Adventure into the Southwest of France
Several decades ago I came to France ostensibly for two years … and over time the “hexagon”, as the French often call their country, has kept me enthralled. You just never get to the end of it! Always something new to discover, taste and experience.
Take one of my favourite areas – New Aquitaine, the biggest of the country’s 13 regions. It encompasses 12 departments; my favorites are the Gironde and the Dordogne where you can honestly have the best of all worlds. You will be satisfied if your bent is for excellent wines, be they a full-bodied Médoc like a Chateau Margaux, a Saint Emilion or a Sauternes to marry with your foie-gras; or if you’re fascinated by pre-history, you will be happy selecting a few from the 147 Prehistoric Sites and Decorated Caves of the Vézère Valley that form part of a UNESCO World Heritage site, and then go on to experience man’s progression through 1001 castles and chateaux like Castelnaud, Beynac or Montfort. In the food department, think duck and delicious garlic-parsley pommes sarlardaises and also riverside picnics with the swans. If you are sporting, there’s nothing like kayaking or canoeing down the Vézère or Dordogne Rivers – local enthusiasts will drive you and gear up the river and let you row-float your way downstream. At times, the verdant riverbanks block off all signs of civilisation and you can imagine hearing the horned messages floating up the river – especially if you’ve just come back from a visit to one of the magnificent medieval limestone troglodyte villages like La Roque St Christophe on route D706.
Enjoy a stay in the region of New Aquitaine with our host Caroline in Limog. Click to book
Cité du Vin
Bordeaux is a good place to start discovering the southwest. The river capital is France’s 9th largest city. Founded in 300 BCE by the Celts it sprawls along the banks of the majestic Garonne as it swoops through the city, and clearly manifests its merit in earning UNESCO World Heritage Site status for its centuries’ old Port of the Moon, the old Bordeaux, that’s been a hub for wine industry since time immemorial. Segway, cycle or stroll through the Esplanade des Quinconces, Europe’s largest square, and admire the neoclassical architecture. You will enjoy your self-guided tour of the Cité du Vin – it’s a flair of a building swirling up on the banks of the Garonne, a contemporary monument in glass and aluminum inaugurated in 2016, in honor of the wines of the world. The eighth story belvedere offers an unparalleled 360-degree panoramic view of the city, the river and way beyond to the vineyards.
Enjoy a stay in Bordeaux with our host Fabienne. Click to book
From Bordeaux, move onto Saint Emilion, a UNESCO world heritage site steeped in 2000 years’ history between man and the grape. The climb to the top of the main square will reward you with a magnificent panoramic view of the region stretching all the way to Castillon La Bataille, your next stop 13 km further east.
Being inducted into the Ordre des Vins de Castillon is a serious business and requires a signed commitment to honor the traditional values.
This is a must, especially if you are there in July/August holiday period because if you are, you are in for a medieval treat. It was at Castillon-la-Bataille that the French defeated the British, ended the 100-year war and 300 years of English possession of Aquitaine. I first discovered this town and its exciting historical pageant in 2003. I was with friends who were house hunting. (Theirs is a fairytale. They found their, dream house and they are still living happily every after in the Dordogne). Every year, more than 600 local citizens re-enact the Battle of Castillon with an infectious joy and enthusiasm and keep their audiences enthralled as the spectacle unfolds over the 7 hectares surrounding the Castegens Castle within cannon range of the original battlefield. This intense 90-minute outdoor spectacle with amazing pyrotechnic effects plunges the audience into the middle ages with gusto. Plan to arrive early and enjoy the medieval exhibitions and excellent local fair at the modestly priced restaurant. There are 18 performances over summer and it’s better to book in advance.
You’ll now be fringing on my favorite department named after the imposing 500 km Dordogne River that flows through the department on its journey from its source in the Massif Central to its confluence with the Garonne before reaching the Atlantic Ocean near Royan, beyond Bordeaux. Follow the river along the tree-lined avenues of poplars and plane trees. In summer the hedges of hibiscus and the Pride of India standards lining the streets will delight you.
Drive through the villages, stop where your heart leads you – the market at Sainte- Foy-la-Grande, or in the medieval heart of Bergerac, and continue through a succession of riverside villages – Lalinde, Le Buisson-de-Cadouin and Saint-Cyprien.
Further along the river, after Badefols-sur-Dordogne, take a short detour to Trémolat, a delightful little village with a magnificent view over the “cingle” – the wide loop made by the Dordogne – and the surrounding countryside. Another wonderful spot for a picnic!
The Cingle view Picnic peace Marché nocturne
Whatever you do, keep an eye out for the banners “marché nocturne” or “marché gourmand” and go!
These are really great meetings places for all generations. They usually take place in the square at the local town hall that is decorated for the season, often with a bandstand, and with food stalls selling a wide variety of dishes and local wines. People come with their own crockery and cutlery, some sophisticated, some in plastic, and early bird friends block space on the long trestle tables. The food’s good, the wine flows, the band gets everyone in the mood, feet are tapping and in no time you’re up dancing. The good news is that they take place throughout the summer in many different villages, so keep an eye out.
The main message I have to share about the Dordogne is that it is a beautiful, welcoming place to relax and enjoy. In summer you can get stuck behind a caravan or two or find yourself in slow-moving traffic late afternoon around the most popular attractions, but it remains reasonable.
What more to say than to invite you to explore, you’ll be delighted!
Positive ageing advocate, Explorer, Writer, Speaker
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