France September 2020

September is a beautiful month for touring Europe and France in particular. The children have gone back to school and the hoards of local tourists have gone back to work. Everything is open, but a little more relaxed and the prices have gone from silly-ridiculous back to normal. The weather is still kind and there are enough hot spells to justify going to the pool or beach.

We left Jarnac on Saturday August 29th, intending to spend about three weeks ‘puddling’ around the Dordogne region, exploring the rich pre-historic and medieval history through the castles, ‘bastides’ (or fortified villages) and caves. We weren’t expecting the rural beauty to be quite so overwhelming, with rolling hills, old stone farmhouses and a diverse landscape including rivers, vineyards, forests and fields. The drives from one village to the next were just as beautiful as the destinations themselves.

The old name for the Dordogne, still much in use today, is the Perigord. Much of the area is also in the Aquitaine, a region famed throughout medieval history and fought over endlessly by Britain and France – and remember Elinor of Aquitaine? She was a formidable woman who was married to 2 kings, had 10 children and ruled Aquitaine and Poitiers.

Our first stop was gorgeous Brantome, only a very pretty 93km drive from Jarnac.   We stayed right next to the River Dronne, in an idyllic little spot a 10-minute walk along the river to the town. After visiting the tourist office, we again did one of those self-guided walks we so enjoy. The village sits on a small island in a bend of the Dronne River. It has 5 medieval bridges and lovely gardens to sit and enjoy the view of bridges and mill wheels. The Abbaye de Brantome is beautiful. Built from the 11th to 18th centuries, it sits beside the river, set back into the limestone cliff face.

Brantome is a small village and we saw everything we wanted to in one day, so we carried on the next day to Perigueux, the regional capital of the Dordogne.  The old town of Perigueux is interesting and worth a wander, but the most impressive sight in Perigueux is the Cathedrale St Front. Built in the 12th C on the site of earlier basilicas it was sacked in the Wars of Religion and only the bell tower remains from that time. The rest was rebuilt in the 19th C, designed by the same architect that did the Sacre Coeur in Paris. It’s even more beautiful outside than in, with five ‘cupolas’ almost like onion domes.

Another interesting site best viewed from the bridge is the weird little house pictured below. People were taxed on the ‘footprint’ of their dwelling, hence the tendency to have the first story overhanging the ground floor. The person that built this house was a serious tax avoider!

It didn’t take long to see Perigueux, so we gave up our place in the aire and moved on.  We were travelling like the French, stopping to see the sights and then carrying on. It was great to be able to be flexible and change our plans, as we wanted. We were doing that almost every day, sometimes moving on quickly and at others staying longer.  We found a beautiful campsite in the countryside near the village of Issigeac and decided to slow down a bit to enjoy the rural Dordogne experience to the fullest. The campsite was like a parkland and even had its own forest walks and fishing pond, as well as a lovely pool, Jacuzzi, sauna and steam room.  The ‘animations’ included painting and sculpture classes but we bypassed them due to Covid and laziness. This is one of the best places we’ve stayed, even the restaurant was exceptional and it was pretty much in the middle of nowhere. A small flock of ducks visited every day, getting very cross if we didn’t have bread for them!

We rode the 9km of undulating countryside on our bikes to Issigeac, not even getting lost! It sounds idyllic to say ‘we rode through the sunflower fields’ – and we did- but it is harvest time and to harvest sunflowers they let the plants totally die, just taking the flower heads. It doesn’t sound nearly so romantic to say ‘we rode through miles of brown, dead plants’!

 

Issigeac has a long, long history. There were Gallo-Roman baths here in the 4th Century, but the Visigoths largely destroyed them and there are only ruins left. Most of the current buildings have 13th Century foundations and 15th Century uppers, built at the end of the 100 Years war. We wandered around the town, looking at all the important buildings and particularly liked the church with its gorgeous 17th Century multi-coloured wood statues.  The foundations were laid in the 11th Century and it was re-built in the 15th Century.  We still find it hard to wrap our minds around how old these buildings are. Many are over 600 years old, still being lived in over all the years and changes in lifestyle - and now having wifi installed!

On Sunday morning we again rode into Issigeac to the Sunday Market. The market took over all the streets of the whole village and was packed with (mask-wearing) people, a variety of stalls from food to fashion and lots of musicians/street buskers. The produce and local artisan products were impressive – gorgeous, glossy aubergines; tasty huge tomatoes; whole stalls of strawberries, raspberries and figs; fresh cheeses and particularly fresh goat’s cheese and of course, truffles. The truffle high season is December to March, so we didn’t buy any that were on offer – and they weren’t cheap either!

After a relaxing week enjoying the Indian summer, we moved to Bergerac. We stayed in a campsite along the river very close to the old town – which seems to be a bit of a theme for us in the Dordogne.  This time the birds were a flock of Canada Geese.

The tourism office here was a really interesting complex, on the quay at the entrance to the old town. It had been upgraded with a modern façade facing the quay but behind were the ancient cloisters leading to the old town. It also included a wine tasting floor, Bergerac being a famous wine region. Michael enjoyed tasting the wines, including a very tasty white wine that was unusually high at 15% alcohol.

In Bergerac we did a boat tour of the Dordogne, aboard a traditional garbarre. These boats were used for centuries to carry wine, stone, cannon and paper from the Bergerac region downriver to Bordeaux. Their use peaked in the early 19th C, just before the start of the railroads. On their return upstream they carried salt, spices and other luxuries from the colonies.  Until 1800 thirty to 100 men in relay teams pulled them upstream, but after that time the oxen took over.

 

The tobacco museum in Bergerac was a bit of a surprise. There are still fields of tobacco and tobacco drying houses between Bergerac and Sarlat, although much less than in previous times. (Farming has now swapped to maize, sunflowers and grapes).

The tobacco museum traced the spread of tobacco farming and usage across the continents and centuries, from its start in Central America and also looked at its social use. There were lots of displays of pipes and snuff boxes from all the continents and great photos. It was quite fascinating.

While we were in Bergerac we discovered, while trying to make a small claim, that we were uninsured! And had been for two years!! This gave us both nightmares. Imagine if anything had happened, we were totally uncovered both for medical and travel costs. We were appalled! It turns out that the BUPA cover we bought online didn’t apply to our particular circumstances. Luckily they refunded in full our last year’s policy costs (although not those for 2018/19).

We immediately started researching, only to find out that most insurers wouldn’t cover us because 1) we weren’t of European or Schengen citizenship or 2) we were already travelling, not setting out on a specific journey. We emailed DFAT for guidance, given that we cannot return home and we have never received a reply. Not helpful! After about 7 hours of Internet research and phone calls we eventually found insurance cover that was acceptable and started immediately. What a relief!

Travelling around the Dordogne/Perigord region was easy and beautiful. The roads were good, the scenery was stunning and the distances were small.

Our next stop was in Sarlat la Caneda, where we stayed in the village of la Caneda. There was a free shuttle bus into the old town from the camping ground, so we went in on three days. Sarlat was a gorgeous city, with buildings made from limestone. The weather was still gorgeous and hot so we spent a couple of days enjoying the indoor and outdoor pools as well.

 

One day we decided to do a tour, so Michael could relax and enjoy the scenery, too. We booked a small-group English tour of the notable local villages. It was very hot and no other English-speaking people booked, so we ended up with a private tour with a very knowledgeable local man.  We went to see Beynac, Domme, and La Roque Gagneac. The day involved a lot of walking and driving uphill, with the towns built between the river and the highest hill around, with the chateaux usually at the top.

Beynac looks across the Dordogne River to the opposing castle of Castelnaud and the landscape is stunning. The town was used as a site for the Johnny Depp movie Chocolat.

La Roque Gageac was a most gorgeous village but only 10 people live there now, with it becoming more of a museum than a town. While in Domme we tasted some local wines and produce. This part of the Dordogne is famous for growing nuts, mostly walnuts and we tasted a lovely walnut-flavoured Armagnac, so had to buy a bottle to take back to Jarnac and share with our Jarnac friends.

There are between 1000-1500 castles/chateaux in The Dordogne. Some are very touristic and offer shows and ‘animations’. Others are quite private. We decided to visit Castle Puymartin, which has been owned by the same family for 600 years and they still live in the keep today! It was originally built in the 13th C. It had a lovely square keep as well as a turret, where an unfaithful wife was imprisoned for 15 years, with her food being lowered through a trap door from the roof. Because the same family owned it, there was lots of memorabilia on display, from family events such as weddings and funerals – except they were hundreds of years ago!

Castles were mostly built on top of hills and Castle Puymartin had gorgeous views over much of the surrounding countryside.

The Cave Lasceaux was a sight we had been really looking forward to. Four teenage boys playing out in the hills with their dog, discovered it in 1940 but it didn’t open to visitors until after WW2 in 1945. Less than 18 years later it had to be closed because the volume of visitors was damaging the vulnerable cave art. It took 14 years for an exact replica of the caves to be made, using the same techniques and materials to duplicate the cave paintings.

The Cave Lascaux is famed for the more than 600 cave paintings dating from Cro-Magnum times, making the oldest of them around 20,000 years old! The caves were never lived in, only used for painting - which is curious in itself. All the paintings are of animals – mostly bison, reindeer and horses. The perspective and movement are amazing for the times, as is the sheer size of some of the depictions. One bison is 5 metres long! The other surprising thing is the use of colour. Using natural pigments, which they ground and blended, they had at least 15 shades of colour in the black, brown and terracotta spectrum. They had stone and wood grinding implements as well as brushes made of hairs and sponges.

Following our visit to the caves, we enjoyed a lovely drive on small roads through the rolling hills of the Valley Vezere to a small camping ground in the forest near Rouffignac. There are caves with paintings here, too as well as lots of outdoor activities such as zip-lining or whatever. We didn’t do any of that but we did chill out by the pool and appreciate the quiet. There were only 50 sites and less than half were occupied so it was our own little oasis with fabulous forest views.

We arrived back to Jarnac in late September, with an appointment in Angouleme on September 25 for Part 2 of our visa or Carte de Sejour. We had a very successful day, first solving an internet problem at the FREE Mobile Phone shop and then cruising through the visa appointment. We celebrated with a bit of shopping and lunch at a terrific Indian restaurant that our friends Willie and Marcia had recommended. Any Asian food is usually disappointing in France, as they downplay the spicing and make a sauce. This Indian restaurant was unique, asking if we wanted French spicing or spicy. Of course we chose the spicy and it was fabulous - and so inexpensive, with 3 courses and 50cl of wine at only 42 Euros, with enough to take home and have for another meal. A very good day out indeed!

We’ve always been astounded by the way people enjoy their holidays and arrive at camping grounds – hiking in with backpacks bigger than they are, riding in as singles or families on bicycles, small cars with even smaller tents etc. Now we have seen it all, after a very elderly lady walked in with her two donkeys and her dog. She set up a small tent, pegged out the animals and relaxed. We were impressed.

While we were in Jarnac they held their Picnic Race Meeting, which only happens twice a year. The racecourse is behind the Braastard distillery, where we used to walk many times and look at the sheep and goats that grazed there. It was a favourite walk for Grubie. The races were a mix of trots, gallops and jumps but the jumps were very small, so we didn’t feel stressed and there were no horse injuries. The trots were the most fun to watch and had the most entries. Being Covid-safe, there was table seating and you had to wear a mask if you got up to cheer. It was fun to listen to the race being called in French – we could still understand and try to translate, and it was not as hard as your may think. There was a lot of ‘coming up on the outside’ and ‘ taking the lead is....’. We put on a couple of bets and won once but unfortunately not big money.

Marcia and Willie invited us to their house for dinner (‘come to ours’) one night and even came to pick us up because it was bucketing with rain. Their house is so cosy and comfortable and we had a wonderful meal, the highlight of which was chicken breasts stuffed with haggis and topped with a creamy mushroom sauce. Delicious and we loved the haggis! Of course Willie brought out a stunning array of whisky and cognac to accompany the meal.

We also were lucky enough to be invited to a party for Gary’s 60th birthday.  It was a great chance to catch up with all the expat friends we have made and to meet some new ones. Helen and Gary’s house used to be a nightclub and is huge! They have converted part of it into 2 ‘gites’ or self-contained holiday rentals, but it still has three large indoor party areas and was perfect for mingling and conversing.

We continued to tick off the tasks we had to do – our first ‘Control Technique’ or roadworthiness check, which we passed with no problem; our annual medical checkups and tests that we have usually done in Adelaide but had to do here this year because we can’t travel back to Adelaide; and organizing a few minor camping car repairs to the interior. Of course, it was also necessary to visit Balluet’s to top up the cognac supplies before heading for Spain. We also had a very successful shopping day loading up on items not easily available in Spain, such as Asian curry mixes, spices, coconut milk, French sauce mixes, lamb etc.

As always, Jarnac has amazed us with its beauty. There always seems to be a new vista to appreciate.

The COVID-19 numbers all across Europe have been increasing quickly and the talk at the end of the month was all about the ‘second wave’. Restrictions were slightly tightened but stopped short of local or national lockdowns at this point. The scariest part for us was that the Charente region went from green to orange levels, reflecting a sharp jump in cases in Angouleme and Cognac as well as the closing of 4 middle schools in the region.

We were busy doing our research about COVID-19 in Spain and found that Peniscola has a low rate of infection at this time, but all these numbers can change daily and are subject to interpretation. Basically, it just means that we need to stick to small villages, be very careful about our hygiene practices and not socialise with other people as much as we have been. This should be achievable in Spain, where they are very strict with social distancing and have a ‘mask law’.

We left Jarnac on September 30th, heading to Spain for the winter, first to Tarragona and then to Peniscola and maybe Benacassim and Denia, so a mix of places we’ve been before and new villages. Stay tuned!