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Trip Report Hausfrau's Berner Oberland - Rhone - Dordogne - Massif Central - Picardie Trip Report

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Because elliottp asked me to (little did he know what he was asking), I am going to list my itinerary from my late October Switzerland/France trip with DH and DP (that's Dear Parents) below. If you want to hear more, let me know! (You know I'll post it, it just might take a while. ;-))

1 – Stuttgart to Kandersteg, Switzerland (Hotel Adler)
2 – Hike around Oeschinensee, night in Kandersteg
3 – Train from Interlochen to Kleine Scheidegg, night in Kandersteg
4 – Kandersteg to Rhone Valley (La Treille Muscate, Cliousclat)
5 – Tour Rhone Valley, night in Cliousclat
6 – Rhone Valley to Domme, Dordogne Valley (L’Esplanade)
7 – Dordogne (La Roque Gageac, Castlenaud) night in Domme
8 – Dordogne (Jardins de Marqueyssac, Beynac) night in Domme
9 – Dordogne (Sarlat, Les Cabanes de Breuil) night in Domme
10 – Dordogne to Massif Central (Ma Cachette, Arlanc)
11 – Le Puy en Velay, night in Arlanc
12 – Arlanc to Clermont Ferrand to Puy de Dome to St. Nectaire (Hotel Mercure)
13 – Massif Central, night in St. Nectaire
14 – Massif Central to Picardie (stay with friends in Amiens)
15 – with friends, night in Amiens
16 – Bay of the Somme, night in Amiens
17 – Home to Stuttgart

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    Ummmmm...sorry if I've committed some sort of faux pas, but I've seen many people inlude their name in the title of trip reports. This is only my second report, and I've only done it so that people who have helped me out (or asked for the report, in this case) might actually see it in the deluge of posts.

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    hi, Hausfrau,

    take no notice of the OP- s/he's just being picky.

    Because of previous contacts, i am always pleased to see a post/new thread from you, and look forward very much to reading more, particularly the swiss bit as though we've been skiing there, we've never done any walking.

    regards, ann

    regards, ann

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    The participants: me, my husband (DH), my mom (DM), and my dad (DD). DH and I live in Stuttgart; DM & DD were visiting from the States
    The transport: our own car, with Susie, our navigation unit
    The agenda: scenic walks, gorgeous vistas, medieval villages, all manner of castles, and really good food & wine!

    By the time we actually got the car loaded up and underway it was 12:30 pm, but fortunately it was only about a four-hour drive from Stuttgart to our destination: Kandersteg, Switzerland. I drove for a nice long unlimited-speed stretch on the A81 and then turned the wheel over to DH. It was a beautiful, clear fall day and we drove through gorgeous rolling countryside and forested hills just beginning to show autumn colors. Once we we got into Switzerland there was lots of traffic, no scenery, and interminably low speed limits as we skirted Zürich and Bern. Finally we left the city behind and headed up into the mountains. I began to recognize the lush green slopes, postcard perfect chalets, and rocky crags of the Bernese Oberland, which I hadn’t seen in over fifteen years.

    We arrived in Kandersteg (population 1,200, elevation 1,200 meters, located at the end of a narrow valley southeast of Bern) in the early evening and drove down the main street until we found the Hotel Adler, a classic Swiss chalet. Our friends found this hotel years ago when they lived in Germany, and my family stayed there on my first trip to Europe in 1990. I remembered its intricately carved wood façade and simple, comfortable rooms, along with the view out the back windows over the train station to the horn-shaped mountain in the distance. DM and DD went for a walk before dinner and reported that the locals still walk their milk cows down the main street in the evening on the way home from their pastures.

    We had dinner in the Adler’s dining room, which has been significantly expanded and renovated since we were here last. DH and I had a delicious venison dish accompanied by red cabbage, roasted chestnuts, stuffed pears, and spätzli. DM had another venison dish and DD had a three-course menu consisting of a dried beef plattter, fondue, and a funny meringue dessert. His fondue was to die for so I vowed to try it if we ate at the restaurant again.

    Next: Hiking around Oeschinensee

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    Our first day in Switzerland dawned bright and balmy – perfect hiking weather. We had a simple breakfast of cold cuts, cheese, and breads at the hotel and then set off. One of Kandersteg’s biggest attractions is its proximity to a gorgeous glacial lake called Oeschinensee, which can be reached by hiking up a steep gravel road or, more sensibly, by taking a 10-minute Sesselbahn (chairlift) ride up the side of the mountain. It took about fifteen minutes to walk from our hotel to the chairlift, where we bought roundtrip tickets (19 CHF pp, and the hotel gave us a discount card). The double chairlift is unique because the chairs hang sideways, so you get to look at the valley spilling out beneath your feet. The lift operators offer you a heavy wool blanket to lie over your lap if you think you will get cold. We all stood at the top for a few minutes and enjoyed the clear view across the valley. The mountains across from us sparkled in gray, gold, and green under brilliant blue skies with just a few wisps of cloud, while Kandersteg was still hidden in shadow far below.

    It’s a twenty-minute walk across a broad alpine pasture and through a bit of forest to the small cluster of restaurants and hotels at the lakeshore. The opaque turquoise waters of Oeschinensee came into view between the evergreen boughs and I knew we were in for a great day. I purchased a bottle of water at the restaurant and then all four of us set off on the hiking trail that skirts the left side of the lake. I had set my sights on hiking to a Hütte on the far side of the lake – maybe about 2 miles away. Swiss hiking is very civilized in that many popular hiking routes have as their destination (in addition to some remarkable scenic vista) a well-appointed “hut,” usually consisting of a simple restaurant offering drinks and comfort food, toilet facilities, and sometimes a rustic hostel-style lodge where you can spend the night.

    The trail followed the lakeshore at first, then began climbing up along a broken rock face that cascades in a series of shelves and terraces down to the lake. Along the way we enjoyed the views of snow-capped peaks, hanging glaciers, a little waterfalls all around us. Eventually DM and DD turned back to return to the lakeshore for lunch. DH and I forged on ahead, determined to make it to the Hütte. As we approached the far end of the lake the trail flattened out a little, traversing a wooden footbridge over a gurgling stream that tumbled down a boulder-strewn hillside above us. We looked straight up at jagged gray cliffs, interspersed with patches of orange-gold grass, all quite dramatic against a perfect blue sky. A few cottony clouds rolled in and bumped up against the cliffs high above us. We encountered only a handful of people on the trail today; I remembered reading that the chairlift was scheduled to close the next day, presumably not to reopen until the skiing season begins in December.

    Finally we arrived at the Hütte, where the friendly blonde proprietress was sitting in the sun reading a book. She greeted us and immediately offered us her table, which had the best view. It was warm enough for a T-shirt but cool enough to enjoy a bowl of hearty barley soup and sausage. We had fun talking to the waitress, who spoke Swiss German (a little hard to follow, but we got the general idea). It was hard to leave our comfortable spot on the deck, but we wanted to explore a bit more above the hut before heading back. We hiked past an abandoned cabin and stopped on a grassy shelf of rock that ended in a sheer wall dropping away to the lake far below. Amazingly, we could see that the trail continued along the cliff face by virtue of a chain strung between metal poles, but we weren’t up for that sort of adventure today. We sat in the grass for a while, taking in the view, before returning back the way we had come.

    This is a great day trip for anyone who wants to do some light hiking. For heartier souls, you can hike up a very steep, rocky slope to the Freundenhütte (sp??) perched high on a ridge on the opposite side of the lake.

    Back down on the valley floor, the afternoon light, billowing clouds, gold-tinged trees, and pastoral scene of cows, rustic fences, and barns made for some memorable photographs. We passed by a beautiful stone church and took a stroll through town, stopping to buy some wine and pastries at a little market before heading back to the hotel.

    We decided to try the Café Schweizerhof just down the street for dinner. (Some places were closed – the whole town was pretty quiet since this is the low season between summer hiking and winter skiing.) The menu looked interesting but when we walked in, the entire waitstaff was hanging out at a back table smoking, and they all looked up at us as if we had interrupted their good time. We felt really awkward but I figured that any other place might be just as dead, so we settled in at a table. A couple of other parties did eventually come in, but it was by no means a busy Saturday night in Kandersteg. I asked our friendly waitress right at the start if they took credit cards; she said no, so I had to run out and visit an ATM machine down the street since we hadn’t gotten any Swiss Francs yet. DD and I had steak with delicious “fried” mushroom ravioli, DM had veal with a creamy morel sauce, and DH had a huge portion of venison and rösti (a traditional Swiss dish of shredded, fried potatoes topped with bacon, cheese, and onions)…I can’t say that Swiss food is very healthy, but it sure is delicious!

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    We planned to spend our second full day in Switzerland driving to Lauterbrunnen (that should read Lauterbrunnen, not Interlochen, in my original itinerary post) and taking the cog train up to Kleine Scheidegg. We got going quickly enough after breakfast and were probably about twenty miles down the valley from Kandersteg when our car’s tire pressure warning sounded. We pulled over at a gas station, which was closed, it being Sunday, but fortunately one of those nifty portable tire pressure canisters that they have in Europe was just sitting out next to the pumps. DH checked the pressure in all of the tires and found the one that was low…then we found the giant screw that had driven itself into the right rear tire. Just our luck, to get a flat tire on the second day of a two-week road trip. We had no idea when it had happened, so we didn’t know if we had a slow leak or if it was going to go flat in the next mile. DH pumped up the tire and we decided to drive towards Lauterbrunnen and hope for an open gas station. Fortunately we came to a BP station in short order, but it did not have any sort of maintenance facility attached to it. DH and I went inside and DH told the lady behind the counter that we had a nail in our tire, and was there someone we could call to get help. She procured a binder from under the counter, looked up the name of a roadside assistance service, and pointed out the number to us. Then, after looking us over for a moment, she reconsidered and asked if we’d like her to call for us. She did, and we went out to the car to wait.

    After about 20 minutes the Pannendienst (“break-down service”) showed up in the form of a bright yellow Land Cruiser. The mechanic was a grizzled but spry older man in a spiffy blue-and-gray jumpsuit who spoke German with a thick Swiss accent. DH showed him the offending screwhead and the mechanic set to work pulling it out and repairing the tire with a rubber plug. Partway into this process, a woman with a couple of kids in tow showed up, obviously acquainted with the mechanic, and he proceeded to have a ten-minute conversation with her while we were standing there trying not to look impatient. Finally he finished the job, explained his fee system, and wrote out a receipt for us. It cost 85 Swiss Francs (about $50). With this near-catastrophe averted and only about an hour of our day lost, we proceeded on to Lauterbrunnen without further incident. All I can say is that those tire pressure indicators are worth it.

    Lauterbrunnen is another mountain resort town, about twice the size of Kandersteg, and a major stop on the cog train route up to the high mountain hamlet of Kleine Scheidegg. As we drove into Lauterbrunnen, I distinctly remembered the lovely waterfall cascading several hundred feet down the white cliff face above town. The cliffs, waterfalls, and lush greenery of the Lauterbrunnen valley are said to have inspired J.R.R. Tolkien’s Rivendell, home of the Elves.

    We found the parking garage for the train station and went inside to purchase our tickets for the Wengernalpbahn – the world’s longest continous cogwheel railway (about 20 kilometers). A train was leaving in two minutes and the next one would not come for nearly an hour, so one of the workers waved us across the tracks and we boarded the train for the 45-minute ride up the mountain. The weather was once again spectacular – blue sky and wispy clouds framing an astonishing panorama of lush forested slopes tinged here and there with autumn gold, quaint chalets and ancient farmsteads, the occasional doe-eyed Swiss cow grazing placidly in an emerald green pasture, and of course the jagged snow-capped peaks of the Bernese Alps. The train stopped briefly in the traffic-free village of Wengen, then continued slowly up the mountainside. As we approached Kleine Scheidegg, the string of three famous peaks slowly came into view: Mönch, Jungfrau, and Eiger. The last time I was here, the mountaintops were completely shrouded in clouds and we could only see halfway up the famous “Wall” of the Eiger, so it was simply stunning to see them revealed in full sun. We disembarked at Kleine Scheidegg, which is a cluster of hotels and restaurants, a hiking base in the summer and a small ski area in the winter. From Kleine Scheidegg you can take a train that tunnels through the Eiger and the Mönch nine kilometers to the Jungfraujoch, the highest railway station in Europe, perched at 3,454 meters on an icy saddle of rock just below the Jungfrau.

    It was so warm that we ate lunch outside with an awesome view of the mountains and the Grindelwald valley sprawling out before us. We saw hardcore mountain bikers trundling up the trail below us, watched cog trains making their way up from Grindelwald and disappearing into the tunnel through the Eiger, and spotted a huge St. Bernard relaxing in the shade next to a nearby house. DH, DM and DD had variations on rösti and I had a sort of meatloaf with onion sauce. After lunch DM stayed at our lunch spot to read a book, DD took a short stroll, and DH and I went for a short but strenuous hike on a faint rocky trail up above Kleine Scheidegg. The landscape consisted of sparse grass turned golden brown, lichen-covered rocks, weather-beaten low-growing conifers, and some hardy sedums. We stopped at a lonely trail signpost and sat in the sun absorbing the view for a while. The train ride back down was equally spectacular, with the snow-covered slopes glowing bluish-white as the sun dropped low in the sky.

    We headed back to Kandersteg and were just in time to see some of the cows being brought in for their evening milking. Swiss cows wear these wonderful large brass bells around their necks (just like you’ve seen in the pictures), and they make a beautiful, vaguely mournful cling-clong sound as the cows amble along. The sound of those bells easily takes you back in time, and you realize that in some ways, life here has not changed much for the past few centuries.

    We ate at the Hotel Adler again – DD had a salad with smoked salmon and DM, DH and I had salads, the dried beef plattter, and fondue, which was so good (assisted by a generous dose of white wine), I think I might have just died and gone to heaven right there.

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    Hausfrau- we stayed (for our 2nd time) in Kandersteg (Victoria Ritter) last summer, and did the hike around the lake. It was so nice to re-live the visit through your wonderful descriptions. Thanks.

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    I am in the middle of reading your report but wanted to say how much I am enjoying it! You visited two places high on my list of "must visits", the Dordogne and the Berner Oberland!

    And I'm not sure what that post was about. I'm a regular and I've put my screen name in every one of my trip report titles. I've seen many others do it as well.


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    Before leaving Kandersteg, DH and I took a stroll through town while DD shopped for a watch. We saw an ancient wooden chalet with the year “1556” carved under its eaves; it had just been outfitted with a new roof, the brilliant blond wood of which stood out in stark contrast to the time-darkened beams below. Just about every traditional Swiss house or hotel sports some sort of message carved in an ornate script. They often tell who built the house, in what year, with a brief blessing asking for God’s protection. Even most of the new houses we saw were built in the traditional style and had these lovely carvings. We also came across an ancient wooden water wheel that presumably powered a mill at one time. On our way out of the valley we saw some authentic Swiss cows. I have no idea what breed of cow they are, but they have a certain mousey color to them, with large, velvety ears and round, doleful eyes. They’re the sweetest cows I’ve ever seen. I made DH pull over so I could jump out and take some pictures. As soon as I walked over to the fence, all of the cows in the field turned slowly to look at me with a sort of languid curiosity, and a couple of them actually started walking towards me. I felt so guilty, having nothing to offer them, so I snapped my pictures and hurried back to the car.

    Today’s agenda was to drive out of the Swiss Alps, enter France, skirt Lyon, and head south into the Rhône Valley. En route, we passed into the French portion of Switzerland, distinguished only by a sudden change of the road signs from German to French. Slowly the landscape transformed from alpine to Mediterranean – dark conifer forests, rugged mountains, and wooden chalets giving way to rolling hills dotted with chaparral-type vegetation and stone houses with terra cotta tiled roofs. We were well-stocked with a cooler full of crackers, cheese, salami, and fruit, so we ate lunch on the move.

    Our destination was a charming hotel called La Treille Muscate in the tiny village of Cliousclat, known for its pottery. The hotel is an ancient ivy-covered stone house with twelve rooms and a highly praised restaurant. I had read rave reviews about it on the Fodor’s board, and my Fodor’s France book describes it as the best place to stay between Lyon and Avignon. It is truly a diamond in the rough – Cliousclat is no more than a single narrow street of stone houses and shops about 15 miles south of Valence, nestled into a hillside with awesome views of the Rhône Valley (including a rather prominent nuclear power plant with four huge cooling towers). We managed to negotiate our car into the hotel’s private parking lot and were welcomed graciously by a lovely woman whom we believe is the Madame referred to in Fodor’s – at least she seemed to match the description of “the friendly owner, who speaks English fluently but politely refrains from doing so until you have exhausted your French.” She showed us to our charming rooms, each uniquely decorated with clay tile floors, colorful curtains, ethnic rugs, and plush, comfortable furnishings. DH and I chose the second-story room with a brown velvet-covered bed, rattan and leather furniture, a storybook balcony with valley view, and a rustic tiled bathroom, while DM and DD took the “basement” room with an attached sitting room and cozy garden patio.

    A storm was clearly brewing as we settled in – the wind was whipping across the valley in mighty gusts, and dark clouds were churning above. The hotel’s restaurant is closed on Mondays, so they had made a reservation for us at Chez Margot in the nearby town of Mirmande. We were among the first guests – it was a homey place with a very friendly waiter who amiably explained some of the menu items in English for us. We all ordered off the 26 Euro menu and were uniformly pleased. I had leek quiche with a green salad, followed by the lamb shank with potato gratin and sautéed cabbage and carrot, then coffee mousse with pralines for dessert. DM had a lovely chicken liver “gâteau”, the lamb shank, and a light dessert involving orange and grapefruit (we learned that “agrubes” refers to a mix of citrus). DD had ravioli in garlic sauce, pintade (a small gamebird) stuffed with olives, and he didn’t remember his dessert when I was recording our meal, so I guess it was not so memorable. DH had a brioche filled with egg, cheese and ham followed by a Mediterranean-inspired pastilla – phyllo pastry filled with lamb, eggplant, and zucchini with a spiced honey sauce, finishing a pear poached in wine. We all had the cheese course too, which was a disappointingly mild chèvre and a nice St. Marcellan. We returned to the hotel and settled in for the night with the wind howling in the trees.

    Next: A Drive Through the Rhône Valley & Shopping for Pottery

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    hi, hausfrau,

    great report- I've always wondered what the swiss alps are like in the summer, and now I know!

    One of my frustrations is the the only way I can get spaetzle in england is to make them myself - never quite the same, somehow.

    and I love your description of switzdeuscht - i always thinkit's like german spoken with a strong welsh accent!

    keep it coming,

    regards, ann

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    What a wonderful description of your hike at one of my favorite places, Oeschinensee. For those who would like to see photos, navigate around the "Nature" and "Activities" areas of this website:

    Click on either the English of German words ("Blue, Clear Wonderful") to get the menu.

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    Agreeing with everyone above (including schuler's comment!!). Fantastic report. You have a flair for travel writing. I loved the general descriptions and references such as: "at least she seemed to match the description of “the friendly owner, who speaks English fluently but politely refrains from doing so until you have exhausted your French.”"!!

    Consider submitting it to some travel magazine for publication :) Or put a website up.

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    Thanks everyone for the votes of confidence so far! I know these are long but that's how I write 'em!

    Annhig, we adore Switzerland (DH loved it because he could use his German) and definitely recommend it for all outdoors-lovers! I agree about spaetzle - haven't tried it to make it myself yet!

    Tracy, the Dordogne and Berner Oberland are not to be missed. Two of my favorite places in the world!

    Schuler, if I squint and think about the sounds, I can understand you fine, just don't ask me to write anything! :-)

    Hope you enjoy...

    It had poured overnight but amazingly we awoke to blue skies and sunshine. Breakfast was very nice – in addition to the traditional bread and croissants we had our choice of cold cuts and cheese, yogurt, and hard-boiled eggs. (It’s welcoming to see that the French are beginning to expand their ideas about breakfast to include some protein.)

    On today’s agenda was an abbreviated tour du Rhône – a convoluted loop along the west side of the valley through the towns of Annonay and Tournon. First we crossed the river and headed north on the two-lane highway paralleling the west bank while I mapped out a scenic drive towards Annonay. En route we stopped to admire an ancient single-arched stone bridge over a small Rhône tributary, then climbed up to a high plateau above the river. We drove through Annonay but it didn’t seem all that charming, so we continued back to Tournon, where we thought we would check out the substantial 15th-century Château Tournon. Unfortunately we arrived during the lunch break, so we wandered around for a half-hour waiting for it to reopen. We were apparently the first visitors of the afternoon, because the man walked us across the huge, empty stone courtyard to a massive wooden door and unlocked it with a large metal key, closing it and locking it behind us! Apparently we’d be exiting somewhere else. The castle was largely unfurnished but had some interesting artwork and medieval artifacts relaying the local history, as well as a prison with about ten locks on the door and some medieval “grafitti,” but the feature attraction was the lovely view of the river from the garden terrace next to the chapel. From there we had a glorious view of the old town below, the surrounding granite hills, the famous Hermitage vineyards, and a hazy purple panorama of mountains off in the distance – we could see all the way back to the Alps in one direction, and thought we could make out the fuzzy outline of Mont Ventoux to the south.

    We had a picnic lunch in the sun along the banks of the river. Fodor’s mentioned a scenic drive out of Tournon, so we proceeded to Place Jean-Jaurès and looked for the signs for the Route Panoramique. It was a bit of a wild goose chase as we saw one sign, went up a dubious-looking narrow road, and lost our way. I pointed out a road that seemed to head up and out of town, and suddenly we were back on track again. We then followed another set of signs along an equally dubious-looking two-track out to a spectacular lookout, where we confirmed our sighting of Mont Ventoux. Supposedly we could also see Mont Blanc to the east, although we could not quite pick it out against the haze. We continued along the narrow, twisting road through rolling countryside, through the village of St-Romain-de-Lerps, and then descended back to the valley floor alongside the ruins of the 12th-century Château de Crussol.

    We had enough time in the afternoon when we got back to Cliousclat to do some pottery shopping. There were three or four galleries open; the one called Poterie du Fer Rouge was our favorite and features the work of Christophe Josserand, whose home and studio are attached to the gallery in an ancient yellow stone building. I purchased a lovely vase from him. The other shop we liked was a large place on the edge of town near our hotel, with massive quantities of reasonably-priced, everyday earthenware in shades of gold, green, rust, and blue. After browsing for a while it became clear to us that something was very wrong – people kept coming into the store who obviously knew the proprietress and they all looked incredibly sad; several were obviously crying. We had a few questions about the pottery and a young woman who had wandered in (a friend of the woman running the shop) offered to help us, even though she didn’t work there. She spoke some English and was very friendly. Finally when DM and I had made our selections, she told us what was going on. A woman from the village had been out collecting mushrooms that afternoon and was accidentally shot and killed by a man (another local, I think) hunting for wild boar. The woman left behind two young children, and the tragedy had obviously rocked this small village, which I’m sure is like an extended family. We felt terrible – we thanked the woman for telling us what had happened, purchased our pottery and left quickly, just as an old man arrived in tears to be comforted by friends and family.

    That night we ate dinner in the hotel dining room, and despite the local tragedy, the atmosphere was not noticeably subdued, as most of the guests were likely from out of town. We all ordered off the 28 Euro menu and we gave the place high marks all around. The “taste of the chef” was a tiny cup of delicious cauliflower soup sprinkled with nutmeg. I had foie gras with dried fruit chutney and pine nuts, beef pavé with mushroom cream sauce, mushroom flan, and mashed potatoes (I love mushrooms so this went over very well), and an imaginative dessert of chocolate fondant with baked banana and a spiced cookie crust. DH had the foie gras, magret de canette (duck) with cauliflower purée, and pear gratin with sabayon (custard sauce). DM also had the foie gras (do you sense a trend?), the duck, and the chocolate fondant. DD had ris de veau (veal sweetbreads), lamb with a carrot tart spiced with cumin, and tiramisu with fresh fruit.

    Next: Westward to the Dordogne

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    schuba, please know that I indulge very rarely.

    We said a fond farewell to La Treille Muscate in the morning and stopped in Mirmande (where we ate dinner on Monday night) to have a look around. The village literally tumbles down the hillside in a mass of stone walls and tile roofs, with crazy twisting stairways and secret nooks around every corner. I quickly made my way up to the top of the hill, which is crowned by an ancient stone church, and took in the incredible view of the valley out over the tiled rooftops.

    Our next destination was the Dordogne Valley, and to get there we had to cut across the Massif Central – the vast, sparsely populated region in the very center of France. We would be returning to this region after our visit to the Dordogne, and the landscape definitely looked intriguing. We circled around the north side of the Puy-de-Dôme, an extinct volcanic peak, and had some navigational difficulties because we ended up on a brand new freeway that was not in Susie’s memory banks. Let’s just say that Susie was very, very confused. For a while we were just a black arrow wandering aimlessly across a field of gray, with no roads in sight. Every time a road appeared within a few kilometers of our location, Susie desperately encouraged us to proceed towards it. When we didn’t obey her instructions, she would tell us to make a U-turn, and would then fall silent for a few minutes until the next road appeared in her sights. Finally we got back onto a highway that Susie recognized, and all was right with the world.

    I was doing the driving today, with DD as co-driver. Never having driven in the Dordogne before, I scarcely remembered the impossibly narrow road along the river, with sculpted limestone cliffs on one side and the riverbank falling away on the other. We crossed the river and climbed up the steep, switchbacking road to the bastide town of Domme, arriving at about six o’clock in the evening. Fortunately DM and DD had stayed at our hotel before – L’Esplanade – otherwise we might not have found it (apparently the town has laws against the posting of directional signs for hotels, which are quite typical in other French towns). We parked the car and were checked in by the kindly matron of the family. Our rooms were on the third floor, comfortable (and very, very pink) with good-sized bathrooms, but the real prize was the view of the Dordogne Valley stretching out below us. We quickly deposited our things and headed out to enjoy the evening – which turned out to be the prettiest sunset of our four-night stay. First we took in the magical valley panorama just a few feet from our hotel, then went for a walk around town. Domme is fairly mobbed with tourists during the day, but the combination of it being late October and late in the day meant that there were only a few other people wandering around. We watched the setting sun light up the stone walls of the ancient church and surrounding houses, then walked down the main street, which is lined with shops selling foie gras and pâté. We walked down to the public garden at the far end of town and watched the clouds turn a brilliant shade of magenta, reflected in the waters of the river far below us. As the light faded from the sky, we made our way back to the hotel for a memorable dining experience.

    Dinner in L’Esplanade’s gorgeous blue-and-yellow dining room definitely deserves the praises lavished upon it. This was the most elegant (and expensive) meal of our trip, the service was formal but friendly, and the presentation and food were impeccable. We ordered off the 40 and 47 Euro menus. The “taste of the chef” included chestnut soup with almond slivers, smoked ham on toast, salmon with aubergine caviar, and a mysterious square “cake” that tasted vaguely of yellow squash. Our meals were consistently excellent. DM had a fabulous mushroom and ham encroute with sautéed wild mushrooms and nuts, followed by venison stew accompanied by pasta with a cacao sauce (she couldn’t taste the cacao), and a trio of sorbets (cassis, raspberry, and mango). DD had smoked truite (actually salmon) four ways – rolled and stuffed with aubergine caviar, stuffed in a roasted pepper, rolled and stuffed with fresh chèvre, and another roll stuffed with a creamy herb filling, followed by steak with sautéed mushrooms and roasted potatoes, and a trio of chocolate desserts – ice cream, torte, and something that looked like a solid block of fudge. I had a foie gras terrine with citrus gelatin and red onion marmalade, langoustine ravioli with a delicate sauce of carrot and ginger, and chestnut mousse in a chocolate “box” with meringue, all of which were wonderful. DH had the truite appetizer, steak with a mushroom “patty” and arugula salad, and the “death by chocolate” dessert. My mouth is watering just thinking about all of this…If we hadn’t wanted to explore some other restaurants with our limited time, we would have considered eating here again.

    Next: La Roque-Gageac and Castelnaud

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    hi, hausfrau,

    if you carry on like this, they'll be selling your livers as foie gras substitute!

    we thought Domme a funny place - so touristy, that there's nothing left. But we weren't staying there so perhaps that is unfair. [there's a few places in Cornwall like that too!]

    looking forward to more,

    regards, ann

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    Hausfrau, Fabulous stuff as always. Please do continue.

    Schuby, I am pretty sure Massif is massive and/or a large mountain mass or compact group of connected mountains forming an independent range.

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    Hausfrau - I'm enjoying reading about your journey. We visited the Kandersteg area years ago, and I have beautiful memories of a lovely, still lake. It had been raining on and off on the day we visited, so we didn't explore much beyond that point; we have the area on a mental list to take our children to, and they'll love the places you walked/hiked to. And as we're returning to the Dordogne to visit this May, I'm enjoying, and looking forward to, that part of your trip. My mouth waters to read your description of your dinner at l'Esplanade!

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    annhig: beware, more foie gras ahead! ;-) I know what you mean about Domme, but it really is a different place at night. And keep in mind that this was the very end of October (which happens to be a gorgeous time to view the valley).

    Thanks all for the positive feedback!

    We awoke to look out our windows on a transformed world – a soupy gray fog completely masked the valley. We enjoyed a classic breakfast of flaky croissants and baguette at the hotel and did a little shopping in Domme before heading out for the day. A small market was set up in the main square so we bought some cheese, fruit, and wild boar salami for lunch. DM and I also did a little shopping at a cute clothing store in town. The fog had lifted by the time we set out, but it was a cloudy, hazy sort of day.

    Our first stop of the day was the picturesque riverside village of La Roque-Gageac. The image of this tiny town nestled along the river, with limestone cliffs rising above it, has been etched into my brain for the past seventeen years. I couldn’t get over seeing the very same ivy-covered stone houses (they have been standing for centuries, so I shouldn’t be surprised that they appear largely unchanged) and lovely gardens nestled up against the cliffs. La Roque-Gageac also has some impressive Troglodyte (cave-dwelling) ruins built into the cliffs. These had been restored since my last visit, because there is now an official entrance for the “Troglodyte Fort” and a sturdy wooden stairway built into the cliff, where I remembered there being only the shambles of a spindly metal staircase before. Unfortunately the place was all shuttered up and closed for the season. There were “private property” signs all over the place but we were able to wander around some of the ruins that were accessible from the street. La Roque-Gageac also has some Troglodyte houses that are still lived-in. They look like normal houses from the front, but within a few feet they merge with the cliff, and most of the dwellings are actually built into the cliffs. Someday I want to see inside one of these houses! We stopped and made a reservation at La Belle Étoile for tomorrow night. We ate a picnic lunch in the riverside park and then drove on to Castelnaud, following the signs to the visitor parking lot above the town.

    I have fond memories of Castelnaud – a massive medieval fortress perched on a limestone outcropping high above the Dordogne River. The Dordogne Valley has a storied history as a battleground between the French and the English, and in some cases fortresses only a few miles apart were held by opposing forces for years at a time. During the Hundred Years’ War (14th century), Castelnaud sat squarely on the divide between English Aquitaine and lands controlled by the French. Castelnaud remained under English control until 1442, when a final siege ordered by Charles VII of France led to the surrender of the castle in exchange for 400 gold crowns. The castle was fairly impregnable from the river, but was exposed on its northern side. For this reason a series of massive ramparts were constructed to protect the castle from attack, remnants of which still stand today.

    The castle has been carefully restored over the past forty years, since being listed as a historical monument in 1966. The main attraction is an impressive museum of medieval warfare, complete with several full-scale replicas of trebuchets and catapults mounted on the ramparts. It is worth buying the laminated explanatory brochure for a few Euros. An excellent self-guided tour takes you up dark spiral stairways and through voluminous thick-walled chambers. The exhibits include various cannons, an early “machine gun,” and an impressive collection of cross-bows. The museum also features several excellent short films that vividly recreate medieval warfare, castle construction, and armor fabrication. I was particularly impressed by the video and display detailing the creation of a knight’s suit of armor, outlining the painstaking process by which a block of layered metal is transformed into a single plate of armor. After touring the castle, we enjoyed the impressive albeit cloudy view of the valley from the ramparts, all the way from Beynac to La Roque-Gageac. The castle also has a thriving kitchen garden full of fragrant herbs.

    We drove back to Domme and wandered around for a bit looking for a place for dinner. We wanted to try Cabanoix & Chataigne, which had been highly recommended on Fodor’s, but when I called they said they would not be open until Saturday (my French failed me, but the woman on the phone was very nice and spoke some English). I made a reservation for Saturday and we walked around until we found a restaurant called Le Pot de Fer (The Iron Pot) just around the corner that looked cozy and promising.

    Our experience at Le Pot de Fer was marvelous – there was only one other family dining there that evening, so we pretty much had the place to ourselves. It is run by Patricia and Jean-Marc, a wonderful French couple who have been living in Belgium but decided to pursue their dream of opening a restaurant. They bought the building, an ancient stone structure with lovely arched windows, and live in the upstairs apartment. The dining room is tiny but they manage to stay afloat with just the two of them working one seating each night – Patricia as hostess/server and Jean-Marc as chef – although they do enlist some extra hands in the height of the summer season. They just opened this past spring and will return to Belgium for the winter.

    Despite a few rough spots, it was a wonderful meal. We started with generous kirs, except DM who, at the insistence of Patricia, tried the house aperitif – a mixture of Belgian herbal liqueur, orange juice, and gin, which was quite tasty. We ordered from the 26 Euro menu (which I think was the most expensive option – one of the lunch menus was as low as 11 Euro). DM, DH and I all had the warm foie gras – a generous portion, sliced and served piping hot with caramelized apples. Perfect. DD had a salad with goose gizzards and duck carpaccio which was also very good. DM, DD and I all had the magret de canard with orange sauce – again a huge portion and perfectly cooked – with a nice potato gratin. We agreed that the duck breast should be served sliced instead of whole (frankly we could have done with half the portion) and the sauce need to be reduced a touch more. DH had salmon with rice pilaf, which was just ordinary. For dessert DM had the house special, walnut cake, which was fabulous – a delicious light cake layered with whipped cream and chocolate. DD had sorbet, I had crème brulée, and DH had café ligeoise. Jean-Marc came out to meet us at the end of our meal and Patricia brought us a round of anise-flavored liqueur on the house. All in all it was a lovely evening and I really hope that this place is successful.

    Next: Les Jardins de Marqueyssac & Beynac

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    hi, hausfrau -

    looking forward to more, especially the gardens - our kids still talk about the description from our guide of French gardens as being "sensible" - as opposed to silly english ones, of course!

    regards, ann

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    hausfrau, I'm enjoying your report, especially the Dordogne sections, as it brings back pleasant memories of our two week stay in Sarlat last June. You are giving me lots of ideas of places to add to our list for next time. It's impossible to see everything in one visit; there's so much. Thanks for taking the time and trouble to post!

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    Hi Hausfrau, We meet in a new post! I am enjoying this report! It brings back memories of France for me. We loved the Dordogne and I remember a wonderful little town called Rocamadour (sp?)high up a winding road. We drove across France ten years ago, starting in Bordeaux. It was such a nice trip. We especially loved the Gorge du Tarn (sp?) which was breathtakingly beautiful. We stayed in a castle in the honeymoon suite, and were sad when we met a couple who was actually on their honeymoon,and told us that they had tried to book the suite, but it was already reserved,oops!
    Keep posting, I enjoy your writing too.

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    annhig, I'm hoping to see some of those silly English gardens this summer, of course! Frankly I've seen plenty of silly French gardens too. ;-)

    moolyn, there is no end to the fabulous things to see in the Dordogne! We were thrilled to find a few new ones on this trip.

    Hi again, koreaprincess! Funny story about the honeymoon suite! Despite considering myself fairly well-traveled in France, I have yet to see Rocamadour OR the Gorge du Tarn! So much to little time...

    Guess I should get back to writing Day 8...

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    Apologies for the length of this next entry, but I had to do justice to my favorite castle!

    It was another soupy morning, although this time the clouds thinned just enough so that we could see the river and lovely arched bridge peeking through the fog far below our window. We decided to wait for the fog to burn off before doing anything scenic. To fill the time we visited the big leather goods store along the river at Rouffillac-de-Carlux. On our way we stopped to take pictures of Château de Montford, an impressive castle perched on the river. Sadly it is not open to the public; I’ll never forget how we wandered around the castle walls for a long time on our first visit, trying to figure out how to get inside!

    By this time the fog had lifted and we decided to head to the Jardins de Marqueyssac. (We had bought tickets at Castelnaud that included entry to the gardens.) I remembered the Château de Marqueyssac from my previous visit as a distant, run-down looking castle that I took a picture of from the highway because, well, I take pictures of most every castle I see. Extensive renovation work has since been carried out, by the same people who restored Castelnaud, and the gardens were opened to the public in 1997. The château is a family estate dating back to the 17th century; the gardens were begun in the mid-1800s and feature both a formal garden and a sprawling forested park, all situated on a spur of limestone with a 360-degree panoramic view of the Dordogne Valley. We had a quick lunch out of our car in the parking lot and then climbed up to the terraced formal gardens to begin our tour. First we passed through the very nice gift shop, featuring garden-themed merchandise and a collection of small objets fashioned by a local wood turner out of boxwood harvested from the gardens.

    The château itself is relatively small (as châteaux go) but very pretty, with lavender-painted shutters and a gorgeous limestone roof purported to weigh 500 tons. A few rooms of the castle are open for viewing and have been furnished in late 19th-century style. While we were looking around, two peacocks came wandering out the open back door of the castle and pranced around the garden like they were the lord and lady of the place. In the “basement” there is a large empty room that has been wall-papered with thousands of pages of signed petitions opposing the construction of a four-lane highway through the Dordogne Valley.

    The formal garden includes a maze of boxwoods sculpted into sinuous shapes and whimsical topiaries. At one corner there is an aviary housing exotic pigeons and a nature pavilion with dioramas illustrating the “wild fauna of the Périgord.” The lower path through the park follows some impressively eroded limestone cliffs. The vegetation is decidedly Mediterranean in character, with lots of live oaks (or the European equivalent of live oaks) and olive trees. By this point it had become quite hot so we tried to stick to the shaded paths (who knew that it was going to be so hot in central France in late October?). All along the way, there is detailed signage (in French) pointing out the various plant and animal species indigenous to the area.

    At the far end of the park is a promontory called the Belvédère, from which you can view a broad swath of the Dordogne Valley all the way from La Roque Gageac to Castelnaud and, way off in the distance, the castles of Fayrac and Beynac. We made our way along a long, shady promenade past some art installations and a children’s play area to the Asile du poète (“Poet’s Hut”), a small stone thatched-roof hut marking the far corner of the property, then took the Grande Allée )a lovely, straight promenade 500 meters long) back to our starting point. Back at the castle we enjoyed a much-needed ice cream break on the shaded terrace, taking in the incredible view of Beynac.

    And now to Beynac…the castle that may very well have launched my obsession with all things medieval back in my tender teenage years. Beynac is a tiny village clustered at the base of a sheer cliff along the Dordogne River and possessing one of the most awe-inspiring castle vistas in all of France. We were a little worried about climbing up to the castle with it being so hot, so we decided to take the easy way out and drove up, entering the castle through the imposing gatehouse. (Once again, the laminated brochure sold at the ticket office is excellent.)

    Beynac’s origins are lost in the distant past, but the name is known from 1115, when several lords of the Périgord region, including Mainard de Beynac, made gifts of land to found an abbey on the site. By 1194 (the year Richard the Lionheart returned from the Crusades), Beynac was a stone keep commanding a powerful position over the valley. In 1214, Simon de Montfort, with the backing of the King of England, took the nearby castles of Montfort, Domme, and Castelnaud by force, finally arriving at Beynac, which he fairly well destroyed. The Beynac family managed to retain control of the castle thanks to the intervention of the King of France. The Beynacs remained loyal to France throughout the Hundred Years’ War, which put them in a lengthy feud with neighboring Castelnaud. Unlike Castelnaud, Beynac was never attacked. Pons de Beynac was instrumental in driving the English out of Castelnaud for good in 1442. In the two centuries following, the Beynacs took part in many conflicts (the Wars of Religion) and in the late 16th century, many improvements were made to the castle’s defensive works. Beynac passed into disrepair when the last male heir of the family died in 1753; his daughter married into the Beaumont family, who neglected the castle for a century or so. An immense restoration effort was undertaken in the 19th century, which served to bankrupt the Marquis de Beaumont. The castle was purchased by a private owner in 1961, who apparently finances the upkeep of the place by letting castle obsessees like me traipse all over his private fortress. I am grateful to him (or her) because Beynac is, in a word, awesome. It literally seems to grow straight up out of the cliff, and its imposing walls, toothy bastions, and pointed turrets satisfy all expectations of a quintessential medieval castle.

    Once inside, we entered a huge stone chamber lit only by the flickering glow of real oil lamps in the form of heavy black iron cages suspended from the ceiling. It was so dim that it took a few minutes for our eyes to adjust. I particularly liked the long wooden trestle table with a special slot at the end for depositing your sword before sitting down to your meal. Upstairs, the barrel-vaulted Great Hall is empty save for a couple of huge wooden chests, a large fireplace, and several time-darkened tapestries. Another small room is furnished as a library, complete with cozy lamps, wall-to-wall tapestries, and two suits of armor guarding the door. We proceeded up to the keep and the highest terrace, from which we looked down on the chapel, the town below, and out across the valley to Marqueyssac and Castelnaud. A series of spiral staircases took us back down to the bottom floor and through the kitchen, outfitted with more trestle tables, oil lamps, several fireplaces, and cooking miscellany. We walked around the base of the castle and sat for a while on the ramparts overlooking the river, watching a bright yellow hot-air balloon drift slowly across the valley. It had cooled off sufficiently by now that we decided to drive down to the base of the village and take a stroll up the winding streets. We ended up hiking almost all the way back up to the castle, enjoying the lovingly restored stone houses and gorgeous views over the valley.

    After a rest at our hotel, we drove over to La Roque-Gageac for dinner at La Belle Étoile. The dining room was very formal (it seemed overly bright to me – I guess I prefer a dim, candle-lit environment) and the atmosphere was a bit stuffy for our taste. The waiters were polite but reserved – no jokes or small talk here. The food overall was quite good but not what I would describe as outstanding. DM, DD and I ordered off the 39 Euro menu and DH ordered off the 24 Euro menu. We started with a round of kirs, as has become our tradition, but they were not particularly generous servings. DM and I both had the rouget (red mullet) with cockles (tiny shellfish) on a warm salad of red pepper, zucchini, and black olives. It sounded marvelous but the cockles were unacceptably gritty and the dish simply was not very flavorful. We also both had the truffle-stuffed pintade with truffle risotto, which was nice, but the truffles were dried, and the flavor was not very intense. For dessert DM had meringue with vanilla ice cream and raspberry sauce, and I had the millefeuille, which was disappointing (especially compared to the Bastide Odéon’s version in Paris) – three silver dollar-sized almond “crisps” with custard in between, which I suppose was intended as a modern interpretation of the classic, but frankly, I prefer the classic. DD had baked oysters followed by herb-crusted lamb with celery mashed potatoes (excellent), and in lieu of dessert, honey-sweetened chèvre on a bed of greens. DH had the winning meal – a lentil salad with foie gras baked in phyllo, chicken with mushrooms and butternut risotto, and coconut ice cream with warm banana crisp. In sum, it was not a bad experience, but if I had to choose, I would pay a little more and go back to L’Esplanade.

    Next: Sarlat Marché & Les Cabanes de Breuil

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    Today our plan was to visit Sarlat, the largest town in the valley, which boasts an excellent Saturday marché. We were late arriving and parking was a real pain – all of the lots were full but we eventually found on-street parking several blocks from the center of town. The streets were crammed with shoppers, most of whom appeared to be locals. We loaded up with all sorts of goodies – cheeses, apples, tomatoes, carrots, and bread for our picnic lunches, plus tinned foie gras and walnut and truffle oils to bring home.

    We had a perfect lunch outside right on Place de la Liberté at a brasserie called L’Entr’ Acte. DM and DD had salads with smoked duck and gesiers (goose gizzards), DH had a salad with mixed smoked meats, and I indulged in one of my favorite dishes on the planet – salade de chèvre chaude (salad with warm goat cheese). It was a generous serving with two good-sized chèvre cabecous on lightly toasted bread and a delicious walnut-garlic dressing. (This restaurant also specializes in a dish called something like “steak on a stone”: you are literally brought a raw steak on a sizzling stone, with a selection of sauces, and you cook it to your liking!) After lunch we bought a few bottles of wine to bring back to Germany and then left DH and DD to guard our purchases while DM and I went in search of table linens. We were disappointed with the wares until we finally found a vendor we had seen at the Domme marché who was selling high-quality linens. DM bought a large tablecloth, six napkins, and a table runner and he threw in a free dish towel, for a good price of 80 Euro.

    Now for the requisite Wild Goose Chase (no, this has nothing to do with foie gras). DM and I had seen a postcard in Domme of a cluster of bories called Les Cabanes du Breuil. Bories are very distinctive round stone structures with conical roofs, ingeniously built without mortar, which were used to house animals and sometimes people in ancient times. We rented an ancient farmhouse near St. Genies on my first visit to the Dordogne and we had our very own borie in the front yard; we have been enthralled with them ever since. Being great lovers of bories, we were determined to seek out Les Cabanes du Breuil. I knew generally what direction to go from the brief information on the back of the postcard (“on the D47 between Sarlat and Les Eyzies”), but we kept seeing signs for things mentioning Breuil, but not Les Cabanes.

    While in search of bories, we drove by the Château de Puymartin, hoping just to get a peek at it without going inside, but you now have to pay an entrance fee even to get within spitting distance of the castle (apparently they figured out that they could capitalize on sightseers like us). Finally we found our way to Les Cabanes. The origins of this cluster of buildings are uncertain – they are believed to have been the rural residence of a group of Benedictine monks from Sarlat until the middle of the 15th century. After that they became craftsmen’s workshops and have been part of a family farm since 1950. Someone obviously told this family that they could make a fine living by letting people tour their farmyard buildings. They’ve put together a nice little numbered brochure and you are free to wander around amidst the chickens, geese, rabbits, sheep, and goats (which we assumed all get eaten, eventually). The most unusual structure consists of three bories all strung together in a row. Several are still used as animal shelters and one was converted into a cabin, with an elevated sleeping floor and a stone fireplace. In one area the remains of a stone quarry are visible so you can see how the slabs of stone came out of the ground. They have tried to reconstruct a borie in the “experimental building area” but have not had much success. It is truly a lost art.

    On the way back to Domme we stopped at the little Romanesque church outside of Ceynac that I remembered from my first visit. Outside there is an amazing cemetery with elevated graves and ornately carved headstones. I recall being very touched by the wonderful message of welcome posted on a sheet of orange paper on the inside of the door of the church – I even took a picture of it, so it is ingrained in my memory. Imagine my astonishment when I saw the exact same sign still mounted on the door, seventeen years later.

    Back in Domme, DH and I bought three small watercolors from a very nice gentleman who had set up his work just outside our hotel. We loved his work and were debating which two of three to buy. I finally asked him how much for all three and he gave them to us for a bargain. We watched one last magnificent pink sunset from our room, and then it was time for our final meal in the Dordogne.

    We walked over to Cabanoix & Chataigne for dinner with pretty high expectations, as several reviewers had indicated this was their new favorite in Domme. When we asked for our table, the woman became very flustered and insisted that I had asked for a reservation on Sunday night, rather than Saturday. I knew this was wrong because we were not even going to be in the Dordogne on Sunday night. Fortunately they still had room for us, although the place looked packed.

    Cabanoix & Chataigne is fun and casual, with a low beamed ceiling, bright table linens, and, instead of a printed menu, the day’s offerings are written on large chalkboards on either side of the room. The options are inventive and feature fresh seasonal produce. DM had the salade d’automne (red and white cabbage, endive, raisins, purple potatoes, zucchini, and apple), which she described as a glorified coleslaw (too heavy on the cabbage), followed by cassoulet with duck confit and sausage, which was excellent. DD had roasted oysters in champagne sauce, the cassoulet, and a trio of sorbets. DH had roasted figs with ham and Roquefort, steak with foie gras and a baked potato, and a trio of chocolate, pistachio, and coffee ice creams. I had the poélée de cêpes (sautéed wild mushrooms) which was fabulous – if you are a vegetarian, this might be the next best thing to foie gras. Then I threw caution to the wind and opted for the “sushi et hûitres” plate. This was served on a wooden board and included two oysters in champagne sauce, two salmon rolls, two mango and ginger rolls, and – just for fun – two foie gras rolls. I have to say that foie gras is wasted when encased in rice and seaweed and dipped in wasabi-seasoned soy sauce, and the sticky rice wasn’t quite the right consistency, but it was a nice change of pace from all the rich and heavy food of the past few days, and I give them credit for being creative. For dessert I had apple crisp with phyllo and Armagnac, which was divine!

    Next: Into the Massif Central

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    elliottp, glad to be of help, and thanks for nudging me to post my report.

    schuba, yes, the Dordogne is incredible and I was thrilled to go back after 17 years and see that it was largely as I remembered! I am getting myself motivated to post some pictures online but that will take a while.

    klondike, my mom and I thought the Cabanes du Breuil were fascinating and a fun off-the-beaten-path sort of visit; DH and DD were less impressed but went along for the ride. I guess it depends upon how interested you are in bories and farm life. It doesn't take long to visit, and is worth it to get a glimpse of a traditional lifestyle that is normally not seen by most tourists.

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    I'm also guilty of putting my name in my trip reports titles - but since I normally post on the Caribbean board and we're a smaller friendly crowd we tend to know who is traveling where and look out for the reports. It's easier.

    I love the details in your report - this will help other travelers, I'm sorry that the first response to your post was so negative and pleased that the rest were so positive.

    Looking at your itinerary I can only say that had you named every place you'd been you would probably have had the longest tiltle in the history of Fodors :-D

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    Well, Hausfrau, pictures or not, this is a fantastic report. Your ability to capture nuances of french cuisine and its ingredients, the scenary, historical details, etc all blend well together into a mighty fine, entertaining and informative, trip report. Thank you.

    Keep posting when you can. You could be a contender for "ComfySchuhe Award for Journalism" once you finish day 17 :) Best wishes.

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    We enjoyed one final breakfast in L’Esplanade’s pleasant garden room, packed up, and checked out. I should point out that L’Esplanade charges a whopping 12 Euro per person for their very traditional breakfast (bread, croissants, butter, jam). DM, who has been trying to reduce her carb intake (yes, even in France!), ended up ordering just a poached egg the last two days, which still cost 3 or 4 Euro. We had to make sure that they didn’t overcharge us for her breakfasts.

    We plotted out a backroads route from the Dordogne to the Massif Central, which ended up taking about five-and-a-half hours. We started out following a winding road along the Dordogne River; as we headed east the valley narrowed and the villages all but disappeared. We stopped along the river at midday for a pleasant picnic lunch. We continued through St. Flour, hopped onto the autoroute for a short stretch, and then continued across a high, rolling plateau where we got our first glimpses of the famous reddish-brown Auvergne cattle that seem to outnumber people in this region. We took a shortcut on D roads over a mountain pass that took us through dense forest and fertile pastures tinged with autumn colors. What an incredible landscape! We were already excited at the prospect of exploring this overlooked region in the very center of France. It was interesting to watch the architecture change as we moved north, from the squat yellow limestone houses of the Dordogne to the gray stone, peaked-roof buildings of the mountain towns.

    We circled the town of La Chaise Dieu, with its large abbey, and descended into a broad valley between the Forez and Livradois mountains, finally landing in the nondescript town of Arlanc (which proudly boasts of being a gateway to an outdoor vacation wonderland). I have to say that it was difficult to find suggestions about places to say in the southern Massif. I finally made reservations at a chambre d’hôte called Ma Cachette based on a single response that I received to my post on the Fodor’s board. We have never stayed in a chambre d’hôte before so we weren’t quite sure what to expect. (There is a whole chambre d’hôte network in France and specific rules governing their operation. They can have no more than six rooms, and the experience is supposed to be that of being a guest in someone’s home, often including home-cooked meals with your hosts.)

    Needless to say, we were a little anxious when Susie (the navi) directed us into a rather dingy part of town with lots of shuttered-up, rundown houses. We actually passed Ma Cachette once without seeing it because we came down the street the wrong way and didn’t see the Gîtes-de-France sign. With some trepidation I rang the bell. We had nothing to worry about, of course. We were greeted like old friends by Pierre, who together with his partner Johan and cat Fritz, are the proprietors of Ma Cachette. Pierre and Johan come from South Africa, which explains the African artifacts scattered through the house and the “Afrikaans” button on their website. Pierre showed us to our rooms, which were spacious, well-appointed, and brightly decorated, with huge bathrooms, real showers, lots of adjustable radiators, and big fluffy towels. DM and DD took the room called “Redouté” with a garden view, which we think is the best room in the house. DH and I stayed in the room called “Artichaut” on the street side. It was not quite as cozy as “Redouté” and only had one bedside table, but was still very nice. In retrospect we think “Amsterdam” is the next best room – it is a little smaller, but on the garden side. At double occupancy the rooms were 65 and 60 Euro – the best deal of our trip, and the nicest!

    We took a short walk before dinner, and I do mean short, since we had just passed into daylight savings time without realizing it, and it was now getting dark at 6 pm. We peeked in at the ancient church of St. Pierre but it was too dark to see much, and strolled a short ways out into the countryside, where we got a talking to from several dangerous-looking German Shepherds. Then we joined Pierre in the comfortable lounge for cocktails and conversation. Johan and Pierre left South Africa to open Ma Cachette in 2000. The house dates at least to the 1600s and used to be on the main road through Arlanc, but with the passage of the centuries the town went into a sad decline. Pierre said that the townspeople have been very welcoming and were pleased to see one of the old houses getting fixed up. Johan and Pierre also have an award-winning garden; it is completely hidden from view from the street but covers perhaps half and acre behind the house. Of course it wasn’t in its prime in late October, but we could tell that it is a real gem and a labor of love for them.

    We were joined for dinner by a French couple, the only other guests in the house. We all sat down in the dining room at a single large table and discovered that the best part of Ma Cachette is Johan’s cooking. For 25 Euro per person you get a three-course meal including wine that rivals any restaurant. We started with a lovely salad of roasted tomatoes and peppers on a bed of greens, followed by roast chicken breast with a balsamic vinegar reduction, couscous, and broccoli – simple yet immensely satisfying – finishing with poached spiced pears with whipped cream and an assortment of teas. We turned in early with plans to explore the famed city of Le Puy-en-Velay tomorrow.

    Next: Le Puy-en-Velay

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    We enjoyed a nice breakfast of bread, croissants, and yogurt, then told Pierre that we’d like to eat dinner there again tonight if it wasn’t too much trouble (seeing as how other dining options in Arlanc are virtually non-existent). Before we left, Pierre supplied us with several maps of Le Puy-en-Velay and specific instructions on getting to the best-situated public parking garage in the center of town.

    It was about a forty-five minute drive to Le Puy; we spotted the impressive profile of Château de Polignac on the way and then descended down into the city with its three legendary volcanic rock formations – the puys – crowned, respectively, by a statue of St. Joseph, the 11th-century chapel of St-Michel, and a huge red statue of the Virgin Mary somewhat reminiscent of the Statue of Liberty. We found the parking garage without too much difficulty and followed a historic walking tour towards the cathedral.

    Le Puy has been a major pilgrimage destination since Charlemagne and is one of four departure points for the famous 1,600-kilometer pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. We headed first to the Romanesque cathedral of Notre-Dame-du-Puy, begun in the 5th century on the site of a pagan temple. Walking up the steep hill lined with crooked houses, with the Byzantine black-and-white striped façade of the cathedral at the top, was quite an experience. The cathedral was expanded over the centuries to accommodate the ever-increasing crowds of pilgrims; this sprawling construction is reflected in the unusual series of tiered landings, archways, and massive doors leading up to the entrance. The interior is rather stark, with the exception of the famed Black Madonna on the high altar. The statue is a replica of the original, which was burned by revolutionaries in 1794.

    We exited out the back of the cathedral and headed towards the huge red statue of Notre-Dame de France, made in 1860 from Russian cannons captured during the Crimean War. You have to pay 3 Euro for the privilege of climbing up to the statue, so we decided to pass. On the way to lunch we stopped in a small souvenir shop to check out the three items for which Le Puy is famous: hand-made lace (but you have to watch out for Asian and machine-made knock-offs), Le Puy lentils (a strain of green lentils grown only in this region), and a green herbal liqueur called Verveine, flavored with verbena. DM bought some lace bookmarks for gifts, we tasted the Verveine and decided to buy a small bottle, and picked up a couple of tins of Le Puy lentils. We stopped for lunch at an ocean-themed café called Le Petit Gourmand, where we ate fried calamari and big salads.

    Next we made our way over to the 10th-century Chapelle de St-Michel d’Aiguilhe, built atop the vent of an extinct volcano. DH and I climbed the twisting stairway to the top while DM and DD relaxed on a bench at the base. It was well worth the view from the top out over the red tile roofs of Le Puy. The chapel itself is very unusual, with a red, black and white tile façade that combines Romanesque and Islamic influences. Inside, the tiny chapel is low and dark, with an irregular floorplan following the shape of the rock, and some interesting wall frescoes.

    We meandered our way along side streets back to the car and decided to check out the Château de Polignac on the way back to Arlanc. Unfortunately we discovered that the castle is closed on Mondays, so we could only walk up to the outer walls and peer through the keyhole. It was still lovely to watch the late afternoon light turn the hilltop ruins a deep orange. We also stopped in La Chaise Dieu on the way back to Arlanc and walked around the abbey and through the cloister, but the church itself was closed.

    Dinner at Ma Cachette was just the four of us this time, and another wonderful meal. We enjoyed a lovely tomato tart with cheese and basil and a small green salad garnished with smoked Welsh salt. The main course was a traditional favorite – duck confit with Le Puy lentils, and dessert was Johan’s latest creation – homemade banana sorbet with chopped pistachios!

    Next: Puy-de-Dôme and St.-Nectaire

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    Pierre joined us at breakfast and we had a nice chat. He was interested to know how I found Ma Cachette and I told him all about the Fodor’s forums. We paid our bill, said goodbye to Pierre, and headed out of town. Today we had the sad task of driving into Clermont-Ferrand to pick up our rental car and saying farewell to DH, who had to drive back to Stuttgart and return to work. We almost didn’t find the Europcar office because of the angle at which we approached (this is one big disadvantage of the navi – it often sends you on a really bizarre route because it thinks it is the shortest way to your destination, but it may not be the most logical!). I filled out the paperwork for our car (the woman at the counter didn’t speak a word of English) and we did the big switcheroo, moving all of our luggage from DH’s car into our Renault Scenic. (With its latest models Renault has made a valiant, if somewhat misguided, effort at redesigning the basic shape of the automobile. Ours was actually a “Grand” Scenic, which was somewhat too large for just the three of us! It was nicely appointed, with an electronic start button and a shifter that came out of the center dash, which took some getting used to, but no navi – I had tried to reserve a car with a navi but none were available.)

    We watched DH drive away and then really felt the loss of our navi as we attempted to make our way out of Clermont-Ferrand using DD’s Michelin maps. We decided to drive up Puy-de-Dôme, which, at 4,800 feet, is the highest peak in the volcanic Mont-Dôme range and the showcase of the Parc National des Volcans, which contains more than 80 dormant volcanoes and all sorts of interesting craters, cinder cones, lava flows, and other relics of volcanic activity. We could see the distinctly domed peak off in the distance; we just couldn’t figure out how to get there. We ended up making a huge loop around Clermont-Ferrand before finally finding our way.

    We paid a few Euro at the entrance gate, then ascended the winding road that spirals up the mountain. There is a large weather station and a visitor center at the top, and an extensive network of new trails is under construction. Ruins of a 1st-century Roman temple to Mercury were discovered here during excavations for the first observatory back in the mid-1800s. The whole place was a bit worn around the edges, and it was quite windy and cold, so we didn’t linger for long. Unfortunately it was overcast and quite hazy, but we could still make out a number of cinder cones scattered like giant molehills across the landscape. Looking down into Clermont-Ferrand, we could just make out the famous black volcanic stone cathedral.

    We had a chilly lunch at a picnic table at the base of the mountain, then headed south in search of a hotel. This is the first time in recent memory that we have gone on a trip without a hotel reservation. I had a list of a few possibilities, but we figured that given the time of year we wouldn’t have trouble walking in someplace without a reservation. What we did not anticipate was that many places were already closed for the season, since winter comes early to the Massif Central (it was now the last day of October).

    We headed for a string of picturesque villages southwest of Clermont-Ferrand, guided by several trip reports that I had printed off of the Fodor’s forum. First we drove through Orcival, which was one of five Romanesque hospices erected in the Auvergne region during the 12th century along the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. Unfortunately the church was all covered up in scaffolding. Orcival was tiny, so we decided to move on to Le Mont Dore, a much bigger ski resort town nestled in a narrow valley. There were quite a few hotels here but the place looked fairly deserted. Next on my list was Murol, a very cute village overlooked by a ruined château. I had hoped we could stay in the Hotel de Paris, the most promising establishment on my list, but when we finally found it (no small feat), it was all shuttered up. There was a note on the door recommending a lakeside hotel back up the road at Chambon-sur-Lac, but when we drove by it did not inspire us. We decided to continue on to the former spa town of Saint-Nectaire, where we figured we could always stay in the Relais Mercure hotel that was listed in Fodor’s. It wasn’t a very creative option, but it fit the bill, and most importantly, it was still open! We checked in for two nights and found our rooms to be comfortable and nicely decorated in a modern style, with slate and tile bathrooms and flatscreen TVs.

    After getting settled we drove around town to scope out our dinner options. Saint-Nectaire has definitely seen better days – the spa is still there but half the hotels appeared to be permanently closed, and the other half were looking a bit the worse for wear. We finally decided that the cute pizza joint just up the street would suit our dinner needs. Next we went in search of a place that makes handmade wooden clogs, which Pierre had told us about. We had seen signs for a clog-making atelier on the outskirts of town, so we followed the signs up a steep, narrow road to a tiny hamlet called Sapchat. It was 4:30 but fortunately the shop was still open. A middle-aged woman was sitting in the workshop hammering nails into the sole of a shoe, surrounded by mountains of pale wooden clogs. She spoke a little English and helped DM and I try on several pairs. They had the really authentic all-wood ones, called sabots, which look like those Dutch gardening clogs with the slightly turned-up, pointy toes, but these didn’t fit our feet (they are usually worn by men). We preferred the ones with wooden soles and leather uppers, called galoches, which look more like “American” clogs. The leather comes in a natural light tan color, embossed with a simple design, but the woman assured us that over time they would darken to a warm brown just like the pair she was wearing. DM and I both bought pairs.

    Back in town we stopped at a little tourist shop and bought some sausage, cheese, and a bottle of crème de cassis for making kir. We went back to the hotel and had a bottle of wine before dinner, then headed over to the pizza place where we enjoyed nice mixed salads and tasty thin-crusted pizzas. There was an American couple there when we arrived (the first Americans we had seen or heard since we arrived in the Massif Central) and two other parties came in while we were eating, but it was a pretty quiet night in Saint-Nectaire.

    Next: Little villages of the Auvergne

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    hi, hausfrau,

    how brave to venture off without either satnav or reservations!! to think this was how most of us travelled most of the time in the bad old days.

    seriously, great report- the puy du dome is an area we've thought about but never got to - so perhaps I'll get that map out and start planning.

    regards, ann

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    Today was All Saints’ Day and we were prepared for everything to be shuttered up, but actually many stores were open. First we headed back to Murol to check out the chateau. Unfortunately there was a sign posted on the front gate saying that it was closed for the whole month of November. All I could do was climb up on a rock wall and try to see over the high walls surrounding the keep. We did get to visit with a very friendly fat pony and a collection of deer, sheep and reindeer grazing on the grounds below the castle. I wanted to feed the pony an apple from our lunch supplies. I cut the apple into quarters and started throwing the pieces into the pony’s pasture. I’m not a very good throw so the first two didn’t get very far. On the third try I finally got the pony’s attention. He looked up and slowly ambled over to the last piece I’d thrown, munched it, then started heading our way. He spotted the second piece and went over to eat that one, then came over to the fence where I fed him the rest of the apple. He stomped his hoof begging for more. I think he was sad to see us go.

    Next we set out on a lovely scenic drive to Besse-en-Chandesse. The countryside was barren and beautiful, with dramatic volcanic peaks, green pastures, little stone farmhouses, and fuzzy brown cows. Lots and lots of cows. It’s true what they say, there are more cows than people in the Massif Central. We arrived in Besse just as everyone came streaming out of the little stone church to the sound of pealing bells. We felt a bit like intruders as all the townsfolk greeted each other in the square outside the church. The town is quite somber and gray, with all the houses made out of the same dark volcanic rock. We did a little window shopping and checked out the restaurants. DM and I went bonkers over the extensive collection of antique copper and pewter kitchen items in one little shop, but we liked the lovely natural wool sweaters even more. We both ended up with sweaters and DD got a vest. The shopkeeper was very nice and explained (in French of course) how the sweaters were made at a local factory with local wool.

    We peeked into a couple of places for lunch, but one was filled with cigarette smoke and the other turned out to be just a bar. We were looking at the menu of a rather expensive restaurant when a French woman came by and told us to go down to Mont Dore instead, giving us the name of a restaurant she’d eaten at the day before. The drive into Mont Dore was even more stunning – down into a deep valley and then up over a high pass through rolling, rocky terrain. It was really a shame that it was overcast because my pictures just don’t do the landscape justice. We didn’t get to Mont Dore until 2:00 and were a little worried that we wouldn’t find anything still open for lunch. DM saw the restaurant the lady had recommended, but it was closed, so we decided to go into the first open place we saw. I don’t even remember the name, but it was right on the main road through town, across from the Grand Hotel. Less than fifteen minutes after we arrived they started turning people away, but the place was still nearly full of French families out for a holiday luncheon. The three of us shared a huge pan of truffade – fried, sliced potatoes mixed with gooey, melted tome fraiche and Cantal cheeses, served with thick slices of cured ham and a salad. Simple, rustic, but oh-so-delicious, especially on this chilly autumn day. We finished our meal with a round of espressos and then looked around town a bit. We stopped in a bookstore and bought a couple of Auvergne cookbooks so we can try to mimic some of the traditional recipes at home.

    We backtracked along part of our scenic drive but it was now cloudier than ever. We spent the next hour or so following winding country roads back to St-Nectaire. I was navigating and literally chasing the sun trying to get some good landscape pictures. Way off in the distance we could make out the distinctive silhouette of Puy-de-Dôme. We finally headed back to the hotel around 5:00 and cleaned up for dinner. We ate at the comfy little brasserie just up the street from our hotel. We all had salads because we were still stuffed from our hefty lunch!

    Next: To Amiens, and the final chapter of our trip!

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    Our friends were not expecting us in Amiens until late afternoon, so we took our time driving out of the Massif Central. We stopped for a short walk in St. Saturnin, which has an impressive family-owned château (closed for the season) and an ancient little church.

    I have to say that exploring the Massif Central in late fall was a spectacular experience. This region is certainly visited by fewer tourists than virtually any other area of France. Its unspoiled vistas and empty countryside are so hauntingly beautiful, and the comforting cuisine is so marvelous, I am surprised that more people don’t come here. It was also amazing how different the weather was in the Massif compared to the Dordogne – we definitely felt winter coming, compared to the summer-like warmth of the Dordogne. I can only imagine how harsh and lonely the winters must be there. You get the feeling that life has not changed much in this region over the past few hundred years.

    We eventually said farewell to the Massif Central and hooked up with the autoroute, speeding north towards Amiens, capital of the province of Picardie. Our last three nights would be spent with friends, a family that we met through a student exchange program when I was in high school. My parents have been back to visit them several times, and the French parents came to my wedding a number of years ago – their first trip to the U.S.! I hadn’t seen them since then, so I was really looking forward to this visit, although I was a little worried about my rusty French, as the parents speak virtually no English. The parents recently moved from their ancient farmhouse outside of Pertain to an apartment in Amiens, but their two sons continue to run their extensive farming operation.

    We had some difficulty finding our way to the apartment in the middle of Amiens in the dark – this is where a navi would have come in handy – but we finally made it and were warmly welcomed by our friends. We were joined for dinner by the younger son (the one who stayed with my family), whose English was a little rusty, but still better than our French! Between DD and I, we got along fairly well, although I kept finding myself lapsing into the German sentence structure and getting bogged down as my brain attempted to translate what I wanted to stay from English to German to French!

    After a breakfast of flaky croissants, fresh baguettes and quite possibly the best pain au chocolat I’ve ever had, we walked a few blocks to the heart of the city, visiting the indoor market hall and Amiens’ impressive cathedral – Notre-Dame d’Amiens, the tallest cathedral in France. The central nave is especially narrow, which lends to the lofty feeling, and the tall windows fill the space with light, especially on sunny days. It is also notable for purportedly housing the head of John the Baptist, brought from Constantinople after the Fourth Crusade. Our friends’ older son was married in this cathedral; I can only imagine how spectacular that must have been! On the way back to the apartment we passed the elegant Hotel de Ville (city hall), decorated with a gorgeous display of autumn flowers and pumpkins cascading down the front steps. After lunch we drove to the family farm for a grand tour, followed by coffee and cake. It was amazing to be back in the ancient farmhouse, which I hadn’t seen in 15 years. In the evening we returned to Amiens for dinner.

    We decided to give our friends a break from entertaining us today and took a drive out to the Normandy coast, to the seaside town of Saint-Valery at the broad mouth of the Somme River (the Baie de Somme). Here the river empties into a huge tidal marsh, home to a large and diverse migratory shorebird community. We parked in Saint-Valery and strolled along the boardwalk, enjoying the ocean breeze and quaint storefronts. The place was pretty quiet, with just a few French tourists wandering the streets with us. We found a pleasant little restaurant for lunch that quickly filled up with French patrons while we were there, to the point that people were being turned away at the door (always a good sign). DD and I feasted on huge bowls of delicious moules-frîtes (steamed mussels and french fries) while DM had a plate of shrimp and a bowl of tomato-based fish stew.

    We headed up the coast to the Parc Ornithologique du Marquenterre, driving through salt marshes dotted with sheep and cattle (they say the salt gives the beef a special flavor). We decided to pay the hefty entrance fee and spent a couple of hours wandering the pleasant sandy trails of the preserve. (I’m not exactly certain how much of a sanctuary this really is, since we heard gunshots the entire time!) We spotted a number of bird species without trying very hard – Graylag geese, Barnacle geese, mallards, Lesser Scaup, Redheads, white storks, cranes, moorhens, and herons. Mostly it was just nice to be outside walking in the golden evening sunlight with a cool breeze at our backs.

    We returned to Amiens to have dinner with our friends at a place called The Salmon House, which specializes, not surprisingly, in salmon served a myriad of ways. I had my last serving of foie gras as my appetizer, which should tide me over until my next trip to France. The food here was decent but not inspired.

    We packed up shortly after breakfast, said goodbye to our friends with promises to visit again, and were on the road by about 10 am. We had an uneventful six-hour drive home to Stuttgart. It was definitely nice to be home after sixteen days on the road. We covered a lot of ground, but by staying 2-4 nights at each stop, the trip did not feel rushed. It was wonderful to go back to places we know and love, like Kandersteg and the Dordogne, and also explore new ground in the Rhône Valley and Massif Central. (Perhaps I shouldn’t have said so much about the Massif Central, so that it remains one of France’s best-kept secrets!)

    Hope you enjoyed this report; perhaps a few details will be helpful to those of you planning trips to these regions!

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    I forgot to reply to your post - I always think it is funny how dependent we are on the internet, sat nav, etc. given that we've all taken plenty of trips to Europe without sure is a different world we live in now!

    Of course we did just fine without a navi in France, but we had good maps and my dad and I made a pretty good navigating team!

    Definitely check out Puy-de-Dome and the Massif Central. Puy-en-Velay was fine for a day trip but we preferred the landscape of the St. Nectaire - Murol - Mont Dore area. It is so pristine and uncrowded and the food is great, especially if you like potatoes and cheese! I think early to mid October would be the perfect time to visit, with the fall colors in full swing but before everything shuts up for the winter.

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    hi, hausefrau - no worries!

    Your lovely description of amiens reminded me of a day-trip we made there when we lived in Kent - for a wedding anniversary lunch! Leaving home in west Kent by 9am, we made it easily through the Chunnel in time for lunch in a restaurant in the centre of amiens.

    no idea of the name, but it was very "comme il faut" with 4 glasses and loads of cutlery per place, which gave us kittens every time our rather hyper then 6 year old DS moved a muscle. [no change there, unfortunately!] we spent a lovely afternoon in Montreuil, then went home. Those were the days!

    thanks for reviving that happy memory.

    regards, ann

    ps how are the UK trip plans coming on?

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    Hi ann, glad to revive memories of Amiens! It's a nice town.

    My UK itinerary is coming along nicely - we have hotels in Goodwood, Salisbury, Cornwall, and central Wales already booked - but for various reasons I've had to put further planning on hold. I'm really hoping the trip is still going to happen, after all my hard work and research!

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    hausfrau-- your report is wonderful!! I really feel almost as if I were there; your descriptions of the towns, scenery and all the fabulous meals are so great!
    I loved it all-- thanks!

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