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France

An Epicurean Odyssey: Coastal Aquitaine


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We didn't waste any time leaving Bordeaux because the market in Cap Ferret had the reputation for being one of the best in the region. What we hadn't counted on was the horrendous traffic on the D106 on Saturday morning. It seemed like everyone in Bordeaux was headed for the coast for the weekend, and once we reached the peninsula the highway turned into a parking lot. It took more than an hour to traverse the last twenty kilometers.

The market had a large outdoor area devoted to clothing and crafts with just one small building to house the meat and produce. The area was crowded with domestic and English tourists and didn't have a very authentic feel, although some of the artwork was fun and original. There wasn't anywhere to sit and eat inside the market so we found lunch at a seafood restaurant in town.
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Despite being directly across the mouth of Arcachon Bay from our next destination, we had to drive for another hour and a half around the bay to reach our next destination due to the lack of a car ferry. I knew the long drive to Dune du Pilat would be worth the trouble since I could still remember visiting the gigantic dune from my own early childhood. I'd been looking forward to surprising the kids with the enormous mountain of sand for the whole trip and I wasn't disappointed. As soon as we reached the end of the short trail through the woods and they looked up at the dune, their jaws dropped. It takes a lot to impress my kids but the Dune du Pilat definitely did the trick. Once we'd clambered to the top the views around us were breathtaking. Inland was a forest canopy that extended to the horizon, and from the other side we could see across the bay all the way to Cap Ferret where we'd spent the morning. It was a great reminder that the natural world has as much to offer the intrepid traveler as the urbanized one.
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We'd already seen a lot but the day's excitement was far from over. While the kids slept and shed sand in the back seat of the car, we drove south towards French Basque country where we were planning to experience the last day of the annual Fêtes de Bayonne. Although this five day event is the largest annual festival in France, it's barely known internationally. I only learned of it myself when doing my customary search for local events along our planned itinerary. Even though I reserved our accommodations months in advance, I was only able to find an Airbnb in the neighboring town of Boucau. We were lucky to get that as it was one of just two Airbnb's left in a ten kilometer radius around Bayonne.

The house in Boucau turned out to be a great spot with plenty of outdoor space and a damson plum tree whose branches were bowing with fruit. We gave the kids about an hour to stretch their legs in the yard and play with the swings and then girded ourselves for a long night of partying.
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We didn't know what to expect from the Fête but I've had enough experience with massive outdoor festivals to know that we weren't likely to be ushered into a prime parking spot ten yards from the entrance. On the other hand, we were nowhere near within walking distance and public transportation seemed highly unlikely. Ride share might get us there and then be impossible to find once it was time to go home. That meant we had to get as close as we could by car and hope there would be somewhere to park that wouldn't require an interminable trek by foot.

Pretty soon after leaving Boucau we started to see young people in the traditional white outfits with red scarves inspired by the more famous Fiesta de San San Fermín in Pamplona. At one point a crowd of kids about twelve to fourteen years old blocked the road. One came to the window and, after ascertaining our nationality, requested two Euros in halting English for the privilege of passing. In another context that might have annoyed me but the kids weren't old enough to be threatening so I just handed over the coin and was allowed to pass through. There was quite a lot of traffic once we got to the bridge over the Adour River and I briefly considered parking inside the roundabout but decided to press on. Both banks of the river were crowded with tents and once we got to the Bayonne side parked cars were lined up on each side of the road as well as in the middle. We drove around a little and eventually found a spot a little off the road that didn't seem any more illegal than where hundreds of other cars were parked.

We had about a ten minute walk to the town center where the first thing we found was a carnival with typical rides and fast food. Of course, there's no way to get kids through a carnival without allowing them to do some rides so we let them have a few runs on the giant slide. We didn't feel like eating the junk food so we managed to get them past the rest of the rides with the promise that we would come back after dinner.
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Downtown Bayonne's main drag, Rue Thiers, was crowded with outdoor restaurants. Despite the crowds we found an open table and were served briskly enough. The food was ordinary but the important thing was that we were fueled for the evening ahead.
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As we were finishing dinner the sun descended rapidly and revelers in white began to fill the streets. In the square in front of the Old Castle of Bayonne a band was playing and circles were starting to form for a traditional dance. Much as I would have liked to stay on the edges of the festivities, Cleo kept pulling me with her into the circles and I stumbled as best as I could through the dance. Despite us not being dressed for the occasion, the locals were very welcoming and forgiving of my inability to keep up with the steps.
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We drifted from the square back through the narrow streets of the old town to the edge of the river, where thousands of celebrants were congregated. This was the River Nive, a tributary of the Adour which splits the old town and is traversed by several brightly lighted bridges.
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At this point the crowds, while good-natured, were becoming thick and inebriated enough that we realized it was no longer a great idea to wander around with the kids. We got them back to the carnival as promised and let them all play for a while on the bungee trampoline before heading back to the car and the quiet of Boucau.
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In the morning the kids were clamoring to go back to the carnival. I briefly considered it but Mei Ling wanted to press on and ultimately I decided she was right. This gave us some time to kill before we had to be in San Sebastian and some quick research revealed that the covered market in Biarritz was open on Sunday. This was quite unusual in France and Spain, to the extent that I planned our itineraries to minimize the effect of Sundays on our market experiences. Interestingly enough, I'd looked into Biarritz before the trip and made a conscious decision to skip it. I got the impression it was a rather bland resort town that had seen its best days a century earlier. Nevertheless a market was a market and it was just fifteen minutes from Boucau.

Biarritz was a decent enough town with some attractive old buildings and plush mansions, but nothing that would have attracted us to the town outside of the market. At one point we were admonished for allowing the kids to ride some colorful plaster sheep outside a boutique. I couldn't imagine what else they were expecting when they put the sheep out there.
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As soon as we entered the market I was thankful that Mei Ling had talked me out of going back to the Fête that morning. It wasn't the largest covered market we had been to during the trip but it was packed with vendors displaying the freshest produce and countless gourmet delicacies. The cheese counters were especially amazing, with several varieties I'd never seen before. Behind the main market was a smaller building devoted entirely to seafood.
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The covered market was lined on both sides with crowded cafes and tapas restaurants. The circulation of people in and out of the restaurants and through the market infused the area with high energy. We selected a tapas place with a very appetizing seafood menu and had a delicious lunch.
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Biarritz had put a fantastic exclamation point on the nine day French segment of our road trip, but it was time to return to Spain for our journey along the northern coast to Galicia. We returned to the car and set a course for San Sebastian.

Posted by zzlangerhans 08:12 Archived in France Comments (0)

An Epicurean Odyssey: Bordeaux


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Thanks to our prolonged visit to Chateau de Bridoire, we didn't roll into St. Émilion until mid-afternoon, too late for lunch at any of the more heralded restaurants in the center of town. The name had been such a mainstay on the wine bottles that populated my father's cellar that I expected a reasonably sized city. As it turned out, there wasn't much of a town outside the small medieval center. After being turned away from all the restaurants we tried in the side streets, we eventually found a tourist cafe in the central square in the shadow of the imposing limestone church. The best I can say about the food is that it was edible. We only had a few more minutes to explore St. Émilion's pretty cobblestoned streets, as our Airbnb host in Bordeaux had imposed an early evening deadline for our arrival.
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Our annoyance at having to rush our drive to Bordeaux was compounded when our host wasn't there to meet us. After a few minutes of futile doorbell-pressing and knocking I decided to call him, at which point he seemed surprised to hear we had arrived. After another fifteen minutes he drove up and as best as I could understand he had gotten the impression we would be arriving later. This was quite ironic as we would have loved to have arrived later and he had insisted that we absolutely had to be there by six. All of our prior communications had been through the Airbnb app and seemed crystal clear to me when I reviewed them, but perhaps something had been lost in translation. There turned out to be quite an extensive list of rules and precautions at the apartment as well, made all the more frustrating by the fact that French is not my strongest language and our host didn't seem to believe in pacing his speech. Eventually we managed to shoo him out and we turned our attention to making the best of the rest of the evening.

Our central location proved to be ideal for exploring Bordeaux. We were just a couple of minutes walk south of the Porte d'Aquitaine, one of the more recently constructed of the eight city gates of Bordeaux. The arch stands incongruously at the northern end of the expansive and bland Place des Victoires. Its only companions in the square are a pink marble obelisk that celebrates winemaking and a gigantic bronze tortoise that signifies the steady growth of the Bordeaux wine industry. The lack of traffic in the large, open square creates a false sense of security for those unfamiliar with the area. If one doesn't pay close attention to the tracks, one risks being turned into paté by one of the frequent tram cars that whisks silently through the cobblestones.
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Aside from imbuing Place des Victoires with character, the Porte d'Aquitaine is also the threshold of Bordeaux's main pedestrian thoroughfare Rue Sainte-Catherine. This gritty, throbbing commercial artery courses through the heart of Bordeaux for a dozen cafe and boutique-lined blocks before it terminates at Place de la Comédie.
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Place de la Comédie is the quintessential central square of a major French city. It is the home of the magnificent Bordeaux Opera House. the Grand Hôtel de Bordeaux, the obligatory colorful carousel, and a giant rust-colored statue of a human head. To the north we could see the tall column of the Monument aux Girondins in Place des Quinconces.
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A right turn down the stately Cours du Chapeau-Rouge brought us to Place de la Bourse at the western bank of the Garonne. Close to the river's edge is Le Miroir d'Eau, a water fountain the size of a soccer field that intermittently fills with water and drains dry. The fountain is famous for its reflecting surface, but between the gathering dusk and the ripples from all the splashing children there weren't many reflections to be seen. On the opposite side of the fountain from the river is an imposing semicircle of 18th century municipal buildings that are currently mainly used as a convention center.
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The kids were quite annoyed with us for not having had the foresight to bring their bathing suits, but we much preferred not having to deal with soaked kids with the sun dropping out of sight and dinner still ahead. We opted for the drier alternative of watching a funny and energetic breakdancing crew put on a show next to the fountain. One of the things I enjoy most about being in the center of large cities is the chance to watch street performances, and hip hop dancers are usually the best shows. This particular group did a great job of working humor into their routine and it felt good to drop a sizable bank note into the hat they passed around at the end of the show.
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We meandered through the center of the old town looking for a place to have dinner. The streets were surprisingly gritty with a large number of fast food and cheap ethnic restaurants. The pubs were already starting to draw crowds and it looked like downtown Bordeaux was a place for heavy drinking on most nights. The best place we could find to eat was a Japanese restaurant where the friendly owner chatted with us while we wolfed down an unexceptional meal. On the way back to the Airbnb, the tourists and shoppers were gone from Rue Sainte-Catherine. Instead there was an array of panhandlers, derelicts, and a few hoodlums gathering in the shadows. I herded my brood back through the darkening city with my head on a swivel.

I was surprised that in a city the size of Bordeaux I was only able to find one daily produce market. However, the Marché des Capucins seemed to be very well-regarded as a destination for Bordeaux's renowned chefs to purchase their fresh ingredients. We enjoyed a quiet walk through a pretty, residential neighborhood of Bordeaux on the way to the market.
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I'm not sure exactly what we found lacking at Marché des Capucins. Perhaps our expectations were just too high given the gastronomic reputation of Bordeaux. The physical plant of the market was uninspiring. It felt like shopping in a parking garage. There was certainly an attractive selection of the usual standards, but very little that wasn't familiar. Even little Pau had had a more tempting assortment of prepared foods.
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There were several small restaurants in the market and we eventually settled on Moroccan cuisine, which proved to be a pleasant change from the endless magrets we had been having in the Périgord.
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I had heard there might be another daily market in the square around the Basilique Saint-Michel but once we arrived is was clear that it was purely a flea market with no produce to be seen. The basilica was an impressive sight, standing alone on the eastern side of the square.
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We gave up on the idea of markets and walked around central Bordeaux for another couple of hours. The center was pleasantly busy and colorful with some dramatic medieval edifices like La Grosse Cloche.
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Once we'd made it back to Rue Sainte-Catherine we knew we had seen the bulk of what we would find interesting in the city of Bordeaux. It was still early afternoon so we spontaneously decided to take a drive into the Médoc wine country and look for new adventures.

Anyone who has done a fair amount of traveling starts to understand the enormous significance of rivers. Historically, rivers have performed a similar function in civiization to the circulatory system of an animal. They have transmitted nourishment and commerce from the coasts to the heartlands and back since long before roads usurped that role. When I think of many of the world's greatest cities, one of the first things that comes to mind is the river that sustains it. Southwestern France has two great rivers, the Dordogne and the Garonne, and Bordeaux is where these two legendary arteries come together and begin the process of emptying into the ocean. The Gironde estuary, which begins at the confluence of the rivers, is a gaping slash in France's Atlantic coast. Half river and half ocean, the estuary is responsible for the deposits of mineral-rich silt on the western bank which caused the Médoc to become the most acclaimed wine region in the world.

I half-expected to be welcomed into the Médoc by satyrs and nymphs playing panpipes at the roadside, but the drive was relatively flat and nondescript. Naturally there were countless wineries along the way but I didn't know enough about Bordeaux wine to recognize the individual producers. We decided to press ahead until we reached the names that anyone with a passing familiarity with wine would recognize, Lafite Rothschild and Mouton Rothschild. The Rothschild family has been producing wine in the Médoc since the mid 19th century, with a vigorous rivalry between the two branches of the family. We had flirted with the idea of scheduling a tour of a winery with a tasting before our trip, but eventually decided that our three little beasts were too much to inflict on such a distinguished place. We've had some of our better experiences just winging it anyway.

We eventually passed through the pretty coastal village of Pauillac and found the small road marked as the entrance to Château Lafite Rothschild. It was close to five in the afternoon and we were able to drive right into the vineyards without a single sign of human activity. We eventually pulled over among the vines and got out to examine the grapes. They were plump and shiny and just beginning to ripen. We sampled a few of the ones which had already tuned purple, which was as close as we were going to come to Lafite Rothschild wine that day. Down the road we encountered some rose-hued warehouses and floral gardens, but still no sign of people. It appeared they had already shut down for the day.
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Back in Pauillac we visited the Maison du Tourisme et du Vin, where there were more attendants than customers. Here we finally found our tasting, so we didn't have to depart the Médoc completely dry.
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Bordeaux isn't known for night markets, but fortunately our experience in the Périgord had motivated me to do some online investigation and I found one. Saint-Macaire is a village on the Garonne well to the southeast of Bordeaux. Between the drive and a surprising difficulty finding the old town once we arrived, it was almost two hours between Pauillac and the night market. Fortunately the experience proved to be well worth the effort to get there. A short walk through ancient limestone houses took us to an open courtyard filled with communal tables. The food selection was as good as at Montignac, the best of the night markets we had visited in the Périgord. The kids were full of pent up energy after the long drive and had a blast racing around the perimeter of the market and dancing to the live band.
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Everyomne was exhausted by the time we finally arrived back in Bordeaux. Despite having had only two days in the city, we felt like we'd gathered the essence of the city and the immediate surrounds. The next morning we wasted no time and got on the road immediately for Cap Ferret.

Posted by zzlangerhans 13:44 Archived in France Tagged travel blog tony bordeaux friedman st._emilion saint_macaire pauillac medoc Comments (0)

An Epicurean Odyssey: The Dordogne part III (Sarlat)


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I had come across mentions of Sarlat-la-Canéda several times in my research on the Périgord, but somehow came away with the impression that it was just another of the many pretty little villages in the region. The Saturday weekly market was supposed to be one of the best, but we would be long gone from the Dordogne by then. I figured that a quick visit for an hour or so before the night market we'd chosen would be sufficient. In the end we didn't have a choice. Parking close to the old town was nearly impossible to find and I was eventually forced to use a space that was limited to thirty minutes.

The southern entrance to the old town is via Rue de la République, which is an attractive but fairly typical commercial street for a touristy French village. It wasn't until we ducked down one of the many little alleys into the eastern side of town that we were able to see what made Sarlat so notable among the small cities of the Périgord. We found ourselves in a series of small cobblestone squares that were enclosed by buildings made of the same weathered brown stone that was typical of the region. However, the buildings in Sarlat were substantially taller than in other villages and boasted more medieval features such as turrets and carved stone facades. This part of the town was hilly and wide paths ascended in several directions to the periphery of the town. The effect was imposing and austere, yet somehow warm and energetic at the same time. It was very easy to fall in love with Sarlat and I soon regretted having compromised on the amount of time we would be able to spend there.
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In the main square we encountered a street magician setting up for his performance, which proved to be quite professional and entertaining for the kids. They were pained to be extracted from the show before it ended but I didn't want to spoil the mood of the evening with a hefty parking fine right before the night market. The vitality of Sarlat seemed to emanate from the right combination of tourist development with the historic beauty of the town. It was clear that I'd made one of my rare itinerary mistakes by staying in Bergerac rather than Sarlat.
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The night market at Saint-Amand-de-Coly was just a couple of miles from Montignac. I'd chosen it because I'd never come across the town's name in all my research and I hoped to have the same good fortune as we had the previous night. The village was tiny and pretty, although it didn't have a river to make it as warm and charming as Montignac. The night market was also very local though, with a lot of kids for ours to play with, and we were very pleased with the atmosphere. At some stalls one could buy raw and marinated meat which could be grilled to order at a nearby pavilion.
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Wednesday morning was fairly easygoing as the major weekly market in the area was in our home base of Périgueux. It only took us a couple of minutes to climb up to the large square in front of the grand and ornate Saint-Front Cathedral. It was a very functional market with a lot of variety and much less of a touristic nature than Issigeac or Le Bugue. It was perfect for us because our focus was on assembling the ingredients for a delicious market brunch at home.
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Our prizes were plump St-Jacques scallops, magret stuffed with foie gras, freshly baked bread, and plenty of flawless fruits and vegetables. The scallops, magret, and red peppers ended up sauteed in their own juices. We complemented the meal with a bottle of excellent Bergerac wine our gracious host had left for us.
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Wednesday's itinerary

On the previous two days we had passed a water park on our way to our destinations near the Dordogne and hadn't given much thought to it. On our last full day in the Périgord, we didn't have quite the same appetite for the remaining villages and châteaux on my long list. We decided we'd give ourselves a break and give the kids a treat and spend the afternoon at Jacquou Parc. The kids loved the water park, although naturally they scattered in different directions meaning that the whereabouts of at least one of them was always unknown. Fortunately we averted disaster in the water and took them on a couple of the park's creaky and antiquated rides. By the time we had collected ourselves, it was already closing time for most of the sights in the area.
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We were delayed another half hour when one of the other departing patrons needed my help jump-starting her car. We decided to head to the former residence of Jospehine Baker, Chateau des Milandes, despite it being unlikely we would arrive before the closing time. On the way we passed through Saint-Cyprien where the streets were festooned with garlands in preparation for some sort of flower festival.
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We had hoped to be able to at least walk around the outside of the Chateau des Milandes if we arrived after closing. Alas, when we arrived at the château we found the gates shutting behind the last visitors and a tall fence surrounding the grounds. I was only able to manage one photo from outside the fence.
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We had chosen the Wednesday night market in Belvès because the town was well-known for its exceptional beauty. We arrived late and had some difficulty finding a place to sit. The food was fine but the patrons were almost all tourists and the atmosphere was nowhere near as congenial as the previous two nights. We missed the live music and dancing as well. We had seen posters advertising a circus in Le Bugue that night so we decided not to linger over dinner.
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The Cirque Ullman was tiny but had a magically antiquated atmosphere that made me feel like it could be any moment of the 20th century. Older kids might have been skeptical of the limited acts but ours were thoroughly entertained. Between the markets, the water park and the circus, Mei Ling and I felt like we'd given the kids as good a day as anyone could imagine.
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On our last morning in the Périgord we had one final treat for the kids. Chateau de Bridoire is a restored medieval castle which specialized in family entertainment. There are lots of activities on the grounds and several rooms inside the castle largely dedicated to games. There were so many options that we eventually had to practically drag the kids out so that we would be able to make it to St. Emilion in time for lunch.
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The Périgord had been a spectacular stop for everyone. We had been extremely busy over our five days and I still had enough towns and activities left on the list to fill up another five days. Part of the nature of road trips is that eventually we have to move on, even from the places we love the most. Easing the sting of our departure was the fact that we were headed towards one of our most keenly anticipated stops of the trip, the region of Bordeaux.

Posted by zzlangerhans 13:35 Archived in France Comments (0)

An Epicurean Odyssey: The Dordogne part II (Périgueux)


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Our Airbnb host in Périgueux was a very kind lady who insisted on giving us a tour of the town center. Our apartment was situated on the bank of the River L'Isle. which nestles the town in one of its many sinuous curves. Just a hundred meters away was a preserved 14th century watchtower that perched improbably on a narrow stone base.
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Périgueux is the largest city in the Dordogne and also its capital. The center was as lively and commercial as Bergerac had been inert. Tables were filling up in the outdoor cafes, and numerous shops were doing a brisk business in local specialties such as foie gras and walnut oil.
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We weren't in the mood for cafe food, but none of the restaurants we passed were ready to prepare a real meal yet. Eventually we found a gourmet store on a pretty square that had begun serving lunch. It was a little less substantial than what we were craving, but it was enough to launch us into our day's itinerary.
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Many of the top attractions in the Périgord are clustered around a short segment of the River Dordogne near the cliffside village of La Roque Gageac. We started our exploration of the area at Les Jardins de Marqueyssac. There are several famous gardens in the Dordogne and my research indicated this one would be the most impressive. From the foot of the hill the gardens are perched on, we could see across the valley as far as Château de Beynac and Château de Castelnaud. Both were festooned with banners declaiming "Non au Massacre de la Vallée", a protest against a new road being built in the area.
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The centerpiece of the gardens were the carefully contoured boxwood shrubs that formed layers of whimsical shapes.
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The gardens gave way to a park which stretched to the east. From the paths we had gorgeous views of farmhouses along the southern bank of the Dordogne, which was littered with kayaks and small tourist barges.
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In the middle of the park there was a crafts station and a playground to entertain the children. This provided some welcome relief from their complaints about there being "nothing for kids" that day.
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At the summit at the eastern end of the gardens was a balcony from which we had an unparalleled view of our next destination, the village of La Roque Gageac.
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The Dordogne is full of beautiful villages, but La Roque Gageac is one of the most unique. Most of the town consists of a row of similar-appearing stone houses that face the main road through town along the Dordogne. A few more houses are placed along the road that ascends the steep hillside, and behind the hillside is a sheer and formidable cliff. In the upper reaches of the cliff is a medieval fort built within a cave. At the riverside are the companies operating the tour barges, or gabarres. We arrived less than an hour before the last departure of the day so we didn't have time to climb the road up the hill. Instead we ordered some ice cream and let the kids play in the makeshift sprinkler on the town plaza.
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The boat ride was a little out of character for us but I was determined to get up close and personal with the river that gave the Dordogne region its name. We cruised slowly a few kilometers downstream, passing the Château de la Malartrie at the western end of the town. If your dream is to stay in your very own Dordogne castle, this château is available to rent for about $5000 a week. Further down were campgrounds on the riverbank and rocky beaches with numerous sunbathers and waders. The river was clearly beloved by locals and tourists alike.
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We were behind schedule so I decided we would change the evening's market from the popular one I had chosen previously to the one in Montignac, a village on the way back to Périgueux. Montignac was simply one name from a list of Monday night markets and I hadn't found a single reference to it elsewhere. The car was low on fuel and we stopped at a couple of gas stations around the town of Sarlat. The offices had already closed and the card readers at the pumps wouldn't accept any of my credit cards. We decided to press onward to Montignac, figuring dinner was the more immediate issue and we would eventually find a gas station where we could refuel.

Montignac was spectacular. The small village is bisected by the River Vézère, a branch of the Dordogne. Old-fashioned streetlamps cast a warm glow on the stone buildings as the sun fell. The northern bank upstream from the bridge was lined with outdoor cafes which were filled with patrons.
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The night market was the best we were to experience. The selection and quality of food was enormous and the vendors were very friendly and attentive. The usual specialties of duck breast, foie gras, and walnut cakes were complemented by an unusual variety of red meats and seafood. The best part was the clientele, who were clearly almost all locals who knew which village to go to for the best food and ambiance. And the language? Nothing but glorious French, all around us.
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Once we'd emptied our plates for the last time, we danced along with the other early arrivals to a very talented and energetic cover band. It was a jubilant conclusion to a great evening in the Dordogne.

During dinner we had put the issue of the gas tank out of our minds, but now that it was pitch dark we had to focus all our attention on solving that problem. Our gauge was telling us we would run dry in 28 kilometers, nowhere near enough to make it back to Périgueux. We found a sizable station just outside of Montignac but the office was once again closed and the pumps wouldn't accept our cards. I saw a man using the station's hose to wash his car and was able to communicate our problem to him, and he advised me that we needed some kind of special card to access the pumps. Could we use his and pay him back in cash? No, he didn't have one. I wondered how he filled up his own car. I saw another car pull up to the pumps adjacent to our own vehicle and raced over. The young driver was already filling his tank when I reached him. We were saved. Could he use his card to fill our tank if I paid him back in cash? I held the bills up, offering a substantial bonus over the cost of the gas. I can't, he answered. This is my mother's car. Ummm ... what? I repeated myself in disbelief, showing him every bill I was offering. He shook his head and hurriedly jumped back in his car and drove off. I had to wonder if it was a common scam in France for a couple to throw their three small kids in a car and head to a petrol station to trick people out of gas money.

We waited at the station another half hour but no one else pulled in. We'd been in gas trouble a couple of times before in our travels but this was the worst. We were looking at a serious possibility of spending the night in the station. I used the search function on Google Maps and found another station slightly off our route back to Périgueux, 13 kilometers away. That would surely be our last shot with 22 kilometers reading on the gauge. When we got close to the station, my spirits were lifted when I saw it seemed to be a different chain from those we had failed at earlier. The card reader looked completely different as well. I pushed the card in and waited a few breathless seconds until the card was accepted. I've never appreciated the comforting rumble of gas running through a fuel nozzle so much. The kids were all asleep at this point and I looked at their faces through the window of the car. I was astounded that we'd encountered this kind of problem with international credit cards in Western Europe in 2018, but I resolved to be extra careful about our safety and comfort for the rest of the journey. Even in a place like France, it can be very dangerous to become complacent.

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We got a slow start the next morning and didn't arrive at the weekly market in Le Bugue until nearly eleven in the morning. We found the market exceptionally crowded and also with a preponderance of souvenirs and other merchandise aimed primarily at tourists. We did find one decent seafood stall where we bought some whole cooked crabs and bulots which we consumed at an outdoor cafe (with drinks we purchased there of course).
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We returned to that same short stretch of the Dordogne we had visited the previous day. Les Jardins de L'Eau, also known as the Water Gardens of Carsac, was a stop for the kids more than anything else. The water gardens are probably a fairly recent creation to take advantage of the influx of tourists into the Dordogne. However, they've made it a very beautiful place and the kids really enjoyed feeding the koi. If we'd had one less day to explore the area I'm sure this wouldn't have been on the list, but as it was it made for a pleasant hour for everyone.
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The hilltop village of Domme was just a few minutes from Carsac, on the other side of the Dordogne. The prime attraction is the promenade on the northern side of town with views of the Dordogne valley that are breathtaking and limitless.
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The town itself was attractive enough but even more saturated with ice cream shops and souvenir stores than Monpazier had been. We didn't stick around for long. We had perhaps the most renowned city in the Dordogne to squeeze in before that evening's night market.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 12:01 Archived in France Tagged travel blog tony dordogne domme la_roque_gageac perigord montignac friedman marqueyssac perigueux Comments (0)

An Epicurean Odyssey: The Dordogne part I (Bergerac)


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France is a country composed of smaller pieces, each with their own distinct renown. These regions to some extent correspond to the administrative divisions, but also have invisible boundaries that have been shaped by more than a thousand years of history. There's Paris and its surrounds. Provence, of course. Brittany and Normandy. Alsace. The Loire Valley, Bordeaux and Bourgogne. One of the smaller areas to enjoy this legendary status is the Périgord, more widely known outside of France by its departmental name of Dordogne. The Périgord epitomizes everything that is wonderful and unique about France, from the verdant countryside to the iconic towns and castles to the delicious cuisine. We were excited to have four entire days and part of a fifth to work our way through a long list of markets, villages, and historic landmarks.

Our previous forays into the Loire Valley and Provence had taught us well that France can't be approached in the same way as Spain. Whereas Spain has less to offer in the early morning and forces travelers into late bedtimes, France is very unforgiving of slow starts. A typical market in the summer has seen its best moments before ten in the morning and is basically over except for the tourist stragglers by noon. On Sunday morning we set our alarms as early as we could stand and raced a half hour southeast to the weekly market of Issigeac, one of the most heralded in the Périgord.
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The first thing we saw as we walked into the center was a woman tending a counter with an array of enormous pans, each containing a different tantalizing preparation of meat or seafood. We resisted the temptation to begin eating right away, knowing that every minute that passed would bring larger crowds to impede our progress through the market.
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Issigeac was a tiny village with narrow streets, stone and half-timbered houses, and the ancient Saint-Félicien Church overlooking the bustling central square. The atmosphere for our first Dordogne market couldn't have been better.
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After a couple of circuits through the market, we'd selected our bread and cheese, strawberries, freshly-shucked oysters and other delicacies and retired to a park bench to enjoy a messy breakfast.
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It turned out we'd escaped just in time. We ventured back into the market to let the kids play with the soap bubble guy and found it jam-packed. Arriving early had saved us from having to compete with crowds for the attention of every vendor.

We continued southeast to Château de Bonaguil, one of the most picturesque castles in the Périgord. This formidable medieval edifice suddenly appeared at the top of a hill as we approached on the access road, inspiring an immediate rush of traveler's euphoria.
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A castle on a hill like Bonaguil is really two experiences in one, each with its own distinct pleasures. The first part is the climb up the winding path to the castle past ancient, crumbling stone walls and a carefully restored limestone church.
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Once we reached the top of the hill it was time for the main event. A stone bridge crossed the crevasse between the hill and the rocky outcropping, or aigeulle, on which the castle is perched.
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It took a half hour to explore the half-ruined fortress. The crumbling masonry created surreal, Escherian perspectives of the interior elements of the stronghold. We could only imagine the majesty of the castle during its heyday in the 18th century.
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The views of the Périgord countryside from the tall castle keep were spectacular. We were getting a dramatic introduction to this extraordinary and singular corner of the world, and we were energized to continue onward to the other destinations in our day's itinerary.
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Our next stop wouldn't have ideally been another castle, but on the way back from Bonaguil was Château de Biron. Like Bonaguil, this château was a spectacular sight both at a distance from the road and close up. Biron has been preserved and renovated to the extent that the main building can host art exhibitions. By the time we arrived, both the boys were sleeping so I took Cleo for a walk along the side of the enormous castle. I don't think we missed much by skipping a tour of the interior.
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In the Périgord there are numerous villages that have been clearly designated for tourism. They are featured in every guidebook and they have a support system of cafes and souvenir shops for travelers. Are they truly the most picturesque of all the villages in the region, or simply the ones that prefer the financial boost of tourism to peace and quiet? We weren't going to be staying in the area long enough to uncover all the secret towns that the tour guides haven't discovered, so we followed the crowds to Monpazier.

Monpazier was certainly picturesque, a well-preserved bastide that was established in the 13th century in the run-up to the Hundred Years War. On the day of our visit they were having a book festival, and the central square was filled with vendors of old magazines and used books. Much to the kids' enjoyment, a craftsman was demonstrating the historic method of making paper from the pulp of old fabric.
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We only spent another half hour in Monpazier, enough time to absorb the best examples of medieval architecture and the colorful decoration of the narrow pedestrian streets. In the end it was hard to overcome the feeling of Epcot Syndrome, the term I use for environments that feel more like a theme park pavilion than an authentic travel destination. Perhaps the best examples I can think of in France are Aix-en-Provence and the walled city of Carcassonne, but even central Paris suffers from it to some extent.
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We had skipped lunch in anticipation of an early arrival to our chosen Sunday night market. Monbazillac is a small village just south of Bergerac best known for its château and sweet white wines. On the road approaching the village we encountered a whimsical art installation of colorful bicycles.
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The roadside market wasn't as picturesque as the one in Audrix, but the selection of food was much larger and the vibe was more local. Whole farm animals roasted on spits and a woman tended to an enormous basin of simmering mussels. We ate reverentially in the shadow of the château.
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On Monday morning it was already time to leave our first Dordogne Airbnb. We hoped we could replicate our success with the Pau daily market in Bergerac but it wasn't to be. The market was open in name only, with just a couple of stalls in business and nothing that could be considered a decent breakfast. There was no point in trying to make it to a weekly market as we still had to pack, so we walked around the largely deserted center of Bergerac. There were more than the usual number of attractive half-timbered houses and an intriguing little plaza where an upright piano had been converted into a miniature garden.
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It was still far too early for any restaurants to be open for lunch, so we decided it would be best to head straight to our next Airbnb in Périgueux. Once we were settled there we wouldn't have to worry about rushing back in the evening to meet our host. We hadn't even made a dent so far in our list of destinations in the Dordogne.

Posted by zzlangerhans 14:27 Archived in France Comments (0)

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