France June 2021

On leaving Peniscola for France we did our longest day of driving yet, travelling all in one day from Peniscola to Jarnac, a distance of around 900km. It took over 10 hours and cost nearly 90 euro in tolls.

We were very happy to be back in France with the beautiful lush green fields and forests and the stunning villages, each with its church spire. Jarnac had been badly flooded this winter and was still working hard to repair the damage. We enjoyed catching up with friends and acquaintances and hearing their personal news, as well as stories of floods and lockdowns.

 

Our first order of business (other than picking up the packages that were delivered to Fred’s La Comedie restaurant for us) was to organize a Covid vaccination. Unfortunately, just prior to our arrival the availability of vaccinations for over 50s was announced, so all the appointments at vaccination centers in the area were full. We managed to get an appointment in Royan, about 90km away and close to Les Mathes, where we intended to visit anyway. We were dreading the vaccination event, anticipating problems with language and paperwork but it was super well organised and had some English-speaking staff eager to help us read all the paperwork. We had the Pfizer vaccine and apart from a bit of a sore arm the next day, had no ill effects. Our second jab was due on July 13th, so we had time to do a little sightseeing.

   

We spent over a week staying at Les Mathes, enjoying some fabulous early summer weather and meeting up with friends from previous years. We did a lot of bike riding through the La Coubre Forest and along the coast, the canals and past the oyster and moules businesses. We again rode to the villages of La Tremblade and Port de la Greve, as well as Le Palmyre. We ate half our body weight in Moule a la Crème and loved every morsel! The canal to the Port de la Greve is picturesque, lined with old fishing shacks, oyster and moules businesses and restaurants. They have a fascinating way of cooking moules, called moules eclade, where they put them over a wood fire and cover them in pine needles. A simple way of cooking, that burns off the beard!

 

Our friends from Boulogne-Sur-Mer, Jean-Claude and Christine arrived at the campsite and it was wonderful to see them again. We hosted aperitifs and received a stunning plant basket for our trouble. Michael is called the ‘BBQ King of Les Mathes’ and Jean-Claude asked him to cook a cote de boef similar to a Tomahawk. It weighed 2kg! We hate to think how much it would cost and Michael was very careful when barbequing it, but it turned out beautifully. Just the right degree of rareness and it went well with the vegetables Sue prepared. Jean-Claude and Christine had never had barbecued white asparagus before.

    

Just lately we have several times found ourselves in the position of being asked for travel advice from French people, about where to travel in France!! We had a wonderful day out with Jean-Claude and Christine as well as Annie, one of the campsite owners. They had never been to Ile de Re or Fouras, so we found ourselves giving these three French people a guided tour of the area! We went to St Martin to look at the longhaired donkeys, the ramparts and the beautiful old town, stunning church and marina. Then we moved further up the island to our favourite island village, Ars en Re to visit the market and the pretty town and to have a wonderful seafood lunch at the marina. On the way home we popped in to Fouras to show them the many, many beautiful Belle Époque homes and mansions throughout the town.

     

After leaving our friends at Les Mathes we headed to Royan (pronounced ‘Wayon’ to those in the know) to catch a ferry to Le Verdon at the top of the Medoc wine region. We wanted to visit Margaux and specifically the Chateau Lascombes, to see our friend Stephanie Stenou’s art exhibition. She is a very talented artist and we were impressed with the presentation of her work. She paints very finely wrought paintings, somewhat in the Japanese style and painted on wine barrel wood - thus the logic of having her exhibition in the barrel room of a chateau. She also works for Hennessey as a distiller.

     

 

 The Medoc is a unique kind of wine region. The villages are nothing to speak of, not at all pretty but the area has hundreds of beautiful chateaux, many only a km or so apart. The vineyards are very small and very expensive – 1.5 million euro a hectare, just for the vines. No wonder it’s farmed so intensively, with the vines only half a meter apart. The vineyards are kept meticulously, often walled in stone. The drives in this area are so scenic! The Medoc has many different levels of wines to try and we did some very informative tastings at both important chateaux and at vignerons’ cooperatives.

   

Another reason to visit the Medoc was its proximity to Bordeaux, offering us the opportunity to catch up with Michael’s long-time friend and workmate, Marc LeGrand. Marc has a very rare blood disease and hasn’t been that well lately, having chemo every week. However, he looked a lot better than we anticipated and drove from Bordeaux to Pauillac to meet us for lunch. It was a great fun lunch and so lovely so see him.

The return trip from Lamarque to Blaye was a bit too exciting for our taste. The area is amazingly tidal and boarding the ferry involved a steep slope with a really sharp right-hand turn, then on disembarking the drive through the incredibly narrow streets of Blaye required immense concentration.

     

One of the best things about travelling in a motorhome – at least out of season - is the ability to be flexible and change your plans, depending on circumstances. We were happy to avoid some extreme weather by going back to our old favourite village of Fouras for a couple of days to wait out the thunderstorms, before travelling to the Dordogne. We had a few wild lightning, thunder and rain episodes at night, which knocked out the local phone system, but managed to avoid the showers during the day.

Given the weather, we took the opportunity of our flexibility to visit Willie and Marcia from Scotland in their new home in Ruffec, north of Angouleme. It looks like a Belle Époque townhouse, with quite a bit of garden and lovely wooden floors, original stonework, a slate roof and a fabulous stone and iron decorative front fence. Willie and Marcia drove us around their new town and to the restaurant Auberge du Noyer in the countryside not far away. A really delicious meal and lots of fun with them, as usual!

       

After leaving Willie and Marcia in Ruffec, we made a long drive to the Dordogne, to Issigeac near Bergerac. We visited the Dordogne last year in September for a month and were really awed by it’s beauty. We decided to pick up where we left off last year and travel further up the river and to the Lot and Cantal areas.

But first, we re-visited Issigeac to a camping ground we loved, so we could relax for a week – because we’re so stressed, you know! The campground is very park-like and has fabulous facilities and a great restaurant. Michael enjoyed watching the soccer (Finland vs. Belgium). Next day we rode the 25km round trip through a rain shower to visit the ancient bastide of Issigeac.

     

With our new bikes and our new high-viz helmets we were able to travel further afield. There were no bicycle paths, but narrow little country roads without a lot of traffic. We rode into Issigeac one day, to go to the Tourisme Office and reacquaint ourselves with the town.

On another day we rode 8.5km to Beaumont-Du-Perigord. It was a really scenic ride through farmlands with pretty farmhouses, fields of cows, orchards of nut trees and natural forests.

    

This was another ‘bastide’ town, a purpose-built fortified town, built in the grid or chessboard pattern by Edward 1st of England in 1272. Medieval arcades, a hall and a fortified church surround the main square. Another attractive sight was the gate du Luzier where you could still see the huge steel hinges used for the ancient door, as well as the grooves on either side that held the portcullis.

The weather had been a little changeable, with heavy overnight thunderstorms and a mix of clouds and sun during the day, but it wasn’t cold and we still enjoyed the pool, Jacuzzi and steam room.

We really wanted to see Monpazier on our way to Cahors in The Lot region. It has been designated a ‘most beautiful French village’ because it has managed – through wars, famine, plagues and politics – to keep its original architecture and townscape. It’s an authentic jewel of medieval history and challenges your imagination. We’re really fortunate to be able to see these gems in the off-season, before the hordes of tourists descend.

Like all bastides, it had its fortified gates and a town square with a covered market, here made from huge chestnut logs. This was where you paid your ‘tithes’ or taxes in grain or wine – they even had the tithe measuring bins (by the bushel) on display in the town square.

This area of the Dordogne is characterized by winding roads passing through farmlands, nut orchards and forests, with gorgeous ‘bastides’ dotted around every few kilometres. It takes ages to drive anywhere, passing through some very narrow village streets - but it’s so pretty that you don’t really care. We drove on to the Lot region and the major centre of Cahors. We were very pleasantly surprised by how fascinating this small city was. We stayed at the camping ground near the river and rode our bikes into the edge of the old town, first visiting the Pont Valetre, built as part of the town’s defenses in the 14th Century.

We spent hours wandering the old town, especially impressed by the Cathedrale St-Etienne. It was full of gorgeous stained glass, both ancient and modern ones as well. It was unique in being mainly decorated by frescos – absolutely stunning!

There was a lot to see in Cahors, including the intricate clock measured by a marble run and wonderful outdoor statues. Cahors was the birthplace of Leon Gambetta, the French statesman born here in 1838 and who has a street named after him in nearly every village in France! The main square in Cahors has a fountain and statue in his honor.

From Cahors we travelled only 25 km on a very narrow and winding road along the River Lot to St-Cirq-Lapopie. The scenery was spectacular, with shallow slate waterfalls and craggy rack overhangs, as well as the little villages where the road suddenly became one lane. That’s always where you meet a truck or bus! At one stage we met a semi- trailer on an incredibly narrow stretch with overhangs on one side and a rock wall on the other. Michael and the truck driver stopped and looked at each other, then carefully crawled past at less than walking pace, with literally only an inch or two to spare on either side.

St-Cirq-Lapopie is a magical place! It clings to the top of a cliff overhanging the River Lot. In the Middle Ages the administration and control of the river traffic and its revenues was shared by 3 feudal dynasties, who all built castles and turned the village into a fortress. It became a commercial centre renowned for leatherworkers, metal smiths and especially wood-turners. We spent hours wandering the town, marveling at how they managed to build on the side of cliffs, and create such amazing buildings, which have lasted for over 800 years. The views down to the river and across the valley were quite spectacular and you could stop and take them in for hours.

St-Cirq-Lapopie was voted the best village in France in 2012 and we consider ourselves so fortunate to see it in late June, before the crowds flock here in summer. It was completely beautiful and the lack of crowds allowed our imaginations to people the village with knights, villagers and medieval artisans!

We had a lunch of ‘croquillant de escargot’ and they were some of the best escargot we have had. They were accompanied, of course, by a wonderful Cahors Malbec red wine, a fitting reward for climbing up all those steep streets from the river to the top of the cliff.

We knew we faced another short but tricky drive from St-Cirq-Lapopie to Figeac, so we set off fairly early. It was only 43km but took well over an hour to drive. But the views! Superb vistas of villages overlooking the River Lot, as well as rich farmlands with sandstone farmhouses.

Figeac was lots of fun. We stayed about 3km out, on the edge of the town near the river Cele and unpacked our bikes to ride in. Founded by the Benedictine monks, Figeac is also the birthplace of Jean-Francois Champollion who cracked the hieroglyphic code of the Rosetta Stone and enabled the unlocking of all that Egyptian history. Figeac was a busy little town with a lovely medieval quarter. Many of the buildings had what were ‘drying rooms’ in medieval times on the top story of their homes, but now they’re attractive covered roof gardens.

Michael soon found his happy place, an excellent wine cave with a knowledgeable owner and a wide range of local wines, cognacs and armagnacs to taste.

 

From Figeac we travelled north-west to Rocamadour, the ancient pilgrimage site. Apparently Henry Plantagenet was cured here in the 12th Century. It was named after the hermit St Amadour.

What is it about building on the top of and into cliffs?! We walked up to the still privately owned Chateau but wisely bought tickets on the three ascenseur, to get down to the river level and back. We did walk one stage and can only imaging what the pilgrims endured, doing it on their knees. No wonder the area where we stayed used to be a hospital for the pilgrims!

Rocamadour was on three levels – the chateau, the sanctuaries and the medieval village, all clinging to the vertical cliff-face. The Sancturaies are the highlight – seven 12th-14th century chapels built into the cliff, all next to or on top of each other, with one even having the cliff itself as the back wall. It’s still a deeply religious place and tours are given by priests/monks.

Rocamadour is one of those places (like St-Cirq-Lapopie or Carcassonne) that are just as beautiful viewed from afar, so we decided to treat ourselves to a dinner with a view. Menu-reading is one of Sue’s favourite things to do and it used to drive Grubie crazy!  We took our time and eventually settled on a restaurant with a beautiful view that served ‘linguine aux truffe’, given that we were in truffle territory, although not in truffle season. It was delicious!

 

We certainly picked the right day to tour Rocamadour because the next was to be heavy rain all day. We decided we might as well be driving, so finished our tour of the Dordogne and The Lot and headed home to Jarnac. We’d had a wonderful 3 weeks, travelled about a thousand km and had seen some amazingly beautiful sights.

We love being on the road again!