Our own country roads tour of France

Old Jun 25th, 2012, 12:59 AM
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Our own country roads tour of France

Well our nine week trip is over and it is back to the real world. I will endeavour to finish my report over a few days, but cannot promise to be as erudite as many I have read. I will begin by saying that we travel at a relaxed pace with a bigger day now and then. We also travel on a fairly tight budget, so do not eat out a lot. But we still enjoy good food and wine - lots of cheeses and charcuterie, duck, salmon, smoked sausages and meats, lots of different vegetables [one of my favourite things to cook] and patisserie. So let's away!

With a two hour bus trip to the airport, twenty two hours on planes and several hours in two airports, it is over thirty hours from walking out our front door to landing at CDG [5pm]. We stayed overnight at CDG and flew to Bordeaux on Saturday morning where we collected our little grey Renault and headed south while adjusting to driving on what is, for us, the wrong side of the road.

Our first stop was in the village of Villandraut where we spotted the ruins of an old castle. The caretaker came along as we were photographing and invited us in for a closer look. He was there to feed some corn to the pigeons. Mmm, corn fed pigeon - was there an ulterior motive? We stopped in Bazas to find the market in the square in front of the cathedral beginning to pack up. But still enough time for us to get some plump Agen prunes, crisp French Breakfast radishes and a lovely dry saucisson. A couple of bottles of wine from a nearby shop completed our purchases. The cathedral is beautiful with lovely stained glass. We are not religious people, but do enjoy the churches and I am always disappointed when they are locked.

I have a book called " Memories of Gascony " by Pierre Koffman which tells of childhood summers spent on his grandparents' farm in the Gers region. So I was looking forward to our first week in this area. Our gite was in the small hamlet of Avezan near the larger village of St Clar. After settling in, we headed off to the Intermarche at St Clar to stock up on essentials which we add to as the trip progresses. The weather was just wonderful- last week of March and warm enough to sit outside for our first evening in our little courtyard which caught the sun. On our first night we always keep it simple - a couple of cheeses, some charcuterie, tomatoes, capsicum, radishes, baguette and of course , a bottle of wine to toast the start of our adventure.

On Sunday we set out to explore the villages and area near by. We love country France and were not disappointed. The country side was gorgeous - a patchwork of tan ploughed paddocks and green fields of wheat with villages nestled in the folds. After stopping in the village of St Chapelle, we saw that the church would be open at 2pm. It was lunch time, and as we always bring a picnic, we began our quest for a picnic table. Our experience is that there is often a table at 10.30 or 2.30, but at 12.30 they can be hard to find. But to-day we were lucky.

There was also a public toilet, which leads me to a brief comment. On the whole, this trip I found the toilets better. There were still plenty of the "squat" variety but were cleaner than in the past . My award for the best toilet goes to the one near the Mairie in Figeac, which on a cold, damp day was clean, warm, proper toilet and paper. The worst was in a small village in the Haute Loire. DH looked in and said "You can't use that toilet". I have one word to add "Desperate!". Of course, no such problems for les messieurs who are quite happy to stand at the side of the road [ well not my bashful monsieur ], job in hand so to speak, oblivious to passing traffic.

Back to St Chapelle. The rather austere exterior hides a flamboyant Baroque interior. Wonderful colours and levels of galleries that are almost theatrical. What a gem hidden away. Some lovely villages, a couple of chateaux and pretty drives completed our day.

One of our favourite meals is duck breast with a potato and fennel boulangere and our first one of a trip is always special. The melting sweetness of the vegetables with the firmness of the duck and salty crispness of the skin is a delicious partnership.

We always try to visit any Plus Beaux Villages [ here after to be referred to as PBV ] that are in the area, and there were several in this week. The weather continued to be perfect- why did we bring these coats and scarves!. We had a lovely day beginning with the picturesque drive into Lavardens [PBV] followed by a stop in Biran, a pretty little village with towers in the middle of a forest. Onto Montesquiou and Bassoues which had great wooden halles [ the road goes through] and arcaded main street. We took the scenic route to Beaumarches which has wonderful church with carved faces and gargoyles [ sadly not open]. Marciac has a pretty lake and a huge town square with arcades and cafes. These arcades and halles are typical of this region.

We enjoy markets if we come across them and visited Fleurance market - more radishes, some olives and a delicious pastry. Later we stopped in Auvillar [PBV] -picturesque round halles and great position above the Garonne river. We were on our way to Moissac and of course our timing meant the tourist office was closed for lunch. So we had a pleasant lunch in a restaurant opposite the church while we waited to buy tickets to see the cloisters. They have very fine pillars and intricately carved capitals, and the church is also impressive.

This is Armagnac country, but we are not big brandy drinkers, so we chose instead to have a bottle of Floc de Gascogne - an aperitif of grape juice and Armagnac - which we thoroughly enjoyed over the coming days.

We visited Larressingle [PBV] a perfect peaceful village reputed to be the smallest fortified village in France, and then onto Fources [PBV] [great picnic table] with its' pretty round centre with pruned trees. You drive over a bridge and through a gate into the village. Our last stop was La Romieu with its very impressive Collegiale. Lovely old cloisters and two towers to climb. As we were leaving, the view back to this magnificent church which dominates the village is memorable.

On Friday we visited nearby Lectoure which has a high position overlooking the countryside. It was market day and roadworks made it a bit chaotic and parking difficult. But we managed and enjoyed our visit. We savoured the duck and mushroom sausages we bought with a simple salad that night. Both markets we visited that week had a lot of poultry products- beautifully 'dressed' chickens, duck, guinea fowl, pigeons as well as confit, gesiers, foie gras.

I can see this is going to take me a long time if that is only week 1.
rhon is offline  
Old Jun 25th, 2012, 03:08 AM
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We are always excited to move on to our next week, and try to take scenic roads as opposed to autoroutes. This time we stopped early in the PBV of Sarrant and then in Cologne which has an attractive town centre with halles. Our destination this week was the Aude region. Around lunch time we stopped in Foix which has a busy pedestrianised centre and an imposing chateau overlooking the town.

We made a spectacular descent into Quillan and then onto Couiza which was to be our base for the week. Our rental this week was a top floor apartment overlooking the river. Couiza has an intermarche, boulangeries and a couple of restaurants and bars, and we found it a good base to explore the region.

Once again on our first day we explored the area nearby. The country was a lot more rugged and the villages were different - a lot more isolated. The scenery was quite dramatic in places - remains of chateaux and old narrow villages below. At one stop near the Gorges de Terminet we came across some rock climbers including a child of perhaps 3 years all decked out in lycra, helmet, chains. We stopped at St Hilaire where Blanquette de Limoux [ said to precede the Dom's discovery of champagne ] originated. The Abbey was closed but we could still see the lovely cloisters.

Monday was a big day for us. The weather was still warm but a biy hazy. We headed up into the mountains before turning off for the Gorges of Galamus. They are very narrow with great views around and down. One advantage of travelling out of season is that the crowds have not arrived in some places. We saw the old hermitage before heading down into the valley and then climbing again to the Chateau de Queribus. It is set in an imposing position with great views - pity about the haze. We then continued on to Peyrepertuse. It was another steep climb up but so worth the effort. It was an exhilarating experience looking down over the ruins. The views were breathtaking and so hard to imagine people lived there hundreds of years ago.

It was overcast and showery the next day as we drove over to Mirepoix. We stopped in the pretty village of Camon [PBV] on the way. The old part of Mirepoix is very picturesque with the " couverts " and big oak pillars with carved faces around the square. We came home via some winding back roads through old villages and vineyards.

On a previous trip we had a gesiers salad in a cafe and I resolved then to try one at home. So one night we had my own salad composee with my vinaigrette, bleu d'auvergne and gesiers de poulet and fresh baguette. It was a success and we had it a few times using gesiers de canard.

Of course we had to visit Carcassonne. Such a spectacular view as you approach. I know people are divided over Carcassonne, and even out of season there were a lot of visitors. We spent a couple of hours wandering around and did appreciate the magnitude of the site.

Rennes le Chateau is close to Couiza - a steep drive up with great views. There is an attractive tower and a lavishly decorated church. Alet-les-Bains lies on the river between Couiza and Limoux and is a very attractive village with half timbered buildings and the remains of a large abbey which must have been wonderful in its day.

One day we drove down through Quillan and turned off to Axat which is an appealing village on the Aude river. We then headed up into the mountains through another interesting village, St Colombe sur Aguette. The scenery was quite dramatic with great views as we crossed the Col de Garavel - snow capped mountains, small villages and the valley below. Then a dramatic descent into the valley followed by a sharp turn and we then followed the rushing Aude river through some old spa towns back to Axat. It was fabulous - just the sort of day we love.

I have already mentioned Blanquette de Limoux. We enjoy wine and when in a wine producing area we drink wines from there. This week we were close to the Corbieres wine region which we had discovered and enjoyed on a stay in Eus [near Prades ] in 2008. So we were delighted to be near again. We are not purists and enjoy wine with whatever we are having. So Thursday night we enjoyed a Blanquette de Limoux [ demi-sec ] with a duck breast and creamy potato dauphinois followed by some patissreie for dessert.

On Friday we visited Limoux and it was market day. This was Good Friday which in Australia is a public holiday, but in Limoux it was business as usual. The patisseries were resplendent with Easter decorations and goodies- wonderful chocolate cornucopias over flowing with chickens, eggs, rabbits, baskets filled with chocolates. A real delight.

Being early spring, the new season asparagus was everywhere in the market so we bought some. It was lovely that night with some buttered chat potatoes and salmon, all accompanied by another Blanquette de Limoux [ this time brut ]. Another wonderful week was over.
rhon is offline  
Old Jun 25th, 2012, 03:12 AM
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Excellent report rhon. I like your travel style.
FrenchMystiqueTours is offline  
Old Jun 25th, 2012, 03:42 AM
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Hi there fellow Aussie!

Enjoying your trip report, we too love France, the beautiful villages, the markets and of course the wonderful food & wine.

I love trip reports and know from experience that they take a lot of time to write but are so worthwhile to keep as a momento.

Looking forward to the next instalment.
aussie_10 is offline  
Old Jun 25th, 2012, 04:16 AM
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So far, so excellent. I like your writing style and your traveling style. Country drives and country food are a great combination.

You have a lot of PBVs under your belt. For me, a visit to one of them is usually a highlight of a trip.
Coquelicot is offline  
Old Jun 25th, 2012, 04:25 AM
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You are a wonderful observer, and it is a real pleasure to see people who visit France rather than running from one "essential" site to another.

I for one can't wait for more!
Ackislander is offline  
Old Jun 25th, 2012, 04:39 AM
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Great, but for people who travel at a relaxed pace, you sure see a lot of stuff!
kerouac is online now  
Old Jun 25th, 2012, 05:21 AM
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bilboburgler is online now  
Old Jun 25th, 2012, 05:52 AM
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Great report! This is full of usefull information. I had to look up PBV and I am so glad I did....a special thanks for that!
willowjane is offline  
Old Jun 25th, 2012, 06:19 AM
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There are some other labels to look for as well like "village fleuri" or "ville fleurie."
kerouac is online now  
Old Jun 25th, 2012, 07:15 AM
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Nine weeks sounds like quite a luxury vacation to me, tight budget or not.

It's fun to travel each scenic view and steep climb along with you. Your descriptions and writing style take our imaginations along to some very different, interesting locations.

Any photos?
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Old Jun 26th, 2012, 12:12 AM
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Thank you for all the positive replies. I have had problems adding to my report.It does not appear when i submit.

Anyway i will try again.

Yes we do see a lot in a week which is probably longer than some people have. I suppose 'relaxed' means we do as much in a day as we feel like. So if that means stopping at lunch one day and then at four the next, then that is what we do.

The costs and long flight times from Australia mean we like to make each trip worthwhile. Of course, any overseas trip is a luxury, and we travel this way because it is the most economical for us. We feel very lucky to be able to do so.

We have seen Ville Fleurie and have a book of Les Plus Beaux Detours. This trip we also visited a Grand Site of France and discovered a Remarkable Tree of France!!
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Old Jun 26th, 2012, 01:02 AM
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rhon - the site appears to have been frozen for about eight hours, but good that it's now back in action and we can look forward to more of your superb report.
farrermog is offline  
Old Jun 26th, 2012, 02:17 AM
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Other important labels to look for would be "Ville d'Art et d'Histoire", "Ville Historique", "Petite Cité de Caractère" and "Commune du Patrimoine Rurale".

I also urge people to pay attention to the icons on the Michelin maps for things like designated scenic roads, towns with the historic church or château icon, the non-historic château icon, the megalith icon, the ruins icon and the scenic view point icon, among others.
FrenchMystiqueTours is offline  
Old Jun 26th, 2012, 03:09 AM
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Hopefully this will work as I must be the world's worst typist and would hate to have to do it all again!

It was Saturday and time to move on again, this time to the Aveyron. We headed back up along the road we had travelled on our Sunday drive. It is always nice to retrace your steps sometimes as different things stand out. Now I am not obsessed with PBV, but if there is one along our route we stop even if it is a brief visit. Lagrasse was on the way so we stopped to stretch our legs and take a short wander around. As we drove out we had a great view back to the bridge and old abbey. It was a long climb as we travelled up through the Haut Languedoc. The problem with France is that each new area we pass through adds another to our list of places to visit!

The weather was starting to turn and by the time we stopped at Brousse le Chateau [PBV!] it was cold and drizzling rain. But what a lovely village -a hump-backed bridge into it, an old chateau at the top and a little old church all reached by cobble-stoned alleys and stairs. We are always amazed at these old villages we see. And people still live here!!

At last we arrived at our next gite, an apartment below the owner's house, on the outskirts of Marcillac-Vallon. It was on a hill with a terrace over-looking the village. Sadly the weather was too cold to sit outside [ out came the coats and scarves ], but it was tres confortable with friendly French owners. We thought Marcillac was a lovely village - red sandstone buildings with black slate roofs, a great boulangerie/patisserie [ we treated ourselves to a delicious Charlotte which was such a work of art it seemed a shame to cut it ], charcuteries, cafes and bars, and an Intermarche with one of the best cheese counters we saw - a great range of sheep and goats' milk cheeses. This area also produces AOC wines which we enjoyed all week.

We stopped at the excellent market in Marcillac on Sunday before setting out. Our first stop was the very pretty village of Clarevaux - again the red sandstone buildings. This is not something we have seen before and to us it seemed warm and welcoming. Just lovely.

The country was beautiful- very green with hedged fields. It was a little hillier than we had been expecting, but it is the area of the Causses. Belcastel is a picturesque village- an old bridge over the river, a high chateau, old stone houses and alleys. I know that sounds familiar, but each one we see is different and special in their own way. I always take note of the stations of the cross in churches. There are so many different renditions of this in all forms. The ones in the church in Belcastel were different and effective - modern paintings with slumped glass details. Sauveterre de Rouergue is another PBV - very different from Belcastel - with half timbered buildings and a large arcaded town square.

The weather had turned quite cool. There were so many lovely villages to drive through. Charming St Eulalie d'Olt and St Come d'Olt, both PBV, although we much preferred the first. Espalion is a larger town with a striking red sandstone church, old red sandstone bridge and old chateau- made a great photo reflected in the river. Near to Marcillac is the lovely little village of Panat, high on a hill overlooking grape vines and cultivation. Muret-le-Chateau is appealing as you see it from on high before driving in. And the scenic roads we took back were picture postcard - villages high on hills, too many to hope to visit, an old church in solitary splendour across a deep valley, grapevines and paddocks of cattle.

On our afternoon walks down to the village we passed an old gentleman working in his vegetable garden while his wife watched, and we often stopped. They seemed quite bemused that two Australians would travel so far to stay in their village. We were to see lots of these carefully tended gardens on our trip - rows of vegetables with the frivolity of flowers in a small area- in this case, stunning tulips.

One day we visited nearby Conques which is a PBV and also a Grand Site of France. And it certainly is a wonderful place. A gorgeous village, church and a stunning 'tresor' of religious artifacts embellished with semi precious gems and enamelling. Such workmanship and attention to detail.

Another day we visited Figeac which we enjoyed despite the gloomy day. On the way I spotted that PBV sign [not on my list], so we detoured on the way home to Capdenac le Haut -great views one way over the Lot and not so scenic views the other over railway lines. We then turned off to follow another meander of the Lot. I love these rivers.
rhon is offline  
Old Jun 26th, 2012, 03:21 AM
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A bit more to add to this week. After Conques we meandered along the lovely Lot river to Entraygues and then down to Estaing [PBV}. Estaing is very scenic on the drive in with the bridge and the chateau, and when we walked into the church, the sun was shining through the stained glass windows. So beautiful. This week we saw several couples who appeared to be walking part of the pilgrim trail. I admire their fortitude, especially in inclement weather.
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Old Jun 26th, 2012, 03:42 AM
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Rhon, I have just arrived home to South Oz this morning after 5 weeks beginning in France, ending in Portugal. We have very similar traveling style to you I think, always buy a picnic set at the first Super Marche that we visit and largely self cater. We love France ( have done this type of trip maybe 4 or 5 times?) but forced ourselves to have a taste of Spain and Portugal this time. (and thoroughly enjoyed both) Will sit down and read your report more thoroughly when my eyes aren't drooping!
Thank you for writing.
ozgirl is offline  
Old Jun 26th, 2012, 04:19 AM
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Sounds like a fantastic trip rhon. A tip if you are worried about losing your text is to write it on WORD first and then save it and cut and paste into Fodors. I speak 'with experience'!!!

I too love all those country roads and pretty villages, but I do love Paris as well.

Enjoying the report, keep it coming. I understand the making the most of your trip coming from Aus, as I live in Sydney.

schnauzer is offline  
Old Jun 26th, 2012, 04:59 AM
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Nice nice nice. Your trip report is evocative and succinct, a combination I appreciate! {I'm going to start work as soon as I get off Fodors, honestly!)

I'm looking forward to reading about the remarkable tree.

FMT, you came up with a website I didn't know, the Communes du Patrimoine. Is that just in Brittany?
Coquelicot is offline  
Old Jun 26th, 2012, 06:59 AM
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You can add my name to the list of readers. I am planning a trip to the Aveyron area for next year. I was delighted to read about your travels to this area of France.

Thanks for posting your report. And I am looking forward to following along with you on the rest of your trip.
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