Monday, July 4, 2011

A [short] week in the Perigord... (Europe '11 - Part 5)

Sarlat is goose country!

Life is good in Le Périgord. You will often hear visitors refer to this region as "Le Périgord" (the name of the old French province,) or "La Dordogne" (the name of the administrative division it belongs to.) Either way, it is a popular area in the summer. Over 2.5 million tourists descend upon Sarlat and local towns every year. Seattle's European travel guru, Rick Steves, has helped spread the word in the United States. Still, most visitors are French, or come from England and Northern Europe. We are very lucky as the big tourist rush will only start at the end of this week. We will be in Spain by then. 

For now, we are staying in the central part of the Dordogne river valley and all the area's hallmarks are around us, everywhere we look: fields of sunflowers and corn; orchards of walnut trees; rock-sculpted villages and dreamy cottages; breathtaking vistas; châteaux, châteaux, beaucoup de châteaux. 

Walnut trees
Every time you blink, un nouveau château!

I have relatives in the area, but I must confess I had another reason to return. Ever since Le Husband and I spent a week here three years ago, I have been dreaming to show Junior how beautiful this part of France is. He is a fortunate boy as he has been staying in Paris on a regular basis ever since he was born. Yet, there is so much more to France than Paris! His mother is from Toulouse after all and I wanted him to discover his [French] Southern roots. 

Last time we were in Sarlat, we stayed in a wonderful hotel outside of town. This summer, we are right downtown, off of the main street, rue de la République. My trusted friends at recommended La Villa des Consuls as one of the best places to stay. Eh bien les amis, la villa exceeds all my expectations! Our apartment, named Mirabeau [after the 18th century French politician], is incredible. Quiet, clean, spacious, with high ceilings, hardwood floors, a separate bedroom for Junior, a kitchen, and a generous bathroom. I should also mention the friendly and professional gentleman at the reception desk who always, always knows the answers to my questions. Best thing is probably the price, under $200 a night. Other apartments in the gorgeous Renaissance building have private terraces and patios. Le Paradis. Heaven. Check it out. 

Villa des Consuls - Main room
Overlooking Sarlat's main street and two steps away from the Medieval town
A very French view from our room
Apartments with private terraces (maybe next time...)

We have been busy since we got here. Le Périgord is famous for its hearty food and wine so there has been a lot of eating. It is a challenge to stay away from tourist traps in town, but we have done well so far. Local strawberries (our daily breakfast, with an assortment of warm viennoiseries I pick up at the boulangerie around the corner,) are fragrant, juicy and oh, so sweet. Le Husband has been on a diet of duck, goose, foie gras (goose or duck liver paté) and wild mushroom served in many variations. We will worry about our cholesterol later. Besides, nobody comes to le Périgord to diet. There are other French towns best suited for that purpose (ok, not that many, admittedly.) 

Geese are the local stars! 
"Foie Gras road"

Sarlat-la-Canéda (a.k.a. Sarlat) is the ideal homebase. When we are finished sightseeing for the day, we are delighted to return to our comfortable apartment, and it does not take long before I run out on Les Boys to stroll around the quaint medieval streets. We live in the old town: a maze of cobbled streets, small squares and passageways lined with 15th and 16th century houses made of yellow, ochre-colored stone. Sarlat is so beautiful that I can't help looking up at the old buildings while walking the pedestrian-friendly streets. In Paris, this could prove fatal (at least to my summer sandals) because of the dog poop on the sidewalks. Not in Sarlat. The town is immaculate and somebody must be picking up after all the friendly canines I meet on my walks. Pictures are better than words, they say. This is particularly true here. Illustration:

Roof made with characteristic lauze (flat limestone) tiles 

The other day, we started feeling guilty about eating so much and we decided to get a good workout. A popular summer activity is canoeing on either one of the two local rivers, la Dordogne or la Vézère

This has been the driest spring since the 1950s, and several French regions are suffering from drought. We booked a 9-mile canoe trip on the Dordogne river but did not realize the water level was significantly lower than normal. This means there was little current to push us downstream and we had to paddle hard, for over three hours, in the blazing sun, to reach the town of Beynac at the end of the itinerary. We were very, very tired, and very, very sunburnt when we arrived. Junior still had a blast and I loved hearing him shout: "Regardez, un autre château!" (Look, another castle!) now and then, as we drifted downstream. 

Truth be told, this was an incredible ride: There were just a few other canoes on the river (by next week there will be "canoe traffic jams" on the Dordogne.) It was peaceful, and the vistas along the way did not disappoint. Canoeing while sightseeing, what a concept!

The Dordogne river valley
Low water levels on the Dordogne...
A happy kid and his dad... about to get sunburnt
La Roque-Gageac, frequent winner of the "Prettiest French Village" Award
The Perigord's most visited Medieval castle: Castelnauld 
Another bridge, another castle
The end of the ride, in scenic Beynac, with Beynac castle greeting us

There are hundreds of châteaux in the Périgord, but this specific area is known as "the Valley of the five castles." Castlenaud, a massive medieval fortress, is the second-most popular tourist site after the Lascaux prehistoric caves, so we started there.  The castle played an important part during the Hundred Years' War between France and England. It was alternately French, English, French, English, over the years. Views from the ramparts are incredible and visiting the square keep and old rooms feels like you are being transported back in the Middle Ages. Junior, as I expected, got a kick out of the weaponry and artifacts displayed. Once again, we lucked out. No crowds. 

Castlenaud castle towering over the village, Castelnaud la Chapelle
It must have been easy to see the enemy coming

Two French-American knights
Impressive weaponry

I'd say Junior enjoyed his visit!

There was another château I was dying to visit, Les Milandes. Built in the late 1400s, the ivy-clad Renaissance estate was once the property of a favorite lady of mine, American-born Josephine Baker, who found fame in her adopted country, France, as an entertainer in the 1920s and went on to have a roller-coaster of a life as a member of the French Résistance during WWII; a civil rights activist next to Martin Luther King in the 1960s and a major philanthropist. Josephine fell in love with Le Perigord in the 1930s and rented, then purchased, lovely Les Milandes where she lived happily for years with her many adopted children, "the Rainbow Tribe," until the music stopped, but this is too good of a story to tell in a few lines today. Josephine deserves her own post. I will save it for later if you don't mind. Here are a few pictures to whet your appetite, though...

Smiling Josephine, at the peak of her music hall career
Josephine's home during from 1938 to 1968

Beautiful grounds

One of the chief reasons for visiting France's Southwest is the concentration of prehistoric caves that have been found in the area (as well as in Northern Spain.) From 18,000 to 10,000 BC (talk about a stable culture!,) the Magdalenians, all "Cro-Magnon men", painted deep inside limestone caverns using sophisticated techniques. The most famous cave is Lascaux. It happens to be located in Montignac, a charming village where cousins of mine have lived for years. After it was discovered by a group of teenagers (and their dog) during WWII, the site soon opened to the public for about 15 years. The atmosphere in the cave (and the artwork) started deteriorating quickly. To preserve the invaluable paintings inside Lascaux, the French government decided to build an exact replica known as "Lascaux II" where the public can keep admiring the masterpiece (the original cave is closed today.) Pictures are not allowed inside, but everyone has seen images of the colorful paintings of bisons, horses, deer, reindeer, and mammoths to name just a few. 

Long line for Lascaux tickets and it's about to get worse...
Lascaux is good business for Montignac
"Lascaux" prix fixe meal while tourists wait for their guided tour
Inside Lascaux II

Two Cro-Magnon men working on a mural

Lascaux was an interesting and a refreshing visit (it was 54F in the cool cave,) but I also enjoyed our outdoor lunch in Montignac, at a quaint restaurant by the Vézère river, and the leisurely stroll we took in the old streets. 

La Vézère, Montignac

We have a few more adventures to live in le Périgord before we head out mid-week, including a visit to a troglodyte site (shallow, cliffside caves once inhabited by prehistoric men and later on in the Middle Ages) and a new accro-branche outing (we have all been dying to try this since Junior had so much fun doing it in Paris.)

Time to wrap up our tour. The only thing missing in le Périgord is the ocean. Other than that, there is enough here to keep visitors happy, interested, entertained [and exercised] for several weeks. It is the ideal vacation site -- Many have already figured it out. 

We will miss you, Sarlat and the Dordogne valley. 

PS: Today is July 4th. Happy Independence Day to all our American friends!


  1. Have you taken Alec to Geoffre de Padiric? it was a great place on a hot Southern France day...maybe next time. We are headed to Arcachon tomorrow, it's going to be HOT!! We almost did the canoe ride with Mitchell, but decided against it because we thought it would take too long. I think we made the right choice, but missed out on some fun :-)

  2. Merci beaucoup for the very interesting history lesson today. The photos are beautiful. The last photo of the backs of you and Alec est parfait! Glad you're having such a wonderful time. It is a warm and beautiful today in the PNW, unlike many a 4th of July in years past!

  3. Bonjour Kim. I want to command you and Jeri for your itinerary this summer. You must enjoy being surrounded by French people. Doubt you will meet many Americans in Arcachon ;-) No time for Gouffre de Padirac this time unfortunately. There is just too much to do here. We've made the most of it, though. Have fun on the Atlantic coast!

  4. Happy July 4th Cherie. I am glad the sun has finally arrived in Seattle!

  5. Thanks for the memories. We enjoyed many of the same views in 2008 and enjoyed our lunch in Montignac on the Vezere as well.

  6. Je t'en prie, Robin. Montignac est vraiment un charmant village...

  7. Wow ! This is a truly epic post, covering a lot of ground and water and history... Very enjoyable reading, you have thoroughly succeeded in transmitting a large amount of the pleasure you are obviously experiencing in the Périgord there... One thing, while I think of it, are you familiar with Al Stewart's song about Josephine Baker ? A fine tribute from a fine songwriter...

    For anyone who has not yet visited the Perigord region, your work here is surely an inspiration to do so... quickly. For those of us who have already experienced with great pleasure exploring around Les Eyzies and Sarlat, this is an incitation to return and renew the pleasure. You are lucky to have family in the area, a good reason to go back... Happy travelling !

    And yes, of course, the chateaux, the chateaux !

  8. Merci beaucoup Owen! I absolutely adore this area. We are staying in the Vezere Valley for our last day, in a quaint auberge named Castel Merle (near Sergeac.) It will be mentioned in a future post I can assure you :-) The place is simply charming. I will remember to check out that Al Stewart tune about the great Josephine. Merci pour le tuyau!

  9. After finding your posts, I feel like dancing and singing, and I feel like coming to France :) Anyway, thank you for all your pictures and impressions.

  10. Merci beaucoup Olga. I feel the same about yours so I understand ;-) I have felt like dancing and singing ever since we have arrived in Le Perigord Noir and come to think of it, I did sing and dance, but that was also (Bergerac) wine-induced and that's an entirely different story ;-)

  11. v- you have done it again...FABULOUS simply FABULOUS...i have never been to this region/area before- something i will consider doing on my next journey to your beautiful france. it seems so peaceful without the crowds.. i am glad it worked out that way. as always looking forward to the next installment. TRAVEL SAFE!!

  12. Merci g. I hope you enjoyed July 4 in Pennsylvania. It will be hard to leave le Périgord tomorrow, believe me, but I know we will be back. Next stop is beautiful Carcassonne, right next to my hometown, Toulouse. Then one final stop in France, Collioure, and finally Spain. Stay tuned! A bientôt!

  13. Le Périgord is such a gorgeous region with wonderful food. Thank you for posting those beautiful pictures.

  14. You're welcome Nadege. I am glad you enjoyed them.

  15. Salut Véro!
    Thanks for dropping by my blog. I love the Périgord. I love Sarlat, and everything around. Your post made me want to pack up and go now.
    Lovely photos, too.

  16. Merci Dedene. What's not to like in le Perigord (other than the summer crowds we missed this year), is what I want to know !? Happy I found your blog. Will be visiting again soon.

  17. Well I'm glad you found me! You have a new follower now as well. ;)

    Your blog is a wealth of information. I have never been out of the US (sad, I know) and France is definitely on the list of places I would love to visit one day. I actually don't know that much about France, so I was fascinated with this post. This part of the country is so gorgeous! Your son is lucky to be able to travel there so often. :)

    I love Josephine Baker. I've seen a couple of her movies I adore her music. She was such a beautiful and inspiring woman during a time when it was unheard of for women of color to be so famous and rich. I am eagerly anticipating your post on her!

  18. Absolutely love this post, and can't wait to get there myself in October! It looks beautiful and filled with places to take endless photos~

  19. Jennifer Fabulous-- Love your blog's name. Maybe I will change mine to "French Girl Fabulous" soon ;-) Thank you for visiting and following the blog. If you look through my archives, you will find a couple of posts about the great Coco Chanel you might enjoy (in 12/10 and 05/11) if memory serves. Trust me, I can't wait to sit down at my desk at home and start working on that Josephine B. story! ;-)
    Kim-- Better get that camera ready for the Perigord. It is going to blow you away! :-)


Bonjour! I love hearing from you, my readers. To quote a fellow blogger, my friend Owen, "Comments are the icing on blogcake... Comments are the UFO in the twilight sky bearing news from other planets... Comments are raspberry vinegar in salad dressing... Comments are the cool balm of after-sun moisturizing lotion... Comments are the moment the band comes back out onstage to play an encore... Comments are the gleam in the eye across the room in a smoky bar... Comments are the rainbow after the rainstorm..." Merci for your comments! French Girl in Seattle