropping off the steaks we headed over to Montignac where we bought tickets for the 2:00pm English tour at Lascaux II, only a short drive from the village. We had a couple of hours before the tour so we split up and discovered Montignac on our own. No hardship. Montignac, situated along the Vezère River, is a pleasant place to spend a couple of hours.

Then off to Lascaux II. I knew that we would not be seeing the original drawings - Lascaux II is a reproduction, 12 years in the creation - and I was not prepared for the emotional impact of what we saw. The level of sophistication, artistic skill and humanity evident in the drawings reaches across the millennia. The “cave people” who created that art were a lot more like us than I had ever understood before. A visit to Lascaux II is a humbling experience. Pablo Picasso’s reaction to seeing the original drawings was that we have invented nothing.

Dinner chez Poulicant with farm-fresh beef steaks.

Next: A Michael Sanders day

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Mercedes Vito 8-passenger van - our wheels
 

Doug Phillips

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Les Arques, Clos Triguedina

Tuesday September 7

Before we left our home in Canada I had phoned La Recréation, the restaurant in Les Arques, the village in the Lot, that was the focus of the Michael Sanders book “From Here You Can’t See Paris”. I had originally intended to make a reservation later in the week, but La Recréation is closed Wednesday and Thursday, so Tuesday it was. Also, since it is located well over an hour from our base, I made the reservations for lunch, rather than dinner. Our trip to Les Arques was uneventful, but took longer than we had estimated. I had thought we might make a few more trips down into the Lot, perhaps even visiting Cahors or touring more vineyards, but today was our first and last visit to the region. Along the way we paid a short visit to Villefrance-en-Perigord, our first experience with a typical bastide – a medieval fortified town - located in an elevated position, with a covered market (halle) in the town square, arched walkways surrounding the central square and remnants of thick town walls. We arrived in Les Arques in plenty of time to allow us to walk around the quiet village, some opting to visit the museum devoted to a Russian artist who settled in Les Arques and was the main reason people visited the village before La Recréation began to attract visitors.

We had a great lunch! The dining room in a former classroom was full; service was very good; and the food was excellent. In Canada, today is the day after Labour Day, traditionally the first day of the new school year. One of our group had just retired from teaching in June, so we pointed out that not much had changed. Here it was the first day of school and she was back in the classroom. Jacques and Noelle Ratier still operate the restaurant, which is open for five months a year.

Earlier in the day I had phoned Clos Triguedina, one of the three vineyards featured in "Families of the Vine", another Michael Sanders title, to arrange a tour for our group of seven – a sufficiently large enough group to ask for a tour, I thought. The GPS took us the long way there, but we did arrive and had another memorable experience, in large part due to our tour guide, a Scots classical musician named Richard Hubbard who lives in Cahors and works at Clos Triguedina in marketing until his music career takes off. Richard was an excellent guide and a genuinely nice guy. We toured the vineyards, with Richard pointing out the different elevations of the landscape in front of us, full of rows of mostly Malbec grapes. The récolte (harvest) would occur in the next couple of weeks and a sampling of the grapes and the pits reinforced what Richard had been telling us. Then a visit to the cave, with its large oak barrels full of aging wine and other rooms with bottles dating back to the 1960’s.

View: https://www.youtube.com/embed/aJ0MBBODvPM

Finally, Richard offered us samples of all the wines produced at Clos Triguedina – not just a few selections. We could actually taste the differences created by wines grown at different elevations. Too bad one of us had to drive.

A great day, thanks to Michael Sanders, with a special nod to Richard Hubbard.

Light dinner chez Poulicant.

Next: Montignac & Fanlac

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Noelle Ratier (centre) & the serving staff at La Recréation
 

Doug Phillips

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Montignac, Fanlac

Wednesday September 8

We try to plan our excursions so that we don’t have two long driving days in a row. In the morning we drove into Montignac for the weekly market and then returned to our base for lunch with some of our market purchases. Mme. Noelle had recommended a restaurant in the nearby hilltop village of Fanlac, so most of us took a drive mid-afternoon to check it out. Fanlac was a very pleasant surprise – a small, attractive community with evident signs of prosperity wherever we looked. It also has a tragic episode in its past - a Nazi atrocity involving an elderly couple in March 1944. This event is commemorated and explained in the church and on the wall of a nearby barn where it occurred. The recommended restaurant, called Le Croquant, was closed. According to a hand-written note at the bottom of the menu posted outside, it was only open on Sundays for lunch. Well, that kind of limited our choice of visits. I called the number to make a reservation. I speak a bit of French, but I usually ask if the person can speak English (Parlez-vous anglais?). Almost always, the answer is in the affirmative to some degree. But not at Le Croquant – “Non” was the reply, so I had to make sure that I was making a reservation for seven people for noon the coming Sunday. At least I didn’t have to remember not to mix up mardi, mercredi or jeudi. Dimanche was the only choice.

We took a driving tour of the hilly area, driving on winding narrow roads, passing through the villages of Plazac, Rouffignac and Fleurac before reaching Les Eyzies and heading back along familiar roads to Poulicant. Our area of rural France has many seemingly viable villages and small towns wherever we go. Very impressive.

Dinner at Hotel Archambeau in Thonac. We walked into the village for our 7:00pm reservations and had to walk back a couple of hours later in almost total darkness – should have taken a flashlight. Our meal was OK, but we have no plans to return.

Next: St. Leon, Les Eyzies, Grand Roc, Rouffignac

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Entrance to Fanlac
 

Doug Phillips

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St. Leon, Les Eyzies, Grand Roc, Rouffignac

Thursday September 9

Rain in the morning as we began our day with a visit to the nearby village of St.-Leon-sur-Vezère. St. Leon appears to be a camping center in the area, but we are here just as the season is ending. It is small, pretty and quiet. The most interesting architectural feature is a church dating back to the 12th century with the remains of a much earlier Gallo-Roman villa visible along a wall on the river-side. One recommended restaurant is closed for the season; another one that looks OK is also closed when we are there and no phone number on any sign.

My Michelin guide rates our next stop, Les Eyzies-de-Tayac, quite highly (2 stars), but whatever charms it may have once had are difficult to find among all the tourist shops in the village. After some shopping and a pause for coffee we head over to the recommended Grotte de Grand Roc and its display of cave formations. However, after parking and climbing the steps to the cave we discovered that we arrived over lunch – no tours. So we had lunch at the adjacent Restaurant Laugerie Basse – quite good, and much better than what was to come. After an enjoyable lunch we proceeded to take a guided tour of the grotto (€6.50). What a disappointment! Not worth the time or money. Do not go there.

It was with some reservations that we headed over to another recommended cave in the area, the Grotte de Rouffignac, which we had been near on our driving tour the previous day. However, this experience was the exact opposite of the Grand Roc – over an hour ride on a small train inside an extensive cave formation highlighted by several etchings of a large variety of animals and a great array of drawings in the large final chamber. Excellent value! Well worth the time and money (€6.30). Go there.

Next: Rocamadour

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Getting on the train at Rouffignac
 

Doug Phillips

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Rocamadour

Friday September 10

We have fog most mornings of our time in the Dordogne, but it dissipates by mid-morning and, except for one day, we have great weather from now on. We have noticed that almost every place we go takes longer than we, or the GPS, estimate. The roads are pretty good, but many of them are narrow and winding. If we had a smaller vehicle we could likely make better time.

Rocamadour, a place of pilgrimage for centuries and an historic site, is high on anybody’s list to visit when they are in this part of France. So off we go at 9:15am, over to Souillac via Sarlat then follow the signs to Rocamadour along the D43 and D247. The village occupies a dramatic setting along a cliff above a canyon. The pilgrimage site rises above the village, up 216 steps that penitents used to ascend on their knees. At the top of the village are the remains of the privately-owned castle. We parked near the tourist office above the village and set off on a long loop, walking down the paved road into the village, along the single street, climbing up the walkway to the church; then continued to the top where most of us walked the ramparts of the castle before heading back along the edge of the cliff to our parked vehicle.

We spent about three hours in Rocamadour and the opinions of our group were quite mixed. Some thought it was a great experience; others had a less exalted opinion. While the setting is quite dramatic, the village itself contains nothing but tourist “tat”, as Brits might say. Its place as a pilgrimage site might make its appeal more significant to some, but I certainly wasn’t moved. My most interesting experience was our encounter with a few hundred French schoolchildren walking down the path from the castle as we were trying to ascend.

View: https://www.youtube.com/embed/XpcAdeIu_ms

In my opinion, the tour buses have it about right. Everybody troops out at a spot that affords great views of the dramatic setting of Rocamadour, snaps several photos, then piles back into the bus and continue along their journey.

We started back along a different route than the one we came on, a practice that we follow whenever possible. We stopped in the small village of Lacave for a pizza lunch. There is another cave in Lacave, but we are grottoed out. As we continued our long way home, we came across a very attractive small village, St Geniès, only a kilometer off the D704 and about halfway between Sarlat and Montignac. Market day is Sunday.

Next: Domme, a bastide town

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BW, with Rocamadour in the background
 

Doug Phillips

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Domme

Saturday September 11

A second visit to the market in Sarlat, the best one in the area, then off to the bastide town of Domme. A bastide was a fortified town and Domme occupies a great position, situated on a rocky crag overlooking the Dordogne.

While I have enjoyed our activities so far, our time in the Dordogne had been quite different from our previous holidays in the Luberon or the Drôme. There are definite theme park elements to the Dordogne region, with its myriad early man and natural phenomena venues. We are more used to individual experiences of discovery rather than structured or even self-guided tours. For example, I much preferred our time in Fanlac and associated driving tour to our time in Rocamadour. At the tourist office in Domme I made a great discovery – a Michelin map of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France. Of course, Domme is on the map; so too is St.-Leon-sur-Vezère. And there are several others within a reasonable driving distance.

Domme is well worth a visit. On the edge of a cliff, Domme offers a vast panorama over the Dordogne valley, and it is large enough to offer the visitor some unexpected pleasures. On one street off the main square an ex-pat American called out to some of our group from her balcony when she heard us speaking English. She interrupted her lunch to engage us in conversation and explained why she had moved to Domme a few years ago after an absence of many years. Others did a circuit of the town walking through the original gates, while some of us bought original watercolour paintings from a friendly artist trying to combine commerce with indulging in an aperitif with a friend. If you are in the area, go to Domme.

Next: St. Geniès, Fanlac

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Home of an ex-pat American in Domme
 

Doug Phillips

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St. Geniès Market; A Four-Hour Lunch in Fanlac

Sunday September 12

Four schoolboys discovered the original Lascaux caves on September 12, 1940. They vowed to keep their secret all their lives. Their pact lasted two days. Today is the 70th anniversary of the initial discovery and Nicolas Sarkozy, the President of France, is paying a visit to the original caves, only a couple of hundred yards from Lascaux II. Most of us decide that we will go over to the market in St. Geniès, an attractive village which we passed through a couple of days ago. Our trip involves going through Montignac, which we had already done several times. However, today security is everywhere in evidence and there is a detour around Montignac. We see several security forces in the area - on the roads, in the river and in the air. I remember that when Sarkozy was elected some French people I knew slightly were quite optimistic about changes he was going to make, but now nobody seems to have anything good to say about him. Hey, just like at home.

Anyway, Sarkozy missed us. We continued on to St. Geniès and its small local market. The village has several appealing architectural features and a most attractive 14th century church with some partially intact frescoes. The church is well worth a visit if you are in the area.

We made it back to Poulicant in time to drop off our market purchases and return to Fanlac for Sunday lunch at Le Croquant. It turned out to be a very memorable experience, one of the highlights of our time in France. The lunch lasted four hours; the courses kept coming and coming; the food was served family-style on platters. Le Croquant is very likely the only restaurant I know that owes its existence to a movie. In the early 1970’s a movie, Le Croquant, was made in the area and la famille Roger opened a restaurant in 1972, taking the name of the movie. The family has been running the restaurant ever since. The restaurant is open six days a week (except Monday) in July and August and Sunday lunch for the rest of the year.

Return to Poulicant along a different route in the late afternoon.

Next: Monpazier and Belvès

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Alain Roger, Le Croquant Restaurant in Fanlac
 

Doug Phillips

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Monpazier & Belvès

Monday September 13

Today we ventured to the south-west and a visit to two more of Les Plus Beaux Villages - through Les Eyzies and St. Cyprien along the D710 and the D53 until we arrived in Monpazier, the most complete bastide town in the area. The main attraction of Monpazier is the architecture and the layout of the town which is organized along a grid pattern. The main centre, the place des Cornières, is a very attractive area and a great place to pause for un café. It is Monday and, unfortunately, the majority of the businesses are closed, but there are still some shops open and there is a line outside the small boulangerie. We join the line and order some pastries which we planned to take back to Poulicant for dessert, but, alas, they never made it.

Monpazier provides the best example of a bastide town of any of the ones we visited. All the typical elements are present and in good condition.

We also noticed a lot of English being spoken wherever we went - obviously this region is still very popular with British travelers and ex-pats.

Then over to Belvès (rhymes with Elvis), which was even quieter than Monpazier. Lunch in the central square beside the covered market, then a stroll through the village and outside the walls.

Both villages are interesting - Monpazier has more to offer in my opinion, but we didn't choose the best day to visit. Mondays are pretty quiet in a lot of towns and villages.

Dinner and wine chez Poulicant.

Next: La Roque St.-Christophe & Font-de-Gaume

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The halle at Belvès - typical feature of a bastide
 

Doug Phillips

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La Roque St.-Christophe; Font-de-Gaume

Tuesday September 14

Cool in the morning, but turning into a beautiful day.

We decided to visit a couple of nearby sights - La Roque Saint-Christophe and Font-de-Gaume. We have already seen La Roque Christophe a few times from the road into Les Eyzies. It is a long horizontal scar part-way up an imposing cliff face. From a distance, we could see what we mistakenly took to be some restoration work. We arrived shortly before the 10:00am opening and were among the first visitors of the day. I was very impressed by La Roque Saint-Christophe. There is evidence of human settlement on the terraces carved in the cliff going back at least 25,000 years. Amazingly it remained a viable settlement until 1588 when it was destroyed in the Wars of Religion. The settlement on the terraces included houses, a cowshed, slaughterhouse, church, forge, and a quarry among other structures. What we took to be some renovations are actually modern reproductions of medieval winches and cranes that helped to ensure the safety of the community, estimated to be over 1,000 people.

Into Les Eyzies for lunch before heading over to the nearby Font-de-Gaume, another site of wall paintings and engravings of early man. I had read that Font-de-Gaume was worthwhile, so I had phoned ahead a few days before and booked an English tour for 1:00pm today. Also, somewhat mysteriously I was told to arrive at 12:30. Font-de-Gaume is just outside Les Eyzies and the signage is quite modest. We drove by and had to backtrack, arriving a few minutes late. I understood why we were told to arrive 30 minutes before our scheduled tour. The tour starts at the entrance to the cave up a long, rather steep, climb from the reception area/ticket office beside the parking lot. After some confusion about tickets, which required going back down the hill and up again a couple of times, we were able to join the tour and were very impressed by what we saw. Our guide was excellent. He put the art in the caves in historical context - not only comparing it to the art in Lascaux, but also explaining the reluctance of people a couple of generations ago to accept that that this art was genuine, dating back more than 20,000 years. And what we saw was the the original art, not a reproduction as at Lascaux II. Whereas Lascaux is underground, the caves at Font-de-Gaume are elevated. The environment is quite different, permitting about 100 people a day to visit. But our guide indicated that policy could change at any time.

Both La Roque-Saint Christophe and Font-de-Gaume are worth a visit. My time at Font-de-Gaume was a memorable experience.

Next: A busy day

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Winches at La Roque Saint-Christophe
 

Doug Phillips

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Limeuil; Chateau des Milandes; Beynac Castle, Laborderie Restaurant

Wednesday September 15

After breakfast we headed over to the distinctive village of Limeuil, driving through Les Eyzies and the busy town of Le Bugue. Limeuil is another of Les Plus Beaux Villages and the designation is the reason for our visit. The village occupies a picturesque site along a steep hill at the confluence of the Dordogne and Vezère rivers, which are spanned by two bridges set at right angles to each other.

We had a very pleasant time in Limeuil, walking up the narrow streets and along the Grand Rue, English language walking tour from the tourist office in hand. The two most interesting buildings mentioned on the tour were the former "House of pleasure", which provided comfort for the bargemen who worked on the rivers, and the Church of Saint Catherine near the castle ruins at the top of the village. The church is regularly used by local Anglicans, another reminder that the Dordogne has been very popular with English tourists and ex-pats for a long time. Limeuil is worth a visit. It has some unusual attractive features, including a unique setting for the area.

In the late morning we headed over in the direction of Chateau des Milandes only a few kilometers across the Dordogne River from Beynac. Chateau des Milandes dates back to the 15th century and is notable not for its history or architecture but for one of its recent former owners, the American cabaret star Josephine Baker. The interior decorations of the chateau reflect the taste of its most famous inhabitant and most rooms also include memorabilia - posters, photographs, programs, music, clothing - of her career. The exterior grounds are immaculate and there are daily falconry demonstrations staged in the gardens. We had a very pleasant lunch at a restaurant on the grounds of the chateau. I enjoyed my time at Chateau des Milandes.

After lunch we headed over to Beynac. While we had spent our first day in the village, we had passed on its most notable attraction, the restored and imposing Beynac Castle occupying a strategic location overlooking the Dordogne River from a high promontory. We drove up to the top of the hill, paid the entry fee and spent the next hour-and-a-half transported back in time inside a medieval castle. The interior areas of the castle felt very authentic and there are great views of the surrounding countryside from the ramparts. Another excellent experience.

Back to Poulicant in the late afternoon and a couple of hours to rest before heading out for dinner. We had made reservations at Laborderie in the small isolated village of Tamniès on the recommendation of Mme. Noelle. We never would have found it on our own. Restaurant Laborderie is part of a large complex including a hotel and annex and a large recreation area. A tour bus checked in while we were dining in the restaurant, but they had their own dining area separate from the one near the front of the hotel. We had an excellent meal with great service.

A great day in the Dordogne.

Next: Oradour-sur-Glane

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Chateau des Milandes
 

Doug Phillips

100+ Posts
Contest 2019 Winner!
Oradour-sur-Glane

Thursday September 16

On Saturday June 10 1944, four days after the Normandy landings, a detachment of about 200 SS troops surrounded the busy village of Oradour-sur-Glane, 24kms northwest of Limoges, blocked all the exits, forced 500 women and children into the church, set it on fire and waited until the roof collapsed. Only one woman made it out alive. At several other locations in the village men were rounded up and shot. A total of 642 French citizens were killed that day and the village was ravaged. The ruins of the village were left as a memorial to the atrocity.

It was a two-hour drive up the A10 and then following the signs to the Oradour-sur-Glane memorial. Close to the ruins is a permanent exhibition of the rise of Nazism and the events of June 10 1944 and the aftermath.

A visit to Oradour-sur-Glane is a very emotional experience, difficult to express but deeply felt. Words are not adequate to describe the effects of our time in the village.

A long quiet drive back to Poulicant.

Next: St.-Amand-de-Coly

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The church at Oradour-sur-Glane
 

Doug Phillips

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St.-Amand-de-Coly

Friday September 17

Our final day in the Dordogne and a visit to the very small village of St.-Amand-de-Coly, one of Les Plus Beaux Villages. We had actually seen signs for the village on several of our day trips. It is only a short drive off the D704, a few kms south of Montignac.

If this had been earlier in our time in the Dordogne, we almost certainly would have done more that we did today. But we have had enough busy days over the past two weeks. And we have to pack and get ready for a long drive tomorrow.

St.-Amand-de-Coly was an unexpected pleasure. The village is overshadowed by the massive fortified Romanesque church at the highest point in its centre. It was a Huguenot stronghold during the Wars of Religion in the 16th century and parts of its fortifications remain today. The interior of the church with its slanted stone floor and great expanse of stone walls does manage to convey a peaceful, spiritual aura, perhaps partly due on our visit to the ladies of the village who were cleaning and preparing the apse for what appeared to be a special service, but may have been only a daily occurrence.

A leisurely drive back to Poulicant along a different route, a quiet afternoon packing and getting ready to leave. In the early evening we returned to St. Amand-de-Coly for a our final meal in the Dordogne. Unfortunately it wasn't very good.

Next: Into the Loire Valley

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The imposing Romanesque church at St.-Amand-de-Coly
 

Doug Phillips

100+ Posts
Contest 2019 Winner!
Three Days in the Loire Valley

Saturday September 18 – Monday September 20

We managed to get away from Poulicant by 10:30am. We had a four hour drive back up the A10 past Limoges, turning on to the D943 at Châteuaroux, and the D31 at Loches into the direction of Amboise. We saw a lot of different scenery along the way including quite striking changes in soil colour and texture and vast expanses of dead sunflowers waiting to be harvested.

We stopped for lunch in Clion-sur-Indre, one of the several villages and small towns we drove through after we left the A10. Instead of a restaurant we opted for a visit to the boulangerie where we pretty well cleaned out the selection of prepared baguette sandwiches, bought some drinks and sat in the small park on the opposite side of the main street. Outside the boulangerie I noticed a newspaper headline announcing that two nearby communities, the aforementioned Châteuaroux and Aigurande will be on the route of the Tour de France in July 2011 – big news in the area. From our brief time in the area, I can safely predict that it will be a flat stage with a sprint finish and the dominant background colour for at least part of the day will be yellow – as in sunflowers in full bloom.

We arrived at our accommodations, a rural gîte, for the next three nights a bit early, but were able to unpack, relax for a bit before heading into town. The town was Amboise; our gîte was Auberge forestière Marcheroux, in a heavily wooded area a few kilometers from Amboise. Our accommodations are in converted horse stables, but the bathroom is large, the beds comfortable, the location very good and the price reasonable. There are some tables and chairs outside for sharing a bottle of wine; the included breakfast is adequate (just), but the towels are a bit of a letdown. I found the auberge on Trip Advisor and booked it through Booking.com. It suits our needs quite well. It is in the middle of a forest – lots of animal sounds in the night and no mobile phone reception – have to drive a few kilometers in the direction of Amboise.

I asked for some restaurant recommendations in Amboise and our hostess provided three very close to each other. Two were very good and the third OK. The first night we managed to get a table for seven at Le Parvis a restaurant featuring meat grilled on an open wood fire. The waiters were relaxed and friendly, the food very good and we all enjoyed our experience. The next two evenings we split up into smaller groups, but ended up in the same restaurant both evenings. Our second night we dined at La Florentine, an Italian restaurant, seemingly mainly run by one friendly yet overworked young woman. Our meal was OK, but definitely the weakest of the three. Our final evening we dined at L’Epicerie, my personal favourite. The highlight for me was the cheese tray – our hostess, the owner of the restaurant, arranged my selection on a plate with instructions as to the order to eat them and as a little extra offered some raisins soaked in Armagnac. I would definitely recommend Le Parvis and especially L’Epicerie to anybody visiting Amboise.

The main reasons for visiting the Loire Valley are the beautiful chateaux situated on the banks of the Loire or one of its tributaries. We only had two full days, so using my Guide Michelin, I decided to try to visit six of the most highly recommended chateaux in the area. We made it to four.

Sunday morning we drove east along the heavily misted Loire River to the Chateau de Cheverny, a beautiful symmetrical building surrounded by immaculate lawns and gardens. Cheverny is unusual in that it was completed in only 30 years, so it reflects a unity of construction and design not found in many other chateaux in the region. The interior rooms are immaculately furnished reflecting the elegant lifestyle of a 17th century family of the French nobility. Two unusual features of Cheverny – a Trophy Room in an outbuilding displays 2000 deer antlers and a large kennel complex, home to about 150 hunting hounds.

I was looking forward to our next chateau – Chambord, but whereas Cheverny was beautiful, symmetrical and almost restrained in its design and appearance, Chambord was over the top in every way. It is huge, by far the largest of the Loire chateaux, the creation of one of France’s greatest kings, Francois I. And the grounds are immense. After spending a few hours at Chambord we all decided we had had enough of the excesses inherent in these buildings for one day.

On the grounds of Chambord there is an area set aside for tourist shops, a small market and several food options. As I stood in line at a snack bar, I struck up a conversation with the guy in front of me.

"I’m from Canada. Where are you from?”

“Knoxville, Tennessee.”

“The only people I know in Knoxville are Kathy and Charley Wood.”

“I met Charley in the Cincinnati airport on our way over here. I’m going to get in touch with him when we get back.”

“Tell Charley, Doug Phillips says 'Hi'.”

Monday morning we had only a short drive before arriving at the high point of our time in the Loire Valley. Chenonceau is by far the most beautiful and impressive chateau we visited. The approach, along a canopy of plane trees, offers ever-expanding views of the chateau, unusual in that most of the building extends out over the Cher River. The elegance of the architecture, setting and gardens is also expressed in the interior furnishings. A visit to the kitchen area on the lowest level is an unexpected pleasure. The ongoing renovations of parts of the exterior, while possibly distracting, are presented in such a way as to be part of its history. Chenonceau is by far the best chateau we visited. Get there early. Tour buses start arriving mid-morning.

We split up for the afternoon, two of our group opting to spend more time in Amboise, while the rest decided to visit one more chateau, Azay-le-Rideau, about 40 kilometers away, south of Tours. Sometimes described as a smaller version of Chenonceau, Azay-le-Rideau paled in comparison to our morning visit, but was nevertheless an enjoyable experience. Azay-le-Rideau is small enough to be almost comprehensible as a family home. The interior of the chateau is sparsely furnished and our visit was restricted to the first two floors. But the setting and the exterior views are beautiful. Our visit was a much more tranquil experience compared to the other chateaux. Plus, there was some good shopping just outside the chateau, which delayed our return to Amboise. We arrived back in Amboise at 4:00pm. The commercial section of Amboise, mainly in the area around the castle is quite busy, but also fairly small according to our friends who remained behind. A couple of hours is plenty of time in Amboise.

Next: La Rochelle and return to Canada

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BW, with Azay-le-Rideau in the background
 

Doug Phillips

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La Rochelle and Return Home

Tuesday September 21 - Wednesday September 22

The early French explorations of Canada began in the northern part of France. Jacques Cartier sailed from St. Malo, Samuel de Champlain from Honfleur. Most French Canadians families trace their roots back to sailings from ports in those areas. However, I was reading a biography of Pierre Trudeau when planning our itinerary and learned that his ancestors sailed from La Rochelle, a seaport a couple of hours from Bordeaux – so I researched the port on the Internet and was intrigued by what I found. It was described in quite attractive terms along with the information that few North Americans visit the city. So I decided to book rooms in a small hotel near the old harbour and spend our final day exploring a new location.

La Rochelle is a great place to visit! After checking into the hotel and having lunch at a restaurant very near the old harbour, we split up for the afternoon. The distinctive harbour towers guard the entrance to the Vieux Port filled with some very expensive looking sailboats. Ringing the harbor must be at least 50 restaurants. BW and I, and others in our group, spent much of it in the upscale shopping district along rue des Merciers – had to find some clothes for our grandson – while other spent more time in the harbour area, walking along the sea wall outside the towers that protect the harbour. There were other options that we didn’t have time for – boat tours out to some neighbouring islands or a day trip over to the nearby Île de Ré.

In the evening we went to a seafood restaurant, Restaurant André, quite near the towers. We enjoyed an excellent final dinner. I will definitely plan a return visit to La Rochelle, next time for at least a couple of days, if our travel plans ever take us near the city. Our last day was a highlight of our trip.

Our return to Montreal was uneventful – a good thing. We arrived at Merignac shortly after 11:00am, had a very short walk from the Europcar drop-off area to the Air Transat check-in counter, and were left with less than three hours to put in before our flight back to Montreal. We went through security about two hours before our flight, expecting to find some services on the other side – but were surprised to find there were none. Merignac is a small airport - all retail shops and service, except the duty free, are in the main part of the airport. Seven and a half hours flight back to Montreal, a wrong turn out of the Park ‘n Fly lot adding about 20 minutes to our return journey and arriving home by 8:00pm.

Next: Resources and Recommendations

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La Rochelle towers - a distinctive feature of this beautiful seaport
 

Doug Phillips

100+ Posts
Contest 2019 Winner!
Resources & Recommendations

Resources:

Guide Books: I traveled with two Michelin Green Guides – Dordogne, Berry, Limousin and Chateaux of the Loire. Both were very useful and of course provided map locations for the Michelin Departement maps. One of our companions brought along a copy of Rough Guide France which was excellent.

Additional Readings: In addition to guide books, I like to read a lot of first-hand accounts about a region before we visit. The following are the titles I read which I found added to my time in the areas we visited:
  • Caro, Ina. The Road from the Past; Traveling through History in France. Recollections of her travels with her husband with a chronological theme. Chapters on the Dordogne and the Loire Valley. I first read this book several years ago and still find myself picking it up from time to time.

  • Drainie, Betsy & Michael Hinden. A Castle in the Backyard: The Dream of a House in France. Despite its cutesy title, this is one of my favourite travel books. It is well-written and I like the way the authors describe their search for that special house; the initial enthusiasm for some properties before reality sets in; eventually finding the perfect place beside the wall of Castelnaud; and their experiences fitting in to their new home and community.

  • Rose, Phyllis. Jazz Cleopatra: Josephine Baker in her Time. A very good biography, with some chapters describing her life at Chateau des Milandes.

  • Sanders, Michael S. Families of the Vine: Seasons Among the Winemakers of Southwest France. Sanders spent two years with three wine families in the Cahors region of the Lot. I found it a bit of a slog for the first few chapters, then didn’t want to put it down. A sequel of sorts to From Here You Can’t See Paris.

  • Sanders, Michael S. From Here You Can’t See Paris: Seasons of a French Village and Its Restaurant. This is an excellent account of a year in the life of a restaurant in a remote French village. I read it shortly after publication a few years ago and thought, “Well, that’s one place I’ll never get to.” Wrong again.
Plus a couple of titles that I couldn’t get into before we left, but which I have found very interesting on returning from the Dordogne:
  • Bentley, James. Fort Towns of France. This book, somewhat confusingly organized, discusses the bastides found in various parts of France. Many of them are in the Dordogne. I consulted the book on my return and a lot of the features I saw in places like Monpazier, Belvès, Domme, Villefranche were well-explained in the book

  • White, Freda. Three Rivers of France: Dordogne – Lot – Tarn. With Photographs and Commentary by Michael Busselle. This book is supposed to be a classic on the area, but I couldn’t get into it before our visit. It makes more sense now.
Finally, one title that I do not recommend:
  • Josephs, Jeremy. A Vineyard in the Dordogne: How an English Family Made Their Dream of Wine and Sunshine Come True. The story of a highly dysfunctional family that happens to be in the business of making wine.
Recommendations:

How would I rate our experiences in September 2010? Well, here are 15 places we visited that I would recommend to anybody:

1. La Rochelle
2. Fanlac
3. Lascaux II
4. Chenonceau
5. Font-de-Gaume
6. Castelnaud
7. Chateau des Milandes
8. Clos Triguedina
9. Beynac Castle
10. Oradour-sur-Glane
11. Domme
12. Limeuil
13. Monpazier
14. St.-Amand-de-Coly
15. Grotte de Rouffignac

Looking forward to our next trip. Time to start planning.

Resources

Azay-le-Rideau: www.azay-le-rideau.fr
Castelnaud: www.castelnaud.com
Chambord: www.chambord.org
Chateau des Milandes: www.milandes.com
Cheverny: www.chateau-cheverny.fr
Clos Triguedina: www.jlbaldes.com
Font-de-Gaume: www.hominides.com/html/lieux/grotte-font-de-gaume.php
Grotte de Rouffignac: www.grottederouffignac.fr
La Recréation, Les Arques: http://www.la-recreation-restaurant.com/fr/restaurant-la-recreation-les-arques
La Rochelle: www.ville-larochelle.fr/en.html
Laborderie, Tamniès: https://www.hotel-laborderie.com/en/
Lascaux II: https://archaeology-travel.com/france/lascaux-ii/
Le Croquant, Fanlac:: https://fanlac.jimdo.com/le-tourisme/le-restaurant-le-croquant/
L'Epicerie, Amboise: www.lepicerie-amboise.com/
Les Plus Beaux Villages: https://www.les-plus-beaux-villages-de-france.org/fr/nos-villages/
Monpazier: www.pays-de-bergerac.com/english/tourisme/site_remarquable/bastides/monpazier/index.asp
Moulin de Poulican: moulindepoulican.pagesperso-orange.fr/
Roque-St-Christophe: https://www.roque-st-christophe.com/?lang=en

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Montgolfier over Beynac
 
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