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TRIP REPORT: Paris, Bordeaux, Dordogne, Toulouse, Provence, and more

TRIP REPORT: Paris, Bordeaux, Dordogne, Toulouse, Provence, and more

Aug 5th, 2017, 12:46 PM
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We called for an Uber to take us to pick up our car near the Bordeaux airport and were surprised to be picked up in a brand new Mercedes. This was the third time using an Uber on this trip, and all three times were in luxury vehicles. In LA we are usually treated to an uncomfortable ride in a badly maintained Toyota Corolla. Does anybody have any info on French Uber drivers? How is it that they seem to all drive expensive cars? Does it really pay that well, or is "Uber Driver" merely a front for transporting less legal but more profitable cargo? In any event, we didn't question it and enjoyed the comfortable ride to pick up our leased Peugeot.

I can't remember where I read about it, but when preparing for this trip I became aware of short-term lease programs available in France through Peugeot, Renault and Citroën. We decided to go through AutoEurope and book a car through a program called Peugeot Open Europe. It is available for terms ranging from 17 days to 6 months. Since it includes 100% insurance coverage with no deductible, it was less expensive than renting for our 43 day term. It also has the advantage of letting you reserve the exact model you want, as well as guaranteeing a brand new car. Ours had 6 kilometers on it when we picked it up and we are very happy with it.

So we headed out to start the driving portion of our trip, starting with 6 days in the Dordogne and 4 days in the Lot departments. At least that was the original plan, however, the night before we left Bordeaux we received an email from our gîte in Figeac to tell us that they had accidentally double booked and were canceling our reservation -- with only 7 days notice -- during the heaviest travel month of the year. When we checked on AirBnB, HomeAway, etc., they all indicated that they were 99% booked for our dates, and with nothing at all within an hour of Figeac. So we emailed a couple places with fingers crossed and hoped one of them would come through.

We arrived in Cenac et St-Julien in the afternoon to check into our gîte, a charming, medieval, stone, Perigordine village house in a small hamlet near the river. Lydia greeted us to check us in and I only had to ask her to slow down her rapid fire French a couple times, as she gave us a brief orientation.

The location of the house is fantastic, away from the traffic of the village, and a short walk to the river, where there is a dramatic view of Laroque-Gageac, one of Les Plus Beaux Villages, perched below the imposing cliffs. The view from the house is not quite as good, although we do have a distant view of Castelnaud from our small garden.

After dinner I went for a walk up the road above our house to enjoy the views in the last hour of golden light before sunset, the so-called "magic hour" beloved by photographers, when I heard what sounded like a flamethrower above me, to see 5 enormous, brightly colored hot-air balloons floating by me and toward the cliffs along the river. I ran back to tell Sam to come out to watch, only to find him already standing outside with our neighbors, a French couple from Bordeaux and their teen-aged son, and together we watched as as the balloons drifted over the valley in the fading twilight. It really was a magic hour.
russ_in_LA is offline  
Aug 5th, 2017, 01:14 PM
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How frustrating to have your lodging cancelled...
sundriedtopepo is offline  
Aug 5th, 2017, 02:55 PM
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If only your trip and this report could go on and on and I could keep reading it on and on......
Traviata is online now  
Aug 5th, 2017, 05:10 PM
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I agree completely with Traviata. Marvelous reading!
travelchat is offline  
Aug 8th, 2017, 11:24 AM
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Thanks for the kind words, all!

@sundriedtopepo - it was, but it has a happy ending. More on that to come.
russ_in_LA is offline  
Aug 8th, 2017, 12:48 PM
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Since moving back to the US from Italy 20 years ago, we have visited France several times, always saying to each other that if we were to move back to Europe, it would be to France. We love Italy, but as soon as you cross the border from Ventimiglia to Menton, suddenly the road is wider and better maintained, the trash cans at the rest stops are not overflowing with trash, and the brightly colored houses have been more recently painted. With our upcoming relocation to Palm Springs, which has reached 122°F 3 times already this summer, we thought that it might be a good time to look for a place where we could spend our summers in France. So we decided to look for property in the Dordogne. This has had the effect of completely altering our plans for this portion of the trip, as most days have been happily spent house hunting, but we still had time for some sight seeing.

Several months ago, Fodorite St-Cirq had posted that Font-de-Gaume tickets had just gone in sale and that she would be happy to pick up some for anyone that asked, since it is rumored that this last open-to-the-public grotte containing prehistoric poly-chrome cave drawings might not continue to be open much longer. Knowing that we would be in the region, we took her up on her offer.

We met her and her husband at the Cafe de la Mairie in Les Eyzies and jumped right into getting to known one another. We had a very enjoyable lunch, covering topics from travel to real estate to our experiences living abroad. The time flew by, and soon it was time to head to the grotte for our tour.

The cave is, in a word - amazing. It took a while for our eyes to become accustomed to the dim light, but once it did, and with the aid of our knowledgeable guide, a laser pointer and a flashlight, the cave came alive.

Dated to around 17,000 BC, the paintings in Font-de-Gaume include more than 80 bison, about 40 horses , and more than 20 mammoths. It is definitely worth seeking out a visit before it's too late.

Our trip to Les Eyzies was rounded out with a visit to the museum of prehistory, which has thousands of artifacts found in the area, such as tools, human and animal bones and even jewelry made from teeth or shells.

In the evening we accepted an invitation from the St-Cirqs to join them at their nearby home, where we enjoyed the fantastic view from their terrace, as well as a nice spread of pâté, olives cheese, bread, wine and delicious home-made gazpacho. Not only was it a perfect end to a perfect day, but it's nice to know that if we end up spending our summers here in the future, we will have already made some friends.
russ_in_LA is offline  
Aug 8th, 2017, 04:48 PM
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Wonderful report. Can't wait to read more.
Pawleys is offline  
Aug 8th, 2017, 05:22 PM
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Thoroughly enjoying this, Russ. We dream of living in Italy (me) or France (both of us) and the Dordogne in particular. And how lovely that you saw Font de Gaume and hung with the St-Cirqs! Looking forward to more.
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Aug 9th, 2017, 07:47 AM
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I am really enjoying your report. I too took up StCirq's offer to obtain tickets to Font de Gaume. I am happy to hear you had such a wonderful experience. I am so looking forward to meeting the StCirqs and visiting the cave.
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Aug 9th, 2017, 10:55 AM
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Thanks for the comments, everyone, and sorry for the typos. Doing this on my iPhone is tedious...and my thumbs are too big.

Over the next few days of property hunting we didn't have a lot of time to spend seeing towns and villages, although we could see that Limeuil, Belvès, and St-Cyprien were lovely, while Les-Eyzies and Montignac, being the center of the of prehistoric grotte tourism were busier, especially with families. We also made a brief evening stop in Sarlat, which we loved 7 years ago while traveling in June, but in August it is a circus, and I mean that literally. There were more mimes, acrobats and clowns than should be allowed in one medieval city center, so we made a quick loop and got back to calm St-Julien.

Sunday, was fun day for us, as all the real estate agents were enjoying a day of rest, so we decided to explore the area within a 15 minute radius from Cenac. We arrived in Beynac, with its imposing castle on the cliff dominating the Dordogne valley right at 10:00 as the castle was opening. It was the perfect time, as we were the only ones there, besides a small guided tour group. The visit takes you through a series of rooms on several floors, but the highlight is the fantastic views of the Dordogne river and across the valley to Castelnaud and Domme.

By the time we finished our visit, the crowds were beginning to build, so we walked down some of the smaller winding, cobbled, pedestrian side streets to the river level and back to our car.

After lunch back at our house we decided to complete our Battle of the Opposing Castles experience, by going to tour Castelnaud. Unlike our experience in the morning, this time the castle was positively heaving with crowds. Castelnaud has a lot of interesting displays of medieval costumes, armor and weapons, so it was more frustrating trying to get through the teeming hoards to see them. But the views outside were just as great, and Beynac Castle indeed looked intimidating from there, high on the cliff across the river.

So that was our attenuated Dordogne experience. We saw less than expected, but we'll be back.

Coming up next, the adventures of our replacement gîte.
russ_in_LA is offline  
Aug 9th, 2017, 11:39 AM
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Hopefully Sarlat will be calmer next month.
yestravel is offline  
Aug 9th, 2017, 11:48 AM
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I'm sure it will be, once the kids go back to school.
russ_in_LA is offline  
Aug 9th, 2017, 12:01 PM
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Enjoying the report. We spent a week at a house on the trail from the castle down the the river back in 2011. We were near the top, and it was somewhat humorous on a hot day to listen to the folks climbing from the bottom huffing and puffing as they neared their destination. I was glad we got to park in the lot for local residents right outside the castle gates.
twk is offline  
Aug 9th, 2017, 12:55 PM
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Today was one of those magical days that, if you are lucky, happens maybe one time in every 10 trips. It started a week ago, when our gîte in Figeac was cancelled with only a week's notice. The only place that replied to my email when searching for a replacement gîte was an AirBnB with no reviews and very little description, in a town we had never heard of called Montgesty, about an hour west of Figeac, and 45 minutes south of where we were staying in Cenac-et-Saint Julien. I didn't take it as a good sign that AirBnB had the name of the proprietor listed, in its entirety, as "Mr", but we took a leap of faith, and booked for 4 nights, hoping for the best.

The day before our arrival, we received an email from the proprietor inviting us to join him and his wife for lunch the next day. Well, we weren't about to pass that up!

We arrived a bit before the appointed time to Montgesty, a pristine little town in the Bouraine region of the north-west Lot. The house was built just after the 100 Years War had decimated the region, and is a classic example of a local-stone constructed, two-story home complete with cornflower blue shutters. The inside is just as full of character. The upper floor is a single room, adorned with high, wooden-beamed ceilings, a large stone fireplace and undulating wood plank floors. This contains the living area, dining table, corner kitchen, armoire and bed, as well as the bathroom in a separate room. The downstairs contains an outdoor "summer kitchen" in a private courtyard, and a bedroom and bathroom inside. They explained that when the house was built, the downstairs was only used for the animals, which explains the low doorways, on which we both hit our heads before the day was through.

Pierre and his wife, Agnes, were an adorable couple in their 60's who live in Toulouse and use the house for themselves on weekends and holidays. They spoke little to no English, and their French had a sweet accent, where "vin" and "pain" came out sounding like "vang" and "pang". They said that we were their first guests in two years (!), and they went all out on lunch.

To start we had a delicious Caprese Salad, with tomatoes from their garden and fresh buffalo mozzarella. Next, standing at the cooker of the outdoor kitchen, Pierre seared some fresh local foie gras from a producer right in town. This was followed by grilled sausages, mashed potatoes and some of the best ratatouille I've ever tasted. Next was a cheese course, the most amazingly sweet fresh peaches and coffee.

If the day had ended at that moment, it already would have been one of the best days of the trip, but then Pierre said he had a surprise for us. Opening his garage, he revealed a 1950's American military issued Jeep, and offered to take us out to show us the area. From host, to cook, to chauffeur and guide - the hospitality gods were smiling upon us today.

As he drove us up and down the dirt back roads, he explained that he grew up in the area. We drove through several beautiful stone hamlets, past chateaux, fields lined with mortarless stone walls and even to the farm where he had purchased the foie gras.

We finally ended up in a small town called Lherm, where the entire population was engaged in a pétanque contest, with multiple games happening simultaneously, covering almost every square inch of town. Of course, he knew everyone in town, and we relaxed at an outdoor table in the main place, drinking Orangina, and watching the games.

When we got back, they packed up for their 90 minute trip back to Toulouse, but not before letting us know that they had "reserved" for us two croissants and a baguette for tomorrow's breakfast at the local boulangerie, and left the rest of the foie gras and ratatouille for us in the fridge. The next morning when we picked up our bread and croissants, we discovered that not only were they already packed up and ready to go, but that they had been paid for too! They may only be a few years older than us, but we are ready to let Pierre and Agnes adopt us, if they'll have us.
russ_in_LA is offline  
Aug 9th, 2017, 01:57 PM
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A dream, really......
Traviata is online now  
Aug 9th, 2017, 03:10 PM
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What a great surprise! Will you be posting the address for the airbnb?
sundriedtopepo is offline  
Aug 9th, 2017, 10:04 PM
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Below is the post for the Airbnb we are at right now. When I wrote the previous post we had not spent the night yet. Now that we've been here for two days I have a few caveats:

1) I would not rent here and if you are over 5'6" We've both conked our head a few times pretty hard One of the low doorways is between the main room and the bathroom and when getting up in the middle the night it's easy to forget to duck.

2) If you like cooking I wouldn't recommend renting here. Because of the two kitchens up and downstairs all of the utensils and tableware are split between the upstairs and downstairs so it's a bit frustrating when preparing a meal. Also the stairway between upstairs and downstairs is outside and it's been raining so that's no fun when you're cooking breakfast in your socks and need a spatula.

3) The day we are arrived the weather was beautiful so all of the windows were open. Now that it's gotten cooler and wetter we noticed that there is a very musty smell. Given that it's an old house that's probably to be expected.

4) The two beds are each barely larger than a twin bed. Definitely not a place for more than two people especially if they want to sleep in the same bed.

I can't say whether everyone would get the treatment we did but it was certainly fun and unexpected.

russ_in_LA is offline  
Aug 9th, 2017, 10:26 PM
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Oh and #5, no wifi. I had to lean out the window to get enough signal to post this ;-).
russ_in_LA is offline  
Aug 10th, 2017, 11:55 AM
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So we just completed our third full day after our move to Montgesty, but I guess I lied when I said we were finished with the Dordogne, because we ended up spending two of our last three days there.

The first day we went to look at a house near a quaint small town called Saint-Geniès, about 20 minutes north of Sarlat. As the Michelin green guide says, "This is one good example of the Pèrigord Noir's many beautiful villages...", and it was. We spent about 20 minutes making a quick tour of the village , but we will come back again to linger a bit more, as there are supposed to be some excellent 14c frescoes in the church.

After our appointment, we realized that we were only about 15 minutes from what many consider to be the most beautiful garden in the Dordogne, the gardens at the Manoir du Eryignac, and we had never been. It had been raining earlier, and the temperature had dropped to 60°F earlier in the day, but when we got to the garden the sun came out and it started warming up, leaving a blue sky with puffy white clouds. It was about 5 PM at this time, so the gardens were not very crowded and it was the perfect condition in which to enjoy them. Located on 10 acres, they really are impressive, with a combination of French and Italian style gardens, including fanciful topiaries. It is definitely worth a detour.

The next morning, we went to look at a house in Cazals, which is in the Lot department, close to the south-east border of the Dordogne. Afterwards, we decided to go have a look at a couple bastide towns, since the only one we had seen thus far was Domme.

The first was Villefranche du Pèrigord, the main square of which is dominated by a large covered market. It was drizzling on and off, which had the effect of there being almost no tourists whatsoever. We walked through the near deserted main square, and up and down the main street, but our main goal was next on itinerary, Monpazier, reputedly the best preserved example of the classic rectilinear bastide town in the Dordogne.

Luck was with us for the second day in a row, because a few moments after we arrived, the rain stopped and the sun came out, giving us a great opportunity to see the main square with its Gothic arcades, almost completely devoid of people, which is probably very rare because it is quite a touristy town.

There are three main streets, which each have gates at both ends. The streets are connected by attractive, cobblestone pedestrian alleyways that go behind the rows of houses, all of which are built on lots of exactly the same size. We spent some time in the Bastide museum, learning about the history of the bastides, although I've read that the one in Monflanquin may be better.

Today we had a completely unplanned day, so I decided to try to salvage at least one day of our Figeac itinerary by heading there via a stop first at St-Cirq-Lapopie. Our original intention was to try to get there early, because I have heard there can be overwhelming crowds, but we got off to a later start than I had hoped. Fortunately it was raining for the third morning in a row, so when we arrived the village was virtually deserted. We were not lucky enough to have the sun come out again for the third day in a row, but we did spend an enjoyable hour wandering around the alleys and the steep cobblestone streets in the misty rain, keeping warm and dry under umbrellas and raincoats, despite the rain and the 60° temperatures. We seemed to be virtually the only people prepared for the weather , as the few people we encountered were wearing flip-flops, shorts and T-shirts, and were huddled under balconies and overhangs to keep dry.

The setting of the town, dramatically perched over the Lot river, was beautiful; and we enjoyed it from every which angle, as we walked from top to the bottom, and then huffed our way back up.

We decided they we had earned a nice long leisurely lunch, so we ordered a menu of a salad du chèvre, then a Gigot d'Angeau, followed by an apple tart with walnut ice cream, and headed off to Figeac.

The earlier drive along the Lot river to St-Cirq-Lapopie had been dramatic, with tall, limestone cliffs which hung out over the road, so much so at places that tall trucks had to go into the lanes of on coming traffic, just to avoid hitting the cliffs.

The drive to Figeac was not quite as dramatic, but equally as beautiful, through the Célé valley. When we got close to town, we saw a beautiful large chateau on the left, but as we drove by I had a brief pang of regret, as I realized that this was the place that had cancelled our reservation in the gate house of said chateau. It looked beautiful, but I wouldn't trade it for the great day we had with Pierre and Agnes in Montgesty.

Believe it or not, the sun did come out for our entire time in Figeac, and we enjoyed taking the walking tour, using the map we got from the tourist office. The old center has dozens of half timbered and brick medieval houses, many topped with open loggias that were added years later. We had wanted to visit the Musee Champollion, about the famous son who deciphered the mysteries of the Rosetta Stone, but the line was enormous, so we will do so at another time. We did, however, do a tour through an old 4-story Templar house, which was not only interesting and beautiful inside, but gave us up close views of the adjacent buildings , which you can't see well from the street.

Overall, I liked Figeac. It's very compact and walkable, with great examples of medieval architecture, but I think it could take a cue from Bordeaux and close off the center to cars, as many of the beautiful squares are used as parking lots. There are also a lot of historic buildings that could also use some TLC, but are still easy to appreciate in their current state.

So, for the first time on this trip, I am all up to date on my reports. We did get a piece of excellent news today. We made an offer yesterday on the house near St-Geniés, and the owners have accepted it! I'm excited and terrified. It needs some work, but it is in a great location to set up as a vacation rental for when we are not using it. The buying process is VERY different than we are used to in the U.S. Perhaps I'll post a new topic on that in a couple months, once we get through it.

So that's it for now. Tomorrow we head to Toulouse, another new city for us.
russ_in_LA is offline  
Aug 10th, 2017, 05:06 PM
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Congrats on your house! I've been catching up on your trip report and am truly enjoying it. What a trip so far. Pierre and Agnes sound lovely. No matter the wonderful things my husband and I have seen, it's the people we've met along who really make a trip special.
indyhiker is online now  

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