07/20/2018 - 07/21/2018
This was our second time driving from Spain into France through the Pyrenees. Two years earlier we had gone through Andorra and the drive had been underwhelming, but the route via Spain's E-7 was a different story. After we passed Jaca, the road quickly ascended and began to wind through beautiful verdant mountains, with the occasional majestic crag projecting upward like a broken tooth.
The views from the road became even more breathtaking once we crossed the border into France. We were now about mid-level among the mountains, and on every side were steep, lush green slopes dotted with fluffy sheep. There was just enough mist to create an eerie ambience but not enough to obscure visibility. I was the only one awake at this point and I wanted someone to stir and share the moment with me so badly, but I figured we would be better off in the evening with everyone well-rested. One of my biggest regrets from the trip is that I didn't pull over and take some pictures, but there never seemed to be a good spot at the most beautiful locations. I figured that eventually someone would wake up and be able to pose in the foreground of my shots, and then suddenly it was over and we descended to nondescript flatlands. I never got my photo but I was able to find this one from the web that gives some idea of what I was seeing, without all the sheep.
Pau was an obvious choice for our first night in France despite the fact that I had never heard of the place before I planned the trip. It was the first mid-sized city between the border and the Dordogne which meant it probably had a decent daily market. There was also an old town with enough sights to occupy us for the morning before we got back on the road. We arrived at our Airbnb amidst a chilly drizzle in the early evening. Our host hustled everyone inside where we found a very pleasant and spacious loft-style apartment. Our good fortune with accommodations seemed to be continuing. Once the rain died down we went for a walk in search of dinner. I was surprised to find that we weren't encountering any restaurants, despite the fact that we were relatively close to the town center and the covered market. TripAdvisor only found us one good candidate within walking distance, and when we arrived I was a little disconcerted to see it was a rather dignified family-run restaurant with a prix fixe menu. At this point we had no good alternative and they just happened to have a free table the right size for us. I was very self-conscious with the three kids but they couldn't have been better. They quietly watched their iPads on low volume until the food came and then ate very peacefully. The staff and other patrons didn't even bat an eyelash at us.
The following morning it was Saturday, the best day for daily markets, so we walked to Les Halles de Pau with high spirits. We were initially crestfallen to see that the market was undergoing renovations, but it soon became apparent there was a lot of activity despite the disarray. I don't know if I can put it into words, but there's a clear difference between Spanish and French municipal markets. In Spain there's an emphasis on cured meats, olives, preserves, shrimp, dried fish, and similarly tangy and salty items. In France one sees much more roasted meat and rotisserie poultry, grilled vegetables, and more shellfish than crustaceans. Which do I prefer? Probably whichever country I happen to be in at the time.
We had a blast reacquainting ourselves with French culinary specialties and brought home a delicious and savory haul that included a roasted leg of lamb, grilled endives, a head cheese salad, yellow plums, and fresh bulots (whelks). We celebrated our first morning in France with an exemplary French market lunch.
After the listlessness of the area around our Airbnb and the market, we were surprised to find Pau's old town humming with activity just a few hundred meters away. The most well known sights are clustered in a small area adjacent to the Boulevard des Pyrénées, the town promenade that overlooks the valley of the Gave de Pau river and provides sweeping views as far as the mountains on a clear day.
The center of the old town had magnificent, perfectly preserved old buildings that looked as though they had leaped right off a postcard. The wrought-iron balconies, wooden shutters, and colorful flowerbeds in the window sills were quintessentially French and almost felt like a personal welcome to one of our favorite countries.
The Gothic Église Saint Martin dominates one square in the center. The angular, imposing bulk of the church is softened by the lush greenery that surrounds it.
A few steps from the church is Château de Pau, the city's most well-known attraction. There has been a castle at this site since the 11th century, but the existing Renaissance edition was built in the 16th century. The trapezoidal courtyard creates an optical illusion that the building is much longer than it actually is. Mindful of the long drive ahead, we passed up a tour of the interior. We've seen the inside of enough chateaus for a lifetime.
Outside of Pau my eye was caught by a colorful mural that was painted circumferentially around a water tower on a hill. We left the road for a closer look at the whimsical painting. Later I looked up the signature and learned that the mural depicts pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago. This artistic cooperative called Ateliers Adeline has decorated countless water towers in the French countryside, and also specializes in remarkably lifelike trompe-l'œil paintings.
Our afternoon stop was Auch, another lesser known mid-sized city in an unheralded area of south-central France. Auch merited a visit mainly due to my philosophical opposition to driving long distances in Europe. In my experience, if you've driven more than three hours without stopping then you've missed something. Auch once played a more prominent role as the capital of the historic region of Gascony, which roughly approximates the French Basque territory. Like Pau, the old town of Auch is perched on a hill above its river which in this case was the brownish-green Le Gers. Instead of a funicular to the lower level, Auch has the Escalier Monumental. This 19th century stone staircase underwent a comprehensive renovation in 2017 and is supposed to be lined with vines representing Gascony's viticultural heritage, although none were visible from the top.
The most impressive sight in Auch is the Gothic-Renaissance Cathédrale Sainte-Marie, whose western facade dominates an open plaza at the highest point of the old town. The cathedral had a beautiful beige color and was pleasingly symmetric. Each of the three levels of the twin limestone towers is fronted by decorative Roman columns and clearly demarcated by balconies with stone balustrades.
Auch's old town was a pleasant place to wander around for an hour. Ancient limestone townhouses with classic French shutters lined the narrow streets, with the occasional half-timbered house disrupting the uniformity.
On the long drive north to the Dordogne, we passed through an undulating landscape of sunflower fields and farmland. Each new expanse of sunflowers seemed to be more golden and vast than the one before. There's not much written about this unusual love of the French for sunflowers, although one thing I hadn't realized was that the plant is native to the Americas and was only introduced to Europe in the 16th century.
One of the features that attracted us most to the Dordogne was the famous night markets. These aren't markets so much as communal dinners which have evolved to become commercial events. Assorted vendors provide the local culinary specialties and wine which is consumed by a variable medley of locals and tourists. As one might imagine, the more the mixture is constituted of locals the more authentic the food and the vibe. Of course, finding those night markets that have retained their authenticity is easier said than done. Most of the markets provide such amenities as dishes, cutlery, and cups but these may require a deposit and also tend to run out. It's much better to be prepared with one's own supplies, with the plates preferably sturdy enough to be laden repeatedly with juicy entrees. I would recommend buying inexpensive hard plastic plates and wine glasses that can be deposited into a plastic bag when used and then washed at home. It's also advisable to arrive early or you might find yourself forlornly circling the tables or sitting on a doorstep to eat.
Saturday doesn't have a one of the larger selection of night markets in the Dordogne, but we didn't have much difficulty finding a seat when we arrived in Audrix an hour after the official start time. It was clearly a more touristic market, with the predominant flavors of patrons being English and German. There were dishes and utensils available and the vendors were a little impatient. We didn't know it at that time, but it was also the smallest assemblage of vendors we would see at a Dordogne night market and the most limited variety of food. Nevertheless we ate well and were pleased with the communal atmosphere in the small, quaint village.
Our Airbnb was almost an hour away to the east in the larger town of Bergerac. I had rather carelessly chosen the two largest cities in the Dordogne as our pieds-a-terre without noting they were well to the east of the Dordogne's most attractive villages and castles. I'd also underestimated the travel time due to the paucity of major roads in the region. The results was an hour or so of extra driving most of our days in the Dordogne, but the sting was eased by the rich landscape of the region. Our apartment in Bergerac was also one of the best of the entire trip, with two spacious levels and a large pool that delighted the kids.