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July 10th 2016
Published: July 10th 2016
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Brittany & Normandy

Mont St Michel

We leave home at 5.30pm after a panic driven day of trying to pack, cut the grass, leave the home in a shape to be viewed as we have decided to sell up and downsize, and have a nice relaxing lunch! We get to Portsmouth by 7pm and quickly onto the Brittany Ferry to St Malo sailing at 8.15 pm. Portsmouth definitely looks better from the sea.

It’s a smooth sailing and the ship is bigger and better than our last sailing to & from Santander in Spain in 2015. It has more eateries, a cinema and a variety of shops.

We however, have come prepared with a picnic supper (lobster tails and salad with good Spanish wine from our last trip), and finally a great night’s sleep. The ferry arrives at St Malo in Brittany at 8.15 am local time. It’s Monday and France is closed for business. Seriously! There are hardly any shops open.

We have a lovely countryside drive along the coast on our way to Pontorson, passing yellow fields of rapeseed, some poppies, lovely converted windmills as houses. We get coffee and a huge cheese and ham baguette for breakfast (that also does for supper) then on to Mont St Michel.

It’s peeing it down though, and you can hardly see the Mont, so we decide to head off to our hotel on the edge of Avranches and see if it brightens up later for a visit to the Mont – it doesn’t! Meanwhile we enjoy lunch at a local Creperie (Le Pot d’Etain) in Avranches - thanks to a recommendation from the people at B & B Hotels (a motel type place with automated check in). We have Crepes (ham, spinach & cheese + scallops, leeks and cream) washed down with local cider & a Flambé (apple & calvados) with ice cream to finish. Yumm!

We later walk around the town for a while and get some views of Mont St Michel from the Belvedere in Jardin des Plantes. They are lovely gardens & in full bloom with a colourful array of flowers. Avranches is a surprise of a town – with flowers everywhere, a castle & great history - and views of the seaside on a clear day. For dinner we ‘Picnic’ in the room and hope for better weather so we can actually visit the Mont.

The alarm wakes us at 7am and the weather is even worse than yesterday - so we go back to sleep! Later we head into town for breakfast – croissants from a Boulangerie to go with coffees from a local café. There are no views of the Mont at all due to the rain so we decide to defer our trip there to some point in future and head off to Poitiers – our overnight stay on the way to the Dordogne.

Poitiers

We take the scenic, no toll, route which takes 4½ hours passing through some lovely villages that could only be French, and see some fantastic chateaux. We are driving through the Loire valley so there are lots of vineyards.

We stop just outside Angers at a Carrefour shopping centre to get more provisions and have Galettes at a small Creperie – snails with garlic fried potatoes for M (fab) and artichoke and cheese for C (I like it – he’s not so impressed) but no cider this time as we have a long shared drive ahead.

We get to Poitiers around 4-30pm and the sun is shining. If only this had been the weather in Normandy. Our hotel is another motel styled place about 4 miles from town. We head into Poitiers early evening for a mooch and a beer in the Place Charles DeGaulle (which is typically French) and are so glad we didn’t plan to stay longer. It’s a nice provincial town but nothing special.

Having brought too much food we finish it off with a ‘Picnic supper’ in our room again (sad but the town hasn’t the charm for a picnic).

The Dordogne (Caroline says it’s like the Cotswolds with French bits!)

The drive to the Dordogne takes about 3.5hours, though we don’t start off too well due to poor signage and end up on a Toll road to do a ½ hour loop to get back to exactly where we started at a princely sum of Euro 1.10. Eventually we make it onto the right road system and make our way down south.

The countryside is very green and there’s plenty of farmland, rustic French life and signs of spring everywhere. We decide to make a few stops following tips from The Telegraph’s Travel top 10 places to visit in the region.

a) Brantome

This is our first stop & we are in time for breakfast. It’s a pretty picture postcard village which is on an island surrounded by the river Dronne (hence its “aka” Venice of Perigord – which is really stretching it). Definitely worth a short stop for a break and if you fancy take the ‘Gondola’ boat ride around the village – 50 mins. It has 5 medieval bridges and romantic riverside architecture. The impressive abbey is built into the mainland cliff-face.

b) Perigueux

This is the regional centre (founded by Gallic Tribes), and we just about make it to see the end of the local weekly market. It’s held in the square in front of the Cathedral. It’s a great location for some lunch so – as we are in Perigord, Pastis to drink (our first try – not bad - a bit like Greek Ouzo) with Cassoulet with Confit Duck – really nice.

Then it’s a short walk around the charming old city (which has lots of reminders of the Roman presence) with remnants of medieval architecture, Renaissance mansions and Gothic Cathedral St - Front. Perigeux has quite a lot to offer so a half day visit at least is worth it. We are now in ‘The Hundred Years War’ Territory – between the English & French for supremacy of the country. We guess we know who won in the end.

Driving down to our campsite, we notice the countryside scenery changing and pass a lot of very pretty villages – a hall mark of this part of the world. One such is St Cyrien. The area also has associations with ‘The Pilgrimage to Santiago de la Compostela’ and The Knights Templar – many of whom were incarcerated in the Castles around the region.

Beynac-et-Cazenac

This is where we are based for the next 5 days. We have decided to try a Eurocamp Safari Tent – with mod cons including heating (which we have to use as it’s really cold at night), internet, fridge freezer, BBQ etc and awesome views of the Chateau on the cliff top overlooking the river and the campsite. It’s quite spectacular having our meals on the ‘Veranda’ with a view.

The village & neighbouring area is known for having some of the most dramatic landscapes in the Dordogne, with the two castles at Beynac & Castlenaud facing off each other across the river Dordogne. The village itself is quite charming and worth walking through. Also at the top is the Chateau de Beynac is well worth a visit to get a sense of the history of the place and some awesome views of the surrounding area. The Chateau remained fiercely loyal to France other than a brief spell under Richard the Lionheart.

We have breakfasts in (best croissants in the world from the shop outside the campsite - Le Delice de la Vallee – and their baguettes are pretty good too), picnic lunches or dinner and one evening BBQ an enormous aged Cote de Bouef from the local L’Eclerc Supermarket (near Sarlat). It was absolutely fabulous and of course we start enjoying the incredibly affordable but great quality wines of the region and country, and some Pastis from the region - not quite as good a Ricard though.

c) Domme

Is a very small village just past La Roque-Gageac. It’s on a hill top that provides 360° panoramic views of the Dordogne and well worth visiting as its designated as one of the most ‘Beautiful Villages’ (plus beaux village) in France – even if you have to pay 3 euros for parking. The village needs the income and does a great job of keeping the place attractive for visitors.

It was founded in 1281 by Phillipe III of France as a defensive fort against the English and retains most of it’s 13th century ramparts and gateways. There’s also a tower where many of the Knights Templar were imprisoned awaiting trial. The views from Du Belvedere are spectacular across the region.

We were luck to be there on market day which added to the charm of it and whilst there were a lot of visitors, it’s resisted the temptation of tacky souvenir shops. There are a lot of arts and crafts shops and galleries and a few places to eat.

After some unplanned shopping (caramelised walnuts – a regional speciality, 2 table cloths, strawberries) and coffee, we set off back to base camp.

d) La Roque Gageac

Another of the designated ‘most beautiful villages of France’, on the Dordogne river with amber stone buildings (many now restaurants, and arts & craft shops), climbing up the cliff side above which is a Troglodytic fort built in the cliff face with cave houses that remind us of the Mesa Verde cave dwellers in the USA.

A key attraction is a river boat trip on a Gabarre (old style log transporter) now modernised to take tourists on an hour long trip up and down the river giving a history lesson on the two main castles – Beynac & Castlenaud.

e) Sarlat-la-Caneda

This town is the most populated in the area and other than it’s historic interest, architecturally impressive medieval buildings and cultural roots, it is the centre of Perigord cuisine – Duck & Goose (on most menus), Foie Gras (cheap), Cassoulet, Truffles, Wild Boar, Walnuts and Bergerac wines. Fabulous.

The town is a picturesque tangle of honey coloured buildings, alleyways, and squares. It also has the regions best architecture. We drive in a few times and book for dinner on our last night at Le Bistrot Octroi that comes highly rated on Trip Advisor. We go for the duck foie gras medley, goose and duck confits for mains, with some good local wine and a lovely dessert. A fabulous treat for us.

Saturday in Sarlat is special, as it market day & everyone is out in force from 8.30am. We manage (fortuitously, and totally by chance) to find a parking space and one where we don’t have to pay. We walk into town down the main drag – Rue de la Republique, which is full of stalls, selling anything from linen clothes to handbags, cheese to retro posters. It’s lively and an interesting experience. We stop at a Jambon shop selling awesome wild boar ham cured with juniper which we buy some of.

What’s interesting about the market is the fact that all those with produce are happy to give you a taste of their product; even the foie! The market takes up most of the main area till 1pm when those in the Place de Liberte pack up and leave but the others stay till 6pm.The stalls around the Place de Liberte are mainly local produce, and the cafes are full with people enjoying some food, coffee or drinks, and watching the world go by, which we also do eventually.

There’s a small spectacular looking covered market in a grand old church building which is impressive, as are the medieval buildings surrounding it and the small square with the sculpture of 3 geese, symbols of the region. For lunch we have some duck gizzards & potatoes from a small food van. Fabulous to taste and great value.

f) Castlenaud

This was an English occupied Castle during the ‘100yrs War’ and is about 5kms from Beynac across a lovely multi arch bridge which crosses the Dordogne river (a great spot for a photograph). The Castle stands high above on the hill top surrounded by the quaint medieval village. It’s worth a walk up into the village to get a better and closer view of the castle. It’s picture postcard stuff again.

g) Rocamadour – not strictly in The Dordogne but in The Lot region

It’s Sunday and the weather is the best we’ve had since we have been here. The sun is shining and a few hot air balloons go up around us for folks to get great views of the castles and river around here. We considered a ride but at about 260 Euros each we decide to give it a miss.

We set off for Rocamadour early to get there before the tourist crush – also it’s bank holiday weekend for the French as Monday is a holiday (with most things closed) as it’s Pentecost weekend. The drive to the town isn’t particularly interesting or noteworthy.

We do however, have fantastic views of the town from the road opposite as we drive in. Fortunately, as it’s early we get a parking space at the bottom the town and walk up! We spend the morning wandering around then go for coffee at a good local café.

We are pretty glad to have got here early as it gets very busy as the day goes on. The French are also out in force with their families to enjoy the sunny day at a ‘holy’ place as Rocamadour is a venerated place for pilgrimage. It has a statue of The Virgin, and history tells the story of Henry Plantagenet (1133-89), King of England & Count of Anjou, being miraculously cured here. We visit the shrine and go up into the church where a service is in progress – the choir’s singing is quite something to hear; very professional and the sound is fabulous in the church. Later we walk part way up the route of the ‘Stations of the Cross’ and get great views of the area.

We buy a great rustic style baguette with ham, cheese & tomato (made to order) and have a picnic at L’Hospitalet – the neighbouring village with awesome views across the valley of Rocamadour. Then it’s back to our campsite to pack up and go out for dinner.

The South West of France – The Pyrenees

Pau

It’s an early start after buying a baguette for lunch/dinner, just in case restaurants are closed, as it’s a bank holiday in France and many places are not expected to open. The drive to Pau is not bad – again off the Toll Roads and we enjoy the changing countryside scenes as we approach The Pyrenees.

On arrival in Pau, we somehow feel that the place is so much bigger than we recall when we last visited. As it’s a Bank Holiday we drive easily into the centre of the town and find a parking spot (free) by the Cathedral & Town Square. It’s an easy walk into & around town from here. As expected most shops are closed as are many eating places bar a few cafes on the outer fringes.

They have a ‘grand prix’ set up in the town – clearly a tourist marketing event and there are a few marquees up and music playing near the Chateau end of town across from the old station across the valley. As there’s not much to do and it’s a lovely sunny day we go for a beer at one of the café’s while soaking up some sunshine. We have a picnic lunch in the square and then set off to Lourdes, about 45mins drive away.

We are staying at an obscure little out of town motel (Quick Palace) – basic, but clean, comfortable and cheap for the night.

In the evening, we go back for dinner and decide on La Vintage Brasserie (in a small square at the side of The Chateau) – it’s just opposite Chez Olive where we enjoyed a fabulous meal the last time but it was closed, as were many eateries that night. We did however, have a fabulous meal with Veal Chop & Entrecote Steak – both good, washed down with a bottle of Madiran (the local wine).

Lourdes – special place of pilgrimage for Catholics to Our Lady’s Shrine

We drive into the Centre of Lourdes town, and find parking easy. However, the Santuaires Notre Dame de Lourdes (or Grotto as they refer to it here) is about 15mins walk away. The towns position is quite lovely in a valley surrounded by The Pyrenees mountains.

The Church and Grotto area are much busier than the last time we were here and we are surprised at how many shops (mostly selling tacky souvenirs) & hotels there are around the town supported entirely by the ‘pilgrimage industry’ here. We also notice a beautiful large fort (it’s a Chateau Fort – now a Museum) across the way that M hadn’t ‘noticed’ before in all his visits here – even when he was here with his parents in the 1990s.

The area in front of the Basilicas is very impressive, as are the two Basilicas both outside and inside. We make our way to the to the main shrine (Grotte de Massabielle aka The Grotto), where it is believed that Mary, the mother of Jesus, appeared to a simple 14-year-old shepherd girl, Bernadette Soubirous 18 times, in 1858. We join the short, well organised, queue (much shorter than we expected given the number of pilgrims) then light some candles at the area designated for this. It’s a huge area with candles of various sizes – some the size of tree trunks. After filling our bottles with the Holy water and taking loads of pics, we head back to Pau.

Bayonne (French Basque Country)

It’s another early start to get to Bayonne in time for breakfast, and onto San Sebastian in Spain for lunchtime. Unfortunately, the drive through the country roads is particularly slow (too many roundabouts – seems like it’s the French way to control traffic speed & flow), so we decide to join the Toll road which is running alongside, and we make good time.

We drive into the centre of the area known as Petite Bayonne by the old city Ramparts and walk across the river to the local covered market and are struck by how many homes have Basque flags flying outside them. We hadn’t connected this area with the Basque region. The buildings are well preserved, mainly 4 stories tall, timber framed and look very beautiful. This is a seriously pretty town and we could do with spending more time and experiencing this region of France. We can feel another trip coming on!



At a café by the market we enjoy an awesome cocotte (eggs baked with boudin noir) and walk around the lovely quaint market and decide to buy some Bayonne ham to take with us. Then it’s back on the road and hit the Motorway as it’s the fastest and easiest way across from France to Spain. So au revoir France……it’s been fun.


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11th July 2016
Lovely La Roque Gageac

Yummy journey!
I was transported back to France through your descriptions of the lovely, local delicacies you enjoyed! So brilliant to have a car for following scenic back roads, for visiting the charming small towns, and for glamping! I visited many of these same spots, but on public buses and in hostels only; thus, I couldn't do justice to the Dordogne as you did. Congratulations on selling and downsizing--more time and money for travel!

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