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Dordogne and Pays Basque, advice on itinerary

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I’ve been a loyal reader of the France forums for a few years now but this is my first time posting a question. I’m finalizing my third trip to France for Sept 15-October 4 this year. The general route has been decided for a while but I am interested in hearing any advice on specifics and also on what I should set up in advance and what I can wing when I get there.

I’m a mid-50s solo traveler and my interests are landscape photography/watercolor and food/culture. Three years ago I spent a week in Provence when I joined up with a group tour a friend set up for her college photo students. It was more structured than I like to be when I travel, but I saw a lot of the area in a short time. Two years ago I spent two weeks in Paris with a weekend trip to Upper Normandy, which was the highlight of that trip. I stayed in Honfleur, spent a glorious day at Etretat and drove back through Giverny.

For this trip I have an opportunity to do a four-day cooking course in Gascony (at a price I can not pass up) so it’s the anchor of the trip and since I couldn’t choose between Dordogne and Pays Basque I’m doing both via a loop that starts and ends in Toulouse and in between heads north first, then down the coast and scoots across the Pyrenees then back out of Toulouse.

I land in Toulouse on a Friday afternoon. Friday night thought Sunday evening will simply be about getting acclimated. Sunday night through Wednesday dinner will be three full days at the Gascony Cookery School in Gramond doing a Fish and Shellfish course they are testing.

Wednesday, my Day 6, is my last day of the cooking course. I plan to leave late after dinner and don’t want to drive too far so I am heading north only as far as the Lot Valley (about 1.5 hr if we trust Google). I’ll arrive at my hotel in Vers late on Wed and stay one more night so I get a full day to explore the north side of the river. I’ll be avoiding St. Circ Lapopie (I’ve read everything StCirc’s written on this forum and am completely willing to believe her on that particular issue)

From here forward I will take any advice you’ve got:
Day 7 : North side of Lot Valley where I plan to visit the Pech Merle caves and go up through Cabrerets and the Cele valley looking for nice vistas to photograph. I’d also like to get out of the car and do some walking.

Day 8 drive north to where I am staying in Les Eyzies. Plan to spend a good bit of time in Sarlat before arriving at the hotel. Interested to know if I should stop anywhere else on the way up. I’m planning on skipping Rocmadour on the good advice of this forum.

Days 9, 10, 11 are all Dordogne with the following as general structure
One day around Beynac-et-Cazenac, La Roque-Gageac, Les Jardins de Marqueyssac, Domme
One day around Tremolat, Cloître de Cadouin, Lalinde
One day heading north to St Genies, St Amand de Coly, St Crepin, and possibly Hautefort
Question: is it worth trying to get one of the hot air balloon rides, or is that a tourist trap? As a
photographer getting away from the roads and up high is always a goal

Day 12: I decided to spend one night in St. Emillion so I will be up early and spend part of the day in Bergerac, then park the car and explore St. Emillion town by foot with a nice dinner and wine to close out the Dordogne portion of the trip.

Day 13: South to Pays Basque. I’d like to get to Arcachon if it’s a nice day but I really want to spend as much of this day in Bayonne as possible. I’m staying in Cambo les Bains for three nights (good price on a hotel) and this part of the itinerary really depends on whether I decide I need to go to the Guggenheim or not.

Day 14-15: if I decide to go to Bilbao my plan is to get there as early as possible, see the museum in the morning then stop in San Sebastian on the way back maybe dine in St Jean du Luz. The other day will likely be in St. Jean Pied de Port and environs. If I don’t go to Bilbao I’d like some more time in Bayonne/Biarritz.

From here I have a series of single nights to break up the drive back to Toulouse, also to spend some time high up in the Pyrenees.
Day 16 Maybe stop in Pau on the way to “Grand Hotel de France” in Pierrefitte-Nestalas. Explore and look for a nice alpine walk, perhaps take the little train ride in the mountains
Day 17 Quick stop in Lourdes on the way out for kitchy presents then to “La Maison du Parc” in Lacave for my last evening. If I’m not in sensory overload I will seek out a nice dinner in Saint-Lizier, otherwise dine at the hotel and relax.
Day 18 Last full day. Either explore the Pyrenees a bit more until the last 1-hour drive to the Airport hotel, or head in earlier and see a bit of Toulouse. Depends on whether I am in the mood for civilization or more mountain vistas
Day 19, up early, drop off car and catch the 10:30 flight home.

Overall it’s ambitious, but I think it’s manageable. Thoughts?

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